Wednesday, December 24, 2014

why do I celebrate Christmas?

Someone asked me the other day if I celebrate Christmas. It's a fair question -- I am an atheist, and a practicing Buddhist. It would seem not to be a holiday you would find on my personal calendar. And yet I love it.

Part of it is this. I grew up rootless, tradition-less. My parents immigrated from Europe and all our other relatives were still there. So we didn't have grandma's pumpkin bread, or great aunt Tillie's eggnog, or stories of Christmas past that it seemed everyone else had. So I wanted all of it. I wanted Christmas carols, stockings, the tree. I would have wanted a Christmas goose or figgy pudding, if I had known what those were. I told Santa my Christmas wishes and worried that we didn't have a chimney. I loved all the Christmas cards that would arrive.

As an adult, with a child of my own, I wanted tradition. TRADITION. We carved out a few of our own, and we made sure the grandparents and aunts and uncles were part of every Christmas. I wanted our kid to feel a sense of family, of history, of belonging someplace.

But now the kid is mostly grown. And I still adore Christmas. I love giving gifts, finding the thing that will make someone light up, or just feel loved and remembered. I love how people express their feelings during the Christmas season. Hugs, kisses, warm wishes, it's all okay to share on Christmas. There are no strangers on Christmas. Everywhere there is kindness. People share what they can, give what they can.

Christmas gives me hope. If we can all be like this for a day, for a week, we can be like this always. We can live with open hearts. We can take care of each other.

May all beings be at peace. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be free from the causes of suffering.

Merry Christmas, every one!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

taken to school

I got taken to school today. My 20 year old son took exception to my use of the word "thug". Actually, he took exception to my purchasing Thug Kitchen, a cookbook I actually hoped he would use and enjoy. He was offended by the title, and by its use by two white authors from California. After an hour of arguing back and forth, I have to admit he's right.

"Thug" is a label, and as such, once you have pinned it on someone, it dismisses any hope of seeing that person as human, as an individual. The kiddo pointed out that labeling someone is counter to my values, and inconsistent with my world view. Score one for the kiddo -- he is absolutely, painfully, correct.

His other argument was a little harder to deal with. He feels that the word  is increasingly used as a nice way of avoiding the "N' word, while still getting the point across. In his view, it is racism, but of a more socially acceptable flavor. I argued vehemently, because, you know "I'm not a racist". But. In doing a little uncomfortable introspection, I've gotta say I've come to use the word the same way Fox News uses it -- to group people who look and act a certain way, and say that they are trouble. It is a subtler variation of the old "good" blacks vs "bad" blacks labeling of the civil rights era.  It is scary how easy it is to fall into this way of thinking. It was wrong then. It is wrong now. And I had no idea it had crept into my thinking.

It is hard for me as the mom, to have my kid pointing out my flaws. It is painful to have my behavior scrutinized. But it is also wonderful. My kid is his own person. He thinks about things. He can spot hypocrisy a mile away. He speaks his mind. And I can learn from him, just like he did from me. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014


I didn't meditate today. Every now and then, I take a day off from practice. I want meditating to be a choice, not something I do on auto-pilot.  In this, I am practicing a little recursion, being mindful about my mindfulness.

Skipping a day here or there reminds me how much I get from practice, how much I benefit. And yes, it also reminds me how much I need it. I am not as centered on days I skip. I am, for lack of a better term, crankier. I have more hard edges. I don't move as softly or easily thru the world.

Tomorrow, I will go back to the cushion, with a renewed sense that it is what I want to do, what I need to do, what I should do.

Friday, November 28, 2014

with gratitude

Gratitude is a hard thing to talk about. Too often, it ends up sounding like bragging. You know, the whole "I'm so grateful for my wonderful husband, kids, house....perfect everything". Or it sounds like something you should be saying. "I'm so grateful for the opportunity..."  but it somehow rings hollow.

The thing is, we should be expressing gratitude. Loudly, often, repeatedly, with total sincerity. Every day we wake up, it's a gift. No bullshit. Every day, everywhere, some people DON'T wake up. You woke up, drew a breath. That is amazing. 

I'm not singing a chorus of "everything is awesome". I'm not a pollyanna. Life is full of hard things, difficult things, impossible things. But there are golden moments in every day, if you are open to them. And if you can't find them, well still, you were there, right? living, breathing, with the prospect that things could improve.

Gratitude is a way to acknowledge the importance of others; it can be an exercise in humility. You don't really accomplish anything entirely on your own. Acknowledging that can be hard -- it's so counter to the American ideal. 

Gratitude is the antidote to grasping. If I am full, content, replete in myself, I am not wanting, chafing at lack, jealous, bitter, angry. 

Gratitude is the key to empathy. It opens your heart to all the connections that exist between you and every other living thing.

I am grateful for love, for family and friends, for the world and everything in it. I am grateful for life, for death, and for everything in between.

Monday, November 24, 2014

sitting in judgement

I used to find it easy to judge people. By judge, I mean I would weigh their worth. Sum them up with a word. Asshole. Idiot. Jerk. Crook. Thief. Thug. As I practice more, I find I can do this less.

