Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | August 12, 2012

The Sweet Spot

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

This weekend I was looking forward to a blissful 48 hours of no plans. No coffee dates with friends, no appointments, no wanton lists of things to do or any other confines that would take me away from writing. The last couple of weeks have been a hard slog at my day job; early days, late nights, meager lunch breaks and last weekend I worked from home as well. Admittedly the work of late has been different from my regular office administration duties. These extra hours have been filled proofreading and editing, work that brings me alive, yet the hours reading words that aren’t mine poke at me sometimes and remind me that the time I’d hoped would be fruited with my words is already spoken for.

At the end of the day this past Friday, my boss reluctantly asked if I and one of my co-workers would be able to proof the latest draft of our project that’s due back Monday morning. A heavy sigh escaped with the words “of course” as I headed out the door. We’ve all been working hard and I’m sure it weighed heavy on her to make the request, but it had to get done. A worker bee heaviness began to coat my weekend wings.

In all honesty it hasn’t been all work and no play these past couple of days. I made my weekly visit to the farmer’s market, finished a few long standing errands and even managed to watch a DVD on Friday night. I worked for a few hours yesterday and this morning relished a leisurely session of yoga and meditation with Clause, my ailing elderly cat, by my side. As I proofread and marked up pages I felt a sting of resentment itch inside of me. At the same time I kept reminding myself to be present with the task at hand, mindfulness passing in and out of me like so many bees buzzing in a garden. A couple of times in the afternoon Clause wobbled into the dining room where I sat and looked mournfully up at me. A soulful meow pressed itself from his concave frame and I petted him for a few minutes before returning to my reading. By the end of the afternoon I’d made my way through all the edits and corrections. A full day’s work spread over the weekend and it was done.

A couple of months ago I got a tarot card reading, something I do every once in awhile to catch a glimpse of what I may expect of the future. The theme for these next six months is to step into soulfulness, intuition and a luscious way of being in the world. My assignment: accept the gifts offered by the universe and notice openings to the fulfillment of my soul.  It’s easy to open to life when it plops sunshine lollypops and rainbows at my feet. It’s quite another thing when life pushes up against me in a way I may not necessarily find pleasant or desirable. And that is where the real work lies. We don’t grow in times of joy; we grow in times of diligent patience pressing us into servitude. It’s in opening to life’s plain, common work, to its daily duties and to the brilliant chance to proofread on a perfect summer’s day.

There’s a sweet spot in sports, a small succinct area on a baseball bat or tennis racket where there is no force, no rebound, no pushing back. When a ball makes contact with it the results are stupendous. When I slam up against resentment or anger or any number of other delusional emotions, I’m forcing my way by means of attachments and aversions while missing the sweet spot of peace that arises when equanimity embraces everything it meets. My life feels so full now; full of gifts and openings that surprise me with every breath. There are words and writing, proofreading and editing, whispers of cello lessons, morning meditation and yoga with my cat. It feels that so much is being asked of me and yet when I stop my whirling and batting at buzzing phantoms I see magnificent spaciousness has found its way to me.

Late this afternoon after I finished my work I went into the bedroom and laid down on the floor with Clause. He looked at me with a bit of consternation and a patch of drool coating his chin. I held out my hand and he pressed his cheek into it. Although words have filled much of my past few days, those moments of lying on the cool wood floor and stroking wet black wet fur were all I needed to feel the sweetest spot I could ever imagine.

Last night, as I was sleeping

By Antonio Machado

English version by Robert Bly

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night, as I slept,
I dreamt — marvelous error!
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Last Night as I Was Sleeping” from Time Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado by Robert Bly.

Image: Newland’s Bees by Discott – Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | August 6, 2012

No regrets

This afternoon I shared a delicious Skype call with a friend. We talked about relationships and those beings who come in and out of our lives for a time, whether it be a note of an afternoon, a short story of months or an epic novel of decades. Those people we call our boyfriends, our partners, our husbands, sometimes adding tags to the epilogues of our time together: former and ex being the most common. The most common because we don’t stay in partnerships for long these days; about 51% of Canadians and 43% of Americans are single. There are the exceptions of course, like a woman I know who has been married for over 40 years to a man who still takes her in his arms and kisses her with sacred passion when she walks through the door each day. That is a partnership filled with life.

