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Late Night Painting II

II.

Sometimes, one aspect gets to drive and choose where we’re going. If Bear gets hungry is so hungry that he won’t let Mr. Business Man stop to think then the Mr. Business Man needs to compromise for a moment and allow Bear a chance to eat, understanding that he and Bear share the same body and Bear’s basic needs are as important as his own. If the Mr. Business Man wants to make a deal that seems fluid enough but goes against the ideals of the Inner Buddha Mind then they have to talk it out and see who comes up with the clearest solution. Sometimes the clearest solution is turning down the deal. Sometimes, it’s just a rewording of a contract. If The Lover has just been let down, we must take notice of conciliations offered by Inner Child who really just wants to be loved and allowed to play. The desire to be loved wears many masks and sometimes becomes a motivation that has less than noble intentions for it is an i-me-mine sort of emotion. All the while, the Inner Batman, a vigilant watcher, keeps an eye on everything. Underneath that mask is only me. The inner Batman has the fatal flaw of seeming both aloof and sometimes overly righteous. Yet, he also helps maintain the nobility of all of these aspects, just as Inner Child and the Lover remind him of his softness and ability to yield. All of these aspects – both individually and as a whole – have the potential to devolve into the i-me-mine space.  Yet, they also have the potential of evolving into the all-one-being. So who watches? Who guides? Who is the overseer here? Whose eye is the all-seeing eye? And who really gets to drive?

All together, these aspects are a part of a larger whole that, like Jane’s Addiction or Phish or any other band of great musicians, is greater than it’s parts. That larger whole is both the ego and lack of ego. Ego is simply there as a built up identity structure that the mind creates as a placeholder for “i” in the same way that we create a concept around “cup” or “painting” or “Barack Obama”. We create a concept of an inherent being within us that we identify with. This is all well and good but when the intentions of this being become less than wholesome and the subtle patterning and conditioning of a lifetime of learning at the hands of the cultural norm which preaches the i-me-mine edict, it becomes, shall we say, rather hollow. Yet, when we start to subdivide it and learn it’s nuances, we find different identities who all developed in our being as answers to specific situations that life at one time asked of us.

This, too, is all well and good – my inner meditator might not be so suited for wearing the suit of the inner business man. So the inner business man is there to serve a valuable purpose. The inner business man has his mind on infrastructure and marketing awareness and fair deals and sustainability and growth and doesn’t always think about things like hunger, so there is this bear that is a pretty physically oriented sort of thing. Now, none of those can be tender and soft yet playful and child-like. So we have Inner Child. Then, of course, there is the punk-ass flirtatious lover. Well, to be fair, they are all lovers, but the punk-ass sort of has that bred into him. Watching over all of them is the Inner Batman, aloof yet fully aware of all that is going on – he is there to protect and serve.

I am the sum of my parts. I am like this table: the table is a collection of parts creating a concept of table. I am merely a conceptualization, walking through this world. My paintings are also conceptualizations. Everything that I create is a conceptualization of some mental concept. Even the person I’m creating when I look in the mirror before stepping out the door is a concept – a loose reproduction of what is inside or what I would like to create or be. The only time I stop maitaining this concept is when I stop thinking about it.

There is a magical moment in painting, when I am no longer thinking about what might come next or how that might interact with what has come before it, when the brush and the canvas and my hand and my mind and body and spirit are all one and are moving in this lovely beautiful aware flow. Sometimes these moment stretch… and stretch… Sometimes. Sometimes the mind checks out. Sometimes it’s a record on repeat stuck on some emotionally charged event or phrase or word or person or place. But even then, like a loop in some song, there is a release, a momentary space in which, if we remain open to the possibilities of life, an answer might appear. Most of the time, that answer is: LET GO.

This is the meditation. This is the concept of what I paint. In all of the flames, in all of the clouds and the dark corners, in the stars and spirals, I lose myself, I crumble. And I allow those pieces of me to remain there.

In it’s wake there is always something that goes beyond “a light”. It is what Mircea Eliade called, in all of his studies of the nature of spiritual experience, the “mysterium tremendum”. There really are no words for that space. However, the reflection of that moment of Letting Go upon the canvas is something magical, effulgent, creative. It’s a leap of faith. An effervescent line. A bit of laughter caught in the paint. It’s a reflection of a concept of absolutely everything and absolutely nothing. It is union.

