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Ajahn Brahm's Inspiring Wisdom : Two Bad Bricks

"After we purchased the land for our monastery in 1983 we were broke. We were in debt. There were no buildings on the land, not even a shed. Those first few weeks we slept not on beds but on old doors we had bought cheaply from the salvage yard; we raised them on bricks at each corner to lift them off the ground. (There were no mattresses, of course — we were forest monks.)

"The abbot had the best door, the flat one. My door was ribbed with a sizeable hole in the center where the doorknob would have been. I joked that now I wouldn't need to get out of bed to go to the toilet! The cold truth was, however, that the wind would come up through that hole. I didn't sleep much those nights.

"We were poor monks who needed buildings. We couldn't afford to employ a builder — the materials were expensive enough. So I had to learn how to build: how to prepare the foundations, lay concrete and bricks, erect the roof, put in the plumbing — the whole lot. I had been a theoretical physicist and high-school teacher in lay life, not used to working with my hands. After a few years, I became quite skilled at building, even calling my crew the BBC ("Buddhist Building Company"). But when I started it was very difficult.

"It may look easy to lay a brick: a dollop of mortar underneath, a little tap here, a little tap there. But when I began laying bricks, I'd tap one corner down to make it level and another corner would go up. So I'd tap that corner down then the brick would move out of line. After I'd nudged it back into line, the first corner would be too high again. Hey, you try it!

"Being a monk, I had patience and as much time as I needed. I made sure every single brick was perfect, no matter how long it took. Eventually, I completed my first brick wall and stood back to admire it. It was only then that I noticed— oh no! — I'd missed two bricks. All the other bricks were nicely in line, but these two were inclined at an angle. They looked terrible. They spoiled the whole wall. They ruined it.

"By then, the cement mortar was too hard for the bricks to be taken out, so I asked the abbot if I could knock the wall down and start over again — or, even better, perhaps blow it up. I'd made a mess of it and I was very embarrassed. The abbot said no, the wall had to stay.

"When I showed our first visitors around our fledgling monastery, I always tried to avoid taking them past my brick wall. I hated anyone seeing it. Then one day, some three or four months after I finished it, I was walking with a visitor and he saw the wall.

" 'That's a nice wall,' he casually remarked.

" 'Sir,' I replied in surprise, 'have you left your glasses in your car? Are you visually impaired? Can't you see those two bad bricks which spoil the whole wall?'

"What he said next changed my whole view of that wall, of myself, and of many other aspects of life. He said, "Yes. I can see those two bad bricks. But I can see the 998 good bricks as well.'

"I was stunned. For the first time in over three months, I could see other bricks in that wall apart from the two mistakes. Above, below, to the left and to the right of the bad bricks were good bricks, perfect bricks.

Moreover, the perfect bricks were many, many more than the two bad bricks. Before, my eyes would focus exclusively on my two mistakes; I was blind to everything else. That was why I couldn't bear looking at that wall, or having others see it. That was why I wanted to destroy it. Now that I could see the good bricks, the wall didn't look so bad after all. It was, as the visitor had said, 'a nice brick wall.' It's still there now, twenty years later, but I've forgotten exactly where those bad bricks are. I literally cannot see those mistakes any more.

"How many people end a relationship or get divorced because all they can see in their partner are 'two bad bricks'? How many of us become depressed or even contemplate suicide, because all we can see in ourselves are 'two bad bricks.' In truth, there are many, many more good bricks, perfect bricks — above, below, to the left and to the right of the faults — but at times we just can't see them. Instead, every time we look our eyes focus exclusively on the mistakes. The mistakes are all we see, they're all we think are there and so we want to destroy them. And sometimes, sadly, we do destroy a 'very nice wall.'

"We've all got our two bad bricks, but the perfect bricks in each one of us are much, much more than the mistakes. Once we see this, things aren't so bad. Not only can we live at peace with ourselves, inclusive of our faults, but we can also enjoy living with a partner. This is bad news for divorce lawyers, but good news for you.

"I have told this anecdote many times. After one occasion, a builder came up to me and told me a professional secret. 'We builders always make mistakes,' he said, 'But we tell our clients that it is "an original feature" with no other house in the neighborhood 1ike it. And then we charge them a couple of thousand dollars extra!'

