The Tattooed Buddha: Snapshots of Meditation

snapshots of meditation

Recently I was asked by the lovely folks over at the Tattooed Buddha to contribute to their SnapShots of Meditation series, a project that seeks to show what real-world meditation looks like by highlighting the daily observances carried out by everyday practitioners and their reasons for practicing. It’s always such a pleasure to get to work with the Tattooed Buddha team, and I always jump at the chance to do so. Hope you like my contribution to the series, and be sure to head over to the Tattooed Buddha website to read what other contributors have to share.

So much of creativity and the creative process is about seeing; seeing clearly and seeing differently.
In fact, Seth Godin writes that, “Artists, at least the great ones, see the world more clearly than the rest of us”. This is, for me at least, why “artistry” and spirituality are so intimately connected and intertwined. Achieving and maintaining this kind of atypical ability to see and perceive is intrinsic to being an artist, but being an artist has absolutely nothing to do with one’s mastery over watercolors, oils, marble, or clay, because art, itself, has nothing to with any of those mediums, or any other other medium for that matter.

The medium is irrelevant and ultimately inconsequential. “Art,” as Godin goes on to say, “is the intentional act of using your humanity to create a change in another person.”

Meditation is an art, and art is a mediation. Both function as the means by which our perception becomes alerted to the immense profundity laced throughout the realness of the present moment. In art we are allowed to exercise a kind of analytical awareness.

Our consciousness becomes concentrated and compounded, and we are attentively attuned to the rich interplay of texture, color, tempo, and composition. Similarly, “To meditate,” as Stephen Batchelor explains, “is to probe with intense sensitivity each glimmer of color, each cadence of sound, each touch of another’s hand, each fumbling word that tries to utter what cannot be said.” And in both cases, we are at our best, and our most artistic when the change created within ourselves elicits a change in others.

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Blessed are the curious…

blessed are the curious - original art by duane toops

I have an almost irrational and obsessive belief in curiosity, that is to say, I believe in being irrationally curious and irrationally obsessed with what makes me curious. I don’t believe in avoiding rabbit holes. Instead, I believe that consistently falling down them is an experience and an activity that we should continuously seek out.

T.K. Coleman points out that “People tend not to move towards something unless they’re moved by something.”  The things that can find a way to call out to our curiosity from above the noise and chatter of our clamorous culture are things that are worth paying attention to, no matter how nonsensical they may seem. The fact that our interest in them makes no sense, makes them all the more interesting to explore. There is a mystery a foot; an outer ambiguity awakens an ineffability within us, and we are given the chance to give chase, to see how far down the rabbit hole goes, to find out where it leads.

Curiosity is, by nature and perhaps even by design, strange, unusual, and marked by a strong and outrageous desire to learn something. It is an invitation to learn something we didn’t know before; something about the world, and something about ourselves. One needn’t have a ‘reason’ or a ‘purpose’ beyond that; curiosity is, itself, the reason, though it is not always rational; it is it’s own purpose, though it is not always apparently practical.

More often than not, what is considered to be useful, practical, rational, reasonable, meaningful, valuable, and/or important are judgments imposed upon us by outside forces; forces that care more about making sure that we are aligned with the arbitrary metric of their values, rather than having any concern as to whether or not they align with the measure of our own values. Rob Walker writes that “Creativity starts with engaging with the world on your own terms, noticing what others miss, and attending to what matters most to you. That is: Deciding what’s valuable to you even if it seems, even if it is , useless.”

Rainer Maria Rilke says that you must “go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question… Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.” He says that nothing will disturb your development “more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quest hour, can perhaps answer.”As Amanda Palmer makes clear “an artist you cannot turn off the voice in your head that’s coming up with the unnecessary because its the unnecessary that gives birth to stories and songs. ” As an artist, one must vehemently believe that the unnecessary is profoundly necessary.

We have to embrace the unexpectedness of being swept off. We have to “trust [our] obsessions”, as Neil Gaiman says, we have to go where they take us. We have to watch, observe, attend to and make the things we must. Adam Savage explains that “bringing anything into the world requires at least a small helping of obsession” because “Obsession is the gravity of making. It moves things, it binds them together, and gives them structure.” It has the capacity to “teach us about who we are, and who we want to be.” And, when we practice this kind of “noticing and appreciating we’re practicing” what John Brehm describes as “a form of loving awareness”. He says that “We are practicing being with” the things that we are directing our curious and obsessive attention towards, “rather than  demanding that it be what we think it should be or that it confess to us what it really means.”

