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 got off on a tangent today thinking about the word "longing". Sometimes I read romance novels to relax, but of course the story lines are replete with every form of craving and longing that one could conceive of. For whatever reason, today's reading got me thinking about the etymology of the word "longing". I wondered how the word came to mean craving in the English language.
Unfortunately, I didn't get very far in my quest, because Google delivered me a number of related searches to my "what is the etymology of 'longing'" question. One of these was "longing meaning in Hindi". It intrigued me that enough people had asked this question in the past that it became a generated response. In my day-off Memorial Day frame of mind though, that question didn't stick and I replaced it with "longing meaning in Pali". That brought me to "Tanha" (thirst, craving, desire).
Wikipedia told me that the word appeared in the Four Noble Truths where it was credited with being the root of all dukkha (suffering). So of course I set out to cross check that.
So, it appears that Wikipedia had it right this time and I added a new word to my Buddhist vocabulary. Not bad for a lazy vacation day.
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
I’ve been watching the coverage of the Newtown student massacre with the usual blend of outrage and sadness. Political pundits from various arenas are each spinning their own favorite issue in the usual attempt to assign a cause to the bloodshed – or shall I clarify – a cause that can be easily summed up and addressed with Bold Legislative Action.
The most obvious of these is gun control and the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Also promoted is the impoverished state of mental health care in the United States and the difficulty inherent in obtaining (if not requiring) treatment for those who are dangerously mentally ill. All of this discussion is occurring over and around the din of the so-called “fiscal cliff” with it’s arguments about tax rates for the wealthy and expenditures on health care and other sustenance programs.
Talk, talk, talk. It goes on ad nauseam. It is irrelevant.
What will change as the result of Newtown? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because we are not even close to addressing something far more fundamental.
No matter what machinations we attempt to avoid this fundamental truth, we are all interconnected. America has a pathological relationship to interconnectedness. We have fallen victim to the lie of hyper-individuality and it is making us suffer. Ironically, the more we suffer, the more we snuggle into the cocoon of this make-believe land and the cycle begins again.
Anyone who knows me understands that I have immense respect for the strengths of an individualist world view. If Americans were not afforded individual rights and fundamental self-determination, I would not be free to be a Buddhist. If I were in China, for more reasons than one I would likely have been sent off to one of the “reeducation” work camps referenced last week in the New York Times. If that were the type of individual liberty we were talking about I’d be all for it.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have moved from a society that promoted individual liberty as a way to reduce unfairness and intolerance to a society which the primary concern is “I want what I want and forget everyone else.” Forget society, forget my family, forget my neighbors, if it gets in the way of what I want. That is what we have become. It breaks my heart every day beginning long before Newtown.
Until Americans experience a cultural shift in which value is assigned to our well-being as a group, not just of self, we will continue to spin our wheels when it comes to addressing some of our most crucial conundrums. Unless we are willing to put some parameters around the lawlessness of unrestrained individualism, we will be nothing more than a country of I’ll-get-mine-and-you’ll-get-whateva’.
There will never be rational discussion about an assault weapons ban outside of the context of understanding that our safety as a group outweighs the desire for certain individuals to own military-grade weapons. We can never progress in terms of care for the mentally ill until we acknowledge that societies’ right to not incur the consequences of untreated severe mental illness at times outweighs an individual’s right to refuse treatment. We can never internalize that the wealthy are so largely because of a group effort on their part with their employees and society (or from their parents) rather than their own private brilliance and therefore their worth is not so precious. It’s not just that policy can’t change. We can’t even talk about it. We can’t even imagine it.
The force of our cultural myopia in this regard will ultimately leave the events of Newtown as just another missed opportunity in a long list of missed opportunities that will be forgotten in the next news cycle. If this kind of change were easier, I guess we’d have many more Buddhas in the world. For now, we’ll have to work on it one Bodhisattva at a time.
Image credit: gsagi / 123RF Stock Photo
A conundrum that has always intrigued me is the way in which things we do in our desire to help people, can sometimes cause more suffering than if we had done nothing at all. In The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I related the “vole” story in which our family cat attempted to give a “gift” to my mother in the form of a dead animal. Too bad there was no gift receipt on that one…
Earlier today I read a commentary about what may turn out to be somewhat misguided charity on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicating several billion dollars to contraception in Africa, when women might actually prefer to have better pre- and postnatal care. Some failure in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated are certainly doomed to failure given the wide diversity of human perspective in the world. Perhaps it is more surprising to observe how well that guiding principle works much of the time when the giver of assistance actually takes the time to truly put themselves into the other person’s shoes.
