I’m sitting in my comfy chair at the Dancing Bear Guest House in Shelburn Falls, Massachusetts. This is the same bed and breakfast where I came with my husband several years ago to write The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma. It’s a perfect writer’s retreat. My perch is covered with warm velour and has an extraordinary view of a pink and blue stained glass window. At lunchtime, I can walk ten minutes to the historic town center and work for a while at Mocha Maya’s the local coffee shop that rivals Starbucks for the quality of it’s latte. For lunch I’m known to stick to one of the locally baked blueberry muffins on display there.
As I struggle to conquer the first draft of my latest science fiction manuscript - always the most difficult and psychologically challenging part of any project - I am bothered by doubt over whether there is room in the current entertainment narrative for a story about hope. You see, as much as I enjoy stories of the struggle to conquer oppression, the current deluge of dystopias has become its own hegemony. Oppression seems to be winning. It makes me wonder if anyone wants to read about friendship and camaraderie any more? Is anyone willing to believe that life is hard sometimes, but doable with the help of family and friends?
Am I alone or are there other people out there who want to read stories about compassion, trust and love? The question is distracting me enough that I have been compelled to interrupt myself to write this post. There’s a major shenpa invasion going on here and it all started with a television spoiler.
Ordinarily spoilers don’t bother me all that much. Even though I have advance knowledge of some plot point or other, I love a good story. The fun part is finding out how they get there. To date, there have been only two exceptions to that rule.
The first was knowing in advance in exactly which episode the Tenth Doctor would regenerate in Doctor Who. I dreaded that episode thoroughly, but was compelled forward by the momentum of the story. My husband laughed at me as I surrounded myself with stuffed animals and a warm fuzzy blanket. When the time finally came, there was no getting around it. I cried. Those darn script writers and their final line. That darn David Tennant for being such a brilliant actor: “I don’t want to go.” Waaaaahhhhhh…<sniff>
Now I’m facing down my second dreaded spoiler, the final episode of The Glades. I didn’t know about this series when it was on the air. Netflix suggested it to me when I finished up The Finder, a heartwarming story about a man who is compelled to solve mysteries by finding lost items. I’d known all along there was only one season, since I knew one of the stars, Michael Clarke Duncan, had passed away. I didn't know how The Glades would go out.
In the three and a half seasons of The Glades I’ve watched so far I have come to appreciate how truly different this narrative is from the depressing zeitgeist of our time. Yes, the necessary plot ingredients are all present. Every episode introduces a compelling mystery to be solved. The main character, Detective Jim Longworth, is supported by a motley Scooby gang made up of the chief medical examiner, the police division chief and a plucky semi-official intern. Detective Longworth is of course somewhat rogue, but he gets the job done. So no one gets in his way. He’s cocky, but somehow everyone likes him anyway. The Glades is everything you’d expect from a contemporary police dramady.
The difference that makes this show stand out is the relationship between Jim Longworth and the lead female character, Callie Cargill. She is a nurse who at the beginning of the series is trying to take care of her teenage son and put herself through medical school while her husband is in prison for armed robbery. Okay, you already know the convict husband is jettisoned and Jim and Callie end up together. That’s not even worth calling a spoiler in this genre. But oh how they get there!
It took a while for even me to recognize it at first, but the development of the relationship between Jim and Callie is the healthiest and most partnership-driven I’ve ever seen come out of Hollywood. Yes, they have misunderstandings. Yes, they have stupid fights. The same is true for Callie and her son. Eventually though, each time they manage to find the courage to be honest with one another. In so doing, they created an intimacy that was upliftingly authentic.
As a person who loves romance, I have been turned off by the deluge of Fifty Shades wannabes. Hollywood doesn’t do much better spitting out story after story of relationships based on three days of intense circumstance most of which involve some set of major lies. In themselves, these stories are fine. It’s the lack of any alternative narrative that is discouraging.
In contrast, Callie and Jim got to know each other over the course of several years. They faced both personal and professional challenges. They experienced both elation and doubt in the ability of their relationship to survive, but they became gradually stronger together than they were apart. Furthermore, the show managed to present Jim Longworth as a tough and competent cop while also allowing him to be the kind of intimate partner any woman could envy.
