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.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Light and air have made a cosmic shift as darkness stalks us earlier each day and a vague chill in even the sunniest shine sends us indoors, closer to each other and those cold viruses waiting in ambush. This feels like 4 o’ clock on a Dharma day, that identifiable moment when the energy that has been keeping a meditator aloft since dawn starts to shift downward with the natural light. The oncoming spooky shadows and intimations of a finish line can make one so fidgety that 4:00 PM is the moment chosen to stop meditating, bang the drums and pray to the protectors. It is a pick-me-up, a wake up call.

Protection would hit the spot right now as the clocks turn backward. Halloween this Tuesday gives way to Election Day the next, as though cramming all the spookiness and fang baring into this tipping point will acclimate us to shivering before winter actually forces us to. The coming days of scary costumes, scare tactics, scaredy cats will be brimming with guiles gone wild. First the kids will dress up pretending to be whoever they’re not and go around begging strangers for candy, then adults will dress up pretending to be who they’re not and go around begging strangers for votes. Then comes snow.

Signs of vampirish desperation brought by the scent of winter scream at you like headline barkers. On my deck in San Francisco, spiders have spun my potato vine into a massive food gathering web, more intricate and exquisite than the huge fringy loopy white dime store webs strung in imitation along the fronts of Pacific Heights’ mansions adorned with plastic black spiders the size of Hummers. And of course all over the television and the newspapers, even the internet, frenzied spinners are working overtime to trap the unsuspecting in the thread, at least according to this morning’s paper, that electing a Democrat anywhere in America will unleash the horror of socially conscious liberals killing fetuses and the matching horror of San Francisco street front homosexuality in your face. And you won’t be able to keep your gun to save yourself from it. Boo hoo.

The front page of today’s newspaper says this year’s Halloween costumes are all short, skimpy and startlingly sexy even for six year olds because, as the manager of a Halloween store is quoted, “sexy is the new scary.” And here I thought it was the oldest one. Actually it seems scarier that the morning after the Hallmark holiday, when millions confront a stockpile of high fructose corn syrup in its most compelling forms, is called The Day of the Dead. The name is a leftover from the ancient Celtic belief that in this cosmic shift of energy at summer’s end, the souls of those who passed during the preceding year want to come back to life before it is too late—like the Democratic Party. And so the eve is dedicated to scaring the rattling skeletons away with fat headed goblins, bribery with sweet things and ghoulish pranks –like the Republican Party. And it seems quite spooky too, doesn’t it, that the morning after the Hellmark clash of the frightens that we call election day marks the start of turkey time.

On this threshold of that season for thanks and giving, the emphasis seems to be totally on giving. If on Halloween the disguised kids trick you into not recognizing their true identity, you’ve got to treat them nicely to something sweet so they go away. If on Holloween adults trick you the same way, you’ve also got to hand over a sweet pay off, like four or six years all expenses paid plus pension. Both ways you are asked to give up all vestiges of intelligence and either way there’s no thanks for you, unless of course you hold to that old aphorism: the Lord loves a cheerful giver —even after considering that no matter what the Republican Party insists, the Lord is not here right now soliciting you either for a campaign contribution or a Mars Bar.

As it happens, this seasonal conceit of deceit is big business. Kids say Boo! You say Who? And all that masquerading trickery and candy treating makes Halloween the second highest holiday profit zone in the GNP, runner-up to the gift giving orgy that is Christmas. This does not even take into account the mountain of money that goes year round into paying people to dress up and pretend to be who they are not so that as celebrities endorsing this and that they can get you to open your wallet the way householders open their doors on Halloween. Not does it factor in paying people to dress up as your representative endorsing this or that check without a balance to get the government to open its treasury. Today’s paper says $500 million has been spent so far on California elections. Boo.

The appearance of money seems to create its own reality. The other day’s paper said restaurant entrees have flown over $40 with no sides attached because people think expensive has to mean good. And even if they boo that equation, they’re still likely to grab the overpriced $35 entrée as a bargain. Evidently, businessmen are just like God: they too love people who give cheerfully.

