Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

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, August 29, 2016

Trying to Share the Love

I just helped a Tibetan friend put together brochure copy for a meditation program she's doing for a major organization in New York City.  The operative word had to be mindfulness so this secular institution could avoid the religious implications of "meditation." My friend had cleverly come up with "contemplation" but she needed to flesh out the program by tying in the cultural support of artwork and music.

Somehow the secularized word "contemplation" got me to contemplate what's so precious, sacred actually, about Buddhist practice-- at least to me. I kept coming back to this innovative way a Dharma brother has, with our Rinpoche's blessings, started to present it in San Francisco: as the pure love called Bodhicitta. No texts for study, no big untranslatable words to parse, no mantras to chant without cease, just meditation on the endless streams of light and love coming pouring into us from the Buddha and his retinue of deities, from all the great masters who came before us and spent their lives perfecting the idea we can all transcend our anguish. All this love we don't get!
Rinpoche's current insight is that we are living in very troubled times. Everyone is struggling in some way. Everyone is wounded and in need of healing but not finding a safe place for it. Rinpoche wants to provide that. So he wants his students to stress bodhicitta: unconditional heartfelt love and compassion. I participated in four classes and discovered you cannot walk away from 90 minutes of hearing and thinking you are loved, protected and appreciated feeling anything but nourished and buoyant. You wonder why no one ever told you this before. You want to tell everyone so they feel as good as you do. Rinpoche has been right, as always. Share the love.

So here I go. It all starts with the Buddha's vital, simple message that, contrary to monotheistic doctrines that insist you are a mess who needs God's help, you are perfect just as you are. Buddhism really is a great come as you are party because there is nothing wrong with you, nothing to hide. You don't need to rush out shopping for stuff to make yourself better. That kind of self-improvement improves nothing but some corporation's bottom line. Put the credit card away. You already have everything you need, You just need to know that. 

The Buddha discovered this by meditating. So I looked at my friend's primitive copy, contemplated Rinpoche's mission and suddenly saw the perfect, non-scary, secular way to present contemplation as how you too get to know you're great. Here more or less is what I wrote:

Contemplative practice is the living tradition that combines all aspects of Himalayan culture. Everything is based on the belief we are all worthy beings with access to unending blessings, and the silent contemplation that leads to self-knowledge is the way to receive them.

There are four common images we can contemplate to understand how much love Buddhism has.

First the Buddha himself. Artists have very strict rules for how a Buddha is portrayed. He will often have a third eye or dot representing it at the top of his nose. This represents inner seeing, the result of contemplation.  Often Buddha will be shown with his right hand reaching down to touch the ground. This “touching the Earth” mudra represents the Buddha’s assertion that he and all beings have the right to be here on Earth and receive all its blessings. He is saying: we all belong here and we all benefit.”  Sometimes Buddha is shown in full meditation posture and sometimes with his right hand turned outward in front of his chest. This is a way of saying Buddha can dispel all our fears.
Next, Tara, or Drolma in Tibetan. She comes in many colors and many poses because she has so many ways of protecting us.  Tara is the great mother who wants for each of us what any loving mother wants for her child: good health, long life, freedom from fear, and wisdom. She is always shown with her right hand extended in the gesture of generosity to indicate she grants all our requests.  Of the 21 Taras, the two most widely popular are Green Tara and White Tara. Green Tara has her leg extended, some say, so she can rise up quickly to come to our aid. Both Taras have a lotus in their left hand, rising from their heart. This is a way of showing us their great compassion and wisdom. Tara is the great mother and protector of all Himalayan peoples. She is known as Kwan Yin in China and Japan.
Then Manjushri represents wisdom and he is always portrayed as a youth to tell us that wisdom is always fresh: it never ages, rots or gets stale. Manjushri is always portrayed with a sword because wisdom easily cuts through our ignorance and pain and slays it. He wants us to be that kind of warrior. Cutting through our delusions and illusions will give us clarity that we can wield like his sword to cut off suffering. Manjushri is a reminder that we are all born perfect with everything we need to be happy beyond suffering. We just need to dig down through our despairs to find this truth and contemplation is the best way to do that.
And finally Sipaykhorlo: The Wheel of Life which illustrates the great truth we learn from contemplation: how suffering happens to us. The idea is that once we know, we can break the chain of causation and be liberated.  In the center are the three poisons that destroy our clarity and skill: passion or wanting, aggression or hating and ignorance or not caring. These are shown with animal images. Around them are the six realms of suffering actions propel beings into: the hell realm (red hot anger), the hungry ghost realm (constant thirst from never having enough), the animal realm (ignorance of karma and dharma), human realm (destroyed by desires), the jealous gods realm (endless warfare and envy), the god realm (downfall due to pride and arrogance). And around these are the 12 interdependent links of activity that lead us into so much suffering. This is the uh-oh image, painstakingly crafted to show us the chain that enchains us in interminable suffering to show us how to break it and be free. The Buddha wants us to be happy all the time.

