Thursday, March 28, 2013

2 responses to impermanence

An elderly woman kept repeating Things change as she told me about things that used to be true for her: I used to like french fries, but now I don't have a taste for them...Things changeI used to have coffee every morning, but after my husband died, I stopped that...Things changeI used to be able to drink water whenever I wanted—now I have to wait for someone to come by and fill my cup. Things change.

Her words convey more than an intellectual knowing of impermanence; she now lives this knowing in a way that makes even a drink of water something to be savored.

Nothing in the world is permanent, and we're foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we're still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it-W Somerset Maugham

We know that impermanence is the nature of life: things arise, they remain for a time, they dissolve. There is never a moment when anything stops. We can have one of two responses to this ongoing cycle: we can 1) appreciate and maybe even find preciousness in the temporary nature of all things, or we can 2) fear change and struggle against it. 

There is a question that I ask myself when I'm fearful and struggling: What most wants to be lived through me in this moment? By asking this question instead of asking "What do I want to happen right now," I can sometimes realign my mind with the dynamic nature of things. Of course this doesn't always work, and even when it does, it doesn't ensure that I won't feel fear. But if I can lean into the fear even a little, I often see that fear too is impermanent—that it also remains only for a time before dissolving.

We all have to decide if we would rather live closely aligned with impermanence, which means experiencing both the sadness and the joy inherent in change, or whether we would rather live in a more controlled, measured way. Perhaps today you can try to notice the three qualities of impermanence—arising, remaining for a time, dissolving—in the spaces of your own life, body, emotions, and so on. 
A precious sad-joy moment for Pat and her father
There is a koan that points to impermanence: What was your face before your parents were born? Contemplating koans can open the mind in ways that conventional thinking usually doesn't. So, what was your face before your parents' birth? What will your face be 300 years from now? What is it right now? And what most wants to be lived through you in this very moment?
Between Going and Staying, by Octavio Paz

Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.
All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can't be touched.
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.
I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.
The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The wonder of not knowing

My father’s father used to take us kids on walks up mountainsides. I can close my eyes and see those mountains now. Mainly it’s my grandfather's long legs that I recall, as I followed his steps so as not to slip on the jagged slate. We’d stop at points and look back down at road, at houses, at where we had started the climb. 

That’s how it is with my life, and I’m guessing that it might be the same for you—that you look back, and that you can trace the path to exactly where you are right now. I don’t see how it could be any other way, really. With my logical mind, many of the steps that I've taken made no sense at the time and caused me pain, but from the vantage point of sitting here this morning, I see that they were the perfect route to what and who I am today.

Pema Chödrön says that looking back is a wise way to see our progress, because if, instead, we measure progress by how much further we have to go, we will certainly be overwhelmed by all the mountain there is left to climb. At the least we would try to minimize encounters with obstacles in order to get to the top the fastest way possible. And while such planning may make for effective mountaineering, it doesn't work as well when it comes to our lives. 
Reminders of the obvious: Slogan wall by stupa at Gampo Abbey
Sometimes we’d stop with my grandfather and pick wildflowers from between cracks in the slate. That such soft flowers grew among hard rock amazed me; I wondered if those flowers had caused the cracks simply by growing. I want to be like those flowers—soft yet resilient. I want to stop to pick flowers, pause to look back at the path that has brought me here, then step out again with sure footing.

The other day I found a small, round stone. It was smooth like a child’s cheek, and I slipped it in my pocket and turned it over and over between my fingers. It stood out because it was the only stone on the asphalt where I walked, and I wondered how it had gotten there. I keep it on my kitchen windowsill to remind me to keep noticing.
I want to keep noticing like this!
Einstein says that it’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. The space of noticing, of being curious is where we first encounter knowing and, at the same time, not knowing. I am happy that this space survives in each of us. May we all find ways to reconnect with the wonder of not knowing, and may this lead us to step out in ways that amaze and delight us.

Two Kinds of Intelligence, by Rumi

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It's fluid,
and it doesn't move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

3 things I want to remember about play

Stuart Brown, MD, the director of The National Institute for Play, says that people who do not engage in play pose a health risk: stress-related diseases, depression, addictions, interpersonal violence, and so on. Statements like these interest me, but they rarely cause me to make any real changes in my life. Like most folks, until I am personally affected I can coast along letting good enough be good enough.

But since it’s time for me to post a blog entry, and since I’ve had a heavier than usual work schedule and have neglected play lately, I’ve come up with 3 statements about what I know about myself regarding play. These 3 statements are now written on my bathroom mirror (I’ve also drawn a nifty lipstick rendering of a balloon ninja girl).  

1. Play is not frivolous.
The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that-Nagle Jackson

No matter how many times I’ve returned to a work project with clearer thinking, renewed enthusiasm, greater efficiency, and even flashes of brilliance after taking a play break, I can still forget how amazingly beneficial play is, regarding it as something to do only AFTER I’ve finished working. What hooey!