Experiencing Bliss

Today is the birthday of a friend, someone I’ve not seen in quite a long time but a friend none the less – someone who is very close to my heart. I have that little reminder that pops up on the side of my Facebook page to thank for that notification and I have her to thank for lifting a veil, for calling me out, for changing my life.

It was maybe six or seven years ago (how time flies!) when we first met and there was some chemistry there. So we had a thing and I had a thing for her. We spent a bunch of time together all of a sudden, just like that. I was in my usual (at that time) space-surfing-no-home-to-speak-of mode, painting, partying, traveling a bit here, traveling a bit there. She was a painter and pretty focused on a Tibetan Buddhist path. At that time, I think she was in school, I don’t remember exactly. Anyhow, this is all just auxiliary information. The point is: there was a spark, a fire, a reflection, and I respected her.

A conversation one evening went something like this:

“Michael, you smoke a lot of pot. You’re stoned quite a bit.”

This was certainly a fair, inarguable observation. In truth, I would hazard to guess that I’d been stoned for 300 days a year, at the very least, for the previous eight years. Illuminating when you add it up like that. I had, in any case, gotten high at least once a day for those three hundred days. Some of those days – in the midst of the painting binges for instance – were spent in such a haze that there was no in or out, high or low – it was just one long sustain and all I could do, or think of doing, was keep myself there. While I may have felt I was productive in my painting, in retrospect, I wasn’t productive in much else. While I may have been experiencing great highs, I certainly wasn’t integrating much.

“Yes, well… I may smoke a bit in the morning, take a hit or two…” But I knew it was a tough one to argue.

“Well, to be honest, it’s tough to hang out with you because there’s always this veil – this sort of space between you and I. In fact, it’s between you and the world. Really, it seems sort of selfish. You end up forcing everyone to get through this veil and you’re in there but it takes some work to find you. You’re not straight forward with life. You’ve got this veil to hide behind.”

Well, she said that in so many words.

“So, really, I like you a lot but I can’t really deal with the constant stoniness. So it’s either me or the pot. If you want to be with me, you’ve got to give that up.”

So I chose her. I’d like to imagine it was an easy choice but truthfully I don’t remember. I’m generally aware enough, even in the most egocentric times, at weighing choices like that – door number one is a path you know, a habit, a pattern. Door number two holds something new, different – an opportunity for growth, maybe new adventures, some light.

I chose door number two.

The short end of that story is:
Ultimately, it didn’t ‘work out’ between us. But we are where we are when we need to be there. And we came together for the lessons we had to share with each other. Giving up smoking pot broke through all kinds of things – suddenly life was REAL. In fact, it was so very real that I started drinking heavily because all kinds of emotions came up – sadness, depression, loneliness, attachment, wanting, craving, everything! – and they were quite hard to deal with because I’d never actually dealt with anything. I’d lived in my head and my daydreams for so long that screwing my head back onto my body was, in fact, rather disconcerting. I didn’t know how to handle it and I freaked out for a little while. It was sort of a heart wrenching/heart opening time. The drawing above, at the start of this post, was drawn during that time. It is called “The Heart Dance”.

For people who say there is no addiction in marijuana and no withdrawals… Sure maybe for the recreational smoker, this is absolutely true. But, as with object of addiction – whether it be alcohol, drugs, television or hamburgers – if a person finds that it helps to squelch the real emotions that they don’t want to deal with and it works, and it makes them feel good, they’ll keep going back for more. That’s addiction. Take the object of attachment away and everything it was being used to block rears it’s head. That’s when it turns out there are a lot of demons down there. Granted, marijuana likely helped me in many ways – it was a tool that I had at my disposal; a teacher in plant form. But, as with any teacher, as with the parable of using the boat to cross the river: once you’ve made it across the river, it’s best to abandon the boat. For all I know, I’d been lingering on that shoreline for far too long, hanging out with my boat.

So for a little while, all I seemed to be able to do was calm the demons while I learned how to deal with myself, knowing I’d get back to the darkness. So I worked with the tools I had, picking up new tools along the way. I worked on finding a center (and dealing with the urges and cravings that sought to pull me away from that) and figured, however consciously, that I’d get to the darkness. All good things in their own time!

Ultimately, when I got back to painting – by that time it was in Costa Rica – my work was so much more present. I was more efficient and my lines and approach crisper than it’d ever been. To top it all off, I was having these experiences that actually felt like they could be integrated into my being and I began to understand what “Being on the Path” really meant. I’d never realized what I was missing. I’d thought, for a long time had convinced myself, that I ought to be high in order to paint. I’m sure I’m not the first artist to fall prey to this belief. Now I found a deep reservoir of creativity, an endless and boundless spirit, and I found I had the skills to illuminate it. As I passed through these things, so did the emotions rise and fall, rise and fall.

Through that process, as demons have come and gone and challenges have been met, I’ve discovered more than I’ve ever dreamt. I’ve pushed myself and allowed myself to be pushed in ways I’d not imagined possible. And I’ve found something inside, something nameless, shapeless, wordless, some truth, that allows me to participate in this world, through my work and my interactions with others, in a way that is truly enlightening.

This friend helped lay some groundwork for all that came after. She is someone who helped me to step onto my path and be who I am – and admit to myself who I am – without just living a daydream of what I might be. So I say happy birthday to you, my friend. And thank you. May you live long. And prosper.

This one is dedicated to you.
May all beings experience bliss.

Canyons and Edges

But what of our fearless adventurers? Adventure: One man’s adventure is another man’s walk in the park. Wherever we find our edge – therein lies the adventure.

I found Violet’s hiking edge while we were making our way back to the trailhead in Bryce Canyon. We’d decided to hike the Fairyland Trail – an appropriately named trail that leads in and out of the “hoodoos” as they are called that make up Bryce Canyon, Utah – tall sandy spires, sometimes many stories high, looking like a series of towers in some child’s drip sand castle. The spires glow with an orange/sienna sand stone, streaked now and again with white or subtler colorings of green or purple or red from mineral deposits. Dappling them here and there are twisted gnarled trunks of juniper, bristle cone pine and, deeper into the base of the canyon, Douglas firs, thick-trunked and towering over the little washes and scampering chipmunks.

We arrived the evening before when we set up camp, and showered at the main visitor area/store/etc. We were rather beat from three full days in Arches and Canyonlands – lots of hiking, play, sun, and late night star gazing. Plus I always tend to wake with the sun so I’ll usually go out for an hour or two hike in the early morning by myself. The angle of the sun and hue it casts upon the world at the hour – a sort of golden fuscia – is too precious to miss. I treasure those early morning hikes through the awakening world – usually undertaken after my morning espresso by the Coleman stove and then transcribed through notes and sketches in my always attendant sketchbook (The by-now-default Strathmore 5.5″ x 8.5″ recycled paper sketchbook).

The morning we drove to Bryce, Violet had been up late the night before, tracking Jupiter through her telescope. I, the early riser, beat from a long day, a tasty and satisfying dinner plus wine, and the warming orange glow of the campfire, had retired to the tent before her. I was up early too, enjoying the still crisp desert air. After we had breakfast and fnished packing up, we drove through the emptiness that seems to be most of Utah, segmented every now and again by ‘reefs’ – staggered and steep rifts in the earth looking as if the ground had been wrenched in two then shoved back together recklessly by some careless deity, leaving jagged cliffs rising out of the generally rolling landscape.

Traveling to Bryce on a Sunday left us with little in the way of replenished veggies and other rations – supermarkets all seem to be closed in Utah on Sundays.

“Mormons,” we muttered.

After setting up camp, showers, etc, we checked out the canyon. Yep, it was a big canyon. We went for a drive. We saw some antelope. They were shy, kept to themselves, did not respond to our entreaties. We made our way back to camp, went to bed early.

In the morning I chilled for a while, drawing and enjoying the crisp morning forest air and tall trees that surrounded us, a somewhat different environment than the Moab desert we’d left the day before.

