The central challenge of mindfulness is to attend clearly and singly on the present moment, but finding the right tool to facilitate that level of focus can be illusive. Like many people, I’ve tried using the breath, objects of visual focus, and mantras with varying degrees of success. In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered a new one - pain.
Anyone who’s been to the hospital in the past ten years is familiar with the pain scale. It’s usually labeled with numbers one through ten and has associated happy, neutral, and sad faces corresponding with the various levels of pain. The number one represents the least amount of pain and ten represents excruciating pain. Working in health care I’ve been on the administering side of the pain scale many times and watched people struggle with their answers. What’s a five? What’s a ten? It’s all very abstract - until you have a pinched nerve in your neck.
My neck and shoulders have always been tweaky, but usually are easily soothed with some self-care and ibuprofen. The day before Christmas, the apparent usual pain started at the junction of my right shoulder blade and the base of my neck. Christmas day, I reached and stretched into contorted positions to get at the gifts under my brother’s Christmas tree. It’s my job to pass them out at the family gathering. The pain got worse. The next day, with ibuprofen on board and later some Aleve, things continued to head downhill. By late evening…
I’ve never experienced anything like it. It felt like what I imagine getting shot would feel like. I couldn’t sit up. Simply walking to the bathroom and back rendered me senseless in tears. It took two ER visits and three days in the hospital to bring the pain down to a relieving, gracious number two.
It was awful, but it was focused. There was no room in my mind for anything but the present and the sensation that filled it. All other narratives fled. All potential distractions dimmed. The present moment was all there was and the present moment was pain. Sometimes I think the only way I made it through it was knowing that the pain was only now. I didn’t allow myself to think about pain in the future. I only needed to be and exist just now. The pain was only now.
Truthfully I’d rather take another round of samsara in the next lifetime than experience ongoing now-ness in the form of pain. Nonetheless it has given me a new perspective on mindfulness. In the current pop-psychology version of Buddhism that currently pervades us, we can be lulled into thinking that mindfulness is always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes clarity is delivered in a violent jolt. We need to be able to accept and work with all manifestations of now in our practice. At the very least, I’ve learned what ten means.
"Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence."
Um...I hope these slogans aren’t written in order of difficulty. Number Five has been a real challenge! For the past three weeks, I have been carrying the card around with me: in my bag to and from work, near my piano on lesson days. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve connected with the “present, unbiased awareness” referred to in Pema Chödrön’s discussion once during that period of time. Uh-oh. So I decided to satisfy myself with an exploration of what this “alaya” thing means.
Interestingly, the first Google results for Alaya are in reference to it as a baby name. I’ve never met someone named Alaya, but it is kind of beautiful. In these entries alaya has different meanings in various languages, but they are all variations on a theme.
Basque = joyful
Hebrew = to ascend
Arabic = lofty, sublime
Swahili = exalted
In reference to alaya as a form of consciousness, the "storehouse consciousness" or "root consciousness", the meaning has pointers back to the word’s meaning in these other languages. According to buddhist principles, maintaining oneself in the present moment leads to a reduction of suffering. Thus one might say joyful, ascended, sublime, or exalted.
My internet meanderings also led me over to lionsroar.com where I read an article about Integrated Information Theory (IIT) in which it is posited that consciousness is everywhere and can be measured. One of the neuroscientists involved in the development of this theory, Christof Koch, met with the Dalai Lama in 2013. He was struck by the similarities between his evolving ideas of the nature of consciousness and the buddhist notion that sentience is everywhere.
The most thought-provoking paragraph for me, given my current emotional disconnection with alaya at this moment in time is as follows:
"The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche stated that while mind, along with all objects, is empty, unlike most objects, it is also luminous. In a similar vein, IIT says consciousness is an intrinsic quality of everything yet only appears significantly in certain conditions — like how everything has mass, but only large objects have noticeable gravity.”
