Monday, August 29, 2011

Stepping Twice Into the River

This has also been published on the Common Ground Meditation Center's Blog

I have a pesky habit of getting stuck in the past, of brooding over relationships and events, analyzing and wishing for a different outcome along the way. Sometimes, I find myself tête-à-tête with a particularly unsmooth shard from the past’s vast collection of broken glass and it becomes so unbearable, so beyond any acceptance or acknowledgement, that I have an overwhelming desire to do something, anything. As if doing is reflexively the right response. Clearly, it often is. We, beings, do a lot of doing after all and often the appropriate thing to do is act. But that’s not the same as doing something, anything. That burning desire to just do is really an inability to sit with things as they are. So before we know what, if anything, we can do, it’s often best to just be first.

When we reflect on the past, we can consider our actions and their consequences, or the actions of others and their consequences. Both may appear equally unbearable. In the reflection below, I will focus on the former.

In my reflection, I first consider the question of karma. As I understand it, karma represents the consequences of our actions. It’s not a simplistic notion of tit for tat. If I do something stupid, harmful or generally unskillful, it’s not that I will be punished for it at a later day. And if I do something wise, noble and skillful, it’s not that I will be rewarded for it at a later day (or better yet this afternoon). The universe is more subtle than that. What really matters here is the effect on our heart. Most of the time, we are not willing to really be present with the consequences of our actions. Most of the time, we do not notice, or we dismiss our actions and their consequences as no big deal. But these unreckoned-with consequences show up somewhere in our subconscious, adding hardness to our soul and sometimes even the physical body. On the other hand, if we were to truly be present with the reality of making an unkind comment, or manipulating a loved one out of greed, or any number of hurtful and small actions we are capable of, that just might become truly unbearable and lead us to want to do something. But what if we could just stay with the unbearable, the rather-be-forgotten, the awkward, the object of our brooding, big or small?

Mark (Mark Nunberg of Common Ground Meditation Center) once called mindfulness a universal solvent and it is. If we can truly stay with the consequences of our actions, we will perhaps see in them nothing more than the drama of the human experience, the actors strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, to borrow from Shakespeare. Or as Buddhists would say - the impersonal nature of experience. If we can see it, see it with our heart, the impossibility of it will dissolve and love and forgiveness will naturally enter the stage.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life analyzing the past. It’s less of a pastime nowadays but I still look back quite a bit. I often have a difficult time accepting what was. But I'm finally beginning to realize that this truly is a futile exercise. What an incredibly simple insight. It’s in the past? Oh, you mean I cannot go back and tweak it? Just a bit, just to see? And would I really want to??? What I've finally realized is that it makes no sense to put the myself of today into the reality that the myself of yesterday lived in. The myself of yesterday created a different reality than the myself of today would. And even given the exact same set of conditions, the myself of yesterday had a different capacity to see them and to respond to them. Or as Heraclitus put it centuries ago, you cannot step twice into the same river. For other waters are ever flowing.


This has also been published on the Common Ground Meditation Center's Blog

A couple of weeks ago during a weekly practice group, a woman shared that she is having a difficult time meditating recently. “I keep looking at my watch,” she said.

Her comment resonated with me. Except that I don’t just start looking at my watch. I stop meditating altogether. It used to bother me. As soon I develop a meditation routine, as soon as it has a rhythm, it gets derailed. It’s so irritating. I used to be outright furious at my failure to maintain a good meditation practice. Now I just accept it. Mark (Mark Nunberg of Common Ground Meditation Center) always reminds us during guided meditation that “it’s OK to start again.” It’s always OK to start the practice again.

It’s actually useful that my practice gets periodically derailed. Sometimes, it’s a sign that I’ve folded it too neatly into my life – it becomes too compartmentalized. I don’t really look at the intention anymore. I’m checking meditation off the list. And at other times, it’s simply that the best I can do is a few moments of reflection or some writing. At these times, what’s difficult is to acknowledge my limits-- to be OK with my quintessential imperfection.

Whenever I reproach myself for not meditating, not meditating enough, not meditating well enough, whenever I tell myself that I should, that I’m somehow failing, I try to look at the person who is wagging her finger and the person who finds clarity so difficult. What I find is very little compassion and much hardness. Staying with that hardness is what makes sense at these moments – using mindfulness as a universal solvent, as Mark once described it.

When I return to meditation, it’s rarely in the prodigal son (or daughter in my case) type of a way. It’s simply that I stumble upon the realization that it’s about things as they are and the desire to see things clearly. I actually want to meditate because I’m genuinely interested. And, secretly, I’m always relieved when I feel that way.