When Violet awoke I made pancakes with apples and bananas and topped with syrup and strawberries  a- good hiking breakfast. Then we packed up for a good hike. It was going to be 8 miles, not bad. I like a good long hike. The hike itself – somewhat uneventful. Bryce is certainly beautiful and I think if I’d not just spent the past few days enraptured by the iridescent quality of the sandstone and colors of Arches, then I would have found the soft glow of Bryce more inspiring. As it was, it was interesting, but not oh-my-frickin-god-this-place-is-amazing. Ah well. The landscape was gorgeous none-the-less and, the next morning when I trekked out early for the sunrise, the morning glow over the spires and hoodoos was quite a remarkable scene.

Well – it turned into a hot day, with occasional clouds coming passing overhead, a lot of hiking up, a lot of hiking down. Somewhere around mile six Violet said to me: “This is no fun.”

Admittedly, she is shorter than myself, with a shorter stride. I would think that maybe my 8 miles of walking is equivalent to her 5. The passage from Chogyam Trungpa’s “Training the Mind” on Exertion occurred to me. Here was the part where the fun was gone – the joy gone. Pain creeped up the leg, the feet were tired, the knees worked, the old track injury begging for respite. Yet, the car was not in the sight, the end not quite near, and so one had to push on. Where to find the joy? Where to find the energy of exertion?

We all have our edges. I might like to push myself with a good long hike and even when my own feet are tired, I rarely complain, but a few days before I’d had the most difficult time sitting drawing a landscape.

Some time back, my friend Robin and I were hiking to a waterfall in the mountains northeast of Ojai. The path edged over some very loose gravel and the edge of the trail dropped off rather sharply. She found herself without the ability to put one foot in front of the other. Joy: gone. Yet, she spends much of her life working with others doing spiritual counseling walking them through difficult mental traverses, and doing the same for herself. Yet, here, a physical manifestation of that experience and she was without a next move – without the will to put one foot in front of the other. The

It’s interesting how we all find our edges and when we push ourselves a bit further – we sometimes find an opening, a new view, a new vista. One way or another we come to know ourselves, the world, Life, just a little bit better, even if there are no words for that experience and that new found knowledge.

Granted, by the end of our journey, Violet found herself hurting a bit and a tad exhausted, but whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger, yes? And she didn’t kill me for taking her on a long hike, so that must’ve made me a bit stronger as well!

The next day we left for the Grand Canyon and, after a circuitous trip to a grocery store, we set up camp at a reserved camping spot on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, looking out onto a softly fluttering grove of aspen, fortunately missing any of the heavy rain that that clouds seemed impregnated with. We cooked burgers of free-range buffalo over our fire, had a drink, went to bed.

And yes, the Grand Canyon is actually quite big. But more on that later.

Mount San Jacinto

I left Violet at the lodge where her other philsophy friends from UCSD and UCI were having a sort of informal conference and drove up the road a piece to the Fuller Ridge Trail – drove up a twisting dirt road and parked at a gate. I started hiking… p and up. Into the still silence of nature abounding where there is no stillness but no incogruous sound, nthing is out of place. Bird song, bird anser. A woodpecker in the distance and another bird that zooms past me at breakneck speed. I sat for a while. Feeling my heart beating. My breath breathing. My joints and fingers and feet.

I hiked further and higher… into groves of towering Douglas Firs with long striations of bark in several dozen shades of brown and red and tan. I stood up close to it, my face inches from the bark and breathed in the musky woody scent, mingled with the cold mountain air. I felt it’s tall peace and, as I stood there, felt myself – the roots and branches and leaves and fruits of my being stretching to the sun and the center of the earth. Maybe I looked like the "tree-hugger" type but that issuch a misunderstood idea. A "tree-hugger" gets hugged back as well – bt beyond that I felt like i was meditating there with this tree that was more than several hundred years old. It’s bark attested to fires and storms that it has weathered – knobs and gnarls of knotted wood giving away where a brach was blown free in the wintertime and charred edges and the cetner charring – a tunnel within the tree that has been charred and blackened. I felt it and tasted it an thanked it. And moved on. I stuck my hand in the snow and stopped now and again to let my footsteps catch up with myself. And in that moment – the moment of being caught up – i found a center – and ever evolving moving changing and constant center.

