Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

I must be under the influence of full moon: as I’ve been working on my assignment for the fiction writing course, I stumbled upon this beautiful piece by Claude Debussy and couldn’t resist the temptation to share it on my blog. Enjoy!

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Surely my previous post about my dog gave you a pretty good idea of Meeshka’s outstanding intelligence (by doggy standards of course.) Today I got another proof that not only is he smart, but can also appreciate art. Well, maybe.

About seven years ago, when I experimented with acrylic paints, I painted a portrait of the Buddha seated in a lotus position, meditating. The painting is nothing to brag about, but I keep it, hoping that some day I’ll be able to turn it into something more spectacular — that is, when I master traditional painting media.

Last week my husband dug out the Buddha painting, along with several of my landscapes and floral themes, and put it in the basement, positioning it so it can be easily viewed by anyone entering the room. My husband also told me that when Meeshka saw the painting the first time, he barked at it, likely alerting him that there was a stranger in the house. My husband thought I should take it as a compliment.

Today, when I was doing laundry, Meeshka followed me downstairs, as he usually does, to make sure all is well in that part of the house. While I was loading the washer, Meeshka kept barking in the room where the paintings are. At first I thought he was barking at the cat, but when I came out of the laundry room, I realized it was actually the Buddha’s portrait that stirred my doggy up. I asked him to shut up, which he did. Then he turned his gaze back to the Buddha painting and stared at it for a good couple of minutes, until he heard me get closer. Then he turned his head toward me with an embarrassed look, as if I caught him stealing socks or underwear from a laundry hamper. This curious occurrence made me wonder, what does my dog see in this painting? By the way, my other dog, Maya, has no interest whatsoever in any of my art pieces. 🙂

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Liam Neeson, The Grey

Liam Neeson, The Grey

After I watched The Grey a week ago, I kept asking myself: what if I found myself stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a bunch of roughnecks for company, ravaged by the cold, hunger and exhaustion, and chased by a pack of wolves — would I have the will to survive? At what point would I break and succumb to despair? Of course, no one knows for sure what’s going to happen until it actually happens. But I’ve got a sneaky suspicion I wouldn’t last long.

The plot of the movie is straight as an arrow: a severe storm leads to a plane crash, which leads to a group of survivors being isolated in the wilderness infested with wolves, which leads to the predators attacking the group and culling its members one by one, which finally leads to survival of the fittest (or most spirited) of the group. Simplicity of the plot, however, doesn’t take away from the story, which is told with great detail and mastery. In the centre of this character-driven tale is John Ottway (Liam Neeson), whose personal drama unfolds, as we follow the survivors in their man-vs-wild ordeal.

The Grey poses yet another question: what moves Ottway? At the beginning, he is determined to take his own life, because, as we infer from his flashbacks, he’s lost his beloved wife and is haunted by the memories of her. It doesn’t seem like he’s got a life to come back to. Yet, he puts his rifle down, when he hears wolf howls and recalls his father’s poem, which becomes a leitmotif of the movie:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live or die on this day
Live or die on this day

Ottway’s determination and physical strength sees him through the ordeal and even the final battle with the alpha wolf. The final scene — after the credits — suggests he’s survived. From online sources, I understand the battle between Ottway and the wolf was actually filmed, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t make into the final version of the movie.

In a nutshell, if I were the Academy, I’d give Liam Neeson “the best actor” for this role. The movie is definitely worth watching, that is if you are not scared of a big grey wolf.

The Grey Black Wolf

The Grey Black Wolf

And here is where the “wild” part of the story kicks in. Not only are the wolves in the movie portrayed as ferocious predators (which they certainly are), they are also heavily CGI-ed, and, as far as I am concerned, they don’t look like real wolves, rather, in some scenes, they look like nightmarish prehistoric dire wolves. (Truth be told, I’ve never seen wolves in the wild, so I might be wrong on that account.) They are also set on chasing and killing the prey that fights back and is not an easy kill, while they have an abundance of corpses left after the plane crash. We are also led to believe they might be doing it out of spite or revenge, and, as an almost afterthought — maybe because they don’t want the humans near their den (no pups in the den though, as far as I can tell). All I am trying to say, the wolves in the movie are not as convincing as Liam Neeson. They would get no Oscar from me.

As far as real wolves are concerned, biologists maintain the animals tend to be shy and avoid humans at all cost. As other top predators, they may still attack people, but in North America there were only two documented fatal wolf attacks on humans.

Finally, with all the bad rap wolves are getting, it’s good to keep in mind that wolves are essential to healthy ecosystems and biodiversity.

