This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Haiku for this very moment
My phone just rang with a caller ID I didn't recognize. "Is Hope available?" a man asked. I didn't know what to say. Then I realized he'd dialed the wrong number. He was sorry. I was too.
The world is such a depressing moral free mess these days, I haven't been able to figure out what to say. This could have happened because while it's true, as everybody tells you, wisdom finally does come with age, so does short term memory loss. Maybe that's why all the people with wisdom forgot to tell me that.
My silence could also be due to fear. Last week I heard a voice over Public Radio say ISIS releases those gruesome beheading videos only because its leaders know that to be a true terrorist, you have to ignite terror in the human heart. Well, shiver me timbers, that means I myself have become something of a terrorist. Senior moments have escalated to the point I actually called a friend to berate her for not telling me where we were to meet in two hours and heard her say she'd texted me last night and I texted back: Yes, ok, see you there. For the first time in my long life, I went to an airport not knowing what flight I was on. I forgot to save the confirmation email on my computer and even though I did look up the information through the airline website, I forgot to bring the piece of paper I wrote the flight number and departure time on. I can only hope the Department of Homeland Security and its TSA folks get that it was suddenly finding myself turned into a ditz that struck terror in my heart.
In three days the Scots will decide whether or not they want to stay
married to the Brits or file for divorce. I know theses two have been married
now for more than 300 years, long enough to know each others' behavior well
enough to take each other for granted. But over the past 20, in what appears to have been a
mid strife crisis, the Brits radically shifted gears. They reversed themselves
from having good governance and bad food to having great food and bad
governance. So you have to wonder: did videos of Ottolenghi's vegetarian cooking and the foodie invasion it might inspire strike terror in the heart of haggis
eaters? Really, everything is terrifying nowadays: ebola, Al Shaabab, nitwit Russian rebels, ISIS, not knowing whether it's ISIS or ISIL, dangerous cold viruses and Honduran children on the loose, Tea Party tantrums, Taliban, Hamas' tunnels, aging pipelines, secret money, the cesspool called Pakistan, Texas, food from China, anti-abortion creeps... . And we're not even near Halloween yet, although it is scary to see how early the big stores dare to put all that candy out. Nothing in the public realm is funny, even in a sad way like the literally pitched battle over airline seat space could have been if it didn't strike terror in the heart of every economy class ticket purchaser in this country.
Perhaps this tsunami of public panic is what's made Mother Nature, with her keen sense of balance, quite the private joker. Her startlingly intense September light let me see in my brush how much hair is falling front and center from my head, and let me see how much hair is growing long and wild all over my legs. Yesterday I discovered why the three eight packs of annual flowers I've spend four months lavishing water, fertilizer and attention on never yielded a bloom I could see, let alone admire. I have been farming groundhog food. For every moment I've spent crowing over how blessed I am with so many birds circling, haunting or residing on my property-- because the late Karmapa Rigpa Dorje claimed birds are wisdom goddess dakinis, I've spent thirty minutes every three days trying to scrub sticky bird shit off my car. It's been so frustrating I finally resorted to sandpaper and now I have permanent scratches in my windshield --on the driver's side, right at my eye level. Some blessing.
been what others in the business call "criminally cheated" by a propane
provider, I immediately tried to switch to a local company that wasn't bought out by some faceless conglomerate in the business of glomming. Sadly, the locally owned
company was so busy, partly converting distressed customers like me, it couldn't
get me their tank for a month. "But," I was assured, "you'll get
reimbursed for all the propane you didn't use and they'll have to do it
at the ridiculous rate they made you pay." Naturally, I've spent the waiting time trying NOT to use any more propane than cooking
required. And of course the last five days brought what has been a surprisingly unusual cold
snap for mid September, bone chilling nights of 43º, days of 56º
that require using the propane based heat. Ha ha, where is global warming when a body needs it?
