This is an image of the seam in a handmade book of mine, that included a castoff process xerox from artist Juliann Cydylo who was my studio mate at the time. This was a chance layout that I particularly enjoy. It has a lot of white space around it, and some mystery, much like the beginnings and endings of a year, which can also feel kind of like an upside-down time.
Below is a bit of a year in review for us both. Before I share how things unfolded to me, I'd like to invite you to pull out a journal and pen, make a cup of tea and settle in to reflect on your own year. I have included a list of simple reflection prompts at the end of this post, and I have spent many a new year's day with friends or somewhere in the week before Jan 1, considering what's gone on in our lives for the past 365 days or so.
What did you lose in 2021?
What came into your life in 2021?
What is different from a year ago?
What are you loving in your life right now?
What is not working right now, and what does that tell you about what might work better for you?
Three + favorite moments from your year:
Three things you can place on the altar and release from 2021.
What surprises you most about this past year of your life?
What is a constant in your life through this past year and beyond?
What qualities of experience do you want to invite in moving forward?
Please use the comments below to suggest other prompts as you are inspired to share them, and any insights into your year you'd like to share.
I started to write my year in review in a period of great striving. Since then, the duracell bunny in me has kind of run out of batteries for the season. There was a little sadness and concern about this at first, but then I started to feel the telltale signs of freedom and inspiration that come with any form of surrender.
I could just tell you how great it all was, and wish for you that your life was equally as great, with a wink and a smile. But I will not do that.
Here's how my year went, as I reflect on it now.
A book came out in March. It was confusing because it's the same title as my first book, but its a different book. It's a lovely little book, which you will really enjoy if you like my two other prayer books. I spent about six months contorting myself into pretzels to be ready for the launch, and then just felt a little lost and confused about why and what for.
My art studio is a complete bright spot, and now too a warm spot, as I finally figured out how to work the wood stove. I have the right wood and the right fire building technique. There is less soot settling on my drawings, and when I leave at night, I do a little bow because I can't believe that this space is mine to use every day.
I was very intent on doing a whole bunch of art book fairs and pop ups, really laser focused on this. And somehow with all of my striving, I have ended up participating in only one of the seven I had wanted to participate in, which comes up in early December. It's a wonderful little day-long pop up event and now I am happy that this is what I'm doing.
I set up a few talks online with bookstores and libraries, and saw how hard people work to facilitate and share these - staying at work into the dark hours, dealing with zoom, following up. Everybody works so hard. It's also very cool to see how these things always have the flavor of the group that ends up attending, whether there are fifty of us, or three.
I did a deep dive to figure out how to 'connect with my audience' and 'get my stuff into circulation' more, and have concluded that what is involved in this is a huge huge amount of lifelong, ongoing work that does not spark joy in my heart. I put all of it down, surrender that project, and await with curiosity to see what happens next.
I have begun to archive the work of Janet Gallup, a printmaker and the deceased wife of our friend Al Gallup here in Ann Arbor, who has all of it in a shed he bought for it, after he and his kids dispersed as much of it as possible. I don't know exactly what is compelling me here, but I am very interested in what happens to a body of work when the artist's body is gone, and Janet's is here to attend to - and it's a beautiful collection. I will share more on this soon.
I have made a few death books and will make three more soon, and made formalized this project in 2021.
So in this year where I feel more alive than I have ever felt, there is a lot of a theme of death, surrender and stopping. These are not new themes, but they are newly applied in ways that surprise and interest me, and lead to freer experiences of the life that's here to be lived. I have absolutely no idea what is to come in 2022, but I wish you a balance to whatever has felt like too much or too little, some quiet time in the wee hours of January, and a creative spark of joy in your heart.
I have noticed that when meditation comes up in conversation, I often hear the phrase 'I should...' followed by some description of how someone is failing to live up to some ideal way of doing it. After meditating in a group of people where there's some kind of check-in afterward, I commonly hear descriptions of either a difficult/disappointing experience, or a lovely, special state type experience. When you're learning to do something like say, skateboard, and you go out there and try your hand at it, and come back either having wiped out, dusting yourself off, or successfully land without wiping out - what a rush! A positive, confidence building experience. I always wanted to be that guy having the rush, not the one who became increasingly aware of the intense kink in her shoulder over the course of the sit.