This doesn't mean I don't see the same behavior I saw before. I do. I know when someone is cheating me and I get angry about it just like anyone else. I'm not a fucking saint. I just mean that I can't DISMISS someone for it. I end up wondering what its like to be them, what happened to them that makes them the way they are. I start to see how it could happen that they ended up that way.

I can get angry when someone is an asshat. I just can't STAY angry.

Yesterday, Marion Barry died. He was the truly shitty mayor of Washington, DC. 4 TIMES. He is famous for his "the bitch set me up" line, uttered when he was caught with both crack and a woman not his wife, in a hotel room. He was a crook, a dishonest politician, a philanderer, a drug addict. But he was also reputedly a loyal friend. He worked his way up, from a boy picking cotton to a man with a masters degree in chemistry, from a tiny town in the South, to a civil rights activist, to mayor of a large city. No one is all bad, or all good.

I said as much in a FB posting and was astounded at the angry reaction. Because he was a bad man, who abused his power, most folks thought he should be written off. He was a crooked politician, and that was the sum of it.

I used to feel the same way. Sometimes I wonder if it's a bad thing that I don't anymore.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

small changes in view

I have had a love/hate relationship with my body my whole life. I don't think I am alone in this.

I love that I am fairly healthy. My legs are strong and get me where I want to go. I may need glasses, but I don't miss much. My hearing is exceptional. I struggle with my weight but truly I have no complaints. My body has been a source of incredible pleasure, for which I am very grateful. My senses have never let me down. When I clean up and dress up, I look okay.

For all that, rarely do I look in a mirror and not immediately think something critical or judgmental. My hair has never once looked like a shampoo ad. I still have acne, at 52. I've needed glasses since 2nd grade. I started wishing for boobs when I was 5 or 6, and I never quite got what I wished for.
My shape is not the shape they design clothes for, and it's not the shape I see in magazines.

Until recently. I have been seeing small signs that maybe we are making progress on the media front. Calvin Klein has a size 10 model. Big deal, you might think -- the average woman wears a 12. But when all their previous models were size 0 or size 2, it seems revolutionary. We have Viola Davis on a hit TV series, stripping off her makeup in a scene that was powerful mostly because we got to see a woman as she REALLY is, not how 3 hours of makeup can make her look. And we have Orange is the New Black.

I practically cheered the other night, watching an episode of this show. Not for what was happening, but for this: a line of nude women, fat women, skinny women, short, tall, young and old. My god, I saw a gray haired fat old lady naked on TV! FINALLY. REAL BODIES ON TV.

It was so damn refreshing. Affirming. Yes, we actually do come in all shapes and sizes. There is an infinite variety and beauty to the human form. Maybe if we see it more often, we'll begin to believe it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

calling in lazy

We can call in sick when we can't work. Why can't we call in lazy? My mental health should be as important as my physical health. I know that if you are lucky, you have vacation days that you can use. But those are planned in advance, scheduled. I'm talking about something more spontaneous.

There should be room in modern life for days where you don't do much of anything. As I write this, I am in my pajamas, with a nice warm fleece robe wrapped around me. I have a cup of hot tea, my feet up on the coffee table. The bright sunshine is streaming in through the windows. It's chilly, but the hiss of the radiators promises warmth to come. I've just finished a leisurely breakfast, the kind I don't get to have during the week -- perfectly fried eggs, toast, veggie sausage, more tea. I read the paper because I had the time.

I don't have to do a damn thing today. Nothing. I can take a walk if I want. Or not. Maybe read a little. If it warms up I might throw the ball for the dog. Or not. It might be a great day to make a pot of soup or bake some bread. Or not.

What lazy really means is that I have the luxury of taking the day as it comes. No goals. No agenda. I can waste time, squander opportunity, live large or small. I can allow for serendipity, for the happy accidents that normally pass by unnoticed, for chance and circumstance. There is space for life to happen in its own way, outside of time.

Would it be so bad, if we just took a lazy day when we felt the need?

Friday, November 14, 2014

so much in a cup of tea

I have been a major tea addict for many years. I usually have 3-4 cups of caffeinated black tea a day, and then several cups of green tea on top of that. I thought I was addicted to the caffeine in the tea, but now I am not sure.

For the last month, I have been caffeine-free. Because the doctor thought I had gastric reflux, she prescribed a new diet -- no caffeine, no booze, no spicy food, no citrus. My heartburn symptoms have gone away, and I have started drinking a beer or two (or shots when my trivia team is playing) during the week. Other than that, I have kept to the diet. I had crushing headaches for the first three days, but those went away as I got used to not having the caffeine.

What surprised me is that I still drink as much tea as before. I have caffeine-free black and green tea, as well as some herbals. I suppose I wasn't as addicted to the caffeine as I was to the whole process of tea.