Back to my spoiler.
Here it is 2015. Mr. Grey, a twisted control-freak predator got a movie and Jim Longworth got shot. That’s right. Shot.
The fourth season ender was Jim and Callie’s wedding. I’m to understand that Jim had secretly bought a house for a wedding gift. He is there before the wedding to take care of some final details at which point he’s shot. Apparently, we don’t even know why. Shortly after the episode aired, A&E announced they were canceling the show. Even though the episode generated extraordinary ratings, rather than building on their momentum, A&E canned it without even allowing the producers a chance to give Callie and Jim their well-deserved happy ending.
Yes, it’s only television, but I’m really angry. Furious in fact. There was one show, just one among the muck that’s shoveled onto screens every year that portrayed a healthy, loving couple making it work despite the odds. There was just one show where the man could be both archetypically guy-like and a supportive intimate partner at the same time. Well, we can't allow that. So they shot him. #jimandcalliedeservebetter!
Seriously. I want a real ending to this show a real happy ending where Jim doesn’t end up a vegetable or paraplegic from his injuries. If the show has to end, fine. Even M.A.S.H. had a final season. But give the viewers the gift of closure; the gift of story where investing in a deep, intimate relationship is worth it in the end. Give us just one story where allowing the characters to be vulnerable to one another doesn’t leave them bereft. Please! It’s only been a couple of years, A&E. The actors haven’t changed much. Give us a real finale you can be proud of as a network. Jim and Callie deserve better and so do we.
A few days ago, I read a book review of The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. It was perception-altering for me. Given it’s the review’s brevity (and of course the fact that I haven’t actually read the book), it’s surprising that this piece could leave me with the profound feeling I’d just been called out by the mirror on my wall.
So, what’s this all about? You may ask.
As I understand it, The World Is Not Ours To Save delivers the message that any individual can only do so much to effect positive change in the world. Each of us is imbued with specific strengths and weaknesses, circumstances and opportunities and circles of humanity with which we interact. In all of the possible permutations of these domains, each of us is uniquely able and prepared to help make the world a better place in some way or other. No matter how hard we work or how thin we spread ourselves, however, we cannot fix all of the world’s extant problems. We can’t even fix all of the problems we become aware of though experience, news outlets and the internet. Therefore, in order to ensure that we don’t fail our calling we have to focus or we will burn out and do good for no one.
Wigg-Stevenson approaches this message from a strictly Christian (specifically Baptist) perspective. The title of the book implies that even humanity taken as a whole cannot be responsible for the ultimate repair of sin, because that’s God’s job. In his view only God has the power to effect that level of redemption. A large part of the book illuminates the theology behind his thesis to help Christians incorporate the message into their lives.
Despite our difference in theology, I believe that Wigg-Stevenson’s premise is equally important for Buddhists. Aren’t many of us wanna-be Bodhisattva’s at heart? In our meditation and other practices, we vow to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Wow! That’s kind of a tall order, don’t you think? It’s actually kind of conceited when you think about it and somewhat childishly naive as well.
Part of the problem lies in a this-life perspective. Many forget that the entire concept of a Bodhisattva is that after death the Bodhisattva foregoes Nirvana and enters the human realm again and again until all sentient beings are relieved of suffering. The actualization of the goal lies in perhaps millions of years over thousands of lifetimes. Nonetheless our feeble perspective is always anchored to this world, this body, this lifetime. In that view the pressure is always on to get this thing done now! In so doing, we doom ourselves to failure and more damaging than that, we lose hope and live with the persistent feeling of being overwhelmed.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God to see that surrendering to the ultimate Groundlessness of our place in the matter of elimination of suffering is critical. We must humble ourselves before the massiveness of the task at hand. The Bodhisattva Vows have been being taken for thousands of years. How central to the functioning of the universe can any one of us think we are that we could do alone what so many more practiced and disciplined beings before us could not do?
I’m not trying to be discouraging here. The most important feeling I had after reading the review of The World Is Not Ours To Save was relief. Why do I feel like I can’t fix everything? Because I really can’t. I had to chuckle at my hubris. Afterward though I could begin to lay that burden down and ask myself: What are my best gifts? In what way can those gifts serve to ease the suffering of the greatest number of sentient beings of which I am capable? Each of us doing our own part for the world, in harmony not competition, is the best implementation of the Bodhisattva Vows imaginable.