I kept going. I was getting a bt light-headed- hungry maybe, low blood sugar, tired, maybe it was the altitutde but I hadn’t see my "spot" yet. I always find a "spot", a place to stop and brath and feel everything a place that is high up and I can feel all of the elements at once. I’d stopped at a few rock outcroppings and a few tall trees but they hadn’t been :"it" but then as I rounded a corner I saw an angled granite face lit by the sun and looking out on who knew what. I understood that to be y stopping point. There is never a destination – the journey and discoveries along way are all the purpose – but sometimes we find a spot – a place where we find ourselves a little more, a little deeper.

I climbed up atop that collection of giant boulders and had the valley and mountains spread out before me, dropping off steeply, surrounded by Douglas firs and other pines and brush, the clouds rolling away over head, a cold wind sweeping up from below and a warm sun that would peek out every now and again. All of life circling grandly and lovingly – look at us! feel us! feel yourself – my breath, my body, my spirit, my mind, my soul, my everything – all of this one vision, one illusion, one thought, one breath. I sighed a long long sigh, allowing for the fact that I would soon find myself back in my studio, back before my desk r my canvas. But I take a piece of back with me and I leave a piece of myself here.

After a while, I knew it was time to turn back. The wind and cold were beginning to bite and their bites were no longer playful. My light headedness had returned and it was still a five mile hike back. So I turned and ran, hopped, walked, hiked and occasionally cut between the switchbacks and took a tumbling gait down the arid sandy soil of sand and pine needles and dried oak leaves. I breahted, smiled, sighed and returrned to the car. Listening to Sun Electric’s 30.7.94 album I drove to a little general store, picked up a Cabernet and drove back in the  setting sun, as it cast it’s glow over the pine, turning them a golden green, to the lodge where dinner would soon be served.

One's Craft

The artwork I create has to do something to ones spirit. Otherwise, it is simply decoration. While I am a craftsman, I am not just a craftsman. The same goes with being an artist: while I am an artist, i do not want to be just an artist – to be just anything is to be simply performing the mechanics of the thing – going through the motions – without partaking in the spiritual component of whatever action one might be engaged in. It is to be just a mechanic. However, the mechanic as well can transcend his own position to be not just anything; I do not mean to disparage mechanics. Does what you do uplift others? Does it challenge them to step beyond ordinary perception and push expand boundaries and, while you are engaged in your art, do you push yourself to be more open, more expressive and more aware of where your own edges are?

Our Wedding


Violet and I had a beautiful wedding in Malibu, CA, on June 22nd. A wide open blue skies with soft breezes tempered the heat of the longest day of the year where, atop a mountain plateau high above the ocean, with a view that inspired all to a sense of awe, we were wedded. The ceremony, held at the site of an ancient medicine wheel in use for ceremonies since the days of the Chumash and used just the day before for a Solstice gathering and ritual held by Mary and Eric Wright, who own the land, brought together many traditions and cultures, all of the elements and our own families and community as witness to our union. The elements, represented by a male and female each, and all of them dear friends, were led in by Robin and Rafael, who officiated the ceremony. They have both been with us since we first met, with Robin being my go-to person to talk about Violet with and vice versa. Now, here they were, as our priest and priestess, directing, casting, holding space for us, honoring us with their own blessings. We were welcomed into the circle and, after the initial opening, directed by Robin to each element who, in turn, blessed us with words and traditions of their own choosing. Only our actions were rehearsed. The words, though written, memorized, etc, were fresh to all of our ears. It was not repeating lines but being in the moment, the truth.

I had a voice in my head though, badgering me. It was my father whom I could feel grimacing through the whole thing. He is a staunch Catholic and, as such, takes issue with any spiritual path that is not distinctly his and enjoys proselytizing, especially to me, his oldest son who seems to have high spiritual motivations but also has, well, tended to such an opposite path. We already had a moment a few days before while eating dinner at World Famous down on the ocean in Pacific Beach. Enjoying the sunset, eating a seared ahi salad, I told them about (<a href=”http://www.mclightenment.com” target=”_blank”>McLightenment</a>. I knew it would get his goat a bit but there is a message there (even for him), tho he wasn’t interested in hearing it. Instead he used it as one more opportunity to turn things around, find something wrong with it and then use it to start needling at other practices of mine, like yoga.

