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