La Détente–This Thing We Call Relaxing

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This week, something amazing happened. In between the sixty hours of activity for the center, regular study courses, early morning meditation, driving class, and all the rest, somehow, dinner with friends, girls brunch, and an excellent birthday party that included twilight pool time and my first ever game of pétanque–surprise spoiler: I was actually kind of good at it–managed to find their way into my schedule.

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My toenails are painted for the first time in two years, and despite having only managed to fit in a teeny bit of time to draw, I somehow feel recklessly confident enough in my potential to continue creating work that I’ve started gifting drawings and paintings to friends. After the personal benefit of creation, the second value of art for me is its ability to be shared and to bring benefit to others. Up until now, I’ve had a hard time letting go of work. Something along the lines of a sense of “poverty of creation,” if you will: fearing that what I make will not be good and when I do create things that I feel have some merit, cherishing and being miserly them.

In this mindset, free time is often a nagging question of what is the most important project to work on in whatever precious minutes remain to me. At times I feel as though, despite all of the abundance around me, I lose myself in a mental state of poverty…the worry of not enough: not enough time, not enough skill, not enough discipline, not enough courage. And in fact, what lacks is perhaps none of the above, but rather simply…not enough space to see that no matter we do, conditions in this life are limited, so we might as well just relax.

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I don’t mean become indolent or put aside goals and projects. From what I am discovering, relaxation seems to be an inner state that allows for outer changes. When I accept that I’ll never be able to master everything, it’s easier to let myself engage in explorations that I don’t fully understand the value of, like nail-painting and pétanque, or actual painting and devoting more time to nourishing relationships. And when I manage to find the space for these things, often unexpected values show up. New ways to be joyful, to care for others, to let go of my expectations and just…see what happens. Every part of life is an opportunity to practice, to just observe what arises and remain with whatever it is, though of course…some leave you with sparkly toenails and others don’t. ;)

Forgiveness Is A Lesson

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Happy Solstice.

It’s ten pm and bits of orange and lavender are just showing up on the horizon. The moon is a pale crescent across the still-lit sky.

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Happy Father’s Day.

I spoke to my Dad tonight with a mix of sadness and gratefulness. Gratefulness because, you know, my Daddy. And sadness because, well, I see the struggle to cross the bridge of communication. It’s nine pm in France and noon in LA. He’s retired and I’m burning the candle at both ends. He’s ready to listen but I’m too tired to talk.

No matter how much you love some one, you still have to learn their language and feel out their rhythm and even when you manage, all the love we can muster doesn’t change the fact that humans being misunderstand each other and misunderstand ourselves and don’t manage to love everyone and often fail the worst at accepting ourselves and our life’s conditions enough not to blame others.

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Of course, I am thinking about South Carolina. A lot of thoughts have crossed my mind, but they are too complex and political to fully articulate late Sunday night.

I can’t help wonder, though.

When we use the word, “injustice,” how far do we stretch the line of blame? The gunman, his educators, the government, history? Can we honor the dead without putting somebody else’s head on a pike? Can we recognize wrongdoing without criminalizing those who carry it out? When we talk about violence, where do we find its root?

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We live in a society that cultivates violence and thus breeds the type of individual that carries it out. When we focus on division, we invite more standard bearers and more trigger-pullers.

The media plays on inciting indignation. We get more and more riled up, and I just wonder when we are going to consume ourselves in this desperation for justice. Has there been an act of violence in this world that wasn’t based on a sense of seeking justice? How much, by wishing for things to be right, do we continue to make them wrong?

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And, if this is the case, what other action is possible? In the face of violence, in the face of loss and aggression and lack of control, what is the other option between doing nothing and being a bystander and buying into the blame and becoming a perpetrator? How do we consciously, peaceably act to stop the cycle?

Being right does not seem to be the solution. Being forgiving has not been popular throughout history and up until now, has not sold as many papers as being incensed and righteous. Maybe the brave relatives of the Charleston victims can help change that. Maybe they can help us start to answer these questions.

Daily Recommended Values

Ok, this time it is about art.

I mentioned a new drawing series back in the day, when it first got cooking. I thought then about posting each picture as I created them, day-by-day. But somehow it was both too rigorous and too personal.

Each image is a wish for the day–a need, or a thing that would do good. Thus the title, which I picked out while trying to figure out the French translation for absolutely everything in my early months here; in French, the most common term for nutritional “daily recommended values” is “apports journaliers recommandés.”

There are so many kinds of nutrition that we need in a day. And also, the metaphor just makes me chuckle. Considering art and life and everything…the same way I consider breakfast cereal. Sometimes you just have to bring a little levity to the table.

So, as a way to process my life and keep a connection with the practice of making things, I decided to do one drawing a day capturing a little bit of the day’s flavor. It’s become a kind of visual journal, subtitled in French as a nod to my slow but steady process of figuring out how to live in a foreign language and a foreign country. It’s been over a year and a half since I started the project, and the beginning is far enough away that I feel like the process of creating the images each day won’t be affected by the idea of the viewer if I start sharing them.