Nothing is irrelevant when you realize that you are not searching for answers but, learning to ask better questions. Yes, it will lead you off the beaten path. And yes, it will take you to places of discomfort, places laced with the angst ambiguity and the anxiety of uncertainty but, it will also lead you to wonder.

What if, maybe, perhaps…

What if, maybe, perhaps

What if every doubt, every question, every apprehension that wonders at the premise: “what if I can’t?”, simultaneously opens us up to the possibility of “What if I can?”

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s book, Letters to a Young Poet, he suggests for us to “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” He says not to “search for the answers…because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.” Instead, Rilke implores us to “Live the questions now” and “Perhaps…someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer”.

Wonder interests me more than certainty ever will. I ask more  questions than I ever even try to answer. I prefer the open-endedness of a question rather than the  fixity of an exclamatory assertion. That’s why I love words like “maybe”, “what if”, and “perhaps”. They each represent the mysterious magnificence of possibility, even in the face reluctance and hesitation. Each points toward the latent power of potentiality potentiality, even and especially when feel powerlessly blocked behind the barricade of closed doors.

“Maybe” is a summons to a kind of questioning curiosity. “Perhaps” is a gesture that signals us to the unfathomable promise of awe-filled surprise. “What if” is a sacred calling that beckons us to come closer to the unrealized capacity of what could be.

“Maybe” we’re not good enough, but “maybe” we are. “Perhaps” we can’t change, “perhaps” we can’t make a difference, but “perhaps” we can. “What if” we go all in on everything we do? “What if” we open our hearts dangerously wide, so wide and so uncomfortably open that it scares the shit out of us? “What if” it break us? But, more importantly, “what if” it doesn’t?…

A poem about waiting…

Abide in the dark my darling, abide.
For just a while longer now, abide.
Though it is bleak
I beg of you, peace, be still, abide
There is a beauty that will beckon you to reach,
But for now you must abide.
Soon you will breach the blackness and you will begin to blossom,
But only if you first abide.

Abide when it is hard dear one, abide.
The winter is harsh, but it is relenting
All I ask is that you abide.
You will find warmth in the waiting, I promise
If you are but willing to abide.
Spring is nearing , I can feel it,
Not much longer now, abide.
You are scared, and small, and lonely
But I am with you always
Together we can abide

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Keep showing up, keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

Do not extinguish the hope in your heart…

“Do not extinguish the hope in your heart” - Original Cut-out poem collage in the “Index Card Affirmations” series by Duane Toops

My daughter can comfortably stride between two oppositional personality traits. She can be quiet and to-herself, relishing the autonomy of her alone time, like me, and she can also be exuberant, outgoing, and sociable, which is…well…not like me. But, what we’ve come to realize is that not only is she capable of being both, she needs to be both. Too much of one or the other throws her into disproportion, and she succumbs to a kind of melancholia, which she also probably gets from me.

Since the spring of last year, thanks to ‘Rona, she has learned from home rather than attend school in person. With each passing month of limited social contact, I watched her light fade. Her motivation waned, her grades suffered, and she seemed to progressively slip deeper into darkened isolation. Hope was getting harder for her to hold on to. Solitude had once been a place of solace for her, but the time alone had crested into excess, and the shimmering parts of herself capable of shining through the haze were beginning to slip into the grey.

As a parent, it was painful to watch her being pulled down into a calamitous descent. My ex-wife and I made the difficult decision to  allow her to return to brick and mortar school. I didn’t take this decision lightly, and it was based on so much more than academics or academic performance. Yes, I want my kids to do well in school. I’d like them to pass. I want them to strive for excellence and to put their best foot forward in everything they do.  But, I’m also all too aware that the growth and changes I’d most like to see develop in my kids, cannot be measured by a grading Rubric. 

Norman Fischer says, “This is the main change that any of us…could hope for: that we would become very good at being ourselves.” I want my kids to be people of character and integrity.  I want them to be people of their word. But, even more so I want them to be very good at being who they are.

It’s not always an easy task or an easy process to “be yourself”, much less to be good at being yourself. We so nonchalantly utter the advice but, we often fail to acknowledge the immense degree of inquiry and awareness it takes to first “know thy self” and the incredible amount of courage and resolve required to actually act on it and lean into it.    Oftentimes , it necessitates an exposure to danger. It means maintaining an openness that exposes the frailest parts of ourselves to the hazards of vulnerability.