This one week in American life when there is at least some focus on the relationship between appearance and reality brings commonality to the United States of America and Tibetan Buddhist dharma. After all, they are both all about appearances —their crassness and their hollowness. It’s just that while Buddhism is dedicated to the belief that appearances are so hollow they can never be reality, America—the land of the see! where showboaters and snake oil salesmen play trick or treat every day-- is dedicated to the idea that appearance can be profitably substituted for reality. Just look at California which voted for The Terminator for governor.

Maybe the mass delusion of kids in costume for Halloween is cute and maybe the mass delusion of Republicans about the war in Iraq is acute but how can you describe the ghoulish Second Life craze that’s led millions of people to out source themselves and their entire lives to a computer avatar as anything but spooky? Hiding behind an avatar on a computer screen mimicking the great and wonderful Oz does not ward off the atavistic panic brought to us by the calendar’s reminder we are in downtime, an end zone, that we are neither omnipotent nor immortal. This past week 35,000 true believers crowded the Oracle convention where lots of new technology was ripe to harvest. And still the children dress up pretending to be strong (boys) or beautiful (girls) or magical (both). Still the adults come as they aren’t and party as though November 1 really is the day of the dead. This is the week when all the demons and skeletons come out of the closet and objects in the mirror are all grosser than they appear. Everywhere false teeth, false faces, false hair, false promises, Falstaff, trick or treat. As Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says, in people’s hopes you can see their fears, in their appearance their reality.

This week of make believe in which people put so much effort into making you believe, makes you wonder how different life from sea to shining sea would be if elections took place in spring. That’s when we rush clocks ahead, dance around Maypoles, flaunt eggs as a sign of life and giggle lightheartedly about the silliness of April fools. At that time of year we talk about rising from the dead as a lovely inspiration, no skeletons to scare you as they do now when we eat Snickers and shiver at the news of heavy handed pranks involving fire, blood, smashing pumpkins, robbing for Apples. Now the onrushing dark makes us frightened of things black: cats, crows, spiders, the good folk of New Orleans, all those wizened old European grandmothers whose traditional black clothes make kids today think witches are crones in black. Ah bubble bubble toil and trouble. Women are of course bewitching and this time of year Republican men are likely to call smart speak-up ones witchy while in spring women are considered fetching and Congress gives us Mother’s Day.

As Spring is the season of hope, fall is the season of fear. Creation leads inevitably to completion, everything in such flux new life is given, nurtured, takes its place in the world—yours, so that you are eventually superfluous, obsolete, spent. Ancient people celebrated not only the year’s harvest of the dead at the food harvest time but feted all souls and all saints—the do-gooder dead, on the November 2nd Catholic memorial day. To remember the dead is of course to remember you are going to be among them soon and that is the ultimate scary, newest and oldest, especially as winter chill and winter kill and flu season all rush in. And so the big annual fear fest, Samsara on parade.

Bang the drum and pray to the protectors. The Tibetan Buddhist ones have skeletons aplenty and are as demonic as it gets. They’re covered with skulls. They’re black, they’re ghoulishly ugly, they’re fang toothed fierce, they’re dripping blood. They can give you the shivers. You are told to offer them a cup of tea, especially around 4:00pm. This is, I guess, a kind of trick or treat placation, although in truth you treat the protectors because you cannot trick them. Whatever your guise or appearance, they remind you that in Samsara it’s always Halloween —a spooky dance of conceited appearances, endless boo-boos, ghostly insubstantiality. You ask them to protect you from mistaking these appearance for reality. You offer tea as you ask them to remove all the obstacles, all the darkness, delusion and disguises you live in, so you can come as you are--a kind of coming out party into the real world. My teacher says if you look carefully at the ferociously fanged mouth of the skull covered bulging eyed black demon protector Mahakala, there is no need to shiver because you will see how broadly he is smiling, happy to wake you up to the idea that you can get there from here.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006


Aging is such an extreme sport that players sometimes make surprisingly outlandish maneuvers. For example, sensing every human being in the lithe generational herds pushing behind me had long since done it, shoving me into the ossified flock of fogies and fossils, I impulsively bought an iPod. After all, I like music as much if not more than the next listener: I went to my first symphony concert when I was four, had my first piano lesson at five and wanted to be Oscar Peterson when I was 13 spending my allowance on his records. So why not?

