Monthly Archives: May 2009

Creativity & Meditation: Dragons at the Gate

Last week I wrote about an experiential exercise to help us discover our passions, and in this post we will focus on one of our passions: the one that is juiciest, most up for us right now, and/or the one that feels like the biggest challenge, that we are having the most difficulty finding time to do or joy in doing.

We can apply what we have learned from the dharma, and most specifically from the Eightfold Path, to the challenge we face in accessing and expressing this passion.

The Eightfold Path offers guideposts, and in this exercise we will practice going through each of the aspects of the Eightfold Path and shedding some light on our feelings and thoughts around the particular passion or project we have chosen to explore.

With each question, close your eyes and sense in to your body, noticing any sensation that comes up. Then notice the emotional tone of that sensation, if any. Then answer the question. Try not to edit what arises. There is no wrong answer. We are looking for the honest words of our inner aspects. We want to express as accurately as possible the words that keep us from pursuing our passion, so by their very nature they will probably be negative, even hateful. Let them speak! Write them down! Use quotation marks to get the exact wording. No one will read this but you. Let yourself relax and feel expansive enough to be open to whatever arises in this exploration.

We will go through the Eightfold Path in the reverse order of how we learned it. So we will start with Concentration. Since everyone will be more drawn to answer different aspects at different rates, I’m going to let you each work from the sheet of questions at your own pace. Then you can take it home to complete it if there isn’t enough time to do so here.

I recommend meditating before proceeding with this inquiry.

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Eightfold Path to Creativity

Concentration
What distracts me from my focus on my project?
What story do I tell myself about why I should be doing something else? Invite comment from within and as accurately as possible, in quotes, record the voice of this aspect or aspects that keep us from doing what we want to do.

Effort
Am I striving to make this happen, focusing on the goal, the end product, and losing the joy of the process? If so, put in quotes the voice that says why this is necessary, why I have to work so hard at it.

Is my energy low or scattered around this project? Am I daydreaming about it but can’t muster up the energy to do it? Put in quotes the story I tell myself about why this would be better to do another day, week or month. Or any other story of tiredness or depression.

Mindfulness
When I approach this project, is my mind present or is it filled with all the other things I should be doing? Put in quotes the story about why I don’t deserve to be fully present with this experience that is so important to me.

Livelihood
Is there anything about this project that is harmful to others or the environment? Is there some way to make it safe or even beneficial?
Is this a costly project? Are there budget constraints that hamper its pursuit? Quote the voice that says I can’t afford to do this.

Speech
How do I talk to myself around this project? Do I put myself down? Say I’m not qualified? Say I will make a fool of myself? Put in quotes the cruelest words I use on myself around this project.

Action
Do I have doubts as to my ability to do this project? What would I need in order to do so? Is there a way to learn it? Am I willing to learn it? Am I willing to fail in the process of becoming more skilled? Put in quotes the fears of failure.

Intention
What is my intention in this project? Is it clear? Is it compatible with my Wise Intention to be kind to myself and others and to be fully present in the moment? After stating my intention in quotes, put in quotes whatever arises in reaction to the stated intention that perhaps doubts it. Does my ego have an intention here? Let the ego speak as well.

View
How do I see this project in the context of the world? Does it lean toward connection? Does it express loving kindness? Does it expand and/or deepen my awareness and compassion? Does it have the capacity to do the same for others?
Is there any constriction in my view of this project? Any part that feels tight and fearful? Perhaps a fear of success? A fear of how others will see me? Let this aspect speak and be known.

The things that we come up with, these fear-based thoughts and feelings, will now be our primary focus. They are what we call the dragons at the gate that we need to befriend before we can enter the temple.

Befriending dragons? This is not part of our western culture. We slay dragons!

From a Buddhist perspective, slaying dragons is a highly unskillful reaction to fear. Killing them only multiplies them. Violence begets more fear and anger which spawns more violence.

The dragon is not enemy, but is both illusion and teacher. The dragon is Mara, the tempter who taunted Siddhartha Gautama as he sat under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago. Mara offered up every wondrous lure, every horrendous threat, every rude comment about his unworthiness to be enlightened. Sitting there he always had the option to rise up out of anger and slay Mara. But he knew well that such an action would only fuel Mara’s power to seduce and threaten.

Instead he maintained his sense of staying present for whatever arises, no matter how horrific, and each time Mara came up with yet another taunt, he would simply say, “Ah Mara, I know you.” And this was said with such loving compassion that Mara had no fear fuel to work with, and at the end of that long night Siddhartha found enlightenment.

