Reflection: The Alchemical Fire of Yoga and Art

  In the Burning World issue of Parabola magazine, authors Laura Dunn and David Ulrich, write “Both [Yoga and Art] ask for an authentic search into the core of one’s being, to seek and cultivate a broader awareness, and to directly meet the many resistances within oneself.”  And so, I have gone on a journey into the possibilities of deep consciousness with the authors as they examine the connection between yoga and creativity practice – “an authentic search into the core of one’s being…” and like the many articles of Parabola magazine, I find myself in conversation with myself about the article and hopefully, with you.  So, before I begin, please consider turning to page 86 of the Burning World issue to explore this connection with me.   

  Yoga and art are passions for many Parabola readers.  I attend a rather rigorous yoga studio where initially I am viewed with awe (I am blessedly double-jointed and can slip into the lotus with ease) but then am quickly relegated to the remedial group for my aversion to inverted asanas.  And I am also a card-carrying member of MoMa and stand in front of Kandinsky and Chagall like a pilgrim before a sacred shrine.  And do not even mention Marina Abramovic; I was enthralled long before the bandwagon arrived.  Yet until I read the article, I could not have explained the connection between Yoga and Art because the connection had never really occurred to me.  But after the article, I am converted.  I see something profoundly important that I had not seen before and that is the gift of Parabola magazine.  

  So, I will offer one reflection inspired by the article.  And then I hope you will share your reflections with me on our new Parabola Magazine Discussion blog.  In the article, the authors write, “Asana must not be an escape where one practices only the pleasant asanas and avoids the difficult ones…We cook in the fire of austerity when we don’t run this way looking for gratification or that way hiding from disappointment.”  

  As a student, I had a violin teacher and a guitar teacher.  My violin teacher was a strict Austrian who always admonished me, “Elizabeth, there is no need to practice the easy passages, you have already mastered them.  Practice the difficult passages and then you will be an artist.”  My guitar teacher was the opposite.  He loved every easy passage I repeatedly played.  Of course, it was easy to love my guitar teacher.  His praise was effusive and to this day, I can still play the instrument whereas the violin eludes me after so many years.  Yet I know I am not a musical artist.  Indeed to have achieved mastery, I had to practice the difficult passages.  I had to cook in the fire of austerity.  I had to lift the veil of illusion and see myself as fully complicated and contradictory as I am and then, just maybe, I could have experienced the gods.


Create a Sanctuary Kit

Available Everywhere Especially on Earth Day!

   Before there were kits and directions, plastic building blocks were whatever the mind imagined.  Some kids were particularly adept and could build Taj Mahal-esque monuments of seemingly white marble.  But for the blueprint-impaired, it was struggle enough to build an ambiguous tower of block atop block.  Fortunately, the kits and directions were added to the boxes and now even the architecturally challenged can build something amazing. 

   Unfortunately, some things are not as easily remedied and some blueprints are never created.  In the world of interacting with others and the Earth, we often find ourselves struggling to maintain relationships that allow for the full realization of one another. 

   So, how do we create a kind of sanctuary: a place where all are safe, respected, and able to realize their full potential?  In days gone by, it often took the bold leadership of one to create such a sanctuary.  Perhaps it was a wise spiritual or even political leader who had a vision of how to create safe spaces in the midst of chaos.  Some were so adept at sanctuary and realization creation that even in the midst of civil war; they could bring people to safety and realization.  If you doubt it, read Mr. Thomas de Hartmann’s Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff.

   But without a Mr. Gurdjieff, it is as if we wander the desert waiting to arrive in a safe land.  We wander lost and confused.  Yet perhaps there is a blueprint for sanctuary-building, a blueprint for self-realization for sentient beings.  And perhaps that blueprint is three simple rules for creative coexistence and sanctuary:

 Three Simple Rules for Sanctuary Building:

  1. Words are powerful. Speak kindly.
  2. Actions have consequences. Act gently.
  3. If it has too much hold on you, let it go.

