Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hope, Fear, Fantasy, and Caring

Lately I've been thinking a lot about hope and fear. In Chogyam Trungpa's teachings, again interpreted from very old and deeply studied Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, hope and fear are actually very closely related. Not even two sides of the same coin, they both basically contain wisdom and neurosis. Hope is not better than fear, fear is not worse than hope. Generally, we give hope big applause, mixing it in with optimism, expectation, and setting goals. And we avoid fear like the plague (avoiding fear itself is a plague of suffering), conflating it with dread, failure, and death.

Being in a pretty groundless state lately (can you tell? I haven't posted to this blog in over a month!), I've been watching as I use hope to avoid fear. When I get afraid, I can see hope wagging her tail like an eager puppy. I've also been watching the edge of hope and when it turns into fantasy. None of this feels any more comfortable than being afraid, but it feels like at least I am DOING something. At least I am not getting caught in fear and sinking, right? Not really.

All following quote from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron:
We’re all addicted to hope—hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Turning Forty

Birthday wish list from a student for me on my fortieth birthday.
Tomorrow, I turn forty. I have looked forward to this day for awhile, actually. something feels clarifying, balancing to me about turning forty. For a long time, I have felt like "an old soul" in a young body. Early loss as well as early gains (like becoming a dharma teacher at 26!) have made my life seem a bit more advanced than those around me, even if I am no wiser or more advanced a person than my peers. Not fundamentally. But somehow I feel my age has caught up a bit to where I am, as I humble and realize how much there still is to learn, while also appreciating all the felt understanding my complex life so far has helped me access earlier.

The above photo is a student's gift to me. I used the last week of classes in a series to ask my students - all but 2 out of 28 are past forty, most of them well past forty - to write about turning forty. I heard many wonderful stories, and learned many wonderful things, all of which resonated with what I already anticipate or have been experiencing approaching forty.

The overall feeling was a combination of "giving less of a shit what others think" while also "feeling more compassion for self and others." This is a great combination, and one I am happy to take with me.

My nephew (4 months old) and myself this week.

I got a few personal addresses, too, folks directly wishing me lots of love. And one of my students then took care of our cats while we were out of town, and left me the above list. I treasure it. It reminds me of what I already know and all there is still to know. By "know" I mean crossing the gap between intellectually knowing - there's a lot I intellectually know, especially about emotional/psychological/mind things - and felt sense knowing, or knowing in my body, instinctively.

So long as I reach first for neurotic habits and what classic Buddhism calls "unvirtuous" actions (nothing to do with Christian virtue - simply an expression recognizing what causes benefit and what doesn't - non virtuous doesn't cause benefit), there's more to develop. Most of us are there - in the awkward place where we "know" but don't yet have integrated all the knowledge. I think of this as the gap between knowing and wisdom. Many people have told me I have a lot of wisdom for my age - I've been told that a long time - however, I really simply have a lot of knowledge. Wisdom is slower coming, really. It takes a long time to learn in a way that stays in the body, helps the body reveal its own wisdom.

Or maybe it doesn't. Being with my four-month-old nephew, my wife, Ilana, joked that perhaps babies actually know it all until age one, when they conveniently forget it all. Certainly Elyas seemed completely wise, in a deep, felt sense way - perhaps because he is actually pre-intellect?

Regardless, something is syncing up between my age, what I "know," and what I have some wisdom about. Feels about time. For a long time I've felt older inside than I appear outside, and now, I can see myself aging, bit by bit, outside as well. As folks in their 20's begin to look at my skeptically, I feel some loss, but mostly gain. Finally. I am a bit synchronized.

I will leave you with a passage from Sakyong Mipham that I have been contemplating lately. On surface level it seems cheeky and funny, but it feels quite profound to me. What is young? What is old? These are easy questions to quip answers to, but actually, they are unanswerable (which, you will see from my previous post, are my favorite kind of questions lately).