It's the warm cup in my hands. It's the reciprocity of it -- the teacup warms my hands, and then the warmth of my hands keeps the teacup warm. It's the colors, the white cup, and the beautiful amber or black or green liquid. How each type of tea has its own beautiful shade. It's the steam and the heat rising off. It's the aroma, and how each cup is different. It's the time that it takes, the process. I have to walk to the coffee room or the kitchen. I have to make the tea. I have to take the mug or the cup back with me, holding it's warmth in my hands as I anticipate that first sip.

For the time it takes me to drink my tea, it is all that I am doing. It isn't something I can gulp down while I read that article, or work on that software issue. I can't enter numbers in a spreadsheet while mindlessly sipping. Hot tea demands attention, a certain level of care, if just to avoid spills and burns.

Tea is meditation.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

it's hard out there

We're tough on ourselves. We're tough on everyone else. We're tough on the planet. Life is rough enough without all this. You would think by now, in our evolutionary journey, we would finally have adapted to not having armor plates. You would think we would have come to terms with our softness, our relatively defenseless selves.

And yet -- we posture, we strut, we bare our teeth. Snarling, growling, nipping at each others heels, just to show we aren't easy prey.

We could do better. Once in awhile I even believe we WILL do better. We could be gentle with ourselves, kind to others, and walk softly on this earth. 

I think that's the real display of strength.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

bringing talents to bear

 For all of my life, I have been about me first. Then family and friends. And everything else a distant third. My career has been about making the most money that I can with the least discomfort for myself. This means working in an industry that I think is doing some sort of good, because that makes my conscience happy. It means doing something that I am good at, because I don't like to do things where I fail. It means being where I have some input into decisions and operations, because I like the illusion of control and it feeds my self respect. I have done well, and have been pretty smug about it.

My meditation lately has brought up all sorts of thoughts. A recurring theme, on the cushion and off, is entirely new to me. How can I serve? What should I be doing that would be of help? And when I say new, I mean I have never ever given it a moments thought. I didn't grow up with a tradition of service. We didn't do volunteer work, we didn't have vocations. You worked for a paycheck, unless you lucked into winning the lottery.

I have no idea what to do. What are my talents? my abilities? is there something unique that I could bring to bear to make positive changes in the world? I have a feeling that these are questions I probably should have asked at 18 or 20.

I guess better late than never....

Monday, November 03, 2014

open book without a cover

Raw. Exposed. Vulnerable. This seems to be this month's mantra. Events seem to conspire to make sure that I am off-balance, uncomfortable, to shake me up and pop my illusions like balloons.

I have always felt that I could counter uncertainty with preparation; if I do the right things at the right time, I am safe from the upheavals that seem to knock others for a loop. I'll never be the last lamp-lighter or even the last of the layoffs. I observe, I anticipate, I prep and I move before things happen to me. I'm in control, master of my fate.

So when the ceiling fell in, quite literally, I was knocked for a loop. I was at the office! I was doing exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time. And I still had to run for my safety, to avoid being doused in boiling water from the steam pipes. A little slower and things could have been devastating. I got out and that's good. But I had a sudden kick in the pants -- hey, I'm as mortal as the next person. I can't prepare or plan my way out of the fact that someday, I'm gonna die. And I have no idea when and where.

I've always been smug about my good health. I eat a healthy diet, watch my weight, get moderate exercise. I meditate. I almost never get ill because I do all the right things, or so I like to think. But the stress of having to bolt from my chair, the adrenaline and nerves and everything else caused a couple of very bad weeks. My feet broke out where the filthy water had soaked into my socks. I had a few small burns. I started having a burning in my chest. I ended up at the doctor, with echocardiograms, stress tests, blood tests, ultrasounds -- like a sick person. Ultimately, I was fine. I had a little gastric reflux, that has since gone away. But it scared me, and reminded me that health isn't a given. Just because I am healthy today doesn't mean I will stay that way. Even if I do all the right things. It is another thing outside my control. I am vulnerable to the same diseases and disorders, to the same accidents of timing, as everyone else.

 I've always been a sort of open book, what you see is what you get, kind of person. But there is a difference between that and being truly exposed and vulnerable.It's still a narrative of sorts -- I show only what I've chosen to reveal, in the way I choose to present it.  I've had moments lately when I have been defenseless, when my carefully constructed walls have come down, when my public face has cracked, and I've been out there, raw,  in a very real and authentic way. It's terrifying, but also freeing. There is a a weightlessness, as if you are in zero gravity, or as if all the layers of protection had a heaviness to them. Stripped away, I begin to see the cost of keeping all that stuff in place.

I'd like to say that now that I've experienced all this, I will just choose to be open and vulnerable all the time. But there is a lifetime of habit attached to my "armor". I doubt very much that I can muster that much bravery on a day in, day out basis. But I can make strides in that direction, a little at a time.

Monday, October 27, 2014

public/private speaking

I have given a lot of talks in my professional life. I've wasted more hours than I like to think about fiddling around with powerpoint. I would say I am fairly comfortable behind the podium. Today, though - today was wildly different.

I am a United Way ambassador for our department. That means that I, along with two colleagues, are trying to drum up donations for our annual United Way campaign. Today we had our kickoff meeting. This means a small group of rather unwilling staff members, sitting in a smallish auditorium. My boss talked for a bit, and then I was to talk about "Why I Give".

