All wisdom is a matter of call and response.
The sun comes up, your eyelids flutter.
All struggle is resistance to response.
All wisdom is a matter of call and response.
The sun comes up, your eyelids flutter.
All struggle is resistance to response.
Back when The Secret was making the world spin, I read a blogger rave about it. It seemed every time she applied the technique, she found a choice parking spot at her favorite shopping center. The kind you never get. It feels good to find a parking spot, and with such a modest gain, the woman didn’t think she was being greedy. But then I wondered, “Why doesn’t she just give the parking spot to someone else and feel really good?”
It’s no secret. These things keep bubbling up like hot wax and we get stuck in gooey dissatisfaction and self-service. We may think we know a secret, but we’re always exposed for who we are. We’re just the last to see it.
Thank you to all who have asked about us here in Los Angeles. Everyone who has said a prayer, offered a place, a shrug, a sigh. Some of you know our little town, our mother mountain, which is downslope of the beast. Conditions seem to be turning today, no better day than this. I posted this piece on Shambhala SunSpace because of the marvelous teaching that comes ready made in the smell of smoke. The fire is massive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you can smell it too.
“Diligently practice the Way as though putting a fire out on top of your head.”
There is engaging language in my spiritual tradition, in the old writing and the poetic phrases. It’s easy to take the language as inspiration or as metaphor, inclined as we are to analyze everything for deep meaning and exalted purpose. This is what religious scholars do, what intellectuals do, and it’s obvious why. We can almost never believe that things are simple or straightforward, that they are what they are. What do we use our brains for if not figuring things out? Everything has to mean something else.
I’ve heard a phrase more or less like the one above many times and thought it conveyed urgency and desperation. It does. But then I saw with my own eyes this week the startling science of extinguishing fires. How you put out a fire is exactly how you should practice. How you put out a fire on the ground is exactly how you put out the fire on your head – your insane, compulsively anxious, fearful ego mind.
Like you, I wish practice was merely a matter of writing this post, or reading a book, or making a list, or thinking positive thoughts, or losing five pounds. But I’ve seen the firefighters, and how they practice. They do not waste a moment to theory, philosophy, inspiration or appearances. This is what I learned with my own eyes:
Forgive the double posting from The Laundry Line, but this is so very important to see everywhere we look:
Last week I attended a retreat and came home infused with quiet calm and well-being. Then I glanced at the headlines in the newspaper and was shocked anew at the unimaginable depth of pain in this world. The scope of suffering is inconceivable. How can we respond in the face of this? Where do we begin to do good? I will tell you the only way I know to begin.
Empty the full hampers, sort and wash the laundry without resentment or commentary.
Sweep the floor of dust, mud and crumbs at your feet.
Don’t ask who made the mess.
At the grocery store, give your place in line to the person behind you.
Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.
On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.
Buy a cup of lemonade from the kids on the sidewalk stand. Tell them to keep the change.
Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.
Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a very long time.
Write a thank you letter. Yes, a letter. If you do not have a reason to write one, do it without a reason.
Do not fight with your partner, your roommate, your spouse, or your children. If that seems impossible, just do not engage in the next fight, and don’t worry about the one that comes after. It might not come.
Do not try to convince anyone else of your point of view. That’s why they call it “point” of view. The point is just you.
If you feel yourself tensing in frustration, no matter what the circumstance, say, “I’m sorry.”
Do not indulge in despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.
Make yourself at home and take care of it as your own. It’s the only one there is.
Last week my nine-year-old was in the chorus at what was billed as an All Stars Concert for 60 kids in a summer theater program.
Just do the math and you know that 60 kids can’t All be Stars but try selling that to the kids or their parents who paid admission.
The day before the show, she fairly exploded with expectation. Then show time came. We couldn’t see her in the second row of 60 kids sing her heart out, but we know she did a fine job. Walking to the car after, she said, “I’m depressed.” Stardom will do that, apparently. The high lasts through one rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” before you’re slammed back to the hard pavement of the parking lot, as we see so painfully time after time.
I mean no insult to my daughter, or anyone else’s ambition, but our cult of stardom, this collective craving for instant inflation, the plucked-from-obscurity-to-overnight-hysteria thing, has me vaguely ill, as though I’ve been overfed.
We seem to have become sensation junkies. Each week a new sensation goes viral, whether it’s astonishment à la Boyle, grief à la Jackson, or this week’s cherry on top, the wedding dance being sensationalized for its “novel way of sharing matrimonial joy.”
Everyone puts on a good show. Indeed, All are Stars.
But gravity always has the last word. The simple cruelty of physics brought Susan Boyle swiftly low and likewise ensured that Michael would never rise to the occasion. I too, feel depressed, after I blow up ballooning expectations that inevitably blow up.
