I started out peacefully meditating. I ended red-faced and screaming. This is my journey to awareness. There are other journeys – sweet jasmine filled ones, rough battle worn ones, soccer mom howling in the middle of the donut shop ones, rain soaked back alley ones – but this one is mine.
I wanted to make the tenets of Buddhism a part of my heart in a real and lasting way, not just pretty words I remembered seeing on facebook printed over a lotus flower. There are 3 direct doors to my heart: Cathy, Bacon, and Writing. This was a job for writing, and an excuse to buy a new fancy looking journal.
I decided to hand copy a translation of the Dhammapada, the Pali collection of the basic sayings of the Buddha (real ones, not those fake posts about depression) one stanza a day until the entire thing was written in my journal and on my soul. Each day I would meditate on the verse. What a great plan. Until….
I opened the translation by the Venerable Ananda Maitreya, turned to the first section and began to write, “Mind is the forerunner of all actions.”
Briscoe the Beagle: <hitting the door with her tail> I want out.
Me: In a minute.
Briscoe: <thump, thump, thump> I want out NOW.
Put down the pen. Get up and head for the back door.
Briscoe: <running in a circle under the fireplace mantel> Don’t forget the treats.
Grab a treat. Open the door. Out goes the beagle. Back to my chair. Deep breath.
“All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.”
Briscoe: <Woof Woof Woof> I want back in.
Me: You just went out.
Briscoe: <WOOF WOOF scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch>. I want back in now
Me: Okay, okay. Shut up.
Dog in. Sit down. Deep Breath, Deeeep Breath.
“If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows,”
Briscoe: <Thump thump thump> I want back out.
Me: YOU JUST CAME IN!
Briscoe: <Woof Woof Woof WOOF WOOF WOOF> I’m not going to stop until you put me out.
Me: I’ll put you out, alright, out for adoption!
Out of chair. Open the back door. Briscoe runs into the other room.
Me: You wanted out. You are going out!
Briscoe: <doing the cute head-to-the-side thing> I don’t really know what I want.
Me: <rattles treat cup> Here.
Briscoe: <runs to the door> Yep. I totally want that.
Me: And stay out!
Sit in chair. Breathe in the love, breathe out the pain, breathe in the love…
Belle the Beagle: <Woof!> If Briscoe went out, I want to go out.
Me: Really? REALLY?! Buddy, do you want out, too?
Buddy the Beagle: <head down, curled into a ball> I’m happy on the couch. And, why are you yelling?
Belle: <Woof> Hellooo, I still want out.
Buddy in. Belle out. Sit down. Drop Dhammapada on the floor. Pick it up. Breathe. Breathe.
“As the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.”
Belle and Briscoe: <AROOOOO AROOOO scratch, scratch, scratchety scratch.> We want in!!!!
That’s the moment I reached awareness. Standing at the back door in a pair of Batman pajama pants, holding a copy of the Dhammapada screaming, “Stop howling, dammit! I’m trying to be enlightened! “
The next five minutes involved a loud, rabid monologue about why the Dalai Lama doesn’t have beagles, how Tara Brach can speak in that serene, wise voice because she hasn’t spent half a day trudging through Food Lion picking up dog food and spotty bananas, Pema Chodron ‘s face shines like the sun because she don’t have a dishwasher that sounds like the space shuttle taking off every five minutes, and while I don’t have to chop wood and carry water, I have let the dogs out 3,000 times and fill the water bowl.
When the yelling was over, the energy expended, the emotion expressed, and the hyperbole stretched to its outer limit, there was a moment of beautiful, transforming silence. My breath returned to normal; my soul reset to calm. My first world problems slithered back to their proper perspective. Bliss at last.
Buddy: <thumping tail on couch> Um…I never got a treat.
