I lost my muse. She left as soon as I became Myself again. Equalizing heart-body-soul in an equilibrium. I never considered myself a poet, but for a brief moment, the words soared. Burst out of some shell I didn’t know I had and offered hope and understanding. My muse is a nurturer. She provides. She gives. She comforts. And she helps me create. Like a baby being born. Poems take on their own shape. Their own sense of life. Let me give birth to this poem. Love it and care for it and feed it. Poems don’t come when the storms are calm. This isn’t a poem, after all.
* * *
It was Elizabeth Gilbert on a TED talk that first made me think of creativity as something that we tap into rather than something we internally possess. Many creative writers, musicians and artists have been tormented with creative “genius” that often leads to a fine line between sanity and madness. Madness comes when internalizing your genius causes you to hold on and take root. Soon, creativity isn’t something that you control, but something that controls you. Think of Michael Jackson, Virginia Wolfe, Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. All of these famous figures were geniuses in their art but were also plagued by madness. As an artist, you have to learn to let go.
I remember when words flowed out of me like poetry. I didn’t know I had it in me, but it was after a rough patch of my life. Creativity flowed through me like never before. It was as if this dry well that I had been trying to fill up with creativity was suddenly overflowing. Although the words and thoughts were mine, the creativity was a source that I had somehow tapped into. Years of searching for it, wondering why I wasn’t an “artist” anymore and all of a sudden, it all came back to me. This time, instead of paint and paintbrush, through words and keystrokes. I learned how to reclaim the artist in me. I learned not to berate myself for no longer being an “artist” just because I haven’t picked up a brush in years. The artist in me still lives on.
Sometimes, I still get jealous of former classmates from art school. The ones who look like Suicide Girls and have model pictures and tattoos. The ones who have accomplished a quirky, artsy and independent lifestyle and are self-published writers, artists and filmmakers. The grass is always greener on the other side, even when I’m having an Elizabeth Gilbert-esque Eat, Pray, Love adventure of my own.
I lost my muse and she disappeared when criticism, judgment and perfectionism stepped in. When your heart is hurting, you live life in a more raw existence. This allows you not to pre-judge anything. What you get is pure raw emotion. On paper. On canvas. The conditions are ripe for creativity. When I get jealous of other creatives, what I’m doing is only keeping myself further away from creativity, by letting judgment set in.
All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. – Picasso
We all possess creativity, the problem is how to tap into it. I think of creative source as a consciousness. Creativity can be described as a “Gift from God”. We all have the ability to tap into it, but some seem able to more than others. Empty your cup. Let all prejudice and judgment go, and creativity can begin again. Give yourself permission to make bad art. Give yourself the leniency to explore and take your time. In time, maybe I’ll find my brushes again.
Imagine being discontent with life working in X humdrum job in X corporation and deciding to leave your whole life behind, walking out the door with only $150 to your name, and never looking back. For two plus years, the only life you’ll know is the road, hitchhiking your way from place to place, friendly strangers who change your life, a mix of couchsurfing experiences and different cultures along the way.
With a dream to one day set foot in India, Artyom, a fellow traveler in the Buddhist monastery retreat, has done just that. His story starts from Russia, into the harsh, unforgiving cold winters of Siberia, crossing the border into China, and receiving $100 from a helpful stranger which would be the exact cost of a ticket to the Philippines. With details aside, his story can be echoed in the past with the beatnik generation, a la Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or in the wanderlust and adventure of Alexander Supertramp (of Into the Wild postmortem fame). Many have felt the call of the road or the nomadic call for travel, and many will continue to as job security continues to fail and global technologies and location independent careers make long term travel more accessible. Whether you are a hitchhiker, couchsurfer, backpacker, flashpacker or location independent professional nomad, the seeds of dissatisfaction from the status-quo bind together as the impetus for change; a change of scenery, sights, sounds, smells and people.
Travel, in and of itself, has a very Zen-like quality. The impermanence of travel teaches us to be aware of our constantly new surroundings and live more easily in the moment, but travel on the road adds a whole new dimension. Leaving all wordly possessions behind, even selling all your furniture as I’ve done, marks an emptying of your self; a letting go of your past life as you once knew it. Being able to “lose yourself” to find yourself. It is a road–a journey–into emptiness.
