Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Stencil for My Brother

(Warning to any meditation addicts out there - this post has absolutely nothing to do with meditation, so you will not get your fix here...)

Yay! The exciting day has arrived! About 4 months ago my brother Pat, who lives in England, asked me to do a stencil for his newly renovated house. Just being asked to do the stencil was quite a compliment because my brother is an industrial designer and very particular about his house furnishings.

To give you an example - he painted his living-room seven times before he got exactly the right shade of white he wanted. (And he only got that by mixing two other shades together.) After the room had been painted he ordered some furniture on-line and said he nearly vomited when his couch arrived and it wasn't quite the right shade of white. I didn't know that there was more than one shade of white...let alone seven.

So, getting this request from my brother was very flattering. (Kind of a like a first year piano student being called up to conduct the London Philharmonic.) 

This stenciling stuff is all very new to me.  A friend told me about it a few months ago and it seemed like a hobby I could do where I could just do a bit of work every day - designing, or cutting, or spraying a stencil.  I sold my first stencil on e-bay just before Christmas and was so happy because it was the first money I'd earned in over ten years!  Wowser. Quite an achievement.  I couldn't believe someone would pay to have an artwork of mine on their walls. (I have three very artistic siblings, and they couldn't believe it either).

For the stencil design  I picked a photo that I'd taken about 2 years ago of my nephew Aidan.  This is one of my favorite photos, because  it captures Aidan's gentle personality. 

This was the stencil design I came up with:

I sprayed the stencil onto flat canvas, then rolled it up and sent it over to Pat. This is a close-up photo of part of the stencil - 

and these are the photos he just sent me.  I think it looks great!  He paid me for it, so now when people ask me what I do - instead of telling them I lie in bed with an ice-pack on my head, I'll tell them I'm an artist.  Woohoo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Barry Manilow's Kitten

My sister gave this card to me yesterday and I thought it was worth sharing because it gave us such a laugh.  (It was made by a Melbourne design company, Able and Game.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Walking off the battlefield

I've been having a doozy of a week, which is why I haven't posted for a while.  

A few weeks ago I moved into a share house in Ballarat, a regional city in Australia.  I was living at my parent's farm, which is 10 minutes outside of town, but my parents - at the ripe young ages of 69 and 74 - decided to separate, and I realised having front row seats to my parents’ divorce wasn’t a barrel load of fun (who'd have thunk it?!)  So, I put an ad in the paper, found a room in what seemed like a quiet and pleasant house, and moved in.

I’ve been living in share houses for almost 20 years now – I’ve shared with everyone from a poverty stricken artist with schizophrenia, to an Iranian refugee, to a bunch of twenty-something farmers.  I even shared a house with my sister who, at the end of our time together said I was ‘the most easy-going housemate in the world.’  (Awww...sweet).

In twenty years of share-housing, I have never come across a person as difficult to live with as my current housemate. The warning signs started early.  On the second day I was there, I left the house for ten minutes to buy a can opener.  When I came back my housemate told me she’d noticed my laptop was plugged in, and sitting on my bed.  ‘I went into your room to unplug it because that’s a fire hazard.  It was on your bed, so the laptop could overheat and set fire to the sheets'

Now, I didn’t really take in much of what she said past the first 5 words – ‘I went into your room.’  Going into someone else’s room in a share-house is a BIG no-no – everything is public in a share house and there’s not much privacy, so a bedroom is really the only private space. To go in there for such a ridiculous reason suggested some serious boundary problems.

Things just got worse from there.  Over the past 2 weeks I’ve been asked to not just lock my window when I go out, but to pull down the blind as well (so thieves can’t see what’s in there).   I’ve been asked to only give out the house phone number to my ‘closest family and friends’ because my housemate is fearful that she might be stalked if someone gets her number.  I’ve been asked not to leave an apple in the backyard because my housemate’s dog can’t digest apple cores and might get sick. (I was sitting outside in the sun eating an apple and went inside to get something for a few minutes...leaving my dangerous, toxic, apple unattended!)

