Saturday, December 20, 2014

The World in a Cookie

This has been a week of intense cookie-baking, which equates to infinite opportunities to see the dharma in action.

As the poet Thich Nhat Hahn sees the sky in a piece of paper, the baker sees the world in a cookie -- here are the people who grew the things that went into the Earth Balance vegan butter and those who came up with the perfect blend of gluten-free flour in Pamela's Artisanal flour mix. Here is the extraordinary interdependence of science and ancient grains and my grandmother's cookie cutters, all in one extraordinary bite.

It's a story of ritual and lineage, of  causes and conditions, of interdependence and impermanence, fame and ill repute.


You can practice mindfulness while brushing your teeth, Thich Nhat Hahn says. You can experience the truth of the whole of the buddhadharma while baking cookies: the suffering that rises when you are attached to the idea that things will happen a certain way and that the cookies will look like the picture in the cookbook; the attachment to a self that earns praise or blame for the results; impermanence -- the whole point of all the effort that goes into making cookies is that they will disappear. The paramitas are there: Generosity, proper conduct (I choose to use vegan ingredients), patience, exertion, concentration.

Buddhism isn't about how long you sit on a cushion or how many mantras you say, it's about how you walk in the world -- or do the dishes or make cookies or answer the phone. And that, to me, is the beauty of it. Don't believe anything just because a teacher -- even the Buddha -- said it. Test it.

There are lots of books that show how cooking illuminates the dharma -- Edward Espe Brown's cookbooks (they come with commentary) or Roshi Bernie Glassman's Instructions to the Cook are some of my favorites. This is from The Chocolate Cake Sutra by Geri Larkin.

A melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake is the perfect metaphor for where we can land if we introduce the correct ingredients into our lives. When the ingredients merge and melt together, we become spiritual warriors, able to take the slings and arrows of planet life in stride, with grace and a grin.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Buddha's Guide to Having a Good Time at a Party

The Buddha said that if you practice lovingkindness, or metta, meditation, you will experience scores of benefits (well, 11 specific ones). His list did not mention that you will have a better time at parties. Add that.

In the version of the Four Immeasurables practices that I do, you work with three people for each one: Someone you love, someone who irritates you, someone you don't really notice and have to cast around to bring into your meditation. Chances are these are the three types of people you will meet at a party (or really anywhere).

I like to get a head start. In the days before a social event, I bring people who are likely to be there into my meditation. Who will make my heart light up when I see them? That's the person I love. Who will make me sidle away from a group when they join? That's the irritating one. And who else was at last year's version of his party, standing next to someone who stands out in my memory? Oh, yeah. What's-his-name.

One by one, I offer them the aspirations of lovingkindness: May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

And a warmth develops -- toward all of them. The irritating person just wants to be happy. In fact, they are not irritating. I am irritated.That background person is also a human, with things that make her happy or sad. I wonder what they are? Maybe I will ask.

Extend that feeling of warmth and kind attentiveness to everyone in the room. Feel the judgments about their outfits or how much weight they've gained or the food they brought fall away. Here we are, just humans, just dancing each other home once again. How fortunate to have each other.

And extending the wish to everyone in the city, on the continent, on the planet. May we all be free from fear and know the happiness that brings.

When you get to the actual event, you will feel warm-hearted and curious, open and attentive. You will have a pleasant expression on your face, and people will be happy to see you. You will be happy to see them. Heck, devas will love you.

And if there are moments where that's not the case, you can stealthily emanate lovingkindness, silently making the wishes as you gaze around the room. Or extend it to yourself and leave, if it's that bad. Kindly, attentively, gently.

May you be happy. And may your days be merry and bright.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tis the Season

At this time of year, hope takes center stage. Children draw up lists of presents they hope Santa will deliver. Everyone who lives north of a certain point hopes for a picturesque white Christmas -- enough snow to make it pretty but not enough to make travel dangerous or require strenuous
digging out. Family members hope that other family members will like their gifts, that the sweaters will fit, and everyone will behave themselves. Singles hope for an invitation.

Hope is all around.

Buddhism says the best gift you could give yourself is to give that up.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron describes hope as an addiction to the idea that things would be better if they were somehow different. That keeps us from seeing and working with things as they are, which is the only way we actually can create change.

"Abandon hope" is one of the lojong, or mind training slogans.

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,” she writes. The hope we’re giving up, she says, is the idea that we could “be saved from being who we are.”

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with who or where we are," she writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  When we do relax and look around without a judgmental eye, we begin to see what is there, to realize that we are sufficient and the world is not out to get us. Life becomes workable.

Abandoning hope relies on a foundation of impermanence. To give up the hope that things will change for the better, you need the refuge of knowing that things will change, whether you want them to or not. The bad news and the good news about impermanence are the same -- things will change.  If you look around at where you are and realize you don't want to be stuck there forever, you can be assured that it won't stay that way forever -- it's already changing. What you do in this moment influences what that change will be. 

Ani Pema notes that hope is the other side of fear, and that pairing is the root of our pain.

“In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.” 

If instead we stay with the feeling of discomfort, get to know our true selves, we can find confidence in our basic nature and our ability to be ourselves in the world. We can identify the source of the discomfort, rather than escaping it or covering it over, and work with that. 

The practice of meditation is based not on how we would like things to be but on what is. We often do not have a proper understanding of what we are, of what we are actually doing. From the beginning, spirituality should be concerned with the actuality of who is involved in the practice. In the Buddhist form of meditation, we try to look at the perceiver of the universe, the perceiver that is self, ego, me, mine.
—The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy by Chögyam Trungpa