Blah blah busy blah blah blah work blah blah moving offices blah blah blah…nothing “Buddhist enough” to say.
Yes, it’s true. After sixteen years of Buddhist practice I continue to fall victim to dualistic thinking and tie myself to attachments about the need to be profound in some way. Haha! I’m sure I’m not alone here and I do have a good sense of humor about it. Prajna is a process.
I mean really. The whole reason for calling the blog Average Buddhist is because I’m just an average person workin’ the Dharma. It’s about the small stuff.
Suicide touches millions of lives in this world. Yet, somehow it’s always a surprise when someone you know commits suicide. You can’t help but think - I should have known. I should have seen it coming. We all carry this underlying assumption that we could have done something to prevent it.
Last December, my husband and I learned a good friend of his mother’s had passed away. There were no details at first. The fact of her death was difficult and hard to imagine, given her lifelong active and healthy lifestyle. Worse, particularly for my mother-in-law, was that we didn’t find out until three months later. After several days of phone tag, my mother-in-law learned that her friend had not died of natural causes, but from suicide. The few months over which they had fallen out of touch took on new meaning. All of us were left wondering - why?
I first met “E” in the late 1980′s or early 1990′s – I can’t recall which. She was someone who was very easy to connect with. She had a calming influence on every room she walked into. Her smile was contagious. She would go to any lengths to help a friend feel better. I know all of this sounds cliché given that E is no longer with us, but it’s actually true. It was hard to imagine E feeling so desperate that she would take her own life.
If only we’d known.
There’s the real cliché. The survivors seeking ground. We grasp onto the certainty of our own power to force our will to live on another person. If only we’d known, we could have stopped it. The certainty is laughable.
Earlier today, I managed to finally connect with another woman who knew E well, much better than me in truth. She and E used to either see each other or communicate at least once a week. She told me she had also been shocked by the news. She knew a recent illness-related death in E’s family had hit E hard emotionally. But there was apparently been no indication that E’s grieving was going so terribly wrong. Perhaps there was more going on. We’ll never know.
The truth is, it is a privilege when others open their thoughts to us. Whether those thoughts are full of sunshine or a tsunami of pain, every person is in control of whether they share it with the people they know and love. If they decide not to there is absolutely nothing to do for it. It’s not for us to say that we would have been smart enough, creative enough or forceful enough to stop someone from taking drastic measures. Despite numerous opportunities, E decided not to share.
As a member of the clan of people who has been left behind by E, I need to set aside my Tom-Cruise-saves-the-day story lines and instead come back to focusing on E. Grieve the loss. Make peace with the fact that I’ll never see her again. Bow to the internal pain that made her feel like suicide was her only best option.
Well, the past year plus has really kicked my butt. So, many things took a back seat to the chaos – including blogging (which is a shame because I love it). Most of this chaos was work-related.
In short, I’ve been self-employed for many years as a private practice speech-language pathologist (with a specialty in voice and larynx disorders) and singing teacher. Balancing the desire to care for my clients with the vagaries of the health insurance climate was always dicey. Late last year, a staff member left and the search for a replacement revealed that maintaining an independent practice is simply not sustainable. Thus the chaos that ensued.
The short version of the story has me now working once again at the medical center where I took my specialty training, only this time in a combined clinical and leadership role. I still teach singing as well a couple of days a week. Its been a radical reworking of my entire routine, but sometimes that is radically necessary.
Over time, there will be small pieces of my misadventures that I’m sure will be interesting to write about. For now, just starting to write at all is enough. I’ll continue – or should I say be better at – applying every day Buddhism by taking the pressure off of myself to be profound or lengthy (decreased attachment) and hopefully in that spirit will find the courage and energy to post more.
I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution. That’s too much pressure. Instead I’ll call it New Year Hope that there will be some break from the turbulence and the opportunity to experience a period of relative calm.
A few days ago, I read a book review of The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. It was perception-altering for me. Given it’s the review’s brevity (and of course the fact that I haven’t actually read the book), it’s surprising that this piece could leave me with the profound feeling I’d just been called out by the mirror on my wall.
So, what’s this all about? You may ask.
As I understand it, The World Is Not Ours To Save delivers the message that any individual can only do so much to effect positive change in the world. Each of us is imbued with specific strengths and weaknesses, circumstances and opportunities and circles of humanity with which we interact. In all of the possible permutations of these domains, each of us is uniquely able and prepared to help make the world a better place in some way or other. No matter how hard we work or how thin we spread ourselves, however, we cannot fix all of the world’s extant problems. We can’t even fix all of the problems we become aware of though experience, news outlets and the internet. Therefore, in order to ensure that we don’t fail our calling we have to focus or we will burn out and do good for no one.