   Alright, that last one is Gandalf (yes, Frodo lives). Of course, some will argue that this is Buddhist mindfulness or Christian charity or Hindu karma but I maintain it is DIY sanctuary building. 

   We can create sanctuary wherever we are and if our sanctuary is trampled on, we can recreate again elsewhere.  Perhaps that is what we are spiritually called upon to do.  To create and recreate sanctuary again and again.

  Of course, today is Earth Day.  And on that first Earth Day, protesters had a vision of creating a sanctuary to save the Earth.  

  They created their own DIY kit. 

  Can we do the same?


The Home School Cooperative Movement

  What do bottled water manufacturers and educational reformers have in common?  They both package something that is natural and convince us that it is better off in plastic.  Of course, this is bad for the environment and bad for the psyche.  Ironically with all of the initiatives regarding educational reform in the past decade, obesity rates among children have risen and literacy rates have fallen.  Here is but one sad example of how well-meaning measurers of children’s academic levels have created a depressing gulag devoid of imagination.  Yes, school reformers are now emphasizing nonfiction reading almost exclusively over fiction in the classrooms.  

  In an effort to increase students’ readiness for careers in the twenty-first century, reformers have decided to place a greater value on the reading of nonfiction.  Undoubtedly, in certain subjects, nonfiction should be preferred.  However, fluency in reading is the result of reading regularly and fiction is often the vehicle for young learners reading more.  How many young people have come to love reading because of the great fiction writers?  J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Louise Fitzhugh, E.B. White, and Christopher Paul Curtis are but a few of the great authors of fiction who have done a great deal to increase reading scores.    

  To cultivate the love of reading, learners must love what they read.  In a world of troublesome news, young learners find shelter from the storms of life in fiction.   But they also find values and ideas that give them courage to move forward bravely in the world.  From Frodo to Harry Potter, young learners are inspired to see the possibility of greatness in their own actions.  Unfortunately, there is a tendency in educational reform to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  But by restricting the reading choices of young learners too much, we may reduce the time they actually spend reading.  Reducing reading time reduces literacy.   

   So, what are parents to do?  Well, consider “dropping out” from the tape measure mentality of rating and ranking children.  Consider forming Home School cooperatives as supplemental educational experiences for children.  Whether our children attend public, private, or home schools, let us give them the opportunity to learn outside of boxes to cultivate their intellectual, physical, and spiritual capabilities.  Let’s turn a Saturday into a new kind of classroom.  Walk in nature, build a campfire, read a story, identify plants, visit a museum, talk to an older person about days past, have an adventure, and visit a library.  Discover there is more to learning than tape measures.   

  And if you are older and have no children living at home, create a Home School cooperative for yourself and your peers.  Go in search of Kandinsky.  Ask the librarian what her favorite book of all time is and read it.  Open one of the many Parabola in the Classroom lessons and complete the lesson.  Put the joy back in learning.  

  I finish by sharing a tale of two teachers.  One was so frightful that our hearts pounded as we entered the classroom.  We passed her tests because we dreaded public humiliations.  The benchmarks were mastered but when the class ended; we threw away the notes and swore to never utter a word of what she taught us.  Another filled us with curiosity about the world in which we lived and gave us confidence in our abilities.  We loved him and we loved learning thanks to him.  

  So, in the words of Pink Floyd, “Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone.”

The Temple of Muddy Waters

  If you play a stringed instrument, you know that if you tighten the string too much, it will break and if it is too loose, it won’t play.  If you play the Blues on your stringed instrument, you know that too many notes and the music is chaotic; too few and the music lacks depth.  Finding the right balance between sound and space between tight and loose between action and rest makes it all possible. 

  Today, more than ever, we live on the frontier of constant activity.  People buy groceries while texting on Blackberrys, jog while talking on cell phones, and play games on electronic devices while waiting in waiting rooms.  We are literally wired to constant contact, contact that is with others but often separated from ourselves.  Of course, in any endeavor, too much activity leads to exhaustion.  If we were a parent to such a constant activity child, we would say, “Honey, you need a nap.”   

