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.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Here’s another long weekend holiday and like all so-called American holidays, it opened the race gate for everybody to get going. One friend went from Maine to San Diego, another from San Francisco to Washington DC, both to visit family; a friend went from Manhattan to Aspen to ski while others flew from Boston to the Alps for that, still another drove merely an hour from Scarsdale to Connecticut to feel that she ‘got away’, the folks downstairs drove three hours up from our San Francisco sea level to the snowy Sierra. Philadelphia friends flew to Denver for a rest, other Philadelphia friends flew to India because they’d never been there and so many people are on the run, I can’t keep track.

February is just a mini version of those great December extravaganzas teeming with jumbo jet caravans jampacked with everybody going everywhere--the beach, the ski slope, the theme park in warm climates. And with that inescapable “home for the holidays” putsch, you feel pathetic if actually caught at home for the holidays without at least the excuse that twenty travelers are coming for Christmas dinner. The real miracle of the season is Santa Claus getting his sled around without a head-on collision.

The sense that we're in the wrong place at the wrong time feels even scarier at Thanksgiving when from on high this nation must look like a slide in an electron microscope: thousands of atoms zooming around trying to hook up and cluster together as a molecule. First people leave home because they have to get away from “the parents”, then like a boomerang they head back —or the parents zoom to them. Or better yet, everybody meets up to go on a family cruise.

It isn't just holidays that make us jump. We are apparently a society with one continual case of ants in our pants. I have friends who can barely keep up to their mortgage but, they just told me, they’re going to South Africa over the Easter holiday because it’s one place they haven’t been and they “need to get out.” Another couple is still looking at the Atlas to find the right place to get away to: it was going to be Hawaii but that didn’t feel right. Friends just got back from Las Vegas because, well, “we hadn’t seen it and thought we should.” Last week I got an email from a long lost friend up in New York state asking if I knew a place she could go to be by herself for a month to try to get her life in better shape—“to journal, walk, meditate.” Since she lived alone in a semi-rural Hudson River environment, I had no idea why she needed to go somewhere else to “think” and in truth neither did she but, she wrote back, she just found a “wonderful spot” in Maine and it would “be an adventure.”

All this get up and go is yeast for the GNP, that great register of everything we get. Ironically this seems to be everything we then want to get away from, which makes that GNP a win winner. That’s probably why Uncle Sam so obligingly moved his holidays uniformly to Mondays: it provides just enough time to run off somewhere. We are so geared to going the distance the publishing business booms with guides and tales and glossy magazine pieces on yet another must-visit island resort or sanitized third world city with restaurants you won’t die for. Our newspapers have travel sections, our cities have airports getting to be bigger than they are and tourism development offices that live on hotel taxes, our airlines frequent flyer encouragements, our computers new reservations URLs every week, our cars off road capabilities, our ski resorts snow making machinery, our investment portfolios more 1031 exchange vacation rental properties. You can feel unpatriotic or party pooperish if you’re not spinning your wheels or those of a 747.

A rock is content, the sublime poet Mary Oliver observes, so it stays put, but water is not for it is always rushing on in search of someplace else to be. And so we spend our days getting and wending, destroying with fuel oil and resort communities the only planet we have to live on. Lonely thing. There actually used to be an airline marketing campaign for this gray moment of the year. It seduced people to the Caribbean with sunny rum punch lines that promised to cure “the Februaries” –a disease just like morning mouth. Sound bytes, work habits and plane service may have moved on but the lure of that presto chango remains the same: change your scenery, change your self. It’s hot. Tour brochures, magazine features, resort web pages and airline ads force feed our insatiable appetite for self-help, our unslakable thirst for self-improvement—our sense that our lives should be better and they’re gonna be with the next e-ticket or car trip. Wow! There they are selling us a bridge!

Nothing’s wrong with that sense that our lives should be better; that’s possibly the beginning of wisdom. The problem is determining what better means? A lifetime supply of frequent flyer miles? Trumping the sophisticates at a dinner party by announcing you were in Bhutan back before it had television, bars, cars and even money? Not wasting a three-day holiday by staying home? Dying with the world’s largest collection of passport stamps? You say: I go away, therefore I am. I say: Picasso never left the ground and look how he changed the world!

