Posts Tagged ‘samsara’

On that note

October 14th, 2007    -    13 Comments

We’ve been having so much fun around here talking about happiness that I wanted to strike a different note to the tune of full disclosure.

Sad.

What about when you’re sad? What about when bad things happen or good things don’t? What about tears and disappointments?

It’s easy, as long as you’re in the mode of self-improvement and life betterment, to think of sadness as the enemy of happiness. To think of bad times as the opposite of good. But they are only opposites in the realm of antonyms and synonyms. They are only opposites in your thinking mind, the mind that compares and judges things to be one way or the other. In the real world, happiness and sadness, highs and lows, spring and fall, occur in one place – the same place – your life.

So is being sad somehow less than good? Is it wrong?

Sadness can be a springboard to a spiritual practice. Because most of us suffer when we are sad, and cause others to suffer too, it can lead us to seek solace and resolution. Sadness is always a good guide and even a good sign. You might notice, for instance, that when you begin a meditation or yoga practice, or when you find a church home, that you begin to cry for no good reason at all. This can indicate that you are releasing long-held emotions and fears. It feels good to cry. And it feels good to stop too. By itself, crying always ends, eventually. Sadness changes to something else. Because all things, even emotions and thoughts, change when we let them.

One time I went to see Maezumi Roshi after a meditation session in which the tears streamed in rivulets down my cheeks.

“I’m sitting in a field of sadness,” I said to him. I was a tiny bit pleased by my poetic expression. I thought we might talk about it, rooting out the cause, and apply a kind of treatment.

“When you’re sad, be sad,” he said. And that was all he said. I confess I found it abrupt, considering my experience with other kinds of counselors. He didn’t criticize me, he didn’t correct me, he just didn’t dwell. He didn’t dwell.

In life, nothing dwells. The wind blows and then stops. The blossoms burst forth and then fall. Things come and go. The melody drifts back onto an aching E-flat and then back to E again. The song of your life is played on white and black keys.

I won’t linger but I am likely to post again about sadness as a cornerstone of Buddhism, as an essential truth of human life. I won’t dwell. I won’t build a hut. Promise me you won’t build one either. Not while the song is still playing.

Picking and choosing

October 2nd, 2007    -    6 Comments

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
– Seng-tsan

A reader wisely pointed out in yesterday’s comments that the things I identify as my sources of unhappiness are probably also my sources of happiness. Exactly! I alone choose how to view them: as a plus or a minus, a keeper or a weeper. That choice changes all the time. I’m forever judging every aspect of my life. As I make those determinations, I’m using what we in Zen call “the picking and choosing” mind. The deliberative, evaluative, ruminating mind. I’m particularly fond of this mind. This is the mind that each of us calls “myself” because it is the mind that we use to talk to ourselves.

This is the voice that pipes up and says, “This is good. I like this. I’m happy.” Or that might say, even about the very same circumstance that once gave me pleasure, “This is not good. I’m tired of it. I’m not happy.” Very often, nothing has changed about the circumstance but my determination of it. One time my mom let me eat a whole bowl of whipped cream to my heart’s content. (I think she knew what she was doing.) I ate myself sick and I never liked it again. The whipped cream didn’t change. My view of it did.

In Buddhism, we call this endless cycle of like, dislike, good, bad, up, down, happy, sad, hot cold, in, out samsara. There’s nothing new about it, even though it might seem like we’ve become particularly aggrieved with our lives lately. There has never been a human being who lived anywhere else but samsara. But we can escape it, and we do, whenever we don’t pick or choose. Now I don’t mean that we go brain-dead. That we can’t tell right from left or our arms from our legs. I just mean that we stop blaming the whipped cream.

There’s a survey published every year by the very smart people at the Harris Poll that tells us The Most Popular Places People Would Choose to Live. Reading the poll, you might surmise that – no surprise – the most popular places to live are California, Florida and Hawaii. But then I noticed the question that they ask people. They don’t ask, “Where would you choose to live?” No, they ask “Where, except where you live now, would you choose to live?” At first I wondered why they asked it that way. Then I realized that if they asked the first question they might not have a poll at all. Perhaps people would say, “You know, I’m just fine right where I am.” I’ve lived a lot of places, and the thing is, my home is always my home. The poll question is nothing but a grass-is-greener question. It’s a pick-and-choose question. It’s a “Gee, come to think of it, I’m sick of whipped cream” question.

