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Blessings In

I went demon-hunting today.

February 3 is the Japanese festival of setsubun, which according to the traditional calendar was the eve of the New Year and of spring, but which now falls quite squarely in the dead of winter.  Two days ago, we were buried briefly under five centimetres of fluffy, wet snow, a rare occurrence in Tokyo.  On my way to the temple for today’s festivities, my breath goes before me like a cloud of mist, and my cheeks are already pink with cold.

Setsubun simply means “division of the seasons,” but it is a festival of bean-throwing and demon masks.  The popping sound of roasting soybeans is said to scare away evil spirits, and people scatter the beans out the back door and in the front door of their houses, yelling “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!”  Demons out, blessings in.

It’s the demons in particular that captivate me.  Japanese demons have red or blue skin, curly hair, cow’s horns and fanged, toothy grins, and they’ve always struck me as ferociously adorable.  Although today’s holiday is about chasing out demons and inviting in happiness, I confess that I’m particularly obsessed with the chasing out part.

The past month has been a creatively challenging one for me, and I’ve had my own horde of unwelcome demons to contend with:  those inner voices that tell me I’m not good enough, my writing is juvenile, creativity is a waste of time if it’s not lucrative, I’ll never create anything worthwhile, and so much more.  Perhaps you’re familiar with these demons too.  As author Byron Katie is fond of saying, “There are no new stressful thoughts,” and I believe her; my own demons are almost boring in their stock predictability.

Nevertheless, they’ve had a chokehold on me for the past couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to a festival that’s all about driving them out.  I’m hoping to learn a thing or two from Japanese children, whom I’ve heard are encouraged to throw soybeans at people in demon masks to scare them away.  I could use a bit of that plucky, peppery courage.  I’ve even chosen a temple that I imagine will specialize in demons:  Kishibojin temple is dedicated to a demon mother who became a Buddhist saint when she learned the meaning of compassion.  I’m expecting colourful masks and costumes, and the satisfying thunk of soybeans bouncing off demon hide.

I make my way by train to the temple, where a group of silver-haired men and women is executing a slow and stately traditional dance and a few rickety food stalls are shivering in the grey afternoon air.  A patchy crowd of people has begun to gather, but nowhere near the 1,000 promised on the temple website.  As I listen to a fresh, young police officer making safety announcements over the loudspeaker, I realize that as so often happens to me in Japan, I’ve gotten it all wrong.  I’m an hour early, and the celebration consists not of demon-chasing but of celebrities standing on a curtained platform, flinging little packages of soybeans into the mob.

I’m disappointed to miss the demons, but I decide that I might as well stay.  I pass the time by wiggling my toes to keep them from freezing, and by watching the eclectic mix of people who’ve come to catch blessings:  little pre-schoolers in their matching caps; elderly women in kimono with sweater-clad dachshunds trotting at their sides; young businessmen and women in dark suits trying to impress their bosses; university students with baggy pants and shaggy, orange hair.  I catch a glimpse of a little boy running around in a red mask and think “There we go!” but then I notice it’s a Spiderman mask.  Not quite what I was looking for.

As the celebrities mount the stage and the bean-throwing ceremony begins at last, the crowd surges forward as one, and reaches a multitude of hands into the air.  “Fuku wa uchi!  Fuku wa uchi!  Fuku wa uchi!” the emcee and the soybean-flingers shout over and over again, as little coloured parcels rain down on the crowd.  Blessings in, blessings in, blessings in.

After the first round of soybeans has been scattered and the festival organizers are handing around the bags for round two, I turn and begin the long walk back to the train station.  The sun is setting, my toes are numb, and I’m feeling vaguely disappointed and distinctly underwhelmed.  Where were all the demons?  This wasn’t what I signed up for.

Yet as I ride home on the train with the other weary commuters, lulled into somnolence by the heater blasting under my feet, I can’t get the image of all those outstretched hands out of my mind.  Trusting hands.  Expectant hands.  Reaching upward for the blessings that are sure to come.  When was the last time I held my hands out like that?  Have I been so preoccupied with finding ways to chase away my demons that I’ve forgotten to open my heart to the blessings that are always and everywhere being flung into our midst?

