Theme(s) of the Year(s)

Theme(s) of the Year(s)

I can’t help it. My little human brain loves the idea of fresh starts and propitious dates and all that bullshit, no matter how much I try to ignore them. I don’t make insanely detailed resolutions like I used to (terrifying lists of quantified, specific behaviors designed to make me more likeable to myself), but as a human clawing my way to enlightenment, I also can’t pretend that I’m fine with the way things are. The great dichotomy: everything is perfect and things are fucked.

… which brings me to my theme of the year. 2021’s was the embrace of Non-binary truth and Not Knowing. Of all my Buddhist study in 2021, the many talks I listened to, all my own practice, that was the lesson that resonated most with me. As an Western intellectual (in focus, if not … intellect) who is primed to seek non-ambivalent answers, it was clearly a lesson I needed to learn, and continue to learn. It’s drawn me further away from politics (not that I needed much nudging) and closer to people, and has helped me dismember a lifetime of shame around any ignorance I have around any topic on which I think I should be well-informed. So fucking liberating, y’all. When I admit to Not Knowing the answer to the urgent question of the moment, I feel the spine-crushing weight of identity-based inadequacy falling to a harmless heap at my feet. I feel my mind open up and my curiosity let loose. This Not Knowing was the foundation of what became my spiritual theme of 2022: The lesson you need is always right in front of you. More about that here. I’m not entirely free of the burden of intellectual pride, but I know how utterly useless it is in moving me forward on either spiritual or intellectual paths, and I recognize how gross it makes me feel.

Ah, feelings. The first play I did in Minneapolis was called Why We Have a Body. I loved the script, but couldn’t answer the implied question until a few months ago. We have a body to experience the world. And yet so many of us, me foremost in my mind, go through our lives not trusting the messages of our body. Or, rather, we believe the messages we shouldn’t, and ignore the messages we should. It’s understandable that we would trust what our eyes tell us they see, and our ears tell us they hear. We don’t witness the intense work that goes into crafting our visual or aural experience, the interpretation that precedes our perception, creating the illusion of reality when what we are actually experiencing is the filter our brain has chosen for us. No judgment here, I know we’d likely be overwhelmed into a silent, frozen scream if we perpetually absorbed all of the stimuli available to our senses. But what we perceive is not an objective reality, and it’s not really trustworthy.

Meanwhile, our body regularly sends us essential messages which we generally ignore, or only acknowledge in the form of emotional reaction, bypassing the message itself and skipping directly to the response. We don’t do this consciously, either. Those of us caught in this cycle of obliviousness (which I’m guessing is most of us) think we’re having reasonable, defensible reactions to the given situation. My spouse is home late, so I’m angry. Makes sense, right? Not to everyone. There are plenty of rational people who don’t get angry when their spouse is home late. If I recognize that, I might be tempted to follow that logic: if everyone doesn’t get angry when their partner is late, then I don’t have to be, either. This is not a universal response; this is not the fear that rushes through my body when I slip on ice. So, do I want to be angry? Maybe in the past; but nowadays, No. So where is the anger coming from? If I stop, if I slow down and honor my body when the clock ticks past the presumed arrival time, I might notice a tension in my gut, something I can recognize as fear. I’m afraid that he’s dead. This is not his problem, but mine. I can acknowledge the feeling and move on without a reaction that would make me tense and make my partner unnecessarily chastened once he arrives intact. (How dare he.)

But how? How did I exercise this magical power? Same boring answer: MEDITATION.

I don’t think meditation is the solution to every problem. I don’t think it will bring enlightenment (though I still hope!) and I’m sure there are other ways to achieve similar ends. Yoga may do it. Breathwork. Reiki. Psychedelics. I really don’t know. I can only speak to my own experience, and meditation has trained me to be aware of my own body and to pause before blindly reacting to an impulse. These have been essential to my PRESUMPTIVE THEME OF 2023: My Body Knows Shit.

