Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Ship and its Maintenance

The ship is afloat upon a buoyant ocean. In a thousand points around it, the sea rises into small sharp peaks with white foamed caps and then falls back suddenly into the dark blue mass that extends endlessly in all directions. The ship is large and elegant, shaped in a style from the eighteen hundreds, with a wooden hull and white sails which are presently full and heaving with the soft wind. In the air is the sound of muted thumping which comes from the subtle beating of the wind on the thick woven canvas. Taught ropes come from every direction, attaching the mizzen to the main mast to the foremast.
There are a few people aboard, a captain and his crew. In the captain’s quarters, there are piles of maps and charts for the stars. He knows his way well and when he talks, one eye is always on the horizon. This ship is afloat, upon the conglomerated mass of fish below the surface, above the worlds of kelp and deep sea canyons and mountains. But the vessel is not resigned to move only upon water, it has the capacity (when the moment is ripe) to sprout tiny wings from the main mast. Then it can venture into the vast atmosphere above, unconstrained by the laws of gravity. The wings have shown themselves only occasionally, seldom enough that some of the travelers often forget their ability to fly. They wait invisibly for the precise conditions to arrive, when every passenger is ready to be transported to another place above the clouds.
For the ship to stay afloat upon the choppy sea and voyage to the intended direction, all parts of it must be in working order. The sails must be patched and free of holes, the hull and the floorboards must be sealed and polished. Before they can fly, they must do the bare minimum and stay afloat and, sometimes, even this is hard for the small crew. This ship requires continuous attention and more so, continuous ambiguity. It sails among pirates and sharks, it moves past hostile lands fearful of foreign voyagers and upon an ocean ready to swallow the vulnerable without a drop of regret.
The crew have figured out a small weapon, a way to remain invisible even though they travel through the day and the night. A simple secret passed down through many generations, they have learned to keep silent. They keep their intentions quiet, they keep their ability to fly hidden, they keep their desired location a secret. Their course and wings depend on their accumulated energy, and as long as they keep their energy aboard the ship, the ship stays afloat. By revealing too much, the ship begins to leak. And with the leak, the ship sinks, ready to be received by an unforgiving sea.
The journey to wakefulness is a seldom navigated path, only the voyager whose skin can grow used to the salty spray and whose heart can learn to flower among the desert of ocean and open sky…only such a person will learn to avoid lustful mermaids with spiraled hair and hungry sharks eager to taste warm flesh. Our partners in this voyage live aboard an invisible ship, a small space between ourselves and no one else, which voyages into realms unknowable by most humans . This constant quest requires the containment of our energy. To preserve our energy, to contain it and mount it, is essential in order to build ourselves so strong that our wings can sprout and move higher than normal bodies usually venture. The easiest, the fastest way to lose energy, is to speak about our work with anyone other than our direct partners. The mermaids will ask and the night sky filled with stars will seem innocuous, but all of these will leak our energy into the normal human world and they will only serve to bring the precious ship down. Through an open leaking hole, dirty ravenous fish may enter, chewing upon the soft interior and bringing the safe dry space further into the dark waters.
We strive for lightness, we work for levity and accumulated energy. Keep silent. Keep your appearance and speech as utterly normal and vague as possible. It will only be the naïvely intuitive that will softly ask permission to enter. By speaking with anyone else, you dilute the power of the shared group, you leak out into a world of hostility and sarcasm and human misunderstanding. Preserve the strength of your will, of your attention, of your group. Keep silent.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


For her, discipline used to be synonymous with punishment. In the world of the little girl, discipline was her mother with furious eyes and steaming anger quickly approaching her with a large wooden spoon. With every swat on her fleshy buttocks, her first understanding of discipline was etched.
When she began school, discipline took on a new dimension. It meant studying over books and doing homework. At first, she didn’t think the work was too hard and she liked filling out the answers in the appropriate lines. There was a sense of satisfaction in completing her assignments, a wholeness in the activity her young self enjoyed.
In middle school, the concepts became more difficult. It required an effort, the work required studying and practice and review. She tried her very best to get good grades, she wanted the praise of her parents when the report card was sent home, she wanted to see their smiles, their approving nods and hugs.