For 2600 years people have devoted their lives to telling us we are okay, we are lovable, we are absolutely perfect. We just need to tune in and hear them.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

In Praise of Puttering

Last week I tried to show a 9-year-old the huge bald eagle camouflaged in a dead tree across the inlet. I myself get ridiculously excited whenever I spot "big bird", but this child who had never seen America's national symbol before could have cared less. She looked up from her mobile phone game and quickly back with a barely disclosed ho hum, so what, why are you bothering me? I am still in shock.

I probably shouldn't be because her parents and only grandparents are all career-driven urban/ suburbanites who don't have pets, gardens, spiritual inclinations or the slightest curiosity about the natural world. They don't care where their food, electricity and water come from as long as they steadily get plenty. They don't care if they drive gas guzzlers; they can afford the gallons. They're in the driven multitude that commutes to the straight and narrow virtual reality of consumer culture and corporate career, stuck in that bubble of conformity, delegating the urgencies of life to strangers.

Not surprisingly, these are folks who lack hobbies, passions, spiritual strength, and most of all the urge to putter around.  I am quick to notice what sociologists of the 50s called outer directed people--those force fed food for thought by outside interests, or to put it another way, those always under the influence-- because I am so happy to tune out their noisy must-do world and quietly putter around listening to myself. Instead of the mad scribble of endless appointments and must-dos that is their and everybody else's calendar, mine is a symphony of blank spaces. This ode to joy means time doing what today's hyperactive, pay to play Tiger Mom culture absolutely loathes: live hands on. I mess around in the garden, the kitchen, the landscape, with boats and property, other people's needs and of course my mind--which seems to include all the decor shifting I do trying to get my place to feel more "right." I also sit around watching seabirds, searching the stars, checking world news, admiring the sunset or full moon and sometimes just listening to my breath. Puttering is me dealing with the real world.

You could say my career has been being alive as a human. I adopted this "lifestyle" after I spent my 20s burying a half-dozen family and friends who played strictly by conventional consume and career rules yet got rudely torn away before they did what they truly wanted. All that subtraction added up to a huge epiphany: "question authority." Instead of tearing between life and death like it's a 200 meter Olympic swim and getting helplessly blown away, maybe it was better to float and surf life's waves.

I suppose without knowing it, I was an earlier adopter of the Buddhist belief in giving up all hope for fruition, giving up all expectation of glory, focusing on the present moment. Those with whom I shared my reckoning thought I'd lost my mind, probably from the weight of too much tragedy. Or, as time went on, perhaps it was guts because I stepped out of the conventional straight line life and began floating from one experience to another, a nomad among the settled. My oldest friend, grandmother of that uninterested child, took to calling me "the wandering Bu..."

Frankly, there have been moments I worried about myself, especially after the financial road turned into a dead-end pile of rocks. Having my "space", as the counterculture used to say, made me a generalist in an era that increasingly prizes and encourages laser-focused specialization. Our culture has become a ferocious Tiger Mom hellbent on raising competent career professionals who never get time to learn how to be a human being, to find out what it feels like to be alive. 

Well, as life would have it, I'm now finding the oddest part of being the odd one out is being the only one among affluent and acculturated friends who has entered end times (old age) busily challenged, full of energy, packed with curiosity, and reasonably happy. The one who feels the most alive, the one in the best of health. (Dear Buddha, may I not be jinxed for saying this.)

Yesterday maybe for the fourth time, my college friend who's been a "wealth manager" for 30 years very defensively re-iterated that even though she's 73 and has enough money, she can't quit because her life would have no structure. "I like it," she said, "that I know where to be at what hour. Otherwise I wouldn't know how to fill my day when I get out of bed." I heard here the echo of an old boyfriend telling me even though he was over 70 and had had a heart attack, he couldn't quit being a hedgefunder because he was good at making money and that's all he knew how to do. 