I’ve been an Instinct Denier for most of my life. I witnessed the fucked up magical thinking that people attributed to instinct, and I decided that, while good instincts may exist, they are so muffled by our own biased thinking and life experiences that we don’t have the ability to access them in an unsullied form. But with years of meditation and study and most recently the book The Extended Mind, I see that the body doesn’t actually lie. That the body is not subject to the same biases and fears that our brain (protectively) forces upon us. That if we actually stop and listen to the body, it can often move us in the right direction. (Not always, I’m sure. Physical addictions definitely bring this theory into question, though I don’t know that somatic awareness would never work even in those extremes.) It’s giving me a trustworthy message, I’ve just been interpreting it all wrong. I’ve been playing with this new way of living, and it’s been magical. I find myself in situations I’ve probably repeated thousands of times (the late partner example, to wit) where I can now stop, feel what’s happening, and bring some wisdom into the scenario before I go off on some reactive tangent. It’s a pretty impressive superpower, folks. And one I’ve only begun to explore. I can’t wait to see what my body tells me in 2023. I HAVE INSTINCTS! It’s really exciting. Like having a supersmart, inspirational new friend. And, despite the Minnesota ethos, everyone can use another good friend.

Finding Refuge

Finding Refuge

If you’ve studied any Buddhism, you may be familiar with the concept of Taking Refuge. If not, don’t fret! This is not a post about formal Refuge or any formal Buddhist practice. Refuges are everywhere, and it is our skillful or unskillful use of those that intrigues me most.

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This is done as a formal ceremony, but can also be performed as a private practice or affirmation. If you know my blog, you know I gravitate towards the informal route.

I’ve mulled over the three treasures on occasion. It’s not much of a stretch for me to get there, depending on whose interpretation I adhere to. The hardest for me to get behind, ironically, I guess, as a Buddhish type, is the first. What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha? For me, it is either the idea that a being without illusion and attachment could exist, which is heartening; or the idea that Buddha nature is in all of us, which is even better. The dharma, the teachings, are obviously instrumental in guiding my life and decisions; and the sangha, which for me is my community of like-minded practitioners, be it the Western Buddhist leaders whose writings I rely on, my online sangha left over from the UPAYA Socially Engaged Buddhist group, or just the world of fellow meditators who are trying to live a life free of inflicting or indulging in suffering.

Nonetheless, when the Refuge-focused, 3 week intensive with my local meditation center started, I didn’t really have any idea of what Refuge meant outside of these strictures and the dictionary definition of the word. When we were encouraged to consider where we find refuge and where we don’t, I really didn’t know where to begin. A lovely Buddhist teacher couple whose daylong retreat I attended in November came to mind — they had asked us to find a place in our experience or memory that we could turn to when times were difficult. I have good, safe memories, but none that stood out as worthy of developing or grasping, and isn’t the point to be good with where we’re at?

So now I was being asked to look at my places of refuge again. Have I completely misunderstood Buddhism? or are we, mere mortals, being invited to indulge in stopgap measures while we float in the moat outside of enlightenment?

I eventually listened to the talks we were assigned (usually a good idea) and realized I was more aligned than I had thought. The idea was not to find more places to take refuge, but to recognize the ways in which we try to find safety in helpful, impermanent, silly, or even destructive things. I have plenty. Here are some choice ones:

  • food – a constant battle: eating out of boredom, depression
  • filler noise – podcasts while I do repetitive, mindless work
    • What’s the harm there, you might say? Well, one, that I stay in a job in which I am regularly bored; and, two, there is ample evidence that when humans try to distract themselves from unpleasant tasks, they always feel worse, not better: the task is more demoralizing the less you engage with it. This also gels with Buddhist beliefs
  • drama – there’s been plenty of that at work lately, and I can feel myself being energized, maybe made frantic, by it. The drama is destructive. It is causing real practical and emotional harm to many people, and I don’t like that, but I do like how it makes me feel. I am not bipolar, but I have so much sympathy for folks who don’t want to give up the mania in order to mitigate the depression. It’s enlivening.
    • I used to feel this way about anger – what is more invigorating than anger? – but I couldn’t handle the hangover. I couldn’t control it, so it controlled me. It was so destructive that I couldn’t help but recognize the harm it was doing and to loathe the feeling it generates in me. But I still like drama.
  • sleep – not a bad thing, but in winter I can prioritize sleep and just lying in bed over pretty much anything, if I let myself
  • reading – again, not bad in isolation, but as a substitute for doing things that need to be done it’s still an issue
  • gossip – I don’t think of myself as a big gossip, but it’s been tied up with the drama at work. If only we got the same thrill in praising others as we do in talking shit about them…
  • exercise and cleaning are both immensely beneficial to my wellbeing; I don’t know how I’d get through winter without them. I suppose they only become a false refuge if used as a substitute for facing up to truth. I believe even meditation and retreats can be false refuges if done for any reason other than awakening. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I saw long before I started meditating that still sticks with me: a man meditates, looking peaceful, while a closet bulges off the hinges behind him. I couldn’t find that one, but there’s some gooood meditation comedy out there. Here’s one (courtesy of Ginny Hogan & Jason Chatfield).

