Visit From a Butterfly

butterfly visitJohn took this photo 8 years ago during a month-long job in the mountains of Colorado. We were brought in to replace a series of retaining walls that had failed within a short time of being built. We were about a week in to the job when we became aware of some conflicting information between the client and architect that effectively put us in an uncomfortable position. In hindsight, it wasn’t really a big deal but, in the moment, I was getting pretty stressed out about what to do. This is where the picture comes in.

I was about to put another stone in the wall when this little winged creature kept flitting around my head. I initially waved it off but it was persistent. Finally, I stopped and it landed on my hand. I remember holding my breath for a moment as it brought me back into the present. I sat down and just looked at this little butterfly as it just perched on my hand, opening and closing its wings. I remember being there for about 10 minutes, just breathing and looking at it, no real thoughts going through my mind.

After a while it dawned on me that all the stress I had about this situation with the architect had completely left me, and it was at that moment that the butterfly took wing and flew off. Thinking back, it was clear that the simple act of coming to the present moment had a profound impact on the way I felt and the spaciousness with which I entered back into building the wall. It was as if I shed all the difficulty of a situation that really had no bearing on us anyway, and that allowed me to go through my day with more lightness and joy. It was a short moment, but a beautiful gift.

Spiraling

Not quite a year ago, I became a member of a wonderful Tai Chi club. It’s a practice that has blown open my heart and mind. Learning to understand how our bodies work on an energetic level goes hand in hand with the physical practice of Tai Chi, so qigong exercises are also part of our classes. The following excerpt is from Qigong of the Center, Essence of Taijiquan: The Teachings of Grandmaster Cai Song Fang, by Jan Diepersloot.

“In the Chinese worldview, man is the ultimate fruit which comes from the interaction of the cosmic forces of heaven and earth. We are the central meeting point, the focus in which these two great cosmic forces combine to produce consciousness.

On the purely biological level, a human is like a tree, unfolding in time from its center in the seed, half spiraling downward to root ourselves in the earth and half spiraling upward through the torso to the light, drawing from them and mixing their energies of earth (food,water) and sky(air/light) to fuel organismic growth. In short, the center of gravity is also considered to be the biological energy and growth.”

Spiraling. I feel that we all are striving to harmonize with this amazing spiraling energy that’s within all of us, and IS us. Creating spaces which nurture our connection with this energy is what we seek to do. Happy spiraling, friends!

Moving with Gentle Power

There are as many ways to move through life as there are people. The range is quite extraordinary. Some people move through life as if on an inner tube floating on the ocean, allowing the currents and circumstances to shape who they are. Others act as if they are at the controls of a bulldozer, plowing through experiences and leaving a wake of destruction in their path. We all fall along this spectrum of moving with our own energy. This manifests in how we express ourselves, how we move our bodies, and how we interact and engage with others.

Al Naslaa Rock formation

Al-Naslaa rock formation, Saudi Arabia

We can all relate to times where we have used our force to make something happen. Often this results in a great expenditure of energy and leaves you exhausted. We feel as if we are pushing and using every muscle in our bodies to accomplish something, tapping into a willpower that allows no room for opposing ideas to exist in the same space. We also can relate to times where something is accomplished with a beautiful and spacious power, as if you are the sails on a sailboat and the wind comes along to assist you. This is what I mean by the term moving with gentle power.

 

As it relates to stonework, there are ways to move that utilize the natural rhythms and tendencies of your body, and the energetic flow that we are all a part of. Herein lies the spiritual ideal of threading the needle. There is a magical space between the contradictions of living, where surrender is the only way to allow its power to come through us. As when we swing a hammer, you should only use enough effort to bring the hammer back and then guide it to the stone or chisel as gravity assists you. Swinging in an arc helps to create momentum, and your intent acts as a rudder to steer the final outcome. With the right balance, you feel the beautiful result as the stone splits where you want. As most of us stone-workers know, it is an incredible feeling when your swing feels effortless and the stone falls away as if it was always meant to be that way.

