I’ve been fighting the good fight against genetics and food for a while now. Like many people, I’m struggling with controlling my cholesterol. As you might imagine, I am not a person who likes to take a bunch of medications just to avoid making lifestyle changes. In general, I prefer behavioral approaches over medicinal ones.
Last month was the perfect timing for having a cholesterol test. I joined a gym back in July and have been faithful in going. The gym comes with personal training and I’ve been using that to guide my progress. Even better, a work colleague of mine and I concluded that we were having too many high carb, sugary snacks at work and set a goal for ourselves of no sugary snacks at work for 22 out of the 25 work days in that month. Yeah! I succeeded!
Confidently I strode into the lab for my test.
Results? Worse than ever. Boo!
Doctor’s recommendation? Statins. Boo!
I get my healthcare news from journal articles and sources such as NIH and Medscape. So, I’m usually pretty sure that the information I’m getting is of high quality. Frankly, the idea of taking statins terrifies me. Yes, they lower cholesterol, which is extremely important. It’s just that the cost in potential side effects is so high.
Now I’m thrown into the middle of an identity crisis. For self-reflection, I categorized my reactions from a Buddhist perspective…
I must bow to the lesson I have been given to learn. I must be grateful that I live in a time in human history when such a medication is even available. It would be foolish to increase my risk of stroke just so that I don’t have to get over myself. And so I go.
Why haven’t I made any posts in months?
Blah blah busy blah blah blah work blah blah moving offices blah blah blah…nothing “Buddhist enough” to say.
Yes, it’s true. After sixteen years of Buddhist practice I continue to fall victim to dualistic thinking and tie myself to attachments about the need to be profound in some way. Haha! I’m sure I’m not alone here and I do have a good sense of humor about it. Prajna is a process.
I mean really. The whole reason for calling the blog Average Buddhist is because I’m just an average person workin’ the Dharma. It’s about the small stuff.
Think small. Think small.
Suicide touches millions of lives in this world. Yet, somehow it’s always a surprise when someone you know commits suicide. You can’t help but think - I should have known. I should have seen it coming. We all carry this underlying assumption that we could have done something to prevent it.
Last December, my husband and I learned a good friend of his mother’s had passed away. There were no details at first. The fact of her death was difficult and hard to imagine, given her lifelong active and healthy lifestyle. Worse, particularly for my mother-in-law, was that we didn’t find out until three months later. After several days of phone tag, my mother-in-law learned that her friend had not died of natural causes, but from suicide. The few months over which they had fallen out of touch took on new meaning. All of us were left wondering - why?
I first met “E” in the late 1980′s or early 1990′s – I can’t recall which. She was someone who was very easy to connect with. She had a calming influence on every room she walked into. Her smile was contagious. She would go to any lengths to help a friend feel better. I know all of this sounds cliché given that E is no longer with us, but it’s actually true. It was hard to imagine E feeling so desperate that she would take her own life.
If only we’d known.
There’s the real cliché. The survivors seeking ground. We grasp onto the certainty of our own power to force our will to live on another person. If only we’d known, we could have stopped it. The certainty is laughable.
Earlier today, I managed to finally connect with another woman who knew E well, much better than me in truth. She and E used to either see each other or communicate at least once a week. She told me she had also been shocked by the news. She knew a recent illness-related death in E’s family had hit E hard emotionally. But there was apparently been no indication that E’s grieving was going so terribly wrong. Perhaps there was more going on. We’ll never know.
The truth is, it is a privilege when others open their thoughts to us. Whether those thoughts are full of sunshine or a tsunami of pain, every person is in control of whether they share it with the people they know and love. If they decide not to there is absolutely nothing to do for it. It’s not for us to say that we would have been smart enough, creative enough or forceful enough to stop someone from taking drastic measures. Despite numerous opportunities, E decided not to share.
As a member of the clan of people who has been left behind by E, I need to set aside my Tom-Cruise-saves-the-day story lines and instead come back to focusing on E. Grieve the loss. Make peace with the fact that I’ll never see her again. Bow to the internal pain that made her feel like suicide was her only best option.
Namasté, E. I will miss you.
