December 20, 2007

Thou Art God

I chanced upon a mention on Heilein’s Stranger in a Strange Land the other day. I realized I had not thought of this novel in a number of years, certainly not since undertaking the study of Buddhism, though it had had a profound effect on me.

I was a teenager when I read it, just finishing high school or thereabouts. I remember my joy when I first read the famous passage in which the main character, Michael Valentine Smith, asserts confidently to his mentor, Jubal “Though art god!” Jubal is taken aback and hastily attempts to re-explain the concept of God, but Mike is not deterred.

“You grok. Anne groks. I grok. The grasses under my feet grok in happy beauty ... Thou art God...that which groks. Anne is God, I am God. The happy grasses are God...Jill is god. All shaping and making and creating together.”

I typed up the entire passage, with both Mike and Jubal’s dialogue, framed it and hung it on the wall of my bedroom. I had at that time passed beyond my rebellious, antagonist atheism and steadied into a skeptical agnosticism. This was by far, in all my life, the best definition for God which I had yet found. (My mother, in her typical way, once raised an eyebrow upon seeing it, but said nothing. My father, having given me the book, never remarked up on nor even thought much about it, I would guess.)

However, I wonder that I have not chanced to think upon it again since my recent philosophical explorations have begun. As a novel, I found it amusing and interesting, but not overly entertaining. It did not make it to the hallowed shelves of our family library which contain the poor batter titles, frayed and falling apart due to the repetition of hands and eyes on pages created by almost annual rereading from my father, brother, and myself. Perhaps in the end it was a little too strange for me, as so many of the famous 1960’s science fiction novels seem to be. The end was an odd non-resolution, the vibe a little too cultish. It is no wonder it spawned The Church of All Worlds.

However much my Midwestern, conservative, Christian baggage causes me to look askance at such things, when I read the words for what they are, both in Heilein’s book and from reviews, fan sites, and the CAW, I cannot help but agree with and, indeed, be inspired by it.

All that groks is god.

December 18, 2007

My Introverted Self

My final review for the Shambhala Mountain Center Kitchen & Dining Hall Project occurred on Friday. Overall, it went extremely well. One interesting thing happened though. Duncan Case, the professor who will be my primary thesis mentor during my final two years of grad school made an interesting comment. He started out by asking how someone could bring the quiet, reserved, sense of calm focus they had just been contemplating in meditation with them to the dining hall. I misunderstood at first and I must admit I sniped at him. (We had spend hours going over this in studio with much misunderstanding and I did not want to go back there.) Actually, I had missed his point altogether. In understanding personality types, there are simply those people who would like to be a bit more private, more shielded – those people who always choose the booth in a corner when they go into a restaurant. How could I provide for them in my design? What kind of shielding device would not interfere with the overall concept?

“Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that,” I admitted.

“Of course not, you’re an extrovert,” Duncan blithely replied.

I was incredulous for a moment before I burst out laughing. “I score so far on the introvert scale it’s scary,” I told him.

“But when your write about it [the experience of dining at Shambhala Mountain Center] you always talk about the community and the conversations and all the people,” he pointed out.

My thoughts paused. It is true, I do that. But that is because it is extraordinary. If that kind of interaction was ordinary, my normal every day, I would not write about it at all. I remark on it because in that place I suddenly feel entirely comfortable exhibiting extroverted tendencies, living a life I can never seem quite comfortable in anywhere else.

I score a little funny on personality tests, sometimes coming up with conflicting results which end up with analysis starting with “Maybe you should take this test again when you’re not so stressed.” When a test asks me what I want to do, what feels natural, what I prefer, I score a complete introvert. When asked what I actually would do in a situation, I score extrovert. When both types of questions show up in a single test the result is usually a computer with a migraine and a psychologist scratching their head.

I remember, distinctly remember, in junior high (back before they invented ‘middle school’) sitting quietly at the lunch table usually in the proximity of the ‘lesser’ clique, but never feeling quite like I belonged there, watching the ‘popular’ clique and wondering about the division. I already well understood the difference between an extrovert and an introvert and which category I fell in. Yet it seemed to me like the popular ones were all extroverts. They all cared about what other people thought and felt, how other people saw them. They seemed to get along better. Teachers and other students liked them. They were included in activities. They would be the ones with the six figure salary and family in a few years. Never would you hear them say (including to themselves) “I don’t care what others think!” while resolutely burying the hurt at being teased. Moreover, they seemed happy, laughing and joking with their friends, not sitting quietly at the end of the bench.

I was resolved. I could do that. I could be that. I could be extroverted.

Well, I can’t, but that’s okay. I actually rather like who I am, I prefer being an introvert, and over the years I have, rather successfully it seems, learned to fake it. I joking reassure my professors and classmates alike “No worries, I can fake confidence really well!” The truth is that it is no joke at all. I can stand and give an animated presentation to a large audience, seemingly extemporaneously. I can chit chat and mingle and make small talk. I can joke and put other people at ease. I can commiserate and empathize. I’ve learned how to ask after others and then to genuinely pay attention to the answers. Basically, I’ve taught myself to care.

Well, it turns I am the poster child for Meyers Briggs INTP (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving) according to Wikipedia. Moreover, this gentleman name Keirsey came along and added a temperament sorter and labeled that type “Architect,” which also appears to fit me to a T. How convenient, hey? (I even recently correct someone's grammer, though I tend not to do that in cassual conversation because I have learned people don't like that.)

Here’s the rub, the burning question that popped into by brain out of nowhere last night – am I an introvert because I think I am?

Well, no, I don’t think I am. At least, not according to my mother. According to her, even when I was a very little baby I never wanted to be held, not by her or anyone else. Feed me and put me down, that way my motto apparently, before I was old enough to know what a motto was. On the other hand, both of my parents are introverts. They were never the overbearing type. My mother recently labeled her parenting style “benevolent neglect,” as in, “let them do what they want as long as they are not hurting anything or bothering me too much.” I was not an overscheduled child, that is for sure. It all raises some very interesting points in the Nature/Nurture debate.

But ahoy! More issues! Is this whole line of thought an ego-trip? Am I trying to so diligently label myself and figure out what I am in an attempt to verify that I am in fact at all? Is this a self fulfilling exercise?

Well, the Buddha said to break it down. Am I my eyes? No. Am I my hair? No. Am I my body? No. Am I the question I just typed into my computer? No. I am my introverted nature? No. Am I my architect (future) profession? No. If you took any of these away, would I cease to exist? No. If any of these where all I had left, would I still exist? No. Hmmmm.

I think all I’ve done is gone and confused myself now.

December 13, 2007

Clear Light

A lull. A tiny little bubble of a lull rises into my consciousness. Homework finished with thirty minutes left to sit here in the quiet gallery. Half finished thoughts penetrate, leftovers from a week of obsessive concentration, amputated mid stride to make room for the object on which all depends. That object is still undone, but the final details are beyond my grasp, if only for these next few minutes.

I remember the bicyclist I saw on Tuesday, with skis and ski poles strapped across his back, resolutely peddling frozen city streets. That was funny.

I wonder if my car will thaw by tomorrow morning. In yesterday’s battle between the scraper and the quarter inch sheet of ice for the freedom of my car, the ice won hands down. The scraper is in several small plastic pieces and the car hasn’t moved since Monday. Oh, how I laughed as each little piece of plastic went arcing away, at the absurdity of it all.

I recall Dickie is coming into town tonight, so soon. I hope his drive has been safe. He is coming to see our final project presentations (the object still undone) and is staying on my couch. He always visits at that time of year when I am precluded from being a good host. At least I washed the dishes yesterday while my computer was rendering an image. I hope my continuing work doesn’t keep him up tonight.

I massage my leg where I strained a muscle on Wednesday. I half fell while climbing my ice encrusted fire escape. The bruise on my shin doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as the strained muscle in my thigh which probably saved me from an even more bruising fall by catching all my weight and locking in place. I shall have to remember to take the inside stairs tonight.

I remember longingly the ghostly night trees left behind by the ice storm. Spider webs of black, woven and circling, cribbed ink lines caught in a shell of light. White light and gold, utilitarian streetlamps broken and refracted into the most glorious of stars, pure and potent. A million bits of black caught within a million white sparkles.

All these things and more surface in my mind, now deprived of the object of its relentless obsession. I find it interesting how my concentration on one thing has effected my perceptions over this past week. Each thing I remember now I remember experiencing with precision and clarity. It is as though the state of concentration once achieved is maintained even as the object of concentration is not. I look back now, during this quite moment, and think it has been a good week. Despite the hustle and the bustle, and the nagging suspicion I may not finish in time, my mind has been in a good place, focused and clear.

I realize the moments of past week, those thoughts and recollections, were not harshly cast aside, but simply let go. The clarity of experience comes from the refusal to analyze it to death, to overthink it and lay my own concepts upon it, to add it my storyline. Instead they were just moments, as they were by themselves. And they were and remain beautiful. It has been an inadvertant thing, surely not what the Buddha intended, but almost a kind of meditation in itself, my concentration. Yet, not without its own lesson, I think.

