Preserve net neutrality!

Without equal access to high internet speeds, blogs like this one would sink into total obscurity. So I’m lending this space today to the campaign to preserve the internet for everyone. Wait for the bar to load:

anigif
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How [high][deep][wide][fine] can awareness extend?

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“Reflexology” by PradaDearest, used under CC license 2.0, cropped from original.

Into your little toe, at least.

During twenty years of writing with master body therapist Yamuna Zake, I’ve learned to keep my feet healthy. Key is maintaining the space between the toes, normally squished together by shoes. I use both Yamuna’s techniques and my yoga practice.

For example, before doing some standing poses I always spread my toes with my hands. As I did this recently, an exercise from a book Yamuna and I wrote (The Ultimate Body Rolling Workout) popped into my mind.

  • Can you raise all your toes together, and then, starting with the little toe, place each toe on the floor separately, without letting the toes touch?

Back when we wrote the book, I couldn’t do it. But this time, to my amazement, I could.

foot with bkdg

Tricky separation: 3d from 4th. Photo: Loren Weybright

What thrilled me was not so much the muscular feat as the sense of differentiated awareness that came with it. Before, my five toes felt like one big toe. I could only raise and lower them as a unit—maybe with a fanning movement that brought the big toe down last.

But now I discovered a thread of awareness running from my mind into each separate toe, as though a set of nerves that were asleep had woken up and started transmitting signals. I could instruct each toe to act on its own, even the tricky, recalcitrant 4th and 5th.

I once interviewed Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a movement artist and therapist with a seemingly unlimited ability to develop an exquisitely differentiated, conscious connection to every tissue of her body. In a workshop I attended she instructed us to “move from your lymph.” Completely bewildered, I asked her later how such a thing was possible. You can develop an awareness of any organ or tissue in the body, and move it, she explained. You can move your little finger because you have an inner sensory awareness of it. In the same way you can develop sensory feedback from your lymph fluid—or your blood, or cerebrospinal fluid—and move that.

I’m pretty far from feeling my lymph, but I now have that inner sensory awareness of my toes.

And, what’s really intriguing: if I can do this with my toes, why not anything else? One of Bainbridge Cohen’s students told me he could feel into the cells of his heart. Another said she could feel into her brain.

And, beyond the body—how much farther can awareness expand? How fine-grained can we get? In the previous post I described a group session with the awakened teacher Jean Klein. Klein kept referring to the notion of the separate, individual self as an illusion, and one man began to argue about this. Finally Klein told him, “I don’t experience any distinction at all, even a physical one, between you and myself.” The man was sitting a good 50 feet from him. Klein was saying that having completely let go of the identification with being an individual self, he felt literally one with everything and everyone.

Physicists say that atoms consist mostly of empty space. A chair, say, contains more space than matter. But we experience it as solid. What I imagine is that Klein could perceive the basic energetic substrate from which we all arise, which temporarily assumes each of our various forms until we pass on, like waves in the ocean. From this view, the individual self, the “me” that we take as such an absolute, undeniable reality, does not seem solid.

It’s quite a way from talking to your toe to living in such a state of expanded awareness. But even the slightest evidence that it’s possible is so inspiring!

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Where does writing come from? (part 3)

In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.

Tibetan_Dharmacakra

The gankyil, a Tibetan Buddhist symbol of nonduality. By Kava09 and authors of File:Korea-Buk-01.jpg, File:Sam Taeguk.svg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)

Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.

One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.

He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”

I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.

“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.

He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”

I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”

He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.

And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.

My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?

Find out more about Jean Klein here and here.

 

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Where does writing come from? (part 2)

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Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, Woman Writing in an Interior, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a writer, she knows what she’s talking about.

In an afterword to a collection titled Paris Stories, Gallant says:

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keepclick to go to Amazon book page going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement.

What interests me is this phrase holding the breath while going on breathing. And why it’s the basic requirement.

To me, it sounds like an ability to inhabit two alternate realities at the same time, or two different levels of existence, one a kind of internal timeless being and the other the world of objects in time. There is a meditation practice of shifting focus from an object of concentration to just the awareness of the knowing of that object. As I understand it, this practice trains you to be increasingly able to experience pure awareness.