Two years ago, my friend who became an attorney after her second child entered kindergarten was forced by age rules to retire from her government job. Giving up that long held position meant giving up a title that, as she put it, told her who she was: a lawyer. I pointed out in my best Buddhist way she was still a wife, mother, friend and grandmother, but that didn't assuage her in the slightest. Those positions were ordinary. They didn't grant elite status. "I need a way for people to define me, for me to really know who I am,"  is how she put it. For two years, she's been flailing as she tries to find out. She started taking guitar lessons but her young teacher didn't want to work with a "Florence Jenkins" and told her to go elsewhere. She signed on at an employment agency that forwards volunteers to non-profit institutions but can't find one that resonates with her because "I don't want to be around sick, deranged, or foreign people." Her interests are so limited, there's hardly a museum where she could be a docent. Monthly botox shots, a personal trainer every other day, and quarterly spa visits don't fill her time or define her enough. She's so unhappy.

My oldest friend was fired because of age. She lives in a huge, overly furnished house with two monogrammed cars, but she kept hunting down jobs and collecting unemployment. She got one for a year but lost it six months ago, so she's back on unemployment and interviews. "Can't you just quit?" I asked. "You're old enough and age is the issue." "I need something to do," she said. "I need a focus...and I like the extra money."  Meanwhile all her focus nowadays is overwhelmingly on her grandchildren whose lives she seems to be leading.

Even more weird is how all that time everybody thought I wasted has somehow made me the person everybody now wants to consult. Oddly, I am the one guiding the wealth manager through personal real estate ventures. I am advising the former lawyer on gluten free options for her celiac grandson and non profit NGOs she doesn't know about that could use her help.  Last year I was guiding her through the intricacies of dealing with condo management for redress and repairs. My oldest friend admired my herb plantings so I've helped her start her own. Her granddaughter wanted to come see me because when she was four, I taught her how to make jam and she just loved that. She loved it so much she walked out asking me what kind we'd make next year when she came back. We have been cooking up a storm one day a year and this year was no exception, except that the demand to make a lot of things we weren't going to eat struck me as more about resume building than the joy of cooking.

I have been on the phone and text messaging system with a bright young friend in San Francisco who has no clue how to handle vital property repair issues. I've recently helped a young friend in LA with the decor of houses he remodels to flip. I've had several rounds of coffee with a Fox News watching friend who needs to talk about a serious, secret family problem. I have been emailing a very successful college friend who lost her husband/business partner of 48 years because she keeps thanking me for the " unique good advice."

Twice in the last two weeks, I sat face to face with two other women whose lives were coming apart. To the one whose cancer had returned and was facing major disfiguring surgery--a psychiatrist, I explained how to focus the mind for protection and healing through the basics of Medicine Buddha practice.  For the grandmother who kept tearing up when she talked about what an awful mess she'd become--she can't keep up with her grandchildren since her hips are so bad she requires a walker and she knows her physical impairment comes from her terrible mental state because all her friends are dead and she feels so lonely--I sat at the restaurant table and taught her basic meditation breathing and the idea of fresh start.  I recommended books. Now someone is suggesting I help establish a Buddhist center for spiritual healing through Bodhicitta, Medicine Buddha and mind training skills. And I may do it because I see how many souls struggle and suffer when their humanity surfaces.

I have never considered puttering as sputtering, wasting time and "doing nothing." Cleaning my room and my clothes, moving plants around my garden, creating something edible from disparate ingredients in my fridge or discovering a dozen ways to deploy a can of chickpeas, doing crossword puzzles, watching the seabirds stalking the shore or dark clouds commandeering the sky have all been fitness training, cathartic ways of sharpening my perceptions, clearing my mind and honing my humanity. Last week someone shared on Facebook the idea that although we are living in an age of infinite information, we get no wisdom. I think that's because we're too focused on getting ahead instead of getting a head. People need to stop being afraid of life and just putter around in it.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

We are All on the A List

My beloved Rinpoche seems to spend most of his teaching time harping on the same simple point: now is the time to take up the Dharma as fiercely as you can. Don't wait; don't get distracted; don't make excuses. Just pass Go ASAP. Suffering will get you if you don't watch out. 

I flew to Vancouver for 48 hours to hear him teach a newly found pith instruction he boiled down to the same message. I reasoned, as I always do when he does this, Rinpoche couldn't get to the meat of the matter because he was speaking to a vast assemblage of ordinary people who dropped in for the weekend, not long term yogis privy to the secret esoteric practice instructions passed down through generations. What could an old man facing what could be his final public words say, but:  Please please practice.