I have certainly used sitting to avoid one thing or another. One challenge for me is distinguishing a false, harmful refuge from a simple, mostly harmless, or even beneficial, distraction. If I sit now instead of doing that work thing, won’t I approach working more mindfully? Eventually? If exercise staves off depression, doesn’t that help me update my resume? Someday?

The truth is, I’ve been doing this for long enough to know when something I’m doing is avoidance disguised as meaningful action. I may not know why. I may not be able to stop it. But I can feel it when I’m efforting all around the problem and pushing life further down the road. Ugh. Consciousness is hard.

Even harder is forgiving yourself and letting your fuckups just be. The oxymoron is almost as confounding as the belief of the Socially Engaged Buddhist: nothing to do in a world that is fine just as it is, and everything to do in a world of prevalent injustice.

I haven’t committed to this intensive practice period as much as I would have liked – there are so many things going on this time of year, and so many things going on in parts of my life, that I’ve only gone a wee bit beyond upping my daily meditation time. But it still helps. It helps me deal with the demands for attention and the temptations and the cold and the sadness for the people in the cold. I’m grateful for all of it. And for all of you who let me write about it. This blog is definitely a refuge for me.

she walks in beauty

she walks in beauty
this was in Seattle’s Japanese garden last year, but the colors are comparable

Autumn has arrived in, and nearly departed from, the Twin Cities. We were out of state for the kickoff and I was afraid we’d missed the best of it, but as with most fears, this one was unfounded. It’s been a particularly weird fall: 80 degrees on a Tuesday, highs in the 20s the following Monday, record high today, 6 days later, and finally retreating to normal temps tomorrow. Everyone was out cleaning gutters and raking leaves in the gorgeous, sunny, 70 degree Saturday, which I find kinda sweet, in the same way that I feel connected to all the folks shoveling as V and I walk past the morning after a snowstorm. There is something about living in a place with real seasons that creates a landscape for community in a way that living in LA did not. Of course, the relational fertility of this climatological setting is marred by the repressed nature of the culture, so it may be a wash.

I haven’t done any formal, deliberate leaf-peeping this year (anyone else find that term creepy?), but my meditation-ripened mind has been just overwhelmed by the beauty of the trees I encounter in my everyday travels around the neighborhood. On the first snowy morning (yes, we had that too in these wacky few weeks) we walked under the stunning red maple across the street and I could hardly stand it – the ruby leaves dappled with and descending into white snow was almost too beautiful to bear. Again yesterday, walking under a waterfall of apple and orange colored leaves as the wind dragged them off the branches, I had to stop and, weirdly, close my eyes. I felt like I was in some kind of fantastical landscape, some sci-fi world in which photosynthesis produces a vast array of colors and this evanescent beauty is the norm. How long would I live there before I failed to appreciate it?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter where you are. There is always beauty to be found (though I know in some places you have to have exceptional vision), and humans can become accustomed to anything. Take the weather in Los Angeles, the mountains, the ocean. Yes, people who live there will say it’s perfect, say it’s beautiful, but in my experience Angelenos are just as susceptible to taking that beauty for granted as folks are anywhere else. It often takes a change, a newness, an outsider to really get it, to see what is performing right before our eyes.

It’s the watcher, right? The observer. Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Buddhism’s witness. It fills that crucial role of observing without judgement, but there is also the secondary purpose of experiencing with minimal baggage, of seeing with fresh eyes, of childlike love and appreciation. When people ask me what I’ve gotten out of meditation I have a lot of guesses, but the benefit I am most sure of is the exponential increase in moments of spontaneous joy and gratitude. Not because I’ve worked on it or talked myself into it, but because meditation has simply allowed it the space to enter in.

3/4 of a box step

3/4 of a box step

I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately.

My new volunteer gig is frightening and wondrous. The easiest and hardest volunteering ever: literally nothing I have to do [exhale] … except hang out with people I don’t know [gasp], and infinitely rewarding.

And I’ve developed a new superpower: CHANGE. As some of you may have read in The Fireworks Guy anecdote, I (yes, the writer you know and love) have the ability (it’s okay: you can touch the hem of my garment) to stop doing destructive shit! Not only have I stuck a wrench in the churning hatred of Fireworks Guys (so successfully that I don’t feel any anger even when surprised by one of the little bombs anymore, just … surprise), I also preemptively stopped myself from falling into passive-aggressive relationship patterns twice last week.

The magical source of this newfound talent? Dumb old meditation. The best explanation I can give is that I’ve grown accustomed to my thoughts, or to observing them. Instead of just reacting to a perceived offense thoughtlessly, my response sits in the center of my vision like a dog in need. I can get off my lazy metaphorical ass and try to figure out what the issue is, or I can ignore it, fester in my angry/grumpy/bitter automation, while it slinks off and waits for the next opportunity to bump me out of inertia. In both recent scenarios, instead of just thoughtlessly plodding along as I usually do, I had a brief debate with myself over my choices:

I’m gonna be withholding now.

But why?

Because I didn’t like that.

And will clamming up make you feel better?

… no

And will it make him feel better?

… no

And will it teach anybody anything?

… … … no

So?

Fine. Forget it.

And that was it. I just didn’t do the pointless, harmful thing. Twice. I was so excited about my new superpower that I had to share it with the Practice Check-In group at my local sangha on Tuesday. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fucking cool. Not braggy cool, just quietly proud cool.

And then today I felt like shit. Depressed. Surly. Trapped. Drained. I took a short nap. I worked out. I logged out of my work computer. I listened to some Lizzo, did some dishes, took a walk. Everything helped a little, but I still feel shitty. What is this need for control? For consistency? Why do I panic whenever I’m down? I suppose there is some fear of feeling the way I used to when I was younger, of struggling to get out of it. And I have a need for answers. I have a few – an unfulfilling job, some bad news about a project I’m working on, eating too much sugar this week. But those answers don’t help me right now. Just sitting with it is probably the best thing I can do. But part of me wants to be better than that. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of the “good” things (my superpower, for example) as a step forward and the bad things (depression, criticism) as a step back, and see it more as a dance, a sidestep, an expansion into more, rather than better.

Writing helps, too. Thanks, friends.

Practice (lots)

Practice (lots)

My intellectual energies are being diverted to my other blog this week, so this will be relatively short and feely (gross); call it observational, if you prefer.

I am a week into a mildly intensive three-week practice through my local meditation center, which entails as much as participants can manage or want to include of the following:

  • an hour or more sit in the morning
  • meditation in the afternoon
  • meditation in the evening
  • attending a weekly talk
  • attending weekly Qigong
  • read the recommended readings
  • listen to the recommended listenings
  • post (but only a little!) in the community Google group
  • read and comment on (but only a little!) others’ posts
  • attend Practice discussions with a teacher
  • attending a daylong retreat at the end of the 3 week practice period

Looks like a lot, listed out, for a practice that is supposed to be incorporated into your everyday life, rather than taking you out of it, as a retreat would. But you are encouraged to set your own goals according to your abilities and responsibilities. It doesn’t seem excessive to me.

Let me get my petty bullshit out of the way first. I’ve been to a handful of sits at this meditation center (and another dozen or so online) and I like the space a lot. Many meditation centers in the area are Zen, and while I love my UPAYA peeps and so many more in the Zen tradition, I’m not big on the type of ritual and formality it typically expects. Fortunately, this closest place to my home is pretty generically Buddhist. However, I was hoping for more from the main teacher, who I first sat with on Monday. My assessment is based on almost nothing: I didn’t get much of any vibe from him, and he didn’t laugh or smile at all during the 10 minutes or so he spent talking to us, so Fuck That Guy!

Just kidding, of course. I look forward to sitting with and listening to him more and seeing what he has to offer – I have no doubt it’s a lot. But I can’t deny that I am greedy for one of those knock-you-off-your-feet, Holy shit experiences that the White folks who interacted with Baba Neem Karolyi or Tcich Naht Hahn or the Dalai Lama talk about: that thoughtless knowing that this is someone special, the embodiment of, or at least confirmation of the possibility of, enlightenment. I know the hope that I would just happen to run across one of these exceptional folks at the Center that just happens to be a mile from my house is asking a bit much, but I’m disappointed whenever those hopes are dashed. Giving up hope is “the beginning of the beginning,” as Pema Chodron wrote.

If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. […] Without giving up hope that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be [that there’s someone better to meet?] – we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, Chapter 7

Second, the Google group itself. Again, I get it. People want to connect over their practice and we can’t all be in the same place every day, so it’s a nice alternative. When we had that option with my UPAYA group we never used it, because we were all so sick of written, online communication, I presume. But beyond that, the main guy gave pretty specific instructions about how we were and were not supposed to use it. In fact, we should only comment if we were really inspired and we should probably wait several days and see if anyone else posted before we posted at all, but we should definitely post, but really we should wait and make sure that what we wanted to say was worth posting, but there should be maybe three posts a week, with maybe five to ten comments per post …. And then he emailed us three days later to point out that no one had posted and maybe someone should post.

I know we don’t want folks to go nuts and annoy everyone with constant emails and notifications. I just thought that could have been better conveyed by simply saying, “be mindful about what you post, ask yourself if it is contributing something helpful, and go to essence” rather than a weird collection of rules/not rules that seemed to make everyone reluctant to engage and felt a bit infantilizing.

Honestly, I think those are my only complaints with the nuts and bolts of the Intensive. Pretty minimal for me, so yee-ha! I am so very happy to have this opportunity to suffer practice with others, and particularly for the weekly meets and full day at the end, because far more than being urged into more mindfulness for a short time, what I really want and need is a sangha. Fingers crossed this may become one.

Now onto my responsibilities and self-assessment. I am likewise mildly disappointed in my behavior this week. I’ve focused very hard on the long morning sit and 1-2 additional sits during the day, as time permitted; I’ve read some of the readings and listened to some of the audio, and attended the Qigong & weekly meet in person; but I have basically behaved as though pushing myself through that physical discomfort and clocking more time would magically transform me, rather than making the effort to apply mindfulness to my regular everyday activities. I have perhaps been more conscious of what I’m doing – how much I’m eating, how I’m reacting to conflict, etc. But it could be much more, and I want it to be. It is possible that the magic is making me reassess my job satisfaction, which is scary, so that is … something.

Funny how I so look forward to sitting down to a half hour meditation, and am filled with dread when I settle in to double that. As if time itself is the problem. It is, in the most obvious way. After a certain point, the pain sets in. It doesn’t always come in the same way, or at the same time, but I have never sat for more than 40 minutes without feeling something – pain or discomfort (hard to distinguish between them in the early days). For some folks it’s the knees or back that cry out for attention or just (just! LOL!) overwhelming restlessness and anxiety. For me it used to be the I’d rather rip my crawling skin off than sit a minute longer, but nowadays it’s typically hip pain. I don’t know why it’s changed, but I’ll consider it progress. It still ain’t fun, but it’s easier to deal with physical pain than what was essentially terror and self-pity, in my case. I had at least one good sit this week where I just focused on the pain – the physical pain, not the psychological shit that it picks up while rolling around inside me. But in other sessions I was like, what should I really be doing here? and can I really sustain lovingkindness meditation for a freaking hour? and this is boring, there’s got to be a better way to use my time. I like mixing it up with guided meditations or focusing on a particular intention in a sit, but the fact is, I don’t need that. The best meditation response to this is boring is, of course, the boringness itself.

Maybe I needed this week to just power through the physical adjustments before I could focus the spotlight of my consciousness more deliberately throughout the day. That’s what happened, so I might as well believe it’s true. Starting today I intend to pick up the mindfulness a little more often, carry it lightly, let it watch as I walk through the daily grind. We’ll see how that goes. I’m going to take the recommendation in Norman Fischer’s so-far-excellent book, The World Could be Otherwise and try not to criticize anyone (maybe anything?) as well. I guess that starts now, since I ripped into the teacher and meditation center above (facepalm). Trying to be honest without flaunting irreverence. I definitely sense a warning there.

Wishing you enlightening sits, sitters.

Life Lessons From a Mouse

Life Lessons From a Mouse

Mice, really.

It’s been a good year for mice in the Twin Cities. Are the raptors in bad shape? Are mice fucking more than usual? It hasn’t been a particularly frigid winter (79th most cold, which hardly seems worth mentioning), so it doesn’t seem like their survival is under unusual threat, but many people we know in the area have had exceptional mouse problems this winter.

Ours has been a blessing.

You’d think we’d be a rodent nirvana, here. We are both messy and Buddhish. We are a philosophically and temperamentally no-kill family. Yes, we still eat fish (for the time being) and I honestly have no problem killing mosquitoes, or the wasps that have come after me that last 3 summers (because wasps are all-around fuckers and mosquitoes are humans’ most powerful enemy) but other than that, we remove insects from the home rather than kill them and try to protect the baby bunnies that their shitty mothers dump in our dog’s yard. Even the dog is exceptionally gentle. She observes and lightly bats at beetles, and tries not to drool when the bunnitos emerge. Mostly she squishes them. I think she likes the sound. 😦

We have occasionally had A mouse over the last decade. They say you never have A mouse, but since we never saw more than one at a time, we could convince ourselves otherwise. But this year, we had to face up to it. Unless they were teleporting, we had mice. The good thing about being messy is that it was easy to know where to first address the issue: we cleaned. That is, we started cleaning. We (my partner mostly, far messier than I and afflicted with ADD) are still cleaning. Because of some dabbling with diffusers and lotion-making years ago, I already had plenty of clove & peppermint oil, which I scattered all over the house (peppermint in the living areas; clove in the sleeping areas). We cleaned areas we’d never cleaned before, we shoved steel wool in anything that looked like a hole, we started picking up the dog bowl when she wasn’t eating, sealing her food in a plastic bin, not leaving plates on the floor for her to lick for longer than a few minutes, sweeping regularly.

I knew this wouldn’t fix it – most of our friends with mouse problems were clean people – but it was a start, and it was a life improvement, regardless. We were also very lucky. The mice never got on a counter, never got to even the second from the bottom shelf of the pantry, never got into the dog food or any food container. (I started keeping all my bottom-shelf food in glass or ceramic jars ever since the first mouse appearance way back when.) so when people laughed at us when we said we weren’t going to put down poison (Big No) or even traps (death isn’t the worst, but having your face or leg scraped off is), we would explain that they weren’t more than an inconvenience. Then came the emailed articles on hantavirus and other hazards. We kept cleaning and hoped the critters would find the living situation unpleasant and leave … from wherever they came … which we still haven’t figured out.

They had made it upstairs (shiver) to the bedrooms (shiver), so I thoroughly cleaned out my tiny shoe closet for the first time since we moved in, jettisoning some heels I will never again wear in the process. For a month, I refreshed the water and dropped clove oil into my diffuser every night; folded my clothes and put them on a shelf, tossed them in the laundry, or draped them over the hamper for reuse. I did not leave an AlterEco truffle or peanut-butter filled pretzel on my bedside table in case I woke up in the middle of the night and needed a snack. I (sloppily) folded up my meditation cape and blanket after I sat every morning and placed them on the designated ottoman instead of leaving them on the rug.

The mouse has done wonders for us, honestly. It told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply. We are still not clean by many standards, and we will probably never be neat, but we are so much cleaner. I have been disciplined about my bedtime habits for the longest stretch of time ever. That’s right, I have never consistently put my clothing, etc. away in my life. Better still (and YES, I AM AFRAID TO SAY THIS BECAUSE DESPITE EVERYTHING I AM STILL STUPIDHUMAN SUPERSTITIOUS), with all of these changes, and perhaps with the help of the meditations I have devoted to asking them to leave, there have been only two mouse appearances in the past month, and none upstairs, even though we’ve had some very cold days. It seems almost unbelievable. I find it hard not to believe it is a combination of right effort and right thought and right intention and … I know it sounds ridiculous, y’all, but I have learned over the past few years that there are more things in heaven and earth […] than are dreamt of in your philosophy and that it is possible that the winning combo of changing our habits and asking the mice to leave so that we didn’t have to kill them to protect the health of our dog & ourselves may have sent something out into the universe that encouraged them to find another home. The mice told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply.

Whatever it is, I hope it all continues. Not only the absence of the little guys, but my discipline, our increased cleanliness, the commitment to close up potential house holes in the spring, our squishy no-kill policy, and my spiritual concern and attention to the little guys. All of that is good, and more than that I am so happy that the path of compassion appears to have won out over the path of fear or aggression or convenience. I don’t begrudge those folks the killing of their invaders – we all have our stuff, and mice can be scary – but for us, it looks like it’s working. And I’m honestly a little astounded that I have kept up the new habits for so long. Really, I’m pleasantly surprised that I have adopted any new habit, at my age. Folks used to think that the we were far less flexible as we age, but studies of meditators, in particular, have shown remarkable plasticity. I’m not an example of a great meditator and this isn’t an example of an exceptional change, but I have to say I’m really enjoying it.

Defunding Police & Seeing Clearly

IMG_20200606_152227604Two hours ago, the Minneapolis City Council voted, in a veto-proof majority, to Defund the Minneapolis Police Department. This will be a hasty post, but I’m just sooo excited, friends!

I have never been so proud to be a Minneapolitan. Today, I add this label with pride to my geographic identities of Chicagoan and Angeleno/a. There is no city I would rather live in right now. Real change is resting in our hands; not just in policing, but in community resilience and care and connections and in our way of thinking.

As a pseu-Bu* meditator, this week has been an inspiration. Sure, some of the folks who I marched with yesterday may have been anti-police across the board, or anarchists, or willing to swallow whatever the most radical voices were saying, for better and worse, but some of us have spent decades living in cities, witnessing corruption and brutality and racist policing, and yet have not imagined, until recently, that there was any other way for us to be. Getting rid of the police sounded as crazy as getting rid of capitalism, or personal car ownership, or one of the many other exciting ideas on the horizon that now seem possible.

BECAUSE IT IS ALL POSSIBLE.

One of my favorite things about Buddhism is the commitment to see what is really in front of you, without preconceptions or embedded beliefs; letting go of ideology and history to see what is really there. And we old (over 30) folks who were willing to look at the problem differently, to consider the evidence and recommendations that had been put before us by younger, less White, more revolutionary people, really did do something significant.

We changed our minds.

If you’ve studied the way the brain works, this is really not easy to do. And while we are not by any stretch the heroes of the Defund movement – that label goes to Reclaim the Block and MPD150 and many other brilliant and tireless activists, it will take those of us who are plugging along, doing our best, wanting to help, all the clearsightedness we can muster to support the changes that are coming. How do we reimagine policing? What can we actually do to help? How do we think of crime? And punishment? How can we build a beloved community where people help each other instead of anonymously calling an outside, armed force to intervene when we have problems? How can we see these as our problems? Loosening our grip on the way things have always been, our beliefs, our fears, will all be necessary in the new world to come.

I am so excited, I can hardly stand it. I just want to throw my arms around everyone. Love and peace and resilience to all.

*pseudo-Buddhist

Fast-tracking Enlightenment?

enlightenmentA lot of people come to meditation through drugs. Usually in one of two very different ways. Either they find meditation as a respite and palliative from alcohol and drug addiction and toxic patterns of behavior, or, like the recently deceased Ram Dass, they touch another, entirely different world through drugs – psychedelic drugs – and seek a spiritual life as a way to hold onto, or expand upon, or share that world.

Why psychedelics? I’m certainly no expert, but in reading Ram Dass, and Michael Pollan’s latest, and watching countless YouTube videos (both biographical and scientific), psychedelics offer your brain a method of functioning that stretches above and beyond our typical patterns – in fact, it can help break patterns that bury people in rumination and anxiety, as well as offering a view of reality that is entirely different from what we’ve come to accept as acceptable. Psychedelics have helped dying people lose their fear of death. They have broken depressive cycles for some people for years on end. For some lucky few, these experiences may be enough to change the way they live, completely, for years. But most of us need help.

While a psilocybin or ayahuasca trip can show someone a different view of the world, it doesn’t show them how to live in that world. Everyday living takes practice, and unlearning the way you’ve learned to live through a lifetime in a competitive society is even harder. So now that you have seen that love is all that matters (for example), how do you bring that to work, to a traffic jam, to your abusive parent? There is a huge gap between knowing and doing, as anyone with any philosophical leanings will surely recognize.

It seems to me that the role of meditation is more or less the same whether you’ve experienced a transcendent moment or not: it’s practice for better living in the world. You practice, second by second, guiding the mind instead of letting it take you for a ride; you practice not automatically scratching that itch, not adjusting your body to relieve that pain, not clinging to that feeling of joy that just came out of nowhere. You practice being in the moment so that you can love without expectation or fantasies; you practice nonattachment so you can give when someone needs help and can accept generosity without pride. Enlightenment is a glimpse of something better than what we currently live in, but it doesn’t change our living. I imagine it’s great to know that there is a real, true universal love underneath it all, but we live on the surface. And letting go of the ego? Sign me up, but I still (have to) live in this person, in this place, with these abilities and failings as best I can, and good god that takes a lot of practice. In the words of Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

The idea that drugs are cheating (as some meditators have proposed) is pretty ridiculous, and pretty Protestant-Work-Ethicky. If it were a shortcut to nirvana, wouldn’t we all benefit from more enlightened people in the world? More realistically, if shrooms or LSD or ayahuasca can motivate people to live more lovingly, with less fear and less ego, if it can motivate them to find meaning in compassion and connection, who cares how they get there?

And if you’re wondering why the government has been so resistant to exploring the benefits of these drugs, imagine what a monumental increase in compassion and egolessness and acceptance, and reduction in competitiveness and ambition and greed would do to the economy. It’s not just the “dropouts,” those few who choose to detach themselves entirely from the mundane, who can disrupt the enforced order. There are so many ways to live, and many of them do not revolve around money, careers, or the nuclear family; some of them don’t even see the self as the most essential unit, or self-preservation as the highest goal. Imagine that.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Sigh.

Meditation as Practice

group meditationHi, folks! It’s been a while. I’ve been all sorts of busy lately, with classes, work, and taking care of stuff that is even more challenging than blogging, believe it or not, including setting up a new blog. I cannot tell you how much I loathe making the countless decisions a new blog requires. But I’ve also decided it’s important, so it’s taken me away from writing time. I’ll let you know when that’s good to go.

I did hit up a 2-day Vipassana retreat last weekend, which is a good way to kick off the re-initiation of the writing life. Not so great, maybe, when you start composing blog pieces in your head as you’re supposed to be meditating, but that’s what happened. Accepting what comes up is just as important as redirecting back to the body & breath, right? Since pen and paper aren’t allowed on retreat, I’ll try to recall my no-doubt-brilliant ideas as best I can.

My mulling was not over the practice of meditation, but meditation itself as practice for life. This is the reason I meditate, and probably the reason I keep going back to Vipassana, despite the rules and rigor, instead of some other practice (well, that and the commitment to financial accessibility). I don’t meditate to reduce stress or relax or be happier, though that happens. I meditate in order to make myself a better person. Not better in the sense of more ethical or helpful or kind (though they tend to latch on like burrs, too), but better in the sense of less judgmental and less reactive. To me this is the key to everything I want.

If I can sit through a burning pain in my leg without walking away, maybe I can listen to a coworker say something offensive without throwing a correction in their face. If I can sit with that pain without labeling it bad, maybe I can accept the person without labeling them racist and have enough compassion for their unavoidable experience to find out where that comment came from and engage them in a discussion that might create a space for them to hear me (and me them), instead of defending themselves against my impulsive reaction. If I can allow waves of tingling sensations to flow through my body without seeking to hang onto them, or mourning their departure when pain inevitably returns, then the next time I’m walking down the street laughing with friends and someone approaches me for money, maybe I can meet them squarely and fairly in that moment without being angry about the intrusion of the world on my fun time.

And maybe, maaaaaaaaaaybeeeeee if I can stop critiquing my experiences as good or bad, I can stop likewise critiquing myself.

Oh, I also intend to reach enlightenment. And end all my suffering. Cranking the sitting back up to an hour a day should do it. Onward!

 

 

Filler is better than Emptiness (Buddha would disagree)

It is hard to tell if meditation does any good. Anyone who does it for a while can give you examples, real or imagined, of how they are less stressed, less angry, more patient, but is anyone really measuring levels of ire or compassion? Tracking the increase in seconds between agitating action and reaction? Unfortunately for us datageeks, no. We can convince ourselves that meditation has had an enormous impact on our lives or none at all, and who’s to say who’s right (especially since the latter don’t typically put in the amount of practice necessary for adequate scientific comparison. Quitters!)

I choose to believe that my recent feelings of awakening, of intellectual openness and learning and discovery, are a combination of the state of the world, the state of my world, and, crucially, the state of my consciousness. I have soooo much to discuss with you all, but I need a bit more time to process.

The great work begins. (Tony Kushner, Angels in America)