My Hair And Other Topics: Change Through Appearance

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Another New Year

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Losar Tashi Delek! I.e., Happy Tibetan New Year.

This is the New Year’s card I designed for the center. It was, um, kind of a giant headache trying to produce an image I like and feel confident offering to represent Dhagpo in a limited amount of time, but it’s also very cool to be able to put my artistic background to use in service of others (and myself, but hey, a little publicity never hurt). It was also not this psychedelic in Illustrator, but whatever WordPress color coding, it’s fine.

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Other than that, this week and this day have been filled with irresolute half-summer, half-winter weather, sudden baking extravaganzas, and joyful bouts of group practice. Seven o’clock this morning found me in the temple listening to a drum beat and long Tibetan horns, invoking the New Year in the protection of the lineage.

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If this year is as wild as a wind horse, let it also be as graceful.

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Let the clouds bring quiet, and let them lift to reveal the clarity of blue sky and undistracted mind.

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Let every sweetness be an offering.

IMG_0912And let every seed of wisdom bear its full fruit.

Welcome to the Year of the Water Snake

IMG_0559Happy Losar, kids. By that I mean, happy Tibetan New Year. As it’s the general lunar new year, it’s also Chinese New Year, but that’s not such a popular topic among Tibetans. I’ve always found New Year’s to be an underwhelming holiday. As a child it involved staying up late to watch a way-overhyped ten second video from Times Square, which was already three hours old by the time it reached the folks in California. As an adult, it seems to revolve around champagne-induced excitement tempered by anxiety over the presence or absence of a midnight kiss. I kind of gave up on New Year’s and generally spend it painting or reading or something similarly grandmotherly.

I do, however, like the New Year as a time for reflection and setting aspirations. Tibetan New Year focuses more on this aspect of the changing calendar. As a community, we came together to develop loving-kindness through meditation on Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, and to make offerings to our teachers and for the benefit of beings in general.

Katak, silk prayer scarves, placed on a table in offering.

Katak, silk prayer scarves, placed on a table in offering.

The Karmapa, otherwise known as His Holiness Trinley Thaye Dorje, is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu tradition, in which I study and practice. Today, he came to KIBI to share Losar with us. The Karmapa is a sacred teacher – sixteen times reincarnated and holder of a lineage extending straight back to the Buddha himself. He also has this trait of really making you want to hug him, all the time. Mostly we reign ourselves in and bow…it’d be hard to get through a ceremony with everyone hugging him all the time. But I have seen people cry on sight of him, and it’s not an unusual impulse to bow your head to the floor when he enters the room.

This is a very serious picture. The times I have seen him in life, Karmapa greets the world with a quiet smile and lots of patience.

This is a very serious picture. The times I have seen him in life, Karmapa greets the world with a quiet smile and great patience.

My experience of Karmapa is that he brings me closer to my own wisdom. When I placed my ceremonial scarf on the offering table, he put his hands on either side of my head in blessing. My thoughts quieted for an instant, replaced by a sense of calm, abiding. The teachings direct us to place our trust in the truth, rather than in any individual. To me, Karmapa is an example of the kindness and understanding possible with practice. He guides me on a path that I must walk for myself.

Vessels for Karmapa's ceremonial snacks: sweet rice and butter tea. The rest of us ate off paper plates; it was no less special.

Vessels for Karmapa’s ceremonial snacks: sweet rice and butter tea. The rest of us ate off paper plates; it was no less special.

Today the path looks like this:

1,000 candles to bring the light of wisdom to all beings. Six sacred syllables to invoke limitless compassion. Five silk scarves for five precious teachers. Two bites of traditional rice pudding. One day to welcome the year of the water snake.

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Om Mani Peme Hung. Happy New Year.

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Mahakala: Anything But A Spectator Sport

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I am worked and wiped. Thoughts in my brain feel like sliding a wet rag over glass. My head is a jumble of dragon faces and lotus banners and the low rumble of mantras issuing from the throats of red-robed monks. My hips ring from hours of sitting cross-legged and the cells in my body still resonate with the beating drum.