Wigg-Stevenson approaches this message from a strictly Christian (specifically Baptist) perspective. The title of the book implies that even humanity taken as a whole cannot be responsible for the ultimate repair of sin, because that’s God’s job. In his view only God has the power to effect that level of redemption. A large part of the book illuminates the theology behind his thesis to help Christians incorporate the message into their lives.
Despite our difference in theology, I believe that Wigg-Stevenson’s premise is equally important for Buddhists. Aren’t many of us wanna-be Bodhisattva’s at heart? In our meditation and other practices, we vow to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Wow! That’s kind of a tall order, don’t you think? It’s actually kind of conceited when you think about it and somewhat childishly naive as well.
Part of the problem lies in a this-life perspective. Many forget that the entire concept of a Bodhisattva is that after death the Bodhisattva foregoes Nirvana and enters the human realm again and again until all sentient beings are relieved of suffering. The actualization of the goal lies in perhaps millions of years over thousands of lifetimes. Nonetheless our feeble perspective is always anchored to this world, this body, this lifetime. In that view the pressure is always on to get this thing done now! In so doing, we doom ourselves to failure and more damaging than that, we lose hope and live with the persistent feeling of being overwhelmed.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God to see that surrendering to the ultimate Groundlessness of our place in the matter of elimination of suffering is critical. We must humble ourselves before the massiveness of the task at hand. The Bodhisattva Vows have been being taken for thousands of years. How central to the functioning of the universe can any one of us think we are that we could do alone what so many more practiced and disciplined beings before us could not do?
I’m not trying to be discouraging here. The most important feeling I had after reading the review of The World Is Not Ours To Save was relief. Why do I feel like I can’t fix everything? Because I really can’t. I had to chuckle at my hubris. Afterward though I could begin to lay that burden down and ask myself: What are my best gifts? In what way can those gifts serve to ease the suffering of the greatest number of sentient beings of which I am capable? Each of us doing our own part for the world, in harmony not competition, is the best implementation of the Bodhisattva Vows imaginable.
My high school dream car (photo link from cargurus.com)
When I was 15 years old, the thing I wanted more than anything was a Trans Am. They were everywhere, with their big golden birds painted across the hood. I promised myself I would buy a Trans Am one day because I knew it was the only car I would ever want. Back then I knew nothing of model years and the design changes they inevitably bring. The Trans Am was without a doubt my ideal car.
Fast forward to 1990, I’ve just graduated college and I’m buying my first car. It’s the biggest purchase I’ve ever made. I’m even committing to a car payment. Scary! I’ve got to make sure I get to work every day. Even scarier! So what did I buy? A two-year old Toyota Tercel. Truth be told, the whole Trans Am thing didn’t even come up as a thought or desire in the process. It was a few years later when I recalled my previous infatuation with the Trans Am, all of which by then were rusty, loud and burned more gas than I wanted to pay for. What gives? A Trans Am? No thanks.
A recent article in the New York Times may have finally illuminated the foundations of this mystery. It’s called “end of history illusion”. Basically, what this theory states is that people can much more easily perceive how they have changed in the past than how they may change in the future. Further, we may actively deny that future change in our preferences and manner of thinking will occur at all. From adolescence through adulthood we convince ourselves on a daily basis that we have reached the highest expression of ourselves. Ha ha!
Perhaps the fear and subsequent denial of future change in our personalities is most blatant in the teen years, but I believe these feelings remain with us throughout our lives. After all, our thoughts and preferences and view of the world is what makes up our fundamental selves, right? We can’t lose that, right? If we lose that, we lose our whole being, right? Yet this is exactly what Buddhism encourages us to accept.
Our thoughts, perceptions and views are only a part of the Aggregates we confuse with our fundamental selves in our unenlightened state. The work of not only accepting that change in these regards will occur, but leaning into these changes is part of the fundamental work of Buddhist practice.
So, I happen to be buying a new car again…Trans Am? Naw. Mazda 3. Still no bird, but it does have an iPod input. I never would have thought to value that back in 1984. I wonder what my new self will prefer when I’m back in the market again around 2024? We shall see!
I’ve been watching the coverage of the Newtown student massacre with the usual blend of outrage and sadness. Political pundits from various arenas are each spinning their own favorite issue in the usual attempt to assign a cause to the bloodshed – or shall I clarify – a cause that can be easily summed up and addressed with Bold Legislative Action.
The most obvious of these is gun control and the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Also promoted is the impoverished state of mental health care in the United States and the difficulty inherent in obtaining (if not requiring) treatment for those who are dangerously mentally ill. All of this discussion is occurring over and around the din of the so-called “fiscal cliff” with it’s arguments about tax rates for the wealthy and expenditures on health care and other sustenance programs.
