Friday, June 28, 2013

Do what makes you happy

The Buddha lists discipline as one of the six paramitas, or transcendent actions, that help us move toward enlightenment. It's not one that most people are eager to talk about. Discipline brings up fears of shame, blame, and deprivation. Buddhist teachers say it's not so. In the Shambhala teachings, it's said that discipline bring joy.

New scientific research agrees.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality, concludes: "Self-control positively contributes to happiness through avoiding and dealing with motivational conflict."

Time reports:

Through a series of tests — including one that assessed 414 middle-aged participants on self-control and asked them about their life satisfaction both currently and in the past — and another that randomly queried volunteers on their smartphones about their mood and any desires they might be experiencing, the researchers found a strong connection between higher levels of self-control and life satisfaction. The authors write that “feeling good rather than bad may be a core benefit of having good self-control, and being well satisfied with life is an important consequence.”
Additionally, self-control appears to be linked to mood: Those who reported more self-control experienced fewer bad moods. But that's not because they denied themselves things they wanted.
This didn’t appear to linked to being more able to resist temptations — it was because they exposed themselves to fewer situations that might evoke craving in the first place. They were, in essence, setting themselves up to happy. “People who have good self-control do a number of things that bring them happiness — namely, they avoid problematic desires and conflict,” says the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota.
 Not only does the study confirm the value of discipline, it also supports the Buddhist idea of renunciation. The precepts, or guidelines, laid out by the Buddha for those who aspire to enlightenment, recommend refraining from a number of unwholesome behaviors: Lying, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and inebriation.

For monastics, those are rules, and violations can result in dismissal (although different traditions look at them with more or less strictness). For lay people, they are guidelines for measuring whether conduct is beneficial.

They also can be read as promoting the opposite actions: Tell the truth, be sober so that you can stay mindful, don't take advantage of others.

By giving up certain behaviors, we make space for good choices -- or, to quote the study's author, to do the things that bring us happiness.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Are we who others think we are?

In the novel I'm currently reading, the protagonist has to go through An Ordeal, one of the tests that's required to fulfill the hero trope. In this story, a work of magical realism in which existence is revealed to be a dream and dreams turn out to be prescient, the Ordeal could turn out to be anything, really. But what it is is the complete loss of everything that seems to be his identity.

Buddhism says we have no fixed, solid self. We do have, as we go about our days, many identities, We are workers, residents, citizens, coffee or tea drinkers. We groom ourselves. Part of practice is to see the ways we grasp onto those identities, and, through awareness, relax our grip.

In this story, a man, a middle-class, white-collar, average guy, one who likely would go unnoticed, is stripped of all that defined him and dropped back into his customary place. He is in a subway station, but instead of being the crisp, clean, worker bee off to an office, he is jobless, homeless, dirty, confused. Friends recognize him, and he has to sit with their pity, their flinching friendship, their averted eyes.

He is unmoored from everything, groundless. Self-less.

What if you lost everything that makes you you? It happens, and not just in fiction. It happens in layoffs, divorces, fires, and other catastrophes. What if you had nothing but the skin on your bones and even that was damaged, even that was not the skin you had creamed and buffed and soaped each morning? If you had, as our protagonist does, a carbuncle? Who would you be then?

I once heard a story from a Zen teacher, who said he had a student who was certain he had gone beyond self, who was not concerned about what others thought of him. Fine, he said. Go stand in front of the group and sing. Without accompaniment. Perform. See if that makes your self conscious. The student stayed in his seat.

Someone commented (on an an unrelated Facebook post) that "a truism in the study of psychology is that we are not who we think we are, but rather we are who we think others think we are." 

What if we are not?

Then others are not who we think they are -- or who they think we think they are. They are, in fact, just like us. There but for fortune (or karma) -- good or bad -- go you or I.

A recent study found that readers who are emotionally transported into a work of fiction display increased empathy. Art can open our eyes to a different way of seeing things. It can change the way we see real people.

Alan Wallace talks about our ephemeral identities in this commentary on the lojong slogan Examine the nature of unborn awareness:

When we seek something to grasp as our personal identity, we naturally arrive at the mind. What Sechibuwa challenges here is precisely this instinctive sense of personal identity that regards the mind as an entity in its own right. He asks us to investigate whether awareness does in fact exist in its own right, whether our minds exist intrinsically, independent of other people's minds, of the environment, and of our bodies.

