Tag Archives: beauty

November, Gratitude

Intention
So much of my practice this year has been an exploration of how to simultaneously enjoy the life I have, while building the life that I want. Managing this paradox – of seeing clearly, and accepting fully my current life, while striving towards a full expression of my future self – is the work of living.

Gratitude is like a magic trick that makes invisible things material. It’s a spell we cast on ourselves, so that we see again the abundant beauty and daily miracles that deserve our respect. By acknowledging what we’re grateful for, we begin to articulate the positive relationships between ourselves and others. It’s a fast track to seeing our interdependence, and enjoying our humility.

I have so little direct involvement with fulfilling my basic needs – breath, health, abundant food, clean water, multiple forms of on-demand energy – but I live inside the illusion that I am responsible for what happens in my day-to-day experience. I forget all of the antecedents that make my life easy and possible, because I don’t participate in creating them, and (usually) don’t know anything about the people who do. It’s a trap, and it robs me of the chance to honor the value of others. Gratitude is the prayerful thanks by which I make myself whole, when I receive what has been given to me.

November Activities

  • Daily Gratitude – recount in my journal, or on Facebook, the aspects of my day for which I am grateful.
  • Family Gratitude – Resurrect our family practice of sharing gratitude around the dinner table.
  • Community Gratitude – each day, tell someone else something about them that I’m grateful for.

Expectations
I expect I’ll have some really lovely moments, like this morning when I stopped on my walk to watch a flock of geese fly overhead. A cold mist was burning off in the sunrise and their undersides glowed with a bright, hazy, rosy, light. It was the kind of color I didn’t know existed until it flew overhead, stretched across the breasts and bellies of these clamoring birds, and I will likely never see it again. I expect that Gratitude will smooth out my edges and calm me down, soften my heart and bow my head. And I expect that I’ll inexplicably resist it all the same, as I do so many other parts of my practice.

What do I Value?
I value being able to appreciate how much goodness constantly surrounds me. I value the ability to be humble, and to live close to the elemental miracles of existence. I value peering back through the abstraction that divides us and saying Yes, I see you, I see your part. And by giving thanks, I hope to honor the piece of your life that you gave to me.

What do I Want?
I want more beauty. I want more wonder. More joy. I want to wake up eager to live into the good, good life that I have.

Where is the Resistance?
I don’t really understand my resistance to this. I like Gratitude; I believe in it. And yet…
This kind of resistance is mysterious. It’s a pervasive, non-specific sense of something feeling unnatural – which is an amazingly convincing force for getting me to believe that I should listen to my aversion.

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to do the work, and I am willing to not take it too seriously when I don’t want to do the work. If I have learned anything this year, it should be this: I have a lot of resistance, and I ought to see what happens if I don’t take it so seriously.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained
Humility – It doesn’t take a lot of acknowledgement to quickly see how almost everything that I have is provided by, or influenced by someone or something else. I is for Interdependence.

Satisfaction – Expressing genuine appreciation for someone else feels good. When we say, I am so happy, so lucky, so thankful that we are together in this way, what we are really saying is, I love you. I respect you. I acknowledge the ways in which you are important, and you benefit me.

Appreciation– Gratitude is a reality check on the relationships that I like to deride or deny. It helps me see the value in the things I’m quick to criticize. It is impossible to be grateful for the plate of beautiful food in front of me, without also being grateful for the fossil fuels that delivered it from all corners of the earth, right to my front door, and to the agri-businesses and factory farms that make it affordable.

Lost
Blissful Ignorance – This is the flip side of appreciation. Gratitude forces me to be honest about my complicity in systems I dislike. It is impossible to be grateful for fossil fuels, agri-business and factory farms, without looking more closely at my own value system, and my willingness to turn away from (or accept) the abuse of our ecology and the suffering of other living beings, because it is convenient for me to do so. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge, but it is through the messy, complicated exercise of looking at these pieces and making deliberate choices about my actions, that I also begin to let go of judgement too – not as a means of abdicating responsibility, but because I have accepted it. By wrestling and living with my own uneasy, imperfect choices, I make room in my heart for the choices of others.

