Friday, September 16, 2011

More Metta, Please!

In honor of Laker Ron Artest officially changing his name to Metta World Peace today, I thought I'd write about metta.   Not the man named Metta, but metta.

"What the hell does his first name mean?" you may ask. We all know what his new last name - World Peace - is, if not in reality, then at least in theory.  

And while world peace may not be something that can happen overnight,  metta is entirely possible right now, right here, in this very moment as you read this blog or pump gas or say hello to your nosy neighbor.  And it's impact could very well lead to world peace!  

Ron - oops, Metta World Peace - might be on to something. 

In Buddhism, metta is a Pali word (maitri in sanskrit) and is one of the four brahmavijaras - aka the four immeasurables or higher emotions of:  metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha.

Metta is loving kindness, karuna is compassion and mudita is appreciative joy - like when your nosy neighbor gets a bonus at work and buys a brand new Lexus.  You're happy for him, right?  Right?  Hellooo?  And finally upekkha, or equanimity - that unflappable, even quality you maintain in the midst of whatever is thrown your way, like your neighbor's tendency to point out how your crappy '83 Honda Civic is on its last legs.
We cultivate these higher emotions, these sublime and limitless qualities of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity in our meditation practice so that they become second nature.  Practice may not make "perfect", but practice makes a happier, fulfilling, more peaceful life for yourself and those around you.

Metta is many things: unconditional friendliness, warm-heartedness, love, the wish for others to be truly happy, caring for others and expecting nothing in return.  However, there is a return on this kind of stuff.  Try it and see.

When we engage in metta practice, we practice sending to others loving kindness and the wish for their happiness.  We practice metta in our meditation and we practice it as we move through our daily lives.

And what Easterners have known for thousands of years, the West is slowly starting to recognize. Metta practice helps us with everything from chronic pain to better focus to general well being, a sense of connection with others and improved relationships.  

Personally, metta practice has helped me to not just feel warmth, love and forgiveness for those who have hurt me, but has actually changed how people respond to me, changed my relationship to myself and others, and therefore, changed my reality.

But sending metta to myself has been truly transformational.  As I got over how incredibly foreign and uncomfortable it was for me to send loving kindness my own way - whether I thought I deserved it or not - more of my inherent goodness began to shine through.  My creativity enhanced, my humor increased and so did my willingness to take risks, dream big, love deep.  I waste much less time on self loathing.  This is enjoyed not just by me, but by those around me as my best friends and boyfriend will attest.  How we treat ourselves is how we treat others.  Duh, right? 

And there is no way I would have been able to go in to countless seedy bars and comedy clubs each night making people laugh without a heart filled with metta.  Whether faced with surly, unhappy comics...or a surly, unhappy audience, booker, producer, etc...I've experienced transformation whenever I carry a desire for all those around me to truly be happy.  Because, look: when people are happy, they're less of an a-hole, you know?  And so am I! 

So go ahead.  I dare you.  Wish for those around you to be truly, completely, utterly happy.  True happiness that comes not from outside gain or reputation, but from our true nature - within.

Metta lives in all of us; it is part of our true nature no matter how obscured it may have become over the years for us.  When we practice getting in touch with it, we start to trust it's always there and easily accessible. 

If you want to give metta practice a try, all you need is a comfortable, quiet place to sit.  Turn off your phones and give yourself 15 minutes.  Soon, you and your neighbor will be throwing back jello shots and Googling videos of cats.  Or porn.  Whatever brings you together.

Metta (loving-kindness) Meditation

Your heart
See, feel or imagine your heart as a glowing orb of golden light at the center of your chest. Feel its warmth, see its glow.  Don’t worry if it’s just a sliver of warmth and light.  And if you can’t tap in to it at all, simply trust it is there.  Whatever you have is enough. As you breathe in, this light gets brighter and warmer.  As you breathe out, that light and warmth from your heart spreads throughout your entire body. Allow yourself to relax and enjoy this feeling.  Continue breathing in, allowing your heart to get bright and warm and then breathing out, spreading this warmth and light throughout your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Do this as long as you like before beginning the sequence.

Being who is easy to love 
Now bring to mind a being that is easy to love. Usually this is a child or pet, but can be a friend or family member if you like. This is a being who, when you think of them, instantly and easily warms and opens your heart.  Feel your heart get bright and warm. Send this warmth and light, this loving-kindness, to that being, along with the wish for their genuine happiness.  There is a limitless supply of this loving-kindness within your heart. 

Bring to mind yourself.  See yourself standing before you.  Not you when you have your act together, but you as you are right now, with all your quirks and faults.  Feel your heart’s brightness and warmth.  Send this warmth and light, this loving-kindness you have generated, to yourself, along with the wish for your genuine happiness.

Family and friends for whom you are grateful 
Now bring to mind a family member or a friend that are you are grateful for, living or dead, and do the same. If you like, continue to bring to mind as many family members and friends as you like, doing the same.

~ If at any time, you lose contact with the warm, bright feeling of loving-kindness, recall the being that is easy to love, contact that feeling, and then continue. ~

Now bring to mind someone you don’t know; a person who you’ve recently seen at the store, on the street, standing in line somewhere.  Send them that same bright, warm loving-kindness from your heart along with the wish for their happiness.

Difficult person 
Now bring to mind someone difficult.  It doesn’t have to be the most difficult person in your life.  Perhaps it’s simply someone who has rubbed you the wrong way.  Send them this same bright, warm loving-kindness from your heart along with the wish for their happiness.

All beings everywhere 
Now imagine the light from your heart getting bigger and brighter and shining through the pores in your body. You are now glowing and shining this light of loving-kindness from all directions: your front, your sides, and your back. This light and warmth from your heart continues to grow and shine out more and more and it reaches all beings in your neighborhood, then your city, then your state, the country, the continent, around the world, the universe and beyond. Send this warm, bright light and loving kindness you have generated, along with the wish for their happiness, to all beings everywhere.

