The Heart of Liberation And Love

I am experiencing and cultivating an opening of my heart that allows for tenderness, for forgiveness, for a deep listening to others and myself. Kwan Yin has been part of this opening.
-Sandy Boucher

This is an excerpt from the introduction to

The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation and Love – to be published in 2012

Twenty years ago I dreamt I was walking in a large English garden in which there were three towering figures of female Buddhas carved out of black stone. Each was over 100 feet tall sitting peacefully in meditation.  In awe, I walked between them on quiet, carefully tended pathways. The wonder and serenity I felt in the presence of these majestic figures are indelible in my memory.

Coming at a time of great upheaval in my life, this dream was a spiritual landmark.  Outwardly, I was counseling a large group of psychology students, trying to help them find a school in which they could complete their studies since their college was collapsing – it was about to close.  Inwardly, I wrestled with the responsibility of leadership.   Although I was no longer one of their teachers, I had willingly accepted the presidency of the college, a dying institution, in order to find a new home for their degree program.   At the end of long days, overwhelmed by the loss of a community of learners, I often dissolved in tears of sadness.

Within weeks of this dream, I began conversations with a Buddhist-inspired college, Naropa Institute.  Interest on both sides quickly blossomed into planning sessions and within four months our displaced students were enrolling in a newly developed program that merged our transpersonal emphasis with comprehensive meditation and mindfulness practice. While I had previously studied and practiced Buddhism, over the course of my time at what is now Naropa University, I was led to make a personal commitment to the Buddhist path.  Not only had the dream presaged my inner journey, it provided confirmation of the outer collaboration with Naropa as well.

On a deeper, archetypal level, I believe the female Buddhas reflect a progressive ripening of the consciousness of humankind. Dreams often show us what we are ignoring within ourselves, whether it is our potential, our wounds or our folly. As a psychologist, I have been witness to the profound impact of dreams of the Black Madonna on my clients and the tremendous love she represents to those who dream of her.  From the Western Christian tradition, I believe she is an embodied image much like the female Buddhas in my dream.

The three figures in the garden came to me as feminine symbols representing the heart of Buddhist teachings.  At the time of my distress I was not yet tapping into this gentle yet strong, resource of wisdom.  It took their towering manifestation in my dream to rouse me to greater consciousness.  Seventeen years later, in traveling through Asia, I discovered the female Buddha’s ubiquitous presence in the form of Guanyin[i], a feminine icon of the enlightened heart and mind.


[i] The spelling of Guanyin in this text is in the Pinyin style. Pinyin is now considered the standard for Chinese Mandarin in Mainland China and Taiwan.  Kwan Yin and Quan Yin are considered Cantonese spellings derived from Hong Kong and Southern parts of China and are also in common usage in the West.

Open Engagement: Relationship and Empathy

Spirituality is the movement from our prison of self-blame and self-preoccupation to an inclusive and open engagement with life.
-Sharon Salzberg


This week I’ve been under a deadline to write an academic paper for a conference I attend every year in Bangkok sponsored by the International Association of Buddhist Universities.  I have struggled to write again as a scholar after enjoying the free flow of sharing as a blogger, personally and upfront.

I’ve fallen behind in my blog schedule and just realized that a few fragments from the paper I’ve been laboring on addresses Sharon’s invitation into a more open engagement with life.  Here are some excerpts on relationship and empathy, topics addressed in my paper: Slang, Freud and Buddhist Psychology: Clarifying the Term “Ego” in Popular, Psychodynamic and Spiritual Contexts.  Quite a mouthful.

Relationship

The Buddhist concept of interdependence informs our understanding of relationship and the natural reciprocity inherent in all of life.  While a psychodynamic perspective understands the autonomous development of the individual as a necessity, Buddhism points to the danger of the extremes of self-sufficiency creating a false sense of “I.” This “I” or ego manipulates and misperceives self and other.

Suffering in relationships stem from the extremes of independence and dependence.  One is marked by the painful experience of isolation and the other is an immature fusion where our demands on others do not reflect our chronological age.  Learning to walk the interdependent path begins with the practice of attending to the present moment, seeing through the impermanence of past wounds and trusting the guidance of our teachers to mirror our yearning for compassion and liberation from suffering.