Immaculate Capitulation

partially burned clover

I could linger here for hours, sinking deeper into the
busy stillness, that unwinds when I bed down
in the sweet grasses, and watch the world work.

Beetles, blossoms, birdsong.

The swollen heat of high summer has come.
It tugs, and thrums and meters out the breath of life.
I consider the sticky, happy, bleed
of pressing sunshine.

The Earth’s gentle turning yields generosity
from a relentless sun.
This critical act of immaculate capitulation
allows us to rest in darkness and gather strength to
create again.

I am feeling to find these threads,
sensitizing myself to touch the cords with confidence,
and know which action is needed.
I am thinking about how to honor the lineage of this
relationship, of knowing when enough has come. Of
knowing what to turn away from, and what to turn into.

I trust the material I am made from, yet know so little
of its working. This wisdom murmurs late at night as
the narrator of my dreams, and in the daylight hum of
the cicada.

Our distance from our native knowledge of how to be,
is perhaps the greatest consequence of our
advancement. I have seen nothing else in nature that
extrapolates its expectations beyond the boundaries of
sensation.

Self-Compassion, Lessons Learned

water droplets on a branch

April was a survey course in the pleasure and difficulty of being.

My first week of practice felt incredible, it was much easier than I imagined. I felt rested and energized. I laughed more, joked more with the kids, had loads more patience. My metta sits were restorative and full of a pleasant, peaceful presence. I felt my subtle heartbeat and a warm, tingling energy instead of the tight ache in my chest that I have become so used to. It was the best I have felt in as long as I can remember. It seemed miraculous that such simple adjustments could make such a big difference.

In truth, I have been deliberately working on self-care in one form or another for over a year now. It’s not fair to ascribe the benefits one week’s practice just to April’s activities, but they certainly changed how think about the basics of good health. Making decisions takes energy. Meeting conflict with creativity and kindness takes energy. What I had failed to realize is that this is equally true of my internal experience as well as what I experience in the world. Being self-centered, which seems to me to mostly be our default state, makes it hard to have perspective on how our behavior affects others, but it also makes it hard to see how our behavior affects ourselves. When we are both the actor and receiver of our actions, it is doubly hard to see either the behavior or consequences from a different perspective. I am constantly making decisions and resolving internal conflicts all day long, even before I interact with anyone else, which is also pretty much happening all the time. If this month’s practice is any indication, I have grossly underestimated the amount of energy – the kind that comes directly from food, sleep and exercise – required to do this well.

But things were going great, and I was enjoying my walk in the wonderland of self-love so much, I wandered right off the path. I had friends visit, and stayed up late. Then, I randomly decided to apply for a TED Fellowship, with two days remaining before the deadline. I watched this force of ego energy latch onto this idea and insist on making it happen, and I started using all my quiet time, and staying up late, to get it done on time. Then I hosted Easter. And packing all of that into nine days came at the expense of my practice, which I had categorically stated I was willing to prioritize over other activities. My capacity of discrete commitment to myself appears to be about a week long. I find this amazing. If you asked me what was more important than my health and well-being, for myself, and also to be of service to others, I would say nothing is. But I don’t act as though this is true, and seeing the gap between what I claim as my truth and what I live as my truth, is critical to being free from the dissatisfaction that springs from the rift between the two. I realized how special it is, how unusual it is, to be a person that commits to something over and over for months, or years, or a lifetime. And I do not mean the commitment of conditioning, of unconscious habit, which is common, but the commitment to counter-conditioning, which is exceedingly rare and difficult.