Of course, the question is, how do I maintain continuity in my practice through these ups and downs, how do I deepen my practice and how do I keep from rationalizing unskillful behavior as simply good-for-me-within-my-limits? What’s the balance between making myself meditate come hell or high water and allowing my meditation practice to evolve naturally?

For me, it’s about an intention. I have a deep intention to achieve non-attachment. This intention, however, is buried under layers and layers of humanness. I know I can’t just bulldoze my way through. I have work to do so on all levels of my being and sometimes what I need to focus on is something closer to the surface.

I do recognize, even during times of outright aversion to meditation, that meditation is good for me. And I do make myself maintain some continuity. One of them is coming to Common Ground. Sometimes, that’s all I ask of myself. I just ask myself to show up and ask myself to do whatever it is I’m capable of at that time. It makes sense.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Life After Retreat

Imagine laying in a forest, bathed by the fourth-dimensional serenity of nature and sunlight playing across the landscape. And, suddenly, a wormhole opens and you are thrust onto the middle of a freeway junction with cars zigzagging in every direction. Oh, and you are driving. At 70 mph. And you need to merge across four lanes of traffic right now.

That’s what my transition from a meditation retreat to life feels like.

When I came back from the last retreat, I was steeped in tranquility, protected by its invisible cloak and I had a new intention to add more tranquility to the recipe of my life. I was determined not to get hooked again by the fragmented nature of life. I spent most of my first evening back sitting and allowing thoughts and feelings to just come up. I did not check my email. I did not check my phone.

My first day back, I felt calm right in the middle of life’s freeway. Being mindful and present came effortlessly and so elegantly. I set aside thoughts and plans about all my aspirations and desires, thoughts that normally occupy my consciousness on a permanent basis. I just was. And I was determined to hold on to my inner calm. And I held on, determined not to let it slip through my fingers. I had a good grip. I was doing great. And yet, I was beginning to feel somewhat unsettled, listless and anxious. In my newfound benevolence toward myself, I welcomed these feelings – with just a pinch of resentment.

It wasn’t until perhaps the third day that I noticed that I was not tranquil at all. In fact, I was tense, tight and nervous. No, no, no, wrong, all wrong, I’m to be tranquil, not tense, I’m doing it all wrong. I found myself pining for the protective oasis of calm and I suddenly noticed that my tranquility had morphed into judgmental policing false tranquility. I was wielding a club to beat back life trying to take my tranquility away.

I relaxed my grip and I let my false tranquility go. I smiled at my misguided nature. I was back in life.

It’s not about holding on to the old tranquility. It’s about finding a new tranquility in the now. It’s also about practicing tranquility and – for me – about developing new habits. I’m starting by learning not to fill up every inch of in-between time with distractions – the odd three or six minutes here and there, the waiting time. A few weeks ago, I would have seen that time as a perfect space for texting, writing something down, checking my wallet for quarters, reading half a page or checking how many more pages till the end of the chapter, running through one of the myriad checklists in my head or just impatiently pacing back and forth. Now, I try to remember, this is a perfect little easy window for a bit of tranquility practice. A few breaths, opening to the moment, a bit of metta, just a little tranquility exercise. With no grand expectations and no need to get my fingers ready to grip.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Moment of Tranquility

This has also been published on the Common Ground Meditation Center's Blog

When my sister and I were growing up, we started to catalogue Dad’s various idiosyncratic sayings. Some were out of context, some were hilarious and some were actually profound as in, “Life is made up of moments.”

Life is full of moments, little tidbits of time. Most of the time, we seem to be too distracted to notice but sometimes we do. Last Saturday, I noticed.

I was at the LRT station waiting for a train. I arrived too early and had ten minutes to spare. Somehow, I did not feel like playing with my phone and I had nothing to read. So I just decided to … be. And I just was. At one with the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.

It was a very gray day, exactly what I do not like. I find beauty in expansive skies, in clouds, in bitterly cold moon-illuminated dark evenings, many different seasons, many different patterns but not this – the low cloud deck and grayness permeating the very air we breathe. I often consign days like that to “lost time” – time to check out of life, to do unimportant tasks that must be done. Beautiful days I honor with attention but ugly ones I tolerate at best. And there was very little physical beauty – no nature, no architecture, no art. As I stood there on the platform, watching the cars zigzag on various levels and listening to the grinding, I saw beyond the beauty or the ugliness of the scene, into some quintessential goodness that underlies it all. My mind was completely still, I was tranquil and at one with the moment and it was so ordinary. Nothing uplifting, nothing inspiring but yet deeply peaceful, beyond anything I’d been able to achieve in formal meditation. Slowly, I caught my mind noticing the transcendence of the moment. And I actually witnessed my mind recognizing that this moment, this mindful attention was beyond anything I could experience with thought. And then came the scorpion and the frog moment and my mind said, yes, this is beyond anything I could experience and this is really beautiful but I just can’t help myself and I must think although I know it will not make me happy. Strangely enough, I was OK with that because I know that it’s my mind’s nature to want to think.