I know it's another of Mother Natures' private jokes that I can't remember what I wanted to say. It's another sick joke how all the bruising years of building up enough experience to finally reach the lower peaks of wisdom now seem totally useless. I can't go back to do it all again and none of the young people I know gives a hoot about benefiting from what I just about killed myself to discover. They want to do their own thing, have it their way. In these situations I actually remember what I want to say, but I've had to learn--like many of my elder friends --to restrain myself from pointing out potential errors in their way. If I want to keep them coming into my life, I have to just shut up and smile. So much for currency in the so called sharing economy.
It could be that Mom Nature is having fun trying to scare the hell out of Father Time for his dedication to evolution because we humans don't evolve. We just keep doing the same damn dumb things over and over again, rolling the wheel of samsara around and around. The war in Vietnam was a pointless mess we had no business being in just like the war in Iraq was a pointless mess we had no business being in. Just look at the bigger mess it created. I could drone on and on like our government because now we're eagerly going to mess up bigtime all over again. Honestly, who wants to benefit from Dwight Eisenhower's hard won experience and go to war against the genuine enemy: the military industrial complex that keeps itself wealthy at the expense of education, infrastructure and other vitals of civilized society, by ginning up enough fear of gun control and marauding Middle East Muslims to strike terror into our political heart. They have products to sell and, yes, they do a fantastic job of creating demand for them. Really, who cares that Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned the only thing we should truly fear is this kind of genetically modified, fatheaded, fast growing fear itself.
I thought we were just now supposed to be coming into fear's official moment, characterized by the spookiness of Halloween, but it certainly seems as if the scare tactic season has been stretched as artificially as the NFL's. We call this season Fall because everything comes down or dies-- the leaves, the light, the warmth, the plant food supply and the animals we hunt, the airy dreams of a summer night-- propelling us into the barren, stark and scary dark of winter. We call it Fall because cold winds blow away the hopes of Spring so truth will out. Hope falls in the face of so much fear.
I suppose all anyone with any moral fiber left can do is use this early onrush of dark and terrifying times to assert a bit of countervailing power by trying to plant a little hope. I myself spent Sunday burying daffodil and tulip bulbs deep in the soil, wise enough to know anticipating the cheer of their resurrection in Spring will give me a little joy to live for--if the groundhog doesn't eat them and I remember to come home.
My nephew the extreme athlete just passed through and when I confided how I feel I'm losing balance-- at least I think I am, he immediately took me to a sporting goods store to find what's called a Stability Disk. This turned out to be a black rubber pancake you don't fully inflate in order to make it squishy when you stand on it, so squishy you have to struggle to keep balanced. One foot or two, the same frustrating effort to hold yourself straight up as the rubber bobbles below. The disk packaging is covered in ecstatic claims about strengthening your "core", toughening your abs, and as my nephew suggested, stretching your hamstrings. Frankly, when I whipped out my credit card, I didn't care squat about achieving any of that. Nobody will ever accuse me of fitness. No, I just wanted to get rid of this new feeling I'm slip-sliding away, this troubling sense that I am living on a banana peel. When I climb into a kayak or walk on waterfront rocks or even go down the flight of stairs from bedroom to kitchen to get my morning coffee, I feel like I'm teetering enough to topple. Since I really need to get to that coffee, this is seriously distressing.
It seems agility is another crucial skill you lose when you gain in age, a birthday present nobody tells you back when you were pinning the tail on the donkey you're don't get to keep. It comes on loan like eyesight that also diminishes more rapidly than you'd like. It's part of the impermanence plan we all signed up for at birth. It promises we get to keep absolutely nothing.
