“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”
~*~ Leonard Koren ~*~
When I began to teach about wabi sabi in the mid 1990’s it was because I needed to come to grips with my own wabi sabi self, for all of the reasons I have written about here many times, but also because in 1995 I was stricken with one of the worst cases of Bell’s Palsy 3 different doctors had ever seen. I spent a year trying all manner of medical and holistic therapies, I had acupuncture for a year, I tried everything, and while it got slightly better I am still significantly paralyzed nearly 20 years later. It has been very difficult for me because having had low self-esteem most of the early decades of my life, and being overweight, the last vestige of confidence I had was that people always said I had such a beautiful smile. Now, paralyzed and lopsided, or cattywompus as I now say, it was all gone. I went into a state of depression and despair it was hard to pull myself out of.
One day looking out of my my bedroom window I saw my tiny little hibiscus, Hibiscus Syriacus ‘Bluebird,’ that I had just planted weeks before, blooming. Such a tiny plant had produced a huge sky blue blossom with a magenta throat. If you have joined my mailing list you will have gotten the free eBook that I wrote called Embracing Fitting Out When You Never Really Fit In that included this story. In that moment I had an idea, and I realized I had a choice. I could allow myself to stay in that state of despair or I could do something that would help me focus on something beautiful. I looked out again at my tiny hibiscus for a moment and then sat down and opened up a large sketchbook. I wrote across the page in bright blue ink, The Blue Hibiscus Press.
My little press produced a quarterly publication for 3 years: The Contemplative Way~ Slowing Down In A Modern World. It was a beautiful little publication on all blue paper, hand-done by me in the days before I was on the internet when I typed out the columns, cut and pasted them onto master sheets, cut and pasted in artwork and hundreds of quotes all around the edges and through the pages of the little journal, and in a short time had 200 subscribers. It was sold in local bookstores and people still tell me today that they saved all of their copies. It had a loyal if small following and is still very dear to me. Out of my transformation from a beautiful smile to a crooked one I began to learn something, I learned that our greatest strength lies inside. I was forced to go within because what I looked like was no longer, nor would it be, the way I measured myself in the world. It was a shallow way to measure my worth, but it took a long while for me to learn this.
During this time I was hand-feeding baby parrots for a breeder to earn bird food and supplies for my own birds. One of her pair of cockatiels produced two tiny albino babies. They were both born with birth defects and not worth keeping in her mind because she couldn’t sell them. Oh please, let me have them, I begged. I brought them home and named them George and Gracie. George had a very bad leg and couldn’t stand up. Gracie’s leg could be wound 360 degrees like the hand of a clock. They would never be able to live like other birds but they were otherwise very healthy and just adorable. I raised George and Gracie in teacups at first next to my side of the bed with tissue in the bottom for softness. Their legs were braced on the sides so they could sit up and I handfed them around the clock. They were wabi sabi like me and I loved them dearly.
In time George and Gracie grew up. I got a very long cage for them and put little hammocks in every corner. They were so amazing. They would use their beaks to pull themselves around the sides of the cage and they rested in their little hammocks. They ate well, played with toys, and seemed quite happy. They loved to be held and were very cuddly and kissy. George and Gracie taught me that being imperfect needn’t be a reason not to be given a chance to live and I started a non-profit shelter for disabled and unwanted parrots. I called the shelter “Cloudcuckooland” which came from Aristophanes play, The Birds. Cloudcuckooland was the home of the birds in his play and a perfect name for the shelter.
Now I was online doing all manner of research about caring for disabled birds, I established contacts all over the world, a patron paid for a website which at that time was very expensive, I quickly developed a very large following on the site and major food and supply companies sent donated things for the little ones whose numbers had increased exponentially. Parrots were sent to me from all over the country, as far away as Hawaii, from California, Texas, Florida, and more. My knowledge and skill grew and I realized I had an affinity for parrots. Many came in wild and unhandleable but as I worked with them they became tame, could be held, cuddled, kissed, and played with. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I still have parrots with me today from the Cloudcuckooland days.
The story of George and Gracie is very touching. I was so attached to them I really wanted to keep them but I had so many to care for and rehabilitate. I was contacted through a friend by a woman whose husband was suicidal. In his early 30’s he was in an accident and paralyzed, he would never walk again, and he was in a state of profound despair. She had heard about me and wondered if she could adopt a bird for companionship to give him something to care for and keep him company while she worked. That’s when I knew I had found a place for my beloved little ones. To make a long story short he fell in love with them and it changed his life. They spent their days on him, he bought them all manner of toys and the best of everything, they became his beloved little companions and taking care of them gave him a purpose.