My first teacher Maezumi Roshi was famous for saying simply, “Appreciate your life.” He didn’t mean conjure up some contrived sentiment of gratitude, or humility, or abundance about your life. He didn’t mean count your blessings. He meant don’t count anything. He meant don’t pick and choose. Make your life your life and swallow it whole. When you do that, things have a way of getting happier right quick.

The happiness question

October 1st, 2007    -    9 Comments


Last week the Times reported on a growing “happiness gap” between men and women. Women are increasingly unhappy. Then came the earful of opinions about the many reasons for this. Why are women unhappy?

I can think of three very persistent reasons right off the top of my head. My husband. My kid. My dog. And then, the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor, money, not enough money, my work, my lack of work, my belly, my age, my wrinkles, the dust, the pollen, dog hair, the shoes in the hallway, the cooking, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the race, the chase, the nights, the days, the fleetingness of days.

What interests me is not why women are unhappy, because we each have ample, intimate knowledge of the reasons. What interests me is why women say they are unhappy. What interests me is not the answer to the question but the question itself. Could the answer be rooted in the question? Do we say we are unhappy because we are asked? Do we grow unhappy by thinking about it? By hearing about it? Does unhappiness exist outside our ruminations about it? Where does it reside? And if it only resides in our minds, as it does, do “external” circumstances have anything to do with it?

We can rationalize that circumstances keep changing and growing worse for women. More work, less help, higher prices, fewer husbands, less time, more isolation, less community, more stress, fewer options, higher expectations. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter at bedtime, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. No water. No crops. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!

Or I can recall my grandmother’s life. Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.

Was grandma depressed? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.

This news article on declining happiness appeared about the same day that Georgia walked into the kitchen for breakfast, still tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed. “Mom,” she whined, “can I get my ears pierced before I’m 10?” (Our pre-existing agreement.)

“When did you have in mind?” I responded.

“Nine,” she said, and thinking faster, “THIS SATURDAY.”

We were both upset by this exchange. It happened again a day later. I could say that my daughter woke up unhappy. But she didn’t wake up unhappy. She just woke up, her eyes blinked in the glimmering light. She cast a glance around her world, her sumptuous pink kingdom, her cotton candy life, and looked about for something she didn’t have.

I’m going to write about happiness this week. I want to examine that split-second between the waking and the finding, between the question and the answer, between the hearing and the speaking, between the being and the thinking, between the little girl with everything, and the one without holes in her ears, and see what’s there. It could very well be the happiness that eludes us, the contentment the pollsters can’t find.

Life interrupted

September 28th, 2007    -    6 Comments


I know I said I was going away. I’ve swept the tea house, I’ve walked the dog, I’ve scooped the poop. Later, I’ll go to Target and you know what that means.

But right now, I need to pipe up and call a spade a spade. This is a lie. A deception. Nickelodeon network is going “dark” for three hours this Saturday and advising kids to go out and play. Not. Get in shape. Sure. And then come back inside before the day is done and watch a kid’s reality show about not watching TV. On TV. Cripes.

And look! The news media gives it a pass. They wave a flag at it!

This is called “getting in front of an issue.” This is called public relations. I give myself permission to sneer because this was once my chosen profession. By the time I left it I was jumping up and down, waving my arms and hollering, “Don’t believe a thing you read in the paper or see on TV!”

I liken this TV-network-on-an-anti-obesity-crusade to my experience doing PR for a beer company. You read that right. The big daddy of brewers. We spent a lot of PR time and dollars trying to convince the media that we cared about people drinking responsibly. We had a catchy slogan for it. We wrote speeches and talking points. Then one morning the regional vice president called me at home, before work, because he was watching the early morning local TV news report of an overnight, fatal car accident in which alcohol was implicated. The news report showed footage of the police officer at the grisly scene lining up a dozen empty cans of our preferred product, all retrieved from the mangled wreckage. The VP, my client, wanted to know why I didn’t have enough clout to keep the local station from showing pictures of our brand in such an unfavorable way.

I resigned from the job that day. Soon, I resigned from everything else. After that, I began to have a life. My own ultimate reality show. The money isn’t as good but the beer is much better.

In real life, there’s a place to put Nickelodeon and this stunt that really is dark. Where the sun don’t shine. Then go out and play and don’t come back in.

