Once upon a time, when my now-husband and I had just met & we were completely out of our minds for one another, we spent a weekend together, both blithely using debit cards that had (unbeknownst to us) ceased to be connected to bank accounts containing any money at all. So, Heineken mini-keg: $12, plus $36 overdraft fee. Bagel with cream cheese: $4, plus $36 overdraft fee. Two tickets to see Shrek 2 at the drive-in movies in Fairlee, VT: $10, plus $36 overdraft fee. You get the idea. It is worth noting that we both also had credit cards the whole time, but didn't use them. Together, we racked up something like $800 in overdraft fees over the course of three days. It was awesome. Bank of Evil was 100% unmoved by my argument that persons experiencing unprecedented levels of love-hormones should be granted amnesty from stupid financial decisions, just as deer in rut should not be hunted.
Among all those transactions, best of all was: custom $12 roll of Jenny Holzer-inspired Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise American flag mailing labels, $36 overdraft fee. There is something absolutely perfect about that, no? The medium is the message. The same bank that about 5 years later would be receiving a multi-billion-dollar bailout from me, the love-struck taxpayer, for big-time mortgage naughtiness, was prim and remorseless about my bagel, my stickers, and my post-grad-school poverty.
Yesterday, I read this story about jailed & tormented Chinese women dissidents. Wow, I thought. I wonder what they were doing, that was so scary to the government? Answer: they were planning a series of protests against sexual harassment of women on public transportation. Really? Mentioning that it might not be OK to grope people as they make their way in the world is scary enough to throw some women in jail, transport them far from home, and threaten them with gang rape? Just like, some guy running away from the cops because he owes child support is scary enough to warrant shooting him repeatedly in the back & then claiming he is a taser-thief, because you need some shred of evidence to sort-of begin to excuse your actions?
Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise may sound like the "discouraging word" that is seldom heard on the mythical Range, but I don't see it that way. I see it as an invitation to wake up & stop pretending that what is happening is really not-happening. I see it as an invitation to notice when I am the one abusing, when I am the one being abused, and when I am observing these abuses happening in the world. It's a way of looking at the world with a sense of, Huh. There that goes again. Whatever they're/we're/he's/she's/I'm calling it these days, its true name is Abuse of Power. Don't be fooled. Don't let anyone try to talk you out of what you know.
I have come to the conclusion that it is time to bust out those overdraft-fee labels & post them widely. If you'd like some, send me your address & I will mail them out to you ASAP.
Flying back to the US yesterday, as each plane landed, I thought Thank you, dinosaur-oil! Thank you, working people! Thank you, parents! Thank you, beings I have eaten! Thank you, entire world, for making this impossible flight possible.
Fly across the ocean, and the world changes. In New Hampshire I found winter again. Not winter-winter, but the kind of evening where you definitely want the pellet stove on, and it makes sense to wear a light wool coat indoors. My fingers turned white as petals, and I had to stuff them under Timothy's leg to warm them up. Tricky, as I was also trying to stuff ravioli in my mouth at the time.
Above - a stack of ripe tulip petals from my mother's garden in Switzerland, glowing in late afternoon sunlight. We won't have tulips here for another while. But, the rhubarb and raspberries are waking up, and all but the most giant snow piles are gone. Letting petal-shock go, I re-settle this here and now.
1. What type of creative work do you do? In what media do you work?
I've worked all across media & disciplines, as need & interest arise. My undergrad degree is in Photography - but even 20 years ago, I was setting up room-sized paintings, photographing them, and then painting on the prints. As a graduate student - 10 years later - I started making installation work that takes Buddhist ideas and manifests them in interactive forms that people can literally enter into. So, for example, for my 10th reunion I offered a literal Indra's Net, where the 1300 people I matriculated with could use string to connect one another's names as they had in fact been related through thousands of meetings and interactions, into a vast & very tangible cat's cradle. Later, I studied Thangka painting in India with a Tibetan teacher. Those studies have translated into scroll paintings based on iconography of ordinary people's hands/mudras. While I love materials and process, I am not interested in identifying with a particular material or style.
