Friday, December 28, 2012

The loneliness of Adam Lanza (and each of us)

I've been thinking about Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who shot his mother in her bed, killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school, then shot himself as police arrived at the scene.

Some people would prefer that you and I don't think about Adam Lanza. There was a move over social networking to urge people not to mention the Newtown, Conn., shooter by name, to let him fall into obscurity, even as we turn his victims into angelic superheroes whose only flaw was that they died. The theory is that part of the reason for his killing spree was to become famous, to gain notoriety.

There's been nothing offered yet in support of that assertion, though. Lanza destroyed the hard drive on his computer and seems to have left no notes or mission statements. He not only gave no indication that he was planning this, he left nothing to claim credit or explain it.

I can understand the desire to deny him any glory from his action, to negate his existence. But society already had negated Adam Lanza's existence -- and that's why we have to say his name now.

In "A Civic Perspective on the Newtown tragedy," Peter Alexander Meyers writes:
Our most widespread and tragic mistake has been to imagine the suicidal mass murderer as someone who lives outside of society, the ultimate and perverted individualist. For, no matter how isolated we make him out to be, even the loneliest loner is a social type. Adam Lanza was not an alien, not a monster, nor a machine. He was one of us. We share with him a social reality that is the common spring of both good and evil.
We develop as humans through relationship to other humans. We define ourselves by how we react to others. As Meyers writes, " If we ignore the fact that Adam Lanza and his action remained woven into the everyday fabric of social relationship, his violence appears, and will always appear, 'meaningless.'"

Lanza was described by virtually everyone who knew him who spoke to the media as a socially awkward loner who appeared to have no personal relationships --other than his mother, his first victim, with whom he lived. It seemed that no one reported ever having an on-going relationship with him. Classmates recalled occasional conversations. He was quiet in class and hugged the walls when he walked through the school hallways.

But humans long for connection -- heck, even animals and insects live in societies. Babies who don't get attention fail to thrive. We all feel lonely at times, disconnected from whatever group or social situation we're in. Most of us know ways -- skillful or not -- to work with that feeling. Apparently Adam did not.

Brother Pháp Lưu, a monk in Vietnamese Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn, who grew up in Newtown, Conn., as Douglas Bachman, wrote a touching and insightful letter to Adam Lanza.
I used to play soccer on the school field outside the room where you died, when I was the age of the children you killed. Our team was the Eagles, and we won our division that year. My mom still keeps the trophy stashed in a box. To be honest, I was and am not much of a soccer player. I've known winning, but I've also known losing, and being picked last for a spot on the team. I think you've known this too—the pain of rejection, isolation and loneliness. Loneliness too strong to bear. ...
I don't think you hated those children, or that you even hated your mother. I think you hated your loneliness.
Loneliness is a tricky thing. In Buddhism, it's seen as a sign of progress, a recognition that we are responsible for ourselves, our own actions and their effects, our own reactions.  There's no one to blame but ourselves; no one whose approval is more genuine or informed than our own.

It's also the gateway to emptiness, the idea that we're all connected, that we all share the same innate potential to see how we are sickened by the poisons and to get well. Brother Pháp Lưu writes:
The way out of being a victim is not to become the destroyer. No matter how great your loneliness, how heavy your despair, you, like each one of us, still have the capacity to be awake, to be free, to be happy, without being the cause of anyone's sorrow. You didn't know that, or couldn't see that, and so you chose to destroy. We were not skillful enough to help you see a way out.
The Buddha says that kindness is a cycle, just like samsara. To be kind to others, you must know kindness yourself. To see others' loneliness, we first have to see it and accept it in ourselves, to know that we can tolerate our own fear of being alone so that we can connect to another and let them know that they are not alone in their loneliness. We are all alone. We are in this together.

Pema Chodron describes it as a transition from hot loneliness to cool loneliness.

Buddhist practice holds lots of paradoxes. You don't exist as a singular, permanent, independent self, but you are alone. You share the same buddhanature, the same inherent richness, of all beings, but you must experience that for yourself, not just believe others' assertions of it.

Brother Pháp Lưu gives us a hint of how the bodhisattva goes about reconciling all that:
Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Let your action move us to find a way out of loneliness

This is a letter written by Douglas Bachman, a Buddhist monk and student of the Vietnamese Zen Master and monk Thich Nhat Hanh, to Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who shot his mother, then killed 20 children and six more adults before killing himself at an elementary school in Newtown Conn. Bachman, now known as Br. Phap Luu, grew up at 22 Lake Rd. in Newtown. (Boldface is my addition)
Saturday, 15th of December, 2012
Dharma Cloud Temple
Plum Village

Dear Adam,

Let me start by saying that I wish for you to find peace. It would be easy just to call you a monster and condemn you for evermore, but I don't think that would help either of us. Given what you have done, I realize that peace may not be easy to find. In a fit of rage, delusion and fear—yes, above all else, I think, fear—you thought that killing was a way out. It was clearly a powerful emotion that drove you from your mother's dead body to massacre children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to turn the gun in the end on yourself. You decided that the game was over.