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
When I was 15 years old, the thing I wanted more than anything was a Trans Am. They were everywhere, with their big golden birds painted across the hood. I promised myself I would buy a Trans Am one day because I knew it was the only car I would ever want. Back then I knew nothing of model years and the design changes they inevitably bring. The Trans Am was without a doubt my ideal car.
Fast forward to 1990, I’ve just graduated college and I’m buying my first car. It’s the biggest purchase I’ve ever made. I’m even committing to a car payment. Scary! I’ve got to make sure I get to work every day. Even scarier! So what did I buy? A two-year old Toyota Tercel. Truth be told, the whole Trans Am thing didn’t even come up as a thought or desire in the process. It was a few years later when I recalled my previous infatuation with the Trans Am, all of which by then were rusty, loud and burned more gas than I wanted to pay for. What gives? A Trans Am? No thanks.
A recent article in the New York Times may have finally illuminated the foundations of this mystery. It’s called “end of history illusion”. Basically, what this theory states is that people can much more easily perceive how they have changed in the past than how they may change in the future. Further, we may actively deny that future change in our preferences and manner of thinking will occur at all. From adolescence through adulthood we convince ourselves on a daily basis that we have reached the highest expression of ourselves. Ha ha!
Perhaps the fear and subsequent denial of future change in our personalities is most blatant in the teen years, but I believe these feelings remain with us throughout our lives. After all, our thoughts and preferences and view of the world is what makes up our fundamental selves, right? We can’t lose that, right? If we lose that, we lose our whole being, right? Yet this is exactly what Buddhism encourages us to accept.
Our thoughts, perceptions and views are only a part of the Aggregates we confuse with our fundamental selves in our unenlightened state. The work of not only accepting that change in these regards will occur, but leaning into these changes is part of the fundamental work of Buddhist practice.
So, I happen to be buying a new car again…Trans Am? Naw. Mazda 3. Still no bird, but it does have an iPod input. I never would have thought to value that back in 1984. I wonder what my new self will prefer when I’m back in the market again around 2024? We shall see!
One of the better posts to come out of the American Buddhist blog recently was this post about busyness. Whitaker’s discussion centers around an article I also read and cross-posted to the Facebook community. It was called The ‘Busy Trap’ from the New York Times. In Whitaker’s blog post he refers to the many things he has floating around in the space of to-do, that there are things in the forefront and things on the back burner. He reflects on how lost these things can get over time – as well as in time.
There is certainly something to be gleaned from an examination of the relative importance of the things that take up our lives. It is too easy to get pulled into trivialities that in the end have no meaning for us. The world tries to require a trivial focus from us. Deciding to opt out of those time and energy sucking vortices can have its consequences. The NY Times article takes that perspective and brings us the time-honored word of warning that we may be missing out on MORE IMPORTANT THINGS (emphasis mine).
Yes, time-honored, but how true is is really?
When I look at the churning waves of things I do each day, week, month, year how judgmental should I really be? After all, what is it I should be doing instead? Yes, yes, philosophers may argue there is just as much “value” in staring at the ceiling as there is in writing a business report – or a blog post for that matter. But it really depends on your definition of the word value. If we all took hours at a time to stare at the ceiling and contemplate the meaning of life, as a community we would lose some of the greatest creative masterpieces and advancements that actually have made our lives better than the lives of the cave people. That those creative masterpieces and advancements come part and parcel with a lot of chum is irrelevant.
My favorite quote from Whitaker’s blog post was the following:
Yes, life is too short to be busy. But sometimes it’s also too short to say no to busyness
That our lives are filled – sometimes to the brim – is not always a bad thing. Placing judgments on the way in which we or others spend the time we have on this planet is the height of dualistic thinking “a is bad; b is good” and does nothing but increase our suffering and that of the people around us through our constant second-guessing of whether or not we are making the best and highest use of our time. If we are busy, if we are not, we still must be. Some day we won’t be. That will be that.
Idiom has it that it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown. So, be lazy and smile. It seems to me the same principle is true of love.
When someone we love betrays our trust in them, the suffering has an intensity that can overreach the scale of the original injury. Our reflexive recoil against the pain brought on by the scorn of a loved on can make us lose our perspective. We may feel there has been a breach that can never be mended and be tempted to harden ourselves against love – the person who wronged us in particular. We often invest our ego in the idea I can never forgive him/her or put conditions on our willingness to forgive.
The thing is, we are designed to heal. With time, our minds process negative interactions. On a subtle level, we recognize the multiple factors involved in every dispute. We are capable of perceiving causative factors that may not have been evident at the time of the insult. Unfortunately, once we have ego identification with the pain, it becomes difficult to dismiss the defense mechanisms that sustain our anger.
This results in a tug-of-war between our natural process of healing and our conscious desire to prop up our pride by maintaining our self-righteous indignation. Ultimately, however, the natural entropy of anger is a stronger natural force than the fire of injured passion. The bottom line is that staying angry takes work.
Humanity’s limitless capacity to heal in this way demonstrates that giving unconditional love is an easier state of being than loving conditionally. This is not to say one has to agree to be plod on repeatedly. Rather, all of us have an inherent understanding that none of us are always on our best personal behavior.
We all have “issues.” We all get triggered. When we truly examine our interactions, we all must ultimately acknowledge our gratefulness that others have been willing to let our moments of ego-clinging and selfishness slide. This recognition results in cognitive dissonance in providing only conditional love. Instead of soothing us, it amplifies our struggle and increases suffering for those who commit themselves to loving conditionally.
Consciously deciding to embrace the personal weaknesses of those we love – forgiving even when someone doesn’t “deserve” it; drawing closer even when we want to pull away – brings us closer to our natural state. It’s just plain easier.
In the waning hour of this Valentine’s Day, commit yourself to this principle: Be lazy – love unconditionally.
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?”
I just finished reading The Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore. It was an amusing-looking book I found while poking around Borders at their liquidation sale. The premise is that the author travels to many places in the United States looking for the essence of American Buddhism. He experiences a variety of practices and perspectives with varying levels of formality and coming from a variety of core traditions, from Tibetan to Theravada to Zen and more.
By the end of his experience, he feels more at sea in regard to defining American Buddhism than he was when he began. His fundamental conundrum revolves around the question of how close is American Buddhism to “true” Buddhism. Are we taking on traditions of other cultures as accessories to Buddhism without having any connection to the context of those traditions? Conversely, are we watering down the principles of Buddhism to fit our tendency to flatten authoritative levels and eschew formality? Of course we can amuse ourselves forever with the irony of the fact that it is precisely these types of divisions that Buddhism tells us we need to detach from…tee hee hee!
That notwithstanding, I have asked myself on too many occasions whether or not I am a “real” Buddhist. I find myself getting hooked and lose my patience more than I think I should. My meditation practice is inconsistent and I have to work for every moment of prajna I encounter. There was a point in the story though, near the end, that illuminated a large part of the source of this self-doubt-dukkha. I will quote:
“And remember, most Buddhists in America will remain lay Buddhists, just as the vast majority of Buddhists in Asian countries do not live in monasteries, do not meditate daily, have not memorized the sacred Pali texts.”
He’s right. We are immensely fortunate to have had so many skilled and caring Buddhist teachers in the form of monks, nuns, Rinpoches and Lamas come to the United States to transmit to us their wisdom, but where does that leave us in terms of how to evaluate our own place as Buddhists in a society without a strong Buddhist laity? We have no one to compare our daily practices with except those who have dedicated their lives to be in essence members of the clergy. Can you imagine if the typical Christian in the United States thought they needed to live like a monk, nun or priest to be legitimately Christian? Hardly. It is our own sense of isolation in the context of not having a large enough societal sangha that leaves us feeling as though we are always lacking in dedication, in knowledge, or in skill. In truth, most of us are doing just fine. To quote again:
“One drawback, to my mind, of maintaining the Asian ritual, customs, and language when we teach Buddhism in the West is the danger of mistaking the trappings for the truth. The ability to throw around foreign terminology, chant in a strange tongue, and wear odd-looking clothes does not make one more fully awake to the true nature of human existence.”
At the street level that means we are creating a true and valid American Buddhist laity every time we sit on the cushion or bow, every time we say “thinking”, every time we commit a compassionate act. We grow that laity every time we share our views with each other, in person or in cyber space, every time we give our honest opinion when others ask our spiritual advice, every time we are bold enough to answer the question “What’s your religion?” with “Buddhist.” We are the American Buddhist laity and that’s just fine.
Now buy the Book!