Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ordinary magic on the assembly line

There’s a Zen meal chant that says in part,

“This food comes from the efforts of many workers, past and present,
And its advantages give us health and well-being and promote strong practice.
Seventy-two laborers brought us this food; we should know how it comes to us.”

In honor of Labor Day, which takes place Monday, let’s pause for a moment to think about how much other people’s effort is involved in everything we do – food, transportation, sanitation, communication – and the real people who do that work. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how the piece of paper his poem is written on contains the world, from the cashier who took money in exchange for the notebook to the workers at the paper mill, the loggers who cut the trees, back to those who breathed out the carbon dioxide the trees took in.

Be grateful to everyone.

The Buddha included right livelihood on the Eight Fold Path, his guidelines for living a life that will move one toward enlightenment. He laid out some very specific guidelines for acquiring wealth, which we’ll take as livelihood: it should be done legally; without violence, including threats and coercion; without deceit or trickery, and in ways that do not lead to the harm or suffering of others.

Livelihood is grouped with speech and action under the heading of sila, or ethics . “Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics not on the notion of obedience,but on harmony,” Bhikkhu Bodhi writes.

The Buddha elaborates on work, saying workers should do their jobs diligently; employers should treat their workers fairly; and any goods or services involved should be described honestly.

In the spirit of awakening, of going beyond our concepts and cultural stereotypes, let’s turn to Philip Levine, named last month as the next poet laureate. The New York Times reported that he was selected from a long list of nominees by James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who called him “an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.”

In “Coming Close,” it’s the workingwoman. Levine offers detailed observation of what it means to work on an assembly line.

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Producing enlightenment

The truth is you're already a cook.
Nobody teaches you anything,
but you can be touched, you can be awakened.
When you put down the book and start asking,
"What have we here?" you come to your senses.
Though recipes abound, for soups and salads,
breads and entrees, for getting enlightened
and perfecting the moment, still
the unique flavor of Reality
appears in each breath, each bite,
each step, unbounded and undirected.
Each thing just as it is,
What do you make of it?

-- Edward Espe Brown
The Complete Tassajara Cookbook

At the "Touch the Earth" party in April, IDP handed out seed packets as parting gifts. My spouse planted and cared for them, growing tomatoes, radishes, carrots, and beets. We have salad.

Last summer he made fruit wines, which are now ready to drink. Pictured is a peach-raspberry, I believe. (There was pear, peach, blueberry, sour cherry, sweet cherry, and mead. All but the mead are quite nice.)

Karma is often described metaphorically as planting a seed, or bija. When you plant tomatoes, you get tomatoes, not peas. When you plant seeds of craving, jealousy, anger in your mind, they blossom into attitudes that color your life. You can walk around wearing a skunk cabbage corsage or carrying a bouquet of roses. Your choice. As Roshi Bernie Glassman said, in his earthy way, "He who walks around with a piece of shit under his nose thinks the whole universe stinks."

Remember too that lotus flowers grow in cesspools. Great beauty can grow out of stinky circumstances.

Seeds require care to grow. So if you attend to those that create ease and harmony, you get more of that. If you don't pay attention to how your mind works, you get weeds.
How does your garden grow?

On the non-metaphorical front, if you're interested in food and cooking as practice, pick up any of Edward Espe Brown's books. He was the chef at Tassajara, a Zen retreat, and an affiliated restaurant in San Francisco. I don't read recipes for fun, but his reflections are down-to-earth yet enlightening.

He's got tons of great recipes. But for tomatoes -- a little olive oil, a little basil, maybe garlic. You don't need to dress up tomatoes.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A mother’s non-attached affectionate appreciation

This week my younger child headed back to school, bringing home the impermanence of summer vacation.

Children do an excellent job of reminding you that everything is constantly changing. They grow, seeming at times to move through clothing sizes faster than the speed of light. They change from tiny people who writhe in agony if you try to put clothing on them that is not pink and fit for a princess to crust punks. You not only don’t recognize the shirt they’re wearing; you’re not sure you recognize the kid. Oh, wait – there’s gramma’s nose.

And emptiness – the lack of inherent identity – is constantly reinforced. I had a friend who would introduce her preschoolers by saying, This is my son, and he’s going to Harvard to be a doctor. This is my daughter; she’s going to Yale to be a lawyer. You don’t need me to tell you, do you?

My view is that it is the parent’s job to train them to live in the world, to figure out what they need and why they need it, to see there are many paths and that how you get there is as important as where you’re going.

It’s a view that can be hard to hold onto, especially when they’re leaving.

The cause of suffering, the Buddha taught, is attachment. The cessation of suffering results when we let go of that attachment, that grasping, that craving.

Talk about the emptiness of words – when you’re a mother, craving is what happens when your hormones go wild as your body takes care of the new being growing there. (Friendly’s Jubilee Rolls were the staple of this child’s gestation.) Grasping is what those tiny fingers do, an entire hand wrapping itself around your extended finger. Attachment – uh, umbilical cord. Can it get more visceral?

How do you experience the very ordinary magic of parenting without compounding the suffering that is part of life?

Compassionate equanimity, my teacher advises. Throw in loving kindness and sympathetic joy, inherent aspects of parenting, and you’ve got all four brahma viharas, the heavens on earth.

Put it another way: Affectionate non-attachment.