Meditation however, is not a performance. It's worth exploring this because otherwise, it's another thing to make us miserable. Some kinds probably are performative. But presence isn't something that you do, and this term meditation is simply about presence when all is said and done, or "This" : whatever's happening right now.
Instead, it's what is never not there. You aren't doing being presence, or doing being. Like the sky, or say, noticing you have socks on, the presence of socks is not about you, they're just, well, on your feet. The sky is never not there, whatever your level of interest in, focus on, or idea about the sky may be.
The other day I heard great table metaphor that may illustrate this. There's a table covered with books. Lots of books. That's you - the table - with all kinds of interesting books on it. The books are the identifiers we have - the things that when we're gone and everyone who knew us is also gone, go as well, because they are a shared thought. This includes your history, your plans, your opinions, your life story, your nationality, your preferences, how you vote, your personality, your style, your body, your chronic pains, your psychology, your turns of phrase, your reflection in the mirror, what you love and don't love about your body, your closest kin, your habits, your address, your drivers license number, your social security number, your CV and resume, your skill sets, pedigrees, your successes, your failures, your traumas, what you overcome. Your memories, others' memories of you, your reputation, your good deeds, your misdeeds, your credit score, your best moments, your bank account balance, your possessions, what you've made, what you failed to make, finish, accomplish or complete. Also, time, objects and space can go there too but that may be another conversation.
When the 'books' are removed, like when you're tidying up in the living room, you find there's a table underneath them. It's always been there. It's never not been there. It's familiar to you, as it's what you have used to access and read these books, and to refer to your 'self' in the form of each of these books, these programs or information packets about yourself. You may put your feet on it or put your dinner plate on the table too. Meditation is just awareness of This, or you could say, awareness of what is the ground of experience. The big attainment is actually just - the table is here, where it's always been. How spiritual!
The idea of meditation as a performance is just another book or glossy yoga type magazine on the table, with a picture of yourself perhaps, doing whatever idea of your meditation performance is. It's pretty funny and incredibly amazing how thought co opts even just This - what's happening right now. The flow of one thing after another, a live stream of you.
To take the table metaphor a little further, it's not even 'your' table - with a style, with a level of wear, perfectly reflecting all the books that were on it. It turns out that everybody's books are on one table, one gigantic table, again, just a metaphor this table, but it's not actually an object, and nobody owns it, or dusts it, or made it. It's not a thing like a galaxy is a thing, or a pebble. It's just that we are built to see and talk about and interact with objects, so that's as good a metaphor as any: table.
This big wide foundation or ground on which all the objects form a fleeting impression of the story of you and your life, is always here, always offering up the next thing, and is in fact, you, and me, and this word, and the sound you're hearing, and the plans for the next hour, and the irritations and concerns, and the gratitudes and questions, and the dog and the cat, the wad of tissue that didn't make it into the trash can lying on the floor, and the tree shimmering out the window.
Nothing, no book, no passing object of experience, and the presence underneath, is not you.
Here's a suggested way to let this sink in a little further.
Cue up a song or two, get a glass of something, maybe a snack. Sit in a chair and look out the window. Five minutes we're talking. Maybe set a timer. Let the flavor of your food and drink mix with the sound of the music or the kids fighting, mix with the sight out the window, the movement, inside/outside blending, and constantly changing, coming and going.
OR When you get really annoyed, overheated, or suddenly tired and notice this, plunk yourself down with that - sensations, the litany of thought, sounds, the taste in your mouth, how your body is, the temperature. Nothing needs to change and no one needs to do. Like a piece of cardboard lying on the side of the road, just being.( In this case, an agitated or overheated piece of cardboard.)
When you are in conversation with someone, notice what that's like, what the body feels like, the sounds, the gestures, emotions, distractions, how space and arrangement of bodies and body language is. No need to put ideas to anything, just become curious without getting involved in thoughts about it.
That to me, is what they call - meditation - or even better - it's you - the one talking, the one listening, the one reading, the one writing, the weather outside, the weather inside, the flavors and the smells, the ungainly and the very compelling. The pull and the push away.
