Saturday, February 21, 2015

Time is an Illusion, so Can I Have a Beer?

I had intended on making blog posts about the Chico Taoist Study Group's discussions of the Tao Te Ching when we started again with Chapter 1, but as luck would have it, a combination of illness and weather prevented me from going over to Chico until the group was on Chapter 4. I don't intend for these posts to be a in-depth analysis of the text, but rather a report of the kind of discussions we have in the group, along with my own thoughts.

After meditation,the Front Cushion (i.e. the guy who leads the group) read a koan from the Rinzai Zen tradition which, as far as I understand it studies koans as a means for sudden enlightenment. (There is more than a dollop of Buddhism in this Taoist group.) Koans are designed to stop logical thought; they don't make sense, so they kind of make you crazy trying to figure them out. Part of this one goes “Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is confusion.” So . . . we're royally screwed, right? No, it's that enlightenment is transcends knowing and not-knowing. As long as we think we know, we don't. As long as we keep things open, we have a shot at real understanding.

Now, here is Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching, Derek Lin translation:

The Tao is empty Utilize it, it is not filled up So deep! It seems to be the source of all things
It blunts the sharpness Unravels the knots Dims the glare Mixes the dusts
So indistinct! It seems to exist I do not know whose offspring it is Its image is the predecessor of God


We usually look at more than one translation, but always include one from Derek Lin's Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained, which is said to be the most literal interpretation of the Chinese text. I'll only give one translation here, to save space.

One lady in the group said she's so fond of this particular chapter that she has it posted on her refrigerator. I have no idea why this particular one stands out to her, but why a text strikes one person and not another is just one of those mysteries. After all, I was a Baha'i for around 27 years largely because I was attracted to the Baha'i Writings and I'd be hard put to explain exactly why.

Getting down to basics, a young woman who I had not seen before asked the Front Cushion what the Tao is. “Is it life? Is it energy? Is it spirit?” The answer to all of those questions is “Yes.” He explained that it is as vast as the Universe and as minute as atomic particles. “It is a universal concept.” And, in any case, as another new member of the group pointed out, if you can explain what it is, you have missed it entirely. My own contribution was to refer to my previous blog post and to explain the idea that the Tao is essentially a moving target that you can't pin a precise label on. Another lady elaborated on this determined imprecision of language by talking about the word “seems” in the translation. It seems to be the source of all things rather than “It is . . . .”

Yet another woman talked about how she came to grips with her health difficulties when she simply gave up – when she stopped fighting the illness, she felt peaceful about it. These personal stories have only the most tenuous relationship to the text, but it's fairly common for people to share this way. They need to, and we all listen. In fact, there are times when I feel like my whole presence there is an exercise in listening-- something we could all do a bit better. It's not uncommon for me to say nothing at all.

Another man talked about the recent science questioning the Big Bang theory, saying that he found a certain comfort in the beginnings of the Universe being a complete mystery. He related this to his trip to Macchu Picchu and how he looked down at a blanket of fog covering the ruins, which he poetically described as being “like the Mother's nightgown”, that he really didn't want to peek behind, but to leave it obscure.

The final bit of wisdom was from one of the older members who said, “If there's no Big Bang, then time doesn't exist. So, can I have a beer?” We all laughed, of course. Now that I've had time to think about it, the comment sounds very much like a koan, and thus the perfect way to end, as we began the discussion.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

One of the teaching of Buddhism that I've struggled with from the very first time I ever heard of it is that of anatta, or “no self”. That is, the perception we have of the existence of a permanent self is an illusion. Nothing about us at all is permanent, not even the “soul” or whatever it is you want to call what survives of us into the afterlife. I really have a tough time wrapping my head around the concept that something of us reincarnates according to our karma (meaning our actions), but it isn't anything permanent. (I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation anyway, but that's an entirely different blog post.) The classic explanation is that we are like a candle flame that lights another candle – the flame is the same, yet different. Yeah, I don't understand it, either – a lot of Buddhism is like that. You aren't really supposed to understand it logically; real understanding transcends logic.