  So, how are we to connect to ourselves again?  How are we to return to inner consciousness?  In the Many Paths One Truth issue of Parabola magazine, there is a profoundly important article by Tracy Cochran, an editor of Parabola Magazine, titled Finding the Path.  In the article, Ms. Cochran shares her insights while on silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts.  Since no summary of the article is a sufficient substitute for reading the article, I simply encourage you to read it.  But I will share with you that Ms. Cochran is an editor of Parabola Magazine, a writer, and an emerging Dharma leader; she also leads a sangha in Tarrytown, New York.  And if you live near Tarrytown, New York or are in need of a spiritual journey, I would strongly suggest that you attend her sangha.  

   For while many of us have daily meditation practices, there is something about sitting with others.  Like the best Blues music, in communal meditation, there is alone and together which by the way is the title of the next issue of Parabola magazine.  When we meditate with others, we gain a profound connection to ourselves and to others.  That is quite difference than jogging while on a cell phone.  Yes, we are physically alone while jogging yet connected to another through an electronic device but we are really disconnected from both experiences.  As I once read in a New York Times article on the brain, the brain can only do one thing well at a time.  Yet one of the many beautiful paradoxes of communal sittings is that our mind is fully engaged in meditation but we are intimately connected to others.  

  Of course, communal sitting has the added benefit of a talk that follows meditation.  When Ms. Cochran leads the sangha, she weaves together many insights and experiences like a masterful spider.  There are many fine connections coming together in great insight.  So, if you find yourself in need of deep connection and insight, find your way to Ms. Cochran’s sangha.  As Eric Burdon sang in San Franciscan nights, “if not for the sake of this song but for the sake of your own peace of mind.”  

  And if you have followed this blog to the very end, you may be wondering what is the Temple of Muddy Waters?  Well, again there is no substitute for experience, so download King Bee and tell me?  In great Blues like great life, there is space and sound, alone and together, silence and action.

  May we go into the great silence together.  See you in Tarrytown.

Revolutionary Love

  They were teenagers for a reason.  Teenagers love with wild abandon.  Had the lovers been older, they would have been more practical.  

  Slightly older Romeo: “I can still be a glove upon that hand even if thou marry another.”  

  Slightly older Juliet: “Indeed parting need not be such sweet sorrow.”  

  Of course, practical love doesn’t make for great art and it doesn’t make for great living.  

  “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son” is quite different than “For God so loved the world but kept his only begotten son for himself.”  

  On this day of deepest love, it is wonderful to read Nipun Mehta’s “If You Want to Be a Rebel, Be Kind” in the Burning World issue of Parabola magazine.  Mr. Mehta’s article about Pancho Ramos Stierle, a nonviolent activist that transformed Occupy Oakland by meditating in the Plaza, reminds us that love is a powerful force.  As Pancho said, “If police are stepping up their violence, we need to step up our nonviolence.”  

  This kind of radical nonviolence is always founded on radical love.  For in the face of a Bull Connor, the nonviolent activist must believe that love is the more powerful force.  And this kind of radical love is different than other kinds of love.  In mundane love, there are tremendous rewards in loving – the touch of a lover’s hands, the warmth of a mother’s loving embrace, the joy of a friend’s company.  But to love regardless of benefit is to be a revolutionary lover  – to love without exception, without distinction, without boundaries.  Most of us are too afraid for this kind of love.  We know the sacrifices that such love demands.  Do we really want to give our only begotten son to a bunch of undeserving folk?  

  I do not pretend to be a Pancho.  I am a moderately good person.  I try to be kind and compassionate but sometimes my to-do list gets in the way and I find myself racing to complete my chores regardless of the causalities.  But even though I am a moderately good person, I have a very good conscience.  And so, after I’ve mowed down several people in the supermarket, I apologize for my haste and try to slow down.  

