As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am exploring a slightly different approach to meditation: instead of releasing a thought as soon as I notice it, I am gently acknowledging it, asking if it has anything important to tell me, and then quietly drifting back to center.
It's a subtle difference, to be sure. But in practicing it, I can see that I've been approaching meditation with the same sort of restless impatience I carry elsewhere in my life; can see that this tiny shift is an excellent way to practice slowing down, being attentive; getting in touch with whatever is longing to be born in me.
Paired with more attention to what my body is feeling and sensing, it's also helping me be more present to what I'm experiencing any given moment, instead of immediately turning moment into story. As I look at this image in that context, the crow on the branch becomes a quietly observing presence; perhaps the birds in flight are the thoughts, either coming in or leaving -- or fluttering around, waiting to be noticed.
But what I like best about this picture, now that I look at how it's evolved, is that -- to me, at least -- there is a seated figure, a bit more golden in color, to the right of the tree, and the branch appears to be resting on its knee. I really like the tenderness of that; that sense of connection to nature, and the way the tree has of being both inside and outside the frame. It feels like a space is being created, a little breathing room -- which is pretty much all I ever really ask of a meditative practice: I was never really looking for Nirvana; just a little room to breathe...
I don't know about you, but I've always been fascinated and intrigued by coincidences. So here's one for you: yesterday I was working on my images, and this one seemed to cry out for some flowers; the base looked like a rock garden to me.
So I pulled up a photo of a friend's garden on Orcas Island, a picture I took years ago when I lived on Orcas -- maybe in 1999? And I smiled, applying the image over the base, thinking of that friend, whom I haven't seen for at least a year; maybe two.
And guess who called me yesterday afternoon? Yep, it was that very friend -- she just happened to be thinking of me, and wanted to connect; invite me up for a visit; invite herself down for a visit... We had a lovely conversation, and will be seeing each other within a month, I'm sure.
And as I started writing this, I found myself thinking of a line from that old book which came out about 20 years ago -- The Celestine Prophecy -- something about there are no coincidences. It's funny; I know that book was very New Age, but somehow it got passed around a bunch of us who were all starting up an Episcopal Church at the time, and for a while we were all really into it (and now, of course, I haven't thought of it in years.)
But I do love coincidences -- and there have been lots of them lately. Is it a coincidence that, even as my blog readership is going down, I'm getting lots of notes and comments from new readers? Is that to encourage me to stay with it? Is it a coincidence that, just as I'm exploring new ways of presenting my art, new opportunities for display came across my desk yesterday? (Thank you, Joanie!) Is it a coincidence that as school is drawing to a close people are starting to ask my professional advice about marketing and organizational behavior?
Maybe I'm just foolishly superstitious, but I prefer to see all these odd coincidences as gentle reminders that Someone Out There, or God, or The Universe -- however you want to describe that -- is keeping me company on this journey; that it's okay to stay on the path I'm on, even if I can't quite see where it's going; even if the earthly rewards for it seem pretty few and far between. It's enough to just keep going, keep staying open; support is there, surfacing when I need it, even when I least expect it.
I know. It's a sort of hopelessly romantic view of the world. But it's also the piece that makes me more Christian than Buddhist, I think: there's still, even after all these years, a faith, a deep conviction, that ultimately things will somehow be okay; that "all things work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28)
Crazy, eh? And yet -- it doesn't seem to make me any less fearful. Funny, isn't it, that we can carry fear and confidence in the same heart; what curious creatures humans are...
Photography's a bit of a hard sell these days, now that digital cameras are so intelligent and so many people have access to them. Not that I ever expected to make money at this, but these days it's particularly challenging to get back even a small portion of the investment in money and time.
Since framing finished work is a fixed cost, I'm always looking for alternative ways to display my work -- especially ones that move it out of the realm of standard photography. So here's something I'm currently exploring: mounting my more abstract works on box frames and then further embellishing them.
This was the first of a set of three, and with each I was exploring different techniques, and -- again, do you get a theme here? -- trying to push through the blocks that prevent me from "messing with things"; trying new approaches, trying to honor whatever in me is attempting to express itself.
I picked up a copy of the Dalai Lama's book, Transforming the Mind, this morning, and reading what he has to say about meditation practice I realize my particular practice may be part of what's making it challenging to create new work. Because the way my meditation currently works is that whenever I become aware of thoughts that are taking me away from my center, I make a conscious decision to release them; I push them away and stubbornly return to center. Which, in essence, means I am rejecting them.
This approach has served me well over the last 10 years: it quiets and centers me, prepares me for the day, and has trained me to release the kinds of minor irritations that can arise during the day. And I get that this is a form of discipline; that I do it because I want to still the active chatter on the surface levels of thinking; to tap into a deeper level of consciousness.
