Thursday, February 26, 2015

Basic Goodness and Being Kind

A4 Portrait pencil crayon & ink on bristol board
Prints and original available through
Everyone is basically good. This doesn't mean everyone can't also be a total asshole sometimes. And that also means you are occasionally a total asshole - whether you realise it or not. 

Which is rather liberating really because it means you don't have to be perfect. But you certainly can be kind and compassionate, and ultimately, that’s what basic goodness is about. 

The idea of ‘basic goodness’ as I understand it from studying the Dharma, is not ‘good’ in the sense of virtuous or correct but good as in: we all want to be happy. The best way I ever heard it put was by Pema Chodron when she said, “No one does anything because they want to feel worse.” 

When we put on a jumper because we feel cold, when we shift position so a limb doesn’t fall asleep, when we put a band-aid over a paper cut so it doesn’t sting - these are all signs of our basic goodness. Our basic compassion and care and kindness. 

It may seem easy to argue against basic goodness. We could say that the news is full of examples of basic badness. People kill each other every day. People shoot, bomb and set-fire to others. 

It might seem totally naive to say people are basically good in light of the atrocities that are committed on a daily basis. 

But saying people are basically good is not the same as saying people are basically sane or people are basically self-aware or people are basically skillful. We are all neurotic in our own ways and the discomfort we feel about our neurosis is what drives a lot of our actions. We go into a default mode to try and make ourselves feel better in a constantly changing, unpredictable world. 

We feel like, if we would just bring the world to a perfectly fixed stand-still with everything totally in balance, then we might feel sane. 

So we act foolishly, carelessly, even unkindly or outright viciously. Some more vicious than others. But these actions are still based on this basic goodness, this basic longing we have to be happy. 

The teachings on basic goodness are not saying that we are virtuous. They are saying we all have a longing to connect to happiness, to feel love and belonging. 

Cynics (And cycnism is healthy - no teaching has any value if it doesn’t agree with your own sense of reason. You don’t have to buy any of it and it’s important to test it against your own experience of the world) might say, “Someone who shoots up a school or who convinces a ten year old to be a suicide bomber is evil.” 

Verse 6.39 in the Bodhicharvatara provides a helpful contemplation in this regard: 
If those who are like wanton children
are by nature prone to injure others, 
what point is there in being angry -
like resenting fire for its heat? 

This asks us to consider - if we believe that some people are basically bad then we’re rather foolish for resenting them. Resenting someone for their supposed inherent nature would be like getting angry at a rock for being hard or fire for being hot. 

What greater proof of basic goodness do you need than our expectation that someone shouldn’t harm us? We only think people should know better because we believe they CAN know better. 

In fact, our very shock at reports of violence, our aversion and disbelief, is further proof of this basic goodness. If we truly believe that people are basically bad then we would never be surprised by the things we read in papers. 

And when we read something horrific and we think to ourselves, “I can’t imagine being angry enough to kill for my belief,” that is a sign of our own basic goodness. 

The things we do that cause harm are not born of some inherent evil within us. We are all confused beings scrambling in the same impermanent world. Not a single living creature doesn’t want to feel safe, secure and content. This is the motivation for our actions. 

When a natural disaster occurs I can’t help noticing that the first thing people do, when they realise they can’t do anything else, is reach out to help one another. 

The bodhisattva lives by this. The bodhisattva sees clearly that ultimately, every situation is unknowable and the greatest thing they can do is be there for others. They accept that the world is not a fixable place. There is no single idea of what a ‘perfect’ world would be and even if there was no war, no famine and we weren’t a threat to one another, we would still have to contend with old age, sickness and death. They realise and accept that the greatest gift we can give is to be present for others, to care for them, and to be kind. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We Are Given What We Need - Dharma Art

'We Are Given What We Need''5.14X5.12 pencil crayon and ink on bristol boardPrints and original available
"Our suffering doesn't make us special."
- Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

I spent some time contemplating the phrase 'Everything happens for a reason'. I've written about this before but with this Dharma piece and the wording I chose to accompany the Kapala I drew, I wanted to go deeper. 

