The Perfect Paradox

Yesterday I was working hard. I was sitting on the couch for a lot of the day. I talked on the phone to a dear friend. At 10am I had a bath with rose petals, coconut and Epsom salts. I wrote in my journal, listened to sad music and fed myself sporadically. At one point I read a children’s book, out loud, to myself. Finally by sunset I had come to my senses enough to meditate formally. I sat on my cushion for twenty minutes before heading down the dusky inner city street to buy myself dinner.
Perhaps you’re wondering how I can call this work?

My work was emotional processing. This is the work I am most committed to now. This is the work that our culture has ignored for too long, to our detriment. It is the work of the inner world. I feel particularly drawn to this work in winter. I used to push myself to achieve in the outer world, school and university semester dates meant that this was when I was required to push myself. I believe this disconnect from my inner self at the time when the season calls me to go inward was a major cause of my depression.
This week I was working with my deepest, most vulnerable and painful self. Access to this part of me, a part I haven’t seen close up for years, was gifted to me through a romantic breakup. This is the situation that I still struggle to love myself through. It becomes a mirror for other kinds of loss and grief in my life. Breakups have the power to ‘trigger’ me like nothing else and this was a big one. Even though the romance ended a couple of months ago it was re-activated last week by another kind of break up, ending my job as a teacher. Yesterday I was swept up in a wave of emotion that felt scary because I (whoever that is) was no longer in control.
I realized that my task for the day was to accept this lack of control. I accepted that that I couldn’t make myself feel happy or even balanced about this situation. I couldn’t make myself be the loving, compassionate person that I normally perceive myself to be. As I exchanged Facebook messages with my ex-boyfriend I wanted to access that part of me but couldn’t. Even though I could glimpse the bigger picture. Even though I knew that hurting him was not the answer.
Yesterday I seemed particularly unable to stop myself from falling into a black hole of pain. I think it began deep in my subconscious. I dreamed of tiny, vulnerable, neglected kittens. Waking up soon after 6am my thoughts continued along this vein and overwhelmed me before I was even out of bed.
I made it upstairs but was unable to sit down to the meditation practice that I normally do to begin my morning. Instead I sat on the couch and started to cry. By 7am the day’s work was well underway. I wrote down my dream and kept writing following a series of prompts to try to understand what was going on in my inner world. I could feel my child self clearly. I decided that I needed to nurture that part of myself.
So I found a children’s book and began by reading it aloud to myself. I had stumbled upon the pithy tale Tiny Spook’s Tumble by Swedish writers Inger and Lasse Sandberg.
In this story Tiny Spook is having a day rather like mine. She keeps tripping over and screaming. Then she blames whatever she tripped over and Little Spook, her exasperated brother removes it in order to keep the peace.
First it’s the grass, then the path, the steps, the castle, an umbrella and finally her father.

And Tiny Spook was left all alone…. It wasn’t fun at all.
Tiny Spook cried and cried… But no one heard her. No one came.”

Finally she got tired of crying and began to reconstruct her world. When she has put back the path, the castle, the grass and the steps her family return.

I read this book and knew I was doing exactly what Tiny Spook had done. But there was a further problem compounding it. I’m not tiny and ignorant. I knew exactly what I was doing and I did it anyway. I knew that really all I was doing was hurting myself but I couldn’t stop from doing it. My emotions were taking me on a wild ride against my better judgement.
Because of my meditation practice I have learned to observe my experiences in ever-greater detail. Despite the intensity of my emotions I managed to notice those few moment when a simple thing brought me back to the beauty of the present moment. A cat sitting by the fire, a screen saver of trees in the mist, the chill of the evening air as I set off to get my dinner. Noticing these moments reminded me that all is impermanent, even the mood that at other times in the day had me understanding why suicide can seem like a sensible option.
Above it all I knew from my previous work that this emotional intensity was a wonderful opportunity, a gift. It was the perfect opportunity for me to practice self-love. It was the ideal classroom for me to learn to respond to whatever arose with gentleness rather than harshness. I loved myself even though I knew I was doing the ‘wrong’ thing. I accepted all my feelings, even the nasty, negative ones. To do otherwise would have only perpetuated the cycle, adding judgement and blame in yet another layer of pain.
I wish I had been able to act differently. I knew that if I had been able to act with more openness, compassion and love it would have been better for everyone concerned, especially for me. But I decided to accept my limitations in the same way I would make allowances for a young child.
The next morning when I woke up I had a choice. As I rolled over in bed, slowly waking up and thinking of my dreams I remembered the circumstances that had caused me so much pain the day before. That path was still there; I could sense it’s heavy blackness looming over my head. But this time I had a moment of choice and I chose not to fall in that hole.
That day I had fewer moments of pain and more moments of openness. I noticed that I could consciously work with my thoughts for a certain amount of time. For example I could deliberately think of the ways that I felt grateful to my ex-boyfriend. I also noticed without blame that these periods of ‘positive thinking’ were inevitably followed by a return of my obsessive negative thought patterns. Like so much learning it was a case of two steps forward and one step back.
I made a consciousness decision that the only way forward was to love and respect the whole process.
I decided to love my opening and my closing.
I decided to love my love and my pain.
I decided to love my gratitude and my resentment.
I decided to love myself no matter what.
I believe that that’s the work I’m here to do.