So, the first installment of Daily Recommended Values:

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All My Ducks in a Row

Quotable Tuesdays

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In an attempt to make more stuff with my hands (art…might we be talking about art? Maybe not just yet…anyway iPhoto also played a crucial role in today’s creation), here’s a new look for Quotable Tuesdays. Enjoy!

Gluten-Free Chocolate Banana Layer Cake And Kitchen Days

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Today we made walnut blondies for eighty people, chestnut génoise and ginger loaf for sixty, plus cherry almond biscotti for one-ten. Karmapa’s visit this year is the first time we’re cooking for so many guests at the Lama house. We debated about hiring a catering company, but we wanted to offer our own labor of love. Even with the incredible changes to the kitchen, it’s still a family kitchen and not a professional one. All the materials and cooking spaces are far away from each other, and the oven is the size of a postage stamp. This means preparing in advance.

Everything that can be made ahead without sacrificing the integrity of what we’re serving is being made now. Pastries, savory tarts, salad dressing, even a couple main dishes. We’ve set up a camping kitchen with a giant bunsen burner on the terrace and we shuttle things back and forth from the Lama House to the oven in the main kitchen.

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It’s hectic, but it’s joyful. We get the pleasure of working all together without the direct stress that comes with being in the heat of a major event. It’s tiring, but there’s an end in sight–final make-ahead dish is scheduled for the 26th of June. After that we have to start deep-cleaning. So it’s all for a good cause, and I’m often astounded by the reserves of energy we unearth when we are committed to what we are working for.

In the meantime, I’m still trying to figure out when I can squeeze in a little pastry for my homies around here. This cake was to celebrate the last day of our Bodhi Path studies on Wednesday. It’s surprisingly light, almost refreshing if you don’t think too much about the cream, and really easy to make with all the glamour of a layer cake!

I got a request from the collective of July birthday folks for “real American layer cake,” like wedding-style with tiers. Fulfilling such a request will require much more effort for the necessary glamour points, hehe. If you’re looking to impress without spending four days in the kitchen, this is the way to go. As for me and my July birthday buddies…we’ll just see how that goes!

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Another Kind Of Vacation

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This week Dhagpo is closed for one of our twice-yearly vacation times. People head off to various corners of France and sometimes elsewhere to visit family or the ocean or spend some time in meditation retreat. I technically took my vacation time in April to visit my family in the States and it often happens that I take off at unusual times of year, so generally during vacation periods I stay at Dhagpo and keep doing what I normally do, while enjoying the general calm of the center.

But back in January, I made a choice that changes the landscape of these previously mellow weeks. I got involved in a study group connected with the Bodhi Path Centers, and we make a point meeting during Dhagpo’s off moments, in order to benefit from that same calm I usually experience on my own.

Eleven of us are camped out in the living room of the Lama House, poring over a transcript of one of Jigme Rinpoche’s teachings on meditation and working out what is its essential meaning and the subtle connections he makes between practice, daily life, and the traditional teachings that explain how to go about these two.

It’s masterful, really, how precise his teachings are while using simple language and often seeming to wander through a stream of stories and philosophical notions at random. When we sit down to pull out the main ideas and reference points, it reveals a very intentionally structured, detailed guide for progressing on the path.

Through the process, I am learning both the teaching itself, bit by tiny bit, but also, how to study and understand the teaching. It is a double lesson, and a precious one. It also underlines for me the importance of study on all levels, and particularly a solid background in the traditional texts, in order to be able to receive and apply instructions on how to practice.

My favorite nugget of wisdom for today is a clarification between two terms I have struggled to distinguish for aaages. The first is the Tibetan word sheshin, most frequently called awareness, and the second is drenpa, which is typically translated as mindfulness. Both have to do with being present, but in English any distinction we could make is very subjective and contextual. There is no agreed upon precise difference between these two.

But in Tibetan there is, and this shows the limits of translating the teachings. In any case, we have to learn the meaning, for the words as we understand them conventionally are practically useless in regards to Buddhist philosophy, other than as a reminder of the subject at hand. So, the aha moment for today:

Sheshin, what we call awareness, refers to the ability to be present to what arises in the mind. Drenpa, mindfulness, means being able to recall the teachings in this space of awareness. It’s the difference between just sitting around like a vegetable, watching the thoughts zip through our mind, and remembering how we are meant to observe and examine our mind in this state.

Anyway, this is my new understanding. But as always, let me remind you to check with your certified local lama, since I’m just a bum on a cushion with a transcript, trying to make sense of all this.

The other that comes to mind is just gratitude that my days can be useful. I’m still human and I still need vacation, but it’s cool to imagine a time when all my activities will be directly productive, as though someday, instead of just taking vacation at another time, maybe I won’t need time off at all. Haha, good thing I have my family to “force” vacation time on me because I kind of doubt that development is coming soon…