This still shocks me even though Dharma harps on impermanence and I can tell you all about it. I can even encourage you to embrace the idea as I have: throw out those clothes, beliefs and friends that don't fit. Pack up and move on, mentally or physically because we go through life as nomads anyway. Yet I now find myself very unhappily suffering the indignities of Father Time's takeaway. Unhappy because he's got no give back, so there's no escape. The onset of cataracts, thickening of waist, change in sleep pattern and loss of short term memory are already more I can manage... as gracefully as I'd like to think I am, so I wasn't prepared to lose stability. I guess there is the good riddance thank God impermanence (getting rid of the bad boyfriend) and the bad news hang on a sec dear God impermanence I am now suffering. I am trying to liberate myself. I so much do not to be super klutz, I religiously do what my nephew suggested: step on and off and back on that squishy rubber pancake a few minutes every morning to try to get my agility back. I do this right after I offer tea to Mahakala remover of obstacles, say prayers for blessings and recite mantras to benefit others. I didn't plan it that way, but for space reasons, I had to put the pancake on the floor beside my shrine. So I've now got a mind/body balancing ritual going. I think this inadvertent juxtaposition of mind/body balancing just gave me a new Aha! My struggle to stand on that slippery black, shape shifting rubber disk trying to be somebody in control of herself on wobblies takes place right next to my altar, which reminds me I am not the only one who wants this happiness of holding my own. Everybody does. In our own ways, each of us is struggling to get stability on this bobbling disk called life. I thought about my 95-year-old uncle who visited me two weeks ago, a month after my aunt passed away. After 72 years of married togetherness, he was suddenly on his own, an amputee feeling the phantom pain. He seemed to be filling the void by getting everyone he was visiting and telephoning to tell him stories about their adventures with his wife. He told me he was going to compile them into a book about her. I suppose this is how he is keeping her alive and staying married, the core strengthening needed to keep balance.
I thought about my friend who abruptly abandoned me in May, because three weeks ago in a burst of tears, she said she couldn't stand (get that word: stand) not having me in her life. As she went through the days and had to deal with death, family and other disturbances, she kept missing me, talking to me about what was going on. She felt strangely empty without my advice. She wanted me to be her best friend again. She wanted me to stretch and make things "right." I thought about other friends whose house and lives had been vacated by grown kids or deceased pets. I thought about how they dealt with the impermanence, the sudden imbalance in their routine, by going right out to get more pets or taking in foster kids. I thought about people I've known who came from dysfunctional families and feel so wobbly when they find themselves in a stable situation, they upend it, trading momentary joy for good old familiarity.
I recalled the headlines about the brutal aftermath of the messy divorce between Russia and Ukraine. The physical shrinking of Russia makes Vladimir Putin too wobbly for comfort, so he's having a big case of the Nastees. Determined to deny impermanence and not move into the future, he's pushing toward the past, destabilizing Ukraine until it tips over into his arms. I have started standing on that shifty black rubber pancake to really get it: what life feels like when you are willing to admit it's a struggle for agility. I step on and off not only to regain balance, but to teach myself compassion for everyone of us trying to gain it as well, everyone of us taking strange and sometimes desperate measures to stand firm on our own invisible squishy disk.
A Huffing Post Buzz Heed: How I turned Nirvana into Samsara
Once a week now, on Sunday morning, words from my perfect teacher are posted via email to those of us who want to hear them. They are bracing. Here are Rinpoche's chosen words on July 27: "I would like to stress that increasing one’s presence of mind and cultivating the stability of shamatha should not be confined to the meditation session. We should try to be more mindful in all situations and at all times in our lives." Here was a special favorite on July 6: "Presently it seems to us that the first bodhisattva level is miles away, is completely out of our reach and that it is impossible to get there. But, because time passes and things happen quickly, before you know it, one day you will be there and suddenly you will be a bodhisattva on the first level. Because things always change and continue happening, then one day before you know it, you will be a Buddha too. So impermanence is very good." And the week after that: "Everything stands or falls with this point. Do we know the very identity of momentary thoughts to be the empty and luminously cognizant mind, or not? That is what makes the entire difference. If we know that the nature of any momentary thought or emotion is empty cognizance, we are no longer fooled by it."