 After awhile allow the image of all beings everywhere to fade...

...And simply rest in this light and loving-kindness.

When you’re ready, bring yourself back to where you are now, to your body, to your breathing and open your eyes.  

* Metta is sent to yourself after the being that is easy to love fans the flames of your heart and gets your metta going.  This is because sending it to yourself creates a foundation from which you can send it to others and move through the world with a heart full of metta. Students often have a hard time sending metta to themselves (just do your best!) and often forget this part. Here in the West, we love our self loathing; we are under the delusion that we need it.  Don't forget this part!
~ ~ ~

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'm Full Of It

­­I am full.  Of shit perhaps?  Maybe.

But I also feel filled to the brim with words and premises and punchlines and ideas for jokes that I don’t give a crap about right now.  Full of dates on a calendar and schedules and appointments and to do lists and plans for building the life of my dreams!

I’m exhausted.

But this is in stark contrast to another life, where I spent many years stuck. Years and years holding back, fearful and not doing much toward getting unstuck.  I worked, came home, watched TV and complained about my life.  I call this sticky, stuck-y chunk of time The Couch Years.

During The Couch Years I was not saying yes to life.  When life came calling I said:

“How did you get this number?” and promptly hung up.

Finally, the desire to become unstuck had become greater than the limited comfort of being stuck.  Armed with my new found meditation practice, more clarity and my rediscovered gut…and I was OFF!  Off the couch and running. 

At first it was a slow jog, but in recent years it has become an all-out sprint.

So much to do!  So much to be! Answer the call!  Got to say yes to life after years of saying no!

Then in 2008, a life-threatening health scare landed me in the hospital and after almost kicking the bucket, I fully felt the preciousness of life.  I was filled with a desire to live fully, even if my fear and doubt decided to tag along.  Nothing could stop me.  I ramped up my comedy schedule more and more, getting up to do comedy every chance I had.  And I started teaching meditation on top of my job as a massage therapist.  Writing and working and teaching and performing and keeping up with my Facebook page and emails and texting while driving (whaaaat?) and cramming 28 hours worth of stuff in to 24 hours a day.

And then I met my amazing boyfriend!  I decided sleep was overrated as I added sheer bliss, romance and love on to my plate.

And this past year I re-invented my meditation workshops in to Comedy Karma and Creativity Karma, delightfully filling my schedule even more. Wake up, meditate, go go go, love, work, make people laugh, teach, work, make my boyfriend's cats laugh and keep saying yes to life.

People remarked: "I don't know how you do all of this!" and "You're always so busy!"

The Couch Years seemed long behind me.   In fact, I forgot I even had a couch. 

Oh yeah.  I forgot about balance.

This hit me like a ton of bricks a couple of months ago when I got slammed with a bad flu and found myself…on the couch.

I realized something.  After all those years of saying "no", now it seemed all I was doing was saying "yes".  Balance is knowing when to say yes and no.  When you have your eye on the bigger picture, saying no to some things becomes a yes to other things you value.
Thank Buddha for my meditation practice.  Otherwise I don’t know how I could have done this schedule and all this craziness the past several years.  

The thing about meditation is it gets you in touch with the experience of vast spaciousness so that creativity can blossom and form can come in to being.  You begin to know the difference between your gut and fear.  Meditation strengthens your mind so that you become very focused and very effective, wherever you place your mind. And there are countless other fruit it bears...

So my meditation practice has contributed to my being able to accomplish and do so much: alertness, focus, concentration, personal power.

But I still have lots of opportunity to practice the other things my meditation practice helps teach me: relaxation, openness, spaciousness, trust.

Trusting that things will unfold, rather than my having to jump in and make them happen.   Rather than wanting results now.  Or losing sight of the present moment.  And gripping tightly to outcomes.

Enjoying what is, and acting from a place of enthusiasm and joy, rather than trying to make up for lost time…for all that time on the couch.

 So I've cut back on performing and the gigs I'm saying yes to.

Comedy Karma workshops are on hold till June.

And in a couple of days, I’m leaving for ten day silent meditation retreat.

I want to start trusting that I won’t go back to the couch.  Between the highway and the couch there is a path of balance.  The couch in itself is not “bad”.  The couch can be a healing, resting place when used in balance with action.  Stillness and action.  Rest and movement.  Balance.

My intention is to empty out so that I can make room for the next steps on my path of balance.  To empty out so that insight and creativity can arise.  So that the familiar experience of oneness with the Universe can fill me up.
Shamatha is a foundational practice I’ll be using while on retreat.  Buddhist meditation includes shamatha (tranquility) and vipassana (insight) practice.  Shamatha is key to creating a strong, focused, tranquil mind so that one may have lasting insights in to the nature of mind and the nature of reality.

Follow your breath.  No need to change it or "do" anything; just watch it.  Hold it tenderly.  Remain on the breath and after many, many breaths and the breath drops away, remain on the spot where you perceived the breath.  Be led in to experiencing emptiness.  

For instructions on doing shamatha at home, click here

Friday, March 18, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe Easy

Whenever a tragedy occurs, like the earthquake, tsunami and impending nuclear meltdown in Japan, there is a collective grief that hangs in the air.   Everyone feels it.

What do we do in the face of such suffering?

We might turn away.  Or obsess over CNN.  Or feel overwhelmed, guilty, helpless, numb.  We may become more self absorbed as a defense to such enormous grief and then think: "How can I be so obsessed with my little life when there's bigger fish to fry in the universal pan?"

In Buddhism, the first Noble Truth that "life is suffering" is not a proclamation that "life sucks".  It's a truth urging us to be more willing to face suffering squarely.  To really look in to its eyes.  When we practice this, we can handle anything that comes our way.

There is a belief – especially in recent years – that we must think only happy thoughts and to avoid, avert and distract ourselves from what is.  We avoid "bad energy" at all costs and after awhile, we're living like ostriches, with our blindfolded head in the pink sand, believing that this will attract shiny happy things in our lives.  This way of living can actually create more fear.  It can make us live smaller.

