What you are

“One day, after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern.

I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.

This was not illusion but reality itself.”

(Artist Yayoi Kusama, Japan, born 1929)

This is the introduction to Kusama’s exhibit, Flower Obsession, in the art Triennial now showing at the NGV in Melbourne. On entering the exhibit, each visitor is offered a flower sticker or “3D flower” to place where they want so by the end of the Triennial the apartment will be covered in flowers. Kids and adults were enchanted when I was there this week.

For me the best part was the introduction, and that wonderful “… and I was restored.” When I read it, I felt like going home immediately. Nothing more to be said.

I’ve had three spiritual experiences in my life. The first happened about 12 years ago; the second happened 9 years ago, and like Kusama’s, it also involved flower. Not a flower or the flower, just flower. The third one, the big one, happened on Monday, 2 May 2011 around 12:40pm, standing on the corner of Collins Street and Exhibition Street waiting for the lights to change.

Suddenly, a portal in the world opened and who I was was the space in which the world was arising. Everything and everyone that had ever been, and everything and everyone that will ever be, was arising, all of a piece, in this moment. Time was revealed to not exist, and through the space and within the space, there welled in an ever-welling fount a vast force that was Love.

When the experience occurred, I was standing towards the back of a group of about 10-12 people waiting on the corner, and as it happened, everyone in the group turned to look at me and we went through it together.

Afterwards, it seemed to me that if my life had ended on that day or soon after, I would have considered it well-lived because of that one moment. I see Kusama feels similarly because she is now 89 and the experience happened to her when she was a young girl.

I haven’t spoken much about the experience since then. I both long to speak about it, and at the same time I’m reticent. The words are so inadequate, and there’s also a certain impertinence in it when I think of that sacred enormity. Yet Kusama’s words touched and excited me, and that’s why I’m speaking today because my experience may touch someone else.


Many people have had this same experience down through the centuries and across all cultures. You can see its trace through stories, poems, art, like the footprint of a wild animal in sandy soil. Here it is in a book I read over Christmas:

“One day, I was walking across a park in a suburb of London … what happened then is simply beyond description. I can only inadequately say in words that total stillness and presence seemed to descend over everything. All and everything became timeless and I no longer existed … Oneness with all and everything was what happened. I can’t say I was ‘at one’ because ‘I’ had disappeared. I can only say that oneness with all and everything is what happened, and an overwhelming love filled everything. Together with this there came a total comprehension of the whole. All of this happened in a timeless flash that seemed eternal … Nature, people, birth and death, and our struggles, our fears and our desires are all contained within and reflect unconditional love.” (Tony Parsons, As It Is: The Open Secret of Spiritual Awakening)

Here it is in a woman who’d been engaged in loving-kindness meditation for some time:

“I have opened. I am nothing and I am the whole world. I am the crab apple tree and the frog by the stream and the tired cooks in the evening kitchen and the mud on my shoes and the stars. When my mind thinks about past and future, it is only telling stories. In loving-kindness, there is no past or future, only silence and love.” (From Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology)

And here it is in a wonderful poem:

“Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.” (Late Ripeness by Czeslaw Milosz)

What about you? Have you experienced it? How would you describe it, however inadequately? What have been the consequences for your everyday life? (This is the bit I’ve been mulling over for the last seven years.)


The passion and courage of women

Repost from an earlier blog, for Mrs Daffodil. The post was written just after the audio tape emerged of Donald Trump talking about grabbing women on the “p—y”.


If Michelle Obama’s speech on the dignity of women wasn’t enough to cleanse the palate of recent events, here’s a tribute to a man who reveres women, the Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar.

I just saw his latest movie, Julieta, about women, their mothers and daughters, and how grief and guilt, amongst other wounds, is passed down through the generations by the mechanism of well-intentioned silence. It’s as good as Volver, starring the magnificent Penelope Cruz, which he made in 2006.

Following are pics from Volver and Julieta, starring Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte (click on an image to enlarge it). There’s nothing else to add except give yourself a treat and see them.


Pema Chödrön tells a story in one of her books about the Dalai Lama and regret. He’s speaking before an audience and recalls an incident from his past in which a man came to him asking to be a monk. The Dalai Lama told the man it was not possible because of some circumstance; from memory, I think it was that the man was too old to train to be a monk. A little while later, the man took his life in despair about not being able to fulfil his dream.

Stunned, the audience fell quiet and someone raised his hand to ask the Dalai Lama a question, “How did you get rid of the regret?” The Dalai Lama paused and said, “I haven’t. It’s still there.”

The following article from The Guardian is an interesting read about what happened when a woman asked her Twitter audience about their biggest regret. She got a huge response, and the article about her tweet has also had thousands of comments. The answers people give are frank and moving.

My biggest regrets are those times when I’ve been unkind to someone, and, as many other respondents said, that I’ve lived in fear for long periods of my life. As one of the respondents says,

“Yes. Fear. The straitjacket we wear throughout life.

But we can unbuckle it. It might take decades to get to that point, but when you do feel fearless, boy – now that’s living.

I was scared of everyone all my life. Still am a bit. But it no longer stops me.”

Here’s the article: What is your biggest regret?

Image: Symbiosis by Eugenia Loli


The crises of community life

This is very good. It applies to all kinds of communities: families, friends, workplaces, intimate relationships, social groups, societies; wherever one human being encounters another human being. I like the suggestion the crises are inevitable and necessary, and that one can surf the crises, rather than run away from them, and thereby emerge into reality …

“There are four great crises of community life. The first comes when we arrive. There are parts of us which cling to the values we have left behind. The second is the discovery that the community is not as perfect as we had thought. The ideal and our illusions crumble; we are faced with reality. The third is when we feel misunderstood and even rejected by the community. The fourth is the hardest: our disappointment with ourselves because of all the anger, jealousies and frustrations that boil up in us. If we are to integrate into community we must know how to pass through these crises. They all imply the losing of illusions and the gradual welcoming of reality as it is.”

~ Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p136

Image: Sudden shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake, Hiroshige, 1857


Scratching the itch

I wanted to view the three months of comp preparation as if it were a spiritual retreat and so it was. I didn’t have to try too hard to make the leap. Just as on a spiritual retreat, everyday life recedes, as well as some of the sleep-walking involved in that mode. Start messing around with eating patterns, new levels of physical and mental exertion and soon everyone begins coming face-to-face with themselves.

Many days, I walked to the gym, the path dark and cold at 6am, and to keep myself company I’d listen to one of my favourite Buddhist audiobooks by the wonderful nun, Pema Chödrön. The teaching that had the biggest impact on me during this time is shenpa.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word that can be (poorly) translated as “attachment”. Pema says it’s much better to translate it as “being hooked” as it gives a more vivid and accurate picture of this experience that is common to all human beings.

Shenpa is the involuntary reaction – the tightening, the contraction, the itch – that occurs when something hooks us. It could be a look, a word, an absence of a word, a thought, and boom we’re hooked. What normally happens is that we then scratch the itch. We scratch using one of our habitual ways of scratching; Buddhist thought proposes three of them: we numb out, we crave or we use aggression (against others or ourselves).

My habitual ways of scratching are numbing out and blaming myself (an example of aggression towards myself). During comp preparation, I also saw I use spending money as a way of scratching; something about the handing over of money lessens the itch for a fleeting moment. With my newly shenpa-attuned eyes, I could also see many examples in my team members of the different styles of scratching.

Addictions of all kinds – food, alcohol, drugs, blame, criticism, gambling, and thousands more – are examples of shenpas.

Of course, each time we scratch the itch we make the shenpa stronger. There’s a momentary lessening of the original discomfort, the original unpleasantness or unsatisfactoriness we were trying to get away from, but then the itch returns stronger and more insistent.

What is there to do? Pema says we can train ourselves to stay with the itch instead of scratching and trying to get away. We can train our nervous systems to be with the discomfort or unsatisactoriness, while at the same time being gentle and friendly towards ourselves and our inclination to flee, to scratch. This is essentially what sitting or walking meditation is doing: training one in staying.

This is the training within the training that I’ve taken on during this comp preparation period and that I want to share with everyone.

To read more about shenpa and Pema’s wonderful teachings, I recommend starting with her audiobook, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. With her lovely, easy voice, she’s at her best in audiobook form.



The sanity we are born with

I’m reading The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology by Chögyam Trungpa. In my view, Trunga is a genius and his genius lays in understanding human being. The incisiveness, freshness and audacity of his insights is extraordinary, and it’s communicated in language the great prose stylists of literature would envy.

When he first arrived in the West in 1959 aged 20 after fleeing Tibet, Trungpa saw that Buddhist thought and practice would come to the West through psychology, and he had an enduring commitment for the rest of his relatively short life to the meeting of Eastern meditation practice and the Western psychological paradigm.

I’m going to be sharing some of his insights, and today I kick off the series with the following gem, one that disrupts the standard Western view of health professionals at a single stroke.

“The basic work of health professionals in general, and of psychotherapists in particular, is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives.” (p137)

That is, the basic work is not the so-called patient, it’s the health professional themselves.


The basic misunderstanding

People tell me, “You’re so positive”. If I’m on the ball, sometimes I explain that what they’re responding to in me is happiness, not positivity, because the two are worlds apart. I also hear people saying things like “I’m striving to be a better person”. This gives me a pain in my heart for them, and for myself. They don’t realise they are already fundamental goodness, already fundamental soundness and perfection.

Here is Pema Chödrön on the matter of this basic misunderstanding …

“The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness and shut-down-ness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, then we would be happy. This is the innocent, naïve misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.”

~ Pema Chödrön, Awakening Loving-Kindness

Image: IAMI by Eugenia Loli


Hiding from pain

This is everywhere in our society, and also in me: the absence of unconditional friendliness towards ourselves

“Some people come to community seeking consolation from the pain of feeling unloved by responding to whatever demands are made of them. Unconsciously there is a thought pattern: ‘If I satisfy your need then you, or the community, or God will be grateful, will appreciate my existence, will love me.’ Ultimately this can never bring true fulfilment or true growth. It is important that we are attentive to this response, so easily disguised by generosity and goodness. We must help each person to live more and more clearly and deeply from an inner confidence of being loved by God just as they are.”

~ Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p132

Image: Up in the Sky, 1997, Tracey Moffatt

To subscribe to daily thoughts from the publications of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and winner of the Templeton Prize in 2015, go to his website: http://www.jean-vanier.org/en/home


Our weakness

“Power and strength can separate people, whereas weakness and recognition of weakness and the cry for help, brings people together. When you are weak, you need people. It’s very easy. When you are strong you don’t need people, you can do everything on your own. So, somewhere the weak person calls people together. And when the weak call forth the strong, what happens is they awaken what is most beautiful in a human person – compassion, goodness, openness to another and so on. Our weakness brings people together.”

~ Jean Vanier, from Belonging: The Search for Acceptance

To subscribe to daily thoughts from the publications of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and winner of the Templeton Prize in 2015, go to his website: http://www.jean-vanier.org/en/home