I showed a little animation I created. It was just a few slides to show how hard it is to make an impact with small individual giving, but how a group like the United Way can marshal resources and donation at a level that has significant impact.

And then I got personal, off-script. And lost my shit. Like, in tears leaking down my cheeks, lost it. I was trying to talk about giving back. About being a "have" that used to be a "have not". And how thin the margin is between making it and not making it.

It turns out I have no problem speaking about just about anything. Unless it is personal, and something I deeply care about. Then, apparently, I am a quivering sobbing mass of emotion.

A few years ago, I would have been horribly embarrassed. And mad at myself, for blowing it. I felt a little raw, the way you do after you cry. But I also felt okay about it. I'm human, and imperfect and just like everybody else.

What happened afterward was even more eye-opening. I got notes saying I had inspired people to give. A friend said I was brave. A co-worker I don't know well stopped by to hug me, and then to share her own story and cry. It was very moving and very powerful.

And not at all a typical day at the office.

Monday, October 06, 2014

feet of clay

I've been thinking the last few days about the idea of "feet of clay". The adopted son of the founder of Shambhala has been in the news. Ashoka Mukpo is an NBC journalist, recently transported home for treatment of Ebola. He seems like a decent person, working very hard to bring some attention to an often ignored part of the world.

His adopted father was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism. He's the "feet of clay" I have been ruminating about this week. He is such a contradiction for me. He was a wise man, an excellent dharma teacher, with a beautiful vision for the realization of an enlightened society. His teachings form the basis for the buddhist training I have been pursuing the last couple of years. He was also a deeply flawed human being. He reputedly died from his alcoholism. He drank to excess, he smoked, he had affairs with his students, he abused his power as a spiritual leader.

This is the foundation on which I have built my path. I am old enough to realize that few people are wholly good, or wholly bad.  And I know the teachings to be sound, even if the teacher was not all that I would wish for. But part of me is embarrassed by the connection. I have turned it around and looked at it, and I think it is this -- I worry that his actions reflect badly on Shambhala, and that because this is my practice, it somehow reflects back on me. I hate to feel foolish. I hate to feel "duped". And on some level, this week, that is what I felt.

Oddly, I also felt more of a connection to the man than I did before. I have always preferred sinners to saints -- they are more human, more real to me. I cannot aspire to sainthood, but I can be a sinner who sticks to the path as much as I am able. I can be flawed, I can be damaged, and still not be disqualified from enlightenment. This is powerful, and freeing.

I don't know if the man was a terrible example, or a perfect one.

Friday, September 26, 2014

images that stick I don't know why

Lately I have noticed that certain images stick with me. I've always had a good memory, especially for things I see. But it's been a catalog, static pictures that I can thumb through when needed. This is different. This is a gnawing at, a ruminating sort of recall.

I had an encounter with a mouse, while meditating a few weeks ago. I was in my sitting room, focused on my in breath and m out breath. And then I let my focus expand. And saw a mouse, under my radiator. A little soft brown creature. I tried not to move, even more than usual. I didn't want to frighten the mouse, and I wasn't sure what to do. Would it be better to let it sit, or catch it? So I watched, trying to see if it was breathing. So small, lovely really, if you forgot it was a mouse. Five minutes passed like this. Then I carefully got up and went to get my husband. I thought maybe he could capture the mouse and let him go out back. The mouse was dead. It made me rethink how I feel about rodents, about flies, about all the little creatures going about their little lives, doing nothing but what they were made to do, and how we alter their paths for our own purposes. The image of the mouse keeps coming back to me.

The other day, I was in the parking garage, heading home from a less than pleasant work day. It's an ugly cement structure, dirty, dark, very industrial looking. The garage is for employees, and has two floors of parking for patients.  I usually move pretty fast, heading toward the third floor. I always take the stairs. I heard a mom yelling, SLOW DOWN, SLOW DOWN, at her child. The little girl, blond, wearing something pink, was racing toward me in her wheel chair. She was laughing on the way to her doctor's appointment. I don't know if it was the laughter, or the light=up lights on the wheels of her wheelchair. Red, blue and green lights, that created this awesome pattern as she wheeled. It CAUGHT me. "Your lights are really cool!" I called after her as she sped by. I was grinning from ear to ear and it lasted all the way home.

That kid touched my heart. I don't know her. I will never know her. But her laughter, and her lights, stuck.

And somehow, in the strange alchemy of thought and memory, the two images have become related. the mouse, the girl, the soft brown fur and the whirling lights. Silence and laughter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

when folks do wrong

I am struggling today with a dilemma of sorts. One of our local football stars, Ray Rice, was released from our hometown football team, the Baltimore Ravens. Football is almost a religion here, and Rice was a patron saint of sorts. He is an amazingly talented football player. Over the years, he has been very visible in local charities, and very vocal in opposing bullying in schools.