Then came high school, harder still, demanding even more effort. She struggled with her geometry class, all of the formulas and angles and numbers, it was all so conceptual and none of it came easy…she fought to understand it but her effort did not result in good grades. She remembers the day she brought home the first "D" on her report card. She thought it would be the end of the world. She imagined the look of disappointment in her mother's eyes and the gruff tone of her father's voice. "No! Not a D!" Maybe they would go get the spoon again. Walking home that afternoon, she berated herself for not trying harder.
To her surprise, her parents, although not pleased with her grade, were understanding. Perhaps sympathetic from their own memories of geometry, they encouraged her to try her best and to not bring anything lower than a "C" on future report cards. She was stunned by their reaction. She interpreted their understanding as a license to goof off. There were no consequences, no beatings, not even a harsh tone from her father and because of this, because there was no punishment, any sense of self discipline she had once had to get good grades flew out the window.
She spent the rest of her time in high school doing the minimum amount of work required to get a "C" on her report cards. She developed a consistent habit of giving the least amount of effort and energy to her tasks and skated just above the rim of failing. Even today, she recalls bragging to her friends that all she had to do was listen in class and she could get a "C" on a test. She never took one single book home. She didn’t study or spend her weekends trying to grasp the difficult texts of literature or the new ideas presented to her in classes. She took pride in her lack of effort. She wore it like a pretty new dress, with her head up and chest out.
Not any more. Instead of the badge of honor, she holds the memories of her past like the painful glimpses of a diseased relative. She thinks often of her moment of realization back in high school, the moment her machine smiled and took over and battled down the weaker part within her that wanted to work and complete tasks and feel the palpable sense of wholeness before beginning on the next project. That day of the "D," her machine won, the lazy and sloppy machine won. Sometimes she spends whole afternoons imagining what would have happened if she had tried harder…she probably could have gotten all "A’s." Maybe she could have gone on to college and become a doctor. If she had made different choices, maybe she could have been better able to provide for herself and her family. Maybe she could have avoided living in cockroach ridden apartments and living off Kraft Macaroni & Cheese made without the milk and butter, made with only water.
But snapping out of her afternoons of despair, she remembers that looking back with regret is only another way to avoid the work of the moment. There is no way to affect the lazy machine of the past, but now, she can begin to rein in the deeply ingrained habits of half-hearted effort and learn the delicate art of true discipline.

She might never be a doctor or a lawyer, she might never have a high paying job or a lavish house in the hills, but the material benefits of a lifetime of good grades would not bring her any closer to wakefulness. The obvious consequences of lazy habits and bad grades were monetary, she did manual labor and assembly line work, and came home to a crumbling apartment. It is not the financial reality of her life she needs to change, but the deep negative habits of laziness, learned young and practiced often.
Her machine will fight and the undisciplined robot must learn to push through the desire to goof off or fantasize about a future that never was. The work begins now. New habits are forged with sweat and persistence and, sometimes, a rapidly beating heart. Discipline does not come naturally or easily. It is a delicately crafted inner art form that can take years and lifetimes to master, but each step taken today is an effort in the right direction. Slowly and delicately, she can begin to move towards a new kind of discipline, without fear, without the weight of past failures, without the promise of future delights. Somewhere beyond these barriers, the real work begins.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

From The Grave

The long wooden coffin sat six feet in the ground, regulation depth. It was made of a pretty light wood, not at all glossy, with deeper colored wood grain running from top to bottom. On either end of the coffin was a triangle, a kind of light embellishment. The base of the triangle was parallel to the end of the coffin’s edge and the pointed crown faced into the center of the long box. Within the two triangles, separated by five feet of smooth blond wood, the wooden grains ran perpendicular and created a beautiful juxtaposition of shapes. On top of the coffin, in the space where the heart center might be if the body’s head was closer to the blacktop drive and the gathered mourners in black, was a wooden star of David, which was about the size of a man’s outstretched hand. The coffin was simple and humble and made of matter easily absorbed into the earth. The female rabbi stood beside the rectangular hole, facing the small group that had their backs towards the empty cemetery drive, empty except for the limo parked five feet away and the four other midsize cars that stood parked and silent. The rabbi wore an outdated dress from the early 90s, made of mostly purple fabric that had abundant square swatches different colors and multiple pockets. She led the people in prayer. Twenty voices lifted into the air, a low mumbling of vowels and consonants…
Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba….
