Posts Tagged ‘Satisfaction’

The jingle of a tin cup

November 16th, 2008    -    13 Comments


One very late night among many very late nights lately, Georgia spoke up before falling asleep. Does this mean I am a professional? she asked. I assured her. Yes, you are a professional.

My nine-year-old is a professional. A professional beggar. She was the last in a cast of dozens given a role in our little town’s live theater performance of “A Christmas Carol.” She is deep into final rehearsals and costume fittings, and this is where our story turns. She was cast, or so we presumed, as a beggar girl. The costume is for a beggar boy.

You don’t have to tell me that to a nine-year-old, the difference between a boy part and a girl part is unfathomable and untouchable. And although she has been counseled by her parents that there is little to be done at this late and desperate hour, no fix or balm; although everyone has tried to convince her that playing a boy is Oscar bait for pretty girls, she cannot be sold or satisfied.

Because she is safe in expressing all of herself to me, her deep and dark feelings, she does. Every morning and night she tosses them up to me, her worrisome frets and ceaseless spins, about how to change the costume, how to replace it, get around it, make one more phone call, concoct one more reason, convince the powers that be, etc. etc. chapter and verse. (Mind you, she does not under any circumstance want to quit the show. She is an actress, first and last.)

On the way to school on Friday morning she lifted her chin and said again, as if anew, “I still really need to change that costume,” perhaps hoping that phrasing it as a need instead of a want would score results from her miracle-making mom.

I stopped cold and said icily, in a voice that would freeze your eyeballs: IT’S NOT IMPORTANT!

And it’s true, it’s not important. It just wasn’t a very nice thing to say.

We are beggars, the both of us. She is begging me to do something. And I am begging her to do nothing. We are, each of us, nearly always begging for what we don’t have.

***

A long time ago I had a Buddhist boyfriend who dumped me (but that’s another story) and as he got sick and tired of me he started to say abruptly rude things. They were probably true, but as the saying goes, I wasn’t ready to hear them. I hear them now! One thing he said was that I needed to learn the difference between need and want. He probably said it in the context of my complete debasement, in the midst of vain and endless pleading, while I clutched his pants leg, being dragged across a parking lot, wailing But you can’t leave! I need you!

The difference between need and want? I hadn’t a clue at the time. He set me wondering even as he set me wandering and I presumed that he had achieved some lofty kind of Buddhist understanding far beyond a groveling earth-dweller like me.

(Beware any Buddhist who appears to have attained any understanding, particularly the lofty kind.)

He hadn’t achieved anything, but he was right. I really didn’t need him, although my “needing” of him did set me off on this path to satisfy my wants, and I really did need that. We all do.

***

What is the difference between need and want? One starts with an “n” and one starts with a “w.” That’s about all I can distinguish. They are just words we either like to use or don’t like to use, choose or don’t choose, to label our dissatisfaction, our unfulfilled desire. Because really, whether we sanction something as a “need” or not, do we really need it? And when for a breathless moment we want something, do we really want it for long? I guess not, because look how easy it is to live without all the things we once wanted, and none of the things we don’t have but still think we need.

Life really is pretty easy by itself, unless we need or want for something different.

Needs and wants are the things we beg for, whether it sounds like begging or not, whether we are aware or not, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the costume. Begging is the role of a lifetime. The curtain rises, and we start begging. The curtain closes, and who knows what becomes of the beggar? The real question is this: when, in the brief span between the rise and the fall, will we ever stop? When will we ever enjoy the show?

Shhhhh! It’s starting.

***

A reminder to put my whole self in the cup, and get the world in return.

Photo originally uploaded by Alastair Bird.

Summer shoes for well under $100

July 11th, 2008    -    19 Comments

I just came back from the health club where I was running on the treadmill (it’s a sickness) and watching “The View” (it’s another kind of sickness). They had this perky spokesmodel with a $500 haircut in an $800 dress hawking SUMMER SHOES FOR UNDER $100!

