Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Take a Break!

We all need a little R&R now and then, including my computer. I will not be posting for a short time while we all get upgraded. I'll be back in early August. Thank you so much for reading the blog and I hope you'll be back, too!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Way of No Way

If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. –Zen Master Lin Chi

That’s a bit startling, isn’t it? Disrespectful to say the least. What could it mean?

As I understand it, the point of this get-your-attention statement is that we should not be imprisoned by our preconceptions or traditions. In the language of the Bible, we should not bow down before idols. The idol is not God. It is illusion.

When I was young, I spent some time as a back to the land hippie. I believed that civilization was irredeemably corrupt and should be abandoned altogether in favor of a simpler, rural life in harmony with nature. Although I was not at all political and would have rejected communism in any form, surprisingly I had a lot in common with Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung, who sent all the city slickers into the countryside for re-education. However, I would have skipped the famines and genocide.

What I remember more than anything is how sure I was that I was right. That I had the answer. Not just for me, but for you, too. How I disdained the unenlightened urban clods watching TV in their air-conditioned living rooms eating processed food that was made of who knew what, sucking up energy like junkies in their homes and cars. I was an insufferable boor as I looked down my nose and tried to explain to my family and friends what they were missing, literally and figuratively. (Of course, I am writing this on my computer in my comfortable city home. And I might have some Hostess powdered sugar doughnuts for a snack later while I’m watching The Closer.)

We can do the same thing with faith. We can be so sure that our way is the only way. Like Pol Pot and Mao, some people of faith are willing to kill those who disagree. The unbelievers. Or if not kill, then to condemn them to everlasting hell.

Chogyam Trungpa used the term spiritual materialism to describe those of us who are as attached to our creeds as we are to our cars. Who use our faith to fluff up our egos, to compare ourselves to those less fortunate who do not share our spiritual superiority.

Bruce Lee revolutionized martial arts with a new approach that he described as the way of no way. Instead of the set moves and rigid techniques of a particular style, the idea was to use any and all forms of combat as appropriate. No way as way. No limitation as limitation. Awareness unfettered by dogma. Power in the present moment. He killed the Buddha.

On the last page of Oprah magazine, Oprah writes every month about “What I know for sure.” I’m pretty sure that I don’t know anything for sure. But, as Pema Chodron suggests, I am becoming comfortable with uncertainty.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. –Tao Te Ching

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Put on a Happy Face

A couple of times recently someone has asked me what I’m upset or angry about. The odd thing is that both times I was not upset or angry about anything. Apparently I was walking around with a scowl on my face. Perhaps I was just lost in thought, or squinting in the sun, but the impression I gave was not very friendly.

So I have resolved to change my default expression to a smile. For one thing, studies show that when we smile, even if we don’t mean it, the movement of the facial muscles tells our brains that we are happy. Also, I know I look younger when I smile (cheap facelift). And finally, a smile is contagious and makes other people feel better, too.

Hopefully, someone will come up to me soon and ask me what I’m happy about. Or maybe they will just smile back.

Gray skies are gonna clear up,
Put on a happy face;
Brush off the clouds and cheer up,
Put on a happy face.
Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy,
It’s not your style;
You’ll look so good that you’ll be glad
You decided to smile!

–from Bye Bye Birdie

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An Ordinary Day

“What’s up?” “Not much. What’s up with you?” “Not much.”

For most of my adult life, this is not a conversation I could have had. There was always some aspect of my life in upheaval, in crisis, in dramatic transition. Not all of it was bad. Some of the transitions were sought after. But much of it was hard. Kids with special needs, relationships ending badly, foster kids in crisis, moving often, loved ones dying, injuries and illness.

Much of what was hard was hard because I made hard things harder, by trying to control events and people, by trying to make things other than what they were, by never asking for or accepting help, by magical thinking and massive denial, by debilitating guilt and shame.

I used to wish for an ordinary day. A day like any other, when nothing major happened, when there was no crisis to handle. A day that was unremarkable, with no surprises, a day easy to forget.

I had a day like that yesterday. I savored every moment. I delighted in running errands and even going to a meeting. I wanted to run up to people and shake them and say, “Are you having an ordinary day? Do you know how lucky you are?” And I said a prayer for all the millions of people who were having a day like the ones that used to be the norm for me. And for the many more who were having a day much worse than the worst of mine. (On my worst day I had so much to be grateful for if I had only looked at things differently.)

If you had an ordinary day today, then count your blessings.