The Bodhisattva Vow, to liberate others before oneself counters the tendency of the individual to attend to oneself and not the other.  From the Buddhist point of view we are all narcissistically wounded in clinging to the “I” and it’s delusional views and habits. Waking up requires the development of clear seeing and the reversal of painful self-centric patterns in relationship.

Empathy

Compassion is Buddhism is related to empathy as it is based in entering the experience of the other.  The Latin root of the word refers to having deep feelings (passion) with (com) another.  Compassion implies a further response of an action to bring relief to the passion (suffering) of the other.  In this case passion is understood as the impossible desire to escape “what is.”

A compassionate response can pierce the ego-encasement that an individual has built to protect him or herself from pain.  Compassion acknowledges and accepts loss and other feelings imagined as too big to bear.  Compassion understands the ultimate boundarylessness of experience and the natural exchange continuously occurring between all beings.

In the Buddhist view any wall created to protect the self from others is the creation of ego or a false sense of self.  At the same time Buddhism does not deny the uniqueness or the different experiences of each human being.  The task to hold both a relative and an absolute understanding of self and “no-self” is embraced on the path of liberation. Holding this paradox we open to embracing other and “no-other” as well.

If this were a blog I’d add it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too!

Action + Acceptance — Art Therapy Serves Sex Trafficked Girls

Acceptance does not mean passivity. We may try to accept things as they are, but that doesn’t mean if, for example, a situation is unjust that we don’t try to change it.
Diana Winston

There is so much pain and suffering in this world that is hard to accept.  I have a friend that is working on a project to bring art therapy to young girls who have been used in the sex traffic industry so I’ll start there.

Slavery and rape are more accurate words for the unspeakable crimes committed against children throughout the world.  “Traffic” and “industry” says how far off course humanity has veered.

The reports on girls abducted or sold on the black market is horrifying.  The latest stories and the mounting statistics tug heavily at my heart.  I admire those who challenge the transgressions in the streets and in the halls of government.

How can we accept these despicable acts?  Not easily, but if we don’t fully accept the injury we can never address the suffering. When we accept the truth we face it, look it in the eye and let it in our hearts.

No wonder it’s so hard to accept. Our heartstrings are inevitably intertwined with the distress of others the moment we make contact.  Acceptance means connection and responsibility. Response-ability is the measure of an open heart.

With endless access to the suffering of a world torn open by the media’s onslaught we are faced with a mighty big task.  Every one of us must honestly ask ourselves whom we are able to serve: a young girl, a neighbor, our grandfather?

Every year I am struck by the ignorance of a childhood fiction that the world was on a trajectory of improvement.  The 50’s myth was shored up by a mistaken belief that every disease would be cured, technology would solve any problem and increased understanding was uniting humans across racial differences.

Yet every year my eyes are opened to greater suffering and doubts about a future on our planet. Child slavery points a laser beam on that uncertainty.

So how do we choose to serve?  How we know our capacity? How do we keep our hearts open?

My friend Sue is finding her edge developing a service-learning project for her art therapy students at Naropa University.  The Naropa Community Art Studio International is planning to take their healing work to Cambodia to support and empower survivors of sex trafficking.

She’s Partnered with Transitions Global, an organization that provides a safe environments where girls can heal through intensive trauma therapy and sustainable life and job skills training.

Raising funds through crowdrise and throwing marathon-painting parties the students are on their way to working with the Cambodian girls next summer.

Do I need to believe in a myth?  Absolutely not.  Can I accept a world of hurt?  It’s a little easier with friends like Sue.



Blossom — 7 Quotes and Articles

A deep week of #14Buddha posts has wrapped up and your comments and sharings in the blog comments, across Twitter and FB have been inspiring and greatly appreciated.

#14Buddha posts will take place every other day this week.

Please do continue to share your reflections and writings that are inspired by the women writers featured here at The Female Buddha.

Did you miss a post?  Highlights and links below….