Their eyes were fixed on the small piece of cardstock that the cemetery officiate had handed them.
They said it in unison. The left side of the card was in Hebrew, the other was the phonetical translation of the prayer into English letters.
I did not say the prayer, the words had no more meaning than if I had been watching a Korean soap opera. I did not fall back into the pleasant embrace of a half hearted ritual that I had memorized twenty years ago. I heard the prayer buzzing in the background and I heard the sobbing of the widow on my right. Someone handed me a box of tissues and I wiped some fallen tears from her eyes. I held the box of Kleenex with both hands and stared at the coffin. I let my gaze soften and focused on the feeling of pain and energy that radiated and pulsed in my chest. I looked at the box in the ground, containing a man, a Being in transit. I saw a box just a little below the surface of the earth. "The EARTH!" I thought to myself. And the feeling of amazement and wonder coursed through me. This is the earth. It seems like such a simple statement, such an ordinary fact, but the realization that we are indeed upon a sustainable mound of soil and magma and liquid fire that continually transforms itself felt infinitely more real as I looked at the box which contained my grandfather. I felt the ground under my thin shoes a bit more distinctly. The smallness of our state hit me like a loving hand and my mind quieted.
The cut ground was a rectangular hole surrounded by a bright lawn of green grass dotted by simple whitish-gray headstones. At the far end of the open grave was a pile of soil, the mound of rich earth just waiting to be returned to its rightful place. To make room for the coffin, the soil had been cut in an inverted triangular shape, so that the perimeter closest to the surface was larger than the smaller space which held the body. Long sticks of thin metal rebar held the neatly severed earth from tumbling. In moments when the mourners paused and the rabbi took a few breaths, I heard small chunks of earth break from the holds of the rebar. Small bits of soil fell and broke across the wooden coffin, making pretty, delicate thumping sounds as the pieces scattered across the smooth wood. The little clusters spoke to me, singing soft lullabies of the living soil that awaited. The earth was barely patient enough to wait for the mourners to finish their chants and return to their waiting cars, it yearned to fill in the gaping hole. To move to the lowest point, the point of least resistance, the point of stability, is the Law of Falling, and the soil would not follow the wishes of the humans that had gathered to cry.
The earth, though patient at times, calmly breathing even after cement has flooded its surface, is ultimately without mercy. Its compassion is objective. There is no sentimentality sprouting from its folds. We come forth though its devices and nutrients, we come from its stone and water and air, and to it, we return, like lost little children finally coming home to sleep.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Work Relationship

The human experience is filled with varying qualities and degrees of relationships. There is the earliest contact between mother and child, between siblings and with pets, between friends, between lovers. All of these relationships make a dent in the pliable mold of skin and organs- although it is not the only thing that changes us, they certainly represent a large influence over our life. And once we are walking and talking and know how to bathe and feed ourselves, if we are so lucky, we will discover another kind of relationship. It is a working relationship. It begins with two people who consciously decide to go on a journey together. Since we begin blind and naïve to our habits and sleeping state, the relationship begins in a state of intuitive trust. A baby clings to its mother’s breast without asking for references, it just latches on, trusting it will be guided and cared for. A work relationship between adults begins in this way as well, with trust and an intuitive sense that this is the mysterious path to tread.
This is a delicate state, akin to the small sparks of twigs and crumpled newspapers which begin a great breathing fire. Each step along the path is taken slowly, with tenderness and strength. Piling too much thick pine wood on a slowly lighting fire could smoother the flames, too much lighter fluid could cause an explosion, while waiting too long to add the larger logs could also extinguish the mounting flames. It is a delicate balance, a fine razor’s edge.