Really. Not even considering the fact that the best summer footwear is, well, your feet, I’m horrified, and then I wonder, Am I the only spoilsport who thinks this segment is unbelievably inane and insenstive in this day and age? SHOES FOR UNDER $100 is a newsmaker? In the SUMMER, no less?

And I immediately inventoried my own summer footwear finds, which were not only acquired for well under $100 but remain in every way utterly worthless, which for me evokes the true essence of summer.

Take these, for instance, which I picked up for $3 four years ago. I wear them every morning when I make the rounds in the yard to pick up dog poop:

Which always reminds me not to wear these while picking up dog poop.

Or these pink poolside classics, $5 at Wal-Mart three years ago:

Did you notice they are pink? They’re bloody screaming pink! Maybe that’s why even Wal-Mart had them on sale, you silly!

And these are my good running shoes. They aren’t my really good running shoes because those boats cost over $100, good grief, and I pound through them like putty:

No, these running shoes are old, worn out, dirty and so heavy that when you step on that unreliable bathroom scale you can automatically take, oh, 29 pounds off your weight.

In my view, that’s a steal.

Going nowhere and making good time

July 6th, 2008    -    11 Comments


Since I could use a fist bump right about now, I’m going to announce that my running partner and I ran ten miles today. Ten miles, albeit the old lady way. We have managed to train away some of the huffing, puffing, cramps and crying that had me convinced at an earlier, cynical age three months ago that I would never run ten miles let alone one.

Running has become just about the one thing in my life that is satisfying my expectations, expectations being the kind of oversized load that triggers a 20-car, fog-bound pile-up around the next blind curve. Still, as a pastime, hitting the pavement provides me with a wide avenue of observations about myself and the world around me.

My regular route has me crossing a busy intersection during morning commute, an intersection with eight timed signals for through-traffic and turns. The consternation is palpable at this spot as the engines belch and fume about the interruption in their all-important progress. The traffic experts have been here. The science is on display. In place of the benign illuminated hand that once invited walkers to venture forth – We come in peace! – the crossing light now pairs a hunched stalker with a flashing countdown of seconds remaining before the defenseless few are smacked back to where they came from.

Can you believe it? In this hurry-up world, they even want the pedestrians to tailgate! In these last, poisoned days of our planet, they want the people on foot, the innocents who are truly doing no harm, to get out of the way already!

Now it may just be the peculiarity of the hour and the carbon monoxide, or the pulsing love croons of serial seducer John Mayer in my iPod (I’d run anywhere he told me to), but when I see the flashing countdown of seconds left to me in this crossing, when I see this laughably unjust incrimination, it makes me smile. I find myself trotting across the intersection with a grin on my face. I make it my wholehearted practice to smile at the gauntlet of grim drivers I pass. I peer through their tinted shields into their dead faces. I want to make contact, you see. I want them to respond. I want them to see the first, and perhaps, the last happy person they will see today. I want them to be happy too.

I know, I know. We all think we’re going somewhere. But on these mornings, in a sudden gush of giddy bliss, I bet I’m the only one who realizes how free and easy it feels to be going nowhere. Fast.

The crooked crown of falling down

May 12th, 2008    -    9 Comments


I’m holding steady this crooked crown
Knowing I’ll lose if I look down*

When my sisters and I were little – I mean really little – we used to gather around the TV on a sultry Saturday night in the late summer and watch the Miss America beauty pageant.

This is not a joke. This was in the days before we joked about such things.

We would sit inches from the screen, irradiated with anticipation, and choose our favorites even before all 50 girls had introduced themselves. Then we percolated through the rest of the program, through the talent and the evening gowns, through the arias and baton twirls, the sparkle, the suspense, the adoration and yearning, until a point of unbearable despair. A point that I discerned even at age 8 or 9, a point of tragic and humiliating desperation when I could watch no longer.

You see, there was a comic quiver in the girls’ outer thighs when they stalked the stage with mock pride and purpose (because what purpose could there be in wearing swimsuits with stilettos?) I turned my little-girl eyes aside and winced to see how earnestly they posed and yet how fraudulent they seemed, how tight and taut and twisted in pursuit of – what really? They were already pretty with perfect teeth and flat tummies and nice and friendly with bright futures and all, and here they were trying so hard to be something that they sure as heck weren’t going to be and we all knew it. We already knew it was going to be Miss Texas.

