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)

Site Meter