I much prefer 'Everything happens' and was once explaining my thoughts around this to a friend. I was giving examples of how the idea of having a 'reason' implies some sense of pre-determination or fate. Because the future really is unwritten and we have no idea what might happen next, it's a phrase that simply doesn't fit with reality. Or, if we are to presume that somehow things are predetermined, it implies reason to atrocities. 

I feel it would be immensely unhelpful to tell someone who was raped or who lost their family in a bombing that 'everything happens for a reason.' Giving reason to such pain feels unreasonable and can also lead people into spirals of guilt or shame - like they brought something on themselves or somehow deserved what happened. 

My friend, who was listening very thoughtfully through all this, then said, "How about, everything happens and the meaning it has is all in how you work with it?" 

I loved this and immediately related it to something my psychologist has often said, which is that life is not out to get us and we are never given more than we can handle. Life is perfect this way. And perfection doesn't mean without flaws. 

We are given a lifetime of experiences and as sentient beings we are also given the wonderful tool of our mind to worth with. Any experience we have is an opportunity, whether we label it positive or negative or neutral. How we work with life is the choice we have. We can choose to shut down, to feel victimized by it and go numb to it, or we can choose to be curious about it, to engage with it - even to embrace it. 

Life is a perfect teacher. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Let Us Not Create Monsters Where There Are None

“As you label it, so it appears to you.”
-         Unknown

Recently I received a copy of Single Step from Depression Alliance and noticed an appeal on the first page. The language is quite intense, calling depression a ‘monster’ that’s gotten away with ‘destroying’ thousands of lives.

Almost immediately I felt rather put off. This labelling depression as a monster creates a sense of ‘other’ I’m not comfortable with, and also perpetuates the ‘badness’ of something that, quite frankly, is a normal part of life.

Of course by writing that I could be seen as being controversial, but allow me to explain my thinking behind this.

As a Peer Volunteer on the Friends in Need (FiN) Forum I am used to seeing any number of posts from people sharing their stories of depression, often coupled with something else like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or any number of physical challenges ranging from chronic migraines to hyper-mobility. Often-times these stories are shared in such a way that the difficulties and challenges of life are listed and the person posting them perceives depression as ‘yet another thing’ on the heap of difficulties they’re facing.

I totally get this. I used to do it when I was experiencing a bout of depression. I’d think, “If it’s not already bad enough that I’m being bullied, have no friends, am failing math and my parents don’t understand and won’t talk to me about it, I’m also depressed.”

Looking back on those early years when depression was frequent in my life, I now see my experience very differently. I was being bullied, had no one to talk to about it, felt abandoned and was unable to cope on my own. I became depressed as a result, stopped performing at school and was unable to live up to the expectations I thought my parents had of me.

This isn’t special. I am one of thousands of people who had a similar teenage experience. Just as I’m one of thousands who have become depressed after the death of a loved one, or multiple deaths very close together in a society that puts pressure on people to ‘get over’ loss, not allowing for a healthy grieving process.

So in a world that tells us low-moods should have a limited life span or that bullying is a ‘normal’ part of growing up and doesn't support those who are bullied, depression is normal. Of course it’s going to happen. And even without all those pressures, depression is a natural human response to an overwhelming amount of stress, a lack of proper exercise and sleep and/or stagnation or feelings or a sense of helplessness.

I’m not saying that depression isn't problematic and that people should suck it up. Far from it. Depressions, and all mental illnesses, need to be talked about and addressed more openly. But using fear-based language isn't a helpful way to get that dialogue going.

Most often I find myself replying to the posts on FiN with:
A)    What you are going through is normal. Of course you feel depressed when you’ve been made redundant, are going through a divorce, lost a loved one, have just started a new job, just moved to a new city/town/country, are overwhelmed with your workload, are being bullied at work, are in an abusive relationship etc.

