Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 28 November 2014

So Bad It's Good: Beginners' Mind and a Sense of Play

The wind is howling round. There's a heavy snowfall warning which is expected to last until tonight. The plans to walk over to the yoga studio for a noon hour class were put aside in favour of playing at home. I prepared a few small canvases and splashed around more acrylic paint. When I finished, the estimated 30 minutes of swinging brushes was actually over two hours of total absorption in the process of investigating acrylic paint. Time had become focused; hours vanished. This. This is what has been missing.

One of the art professors at our local arts centre used to say that painting with acrylics is like "painting with snot." (She taught acrylic painting classes.) Ugh. After a few days of mucking about with these plastic based paints, I'm beginning to see what she meant. Watercolours run and flow whether you want them to or not, a quality which means there's uncertainty about the process. Acrylic paints, even if you thin them to watercolour consistency, tend to stay put. Every mark you make stays as it is, so it matters which brushes you use and how you use them. It's difficult to work without a plan and some of us are not fond of plans. On the other hand, it's easy to cover an error or have a change of heart with acrylics because their opacity covers many flaws. These paintings have many flaws.

The point of painting is not to produce work that is good. The point of painting is to paint, just that and nothing more. My paintings are not unique or dramatic or thought-provoking. The subjects are common place. My lack of experience means I'll do poorly,which frees me to simply enjoy the process. It's working pretty well that way, so far. (My go-to failure used to be dancing. I was spectacularly bad at dancing, but I took classes, anyway, much to my teacher's confusion. I don't think I'll ever be as bad at anything as I was at dancing. One has to have limits.)

Years ago, another art teacher, the most difficult, challenging instructor I have ever had, refused to allow me into his Figure Drawing classes. I was more than a little pissed off at that and told him so, because when I decide to study a subject, I tend to research and explore that thing in depth, sometimes to obsession and I wanted into his classes to further that. His only response was, "Don't let me or anyone else tell you how to draw bodies." Other artist friends advised me not to go to art school because "it would suck the life out of me." I didn't understand what they were telling me and was hurt by their comments. Now, I suspect these artist teachers were helping me to recognize the importance of staying in Beginner's Mind and out of Knowing.

We've all heard that term, "Beginner's Mind." Yoga teachers, artists, teachers in general, tend to talk up the idea of Beginner's Mind, often at the same time they are pushing you/us to get better, to change, to improve. The drive to improve is not a bad thing; I'm very grateful for the many things which have been improving for me in the past few years, whether this happened by chance, circumstance or hard work.  At the same time, if we're always reaching for that next best thing, if we struggle to get past the beginning stage of anything, we'll miss Here, Right Now. That's too bad, because Here, Right Now is very interesting. Exploring the moment with an open, beginner's mind allows us to see that we're Special Nothings, being Nothing Special, Ambient Beings in a world full of universes. If we're absorbed in a practice of not knowing, that time we spend fully engaged will fly by and expand simultaneously, just as time expanded and stood still for me this morning. It's an exciting experience. We might as well enjoy it when and while we can.

If I could wield my tray of snotty plastic paints and paint the image of our Special Nothingness what a great work that would be. Or not. I'll never know. In honour of that practice and those teachers, I don't plan to do too much more research into acrylic painting, because I'm afraid I'll lose that edge, the sense of uncertainty which come with doing something unfamiliar. Sometimes, not good enough is just - good enough.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Painted Love: A Riff While Waiting for the Next One (For Matthew)

"It's not the job of the artist, the writer, the musician to play nice, be positive, make pretty or sing praises. She may do all those things or none, but the real job of the artist, the writer, the musician is to draw out those images, those words, those notes which tell a Truth. The job of the artist, the writer, the musician is to hold up the mirror and show the world what Is as she sees it."

I'm restless. Winter has swirled in with driving full force, dripping snow and dipping temperatures. I'm between teaching jobs and between tapestries. Truth be told, I never know if there's another paying gig or another piece of weaving in me - each last one feels like The Last One. I've tossed my net out into the Universe. Now, I wait.