I RECENTLY REACHED AGE FORTY, a turning point in most people’s lives. Before that birthday, people would routinely describe me as a “young lama” or a “young teacher.” They were always exclaiming, “You’re so young!” But when I turned forty, something surprising happened. They started saying, “Oh, you’re getting old.” One day I was young, and the next day I was old. One day I had all the time in the world, and the next, time was running out. I thought, “What happened to the in-between period when I could just be an ordinary adult?”-from Ruling Your World

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Importance of Unanswerable Questions

Recently, I've been wondering what makes something contemplative. Having just finished the second book on Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography with my teacher, John McQuade, and having just finished a round of contemplative writing weekly courses, I am poised at a spot of post-immersion and contemplating what it means to contemplate.

I get this question a lot: What is the contemplative aspect of these practices? Is it that we only write about or photograph content that "seems contemplative"? That's too restrictive a definition, and if people are hoping to illustrate a feeling of contemplative-ness in either words or pictures, they quickly find out that is a misconception in these two forms. Does it mean calligraphy, flower-arranging, in terms of forms? No, we can even do contemplative, angry, Jackson Pollock-like painting, if it is does from direct experience and perception.

So there is one answer, from my tradition(s): contemplative practices slow us down enough to connect with what is actually happening, and create from that place. In Shambhala Art teachings we call it "Square One" - the open unknown before we create ideas or concepts. Returning to that in writing, photography, calligraphy - or dance, painting - even in conversation, is essential for maintaining the open-minded and -hearted quality of contemplative practice.

My co-author, John McQuade, expressed it this way in our upcoming book, The Heart of Photography (due out July 1):
This direct contact with visual reality and the experience of harmonization of eye and mind is the first contemplative connection: to be there, with the “there,” through the there. This sounds abstract, but it could not be more sensuous and direct. You actually experience what you experience as you experience it. 
In addition to this open state, or in complement to it, is the importance of unanswered - and unanswerable - questions. Often newer writing students think contemplative writing must be "philosophical" - e.g. ask a lot of questions, ponder big things. In some ways, that is off - you could be following your mind and writing down a lot of purported answers and opinions, and that would be very contemplative, in the first sense of the word described above in these traditions. But in other senses, that is right on. The key is being with not knowing. Being contemplative doesn't just mean asking, "Does God exist?" - it means being willing to not have an answer. Being contemplative doesn't just mean wondering about the meaning of life, it means knowing it is likely not fully knowable. It turns out the way in to these big questions is through little questions, at least as one of my teachers, John McQuade, and my co-author, also expressed:
(C)ontemplative practices are meant to help us find ways into these big questions. Contemplative practices are little ways, like rocks in the stream, crossing from one side to the other. Rock by rock, step by step, we cross over. These little ways do not provide direct answers to these questions, but they do provide a path for us to engage them...            Generally, contemplatives do not ask big questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” Instead, they investigate little inquiries, such as “What is color as color?” through felt experiences that explore questions like “How does color as color feel? How does it manifest? How is our experience of color? What difference does color make to a situation?” and so forth.

How is it that engaging the small leads to a felt understanding of the large? We cannot answer huge questions with our tiny minds - it turns out the color of things, the shape, the texture - whether expressed in words or images, movements or touch - actually is a drop from the larger, an excerpt with all the full meaning of the large questions:

This contemplative engagement is not religious or philosophical. It is working directly with your ordinary, everyday experience, to release you from stress and help you open to everyday appreciation. Bit by bit, on the rock path through the river, we cross over from claustrophobic habit to natural freshness, from stress to delight, from the thing world to the phenomenal world, from conventional world to ordinary magic, from confusion to insight and wisdom.
Keep an eye on our website for updates on how to pre-order/order your own copy of our new book, Heart of Photography. And in the meantime, you can find copies of our first book Looking and Seeing on Amazon, or, even better, buy direct from us on CreateSpace.

