How the Tibetan Buddhist Monks Practically Saved My Life, Sort Of

I have been laid up for two weeks after some extensive reconstructive surgery on both sides of my left ankle. It turns out that, in addition to some shit I don’t understand, my jagged ankle bone was trying to cut one of my ligaments in half. My ankle was clearly trying to amputate itself. Ankle suicide. I don’t really blame it. It has to have been kind of rough carrying me around for so many years. I am NOT a light load. Though it has made me wonder what the hell my right ankle has been doing all this time that would create such an imbalance of strength and power. Is my right ankle a slacker? Or has it been the strong one this whole time, carrying most of the weight while my left ankle has slowly tried to kill itself?

This is not my intended topic: what causes one ankle to be mentally ill and the other one strong. Because that’s just weird.

However the subject leads quite naturally into the thing I want to talk about: Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas.

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What, you don’t see the connection? Weird. It’s so clear to me. But I guess since you’re not inside my brain (thank God for you) I’m gonna have to explain.

Ever since I was a little girl I have immersed a lot of my time and energy into artistic activities that may not be deemed in any way practical by a lot of people. I know that my parents often raised their eyebrows and thought  “Oh lordy, what do we DO with this one?” I think that if I had shown an iota of talent in any of the things I persisted at they would have been more encouraging. Instead they kind of just “rolled with Heather’s current fancy” because I never seemed to settle onto any one thing for very long. There was always something more interesting to me just around the corner to try. And I have gotten worse as an adult, especially with this vast cyber world where you can learn about pretty much anything or be inspired by something with a 20 second search.

It’s kind of like taking a little nibble out of each piece of candy in a big box of chocolates because you don’t want to commit to just one or two because then you will get full too fast and not get to taste the other pieces.

Although that’s a bad example because I would never NOT finish a piece of chocolate. Plus it’s kind of rude if there are other people who also have rights to the box of chocolates. Just sayin.

Anyhoo, when I was a kid I dabbled in pretty much anything that called to me: perfume making, rock polishing; drawing; painting; furniture refinishing (my grandmother’s antique night stand was never the same); macrame; crocheting; singing; sewing;  piano;  paper mache (maracas with light bulbs where my favorite-dual purpose!); cross stitch; pottery; quilting; bird house making; gardening to name many.  I wasn’t really good at any of these things and it never once entered my mind that I wanted to be an artist in my future. I just loved DOING those things.

Yes, it was for sure satisfying when something turned out cool. I remember trying to draw a picture of a lion once. I must have been around 10. I kept showing my mom what I thought was my finished picture and she would say “you can do better”. This happened many times before my mother finally said “Yes! Beautiful!” And I gave it to her. She framed it and put it on a shelf and said it should be a reminder to me of what I could accomplish when I stayed focused and did my best. I found the picture in her stuff when she died and kept it. Not because it was a good picture but because it was a reminder of the joy I felt when I was making it and also the peace I felt handing it over to my mom, an offering of my love.

My children and husband no longer even bat an eye when they find me in the breezeway smashing glass or under a cloud of dust from carving soap stone with a dremel tool or stripping the plastic coating off of copper wire. The copper was for my latest endeavor, this year’s “Make Time for Kids” clock for an auction in April benefiting Casa Partners…

http://www.casapartners.org/

…I love the cause, because this group helps kids during the transition from a tough home situation to foster care. But I also love any excuse to create something that wasn’t there before. She “Goddess of Time” turned out quite gaudy and slightly over the top but pretty enough to get a little cash at the auction (I hope).

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Goddess of Time
On the day I started working on her I emerged after three or four hours of focusing on rocks and glass and copper wire and paint and my daughter took one look at me, smiled big and said “Oh mom! You’re doing art again aren’t you!” I looked at my hands all covered in epoxy and paint and held them up laughing. “How can you tell?” And she said “Your face is lit up.”

While I admit it was a little bit hard to hand her over to be on display and then auctioned off, because she and I had a lot of fun bringing her into the world, I was really quite happy to give her away and move on to the next “thing”. That’s just part of it, see?

So. Back to how my depressed ankle and Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala art are connected.