Right now I am one of the only people I know who is, how shall I say this? sitting still. I didn’t always. I tried to remedy several outbreaks of the Februaries with isles that were then unspoiled and unpublished but, frankly, all the sunscreen in the world couldn’t protect me from myself. What all those “vacations” changed besides my sense of geography, I can now admit, was the color of my skin for about a month and the balance of my checkbook for lots longer. I didn’t like speaking to strangers in Manhattan and I didn’t in Djerba or on PhiPhi or that tiny islet off Grand Bahama. I didn’t go to bars and dance clubs in San Francisco so I didn’t in Jamaica or Rio. I hate crowded tacky places like Faneuil Hall so I hated Cozumel. I may have visited different locations but in the end it was all the same. They all sent me home with the same carry-on baggage—tagged with that Zen memo: wherever you go, there you are!

In the Olympics of truth, that is the gold medal contender. When pangs of angst or stings of loneliness hit, it’s easy to run off to distracting landscapes especially with a whole economy acting as an escort service. But when we get back to that final check in, a change of scenery is just that. We didn’t leave our self at home. On vacation, you can take it with you. We don’t much get away from it all because it’s right up there stowed in the overhead baggage. What a drag, all this airport insecurity.

The Bahamas and the Beaver Creeks look good because it is not easy to sit still. I have moments of wanting to call a taxi and fly standby but I keep trying to stand by my aspiration to do this because it really is a cheaper thrill, one that lasts longer and makes my life noticeably better. I’ve been dropping off a lot of heavy baggage I used to lug around. Sitting in retreat, Tulku Urgyen pointed out, is merely to teach you what activities are truly essential. The late Trungpa Rinpoche supposedly said that the ultimate dharma exercise was to be able to sit perfectly still in the center of New York City; this could blow your mind! When I tried being the stillpoint of that churning world--a little daredevil stunt-- I could actually begin to sense the dramatic pulsating energy of gigantic hordes blindly scurrying in circles like mice trying to find a piece of cheese. I could feel the silliness of it all, the spin, the rat race.

Trungpa Rinpoche did say that true courage, real warriorship, was going head to head with whatever scared or worried you. When besieged by anxiety, the urge to tunnel out and take off for the airport is not the easy way out because it is not a way out. It is a dead end. The story is told of the extraordinary yogi Milarepa coming back to his cave to discover demons had taken over. They were sitting on his cushion, eating his stored food, taking up all his space. His immediate reaction was to shoo them out but he couldn’t budge them, not a one. He tried to clean up around them but they just made a bigger mess. Thus resigned, he decided he would teach them a thing or two about the precious dharma and began reading texts to give them a lesson in hopes that they’d learn a little something and take off with it. But they went right on eating, sitting, and being annoying in his cave as though they hadn’t heard a thing. And so finally desperate to get back in, he decided there was nothing else to do but join in. Thus he reached out to embrace them and to dance with them whereupon they fell from his side and vanished.

This week I am watching the young Olympians face their worst fears at the top of a precipitous mountain or the center of an ice ring. I am sitting on a small round red cushion in front of two lit candles and several images of those who have done this before. I train here by looking hard and unflinchingly at my disturbing thoughts; no matter what I see, I try to sit like a rock. Tides of emotions flow and ebb, thoughts rise and fall, I sit like a rock. Eventually, the training says, those waves will get lower and shorter and no longer wash over me. Finally they will be what goes away. Now that is a vacation.

About fifteen years ago, I revealed that I had been so hot to travel the world, I had once been a professional tour guide, and the retreat master who was registering me into a remote Vermont cabin revealed that she too had been an avid traveler. But once she got into this dharma business of exploring her own mind, this was all the adventure and get away she could handle. So I am here seconding that. It is extreme to sit still surfing the waves of your own trepidation, skiing the slopes of your own frustration, swimming through the tides of your personal confusion. And the necessary concentration demands as much fitness training as an Olympic athlete. Nothing I know from all my years of outward bounding can match the astonishing I-MAX adventure of my inward trek. It’s literally the be all vacation and end all great escape.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006


Somewhere between the start of the Western New Year and the Eastern one, a long time friend sent a poignant email: “Hi. Took Frisky to the vet yesterday for her annual check up and shots. … He said that the enlarged heart was not unusual for an "old" dog. I'm having trouble thinking of Frisky as "old"; she'll always be a puppy to me. I asked him how long she would live and he said it depended on how long her parents lived, but probably 12-14 years. I have been soooo sad ever since, as she is already 11. … I know you understand how I feel. Please send me some good Buddhist advice.”