So we can spend our time at the gate of our passion, sharpening the blade of our sword, strategizing approaches to outwit the dragon, or hiding behind bushes and quaking in our boots. But all of this behavior just fuels the dragon’s ferocity, so that we feel we have even more to fear.

So what is more skillful? Well, let’s take a cue from Buddha, why don’t we? Let’s sit with this dragon and become familiar with its ways. Let’s have a compassionate dialog with it and discover not what it wants but what it needs in order to feel safe in the world. The dragon is exhausted from all this fire-breathing and needs to rest! We have the capacity to offer that rest, that sense of ease and safety.

Before studying Buddhism, in my own meditations I had developed a practice of noticing, identifying and then dialoging with inner aspects that were sabotaging me and causing misery in my life. I brought my most compassionate self to the dialog and always remembered that each aspect was operating out of love and a desire to protect me, but that their means were often very unskillful. I never tried to get rid of an aspect, to beat it down or change it in any way. What I did was discover what it really needed to feel safe, and then I would negotiate a way to provide that without sacrificing my well being, my sense of joy.

Part of the process was to name the aspect when I noticed it forcing its skewed opinion into my life, trying to change my behavior, making me feel insecure, afraid or angry, luring me to eat when not hungry or avoid challenges. I give them affectionate names that make it easier to stay compassionate in the dialog, and compassionate when they rise up in my life. Little Sweetie is the sweet tooth. Slug is the one that hates exercise. Bumpy (for bump on a log) is the one that wants to avoid all excitement. It’s been a while since I’ve had conversations with them, because we negotiated a reasonable settlement, but they are still there, and if I were to do things that made them feel unsafe again, I’m sure they would speak up as if they’d never been gone.

What is a settlement? Well, it turns out Little Sweetie was more interested in savoring the sweetness of every moment than in sugar itself, so I negotiated that when I am drawn to sugar, I will bring myself more fully into the present moment and notice sensation.

Slug didn’t want to get out of bed because bed was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was just a year or two after my mother’s death. Well, I found a yoga teacher about my mother’s age who at the end of class lovingly tucked each of her students in under a blanket for Shavasana. Slug loved going to yoga with dear Mac! And after a couple of years was willing to branch out into more active exercise adventures as well.

So this is the way I found that was very effective in dealing with inner aspects of myself that used unskillful means to meet their needs. When I started out at Spirit Rock and the study of Buddhism, I recognized immediately what they were talking about when they would refer to dragons at the gate. These dragons aren’t always inner aspects, they can be problems in our lives that arise. Instead of being cowed by these problems, it helps to see them as dragons at the gate, something to work with, to find out what needs to happen to befriend them or at least render them benign.

In the course of this exercise, perhaps you have brought forth a voice or two from aspects that stand like dragons at the gate between you and your highest intentions. This may be in the area of creativity, but something else may have come up as well. Now that you have met them you might want to name them and do some loving inner dialog to see what they need. Please remember that their intentions are always for your well being and protection. Treat them with compassion and gratitude for their intentions, but recognize the unskillfulness of their means. Together find what it is they really need and find a creative solution to give it to them.

Next week in the Tuesday class we will be doing a powerful Tibetan Buddhist exercise that goes beyond conversation and negotiation into deeper realms of dealing with our dragons at the gate. Although I will not be able to recreate that here, I will offer a link to a source that does. So stay tuned!

Meditation & Creativity

When I started meditating 30 years ago, the first thing I noticed was a great opening of a creative channel, as if suddenly it had cleared and I was able to just write. I had been working on a project, writing three pages, tossing two – and that was much harder going back in the day when I was typing on my beloved IBM Selectric, a miraculous machine, but – let’s face it – unable to delete, cut or paste my writing.

Reams of paper had been deep-sixed and I still had written less than twenty pages of a novel that lived in my head. Frustration Central! But then I took a meditation class at College of Marin from Bliss Bellinger. (Yes, his mother actually gave him that name! What choice did he have but to be a meditation teacher?)

Bliss taught us a variety of meditation techniques, and I feel quite blessed that my introduction was so eclectic. I learned early on that there is no one right way to meditate for everyone.

Finding time to meditate was a little challenging with small children at home, but I did the best I could and noticed the benefits right away. Because I was working on a creative project, that’s where I noticed the benefits first. I felt this creative surge run through me that was completely different from the creative torment I had been experiencing. I sat down and completed a rough draft of the novel in six weeks, and went ahead to fine tune it, completing it to my satisfaction within nine months.