On day three after my surgery bummed-out-ed-ness began to spread over me, a dark gloomy haze. The nerve block they gave me from my knee down had completely worn off and the pain was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life: a vice grip lined with spikes slowly squeezing my ankle. So I turned to the pain pills the doctor prescribed which took away much of the agony but made me groggy and out of focus and weepy because I didn’t even have enough clarity to doodle with colored pens. And I thought “What’s the point ANYWAY? Everything I do is pretty much crap.” Because when I get bummed out it suddenly MATTERS that everything I create is crap. Depression, which thank goodness for me is generally situational and not chronic, is (at least in my mind) the opposite of clarity. It is like looking in the mirror when the glass is fogged up and having the audacity to call yourself ugly.

And so I turned to my iPad and Netflix and the series “House of Cards”, a well written but very dark show about the evil people and politics in the White House (perfect for my mood) and checked out completely on tv, something I rarely do for more than an hour or two let alone the THIRTY NINE HOURS it took to complete the 52 episodes produced thus far. I surrendered and thought dramatically (as is my way)  “Let it be done to me: narcotics and television, the beginning of the end of my life as a recluse who dies in her bed, with dirty hair, surrounded by Reese’s peanut butter cup wrappers and soggy half-frozen bags of peas.”

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But something happened four days into my binge: I started to feel better. And I am POSITIVE it’s all because of the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala art that I learned about in the 33rd ‘chapter’ of House of Cards.

In the story, as part of a cultural exchange, Tibetan Buddhist monks were on public display at the White House for thirty days while they created a sand mandala. Here are a couple of links to explain this beautiful healing art in detail:

http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/buddhism/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-this-tibetan-art-form-seen-on-house-of-cards

http://www.mysticalartsoftibet.org/mandala.htm

But in a nutshell, the great leader of the group decides on a design, which is filled with specific healing symbols, the main deity (or god) being in the center. The chosen monks then re-create the drawing from memory and proceed to carefully and slowly fill in the drawing by sending millions of grains of colored sand through these tiny little funnels called chak-purs using vibrations from a small narrow steel rod. All through the process they pray, chant, meditate and sing, asking the deity for blessings and peace and enlightenment for themselves and the world. They are totally focussed on the act of creating for hours upon hours. (I hope they get potty breaks and such.)  And when they are finished, the beautiful, detailed creation is consecrated by the leader and then SWOOSH! the beautiful mandala is smeared with a small broom, DESTROYED to symbolize the impermanence of our material life. The sand is then placed into an urn where it is then usually poured into a moving body of water in another ceremony to disperse the purifying power to the world.

I had become deeply involved in watching the process of the creation so when this SWOOSH! happened on the show I sat up from my reclined position on the bed and yelled “Nooooooo!” And then flopped back down and thought “Oh! No wait.” I laid there for quite a long time, thinking about the dark questions I had asked myself earlier in the week and in other dark times in my life “Why bother? What is the point? To what purpose does it serve, especially when all I create is talentless crap?”

But see here’s the thing: we are all creations who are designed to create not criticize the creation. And when we open up our hearts to what calls to to us, be it music, art, stories, poetry, gardening, architecture, cosmetology, bee-keeping (that’s for you Sara), interior design… really I could go on and on because it is so personal, that which calls to our hearts, that which begs us to be a part of its own creation…when we answer, when we become fully absorbed in the process, engaged, meditative, focussed,  we become less concerned for ourselves and more connected to our God and His universe. And that act of answering the call becomes the very part of the world that makes it lush and beautiful and interesting and glorious. It is fantastic magic (that’s for you DG-ha!) and we owe it to ourselves and to the world to listen and act, regardless of the final outcome, for though it will indeed all be gone someday, just like the sand mandala, the act of saying YES is what creation really is and this yes is what is eternal.

The day of the sand mandala episode, my family had gone on a day trip to Montana. They returned that evening, gathered around my bed and grinning, bearing gifts: a huge piece of tangled driftwood with a dragon head in it (at least that’s what I saw);  102 railroad spikes (they counted them before me: pieces of gold before the queen); a smooth rock the size of a cantaloupe that had the most spectacular shades of rust and green and grey and blue and they all kept taking turns petting it while I held it like a baby. “We thought maybe you could make something from all this when you feel better.”