Because life is about change. It’s about mistakes and forgiveness and keeping each other in sight as our paths traverse unmarked terrain. Seeing my past marriage through the wide angle lens of time’s landscape beyond the narrow road of an entangled, sensual and troubled partnership it could be easy sport to dissect it and look for all there was to regret. The truth is I don’t regret anything. Anything from my marriage or anything from my life. Regret or remorse, kukkucca, is one of the five hindrances of Buddhist teachings; those pesky negative thought patterns that block the mind’s movement towards insight and enlightenment.

Regret to me is a vast waste of energy and time wishing and hoping some unquestionable fact will magically upend itself and turn out differently. Try as we might, we cannot rewrite the past. There’s no guarantee I would have been accepted to Berkeley even if I had aced that essay on my high school SAT. If I had optioned my script to a different Hollywood producer it could still be sitting on some studio shelf gathering dust. Rick and Ilsa don’t get on that plane together no matter how many times I see Casablanca. My marriage ended when it did, no sooner or later.

When I think about all that I am, all that life has brought me, how could I even consider changing a thing? Every person I’ve encountered, every place I have lived, every job that I’ve endeavored has honed the me that sits at this computer and types these words, making sense of the world and all that is in it at this particular and eloquent moment. There have been traumas and glorious joys, missed steps and grand leaps of faith. I have acted in ways I would not repeat and actions of others have harmed me in ways I cannot abridge. Yet for each scar there is healing; for each relationship there is a deepening connection to the suffering all of us want to release. Choosing to see our errors in judgment as learning opportunities and not convictions of humanity I find myself at a point in life where acceptance of what is happening right now at this very instant is the greatest gift I can acknowledge and the greatest gift I can share.

No regrets. Oui.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | July 22, 2012

Words for Aurora

Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace. ~ Buddha

My recent article at LifeAsAHuman.com is all about words. Yummy, fragile, crooked, blessed words. After I finished writing it I realized I hadn’t gotten words out of my system. I just had to say more about words.

Words spin me like a whirling dervish of clandestine epiphanies. They jig me when I’m on the road to Jag. Their honey slick venom drips through my veins and makes me crazy trying to put their fevered lushness onto paper in just the right order so the magic of their poison can infect people in the marrow of their being. They mend me when my soul has frayed and slap me when I lose my balance and fall against them, tumbling to a place I dread to see as me.

Like today.

Heading home from an eager morning of bittersweet cappuccino and grocery shopping I felt a lyric pass through me as my bus and I arrived at our stop precisely at the same instant. Kismet (another auspicious word.)  Two men unwound by life settled themselves at the back of the bus and shared with each other the greasy details of their $3 breakfast excursions. As a wildfire fanned by angry winds, I felt their conversation shift direction, a haze of distrust enshrouded me and battlement walls sprang up through their voices. They were talking about the man who shot all those people a few days ago in Aurora, Colorado.

Do you think they’ll kill him?

The sooner the better.

Firing squad.

Like Gary Gilmore.

Do it quick, that’s what Gilmore said.

Think we should have the death penalty here in Canada?

Yep, an eye for an eye.

Do it quick. Could spend $100,000 feeding them for life.

Do it quick.

I sat and listened to the storm of their words. The calm surface of their killing voices drowned me in my own swell of anger and resentment. I felt the waves of my rage towards them pull me under in a riptide of intolerance. In the midst of the wrathful tempest rising in me I found a cove of refuge in metta, loving kindness. Offering a wish to the men and myself that we be well and happy, peaceful and at ease, that we may be free from suffering, I felt the mast of our sinking ship righted and a placid sense of care wash over us all.