Even though we think of ourselves as being a permanent thing, our impermanence is pretty easy to demonstrate. First of all, our bodies are continually changing. I think most of us are familiar with the old saying that every cell in our body will be different once seven years has past. I don't know if that's true, but I know my body is very different than it was ten years ago – more weight, more aches and pains, fewer teeth, more gray hair, different lenses in my glasses, more medication I have to take. It's not all bad – I have less pain from TMJ, less trouble with allergies, fewer hot flashes, better muscle tone. Ten years is easy, but if we look at ourselves our bodies change even from moment to moment. We're hungry, we eat, and then we're not hungry. Our body tightens with tension over something, then relaxes. Our organs silently perform functions as needed, changing without our even being aware of it, We think of our bodies as being part of “ourselves”, but it certainly is not a fixed entity at any point in our lives.

Our minds change even faster than our bodies do. For one thing, the mind is influenced by how our body feels; it's not really a separate thing at all. Thoughts flow in and out. New impressions and memories are constantly put into the brain. Memory, especially, contributes to the illusion that we have a permanent existence, but memory itself is not a concrete thing. Everyone is familiar with the “Roshomon” scenario, where several people describe the same event very differently. Sometimes we completely forget events that someone else who was present remembers vividly. Our past is not static; memory changes as we change, and events look differently as we grow and learn. And if memory is erased because of injury or illness, who are we then?

Sometimes you'll hear people say about an earlier time “I wasn't the same person then as I am now.” In fact, if we're honest, we are different, even in the present, with different people. Don't most of us lose a few years (or a few decades) when we visit our parents? We are different when we are with coworkers than we are with family members. The local Baha'i community knew an entirely different Karen than the online Baha'i community did. I know I'm a different person with Jeff than I was with my ex-husband. My children would probably describe me in yet a different way than my students. Which one of these is the “real” Karen? Truth is, none of them. The real Karen is the person who is thinking and typing right now in the present moment, but when the circumstances change, so will I.

Now, there are certain patterns to our lives that tend to repeat themselves. Some tendencies we are born with – even tiny infants will have distinct personalities, with some being fussy and needy, others fairly placid. That's just a matter of heredity and is probably the most permanent thing about us in this lifetime. I don't think anything will change my natural inclination to be introverted, for example. Then, on top of that basic heredity, we have the psychology, which is emotional behavior learned in our earliest years – defenses against pain, ways we seek love and attention, the things which provoke fear or anger. Those things that Buddhism calls “mental formations” that are really tough to change unless and until we become consciously aware of them. But I don't think any of us thinks “I am my behavior patterns” – these are just characteristics of the person we think we are.

So, what does all this mean? Well, it can be sort of depressing, at least I thought so when I first heard the idea years ago. So,we aren't who we think we are and our existence is an illusion? Bummer. I wouldn't blame you if you chucked this notion entirely. But trying to prove the existence of a permanent self is pretty difficult, and the evidence for our impermanence is right there in our very nature.

However, there's a positive side to it, too. We can lay down the need to defend who we think we are, because there's really nothing to defend. We can realize that even if this moment is horrible, the bad feelings won't last forever. We can stop beating ourselves up over past mistakes, because every moment in our lives is an opportunity to be something different. You can't pin a label on a moving target. The classic philosophical question of “Who am I?” should more rightly be asked as “Who am I at this moment?” So, who do you think you are now?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The First Lesson is that Life Sucks

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “Life is dukkha”, which is usually translated as “suffering”, although some teachers prefer the word “challenging”, which is more accurate. Dukkha really means “out of whack” or “unsatisfactory”. Besides those moments where there is serious pain or loss, there are things that you want that you don't have; there are things you have that you don't want. You have unpleasant physical feelings. Sometimes, we'll feel pangs of sorrow or worry or regret, even when life is going well.

On the whole, we don't like acknowledging this. We feel like it's a weakness to admit that we aren't really happy. Certainly, we find it unattractive or childish when others complain. We're taught to be strong and act like everything is o.k. One of the first lessons in Buddhism is that we have to stare our own suffering in the face if we are ever going to find the way to end it. Try meditating on just your own physical aches and pains – checking out all the places in your body that don't feel quite right at the moment. I did this once with the Tuesday night group, and I've never spent a more miserable time meditating. But Buddha insists that you face reality, and your own body is a good place to begin. One thing you notice besides the fact that you have a lot of places in your body that don't feel good is that these unpleasant feeling change, they ebb and flow, twist and pang, getter a little better and a little worse. The very fact you're always having to cope with the way life changes is a form of dukkha.

Mental suffering is even worse: We are trapped in an endless cycle of desires. Even when we get what we want, it's never enough – we'll want something more, or better, or crave it repeatedly. Even worse, we have a hard time letting go of thoughts that make us sad or angry – there just seems to be something about our brains that wants to hang onto those things. One theory is that we've evolved so that our memory records bad experiences so we can avoid them in the future. I know that one reason I keep turning over bad situations in my mind is I think that I will be able to defend myself better – but it never seems to happen that way.

I find it sort of ridiculous sometimes: One one level, I'm really quite happy with my life. I love my job; I'm happy in my home life. My kids are grown, so the tough job of getting them through adolescence is done and I can just enjoy their company. Yet, I also have a long list of complaints – the aches and pains of middle age, stressful situations come up at work that I worry and stew about, regrets from the past pop up in my head for no reason whatsoever, I worry about money even though we're getting along fine and have everything we need. I run into people that irritate me, or conversely, I worry that I've offended somebody accidentally. My life is great, but I still suffer from pain, anger, and, fear, and most of it is completely needless and self-induced.

Part of Buddhist practice is that we have to be aware of our suffering, accept it, live with it, and learn to let go of those thoughts and desires that cause us to suffer. I've just been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kornfield's Bringing Home the Dharma, where he tells how his teacher in Thailand used to send his monks right into situations that would cause them the most stress: The monk who was afraid of the dark would have to go meditate in the forest at night; the one afraid of public speaking who be required to give an extemporaneous dharma talk, and so on. And the point isn't to be mean, or even to force them to get over the fear, but to be mindful of what the stress does to body and mind. No matter where you start in Buddhist practice, the lesson is always about mindfulness. You learn to be in the present moment, even when the present moment sucks the big one.

The lesson is also always about compassion as well, because we become aware that if life is difficult for us, we realize also difficult for everyone else to one degree or another, and if we can remember that, it ought to make us a little kinder.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Temptation

I've been working on this topic for a while – at times abandoning it because it can be a depressing and emotionally-fraught thing to think about. But, with everyone out there making New Year's resolutions, this seems like a good time to post on it.

The way temptation works is pretty similar, no matter what the object – food, drink, smoke, video games, shopping – whatever the particular individual's weaknesses are. The want pops up in the mind – and the closer and more available the object is, the more often it will pop up in the mind. And you say “No”. Good for you. Then, it pops up again. “No.” And again, “No” Then, there comes a point that unless the object is completely out of reach, you're gonna cave. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating says that the average person makes 200 decisions a day about food, including each of those times we say “No.” His whole system is built around making it easier for the idea to not pop up, and for you to say “No.” when it does. The point is that so-called “will power” isn't just a matter of dropping a bad habit once, or limiting it to a reasonable level once, it means you have to do it over and over, maybe for a lifetime. It's a really boring and bleak way to have to live.

So, eventually, we will cave in to our desires. It takes something big and powerful for the desire to go away. I was a smoker for years, since I was a teenager. I continued to smoke as it fell out of fashion and smokers were shuffled into unpleasant corners, then to the cold outdoors. I continued to smoke while doctors gave me lectures every time I or either one of the kids had to go in for an upper respiratory infection. I tried to quit several times, but the reward of being a non-smoker just wasn't worth the misery of the nicotine fit. What finally got me to quit was that the smoker's cough became so severe that it interfered with my ability to teach – and that, I couldn't stand. I switched to nicotine gum, and later, lozenges and stayed on those for years and only finally quit them when I couldn't afford nicotine any longer.

In some ways, addictions are easier to kick than other bad habits, because the physical craving does go away eventually. (Although I still miss nicotine from time to time.) Food is probably the most difficult, because it's not a matter of getting something “bad” out of your life, but a complex set of choices that often has consequences for your social life and even your closest relationships. When you stop eating (or drinking) with someone, it creates a distance -- which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. The alternative of sitting there with something permitted while everyone else indulges is uncomfortable, and probably not sustainable for long.

Other desires fall in between those two, but they still involve the same process of saying “No” to yourself repeatedly. You give yourself rules, limiting the tempting object to a certain time of day, or to a number of times a week. Or the ultimate in obsessive rule-making – the calorie count diet, which requires you to keep track of virtually every mouthful you eat. It does work to a certain extent, though; it's easier to postpone or limit a desired object than it is to deprive yourself forever. “I'll only drink after 7:00”; “I'll only spend $50.” “I can eat this and still be under my calorie limit.”

I don't think anybody has ever been successful at making changes when feeling bad about themselves. That's the reason shaming and nagging are so ineffective. It's better to start from a place of self-nurturing and to proceed with a commitment to mindfulness, rather than the tension of white knuckles and forcing yourself to “be good”. Will power works only in the short run; it's brittle and can be easily shattered. I don't know if metta and mindfulness are more effective as tools in reaching a specific goal, but I do know they are effective at creating more happiness in your life – which is pretty much the end of all those goals.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Nourishing Rage and Letting It Go

He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me – in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

This verse, at the very beginning of the Dharmapada, speaks of the very simple truth that if we bring to mind our wrongs and nourish our hurt and anger, we make ourselves miserable. This verse caught my attention a long time ago, because that is exactly what the mind does--it repeats the list of the wrongs someone else has done to us: “He did this. She did that.” followed by your favorite four-letter word for people you dislike. Like a bulldog with a bone, the mind chews on hurtful events over and over again.

Another Buddhist scripture speaks of revenge being like trying to throw a hot coal at an enemy, we burn ourselves before we even have a chance to hurt anyone else. Someone who says “I will never forgive!” is really saying that they will nurse their grudge internally and turn it around and around in their mind, making themselves feel terrible, while the object of their hatred is untouched – this is assuming one is not planning to break the law by doing violence, which leads to its own cycle of suffering.

Now, I'm not so perfect that I've never nursed a grievance. There's a huge amount of energy in anger and you feel like you're going to explode if you don't do something with it. I tend to talk about it until I run myself to a stop. During domestic arguments, I do housework --- the place is never so clean as when I'm rolling on a big internal rant. Ideally, one should use that energy to resolve that situation. I had something happen at work that was unjust, and I used that anger to solve the problem in a professional way, then poof! Anger all gone. Sometimes, I find what's under the anger is essentially anxiety – and knowing that doesn't make it go away necessarily, but it does give me a tool to fight it with. Because., as the Buddha makes clear, it's your own anger that's the real enemy, not the person you're raging about.

It's hard to let go. I sometimes hang on to the illusion that if I can only just explain how they hurt me, they'd understand and admit they were wrong. And let's be honest with ourselves: There is something pleasurable about the idea that we can have the last word and put someone in their place. We fantasize about it. I think that the next time a doctor asks me if I eat French fries when I've come in to have an ingrown toenail treated, I will tell him exactly what I think of him and his stereotyping, and I will stomp out of his office, numbed toe and all! (And I've eaten French fries less than a half-dozen times in the last ten years. Bastard!) Anyway, it's a very satisfying picture to think that you can let 'em have it and leave them speechless as you storm out the door.

