Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The demons aren't out there

It's the time of year when, as my pagan friends say, the veils between the worlds are thin and the living and the dead come into closer contact than usual. Or at least become more aware of their proximity.

Fear of what might be over there abounds, so we bring out vampires, zombies, evil spirits.

But our fears are misdirected.

"Demons are our obsessions and fears, chronic illnesses, or common problems like depression, anxiety, and addiction. They are not blood-thirsty ghouls waiting for us in dark places; they are within us, the forces that we fight inside ourselves. They are the inner enemies the undermine our best intentions."
--Tsultrim Allione

To the ancient Greeks, demons, or daemons, were guiding spirits, divine creatures to be trusted and relied upon. That changed in the middle ages when the Christian church attacked pagan beliefs, and demons were blamed for all the evils of the world.

Buddhism sees both aspects.

The malignant male and female demons
Who create myriad troubles and obstructions
Seem real before one has reached enlightenment.
But when one realizes their true nature
They become Protectors,
And through their help and assistance
One attains numerous accomplishments.
-- Milarepa

If you're not yet enlightened and you find the demons troublesome, there is a rather delightful solution.

"If you think nonhumans might be trying to harm you because you are indebted to them in some way, you can give them 'offering cakes.' ... It is not necessary to make a proper ritual cake. You can offer anything or just imagine that you're making some form of restitution. ... It is not the ritual that is important here, but the psychological process of saying, 'Come in, have some cake, and stop bothering me.'"
--"The Practice of Lojong" by Traleg Kyabgon

Works for me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ritual, red cords, and Rimbaud's fork

So I have this red string around my wrist. At the NY Shambhala Center last weekend, I stood in line, bowed to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche -- we smiled at each other -- I stepped to the left, and some high-ranking person draped a red string around my neck. The line kept moving, and outside the shrine room, people were tying them on with a certain amount of fussiness about how it was done. By eavesdropping I learned that the pre-existing knot was supposed to be in front if you tied it around your neck.

Some research turned up this from Lama Surya Das:

The red string is called a "protection and blessing cord." Traditionally, a lama ties a knot in the cord, then prays over it and blows the power of his mantra into it. Then he places it around one's neck as a blessing. When I first asked my own lama, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, about this, in 1973, he told me the cord is symbolic of remaining within the protection of his compassionate embrace even after departing from his physical presence. Other lamas have told me they take the protection cords off only to have dental work or surgery, and then put them on again afterward, as the strong protection field might impede the medical procedure.

I was wondering whether I would need to take antiobiotics before some planned dental work. But maybe the combination of a weak immune system and a protection cord arrives at a middle ground.

If I believe in the power of a piece of string.

Last weekend the question of Buddhist relics arose in an IDP teacher training weekend. I once went to a Buddhist center where they talked about relics and gave me a 10-page set of instructions on how to set up a home altar. A little too high church for me. That's the extent of what I know on the subject.

Surya Das goes on:

The Tibetan blessing practices remind me of the tradition of blessed protection medals, amulets, as well as relics of the saints commonly used in many religions, such as Catholicism and Hinduism. Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings. The practice of relic worship found in Christianity, such as around pieces of the cross or bones of the saints, finds common ground in Buddhism's tradition of venerating the teeth of the Buddha or pieces of bone or ash from his cremation pyre, which were divided up among his main disciples and enshrined in stupas--reliquary monuments around India.

It does, indeed, remind me of my Roman Catholic childhood. It makes even less sense to me in the context of Buddhism -- the Buddha was a mere mortal whose message was that all us mere mortals can achieve enlightenment ... just like him. He was not the Son of God or a divine being. We don't need to be blessed by something outside of ourselves; we have, within us, everything it takes to become enlightened.

Back to Surya Das: All these spiritual traditions of healing and enlightenment help deepen our spiritual development. But of course, that development depends more on the faith of the individual than on the material substances themselves.

On Thursday, I went to the opening of an exhibit of photography by Patti Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The photos are prints of Polaroids she took, mostly of items -- Rimbaud's fork and spoon, Jim Carroll's bed, Nureyev's slippers. Relics of people to whom she felt connected.

In the exhibition catalog, she is interviewed by the Atheneum's director, Susan Talbott, who curated the exhibit.

"As a child I had great respect for the inanimate object," she told Talbott. "Both my grandmothers died young. So a mandolin or a lace coverlet belonging to them seemed very precious. Their objects were the only way I could invoke them. I guess that sense of things extended to the poets and writers I loved."

She describes shooting Virginia Woolf's bed: "I only had two shots and really wanted to take a nice picture. … I sat down in a chair and asked for her counsel. I didn't want to fail. I pushed it to the darkest setting and concentrated on her single bed. The crease and the eyelet of the coverlet formed a cross. I felt her with me."

The exhibit also contains a display with a rock from the river where Woolf committed suicide by drowning after filling her pockets with rocks, along with a thangka for Woolf. (A thangka is a Tibetan devotional painting.) The power of the items was extraordinary -- from outside the glass, I could feel the weight and smoothness of the rock, the weight of depression, the connection that flows through a line of introspective women.

Another display case contained a cracked cup Smith had given to her father and separate photos of her father and mother as young adults with the year written in the white margin at the bottom -- just as my mother dated our family photos. Again, the connection is palpable.

The Polaroid photos are black and white and grainy -- none of the fine detail we've come to expect from digital cameras. But they convey so much. I wanted to touch them -- I didn't -- even though I knew the photos themselves had no texture.

The Polaroid is part of the point, Smith says: They are pictures of a moment. They develop over a minute or two. And they fade.

A reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.

(Confession: I own a Polaroid, which I love for the same reasons.)

At one point, I noticed Smith standing in the gallery. I talked to Lenny Kaye, her guitarist, about how practicing guitar is like meditating. I told Smith that looking at her photos gave me the same experience as listening to a great talk by a Buddhist teacher; it brought me to a place of presence within myself that is presence with all beings.

She paused for a moment. Yeah, she said, they came from a place of deep presence.

To go back to my red string, I don't feel that it has any protective powers of its own. Wearing it is not like having Wonder Woman's bracelets; I can't deflect bullets.

But it brings me to a place of presence, the deep, still liquid center of shared humanity that lies under the waves we ride through most of our days. It connects me to the lineage of wise beings of the past and present and future who are doing their best to recognize and live from that place of inherent richness -- and it reminds me that I am one of them.

Maybe that is the power of relics and rituals -- not veneration but connection.

Monday, October 17, 2011

who can turn the world on with her smile?

To smile is not to smile only for yourself; the world will change because of your smile. Thich Nhat Hahn


You'll enjoy what you do mostly because you resolve to enjoy it. ... You'll receive invitations and other nifty perks as people respond to your smile. (Gemini, Oct. 18)


I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
famous to sticky children in grocery lines,
as the one who smiled back.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

We are the 100 percent

I'm bemused by my reaction to Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. Based on my history and my red-collar tendencies, I should be thrilled. Excited. Giddy even.

But ... I'm not. I'm pleased that the issues of corporate greed and wealth inequity are being brought to the stage. It's about time. I'm pleased that there's some heft, some weight on the side of those who are generally overlooked. I've ranted about these topics for years.

And yet ...

Somewhere along the line, I became less interested in who's right and who's wrong, who gets the larger slice and who feels cheated. It's not so important that the result be what I envision, but it is hugely important to me that we put aside the idea that things must be either/or -- right/wrong, winners/losers, moral/corrupt -- and that we enter into conversations without expectations of what we'll hear. Then radical change is possible. Then we can let go of the structures we cling to for support and design something new.

From the outside, it feels like Occupy Wall Street is still dedicated to a binary view: us/them. Rich/not rich. Undeserving/deserving. You have too much/what about me? The 99 percent against the 1 percent.

I surprise myself by not wanting to wade into this water. I don't want to yell slogans about how you are not me. I don't want that you share with me -- I want all people to have enough. And I want all people to recognize that enough is OK, is ... well ... enough.

Now I get that this world view is unrealistic and utopian. It not only requires a change in the political and corporate structures, it requires a shift in the basic view of the people who live in society. Instead of measuring people's worth by their titles or incomes or bank balances, we'd have to recognize that all people have equal value and are all deserve our respect and our care.

Talk about a revolution.

I believe, though, that this is possible. I believe it can be achieved, regardless of conditions and inclusive of all circumstances.

It doesn't start with toppling the government, bringing down the stock exchange. It starts where you are, in your life. It starts with treating the people in your life as though they all matter, they all have value, they all deserve respect. With knowing that they are no different from you.

Starting on that ground, there won't be changes before winter or before the 2012 election. But there will be change.

It's all about interdependence. (Bring it on back to Buddha here.) As Elizabeth Warren said in her now-famous quote, no one got rich on their own without workers educated in school systems, and roads, and so on. But no one's living without some benefit from corporations: cell phones, clothes, food brought into cities, electricity, and on. We can't cut off any limb without affecting the whole. But no limb contains the whole answer.

Occupy your life. Fully. Be part of the 100 percent. And see where it gets us.

For a view of worldwide interdependence, go here

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When you're tired

know that you are tired (to extrapolate on the Buddha's teachings.)

and know that tired does not mean stupid, overly emotional, doomed to never ever going to the gym... only that you are tired. And that can change.

I know it's autumn because it's dark when I get up in the morning. That's a lot harder to do in the dark than when the room is already beginning to lighten up.