Breaking out of our conventions requires this unusual style of spacious resistance – a style of resistance that is permeable, and by being so can not be moved. I find this very difficult; I barely understand it. More and more I see the world, and my experiences here as parts of relationships – nothing I do is actually isolated or independent. As I began to focus on self-compassion, so too grew my compassion for others, which was central to the pleasure of my experience in my first week of practice. I expected this, and then I watched myself get distracted. I watched myself deliberately break the tension that allows me to live inside of relationship, and spill over to become a dimension of it.

There is so much pleasure in getting lost inside something else, of losing my permeability and getting snapped into the flow. And the second I go, I lose my commitment to willingness. There is so much pleasure in the collusion of one more late night drink with a beloved friend. There is so, so much pleasure in ego energy. It has an electrifying, euphoric, driven, quality that is, frankly, just fucking awesome, not to mention how useful it is for getting something done. But this style of surrender comes at a price – I spent the last week of April sick, and exhausted. And despite this, what I discovered, is that I’m not willing to give these up yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.

I’m frightened of the consequences of single-minded pursuit, despite the fact that the ravages of flaccid attention and effort are clear to me already. Living inside a relationship of continuous allegiance requires the exclusion of so much. This is why simple things, like sitting still, or committing to a value, are difficult – it requires the sacrifice of the myriad, ready pleasures that tug and tap and rub and whisper a thousand times a day. It requires saying no thank you, over, and over, and over, not just to the small things but the big things too, to people we love, and causes we believe in. It requires confronting, then releasing, the sadness of loss again and again, while maintaining faith in the value of our pursuit, because what we focus on dictates what we miss. How well we focus, determines how much we miss. It is a tremendous responsibility to live one’s life with the severity of deep commitment, and perhaps that is why so few of us are truly able to do it. We are too clumsy to undertake it with the exquisiteness required, and attempting to do so unskillfully, only spills the blood of our sacrifice with out generating any sustenance from our offering. We are not, as we are so often told, limited by our imaginations; we are limited by our willingness. It is a great gift, to know my capacity, and to choose again with more clarity.

I discovered something else beautiful this month, seemingly opposite of willingness, which was the effortless and spontaneous pleasure of offering something I value to another. When I host company, I like my home to be (mostly) be clean and orderly. I like to make beautiful, delicious food to eat together. Even though I like to entertain, preparing for company is typically an anxiety-ridden activity for me. I get concerned about everything looking nice enough, tasting good enough, and being right. It tends to be stressful. But this time was different.

The planning, and bustle, and work of cooking took on a quality of gratitude for the chance to express my love that way, and excitement about sharing the meal together. Being aware of how good healthy, regular eating was helping me feel, significantly intensified the pleasure of making food for others. As I cleaned, scrubbing and wiping the places that usually go neglected for months, I did it with a totally different intention than I had before. I did it as an offering of love, instead of as evidence of my worth. I realized that I had come to recognize and accept how much I value space and order, and why. For me these qualities, represent safety, clarity, and love. They represent a space of peace and openness in which distractions and discomforts are minimized so that one’s energy can be placed on being present, rather than grappling with the environment. Creating a space like this in my home is a sign of respect and love for the people I welcome. What a pleasure it was to witness the transformation that occurred in my intention from one of compliance and approval-seeking to one of devotional offering. This is the humble and profound power of discovering and living my values, rather than simply enacting a set of rules – feeling joyful for the chance to wipe the shit off the rim of the toilet. The power of love never ceases to surprise me.

Sweet Weeping

For Keri

Maple branch leaking sap

One hundred yards back, looking towards the clearing,
I see the drops gleaming. Shining all the way down.

It is dry.
My coat rubs electricity out of the air
and sends it snapping out my fingertips.
I am a good and unhappy conduit.

Closer, I hear the tap of liquid on leaves, slow and irregular.
I break a swelling drop across my finger.
I taste wood, dry air, and faint, sweet maple.
I taste my childhood.

Dark branches leak the surging sweetness. Climbing and awake,
in a race of a different pace,
spilling now in the slow tip of craftsmanship.