But the game is not over, though you are dead. You didn't find a way out of your anger and loneliness. You live on in other forms, in the torn families and their despair, in the violation of their trust, in the gaping wound in a community, and in the countless articles and news reports spilling across the country and the world—yes, you live on even in me. I was also a young boy who grew up in Newtown. Now I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I see you quite clearly in me now, continued in the legacy of your actions, and I see that in death you have not become free.

You know, I used to play soccer on the school field outside the room where you died, when I was the age of the children you killed. Our team was the Eagles, and we won our division that year. My mom still keeps the trophy stashed in a box. To be honest, I was and am not much of a soccer player. I've known winning, but I've also known losing, and being picked last for a spot on the team. I think you've known this too—the pain of rejection, isolation and loneliness. Loneliness too strong to bear.

You are not alone in feeling this. When loneliness comes up it is so easy to seek refuge in a virtual world of computers and films, but do these really help or only increase our isolation? In our drive to be more connected, have we lost our true connection?

I want to know what you did with your loneliness. Did you ever, like me, cope by walking in the forests that cover our town? I know well the slope that cuts from that school to the stream, shrouded by beech and white pine. It makes up the landscape of my mind. I remember well the thrill of heading out alone on a path winding its way—to Treadwell Park! At that time it felt like a magical path, one of many secrets I discovered throughout those forests, some still hidden. Did you ever lean your face on the rough furrows of an oak's bark, feeling its solid heartwood and tranquil vibrancy? Did you ever play in the course of a stream, making pools with the stones as if of this stretch you were king? Did you ever experience the healing, connection and peace that comes with such moments, like I often did?

Or did your loneliness know only screens, with dancing figures of light at the bid of your will? How many false lives have you lived, how many shots fired, bombs exploded and lives lost in video games and movies?

By killing yourself at the age of 20, you never gave yourself the chance to grow up and experience a sense of how life's wonders can bring happiness. I know at your age I hadn't yet seen how to do this.

I am 37 now, about the age my teacher, the Buddha, realized there was a way out of suffering. I am not enlightened. This morning, when I heard the news, and read the words of my shocked classmates, within minutes a wave of sorrow arose, and I wept. Then I walked a bit further, into the woods skirting our monastery, and in the wet, winter cold of France, beside the laurel, I cried again. I cried for the children, for the teachers, for their families. But I also cried for you, Adam, because I think that I know you, though I know we have never met. I think that I know the landscape of your mind, because it is the landscape of my mind.

I don't think you hated those children, or that you even hated your mother. I think you hated your loneliness.

I cried because I have failed you. I have failed to show you how to cry. I have failed to sit and listen to you without judging or reacting. Like many of my peers, I left Newtown at seventeen, brimming with confidence and purpose, with the congratulations of friends and the approbation of my elders. I was one of the many young people who left, and in leaving we left others, including you, just born, behind. In that sense I am a part of the culture that failed you. I didn't know yet what a community was, or that I was a part of one, until I no longer had it, and so desperately needed it.

I have failed to be one of the ones who could have been there to sit and listen to you. I was not there to help you to breathe and become aware of your strong emotions, to help you to see that you are more than just an emotion.

But I am also certain that others in the community cared for you, loved you. Did you know it?

In eighth grade I lived in terror of a classmate and his anger. It was the first time I knew aggression. No computer screen or television gave a way out, but my imagination and books. I dreamt myself a great wizard, blasting fireballs down the school corridor, so he would fear and respect me. Did you dream like this too?

The way out of being a victim is not to become the destroyer. No matter how great your loneliness, how heavy your despair, you, like each one of us, still have the capacity to be awake, to be free, to be happy, without being the cause of anyone's sorrow. You didn't know that, or couldn't see that, and so you chose to destroy. We were not skillful enough to help you see a way out.

With this terrible act you have let us know. Now I am listening, we are all listening, to you crying out from the hell of your misunderstanding. You are not alone, and you are not gone. And you may not be at peace until we can stop all our busyness, our quest for power, money or sex, our lives of fear and worry, and really listen to you, Adam, to be a friend, a brother, to you. With a good friend like that your loneliness might not have overwhelmed you.

But we needed your help too, Adam. You needed to let us know that you were suffering, and that is not easy to do. It means overcoming pride, and that takes courage and humility. Because you were unable to do this, you have left a heavy legacy for generations to come. If we cannot learn how to connect with you and understand the loneliness, rage and despair you felt—which also lie deep and sometimes hidden within each one of us—not by connecting through Facebook or Twitter or email or telephone, but by really sitting with you and opening our hearts to you, your rage will manifest again in yet unforeseen forms.

Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.