I was grateful for the moment of tranquility. The moment lasted just a few minutes. I have since spent hours thinking about it. At first, I started to look for that moment to color the rest of my day, wanting the day to be extra-uplifting. Then, I spent some time feeling quite self-satisfied with all my spiritual progress – I’ve really got this tranquility thing down. And then I spent hours reflecting and analyzing the moment and how I got there. This is pretty hilarious considering that my childhood seems to have been full of extraordinary ordinary moments like that. I just did not know they were special. Or worthy of an essay.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reflections on meditation

This has also been published on the Common Ground Meditation Center's Blog

Some days my practice seems perfect, just right. I’m filled with love and compassion, patience for life’s inanities and generosity towards pretty much everything. My life makes sense, I make sense, I observe and accept and everything is beautiful. Even the ugly is beautiful.

And then something goes wrong.

I have to go to Target and I’m inundated by aisles and aisles of disposable plastic, en route to a landfill. Or I eat too much or not what I wanted or what I made is not quite how I imagined it – in terms of its cosmic place in my day. Or I’m slapped in the face by some trivial but nonetheless universe-diminishing inconsideration – a man in his 20s rushing to take the last seat on the bus when there are two elderly women behind him, a car cutting off a bike, some people visiting in a narrow aisle of the coop with carts and all and not even budging when others try to restock on walnuts.

And then it’s gone. The wavelength of peace, wisdom, interconnectedness that I’d caught is gone and I can’t even remember how it felt. I’m annoyed and irritated. My compassion and patience evaporate. Because this irritating moment is just not deserving of that exalted beautiful full-of-wisdom point of view. I notice hardness welling up and all my noble intentions are gone. Now it’s an ugly day and I no longer have any love for it. This moment is just to be hated. I wish I too could cut someone off. And sometimes I do. It’s so not what I’m capable of, what I’m all about. And I’m so irritated with myself that all it took was something trivial and impersonal.

And then reluctantly I remember that this here messiness and thoughtlessness of the world – my own reflexive thoughtlessness – is what it is now. I very rarely can truly embrace these ugly moments but more and more I can acknowledge them and at least grudgingly offer them some standing – intellectually at least. This is the realization I come to over and over again – that my practice can’t be dependent on the beautiful special magical moments, that it can’t be an oasis carved out of my life. It has to be my life.

I also know that I need enough beautiful moments to recharge, to fill my reservoir of lovingkindness. This is important to me. So if you are in the coop, please do not block the walnuts. I need them to recharge my soul.

My Great Aunt

My Great Aunt was born in Poland in 1914 on the eve of the First World War. By all accounts, there was nothing remarkable about her life.

She never married, never had children. She never went abroad. She flew on a plane only once in her life. She never went to college. She never learned how to drive. She lived in the same apartment her entire life. She worked as a postal clerk for nearly 40 years, never had a career. She never marched in a rally. She never joined a cause. She lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and through the post-war Stalinism; she was neither a collaborator nor a hero.

My Great Aunt died in 1998 at the age of 84. At first, I did not believe she had died. She told me she would live to a 100, and I believed her.

I often think about the last six years of my Aunt’s life when she lived alone and only rarely left her apartment. By then, she had developed advanced coronary disease, and she suffered from debilitating pain. Every moment free of pain became her raison d’être, the force that sustained her.

She lived, it seems, with more Life than others I have known, people with aspirations, ideologies, and the means to pursue their muse, ever did. She lived a simple Life. And with her simplicity and her grace, she had the ability to make this world more beautiful.

My Aunt started every morning by opening all the windows – her apartment went all the way through – even on the coldest winter days to feel the air, to partake in the life of the city. Then she made tea, tea so strong no one else could stomach it. The leaves sat at the bottom of the glass, taking in water and rising half way the glass’s height. Tea was my Aunt’s only vice. She showed me once a photo of herself in her early 30’s with an unlit cigarette in her mouth. She seemed a bit embarrassed and yet emboldened by her youthful indiscretion as if the picture showed her dancing half-nude in vaudeville. I think coffee intimidated her.