It is in the jointed places, that life runs out.
In the broken places, life pools. The bark shines,
the wound glistens, calling attention to the bounty that springs from there.

Super-Self Me

This year I have resolved to become a better human being. It recently occurred to me that every day I have the chance to wake up and live exactly the life I want, and I am sort of blowing it. The fast follow-on to that realization was having to admit that after a year of hanging out with myself, I still don’t really know what I want, beyond a general sense, or how exactly, to discover and accomplish such a thing. This is so embarrassing. The trouble with values is that they’re context dependent. They’re much more dynamic than rules, and although they can be clear, they’re not specific.

What I want more than anything else is to have peace in my heart, and for every action I live into the world to be an offering and reflection of that peace. I am a long, long way from being able to do this with any consistency, if at all. So this year is about honoring the hope I have for my own beauty, and learning what it takes to close the gap between my beloved ideals and the life I actually live.

I have never accomplished anything important to me without working hard at it – why should becoming a kinder, wiser, happier person be any different? I have much respect and affection for the thinking and writing of Alain de Botton, who champions the idea that living a rich human existence takes effort and thoughtful cultivation. There is a pervasive cultural myth that somehow, once we reach adulthood, our psychological, emotional and spiritual developments are complete. That somehow, everything we need to know about being a good parent, child, spouse, friend, and community member are understood and immediately available to us. That somehow, we all know how to accept ourselves and others, not to mention the surprising nature of the universe, and that help with those things is an abnormal failure of some sort – one that is best relegated to the dark cloisters of disdain and weakness, also known as the church or therapy office.

So I am dedicating this year to calling bullshit on that notion, and seeing what happens. I am dedicating each month to living one of my values by setting specific goals and activities in service to manifesting and reflecting on that value. My best guess for how to develop insight into my experience is to answer the following questions:

  • What do you value?
  • What do you want?
  • Where is the resistance?
  • What are your expectations?

Lofty notions and honest guesses are all well and good, but they don’t mean much without action. My plan for each month is to follow this basic structure:

Clarify Intention: (wk. 1) Written reflection on the intention and choice of the value. This step is about articulating what a highly subjective, abstract value like “kindness” means to me. Using intentions will help me stay focused on the value I’m working to cultivate, within the boundaries of the exercises I’ve chosen.

Select Goals and Activities: (wk. 1) Choose 3 – 5 specific activities to engage in the theme. These are designed to create the chosen value in my inner or outer world, in order to develop the kinetic knowledge of experience. They are the quantified objects for my qualified reflection.

Clarify Expectations: Write down what I expect will happen as a result of my practice. Expectations are the qualified stand-in for outcomes, so I have some way to evaluate how what I imagined compares to the reality that occurred. Outcomes are often the tangible thing we select to represent the hope in our hearts. We love them because they’re so clear, and so easy to work towards in a categorical way – they give us a feeling of control that is deeply satisfying. But too often, we fixate on the outcome without being clear about the expectation that created it. Once we achieve it, we are surprised and disappointed that our happiness is not as great or enduring as we imagined it would be. Or, we achieve the outcome, but at the cost of something we valued much more than the result itself. When I do this exercise honestly, sometimes ludicrous stuff ends up on the list; better, I think, to meet that up front, and chat it up along the path.

One of my biggest challenges is accepting my own limitations. As a kid, the notion “you can do anything” was drilled into me. By and large, I still actually believe this, but the deeply enmeshed subtext of that message is “you can do everything, and you should do it to an externally defined (and often changing) standard.” This part is seriously not true, but I harbor all sorts of notions that it is.

Identify Gained and Lost: (wk. 1) Something is always gained and lost but I tend to assume that the only losses will be negatives I want to shed, or I simply focus exclusively on what I expect to be gained. The positive aspects are nicer to focus on, but it’s not representative of the full experience I’ll have. This step is important for being honest with myself, having a way to evaluate how good I am at predicting my pain points, and shedding light on them ahead of time. It’s a critical step for learning how to be accepting and gentle with myself around my most difficult and unpleasant parts, which I believe is fundamental to being that way with others.