But that usually doesn't happen. People aren't “put in their place”; they just defend and justify themselves, and do their best to put you in the wrong. The more you try it, the worse the conflict becomes. The more you justify yourself, the more ammunition you give to someone who wants to put you down. In my experience, the only way to really end any conflict is absence and stubborn silence. It takes two to fight. Nobody can keep a fight going by themselves, except in their own minds.

Probably the best tool in your arsenal for that mental fight is the practice of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. It really is the opposite of the “He wronged me” rant quoted from the Dharmapada. Instead what you do is say phrases like “May he be happy. May he be healthy. May he be safe. May he be at peace.” You can google metta and find a wide variation on the theme, but the basic idea is that we start with wishing ourselves well, then those who are close to us, then in ever-widening circles until we embrace the entire world with loving-kindness. But included in this practice are those wishes for those who “we have difficulty loving” or “a person that we find difficult”. If I stop and think about it, I don't really want anything bad to happen to a person who has made me angry. What I want, mostly, is for them to leave me alone – and if I keep stewing about what they've done, it's just a way of keeping them in my life. Ideally, one should be able to endure obnoxious people and still wish them well, but I'm not that saintly yet. One step at a time. :-)

Monday, December 22, 2014

'Tis the Season to Think About Generosity

I'm planning, eventually, to talk about the chapter of the Tao Te Ching that the Study Group is looking at each week, but at the moment, we are only a few weeks from the end of the book, and it makes sense to begin here when we are back at the beginning.

So, I'll begin at another kind of beginning, the first paramita, or perfection in Buddhism, which is dana or generosity. Virtually the first thing I was told when I went to my first daylong meditation at Sky Creek is that there is a dana bowl for the Center, and another one for the teacher, and that's the usual custom. The idea is that the dharma is priceless and no teacher can charge for it, so it is up to the conscience of the student to decide what he/she can pay for it. This kind of giving goes back to the earliest days of Buddhism.

Generosity is one of those universal virtues, praised by all the major religions, and part of the celebration of Christmas in this culture. The local schools here have been having canned food drives, bell-ringers stand with their red buckets in front of every major store, and a huge box collecting toys for poor children stands in the middle of my bank.

I have a hard time considering virtues in relation to myself, though. Immediately, I find myself thinking about all the ways I fall short, the many times when I have not been generous, kind, or what-have-you. I don't find that dwelling on all the things you ought to do and haven't done is really that productive. Probably, the truth is that, as in all other qualities, I am more generous than some people and less than others. One thing I have noticed about generous people is that they appear to do it without even stopping to think about it, as if there is a basic security there that they can give without causing themselves any hurt. So, I think the key to developing the virtue of generosity is cultivating a sense of abundance, realizing that we have enough and that giving away some of it will not deprive us of anything we really need.

One thing that stops a lot of us from giving is a defensive guard – we suspect we are being scammed by those cardboard “Will Work for Food” signs. Even reputable organizations can seem rapacious in their constant pleas for money. I once gave to Doctors Without Borders in the wake of a disaster, only to find myself on the receiving end of an avalanche of requests in the mail from all kinds of charities. Phone calls are even worse: I gave to breast cancer research, only to be hounded by people who said (wrongly) I hadn't paid them what I had pledged, and were pursuing me as relentlessly as a bill collector. Chico State calls me a few times a year, starting with the claim that they are just updating their records, and leading me through a series of interactions that end with me agreeing to pledge money, and feeling foolish at the way I've been manipulated. This kind of exchange takes the humanity out of charity. Instead of giving from a sense of compassion, I feel put upon and used.