Given how central the tenet of compassion is to the every day practice of Buddhism, it seems crucial that we truly engage in a thoughtful process to understand the potential unintended side-effects of what we intend to be compassionate actions. Providing what has been referred to as “idiot compassion” can be just as devastating as self-centeredness.
Those of you who are a part of the Facebook community, have seen me reference some difficult times I have been going through lately. A big part of that was a blow that my business took due to some staffing issues juxtaposed on the direction in which the health care industry is turning. What I have been facing has forced me to analyze how I operate on many levels. One thing I discovered is that my compassion had run amok in the singing lessons side of my business.
To give some context, most music schools and other centers that offer music training have highly structured semesters and rules surrounding eligibility for make up lessons. I could never reconcile what I perceived as rigidity with the fact that sometimes people get sick or go on vacation. I thought so much about what the customer might need that I rarely enforced the 24-hour notice policy, even when someone canceled because “my daughter has too much homework tonight.” When the current crisis hit, it became clear that my lack of leadership in this regard led to the lessons side of my business losing money – significantly.
The irony struck me full in the face. By implementing “idiot compassion” in terms of my operations I a) jeopardized the jobs of 8 people and myself; b) jeopardized my ability to be able to stay to serve the clients I love. One day, a parent of one of my younger students said that I should plan on her staying through high school. Thrilling, but a stab in the heart when I recognized that if I didn’t get this taken care of I might not be able to be there for her.
So my associate teacher and I sat down together to discuss this. She is also a Buddhist and daughter of parents who are now Zen masters. I thought, if we can’t figure this out who can? We crafted a system that (I think) provides a lot better structure, but has some flexibility built into it as well. So far people are responding positively as we roll it out for the fall season.
This story seemed important to tell for a couple of reasons. First, this has been a reallyawful time for me, but my Buddhist practice has been an incredible asset that has helped me learn a lot about myself and how to relate to the world. Second, it illuminates the idea that the way in which we implement our compassionate intentions has consequences. You don’t have to be doing something extraordinary like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to have an enormous impact on the world around you. And despite having compassionate intentions your impact could be positive or negative in the balance.
It all comes down to the most basic tenet: proceed mindfully.
I would like to share with you a humorous take on idiot compassion, with a side-order of ego clinging, from Julian Smith. Enjoy!
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.
I’ve been rereading the Dhammapada again. This time, the translation by Ananda Maitreya published by Parallax Press 1995.
The following verse struck me in the first chapter:
Reciting a small portion of the scriptures,
But putting it diligently into practice;
Letting go of passion, aggression, and confusion;
Revering the truth with a clear mind;
And not clinging to anything, here or hereafter;
Brings the harvest of the holy life.
- Chapter 1: Twins; Verse 20
Sometimes I get to be a little bit of a “teachings junkie.” I collect books and audio recordings of Buddhist teachings faster than I can listen to or read them. Ironically, this provokes no small amount of dukkha. I am driven by the need to understand, but also some fear that I will miss a crucial teaching that will make the difference between me being a “real” practicing Buddhist and just another Buddhist-inspired-spiritualish person.
My Type A personality and its concomitant drive to excel at everything must be to blame (I might also mention that I’m a first-born child…). By golly, if I’ma gonna be a Buddhist, I’ma gonna do it right! It’s kind of stupid. After all, any one principle takes a long time to master. Any one principle, if mastered with reduce dukkha.
I was coaching someone in making personal change today when this principle popped up again. An important rule to know in terms of making lasting personal change is that focusing on changing one thing at a time results in far greater success than trying to change multiple things at once. We spent some time deciding what she should choose to focus on. I’m beginning to think that taking a similar approach to Buddhist teachings might lead to a deeper ability to appreciate their meaning and allow me to incorporate their lessons into my daily life with a greater degree of success.
Now I just have to decide where to start. What is your favorite teaching? If you could only choose one to focus on for a month, what would you choose?
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.
Now buy the Book!