And facing suffering, understanding suffering, doesn’t mean being glued to the TV watching horribleimage after horrible image for hours on end.  This, actually, can be a hysterical indulgence after a certain point.

So what do you do?

You could donate to The Red Cross, you could call to make sure friends and relatives are safe, you could organize a benefit.  But beyond this, what the hell do you do in order to understand such suffering on a deep level?  I don't know completely.  But I've been doing Tonglen.

Tonglen is a beautiful practice for suffering.  Basically, you breathe in suffering and you breathe out relief.  You actually relate to suffering, rather than turn away.  Rather than worry and obsess.  Rather than wish things were different. 

The Buddhist path is one of fearlessness.  When you truly feel that nothing in life can touch your inner sense of grace, deep peace and happiness, you become braver in life.  You take risks.  You live bigger.  You're happier.

Funny, that.

So.  What to do in the face of such suffering?  When there is seemingly no compassionate action you can take in the moment?  Try Tonglen.

Heart of Bodhicitta:
Get in contact with your open, loving, wise heart.  If you have trouble with this, just think of you at your best.  This heart is from where all your good deeds have ever sprung.  This is a place of spaciousness, wisdom, stillness, clarity, compassion and loving kindness.  A collection of all that is good in you.  Trust me, it’s there.  If you don’t think you have it, borrow someone else’s.  Hell, Angelina Jolie’s will work.  Or Mother Theresa.  Or your great grandma.  But see it as a beautiful orb of light in the center of your chest.  Maybe golden light, or pure white light.  However this resonates with you, get in contact with your heart of bodhicitta, your inherent goodness and compassionate wisdom that is there.  Rest your attention here for a while.  Count to ten breaths.

Breathe In Suffering:
Now see the suffering of another, perhaps a loved one, as a black cloud.  It’s hot and thick.  Breathe this black cloud of suffering in to your spacious, open, loving heart.  Your heart uses it for fuel and…

Breathe Out Relief:
...As you breathe out, exhale relief to those in suffering in the form of this beautiful light from your heart.  Exhale compassion, loving kindness, stillness, expansive clarity and wisdom.  All that is limitless and true in your heart of bodhicitta.  Let these qualities touch and relieve those beings who suffer.

In, suffering, out, relief.  In, blackness, out, light.

We want to not do such a thing, right?  I mean, breathing in suffering?  Are you nuts?  Try it anyway.

Breathe in the suffering of others.  Focus on a single being at first.  Perhaps a woman who has lost her child in the tsunami.  A nuclear plant worker.  A dog who cannot find its master, roaming the devastated shoreline.

Breathe in your own suffering; your own resistance to life, your resistance to your meditation practice, your resistance to washing the dishes after dinner and the fight you always get in to with your loved one about it.

Breathe in the truth of life; that we all have suffering of some kind or another, taking various shapes and forms that are no more and no less suffering.

Breathe out the truth of inherent wisdom, kindness, compassion, spaciousness, stillness, clarity.

Eventually, with this practice, you begin to hold suffering and bodhicitta together, in the palm of the same hand, neither fearing and averting, nor attaching and preferring.  It’s all of it.  Just like life.  

I do Tonglen for myself, for loved ones, for a woman with a suffering face in line at the grocery store.  For my parents, who did the best they could.  For ex boyfriends who didn't do whatever they didn't do.  For those who have caused harm to me.  For those to whom I've caused harm.  For a dear friend who's going through a breakup.  For an entire nation that is ravaged by loss and devastation. 

And I begin to be able to face the un-faceable.  And I begin to know there is something else there alongside all that suffering.

And low and behold I find I can truly handle whatever comes my way more often than not.  This breeds a trust that is always there.  Well, most of the time.   And so I keep practicing.  In and out.   In and out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

True Nature Calls

I’m all about growing and getting better at being human.  Let me clarify: not becoming a better human but getting better at being human.  Because this shit’s hard.  And I think there is an art to it.

I do a lot – I meditate, I’m in therapy, I read spiritual books, I am consciously trying to break patterns and habits that do not serve me or the world.  It’s a full time job.  And some days I just feel like screaming:


So I let myself be stuck and miserable and feel sorry for myself.  And I really let it wash over me.  I’m a method actress, you know.  I get in to it.  I'm that good.  And after about a day of honoring how I feel - which is so important - I think:

"Wow.  This sucks.  This is actually a lot harder than doing it the other way."

So then I go back to growing and changing and evolving and expanding and transforming and transcending.  Which actually feels easier on some level.  Maybe because the Universe is always growing and changing and evolving and expanding and transforming and transcending.  So it must be that when I am, too, I'm in sync.  I am aligned.  I am honoring my true nature.

We're all prone to bad days.  And we're all meant to thrive. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?

Life is tough.  Often, things don’t go the way we want.  It’s messy, imperfect and unpredictable.  Plus, it’s always changing.  Just when things get comfy and we believe we have some ground under our feet, shit happens.  And we resist it.  That makes things worse.  So this covers at least two “marks of existence”, according to Buddhism: suffering and impermanence.

Oh!  And that suffering and impermanence business I just mentioned is always about ourselves.  Me, me, me.  It’s all about me!  How can I make this about meeeee?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, covers the third and final “mark of existence” known as not self.  In a nutshell, we perceive everything through the lens of self and really, in the largest sense, it’s not about us.

Which brings me to me.  I had a bar show the other night that I want to tell you about.  But before I get back to me (which I can assure I will) let’s just review for a moment those curious three marks of existence, that are the foundation of Buddhist teachings:

Suffering (dukkha)
Impermanence (anicca)
Not-Self (anatta)

You might be thinking: “That’s great, but what does this have to do with me?”  Aha!  Now you’re doing it.  OK, we’re all doing it.

