Fan the embers

Yesterday I woke, and the world felt flattened out. The white pancake sky dropped beautiful snowflakes, but they were not for me. I felt the cool sheet beside me, the patch of bed our cat Andy used to warm with his furry bulk, kneading magnificently, then laying close beside me purring like a motor.

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Andy Carpenter, June 10, 2008-January 2, 2019

Andy died on January 2nd, and we feel his absence. This morning, everything seemed dark and pointless. The fire inside me was out, just cold ashes. I missed Andy, but it was more than that. It was Australia, Iran, death, war, suffering, the climate crisis.

So, I did what needs to be done. Made coffee. Meditated. Got dressed. Breakfast. I forced myself to walk to the store for some groceries. On the trail through the woods, I didn’t stop to visit my tree, though I waved. I didn’t feel interested in life, didn’t feel my usual excitement about art, nature, friends, poetry.

I should be happy, I thought to myself: I have all of this time, and I don’t have to work until July.  What a gift! But I couldn’t conjure up any energy, even though I had slept well. The art/sewing project was a stupid waste of time, and nothing seemed meaningful. I walked briskly, passing dogs cavorting in the snow while their owners chatted. I followed the flowing brown river.

At the store, I chose my items and lined up. The cashier was kind and friendly. She told me she was thinking of making grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch, perfect comfort food for the cold day. I smiled. I drank a cup of Christmas blend from the in-store Starbucks, gazing out of the window at the white sky.

IMG_0555Two men–store employees–sat across from me at separate tables. Each ate his lunch with his cell phone in front of him, scrolling busily as he wolfed down his food. Michael and I share a silly fantasy: we imagine that all of the folks who study their phones in public places are actually receiving instructions from their Masters about what to do next. Or perhaps from one Master. I laughed to myself about this and wished the two guys would put away their phones and have lunch together. Resist the Master!

And all of a sudden, I started to get interested in life again. I had a couple of ideas for “loss,” the next pennant in the series. I left the store and walked quickly home, my backpack bouncing as I strode along the snowy trail.

Was it the brisk walk in the cold, the exercise? Or the friendly interchange with the clerk? Was it caffeine? Humour? Or perhaps the combination of getting out for a walk, being among people, and consuming a psychoactive drug? In any case, I came home, cleaned house, then worked on my project. There is always a spark deep down inside. Sometimes I need to fan the embers.

I finished the “Gain” pennant. Rainer Reindeer has made many gains in his life. He smiles smugly, proud of those gains. He lives surrounded by his wealth, cossetted by silk and sequins, beads and feathers. He keeps himself and his gains tightly zippered away from the world, trying to secure them against loss, but all is transitory, Rainer. Loss, you will see, is inevitable. . .

 

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Eight Worldly Winds Project

 “We take what is transitory – money, fame, power, relationship – to be real and base our lives on achieving what cannot last – happiness, wealth, fame, and respect. When we base life on what can be taken from us, we give power over our lives to anyone who can take it away. We become dependent on others and on society for a sense of well-being.”

Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life, 92

The first time I came across Buddhism’s concept of the eight worldly winds (also called worldly concerns or dharmas), I was startled by its simple truth. The eight worldly winds come in four opposing pairs: gain vs. loss; happiness vs. suffering; praise vs. blame; and good reputation vs. bad reputation.[1] Buddhism teaches that our endless oscillation between these coupled states keeps us tossing in the storm of samsara. I immediately recognized myself: I live my life hoping for and clinging to the “positive” states of gain, happiness, praise, and good reputation while fearing and avoiding their “negative” counterparts: loss, suffering, blame, and bad reputation. The eight worldly winds give us a bird’s eye view of human suffering—we are flags tossed helplessly by those winds, whipping from elation to despair, trying desperately to stay on the left side of the flagpole (gain/happiness/praise/good reputation). Trying to make those impermanent states last.

The antidote to the eight winds is not to rise above the weather like the bird that has the view, but rather to identify with the still center, the flagpole. Remain equanimous. Feel and accept sadness, pain, and loss—don’t rush it or try to flee from under its dark shadow. Sit there until the shadow passes. And when delight and happiness come, embrace those too, revel in them, but know they are impermanent. Gain feels good, but loss is inevitable, so why expect continuous gain? You may pride yourself on your good reputation, but you have no control over what people say about you. Good can turn to bad as quickly as the wind changes direction. Praise and approval feed you, but again, praise will evaporate and you’ll feel blamed and shamed for something soon. These teachings make visceral sense to me; I feel the truth of them in my bones. The pivot point of hope/fear drives our responses. When we live in hope for the “good” stuff and in fear for the “bad” stuff, we are caught blindly in samsara, and we do not experience life as it is.

I have come back to this teaching so often that I decided a few months ago to start a sewing project based on the eight worldly winds. By sewing the concept I might drive it even more deeply into my consciousness; by exploring what these states would look and feel like if they were fabric flags, I might find out more about myself while sharing this profound teaching with others.

I also decided I would document the project as it progresses, which feels risky to me. But another teaching (this one specifically from Shambhala—Chögyam Trungpa’s Sacred Path of the Warrior), is that is we really want to experience all the rawness and intensity of life, we must emerge from our cocoons, the thick ego-wrappings of habituated behaviour that keep us muffled and safe. To document a project-in-progress feels vulnerable—what if I fail? (loss/suffering). What if nobody is interested? (insignificance/bad reputation). What if people think it’s stupid? (blame/bad rep). And then there is the other concern—what if revealing artistic ideas before they are fully hatched drains them of their energy? (suffering/loss). Those questions don’t need answers. Let me simply begin.

In brief, I decided to sew eight pennants or vertical flags representing the eight winds. First, I thought I’d do four with front and back representing the pairs. That seemed to truly show their oppositional nature, but if I ever want to display the pennants, viewers would have to walk around them and may not be practical, depending on the exhibit space. I struggled a bit over the size of the pennants and the design. I did a mock-up of good reputation, but decided it was too small and I’d like the words to be consistently displayed horizontally across the top of each pennant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the eight finished pennants strung up on a clothesline with wooden clothes pegs, four pairs tossing in the breeze from an electric fan nearby.

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Prototype

I had to choose the translations of the word pairs that worked for me—particularly happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain. Happiness and suffering seem more capacious than pleasure/pain, so I’ll go with those. And as for good reputation/ bad reputation, translators seem to prefer words like fame/disgrace or fame/insignificance, but while insignificance is ubiquitous, fame is not widely applicable. How many of us experience fame? Good and bad rep are states we all struggle with.

I made a lot of sketches and a plan. We’ll see how it goes. I am going to begin with gain because I have so many ideas about it. I’ll post along the way. Mostly my inner critic keeps poking me saying, but is this meaningful work? Does this matter? Well, it matters to me. So, I choose to ignore her.

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Doodling and planning

If you are interested in knowing more about the eight worldly winds, I’ve provided links to three good sources: the first is a brief description of the concerns by Judy Lief; the second is a series of videos by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo; and the third is a compilation of quotations on the worldly concerns by Pema Chodron (go to page 40-41):

https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-eight-worldly-concerns/

https://tricycle.org/dharmatalks/eight-worldly-concerns/

https://pemachodronfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Essential-Pema-Study-Guide.pdf   (pages 40-41)

[1] The source is verse 29 of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.  There are various translations of the pairs from their original: a variation of happiness/suffering is pleasure/pain and variations on good reputation/ bad reputation are fame/insignificance, ill-repute, censure, or disgrace.