With respect to writing, I think “holding the breath” equals accessing the timeless subjectless place ideas arise from, at the same time that you’re finding language and constructing sentences that make these ideas into an object—the words on the page (or screen) that exists in time and space. I’ve had the experience of dissolving into the process of writing such that my sense of myself simply evaporated. I have usually only gotten to this point when I was able to work continuously over a period of time. Once someone called me at such a time—not a close friend, but someone I knew more than casually—and I embarrassed myself by forgetting who she was.

This is the best experience of writing that I know of. Nothing beats it. Sometimes I think that my entire motivation for writing another book is just to have it again. Perhaps Mavis Gallant felt the same.

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Suzuki Harunobu, A Woman Writing, circa 1764–circa 1768, Brooklyn Museum

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When did the universe begin—or did it? And what are we doing in our little piece of it? And …

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Two galaxies colliding.
Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College), et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA)

Theoretical physics doesn’t come easily to me, but Sean Carroll manages to put more of it across than I’d have thought possible for someone whose math education stopped at intermediate algebra. His book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time asks the question: Why does time only move in one direction?

The answer, says Carroll, is connected to the phenomenon of entropy, which also goes only one way: it increases. Exploring this connection leads him through some of the deepest questions scientists ponder: relativity, spacetime, quantum physics, the nature of the universe, and, ultimately, the meaning of human life. Why are we here? Is it by design of someone or something? Carroll rejects the argument from design. He sees us “not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon.” Meaning and purpose don’t arise from any “laws of nature” created by a divinity; they’re for us to determine. And he takes pride in the scientific struggle to understand those laws.

But I have another question: should we even be asking?

It turns out that these same grand questions were hot philosophical topics during the Buddha’s time. Many people wanted him to answer them, but he refused. There is a list of 10 of these “unanswerable” questions (14 in some traditions), including:

  • Is the universe eternal or not?
  • Is it finite or infinite?
  • Are the soul and body the same thing or different?
  • Does an enlightened person still exist after death?

And so on. The Buddha explained that trying to answer these questions doesn’t help end suffering but actually increases it, and furthermore doesn’t lead to awakening, or enlightenment. The questions are only a distraction.

Nor is he the only sage to take this position. A very highly realized teacher I was fortunate to see several times—said to be enlightened himself—was asked, “When did the universe begin?” He responded, “The question is meaningless: there is no time and space.” When someone else wanted to know, “What is the meaning of life?” he said, “You can’t ever know the answer to that, so why think about it?”

Click image for more info from HubbleSite

Never before seen galaxies that existed shortly after the Big Bang, billions of years distant, photographed by the Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF Team. Click image for more info from HubbleSite.

So why did I want to read the Carroll book? Because I would like to know the nature of the universe, especially since that might shed light on the nature of the self, another of those unanswerable questions that interests me even more.

I’ve struggled a bit with this desire to know, and concluded that my interest isn’t just metaphysical; it’s practical. That is, I don’t want simply to define the self in absolute terms, but still more to understand how the ways we conceptualize it affect us, as individuals and as a society. We may aspire to the realm of the absolute, but we also lead everyday, relative lives, and on this plane how we define our self is important, because it determines how we live, and our impact on everyone around us.

No doubt knowing the answers to the unanswerable questions would enable us to construct an absolute definition of ourselves. But since we can’t, best to admit that all the definitions we have made are relative. So perhaps the best answer to the questions in the title of this post is: Who knows?

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My house is my castle

Many old houses in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods have beautiful ironwork enclosing their yards. For example:pretty fence 1

pretty fence 2

 

 

 

 

 

(Click the photos to see the details more clearly.)

First-floor windows, easily accessible from the street, often have iron grilles to prevent break-ins. These too are often quite handsome. grilles 2

Years ago I played host to a group of visitors from a small town in Ohio who laughed merrily when they saw similar grilles on houses on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They couldn’t get over the idea that all these people were putting themselves behind bars. Imagine living like that! I’d gotten used to seeing them and remember feeling rather defensive.

But not long ago I came across the house below, and found myself in the same position as the giggling Ohioans.

stockade

I don’t know who lives here so have no idea when or why the current owners (or earlier ones) put up this structure. At the time the neighborhood was likely unsafe and prone to break-ins. Just last summer, a couple of blocks from this house, I noticed some damage to rose bushes planted in tubs along the sidewalk. A homeowner told me that a bunch of kids had come through the night before and turned all the tubs over. There was nothing to steal, they just wanted to ruin something.

