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.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


By all meteorological accounts we are having an extraordinary heat wave that is sizzling San Francisco, burning off any wisp of fog that could possibly rise to the rescue. This alas exacerbates the annual bout of summer crankiness that besets me during July and August, especially when those months serve up such torture. Having spent the initial batch of summers of my life toddling along the glorious beach of Ventnor, New Jersey and the following batch playing around the mountain lakes of New England which eventually led me to live on the coast of Maine, habit has programmed me to expect to be there now, to suspect something has gone awry when I am not.

This idée fixe is a mountain I cannot get over. Thinking I should win American idyll, aka full frontal summer vacation, I make myself miserable, hard headedly stuck on that childish hope in the happily ever after that always made my aunt snidely snap at whiny and peevish complaints: “…then we all had ice cream and went to the seashore.” I am not alone. George W. Bush wanted to be in Iraq when it was smoking hot and today the Sunday papers are brimming with news that his vision thing also got trumped by the reality thing. I do not get what I want; he got what he wanted-- but it didn’t turn out happily ever after as he supposed. Much happened that was not supposed to. All those suppositions trampled to death by reality sent vexation his way too. Expectations will get you if you don’t watch out.

What do you expect? Suffering is wanting things to be otherwise and as the Buddha said, life is suffering. It is baddd: birth and decay, disease, death. But with our obsessive aversion to pain we get on the path from first to last expecting a picnic. The nasty genius of our totalitarian corporate culture has been to profit handsomely from our expectation of finding reality at, by craftily deluding us with all that sunny “have it your way” fluff that so painstakingly omits hints of ants, wasps or thunderstorms. Its focus on our focus launches all those suppositions that with the right purchases life is going to be a magic carpet that unrolls just the way we think it ought to, perfectly matched to our bubbly desires and the carefully chosen soundtrack on our IPod. Forever after too of course.

That’s why I’m behaving like my five-year-old niece in a teary tantrum because the plump, juicy burger of ground sirloin I’d served her using my great grandmother’s German recipe couldn’t possibly be a hamburger when it did not look like the flat dry patties she got at McDonald’s. Or the two very annoyed homeowners who separately phoned the property management office last month demanding the trees in their front yards get cut down because they aren’t supposed to spend time cleaning leaves out of their gutters.

Me and my supposed to, George W. Bush and his are not fetched so far from those planned communities where unplanned storms and renovations and destructive ADD kids keep popping up like crabgrass making unsoothed neighbors contentious. Or the stock broker who insists the market only goes up for which people blindly invest everything and then, whaddya know, it tanks and they raise hell. Those stations the train of thought parks in at the end of my line are the lawsuits, headlines and politics of people who really think they can Botox decay away, eat heirloom locally grown sun ripened tomatoes all year round and consider death not a necessary consequence of life but a dreadful medical mistake.

Leave it to the French to have a word for consuming passion, even this one to have the world my way: they say “on reve debout” —we dream standing up (walking around). The Buddha knew it too. Each of us, he taught, lives as an actor in daydreams, trapped in a bubble of our own supposing instead of living free in the world as it actually turns. Often we are puppets of habit, for familiarity is a super duper that forces us to brazenly presume that what we are used to is what has to be. Children in abusive families usually grow up to create their own abusive families because that’s all they know. I once had a boyfriend complain that I couldn’t make meals right and right turned out to be the way his mother made them. A teenage visitor from Wisconsin freaked at a bunch of baby bananas, insisting they weren’t normal because bananas are supposed to be longer. I had to explain that maybe the Chiquita bananas in Wisconsin supermarkets were all a longer Central American size but people who had the habit of eating bananas grown, say, in India where they are normally short would find long his Wisconsin bananas weird.

Then there is carry-over. Coming upon a person who looks like somebody I know, I automatically suppose the dead ringer will behave just like the lookalike. A young friend of mine refuses to let me fix her up because her sister’s life was nearly ruined by a scamming Lothario so all men are supposed to be untrustworthy. My grandmother spent almost all of her 98 years enthralled by moving pictures, going to them constantly and by the time I came along, movies had become her reference manual and life was playing dirty tricks. How come none of my boyfriends looked like Cary Grant? Why couldn’t my sister fix her hair like Sandra Dee? Who did the maid think she was: Pearl Bailey? Why wasn’t my uncle more like Gregory Peck? And then when her daughter/my mother died of cancer, she brutally blamed my father and me for not finding the right medical hero because in the movies she would have been saved.

Since then a whole entertainment fixated nation unable to distinguish between the fiction of the screen and the facts of life elected an acting President and most recently an acting governor whose virtual Terminator image was supposed to be the virtue necessary to ram the political logjam called California. The most pathetic part of the whole O. J. Simpson murder soap opera was the labor class belief that he couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong because having that much money is supposed to make everybody happy ever after.