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This has been three days of Mahakala puja – ceremony and offering. This is no droning, foreign prayer, no benevolent bless-fest, no ritual hoopla. This is practice. There’s no other way to put it. Yes, there are voices rising together in Tibetan verse. Yes, there is much benefit to be gained from one’s presence here. Yes, there are festive hangings, smoke lamps, and a table full of traditional, edible sculptures accompanied by much timely pouring of tea. And yet, though the monks are reading the prayers and singing the mantras and we, who lack the necessary training, are not, this is no spectator sport.

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Mahakala puja is six to eight hours a day of working with your mind. Invoking the protection – for yourself, your study, your practice, your lineage, and all beings – of a dude that is no rainbow-light-placid-smile type deal. Mahakala is a guardian of the teachings. He has three eyes and six arms, and he wears a crown of skulls and carries a big-ass knife. When you study wisdom passed down from two-thousand years ago in a culture rife with gods and demons, you get the requisite imagery. Mahakala takes no shit from negative emotion, from ignorance, or from beings that don’t do the work to get ourselves less confused.

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The three eyes show his omniscient vision of past, present, and future. The six arms represent his perfect mastery of the qualities of generosity, patience, discipline, joyful perseverance, meditative focus, and wisdom. Each skull in his crown signifies a negative emotion he has transformed into great understanding, and the knife is for the wrathful compassion with which he cuts through our ignorance and self-clinging. Also, he’s shadow black. Because he’s a badass. And for some deeply symbolic reason that my research has yet to uncover.

I just spent three days with this guy. In my head, yes, but also in a room filled with fifty people engaging collectively in supplication and challenge. When we do this practice, we come together to ask for the guidance of those wiser than us who have gone before and for the merit to uncover our own wisdom. Like I said, not a spectator sport. And though I’m fairly beat, I am also incredibly grateful. Having the opportunity to take part in this genuine practice, with lamas who studied its intricate execution and deep significance in three years of retreat, in a traditional temple setting…whoa.

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Though Buddhist practice unfolds most profoundly over years, I can feel the effects of these three days already working on me. I see where I am wavering. I see where I seek comfort that it’s not to be found. I give my doubts less space now, than I habitually have, to run me over and stress me out. They’re here; I’m here; we coexist; it’s cool. Thanks Mahakala. Let’s talk soon.

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A few logistical notes for those who are interested: The Mahakala deity is known as a Wisdom Dharma Protector, a fierce form of Buddha that looks after the teachings and its practitioners, and, generally, all beings. Meditation on Mahakala develops our commitment to our practice and to realizing wisdom for ourselves and all beings; it helps us become unwavering in the face of obstacles. Those who receive in-depth instruction in the practice do a short version every day, while the longer, multi-day ceremony is done on special occasions, such as the year’s end. Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is on Monday; thus we practice the preceding days.

Mahakala is a series of invocation prayers and mantras carried out with a standing drum, a hand drum, and a pair of symbols. Parts of the practice are melodious; others are atonally chanted. Two altars are added to those always present in the temple room. One is an offering table directly to Mahakala; it contains incense, flame, water, grains, money, and many sculptures made from torma, a mix of butter and barley flour that winds up looking like fondant cake. There is also a Tsok table, which is an additional offering of more familiar foodstuffs, like fruit, cookies, and even snack food. At various points in the practice, the torma and tsok items are eaten by the participants, along with traditional Tibetan salt butter tea.

There are many different forms of Mahakala within Tibetan and other schools of Buddhism. His attributes vary depending on the focus of the school and practice applying the symbolism. You can read more about Mahakala here and here (these are the sources I referenced, in addition to the many knowledgeable people at the center). There are also pictures of this week practice in progress on KIBI’s Facebook page, here.

Also, apologies that the photos are ridiculously grainy and awkwardly lit…this remains true about photos and my current camera situation.