2. How long have you been meditating and in what tradition?
I've been meditating for about 20 years, beginning in the Thai forest tradition, with a stint in monastic life, and continuing through Zen and Mahamudra. Again, I am not interested in identifying with a particular school or tradition - I am interested in what works towards liberation, both for myself and for my students, since I am now teaching meditation.
3. Does your meditation practice inform or affect your creative process? If so, how?
Yes, of course. Practice affects everything. I think the clearest connection is the kind of faith-mind that arises through improvisation in the studio, and through sustained contemplative practice. In the last few years, engaging in improvisational movement has been incredible for learning to open to a fully embodied practice with others, in real time. I think my practice life is richer for my art-life, and my art-life is richer for my practice. Meditation helps to see through the ego-based nonsense that is so prevalent in the art world, and art practice helps to see through the spiritual bypassing nonsense that is so prevalent in the "spiritual" world.
4. For you, are meditation and creative practices the same? How do they differ?
Same-same, but different. I think a key difference is that both worlds demand study of tradition and process, but art practice more obviously & sooner demands attention to particular, idiosyncratic form. Art practice wants to know, How do these possibilities manifest in THIS life? Of course, spiritual practice wants to know this, too. Sadly, it's also entirely possible to hide out in pat solutions whether you are an artist or a meditator. Thomas Merton's essay on Integrity, from New Seeds of Contemplation, has been particularly helpful to me in articulating this question of bringing practice to particular life.
5. Are there other ways that you incorporate your spiritual beliefs into your creative or artistic process (e.g., ethical conduct, generosity)?
Sure - I try to. Answering this questionnaire is a way of generosity. I pay attention to where my materials come from, and whom I am dealing with. I try to undertake projects on faith & to remember that the true measure of my work & worth is not to be found among the worldly winds. I try to express my appreciation for the generosity of others, and to support my artist & practitioner friends. And I try to make work that is an expression of the Dhamma as it moves through the world.
6. What specific techniques might help an artist incorporate meditative awareness into the art creation process (e.g., forming an intention prior to creation)?
For me, contemplative practice is about letting go into Being, and Knowing, and creative practice is the same. So, an intention of trust, and of being willing to see & be responsible to whatever arises, without prior demands of goodness, or beauty, or whatever. To be truly engaged in their work, artists and meditators have to be willing to be with what is unlikable, unfashionable, ugly, unsalable, unpopular, and unsayable. If you want to look good & be good all the time, and if you think you can follow some pre-existing format to fame, fortune, and enlightenment, you can kiss the whole thing goodbye, because it won't work.
7. What additional question would you like to answer that I have not asked? Or what question(s) would you recommend revising or deleting?
Does it matter to find & befriend & learn from other people who are engaging with art and meditation at a deep level? You bet your ass, it does! We are odd ducks, there are a lot of us, and we have a lot to offer in terms of bringing Western Buddhisms into life.
Is there something meditator-artists can offer to the larger Buddhist community in the West? For starters, we need to start making contemporary iconography for meditation centers and private homes. Until we start seeing Buddhas that look something like us - black, white, brown, Latina, Asian, fat, skinny, old, young, tattooed, queer, straight, we're going to keep nurturing delusions of the Buddha somewhere else, with a pointy head & Asian manners, and that is NOT the point, friends.
Lisa Gilbert is an artist and a researcher collecting responses from long-term artist-meditators. If you are interested in joining her study, you can contact her through her website.
This long lake valley opening between Lausanne and Geneva is not un pays de loups (wolves' country). So much is staked, regularized, protected, mown. If I were a wolf here, I would have to hide in the scrubby strips along the tracks all ay, and hope for the best at night, among espaliered apples and the tall graceful shade trees over absolutely flat lawns. I would have to have a fine nose to find other wild creatures to befriend, or to eat.
It does not behoove a wolf to eat food grown in rows, and I am not so sure it behooves us, either. Row-food, row-phones, row-houses. The soul grows small, and forgets to visit swans' nests at night, under the crescent moon, rattling underground with leaves like tiny bones, to reach the dark waters' edge. The soul grows small, and once small, agrees that this is a dangerous, expensive world, rather than a wondrous, abundant one.
