“Regard all dharmas as dreams.”
Have you ever had a lucid dream? It’s happened to me twice.
In the first, I was at the top of a large, wide staircase. The edges of the steps were made with some kind of stone, but most of the surface was covered with red carpet. It appeared that I was in some kind of gilded theatre. Instead of walking down the stairs, I wanted to fly. At each step I leapt up and floated for a short time, working my way down two or three steps at a time. Suddenly I realized I was dreaming and that if I really wanted to fly I should be able to just concentrate. Bingo! I was flying.
Then I woke up.
The second time was more complex. I “woke up” in my bed as usual, got up and walked out of my room into a hallway that contained cabinets, a mirror, and a sink. I was going to start getting ready for the day when I realized my house doesn’t have a room like this off of the bedroom. Yes! A lucid dream! Deciding to take advantage of being aware, I started walking around.
Then I woke up.
Still laying in bed, I thought about how cool it was that I’d had a lucid dream. I got out of bed and exited the room only to find myself once again in an unfamiliar floor plan. A lucid dream inside of a lucid dream! Cool! This time, I was determined to stay in the dream.
Then I woke up.
The world seems completely solid in a lucid dream. Lucid dreams are seductive. You can make things be just by thinking about them. Having done it twice, I want to do it again. I wish there was a switch I could flip to make it happen at will. So far it’s been a big goose egg.
Or so I thought until recently. In truth, lucid dreaming is just an exaggeration of what we do on a daily basis when we turn our attention inward to the alternate universes created by our minds. These realities appear so solid at times that they impact our body chemistry, facial expression and emotional state. The only thing lacking in comparison to a lucid dream is the absolute immersion of the visuals. Otherwise the illusion is just as complete.
When the world of our mind helps us envision how we might approach a problem or communicate something important to someone, it can be a useful tool. More often however we trend toward mindlessness, building elaborate fantasies about that we want to say but won’t. We imagine ourselves surmounting our intractable problems through acts of will or heroism that we will never realize. In these moments we reinforce our impotence in molding the world to our desires. In short we suffer.
It’s hard to imagine my life without my mind churning out stories all the time. As a creative person, these stories are the raw materials for my work. I can see though that I could gain significant benefit in terms of minimizing my own suffering if I could recognize my unproductive “mental lucid dreams” earlier and prompt myself to wake up as quickly as I do in the sleeping variety.
I’ll keep working on that.
I got off on a tangent today thinking about the word "longing". Sometimes I read romance novels to relax, but of course the story lines are replete with every form of craving and longing that one could conceive of. For whatever reason, today's reading got me thinking about the etymology of the word "longing". I wondered how the word came to mean craving in the English language.
Unfortunately, I didn't get very far in my quest, because Google delivered me a number of related searches to my "what is the etymology of 'longing'" question. One of these was "longing meaning in Hindi". It intrigued me that enough people had asked this question in the past that it became a generated response. In my day-off Memorial Day frame of mind though, that question didn't stick and I replaced it with "longing meaning in Pali". That brought me to "Tanha" (thirst, craving, desire).
Wikipedia told me that the word appeared in the Four Noble Truths where it was credited with being the root of all dukkha (suffering). So of course I set out to cross check that.
So, it appears that Wikipedia had it right this time and I added a new word to my Buddhist vocabulary. Not bad for a lazy vacation day.
I just finished reading “Look Me In The Eye”, which is the story of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who didn’t know it until he was 40.
Near the end, the author discussed the way in which he was able make peace with his dysfunctional father prior to his father’s death. He recollected his conversations with him about the happier times of his childhood (much of it was not happy at all).
For some reason it reminded me of the last conversation I had with my grandfather in 2004 (I believe) – amazing that it’s already been 10 years. We called him “Tatsie”. He suddenly got ill with acute lymphoma. Although he had been a very healthy 88-year old going to the gym 3 – 4 times a week, doing a workout that rivals my own, the doctor’s seemed to just give up right away and say “He wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the treatment.”
It made me viciously angry. Even more I couldn’t understand the attitude of my grandparents. They kept saying things like “They’re the professionals, they know what they’re talking about. Don’t bother them with questions.”
As an aside, since I work in healthcare I understand how often “they” really don’t know what they’re talking about. It made me so angry at them that my grandparents and the doctors gave up without a fight! Without considering how physically strong he was before becoming ill. The doctors only saw a number on a page – his age – and left it at that. My grandparents never questioned their authority.
In our last conversation before I left his room, I told him that I loved him and was scared for him, but for some reason I was also scared for me. I really really didn’t want him to go. He died less than three weeks after diagnosis, without the medical establishment doing much of anything to even try to help him.
For some reason, more than almost anyone else I wonder for him what happens after death. He was a Christian. I suppose he believed in heaven, but come to think of it I never asked. Since I (think I) believe in the cycle of reincarnation until one reaches a state where they can join the universal energy that might be called nirvana – that would mean he could be somewhere else in the world right now. Or maybe in some alternate universe…which I would wish more for him, heaven or a new life in a new body, I can’t say with certainty.
I only know that all these years later, I still miss him
Human society changes. Cultural metaphors change. Languages change. In terms of Buddhist belief everything changes. It is said that an unbiased look at everything will reveal the ultimate impermanence of every thing and every condition.
I have been accused of being somewhat cynical in terms of the human propensity for greed, selfishness and craving. While I recognize the ultimate impermanence of all things and conditions, my unbiased (biased?) look at human nature reveals to me that these propensities never change.
So, I went to the Pompeii exhibit at the Museum of Science Boston and while there are a few more “profound” ideas I plan to share in future posts, there was one thing I found strikingly humorous in terms of what it communicates about people and craving.
A set of loaded dice.
A two thousand-year old set of loaded dice.
This has been going on forever!
A few months ago, I realized that I very rarely ever felt hungry. I ate when it was “time” for a meal without monitoring portion size. I had a snack whenever I got peckish or bored and arrived for dinner without ever experiencing that uncomfortable feeling we call “hunger”. Then I noticed the behavior of my youngest daughter.
Oh, the myriad ways in which people can be mirrors for us!
What I noticed was that she would invariably get “hungry” when there was a) nothing exciting to do; b) a display of desserts in front of her. I noticed that the pattern was the same regardless of how long it had been since she last ate or how much she had eaten at that time.
I had to admit the relationship between the hunger signal and eating for me was just as disconnected as that of my daughter. I ate because I love food. I love the way it looks. I love the way it smells. I love the way it tastes. I love to eat.
One day after my last client, I started feeling irritable. Nothing particularly bothersome had happened that day. So, I was at a loss for why. It took me an embarrassingly long period of time to realize what was going on. Finally, I noticed the hollow feeling in my belly. It was airy and painful. I was really very hungry! Wow! It had been a while.
My first instinct on realizing I was hungry was to race into the back room and look in the snack cabinet for something to fill the void. Fortunately, prajna kicked in just in the nick of time. Instead of stuffing my face at that moment, I made a conscious decision to wait. I decided to continue to feel the hunger, to re-familiarize myself with it, to recognize it and honor the fact that this is my body’s signal it is ready to take in food.
It’s so simple.
Why had I made it so complicated?
Since then, I have used the hunger signal as an exercise in mindfulness. I look for it before eating. If I’m not hungry, I try to ask myself the simple question, “Do I need to eat right now?” Sometimes the answer is yes – if for example I have five hours of patients in a row and won’t have another opportunity before my mental performance would suffer. When the answer is no, however, I defer. I have reframed my relationship to hunger. It is no longer an unwelcome painful experience to be endured, but an opportunity to avoid giving in to the aversion of discomfort and see its relationship to a very important function.
Three meals a day.
Three built-in opportunities for mindfulness.
How cool is that?
In the Buddhist life view, the acknowledgement of suffering as a part of life is central. BUT equally as important is to look at those things that are causing the suffering and see if they can be neutralized. That desirecauses suffering can be difficult to wrap your brain around. After all, some kind of desire or another is much of the basis behind any action we take and any goal we achieve. The desire can be purely selfish (I want to own a Porsche) or ostensibly selfless (I’m going to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity). It doesn’t change the nature of that it is desire and in desirous fervor we can quickly lose our perspective.
This is a lesson I will likely still be learning for many lifetimes to come…<sigh>
My contemplation of this, however, led me to examine boredom. What is boredom? Is it possible to actually be bored if you are fully engaged in living life in the Now? What does boredom represent? This all started when I realized that I am bored with my iPhone cover. Plebeian, I know. Perhaps if I was a nun or abbott I could present you with something more exciting.
So, any way…I’ve started randomly taking off the cover on my iPhone and using it without a cover. Then I’ll put it back on. Then take it off again. Passing through Borders a few weeks ago, I saw some cute looking covers and boom! What hit me? Craving. Craaaaaaaaving. Ooooooh, I waaaaanted that new iPhone cover. But it was made for an iPhone 4 and mine is only an iPhone 3. So, I couldn’t plop down my $15 to soothe my soul.
The lack of compatibility with my device offered me the opportunity to examine the source of my craving though. And that is when I could see the circular connection between the boredom I had been feeling with my old case and the craving I felt for the new case. Here’s the catcher question though: do I crave the case because I am bored with my old one, or am I bored with the old one because I crave a new case? Hmmmmmmm…
Brief connection with “don’t know” mind.
This visceral connection with the pain that desire causes was a wonderful educational experience for me. I needed to tolerate some uncomfortable feelings. To sit with them. To see how they relate to ego clinging. After all a new iPhone case will not actually improve my life. Would it make me more cool? Not really. After all, not too many people actually see it. So, what is it? What would it mean to me to have a new iPhone case? In the short run, the craving would be assuaged. That uncomfortable place of want would be filled – temporarily. I would feel comfort. I might even take joy in whatever new characters or colors adorned my new case. If that were the end of the story, I could just go online and find a cute case for my “obsolete” iPhone.
The problem is that I know the moment I get it home the whole cycle will begin again. I will enjoy it for a while. Feel fulfilled. Feel that little piece of giddy joy. Then it will fade. There will be a period of neutrality – neither craving something new, nor truly appreciating what I have. Then the boredom will begin again. I have no doubt that there will be a plethora of retailers waiting for the agony of my craving to boil over again. And it will never stop.
I see all of this.
I recognize it.
I am practicing sitting with the uncomfortable feelings that this craving generates.
I’m still bored with my iPhone cover.
Now buy the Book!