Here is a link to the Patheos page for The World Is Not Ours To Save
A conundrum that has always intrigued me is the way in which things we do in our desire to help people, can sometimes cause more suffering than if we had done nothing at all. In The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I related the “vole” story in which our family cat attempted to give a “gift” to my mother in the form of a dead animal. Too bad there was no gift receipt on that one…
Earlier today I read a commentary about what may turn out to be somewhat misguided charity on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicating several billion dollars to contraception in Africa, when women might actually prefer to have better pre- and postnatal care. Some failure in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated are certainly doomed to failure given the wide diversity of human perspective in the world. Perhaps it is more surprising to observe how well that guiding principle works much of the time when the giver of assistance actually takes the time to truly put themselves into the other person’s shoes.
Given how central the tenet of compassion is to the every day practice of Buddhism, it seems crucial that we truly engage in a thoughtful process to understand the potential unintended side-effects of what we intend to be compassionate actions. Providing what has been referred to as “idiot compassion” can be just as devastating as self-centeredness.
Those of you who are a part of the Facebook community, have seen me reference some difficult times I have been going through lately. A big part of that was a blow that my business took due to some staffing issues juxtaposed on the direction in which the health care industry is turning. What I have been facing has forced me to analyze how I operate on many levels. One thing I discovered is that my compassion had run amok in the singing lessons side of my business.
To give some context, most music schools and other centers that offer music training have highly structured semesters and rules surrounding eligibility for make up lessons. I could never reconcile what I perceived as rigidity with the fact that sometimes people get sick or go on vacation. I thought so much about what the customer might need that I rarely enforced the 24-hour notice policy, even when someone canceled because “my daughter has too much homework tonight.” When the current crisis hit, it became clear that my lack of leadership in this regard led to the lessons side of my business losing money – significantly.
The irony struck me full in the face. By implementing “idiot compassion” in terms of my operations I a) jeopardized the jobs of 8 people and myself; b) jeopardized my ability to be able to stay to serve the clients I love. One day, a parent of one of my younger students said that I should plan on her staying through high school. Thrilling, but a stab in the heart when I recognized that if I didn’t get this taken care of I might not be able to be there for her.
So my associate teacher and I sat down together to discuss this. She is also a Buddhist and daughter of parents who are now Zen masters. I thought, if we can’t figure this out who can? We crafted a system that (I think) provides a lot better structure, but has some flexibility built into it as well. So far people are responding positively as we roll it out for the fall season.
This story seemed important to tell for a couple of reasons. First, this has been a reallyawful time for me, but my Buddhist practice has been an incredible asset that has helped me learn a lot about myself and how to relate to the world. Second, it illuminates the idea that the way in which we implement our compassionate intentions has consequences. You don’t have to be doing something extraordinary like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to have an enormous impact on the world around you. And despite having compassionate intentions your impact could be positive or negative in the balance.
It all comes down to the most basic tenet: proceed mindfully.
I would like to share with you a humorous take on idiot compassion, with a side-order of ego clinging, from Julian Smith. Enjoy!
“When you are caught up in a destructive emotion, you have lost one of your greatest assets; your independence.” (page 1)
Some days, it is difficult to accept the teaching that compassion and clarity is our true nature, while affliction and suffering (dukkha) are in fact the add ons. On one of those days, I found How to be Compassionate by the Dalai Lama. The most important lesson this book has to teach is the impracticality and futility of anger. Yet, His Holiness is nonjudgmental in terms of his arguments for letting go of afflictive emotions.
“Actions stemming solely from anger of of no use at all; realizing this can strengthen your determination to resist them.” (page 57)
He lays the blame on our attachment to the idea that we are completely independent, individuated beings. From the Dalai Lama’s perspective this is the core illusion from which all dukkha arises. The solution therefore lies in recognizing and cultivating our awareness of the fact that we are in fact interconnected with all beings. He advocates working on this daily and beginning children’s education in this reality by preschool.
“Giving anger the weapons of words and actions is like giving an unruly child a pile of straw and a box of matches.” (page 55)
As a part of this awareness, His Holiness urges us to consider that emotions we consider to be positive can be equally as capable of causing dukkha as negative ones. He outlines what he calls the eight worldly concerns: like/dislike, gain/loss, praise/blame, fame/disgrace and reminds us that even these labels represent attachment to positive and negative thinking, they are the bases for all lust and aversion and explains why most people will only feel compassion for those they are close to and who they love.
“Ordinary love and compassion are intertwined with attachment because their motivations are selfish: you care about certain people because they help you or your friends.” (page 100)
How to Be Compassionate is such a lovingly expressed book. It contains not only teachings, but suggestions for practice. These suggestions are restated in compact form at the end in a section called “Review of the Exercises”. It is a book that I know I will keep for a long time and refer back to frequently. Hopefully in time I can better absorb the core concepts and apply them when truly challenged. After all:
“Afflictive Emotions Are Based on a Mistake” (page 69)
Spring has come early to the Boston area. Already in mid-March we are enjoying days in the high 70′s and 80′s. Ignoring what that may mean for global climate change and for August (given the paucity of snow that fell this year), I’m loving it!
Today, I passed by my favorite tree that I wrote about previously and noticed a few updates. First I noticed the beautiful ring of crocuses that have popped up around the base of the tree.
I noticed that buds are starting to form on the branches. Despite it’s hardships, it looks like this tree is going to pop into full bloom!
And one more thing…
Yes, another little support added by the tree’s owner – rope this time, tying some of the internal branches to one another.
A little rope, some wooden and metal support to hold our branches in place while we bloom – aren’t we all like that?
We get by with a little help from our friends.
- The Beatles
We all need support sometimes. There are days we feel strong as an oak. On others we feel, shall we say, less than prepared to meet the challenges life has set out for us.
I walk the 1.25 mile to work as often as I can, both to fit some exercise into my day and to support the environment. Some days, I’m feeling more spritely than others.
On the days I am feeling a little punkish (as my grandmother would say), I take special joy in one particular tree I pass by on my journey. It’s a kind of spindly looking squat thing which branches kind of splay out in all directions. For several years now, one of these branches has been supported by a long piece of wood that is hooked under it like a crutch.
When I pass this tree, I smile. To begin with, I picture the owner of the yard loving this tree enough that they are willing to care for it in this way and give it the prosthetic assistance that it needs to help it survive. In addition, I think about the tenacity of life. This little tree just ain’t giving up – like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
A few months ago, as I approached my bark-covered friend, I noticed that something had changed. Perhaps things had – shall we say – deteriorated a bit. But incredibly, the loving support remained.
With it’s owner’s care, perhaps it will still bloom in the spring.
In the course of applying practice to my daily life, I have come to the conclusion it is necessary to be brutally honest with myself. It has also proven to be necessary to consistently question that trickster Memory – recent and remote, personal and cultural – lest it hock me lies that increase my suffering and undermine my ability to effect positive change in the world.
Sometimes cultural lies are the hardest to circumvent. These are the ones that have seeped into the collective consciousness and which friends, acquaintances and strangers propagate as “common knowledge”. They may become rallying points for cultivating our feeling of oppressed self-righteousness. After all, it feels good to be the only one who can see the real truth.
Today, while browsing my Facebook wall, I came across this status update from a friend:
“Since when did we stop looking at each other as equally important as ourselves?”
I love my friend. He’s so dear to me, I consider him family. But AB’ers, this statement just strikes me as decadent. Perhaps this post was just the tipping point for me in what I see as a fashionable trend to denigrate our current world and our current lives by painting the olden days pink and calling them roses.
What in the history of humankind indicates that we have ever been anything but selfish first and compassionate later? Sometimes, this is observed at a group level and sometimes an individual one, depending on the society, but parochialism is the modus operandi of humanity.
Here we are, practitioners of Buddhism, a more than two millennia-old tradition focusing on just that – how to cultivate an expansive compassion in our daily lives. In studying the core teachings of Buddhism, it becomes clear that the people of the time were coping with the same interpersonal and psychological barriers to compassion and lovingkindness that we encounter today.
