Thursday, January 29, 2015

Being Fully Human - Kait's Mixtape

Sarah Bareilles, 'Brave'
Apparently Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala and one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West, coined the phrase: being fully human. 

As a great lover of Pema Chodron, a student of Chogyam Trungpa, this phrase has come up repeatedly as I study the dharma by listening to her talks and reading her books. In contemplation I’ve come to have a greater idea of what this phrase is pointing at. 

Being fully human isn’t to say that right now we are inhuman. Rather, it’s saying that most of the time we are resistant to our experience. Most of the time we are not present. We would prefer to be more comfortable or for life to be easier. We would rather that nothing ‘bad’ ever happened to us and everything ‘good’ came our way. 

This seems totally sensible of course. Who wants to have bad things happen and who wouldn’t want to have good things happen? 

But life doesn’t work that way. It isn’t fair and duality is a concept not grounded in reality. 

The phrase ‘being fully human’ is an invitation for us to be fully alive. To be fully alive is to embrace what actually is, not what we perceive to be, hope to be or wish could be. 

This means many things to me as a practitioner but isn’t specific to Buddhism. As human beings we will experience illness, old age, and death. These things are inevitable. 

To be fully alive is to accept the facts of life, so to speak, which means accepting that life isn’t always comfortable nor easy. But it also means accepting that discomfort and difficulties are not a punishment. These things don’t mean we’ve done something ‘wrong’. They don’t mean anything. They just are. 

To be fully human is a process of learning how to embrace this essential fact. 

I want to ground this with an example, and this is why I’ve chosen to illustrate these particular lyrics. 

We all want to be accepted and loved. It’s human nature. We’re pack animals. Psychological studies have proven that belonging is a need, not a want. 

In my own pursuit to belong I have often contorted myself to fit the expectations of others. I’ve cared and speculated way too much about what other people think.

This has resulted in me holding back. I’ll not say something out of fear that someone might disagree with it because if they disagree then they might not like me. The prospect of not being liked was so terrifying that I’ve lost my voice in any number of situations. In losing my voice, my ability to speak and share freely, I have lost the chance to be fully present. I’ve not shown up for myself because I was so worried about what other people might think. 

Learning to let go of this is a process and one I’ll be working with my whole life. But I’ve begun to see how often I base my actions on what I perceive the expectations of others to be. It’s not even based on proof! 

My choice to remain voiceless has been rooted in an idea of how I think people will react. Sometimes this is based on experience. We get conditioned by our experiences and most people don’t like conflict so we do go out of our way to avoid it. 

Sometimes this is wise but sometimes it can be damaging. It can mean we are less honest about who we are in the world. It can mean we don’t stand up for ourselves. 

The process of letting go of this idea has been interesting. I’m learning many things like: 
  • It’s possible to have an opinion and not be threatened by the opinions of others. 
  • Other people are allowed to be offended or upset or simply disagree with something I say and that’s not my responsibility. 
  • Showing up for yourself by speaking out takes a lot of bravery. 
  • Speaking out wisely takes a lot of practice. 

I’m not saying we should speak thoughtlessly or out of turn. I’m not advocating rudeness or brutal honesty. All of this must be practiced with kindness and clear seeing of what serves in any given situation and what doesn’t. But I am saying that we should experiment.

Rather than shut down or suppress our thoughts and opinions we could voice them skilfully. This allows us to hear the thoughts and opinions of others more clearly and keeps us open and flexible. It reminds us that everyone wants to be seen. 

Being fully human is about being who you are. Not who you think you should be or who you think other people want you to be. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Shared Experience - Contemplation

My teacher, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, loves to share the store of Gotami and the mustard seed. The story goes (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Gotami had an infant son who became very ill and died. She carried her son to the Buddha and begged him to bring her child back to life. 

“I can bring your child back,” he said, “But I need something in order to do so.” 

“Anything,” she said. 

“You must bring me a handful of mustard seed from any household in the village where no one has ever died.” 

Gotami said she would and set off on her task. She went to every house throughout the entire village but of course, there was not a single household to be found who had not experienced the loss of someone. 

She recognized that she was not alone in her grief. She realised, as painful as the death of her child was, there was no one else who hadn’t also felt the suffering of loss. 

As Elizabeth explains it, Gotami’s experience shifted from ‘I am suffering’ to ‘There is suffering’. 

This teaching resonates strongly with me and is one I apply often in my life. I grasped this before I’d heard Elizabeth’s teaching on it but didn’t have such an eloquent way of expressing it. She put into words what I understood: that my suffering - intense anxiety, long periods of depression, grief at the loss of anyone - didn’t make me special. 

Doing Tonglen & Metta (loving-kindness) meditation helped me to develop ways of practicing that allowed me to open up into the shared experience of being human. Life is painful sometimes and that the painful things we experience do not separate us from others but actually help us to see and understand how we are all connected. 