Aurora. The Roman goddess of the dawn. Who would think such darkness could befall a place that holds such a namesake of light? Who would think such golden words as “love thy neighbour” could be cashed in for the tin dross of vengeance and hate? While my senses break open to beauty’s ethereal sonata I writhe in the pain of hate’s discordant dirge. Words can be messengers of emotions and thoughts, of poetry and proclamations of war. They touch us in the way they are spoken, in their place setting on a page, in the aftermath of actions taken in their name.

I still love words. Words like dishpan hands and kaleidoscopes. Rodeo and melancholy. Cheetah and stupendous. I love what they mean, the way they sound, the people who speak them and write them and tell us we are more than a scramble of letters and sentences. Our words tend to our hearts and the hearts of everyone and every thing that feels their effect. I hope my words can penetrate my own anger, my own lust, my own ignorance and find a still place of comfort and forgiveness for us all.

At the end of my article for Life As A Human, I included the video below. It’s a poem by spoken word artist, Kate Tempest, melding her luminous prose with that of Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest”. Watching it again today, my tears tipped their brink. Her words, her gentle, pointed, prophetic words speak to Aurora and the men on the  bus and all the language of hate. Watch it, will you. Because the devils are here.

“What we came after” performed by Kate Tempest as part of the RSC’s Sound and Fury project – Shakespeare meets modern wordplay.Originally commissioned for the egg, Theatre Royal Bath. Find our more about Kate at her website: katetempest.co.uk.

Image: Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church [Public domain] –  Wikimedia Commons

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | July 8, 2012

Trees in Platinum Settings

Where you stumble, there your treasure lies. ~ Joseph Campbell

When I lived on a small island in British Columbia, I was surrounded by trees. Trees of the rainforest, ancient cedars and wise elder firs. I walked in their midst daily on my way to work, to buy groceries, to reclaim myself in their covenant of rightness. As many times as I marveled at their brilliance I couldn’t help but feel the antithesis of a worn axiom. The trouble with me was not that I didn’t see the forest for the trees. I was lost in not seeing the trees at all.

Living in a place of such rarefied beauty brought me to a dull slogging of the sameness of it all. Yes, yes, there’s another 400 year old Douglas fir, another clutch of red-throated arbutus, a fallen cedar, a phoenix of leaf and bark resurrecting itself in the Hiroshima landscape of another clear-cut. I stole my breath from the oxygen they heaped into the air and I rode the carpet of their crush softened needles offered to the ground. There were times when I stood in their tall cathedral and thanked them for holding me to the land, yet my reverence was tainted with craving the green, forestless grass of the city on the other side of the water. I fear I pillaged more than I gave back.

My life is now in that forestless space. The city is my home. I feel a familial resonance with the storefronts I pass and with my extended kin riding each day on the bus. I revel in the solid spaciousness of my apartment and the kindness of Don, my building manager. Nature’s presence here is in tamed yards and lines the asphalt streets. There are parks in sizes small, medium and large, and wilderness secluded in spots of tender appreciation and gob-smacked grandeur. There’s the rolling green of manicured lawns and riotous patches of blue, orange and yellow wildflowers exploding into life through broken dreams of concrete.

Sometimes plunder has its own hidden rewards. When I lived on my island I could only see the forest. Imagine gazing into a bowl of diamonds knowing to your core how rare each of them is, yet losing in the vast sameness of plenty any sense of their unique quality. Trees in the city are like solitaire gems cast in settings of platinum dirt and hope. I lose myself in the symphony of cherry blossoms heralding spring’s awakening each year. I marvel at the delicate crimson breasts of Japanese maple trees as they offer their hearts to the expanse of summer. I hear autumn in the crunch of fallen leaves at my feet and feel winter’s resolve in the bare suchness of grey branches  reaching for the slate seeded sky.

I’ve written before about the horse chestnut tree that grows outside my window. Its leaves and flowers, its strong wide trunk and smooth weathered bark portend all that is good and all that will change. It is my rare diamond held in the setting of people and cars, of streets and sidewalks, its singular presence a heading to guide me through the year.