And although eventually the whole lot of us grew so smart and cynical about this kind of contest, I swear everything on TV today, everything in ads and magazines, everything on the Internet, everything in this country, everything in our lives, yes my life and yours, is just a reprise of this sad sport over and over every day. Not just about beauty, either. About fame, money, power, popularity, winning, losing and numbers, numbers, numbers. The desperate urging, chasing, yearning, selling. wishing, hoping, praying, prying, gnawing, groaning, clashing, crashing contest to be something more (or less) than what you are.

Not everyone sees this and weeps. But I do. To feel this very full and broken heart, to carry this unbearable sympathy and sadness, is to touch the very source of compassionate wisdom.

But to let go of the tortured striving for yourself? To let it all give way and lose nothing? That, dear Karen, is the path of enlightenment. What a refreshing topic to begin a new day, a new week, a new way. Which is the oldest way of all, the original unimproved, unretouched, you as you are way.

***
*Click here for more gospel.

A real girl

April 21st, 2008    -    16 Comments


A little while ago my daughter directed me to one of her favorite on- and offline passions.

Mommy, come see.
A writing contest.

I think you could win because you’re a really good writer.

It seems to me that I don’t hear that very often from a real live person, or a least not often enough.

Still, I let it slide a bit, because although my daughter is certainly wonderful, she’s not that kind of wonderful, not that kind of competitor, not that kind of hero, prodigy or star. And neither am I.

When the time came to write the essay, I had to keep it real.

When the time came to mention the honors, they told us she was quite real enough.

I hope you’ll read all about it. Georgia was happy enough with the essay, and her prize, but happier still with the cardboard kingdom it inspired one Sunday in the garage.

That’s my real girl. And this is the real-life lesson she keeps giving me: believe in yourself and each other just the way you are.

Where the going gets good

March 28th, 2008    -    14 Comments


I’ve been doing a little bit more running lately, because a little bit more than nothing is a quite a little bit more. The reason for all of it will roll around soon enough. My friends on the road thought I needed a touch of optimism to shade me from the harsh realities.

This morning I put on my new hat and my daughter saw it for the first time.

“Oh,” she said, accustomed to a world encapsulated in logos, “you must have gotten that at the Life is Good store.”

Yes, honey, I did. I got a lifetime supply at the Life is Good store. Let’s see how long it lasts me this time.

Life is a box of Thin Mints

March 10th, 2008    -    21 Comments


You spend all your time waiting for it to arrive and then it’s gone in an instant.

It’s better when you consume it like there’s no tomorrow.

It weighs next to nothing but puts an extra five pounds on you each year.

They say it keeps in the freezer but no one keeps it there long enough to find out.

If you do have any part stored in your freezer you could well be judged criminally insane.

Even when you’ve had enough, you haven’t had enough.

On their deathbed, no one wishes they’d had any less.

Authored in my official capacity as Cookie Co-Chair for Brownie Troop 1242 where our motto is “Eat the Damn Things and Get it Over With,” a creed which I swear to uphold and uphold to swear.

The falling down people

January 7th, 2008    -    14 Comments


Here we go again. The news has me sassy again. This article in the Times recounts the tremulous state of high-status professions from which people are fleeing. It turns out a troubling percentage of lawyers don’t really want to be lawyers. Even more doctors don’t want to be doctors. They are successful, but not successful enough. They are rich but not rich enough. They wanted status but aren’t satisfied with the paltry status in hand. They were reaching for the brass ring, and it turns out it’s only brass.

Maybe they need a relax scedule like the one I’m on. Oh, I’m sure they do, but that’s not the half of it.

The article makes out like dissatisfaction is a rarefied thing. If only it were. Can we ever get off this page? This I’m Not Happy with My Life page? No, we can’t. Because the whole of human drama is just this story. A story with one page. That is, until you turn it.