Emptying Your Cup
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.” – Zen Koan
Emptying your cup means letting go of all past knowledge and perceptions and allowing yourself to look at life and experiences with fresh “new” eyes. It is not a negation of the self, but a full embracing of the self and humanity. Be like a sponge to new experiences, places, and people. Realize that all people are mostly good, and have faith in humanity. The road to emptiness is a minimalistic approach to a Zen lifestyle and the road an excellent Zen teacher. It takes a complete leap of faith to trust in the kindness of strangers, and the randomness of the Universe. Hitchhiking is the “hardest” form of travel, but in many ways can also be the most rewarding.
Sometimes You Have to Lose Yourself to Find Yourself
Getting lost is all part of the journey. When I broke up with an ex almost 2 years ago, we co-habited together and shared a mortgage. I moved out, and he kept most of our acquired furniture and possessions. For me, letting go of the possessions was liberating myself from a past life. I didn’t want to deal with “fairness” and equal splitting because I came in with little possessions and left with less. For me, It only solidified the fact that I was the drifter coming into his life. When I sold and gave away most of my remaining possessions to help get me to Asia, it was another load off my proverbial chest. I was prepared to get even more lost than ever before. I guess popular culture calls this the “quarter-life crisis” (I’m past the quarter century mark but it’s been building up since then) but for me, life is no longer a state of crisis. I’m enjoying every minute of being “lost” and I don’t want to be found!
Letting go of my possessions and of my self, “emptying my cup”, has been essential in helping me find out who I am, what my passions are and what drives me. It’s been nearly two months at the monastery. Two months of seeing transcendence in the mundane. Two months of routine in the presence. Two months of a vastly different life. Two years ago, I was living in my own house. A year ago, I was living with two gay guys and their three male cats and a whole new group of friends. Who am I? Am I lost? I don’t even know what my “real life” is anymore because each year is so vastly different. Empty my cup. Live in the moment.
The Road to Emptiness
My own journey is still at the monastery, but in August, I will be going to Taiwan for another monastery stay at their headquarter temple. After that, my wanderlust soul is tempted to walk the entire island of Palawan, Philippines with a local. The journey would be 280 miles of jungle and beaches. Since Palawan is the least developed island of the Philippines, it is also one of the most gorgeous. The vision is that we would journey on a “peace walk”. Traveling, teaching and exchanging our various skills to the people we meet along our way. He is skillfully trained in Kali/Eskrima, a Filipino Martial Art style that was most notably used for the training of Matt Damon’s role in the Bourne Identity trilogies. Learning Filipino martial arts was also part of my bucket list for the year and he’s mentioned that we could train. If this is the Road to Emptiness and learning how to let go of the self, it sounds good to me! Experiencing culture in an intimate way, on foot, with cool, clear night skies and the stars as our blanket is something no tourist rarely sees.
One thing Artyom lives by when on the road is the philosophy that asking for help is completely OK and necessary. What’s the worst that can happen when you ask for help? Either they say yes and you get what you want or they say no and you carry on as before. You don’t lose anything with the no but you gain so much with a simple yes. Faith is tested while you’re on the road. The age old rules of “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” and “you sow what you reap” is part of the exchange. Being on the road is a karmic system. Do good deeds and treat others kindly. If you give genuine kindness without expecting anything in return, situations will start turning in your favor. This is the Zen lessons of the road.
Recently, I shaved my head. What I neglected to mention was how hard it was to do it! First, I got a passive aggressive “no” from the monks and fa shi (teacher) from the temple. I finally realized why look for approval and validation for a hair cut choice when you are your own master of your life? Something Buddhism teaches. I knew I needed to let go and detach myself from any outside opinions and criticisms. I knew that by shaving my head, I was actually practicing Buddhism Dharma teachings of non-attachment or detachment in the best way I knew how in this moment! Booyah, Buddhism!
The first two barber shops refused to shave my head. It was wild, and I guess it didn’t help that my already softspoken voice was extra quiet and timid. I didn’t come in with conviction but they referred me to another shop around the corner. To my delight, the person shaving my head was a ladyboy! An irony since we were both participating in gender bending. What I would like to do but probably never do is get some tasteful nudes taken of me with a shaved head, because androgyny is fun and sexy with feminine boobies (unless you have manboobs, in which case, I’m sorry).