We also stagger through life totally blinded by the shoulds, oughts and musts that Pema Chodron calls our personal agenda memoed to a universe that could care less. Fashionistas painstakingly organize their wardrobe because you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day or stars with stripes; fascists painfully re-organize their country because women are supposed to live buried alive in fabric from head to toe. SUV/Hummer drivers are all screaming their ego off because gasoline is not supposed to cost almost $4.00 a gallon and seekers of organic food scream Foul! when filling whole supermarkets everywhere with it requires unorganic industrialization. The newspaper says it’s not supposed to be blazingly sunny in San Francisco in July and hey, cosmos, you’re supposed to have turned Iraq into an instant replay of American democracy--at least the kind before the coup d'etat of 2000.

This is why we have become a litiginous culture of complaint. Did you hear the one about the San Francisco couple who sued their landlord for a rent reduction because the city utility jackhammering out in the street was disturbing their peace? Or the nouveau riche whippersnapper in Sausalito so sure he’s entitled to an unobstructed view of the bay, he’s trying to force the City Council to make all his neighbors cough up $60,000 each to have the utility lines dropped under ground, even the old timers whose Social Security checks won’t add up to that for five years? And all those suburban parents storming the schools because their college-bound brats are supposed to get all As? What really freaks me out is that so many tourists complained about not seeing the ocean along every mile of Route One in Maine that the State actually spent a second thinking about a miraculous wonder bridge from Portland to Penobscot Bay.

Genuine travelers of course never put their suppositions in their suitcase; they travel light and get far. That way they find only serendipity, never disappointment. Buddha means the awakened one, Buddhism to wake up and smell the delusion. Enlightenment is in fact sometimes expressed in Tibetan as “collapse of delusion.”

Frankly I just wanted my bad mood to go away. In the Dharma, if you can’t change your circumstances you are told to change your mind. So I put on a big lavender colored tea party straw bonnet I never think of wearing and went to the bay. I walked as I always do along Crissy Field’s gravel path but this time I also took my shoes off and waded off the beach into the tidal pools of warm salt water where little kids were splashing. I didn’t care that I got wet. I got a little sun tan on my arms and ankles and started to feel so much better. Then I drove over to Chestnut Street, stood in line and bought a scoop of Mitchell’s mango ice cream. I was walking down the street in my big straw hat window shopping, licking the last trace of it off the plastic spoon when I realized what I’d done. I drove home giddily humming that old Mick Jagger lyric: “you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” The Dharma urges us: Be here now. Then we all have ice cream and go to the seashore.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Last November when my spirit felt as though it were getting dark as the days, I bought a kite. The old-fashioned, elegant simplicity of making a colorful little cutout float high on a breeze seemed ideal self-medication for getting myself uplifted, and the timelessly plain, child sized diamond with two fluttering ribbons cost something like $12.00 which was mighty cheap for a non-Canadian prescription.

As I suspected, it is impossible to look down or feel down when flying a kite; the tug is totally upward. My spirit lifted as I ran across San Francisco’s big bayside lawn, working the wind with that bobbing and diving diamond. Somebody else had a vividly colored clipper ship sailing across the sky and somebody had a huge red box bouncing on four long white strings, its blue ribbons in beguiling flutter as it swooped and rose, swooped and rose, now on this side, now on that side of the enchanting clipper. And under them both flapped my little diamond with two ribbons. I came away exhilarated, so happy I went out and bought a seagull kite with a four-foot wingspan.

This joy had to be shared for instructions warned one person must loft the kite while another person unfurls the string to guide it. I invited friends to join me barefoot on the beach. First they were surprised by what seemed an outlandish idea, then they were surprised by how addicting keeping a kite in the air flow can be—even when that gull tanked, which it did way too often. Over and over with the stubborn repetitiveness of Ground Hog Day, we launched big bird, furiously furled out string, ran this way and that, cooing and shooing and being entranced by its buoyant leaps into the stratosphere. Trying to fly high was heady fun, such innocent forgotten buoyant cheer, nothing seemed to matter but keeping up the kite and the good time. When we quit, we were effervescent.

It's not easy to feel glad to be alive in a world where Odes to Joy are limited to Beethoven’s Ninth. We pass our days in a culture of complaint: synonyms for “discontent” take up one full page of Roget’s Original Thesaurus, 1962, as do those for “suffering”, but they do not flow freely for “joy.” After pleasure, delight and rapture, they slip into honeymoon, indulgence and beatitude. This is a shortcoming that reminds me how much my high school posse used to scheme to get our friend Andi out of the house without encountering her uptight mother, for if any of us chirped that rhetorical “How are you?” we were stuck listening to a ten to twenty minute litany of all the slights, ills and resentments of her past 48 hours. She was incapable of saying: “Fine” or “Great!” or even smiling.

When thirty years ago the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell decoded ancient wisdom and told young people to “follow your bliss”, the entire corporate-political-button down ivory league establishment came whipcracking down with fiery misguided attacks on his seeming invocation to drug up and tune/space out. They shot him down so viciously nobody examined what he meant by much owed to joy. Nobody ever again mentioned bliss as a goal, let alone a need.

