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, November 17, 2014
I want to share most recently heard words of wisdom about the sort of happiness you can't get with a credit card or find under the Christmas tree.
From Thich Nhat Han: Success and happiness are not the same thing. People often become the victim of their success but nobody ever becomes the victim of their happiness.
From Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: If one can benefit one sentient being, then there will be great appreciation and delight. If one benefits another being, then again there is delight and joy. In this way it becomes an endless ocean of joy. Compared to this great happiness, it is not that enjoyable to reach liberation just for oneself. From Ringu Tulku Rinpoche: There is an old saying in India that goes something like this. If you want to be happy for an hour, have a beer. If you want to be happy for a day, go on a picnic. If you want to be happy for a week, find a project to work on. If you want to be happy for a month, get married. (Everybody loves that line.) If you want to be happy for a year, pile up some money. If you want to be happy forever, take the Dharma teachings to heart and practice them.
With precision that was really freaky, I pulled into my driveway in San Francisco with the clock in the exact position it had two Fridays before when I pulled out of my driveway in Maine. I had gone the distance. It included breath biting moments of stomach churning panic, most memorably in the sleet and high winds both outside Chicago and just inside Colorado when I needed to get around speeding double barreled semis whose rear trucks could not stop fishtailing. Also hairy moments when the gas tank icon flashed and not one sign of civilization beckoned over the horizon. But mostly the zigzag 3,500 mile crossing from sea to shining sea was flawless: no car break-in or vandalism, no speeding ticket, no fender bender or call to AAA, no soul scorching drive across the vast emptiness with Jesus signs that is Kansas. Nebraska was far less mind numbing. Instead of Jesus billboards, it offered rest stops with toilets.
The beauty of a home run like this is never having to go through an airport. Still, as the French say, "il faut soufrire pour la beauté." Even
before I pulled out of my driveway, every cell of me dreaded crossing
the interior of this massive continent knowing it involves crossing
scary swaths of twilight zone with nobody out there. Nothing warm,
cozy, familiar or inviting. No fresh food or good coffee. Just eerie
desert emptiness garnished with an occasional battered pickup truck or
Gas'n'Go whose idea of sustenance is every kind of chip, soda and candy
America's flat out soulless stretches can make a woman afraid, very afraid not just of car trouble and foul food, but terrified to the core of all variations of lonesome road macho and that unique American version of highway robbery known as civil forfeiture. (Read all about it.) That terrified me when one remote highway in Nebraska suddenly sank from a 70 to a 60 mph speed limit, because I was convinced I was in a cop trap. Any minute my car and all my things packed in it were going to be confiscated by a nasty predator in police clothes. What to do? Stay at 70 praying hard to get out of there, or slow way down and sit in the car worrying--and waiting for a toilet-- longer?
I get why we call this alien world a flyover zone. I tried flying through it in my car. Truth told, although I shamble leisurely along the Dharma path, on a roadway I am a speed demon, a daredevil hellbent on exceeding limits. The sign says: 70; I say: ok 79. You'd think I'd be zooming through Samsara toward Nirvana the way I charge to appointments, parties and provisioning, determined to get where I am going and get going. I am a notoriously impatient driver who has made passengers scream in panic. On this trip, I sometimes scared the hell out of myself, like when I discovered I was hurtling over the flat brown wasteland called Nevada between 95 and 100 mph. I like believing my good luck in never being stopped, hit, robbed, waylaid or wetting my pants before I saw a restroom sign means the Force was with me. I like believing it rode sidesaddle to protect me because I chose to start this journey with a karmic reboot: a weekend of teaching and prayers at the monastery in Woodstock. There I was surrounded by dozens of people aged and teen, male and female, manicured and not, Indian and African and Chinese, who like me had driven for hours to get there and get from a visiting Rinpoche more of the Buddha's prescription for eradicating unhappiness. In the dining hall, I met an astonishingly well read, retired teacher from west of Toronto (a seven-hour drive); an every weekend Dharma teaching somewhere Chinese-American who drove five hours from the DC Beltway; a stately tall, gray haired woman from Boston's north shore, and an art history sylph from Vassar who had stubbornly dedicated five years to her dream project: combining her two passions into an about to open special exhibit featuring representations of Chenrezig/Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin, the great pan Asian deity of compassion.
