Monday, November 24, 2014

The Four Unpleasant Truths, and a Kicker

Home, and we don't know what is causing this shortness of breath.  But we know I have a well-functioning heart, and no blood clots and don't have a strange lung disease brought on by my Rapamune.  I have yet to get a pulmonary function test, which they prefer to do outpatient.  We have a maybe:  maybe my breathing is impaired by having smoked a pack and a half a day for thirty years. And I grew up smoking passively in a household with two smokers.

But wait, this isn't fair - I quit in 1988.  It was hard, too.  I thought my lungs cleared up when I quit.

Karma isn't fair, but it's just.  All the time you smoked, it was damaging your alveoli.  Bad karma, bad.

But today is another day.  I was sitting doing the multiple eyedrops for post- and pre-cataract surgery and enjoying Tricycle Magazine, when I read this, in an article called The Present Moment.
No one denies the potential benefit from learning to calm or focus the mind, but many Buddhist teachers worry that an approach may be easy and give immediate benefits and yet risk discarding essential elements in the Buddha's teaching.
Wait.  I actually had a little dose of MBSR years ago, as part of a course in overall healthy living taught by my health club.  It did not just risk discarding the teachings - it carefully explained that it had nothing to do with religion.  It was about you feeling better and living longer.

A secular meditation practice is almost never sustained, and I'm here to tell you why.  Because sitting still doing nothing opens you up to reality, and that's the last thing most of us want.  Why is that?

This is a truth abundantly restated on the internet, which has enabled us to complain a lot verbally and visually. And in fact, it's religion - a restatement of the Buddha's First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha, the suffering inherent in life.  So let me continue in this vein with my Four Unpleasant Realities.

1.  Life sucks.
2.  It's your fault that it sucks.  (a) You think it shouldn't, and (b) you keep trying to evade all the suckiness with distractions, positive thinking, and scotch and soda.
3.  There is a way to bring the volume of suckiness down a bit.
And here's the assignment -
4.  The way is a complex, sustained effort to meet the suckiness face to face, and change the way you act.

Huh?  What?

This was really funny when Tom and I came up with it at the breakfast table an hour ago, but it is not amusing me so much as I write about it.
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And there I stopped writing a week or two ago, and got distracted by the second cataract surgery.  Such is old age that I forgot about this draft until now. And I am again stuck with the subject.  Because nobody wants to hear about The Eightfold Path and behave themself.  So I'll cut to the executive summary, which is sometimes expressed like this ~


Sorry about all the black.

But it's true.  And the founder of the Zen I study, Dogen, said that when you get that, you've got it:  life is impermanent. YOU are impermanent.  Not only will you die, but you have no idea when you'll die, today, tomorrow, after you print out your to-do list.  And that goes for everything and everyone you love.  Get that, and you'll be motivated to be with the moment you've got.

So, it's Monday.  Did you need this on Monday?  Yes, probably.  I know I do.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Still Here, But You Never Know


Having nothing better to do in this hospital room, thought I'd update the known universe on my condition.

Life is the great Teacher. Only Saturday my sitting group enjoyed this Dylan Thomas poem, because I had quoted the first line earlier to Nancy V. (We have two Nancy's most day, some days three. Really.). As I read it aloud I realized how it is about life and death.  Now I'm here soon to get scanned  for blood clots etc.

But, to my story.  One microbe in this colony of seven billion.  I woke up yesterday much more short of breath and tired before I even got out of bed.  It happened that my annual visit with the cardiologist was scheduled that day.  He follows my atrial fib.  Struggled to shower and get there, Tom driving.  Well, they take difficulty breathing with any exertion seriously at the cardiologist's.  And yes, tightness in chest....so this was exciting. Got taken by squad - five guys! - to the ER and so on. Nitroglycerin patch, aspirins, all that.  Nobody took a video.

And today much more testing, no blood clots found to explain my symptoms, leading to the startling affirmation that I need to get a heart cath tomorrow.  It looks like we will do that, knowing the contrast dye might damage my one kidney and we could have to do dialysis for a while if that happened. But the kidney would probably recover. And that might not happen.  If on the other hand a massive heart attack blows out your heart . . . there are no living donors of hearts.

Life.