Keep asking questions you don't have answers for, by connecting with the daily details while keeping your heart and mind wide open to the unknown.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Grief Changes

I’ve been thinking about grief lately, as March 15 marked the 27th anniversary of my dad’s death. This year, though I was tender – as I often am – I didn’t shut down as strongly. And whenever I do get caught up in the intense pain of the loss, I can finally find relief in Maitri practice (loving-kindness/metta/unconditional friendliness). For many years, the practice made basic sense to me but didn’t seem to budge my most fundamental struggles. Over time, however, my heart has opened up enough to want to be relieved of the suffering of believing I am alone in my loss, and so bringing to mind others who have felt grief like this gives space around my feelings, and a salve of support.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Receiving Generosity

Over the last few months, over 100 people gave to my Karuna Training Graduate Program fund. It was an act of giving based on little received in return - literally little - a 17-syllable haiku thank you. Their generosity has been gratitude for all I have given, or for the sake of giving, rather than reward. I was – and am - grateful. But I also experienced discomfort, a revealing of my own funky ego beliefs around money, giving, and receiving.

While everyone has given to me in love-filled ways in the last few months, I have not always received with clarity. I wanted to share some of the underbelly aspects of my experience. These have nothing to do with others’ generosities and everything to do with my hyper-independent identity, difficulty in asking and receiving help, and working with entitlement and privilege.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


I've fallen behind on blogging, especially here. I started a momentum of writing about my weekly writing classes after they were done, and lost that momentum. That happens. I am working with my Return community on that a lot - coming back, returning to our intentions, even when we drift off.

I am returning. I return today with a cough.

It's not an awful cough, not by my standards. As someone who has had pleurisy, bronchitis, pretty much everything but pneumonia when it comes to viral and bacterial lung crap over the course of her young life, this is really not much. The tail end of a head cold, a bit of an itch in the back of my throat. Mostly dry, not wet, not super loud.

But any kind of cough makes people notice you.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Where I Am - Weekly Class

(I decided to start doing these again this session and see if they are of benefit to others and myself. I take bits and pieces from conversations in classes, combined with nuggets of language - removing any identifying factors and changing necessary details to preserve anonymity - from classes. I used to do this more and it's a lovely way for me to gather all I got out of the classes, and have a place for everyone to see the collective wisdom and struggle I get to see each week.)

"Where I Am" is my favorite default prompt nowadays, borrowed from Natalie Goldberg via Saundra Goldman and her #continuouspractice group on Facebook. "Where I am" is a classically good prompt - it can be answered very directly, with description of your physical location, or it can be taken many different possible directions - where you are in your life, where your mind is right now, etc. It seems boring, simple - but it is multidimensional.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to Feel Rich?

 This morning I woke very early, haunted by two things: the dissolve of a local sangha, partially due to financial issues, and the second, waves of jealousy toward some folks I know who just got back from a tropical vacation I could not possibly afford. Both stayed with me deeply enough that I knew I wasn't going to sleep anymore, so I got up.

If I stay in bed too long thinking about those kinds of things, my mind goes into old and intense ruts - fear, paranoia, envy, poverty mind. Poverty mind is the Buddhist understanding that regardless of how much money or how many resources you have, you feel lacking. This isn't about ignorance of one's status or privilege, though that can be a result. It's a deeper issue - Buddhist psychology says it is based in a fundamental lack of self-worth. A wrong view. If we understand that money and privilege and resources have nothing to do with our inherent value, and understand our inherent value to always be worthy, unconditionally, we never feel resource-less, even if we are poor.

That's a pretty big IF for most people, myself included. And when you are struggling financially, as we have been in the last months, those kinds of views can sound absolutist, like the rantings of privileged folks wanting to quiet the lacking masses.