And so the headline writer calls these the “falling down” professions, meaning I suppose that this is urgent news because these folks are swan diving off the highest board in town. Imagine that! Someone reaches for a false and delusional form of gratification and finds out it’s not real! Honey, you’ve got to read this!

Just the headline had me thinking of a truly fascinating story I read last year in The New Yorker about geriatric medicine, or the lack thereof. (Be afraid, be really afraid. There’s not enough money in geriatric medicine to keep it going, and I for one, am getting older. You can tell how cranky that makes me.) Anyway, in this worthwhile and highly readable essay, the author observes an intake examination by a geriatric specialist. The doctor is examining a new patient, a woman in her 80s with high blood pressure, arthritis, glaucoma, back pain, and suspected lung cancer. All this and the doctor is really only interested in her feet.

“You must always examine the feet,” the doctor says. It turns out that when we live this long, the single most serious threat we face is falling. Because we won’t get up again. When we can no longer care for our feet – clean, trim and treat them – they become calloused and sore and we lose our balance more easily.

It all comes down to what it comes down to. At the foot of the matter. The foundation. The underlying truth.

What are we building our lives on? Greedy expectations? Lustful aspirations? Selfish hopes and egotism?

Or are we building it on love?

In the Times article, a doctor complains about the paperwork he has to complete to get new tires on a patient’s wheelchair. “I’m a doctor, not Mr. Goodwrench,” he says.

Excuse me, but yes you are. Whether you are a doctor or a lawyer, a mother, a writer, a nurse, a teacher, a rocket scientist or a bricklayer, each of us is nothing but a mechanic. All we have to work with is our hands, and any good we do is only done with love.

Go ahead. Fall down and fall down again. One day I hope you look up and see what’s real. Love is the only thing that stands.

The risk of life

November 20th, 2007    -    12 Comments

When I realize I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I realize I am everything, that is love. And between these points I live my life.

In this big, wide world that fits on the head of a pin, in this universe of infinite possibilities and yet identical experiences, I often find my voice in the words of readers or find my readers in mine. Such was the case today when this post prompted a drip and then the outpouring you find in the puddle right here.

This is what I have been longing to say.

Living involves an incalculable level of risk. It is the riskiest thing we do. And not because it could be fatal. There is a 100 percent risk of fatality, and that cannot be called a risk, but rather a guarantee. No matter what false comfort we take in our age, our habits, our attitude, or our genetics, none of that changes the bottom line. We all die. In spite of that irrefutable end, living with our whole heart, our whole mind and both feet is a risk that few of us are willing to take.

Few of us are willing to take on the risk of being alive. By that I mean being fearless and free, spontaneous, creative, generous, expansive, trusting, truthful and satisfied. To risk accepting ourselves and our lives as they are. To risk forgiveness. To risk not knowing. To risk messing up and starting over. To risk life’s inevitable cycles and sequences. To risk something new. To let hurts heal. To let bygones be gone. To face the fact that the narrow, familiar, comfortable idea we have of our self is just that – an idea – and to let that idea go. And not to be replaced by any other newer, better idea of who we are. To realize every name, every definition, every label, every story, every boundary, every fear, every feeling, every diagnosis, every conclusion, everything we claim to know about ourselves, is just an idea. And to let every bit of that go too.

The truth is, we know nothing about life. It can’t be known. But it can be observed. This is what we can see.

Life wants to live. Watch a friend or family member face death, or have a health scare yourself, and see how much life wants to live.

Life wants to grow. Plan a family, or struggle with infertility, and see how much life wants to grow.

Life is not hard to live. It is effortless. Life lives by itself. It is what we think and feel about life that is so very difficult to endure.

Life has a way of going. Why it goes, we can’t answer. Where it goes, we don’t know. But how? That’s entirely up to us. How can you risk losing another year to fear, anger or anxiety? Another month? Another day? Another moment? How can you risk being anything but whole-heartedly alive right now?

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, look into the free teleconference I’m hosting on “The Mind-Body Connection to Conception” next week. I don’t know what I will say, but I promise to do no harm.

Coming home to the place you never left

November 18th, 2007    -    12 Comments


We pulled to a stop at the light on the way to the dentist, of all places.

