03 January 2012

29 July 2011

Embracing Suffering

“The human body at peace with itself is more precious than the rarest gem.”

So says the great 14th century sage Tsong Khapa.

Even if you know this, even if you know this with a large part of your heart, life is still difficult, at minimum, sometimes. It seems that we often don't want to be at peace, or we can't, either because our inside world or the outside world will not let us. ...however if you look at the 'outside obstacles' for long enough, you might find internal ones behind them.

So one problem is being tricked into thinking a problem is coming from outside. For example, my partner drives me bonkers. (Or dating. Or not dating.) Or something like what happened recently, a waiter spilled (a lot of) salad dressing on my leg. It's another kind of suffering to know that the primary cause cannot be outside, to see that and to lack the drive or discipline to act on that knowledge.

Sometimes knowledge is unable to serve it's function, it just tortures you, you cannot align with it, it cannot link with the core of your life, your soul says no. Then knowledge stays on the surface, making some experiences seem right and others wrong. It makes you want to do something with your life, improve things, be busy, tackle problems, gain insight. Or feel like you should. We build a castle of our desires - even spiritual ones - then lock ourselves inside it.

So there's the suffering of, say, my 78 year old mom, who is angry that her brain is shutting down. There's the suffering of witnessing seeing someone you love deny reality. There's the suffering of having the life that you want but being somehow or at least occasionally unable to move within it. There's the suffering of thinking there's something wrong. There's the suffering of looking around and feeling that you should be happy, or happier. The suffering of trying to compulsively think our way out of pain.

The most basic suffering perhaps is that, again and again and again, things are not how we think they are supposed to be. There aren't supposed to be long lines, people aren't supposed to disappoint us, death, cancer, depression definitely shouldn't happen. We get buyer's remorse, we rationalize, we do things we think we shouldn't and then explain to ourselves or others why...focused internally or externally. We tell ourselves why things don't match up. "I'll start tomorrow." "Traffic is bad - maybe there's a football game." "I could never do that." We explain to our friend why it's OK to lie in this case. We justify, blame, or deny. Not accepting the continuous reality of life is the ultimate addiction, the ultimate cognitive dissonance.

The thing I come back to over and over again: Whatever is happening now is how things are. It might be painful, but it is not a mistake, not an accident. It's life. The only appropriate response to how things are is an embrace.

It's appropriate because it means we will stop fighting. Rather, that we will accept and then in some way move toward positive change, but we put down the sword, we take off the blinders and the any-colored glasses and the veils. We shift the balance a little more toward what things are, what we are, and a little less toward what we simply wish them and ourselves to be.

Because we want to relieve suffering, because we want to progress - doesn't mean there is anything wrong. We must act and change things from the foundation of 'nothing is wrong'. And from that place we find - for at least that moment - the human body at peace with itself.
“A flower falls, though we love it; and a weed grows, though we do not love it.”

05 July 2011

Buddhafield Monthlong Retreat 2011

I returned from England last night. I spent some time in London, but mostly I was in Devon in a beautiful large field of long grass and buttercups, meditating with my friend Paramananda and about 30 other people, for a month. It was a wonderful experience.

Here are some beautiful mantras from the retreat. They are:
  • Amitabha (2)
  • Vajrasattva
  • Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan)
  • Invocation to Prajnaparamita or Perfect Wisdom (from the Heart Sutra)
  • Yeshe Tsogyel (said to be incarnation of Prajnaparamita)
The words to the last mantra, some of which is in Tibetan, are:

Om Ah Hum Benzra Guru Jnana Saghara Beim Hari Nisa Siddhi Hum

See Also

Buddhafield.com (Buddhist camping retreats)

Photo is an outdoor Vajrasattva puja toward the end of the retreat.

06 March 2011

Shame, Craving, Intoxication: Little Picture, Big Picture


Lying in bed last night kind of late I started watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix. And I kept watching it. I wanted to see what happened, how the mystery was solved. Still, I wondered why no one had told me it was so much about sadism, rape and murder. Lots of photographs of mutilated dead women. Some friends I talked to about it didn't even remember this. Maybe the effect was amplified because I was alone.

At some point the main character, Lisbeth, is asked if a particular person has secrets. She replies, "Everyone has secrets, it's just a matter of finding out what they are." In the past I might not have paid much notice to this statement. But this time the thought spontaneously surfaced...that I don't really have any secrets. I do have life details that I would not necessarily tell the stranger sitting next to me on an airplane. (Apparently Americans have something of a reputation for doing this.)

