"Self-liberate even the antidote."
In considering this Lojong slogan, I learned some Latin - reductio ad absurdum.
This is the formal term for following an argument or line of thought to the point at which the argument results in some kind of absurd conclusion. It's usage in philosophy is to point out the fundamental flaw in some argument. In common language, "it's a slippery slope". Taking one step in a particular direction makes it more likely that one will keep going in the same direction until one eventually jumps off of the proverbial cliff with their proverbial friends.
Pema Chödrön's commentary cautions us that being attached to nonattachment is folly. Yet, if one assiduously follows the teachings of nonattachment, that would surely be the outcome. In Buddhism, however, there is a safety buffer against this - the Middle Way. The site zen-buddhism.net puts it this way: "By 'middle', Buddha essentially meant that we need to embrace both spiritualism as well as materialism, just like the front and back sides of a sheet of paper." (love that image)
The Middle Way is a great protector against the human tendency to drift toward extremes. The idea that there is one right way to do or think about something is both comforting and seductive to us. The Middle Way on the other hand is messy. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line against absurdity. It takes prajna remember to analyze the pro's and con's of sustaining a given principle, especially when that principle is intertwined with your personal philosophy of life.
Lying is wrong. Don't lie. Still most people would likely stop short of ruining a surprise party for a friend even if entailed telling a lie. All people have a right to health care and should have equal access to care. Still if the health care providers go out of business or are starved for resources, no one gets adequate care. So...what do we do? That one's harder, right?
As usual, this is where Buddhism throws the responsibility for our enlightenment back on us: our thoughts, our views, our actions. There's no out for us by simply leaning on some general principle and continuing to repeat it. Man, who knew being awake would be so much work!
“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.
Last Thursday, it finally happened. I was hacked. It started with the notice from my internet service provider that there was malware on the Average Buddhist site and that they had shut down my whole account. Six days of back and forth with technical support and it's finally gone. Gone too is the WordPress architecture. It seems that keeping up with the precautions necessary for using an Open Source system is beyond what I have the time resources for. So I begin again.
The most obvious buddhist message in this debacle is that of the Impermanence of all things. It's what I thought of first, but as I rebuild No Ground is what really stands out for me. Why? I'm not one of those millions of people out there who uses weak passwords or who shares passwords between sites. My user names are also quite diverse. It never occurred to me that the software I was using would have backdoors open to any hacker or bot that happened by. Despite everything I try to do to protect myself (or my things or my blog or my family and friends), there will be things that happen anyway. There is no way to be in control of all of our outcomes. There is No Ground to cling to in that regard.
In No Ground though we can have experiences we might not have, like the generous support of some folks from the Facebook group who helped me understand how to retrieve the bulk of my posts from the internet ether. I had the opportunity to be grateful. Retrieving the posts gave me a change to skim them again and revisit the thoughts of Average Buddhist past.
In honor of the relaunching of the blog, I am re-posting Average Buddhist's very first blog post, which is about the most inspirational person I have had the good fortune of meeting - Arthur Lessac. I'll work on repopulating the archives over time. I hope you enjoy this new beginning.
When You Walk, Do You Feel Like You're Dancing?
(Original post date: 4/15/11)
It’s funny that the first post in a blog about Buddhism isn’t going to talk about Buddhism at all. I’m not going to talk about how much I love Pema Chödrön or expound on my insights into life. Instead, I’m going to honor the spirit of a man who recently passed away and who was for me one of the most inspirational people I have come into direct contact with – Arthur Lessac.
For those of you who don’t know of him, he is one of the great voice/movement/expression teachers of our time. And “our time” is expansive in this sense. Arthur Lessac died at age 101, only a few days after teaching an extensive course in Croatia.
Arthur Lessac (see URL below)
I met Arthur Lessac last year (2010) at a course with speech-language pathologists and singing teachers (of which I am both). One hundred years old at the time, he bench pressed a 200 pound man, led us in movement and dance exercises and spoke in a voice as clear and strong as anyone I’ve known. He exuded a joy in the exploration of life that was both genuine and inspiring.
Walking to work this morning, I thought about him and remembered how he used to encourage us all to walk as if we are dancing. Energy (NRG) will carry you in a way you wouldn’t expect. I thought about his demonstration of that last year and some clips of him in memorium that I watched yesterday. So, I started to dance to work, copying his bouncing and circular arm and leg motions and I was instantly consumed by joy.
This was the most intensely genuine emotional experience I have had in quite some time. It was akin to my experience in sitting meditation with a Zen group, when they asked us all to turn around and face the wall – WHITE. That was it. Today; JOY. That was it.
So, that is why I decided to write about everyday Buddhism. See you soon!
To learn more about Arthur Lessac’s work, visit: http://lessacinstitute.org
(link updated 1/28/15)
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.
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
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.
Well, the past year plus has really kicked my butt. So, many things took a back seat to the chaos – including blogging (which is a shame because I love it). Most of this chaos was work-related.
In short, I’ve been self-employed for many years as a private practice speech-language pathologist (with a specialty in voice and larynx disorders) and singing teacher. Balancing the desire to care for my clients with the vagaries of the health insurance climate was always dicey. Late last year, a staff member left and the search for a replacement revealed that maintaining an independent practice is simply not sustainable. Thus the chaos that ensued.
The short version of the story has me now working once again at the medical center where I took my specialty training, only this time in a combined clinical and leadership role. I still teach singing as well a couple of days a week. Its been a radical reworking of my entire routine, but sometimes that is radically necessary.
Over time, there will be small pieces of my misadventures that I’m sure will be interesting to write about. For now, just starting to write at all is enough. I’ll continue – or should I say be better at – applying every day Buddhism by taking the pressure off of myself to be profound or lengthy (decreased attachment) and hopefully in that spirit will find the courage and energy to post more.
I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution. That’s too much pressure. Instead I’ll call it New Year Hope that there will be some break from the turbulence and the opportunity to experience a period of relative calm.
Happy New Year everyone!
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
Now buy the Book!