I should truly like to say Amen to these mini sermons and sometimes I actually do. Most of the times, I cringe because my concerted effort to be more mindful of myself in all situations has now made me dishearteningly aware how foolish I am, and that just knocks the Buddhist right out of me. I am never going to be in the running for a Bodhisattva. How can I be when I finally had the precious chance to be in the same room with my aged teacher who so kindly came for a brief shining moment to America, and I spent the weekend pained by the chance I had sacrificed to be having a plain old fashioned good time back home. Yes there I was in Denver smiling among sangha mates and listening keenly to the teachings while regretting how on a sunny August weekend I was trapped in the dull flat tar and concrete sprawl of Denver when I could've been on the gorgeously vivid coast of Maine swimming and kayaking. I was with a dozen Sangha mates I hadn't seen for months, regretting how I was missing the opportunity to see 2 long lost friends who were suddenly appearing only that weekend.
Of course being me, I regretted aloud not being able to eat my own good cooking or local food, stuck as I was with a gang that gravitated to the franchised vegan restaurant and franchised salad bar for every meal. I actually got into a dispute over tofu imitation food (tofu chicken, soy burgers) with my normally stoic motel roommate who lives on what I deplore. And of course, having been involved for decades in the world of food, I thought I was right. And I definitely wanted to be right about resenting something. I got Rinpoche's blessing, twice, and his precious teaching for two full days, knowing all the while, given his age--83--and his frail condition, it might well be the last time. That's why I chose to go. And still I hated having to get on an airplane, hated more that it was both ways delayed by weather when I could've stayed home and enjoyed the only summer weekend that had real summer weather. There's actually no better teacher of impermanence than Maine weather. Of course while I was hating and resenting and regretting, I was aware enough of my idiocy to try to counter it. I made the effort to remind myself at least once each day how my teacher and other Rinpoches remind us of the great troubles the ancient masters put themselves through to acquire the Dharma teachings we now benefit from. They trekked on foot from mid India over the Himalayas to Tibet or vice versa. They beggared their way and their stay, never knowing if they'd have food or lodging. They slogged through hells for this gold and all I had to do was eat vegan food and hang around airports to board Jetblue. I have been trying so hard to get over myself, for days I couldn't figure out what to write on this blog. I did of course re-read those words about Bodhisattvas and the value of time passing impermanence, hoping they'd sink in like marinade. Then this morning, one of the monks closest to Rinpoche posted these comforting words of his on Facebook: "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."
I've just spent three overly hectic days hosting my childhood friend and her family, down to the six-year-old granddaughter. They turned on a lot of lights even though it was sunny bright, kept the little television going and never turned anything off until they went to bed. They did not notice the gardens they walked through or the moonrise off the porch they were sitting on. The six-year-old dismissed the very large horseshoe crab shell I found for her as something she'd seen before and preferred spending time watching Netflix shows on her mother's iPad.
There was a lot of going shopping, and back at the house a lot of time spent fussing over distributing fairly to unseen family children at an overnight camp the tons of cheap candy they brought with them. My dining table was completely covered by bags of licorice sticks, jelly beans, peanut clusters and I don't know what because I've never seen such stuff before. To them this was very important as was getting the right looking clothes from a nearby Ralph Lauren store.
They went there in the gas guzzling car they think makes a status statement without
the slightest inkling what it costs the world to get the gas into it.
They just know they can afford the gas. They
have no idea where from or how the electricity comes that keeps all the
lights and TV burning; they have no interest in knowing about dams or
wind power, coal pollution or oil wars. They just want their lights to
be on. They have no idea where the water in the sink, the toilet and
washing machine comes from or what it takes for me to keep it pure and
flowing. They just expect it to be there when they want it. They have no interest in knowing the real toll of the electricity or water or stove gas or TV.
I have known my friend since childhood and I love her, so I cooked two four-course dinners with local farm ingredients for her family and left them on their own with the refrigerator for breakfast. Because I am proud of what the people around me produce and because I take care of my aging body by eating as local and seasonal as I can, I had filled it for them with farm fresh jumbo eggs, local artisan cheeses, freshly picked raspberries and blueberries, homemade jam and farm butter. They buried it all in bottles of drinks that came in shocking colors from some supermarket or convenience store. That is where they exclusively food shop, which is why my friend also put in my fridge three Granny Smith apples, making me wonder how anyone could buy in July, the heyday of berries and melons and stone fruits, a winter fruit imported from South America to convince people to eat the same thing all the time. It amazed me that her husband felt compelled to go to a nearby supermarket to buy a plastic container of Del Monte grapefruit sections because that's what he likes to eat at home all the time.