Still, this stockade sticks out on its block, since the other houses have the customary low fences. From a bystander’s point of view, it looks pretty unfriendly.

So I let my imagination weave itself around those bars. I’ve long been interested in the powerful current of individualism in this country and how it shapes our character, politics, art, and economy, and in particular contributes to the way we define our sense of self. To me this fence evokes a self that wants to close itself off and clearly demarcate the boundary between itself and everything else. Is that a healthy sense of autonomy—or is it like living in a cage?

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Where does writing come from? (part 1)

Angelica Kauffman painting

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The painter is at left.

I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)

She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.

When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.

Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)

In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.

I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned,  Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.

Poussin_Inspiration_of_the_poet_Louvre

Nicolas Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630). A poet writes under the inspiration of Apollo, who is accompanied by a muse and two cherubs.

It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.

And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.

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The writer and the archetypes

In the late 70s–early 80s I volunteered in a shelter for homeless women run by nuns. It was the era of “shopping bag ladies,” women who lived on the street and carried their possessions around in bags. To the non-homeless they were mythical figures; no one knew where they came from or why they “chose” to live that way. Theories abounded, and their contradictions intrigued me. I decided to discover the reality.

doll radios

Doll radios from the 1970s. Click photo for better resolution image.

It turned out to be pretty prosaic. The largest single factor in making these women homeless was a political decision: emptying the state mental hospitals without making adequate provision to support the ex-inmates in the community. Personal events, like the death of a husband who took care of business, also played a big role; many women who were middle-aged at that time had been raised to be good wives, which meant not knowing how to manage a checkbook and pay bills. (My book The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness is based on my experience at the shelter.)

But people in extreme situations lose their grounding in the realm of the ordinary. Their minds are invaded by myth. The women I met acted out vivid archetypes of femaleness that feminists were then just beginning to analyze. Deeply influenced by Jung at the time, I found myself plunged into a world where the archetypes walked around breathing and speaking in symbols. One incident in particular comes to me now.

The mission of the Franciscan nuns who founded the shelter was to follow St. Francis’ example by serving those in need, which to the sisters meant the homeless women they saw on the streets of midtown Manhattan. So the nuns and the women of the streets came together in a single household—a four-story brownstone in an area then known as Hell’s Kitchen. To the nuns, each woman was a precious soul whom they welcomed into the community of spirit they created there. But other people perceived only the archetypes. I remember making a phone call to the VA to see if I could get help for a homeless woman who had served in the army. The nice lady I spoke to couldn’t understand why I was calling about someone old enough to be a veteran; when she heard “homeless women,” she assumed we were all young and pregnant.

The first “bag lady” to show up when the shelter opened was a woman I’ll call Dora. Probably in her 50s, she walked bent over, shuffling along in sneakers and white socks. Her voice was deep, snuffly, nasal. She soon moved into a nearby hotel, but dropped in frequently for meals and company, always toting a couple of bags. Dora was gregarious, and what she said was generally sensible and often quite penetrating.

Like many women at the shelter, Dora was much concerned with her own femininity and sexuality. She told me about her boyfriend, who had died ten years before (“I’ll never see a man like him again”), and pondered her prospects of getting another one. She grilled me about whether I was married, why I had gotten divorced, and whether I had a boyfriend now.

That Christmas she gave Sister Elizabeth a present: a transistor radio in the shape of a sexy doll, blonde and naked, sitting on her folded legs (I had seen the same one in a junk store nearby). The doll had enormous breasts with huge red nipples; one was the on-off-volume switch, the other the tuner. The radio itself was in the bottom.

It was totally characteristic of Dora’s perceptiveness (and her streak of malice) that she chose to give this grotesquely vulgar object to Elizabeth, the most “nunny” of the sisters, the one whose sexuality was least in evidence. (These were post–Vatican II nuns, who lived uncloistered and wore jeans instead of habits.) The radio was a reminder of something that, in Dora’s mind, the nuns were getting away with forgetting. In a way she was speaking for all the women at the shelter—victims of rape, their own desires, unwanted pregnancy, abuse and desertion by men, society’s condemnation and indifference—coming face to face with the five sisters, toward whose deliberately nonsexual lives they felt (I sensed) an obscure hostility. Dora was sending a telegram:

HERE—GIVING BACK WHAT YOU THREW AWAY.