It reminds me of the lights in the night trees.

December 11, 2007

Dead Week

It's Dead Week. I leave this post as evidence, despite my college's best attempts, I am still alive.

I think.

December 04, 2007

Seeing the World Through Christian-Colored Glasses

I chanced up a something at the book store the other day, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. The cover held the cross, om, laughing Buddha, star of David, and crescent moon. I flipped to the table of contents and frowned at the obvious biblical references. Chapter One: A Nation of Religious Illiterates, Chapter Two: Religion Matters, Chapter Three: Eden (What We Once Knew), Chapter Four: The Fall (How We Forgot), Chapter Five: Redemption (What to Do?), Chapter Six: A Dictionary of Religious Literacy, and finally the Appendix: Religious Literacy Quiz. I was expecting chapter headings more in keeping with the cover, concerning the various major world religions.

I flipped to the back to see if I could pass the quiz. Apparently I could since it only contained fifteen questions. One concerned Hinduism, two Islam, one Judaism, one Buddhism, and one on the First Amendment. The remaining ten were straight out of the Christian Bible (though parts of the Old Testament can be found in the Torah and Quran.)

Now, this is not a book review, I certainly did not read the entire thing. I skimmed the introduction which was plainly asserting that this is a Christian nation despite our constitutional verbiage and our toleration of other religions. The massive Christian majority makes it one. He speaks of the Dalai Lama like some kind of pop idol and the metaphor of a passing fad is not lost on me. So then, is it only important to be literate in the Christian religion? Apparently, Stephen Prothero thinks so. (Knowing the name of the Islamic book and holy month hardly qualify as Islamic literacy, but then neither does answering ten questions about the Bible, in my mind.)

I shake my head and put the book down. I am slightly appalled but really more sad. It is important, yes, to understand our Christian heritage so as to understand our history, the basis of our culture, and our possible future. But Prothero seems to forget that in that future, America is only a small country (population wise) in a predominantly non-Christian world. Mostly I am sad because he seems to lack a value for diversity of viewpoint, multiplicity of human thought, expression, culture, and spirituality.

I had hoped for better and am silently sad to see Buddhist symbol on the cover of such a book.

November 30, 2007

Two Sides of Stubborn

As I advance in my graduate studies, slowly and painfully, I am looking forward to my thesis project. That is to say, I look forward to the project itself if I can ever move past the approval stage. Last time I checked, I was not a poodle, so I don’t know why they keep holding up hoops.

I invited my studio professor, Rumiko, to sit on my committee this week.

“What is my role?” she asked.

“Kicking my ass?” The good thing about Rumiko is she understands certain realities and so can laugh at them. “I’d like you to help me work on the philosophy and theory,” I told her.

“Oh, that sounds like fun!” she replied.

She pointed out I am stubborn, with which I agreed.

The thing about being stubborn is that generally I genuinely don’t intent to be so. The thing about being stubborn is that I’m stubborn even against my own will a good portion of the time, let alone anyone else’s. I can even feel the onset, like pushing, hackles rising, tension building.

Sometimes it serves me well. I draw ambition and tenacity and patience out of my bottomless well of obstinacy. Yet when it comes right down to it, when I’m being stubborn I feel almost as if I’m simply acting ‘in spite of.’ In spite of reason. In spite of logic. In spite of my professors. In spite of my family. In spite of society. Certainly, in spite of myself. And spite, it turns out, is not a pretty thing. Spite is malice, nastiness, and malevolence. None of these things would I identify with myself. Yet, I am undeniably stubborn.

True, I’m fairly easy going, cooperative, flexible, helpful, and more than willing to compromise. If the matter at hand is where to go for dinner or what verbiage to use in our team paper. The people who know me and know me well see past that. Rumiko certainly does, at any rate. Heaven knows it drove my mother insane (still does) and never ceases to amuse my father. I also have a sneaking suspicion that both side of the coin are inseparable – the perseverence I cultivate, which keeps me moving through the hoops, and the obstinacy I struggle with, which keeps me stading still.

“I bend,” I protested weakly, “sometimes.”

Rumiko just smiled.

November 26, 2007

On Writing

The glorious steel trusses throw pale pastel shadows on the ceiling from the cool up-lighting of the florescent fixtures. The windows are dark mirrors, bouncing both light and shadow and revealing as much as they conceal. The hum is steady, of the lights, the computers, the ventilation system, with only the occasional footsteps to penetrate it.

Sometimes I don’t know what to write, so I just write. I describe the world around me – the rain, the wind, the light, and from there I inexorably find myself circling back around. Sometimes I do actually have a point, a purpose, a subject, but more often than not I merely have a question or a trouble or a random thought. I write quickly, with little pausing, following my mindstream wherever it leads me.

Usually, I circle and ponder, and sooner or later I discover what I was looking for. Generally it is not an answer, but it could be called a conclusion. More often it is a new question, a new direction, a new thought, something to be pondered some other time. Sometimes it is just an end. I become tired of writing, bored with feeling sorry for myself, uninterested in my own false eloquence, or sometimes just a little too punchy to make much sense.

I generally publish what I write. I can count on one finger the number of posts I have deleted without publishing. I might give it one quick read through to check the spelling and the grammar, and often I don’t do a very good job at that. Then up it goes, into the cyberstorm of the internet, before doubt can get the better of me.

I re-read my posts almost as often as I post, usually getting a flavor of my mindset from the past week or so. Sometimes I go back farther, delving into memory, and sometimes I just read the last line, looking for a quick reminder.

My meditation instructor once told me that though the contemplative arts are numerous, encompassing painting, film, photography, archery, horsemanship, flower arranging, and tea ceremony, there is no “contemplative journaling.” It helps us buy into our own storyline. It strengthens our ego, gives us too strong a sense of “I” and “me.” Ever since I have been on guard against such a possibility, watching my mind, watching my writing as the quick and chaotic thoughts solidify onto paper.

Either my ego is very, very sneaky (which it is, to be sure) or I approach journaling from a very different vantage point. There is something of a desire for attention in it, that is undeniable, otherwise I would not publish what I write. Perhaps I would not even keep it, or ever reread it either. Yet mostly I write for the same reason I think, to figure things out. And I write to keep some record of my own folly, some proof that “I” am not, in fact, “me.” Besides, when I’m feeling bummed I’m often good for a laugh.

You see, I grew up in a household of bibliophiles (book-lovers). I started on Nancy Drew and the Black Stallion. When I was thirteen my mother handed me Anne McCaffrey and six months later my Dad handed me Tolkien. Due to the nature of my tastes (science fiction and fantasy with a few trashy romances thrown in during my teen years) I have a very healthy appreciation for the nature of fiction. Just because it was written did not mean it was real. On the contrary, the written word was subject to interpretation, thus was in many ways less real than almost any other medium, and certainly less so than direct experience. As my faith in the Christian church began to wane, those sentiments began to include other books, including The Book.

I allow my thoughts to solidify on paper (or the computer version) and I see them for what they are, just thoughts. Constantly shifting and changing, incorporeal and insubstantial. I think writing helps me take myself less seriously, not more.

So my thoughts have circled round at last, even here, sitting in the library, with the glorious steel beams and the soaring ceiling and the steady hum. Surrounded by books, I wrote about writing and sure enough I found the end of it. Like the wheel of samsara, it is always thus, until it isn’t anymore.

And just because I wrote it down, doesn’t make it true.

November 21, 2007


The first snow has come, riding the wings of the northwest wind. It was pulled out of the warm ocean to the west and lifted up across the mountains. Now it fights the wind, swirling madly this way and that, skipping across the land to be lifted up again until finally it is caught on a blade of grass or in the lee of a building where it cannot escape. It piles with its fellows, lying sullen upon the ground, bereft of the dancing wind. The grey clouds slide placidly by, indifferent, steadily shedding their burden upon the land.

Two days ago the south wind and the sun smiled across this land. They said their grinning goodbyes and fled in the twilight while the north wind swept stealthily down upon the sleeping cities and towns and farms. It was barely a whisper of a breeze in the fading evening light, but grew in the darkness and dragged with it the uncaring grey sky to hide moon, stars, and sun. At dawn it rattled the trees, stripping them of their few clinging leaves, reminding the waking people winter is come.

The fat squirrels, who just days ago could almost be trampled underfoot with every step they were so many, are now tucked away, snug and hiding from the biting north wind. The world is quiet, but for the wind. People hurry about and do not linger, not where the wind can find them. They seem to be holding their breath as the first snow falls.

The great oaks still wear their crowns of rust, stubborn as only trees can be. The pines shrug with nonchalance as both wind and snow slide through their slender fingers. The maples, birches, cottonwoods, and willows all stand as skeleton sentinels, their naked branches knocking like old bones. The last of the fall flowers, mums and roses still blooming, give up the fight and turn into their winter beds. The happy fountains stand silent and empty and the pigeons no longer wheel in the sky but tuck themselves safely away under eaves and soffits.