I get off at my local train station and trudge up and down the stairs and out into the street.  As I turn my half-thawed feet homewards, I feel a surprisingly sharp sting on my cheek; I look down and there are snowflakes clinging to my wool coat like tiny, frozen crumbs.  Something inside me unclenches and unfurls, a closed fist opening.

I went demon-hunting today and came home empty-handed, snowflakes and soybeans raining down on my upturned palms.

*   *   *

My questions for you:  What if all the inspiration, all the creativity, all the blessings you need are available to you in this very moment, if you would but open your hands to receive?  What would you do differently today?

Beginning Again

“To engage in any creative process, to live each day fully, we have to find our way back to the willingness to begin again and again.”  (Oriah Mountain Dreamer, What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul)

*   *   *

Beginning this blog was an act of courage for me.

Beginnings are not difficult for everyone.  Some people have the gift of jumping right into a new enterprise with a spirit of adventure and curiosity, ready to face any obstacles and to see where the journey will take them.

I admire those people.

But for those of us who are perfectionists, beginnings can be agonizing.  We may love the planning stages, when we can hold an ideal vision in our minds, but beginning the project itself throws the door wide open for mistakes.  For failure.  For not living up to our own standards.

Yet pursuing any creative endeavour in life, from writing a novel to starting a business to raising a child, requires that we have the courage to make an imperfect beginning.

And then there is the even more vexing problem of beautiful beginnings that run out of steam.  Here it is the middle of January, and how many of us have already both launched ourselves into AND given up on some of our New Year’s Resolutions?

I started this blog in a rush of enthusiasm at the beginning of December, and between grieving an unexpected loss in my life (my father’s death after a three-year battle with cancer) and dealing with a more general sense of panic that I had already run out of things to say, I stopped writing for over a month.  Like a child whose crayon drawing hasn’t turned out perfectly, there is an urge in me to crumple up the electronic paper on which I have written these entries and throw it away, telling myself, “Oh well, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.  I’ll start another blog some other time.”

But if I were to do that, I’d miss out on putting into practice one of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned recently about the creative process, which is that creativity is nothing but an endless series of beginnings.  And I learned this lesson not from writing, but from meditating.  Or at least, from trying and failing to meditate.  And then trying again.

Ever since I first learned about Buddhism as an adolescent, I’ve wanted to have a regular meditation practice.  I’ve studied various forms of meditation and have practised some of them haphazardly over the years, but I’ve never felt that I was truly a meditator.  However, perhaps inspired by all the statues of the Buddha that I stumble across here in Japan, I’ve recently been listening to a series of lectures and guided meditations by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein on Insight Meditation.

I’ve always considered myself a failure as a meditator, because I could never focus for very long without being distracted, and because my practice itself only took place in fits and starts.  So as I sit down to my first guided meditation session, I’m amazed at how often Sharon Salzberg, in her wise and gentle voice, reassures me that meditation is, in fact, all about “beginning again.”

“The act of beginning again is the essential art of meditation practice,” she comforts me, as my mind wanders for the 278th time this morning away from my breath and back to my endless to-do list.  “Over and over and over again, we begin again.”

Over and over and over again.  I love that.  I’ve finally realized that it’s not about doing it perfectly or getting it right.  It’s not about meditating for 40 minutes, it’s about meditating for a minute, getting completely distracted by my thoughts, and beginning again.  Meditating for two more minutes, realizing that I’ve dozed off and started to drool, and beginning again.  Finding my focus for 30 seconds, getting annoyed at the itch behind my ear, and beginning again.  Over and over and over again.  “If you have to begin again a million times in the course of one sitting,” confides Salzberg, “that’s the practice.”

That’s the practice.  Not the euphoria of completion, not the ease of perfection, not even the right effort of our hard work and intention, but something much simpler, much more humble.  Simply beginning again.

And so it is with creativity, with accomplishing anything beautiful and meaningful in our lives.  It’s not about finishing your novel, or being a perfect parent, or having a thriving business that will take care of itself forever, but about rolling up your sleeves every day and having the courage to begin again.

