Archive for the ‘Dharma’ Category


letters and fragments from the dead


Writing is a moral act.


Ethics and the psyche are part of every letter that falls from the pen or emerges from a depressed key.


This is how we remember it: the shadow falling over the side of the mountain, the side we couldn’t see, and then the sun fell from view and the moon rose. It was almost the last quarter, the day before—we had looked it up—after the full moon, a Super Moon, the previous Saturday.


We had gone into a bookstore on our street and seen the newly published novel of a woman we knew years ago. There was a cat in the bookstore but we didn’t see her.


It was the first cool day, with heavy, dark clouds but it didn’t rain. We stood on the corner for an hour and a half talking.


The dead speak in words, too. They speak through us and with us. There is this life and, alongside, this death. They are wound together. The air is full of breath and unbreath. One time, there was a whole procession of the dead in front of me—they appeared as they would appear in a photograph, dressed up, wearing hats, dark clothing, and carrying bags and purses. Their eyes shone and they had come to talk to me, about becoming unwound from them, letting go, the ritual of unbinding. They said all they wanted was for me to live a free and happy life. They wanted me to let go of grieving for them and for me to know that my place was exactly where I was, not with them. Living for so many years with the dead, I could see them clearly and heard their words distinctly, as they were spoken. Then I wrote them down, here.


This day, Friday, was a release. I write for the dead who are long gone, and for myself. There are wings of insects inside me, gray in the light that comes in from the mouth, when it opens to speak, and the light in the middle of the forehead when it expands. Light comes in and the wings are translucent. I write for those who can’t speak and for myself, when I can’t speak. Writing out of the silence, of the silence, taking measurements for the words that will be written from one wall to the other, factoring in shadows thrown by figures that have emerged from the boundaries. Writing as a measurement of silence. Writing moves the water outside the window. Writing collects the dust and specimens from the floor and windowsill and chandeliers.


Writing is an act of solace, a movement from isolation to relationship, a knowledge of the world as of the body and nonbody—the corporeal and ghost. We are figures in the emerging dust—sun-day—measuring the tallest building against huts on the beach. Here are my words, and they come from my womb and my bones and my blood, and what I have held and what I hold and what I release. These are measurements as if for a dress or a suit. We know these clothes. We fabricate our stories in the threads and wear them out to important occasions. We have tea. We eat meals with strangers, half-smiling over our forks at half-formed structures behind their heads.


This Friday, this particular day, just was. In the being of the day, I could breathe, for once. Real breath that sustained me. Breath that filled the lungs and allowed me to sleep for the first time in weeks. This is the companionship of those who are always around. I found pieces of paper towel all over the house, on a nail, on a screw, behind the toothbrush holder, after she cleaned. They looked like white moth wings. I picked them up and threw them out, noticing their delicate texture and their beauty. There is wholeness that is found when more and more pieces come to us.


When was the first time we saw the invisible world? We saw its lights twinkle in deep blue, violet, light blue, Saturn red, Spring grass green. No real forms were present until our eyes adjusted to the eternal twilight. Maybe we were at the top of the earth, true North. We were at the place our souls brought us. Our souls, these creatures of the deep, dark terrarium we called consciousness. That which we were not aware of making hand shadows on the walls. Dictionaries of silhouette and semaphor. And upon arriving at our true North, their true shapes emerged.


“We are not shapeshifters in the way you are used to defining shapeshifters. The music is different here.”





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We grow up with stories of what it is to be men and women. The illustrious goals of humans and sex and masculinity and femininity. I started writing this post the day the story hit about CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville case but couldn’t muster enough hope or light to finish in a way that wouldn’t be a total downer. There is enough evil and apathy (at direct opposition to empathy) in the world to sustain a lifelong despair and depression, so how do we move through this and still have hope? How can people behave this way, with such disregard for another person’s humanity? Why didn’t these boys know this was wrong?



This is just one of many exercises in how to deal with horror and horrific things that we don’t even understand, much less can incorporate into our worldview. There is balance somewhere in seeing the evil in the world, the ingrained social prejudices and hatreds and rampant misogyny and racism that dictate so many interactions and media and relationships, and living a life of social consciousness, kindness and, yes, hope. We have our own private and lonely despairs and miseries and then, out the window or on TV or at the restaurant, there is the despair and loneliness and alienation of the world. We waver between two poles in the sociogeography of time and place and childhood and adulthood and the stories we’ve been told, we’ve embodied, we’ve carried out—body, sensuality, stories and stories, cultural structures, office buildings, lampposts, subways, dinners, stoves, bathroom mirrors, kitchens, aprons—hope and despair, love and alienation, connection and isolation. The integrity of the needle of the compass attuned to empathy and compassion and the connection of all beings needs to be consciously maintained.