It is the first winter snow, the day before Thanksgiving. The people hurry home, trying to out race the wind. They make for the warm embrace of their family home, perhaps where they were raised, or spend summers of their youth, or just call home now because of the people who dwell within. They gather around a warm kitchen with parents and children, siblings and cousins, and tell tall tales of what mischief they have been up to during the fading days of the Indian summer just past. They fight and bicker and tease and ask inappropriate questions about boyfriends and girlfriends and possible grandbabies. That is what family is for, after all.

Outside the north wind runs along the forested river valleys and dances on the open plains. It sweeps the grass topped hills and ruffles the leave filled dales. It carries the scrambling snow and lets it settle upon the land and bites the unwary traveler to drive them indoors, where they should be. It keeps them warm and safe and snug, together with their loved ones, beyond the reach of the lonely night. The wind chivvies them home when they would linger over some unfinished bit of business not nearly so important as the card game for which their fighting great-uncles need a fourth player.

So thank the north wind, as it sends you on your way. Thank the sullen snow for finishing its dance early. Wish the stubborn oaks a good eve and settle around the kitchen table. Smile and laugh and chide those troublesome uncles and hug your family close.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and the first snow is falling.

November 20, 2007

Buddhist In the System

So, the other day I mingled. I actually did a fairly good job too, by my own standards. I went to a big fancy house, crowded full of people I didn’t know, and I chatted, I networked, and I politicked. It was the University of Nebraska Student Leaders’ Dinner at the University President’s house and every senator and student executive from all three campuses, along with deans and professors from various colleges, were invited.

I discussed vegetarianism with Corina, a nice senator I have seen at our meetings but never spoken to. She said was vegetarian for several years but decided she wanted to be “more like Jesus,” who ate a little meat from time to time. I can’t argue with that. I wish more people aspired to be like Jesus. Not to say that the comment didn’t leave me feeling a little awkward, but that’s definitely my issue.

On a side note - I still have to decide how I’m going to ‘handle’ our team project of decorating the Osborne Athletic Complex for Christmas (they say “the holidays,” but they mean Christmas). It seems my strategy lately has been to simple not mention that I’m not Christian and entirely avoid the mention of Buddhism. After all, no one ever actually asks. But somehow that seems less than authentic, like I’m hiding something when all I’m really doing is not announcing it to the world. It bothers me sometimes.

Anyway, back to mingling. I found it somewhat indecent that the University President lives in such obvious luxury when his students are declaring bankruptcy and counting the pennies of their grocery bills, but I dutifully complimented the hosted on their beautifully maintained 100-year old home and expansive collection of original art. Again, I think I may just be trailing a little of my own baggage here. Maybe.

I chatted up both the candidates for Student President. Adam was all about bringing me into the fold (of the party) and making the maximum use of my voice representing graduate students (who are typically under-represented) and simultaneously ensuring that I get the kind of appointments which will keep me engaged and enthusiastic. Emily was concerned about sustainability and promised to send another senator my way so we could pool our resources in regards to a specific project which I would love to make a pet of. Both were good conversations.

Here’s the rub: should I join a political party? My choices are “Bright” and “Ignite” parties and I have no idea what either platform is, but the entire idea of joining one at all seems divisive. I take a bizarre pride that my conservative little state is the only one progressive enough (at its founding, at least) to enshrine a non-partisan unicameral legislature in its constitution. Even if one or the other of the student parties seems to be a better match to my own goals, is better able or willing to support me, and seems more likely to get me re-elected (or just elected since I actually got appointed to this term) it still seems like joining would immediately create an “us” versus “them” scenario. If I am for/with Bright then I am automatically against Ignite, right?

Our student newspaper reporter recently did a poll to breakdown demographics of the student senators, including political affiliation. He used Democrat, Republican, Independent, or No Answer. The first thought that entered my head when the question came up was “None.” I wouldn’t even go so far as to call myself Independent because that implies I have something to be independent of.

I’ve never been one for trying to dismantle a system from the outside, especially a (nominally) democratic one. I would much rather work to reform from within. However, as much as that applies to government, I’m not sure it carries through to the parties. I would prefer if that system did not exist at all, therefore I think I would be happier working outside of it. I will have to weigh my options here.

In the meantime I smiled, stole more than my fair share of the cookies, and did my best to reconcile feeling both energized and engage with feeling absurdly out of place.

November 13, 2007


Understand population and city growth with Cool graphics which make me think. (Thanks to Owl Monkey for the heads up.)

Dharmic Architecture: The Stoics

I find all kinds of lovely things in the most bizarre places, including exceedingly dry, excruciatingly technical, architectural theory texts which insist on debating the meaning of almost every Latin word (and its Greek counterpart) found in Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture until one would beg for mercy had one the breath left to do so. In any event, this is what I found there:

Arrian (Roman writing in the 2nd Century AD): “Some Indian sophists, the story goes, were found by Alexander in the open air in a meadow, where they used to have their disputations; when they saw Alexander and his army, they did nothing more than beat with their feet on the ground they stood on. When Alexander enquired through interpreters what their action meant, they replied: ‘King Alexander, each man possesses no more of this earth than the patch we stand on.’”

More to the point, there was also included a chapter on signification in Vitruvian thought.

Vitruvius (Roman architect writing in 44 BC or thereabouts): “These two things are contained in all matters, but above all in architecture: that which is signified and that which signifies. What is signified is the matter set forth by what is said. What signifies this is a demonstration developed through the principles of learning.”

McEwen (theorist writing in 2003 AD exactly): “It is important, first of all, to understand that significare in Latin means to ‘show by sings,’ no ‘represent.’”

Sextus Empiricus (skeptic philosopher writing the 2nd or 3rd Century AD): “The stoics … [say] that three things are linked together, what is signified, that which signifies, and the existing thing. That which signifies is the utterance … what is signified is the specific state of affairs indicated by the spoken word … the existing thing is the external reality … Of these, two are bodies, the utterance and the existing thing. But the state of affairs signified is not a body but a lekton.”

McEwen explains: “Lekta are not bodies. Like void, place, and time, lekta are what the Stoics called ‘incorporeals.’ Lekta, things signified, mediate between the words of significant utterances and existing things.”

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds an awful lot like the Buddhist idea of concepts. Like the preconceptions and ideas we build our world on but which may or may not have much resemblance to that which is. This is the first reference I have found in any of the literature of a third entity in the previously dualistic relationship of signifier and signified, sign and thing.

I cannot help but be a bit guilty of stereotyping as I attribute McEwen’s ending phrase with her probably eastern background given that her full name is Indra Kagis McEwen. However, I take genuine delight in her closing sentence, which sounds too much like a koan to me:

”You cannot chisel ‘Imperial Ceasar’ onto water.”

November 12, 2007

Groundlessness (or The Train is Coming)

I had a dream. I returned from a trip, a happy, carefree trip, and drove by my home to see only a burned out shell where my apartment building was. It wasn’t so obvious at first, because the brick still stood, but it had crumbled a little near the roof. Then I turned the corner and I could see all the way through the windows and to the sky showing through. I had left the heater on, forgotten the stove, something, and now the building had burned down. I was terrified for my cat and rushed in to find her hiding under a little overhang of the foundation. Nothing important was really lost. I was relieved, but still afraid.

I called my parents to tell them my building had burned down. They didn’t seem to care. Worse, they didn’t even really understand what I was telling them. I tried to make them understand. I wanted so badly for them to help me and surely if they only understood, they would help me. I was alone with my cat, trying to figure out what to do and no one would help me.

I know what it means. It means I’m afraid of dropping the ball, one of the balls, and everything will come crashing down around me.

There is a train rumbling up behind me. It has been there all the time. I’ve always known it. As long as I kept moving, I could stay ahead of it. As long as I faced forward, I didn’t have to be afraid of it. I could ignore that slight vibration in my feet. That is just nerves, or exhaustion, or malnutrition. But when the whistle blows, I can’t ignore it anymore. I have to turn around and face it. When I do I realize that no matter how fast I run, I won’t escape it. I’m alone on the trestle a thousand feet in the air and no one will help me. After all, I knew it was coming.

So I just stand there, paralyzed into immobility, my feet nailed to the track. Why try to escape when I can’t see any way out? I can look in all directions without finding a safe path, so I just stand there.

That is how I feel today. I have so much to do, it seems insurmountable and I seem totally immobile. Whatever energy and motivation I might have maintained before I turned around and saw the train is gone, as surely as if my feet were nailed down. So maybe the train will get me this time. Nothing important would really be lost, right? I would survive (my cat would survive) and I could keep going. I might even be relieved to have it over with, but I am still afraid.

I ignored the train for so long. I planed and organized and wandered along. I deluded myself into forgetting it was even back there. I paced myself to prevent exhaustion and now I chastise myself for being lazy and then I become angry because I’m not lazy! None of it matters, because the train doesn’t care. All of my little games amount to nothing. There is nothing to hang on to. That’s what I’m afraid of.