Why Restore Wolves in North America?

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Before I delve into the review proper, I have to tell you this. Don’t make a mistake I’d made when I picked up this book from a bookstore shelf, lured by a sticky note “staff’s pick.” Do your homework: Read the reviews. Or if you tend to read the reviews only after you’ve finished a book, like I do, heed my advice – GET KLEENEX. Under no circumstances read A Dog’s Purpose while enjoying a ride on public transit. Have pity on fellow commuters — don’t put them on the spot with outbursts of laughter followed by uncontrollable sobs. Don’t read this book before bedtime, because you’ll wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether you’ve got four legs or two and get all bent out of shape to discover you’ve only got TWO and NO TAIL TO WAG.

Don’t take me wrong. I am not saying you should not read the book.

You should read the book if you love dogs.
You should read the book if you have a dog.
You should read the book if you are thinking of having a dog.
You should read the book if you are thinking of never having a dog.
You should read the book if you are afraid of dogs.
You should read the book if you don’t have dogs, will never have a dog, and couldn’t care less if there were no dogs in the entire universe.

I am afraid you are not getting my subtle message.


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Photo credit: davepatten (Creative Commons)

In response to a blog post by Warrioress

Dear Warrioress, I enjoyed reading your recent post The Great Divide very much. I agree that focusing on what unites us, rather than what divides us, is what we all need to practice. Over the years, I studied and practiced many different spiritual teachings; I studied the Bible and preached with Baptist missionaries; I prayed in Russian Orthodox churches, where during service women stand on the left side and men on the right, and they are not allowed to cross the line between them (speaking of divides); I studied the Sutras and chanted with Buddhists; I learned some Hindu mantras; I studied works of the mystics Osho and Gurdjieff… Although I do not align myself with any organized religion, I am a believer. I believe in Love, Compassion, and our Lord Jesus Christ, even though I don’t remember when was the last time I read from the Bible. I also practice mindfulness and compassion; a painting of the Buddha that I can view from my desk is a constant reminder of these virtues, as well as the noble truths of impermanence and emptiness. It is also a reminder that Nirvana and Samsara are a matter of perspective; and although there is suffering, I believe we  live in a wonderful world, and it’s not broken — never was, never will be. What needs fixing is our individual and collective models of reality that we assemble and re-assemble in our minds every moment of our lives. The only thing that divides us is ignorance. In my mind, there is really no “great divide.” In a sense, we are all within God and we are all one, no matter what our faith and  beliefs. And as long as there is Love in our hearts, we are saved.

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“… the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.” Dorothea Brande

First, please allow me to explain what morning pages are. In a nutshell, it’s a form of premeditated self-torture — of a sophisticated kind, mind you — for refined individuals like you and me. That is if you look at it from a psychological point of view, because the scribbling of morning pages occurs, as the name suggests, in the morning, first thing after you get out of bed. You wake up 15 -30 minutes earlier than your normal routine (in my case it happens to be 5 am), drag yourself to your kitchen table or your desk, whichever is nearest, and scribble away for 15 minutes while still half asleep. From a technical point of view, it’s free-writing at its finest – as free of inhibition (and sometimes intelligent thought), as a nudist is free of clothes on a nudist beach.

Why not call it journaling then, you might ask. Because there is one significant difference between morning pages and a journal. With the journal, there is no limitation as to when you can write in it. The morning pages, however, must be done in a zombie-like limbo state, before your waking mind hijacks your full attention, and your inner critic starts punching you in the face and kicking you in the butt. Your main objective in this pre-dawn ordeal is to keep your hand moving across the page for a set period of time, writing anything that is not complete nonsense.

Like in free-writing, you write whatever comes to mind, as fast as you can, without giving it too much thought, and you, or your inner critic, are not allowed to correct. That’s why my MPs look like notes of a mental patient. I don’t know about other morning scribblers, but I am never able to decipher what I’ve written afterward. And that works just fine, because you are not supposed to read what you’ve written anyway, at least for several days. But even after several days, I am not inclined to read my MPs, lest I lose heart and  claim those extra minutes of sleep. All I read is usually the title of the previous page. Today it happens to be “Day 59.” Tomorrow, the title will be “Day 60.” No need for dates or re-reads. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps, that’s the best way for me to keep my overactive critical faculty at bay, at least for a short while.

Another rule with MPs that will make you scream is regularity, meaning you are supposed to write your MPs every day seven days a week. I break this rule every once in a while. So what? Do I look like a superwoman to you? I didn’t think so. But writing MPs for 59 days, almost straight, is an accomplishment I am proud of.