“Look, dad,” I said, “Let it go. You have your path to your truest self and I have mine. They might be completely different and there are some things we might never agree on but they are our paths and that’s that.”

He kind of stuttered for a moment realizing that was the truth. So he shut up, although thinking about it now and again it makes me feel a bit of anxiety. Every son wants to be loved by his father but not just loved but respected as well, respected for the choices we make, respected for the paths we choose. My father might never get why I have chosen the path that I have, although he seems to make every effort to sway me towards his own. I’m 32 years down a path that continues to get brighter, more loving and more compassionate. I am in love with the universe – this great spirit that is all things – and it is in love with me.

So here we are getting married then and I have his voice, echoes of discussion, judgment, passing through my head while I am trying to remain present to the words of love, the blessings, the admonitions and foundations that are being passed along to us from some of our dearest friends.

Leave, I tell it, get out. I have no time for you. This is my day. Not yours. This ceremony is a manifestation of Violet and I. It is our truth and we are living it.

And it quieted down. It lurched off. Our ceremony, you see, was almost completely pagan- the elements, the blessings of the spirit, all of these things: it chafed against all of his own beliefs, structures and systems. Yet, if he were to pause, he could have seen the beauty in it. I would like to believe that he did. My mom got it. My brother loved it. Our friends – to them it was completely natural and in tune with the rhythm of life and the love of spirit.

When we returned to the center of the circle, Robin and Rafael invited everyone to stand around the circle and hold hands and be witness to our union, as we spoke our vows, exchanged our rings and were pronounced Michael and Violet Divine.

The circle remained as we exited, holding hands as one.

Later our reception was held down under some great old oak trees, on a large deck, with a small waterfall cascading over boulders into a little pond of lilies. We danced, we drank some wine (<a href=”http://www.casabarranca.com” target=”_blank”>Casa Barranca </a>– Thanks Bill!) We laughed and hugged. We munched on tasty food. Pictures were taken. It is all a blur now or memories, memories and moments. A beautiful sun set over the mountains casting rays of golden magenta light. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful days of my life.

After days of hard work – from hand block-printing and accenting each invitation that went out to making the pants and skirts of all the elements who played a role in our ceremony to our own outfits- Violet’s dress, my pants and shirt, our necklaces and wrist cuffs… to the planning and phoning and meeting and deciding and buying and and and… To see it all come together and be a perfectly wonderful 7 hours. 7 hours of people who have come to celebrate with us in such a beautiful way- to see us united. It wasn’t a birthday party or even just a party in honor of us- it was a party in honor of our divine union. There are few other reasons I can think of to have such a wonderful time. To have it in such a beautiful setting surrounded by all of the elements – the ocean and the mountains, the sun and the wind… and the Divine.

Pictures and other info can be seen here: www.michaelandviolet.com

On Marriage

Marriage is a spiritual contract not just between two people but between two souls with the whole of the world as witness to their union. This spiritual contract, this union, is based on trust, commitment, admiration and, most of all, love. This love has no fine print, no conditions, and no murky sub-clauses. It is exactly as it is stated. The two souls entering into this union share a trust of each others intentions and motivations. They are committed to each others spiritual growth as well as to their own. They admire the life that each other leads now, has led and will continue to lead. And they love each other as they are, wholly and completely, not as they could be, as they would like them to be or as they once were. When we love another person fully, we extend our boundaries to include them within our sphere of existence. Their growth process becomes our growth process, their failures and triumphs become our own. We allow that their process may be different than ours and that it has gone on long before we ever entered the picture, but as long as that process is healthy and valid, as long as it allows for love, growth and change and does not create discordance of spirit both within and without, we support and engage it with them. When the growth process closes, when the door of the heart seems to shut, we do not turn our backs but, again, offer support, compassion and the challenge to move beyond such obstacles to a more harmonious and loving existence. There is strength in numbers and in the spiritual union of marriage, a container is created for greater growth and deeper spiritual connection, for a broader experience of life than the two spirits here before us have experienced on their own. The goal of a spiritual life is to live in harmony with the world – to rise as the world rises and set as the setting sun, allowing that all things are one, are dependent upon each other and come from and go back to Spirt. It is wise to enter into a union with one who seeks to support such harmony, to spread love and wisdom and to create a wise and compassionate world. The two spirits, Michael and Violet, have deemed it wise, each other fit as well as themselves, to enter into such a union.