Douglas Bachman (Br. Phap Luu), who grew up at 22 Lake Road in Newtown, Conn., is a Buddhist monk and student of the Vietnamese Zen Master and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. As part of an international community, he teaches Applied Ethics and the art of mindful living to students and school teachers. He lives in Plum Village Monastery, in Thenac, France.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A new era, based on love

If you're reading this, then you're aware that the world did not end -- despite what many have said the Mayan calendar predicted.

It was said, widely and loudly, that the Mayan calendar predicted the world would end Dec. 21, 2012. There was a movie. There was the popular imagination.

We really can't deal very well with mystery. We want clues, so we can figure it out at the same time as the detective. We hunt down where our presents are hidden so we can open them ahead of time; we can't wait for the day. We want -- we think we need -- to know what happens after death. We want SPOILER ALERTS for life so that we don't have to live with uncertainty, with groundless. It's too scary, not knowing.

But that's what life is: Not knowing.

We can never know with absolute certainty what will happen. We can never know even what is happening because it's colored by our experience and hope. And everyone who is present in the present has a different perspective, a slightly different story. Was the man tall? Only in relation to the observer's height.

What the Mayan calendar predicted was not the end of the world but the end of an era. And honestly, I'm ready for a new era.

We can't know what will happen, but we can influence it, through our actions, speech, and thoughts, through our intention, through our view of what is possible. We can let the world continue on its fear-based descent into a Mad Max-like hell of aggression and defensiveness. Or we can move it in a new direction.

 bell hooks, in her book "all about love: New Visions," breaks down the ways in which our culture is hostile to love, how we can overcome that, and what it would look like. If we think of "love" as a verb, an action, rather than an emotion, it becomes a source of responsibility and accountability, she writes.
Awaking to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. Culturally, all spheres of American life -- politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relationships -- should and could have as their foundation a love ethic ... a love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.

The last era was built on a foundation of fear and defensiveness: Is there enough? Will it run out? How can I get more? How can I keep others from taking what I have?

The ancients say this is a new era. Things will change -- in the direction we choose.

What would a world built on love look like? How would it feel to live there? How would people act in that world -- in mundane moments, in conflict, in friendship, in celebration? What's stopping you from acting that way now?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A bear hug teddy

One Christmas, when he was very young, my son wanted nothing more than a bear-hug teddy that would hug you right back. This was not something he had seen advertised on television. It came from a book about the Bearenstain Bears Christmas. Given the source, I'm sure the book had a positive message. I don't remember it. Neither did my son -- all he heard was the Christmas list of one of the young bears, which included a bear-hug teddy that will love you right back.

It might as well have been world peace. It simply did not exist in any toy store. (This was before Internet shopping.) The potential for a bear hug teddy that would hug right back was there, as is the potential for world peace, but neither was manifesting.

Of course I bought him the best teddy bear I could find, big and soft with long arms. Of course it did not hug him right back. And of course he was disappointed -- and so was I.

Maybe it gave him (and me) the inevitable life lesson that our desires can't be met exactly in the way we want them, but we can be happy anyway. Maybe it showed him (and me) that we could sit with the pain of disappointment -- in Santa and ourselves -- even amid the general joy of the morning. That the human spirit toggles between happiness and sadness, and both are impermanent.

My memory stops at the cry, "But it doesn't hug me right back!" and that the tears that choked my response. (I'm working on remembering the joy, not just the disappointments.)

I'm sure that I hugged him. He may not have hugged me right back in that moment. He's grown now and has survived greater disappointments. And he's a good hugger, so I guess the lesson that you can only control the hugs you give, not the ones you receive -- which is all the more reason you should give them freely -- stuck with him.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A new way

I work at a newspaper in Connecticut. It's not close to Newtown, where nearly 30 people -- many children -- were shot in an elementary school today, but Connecticut's a small state, and the story broke on our deadline. For three hours straight pretty much all I did was look and listen to what news outlets with people on the scene were reporting, assess the sources and the contradictions, listen to pundits filling time while waiting for a much-delayed news conference, and write and rewrite.

The truest thing I heard in that time was from an expert on some news show, talking when all that was known was that a gunman had gone into an elementary school and there were dead people, who said, "We have to find a different way" to handle anger or frustration or whatever emotion makes this seem right.

We have to find a different way.

And that starts with a different way of communicating with those who disagree with us. I support gun control. I see no reason why people need to have guns -- and no logical reason whatsoever why ANYONE needs automatic or semi-automatic weapons. But if people who support gun control harden and face off with people who oppose it, all we do is increase aggression. And this world already is swimming in a sea of aggression.

Oddly enough, this morning -- before hell broke loose -- I was reading an article on how to deal with difficult people at work, "What's the Secret to Communicating with Irritational, Angry, or Just Plain Crazy People?" by Eric Barker. He did research; I'm just going to quote him.

We all have to deal with our share of hotheads and crazies. What does research say works with them?
First off, you can’t get angry too. Because then there are two crazy people arguing. While very entertaining to onlookers, this doesn’t accomplish much.
Tell yourself they are having a bad day and that it’s not about you:
Telling yourself that an angry person is just having a bad day and that it’s not about you can help take the sting out of their ire, a new study suggests… the researchers monitored participants’ brain activity and found that reappraising another person’s anger eliminated the electrical signals associated with negative emotions when seeing angry faces.
They’re being crazy. You’ll want to shut them up or talk over them. Don’t. It’s a natural reaction but it doesn’t work.
They don’t think they’re wrong. They’ll just interpret it as a status game where you’re trying to win. Stop being so sure you’re right and listen.
But here’s the important part: just shutting up is not enough.
Listening isn’t just listening. It’s letting the other person know you’re listening.
This is “active listening.”

Active listening is a lot like what we do in meditation. It's about putting your practice into practice. You listen without judgment. You inquire -- a sort of active contemplation to find out what's under the surface, which is what really needs to be addressed. And you acknowledge it. Both participants can see that the enemy isn't what it appears to be and can find ground to move forward instead of getting stuck.

Active listening, Barker says, is the first thing FBI hostage negotiators use to de-escalate incidents and save lives. It is how behaviors can change.

The Dalai Lama has said that the last century was a century of bloodshed. This century, he says, can be the century of dialog.

May it be so.

May all beings everywhere be safe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Today is 12.12.12. It's notable because it's the last time this repetitive digital pattern will happen for a calendar date in this century. The next time the month, day, and year will be represented by the same digits will be Jan. 1, 2101 -- 01.01.01.

There are lots of things you can read into the date. But for Buddhists, it serves as a reminder that every
day -- every moment -- happens and is gone, replaced by a new moment. We are always starting fresh.

As it says in the Heart Sutra:
Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:

That translates to "gone gone all the way gone crossing over yes!"

Or "arriving arriving always arriving arriving again Awake!"

Each moment is here, then gone -- as is this day, this year, this life. Live in it fully because you don't get a second chance.

Use 12.12.12 as a reminder to appreciate this precious human birth -- and all the days that come with it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bodhi Day

Dec. 8 is Bodhi Day, the day of the Buddha's enlightenment.

The story -- and it is a story, an unverifiable tale used to educate his followers -- is that while meditating under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha was harassed and tempted by the god Mara (literally, "Destroyer" in Sanskrit), demon of illusion.  In an attempt to dissuade the Buddha from his path of awakening, it is said that Mara presented him with many temptations to muddy his thinking: Dancing girls, intoxicants, memories of his past lives, a hail of arrows. Each time, the Buddha realized what was happening, and said, "I see you, Mara." Resting in his clear mind, the Buddha discovered the law of karma, the cycle of rebirth, the Eightfold Path, and the Four Noble Truths. He would go on to teach those.

It is said that that the last of Mara's weapons was doubt. When Mara said, essentially, who do you think you are, thinking you can become enlightened? The Buddha simply touched the ground with one hand, an indication that he was someone who was in touch with the undiluted, non-illusory present moment.

As the morning star rose in the sky in the early morning, he experienced nirvana and became enlightened.

Then he went on to teach for many years.

The two crucial aspects of the Buddha's Awakening are the what and the how: what he awakened to and how he did it. His awakening is special in that the two aspects come together. He awakened to the fact that there is an undying happiness, and that it can be attained through human effort. The human effort involved in this process ultimately focuses on the question of understanding the nature of human effort itself — in terms of skillful kamma and dependent co-arising — what its powers and limitations are, and what kind of right effort (i.e., the Noble Path) can take one beyond its limitations and bring one to the threshold of the Deathless. Thanissaru Bikkhu
Bodhi Day isn't a big celebration day. The Japanese Zen tradition seems to observe it the most widely with Rohatsu sesshin, an intense period of meditation that starts the week before, on Dec. 1, and ends when the morning star comes up Dec. 8. Often participants will stay up all night on the last night, meditating.

From within this state of mind the Buddha said: How wondrous, how wondrous! All beings are endowed with this pure nature! What a wondrous, astonishing thing has been realized! All the ten thousand things, all the flowers, all the trees, all the rocks, all things everywhere are shining brilliantly!

You've probably  missed this morning's star. But the beautiful thing about the story is that every day is a good day to wake up. The stars are always there -- you don't see them in the daylight, but they're there -- and something in your sight always is shining brightly. You can always look at a star and see the brilliance of our pure nature. 

Or you can celebrate western-style at IDP's annual party. Get your groove on!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The story and the storyline

In developing mindfulness through meditation, we're advised to drop the storyline and simply be aware of what's happening in the moment.

For instance, in this moment, I'm sitting in the largely empty newsroom of a daily newspaper. It's bit chilly and a bit darker than usual since it's snowing out. My hands are cold. The police radio chatters away, the voices matter-of-fact. That's what's happening.

The storyline is Why am I the last one here again? Where is everyone? Yes, they come in earlier than me, but is it that much earlier? Why do I have so much work to do? (And here's where the rollercoaster goes over the top of the hill...) it's always this way. I always get stuck with the metaphorical ditch-digging. I do more work. Everybody else gets away with murder ....