Recently I was contemplating this as I was reading Light Comes Through by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. He is addressing strong emotions, beginning with jealousy. 

Jealousy is not something I’ve struggled with a lot in my life. It’s only rarely reared its head and after studying a bit of Gestalt psychology I’ve learned to look at it as a sign of what I should be doing. For example, I remember being intensely jealous to learn a school-mate of mine in high school had published a book of poetry. My jealousy wasn’t because I wasn’t happy for them and their accomplishment, but because I set the goal to be a published author at a very early age and still wasn’t at that time. 

So I recognised my jealousy not as wishing someone hadn’t done well but wishing that I had done more with my own life. 

I’ve always worked with jealousy this way but as I read Rinpoche’s chapter on jealousy Elizabeth’s words came into my head - but slightly altered. 

It goes from: “They have joy” to “There is joy.” 

Rinpoche asks us to rejoice in the success of others - to experience it as shared because we know how it feels to succeed and we can tap into the feeling when we hear about the good fortune of someone else. 

In all emotions we can apply this shift in our thinking. Emotions don’t define us. They aren’t personality traits. We experience them but they are not solid. So joy is a place we can reside in, just as jealousy is a place we can reside in. 

So the next time you catch yourself thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘me’ and ‘they’ try opening it up. Shift to thinking ‘there is’. There is arrogance. There is happiness. There is anger. There is delight. There is fear. There is wonder. 

When we see more clearly how the human experience is shared our world becomes so much bigger. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Work with your own mind - Dharma Art

'Everything is Workable'
5X5" ink, pencil crayon and gouache on bristol board
When I was very small, like three or four, my mum gave me my first lesson in the importance of working with my own mind. I wanted to go play outside but it was raining and I couldn't. I began to cry and throw a tantrum (Something I was monumentally good at) and she told me point-blank that I could cry all I wanted but the rain wasn't going to stop.

I have no recollection of this occurance but it's become one of many family stories so I've heard it often enough for the message to be delivered multiple times.

When I first discovered Ani Pema Chodron and realised my Buddhist nature, I quickly discovered this to be an essential teaching in all my studies of the dharma: You cannot change external circumstances. You can change your outlook.

This message is in no way unique to Buddhism or any other school of thought. Cliches like 'You can't change people' are pointing at it. Over and over again, this is presented to us in life.

Generally we feel that life would be so much easier if things went our way. If our partner didn't do that really irritating thing. If customers were less difficult. If our boss listened to us. If other drivers obeyed the rules of the road scrupulously.

Despite the delivery of the lesson to my toddler self, it's only been very, very recently that I've understood and began truly applying it.

I cannot change my external circumstances. None of us can. Life happens how it will whether we like it or not.

The only thing we have any control over, the only thing we can work with, is our own state of mind. And this is infinitely workable. Every situation, regardless of how we perceive it, is workable when we approach it from the level of our own mind.

The inspiration for this piece comes from the Garuda - a mythical creature that represents the ability we have to exist without reference points, without the need for external validation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beautiful hand tooled, hand painted leather masks...

... now available for purchase!

Several months ago I decided to try my hand at making masks out of leather. I've often admired such work done by others and wanted a leather mask of my own. Being a polymath and an artists I had it stuck in my head that I'd rather not buy such a thing if I could make one for myself. I always prefer to try making something myself before going to someone else for it - so I began to do some research.

I discovered, through the glory of YouTube, that there was an abundance of handy tutorials so I set about collecting the necessary supplies and gave it a go.

As a creative polymath I've never felt restricted to a single medium. I've been criticized for not specializing but the idea of using only one medium bores and terrifies me. This is why I sculpt, paint and sketch.

Well, leather mask making requires all three. From sketching the initial design to sculpting the leather to adding life and vibrancy with paint, there is not one bit of it I don't enjoy immensely, as those of you who follow my Facebook page will note.

Since I took my first tentative steps into it late in the summer of last year I have made eighteen masks in total. I've so enjoyed coming up with various designs, using suggestions from friends, family, and fans on my Facebook page, and from my own ideas and inspirations.

I am thrilled to be able to offer these up to the world now - to enjoy and wear at costume parties, Mardi Gras festivals and carnivals.

I'm happy to customize the colours and of course take on other designs, so if my shop doesn't have something you'd like just contact me through the 'Hire' page on my website and we can work together to get you the very mask you'd like most.

Thank you for all your support over these past months! It's been very encouraging to have so many wonderful compliments on what has been a totally self-taught project. I'm excited to add to the collection of designs and look forward to sharing even more with the world.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

That Which Changes Us - Dharma Art

Pencil crayon & ink on bristol board
Original and prints available through

"The bodhisattva practices in the middle of the fire."
-Pema Chodron

In Tibetan Buddhism the dragon represents clear seeing, wisdom and compassion. It strips away our delusions and shows us how to have an open heart to everything life offers. 