Deep acceptance of the way things are is the source of all creative change. The perfect paradox.
Jeff Foster

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Jigsaw Satisfaction

I have just allowed myself the luxury of a week of guilt-free idleness. I often reflect that in our busy, hyper-connected culture we have lost perspective on the benefits of doing nothing. Rest, relaxation, healing, creativity, all these arise from space – space that in our normal lives gets filled with seemingly inevitable obligations and demands. If you haven’t yet read How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson put it on your summer reading list! Mr Hodgkinson, the august editor of the Ildler magazine ( gives an hour-by-hour description of how best to be idle in each hour of a 24-hour period. He’s far more convincing than me on the benefits of idleness and I feel it’s a discussion worth initiating.
So what did I actually do in my week of idleness? I was house-sitting in Hobart and so was removed a healthy distance from any impending home-based chores. I was mostly, though not always alone and I reveled in it. Lots of sleeping, daydreaming, lazy mornings and gentle afternoon naps, eating simple meals and shopping locally without a car. Apart from that I divided my time between three of my favorite holiday pursuits, reading, knitting and completing a complex 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle – click on this link to see the image.
Serendipity brought M.C. Escher (the artist) and I together in the form of 1000 brown, green, white and black pieces rattling around in a box someone had picked up at the op shop. For my part it wasn’t planned, in fact, I’d forgotten that having the time to complete a jigsaw signals to me that I am allowed to relax. It’s a process rather than a goal, akin to making a mandala that you then sweep up and pour back into the box. What the process gave me this time was a chance to observe myself in the process of jigsawing (if I may invent a new verb…)
Firstly let me say that this was the most satisfying jigsaw I have ever done. In fact at one point in the process I began describing to friends the “jigsaw orgasm,” the intense sense of satisfaction I felt when I was able to smoothly unite a lonely jigsaw piece with a void in the design. Because this picture is so geometrical and fantastical there were none of the typically tedious parts that occur in most jigsaws. The variety of tasks to complete the jigsaw kept me engaged as I switched between searching for common colored pieces in the box and putting together the various elements bit-by-bit, hour-by-hour.
The danger, and the very thing that can make jigsawing less fun is becoming obsessive over it. The urge to keep slotting pieces in blind pursuit of the final goal is not that far removed from the compulsion that stalks other kinds of slots! When I noticed this feeling arising I brought consciousness to the situation and tested my ability to make choices. When my back began to tense and my self-talk turned from pleasure to frustration I took it as a sign that it was time to walk away for a while, or a night. Inevitably I would return to the puzzle after a hiatus and easily place pieces I had been struggling with. The balance between perseverance and refreshment of the mind can equally apply to writing or any other sustained task!
As the end of the process drew near I was working on the layer of brown and white tiles that form the inner edge of the outer part of the puzzle. As the number of pieces and the spaces to accommodate them dwindled I noticed doubt arising in my mind again and again.
“Perhaps they’ve put in a whole lot of extra pieces, just to fool me” or
“This piece doesn’t fit in any of the spots left, it must be faulty.”
Despite these internal doubting voices shouting at me, another part of me knew this was the time for perseverance and trust. The bigger part of me understood that the ultimate nature of a jigsaw puzzle is to fit together as a unified whole. As I watched doubt arising in my mind I was struck by an insight. A huge part of my healing has been to flip my belief about the way the world works from my old unconsciously formed fear that the universe is chaotic and something I need to control to a conscious choice to believe that the universe, in a huge and cosmic way which we can never fully perceive from our limited human mind, is a giant spiritual jigsaw. I can tell when I am aligning myself with the ultimate nature of things because, like the jigsaw piece that clicks in I find myself in a place that looks right and feels right – even when it’s pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Especially when it’s pushing me (just) beyond my comfort zone.