The story is that I'm here. Maybe there could be some discernment around why I am generally the last one here. But my wise witness has to own that I arrive late, that I like to get certain things done the afternoon before so that I have time in the morning, that it's not even the usual quitting time, that I left early yesterday. My wise witness reminds me that it is never always this way. And that I have control here.

The story describes what's happening. The storyline blames or justifies or feels guilty or sulks or whines. Not 'this is how it is' but 'this is how it is and why it's not fair/right/deserved.'

Pema Chodron talks about it as the hook -- as in, don't bite it. She describes the process of avoiding an emotional reaction as Recognizing that the hook is baited, Refraining from biting it on sight, Responding wisely (by swimming away, unless we decide we're skillful enough to steal the worm without getting hooked), and Relaxing with the Result.

This is seen in the 12 Nidanas around the creation of karmic seeds. Something happens and we react. But if we slow it down, we see there's a stimulus, a recognition, and then a gap before the response. In that gap we can choose to react in our habitual way or to respond to what is new in the situation.

The storyline is the habitual, usually emotion-laden, response to the story, the set of details.

I've been thinking of this because of a class I'm taking in Mayahana Buddhism and Psychology,. The psychology aspect of it looked at attachment theory and styles ... based on what happened when you were a child, how do you react now?

This makes me uncomfortable, personally, because it's hard to see that as story without getting caught up in the storyline. It's hard to be dispassionate and not relive experiences that are long past. The past has an emotional charge that is hard to avoid -- and that I don't necessarily want to set off.

Can you listen to your story without getting tangled in the storyline. Don't know. I am a work in progress.

Body issues

I've been working a lot with body issues recently -- not the body issues you usually hear talked about of weight and height and hair and bra size, but the ones that have to do with functioning. It could be a(nother) diagnosed condition, which brings another medication and another doctor I have to fit into my schedule. It could be the infection that I tried to treat naturopathically, only to give in and go for antibiotics.

Or it could be the new practice I'm working with, a form of chod, in which you locate demons in your body and transmute them into protectors.

Along with all the relative reality of going to doctors, taking pills, doing yoga, lifting weights, getting exercise -- and trying to determine when it's wise to take a break from that and just rest -- there's the larger reality.

Five Daily Recollections

  1. I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am of the nature to become ill or injured; I cannot avoid illness or injury
  3. I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.
  5. I am the owner of my actions;
    I am born of my actions;
    I am related to my actions;
    I am supported by my actions;
    Any thoughts, words or deeds I do, good or evil, those I will inherit.
from AN V.57  Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation

For a lot of people, #3 is the big one, judging by the way many Buddhist teachers talk. Death! The great fear at the bottom of all others! I'm not all that troubled by death. It will happen. I don't know when or what happens after. All I can control is what I do now, in this moment; I live my life with the aspiration to create as much ease and benefit as I can for the most people, and what happens next time around will be the inevitable result.

I don't even mind #1 that much. I'm 55. I don't dye my hair, don't wear makeup to try to hide that. I probably dress too young for my age, but it's not to appear younger. I don't like mom jeans around my waist, shirts tucked in. Maybe there's some deeper issue here, but I don't project what I think people think about how I look -- "they must think I look hot/cool/silly/old." I smile at them, and I hope they feel a moment of lightness, but I own only my actions, not their reactions.

Nah. It's #2 that makes me anxious. I am of the nature to become ill or injured; I cannot avoid illness or injury.

I understand the reality of that one. And it terrifies me. I don't want to have a knee replacement that will take me away from my routine for at least six months. I don't want my stomach to hurt. I don't want to feel drained of energy, where the thought of leaving the house is daunting.

I resist the idea that I won't just drop dead one day, that I may have to experience the limitations of body that come with age. That I already am experiencing them. I suffer about it. Sometimes.

And yet ... most days I get up and walk around and do what I want. I take a two-mile walk at lunchtime on workdays. I breath, and I don't even think about it except when it's impeded. I type. I type a lot. And sometimes my hands hurt, but they still work. Truly, my medical conditions are not all that serious in the moment, just annoying.

So I try to stay present, meditating on examining tables while waiting for doctors to come in, feeling the feels, rejoicing and mourning from moment to moment. It is the best medicine I have found.

[4] "Furthermore...just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain — wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice — and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, 'This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,' in the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: 'In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.'
"In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally... unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

(gory descriptions of rotting corpses)

"In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body. Or his mindfulness that 'There is a body' is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.
Satipattana Sutta

Friday, November 23, 2012

The wonder of it all

Science and magic go for a walk in the woods on a perfect New England day. The air is crisp and clean. The sky is immeasurably blue, and the air is clear. Everything is high res.Here is their conversation.

Magic: Look at the rocks.

Science: There's a tree growing out of the rock. I wonder how that could be.


Science: I wonder why that canal is there. Who built it? Why?

Magic: Look at the moss.


Magic: Oooo ... a perfect fairy ring! (walking into a circle of tall trees whose trunks are spaced just far enough apart that she can spin around with her arms outstretched).

Science stands and watches.


They walk down what appears to be another main path, to see where it begins.

Science spots the tree growing out of the rock.

Science: We've only gone about a quarter-mile out of our way.

Magic: We don't have a way. We haven't gone out of it because there isn't one.


Science: I wonder how old this (reservoir) is? I wonder who built it? I wonder where it is on the map? I wonder ...
Magic (impatiently): Don't wonder why or how. Just be here.

This is a semi-real conversation between my spouse, a computer scientist, and me. He wonders what and why and how things came to be. I wonder that they are. He wonders what the bird is looking for. I watch it fly.We share our wonder as we walk through the woods. I point out tree stumps, sparkling water, colors. He remembers that we need to turn left to get back to the path to our car.

Science and magic aren't enemies, aren't opposites. They live symbiotically, interdependently, in a state of wonder.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What gratitude is not

I started a gratitude journal last week, an online, community journal in the Interdependence Project website.  I started it because my dear friend was singing the praises of gratitude and its effects, urging everyone to start journals. I knew I would not do that in my paper journal and keep it up because I felt the internal sneer at what seemed to be creeping Pollyannaishness. My inclination is to see clearly, and you're not seeing clearly through rose-colored glasses.

But ... faced with the genuineness of her endorsement, I decided to give it a try. I proposed, then created, a community gratitude journal, where those of use who are too cool for school could participate in the company of peers. With a wink and shrug ... I'm doing this to please my peeps.

It very quickly changed for me. Within a day or so, seeing others' open-hearted lists, my heart also began to open. I began looking for things to feel grateful for throughout my day. My attitude of gratitude felt lighter than my I'm-meeting-someone-here, not really part of things mask.

Then, someone posted a link to that days' journal on Facebook and said, "It may be cheesy, but ..."

And the weight of snark came down. I understood the attitude. I started in a similar spot, posting my thoughts with a wink. Then, as others posted authentic feelings, it became safe for me. I could be playful. I could be serious. I could lay out what truly touched my heart.

When you touch your heart, you know it's not cheese. It's raw, it's bloody, it expands and contracts and quivers. It reaches out to others.

Cheese is in the eyes of the beholder -- and the smirk and the snark. Lay it down, clown, and feel your heart and what it responds to. That is what to be grateful for -- the things that touch you, and the willingness to be touched.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Slogan practice

When I was a young adult, I went to a support group for adult children of alcoholics. My dad was an alcoholic -- who became an AA member and sponsor to others in the years before his death -- and I was affected by the family dynamics that developed around that.

On the table in the meeting room there were a number of handmade signs with recovery slogans printed on them. K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Sweetie) on fluorescent orange paper with glitter and stickers. One Day at a Time on green.

I seem to have often sat near a hot-pink trifold that said: HALT (Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?) It was a reminder to wake up and be present with what was going on and to respond to the real need, not a perceived one.

I still think about that when my mind starts grumping and getting mad or frustrated or self-pitying? Am I hungry? A snack will often turn my mood around. Am I angry? At whom? And why? Is it really the person in front of me, or is it some person I encountered this morning? Or last week? Or when I was 5?

It helps to know that. It's Useful Information, as Pooh would say.

Taking part in the Interdependence Project's ongoing class on the lojong slogans minds me of the AA slogans. In both cases, the pithy phrases are reminders to wake up, to assess our current situation and act wisely, not rules to live by or sticks we can use to beat ourselves up for not being good enough.

They are more words to life with than to live by, Being curious about how these apply to the current moment.

Be grateful to everyone. Regard all dharmas as dreams.

Time for a craft project. Rest in the nature of unborn awareness. A sparkly unicorn sticker, some '80s retro sharpies. Maybe I'll put a bird on it.

Dharma in the driver's seat

Dharma and driving

Last weekend I had a perfect New York weekend, the stuff travel articles are spun from: Broadway matinee, drinner with friends, drinks at a dark and crowded bar, followed the next day by a long walk in the park, more food and drinks and a fabulous chocolate dessert. We had good transportation karma all weekend long, never waiting more than. few minutes for a train.

Then came the drive home. About half- way up Interstate 91 to my central Connecticut home, traffic stopped. Then crept. I sat for the first few minutes with equanimity. Things have stowpped; may it be a reminder to wake up and be in the moment. Then I started to feel frustrated. Why are we not moving? What is the problem here?

My frustration built up a head of steam until my internal voice said,"I can't stand this," and my wisdom laughed. Really? You can't stand sitting still in the car? You can't STAND the uncertainty of not knowing when you'll get to move? Really? Not even after all those hours of sitting on retreat or in classes, wondering when the umdze will ring the gong?

My consciousness got the joke. Frustration lifted.