Oh my. An old year was dying out, a new one rushing in, the rooster giving way to the dog,January to February, the earth spinning, the moon changing, and this Buddha 911 call for Help! was a sharp echo of the Buddha’s greatest sound byte: impermanence. All of life is suffering, he declared as his First Noble Truth, his Second all that suffering is essentially our resistance to flux, our wanting things to stand still.

Frankly, we’ve engineered a lot to suit our fears and fantasies but not this, and I bet it won’t happen anytime soon. Nature abhors stasis as much as a vacuum: it is the great conveyor belt on which everything is just passing. One day I have a grandmother, one day a grand nephew. One cousin graduates from schoolbooks to a law office, another from good health to chemotherapy, my sister from a house to an apartment, a friend changes cities. Nothing stays the same, nothing lasts and all the money in Manhattan can’t stop the cosmos from moving your cheese.

That doesn’t mean we don’t try to stop it. We’ve got a Botox battalion busy freeze framing faces, World plastic surgical War One on crow’s feet, an entire home depot of engineered building material touted to never deteriorate, gas chambers to make tomatoes the same every season and, smile!, a bazillion dollar photo industry dedicated to freeze framing our happy moments. What can you say about those obituaries for octogenarians garnished with photos of 40 somethings? Or religions which take comfort in a sun that seems to stay the same while that irascible moon has recurring phases? Or those stuck thinking of old dogs as puppies? I’m guilty too. No matter how old I got my grandmother always referred to me as “that child” and lately I hear myself doing the same to my godchildren and nephews. In my mind they’re 10 and I’m 40, even though they long ago passed their 30th birthdays.

The absurd irony of all our suffering over these passages is that we are doing it in the midst of a throw away, new novel next big thing world. Our society so thrives on change and its speed, we complain bitterly when things come to a standstill and write laws to forbid loitering. We worship innovation, renovation, vacation for changes of scenery. Thursday is the new Friday, 60 the new 40, Yahoo the new Western Union, China the new superpower, AutoPay the new checkbook and Ipod the new TV/telephone/computer/GPS/ stereo/ radio/walkman/CD/DVD/MP3/VCR. We rush happily onward, the crying only from bottom liners drowned by the next wave. The miraculous phonograph becomes the luxurious stereo system becomes the compact CD player becomes the long playing DVD machine becomes the mini Ipod becomes the wireless cell phone and when those captains of the universe vested in the new big thing find themselves displaced by the admirals of the next big thing out come law suits, lobbying, No Fair! protests and cell phone contracts stronger than Gorilla glue.

The weird part of our trying to hang on is that we are totally dependent on an economy vehemently dedicated to impermanence. We have replaced shoemakers, milliners and craftsmen with plastic, particleboard and slapdash. We buy disposable battery operated toothbrushes and throwaway cameras. We have starter jobs, starter houses, starter marriages. We lease cars to change every year and now we have H&M, the Ikea of clothing, pushing deliberately disposable chic. The moment—the girl of the moment, the restaurant of the moment, the look—is everything and of course the market will produce a new moment—a new face, a new fusion food, a new way to be “with it”-- momentarily. Faster and faster, now you see it now you don’t. Here today gone tomorrow –or gone today of course if it’s chocolate.

What a hip guy he was, the Buddha, way back then pitching nowness, live in the moment, don’t hang on, go with the flow. This is in fact the recipe for his Third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering. But upgrading and updating and upscaling do not seem to be on the must-do list that is the Fourth Noble Truth, the Path to the goal of no suffering. No. Here comes the disconnect. When the Buddha spoke of flux and letting go, he was pointing out that we ourselves are disposable items. We are transients on a stopover, hapless victims of planned obsolescence who are headed for the scrap heap. Father Time is in cahoots with Mother Nature, numbering our days. Because none of us know until it’s called when our number’s up, all of us need to live each moment as though it were our last. My mother postponed taking trips and doing things for herself until her children were in college and died at 50 a year after we were. Equating yourself with, say, a new car model, a hit movie or a flashlight battery that you know is not built to last forever, that’s the Be Here Now.