“All of the sudden I woke from my hazy reverie. This was the photographic moment!
The statue was lovely yet these few minutes brought it to life. I had almost missed it.”

— September 19th

“Here is one of my worst habits and a true confession.  I don’t exercise my photography muscle and find myself at square one every year when I go overseas to shoot in Asia, the land of amazing photo opportunities.”

September 20th

“For years after the accident I dreamt of climbing down anything and everything vertical.  My spiritual work was to come down to earth and to be in my body.”

September 21st

“She was a quirky, sad, funny and beautiful lady. She turned me on to bugs and Indian paintbrush and the smell of rain through a rusty screen door. ”

September 22nd

“Laying down and closing my eyes the sun melted my last resistance. Then hearing a birdcall, I sat up and looked across the lake where a massive cottonwood was speaking to me.”

September 23rd

“Taking the extra time for self-care can seem like an indulgence but it rights my world. A bath or a walk in the woods provides alone time in a supportive, sensual environment. Digging weeds in the garden is a great alternative.”

September 24th

“The mental computer loops through tasks while I practice coming back to my breath again and again. I always imagined I was 180 degrees different from the engineering lineage of my grandfather, father, uncles and brother…”

September 25th

~*~
This post is a part of the 14-day The Female Buddha community dialogue visual arts and writing invitation. Artist Deborah Bowman has gathered inspirational quotes from global women teachers to reflect on your life travels and creative practice.
Feel free to  reply to today’s prompt on your own blog. Share your link in the comments.
Join the dialogue on The Female Buddha page on Facebook@thefemalebuddha on Twitter and #14Buddha hashtag.

Connecting to Others: Meditation and Tonglen

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Pema Chodron

Do I spend time wondering how others are doing?  When someone sits across from me: yes.  Otherwise: usually not.

Pema Chodron’s suggestion has me wondering if this is enough.  I live a pretty whirlwind life: psychotherapist, professor, photographer, author, partner and friend.  When I’m not immersed in one of these roles my mind goes to problem solving and planning.

Sitting on the cushion in meditation I notice my designing thoughts fashioning syllabi, gardens, page layouts, budgets, retirement, interventions, trips, counseling centers, paragraphs, presentations, emails, household chores, ad infinitum.

The mental computer loops through tasks while I practice coming back to my breath again and again.  I always imagined I was 180 degrees different from the engineering lineage of my grandfather, father, uncles and brother.  Yet nonstop I engineer superhighways of the mind to accomplish tasks at higher and riskier speeds.

Do I wonder how my actions affect other people’s hearts?  All the strategic thoughts are seamlessly connected to actions. But are they genuinely connected to others?  In the abstract: yes.

My bigger endeavors have given hundreds of students a stellar education in transpersonal psychology.  I’ve initiated or designed several successful counseling programs at Naropa University.  Those tasks occupied large tracks of cerebral space for years.

Now authoring books occupies the dominant parcel of mental real estate. I want to share inspirational images and quotes of women from around the world.  Blogging about the process helps me feel more connected to my audience and other authors.

The practice of tonglen helps me move from the abstract to the personal. It’s a structured exercise in Tibetan Buddhism to breath in the pain of others and then breath out an offering of compassion and relief.  Pema speaks of it as a natural process we’ve lost touch with in our hurly-burly lives, something a big open heart does without thinking.

Tonglen reminds me to deliberately consider family members, friends and colleagues; especially anyone who is suffering or someone I’m having trouble with. I’d like to embody the process a little more off the cushion and in my daily ruminations towards others and myself.

Setting the intention is the first step.  Over and over I see a line of progress when I begin with a straightforward question and an open heart.  No beating myself up, simply breathing in the pain and starting fresh again.

How about you?  Where is your mind wondering?  Where could you use a little compassionate relief?


Your Best Medicine: Self-care and a Hot Bath

Any recommended methods or medicines that enable us to strengthen body and mind can be seen as inseparable from the teachings and instructions of the Buddha.

— Khandro Rinpoche

What isn’t labeled “spiritual” in your life yet contributes to a deeper understanding of yourself and the world?  Share your quirky and/or best medicine for healing and wholeness. 

