Lynda’s Blog

Also on Instagram @lyndawow.

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Momentum in Stasis

A little lost for things to do during these pandemic doldrums—long, static, monotonous internal weather where the parched psyche longs for the sensation of movement, even a molecule nudged up, forward, around.

Into that stasis a question appears. What was I doing at this time in 2018 during my final two weeks at Sogetsu Kaikan? Easy enough to check. Initially I resist looking back thinking that it isn’t likely to be a helpful exercise when I yearn to move forward; however, it is a molecule and back is also a direction.

I had completed three two-hour classes that day. The first assignment was 2.15 Slanting Style Variation No 6 Nageire for which I chose a white container with pale green accents in the glaze, Japanese quince branches, white spider chrysanthemums with green deep green centers and used crossbar fixing.

The second lesson was Variation No.7 Floating Arrangement and Spreading Morimono Arrangement which required two arrangements in a single lesson. For the first requirement I floated a few leaves I removed from a splendid muscular branch of Mahonia Japonica in a large, brown suiban.

For the second spreading arrangement the remainder of the branch lay splendidly on the worktable. Sometimes, by great good luck the natural material does the work of creating line for me. However, it is not enough to toss it there and call it finished.

I deconstruct the foliage and fix it to the branch more artfully than nature has done. By another stroke of fortune a single yellow bud signals a future still invisible emerging from the fading, russet past–a  highly desirable trope in ikebana.

 

During the evening class, Lesson 2.17 Variation No. 8 Combined Styles Moribana & Moribana. Being quite drawn to unusually moody flowers I choose magnificent near-black orchids together with branches of budding Japanese raspberry. These I fix in kenzans inside black containers.

Again, the symbolism suggests emergence from the depths of winter which will culminate in fruit.

Hmmm. How apposite this reminder. Fruition is my theme word for 2021. How ironic. By stepping back into my history—the early days of my progress as an ikebana student and artist–seeing anew the symbolism of the budding branches, I am reminded of the relentless, invisible forces quite outside what appears to be stasis.

I also remember well the endorphin rush during the creation process kicked into overdrive by Okazaki-sensei’s unrestrained compliments for my burgeoning abilities and excellent understanding of ikebana. Today, I touch that, feel it once more–as well as greater serenity for the unknowable future..

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HAPPY NEW YEAR 2021!

Festive arrangement for New Year with Japanese yew, elegance carnations, crane ornament and driftwood.

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On Instagram @lyndawow

 

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Putting Christmas Back in the Box

As the last strains of carols wafted through my home late in the evening on Christmas Day, I scanned the room enjoying the decorations, the lights sparkling on the balcony and the glowing tree. Though it was a solo celebration, it had been a serene, joyful and satiating Christmas.

Not to be defeated by a pandemic and all the irksome aspects that entails, I’d created a proper binge of traditional dishes, champagne, wine, nuts, Japanese mandarins and favourite cookies. As I considered the physical and mental energy required to do it up properly, I was glad that I didn’t have to mount it up again. It was done.

Instead, I could happily return to simpler fare, dial back the sugar load and coast along grazing from a well-stocked fridge.

Oddly enough, as wonderful as Christmas (my favourite time of year) is, I was also looking forward to putting it back in the box.

Having spent the last four months living in a heightened state of mindfulness, I note that there are parallels to Christmas. I note many positives: improved perception, greater efficiency, as well as more serenity and beauty in any mundane task.

However, more than that I put a greater value on small things that carry great significance. Prior to this mindfulness experiment I blew off the hundreds and thousands of minuscule moments as insignificant and irrelevant.

But living in a state of intense awareness for an extended period, like a drawn out seasonal celebration, also has a saturation point. Just as I didn’t expect to have more time to fill as the result of a mindfulness practice, I also didn’t expect to be bored by an overload of wonder.

The first cup of coffee sipped with total concentration or the first glimpse of Mars moving across my west window seemed miraculous marvels. The fifth or tenth not so much. And while I accepted that surprising insight without self-reproach, it didn’t feel like success.

Rumi wrote: Every moment contains a hundred messages from God.

As poetry, that’s poignant. But one hundred messages—even from God—is too much information. Divine spam.  My default impulse is to click delete. Swipe left. Wonder palls, becomes ordinary and it’s all too easy to find it blasé. I confess, I hadn’t expected that.

Will I end the mindfulness experiment? No. Not entirely. Not yet. There’s merit in paying more attention, in being more open to the wonder in the mundane, in seeing things anew. But I realize there’s also an appropriate time to put Christmas back in the box.

 

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Now you can also find me on Instagram @lyndawow

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Surprising Effects of Mindfulness

In spite of a long chain of significant heartbreak and grief, for many years now I have cultivated a Buddha (level) mind and lived a joyful life—often while walking hand in hand with sorrow. Even as I rattle and multi-task through the days, ecstatic moments of serenity and insight are a normal part of how I live.

Christmas Table Arrangement with Artificial Fruit

 

Therefore, when I undertook this experiment to live mindfully in every aspect, my main expectation was that it would serve to fill empty hours of pandemic time not occupied by concerts or events. By doing one thing at a time and sinking into a deep awareness, a task would stretch out. I wouldn’t arrive at the end of my daily to do list with empty evenings spent on Instagram, YouTube or Netflix.

Ingredients Mise en Place for a Braise

 

Ha! Wrong.

Thumbnail Cookies Baking

 

That surprising assumption was debunked in the early days of my experiment. By working mindfully I am able to accomplish more in less time. Simultaneously emptying the dishwasher while sipping my coffee, filling the compost and preparing the trash for takeout is not efficient. Ack! When done singularly and mindfully savoring the sensory elements of each, stuff takes less time. Much less.

A Simple Lunch: Grilled Ham & Cheese

 

More than that, mundane chores such as dusting, making the bed, washing a floor, cooking and baking offer an unexpected sense of wonder. Whereas I previously I blasted through such routines with careless disregard, now I am much more attuned to the dynamic force in deliberation and stillness. Bonus: I enjoy greater gratification and serenity living this way.

 

Tourtiere Filling Ready for the Freezer

 

Happy surprise. Simple tasks performed mindfully cease to be jobs on a to do list. Rather, they are stepping stones to a state of extraordinary bliss. Now, what about those evenings?

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The More Mindfulness Plan

When operating in a state of mindfulness the distinction between secular and spiritual aspects of life begin to blur. The mundane takes on magnificence and the heightened state of awareness becomes commonplace.

However, getting into that space isn’t something that happens simply because I decide to experience it. It doesn’t work  like a flight I can board and take off on a 24/7 mindfulness journey. Happily, I’m not starting from ground zero. I have a well-established daily meditation practice and routinely make a consistent conscious effort to live with compassion, grace and a level mind no matter what life throws my way—good or bad.

Reflections

Even so, what I am contemplating is a change to my usual habits. I multitask all the time. In the middle of one thing I am distracted by another as I pass from room to room. Not long after, the original purpose is light years out of mind and I begin to wonder whether I’m losing it.

From previous experiments with changing my life I know that I need to have a plan; therefore, before I begin I set myself up for success. All the research shows that in order to change ingrained habits people do better if they take the following steps:

  1. Create a plan with a clear set of objectives which can be measured
  2. Start with small, incremental changes—too much too fast flops
  3. Track progress with a spreadsheet, chart or journal to record successes & pitfalls
  4. Reward compliance and completion
  5. Create breaks and allow time off from the regimen
  6. Stick to the program for 21 days or more
  7. Evaluate and adjust the plan during the process as needed to maximize success

With that in mind, in order to create a mindfulness practice by taking a monastic approach, I also wish to savor the emptiness without feeling like an existential exercise in futility.  Therefore, before I start anything, I spend time researching various monastic approaches. I consider the daily rituals, habits and the schedules of various orders. What emerges is a number of categories which are already very much a part of my normal existence. Nice. That helps.

Monastic centers normally include two mainstay practices undertaken daily:

  1. Meditation (or prayer, song and chant).
  2. Meals, their preparation, consumption and clean up.

These cornerstones vary in number from one order to another and may or not be conducted in silence or together with spiritual readings or instruction. In addition, throughout the week other practices which are part of the way I live are part of a monastic schedule:

  1. Work which includes but is not limited to routine domestic chores, building maintenance, gardening, animal husbandry, management of construction or other projects, and all forms of communication necessary to support such work.
  2. Art which includes but is not not limited to writing, painting, calligraphy, music, preparation of seasonal pageants and festivals, all of which also fit the Work category, but are work of a more creative order.
  3. Study whether practical or academic as an individual and/or as a community.
  4. Body care such as fasting, exercise and various other aspects of self-care.
  5. Service in all its aspects and numerous ways to help others, even begging for alms so that people might be given the opportunity to be generous.
  6. Spiritual instruction by ordained or lay personnel or as individuals in various formats such as reading or listening to great thinkers, reflection and journalling.
  7. Break periods of unscheduled free time.