Still crying it out

September 20th, 2007    -    10 Comments

“Not knowing is most intimate”
– Zen koan

I’ve been writing more than reading lately, and I’ve just backtracked to a fascinating article in the Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker. Fascinating because it is sublimely inconclusive and oh, so close to home. I wish I could link to it, but it’s not online: “Crybabies” by Jerome Groopman. “The conundrum of colic” is the subtitle. My life had that exact subtitle too, for a few months back in 1999. The colic, of course, is ancient history, but the subtitle still lingers, and fits every now and then as I enter some new, inscrutable chapter.

If you’re intrigued, you can read abstracts here and here and another mother’s perspective here.

I love to read Groopman for his open-eyed examination of how little is known by medical science. I love to read him because he is a doctor, and he knows what he doesn’t know. He also knows what the medical establishment doesn’t know, the kind of unknowing that few doctors – and patients – can honestly admit or accept.

Colic seems to be related to maternal temperament. Or not. It seems to be tied to immature digestive systems. Or not. It seems to improve with babywearing. Or not. It is sometimes associated with diet. Or not. It seems to be relieved by antacids, herbal tea, rocking, swaddling, cuddling, and motion. Or not. It seems neverending. But it’s not.

Colic arrives just as you begin to think you have a grasp, a handle, a way of living in the new world. It tears that grip away from you. It steals every ounce of optimism, every hopeful conclusion. It shreds every fix and remedy. It leaves you with nothing to try or trust. Nothing but time.

Colic is the last thing you expect to give birth to. No one wishes it on anyone. But in its own ravaging wake, it leaves a gift. That’s the gift of not knowing. Not knowing when or how or if. Of surrendering to futility. Of succumbing to the tears. Of accepting the certainty of nothing but another day, and a different ending.

Everyone always outgrows colic. But I’m not sure anyone ever outgrows colic. Least of all the parent.

Numbers game

September 4th, 2007    -    3 Comments

I know this seems afar from my usual field of dreams, so excuse me while I soapbox.

Sometimes I can barely read the paper without paroxysms of fury. Correction: I cannot read the paper without paroxysms of fury. The lies, the sorrow, the greed, and the crimes are so startling that I tremble in outrage. How can we abide this? Answer: I know why we abide this.

There on the front page of the Business section of the Sunday New York Times was the whole of it: the good and the evil, the up and the down, the victor and the vanquished. At the top of the page is the Eggleston family of Maple Heights, Ohio, the last family standing on a block of subprime foreclosures, in a sinkhole of a real estate market, in a good town going irretrievably down the tubes. They are living the life we most fear.

Three inches below is the story of a man enriched by his acumen and aggressiveness in marketing college loans. Not financial aid, mind you, but private, non-subsidized, high-interest-rate loans that regulators have now noticed bear a remarkable resemblance to subprime mortgages and the financial ravages they invoke. This fellow now lives the life we most desire: cashed out, piloting his racing yacht off the coast of Newport, R.I. He calls his yacht Numbers. I can only imagine what a shrewdly sweet upward ride those numbers have given him.

We abide this cruel dichotomy because success is our creed; more so, our religion. Just listen to the capitalist gurus co-opt the language of the church to articulate their values and their mission. Who among us hasn’t sung the refrain?

I confess: success is my religion too. Oh how I want to succeed by every conceivable measure. Oh how I want my ship to come in. Oh how I want to ride the crest of the waves. And then I see a page like the one in Sunday’s paper, inviting me to step off to the sidelines of this deadly, ceaseless, torment. I lift my arms in grief. Oh what have we become?

I’m going to say a service for the Egglestons. I’m going for broke, and the good news is, I’m almost there.

On balance

August 22nd, 2007    -    7 Comments


I gave a talk last week about Work-Life Balance at a corporate retreat. Truth be told, it was my first. The audience was politely attentive. Going in, I wasn’t sure that there was much to say about the topic. Going out, I don’t feel that much different. Perhaps you can illuminate the way better than I can.

You see, our lives are never out of balance. They can’t be out of balance. Where are the mountains toppling? Where is the sun sliding out of the sky? Of course we think our lives are out of balance nearly all the time. We think that way except for the split second every other year in which we feel–ahhhh!– okay.

So this work-life imbalance that we give such credence to is nothing other than the nature of human existence. It is what the Buddha termed in his First Noble Truth as “suffering.” Life is suffering. The word he used was dukkha, or unfulfillment.

Yes, we’re unfulfilled. Can’t be otherwise as long as we operate our lives in separation, in ignorance of reality. By that I mean operating from the egocentric mind, the dualistic mind, the mind of me that repeats over and over in hysterical crescendo “You, you over there! You’re driving me crazy! My job is driving me crazy! My kids are driving me crazy! My spouse is driving me crazy! And you, yes you, dear reader out there in readerland, you’re driving me crazy! All of you are asking too much of me!”

