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      PEMcast | April 3, 2020

      PEMcast 16: Creative Constraint

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chödrön writes: “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth."

      The truth — about how viruses spread, about how long our country will be shut down, about so many things — seems to be shifting. The truth is elusive. But fear feels very close and very real.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      When the museum closed on Friday, March 13, we needed, as staff, to have a way to come together and make sense of things. For 10 days, Siddhartha Shah, our Curator of Indian and South Asian Art, inspired us through daily videos to sit each day in meditation. He gave us quotes like the one above from Pema Chödrön and offered additional reading and tips on how to meditate.

      ABOVE IMAGE: Siddhartha Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      We learned so much about Shah’s own daily ritual, an elaborate and personal spiritual practice, and about the traditional Indian culture he grew up in outside of Chicago. It was helpful to have a daily dose of someone else’s struggles and observations through this strange time of global pandemic and social distancing.

      Siddhartha Shah doing a daily mantra writing practice. Courtesy photos.
      Derby helping with spring flowers. Photo courtesy of the author.

      God knows when we are all so worried about the people in our lives. The love we share with our pets is helping.

      Derby helping with spring flowers. Photo courtesy of the author.

      Since we also like to be helpful, we hope you enjoy Episode 16 of the PEMcast, where in addition to sharing thoughts on a spiritual practice, Shah also introduces us to Hindu deities and the wisdom they can impart to us during this time. In this episode, you can also follow me on this spiritual journey … as well as my frustrations and discoveries as I make my way around a shuttered Salem in search of signs of humanity — and beer.

      Notch Brewing curbside pick-up. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Notch Brewing curbside pick-up. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      The Cheese Shop of Salem stock-up from a distance. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      The Cheese Shop of Salem stock-up from a distance. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Sea Level Oyster Bar beer, wine and a roll to-go. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Sea Level Oyster Bar beer, wine and a roll to-go. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Cellograph art by PEM staff artist Emily Larsen. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Cellograph art by PEM staff artist Emily Larsen. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Cellograph art by PEM staff artist Emily Larsen. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Cellograph art by PEM staff artist Emily Larsen. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      May we never bear away when we see a friend in distress.” These words are from a toast offered during the anniversary celebration of the East India Marine Society in 1806. The foundational members of the museum (which went on to become PEM) knew that, when faced with tests of will and endurance, a higher moral principle must guide us. In their time, they spent months at sea, wrestling with the unknown, with dangers both seen and unseen.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      The PEM staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

      [Musical interlude]

      Siddhartha: Sit comfortably. Scan the body. Relax the brow, the cheeks, the jaw. If you like, take a few rounds of deep breaths in and out. To start bringing your attention to your breathing.

      (Sound of dog breathing)

      Dinah: OK, Derby. I think we better go for a walk. Get your leash. Get your leash. Come on.

      [Dog barks]

      Siddhartha: I am not sad. There is sadness today. I feel sadness, but I am not sad.

      [Sound of door closing]

      Dinah: Definitely, a sunglasses day. Let’s do it.

      Siddhartha: Have your timer ready. For ten minutes at least. Check your spine. Check your shoulders and belly. Relax everything.

      Dinah: Here’s my postal person. Glad to see that the mail is still being delivered. There’s the Salem Common. It’s getting really green. Of course the irony is it’s such a beautiful, beautiful time of year, but there aren't that many people here to see it. From a very quiet downtown Salem, Massachusetts, this is the PEMcast.

      Chip: Siddhartha, are you there?

      Siddhartha: Hi there.

      Chip: How are you?

      Siddhartha: I’m OK. How are you?

      Chip: Not too bad. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

      Siddhartha: My name is Siddharth Shah and I’m the curator of Indian and South Art at the Peabody Essex Museum.

      Chip: Tell me about the origin of this project, the videos you’ve been making for our colleagues at PEM.

      Siddhartha: It was last year in 2019 that I had this idea to do like a 10-day meditation challenge. Part of it was for selfish reasons. I have a daily practice and it’s been something that I do for years. But sitting meditation was not something that I’ve been doing regularly for a few years. Then I thought what about the beginning of the year? So we can do it in January, a kick off to 2020. We’ll do like this meditation challenge. Then I was busy. It was not possible. But then when this situation happened with Covid-19, it really seemed the ideal moment.

      Siddhartha on video: Good morning. I hope your day is off to a good start. So I NOT myself a meditation teacher. This is not a meditation class. I have a lot of experience in yoga and different traditions, Eastern traditions.