But today, a video surfaced, showing Ray Rice knocking his fiancee unconscious. It was terrible to see. Heartbreaking. I watched our local hero throw a punch, and then drag his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator, handling her as if she was a bag of laundry. He showed no concern and no remorse.

I don't know Ray Rice, or his wife. I didn't hear the words exchanged, or observe these two people in better times, or even in the days prior to the altercation. There is nothing personal in this situation. It didn't happen to me. But I felt hurt, angry, disappointed, and wanted to see justice done, as if it really were personal. What I saw was not okay.

So I was happy that the team released him. Serves the bastard right, you know. But then I thought, how does that serve him, or his children, or his wife? Is it justice? or does it just feel good to see something done?  I don't want him to enjoy fame and fortune, as if he didn't do something terrible. I don't want kids looking up to him and thinking that knocking someone out is okay, something you can do as long as you are a man on the football field. I want a line that people know it is not okay to cross. I want to root on my team without feeling conflicted about it. When it comes down to it, I want bad things to happen to bad people.

Except, that then I end up here. Ray Rice clearly needs to learn other ways to handle his anger, his strength, his behavior. And his wife will have to struggle with shame and forgiveness and her own anger. Will being fired, and publicly shamed help in this? or make it worse? 

What I really want is for Ray Rice to be a better man. And I want his wife to be a better woman. I want them whole and healed and not capable of treating each other this way. 

 Which leaves me with this. What is the compassionate course when people do the wrong thing? how should we respond individually? collectively? How do we take something ugly and wrong and make it right?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

the imp of the perverse

I've spent the last few years figuring out the things that work best for me. So why do I always drift back into bad patterns when I am most in need of the good ones?

I know that I feel best, and am at my happiest and healthiest when:

I eat a mostly plant based, low fat diet
I get substantial chunks of time out in nature
I meditate for 15-20 minutes every day
I get 7 hours or so of solid sleep a night
I get 30 minutes of exercise a day

But when I am extremely stressed, I do this instead:

I eat a lot of salty snacks and up the fat in my diet
I spend as much time as possible on my couch
I meditate 5 minutes or not at all
I sleep a couple of hours at a stretch
I skip the exercise or put in a token 15 minutes a couple of times a week

With the end result that I feel worse than I need to feel, for longer than I need to feel that way. I know it. I KNOW IT. And yet I keep repeating that cycle. I call it the 'imp of the perverse' because it almost has a life of its own -- my own little demon that just doesn't want to be banished.

I always thought that part of being a grown up was doing what you know you need to do, not just what you want to do. So either I am not a grown up yet, or I was wrong in thinking that in the first place. Or maybe a mix of both.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

inside a meditation retreat

This past weekend, I took a 3 day meditation retreat at the Baltimore Shambhala Center. It was one of my levels in the Shambhala training -- Level III, Warrior in the World. The title is a little off-putting, but it makes sense. The idea is that you have to not only practice to improve things for yourself, you have to get up off the cushion and  live that practice in the world. To face the world as it is, without pretense or illusion, and to cultivate an open heart takes strength and courage -- the courage of a warrior

The basic structure of the retreats is the same. We meet on Friday night for a couple of hours. We meet each other  -- usually 10-20 students, a handful of staff and a teacher. There is an introductory talk to frame the weekend, a new practice is introduced. some meditation, and we have a dharma talk. Then there are the housekeeping details -- who is staffing the weekend, what time we should be there in the morning, whether lunch is provided, what to expect the next day, etc

On Saturday we arrive in the morning and spend half an hour or so having breakfast and getting better acquainted. Then we go in for meditation, alternating sitting and walking. Then some instruction. Usually there is some breakout for discussion, an interview with the teacher or assistant teacher as a check-in, maybe an exercise to try. We might  have a few minutes of yoga. Lunch is mostly eaten together, and depending on the retreat, it is offered as a social period or a silent period. Then more sitting, more walking meditation, a dharma talk and discussion.

We come back on Sunday and the day is more or less the same pattern. We go out to a restaurant for lunch, or you can lunch on your own if you prefer. We sit, walk, do interviews again, more breakout discussion, and end the weekend with a celebration.

That's the framework. What it's like is different. We start out as a group of mostly strangers. Some familiar faces, but often very few. We start out awkwardly, a little uncomfortable with each other. By the end of the weekend at least a few people will have cried, everyone will have laughed, and we will be very sad to say goodbye. There are a lot of hugs as we part company.

I think this transformation happens because we have to be so unguarded, so open with each other. It is hard to stay strangers when people are talking about their thoughts and feelings, their habits and stresses and challenges. We also are physically struggling. Mediating on a cushion on the floor, or even in a chair, becomes excruciating as the weekend wears on. Backs and knees and shoulders and ankles scream and creak with the effort. We sit together and fight to stay awake, to honor the practices, to not zone out or just quit. We support each other, encourage each other, and recognize that we are all going through something similar.

