Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

mindfulness and clear water

imageAs a teenager, I spent a few summers on an island in southern Thailand. Then a backwater (you had to take the ferry to get from the mainland to the island), it’s now famous. Both as a resort and as the site of a horrific tsunami.

Phuket. That’s where I spent school holidays, at a villa nestled between a crematorium & a slaughterhouse. Really. But while the crematorium/ slaughterhouse combo make good telling, what was magic were, of course, the beaches.

There were places you could walk a mile out, without the water reaching your chin. And the water was breath-takingly, heart-stoppingly clear. Whether the beach was like this one — creamy white sand and sky-blue water — or black rocks and water as green as glass, it was all crystal clear. In a boat between small offshore islands, you could see all the way to the bottom, no matter (it seemed) how deep it was.


I want mindfulness like that. Mindfulness that deepens like a lagoon, clear & still.image

If you study meditation, and/or mindfulness, you know that they are linked inextricably. You come to mindfulness through a meditation practice. And you come to clarity — to that still, clear water — through the two together. Through being still, and focused. Here’s my problem: I fidget.

My paternal grandmother used to tease me that I had St. Vitus Dance — a not rare occurrence in the days when many children had rheumatic fever. It’s now called Sydenham’s chorea, and it still happens: rapid, herky-jerky movements of the face, hands, feet. My grandmother just said I was too fidgety. And I am. At those events where you’re supposed to sit still? You know: weddings, funerals, movies, lectures… Well, I fidget. Cross my legs, uncross my legs, kick my feet, jounce my knees… I am NOT still.


imageBut as I said the other day, meditation isn’t rigid. It’s fluid, like water. And it’s called practice for a reason: you don’t worry so much about the right or wrong of it. You don’t beat yourself up, like over a bad exam. Any more than you beat up yourself up over the difference between black beaches with greenglass water, and white beaches with skyblue waters. Both are beautiful. You just keep practicing, trying to get better.


I suspect this is why so many of the arts — martial, visual, abstract — serve as aides to Buddhist practice. You can ‘practice’ Zen through Ikebana (flower arranging), or the Way of the Sword, or the Way of Tea, or the Way of the Brush.

The stillness, though? That clear seeing to the very bottom, where the Durban dancing shrimp vacuum the rocks? It’s going to take me a LOT of practice to see that. And, I suspect, a heavy dose of still.


tea with plastic spoons…

2012-04-09 10.24.00Today I made my tea in a mug, on a cutting board, with a plastic spoon. Big deal, huh? Unless you know me, and know that almost every day I make tea in a pot, on a tray spread w/ one of the many tea cloths I have, and drink it from a china cup and a silver spoon. Sometimes the spoon my Aunt Leona gave my mother when I was born, in my mother’s pattern. Engraved with my family name.

Yup. I’m that girl. :)


It comforts me to connect with women I knew long ago & far away — some family (Aunt Leona), some not-quite. Some closer than family. This teapot is from my niece, a dragon, and Yixing clay. Because she knew I’d love it.  The creamer & sugar my beloved mother-in-laws. The tongs my mother’s. The tray my husband bought me, so I’d have enough room for all my ritual.

But today, since life is far more hectic in grandson-ville, I did as I’ve done every day since I arrived: boiled water in the kettle, poured it into the small filter I brought last visit, over tea I had shipped here. Set the tea filter in the dish drainer, and stirred my milk & sugar in with a plastic spoon (the dishwasher is running, per usual). No glass creamer & sugar. No tongs. Nothing fancy or tea-ish.


And you know what? It was GREAT! Still the same Queen Catherine’s from Harney’s. Still the same ritual of choose the tea (I shipped  TWO)/ warm the cup/ pour the water through the leaves. Add raw sugar (they don’t have Demerara, and I’m okay with that), milk, and stir. Then inhale deeply, and the world stills. Steam rises, the cup fills with fragrance, and I breathe in. For a moment, the world is perfectly balanced. Still.