B)     Be kind to yourself. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you do. Your feelings are not ‘bad’. They are communicating something.

C)     Give yourself time and space to heal. Depression is like any other illness, and not merely mental. The idea that mental illness doesn't affect us physically baffles me. The approach to any illness needs to be holistic – diet, sleep hygiene, exercise AND our mental state must all be addressed when we are working towards recovery.

I don’t write this as an outsider looking in. I lived with constant anxiety for seven years. I went through regular bouts of severe depression for nearly ten years. I used to self-harm and I've been suicidal on three different occasions. Ultimately I was hospitalised due to the anxiety, at which point I had to seriously take stock about the approach I had to my mental well-being.

Up until that point my anxiety was my enemy. I rejected it and did everything I could to resist it. When I was depressed I felt guilty for it and rejected that too. Rejecting our experience is incredibly aggressive and not at all helpful.

Einstein said “the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

I’m not saying I was stupid, or that anyone experiencing mental illness is stupid. But as a society we’re not terribly clever when it comes to healing ourselves.

After my hospitalisation I began seeing a psychologist and soon discovered my natural Buddhist nature. Buddhism is just a package for what I know to be good common-sense. There are many packages for the same approach to life and finding the one that works is a fun adventure, but ultimately the message is this: Learn how not to reject your experience but instead to embrace it and appreciate the richness of what life has to offer.

When I stopped making depression and anxiety into ‘other’ and ‘enemy’ I began to become far more comfortable and familiar with them. They were no longer threatening but something to explore and learn from. I began to see the way they actually provided me with a lot of helpful communication. In short, I began to make friends with myself by accepting that sometimes I will be depressed and sometimes I will be anxious but neither will kill me and both can and do teach me a lot.

This has not been easy and it’s not a flick of a switch experience. I've been meditating for seven years, seeing my psychologist pretty regularly during that time too, and have completely changed my life-style by establishing better sleep-hygiene, improving my diet and incorporating regular exercise into my life. But the result is that I've not experienced any bouts of depression for years and I never feel unable to cope with and manage anxiety when it flares up. I listen to my body, listen to the emotions, and take care of myself with gentleness and compassion. And I don’t have a black dog or a monster or a demon.

I am a full human being, like anyone else, with a full range of emotions and experiences and a life worth living, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Salisbury, Bath and Beyond

I recently went to Salisbury and Bath for the first time. At one there was a Cathedral and the other an Abbey. 

I love exploring churches. Inside and out they've magnificent works of art. From the flying buttresses and towering spires to the intricate details of stained glass windows - I can spend quite a lot of time admiring the beauty of them. 

On this particular trip I discovered something new that both places of worship had.

I was walking along the choral benches in Salisbury Cathedral, noting the beautifully sculpted wood, when I realised that the end of every bench on every level had a small creature: a gargoyle, a lion, a dog, a gryphon. They were all different and all incredibly lovely. 

I honestly feel I could have photographed all of them given the chance. There wasn't a single one that didn't delight me and for that reason, when exploring the Abbey in Bath, I immediately went in search of and was rewarded to find similar sculptures! 

A dog, a very worried dog. 

Small delights but these little details are so incredible to think about. To reflect on the fact that someone carved these by hand, so many years ago. A tiny detail that would go unnoticed by most and yet deemed a necessity for the beauty of the building in which they are housed. 

Winged Lion

Each one a work of art unto itself. Different postures, expressions and combination of animal captured by incredibly skilled craftsmen so be enjoyed by the discerning eye. 


Imaginative creatures not seen anywhere else before. What's not to delight in? 


