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.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Going to Sky Creek

The Sky Creek Dharma Center is supported by four different Buddhist sanghas that each have their own “take” on Buddhist thought and practice: The Monday night group is associated with Thich Nhat Hahn; the Tuesday night group does Vipassana meditation out of the Thai Forest Tradition and is associated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center; the Wednesday night group is Soto Zen and is associated with both Shasta Abbey in Redding and the Zen Center in San Francisco; and the Thursday night group calls itself “Dharma Buffet”, and I have read that it includes some Tibetan Buddhist practices. Since it was also once known as “Twenty-somethings”, I assume it attracts a somewhat younger crowd than the rest. I don't know precisely how the governance is done, but there is a board that has people from all four sanghas. Sky Creek also has a couple of non-Buddhist groups that meet there. I have recently been going to the Taoist Study group – not because of any philosophical preference, but simply because it's so much easier for me to drive to Chico on Sunday mornings as opposed to a weekday evening. We meditate 15 minutes, then discuss the Tao Te Ching for 45; early arrivers can do some Chi Gung practice to loosen up before meditation. I have been trying, as part of my practice, to learn deep listening, to focus on what others are saying rather than getting filled up with what I might want to say.

For me, the best part of Sky Creek, better than any particular group or teacher there, is just the center itself. It looks like it was, at one time, somebody's “dream house”, built on a generous bit of countryside, with a creek running through it. I feel happier and more peaceful just to set foot there. The thing I missed, more than anything during my years as a Baha'i was having a place, that was there set aside for spiritual purposes – and now, as a Buddhist, I have it. And it's not so very complicated; some of the groups I mention above aren't any bigger in terms of membership than our Baha'i community in Red Bluff was. But they do work together with each other, and very likely had some support from their larger affiliates – or maybe they were just lucky in having some well-to-do members. However they managed it, they own the property outright, and to me it's a little piece of heaven right outside Chico.

Exactly how I made the journey from unenrolled Baha'i to Buddhist is kind of hard to describe. It's something that I never thought would happen, and was not at all my intent when I began looking for local places where I might find a group to meditate with. These groups don't get hung up on what you believe, specifically. The only question I have been asked is whether or not I'm a beginner at meditation – because the practice is the center of what you're doing there, not teaching or reaffirming yourself in a particular set of propositions. Even textual study is done with a critical eye – it's not at all uncommon for me to hear someone say that they just flat disagree with a passage in the Tao Te Ching. But it would be wrong to call it irreverent – it's a very respectful atmosphere. Nobody bows as much as Buddhists do. Sometimes I'm not all that sure what we're bowing to – the room, the statues of the Buddhas, the current teacher, each other, or just to the East. In any case, I could have retained Baha'i belief and meditated with these folks, and no one would have had a problem with it because beliefs of any kind are rarely discussed.

Anyway, the final collapse of my attachment to Baha'u'llah paralleled the collapse of my marriage, and I have the feeling that the two were intertwined, but I cannot precisely place either one as cause or effect. All I know is that by time it was over, my dance with the Divine Beloved was done, and I had a real-life romance going on, and my spiritual life was more like calming water than a roaring fire. This isn't something that I could have chosen earlier, although I've long admired Buddhism for its extremely practical approach. It took a change in my emotional life before I could change my spiritual direction. Now I feel like enough time has gone by that I can comfortably change direction in my blog as well, maybe to make weekly posts on what I've been studying and/or thinking about. It would be nice to begin writing again.