There are locks on everything in this house from the mailbox to the garage. (And no, we do not live in any kind of high crime area...just a fairly sleepy Australian town).  I’m starting to feel like I’m living inside a prison.  Almost every time I see my house-mate she has some kind of request or comment to make on what I’m doing and how she’d like it done differently.  Could I not leave my slow cooker turned on on the bench top – because it might melt it?  Could I open cans in the sink because any juice from the can might stain the kitchen counter?  Could my father (a farmer) be careful what he brings into the house on the sole of his boots – because some farm products can be toxic to her dog?

And on, and on, and on, and on...a constant drip of negativity, fear, neurosis, and requests. I feel like I have a Mother Superior on my shoulder overseeing every move I make. 

In an attempt to foster a positive relationship with my house-mate I invited her over to meet my sister, who lives a few streets away.  Sitting in the backyard, she saw my brother-in-law smoking, and 'joked' that she would called child protective services because he shouldn't be smoking around children.  I was mortified.  She didn't know my brother-in-law and what enormous struggles he has had to quit smoking.  I felt so embarrassed I went back later to apologise to him.

So, last night, we had an argument.  She criticized me three times in half an hour, I lost it, and we argued. She said she thought I was dismissive and didn’t take her seriously or understand her.  I said it was difficult to take in so many comments and criticisms on my behaviour.  ‘It’s just information,’ she said, ‘Don’t take it personally.’  ‘It doesn’t feel like information to me,’ I said. ‘More like harassment.’

What I found interesting was that, although I was upset while I was having this argument,  I could  see how the awareness practices I’ve been doing over the past months helped me through this difficult experience.

While we were arguing I noticed my heart pounding loudly, but I didn’t criticize myself for this, or try to stop it.  I just saw it as a natural bodily response to stress.  I saw the voices in my head begin to tell me what a terrible thing it was to be arguing with someone. I felt like I was in a nightmare, as though the whole world was against me and was a terribly dark and sinister place.

Later, in my room, feeling angry and upset, I tried to sit with what was happening.   I wanted to cry, because I felt so misunderstood and confused.  I couldn’t see why this woman – who underneath all these fears is quite a nice person- thought that constantly commenting on my behaviour in a negative way would make for a harmonious relationship between us.  

My mind kept asking – how can I fix this situation?  How can I try to talk to her about her fears and get her to see that living in this fearful way is only going to alienate her from people?  How can I get revenge on her for how unhappy she’s made me?  How can I live with such a nutter?  What’s wrong with me that I got into this argument?  Why couldn’t I just be calm instead of raising my voice?  Why was I so angry and judgemental of her? 

Finally I isolated one voice which said – ‘you’re just a terrible person to share a house with.’  I stopped and asked that voice – ‘is that true?’  And then, I started laughing.  It so clearly was not true.  I’m not the best house-mate in the world – I can be messy, and I am often forgetful  and vague – but I’ve lived in many wonderful share houses, and have made lifelong friends in several houses I’ve lived in. It was ludicrous to have a voice in my head saying I was the worst house-mate in the world.

Not believing this voice allowed me a bit of space and lightness around the feelings of anger, hurt, and confusion.  ‘I know I am an OK person to live with,’ I kept telling myself. Gradually, it seemed to me that it was just OK that I had this argument.  I still didn’t feel happy about it, but it didn’t mean anything terrible about me as a person.

I also saw a voice in my head saying that I somehow had to ‘fix’ this situation – that this was my challenge and my task, and that if I was a good Buddhist I’d somehow be able to sort this relationship out and live harmoniously with my house-mate. I think for the first time in my life I saw how I set up these challenges for myself in my head - and then battle to try to meet the challenge.

One other example of this challenge-mentality would be getting well. I somehow have to be a good Buddhist and a good meditator and a good person – and when I get that all ‘right’ I’ll get well. Or, I somehow have to ‘fix’ the problematic relationship I have with my mother, and then I would be able to be well and happy.