~*~

I’ve been writing every day this week on emotional topics and it’s time to get in some very hot water…and relax.  This is one of my favorite medicines for the Perls adage to “lose your mind and come to your senses.”

A really hot bath stops the mental chatter.  Thoughts don’t have a chance for the first several minutes of immersion.  I’m feeling heat on every square inch and delighting in the silence.  When the occasional thought starts to simmer up its movement is slow and dissipates like the steam.

My favorite time is after dark with the lights out and the window open to the cool night air. Citrus or lavender bath salts add pungency to the vapors and help anchor me in the sense realm.

If I enter jagged from a day of too much caffeine a good half hour in the water leaches out most of the poison.  The same goes for any generalized anxiety or frustration circulating in my veins.  If sadness bubbles up it’s easier to breathe through it.

I’m generally an idea person whose mind travels to the future.  Hot water puts a damper on the endless parade of possibilities.  If I stay long enough for the water to begin to cool I notice pandering to a little planning. It’s time to reach for the tap for another heat-inducing reverie.

A bath gives the blood flow in my hands and feet a boost on cold winter nights when my extremities will just not warm up.  Those nights I sleep a little better with the tension in my muscles and joints melted like cheese on a patty.

Taking the extra time for self-care can seem like an indulgence but it rights my world.  A bath or a walk in the woods provides alone time in a supportive, sensual environment. Digging weeds in the garden is a great alternative.

The simple pleasures of getting two hands in the dirt, feeling the swish of water or the tingling of snow are our birthright.  It’s the way I connect to the natural world both inside and out.

What is your best medicine?

Light: Haiku, Poetry and the “Aha” Moment

Watching the moon

at midnight,

solitary, mid-sky,

I knew myself completely,

no part left out.

Izumi Shikibu, Women in Praise of the Sacred Anthology

Share the details of an “aha” moment.  What sparked your experience of awe or wholeness?  What literature or art captures your longing for deep knowing?

                                                                 

                                                                     ~*~

Late last spring I was teaching Nature and Art, a class I imagined for the Wilderness Therapy program at Naropa University that is now in it’s tenth year.  Fourteen of us gathered at Sawhill Ponds, a reclaimed gravel pit outside of Boulder that is home to fox and nesting Great Horned Owls.

After sharing the voices of Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver and haiku artists, I send my students out to find the “just right spot” to spend the next 45 minutes contemplating and writing their own verses. 

Dead tired, I thought about lazing in the sun while the students worked their words.  I’d led this exercise many times on the banks of a rushing river or by a placid lake like the one I claimed that day.

Some of my favorite word-smithing has occurred on these occasions yet the rebel inside kept nagging me to chill.  Laying down and closing my eyes the sun melted my last resistance. Then hearing a birdcall, I sat up and looked across the lake where a massive cottonwood was speaking to me.

I began taking dictation; none of my usual crossing out and backtracking scribbles sprawling across the page.  Here are the phrases that flew out of my pen:

Cottonwood speak to me

Tell me of your majesty

Your mighty arms dance

Is it Butoh?

You stand where others have fallen

Fierce beauty with green buds

on ancient twisted limbs

Teach me Zen Master

Your grace withstanding storms

When the lightning strikes

will you split open

and share your marrow?

Later we collected our circle and everyone who was moved shared their musings, reciting each poem twice in the tradition of a Japanese haiku club.  In delight and listening closely to each individual, I thanked my lucky stars the “student poet” in me was called to the “aha moment.”

Walking back to our cars a bald eagle flew low over our heads and the few remaining slivers of ice sparkled on the ponds.

~*~

Broken Open: Loss and Love

I have no desire to fix my mind so it will not feel saddened by loss.  I want to feel deeply, and whenever I am brokenhearted I emerge more compassionate.  I think I allow myself to be brokenhearted more easily, knowing I won’t be irrevocably shattered.

Sylvia Boorstein


~*~

PHOTOGRAPH/WRITE:

Describe a time of being brokenhearted.  How has it made you more compassionate, more shatterproof?  What do you want to convey to someone in the midst of loss?  