"So the 'unique features' in your house probably started out as mistakes. In the same way, what you might take to be mistakes in yourself, in your partner, or in general, can become 'unique features,' enriching your time here — once you stop focusing on them exclusively."

By Ajahn Brahm
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David St. John

"There were times when depression, anxiety, whatever, would keep me from writing.  I still get depressed and anxious, but I just don't let it stop me.  I've learned to move it to one side if I want to work."

American Poet

1949 - 

Sometimes we let our emotional and mental states become excuses for why we are not working.  We tell ourselves that we are too tired, too agitated, too depressed, too unhappy, too nervous, too worried or too upset.  The work must continue no matter how we feel.  We must work through the emotion and the pain.  We must keep working and not let our feelings become a barrier.
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Emile Zola

"There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman.  One is born a poet.  One becomes a craftsman."

French Writer

1840 - 1902

There are two sides to every artistic creation:  the creative and the analytical, the poet and the craftsman, the writer and the editor.  These are two sides of the same coin.  We need both the spontaneity of creation and the analysis of the editor.  The poet is who we are on the inside — who we were born to be.  The craftsman learns certain behaviors to fit into the expectations of society.  If you draw it this way, you are accepted and considered a genius.  If you deviate from the expectations of the masters, you are an amateur and labeled no good.  If I had to choose between the poet and the craftsman, I would choose the poet.  I would rather create than edit.
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Terry Pratchett

"Real education happens when you pick up a fact here, and another fact there, and put them together and get an insight."

English Novelist

1948 -

One of my greatest pleasures is when I create a moment of insight by combining multiple facts into a new idea.  I believe we are in charge of our own education.  Books, classes, schools are just tools to help us gain information.  The real education is in the application of the information to how we live our lives.  Some people are book smart but have no idea what living is all about.  Some people are street smart but may have lost their souls in the process of surviving.  The education for creative leaders occurs during the process of creating.  This is where we synthesize all the information we have accumulated in our brains and bodies.  This is where our souls are reborn.
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David Steindl-Rast

"Impatience makes us get ahead of ourselves, reaching out for something in the future and not really being content with where we are, here and now."

Austrian Writer / Catholic Monk

1926 - 

Many creative leaders don't live in the here and now.  They are always looking forward to tomorrow when they sell their first book or have their first gallery showing or have enough money to create their works of art full time.  They spend most of their time in the future and ignore the beauty around them.  They are not grateful for what they have and the people in their lives.  They want to be where they are not.  Then one day they wake up and life has past them by and they have grown old and there is no tomorrow where they can dwell.  

Are you living in the world of tomorrow?  Or are you living in the now?  Are you grateful for what you have and what you have been given?  Or are you seeking new opportunities, living in a time beyond time where only dreams exist?

I am not saying that one should not have goals or dreams.  Both are necessary for living.  We just shouldn't spend all our time there.  We need to appreciate where we are now and what we can learn from this moment in our lives.  We need to enjoy the people in our lives and appreciate their friendship and love.  Don't let your impatience for success keep you from enjoying the moment.

Take a few minutes to watch this video and listen to the words of David Steindl-Rast.

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Roger von Oech

"If you make an error, use it as a stepping stone to a new idea you might not have otherwise discovered."

American Writer, Speaker

1948 -

Celebrate your mistakes.  Each mistake you make is an opportunity to discover a path to a new idea.  For many people mistakes and errors are failures and they quit.  Some people even deny they made a mistake.  Creative leaders understand that mistakes are only the first step on a journey to finding a new idea.  So celebrate your mistakes.  Welcome your errors.  Give thanks for new beginnings.  
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Bertolt Brecht

"It's alright to hesitate if you then go ahead."

German Poet, Playwright

1898 - 1956

Making decisions is often difficult.  We hesitate, not sure if we are making the right decision.  Sometimes we need to trust ourselves and move ahead.  It is normal to second guess one's self — to question if one is doing the right thing.  But ultimately, one must stand up and be counted.  What decisions are you facing that you are uncertain about?  What decisions are you regretting having made?  What does your heart say?  Don't let your analytical mind win.  Trust your heart.
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Leonardo Da Vinci

"A painter should be solitary.  Solitude is essential to his art.  Alone you belong to yourself only; with even one other person you are only half yourself, and you will be less and less yourself in proportion to the number of companions."

Italian Artist / Creative Leader

1452 - 1519

Our society is filled with noise and distractions.  Some days it is difficult to think because there is so much activity.  A creative leader must have solitude if he is to create.  People can block the flow of creative juices.  But we also need people for stimulus and inspiration.  So it becomes a balancing act between too many people and too few people.  If we have too many people in our lives, we stop creating.  If we have too few people, we fail to incorporate new ideas into our work and become stagnant.  What is the balance in your life?

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Jing Si Aphorism - Inspirational Wisdom by Dharma Master Chen Yen

Transient though life may be,
one's contribution will live on;
as we love knows no boundaries,
its spirit will always remain.


A person with a generous heart and compassion for all beings leads the most blessed life.


To willingly undergo hardship for sake of helping others is compassion.


Those who have great wisdom must all the more be humble and unassuming,
just like the rice stalk that bows under the weight of ripe grain.


Only those who respect themselves have the courage to be humble.

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John Cleese

"We don't know where we get our ideas from.  What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops."

British Actor

1939 -

Sometimes we need to walk away from our computers and walk back into the real world.  Inspiration does not come from spending hours and hours in cyberspace.  Inspiration visits poets who take long hot showers and artists who take walks through wooded parks.  Where do you find your ideas?  In your coffee cup?  Dancing under a full moon?  Behind the piano?  Surely not in the software on your computer.
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T. S. Eliot

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.  The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn."

— T. S. Eliot

American Poet

1888 - 1965

Every aspiring artist and writer needs to expose his mind and heart to the creative works of others.  Originality comes not from creating something from nothing, but from putting a new twist on old material, by changing what was into what is.  What writers are you reading today?  What artists are you studying?  

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Edgar Degas

"I frequently lock myself in my studio.  I do not often see the people I love, and in the end I shall suffer for it . . . painting is one's private life."

French Artist

1834 - 1917

Sometimes we sacrifice our relationships because of our commitment to our creative work.  We ignore the people we love because of the creative work we must do.  The challenge is to find a balance between the work and the people.  We need the people to hold us to this earth so we don't disappear into thin air — so we don't drop off the deep end.  So if you have been ignoring those you love, go give them a hug and a spend a few minutes with them.

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Marcel Duchamp

"I don't believe in art.  I believe in artists."

— Marcel Duchamp

French Artist

1887 - 1968

What is more important the work of art or the artist?  Let me ask that again?  Which is more important the creative work that you produce or yourself?  For me, this is a difficult question.  If I had to choose between the creative work that I have produced over the years or the person I have become, which would I choose.  My first reaction would be that I would choose the work.  I want it to outlast me.  It is my ticket to immortality.  It is what reaches far beyond where I can reach.  It will touch people I will never meet.  It will touch people who will not yet be born when I die.  Yet, does the work really exist outside myself?  If I had never lived, my work would never have been created.  

Do you believe in art?  Or do you believe in the artist who produced the work?  Can one exist without the other?  We know the creative work could never have existed without the artist, but can the artist exist without the creative work?  I don't think so.  If the art does not exist, then I, who believes he is an artist, does not exist.  I and my art am one.

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Mary Frank

Photo by Kate Joyce

"Decisions are like butterflies.  Their tongues are like springs, coils.  Butterflies go from one flower to the next looking for nectar, extending their coils, testing every flower.  I'm looking for nectar, too."

British Artist

1933 - 

Do you have decisions that you have delayed making?  Are you riding the fence, not sure which path to take?  Making decisions is rarely easy.  Most of us struggle to make the right decision.  Yet maybe, we should be like the butterfly, flitting from one flower to next, testing every decision and not worrying about whether we make the right one or not.  Every decision will take us somewhere; and I believe that no matter what decision we make, we arrive where we were meant to be.  So be off with you now.  Go seek the nectar of the flowers.
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William Ralph Inge

"What is originality?  Undetected plagiarism."