We plummet hard into hell and live there, our own private holocausts and extinctions, not sleeping for years, living in consuming fear and staying there, not seeing a way out of our terror. How do we integrate what terror means, how do we deal with what we know exists in the world, into a life lived in relative peace and fortune? I have always wondered about that—that suspect tension between one life and another, the line that can so easily break, if one were to sneeze. It’s that fragile, the boundary between a free person and an imprisoned one. I have always felt this connection, as painful and debilitating as it sometimes is, where compassion and empathy descend into a hell in the body, something I feel in my bones, a consuming shiver under the skin that haunts the whole body from within, the reaching of the dead and buried and tortured and captive into my life, into my awareness, this awareness being a form of life itself, and it leaves bruises and memories and ghosts that follow me around on bright days and ask me to listen to them and to be with them and to somehow find healing and forgiveness and redemption.


There is something—translucent, indefinable, but I long to define it—that always pulls me out of this depression and despair. I am hoping that, in my own healing, I can help heal the world. Thich Nhat Hanh says that our own peace is the world’s peace. But first we have to find our own peace. If we are hopeless and despairing, there is something in us that is not looking at the world as it is. We are living in dark illusion. There is beauty and love and strength and compassion and empathy and kindness in the world. So we look at everything, which is hard to do when faced with horrors and injustices. To deal with our own terror and anguish, our own desolation, to face it with courage and openness, even if we feel it might consume us whole and we’ll never come up to see light again—to feel our hearts as they break, over and over again, and to allow ourselves to feel the connection we have to every living being in the world and universe, this is powerful, this conducts an electricity of change and creates a stronghold for true power to emerge into just and kind and fair actions. It starts with our hearts and our bodies and what we choose to think and say and do in each situation. Even in the midst of our own pain, we can be kind—to ourselves and to those around us. The simple, yet challenging act of noticing how we feel, consciously turning our awareness to our emotions, our body, how it feels, and letting our thoughts just be—not attaching to the stories we tell to both comfort and terrify ourselves—moves mountains. We must teach this and weave it into our social fabric, make it part of our curriculum and narrative.




A note about these photographs—I took these self-portraits while thinking about all of this, so thought I’d post them here. I was thinking about the body and what the body knows and what emotion and empathy and story and moving through pain looks like and feels like.



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Dharma is a Sanskrit word that denotes a concept in eastern religions. It is hard to define, as it loses meaning in translation, has a complex history, and covers broad ground across different faiths and philosophies. The word dharma derives from the root dhri, which means “manner of being.” Simply, it means the teachings of the Buddha and their manifestation in daily life. It can also mean universal law, a unit of basic experience, the ordering principle of the universe, the conditions that exist and are created in following one’s right path, the deep, unifying understanding and practice of Buddhist principles. As with most teachings in Buddhism, the interpretation and realization of dharma is deeply personal. Contemplating what dharma means offers a method of asking life’s deepest, most compelling questions and finding practical, doable answers for our complicated, rushed modern lives.

What does dharma mean to you?

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There is a compelling truth these days that it is harder to make a living for almost everyone, and the uphill battle of making ends meet is staunch and, at times, merciless. These are essential concerns that are shaping our times and each one of us living and breathing and working now. The crux of our society and our world rests on being able to promote social and political reforms to assure wealth equity and economic justice.

There are many wise and compassionate and powerful voices that are writing and talking about what needs to happen so that people have enough food to eat, roofs over their heads, enough money to cover medical costs when they arise. Those of us who are working at writing, painting, music, dance, and other forms of artistic expression that don’t usually earn us a pay check have particular and specific questions to ask ourselves about how we support ourselves and, with that paid work, how we make enough time and have enough energy to work on our art. This goes for anything we want to do in life—how do we make enough time, have enough energy and make a good enough living to support our goals?

At the same time we look and see all that needs changing, we can also accept—accept ourselves, others, the world, just as we are. Accepting does not mean we give up and do nothing. True acceptance, with an open and forgiving heart, a heart that feels and gives love in the face of whatever comes, changes everything. Acceptance means having and nurturing compassion and understanding and respect in the face of anger, fear, despair and grief. With this compassion, we move to change our world from a place of love and strength, solidarity and hope. We work to make our world and lives and future better because we have hope, not because we’ve given up. Through this transformation, we can build lives and schools and studios and desks and performance spaces, equitable public policy and law, strong and warmly knit communities, lives of inspiration, creativity, spiritual wealth and material sustenance.

At the same time we are aware of what’s going on around us and we practice acceptance, we can continue to live in line with our passion. What we choose to do for a living is social, political, emotional, provocative and rooted in deeply held personal beliefs and values. In order to have a true balance of passion and work, you must make choices based on your most essential ethics and ideals. You decide if you want to make a living solely as an artist, from your art, or do other work for which you are paid and weigh many other choices along the way. This goes for anything you want to do in your life—you can make choices from a place of strength and passion. Living a creative life means living according to your own values, principles and passions. You ask yourself how and what can I contribute and build your life around those actions and ideals. In all circumstances, you must continue to inhabit and be true to your passion.