What’s up? Not much. Thank God.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's in Your Wallet?

Have you seen the credit card commercials that involve some imminent horribleness that is diverted at the last moment by whipping a particular company’s credit card out of a purse or wallet? Some of them are pretty funny. The commercials always end with the question, “What’s in YOUR wallet?” The message is that if you have that company’s credit card, then it will act as a shield against all sorts of catastrophic disasters.

So I got to wondering what’s in my wallet. My spiritual wallet, that is. What do I carry with me to ward off soul marauding Vikings?

Einstein said that “the single most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” There are variations on this quotation, but I like this one best because it emphasizes the role of decision.

When I was young and knew everything, I wrote a philosophy paper based on the premise that we participate in creating the reality we perceive. In the arrogance of youth, I thought I came up with that idea myself. Well, of course I didn’t. But somehow I knew that I had untapped potential to shape my world.

Sadly, the world I shaped for most of my life was not a kind one. It was a world of mischievous demons lurking in the shadows. Like the lookout in a western, I kept watch by the fire during the night, always on alert, always vigilant. And when bad things inevitably happened, I believed it was because my guard had dropped, because I had failed to maintain control.

Even as I write the words, I shake my head in disbelief that I lived that way for so long. If necessity is the mother of invention, then exhaustion is the mother of major life changes.

I live in a different universe now, a friendly one. I can’t prove that it is friendly. I simply choose to believe that it is. And that choice drives my perceptions and experiences. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So what’s in my wallet? A credit card of power. Not power over my circumstances, but power over how I interpret them and interact with them. The power of choice.

And guess what. That’s what’s in your wallet, too.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Be Amazed!

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors was visiting from Eastern Europe. He had an often unexpected way of using English. Once in class he instructed us to turn to a certain page “and be amazed!” I don’t remember what was on that page or if I was amazed, but I loved the instruction and it stayed with me. Now I use it with my students. There is always something new to learn and it is amazing.

Sometimes I use the instruction on myself. It is a good reminder to notice the miracles that are happening all around me all the time (A Day of Miracles). The sun came up this morning. Be amazed. Water came out of the shower head when I turned the handle. Be amazed.

It’s okay to be amazed with ourselves. I made my bed this morning. Be amazed. I’m testing for my brown belt in taekwondo next week. Be very amazed.

Even God amazed himself on occasion. “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” –Isaiah 43:19. I love this verse. Like a child delighting in a new accomplishment, God was saying, “Look at what I can do. This is cool!” (I’m no Bible scholar, but I like to think that is what he was saying.)

So let’s go forth today and be amazed, with ourselves and with the world around us. Have an amazing day!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Thought Camping

If you have ever done any meditation, or even just read about it, then you are familiar with the concept of letting your thoughts drift in and out like clouds. In mindfulness meditation, we are taught to focus our attention on our breath and let the thoughts go by without effort – without trying to resist them or hang on to them.

My mind spends a lot of time engaged with its thoughts, in dialogue with endless chatter. “Lost in thought” is an apt description. We all do that. Maybe we are driving along a familiar route and all of a sudden we bring our attention back and wonder where we are. Or we lie in bed at night mulling over things and realize that it is now way past our bedtime and the time for sleep is short.

I just read about “leave no trace” camping. As you might guess, the point is to enter and leave the campsite without leaving any evidence that you have been there. This is like mindfulness meditation. Leave no trace thinking. Let the thoughts enter and leave the mind without any evidence that they have been there.

I do not spend much time in what anyone would call traditional meditation, mindful or otherwise. But I have been trying to move through my day in a more mindful way. Like the Biblical encouragement to “pray without ceasing,” I try to rest my attention continuously in the present. Does that mean I never think? Of course not. I have to think as I’m writing right now, for example. But my thinking is directed and purposeful. It is mindful thinking (in theory at least).

And do I in fact rest my attention continuously in the present? No. My record is probably something slightly longer than a nanosecond. But I persevere. We can train our minds the way we train a puppy, with gentle repetition. And a trained mind, like a trained puppy, is a joy. Pema Chodron tells of getting a delightful card that read, “Sit! Stay! Heal!” That cracks me up.

How many repetitions does it take? Apparently with my mind, an infinite number. But with each repetition, I am reconnected to this moment. And in this moment I find God.