Lately, as part of my Return course, I've been practicing Maitri more, and so I took this struggle to my practice. I began with this wish: "May I feel rich and resourced." It was a spontaneous phrasing, but inside I know "rich" means more than financially salient, it means feeling full and with plenty to spare. The fact is, I AM rich, even with debt, because I live in the richest country in the world and wale to warm water at my command and plenty of food and books. So, on a relative level, I am rich, compared to most of the world, AND have access to amazing teachings and community and teachers. So on both a relative and slightly more absolute scale, I am rich. And resourced, which, for me, is the less charged version of rich. It is easy to see how many resources I have, but also important for me to consider that those are a form of richness. 

Overall, I like to combine words that are easy to believe with ones I have a harder time accepting. They break open each others' meanings and leverage open my mind.

Then I moved on to my best friend, for whom it is easy to wish these things - "May she feel rich and resourced." Note I am NOT wishing she be these things - though there's nothing wrong with that - I am wishing she feel them, and under that is the belief that she fundamentally has the ability to feel them. This, too, can sound tricky, "If she only believed in herself she would have a better life." Once we start thinking such conditional things in loving-kindness practice, we need to do a high horse ego check. This is NOT about me knowing what that looks like for her, nor about her being any different than she is. It is a wish, and implicit under that wish is the unconditional belief that we all already have, if not in financial form, the richness and resources we need.

Then on to those Pema Chodron calls "the neutrals" - in this case, the barista who helped me yesterday whom I see pretty often but whose name I don't know. 

The next person is the hard part. The most obvious candidate for "someone you have a hard time imagining this for" is Donald Trump. He often arises at this point in my practice, whether I am wishing for happiness and the root of happiness, or ease, or wellness, or richness. But of all the ironies! To wish HIM richness and resources?! My first gut reaction is "HELL NO. He has way too many riches and resources!"

Or does he? Part of what makes this a contemplative practice is to contemplate the true meaning behind certain words and beliefs.

I believe when we feel rich and resourced, we don't take from others. We aren't paranoid. We are less reactive. We are generous. Frankly, I don't see him exhibit any of these characteristics. I don't think he feels rich, not in the more ultimate sense, and I don't think he is aware of the resources available to him to help him really be human. 

What if he did? It's easy to again get on my righteous horse and believe all of his politics would agree with mine, etc, etc. Instead, I kept coming back to an unconditional level - if I would be a better person feeling rich and resources, he would, too. If i have room to grow, he does, too. I have to wish it unconditionally or not at all. I can't decide what that would mean for him, or even for me. And I can't do it thinking I am better than he is.

After a few stretches in that direction, opening up my understanding of richness and resources, I could open all the way to all beings. This usually feels lighter for me, with a spontaneous highlight reel of various beings appearing, sometimes comically: may all cats (including ours, who woke me two hours before feeding time, insisting they were starving), all president-elects, All Buddhist teachers who covet other Buddhist teachers, All folks facing the death penalty...all beings already rich or not, really feel and know their richness and resources. Really. No conditions.

Most people find loving-kindness practice to be more powerful when done on the spot, and/or applied to a current struggle (like this, as an antidote to a feeling you are trying to work with). I have suggested to the Return participants to use it with their intentions for the year in mind - "May all beings feel free, May all beings feel rested," etc. 

Make it your own. Let it stretch you. Compassion takes work, like any muscles we are trying to build. 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Looking Back (Week 3/3)

I am posting my own responses to looking back over the last year in this blog weekly for three weeks. These are unedited writings done in class, offered here for my students and readers. This is week three out of three. The door is closing soon on Return: Setting New Year's Intentions That Stick, so sign up now if you are interested!

Note the photo above showing the conversation between my dominant and non-dominant hand. This is an especially powerful way to have an exchange with yourself about tender or complex topics.

(dominant hand)
Each time I write this prompt I think it will be dead for me, having done it three times already. I've explored my word in retrospect, looking at my intention word for 2016: connect. I've discovered lightly neglected feelings, and looked at all the interlocking growth and happenings. So what could possibly be left?

(non-dominant hand)
All the tiny specifics details and the endless moments of inspiration and desperation are left.