After an hour-long ritual of breakfast, she had a whole day ahead of her, yet another day, exactly the same as the previous one. She left her apartment only once or twice a month. For all practical purposes, she was trapped in it. She was not an intellectual who could live the life of the mind, and she was not particularly introverted. And yet she was never bored, never stir crazy.

My Aunt often wished she could still go out, run a few simple errands, but having to climb the stairs to the fourth floor became an ever more daunting task. I remember walking up the stairs with her. It took about 40 minutes. She stopped every few steps as the pain seized her. She weathered it with stoicism, but standing in the cold staircase – it was cold even in the summer – she longed to be back in her apartment where she could lean against her old coal-burning tile oven, converted in the 1950’s to an electric radiator. The oven gave her strength. It had become a friend of sorts.

The hardship of the stairs did not deter my Aunt as much as it should have. Once in a while, she would present me with a book or some other small gift for one of the myriad of gift-giving occasions she liked to invent – mid-terms, first day of spring, or someone else’s birthday. “Thank you, who picked it up for you?” Poland was not introduced to the world of mail order catalogs till the late 1990’s. “Oh, I did, just the other day,” she would say with feigned casualness. The thought of my frail old Aunt wondering the old medieval streets – did she actually take the street car? – made me ache. “Please call me next time.” I never understood why she would think of doing such things. I just never understood.

My Aunt spent many afternoons and evenings crocheting. She did not crotchet to kill time. To her, it was not a project or something to do. She liked it. She found joy in watching the simple white thread turn into beauty. It had a live-giving quality. Her doilies and curtains were exquisite, made with an almost obsessive attention to detail. In fact, they were perfect. She spent weeks on a doily, months on a curtain. She never finished as much as a hot pad in a single evening. She had no notion of efficiency or an acceptable margin of error. If she made a mistake, she started over. She did not want the beauty of her creations to be diminished.

My Aunt gave away every doily and every curtain she ever made. Every piece was a little token of love, a little piece of her world, so beautiful and exquisite. It is only after her death that I understood why did not keep them. She did not need to.

She also had a great love for plants. Every spring she turned her small balcony on a noisy city street into a miniature nature preserve. In early March my Aunt filled plastic yogurt containers she collected in perpetuity with soil and began to plant seeds according to a schedule she devised every year. She harvested most of the seeds from her own plants the previous year. Quickly, her second bedroom turned into a nursery with plants sprouting out of 200 neatly labeled yogurt containers – on my Great Grandfather’s oak desk, on bookcases, picnic tables and even on a spare bed she covered with a plastic tarp of some sort. In late spring she began to replant the sprouts to outdoor containers – big round ceramic pots clustered in the corners of the balcony, rectangular green plastic tubs pushed against every flat surface, planters hanging off the rail, and miscellaneous pots with experimental trials all over. In the back of the balcony, against a false wall, she planted vines. So the balcony was jam-packed with plants – pansies, marigolds, geranium, petunias – the leaves and the flowers quickly spilling from one container to another so that one could no longer discern the boundaries between individual plants, no surface left bare except for a narrow six-foot long path that led, through the garden, to a deck chair she placed just before the vines. My Aunt spent hours sitting in that chair, often crocheting, often just watching the plants breathe life. When we visited in the summer, she insisted that we sit on the balcony, one person at a time. She pointed out discoveries she had made earlier in the day – an unusual shade of pink, a budding flower, or, sadly, a hint of autumn in the leaves. She found these discoveries endlessly fascinating.

Throughout the day my Aunt collected water in one-pint glass milk bottles; she did not have the strength to fill them all at once. After sunset, she carried them one by one to the balcony to water the plants. The bottles were quite heavy, so the entire process took at least an hour. That never discouraged her. She felt that the price she had to pay was small.

My Aunt did not have the attitude of someone with nothing better to do, someone with nowhere to go. She loved life with quiet unadulterated passion. She did not love her life. She just loved life. She did not consider herself unusual, on a mission from the Carpe Diem Gods. She just was. Indeed, she was the greatest lesson of all.

My Aunt could watch her plants for hours; she could crotchet for hours for indeed she did have all the time in the world. In her place, time did not exist. It is only in her place that life was not ahead of me for once and I was not trying to figure out my relationship to time. In my Aunt’s world, I told my Father, there were three hours between 3 and 4 pm. Until, one day, her world ended. I was in my Aunt’s apartment for the last time on the day of her funeral. And, for the first time, I saw it for what it was – a dusty old place cluttered with big blocks of furniture, some tacky paintings and a lot of empty plastic yogurt containers. And then I knew she was gone.