the practical buddhist : essentials

the mindfulness of getting inked

The Buudha Tattoo- small
6.5 hours of mindfulness on this one.

It’s an intense experience

The larger and more detailed the design, the more mindful you become.

There isn’t a way to zone out, transcend, or ignore the process of getting inked.

You are fully present in each passing moment; acutely aware of the painful sensations, vibrations, scratching and burning that often accompanies the process.

On the surface (no pun intended), it seems ludicrous to deliberately mark up one’s body with permanent ink that will, over time, fade and become fuzzy. But on the flip side each piece of art is highly personal and expresses something unique.

For me, it’s become almost what I’d call a spiritual experience. It unifies the body and mind in absolute mindful awareness.  It’s the quickest, most efficient way I know to experience such a total union of mind and body…that we can safely photograph and share without an X-rating.  😉

The Dharma Sleeve Project (TDSP)

I now have four tattoos; two are on my left arm and two are on the right arm and right anterior forearm. The left arm is reserved for tributes to the time I spent as a young man in the UK.  The right arm is a work in progress; a project I refer to as The Dharma Sleeve Project or TDSP for short.

TDSP is a year-long plan to visually illustrate my commitment to walking the Buddhist path in life. I can think of no other way, for me and only me, to make this type of commitment. I’m big into making public disturbances…in quiet and well-intentioned ways of course… and TDSP has become a focus for this energy.

3 hours for the dharma wheel

Last weekend I got some additional ink by the artist I trust and like the most. Mike Espinosa of Black Pearl Electric Tattooing & Fine Art (pictured above) in Santa Cruz, CA is one of the most gifted artists I’ve ever met.

He’s done three of my tattoos and it’s my hope that Mike will be able to complete TDSP over the course of the year as my vision for it unfolds.  Working with the same artist over a period of time provides each us with insights into the other’s art, mind, and heart.

During the various sessions we’ve discussed the role of art in everyday life and also in relation to the artist’s willingness to pursue their art where ever it leads.

At times, it’s like having a great conversation with my dentist…if my dentist was a cool skater dude covered in ink, a really talented artist, and didn’t have his hands in my mouth.

“F*ck, yeah it hurts”


That’s the quote from both Black Pearl’s bumper sticker as well as a hand-painted sign in Mike’s work room. The pain involved in getting inked isn’t overwhelming, but it is intense. For example, the lower right quadrant of the dharma wheel design you see here, was the most painful area. I guess I have a more generous  distribution of free nerve endings in that area as opposed to the other three quadrants. They weren’t nearly as bad, but the pain isn’t what I want to focus on.

The resulting unification of mind and body is like no other experience. Simultaneously the body is saying, “Holy crap, that kinda hurts!” while the mind is countering with, “Remain calm; the pain is momentary and it will pass….and it’s going to be f*cking awesome!”

Only those who been through it can relate. I’ll go further and say that my experience isn’t like a lot of others. I’ve heard some screaming, moaning, and crying while sitting in other shops.  I think my experience differs from those folks because my mindset is what The Buddha taught:

“Pain is life is certain, but suffering is optional.”

That’s my mindset going in. I know that everything is impermanent, including somatic pain in most cases and the temporary discomfort imparted by the tattoo machine is just that. The next two weeks involves some discomfort, especially for the first 24 hours, but it’s not unlike the healing period for a burn or an abrasion and I know this going in.

I also know that the resulting art is forever mine and in the case of TDSP, I know it’s going to be totally awesome and serve as a very personal reminder and source of encouragement for my journey in this life.

My dad doesn’t get it, but that’s OK

A lot of people like my 84 year-old father don’t get it. But hey, my 19 year-old bodhisattva son Jay, close friends and long-time buddies, and probably 90 percent of the population in Santa Cruz County, completely understand. That’s like icing on the cake, so to speak. But really, no one needs to get it but me.

It’s Ok that some people will judge me on first sight or reject me for superficial reasons that expose their biases. That’s OK because it provides me with more motivation to express compassion.

Plus, I used to be just like them.

I judged people on appearance alone, on the kind of car they drove and the stylishness of their clothes. I was thoroughly engulfed in perceptional bias and, truthfully, I still have that tendency. But the difference is where once I was deluded by my own sense of self-importance and blind to my perceptions, now I’m aware of them and my tendency to judge others.

Because of this awareness I work as diligently as I can on the meditation cushion to cultivate more understanding, express more compassion, and offer unconditional acceptance toward my fellow sentient beings.

It’s not like getting inked makes me a better person…

Kidding! It definitely does!  I know that I’m a better person for getting inked. Just ask my son or my ex-wife.  (Hey, if my ex-wife can be supportive, then the sky is the limit, right?)  😎

My ink serves as a reminder of not only the path I choose to walk each day, but of the mindful experiences each tattoo individually required and produced.

They remind me that everything in life is temporary: to enjoy the present moment, the laughter, the closeness of another, and especially the ink…for one day all will cease to be.