I wrote previously about the magicky bubble miracle that lasted forty minutes. I would like to share now about some interesting thought patterns I noticed at the time.
Initially, I was engaged in social patter, drinking of tea, trading thoughts and words, slapping at mosquitos, with Guy. The bubbles were a footnote, a silly kid's toy that I find fun to engage at times.
When these bubbles stuck around for an uncharacteristically long time, enthusiasm and curiosity, and a deeper level of attention and engagement kicked in. When Guy went away and it was just me witnessing this, there was excitement, amazement, and a deep desire to show others what was happening. I noticed thoughts about writing about the phenomena, and several attempts through shouts and whistles, to get Guy to come back. As the strange phenomena continued, and more developments in color, visibility and duration occurred, I felt a stronger urge to enlist others, to share and show.
When the bubbles didn't immediately pop as I've seen thousands upon thousands of bubbles do (yes), I noticed some impatience, boredom, and a desire to get on with the day. Thoughts came in like 'I'd love a piece of toast', and 'How long is this going to take? I have plans and things to do.' I find this interesting because I was literally witnessing something I'd never seen before and that didn't seem possible, and toward the end, the closest experience of invisibility - the phenomena of something being present that is also invisible, like a ghost or an apparition, that I've ever seen. Bubbles are already like that, right? That's why they are such a fascination for kids and delightful for everyone. But here I was, wanting to engage my story, wanting to just get on with being Hannah in her day, doing what she does.
It felt like a test of endurance to keep witnessing, to hold that tiny, rainbow style vigil for the time it took to see the bubbles through. I was also aware that those around me were in their stories, their days of jobs to be done and things to do, and had someone come by, their likely response would have been even more distractable than mine.
By the time the last bubble, and the second to last one, popped, they were essentially invisible, except for the swirling silvery base of each. It was 100x wider than a dew drop, but would have been near impossible to see. Which makes me aware of just how limited our perception must be:
If we can overlook something like a bubble, something I had made myself, what else are we not ever seeing, that's immediately and truly right around us?
I am sure there is a simple explanation for what happened with these bubbles. Likely the very humid, windless morning and all of the fog, as well as the tensile strength of the material in the bubble wand, would explain it. The changing colors and the thinning surface was likely some kind of evaporation or reaction with the salty air. There can be many ways to explain things. But in my immediate experience, this was something never seen before, a 'normal' and simple object doing something very out of the ordinary, revealing itself over time in the way that never has happened because they are so predictably fleeting. A bit like a solar eclipse.
I then galloped around telling various family members about what happened, hollered down to my husband on the dock IT JUST POPPED, with a very large popping gesture in case he couldn't hear me, frantically writing down all of the details. There is a great desire to hold on to this miracle, to found some kind of new religion around it. Or to found the Bubble Blowers Association with the founding date being today. So there's the other way that humans do, to try and hold something, so fleeting as a bubble, and to make it into something solid.
Thoughts also flashed in about 'Records' world records, not to try and have one, but how funny it is that there is always a biggest pumpkin, a fattest blueberry, an oldest living human, and how these things must have started with an act of recording, of trying to make permanent, and then become this way of trying for fame, or of besting and winning. Oh, we people are crazeballs. So yes, I suppose I am too, but it's not because I stared at a hovering bubble for forty minutes, it's that it feels crazy to get so excited about it.
I recently was asked to say a few words on ‘art as meditation’ and meditation as art by my friend in the Pioneer Valley Abbie Wanamaker. Abbie was having a two person show and there was a forum that she asked me to speak at. I’ll share a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I considered her work and process, and the idea of art as meditation and meditation as art.
First, the word meditation in US culture has felt loaded with a sense of personal shortcoming and obligation for many, to the point that it may not be a useful word to use anymore. In a similar way, the idea of art practice has with it for many a sense of should, haven’t yet….maybe someday, soon.
Instead of meditation let’s talk about presence. That thing you were when you were born and still are, without any effort, prior to any self idea. That thing that sparks between you and a small woodland creature when you stumble upon one another and hold the other’s gaze. Presence is what we make room for in a process of deep play, prior to the part of our minds that narrate or decide the merit of what we are doing or what we might be making.
