Impermanence

As part of the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville, April 14-17, 2015, these monks from the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion  and the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour created a sand mandala for the sake of wisdom, compassion, and healing.

 

The monks lean across lines and arcs

like the funnels they wield,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 1

as if tilting a column of sand

up the spine

to pour from a third eye.

 

The grains trickle in rivulets

between skeletal lines

penciled onto a blue field.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 2

This gold, this red,

in precisely this place—

the design takes flesh

in lavish detail.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 3

 

This work is prayer

begun with chant

from which the air yet hums.

Tibetan Chant Ritual

Ringing metal, rubbed like a firestarter,

sings as it coaxes sand

from the tiny mouth of a ribbed silver cone.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

For days the sand pours,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 4

the chants rise,

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

the mandala widens.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Nearly Complete

 

Each morning a ritual:

with one hand the leader rings a bell,

with the other he holds a blade.

Tibetan Ritual Table

Beside the completed design

sits a white flower

in a silver bowl.

Tibetan Sand Mandala with Lotus

Atop the lotus of sand

in the mandala’s center,

the bowl becomes a mirror.

Now the blade, ever-present

through all the days of creation,

cuts from the points of the compass

to the center—

destruction from every direction.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Silver Bowl

A brush sweeps the careful work

into swirls of muddied color—

Sweeping Away the Sand Mandala

a heart-sob—

for all the careful tending vanished,


Sweeping the Sand Mandala

for every thing of beauty gone.

 

Tibetan Sand Mandala Brushed Away

 

 

 

Tibetan Monks in Headdress

 

Behind four monks clad in gold,

Tibetan Monks Walking to the Ohio River

a quiet crowd walks to the river.

As if in tribute,

four golden planes fly

in formation overhead.

Golden Eagles Flyover

 

Standing in the current,

the silver-haired leader

tilts a vessel,

Tibetan Ceremony Pouring Sand

yielding to the river

the sand,

the work,

the prayers,

the loss,

the acceptance.

Tibetan Monk at the River

The river carries this embodiment

of compassionate understanding

out into the world.

Tibetan Monks at the River

 

Returning,

the four walk with ease,

smiling, their shoulders relaxed,

Tibetan Monks

while I keep taking

photographs to keep.

Lotus After Sand Mandala Ceremony

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Invitation, and the Urgency of October

I’d like to invite you to a reading celebrating the 75th issue of The Louisville Review. It’s tonight at 7:00 at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. I’ll be reading along with some literary lights of Kentucky: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Bill Goodman, and Karen Mann. You can find more information about the reading and the readers here.

Also, I have a post over at the KaBooM Writers Notebook this week, about the beauty and the urgency of October. It’s called “October Inspiration.”

 

Fall foliage 002

 

I hope this beautiful autumn finds you well.

 

Meditation in Lent

At meetings of my writing group, we often undertake a freewrite exercise together. Using prompts of various kinds, we spend twenty minutes or so writing without editing, simply letting the conversation and the shared energy around the table work with the prompt to elicit new work. This post is from today’s group meeting, where I drew the the words “decision,” “demand,” and “would  you pay” from an Altoid tin full of provocative words. My writing friends found meaning in this writing and urged me to post it. Going with their judgment, here it is. 

Sand Dunes

 

I’m thinking about the feather in Forrest Gump, swirling on currents of air, the lovely way it’s lifted and carried from here to there, rising and falling but always remaining aloft and traveling on to a new place, in harmony with the prevailing winds, peacefully moving through the world. When the movie came out I lived next door to a preacher who said to his flock: Don’t be like that feather, don’t just be blown by the breeze—make your life count for something.

I didn’t like his message, its hostility to the flow of things. I didn’t want the bulldoggedness of his theology or to be someone who operated that way. I didn’t want to reject the organic movement of the world, of life with others, to plow forward as if my own motives mattered most.

Maybe I wanted to picture the Holy Spirit as the air lifting that feather and sending it where it needed to be. How else could a feather know where to go? And how much more about where to go do I know?

But in this world decisions are required. Moving forward demands a decision, necessitates action. We come equipped with our own vision; I think we’re supposed to use it. Even if it’s limited. Even if it’s inadequate. Maybe filling out that vision is where the Holy Spirit comes in.

What would you pay is a question that drives this world. We have to pay. And we need to be paid. What would you pay for what I have to offer? That’s how we measure so much of our worth. Too much, but that’s the world we live in.