~*~

My mother’s death tore at the vestiges of a very thick wall surrounding my heart. I was
a hard nut to crack and her death rocked me to the core. I was thirty-three and she was
sixty-five and dying of lung cancer. She started smoking at age twelve.

Her illness came five years after a climbing accident where I sustained long-term injuries.
I had learned to grieve my own losses. This was different. Her dying broke through my
compulsive habits and stripped me clean of an eating disorder. I was feeling life so fully
I couldn’t stuff down my feelings with food anymore.

She was a quirky, sad, funny and beautiful lady. She turned me on to bugs and Indian
Paintbrush and the smell of rain through a rusty screen door. If my brother and I would
plead long enough she would cross her eyes, make the “funny face” and we’d be rolling
on the floor with laughter.

A dark veil would overcome Mom at times followed by raging tears and slamming doors.
The rest of us would tiptoe around the house for a day or two. She seldom talked about
the tragedies in her life but we gathered stories about her father’s alcohol induced death,
her mother’s early death from overeating and the loss of her older brother in WWII.

The learned family pattern of walling off pain was a strength in hard times and an
obstacle to deepening relationships. We were lucky to have a bond of love but often
didn’t know how to express it. My father’s mantra was “don’t cry.” Compulsions and
addictions dot our family tree.

In my work as a psychotherapist I spend a lot of time helping people cry. It’s the best
revenge. I’m not telling my Dad but I plan on crying my eyes out when he passes. He’s
ninety-three and tells me not to waste my time grieving when he dies. I love him and I
know better now.

~*~

This post is a part of the 14-day The Female Buddha community dialogue visual arts and writing invitation. Artist Deborah Bowman has gathered inspirational quotes from global women teachers to reflect on your life travels and creative practice.
Feel free to  reply to today’s prompt on your own blog. Share your link in the comments.
Join the dialogue on The Female Buddha page on Facebook@thefemalebuddha on Twitter and #14Buddha hashtag.

Inner Aloneness: Listening and Learning

We need to be willing to risk the loss of external affirmation and approval if we are to know ourselves deeply.  We need to be willing to risk listening to ourselves as well as others.  The validity of our spiritual path can only be qualified by our own experience and understanding.  Through a path of contemplation and meditation, we can untangle the conditioning that leads us to prostrate ourselves before authority.  By cultivating a deep inner aloneness, we can nurture our inner resources of awareness and understanding.  A vision of our uniqueness is born, an authentic vision of who we are as opposed to who we have been told we should be.

Christina Feldman

PHOTOGRAPH/WRITE:

When have you risked listening to yourself contrary to others? Have you struggled with developing an “inner aloneness?”  Clarify what have been the dangers, the rewards?  

~*~
 This quote strikes at a core issue that has given me the most painful and productive lessons of my life.  Prostrating before authorities and ignoring my inner intelligence almost killed me.

Over 35 years ago I was smitten with a passion for working in the wilderness and exploring its terrain through climbing.  In technical situations involving ropes I was not always emotionally equipped to sort out what was best for me when others gave commands.

On a day when I was sick and upset I chose to listen to someone else over my own instincts and suffered a terrible climbing fall in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  I am very lucky to be alive yet sustained the loss of an eye and seriously injured my ankle.

For years after the accident I dreamt of climbing down anything and everything vertical.  My spiritual work was to come down to earth and to be in my body.  Brought to my knees, my psychotherapist held my hand and helped me grieve.

Before this experience I don’t think I ever knew an inner aloneness.  I now know it is the work of a lifetime.  Slowly I have learned to listen more closely to internal prompts, sorting out what is my truth from others.

While accomplishing much on the outer level to care for my basic needs, there are many subtle levels where I still grapple with confusion in making difficult decisions.  A significant example in my current life concerns the publication of a photography book I’ve worked on for the past five years.  It is my baby.

The proofs of the book from the printer have been miserable. The colors are off and the resolution has been poor.  I’m waiting on a third set and looking at other options.  I’ve created my own publishing company to make a high quality book affordable and all the decisions rest in my lap.

