Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

All I have is a thousand words.

The doctor’s office is a corner suite with two large bay windows. One overlooks a major highway, with millions of vehicles whizzing past, drivers preoccupied with their myriad cares. The other overlooks a small copse of woody birches and oaks rising high over bushy shrubs and flowering crabapple trees.

It is this window that captures my attention, for on the outside, in the center as if framed, is the ethereal imprint of a bird. Pale dust makes a gestural painting of outstreched wings. A faithful redering of individual feathers layering the breastbone. A wispy indication of a head, beak agape.

For some reason, I am struck by the image of this ghostly bird’s headlong flight into certain death. I am filled with feelings of awe and sorrow. I am touched by the random beauty I see in the finer details of the feathers; fine lines of pale brown dust and ash.

I feel compelled to immemorialize what I see, to share what I feel. But technology fails me. The glare of the setting sun is all my camera can capture. Even though a picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand words is better than nothing at all. And so I write this post, knowing that all my words fail to show you just how amazing this is, where life and death, instants and infinities come together into a singlularity that imprints itself in my mind just as it imprinted itself onto a glass windowpane.

Why Openness Matters

Some comments left on my previous post deserve a more lengthly reply, so I am posting them here.

First, I wish to explain my purpose in seeking that meditative stillness and openness. As any creativity book will tell you (Art & Fear, What We Ache For, The Artist’s Way) it is crucial to the development of any creative life. A still mind is a receptive mind, and it is receptivity that allows ideas to come and grow, for the Muse to speak to the artist within. When one is constantly bombarded with information and stimuli, the mind needs periods of rest–of wakeful sleep–boredom–calm–in order to process that information into useful memories and ideas. Meditation is a way of allowing–no, encouraging–that process to proceed at a smoother and more effective pace.

Now, in yesterday’s comments, Slip says: Maybe calming yourself is not the answer you are looking for.

It is not “calm” itself that I am looking for, but rather a sort of mental quietude–that state in which internal chatter is stilled and there is only awareness of externals, of the universal ebb and flow of ‘not-I.’ It is that ‘not-I’ that feeds the creativity that is in the ‘is-I’ that essence of myself that defines me. In that state the ‘not-I’ and the ‘is-I’ come to a true communion, where the creative fuel burns.

Perhaps my problem yesterday was that it was the wrong time to be seeking silence, since my mind is still so steeped in that tea of fertile thought. Or perhaps it was only my inexperience, and I judge myself to harshly, too quick to comdemn my failure rather than accept my creative impulse and then return to the act of meditating.

Puss adds this salient comment, once I must remember next time: Personally, I think when one is buzzing with creativity, it’s almost impossible to keep the mind still – you just have to go with it. There’ll be time enough for stillness when you’re tired!

The problem with this, however, is that I don’t want to run my creative impulse to the ground before refueling. If I run out of gas before the end of the journey, I will be stuck. I cannot predict where I will be stuck, but the middle of nowhere is not a good place to be stranded. How can I refuel? I would have to do all over again that long slow trudge through the mud of the self to find that gas pump. It is not easy, and its best to keep the flame burning by adding wood to the embers before it dies. That is what mindful awareness and openness is meant to do. Openness and stillness is the thermostat that regulates the temperature of the creative soul.

Martha in turn says something interesting, which considering her recent post, makes sense, (though I confess, I find it odd and counter-intuitve (Sorry Martha!)). She says: I would much rather have the creativity flowing than relaxation… but that’s just me 🙂

I find this counter-intuitive for reasons stated above. However, Martha–and I hope what I will say will help you get your flow back!–one need not be relaxed at the time of creative impulse in order to create. There is a cycle to it, a cycle of creativity and stillness, and each depends on the other. All the books I have read counsel that to dispel a creativity block, one needs to stop trying. Instead take a walk in silence, or do some yoga, or stare at a fire. Relax! Then, after an hour or two, or even a whole day, of doing nothing (this includes avoiding all forms of communicative media, eek!) return to the desk and breathe. Then simply “practice” working, without thinking that one IS working. And soon enough that creative flow will return, and the act or working becomes all.

Atempting stillness, or Open, open.

I’m trying to teach myself some calming practices, exercises in meditation and emptiness. I’m not doing so well. For instance, just now, during a period of boredom at work, I try to clear my mind by focusing on a mantra. I don’t know any mantras, but I thought to do one of my own by repeating “open, open” to myself, in the sense that true stillness leads to an openness in one’s mind.