There is a tapestry waiting for my attention. The loom is warped; the cartoon is in place. I've spun the yarns. I'm not ready to begin weaving, yet. This latest idea is intense and she's not pretty. She's inspired by my experiences with the Renew for Cancer classes I teach, but she refuses to play along with conventions about "fighting cancer," "being a warrior," and other ideas which have served out their time. She's personal and she may never see the light of day, although something keeps whispering, "Let her out."

Last night, on "Checkup Panel," on CBC National NewsDr. Danielle Martin called for an end to the "militarization" of cancer. She suggested that, instead of talking about "battling cancer," we begin to think of "living with cancer." The 3 medical experts on the panel presented thoughtful, realistic approaches to the treatment of cancer. They cited statistics and dispelled myths. They spoke truth to what I witness in every Renew class: many of us are not interested in fighting anything, especially not our own bodies. We'd much rather focus on healing, on learning to live with life as it is presented to us, whether that involves cancer or any other lesson which every one of us will encounter as we walk along our paths. We're tired of being told how to look, how to live and how to feel. We're looking for a way to just Be. It's this discussion to which the tapestry in waiting speaks. She won't be an easy weave, if she's woven at all.

When you're caught in a struggle, adjusting to the end of something and waiting for the birth of the next thing, it's easy to become frustrated. The rocks on your path may appear as one great, impenetrable wall, rather than individual challenges to be surmounted. When I've had enough of stillness, of waiting to discover whether I need to go over, around or through the rocks, I turn to other forms of creativity.

Today, it was painting. I chose acrylic painting, because I haven't a clue how to do it. (Google was my friend.) I had old tubes of paints, a few brushes and a number of small canvases tucked away for travelling. I hauled them out, cleared off my weaving table and played. I slopped paint, tossed water on my canvases, rubbed out spots with towels and made a mess. The result of an afternoon's work was two tiny paintings. They're nothing to champion, but that's what makes them important. They're pure play, unattached to outcome and I know this is the process that will eventually tell me how to proceed in my latest struggles.

Years ago I designated my fibre room off limits to negative thoughts and behaviours; it can be a challenge to stay with that, but it's an important rule to follow. Thoughts come and I allow them to flow, but I don't chase them. They aren't the way through the rocks. The way through the rocks is to release my usual perspectives, to shift my focus until a bit of light flashes through the cracks and shines the way to an opening for a clearer path. When that happens, I'll know how to proceed, whether it's with the new tapestry or new work.

If you're a creative being (and who among us isn't?) who finds herself in a crisis, personal or artistic, I suggest trying something you're not very good at doing, then do it. The way through a crisis is not to sit and weep at the wall of rocks. At least, it isn't for me. The way through that wall of rocks is to sit, wait and then use the rocks to build something new. Ugly, pretty, good, bad - the words are judgmental. The work itself is not. We're glorious messes of humanity. Go make a mess.


"Winter Light" 12.5 cm x 17.5 cm

"Galaxies" 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

RAK It Up: Revisiting Random Acts of Knitting

We took a quick plunge into full winter temperatures here at the beginning of November. Our warm fall days crashed into minus double digits and for the past week, temperatures have been in the -10C to -15C range; high winds have shifted those temperatures so that it feels as if it's in the -20's.  Those temperatures are to be expected in late December and through January, but not so much in November, where the daytime average is around -3C with a low of -15C.  Brrrrr. It's a great time to be bundled up inside, reading, knitting, enjoying homemade soup.  I've been spinning Merino wool and working on a shawl and some socks as I attempt to finish older projects to clear my slate for the few holiday knits that remain on my list.