But isn't it possible that -- for the purposes of creativity -- the general theory of "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" (or the Centering Prayer equivalent, about releasing even the Virgin Mary if she appears to you) might be more likely to extinguish than to encourage the creative process? What if I were to more gently acknowledge the presence of the thoughts that pass through? Not necessarily to get caught up in them, but to explore them; invite them to share insights...
Surely this would be the advantage of mindfulness meditation over my current practice -- not that I want to go tripping off after all the old litanies or the petty concerns that have a way of arising, but to be attentive enough to discern the thoughts; to make conscious decisions to release or explore them as would seem appropriate. Wouldn't this foster more attentiveness and creativity? Mightn't it honor and cultivate inner wisdom?
When this image evolved, a day or two ago, it seemed to want to be called "the Fairy Tale Trap." And I can see where that comes from: the face in the mirror reminds me of the evil queen's mirror, reflecting back the fair Snow White; the stairwell has a suggestion of Rapunzel's tower, and the bars somehow suggest that young women can be trapped by fairy-tale expectations... what used to be called the Cinderella Complex.
According to Wikipedia, "This complex is named after the fairy tale character Cinderella. It is based on the idea of women that the story portrays, as being beautiful, graceful and polite but who cannot be strong independent characters themselves... and who must be rescued by an outside force, usually a man (i.e. the Prince)."
But you can tell from the open door and the dusting of leaves on the stairs that this particular tower has been unoccupied for quite some time now. Oh, but wait -- didn't I just say in yesterday's post that I was full of dust and leaves? Perhaps I'm still caught there; perhaps I never even noticed the door was open, I've grown so accustomed to the place -- rather like the fleas in the jar, who learn to jump just high enough not to hit the lid (so when you remove the lid they've forgotten how to escape?)
Like a drafty well-used barn, my brain is littered with stale food for thought, no longer nourishing.
I know there’s light and clarity, somewhere up there, but it won’t shine through until I muck out the stalls, chuck out the chaff; brush out the bitterness, sweep away that sense of betrayal.
I can’t really savor this fresh new fruit til I air out the stench of all those might-have-beens.
Hmm. Sounds like it may be time for a little internal spring cleaning... there must be something blowing around in there that needs to be swept out. Now if only we could have a sunny warm day or two, perhaps I'd be more inspired to follow up on that!
As you can see, I couldn't stay away from these things; they're just too much fun! But the break was good; I came back refreshed and ready to explore...
I think the reason these are so challenging for me (and I may have said this before) is that as I'm creating, I'm constantly asking myself "What do you want?" And that kind of self-focus is, even after all these years, uncomfortable. Growing up as an only child in the 50's, what I might want was pretty much irrelevant; it was all about what was right, or what should happen, or what my mother wanted.
And of course, photography doesn't force much of that sort of engagement: if I'm doing any photoshopping afterwards, it tends to be more about what did I see that the camera didn't quite capture perfectly. It's more about what is than about what could be.
So I find myself almost looking over my shoulder as I walk through these creations, asking "Is this okay?" as if there is some right or wrong way to do this. But creativity at this level isn't about right or wrong, it's about expression; it's only wrong if it doesn't feel like it's speaking ME.
So I keep playing, going with what pleases me, and then I step back to find this incredibly lush image -- which is bizarre. Because that doesn't feel like me right now. I was just saying, earlier this week, that I feel sometimes, these days, as if I'm full of dust and dead leaves -- virtually the opposite of this image. But the fact that I can create this means this lush richness is in there, too: I don't just crave the colors and juiciness of spring and summer during these relentless gray days: I can actually create it.
Which I find incredibly heartening -- and a sweet reminder that we already have everything we need; that everything we long for already exists; we only need to tap into it. You may find this a stretch, but somehow what this tells me is that the Divine Source is always with us; it never dries up or dies -- we just have to trust it's there.
And now that I look at this, I see those two peonies in the middle have almost formed a mask; it's as if that richness at the center of being is looking back at me. There's a piece of me that wants to make that mask look a bit friendlier, a bit less critical, but -- well -- that's what was there. So I think I'll just let it be for now; just sit back and enjoy all these delicious colors -- just drink it up, like those ever-present cans of Nehi Grape Drink from my childhood. Yum!
"The nature of experience and the process of sense-making can lead to a situation where everyone is having a different experience of the same event, and everyone is making up stories about each other's experiences, the stories get worse and worse, and, over time, a toxic environment of gossip and distrust settles in... 4 out of 5 conflicts between people at work are a result of this process: people have made up inaccurate stories to make sense of others' behaviors, and over time these stories have led to a total breakdown of collaboration." -- Gervase Bushe, "Learning from Collective Experience," OD Practitioner (Vol. 41 No. 3, 2009)
Have you ever worked in a toxic environment? Or been on a committee or volunteer organization where misunderstandings and miscommunications not only lead to hurt but get in the way of productive service? Or gone to a school where competition is so fierce the students are at each other's throats and exclusive cliques squabble constantly? It seems to me that people's different experiences of the same environment, and the stories they construct about others as they compete for limited resources, pose incredible hurdles to collaboration and community.
