Sunday, December 28, 2014

I'll Have the Rhinoceros, Please.

Today I took the trouble to comment on an interesting article in the NYT titled Against Invulnerability.  I do this partly to get a female voice into these things.  There are so many intelligent men interested in debating online, and too few women.  Here's what I said, feeling that I was speaking to the author:
As I understand the Zen I practice, I want to enter each moment vividly, fully, and without being shaken about by the desires and preferences of my conditioned self. In meditation practice, I practice letting all that flow through me without taking action. This does entail complete vulnerability to the feelings that arise, and can't be done without compassion. . . You might have some interest in the ancient text, "Trust in Mind" in this regard. A learned book about it recently came out.
The book by Mu Soeng is of the same title, and would probably not interest anyone who isn't of a somewhat scholarly bent.  The ancient poem itself is bad enough, I mean lo-o-ong.  But it is important enough to be chanted in sesshins, especially its first line, for it portrays exhaustively the Zen Way.  Here's one version of that line ~
The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.
The Way being human life.  When it's called The Great Way, I think it means living as a Buddhist.  Just accept whatever presents to you, whether it's a delicately carved rhinoceros fan or the great hairy beast itself parked in your kitchen.

Sounds easy, doesn't it?  Just eat whatever is put in front of you, right?  Everything, all the time?
just accept the distant mother, the dependent father, the mean sister, the lazy husband, the noisy neighbors, the gift that is. not. my. colors. Yes, that's the idea.  In addition, as the Dalai Lama admonishes, Try to be nice.  Actually, that's the hardest part sometimes.
A rhinoceros iguana, here photographed with insight by Dennis Daubney.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Understanding Your Old Person

cartoon by Jan Tomaschoff
For a long time, it seems, I've thought I would write a number of posts explaining being old to those who are not.  I'd think of specific things, like how it feels to stand in line at the checkout, slowly identifying the correct credit card and pulling it out with arthritic fingers, carefully putting it through the unfamiliar device only to have it fail, how it feels when a young person grabs it and puts it through so we can all get on with life.  Or I'd watch an elderly woman in the ophthalmologist's waiting room with the daughter who drove her there. The woman is scared of it all, quite reasonably, of the eye drops, the exam, and the probable findings, and tries to chat with her daughter, who would rather read a magazine.  Or I'd think about how it becomes a challenge to take a shower once you've had a couple of bad falls.  And how difficult it is to make big decisions anymore, like getting the bathroom renovated.  I thought each of these was a subject in itself.  I could write a book, I thought.

But this morning I was somehow inspired by rereading John Tarrant's workup on the koan "Bring me the rhinoceros," to see it from a different angle.  I saw that the problem is not that the Old Person in your life has changed; the problem is your re-action.  You don't want him to change.  You want to have A Dad all your life, of course you do; so you refuse to accept the evidence of the strokes.  You say, He could do it if he wanted to - find his keys, eat the food you left in the frig.  You don't want to be alone in this world, without a Dad or Mom to make things right.  We can call this not accepting reality.  Reality is one of those Zen things.

Sometimes our problem with The Old Person is talked about as being at the top of the pyramid now, but it doesn't feel like that at all. The stone at the top of a pyramid is supported by all the other stones. It is a solid position.  Having your Mom lose her Momness is the very opposite; it leaves you without support.  And it seems to come all of a sudden, though the tender decay of aging is slow as rust or lichen.

You are not really helped by the articles online about Being a Caregiver, which encourage you to be more selfish, to consider your needs.  There is merit to the idea of caregiver respite; you may be swinging automatically from tree to tree, doing what you think you ought to do, fleeing from the reality of the breakdown.  If so, odds are that your old person might enjoy a respite from excessive caregiving.  He may not want his very own cellphone; maybe the thought freaks him out.  You may think he needs to get with it.  Maybe you need to get with it, too.

Get with the great hairy beast of change, aging and loss.  The rhinoceros that reality is, barging into our party, upsetting the pitcher of sangria and tearing the hammock from its mooring.  The old person is not a problem, but a person.  Your denial of the reality of her decreasing competence, your insistent desire for security - that's the problem.  Mixed in there might even be your beliefs that you have more important things to do than sit in a hospital room waiting for your old person's doctor to show up, your conviction that you can get things straight.

Things are not straight.  There are no straight lines in nature, and few in your old person's veins anymore. Reality is not a laboratory, more like an amusement park or Las Vegas.  The best way to deal with it is to enter the stream.

The answer is not exactly an answer, or not the one you're looking for.  It is to approach each moment  with the intention to be fully aware of that Old Person, whether it is you or someone else, and of your own mess of reactions.  This growing old is not a curse.  In fact, it is the best way things can go:  the parents get old and die, then the children get old and die.  You might as well vow to open your heart to all of it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Imperfectly Zen

Recently a friend asked me how I've dealt with the 48-hour-cycle of depression I've had for some time now ~ good day/bad day.  I had to tell her I haven't conquered it, though it went to rest during these last two months that included two cataract surgeries, a heart cath (without anesthetic), and frightening shortness of breath caused (it turned out) by a major UTI, which entailed a six-day hospital stay.

The hospital stay in the nice new Heart Hospital was actually the nearest thing to a vacation I've had in a long time; I just put it in there to impress you. The cycling depression didn't bother me much during that busy time.  Inbetween being tested this way and that I enjoyed sitting at the window and watching the Life Flight helicopters come in.  I thought a lot about sudden death. I also thought about depression as a spiritual ailment.