I enjoyed looking at Abbie’s paintings, their unapologetic, straightforward and vivid qualities. I think too about resonance, and I know that Abbie has resonated with my work and ideas for a while. I can see why: in the directness of her process, her statement and how she figures out what’s happening after the fact, letting the doing, the activity itself and the textures and qualities of the materials lead. This practice is presence too and similar to what happens in my studio when things roll naturally. I see in her work that Abbie values the doing over the thing that’s made, turning art practice into a form of attention.
Consider the difference between the governed idea of creative action and cultivating presence, and the direct experience of these things: what you already are: the situation, what’s happening inside and outside of this skin envelope we call a body: the temperature, the textures, sounds, tastes, motion, exchanges with people, animals, elements like sunlight and wind and sounds, intersection of elements that will never intersect quite the same way again. To me that’s deep play, creativity at its best, and contemplation all rolled up into one. It’s a sense of belonging, or inherent value, or naturalness, the way a dry leaf becomes the forest floor or a child is held in arms.
A bubble is commonplace and ordinary. It's part of washing your hands, your hair, your car, and certain baths. Blowing bubbles is something many children do all the time, so it becomes very ordinary to some children too. So ordinary, that it's easy to overlook the tiny miracle that a bubble is.
Here's what I find incredible about a bubble:
Next time you are in the presence of a bubble, see it as a whole life, see it as significant as your own life, the floaty path it takes, your path. It's remarkable existence, yours. It's sudden disappearance, just like yours will be, the moment when you are no longer in the world, reflecting its details, swirling with changing tints and hues, perfect, fleeting, a marvel.
I've been trying to put my finger on something since my return from the Colorado River last week. It was a short trip. Hard even to recall and yet it's left an imprint that moves like a sun spot - always on the periphery of what's going on, but here still, adjusting everything in a way I can't yet place.
While there on the river, one thing presented after the next: floating, climbing, eating, chatting, hauling, organizing, snacking, getting ready for and floating out of the next or last rapid, covering up, cooling down in the water, caring for eyes in the dry hot wind, playing werewolf in the dark with eight people whose names I mastered just as I bid them goodbye. And the whole time trying actually to arrive.
We stopped at many bright and sacred oases, hidden waterfalls and water pools, places where ancient Puebloans left the mark of concentric circles or stored their grain way up high. Each of us rested on a warm rock in the shade, watched the glowing walls change as we floated up to, by and past their silence and specific set of magnificent scars.
I was rarely alone - normally I am alone more than half of the day. There I sat only a handful of times in solitude. The time I sketched canyon walls in the ninety degree blue white moonlit dark, too bright to sleep in. The times, each of them, when I was easily an early bird, rising before others to stand at river edge, or look out from the privacy of the 'adventure toilet', or to follow the hide and seek of a dawn bird call. The last time was in Deer Creek Canyon, sitting, awed by the height we'd climbed up over the waterfall, to the oasis behind and above it: cottonwood trees, carved pools, the sense of a thin flat plane of water appearing to flow uphill, the surprise of a place you didn't expect, and the overwhelming presence of grief love: when one's home in another has gone beyond one's physical reach, accepting the time had come for them or you to leap the ledge.
There and finally in Flagstaff when I shut the door to the hotel bathroom, were the moments I registered being alone, outside of the itinerary, the patter of family, short term plans and passerby, the flowing by of scenery unlike the familiar touchstones of my home address and agenda.
The main takeaway: This all slips by. It can't be held. It's vaster than can be comprehended or discovered, it's sometimes floating, sometimes shocking with cold or challenging with a heart-pounding climb. You can't stop it and yet it is saturated with tenderness, an intimacy that you already and ever are, that soft sand suggests and the small circle of a blowing weed traces in it. Just this is yours for just right now.
There are many forms of meditation:
Formal and structured
Open eye, walking around in the world types
Closed eye or soft eye meditation seated
Mystical and direct path practices
Loving kindness practice
and many different flavors, cultures and styles to how these are presented:
Zen from Korea, Japan and elsewhere
Vipassana from Burma and Thailand
on so many more
You may yourself already have a practice, have favorite books, a community and a personal philosophy. You may be sampling and learning.