As it happens, two weeks ago I followed my bliss back to Maine. I needed to be there on a summer day when the seals swim in the high tide, the great blue heron stalks in the low and I splash in that warm channel of the great salt sea at my door. For ten days happiness was the major nutrient of my life. I made strawberry jam, planted flowers, paddled my kayak, basked on flat ledges in the warm sun and sipped gin and tonic at sunset sitting barefoot by the bay with old friends. I heard the screen door slam and the fridge open onto the precious bounty of the land. I saw the people I want to see because they were willing to give time to see me. I fell asleep –the smell of the sea still in my hair--reading an enchanting story while the full moon blushed red as it slid over pitch dark pines, its jovial reflection echoing in the ripples of the bay below.

The effect was utterly magical. Nothing momentous happened, even the July 4th fireworks were the usual fizzy failures, but being where you want to be and who you are piles happiness on happiness into peak experience that unleashes an avalanche of joy burying doubt and fear. Contentment is a still point in the churning sales pitch world: I had no inclination to purchase anything, to change anything, to go anywhere, to stir anyone up, to feel sorrow or jealousy or unconfident or self-conscious. I was so satisfied with myself I didn’t even bother to put on lipstick when in public. Blocked by neither boredom nor discontent days flowed free. With no obstacle to go around, I felt no resistance. Gliding like a sailboat or a kite running with the wind, I learned that bliss is simply the absence of struggle. No dissatisfaction guaranteed.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is said to have chided his American students that while the universe is continually raining blessings down they keep holding their umbrella up. Blessings turn out to be those small joys that materialize—getting to Maine when you want to, getting a parking space or a plane seat in the exit row or an unanticipated call from an old love suddenly thinking of you. Blessings include the freedom to go to the movies and get an aisle seat without a seven foot man suddenly plopping down in front of you or finding the jammed freeway lane momentarily free of traffic as you zoom in from the on-ramp or not getting the condo whose market value fell two months after the closing. They are shiny street pennies that once you train yourself to spot can become, as happened to me, the cosmic gift of a curbside $5 bill everyone else passes by.If you look you can detect pattern. And if you get thankful, you will see yourself protected, showered everywhere with gifts and good luck and doors opening, reasons to be joyful that add up to the sheer bliss of being you alive.

This can actually keep you alive. I spent my Saturday morning in paradise sitting on my dock in the bay with my friend Mei, a powerful Chinese physician who has spent the last 15 years so miraculously helping cancer patients to survive she’s been invited to participate in research at Harvard Medical School. I told her the Dalai Lama’s twenty years of dialogue with Western scientists on the mind/body connection has revealed physical proof that the mind definitely impacts the immune system. Brain changes can be charted. “Yes!” she cried, her hands shooting up to frame her head, “yes! I have been saying this for years: cancer is 70% up here. That is most of what I treat.”

Three weeks earlier a sick friend had envied my steady health, saying I am lucky because I have good genes. But I’ve had physical difficulties that I now see were simultaneous with emotional ones, so my bet is on having good joy. My mother exited her unhappy life by dying of cancer when she was 50. My friend Andi tormented by that malcontent mother was eaten away by cancer at the age of 35. The day after I got back from Maine I went to get my hair cut and found the usually voluble Tina bummed by news that she needed to be re-tested for possible cancer. She had just started suffering from edema—today she was trying support hose—and she just hates it when stuff like this happens. When we got down to the stuff happening —Miss Type A desperately holding on to a cheating ex-husband and the house they lived in so they could join in another real estate deal, I could see that with all her resistance dedicated to fighting reality (she didn’t want to let go of husband and move to Plan B), she had none left for her immune system. Was it any wonder her body was holding on too, to water and toxins?

I am writing all this because I left that beauty salon and came face to face with my own inexorable sorrow. My Maine idyll had included a most unexpected call from the man it is my sad fate to love to the depth of my being, a man who evidently loves me profoundly too for after more than a year of no contact, he was calling to say he needed the sight of me again. Perhaps happiness is mysteriously magnetic. Maybe the phone call was a blessing like the full red moon. Maybe it was a blessing to sip tea that afternoon sitting across from my personal piece de resistance learning yet again that mine is a thwarted, aborted love because he is tragically afflicted by narcissism, which prevents him from relating normally to others. When he left, both of us stuck as usual on start with nowhere to go, I watched myself tank like that airborne seagull. Unable to rejoice that I loved someone who actually loved me back, I swallowed my dismay, resisting the wisdom of letting go. I didn't care if I was blessed by being spared suffering that might come from getting closer to this damaged and damaging being. I felt heavy, lethargic, dazed from coming so close yet being so far from what ought to have been the jackpot of joy. My body shrank from the weight of pain. A friend said I sounded weak and bleary when I answered the telephone. I told her why. “O come on now,” she responded crisply. “String him up, string him along. What I am trying to say is: go fly a kite!”

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