Thursday, February 12, 2015

What it means to practice - Contemplation

“If you think you’ve reached enlightenment, go spend a week with your family.” 
Ram Das

'Thoughts as Thoughts'
5X5" prints available
For the last fourteen months I’ve been attending regular meditation retreats at the London Shambala Centre. When I come into work on a Monday after being on retreat my co-workers are often curious and we’ll generally have a conversation about meditation and what I learned on the weekend. 

Once I was met with the statement, “I couldn’t meditate because I couldn’t not think.” 

I laughed and said it wasn’t about not thinking. 

“Then what’s it about?” 

“It’s about being present.” 

It was one of those moments that as I said it I realised it. I was already understanding that this was the whole point of meditation, but I hadn’t quite been able to form words around how it was transforming me. 

So what does it mean to practice? Not just to meditate: coming back to the breath and labeling the thoughts as thoughts and letting them go (Which is not the same as not thinking). That’s a technique. That’s just a way to guide us and point as to the true practice. 

One cannot meditate regularly and not begin to notice the gradual awareness of mind that comes with that. I have, in the last fourteen months, begun to notice the workings of my mind with so much more detail. I don’t just see the thoughts but I see the conditioning behind them, the habitual reactions to them, the hormonal release that accompanies them - adrenalin for an anxious thought, for example. 

'Unfixated Mind'
5X5" prints available
I’ve had this level of awareness for more than fourteen months, to be honest, but have always felt a lot of aggression towards myself when I notice the neurotic and habitual things I do. “You’re frustrated because you’re not enlightened yet,” my psychologist likes to say. 

And I was often frustrated. I was getting better and better at seeing all these ridiculous things I did and yet I kept on doing them. I kept on responding to anxiety with resistance or shutting down around confrontation. I knew these things weren’t helping because I could see it so clearly and yet I couldn’t stop myself. 

Until I began to understand practice very differently. I began to understand that practice is something we do on the spot. Meditation teaches us how to stay on the spot, to relax into or accept the current situation. 

Practice is how we experiment in this place of being present. Practice is seeing what we do clearly because we cannot work with that which we do not see. 

Practice is a willingness to let our family members be themselves - to not expect them to behave any differently - and see what happens. 

'Embrace Circumstances'
5X5" prints available
Practice is feeling anxiety well up because someone disagrees with our opinion and just feeling that anxiety and not trying to make someone like us by retracting what we said. 
Practice is having your train cancelled and noticing how entitled we feel and not pretending any different. 

To practice doesn’t mean these uncomfortable things go away. It means we notice them and work with our mind in a way we never did before. We accept our human-ness and meet ourselves right where we are, with what’s going on in the moment. Because ultimately the only thing we can work with is our mind and the mind exists in the present.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nausicaa - Book Review

Last week I was laid low with a stomach bug. I don't do well with being ill in that I don't like not being able to take care of myself. I'm very aware of this and also very aware of how unhelpful it is because it generally means I over-do things and make myself worse or make an illness last longer than necessary. 

I was just reaching a 'twitchy' point in my recovery where I really desperately wanted to do something but was physically incapable of anything beyond sitting up and occasionally walking downstairs to make myself tea. Walking across my room left me utterly fatigued. 

But I've been working on the many forms of resistance I encounter in myself and recognized this as yet another. I took stock of things, told my brain that the best thing for it to do was to just be very still and let my body recover, and then I went in search of reading material to occupy it. 

I really couldn't even muster the energy for a novel and reading Dharma was definitely out - at which point I remembered some lovely Graphic Novels that had been gifted to me at Christmas! 

I jumped right in and before long I:
A) wanted a Squirrel Fox
B) was convinced that Nausicaa is one of the coolest protagonists ever created

I've made my way through two of the four volumes I have an have concluded that Nausicaa is a Tender-Heart of Sadness Bodhisattva Warrior. 

To unpack that a little - it means that she is totally aware of the pain of the human condition and willing to do whatever it takes to alleviate that pain, even though she knows it's pretty much an impossible task.