Now I see the forest and the trees. The big picture is not lost by attention to the details. If anything our connection to all that is bigger comes into focus under the canopy of close reflection. If god is in the details, his home must be in the trees.

When I Am Among the Trees

by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

“When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst. © Beacon Press, 2006. Source: The Writer’s Almanac.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | July 1, 2012

All by my Self

Loneliness is needy — it wants. Solitude is fulfillment — it has.” ~ Sister Wendy Beckett

A few nights ago a friend and I enjoyed the teasing bent of one of this summer’s rare warm evenings. It’s been cold wet year. We sat outside with our brews and pub fare listening to jazz riffs improvise with the notes of a waterside breeze and talked about relationships, work, soulful matters and solitude. I remembered the quote above from Sister Wendy Beckett, a Catholic Nun and self taught art expert, in her interview with Bill Moyers in the late 90’s. What touched me in seeing that PBS special so many years ago was the beatific glow of her smiling face when she spoke of solitude.

Someone told me the difference between an extravert and an introvert is  the extravert finds sustenance in others while the introvert is renewed in their aloneness. I fall head over bum into the latter category. I could easily cloister myself away for days on end and bath in the oceanic expanse of unmitigated solitude. I revel in my solitary life. If I were to fall into another relationship of romance and complimentary sleeping patterns, I doubt I would want to relinquish my state of cushioned exile. I’m ravished by the comfort of my daily routines, of my Sunday tryst with writing. My current housemates are two elderly cats who only seem to notice me when they’re hungry. If another biped were to take up residency I don’t know how any of us would cope with the interloper.

Perhaps my visceral propensity towards solitude is why I hunger for long meditation retreats. At times I see myself as a monastic, floating on the tender surface of silence and non-doing. Yet I would miss heading out amongst the masses for a movie and a latte or meeting a friend for a walk along the ocean. What would I do without the sensual pleasure of fresh, wet produce and slow loving food at the weekly farmer’s market? And then there’s Leonard Cohen and tango lessons.

I relish being in the world and I cling to my time away from it with intense ferocity. Am I ever lonely? Absolutely, yet I’ve also endured some of the deepest chasms of  loneliness when I’ve been in relationship. In some ways my hardest work with my inner being is in those tangled wrestles with another self, but it always comes back to my perception of the other and this entity I believe is residing in my flimsy body. Even the concept of a self comes under scrutiny. Current neuroscience theory and 2,600 year old Buddhist teachings posit the tenets of a non-self (see my recent article for Life As A Human.) If there is no observer or observed what is it that senses, as Sister Wendy defines it, the need or the fulfillment?

Perhaps it’s in our awareness of desire or satisfaction arising that we witness the arc of our longing for life.  Seeing my solitude as just as transient as tea with a dear friend or the dreamy chortle of my sleeping cat brings it alive and rarefies its existence. Solitude with our presence in this moment is all that will ultimately fill us and in the exquisite point of saturation the most perfect state opens up. The boundless bliss of sheer emptiness.

Alone with Everybody

by Charles Bukowski

the flesh covers the bone
and they put a mind
in there and
sometimes a soul,
and the women break
vases against the walls
and the men drink too
much
and nobody finds the
one
but keep
looking
crawling in and out
of beds.
flesh covers
the bone and the
flesh searches
for more than
flesh.

there’s no chance
at all:
we are all trapped
by a singular
fate.

nobody ever finds
the one.

the city dumps fill
the junkyards fill
the madhouses fill
the hospitals fill
the graveyards fill

nothing else
fills.

“Alone With Everybody” by Charles Bukowski.

Image: Lonely in Paradise, by lanuiop. Some rights reserved, Flickr Creative Commons.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | June 17, 2012

Death is a Pisces

I think about death. Not a lot, but enough to know how it takes its coffee (dark roast, black) and that it’s a Pisces. I talk about it at work, at parties, to just about anyone who will listen. I remember going into the hospital for gynecological surgery when I was 21 and preparing my will. I was confused and I bit annoyed when the nurses hesitated to witness my signature to the document. I was so young, they said. I shouldn’t think about things like that. And besides I would be fine.

News flash: we’re all going to die, ideally later than sooner. I’ve been sitting with it more of late because my cat, Clause, a Leo, is dying. I got the news about two years ago after taking him to the vet when his appetite waned and he was hiding away in spots that were not his normal haunts. The test results painted a dismal prospect:  bladder infection, gum infection, feline leukemia, and the late stages of renal failure. This is a very sick cat, the vet scolded, his pronouncement sounding like an accusation and the exclamation point on a looming death verdict for my feline ward.

Bad cat mom! Bad! How could I have let it get that far along without noticing the symptoms earlier? Had I unknowingly allowed my other cat, Jack, to become infected with feline leukemia as well? Double bad cat mom!

I don’t listen much to doctors, at least the traditional western kind. I chose to ignore the vet’s dietary recommendations and acquiesced to one round of antibiotics for the infections. I researched alternative approaches to kidney disease and settled on a blend of herbs, a human grade immune system tincture and Bach Rescue Remedy. Since then I’ve tweaked the regime with raw meat, good canned food, and clean water (well, okay, I give in to the occasional toilet dive when both cats are screaming inanely for a taste of potty water).

Last year I took Clause to another vet when his feet could not hold him up and he appeared to have a seizure. There was no evidence of neurological damage and no real explanation for the weakness. The vet studied the original blood work from the year before. I don’t know how this cat is still alive, he muttered, shaking his head.

Me either, but he is. My friend and Clause’s previous slave, Dhar, states the obvious: The Dude still abides. This past year though has seen a steady decline in his health and stability. His previous big bad boy weight of 18 pounds has diminished to 9.5 pounds. His front claws have curled under and look like pearl buttons tucked between his toes. The vet who marveled at  Clause’s 12 lives took on the task of trimming them last year which required leather gauntlets for the vet technician, me holding tight to Clause’s head and the vet tentatively cutting through the nails. All the while Clause was trying his Herculean darnedest to bite and shred us into obscurity.

This weekend I managed to trim all those gnarly nails without a drop of blood spilled by either of us. He screamed bloody murder and a couple of times pressed his teeth on my hand, but he didn’t bite. If I had tried the same procedure on Jack he would have sought witness protection and relocation to another province. I probably wouldn’t have seen him for a good day or more. Clause, for reasons of short term memory loss or benevolent forgiveness kept coming to my side after each session of nail surgery. He’s a good cat.

When I came home from my meditation retreat a few months ago, he curled up against my calf the next morning as I meditated. Lately he’s been sleeping on my cushion and the past week or so by my side when I’m meditating. I don’t call him my Buddha Kitty for nothing. I pet him a lot these days and send him waves of metta. I talk to him as well, asking him how he feels, urging him to rest. I lean close and tell him my wish that he’ll be reborn a human in his next life. I think he deserves a shot at opposable thumbs and a proper manicure.

He’s still here of course, still crying for his food and plopping on my yoga mat in the morning while I’m in downward facing dog. He still tries to pick a fight with Jack, although much less than before, and he still likes to sit in the window and dream of escape.

I hope I’ll meet him again someday. I miss him already.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on death and life, check out my latest article at LifeAsAHuman.com. Here’s to life, and death and The Dude.

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

by Christopher Smart

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in
the spirit.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.

Lines from “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]” by Christopher Smart. Source: The Writer’s Almanac, April 11, 2012.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | June 10, 2012

A Good Day

May all find simplicity the joyous and practical guide.  ~ Buddhist text

As often happens on my Sunday writing day, I sit down at my computer and have no idea what I am going to scribe. Somehow, so far, grace and my muse have always found me. Today as I tackled my perpetual mound of email, I opened my Gratefulness Word of the Day message and there it was. Simplicity.

