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.
"Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence."
Um...I hope these slogans aren’t written in order of difficulty. Number Five has been a real challenge! For the past three weeks, I have been carrying the card around with me: in my bag to and from work, near my piano on lesson days. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve connected with the “present, unbiased awareness” referred to in Pema Chödrön’s discussion once during that period of time. Uh-oh. So I decided to satisfy myself with an exploration of what this “alaya” thing means.
Interestingly, the first Google results for Alaya are in reference to it as a baby name. I’ve never met someone named Alaya, but it is kind of beautiful. In these entries alaya has different meanings in various languages, but they are all variations on a theme.
Basque = joyful
Hebrew = to ascend
Arabic = lofty, sublime
Swahili = exalted
In reference to alaya as a form of consciousness, the "storehouse consciousness" or "root consciousness", the meaning has pointers back to the word’s meaning in these other languages. According to buddhist principles, maintaining oneself in the present moment leads to a reduction of suffering. Thus one might say joyful, ascended, sublime, or exalted.
My internet meanderings also led me over to lionsroar.com where I read an article about Integrated Information Theory (IIT) in which it is posited that consciousness is everywhere and can be measured. One of the neuroscientists involved in the development of this theory, Christof Koch, met with the Dalai Lama in 2013. He was struck by the similarities between his evolving ideas of the nature of consciousness and the buddhist notion that sentience is everywhere.
The most thought-provoking paragraph for me, given my current emotional disconnection with alaya at this moment in time is as follows:
"The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche stated that while mind, along with all objects, is empty, unlike most objects, it is also luminous. In a similar vein, IIT says consciousness is an intrinsic quality of everything yet only appears significantly in certain conditions — like how everything has mass, but only large objects have noticeable gravity.”
In that I am reminded of the preciousness of human form. Even when I am not able to rest in the nature of alaya this human form at least has enough “mass” that consciousness can appear with “noticeable gravity.” Therefore the potential for success in this regard remains as long as this human form does.
Whew! Let’s put this one away for now...
I've come to the conclusion that I'm a compulsive eater. Somewhere along the line, hunger uncoupled itself from my eating behavior. I eat for any other reason: boredom, stress and just because it tastes good. It's not that the choices of what I eat are bad (usually...there are the mini chocolate bars in the snack closet at work), but once I stop eating I find it very difficult to stop. This is of course a current curse of our culture as well. So, I know I'm not alone here.
Recently, I had the good fortune to meet a woman named Ellen Glovsky. She is a registered dietician and expert in teaching Motivational Interviewing (a counseling method oriented toward helping people make behavioral change). She is also a big proponent of a Health At Every Size approach to diet. I hired her to come in to do a training for our staff on MI and at the end of the day I bought the book she edited, Wellness Not Weight. It was a real eye opener.
The scientist in me was drawn to the explanations of the enormous amount of research demonstrating that traditional approaches to diet don't work. The social observer in me was drawn to the historical perspectives of how our culture's approach to weight and diet developed. The Buddhist in me was drawn to part of the solution - mindful eating (a.k.a. Intuitive Eating).
I'm sure that many of you, like myself, have gone through the Jon Kabat Zinn observe the raisin before eating it mindful eating exercise. While it was interesting, I can't truly imagine making a practice of being so sensor ill tuned into my food as I eat it, particularly as I would rather be mindful of my family at dinner time. This mindful eating was different, however. This mindful eating asks us to tune into the cues our body is giving us in the present moment to guide when, what and how much we eat.
As I've observed my behaviors over the past couple of weeks and tried to observe my body cues, this has turned out to be harder than the raisin exercise. The irony is, the more I try to think about whether or not my body wants food and what it wants, the more I think about food. The more I think about food, the more I want to eat. It's a conundrum. Clearly, the key is going to be the ability to apply Don't Know Mind or even No Mind to the situation. But how?
Fortunately, I have a couple of private sessions coming up with Ellen to help me with this. In the meantime...raisins! Mmmmmmmmm!
[Disclaimer: no I have not received any free goods or services (or raisins) in exchange for this post.]