November 08, 2007

Dharmic Architecture - The Wisdom of Glenn Mercut

Juan Pablo Bonta warns in his 1979 book Archtecture and Its Interpretation "Architects are deluding themselves if they believe that they are addressing submissive audiences, eager to communicate; that their public wants by all means to understand (even to decipher, if necessary) the meaning of architecture as seen by the designer…What people want is to see their own meanings in the environment – with their own systems of values, from their own frames of reference, shaped by the expressive systems that they share with their community but not necessarily with the designer."

Perhaps then, there is something very, very important to learn from the 2002 Pritzker Prize (the Nobel or Pulitzer for architects) winner, Glenn Mercutt. The New York Times author Jim Lewis writes in his 2007 article "It may be easiest to explain who Glenn Murcutt is and what he does by explaining what he isn’t and does not do. To begin with, he doesn’t build outside Australia — never has — and so many of his fiercest fans have never actually seen his work. He has no staff, no draftsmen or model-builders, not even a secretary."

“Think of the building as an instrument that’s picking up all these sounds. So it’s addressing the hydrology, it’s addressing the geomorphology. It’s addressing the typography, the wind patterns, light patterns, altitude, latitude, the environment around you, the sun movements. It’s addressing the summer, the winter and the seasons in between. It’s addressing where the trees are, and where the trees are will tell you about the water table, the soil depth, climatic conditions," Mercutt told Lewis. “Our early survival was entirely related to observation. Listening, seeing, smelling, touching. We learned to read the water [when swimming]; to read the depth of the water, the way our bodies work in water. And air and water work in very similar ways. So to understand this was to understand currents and wind patterns. Then you understand topography, because topography defines the way wind will go.”

This is why Mercutt has turned down numerous offers for projects outside Australia, urban projects, big, flashy office compexes and skyscapers. In his 70's, he claims to only just started to understand the rural outback where he practices, and couldn't dream of trying to design elsewhere.

This semester I have met architects from firms which have thousands of employees and hundreds of offices. They boast opportunities to travel, in the US and internationally, which I would dearly love. Yet, Bonta's warning rings in my ears. The sollution I see is the path of Glenn Mercutt - as he quotes Thoreau: “Since most of us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important thing is to carry them out extraordinarily well.” Coming to know my client so as to intimately understand those meanings, values, and references they desire to see in their environment. And, more importantly, discovering a client with whom I share those values. That is a driving force behind my exploration of a "Dharmic Architecutre."

Mercutt: "Any work of architecture that has been designed, any work of architecture that has the potential to exist, or that exists, was discovered. It wasn’t created. Our role” — and the “our” seemed to refer to everyone on the planet — “is to be the discoverer, not the creator.”

November 05, 2007

Hate Crimes

The Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas has spent the last several years of the Iraq War picketing the funerals of slain soldiers. They are not protesting against the war, trying to bring our troops how, or even protesting against the soldiers for participating. Instead, they are picketing military funerals to tell people that God is killing American soldiers to punish American for tolerating homosexuals.

Recently, a Baltimore federal court, handed down a judgment of $9 million against the church for picketing the funeral of a fallen Pennsylvania marine. Many applaud the decision, but the church has emphatically stated it will not stop their activities. A classmate of mine, equally outraged at their behavior, recently reminded us that if they had been found guilty of a hate crime, they could have been jailed.

So the questions are these: Is it a hate crime if it is driven by hate but the subject of the crime (families of fallen soldiers) and the object of the hate (homosexuals) are not the same? Is it enough if a crime is carried out because they hate homosexuals? Or would they actually have to harm a homosexual person? And – If this can be considered a hate crime based on the motivation, why wasn’t it prosecuted as such? Is it possibly, as my classmate wondered, a case of Christian judges (and police) protecting a Christian church, however repulsive it’s actions? I sure hope not.

Here in Nebraska and around the Midwest various motorcycle clubs have taken it upon themselves to counter picket military funerals – acting as an unofficial honor guard by lining the route between the fallen’s church and cemetery and keeping the Westboro Baptists away. So far it has worked and not incidents have been reported between the two, so far as I know.

I feel bad for the Westboro Baptists – to be so filled with hate and blindness and so unhappy.

October 30, 2007

Dharmic Architecture 2: Meaning & Phenomena

Thanks to those of you who gave me food for thought on “Dharmic Architecture.” As TK pointed out, since as Buddhists we are supposed to stop searching for the meaning behind phenomena (which too often simply means assigning our own meaning to them) and accept the world as it truly is, perhaps architecture should follow this dictate. Architecture, as phenomena, should not attempt to have meaning beyond the physical embodiment of functional requirements.

There are some architects who have attempted to do just that, starting with the International Style in Europe in the 1920’s & 1930’s and later with Modernism in America after World War II. However, as one architectural critic and theorist observed, as soon as their “meaningless” architecture was created, it naturally acquired (or was ascribed) a meaning and began to stand for something beyond itself. This something would later be called “functionalism,” a conceptual theory whole unto itself.

The question is then, did even functionalist architecture acquire a meaning by its own nature (perhaps simply as a work of human hands) or the attribution of meaning to it simply a symptom of the samsaric condition Buddhism implores us to overcome?

On another route of inquiry, is it helpful for use to categorize architecture (or other products of human culture) among the “phenomena” which need have no meaning? Or is this “phenomena” solely the natural world, change, time, and those similar elements beyond significant human control? (Leaving aside the question of our ability to control anything at all, for the moment.) If architecture is included, then so must be other products of human creation, such as the written word, which operates solely on meaning. If we do not look for the meaning behind the ink printed on paper, then we see only ink and paper, and possibly shapes and lines, but not a soliloquy by Shakespeare. That would be a tragedy.

I am suddenly reminded of a moment in the move Short Circuit during which they are trying to determine if the robot Number Five is “alive,” or sentient. They try the inkblot test and Number Five dutifully describes both the chemical composition of the paper and the coffee which was spilled on it, but then…after a suitably dramatic pause…calls it a butterfly, a flower, a bird.

So, the question remains, should architecture communicate? Should it try to mean something beyond sticks and bricks. A professor of mine recently pointed out the similarities between the words “edifice” and “edify.” It sheds light on a rather interesting position. If my goal is to “help people” perhaps that goal can be best served by teaching – not in the traditional sense of a teacher in a classroom, but in the more subversive realm of teaching through subtle suggestion, example, and bringing to light. In order to teach, one must communicate. (Even teaching purely by acting as an example communicates some meaning.)

The Buddha did not teach by refusing to communicate.

October 27, 2007

Questions without Answers

There was a man who sat beside me on the plane from Minneapolis to Omaha. He was a nice enough gentleman and not terribly intrusive, though obviously bored. His sole carry on piece of luggage was a ukulele in a brown felt bag and a tiny little book in his jacket pocket about fatherhood. He chatted with me to pass the time. I learned he lived in a small town in Iowa not far from Omaha, he had a son and daughter, both unwed and living in Georgia, and he belonged to The Navigators a Christian campus ministry. He learned I was a student at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, on my way home from a conference, and also unwed. This was unfortunate, in his mind.

He asked if it was my first year in college and I had to laugh. "So far from it," I told him, "it's no longer funny." When he realized I was 27, he noted there was no wedding band on my finger. We talked about many things, but always came back to marriage. He teasingly tried to set me up with his son, who appeared to be searching for a smart, attractive woman, who made at least as much money as he did. The man assumed that when I said marriage was not on the top of my priority list, career must naturally takes its place. I laughed again and told him I would probably be one of the poorest architects ever, the kind who works for clients who can't really afford professional fees and will probably pay in potatoes.

The poor man looked even more puzzled. Truth to tell, I understood his quandary since it was something I have often faced myself. I explained to him that architecture is what I'm good at, it's what I do best, but not my ultimate goal in life. My goal is to help people and I feel that architecture is the means by which I can be of the most use. I had never explained that to anyone before. Saying it felt good.

I think he doubted me, doubted that anyone could exist whose ultimate goal was simply to "help people" in whatever way they felt they could best do so. I'm sure he saw me as a hopeless naive optimistic child. I suppose I am. I often set idealistic goals, because in striving for that ideal, even if I fall short, at least I might come close.

"God has a plan for you," he told me.

"So people say," I replied.

Yet something about the encounter puzzles me still. I find myself going over it in my head. Is my "career" simply number two on my list, or is it actually that my "career" is helping people. In that case, am I a career woman? I simply don't wish to acknowledge it because of the negative connotation?

And for that matter, why are there negative connotations associated with "career woman?" I even find them in my own mind from time to time, despite the fact that I've rarely known a woman who wasn't. Yet there remains this stigma of a cold, hard person who "neglects" her family, husband, and children, or else ends up alone, a bitter, old crone - angry that the world punished her for choosing her career over her family, or that she chose to even dare to try to have both. It bothers me to be associated with this stigma.

So instead, I choose a different route - claiming to value neither career nor family above all else. Is it truly a different path, or am I just splitting hairs?

"Haven't you ever been twitterpated over somebody?" he asked.

I just shrugged.

October 25, 2007


Travel is not so wearing because of the distances travelled. Modern convenience has seen to that. As if boats and trains and airplanes weren’t enough we have escalators and elevators and moving walkways, trams and busses, subways and skyways. And just to mitigate any possible inconvenience these marvels have left behind, we have checked baggage, espresso bars, sports on big screen televisions, and newsstands galore liberally dotting all those many places people pass through. Yet the fact remains, we hate travel.

But we love our cars. We build roads twelve lanes wide (one way) and then fill them with so many vehicles that even these so-called expressways slow to a crawl. We drive for hours each day just for the joy of suburban life and urban paychecks which we squander on shiny plastic, patent leather, gasoline, and anti-lock brakes, but complain that the new subway line costs too much of our precious tax dollars.

I fear I have gotten rather far afield. These dichotomies were on my mind as I traveled to and from Toronto this past weekend. The conclusions I came to revolved around our feeling of control. For the second time this year, I sat behind the wheel of my car and I felt good. I felt free. For this short space of time I felt entirely in control of my life, as if my actions alone could determine the outcome.

That is an illusion of course. I’m not alone on the road and I’m sure other drivers have their own ideas, for better or for worse. Not to mention all the labor of all the hands who got me to that point. I have no idea whether or not the factory quality control checker counted all the screws, if the mechanic doing the tire rotation tightened all the nuts, if the road crew doing construction on the new bridge swept it clear of sharp metal objects before opening it, or when that squirrel will decide to make a run for it. But I feel in control, and it feels good.

It feels even better after an entire weekend feeling like I am (and I literally am) placing my life in the hands of strangers. Letting them get me from place to place safely, on time, and with all of my belongings. It made me wonder after a day of travel why I could possibly be so tired when all I had done was sit, in a car, in an airport, on a plane, in another airport, on another plane, and finally another car. Not for very long either. It took less than six hours to get me from Toronto to Omaha, and only a bit over two was spend actually in the air. But the anxiety of placing so much trust on so many people and feeling so absolutely without control for those six short hours, makes it wearing.

So when I finally slid back behind the wheel of my car, I didn’t resent the final hour of my journey home. I think perhaps that is why people seem so prone to road rage. Why even my sweet, bubbly friend Noreen cusses like a sailor behind the wheel. When that much loved and longed for feeling of control is revealed for an illusion, it is a bitter thing.

We American’s love our cars. “Land of the Free” etc. etc. “Manifest Destiny” and all of that.

If I really had that much control, I think I’d be more inclined to manifest chocolate cake.

October 17, 2007


My drawings need to express the nature of the space. I need a really killer section, in which the nature of the space is described and all the details worked out and working together to reinforce the message of the building. Section A-A is probably the correct slice necessary for this, but as drawn for the Phase II critique, it is lacking. It does not adequately describe the nature of the space I can visualize in my mind. I need to determine how the space and the details, specifically the column, wall, and truss/rafter system, can work together. I need to examine all the options and iterations and determine the best possible system.

[BUT….] My mind screams. And it doesn’t matter. All my ‘buts’ sound like objections; a knee jerk defensive response. BUT – I’ve ALREADY considered! I didn’t choose the form randomly. If it is not working – tell me it’s not working – tell me how it could work better – don’t just tell me to consider it because I’ve already done that.

I am so frustrated. The critique with the outside reviewers yesterday went well. I understood their points. I thought maybe I’m finally getting better in critique; maybe I’m finally open enough and mature enough. Now she asks questions I don’t understand. I have two options – I can say “I don’t understand” or I can try to answer. Saying “I don’t understand” only works if it doesn’t become a mantra. After the sixth repetition it starts to lose its effectiveness. If after the sixth time we still fail to communicate it is unlikely we will be able to. But I can’t just drop it. We’re not trying to decide what to have for dinner tonight. She’s my teacher and she’s trying to teach me something and if I’m not learning it, giving up is not an option.

So I try to answer, but from my answer it’s obvious I don’t understand the question. Then we’re back to the same thing. She gets frustrated because it’s not as obvious that I simply don’t understand and after a while seems more like I’m not listening or I don’t care – that I’ve already made up my mind and am just trying to defend my position.

And the more I try to explain why I chose this option and why this other option won’t work – the more that seems to be the case. I’m not trying to defend my choice. I’m trying to explain what I’ve already considered. When she tells me to consider the options after I present her with the option I’ve designed it sounds like my design isn’t working, but why isn’t it working?

I start out with curiosity, a kind of interested quizzical thought. Why is that? Why would she say that? What does she mean? But I’m not used to not getting it. I’m the one who always understands, who picks the new software in half the time, masters that new math equation on the first run through, catches the philosophical argument like an easy fly ball. When my curiosity isn’t satisfied right away, frustration rises. It’s worse now.

Lurking behind that curiosity is already the suspicion, the habitual fear, “I’m not going to get this, am I? This is gonna be another bad critique, isn’t it?” So I tell myself “Breath, Monica, stay open, don’t shut down. Choose to make this the good critique. And it ends with that screaming in my head.

[BUT…] “Is she right that I’m just being defensive? BUT I really DON’T understand! Do I not understand because I’m going in with a closed mind, because I’m not allowing myself to understand? Why would I sabotage myself like that? Am I so used to having the right answer that I allow myself to become this frustrated rather than admit I’m wrong? BUT I admit I’m wrong a lot. I work with that. I’ve gotten used to it. Haven’t I? Didn’t I just finish pointed out that I didn’t know how to handle the wall detail? Why didn’t she latch onto that, where I need help, instead of the column which I’ve already figured out? Have I really figured it out, or did she latch on to it because it’s not working? BUT she didn’t ever say it wasn’t working. She didn’t say why it wasn’t working or how it could be better. BUT the questions didn’t sound rhetorical, so was I supposed to have an answer?”

[BUT…] It doesn’t matter. “But” won’t help me move ahead. “But” doesn’t solve anything. BUT what else am I supposed to do? A friend has the tagline on his email "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -- Marcel Proust. I need new eyes.

I’ll look at it again tomorrow.

I See the Rain

The roses hang their heads, giving thanks for rain. The thunder rolls, a reminder you are small. I walk, jumping puddles. Socks don’t dry to quick as feet. I think of those I have not heard from lately. I am safe and warm in my long black raincoat. They should make raincoats in bright colors. The grey day is enough without the dark shadows moving through it. My bright blue scarf shows. Rain makes me think of other things, other days, places far away – of London and Oxford, the mountains and the rolling grasslands, the small towns with brick-front shops on main street where “progress” has seldom ventured.

Rain shows me things unseen. It makes me long for good friends and steaming mugs. It makes me dream of days to come and of days long gone. That is why they say rainy days are sad days. As we long for that which is not while trying to go about with that which is. Life does not stop for the rain. Businesses and schools do not close so the people can gather in the coffee shops and living rooms and share with each other their dreams and memories or catch up with old friends. People still hurry when all the time they feel the urge to slow, to wait, to watch the rain.

I think about the things unseen and wish I were elsewhere, but where would that be? For in truth, I love the rain. I love the rain for the things it shows me and the feelings it brings me and would be nowhere else if it meant to be without them. I love the rain for its softness and its ferocity. I love it for the life it brings and for the moment when my mind turns inward and I see myself washed clean; I see the world washed clean for just that moment before the sunlight returns to dazzle my eyes.

I see poetry in the rain.

October 16, 2007

Stuff (Intentional Living Update)

In the spirit of intentional living (and the frustration of my overcrowded little apartment – that 500 square feet was so spacious when I moved in!!) I have finally begun what I’m sure will be the long process of divesting myself of unnecessary stuff. I joined my local Freecycle group ( and offered two dressers, two ottomans, a later filing cabinet, and a mini fridge/freezer. In a separate offer I have begun clearing out my bookshelves starting with my two Time Life series. I also started boxing up other books which may go to my local used bookstore or Good Will.

Once these items are removed and I have some space to breath in, it will be time to tackle The Closet. Not my little clothes closet which I weeded through on a regular basis, but my big walk in closet (truly the saving grace in an apartment my size). I know I have all sorts of things which got stashed in there when I moved in and have not seen the light of day since. Downsizing from a 2500 square foot house to a one bedroom apartment was quite an adventure.

To be honest, I am actually acquiring some items as well. In two weeks my parents are going up to move my 84 year old grandmother into assisted living (long overdue). Grandma would apparently like me to have her china hutch. I don’t even remember what it looks like, but I said I would take it just to get it off her hands, and because it makes her feel good to be able to give things to her grandchildren. If I don’t like it or can’t use it, it’ll be freecycled as well. My parents have also donated smaller dresser a badly painted (red) tall thin bookcase which they no longer want (and probably never needed). Even with that I’m at a net loss (or free from depending how you look at it) of four pieces of furniture.