Anyway, I had a bar show the other night.  Bar shows are unpredictable and messy.  There’s usually one or two tables that refuse to shut up and a TV is blaring with some sports game and the patrons who are supposed to be listening to your brilliant comedic rantings are wasted.  Not fun.  At least not for the comics.

There’s an old Catskills style joke that goes like this:

A man on a New York street stopped a passerby, asking:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The passerby replied: “Practice, practice, practice.”

A while back, I made the choice to view every challenge in life as an opportunity to practice something.

This came in handy in 2008, when I almost died.  Twice.  I had undiagnosed appendicitis and by the time the doc figured it out, some shit had not just gone down, it had hit the proverbial fan.  A raging infection, two surgeries, ongoing care from a nurse, much pain and uncertainty and four months later, I was finally able to get back to my life. 
When the first ghastly pangs of appendicitis started - during my birthday weekend, no less - and nobody could figure out what it was, I remember my inner voice saying stuff like:

"But it's my birthday!"

“I wish this wasn’t happening!”


"Why me?"

…and then a light bulb went off.  And I relaxed.  This is what’s happening.  Wishing it wasn’t will only compound my suffering.  So surrender.  Which is not resignation, by the way.  Surrender is not giving up, but giving over to whatever situation you find yourself in and meeting it fully.  And I had plenty of opportunity to practice this during the four-month-appendicitis-hell.   Which wasn't so hellish after all, thanks to the practice of surrender.
So back to something almost as painful as appendicitis: bar shows!

At the bar show the other night, waiting to go on, I took in the surroundings.  There was a table up front texting and talking, a few tables laughing and enjoying things (thankfully); a large table in back YELLING at each other throughout the entire show and some tables off to the side cheering whoever was winning the game on TV.  And the inner voices inside me were almost winning:

“Oh god, I wish I wasn’t here.  I wish they were listening.  I wish the sound system was louder” and on and on.

Right before I was about to get up on stage, my loving, wonderful, mind-reading boyfriend got up from his chair, whispering to me:

“That’s it.  I’m going to tell them to be quiet.” 

Heart flutters.  My prince!  But I paused a moment as the light bulb went off and I whispered back:

“Thank you, but don't say anything; it’s fine.”  And he got it.  He knows me so well.

I wanted to meet what is and work with it.  That’s the spiritual way of looking at it.  The comic’s way of looking at it?  I love a challenge, it’ll make me better, so bring it on, bitches!!

So I stepped up there and met the moment.  Dealing with TVs on, audience members who had no idea they were audience members and a noise level that rivaled the circus helped me get very present and very creative.  I was relaxed but on my toes. 

I didn’t compound my suffering by wishing it was different.  I practiced surrendering to what is and thus found a place from which to work with the situation.  In resistance, we can’t find that place.  Throughout my set, I picked and chose material that suited the circumstances.  Perhaps not a night to whip out the subtlest and smartest comedy material, but a night for material that would get their attention.  I talked to them.  I called out the situation and made fun of it.  But more than anything, I just worked with what was happening, even though I wanted to hate what was happening.

I kept practicing the release of the desire to make this about me.  My ego wanted to let the circumstances tell me something about my identity, my “self”, even though in a larger sense it really had nothing to do with me.  It was just another show.  Not self.  I wanted to listen to the inner voice that told me I’m a failure for still doing bar shows.  And that because I’m not performing at Carnegie Hall but instead at a place offering $5 baskets of shrimp, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me, my life and everything I stand for.  But I chose not to go there. Well, not completely.  Practice, practice, practice.  

And finally I practiced releasing attachment to things staying a certain way.  At various points during my set, they were listening instead of watching TV, laughing instead of drunkenly shouting to their friends.  But I accepted it might not stay that way.  ImpermanenceChange is the only constant we have.  I may have their attention now, but I refuse to take it personally or get thrown if two minutes from now they’re back to cheering on Kobe.  Or whoever has the football at the moment.  The Lakers are a football team, right?  Can’t remember.  Anyway, back to me.

Success!  I had a good time, the audience (that was listening) had a good time and miraculously some people who weren’t listening actually listened and even laughed.  Sure, I was proud of myself for meeting a small challenge like this with awareness.  The practice is paying off.  But then I proceeded to get in a fight with my boyfriend on the way home where I said things I wish I hadn’t and generally acted like an asshole. I’m human, what can I say?  We’re all trying to do our best.  Practice, practice, practice.

In every aspect of our lives, practice, practice, practice.  And eventually we will get to Carnegie Hall...whatever that is for each of us.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Distracted Thought...Or Devastatingly Brilliant One?

I teach meditation to a lot of artists, writers, comics, actors.  So I'm often asked what to do if, when you sit to meditate, creative ideas come forward.  Do you treat them as monkey mind and get back to meditating?  Do you sacrifice your day's meditation for the creative flow of ideas?  Do you set the ideas aside, trusting they'll be back later?  Just let them float by and label them as "thoughts"?  Or, in this case, brilliant, creative, innovative, the-world-must-know-of-this thoughts?

 A meditation practice opens you up to your creativity in a way that is astounding.  When we still our mind on a regular basis and "empty out", we then become a channel for inspiration to fill us up on a regular basis.  Suddenly we know exactly what to do with all those thoughts that seem to overflow in our minds.  It's like our mind is a closet that gets a makeover: because we've created some space, we now know just what to do with everything.  Many thoughts we let go of, like a purge to the Goodwill for unwanted thoughts.  Others are seen in a new light and appreciated.  And of course there is now space for new, amazing thoughts.  Except now, perhaps, we choose the thoughts that we let hang around in our closet more wisely.

When I create my most weird and fun and authentic and smart material as a comedian, I've usually meditated earlier.  And I notice my meditation practice gives me the discipline when I sit down to write, to actually write.  So when I sit down to meditate, I meditate.  Well, most of the time. 