That’s not the point of this post, though. The point is, even though I shaved my head, I won’t be turning into a monk anytime soon (or, ever), or joining the military (I mean com’n. What kind of monk poses nude?). While this monastery retreat is NOT monastic training, it does give us a shallow glimpse into monastic way of life and culture. I’m surprised and delighted to find that some of my co-learners are set on becoming a monk, have thought about becoming a monk, or are making the important decision soon enough. The beauty of gathering 12 people together to learn about Buddhism is that we all have our own unique goals, mindsets, temperaments and cultures. For me, I’d rather take my samsara (suffering) cycle and embrace my layperson life. Guys are worth the suffering; the manic ecstacy and depression. Detachment from suffering, emotions, life, seems like a life not worth living. Some of my most profound moments have happened at my lowest times. The ability to go through failures, mistakes, rough times is actually a stasis for growth. For me, the beauty of life is the layperson life, but for some, who aren’t interested in wordly affairs and carnal pleasures, monkhood would be a great path. For a girl who writes erotica in her free time (or more like: thinks about writing it and attempts to but never starts or finishes), it’s not the life for me.
What is the life for me? Kirsty asked what my 10 year goal was, and I let it sit in the back of my head to be answered later. The downside of living life in the moment, wherever the wind blows me, and flying by the seat of my pants is that I hardly have any real plans or goals. I have “ideas”, not goals. Goals intimidate me, but ideas are free; able to percolate and come into fruition in their own time.
The truth is, I don’t have a 10 year plan, or goal. I can’t live my life that linearly. I refuse to. Why give myself expectations that will only disappoint and try to build a constricting frame that might not fit? I’d rather be an open canvas! My 10 year idea is pretty simple and only consists of two major things.
Family Building and Solopreneurship
I can’t be a monk because I DO have some “traditional” ideas of family. While I make it a point to seem inherently non-traditional, I’m actually quite conservative when it comes to relationships and family. I don’t believe in divorce, and consequentially, I’m not quite sure I believe in marriage either (though I DO believe in gay marriage and feel that it will revive the institution but that’s beside the point). The reasons I’m single is that I couldn’t be bothered with frivolous dating or hookup culture. I feel that if I’m going to be with someone, it better be someone I feel I could have longterm potential with. I’ll try not to fit square pegs in round holes if that’s not the case, but I’m very choosy when it comes to finding partnership. Dating just doesn’t cut it for me, or even looking. Still, I’d love to have a family, someday, in its own time.
The balance between being career driven and family oriented is a hard one. In one extreme, as the stay-at-home mom, I feel you run the risk of losing yourself and on the other extreme, you won’t be able to give the love and attention that a child needs if you start a family. I am willing to lose myself in being a mother but I’m also willing to find myself and rediscover what I can offer. Being a solopreneur not only makes traveling and working from anywhere easier, it could also feasibly make raising a child at home easier as well! I’ve tried being the career woman. I learned after college and two professional jobs as a graphic designer that working “in the rat race” and “Corporate America” or “working for the man” was not who I was or am meant to be. It sucked the life out of me.
How can I do this better?
I’m still trying to find this out. In reality, career development is the area I feel least confident in. I guess I’m hoping this travel journey will help me figure it out along the way. I know I’m lost, but for once, I don’t want to be found! I’m having a pretty great time exploring and having fun. Future? Anxiety? Puh-lease! I’ve been entertaining the idea of traveling for several years and being a “professional nomad”; working along the way. Wouldn’t it be romantic if I found a nomadic adventurer willing to rule the world with me? No expectations, but I can dream right?
My “traditional” family won’t be living in a house with a picket fence. I’ll blaze my trail and find my own tradition. Here’s a hint: I already am.