Sure, there was more space between populations at the time. This allowed for a greater ability to mind one’s own business – especially between groups of people who were so distant that they were unaware of each others’ existence. Our close proximity to one another and our ability to communicate across the globe disintegrates the luxury of ignorance and forces us to rub up against more people and ideas that are threatening to us (both real and imagined). Ironically, this is precisely the kind of situations that Buddhist practice is designed to help us cope with.
I suggest it is possible we are more aware of our interpersonal, intercultural and international conflicts in a way that we historically have not been. In addition, I assert that our fundamentally selfish nature is tested more frequently and under more extreme circumstances than ever given the factors outlined above. The congruence of these things, however, makes me feel we are actually making progress rather than backsliding.
Coming back to honesty, it is important to recognize the fundamental “wrong thought” inherent in these nostalgic revisionist pastoral histories and to jettison them from our worldview. Cultivating these incorrect notions lead us to the incorrect assumption that “all” we need to do is to go back to some mythical time in the past and everyone will be happy and peace will reign.
This wishful thinking increases suffering by increasing our dissatisfaction with what is. It prevents us from recognizing the need to engage in creative problem solving to generate new solutions and new ways of doing things to help humanity continue on the path of increased awareness and interpersonal joy. Instead, we find ourself always trying to look back.
Perhaps a new perspective is in order…
“When did we recognize the need to look at each other as equally as important as ourselves?”
Yesterday, I posted a link at the Average Buddhist Facebook Community to a USA Today article about Han Chinese who are turning to Tibetan Buddhism as a spiritual practice. Some seekers are becoming involved to the extent that they are giving up their jobs and their homes and moving to a monastery in Tibet.
The most obvious irony, of course, is the fact that the very population that overtook Tibet is now turning to its culture for its own salvation. My other observation, however, is the one sticking with me today. Some of the Tibetan monastics are having an overtly negative response to the new converts. In one instance, the article referenced a nun who intentionally sneezed on a Han monastic’s head to insult her.
From a prosaic mindspace, we might say “Of course Tibetan nuns resent the presence of Han Chinese in their living quarters. The Chinese deprived them of their country.” I could agree, except that they are, well…Buddhist nuns. I mean, these are women who have dedicated their lives to transcending human pettiness. Yet here we are.
Human nature is full of such contradiction though. Amazingly, a person who commits herself to decades of practice and ritual to rid herself of craving, attachment and the other concomitant desirous states of the human condition, can maintain a self-righteous attitude toward other seekers because of their ethnicity and citizenship. Paradoxically, we humans can seek enlightenment, while maintaining attachment to resentment. That’s a phenomenal trick, isn’t it? Progressing in Buddhist practice, we are told, is supposed to lead to the ability to move beyond material insult and injury. Yet, it would appear the journey is not linear.
There are Buddhist hardliners who denigrate the Buddhist laity and insinuate that practitioners who are not dour ascetics are posers. I can’t help but feel this in itself is indefensible attachment. I want to make sure I’m conceptualizing the practice of Buddhism “right” as much as the next person, but at what cost? The loss of compassion? I refuse to pay that price.
I do understand why those Tibetan nuns have a problem with Han practitioners. At the same time, I hope they will recognize the opportunity they have been given to advance their practice. With that insight, their real work can begin. Is my wish for them in this regard just another paradox?
Achieving enlightenment is an ongoing project and we cannot assume it to be a certainty. There is no room for high horses and I’m-such-a-better-Buddhist-than-you rhetoric in the context of our frailty and interconnectedness. The more frequently we can be humbled by these reminders, the better.
There’s a story my mother tells from when I was a child. She used to be very involved in the church we went to at the time (Episcopalian). One day she was volunteering at a ecumenical luncheon being attended by our priest and priests from several other denominations. Perhaps there was a rabbi there as well. It’s too long ago for me to remember, but no they did not go into a bar…
In any case, the subject of pre-marital counseling came up. There was apparently some discussion regarding how the Catholic priest can adequately provide premarital counseling when he is unable to get married. Naturally, the priest became somewhat defensive and asked how any of the others could provide counseling for terminally ill parishoners, given that they had never been terminally ill. Our family’s priest then countered with something to the effect of, “Yes, that’s true. But I have at least been sick.”