Generosity is, of course, more than giving money to a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. It is, more than anything, a state of mind, a willingness to give something that all of us need, whether it is food, care, affection, information, time, or a place to sleep. It comes from a sense that we have enough, or that even if we are short now, that situation will change. Having the kind of job I do has been rather useful in teaching me the temporary nature of material circumstances. One month out of the year, I'm poor enough to qualify for government assistance. A few months later, I'm caught up and have enough extra to go on a weekend out-of-town. Today, I have enough and you don't and it won't hurt me to give; tomorrow our circumstances could be reversed, so it would be better for both of us to take care of each other. It comes out of our common humanity, and understanding of our human needs.

In the end, the whole point of Buddhism is the ending of suffering, then generosity is the first perfection because it ameliorates suffering at its most basic level, both in the needs met in the receiver and the attitude required from the giver.

"Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, 'May whatever animals live here feed on this,' that would be a source of merit." --from the Sutta on Giving

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Little Bit About Meditation

When I tell people that I meditate, I get some strange reactions. Some people dismiss it as unprofitable navel-gazing and a waste of time. My devoutly Christian dentist gravely warned me about the spiritual dangers of “stopping thought” and “kandaluni”(I assume he meant kundalini.). When I told him I usually just focus on the breath he was much reassured: “Well, there's nothing wrong at all with deep breathing.” Mostly people find the idea of sitting on a cushion too daunting: “Oh, I can't do that. I can't concentrate that long. My mind wanders.”

The truth is, meditation is just not as complicated as all that. It's just going with the flow of the present moment. Musicians have told me something similar happens when they are into playing and going with the music. From what Jeff tells me, he experiences something like it while riding his motorcycle. You are totally “into” what you are doing. The object can be your breath, a mantra, an ideal, or just the field of sensation your body experiences. It can be devotional in nature, or you can just count your breaths up to ten over and over. Whatever the focus, you bring it to the front of your awareness. “Concentration” is really too harsh a word, because it implies a kind of force. As for “emptying your mind of thought”, that doesn't happen, so I don't know what folks are so worried about.

You don't even have to be sitting down. There are Buddhist schools where work is considered a meditation. (Remember Grasshopper on the show Kung Fu sweeping up the leaves in the temple? He was meditating.) You can also lay down or stand in a relaxed posture. The point is that you bring your mind into the present moment and try to keep it there.

This is where people think they are failing to do it right and that they aren't “good at meditating”. But the truth is that the moment when you are aware that your mind has drifted away from your object and has begun to tell its own story is very important. That awareness of what the mind is doing is part of the learning process. You just say to yourself “I'm thinking.”, and bring it back to the breath. And you do that again and again during the time allotted for meditation. Sometimes I'll give myself credit for having positive thoughts, if that's the case, although one should strive to observe without judgement.

It's strange that we think that meditation on a single object is “boring”, but if you pay attention to your thoughts you find that the mind throws up the same old stuff again and again. But for some reason, we aren't bored by that. Counting to ten is boring, but re-living that argument you had with someone last week for the hundredth time isn't boring. In fact, because the human mind is wired for self-protection, we think that if we keep re-living bad experiences, we'll be more ready to defend ourselves. Maybe we will, but in the meantime we're causing ourselves to suffer unnecessarily.

Meditation takes us out of all that, as well as out of worry about the future. It's just a tiny mini-break from the internal drama we create for ourselves. If I'm sleepy, I can exercise first or do walking meditation. There are times I'm just too wound up to meditate silently, and I try exercise or chanting. Sometimes I just have to cry. Other times I have to put my energy into resolving the situation that has me hung up – and there always is some kind of solution that will release that energy and return me to a calmer state. I don't worry much on the discipline aspect of it, as in setting a goal to meditate a certain amount of minutes at a certain time every day. I do the best I can with the circumstances I find myself in. Mornings are best, especially if my daughter isn't home and sleeping in my yoga room. If she is home, then I have to do things differently. One of the things that meditation teaches you is that life is constantly changing, and you're better off accepting that. And it's hard for everyone – I certainly don't have some sort of special talent or ability. But I do think it's worth the effort, because it gradually changes your attitudes even when you're not on the cushion.