For the first time in my life I saw that it wasn’t  God, or some universal law of the universe, that was setting me these challenges - it was just a voice in my head.  I realised I didn’t have to believe that the challenge was necessary, and I didn’t have to rise to meet it.  I could just ignore it.

So, what I’ve decided to do is move out of this house.  I don’t have to prove anything, or fix anything.  My house-mate and I have incompatible personalities – sad, but true.  I can just leave and never have to think about her again.  I don’t have to feel guilty about not feeling compassionate towards her.  I don’t have to battle on with her, somehow trying to make her see my point of view.  I can just get off my horse, put down my sword, and walk off the battlefield. 

I've got no choice to move back to my parent's farm for a while, which will be difficult, but not as difficult as living here.  I feel little bit between the frying pan and the fire - but, I'll just keep plodding along and it will all work out.  I'm going to Indonesia for three months in May to live with my sister (yay!) - so I'm just going to focus on that trip, and try to make the best of my situation now.

This is one of the artworks I've been working on - 
a stencil of the uber-cool Miles Davis.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Chronic Meditator vs The Voices

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading some books by zen teacher Cheri Huber and listening to her on-line radio show.  One of the good things about being in bed all day is that if I want to spend 8 hours lying back on my fluffy pillows, listening to a radio show, with only my black teddy-bear for company – I can! 

 I’ve been bowled over by Cheri’s work.  As I’ve said in previous posts, a lot of what she teaches is about gaining an understanding that the voice that speaks to us all day every day in our head may not have that much to contribute to our life – and (quelle horreur!) might actually be causing the suffering that’s in our life.

The voice in my head claims that what its saying is of vital importance and that it’s imperative that I listen and react to it (even when it contradicts itself). Cheri’s work is helping me to relate to this voice – not by obeying it, or flinching in reaction to its criticisms – but by investigating how it works. 

As an example of this practice, I’m going to track some feelings, sensations and thoughts I’m having around what’s present for me at the moment - anxiety and exhaustion.  I’m going to write my original thoughts and feelings in black and the commentary from ‘the voice’ in red. (I’ve learnt that a good clue to picking up which comments are from ‘the voice’ is that they often call me ‘You,’ as in ‘you’re hopeless,’ or ‘you’re too fat.’)

My overwhelming feeling is of anxiety. I'm thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve done too much again, now my adrenals are totally overwhelmed, I feel like crap.  Oh God, this is awful.’

‘Now you’ve gone too far, you’ll never get over this adrenal spike.  Why can’t you ever stop before you get totally exhausted?  This is just hopeless.’

I start to investigate this. How does it make me feel, this voice telling me everything is hopeless?  It makes me feel anxious.  I realise that my response to this anxiety is actually making me feel more anxious.  It’s fuelling my anxiety, like hot air fanning flames.

Just noticing this makes me feel a little more relaxed.  It allows a little more spaciousness around my experience. I feel my arms slowly start to sink into the pillows.

‘Well...you can relax a bit, but it’s never going to make a difference to this huge anxiety and adrenal surge you’ve created by overdoing it.’

How does that comment make me feel?  Good, bad, anxious or relaxed?  I feel anxious and overwhelmed! This voice seems like it’s trying to help me, but it’s actually making me feel worse.

I feel like I will never climb out from beneath this mountain of anxiety. I lie resting for a few more minutes. My heart is pounding.

‘Boy, this is bad, this is so uncomfortable.  And, worse still, it’s all my fault.  Why can you never learn to rest?  You’ve really got to somehow work out a way to stop yourself overdoing it.  It’s not rocket-science – why can’t you just be more restrained and rest more?  When will you ever learn?’

How does this voice make me feel?  Blamed, I feel blamed and criticized. I feel like I have a huge task ahead of me to change my behaviour so I never overdo it again – and I feel confusion, and overwhelmed, because I feel like I am not up to this battle.  I feel more stressed and anxious because I’m faced with this enormous work task that I’m bound to fail at.

So, I’m lying in bed, exhausted, in pain, and anxious, and a voice in my head is badgering and dictating to me about how I have to work hard to improve myself...even though it’s all hopeless.

Hmmm. The penny drops. This is a no-win situation. No wonder I’m so stressed out!

I can see quite clearly, for the first time, how my usual responses of blame and challenging myself to improve are making my situation worse.  They are promising to ‘help me’ (in the long run), but in this moment they just make me feel worse.  I suddenly realise that there is no future here – there is no ‘long run,’ there’s just the present moment and in the present moment I feel worse. Perhaps there is no point in making myself suffer in this instant?

But, now I feel stuck because what can I do?  I don’t know of any other way to respond but to urge myself to improve my habits to get myself out of this mess and make sure it never happens again. It feels very strongly that I have to criticize myself or I’ll just become so lazy I’ll never improve.  But is this true, or is this just another example of conditioning? Will my life become better or worse if I stop haranguing myself?

DOH! WORSE!’ says the voice.

‘Well...I’m not sure.’ says me. ‘Maybe there is another way.’


Will Emma and her bear find 'another way' or will the forces of evil win out??!!
Stayed tuned for the next exciting episode of...

The Chronic Meditator vs The Voices

Coming soon to a laptop near YOU!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Moments of no consequence...

A few words of wisdom by the whimsical, beautiful, Michael Leunig.  

Apologies to those who received a post this afternoon with an 'e-mail me' form in it.  That was me trying to add a contact form to my blog.  Bill Gates I aint. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cheri Huber and the Zen Monastery Peace Centre

Over the last few weeks I've been reading a few books by zen teacher Cheri Huber, and have been introduced to her wonderful on-line resources, intended to provide support for those who don't live near her monastery.  I'm always keen to get this kind of meditation support, because I'm pretty much house-bound these days and can't get out to join a regular meditation or Buddhist group. 

I just love it when groups of people can get together, regardless of geographic location or personal circumstances, to share their experiences and support each other on this journey. This is the communication revolution at its best!

If you're not into Buddhism - don't worry - the word 'Buddha' is hardly ever mentioned in any of the resources offered by Cheri and the monks at the Zen Monastery Peace Centre.  From what I can gather, she focuses a lot on working with conditioning (aka 'the voices in my head').  

As an example of conditioning, I might be happily writing away at this blog post only to have my peace interrupted by a voice saying quietly -  'You know, people don't really like this blog.  Some people say they do, but they don't.'  I go into a quiet panic, and worry about that voice being right.  And there I am - caught in conditioning. 

  Cheri Huber works a lot around the idea of conditioning and its role in self-hatred, and on developing a more nurturing, supportive, present element to our lives.  Her work is extremely practical and focused on the here and now.  I'm sure I'll be writing more over the next few months about some of Cheri's teachings, but for now, I wanted to give a list of some of the support and resources she offers. 
Open Air:  a weekly, on-line radio program where guests call in and ask questions.  There are a few hundred past episodes available as podcasts.

Practice Everywhere: Receive short awareness practice reminders by way of text messages, computer, Facebook, Twitter, or i Phone. When you sign up, you can choose how to receive them.

Reflective Listening Buddies:  this program offers the opportunity to connect with another person, by phone or Skype, weekly for 30 minutes of practice support.

E-mail classes:  classes on awareness practice offered through e-mail.  (A donation is suggested for this class, but no set amount).

E-mail Me

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Saying ‘Yes’ to the ‘No’ – A Meditation on Resistance

I was just listening to a meditation from Tara Brach’s audio book ‘Radical Self-Acceptance,’  and liked it so much I thought I'd transcribe it here. 

I've mentioned Tara Brach quite a few times on this blog.  She's one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, because she combines practical psychology with Buddhism in a way that I can really relate to.  She emphasises working with elements of shame (which she says are so pervasive in the West), and has a strong focus on Loving Kindness to her teachings.  I find her teachings profound.