As if I could say no!

Objects of Desire

Since I was a little girl I have been a keeper of objects that were either given to me in love or inspire me with their color, texture and shape. I’m still this way. My home office shelves are filled with pretty rocks and eclectic trinkets of all shapes and sizes that carry history and meaning. Here are a couple examples of my pack rat shelves:

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I still have the tiny plastic squirrel that my Auntie Esther gave me when we were visiting her in Pasco. I can remember the mystery of her living room as I looked at all her pretty things on display. She was a collector too I think, though I didn’t know her well. But the squirrel takes me back to her, which is powerful magic. I have kept it for over forty years along with the porcelain raccoon I stole from my mother when I was six. It had come in a box of Red Rose tea as a promotion the company ran for a few years. That raccoon was the object of my desire for days and when she told me I couldn’t take it to school for show and tell, I took it anyway and kept it in my pocket, never showing a soul my stolen pet. I got in a bunch of trouble when my thievery was discovered but my mother later gave it to me. I’m pretty sure she knew I would always feel a little guilty whenever I looked at it. It was totally worth it. I still love that stupid shiny raccoon. It turns out I could probably get a couple of bucks for it on eBay if I were ever inclined to hock it. Which I am not.

I have been exploring my attachment to objects over the last week. It started with the soapstone clock I made for Casa Partners “Make Time for Kids” auction. I named it “Peace of Time”. I am embarrassed to admit that it was really hard for me to give it away. It had become an object of my desire over the course of a few months, bringing me great creative energy and inspiration.

And now, clock done and auctioned off, I am at a total standstill on any kind of creative thinking or doing. I have no messy bad-art project going on and to make matters worse there is no real writing going on. The book I am (mostly not) writing about my mother is turning into a total bust because it keeps turning in to “all about H”, which is typical of a peace questing narcissist.

My clock made some decent money. Which is cool. This was the whole point. The abused and neglected kids that were represented at this event are often torn from their homes without a chance for goodbyes. And while they are taken to a safer place I can’t help but wonder if it might often feel more scary than where they were taken from. After all, they have been taken from their people and no matter how bad the circumstances, your people are your people.

I later told a friend who was at the auction “I want to scoop up all these kids and just love them. I need a mansion.”

This coming from the same woman who publicly declares her children to be assholes to anyone who will listen. (In my defense, I am still in shock from the 3-on-3 wiffle ball game I played with them two weekends ago where I witnessed five of my ridiculously competitive creations at their asshole best.) So I am certainly not going to judge any parent. I can’t. I understand how easy it can be to lose yourself to various addictions that present themselves as luring demons to help you escape from yourself and forget your responsibilities as a parent.

And clearly I can’t take them all in, these sad, harmed children, just like I can’t take in all the abandoned puppies or homeless people. Quite honestly, I am mediocre at best when it comes to caring for my own people and pets. Though my love is NEVER lacking and my intentions are generally good. Most days. But I CAN love these sad children from a distance by giving some cash (though there is never enough of that) and by sending mental blessings to the children and good mojo to their parents in hope that they will get their shit together and do their own loving again.

But here’s the thing: as I have paced around my office the last two weekends, restless, scattered, unproductive, a little lost without a cause, trying to force out something that just isn’t ready to show itself yet…

 “What are you doing mom?”

 “I’m writing.”

 “Hmm. It looks more like you are playing with your stuff.”

 “Yeah well. It’s a process.”

…I realize how important personal objects can be when you are lost. They can ground you, these concrete things: soothe you, inspire possibilities, make you remember your history and tell your story.

These children who are pulled from their people are also often pulled from their stuff. Sometimes something as simple as a stuffed animal left behind can render them completely lost and hopeless with no one and nothing to hold on to.

The money gained from all the beautiful clocks created and given away will help provide these children with backpacks filled with objects that will perhaps soothe and ground them enough to make them feel just a little less lost and help them begin a new story filled with possibilities and hope.  