Life is a beagle. No matter how pure our hearts, how high our aspirations, disciplined our practice – life is going to bark, wag, beg, howl and bring its cute happy chaos into our spiritual moments. In fact, if we miss the point of all this meditation and intentional living – life might just entirely derail us. Because the point is: Life is what all this meditation is about in the first place.
Creating compassion – for ourselves, each other, the earth, sky and sea (and beagles) is why we meditate.
Letting go of attachments – to things, expectations, debts, judgments, grudges, and pains is why we meditate.
Overcoming suffering – from unmet expectations, loss, fear, empty spaces that we think should be filled is what meditation is about.
The Dhammapada – the words of the Buddha – don’t come alive in us while we sit on our cushion. They blossom through the ear shattering, annoying, distracting howls of life. Tara Brach, Pema Chodron, and even the Dalai Lama go through life too. The only difference is they embrace it instead of suffering it. And so should I.
So for now I will practice on learning how to accept, let go and be(agle).
“Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a serene mind,
As surely as one’s shadow.”
Dhammapada, Verses 1 and 2.
Let’s be very clear. Writing is NOT a hobby. Suggesting creative writing is a hobby is as ridiculous as saying paying your taxes is a hobby. They are both something you have to do. Paying taxes is the law of the land. Writing is the law of the soul. You must, to be true to your conscience, obey both.
Of course, writing is harder than paying your taxes. It’s more emotionally draining. It takes energy. It is a thankless job that is rarely noticed of affirmed by others. And if you think writing is thankless – try re-writing – or editing. That’s thankless AND painful.
So why do we write?
Abundance. Writing is a fountain inside of us that never stops churning. When you recognize the bounty that being a writer puts in your life, you’ll find the answer to that question every writer asks each time he or she spends six hours on three paragraphs and cuts two of them the next day. Why am I doing this?
Abundance: There are always more stories to tell. Like most writers, I love to tell stories. Not just big novel-sized adventures, but little tales about the events of my day. Everything is a story. A guy follows me around the book store then laughs at the book I end up picking out – a horror story. My third trip to the DMV in three days attempting to find the right combination of documents to get my driver’s license – a comedy. My partner who hates psychological movies and ballet sits through Black Swan just to hold my hand – a romance. I could never stop writing because all the stories would build up inside me and I would inevitably explode like a piñata full of candied anecdotes.
Abundance: There are always more people to reach. I’m a first class introvert who likes typing much more than I like talking. In fact, thanks to the internet, streaming TV and Kindle, once the 3D printer can actually print edible groceries – I’ll never leave my house again. Writing helps me reach out to people in a way that feels safe, isn’t exhausting and doesn’t result in a discussion about who leaves the tip. There are so many stories I want to tell and there are so many people I want to hear them. For every blog I post or story I published I get the joy of reaching out to people, but not having to actually touch them.
I could never stop writing, because that would make me truly, utterly, soul-crushingly alone.
Abundance: The song isn’t finished. I’m one of those people who will sit in the car after I’ve arrived just to listen to the end of a song that is playing on the radio. To walk out in the middle of a good song is a crime against natural law. It’s also a good way to get that song stuck in your head for a week. Writing is like music. Sentences and phrases flow through a writer in lyrical fashion. There is always the song of a good sentence, poetic embrace or character insight floating through the air. On the days I’m writing my best, I’ve been able to reach into the ether and pull down a melody. I can’t walk out on my writing as long as the music is still playing.
I could never stop writing because the song must carry on.
So – there you have it. What does writing give you besides a sore back, calloused fingers, sleepless nights and tortured imaginings? Abundance.
The fountain is flowing with joy for you. Grab a pen (or computer) and GO. GET. IT.
I am a Christian woman currently also practicing Mahayana Buddhism. I don’t hide that fact, but I don’t talk a lot about it either, largely because I don’t understand it myself. I know many of my Christian friends “don’t agree” or my Buddhist friends “don’t care” – so unless there’s a question, I keep the conversation to myself. Sometimes we follow a path and we don’t know why. We just know we are meant to follow it and the “why” becomes apparent down the road. This was one of those times.