In that I am reminded of the preciousness of human form. Even when I am not able to rest in the nature of alaya this human form at least has enough “mass” that consciousness can appear with “noticeable gravity.” Therefore the potential for success in this regard remains as long as this human form does.
Whew! Let’s put this one away for now...
"Self-liberate even the antidote."
In considering this Lojong slogan, I learned some Latin - reductio ad absurdum.
This is the formal term for following an argument or line of thought to the point at which the argument results in some kind of absurd conclusion. It's usage in philosophy is to point out the fundamental flaw in some argument. In common language, "it's a slippery slope". Taking one step in a particular direction makes it more likely that one will keep going in the same direction until one eventually jumps off of the proverbial cliff with their proverbial friends.
Pema Chödrön's commentary cautions us that being attached to nonattachment is folly. Yet, if one assiduously follows the teachings of nonattachment, that would surely be the outcome. In Buddhism, however, there is a safety buffer against this - the Middle Way. The site zen-buddhism.net puts it this way: "By 'middle', Buddha essentially meant that we need to embrace both spiritualism as well as materialism, just like the front and back sides of a sheet of paper." (love that image)
The Middle Way is a great protector against the human tendency to drift toward extremes. The idea that there is one right way to do or think about something is both comforting and seductive to us. The Middle Way on the other hand is messy. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line against absurdity. It takes prajna remember to analyze the pro's and con's of sustaining a given principle, especially when that principle is intertwined with your personal philosophy of life.
Lying is wrong. Don't lie. Still most people would likely stop short of ruining a surprise party for a friend even if entailed telling a lie. All people have a right to health care and should have equal access to care. Still if the health care providers go out of business or are starved for resources, no one gets adequate care. So...what do we do? That one's harder, right?
As usual, this is where Buddhism throws the responsibility for our enlightenment back on us: our thoughts, our views, our actions. There's no out for us by simply leaning on some general principle and continuing to repeat it. Man, who knew being awake would be so much work!
"Examine the nature of unborn awareness."
It took me an extra week to realize why I was having trouble with this slogan. It turns out I had a preconceived notion that the nature of unborn awareness would be a warm and comfortable feeling - something I could really snuggle into. That is not my current situation.
My assumption is rooted in that analogy about the clouds not being the sky itself, spoken in regard to the delusions of our minds and Buddha nature. In reading the slogan, I assumed that unborn awareness was synonymous with Buddha nature and that this examination would occur during a clearing of the mental clouds, however brief.
I've had none of that over the past couple of weeks. So I assumed I was not connecting with the teaching. In fact I was too buried in my unborn awareness to examine it.
Can anyone say irony?
I may be faced with a very big decision in the next few weeks. In this waiting period, my mind has been flying around in circles. It's filled with words and scenarios and what-might-happens. There is a roiling in my stomach that gets worse when I'm trying to sleep (I’m writing this at 1:00 am). It only occurred to me ten minutes ago that this is the exact unborn awareness the slogan is referring to. In this case I'm not experiencing a soothing place of meditative bliss, but rather the piercing discomfort of uncertainty.
There is nothing about my current circumstance that can be dealt with. Nothing can be done to make it dissipate before the natural conclusion of these events. The Third Lojong phrase is telling me my job is to simply notice the discomfort and stay with them.
As Pema Chödrön would say, I have to become "curious" about this feeling and avoid running away from it. Talking won't make things go faster. Thinking only results in revolving thoughts. Therefore, I am left with only sit and stay, Fido. Stay! Yes. Thank you for this lesson.
Can I go to sleep now?
“Regard all dharmas as dreams.”
Have you ever had a lucid dream? It’s happened to me twice.
In the first, I was at the top of a large, wide staircase. The edges of the steps were made with some kind of stone, but most of the surface was covered with red carpet. It appeared that I was in some kind of gilded theatre. Instead of walking down the stairs, I wanted to fly. At each step I leapt up and floated for a short time, working my way down two or three steps at a time. Suddenly I realized I was dreaming and that if I really wanted to fly I should be able to just concentrate. Bingo! I was flying.