The staff also does wonders to make the weekend work for all of us. They are all volunteers, students like ourselves. They have all completed Level III, which is the point in the practice where you can being volunteering for any of the levels you have already taken. The volunteers sit as timekeepers, act as gatekeepers, facilitate discussion and interviews. They prepare our meals and wash our dishes. They ensure our comfort, ease our hurts, make sure everyone feels safe and secure and cared for. They are there for the entire retreat. In Shambhala, volunteering is both service and practice. They tell us they get at least as much out of the weekend as we do, if not more. I believe them. 

This weekend was like the others. It was hard, it was exhausting. But it also had moments of absolute transcendent joy.

We had to go for a silent walk outside, each on our own. Our task was to stay in the moment, focusing on our senses. It was raining, and the park I walked in never looked so lush and beautiful. The smells and sounds were amazing. The colors were intense, brighter and richer. I noticed things I never noticed before.

We had to take another walk on Sunday. This time we were supposed to walk around the city, really seeing every person we pass. We could say hello or not, but it had to be a conscious choice. And we were supposed to try to stay present and open throughout the walk. I have rarely had so much fun on a walk. The sun was shining, the students were moving into their dorms, the streets were crowded. I didn't have a place to go, or a time to be there. So I walked. I talked with dozens of people. I met and petted a couple of sweet doggies. I had a nice talk with a traffic cop. Spent a few minutes talking with a mom waiting to move her son into a dorm. Met a parent from out of state at the meters and helped him figure out what he was doing. Stopped and gave a beggar a dollar. Had a smile for everyone I passed. I had a nice walk back with another student, finding tons of common ground. It felt terrific! I felt free and happy and weightless.

Sunday afternoon is usually the hardest in terms of sitting in meditation. You are so tired by then; it's a struggle to even keep your eyes open. Your mind keeps jumping around and you keep dragging yourself back to your focus. The windows were open, a slight breeze started up.And then music. Very clear, very loud. A car stereo outside is playing  The Beatles Let It Be. If a room full of people sitting in silence could freeze, it did. Did we really hear what we thought we heard?? A few lines into the song,we're sure we did. Then the first person starts laughing, then another, then the whole room.

Sometimes the universe is NOT subtle.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

mantras for a modern life

I really find mantra repetition to be a useful practice. While I do use a traditional mantra regularly, I also have a few modern ones that have helped me out of a world of trouble. I thought I'd share, in case they were of use to anyone else.

Sometimes, in a self-pitying mood, I get into the whole "why me?" cycle. I find if I just repeat "why NOT me?" a few times to myself, my perspective shifts just enough to get out of it. Who am I to sail through life with no troubles, no worries? what makes me so privileged, so special?  The answer is pretty clear -- shit happens, and we have no IDEA why. It might happen to my neighbor, the person down the street, me. Nobody gets a pass.

When I struggle with a co-worker, or someone doing their job particularly badly, I can  feel myself getting irritated, angry, truly pissed. How could this person inconvenience me this way? My time is valuable. I have too much to do to deal with this crap. Really. That's about the time I pull out "they're trying to do a good job, just like you". Even the inept, the incompetent, are almost always trying to do a good job. Maybe they are just bad at it. Or are just having an off day. Or what they need and what you need put you at cross-purposes. It doesn't work every time, because I'm not a saint, and sometime I'M the one having a shitty day, but generally, it works.

The next one is sort of multi-purpose, and has smoothed work, social life, just about everything. When I find myself feeling slighted, or like the whole universe is out to get me, or people are ignoring me, or whatever, I pull out "IT'S NOT ABOUT ME".  Seriously, the things happening around you, that you think are happening TO YOU, probably aren't. When it rains the one day you had to park 6 blocks away, when a friend didn't reply to your messages, when you caught a cold before your first dinner out in weeks, whatever it is -- IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Okay, I know -- sometimes your friend isn't returning your texts because they really aren't your friend. Or you washed your car (which really does make it rain). But generally, it rained because it was going to. Your friend is away for the weekend at a family wedding, and just isn't replying to ANYONE. You caught a cold because that virus needed somewhere to be. It didn't single you out because you had plans.

With "why not me?", "they're trying to do a good job, just like you" and the ever useful "It's not about me", I find that I argue less, blame less, beat myself up less, and just generally have an easier time of things.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Three Turns

Three times, my life has taken a sharp turn from the path I was on. The first turn, I was a hard drinking, hard partying wild-child, flunking my way out of school. Luckily, I met my husband just as I was spiraling out of control. Suddenly I spent my nights at home, did my drinking in the safe confines of my living room, and started going to class. Because it wasn't just about me anymore -- it was about us.

The second turn, I was all about ambition. I was all about career. I wanted to climb higher, make more money, be a SUCCESS. I was working insane hours, 70 hours, 80 hours, 100 hours a week. Then our son got sick, and for a while, the doctors said we were going to lose him. It's a cliche really, that whole "I suddenly realized what was important", but it was true. It is also true that there are no atheists in foxholes...or hospital waiting rooms. I vowed to change, made promises to I don't even know who, if only my kid would live. And he did, and I did. I put the job on the back burner, worked less hours, and focused more on family. It wasn't about me -- it was about all of us.