We had a great vacation in Pittsburgh filled with baseball, black and gold, Primanti sandwiches, and all kinds of people from different places. Our cab driver pulled up an entire Michael Jackson playlist and we sang all the way to the airport. He told us excitedly about seeing Michael Jackson in concert in Japan when he and Michael were both younger men. Between his accent and the stress of riding through downtown Pittsburgh, I didn’t catch the whole story, but I loved the joy in the way he told it. A Pittsburgh resident for 31 years, he was from Ghana, and still calls it “my country.”
Plot Twist: We got into DC 20 minutes early for the late flight to Richmond. While we were talking about how nice it would be if the next flight was early too, they announced it was cancelled due to mechanical failure. Suddenly, silent strangers became a community of angry, disappointed whiners in front of the customer service counter. We decided to rent a car and drive to Richmond but went through the line to find out how to get our refund. In front of us was a distinguished business traveler, well versed in this process, and ahead of him stood a white couple in their mid-to-late 60’s, clearly returning from a vacation.
There were four very overworked, friendly, frazzled women behind the customer service counter with a supervisor who popped out every few minutes to ensure there wasn’t a mental breakdown or riot happening. I listened to countless people ahead of us dump their problems on the counter: I have to go to work, I’ve been here since five, I don’t have money for the night, I am never flying again…
Three of the service professionals were black women (I can’t say African-American because I have no idea where they were from), and one woman was Asian (again, no idea of exactly where). The vacationing couple was next to be called. I heard the woman chippering about something and pointing at the Asian clerk then the black women. A young man took his food voucher and left. The woman then said to her husband, “Let this guy go ahead. I’m not going to one of them.”
At first, I didn’t really catch it – but sure enough when the server called out, “next,” they let the man ahead of us go in front. They stared intensely at the Asian clerk who was wrapped up in a “complicated order” and nowhere near finished. The wife said to the husband, “You’ll have to let them go too. I’m not dealing with one of them.” So – a different server became open and they told us to go ahead. I looked at the man and he just muttered, “We’re waiting for someone else.” They let people go ahead until the Asian clerk was open. At the point we had our business taken care of and left.
The next hour was a jumble:
- Finding the rental car area – Dulles Airport will now be known in our house as “Escalator International”
- A rural toll booth at 10:30 at night that only took coins and had no attendant – Where a very nice woman in a hijab got out of her car to help someone who didn’t understand what to do – and stopped to ask Cathy if she had enough coins before driving on.
- Ridiculous traffic on the beltway – 11 at night, DC? Really? Don’t you people ever stop?
- A GPS that wasn’t quite sure where we should exit – “What do you mean 0.3 miles, a minute ago you said 10?!”
Once we cleared the city, Cathy asked me why the couple let us go. I said, “They didn’t want to go to a black woman. They wanted the Asian woman.” She said she thought that was what happened and we both agreed it was such a blatantly racist thing that we were stunned. We spoke briefly about all the amazing helpful people we encountered– the lovely Latina clerk at the hotel who gave us perfect advice, the cab driver from Ghana, the customer server at the airport who had a very pretty accent, but I don’t know from where, the patient car rental man who looked like George Takei and gave me a life-saving map and patient instructions, the woman in the hijab who went out of her way to help us – and how sad it was that couple would miss these experiences because of their racism. Cathy nodded off leaving me alone with my thoughts. That’s when it got…messy.
I found their unapologetic racism shocking, horrid and wrong in every way. In my mind I piled disrespect, charges of ignorance, and hopes their hotel had bed bugs on them. I become aware I was definitely judging them and a bunch of my ideals and feelings collided like so many cars on the DC beltway.