The monastery experience of sacred outlook and shared aspiration for the secret of happiness fixed my focus for the rest of the journey. I kept noticing how everyone I came across was groping in their blind way away from discontent toward their illusion of happiness. It wasn't just silly me pushing myself through a grueling road trip because I feel insanely happy in Maine except in winter when my health gets threatened so I have to get out. There was the bony, middle-aged waitress at the farm to table bistro in Reno who, hearing I'd just driven over 3,000 to eat that wood grilled cauliflower, confided she'd moved there only a month ago to get
out of Seattle's endless rain. "Finally, sun!" she said, turning her
face toward the sky. I
smiled knowingly at the retired military officer in Colorado who was putting
aside his Corvette and packing up his Airstream to spend time in Death
There were signs. A Lake Michigan BnB owner had posted them everywhere to regiment her guests' behavior to her liking. Guests were only allowed to arrive between 4 and 6 PM. Breakfast was served only at 9 AM and was what she chose to prepare--even when I couldn't eat most of it. Nothing was without a rule. The small bathroom sink had two posted: "Don't use the dark towels if you use cosmetics or toothpaste that contains peroxide." "Don't use the white towels when washing off makeup or lipstick." I would have had to stay an extra day just to read every sign she'd put up. Midway through my 3,500 miles of driving, I began to realize road signage is actually an expression of politeness. It's basic decency. Road signs are a guide to the unfamiliar. They are the kindness of strangers. You don't realize how crucial they are until you are at an intersection or off ramp and don't know where to go. Iowa showed especially great compassion with bright, simple signs almost everywhere for just about everything including how far you had to keep going downtown to get to the interstate. It was profound comfort to find somebody cared whether or not I got where I wanted to go. It was epithet deleted road rage to be in Colorado, the Rhett Butler state that frankly doesn't give a damn. Colorado can't be bothered posting detour directions at temporarily closed highway ramps, of which there were at least a half dozen. Perhaps even nastier, it posts signs for interstate rest areas and off-ramps just after you have passed them.
A lone woman traveling long distance, a stranger in a strange land (how else would you feel when in Nebraska Caesar salad means iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, cucumbers and packaged croutons?), actually relies on the kindness of strangers. At almost every restaurant dinner, empathy translated into extra good service. The young waiter at an airport Doubletree Hotel Restaurant was so pleased I liked the roasted red pepper soup, he brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie. The chef/owner of a Midwest farm to table restaurant came out of the kitchen to sit with me after his waiter told him how amazed he was I knew the Robouchon potatoes were named for famed French chef Joel Robouchon.
The young woman in a silly pigtail Halloween costume behind the front desk of a downtown Des Moines hotel was so moved when I told her how back achy and weary I was after a 7 hour drive, and why i won't eat roadstop food, she left a gift bag of goodies at my door with this note: "I know you have had a long trip so we put together a little bag for you to have a good night and safe travels tomorrow." The man with the pregnancy paunch standing in front of the elevator in Salt Lake City when I was going down to check out, asked if I'd had a good sleep. "Yes, thank you," I said. "Well that's good to hear," he said, "because making sure everyone in this hotel gets a good night's sleep is my job. I'm the engineer here. Is there anything I could help you with before you leave?" I felt a little less alone. But of course I was totally alone, hurtling along mind numbing interstates, connected to nothing and no one, affecting no spin of the universe, not mattering a whit in any way. Funny enough, that's exactly how the Buddha described reality for every one of us: all lone strangers, nomads blinding wandering the path to death by chasing our delusions.
Unenlightened as I am, I struggle like everybody else to blot out existential angst with some sham happiness or other. On this journey, I caught myself reaching out to grasp at the one known in the middle of nowhere: voices on the radio. Twice or even three times a day, I frantically fiddled with the dial, desperate not to get cut off from my "friends." "This is NPR news. I'm Lakshmi Singh." "I'm Robert Segal and I'm Audie Cornish." "I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air." I listened to the same rerun of Car Talk twice in a row because I had to change stations at state lines. At night, I clung to my iPad, surfing from one familiar newspaper to another, trying to feel at home thousands of miles from it.