As I sit wrapped in a hand knit sweater, on my cozy couch, I listen to local news on the radio. This weekend, a homeless man froze to death in another part of our province. Fortunately, this is still rare enough that it made headlines which garnered compassionate responses; however, the reaction from some people and particularly the Minister for Social Services has been less than stellar. There have been hints of "Not my problem" and more than one suggestion of victim blaming and a shifting of responsibilities for homelessness and hunger onto "other people." (To those who think that homelessness and hunger is not a problem in our city, I invite you to take a walk around our downtown, any time of day.  Then consider that the people you see wandering the streets and sitting on grates are a mere fraction of the people in need.  In our climate, much of the problem is hidden at this time of year, as people are huddled in alley doorways, around power boxes behind malls, moving from bus shelter to bus shelter to stay out of the wind and living in abandoned houses and vehicles.)

As I sit with a woollen shawl draped around my shoulders, in my comfy chair, while I watch another show on Netflix or play on my computer, it occurs to me that this time of year in particular and really, any time, brings perfect opportunities for an intersection between yoga and the work of our hands.  Donating to charities is great, passing along used clothing to organizations to distribute to those is need is wonderful, but perhaps we can also take a hands-on approach to "Being the Change." We can participate in karma/action yoga by sharing our knitting, our crocheting, our weaving or any handwork. We can do that without relying on third parties, by taking our fibre crafts to the street.

Several years back, a group calling itself "Random Acts of Knitting" was active in this city. Group members distributed their hats, scarves, mittens, and other items around town by draping scarves around sculptures, hanging hats from light posts, dropping mittens on park benches and in bus shelters.  Each item was clearly marked to indicate that it was a gift for anyone who wished to have it or to pass along to someone else.  Sometimes, a piece of clothing would be accompanied by an energy bar, bits of chocolate or candy, some dried fruit-anything that isn't damaged by intense weather and which provides fuel to people stuck out in the bitter cold. Gifts were freely given, with no concern as to who might receive them and no expectations of feedback.  Although I'm not sure this group saw its expeditions as such, I think of these events as yoga in action, i.e., karma yoga.

Members of that group are active still, although it's been a long time since they went on a RAK expedition together.  You can join this group as well.  There are no meetings, no fees, no rules.  All one has to do is knit or crochet or otherwise make an article of warm clothing. (There are patterns available on Ravelry.  My free crocheted hat pattern, "You Can Leave Your Hat On, is quick and easy to work.) Whatever you make, be sure to label that the item is there for anyone would wishes to take it. Don't assume that people help themselves to stray articles of winter clothing; I've seen lost hats and sets of mittens stay on the street for weeks, possibly because people think the owners may come looking for their missing apparel. Consider tucking a cold-resistant food item in with your garment.

You can leave your RAK in public places: decorate statues, drop your work on benches, slip things into bus shelters, behind malls, anywhere you wish.  You can offer items directly to someone, but be mindful of approaching people you assume to be less fortunate. They may not need or want your help.  Don't allow your good intentions and gifts to be a source of taking away people's dignity.

As I sit with my feet warmed by hand spun socks, in my well-stocked home, it occurs to me that one hand made hat or scarf is no big deal.  It also occurs to me that if, every person who works with fibre and yarns did a single RAK, together, we could blanket the world.

I spotted this RAK a number of years ago, just before the snow flew.  


Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sanctuary: Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Yesterday, as I walked through the park, I noticed the colours of Winter against a grey sky on a cold, cold day:


Sunday, 9 November 2014

True Colours: Finding Buddha Nature Through Coffee and Cats

A while back, I was having coffee in the Church of Robin's. Mr. DD and I had bumped into a friend and her husband, people we hadn't seen in quite some time. I had worked with Ursy for years in an arts centre; Ed, her husband, had been in the studio on a regular basis, helping Ursy make her massive sheets of paper, assisting with the construction of her art pieces and maintaining the equipment needed for Ursy to work. The four of us were having a good catch-up. I was waiting for the start of yoga teacher training and was babbling about my yoga practice and how excited I was to be entering the programme.  Ursy asked me how long I had been practising yoga and meditation. When I told her, proudly, that it had been decades, she looked at me and deadpanned, "Well! I would have expected you to be a much better person by now."

