The Lesson You Need

The Lesson You Need

If you’re on “the path,” as we spiritual nerds call it, you’ve doubtless found yourself connecting more intimately with some teachings than others, and that changes over time & circumstance. I have been glued to this one for a few months now, and it’s been life-changing in that subtle, Buddhish way.

I don’t actually remember who this came from – a contemporary Buddhist text or dharma talk, or Ram Dass or one of his ilk, or all of them. But it fits into all of that stuff. There are lots of ways to phrase it, but I like this:

The lesson you need is always right in front of you.

There are lots of ways to interpret this. You can go with the idea that everything is preordained or meant to be. Despite not believing in free will, I don’t find that helpful. For me, it’s another version of the belief that every moment is an opportunity to awaken. But it’s better. Because awakening seems beyond my control. I can’t reason myself into awakening, so perpetual opportunities just seem like missed opportunities. But the lesson I need being here, right now? And not having to sign up for another intensive retreat to experience real spiritual growth? That I can work with.

Basically, it turns every difficult or shitty thing into an opportunity for practice. How can I Buddha my way through this situation? Now that moments present themselves in this way to me, challenges have become a fun and enlightening game.

My partner’s changed our plans at the last minute? Okay. Am I attached to the previous plan & if so, why? Would getting pissed off at this moment improve anything? Teach anything? Cause suffering? What does my past experience tell me?

Someone wants to discuss a topic on which we are ideologically opposed. How can I open my mind while still being genuine? How can I be simultaneously engaged in the conflict and loving? Can I hear what they are saying without shoving them into a pre-labelled box? What is my goal here and what is theirs? Is mine driven by ego or empathy? Can I find a way to connect & namaste either within or outside the strictures of that conversation?

At the State Fair: why do I feel the need to judge my fellow fairgoers? What is it in me that is reacting to something utterly superficial in them, whether it’s how they look, the clothes they wear, or the slogans they brandish? How can I soften that?

Even moments far pettier: I think we’re supposed to cook something one way. The guy thinks otherwise. Instead of fighting him on it or grasping onto my opinion at all, I admit that I just heard my theory somewhere and have no idea whether it has any validity. We carry on from there.

Put another way, in one of Ram Dass’ lectures he recalls requesting a particular type of microphone for a talk he was giving, and when he arrived they didn’t have it. He started to get pissed off, then recognized, “oh, there’s my yogi, disguised as a microphone.”

Some of you will likely think this isn’t even worth sharing; others may find it revolutionary. I haven’t even told you the best part yet: I do this all without self-criticism. When everything is a lesson, I’m showing up as a student, not a fuckup or an asshole.

I can’t adequately express how much lighter the combination of pausing, sitting in not knowing, and the lesson perspective has made everyday challenges. So much of it is about space, which feels to me like a pause paired with a distancing and a refreshing breath. That Space allows the witness room to step in and observe what’s actually happening outside of the ego; outside of an agenda, personal history, or judgement. The witness doesn’t tell me what to do, it just gives me perspective. All I do with the perspective is bring it into my thoughts and actions and see where it takes me. It infuses a bit of wisdom into the situation, which allows me to make better, more conscious, more loving choices. I cannot recommend it enough.

Generating Joy

Photo by Nuno Ricardo on Unsplash

Friday was gorgeous GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I cut out of work early, dug up some grass in my yard, and biked over to the pie place in the hopes of some weekend dessert slices. The line at the pie place was a block long, so I laughed it off and kept biking. I couldn’t just turn around and go home because the weather was GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSS. Like, perfect. Like, bike down the street no-handed singing and conducting songs from the playlist of your youth gorgeous. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. No – joyful. I was filled with unintellectual, full-body joy. It was fucking glorious. The only stain on the afternoon was a brief realization that, “fuck, I’ve become my father.”

I wasn’t mostly naked, I wasn’t riding an old Schwinn, but those were the only significant differences in our behavior. I didn’t hate my dad’s weird behavior as much as my sister did, but it was sometimes embarrassing. It wouldn’t have felt like such a betrayal if he had allowed us to be ourselves as he insisted on being himself, but it was only acceptable to be authentic if our authenticity matched his, and we were continually shut down for not behaving, thinking, or being exactly what he wanted us to be.

It’s difficult to separate the action from the person, and difficult to separate admirable behavior from a person whose behavior was often inconsiderate or cruel, but there is always that yin & yang. No one is all evil all the time, all inappropriate all the time, all annoying all the time, but our need to recognize and predict patterns and our emotional attachment/aversion to the behavior of people with whom we have complicated relationships is often tough to work past. As is our assumption of impure motives. Sure my dad was unconventional and weird, and I generally value that in people, but because I associate it with his narcissism, I don’t give him the credit others may earn from the same nonconformity. But what do I know? Just because he had narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean he was incapable of a pure act of joy & self-expression. And just because I express my joy in a similar way doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.