Then I woke up.
The second time was more complex. I “woke up” in my bed as usual, got up and walked out of my room into a hallway that contained cabinets, a mirror, and a sink. I was going to start getting ready for the day when I realized my house doesn’t have a room like this off of the bedroom. Yes! A lucid dream! Deciding to take advantage of being aware, I started walking around.
Then I woke up.
Still laying in bed, I thought about how cool it was that I’d had a lucid dream. I got out of bed and exited the room only to find myself once again in an unfamiliar floor plan. A lucid dream inside of a lucid dream! Cool! This time, I was determined to stay in the dream.
Then I woke up.
The world seems completely solid in a lucid dream. Lucid dreams are seductive. You can make things be just by thinking about them. Having done it twice, I want to do it again. I wish there was a switch I could flip to make it happen at will. So far it’s been a big goose egg.
Or so I thought until recently. In truth, lucid dreaming is just an exaggeration of what we do on a daily basis when we turn our attention inward to the alternate universes created by our minds. These realities appear so solid at times that they impact our body chemistry, facial expression and emotional state. The only thing lacking in comparison to a lucid dream is the absolute immersion of the visuals. Otherwise the illusion is just as complete.
When the world of our mind helps us envision how we might approach a problem or communicate something important to someone, it can be a useful tool. More often however we trend toward mindlessness, building elaborate fantasies about that we want to say but won’t. We imagine ourselves surmounting our intractable problems through acts of will or heroism that we will never realize. In these moments we reinforce our impotence in molding the world to our desires. In short we suffer.
It’s hard to imagine my life without my mind churning out stories all the time. As a creative person, these stories are the raw materials for my work. I can see though that I could gain significant benefit in terms of minimizing my own suffering if I could recognize my unproductive “mental lucid dreams” earlier and prompt myself to wake up as quickly as I do in the sleeping variety.
I’ll keep working on that.
I'm trying an experiment. Recently I got Pema Chödrön's Compassion Cards, which are a complement to The Compassion Book. The set is comprised of cards containing the lojong slogans ("mind-training" teachings), one per card, with associated commentary on the back. When I opened the box I found it comes with a little cardboard stand that can fit a couple of cards at a time. So I decided I would put each card up on my night stand each week and think about that slogan for a week - to see what happens.
This week, I was particularly drawn to the part of the part of the teaching that has to do with awareness of the preciousness of human life and that death comes for everyone.
I started out by waking up each morning and being grateful for the ability to participate in a new day; that I have the opportunity to continue to grow and work toward greater equanimity. Three things this week helped to focus my efforts in learning from the phrase.
The first is what I've dubbed The Purge, which is my current effort to go through everything I own and get rid of the things I don't want or need. I predicted the process would be challenging because I definitely have unproductive emotional attachments to many things. These attachments leave me feeling emotionally and spiritually stuck and ultimately I have come to feel buried by these physical possessions.
Understandably as a result of digging through these things, I've been facing some very old thought patterns and feelings. The result of this work is that it's getting easier to part with things. Some of the patterns and feelings are moving on with the stuff and I'm getting better at staying with difficult feelings until they lose their power over me.
It's been transformative so far. In thinking about my phrase of the week. I recognized how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do this work. It is a privilege to be in a form where I have the agency to recognize and confront the shenpa that increases my suffering. Of course then I start thinking - boy I hope I'm around for a while to enjoy this progress I've made - and YES, I realize this IS in itself an attachment! No one can say the human form doesn't come with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.
The second thing that helped connect me to the teaching this week is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I've read a decent amount of 19th century literature so I'm pretty familiar with the vocabulary and grammar. The problem is, I don't like the story that much. Ugh! The characters are insufferable! Even the main character Elizabeth. Who knows maybe she'll be redeemed by the end of the story - no spoilers!
Yes, yes. I'm reading it anyway. Why? Because I really want to read Pride, Prejudice and Zombies and I don't want to read it without having the context of the original so I can fully enjoy the humor.