I realized something this morning as my night nurse, Rachel, told the day nurse, Julie, all about me.  Looking at Rachel, I saw how tired she was, and she is young, under 30 I'd say. They work on their feet, you know, endlessly interrupted by crises small and large.  It's hard work. Nurses over 50 usually look tired all the time.  For the first time I realized - They work all night. I mean I saw it, I knew what it meant for the first time, how they keep the cities alive.  My consciousness expanded to all the people who keep Riverside humming, the electricians, the miners who dug the coal for the first electric plant, the train that brought it here, the engineer . . . probably the young people who build computer chips from China that schedule the trains.  How all this cushions my life.

Sunday I had been remembering Torei Zengi's Bodhisattva Vow, so that also led me real-eyes this truth a little more clearly.  Here's a bit of it:

Among us, in our own daily lives, who is not reverently grateful for the protections of life: food, drink, and clothing! Though they are inanimate things, they are nonetheless the warm flesh and blood, the merciful incarnations of Buddha.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What Unsuccessful People Do Differently

It's autumn here.

How do I do it?  end up looking at these articles on 7 Things Successful People Do Different From You Lazy Slobs?  In any case, here's one smelling up my inbox with sentences like this:
Successful people have a drive, a greediness, a push to get something done you could even call self-centered.
As you know, in my religion greed is considered a poison.  We don't cultivate it. On the personal side, I've known a few entrepreneurs, and I think the description is fair.  They're always alert for a way to make money.  In a particularly cool move, one of them once let us pick up the check for dinner, but asked for the receipt so he could write it off on his taxes.  I am not making that up.

A little further on I get this (I'm rewriting but retaining the essence):
Less successful people let anything drift into their environments—they don't control their lives. The average person only writes down their goals once a year. 
I note here that "less successful people" are "average."  Oh my.  And only make big resolutions once a year.  I, on the other hand, have resolved today to take a shower.  I did resolve to get a haircut, but Kenneth isn't in on Tuesdays. So I tried to schedule a haircut with him so tomorrow doesn't drift like this, but it's not like that - he takes his book home with him.  So I drifted into the environment of no haircut today. Blown around like a fallen leaf.  Lest I get self-critical about this,
More autumn.
I reframed it:  I am flexible.  I see the big picture in a time of the breaking of nations. And hey, what's the hurry?

What struck me most about the article was the difference between the self-centered vows of the Highly Successful and the vows handwritten on a card propped on the windowsill over my kitchen sink.  They are a sort of mantra, a variation on lovingkindness meditation, from Kristin Neff's book, Self-Compassion, which I mentioned recently:

May I be safe.
May I be peaceful.
May I be kind to myself.
May I accept myself as I am.

Such small goals,  in the Eastern tradition of humility.  Yet how large for all those who were abused or neglected or taught always to put others first and ignore their own needs.  And by the way, the vow to be safe kept me from recklessly scheduling a haircut with some unknown person.  Been there.

The writer on Success did say something I agreed with:
Every day presents an opportunity to set and reach goals regardless of how large or small they are.
Recently I read that achieving any goal gives us a good little hit of feel-good chemicals. A kind of starburst in the old neurochemistry.  Small achievements are something I pay attention to, since I am prone to letting myself drift, as the Ambition writer would say, into the environment of a merciless depression, and that doesn't get you anywhere.  Set a small enough goal, like Take a shower.  Do it.  Take a moment to pat your own back.  If you are lucky, you can actually reach over your shoulder and do that, which will make you smile.

That's all I know today.  Please enjoy your drifting.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life on the Other Shore



That it feels different here on this shore than you thought it would does not negate the enormity of the distance you traversed and the strength it took you to do it.  from Dear Sugar, May 17, 2012
Go ahead and read the letter and Cheryl Strayed's answer, which includes the above sentence.  Then come back here.

Now.  I want to talk about enlightenment, something the legitimate Teachers seldom do, because they want you to stop striving to reach it.  Over and over we chant in the Heart Sutra, "no attainment, nothing to attain."  But we don't believe it.  We believe there is something far better than human life that we can achieve if we just hold the pose, so to speak.  And the desire for Shangri-La can motivate us to practice.  

As Dear Sugar says so eloquently, 
We want to believe that on the other side of whatever crap we had to swim away from there’s a crap-free beach where we can lounge in the sun at last. Free and at peace.
She goes on to assure Haunted that many things in his life attest to the fact that he is on the other shore. And I agree.  But . . .

But, boy, there's a lot of crap on this beach, too.  Insects eating up beautiful plants, for example.  Well, the insect likes it.  Needs it.

There are still bugs in Haunted's life, which is why he is writing to an advice columnist.  He's sober and has a good relationship in his life and still doesn't feel good a lot of the time.  He isn't perfect yet.