I noticed cars around me. I giggled at the "Extended Stay" motel sign, which seemed to be an omen. I sent out loving kindness to the other drivers, and noted that everyone was behaving very nicely. I mumbled, "Careful,dude," to drivers who cut between lanes. (I consciously started calling other drivers "dude" instead of my usual "dickhead" a while back in an effort to create a kinder attitude.)

I contemplated doing tonglen for whoever caused the backup, but I'd heard rumors of off-hours construction and wn't sure that anyone was in danger. My Smartphone showed a hazard without further explanation.

It took about an hour to travel the distance between two exits. At some point traffic just started speeding up, with no wreckage, no nothing to blame for the congestion and frustration.

Life's like that sometimes. We encounter obstacles -- or create obstacles in our minds -- and the frustration we feel becomes the obstacle. But if you can relax into it, look at what's happening in the moment, sometimes it just eases.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Equanimity and the election

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – dukkha – says that suffering exists, that we experience discomfort, that life feels like a bumpy ride at times.
The Second Noble Truth says that the cause of that discomfort, that dissatisfaction or sense of unease, is that we think things have to be a certain way in order to be happy. We need to have a drink or a piece of chocolate or electricity or our teddy bear to feel OK. 
Today, Election Day, that might translate to the feeling that we – and maybe the whole world – cannot function, let alone be happy, unless a certain person is elected president.
Are you feeling that?
And are you feeling the suffering – the anxiety, the discomfort – that comes from that?
We have strong feelings about this election. Maybe passionate ones – and passion is one of the three poisons that the Buddha identified, right? As Buddhists aren't we’re supposed to be above the storm? And the other two --aggression and ignorance—well, they’re out there in abundance too in this election cycle. 

Here’s the thing:
The Buddha doesn’t ask us not to have preferences, not to feel strongly, not to analyze and make wise decisions. The path is about liberation, not lobotomy. It’s about discovering and recognizing your innate wisdom and using that to discern the wise course of action. 
It suggests – and provides practices – to help us see what is true, to feel compassion rather the defensiveness toward those who take opposite positions (which allows us to have dialogue rather than arguments), and to work for the result that will be of the most benefit for all beings.
And then … to learn the result and to start over again in a new moment.
That doesn’t mean the result is “all good,” that’s we’re complacent about whatever happens. It doesn’t mean that we don’t rejoice or despair at the outcome, that we don’t shed tears of joy or sorrow. We do all that, and we’re present with it.
We see our response to the result – whatever it is – anger, gratitude, elation, astonishment, indifference – as a response, as a cloud that blocks the sun or a break in the clouds. We feel it fully, in our physical bodies, in our emotional and spirit bodies. But we know that it doesn’t alter the fundamental nature of what is.
And we know that tonight’s result, whatever it is, isn’t the end.
That’s equanimity – being able to stay grounded in your own wisdom and experience your emotions without getting swept away into giddy elation or deep discouragement that prevents you from acting. It’s knowing that this is a moment, which will be followed by myriad other moments, and in each one we need to respond to what’s there. Thicht Nhat Hahn describes equanimity as climbing to the top of the mountain and getting the panoramic view.
That’s what lets us keep moving forward.
This is a quote from bell hooks:

In my work, I am constantly grappling with ways to end dominator culture. I am constantly face to face with the suffering caused by the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, describing and critiquing liberatory possibilities. Thinking outside the box of dualism and living a practice of equanimity gives my life balance. But more than that, spiritual practice is the circle surrounding this work, the force empowering me to open my heart, to be Buddha, to have a practice of compassion that joins rather than separates, that takes the broken bits and pieces of our damaged self and world, bringing them together. (Italics mine.)

To life in this way requires an understanding of impermanence and interdependence. Living from interdependence – the interconnected web of life – transforms us and therefor the world.

Seeing reality in this way, we are able to hold one another accountable for the positions we occupy in dominator culture without evoking a politics of blame or victimhood. An authentic middle way allows us to recognize multiple intentionalities. We can easily move past either/or notions to both/and. To me, the middle way is the space of radical openness, the space that invites true communication.
(bell hooks again)

What is true communication? 
To me, it’s the recognition that we’re all in this together, it’s bringing our genuine selves – our wise selves – to the table, not our constructed, defensive selves. It’s possible – look at President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a few days ago, coming together from opposite sides of the political realm to work on hurricane relief efforts.
This gives me hope that it’s possible to build a culture that values kindness and compassion, that sees beyond individual politics to societal benefit. Obviously, there’s a long way to go. There’s work to be done, no matter who gets elected.
In the short term – tonight – enjoy the ride. I’m guessing there’ll be a roller-coaster of thrills and scares as results roll in, with feelings changing from second to second. Roar your terrible roars, gnash your terrible teeth, whoop for joy. Be fully there in each moment.
And tomorrow – or whenever you recover – roll up your sleeves and get back to work. Equanimity is what lets you do that, with wisdom and kindness toward all.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Feminine energy rising

Here in the U.S. before the superstorm blew through and still in places that have electricity, the public conversation focused on women and "women's issues" as a result of their importance in Tuesday's presidential election.