Photo: WikiCommons - Cary Bass
I’m sitting in my comfy chair at the Dancing Bear Guest House in Shelburn Falls, Massachusetts. This is the same bed and breakfast where I came with my husband several years ago to write The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma. It’s a perfect writer’s retreat. My perch is covered with warm velour and has an extraordinary view of a pink and blue stained glass window. At lunchtime, I can walk ten minutes to the historic town center and work for a while at Mocha Maya’s the local coffee shop that rivals Starbucks for the quality of it’s latte. For lunch I’m known to stick to one of the locally baked blueberry muffins on display there.
As I struggle to conquer the first draft of my latest science fiction manuscript - always the most difficult and psychologically challenging part of any project - I am bothered by doubt over whether there is room in the current entertainment narrative for a story about hope. You see, as much as I enjoy stories of the struggle to conquer oppression, the current deluge of dystopias has become its own hegemony. Oppression seems to be winning. It makes me wonder if anyone wants to read about friendship and camaraderie any more? Is anyone willing to believe that life is hard sometimes, but doable with the help of family and friends?
Am I alone or are there other people out there who want to read stories about compassion, trust and love? The question is distracting me enough that I have been compelled to interrupt myself to write this post. There’s a major shenpa invasion going on here and it all started with a television spoiler.
Ordinarily spoilers don’t bother me all that much. Even though I have advance knowledge of some plot point or other, I love a good story. The fun part is finding out how they get there. To date, there have been only two exceptions to that rule.
The first was knowing in advance in exactly which episode the Tenth Doctor would regenerate in Doctor Who. I dreaded that episode thoroughly, but was compelled forward by the momentum of the story. My husband laughed at me as I surrounded myself with stuffed animals and a warm fuzzy blanket. When the time finally came, there was no getting around it. I cried. Those darn script writers and their final line. That darn David Tennant for being such a brilliant actor: “I don’t want to go.” Waaaaahhhhhh…<sniff>
Now I’m facing down my second dreaded spoiler, the final episode of The Glades. I didn’t know about this series when it was on the air. Netflix suggested it to me when I finished up The Finder, a heartwarming story about a man who is compelled to solve mysteries by finding lost items. I’d known all along there was only one season, since I knew one of the stars, Michael Clarke Duncan, had passed away. I didn't know how The Glades would go out.
In the three and a half seasons of The Glades I’ve watched so far I have come to appreciate how truly different this narrative is from the depressing zeitgeist of our time. Yes, the necessary plot ingredients are all present. Every episode introduces a compelling mystery to be solved. The main character, Detective Jim Longworth, is supported by a motley Scooby gang made up of the chief medical examiner, the police division chief and a plucky semi-official intern. Detective Longworth is of course somewhat rogue, but he gets the job done. So no one gets in his way. He’s cocky, but somehow everyone likes him anyway. The Glades is everything you’d expect from a contemporary police dramady.
The difference that makes this show stand out is the relationship between Jim Longworth and the lead female character, Callie Cargill. She is a nurse who at the beginning of the series is trying to take care of her teenage son and put herself through medical school while her husband is in prison for armed robbery. Okay, you already know the convict husband is jettisoned and Jim and Callie end up together. That’s not even worth calling a spoiler in this genre. But oh how they get there!
It took a while for even me to recognize it at first, but the development of the relationship between Jim and Callie is the healthiest and most partnership-driven I’ve ever seen come out of Hollywood. Yes, they have misunderstandings. Yes, they have stupid fights. The same is true for Callie and her son. Eventually though, each time they manage to find the courage to be honest with one another. In so doing, they created an intimacy that was upliftingly authentic.
As a person who loves romance, I have been turned off by the deluge of Fifty Shades wannabes. Hollywood doesn’t do much better spitting out story after story of relationships based on three days of intense circumstance most of which involve some set of major lies. In themselves, these stories are fine. It’s the lack of any alternative narrative that is discouraging.
In contrast, Callie and Jim got to know each other over the course of several years. They faced both personal and professional challenges. They experienced both elation and doubt in the ability of their relationship to survive, but they became gradually stronger together than they were apart. Furthermore, the show managed to present Jim Longworth as a tough and competent cop while also allowing him to be the kind of intimate partner any woman could envy.
Back to my spoiler.
Here it is 2015. Mr. Grey, a twisted control-freak predator got a movie and Jim Longworth got shot. That’s right. Shot.
The fourth season ender was Jim and Callie’s wedding. I’m to understand that Jim had secretly bought a house for a wedding gift. He is there before the wedding to take care of some final details at which point he’s shot. Apparently, we don’t even know why. Shortly after the episode aired, A&E announced they were canceling the show. Even though the episode generated extraordinary ratings, rather than building on their momentum, A&E canned it without even allowing the producers a chance to give Callie and Jim their well-deserved happy ending.
Yes, it’s only television, but I’m really angry. Furious in fact. There was one show, just one among the muck that’s shoveled onto screens every year that portrayed a healthy, loving couple making it work despite the odds. There was just one show where the man could be both archetypically guy-like and a supportive intimate partner at the same time. Well, we can't allow that. So they shot him. #jimandcalliedeservebetter!
Seriously. I want a real ending to this show a real happy ending where Jim doesn’t end up a vegetable or paraplegic from his injuries. If the show has to end, fine. Even M.A.S.H. had a final season. But give the viewers the gift of closure; the gift of story where investing in a deep, intimate relationship is worth it in the end. Give us just one story where allowing the characters to be vulnerable to one another doesn’t leave them bereft. Please! It’s only been a couple of years, A&E. The actors haven’t changed much. Give us a real finale you can be proud of as a network. Jim and Callie deserve better and so do we.
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.
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.
There’s a story my mother tells from when I was a child. She used to be very involved in the church we went to at the time (Episcopalian). One day she was volunteering at a ecumenical luncheon being attended by our priest and priests from several other denominations. Perhaps there was a rabbi there as well. It’s too long ago for me to remember, but no they did not go into a bar…
In any case, the subject of pre-marital counseling came up. There was apparently some discussion regarding how the Catholic priest can adequately provide premarital counseling when he is unable to get married. Naturally, the priest became somewhat defensive and asked how any of the others could provide counseling for terminally ill parishoners, given that they had never been terminally ill. Our family’s priest then countered with something to the effect of, “Yes, that’s true. But I have at least been sick.”
In the context of Buddhism this raises a significant question, given our emphasis on compassion practice. To what extent does one have to have an experience oneself before one can truly be compassionate for others in a similar situation?
Another example came my way last week, when one of my singing students was telling me how her husband does not understand her or their son’s allergies. She told me that he is the type of person who has never been sick a day in his life. He missed one day of work at one point because she made him go to the doctor to have something checked. It was fine. He has no allergies, no chronic medical conditions and has never been seriously injured. Their son, on the other hand, is on significant medication for allergies and asthma and this guy can’t understand why they can’t get a dog. After all, the kid is on the medications. Doesn’t that take care of it all? He just doesn’t get it.
Historically, I have gone through difficulties at time with depression and anxiety. So, when I am presented with a therapy patient who has trouble in this arena, I recognize it very quickly and instinctively understand how to approach the person to try to diffuse the situation. I find that I am able to be quite patient with these folks. Even when there are other, presumably less stressful things that may completely stress me out. I like to think I have cultivated this compassion, but I wonder sometimes if I have only cultivated the ability to recognize my own pain in others.
At some level, recognizing one’s own pain in others is the heart of Tonglen practice – breathing in the pain of all others who are experiencing something similar and then breathing out healing. So, perhaps even at the heart of buddhist philosophy is an inherent understanding that we need experience to fertilize our compassion. Nonetheless, I don’t think this is necessarily all that is required of us. So, I wonder to what extent it is possible to be truly compassionate without similar experiences to draw upon.
Some day, when I’m a bodhisattva, perhaps I’ll understand…
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!
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 Chodron 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 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://www.lessacinstitute.com/index2.html
Now buy the Book!