Because of my own history that may cause me to hang on to things with a grip that is perhaps tighter than it should be, I will probably always be a keeper of stuff. And that’s okay.

But I am also coming to understand as I grow older and a little more at peace with my place in the world that there is some serious “getting” in giving away objects of desire.

So don’t be freaked out if one of you someday receives a really awesome squishy green frog with a candle jar top for a crown.

It’s a process, yes?

http://www.casapartners.org

Magic Morphing

I have been working on a project for the last month or so: evolving a rough piece of soapstone into a clock for a silent auction that will benefit CASA Partners (see website below for more info). This is my first real attempt at soapstone carving. The results are yet to be determined. But I’m not too worried. Even though I am NOT an artist, I love the cathartic peace that always comes when I am in the process of “coloring”, my term for any act that involves total focus on helping bring something into the world that wasn’t there before. The results don’t matter so much as the experience during the act. There is no risk that it will go wrong. It can’t because there are no expectations except to make with all my heart and soul.

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Do you remember when you were five and colored just for the sake of coloring? Total absorption in the act of making a picture.

Meditative.

Who knew we were so good at meditating when we were five? But see, we knew better then how to be completely in the moment.

I wish I could go back and hear what was in my brain when I was five and coloring. Did the Holy Spirit, the universe, angels and ghosts whisper in my ear then like they do now when I am in the act of making? I think so. I just didn’t question as much then. Funny how I can hear the whispers so clearly when I am using power tools!

Soapstone is fascinating to work with. It has been used for thousands of years for carving because it is very soft, containing a large quantity of talc.  Remember the Mohs scale from school? It is a method of comparing hardness of minerals by seeing how easily they can scratch each other. Talc is a 1 the softest. The type of soapstone used for carving contains about 80% talc and has a Mohs rating of about a 2.5.

AND soapstone is a metamorphic rock!

That being said here is a vocabulary lesson (because I am going to get to something with this, from the whisperers today, in the dust, who helped sort out a few things).

All of this is either from Wikipedia or my old Webster’s dictionary from 1988 depending on which definition I liked better.

metamorphic: of or relating to metamorphism

metamorphism: a change in the constitution of a rock, specifically a pronounced change effected by pressure, heat and water that results in a more compact and more highly crystalline condition

metamorphosis: a change of physical form, structure or substance especially by supernatural means

meta: Greek word meaning “after” or “beyond”

morph: to gradually change into another thing usually in a way that is surprising or seems magical

Working on my project today, I had this sense that I wasn’t so much forcing this piece of rock into a shape I wanted it to be but more discovering what shape IT wanted or needed to be and helping it along, uncovering and gently discovering its shades of rust, green, gold, and delicious variations of brown. You can’t force soapstone too hard or it will break and then you are faced with accepting a result that might not have been your original vision because you didn’t see where the rock’s weakness was until it was too late. But a break can often create a result that is stronger and more stable than before. So there is that.

My delight from taking part in the metamorphosis of this bumpy, rough rock,  watching it magically turn into something completely different, has not thus far diminished despite getting covered in dust, accidently sanding a hole in my wrist with the dremel tool (because I sure as hell would not do that ON purpose) (I could have almost DIED!) and hammering my knuckles countless times.

In fact, all of the whispers I heard today through the dust and pain gifted me a slight glimpse of how God must feel watching us all, His lovely creations evolving and changing, each going through our own metamorphosis during our time on earth. Does He smile with delight when our colors are gently uncovered by His angels, ghosts, and dear friends who are able to see below our rough surfaces to our rich, colorful veins? Does He weep with us when chunks of ourselves are painfully broken off, an unintended and often brutal result of our and others’ free will? Does He sigh in relief and pleasure when our jagged edges are smoothed, loved and soothed when our hearts are opened up (often with the gentle prodding of those He sends) to the idea that the break may be just what we needed to take on our next delightful shape.

There is such magic in the making and morphing that happens in our world, yes?

Written today with S.H.O.T.T.R. in my heart. You know who you are my dearests!

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Find out about “Make Time for Kids” and other events that support Casa Partners: http://www.casapartners.org/