Loving kindness is radiant warmth and openness, an unattached appreciation with no sense of duty or obligation. … Loving kindness is the natural and heartfelt wish for this person to be happy. Ken McLeod “Wake Up to Your Life”

Dharma Punx founder Noah Levine illustrates this beautifully with his colorfully tattooed hands. (these illustrations are my non-tattooed, arthritic hands.)

Not grasping. (Hands clasped together, fingers intertwined.)

Not distanced. (Hands parallel, a slight distance apart.)

But connected. (Hands in anjeli mudra.)

Non-attachment does not mean detachment. Detachment means “from”-- to detach is to pull away , to disengage. Nonattachment, on the other hand, is a fully engaged and connected experience of being in the middle of whatever is going on, without clinging to or trying to control it. Noah Levine “The Heart of the Revolution.

Connection without clinging.

I recently heard Judith Simmer Brown, an acharya in the Shambhala tradition, talk about romantic love, using the movie "Titanic" as her text, deconstructing the stereotypes and conventions. A lot of what she had to say applies also to the parent-child relationship.

Babies are pretty much a blank screen for parents' projections -- although they come into this world with certain ways of doing things, the result of genetics or the training received in past lives. Some people see their kids as a do-over of their lives: Relive the good parts, avoid or correct the bad. The kid makes you proud or makes you cringe.

But the kid doesn't make you anything. You can choose to be proud or embarrassed or disappointed. Or you can choose to interact with the person in front of you -- while helping them learn how to live in society.

The love of a real person is more wonderful than any fantasy, to paraphrase Simmer Brown.

You have to be willing to see through the fantasy that this kid will be THE ONE. And when you realize that this kid will not be all that you dreamed, that, to quote directly from Simmer Brown, "is the moment to step out of the fantasy and have a relationship with a real person."

That person is pretty amazing. You and yet not you. Self in flux.

And then they go away to college. Oh, yeah. That impermanence thing again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The wisdom of boredom

Boredom is essential to Buddhist practice. When our minds aren’t occupied with something else – planning or playing games or talking or buying – we have the space to see our thoughts. What do you think about when you have nothing to think about? And what does that say to you?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche differentiated between at least two kinds of boredom – hot boredom, the restless jittery I-can’t-sit-still-another-minute kind, and cold boredom, the zoning out kind. Both indicate our mind's desperation to escape the present moment.

We don’t like to be bored, of course. We like to be entertained. We carry smartphones and personal games systems so that we never have to be without something to occupy our minds. Or books -- some of us still carry books.

In this excellent essay, Scott Adams argues that boredom also is essential to creativity.

I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.

Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, also credits his time in corporate meetings, “which felt like a play date with coma patients.”

Now let's suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it's fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity?.

In that world, he says, people would be more dogmatic, adopting positions laid out for them rather than thinking things through themselves. Movies would be derivative or sequels; TV would show more “reality” shows. The economy would “flat-line for lack of industry-changing innovation,” and the news would sound repetitive. People would have difficulty understanding new ideas.

You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. Uh, touché.

You know how sometimes a theme emerges in your life, and everywhere you look, something wakes you up to an aspect of your life? Here’s a sample of what I’ve discussed/highlighted/shared in the past week of my personal life:

"Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll's. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his lifespan that Yossarian thought he was dead." Joseph Heller, Catch 22.

“We would like apple juice, orange juice, cottage cheese, ice water – anything to avoid boredom. Through shamata, we discover that we do not need to jump to conclusions or act purely out of impulse. All those impulses are canceled out by the process of mental discipline”. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation.”

"The mind that needs to be entertained hunts for modes of engagement that sedate it, rendering it dull and numb. And once we're tranquilized this way, our reality becomes little more than a giant cocoon of ambient experience." Ethan Nichtern, One City

I’m talking to a friend about how busy we are. She notes that when free time does appear, it’s hard to shift into neutral and just idle. I agree, saying it’s been hard to find time to read. She gently points out that reading is doing something. Ahhh-ha!

On the other side, we have Fritz Perls the inventor of Gestalt Therapy, who said, “If you are bored, you are not paying attention.”

Next time you find yourself casting about for something to pass the time, see if you can let that impulse go and just be in the moment. What is happening within you and without you, right now? What attracts your attention or makes you want to turn away? What are you not seeing?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chicken: egg = Brain structure: meditation

Why do you meditate? Because you recognize the truth of suffering and want to find your way off the wheel of samsara? Because you want to get to know how your mind works? Or because your brain predisposes you to such investigations?

Yet another scientific study shows that meditators have better brain function (along with lower blood pressure, more happiness, and better sex. (No citation for the last one, but c'mon. Ask Sting and Trudy.)

One of the study's co-authors, Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, suggests that there may be other factors at play when looking at the relationship between meditation and brains.

“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders said. “For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition toward meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

Wow -- so perhaps it's my brainmind that wants my mind to examine how it functions.

The study, in current online edition of the journal NeuroImage, suggests that people who meditate have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. Having stronger connections influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals throughout the brain. This follows a study two years ago that found increases in specific areas of meditators’ brains.

There are more technical descriptions here

Luders is a meditator herself, which is nice. And I liked this: “It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.”

It is also possible that meditating over a long period of time can make changes on a macro-social level, affecting how you function in the world and how the world functions with you in it.

White fiber. Lovingkindness. Electric impulses in the brain. Smiling at a stranger on the street. Sitting. Walking gently in the world. Interdependence of the body systems. Interdependence of beings. Neurons set to stun the self with the ordinary magic of connections beyond conception. At least for now.