Of course Miss Piggy wanted the heady stuff. I'm not a long term yogi, but I've been studying for 30 years and I flew a long way to learn something new. Disappointment made me fidget in my seat and tune out. I know. I know, my mind railed.  I've heard it 100 times: meditate, be kind, avoid negative thoughts and activity. You have this precious human life so hard to obtain: use it or lose it.  I'm sick of hearing about how amazing it is to be in a human body--especially when mine is falling apart.

Yes, you get old and start losing your parts: the eyesight, the hearing, the knees and hips, the eyebrows (never the hair on your legs of course) and tiny waist. You end up wondering why all the fuss about this human body that's got expiration dates all over it. This is the age of sustainable. It's so not. In fact, I've started to think of the diminishing form as the Buddha's dirty trick to finally make me realize the only thing that doesn't disintegrate or even grow old is the mind (notice how you always feel the same young in your thoughts?), so get on it now.

Still, gurus always remind us our mind is housed in our body, temporarily. Like a rental car we eventually return, it's a vehicle for getting around. The body is also sort of a gym in which the mind can strengthen through fitness training. Or warp. In other words, a mind needs a body. Some body.

A precious human body being nearly impossible for the mind to obtain is the first of four thoughts supposed to turn the mind to practicing Dharma. A student hears it early and often. It's sort of a scare tactic. The BOO! subtext is how the odds of being born, the mind's being reborn, in a human body --and one that's got all its faculties working to boot--are the same as those of a turtle popping its head up in the Pacific Ocean into a floating brass ring. The Universe's A list of somebodies is that short.

Humans make the list as the only beings with minds sharp enough to cut through the daze/days to the causes and understanding of how to eradicate suffering. We are the only creatures motivated by abstract ideas. Each of us is the agent of change we can believe in because we can believe in change. Since only humans realize it exists, only humans can effect it. We alone can free ourselves from the endless woes of the world. So hurry while you're in a human body.

I thought myself pretty inured to this same old, same old motivation coach line and left Vancouver grumpy about not learning anything super new.  So I feel obliged to confess it's been a surprise--or maybe Rinpoche's deliberate trick-- how activities since have ratcheted my usual precious human life ho hum up to Holy Cow!

A long hot summer has revealed beyond question the pathetic minority we human beings are. For one thing, I've been dealing with huge colonies of harmless black ants crawling everywhere, huger colonies of red ants digging up the sand under my brick walkway, spraying telltale flyers from swarming colonies of carpenter ants that would like to eat my house for lunch. And those damned fruit flies that mysteriously show up on the kitchen cabinets, those unswattable little buggers.

More annoying, I'm scratching the skin off my arms and torso where the toxic hairs of the hundreds of brown tail moth caterpillars crawling around the oak trees caused itchy rashes. These are not the four dozen tent caterpillars that built a huge cocoon in my sand cherry tree, causing me to saw off its largest limb. Then there are the earthworms I inadvertently disturb and damage trying to help a plant. And Buddha only knows how many white aphids are now munching on my drought stricken perennials, how many new almost invisible spider webs are being spun to catch them.

I joke that the way Tibetans give corpses to wild animals and birds to eat as a way of compensating for the animals they ate, I've given my live body to tiny creatures. I've gone through two tubes of 1% cortisone cream to stop the itching not just of brown tail moth caterpillars but mosquito bites, bigger black fly bites and the endless nips of "no see'ums", aka gnats, at night. The final insult was when I attempted to break up a huge seaweed clog on the ropes securing my dock and emerged from the salt water literally covered by hundreds of tiny tan wiggling worms that stung.

I don't want to know about the microscopic dust mites that live in the dust I pay dearly every two weeks to eradicate because they've eaten flesh off my face and triggered asthma. I don't count the bees buzzing around the purple lavender bushes and flamboyant red flower stalks of a Persian plant. I've lost count of the disgustingly voracious army of Japanese beetles trying to devour it, the dune roses and the sand cherry tree.  My garden is under siege, and me as an army of one is fighting a battle against hundreds of these little shiny savages. At least six dozen lie dead in the four day old trap, another two dozen in the jar of soapy water left out as a warning, yet every afternoon they keep coming like waves of a tsunami.