Here’s the dillio (Dealy yo? Who says that anymore!?) Imagine me. Nineteen years old and fresh out of high school. A little bit punky. A little bit riot grrl. And maybe a whole lot of emo. I had a boyfriend I wasn’t really into but was too afraid of being Alone. Picture the kind of mental instability that is your teens and early twenties, a bundle of un-confidence and raw emotion; a wanting to push status-quo, with my short pixie spiked hair and Chuck Taylor exterior, and a not-so-brave interior. I wanted to shave my head then. Own my non-conformity. I wanted to prove to myself that I could “pull it off”. But, I couldn’t do it. Would I look ugly? Would people think I was a lesbo? Dyke? Butch? Oh, the horror!
The Butch-y Buddhist
Eight years later and I am living an ascetic (as I’ll ever be) lifestyle at a Buddhist monastery for four months (3 left, and counting…). I have always wanted to shave my head at least once in my life just to try it. Why not? Consider it on my bucket list. What better way to finally shave my head than living monastically (loosely speaking) and studying Buddhism, right? Right. I mean, sex and sexuality are so beyond my current plane of existence that I might as well be little buddha (unenlightened folk don’t deserve capital letters).
The implications of a shaved head in normal society are a cause of concern for many. Butch! Dyke! Lesbo! My classmates say I look like a little boy, butch, lesbo, GI Jane, a hot lesbian (at least I look like a hot one!) and my personal favorite: Mulan (heck yeah, she kicks ass!). Shaving my head is a personal choice to detach from my hair, from the concepts of beauty, from social norms, and from the status-quo. It takes a certain kind of confidence for women to shave their head. Confidence in their sexuality; enough not to be bothered by social expectations and implications. Confidence in their gender and gender roles; enough not to be bothered by the androgynous look. The decision and outcome is completely liberating, and at least for me, completely mind blowing.
For me, sexuality is fluid. I’m more straight than gay but not quite straight, either. That’s entirely natural and entirely OK. Eight years ago, I wouldn’t have been comfortable with “what society thinks”, but now? I couldn’t care less. Buddhism has taught me the power of non-attachement. And finally being comfortable in my sexuality is mind blowing (note to self: stop thinking about the blowing part now).
If Britney Spears Can Shave Her Head At Her Worst, I Can Do It At My Best
These days, I feel (figuratively, and now, literally) lighter. Happier. More joyful. Maybe it’s this simple routine here. The meditation. The healthy, vegetarian meals. Everything and Nothing all at once. Eight years ago, I would have never done what I am now unafraid to do. It takes courage. It’s mind blowing. Exhilarating. Liberating. Heartening. And while I know that this happiness is not permanent, I’m enjoying each and every moment while I can.
There’s a sort of craziness that happens when you’re at peace and at one with yourself. Not the Britney Spears manic kind of crazy. Not the get-your-life-together-you’re-so-messed-up sort of crazy. More like a life-is-so-beautiful-and-you’re-talking-to-yourself-and-singing-like-your-life-is-a-musical sort of crazy. Or sensory overload with 11 other people who are just as crazy as you are 24/7. Or just laughing a lot for no reason, talking to bugs to say you didn’t mean to hurt them, or dancing crazy to Bjork sort of crazy.
Or you know. Shaving your head sort of crazy.
Despite the detachment to hair, beauty, or social norms, I am still vain. The paradox of myself. I still want to be able to “pull it off” when I shave my head. Sometimes I look in the mirror and think I look like a boy, or a lesbian and think this probably isn’t the best look for me. Other times I look in the mirror and think “damn, I’m sexy!” I had a whole photoshoot full of pictures that I will share out of simple vanity. The semi-bald yogi.
When most people think of meditation, they think of sitting monks or yogi’s in half or full lotus pose.
When you sit, just sit.
Zen Buddhism is the Japanese version of Chinese Chan Buddhism. Buddhism started in India and then spread to parts of Asia including China and finally Japan. What the West has popularized as “Zen” has been in practice in China before Japan. The modern day Zen aesthetic and minimalistic Zen lifestyle is romanticized in Japanese culture. Chan and Zen are virtually the same thing, with slight (respective language) cultural differences but the same practice.