My Sunday started simply enough. It opened with sadness. Lying in the languid dawn I felt two dismal realizations slip into bed with me. First, what I was looking forward to most in the day just inches away from beginning was sitting on my couch in the silence of the early morning drinking my hot, frothy cappuccino, believing beyond all incontrovertible evidence that any and all joy I would experience this day lived in that cup. Second, I hungered for someone to be sitting next to me conjoined in bliss and our coffee-is-life-existence. The piercing craving for a partner doesn’t visit me often, but it was tactile today, gnawing and scratching at my skin and the sheets that held me and my loneliness.

I crawled into the day and made myself that cup of coffee. Sitting on the couch, sipping my brew, I watched sadness lurking in the hollow of my chest. I felt the weight of its presence on my heart, watched it bend and turn, clench and surrender, grow viciously hot and blindly cold. I saw it writhe and scream and die, its skin and bones found by raptors and maggots until all of it was dust.

Then from the dust a seedling burst and stretched with its new life towards the warmth of being. Its coiled leaves and petals entrusted a flower to birth and its beauty and scent penetrated the place where sadness had occupied my body. I watched it die, spent and withering, but its death was without a lure’s tug of sadness, knowing in that moment that all passes, the lovely and the forlorn.

It’s so easy to lose my way in all that I think must be done. Clean the house and pay the bills. Yoga practice and empty the cat litter box. Meditate and write pithy prose. Then I catch myself and bring it all back to this infinitesimal speck, this moment of being alive. All will pass. Everything is as fleeting as the wistful cloud that drowses across the sky or the petulant wave that tantrums to the shore. Nothing exists beyond this fracture of the time continuum.  What could be more simple?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Do I still want a partner in my life? A bit, but there’s no poverty in the thought, no belief that someone’s bum on the couch next to mine will make my life richer or less lonely. I’d still like someone to share a meal with sometimes, to talk with me and laugh with me as we do the dishes together. I’d like to wake up and feel the warmth of a compassionate heart next to mine. Yet more than any of those things I want to not want them. It’s in the desire to have and have not that solitude, poverty and weakness can choke life out of us. It’s in the complexity of wanting that life loses its simplicity and its verve. It’s in wanting that we lose our way and a cup of coffee, or another human being, becomes the burning star of our universe.

Buddhist practice is simple and the most difficult lesson we can take on. We suffer. Desires cause suffering. Suffering can end. We breach each struggle one at a time, in each breath, in each mindful watching of our thoughts and what arises. Awakening to the simple revery of a day begun is enough to fill the sky with gratitude for the light pouring across its splendid body.

You know, it turned out to be a pretty good day after all.

A Good Day” with Brother David Steindl-Rast

Image: Texture and flow by Michael Taggart Photography, Flickr Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | May 24, 2012

The Cello and The Buddha

The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing. ~ Voltaire

What a dull world it would be to know everything. Nothing new to explore, to discover, to turn up or turn over. I can’t imagine life without learning, without wanting to investigate this existence more and more. One of the yearning learning dreams I have is to play the cello. Music lessons, writing and Buddhism: as in life they all require a surrender to seeing things in a different way and they all demand a lot of practice.

I’ve written a new article for LifeAsAHuman.com taking a look at knowing and learning, writing what you don’t know, the cello and the Buddha. Here’s an excerpt:

“The older I get the more I know I don’t know and feel quite content residing on my know-nothing estate. The days of feeling like the mistress of my domain or even wanting that burden have ebbed with time so that I can barely assuage my surety of knowing anything anymore.”

And besides the article there’s a really cool video of Yo Yo Ma and the rest of The Goat Rodeo Sessions band at the end of the piece.

I hope you’ll read it. Then go out and learn something brand spanking new.

Boundless by Colin Oliver

Like the wind searching,
lifting feathers round
the sparrow’s neck,
lifting leaves in a wave
across the bean field,
I find no place
where I can say,
here my being ends.

“Boundless” by Colin Oliver from Stepping Into Brilliant Air, copyright Shollond Trust, 2001.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | May 20, 2012

Is there any I out there?

To be or not to be, that is the question. ~ Hamlet

Who am I?