One groundhog who's eaten a quarter of my perennials, half my annuals and all my black raspberries. Two chipmunks hungry for my blueberries. A family of dreaded red squirrels, a fat gray squirrel always scurrying. A woodpecker whose sound echoes, a bald eagle mom and its baby learning how to circle, 18 Canada geese all in a row swimming by, a pair of ducks with three ducklings paddling behind, three great blue herons hanging around the shore at low tide alternating with a half dozen snowy egrets so regal on spindly black legs, a flock of terns diving for the huge schools of small silvery "bait" fish carried by the fast moving tide, the continual splash of bass breaking the water. I hear the haunting cry of an owl from time to time, just heard the raucous squawks a crow mob and watched five seagulls fighting over a clam dug up by one. Clams and blood worms under the salt water mud, snails and mussels in the seaweed, crabs and lobsters crawling along the bottom, green flies skimming the surface...

Amid all this body options, I ended up an A lister with access, the elite with an In. And you did too. In this world of infinite critters and pests and living bacteria, we got the precious, hard-won human body. And look at me wasting it to death, sitting around sipping coffee, checking email, soaking up the sun, running off to hot spots and worrying about its hair, even though I've been warned at least 100 times I could lose this opportunity next time around. Look how many disgusting creatures I could turn out to be.

The swarms of summer radicalized me. So I am sharing the news. Somehow somewhere in the past I --and you--did enough things good and right to not be a Japanese beetle (hedge fund managers only), sand worm, mosquito (insurance executives exclusive), aphid, carpenter ant or gnat. Whatever made us win the karma lottery, I--and you--better be doing it from now on so next time around we win again and get another human body--maybe even in a more elite situation. A body with all its working parts, that's "precious" because it's the only vehicle driving to immortality with no suffering. Now really is the time to think ahead and be kind, avoid negative thoughts and harmful actions. Now may be the only time left to focus on the Dharma and liberate ourselves forever from pain, distress, decrepitude and death. Life in the body we've got may not be the greatest, but it's going to be a helluva lot more horrid to be a cockroach, termite, leech or vole.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Summertime...and the living isn't easy

Just before Independence Day, I saw headlines about medical scientists close enough to curing cancer, people were no longer going to die. Also gididier headlines that other scientists, blessed with Botox and ice, are close to extending human life spans to 150 years. By the end of this 21st Century, people will get closer to being eternal. A century later we should all be death-proof.

Like most grandiose schemes of grandeur, kissing mortality goodby does not seem to have been thought through.  I have yet to read how some mad scientist is working on the critical shelf life issue, changing the expiration date of ears, eyes, knees, hips and heart valves. I know the young disrupters and innovators and starter uppers don't want to hear from the worldly wise and experienced, but I feel it necessary to point this out because here I am less than half of that 150, and already two of those five have worn out. Contemporaries have plastic hips and knees. Organ by organ we are trading hardware for soft ware, turning into plastic. I no longer need the Buddha to tell me impermanence is a bitch. It is a weapon of mass destruction, but we are not going to win a war that abolishes it.

And why should we? Let's suppose folks two hundred years ago found a way to surpass death and make themselves permanent. Makes themselves the chosen. We would not be here now. Nobody would've made way for the new, the fresh, the flexible. Nothing but stagnation and paralysis.

That's why these efforts feel as reckless as Brexit. Resentful of their lot in life--in this case a four score and ten year expiration date shared with others, people want out. They're angry at limitation, angry at loss of control over their own lives. So badly do they want what they want that as with Brexit, they haven't bothered to consider the hard realities and consequences.This quest reeks of animosity toward the forward pressing hordes of younger, stronger folks with all their hipbones, taut skin and not-fading smarts. As i said, impermanence is a howler.

 A few weeks ago, or so I read, the octogenarian actress Vanessa Redgrave told an interviewer she was not afraid to die. In fact, she was looking forward to it. "Living is very hard," she said. "It will be easy to give up." 

A non-Buddhist has nailed it. Living is actually so hard, we should be glad to give it up. Let somebody else deal with it. Not even a life of vast privilege and vaster talent that brought more of it liberated Vanessa Redgrave from human suffering. Her adult daughter died abruptly in a skiing accident; her younger sister died of cancer; she went through divorce and probably sorrows and sicknesses her publicist did not let us know about. She's a reminder nobody escapes the inevitable suffering the Buddha pointed out 2600 years ago: being born into this erratic world, bodily sickness, the painful deteriorations of old age and death with its paralyzing fears. That's just for starters.

Over the long July 4th holiday weekend, I thought a lot about what Redgrave said because the weather was so heartbreakingly exquisite. The sky was spotless blue, breezes fluttered, flowers bloomed, and the sea was warm enough to swim in. Perfection was right here with fireworks. And right beside it in full bloom with its own fireworks was Samsara, a tidal wave of sadness flowing from phone calls, emails, kaffeeklatch and texts. 

