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.

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.


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.