Now we have newlyweds that have reached, within a month of their nuptials, a summit that will surely never be scaled again. Two Today Show appearances in two days. Perhaps next they’ll be invited to have a beer at the White House. I know a thing or two about marriage, and this honeymoon would be hard for any ordinary couple to recover from.
Most of us have never seen anything like it, but there’s a veritable YouTube subgenre of choreographed wedding dances out there, the couples spreading their ambition for matrimonial joy by breaking into breakdance and hip hop, then posting it on YouTube just for friends and family. Tell me: are you surprised? These plucky couples and their videos feed the diet of morning news shows which are front and center in the televised wedding business. Weddings are already afflicted with an increasingly outrageous need to trump all. Don’t you know thousands, maybe millions, of betrotheds are now scrambling to top a new bar in the wedding-as-viral-video department?
When did we stop seeing the obvious? Viruses make us sick, and can even kill.
I hope Georgia picks herself up and keeps going for the love of performing. I hope Susan Boyle endures for the love of song. I hope the happy couple stays together in anonymity and health, as I wish for all couples. And I hope Michael Jackson rests in eternal peace.
As for me, I’m going away to a place where I can practice spreading another kind of sensation: obscurity.
Don’t worry, you’re safe. It’ll never go viral.
How can we fully illumine our life and personality with the moon of truth? We need first to calm the surging waves by halting the winds of discursive thought. We must empty our minds of the “conceptual thought of man.” Most people place a high value on abstract thought, but Buddhism has clearly demonstrated that discriminative thinking lies at the root of delusion. I once heard someone say, “Thought is the sickness of the human mind.” From the Buddhist point of view this is quite true. To be sure, abstract thinking is useful when wisely employed – which is to say, when its nature and limitations are property understood – but as long as human beings remain slaves to their intellect, fettered and controlled by it, they can well be called sick.
Between a supremely perfected Buddha and us, who are ordinary, there is no difference as to substance. This “substance” can be likened to water. One of the salient characteristics of water is its conformability: when put into a round vessel it becomes round, when put into a square vessel it becomes square. We have this same adaptability, but as we live bound and fettered through ignorance of our true nature, we have forfeited this freedom. To pursue the metaphor, we can say that the mind of a Buddha is like water that is calm, deep, and crystal clear, and upon which the moon of truth reflects fully and perfectly. The mind of the ordinary man, on the other hand, is like murky water, constantly being churned by the gales of delusive thought and no longer able to reflect the moon of truth. The moon nonetheless shines steadily upon the waves, but as the waters are roiled we are unable to see its reflection. Thus we lead lives that are frustrating and meaningless.
The momentary fascination with the reality TV train wreck “Jon & Kate Plus 8” has me wondering if the sad saga of family striving and dissolution is beneficial as a morality tale. Does the failed couple’s melodrama teach a real-life lesson about balancing careers, money, self-image, household responsibilities, individuality and passion post-parenthood?
Yes, there’s a lesson, in the same sense that wildfires teach us not to throw matches and car accidents teach us not to text behind the wheel. The damage, however, is so dear that it’s hardly redemptive unless we can change the course of our own catastrophe.
“Jon & Kate Plus 8” is the story of what happens when what we have is not enough. A young and aspiring couple finds that the babies don’t come easy enough, the family isn’t full enough, the money doesn’t go far enough, the house isn’t big enough, the help doesn’t help enough, the good times aren’t good enough and the ever after isn’t happy enough.
Sound familiar? This isn’t just their dirty laundry; it’s mine and likely yours too. More than that, it’s the basis of Buddhism.
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There is a beginning meditation practice – which is profoundly advanced – called “counting the breath.” Once you have positioned yourself to sit on a cushion, a bench or a chair, you settle the mind in the hara, which is the gut, and you start to count your inhalations and your exhalations. The way I do this is to count an inhalation “one” and an exhalation “two” then an inhalation “three” and an exhalation “four.” The instructions are to continue in this way until you reach ten. Sounds clear and simple enough. The truth is that when you try to do it, you find that you can’t get much beyond four or five before the mind darts across a meadow, over a fence, builds up speed and takes off into the beyond. When that happens, you start back at one, and keep going.
So in this beginning meditation, which becomes even more difficult with the frequency of your practice, you spend a considerable amount of time trying to get to ten. Get to ten, come on, you tell yourself, get to ten! Get somewhere, you dolt!
The thing is, should you ever get to ten, the instructions are to start back at one. The ten and the one have no merit or meaning, you see. But try believing that for yourself.
The other day I heard from my sister. She is fortunate enough to live along the beautiful coast near Newport Beach, California. She is doubly fortunate to rent there, because as well-off as she is, she could not afford to buy a home in those environs during the recent run-up in this world’s capital of fantasy-made millionaires.
Two months ago she had to vacate her rented condo when the owners suddenly showed up, out of work and with nowhere else to go but back where they started. She moved just across the road to another complex of lavish new patio homes, and she loves the place she’s leasing from a self-made titan now sleeping on his brother’s couch. Then she noticed that two of the six homes on her cul-de-sac were on the market, and last week another neighbor fled in the cover of night. It is and will yet be more of a ghost town, eerie for its glam appearance as a destination lifestyle with no visible lives. It recalled to me my own shock and shame when my first husband and I naively walked into and then out of a predatory mortgage 25 years ago during one of Houston’s colossal real estate boom-and-bust cycles. In the glow of your self-immolation you see that the castle you’ve built is only made of popsicle sticks.
We were trying to get somewhere. We thought that’s what a go-getting couple was supposed to do. Get somewhere. But the world is always getting back to one.
Then I was in a waiting room and I saw the new issue of People magazine, where someone or the other is always revealing the new version of themselves: made up, made over, reborn, relaunched, remarried, rehabbed, reformed and 50 pounds lighter!
And there was Kathy Ireland revealing the new her, just the latest go-getter to tell you her diet gets and her money gets and her happiness gets and success gets. She says she had grown overwhelmed, overstressed, overweight and over-everything before she found some new secret way to get a better body. But wait! Didn’t she already have a do-over? Wasn’t she the SI swimsuit model who remade herself into a billion-dollar design empress? Didn’t she already have a rebirth and a makeover? Hasn’t she been all the way to ten a time or two? And she’s still spinning on that disastrous wheel? Asking us to buy advice from her? I know where she’s headed; we all know where she’s headed.
Maybe she thinks she’s getting somewhere else this time, but the world is always getting back to one.
When we sit, we always come back to one. And the more we come back to it, the easier it is to see a way beyond it. There is something beyond one, and we call it one.
We have a new motor vehicle law here in California. It is a good law. There are about a billion worthwhile reasons to have it. Along the roadways there are portable lighted signs with the newest prohibition spelled out on them. It’s jarring to see, because I am flabbergasted that we actually need a law to inform and correct this behavior. And yet, it doesn’t go far enough.
Don’t text and drive.
Don’t sleep and drive.
Don’t read Braille and drive.
Don’t needlepoint and drive.
Don’t stir fry and drive.
Don’t tie shoelaces and drive.
Don’t repot plants and drive.
Don’t braid hair and drive.
Don’t count pennies and drive.
Don’t crack nuts and drive.
Don’t finger puppet and drive. Don’t even think about it.
The other day I was passing time in one of my many embarrassingly self-stimulating pursuits when I ran across this comment about my book:
“I think I will eventually buy it cheap and used online.”
I don’t know the person who wrote it, but we are all careful about our purchasing decisions these days. What struck me is why she would broadcast her intentions in a way that seems both self-congratulatory and deprecatory about the value of a book – my book in particular. What price is so much cheaper than $9.56 new? Or even $11.95 list?
I’m not here to rail on anyone about the end of the publishing industry. Like a lot of industries collapsing these days it has long engaged in a stubborn suicide spiral. Publishers seem to have been blindly unconcerned with writers, readers or the revolution in content delivery. (Beware, beware, those of you awaiting publishing knights in shining armor. No one rides in on a white horse. You, yes you, the writer, remain your sole means of transport. So saddle up and get going.)
No, what I want to rail against is the peculiarly uncivilized value system during this, the decline and fall of our civilization. A system in which we can spend $10 a week on coffee in a cardboard cup, but scrimp on the $9.56 for a book.
And don’t worry: I’m indicting myself here. My husband and I don’t dare live without our $12 pound of connoisseur coffee beans each week.
One early Saturday morning about a month ago I stopped by Starbucks for my ritual tall-drip-with-room-for-cream $1.60 cup of slightly stale coffee on the way to the Zen center. Normally I make a pot at home but don’t want the roar of the grinder to wake the dead at the dark hour of my departure. There were about half a dozen folks ahead of me in line. The stock market had fallen, oh 700 points or so the day before, yet here we all were, living proof of our unshakable values. We could, on this day of our lives, own a share of Citigroup, the largest financial institution in the world, for $4. Or, we could have a grande vanilla soy latte. We all know how that story ends. It’s not a happy ending.
And so I make a toast today, a toast to a better tomorrow; a kinder, gentler, nobler nation; a toast to quiet circumspection, art and imagination; to our wiser selves awaiting revelation in the turn of a page.
A toast not just to the book or the bookshelf; not to the library, no, not just to the borrowed book; but beyond that, to the hard currency of words worth owning.
To the bookstore! Where everything is already dangerously, precariously, woefully half off and going out of business.
This entire post was written by hand in 15 minutes flat in the pages of Jen Lee’s magical Don’t Write: A Reluctant Journal while my hard drive was being replaced in yet another cruel case of ill-timed obsolescence. Get your own journal today. It’s not just a blank book. It’s a white horse!