Even with a plastic spoon instead of Aunt Leona’s almost-heirloom. Even in a mug. Even off a cutting board. I’m sure there’s a beginner’s heart lesson there, somewhere…


meditation and sons and technology

imageI’m not very good at meditating. I get started, then something ‘comes up’ — life, usually — and I fall off the cushion. Soon months have gone by, and I’m not meditating. Sigh…

But the point in meditation process is to just begin again. At least once you’re actually doing meditation, that’s really just about the only ‘rule': if your mind wanders, just bring it gently back to your meditation focus. Which in my case has been objects as different as a pebble, a picture of one of the Buddhist bodhisattvasa candle, or just my own breath. So when I begin to wonder, while following my breath, if I should make a frittata for dinner, I observe — hmmm…thinking again — and return my attention to in/out, rise/fall. Sounds simple, huh?


image photo

I wish.

My elder son introduced me to something that helps. And yes, there’s an app for that. :) It’s called Headspace.  You can try it for free! N.B.: I get zip for putting this out there in the blogosphere — it’s just something that’s working for me, so I’m sharing. :)


Apparently I respond well to guided meditation. The time that normally creeps by like a dead ‘possum in the middle of the road suddenly moves swiftly to its conclusion — well, almost swiftly. Swiftly-ish.

I get busy, and the time-crawl factor grows in my head. Until I make up excuses — I’m so busy! There’s so much to do! — to let meditation lapse. Until ‘lapsed’ becomes ‘last month.’ Or longer. And I’m as wound up as ever.

What I’m trying to do these days is just return to the process. And again, doesn’t THAT sound simple?? Wellll, it’s not. At least not for me. (and if it is for you, please share! I’d love to hear!)

So if you’re looking for a way to be a bit calmer, a bit clearer, a bit less frazzled this holiday season, I recommend just sitting down. Focusing on something — whatever that is. Meditation is one of the best ways I imageknow — really the only way I know, truth told — to calm my mind and help me remember that all perspectives matter, even if I disagree w/ them passionately. And when family gets together that can be a good thing to recall!


No one can get to you quite like family. The childhood pecking order, the old taunts & jokes at each other’s expense… But here’s the flip side of that coin: no one else IS family. And they don’t get you the same way.

Maybe this holiday one of your family members will, like my sons often do with me, send you something wonderful. A piece of music. A book. A meditation app. And it may well be just what you need.


day 13 of Thanksgiving (in praise of laundry)


I HATE doing laundry. I once told a friend that I would remember my child-bearing years as piles of dirty laundry. Really dirty laundry: hockey socks & pads, football jerseys, cutoffs from camp, towels that ended up mildewing under the bed… YUK!

Today, while I enjoy the sleepy crankiness of my grandson, I am grateful to be doing laundry. That said? It’s soooo different when doing the laundry means you’re HERE. You’re able to help a hectically busy son & daughter-in-law, and hear ‘Thank you!’ for getting to play with the baby!


It also means we have things like… enough clothes to wash while wearing! As the daughter of a mother who only had 3 changes of clothes (and each of them from donations), I am grateful for the good fortune of a life with lots of clean clothes. And hot water to wash them in! And a washer & dryer!


Hotel Djemila Palace, Alger

When my husband & I moved to live in Algeria, I told him: I will NOT wash clothes by hand. We will find somewhere — or someone — who does laundry. I am NOT that person. And we did: we found the only laundromat in the entire country! It meant that laundry days he would walk with me to the laundromat, carrying a suitcase of our laundry. I would spend the morning there, and he would pick me up at lunch, climbing the steep alley back to the hotel where we lived.


Whoever tells you that those are the best days of your life is nuts. NOW is the best time of my life: here, with my grandson, doing a huge load of baby things. In hot water. Now, with a washing machine & dryer in the basement, and heat on both floors. Able to run upstairs when he starts howling (he did NOT want to nap today).

It doesn’t get much better than this.

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