Whatever your situation, I recommend that you do whichever one feels literally the easiest and the most relaxed. We don't need to tie ourselves into knots over something else in our lives. We have plenty of ways of doing so already. So do whatever feels effective and easy for you.
I love the simple exercise Ajahn Chah had listeners try in a talk he gave once. He asked: Do you notice that you are seeing right now? Just check.
Then he asked, how much effort does that seeing take?
That's the effort that is needed for meditation - just that little bit of noticing. No efforting, no big doing, or trying.
I love this. I agree.
Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
Drop the Props and Poses
There is no need to look or feel a certain way to engage meditation. You don't need an expensive pillow or to be flexible or to be able to sit on the floor. Take care of your body. Sometimes having low back support in a chair, or a little cushion to lift up you butt, helps the spine to naturally be relaxed and fairly upright, which allows a nice free flow of energy throughout your body. This helps parts of it not fall asleep and maybe helps you stay awake and be more comfortable.
Establishing a little space
By this I mean some internal space. Please don't try to get yourself to stop thinking. One way is to notice the breath, or perhaps notice sounds in the environment, that kind of a simple focus for a few minutes can help you establish a little internal ease and quiet. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people call it a concentration practice: just pick some version that feels easy and relatively natural for you, to establish this kind of quiet.
Widening the Field
After you establish a little steadiness as explained above, you can then set about to broaden your focus to include whatever happens to be coming up in your experience. This includes physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, sounds, tastes, temperature, areas of contraction, neutrality and density.
This isn't always easy, depending on what emotions might be present, but I strongly recommend looking at whatever comes up as human, natural and ultimately, just passing through, like a bird alighting on a branch outside your window. It might be a noisy flock of house sparrows or a huge coven of crows that hangs out for a while, or a buzzard looming, but it's just coming and going, and like a birdwatcher or even the welcoming backyard itself, recognize that it's not your doing, not your fault, and whatever kind of shitty bird alights, see it as just a visitor to be curious about and open to.
Drop the idea of practice or of yourself practicing
At some point, if and when things feel pretty peaceful, drop any kind of practice and just hang out. No one doing anything. Be the yard. Be the field. Without doing it.
Whatever happens, can you hang out with it? If not, can you hang out with what that's like?
When suffering, for example if the answer to the above two questions is No and Absolutely Not, see if you can sit with the one in pain, like a friend would, someone who loved you.
When, if you are sitting in formal meditation, the timer goes off or you finish the formal part, see if you can carry that same simple sense of observation with you into the day - no need again to look or feel a certain way, in fact better if you don't try to steer or manage that, just see what is happening now. And what about now? Who is here? What's present? those are a few questions you can play with to re acquaint yourself at intervals throughout the day.
Let it be a mess.
Rarely as humans are we all dialed in and buttoned up. Especially if we feel compelled to meditate, or are stopping to notice what's underneath all of the activity and motion, there are messy things to encounter. Unruly feelings, blotchy skin and stuffed up noses, runaway radio station brain activity, bodies that keep trying to get comfortable,or even songs that stick in the head and sabotage that nice mellow feeling we were after. That's to be expected. Please don't expect otherwise. Unless you are another form of life from human, there will be the smelly and the ungainly. Invite that in too.
A note about teachers
If you learn from someone else, please be sure they are not claiming perfection, please be sure to trust your own intuition if things feel off. Ultimately what you are doing when you meditate is paying attention to what is happening. Please let that be from the inside out, and not something someone else controls from outside. The best teachers give you their experience of how to unlock your own freedoms, your own insights, your own guidance. They should not at any point need you to do anything or respond any kind of way. Above all trust your own intuitive response.
[Originally posted in Spring of 2013]
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with many, many daffodils in bloom. It was raining and I noticed them on my left.
Normally, I'd cluck over their beauty with a heightened sense of goodwill. But in this instance, I was surprised by what I saw there instead. I had a similar sensation once while looking at stars in Maine. I saw depth in the night sky, where before I'd seen more of a blanket or curved plane of stars like in the planetarium. Seeing the flowers in the rotary gave me a similar feeling of vastness, or vertigo.