I’ve begun to look at the statues of the Buddha around me with new eyes.  On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went to a local Buddhist temple to hear the priests ring in the Year of the Tiger at midnight with 108 sonorous peals.  This particular temple has an enormous statue of the Buddha, and there was a sign in front of it that said:  “Don’t throw money at the Big Buddha!”  The admonition made me laugh with delight as the statue seemed to come to life, somewhat disgruntled and cranky, before my eyes.

I imagine this giant Buddha sitting in meditation, annoyed by the 100 yen coins bouncing off his glistening copper skin, distracted by the reverberation of the temple bell or the incense tickling his nostrils, frustrated that because he’s been sitting for 2,500 years, his legs have fallen asleep.  And yet again and again he brings his awareness back to the breath, back to the present moment.  Over and over and over again, he begins again.

And because he is always beginning again, he sits for eternity, peaceful and serene, at home in his own heart.

*   *   *

My questions for you:  What if you were to pick a creative project that you’ve been putting off, or that you’ve stalled on, and begin it today?  And tomorrow, begin it again?  What if all you ever have to do is just begin?

This Day

By the time I got out of the house for my run yesterday, it was already dark and rainy.  Not a light, autumn drizzle but a steady, steely December downpour.  The kind that makes you wish you were curled up indoors with a good book and a mug of steaming hot chocolate.  Knowing that the running track would already be flooded, I headed down the road, along the canal, and through some of the back streets and alleys of our quiet Tokyo neighbourhood.

I spent the first ten minutes of my run feeling sorry for myself, wishing I were back at home with my husband, relaxing on the sofa.  And then I started to think about a book I’d finished earlier in the day, Defy Gravity by Caroline Myss, in which the author describes a sentence from Thomas Merton’s journals that had a profound impact on her life.  At the end of a description of a pastoral summer scene, Merton had written:  “This day will never come again.”  That simple phrase caused Myss to look at her own life with the eyes of a mystic, finding the sacred in each ordinary moment.

“This day will never come again,” I tell myself as my feet pound the pavement by the canal, and my first feeling is one of relief:  I’ll never have to run along these streets in this cold, miserable rain again!  But then I remember the years after my cycling accident when I couldn’t run at all, and I feel a wave of gratitude that I’ve recovered enough to be exercising in this way again.  I imagine there may come a day when I can no longer run (although I have every intention of being an octogenarian marathoner!), so I intentionally focus on the enjoyment of moving my muscles in this way:  the pleasant burn in my thighs, the sense of freedom and flight between each step when my wet sneaker reconnects with the ground.

And as I open myself to gratitude, I begin to notice other things about this day, this moment:  the welcoming lights of the convenience stores that pepper the street corners; the way the people I pass move their umbrellas ever so slightly to the side in a polite and almost automatic gesture of consideration; the fleets of bicycles parked outside of shops and huddled under balconies; the old man blowing eerily on a wooden whistle as he stands beside his moped in the rain, peddling fresh tofu from a wooden box; the small neighbourhood temple with its cemetery of blackened wooden grave markers that stand like signposts on a journey; the tapestry of an ordinary day here in Japan.

The rain is still streaming down my face in icy rivulets, but now it feels refreshing.  And as I round a street corner that is suddenly familiar to me from my old neighbourhood, I come face to face with a younger version of myself.  It is not quite five years ago, during cherry blossom season.  She is alone in Japan, soon to be joining her husband in London.  She has no idea what awaits her there, but she is filled with anticipation as she walks down the sunny, pink corridor, the blossoms raining down on her upturned face like snow.

Walking past me in the opposite direction, she doesn’t know that there will be foxes who cavort in her backyard and swans that swim in the streets at high tide, that there will be bombings on the Underground and Olympian celebrations in Trafalgar Square, that her heart will be broken in unexpected places and healed in others, that she will make new friends for life and reconnect with old friends who come to visit.  She thinks she is going for a temporary expatriate experience, when in fact she is going to learn what it means to be always and everywhere at home.

I’m brought out of my memories by a Japanese maple tree that is shining with dark iridescence under the streetlights.  Half of its leaves are red and the other half are still green; they glow together like some new colour that I’ve never seen before and that fills my heart with awe.  “This day will never come again,” I repeat to myself as I stand under the velvet dark tree, the rain cascading down the collar of my windbreaker like a forgotten river.