So I am a believer in the creative benefits of meditation. Since then I have attended creativity retreats with Spirit Rock co-founder Anna Douglas, my primary Buddhist teacher and a painter herself. After my first day-long creativity retreat, I came home and started a series of paintings that were light years different from anything I had ever done, and I sustained my focus and worked on them every afternoon, no matter what.

On the retreat we meditated, but we also did several experiential exercises, mostly focused on dealing with our inner critic. We all know that aspect of ourselves! It sits on our shoulder as we pursue our passion and says, “Who are you to (do whatever you are doing)?” “Look at so and so (some wondrous talent)! There’s no way you’ll ever be able to do that!” “Give up! This will never win an award or be seen beyond these walls. Why bother!” etc. You know the drill.

So I will be sharing some experiential exercises in my class, and to the degree I’m able on this post, though sometimes that will not be possible.


In exploring our own creative passions, first we need to name them. For some that may be easy, for others difficult, maybe even scary. Perhaps there is something you have always wanted to do that you’ve been pooh-poohing for your whole life. Or maybe you think “I’m not creative! This is the wrong place for me.” But the creativity I’m talking about is more than just the ability to write or paint. It’s more of a life force coursing through us, playing us like a violin. What song naturally arises from that interaction? That’s what we are going to find out. Perhaps it’s a deep desire to pursue a particular cause. That’s a creative challenge too. How to share the passion you have with others and build caring connection – that’s what we want to explore here.

Even in this naming process, we need to remind ourselves that there is no qualification required to develop a long held passion or a new interest. We only need to bring our meditative don’t-know mind and our compassionate curiosity to our exploration, and a willingness to fail over and over again. Though we won’t call it that!

Finding our passion sometimes is about noticing when we are extra alert, extra joyful, extra sensory. When do our senses perk up, as if we were sleeping dogs who hear the distant voice of our beloved human, and our tails start wagging? That’s what we are looking for: that area of interest that gets our tail wagging, that seems to be calling to us.

We are not likely to discover this in a vacuum. We need to get out and experience life, go to museums, galleries, concerts, plays, take walks in nature, take a class that jumps off the page of the local community education catalog. Letting ourselves follow the lightness of being that arises out of the thought of doing any of those things, or countless others.

But perhaps we already know what it is, have imagined pursuing it but are afraid to name it. We will be doing experiential work to help us embrace and claim that which we have barely dared to imagine. For now, just to recognize it wanting to be named is enough.

We want the dream of this moment. It may be long held, but we can’t just assume that an old dream is still our dream. One way to discover if it is: Notice the tone of the desire. Is it a love of the process or the desire for recognition that is promoting this particular interest. A willingness to do whatever it is ‘badly’ is a first clue to it being a real deep desire, beyond any fear-based goal. If it’s a vision of accolades that sets your heart to trembling, then it’s a waste of time.

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring how to spark our creativity, how to keep the juices flowing, and how to cope with self sabotage in its many aspects.

For now I would like to begin with a self-exploration exercise. This is best done after meditating so your answers will come from the quietest space within you.

If you are interested in doing this exercise, get a notebook or journal, or open a new Word.doc and let’s begin.

Answer the following question as many times as you have answers. When we ask and re-ask we get answers that are not so habitual or ready made. We may even get answers that surprise us.

Question:
If I had all the time in the world and all the resources to do absolutely anything I wanted to do, what would I do? How would I spend my time? More specifically, if I knew that I would live to be 200 in perfect health and without any financial concerns, what interests and activities would I want to pursue? (This might be a long list. Mention everything. Don’t hold back! If the idea of living to 200 exhausts or horrifies you, make note of that as well and then go back to the original question. Really let whatever arises to flow onto the page.)

An alternative question that may bring additional answers: Given the above conditions, how would my perfect average day be? What would I spend my time doing?

Follow Up:
Now look at the list, then re-read each statement, close your eyes and sense into the body. Say the interest or activity to yourself again and see if you can notice any subtle or not so subtle sensations or emotions that arise. Make a note of whatever arises, either briefly by the statement, or on a separate page, rewriting the initial statement. Then say it to yourself again, and make any further notes. Do this until you feel you have expressed all that needs to be expressed. Then go to the next statement and do the same process.

This can be an intense self-exploration, so feel free to take your time and do it over a period of days, but don’t forget about it! The information you find here can be rich and pivotal.

Mother’s Day Dharma

I am every kind of mother — a step-mother, a biological mother, an adoptive mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother. And I am blessed in all those close loving relationships.