Ah, there’s the rub. As a writer my I is fixated on birthing pithy lines of prose and then killing all my little darlings, watching words emerge as perfect butterflies from ethereal cocoons only to pluck the wings from their temporal bodies in search of deeper meanings. I the writer reads better writers in the hopes of unraveling the golden threads of their woven bits of eloquent wordsmithing. I the writer wants to be clever and mercurial, funny and rare. I the writer scavenges the storehouse of my brain looking for brilliant phrases and succumbs to the muse’s way with me to channel pure inspiration into these mindless fingers on the keyboard.

The Buddhist I on the other hand is constantly endeavoring to extinguish Me, not in the sense of killing myself, but in the larger sense that my self (big and/or little “S”) doesn’t exist at all. This personality, these likes and dislikes, these eyes looking at the computer screen and these hands typing away are mere thoughts and elements of earth, air, fire and water. The concept of no-self, anatta, links to The Four Noble Truths: first, there’s suffering (dukkha); second, suffering’s cause is attachment to our cravings and aversions (upadana); third, there’s a way out (nirodha); and fourth (ta-da!), the exit map (The Eightfold Path).

My preferences to the way I like my desk arranged and how I fold my sheets, my aversion to Las Vegas and my craving for Paris, my love affairs with almond butter and John Coltrane, all of them lead to suffering because it’s the I that suffers. I may find I’m allergic to creamy, delicious almond butter or discover my trip to Paris derailed with a pesky stopover in Vegas. I may be thick in the cream and decadent sensuality of the City of Love, but I will someday leave or run out of money or grow weary of croissants or meet an Italian man and have a sudden yearning for gelato. Even if none of these endings come to pass, one day the ultimate end will pursue me to my front door. This body will die but is there an I to go with it?

Impermanence is the only permanent commodity on this earthly plane. The point in this crazy time-bomb ticking passion play is to realize we are only carbon footprints on the stage of life, with as much self involved in the whole production as the trees and the sky, the books and the buildings, the melting glaciers and the finest grain of sand.

The idea of “I” is just that, an idea like any other thought. It’s the mythical lens through which we think we are watching the play. We need to ask ourselves what, not who, is looking out the window? What is driving the car? What is in pain? What is writing? What is dying? The car will change, our bodies will change, even the pain will change in its appearance and strength. My words and how they are put in order will change because what is writing them is different each moment.

On my recent retreat to Birken Forest Monastery, I felt for the briefest of interludes the weightless immensity of no-self. No wants, no pushing away, no clinging to what was past, present or waiting (perhaps) in the future. It was rapture beyond description. The delicate filigree of suffering’s curtain had been torn just enough for me to peek through its threads of desire and see the transcendent emptiness on the other side.

And yet I write. I write because there’s more I want to say. I write because someday I won’t be here. I write because I’ve seen the curtain and with each letter I type a new fragment of light may filter through until there’s no need for another word or for this I to write them.

Pursuit

by Stephen Dobyns

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass—
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?
What treasure do I expect in my future?
Rather it is the confusion of childhood
loping behind me, the chaos in the mind,
the failure chipping away at each success.
Glancing over my shoulder I see its shape
and so move forward, as someone in the woods
at night might hear the sound of approaching feet
and stop to listen; then, instead of silence
he hears some creature trying to be silent.
What else can he do but run? Rushing blindly
down the path, stumbling, struck in the face by sticks;
the other ever closer, yet not really
hurrying or out of breath, teasing its kill.

“Pursuit” by Stephen Dobyns, from Cemetery Nights. © Penguin Books, 1987. The Writer’s Almanac, February 27, 2012.

Image: Sunbathing Buddha by magical-world at Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Posted by: Tess (Piyadassi) | May 5, 2012

Blind ambition

Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you. ~ Annie Dillard

I’ve been awash in the words of Annie Dillard these past weeks. Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life have been epiphanies and deep hard lessons in the way of words. Words of all sorts and shapes and configurings. Words that speak in the juicy wet tones of poets and words that translate the foreign languages of biology, astronomy and quantum physics in ways that not only hoist me into wonder but weave me into the net of understanding this world I walk upon oh so much better than the moment just spent.