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Perfectionism Rears Its Head

The longer I teach the less I “do.” For me learning to teach has been a gradually process of letting go of my need to be the active agent in the room. Which is not to say that I’ve gotten lazy or even that I do less. Rather it’s been a process of increasing my ability to support students by observing their learning journey from an open space within myself.

The greatest obstacle to learning that I notice in my classroom and in myself is perfectionism. I’m struggling with it right now as I chastise myself for getting ‘out of the flow’ with writing and notice how my thoughts aren’t turning themselves into paragraphs with the ease they did back in June when I was sitting down to write regularly. The thought of walking away from the computer, doing something else, anything else, becomes very seductive. I don’t even need anyone in the room in order to create a competition in which I always perceive myself as the loser; comparing my current self to a remembered self is enough to activate my inner perfectionist. (Cue sepia tones and violin music.)

I was well aware of my perfectionistic tendencies but they have been taking a backseat for a while.  However, last weekend I signed myself up for four days of Buddhist training, Shambhala levels III and IV, four days ‘on the cushion,’ getting to know myself anew, finding out what was really going on in the unexamined parts of my psyche, with a slight suspicion that my subconscious had sneakily resumed it’s role as backseat driver of my life while I was busy with other things.

As I sat in the beautiful shrine room where the calming white painted walls and wooden floors are decked with colorful banners, flowers and sacred pictures my gaze rested on the point where the skirting boards meet the floor. The brick walls feature a protruding column, perhaps the site of a former fireplace, now a bump in the flow of the wall where the skirting board has been re-directed at a ninety degree angle for a foot or so. My attention came to focus on the end of the skirting board as it faced me. Surely, it was sticking out an inch or so into the room? How untidy I thought. I delved off into a whole fantasy where, armed with a saw and some white paint I could ‘fix’ the messiness and restore the room to ‘perfect.’ The longing to do so became almost unbearable.

            Suddenly I realized that this was familiar. This desire for ‘perfection,’ manifesting as a need to control the world was a symptom of an underlying anxiety, my profound fear of change. Intellectually I knew the truth of impermanence, I’d been reading Buddhist texts for long enough to assimilate that knowledge, but suddenly, on the cushion I found myself face to face with a desire to control, to perfect and basically to escape death by doing something, anything. I breathed out; I sat with the fear of that monumental truth and suddenly the skirting board faded back into the background. Sitting down again after lunch I realized that in fact it was not out of alignment after all.

            Coming back to teaching at the end of the four days I could see perfectionism flourishing, largely unchecked in the school system where the illusion of the ‘right answer’ rules the day. The children I especially noticed falling victim to its clutches and shutting down from opportunities to learn were those who I know have faced massive challenges in their short lives, loss of a parent for example. I find myself wondering how I can help those children bring awareness and acceptance to the fact that we cannot control life and death – and realizing that perhaps it is they who are teaching me. 

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Knitting for Enlightenment

I am a self-confessed craft addict and my creations vary with the seasons. I’ve already written an earlier blog about my epic cross-stitch with which I have occupied many a happy summer hour.  But each autumn as the weather turned chilly, I’d put the fabric and threads away and, with a sense of delicious anticipation, open the knitting drawer where cosy, colourful yarns reside alongside knitting needles of every possible size and shape.

Three years ago I decided I was going to knit something for myself. I’d been knitting away like a madwoman since returning from living in Canada but usually I knitted for friends and gave away my handiwork. So upon discovering a beautiful teal-colored wool in a local craft shop bought myself twelve balls, and resolved to knit myself a jumper or as they’d call it in Canada a “sweater.”

A knitting friend passed on a pattern book for my contemplation. The book was from the eighties and most of the designs looked terribly dated. But one had a more enduring appeal, at least when worn by the slender model who graced the front page. I dived in, knitting as the pattern directed on large needles with doubled yarn. In a satisfyingly short amount of time I had completed and sewn together the front and back panels into a vest like structure, ready to check for size.

With great excitement I pulled the green-blue creation over my head and turned towards the mirror to check out the effect. There was only one possible verdict – it looked like an unflattering eighties style sack. So I put the project aside for the summer. As the weather turned cold again I pulled it out of the drawer and considered what to do with it.

I was meditating by then, consciously practicing in letting go of things that no longer served me, so I decided to apply this to my crafting as well. The undoing proved more cumbersome than the knitting – it required two pairs of hands to re-roll the yarn as it emerged from the doubled rows. Soliciting the help of friends and family, in the process creating some good opportunities for conversation, the wool was returned to as it’s original form, more or less, and I was ready and set off again, this time using a basic pattern from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Knitting.

Again I reached the vest stage and was confronted with an unflattering sack. This time the decision to unravel came easier. Browsing through a posh knitting book gifted to me by a fellow teacher-knitter I decided to attempt a long knitted coat, in moss stitch, a combination of knit and purl stitches that produces a pleasing pebbled texture.

So I began as the pattern directed with the front right hand panel. All went smoothly until I came to the collar. I just couldn’t make sense of the written instructions. They seemed to be telling me to cast off a long row of stitches. I assumed that casting off was to make a lapel-like collar and so cast off on the inner side of the panel. But it just looked wrong, it was a Imagemassive lapel and only a quarter of the stitches left to make the shoulder. I stopped, uncertain of how to proceed. My aunt came over and I sought her advice. She assured me that I was reading the pattern correctly so I finished off the panel and left the final stitches on a stitch holder and began the large back section of the coat.

Here was straight forward knitting for a long time, no need to think, just one row after another for month upon month. I measured it up against the front panels and was confronted again with my irregular looking collar. I went back to the book, trying to make sense of it. Looking at the picture of the finished coat there didn’t seem to me any kind of lapel, yet the instructions had clearly told me to cast off 30 stitches. Maybe I thought the instructions were wrong, a printing error perhaps. Or, as my paranoia deepened, maybe this fancy knitting label just didn’t trust their knitters to do what was in the picture and the pattern in the book was actually a simplified version with lapels? I unpicked the top of one front panel and knitted it up again with my own haphazard pattern, a combination of casting off and gradually reducing. It didn’t look any better.

Meanwhile I had finished the back panel and couldn’t make sense of the collar on that either, it just petered out where in the pictures it clearly had a roll at the top of the neck. I sewed the side where I had improvised to the back, feeling grumpy at the pattern, convinced there was a fault somewhere and it was not mine.

The next day I was teaching the violin. One of the logistical challenges for beginning violin players is correctly positioning the shoulder rest on the underside of the violin. The easiest way to do it is to rest the violin upside down on your knee while you slide the shoulder rest on from the rounded bottom of the violin to a suitable position. My student was holding her violin incorrectly as she struggled to do this and I was sitting on a chair, just out of reach. Feeling tired I tried to use words to explain what I wanted her to do.

“Just turn the violin around,” I said.

She turned it over.

“No, not over, around” repeated, trying not to feel frustrated.

She looked at me confused.

Standing up I reached for the violin in her lap and rotated it 180 degrees.

“Around” I repeated but even as I did so I reflected on the limitations of words to direct practical procedures, especially those that are new to people. Through my frustration I realized that my student really hadn’t been able to imagine the manipulation of her instrument I was trying to get across to her verbally. Feeling slightly superior I little suspected that I was doing exactly the same thing in my knitting!

On the weekend I returned to the project, determined to press on despite the failings of the design. Looking again at the pictures in the book and the written instructions with fresh eyes it was as if a beam of light suddenly illuminated previously hidden text. Of course! The casting off was not a lapel but the shoulder seam. The rolled collar would be created by continuing to knit with the remaining stitches for 9cm exactly as the instructions said. By letting go of my pre-formed idea of what a collar was I could suddenly see the photos and instructions as they were, rather than how I imagined them to be. It was a true moment of revelation. Flipping my understanding 180 degrees, I was suddenly open to seeing things as they really are.  Knitting, like anything else in our seemingly mundane lives, can serve as a path to enlightenment.


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Living Curriculum

I came across the concept of living curriculum in a book about Bikram Yoga (Hell-Bent, Benjamin Lorr) and it resonated with me immediately. Like Piaget’s theories of learning as individual meaning making, the concept of the living curriculum is that once you commit to a spiritual path, life itself presents you with exactly the lessons you are meant to learn day by day. The job of the student is to recognize these as lessons, they may be disguised as difficult people or challenging situations!

I felt myself living this process very strongly a year ago as I came off the anti-depressant medication I had been taking daily for almost five years. Despite challenges, including my doctor’s stated belief that I was statistically unlikely to succeed, I felt supported through the process, becoming more and more confident that it was the right action at the right time. One of my major supports was a Monday-morning Buddhist study group. It amazed me how, each week the dharma or teachings would deliver exactly the message I needed to continue. It was as if an all-seeing teacher had spent hours designing a perfectly timed curriculum, tailored to my needs.