There are always risks of getting it wrong, of fucking it up, and that goes double if you’re in the precarious position of being the advising parent in this scenario. We risk doing too much, being too much, and going too far. But, I take some comfort in knowing that, as T.S. Eliot says, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” 

Somewhere within the jolt of ambiguous paradox and contradiction, we search the uncertainties of ourselves for something hopeful to share

Madeleine L’ Engle says that “The best way to guide children without coercion is to be ourselves”. Honestly, I think that’s the only way we can ever offer or receive guidance at all. If I had any chance of encouraging my daughter to embrace all the disparate parts of herself, then I was going to have to do the same. For me, that means recognizing that, like Mary Ruefle, creating “is my natural act, more natural than speaking.” My eloquence emerges almost exclusively in the act of writing and making art. And so, with paint, magazines, and index cards in hand, I set out to conjure and create something motivational, albeit a guerilla kind of motivation. The picture at the top of this post is the outcome. It’s the first in a series of index card affirmations I made to put in my daughter’s lunch box, I hope you find some encouragement here as well.

May you brave the risk of being yourself, and get really good at it.

May your vulnerability be your greatest strength.

May the hope in your heart never be extinguished.

If found you found some value in this essay consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee.

Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

“This is Nothing” – Free Downloadable Zine

A few weeks back, in a rare moment of boredom, I was doing a deep dive on Austin Kleon’s website. Somehow or another I came across a blog post about free, printable zines from The Wander Society.I downloaded and printed a couple of them. I was completely captivated by these little zines and enamored with the idea behind them.

I had been toying with the idea of trying to make zine for about a year or so, but just couldn’t really come up with a concept or a format. These Wander Society zines were exactly what I needed. It was the final catalyst, the moment of clarity, the last big push of inspiration to get me to do it.

What you see above is the end result. It was so much harder than I anticipated. I got so much wrong throughout the process of making this zine. Even the final product is really rough and more than a little “off”. It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped it would, and I went back and forth for a while deciding whether or not I would post it. Finally, I said, “fuck it, why not”.

Here you have it, my first free, downloadable, printable zine! By the way, just to forewarn you, you may have to play with the scale settings when you print the zine. “Fit to paper” seems to do the trick.

I really hope you enjoy it. I hope that maybe it’ll inspire you to do something you’ve been wanting to try.

As a bonus – I’m doing an art give away in conjunction with this zine!

Here’s the rules:

  1. Follow me on Instagram
  2. Post a picture of your printed copy of this zine and tag me in it.
  3. Comment on my Instagram post of this zine that you’ve done it.

I’ll announce the winner this Friday, February 5th.I’ll direct message the winner for their mailing address, and then ship out some of my original art. Unfortunately, at this time the giveaway is open to US participants only.

If you get any value out of what I do, consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee.

Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.

The Waiting Hours Always Speak…

Art by Duane Toops
The Waiting Hours – Digital Collage by Duane Toops

My general state of being feels like it’s become the existential equivalent of a waiting room lull. Where I am in the lineup of this waiting is unknown to me. What I’m waiting for, exactly, is also something still to be determined. Perhaps, I’m waiting to be healed, waiting to be, or at least feel, “normal” , waiting to feel better, waiting for things to get better. Maybe I’m waiting to realize or accept the fact that “life”, as I now know it, is the new face of normal. I don’t know… For now, it seems I am simply waiting…

Perhaps, this near paralyzing pause is the feeling that accompanies all instances of life-altering loss. Perhaps, this discordant and disconcerting delay is simply what it means to grieve.

Grief is a kind of breach within time. Loss is a metered distance in the measures of our days, marking the ending of one passage or phrase, and holding the tension in the expectant tempo of the next. Grief enforces a standstill. Loss enlists a lingering. And so, we wait…

Some of us wait with an almost stoic serenity, and others of us writhe in anticipatory uncertainty and tension, perched upon the edge of a seat, helpless and angst-ridden, knuckles white, jaws sore from unconscious clenching, nails chewed to the quick, as we search for something solid to bite down on. On a good day I find myself somewhere between the two. Like a Buddha of existential dread, sitting on the edge of my seat, holding a half-lotus posture, writhing in my attempt to accept the uncertain helplessness, conscious of the clenching, meditating with and on the dark anxiety of the Koan called depression; a Zen monk of pessimism in training, studying the middle-way of melancholia.

There is almost an inherent musicality to the movement of the absence brought about by this experience of grief and loss, a rhythmic structuring in the rupturous arrival and the absent-presence of loss. 

John O’ Donohue assures us that “Grief…has a sure structure”, and it is “Only by listening to the burden that has come” to us that we will “be able to discover its secret structure.”

To be clear, I am not writing as one who has arrived at grief’s grand finale, but rather as one only a few bars into the morose melodies of a suffering serenade, and still firmly clutched by the fermata of loss. But, already I’ve noticed the seemingly patterned fluctuations within this grieving orchestration; the rising anguish of the allegro and the falling forfeiture of the Adagio.