Talk, talk, talk. It goes on ad nauseam. It is irrelevant.
What will change as the result of Newtown? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because we are not even close to addressing something far more fundamental.
No matter what machinations we attempt to avoid this fundamental truth, we are all interconnected. America has a pathological relationship to interconnectedness. We have fallen victim to the lie of hyper-individuality and it is making us suffer. Ironically, the more we suffer, the more we snuggle into the cocoon of this make-believe land and the cycle begins again.
Anyone who knows me understands that I have immense respect for the strengths of an individualist world view. If Americans were not afforded individual rights and fundamental self-determination, I would not be free to be a Buddhist. If I were in China, for more reasons than one I would likely have been sent off to one of the “reeducation” work camps referenced last week in the New York Times. If that were the type of individual liberty we were talking about I’d be all for it.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have moved from a society that promoted individual liberty as a way to reduce unfairness and intolerance to a society which the primary concern is “I want what I want and forget everyone else.” Forget society, forget my family, forget my neighbors, if it gets in the way of what I want. That is what we have become. It breaks my heart every day beginning long before Newtown.
Until Americans experience a cultural shift in which value is assigned to our well-being as a group, not just of self, we will continue to spin our wheels when it comes to addressing some of our most crucial conundrums. Unless we are willing to put some parameters around the lawlessness of unrestrained individualism, we will be nothing more than a country of I’ll-get-mine-and-you’ll-get-whateva’.
There will never be rational discussion about an assault weapons ban outside of the context of understanding that our safety as a group outweighs the desire for certain individuals to own military-grade weapons. We can never progress in terms of care for the mentally ill until we acknowledge that societies’ right to not incur the consequences of untreated severe mental illness at times outweighs an individual’s right to refuse treatment. We can never internalize that the wealthy are so largely because of a group effort on their part with their employees and society (or from their parents) rather than their own private brilliance and therefore their worth is not so precious. It’s not just that policy can’t change. We can’t even talk about it. We can’t even imagine it.
The force of our cultural myopia in this regard will ultimately leave the events of Newtown as just another missed opportunity in a long list of missed opportunities that will be forgotten in the next news cycle. If this kind of change were easier, I guess we’d have many more Buddhas in the world. For now, we’ll have to work on it one Bodhisattva at a time.
Our brains have an annoying way of tuning out normalcy. Regardless of whether the stimulus is a sound, sight, taste or thought the brain’s attentional system eventually tires of it and turns it into a mumbling din. This neurologic strategy makes sense given that humans evolved in a climate of predators and uncertainty. We needed to be primed to give priority to new information about our changing circumstances. When it comes to maintaining mindfulness, however, this mechanism can work against us.
Contrary to the impression of many spiritual-seeking Americans, mindfulness does not bring us to a hyper-alert bliss state akin to an acid trip without the side-effects. The act of practicing mindfulness is to thoroughly experience what is already present. The core of the practice is learning to attend to the mundane. No wonder we go off on so many thought tangents during meditation.
One popular piece of advice for bringing our minds back to the present is self-verbalizing “thinking”, after which we refocus our attention to the breath (or whatever else we have chosen to attend to). This is a gentle, nondualistic way of breaking the momentum of our extraneous story lines.
I am a superhero, flying over the city. I have just vanquished another bank robber! Ah ha! I rock!
In meditation I have to think “thinking” a lot. So often that my brain has gotten really good at continuing to think right through it. “Thinking” has clearly become too boring a cue. I was struggling with this one day when out of the blue I thought “fizzy!” instead. Don’t know where it came from. Just popped out. Fizzy! Stopped my brain dead in its tracks.
Well smack me ten times with the zen stick y’all. What the heck? But the circulating thoughts were gone and I was easily back to finding the spaces between the breath – one of my favorite points of focus.
I’m certain my mind will never respond as thoroughly and strongly to “fizzy” after that first encounter. My neurologic system has already got its number. Oh…You’re just “thinking” in disguise…It was a profound reminder though of the power of the unexpected to bring us back to the now.
The next book I’m reviewing for Blogcritics is John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove. Having been a “Duranie” since 1983, I jumped at the chance. What fun! Taking a little jaunt away from the neuroscience, voice science and Buddhist philosophy I’ve been stuffing my head with for a while now. Leave it to me to turn it into a lesson in interconnectedness. It crept in sideways when I was least expecting it. The prompt was a story Taylor told about having asked the driver of the limousine of one of his favorite bands if he could have the used champagne cork from the floor of their car. Later, he met a fan who’d gotten a cold from him after having absconded with his tissues – um, eewww! Then there were the boots.