And that's where an advice columnist can't help you the way an authentic spiritual teacher can.  A pat on the back from Sugar, a hug from a therapist, a gold star, the Nobel Prize, these things elevate your serotonin and dopamine for a while, but not for long.  What a Teacher can do is remind you of The Path.  It is a path of vows and practice that is not particularly about looking for personal happiness, and that promises not perfection but authenticity.  This is true of every path, but here is where I move toward the path I know best, Zen.  This path emphasizes awareness, and growing awareness can be like awakening from a fall off a cliff in a full body cast:  ouch, this hurts, ow, that hurts too!  my toe!!

In other words, awake is the opposite of anesthetized.  It means experiencing new and different kinds of pain, though perhaps less dramatically, not for quite so long.

This is generally a well-kept secret of Zen though Dainin Katagiri was heard to mutter, "You don't know what suffering is until you get enlightened."  I have been quoting that these days as I go through the preliminaries to cataract surgery.

I winced as I wrote that.  I am really afraid of this, and I know it.  Through many years of practice I have awakened to my body -  the part below my neck - and my body flutters with anxiety about letting someone cut my eyes.  Twenty years ago I would have responded to my deep fear with an unrelenting headache and irritable bowel syndrome. And, I suppose, irritable and distracted me.

Is now better than then?  Yes, it is.  My earlier self would have been mindlessly spreading unhappiness wherever I walked, building bad karma that would be flung back in my face.  To return to the metaphor, there is a lot of crap on this beach despite years of practice, but I'm not kicking it at other people.  And I also feel the suns of the Heavenly Abodes and the rhythm of the waves.  And I know crap when I see it, and can sometimes walk around it if I stick to the path.

Or sit down and put on my hip boots.  Not a bad metaphor for the dharma, which reminds us of reality - human life entails suffering.  This is it.  It's okay.

Friday, September 19, 2014

When I'll Be Happy



You know:
When I graduate.
     When I get a better job.
When I find true love (or true sex).
When this move is over.

Of course, none of these joys last very long.  Actually, I did bask in happiness for about ten days after we moved to this house.  What a horrific move it was, 10,000 pounds from two stories and a basement, and Tom couldn't help with any of it, partly because he couldn't do stairs, partly because he's a man.  But we got moved in, staged the old house, sold it, and then - his polio doctor told him he was never going back to work.  Post-polio syndrome advancing.

There went that.  Now I had a man around the house   all   day   long.  And a morbidly depressed one at that.

But that was ten years ago and we adjusted to that and found other Big Problems to ruin our lives.

Today though, the weather is beautiful and I wasn't noticing myself brooding on a Big Huge Overwhelming Problem.  Instead I noticed myself criticizing myself in pretty much my father's tone, "Shut your mouth, you'll let the flies in." Something like that.  So maybe I had allergies as a kid, too.  Today the pollen was getting to me and my slender aristocratic nose was having a hard time streaming air, I guess.  I kept finding myself semi-mouth breathing. Ah jeez.

But that was only the beginning.  Then there was how fat I've gotten (30 lbs. over my high-school weight), and how lazy too, really not active enough in everybody else's opinion, and how I forgot what I came here for, and oh, the mess in the front closet and the kitchen floor and . . . I began to ask myself, When will I be happy with myself?


Actually, on a good day I am basically happy with my privileged first-world life and myself, though little things like that intrude.  Go back under the bed, monster.  On a bad day (which today was not) the self-criticism really flows.  I'm more aware of it now than ever, as I've been working with a book that had me look harder at how I do that.  This is much like Zen - dark enlightenment, it's sometimes called.  This is the part about spiritual practice and personal growth that nobody tells you about, and nobody likes.

So bringing this out into the light, I thought, I'll be happy with myself - that is, I'll be perfect - when I meditate twice every day, clean out the frig, hang up all my clothes, oh, the kitchen floor, get my manuscripts out and published, iron that scarf....

In short, I had a to-do list headed by
Lose 10 lbs.!  Maybe 20!
With at least 100 other things on it.
And that's how women are.

I haven't even touched on the faults other people probably think I have, which I am blithely unaware of.*  So that at least is something to like about myself, that little streak of ignorant bliss.
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* The old prescriptive grammar said, "Never use a preposition to end a sentence with"** but I have a PhD in English, and a rebellious streak, AND I'm not paid for this, so I write what I want.
** I know - I'm joking.