  But on this day of revolutionary love, I will share with you one brief story about how when we try to love unconditionally and without benefit, we sometimes get more than we ever could have imagined.

  After a long day of work and family, I found myself in the laundry room of my apartment building.   A woman entered the room and began to ask me rather intimate questions about a family member.  Though she clearly knew my kin, I did not know her.  Being in a hurry, I turned to her and said, “Excuse me but I don’t know you and these are rather intimate questions.”  She looked stunned and being a moderately good person with a very good conscience, I realized how rude I had been.  I quickly apologized.  And then the most amazing thing happened.  

  I cast aside my to-do list and began to really listen to her.  She told me about her son who had recently died from cancer.  How as a small boy, he had a rare disease that left him blind and how he was supposed to die before his eighteenth birthday.  And how he  had lived until he was forty and had learned to ride horses and work as a computer specialist and even had the most amazing four-day party when she and her husband were out of town that classmates still remember to this day.  She talked to me for about two hours and I shared her joys and her tears as if I had walked with her.  And while I had started the conversation in a penitential sort of way for my rudeness, I finished the conversation having received a tremendous wisdom about how to live fully in an uncertain world.  

  So, on this day of deepest love, strive to be a revolutionary lover.  Ask yourself what would Pancho do?  Or Gandhi?  Or the Dalai Lama?  Or Rumi?   Or the countless other good people who have loved without borders?  

  And even if you take the most tepid steps towards revolutionary love, take those steps knowing that love is a transformative power for the lover, for the receiver, for the world.

  Love on!


  It was supposed to be easy.  There was no need for rucksack, water bottle or map.  It was just an afternoon hike, an hour at most.  Of course, it was hot, nearly a hundred degrees.  But it would only be an hour.  Besides it was a beautiful day with a clear sky and plenty of wildflowers.  It was a perfect day to be outdoors but when the hour turned to two and then three; when there was no end to the trail in sight, then it wasn’t perfect.  It was terrifying.   

  Until the day that I was lost, I had always been a lucky hiker and as hubris is as hubris does, I took for granted that all hikes would always be easy and end well.  But that day, I experienced something different.  That day I was lost.  After being lost, I now bring a map and a water bottle and a rucksack.  I admire a beautiful landscape but know it can change in an instant.  I respect nature but know it doesn’t exist for my entertainment.  

  Or course; if we live long enough, we have been all been lost.  In the Seeing Issue of Parabola Magazine, there is a wonderful story called Nomad Girl, told by Barbara Helen Berger, about a traveler who is lost and then found by the Bodhisattva of compassion, Tara.  In the story, the bodhisattva nurses the traveler back to health and the traveler is changed in the process.  I liked the story so much that I created a lesson which is posted on the Parabola in the Classroom page.   

  Being lost is a common theme in many of the great stories of the great faiths.  Of course, there are many ways to be lost.  We can be emotionally lost, physically lost, or even psychically lost.  When Arjuna approaches the battlefield and sees his kinsmen arrayed against him, he is lost.   When Siddhartha finds the existence of suffering, he is lost.  And when the Hebrews are enslaved by a merciless pharaoh, they are lost.  On this first night of Passover, it is worth remembering the enormity of being lost and the gratefulness of being found.  

  I have always believed that the great stories of the great faiths are the collective canon of humanity.   I have always believed that every man, woman, and child should have access to the canon and its wisdom traditions.  Indeed, to make sense of the world we live in; we must know the stories that shape us.  Through knowledge of the stories, we begin to understand the lens through which humanity sees and experiences the world.  

  In the world of the sound bite, it is easy to lose the glow of the storyteller’s fire.  Stories like waves on the beach grow and move and crest.  They demand our attention like a jealous lover.  But like a jealous lover, they can give us a depth of connection that a superficial telling simply cannot.  In every issue of Parabola magazine, the reader is given a portal to the great stories of the great traditions, a key to opening the canon of the collective story of humanity.  For not one perspective but many perspectives, not one story but many and not one voice but many are shared around the flames of Parabola’s fire.   