The third turn, I was a mess. Stressed out, irritable, blood pressure going up, weight going up. Snapping at the people I loved most. Bored. Cranky. I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew I needed a change. I needed to change ME. This was urban renewal -- tear down everything but the shell and rebuild. I wanted to strip out all the things I had hung on to, but that didn't serve me well. In a way, I wanted to be a self that I had chosen, rather than a reaction to all the different circumstances of my life.

Three turns. So far.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

meditation - the good, the bad, and the ugly

I've noticed that most articles on meditation focus solely on the good stuff -- the reduction in stress, the health benefits, the improvements in focus and clarity. All those things are true. You really do get all these things from meditation. And I am a huge believer that the benefits outweigh the costs. But there are some costs.

I've lost a few things as my practice has progressed. And I've run into difficulties I didn't know I would encounter.

I didn't know that sometimes meditation is difficult, other times downright scary. I spent a few weeks where I was afraid to sit and meditate, because every time I had during that time period, I was immediately drowning in suppressed memories. I had spent almost 50 years erecting walls in my mind, hiding even from myself. And in an extremely painful 4-6 week period, as i would meditate, the walls would come down. And i would remember. Just like I was there, back at whatever time, with the full immediacy of the event. It was shattering. I wasn't a very nice person, for a lot of my life. Sitting with that, feeling that, was awful. I had also buried just a ton of pain. It hit me hard, when the walls came down. Was it a good thing? Ultimately, I think it was the only thing. It was something that I absolutely had to go through. But I wish I had known that it might happen. Maybe it wouldn't have been so disorienting.

I have had periods of time where meditating made me very emotionally labile. I easily get choked up by emotion -- I have even cried at Kodak commercials. But not at this level, not this way. Other people's pain was nearly overwhelming. I would literally cry driving to work, just from the normal street life I would see every day. I would burst out laughing, for no real reason. My emotions were just very much at the surface. It was another phase that went away, as abruptly as it came. But again, it would have been nice to know -- hey this can happen, too.

The losses are few, but there are things I miss. I can't eat pork any more. I miss ribs, pulled pork, pork chops, BACON. But I think pigs are sentient, and I just can't willingly harm them as a result. I fear beef is also about to disappear from my diet -- for much the same reason. I just can't do it any more; it makes me feel sad when I see a cow and know it's going to die so someone can eat it.

I spent most of my life fishing with my dad. I love being on the water, the sounds of the water against the boat, the smells, the sound of sea birds. I love casting, dropping my line exactly where I want it to go. There is a lovely physical connection from hand to rod to line to water.  I love that sudden aliveness that says there is a fish on the line. But I can't do it any more. The last time I went, we had a day fishermen dream of. Over 20 fish. And I ended up silently apologizing to every single one of them as I took the hook out of their mouths. I felt like a killer. I was pulling them from their lives, for my own amusement. I didn't NEED to eat them. I did it for fun. So that was my last fishing trip. I'll miss it.

I used to listen to music all day. I had a stereo in my office. I would walk in, pump up the tunes, so I could get through my day. Fast music to get me started; angry music on bad days, dance music to get through rote tasks. I needed it. But now I can't listen to music in the background. It has a depth and richness I didn't notice before -- I love it more, but it takes more attention from me. I can't put it on and do something else. And I don't need it any more; I have discovered silence and can now work without backing noise for the first time in my life.

I have lost much of my wit, as well. I used to have a sharp sort of humor, but I find that I can't joke that way any more. No zingers, no jokes at someone's expense. I still laugh a lot, and I still joke around, but I am so much more careful now. I worry that it makes me boring. That maybe I'm not as much fun to be around now. I can't go back, though, and start channeling Dorothy Parker again.

I can live with all these losses, because of all the things I have gained - joy, peace of mind, quiet, health. It seems worth it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

stretching in different directions

I am not a joiner. I am not one of those people who volunteers. I am more of a "slouch down in my seat and hope they don't call on me" type of person. Partly it's that I am fairly busy; I work full time, I go to school, and I try to spend time with family and friends as much as possible. But that's only part of it. Really, volunteering is like stepping into the void; you are out there, hanging, without support. Yet I want to help, I really do. 

So I started looking for a volunteer opportunity at the Shambhala Center, one that would somehow mesh with my crazy schedule. They put out a call for morning umdze volunteers, and that sounded perfect. It's an hour one day a week, in the morning before work. Of course, I really had no idea what an umdze does, other than sit up front and meditate facing the group.

here's what they do:
The Umdze, or Timekeeper, has overall responsibility for each public meditation session. The umdze opens the Center, pays attention to the physical environment (orderliness, temperature, lighting), opens the shrines, leads chants (when appropriate), signals alternating sitting/walking periods, closes the shrines, and locks up.  Performing as Umdze is an opportunity to deepen one’s own practice as well as serving the sangha.