Though we long for the dissonance to resolve back into a more accordant harmony, there is an art here amidst the pausing tension of grief, absence, and loss; a carefully-crafted composition, a delicate design. The artist in me appreciates that. Perhaps, all artists do.

John Dewey writes that “Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension.” Instead, the artist “cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total.” 

Instinctively we may push back against such sentiments. We feel so discordant, so inharmonious, so ill-composed, perhaps even so de-composed, that we question how there could be any beauty, any art, to be found here. Indeed, as Dewey explains “There is no art without the composure that corresponds to design and composition…But”, as Dewey goes on to say there is also no art “without resistance, tension, and excitement; otherwise the calm induced is not one of fulfillment.”

Perhaps, for there to be any kind of fulfilling resolve there must first be a resistant tension.

Perhaps, the tension is the trickster that moves the story along, and creates an opening where a way had become blocked.

In fact, O’ Donohue highlights that “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself again.” But, O’ Donohue importantly points out that “This sore gathering takes time.” We are often so eager to return to normalcy, so anxious to move past this place that confronts us with the unavoidable presence of absence that, in the hurry, we further scatter the pieces. O’ Donohue advises us that we “need great patience with [our] slow heart[s].” He says that “It takes the heart a long time to unlearn and transfer its old affections” and that “This is a time when you have to swim against the tide of your life.” It seems for a while that you are advancing, then the desolation and confusion pull you down, and when you surface again, you seem to be even further from the shore.”

I can personally attest to this almost nonsensical cyclicality, this ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of stability and despair, contentment and anguish. Some days start with a sense of self-assured sturdiness. Others begin with a bluster of confusion and sadness. And some days, like a pendulum swinging wide, I move along the spectrum of the two.

This is simply the rhythm of the tide, the pulse of the metronome; back and forth, the tick, then the tock, low then high and back again; the push and the pull. The shore line expands and contracts. Like music rises, falls, and resolves; this is simply the structure of the song. 

The waiting hours speak. They always speak, but they speak slowly and harder than any other because they have something to say, something to teach, something to impart. It just takes a long time to say it. And so we wait…

May you gather your heart

May you confront the absent-presence

May you swim against the tide.

If you found some value in this essay, consider supporting my work and buy me a coffee.

Keep showing up, keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful!

An Ecology of Awareness…

The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’…to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.  – Viktor Shklovsky

Art is where I’m allowed to exercise a kind of analytical awareness. In the euphoric turmoil and hopeful tension of any artistic endeavor, I am keenly aware. My consciousness becomes concentrated. My perception is compounded. I revel in the relationship between texture, color, and position. I witness the interplay of image and text; attentively attuned to the tempo of words in rhythmic succession, wandering in the audible shape of sentences molded into unknown forms, saturated in visceral hues.

The composition of materials cohabitating in shared space becomes an expression of my own subjective sense of place. It provides me with an understanding of my own complicated comprisal. It gives me a glimpse into how all the pieces of myself fit together and how I fit into a larger contextual whole.

There’s an interesting contradiction  here however, in that, creativity clarifies the relationship between people, places, and things, but it does so by taking them out of place and out of context.  In collage, for example, bits of verbiage and imagery are torn from their printed place and pieced together into whole new arrangements as a summons to see the world in ways we’ve never seen it before. By holding things in a kind of paradoxical parallel it can function as a means of drawing our attention to all the complex connections of our inter-relationality. Similarly, when we are engrossed within the fictive unfolding of a story or novel, we are pulled out of the normative patterns of daily living and drawn into what seems to be a suspension of “reality”.  And yet, somehow, on the other side of our literary meandering we emerge to find the radicality of our realness more fully real-ized.

Art interrupts the familiar flow of relationships and interactions in such a way that it makes the concrete-ness of our associations more perceptually pronounced, more easily recognized, and more deeply felt . The fractures and fissures of disjointed and dislocated  juxtapositions awaken us to a more profound sense of being grounded.

When the process of creation becomes a practice of contemplation, art becomes an ecology of awareness. We begin “To think ecologically”, in that, as Levi Bryant explains our thinking is turned towards  “beings in relation,” where “there is always a materiality of interaction”. And, in the unabashed recognition of the ways in which we relate, we are invited to relate differently.

We are each a conglomerate of commingling materials interacting in an environment made up of other amalgamations. Here, it becomes an unavoidable fact that so much of our world and so much of ourselves is made up of hazardous waste. We are relegated to live amongst the rubble, rubbish, and refuse. We are decadent with detritus and debris. In short, we’re all full of shit and everybody poops, so we’d better find a way to see some beauty and truth in it all, or we’ll forever be shit out of luck.