By now you must be pretty intrigued. You must also be thinking I am obsessive-compulsive or downright crazy, otherwise WHY on earth would I do it? Well, crazy can’t even begin to describe it. My psychiatrist said… Gotcha! 🙂 Actually, contrary to common sense, writing MPs helps me maintain emotional balance. It is also partially responsible for this blog and my creative writing pursuit.  My morning page challenge convinced me that MPs are a powerful inspiration machine, a perpetuum mobile of creativity. Try it and see it for yourself. The trick is to stay with the challenge for more than 35 days straight, 40 to be sure. It may vary for different folks though. Some say it takes 21-28 days to form a new habit, while others say the magic number is 66. I say 40 days, because this is when I began to feel the effect.  Before the MP challenge, I would sit at my desk, staring at a blank page and asking myself,”What should I write about?” Now, my question is “What should I write about first?” Before, I couldn’t drag myself to my computer to write and would come up with all kinds of excuses, like the need to do the dishes right this moment, or walk the dogs, or make dinner. Now I have to curb the time I spend writing, because dishes need to be done, the dogs walked, and dinner made.

Of course, writing MPs alone won’t make you a new Chekhov or Proust. Not right away. But it will help you establish a habit that you will be thankful for for the rest of your life as a writer, artist, and a creative person.

Just to make one thing clear before I wrap it up. As you might rightfully suspect, I didn’t come up with the idea of morning pages myself, and I resisted it for quite some time. I made three attempts at it over several years, but each time I would quit after seven days of writing MPs. I’ve learned from my mistakes and finally found the format that works for me: I do it in longhand, there are no computers involved, because when I use a computer I tend to re-read and correct what I’ve written. I also write no more than 15 minutes on weekdays, because I don’t want to be late for work, and a little longer on weekends.

Three books that gave me this wonderful crazy idea:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge

And if you are a morning scribbler yourself, I would love to hear about your experience.

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A while back, a friend told me a story of two hapless frogs that were stupid enough to end up in a bucket of milk, and thus found themselves in danger of drowning. One frog gave up the struggle and perished. The story is not clear though whether the frog didn’t believe in action, or just didn’t have enough strength to survive. The other frog kept moving its limbs and inadvertently churned butter, which provided a firm surface and helped the frog to get out of harm’s way. This is where the story ends; its moral: action is king. At the time when the story was told, both my friend’s and my circumstances could be described as moderately desperate, our “buckets of milk” being at least half  full. I didn’t want to drown and took the adage to heart. Since then action and doing have firmly established themselves as an ultimate answer to life’s numerous challenges.

Western culture encourages, even worships, action. We believe we can fix every problem, overcome every obstacle, and meet every challenge with the right amount of churning. If action doesn’t work, we figure we haven’t churned sufficient amount of butter, and we double and triple our efforts, and keep churning. Even if there is no milk left in our buckets, we keep flailing and thrashing around. We simply don’t know any better. I don’t mean to say this approach doesn’t work. Sooner or later it pays off, at least to some extent, but, unfortunately, it comes with a price – stress. That I know from my own experience.

In some religions, Taoism, for example, non-doing and non-action are the cornerstones of spiritual practice. Zen Buddhism also teaches to just let things happen.  Esther Hicks (The Law of Attraction) tells us to give up the oars and stop rowing our boats upstream, because everything we want is the other way, downstream. The concept of non-doing is well explained in this quote from an article about Taoism: “One of Taoism’s most important concepts is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which – without even trying – we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.” I wonder, if I will ever be able to achieve this blissful state. I am such an action junkie…

Are you addicted to action?

Related articles

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Thanks to Cassie’s recommendation, I am now enjoying this awesome book about writing fiction and all the personal drama of a novelist that seems to come with it. To tell the truth, I am in awe, stunned, speechless. It blows my mind just to think that a book about writing can have such profound effect on a person. As if the sky opened up, and, for a brief moment, I’ve glimpsed a reflection of something bigger than life. The sense of awe (and acute awareness of it) struck me even before I arrived at the following sentence: “This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered world.” Wow! That was Lamott’s intent all along! Not only am I delighted with her ability to produce such magic, but also with my ability to be part of it as a reader. Within every page, things are revealed that I didn’t know, didn’t pay attention to or couldn’t put into words before; with every sentence, my mental picture of writing and the reasons why we write is gaining more clarity, vibrancy and depth. I understand now why we love to write so much – it gives us a chance to transcend our personal limitations and connect with Beauty, Love, Compassion, God — even though to do it, we have “to open veins and bleed.”