A working relationship is maintained by constant devotion. Devotion to the constant work, devotion to the master who guides with all their ability, devotion to the objective of a waking state, devotion to honesty and keeping an open heart, devotion to transforming our negative habits into things of beauty that have the power to affect more than we normally understand.
It requires renewed trust when the moment feels bleak and the machine spins in turmoil. It requires renewed attention and focus each moment of the day when our thoughts drift into identified and distracted states. It requires self sacrifice: sacrifice of ego and image, sacrifice of personal glory and lifelong habits. These are not things we do once and then forget about it, like conquerors on deserted shores. These lessons and struggles continue throughout our lives, and each day we must sacrifice, sometimes more than once a day, for as long as breathe enters and retreats from our body.
A work relationship is the bond of people with a common objective. To reach the waking state is a test of endurance and practice and growing will. The people we work with are our partners in this practice. Together, as our energy mounts, we move higher in the labyrinth, holding hands and pushing higher still, we climb not knowing what comes. But we can only rise if the relationship works. If all partners are open, without barriers and machine masks. These artificial walls obstruct the flow of energy and love. They keep the relationship at its most base and human level, and at this level, we are asleep.
While some human relationships can continue to exist with lack of attention- like estranged parents and adult children- the working relationship cannot continue to function with neglect and unspoken aggression and distance. Negative emotions and manifestations, which are completely common and accepted in the world, like sarcasm and eye rolling, rudeness and harsh tones, all of these, while practically the norm at a typical family thanksgiving dinner, can destroy the working relationship. Machines will react to each other. Barriers will grow tough and impenetrable. A distracted moment, a careless sentence, a shrug of the shoulders; as small as they might seem, they can break a strong contact. It can shatter an elevated space. By constantly acting out our negative emotions, we can quickly forget what we are working towards and simply dwell in the sleeping state. The working relationship will always require more than what we are used to giving, it seems un-normal, and it is. It is absolutely special and tender, hold it with all the love you possess.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Model Of Talent

She looked directly into the camera, with a smirk on her face and the faintest hint of a singularly raised eyebrow, and she said "I’m the strongest model here, it’s Add Imagemy face on the wall this week. I had the best picture last week and right now, I know I’m the best, so yeah, I think it’ll go great at the photo shoot tomorrow."
She had done well last week. In a photo shoot which involved disguising every part of the body but the eyes, her eyes and expression came though with the utmost clarity and force. Out of all the other models in the competition, it was she who went into the camera lens, bringing herself into the small tube, communicating to the photographer and future observer with all her fierceness and beauty. She projected herself out like a laser and brought herself to into the material world of magazine ads and lipstick commercials. And at elimination, the judges praised her work and photo and told her she had a real talent…a natural talent. Those comments solidified her own ideas and hopes, that she was indeed already a great model. And all the other girls who had been in the same photo shoot looked at her with wonder and wanted to know how she had done it. They wanted to do it too.
When the next photo shoot was scheduled, she walked into the well lit studio with her head up high and a confident swagger in her hips. She knew she was the best, as had been proven last week, and this week, she was sure she would deliver as well, she had talent after all. Looking into the future, she knew she would win the entire competition and would soon begin modeling all over the world. She was the next star. When her turn came for the photo shoot, she did her thing. She looked into the camera and tilted her head and projected strength. She switched positions and used her legs and arms and played with some angles. But the model coach on set was not giving her any position feedback. After the first couple of frames, he said she didn’t look intense or strong and with these first biting comments, she began to sink. With each new pose, instead of hearing "beautiful…these look great," she heard silence and felt the exasperation coming from the coach and the photographer. Each click of the camera deflated her more until she couldn’t wait until it was all over. They tried to give her a couple of tips. "Turn the left arm more, lift your chin…" but nothing seemed to bring the magic. What was she missing? She had no idea. She was doing the same thing she did last week. Why wasn’t it having the same effect? "last frame!" called the coach, practically rolling his eyes as he said it. She knew he was mad. She hadn’t delivered and hadn’t impressed and she didn’t know why.