I know I need to wait until it looks right, even if I lose money and have to start all over.  Can I trust myself to do this?  Will I say “no” or let a few things slide because I don’t want to let someone else down?  It’s so my tendency to pretend everything is OK.

I’m putting this out to you because it helps to have a witness to my actions.  I know my friends will not collude with the self-sacrificing side of my personality.

In this very moment I get how little I have admitted to how painful this has been.  Arrgh.  Arrgggh.  Aarrrggghhh!!

You just helped.  I know you are listening.  I know someone shares the inner resources of awareness and understanding.  I know it is possible for me too.

Your kind response is appreciated.

~*~
This post is a part of the 14-day The Female Buddha community dialogue visual arts and writing invitation. Artist Deborah Bowman has gathered inspirational quotes from global women teachers to reflect on your life travels and creative practice.
Feel free to  reply to today’s prompt on your own blog. Share your link in the comments.
Join the dialogue on The Female Buddha page on Facebook@thefemalebuddha on Twitter and #14Buddha hashtag.
                                                                      ~*~

Creativity, Commitment and Establishing Balance

Our minds are habit-prone and it is very difficult to get out of old habits.  Establishing new habits means giving ourselves a push, which must not be too hard or too gentle.  It has to be balanced, and only we ourselves know where that balance lies.

Ayya Khema

Share an “old habit” that has been difficult to kick.  What has contributed or gotten in the way to finding the right balance for change?  What approach has been “too hard” or “too gentle?”

Here is one of my worst habits and a true confession.  I don’t exercise my photography muscle and find myself at square one every year when I go overseas to shoot in Asia, the land of amazing photo opportunities.

This spring I took a photo class thinking it would be a warm up to get going. The shooting assignments were over after a week and nothing since.

Not that I haven’t been doing related things.  Editing and re-editing photos, framing images on book, web and newsletter pages, creating photo surveys, and blasting photos out on twitter, facebook and linkedin.

It’s been more than a year since I really shot something interesting, a sumptuous wedding on my husband’s side of the family.  It had all the ingredients of a foray to Southeast Asia.  We were sweating like dogs in the Iowa sun, people wore unusual clothing, there were many interesting foreign faces and we walked on holy grounds where family and friends gathered for a special event.

That shoot was over a year ago!  My photography skills are in reverse.  Abundant in excuses I work full time and have been frantically (and ironically) building a platform for a book of photographs to come out who knows when.  Clicking off tasks on my best days and pushing aside guilt on an occasional hike with friends in the Rocky Mountains.

When I grouch about not using my camera my outdoor buddies suggest I bring it on our hikes.  It’s hard to explain why it wouldn’t work. First we’d have to start at 4 a.m. to catch the early morning glow.  Then I’d be fiddling for hours with finding the right spot, the right lens or the just right light.  Maybe it’s not so hard to explain.

A tripod has never really been my thing and that’s what nature photography is all about.  Not that it wouldn’t stretch my palette for capturing stunning shots of temples dotted across the landscape of Myanmar.   I’m going there in December and would love to be able to capture those images.

Yet those skills are not in my oeuvre and it’s not going to happen in three months.  It’s the same thing when I write out goals to do a photo shoot every week; it just doesn’t happen.

I do need to get out before the trip to Myanmar.  What about shooting one day in October and then over the Thanksgiving break? The rest of September is impossible.  I’m committed to writing for this blog invitational everyday for the next two weeks!  Halfway into October I’m writing a paper for a conference in Bangkok that pays for my flight in December.

Can I kick this old, lazy habit with a reasonable goal?  Not too ambitious, not too slack?  Could it be the beginning of a commitment to get out once a month with my camera and a better attitude towards discovering the splendor of vanilla Colorado?

Now I have you to be accountable to.  We could have fun comparing the pitfalls and breakthroughs in the creative process.  My old habits include isolation and treating photography like it was just another job.  Now I could have companions to not only hear my confessions but also to share in the wonders of the universe.

Will you come out and play with me?