Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Enough Already

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.12

abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ

Through diligent effort and non-attachment to results, we will settle our mind. (My loose translation.)

This sutra has been sticking with me these past several weeks, particularly the notion of vairāgya, or non-attachment to results.  I have read, memorized and chanted this sutra for years now but, for most of the time, it was just words.  I suspect I could have been chanting Mary Had A Little Lamb for all that I understood it or believed it.  And yet, suddenly the opportunities to release my hold, my expectations, on getting my desired results have been piling up.  They have been piling up so high that even I have had to stop and take notice.  

This non-attachment to results aims directly at the heart of my ambitions for myself so it takes nearly an metaphorical anvil falling on my head for me to pay attention.  Indeed, I have worked extremely hard for most of my life to deliberately NOT pay attention because paying attention might mean that I will have to give up some long-held beliefs, and, seriously, who wants to do that?  I won't catalogue the list for you (you're welcome!) but I do want to describe one situation.  I want to describe it because it involves yoga asana practice.  

Believe or not, I frequently question the validity of yoga asana.  Why is it any different from general stretching or acrobatics?  There is enough written about the history of contemporary asana practice as we have come to know it to show that it isn't divorced from Westernized ideas about health through physical fitness.  If my goal is to settle my mind, why am I putting my legs behind my head almost everyday?  I may have a slight (ahem!) exercise addiction and it is possible that I am a little vain about the current state of my abs (ahem, again!), so I am not unaware that yoga asana is feeding some less than healthy states of mind for me.  So why?  Why do it?

Here's why I do it (abs and addictions aside).  The past two mornings, I have gone into my Mysore class in Manhattan.  It is just south of Times Square and walking through Times Square each morning is nothing less than a major yoga practice all its own, let me tell you!  But I digress.  Yesterday, my teacher pointed out how I was holding my pelvis in an certain asana.  In fact, I was doing this particular action in every asana but, for whatever reason, it actually became clear to me at that moment and I shifted.  It almost makes me want to cry to even write about what happened.  It was so subtle and so immense.  I shifted and something somewhere near my sacrum released and when it released, it was like a monumental "ahhhhhhhhh."  It was like years of tension and misguided effort and teeth-clenching and striving melted away.  Not only did my psoas release (which is what I think actually happened), but a large muscle up my spine released, which took a lot of pressure off of a lot of nerves.  All that tension meant that I had been in pain pretty much all the time but it was so constant that I didn't even know I was in pain until it went away.  

And I am pretty sure it wasn't just physical pain either.

Today, it released more.  Not only is my asana practice feeling different, simply walking around feels totally different.  Here's the thing - I had no idea!  The person who is supposedly so tuned into her body had no idea that I was carrying around that much tension all the time.  Damn!  This, my friends, is why we do asana practice.

So what about vairāgya?  Once that tension released, I didn't want to go back to my usual practice.  I need time to integrate what happened and this means I scaled back practice to something that looks much simpler and "easier" than what I normally do.  Even a month ago, I would be having anxiety about doing less and not achieving more, not marching forward towards the great goal.  You know...the goal!  Don't ask me what the goal is because it's always been right there - just outside of my line of sight, just beyond my grasp.

So today, I did LESS than I am capable of and it was okay.  It was good even.  And I thought about my Zen practice and my art career and my yoga teaching and my parenting and all my relationships, and I thought, however it is going right now - it's enough.  It's plenty!  It's plenty and it is enough.  I don't need to fix anything or add anything or achieve anything or get rid of anything.  There is nowhere to go, nothing to cover up and there is no goal.

No goal.

May all beings release their psoas and realize the great wisdom that comes from a balanced sacrum!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Move Over, Richard Serra

When it comes to big egos in the art world, let's face it, there is a lot of competition.  In fact, it is kind of a given because, again let's face it, when no one gives a damn what you do or make, it takes a pretty strong sense of one's own vision and worthiness to actually express that vision.  It's a delicate balance between having a healthy amount of self-esteem to keep going in the face of continual rejection and having a massive ego that is always whispering in your ear, "I must express MY vision, do MY work, me, me, me....and screw you."

I have known plenty of excellent artists who didn't have enough of the former to keep going and I have known plenty of terrible artists who had too much of the latter who are still out there, making...er...stuff.  Naturally I like to think of myself as the humble but strong artist, working away for the simple love of making things.  But if I am honest with myself, there have been some pivotal moments when I had a choice between making other people happy and making my work and I chose making my work.  I suspect that, for anyone who is serious about making art, this will happen eventually and more than once.  Maybe it isn't even about having a big ego, maybe it is simply knowing that this is what you are here to do and then, doing it.  In yoga, we would say it is following one's dharma.  There is a line in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna tells Arjuna that it is better to follow one's dharma with faults than to be wildly successful at something that isn't one's dharma.  (Chapter 3, verse 35, for those who care about that kind of thing.)

And so, with all my faults, I carry on.

Several years ago, the Metropolitan Museum had a show of drawings by Richard Serra, an artist whom no one ever accused of having a deferential nature.  It was an excellent show, and despite myself and my feelings about Richard Serra and his ego, I really loved the work.  They were monumental drawings made black oil stick covering (almost) every inch of the paper.

Courtesy of the New York Times, April 14, 2011.
I really loved them,  except.

Except, the oil stick caused a kind of reflection of the light, a shininess that bugged me.  "How much better these would be if they were made of black wool that would absorb the light!" I thought.  Indeed, I have thought about this idea for these several years and it has not gotten old or died from boredom.  Indeed, this idea has insisted that I purchase 45lbs of black wool and begin to spin it so I can make my response to those Richard Serra drawings.

But a fraction of the boxes containing said wool.

