An American Adventure: Part One

We set out Friday, May 19 from Wisconsin at 5:00 a.m., sunrise behind us, tornadoes ahead. Crossing Kansas, the sky sat heavy and dark all around; the radio announced storm details for counties we couldn’t identify on our general road map. We drove perpendicular to them, it turns out, and emerged awed and unscathed into nighttime in Colorado. After two brief naps in the car at the side of the road, we met the sunshine in Pueblo and stopped for breakfast in Cañon City. The tourist attractions don’t impress us. We choose our town stops based on U.S. Forest Service offices. Picking up maps and asking questions is right up there with filling the gas tank and eating a meal. Although the office was not yet open, the kiosk outside was full of helpful information. After breakfast, we made our way up through Royal Gorge into the mountains toward Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. A late spring storm had dumped record-breaking inches of snow throughout the Rockies just two days before, and some roads were still impassable. We would see more consequences of that storm in the days to come. 

I try to be mindful of the adventure of traveling. It is so much more than the preparation and packing, the sights out the window and the passage of time. How do I respond to discomfort? To contrast? To expectations and disappointment? What am I looking for? What is important to me? What do I feel?

And then…how do I turn away from my ego and discover what this place is? What is its pace? Its scale? Its history? Its character?

Getting out of the car is a big step. Leaving a computer screen, a phone screen, and a windscreen behind opens up a new world. The Earth smells amazing. Heat and cold feel amazing. Being surrounded by living things is truly amazing. And that’s a good place to begin. I am amazed, humbled, ready to open up to new experience. 

Mindful in a New Administration

I have been struggling, like so many others, with the changes in the Administration of this country. I have listened and read and watched and felt and thought until the tears stream down my face. Finally, yesterday, I decided to write a response. Here’s what came out: 

Angry rich man impoverishing my country,
Diminishing the things I value,
Raping the planet, denying the change,
Stripping the endowed,
Demeaning the love you cannot attract,
Twisted in hate and fear and rage,
Puckered and discolored,
Bitter and sour as a kumquat,
Greedy as a black hole,
Blaming, shaming,
Raving, enslaving,
Cursing and worsening –
Can compassion arise in my soul
for you?
Or will I begin to identify with my own anger, my own fear,
seek my own protection,
build a wall around my heart
and regress to reptilian reflexes?
You are a bell of mindfulness.
I might thank you one day.

My partner, Steve, suggested that I take this exercise in identifying the emotions I feel when I read the news and form a gatha. I had to look that up; I discovered that it is a kind of prayer or vow that can bring a simple task, like brushing your teeth, into mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hahn provides this example: “Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, I vow to speak purely and lovingly. When my mouth is fragrant with right speech, a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.” Steve then remembered reading The Fifth Precept which talks about consumption in the context of the Eightfold Path of right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.  I found this statement of it:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.”

The gatha I developed for myself to say when I turn on my computer goes like this: “I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing mindful consumption of media and news.” I don’t have a television, but if I did, I’d turn to this reminder before I used it.

The point is that the news and social media can play a major role in our cultural awareness.  I want to keep that role in a reasonable perspective as much as I can, and I want to keep this Administration in a reasonable perspective. I’m not sure exactly what that is. It’s too early to tell how much it will affect my decisions and actions in a concrete way. What it has done is connect me with the emotions and choices of people I care about; whether or not I share those feelings and decisions, I am hearing a lot about them. This Administration does give us the opportunity to examine our values and explore how to take action in response. I want to engage in mature and positive activities as much as possible such as dialogue, education, and community-building. I see blogging as one way to do this, although it is “virtual” and not “actual”. One thing I am doing in the “actual” world is starting rehearsal with a “communiversity” chorus in my new home town. I start tomorrow night, after a meeting at the Town Hall.
Thank you for being my online community. I appreciate your visits!
Namaste, and Peace!
– scillagrace

A humble smile

Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine.  For the  table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well.  It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!

Vivid

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Texture

Texture: that which we touch, which touches us, which we feel.  Texture lets us know we’re alive, we’re here, we’re present and presently interacting.  Texture teaches us that the world is sameness and contrast – smooth, cold, rough, warm – and solid as concrete. 

How much do you pay attention to what you touch and what touches you? 

When you become fully mindful of something’s presence, do you feel more fully alive? 

Have you ever lost the concept of time as you stroked silky fur, or dipped your toes in flowing water? 

Time pales in significance when I am present with something completely.