Being a racist isn’t just something you do, sometimes it is someone you are. In naming their racism am I not assigning judgment to them? Do people have a right to be racist? I talk all the time about accepting differences. If avoiding people with black skin is their difference, am I just supposed to accept that? Why is it okay to sing “Man in the Mirror” with a Ghana-born cab driver, but I don’t want to hear people express the fact they won’t let a black woman give them a hotel voucher? Am I a hypocrite? As a person who is a Christ follower – aren’t I supposed to give them grace? What does that mean? Jesus was pretty clear he doesn’t like racism (Samaritans, anyone?). Does it mean “love the couple and hate the racism?”
STOP THE CAR! I came dangerously close to “love the sinner, hate the sin” – a phrase I have personally been both battered with and railed against for years. Love the sinner…is the Christian version of the South’s “Bless her heart.” . Love the sinner is what people say when they have absolutely no intention of accepting someone as God made them, but they don’t want to sound prejudiced. I have always said, “That kind of love – I don’t need.” And now…I was getting ready to do the same thing.
I think that couple is fundamentally flawed. I don’t know them, love them or want to accept them. But I am taught to be forgiving, graceful and loving to people. All people are my neighbor. My racist neighbors. I don’t want to love them. I want to move. It’s distressing to think your spiritual ideals conflict with your human reality. What is the answer?
My Zen practice kicked in saying “This experience is like the Koans you read every day. There isn’t an answer, a right or a wrong. There is only a lesson. Maybe you don’t have to love them, and maybe you don’t have to judge them. Maybe you can learn from them and let them go.”
My peace returned as we passed the Ashland exit and my mind and heart moved from them to me – my faith life, my expression and experiences. I’ve thrived in my Buddhist practice. My Christ-following has thrived too. I still read the Bible, pray, serve, and have my ever-present crush on Amy Grant. I celebrate my many friends and support places that “do church” well and with great spirit. On the 295 Exit lane I realized – for the first time – why I took this path.
It’s not hard to understand why I would seek God outside of the church. As a lesbian who is also an ordained Christian minister, I’ve experienced an amazing amount of prejudice/ignorance/crap in mainline churches. But that’s not the reason. I’ve also experienced love/wisdom/laughter in many churches. The reason is found in that grace-lesson-judgment conundrum. Zen offers peace and balance in a way that lets me follow the teachings of Christ and be a human being at the same time.
Some of my wisest Christian friends talk about the power of Christianity being the struggle to be forgiving when it’s impossible, or give grace instead of ancient mummy curses. The idea to “be perfect as God is perfect” isn’t an expectation – it’s a challenge, and that makes Christianity vibrant. But for me (and me alone)– it has become a losing game.
I am a human being. There are things in my life l honestly can’t forgive – but I can let them go and let God forgive them. There are people in my world I don’t love and I’m not going to love – and I can let them go and let God love them. There are things I will never accept – like racism – and when I see it – even in myself – I must act to change it, and let the fear and cultural programming that causes it go. There are lenses that I see through, and I am learning to make mine compassion and forward action. Zen doesn’t say, “I’m not perfect, but I’m trying” or I’m not perfect, I’m forgiven.” It says, “I am the person God made me and I am becoming ever more so.”
And so here I am: I believe in grace (and prefer it to “karma” – especially when I’m the one who needs the grace), but I also believe in the natural law of karma. Karma is NOT the idea that what you do comes back to bite you in the butt. Karma is the understanding we are all connected and one action leads to another then another then another until it comes back around the circle of life to you. That’s a kind of truth I can’t deny.
I believe in Jesus Christ and the way he taught me to live in the world. I am also more spiritually and mentally healthy when I experience zazen and let go of the pressure of “how I am supposed to be” in favor a lessons in who I am and how I become.
So now, thanks to the detour, an unpleasant couple and a long, dark drive, I finally understand what I’m doing here. Now, to sit still and move forward.
Whatever you encounter in the drives and detours of your life – I hope you will find the best practice – or a mix of them – to move you steadily forward too. Most importantly, if you don’t know why you are on a certain path – it’s okay. You don’t have too. Eventually, some detour might help you figure it out.