For a very long time I felt like I could be a stable, functioning human being if only things could level out for a bit. If I had the 'right' job or the 'right' home or the 'right' relationship then maybe I'd find equilibrium and a sense of ease in the world. 

This line of thinking increased my anxiety exponentially and ultimately led me to have a full mental breakdown. Because the world doesn't work that way. Life isn't fair. But life isn't unfair either. It gives us exactly what we need and I've come to learn the most from the difficult situations in my life. 

When I was twenty-three my relationship ended. I was told I was no longer loved and left just six weeks before what was meant to be the wedding of my dreams. 

The experience was incredibly painful and I was offered many platitudes. Most commonly I was told: "Better before than after!" 

Well, several years later I was married and very committed to what that meant for me. Marriage is a curious institution and not one I entered lightly. I set the aspiration to love unconditionally, to do whatever work was required of me for the relationship and to accept the other person as they were. 

But it takes two and after a while I felt the pain of heartbreak as I was once again left by someone who no longer felt the same way. 

I can tell you from experience, totally honestly, that it was no less painful to be left before a marriage than after a marriage. Both experiences involved a lot of heartache and the need to grieve. 

But I don't ever wish either had never happened because I learned so many valuable things from both.

I learned what it means to forgive, truly. I learned that forgiveness is something that can, and indeed must, be offered without having received an apology. It is not condoning the actions of another - someone may have committed murder and forgiveness is not saying that murder is acceptable. Forgiveness is seeing the complexity of another human being and accepting that they didn't know any better. 

And forgiveness is something we do for ourselves as much as we do it for the other. Because forgiveness allows us to heal and it is much better to forgive than to hold onto resentment, anger or righteous indignation, which simply cripple us emotionally and create a sense of 'us and them', which has never served anyone. 

The other valuable thing I learned was what compassion truly means. Genuine compassion, not idiot compassion born of feeling sorry for another or being overwhelmed with the dark and sad things we see in the world. Compassion as a way of seeing our own humanity and that of another and seeing that being kind is the greatest thing we can do to benefit the planet. This does not mean putting ourselves in the path of harm or letting ourselves remain in abusive or mentally distressing situations. 

Without compassion we cannot have forgiveness because it's compassion that allows us to see our shared human experience. It's compassion that lets us see all of ourselves, our own confusion, arrogance, spitefulness and cruelty and recognise that none of us are any better or worse than anyone else. We're all complicated creatures with our own stories. 

I have the greatest compassion for those who lash out at the world around them because I can see so clearly how they make their own lives that much more difficult. These are not people who need more anger directed towards them - they generate enough of that themselves. It's a heartbreaking experience, when we can feel this genuine sense of love for even the most anonymous stranger. 

I was once fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Pema Chodron a question and my question was about compassion. Her answer to me was that compassion is good for the heart. Ultimately, regardless of the situation, if we work on our own mind and heart with a genuine aspiration to cultivate compassion it will do us far more good than holding onto spite, anger or jealousy. 

At the time I was struggling to let these things go and I wasn't about to take her word for it. I spent the last year since asking that question experimenting. When I open my heart to others, when I am kind and don't expect people to be any different than they are, what is the result? 

I can honestly say from experience that it is far better to have compassion than not and that the more I practice in this way the more it becomes my default setting. The world is a much friendlier place when we don't look at other as enemies but rather as comrades in the same challenging, ever changing situation as our own. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Butterfly mask

I've done a butterfly mask already but wanted to do a slightly different design for it to provide a bit of variety. The butterfly design is interesting because it's one where the actual template is quite easy but the labour comes in when tracing it out and especially when painting the details of the lines. 

I'm really pleased with both the butterflies I've created and when my masks are officially available for sale (VERY soon!) I am happy to customize the colour according to what my customers want. So this is just an example of one I could do. Obviously any butterfly (or moth) can be made and I'm quite eager to work with people in creating custom designs that mean they'll have a one of a kind creation that speaks to their personality. 

The initial tracing results. 

First coat of blue - wasn't the right intensity for me though. 

Much better!

The final product! 

Made to order. :) 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Learn to Respond - Dharma Art

Pencil Crayon & ink on bristol board
Original or prints available through

The tiger is a symbol of confidence and awareness. It's a calm but powerful symbol, representing an animal that knows its place and purpose and sees very clearly. It is a humble but powerful creature. 

Learning how to respond in life is taking the things we learn, the wisdom we find from our experiences, and actually applying them. I've found, more and more often, that answers cause a lot of trouble because an answer assumes that something can be pinned down or that if there is a 'right' answer then there is also a 'wrong' one. 

Life is not so black and white. Life is rich and complicated and what may work well in one relationship or situation may be entirely unhelpful or even detrimental to another. 