Because so little can be honestly said about how to fix this, this little syndrome that is nothing other than the eternal human condition, I boiled it all down to three little rules. Three rules to restore the balance you think you’ve lost.

3 Rules to Life Balance

1. There is no right way to do anything, only a right now way. Wherever we are, we think of someplace else. I should be over there. No, I should be back here. Here, there, here, there. What is the right thing to do? That kind of thinking is what really makes your head spin. Stop that. Be where you are. When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re at home, be at home. When driving, drive; eating, eat; sleeping, sleep. Get out of your head and tell me, right now, where’s the problem?

2. You have all the time you need for what’s important to you. What is most important? Whatever is right in front of you. Why? Because that’s the only thing that exists! In truth, you already have ample time for what is important to you. It just might surprise you to see what that is. What do you keep putting in front of yourself? Food? Drink? Computer? The average adult spends 28 hours a week watching TV. The average woman spends 8 years of her life shopping. These probably aren’t things that you would consciously set as your priorities, so consciously set your real priorities. And when you do, you’ll see that Rule 3 proves itself.

3. How you do anything is how you do everything. I borrow this from writer/teacher Cheri Huber, who paraphrased my main man Dogen: “If you find one thing wearisome, you will find everything wearisome.” Pay attention, be present, cultivate focus in one facet of your life and you will enjoy it in all facets of your life. Because an attentive person is an attentive person! A happy person is a happy person! A balanced person is a balanced person!

So strap on your shoes and dance.

I can only hope that I have less to say on this topic in the future.

Words fail

August 16th, 2007    -    3 Comments

I can’t imagine. I won’t wonder. I don’t have to make up a thing.

Whole

July 21st, 2007    -    3 Comments

The sound you hear for the next nine days is the sound of my silence.

Take very good care of yourselves.

With love I leave you,
Maezen

Photo courtesy of the Great Plumbing Excavation of Summer 2007.

Leaking away

June 27th, 2007    -    5 Comments


The sound you hear is the sound of my level head drip, drip, dripping away. It has puddled in a spreading pool on the patio. It is seeping up from underneath the parquet floor. It has muddled into the unmistakable morass of a household catastrophe. It shouts SLAB LEAK.

Two little words, and with it, walls crumble.

For those of you with the incredible good fortune to have a life other than mine, this means that when the house was built, they put galvanized steel plumbing pipes into the concrete foundation. A good recipe for ruining my day sixty years later.

I am staring into the undernethers of a total household re-plumbing job, and I am doing it alone.

It started months ago as an inch-wide water stain in the corner of the dining room. No big deal. I moved the furniture to cover it up. No big deal. Then it spread into a creeping shape the size of Afghanistan. No big deal. Then it started to seep out from the foundation and lounge all day and night in a wet spot on the patio. No big deal. Then the plumber came and told me to sell my firstborn. No big deal. Then he said it would take five days to fix and wouldn’t include repairing the gashes in the walls or bathroom tile. No big deal. Then I remembered relatives are coming to visit next week.

No big deal, my husband says. It can wait. He says this from a secured, undisclosed, undisturbed location out of town. The relatives coming are his.

The sound you hear is the sound of my dying hope of rescue, my fleeting wish for a different ending, my sweet dream of salvation, leaking away. I’m calling the plumber and getting started today.

Sit down

June 22nd, 2007    -    9 Comments


You might have to sit down for this. I’m going to take up the question I’m asked most.

How do I teach my child to meditate?

You might have to sit down because of the question I’m asked least.

How do I meditate?

Everywhere I look I see people – well-meaning, helpful, good-hearted people – trying to get kids to be still, be quiet, slow down and pay attention. What a noble and mostly, lost cause. Still, it’s got to be worth the effort, particularly in light of how far we’ve let things get out of hand. Another day of TV, another night of TV, another video game, another trip to the electronics superstore, another this, another that. Our kids are disordered, addicted, adrift. We turn our backs for what seems like a minute and a whole generation is lost.

So I have to wonder. When people ask how to teach their children to meditate, are they really asking, “How do I get my child to stop bothering me?” If so, then it’s easy. We already know how to do it, and we do it far too much already.

If the question really is, “How do I teach my child to meditate?” then the answer is easier still.

Sit down for this. Just sit down.

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