Kummakivi Finland

Kummakivi, Finland

Moving with gentle power means to move as if you are aligned with the natural flow of everything in the universe. It is not a mental concept but one which you access through your feeling self. When you begin to move this way in the world, you move with the pleasure of freedom and ease. When you move stone it becomes lighter, when you swing the hammer it becomes fluid and as you allow your own power to emerge you can accomplish great things.

This way of moving is a lifelong practice. It requires awareness and honesty and a willingness to let go of what you think you know. It is about finding the place where you move from a deeper knowing, unbridled by fears and doubts and limitations. It is about letting the essence of who you are radiate through your entire body, all the way to the tips of your fingers and toes. As you allow this joyful existence to flow into the world, the world will respond in-kind, opening its treasures to you.

Listening and Stonework

When I speak of listening in this context, I am referring to the act which brings you to the present moment, the awareness which allows the stone to simply be, and the understanding that your role as stone-worker is one of facilitator.

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This type of listening relies on all of your senses being attuned not only to your present outer environment, but also your inner space. When I build with a clear mind and heart, it allows me to listen to stone in a way that is not accessible when I am busy thinking about other things. For the sake of this article I will call this deep listening.

 

For those of you who have worked in the craft for many years and developed a familiarity with it, you have most likely reached a point where the physical actions of building are second nature. That is, when you swing a hammer or pick up a stone, you aren’t engaging your conscious mind to make this happen. You simply pick up the stone, pick a line and cut it, place it in the wall, etc. When you are in this state of openness when building, it allows deeper intention to come through into your work. I have found that this state of flow and space really only comes with practice and experience. It is hard to settle into this kind of rhythm when you are new at something as it engages the part of your mind which needs to lay things out and go over the steps multiple times before committing to an action.

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What becomes possible after you have reached this point of familiarity with the materials and process is something much greater than one might think. It is, in fact, more of a place of allowing than thinking. Most of the time we have a running commentary in our thoughts about the things that make up our lives. This is the mental chatter that can fill up every moment in the day. I suggest that as you work and find your place in the flow of the day, this can be an opportunity to invite in the wise part of yourself to the job. As you are swinging the hammer and laying stone, instead of using that mental space to think of something or somebody else, consciously invite your wisdom to come forth. Allow that part of yourself that knows without question, that trusts in the process and in the inherent good in your heart to come forth. Open the doorway to the part of you that other people love and celebrate to be a part of the work you are creating.

This is the opportunity we have when we allow the silence within to hold the space for who we are. I find that only through deep listening is this part of us accessed. Building can be a meditation of a different kind, and through our movements we can bring forth the deeper joy of making something beautiful and useful.

Acknowledging Stone as if it Matters

Acknowledgement is an incredible gift that most of us practice on some level in our everyday lives. In the simplest of ways when you acknowledge someone for who they are or what they do, it allows their own energy to brighten and creates a deeper connection between the two of you. We have all had times in our lives when someone else’s words of acknowledgment had a profound impact on us and may have even changed the course of our life.

acknowledgment spiral

This simple act can also be applied to “inanimate objects”. It is my understanding that when our attention is placed on something, it changes. So why not use this in a positive way? Stone, before it is quarried or harvested, carries the connection and energy of the earth and to all life on it. In some sense, stone IS the earth, and the minerals we carry in our bodies come partly from stone. This connection already exists and acknowledgement of it strengthens and clarifies it. For instance, once stone is taken from the earth and handled, transported, bought and sold, it takes on the energies of the people doing this work. Since this process is usually not done in a conscious way that acknowledges the earth connection, the original energy that the stone carries “goes to sleep”. You can think of it in the same way as with another person. If their work or beingness or gifts are not acknowledged, that person is most likely to withdraw their presence.

Stone is the same in this way. It is not personal, as if you hurt the stone’s feelings, it is just the nature of energy transfer. When that stone is acknowledged for what it is, it allows the natural connection to the earth to radiate as it once did. The process of extracting anything from the earth without permission, gratitude, intention or acknowledgment further creates separation from everything we surround ourselves with. This is why it feels so good to be in nature, as this connection has not been broken.