One of the things I resist doing (but may need to change—or not, I’ll see) is setting a fixed schedule typical of monastic life. I spent 34 years of my working life answering to bells. Before that, I endured 16 years of the same while being educated. I don’t really wish to embrace that again.

No. No. No. When I retired I tossed all that for something more fluid. How that might work for me or against me during this regimen remains to be seen. Of course, it’s also vital not to beat myself up about missteps along the way. I will not follow the methods used by one of my piano teachers who hit me with a ruler during sight-reading exercises each time I made a mistake. SMACK!

No. No. No. I’ll not be taking that approach. No self-reproach and negative self-talk either. When I slip I’ll do the sensible thing: reflect, readjust and repeat.  It’s called a mindfulness practice not a mindfulness perfection.

Gradually I map out the specifics and—like a reluctant swimmer who’s not quite sure whether a dip is a good idea—I put in a toe, shiver a bit between steps, and with a deep breath, plunge in. I’ll let you know how that goes.

I learn only to be contented.

 

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Mindful Awareness to the Test

Update: For anyone interested I am now also on Instagram @lyndawow.

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Since greater isolation is part of the pandemic parameters anyway, as I said in a post a month ago before I got a little sidetracked, I decided to extend mindfulness beyond my daily meditation practice to the numerous tasks and activities in any given day. I plan to be more deliberate and more conscious of moments I might otherwise overlook or float through on autopilot.

It is said that individuals breathe about 23,000 times a day and normally are quite unaware of the process. A mindfulness practice changes that by paying attention to the breath—inhalation of air into the nose, its passage down the throat, into the lungs, and the flow of oxygen as it’s pumped through the blood to the cellular level. That focus continues with the out breath. Subsequently each time attention is caught by a thought the practitioner chooses not to indulge it but brings attention back to the breath. Gradually that awareness on the breath is expanded to encompass perception of whatever sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations can be perceived in that moment.

Once the mindfulness practice is over, people commonly revert to less heightened states of awareness. However, that’s what I wish to manipulate differently going forward. I want to practice greater mindfulness as I carry out the usual mundane activities which make up a day. Is it possible to sustain that?

Another question is: What exactly does that entail? As an example, let’s use a heightened awareness of this moment. As I keyboard I pay deliberate attention to the sound of the laptop keys quietly clicking in random rhythms and my fingers as they reach across the rows. I remain aware of the different sounds made by my fingernails, the pads of my fingers, and the heels of my hands as they slide across the smooth plastic.

I then give similar consideration to the tactile sensations of my hands and wrists as I continue to expand the awareness to all sensory input I can register; whereas, normally I would not consciously attend to anything but the words and typos as they step forward across the screen. Obviously, that’s a very different way of being in the world.

I’m curious. Spiritual teacher Barb Schmidt maintains that our ordinary life is our spiritual life. I’m about to put that to the test. How long will it be possible to sustain a mindful state?  Also, is there any point in doing so? Will I discover anything significant during the exercise? We’ll see.

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Keyboard photo and clip art used with permission.

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The Rapture of a Heart

Early in September I opened an Instagram account (@lyndawow) and started playing around with posting this, that and the other thing. A rather random selection of whatever strikes my fancy any given day as I figure out how the platform works.

I also started following the Sogetsu site, as well as the accounts of various individuals who were my teachers at Sogetsu Kaikan, the Tokyo HQ. Though I never attended a lesson with the Iemoto (hereditary CEO of the school) Akane Teshigahara herself, I began to follow her Instagram account and to my surprise, she started following me as well.

Since I can’t take ikebana instruction to continue my Level 5 certification in Tokyo or in Victoria during the pandemic,  I began taking note of the various arrangements posted to other Instagram accounts which got a “heart” from the Iemoto for their instructive value.

Secretly I harbored a wish that some distant day one of my arrangements posted on Instagram might receive one from her.

