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. DSC_0039 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. DSC_0001 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. 😉

Why Do We Meditate?

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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.

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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.

Study Days And Vanilla Cake With Brown Sugar Buttercream

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Woke up to a blanket of white and wondered if the spector of promised snow had indeed arrived. No, it was only a thick coating of frost crystals, but dreamlike all the same and quick to dissipate in the mid-winter sun. On account of the study retreat, I don’t get out all too much, but when I do, I’m always grateful when the days look like this. Lustrous and living and sparkling.

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This is where I spent my time these days. Somewhere in between the 18 elements, the 22 governing faculties, and the 4 fruits of realization of the listeners, I notice I am learning things. Things that can seem technical beyond reason or frustrating for their lack of daily applicability, but which feel to me like scaffolding. A steady support through which I can build higher knowledge. The philosophy we are learning now is not the view we seek. In fact, it’s already been proven wrong. And while spending hours nitpicking details that one doesn’t even believe could seem ulcer-inducing, I am fortunate not to have found it so.

I’ve studied the skeleton of this system of knowledge before. And the last time I looked at it in any great detail, I was half-tempted to throw the book against a wall, find myself a nice cave in the Himalayas, and call it a day. But it seems enlightenment doesn’t work like that. At least not for most of us these days. From what I’ve seen, enlightenment in the modern day is more about the process of gaining enough knowledge that our wealth of preconceived misconceptions about reality undo themselves when we take them to the cushion and into daily life. This inevitably means serious nose-to-book time.

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So we show up and listen and type hundreds of pages of notes, and reread transcripts, and puzzle through study groups, and pose questions. And somehow it all trickles in. And will continue to for years to come, I think. And in between, when the lists of what is the fruit of karmic ripening and what is not, what is the cause of karmic ripening and what is not, and what must be abandoned on this path and that path and actually not abandoned after all gets to be a bit too much, we do what we can to unwind our minds and keep going. A brain-drain doodle here, a shared cup of tea there, and birthday cake decked out in buttercream when the moment presents itself. These are mostly good days.

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And this is a fully good cake. Made for a friend who happened to be present for the last birthday cake that came around: a yogurt-apple cake that just happened to be gluten-free. And when he heard that there was no flour, no butter, and not even an absurd amount of sugar involved, he pursed his lips and said, “That’s not cake.” Well it was, but it wasn’t an extravaganza of dietary exceptions. Which often of the best cake is.

So I made him a sturdy vanilla butter cake slathered with brown-sugar buttercream, which is 100% decadence and also the last thing you could accuse of not being cake. Mission accomplished. A dense, buttery cake with a fine, fluffy frosting supported by warm hints of vanilla and molasses makes for a proper winter birthday cake. If you have a similar sugar tolerance to me, I recommend small slices, but if you’re not sugar-sensitive, you do as you please and enjoy!

Recipe…

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I Am Still A Person Who Makes Things

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So I had that chat with Jigme Rinpoche. And you know what he told me? He said it’s good for me to be an artist.

I was talking about other things, new plans, ideas, and understandings in relation to things I had let go of or was ready to. I started a sentence, “Before I came to Dhagpo, I wanted to be a professional artist–” And he cut me off right in the middle to say, “This is not bad. Not bad. This is quite good I think.”

I didn’t ask any further questions. Usually, I ask why and for what purpose and in what manner and other useful contextualizing questions. But context is for things that are growing and need to grow in the right direction. I spent all this past year working with how I identify with the idea of being an artist. I think it’s no coincidence that when I finally reached the point where I had enough space to consider giving it up, a message came down the pipeline telling me not to abandon ship completely.

But I also realize. Whatever title or career I may pursue or wind up with, in this life, I will always be a person who makes things. Making stuff helps me understand; it helps me find courage; it helps me show love. And this is different from being an artist. A professional one, anyway. Being an artist means creating a portfolio, applying to shows, networking with galleries, connecting in the industry, learning the history, following the news, and a lot of other time-consuming, goal-specific things. Things that I am not doing right now and not planning to being doing in the immediate future.

But it’s good to know not to let the door slide shut as times passes. For now, I just plan on staying a person who makes things, and if the time comes when it is particularly useful to make more things and do the accessory work that helps those things to reach people, well, that’s cool with me too, I guess.

anofferingIn case, ahem, anybody might be wondering, Rinpoche said a few other things too. It was quite a nice chat, honestly. And perhaps it’s selfish, but I’m glad he’s back where I can make his tea and get to see his round form bobbing across the esplanade in front of the Institute.