Whenever we sit to meditate, the intention is to meditate.  But sometimes, creativity will come forward as soon as we get a little quiet and we may be inspired to get up and have a
creativity/writing/brainstorming session instead of a meditation session.

This is really the practitioner's call. The mind will always find something to take us away from our meditation, something more "important" (the dishes we have to do, that call we need to make, the worries that parade through our mind) and sometimes it can take the form of something noble like a "brilliant idea".

If it's a trickle of creative ideas, trust that they will be there when you finish your sit.  Keep letting them pass by like clouds and bring yourself back to the object of your meditation.  Chances are, if they're worth it, they will be clear and calling to you after the sit.  Really.

Let’s say the ideas are not a trickle but a stream. If you have a strong practice and know the difference between the monkey mind throwing poop at you and true inspiration, open your eyes and jot down some notes.  Keep a pad of paper (I do!) next to your meditation area and with discipline, open your eyes, jot down your notes and then set them aside.  Just as we set aside thoughts when we do certain concentration based meditations, do the same here.

If the creative thoughts are a flood, then perhaps you must get up and devote yourself fully to a creativity session rather than a meditation session.  Let it out!  Let it flow!  Enjoy it!

And then have the discipline to sit back down afterward and actually meditate.  Otherwise your monkey mind will begin to convince you each day, as you sit to meditate, that you have a new brilliant idea that must be attended to immediately.  Or that you MUST get up and Google yourself.  Or finish rearranging your underwear drawer.  And if you get in the habit of always interrupting your meditation session, you won't get very far in your practice.  You may get far in the screenplay and that's great!  But after you honor your flood of creativity and those re-writes on the third act you just immersed yourself in...sit back down before the day is through!  Balance, baby, balance.  And Googling yourself is never as fascinating as you think it's going to be.

Building a meditation practice that works with your creativity, your schedule, your temperament and your style is worth it.  It takes some determination and discipline, but once you're in the zone, it'll inform everything you do in your life.  And it'll be a large part of the reason you're having incredible creative downloads in the first place! (OK, now you can go Google yourself.  You know you want to.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

La Connection

A little over a week ago, I did a gig at The La Quinta Country Club.  La Quinta is an affluent resort town just outside of Palm Springs.  And I was to be the comedy entertainment at a 13 year old’s birthday party. Not for the 13 year olds in attendance – although I do have a joke about how lame 8th grade is that’s been totally killing since 9th grade – but for the 13 year olds’ family and family friends in the next room.  I have to say, doing stand up for the kids looked more promising when I first arrived.

Let’s just say this was not my demographic.  It was a lot of parents and grandparents.  I would have thought a comic who talks about being a mom would be best for the gig, but hey, I’m not one to turn down some dough in exchange for some dick jokes.  Which brings me to dick jokes.  Not that I really have any.  Comics sometimes like to refer to doing stand up as “telling dick jokes” in an attempt to belittle what we do.  After all, we’re just hired clowns telling dirty jokes, right?

Looking at the crowd, I worried.  These were white, upscale, conservative folks, many over the age of 60.  Again, not my demographic.  How would I connect to them? 

My job as a comic is to connect to people.  Making them laugh is good, too.  But first and foremost, I believe that good stand up is all about connection.  Bringing the room together.  Helping everyone there feel a connection not just to me but to each other.  And those connection moments of “aha!” where we realize we’re not alone in being human, sound like laughter.

The stage was set apart from the audience and the first two rows of tables were empty.  About 50 or 60 audience members sat at the back of the room sipping wine and I stood on a little stage waaaay across the other side of the room.   None of this is conducive to connection, let alone comedy.

I started out testing the waters…the jokes that usually go over well were met with stares and polite chuckles.  There was so much staring.  Ugh.  “TV has ruined peoples’ enjoyment of live events!” I thought.  Or maybe I sucked.  It’s all possible.  I looked at my watch: 2 minutes down, 43 minutes to go.

And I experienced that moment of: “Oh just give up” mixed with “I wish this was different/better/at least not as awful as it is”.  

But by having a meditation practice, I've learned to meet the moment, work with what is and remain curious and determined.  Wishing things were different, feeling bad for myself and resisting what is compounds suffering.  Meet the moment.  So I decided to meet them

From now on, I insist on doing comedy flanked by desert landscape paintings.
And by minute 3 I hopped off the stage, walked past the rows of empty tables up to the full tables and began talking to them.  Suddenly they realized they were not at home watching T.V. and sat up straighter, their eyes glinting, perhaps with fear and the chilling thought: “I hope this comic doesn’t talk to me.”  But I did.  And I learned so much!   Paul and Dina have been married a long time and Paul knows her cup size but Dina’s long forgotten it.  Shelly is in her 50s and single and has made a new year’s resolution to meet a man who will remember her cup size.  And Jenny is a saucy 70 + woman with five kids and five grand-kids she adores, all of whom have watched her cup size grow over the years.

By minute 10, there was a sort of cohesiveness to the room; everyone had been seen, acknowledged.  They loosened.  I loosened.  I had thought I needed to keep it clean, given the crowd, but I dropped an F-bomb early on to test the waters.  OK, good.  Now let’s talk about sex.  Aha.  Yep: everyone does it, has done it or wants to do more of it.  Like Shelly, whose new year's resolution involves doing a lot of it.  We’re all joined by relationships - to our spouses, significant others, our families, to each other.  Connection.

Minute 25 and there were still some people holding back and I respected that.  I didn’t get in their face.  I didn’t ask them questions.  But I acknowledged them, included them.  Minute 30 and guards were dropped.  Laughter was coming easily and in my closing 10 minutes I managed to slip in my one, actual dick joke.  I witnessed several people laughing so hard, they were choking on their pinot noir.  There was no more holding back from them.  They were with me.  I was with them.  We were all connected.  They applauded heartily and loudly as I left the stage and I heard a few “woot woot”s coming from the AARP members in the corner. 