Across America today there will a moment of silence as we remember September 11, 2001. We will relive the moments of horror, anguish, and anger we felt watching innocent lives lost, the unimaginable courage and sacrifice of first responders, the desperation in the posters of missing loved ones that began collecting on New York streets – thousands – by the setting of the sun, and the video of planes hitting towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. 9/11 is the ultimate evidence that what is seen can’t be unseen.
Except, there was something I didn’t see, and I’ll never get a chance to see again.
I was at home on 9/11 waiting for the Activities Director of my church to drop off tickets for Shakespeare on the Rocks. She shared pleasantries about the play. We were both very excited to have so many in our church sign up. As she left my front door she turned and said, “I heard the strangest thing on the radio. They said a plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
“That would be horrible,” I answered. I counted the tickets, opened up a spreadsheet on my computer to assign seats, and clicked on the TV to see if she heard that wrong. Sure enough – she had. The picture on the screen was showing the Pentagon in flames. I remember thinking she surely knew one place from another. Before I could turn the sound up, the image changed to the World Trade Center, both buildings on fire. Confused, I watched the screen as they replayed the tape of the burning North Tower and the plane hitting the South Tower. I had one thought.
“This is no accident.”
As I was struggled with that realization the towers began to collapse in front of my eyes. I saw it all via TV replay. The flames, the jumpers, the terrified escapees with white on their faces and saucers for eyes, babbling to cameras about stairwells and helpings hands. The fire engine from a crew that ran toward the danger, and would not be coming out. I called church members who had family in New York and many military friends who knew people lost in the Pentagon.
I barely slept – working, eating, living – in front of the TV. STILL I never saw it – I never thought of it – until last week: the lost art of 9/11.
Researching a painting for a book I’m working on, I discovered a list of artworks that were lost when the towers collapsed. Sculptures on the grounds, collections housed in one of the 21 libraries in the towers, photographs stored in vaults, and millions of dollars in rare paintings owned by businesses and collectors in the buildings.
Among the destroyed were:
- All of the sculptures on the grounds.
- The Kennedy Negatives – 40,000 negatives of photos taken by the Kennedy’s private photographer.
- A cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in the Cantor Fitzgerald building.
- Art and literature from Helen Keller International. Only 2 books and a bust survived.
- 900,000 objects from the 19th century excavated from the historic Five Points neighborhood.
- Path Mural by Germaine Keller
- Commuter Landscape by Cynthia Mailman,
- Fan Dancing with the Birds by Hunt Slonem,
- The Entablature Series by Roy Lichtenstein,
- Needle Tower by Kenneth Snelson.
- Original works by Pablo Picasso
- Original works by David Hockney
- Original works by Le Corbusier
- 300 sculptures and drawings by Rodin
- A bust from The Burghers of Calais
And more… all lost. Barely reported, rarely mentioned, and hardly mourned.
It is easy, and probably normal, to say, “What’s a bunch of art compared to over 3,000 deaths?”
It’s a lot, because art is the evidence of 3,000 lives or 30,000 or 3 million. Art is the thing that connects us to each other, to the world, to the past and to the future. Art is the expression of humanity at our most rare, honest and beautiful. Art is the thing that reminds us why life matters and why death hurts so much.
I never did assign those Shakespeare on the Rocks tickets. The church ended up not going to the play. We held a memorial instead. We remembered the dead, supported the living, honored the first responders, prayed for our enemies, and uplifted our nation. But – we never mentioned the art.
Sometime today, during that video replay, memory, or moment of silence – take a second and close your eyes – for the art you never saw, and will never see again.
Then, as a world, let’s do better.
Imagine waking up one morning, stretching and battering the snooze button until you are forced by nature (your cat) or nurture (do I smell bacon?) to get out of bed. You stumble around doing necessary morning things until you find your glasses and take your pills. You open your laptop, hit the little blue “F” and BAM(!) your feed has been changed to “Top Stories” once again (dammmitttt) and the trending column is screaming:
HOME INVASION! 100 Families Robbed. Children’s School Pictures Stolen and Sold Online.