Finally I got where I was going, on time and without obstacle. Of course that was a happiness, yes indeed, until I came inside and put my altar back in place. That's when I realized my long, lonely fear strewn journey between two delineated points wasn't just a momentary car trip. How fast I flew down highways to get to the other side of the country; how slowly I poke along the Path to get to enlightenment. What a huge Yikes!
I have been pushed again into the world of baby shopping. Not something necessarily on my to-do list but birth, like death, is too monumental to ignore. A new baby is the wrong occasion for keeping your credit card to yourself. You've got to rush out very promptly and turn yourself into a veritable welcome wagon of stuff, especially if it's the mother's first. Who wants a child connected to you to grow up thinking you didn't care about its needs?
By now, I am an old hand at newborn purchases, but this experience seemed brand new. That could of course be due to old age memory loss. Who knows why standing in the store, I realized--with one of those mental bangs comic strips reduce to !--that if you dare stray beyond the layette and pass on vital rompers and diapers, you invariably find yourself smack dab in the animal kingdom. You are on safari spotting bears, dogs, turtles, moose, pigs, elephants, zebras, horses, frogs and, if you are in Maine, lobsters, I've even found seals and once, a life size raccoon. Yesterday I spotted owls--made lovably plushy as possible. A crib owl! What a hoot.
I have no idea why it is incumbent on us as grownups to surround our human newborns with fauna to make them right off the bat best friends with select members of the animal kingdom. I just know there isn't a nursery between the Atlantic and Pacific above the Mexican border that isn't some kind of fuzzy petting zoo. We even let one-year-olds sleep with bears! Really! Do you know a kid who doesn't have a Teddy bear? This vicious animal tamed by squeezy stuffing and named for the great hunter Theodore Roosevelt has become the epitome of killer cute, used, as Wikipedia puts it, to signify love, congratulations or sympathy. Just like a rubber duckie.
I have absolutely no clue why we encourage our kids to cuddle elephants and snuggle up to pigs. I just know that kids lovingly clutch these fuzzy animals, drag them around and scream when they're missing. They get so attached, a stuffed moose or turtle is a sure-fire baby gift to make you the huggee of choice. Trust me, a kid will have no fear of a plush squishy lion, even if it's got a little gizmo inside that makes it roar when squeezed. They'll just adore it and giggle.
I didn't get focused on this bizarre custom because Princess Chelsea Clinton's new baby arrived with loud fanfare for a nursery full of elephants. I probably did because for the past weeks, I found myself delightedly surrounded by real creatures. In my living nursery, I hear the woodpecker loudly ratatating away high in the sickly pine tree near the driveway, spot the bald eagle camouflaged in the oak leaves across the water, and watch the neck banded kingfisher swoop to perch on my dock and look for lunch. Several days last week, a seal swam up the inlet. The last time I spotted it, it was doing a jaunty dolphin dive on its way back out. The chipmunks exuberantly chase each other through the leaves fallen all over my yard. The gray squirrel is scampering up and down the trees with acorns. Flock after flock of honking Canada geese scramble into perfect V formation as they glide by overhead. Wild turkeys waddled down the road. A deer leapt across it. I haven't seen raccoons or the fox this year, but I did finally spy the fat groundhog that is likely the mysterious ghost who ate my black raspberries, blueberries and flowering annuals. And of course every other day or so, the bizarrely beautiful great blue heron, Nature's cup hook, stands tall in the low tide shallows below my window patiently seeking supper.
I've also seen schools of fish, fish hawks flying out of their massive nests, screeching crows mass into a brigade of storm troopers, and seagulls fighting over a food find. Living in a large menagerie like this makes me insanely happy. Others pay huge fortunes to fly to Africa and drive around the plains for the thrill of sighting wild animals while I get that same giddy childlike wonder almost every day right here.
The privilege of observing this vast richness on Earth is the exponential plus of living in the country. It makes me feel like a real world insider, which is seriously awesome given that "insider" is the most coveted position in our exclusive world today. It also helps me to understand something city people in their virtually artificial man made reality don't: I am not alone here. Life isn't all about me. There are other species who need to be taken into consideration. I am just another animal in a network, and being linked in I see what a grand network it is.