One Monday I arrived feeling shaky, unable to let go of an image from a dream the night before. In the dream I had been on a bicycle journey, descending to cross a stream, carrying my bike over my shoulder. However as I descended the rocky steps they began to shift and move under my feet and I felt afraid. Convinced there was a better, less dangerous route I turned and ascended, finding myself standing by a bitumen road. As cars whizzed by I realized that while I could hitch a ride to my destination, I would have to abandon my bike by the roadside. It was the sensation of the shifting stepping stones underfoot that stayed with me as I woke in an uneasy mood and headed off to class.

The course we were doing was called Fearlessness in Everyday Life and through it we were learning to change our relationship to fear by acknowledging and making friends it. This particular Monday, sitting cross-legged on my cushion, listening to the recorded talk some words jumped out at me “…fear is the stepping stone to fearlessness..” Suddenly I knew why backing out from the stream crossing in my dream hadn’t produced a happy ending. The busy road (efficient, modern, flat) wasn’t an alternative to being brave enough to face the watery depths (emotion). Not unless I was prepared to leave a part of my self (freedom, balance) by the wayside. 

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Just a little spruik for my other blog Patchmusicking..

There’s a bit of crossover with themes in the latest post “Rewarding Mistakes”

Please feel free to share this blog with friends!


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Myths About Meditation

Without doubt a major part of my improved mental health has been due to regular meditation practice. I’ve noticed though, when I talk to people who haven’t themselves practiced meditation that some reoccurring themes surface. I think these themes reveal some of our deep-seated cultural myths, those about ‘being good at something’ and also the enticing but ultimately false myth that it is possible to ‘empty your mind.’ I recognize these misconceptions; before I began to practice meditation I entertained them myself.

Yesterday I enjoyed a frank and open conversation with some people I’d just met. Opening up to people about my struggles with mental illness inevitably paves the way for others to share similar stories, whether or not they’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’ by a doctor. Here is a fly on the wall moment from that meeting.

Me: Meditation is one of the things that’s helped me most with depression, that’s for sure.

Other party: So do you meditate every day?

Me: Yup. I started in May 2010, when I went to a weekend Buddhist course at that centre up the hill. I wasn’t converted that weekend, but I did buy a cd of guided meditations which each lasted 10-12 minutes. Right away I started doing one each morning before I went to work. I only remember one thing the teacher said that weekend which was “This is the most important thing you do each day.” Obviously that was what I needed to hear at the time.

O.P: So if you’ve been doing it for three years…You must be really good at it now! Do you just sit down and empty your mind and go into that Zen state?

Me: Actually, no.

“Zen” seems to be a handy label for Westerners to attach to the idea of meditation. My brother’s opening comment last time I returned from a meditation retreat was “So are you all Zen now?” with his tongue firmly in his cheek!  The myth persists that mediation is a kind of ‘fix’ that you can learn to apply in order to anesthetize that pesky daily companion which causes us all so much angst, the mind. And like every other skill that you learn, the more you do it, the better you get at it, right? Well yes, and no. Foreign as the idea may be to our achievement based culture meditation is not about progress so much as its long forgotten sister, process.

So what does meditation do for me if it doesn’t give me relief from my mind? The kind of meditation I practice focuses on developing mindfulness and awareness by bringing the attention back to the breath. Some days I’m all I’m aware of as I sit and meditate is just how distracted my mind is, how much it wants to be off somewhere else, anywhere other than the present moment! Meditation is also at it’s heart about making friends with yourself, opening yourself to experiencing your emotions fully ‘on the cushion’ so that you can then apply what you’ve ‘practiced’ in real life. My meditation teacher spoke about it recently:

“What regular meditation practice does give you is moments of choice. Suddenly, out there in the world, a situation will arise and, rather than falling into your habitual way of reacting you realize that you have a choice. It’s as if time slows down and you see everything, including your own reactions clearly for just a split second longer. That’s all. And it’s not as if you keep that ability forever. If you stop meditating you go back to your old way of relating to the world.”

I had one of those moments today, alone on the train station I received a text message from an ex-boyfriend. Our romantic relationship is well in the past but the old emotional pattern persists. Hearing that he wasn’t free to catch up with me I felt swamped by a wave of inadequacy, as if I had been judged and found lacking in some essential way. In the past, despite rational awareness that this feeling was neither fundamentally true nor based on reality, this minor event would have spiraled me into depression for at least a day if not weeks. Meditation has taught me that I don’t have to believe such thoughts, but neither is it helpful to suppress or deny them. All I had to do, in fact all I could do was to sit and gently observe this phenomenon as it passed through me.

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