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.

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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Pictures Of Time Passing

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I had this big plan. I was going to write you all an awesome story about busy-ness and balance and not really finding it but finding it a little. Now, instead, because the internet is lame, because duty calls, because people arrive, because life happens, it’s eleven o’clock at night and you get a summary.

What I want is to find a way to do each thing well if not often. And maybe even that I can’t manage. I miss writing when I don’t write. I haven’t written recently. I miss the space that opens when I take time to put words to the chains of thoughts reeling out in my mind. I miss the crystalline edges of ideas that appear that I can shine a light to and look at from all angles. But I guess sometimes all you can manage is a few pretty sentences and some ideas with raggedy edges snatched hastily out of the air.

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This last week was…BIG. We welcomed a very illustrious Dane by the name of Lama Ole Nydahl at Dhagpo. He’s a student of the 16th Karmapa and the founder of over 600 centers worldwide that share the same lineage as ours. He also sometimes refers to himself as a Viking and is infamous for inserting polemics into his teachings–polyamory and the Israel/Palestine conflict among them. He kissed me on both cheeks when he arrived, kissed the hand of Julie, the event coordinator, and then said, in French no less, “One beauty after another.” I think I chuckled. I hope it wasn’t too audible.

It was eleven at night and he is not a young man, but he set off direct at good clip straight toward the stupa, and when he reached it, he stopped and touched his head to the white massif. The energy zooming around him stilled for a moment and I thought, “Okay, fine. I get it. We are from the same family.” I might sometimes find Lama Ole more cheesy and peppy than the approach to Buddhism that speaks most clearly to me, but the man’s on a mission and he’s carrying it out well. That I can respect.

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Not that I had much time to think about it. I spent the week navigating between guest-welcoming, meal-cooking (including this cake), and team-managing. Somewhere in the busy-ness, I learned something about discomfort. I was tired and little bit sick for most of the week. But things needed to be accomplished and most of things involved other people, so being a droopy, grumpy mess was not really an option. So I just did the things. I think I did them more slowly and at times with less vigor or enthusiasm than I would like or than maybe would be inspiring to others nearby, but I didn’t give into the usual habit of resisting or wishing to be elsewhere or wanting confirmation that the situation was hard and sympathy for such. I just did the things.

And being tired and sick was maybe less tiring and painful than it is when I don’t have lots of things to do and I let myself gripe and be woeful. The discomforts of this life don’t stop, neither for the summer rush, nor for summer vacation. It’s disappointing that there’s no such thing as a break from conditioned existence. It’s also a good reminder of why it’s so important to learn how to live with and eventually move beyond the distractions and occupations of this world, and thus the suffering that accompanies them.

IMG_2231When the rush slowed down, though it’s not done yet, (T-2 days to freedom, i.e. the end of Dhagpo summer, i.e. the end of uber busy season), I started drawing again. Just trying to check in and see what’s happening under all the layers of busy-ness. Drawing is like breathing in after not realizing you’ve been holding your breath. Connecting through images brings an energy that I didn’t realize I was missing, but when it comes back, I suddenly understand why everything seemed so dim before.

It’s 11:36 p.m. Grumble. I set out to write this post at 9 o’clock. It was early. And peaceful. And I had time. And then all of the aforementioned interventions. At times I feel like I am fighting to hold on to all of the things I care about. But if I stop fighting, I am afraid of what I will lose. But where do lost things go? And where is the person who loses them?

Am I in my bones? My blood, my skin, my sort of exaggerated late-night sighs? Am I in my words, my pictures, all the cakes that have been made and eaten? Am I in my thoughts, my memories, my future, or my mind? If I took a wrench and unscrewed all the pieces, would I also be unscrewed or would I be a little bit in every little piece?

I know the answer. But no matter how much I go looking and find that I am nowhere to be found, I can’t help feeling like I’m here.

Ten Days Out

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It’s been a week and a half. I have been to Germany and back. I have said goodbye and I will keep saying it. I have felt so many things that I’m a little tired out on feeling. Mostly now what’s left are pictures and glimpses of memory.

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The sight of the funeral home and the thought of Shamar Rinpoche laughing at us, a motley mix in a mixed-up place. The temporary altar with two times a thangka of his image in traditional dress, and to its left a mural of Jesus and his disciples. We were in a Christian cemetery, the only place big enough and legal enough to keep his remains and all of us. A blend of Tibetan masters and Western disciples with few Western masters and Tibetan disciples. A bunch of French monastics in Germany, a crowd of Diamond Way practitioners at a Bodhi Path center and a handful of Americans from nowhere and everywhere.

After the evening ritual each day, we sat around laughing and crying, talking with people we’d heard of but never met or never heard of but were glad to meet. And one day some one said, “It’s just like him. To think, Dhagpo and the centers in France are going pretty well. The Bodhi Path is really developing nicely. Things are good with the Diamond Way centers. Now how do I get them to work together? Ah, I’ll die.”