But secrets? Actual facts about me or my life or my past that I do not want anyone to know? I'm thinking of something kind of weird I did on the recent monthlong retreat that I told a few friends about, and we all laughed and laughed. Unfortunately sharing it here is out of the question! But the point is that I experience very little shame, at least of the debilitating variety. This is probably mostly to do with my childhood, and temperament. And also, currently, that I am part of an intimate, mostly sane community that understands me, shares my values, and is realistic about the activity of the human mind.

Drugs and Suffering

Speaking of things a normal person wouldn't necessarily want to post for any Random Sam to read...I discovered what you might think is kind of a basic thing recently. I found out that I can't in good conscience take LSD any more. I found out that acid is like a person, a person I used to know intimately and love very much but had forgotten about. A person who, though I hadn't seen them in a long time, never let me get too distant from my own love of life. I was reminded of this person recently and started plotting a reunion, but unfortunately I've been chanting precepts about not taking intoxicants for who knows how long, and there have been too many alcoholics and junkies in my bloodline to think of drugs as solely recreational anymore.

It might seem kind of an obvious conclusion, especially for a meditator, but I assure you it wasn't. Alternatively you may think it's stupid to bother about it. My preference would be for you not to have an opinion either way, but I know that's something I don't get to decide. In any case I have not taken it in a long time and as far as I know I am not addicted to it...but neither can I detach myself from the responsibility and suffering to which it seems to be inexorably linked.

The suffering caused by drugs and alcohol is astronomical. It's one of those things that we all know but is so easy to ignore. Like knowing that if we saw where the hamburgers or chicken we eat came from, it would not be physically possible for us to eat them. But sometimes certain facts come into focus, it would seem in their own time. It is hard for me, at least now, to ignore the dangers, the suffering of drugs, even when that particular brand of suffering doesn't even seem to be mine. But it is in my blood. The suffering, death and distress, so many people with access to drugs and alcohol inflict on themselves, and on other people. All the suffering.

I know that this is not a total picture. I have had spiritual experiences on drugs for which I am grateful, because they gave me an experience of something like a free mind. For some people this is therapeutic. Alcohol makes relaxing much easier sometimes. In some traditional cultures, plant-based, mind altering drugs provide the basis for spiritual experience, as they do for some people in western society today.

For me, at the moment, it's simply a gut feeling - a gut feeling of dread - not something it would be possible to talk me into or out of, even if I myself tried.

Human Addiction

Delving into my reflections on LSD seems to have sent other questions, other perspectives, other cravings, into relief. I've noticed that sometimes I feel a deep disturbance or imbalance on an energetic level that I want to - or must - get rid of, smother, cover. It's like being occasionally but regularly overcome, from inside, with a need to blunt experience. I'm wondering if these kinds of cravings for some kind of dullness or oblivion are happening much more often than I am noticing them. They reach toward stultifying computer games, red wine, cookies - variations on distraction or escape.

All the Buddhist precepts are variations on the theme of non-harm or, stated positively, loving kindness. The Fifth Precept of Buddhism encourages us to cultivate mindfulness, and cautions us against taking 'intoxicants that dull the mind'. The word intoxicant of course means poison (as in toxic.) The precept encourages us not to poison ourselves on a mental level, which is what we are doing every time we drift out of awareness, every time we set up conditions for ourselves that make being skifull more difficult and challenging. The Dhammapada says "Those who are not mindful are as if already dead." ...What's your poison?

It's useful for some of us anyway to look into our relationship to intoxicants such as alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. We can also work out for ourselves on more subtle levels what is toxic. To do this we need to know ourselves to some degree. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need a clear heart and mind, unclouded by craving. What are the things we do, the things we crave even, that make us less aware? What is the craving to not be aware? We have addictive habitual patterns on the levels of body, speech and mind and we need to acknowledge them on all these levels. And we need patience and compassion for the inevitable suffering we cause ourselves and other people.

Using the example of a drink, Buddhist teacher Joan Tollifson suggests:
Pay attention to the first impulse for a drink -- what triggers it, how does it happen, what does it feel like, what goes on -- what is this urge itself actually like – what thoughts are showing up, what mental images, how does it feel in the body -- and then the whole process of "deciding" whether to give in and indulge, how does that unfold, what are your thoughts telling you -- and then buying the bottle, opening it up, pouring the drink -- what does each moment in this process feel like in the body – and then the first sip, what is that like – and how do you feel after one drink -- what is pleasurable about it, what isn't – what moves you to have a second drink, what is this urge, do you really want another drink or is something else going on – how do you feel after that second drink -- simply paying attention and observing. You'll learn a lot.
We can take this advice and apply it to every aspect our our momentary life. And we really need to, because our American world is full of intoxicants. It is engineered to make us want, to envy. We fill up our lives with things, with tasks, with modes of escape and denial. We crave the devices we carry with us that do not allow our minds to rest, or do just one thing. Our craving and restlessness increase as the world moves faster and faster. For me the biggest challenges are food and the internet, the two main things these days I have a hard time being moderate about. Others of us are clinging to...our iPhone, buying things, work, online sex, television, money, Facebook, gambling...we have to look at the unfolding of our relationship to these things. To know ourselves is to know our craving self, and it is very important knowledge indeed.

In Bare Bones Meditation, Joan Tollifson says:
"...there is the conflict, the battle between the desire to indulge, which is an escape from what is, and the desire to stop, which is also a movement away from what is."

However we conceive of addiction, we probably see it as a problem. And to some degree seeing it as a problem is also a problem. Which is to say, our poison is not really the booze or the hard on or the artisan bread. We poison ourselves by our unwillingness to be aware, by wanting to cover up, by not wanting to know what is real for us in each moment.

These are the layers of onion I continue to peel.

See Also

Here's a blog post about addiction to technology.

More excellent writing by Joan Tollifson on addiction.

Frog photo by Kulaprabha.
Plumeria flower from
Chimp photo not sure.

24 January 2011

Softening: Live Meditation

Thirty-two people from the San Francisco Buddhist Center and the wider Buddhist community spent a couple of weekends this month meditating around the corner from the SFBC -- in a display window facing a bustling part of Valencia street. And there was a bench for people to sit on, across from window. According to an observer who sat outside one day, in a couple of hours 30-40 of the people walking by took photographs. (Apparently one of them was Citisven, a writer for the Daily Kos - check out the article he wrote, How sitting in windows is making the planet cooler.)

For me, the experience of sitting was completely different than I thought it would be. That is, I thought the 'being looked at' part would be more prominent. I became deeply absorbed, just hearing the sounds of the city--cars passing, high heels clicking, dogs barking, conversations... and noticing the response in my body. There was incredible peace sitting in that window, somehow interspersed with moments of fear and wonder.

Another surprising thing was how many people walking by seemed to think we were statues or some kind of realistic art! True, as far as I know there has never been living beings in this window before. (It is the art display window at Artists Television Access or ATA.) There was a huge range of reactions, from awe, respect or curiosity, to disbelief, to suspicion or scorn. A lot of misunderstandings about meditation were expressed, too...and some seemed not to realize that we can hear, even if our eyes are closed!

The event included a screening of Matthew Flickstein's ecumenical documentary about mysticism called "With One Voice". Even though some sector of our culture seems to be rather attached to the idea that 'all religions are the same'...the approach of this film isn't like that. It simply documents the intersections of human spiritual experience through the voices of the people who are devoted to it in apparently very different ways--sufis, Buddhists, Hindus, Quakers, lay people, monastics... The screening was well attended and well enjoyed. By the way at the moment this excellent film is not available from Netflix or video stores. You can buy it at withonevoicedocumentary.org.

How Was It--Sitting in the Window?

"I had the experience of noticing my thoughts arise, then they would dissolve, even if I wanted to hold onto them! Usually there is the constant struggle to stay in the present but yesterday I was anchored to a larger, more still space. It was amazing. I was in a blissful state for the rest of the day."

"A couple of dudes passed by and I heard one tell the other, 'Hey, bang on the window!' I prepared myself for the thud, but I didn't hear anything. I wondered if they were cute."

"Many people wondered if we were real. In the second sit I sent loving-kindness to the people walking by on Valencia Street. At the end of the two sits I felt really energized and excited. I think the energy of Valencia Street affected my meditation a lot. I was glad to be part of it."

"I'm so glad we did this event!...It was impossible for me to feel anything but kindness and solidarity--different than what I thought it would be--this was a strong practice situation! Being visible while practicing is a wonderful thing to do for oneself and everyone who comes by, strangely intimate."

"It was pretty amazing. Where I thought I'd be all fidgety, worrying about losing my concentration I was actually quite still. Even when someone banged on the window I barely moved."

"It was a wonderful experience."

What Did You Hear?

"Holey f---, that's my cousin!"


"Are they real?"

"How long have they been there?"
"A long time."


"Estan meditando." [They are meditating.]

"I don't see anyone sitting in lotus position!"

"They look so real."

"Daddy, why are they sleeping?" (repeat a few times)
"They're not sleeping, they're concentrating."
"Why are they concentrating?" (repeat a few times)
"Let's let them concentrate."

"I wish I could do that."

"Passive aggressive, sitting in the window meditating."

"That's not a real person, is it?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it is."
"Wow, that freaks me out."

"Oh my god."

"See look, there they are."

"Is she breathing?"
"No, people don't breathe when they meditate."
"Really? Are you sure she's not breathing?...See, that's why I can't meditate."

"Oh my god. Are those real people?"

"Is it art or is it meditation?"

More Info and Related Projects
Article about this project -and Obama's State of the Union Speech - from Citisven on the Daily Kos.
Window photos by Suvarnaprabha, IdentityTBD (Flickr), Acarasiddhi, and Ethan's cousin.
Softening (SFBC website)
Artists Television Access (992 Valencia Street @ 21st)
Marina Abramović at NY MOMA: "The artist is present."

07 December 2010


Here are some articles and such about income distribution changes in the US.

"...the most unequal distribution of wealth since the Great Depression."

29 October 2010

Hibernation (poem)

I wake up in
I have fallen
out with the world.
My body swaddled
In caves.

Yet the pace
Does not slacken.
Yet I'm starting to

Light shocks
My face,
Heats the liquid
Of my eyes,
All this is overdone,
Full of moves.
All I need is
A source of water,

High-roofed caverns,
Light reflected off

No reaching.
No digging.
No linking.
No rumbling machines.
There is no need.

It's all here.

16 October 2010

Sweet & Spicy Roasted Kabocha Squash and Tofu recipe

According to Wikipedia, the kabocha squash was introduced to Japan by Portuguese sailors in 1541, who brought it with them from Cambodia. The Portuguese name for the squash, Cambodia abóbora, was shortened by the Japanese to kabocha.

Sorry I didn't take a picture of the finished dish, on the other hand it wasn't super attractive, though tasty.


1 small kabocha squash
medium or firm tofu cut into slabs at least 1/2" thick
3 T brown sugar
1/2 t ground cumin
1/4-1/2 t ground cayenne pepper
1/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t salt
1-2 T soy sauce
Oil for drizzling

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

De-seed and cut the squash into slices about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. (After cutting the squash in half, it's easier to cut from the inside, on a stable surface, and be careful!)

Combine the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Toss the squash slices in this until coated thoroughly. Add the soy sauce and toss well again. Toss the tofu separately.

Spread the slices in a single layer on the baking sheet and drizzle with oil. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn over, drizzle again and bake for 10-15 more minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature. You can eat the squash peel.

This is my version of this recipe:

With leftovers, make pancakes:

These pancakes are yummy.

put in a blender:
1 c chopped roasted kabocha squash
2 eggs
1/2 tsp baking soda or powder
dash cinnamon
1 T milk

This recipe modified from

11 October 2010

The Bodhisattva's New Shoes (poem)

We had a great spoken word event the other night--Lit Crawl in a packed out meditation hall in the SF Buddhist Center. In one hour, six of us read poems and short fiction. If you're a Buddhist and would like to apply for next year, get on the email list of the Buddhist Center and we'll send you the call for entries when the time comes.

This is the last poem I read. Song was the second.

The Bodhisattva's New Shoes

Mark these words cabrones:
I will come back again and again
and loving dogs will chase me
yapping and jumping.
I’ll come not in a saffron robe
but in boots made from
car tires, recycled titanium
and a cowboy hat when
it’s raining.

Not clinging but singing
(a virtual Julie Andrews twirling on a hill)
a bike with leaking fork seals
(Europe and Asia’s waited-for
beginner mind)
(and loving dogs will chase me)

The occupants of this this this
world however it is will be my
lovers the pigs the birds
hedgehogs foxes bald
people in hospitals devas
Anonymous Sex and Love Addicts
whispering behind walls

Todo el mundo sera mi amante, señores
and I won’t try to teach it anything, ever,
(I will only love it)
(a howler monkey in Dolby)
(the vibrations of joy from my laughter
will soothe the psychoanalysts in the hell realms)

A gentle kiss
pure love steaming out the front end
of a vehicle
which is the unadorned body
the soft strong body
(think of loving dogs)

like this
like steam, like the sweet smoke of a
Cuban cigar, radiating up, sinking down,
in this this this world
returning again
coming back

15 June 2010

Women and confidence

"With the realization of one's own potential and self-confidence in one's ability, one can build a better world." - Dalai Lama
I hosted a little workshop last night for women, so we could talk about confidence and self doubt. The idea for it came during a recent meeting of people involved in teaching and supporting introduction to Buddhism courses. I was struck at the many issues of confidence that arose for the women. They said things like, "If I'm teaching and I feel afraid or I'm thinking how stupid I am...' I asked the men if they tended to have thoughts like that. For most of them, over-confidence seemed to be more of an issue.

Then the other day in a cafe, a woman asked if she could plug her laptop into the outlet near our table. She apologized profusely, around three times! It seems sometimes that women have a tendency to doubt ourselves and doubt our worth, our right even to be alive, to inhabit the space that we take up, to ask for anything.

In Buddhism we can talk about the 'progress of the self'' in terms of moving from a negative self view to a positive self view, then into no self view. The same could be said about self confidence, that as we practice we move from self doubt to self confidence to no need for either.

Here are the questions we reflected on:
  1. Think of a time you felt confident. What did it feel like? What were the conditions?
  2. Think of a time you felt fear or self doubt. What did it feel like? What were the conditions?
  3. What are the particular areas you feel confident in? In which ones does self doubt tend to creep in?
  4. Does your 'inside' level of confidence match the appearance on the outside?
  5. What habits do you have that support confidence? What habits do you have that erode your confidence?
  6. Are there steps you could take to work more effectively with your self doubt or fear?
  7. Are there specific ways we, your friends here, could be more supportive or encouraging to you and help you develop confidence?
  8. Do you support or encourage other women in the sangha? Are there specific things you could do to be more supportive?
Here are some notes I jotted down during the meeting listing a few conditions around self doubt and confidence.

Self doubt arises...
fear of groups/groups of women
lack of communication skills in conflict
negative feedback from others
fear of failure
comparing self to others
going for refuge to others
inner critic
doubting own perceptions

Confidence arises...
sharing inner process with another person
acknowledge different parts of me
confession (with trust)
not believing self critical thoughts
being more open-hearted
re-read nice things people have said in emails
tonglen practice
feeling embodied
feeling connected to others
working in first stage of metta bhavana
acknowledge my own perception

image by banksy

04 June 2010

Response to recent PBS film, The Buddha

Amazing that David Grubin, who is not a Buddhist, could have presented such an accurate yet inspiring film on the Buddha's teachings, without falling into the usual traps and misunderstandings. Part 2 did an excellent job focusing on the teachings. Much of the first half was animated and seemed more like a children's story, focused as it was on folklore (how the Buddha was born out of his mother's side, etc.)

The only thing in the film that really bothered me was the scene in which the Buddha, leaving the palace, doesn't say goodbye to his wife because it would be too painful, which of course makes him seem not like an important spiritual hero, but rather, like a coward.

Stories of the Buddha's life are mostly fiction. For example, it is unknown whether he even had a wife and child, whether that was added on later to add to give him credibility. Just goes to show that 'credible' in one culture can be 'dead beat dad' in another.

Anyway I prefer this version of the leaving of the palace:
When the prince awoke in the night he was shocked to see these sleeping people. What a sight! All the prettiest, most charming dancing girls, the finest singers, best musicians and cleverest performers in the country, who, hours ago, were trying to make the prince so happy, were now all over the floor of the room in the most ugly, shameful and loathsome positions. Some people were snoring like pigs, with their mouths wide open, some grinding and chewing their teeth like hungry devils. This alteration in their appearance made the prince even more disgusted and unhappy. "How oppressive and stifling this all is," he thought, and his mind turned again towards leaving the palace.


25 May 2010

On conflict with friends

"There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die.
But those who do realize this settle their quarrels."
(The Dhammapada, transl. by Buddharakkhita)
Having lived within a community of people over a long period of time, I occasionally notice a feeling of resentment and have been pondering how to deal with it. It's as if suddenly resentment and certain other habits I have are weighing me down, like I'm carrying stones in my pockets.

I'm sure that honesty is part of the answer. Honesty--how difficult and misunderstood it is!

What I consider to be honesty includes a willingness and a wish to take responsibility for the state of one's own mind. Kindness and an unguarded leaning toward harmony are intrinsic to honesty.

Honesty doesn't mean expressing irritation, but living and expressing oneself in a more balanced way...which then gives less fuel to irritation. Being honest means not sharing our assessments of other people's actions or character, but sharing, when appropriate, how things effect us.

Is that so difficult? Well, yes. As evidenced by those of us who think of ourselves as honest -- but are just blunt or rude or mean, or those of us who are helpful or polite or softspoken and think of ourselves that way -- but tend to talk behind someone's back rather than respond honestly.

Many of us have virtually no experience of honest communication in response to disharmony. We have known too much criticism and blame. We have no training, no models. If we manage to say anything, we speak in sweeping generalities, or inadvertently assassinate someone's character, or seem to just want to be right. We are afraid to share clear and kind information about how things effect us. We fear losing love.

Sometimes irritations fade away on their own. And sometimes we rationalize failing to respond honestly to a repeating situation. Maybe we think we should be able to resolve it on our own (a near enemy to 'taking responsibility for one's mental states'), or we have the excuse that the other person can't handle honesty, or we are sure they won't change so there's no point, or our of fear we decide to avoid the person...or we just try to say something and can't. Any of these sound familiar?

And so it builds into a burden. Each time the thing happens, the situation becomes more entrenched. We're too annoyed or exasperated to bring it up. And when things are good, bringing it up appears to be totally unnecessary.

What can be done? We can learn the basics of Nonviolent Communication and practice it, especially when we are having difficulty with someone. If we don't want to do formal NVC, we can keep in mind the basic principles. One of the most useful ones for me has been using very specific examples. Consider potential responses to "When you closed the door last night, it woke me up." vs. "Why are you so inconsiderate and always slamming doors?" If we say nothing and resentment builds, we will hopefully experience it as a burden and try in some way to restore harmony and connection with our friend.

Here are a some principles I came up with for myself. If, like me, you tend to "let things slide," it may be good advice for you, too.

My advice to myself is:
  1. If there is some issue or resentment that keeps coming up, make a point of bringing it up with the person when things are harmonious.
  2. Look deeply at your motivation for bringing it up.
  3. Though it may end up helping the other person, do not think of that as the purpose. Think of it as a way for you to practice engaging more honestly and effectively with friends.
  4. If you think it will be hard for you to articulate it skilfully, practice with someone else first until you are more comfortable.
  5. State the reason for bringing it up. Example: "I have noticed I have some resentment toward you, which I feel is kind of a barrier between us. I was wondering if it would be ok with you for me to try to talk it through."
  6. Don't speak in generalities; use concrete examples.
  7. Remember it is not the other person's fault that you feel how you feel. However they were an influence, and you are trying perhaps awkwardly at first to share with them how things are for you.
  8. Is there a specific request? If so, be clear about what it is. Don't ask someone to overhaul their personality. They can't. Let them know how something specific effects you and ask if they are willing to do something specific related to it. They are free to say no.
  9. Remember that even if the person has a bad reaction, the conversation still may have some benefit. If it doesn't, at least you tried!
  10. If misunderstanding increases, re-state that the reason for bringing it up was to connect more deeply, and apologize for any unskillfulness on your part.
Most of these are areas I need to work on; some of them are things I have noticed more in the troubles other people have. What are the areas in your communication that need attention? How can you work through them?

Here's some more wisdom from Tiny Buddha about conflicts with friends:

Photo by Julie Bennett (Tanzania).

26 April 2010

Things I Notice When the Talk Is About Money

While in India in 1990, I remember various conversations I had with a someone on a train or whatever, and being asked how much money I make. This happened more than once. I remember being shocked by the question, one which I possibly had never been asked before in casual conversation. No doubt I stammered out some kind of evasive response. So I had discovered that this kind of question isn't taboo everywhere. Whereas, here....

After talking to an old friend on the phone the other day, I pondered that even though he was talking about money, he never actually said an amount. He said he got a raise, which was more than what he thought he was going to get. He said more than once, emphatically, that it was much more, like twice as much as he thought it would be.

People say, "Man, I lost my shirt in the stock market, now I can't retire when I'm 55." They never say, "I lost $200,000 in the stock market. Now I only have $300,000." I feels risky even to write it.

It seems that any details that might indicate how much money you have or make are verboten. Not that I have a need to know how much money someone makes. It's just something I notice--a common omission. I wonder if the more you make, the less likely you are to use an amount when referring to your money. Or maybe it's not incremental. Maybe there's a genetic switch of some kind, such that once you make over a certain amount of money, your jaw snaps shut like a clam.

At a show the other night, the performer talked a little about her mortgage -- she couldn't afford it but got talked into it. She didn't say how much it was, just that she was poor, and it was difficult. She talked about tenants and window sills and storage units, and how difficult it all was. I think this is only understandable to someone who has those kinds of problems. To me, they don't seem like problems.

A couple of times I've unwittingly referred to monetary amounts in groups of people who by my standards have rather a lot of it. I think once I actually said how much money I make (not that I'm saying it now!) To make less money working for the Dharma (a corny phrase) was a choice I made some years ago, and 99% of the time I am happy with it, and feel that I have a fairly high standard of living (by my standard anyway, which has to do with love and meaning.) Anyway the effect of saying that I make $xx,000 per year was as if had dropped an ice cube dropped inside the back of their shirt and they were trying to pretend it wasn't there.

Based on this very large sampling of statistically valid data, I have created...

Maxims For How We Feel and Talk About Money
  1. Even if billions of people would consider us wealthy, we feel poor. No matter how much you have, there is not enough.
  2. We speak in specific amounts when talking about outgoing money. Example: "They charged me $1,100 fix a tiny dent in my car!"
  3. We speak in generalities about money coming in. Example:"My tax refund this year is somewhat less than last year."
  4. We have actually told one or possibly two people on earth how much money we actually make or have.
  5. We are more likely to talk in detail about our sex life than our financial life.
Or is it a middle class thing? ...What are your money maxims?

image is Laxmi, Hindu god of wealth and prosperity
from http://holidays.vgreets.com/Diwali/Lakshmi_Puja

25 March 2010

memoirs of observer and observed: retreat

Madrone trees over the meditation yurt.
The song I have come to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my life
stringing and unstringing
my instrument.

– Rabindranath Tagore

Sitting here together, we are each watching the mind, feeling the body, living the senses. These aspects of me respond in various ways to this situation, in which we go against aeons of evolution.

When you first start, and later too, you're mostly as-if. Everything is buzzy. That's why you don't want to do it, to go against. There are disturbing creaking sounds. The body cries out to be heard, like a baby that keeps pretending to be hurt.

But everything's set up for this now. You go against—which means you just stand there, you get swept away, you recover and stand some more—then the river gives up and starts flowing the other direction. The senses lose their hunger and become a very large orchid that flourishes and dies, flourishes and dies. Hours pass.

Still, my knees send their pain message...but why am I separate from my knees? Why so far away? It creates opposition. Are my knees trying to pick a fight? Why is the situation like this? Not much happening in the way of answers.

* * *

A bright afternoon, outside, loving the tree stumps.

Things aren't more colorful or happy or what you might think of as spiritual, in fact there is a trim of sadness to all. But they are nonetheless quietly fascinating, and my mind is a sea sponge, completely drenched with lucid clarity.

When we observe something, especially something about ourself, there is usually a sense of an observer as well as what is observed. Sometimes what is observed seems to be the more 'real', sometimes it's the other way around. Say you notice there is thinking. Where is the energy, where is the life force as it were? Maybe the muscle is in the thinking process, and whatever is noticing the thoughts seems relatively weak. Or maybe what notices is vast, and the thoughts are just tiny blips in the spaciousness.

Now, here, the observer is so large and lucid and absorbent that it sort of envelopes what is being observed. Both are in a way exactly the same; they are both smaller, and more huge, than we think.

I see a motion picture of myself doing the next potential thing: climbing up that tree. My next move is projected before me, as if I am living a movie that shows short clips of my thoughts about what to do next. I can hear electricity. It's like being a child again, or an acid trip...but really it isn't like either. It's further inside, and it's the result of conscious effort, trying to stay upright in the stream, which makes it essentially different, subtler and deeper.

I begin walking and notice how soft the ground is. I think, I'm killing things here. Jains sweep their path before walking to remove insects, to reduce death. I walk a short distance; there isn't really a trail. When I turn around and stop, I hear leaves rustling. There is a small skink thrashing from side to side. I must have stepped on it under the leaves.

It's sad. I watch her thrashing. I wonder about staying with her 'til she dies. But what if she doesn't die? What if she takes a long time to die? I'm not going to squat there for 12 hours. Or even 1. Am I heartless or...sentimental? Or both, or neither? I send loving kindness to the lizard.

I contain the spectrum of responses and points of view. Each moment is very clearly either tragic, or insignificant. I cannot tell which.

* * *

Now I am drinking beer with an old friend and it is nice. I start to get a minor version of the spins, which adds another point of view. I realize everything that I want is to be aware in every moment. But caught in the habits and complexities of daily life, the moments are lost, in movement mistaken for meaning, in production, in resistances that rise and fall, noticed and unnoticed, in the idea of time that rules my days, in trying to put a patch over the vacuum, in the essentially painful chore of being someone, needing.

I guess I’m still seeing some things, seeing that this is the way it usually is. But now, it hurts. The observer is a shrunken head. The observer is no longer the world's largest sea sponge. Habits are a blue whale with a barnacle on it that observes.

I notice that when I am reading emails, emotions pass in waves, and I usually do not take time to acknowledge them. Things get tangled up. People shrink to fit inside my screen. My affection for them shrinks as well, unless I pause.

I do not like the idea, the certainty, that I will subsume myself again in the world of habits, and wait for the next retreat to release myself. But that is how it is. Not so black and white, but rather, dark gray, off-white.

See also

Cultivating the Inner Retreat

What is a skink? (wikipedia)

Photo of the meditation yurt with madrone trees. It's not a great photo actually, but seeing it in person is lovely. The upper bark of the trees is very smooth with a beautiful mustard color.

07 March 2010

A Buddhist thinking about the Bible...and The Dude

As for man, his days are like grass; He flourishes as a flower of the field,
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more.
(Psalms 103:15)
This morning, Sunday morning, I watched that king of Coen brothers movies, The Big Lebowsky. Toward the end, Walter and The Dude briefly sit facing a wall in a funeral parlor on which is inscribed the above quote from Psalms. Thankfully I could rewind the movie (as it were) so that I could read it.

Some parts of the Bible are very beautiful. A lot of this kind of stuff jives with Buddhism--in this case poetically expressing the principle of impermanence--so long as you cherry pick the lines you're quoting. The ones about a being who loves only those who fear him don't fit in so much in a Buddhist context. While the Buddha became deified to some degree over the millenia, what makes Buddhism interesting and relevant is the fact that 1) he was a mortal who used his mind to transform himself into something of ultimate and indescribable beauty, and 2) he taught others how to do the same; this is in distinction from 1) claiming to be God and/or the Son of God, and, 2) pretty much demanding to be worshiped. It's a big difference. Buddhism is entirely practical but does involve elements of ritual and nonmaterial components (because these are also practical.)

Last week I was in Orange County where finding a radio station involves listening to some evangelical tutelage, Bible study, etc. At my dad's 80th birthday party, I was talking to a couple of Mormons who are old friends of my dad's. They asked where I live, thinking I might live so far away as Tustin or Encino. But when I said San Francisco, the wife audibly gasped. It was kind of funny but I thought it best to act like I didn't notice. A close friend when I was growing up there has been long lost to the Evangelicals.

I took a Bible as Literature class in college, which was also my first introduction to the Bible. Much of it, yes, is beautiful. Here is another doozy. This is particularly interesting to me, being a devotee of the female golden Buddha Prajnaparamita (PRAG-nya-PAra-meet-AH), which means something like Perfect Wisdom. She is one of the archetypes of wisdom from Northern Buddhism.
She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared to her.
Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her. (Proverbs 3.13-18)
It seems to me that there are two approaches to Christianity. By way of warning, this may be grossly over-simplified and irrelevant to someone who actually knows something about theology, which I do not. At any rate, God seems to personify either Love or Judgement, a nurturing mother or an angry father. I suppose there is a third option which is a confusing mixture of love and irrational guilt/intolerance. A Christianity that truly conceives of God as Love will focus on living in alignment with that love, working through barriers to that love, and helping people who need help regardless of their beliefs. Even though Buddhism is not a theistic system, it has much more in common with what I would consider to be truly Christian attitude, which is concerned with being loving rather than being right.

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