Surfing the maverick waves of Samsara
At the start of this year of the Fire Monkey, a Dharma brother of mine confided our beloved Rinpoche had been pushing him for three years with greater and greater ferocity to start a simple, free meditation group, perhaps in the afternoon to be available to seniors. Rinpoche intuited we are going through normal physical and mental changes while buffeted by the stressful swirl of cultural shifts. "He told me we were heading into rough times and he wanted to make the umbrella of the lineage available for everyone during the storm. He wanted those of us having a rough time in a rough life to find shelter and peace with the greatest masters."
Mark claims he finally gave up procrastinating and got a group going because of me: because I spontaneously reached out and contacted him to have coffee when I was in his neighborhood, because I agreed to help him with this group in any way, because our omniscient Rinpoche specifically wanted me to know he heard me praying and was responding with this embrace.
It has been a rough time in an often rough life so I write beyond awed that Rinpoche chose this moment of enormous changes at the last minute to reveal himself as a magician. Apparently my coffee call to Mark was not spontaneous after all. Rinpoche rode to the rescue at the most auspicious of all calendar times: the start of a Guru Rinpoche year when actions and merit are exponentially magnified. This realization has been discovering Tinkerbell really can twinkle again if you will only believe.
Rinpoche's move also came simultaneously with the start of the Fire Monkey year, and every day since early February has lived up to that billing. Life has been a tornado of breathless energy and sweeping change, action and opportunity, innovation and enervation, whirlwind shake-ups and quantum leaps. In current lingo, mass disruption. Headlines tell us every day in every way, the whole culture, the whole country, and half the world is topsy-turvy. Institutions, ideologies, inventions, identities are falling apart, torn asunder by cyclones of human fury. It's all very Yeats: "The center cannot hold, the worst are filled with passionate intensity." We are slouching toward... who knows.
I've felt the changes keenly. Endless physical and circumstantial punches are sculpting me into somebody I don't know. It's almost impossible now to see without glasses. My hearing has been diagnosed as sub par. I didn't get a job I was perfect for or any job I applied for. My latest cooking project collapsed. My flat won't sublet no matter how many outlets I advertise it. And my closest loved one is taking a spouse who doesn't want to know me. On the other hand, me who will never be accused of exercise now goes faithfully to a water aerobics class. And I who have always been a night owl am now asleep by 10, awake before 6.
Yesterday news reports confirmed what everybody who lives in what used to be the shining city on the hill, San Francisco, knows too well: the city has become the property crime center of the country. This has nothing to do with the well documented crime of landlords evicting low income tenants to get high Airbnb rates or put up luxury properties for the narcissistic techies. It's about auto burglaries being up 300% in two years, the dissolution of rapid mass transit, and the increase in derelict homeless shitting on the streets because they have "rights" here while committing crimes for drugs. The gloriously vaunted, fabled venture capital utopia by the bay is actually dirty, dangerous and dysfunctional. I know all about it.
It's not just that I can't get to the grocery store without navigating a narrow path through pit bulls, punks, pushers and panhandlers. Five weeks ago today, my car was stolen from a legal parking spot on a very busy street at the busiest time in the very busy civic and cultural center of town. Vanished without a trace. I went from flabbergasted to infuriated when I discovered how hard it was to reach any official city number because of low staffing, then how uninterested the police were when I finally got through. They didn't even care there was a video camera on the portico of the closest building because, I later learned, the DA doesn't care to prosecute or deal with crimes like this. San Francisco supports crime without consequence. Just another incident, what's new, shrug, sigh.
But this crime was my incident. And as life would have it, it happened on the very day I started working for the San Francisco Police. Having waited three weeks for the precinct Captain to have time for a meeting, I was in his office that very morning starting my volunteer position as Communication Liaison, being introduced to precinct personnel and warmly welcomed. In 21 years, I had never been in a San Francisco police station, and by some bizarre turn of events I was back that same evening as a crime victim.
How did I come to be volunteering as a reporter for the Police? Because hordes of homeless were overwhelming my front steps. Every morning there were human feces and urine in front of the garage, used needles and bottles on the steps. Often rags were strewn across the sidewalk. What broke me was the individual who refused to abandon her camp on the front steps to let the five-year-old upstairs get down for preschool, then threw all her rags, needles and dirty cups at the kid before running away. I went right to this computer and wrote the most politely scathing letter to the district supervisor--someone who has to be elected--asking where our tax money was going since we paid the same as the uppity folks in super clean Pacific Heights, why nobody did anything about this danger we faced day after day after day, and what exactly did she plan to make the city do to stop my street from being a toilet? Didn't we have rights?
The Supervisor responded within an hour, admitting I'd made her aware of huge gaps in a system she thought she had coordinated with three outreach organizations. Evidently clearing the homeless from one area merely pushed them to another that was ignored. An hour later I got an email from the precinct police captain, saying he was going to beef up patrols so our street was no longer ignored because he takes complaints seriously. And speaking of complaints, I wrote the best letter he'd ever seen and he happened to be looking for a good writer to help the station communicate better with the community. Would I like to help him do that?