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The resinous smell of formaldehyde and the feel of synthetic carpet against my skin as I prostrated before the casket. The wish to cry and the absence of tears. An internal ruefulness that says, “Fine. I’m here.” You dragged me out of my comfortable ambivalence. I was happily following the carrot of contentment in front of my nose before I met you. You got me involved in this whole mess of bodhisattva activity and being diligent for the benefit of beings, and just like that you’ve gone beyond. Not beyond where I can reach you. Not beyond where your teachings and protection can aid me and bolster me. But beyond where I can pester you with questions to make sense of things, beyond where I can take comfort in your physical presence.

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Karmapa coming from India. Arriving unexpected from the back gate. Me standing outside the funeral home on the hot stones, looking for my ballet flats amongst the sea of footwear on the shoe shelves and grumbling about dirty feet and disorganization. A ripple in the air that might have been his presence or might have been the crowd suddenly standing upright or both. He came striding down the cemetery path, robes flying out like wings or wind or downright disregard for the physics of reality that kept him from yet reaching his objective, the mortal remains of his teacher. He was as pale as ever, but with a darker expression. He looked like a king and a specter, powerful and present in this world but belonging to another. His grace undiminished, but on this day rife with sadness and resolve. Come to take up the legacy you leave behind.

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The sound of many voices in many moments, and the voice in my own head, repeating this sentence, “We have to grow up now.” Time to take care of each other. Time to care of the lineage. Time to take care of our teachers, our community, and the understanding that allows us to move forward instead of sliding back or simply staying in one place. Time to get over cultural differences and disparate histories. Time to move past needing recognition or affirmation. Time to grow up.

Not that it ever wasn’t. It’s just more obvious now.

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The images are part of a drawing series I started in November; each drawing represents a wish for the day. In English, the captions are as follows:

De vous garder avec moi. To keep you with me.

Que tout soit une offrande. That everything would be an offering.

De rendre hommage. To pay homage.

De reprendre le fil. To pick up the thread.

De mûrir vite. To ripen quickly.

When It’s All Too Much

Sometimes, you travel for fourteen hours on a bus in the Himalayas. Sometimes, you are sick for three days afterward. Sometimes, you get told one too many times the anguish that awaits you if you don’t get enlightened right quick. Sometimes, it is all a bit too much.

Though I don't have a cute teapot, a friend did give me some British mint tea – lifesaver!

Though I don’t have a cute teapot, a friend did give me some British mint tea – hallelujah!

In these times, the only thing to do is remember that no matter how bad it feels, and no matter how bad it might get, you can still make a small patch of sweetness and share it.

I hope you’re having a lovely day, but if you’re not, have a cup of tea and know you’re in good company. 🙂

Self, Painting, and Pastry

Evening comes, and I can feel my tiredness. Sunday is rest day, but I haven’t yet learned how to budget my energy well enough that I don’t still end it sleepy.

Silent Sunday, Ink and Acrylic on Paper, 8 1/2" x 12"

Silent Sunday, Ink and Acrylic on Paper, 8 1/2″ x 12″

When I am sleepy, I tend to be grumpy, too. And let me tell you, it’s funny to be sleepy and moderately grumpy and surrounded by Buddhists. Everyone just wants to offer something. And sometimes, I just want to say, “Erm…know what? I’m actually okay with being grumpy right now.” Admittedly, one must remember not to dwell and mire oneself more in whatever frustrations arise, but really, some days, frustrations just arise. Little things; big things; whatever–depends on the day.

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Buddhism teaches that the self, which most of us cling to as our identity, has no essence. When we act from this understanding, we become more generous and less reactive because we aren’t so busy trying to protect our own views and often to prove others wrong. At the same time, I’ve seen in myself that this can backfire on occasion. I’m not enlightened (big news, hehe) and that means that, inevitably, I do a lot of self-clinging, like worrying about what others think of me or being annoyed when the world doesn’t meet my expectations and I have to adjust. In these moments, I often find myself castigating myself instead of realizing that it’s okay to make mistakes and that if there really is no fundamental me then there’s also no one to be mad at, just an ebb and flow of ideas and feelings held together in a body that hasn’t quite figured out what’s what in this world.

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And even if the confusion about self is a pretty basic source of suffering, while we are still mired in this view of the world, we can use our sense of self to help us develop wonder and appreciation, which lead to care for others and our (non) selves. Even thousands of miles from the places that feel familiar, even while dedicated to the study of equanimity, I do a double take when I pass a pastry shop and I return to blank pages and pigment when I want to understand what I am feeling. I still feel giddy and grateful to discover a new culture’s approach to food and the delight to be found in the flavor and artistry of dessert. I still can’t help just a small shopping spree when I stumble across art supplies in one of the labyrinthine markets of Delhi. Doing so helps me appreciate all the other beings who relate to the world in these ways, even in a country so different from the one I come from. It helps me notice that joy can transcend identity, that I feel most like myself when I am sharing something with others, in life and in spirit. It helps me see, in one experiential way, what the Buddha may have meant, when he taught that self is non-dual, but exists in relation to all other things.