Because I am more familiar with Zen Buddhism, as it’s called in Japan, the type of sitting meditation we practice is Zazen, or just sitting. This main practice of Zen is to study the self and most importantly, focus on the breath. Where do your thoughts go and how do you observe it? Count your breath and focus on true awareness. The back should be perfectly straight in posture, and your tongue should rest on the roof of your mouth, touching just behind the teeth. Practitioners are suggested to count each inhalation and exhalation of the breath from one to ten, starting over at one again and so on. This technique allows you to stay present. If any thought arises, simply observe the thought and let it go. Do not suppress the thought, for that is attachment to the thought. Think of yourself as an outside observer watching your mind wander. Do not try to control it, just see where it takes you and let it go, taking your focus back to your breath. The mind is a funny thing. It acts as if it has a mind of its own. Thoughts seem to wander as if uncontrollably.
Sometimes, meditation is physically and emotionally exhausting. My body feels like its just run a marathon! If I’m ever lost in the woods, all I’ll do is meditate and I’ll be able to keep myself warm. Beads of sweat drip down my chest, back and arms. We sit here for 30 minutes straight, trying not to move a muscle, and focusing on our breath. Tingling pain drives up my foot and into my legs halfway through the session. In full lotus pose, my foot falls asleep. The numbness starts to become euphoric.
Sometimes, my mind wanders to thoughts I thought I had buried or dealt with, but they have resurfaced. Memories I don’t want to relive. Nothing bad, but bittersweet nostalgia that I want to let go. It is like an emotional detoxing. Once my mind wanders to these emotionally draining memories, I am able to finally let them go and rid myself of the emotion. This letting go process is spiritually, emotionally and mentally draining. Sometimes, I want to cry. I don’t though.
All this detoxing is immeasurably better than how I used to deal with my emotions. The waves are only little ripples now. I observe my self and I’m gone. I exercise to feel better, to shake it off. No longer bothered by my past.
So, I don’t exactly run circles in open fields covered in daisies singing Kumbayah, nor do I hug trees, smoke pot, take hallucinogenic drugs and practice free love, but one thing is for sure: I am a hippy. I used to be uncomfortable with such a word. The image. The connotation. The pot. Modern day hippies have long hair, often in dreadlocks, listen to Reggae and are all about Peace and Love, right? I’m not really like that, except I do like Peace. And Love. Lately, I’ve been learning how to embrace my inner hippy child.
I grew up in Oregon. The land of liberal progressives, where Portland has green friendly recycling receptacles throughout the city and US’s first Cannabis Cafe. Volkswagon buses aren’t uncommon sights; they are normal everyday fare that “keeps Portland weird” and add color and flavor to the state. Many residents are adventurers that prefer the “natural” or “rugged” look. We have naked hot springs and naked beaches, and a throbbing vegetarian/vegan community (complete with a Vegan strip club), excellent public transportation and a penchant for biking commutes. While not all of these traits are exclusive to hippies, and not all Oregonians are hippies, it’s certainly a good start to fester a hippy outlook.
I’m not sure whether living in Oregon most my life is the culprit of my life philosophies. Nature vs. nurture. Does my environment shape my personality or is my personality something I am born with; inherently linked to a hippy attitude? I am a dreamer, a non-conformist, an idealist, a romantic, a pacifist, and a giver. I’ve been told I was a quiet baby, and I’m a quiet adult. Being a hippy is more than the form and image of how a hippy should dress like, act like and like culturally.
I don’t like labels but I always get stuck on them. I am not a hippy because I don’t dress like one! I am not a hippy because I’m drug free! But beyond the form lies something deeper. Anti-war (check), pacifism (check), peace and love (check and check)? That’s me. I’ve always been a bohemian, a beatnik, a hippy, and a drive that has taken the form of becoming a nomad. Call it what you may, it’s virtually the same thing. Unconventionalism, non-conformism, that’s me too. I love the introspection that nature brings, and embracing people, culture and communities. The thing is, being a “hippy” is just a name that grew from a social movement in the 60s for a particular ideal. Those ideals existed before the movement, and before the term. Cultures and movements form and we’ve got “hippies” or “gypsies” or “bohemians”, but at the heart of the form are unified ideals that speak to me.
When Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous book Walden, the ideal to get back to nature, simplicity, and journeying to spiritual self discovery became a guidebook for many. Ideals, at their core, are always going to be around before people lead movements and start calling themselves “hippies” or “beats” or what have you. I’m learning to embrace my ideals and the form that may come from them. Travel, for me and many other travelers, is a modern-day version of Thoreau’s journey. Travel can become a spiritual quest, or an exploration on personal values. A deeper, and broadening viewpoint of the world helps to understand ourselves and eachother.