Dr. Brown points out that even animals seem to play, even though what matters most in the animal kingdom is survival. When I relegate play to the "When I have leftover time" category, I shift into bare essential survival mode. I start confusing being reverent with being serious, at which point I go about my work, and my life, all wrong.
Tootsie with some of her favorite toys. RIP, sweet Tootsie.
2. I’m happier when I play.
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. -Benjamin Franklin

Dr. Brown goes so far as to say that the opposite of play is depression. And as anyone who has experienced depression knows, when you're in the midst of depression, it's pretty much impossible to motivate yourself to play.

For me to feel playful, it helps to remember how I liked to play as a child. This reflection usually points me to the forms of play that I enjoy most right now.

As a child I liked to— 

  • Ride my bicycle. I still love to ride my bike around the neighborhood. Heading in the direction of distant music from the ice cream truck means that it's going to be a super fun ride. A few years ago I biked from Tucson to Mexico...what a blast! 
  • Form bands in friends’ garages. Only a few minutes of running my fingers over the piano keys makes space in my body and mind like nothing else can. (Funny that I now record songs using an app called Garage Band.)
  • Tell stories. Blogging was something that I swore off for years. While I haven't yet found my full-on blog groove, blogging is becoming more and more like storytelling play to me.
  • Do flips. "Flips" is the word that my friends and I used for moving our body. Many of my happiest moments still involve some kind of body movement: yoga, kickboxing, busting a move for no reason when nobody is looking.
  • Make funny noises. I still make funny noises. 
  • Rollerskate. When heelies came out I had a flashback rush of joy and bought a pair immediately. I'm still a little afraid of them and they mainly stay in my closet, but I haven't given up on messing around with these. Just seeing the box makes me happy.
  • Cook with my Easy Bake Oven. The kitchen is a giant laboratory for me to mix this with that. I can get lost in food play for hours.
  • Play School and Haunted House. I had to be the teacher...or the main ghost.
Schoolmarm/ghost hybrid
3. Play makes relationships something special.
You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. -Plato

When I meet someone, I like to imagine how they might describe themselves in a personal ad—if total honesty were such a thing in those ads (I like to imagine a personal ad description for myself tooon the “good” days and on the "feel like pooey" days). 

If I were looking for friendship, a romantic connection, or a work relationship, if the person wrote I do not play, no matter how many other amazing qualities they listed...NEXT!
I would totally answer their personal ad. 
If I Had My Life to Live Over, by Nadine Stair (age 85)

I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax, I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles, 
but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I'm one of those people who live 
sensibly and sanely hour after hour, 
day after day.
Oh, I've had my moments,
And if I had it to do over again, 
I'd have more of them.
In fact, I'd try to have nothing else.
Just moments, one after another,
instead of living so many years ahead of each day.
I've been one of those people who never goes anywhere 
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Honoring our everyday best

There is a still point of completeness within each of us. It has qualities of full heart; sharp, clear intellect; and kindness without agenda. Sometimes we get a glimpse of this still point without trying. A slant of light hits the floor and wakes us up. Time seems to stop. A cicada sings and the sound swells within us. We are suddenly present and aware in these moments, and would likely offer up much to remain this beautifully alive. 
Stillness and completeness also emerge during times we’d least expect them. We receive word that somebody we love has been in an accident, but instead of shutting down, we stay open and move about with surprising calmness, knowing exactly what to say and do. This is because we all are fundamentally equipped for living and appreciating our life regardless of our life situation. We have the capacity to experience satisfaction from sunlight, from the taste of a juicy orange, even from dealing with the ups and downs of who we are. Simply being alive can be satisfying.

When we haven’t developed the quality of quieting ourselves so that we can feel satisfied by merely being alive, we don’t tap into this still point often and therefore may consider these moments as flukes. We can doubt our fundamental completeness and keep trying to muscle our way toward a good life by working harder, being nicer, thinking more, and so on. This is what we know to do; it’s the best we can do at the time. Considering the knowledge, self-awareness, amount of sleep, headache, stubbed toe, and whatever else may be occurring at the point of our every action, we are always doing our best. 

All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement
                                                                                    -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

I thought that the wig (me, lower right) made me look like a rock star.
Of course we can always look back and wish that we had acted differently. Self-reflection, even it comes with a pang of regret, is perfectly fine and can set us on a path of making change. What doesn’t help us change is allowing regret to fester as guilt and beating ourselves up because we think we could have acted better and we didn’t. Remember, living as our highest self is a fluid process. At the point of our regret, we’re looking back as a different self. 

In years ahead may we all look back from the perspective of our future best self and smile, or maybe even grimace, at everything that we are right now.

Call Me by My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, 
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart can be left open, 
the door of compassion.