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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What your face says

The law of karma says that actions have consequences. Some are visible immediately; others take longer. Some are as clear as the expression on your face. Others are more subtle.

Photos published in Shambhala Times of participants in dathun, a month-long meditation retreat in the Shambhala tradition, show the effects of four weeks of silent meditation.

Photographer Peter Seidler offered this comment:
This series of photos, titled “Before and After,” comes from a larger project called “Contemplatives,” a visual exploration of the physiological qualities of meditation practice. I set up the “Before and After” project to explore the observable effects on practitioners after long periods of intense meditation practice.

Read more here

Dutch photographer Claire Felicie shares the fascination with how experience is manifested in faces. But her subjects were 20 Dutch Marines, who were photographed before, during, and after their 12-month assignment to Afghanistan. Again, the faces tell a story.

Writing for Slate's photo blog, Heather Murphy comments:

No this was not a perfectly controlled scientific experiment, but there is no science to walking into a room, looking into a friend's face, and immediately knowing that something has happened.

What does your face say? Do you hold tension in your jaw, your forehead, around your eyes? Does knowing that give you information about yourself?

Look at the faces of the people you see -- what do their faces tell you about their lives, how they meet challenges?

A foreign policy metta meditation

"What’s going to make the Egyptian revolution successful for the people of Egypt but also for the world is if those young people who gathered there are seeing opportunities. Their aspirations are similar to young people’s here. They want jobs. They want to be able to make sure their kids are going to a good school. They want to make sure that they have a roof over their heads and that they have a — the prospects of a better life in the future." 

President Barack Obama
transcript of the Oct. 22 debate with Mitt Romney

May you have jobs. May your children have good schools. May you have a roof over your head. May you live with ease.

Claude Rausch Photographie


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Destroy what defines you

Ego keeps busy trying to build a wall around itself, to shut itself away from the “other.” Then, of course, having created this barrier, immediately the ego also wants to communicate with the other, which it now perceives as “outside” or not part of itself.-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

"When I look at you, I see same," the Dalai Lama, pointing to himself and an audience of Middlebury College students

* * *

One of things about Buddhism that feels right to me is nonself -- the idea that I don't exist as a permanent, unchanging entity. Everything is always changing, always in play, and that's OK. Labels may apply in a given situation but not another one. There isn't a Me Party line to toe.

I have difficulty with labels, right down to my name. I don't feel like Nancy. But that's what I'm called, so I answer. I've also been known to answer to Linda, Barb, Kim -- whatever name the person who is looking at me uses. I know who they mean.

This week on Facebook I described myself as "'a Buddhist, atheist, feminist vegan who works for a newspaper and believes that sex is biological but gender is a construct and therefore flexible. I'm pro availability of abortion, and some of my best friends (and closest relatives) are gay." I am all of those things, but also none of those things, if you want to lay down cultural rules that I have to abide by in order to use them as descriptors. I am a rebel.

 As a feminist, I expect I'm supposed to be happy that women's issues are front and center in the presidential campaign. And I've enjoyed mocking Mitt Romney's binder full of women as much as anyone.

But it's time to move beyond the meme. Labeling issues as "women's issues" still puts them into a pink ghetto. They are human issues, quality-of-life issues.

Far worse, to me, is that the discourse worsens the cultural divide between men and women. Men this, women that. Yes, there are differences. But differences are just differences, not destiny. And my fluid labels become more solid when someone says that, as someone who falls into one of those categories, I *must think/fee/want a certain thing.

The more we harden our cultural categories and boundaries, the more we hard our hearts to others. If we can slot someone into an "other" category -- however unconsciously we do it -- we've created a divide. We distance ourselves, and we fill that space with barriers.

When Sokuzan Bob Brown visited the Interdependence Project, he looked at the humans sitting there and said, "When I look at you, I see nothing." What a powerful  view. What a beautiful gift to everyone in that room to allow them to be who they were in that moment. No more, no less, because there is no more or less. There just is.

Close your eyes for a moment and clear your mind. Observe your breath. When you open them, notice how quickly you categorize the next person you see and what labels you apply. (Woman. Friend. Worker. Pretty. That's why I got in a flash.)

Sometimes you need to categorize or classify things. Knowing that you're doing it -- what the labels are and what they mean to you -- can illuminate how your mind and your cultural conditioning work.