  We have always been a species of storytellers and we have always needed to share our stories, to give life to the tales that long to be heard.  Tonight on the first night of Passover, a great story will be shared, a story that has kept hope alive through the ages.  In the pages of Parabola magazine, the great stories are lovingly preserved and shared for all tables for all times.  

  Support Parabola.  Keep the flames of the storytellers’ fires alive.

The Dharma According to Bilbo Baggins

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins…

“That’s right,” said Gandalf. “Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”

   When she was a teenager, the wise Alexander Z. introduced me to the epic, The Lord of the Rings, and I am still indebted.  In the epic, there was courage and perseverance and all manner of things that make a person long to be heroic.  But some of us are not naturally heroic and for those of us, The Hobbit and particularly Mr. Bilbo Baggins speak directly to our souls.  These days I have been rereading the book to a rather small creature but not a hobbit.  Of course, as an adult, I see even more of the reluctant Mr. Baggins in myself than I did as a child.  I particularly love it when the dwarves sing, “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!  Blunt the knives and bend the forks!  That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates…”  Yes, that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates and I hate it too.  I love a clean and orderly home and long for the day when no one manages to smudge the sparkling glass and muddy the clean floor.  But, alas, life has its suffering and glasses get smudged and floors get muddied no matter how many times we try to keep them clean.  

  In the dharma, we are told that all is impermanent and in the advertisements, we are told that all can be kept clean and orderly.  But ultimately the ad exec must meditate under doctor’s order because his blood pressure is too high.  And impermanence trumps perfection every time.  Of course, in The Hobbit, Bilbo finds something within himself that lets him leave his orderly and comfortable home.  Perhaps it is his long matrilineal line of adventurous Tooks or Gandalf’s conviction that he is the right hobbit for the adventure or his own self-respect before the questioning and skeptical dwarves.  Regardless of reason, Bilbo moves beyond the comfort of his comfortable hole to the dangers of a big adventure.  And while I do not long for a big and dangerous adventure, I do believe that there is much to learn in the tale of the rather small hobbit and a very big adventure.  Indeed sometimes there is more to life than a comfortable and orderly hole in a comfortable and orderly hill and sometimes finding that something more makes all the difference in the world.  Indeed that’s what Siddhartha learned when he left the luxury of the palace in search of that something more.

   Maybe if Bilbo was a bodhisattva, he would be a bodhisattva for the meek, the orderly, the habitual – the type of person who can get really comfortable with a very predictable life but of course, life isn’t predictable.  And so what do we do when Gandalf comes knocking at the door?  Perhaps at first, we cower under the covers and hope the wise wizard moves past us but then just maybe, we see something in ourselves that believes in our abilities to move proverbial mountains.  Perhaps we develop faith in ourselves and realize that we are a good deal more than we ever imagined.  

  There is a book that I learned about while listening to public radio, The Power of Habit.  In the prologue, it speaks of a woman who scientists study because she managed to change many negative habits by changing one thought.  She decided to cross the desert after a series of personal disappointments.  From that one decision, she changed her bad habits and created new and lasting patterns that transformed her life.  Maybe she too was following the Dharma according to Bilbo Baggins.  When we change one thing, we change everything.  

  So, read a classic to a child and maybe, just maybe, in reading aloud that one book, everything will change in the life of the child and for you.  Or subscribe to Parabola Magazine and maybe, just maybe, everything will change in the way you think and live.  And open the door when Gandalf comes knocking and then without a doubt, everything will change.  

  For life is change whether we like it or not but if we can change, then we become participants in change and not victims of change.  

  Oh, and tell me: Are you a Bilbo Baggins or a Frodo or some other character from one of the most remarkable adventure stories of all time?