He said to focus on study. He said, in my case anyway, that Tibetan can be better learned through studying the traditional teachings than by going away for a long time to study the language itself. Though maybe going away for a bit here and there could be useful. He said to train to teach. He even gave me some pointers as to where and how I could do that within the context of my life at Dhagpo. He affirmed what I have believed from the beginning: that this place is perfect. Okay, so he didn’t say it like that. He said that it is the combination of study, formal practice, and activity in the center that helps us to understand both the meaning of the teachings and how to take care of people. This is, after all, the goal: understand the teachings and, in so doing, take care of people.

In the end, I am left with the feeling that instead of some grand adventure, I find myself, as ever, on the long slow road. But it is a good road and it is the road to where I want to go. The company is first-class and the guys giving directions are top-notch.

I think of that fable from when I was a kid. Slow and steady wins the race. And then comes back for the speedy and distracted, though they left that part out.

Please, let me be a good tortoise.

A Click, With Nutella Pancake Cake

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This keeps happening. Pictures. In small moments—stolen corners chipped off mornings, half hours snuck out of afternoons. I get the pencil on the paper and…something happens.

I’ll tell you what. Something’s happened. All this babbling I’ve been doing for the last few months (the last few years and all my life I suppose, but with more concerted effort recently) has worked itself into some kind of useful understanding. As the French say, it’s made a click in my brain.

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I won’t lie. I still harbor that childhood yearning for conventional success and artistic recognition. In my private dream world, success is a solo show at the MoMA—New York of course, with its two story entry overlooked by a balcony and cool light seeping in from tall windows. There’s a kind of confidence and joy that suffuses this image; it’s not the notoriety that counts but the diffusion.

Big museums mean reaching people, and underneath all the identity crises and visions of grandeur, I think I perpetually feel like I felt on the first day of kindergarten: I just want to connect. A show at the MoMA is like holding my arms wide open for the whole world (This isn’t a fair accounting in terms of economic opportunities and class issues but it’s a good way to end the sentence and probably about as close as I could get. Anyway.).

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To connect with others, you first have to connect with yourself. That’s the click. For me, connecting with an image means letting myself be exactly where I am and feel exactly what I feel in the moment of creation without judgment or elaboration. This is the basis of my art practice and why it matters to me. Yeees, I hope that my work can go places and connect other people with wherever they are and however they feel, but you can’t share a cake you haven’t made, if you know what I mean. So I’m working on just making cake. And it seems to be working.

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Which is a confusing metaphor, probably, since I make a lot of literal cake in addition to metaphorical cake. This week’s is an unusual twist on an Internet trope. Instead of dessert disguised as breakfast, it’s breakfast disguised as dessert: buttermilk pancakes with nutella turned into a nifty layer cake. I subbed goat’s milk yogurt for buttermilk since it’s easier to find around here. It adds a slight earthiness to the tang, but isn’t a notable enough difference to shell out for goat yogurt if you don’t live in a place where it’s simply the easy way out.

I really liked this pancake recipe, as it makes for slightly chewy, fluffy pancakes rather than cakey, tender ones. Stacked up and spread with chocolate-y, hazelnut goodness and dusted with a snow of icing sugar, it’s classy enough to pass for cake even though it’s really just lazy Sunday brunch.IMG_2396

 

Recipe (assembly instructions really) follow…

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A Week Of Cake, With Mocha Cheesecake And More

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We had a week of cake. Maybe you have to be stubborn to be in the Dharma. There’s a lot of Aries around here.

I made this carrot cake for my birthday. It’s one of the best I’ve ever had and definitely the best I’ve ever made. If you like dense, direct carrot cake (some people like fluffy carrot cake with pineapple and coconut, which is lost on me), this is a serious win. I opted for a little less frosting with a hint of lemon zest to brighten the spices in the cake.

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Then there was chocolate genoise with wild blackberry mousse (adapted from here and here, with agar subbed for gelatin for veggie friendliness).

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I also made a Snickers inspired tart, which has yet to have a written recipe, but if you feel like improvising, it involved peanut shortbread, homemade caramel, peanut butter white chocolate mousse and milk chocolate ganache. All the elements are simple, but the combination is a show stopper.

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And finally, mocha cheesecake (recipe after the jump).

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Above are a few drawings in the current series, plus a garland-cum-birthday card for one of the cake recipients, which pretty much captures how I feel right now:

Sometimes there are no words. And sometimes we don’t need any.