In any case, here I am thinking now - boy it would be a real bummer if this was the last book I ever read. If I die suddenly, I would've spent my last bits of reading time in my life reading something I don't like.
And yes! this is also attachment 1) I have an attachment to reading the first book before reading the second book; 2) I have an attachment to reading books I like. Therefore, I am suffering...insert cognitive dissonance comment again here.
So where does that leave me? Not too bad off. I recognize the attachments I'm dealing with aren't epic and maintain a certain sense of humor about them. Still there's a different flavor when you recognize it could all end at any time. Any day could be the last day I have to read or the last day to decide what to Purge. Any decision could be my last decision.
Two days ago there were two doctors found murdered in their apartment in Boston. One of those doctors worked at my hospital. I didn't know her personally, but by all accounts she was young, bright and working in a really necessary and complex field -pediatric anesthesiology. She and the other doctor were engaged. So much potential. Were they reading anything they liked? Did they get a chance to purge? They're both gone but I have the privilege of going on. That truly is a blessing indeed.
So in this final day with Lojong phrase number 1, I dedicate my practice to Lina Bolanos and Richard Field through whom I can learn the truth that there are no guarantees in terms of when, where or how I be making my exit.
One of my favorite Schoolhouse Rock! videos from my childhood was "I'm Just A Bill." I loved watching the little scroll-shaped character go from place to place, demystifying the process without being heavy-handed. He looked a little tired, but he was still spunky and full of hope! Little did I know then how intimately connected I'd become with this process on a state level.
Some history: Almost seven years ago, I was in private practice as a speech-language pathologist. I needed to hire a part-time replacement staff member and was very enthusiastic about a graduate student I had recently trained. That's when I found out about a glitch in the speech-language pathology licensure law in Massachusetts that prevented me from hiring new graduates and billing third-party payers for their services. I won't bore you with the details. It was actually a common issue that forty three other states had already fixed. I figured we could do the same thing here. I got in touch with my state rep and we put together the bill.
Seven years ago.
It all comes down to tomorrow.
There's a little detail they forgot to mention in Schoolhouse Rock!, the small matter of "legislative cycles." If your bill is still stuck in committee at the end of a legislative cycle, you have to start all over again at the beginning of the next legislative cycle. Yes, those perky educators from the '70's allude to it when they refer to bills that "die" in committee. In Massachusetts, there are two-year cycles. This is the end of the third legislative cycle since we first introduced the legislation.
Tomorrow, January 3, 2017 is the final voting session of the current legislative cycle. Our bill was favorably voted out of its final committee last week and was given it's "third reading" which is apparently right before the bill is "engrossed." My rep tells me that it's the last step before going to the floor for a vote.
Um...did I mention the last vote is tomorrow?
I understand desire is the root of all suffering. I understand that my desire to see this bill passed has caused me a considerable amount of suffering over the past seven years. At this moment however, on the cusp of learning whether I have to start all over again, I am resolved that if I have to I will soldier on. There is a larger purpose for this suffering. We have seven graduate programs in speech-language pathology in Massachusetts, but we still have a shortage of trained professionals in many specialties. Our young clinicians are forced to seek positions out of state if they want to work in the medical specialties. If I follow the admonition for myself to extract myself from desire and the concomitant "suffering" that pursuit of this goal has engendered, our whole state loses.
Reason 1547 for why I'm not finding enlightenment this time around.
I got off on a tangent today thinking about the word "longing". Sometimes I read romance novels to relax, but of course the story lines are replete with every form of craving and longing that one could conceive of. For whatever reason, today's reading got me thinking about the etymology of the word "longing". I wondered how the word came to mean craving in the English language.
Unfortunately, I didn't get very far in my quest, because Google delivered me a number of related searches to my "what is the etymology of 'longing'" question. One of these was "longing meaning in Hindi". It intrigued me that enough people had asked this question in the past that it became a generated response. In my day-off Memorial Day frame of mind though, that question didn't stick and I replaced it with "longing meaning in Pali". That brought me to "Tanha" (thirst, craving, desire).