On July 2 for no apparent reason any medical examiner can find, a 16-month-old two houses from mine abruptly died. The young parents are inconsolable and the 5-year-old does not know what to do. On July 1, an 85-year-old woman who lives alone and has no close family was told to report at 6 AM to the hospital for invasive testing that could provoke immediate heart surgery.  The woman is terrified.

A normally doting grandmother confided the daughter-in-law divorced from her son had been cited by Child Protective Services for beating up the 14-year-old daughter my friend so loves because this mother is incapable of managing anger. What to do? Another upper middle class grandmother who is the pillar of privilege is trying to reach the much younger children her morbidly angry and weird son beat up. Finally the mother walked, taking the kids with her. Another grandmother hinted how physically painful it has become to keep and keep up with her overactive six-year-old grandson for a month while his single mother tries to sort her life out. 

Cancer has returned to the body of the woman next door and the doctor says this time it's terminal. Meanwhile the chemo is killing her; some days she can't breathe. On July 1, I worked with three 7-year-olds. When i asked the sweet boy if he'd go to the office to ask for a photocopy, he stepped back, looked pained and whispered: "I can't. I'm shy." When I caught the more brazenly assertive and plumper of the two girls secretly stuffing herself with sugar, butter and whipped cream, her look defied me the way it did when she threw a plastic knife past my head toward the sink.

On July 4, I finally reached an old friend mourning for her 50-year life partner who passed in late May after a short, bloody battle with an exotic cancer. They had no children, just each other 24/7 all those years and suddenly she's all alone. I checked in with another friend who lost her 48-year life and business partner--same story, no children, together 24/7--two months ago and was struggling to establish her own life. Still no new job for a childhood friend who at 72 can't quit because she has no inner life and needs something to do, something to fill her time between grandchildren visits. I had a long phone conversation with another childhood friend in Manhattan who since she was forced to retire from her lawyer job has been a mess trying to figure out who she is and what she should do without a title and office. She has money, privilege, a husband, regular Botox injections in her face and a nice perch in midtown but she's bored, sad and scared.

Before the weekend, I had lunch with a young Sherpa woman graduated from community college in the US and totally on her own here, very unhappy that in the name of "efficiency" she doesn't get regular hours or a set number of hours per week at her paying job that pays erratically. After the weekend I had a long phone call from a friend in southern California, frustrated that he'd just lost 1/4 of his annual income because a competitor underhandedly underbid him on a big job, deliberately taking a loss to knife my friend. "Foul play," he grouched.

My French sister wrote that she couldn't go up to Paris for a weekend to enjoy the free concert tickets I offered her because she had to take care of senile parents and grumpy husband. A young friend working as a journalist in Europe was in tears after visiting a Syrian refugee camp, seeing how inhumane everything was.

A Dharma brother forwarded an email about the Chinese invading Sera Monastery inside Tibet and removing the nuns and monks trying to practice there.  An elderly Buddhist nun of Swiss origin wrote from her retreat in Nepal that the monsoon and the monastery were hell on her body. Also her visa was about to expire so she was forced to leave the country without a clear place to go. And I got a call from my six-year-old "granddaughter" saying she missed me so much and when was I coming back. I tried to invite her mother to bring her across the country for a week--a week the mother was searching for something to occupy the child--but the mother already had her own life too programmed. What to say? "I miss you too."

Not even on a physically perfect Independence Day could I be liberated from human suffering. And these people want us to live to be 150?!?

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

That Blast from the Past

It's June again. I have been sitting through the tightly scripted exercise called graduation, watching a  drama that plays throughout America during this long light time of year. Act 1: Pomp and Circumstance. Act 2: Robed celebrities in tasseled mortarboard hats spout sanctimonious words of sweet promise about the future, that unknown void the graduates seated in front of them are about to be shoved.into. The future is all yours. Grab'n'Go. Have it your way. Act 3: Graduates get diplomas, toss tassels and are tossed into the world... oops, I mean the future. 

This year I sat reflecting on my own post graduation life and how I've learned to live with it. Of course I remember absolutely nothing about the mortarboard moments, least of all what any speakers had to tell me. But since tradition dies hard, I'm willing to bet they droned on about how shiny and bright the future is and how tightly I should embrace it. Yeh, right, I thought as I looked back. Good luck with that

The canned blah blah blah made me wonder why we still think the future is so imperative, influential and inviting we need to lavish praise on it at delicate moments like these. A quote from a different kind of midsummer night came to mind: "What fools these mortals be!" Rinpoches regularly warn us never to think about the future because there is no there there. it hasn't happened yet. Who can speak with certainty about it? (Certainly not pollsters or pundits.) Whatever anybody says, they are just another fortune teller making it up. They are just braiding strands of imagination into a tale. 