She wass young and had only really modeled in the mirror of her room when she found herself alone. But she came to the competition with the hopes of doing more than that. She wanted catwalks and Gucci and to work with the best photographers. She wanted gorgeous pictures and a new career. But she was young and inexperienced. She had never really practiced her moves and her "walk." Modeling was all new. They told her last week she had talent. Shouldn’t talent always be there? she wondered. If I had it last week, where had it gone this week? In effect, she had stumbled into one amazing photo. She had no idea what she had done right. How exactly had she held her head? What had she been thinking about when the camera clicked?
She could not retrace her steps, and thus, what they called talent was merely a chance encounter with the perfect light, expression, and timing.
Time and practice lead to true knowledge. Knowledge does not need the label of talent. It is beyond talent. Knowledge is knowing how to hold your head for the camera at just the right angle. Knowledge is knowing the shapes your body can contort into and still appear beautiful and interesting. This is not talent, it is not inherent. It is practiced and perfected. Day after day, it is examining what works and improving what doesn’t until you don’t need a mirror or another set of eyes or a coach. It is feeling it from within, knowing its every shape and subtlety. With deep knowledge, you can perform despite the weather or illness or stress. You know it. It is not a mysterious god given talent. It is direct and practical experience, crafted and made flawless over years of solid work.
If you show your work and someone says you have no talent, set the statement aside, shift your attention back to creation and keep on working. If you show your work and someone says you have talent, do exactly the same.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An Image with No Fault

The small round table was set with a red table cloth and mismatched pink and tan place mats. There were two white plates of food upon them, cooling hotdogs oozing with mustard and crumpled napkins on the side. Sitting across from each other and bathed in the stinging white light of afternoon, they began their meal in an intimate silence. As he took a sip of his chocolate drink, he asked her,
"Did you bring the lesson notes for today?"
"Ah, no," she replied, looking out the window and vaguely noticing the cars passing by on the wide street outside.
"Why not?" he asked in confused surprise, his usually smooth face wrinkling.
Avoiding his eyes, she said, "ah, I only had a couple minutes to get dressed, and I wasn’t even sure if I would need them…and I didn’t want to carry them around with me all day and…I don’t even know which lessons you’re talking about…"
Stopping her words with a raised hand and a sharper tone, he said, "yes, you do…and you knew we would need them today."
"no, I don’t know which lessons you really mean and some of them are in the computer and I have that with me but I have only been practicing the other lessons for a little while and I wasn’t sure if we would need them because you didn’t tell me to practice them until a couple weeks ago and…."
Tears began streaming down her pale white cheeks. She looked out the window, afraid to speak, afraid to look at him and make the moment worse with her confused and defensive words. Maybe they wouldn’t even have a lesson now, she worried.
"Why didn’t you bring them?" he asked again, in a tone slightly louder than normal but that was still calm. A hint of a smile teased at the corners of his lips and a glimmer of mischievous glitter played in his eyes.
There were tears reddening her eyes and she had a crumpled wet tissue buried in her hand, she said, "I forgot them." Loudly, clearly and looking right at him.
"okay… why didn’t you just say that?" He looked relieved.
Stumped, she said quietly, "I thought I did."
"No," he said laughing, "you said everything but that."
And she saw that she had. She had walked out the door of her small studio in the early afternoon slightly angry and impatient, wondering how she could possibly complete her task within an hour. She had not thought ahead and remembered she needed her lesson notes for later in the evening. She had forgot them. It was simple and true. She had been occupied on half a dozen competing thoughts and shallow emotions and had forgotten the notes.
But admitting this, admitting clearly that it was she who had messed up, she who had forgotten, was admitting that she had been wrong. And to acknowledge this, this simple fact, was to go against a strong current that ran the length of her. To her machine, she is a flawless self, a golden ego which is free from fault and guilt.
When something goes wrong, it happens because of an external situation; it had nothing to do with her carelessness or inattention or unexposed anger. No, it comes from beyond her flesh. It comes towards her, from people, circumstance, words, society…it all comes towards her and it is them that cause her struggle. Problems come from the outside to her, not the other way around. In her carefully crafted image, her forgotten lessons notes arose from hastily given instructions and limited time and unclear plans and difficult requests. Her bouts of depression and anger arise because of unfair circumstances and harsh tones and the harsh ways of the world. Her life would be smooth and lovely, if it were not for those others who work against her and hate her and keep her sad. This idea of a flawless vessel keeps her protected. It is insulation against the strong currents beyond her control, it is the barrier between the reality of her actions and the truth of their consequences.