But I’m also a daughter, and on Mother’s Day, that’s where my heart goes. My mom hated Mother’s Day. She thought it was just Hallmark making up a phony event to sell cards. I would beg her to just let me thank her, just let me celebrate that I had the good fortune to have her for a mother. She could be prickly that way. Now she can’t complain, and my brother and I coo over the phone about our beloved mother, whom we’ve missed these last twenty years.
Motherhood is most definitely a practice. I suppose our kids might wish we would go practice on someone else and come back when we’re more skillful! But nature didn’t set it up that way. We are thrust into parenthood without much to qualify us for this huge and important task, and much of the time we feel we are failing. (I remember the intensive parenting classes we had to take to become adoptive parents, and I was horrified to think that as biological parents we had not had to take parenting classes. What other position of such responsibility comes with absolutely no training requirements?)

Mothers who are able to bring awareness into the moment through their practice of meditation have a much better chance of responding skillfully to whatever arises. Mothers who know how to stay fully present are able to savor all the little joys that make parenting such a delight. They can pace themselves better, they can really give their child full attention instead of focusing on some goal of getting the shopping done or any of numerous other practical requirements of their day that seem at the time so much more pressing. They can let go of comparative parenting, worrying about whether their child is keeping up with little Bobby in pre-school.

But let’s face it. No matter how well prepared we are, parenthood is impossible to perfect! In the first place, it’s a 24/7/365 job with very little down time! (I remember feeling I was much more skillful as a stepmother than a mother because I had all week to prepare myself for the weekend when our sons would come stay with us. I cleared the time for them, so I wasn’t distracted, didn’t have to run errands, talk on the phone or be two places at once. I came fresh to the task of entertaining two young boys. I devoted myself to making their time with us enjoyable. We went on fun outings, played lots of ball in the park, did art projects, and I taught them to cook. Now if they read this, they might remember it differently, because once their little brother and sister arrived, I became a different kind of stepmother, not wicked but certainly distracted! When the boys would arrive I was already exhausted, and the needs of the younger two took precedence because they were more dependent on me for everything. The older two probably felt that they had been replaced. Older children always feel that way. But they should also remember that because I was a full-time mother to the younger two, those two rarely got the best of me. While caring for them I also had to take care of the house, the bills, the errands, and when they got to be school age, I was a working mom, coming home tired, giving them much less of me than they really needed and feeling guilty as hell.)

Children, due to ongoing close proximity to their mothers, see us in all our various guises from fairy godmother to Satan incarnate. And we deal with remorse for not being the perfect mommy in every moment, even as we know that’s an impossible expectation.

So what does the Buddha say to mothers or about motherhood? Well, we know that he revered motherhood and encouraged meditators to practice “as a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child.” But all the Buddha’s teachings can be useful in mothering, because they help us to be skillful and balanced.

Parenting is a dharma practice in itself, requiring an unparalleled level of commitment and discipline. This is valuable to remember while we are in the process of raising our young, when sometimes the work involved can feel mind-numbing. Chop wood, carry water, raise baby. Allowing the mind to be spacious, to let go of the need to be mentally challenged in every moment, to let this be enough for now. These are the gifts of the practice.

And in this parenting practice we learn a good deal of dharma, develop intuitive understanding and an earthy wisdom. Like every transformative life experience, motherhood has its lessons. And like many of life’s transformative lessons, one of the major one’s is learning how to let go.

From the moment a woman gives birth she finds she is in a protracted state of letting go. Suddenly that little person who was so safely curled within her womb is now out and vulnerable and in need of her protection. But with each step toward independence, the mother must step back a little further. When the child can walk on his own, she doesn’t insist on supporting him, but she’s close at hand to catch him. When a child can dress or feed himself, she doesn’t insist on stuffing his sweet chubby arms into sleeves or continue to spoon pureed carrots into his mouth when he wants to do it himself, even though she knows he will make a mess of it at first. She lets go, bit by bit, and tunes herself to subtle and not so subtle cues that tell her she needs to let go more, or maybe, oops, she’s let go a little too much a little too soon.

The letting go reaches an often painful crescendo in adolescent years. The child slams doors against the mother, fiercely forcing her to step back further and further. This retreat is a challenging one, because of course the child is not independent, does not have perfect judgment, and may be doggedly pursuing a course sure to bring pain or worse. So finding that balance of support but release is a tightrope for the parent. It requires being fully present in this moment. Letting go of the past – almost impossible with a child you have known so intimately in all his stages – acknowledging that this person is at least to some degree new in every moment, rebirthing themselves, discovering themselves and making choices. Just as we do in meditation, we exert Right Effort to find that right balance, neither too much nor too little, firm but compassionate.