Well, after a few repeats of “open, open” I start writing poety. Here’s the piece of drivel I wrote 5 minutes ago.

Open, open: let the dust in.
Time is your best friend.

Open, open: let the light in.
Shadow is your best friend.

Open, open: let the wind in.
Chaos is your best friend.

Open, open: let yourself in.
Emptiness is your best friend.

Then, instead of taking my own advice, I type this up and post it on my oh-so-convienent blog. Ridiculous!

Not only that, not only is my mind not open or still, my internal critic pipes up, and declaims in portentious tones, that this the most profound piece of drivel ever.

Apparently, mental stillness doesn’t seem to come easy for me.

Nor does shutting that stupic critic up.

Religion Selector

I came across this link while doing some teading about Taoism and Buddhism. Its a religion match quiz, and I got some interesting results.

1. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
2. Secular Humanism (99%)
3. Theravada Buddhism (89%)
4. Liberal Quakers (78%)
5. Neo-Pagan (78%)
6. Non-theist (77%)
7. Mahayana Buddhism (72%)
8. New Age (64%)
9. Taoism (58%)
10. Mainline – Liberal Christian Protestants (56%)
11. Hinduism (43%)
12. Jainism (40%)
13. Orthodox Quaker (39%)
14. New Thought (31%)
15. Sikhism (31%)
16. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (29%)
17. Bahai (27%)
18. Reform Judaism (27%)
19. Scientology (27%)
20. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (19%)
21. Seventh Day Adventist (17%)
22. Mainline – Conservative Christian Protestant (16%)
23. Eastern Orthodox (15%)
24. Islam (15%)
25. Jehovah’s Witness (15%)
26. Orthodox Judaism (15%)
27. Roman Catholic (15%)

I’m suprised I scored higher as a Buddhist than as a Taoist, because I disagree with some of the core philosophical principles of Buddhism, whereas I identify much closer to the philosophical world-view of the Taoist. However mainstream Chinese Taoism does have a pantheon of gods, and Buddhism is mostly atheistic, so perhaps that is the reason for that ranking.

Anyhow, I found it a fun and informative test, and it has led me to new frontiers of exploration, so that is always a good thing! Here’s a good starting point for any religious exploration: religioustolerance.org

If you take this quiz, please feel free to share your results if you’d like!

Caves and Red Dust Redux

My Mom read my earlier post and emailed me this picture. Its old and grainy, but its from 1983, so that should be expected.

The oldest girl in that picture, in the yellow shorts and pigtails is my sister, Jen. The girl in pink next to her is me. The other kids are my cousins, goofing off.
What I find interesting, if you look closer at the picture, you will see that I am looking down at my upraised hand, within which I am holding a pile of white sand.
I KNEW my memory was not playing with me!!!
My mom tells me that this was at Capitol Reef National Park, and I was actually 4 years old.

Caves and Red Dust Redux

My Mom read my earlier post and emailed me this picture. Its old and grainy, but its from 1983, so that should be expected.

The oldest girl in that picture, in the yellow shorts and pigtails is my sister, Jen. The girl in pink next to her is me. The other kids are my cousins, goofing off.
What I find interesting, if you look closer at the picture, you will see that I am looking down at my upraised hand, within which I am holding a pile of white sand.
I KNEW my memory was not playing with me!!!
My mom tells me that this was at Capitol Reef National Park, and I was actually 4 years old.

Caves and Red Dust

One of my favorite places is a distant memory. I had visited it only once, as a small child, but it remains indelibly in my mind and my heart as a place I would love to visit once more before I die.

Deep in the southern reaches of Utah, there is a desert. Much of this desert is National Parks, such as Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion. Somewhere in that vast orange and red desert spotted with shrubs and cacti, there is a cave. It is more than a cave, really; it is a cavern. Its vaulting ceiling was carved out of stone by water and wind and time. The floor is filled with fine white sand, and the smooth orange rocks provide blue shade against the bright yellow desert sun. Inside the cave, the outside world is lost to the sun, and there is nothing except the vast shadowed emptiness and silent echos. There is a peace in the stillness, a submission in the echos, and a joy in the chill shades hidden under the crevices of stone.

Even though I was not alone in that cave–surrounded by chattering people and echoing feet–the vastness of the shadows drew me in towards a stillness in myself. I found a quiet spot near the red rock wall, where the shadows were most purple and cool, and the sand soft and deep. My five year old hands (or was I four or was I six?) plunged into the warm powdered earth. My entire world became consumed by the grit in my palms. I cannot recall if I thought anything–perhaps I had no thought. But for the eternal instant we occupied that cave, that cave’s flesh occupied ME.

There is a life to be found outside of life. Its easy to forget that stillness and emptiness is just as much alive as any action or form–and just as crucial to our wellbeing. I sometimes look back on that cave with longing, for even now, I wish I had more time to enjoy that handful of silent white sand.

For some reason, I am just now reminded of a verse in a poem by T.S. Eliot: “The Wasteland.” (This is also one of my most favorite bits of poetry in all the english language. I am now struck by a wondering if my longing for the cave of my memory and my fondness for this obscure poem are linked?)

A heap of broken images where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no water. Only there is this shadow under this red rock.
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock).
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you,
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Merry Christmas and Joyous Festivus.

Earlier I said I had a lot to write for this blog, and I do. I’ve got a bunch of post ideas, but I haven’t gotten around to writing any of it. It seems to be a pattern for me. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I am excited to post something, but on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I lose that drive, and when Friday rolls around, I want to blog, but am also looking back on the past two days of non-blogginess and find myself saying: “Ah, fuck it.”

I really admire those of you who can post on a daily or near-daily basis. Where do you people find the time and the energy? I just shake my head in wonder. I don’t think I could ever manage it.

***

I finally finished all my Christmas Gifting Hassle. This is one of the things I hate about the holiday season: the shopping frenzy, the crowds of harried, stressed, annoyed people, the agony of indecision, and the bother of wrapping impossible objects. Not to mention the crass commercialism and tacky religiousity that the Christmas Holiday has become.

Yes, I said “tacky religiousity”. What else can I call glowing houses, nativity dioramas, and ornamented fir trees? As tacky as those overblown symbols are, nothing beats the Christmas nonsense quite so much as the “Bill O’Reilly ‘Put CHRIST back in Christmas’ movement”.

Yes, Christmas is not about commercialism and material things, but I also say that Christmas is not about Jesus Christ, either. Christmas is essentially a Pagan holiday, which the early Christian Church adopted and adjusted to its needs. In reality, Christmas is a time of celebration–the celebration of life and of family, and the traditions upon which Christmas revolves (food, fire, and gifts) celebrate our loved ones presense in our lives, as well
as life itself. Those things are not valued exclusively by Christians, but by every society on this Earth.

I am an Atheist and an American. I am a Daughter, a Sister, and Aunt, and a Lover. I am a friend and a moral woman. And I celebrate Christmas. So, poo on you, Bill O’Reilly, and all your tacky, close-minded sycophants.

The Infinite Diamond

I like to ask questions. I don’t care so much about the answers: the process of wondering, conjecturing, and theorizing is far more enjoyable than the act of seeking out and finding the “answers,” of “knowing the Truth.”

I’m one of those people for whom “Truth” is inconsequential. I do believe that it exists, but not as a solid unidimensional point of reality, but as a multifaceted gem: a polygonal object of infinite
planes–a brilliant-cut diamond shaped from raw reality and set into a support that displays and holds its beauty for posterity. Reality is a malleable substance, and we create our truths from that substance. This is not to say that Truth is fake. Even molded from the stuff of reality, it is still real, but it is a reality that is shaped to suit our likings and our needs. A cut diamond, for all its flaws and perfections, is still just as real as the rough stone mined out of the mountains.

Here is a sampling of some questions I have asked myself in the past year. I keep these things in my notebook, and sometimes review them, wondering about every possible facet of the gem of reality I am considering.