Wow. What would you do? You would be shocked, angry, want the criminals caught, and maybe go to the albums where you keep the school photos of your own kids just to make sure they were okay.
What wouldn’t you do? Say, “What were those parents doing taking pictures of their kids anyway? They are a bunch of braggy mommy vanners and they deserve what they got.”
Or perhaps you realize you read that wrong. What the news really says is:
CYBER ATTACK! Hackers take bank codes from Target, Home Depot and TJ Maxx.
Thousands of Pin Numbers Sold Online.
Yikes! What would you do? You would call your bank, change your pin, ask for a new card number, hope the thieves get caught, and move money into a secured savings account until you’re feeling safe again.
What wouldn’t you do? Say, “How stupid can you be to shop with a debit card? Why would you trust a store? Did these people really need more cheap-chic capri pants and garden gloves? What a bunch of phony balonies. They got what they deserve.”
And yet – when it comes to the celebrity nude photo leak story – in comments and conversations all over – while everyone admits the hacker(s) is where the blame goes – it is somehow the fault of these young women for taking pictures of their naked bodies and putting them in an online storage program. How vain, dumb, opportunistic can they be??? They deserve it.
Why is our response to this story so different that it would be to other crimes? Because it involves the body. For people who don’t like their body (some folks hate their own frame so much they aren’t even on speaking terms with it – let alone taking its picture) this is a chance to express their internal anger by engaging in the act of shaming someone else.
Get your mind out of the gutter and off that last 10 pounds you can’t lose, and THINK for a moment. Other that being dumb, vain or slutty – why might a young female celebrity take pictures of her naked body?
She is comfortable in it. Acting isn’t just a job you do by raising your eyebrows and scowling (Kristen Stewart and Hayden Christensen, excepted). Performance art requires your whole body and you have to be comfy inside your skin. The body is a tool. I am not afraid to take pictures of my computer or a screen shot of my writing and store it online. They are the tools I use.
She won’t have it forever. Maybe it would be nice for these young women when they are fifty, sixty or eighty to look back at pictures of themselves and say “wow, look at me then,” or “still got it!”
She is an adult person who has sexy fun with another adult person. Seriously. Intimate relationships aren’t just made up of Saturday Bath Night and accidentally kissing your lover’s pillow when saying goodnight. They also involve sex, games, fun, chocolate body paint, and yes – pictures.
Maybe, just maybe, these women aren’t really that different from us, after all. These women took pictures, likely with the closest, easiest camera they had (the phone) and stored it in a location they were told was private (iCloud). They didn’t put their pictures on Facebook then complain someone saw their body. They put the pictures in online storage. Not very different from the soccer mom who takes a picture of her kid and puts it in Dropbox. Except, because they are celebrities we feel the right to judge and throw stones. After all, that crappy movie they made cost me $12.50 plus popcorn.
Our reaction to this crime is another indicator of how much work we have to do as a culture in self-acceptance, body esteem and “getting over it.” In The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron says that if you get angry when you go into a bookstore and see all the “crap” that gets published these days, it’s really not about the books. It’s about the writer inside of you wanting to be on that shelf but fearing to do so.
Our reaction to someone’s nude pictures being leaked isn’t about their vanity – it’s about the body we inhabit– wanting to be accepted, cherished, and celebrated as well. We aren’t champions of modesty. We are uncomfortable with nudity – even private nudity – because when we look in the mirror we’ve been told we have something to hide. While we watch the FBI seek and destroy the wrongful violation of someone else’s privacy, let’s also pause and admit we have a need for a little private peacemaking with our beautiful bodies.
So give the ladies a break, give your beautiful naked body a big hug, and…look up that chocolate body paint. You won’t regret it. (Photos optional).