I'm reading this article as part of my coursework on "Intervening in a System," but I think these points have relevance far beyond the workplace. And, fortunately, the article doesn't just name the problem (though I think that's the first step to healing -- to understand that the making up of stories to explain others' behaviors is often the root of conflict) but it offers a solution. A complicated and awkward solution, I think -- at least initially -- but I can imagine it could work -- if everyone agreed to try it.
It involves communication, of course: a structure designed to facilitate speaking, hearing, and acknowledging people's personal experiences of situations. Experience, says Bushe, "is composed of 4 elements: observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. Observations are what a video recorder would pick up. Thoughts are all mental constructs. Feelings are sensations and emotions. Wants are motives, aspirations, objectives, and desires." Presumably if we can openly communicate what we are experiencing in these four arenas, it will help people understand the motivation behind our behaviors.
Not that all people are aware of their experiences at all of these levels, but "from the point of view of this model, the key to self-awareness for leadership and consulting effectiveness is the ability to become aware of your moment-to-moment experience...In order to learn from experience, people have to recognize that 'my truth' is not 'the truth.'"
Hmm. So the solution, he says, lies in presence, self-awareness, understanding and communication. The question is -- how do we get to that point?
I suspect some of you will breathe a sigh of relief when I say I've decided to stop publishing these constructed images for a while.
It's not that I won't still be working on them, or that I won't be sharing them from time to time. But with all the possibilities that are opening up around them, they take longer to create. I was only able to generate one yesterday, and when I emerged from my office late in the afternoon my body was definitely objecting to the time pressure -- and the image really didn't feel quite done.
It's good, I think, to listen to what our bodies tell us; good to notice when the balance is off, and good, also, to notice when the seasons change and the demands on our time begin to shift.
And so I ask -- what's shifting in your life? What wants to be born in you, and what needs to be weeded or pruned to give it space to grow? Where has the balance shifted; where do you feel constricted -- and what would it take for you to breathe more comfortably? Listen to what your body is telling you...
Today's image is pure play; quite simply an adventure and an exploration of some new possibilities I discovered by accident earlier in the week.
Without going into serious Photoshop language, I'll just say this: I've discovered I can paint parts of images on top of other image without any cutting and pasting. And, since I can control the thickness of the "paint," that means I can paint the mere suggestion of other images. And, as I do more and more of that, it becomes harder and harder to tell where one image stops and another begins. And, of course, the color and image resources for any picture become virtually infinite.
It seems to me that this is not unlike what happens when we are in constant contact with other individuals: we rub off on one another, the boundaries become less distinct, what is me and not you becomes harder and harder to distinguish from what is you and not me. And our potential for becoming whatever we might choose to become is in fact much richer than we may comprehend.
All of which feels connected, somehow, to our shared ground of spirituality. It's a gift, I think, to see that our differences are not as huge or significant as we think they are; to see ourselves as... well... sheer, like curtains; as something one can see through to the ground underneath -- as if what society and upbringing and genetics paint on us is a thin veneer which, when stripped away, reveals the oneness of things. Add to that our ability to choose what to paint, what to erase, and what to over-write... well, the possibilities begin to look almost infinite.
At some level, I suppose, that's a little scary -- and potentially a lot of responsibility. But at another level it's exciting, encouraging -- even breathtaking. And frankly, I can't wait to do some more exploring!
I'm not especially fond of the colors in this one, but because it looked to me like the parting of the Red Sea, they seemed to be appropriate choices. But the people aren't Israelites, escaping, they're simply investigating -- which tied in nicely with today's reading from The Promise of a New Day:
"Getting to know our inner geography, our own pattern of needs and fears, is never dangerous. The danger lies in refusing to know. We can't build solid self-confidence on ignorance and mistrust of ourselves; only by loving ourselves and acknowledging our kinship with needy, fearful humanity can we grow as individuals."
When we first begin to consider things like meditation, spiritual direction, and therapy, there is often this fear that some dreadful truth, something overwhelmingly scary or disgusting will be revealed. And thinking about this, and about that image we all carry, of the Israelites standing at the edge of the Red Sea, and the waters parting to reveal a path to the other side, I see what a wonderful metaphor that can be for the process of self-exploration.
From the edge of the water, it looks terrifyingly deep; we wouldn't even dream of wading in if we weren't being pursued by our own demons. But if we trust enough to embark, the waters will part; we'll have a chance to examine the ground beneath those overwhelming thoughts and feelings and responses, and, if we stay on the path, we will arrive safe and unharmed at some other, safer shore. And -- the good news -- is we don't have to do it alone.
... which brings me to another thing I wanted to say this morning: I am so grateful for all of you, my companions on the path. Thank you for being willing to explore with me; I really do appreciate your company!