The Soul in Nature

The Ojai Valley

Walking in the woods, sitting alongside a river, surrounded by tall mountains and blanketed by a silver layer of clouds I find myself once again. I find myself sitting, in a pause, loosing myself in the sound of a river rushing past- in the birds, in the reflections upon the ripples of the sky and the leaves of the trees. Walking, the sounds come into my head and leave again as if a thousand conversations. Approaching the river, I hear only the distant murmur. As I get closer that murmr is a sound that is definitely in front of me, significantly more distinct- like a thought coming clear. As I get nearer and nearer the sound becomes like a rushing torrent of words, until I are in the middle of it, standing on a rock, alone, in a valley, surrounded by green on all sides, with the rushing torrent of sound crashing about me and on all sides, tumbling rocks and passing right by with a thousand other places to go and, if I sit for a moment, even if just in my mind- if I listen for just a moment- immerse myself in that rushing crashing tumbling sound of thoughts cascading into one another and let myself go into it, forgetting that there is a destination, forgetting that there is any possible conclusion and simply surrender…. When we walk onwards, with the sound now behind me, there is an unintended cleansed feeling – a clarity and a sense of peace. With the sound of the river fading away behind me like a room of conversations with no conclusions, I feel refreshed.

I need this sense of escape into the mountains- into a world untended and unhindered. With bushes that have not been trimmed, flowers whose seeds were not placed by human hands. Surrounded by rocks that were not carefully positioned along rivers whose course was not chosen by discerning and engineering minds. To be surrounded by the holistic ecology of nature – that dynamically breathing, living being, is to step inside the outside, to embrace that which tries, yearns, to embrace us.

I think about what it is to be surrounded by manicured lawns, trimmed hedges and constrained, meticulously planted flower gardens, watered regularly, lest they wilt in a land they were never meant to grow. To drive down well paved streets along securely banked curves… to see clear water come from my tap and yet, any culvert or stream flows with heaps of algae, a plastic grocery bag or two, maybe a shopping cart … Yet, how I love the wild recklessness of an untended grove of trees or the focused meandering of a trodden path. To walk up a river without following the trail, hopping along boulders and walking through cold clear water is to forget, even if just for a moment, all these trappings we believe to be so intrinsically human.

I spent so long moving between extremes of place. After I left my home of youth- the efficiently clean suburbs of Connecticut, I found myself moving further and further into rural areas – from ski mountains in Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom with it’s back to nature routines to other rural and remote areas, sometimes only accessible by foot. It is that memory that lingers as I park my car in front of my garage in suburban San Diego, walk past the neatly trimmed hedge and into my clean organized home.

I am fortunate for those brief respites in my view between one tended world and another when I drive through one of the many canyons that rim the neighborhoods of San Diego. Although even then, I am reminded of how many others see them- land that seems neglected, “undeveloped”. People equate wildness with neglect when in fact it is no such thing- wildness is exuberance while neglect is carelessness and manicured lawns are safety zones. So I need (as in- a desire, a craving) to step out of the safety zone that I find myself circumstantially surrounded by to go run through the woods, lose myself in the conversations of the river, and see my reflection in the red smooth bark of the madrone tree or the precisely curved petals of some perfectly purple wildflower. It is this kind of movement that touches on something deeper inside of me than all the malls of the world combined.

The Incessant Quality of Mind

All thru’ the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All thru’ the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they’re frightened of leaving it
Ev’ryone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time,
All thru’ the day I me mine.
“I, Me, Mine” – The Beatles

What is it I spend all my time thinking about? I am pretty sure I’m thinking all the time. The only time I am not thinking is when I am full engaged in what I am doing (excluding things that require thinking; concentrated thinking is different than distracted thinking) watching a movie, listening to someone speak, painting, walking along the beach. There are these actions- all sorts of them. And I listen, I engage, each of them- eating, walking, yoga, painting, and there are moments of illumination, like a fish cresting a wave, jumping in the sun. These times arise when I am fully present. They arise when I am in the flow of life. Even if it is just sitting and I stop trying. I stop stopping. I stop.