As a musician for a decade and a poet for the rest of my life, I have gone through periods where I’ve been so broke, I wondered what I was going to eat and how I was going to pay my rent. I was never in danger of starving or being homeless, as many people are, because I had and have the support of my family, but supporting myself, being financially independent and not relying on others has always been a strong driving force in my life. There were times that, even knowing I had that security, I wondered and worried every day about money coming in, money going out, what I would do if I had a medical emergency or a life-threatening or chronic illness. As Oscar Wilde said, many horrible tragedies have befallen me, and most of them didn’t happen—not to make light of the very real anxiety that is so prevalent for all of us these days.

In my early days in San Francisco, I was working as a freelancer and put most of my time and energy into my band and curating two poetry reading series. I worked hard but sporadically, so did not have a regular income. This was a semi-conscious decision on my part, to devote most of my resources to being creative and not to making money. One day, I was walking up Pierce Street, a block away from my apartment, thinking about exactly how much money I would need for food to get through the rest of the week. I figured I could do it on $10, if I ate mac and cheese and didn’t go out at all. The $10 would cover coffee and mac and cheese. I looked down at the sidewalk and there was a $10 bill, edges flapping but somehow staying put. I looked at it and was overcome by a sense of sweet fate, everything working together in order to get me through. I remember not being afraid that the bill would blow away. I bent down and picked it up and, right then and there, decided that I would figure out how to support myself and make art.

Finding that $10 bill was one of the biggest turning points in my life. All at once, I felt the almost unbearable strain of being broke, the certainty that I would always be taken care of financially, a sense of security that came from a place deep inside of me, and such gratitude for what that simple $10 bill gave me. That $10 may as well have been a million dollars. I knew, in that moment of picking up that $10, that I could be an artist and not starve.

The phrase “starving artist” is a phrase for a reason. Living on the edge, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, is both a romantic notion and a concrete reality, as an artist must constantly make decisions about how best to spend her time and energy. There are other characteristics of the darkness and core moral values that come with being an artist, that you are against the world’s systems, trying to reform and restructure a broken society, that your work on this earth as an artist is meant to be painful, self-sacrificing and agonizing. That creating means setting yourself apart from the mainstream, from the path that would allow you to make a decent and even lucrative salary, that somehow, if you made enough money to feel comfortable, the edge needed to make your work powerful and meaningful would disappear and that you would be aligning yourself with everything that is wrong with the current economic system.

It is true that, as an artist, you must continually challenge your limits, emotionally, physically, spiritually, artistically. You must put yourself in bare and raw situations where you don’t know what will happen. To live on the edge financially seems to be a given part of this life. What has become apparent to me, over the years of being an artist determined to have all of my survival needs and more met and taken care of, is that the “edge” is found in day-to-day, ordinary living. My reverence for and awareness of the brilliance of ordinary life developed over years of suffering and exploring what would make my life bearable, what would end the intolerable pain of struggling to make things work in a meaningful, practical and sustaining way—in work, love, friendship, family, music, writing and art. There have been many ups and downs on this path, and I am continually learning about myself, work, money, income and creative power, its root and importance in both art and daily life. A beautiful article is written on Belladonna and written about on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation’s blog dealing with these concerns, Ana Božičević’s Our Material Lives: A Working Poet’s Manifesto:



It is dharma to take care of yourself and make sure you have enough food and a comfortable place to live. We make a living, sweep our floors, take naps, write poems, play guitar, build chairs, cook meals, hug and kiss our families. This is dharma. Dharma is found in the struggle and constant navigation of the paradox of balancing money and art. Today’s times call on us to be compassionate and productive in our efforts, in our works to create sustainable lives for ourselves and our children. You make an income to give back—that is the only reason. To give back to yourself, health and food and shelter, to give back to your community, to give back to the world. That is making a living versus making money. Making a living is making meaning. It is up to each of us to determine how to make a living and make art in a way that will benefit and sustain ourselves and all of those around us. I admire and respect so many amazing artists, poets, musicians, dancers, woodworkers, potters, collagists, novelists, actors, whose presence in the world is a blessing, a catalyst, a lightning rod of hope and change and illumination.

Art is indispensable and imperative and artist’s work is invaluable to society and the world. Art is the way, the dharma. It is vital to take care of yourself and tend to a stable and grounded heart, a healthy body, an uplifted spirit and an open, compassionate mind. Gratitude for all you have and creating your life around your passions is sustaining and generous. We all have so much to give to the world. The way is constantly opening up before us, as we look at ourselves and our lives with deep honesty and courage. The struggles we have are opportunities to do work in a more efficient and productive way and create our lives and the world the way we desire it to be—beautiful and just, meaningful and creative, balancing and navigating each moment with openness and kindness, toward ourselves and others.


Please contact arielleguy@gmail.com with any questions about Dharma not Drama coaching.

© 2011. All words and photographs are copyrighted and may only be used with the permission of the author.

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