To become familiar with being temporary, everyday a dharma practitioner says: “My life is like a water bubble: it could burst at any moment so right now I must make it meaningful.” A monk/lama turns his water offering bowl over every night in case he doesn’t wake up. A guru never takes a vacation or a break because every second could be the last precious chance to be of benefit. The teaching is to live as though your hair has just caught fire.

The Victorians, the Catholics and the Christian missionaries who first encountered Buddhism could not forgive its clear-eyed acknowledgment of death, disdaining it for being morbidly preoccupied with the gloom of doom. Why then, I ask you, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama always smiling? And my teacher, all the teachers and serious practitioners? Because, I bet, the acceptance of impermanence is the end of suffering. When you stop wanting life to be otherwise you start to enjoy it for what it is. Accepting things for what they are, not what you want them to be, that’s the letting go. It’s a terrific diet that sheds all that stored stress—fear, longing, anger, resistance-- making you naturally lighten up.

Haven’t you noticed how people who know they are dying get quickly focused and shift priorities, like cancer stricken Marvella Bayh publicly imploring everyone to “stop and smell the roses.” Like these sentiments which arrived today in one of those chain emails (sent by a Thai friend from Bangkok!). They are supposedly written by an 83-year-old woman:
“I'm sitting in the yard and admiring the view without fussing about the weeds in the garden. I'm spending more time with my family and friends. I'm not ‘saving’ anything; we use our good china and crystal for every special event such as losing a pound, getting the sink unstopped, or the first Amaryllis blossom. I'm not saving my good perfume for special parties, but wearing it for clerks in the hardware store and tellers at the bank. ‘Someday’ and ‘one of these days’ are losing their grip on my
vocabulary. If it's worth seeing or hearing or doing, I want to see and hear and do it now. It's those little things left undone that would make me angry if I knew my hours were limited. Angry because I hadn't written certain letters that I intended to write one of these days. Angry and sorry that I didn't tell my husband and parents often enough how much I truly love them. I'm trying very hard not to put off, hold back, or save anything that would add laughter and luster to our lives. And every morning when I open my eyes, I tell myself it is special.”

When you live like you’re dying, not holding back or putting off, that’s being in the moment. The teaching example is the woman who, being chased over the edge of a cliff by a hungry tiger, spots a berry blooming in the brush and takes the time to savor it before she dives. Certainly companionship and love from others are to be savored as Time chases us toward our own abyss. Yet I know people who adamantly refuse to get a dog for the single reason that they are somehow absolutely sure it will die before they do. Totally unwilling to suffer the loss of laughter and luster, they forbid themselves years of having it to revel in—the joyous face licks and tail wags, that miraculous eye communication of perfect understanding that led Charles Schultz to memorialize his dog as Snoopy. Death denied is life not lived--no end to suffering. Better the example of a friend who every January gorges wildly on the tiny cold water shrimp freshly fished until she is so sated she’s ready to move on to the finds of February.

Decades ago, when my beagle Thoreau, my sole companion, died young and abruptly I thought my world collapsed. I lay abed crying, unable to go on. A week passed, a friend phoned: “Get up! I’ve got a special present for you,” she said, “a ten-week-old wirehaired dachshund and you’re just gonna love him.” So the unexpected departure of the quiet Thoreau created the space for the unexpected arrival of the extraordinary world winner Bogie who became the unexpected catalyst for my friend to overcome her fear of dogs and get Frisky who brought her family such a gift of delight they unexpectedly got addicted to her and now she is old and that hurts because soon she will disappear and what will come into that space nobody knows but you can’t stop the world and get off. You have to go with the flow.

Our lives are shaggy dog stories that go on and on with ever changing chapters of characters and experiences and years—all of which we could not have lived without, all of which indelibly mark us like an address to where we’re next headed. And that dam we want to put on the current of events pushing us along, that is the truth of suffering.

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