I have nothing profound to say. I am surrounded by good people. And I get to make them cake. Life is alright I guess.

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Specters and Fresh Starts

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Yesterday, I took down what remained of this summer’s art installation. It wasn’t much. The paintings had been sold during the few days of the inauguration, so they were gone. The sculptures had apparently started to wilt in the humidity of the Dordogne, so they were gone. I found them clustered together behind the structure like a group of bewildered veterans. Halfway through July, there was a course held that needed to use part of the space, so the fundraising team opened up the installation space by removing half of the paper enclosure. Suffice to say, that was gone.

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I apologize if I sound a bit hard. I don’t mind that art gets old and changes. Yes, there is something bewildering in the fact that a once-dynamic, giving creation can become a pile of rubble. But that’s impermanence for you. And the experiences that people had while the space was complete, and that which the paintings still bring to those who have them now…that goes on for a while.

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Art is about communication, about sharing and creating space for all types of experience and perception. One thing I have left from the exhibition is a beautiful, fat stack of wishes and positive aspirations written by strangers and friends who passed through and felt moved to share.

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I think what’s strange, what gives me pause, is looking at a work of art that, it seems to me, no longer functions. As I was popping the last, tangled paper boxes off their fishing wires, some one came by to ask what I thought of the space opened up. It’s still beautiful, he said. I suppose he’s right. But to me it looks like a ghost. I’d rather it be gone, than lingering half-made. Incomplete work bothers me. Maybe because it reminds of what I could and feel I should be completing. Expired art says, “And what now?”

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Maybe something like this now.

The Big Reveal

IMG_1460Well hello. This. This is that thing I’ve been talking about, dropping hints, promising explanations. This. Is an art installation. Numero tres. The biggest thing I have ever done, and I did not do it alone. This. Is. Abstractions of the Path of Understanding. Kind of looks like a circus tent crossed with your elementary school lunch sack from outside. But it’s kind of pretty anyway. And inside.

IMG_1461Inside are nearly a thousand paper boxes, with wings. In black: confused thoughts. They crash like waves over and through our minds.

IMG_1449But amidst the folly, there is clarity to be found. The seeds of wisdom: the Dharma and the Three Jewels. This shiny thing that is some version of a Bodhi tree seed and three spirals rising in the same way our spirit is elevated by observation and reflection.

graineFrom each seed grows understanding. A moment of realization, when those vague and sage things we have heard and read suddenly click into place with this moment right now. Ten seeds of wisdom and ten moments of understanding, as follows:

toomuchIt Is Always Too Much and Never Enough

Acrylic and Ink on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

allmydreamsIf All My Dreams Were Real, This Would Not Be Real Life

Ink, Watercolor, and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

sohardI Am Trying So Hard to Understand This

Ink and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

togetheralone

I Guess We Are Together, Even When We Are Alone

Ink and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

soalivetodie

Sometimes I Feel So Alive, I Forget I Am Going to Die

Ink, Chalk Pastel, and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

loseeverything

I Am Going to Lose Everything; I Am Going to Let Everything Go

Ink, Chalk Pastel, and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

getfree

I Will Get Free

Ink, Watercolor, Chalk Pastel, and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

madnessispretending

Madness Is Pretending Everything Is Okay

Ink, Watercolor, Chalk Pastel, and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

everymomentthestart

Every Moment is the Start

Chalk Pastel and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

peaceafterall 

Maybe There Is Peace After All

Watercolor and Acrylic on Artisanal Watercolor Paper, 38 cm x 38 cm

IMG_1455And then, in the center of all this, understanding takes root. The column of wishes, the natural generosity that arises as we widen our understanding, surrounded by enlightened thoughts–white boxes now–taking flight in our minds. The column was formed and the wishes written by several hundred visitors over the course of the event, from pictures drawn by small children to jokes to aspirations for all sentient beings.

insideinstallationThe artist, installed in the installation.

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A mommy and a baby enlightened thought. We used the form from the installation for donation boxes to create a link between knowledge and research (the Institute) the development of understanding (the Dharma, and the path as represented by the art piece) and offering (the generosity that arises with understanding). One aspect that was really important for me was the link between black and white thoughts. Not negative and positive, but confused and clarified. A box is defined not by its form but by its contents. LIkewise, each of us has the ability to transform ourselves, our lives, and our understanding.

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Me, grinning like an idiot because This. Is. Real. I–we–made a thing. We shared that thing. And people felt something. And that’s what it’s all about.

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