In the continuum of such mental events we then discover behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns. Out of these patterns we develop a sense of personality, which we identify as "I am". But to equate ourselves with these patterns is fallacious. There is no real personal identity, no "I," no self, in these ever-changing, dependently related events that constitute our stream of awareness. In an ultimate sense, the nature of awareness is unborn; that is, it does not intrinsically arise from some preceding cause. Only on a relative or conventional level can we speak of awareness arising and passing again and again. The concept of mind as an abiding, isolated, changeless entity that performs a variety of mental events-choices, memories, imagination, hopes, fears-that mind as an entity existing in its own right is in fact a non-entity. It is a purely artificial fabrication, and by identifying with that false concept of mind we do ourselves great damage.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Put on your dharma shoes -- and walk

Buddhism isn't what you do in meditation; that's meditation. Buddhism is how you walk in the world. I heard that phrasing from a teacher at one of the first Buddhist retreats I attended several years ago, and it stuck with me.

I've always admired people who live their principles, who communicate their beliefs through their behavior, not through words. And I'm suspicious of those whose behavior conflicts with their stated beliefs. Occasional lapses, I get. Constant conflict seems to say something's not genuine.

In the "Bringing Your Practice to Life" class, Jeff Rubin asked people to think of a an area where they feel an ethical challenge and to think of a small way to bring their practice into their activities -- and do it. Not just intend to do it, not just aspire to do it, but do it.

This is where the metta meets the road, where the shoes come off and the tender soles come into contact with the sharp stones and rocks and garbage on the ground.

The ancients (including the Buddha) tells a story about a man who complained about the pervasiveness of suffering and the limits of practice. How could his meditation practice make the world better? Buddha says that if the ground is rough and painful to walk on, you could cover it all with leather so that you can walk comfortably with bare feet. Or you can cover your feet and walk in the world.

Which is not to say that you'll be shielded from pain by wearing metaphorical shoes. I once broke a bone in my foot by stepping on a large stone while wearing Keds. (I am suspicious of the safety of the trendy minimalist shoes.) But you will be able to move through the world as it is, changing only yourself.

I feel like my practice pervades my life. It is so entwined that I can see that I could do more without beating myself up for not having done enough. As you practice, doors open and you see new areas for practice.

For this week, my ethical challenge is discipline, or following through on what I know I is right. And my specific practice is getting to work on time.

My work day is supposed to start at 7 a.m. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a person who gets up easily at 5:30 a.m. I am not, and have not been since childhood, a person who goes to sleep early. Even if I try. And over the last several months, my arrival has been creeping back later and later.

How is this a matter of ethics? I work at a newspaper, where we have to meet several rigid deadlines. My late arrival has the potential to affect that. It also shows a lack of respect for my co-workers. (It's not a theft of time from my employer because I stay later.) Is this an expression of some subtle resentment, some message that I want something to be different, and I need to look at that? Some incongruence? Or maybe it's a matter of self-care, and I need to look again at bedtime.

At any rate, I'm self-conscious about it when I walk in, so I know it bothers me. It's time to shine the light of dharma on that area of my life, to put on my dharma shoes and walk through the muck.

Note: There are no actual dharma shoes. You cannot buy something at the Nike store to propel you down the path to enlightenment. However, you can get the Nike Roshe Run (right), which the company describes as:

Inspired by the practice of meditation and the concept of Zen, the Nike Roshe Run epitomizes simplicity. It has no embellishments, just basic shoe necessities brought to life with every detail. Almost every part of the shoe reflects an aspect of a tranquil Zen garden: a modified Waffle outsole made to look like stepping stones, an insole that mirrors a raked rock garden, and slightly different midsole side lengths-a juxtaposition of seriousness and playfulness. 
Seriously, though, they won't help your practice. This is materialism, pure and simple. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Good things about America

 By Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni on Sakyadhita: Buddhist Women

I am blessed to be an American-born bhikkhuni living in the United States, blessed to be part of a society that insists on equality, celebrates pioneers, and encourages living according to one's values. My vision of how laypeople and monastics can evolve as an integrated community to support each other to awaken would not be possible in many other contexts. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. is a highly favorable container in which Buddhism can flourish in our postmodern world.