In the context of Buddhism this raises a significant question, given our emphasis on compassion practice. To what extent does one have to have an experience oneself before one can truly be compassionate for others in a similar situation?
Another example came my way last week, when one of my singing students was telling me how her husband does not understand her or their son’s allergies. She told me that he is the type of person who has never been sick a day in his life. He missed one day of work at one point because she made him go to the doctor to have something checked. It was fine. He has no allergies, no chronic medical conditions and has never been seriously injured. Their son, on the other hand, is on significant medication for allergies and asthma and this guy can’t understand why they can’t get a dog. After all, the kid is on the medications. Doesn’t that take care of it all? He just doesn’t get it.
Historically, I have gone through difficulties at time with depression and anxiety. So, when I am presented with a therapy patient who has trouble in this arena, I recognize it very quickly and instinctively understand how to approach the person to try to diffuse the situation. I find that I am able to be quite patient with these folks. Even when there are other, presumably less stressful things that may completely stress me out. I like to think I have cultivated this compassion, but I wonder sometimes if I have only cultivated the ability to recognize my own pain in others.
At some level, recognizing one’s own pain in others is the heart of Tonglen practice – breathing in the pain of all others who are experiencing something similar and then breathing out healing. So, perhaps even at the heart of buddhist philosophy is an inherent understanding that we need experience to fertilize our compassion. Nonetheless, I don’t think this is necessarily all that is required of us. So, I wonder to what extent it is possible to be truly compassionate without similar experiences to draw upon.
Some day, when I’m a bodhisattva, perhaps I’ll understand…
Two minutes ago (at the time I wrote this), I signed the evaluation note of a woman I will be seeing for speech therapy. She is a well-educated woman who, at a not very advanced age, has been experiencing cognitive decline – not seemingly Alzheimer’s per se, but surely something.
Imagine for a moment that you have spent your entire adult life using your higher level thinking and speaking skills for a successful career, that you’ve got a great marriage, grown kids…then suddenly you find you can’t remember certain words that you’re trying to say. You begin losing your sequence of thought and having difficulty understanding complex ideas and instructions. You look fine on the outside, but you can’t write checks any more because you can’t remember how to get the information into the right spaces.
She said “it started just like cracks in the ceiling.”
I spent several years working in a neurological rehabilitation hospital. The typical patient had had a stroke or a brain injury or was otherwise failing because of neurological disorder. This patient was like many I have seen who alternately tell you what they are having trouble with and in the next sentence deny it’s that bad. Like many, this woman proposed other reasons why she was unable to perform the tasks in the evaluation – for example, the furniture in the office didn’t look “medical” enough. As a clinician, I need to help people understand their patterns of strengths and weaknesses in order to help them. So, I am put in a position frequently of having to correct their mistaken notions of why they are having trouble and lay bare for them the things that they are not able to do any longer. I have to “help” them “accept” their problem.
Why the quotes?
Well, it’s just that as I was considering this evaluation, scoring the tests and writing the report, I started reflecting on the nature of prajna, impermanence and groundlessness. I started considering that it might be helpful if she were a Buddhist, as she would then have a framework with which to understand and “accept” what is happening to her.
I had to say to myself.
I am so full of it!
The truth is, I am terrified of the possibility that this could happen to me. Shenpa arcs out of the walls like nails in a medieval torture chamber when I think about it. Despite all of my understanding of groundlessness and the unsolid nature of “me”, I am not convinced I could go through this without becoming angry and dismayed. I’m not sure I could easily allow my”self” to dissolve in this manner without wallowing in my own suffering. Death is seemingly easier to accept than watching the identity you’ve created in this lifetime be slowly erased. The bottom line is, I’d probably try to make up excuses as well.
I must honor the inner strength this woman is going to have to have in order to go through this and her husband’s as well. Furiously, I bow and bow and bow and try not to chastise myself for being a “bad Buddhist” for praying as hard as I can that I will never have to know this level of self-destruction. Tonglen, tonglen tonglen. For all who are facing this kind of living death, all who must watch it and all who fear it.
And now, I must get over it. I must assemble my plan of things I can do that might improve her quality of life for as long as possible. I must get ready to see her each week, to watch her go through cycles of good days and bad, voyage with her on this journey and watch her slowly disappear.
Now buy the Book!