Any of you who lived through the eighties will recall those short ankle boots popularized by Duran Duran. I had a pair. All of my friends had a pair. And yes, you know it, you had a pair too… Mine were black. To match the fedora. Yeah. I know.
But I digress. What does all of this have to do with interconnectedness?
John Taylor as a young'un. Origin of the boots...?
The first half of In the Pleasure Groove had a lot of information about Taylor’s musical influences, what bands were his favorite and how each related to the development of the pop/rock genre from the mid-seventies into the eighties. The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Blondie had various influences on the sound palate and musical sensibility that Taylor brought to the band. It was really interesting to me and led to rumination about where I fit into this lineage.
It has for a long time seemed to me that musical influence is not unlike spiritual transmission from one adept to another. If the Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Blondie left pieces of themselves in Duran Duran’s music, how many pieces of themselves did Duran Duran contribute to my musical heritage? How much Bowie and Blondie are left in the mix after it’s filtered through Duran? When I write or sing, I can’t help but be aware that it’s not only me up there, but actually every musician who’s ever meant something to me. And no other band has meant more to me than Duran Duran.
So I asked myself, what about my students? I’m now teaching the next generation of singers and songwriters. How many pieces of Duran Duran will be left in them after being filtered through me? The answer came to me in an amusing form.
My 9-year old daughter is a budding singer, who is now studying guitar so that she can be the next Taylor Swift. She has one pair of shoes she loved enough to grow out of and buy another pair…
Then there is Kitarah. She’s a great new R&B singer who’s in the middle of recording her second EP. She came into her lesson last week in perky bright
green pants and – you guessed it…
What does this mean? In reality probably nothing, but over the past week it has served as a reminder that we are not always aware of the tiny ways in which we influence those around us and those who come after us. It was just a little funny nudge to keep me focused on our ultimate interconnectedness in all of its brilliant variety.
A conundrum that has always intrigued me is the way in which things we do in our desire to help people, can sometimes cause more suffering than if we had done nothing at all. In The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I related the “vole” story in which our family cat attempted to give a “gift” to my mother in the form of a dead animal. Too bad there was no gift receipt on that one…
Earlier today I read a commentary about what may turn out to be somewhat misguided charity on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicating several billion dollars to contraception in Africa, when women might actually prefer to have better pre- and postnatal care. Some failure in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated are certainly doomed to failure given the wide diversity of human perspective in the world. Perhaps it is more surprising to observe how well that guiding principle works much of the time when the giver of assistance actually takes the time to truly put themselves into the other person’s shoes.
Given how central the tenet of compassion is to the every day practice of Buddhism, it seems crucial that we truly engage in a thoughtful process to understand the potential unintended side-effects of what we intend to be compassionate actions. Providing what has been referred to as “idiot compassion” can be just as devastating as self-centeredness.
Those of you who are a part of the Facebook community, have seen me reference some difficult times I have been going through lately. A big part of that was a blow that my business took due to some staffing issues juxtaposed on the direction in which the health care industry is turning. What I have been facing has forced me to analyze how I operate on many levels. One thing I discovered is that my compassion had run amok in the singing lessons side of my business.
To give some context, most music schools and other centers that offer music training have highly structured semesters and rules surrounding eligibility for make up lessons. I could never reconcile what I perceived as rigidity with the fact that sometimes people get sick or go on vacation. I thought so much about what the customer might need that I rarely enforced the 24-hour notice policy, even when someone canceled because “my daughter has too much homework tonight.” When the current crisis hit, it became clear that my lack of leadership in this regard led to the lessons side of my business losing money – significantly.
The irony struck me full in the face. By implementing “idiot compassion” in terms of my operations I a) jeopardized the jobs of 8 people and myself; b) jeopardized my ability to be able to stay to serve the clients I love. One day, a parent of one of my younger students said that I should plan on her staying through high school. Thrilling, but a stab in the heart when I recognized that if I didn’t get this taken care of I might not be able to be there for her.
So my associate teacher and I sat down together to discuss this. She is also a Buddhist and daughter of parents who are now Zen masters. I thought, if we can’t figure this out who can? We crafted a system that (I think) provides a lot better structure, but has some flexibility built into it as well. So far people are responding positively as we roll it out for the fall season.
This story seemed important to tell for a couple of reasons. First, this has been a really awful time for me, but my Buddhist practice has been an incredible asset that has helped me learn a lot about myself and how to relate to the world. Second, it illuminates the idea that the way in which we implement our compassionate intentions has consequences. You don’t have to be doing something extraordinary like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to have an enormous impact on the world around you. And despite having compassionate intentions your impact could be positive or negative in the balance.
It all comes down to the most basic tenet: proceed mindfully.
I would like to share with you a humorous take on idiot compassion, with a side-order of ego clinging, from Julian Smith. Enjoy!