Then I shall drag out those plastic bins from under my bed and start going through my “project supplies” things I acquired during second year studio and never dared to throw away just in case I might need scraps of orange matteboard and brown chipboard, various lengths and thicknesses of wire, decorative papers, and a bazillion little pieces of basswood. Thankfully, the graduate studio professors do not seem to be as hung up on physical models as the undergraduate teachers are and are perfectly happy with all things digital. (A day I have long awaited!)

SO – that is the plan; now let’s see if I can follow through.

No Impact Man

No Impact Man is a blog I just found thanks to the Owl Monkey blog. I haven't explored it all yet, but it seems very cool and slightly intimidating. What do you mean no toilets?

I keep thinking to myself, I couldn't do that, or could I?

October 15, 2007

Dharmic Architecture

My mind has not been on the Dharma lately. Or so it seems. I have not been reading or meditating. The latest issue of The Shambhala Sun is still unopened in its plastic. I have not been attending sangha gatherings. I find my writings rambling, wandering on about this and that, but not in their usual way. I have no new philosophic insights into emptiness or the nature of mind to share, just the daily business of living.

Yet I feel that my practice is very rich at the moment, full of opportunities and learning. I am weaving together the threads of my life into a holistic whole which seems to give me greater strength. I am gaining an experiential understanding of the value of diligence and Right Effort. Despite all I have to do, I remain grounded in patience and compassion, and that (for the most part) prevents me from feeling overwhelmed (for most of the time).

My work has seen principles put into practice and applied at every opportunity. When I say “my work” I do not refer to the jobs for which I get paid, but my architectural design, that which I will make my life’s work. Always I have been interested in what buildings say. To me, buildings have always had a kind of life and presence of their own, and, like the people who build them, they always seek to communicate. When I design, it is with this in mind and what I want my buildings to say is both Dharmic and universal.

My current design works with interdependence and how that might be conveyed. Venturi would just post a sign with four foot tall letters stating “ALL THINGS ARE INTERDEPENDENT” on the outside of a Wal-Mart style box and call it good. I prefer the poetics of form and function to do my work for me, conveying the message no less loudly, but so much more effectively. I seek a building which demonstrates interdependence through the manner in which it functions in relation to the environment it occupies and the user it shelters.

While I struggle with this purpose in design studio, I seek ways to understand it in my architecture theory class, where I am writing my term paper on Architectural Communication. The theories are already there, but they have gathered dust since they were penned in the 1960’s and 1970’s when post-modern architects resorted to kiche and pastiche to convey meaning (slapping Doric columns on a façade to say “government” and other such cultural references).

I am more interested in how a building can communicate universally. Would a non-Buddhist, non-Westerner understand the message? Maybe. They might see how the water is collected and channeled to promote the growth of vegetables and flowers while all around has turned gold in the hot, dry climate of a Colorado summer. They might see how the rising rammed earth walls carry the solidity of the granite ridges ringing the valley and shelter the occupants from the northwest wind of a Colorado winter. They might see how the interior columns rise and branch like the trees from which they came, and how all of this comes together to make a warm, inviting, sheltering, and homey. They might.

But would they say to themselves “Ah ha! All things are interdependent!”? Probably not, but the exact words are no so important as the feeling itself.

Sometimes I see buildings which seem sad, almost depressed and I think that perhaps they had something to say once and never did get the chance. The designer didn’t quite express it right, or the budget got cut during construction. I see regret in those buildings. Sometimes I see buildings without souls, which never had anything to say in the first place, like big box stores and bad 1970’s apartment blocks. But often enough to give me hope, I see buildings which are happy, shouting out their message, or standing with quiet dignity because they know they don’t have to shout to be heard. These are well designed buildings. If you asked me what the message was, I might not be able to say exactly, for words do not speak the same language as brick, wood, space, and light. But I would know there was one and I would know what it was.

So now I go into my mid-semester critique to find out if my buildings is saying what I hope it is. I know that my buildings will always speak (if I built them well) and I know that the message will forever be informed my those things I value most – by the Dharma.

When a Dharmic Building speaks, does it say nothing?

October 13, 2007

Updates - Intentional Living & More

The other day as I returned home, my bicycle wheels crunching through the gravel parking lot behind my building, I spied a bunny by the bicycle rack. It was only of those tiny, just barely out of the nest bunnies. The ones you can hold in the palm of your had and still have room for two more. Needless to say my heart melted like mush.

"This is why I don't eat meat," I thought to myself. "All meat is cute when it's a baby."

Since returning to Nebraska I have very successfully returned to my vegetarian habits. I was worried about that a bit, but it doesn't seem to have been a problem. I have also discovered a successful strategy for reigning myself in at the store. Rather than trying to do arithmatic in my head and limit the cost of my purchases, I have instead limited their number. No more than ten things seems to ensure I consistenly come in under budget. I still eat out a couple times a week, just picking up something to go at the Union or snack shop, but that seems unavoidable.

I switched from the standard monthly cell phone to a pay as you go phone, which seems to be working out quite well. All of my other bills debit automatically from my checking account and I wrote my check for the home owner's association dues for the entire semester in August. All in all, I find myself much less stressed about money, despite the fact that I don't have any. I don't have to worry about trying to make choices anymore, because I've effectively eliminated them all.

The first major review for the Shambhala Kitchen & Dining Hall project is on Monday. I am satisfied with the progress of my design, though I know their are many more details to work out, they are just that - details. They are integral to the successful expression of my goals, but I feel that I am unlikely to be forced back to a square one redesign like some of my classmates already have been (more than once, in some cases). I may loose some sleep this weekend completing the necessary production work, but the major design decisions are well in hand. I'll post the images on my Castles in the Sky blog next week.

We did a test run of my ACSA presentation on Friday, before the actuall conference next weekend. Only a few minutes long and a couple of things to fix. I was thrilled that Sandi, my prior boss, came and glad to have her feedback. She treated me to lunch after. She has decided that we "mentor each other in the spaces between our own realities." I like that. (Sandi is a PhD in Human Sciences, speciallizing in leadership and personality.)

Despite the fact that I whine about being so busy, I feel very fulfilled. I've always shaken my head at those work-aholic busy bodies. Now I think I'm becoming one.

It's not so bad.

October 04, 2007

Antidote of Compassion

In Buddhism we often speak of afflictions and antidotes. Afflictions are harmful emotions, negative mental states, and their affiliated damaging actions. Antidotes are the corresponding mental states which can help to first prevent damaging actions and then help us deal with strong emotions in a constructive manner. Anger is an affliction whose antidote is patience. It seems compassion is the antidote for an affliction I shall name downtrodden-ism.

Yesterday I was feeling downtrodden, demoralized, and depressed by my own unmanageable life and by my own neurotic tendency to make it unmanageable. Then I read In Limine and was reminded “[Shantideva] urges us to see the problems and challenges before us not as problems of how to find or preserve a good for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, but rather how to heal the entirety of problem, a perspective that cares as deeply for those causing us pain as for those feeling the pain, that values one’s own pain neither less nor more than any other’s.”

For whatever reason, I felt immediately better. And, of course, I giggled, not with my normal sardonic amusement but in lighthearted joy. After all, what could be better when you are feeling overwhelmed by your own life than a reminder that you once made a vow to save all sentient beings, in between term papers and team projects.

In any case, it sure brought about a shift in perspective. It raised my view from the dusty path I was just barely plodding along to the majestic mountains I was aiming for in the distance. My pace immediately improved.

A few weeks ago, when I was feeling bad, I lay alone in pain. At first I sought only to distract myself, then I remembered the teachings. I generated loving kindness for all those people affected by physical pain and illness, old age and infirmity. I felt immediately better. My mind state shifted until I was better able to bear my pain and in a few moments the pain itself began to subside (though that may be attributable to the aspirin).

So I remember Shantideva’s instructions in The Way of the Bodhisattva and I will strive, “So long as space endures/As long as there are beings to be found/May I continue likewise to remain/To drive away the sorrows of the world.”

October 03, 2007

Busy Lazy

So, life is busy, always busy. And Monica is a masochist. I admitted it long ago. I usually restrain myself to my own personal brand of mental masochism: taking the most difficult classes, hardest majors, most complex subjects. Of course, when I have taken it into the physical realm, such as with fencing and now riding, it also tends to be the most difficult thing I can find for myself, though rarely actually painful. (Except in the case of Pilates, which I love!) And when it comes to my schedule, I invariably manage to make it hard on myself no matter what intentions I start out the semester with.

Thirteen credit hours turns into sixteen. One job into three. A student organization officer slot and a single committee spot just weren’t enough to neglect so I added a seat in the student senate. Special projects bloom all over: the presentation for the conference in Ontario, ideas for starting a Buddhist Campus Coalition, studying Pema Chodron’s teachings on The Way of The Bodhisattva in No Time To Loose, working on that youth leadership paper. The dishes and the laundry and the chores pile up, but not so deep as to be unmanageable. Yet.