Because the season is brief and I have a few photos of autumnal themed work I did at while studying at HQ, I decided to post a few of the best ones to Instagram between the other daily life stuff I have been putting up there.

This morning I posted the above photo of a mikan (Japanese orange) branch with pincushion flowers fixed without a kenzan (pin frog). Less than 10 minutes later a notification came in—the first “heart” was from Akane Teshigahara!

What a rush of joy flooded my being. I haven’t felt that since leaving Tokyo when many times after class I would return to my little apaato–Tokyo Tower a glowing orange  exclamation mark on the indigo night–in a state of incandescent rapture. Sigh!

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Mars in the Morning

 

…above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.  ~Roald Dahl

 

Though a good telescope is recommended for a proper look, Mars has been brighter than usual as it made its closest approach to the earth on October 6, 2020. Though now it gradually moves farther away, it won’t get this cozy with us again for another 35 years.

Happily, I rise early enough to watch as the planet slips down the sky and winks between the maple leaves before gradually disappearing from view on those days that it’s not cloudy.

By opportune chance I recently chose to begin a mindfulness regimen that now extends beyond my daily meditation practice. Otherwise I most likely would have missed the spectacle.

Instead, as I gaze out the west window in a heightened state of attention, I realize that I witness the near imperceptible movement of the earth. More than that, I feel it.

 

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Photo Credit: Paulette Haws in EarthSky Community Photos

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Increased Limitations Through Pandemic Times

I learn only to be contented.

Author Pico Iyer maintains that limitations act as catalysts to creation, something a good number of introverts have discovered to be true during the current pandemic. Those who live alone often describe the heady freedom from unwanted obligations to show up in an office or socialize. Others find time for new pursuits: baking, cooking at home instead of going out, gardening, preserving fruit and vegetables, picking up abandoned hobbies and the like. Extroverts aren’t quite as enthusiastic.

In addition, Iyer also views having fewer choices as liberation from the pressure to choose. Really?  That’s likely true for those who dither over decisions. I seldom struggle to make up my mind. When I do, careful consideration usually reveals the most reasonable answer.

Frankly, I am more troubled by having no opera or concert season at all in 2020 than by having to select a limited number from superb options. Music on Zoom or through substandard speakers? Meh. Sorry. I’m out.

When faced with various possibilities, Todd Rose, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers this advice: When you have a choice, choose fulfillment. When you don’t have a choice, do what has to be done.

Perfect. That’s my default anyway. I understand the practical sense of doing what has to be done when nothing exciting is going on. Fortunately, I enjoy most domestic tasks and routine maintenance. The ones I don’t like, such as organizing my tax receipts, I do on a gloomy day so as not to waste a fine one.

The late Donald Ritchie, who wrote extensively about Japan, explained how the newly unemployed samurai class at the end of the Feudal Era in 1868 invented manner and ritual to elevate routines. The tea ceremony, for example, was designed so that guests who now had a great deal of time on their hands entered a small tea house, sat for hours and savored the emptiness. How apropos–thinking outside the box by quite literally stooping to crawl into one.

After a summer of beach and garden visits, explorations in new culinary adventures at home, and limited social interactions—enough to call it a serene and joyful summer in spite of its sorrows—I face the coming winter.

Photo courtesy of photos-public-domain.com

My choices of activities which once included the company of others and the vibrant cultural life this city offered have been severely curtailed. Like the samurai, I have to cope with a new reality—a great deal of time without enough pursuits to fill the hours.

The activities I had intended to explore after my return from ikebana studies in Tokyo are not an option for the duration of the pandemic. Worse, some may not be after it’s over.

Ironically, tumbles through the online looking glass lead me to podcasts with people currently or formerly  engaged in monastic life. As I listen a notion begins to smoulder under the ashes of my imagination. Perhaps I might mitigate the stultifying aspects of my pandemic life by adopting a monastic approach. Perhaps I can elevate the mundane through imposing greater restrictions of manner, ritual and mindfulness.

What if I try a crazy experiment, reduce my already limited circumstances further and like the samurai attempt to savor the emptiness?

Something in my gut says: It’s worth a try. Go for it. In many spiritual disciplines simplicity is understood as a path to the sacred. As paradoxical as that might seem, it also seems a sign pointing toward fulfillment. Stay tuned. Let’s see where this road goes.

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