I saw while passing the flowers that the whole mess of them, the entire mound of hundreds, was actually one conscious presence or force, like a collective brain. Something far less diminutive or poetic than what I'd previously percieved. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a month, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group listening to a concert is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, or we fear mediocrity and failure. I want to be a success, don't you?
When I can feel the ground underneath, or the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, use my senses to reconnect to the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, recollected.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerable, short lives.
With the normalized practice of awareness - not the zen-stylized kind with rice paper and bells, but simply: Oh, here I am seeing something. Here’s driving. Here’s noticing. Here’s irritation. Here’s tiredness. or, What do the hands feel like right now? or noticing, warm water, clinking dishes, bubbles.
The more that : awareness - becomes normal in my world and life, something entertaining starts to take place.
When say, at a family holiday gathering someone does or says some outrageous but predictable thing, flossing with a plucked hair or trying earnestly to set you up with your second cousin, or something less interesting like a stony silence from your child when you thought all was well…
When this type of ‘thing’ happens, for some reason the phrase that springs to mind recently is: And now This is happening!
This phrase has a surprisingly humorous and helpful effect: It has within it a sense of engagement, interest and also a kind of acceptance built into it.
Try it right now: And now This is happening!
Look around and see what ‘this’ is.
An empty room with a reasonably quiet refrigerator running within earshot.
And now This is happening.
The urge to pee or an ache somewhere.
This occasionally thought phrase is so easy, and it’d be easy to read about and consider but not try. Try it! Try it for 5 minutes and see if your life doesn’t take on even a quality of simple interest, dare I suggest even a playful, creative engagement.
It's also fun to do while working on a creative project: the paint spilled or the colors ran into each other. It dried funny, or something went not according to plan... And now This is happening...
The holidays are challenging.
1)There’s festivity pumped into everything like hormones into a purdue chicken.
2)There are genuine invitations to celebrate, give and receive, mixed in confusingly with the corporate branded version
3)There’s just a tremendous amount of PAIN - layers of painful memory, loss, violence, loneliness and disappointment circulating through the pepperminty air.
It’s a confusing time. A pressure cooker for many. A lot of socializing for some, when being alone is often preferred and needed, and not enough connection for many many others, accompanied by feelings of unlovability, resentment, hopelessness or grief.
Every year the holiday season has it’s own special flavor, according to the life events that befall us all in different ways, times and degrees.
I have found it useful as a general practice in my life, to first Lower my Expectations as much as I can. This heads off disappointment. But to lower my expectations while also Acting As If, things could go smoothly and well. I just won’t cross my arms expecting it to happen where it often has not.
A phrase or prayer if you like, that makes this more actionable is from Chogyam Trungpa and some ancient Tibetan slogans: May I be free from attachment and aversion while still continuing to care.
Another similar thing I can mutter to myself along the sloggy, jingly sidewalk on my way to that work party: May I act as if it could be fun and enjoyable, while having no expectation that it should or will be.
I have also found it useful as a general practice in my life for entirely selfish reasons, to notice the details of what is working, what I can feel grateful for: these boots are warm and dry, I am a woman and I get to live alone undisturbed and free, I get to vote, I get to drive as a woman. my socks match, I am holding a warm beverage, I heard from a friend today.
When I can ratchet up this practice a little further to include what really does not feel OK - to have gratitude for that, strangely, it opens up for me a whole new level of freedom.
I don’t find it easy to do this. When the hot water runs out, or there’s a cancelled flight, I have one friend who actually says Thank You to the ether in these moments. I’m not there myself. But I can ask:
How is this cancelled flight or cold shower the best thing that could be happening right now?
What if this is as good as it gets? What if this is the last week of my life? What if I never get that project done or find the right partner? And now this is happening!
When I apply this kind of twisted logic, I find it liberating and empowering.
I can also preface the situation with And now this is happening! to pipe in a little playful acceptance.
These lines of inquiry help me to actually consider that maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, that all is well, that I’m unimaginably ok, not a hair out of place, even though I wouldn’t choose this and it’s not comfortable.
If you look back on your life to date, you may also discover this makes sense in retrospect.
Think of a shitty time in your life. How did it lead to what followed? How has it turned out ok? How was it the best thing that could’ve happened at the time?
