Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to avoid a hangover, or the Bliss of Blamelessness

Maybe you've heard this old joke ( advanced practitioners, visualize Rodney Dangerfield):

A man goes to see his doctor and says, "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this." (Visualize the movement of your choice.) The doctor says, "Then don't do that."

Ba-dum-pum. (Rodney shrugs his shoulders, adjusts his tie, and adds, "I don't get no respect," before fading back into the ether.

Rodney Dangerfield as purveyor of the dharma? Yeah, sure. Everything is dharma.

The precepts -- the Buddha's guidelines for living a mindful, joyful, and ethical life -- are Siddhartha's version of Dangerfield's doctor's response. It's as if you went to him and said, "Buddha, Buddha, I suffer when I lie, drink, sleep around indiscriminately, whatever." The Buddha, in his clear, concise way, replies, "Then don't do it."

Sounds harsh, doesn't it? We don't like the idea of giving up our old ways -- but we also don't like the way they make us feel. Hungover. Checking our sent texts to see what we told to who. Wondering who this person is in our bed, in our aching head.

So let's flip the equation. Renunciation in Buddhism is not so much about giving up bad habits as it is about adopting good habits. We give up what makes us feel bad about ourselves, at least in retrospect, and take on what makes us feel good about ourselves. Practicing the precepts is said to result in the bliss of blameless.

I love Thich Nhat Hanh's re-statement of the precepts in his book "For a Future to Be Possible."

1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kills, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 1st Precept.

2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well being of people, animals, plants, and minerals.I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material possessions with those in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 2nd Precept.

3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 3rd Precept.

4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 4th Precept.

5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or other intoxicants or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 5th Precept.

Happy New Year, dear ones. May it be auspicious!

Joy to the world!

According to Gallup pollsters, 95 percent of Americans celebrated Christmas in 2010, including 80 percent of nonbelievers.

Gift-giving and visiting friends and relatives is near-universal, even among those who skip religious services, the pollsters found. The war on Christmas is over, and the materialistic culture has won. That's not all bad. I call it giftmas, and I celebrate those I love by giving presents and gathering with as many of them as possible over the weeks around the day.

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek of the Unitarian-Universalist Society: East says: "The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously."

It's also a rare time in our culture when compassion is celebrated -- when giving to others is as important as getting, when we're aware of those who have-not and we feel an urge to share what we have. There was a lovely trend of people paying off the layaway balances for families at Kmarts around the heartland. Shelters, soup kitchens, assorted nonprofits get more awareness and donations than at other times.

Again, not new. In ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia: It was an offense during this period to punish a criminal or start a war. The meal normally prepared only for the masters was prepared and served first to the slaves, and in further reversal of the normal order, it was served to the slaves by the masters. All people were equal.

Now, I might wish that we could spread our goodwill out throughout the year, that we gave more attention to changing the structures that result in inequity and hardship for most Americans than to making sure poor kids get presents and a healthy meal one day of the year, but any awareness is better than none. It could be a seed to be watered and brought to fruition.

Beside, we need roses as well as bread in order to live flourishing lives. Hearts starve as well as bodies.

We need to acknowledge joy as well as suffering -- or we won't know why we want to alleviate suffering. Joy walks hand in hand with compassion; it protects our hearts from the bitterness that might arise if we see only suffering. And together they take us to equanimity -- the ability to find balance with whatever comes up.

Joy, which gets sung about a lot at this time of year, isn't just happiness. Joy comes from the deeper well of knowing that we're OK even when we're unhappy. From knowing that others are inherently good even when their behavior is bad. And seeing that while we work to bake the bread for all to share, we also all need to smell the roses.

To hear more on this, come to IDP on Dec. 26 for my talk on Appreciative Joy, the third of the Brahma Viharas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Be merry

Tis the season for expectations -- gifts to be given and received, parties to be attended and thrown, plans to be made and carried out and implemented, stockings to be filled, food to be cooked and consumed ...

So much to be done. And so many ways that things should be done. Because that's how they have been done.

So little time to simply be.

Go ahead and pout.

'Tis the season to be jolly.

But what if you're not?

What if you're sad? Grieving? Lonely?

Well, you'd better not be. That's the message we get -- and not just during the winter holidays. That's the message advertising is built on. Any unhappiness can be overcome with a new car/bra/yogurt/romantic match. That's the truth of suffering and the cause of suffering: Life is unsatisfactory, but something outside of us can give us satisfaction.

We think that, but then -- through meditation-- we begin to touch in with our inherent richness and see that we already are enough.

That doesn't mean that we'll never feel bad again. Even the Buddha -- who knew non-self and impermanence as much as anyone -- grieved when his friend died. Accepting the fluid nature of existence doesn't insulate you from pain.

But you can know when you are sad that you are sad -- and not reflexively grab for a pint of ice cream to make it go away. (That doesn't work, anyway.) Know that you are grieving when you are grieving and let yourself explore the textures of grief: how it shifts, how its colors bleed and morph, how it thins and then coagulates, spreads, and shrinks.

Our society is uncomfortable with unhappiness. When we see someone who is unhappy, we want to cheer them up, send them flowers, make them smile. When we do that, we give them the message that sadness is a flaw and must be fixed or must be hidden.

Sometimes, though, sadness is the heart's wise response.

And sometimes you'd better cry.

Pouting, though. Maybe not.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Papier mache heart

it takes tears
to melt the rice paper shell
that life builds around your heart
piece by piece
-- a small square
for a slight, a snub,
an unanswered call,
a whole sheet
for the boy who left
in the middle of the night.

it takes tears
to melt
the papier mache heart
that protects your own bloody one,
to soften the slips
of hardened paper,
and kind patience to peel them off.

"I remember you," you say
to the damp, torn
image held gently
"It's OK. I don't need your protection,"
and you let it dissolve.

There are more tears to be cried,
more layers to melt,
to get to the muscle
of your own
great heart,
to let it grow
big enough
to invite the world
to share
its refuge.

Monday, December 5, 2011

WWDSD? or Learning to right-size your heart

You think to yourself, "Well, what would Dr. Seuss do in this situation?" Instead of using it as ammunition against yourself, you can lighten up and realize it's the information that you need in order to keep your heart open. If everybody on the planet could experience seeing what they do with gentleness, everything would start to turn around very fast.
-- Pema Chodron on the Lojong slogan "Don't be jealous"

The best authors of children's books do so much more than entertain the young ones. They teach life lessons.

Dr. Suess -- cited by no less than Pema Chodron -- was a master, packing a serious message into the light touch of a feathered fan held by a strange creature who appears to be a hybrid of a bird and a mammal. And who acts human.

In "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Dr. Suess tells the story of the Whos, happy beings who live in Whoville, and the Grinch, who lived on the mountain overlooking Whoville and who was not happy. You could say he never takes off his cranky pants, except that being a Dr. Suess character, he doesn't wear pants.

The Whos speculate on the cause, of course, as even happy Whos will gossip -- or share their legitimate concern about another being. It may be, the narrator says, that his shoes are too tight. Or maybe his head isn't screwed on just right.

"But I think," he intones thoughtfully, "that the most likely reason of all
"May have been that his heart is two sizes too small."

Ahhh ... how's your heart feeling? Is it filled with joy and generosity, overflowing with tidings of comfort and joy? Is it expansive, spreading appreciative joy to the world?

Or is it, maybe, a little closed down? A little boxed in? Are you putting on your cranky pants, fashionable though they might be, as you encounter shoppers and tourists and expectations, of and from you, and wish lists and bank accounts and noisenoisenoisenoise?

Don't feel bad -- even if you feel bad. Be gentle with yourself. And don't let resentments pile up like presents under a holiday tree. No one is making you do any of this; you are choosing to do it because of what you believe will happen if you don't.

The celebration season will be ruined if you don't bake 15 dozen cookies, stand in line in the hope of snagging the last remote-controlled helicopter, find a book that Uncle Irving won't mock to your face, go to every last holiday party with a smile on your face, an eggnog in your hand, and sequins somewhere on your person.

But you don't have to take it all that seriously. As Ani Pema suggests, you can lighten up. Give yourself (and others) a break.


Be aware of those thoughts. Instead of grabbing at them like they are the last artisanal panetone on the display, let them go. Focus on what is front of you. When you're stuck in a long line in a heavy coat in a hot store, know that you are uncomfortable and see if you can be OK with being uncomfortable instead of blaming it on all the other stupid people who decided to come to this store at this moment.

Consider: how important is it in the scheme of things to be doing what you are doing right now?

This takes some practice in stepping back from your thoughts, seeing that your thoughts aren't reality, so take time for yourself to meditate.

You are not your wish list. Or your to-do list. And the people in your life are not purchases to be checked off. They are tender-hearted beings with unspeakable hopes and fears that may be subsumed under believing that a chocolate diamond is just the thing to prove their worth.

The greatest gift you can give or receive is to know that you are enough. Good enough, bad enough, pretty enough, valuable enough -- and that the others in your life also are enough, just as they are.

When you see that -- as the Grinch saw that the Whos were happy without all the pantookas and puzzlers, let alone the roast beast -- your heart will grow several sizes, as his did. It will grow beyond measure.

And you can simply be.