  • As an atheist, how can art-making be a spiritual practice? Why do I feel that it is? What is it about art making–the creative process–makes it a spiritual activity? Is the spiritual aspect of creativity essential to the act for all artists, or is it a fringe benefit that not all artists necessarily receive? Is it possible to create without spirit? Perhaps, if forced to create something on demand, but is it art if it does not come from the spirit? Is it possible for any article of creation to arise without that essence of the self?
  • Which comes first: freedom of body or freedom of mind? Is it possible for one to be Free when the body is bound in chains? How can I cultivate a sense of mental freedom when my body is constrained by my obligations and limitations? Or when my mind itself is constrained by emotionalism and spontaneous reactivity?
  • What is freedom? Can freedom exist in our reality? In whatever way we define freedom to be, and in whatever degree it can exist in our reality, can it be said, honestly, that we as Americans, as a people and as individuals, are free?
  • Why do we conjecture about an “afterlife”? Death can never really be understood because it is known only as the event in which the living cease to be living. Death is not-life, so how can we presume to conjecture about the nature and properties of death or the afterlife if we do not know what Life is as well? What is Life–what is it that makes the Living living, and the Dead not-living? Is it possible that Life, as a property of the universe, is like Energy and Matter, and can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another? Is Life an arrangement of energy and matter, a property of a combination of both, or is it a separate “force” with its own properties and laws?

When I start these kind of Wonderings, I let “answers” come to me, but I don’t pursue them with the voracity of a scientist hunting for the truth. For me, truth can be seen in glimpses of reflection, in the flash of light, or in the shimmer of color that the Infinite Diamond of Reality holds within its molecular walls. I find myself content with the faceted view–that I may never know the entirety of the truth contained in one facet, but instead be lightly engrossed in the surface truths of the whole gem. It seems more satisfying, somehow. More beautiful.

How Autumn Comes (to Me)…

Last week, a spectacular autumn leaf fell right at my feet. Bright red and veined with summer green, the colors glowed and sparkled in the sun. I was immediately struck by the beauty of it: the intricate lacing of the veins, the veridian hue of the chlorophyll, and the darkening oxidation of dying cellulose. I tucked it into my sketchbook for posterity. It is dry now, and the colors have lost their sparkle and their intensity, but it still carries the memory of the spark that caught my eye. I am looking upon it now, and I suddenly see the parallel of this single fallen leaf and the grander milieu that is Autumn itself. All the seasonal progression of Fall is echoed in the microcosm of this single leaf.

I knew autumn was coming early in August. Though the temperatures were still exceedingly warm, I could sense it: a gradual change in the light, a shift in the shadows, and a leeching of color in the trees, the sky, and the waters. All this: a distinct sensation of the sun’s waning power.

Ever since my mid-teens living in Idaho, I could sense the light shift before the temperatures fell and the trees turned. It is always the same. First, the intensity weakens: even though the heat is strong, and I sweat and long for ice water to drink, the sun doesn’t seem quite so bright, and it takes a few seconds longer for my skin to feel the burn.

Then, the shadows lengthen and become bluer. Intangible fingers reach for the hidden spaces that a few weeks before could not touch. The shades scattered within the leafy boughs of the tallest trees grow darker and more mysterious. The sky begins to pale. At the height of summer, early in July, the heavens are a bright, clear, glorious cobalt blue, thick and saturated, soft like a velvet blanket. But come August, weeks after the Solstice, the velvet lifts, the blue grows thin, perhaps transparent. It pales to a weaker, whiter blue, like cerulean. The soft velvety thickness of the color is gone, replaced by a thin gauze: wispy and fluttering in the breeze–the blushing veil of Winter’s Bride.

It’s all so subtle, so delicate, and so slow, this progression of summer into fall, that I often wonder if I am imagining it, romanticizing the cycles of Life and Nature’s call. But when the forests turn to gold and scarlet, and the temperatures fall with the leaves, I know that somehow all I see is true, even if I do romanticize my perceptions with some spiritual awe.

I speak of this, because Pool suggested I write about some of the things I notice that others may not see. I have a hard time believing I am alone in my observations, but no one I know speaks of this. Perhaps it is to subtle and too gradual a change for anyone to pay much attention to, and perhaps also too commonplace to make note of. But I notice it every year, and every year I feel blessed to witness this soft glory, for the shifting of the seasons is probably the most beautiful thing on this Earth.

And that little red leaf with the summer-green veins, so bright when it fell and now dim with death, encapsulates everything I’ve seen around me within its fragile, delicate form.

How strange! An ocean wave, a dragonfly, a grapefruit, and an autumn leaf: how do I always seem to find life’s deepest meanings in the smallest of things?*

(*I will post hyperlinks to relevant passages once I have access to a computer. I do the vast majority of my posting via cellphones.)