When I step outside, the sky is azure; the stars and planets are still visible. By the time I am driving to work, the sun is peeking over the horizon. It is a glorious reminder that every day is a new day and that beauty is there to be seen.

All that's true. But it's also true that I get the same number of hours of sleep as in the summer, and now I feel like I am sleepwalking through some of them. I want a nap. My brain is foggy. My body is sluggish. The energy valley in my days is deep.

I want to push through -- to finish the to-do list, go to the gym, meditate on something other than sleepiness. What is you problem? my ego asks. I'm tired, my body answers. I'm going to put off what can be put off and rest.

And that, dear ones, is practice.

In the Kayagatasati sutta the Buddha told his followers that practice is to know what you are doing as you are doing it, without providing commentary on what you should be doing instead or how what you are doing proves that you have a deep permanent moral stain because you always do that:

... The bhikkhu going knows, I go. Or standing knows, I stand. Or sitting knows, I sit. Or lying knows, I lie. In whatever manner his body is placed, that and that he knows...

Again the bhikkhu becomes aware, going forward or turning back, looking on, or looking about, bending or stretching, Becomes aware bearing the three robes and bowl, Becomes aware enjoying, drinking, eating or tasting. Becomes aware going, standing, sitting, lying, speaking, or keeping silence.

Back in the days that I spent in 12-step rooms, I often sat by a table sign with the letters HALT, which stood for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Which meant that before you fell back upon habitual behavior, you should check in with yourself and see if any of those conditions were present. And if they were, you should know that and respond appropriately.

If hungry, eat something nourishing. If you're tired, don't push yourself to do things that you don't have the energy to do. Or at least recognize that if you're not able to do things at the level that you'd like, maybe there's a cause other than a flaw in your being. You're not stupid, your mind just isnt work at peak capacity.

The law of cause and effect applies. When you're tired, everything seems harder. Get some sleep and it looks different.

Impermanence. Karma. And for goodness sake, some sleep.

Thanks, Dr. Ruth

Q: from guy who's very concerned that his girlfriend doesn't have orgasms despite his best efforts

A: Obviously it's not normal but that's not relevant. ...

Q from woman who has to masturbate to fall asleep

A: Normal isn't relevant, but whether it causes you problems is.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Monkey mind is not what you think

Monkeys are frequent characters -- or metaphors -- in traditional Buddhist stories. There were a lot of monkeys around when the stories were being told. But even today, monkeys make good examples -- "monkey mind" barely needs explaining. (It's the idea that the mind skips around like a monkey swinging effortlessly through trees.) For westerners of a certain age, Curious George, the storybook monkey who gets into hazardous situations and hilarious capers, is a fine personification -- monkification? -- of what our minds can be do.

But a new study contradicts that. Our assumption that monkeys behave like our untrained mind is called into question (as all assumptions should be).

Monkeys can meditate. For marshmallows.

Actually, calling it "meditation" may be a bit of a stretch -- from a meditator's point of view. (Or maybe the meditator feels a need to defend zer skills at meditation and evolved status...)

According to a study in New Science magazine, monkeys "have been trained to put themselves into a Zen-like trance – but out of desire for marshmallows rather than enlightenment."

Why are scientists trying to teach monkeys to meditate? "The result suggests that simians could help to objectively test neurofeedback and other brain-training treatments for epilepsy or ADHD: they would be free of the placebo effects that humans might experience."

Neurofeedback, it says, involves teaching people to regulate their brainwaves and so control their state of mind by measuring the electrical activity of the brain and showing them that information. It shows promise for reducing symptoms associated with epilepsy, ADHD, and anxiety disorders, but in humans researchers have been unable to rule out the possibility that an enhanced awareness of the disease or a placebo effect is responsible, rather than the neurofeedback itself.

Animals don't have that problem, says Ingrid Philippens of the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. Here's where the training comes in. Philippens and her colleague Raymond Vanwersch attached electrodes to the brains of marmoset monkeys to pick up electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from the brain. Rather than showing the monkeys the EEG signal, as might be done in humans, Philippens and Vanwersch gave them a marshmallow reward every time they tuned their brain activity to a certain frequency range – in this case, 12 to 16 hertz.

To quote the article:

In humans, this frequency is associated with a relaxed but focused state of mind. "It's like meditation," says Philippens. "When you see the monkeys doing it, they look very restful but they have focus, like they are staring at something," she adds.

Two of the four monkeys tested learned to put themselves into this state within two training sessions; the others took four sessions to get the hang of it.

The monkeys may not realise that they are changing their brain activity, but it does show that they can consciously change their mood or state of mind, says Philippens. "This is an initial step for a much-needed scientific basis to neurofeedback."

Journal reference: NeuroReport, DOI: 10.1097/wnr.0b013e3283360ba8