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. 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 what we do, conditions in this life are limited, so we might as well just relax. 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 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. 😉
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:
All My Ducks in a Row
I have decided that I need a tripod. The world captured in low light feels like my heart; it trembles but yearns to be seen clearly. Capturing those moments still that should be blurry but for the grace of a stable support: this is the use of a tripod in photography and of meditation in life. Such moments are the precipice where one yearns to feel, but the risk of being seen naked if we truly lay ourselves open still seems far too great. And so we stay in the shadows, where it’s safe, where the beauty of ambiguity cradles us with its ungraspable-ness. We hide amidst the blur. There is comfort in confusion. Sometimes I realize how much of me really doesn’t want to become enlightened. To see the illusion of all things. I like my things real. I like my cake decadent; I like my sorrow sharp; I like my joy effervescent. Well, I used to. Now, I still like my cake, but I resent that it makes my intestines sad. I still like my sorrow because it reminds me there are things I don’t understand, but I am mystified by how I can’t seem to turn its sharpness into an understanding that will change the way I act. I still like my joy, but it frightens me because I cling to it. After all, the only transition possible from temporary bliss is to something less than bliss, and it hurts every time. And yet this hurt hasn’t yet changed my vision so that I truly see the beautiful things in life as being as unreliable as they are. As just an essenceless apparition that will dissipate either now or later, unexpectedly or unwontedly. I asked Jigme Rinpoche about art again today. We were talking about the renovation of the Lama House kitchen, working out details of countertops and credenzas, and which direction the stove should face. It was all very concrete and pleasantly comprehensible. Since January I’ve had this bug in the back of my mind, from our last conversation about life, my life, when he told me, enthusiastically, that it was quite a good idea to be an artist. So I asked why, just there, amidst the sawdust and reflection over water filters.
“Rinpoche, when we talked in January, I had mentioned about wanting to be a professional artist.”
“You want be a professional artist?” He perked up, with what seemed like the same enthusiasm in January.
“Well, I used to. Since I’ve been here, I’ve more been focusing on other things. It’s more on the side now. But when we talked about it, you had said that this was not a bad idea, quite a good thing actually.”
“Because then you can bring to everything.” And he made a gathering motion. And I sort of framed my ideas around this sentence, trying to see how they fit, and what it all meant. And some notions came up, like how art is a way to turn all of life into a reflection, and one that can be shared. And how viewing the world through an artist’s eye means that one is always looking with some kind of perspective, rather than just being caught up in the experience. I wandered over the idea that maybe in Rinpoche’s view being an artist doesn’t actually mean one has to make things, but is much more about the way one looks at things and approaches things. I think I kind of short-circuited on this idea, and we pretty much had the above conversation verbatim a second time. I walked away nearly as unclear as before, but with the recognition that until I’m ready to make a commitment to artistry, the view or the act, I’m never going to be able to make very much sense of what Rinpoche says to me on the subject. I keep trying to give up on art. I keep trying to “let it go” and see if the urge abandons me. So far it hasn’t, but so far I’m also not willing to shoulder the responsibility of whatever Rinpoche was making reference to (what is that motion a gathering of?) and what I apparently refuse to see or clarify for myself. An artist who wants so badly to be an artist but is so unwilling to claim the role. A bit like a bodhisattva who wants to badly to be free and free others but is unwilling to renounce her shackles. When the day comes. You’ll be the first to know.
This is my human heart. It is essenceless, and me too, but that doesn’t keep it from beating inside me. This is me, at ten-thirty at night–bedtime if I were smarter and less attached to my attachments–listening to Shakey Graves and thinking about desire.
My friend Claire told me Tuesday, “It’s crazy, desire. I don’t even know what for.” And me neither. I get that. I mean, I could name a thousand things and the list would be unfinished to the nth degree.
A good night’s sleep-to be held close and tight-warm ocean water enveloping me-candle light in an empty room-dancing by myself for hours without having to wonder about whatever comes next… I want eternity, actually. I want the opposite of impermanence. I want the game of life and death and ignorance to stop for a minute here. I want to press pause and boogie in my underwear without there being any consequences.
But life ain’t like that. It’s all a big in-between. Or uncountable, indivisible little in-betweens. Every moment leads to another damn moment and whatever comes, I get to live, however I’m predisposed to live it. Most of the time, it ain’t like boogying in my underoos, that’s for sure. It’s not bad, either. Rich you know. Teaches me stuff, too. Which is the point of course. But it smacks of impermanence. That comes too fast for the good things and comes at a pace that only questionably qualifies as movement for the hard things.