The point isn’t to lie to yourself or to be fake. The value I find is in the reframe. The loosening of the calcified familiar story for something unknown, open and dynamic.
I just went and did a search on Metta Practice, or loving kindness practice. I wasn't overwhelmed by what was out there. There are a lot of pictures of a buddha statue and this sort of thing. So I'd like to offer this tool of Sending Love in a simpler, less obnoxiously Glossy-Mag-about-Yoga kind of way.
Here's the practice.
Take a break. Let your shoulders drop. Maybe close your eyes and give them a rest.
Bring to mind a moment of unbridled love. Not romantic love. Not sexy love. Just love. Maybe involving your favorite toddler, once upon a time, or a creature in its first month or so on the planet. The point is to start with bringing up the melty feeling of tenderness for someone uncomplicated. Once you're tapped in, bathe in that image and experience for a bit.
Next let others come to mind. If you were wanting to reach out and just share this feeling, who would you share it with? It doesn't really matter who, just somebody. Although again, this is low hanging fruit type people, with who its easy and uncomplicated to want to connect. What I do is not say a phrase (which you can do), but just flash on that person in their habitat, my stepdad on his porch so, in a moment of open, relaxed, peace. I picture him feeling lets say, satisfied, sitting in a little sun, belonging there. I don't imagine him to be the way I think he should be, or if he would just read this book then he'd *get it.* This is instead, a flashing on that alrightness that can take on the flavor of quite joy, and being right with the world for no reason. Your birthright.
Check in with your beloved ones far away or emotionally remote like this for a bit. Notice how good it can feel. Notice what this generates where you are, at no other time or place.
At some point, throw yourself into that mix. Send yourself love just like to all those other worthy beloveds.
If you find complicated or challenging feelings come up, send love to that feeling. It's like a kid grumpy in the afternoon. She just wants some space to be, and maybe a reassuring hand squeeze. Offer this type of wide pastureland to that feeling. Bathe it in that tenderness. It may be there for a while. Your honored guest. If aversion comes up to that honored guest, bathe that in your presence and welcome.
I find I rarely have to go searching out the next level of more challenging people or feelings to work with, they usually are fairly close at hand. But if you're still sitting there, into it, work now with some difficult people. Maybe don't start with Trump, but with the friend who didn't call you back. Again, notice if what's there is a bitchy griping self talk, and make some space and understanding for that one. And the friend, if there's time and space, imagine her limber and loose and giggling a little, or really loving the moment she's in for no reason. Breathe the feeling in and out.
The black diamond types then take it to Trump. Even just sending metta to the word Trump is a practice. Or to the suffering perpetrators of violence and destruction. Hold up a mirror there, see where those things live in yourself, open your heart there too, even if just a tiny crack open, some breathing, your willingness to stay open is profound in its transformative power.
And One Caveat: If you're fixating on somebody, be sure you're note just mentally stalking them! This means you stay in your experience, you don't go sniffing around in their airspace trying to feel connected to them. If it feels too entangled with someone, another approach is to offer this one up, to cut the kite string in a thoughtful, gentle way, but firmly resolving to return to more neutral people, and to drop that object/person/story, and instead to work directly with what is sparked within your own experience, tenderly and with presence.
More posts about It's April! Here's an update on Book 2: Help me [ ], do the thing.
It exists!! It's been printed!!
I have received two gorgeous advanced copies!!!! I am thrilled. The first book has a baby sister.
There's first a moment where the FedEx package arrives with the advance copies where my stomach drops. I have to ignore the package for a while because there are too many butterflies in my gut. There's always a chance something went south and half of it is upside down or something, and I am first gripped with fear.
At some point, I just sit down and find myself tearing the little cardboard perforation strip on the package and diving in. Then we spend some time, me and this object, together, acclimating to the fact that
THE THING HAS BEEN DONE.
After this comes an amazing segment of time where my heart literally becomes this glowing, warm region of my being as I behold the book on my table. I keep going over to the spot to commune with the very site of the object that all of us together created.
I was tempted to share a photo here, but I think that's for when the rest of the books, actually arrive.
I will greet the books in late May/early June, and promptly send them out to my backers. I can't wait to share the real thing with you!
More posts about Hannah's books and new arrivals.