Perhaps the wonder of being human is this:  not only that this day will never come again, but also that in some form or another, it can.  That a day lived with awareness can become a recollection rich with meaning.  Perhaps the miracle of being human is that we stand precariously balanced between mindfulness and memory, a handful of scarlet maple leaves grasped lightly in one fist, a snowfall of cherry blossoms scattered across the other outstretched palm.

*     *     *

My questions for you:  What if you were to live the next day, or even the next hour, with the awareness that it will never come again?  What could you find to be grateful for?  What would you like to create so that this day – this precious, ordinary, irreplaceable day – will live on in your own memory or for others?

Flowing Arrow Horse

Shortly after I moved back to Japan last spring, my husband and I attended the annual exhibition of yabusame at Sumida Park in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Yabusame is usually translated into English as ‘horseback archery’, although a more accurate (and poetic) rendition of the Chinese characters would be ‘flowing arrow horse’.

Following a solemn parade of men and women in elegant costumes – the archers riding on horseback while attendants carry their enormous bows and samurai warriors march alongside them – the competition begins. One after another over the course of an hour, riders in traditional garb gallop down a 250-metre course with breathless spectators on one side and three wooden targets evenly spaced on the other side. Standing up in the hooked metal stirrups, the archer pulls taut the string on a giant bow and looses the arrow with a fierce yell as the horse races past. If it is hit in just the right spot, the wooden target splinters impressively and a spray of confetti bursts out to the shouts of the admiring crowd.

This is my first time watching a yabusame competition, and I am in awe of the archers’ skill; their battle cries make me shiver. I have my camera poised to take pictures, eager to capture the excitement of the experience. My first shot is magnificent: the rider caught in profile, arms extended, the target shattered into three pieces, the arrow still sailing beyond it. After that, I can’t seem to bring anything into view: frame after frame there are only a horse’s flared nostrils, a tail retreating out of the picture, a limp arrow falling to the ground. I hand the camera to my husband in disgust.

Before each rider launches down the course, there is a brief announcement over the loudspeaker: the archer’s name, hometown, and other details are shared with the spectators. Afterwards, we are told how many targets were hit, although my husband and I have usually already gathered this information from the cheers and moans that ripple through the crowd as the horse and rider thunder past.

Towards the end of the program, a young rider makes his appearance among the veterans. Only in his second year of university, he is still a novice trainee with one of the two venerable, family-run yabusame schools in Japan. He gallops past us, his shout as fierce as that of the other archers, but his bow remains drawn, the arrow still notched, as he speeds past.

Later, my husband tells me that the loudspeaker blared out the young man’s failure: three misses, not a single arrow shot from his bow. But the announcer also emphasized his success: he managed to ride down the course at top speed, standing up in the stirrups with no hands on the reins, the bow pulled taut and fierce in his arms.

I’ve only been back in Japan for three weeks at this point, when I sit in the park marvelling at the yabusame, and already I feel the weight of my mistakes like a mountain of fallen arrows at my feet: the awkwardness of conversations where I say all the wrong things, incorrect amounts of cash handed over at tills, doors where I forget to duck. I wish for a voice over a loudspeaker that would follow me around, speaking from a kinder and truer place than I can muster up for myself these days: “Look at how she did her best. Look at what she did right, however small and inconsequential that might be.”

I admire this young man for launching himself down the gauntlet of failure, for knowing his limits, for learning a new skill by taking each day the next step he was able to take, and then the next. There are days when it is enough to gallop past the targets, standing up in the stirrups, bow drawn, arrow unloosed. And there must even be days when it is enough that you are able to get on the horse at all, or that you are willing to approach the horse with an apple on your outstretched palm.

And there are days when it is enough that you lay your head on your pillow and dream: of the horse, of the rippling muscles, of the flowing mane, of the hooves churning up dust, of the aching stretch of the bow, of the arrows flying true, arrow after arrow into the sweet, colourful confetti of your dreams.

*     *     *

My questions for you:  What if you could find that strong, gentle and supportive voice within you?  What would it sound like?  What would it be saying to you today?  What in your life could you let be ‘enough’ for right now?