A wild swan sits on her nest at the edge of the harbor, under sodium-vapor lights. Her neck is a thick, feathered snake, russet where it bends. Her eye is alive, she is at rest but she sees. Nest of scattered driftwood, resting swan. Eggs underneath, growing without changing shape. The stubs of the plane trees' arms glow against dark sky. Venus hovers centered on the new moon crescent.
On the water something dark is stretching itself, is rising and lengthening. It is a seal it is a mad nocturnal swimmer it is a swan drying his wings coming in to harbor from the vast darkness of open lake waters.
The swan is there on the nest, the swan is in the water, the swan is pulling down from his chest lining the scooped-out nest the ten pale-grey eggs. Swan from afar, come near. Swan on the nest, go out, released, shaking your tail, rubbery black feet paddling silently the slate-grey limpid lakewater.
My grandmother died peacefully in her bed earlier this month, aged 101. Yesterday my mother & my cousin & I went to take basic care of her house: throw away old toothbrushes, clear the food from the kitchen cupboards, put wool blankets & sweaters away from moths & meese, and rescue orphaned houseplants. The house was very quiet - eerie, and dead, like a low-budget museum of itself, without fancy curators.
In the laundry & sewing room, which was a favorite place of my childhood, I found this familiar embroidery hanging behind the door to the pink attic bedroom where my mother slept as a girl. Only God. Or: All is God. A useful reminder: that ornate dresser on the landing, with the box of mouse-bait sitting next to a Roman amphora? God. The radiator by the window, sporting an old rug and a fox fur? God. Giant underpants, midcentury cold medicine, and ancient towels with raveling monograms? God, God, God.
My grandmother and her house died together after almost 80 years' companionship. What will happen next? Only God knows.
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to let go of them all.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha way is unattainable, I vow to embody it.
So it goes.
This morning the angry-sounding wasp at the window buzzes just on cue to be a guest star on I vow to free them all. Big clumsy clog, brush the beast towards the gap between the window's two sides with one hand, pull the window open against heavy curtains with the other. There. Off into the morning with you, friend. And may this grey day be a day of wonders for you, too.
I start small, standing at the window overlooking the tarmac, One World Trade on the near horizon, startling in its newness, even as today's airplanes take off eerily against it, under cloudless sky. First the chi gong: bend at the waist, arms go back, arms sweep up, body finds the often-rehearsed shapes, which mind finds hard to describe in words. I start small, but it's the seed of a large practice, which I presently find myself cheerfully doing in its entirety - kicks, spins, and all. Empty gates are the vacant lots of air travel, gathering to themselves the oddballs & malingerers in concentric, shifting patterns. This moving isn't a performance - it's an assertion of freedom in an otherwise boredom-steeped, smoothie-slurping nowhere-land. Here I am, loosed to follow the beautiful thread of the 108-move Yang style long form.
As I finish, a sixty-something man in a leather beret comes forward, "What kind of tai chi is that?" He's stoked! Some other lunatic does this thing that's surely a bit of a rarity in Louisville, KY, where he's from. And she's just done a whole bunch of it, right here on the edge of this construction site, with the cherry-picker crane & the scaffolding & the bleary waiting people with overambitious roller bags. I ask him what he practices & he tells me the 12, the 24 , and the 36. He tells me he recognized some of what I did & shows me something that looks midway between Single Whip and Repulse Monkey. He tells me how he's into the martial side of things & not just the health side, see? And the power in the form is in turning the waist.
We repulse a few monkeys together, and then I wish him well on his trip to France, to see a nephew play pro basketball in Aix-les-Bains. Later, when we are in line together to get on the plane, he shows me a picture of himself with the martial teacher and the health teacher on either side & a bigass trophy in his arms. First place tai chi!
Before the dicey airport internet kicked out, I thought I wanted to spend more time in my screen, but the universe was having none of it. Time to move in the world, to kick & spin & spool my way through public space, fully alive, exposed in my awkwardness & furry armpits, open, faltering, flying, putting to good use all that this life & my teachers have taught me.
108 Names of Now