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, November 26, 2006


America’s Color War had truce for a day. Squabbling stopped so everybody in the country—the rednecks, bluebloods, greens and blacks-- could sit down to gobble turkey, except perhaps those who were eating crow. In the roughly same nine-hour time frame, over 250 million human beings spread from the squat of Aroostook County to the splat of San Diego became one giant turkey focus group, 30 million forkfuls per hour of dark or white meat with cranberry, stuffing and pumpkin pie. That includes a huge extended family of Tibetans worrying because they’d never cooked a turkey before, a Chilean family that went to a friend’s, the Chinese family that came to my house and the South Africans I joined afterwards. The newspaper says even our troops in Iraq stopped fighting long enough to eat Thanksgiving dinner. Isn’t the power of food awesome? Grease on earth.

Like a magnet waved over the landmass from sea to shining sea, a bird herded us, despite our flaunted diversity, into one robotic feast food nation. It makes you wonder if in his heyday Stalin had such totalitarian conformity. Hitler did because he made the Gestapo dumpster dive to be certain housewives were serving only German fare like ham hocks with sauerkraut and not foreign food like roast beef or coq au vin. But that can’t happen here because we are a freedom crazed people, a nation of rugged diehard individualists who insist with guns in our pocket that life be served our way. Nobody orders us around-- except the fourth Thursday of November when an invisible hand pushes us to pass on the cheeseburger and order turkey. DeToqueville admired us as a nation of plucky volunteers and look how we all volunteer to be cowed into sheepishly flocking to the supermarket to herd into the same brightly lit aisles desperately seeking the very same menu ingredients.

It’s a bit odd of course that a nation so gaga over the new, so proud of disposables and so keen on makeovers, a country whose men are going to the moon while its kids are going to hell, has yet to throw over this quaint tradition for something younger, mean and lean. We may go through airport security lines instead of over the river and through the woods, we may be wireless with earphones on our heads instead of Pilgrim hats, but we are still wired up to get to the table on the same old day to eat the same old dinner. And nobody wants to be the turkey who messes with it. We are in fact so slavish to the set menu, there are turkey camps and turkey hotlines. Friends of mine went to dine with a strict vegetarian who assured them she knew how to make a fabulous brined turkey.

At another great tribal feast, Passover, four pointed questions get asked about why at this moment certain items must be on the menu. The one question not asked at Thanksgiving is why 250 million of us have turkey on ours. It is not exactly a top of the food chain A List heart’s desire like lobster and while we were out grabbing our 20 lbs this year, historians were arguing whether or not turkey and Thanksgiving even existed. Maybe the fowle mentioned in the scribble was duck or flyover Canada geese. Maybe like native seacoast tribes they ate seafood such as smoked clams and oysters or like English fishermen who came way before them the Plymouth pilgrims were a people under cod. Maybe they had nothing to eat. But we do and it’s so terrifying to overturn the turkey tradition to which we all cling, I’ve steadfastly cooked turkeys for the last 25 years. I may have broken more than my share of rules in my life, but I am not about to be the revolutionary who cries: Let them eat hake!

You could say this meal has four questions too: turkey in or out of the bag? Truss? Stuff or don’t stuff? How much should you stuff yourself? After all, this is great gorge, the annual manifestation of all American know how, harvest of can do. The celebration of abundance isn’t celebrated properly until you’re sickeningly full from doing all the eating you can do. And then you run it off by running around doing all the shopping you can do, stuffing stockings and mailboxes and shopping carts in 30 days or less. This, our one universally scripted and shared American holiday, begs the question: is our nation’s motto really: in God we trust, or Fill’er up!

We even supersize by stuffing the refrigerator. Evidently we’ve got not just an imprinted impulse to fill the oven with a big Bird on Thursday morning and our stomachs on Thursday afternoon but an imprinted fear of not having weekend leftovers to groan and brag about. I must’ve cooked a dozen Thanksgiving turkeys before I discovered my guests weren’t taking any home because they’d secretly roasted their own birds before showing up, to avoid feeling cheated by emptiness when they got home. Turkey a la king, turkey tetrazzini, turkey sandwiches and all those conjugations nobody would be caught dead cooking in April became a cherished part of the gobbling rites/rights because, it seems, we are so addicted to replays we can’t just be done with turkey at once and move on to lox and bagels.