Or … does it?

Honestly, I don’t fucking care. I’m not hurting anyone and I’m alchemizing bliss out of spring air. The critical they can roll their eyes and think whatever they want. I am so tired of our joy-crushing culture.

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.

Purpose

Purpose

Anyone out there feeling strange feelings in response to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine? I’m not talking about anger or fear or frustration or dread. Those are all media-friendly and acceptable in wartime. I’m talking about jealousy.

Part of me envies Ukrainian residents right now. I admit it. Hiding my feelings has never done me much good, so fuck it: I am jealous. This doesn’t mean I don’t fear for their safety or mourn their innocent (all innocent) dead. It doesn’t mean I minimize the agony and losses that will only accumulate as this continues. But, as Chris Hedges reluctantly argues in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, our pleasant or unpleasant daily existence cannot compare with the addictive urgency of fighting or running for your life. Former war correspondents and soldiers don’t suffer from depression just because of the horrors they’ve seen or done in combat, they are also depressed because they are not in combat. What could be more real, more present, more in the moment than constantly being on guard for your very life, and the lives of those you feel compelled to protect? It’s physically and emotionally unsustainable (ask a pandemic nurse, if you don’t know a soldier), but it’s hardly depressing.

There are convincing theories, too, that the more comfortable we become as humans, the more anxious and lost we are likely to be. Those of us who have benefited from capitalism, etc. are only forced to face our own mortality on rare occasions, whereas our ancestors were up against it daily, either via hunger, predators, or deadly illness. Look, safety is great. It paved the way for all the things that fill our existentialist lives now. Art and philosophy and love replaced running for our lives and making babies so our species doesn’t die out as ways to give our lives meaning, and I would never trade them for the adrenaline of war.

Not permanently.

Victor Frankl believed that a sense of purpose made the biggest difference between surviving and slowly dying in the concentration camps. Some speculate that the invasion on our Capital last year, the growth in QAnon conspiracy followers, the need to believe in the Big Lie comes largely out of boredom. That those folks have manufactured something that threatens their country, their children, their democracy in order to feel that rush of purpose. I’m not desperate enough to go that route, but I sympathize. I try to redirect my inherent need for meaning, if it does exist, into approaching the world with a relatively passive commitment to kindness and compassion. I try to resist the compulsion to find a villain and a position on which to hang my focus.

But, damn. Can the enemy, the goal, and the urgency be more clear than today in Ukraine? I know it’s never as simple as it seems, but what it seems is that a ruthless, murdering, amoral dictator is attempting to take over an independent, Democratic country in an attempt to restore a long-dead empire and increase his own power. His rhetoric attempts to erase the strong cultural identification of Ukrainians, and he flat out lies about the government and the people. I admire the civilians who are taking up arms to defend their cities, but I don’t find this surprising in the least. What greater purpose could you ask for? Not just protecting oneself or one’s family, but one’s cultural brothers and sisters, land, way of life, political freedom, language, heritage, etc. etc. I heard on the radio this morning that folks who had left the country when war started to look inevitable are now returning to fight. Volodymyr Zelensky adds more fuel to the righteous fire in his refusal to leave or be cowed by Putin. A great purpose and an honorable leader? I mean, come on!

So, yeah. I’m jealous. I don’t know if there are atheists in a foxhole, but I’ll bet there are no depressives. All the systems that our body employs to respond to a clear and present danger preempt depression. The floating anxiety that seems to crave a target, and which our systems seek to fill with abstract, random, manufactured worries transform in battle into real, tangible concerns, ones we can prepare for and fight against.

There are real devastating and apocalyptic things happening all around us in this century. The pandemic and global warming, to name a few. But climate change doesn’t present us with a clear way to stand up to it, not one that is inspiring and motivating, anyway. And the pandemic doesn’t present a way for most of us to contribute, other than by isolation and inactivity, which feel purposeless and depressing. Some do a good job of forcing urgency – chaining themselves to pipeline construction or even less extreme protests – and that can help both society and the individual involved, but when your community continues to roll along as if nothing is wrong, it’s very difficult to sustain motivation there, either. Medical professionals on the aptly named “front lines” of the pandemic have more than enough purpose, but it’s not just the excess that is wearing on them; it’s the disconnect between the war they face at work, and the obliviousness outside of the hospital. Some drone operators may suffer more psychologically than soldiers on the ground, because they likewise inhabit a world in which the battle they are fighting is invisible once they step off base. That is certainly not the situation in the Ukraine.

Look, I advocate for nonviolence, and my inclination is toward nonviolence, but it is not a ride or die position for me. And I can’t say for sure that it is the right answer for every person in every situation. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine right now. Most of those Russian soldiers probably don’t want to be there either, and could be the victims of reactive Ukrainian violence that is yet another element of the injustice seething from every pore of this attack. I am not minimizing the horror of this situation. But I don’t believe in binaries anymore. It is frightening and monstrous AND it would be really nice to feel, in my body, that I truly mattered to something greater than myself, that I could make a real, life-or-death difference in my community, that I could make a meaningful sacrifice.

Blessings to all those good people, regardless, as I sit here with the luxury to ponder, and critique, and analyze, and envy. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be safe.

You Are What You Love

You Are What You Love

I have a friend in the Twin Cities, a guy I performed with years ago, who is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. It is always a joy to see him and it is not possible for me to wish anything but the best for him. At one point he made a comment about what a kind person I am, and rather than disillusion him with the reality of my day to day reactiveness to the vicissitudes of life, I realized, yes. Yes, of course he would think that I’m a kind, friendly, loving person because I am incapable of being otherwise with him. It’s as inconceivable as punching an affectionate puppy. And I reasoned that someone like him must have a far more positive view of humanity, because they are not getting the typical blowback that most of us experience on a regular basis in our grumpy or even neutral interactions in society. And how much, in turn, that must reinforce his naturally (whatever that means) loving behavior.

Some people simply bring out the best in us. I don’t think many would argue against that, but I do think a lot of us fail to fully embrace what that means: they bring out something that is already there. My friend doesn’t make me a better person, he creates a mini-culture around him in which that is the easiest and most acceptable way to be. He brings out my goodness; he doesn’t create it. He simply welcomes, embraces, and rewards it. I am lucky to have stumbled into several gracious, generous, joyful people like this in my life.

I attended a virtual retreat with Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember foundation back in August and this idea came up several times – how friends loved and missed Ram Dass, but that the love he evoked in them was as present as ever. Krishna Das talked about how utterly devastated he was when Neem Karoli Baba (his and Ram Dass’ teacher) died, how difficult it was and how long it took for him to recognize that the love he found in Maharaj ji came exclusively from inside of KD, that the holy man didn’t manufacture anything in him that he didn’t already possess; that the absolute, unconditional love that all of the Maharaj ji’s followers say washed over them as soon as they met was never other than what they were always capable of, indeed what they inherently, effortlessly are.

Another excellent explanation of this is in Duncan Tressell’s gorgeous “Mouse of Silver” episode of The Midnight Gospel (on Netflix), in which his dying mother assures him that the love she has for him could not possibly leave with her; that it is eternally present in the world and there for him whenever he needs it. It made me feel like we have the potential to keep generating more love in the world, filling up empty and negative space with this endlessly rejuvenating and infinite resource, restricted only by our capacity to liberate it.

There’s a moment in one of my favorite films, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, when the depressed of the Nicholas Cage twins brings up the time when they were teens and a girl pretended to be interested in the happier twin as a joke. But the latter didn’t take offense, and remembered his time with her fondly. He tells his brother, You are what you love, not what loves you. I always thought there was something profound about that statement, but honestly couldn’t get much of a handle on it. So an asshole obsessed with a good Samaritan gets credit for the benevolence of the one desired? But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the same idea as the stuff I’m talking about above. The act of love – not desire for dominance or ownership, but actual love – is what defines us. Our ability to love, to manifest love and draw out love and act out of love in the world is the best measure of what we are, what we have contributed to the world in our brief time in it.

It’s been a rough year for love. For me, anyway. I feel like I’ve been fighting against hate with almost every supposedly good thing I’ve done. So much of activism and politics is fueled by hatred and anger. I tried not to get wrapped up in it, but didn’t always succeed, and allowed what I thought was “important work” to take priority over the how of it all. With the election (almost) over and some more knowledge and experience under my belt, my 2021 will prioritize the motivation over the act, the being over the doing, to the extent that I can and as long as I continue to believe this is the path the follow.

I’ve lived long enough to know that change is the only thing I can count on, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get excited about the prospect of a stronger spiritual focus in the coming year. A joyful new year to all of you.

Does Anti-Racism Work Make You Sexy?

Followup question: Do I have a future in clickbait?

sexyI had a lovely day today. Nothing special. I had planned to spend most of the day writing and reading, but instead wiled away the hours interacting with folks and art. My journey began at a too-popular bread n breakfast place. Tables freed up one at a time as I anxiously waited for a place to plant my incipient biscuit sandwich. A 4-top opened up when I reached the front of the line, and I took it a little guiltily, checking to see if a nearby twosome was getting up anytime soon so I could swap out my spot. Continue reading “Does Anti-Racism Work Make You Sexy?”

The Magical Pause: Email Edition

email imageI haven’t put together any real resolutions for this year, though they always tempt me. My fantasies of symbolic slate clearing (post-rain, new years, moving) is at odds with my aversion to goal setting, so here I sit, wobbling on as usual. I suppose this behavior is more Buddhist, even if I got there by defeat instead of acceptance.

If I did have resolutions for 2020, PAUSE MORE would be at the top of the list. Lots of folks talk about The Pause, but it caught my attention in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. She calls it The Sacred Pause; I prefer The Magical Pause, because sacred is just so … weighty. Continue reading “The Magical Pause: Email Edition”

Flu Shot

flu1I got a flu shot last month. This was, like, a BIG THING. And yes, goddamnit, I am going to connect it to spirituality.

I have heretofore not had a flu shot as an adult. I assume I was required to get them as a kid, by my public school if no one else, but that makes well over two decades of no immunization and no illness. I cling to that fact with a pride that suggests I have some control over it.

Why fix what ain’t broken, I have said when asked why I don’t take advantage of the now free flu shots offered by my health insurance. As though that should apply to the complex nature of disease and infection. For all I know, I could already be broken, sloppily duck-taped together just beneath the surface, days from the snapping of the last frayed, sticky thread.

Folksy logic, combined with the mild aversion to immunizations embedded by my father, who was passively opposed to most Western medicine, has informed my choices for many years. Despite knowing the science. I know there is virtually no evidence that getting a flu shot can give me the flu or lower my immunity. I know that my erstwhile resilience probably has nothing to do with my avoidance of the needle and everything to do with luck and a naturally strong immune system (developed by the bacteria-embracing habits of same father?). I know there’s no evidence that beloved immune system will be weakened by a flu shot. When I try to figure out what in my informed brain pushes me to resist this lifesaving miracle, what emerges is some weird stew of colloquial belief and independence, with a dash of government mistrust. In other words, I am apparently an American Christian Fundamentalist.

And then there’s this: we adorable, pathetic humans favor narrative over facts. Even one story can tip the scales over thousands of facts. We are far more likely to believe our cousin who says that immunizations caused John Jr’s autism than we are the mountains of research that show there is no scientific connection between the two. I have read studies that demonstrate this irrational tendency. I am aware, even on alert for this tendency in my own adorable, pathetic brain. But you know what got me to get a flu shot this year? A story.

A friend around my age, who, like me, had never made the choice to get a flu shot and never had the flu … GOT THE FLU last year. She described it to me in graphic detail. She thought she was going to die. She has made her tale of woe into a pro-immunization mission. And it totally worked. Since my immunity to illness has not built my immunity to the state of being ill, I don’t handle illness well. I don’t know how to have a fever. I’ve never even had food poisoning. Worse than the physical discomfort, I become both self-critical and self-pitying when I’m even a little sick. Chances of me dying from influenza are slim, but I don’t know if I could emotionally survive a full-on case of the flu. I vowed to seek out and accept the plunge.

Disappointing, I know. But narratives can defend any line of thinking. This one supported scientific evidence, and encouraged my efforts to decrease personal hypocrisy, loosen my attachment to identity, and let go of long-held fears. For me, it required considerably more effort than the energy it took to bike to Walgreens, but it got done. A weird, tiny victory.

 

Buddhish Moments in Pop Culture, #1

perksI found The Perks of Being a Wallflower crammed into my friend’s bookshelf as I was waiting for the group to gather for hardcore boardgame play. I loved the movie, and it turns out I went to school with the writer (and director), and he’s apparently a good guy, so I borrowed the book and gobbled it down in less than 24 hours.

I don’t let myself indulge in fiction often anymore. And while I know that’s ridiculous, it still helps me to get off my own back if I can make a mini-blog out of it.

Or one moment of it, anyway.

Charlie is our limited narrator – a quiet, observant high school freshman who carries a semi-dormant, unspecified mental illness and few meaningful friendships until he meets Patrick and Emma – lively step-siblings in their final year of high school who take him under their wing. That’s all the background you need for the moment. You don’t really even need that, but why would you want to read about a moment in the life of an anonymous character?

… we all got quiet
Sam tapped her hand on the steering wheel. Patrick held his hand outside the car and made air waves. And I just sat between them. After the song finished, I said something.
“I feel infinite.”
And Sam and Patrick just looked at me like I said the greatest thing they ever heard. Because the song was so great and because we all really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way.

I should just let that stand as is, but as J.D. Salinger once wrote, “Zoe’s voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth.” (shout out to my JD homies, whutwhut!)

I read a Paul Tillich book in a Christian Doctrine class in grad school, and it’s my earliest memory of thinking of the idea of “God” as synonymous with the infinite, as an existence distinct from the mortality of everything we can experience with our senses. This brought that back again, but couched in a simple, everyday example of how a moment “truly spent” is divine in every sense of the word. Because if the only reality that actually exists is the present moment – if the future and the past are illusory – then fully living that moment makes us immortal in that moment, which is literally everything.

Lovely, isn’t it?