Sexy Linda doll radio

Vintage Sexy Linda “Radio Doll” Novelty Transistor Radio, Made in Hong Kong. Photo by Joe Haupt

I don’t know whether Elizabeth got the message, but I drank it in. That place was so fruitful for a writer’s imagination: I didn’t have to invent images, a cornucopia was offered me every day. The danger, though, was falling into the archetypes myself—but that’s another story.

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Between the Door and the Street: the stoop, and a conversation

Between the Door and the Street: conversationSitting by a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with three other women, discussing gender politics—as an art form. The yellow scarves signal that we’re part of Between the Door and the Street, a work of socially engaged art by California artist Suzanne Lacy. We were among 84 groups on stoops along the block, “performing” our unscripted conversations for a large crowd that strolled the sidewalk, stopping and listening at different stoops as they chose. We stoop sitters represented a huge range of local activist groups.

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street

Photo by Matt Weinstein.

My own group’s subject was second-wave feminism—how it changed us, how it changed society—and what didn’t change. Women still earn less than men; they still take on more responsibility for house and children. Rape remains a huge problem. These facts tell me that even though women now take on roles they rarely had before—CEOs, elected officials, and so on—the underlying power structure remains intact. Moreover, despite all advances, women as women remain deeply problematic, for their sexuality and ability to generate life frighten men. This is no less true today than it was centuries ago when the witches were persecuted in Europe. It’s why feminists have asserted that rape is primarily an issue of power, not of sex (I wrote about this fear in my book The Women Outside).

The four of us on the stoop had a great time talking to each other, but except for a couple of moments when we got a laugh, I had no idea how people were responding. It was really supposed to be performance, and we’d been told not to break the fourth wall, so I tried diligently not to look at them. When at the end we were cued to go out into the street, we did talk to a few people, but those who had listened earlier and moved on were gone. I think this fluidity is a signature quality of Lacy’s work—very Buddhist.

Interesting phenomenon: so many women there looked fabulous, incredibly attractive.

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

It wasn’t just that they knew how to put themselves together (although the scarf-tying creativity on display blew me away), but that they knew who they were. Beyond mere self-confidence, I saw a sculpting of their being, a refinement that showed in their features—a chiseled look arising from experience and the wisdom gleaned from it. Look through this portfolio of photos by local photographer Matt Weinstein, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

In the same way, when someone is a dedicated meditator, their practice often shows in their face, which appears both well defined and quite open—undefended, since the person has no need to feel defensive. There is no hiding, the full being shines out.

Such people have digested experience into something that nourishes spiritual health. The clothes, hair, and makeup on the women last Saturday all looked good because they knew who they were and weren’t trying to be someone. Not surprisingly, the real stars in this respect were middle-aged and older.

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EGGxercise: movement and inspiration

You might think a choreographer wouldn’t have much to say to writers, but you’d be wrong. Twyla Tharp has been creating dances for a long time, and from what I can tell has fought and won all the battles involved in making something out of nothing. Her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life absolutely nails the issues any creative person faces.

For example: “Writer’s block means your engine has shut down and the tank is empty. Being blocked is most often a failure of nerve, with only one solution: Do something—anything.”

Then she gives a bunch of exercises to “do.” What’s key for me is that most involve moving your body. One more quote: “I can’t say enough about the connection between body and mind; when you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can’t simulate in a sedentary position.”

This is true. Being a dancer was never even on my radar. Even those group exercises where you act out a name or word or idea always made me feel awkward and dull. But I decided to try a couple of Tharp’s ideas. That is, I had to force myself. The level of resistance was astonishing. But I got on the floor and assumed the postion for Egg: knees bent up to my chin, arms hugging them. Nowhere to go from here but out—somewhere. Tharp lists Exploded Egg, Scrambled Egg, and Egg-Cited as some “eggs” that her students have come up with. I managed Rolling Egg and something I’m calling Flailing Egg.

I noticed that the movement was fueled by the tension in my body. That is, initiating the movement gave the tension a place to go. Then it took over and shaped the movement. I didn’t need to figure out where to move next; I just went along for the ride. The movement broke open the shell of tension (or resistance), and the idea for this post popped right out of the crack.

Doing these exercises went beyond the old “go for a walk when you’re stuck” idea. It was more formal, more structured, focused directly at making something. More powerful.

Have you had an experience of this kind of movement sparking an idea, plan, other inspiration? I’d love to hear about it.

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