Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Terrible, Horrible, Wonderful Night

I had plans last night to go into the city and meet a dear friend to see a very special performance. So many things went wrong that I could easily have had an terrible time. Instead -- thanks to practice -- it full of extraordinary lessons and beauty.

I left work early so we could meet before the show. Ten minutes later, I realized my phone was still charging in my office, and I knew I would need it. So I went back. "You're such an idiot," I said as I pulled back into the driveway. "And I love you." (That's a lesson taken directly from Sharon Salzberg's book on Lovingkindness.)

 The 20 minutes that took meant I'd miss the early train, but that was OK. The later train, though, was slow and got in 20 minutes late. I hadn't noticed because I was concentrated on a good book, avoiding the swirl of anxious thoughts.

Still time to get there before the show. I hopped onto a crowded subway train, standing in the aisle. I felt my bag bump the people sitting behind me and felt bad, but it was a crowded train and I couldn't move. A few minutes later, things emptied out and a seat opened up. The girl sitting in the seat near where I was standing smiled at me and went back to snuggling with her friend. A few minutes later, I noticed that the zippered compartment where I keep my Metrocard was open and the card was gone -- likely taken by the snuggling, smiling women.

Of all of the things that I carried, the Metrocard was the least important -- easily replaced and not needed until after the show. So I let it go.

When I got off, I still had 20 minutes to get to the show. But I got the address wrong and walked a half-mile past the venue, with encouragement from my phone map, before calling my friend to ask where I should be. I walked back and got there just after the show started. I picked up my ticket, stopped at the bathroom, got to the door and had no ticket. It was nowhere in my purse, where I'd put it; I retraced my steps and found it on the bathroom floor.

The performance had started.The usher offered to find me a seat; I showed her my friend's text that she'd saved me a seat in the fourth row. I expected the usher to tell me that there was no way I could take that seat and disrupt everyone -- instead she led me to it. I galumphed over people who weren't happy to let me through, but got to my seat. My friend squeezed my hand. I joined the audience and performers on a magical trip through the bardos.

So many things "went wrong" that night. Before I meditated, any one of them would have ruined my night. Since all of them were due to my own inattention -- forgetting my phone, not paying attention to where my bag was, not checking the address, walking in late -- I could have and would have beaten myself up, sending myself into a state where I could not have enjoyed a personal performance by Prince.

On this night, I didn't do that. On this night, I let it go and got beautiful and precious dharma teachings with clarity and grace. I let my friend love me even though I messed up. Being my dharma sister, she did.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Quivering hearts

Sylvia Boorstein, in her book "Happiness is an Inside Job," talks about being seated on an airplane, and just before takeoff a woman came and sat in the empty seat next to her. The woman explains that she hates takeoffs and landings and feels better if she can sit closer to the front of the plane -- she'll move back to her assigned seat once the plane is in the air. Boorstein expresses sympathy, but the woman waves it off. "Everyone has something," she says, which is the point of the story for Boorstein.

I think of this story when I fly -- and, being an editor, I wonder that there was an empty seat, that the flight attendants let her move out of her assigned seat, that this miracle of compassion could have taken place. But, of course, miracles of compassion take place all the time.

I thought of this story particularly this week as I flew. We had a three-flight trip planned to take us from sunny Oregon to frigid Connecticut. Checking flight statuses as we sat in a coffee shop, we learned that flights 1 and 3 were on time, but flight 2 was delayed so that we'd miss the third flight. The app said there were no options available; a phone call found there were no agents available to rebook us either.

So we went to the airport as scheduled. After 20 minutes of searching, the agent booked us onto a flight that was already boarding -- we were the last ones on the plane. I had a middle seat, and no plans to speak to my seatmates. The man on my left had headphones and a screen in front of his face the whole time. The woman on my right put her hands over her face during the flight attendant's safety demonstration. I thought about Sylvia's woman and that maybe this was just her something.

I asked her if she was OK. She said she was just tired -- she'd been visiting her son and sleeping on an air mattress. I'd been visiting my child too, so we talked about them. I was reminded, deeply, of the preciousness of human life -- not because we were in a metal tube flying (flying!) in the air but because of the humans we talked about and we are. We didn't become friends -- we didn't even exchange names, let alone email addresses -- but her "something" was my "something" for that flight.

Compassion is sometimes described as a quivering of the heart in response to suffering. Maybe it's a quivering of the heart in response to another heart's quivering, an attunement, a harmony, an energetic call-and-response. Boorstein writes that her book is about "restoring caring connection... and (that) maintaining it when it is present, is happiness." That caring connection sometimes start with just being present where you are and noticing those around you.

Compassion, or lovingkindness, opens our attention and makes it more inclusive, transforming the way we view ourselves and the world. Instead of being so caught up in the construct of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that we tend to see the world through, we see life much more in terms of connection to all.  -- Sharon Salzberg

Friday, February 20, 2015


Generosity was the first thing the Buddha taught to those he met as he traveled India after he became enlightened. For those seeking liberation from suffering or dissatisfaction, generosity teaches appreciation for what you have and develops the ability to let it go, to share it. Generosity, says Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, is "the natural response of the enlightened heart."

Our unenlightened hearts cling to the things that we believe keep us safe and comfortable. We're reluctant to share because we fear we may not have enough for ourselves at some time in the unforeseeable future.