Barring one character in the series there's not a single person she meets that she in unable to relate to and find good in. In fact, it's beautifully written so we may first encounter a supposed 'bad' guy and within a matter of a few pages we suddenly see the fullness of the character in a new light. They are complex and their motivations are never inherently 'evil'.

In fact, the single 'evil' entity seems to not even be human. As armies go to war with one another the painful truth of holding onto 'me' and 'mine' is exposed in such a way that it's difficult not to view the world through Nausicaa's eyes: Everyone is worthy of care and love and we all share the planet so maybe, just maybe, we should take care of each other?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Student & the Teacher - Contemplation

I’ve recently been accepted as a student of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel and as a result I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be in a student/teacher relationship within the context of Buddhism. 

Elizabeth's Book
When I wrote Wise at Any Age I included a section on teachers. At the time I wanted to emphasize the idea that teachers come in many forms. A teacher isn’t necessarily someone you even like. In fact, I’ve learned a great deal from incredibly difficult people. The experience I’ve had and how I’ve had to work with myself as a result of living or working with a difficult person has taught me so much. 

But the formal student/teacher relationship within Buddhism is quite different and I’ve been exploring what it means to be a student and to have a connection with a teacher. 

In Buddhist texts this experience is often described as ‘falling in love’. When listening to students of prolific teachers there is a strong sense of this in the way they talk and express their gratitude. But one does not follow a teacher blindly. 

I’ve studied teachings from a great many people, including and not limited to Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Khandro Rinpoche, Shunryu Suzuki, Judith Simmer-Brown, Reggie Ray, the Dalai Lama and of course, Ani Pema Chodron. 

They're all teaching the same things - Buddhist teachings are actually quite brief - but in very different languages. Some are more philosophical, others more academic. Some are more grounded in Eastern culture and traditions, others in the West. Some are far more cutting where others are gentle. 

I have benefited from all of them and continue to do so - but none have had such an impact on my practice as Elizabeth. 

Before I heard Elizabeth teach I had a puzzle of contemplations, thoughts and teachings in my head and I was struggling to put them together. I could ‘get it’ sometimes but it felt fleeting and often I’d revert back to old habits and frustrations. When I first heard Elizabeth teach and it was like the puzzle came together, falling into place easily. 

When we acknowledge the wisdom of others it is recognition of our own wisdom. Elizabeth speaks a language I understand with great clarity. When I listen to her I spend much of my time feeling a deep, profound sense of ‘Yes! That! YES!’. 

I find myself better able to articulate my understanding of the teachings and eager to apply practice to everything

As I go back and listen to talks from other teachers I draw lines from their language to hers, deepening my understanding and opening my mind further each time. 

It’s an incredibly powerful and yet also very simple experience. We have had limited contact due to her residence in the States and mine in the UK, and yet I feel connected and supported by her, entirely, because of the mirror she holds up to my practice and the work I’m doing. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


I've been working on more Dharma art lately, as the Oolong Sketch to Lens exhibition was such a success (Thank you again to everyone who purchased my art - without such support funding the creation of more is a challenge). 

In the past I've taken a teaching, come up with some text based on my understanding of it, and created some art to go with it. But lately I've found myself going the other direction. I'm exploring traditional Buddhist art more and more, as well as really saturating my life with the teachings, and the result is a lot of rich symbolism to explore. 

I'm finding there is much less deliberation in the imagery I'm choosing. I find myself looking at a blank piece of paper, listening to a talk, and then suddenly sketching without having planned to. 
I'm also finding myself taking more time with each piece and expanding the materials I'm using. In the case of a Dakini piece I've been working on I decided to paint it with gouache. I've not used gouache in years and forgot how much fun it is to blend. The colours are vivid and traditional thangka paintings often use gouache, so it seems appropriate. 
I'll be posting the finished pieces to my blog as and when they are completed, but for now you can see the full collection as it stands through my website. Prints are available of all of my Dharma Series.