But what lurks behind all that purposeful over-scheduling is a fear, a nagging self-doubt, and long seated recrimination. Really, I’m just lazy, and I know it. If I don’t make commitments, I’ll just while away my time reading science fiction novels and watching television. I have to have the commitments to other people, because I’m perfectly capable of breaking commitments to myself. This is the “busy lazy” that Buddhist teachers speak about. I am so guilty of it, but the secret is that I view it as the lesser of two evils, the greater being pure laziness – that lay on the couch all day, eat potato chips, ramen, and cereal, and don’t leave the house, don’t do chores, just don’t do. The way it is so easy to lose myself in a series of novels or a new TV show on DVD, where I can literally spend a week in a fantasy world, sometimes it appalls me. The way I revel in the emotional highs and lows of fictional characters, the suffering and sacrifice and bravery, draws me into almost any story, even the half lame ones. So I stay busy.

In Sakyong Mipham’s book Turning the Mind into an Ally, the two chapters which resonated with me the most were on Laziness and Boredome. I understand that one of the Eightfold Path is Right Diligence/Effort. I seek that in this hectic schedule which I set up for myself, even as I bemoan never getting home before the sun sets and stocking up on Slim Fast because I know I simply won’t have time to eat during the week.

It is a strange compulsion and with each passing semester, each attempt to make it better, I think it gets just a little bit worse. I become busier, even when opportunities abound to do otherwise. I didn’t have to take that seat in the student government (but it had never come available before and may not again). I didn’t have to pick up that extra class (but the Planning Department wanted me to use the fellowship they were so kind enough to award me). If I hadn’t, I might not have needed the third job I’m not seeking (but all the options at least sound interesting). I don’t have to work on the youth leadership paper now (but Sandi has time this semester and it would be so cool to get it published). I don’t have to… (but…).

Good think I love irony and cynical humor, for I shall never cease to be amused with myself.

September 25, 2007

Pain In The Ass

My restful class took on a painful new color this week. Last week I missed the first of our actual riding lessons. I didn’t worry. I even managed to crib a ride from some folks from the Morgan Horse Association who were gathering at the same state park as our family reunion over the weekend. We started our lunge line work, my partner, Joey, on the ground and me riding skinny old Valor (a lazy, but good creature, scrawny but still strong). Walking was no trouble. Standing in the saddle while walking felt easy and natural. Then we clucked to our horses to trot.

“Monica! No posting!”

What?!?!? I’ve been practicing my riding all summer, and bending the ears of anyone who will listen with how I am learning to post (lifting out of the saddle every other step to the rhythm of the horse) and canter. What am I supposed to do if not post?

Apparently, in western riding the goal is to never let your ass leave the saddle. Posting is only for English style riding. Okay…so how do you keep your ass in the saddle? Pelvis rolled back, flex in your hips and ankles, and push down with your heels. Not so easy as it sounds. I just couldn’t do it and as a result got the hell slammed out of me. I’m sure Valor wasn’t having any fun either.

I couldn’t get my left heel down. It just didn’t feel like it was supporting any weight at all, though I could feel it on my right side. The jarring motion created pain in my ribcage and made it very hard to breathe. “Sit back, heels down. Sit back, heels down,” became my mantra. Despite that, when it was obvious I wasn’t doing so well, our instructor had Jamie, the TA, work with me for not only my allotted half of the two hour period, but the second half (when I was supposed to be on the ground and my partner on the horse) as well.

Finally towards the end of those two hours, Jamie would call out “There! You’re getting it.” I’ll admit I was improving, but “getting it” I was not. If this was “it” why did I still hurt so much? Why would anyone in their right mind NOT post? Jamie told me I should be using my calves and feel the burn and strain in them. No matter how I flexed my left ankle and pushed my heel down, I didn’t feel anything in that leg. Today my hips, back, shoulders, and the outside of my right calf are sore, but only just a little. I don’t feel like I was using my legs at all.

It would be easy to blame it on five years of fencing, where my right leg was my lead leg, my power, supporting almost all my weight, and my left was just for balance and impulsion. Maybe that has something to do with it, but I don’t think that is the whole story. I understand what I’m supposed to do. I just can’t seem to DO it. When I tried to relax my torso enough so I could breath, calling on my calm abiding, I would relax everything and my foot would come right out of the stirrup.

Valor is lazy, and he doesn’t like being swatted with the rope. He would lope, prance, and hope a little. “Way not to panic,” Jamie told me when he tried to take off once. Panic never even entered my mind. I felt unbalanced quite a lot (especially since we aren’t allowed to use our hands either) but I never actually thought I would fall off and I was never afraid. Just frustrated to the point of tears. But I would suck it up and breath and then cluck at the horse to go again.

I’m still looking forward to class tomorrow and trying not to grit my teeth at the same time.

September 24, 2007

Letting Go of Shambhala

Written September 20, 2007, while at SMC:

Familiar – that was how it felt to board the train at the sanitary little train station in downtown Lincoln. The sun painted the flatlands of eastern Colorado gold, until the gleaming towers of Denver appeared in the distance. I had come for a class trip, but without my class. I had the opportunity to ride in the University van with the others, but chose to pay the extra to travel alone. I needed to close the loop, fulfill the cycle, catharsis.

I wandered downtown Denver that day as I waited for my classmates to arrive. In the Denver Art Museum, I found an installation with several cards. I chose “happy.” On the back was the quote “I wasn’t born here on the High Plains. I’m here because, even as a child, I knew I had to come home.” – rancher Gaydell Collier, 1997. I kept that one. I wasn’t born in the foothills of the Rockies, I wasn’t born a Dharma brat, but I did come home.

We’ve been here for a day. It feels more like home than eastern Nebraska ever has. Yet…

I cannot continue planning my life around the next trip to Shambhala. I love it here. I feel home here. I can acknowledge that, know that, revel in the glory of it, but I need not lament. I need not lament its loss when I am elsewhere. If nirvana is now, that now includes the here. Nirvana is here. Wherever here is – Lincoln, Omaha, Denver, Fort Collins, Shambhala Mountain Center, Chicago, or places I’ve never been. Nirvana is there, too.

In a few short handfuls of hours we’ll be gone from here, headed east again. My class will drop me off in the small town of Kimball, Nebraska, where my father is coming to take me north to a family reunion at Fort Robinson in the northern Nebraska panhandle. It is the Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills are the one other place where I have felt the resonance of home. The small town of Valentine where my father grew up and I was shipped off to spend weeks with my grandparents during the summers is much as I remember it from those days. In the rolling dunes by Merritt Reservoir, I would walk over the low hills until the highway, the trees, the cabins, the lake all disappeared. I could believe a person lost in those hills could die of thirst, never knowing a lake lay a hundred feet beyond the next rise. The thought never frightened me. Someday I would like to bring Shambhala there, found a true Windhorse Center.

In the meantime, those dreams give way to now. A now I am seeing a bit more clearly. Seeing love which is really attachment, joy which turns to loss, reverence which is idealizing, and regret which could be turned to excitement.

I can go home and know Shambhala will be here when I return. I can go home without needing to know when I will return. Because I have come full circle and I’m none the worse for wear. I can choose to go through the pain of loss every time I leave, or the joy of simply knowing I can return.

I can go home knowing, letting go is not loosing.

September 09, 2007

Lonley in Nirvana

As the sun set yesterday, I paced back and forth in the small confines of my apartment. I cleaned a little, trailed the shoestring for my cat, looked at the Netflix envelope unopened on my desk, and finally flopped down onto my bed and stared at the ceiling fan whirling overhead until my eyes hurt. An uncomfortable malaise gripped me. I was antsy, skittish, annoyed, and bored. I realized then, I had gone an entire day without speaking to anyone.

Oh, I said hello to the clerk at the grocery store, nodded to a few passersby on the street, and sent a couple of emails in the morning, but I hadn’t had any significant interaction with anyone for the entire day. And what of the entire prior week? The week I had spent running hither and yon like my cat with that shoestring?

I spoke to my professors and classmates, discussing architectural theory, projects, and homework. I spoke to the ladies in the Art Department office as I came in to fetch the gallery key. I spoke to the librarians about working a few hours in the architecture library, and to a very funny postman who helped me fill out the paperwork for my passport.

I don’t know how it is in other places, but here in Nebraska “How are you?” is the common greeting. The requisite response is “Fine, yourself?” This exchange could take all of two seconds as you pass someone on the street or in the hall. It is really no more than an exchange of hello’s. I have been asked that several times in the past week. I don’t think it was ever intended as an honest question. I was never compelled to provide an honest answer. If I had been, I probably would have replied differently.

As I lay fully clothed in my bed last night and watched the ceiling fan spin, I had to admit to myself: I’m lonely. What’s worse, spending Saturday night in bed alone, or going out alone? Yet, what’s so bad about either? Nothing really. I now lean in to this feeling, as I’ve been taught to do. How does it feel? Where? What is the texture, taste, sound of this thing? What constitutes this tightness in my gut? When I have the sense of it, when I feel I have leaned in enough, I start to think again.

Is this just a reaction to leaving Shambhala and returning home? No, I don’t think so. I remember this feeling. It has been growing for over a year now. This is how I felt last winter. Being in Shambhala only put it on hold for a while. This is the feeling of a twenty-seven year old woman who’s never had a significant long-term relationship in her life.