When we build with stone, we always do a blessing after the stone has arrived onsite and before we begin moving and working with it. This is something I encourage you to try for yourself. We find it is good to thank the stone for its presence and to ask permission to work with it. We like to apologize if the stone has been handled in a disrespectful manner and to ask its original energies and connection to return to the surface. We like to acknowledge that the stone is a living being and brings its own intelligence to the project. We find it is helpful to listen. This blessing is something that is best done in your own words and with sincerity. Make it your own and see what happens. If you are open and sit quietly you will most likely feel the stone brighten and become easier to work with once the blessing is done. Please keep in mind that the key part in this equation is YOU. If you bring your power and grounded presence to this process, the stone will respond in-kind. One suggestion to get yourself into a good space is to sit quietly for a few moments and feel gratitude for your own life, the stone, the work, your clients, etc. This will help you to flow into the blessing in a more comfortable way.

If you are having a hard time finding your own words for this dialogue, here’s an example of what we do. We do this at the beginning of every job before we start moving the stone. We also spray/sprinkle water on the stone as we say the blessing. This helps to remove other people’s energy from it.

“Greetings, beautiful stone friends. We thank you for being here and for the opportunity to work with you. We ask permission to move you, shape you, and work with you to build this (wall). We pledge to work with you in a mindful way that respects and honors the mountain from which you came, and to listen to your voice as we work. We apologize if you have been removed from your home or handled in any way that was disrespectful or harmful and we invite the energy of the earth that you carry within to radiate completely and fully. Thank you for adding your presence to this (wall) and for working with us.”

Stone is a Mirror in the Present Moment

IMG_4171For many of us, stone engenders a deep love within. There is a kinship, a sense of family, and a connection to the earth below that arises when we meet stone. I always feel a deep sense of home when I work with stone. It commands my full attention and presence and when I don’t show up, I come away with bruised appendages and ego. I feel that stone welcomes our thoughts and ideas when we want to create with it. Stone can make us harder and more aggressive but equally can respond by softening and flowing when you let it in.

For many people who have worked with stone, you know what I am talking about. Stone is an unforgiving teacher. Stone will become enlivened with your passion, your love, your truth, your existence, and will harden with your anger, your frustration, your hate, your aggression. It is a mirror in the present moment. We have a saying when we are working, “When the spirit leaves you, it’s time to go home”. It is an acknowledgment that when you cannot bring your whole self to your work, the work will suffer, and you will suffer along with it. It is not a hard and fast rule, but one that we generally uphold as good practice.

Some days I come to work and everything flows. I swing the hammer with effortless grace, connecting with the chisel or stone, the energy of the swing transferring into the exact cut I was intending. These are days when every stone I place my hands on fits into the wall with the barest effort. As I look through the pile to select a stone, the right stone will call out to me, and it will fit in the perfect place. These days don’t come every day (so far), but when they do, I have learned to treasure them, and to ride that wave for as long as I can. It is in this experience of flow where I find connection to my work and myself. This is where the apparent lines we draw, dissolve, and the worlds bleed through. It is where the beauty that we create and the beauty that we are, meet. This is where stone is my greatest teacher.

Stone as Teacher

It is in the stillness of our being, where we can access the grandest version of ourselves. If we desire to create something pure, we must not be distracted nor have our minds wander.  We must find the harmonious balance of meditation and creation. For us as stonemasons, this state of being is the ideal.  Whether we are shaping stone or lifting it, our awareness is of the present moment.  Danger looms if we stray from this place.

For a combined 40 years Zach and I have been working with stone, bringing together our practices of meditation and hard work.  We have found a wonderful teacher in stone.  It has taught us patience, caution, humility, and how to work together as a single unit.  Through our relationship with stone, we’ve learned much about ourselves, and how to better relate to others.  Despite what many of us think, moving slowly can bring wonderful rewards.