Wikipedia told me that the word appeared in the Four Noble Truths where it was credited with being the root of all dukkha (suffering). So of course I set out to cross check that.
So, it appears that Wikipedia had it right this time and I added a new word to my Buddhist vocabulary. Not bad for a lazy vacation day.
I have studied Spanish for quite some time, starting back in high school and then for a while in college. In more recent years, I’ve taken an interest again. First, because I think it’s a beautiful language. Also it’s practical. I have many patients who speak Spanish. Though I use an interpreter in session, because I am far from fluent, they seem to appreciate it when I try to use what Spanish I have to communicate with them. I feel we bond better as a team when I make the attempt.
When I was in graduate school for speech-language pathology, I learned a great deal about language differences. From a linguist’s perspective, this is primarily in regard to syntax and vocabulary. From the speech-language pathologist’s perspective, however, it has more to do with what a language says about the way in which a person’s thoughts are organized and the perspective they have about the world. This is important to be able to parse out, especially when one is trying to decide whether a person is language disordered or whether they just have insufficient knowledge of the English language and/or mainstream American culture.
In this context, I started thinking about the fact that Spanish has two words for the verb “to be” - “ser” and “ester”. The web site studyspanish.com describes the difference as being one of “condition” versus “essence”. This is to say that “ser” refers to an essential state of being. “Estar” refers to a condition, or a transient state. For example, the sentence “the apple is green” can have two meanings. Either the apple is transiently green on its way to being ripe, or the apple is meant to be green when it is ripe. In the first case, one would use the verb “estar” to indicate that the green state will be changing. In the latter case, one would use the verb “ser” to indicate that the green state is a permanent essential part of the apple.
In terms of using language to indicate one’s mental perspective on the world, this differentiation creates an interesting conundrum for a Buddhist. After all, our fundamental perspective is that nothing is permanent and nothing has an essential substance. Perhaps we should just speak of relative terms then? Relatively permanent? In this corner of the space-time continuum permanent? Permanent when not meditating? Permanent when one hand is not clapping? Katz!
It probably doesn’t matter that much any way - at least for me. My Spanish grammar is thoroughly underwhelming when I’m trying to speak. For now, I’ll just focus on the kind of mental permanence that allows me to retrieve any Spanish words at all when I need them and let the interpreter try to sort it out when the patient gets that “huh?” face.
It’s finally complete. After having been hacked almost a year ago, I have finally finished reconstructing the Average Buddhist Blog.
Yes, yes, yes…there’s the irony. I’m a Buddhist blogger who’s so attached to my past posts I was willing to dig through internet archives to get them back. (Of course keeping copies of them when I posted them would have been waaaaayyy too easy, right?) What could go wrong if they’re safely locked away in the WordPress interface?
What could go wrong indeed?
As much effort as it took to reassemble everything, it was an amazing experience to reread the posts, look back at all my old thoughts and perspectives. It was kind of like being able to travel in time…and since I’m a big Doctor Who fan, that’s all right with me.
So, it would seem that releasing attachment and burying and forgetting are different beasts. Keeping a thread of connection to the past can help illuminate a way forward.
While I’m here, I want to give a really, really, REALLY big shout out to the “Wayback Machine” a.k.a., the “Internet Archive”. They take snapshots of web sites and catalog and index them for retrieval or reference in the future. Through them, I was able to find all of the old snapshots of the Average Buddhist Blog as it existed back then. Thanks to them, I had the order, dates and most importantly the content of every post that was lost. (Except I think the very last one before I was locked out) I am beyond grateful that this service exists and plan on sending them a donation. I’m posting their information here, in case you’d like to do the same. If you have a blog, family site or anything that you would like to ensure doesn’t get lost to the impermanence of cyberspace, you’ll be happy they’re around. http://archive.org/donate/
Now buy the Book!