I had a conversation tonight that literally sent me reeling to the ground. It was surprising to see how much the body takes in. Facing some one talking at me loudly, not permitting me to respond, totally caught up in a fixed vision. The anger wasn’t directed at me, fortunately, but it still felt painful to absorb it all. I didn’t want to push back, but I didn’t know how to disengage the anger in front me, and probably I couldn’t have if I tried, and I didn’t know to finish the conversation and just walk away either (hard when some one won’t let you talk). I almost fainted, could feel my heartbeat slowing, and my vision getting dark.
What do you do, when you just don’t know how to be with reality? I can’t help but wonder if most of my activity is devoted to avoiding this knowledge. And yet, the whole purpose of a life in the dharma is to face that and learn to master it. I really hope it’s working. Otherwise, this life is major bogus. So that’s me, offering–and supplicating–the best I can, despite all my distraction and desire.
And this is hibiscus fennel buns and a bowl of hummus, for girl’s brunch tomorrow. Which signifies, if you’re wondering, trying to keep connected with what is, in all its impermanent glory. Good things, hard things, mundane things, things I dunno how to handle. We gotst to keep on keepin’ on. Ain’t got no choice; might as well make this run count for something.
Oh, and hey, apologies for last week’s absence. Still adjusting to the new schedule of life with communications biz plus Bodhi Path study group, and occasional peeps who come to visit, and whatever else life can throw at me (let’s not talk about trying to pass my French driver’s license exam…these people are nuts for regulating minutiae. Effin’ socialists…). Anyhow, I’m trying to figure out this thing called discipline, but it’s um, a work in progress, if you know what I mean.
Here’s the text from the drawing, revised (sliced down) into something that makes sense on its own:
These are the things I have not managed to get out or get through otherwise.
I am feeling a lot and there’s space for that, but also,
I want to go beyond the limits of what I feel to what I understand.
What do I feel?
I feel desire.
I want confirmation that the way I am is okay.
Myself “my self” là ou j’en suis…/where I’m at
But most of all, what I want is this actually—to trust myself. For my trust in the refuge to be strong enough that all of this pain and fear and attachment would leave me.
Is it comprehensible to say I feel like this? Blurrily staring down at my feet. Trying to figure out where I am, how I am, what I need. What we all need, actually. I want to know how to love. I want the desire to take somebody into my arms and hold them tight until we both lose our sense of self-and-other to be the will to care for every little last being until they are free from their beginningless suffering.
What’s the road between here and there? Can I get there in my socks?
Probably not. Probably I need some gnargnar boots with serious tread. And that my friends is a cracked analogy for why we meditate. Because the gnargnar boots and serious tread that get us the hell out of conditioned existence (i.e. everything that makes us go ouch) is meditation, and meditation works something like this: stability>clarity>discernment. From what I understand, discernment refined to its utmost is wisdom and ultimate wisdom is what we call liberation (i.e. no more ouch). Please don’t ask me to define these terms. I’m so not there yet. But I’m working on it.
That’s where all this nonsense comes from, actually. Studies of a transcript by Jigme Rinpoche on why we meditate. The goal is understand it correctly, but right now we’re working through it as a group until we reach a consensus and what you’re reading is my tired-person-commentary. So please note that the above is strictly my interpretation, but if if any of that piques your interest maybe try somebody who actually knows.
If I sound a little bonkers, it’s just because it’s a lot to go looking at the path in its entirety. And also because right now I feel more like I’m wandering through this life in stocking feet than with a particularly solid pair of boots. But we can only go from where we are, and I don’t want to whine when I have the great fortune to have good guides, who are willing to help me find the right road, stocking feet and all.
About my hair…I have a lot less of it now. If you’ve known me for a while, you know my hair means a lot to me. More as a tool than a vanity thing, though vanity, of course, plays a part. My hair is one of the main ways I process transitions in my life, those moments when I need to change something on the inside, and the easiest way to set things in motion is by making it show on the outside. When the change is visible, I’m more committed.
I’ve worked my way through everything from bicced bald to butt-length tresses. Dreadlocks and numerous shades of purple, pink, and red have also made appearances. After I shaved my head in 2008, I waited three-and-a-half years to feel like “myself” again because at that point in time me had uber-long, fairy-who-wandered-out-of-the-forest hair. I needed it. Those long locks helped me feel like things I needed to show were visible: that the world is too much sometimes, that though I am trying to get by in normal reality, daydreaming comes easier, that I’m definitely a bit bizarre and also probably more sensitive than average, that I believe in magic, and if you give me the chance, maybe I’ll enchant you.