Thinking of city people in their unreal environment makes me think we want to put stuffed animals in the playpen now that we humans don't much live among them in real life, some atavistic thing. It lets us introduce our kids to what the Buddha called the higher and lower beings who share in our existence here on Earth. Or maybe we feel compelled to give them stuffed animals because we've destroyed their inheritance of real ones who should have been their neighbors on this planet. It could even be an age-old need to teach them existence is not always all about them alone: they must learn to think of others. Even if we ourselves don't.
I'm sure it has something to do with why we use Mother Goose, Babar and Bambi, My Friend Flicka and Charlotte of web fame to teach them stuff about life we can't articulate. Don't we relentlessly buy them puppies and kittens, guppies and turtles for the same reason? I suppose we want someone to be in that gloriously peaceful Garden of Eden that we grownups have been expelled from. Like kids, animals are also innocent about the ticking time bomb of
mortality. Maybe that's why the two are such good companions. Recreating Eden in the crib lets us remember, maybe even relive, the joy of not knowing the party's going to end shortly.
I think we secretly treasure that innocence and although we lost it discovering ourselves to be the cause of life and death, we want it back. We want to be happy as kids in a world where everything is so cute and fuzzy, nothing threatens or scares us, as if that will make knowing we are the cause of life and death all better.
And here's another aspect of this. In spite of our tendency to cute them up, when we want to be especially derogatory, we sneer that some people live or behave like animals. Isn't that seriously backward, the reverse of truth? After all, animals behave much better than humans. You cannot argue that fact. Maybe it's why we surround our babies with them. Animals are innocent of our crimes and immorality, our inhumanity to each other. They don't kill just for the fun of it or fuck their children knowingly or stockpile chemical weapons of mass destruction or deliberately deceive and cheat out of sheer egomaniacal greed. Honestly, who is the real killer for the thrill of it: a tiger or ISIS? Who is going to be more helpful, loyal and honest: your dog or your insurer?
In land Teddy Roosevelt himself once stalked with a gun, there is to be a ballot referendum, Number One, on the first Tuesday this November that asks if hunting bears by baiting them with junk food or snaring them in leg breaking traps or attacking them with a pack of dogs should be banned as cruel, inhumane and, get this, unsporting. All it is saying is give bears a chance. Pollsters say the grownups will say NO, they don't want to. Well, do you want to bet me that all their kids have or had Teddy bears and maybe once they did too? Did you know that beloved toy was named for the particular bear President Roosevelt refused to shoot because it had been baited, chased by dogs and snared to make it too easy and senseless for him to kill a living creature. Do we rush to buy them for the kids just to remind ourselves of all the decency we've lost?
Oh dear. You might not want to read this because I've been very unAmerican. For a whole week, I did not have a nice day, was not happy all the time, did not splash stupid smiling selfies all over social media, didn't even do a What me Worry? smirk. I know. I could be deported as subversive-- especially because I didn't reach out to embrace the pharmaceutical industry that so greedily profits by pushing happy pills.
I will say in my defense, Mother Nature sent a long run of gray, chilly weather to match my mood. I can also say the switch from September to October when leaves fall and Spring seeds are harvested, light dims and cold flares, animals scurry, birds disappear, insects die on my rugs and pine cones thud eerily on my roof feels like a time of reckoning. Cloudy with a chance of shortfalls.
I am not alone with this suspicion. Jews use the moment to reflect on the past and promise for the future. Nepalis have Dashain's 15 daysfrom the new to the full moon to strengthen personal bonds and celebrate the idea that Good will triumph over Evil, which is to say the hope of Spring will come again. The Irish have or had Samhain to mark this coming of the dark, their time for taking stock-- often literally counting cattle, slaughtering, and purifying/night lighting bonfires. The animal kingdom has its rituals too: wild animals are running for cover and spiders are quite busy killing the last bugs. One way or another it is time to confront the spook of death, which inevitably includes the mortality of our efforts. Dead reckoning.
It doesn't help that these weeks mark my own loss of mother, grandfather, brother-in-law and best childhood friend. I just don't have any of our culture's most valued currency, cockeyed optimism. Bankrupt me just has experience and piles of it to choose from. That's probably why, as they say in redneck states, I stood my ground. This is to say, wallowing without demanding something to prevent me from a change of mood. You know, brighten the blues with entertaining movies or TV, or paper them over with surfing Social Media. Or drown them out with loud pounding music, or, for something classier, vacate by running away to somewhere sunny or romantic, like a friend who fled to Quebec for the weekend. Aha! As the Zen people like to say: wherever you go, there you are--tucked into your carry-on baggage. I didn't even contemplate the great American cure: a mall shopping spree that proves I have therefore I am. I don't need Buddha to tell me how pointless that is. Having been there, done that more than I want to acknowledge, I kept my credit card to myself. I can definitely guarantee you the secret of life is not in Saks.
I can also guarantee not running from whatever pains you is a heavy duty challenge. Facing it took every bit of Buddhist muscle I have managed to develop. I actually wanted to shoot myself because I hated myself for harboring a black mood that wouldn't brighten on demand. I mumbled beseeching mantras to skull crowned Mahakala, breaker of obstacles. I mumbled the word "warrior" as frequently used in Dharma to point out that you don't cut and run like the Iraqi Army when the negative confronts you. I tried embracing the trite consolation of weather reports to remember how changeable conditions are. There is drought, there are floods, there is ice and the sun will come out...eventually.
I don't know whether I went through a week of cowardice or courage. I just know something urged me to arm myself with perspective and experience --the mind's assault rifle--and fight. For what? Well, the title of Pema Chodron's first and best book: The Wisdom of No Escape. What? Wisdom: realizing you will never vanquish what pains you until in your heart of hearts, you get comfortable with what is going on. What is going on? Mortality: it unnerves us all --all the time. Black noise.
Right up close in a ringside seat, I watched my fears joust and parade. I wallowed in the suffering of change, the suffering of dissatisfaction, the suffering of falling short without knowing for sure short of what, the suffering of singularity (no connection is ever as airtight as we want it to be), the suffering of mortality (impermanence) and its corollary futility, which takes over as you get older and seen the real end results of trying. Think Ozymandias or Charles deGaulle's glorious dis: "Our cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Think Samsara: doing the same thing over and over always expecting a better result. Oh hell, make it easy: think America in iraq, think rednecks voting Republican. And so up close and personal I got it: why the Buddha and my own teacher and everyone from the 2500 years in between say the only effective way to reach happiness in this human realm is to tune out its frenetic noise and practice Dharma. Embrace this shaky mortality and ramp up to propel your consciousness to the next level. That does seem to be the only way to overcome built-in suffering, maybe because it's the one I haven't energetically tried.
At any rate, the universe delivered. I always say it's better than Domino's: it brings what we need exactly when we need it most, even if we're don't know that yet. I can now see these rainy days have fertilized a desire to practice that had been stagnating in a sea of more seemingly exciting events. So I can't dis funk for you. I can only recommend a shameless taste from time to time. Tune into the black noise so you can learn how to dance with it.
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 wisdom finally does come with age, but so does short term memory loss.
My silence could come from fear. Last week I heard a voice on Public Radio say ISIS releases those gruesome beheading videos because its leaders know that to be a true terrorist, you have to ignite terror in the human heart. Well, shiver me timbers, that makes me a terrorist too. My senior moments have escalated to a point that scares the hell out of me. 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 texted me last night and I texted back: Yes, ok, see you there. For the first time ever, 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 that down on. Being a ditz is terrifying.
In three days, the Scots will decide whether or not they want to stay
married to the Brits or file for divorce. These two have been married 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 tantrums, Hamas' tunnels, aging pipelines, secret money, the cesspool called Pakistan, the macho gone wild called 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.
Perhaps the tsunami of public panic has made Mother Nature, with her keen sense of balance, quite the private joker now. Her startlingly intense September light lit up my brush all the hair falling front and center from my head. It also let me see how much hair is growing long and wild over my legs. Yesterday I discovered why the three eight packs of annual flowers I've spent four months lavishing water, fertilizer and attention on never yielded a bloom: 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 by making sure 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.
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.