That’s not something easy to admit, or pleasant to dwell on. It’s not territory I usually let my mind wander in to. I was always resolved not to let the search for a partner, for marriage and children, define my life. I was never one of those girls who bounced straight from one boyfriend to another. I always sort of looked down on those girls. And so long as I was still a girl myself, that way okay. I haven’t thought of myself as a girl for several years now.

I still hold the same feelings, the same convictions. I have a hard time picturing myself married. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to have children of my own. I am still unconvinced of the so called “power” or romantic love. But I am not looking for any of that.

I want closeness, intimacy, support, and yes, love. I don’t want someone who will build me up, put me on a pedestal, or look at me through rose colored glasses. I want someone who will know me, truly know me. I’ve wanted that for a long time.

But then I would tell myself to stop whining about it. Stop feeling sorry for myself. And what would I do with a man, if I had one? Probably drive him crazy with my own damned need for independence, control, and space. Resent him for the demands he might place on me, for any ideas he might have about “needing” me, for cramping my style. Or would I?

Things changed this summer. A friend helped me realize how hard I can be on myself sometimes, how I cover it up with a blasé attitude, a shrug, and a smile. I tell myself I’m being compassionate by not inflicting my negative emotions on others. I remind myself “nirvana is now,” and go about my day telling myself that if I can just believe enough, pretend enough, eventually it will become natural. Someday, I might actually start to see it. In the meantime…

I also learned this summer that I might not mind those so called “demands.” I’m not a girl anymore. I might just have finally grown out of that tom-boyish streak of stubbornness, that “I’m not going to do it because someone else wants me to.” Regardless of what I wanted, of course.

It’s so ridiculous. Sometimes I want to laugh. This college campus is filled with couples and they make it look so effortless, although I’m sure it’s not. If “Coupling 101” were a class, I think I’d have better luck passing graduate level astrophysics. *sigh*

For the first time, I’m looking myself square in the face.

PS – I was tempted to end with “And Damn! I’m hot!” but I’ve begun to discover what I hide behind flippancy, even from myself.

September 07, 2007

Service Learning

This is the paper I will be presenting at the Fall Central Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. I get to go to Canada!

Wish me luck!

September 06, 2007

My Mala

On Tuesday, I walked the winding mile through downtown to my studio in Old City Hall. I passed a priest outside the state capitol. I was thinking of my mala, which I have worn every day for over a year now. The easiest way to explain them to non-Buddhists is to call them "prayer beads." I don't pray. I don't count mantras or prostrations or anything for which the mala is classically used. I simply wear it to remind myself of the Dharma, a reminder to be mindfull. And, yes, it is a badge, an advertisement of my practice. If other Buddhists, few and far between here, should pass me by, I would like to know. It has never happened. The only people who have asked me about it are those I know well who want to know "Why do you where that same necklace every day?"

The priest I passed had his head bowed over a book, which looked suspiciously like the Bible, though I could not read the spine. He did not look at me, nor any other person he passed. I suspect had Jesus Christ himself with all twelve apostles walked by, the man would not have noticed. And if all the buddhas and bodhisattvas and tathagathas suddenly opened the clouds and peered down at me, would I? I was so wrapped up in thinking about my mala and its message of mindfulness, it took the unlikely sight of a preist similarly lost in thought to bring me to. The irony does not escape me.

I doubt I shall see him again. The second week of class is almost past. I have my bicycle back and shall no longer be walking to school. The surreal feeling has snuck up on me now and then, showing me the manufactured quality of this life, but not so strongly as it often does. Sometimes I feel like an alien in a new land, or a dream I should remember, like a past life. Oh, I'm making too much of it, surely. It is just a small voice whispering in the back of my head as I dash from class to class.

I will say, I am in much better shape since my summer adventure. I flew by two other cyclists on 14th Street today, something I rarely do, and hit all the lights just right between K and Q, no easy feat. I was hardly winded after, but I'm still tired and sore. I think I shall be in even better shape by the end of the semester. My arms ache from grooming my horse yesterday in equitation class. Who knew horses hooves were that heavy? They gave me Red, a tall thoughtful creature. It took me two tries to throw the saddle onto his back, and much longer to hold his hooves up for cleaning. Then eighty-two steps up and down to my studio several times a day, attending classes in the building of a thousand stairs (Arch Hall), and the many trips up and down to take out the recycling from Richards Hall every Friday, all more than enough to give me legs like tree trunks.

Then I'm late, after having run this errand or that in between, and I take the steps two at a time until I really can't breath, but keep going anyway. Then it strikes me, that feeling of being on the other side of a television screen watching the show that is my life. I think I have lousy writers, sometimes.

I can't seem to cook enough. I can never pack enough food for all day on Tuesday and Thursday, my long days, and end up buying something in between. I can never decide where I'm going. Do I need to stop at studio this morning? Or can I go straight to class? Wait! Studio isn't in Arch Hall this year, turn around. What did I forget when I left the house this morning? I have a thousand errands to run and little time to squeeze them in, which leaves me standing on the street turning this way and that like an idiot, indecisive. Of one thing I'm too sure. I've had too long to think about this design project, all summer, and when asked "why don't you try this?" I think I already have the perfect answer. I'm too married to my own ideas and that is going to make studio hard this year. I haven't sat since I returned. I think I should. I think I am going to need to.

I think I am going to need to remember the lesson of my mala more than ever.

August 30, 2007

Practicing Peace - Shenpa

Over the course of our lives, we have spend many years learning how to defend ourselves. Sometimes, we do so in self-defense classes, with instructors and students. We learn Karate, defensive driving, even “the gentle art of verbal self defense.” We place passwords on our computers, use firewalls and anti-virus software. We lock our doors and windows and, for women at least, we don’t walk alone at night. But the depth to which defend ourselves is much greater than this and much more subtle.

When we see something or someone we don’t like, understand, or want to deal with, we withdraw from our direct experience. We pull into ourselves, our own little version of reality, where we feel safe. We are no longer fully present. In the present moment there is groundlessness, which is frightful, and we pull away from that and build strong walls around “our world.”

It is easy to pull away, to pull back into ourselves, we have done it a million times before. It is a well work path. But what causes us to do so? What become hooked by this thing or that thing, and then we start reeling in, building up, or constructing our reality. That initial quality, that feeling of being hooked by something, that is shenpa.

Shenpa is not the situation. It is not the person or thing which triggers our building of walls. Shenpa is the quality of being hooked. I become immediately angry when I hear the word ‘cunt.’ I become immediately interested when I hear the word ‘dualistic.’ Shenpa is the charge behind the words, not the words themselves. It is behind the emotions which are spurred by the words, be they anger, annoyance, interest, or curiosity.

When shenpa is behind certain words it dehumanizes the object of those words. Over the centuries many, many words have been used to dehumanize various groups of people. “Oh, she’s only a woman,” as though ‘woman’ were somehow something less than the speaker, a human person, therefore less than human. This dehumanization is what allows violence to be done. If we see the other person to be the same as ourselves, harming them becomes as unthinkable as harming ourselves.

Shenpa is the propensity to be bothered. It is a seed already sown. It has the quality of being difficult to let go of. Shenpa can be both aversion and desire. It clouds our wisdom. Not learning a lesson – that is shenpa.

Shenpa is the spark which lights the candle. We cannot stop the spark. The candle, which can become a raging bonfire, is fed by the storyline we have in our minds. All the history and “baggage” we carry with us about a certain topic, object, person, or place. When someone says ‘dentist’ we may feel fear which comes from our association with have between the dentist and pain. We have a narrative in our head about ‘dentist;’ what happened the last time we went there, what happened to our friends and relatives, the reputation dentists have in popular culture, etc. No imagine, you didn’t have any of that, or, if you did, you did listen to it. That is not feeding the ember of shenpa.

Our natural intelligence sees the storyline for what it is. It has an undertow which can pull you away in an effort to feel better, but our intelligence has been down that road before. We know exactly where it leads. When we recognize that there will be consequences of following that path, we begin to lessen the pull. We can rouse lungta, or Windhorse, and use this energy to stay fully open and present. It is hard to detox from our habits, and painful, but it is possible.

Pema prescribes the practice of transmuting suffering into wisdom. First, Acknowledge that you are hooked. This sows the seeds of nonaggression because you see that nothing worthwhile will follow if you act on your shenpa. Second, Pause for one to three conscious breaths. Third, Lean In to the feeling. Don’t feed the story line, just notice what it is be hooked. Feel it within your body, taste your emotions, accept that feeling with loving kindness, maitri, feel the energy and question it, and know that it is workable. Finally, Go On with your day. Disown that feeling. You don’t have to reject that energy, but you can acknowledge you don’t have to feel it or follow it.

Start small. “Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to work with great adversity.” – Shantideva Try it in your life and practice it. Understand it won’t completely work right away. Don’t reject your own energy. We are all basically good and so is the energy of our emotions and feelings.

”Nothing has to be rejected except ignorance.” – Pema Chodron.