(Ahem…apologies to all the people I cropped out for this vanity project. Thanks to all the people who took these pics…Di, Reubs, Bettina, Tay, and thanks extra to my sis for being uncroppable). Anyway…
I lived a lot of years with all that hair or without it but feeling like it was a part of me. I don’t think it’s fair to be categorical about what it all meant, but in the process that led to cutting my hair, a few specific things about what it signified for me kept coming up. So we go from there. When I had long hair, I always felt that people were more inclined to take care of me. Maybe it has an element of little girl-ness to it. My long hair always made me feel a little like a princess from one of my childhood storybooks (they did pretty much all have seriously long locks). I got to be the main character and enchanting and the one you root for and all that, but, in the end, somebody else saves the day, and I just get to ride away on the white horse.
Maybe this makes me sound more helpless or hapless than I probably am or hope to be, but in the background, I can’t help fighting the outer circumstances that make life hard. Yeah, I want to be a good person, and help others, and develop on the path, but there’s always this part of me fighting what is. Impermanence is such a bitch; it hurts, deep. I have always maintained the part of me that holds on to things I cannot keep. I recognize myself in what is beautiful, not necessarily because I am, though who knows, depends on the day–but because that is what seems good and right to me. I have been told and I have repeated that romantic nostalgia is my primary emotion. I have always been attached to feeling deeply, having big emotions, expressing them, and having them recognized.
So much of my identity as an artist up until recently was about this. So much anguish, but beautiful anguish. If you read enough of these blog archives, you will find certain recurring terms. Keening over moors, wailing like a banshee, feeling small and sorrowful, untamed.
This is a choice I have always made about how to relate to the world: feeling like I don’t belong to it. Which, in a way, is a rebellion against the fact that its rules apply to me. This is the plot conceit in literature referred to as “man versus nature,” though in this case it’s more “girl versus the nature of reality.” It’s a good story. It’s compelling, with lots of juicy struggle.
But it’s also tiring. All of its resolutions depend on waiting for people and circumstances other than myself to change. Its rich, emotive drama is never-ending. And I…don’t want that anymore.
I think—I’m okay with not being so damn special. I’m okay with not having some kind of magical distance from the gritty, boring, real world, with not always being protected by my paintbrushes and poetry, my big emotions and ready tears, and my wave of a wall of long, long hair. I’m okay with everything I experience not being colored by some kind of profound, sweeping meaningfulness. I’m okay with just doing the hard work, dealing with mundane shit, and looking like a total ass because investing in anything and standing for it—people, projects, ideas—means giving everyone around you the opportunity to disagree with you and judge you. I’m okay with letting reality apply to me.
Accepting that I am part of this reality seems like a necessary prerequisite for understanding it. And that’s the proposition, isn’t it? Accept the situation. Understand its roots. Realize that it is not permanent. Get free.
And in real terms, that means getting my shit in order and prioritizing. Is it more important to me to protect my vision of myself and the vision that others have of me or is it more important to let others see all of my weaknesses, biases, and failures, so that I can a) grow out of them, and b) get over the importance of myself and how I appear to others? Especially if maintaining this complex system of veils and appearances takes hours of my life that could otherwise be spent on…getting actual things done: anything—reading transcripts, having conversations, doing prostrations, ironing the Lama House couch covers, writing all this perplexing nonsense out for myself, so that I can make sense of it and also share it with you guys.
And so. I cut my hair. And frankly, I’m thrilled. I still shed in the shower and I still sort of have to do my hair in the morning if I sleep on it too funny. But it’s sooo much easier. I feel it inside as much as outside. Yeah, I know. It’s just a step. I still probably spend the greater part of my time defending my sense of self and keeping up appearances, but at least I can (um…sometimes) admit that I’m doing it, and I have the inner conviction that comes from deciding I don’t want to keep digging myself into this same hole.
That conviction gives me a second of pause before I react when I feel threatened, or, when it’s too late for that, it gives me the perspective to realize when I’ve acted out of fear and self-preservation rather than looking at a situation as a whole. It also seems to slow down the falling-into-depression business because I’m committing to failure as part of the path instead of feeling like I have no power over it and am thus doomed. So that’s something.
Coincidence…or not? This week is Losar. The Lunar New Year. Six days of wrathful protector practice, two ritual fire offerings, the raising of new prayer flags on the hill, and the installation of a golden Kalachakra in front of the Institute, a symbol that represents the Buddha’s teaching across the three times, through the universe and through our own body. It is an auspicious time for change.
May our aspirations be granted—not by somebody else, but by ourselves, because we are committed to realizing them.