Learning to let go of fixed ideas of how things 'should' be is a huge part of my life now, but it wasn't always. I often tried to come up with answers in an attempt to get ground. If I 'knew' something then I could take comfort in that. 

Of course, as soon as I thought I knew something this view was often challenged. The older I get the more I realise I know very, very little. But this doesn't scare me. Instead I find it liberating. Because if there are no definitive answers then every moment can be taken as it is - freshly, with great curiosity and a sense of wonder. 

Even the most mundane of exchanges become an experiment, something I rather enjoy as I was raised by parents who encouraged an inquisitive mind. In fact, my dad has called me a scientist because of my interest in figuring out how things work, in hypothesizing and checking and re-checking results. 

When we approach our life with curiosity it really changes our experience of the world. Suddenly things aren't happening to us so much as happening for us. 

Difficult co-worker? An opportunity to learn clear communication and how to work with frustration. Annoying family member? A chance for us to learn how to accept someone as they are and not try to make them be how we want them to be. Cancelled train? A moment when we can explore our impatience and sense of entitlement and let that humble us. 

Consider life as a game with no rules other than everything will change and the only piece you can control is your own mind and your own outlook. In this way we can learn to respond to things as they are, rather than trying to make them fit into the ideas we have about them or how we wish or hope or think they should be. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A new year...

Well, it's 2015.

I have to say, on reflection, that 2014 was a phenomenal year. What I accomplished is rather incredible to me. Especially considering that I started the year with a pretty solid list of what I was aiming for and completed very little from that list.

Increased flexibility has been one of my accomplishments from this past year and I gotta say, I can't recommend it enough.

So with 2015 well and truly here I've been thinking about my expectations and goals for the next twelve months. 

I aspire to live without expectations as far as hoping things will go a certain way or turn out according to some fixed idea in my head, but I do hold a strong expectation to work with my own mind, embrace all experience as an opportunity, and keep letting go over and over and over.

That being said I have a multitude of plans for 2015. As usual there is a lot of travel on my list, and a lot of art. Much discovery and adventure to be had and great opportunities for growth.

Quite late in 2014 I approached Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel with a formal request to be her student and she accepted. On Boxing Day we spoke and began forming a plan of how to work together with so much distance between us (she lives in Colorado), including an opportunity for me to attend a retreat she'll be teaching at this summer.

Along with continuing and deepening my practice, tentative trips to various locations around the world and making more artwork, 2015 also marks the year of my 30th birthday.

I am incredibly excited to be thirty. I feel I have used my life extremely well up to this point. I regularly go through periods of feeling total and utter contentment with things just as they are, to the point that I genuinely feel I could die and that would be okay because I have so much appreciation for everything in my life.

More and more I'm finding that I'm able to embrace anything and everything that comes my way. I have learned the most about compassion, for myself and others, from the more difficult and painful periods so there really is no adventure (or misadventure) I've been on that I have not benefited from.

I'm aware that thirty is a pinnacle year for most people. To be honest, the greatest advantage I see from it is that, once a person reaches thirty, they seem to finally get credit for a lot of wisdom they may have developed in their twenties. It's almost like reaching thirty without a major disaster occurring means society views you through a default lens of credibility.

I, of course, am fully aware that being thirty does not make me any wiser or more worldly, but I aim to embrace the status it offers. 

I'm a big fan of lists and they often grace my blog in various forms. The start of a new year is a wonderful excuse for a list and normally I'd jump all over it.


I'm discovering that 'normally' is generated from an idea I have of myself based on who I am or who I think others might think I am. While lists are fun and definitely have great advantages, they can also be restrictive. Last year I illustrated a beautiful list of yearly goals, as previously mentioned. I believe I completed three of the ten items on it.

This doesn't feel like a great loss to me, however, because my year was incredibly rich and full.

So if I am to set a list for 2015 it won't be a set of specific tasks to accomplish but rather aspirations and intentions I set daily anyway.

May I be open to opportunities. 
May I create. 
May I let go. 

Everything is good for practice. Everything is workable. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Thank you!

I'd like to thank everyone who popped down to Oolong in December to see Lyn's and my pieces. I'm immensely grateful to everyone who purchased an original. It means so much to have my work appreciated by others. 

I create it for myself, to deepen my understanding of the Dharma and help me be a kinder, more generous and compassionate person in the world. To have my artwork appreciated by others is icing on top of the joy I get from sharing my creativity. 

I will be adding more to the Dharma series this year and am excited to keep sharing pieces with you through this blog and my Facebook page and Twitter account. 

A great crowd came out of the evening 
Feeling pretty spiffy to be having another exhibition. My third in five years.  
A very happy customer with her original piece. 

The artist and the photographer, pleased as punch and immensely grateful for all the support. 

If you'd like to order a print of any of the pieces you can do so through my website: