13 December 2008

Boob Smashers

Talking about getting older, of course, is not so interesting, especially for those who don't feel they are doing it. In our American culture, in our time, old people and their knowledge aren't exactly irresistible. Old people tend to be slow, conservative, unproductive, grumpy, even. At any rate they are likely to circuit in reference to memories rather than foment around plans. In this culture we seem to "feel old" at all ages, and it never feels good.

The result is that some things about getting older can come as a complete shock. Or maybe some specific things about aging are just different for everyone. Or, more likely, we do hear specifics about getting older, but for whatever reason it just doesn't sink in, it's too abstract, it seems impossible. As a random example, there is the subject of boobs and what they are eventually subjected to. This is something I am certain I didn't get any warning about.

One thing that you may know is that after forty you're supposed to get a mammogram every year or two. What you won't realize is that when someone says (but no one ever actually says this for some reason), "I'm getting a mammogram today," what they really mean is, "Today I will stand beside a mean Russian technician who will squash each of my breasts between two shelves."

This poem from someone's blog further illustrates this point:
She stepped upon a pedal,
I could not believe my eyes!
A plastic plate came slamming down,
My hooters in a vise!...

Excruciating pain I felt,
Within it’s viselike grip.
A prisoner in this vicious thing,
My poor defenseless tit!...

“There, that’s good,” I heard her say,
(The room was slowly swaying.)
“Now, let’s have a go at the other one.”
Have mercy, I was praying. (whole poem)
So that pretty much explains it. In my head, I know that breast cancer is a leading cause of death among women, and that thousands of years of medical wisdom have crystallized into this hooter-crushing yet benevolent wonder of modern science. Truly, it is a privilege to be subjected to it. I just wish I could appreciate it more.

08 December 2008

I was going to write about getting older

I wrote a blog about being 45 and getting older in general, but it was sort of depressed, so I am instead posting this odd picture of me and my mom.

03 December 2008

"I feel like a pig shat in my head."

This image is from the Mayo Clinic website. It's a microscopic creature that's related to spiders, the common dust mite, magnified several thousand times.

And what is the nature of human interaction with this creature? Well, each of us sheds hundreds of thousands of particles of dead skin every hour - about 1.5 pounds a year - and these creatures gain sustenance by eating it. Then, they do what all creatures do: shit occasionally, and die eventually.

So if you're allergic to dust like I am, you are actually allergic to the shit and dead bodies of dust mites, which we call "dust." We are surrounded by and permeated with forms of life too small for us to see.

I seem to be on a roll in terms of writing about health. This time it's because I accomplished the dreaded task the other night of sorting through my books, organizing them, and getting rid of 3 big boxes of them. But they were very dusty, and by the time I finished the job I had been feeling ill for some time. When I woke up, I suddenly heard in my pressurized head a voice from the movie Withnail and I, saying, "I feel like a pig shat in my head."

Strangely, feeling this way reminds me of my 7-week ordination retreat in 2001. The retreat was in an old monastery in Tuscany, Italy. I felt this way much of that time, but worse. It's not really the runny nosed type of thing that most people associate with allergies, but more like environmental illness. Thankfully it doesn't happen very often (7 years since last time), and it's not like I'm in a lot of pain or anything, just somewhat nonfunctional. But it does seem kind of crazy, because dust is pretty much everywhere, it's almost like being allergic to air...


25 November 2008

Happiness & Its Causes

Today through the generosity of its hosts, I attended part of the super swank, professional and impressive conference, Happiness & Its Causes. The sessions I attended were made up of several short talks and then a panel discussion with a moderator. These notes are a bit more sketchy than I thought they were, but hopefully they will be of some use.

In the first session, The Psychology of Happiness, Professor David Feldman talked about hope. Years of research have apparently identified the conditions for feeling hope:
  • goals
  • pathways (and alternate pathways when first choice or idea is blocked)
  • agency, meaning energy and motivation

Dr. Feldman also said something like, Whenever people have a sense of what is important in life and feel that they are working toward this, hope thrives.

Neurosurgeon James Doty, who started the Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. talked about compassion. He was interesting but there was too much to write down. He said that happiness without compassion is not happiness - it is just pleasure. He referred to "gamma synchrony," whatever that might be (but I really liked the phrase for some reason), and in general to the dramatic and permanent changes that can occur in the brain, called neural plasticity.

Scientists and researchers have lots of lists, especially perhaps when they've got PowerPoint and only about 15 minutes to present findings from decades of research. These lists, at least the ones at this conference, can serve us as reminders of what's important. There is a lot of crossover with what Buddhism says. For example, the conditions for hope listed above could correspond to nirvana, the Dharma, and viriya (energy or enthusiasm, of the 6 Perfections or paramitas.)

I was thinking of what my list would be, of things I would like to remember every day, things I am grateful to be reminded of. My precepts...in no particular order...

  • not resisting
  • being of service
  • awareness of thoughts and the trajectory of thoughts
  • orienting toward meaning/the goal
  • slowing down/meditation
  • kindly, engaged communication
  • self/bodily care
  • "When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

This is a preliminary list but at some point I would like to concretize as it were a list of personal precepts.

Beginning the second morning session, How to Make Relationships Work, Wiveka Ramel spoke about relationships and depression. She named four factors strongly predictive of major depression:
  1. Negative feedback seeking - seeking external views that match his or her own negative self view. Preferentially solicit, recall, and believe negative feedback.
  2. Excessive reassurance seeking - about self worth, lovability.
  3. Conflict avoidance - less assertiveness and many other behaviors in order to avoid conflict.
  4. Blame maintenance - partner or friend has fixed, negative view of depressed person.
Some antidotes to depression (I didn't get them all down but here are a few.)
  • Distancing self (though whatever methods) from rigidly held conceptions.
  • Inducing spaciousness
  • Not believing thoughts and interpretations as truth.
She also mentioned a new kind of therapy called Acceptance and Committment Therapy (ACT) whose goal is to induce psychological flexibility.

Eponymous Margaret Cullen talked about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. She used the phrase 'gentle or even affectionate mindfulness,' which I appreciated very much.

Dan Bryant talked about expectations and said, 'our rules for other people are universally unenforceable." He recommended these books and authors:
  • Forgive for Good by Frederic Luskin
  • If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl (I do find the title of this book a bit silly!)
  • Ellen Langer
  • Carol Dweck
  • Grateful Thinking by Robert Emmons
  • James Pennebaker
  • Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Also see AuthenticHappiness.org
  • Forgiveness by Robin Casarjian

  • Here is an article about the conference in the New York Times, which sniffed out and amplified all that qualified as California cheese-ball, referring to San Francisco as "dopamine-laden" (you need to have/create an NYT account to read it.)
  • Another NYT article about happiness (and t.v. watching.)

23 November 2008


Here's a link to a talk I gave about Patience.
Here are my notes:

Clarification of a few terms and names: Sangharakshita, Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva.

Sangharakshita – founder of Western Buddhist Order, into which I was ordained in 2001. Our Order is neither monastic nor lay, ordination based on commitment rather than lifestyle. The Order was started in 1968 in London and emphasizes creativity/imagination, friendship, study, meditation and right livelihood.

Mahayana Buddhism developed after the historical Buddha. It is more colorful and explicitly other-regarding, emphasizing compassion especially in the form of something called the Bodhisattva Ideal.

I got this off a book cover actually but it explains the spirit of the bodhisattva well:
“In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva’s life exemplifies the resolution of the conflict between our own desires and the needs of others…The development of inner calm and positivity that leads to true wisdom is balanced by a genuine and active concern for others which flowers into great compassion.”

Wisdom is willingness to acknowledge how things are, how things work, how we work. Part of this is interacting with forms of life who don’t want to acknowledge how things are and also being one of those forms of life to some degree.

This is how things are: there is suffering. Most of us cannot accept life on its own terms. We prefer our terms. We stubbornly cling to our terms, even if on some level we know they are unrealistic. The Bodhisattva is willing to acknowledge things and beings and ourselves as we are.

This requires an enormous patience, or in Sanskrit, kshanti, which is usually translated as patience. Can also be translated as forbearance, endurance, tolerance.

Sangharakshita says:
"It is difficult to translate kshanti by any one English word because it means a number of things. It means patience: patience with people, patience when things don't go your way. It means tolerance: allowing other people to have their own thoughts, their own ideas, their own beliefs, even their own prejudices. It means love and kindliness. And it also means openness, willingness to take things in, and, especially, receptivity to higher spiritual truths."

So kshanti means not only patience, but a constellation of other positive, life-affirming mental states that we can cultivate: tolerance, love, kindliness, openness and receptivity. It DOES NOT mean gritting your teeth, harming yourself, silence, bottled up rage, or being a passive victim. When we are patient but we are taking care of ourselves. Sometimes we take care of ourselves by being patient. I think we can all agree that if not all the time, most of the time impatience causes suffering, or at best, it does not help.

Kshanti is one of what are known as the 6 or the 10 perfections in Buddhism depending on which list you’ve got. The 6 perfections of Mahayana Buddhism are 3 sets of paired qualities: generosity and morality, patience and energy, meditation and wisdom. The various pairs balance each other. So patience is balanced with energy or vigor, and energy is balanced with patience. In the end they merge. We might notice that we have a tendency toward one more often than the other. I’m more of an energy type, enthusiastic, which for many of us probably means easily frustrated and prone to anger. It’s important for us to be aware of our tendencies and work with our habits. This is probably one of the main things we’re doing in Buddhist practice, bringing our habits into consciousness.

It’s easy to think of patience as being something very passive but this shows that that is not what is meant by kshanti. Kshanti is an expression of wisdom infused with energy, with loving energy.

Sangharakshita: “Kshanti is a form of awareness, an awareness of suffering in which one does not react with anger. “

Awareness of suffering is like a prerequisite for patience. If we can see someone who annoys us as a suffering being, and acknowledge our responsibility in that dynamic – well in a way that’s all we need to do. So tuning into suffering is important. Not to say that a suffering person is not responsible for their actions, but it’s not about that really. If you can look without self reference at someone who is shouting at you, you will see their pain. It’s not about excusing them. It’s about awareness of suffering.

Patience features prominently in pre-Mahayana texts as well. The Dhammapada says: “Patience is the highest austerity.” At the time of the Buddha and today people practice all kinds of austerities, basically self-mutilation, starvation etc. in order to be purified and achieve wisdom.
But the Buddha said, don’t need to physically harm yourself. In other words you do not need to go out looking for trouble, trouble will find you. The world is full of opps for patience. “Patience is the highest austerity.” The Buddha was a genius.

Before we go more into what we mean by patience, how about we get some agreement on what is not patience? What are some examples?

I was thinking of diff between patience and impatience and thought of the Taoist saying, soft overcomes hard. This is used in martial arts. Or we could say that Soft wisdom overcomes hard wisdom. By hardness, resistance, being brittle, rigid, these are not wholesome states. I find that my response to stress is to create a sort of psychological wall around myself. Toughness. This is what I often notice and work with.

Need to keep the energy flowing between us and the world, even if we momentarily hate the world. We cannot completely separate ourselves from the world. We have to learn to live in it in a way that’s healthy for us and for the world.

Mahayana literature takes a rather uncompromising stance about anger. For example, I believe this is from Shantideva: “One moment of anger destroys all merit one has accumulated through practice.”

Are we meant to take this literally? Always important to see the spirit of a teaching rather than getting caught up in ideas we’ll probably just use to make ourselves feel bad about ourselves. The spirit is that as aspiring bodhisattvas we want to acknowledge our connectedness with other beings. Anger can cut us off from other beings.

Heard a talk once where the distinction was made between patience with animate vs inanimate objects. Some people are patient with people but get super pissed off at inanimate objects, like the toothpaste tube, things breaking down, or the lost keys. Some people have a lot of patience for animals or children, but none for adults. But here I think we’re pretty much talking about other people and about ourselves. We may want to start with the easy stuff – that way we can get some practice for when the more challenging things come around…

So I wanted to get into something a bit more practical here. I thought of 4 areas we can be mindful of that may help us cultivate patience.

I ended up with an acronym, which is RED with 2 D's. R.E.D.D.

RATIONALIZATION...of anger or other unskillful mental states. For example, righteous indignation. This is us telling ourselves that our anger is good. Justifying our feelings.
Why do we always need to tell ourselves we’re right, or that we’re wrong, that we’re good, or bad? Doing this just puts another veil between us and what’s happening. This is suffering.

So, we have anger, nothing wrong with anger. Anger is energy bursting forth.
It’s more to do with expression that I think we need to be really careful or at least mindful.
In working with anger, we need to not harm ourselves or other people. Very tricky. We don’t want to repress, and we don’t want to cause harm.

This is why awareness of thoughts and emotions is so important. Awareness especially when they’re strong. That’s the test. What do we do with strong emotions? Do we pin it on someone as blame?

This doesn’t mean we’re wrong if we’re angry. It doesn’t mean we’re right either. If means that as aspiring bodhisattvas, we are more interested in connecting and in understanding than in being right. Understanding ourselves, someone else, the situation we find ourselves in.

I read a fascinating book a few months ago called Deep Survival which studied why in certain extreme situations, some people die and some people live. Mostly psychological reasons.
One of the points it made was that there aren’t any accidents. Systems aren’t perfect – they are guaranteed to break down. The people who can cope with changes in plans and actively work with them are the ones who survive. I think this principle applies just as well to our daily lives.
For example, we can be killed by stress, much of which is self-induced.

One thing that isn’t an accident is sickness. Sickness is an intrinsic part of the human form. No one on earth has ever escaped it. Yet, our expectations are such that we expect not to get sick. We expect not to age. Expectations are mostly unconscious.

Pema Chodron had a story where she told her teacher that one of his students had relapsed and that she was really disappointed in him. He told her that her disappointment was a form of aggression, and that what he needed was kindness, not her judgments about him. So relapse is part of the system, should be pretty obvious, people go back on things we say we’re going to do all the time. Why be surprised?

Not being attached to results. Engaging. Doing what you can do, and letting it go.

Soft spots around elaborate cloaking mechanisms. Vulnerability, fragility. Every once in a while we’ll get defensive about something. One lovely one for me are retreat and class evaluations. I really question myself reading people’s comments, some of which aren’t perfectly clear. It's very useful though. Whenever the subject of money comes up at our Board meetings, reactivity runs high…

When we encounter defensiveness in ourselves or in others, having patience. Some things we just can’t deal with at the moment. Sometimes we’re crazy. Being real, naked, undefended, happy, takes a long time. We are all at different stages in the process.

This should be called passivity but it didn’t fit with me acronym. You might think, If I am just patient and don’t ask for anything, people will walk all over me. Yes, they will. Does this mean we let people walk all over us?

Think of the dharma as the pinnacle of sanity and health. Does that sound like being abused?
I hope I have made it clear that co-dependence and patience are what are called near enemies in Buddhism. In other words, you might mistake one for the other, but they are not the same at least because of the motivation behind them. Co-dependence is motivated by fear, insecurity, confusion, or craving. Patience is motivated by an understanding of how things are, and understanding of interconnectedness that is infused with love.

So these are areas we can be aware of. Rationalization, Expectations, Defensiveness, and Doormat/passivity. But these are all somewhat after the fact. More pro-actively we can resolve to bring patience into a situation or to a person before we even see them. Engagement with challenges. When we get into our car we can resolve to bring patience.

If you’re already patient, what areas should you be more assertive in?
What are the challenges in your life? How could you benefit the world, yourself, the situation with more patience?

Mahayana Buddhism says, think of people, think of enemies, people who bug you, as your teachers. I try to do this. I try to accept situations I don’t like, and see these situations as helpful. This is counter-intuitive in the extreme. Still I often do not want to accept or acknowledge reality.

I feel I must be at least somewhat nonpartisan in this kind of a position but just to say I noticed a lot of impatience in myself around the election. I was disturbed to notice intolerance in myself around the election. For example finding myself thinking with frustration that most American voters are such selfish idiots. But even people who were mostly on the same page as me…it was just very frustrating. My own inability to openly communicate and be receptive or at least curious about someone else’s experience.

One of the verses from Tibetan Buddhism,the 7-point mind training: "When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

"When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

Thinking of other people as our teachers. Finding out what they are teaching us. Pointing out our hard spots, and since they are rigid, it hurts to have someone push against them, but of course that’s exactly what we really want.

The way we heal ourselves and the world, by stopping the fight. One of my favorite lines by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

There is a crack in everything – this is part of our system. This is what we can bring our love and understanding into more and more, every moment of every day.

Ending with a few beautiful sentences about patience by Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet (trans. Stephen Mitchell). He’s talking about being an artist. Of course we’re all artists in the sense that we create our lives:
Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring…comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

Here are 6 essays on Patience by Ratnagosha

Some other talks by me


06 November 2008

The Tyranny of Mood

I think in the past I haven't quite been aware of the degree to which biology is in charge of my life. These days it sometimes seems almost as if I am a puppet being moved by the strings of biology. A recent example: I drank two beers on the evening of November 4. Even though I hardly ever drink, I did not feel especially tipsy. The morning of November 5, I was depressed. There wasn't a reason on earth to be depressed on November 5, 2008, in fact it qualified as one of the least depressing days in history. But there it was. Things seemed sad.

Further, lately I experience an enormous amount of stress unless I exercise every day. When I say "stress" you may think you know what I mean, but allow me to clarify further. I'm talking about something almost along the lines of panic, and if I really tune into it I realize it isn't really about anything. It's just in my body. I think it is at least in part due to fluctuating levels of estrogen. On the positive side, all this means I have much more energy, and that I am really motivated to get exercise. I meditate almost every day and sometimes much more than that, and of course this helps a great deal as well. Lately I find that more than that is required. For balance, stillness needs movement.

It's amazing how my mood, caused by something drunk or eaten, by activity my body did or did not do, makes the world change tone, and yet it's pretty much the same world. This is so important to be aware of. To paraphrase Anais Nin - I have read nothing of hers by the way, but think she said something like that we see the world how we are - I am trying to see the world as I am. Rather, to know in each moment that I am seeing the world as I am.

If I don't move my body much, which happens during my daily bonding sessions with my laptop, and eat a lot, the prospect of moving around much appears to be a big chore. A good thing to do, the right thing to do, but not something I actually want to do. Rather, it becomes something that Hercules should be doing. But once the movement barrier is broken, once my body's energy is available, exercising is very natural and feels good. Now, I can't imagine doing without it.

On a less personal note, here are some of the main factors that studies have identified as reducing stress:

* Meditation/mindfulness practice
* Exercise
* Social support
* Positive but realistic mental perspective
* Enjoying outlets for frustration (hobbies, expression of feelings)
* Rejuvenating/relaxing regularly.

Wonderful Stanford primate/stress scientist Robert Sapolsky is a proponent of exercise as a stress reducer. Interestingly, he has cited studies indicating that exercise only reduces stress if you enjoy it. This is probably true of the other stress reducers as well. So get some spaciousness in your life, relax, and enjoy! Take care of your body! Unfortunately it sounds like a commercial, but for some of us, this is an important thing to remember.

Stress Reduction at Work Mindfulness Courses. This is a business I co-own with my friend Bill Scheinman.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (on googlebooks)

The evocative image at the top of this posting is from periphery.co.uk.

31 October 2008

Religulous Fanatics

Everyone I know that's seen Bill Maher's movie, "Religulous," loved it. Sixteen percent of Americans apparently identify as atheists or agnostics, so why are we letting people who believe in literal virgin births and talking bushes call the shots? Let's sock it to those religious fanatics!

This the explicit premise of the movie, an atheist call to action. A further premise I would add is the following: We're not letting the Evangelicals be the only ones who don't listen to, and badger, people who disagree with them - now we can be condescending know-it-alls too!

It reminded me of the famous British atheist and Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins. Specifically a film I saw at the Roxie a few years ago that was a compilation from his BBC television series...I believe it was called, "Root of All Evil?" in which Dawkins proceeded to cross the globe harrassing religious people and in so many words, telling them they're stupid. Actually even though Dawkins is obviously an influence (e.g., looking for 'evidence' of miracles, citing the story of Lot's daughters from the Bible), he's almost subtle compared to Maher.

Maher let very few of the people he spoke to get a word in edge-wise. He spoke very quickly, asking for evidence, for example, for the virgin birth. When the person opened their mouth to reply, he would rapid-fire several more questions. Maher got up and walked out on the one guy who wouldn't let himself be interrupted. To me it looked like his primary purpose was to make everyone look like an idiot, thereby "proving" that atheists are superior, and religion is bad.

Religion helps a lot of people. I'm not saying it's perfect or unproblematic - in fact religions cause and continue to cause a great deal of harm in the world. But it's obvious that both Maher and Dawkins do not really understand what they are criticizing and this is probably the fundamental flaw. To me, Maher looked like an ass in most of the film, exemplifying some of the intolerance he is perhaps meaning to criticize.

But maybe this kind of thing is good, and necessary: Fundamentalist Christianity has a lot of power in this country, and us 16% types should no doubt start expressing ourselves more without being afraid. I hope that Dawkins and Maher are right and that their films do some good. May atheists claim their birthright, and acquire even a fraction of the zeal possessed by their monotheistic counterparts.

Religulous on IMDB

Richard Dawkins on Wikipedia

Story of Lot on Wikipedia

26 October 2008

My Dharma Job

In morning meditation thoughts of what needs to be done for the Center often arise. It occurred to me that most other people's jobs must be much more separated from their personal life than mine. They get home and forget about work, because when they are at home they are in a different world.

My job is not separate from my personal life. When I am sitting, I am in the building I work in, teach in, schedule, and manage. When I am sitting, I am in the building in which most of my practice has happened for many years, where guests and visiting teachers stay, where my neighbors are, where my friends often are, where I have seen many people come and go, where I have lived since 1994. This means both that different areas of my life are very integrated...and that sometimes in meditation my working ground is the 'Center to do' list.

I did some part time work as a grant writer the first couple of years after I became Director of the Center in 2002. I discovered what the Federal Poverty Standard was and that it matched my pay at that time. (Now it's a bit more!) However this work gives me what I consider to be a high standard of living. Not in terms of material things (though mostly I feel I have enough of those), but in terms of quality of life: space and flexibility to my days, and doing work that I not only find meaningful but which is actually very central to my life in terms of the people, the ethics, and the mission. This is a great luxury, as it were. I do not work for money...What could be less American? I know others in San Francisco follow alternative lifestyles, which is one of the reasons I love this city, and cities in general: so much oddness.

I do not always use the relatively leisurely lifestyle I have to the fullest. I have spent a fair amount of it being annoyed that more people don't help (it has been some years since I felt this way.) I spend some of it trying to motivate, or doing things that aren't the priority (which is sometimes meditation or doing nothing.) I'm kind of a compulsive worker and this is something I've worked on since I've had this job. My boss, the Dharma, continues to patiently prioritize harmony and awareness.

Another aspect of my Dharma work is that I do not have the same level of independence as someone with a more conventional job. I depend on the Center for my basic needs and very little beyond that. It's kind of a strange situation to be in, especially because personality-wise I am quite independent. It has taken a lot of getting used to.

I still have some anxiety. What if this or that happens? How long will I be happy doing administrative work for the Center, and when the happiness stops, what will I do? What if I get cancer? When I am 70 will I be working the graveyard shift at 7-11, standing on my feet all day, dodging bullets?

Next spring will usher in my longest retreat to date, the 3 month women's ordination retreat in Spain. After that, I will see how my life is going, and see how important money seems. Everything could change then, or sooner.

Who Does What at the San Francisco Buddhist Center/FWBO

Akashavana Retreat Center in Spain is where I will be next spring

No Time to Think (Talk by Professor David Levy)
Includes quotation from German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper who in 1947 wrote, “Leisure is a form of stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality. Only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.”

23 October 2008

San Francisco Voter's Guide UPDATES

These endorsements are based on a 2-hour conversation that happened tonight between Dawn, Sharon, Pete, Rich, Mike, Lisa, Gabe, Ethan, Leef, and myself. Many come from consensus but there were some differing opinions. Please post a comment if you would like to add something.

See also: State Initiatives Voters' Guide blog posting. The following websites provide more information about the San Francisco initiatives:
Bay Guardian--San Francisco Measures
San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association
San Francisco Democratic party endorsements
NOTE: Red and/or capital letters means the vote is clear and strong. A question mark means marginal, that the issue remained somewhat opaque no matter how many sources or opinions were voiced...

Sf voter results came from SFgov.org.

A: San Francisco General Hospital bonds YES (SF voted YES 84%)
Everyone is for this one.

B: Affordable housing fund Yes? (SF voted NO 51%)
SF Democratic party and Bay Guardian are for this.

C: Ban city employees from commissions No? (SF voted NO 63%)
Spur.org, SF Democratic party, and the SF Bay Guardian are against.

D: Financing Pier 70 waterfront district YES (SF voted YES 68%)

E: Recall reform Yes (SF voted YES 60%)

F: Mayoral election in even-numbered years Yes? (SF voted NO 55%)
Those against think that local elections will receive less attention from voters if merged with national elections and that this eclipses the benefit of a greater voter turnout.

G: Retirement system credit for unpaid parental leave YES (SF voted YES 63%)

H: Clean Energy Act YES (SF voted NO 60%)

I: Independent ratepayer advocate No (SF voted NO 64%)
Everyone says No on this one.

J: Historic preservation commission Yes (SF voted YES 56%)

K: Rights for sex workers YES (SF voted NO 58%)

L: Funding the Community Justice Center No (SF voted NO 58%)

M: Tenants' rights YES (SF voted YES 60%)

N: Real property transfer tax Yes (SF voted YES 59%)

O: Emergency response fee Yes (SF voted YEs 63%)

P: Transportation Authority changes No (SF voted NO 68%)

Q: Modifying the payroll tax YES (SF voted YES 74%)

R: Naming sewage plant after Bush No (SF voted NO 69%)

S: Budget set-aside policy Yes (SF voted YES 54%)

T: Free and low-cost substance abuse treatment YES (SF voted YES 62%)

U: Recommend defunding the Iraq War NO or NO VOTE (SF voted YES 60%)

V: Recommend bringing back JROTC Yes? (SF voted YES 54%)

20 October 2008

Breaking Up - 3 Acts

I. The other day I was talking about my imminent divorce to a friend with one of his own. I listed these alternating feelings:
  • ...like a failure for the relationship ending.
  • ...like a jerk for thinking for so long that the relationship would work when it so obviously was not going to work.
  • ...relieved and free.
  • ...love/connection.
  • ...grief.
  • ...for moments not remembering why I wanted it to end.
My friend said he had had all these feelings about his relationship too.

II. A group of friends last night helped me realize that when I am in pain I have a very hard time relating to people, especially to people I'm close to. I probably have the hardest time relating to myself, just feeling it, not fighting it or holding it at bay. I had had a few slightly disjointed-feeling conversations, where I appeared to be, and no doubt was, insensitive. It's very weird, and not unfamiliar. A feeling of being remote, like an astronaut looking at the earth.

So today when someone I don't know very well asked me how I was, I said "slightly depressed."
She replied that she was very depressed. Turned out it was a good way to start a conversation.

III. We are connected to who we are connected to. We don't really know why. We can act like we're not, or cope with it in various ways, but we can't stop the connection.

I have noticed that people make assumptions about a relationship, like that if you're married and you don't live together, there is something wrong. You may not notice this if your relationship conforms to expectations. There are many more assumptions about a marriage, but perhaps it is simply that I am the one with the wrong - or at least not that useful - perspective on marriage. Perhaps it is an area that I have little confidence in myself, so I feel, or care, that I am being judged.

Other people seem to be more into their relationship, more interested in being in a relationship, than I am. But perhaps no, perhaps it's something else...about how possible it is to appreciate and maintain that particular connection in the face of actual personalities and every day life. So maybe it's not so much about how 'into' relationships I am, but rather with whom that mysterious connection tends to happen, and how much said person resembles someone I would be friends with, and how problematic that connection ends up being. In other words, am I often drawn toward characters that I have a difficult relationship to, and that's why I'm perhaps less interested than most in being in a relationship? Or am I just ambivalent about relationships and that is all? Or are we drawn toward each other to work out some unconscious karmic knot, but neither of us have the patience or perseverance to work it out?

Videos to Watch
The Story of Love and Hate by Radio Raheem

Otters Holding Hands at the Vancouver Zoo

Otter photo above came from The Journal of Young Investigators

17 October 2008

To Speak Of Fat, Or Not To Speak (That Is A Question)

For as long as I can remember, my mother has talked about wanting to lose weight. She is maybe 20-30 pounds overweight. She talks about how much weight she wants to lose, how much she’s lost if she’s lost any, about how she shouldn’t be eating what she’s eating, but how long it’s been since she’s eaten it. She says she’s serious about it this time. Lately there is more urgency to it all because her doctor has told her to lose weight, and she thinks losing weight might mean she could stop taking blood pressure medication.

So what we end up with is a kind of an ongoing narrative about 1) her self-assessment of her body, especially its weight, and 2) what she should be doing, but is usually not doing, or not doing enough of, in order to achieve her goal. When she makes a casual comment about my body - even if it is a compliment (but it usually isn’t) - it feels invasive and unkind. In short, it makes me want to eat my socks.

Of course ordinarily we swing between two extremes in reacting to our parents – even if we think we’re too old to be doing so - by which I mean either taking the same approach around a particular issue, or doing the exact opposite. There seems not to be a lot of ‘middle way’ here sometimes. For me this would mean either sharing a continuous commentary about my body and my diet, or else not talking about it at all. I have chosen the latter. It may have its own problems as an approach, but one can’t bore people, or at any rate one must find other ways to bore people.

I am 45. For the last several years, without changing how much I eat or exercise, I have been gaining about 5 pounds a year. In the spring I resolved to take off some weight, so I took a swimming class, which was absolutely stellar in terms of a workout, and which left me so eternally hungry that I ended up horking down twice as much food as usual, and gaining weight. (Not just gaining muscle mind you!) For the last few years I’ve tried various approaches that didn’t work, often gaining weight as a result. I’m getting older and recently have come to the inevitable conclusion that the essential choice is between 1) being old and feeling good physically, or, 2) being old and fat and feeling low energy. The choice seems pretty clear, not that it’s an easy one for some of us.

So about a month ago, noticing that a friend who had joined Weight Watchers was losing weight, I decided to join as well. I have lost 15 pounds and am planning to continue, slowly, over the next several months. The reasons are partly vanity, and partly health-related, partly that I want simply to feel lighter on the earth.

Strangely, the hormonal changes that have started happening have helped me motivate. A few months ago I started having PMS (read: feeling very stressed) for about three weeks per month. It was really unpleasant. My mom told me that if I got exercise that would take care of it, and she was right, so far. So I have been really motivated to exercise - if I don’t, say, for one or two days, I feel tremendously stressed and anxious. The cause and effect here is very straight forward, whereas often such connections are harder to directly grasp because results happen so slowly. Although I did feel sorry for myself initially (especially when I would have what seemed almost like an anxiety attack), perimenopause has basically helped me to start taking better care of myself, which I am grateful for.

The greater challenge will be keeping it up - something I have never managed to do. It’s a big lifestyle change, and it takes a lot of conscious effort not to eat, or to eat a reasonable amount of, the processed, sugared, carby food that fuels life in America. Being a vegetarian takes even more effort.

But at this moment, I feel healthy and alive. I realize that there is more enjoyment for me in eating than there used to be. My clothes are loose. I have noticed that I need less sleep per night, and it’s easier for me to wake up in the morning. I have happily ridden my bike to Ocean Beach a few times from the Mission - yesterday was stunningly beautiful. I lift weights at the gym and for the first time in my life I actually enjoy it. I am occupying my body in a new way.

Some References
I highly recommend any book by Michael Pollan. (I have read The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

16 October 2008

Bliss Hangover

Last weekend I co-led a 3-day weekend retreat with Padmatara. There were 26 of us. On Sunday night we walked in silence together up to a ridge that looks over the hills toward the ocean. An almost-full moon shined on us, lighting up the dry golden grass. We chanted for a little while then just sat for maybe half an hour. I felt full of energy, and blissful. The next day I woke up with a headache, and was tired all day.

This retreat seemed to have a particularly loving atmosphere. And I wonder: Why can’t we live this way? Why don’t we all live together, cook for each other, remind each other what’s important, meditate together, allow silence together, and give each other little thoughtful gifts? I know why. I’m just saying.

Some References

Cultivating the Inner Retreat

09 October 2008

State Initiatives Voter's Guide UPDATES

Here are my recommendations and election results according to LA Times Nov 5, and the San Francisco Chronicle Nov 6. Results are in parentheses, with statistics for California (CA) and San Francisco (SF).

1A: high speed rail YES (CA YES 52%)(SF YES 79%) This is awesome!
The High Speed Rail Authority just released its study of the economic impact to the Bay Area of the high speed rail bond. The study concluded that the program would bring between $7 and $9 billion investment to the region, and spark a sustained employment increase of 1.1%.

On a more personal note, we need more public transportation in California; everyone shouldn't have to have a car. This kind of 'socialism' is something that would be a given in Europe or even on the East Coast. I wonder if Californians with car-attachment can imagine traveling on a good train service rather than endless traffic jams, pollution, and substandard bus and train services that aren't connected to each other.

2: care of farm animals YES (CA YES 52%)(SF YES 73%)
Compassion for beings which includes chickens, even though, heaven forbid, eggs will probably cost more when the chickens are given space to stand up, etc. The arguments against, like that this will spread avian flu, are ludicrous.

3: children's hospital NO (CA YES 63%; SF YES 60%)
Funds from last initiative (passed in 2004) have not been used yet.

4: parental notification NO (CA NO 54%; SF NO 76%)
Felt the same way in 2005 and 2006 when this measure got nixed by California voters.

5: nonviolent drug offenses YES (CA NO 60%; SF YES 61%)
5 & 6 oppose each other so don't vote the same way for both!

6: law enforcement funding NO (CA NO 69%; SF NO 80%)
Rather than building more prisons for creating more monsters, stop sending so many people there, especially nonviolent small time drug users.

7: 20% renewable energy NO (CA NO 65%; SF NO 69%)
PG&E, Reps, Dems, SF Chronicle + a huge list of other organizations are against it, including environmental and solar businesses. Endorsements are a short list of individuals (such as Danny Glover!) Here are some specifics about why it's poorly written: "Strange Bedfellows Oppose 'Green' Proposition 7"

8: elim. same sex marriage NO (CA YES 52%; SF NO 76%)
This is just completely stupid, not sure what else to say about it.

9: criminal justice changes NO (CA YES 53%; SF NO 63% )
One of those things that 'sound good' but that aren't really helping anything and are making things worse in fact by putting even more people in prison.

10: alternative fuel vehicles NO (CA NO 60%; SF NO 64%)
This was funded by a company that makes natural gas running cars...Other kinds of alt. fuel make a lot more sense.

11: redistricting NO (CA YES 50.5%?; SF NO 64%)
I don't claim to fully understand this. Republicans are for it.

12: veteran's bond act YES (CA YES 63%; SF YES 69%)
Pretty much everyone is for this one.

See Also
San Francisco Measures

01 October 2008

Holding a Fake Hand

Last night I dreamt I was lying in a hospital bed, a few months pregnant. I couldn't remember who the father was, as if conception had happened years and years ago. Thinking about it now, I was younger in the dream. I lived with my parents. Anyway it wasn't a happy occasion and I felt very vulnerable.

The hospital I was in had to be evacuated, so a nurse came in to get me ready to leave. (Many of these conditions I recognize from conversations I've had and books I've read recently.) I felt afraid and lonely and reached for the nurse's hand. Holding his hand made me feel much better and the anxiety disappeared. Noticing that the nurse was still going about the business of getting me ready to leave, I looked down and saw I was holding not his hand but a very realistic rubber hand affixed to the side of the bed, no doubt to comfort patients.

I thought, Fascinating, a fake hand - and it works. I must blog about this!
(image from internet - sorry, lost source)

Dream Influences
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

"Rethinking Life and Death" by Peter Singer.

Reading a housing-wanted flyer posted by a male nurse last night.

Listening to Jaimie Warren talk about working night-shift in a hospital.

30 September 2008

Persistent Vegetative State

A persistent vegatative state (PVS) is a medical term identifying someone in a coma whose brain is still partially functioning. PVS is distinguished from Brain Death, signifying a person with no brain function who is therefore legally dead. Brain Death is the legal justification for harvesting transplantable organs from someone who according to most of us would still be considered to be alive.

But I didn't want to talk here about PVS really - or brain death - I was just using the old bait and switch trick. I want to talk about vegatative eating, which is to say vegetarianism, even though it is a subject even I don't particularly like. But I would like to say the following:
  • If you love animals, the greatest single thing you can do for them is to stop eating them and supporting the industries that treat them so cruelly.
  • Everything that lives, with the exception of some very unhappy people and maybe some lemmings, wants to continue living. Is it right for us to deprive another being of their life when it is not a necessity for us? Or to give our money to someone else, or indeed a huge multi-national corporation, depriving beings of their life?
  • Do you think you could continue eating animals if you visited a slaughterhouse?
  • We think of eating a cow or a fish as totally different from, for example, eating a dog. But aren't these things essentially the same?
Many people, because of the influence of the dairy industry I suspect, think that they cannot get enough protein without eating animals. This is just a lie. Our diseases are diseases of affluence - obesity, diabetes, heart disease. All these have been linked with meat-eating. The cattle industry is also a large factor in climate change. It has been estimated up to 20% of greenhouse gases come from livestock.

So I ask that you bring attention to this area of your life. The decision is not nceessarily 'do I become a vegetarian?', but 'how can I bring more awareness into eating?' Do I eat meat when I could just as easily and happily make a vegetarian choice? How can I be more ethical and compassionate in the food I choose?

They are not brethren, they are not underlings.
They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
Henry Beston

Some References
To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian (online book by Phillip Kapleau)

Rethinking Life and Death by Peter Singer. (book about ethics - especially medical and legal ethics in regard to defining life )

Pondering the Cows at Point Reyes (another blog post)

23 September 2008

"Am I in France?"

I bought a bicycle today. I was riding it down a pretty much empty Page Street toward the ocean, on the shady side of the street, which happened to be the left side. Generally speaking, I avoid being in the sun whenever possible. Plus, I'm still figuring out the ropes with this bike riding thing. But then a guy, biking toward me, looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Am I in France?" But it was really more like, "Am I in France [you jackass]?"

Here were my internal responses, in order of appearance:
  1. "No [you are not in France.]"
  2. "Oh! You meant to say: This is not France, where they drive on the bassackwards side of the road."
  3. "Wait a second! Don't they drive on the same side of the road in France as we do here?"
  4. "Hey Einstein! Guess what? You're thinking of England - but you're not there either."
By then, he was behind me, gone. I thought about shouting #4 over my shoulder, but decided against it. I figured, people around me probably think they're in France all the time, because of my je ne sais quois. He was probably really happy to have ridden by someone who is so super-French they don't even know what side of the road to ride their bike on. He probably told his roommates about it when he got home, and they all got all dreamy-eyed, thinking about France.

21 September 2008


I got really annoyed with someone yesterday. Fortunately I had a chance to reflect a bit afterwards, and I got to thinking about standards. I was wondering whether everyone has a list – an unconscious list of all the things "a person just shouldn't do." A lot of things on the list have to do with sharing space, which is why living communally can be so difficult. Items on the list also include prohibitions to do with time, hospitality, ethics, work, friendships.

What's one of the items on your list?

The world hosts all kinds of people, including people who aren't going to be able to contribute much, including people who not only aren't going to contribute much, but who may only bring their own needs to a situation. People who might even criticize you for what you are contributing, or for not going out of your way to meet their needs. The world includes all kinds of people, who are 'created equal' in a certain sense. But being equal refers to rights, or even potential, but it doesn't mean everyone can contribute equally to a situation. They cannot. Some people will give, some people will take, some people won't do much of anything. Confusion about what's fair and what's right gets mixed up with this basic situation, that the world includes all kinds of people.

So, the list of how people should be has to be overcome. It is too narrow for us. Believing the list is like not having good eyesight and walking around without glasses bumping into things, some of which are spiky. If we put on our glasses we see that things aren’t attacking us. It’s that we are attached to them; our standards pull them them toward us like a magnet, to switch metaphors. This is why we cultivate kindness, to stop punishing ourselves. When we practice kindness and tolerance we desist from picking up the proverbial hot coal with our bare hand. In this virtual metaphor smorgasbord, I say, finally, that to do this - to cultivate tolerance and love - is a lot of work, and is the final frontier.

(image from flickr by screenname mike o'c)

20 September 2008

Constellations of Kindness

I am very aware when I am not feeling kind or I am having uncharitable thoughts. It's a definite physical sensation of hardness or tightness in my heart.

Take a minute and think about where you feel non-kindness. What is a sign that you are not feeling kind?

Awareness and kindness correspond to the two main ideals in Buddhism of Wisdom and Compassion. The Wisdom and Compassion of a Buddha are perfected and unified, meaning that they are an intrinsic part of each other. So that wisdom is not wisdom without compassion, and compassion divorced from wisdom is not compassion, or at any rate it is not a Buddha's compassion.

But thinking more in terms of awareness and kindness can bring things down to a level we can relate to. We may not be perfectly compassionate or perfectly clear or wise, but we can be a little more aware, we can always be a little kinder. This is how we plod along in our practice, with a little more understanding, a little more love. I think that this is the most important thing in the world to do, even when it doesn’t seem important, perhaps especially then.

Because there’s so much pain in the world. This has not changed since the time of the Buddha, and before. People being confused and angry and insecure hasn’t changed. Things are more organized now, the numbers are bigger - and we are probably more alienated from nature and each other, and have more self-loathing that the Buddha ever dreamed people could have. This is why Naomi Shihab Nye's poem tells us that
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

So in our quest for kindness and understanding, we need to get in touch with suffering, especially perhaps in the form of our own sense of separateness, intolerance, or craving. Get to know it. At least, not shrinking away from it. And we retrain our impulses by bringing them into mindfulness. This is an important part of kindness, our attitude about our own impulses. And we realize, eventually, as Ajahn Amaro says, that even a headache has its place in nature...

So we work on being more aware, and opening more to kindness. And not only kindness, but the other wholesome qualities that are closely related to it, the constellation of wholesome mental states, of which kindness is a part. Here is my personal list of qualities that "go with" kindness:

Appreciation/honesty—seeing the good and expressing it. It is much more natural in this culture to complain, to find the thing that's wrong. So many of us think of 'being honest' in rather a blunt way. But in Buddhism honesty is a very positive and skilful mental state. It includes concern for the well-being of the recipient. Its basis is the ability to appreciate people and situations.

Confidence—Confidence in ourselves, that we are basically good, worthy, and can make progress. Many of us undermine ourselves with self-criticism. This makes spiritual progress—indeed, life itself—more complicated, difficult, and painful. However confidence in this sense should not be confused with over-confidence or hubris, which is also unskillful (however, from a health and stress standpoint, probably healthier!)

Giving—Responding in terms of "How can I contribute to this person/place/situation?" rather than "What can I get out of it?" This counters another common thread in our culture which is unchecked consuming of whatever we can get our hands on (and then not being satisfied with it.) An attitude of giving, because there is enough for everyone. Enough money, enough love, enough sex, enough food, enough friendship, enough sex, enough of everything that we need.

Openness and sensitivity—This means being aware of barriers we build that don't actually protect us but rather make us feel isolated, creating more sorrow. It means being unblocked, being open, being freer.

So these are the qualities I can see that operate alongside kindness. What qualities do you think go with kindness?

(image from flickr by screenname donkeyshot)

14 September 2008

Cultivating the Inner Retreat

Going on retreat is an important part of my life. Some would call it excessive, even pathological. Others, who would be very much in the minority, think it's rather normal. At any rate, I am at a retreat, as a retreatant or leader, often. This summer I was on the team leading our summer retreat (1 week), then to a 3-week solitary retreat, then a few days at home and a jaunt to see my family for a week, then to our Order convention for 5 days, which was retreat-like, then was on the team leading a 12-day retreat for women who have requested ordination into our Order...I think it added up to 43 days of retreats this summer.

Why go on retreat? On the last retreat this summer, we saw an absolutely beautiful double rainbow and turned around to see this gorgeous golden light filling the sky. It was magical. Most of the time however it's not magical, most of the time it's what might look like a big drag. You file here and file there like a Marine, and you sit in a cold room in the morning (not that early, we are not of the Early Rising School of Buddhism) focusing on your breath for example. From the point of view of the Average Joe, what we do doesn't sound very good, might even sound like some kind of punishment. Or just boring. For some it is very much an acquired taste.

Truth is, I love life when I am on retreat. Everything is perfect, even pain, even difficulty with someone, or painful emotions or physical feelings coming up during meditation. There is spaciousness around everything. Even being annoyed at something is amusing. No constant chatter. No advertising, no news, no external distractions (plenty of internal ones however.) We live communally, cook communally, live simply. Everything is very simple. Food, meditation, a small job, a walk, sleep - that's all there is to do. People are beautiful, especially after a few days. Clear eyes, smile on the lips or tears in the eyes, simple, nothing to blame. Just a way to notice spontaneous kindnesses when there is literally nothing else to do. You can go down to the little water hole and count 36 rust-colored newts floating around like idiots. You can wonder whether they're newts or salamanders.

But getting home is another matter. Life floods in, fills one up to the gills, and further. The structure is gone. The happy, calm, receptive people are gone. Yummy vegetable-intensive meals no longer appear like clockwork; they are replaced in part by hastily prepared, solitary or greasy restaurant meals. The circus of American politics grinds on. People don't have time to reflect much, living from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. And I become more like those people; and to do so is painful. I get swept away with work. Not every time. Sometimes I can keep the retreat vibe going for quite a while. This time, I lasted a week or two. After that, I started getting wrapped up in work, skipping meditations, and feeling irritable and anxious.

I started wondering: are retreats really that great? Do they really prepare one for regular life, or are the ignoramuses correct who think they are an escape from life? Honestly, I never seriously entertained these questions. However, sometimes transitioning back from retreat is difficult, and the feeling of contentment does not seem at all transferable. I can't seem to immediately take up personal responsibility and match it up with ACTION. But I wish I could. I wish I could more often achieve "inner retreat" here in the city, and for longer. An inner retreat means being unified. It means fully connecting with the part of me that responds positively to a variety of situations, that simply does what needs to be done, rather than wishing it were otherwise. It means the conditions for retreat are inside my body, my connection with nature is inside myself, no matter where I am. Ah, a dream....

(images: Gabriel Branbury by Gabriel Branbury;
downtown San Francisco at dusk from McLaren park, photo by Suvanna Cullen)

Some References
My video diary from my solitary retreat (part 1 of 13)

(Video #1 is pretty manic compared to the other 12. To see the rest you can search for "solitary retreat" on youtube.)

04 September 2008

Things As They Are...

Things As They Are:
Fluidity and Awareness

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

I am in love with this poem by Wallace Stevens, which among other things begs the question, what exactly are 'things as they are'? The poem shows us that 'things as they are' are not solid, but mutable, fluid; not objectively frozen out in space but perceived by someone, by experience. And that experience, that fluidity, is a conversation, with both an active and a receptive flavor. That experience is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.

All of which is beautiful, however, a bit abstract. In Buddhist circles and books, one hears a lot about 'being with things as they are'. What does it mean here? It means that you don't practice Buddhism or meditate to become calmer, or because you told someone that you think you should meditate, or because you want to slow down thoughts, or lower your blood pressure, or even because you want to be kinder or change your life. We meditate because we want to be more aware, to know 'things as they are', in other words, to know what's going on in the deepest sense, inside and out.

Being more aware makes one kinder, calmer, and wiser. But the motivation is to be more aware, the practice, to practice being aware, and the action is being aware. And the more we hide or ignore certain realities of our experience, in meditation or in our ordinary life, the harder it is to cultivate awareness. The more deeply aware we become, the more natural, the easier, the purer our wish to be aware.

We all have mixed motivation. But I have found that when I want the results of meditation but do not feel interested in it as a process - a process of being aware - it becomes simply another way to suffer, however apparently subtle or noble. And of course outside of sitting meditation we can cultivate awareness every moment - we do not have to have special conditions for that, though some conditions certainly help. A cushion and a relatively quiet place to sit are useful. But mainly what's needed are a little guidance, spiritual friends, and most of all, the desire to be aware.

(image "The Old Guitarist" by Picasso)

31 August 2008

Pondering the Cows at Point Reyes

On Saturday Tong and I walked 9 miles (round trip) to Drake's Head in Point Reyes to look over the cliff at the leopard sharks and bat rays - but the water was too choppy and we didn't see any. We did see a lot of cows on the trail, some of which, like #220 on the right, I photographed. It suddenly seemed odd to me that there are what must be privately owned cattle grazing on public land. I remembered backpacking in the Sierras years ago. You had to filter the water to drink it because of giardia, because of cattle. I never wondered before why cattle are grazing on and polluting public land - seems really strange now!

Anyway, I started thinking about cows and came across some alarming statistics to do with climate change and livestock. Like that almost 20% of extant greenhouse gases come from livestock. I also came across an NPR report that many polar bears have been seen swimming in the open ocean - their habitat is literally melting from underneath them.

I find the image of the polar bear swimming in open water with no ice to be found deeply disturbing. Livestock consume more food than they produce, contaminate groundwater, and send staggering amounts of noxious greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And demand for beef and milk is on the increase. In 2001, humans on earth consumed 230 million tons of meat and 580 million tons of milk from cows. This volume is expected to double by 2050.

I do not eat beef but am going to cut down more on dairy products, the eating of which - from the point of view of the endlessly swimming polar bear - has the same effect as eating beef. One alternative I enjoy is goat's milk in my coffee. I like the taste of it and I think it causes less harm than food derived from cows.

Some References
Melting Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bears (NPR, August 2008)

Facts about Pollution from Livestock Farms (Natural Resources Defense Council)

Conscious Eating, Okay, But Where (On Earth) Do You Get Your Protein?
(Huffington Post, May 2008)

Some notes about Goat's Milk (Revolutionhealth.com October 2007)

Meat and the Planet (New York Times, December 2006)

Livestock a Major Threat to Environment (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, November 2006)

27 August 2008

Buddhism vs. the Visceral Response

The minute you read about mindfulness, or some other super practical aspect of Buddhist practice, you know in your gut that it just makes sense. It may even seem that it explains your life. Buddhism is just sensible and accessible, especially modern expositions on it. You don’t have to “suspend disbelief” or perform mental contortions to be able to relate to it. It’s as if someone had dug down into the dark recesses of human experience - including all the things we kind of know but don’t fully want to know - and wrote it down, or spoke about it. It’s like turning a light on.

But in actual experience, in the business we all have of being alive - or wanting to be – in each moment of every day, the teachings of Buddhism are relentlessly, even viscerally, counter-intuitive. So that in the course of years of practice we may discover many of the same things over and over again. We may learn something, we may think we’re ‘done’ with it, but then we carry on with the task of incorporating it at successively deeper and deeper levels.

Spiritual practice is about the Herculean but somehow satisfying task of translating the realities of thought and word into deed. In attempting it we are confronting the ongoingly challenging task of expressing what we already know through our way of living in each moment. Our practice functions not to teach us new things ‘from the outside,’ but simply to remind us what we want to be doing. It reminds us to apply what we know to countless knee-jerk responses. It also somehow helps us do it.

The teachings, among other things, tell us to open up to the momentary and the abiding trials of everyday life, of every-moment life. But our gut doesn’t want us to do this, or at least our gut often doesn’t act enthused. We have to learn the thing over and over again. We have to have a thousand of the same Ah-ha moments. Maybe not a thousand. Maybe only 10. But I enjoy having them.

(Image of Manjusri from LA County Museum of Art.)

inquiries into being female

Recently I mentioned to some friends the response I had written to Sangharakshita's writing on the subject of the spiritual capacity of women. The kinds of views he expressed seemed to be accepted by many members of his Order until the last few years, though support tended to be more public, while dissent was private (for example within the private journal of the Order.) Anyway one friend told me that she had found the article very useful and suggested that it might be helpful to other people becoming involved with the FWBO.

It's about 16 pages. I have updated it to correspond to my current thinking, which comes 10 or so years after the original writing. By the way Sangharakshita read an earlier version of it some years ago and said he enjoyed it! May it be of use...

(Word document)
Tearing Open the Dark
inquiries into being female
in the friends of the western buddhist order

Some References
Sangharakshita is the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, into which I was ordained in 2001. His website is sangharakshita.org.

FWBO Discussion site (focus on gender)

(Image "Meditation" by William Bartlett.)

25 August 2008

Seitan recipe

On the lookout for a different kind of protein I came across this super simple recipe for making seitan, which I hadn't realized a mere mortal could do. It was posted on postpunkkitchen.com. It takes about 5 minutes to mix the ingredients, then it is baked. It's really tasty.

The only special ingredient it needs is called 'vital wheat gluten' flour; also needs 1/4 cup nutritional yeast. I already had the rest of the ingredients. I like spicy food but this was a bit too spicy for me so next time I will put in less cayenne.

Here is the recipe: Baked seitan log
The entire log has: 1134 calories, 32g fat, 63g carbs, 158g protein.

(Image by yours truly in kitchen of yours truly.)

07 July 2008

Preferences and Psychological Types

I'm writing a little essay about Buddhist psychological types and it occurred to me that of the various systems of personality types I'm familiar with, individuals seem to prefer one system or another, for two (actually rather egotistical) reasons.

The first criteria is that our personality matches the characteristics measured by that system. In other words, it fits into a category most neatly. For example, in Buddhist psychology there are 3 types, each of which have a positive and negative (or skillful/unskillful) expression: Hatred/Wisdom, Craving/Compassion, and Delusion/Speculation. I have some pretty definite Hate/Wisdom type characteristics, so I like this system. (I suppose I also like it because I am a Buddhist, and because it is so simple.) People who are more balanced across the various categories, who therefore aren't easily categorized, aren't going to be as interested.

The second reason we like one system over another is when we get put into a category of which we approve. For example, I'm not so into Chinese astrology, probably because I was born in the Year of the Hare. But being "The Performer" in Meyer's-Briggs (Jungian) is just fine. In the Buddhist system, people who are mostly "Delusion/Speculative" types seem not to like the system very much!

Here is where I fit into other systems I know about:

  • Enneagram: Enthusiast or Epicure (7)
  • Myers-Briggs: "Entertainer" (ESFP)
  • Western Astrology: Leo
  • Chinese astrology: Hare
  • Compass: Northwest
  • Buddhist psychology: Hate/Wisdom. There is another, simpler version of this, in which I would be a "Dharma Follower"

There are other reasons we may like or dislike these various systems. Some of us don't want to be pigeonholed, which is fair enough. What does it mean about a person if they like to learn about systems of psychological types, or if they don't?

Some References
A little more info about Buddhist psychological types in this 1970 Lecture by Sangharakshita:
The Question of Psychological Types

Here is a funny video about types made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with the help of an original recording of Alan Watts.

This is an interesting book that goes into Buddhist as well as Ayurvedic psychology in relation to working with depression, "The Chemistry of Joy" by Henry Emmons M.D.

(Image "Freud" by Andy Warhol.)
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