— William Ralph Inge

English Author

1860 - 1954

Is it possible in this day and age to create something original.  Probably not.  Everything we create is build upon the past.  Artists are influenced by earlier artists.  Poets are influenced by other poets.  What we do is change, adapt and modify the works of others.  Even the Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun.  So in a sense, we all plagiarize.  Even those who sue others over copyright infringement have plagiarized earlier works.  So don't fret.  Even the best artists have stolen from others.

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Hans Hofmann

"A work of art is finished, from the point of view of the artist, when feeling and perception have resulted in a spiritual synthesis."

— Hans Hofmann

German Painter

1880 - 1966

Do you find that your creative work is spiritual work?  Do you connect with something beyond yourself?  Are you in touch with the great silence of the universe?  Is your creative work a form of prayer?  Does your creative work give you hope?  Does it give you a sense of peace?

The Gate
(1959 - 60)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Jonah Lehrer

"Every creative journey begins with a problem.  It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.  We've worked hard, but we've hit the wall.  We have no idea what do do next?"

American Author

1981 - 

Do you ever feel that you have hit a wall and don't know what to do to solve a problem?  Fantastic!  You are at the beginning of the creative journey.  Don't give up now.  The fun process is just starting.  Wait patiently for answers to arrive.  Keep plowing the soil of the brain planting seeds that will ultimately bear fruit.

Watch this video that introduces Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

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Albert Einstein

"Creativity is the residue of time wasted."

German Theoretical Physicist

1879 - 1955

Do you waste time?  Or spend time daydreaming?  Do you take walks alone?  Or sit thinking about nothing?  Does your family think that you are lazy and won't amount to anything.  Contrary to popular opinion, a little bit of laziness is good for the creative soul.  By relaxing and being silly, we actually free our creative spirits from the shackles of the Puritan work ethic.  As the old saying goes:  all work and no play makes Jack a very boring lad.  Play is fertilizer for the creative spirit.  So why are you sitting here in  front of a computer?  Go play.  Daydream.  

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James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Arrangement in Gray:
Portrait of the Painter

(Self-Portrait, 1872,
Detroit Institute of the Arts)

"As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with the harmony of sound or color."

— James Abbot McNeill Whistler

American Artist

1834 - 1903

Some artists and writers believe that the story is less important than technique used to communicate the story.  The flow and interaction of color is more important than the subject being painted.  The subject, whether a person or a landscape, is secondary to the colors.  For some poets and writers the same is true.  The creative use of language is more important the story being told.  The quality of the writing is judged not by the story told but the uniqueness of the words used to tell the story.  What do you think?  Is technique more important than  meaning?  Is color more important than subject?  Are words more important than story?

Whistler is best known for his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), commonly called Whistler's Mother.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
(1971, Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

Here is another painting by Whistler: Symphony in White No. 1.

Symphony in White, No. 1:
The White Girl

(1862, The National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C.)

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Nasrudin Gets A Cow

One day, Nasrudin’s wife told him, "Let's buy a cow so that we can have milk every day."

Nasrudin replied, "We don't have enough space in our yard for my donkey and a new cow."

But despite Nasrudin's objection, his wife persisted until he finally gave in.

So he bought the cow and just he predicted, it crowded his beloved donkey in the barn. This prompted Nasrudin to start praying one night, saying, "Dear God, please kill the cow, so my wife can't bother me about it anymore, and so my donkey can live in peace."

The next day, Nasrudin went into the barn and was dismayed to discover that his donkey was dead ! He looked up and said, "God, I don't mean to offend you or anything, but let me ask you this—after all these years, do you mean to tell me that you still can't tell the difference between a cow and a donkey ?"

Source :
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A. E. Housman

"Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out . . . Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure."

English Poet

1859 - 1936

Many poets and painters dislike it when they are asked to explain the meaning of their poems or paintings.  "If I have to explain it to you, then why did I bother creating it."  While poems and paintings may have meaning, we don't have to understand them perfectly to appreciate them.  Sometimes the pleasure is in the sounds or the colors.  And that is all we need.  Pleasure is more important than perfect understanding.  None of us fully understand the world, but we still find pleasure in it.

Here is a poem by A. E. Housman.

Loveliest of Trees

by A. E. Housman

Loveliests of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.
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Hermann Hesse

"You must find your dream . . . but no dream lasts forever, each dream is followed by another, and one should not cling to any particular dream."