      Siddhartha: Being isolated also means less distraction. Our creativity can emerge maybe more authentically. Maybe we find more creative ways to be creative. I used to specialize in Himalayan art and I would give lectures about how Himilayan thangka painting works. This is a type of painting from Tibet, scroll paintings, of typically, deities. What you don’t see with the eyes is that underneath that painted image is this very complex grid system. The proportions must be exactly so. eyes have to be positioned exactly where they are supposed to be. It’s very limiting. You can’t just be creative and change the hand position or decide to make him green instead of the color he’s supposed to be. I remember saying in a lecture, so if you are an artist who wants to be really creative and expressive, then this is probably not the kind of painting you want to do. And there was a thangka painter who was there and he said I used to think that way, but then when I had just painted the little box where the lips of the figure had to go, so it’s all very very contained and in that space is where the lips have to go. He said I realized there was a whole world of possibility for me of the different ways that I could work within that space. I still had to paint lips, but there was all of this freedom within that space. I thought that was so beautiful and so insightful.

      Siddhartha: I don’t want to, like, sugar coat it. We have globally just been told to stay in. We have been forced to go inside. Going in is something a lot of us resist and avoid. It’s really important to have some tools -- some basic techniques of learning how to be with yourself.

      Dinah: So here it is. The front of the empty Peabody Essex Museum. The museum has been closed since Friday the 13th of March. We have the signs, the red signs on the front doors. TO PROTECT THE SAFETY OF OUR COMMUNITY, PEM IS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. PLEASE TAKE CARE AND CONTINUE TO CHECK PEM.ORG FOR UPDATES. Very few people walking by. Here comes Tyler, from our security department.

      [Jangling of keys]

      Dinah: What are you doing?

      Tyler: Just checking the front face of the buildings, one offs. Making sure everything stays the way it should, so that it’s ready for people to come back, when they come back. (laughs) A lot of it is business as usual as far as security and facilities goes, but it’s a lot different without people around, a lot different.

      [Sound of church chimes]

      Dinah: And there’s Henry, PEM’s facilities master electrician.

      Dinah: How does it feel, Henry, to be here with all of this so quiet.

      Henry: Creepy, anxious. Pretty simple.

      Dinah: The sound of the chimes, that’s pretty nice.

      Henry: It’s Lent for us Catholics. It’s a time of renewal. So, we’ll see what happens.

      Siddhartha on video: Good morning. I hope you are doing well. I am once again really touched by the message that I’m receiving from some of you about your experiences.

      Siddhartha: People have been really really open and generous and sharing their experiences. I’m seeing the humanity of people that I work with -- many of whom I’ve never met. And they are sharing how challenging this period has been. All of these people have come together and created a sense of community and that’s been so reassuring and made me so proud of where I work, actually.

      [Sound of crosswalk signal]

      Dinah: Sometimes lately, you don’t even have to wait for this crossing light. Normally you stand here forever. Dirty glove on the ground. Leave it. Leave it. No, we’re not going in there. Come on. You know it’s Friday afternoon. It is devastatingly beautiful. And it’s been a rough week for everybody. I just came to the brewery across the street. I’m looking at the empty beer garden where everyone would normally be sitting. Certainly I would be sitting on a Friday afternoon. But now I’ve had to order remotely, so the way that way that works is I went online. I ordered. They’ll send you an email when they’re ready for your beer pickup because they don’t want too many people waiting in line.

      Brewery staff: Did you get a confirmation?

      Dinah: No I didn’t yet actually. I just came on over. Cardin. C-A-R-D-I-N

      Brewery staff: Do you mind waiting?

      Brewery owner: We can get that right now.

      Dinah: I don’t mind waiting at all.

      Brewery Owner: Thanks so much for coming down. We really appreciate the support.

      Dinah: Thanks for doing it. Thanks for being here. Derby sit.

      Brewery Owner: It’s a beautiful day to be in the beer garden.

      Siddhartha: So, there is an expression in India for understanding -- quote un quote -- God. It’s that the hand that feeds you, like the way a mother would feed her child, is also the one that slaps you is also the one that disciplines you. In terms of our historic collection, we have a lot of objects from Bengal and Bengal is really known for its connection to goddess worship. The first thing that immediately comes to mind is Kali and Kali being my personal favorite. The reason Kali comes to mind is she appears as quite a terrifying, horrific, goddess. She’ll have a tongue hanging out of her mouth, often blood stained mouth. I’ve seen her when she has the corpses of children as earrings. She’s terrifying. When I explain Kali to people, they wonder how there can be such a horrible looking form that is worshipped as a god or goddess. This is the interesting thing with a lot of Hindu gods and goddesses. If you have a goddess of smallpox for example, she will be the one who protects you from smallpox, but she is also the one who bestows smallpox. So Kali as this wrathful mother goddess is not intended to scare us. She is terrifying in an effort to protect us. A lot of us are living in fear. We are having to deal with something that can feel naturally, at times, kind of apocalyptic. We are afraid because what we are doing by isolating ourselves is protecting ourselves and other people. This fear we have, this discomfort we have, is actually coming from a place of deep care for those who are vulnerable.


      Siddhartha video: It’s a breathing in, breathing out technique. Breathing in, let’s say you are dealing with missing people. Right now I’m missing my parents and thinking about them a lot. So, I would breathe in and feel that pain. I might visualize my parents, think about how sad I am that we’re far apart now and I can’t be with them. But as I’m breathing in, I’m also thinking and imagining all of the other people who are in my situation as well, or all the other people whose parents may be the hospital because of this virus. So we breathe in our suffering and all of the suffering of those others who are sharing in that pain together and breathing out, it’s like a burst of healing of relief from that suffering for ourselves and other people.

      Siddhartha: I know people in New York who have had it, but are recovering. I’ve heard of four friends of friends who have died. And I’ll say the oldest -- you know, we hear on the news that it’s the older population that is most vulnerable and those with existing conditions -- but the oldest of hte people I’ve heard who has died is 63.

      Siddhartha on video: If you are noticing as you do this that your mind is really all over the place, maybe try to give it that space to do what it's doing. Give it a few moments. Let it out. It’s like OK, you’re having your tantrum, its’ fine. And then, it’s like OK I’m taking over. Happy sitting. Enjoy the rest of your day and see you tomorrow.

      Dinah: Well, I just finished watching Siddhartha's video and then doing 10 minutes of meditation. I feel really lucky to work at a place where I can work from home. So much of my job has been online. And I’m feeling really really grateful for that. And then, now grateful that an extension of that is Siddhartha sending these videos every morning and just getting this dose of humanity. I’m just trying to think about the good things and wake up each morning and breathe and take in that first breath and be glad that I can breathe today. I mean, that’s where we have to start right now. I can breathe today.

      Siddhartha on video: Good morning, so it’s day 10. It’s been a really really beneficial and supportive experience for me, personally.

      Siddhartha: The ten days ended just a little while ago. And somebody had sent an email saying you know it takes 21 days to turn something into a habit. And I thought, OK I’m just going to put it out there. If you would like to continue and go a full 21 days, let me know. And 25 people wrote back. So there are 25 people at PEM who are hoping to do a 21-day stretch of meditation, in hopes of making this a daily practice moving forward and obviously because they felt benefit from those 10 days of sitting.

      Siddhartha on video: I want to share a quote that I found yesterday from a book. It’s got a great title. I don’t know if I should say the title because it’s got a bad a word in it and I don’t want to get in trouble. How to Stay Human in a F-ed up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life by Tim Desmond. And the quote is this: "At this moment, may we sit in the middle of the storm, fully present. May we bring our complete attention to the here and now, although it might be full of uncertainty and pain. May we allow the soft animal of the body to react however it will, not asking it to be anything different than it is. May we gaze at the body and the feelings with total love and acceptance, appreciating the beauty of life in all of its forms. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy. May we all be safe. May we all be loved.

      Chip: Siddhath, thank you so much for taking this call. I really appreciate your time.

      Siddhartha: It’s my pleasure. It’s great to talk to you.

      Chip: I hope you have a good day today. I hope you stay safe and healthy.

      Siddhartha: OK, Chip. You too.

      Chip: OK, thanks very much.

      Siddhartha: Yep. Bye.

      Chip: Bye.

      [Musical interlude]

      Chip: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. We here at PEM want to wish all of you health and safety and calm. If you have comments or story ideas or if you want to share what you’re doing through this health crisis, write to us at If you want more information about the museum’s closing, please visit and keep in touch with us through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Special thanks to Notch Brewery and Siddhatha Shah. Stay tuned for more episodes of the PEMcast.

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