Neuroscientists find (some of them somewhere, according to Jeffrey Martin) that there’s a little squeeze of pleasure drugs in the brain when we solve a problem. We’ve been rewarded with learning to walk, saying words, throwing or catching a ball since infancy. Positive brain chemicals like dopamines flow when a problem is solved. These are the drugs we love.
On those days when the sky is blue, there’s food in the belly and a roof over one’s head, there can be kind of a malaise, or an itchy type feelng: Something seems wrong, like a problem needs to be solved, even if you can't identify anything in particular. This brain-body apparatus we each have says Martin, makes problems, manufactures them, so it can be rewarded with those chemicals and feel good again.
I used to smoke. I recall the day I noticed a mental process going on at the time. I found myself conjuring some stressful scenario prior to reaching for a cigarette. Something about the cortisol (stress hormone) and cigarette combo was truly satisfying. It was a real soother to get some nicotine in the mix when I thought about that thing…How tweaked.
Whatever is going on can be seen in problem terms, or in a different light, the very same scenario can be labeled as: Not a problem. Nothing to be solved.
For example, I get to the check-out line and discover that I’ve forgotten my wallet. Is this a problem? Are there lions? A fire? Yes it is not smooth, but truly, this is the nature of the road itself, not a personal failing. It’s how things go on this planet called Earth, and on planet Me. Feeling irritated then, or slightly growly under the breath is also the course of human response, it is the nature of the thing. Also, it's just what's happening in a parade of stuff happening. More road texture. Not a problem, nothing to be solved.
These problems and the attendant stories that give them dimension, you could see as elaborate plots designed to hold the attention, like a great film, and we are captivated - captives in the story. A major illness, a terminal diagnosis is also included. Feelings, big bumps, real physical pain. A broken down car? Trump is president. It turns out that the wallet was stolen. Not fun, no one is claiming that. Or easy. But somehow, it’s the very ticket in.
Can I, can you, enjoy this cliffhanger of a show? You’ve been watching for years, as have I. Our shows are singular, but consistently witnessed and known. Have you ever noticed that?
Let go of the splintering branch, and see how that feels. No one is immune. You, are welcome.
Welcome one and all to the coolish breezes and warm updrafts of the New England fall!
I’m excited to share some art and some writing and some upcoming events with you. There's one on Sunday - a talk called The Whole Orchard, and another on Nov 12, and one in December...
The summer was a sweet one, and I bravely shared about my book to audiences of mostly my own family :) and the friendly librarian - but always it was worth it and fun. I shared at the
Art: I have the pleasure of sharing over 20 paintings and drawings in an unusual setting, along with paintings by Somerville Artist Sally Strand. It’s beautiful fancy home for sale in Watertown. Peter Boyajian and Paul Moreton at Real Estate 109 have set this up and they’ve done a fantastic job. Come see some new works and what it looks like in a high end design setting! You can see it by appointment at 222 Main St. in Watertown.
On October 1st, I joined artists Maria Molteni and Sue Murad for the North Hampton Book and Print Fair, where we took no prisoners, letting the world know what artists who make books are capable of. I shared a table with these gals, and saw the beautiful film Sue made about a piece of Marias at their screening the night before. See some pics here!
This Sunday, October 23rd, at the Theodore Parker Unitarian Church, I'm giving a talk called The Whole Orchard at 10:30 AM
On November 12, Joanne Rossman, Purveyor of the Unnecessary and the Irresistible has generously offered to host a book signing at her most excellent of shops - known all over the country for her curatorial chops and eye for special things. She wins the absolute prize for selling more of my books than any other shop, and I love that she’s only a ten minute walk from home. It's a great place to get your xmas shopping done!
The Help me [ ], do the thing. is now in 26 shops and I'm burning on some cylinders, trying to show up for the task of getting the books out into the world, without getting all weird and edgy, and it’s going pretty well. Contemporary Prayers to * [whatever works] is in 53 museum shops in 26 states!!! And I've finally found a place to store all the books that isn't underneath my bed. I'm so pleased.
In December, there is talk of an event at Spoonbill & Sugartown Books in Brooklyn New York! I am thrilled about this, and grateful for the support of Jonas at Spoonbill who proposed we try a talk and a workshop. We’re in the planning stages and it’ll be one of those weekends…
Sunday Oct 23rd: Theodore Parker Unitarian Church 10:30 am: talk: The Whole Orchard.
November 12: Book Signing at Joanne Rossman, Roslindale MA
December: Spoonbill Books, Workshop and talk, Brooklyn NY
It's not that we want so much. It's that we want so little.
My friend Veera shared this idea. It took me a while to wrap my brain around.
We go for such small things mostly. Thinking that's what we're worth. Some new boots. A house. My thinking keeps forming itself around half empty cups. LIttle knots of dreams. I don't know how it looks from ten thousand feet, I'm just thinking about the next three blocks or twenty minutes. This is where I find it so valuable to keep the possibilities open beyond what I can dream up. Not to clamp my fist around something shiny to look at, but to keep my palm open, let the thing blow out of my hand again, because it's so much greater what might evolve from that practice.
I've also heard it said that we dream in apples, and [ ] dreams in orchards. Perhaps, as Rumi put it, we are the whole orchard, not the worm in the grape, as it sometimes seems.
It's not that we want so much. It's that we want so little.
Here's the Rumi poem called
The Worm's Waking
This is how a human being can change.
There is a worm
addicted to eating grape leaves.
Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he is no longer a worm.
He is the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that does not need to devour.
from the Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.