And then the child is an adult, and the definition of motherhood, parenthood, is revised totally. How to skillfully craft a relationship with this wondrous young person that acknowledges that the intense mothering period of the relationship is done. That is the challenge we face now. How far do we step back? What is skillful? How much buttoning and zipping of lips can we do without making the relationship inauthentic, a surface exchange of niceties that satisfy no one?

I remember when my mother and I were working to develop an adult friendship. She clearly felt she had the right to dictate my behavior and my appearance. Exhausted from our bickering battles, I finally asked her to stop before speaking and ask if she would say such a thing to a close friend. Eventually our relationship became truly a joyful friendship, but even then I recognized how much effort she had to exert to develop this new pattern of talking to me. And now I challenge myself to do the same with my adult children, and I am humbled again by her valiant effort and how much love she expressed in doing so.

Each of us faces our own challenges in relationships with our parents and our children, and we do the best we can. We mothers support each other as we deal with these challenges, and that has been true since our children were born. The sangha of motherhood is a strong one, and necessary for the survival of the species. A mother struggling alone needs to reach out to her friends.

For most of us who are mothers of adult children, the challenge is to let go enough so that our children know that we love them but don’t feel us breathing down their neck. My wonderful Aunt Frannie, mother to seven, six living, advises to be “distant but interested.” We do a disservice to our adult children’s development if we are a ready resource for funds. We cripple them if we short circuit their thinking through a problem and coming up with their own solution. And we cripple our relationship with them as well. A breast-feeding mother will sometimes feel like the only thing this little sucker wants her for is milk. We can re-enact that same relationship with adult children if we aren’t careful. Let support come in our willingness to listen and to express our pride in them, nourishing them in ways that promote their well being rather than their dependence on us.

Beyond Motherhood
Part of the art of not being overly involved in our adult children’s lives is discovering another passion equal to our ability to nurture it. If we are healthy and sufficiently secure, perhaps we come to this rich period with some sense of excitement about some long deferred focus we want to pursue, even if we haven’t named it quite yet.

We can take this lifetime of mothering experience, this earthy wisdom and natural ability to create and nurture into another arena. Perhaps this has been our lifework, or perhaps it is what we have been waiting to do until we had more time. Or perhaps its something we have yet to discover. But whatever it is, the skills we bring to this creative project, this worthy cause, or this exploration are of enormous value and can sustain us in whatever we do.

Eight Fold Path Meditation

Now that we have explored the Eightfold Path, the next step is to incorporate it fully into our practice. Using our analogy of the Cooking Pot from the previous post (review if you’ve forgotten or haven’t read it), we can build the fire of mindfulness in our meditation practice.

(Only use this visualization if you feel you want to make your meditative practice more precise. If you are quite satisfied with your meditation as it is, don’t mess with success!)

In meditation, when we discover that we have been lost in thought or a groggy state, instead of just bringing our focus back to the breath, we can use the following steps to refine the practice:

Ah! Thinking! – We have noticed we are lost in thought (or in a sleepy fog), but now we are back in the present moment.

Set the spark of Intention – We remember our intention to stay present in the moment and to be compassionate in the process. We don’t judge ourselves for having been lost, but rejoice in coming home to the moment.

Fuel the log of Effort – We notice if we are holding tension anywhere in our body or if our body has slumped and bring ourselves back into energetic alignment.

Fuel the log of Concentration – We bring the focus of our attention to the rising and falling of our breath.

Fan the flame of Mindfulness – With our focus steadily on our natural breath rising and falling, we fan the flame of mindfulness.

The above process may feel a little cumbersome at first, and, as I discovered in class, it is cumbersome to lead as a meditation because the words get in the way. But visualizing it can be very useful and powerful, and with practice it will become smooth flowing and feel more natural.

I was asked why we don’t mention Right View, Right Action, Right Speech or Right Livelihood in this meditation. Well, in meditation our only job is to mind the fire of mindfulness. And it reminded me how our ancestors sat around the fire, keeping it burning through the night, and how their form of meditation was staring at the flames.

With the Cooking Pot Analogy, we have the added benefit of visualizing our spark of intention underneath the pot (Wise View). By keeping the whole process in our lower abdomenal area (dantien in Chinese, hara in Japanese) we are encouraging being rooted in our core instead of in our heads.