So, I didn't read the description before volunteering. And I really really didn't think through the whole "open the center" part; it means getting up at 5:30am, and being at the center by 6:50am. I am not a morning person. I am NOT a morning person. 
 I had only been to the center in the evening -- it turns out the morning session is different. for one thing, it has chants. OH SHIT!!. I volunteered to do something that involved sitting up front and CHANTING. I can't carry a tune. I have no rhythm. Is it wimpy to just back out, say sorry, didn't know?
I spent the first couple of weeks ducking the issue. I open up, turn on the lights. I learned how to set up the altar. I lit the candles, filled the water bowls, lit incense, put out the chant books. I learned how to make the tea for the shrine. All of this is very ritualized, very precise. There is an order to it all, and I found I really enjoyed it. 

But I let the person training me do the actual timekeeping and chanting. I acted as support. I took home a chant book to practice. I practiced. And I practiced. And each week, the trainer asked if I wanted to take a turn leading, and each week I said I wasn't ready.

This morning, I took the seat up on the dais, faced the group, and went through the ritual of timekeeping. I rang the gong three times. I said 3 of the 4 opening chants. I rang in the session. I meditated and watched the clock. I lead the walking meditation, remembered to light the incense, rang the next sitting. I did the closing chants. 

I made many mistakes, mostly small, I think. I skipped the longest chant, the Heart Sutra, because I still stumble over it and make a mosh of it. The experience was not horrible. It was not nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. Everyone is facing you, but they aren't really looking at you. They are looking at a representative, a figurehead. So that "oh god, everyone is looking at me" feeling just wasn't there.

 I was surprised at how different in quality the session was for me. I felt responsible. I didn't want to move or fidget or make the slightest sound because I felt I had to create an atmosphere that would support the people in the room. I felt like I was meditating for them rather than for myself alone. 

I have a lot more training to do, I think. But I like how it feels, stretching in different directions.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

just sitting there

Whenever I talk to someone about meditation, they always say "I could never do that". The perception of meditation is that you sit in calm, quiet repose, with a blank mind.

What really goes on is very different.

I take my seat on the cushion. I shift and shift until I find a spot that seems comfortable. I straighten up, place my palms on my thighs and begin. I set my focus about 4-6 feet in front of me, but softly. I notice my foot is cramping, so I shift again. I start to be aware of my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Did I remember to take out stuff for dinner? Back to the breathing. In. Out. Why did that person say that? Should I have said what I said? why do I judge what I say? oh yeah. Back to the breath. In. Out. Rest. In. Out. Rest. I wish my posture was better. It's so hard to sit up straight. Back to the breath. 5 minutes pass. I am getting good at this. my mind is so much calmer now. Ooops. Back to the breath. 5 minutes.  8 minutes. Now my knees hurt. Maybe I should shift again? maybe my body is just trying to get attention? Back to breathing. And so on.

Sometimes  it is peaceful, beautiful, calm. Sometimes my thoughts race through the whole session, and I feel thwarted, frustrated. Sometimes I feel raw, open,tender,  near tears. I have been filled with fear. Sometimes, I am flooded with joy. I have had weeks where every shitty thing I have ever done to anyone in my whole life come flooding back as if they just happened. Things I didn't even remember. I have had to confront my flaws, my insecurities, my own impermanence. I have been bored. I have fallen asleep. I have wanted to be anywhere but on that cushion. I have wanted to on the cushion, and no where else.

That's what it's really like.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

dharma and the dog

I learn more dharma from my dog, than I do from just about anyone or anything else. My dog suffers, and has suffered, just about every day of his short life. He has a host of physical problems -- hip dysplasia, spinal stenosis, a hole in his heart. Now he has heart arrythmia, an enlarged heart, is blind in one eye and going blind in another. He is only 7.

Every morning, he wakes up gagging and retching. He gathers himself and every so slowly makes his way to his feet. Painfully, slowly, and with great care, he makes his way downstairs to go outside. And there, he stops, sniffs the air, slowly takes in the whole of the world. He is fully there, and fully appreciative. He embodies joy in each breath. If it rains, he raises his face to the sky and catches rain drops. If it snows, he tastes the snowflakes. A squirrel makes his whole body energized and he becomes motion.

When he is full to the brim with outside, he comes inside. He eats, doing nothing but enjoying, tasting his food. He drinks, doing nothing but drinking. He has a biscuit and he joyfully throws it in the air, and then chases every bit as it breaks. He sighs contentedly and curls up for a nap.

He is in pain through every minute of every day. This is not a perception, but a fact. His spinal cord is squeezed, and every motion causes pain. His breath is ragged, uneven, hard to watch. But he will rise in a bit, and pick up a toy -- hoping for a game. He will seek out a cuddle or just warm company. He will run to the cat's protection, from every imagined foe. He will attack the mail as it comes in the slot, because it is his job, and he will do it as well as he's able, for as long as he is able. 

He has taught me attention, gratefulness, to be gentle with myself and my body. He has taught me that attitude is everything. That joy is in each breath, each day, each moment, accessible to all who will accept it. He is teaching me love without attachment. And now, slowly, he is teaching me to let go. His days are dwindling. He knows it, and I know it. He will tell me when he is ready to go, I think. And I will let him go when he asks.