It was extra super painful to watch my friend make a second breakfast
for her husband one of the mornings. Since there were three jumbo eggs left
in the carton, she took the what the hell route toward all three
for his omelet. Then she took my $17 a lb artisan local cheese and
peeled off half the block as though it were Velveeta to put on top. It
wasn't the money but the cholesterol pileup and total disregard for the handcrafted specialness of that cheese and the fact that she served the dish with ice water (they don't drink anything not iced) that made me have to
leave the kitchen for a moment.
I've now spent about two dozen years studying and sharing the world's accumulated wisdom of eating. I know we're not created to eat the same thing everyday, even every month because the body can't process the same chemicals over and over without them becoming a toxic buildup that leads to disease like cancer. The universe prompts us to eat for the moment by providing a huge panoply of ever changing fruits, vegetables, greens and animal life. I know we can't eat too much of anything without negative blowback like diabetes, high blood pressure and liver failure. I know we need to eat salty oily foods in the times we sweat and need moisture. I know we need to eat fatty, warming foods in times of frost. I know we need the tonic of greens to get us tuned up in Spring. Yet even though my friends know I've written two books and taught all this, they never ask me about it. They don't bring up what I do at all, even when I'm serving them a four-course dinner.
To be fair to that omelet, my friend loves cheese. She always says she does and always digs in to eat lots of
it, even though she has a serious cholesterol problem. In fact at this point, she has
so many physical problems, she comes with one of those
long white plastic pill containers with a section for everyday. I know she has at
least 8 different color and shapes pills in each of those seven sections because I watch her
dump them out and sort. Her husband comes with an entire dopp kit of
pills that he always leaves on the living room coffee table for quick
I have no idea whether or not my friend has ever noticed I don't
take any daily pill at all. Nada. I just know she's never asked me why, never
connected the fresh unpackaged, unprocessed seasonally pertinent food
in my fridge and at my table with my strong health. Years of meditation practice and focus on what's happening around me let me see just how oblivious humans can be. I totally get what the Buddha meant when he said we are all clueless, existing inside a bubble of imagination, day dream walking, reaching out for unreal things we think we need to make us happy, wreaking real harm we never notice. I saw these dear old friends as perfect images from a thangka painting, perhaps of the 12 nidanas: the wheel of Samsara shown as the interdependent causes of suffering- the Buddhist if this, then that.
In Mahamudra, we do the Jungne Drolsum or Three Questions practice to become more aware of the relationship between us and our thoughts: where do they come from or originate, where do they stay while we recognize them and where do they go afterward when we move on to think about something else? I think we can fathom the same connection to everything else in life too: where did it come from, what is it doing here and where will it go when we're over it. Yes, where did you come from to slip in utero? Where did the you of the past go? Can you actually pinpoint where you are and where you will go when your heart stops beating? I mean, there's more to life than headline news and shopper's specials. It's 10 AM: Do you know where your awareness is?
According to the news on Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me!, last week brought a headline about a study that revealed 80% of us would rather receive electric shocks than be left alone with our thoughts. Apparently stuck in a room with no diversion, the subjects rather quickly pressed the relief button, which gave them a mild electric shock.The button, of course, gave them something to do. It was an escape from themselves. Finally a distraction! So they did the equivalent--or worse-- of banging their head against a wall-- again and again--without thinking anything of it because of course they didn't want to have to think. Apparently we humans are so anxious--and quick-- to run away from being, we just love love love doing --something, even if it's banging our head against a wall or getting electrically shocked. I know this not just because of that study, but also because I just read that someone else did a study to learn why all the labor-saving devices now glutting the marketplace haven't given anybody the leisure they were supposed to. How did that advertising promise get so broken that nobody nowadays in the heyday of gadgets has time? The warm and fuzzy answer is that we want to keep buying newer and costlier devices to keep up with all the innovation, so we need to keep working for the money to do that. The chilling answer is we prefer to go to work because having something outside ourselves to focus on and do defines us, gives us meaning, and distracts us from ourselves. Everyone of us is the very bogeyman we are afraid of. How's that for a selfie.