She’s also shown me how little I know about seeing through these two eyes of mine. What we view through these projectors of perception has only a fraction to do with light entering our corneas. The rest of it is our editor brain cutting and splicing from its databanks to come up with a final cut of the scenes we think we see.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are fascinating stories of dozens of men and women across Europe and North America, blind since birth from cataracts, who underwent operations to regain their vision. Seeing for the first time through once blind eyes, many of the patients expressed dismay over the concepts of depth or distance; their brains could not compute a three dimensional world. One wondered why there were dark marks in photographs and paintings only to be told those were shadows. Some could only discern an object by closing their eyes and feeling or licking it to identify its place in the world. One man could not grasp the mind bending idea that a larger object (in this case a chair) could hide a smaller object (his dog) or that the dog could still exist if it was not in his line of sight. Many were alarmed to realize they had been seen by others when they were blind. Concern about dress and appearance shoved its way to the forefront of their thoughts whereas before the idea was not even conceptualized.

Everything was new. Form and space, detail and mass. Yes, the light coming through their eyes was the same light entering everyone’s eyes on the planet, yet their brains had entirely different libraries of knowing that had to be purged and repopulated once vision entered their field of awareness. For many of them the world was cataclysmically changed into a canvas of anonymous colour patches with names that didn’t match anything they knew to be true. One girl couldn’t wait to tell her blind friend that  “men do not really look like trees at all.” A boy describes a cluster of grapes as “dark, blue and shiny….It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” Another girl steps into a garden and  “stands speechless in front of a tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

Revelations. Lights in a tree. Were the lights fruits or flowers? A dusting of snow or millions of butterflies waiting for take off? Does it matter? Astonishing how little we know of something once we have labelled it in the ornery museum of our lightless sight.

So, I’ve been practicing seeing. I studied the burnished fur pelt of the tulip tree’s blossom coat lying in curled memory on the damp grass of the church near my home. A poem, Sky ashen, cove silent, indoors dark as a cave, rendered as liturgy on the bus that lifted my sacrificial heart to the gods. The freckled recesses of a shocking pink rhododendron, its blood dark stamens engorged with pollen tethering sex and life in a wistful dance. A hard coat and soft scarf of peacock blue cocooning a woman as she click click clicked down the street, preening displays of brilliant colour patches set against the hard gray mat of buildings and striated sidewalks.

There’s a lot to be said for new sight.  I’ve licked away the delicious coating of presumption, uncovering savoury bits of nuance and steaming sweet underbellies of language delicacies. It’s the added awareness of presence and impermanence that raises the ante on what I see and what I write. Consider that harlot rhododendron with her sultry stamens may not be here tomorrow or even in the next exhale of the vagrant wind. Consider your eyes dimmed with age or illness and the surety of sight abandons you to the dark wanderings of your reeled memories. Consider you’re dead and gone in an instant, like the blindness of those girls and boys.

It makes me pause. I want to see with changeling eyes a world that never existed before this millisecond in time. I want to ply words of conveyance to the moon and that street sign and to the man on the street corner with a lapsed baseball cap hinging from his fingers asking for change, change, any change. And if there’s a tree with lights in it I’m going to find it.

Good Company

Sky ashen, cove silent, indoors dark as a cave:
pull a sleeping bag outside for the afternoon.
Don’t raise your eyes to the sky, don’t feel the grey in your pores,
just listen.
First, the creek murmuring.
Second, a gull calling.
And the sounds come tumbling: flycatcher whistling,
grouse drumming, distant robin singing,
flicker hammering, silent pause waiting;
two seals breathing. Is this place so crowded?
You had assumed you were alone. A raven croaks far away;
something splashes close by.
All around you, companionable:
soundless spiders easy in their webs.

“Good Company” by Christine Lowther, My Nature, ©2010, Leaf Press.

Excerpt from “Space and Sight” by Marius von Senden, quoted in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, pages 25-29, published by HarperPerennial, copyright 1974

Image: Ceibo tree by lrargerich, Flickr Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

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