As I have finally put my money (and time and energy) where my mouth is, I can't help but laugh at the notion that little ol' me, the one who has taken vows to serve and be a bodhisattva, is taking on one of the biggest egos in the art world.

You can draw your own conclusions!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Please Teach Me

This past weekend, I had the honor of being the monitor for a person who was sitting Tangaryo.  In our tradition, this means sitting in zazen for almost 12 hours (dawn 'til dusk) as the final step before becoming a formal student in the Order.  It is based on the traditional practice at Zen monasteries of making the person requesting the teachings to bang on the door and be turned away three times over the course of three days - they sit outside the gate for three days, no doubt stewing about exactly why they want the teachings so badly that they are willing to sit outside for three days while rudely being turned away by some joker behind the door.  In the Mountains and Rivers Order, the process isn't quite so harsh.  But it isn't quite so easy either.  There are several steps that take months of discernment and effort to complete.  As I mentioned, the last step is sitting Tangaryo.

The process is pretty simple - get up early and begin sitting.  Stay that way until lunchtime.  After lunch, sit again until evening.  It amounts to about 12 hours.  One is encouraged not to move very much so there is no walking meditation and no set periods or bells or anything.  It is just yourself with yourself.  I remember clearly when I did it thinking that I was glad it was something I would only have to do once.  It's not so easy!

But, things change.  Being asked to be the monitor, who is the person who sits with the potential student(s) to make sure everything is ok, is an honor.  It is a chance to serve and be a part of this very special process.  It also means that I am setting an example of strong sitting and generally creating a certain tone, which actually does happen even when you are in silence and just sitting still in a room together.  Energy is created.  A life-long bond is created.  Funny, but true.

The next morning, as part of the Sunday service, there is an "entering ceremony" for the new student and I got to be part of that as well.  Remembering back to when I did that ceremony, it was all blur and it seemed impossible to remember my cues.  Somehow, the simple instructions felt hopelessly complex and beyond my abilities.  This time, I realized much of the protocol already exists in my body - when to bow, how to approach the altar - it felt clear and natural, not quite the stormy, grey waters of four years ago.

Is this progress?  Maybe, I suppose.  But then again, it is possible to learn new things.  I am not sure it makes them special, if you know what I mean.  As I reflected on my own Tangaryo experiences and how the whole thing felt so different now, I realized that I honestly had no idea what I was getting into when I asked to be a student.  Because that is the very last step of all - actually sitting in front of the teacher, just the two of you, and saying the words, "Please teach me."

Yes, I had no idea at all.  And may it always be so!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tap, Tap...Is This Thing On?

What the heck is going on here?  No posts for ages.  My hits are way down.  It's like something happened and everyone forgot to tell me about it!  

Nah.  It's just...life happened.  Finn and Lucy have been getting settled into their fall schedules.  I was back up at the Monastery again for a little bit.  Various yoga training stuff has been taking up my attention.  And, you know, the usual never-ending things like cooking and cleaning and pissing off most of the New York City homeschooling community with demands for self-reflection.  Turns out, people hate that.  

But Art also happened!  Art IS happening!  Indeed, I stand poised on the verge of making a large investment in wool for my Next Big Thing.  You see, I have a vision.  It is a vision of how something needs to look in order to convey the idea of what I want to convey.  The project is still in the "you know what would be wicked cool?" stage when I am totally psyched about the materials and the process and the idea.  In order to keep this excitement going, it is critical that I ignore the somewhat forlorn pile of boxes that is my Fierce Heart project returned from South Dakota and, instead, picture the new piles of boxes containing the materials that will be transformed into this vision.

I have been debating back and forth about this project and which vision exactly I want to present but given its large, time consuming nature, I need to make a decision.  I am thisclose to doing it.  All will be revealed in the fullness of time, be assured.

And meanwhile...

Lucy turned 16!  Not so surprisingly, she is a pretty amazing young woman, confident and with strong opinions (especially about what her mother is wearing, saying and doing).  I am very happy to know her.  Here she is at about age two...a really cutie-pie!
Lucy and The Flabber, a slightly traumatizing doll to give a two-year old but, hey, a gift is a gift.
I am working on a new sweater!  I have already made some changes to the design but it is entertaining and I can still carry it on the subway so there is some progress being made.

Here is a funny little butternut squash who was all confused about what it wanted to be when it grew up.  He became part of our Canadian Thanksgiving dinner.  A right tasty little guy, he was (and from the Monastery garden, too!)

And these?  These are the last flowers of the season from my garden, proving that even the most seriously neglected plot of land will produce great beauty if left to its own devices.

More is coming.  Oh yes, more is coming.

Friday, October 03, 2014


It was a little over a year ago that I began a project as Artist in Residence with A Handmade Assembly.  If you remember, it was about the interconnectedness of my online and "real" life - were they two nets or one?  Which one was more real?  Where were the connections and overlaps?  And why was it so difficult to keep track of everything?

I kept the resulting installation up on my studio wall for a year.  As visitors came and went, they inevitably commented on it and studied it.  Perhaps they were looking for themselves.  Each time, I felt quite exposed, not entirely pleased to be revealing the entirety of my world to this one person within it.  It was funny and uncomfortable at the same time.  

Today, I decided it was time to take it down, knowing that it would be permanently destroyed in the process.  I didn't expect that I would relive many of those encounters that I documented with bits of paper, pins and string.  But there it was - even emails and text messages - all rolling back to me in full technicolor.  Call it "How I Spent October 2013" as expressed in symbol, yarn and thought. 

The piece was so delicate and ephemeral.  It literally fluttered to ground.  It was almost more beautiful in its disassembly than in its creation.  The totality of those bits of paper and string could fit in a small box or jar.  The memories, however, feel larger and more solid than all of Long Island City.