We laughed so hard we thought we'd be asked to leave. With that one sentence, Ursy pierced through my ego, right to the heart of the matter.  She knew nothing about yoga or much about meditation, but she knew me, knew when I needed to be encouraged and when I needed to be reined in.  She also was perceptive on a much larger scale; Ursy knew what I was just beginning to suspect: our practice does not make us "better," if only because there is no need of that. We are fine the way we are; what we need is to become more of ourselves, in all our messy glory.

Learning to be and to accept ourselves is not an easy process. I mess up every single day. I jump in with opinions when it is best to remain silent, speak too quickly, hurt people unintentionally, take actions which later make me cringe. It's hard to find a balance between observing these behaviours and chastising myself for having acted in ways that are, well, exquisitely human. When I shift to observing what I do "right," I run the risk of smugness, arrogance and rationalization of bad behaviours as "just being myself."

If we work on accepting events, behaviours and conditions as neither good nor bad, but simply as that which happens, we may be able to find what Heather, my meditation teacher, calls "equilibrium." Finding equilibrium allows us to develop clear view, a point where we can engage fully in our lives, while accepting that we are humans who screw things up and get them right. Practising balance can lead us to simplicity and a sense of ease. If this moment is not quite to our liking, we can learn to enjoy it as it is. Perhaps (most certainly) the next moment will bring something else.

And guess what, Ursy? Now that I have passed through teacher training, and despite the fact that I make an effort to maintain a regular practice, I am not a better person.  I still mess up, still speak too quickly or too soon.  I am often thoughtless, but I'm more mindful about doing so. Finding equilibrium, our true Buddha Nature, is no easy task. I shift from aversion to attachment and back again from moment to moment. What has changed is that the compassion I work on extending to others is spilling over a bit to myself.  Instead of chastising myself for days over some minor mishap, I work on observing my behaviours.  I make an effort to allow those actions which seem to be closer to my true nature to shine through all the layers I pile on to hide my Self.  Layering never works; as Ursy pointed out so clearly in the coffee shop, shielding ourselves behind ego or anger or compassionate acts (if practised for recognition or anything other than the act itself) doesn't protect us. Someone or something will always pierce to the heart of the matter.  Practising balance will help us do this for ourselves.

It can be difficult to find someone to guide you in this practice.  I've had many teachers over the years and they have all provided valuable lessons, but, the creature I would most like to emulate is Mick, my very old, often miserable cat. Although he has been with us for 16 years, Mickey retains some of his wild street nature from his early life.  Age has mellowed him, but he is still prone to demanding a cuddle then slashing or biting you without provocation. Over the years, we have learned to be keen observers of Mick's true nature.  Mick's behaviour is nothing personal; it is simply the way he is and we love him for it. (We do remind him that very few humans would have put up with him for as long as we have.) Because of this, we nicknamed him "Buddha," because whatever Mickey is, he is always true to himself. I find this ability inspiring, although I work on avoiding the slashing out or biting aspect of his nature.  Here he is, guarding the current knitting and spinning projects:

"Yes, I am sitting on the kitchen table. What's your point?"

I've observed Mick and his Buddha Nature as he learned to trust us after we brought him in from the streets.  I've nursed him through mishaps which occurred in our early days when he sneaked out of the house and returned to roaming the streets.  I've worried as he went through what was nearly a fatal illness, an illness through which he suffered great pain and distress and which he bore stoically, as cats do. I've been grateful for the time when he put aside his aggressive tendencies to sit with me for hours, days and months as I dealt with my own illness (which I didn't accept as stoically as he seemed to accept his own).  I laughed when he returned to being a thoroughly miserable beast when I was well again. I know that I will lose him one day, just as I have and will lose all the friends and gurus who have guided me in finding myself. That, too, is our true nature. It is enough.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

This Morning, Waiting for a Bus

While you were busy, watching the world on your devices
I was busy, watching mice
As they crawled in the bushes.
At the stop where you were checking the daily rushes
Of life as it flashed by on your machines,
I was checking the tracks of the mice scampering
When they saw that they had been seen.