What would you pay to have what you want? And with what currency? With money? with time? with attention? with training? with dogged effort? with constant tending? with scraping for hope? with gathering the necessary vitality for one more try, one more day? Would you pay with sacrifice? with humility? with impoverishment? with pleading? with force? with violence? with insistence? with demands? with exile? with rejection? with woundedness? with letting go? with love? What is the price of what matters most? Is it anything short of a cross?

 

The Subtle Growth of Eastertide

The only Lenten observance I took up this year was recognizing that I had too many commitments. I’ve begun teaching religion over the past few months, while trying to continue with everything else I’d been involved with before. Obviously that’s impossible—the silence here at Mildly Mystical helps make the point. But it took a while for me to realize it.

So Lent was a time of paring down, letting go of some of the responsibilities I’ve been involved with. It’s not easy to do when those things mean a lot. But it’s necessary.

What I didn’t expect was the further, drastic paring down that would come in the wake of a knee injury. I spent over two weeks on crutches, unable to drive, and negotiating the stairs in my home only with great difficulty. Under those circumstances, life constricts to the basics in a flash.

Fortunately, the setback is temporary and I’m improving every day. I’m grateful for this, and for the care and support of family and friends who have gotten me through this rough patch. It’s a reminder of what is and is not essential in this life.

So this year, the theme of paring down has been imposed not only on Lent, but Holy Week and Easter as well. I didn’t make it to Easter services, but in the week since then I’ve gradually been able to do some everyday things—really mundane stuff, like loading the dishwasher and walking down a flight of stairs. There have been no sudden transformations, only the slow progress that comes from gaining strength and confidence. I have a long way to go before I resume the two-mile walks I enjoy, but at least I’m walking without crutches and driving again. In those moments when I feel impatient to get to where I want to be, I try to remember how far I’ve come.

The work of transformation is slow, and many of its stages can’t be observed. The changes we do see take time to adjust to, as well. I kept using a crutch after the point it was absolutely necessary, because walking without it made me feel so vulnerable. Change is difficult, but somehow we keep expecting it to be otherwise.

Even with the celebration of the ultimate transformation, at Easter, we approach it as if the new reality were instantaneous. We condense the mysterious remaking of the disciples’ world into a single worship service, a morning’s event, then go home as if it were finished. For most of us last Sunday was a long time ago, and by now Easter is over.

But the bewilderment and doubt, fear and uncertainty, as the followers of Jesus tried to understand what was happening were not overcome in a morning or a day or a week. There were no instant explanations of their experiences and their path was in no way clear. It took time for them to absorb what was happening and decide how to respond. It’s the same with us.

The liturgical calendar calls this time Eastertide, in recognition of the time it takes for Easter to be absorbed, recognized, and lived. That’s where we are now. Eastertide is ongoing.  The spirit remains at work in us, and seen or unseen, the mystery of our healing, our growth, and our transformation unfolds. It’s a season of leaving crutches behind.

 

Designing a Life

Over the past few days I’ve been saddened by the passing of Steve Jobs. Along with many others, I’m inspired by the creativity and persistence; vision and excellence; risk, failure, and resounding success that he exemplified. As he grappled with illness and the imminent possibility of death over the past few years, he seemed to gain a clarity and perspective that enabled him to encourage others to realize their gifts and offer their best. If you haven’t seen it already, or even if you have, his speech to the Stanford graduates in 2005  is worthwhile.

A college class in calligraphy was among his formative experiences. The beauty and variety of the ancient writing styles, called “hands,” drew him into the art of lettering, which shapes the fonts employed by technology today. He entered the realm of design through the study of beautiful writing and artistically rendered text. Looking back at what was worthwhile from the past informed him as he designed so much of our future—and our world looks better for it.

I can appreciate that aspect of his education because calligraphy has taught me a lot, too. It was in the study of lettering that I learned to appreciate the power of good design. I began to see the world in a different way, noticing the importance of visual elements that I had never before attended to. As I studied the work of others, I realized that every aspect of the world created by human beings is the result of some kind of choice—sometimes a conscious one and sometimes not, sometimes a reflection of limited understanding or limited resources, but always a choice.

I also came to understand that good design results from the pursuit of excellence; it comes about through intentional choices. I learned what I could about good design from seeing it, studying it, and trying to understanding the choices that achieve to it.

In a similar way, we design our lives through the choices we make. If we are wise, we learn from others who know how to live well. Within our limitations, and working with what requires accommodation, we choose what we do and how we do it. We can bring creativity and persistence; vision and excellence to the way we live. We have genuine freedom in the way we take risks, survive failure, and continue to pursue success.

Steve Jobs reminded us of that. It’s no wonder we miss him.