Getting an iPod is of course like having a baby or a Barbi: not a simple addition to your life. You’ve got to accessorize. With the baby it’s the cradle and stroller, rattle and bottles; with Barbi the outfits and Ken. With the iPod it’s the headphones,carrying case, software and speakers for when you finally put it down, microphone, car adapter and so on. It provides fitness exercise for your credit card.

Then too, like a baby, iPod needs full attention to get up and running. It subtracted my time. I had to surf the net to study possibilities, drive to stores to test realities, debate with seasoned owners the need for a car radio adapter. When finally the results of my investigations came in, I had a Himalayan high pile of packaging trash on the floor and a small spread of strange objects on the desk. This led to countless hours of engineering, first to get rid of all that trash--in of course an environmentally sensitive way, and then to feed every CD I already owned into my black computer so its software could regurgitate it like a mother bird into my gleaming white iPod.

When finally the dirty work was done, I was psyched for magic. In the palm of my hand Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina were going to sing
Aguas de Marco and I was going to back up into the legions of the young and foolish. In a shwoosh of joy, I hit that target icon. Nothing happened. I hit it again. I mentally screamed: “Burp it out!” as I smacked that iPod so it would “breathe.” Silence. I was furious. I dropped the uncooperative little gadget on my desk and stalked off. Then I remembered: headphones! Headphones are the point. They were also the point of the iPod’s predecessor the Walkman and, alas, the dirty little reason I never bought one of those is headphones. I can’t abide the way they smash the sides of my head to squeeze music into it like some kind of brain chemotherapy. What the hell was I doing with an iPod?

I tried not to get depressed about the money spent or more depressed about my antipathy to earphones representing a generation gap. I struggled to think of the iPod as a karmic gift, something that had come into my life as a Buddhist genie to make me toss out stale habits, come unstuck and think freshly. To buttress this notion, I swallowed misgivings about having yet more to schlep through security checks and down airport corridors, and took the iPod with its entourage on my trip to Nepal.

That made me exceed all limits of carry-on baggage. I sat on the jumbo jet, a woman who has never once used the free inflight headphones, weighed down by worry about having to use my own. Having dragged the iPod into the stratosphere I felt obliged to use it when I really just wanted to read my book and snooze, the way I usually do on planes. I got out my book. The thought of that gadget under the seat in front nagged and pestered. I couldn’t read. I put down my book and bashed my head against the seat in front as I reached down to pull the damned thing up. I struggled to nestle my ears into my plush new headphones, only to realize I had to take my fat clip-on earrings off and find a safe place to store them. With so many habits under attack I felt besieged. This was the worst flight I ever made.

I put the headphones back on, inserted the wires and hit that target icon. Bingo! I was 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean listening to Sunday with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard 50 years and 5,000 miles back. I was also hearing my thirty-something technical advisors tell me to buy only the extra expensive headphones that block out all external sound or I’d be really sorry. My earphones had cost over $200 yet I could hear the airplane engine crooning to the clouds as Bill Evans played his piano at the Village Vanguard.

Phooey on $225 plus tax earphones for not being good enough but I was neither angry nor sorry. I was glad for the surround sound. After all, I wasn’t at the Village Vanguard. I was in mid air over the Pacific Ocean and that airplane engine was my personal GPS, my way of keeping in touch. The drone was the perfect sound track: a reminder I was transporting myself from one point on the planet to another, heading half way around the world, no turning back, for a very short visit only a jumbo jet like this could make possible. The engine purr outside the window made more sense to the situation than the jazz trio at the Village Vanguard streaming into my ears. Weren’t passengers cocooned in the claws of their headphones missing all that free Fiesta Mix and ice-cubed soda because they couldn’t hear the stewardess offering? Weren’t people getting killed by cars because they jogged along the streets with their ears so padded with music they couldn’t hear vehicles speeding by? The deaf want to hear; why would anyone want to make themselves deliberately deaf?

Being far too busy living its happenings then sleeping them off, I did not use my iPod the rest of the trip. Maybe that’s why guilt was sky high back in San Francisco where the waiting credit card statement greeted me like a scolding finger. I had bought this expensive toy and wasn’t playing with it. I decided to do what younger people do: take the iPod out for exercise. I stuffed it into my fleece vest pocket, next to the cell phone I pray never rings when in personal time out I walk along the beach of Crissy Field happy in reverie or reverent mantras that put power in my walk there.