The faults of others are so easy to see. Watching any reality TV show, the habits of each character are easily identifiable: the man who always wants to win strength challenges and brags with aggressive confidence to the camera, yet each week, time and again, he is the first to lose momentum and give up. And as easy as it is to see the flaws of those around us, from the person across the dinner table and the grocery clerk who never says hello, it is just as hard to see the weaknesses and flaws hiding within oneself. The images are thin as glass, lacking any substance or true emotion, but it is strong as any metal and more than that, it is even harder to shatter because we protect ourselves from its destruction. To destroy it, to expose it as a flawed image is destroy ourselves, what we fervently believe to be ourselves. Our ego, our sense of self, our identity, our IMAGE is really all we know, and we cling to it, like a drowning man to a floating piece of wood, we cling to it because it is all we know. Without it, without our mask, without our image, without our face, what are we?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fueling The Habits

Sitting at her desk, she practiced her writing exercises as she did every morning. Long before the sun ever poked above house covered hills, she arranged long descriptive sentences into tight paragraphs, molded flowery stanzas and simple quotes into colorful stories. As the darkness began to give way to a brilliant, full blue, she paused to think of the next line. She looked out her window into the brightening backyard. The large space was nearly bare except for a lone wooden chair and a gray shed in the corner of the rectangular yard. There were overgrown shrubs that creeped in from the neighbor’s yard, but in her own, there was nothing but hard, smooth concrete land. At the point furthest from her window was a red hued wood fence, behind which was a tall wall of eucalyptus trees that blocked the view of the twinkling city lights below. She looked out, and as her mind freed itself from the thoughts of her writing, new thoughts began to crowd in. They were familiar thoughts, more aptly described as recurring worries that she rehashed day after day, year after year. Their forms did not change, their content, nor their frequency. Hour after hour, she wondered and worried about the same things. She felt the same jealous thoughts. She felt the same anger, the same desire for revenge, the same need to cry.
She sat at her desk, looking out the window, and now, tears were reddening her eyes. A salty droplet left a wet streak across her cheek. Alone in her room, she was filled with anger and sadness. Her body was hot and sweaty and a headache lingered at the horizon of her consciousness. Nothing had really happened to her within the last couple of minutes, nothing external. She did not get a phone call with bad news. Her neighbor had not hit her car. Her landlord had not evicted her. She had not had a fight with a friend. To any outside observer, nothing had happened. There was no external event that warranted the desperate need to cry and her elevated pulse. She had not really even moved, and yet, her energy had completely changed.
In a brief instant, she had paused and drifted into an unstructured realm of floating thoughts that quickly turned into other ideas and then, just as swiftly, morphed into recurring uncontrolled thoughts. They moved in and out of her mind like wisps of passing clouds. Their entry had been in the moments of her inattention. While her mind was off her work, it began to fill with less intentional thoughts. Gone were her poetic lines and colorful descriptions. Her attention had drifted from her creative task and, as it did so, she had begun to devote more and more of her attention to her endless series of worries. The more she thought about them, the stronger the thoughts were and thus, the bodily sensations grew stronger within her. She was overcome with sadness. And with each tear that escaped her eyes, with each suffering thought, her negative emotions grew stronger.
Like a blazing fire that begins with a small handful of thin twigs, each small worry fed the cauldron of negative emotions. Each small jealous thought added a little more strength and fury and soon, she was overcome with sadness and grief and bitter hatred. She fed it to herself, small bit by small bit, letting it grow in strength until it was impossible let it go. If she had noticed the first distracted negative thought, she could have redirected her attention to her work. Caught quickly and early it would have been easier for her to regain her focus, but a raging fire takes tons of water and ample time to extinguish. She had fed her negative emotions with her thoughts, bathed them in her attention and allowed then to consume her from within. Although she sat in the same place, with the same trees and light and view, she now had a large dark hole to climb out of.