Advent Day #19 – Divinity

Have Some Divinity

The premise is this: for each day in December, instead of counting down on an Advent calendar, I’m counting the free gifts we all get every day.  Today’s gift is divinity, but I don’t mean the candy.  I mean The Divine, The Sacred, The Holy and experiences of them.  Don’t we all have the opportunity to receive that every day?  If you look for it, will you find it?  I think so.

So, what is sacred?  How do you recognize the divine and holy?  In art, there’s always a halo or a sunbeam to give you a clue.  What about here on earth?

‘Namaste’ is the Sanskrit greeting recognizing the existence of another person and the divine spark in that person, with the hands pressed together in front of the heart chakra.  I think the divine spark exists in every living thing as the breath of life.  Every encounter with a living thing is an experience of the divine.  We hardly ever act like that is true, however.  But we could.  Native Americans and many African tribes have hunting rituals that celebrate the sacred exchange of life.  The hunted animal is divine, sacrificing itself for the life of the hunter, and the hunter shows a holy appreciation.  Often, when I look at macro photography of living things, flower stamens, insects, mosses, I am compelled to worship the divine in the detail.  Life is sacred and beautiful.  Looking closely and deeply is a way to practice recognizing that.

 

Seeing macro, but lacking the lens

In a dualistic world view, the mundane and the divine are polar opposites.  One is worldly, one is sacred.  If this world were imbued with holiness, if God became incarnate and entered flesh in this world, those opposites would run together like watercolors.  Many cultures believe this is the truth about life.  The waters under the firmament and the waters above the firmament are separated in one telling of the creation story, but the Spirit of God was moving over all of the waters from the very beginning, even in that story.  The understanding that divinity is everywhere has inspired people all over the globe for centuries.  This place we inhabit is special; it’s valuable.  It’s all holy.  This is the beginning of respect for the Universe and everything in it.  Somewhere in Western history, that idea lost its power.  Earth and everything in it became base and fallen.  Good turned to bad and life turned to death.  I’m not sure if that new idea has been very helpful.  I rather think it hasn’t.  And I don’t think it has to be that way.  It’s an idea, after all.  So if it’s not a helpful idea, why support it?  How would you rather live?  In a fallen world or in a world where the sacred and divine can be found everywhere?  Just wondering out loud.  I’m not saying that one idea is right and the other wrong.  The glass is neither half full nor half empty.  It’s a glass, and there’s water in it.  The rest is conceptual.  Why argue?  Choose how to live with the glass and the water.   As for me and my house, “I choose happy.”  (One of Jim’s conclusive statements.)

I hope this gives you something to ponder for today.  If you like, you can add a scene of Edmund Pevensie in Narnia being asked by the White Witch what he craves.  “It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating.  What would you like best to eat?”  “Turkish Delight, please your Majesty!” he responds.  What if he had said, “Divinity”?  Same story, nuanced.  I would like to taste the sacred in this world, and I believe it’s here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

Habit might be the enemy of Awareness or Mindfulness.  Doing things routinely without thinking is a practice that allows our mind to wander into the past or the future or the make believe without really being present.  Sometimes, this is just what I want to do!  Yes, I admit to blowing up Mah Jong tiles and Free Cell rows when I want to veg out.  But if I want to be truly alive, I try to pay attention to each present moment.  Thich Nhat Hahn gives a wonderful lesson to Oprah Winfrey on drinking tea mindfully in this clip.  Oprah, out of habit, takes a sip of her tea before the meditation even begins.  I smile, thinking, “how embarrassing!” and noting that I probably would have done the same thing if I wasn’t careful.  Habits can be comforting…and they can lull us to sleep.  Do you want to be awake?  Do you feel like there will be plenty of time to be dead – later on?  I do.  Except when I don’t.  It takes a lot of psychic energy to be alive!  Think about all that’s involved when you do a simple thing like climb up a short flight of stairs.  Your weight is shifting, balancing, your muscles are contracting, your toes are gripping, your hand may reach out to the banister, your eyes are measuring the height of each step, you’re breathing with the exertion, and all while trying to remember what you’re going upstairs for!  Walking meditation, tea meditation, stairs meditation…it’s all the same practice of mindfulness.  This picture adds another aspect: Steve meditation.  I see him every day.  I want to be mindful of that miracle.  He’s alive, different, changing, dynamic, and important.  So am I (but I have a long way to go on that one…appreciating myself is the hardest practice for me!).

Habit