Buddhism seeks to turn that around, to create an awareness of abundance rather than scarcity. "When we are present and connected, what else is there to do but give?" Jack Kornfield asks.

The Buddhist tradition is literally built on the practice of generosity, or dana, in Pali, the language closest to that of the Buddha. Without the Indian tradition of giving to mendicants, the Buddha would not have had the time to explore his path and come to awakening. Monks in the early Buddhist traditions even today rely on donations from the community, which are given freely.

According to Buddhist scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the topic of giving was controversial in the Buddha's day -- for centuries, the Brahmins had required that gifts be given to them. To fail to do so would be to violate the social contract and would mean bad luck in this life and the next, the Brahmins taught.

In contrast, the Buddha taught free will in giving. When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words — aside from repaying one's debt to one's parents — there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to liberation, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says.

Additionally, the Buddha said, generosity does not involve only material items. It also includes intangibles, like attention, and living ethically, which is the gift of creating safety for ourselves and others. Generosity, Jack Kornfield says, is "a joyful way of being."

He continues: "Sometimes our generosity is the giving of a smile, silence, listening, warm touch. Sometimes it involves action, time, money, our commitment to justice, our vision for a better world. Every form of giving is a blessing."

Generosity acknowledges interdependence. We give not because we have but because we can. "In the end, there is no notion of separation, neither giver nor receiver," Kornfield says. "We are all the Buddha feeding ourselves" when we give to others -- because there are no others, just beings.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm not calm

In the movie "The Babadook," there's a moment when the viewer knows the evil spirit has infiltrated the main character. Until this point, she has been the embodiment of sweet patience -- responding gently and evenly to everyone, never with a hint of tension or irritation. But at this moment, as her son comes into the bedroom where she's trying to sleep and starts talking, we see her eyes narrow and shift as she lies with her back to him, not turning to respond. She snaps.

What she says is not all that bad -- "Don't you ever stop talking?" -- but the tone and the abrupt departure from her previous evenness tell us that this is the start of something awful. (It is.)

What I love about this scene is its humanness. Who hasn't had occasion to yell," Don't tell me to calm down. I am calm!" Who hasn't tried to hang onto tranquility until the last shoe falls and breaks the camel's back? Tell me I'm not alone.

We think -- in the popular imagination -- that meditation will get us beyond all that and make us perpetually calm. But mindfulness doesn't stop us from feeling, it only helps us to know what we're feeling.

Mindfulness is a relational quality in that it does not depend on what is happening but is about how we are relating to what is happening. That's why we say mindfulness can go anywhere. We can be mindful of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, beautiful music and a screech. Mindfulness doesn't mean all these flatten out and become one big blob ... The actual experience of mindfulness produces a vibrant, alive, open space, where creative responses to situations have room to arise, precisely because we're not stuck in the well-worn, narrow grooves of our habitual reactions." -- Sharon Salzberg "Real Happiness at Work"

I want to be mindful of calm and palm trees.  But that's not my reality right now. I'm mindful of stress, of getting ready to travel tomorrow and all the open possibilities inherent in that. I'm mindful of the tension in my jaw, the growing checklist in my head.

I could smile tightly and say I'm fine. Or I can admit that I'm stressed, that irritation that arises in  me is not the fault of the other person but my high baseline tension level, and wait in that space where I choose how to react.

As the evil spirit in "The Babadook" warns, the more you deny it, the stronger it gets. Accepting that it's there lets you work with it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be with the one you're with

Sitting meditation is practice for living meditatively. When I train my mind to concentrate -- gently focusing on the breath, recognizing when I drift off, and inviting my attention to come back -- while sitting in silence, I'm developing the capacity to do that in the rest of my life.

Sitting down to dinner with my spouse, for example, I can bring my awareness to the space where we're interacting. Sure, we're talking about our days and what happened in the hours before we sat down, but but my attention is here. I'm remembering events, not entangled in reliving or revising them. And that leaves space to see them and maybe gain some insight, from myself or my spouse. I'm here with him, not back at the office or on the highway, caught in an encounter that's over.

We went to a dance performance last night, which I'd been looking forward to, even though we'd seen this dance company perform before and not especially liked it. And it was possible to be in that space of gentle attention, watching the dance and allowing thoughts to arise without reacting to them. Good God, a 40-minute-long piece set to Gymnopedie? Really? Thinking. Is this the end? Oh, it's not. What!? Thinking. Even (whispered by my spouse) This is ridiculous. Maybe. Thinking.

Does it make the dance better? No. But it keeps me from going on an internal rant about the quality of the choreography. It keeps me from getting caught in a longing to be home in my comfy pajamas and denigrating where I am. It keeps me from feeling bad that I've brought my spouse to something he's not enjoying and trying to list all the things I've done and not enjoyed because he wanted to, from being wrapped up in defensiveness. It keeps me present and lets me see the beautiful moments among the ridiculous ones.

Really, that's what life is -- beautiful moments mixed in with ridiculous and painful ones. Meditation helps me to be present for them all.

The inner quiet engendered by concentration isn't passive or sluggish, nor is it coldly distant from your experience -- it is vital and alive. It creates a calm infused with energy, alertness, and interest. You can fully connect to what's happening in your life, have a bright and clear awareness of it, yet be relaxed. -- Sharon Salzberg Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation