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.
"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!
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.
I’ve never sat at someone’s death bed, until Saturday night.
My family has been blessed with longevity. As a child, I had the privilege to know three of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents lived into my adulthood.
The elders of my family have also been fortunate in terms of being healthy. My paternal grandmother volunteered at the nursing home helping “the elders”, many of whom were older than she, until the week before she simply fell asleep in a chair and didn’t wake up at age 85. My maternal grandfather used to go to the gym get on the treadmill and bench press things. With acute lymphoma, he was only ill for three weeks until his death at age 88. My maternal grandmother outlasted them all. She turned 93 last October.
Her name was Barbara – I am her namesake. Grandma lived in an independent living condominium near my parents and played bridge with her friends every week. She went down to the common room each evening to have a glass of wine with her friends. She had her special place on the right end of our love seat when she came to our house for family gatherings. She had more than most of us can hope for.
Nonetheless, Grandma was having trouble remembering things. She needed someone to organize her medications. A few times, she fell asleep and woke confused in the middle of the night. She had to take up a walker and was having troubles with various forms of incontinence. She still missed my grandfather terribly. She admitted to being depressed and she became prone to panic attacks. She was still enjoying life, but things were becoming difficult.
Grandma ended up in the hospital with heart and kidney trouble approximately two weeks ago. The hospital stabilized her and she went to sub-acute rehab, where she appeared to be doing well, but then she became lethargic. Suddenly on Saturday, she became largely non-responsive and she was transferred back to the acute care hospital.
There was a period of time when we all thought she would be stabilized again. Then within a matter of minutes things turned a sharp corner and the doctor was telling us there was nothing more that could be done. I’ll probably end up with a whole separate post on the process of ordering Do Not Resuscitate.
I stayed as long as I was able to that night, which was until about 1:15am. Family started gathering in the room. Despite the number of people, there was a period of time, when we were all quiet lost in our own thoughts. As I was sitting in a chair on one side holding her hand watching her breathe, I slipped into a meditative state.
In one chapter in The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I mention the difficulties I have with sitting meditation. While this has been improving with practice, I continue to find focusing on my breath to be particularly vexing. My theory of this has to do with the amount of time I spend teaching others how to use the breath for voice and recovery breathing from laryngospasm and such that my relationship to breathing is mmmmm…messed up.
During this period of time, however, surrounded by my (non-Buddhist) family I felt a deeper connection to the breath than I have ever experienced. Grandma was wearing an oxygen mask that was set to 10 litres (really high). Every inhalation was a struggle. Every breath was a tiny gasp. But it was there. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Through meditating on my grandmother’s breathing, as her body was shutting down my awareness of breath as the connection to life in the now was magnified to the point that it filled my entire consciousness. If I could have breathed for her, I would have.
My father called me at 7:00 am to let me know she had just passed. After I hung up the phone, I had this strange idea that I should have felt something when she left. What I shared with her in those minutes at her bedside were meaningful beyond what I can express. I know that in her thankfully brief suffering, she offered me a gift I can keep in my practice for many years to come.
I have several friends who have mastered the art of finding peak spiritual experiences. Whenever I talk to them, they have been to another class, led by another guru through whom they have found the answer to the proverbial question of the meaning of life. They always have some fascinating insight to share about the way in which they have been able to transcend their own personal brand of suffering. As they speak of it, their eyes shine and their skin glows.
Sometimes I get jealous. You see, this never really happens to me. All of the progress I have made in my life has been through a gradual hacking away of the spiritual jungle surrounding me. Sometimes, when my back is turned, those pesky weeds start sprouting up again behind me. Hack. Hack. Whack. Perspiration. Progress. Back slide…ugh. If only I could just pay some guy in funny robes to clonk me on the head and make it all okay.
It wasn’t until one of these friends moved away and I spoke with her much less frequently that I began to notice the less shiny subscript to her tales. Seemingly, each time she gained “new” insight, it was to the same set of problems and in much the same way each time. Listening closely, I heard the same phrase repeated in every circumstance, “What I realized is…” “I suddenly recognized…” followed by the same set of generic new age wisdom that has been recycled thousands of times in many “systems”.
More sad was in recognizing the desperation in her search for inner sustenance. She appears to be convinced that inner peace is something she can buy or that it is something she can have injected into her by some wise individual. She demonstrates no faith in her own ability to find answers from within.
I am immensely curious about different ways to approach spiritual development. I explore the relevance of energetic work and healing and enjoy trying to understand the contributions science is making to our understanding of the infinite. Regardless of the perspective I am considering at any given time though, I keep coming back to the recognition that it is up to me to make sense of it all.
Courses and workshops are great, but only I can integrate what they have to offer into my spiritual schema. I may make three steps forward and two steps back. It may take the rest of my life to go ten steps in all, but at least I know those steps are mine to keep; not on loan from the glow of a single brief inspirational contact.
As in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it seems that by the time we know the answer to the question of the meaning of life, we consistently forget what the question is. Perhaps I’ll share with my friend Douglas Adams’ inspirational mantra: 42, 42, 42. I’ll be interested to see what she does with that.
In my training as a speech-language pathologist, I learned about something called categorical perception. The best way to describe it is to consider two speech sounds that are close to one another, for example “ee” as in “heat” and “ay” as in “hate”. The position of the tongue for these two sounds is very close; only a small shift or glide is needed to move from “ee” to “ay”. The practical implication for this when we speak is that the tongue never truly lands in exactly the same place reliably. Therefore we are almost always actually hearing something that exists somewhere between a pure “ee” and a pure “ay”. Yet we never perceive this. Our perceptual system automatically assigns what we hear to either the “ee” or “ay” category depending on the context and where on the continuum between “ee” and “ay” the tongue happens to land.
In terms of meaning, it is practical to be able to tell the difference between these sounds. Categorical perception allows us to understand whether someone is saying “Low income residents will be given heat subsidies” versus “Low income residents will be given hate subsidies. Our ability to navigate slight differences in articulation of speech sounds helps us to understand speech even when the speaker has an accent that is different from your own.
In our neurology class, we learned about the concept of “referred sensation”, which is where we feel discomfort in a part of our body that is distant from the site of the actual disorder, irritation or injury. Because of this default of perception, the professors and clinical supervisors reminded us frequently not to take patients’ descriptions of the location of their discomfort at face value, but instead to conduct a full examination.
After engaging in clinical practice for some time, I began to understand the myriad ways in which perception leads people astray. We never hear our own voices the same way in which others do. When helping people through vocal rehabilitation, sometimes their voices return to old non-functional patterns because their perceptual systems are telling them that the new vocal pattern is not “normal” and therefore sounds “strange”.
The evidence for the lies that perception tells is all around us. Consider the research regarding crime witnesses. It appears that more often than not two people witnessing the same crime will disagree on the details and at times the major elements of what they saw.
Given these conditions, why is it that we trust our perceptions when it comes to our physical environment, our bodies and our identities? Why do we trust that when our eyes tell us we see a solid object that it is in fact so? Why do we invest so much in our perceptual interpretation of our preferences and what is “good” and “bad”. In this circumstance it makes an enormous amount of sense instead to make a practice of questioning our perceptions whenever we recognize we are becoming convinced that they are incontrovertibly true.
Do you have any episodes of faulty perception that helped you recognize a moment of prajna? Comment and share!
I’m feeling really agitated tonight.
My furious instinct and my heart’s desire is to make it stop – right now! There are at this moment, however, none of my usual go-to tricks for escape available to me. I am currently sitting in a dorm room at a university in Virginia with only a week’s worth of belongings. (well, not quite a week. I forgot to grab the rest of my underwear from the drier before leaving. So, now I’m having to wash each night for a few nights – ugh!)
Apparently, there is cable here, but I wouldn’t know, because I would have had to bring my own TV.
I found out from my assistant today that a health insurance company is trying to mess with us again.
I called home this evening only to find my spouse had been having a bad day.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.
I really want to write some more tonight, but I’m feeling too enervated to be inspired.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. Blah!
No TV. No chocolate. Just blank white walls with left over pieces of sticky squares all over them and a dilapidated dresser drawer that barely opens and shuts.
What am I supposed to do now?
I tried pacing and scrubbing my hair with my knuckles.
Tried laying on the floor, willing myself to feel better.
Added legs up the wall.
Still didn’t help.
Went to the “funny-singing-videos-from-YouTube” night here at the course. Laughed, but…
I’m still a grumbly, whiney mess.
Raspberries to everyone! Meh!
As I’m settling deeply into my wallowing for a long, miserable stay, I suddenly recall Pema Chodron’s teachings on learning to stay.
I think what I didn’t understand the first 100 times I listened to the audiobook “Getting Unstuck” was that learning to stay with the discomfort doesn’t make you actually feel better. Rather, whatever “icky” that you stay for becomes something you learn to tolerate to the point that the label “bad” disappears. Then it just is what it is.
There is a similar concept in the “Poetry of Compassion” by David Whyte that I’ve mentioned before. There is a phrase in there that states (I paraphrase), “You have to love both the waxing and waning parts of yourself. You can’t just be out there loving yourself when you’re feeling full and then disappear entirely during the three days of your new moon.”
I recognize that I’m sitting here feeling all uptight about my “grumble grumble” when in fact I should be rejoicing that I have the opportunity to sit and stay with this feeling without interruption; that I am able to have some prajna while my mental state works its way through.
Darn you Pema, ruining a good self-righteous wallowing!
When I’m working with someone in voice therapy, I find I often have to reframe their responses when they find the exercises to be challenging.
First to explain voice therapy. It’s like physical therapy for the structures in your body that are associated with making your voice. The goal of therapy is to figure out what’s going wrong and change how the system is operating in order to get voice function back where it needs to be. Sometimes the problem is strain, other times there is neurological injury. There can be any number of things that start the problem. In order to get their voice back, decrease pain and strain and relearn how to function at home and in their jobs, people come to me.
Conceptually, voice therapy exercises can be somewhat challenging because the muscles are so tiny and you can’t see how the movements are changing as you work with them. Add to that the fact that most people are not used to taking something automatic (for example how we speak) and bringing it to a level of conscious awareness for long enough to fix the problem.
I told you that to tell you this.
As the patient is working with the exercises, they usually need to make a bunch of tries. Some will go the way they want them to; others will not. I encourage people to stick with the experience and observe. Inevitably, however, I get a constant string of commentary. “That was a good one.” “That was a bad one.” “I can’t do it.” (usually said as they are actually doing it…) The bottom line is that all of this judgment distracts their brain from processing the experience and using it to make positive change.
Here’s something else you may not know. When you’re learning to make new movements, the brain learns it largely by trial and error. The brain has no judgment about it though. The brain is just looking for feedback about results. Yup, that’s what I was going for or Nope, not was I was going for. That’s all the brain needs along with repetition in order to learn what to do. All the judgment does is get in the way.
So, I try to reframe patient’s responses about it. “Just saying that it’s bad doesn’t help.What precisely was bad about it?” or “Hey, that just told us something about your inner body assumptions. Now we can work on that!” or “Great! That’s information we needed.” The thing is…
It takes a really really really long time for people to be able to provide the reframing for themselves.
As we grow up, I think that we’re taught very young that mistakes are “bad”. In the United States, certainly, there is also shame associated with making mistakes. Therefore, we not only shun mistakes we have made, but also learn to judge it and if at all possible to deny we made a mistake at all. The thing is though, we get so much good information from the mistakes we make.
There was a story I heard on a CD I have called The Poetry of Self Compassion, by David Whyte that makes this point – let’s see if I can get it right:
Thomas Edison had been working on his invention of the light bulb. His assistant was getting discouraged and suggested that they stop trying. “We’ve tried a thousand times and a thousand times we failed. We know nothing more than we did when we started.” To which Thomas Edison replied, “Nonsense, we know a thousand ways in which it doesn’t work.”
I may have some of the details wrong there, but the point is that we need to rejoice in the information we glean from our mistakes as much as we rejoice in the things we do that have gone well. Even if the experience was uncomfortable, if we can at least be grateful for the lessons we have learned, then we continue to move forward.
This theme has come up in my Pema audiobooks. She cautions us not to use the teachings against ourselves, as a way to perceive our own failure to match up, but instead to use them as a guide to help us understand where our goals lie. She has indicated that the propensity to do this is somewhat Western in nature. Perhaps that’s true given the way in which making mistakes is anathema to we bootstrapping Americans.
Even for me, as much as I am writing about this and need to help my patients with it daily, I forget. Something goes wrong and I start beating myself up about it. Sometimes I can stop. Yeah, success! Sometimes I can’t. Yeah, I’m learning!
YouTube clip: Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. This is what we do every day!
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.
Mean. This is one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs. It first came to my attention, long before it was officially released on the chart, when one of my students came in and told me she’d been listening to it a lot. It’s just the perfect response to something we all deal with every day.
The light just barely turns green and someone honks at you.
Why you gotta be so mean?
The bumper sticker on the car parked in front of you says: My kid could beat up your honor student.
Why you gotta be so mean?
A person laughs when they see a passer-by drop their coffee on the ground.
Why you gotta be so mean?
I think it would be a great way to encourage prajna in people who are to stuck in their own universe to see how their actions impact other people. Of course, I don’t want to get beaten by strangers – not regularly any way. So, I generally keep it to myself. Though I do admit at times giving offenders “the look”. Rrrrrrr…
Rather than using it offensively then, I’ve begun using it defensively. When my inner peace is disturbed by someone who is being thoughtless with their actions and their words, I just hum to myself “why you gotta be so mean?”
Of course, I usually then ramble on in my head with my favorite part of the song:
“all you are is mean
and a liar
and alone in life
You may ask, am I not then perpetuating the problem by following wrong action or word with wrong thought? Not really. Try it, use the link above to listen to the song. Then picture whoever is your favorite little 10-year old in your life bopping up and down with a smile on his or her face singing those lyrics. Now see if you can keep yourself from smiling too. You won’t be able to. You’re humming a happy little tune, the shenpa’s dissolved into the ether and the person who disturbed you has moved on to ruin the next part of their day.
Ta-dah! No one’s gotta be so mean!
Now buy the Book!