My first inkling of this idea was from Parker Palmer many years ago, his little book, Listen to Your Life,which has become a classic. There he talks about his own disabling major depression, how he learned through it that the way he was living and working was not the life for him.  He had not found his own life and work.
The black cat of depression
I think the word "work" there is important.  It can be hard to do any kind of work when you're really depressed. But we all need to feel useful, even when it's all we can do to stay alive. The women's sitting group that meets in my home has given me work to do, in the sense that there is something I do for other people on schedule.  It was frightening to undertake it.  It has helped to understand that leading the group is not about me.  I'm not giving a performance, I don't have to shine. It's about them - giving them a chance to meditate with friends, to hear the dharma, to talk about their own spiritual lives.  In Zen terms, I took my ego out of it.

I've found that the best way to put aside the dark thoughts and feelings that come unbidden to people with depressive disorders is always just to do the job in front of me (though sometimes intellectual tasks are beyond me).  One of the women talked about this last week, how she moves through her own unwelcome thoughts when she's cooking by putting her mind back on the task.  I've found this is a really good idea when I'm trying to chop carrots - not my fingers.

For me, another key to doing anything is that I don't do it perfectly.  My house is never perfectly clean (oh, I hear my Mother turning over in her grave).  When my group meets, I sometimes forget to put the tea water on. Last time I forgot about the chants altogether until after we got our tea, and so had the wonderful woman who helps me set up.  So we did a chant at the end.  Call it Imperfect Zen.

It happens that leading and teaching on this small scale are part of my way, and they are not for most people, depressed or not.  But there are opportunities to give to and serve the world in every single life. They are there even when we are crippled by depression. When you go to the grocery store, you can smile at the older child who isn't getting the attention the baby gets.  You can let someone cut in ahead of you on your way home. You can give yourself time to walk around the block, a change of air.  You can share a funny dog video on Facebook.  At your worst, you can "like" a friend's post.

It's the holiday season - you can wear a Christmas sweater - you can't possibly look as bad in it as that poor cat.  You can call someone and not talk about how bad you feel, but instead ask how she's doing.  If you're on the phone, not on Skype, you don't need to wear a Christmas sweater, but can stay in your gloomiest bathrobe.  Nobody needs to know.  No matter how the call feels, congratulate yourself after you hang up. You're a nice person.  It was good of you to try.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Great Way is not difficult, they say

Jizo in the moment when fall meets winter
To repeat what I said to myself a moment ago, "I'm just so old . . . " The rest of the sentence was "and tired," but I was too tired to bother saying it.

I have another UTI.  So, what's ahead for this?  Drinking a glass of water every hour, taking d-Mannose and cranberry, trying to get my Vata-Pitta constitution in balance with the right foods and balancing tea.  Will take a urine sample to the lab this afternoon.  If this doesn't go away or gets worse, then I'm in for intramuscular shots and lots of uproar arranging them.  Oww!

How does this fit in with the Zen poem, Trust in Mind? you're wondering.  Hahaha as we say on Facebook (at least I do still have a sense of humor).  That poem probably didn't occur to anyone, but I've been thinking about it often since I got a calligraphy by Nonin Chowaney of that famous first line:
The Great Way is without difficulty; just avoid picking and choosing.
Digging down in Google I unearthed a 1993 talk by the poet/Zen master John Tarrant on this subject.  I love Tarrant's writing.  Here is a piece of it.

"The Great way is not difficult. It just avoids picking and
choosing." There is a Taoist flavor to this saying. The sense
of following the water path through life. The water if it runs
into a stone, it just makes its way around. The water is clear
and has no attachments which is why we have a little bowl of
water on the altar. Chao-chou has brought up this saying
which he was very fond of and he often liked to bring it up.
And then he said that as soon as we speak, that is picking and
choosing. If we are clear, we hang onto the clarity. This old
student doesn't even hang onto that. Do you still hang onto
anything, or not? So we could say that the greatest method of
meditation is that whatever comes up,just don't cling to it.
Whatever comes up, let it go. If you can do this, you'll find
the way home very quickly. But it's hard. Things stick to you.

What sticks to me seems to be that I don't want to be sick.  Don't want!

Or maybe what sticks to me is that I don't like my aversion to sickness.  I desire not to be caught in these desires to be able to do things. . . . the kind of roundabout a Zen student easily gets into.  It is better to think this way, however, than to keep hammering in your desires and claiming that it's not fair.

I had a perhaps disconnected thought this morning:  I should take a year off and not be serious about anything.  Maybe that is a good idea.  A lighter touch.  A year off.  Dust things, feed my houseplants, play with my photos, arrange flowers. (That's a gladiolia in the Ikebana arrangement below, from another summer.  I like arranging flowers.  It's so useless.)
Sometimes you need to get a grip and do your work, sometimes you need to relax your grip.  There is this from Tarrant's talk, too ~

 So when you meet an obstacle, it is good to remember the Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.

Maybe avoid so much talking in my mind.  As the poem says, "as soon as we speak, that is picking and choosing."  I'll close with the closing of his talk.  He's talking at a sesshin, about meditation and what comes to the mind, but it can apply to meeting even this old body, to working on accepting every Mu that comes your way.  It has to be fine with you that you're working on it.

Please continue in this way. Trust your own sincerity. You have
begun to gather some attention in your zazen. Do not be too
concerned about what comes to meet you. Just love your walking
and love the path and become one with it over and over again.
That will be enough.

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.
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.