Simply put, this was a gig that required “crowd work”.  Call it what you will, but the job got done: connection, laughter.  Laughter, connection.  It was nice.  But what happened next was wonderful.

A man came up to me and excitedly asked for the microphone.  I handed it to him and he jumped up on that little stage.

“Now I want to tell a joke!”  he declared to the crowd and with that, he launched in to a rambling old-school joke.  He finished, looking positively lit up at the laughter in the room.  I sat down in front at an empty table, cheering and applauding.  A woman who had been sitting in the back of the audience came and joined me.

Another person stood up and said: “I want to tell a joke!”  And another.   And another.  Laughter, applause, connection.  These fledgling comics beamed.

A man grabbed the mic to tell his joke and he nervously began, “So a teacher ---“  but he stopped.   “Oh no."  He whispered.  "I’m so nervous, I forgot.”  

“Take a breath and trust that you know it."  I called out from the front row. "Take your time!  We’ll wait!”  He looked down at the ground, took a breath and his head popped up:

“So a teacher was in the classroom one day—“  

He turned to me in disbelief and delight and said:  “It worked!”  

And like a comic on his way to being pro he turned back to the crowd and reveled in finishing the joke.

And this kept going.  There were punch lines we had heard before, stories that were silly, jokes that were so old they were around way before Sally was born.  The mic was like a torch being passed to everyone. Maybe I brought them together.  Maybe I inspired them.  Or maybe after witnessing my 45 minutes they thought: ”Hell, I can do that”.  It doesn't matter what started it!  What mattered was that it was happening. Something had been kindled and fanned and flamed and now it was being tended to.  I was touched.  And if I had anything at all to do with it, then I had done my real job.  Not the "front" job I have, that of making people laugh, but my real job: connection.

It was getting late and I finally started to leave right after a woman got up and sang something so pretty it brought tears to my eyes.  And as I slipped out the door, paycheck in hand, I looked back at all of them, the people who I labeled “not my demographic.”  They looked so different now than they did before.  And I realized: we’re all each others’ demographic simply because we’re human.  There is so much that connects us.  And connection is what we crave.  As well as the occasional good dick joke. 

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Faith, Determination and That Monkey Mind of Mine

I posted a blog on 2/14 about how moving toward a goal is often like a drive to the beach.  If you know that's where you want to go, start heading West!

A fellow meditator asked me a question after reading that blog:

" Your 'drive to the beach' reminds me a bit of my rambling and distracting mind when I meditate sometimes. I start on the object: "the beach" and then find myself wandering off...
[What do I do] when my willy nilly mind gets the best of me?"

Great question!  Working with the distracted mind can sometimes lead to dullness in our practice and a mechanical approach.  We know we're to bring ourselves back to the object of our meditation each time we wander off.  But sometimes we’re simply going through the motions each time we pull our attention back over and over. We’re doing it by rote, but we don’t really have enough interest in the object of our meditation to want to stay there in the first place.  Here’s where faith and determination come in.

And here’s where I switch analogies away from “the beach” for a minute.  Our mind is like a very small child who wants to wander in to the busy, colorful street.  We have her by the hand and each time she pulls toward the street or takes a step in to the street, we lovingly yet firmly pull her back.  We do this not just because we love her and want the best for her, but because we have faith that this action is actually building toward something.  Each time we lovingly yet firmly pull her back she is gaining an awareness, a habit, a sense of the larger picture.  And some day she will know to do this on her own.  We have faith in this small action that is taken over and over and over again.  And our determination is fueled by this faith.  And we must have determination to build a strong meditation practice. 

In my classes, I talk about having “interested determination” in your practice.  Take an interest in the object of your meditation (the breath, an orb of light) and summon your determination to be there.  Let there be faith that the mere action of continuing to bring yourself back time and again is enough.  Not getting to some vast spacious place of bliss.  But the mere action of bringing yourself back over and over is perhaps – maybe at least for today’s meditation – what it’s all about.  Pulling that small child back from the busy street is no action taken in vain.

I recommend bearing in mind the above before all else.  But some days we're just off the object more than we're on and we want to just leave the child at home!  

So...back to the beach analogy.  I look at it this way: the “beach” is a strong meditation practice.  The "road" is whichever practice we've chosen to do.  There are many roads that lead to a strong practice.  So if you’ve been doing, say, Shamatha (mindfulness with breathing, where the object is the breath) for several weeks in a row and perhaps today and yesterday and the day before you were off more than you were on, then maybe it’s time to invest in a new practice for a time. Take a small street.  Hop on the freeway.  But get on a different road.

When I have an unusually distracted mind, I do Tonglen.  I visualize my heart as a golden, glowing orb of light and home to Bodhicitta.  Bodhicitta is any compassion, loving kindness, awakened, enlightened part of my being that exists.  And if I’m having a crappy day and don’t believe any of that stuff exists in or on or around me, I summon my faith.  I have faith that I have some sliver of Bodhicitta within me and I see it as a golden orb of light in my chest.  

And then I see – as a black cloud - my distraction, my resistance (to the practice), my doubts (in the practice and myself) and my worries (about everything).  I breathe this black cloud in to my heart and my heart uses it as fuel.  My heart gets bigger, brighter, warmer and as I breathe out, this light and warmth spreads throughout my body.   I don’t try to analyze or figure out the contents of this black cloud of fear, doubt, worry, resistance, distraction and all-around suffering.  I simply breathe it in.  It fuels my heart.  Then I do this for others, sending the heart of Bodhicitta out to all beings.  I breathe in others pain and suffering and at some point, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between Bodhicitta and suffering.  And I enjoy this dance of everything, allowing for everything to be a part of my practice. 

Luckily the visualization and the fact that this is a moving mind meditation keep my monkey mind occupied.  Sometimes we have to throw the monkey mind a banana.  And Tonglen is one potent and nourishing banana for our whole being.

Whenever we switch to a new practice, it’s usually a good idea to commit to doing it for at least ten days.  Otherwise, our wiley self (ego) can convince us that this isn’t the right practice for us…or this one…or this one… or this one…and then the bell rings and our meditation session is over.  Oh, you rascally ego!

So maybe Tonglen is your practice for a little while.  In the meantime, you and your monkey mind...and perhaps all beings...have been nourished.  And we all need a snack on the way to the beach.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Start Heading West

I have a friend and student whose talented work is wonderful and should be seen by the masses!  But she gets stuck for periods of time.  Maybe because getting there seems like too much work.   Or too confusing.  Or maybe because she, too, knows her work should be seen by the masses yet she is overwhelmed by the thought of all the small, humbling steps that can lead her there.  And boy, those humbling steps are no fun sometimes to our dear, sweet ego.  Gulp.

I see life as a dance of stillness and action.  Every moment is filled with both - call it form and emptiness if you will - and any success, large or small, is woven of this.

 As a meditation teacher, I champion stillness: finding moments of it in your busy life, setting aside time to embrace it regularly, getting comfortable with the vast expanse of what seems-like-nothing-going-on as you sit on the cushion and follow your breath.  And we know by now that stillness is a close friend of emptiness and that emptiness is the womb of all creativity.  So to embrace that emptiness is to really get behind yourself in creating something incredible that you haven't even dreamed of yet.  Getting friendly with emptiness and stillness can feel like a challenge, but luckily there is action we can take toward this: meditation!  Meditation itself is a dance of action and stillness.  You are engaged in active attention resting on the breath - the object - while allowing your mind to slowly still.  Action, stillness, action, stillness happening simultaneously.  That's "nutshelling" it a bit.  But you get it.

Maybe the action this little guy needs to take is a nap.

To experience our dreams taking form, we must take action.  We get clear, focused, alert and tap in to our heart and wisdom by sitting and meditating.  And then we get in to action.  And then we sit.  And then we get in to action.  Ah, the dance is happening everywhere!

Look at it this way: if you want to go to beach, you start heading West.  At least you do if you live in Southern California, as I do. (Sorry, East coast and your snow! Don't hate me!).

Maybe you don't know what street to take - there are so many, after all.  Maybe all you know is to head West.  Great.  Start there.  You're headed West!  As you get closer to the beach, you make adjustments.  Your GPS system is your wisdom and clarity gained from your meditation practice.  You change course as needed, naturally and gracefully.  You turn down a side street, back on to a main street, hop on to the freeway for a bit and then jump off and take a rambling scenic route.  Or maybe you see a cafe that looks really, really cool and you want to get still for a while so you stop in and sit down.  And maybe that's where you decide to not go to the beach today but to start working at the cafe you're sitting in and you help turn it in to dance club where you shake your booty every night and you invent a dance called the "Action/Stillness Dance" and you find yourself being asked to be one of the judges on So You Think You Can Dance and Oprah gives you your own channel because the "Action/Stillness Dance" is sweeping the country.  It all happened because you wanted to go to the beach.  Now you can buy a house on the beach.   So there. 

And all this because you started heading toward your goal.  Toward.  Not at, like a damn torpedo, so sure and hard.  But toward, allowing the dance of stillness and action to take you where you're going.

So wherever you're at, just start heading West.  I think my friend is starting to!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sleeping Wrong & Other Things I Just Can't Get Right

Today I woke up with a pinch in my neck.  Ouch!  Every time I turn my head to the right - ouch!  People ask me what happened.

"I slept wrong."

They nod in understanding.  Humanity gets sleeping wrong.  We've all done it.

But saying "I slept wrong" sounds odd to me.  I mean, sleeping is as natural as breathing.  We all know how to do that.  Which makes me think: "If I can't get sleeping right, what the hell else am I doing wrong?"  And that line of thinking is a sure-fire downward spiral in to self doubt and criticism.  I mean if I can't even sleep "right" then how can I trust myself to do anything? 

OK, OK calm down.  Not you, me.  Ouch.

The thing is, there are habits and patterns we engage in every moment of every day that we don't even notice.  We don't even question these habits and patterns because we've done them so much, over and over again and there is a comfort, sometimes, simply in doing them.  "Yeah, I know this.  This is familiar."  The comfort signals to us we're in familiar territory and that we must be OK, that we're doing it "right", that we've maintained the illusion of some ground in our life.

And so I keep sleeping wrong.

This can't be comfortable.

When I start to drift off at night and am just at the edge of sleep, I turn over on to my right side.  I curl my knees up slightly toward my chest.  Aaaaah.  I've been doing this since I was a child.  I relax more deeply.  My head gets heavy.  And soon, in no time, I slip in to the velvety expanse of sleep and then - ouch!  I wake up in the morning with a stiff neck that plagues me all day.  Clearly the short term comfort of rolling over on to my side at night can't be worth the price of suffering all the next day.  As well as the questions I get every time I grimace.

"What happened?"

"I slept wrong."

"Yeah." They nod.

There is often a better way.  But we don't want to give up our comforts, the comforts of habit.  However, if we truly want change, want growth, want freer, happier lives, we have to give up our comforts and learn new ways.  What's on the other side of that is so much juicier!

Having a daily meditation practice continues off the cushion and in to our "daily lives".  Since our awareness has been developing, we begin to see more clearly what does not serve us.  There's no beating ourselves up over what we see, because we've cultivated a soft and warm heart toward ourselves and others.  Nice.  This loving awareness gives us the place from which we take action.  We've gotten pretty good at tapping our determination.  And because we've now cultivated a strong mind by bringing ourselves back to our meditation over and over again, we're able to implement change as well as the ability to follow it through.  And voila!  We've developed a new habit, a healthier habit.  And this gives us confidence to tackle bigger and bigger stuff in our lives.  No longer a slave to simply what is comfortable and what is known.  Willing to see what is and to also see things differently.  And brave enough to make necessary changes that take us out of our comfort zone.

"Relax.  I do this all the time."

And so I offer this to you: what are you doing that leads to pain and suffering that you wish you could stop?  Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and do something about it? 

I am.  I'm sleeping on my back from now on.  This is a new practice.  In time it will become a new habit that feels "right".  And soon I won't even miss the comfort of rolling on to my side at night.  Or the pain in the morning.  But until there a chiropractor in the house?  Ouch!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Beginnigs and Endings = Right Now

Where am I going?  Where am I headed?

We focus on certain parts of our lives and expect some sort of solid outcome we can point to.  Yet those parts and the parts of those parts are always beginning and ending.  Coming together and going apart.  Arising and ceasing.  Change is the only constant.  Buddhists call this mark of existence impermanence.  It is a spiritual truth, a reality that permeates everything.

But where am I going?  Where am I headed?

Relax!  Here's the thing.

We start a project that doesn't really come together, and it ends.  But we meet someone on that project who makes us laugh.  We start a friendship with them. Because we start a friendship with them, we spend more time having fun with them. And our house plant dies.  Oops!  So we decide to get a cactus.  This starts a cactus obsession that leads to creating a cacti emporium off of Highway 5, but not with the friend who makes us laugh because her marriage ended and she moved away and so we decided to do this all on our own which feels amazing and powerful and we ask: "How the hell did I get here?"  Beginnings and endings, my friend.  And karma.  But let's just stick to beginnings and endings.

Black Lace Cactus, an endangered species

At the start of every year I get all freaked out that not enough has happened in the year before and that I've got to do more this year.  And where am I headed anyway?  Is this all adding up to anything really?  And on and on and on blah blah blah.  I go meditate.  Aaaaah.  That's better.

Everything that has come before us, all the starts and finishes, beginnings and endings has created a matrix of where we are right now.  And where we are right now lays a foundation for where we will be.  More beginnings, more endings, all happening right now in the time it takes you to read this sentence.

Some say I've done a 360 with my life, yet where I am today actually makes perfect sense when I look at where I was ten years ago.  I can now connect the dots.  And ultimately, I am grateful for where I am.  So just because I can't connect the dots now to my future is no reason to panic.  And when I do panic, I take a moment and tell myself: "Maybe right now everything is perfect.  And maybe I am exactly where I need to be."  Aaaah.  I breathe a little easier and relax in to the present moment.  This relaxation and clarity helps me move forward with intention.

So yes: be mindful of the moment you're in now, for it bears the fruit of tomorrow.  Go where the energy is, do what gives you joy, take your vitamins, remember to water your plants, dream something big and start the first step and just trust.  And try not to despair as things die or end this year.  Beginnings and endings in themselves are neither "good" nor "bad".  They simply are.  And that's life.  Whew.  I feel better now.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My New Year's Intention: To Be Less Resolved and More Evolved.

It's the start of 2011 and like everyone else, I'm resolving to be more resolved about many a resolution.  But there's something stiff, firm and fixed about the words resolution, resolute, resolved. 

I'm all for having goals and working toward them and seeing dreams come to fruition.  In fact, I've made a few goals come to life just in the past year!  I have an amazing boyfriend who is on the same page as me.  I'm now teaching way more than I was before and am loving it.  I'm getting more paid gigs as a comic and an actor.

This feels great for me since I spent many years sitting on the couch eating Pop Tarts and saying no to life.  In fact, if you compared my life today to my life just six years ago, you wouldn't recognize me.  Physically, for sure, since I was about 4 sizes bigger.  Mmmmmmm, Pop Tarts.  But I'm also different energetically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.  I was an over eater, over drinker and an under achiever.  But that's a story for another blog another day.

Simply put, my life is drastically different than it used to be.  It's not just better.  Most days, I wake up excited!  And some days I wake up overwhelmed, tired and cranky with morning breath.  OK, most days I wake up with morning breath.  I shouldn't eat garlic past midnight.  But the point is that overall, I'm inspired.  If the past several years are any indication about how a human being can change their life, then I have confidence that my life has endless possibilities.

At 10 I knew the secret to life: a balloon, a bikini and sensible shoes
The change I've enjoyed in recent years hasn't necessarily come from envisioning a certain life and rigidly sticking to that vision.  I got clear about what I wanted, but mostly how I wanted to feel: free, creative and self expressed, loving and being deeply loved by myself and others who I care about, inspired, fulfilled and happy. 

I took small, do-able steps and walked through doors where I felt the energy to be the most strong and delicious.  Most important, I continued to deepen my meditation practice so that I could have a strong, clear compass for myself and actually SEE these doors opening along the way. 

And I've been developing a barometer that helps me feel the difference between the true winds of change and being swept away by distraction or doubt or fear.  My relationship to myself and the Universe has grown stronger and stronger the more I sit and meet myself day after day.  And, like my meditation practice, I see over and over that life is about evolving with it all, rather than staying fixed or resolved.

I am letting go of some very firm, fixed ideas about how my life is supposed to be today.  No, I never won the Tony award or inspired a new dance craze called The Pop Tart or made a million dollars by the time I hit 30.  But wow I'm doing some things and meeting some people I never thought I would!  And thank God for that! 

At 17, I thought I'd be doing Shakespeare in the park and serious drama the rest of my life and I turned my nose up at making people laugh in comedy clubs.  I am so glad I listened to my gut and not my fear or fixed ideas when I started contemplating comedy and teaching and the beautiful relationships I have in my life today.

At 17, playing Kate in Taming of The Shrew.  Iambic pentameter and a bad perm all in one show.
So I resolve to continue to evolve.  I resolve to be determined and to stay in action, yet to be open and flexible.  To ebb and flow and lean in to the curves.  To get out of my own way and to change and grow as my path does.  That's not just surviving, that's thriving.  So wish me luck.  As a former resolutionist, I need all the help I can get being more of an evolutionist.