Activities: (wks. 2 -3, and throughout) This is the activity-based portion of the practice. It involves doing the work I’ve laid out, and being flexibly disciplined about my commitments. The most important part of this is being accepting and creative in the face of the (inevitable) obstacles that arise, and making a complete effort to fulfill the commitment I’ve set. I.e. do my best, and accept that it won’t be perfect.

Review and Reflection: (wk. 4, and throughout) Since this whole project is about growth and discovery – about investigating if something like this will actually work – actively engaging in the experience is perhaps the most important part. It’s my sincere living practice as a householder. Throughout the experience, I will journal to document and reflect on what happened. Week four is dedicated to exploring my experience in full. What did I learn, and why does it matter?

This work takes a different kind of effort than the kind I’m good at. It is not the effort to accomplish a specific outcome, but rather the effort to work diligently and accept the outcome. It is about living in the space between the intention and the result, and mining the wisdom that lives there. It is accepting the invitation, and stepping into God’s speakeasy, the rough and holy place where you meet your soul.

Themes of Cultivated Practice
January, Clarity
February, Love
March, Listening
April, Self-Compassion
May, Strength
June, Kindness
July, Perspective
August, Acceptance
September, Discipline
October, Community
November, Gratitude

Rainlight, Candlelight

I am walking on the estate again. It is windy and rainy. Everything is saturated. Black bark is blacker. Pale green lichen is brighter. Stones on the path glisten, winking their suddenly lustrous tones into the gray space. Tawny needles below the pines throb on the hillside, slowly casting off the half life of sun light.

It is a dreary, we say. It is dismal. But in the damp, in the grey rainlight, everything is softer and more vivid. It is like looking at the whole world by candlelight. Everything becomes more beautiful, more romantic, more clearly itself, by what’s absent. Beauty shines in the dark, because it is at home there.

Beauty, Out and About, October

Some images today from my walk at Sheep Pasture and the community garden. Lovely fall day in Southern New England.

Woolly bear caterpillar, grass seed, grass seed, corn.

Woolly bear caterpillar, unknown, unknown, corn.

Milkweed silk, blond baby hair.

Milkweed silk, Jonah’s hair.

red berries, red vine climbing tree.

Unknown, unknown.

tomatoes

Tomatoes.

blue flower, marigold, pink flower with butterfly, black-eyed Susan, nasturtium.

Unknown, marigold, unknown, black-eyed Susan, nasturtium.

seed pods on baby sweater

Hitch hikers.

Goldenrod

IMG_9000
I recently sat and watched a patch of goldenrod.

Goldenrod is a succulent firework, each spiraling arm a tumble-out explosion of itty, bitty buds. Its color, the bright, white light of sunshine, layered over and over, until it becomes the dark, golden quiver of yolk. It was crawling with bees, honeys and bumbles. They would land and pick their way over the blossoms, trolling their faces through the bloom. Lift off, repeat. Sometimes they bumped each other out of the way. One bee would land on another, but there was no conflict, the first bee just moved on. It’s very random, it looks…inefficient, but it’s a pattern that ensures ample pollination. How sterile a planning matrix would make it.

A breeze gently bumped one set of flowers into another. More pollination. I felt a swell of emotion rise in my heart, and in my throat. What was I feeling? It was like when you are walking next to a good friend, someone you love. You walk slowly and close, like there is a little secret between you, perhaps just the pleasure of walking this way. And one of you leans in, on the rise of the step and touches the shoulder of the other – the gesture that is balanced precisely between a press and a bump – held for a beat until the foot touches down, and then you draw apart again, smiling. It was like that. I felt love. I felt pride at being the living compatriot these flowers, these bees, this breeze. Of being part of this system that was so beautiful, so prosperous, and so unmanaged. I felt humility for how much I construct in the name of making things better than they already are.