Wabi sabi. the imperfect perfect, had become the theme of my life and it’s teachings were far reaching. When I started my first Dragonfly Cottage website, a large community for women, I wrote a lot about wabi sabi and had a picture of my grey parrot Henry on my shoulder. He was looking right at me and his beak was wide open as if he was talking to me. The caption I put under the picture was “Mama, don’t put your lopsided face on the front of the website.” which of course was exactly what I did. In a funny turn of events The Utne Reader saw it and featured me in their wabi sabi issue. The article they wrote about me was called “Wabi Sabi Woman” and while they sent a photographer out to photograph me with my parrots they ended up using the picture from the website.
By now I had a mission. I wanted to teach people about loving themselves, despite what they saw as flaws, or disabilities, or any kind of woundedness that kept them from fully loving themselves. And at the same time my practice of mindfulness deepened as I was diagnosed with bi polar disorder among other things and the practice kept me from taking my own life during years that were harrowing and filled with pain. As I have written about through the posts in this series my mindfulness practice is central to my daily life, is my most important self care practice, and keeps me going from day to day, a sometimes difficult task.
My life has been one of the Phoenix crashing and burning and rising again over and over since childhood, and I have learned that I am a survivor, and most surprising of all I learned to love myself, overweight, lopsided, bi polar and all the rest. I knew that I had to help others come to love themselves, embrace their lives just as they were in this moment so they could move forward into better lives rooted in the kindness they found for their tender hearts and their lives, just exactly as they were. There are always gifts, even if you can’t see them at first. You have to slow down, you have to soften, you have to break through to a gentle kindness for your own essential being. I have been a teacher and healer most of my life, but finally I realized that this is exactly what I need to teach, what I need to focus my writing on, how I could best help people.
To that end I will be opening The Wabi Sabi School of Mindfulness in January. I am designing a year long course so that students can study with me in a group setting with a community and much more. I will also take private students, and a book coming out of this series will be published in 2015.
When you break through the misconceptions you have had about yourself, when you begin to love and accept yourself, when you embrace each and every moment as it comes and recognize the miracles all around you every single day it transforms your life. Everything is possible. Limitless possibility. I realized that I could help people learn this, form a practice, and begin the journey of a lifetime.
It has taken me a very long time to come to this place. I had to come to total acceptance of myself. In 1995 I took the name Maitri legally. Maitri is the Buddhist teaching of loving-kindness and compassion, but the heart of that teaching is that you must first have compassion for yourself, you must first love yourself before you have these gifts to give to another. You cannot give from an empty well. It has taken me all these years to come to this place. I had no teachers, no guides.
There are many teachers and countless books about mindfulness as a practice, and many different approaches, but my own teaching is centered in mindfulness as a tool for coming to maitri, and from there to build a life that students have longed for but never dreamed possible. My heart has opened and softened and I have embraced my own life and gifts. It is such a beautiful thing, and when you come to this place you want to share it with others. I have cried from sheer joy and a deep love and compassion for those I see suffering all around me. This is what I have to give, and as I wrote last night, it is time.
I have such a sense of peace now, I have released all fear about what my future might hold because when you know that you have something to give, that you can reach out and help others, when you fully believe that you have something to give to the world, really believe it, not just give lip service to it while trembling in your boots not quite believing it yourself, you walk through a doorway into a whole new life.
I walked through the doorway and it is beautiful here. It occurred to me, and I smiled and felt a rush of love, that walking through that doorway was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from black and white to full blown technicolor. Oh my word it is beautiful on this side of the door. I cannot wait to meet my students and help them through the portal.
I stop here tonight with my 4 rescue pugs sleeping and snoring all around me. What sweet tender babies. Miss Scarlet the wabi sabi grey parrot who came to me so nervous she had plucked almost all of her feathers out and looked like she was ready to go in the stew pot is now almost fully feathered and spends her whole day out with me here in my studio. She is an absolute joy and loves to give me kisses. She wants to go night-night so I will stop here. I am so blessed. I hope to be a blessing to others. I know I will. It is why I am here.
There’s no place like home.