We need to give graduates news they can actually use. How much more beneficial it would be if celebs with microphone and mortarboard talked about the past. You know what George Santayana said. I say: see in the endless headlines reiterating what a holy mess we're making of this planet, see how it's mainly thanks to all those people who just can't get passed the past. You have to learn how to do that.

I'm not talking only about all the fossil fuel profiteers denying climate change and denying all of us a future on this planet. That same old same old yet to be disrupted. I'm referring to all those angry people in the Middle East hellbent on recreating some imagined past far more powerful and glorious than their reality right now. ISIL wants the 8th C Caliphate, Orthodox Jews want BC Jerusalem, Saudi Arabians want 18th C fundamentalist Muslim extremism. The Taliban wants the 19th C before electronics and women's liberation, the Serbs want the 13C before the Ottomans invaded and converted some of their neighbors to Islam. These folks are so obsessed looking backwards over their shoulder, they can't see where they are going. They constantly crash into each another, provoking road rage and fist fights writ large as war.

On this side of the pond we have the cohort of Antonin Scalia fond of sitting in modern clothes interpreting the Constitution solely in terms of the powdered wigs and cod pieces of 1790. We have Quebecois with license plates that proclaim: "Je me souviens!" although after 46 years of seeing them, beats me what they're so dead set on remembering? How they killed the native tribes? The few months the French controlled all of Eastern Canada? What is there to remember?

We have fundamentalist Christians determined to use modern technology to impose sharia style ancient   Bible law on America, starting with the declaration that homosexuality is an abomination. We have all those Trumpeteers desperately dragging this country back to 1860 when white Christian men could lord themselves over every other being on the continent because a future without their hegemony is way too scary. That's what got Nazis going in defeated postwar Germany: resentment of changing reality, particularly diminished masculinity. It's the same thing when gray haired old guys try a makeover with young trophy wives. Everybody is crying over spilled milk. They want to go back to that particular past when they were in charge, in control instead of out of it.  You don't have to wonder why the Buddha listed impermanence as the number one cause of suffering.

Fixation on the past turns out to be bonanza for our vocabulary. Look at all the words-- how unflattering they are yet how familiar: vindictive, vengeful, antagonistic, retribution, retaliation, animus, vendetta, revenge, enmity, vengeance, avenger, feud, grudge, resentment.  Graduates: do you want these words attached to you? They describe eternal ping pong between past and present, a back and forth that is nothing more than continual jockeying to get even. An eye for an eye. But as Rinpoche likes to warn, there can never be even because the last party assailed will inevitably become the next assailant and strike back. It goes on and on without end until everybody has no eyes, or ayes. The odds for ever getting even are totally against you, so fuhgetaboutit.

And here's where we find a few sunny words for our fixation with the past: pardon, redress and forgiveness, with its sibling synonyms compassion, mercy and reprieve. Also its reminder, see the word in its center, to give. By the inviolable law of Karma, what you get as a future totally 100% depends on how much give you give the past. That's what there is to learn.

Graduates, you need to embrace the past. You need right now to be like Milarepa in his cave. First he tries to shoo away the demons that haunted it, but naturally they bounce right back. So he tries to viciously scare them away but they scare him by returning undaunted. So in desperation, he embraces them. They dance and melt away. 

Take it from Lily Tomlin:  "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a better past." If you can do this, I guarantee you will have a really good shot at that bright future all those speakers promise you.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Moving On

Every time I've heard or said: "This too shall pass", I was not thinking it would one day refer to my waist, my memory, my energy and my appetite. But here I am, pushed an inch shorter by gravity, with legs that have enough veins showing and liver spots to look like road maps. Now comes hearing aids and cataract removal. This is impermanence up close and personal--literally in your face.  Without even trying, I've become the poster girl for primate change.

I guess you could say I am now running life's marathon in the breakdown lane. Bravery, mega doses of bravery are required daily. It's galling to realize I have a shelf life, tough to accept the use-by and expiration date, scary to live through the daunting inconvenience of them often being very different. Last year waist, this year ears...  I feel like I am taking a final for that Dharma practice where you ask yourself: am I my eyes? If i lose my left little finger, I am still I? Is my hair me? Am I not me without hair? Thank Buddha I know that practice. Using it has been like putting aloe on a burn.  

