Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Fourth Moment

I have always been awed by the sand painting tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Monks, very slowly and with deep meditative awareness, spend days or even weeks creating a piece boldly colored and intricately detailed. Spirituality merges with art in this process called dul~tson~kyil~kho, literally “mandala of colored powders”.

Mandala is a Sanskrit word loosely translated as circle, though its meaning is much richer than that word may convey in English. A circle symoblizes wholeness, eternity, All That Is in perfect balance. A mandala then becomes a symbolic representation of life itself, a sort of cosmic diagram. Each shape and ancient symbol embedded within the finished whole is rich with spiritual significance. But so is the process of its creation. The monks’ complete absorption is a teaching in itself and illustrates the Buddhist concept of the fourth moment.

We are all familiar with the division of time into three parts~~past, present and future. The fourth moment, however, refers to those states of consciousness that stand outside time all together. Ken McLeod, Tibetan Buddhist, teacher and text translator, describes it as an “open awareness that is the capacity to know clearly and respond appropriately to what arises in experience.”

When we are in this state, all seems particularly vibrant, fresh, flawless. We expand beyond our everyday awareness and are saturated by a sense of timelessness. Such states often come through deep meditation and prayer, though we can fall into this exquisite awareness within the ordinary moments of our lives~~while, for example, immersed in nature or a loved one’s eyes, engaged in a mundane household chore, or absorbed in a creative endeavor.

The fourth moment is a term new to me, a gift from multimedia artist Sarah Bouchard. In her MFA thesis by that name, she describes an artistic process that emerges out of a silent meditative awareness. “I devote time and space to witness the mind at work,” Bouchard writes, while “…allowing each movement of the hand to be as considered as a Buddhist’s intake of breath.”

Bouchard walks the reader through the creation of a large~scale installation at the Masonic Temple in Portland, Maine. When completed, hundreds of spheres, individually crafted of vellum and paper mache, will be internally lit and suspended within the grand Corinthian Hall.

Bouchard’s meditative approach is beautifully depicted in the following passage describing the cutting of the thousands of strips of paper needed for the mache.

“At first, each passing of the scissors through paper requires pin~point focus. A wavering of thought produces a tear in the paper that impedes subsequent steps of wetting and applying the strips. Eventually, there is a letting go, a recognition that focused, self~conscious effort is not only unnecessary, but an impediment to smooth progress. A gentle ease sets in and the movement of scissors through paper becomes integrated, taking on an effortless motion, until another disruption of the mind starts the process again~~effort, focus, letting go, ease.”

Bouchard beautifully characterizes art work that arises from this sort of contemplative awareness as “an experience of eternity in bodily form." And that brings us to another teaching from the Tibetan sand painting tradition~~an instruction on impermanence. The final painting is ritualistically destroyed soon after completion, with the spent sand often released into a body of flowing water.

What a graphic reminder! That which stands beyond time can never be captured and held tightly within it. The paper on which Bouchard’s thesis is printed will age and disintegrate. Her artistic creations, as well as her physical body, are on the same trajectory. The things of this world are indeed fleeting.

Each one of us can, though, take the grains of sand that are the stuff of our individual lives and consciously craft from them a unique piece of art, boldly colored and intricately detailed. And when our time is done and our mandala complete, perhaps we can smile as all those varied grains of colored sand, on loan to us for a short while, are swept back into a larger flow.

Blessings on your very own mandala in process~~it is, indeed, uniquely yours and a thing of beauty!

Loanne Marie

PS. I highly recommend Sarah's thesis, especially for those of you who are artists. More lovely words on the blending of art~making with meditation, lots of luscious quotes, and several evocative pictures. Her thesis can be purchased here~~The Fourth Moment. And you can learn more about Sarah, the artist, on her website

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Fountain of Blessings

My day began with a big, beautiful sun shining a vivid orange through the thin bank of clouds at the eastern edge of my world. As I offered gratitude for the beauty I walked within, a quote from the Roman poet Ovid came to mind. “Thanks are justly due for boons unbought.” For truly, how exactly did I deserve that brilliant orb this morning? How did the mountain air filling my lungs become mine to ignore or take for granted?

Rabbi Marcia Prager, a respected teacher in the Jewish Renewal tradition, guides us through a study of gratitude in her lovely book, The Path of Blessing. By way of illustration, she tells of a fountain she once saw in the form of a tree, with each cupped leaf collecting water before spilling it onto the leaves below. Individual droplets gathered into a pool at the tree’s base only to be pumped to the top in a continuous cycle of flow and return.

Prager compares this fountain to the unceasing movement of grace in the world. “All we are asked to do,” she writes, “is to be aware that we are leaves on the fountain, endlessly filling and pouring.”

In Jewish tradition, gratitude is enacted through making a brakha, a prayer of blessing, at various points throughout the day. While this practice encourages receptivity and awe in the practitioner, the results are believed to be more far-reaching.

“Jewish tradition teaches that the simple action of a brakha has a cosmic effect,” Prager writes, “for a brakha causes shefa, the “abundant flow” of God’s love and goodness, to pour into the world. Like a hand on the faucet, each brakha turns on the tap.” Or like a pump in a fountain, a moment of gratitude cycles the water through, to be given out again and again.

“A brakha completes our energy-exchange with God,” Prager explains. “We are partners in a sacred cycle of giving and receiving…When we offer our blessings, we raise up sparks of holiness, releasing the God~light housed in our world back to its Source.”

And what happens when we hold back, hoarding or taking for granted the energy freely given us? We create kinks in the tubing. “When we allow all the daily miracles to be passed by, our openness to the abundance of divine blessing withers…When we fail to cultivate a practice of appreciation as potent as our capacity to appropriate, we become despoilers, destroying both ourselves and the whole.”

What a powerful line that is~~”When we fail to cultivate a practice of appreciation as potent as our capacity to appropriate, we become despoilers.” Humans can so easily appropriate without return. Cultivating a practice of appreciation seems truly to be our cutting edge and, in this view, a sacred practice as well.

Amid the bustle of a busy life, it’s easy to lose track of the gifts generously circulating through our lives. But by engaging our free will in a practice of thanksgiving, we can consciously encourage the flow and enlarge its channel, within us and throughout the world itself.

In just this way, we do our part to maintain an exquisite balance. We openly receive what is given us and, in our turn, we give back~~spilling blessings onto our fellow leaves and offering praise to the Source of the fountain itself.

Noting that all of creation contains a spark of the Divine, Prager continues, “When we walk the path of blessing, we begin to recognize the presence of these holy sparks in everything and everyone around us. Day by day the world becomes more alive, more magical, more miraculous!”

My day ended with my husband curled around me, arms holding me close, warm breath caressing my shoulder like…well…a blessing. A blessing that caused me to lift up my heart in a brakha of praise and wonder and gratitude for this life that is mine.

And now, I extend a heartfelt brakha for every one of you reading these words, and for all the gifts you cycle into this world of ours.


Loanne Marie