Gender theorist Kate Bornstein offers this handy chart of 15 common ways we separate ourselves from others. How many do you automatically apply?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Peace will not come through prayer

Praying to God for a particular outcome, the Dalai Lama says, shows a lack of confidence in ourselves and our actions, along with laziness and unwillingness to work.
Sometimes I think we (should) just relax, lay down, give all responsibility to God -- "You do this, you do that." Impossible! Our own future depends on our own actions.
The Dalai Lama, speaking at Middlebury College, Oct. 13, 2012

 I do not believe peace will come through prayer. Peace will come through our action, not prayer.
Photo from The Middlebury Campus

Practicing new gender roles

This is Ani Tenzin Choezim. She left Tibet when she was 11 and went to Kathmandu, where she joined  the Keydong Thuk-che Choeling Nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal. She's working on a mandala, a sand painting used for prayer, contemplation, and healing, at Trinity College. Sometimes she would sit up and look like she was really tired of the whole thing. Then she would give a huge smile and go back to work. 

According to  Melissa R. Kerin, assistant professor of art history, Washington and Lee University,who gave a lecture as part of Trinity's mandala project, "Tradition Changing Women, Women Changing Tradition: The Interface of Tibetan Nuns and the Sacred Art of Sand Mandala Making,” making sand mandalas was a practice restricted to well-educated male monastics until recently.

In 1993, Kerin went to the nunnery and watched the nuns as they learned to create the precise and exquisite geometric designs. "These nuns were starting to change that tradition of exclusion, and in turn the august tradition of maṇḍala making changed these nuns’ lives.”
I spoke to one of the nuns, who told me that their main work is house-keeping, but they have a strong inner practice -- "Practice is strong here," she said, pointing to her heart. Making mandalas is an outer practice, she said.

"While the critique of patriarchy and the revisioning of Buddhist thought and practice so that it is no longer informed by patriarchal bias is a political, ethical, and spiritual struggle that is essential and ongoing, it must never overshadow commitment to Buddhist practice." bell hooks

Friday, October 12, 2012

Birthdays and death

But death is real,
Comes without warning.
This body
Will be a corpse.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
The Four Reminders

My mom's birthday was this month. She doesn't like to fly, so I flew to her city, the first leg of a cross-country journey to visit extended family -- my brother, my aunt, cousins, and partners.

As soon as I got to her house, she started talking about some pre-funeral planning she'd recently done. She pulled out some paperwork from a funeral home, and we went over it. Cremation, so she'd take up only half of the remaining plot in the family gravesite (leaving the other half for my aunt). No viewing of the body. A memorial service. Would I do a reading? Of course. She'll choose it, along with the hymns.

Should I write this on my calendar? I asked.

No, no particular day, she answered.

For a few years my mom has marked every occasion with a sigh and "This could be the last time..." If I'm there, I reply, "Or you might live for another 30 years and celebrate many more times." Or I might get hit by a bus and die before you celebrate again. You never know.

She agrees. Death comes without warning.

- - - 

VICE: So, Caitlin. Death to a lot of people is a bad thing. A bummer, at least. What exactly is a 'good death’?
Caitlin Doughty: A good death starts when you're still young. You have to live your life acknowledging that death is inevitable and let it affect your relationships and view on the world. A good death is about planning your death and what you want done with your body and taking delight in it. It's about the quest to have everything in place – literally and emotionally – when you die. Preparing for death doesn't mean preparing for some kind of afterlife. Preparing for death is to enhance the life you're living right now.

Vice magazine interview with Caitlin Doughty is a 28-year-old mortician from Los Angeles. Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, which includes filmmakers, poets, musicians, artists, and writers exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality. Its website says:

The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fear -- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.
- - - 

 We've been talking about death for a while, me and Mom. Death and disposition of her collection of Hummel figurines.

At my aunt's house, we were sitting in the yard, chatting. I admired the flowers next to my chair and was told that the very large planter they were in was the burial ground for a beloved cat. Death, literally, is all around.

But not sadness, not grief. Of course, I'll grieve when my mom dies. Walking through a tunnel in the Detroit airport, standing still on the people mover as passengers in a hurry speed-walked past and trying to protect my mom from getting bumped by their suitcases, my heart burst open with a fierce protective love for her, a feeling that previously rose mainly around my own children. I would do anything for them. And looking at the impatient passengers around me, I couldn't be angry or annoyed with any of them. Everyone is worthy of being loved fiercely, and everyone should know the feeling of having their heart simply lose its boundaries and flow over the world.

That's the ultimate gift of this life and the reason we grieve when it ends. If you live a good life, then what happens after will be taken care of, mom and I agree. And you might as well spend the time luxuriating in the beauty that's around you rather than mourning its eventual loss.

Joyful to have
Such a human birth,
Difficult to find,
Free and well-favored.

With decline of religion, will compassion rise?