In this regard, the awareness elicited from the creative act can be one of the most profoundly tangible forms of compassion and hope.

I regularly mine the “trash” for materials most others would readily, and perhaps reasonably, abandon. I take cardboard over canvas, newspaper over notebooks. I look for the unsightly instances of worn distress, seeking the symmetry of misshapen tears, because if these discarded scraps can become vibrant and alive, then maybe so can I. And, If we can find hope left in the crinkled jumble of what was thrown away, then perhaps there’s still hope left for us all.

If we can’t find beauty and redemption in things that are broken then salvation is a lie.

Chasing the Dragon…

“Your job in life is to overcome yourself every day.” – James Victore

Disenchanted and disillusioned I daily fight the spider’s web of my own weary patterns of thought and thinking. My monsters have grown far too bold to be found hiding in the back of the closet or beneath the bed.  The winged beasts have grown in their greed. Where once they slithered with serpentine subtly, they now invade in broad daylight. I often wake to find the weight of their dizzy claws gripping ever deeper into my chest as if my crippled heart were gold hoarded in the crepuscular deep of some desolate and forgotten mountain.

James Victore writes that “Dragons are real”. They are ever-present and always at the ready. “[E]very morning” we will find them curled “around [our] shoulders…quietly” snarling “into [our] ears”. They can never be permanently slain, never completely defeated, never banished once and for all, but they can be faced, confronted, and overcome through the ritual of daily work and practice. 

My demons and I are on a first name basis, and in the space of writing and making art, we regularly meet for coffee. Together we sip the percolated brew with cream and consternation, tasting faintly of pralines and broken dreams. In my persistent consistency, I lower their defenses and gain their trust. I mine their dark speech for hidden truths. They are cold, secretive, and reptilian, but they cannot help but reveal the buried gems that they would hope to keep from me.

In this ritualized observance, I am attempting to take back a part of the dragons’ fire. Some days they willingly yield it, giving it over freely with an open hand. Other days it must be wrestled and ripped from the clasp of their clutches. Some days I limp away to lick my wounds, empty handed. I limp because I have striven with dragons, gods, angels, devils, and men, and I have overcome. I have overcome because the demons and I both know that, regardless of the gains or losses of today, I’ll be back again tomorrow, ready to face them yet again, and that scares the shit out of them. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me a little too…

Yet, something joyously paradoxical transpires when we do this. We discover that, as Victore explains, “The uncomfortable spot is where [our] true voice is”. It is where we are “shamelessly and outrageously” summoned to shift into our truest of forms. In the face of the dragon is where we begin to find ourselves.

It’s here that we also come to realize that our demons may be our dearest friends and our greatest allies, because perhaps they are not demons at all but, daemons, that is, they are an inspiring force, attendant and guiding spirits ushering us into our own. If that’s true, then we are burned by flames not born of Hell but, by  the fires of refinement belonging to the forge.

In darkened interstices, there is trust…

“In art, the seeing or hearing that is dispersed and mixed in ordinary perceptions is concentrated until the peculiar office of the special medium operates with full energy, free from distraction.” – John Dewey

One of the things that we discussed in my recent interview on the Unusual Buddha podcast was that I rarely know what a piece means or what it is about when I’m in the process of making it. For me, the process of writing and making art is just that, a process; a process of observant listening. And even then there is mystery and ambiguity about precisely who or what I am listening to. 

Perhaps, I’m listening for something within myself, hoping to tap into some cavernous reservoir of language and meaning that I have yet to discover otherwise. Perhaps, I’m trying to give voice to the collection of unconscious thoughts and feelings that have never quite seen the dawn of my waking mind. Perhaps, I’m listening to the piece, itself. 

Perhaps, in the moments of making I am mothering a child struggling to convey what it wants to be. I must listen with patience and tender compassion, knowing that it is in my care, but it is not mine to keep. It is it’s destiny to leave, and it is my task to prepare it for the world.

Or, perhaps,  I’m the child and I am being parented by the piece. Perhaps, it is fostering the darkened interstices of my desirous fulfilment, and I must listen attentively to it’s instruction and guidance. This scenario feels right to me. So often my words have been aching to exit and yet, time and again, they have allusively evaded my grasp. It has been the work that has continued to guide me to my words. I have been in search of myself, in search of who I am, and who I still would like to be. Each work has taught me to see myself more clearly and has moved me incrementally closer to the me it believes I can become. I am in it’s care only for a time, before we must depart, and it is it’s mission to make me ready.

Whatever the case may be, the mystery always remains unresolved, and so there must always be trust.