My inner hippy child is free and present. I’m living in the moment, enjoying simple pleasures in life, and smiling. A lot. I’m running barefoot, eating vegetarian, and practicing yoga once a week. I’m completely lost, but I don’t worry about my future, and right now, I could care less about being found.
I may have found my next travel adventure! A 5 day retreat with a completely vegetarian, raw foods diet, art, yoga, martial arts, meditation, and interpretative “inner dance” in Palawan island, Philippines! While the experience is a bit “weird”, learning to embrace my inner hippy ideals helps me realize this is totally up my alley and something of benefit that I would enjoy wholeheartedly. Flying by the seat of my own pants has always been a natural approach for me, but living it in a different culture has been a delightful and grounding experience that makes me think maybe I’m a natural hippy after all.
We are dressed in light blue-gray monks robes, or hai qing [hai ching], for laypeople. The tuk-tuk-tuk of a wooden block being banged by a mallet tells us that its time to eat. Gathering in a line alongside the eating table, facing eachother by gender, we wait for the monk to join us in bow before we begin seating ourselves in complete silence in front of dishes that are already served. The monk leads a prayer in Chinese that we have all, by now, memorized. The translation was given to us the first week, but still, it is a bunch of gibberish in new sounds and syllables that sound soothingly melodic and foreign.
There’s a certain way to eat, and a certain way to hold our rice bowls and pick up our chopsticks. Rules and guidelines to follow. All twelve of us in complete silence. If we want more food, we push our plates forward and use signals with our chopsticks for the servers to come and bring us more. Our posture must be completely straight for better digestion. Shoulders relaxed. We must finish everything on our plate, and if the server dishes us more than we can eat, we have to take it away at the beginning of our meal, right after the prayer. This is the monastic way of eating.
When you wash the dishes, just wash the dishes.
When you eat, just eat.
Every moment is an opportunity for meditation. Meditation, simply put, is the ability to stay present in the things that you do; being mindful of your thoughts and the task at hand.
How does the food taste? Is the rice warm, sticky, and fresh? Or cold and a day old? If you eat too fast, you might not be able to stop and enjoy it before its gone! Enjoy each flavor, and the flavors that mesh together when you mix the food on your plate and into your mouth. Feel the textures and flavor in your tongue palate. Concentrate on just eating. This is what I’m learning at the monastery. When you’re busy with chatter, or multi-tasking in front of a computer, you don’t appreciate the simple pleasures of food. You eat more than you need, blindly taking more and more before you realize that you’re full. There are so many times that I crave food, like ice cream, that by the time I eat it it’s gone in less than a minute! I realize that the craving tastes better in my mind than the actual food.
I’m eating vegetarian. While not all Buddhists practice a vegetarian lifestyle, it is encouraged for ethical reasons due to the philosophy of not hurting any sentient beings. A typical meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner–is three types of vegetable dishes, a bowl of rice, and a bowl of soup. Often, noodles are served, and bread instead of soup for breakfast.
Sometimes, I really miss a good ‘ole American breakfast. Hashbrowns and omelets and waffles and pancakes. But, I don’t miss meat.
The Chinese have a unique way about nutrition. Everything is colors and taste; engaging our senses. Instead of the typical “food pyramid”, we have balanced meals based on five colors of food (white, black, yellow, red/orange, and green) and five tastes (sour, spicy, sweet, etc.). It’s weird, but it works.
We aren’t supposed to eat in between meals, but the gap between lunch at 11:30am and dinner at 6:00pm is tough. Sometimes, I eat snacks that we get to buy once a week, but I am trying to control my hunger and drinking water instead. I’m trying to get by as purely as I can in this program, getting the most out of my experience as closely as possible (still working on the shaved head thing). While several rules and guidelines are set in place, it’s our own personal choice to follow them. Like the craving for ice cream, but the control not to eat it, knowing that I’d rather eat healthier than feed my body the typical junk to satisfy my huge sweet tooth. When you eat, just eat. There’s no room for emotional eating at the monastery. It would be good for my body to abstain.