I really feel that some people neglect and overlook compassion because they associate it with religion. Of course, everyone is free to choose whether they pay religion any regard, but to neglect compassion is a mistake because it is the source of our own well-being.
Dalai Lama

A pair of recent reports indicate that things may be looking up on that front.

1. Atheists and agnostics are more driven by compassion to help others than are high religious people, a new study finds.

That doesn’t mean highly religious people don’t give, according to the research published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. But compassion seems to drive religious people’s charitable feelings less than other groups.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” study co-author and University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer said in a statement. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

2. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that nearly one-fifth of all U.S. adults, including over 30 percent of adults age 30 and under, now list their religious affiliation as “none.”

Data from Pew Research’s report, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation, indicates that the number of adult Americans who identify themselves as not being connected with any religion has grown from just over 15% to just under 20% in the last five years alone.

The “nones” include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, representing nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public, and 33 million people -- 14 percent of the public -- who say they have no particular religious affiliation.

Many of those 46 million people still describe themselves as being “religious or spiritual in some way.” Almost 68 percent of the “nones” say they believe in God, and 58 percent say they “often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth.” Overall, 37 percent say they are “spiritual” but not “religious,” and 21 percent report praying daily. In addition, most of the “nones” responded that they felt that churches and religion in general strengthen communities and help the poor.

Pew’s analysis says an overwhelming majority of the “nones” have abandoned traditional religion because they feel religious organizations have too many inflexible rules and are too focused on power, money, and politics. It cites research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, that shows many young adults feel that organized religion has become too deeply involved with conservative politics -- the “religious right.”

Pew points to the book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of Notre Dame, in which the authors suggest that stance of many organized religions on politically-charged issues like abortion, gay rights, and same-sex marriage have caused many young Americans to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”

In separateness lies the world's great misery; in compassion lies the world's true strength. -- Buddha


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Beyond good and bad

"For instance, if you define yourself as bad, there’s no way you can help yourself out of the predicament of your suffering. You would need outside help to overcome your inherent badness. If, to avoid that problem, you choose to define yourself as inherently good, you also run into a problem: If you’re inherently good, how did that goodness allow you to succumb to pressures to behave in unskillful ways leading to suffering? And if inherent goodness is something that can be lost, what’s to prevent you from losing it again after you’ve reclaimed it?

"So a necessary skill in the path to true happiness is learning step-by-step how to think in a way that avoids the categories of objectification."

-- Tahn Geoff on Papanca

Monday, October 8, 2012

This is your brain on Zen

Scientific American reports that meditating Zen monks have  an ability to bring the waves from disparate brain regions into "near lockstep, like numerous jump ropes turning precisely together," which is known as gamma synchrony-- "a pattern increasingly associated with robust brain function and the synthesis of activity that we call the mind. "

Such results connote more than spiritual harmony; they reflect the coordination of otherwise scattered groups of neurons. Gamma synchrony increases as a person concentrates or prepares to move. And lack of synchrony indicates discordant mental activity such as schizophrenia. Finally, a growing body of theory proposes that gamma synchrony helps to bind the brain's many sensory and cognitive operations into the miracle of consciousness.
That hypothesis certainly agrees with the monks' gamma readings, seemingly confirming that Zen meditation produces not relaxation but an intense though serene attention.
Read the report here: Zen Gamma

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Grateful to whom?

Gratitude, thankfulness, gratefulness, or appreciation is a feeling, from the heart or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive.
At first glance, gratitude doesn’t seem like a very Buddhist concept. It’s an important part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view – all things come from God, so one should be grateful to God for everything.

The Islamic sacred text, The Quran, is filled with the idea of gratitude. Islam encourages its followers to be grateful and express thanks to God in all circumstances. Islamic teaching emphasizes the idea that those who are grateful will be rewarded with more. A traditional Islamic saying states that, "The first who will be summoned to paradise are those who have praised God in every circumstance."
As Buddhism is nontheistic, to whom would we be grateful?
The answer’s clear: Everyone. And everything.

In the most traditional sense, Jamgon Kongtrul says that attaining enlightenment depends on working with sentient beings, so we should be grateful to them all.
Pema Chodron puts a different spin on it.

The slogan 'Be grateful to everyone' is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves that we have rejected. Through doing that, we also make peace with the people we dislike. More to the point, being around people we dislike is often a catalyst for making friends with ourselves. Thus, "Be grateful to everyone."

Phillip Moffit says that gratitude is the sweetest of all the practices for living the dharma in daily life and the most easily cultivated, requiring the least sacrifice for what is gained in return. 

"Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding," he says. "Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life's drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development."

An attitude of gratitude is a way of accessing joy. It doesn’t mean denying that life is painful, but noting that there is good along with the bad keeps us from feeling overwhelmed by either.