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with tons of daffodils. I think it was raining and I noticed them on my left.
I'll cut right to it: those flowers are one brain: one consciousness in full force - complete. For some reason I saw it this was for the first time. Not a 'look at those pretty daffodils! Spring is...' kind of thought. It was something revealed.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a few months, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group of people listening to a story or a concert, is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, fearing mediocrity or failure.
When I can feel the ground underneath. the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, sounds and the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, I begin to remember my home is just about noticing and presence.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerability and delicate bloom.
And a few more things about Daffodils.
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get pissed on, others blown off their stems and trampled, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - the dark eye of a crow or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grass, stands of trees, coils of thornvine and little trees in home depot parking lots, they all too share a brain I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like leaving myself or another who is not at their best I too tap into that collective system.
I heard Chas DiCapua talking at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center saying We are part of a universe becoming conscious of itself.
Also, that the process is unfolding on many levels, including on a sciency, material level.
One aspect of this we've heard about for a long time: That there are elemental particles in our bodies found in ancient star explosions, the Red Giants and Planetary Nebula. Woa. Now let me go watch King of the Hill to clear my head.
Just listening to and thinking about such a discovery is in fact you, a part of the universe in contemplation, becoming conscious of itself.
On my 40th birthday, I watched 40 shooting stars burning into the atmosphere during the Persiad meteor shower up in Northern coastal Maine while lying on a dock. I was also demonstrating this same idea - the universe becoming conscious of itself.
What I can put to use in this is that nothing is more central to an understanding than noticing. Noticing is waking up to the non-verbal direct truth of things, and to myself as part of something greater. In waking up to such an infinite identity of noting and being at the same time, life is essentially lifing, it's not personal, and I have nothing really to lose or to to attain.
Update from 2020: In reading through this it's interesting to note just the very beginnings of the Elements research project in motion. Last year, I published the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere. which is a compendium of where one finds each element, in color blotchy sketches and handwritten notes, in lists of objects, parts of our body, world and universe, and what they are tangibly like. It's very much about not being separate, and this theme above.
This is what Thai Forest monks meditate on at some point, in part. How gross hair skin and nails are: always growing, always getting funky, needing care.
Today, having cared for my niece and nephew overnight, I was particularly aware of the hag-like aspect of myself, dry skin, nails needing cleaning, cutting, dry scalp and unruly hair, haglike, as I said.
Funny too, how much fuss is made about them all, red nails, long and sexy, clacking at a grocery store cash register, incongruously, hair straightened, dyed, layered, razor-cut, and a million insane, crazy ways to remove it, to walk around pretending we're not daily mowing ourselves, like suburban lawns, in fear of neighborly disdain or being unattractive.
I think they nailed it, those monks, by focusing on that fertile topic for reflection on how we really aren't in charge here, stuff on our own selves just keeps growing and getting weird by it's very nature, regardless of our wishes. Smelling, needing care, however many specialists you have on the job or advanced degrees or grooming tools and apparati.
The point of such a practice, as I understand it, isn't to just gross one out, but to wake up from the spell of being enamoured with our physical forms, but seeing their contstant change, as nature playing itself out right here, not an inch from your face but on your face, your face!
A few more things about Daffodils.
[this post is second installment of the post One Brain]
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get trampled, others blown off their stems, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery as they die, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - a crow's or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut and put in a vase. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grasses, manicured hedges, coils of thornvine and those spindly trees in big box store parking lots, they all too share a brain, I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like running away from myself or another who is not at their best I'm tapping in then too. We are living out essentially one life in billions of minds refracted in infinite variation. You and I are just two of these, gathered up in recognition when I see myself in you and you see yourself in me.
The following is a practice for when you are feeling like a lonely satellite:
Sit quietly. Breathe. After a little while, bring in the image of someone that you care for (not the guy who isn't calling you back but an old friend say, or a favorite aunt). Imagine them having one of those moments of peaceful connection, the ones that just come upon one on the sly. Imagine them smiling and at ease. Even if they just had an unsuccessful brain surgery, imagine them floating on water, giggling, accepting, joyful. Then bring another person to mind in the same way. Keep going. Try some people you feel neutral toward, someone you can't deal with at all. See what shifts within you.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.