Then there is all the time thinking. When I am in the midst of it, I forget about it. That may seem very zen but really it’s rather ignorant of the process. I’m just caught up in it- thinking about wedding planning or he said I said she said or what I should have for dinner or a thousand and one plausible scenarios of life and how I might respond or what I might say or what I did say or <i>whatever</i>. I will be honest- I was thinking earlier of what I would write right now. When I am able to take a step back and objectively look at this thing called thought process I notice a few key elements. Thought is in no way a bad thing and is natural as the clouds in the sky or the currents of the ocean. In fact, the ability to think things through is a positive aspect of any rational human being. The problem lies in the place where the rational part stops and the irrationality of rethinking and rethinking and keep on thinking like a skipping record whose needle is the “I” itself. Once ought to be enough! But why do we think and rethink – if it is not to aggrandize ourselves or someone else, at least in our own minds, or to belittle ourselves or someone else, if not in our own minds, to strengthen attachment or defend an aversion. If not that, then what?

One thing I have noticed is that sometimes my incessant thought stream is simply hell bent on figuring it out. Whatever “it” may be. “Figuring it out” is actually all of it. It sifts through the issues, the variables, the problems, the items on the list, then it does it again, wash rinse repeat – this mind reviews everything, as if it is indexing a hard drive or leafing through folders on my desk containing stories, points of great import, and irrelevant but possibly relevant and important enough that we haven’t forgotten them details that might be crucial to the current issue at hand.

It does this while I am trying to go to sleep. I catch it- sorting, organizing, planning, seeing if there is a diamond, a seed, something missed, caught/lost in the shuffle. A-HA! It proposes it will say- I’VE GOT IT! As if all of a sudden the eureka, the grand idea will unfold from the map of minutiae it has laid out.

I catch it on my way into yoga class. Let it go, I suggest, just let it go. Downward dog, upward dog – it loses track and has to start all over again. The process feels terribly fruitless. I must press on. Move forward. Maybe some inspiration awaits around the next corner. You’ll see, it tells me, I’ll earn my keep.

In truth, it does not want to find the answer it is looking for. While it might be good at figuring things out and, granted, occasionally comes up with a good idea or two, this mind doesn’t really want to absorb the key point- the cornerstone, the idea that keeps it all locked in- and that is the fact of basic self-existence (or the lack thereof)- that nothing is completely independent of itself- even the self, even this mind. When I ceases to exist, so do all the concepts, thoughts, illusions. When I am…

When “I” is no longer telling stories about what “I” did or did not do, what was done or not done to “I”… when “I” is no longer trying to find excuses, reasons or bottom lines… then what is it to do? What is left when the walls of stuff- of thoughts and concepts, dreams and anchors dissolve?

Words of description only offer approximations. Expansiveness has no yardstick.

It is a feeling that has been alluded to, touched upon in countless places and, sometimes and on rare occasions, manifested in concrete, in paint, in music. Songs tend to suggest feelings and intimations but as soon as words enter in, there is something tangible to latch onto and define. An image is good at creating an initial rush – a quickly swallowed pill – but as soon as there is something to criticize or identify with we tend to categorize and thus once again fall prey to the very slippery movements of the “I”.

It has gone on forever- bottomless mind. All-seeing Eye.

I am hungry. I must pay rent. I must make that phone call. I must make a list. I won’t make a list so I can keep thinking I must make a list (a deeper thought in the bottomless mind). I must live up to my expectations. I must fail at that living up to the expectations. If I break the habit then I break the chain and if I break the chain then what do I have to think about and dwell upon. If I am always late, and I start to be on time then what? Then what?
Do I have new expectations to live up to? Only if I allow myself to set them. There is a difference between living up to expectations and living the Truth.

The key to life is learning to separate your “self” from the “I”. There is a being here, that is for certain. It is as much a being and as vital to the workings of the universe as a gear in a clock. Remove the gear and the clock ceases to work. Such is death. I would never propose thoughtlessness. Instead- I propose conscious thought, focused action, doing things right the first time, movement coupled with awareness.

It is in the moments of moving with the flow and cresting the wave, swimming in that Big Sky Mind that we experience illumination. Through illumination we shed light upon the motions of our minds.

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