If you like this meditation you can get free audio talks and guided meditations by Tara from the Insight Meditation Community of Washington website.

A Meditation on Relaxing Resistance

Let yourself bring to mind a difficult situation; one that’s current in your life and brings up a reaction of anger, fear or grief.  It might be a rift with your partner, the loss of a loved one, or concern for someone with a life threatening illness.  It might be a hurtful behaviour that you regret, a way you know you’ve been ignoring or neglecting someone. Just bring a scene to mind that might provoke this feeling.  See what’s happening and hear the words that might be exchanged.  Notice what you’re feeling or believing.

Let those feelings be as full as they want to be – feelings of grief or fear or anger - so you can feel them in an embodied way. Then mentally direct a stream of the word ‘no’ at the feelings.  Let the word carry the energy of ‘NO!’

‘No...no’ -  to the anger or the fear or the grief. 
‘No...no’ – rejecting or pushing away what you’re experiencing.
‘No...no’ – to whatever is happening.

As you do, feel what this is like in your body and your heart and your mind. Imagine what your life would be like for the next months or years if this situation and related feelings were continuously encountered with a big ‘no’ – if you encountered your life with ‘no.’ Look into the future.

Now take a few deep breaths, and let go by relaxing through the body or shifting your posture a bit.
Then, reflect again on this aversive situation. Bring the thoughts, feelings and images up again.  Feel what it’s like.  This time, let there be a stream of the word ‘YES’ that surrounds your experience. 

‘Yes...yes’ - just agree to whatever arises, whatever is going on this moment.
‘Yes...yes’- Even if the experience is of anger, a feeling of ‘no’, hold that ‘no’ in a gentle and larger space of ‘yes’.

Sense what this is like in your body, your heart, your mind.  What would your experience be in the months and the years to come if you could bring the spirit of ‘yes’ to difficult experiences?

This is quite a short and simple meditation, but it can be powerful for me to see how saying ‘no’ affects my whole body.  When I say it my leg muscles tighten, my jaw is clenched, and my whole world feels smaller and constricted. I can also see how I notice all this tension and then leap straight into thoughts such as, ‘I’m so angry!  I’m always saying ‘no’ to the world – what a terrible, angry person I am!’  I’m  learning to stay with the physical effects of the word ‘no’ without judging the tension and tightness.

 I think it’s really important that Tara has said towards the end that ‘even if the experience is of anger - a feeling of ‘no’ - hold that ‘no’ in a gentle and larger space of ‘yes.’  I think this particular technique can offer a helpful way of working with the resistance, anger, and grief around pain and illness (or other difficult situations). 

If Tara had said, ‘just say ‘yes’ to your pain,’ that wouldn’t be very useful.  I might try to say ‘yes’, but I wouldn’t really feel it and I’d just end up feeling more confused and hopeless.  But this meditation offers a way of saying ‘yes’ to the ‘no’.  It allows us to say 'yes' to anger, bitterness, frustration -  and a multitude of other dark, murky feelings that we're often taught to feel ashamed of having.  

It wasn't until I started allowing all these dark feelings to have their say, that I started feeling any space or awareness around my physical sensations. It felt as though these powerful emotions were clamped tightly around my illness, and that they were the first things I had to bring into awareness. This meditation allows me a bit more clarity and space around my physical pain.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wild Geese

Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Poem from Mary Olivers book, 'New and Selected Poems. 

I'd never heard of Mary Oliver before, but she's a Pulizter winning poet and seems to we well known in the US.  Her work has themes around nature, renewal, grief, loss and death. I often think I'm not a poetry-person, but Oliver's work is so profound and there's great depth in each of her sentences that it draws me in. What a talent it is to be able to express so much within a few short lines.  Hope you enjoy this.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Look under foot

The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is "look under foot." You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.

John Burroughs
US essayist & naturalist (1837 - 1921)
Misty morning on the Mekong river - Laos
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