Thursday, June 25, 2015

How to be Intermittenly Not Unhappy

I was going to join the crowd and title this "How to Be Happy," but I just couldn't. That implies Happy all the Time!!!
It implies ~

"Fun fun fun till her daddy took the T-bird away". Life does take things away. The line in the Five Remembrances gets it: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change." (The whole chant is at the bottom of this blog.) Fun is especially ephemeral. Every series has a finale, and sometimes it's a great disappointment.

The alternative is to invest yourself in the world. I thought I'd suggest one way to do that: Listen to someone else.

I don't mean listen the way therapists do, with intent to help you change. Don't do that. You don't know what someone else needs. And definitely don't listen the way most people do, thinking of the next thing they will say, even downright impatient. Just pay attention to that other person.

You can briefly take in yourself at the same time. Your self might be cringing before someone else's misery or bored with their same old story. Maybe at some later time you should examine that cringing or boredom that is taking the space where there could be compassion. Meanwhile, why not let them talk - they must have a reason for repeating that story - and just really listen, look. You can nod. You don't have to say anything. Or fix them. In fact, they'd probably pay you not to.

Listening to other people is actually a good way to chip away at our devotion to Wun, my term for our own constructed selves, that Wun who seeks everywhere for happiness when, in fact, the moment is right here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Please do not sit on Buddha

Since things are perfect and complete
just as they are,
beyond good and bad,
without adopting and rejecting,
one just bursts out laughing!

Longchepa (1308-1364)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Creature Comforts

There's this kind of camping, where you carry a home with you. But that's not what we meant by camping when I was a child. We meant this kind of camping . . .
. . . though we never ran into a bear. And the tent wasn't nice nylon with mesh windows, but canvas (it was the 1950s), which smelled faintly of mold, despite my parents' good housekeeping.

Daddy Longlegs sprawled here and there on the walls of the tent. Beyond the painfully bright Coleman lantern there were a million mosquitos and the darkest dark.  You used a smelly outhouse a long way away or squatted behind a bush.  No friends, no books, nothing to do.

When as a grownup I tried it with a friend, I further realized that the ground beneath the air mattresses was lumpy and unforgiving.  The fire that was inviting at night was dead by morning, and it took a long time to get a fire going and make coffee. Once I had used up a roll of film and hiked moderately, there was still nothing to do but become increasingly aware of how uncomfortable folding chairs really are..

Living as if the technological advances of the last hundred years had not happened seems to have a sacred quality for some people. It does for me too. I'm not being sarcastic when I say I love nature, especially as seen from the windows of my air-conditioned home, which has flush toilets, hot running water, a real refrigerator, and a gas stove. What I like most to do in nature is sit with coffee when no one else is awake, and gestate a poem. I would also like that a lot at a cafe in Paris. You see what kind of person I am. Maybe people are different in New York City, but in the Midwest you feel a kind of shame for being so thoroughly urban.

I did for several years go to the church's annual Labor Day campout. It was in nature, and not air conditioned, but there were things to do with people I liked, the cabins had toilets, other people cooked for you. One year I asked a man I knew whether he was going, just making conversation. Sal was a big guy, an executive who had a lot of money and who seldom spoke, and was thus generally esteemed. In response he chuckled as if the very idea was absurd, and said, "I like my creature comforts."

Creature comforts. Into my mind sprang a memory of the best hotel I've ever stayed at, which had one of the first glass elevators in America. The lovely shower with lots of fluffy white towels. Room service. Several restaurants. These are the luxuries of civilization, the things that give us comfort.  Like many who have been in the trenches, I like them.

I remembered this recently after talking with a friend about living a life that matters. I don't have as many conversations about that as I used to, my energy being more limited, but I do think about it. It is very hard to help people by setting out to help them, as so many social programs have shown. On the other hand, you never know when you might help someone just by being authentically yourself.  Sal was not a religious person, but he did me an appreciable favor just by being who he was, fearlessly, thoroughly civilized.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Present moment, hummingbird moment

Yesterday I went outside to cut some basil to put with the tomatoes I was bringing to an elderly friend who had a bad fall a few days ago. At the moment I cut it the smell of freshest basil bloomed, just as the sun came out, and I thought, Life is perfect.  You might think that at my age, having practiced Zen for quite a few years, I had thought that before, but I don't think I had. Life is perfect. The sickbed, taxes, the weather. Everything.