In conversation with neuroscientists and psychologists, the Dalai Lama has often insisted you never find what you are not looking for. He was speaking about consciousness, about the Dharmakaya, the world wide web of invisible but powerfully tight connections. Everything is happening as part of a process, for a reason. We just have to understand the process. We are not alone; the universe wants us to stay afloat.
I have detected a pattern in the seemingly random set up of my life in this year of the Fire Monkey. In its very first week, I was able to do a bit of good by getting our street cleared of the daily download of human shit and urine and used needles. I got a physical mess cleaned up. I was now a friendly face and helping hand in the police precinct where the Captain said I had "a good heart." He couldn't see it had been badly broken by recent turns of events. His welcome was healing; it started to clean up a mess. Then Rinpoche stepped in to swab it all up by finally getting Mark's special meditation class started, located perfectly on an uncrowded bus line. For an hour we meditated on being swaddled by our guru's love, supported by his wisdom, protected by his omniscience. Everything was going to turn out fine.
Sometimes amid the chaos we don't get to know that until much later. That nerve-wracking night, while I was standing in front of the plexiglass windows of "my" police station filling out the requisite theft form, my Tibetan goddaughter phoned. I told her I couldn't talk because my car had just been stolen and I was at the police precinct. "Well good," she said cheerfully. "A big obstacle has been removed from your life." In the tension of that moment, I wanted to kill her and her unrelenting Tibetanness with my bare hands so I clicked the red hang up button. I walked home, newly terrified of the darkness, and spent the whole night awake, fuming about the brazen theft of my car, the callous police response, how dangerous San Francisco had become and Tashi saying my loss was good news.
Police officers I now worked with kept trying to assure me 90% of stolen cars in this city get recovered. The Captain took my welfare so personally, he sent a police escort to bring me home from returning my temporary insurance funded rental car. The precinct's chief investigator fed my information into all his databases. Ten days went by and the car did not surface. Stuck with San Francisco's dismal public transit and unable to do the things I loved like senior swimming, I cursed the statues on my shrine for not helping me. I put the entry fob in front of the Karmapa and sometimes Mahakala, remover of obstacles, to no avail. I dissed them both.
Well, friends began to say jovially, at least now you won't have to drive again across the country, which you didn't really want to do anyway. Yes. How about that! I didn't have to drive that damned car back to the East Coast, 10 excruciating days of white lines, bad food and ugly motels. Been there, done that, hated it. And now I didn't have to make the dreaded journey again. Tashi was correct: an obstacle had been removed. What a relief. I found a free miles cross country air ticket at a decent time, not a red eye. Because that had been so easy and promised an equally easily transfer from sea to shining sea, I found myself praying the police did not recover my car and spoil this good luck. I apologized to Mahakala and Karmapa and Rinpoche.
As my life moved on, I began to see the theft as a message to stop going back and forth between two coasts, especially when life has gotten noticeably brighter on one of them but not the other. A dual life is not sustainable because you are always leaving people who want to see you or not participating because of events after your time. I didn't want to hear that I had to give my beloved home up. The Buddha warned us amply about the suffering of impermanence and I am nowhere exempt from hanging on to what I love just because I love it. Rinpoche was pushing courage on me, forcing me to wind down and clear up.
I managed to find a new car. It's going to cost money I no longer have but a good friend long ago organized a loan I can still draw on. I have other financial problems that won't self-solve no matter how hard I try. But the police have chauffeured me around in moments of great need to thank me for my work on their behalf. I have met new people through that work. I have play dates with children and concert tickets, free food talks and Dharma events to attend so I get out of the little space I have.
I don't get around as much as I could with a car but I've survived. I get through the day with enough food, phone conversations, and activities to make me tired and I celebrate that fact. Day by day, bird by bird, I'm doing just fine. Looking ahead, out there two years, brings real stress but now is the time and there is food, friends, fun. So there isn't any stress if I stay focused on what I have at hand and what I have to do that minute. No ruing the past: can't change it now to make it better. No peeking at the future. Rinpoche's fast forwarded the action. Real Dharma practice has suddenly happened, ready or not.
When I started study 28 years ago, I was told the end game was to not get knocked over by killer waves in the ocean of Samsara. We start by letting little ones lap at our ankles and try to stand firm. We wade in up to our calves and use our dharma training to stay upright. Waves cut us off at the knees but we learn to stay afloat. Last week Mark asked us what we felt about our meeting and Rinpoche's words. I quickly volunteered that to my own amazement, while everything had been going wrong and I felt the me I know was drowning, I was totally all right. My life has become a scary mess but at the end of the day I feel fine. I just know what really matters is my mind and that Rinpoche is guiding me. "That's it!" Mark said. "That's what Rinpoche wants us to feel, safe under the umbrella. That's his blessing."
Oh yes, one last bizarre bit: the only image of the remover of obstacles, Mahakala, I could find for my altar has been this plastic amulet on the right. As you can see, I keep it supported
by the cup of my tea offering, which I place anew every morning. Normally when I take it away to change the tea, the plastic amulet falls over as does that tiny heart I put next to it. When I bring new tea in the morning, I have to re-position them both against the cup. I do not know how to account for the astonishing fact that about a week after my car was stolen and I began to realize it might be for the best, when I removed the tea cup, Mahakala and the heart remained standing unsupported and unmoved. This happened for several days. I have not been able to make it happen again. There really is magic in this universe.
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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