I sat. I watched. I sighed. The breeze sighed. The flowers sighed. Jonah, strapped to my chest, shifted and sighed. There were aphids. There was a pair of lady bugs were locked in a carnal crawl, dragging pollen behind them, their red shells winking in and out of the gold. I sat. I watched. I marveled. The humble golden rod, passive master of its own success by sweet invitation, and by simply allowing the world around it to act according to its own nature. It was such a gentle resiliency, it was stunningly beautiful.

Interactive Art

globe-18-Inside-earth-by-Marine-PEYRE-370x339

Photo credit to http://www.coolglobes.org/

After dinner with my friend Daphne the other night, I had some time before my train. I love having open time to let something nice happen. It didn’t take long. In front of the Boston Public Library, I sat and listened to Aisling Peartree who was singing, singing, singing – singing for the pleasure of letting one’s soul vibrate, so it can shimmy on over and touch another’s. She was great. She was just so happy singing. I felt happy too.

I wandered across the street to check out the cool globes that are in Copley Square right now. My favorite one was the Inside Earth globe.

People love to be invited into an open space. People stopped to discuss if, in fact, it was okay to sit in it. They climbed in, had their picture taken, swapped places, leaned between the legs of their sitting lover, popped their kids up to have a turn. They smiled and laughed. They had a relationship with the art. Invitation is, perhaps, the oldest technology around.

I climbed in too, and meditated. It was brief sit, but a great perspective-shifting experience. Inside the globe, sound and vibration changed. It was a little bit like what happens when you’re underwater, and it created the distinct feeling of being acted upon. I went from being part of experience in the world, to having the experience of the world happen to me. The rumble of the truck felt like is was running over me. Sound, especially deep sound, like the the bass of loud music, left me feeling a little bombarded. And just by tucking in and closing my eyes, I immediately became an object of an “other” category: oh, she’s in there…, as if there wasn’t right here, together.

I thought, this is what the earth feels like. We rumble all over it, we drown out it’s sound in favor of our own, and see it as distinctly different than ourselves. I felt deep compassion for our planet, and humility at how much perspective I lack 99.999% of the time. That’s a successful piece of art.

Sound is especially important, because it’s so hard to find any true quiet, once you’re listening. We can close our eyes and still our bodies, but sound is very difficult to control. When I got off the train and it pulled away, it drown out every other auditory signal, and I realized how vulnerable I felt, loosing – even just for a moment – and entire sense. Coming up into the Back Bay concourse, it was a blur of noise – announcements, people talking, fans, echos – and I realized that maybe part of why we are so tense, so subtly fearful, is we’ve lost our ability to consume the natural queues in the world around us. Our instincts are injured – literally deafened – and we feel less connected to our environment as a result.

August Tenth

IMG_8891

The heavy rain has knocked off the ripe cherry tomatoes that I have been too lazy, too dazey, to pick. I gather the warm tomatoes off the warm brick steps and pile them in my hand, and then against my belly. I notice the hydrangeas, my favorite fluffy, conical clouds of summer. I will cut some, before they are gone. Thank you rain, thank you tomatoes, for reminding me about the hydrangeas. I would be lost completely without a little guidance.

Two days ago, I looked at blinding, glossy gold sunshine, beaming off the dark green oak leaves at the top of the tree. I wept. I wept for how beautiful it was. I wept for my inability to see my own glossy, golden light, so broad and heavy was my dark canopy. I wept at the awareness that I could not feel my own beauty.

I am wistful today. I feel duality in everything around me. I am grateful for my ability, today, to welcome the vicious gifts that have been offered to me. To look for and find – to appreciate and name gratitude for – the beauty, the shadow of light, that by necessity is – that by the laws of existence I know to be – there on the other side, holding up the darkness.