Mom, there’s a man holding a sign that says homeless.

We do this nearly every time, handing a very small bill to this very same man in the very same spot. I roll down the window with my offering. He blesses us and the light turns green.

That’s going to take him a whole year, she says as I pummel the accelerator.

A whole year for what, I ask with imperceptible interest.

To save enough for a home.

And the curtain rises to reveal the innocence of a child, seeing the hidden dignity in the humbled, the obvious depth of the need, the unbiased purity of the gift. And I hope that in this one exchange, this folded paper passed between a crack of glass, this man has indeed palmed a full dollar’s worth of peace and comfort, a home sweet home, as he is and where he is.

He is not, of course, saving up for a home. But the rest of us are. We force and finagle. We fret, scrimp and plan. We set our sights on an impossible someday, when things are finally set, the ship comes in and the planets align. When the grass is cut and the pie crust is perfect. At last, or so we envision, we arrive at a life of ease and fulfillment. Until then we scramble like mad to recast a life with a different beginning in urgent anticipation of a life with a different ending. We go looking for home.

In this week when tradition calls us home, can we find it? Can we set aside the expectations and standards, the wishes and dreams, the old resentments, the tired conversations, the grudges, the comparisons and judgments? Can we avoid the build-up and the letdown? Can we accept, forgive, forget, make peace and pass the mashed potatoes? If we can do that, really do that, then we might find home – our true home – in the very spot we sit, and we might for once – I don’t mind if I do – just eat.

A detail from the woodcarving on our front door.

In celebration of our home’s inclusion in the remarkable new book, At Home: Pasadena.

The last word on happiness

October 4th, 2007    -    9 Comments

Buddha held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile.

– Zen koan

Get it?!

I’ll spell it out for you: 🙂

If you’re out of practice, this could help.

Happy now

October 3rd, 2007    -    15 Comments

two-scoops-sugar-cone“Momma, are you happy now?”
– A certain pipsqueak

Someday, I will write a book about happiness. Oh wait, I already did, in a roundabout way.

This week I’ve joined the chattering class, the quotable notables, who make their life’s work out of happiness. Three days and I’m nearly done. I don’t quite understand how anyone can make their life’s work out of it. I don’t know how you can make a project out of something that takes less than an instant. You can make a project out of writing a book. You can make a project out of writing about writing a book. But happiness itself takes no time at all because we possess it already.

But let’s clarify what we call happiness. Let’s get wise to it. Let’s discern the difference between pleasure, which is sensory and fleeting, like an ice cream cone, and happiness, which is our fundamental nature, like an ice cream factory. Let’s not confuse the double scoop, which is temporary, with its source, which operates 24/7. So let’s call the factory of happiness by a different name (choose any or all): joy, contentment, satisfaction, bliss. Put your name on it. It’s you.

You can make your life’s work out of finding pleasure (and we do). It takes up your whole life because pleasure doesn’t last, there’s never enough, it takes a lot of work, and I can guarantee it doesn’t satisfy. You keep running around, making lists, checking them twice, trying one thing and then the other to produce the feeling of pleasure. Now maybe this pleasure isn’t tied up in a fancy house or jet skis. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being “better” or “good enough.” What a terrific feeling! That doesn’t last either, and how I wish it did! This is not a contemporary problem. Remember how the founding fathers called it the “pursuit of happiness?” That’s what human life consists of. A pursuit of something rarely found and never kept, but still, we’d all prefer to be free to keep looking fruitlessly.

When you stop pursuing and settle where you are, when you smooth your brow and unclench your knuckles, when you give yourself a break from finding the next, next, next great thing, your lucky day, the open sesame, the magic flute, when your little one looks into your haunted eyes, your perpetual frown, and asks “Are you happy now?” all you have to do is say “Yes.”

Say yes.

And then you can all go out for ice cream and be happy six ways ’til Sunday.

Could it really be that simple? Tomorrow I’ll give you one more clue.

This is the third in a series of posts on happiness. If you haven’t read the first two, look here and here or just keep scrolling down.

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.

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