As I say, the sun came out. And I may have been softened by some lovely things that have been happening around here. We live in a neighborhood only ten minutes from downtown Columbus, but on a ravine with woods in our back yard.

Two days ago I walked into the living room, and there outside the big window lay two young whitetail deer, munching. Both were bucks with antlers at this stage. We've had deer before, up to five once, but only one buck. Usually it is does and their young.
I moved out of the room. When I looked again a few minutes later, one had left. The other saw me again and lazily got up and left, too. I thought how lucky we are that we don't cultivate that backyard into a shade garden, which it once was. It's fine for the deer to lie on the plants and eat what they like.

Later that day I was sitting with a friend at the kitchen table when motion outside the window caught my eye, and there was a hummingbird drinking from the red petunias in the hanging basket. It darted from blossom to blossom to blossom, then gone. Present moment, hummingbird moment.

As if all that isn't enough, Saturday morning I saw a baby bunny on the front porch, a bunny small enough to hold in the palm of one hand. I just don't know anything more appealing. He fled when he saw me there.
Each sighting ruptured for a moment my usual reality, that habit of going-somewhere, doing-something, the way nature in the city does. I am aided in stopping by Zen practice, of course. I have been reading the remarkable blog of Tracy and Koun Franz, One Continuous Mistake. On a parenting blog, Mothering in the Middle, she talks about the Japanese worldview in contrast to our own carpe diem.  Ichi-go ichi-e means "one time, one meeting." Or, your only chance, right here. 
Our backyard in spring

Monday, June 1, 2015

When Things Don't Fail

There's a whole industry publishing photos of things that go badly wrong, some funny, some too painful to be funny. But until I came across this practice, I never thought of making a point of what went well.

I came across it online, quoted from Martin Seligman's book Flourish. It's been quoted verbatim a lot, so that seems to be okay with him. It's called What Went Well.  Here it is:

"Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you write, “My sister gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause “God was looking out for her” or “She did everything right during her pregnancy.” Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now."

When I presented this the next day to my meditation group one of the women referred to it as gratitude. I think there's an important difference.  Gratitude is a feeling, and a depressed person knows she should feel grateful for the food on the table, etc. but may not feel anything but sad.  Asking "What went well?" is a cognitive exercise. Your brain does it. You don't have to appreciate what went well for you; you just note it. 

The morning after I read the above I had to go to the lab at the hospital for a blood draw before noon. It was one of those mornings when you're sort of out of tune, and it was hard to get out the door.  And the fuel light on my dashboard went on, oh no. There were no gas stations between here and there, and anyway, I was running late.  Then it went off and stayed off.  That went well.  I just hoped to make it to the lab, and I did.  Whew. That went well.

When I got to the hospital, the yellow area parking lot was half cordoned off for valet parking, and empty. Oh No, I thought, There won't be a spot in there, where will I park? but I pulled through the gate and spied, over to the left, a spot! I could hardly believe it. I didn't go around counterclockwise, the usual way, to get there, but ducked left and right in. So, I thought, That went well. Why? Because I was alert. Also, luck.

There were no patients waiting in the lab - That went well - and the phlebotomist was Cyndi, who can get me with one stick, no fooling around painfully trying to get into my narrow rolling veins. One stick, That went well.  Why? Because she is a competent professional, which is always so nice to find. Walking cheerfully to my car I realized my depression was gone.  Well. That convinced me to adopt this practice for the next week. And order the book.

(And I did manage to get to the gas station. So that went well, too.)
Thanks to my former-and-always neighbor Susan Barrett for publishing this post on her encouraging site, Wonder Anew