German Novelist, Poet, Painter

1877 - 1962

We are given multiple dreams of who we want to be and what we want to accomplish.  Some dreams come true early in life and some don't happen until we are well on the way to the grave.  Some dreams are fleeting and some last a lifetime.  Some dreams require a miracle to accomplish and some come about with the snap of the fingers.  Some dreams haunt our waking hours and others inhabit our sleep.  Some dreams dance with the angels and others hide in the closet of our nightmares.  

What dreams haunt your life?  What dreams demand the most of your heart?  What dreams do you still cling to?  What dreams have you forgotten?
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Dean Koontz

"Writing a novel is like making love, but it's also like having a tooth pulled.  Pleasure and pain.  Sometimes it's like making love while having a tooth pulled."

American Novelist

1945 -

I love the images conjured up by this quote.  Pain and pleasure is basically what life is all about.  Why should creative work be any different?  We experience both pain and pleasure while doing creative work — painting, writing, singing or dancing.  Hopefully, you experience more pleasure than pain.  One cannot exist without the other and both teach us something.
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Ann Patchett

"Not everyone can be an artist.  There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see."

American Novelist

1963 -

It is a privilege to witness art — to see and experience the creative work of another.  Artists and writers let us inside their hearts and make themselves vulnerable for our sake.  Be thankful that you have been given the opportunity to witness what someone else worked long and hard to create.
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Ella Fitzgerald

"Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do.  Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."

— Ella Fitzgerald

American Singer

1917 - 1996

Too many people give up too soon on their dreams.  Keep in mind that dreams have no time limits.  Keep dreaming.  Keep striving.  Keep believing.  Once you give up on your dreams there is little reason to keep living.  Remember it is about the journey, not the destination.  Keep writing.  Keep singing.  Keep painting.  It is not about money or sales or celebrity.  It is about the work.  Keep creating.

Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing Black Coffee.

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Diane Keaton

"You have to live life all the way.  Take risks.  Do things you can't imagine."

American Actress

1946 - 

The hardest thing for most people to do is to live life to the fullest.  Usually we hold ourselves back for various reasons — most of them perceived, not real.  We are afraid of the unknown.  We are afraid of what might happen.  Fear dominates us.  We are not willing to risk everything.  We choose to play it safe.  Are you playing it safe in your art?  Or are you swinging for the fences?  Are you living the creative life?

Here is Diane Keaton discussing her memoir, Then Again.

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Nikki Giovanni

"Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't.  I want to be clear about this.  If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems.  Writers write from empathy."

American Poet

1943 - 

Writers don't experience everything they write about.  They have to be able to walk in the shoes of others, to be able to see through the eyes of others.  If writers could only write about what they have experienced, we would not have fantasy, science fiction or romance novels.  Male writers could not write about the experiences of females; nor could female writers write about the experiences of males.  Writers would not be able to write about people from other cultures.

All creative leaders need empathy.  They need to be able to understand where other people are coming from.  They need to be able to experience the world through the eyes of others.  No one is an island.

Here is an interview with Nikki Giovanni.

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Heather Graham

"You need to meet people constantly because that is where you get your ideas and everything that you are going to write.  I find people intriguing.  I love people and I love to hear their stories and to find out where they came from and where they are going."

American Novelist

1953 -

Writers are often viewed as loners and they do have to spend a lot of time alone writing, but writers also need human contact.  Many times the people writers come in contact with find their way into novels and stories.  Great writers are observant of the people they meet and use the details of these lives to add authenticity to their work.  

Meet Heather Graham, author of over 150 novels.  She has more than 75 million books in print in 25 languages.

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Clarissa Pinkola Estes

"Writing, real writing, should leave a small sweet bruise somewhere on the writer. . . . and on the reader."

American Poet, Storyteller

1945 - 

Creative work touches us and leaves its mark on our soul.  We may transform our demons by writing or painting, but we do not escape untouched.  And when we write fiction, our characters become a part of who we are.  We have conversations with these people who haunt our minds.  And they don't leave us.  Our memories do not die.  We are forever engaged in dialogue even when the names and faces change.  We are listening to the voices of others.

Here are some quotes from the book, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

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