Half-way through the book, when I was reading about creating believable characters and letting them do their own thing, a thought crossed my mind that it may be so that I haven’t got even an ounce of literary talent. I stayed with the thought long enough to look at it from this angle and that, waiting to see which emotion would rush to surface. Shockingly, it was relief. Now I can put my worries about “talent” (or lack of it) to bed and simply go about my business. This discovery, however, makes me wonder whether I will harbour any dreams of ever writing a novel. Oh, forget the novel, how about a short story for a start? Memoirs?.. At any rate, I’ve enrolled in Creative Writing 101 and decided to include in this blog a few posts about my experiences growing up.

Back to the awe-inspiring book. I actually don’t have much to add, except that the book is funny and insightful. You’ll learn a ton about being a writer and maybe even how to write fiction. You’ll learn about being a reader too, which is also important. (Just for perspective, along with Bird by Bird I was also recommended Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. No doubt, it’s a good book, very well written, but after reading the first 20 pages, I gave it up, because I was bored out of my skull. Maybe some other time.) Bird by Bird is like a breath of fresh air: lighthearted, humorous, delightful. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

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Today was my first workday after a 10-day hiatus. Surprisingly, the day went better than I expected. It took some mental conditioning though. Before I went to bed last night and after I woke up at 5 am this morning, I spent some time pondering the meaning of “work-life balance.”

I suppose everyone is familiar with the concept of work-life balance, which promotes a healthy balance between the time we spend earning our living and the time we spend doing other, supposedly more enjoyable, things. It could be a great concept, if only it were named correctly, something like “work-play balance,” for example; or “balance” would do just fine. The problem is the mind inevitably associates the pair “work – life” with other pairs that describe two opposite notions, like “life and death,” “night and day,” “right and left,” “good and evil.” So, we shouldn’t be too surprised when work begins to feel less like life and more like other, less pleasant, things. Thoughts have power after all.

When we place “life” and “work” at the opposite ends of the spectrum, we forget that work can be fun, that work is life, or at least a big part of it.

When we look at our work as a means to an end, a burden, or, as one of my friends said, a curse, that we have to endure, so we can pay bills and support our lifestyle, we cut ourselves off from the source of joy and creativity. No matter what we do to support ourselves financially, be it mopping floors, training dogs or balancing budgets, we don’t have to turn into zombies for eight or 12 hours a day. We can still have a life – working! Work and life are inseparable, and work and fun can and should go hand in hand. Have you noticed that successful and happy people make no distinction between work and life? Their work is their life, which doesn’t mean, however, that their life is all work; they find the time to play and have fun too.

What about you? Do you think there is life on the planet “Work”?

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If you are reading this blog, chances are you are not a monk or a nun living in a monastery, or a hermit in a cave practicing austerities. Every day you face challenges — traffic jams, a demanding job (or lack thereof), an overbearing boss, disturbing news in the media, just to name a few. Small wonder many of us feel stressed and anxious most of the time. But what can we do? We can’t control the environment, the boss, or the economy. How do we handle these pressures? If you are looking for an answer to this question, Joyful Wisdom by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is the book for you. In it, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche talks about the foundations of Buddhism; explains and clarifies some Buddhist terms, whose nuances might have been lost in translation; and provides detailed and clear instructions on meditation practice. Using examples from his own experience and that of his students, he shows how to deal with disturbing emotions, such as anger, fear, anxiety. He suggests that instead of resisting or trying to get rid of them, we should welcome them as focus for our meditation that will help us get acquainted with the nature of the mind and its infinite power.

Throughout the book, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche tells stories of the Buddhist tradition. My favourite one is about a group of hermits who lived in seclusion in the mountains. They spent most of their time in meditation. But because their existence was so peaceful and offered little by way of difficulties or challenges, every once in a while they would go to the nearest village and acted as if they were crazy. Such silly behaviour provoked the villagers, who expressed their displeasure, sometimes in physical terms. But the hermits welcomed these experiences as supports for their practice. Lucky for us, our lives are replete with such supports — no need to agitate the good villagers. 🙂

I especially enjoyed the parts of the book where Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche talks about his childhood experiences: how he was overwhelmed by anxiety and struggled with the practice, and about the fears that he had to overcome to achieve his present state of calm and relaxed mind and the ability to help others. This was like a revelation to me, because I always pictured Buddhist teachers and masters as perfect, born into this world with inherent knowledge and wisdom of the masters that came before, and, therefore, superior and distant, like stars. I don’t question inherent knowledge and wisdom, but at least now the distance between them and me seems a bit shorter.

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