I totally get this because I have a lifelong friend who went into utter agony about having to retire from her government law position; as she put it, who would she be, what she do? And I have another friend who lost her job from age discrimination and could have retired but was so upset about how she would keep busy, she fought her way into another job.
I also confess brief not shining moments in my retreat cabins when I desperately wanted a distraction. I felt so sorry for myself without anything to reach for, so willfully deprived I questioned my sanity. Then I slogged on with just myself for company, days on end just me and the imagined deities and a tea kettle. And I am still here. At least I know the enemy you don't befriend sneaks back again and again to torment you. I really liked so much that the immensely popular Pema Chodron's first book was called: The Wisdom Of No Escape, I gifted at least a dozen copies. About a week ago, one of the opinion curators of the New York Times finally got around to noticing how overhyped, overused and overly misinterpreted the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has become. It's now therapy for keeping focus on the job or goal. It's about not being distracted when you are doing something. Of course nothing could be further from the truth of mindfulness, but I suppose this new version is all a piece with the pharmacology race for emotional painkillers, a way to blot out thoughts. Genuine Dharma is of course about not doing but being, not out there but in here. Meditation is about burrowing inside yourself with a metaphorical miner's headlamp, being alone with your thoughts, watching them like a movie or TV show. It's the struggle to become intimately familiar with the inner workings that power you, so you can mine them for your own gold by making them your vbf.
That's why my immediate reaction to hearing about that 80% who preferred shock treatment to the shock of their own mental jibberish was to wonder if 20% of Americans are actually Buddhists. I'd have gone for being the .01%. Now I want to know who those other brave people are? Did those researchers study painters, actors, writers, songwriters who have to harness their own thoughts like a mill dam that powers output? Are creative types the 20%? Since the program went off when I got out of the car, I've had an ongoing reaction: no wonder people are scared of their thoughts. What complex and contradictory creatures we are, doing one thing while saying another, loving and hating at the same time, multitasking in the worst possible ways. I mean here I am vowing to protect all sentient beings, begging forgiveness through confession for eating meat and every couple hours turning myself into a vicious death squad. I keep running out the house with a squirt bottle of poison to exterminate all the Japanese beetles munching on my rose bushes. It only takes a dozen of them about an hour to turn one large bush to lace. A rose can't open without them already inside eating it up. It's so disgusting I have my own surge: double extra squirts of poison just to be sure they're really dead. I tell myself I'm killing them to save the bees that come because bees are in such decline they need all the help they can get. And they do good work. I rationalize how I'm fighting for the shiny little red ladybugs I sometimes spot on the lily stems. As I grab the handy squirt bottle and morph into a merciless serial killer, I tell myself I'm protecting beauty and shade, bird habitat and decency, and of course my investment in all the plants. What a hypocritical hoot I am.
Then too, I am undependably wishywashy. My mind is controlled by whether systems that bring cloudiness and storm just as inexplicably as sunshine and breeze. Three weeks ago I was in gloom, circling the sometimes fatal abyss of depression. I wrote about being sideswiped by changes. Then literally, the sun came out, the air warmed and softened, friends called, friends came and bingo! the vacuum was filled, storm damage cleared. I was buoyant, thrilled by how rich and beautiful my life can be. So I saw and I see. Like other human beings, I am a mood see-saw, buffeted by the slightest wind of change. Like other human beings, I definitely prefer the brighter times and don't want to have to think about bad things. I just want to be comfortable.
