Thursday, February 6, 2014

I'm just finishing up reading a really superlative book titled "Stilling the Mind: Shamatha Teachings from Dudjom Lingpa's Vajra Essence" by B. Alan Wallace. I received it as a gift from my wonderful friend Matthew Champoux, an exemplary human and skilled yogi who has practiced under the tutelage of Richard Freeman for well-over a decade. The book, in a nutshell, focuses on the practice of shamatha, defined as"meditative practices that are designed to refine the attention and balance the mind in preparation for the practice of vipashyana"(vipashyana is contemplative insight into fundamental aspects of reality). Within the short span of 180 pages, it packs in so much paradigm-shifting, radical clarity about the nature of the human mind that I found I could only read a few pages at a time, lest I become overwhelmed! Through the process of reading it, many subtle aspects of reality were pointed out to me, and many of my assumptions about my own body/mind/world were called into question.

So good!
This experience brought to mind how I felt when I first started studying the Dharma. I remember the excitement and the enthusiasm it instantaneously aroused in me, the intense curiosity to know more, and the now-familiar sensation of the ground of my paradigm dropping out from under me. I remember reading for the first time about concepts such as emptiness and impermanence, or about the impossibility of locating a fixed and solid identity within ourselves. Everything is changing all the time, from the atoms in our bodies to the thoughts in our minds. We create a solid sense of self by piling our experiences, opinions, memories, thoughts, perceptions, and sensations all on top of one other and then vehemently guarding that heap that we call our "self" from dissolution. The wonderful/terrifying thing about studying and practicing the Dharma is that it knocks down each of these carefully erected pillars of who we think we are, one by one, or sometimes all at once. What we are left with when all of that rubble has fallen is tremendous openness, spaciousness, freedom and clarity.

This ever-present process of dissolution has allowed me to begin to understand some of the concepts that I've been reading about for more than ten years now. I recognize these concepts in my mediation practice, in life's constant changes and turbulence, in having parts of my life that I thought were my most stable foundation simply and unexpectedly evaporate. I see it in the subtle wrinkles appearing on my face as well as in the other myriad ways my body has begun to start it's slow descent into aging. I see impermanence everywhere these days, even in the small reflection that who I was yesterday simultaneously is and is not who I am today.

I often get a sense of this when I see an old piece of artwork that I created at some point in the past, whether it was two days or two years ago. I know that it came from my mind and my hands, but often I feel an almost eerie sense of distance- did I really make that? Logically, I know that I did, but I also feel so palpably that the me who made it is gone. Looking at old artwork is like viewing a relic or an artifact from an expired state of mind and place, a series of moments in which it was being created that have been frozen onto a sheet of paper or canvas. I often feel like every thought I had while drawing it is somehow recorded-- every emotion, every mood and every mindset has been documented and transcribed in lines, shapes, and color. The hectic days that I spent sitting at my drawing desk working under deadline have passed, and so has the me that participated in that effort. What is left is a remnant, a little picture that hopefully serves to transmit meaning.

It is precisely this feeling I get when looking at a poster I finished a few weeks ago for The Polish Ambassador, an awesome human and Bay Area DJ. This piece was created in what felt like a race against time, a flurry of pen strokes, and thousands of tiny dots that made my wrist ache and my forearm burn. Yet now all of that stress is just a flimsy memory, while the art endures in a slightly more permanent way.

The piece was inspired by a trip I took at the end of December to visit another very dear friend (also named Matthew!) in Trinidad (which is in Northern California right near Arcata). His beautiful little home feels like it is on the edge of the world, nestled into redwoods with hanging moss swaying from their branches, all next to a cliff that drops down to the beach, overlooking the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

On my friend's deck overlooking the ocean.
This spot is now my favorite place in the world to practice yoga.
Sunset from the deck.

I spent an entire day in silence, on an empty stretch of beach, sitting contemplatively and listening to the roar of the waves. As the day waned, I ran along the edge of the waves, and then watched a sunset so beautiful that tears ran down my cheeks in gratitude and joy. How lucky am I, are we, to live in such an opulently exquisite world that is ever in flux, from moment to moment, where what is here now will soon be gone. The royal colors of the sunset reflected on the sand, wet from the receding waves, catching in each facet of the foam and sparkling like internally luminous jewels. I stood knee deep in the frigid December Pacific waters, and as the sun disappeared over the horizon, I saw a little face in the waves. Bobbing in and out of the water, yet holding my gaze, was a large seal, watching me through its whiskers with what I interpreted as curiosity. We both remained that way, perceiving each other silently, for several minutes, until it bobbed once more under the dark waves and I saw it no more.

My wonder grew wide as I pondered the amount of life beneath those cold waves-- the whales, the fish, the sharks, the squids, the corals, the krill, the phosphorescent plankton-- all the creatures that live a life that seems so different from my own. I thought of the grace of dolphins and the enormity of the blue whale (who has a heart as big as an elephant and veins large enough that an adult human could swim through them!). I thought of the incredible alien strangeness of deep sea creatures-- the angler fish with its luminous bait attached to its head, the ancient nautilus with its Fibonacci sequence shell, and the eels of the deep that go their whole life without seeing sunlight and live off of the carcasses of whales and other detritus. How strange, how beautiful, how wild and weird, these creatures that inhabit this world with us and whose lives are every bit as important as a human life, just as worthy of protection, just as sacred, and just as impermanent.

When I returned home from this trip, I sat down with a pencil and made this sketch as tribute to those fellow creatures of the sea. May we be aware of them and may we consider our impact upon them.

Rough sketch for the poster
The finished naked image, without the tour information.
I'm very thankful to The Polish Ambassador for commissioning this piece from me for his spring tour. Check out his side project Wildlight, in partner with his extraordinary girlfriend Ayla Nereo. Working with such inspiring people truly is a blessing. If you like the piece, TPA will be releasing a limited edition run of prints in the near future. Also, I'd like to say a huge 'thank you' to the very talented Colin K for creating the lovely calligraphy for the poster.

The final poster! (here with the San Francisco show information. To see the rest of the dates for the tour, click here).

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

- Rilke