No matter where or how far you wander, the light is only a split second, a half-breath away. –Tibetan Book of the Dead

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On the Lookout for Love

So much of what we hear about being happy involves focusing on other people. Being kind, being compassionate, forgiving, and so on. However, when these gifts are offered to us, we might miss them because we are too busy to notice, or because we don’t think we deserve them. Recognizing and appreciating these gifts will fill up our happiness reservoirs.

Have you ever tried to give a compliment to someone who wouldn’t take it? For example, maybe you tell your friend she looks nice and she responds that her hair looks terrible or she needs to lose weight. Why do we miss these opportunities to soak up the goodness that someone offers us?

Yesterday I decided that I was going to pay attention all day to all the goodness that came my way from whatever source. Here are some highlights.

When I woke up, my dog came over to snuggle.

I had a long phone visit with a good friend.

Mia emptied the dishwasher without being asked.

I took Lily and Mia and Mia’s boyfriend Emanuel up to the cabin for the day. Emanuel offered to carry my things to the car.

A driver made room for me to change lanes.

At the cabin, we played games together and laughed our heads off.

We stopped at a restaurant on the way home from the cabin. The server was especially nice.

The kids (they are young adults now, but always kids to me) all thanked me for taking them out to eat.

The amazing thing is that at the end of the day, all I could remember was the good stuff. If anything happened that was irritating or upsetting, I didn’t notice. My attention was on the positive. I felt blessed.

I’m going to try that again today.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Contentment: Priceless

When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much more money he needed before he would feel satisfied, he famously replied, “Just a little more.”

It’s no secret that we are a consumer society. You can read all kinds of statistics about how many ads we see, how much we buy, how much we waste. People line up for hours to get the first iPads or the newest iPhones. The Dalai Lama laughs about his love of gadgets. When he was at a conference once, he passed an electronics store every day. By the end of the week, he was full of desire to have gadgets he didn’t even know the purpose of!

Our economy depends on our purchases. The wisdom of that is for someone else to debate. But what does it mean for us individually?

Do those purchases bring us happiness? Maybe some do. My cabin in the mountains, for example. I agonized about spending so much money on what was clearly a luxury purchase. Not that the cabin is luxurious (it’s not), but it was not a family necessity. Yet over the years, it has been the scene of many happy times, for our family and for the friends we share it with.

But what about all that jewelry in the bank safe deposit box? When I lived in Bangkok, jewelry stores were everywhere, with windows full of sparkling gems and walls dripping with deep yellow gold. I spent a good part of my salary in those stores. I rationalized it by telling myself that it was worth so much more (in the US) than what I paid for it. Well, that was true, but so what? Did I sell it and make profit? Do I even wear it? No, it sits safe and undisturbed in the dark at the bank.

In one of my favorite movies, Harold and Maude, Harold objects to Maude’s habit of just taking whatever suits her needs at the moment, a car for example. Here is part of the dialogue–

Harold: You hop in any car you want and just drive off?

Maude: Well, not any car. I like to keep a variety. I’m always looking for the new experience.

Harold: Maybe. Nevertheless, I think you’re upsetting people. I don’t know if that’s right.

Maude: Well, if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things. Now, with that in mind, I’m not against collecting things....

Having things is not the issue. Our attachment to things is what causes us pain. Our hope that our things will bring us happiness. That more things will bring us even more happiness.

The Tao Te Ching says, “He who knows enough is enough will always have enough.” My sister wrote this in beautiful calligraphy and I have it framed on my desk. A reminder that satisfaction is a choice. Like a Mastercard commercial – contentment: priceless.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Let It Go, Crow!

While I was biding my time at a very long stoplight today, I noticed a crow perched on the tippy top spire of a tall tall evergreen. The noodle-y spindle was not strong enough, so every time he tried to settle, the branch would fold under his weight. He would flap frantically to keep from falling and then try to settle again.

I was so intrigued that after the light finally changed, I pulled to the side of the road where I could park and watch. Why didn’t he just fly to one of the nearby trees or hop down to a sturdier branch? Did he think that apical sprig was suddenly going to solidify? I was reminded of the saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, thinking you will get a different result.

I could relate to that silly crow. How many times have I acted or reacted in some stubborn or habitual way, thinking that this time it would have the desired result? I can see my therapist sitting in her chair years ago, looking at me with the hint of a smile, asking, “And how is that working for you now?”

I have changed a lot since those days, at least I hope so, but I’m sure there are things I still cling to, habits or behaviors or thoughts that do not serve me. The crow reminded me to take a look, to be aware, to question. And to let go.