I am also aware that we live at a unique and pivotal time in history. In numerous places around the world where I have taught, I experienced a deep readiness to see women come into fullness and maturity, to find their voices and lead. This is particularly true here in the U.S. At a bhikkhuni ordination in northern California in 2011, the renowned scholar Venerable Anālayo remarked that full ordination for Theravada bhikkhunis is the single most important event in the Buddhist world these last hundred years. He is not alone in recognizing the inestimable value of women monastics. 

Other blessings of establishing the Dhamma in America include the opportunities produced by its entrepreneurial ethos, where hard work, clear vision, and the right contacts make projects blossom.This culture’s commitment to social justice is another precious gift. America’s dedication to equity makes it far easier to develop leadership structures that support not only women but others who have been marginalized. Perhaps even more significant is that we are free to teach what we know from our own experience rather than having to fit into a prefabricated model of how things are supposed to be. We are able to teach in a way that is applicable to the global challenges we are facing today.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The impermanence of pets

Two weeks ago I was in a Google+ hangout, cat across my crossed legs, getting ready to meditate, and one of the other participants commented that it sounded like there was a tiger in the room. The cat's purring had gotten louder as her time grew shorter, so I moved her to another room.

That was, in fact, her last day; she purred -- loudly -- right up to the end as the tranquilizer the vet gave her took hold. We petted her head until her breathing stopped, and then a little more.

I always knew she would die before I was ready, knew that was part of her cat-ness. She would come into the room while I was meditating in the morning and squawk, then knead my legs before settling down. I was sometimes looking at her as I recited "Everyone who is born will die" and add,"yes, you."

I'm not, generally, scared by the prospect of my death. I am saddened by the idea that everyone who is born will die, and the cat is the least of it. As humans, we're driven by the desire to connect; we need to be seen and valued in order to develop. (A new study links childhood abuse and brain development in women.) Yet when connections become attachments, when we reify relationships or believe that our happiness depends on others, we suffer.

Suffering -- dukkha, which also gets translated as anxiety, stress, anguish, dissatisfaction -- is one of the marks of our human existence. Accepting that also shows us the sukkha, the sweet side, the joy, bliss, tender heart, boundless beauty. Knowing that everything passes makes it presence more precious.

I miss the cat, Moonshine. I keep expecting to see her in her usual spots. Our other cat seems to want me to find her. At dinnertime that cat, Peeka, stands at the top of the stairs and squeaks with a "Timmy's-in-the-well" urgency. I follow her downstairs, and she circles aimlessly while I point out that I have given her food already -- just look in the bowl. It's not the food she's looking for, I think; it's her dinner partner.

It's just like that. There will be a new cat, a snuggly one who will sit on my crossed legs, I hope. A new dinner partner. Knowing the inevitable end should not stop us from enjoying the existing moment.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Enlightenment is Other People

Hell is other people, Jean Paul Sartre wrote. So is enlightenment.

I don't usually think of it that way, but I was prompted this week to re-examine my view by -- what else? -- other people.

Last week I gave a talk on the Buddhist view of enlightenment at the Unitarian-Universalist meetinghouse my family belongs to. I talked about enlightenment as a state that is always accessible to us, but that we're usually not connected to as we go through our mundane life. But we do have moments of enlightenment, whether or not we call them that.

Enlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace – these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last. Our realizations and awakenings show us the reality of the world, and they bring transformation, but they pass. -- Jack Kornfield
 After the service, there's an ongoing online discussion, where people can comment and reflect on the service. One of the questions I posed was whether or when people notice those moments. I expected to get comments about connecting in nature -- we're big on nature -- but most of the stories were about feeling the oneness, the interdependence -- what UUs call "the interdependent web of all existence" in the Seven Principles -- in connections with other beings. When the walls fall and we step out of our small selves and let others out of the cells of their small selves, we experience our buddhanature and theirs.

I had proposed that our enlightenment happens when we see that all beings are enlightened, in their nature if not their actions, and we meet their enlightened nature with our own. My friends reminded me that it happens the other way too: We become enlightened when someone else sees that we are.

Sartre's familiar phrase comes from his play "No Exit," in which three damned souls are brought to the same room in hell by a mysterious valet. The room is nothing special; there are no torture devices or torturers, only the three people, left alone to tell their stories and delusions about themselves. One of them, Garcin, concludes, "Hell is other people."

The play ends with the three joining in prolonged laughter before resigning themselves to spending the rest of eternity together.

There's a thin line between heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and confusion. Laughter, honesty, acceptance, and kindness help move the latter to the former.