While I'm not delighted by the separationist rhetoric, I am pleased that these things are being talked about. 

Meanwhile, in the ancient realm  of TIbetan Buddhism, with its strong tradition of male-dominated hierarchy, an auspicious event took place.

In what was described as "an unprecedented three-day event," His Holiness the 17thKarmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, granted initiation and teachings on Chöd for the first time in response to a supplication made by a western Buddhist woman, Lama Tsultrim Allione, on behalf of all women practitioners.  Approximately 1,000 people from across the Himalayan region and around the world attended, many of them Buddhist nuns.

Chod is a spiritual practice developed by Machig Labdron, a 11th century Tibetan yogini -- a rare female figure.  Of the eight practice lineages of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Chöd is the only lineage established by a woman.  Lama Tsultrim, was ordained in 1970 as a Buddhist nun by the 16th Karmapa, and later pursued the path as a lay practitioner. Her Tara Mandala, a Vajrayana Buddhist organization that focuses on the Chöd lineage, based in Colorado, sponsored numerous delegations of nuns from across the Himalayas to attend this event. 

The Karmapa said he feels "a deep bond with these teachings coming from Machig Labdrön. She is the perfect embodiment of wisdom and compassion and has inspired Buddhist practitioners for many centuries.  I am especially pleased that I can offer this encouragement and support to female practitioners from around the Himalayan region and the world, and pray that the good merit from this event generates peace.”

The Gyalwang Karmapas are the historical holders of the direct lineage of Chöd, which is based on the Indian Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita, the Mother of all the Buddhas, embodiment of wisdom.

"Prajnaparamita, the mother of all the Buddhas, is the personification of transcendent wisdom. She represents the feminine principle in Buddhist tradition, and is the basis of Machig Labdrön’s teachings. The Chöd practice, which seeks to feed rather than fight what appears to be the 'enemy,' offers a much needed new paradigm for today's world that promotes compassion and integration instead of polarization.
The world is desperately in need of an increase in compassion and integration rather than polarization. Setting people against each other, falling back on binary, self-other, us-them thinking will not shift us from the path of greed and destruction that we're on.

May all beings everywhere benefit from this empowerment. 

May all beings everywhere be on the receiving end of compassionate action.

May all beings everywhere see the world with the eyes of compassion and act from that view.

May bodhicitta, precious and sublime,
Arise where it has not yet come to be.
And where it has arisen,
May it not decline.
But grow and flourish everymore.
--Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wife sounds like the laundry

In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.
Ram Das 

In the "Search for Self" class I recently completed at the Interdependence Project, we did a contemplation in which we were asked to think of a label we identify with. None of the possibilities that emerged for me were "wife." 

And yet, I've been a wife for more than half of my life. It doesn't come up for me because I don't see myself filling the socially constructed role of "wife" very well.

When I say "wife"
it's cause I can't find another word
for the way we are
but "wife" sounds like you're mortgaged
sounds like the family car

Jonathan Richman
When I Say Wife 

 For a long time, I thought I was a bad wife because I didn't fulfill those expectations. What I've learned, though, is that "wife" is a label, not a definition. It is a role; it is not me, even if I am it. 

A man once came into my meditation class, and asked -- during the wide open Q & A -- how I could reconcile being married (I wear a ring) with the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. He'd earlier made a comment about wishing he could go on retreat, explaining that his girlfriend didn't understand why he would want time away.
Everything is impermanent, I said, in the sense that it is constantly changing. Nothing stays exactly as it is in any given moment -- not mountains or coastlines or skin or relationships. What that means is that your relationship is never solid or static; you can't freeze your partner into the person they were when you stood at the altar. 

Living from a realization that everything and everyone changes, you can dance with the energies. Some days it may be an angry dance, an almost-choreographed sword fight. Other days it's a ballet, and every move is precise and interwoven. You might get a solo. Or one person's timing might be off, throwing things into chaos for a bit. But it can be a thing of beauty and joy. 

At some point it will end. Life is impermanent. Death comes for us all.

Once, at the end of a retreat when participants were talking for the one of the first times and getting to know people they'd been sitting with, I was standing with two women who were talking with great love and affection about their partners, who also were women. One turned to me and said, "How about you? Do you have a partner?" I stammered, "Uh, no, I'm straight." She smiled. "You still can have a partner."

I do have a partner, a longtime one, so long that our cells have turned nearly five times since we first became an item. I am fortunate and grateful that he's not threatened by my going on retreat, that he dances with me, even if we sometimes step on one another's feet.

Buddhist psychologist John Welwood describes it as "the play of oneness and twoness" -- oneness being the ultimate level of absolute love, where no one is separate from others, and twoness the relative level where distinct personalities meet.

Happy anniversary, Spouse.