I was just forwarded a lovely interview with Thich Nhat Hanh about prayer and his book on the subject: The Energy of Prayer. It looks to be a lovely and thought provoking book about prayer, brought to my attention by the lovely Elizabeth Landman. In this interview, he brings a perspective on Buddhism and prayer, and connects the role of time, ancestors, and being part of what one draws upon or brings forth through prayer. He also draws attention to the difference between thinking and being, and how they relate to the energy of prayer.
Here is a passage so interesting to chew on, from an interview he did with Publisher's Weekly. It's well worth a read. Here are a couple of excerpts:
If you pray to the Buddha, you should know who the Buddha is, and not just have a number of ideas of the Buddha. If you know who the Buddha is, prayer will be effective. If you feel that the Buddha is fully present in the here and the now, that you have the capacity of touching him or her, then the prayer will be effective. You know that the Buddha is there also within you, in the form of mindfulness, compassion, concentration; so the Buddha is no longer an idea but a reality...
According to our insight, the Buddha continues, Jesus also continues in their new forms. And if you are a Buddhist practitioner, you continue the Buddha; so the Buddha as the object of your prayer is a reality, and not just an idea. That practice relies on the basic insight that nothing is ever lost. Your father is still there, your grandmother is still there, Buddha is still there in his new manifestations. So the second person in prayer, the one to whom we pray, is concrete, is really there, and we can really get in touch with him or with her. That is why it is very important to have the insight. Jesus, Buddha and grandfather are not something that only existed in the past; they are there in the here and the now. They are within you, around you, and you can get in touch with them.
There's more on the body and its role in prayer which is also fascinating to me.
Full interview can be found here.
The best time, I find for thanks, is all the time.
Most especially best, is when I am wanting to tantrum and sulk, or spin out in fear. This happens with some regularity. The thank yous remind me of the fact that because I am free to write this, live safely, drive my own car, eat wonderful fresh foods, move around in a human body, even if creaky or painful or like a strange hotbed of unfamiliar sensation or activity I didn't orchestrate - It is then that the worry stuff is extra worry, that I might not have a fifth layer of icing on my cupcake, kind of worry. In fact, I don't even need the cupcake (whatever it is). I can myself sometimes even be an expression of thanks, and live off the fantastic wealth of that feeling, anytime.
Mind you, not to be good. Or to be liked. But to feel and savor and join the life of the moment, gritty and singularly bizarre or unfaimliar or deceptively familiar looking.
Someone very deserving of my thanks in the month of May and eternally is Rachel Marandett, a young artist doing an internship in the last year of highschool, without whom I might have been buried under books instead of writing to you here. Thank you Rachel.
My books arrived!!
I have had lots to do. I sent out lots of rewards and books and thank yous, and the thank yous keep being the appropriate response for everything, and they have their own momentum, those thank yous.
I made this, by way of thanks.
I sent these packages, with that image included inside each, by way of fulfilling my promise to the people who helped me make this book. By way of thanks.
In the book some of the pages are also about thanks. For example.
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!
You're in it. You may be cowering under the blanket, rooted to the nest of your bed, or couch. Your hair might need washing. Perhaps you're badly in need of a shower. People, people that love you and believe in you might feel like a fiction, a distant memory or a fluke. Lying through their teeth at the very least. Or maybe everything's pissing you off. The alarm clock, uncooperative coat button or bank clerk, the tepid tea.
So this is the little fire I'm building: A few sticks, maybe a little mossy, some crumpled pages of my own journal, and a lighter that's been in my glove compartment for four years at least. My fingers are brittle and cold. I'm blowing on this kindled thing, I believe in it. It's going to catch. When the wind finally dies down for a moment, it does! And then, in some minutes, is the plume of smoke that rises. It rises from this spot, on the side of an unfriendly road where the views aren't inspired. This is the spot where I stopped, would not go another mile. It will have to do.
The plume is going up, visible from over the ridge in a thin, messy, scraggly line rising straight up. This plume is just for you.
Would you like to know why I'm sending you such a plume? Because it's all working and I want you to know that. You are in the throes of transformation my friend and yes indeed, it is uncomfortable. It's not pretty either. And how do I know this with such certainty? Because so am I.
The experience of fear, doubt, insecurity, tossed in with some shame, and an ugliness we fear might be chronic, these are our old modes dislodging.
Sometimes what's foreign and new feels wrong and unsafe. Also, like it's our fault. In a way, it is our fault. We stopped, or if stopped, we chose to get up and take a first step toward that thing we wanted, toward the inkling of who it is we are crossing our fingers we can turn out to be. To really be!
People driving by, they're looking as they go past. Suddenly - it's come to this - what they think of me and my fire by the side of the road in the middle of an empty lot is truly and completely none of my business! It solves nothing at all. I have a fire to tend to. The fire is now brightly burning. My signal to you is now stronger. Look out your window, you'll see it. There's no mistaking it.
You are in it, you are exactly at the center of your life. You are alive and what you are stepping toward is stepping toward you. This is tiding born by the rising smoke.
The fire that's now impressively burning? It's now strong enough that something else is also beginning. There is a stirring, very deep. A memory waking up, and recognition.
Your fire and my fire, they are the same. They are fanned and brightening with every breath in. My fire is strong in the company of yours. These fires, this fire, is the part of us that says Yes. The part that shows up, finds it funny - a little wierd - and shows up anyway. It's the same Yes everywhere. Courageous fire tenders tending.
You are squarely in the center of your life. You are welcome on this planet. Together, we illuminate the world.
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 Maine. 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.
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 stroe 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, 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 contstance 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.
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.
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.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.