The central challenge of mindfulness is to attend clearly and singly on the present moment, but finding the right tool to facilitate that level of focus can be illusive. Like many people, I’ve tried using the breath, objects of visual focus, and mantras with varying degrees of success. In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered a new one - pain.
Anyone who’s been to the hospital in the past ten years is familiar with the pain scale. It’s usually labeled with numbers one through ten and has associated happy, neutral, and sad faces corresponding with the various levels of pain. The number one represents the least amount of pain and ten represents excruciating pain. Working in health care I’ve been on the administering side of the pain scale many times and watched people struggle with their answers. What’s a five? What’s a ten? It’s all very abstract - until you have a pinched nerve in your neck.
My neck and shoulders have always been tweaky, but usually are easily soothed with some self-care and ibuprofen. The day before Christmas, the apparent usual pain started at the junction of my right shoulder blade and the base of my neck. Christmas day, I reached and stretched into contorted positions to get at the gifts under my brother’s Christmas tree. It’s my job to pass them out at the family gathering. The pain got worse. The next day, with ibuprofen on board and later some Aleve, things continued to head downhill. By late evening…
I’ve never experienced anything like it. It felt like what I imagine getting shot would feel like. I couldn’t sit up. Simply walking to the bathroom and back rendered me senseless in tears. It took two ER visits and three days in the hospital to bring the pain down to a relieving, gracious number two.
It was awful, but it was focused. There was no room in my mind for anything but the present and the sensation that filled it. All other narratives fled. All potential distractions dimmed. The present moment was all there was and the present moment was pain. Sometimes I think the only way I made it through it was knowing that the pain was only now. I didn’t allow myself to think about pain in the future. I only needed to be and exist just now. The pain was only now.
Truthfully I’d rather take another round of samsara in the next lifetime than experience ongoing now-ness in the form of pain. Nonetheless it has given me a new perspective on mindfulness. In the current pop-psychology version of Buddhism that currently pervades us, we can be lulled into thinking that mindfulness is always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes clarity is delivered in a violent jolt. We need to be able to accept and work with all manifestations of now in our practice. At the very least, I’ve learned what ten means.
“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 have studied Spanish for quite some time, starting back in high school and then for a while in college. In more recent years, I’ve taken an interest again. First, because I think it’s a beautiful language. Also it’s practical. I have many patients who speak Spanish. Though I use an interpreter in session, because I am far from fluent, they seem to appreciate it when I try to use what Spanish I have to communicate with them. I feel we bond better as a team when I make the attempt.
When I was in graduate school for speech-language pathology, I learned a great deal about language differences. From a linguist’s perspective, this is primarily in regard to syntax and vocabulary. From the speech-language pathologist’s perspective, however, it has more to do with what a language says about the way in which a person’s thoughts are organized and the perspective they have about the world. This is important to be able to parse out, especially when one is trying to decide whether a person is language disordered or whether they just have insufficient knowledge of the English language and/or mainstream American culture.
In this context, I started thinking about the fact that Spanish has two words for the verb “to be” - “ser” and “ester”. The web site studyspanish.com describes the difference as being one of “condition” versus “essence”. This is to say that “ser” refers to an essential state of being. “Estar” refers to a condition, or a transient state. For example, the sentence “the apple is green” can have two meanings. Either the apple is transiently green on its way to being ripe, or the apple is meant to be green when it is ripe. In the first case, one would use the verb “estar” to indicate that the green state will be changing. In the latter case, one would use the verb “ser” to indicate that the green state is a permanent essential part of the apple.
In terms of using language to indicate one’s mental perspective on the world, this differentiation creates an interesting conundrum for a Buddhist. After all, our fundamental perspective is that nothing is permanent and nothing has an essential substance. Perhaps we should just speak of relative terms then? Relatively permanent? In this corner of the space-time continuum permanent? Permanent when not meditating? Permanent when one hand is not clapping? Katz!
It probably doesn’t matter that much any way - at least for me. My Spanish grammar is thoroughly underwhelming when I’m trying to speak. For now, I’ll just focus on the kind of mental permanence that allows me to retrieve any Spanish words at all when I need them and let the interpreter try to sort it out when the patient gets that “huh?” face.
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
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
Early this year, I took my younger daughter to the Museum of Science in Boston to see a special exhibit on Pompeii. Though I’ve been fascinated by the story of the buried city since I was a child, I never knew how many misconceptions I had about this historic tragedy. To begin with, I believed the entire population of Pompeii was buried in the sudden explosion of Mount Vesuvius. At the exhibit I learned a great majority of the people escaped across the Bay of Naples.
I previously thought the figures of the citizens’ of Pompeii’s last moments on Earth were ossified remains. In fact, the bodies of the victims of the eruption decomposed long ago leaving hollowed out cocoons in the ash. An archeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique wherein figures of the victims at the moments of their deaths could be recreated using these hollows as a molds for plaster castings.
Some part of me was disappointed the figures of the Pompeiians were not “real.” Another part of me chastised myself for for being unforgivably morbid.
It was fortunate that the plaster figures were placed near the end of the exhibit. By the time we arrived, we had seen frescos, oil lamps, furniture and a petrified loaf of bread. We had learned that Pompeii was famous for its fermented fish paste, which had been a popular export at the time. They even had fast food take out! The construction of the exhibit allowed us to construct an image of a vibrant, complex civilization that was more than a pile of abandoned corpses.
Viewing the casts of those who died in the eruption was intensely emotional. We found ourselves in uncomfortable proximity with the agony of death. The postures and poses of the dead revealed deep sadness and yet resolve. I felt like a voyeur, trespassing on the intimacy of the passing of these fellow beings. Despite this, I was also assaulted by the emptiness of it all.
There was no spirit, no bone, no flesh. There was no physical remnant of the pain and panic reflected in the statues before us. The figures were at once heart-wrenching and insubstantial, just like all our suffering. It is present in the moment then gone, both individually tragic and interdependently arising.
No names travelled with the figures from their resting places to this exhibit. Their money, status and identities were gone. In this regard, each of these reflections of suffering also revealed its ultimate impermanence and imposed upon us the recognition of our own.
Now buy the Book!