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!