Lots of people, all way younger, would say I've also lost touch. They consider my considerable experience worthless in their bright, new shiny new world so do not hire me. I'm losing it. Right? Age has become my handicap. 

Sometimes I tell myself I'm being shunned because the kids don't want to be reminded there is other knowledge, another way, another age to become. They're short term and I've gone long.  I might have something to add-- say, perspective -- but they can't bear to think they don't know everything already. They're strictly DIY. The famous disrupters are evidently not allowed to be disrupted.

What's funny about this is how addicted these young'uns are to speed, to hurry up, to having it now bigger and better and faster than ever. Except when it comes to aging. Given how fast it happens, you'd think they'd be all for it. But they want slo-mo and lots of instant replay. Magazines keep trying to convince everyone 70 is the new 40 and 80 the new 60. Well, even though most people are amazed that I am at least 25 years older than I look, reality has me convinced these are the same old, same old. Life is not easily fooled, especially by the glitzy rhetoric of corporations with products to push. Have they never seen the sag of a lifted faced? Are those wrinkles me? If I lose my hearing, am I still fully me?

These days I find myself explaining, particularly to doctors, I can't tell if what's happening is perfectly normal--wear and tear, or a crisis I can't bear to recognize. Should I panic about stomach cancer because I don't eat the large portions I used to? Are these brown polka dots decorating my skin signs of melanoma or just age? I've never been where I am, so how can I know what to expect? Every year has become a new city never visited, a place I haven't explored before to get bearings and comfort level. Then just when I start to know the territory, I'm in some place totally new having to get acquainted with different terrain.  I feel like a perpetual tourist: asking directions, clutching at maps, wandering wondering when I get to go home to the familiar. 

The only part of me still in the passing lane, no where near as close to the off ramp as the rest of me, the one piece of my pie not noticeably deteriorating or diminishing is that ineffable, intangible, secret "voice" that keeps on noticing everything and gossiping about it. My mind is still teenage peppy even though my body is anything but. It sees what's happening to the rest of me while it is going nowhere. This energy that some call the spirit or soul is living proof the Rinpoches are right: one part of me will survive because it is indestructible. It will go on and on--where it goes depends on how I have trained, or tamed, it.  Is the mind me? What does it mean to lose your mind?

Demise is the most inconvenient truth. Life is a conveyor belt we don't control. We have taken to barricading ourselves in stone mansions, tenured jobs, Kryptite and Botox to paralyze forward momentum, yet time still turns us into nomads who move from one pasture to another. Although we won't admit it, we are all migrants. We immigrate from 20 to 50 to 75 and onward. We migrate from peaks to plains to canyons, from oases to deserts, or maybe the other way around. We do not stay put. There is no holding steady. And no security line to guarantee safety. There is only getting used to those ideas.  

Go to your 50th college reunion as I just did and you can't escape this truth. All those good looking hunks now had paunches, blotches, wrinkles, glasses and gray hair. And so triage. There's nothing left to do but save the only thing I now know I can. All this physical deterioration has begun to feel like a dirty trick the gurus are playing to force me to finally get what they've been trying so hard to say: give up the losing battle of the flesh and focus on the mind, the only part of you guaranteed to live forever. Get over into the break out lane.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

I'm on a Himalayan Food panel


 I am among those "others" on the panel that night. I get to talk about how certain ingredients and cooking styles crossed the world's highest mountains and came down to earth for the rest of us. Very familiar foods!  Come one and all!

6:30 - 8:00 PM
This panel discussion is organized by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) and co-presented by the Rubin Museum. The event will take place off-site in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.
Jackson Heights, Queens, is one the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. The neighborhood’s international population is reflected in its dizzying array of food businesses, from Indian mega-grocers to taco trucks. Since the 2000s Jackson Heights has also become home to a large Himalayan population and many restaurants that serve that community. Now it’s possible to savor Tibetan momo dumplings and milk tea, as well as Nepali sukuti (meat jerky) and thali platters, all within a few blocks of the subway.
Join us for a panel discussion moderated by Yanki Tshering of the Business Center for New Americans with Tashi Chodron of the Rubin Museum, Pema Yangzom and Tenzing Ukyab of Himalayan Yak, and others.
Learn about the culinary and cultural diversity of Himalayan cuisines, and hear the personal stories of Himalayan food entrepreneurs in New York. Afterward, stick around for tastings from the neighborhood.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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