That's the ticket! Nobody wants to be unhappy, especially in a country that so happily supports the mega billion
dollar mood enhancing business. We are a
society that speaks only and always, early and often of happiness: be
happy! What me worry? Just be happy all the time: we can help you with
that. Who wants to be unhappy? That's the source of shame and condemnation. What's wrong with you? Pick a smiley. Buy something. Have it your way.
Of course the Buddha knew how much we hate being unhappy That's how much none of us have changed over the last 2600 years. All beings want happiness; or if you prefer, all beings want is happiness. We can all agree on that; we just can't agree on what exactly happiness is. Maybe for you it's tofu. What makes me insanely ecstatic today, I may hate tomorrow. The bombardment of blasting rap music that makes the teenage male happy infuriates me when it pounds out the car windows and rocks my car. Just take a look at the news headlines if you don't believe me that someone's joyful pursuit is someone else's death rattle. Or just take a look at all the media stories of the 1% who have it all whining unhappily they don't have as much as the .01%. They want more. Want, want, want...
The Buddha knew that as long as happiness was based on wanting things, based only on external getting and having, it would be this insane. I'm sure he would not be surprised a bit that it would drive 21st Century people to the seemingly insane pursuit of preferring the simple clarity and certainty of having an electric shock--ah! something to brag about having-- to nonstop juggling the sometimes disturbing contradictions, humiliating ups and downs, and worried thoughts we are all made of. Is that shocking or what?
My oh my. For 27 years and 5 months, I have been trying to be a Buddhist and the last six weeks show what a miserable failure I am. I suppose in retrospect I got into Dharma the way America got into Iraq: thinking I could smartly and quickly clean up a mess and make everything sparklingly perfect with a surge of effort here and there. Ha ha ha ha ha.
I just got to see how I'm doing with the most basic point of the Buddha's teaching: his First Noble Truth, suffering. That's the ABCs of Dharma right there and it's what I wanted to deal with when I started all those years ago. The Buddha diagnosed how we are all continually suffering in three profound ways: we suffer from suffering pain, fear and stress; we suffer from inevitable change-- when joy disappears, when we get what we don't want, sickness sets in, aging occurs, death happens; and we suffer from the very deep malaise of being isolated in our bodies so that no connection is ever complete and satisfactory. Right on.
I suppose the best known of these sufferings is the truth of suffering from change, famous perhaps because it is so intimately related to the buzzword impermanence. So many wannabe and non-Buddhists have heard Dharma is about impermanence,dealingwiththe inescapable transitory quality of everything. (I would have said "absolutely everything" if I hadn't been looking at the fat on my thighs.) The Buddha--unaware of hormones and high school and high tech innovations-- pointed out the major changes everyone of us will all have to deal with: birth, sickness, old age and death, hinting they were not fun things to tweet about. I know this, at least at some level. I know the sun will set on a beautiful day and the night bring a killer storm; I know money made in the stock market will inevitably be lost; I know a cute kitten will become an obnoxiously whining cat, someone I have a crush on will turn out to be a jerk, and that my hair will turn gray. For 27 years and five months, I have been trying to follow the Buddha's remedy for the sadness of change, schlepping along his path to liberation from its affects. The famous buzzword for this is emptiness. Or maybe it's Now, as in the Present. The present is a gift, a truly useful one you don't ever want to regift. Yet in the thick of enormous changes coming at you like hail pelts, it can end up under the bed where you can't find it when you need it. All you can see is the past before the change or future due to it. That so scares the wits out of you, you forget you are still here now.
Sometimes I think I'm making real progress; I'm a big girl. I get it. This time is definitely not one of those times. Mercury and I are both retrograde, well me anyway. I have already written about being abruptly cancelled without notice by my 25-year-long VBF, which felt like a sudden airplane crash death for which there is no closure. That was followed by the news that my trusted carpenter/handyman, the guy who built my house and therefore claims the right to tend it, was in the hospital somewhere between life and death. He wouldn't be working for a long time. My house was not going to get fixed until I found someone new. I am going to have to live with uncomfortable problems for at least a year.