Of course just as I didn’t want the phone to interrupt this precious interlude, I didn’t want the iPod to interfere with the surround sound. Why I walk on the beach is partly to wallow in the energy of its uniquely joyous music: the honk of gulls over the soft lap of waves, the sharp bark of dogs demanding the Frisbee be thrown, the sweet shriek of kids as the tide touches their toes, the haunting moan of fog or ship horns. Those noises guide every pore of me to understand I am at the edge of the sea, here and now. The sounds of the beach, like the white noise of the jet engine, are how I help myself stay “awake”--the 24/7 job of a working Buddhist. Why would I imprison my ears in headphones to block them out and become totally oblivious to what is happening?

Not using the iPod for exerecise made me feel even closer to fogiedom than I was before I bought it. I took the suggestion to go back and try the earbud, that little dollop of white plastic that is the only free friend an iPod has in the world. It was supposed to let me “multitask” by hearing my music in one ear and my life in the other. Getting it into my ear however took a real Cirque de Soleil balancing act and then, being plugged in that tight, the damned thing hurt.

Even more painful was turning myself into a split personality. My attention span was caught in a brutal tug of war between competing ears: music…life…music… Maybe this happened because I’d once spent a half day at a retreat sitting in meditation trying to answer the question: do you see and hear at exactly the same nanosecond or as they register on consciousness, do senses land sequentially, subtly one at a time? With the earbud my brain, aka my ability to focus, had become the busy ball of a ping pong match and my consciousness was getting exhausted watching it. I think I was unwittingly investigating that question all over again as it applied to input from the iPod. Could I hear music and life at the same nanosecond or one before the other in what order?

The question piqued because I'd just read a newspaper article about surgeons including iPods and headphones in their scrub gear. Reading that doctors work to a soundtrack and claim the music relaxes them scared me. If they have the really expensive headphones I don’t know how they hear the nurses or the patient and if they have an earbud I don’t know how they keep it plugged in if they are moving around. And what I really don’t know is how they think they are truly focused on their patient. The answer to that meditation question, confirmed by other practitioners, is that our conscious attention to sensory input is not simultaneous, it is sequential. You cannot focus on the patient and the music at the same second; you have intermittent concentration when you pay attention to two sources of sensory input.

On page 152 of the Dalai Lama's latest book,
The Universe in a Single Atom, I’d recently read that training in attention is closely linked with learning how to control our mental processes. Talking about all the young people now diagnosed with attention deficit disorders, His Holiness says their problem is the ability to direct their attention willfully when there is more than one thing happening. He seems to imply that ours is a culture dedicated to the happening of more than one thing at a time, thus to creating this disorder. The iPod is symbolic of this: a little weapon of mass distraction.

Why else does it make for all those parodies of teenagers who flagrantly tune in deliberately to tune out? The young ones don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear because they want the world to be their way— with easy fingertip control. This is of course the ultimate fantasy of a child emerging from the crawling confines of toddlerdom into the walkabout world: the perfect and smooth life where everything is made to order just as you want it so you never have to hit the bump of the unpleasant—or develop skills to get over it. It is life in a womb, a cocoon of one’s own spinning. It is the narcissist Jonah pushed into the belly of the whale by his own resistance to the adult responsibility of abandoning self-absorption. He did not want to listen to somebody else; he wanted to do his own thing his own way. And when he got out of the whale he was buried alive in a gourd for the same deliberate obliviousness to anything but himself.

The whale, the gourd, I suppose are ancient metaphors for the living death of narcissism, for the oblivion of tuning out—on land and sea since they didn't go by jet plane in the Bible. What then was I going to do with the iPod? Plug it into the tabletop speakers! What an old fashioned solution to a new fangled problem: share it. I plugged the speakers into the outlet, nestled the iPod between, hit the target and Bingo! There was Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina singing
Aquas de Marco turning my kitchen into a nightclub where my dinner guests, most of them young and foolish, could hear and share my joy at the seemingly infinite amount of wondrous music that can emerge from such a little instrument.

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