I wasn't taking these kinds of change very well and thought maybe I am not seeing clearly. That was a growing frustration. Then the eye doctor confirmed it would continue to be: I now have cataracts, one of the joys old age brings you. So now I get to test a new frustration point: the higher it is the longer I can postpone surgery. I figured it best to try not to have a nervous breakdown over this beginning of the body breakdown because the last thing I wanted was quick surgery when the excommunicator VBF was listed as the person to call in emergencies and my bedroom needed fixing.
I was trying, about as successfully as the Americans in Iraq, to cope with all these unwelcome challenges when I got word of the death of a major family member. I was alerted she had maybe a week to ten days, but she was gone an hour after that email came. This was an earthquake that shook disturbing memories down off the family tree and smashed a crater in the mindscape.
I like to suppose I could've coped with this increasing pace of subtraction--I was doing a lot of the Chenrezig puja for suffering, if it didn't suddenly speed up like today's high tech frenzy. Maybe because I was feeling weak, I had my breath knocked out by someone's casual news that a goddaughter of mine was getting married: date and place, registry on The Knot and airline tickets all done. Who knew? Although I have been close to the bride-to-be since she was three and adapted me as her fairy godmother, I am apparently now out of her loop. She needed my support as a young child; as a teenager she needed my expertise in navigating New York and a sense of style; at 21 she needed me to show her how to drink fashionably and sustainably, and to provide the flowers for her graduation recital. Now she is 42, lives in New York and knows it so much better than me, she picks the places we meet for coffee when I visit. She doesn't need my support or guidance any more, so I'm in the dark of the closet where childhood things are stored and wasn't told she was getting married. I get it intellectually, I understand the moving on. That's normal. But blood goes to the heart, so bloodless coups cause real suffering there. Amputation from someone's life causes pain because they are automatically cut out of yours too, a gutting that creates a vacuum that needs to be filled. Thus the phantom limb for physical amputees and for those of us loped off others' lives, phantom images of other so called close friends or family members who needed us for a time, and when they were out of whatever that pickle was, moved on without saying goodbye. Best friends not until the end probably because they needed to forget how they used to be. Some people don't want their rainy day friends around when the sun shines. That is change of considerable magnitude, and its inevitable mantra: What did I do to deserve this? shows how change creates so much suffering. The Buddha nailed it. Of course, not all change is dire. I got a surprise call two nights ago from my Nepali heart son. It was a double surprise because he is a famed musician supposed to have been on his European tour, not in the US on his local cell. So I suspected something was up. "I have great news for you," he blurted right away. "Really great news! You're going to be a grandmother!" Oh my, all these people leaving and now someone new is coming. The center of attention is going to shift like the tectonic plates under the San Andreas fault. This relationship is now going to be different too.
Change is the step from comfortable familiarity to the unknown, and I didn't think I was one of those "conservative" who couldn't digest it without burping up the sort of bile we have in politics today. But telling myself the Buddha said disruptions are inevitable--I should've seen 'em coming, doesn't make any of them go down more easily. Meditation is supposed--operative word is supposed-- to make it all go away, like the US military was to make all those violent Islamic jihadists go away. But at this assault rifle pace, it is very hard to keep standing. One change means another. When someone casts you aside with their childhood things, they're reminding you you've aged, telling you they've got so many new people filling their life, you're irrelevant--or perhaps redundant, as the Brits would say. When someone gives you good news of childhood coming, you also know you've aged-- enough to catch the scent in the baby gain of losing some treasured emotional intimacy, enough to sense you're the one who has to be even wiser now. And when on top of it all, you lose your clarity of seeing, your family matriarch and the workman you've counted on for a decade to keep your house livable, you feel horridly upended. And alone. The lonely kind of alone. So mission not at all accomplished. I have to hand it to the Buddha. He was right about change being an arrow that hits the bull's eye of your life and causes suffering. He was right about pain and fear and stress and also about transient, unsatisfying connections: they are weapons of mass destruction.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.