We chafe of course at conformity and feel superior to societies that are highly structured like China’s with its rigid family ties. But the late Trungpa Rinpoche said that discipline, structure and routine are true sources of free expression. In the inflexible framework of thangkha painting, for example, where figures must adhere to absolute metric proportion and be presented in a text mandated way, you can clearly see the individuality of the artist managing to make something out of these inviolable strictures. In the kitchen confines of turkeydom, you can taste the individual chef’s personality in the sage or butter, Gravy Master or Julia Child technique, the typical roasting or daredevil deep frying, or in my case the slathering with a homemade barbeque sauce that makes what someone this year called “a real kickass turkey.”

You could also do an anthropology thesis on the difference between the servers of the butterball turkey with the pop-up thermometer built in as a body part, the heritage turkey, the organic turkey, the all natural turkey, the freshly shot wild turkey, the turkey from the wild farm up the road, the take out turkey either from Trader Joe or the Ritz, the turducken. And include those Slow Food folks who actually asked me to drive two hours up to Sonoma County to help kill elite turkeys—no experience necessary—to appreciate the whole process.

It’s in fact a Dharma point that there is no such thing as conformity, all of us seeing things the same way. Perspective depends on where you are. Often the teaching analogy is a glass of water: thirsty humans see it as life support, airport security sees it as a lethal weapon, fraternity boys see it as useless because they want booze, a fish sees it as a place to live in, an insect sees it as a death trap, a Westerner who has just eaten chili laden Asian food sees it as a fire extinguisher. And yet it is merely a glass of water. So we imbue the fourth Thursday of every November with our own meaning. For everybody it’s a food tradition to which we are stubbornly attached: mashed turnip or sweet potatoes with those melted marshmallows on top, Susan Stamberg’s mother’s cranberry horseradish sauce or cornbread stuffing not Pepperidge Farm. You can't mess with this culinary clinging. I am still getting flack for serving mashed celeriac instead of mashed potatoes six years ago.

For middle aged men Thanksgiving Day means football day, for middle aged women it’s labor day, for kids it’s a school day off with no homework, for those who left home it’s time to go back home ready or not, for the Rotorooter guy it’s a banner day, busiest of the year (I heard this on public radio), for turkey farmers it’s count the cash day at the close of the season and for retailers it’s opening day of open season: wrap music. We claim it as a harvest holiday but the New England harvest on which it is predicated comes early in October, the time of Canadian Thanksgiving. Congress craftily set the date for this meal of wretched excess deliberately to set off the whole season of wretched excess known as Xmas.

We like to brag that this is thus the sort of secular, religion free holiday that defines our culture. But Americans build banks in the style of grandiose Greek temples and financial office buildings with the awesome ceiling height of cathedrals because money worship defines our culture. Ingot we trust. That's why Thanksgiving has all the hallmarks of its sacred rite: after the ritual killing of our native fauna, seers look into cash registers on Friday and pronounce the future just like Cassandra, the oracle of Delphi and any gypsy reader of tea leaves. The omens on this Black Friday evidently portend a good following wind for the fleet. The season won't be a turkey. Prophets predict profits as the headline blares: SHOPPERS FLOCK TO ANSWER THE SIREN SONG OF SAVINGS.

On Thanksgiving Day our paper ran an article on research into how to find happiness. An East Coast life coach was pictured, and quoted saying she went to Harvard, therefore she knew how to handle complicated issues. Perhaps she should get out of Cambridge and into the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade because this year against the wind it took a militarily strategic effort --aerodynamic engineers and meteorologists and emergency managers and Santa Claus and of course piles of police armed with pole mounted anemometers and hand held computers. Frankly that magical parade is the only source of happiness I know that can get complicated.

The rest is as easy as…apple pie. As that other life coach the Buddha said: it’s just takes clear seeing, taking the blinders off. We’ve put the pursuit of happiness right up there with life, liberty and a juicy turkey but we're so blinded by the bright lights of salesmanship we've gone off in hot pursuit, seeing happiness as something that can be purchased. Egos get as inflated as Macy's gigantic balloons by the idea of having the thingamajig juste, the IT as EBay says. As we see it in our marketing induced visualization, the iPod, the Nike Airs, the Mercedes SUV c’est moi! So the crush of the supermarket moves to the mall where at dawn on Black Friday as shopping cart stuffing revved into high gear fisticuffs erupted in the aisles of discount electronic stores. This is the crescendo the economy has been waiting for all year. The cheerleaders are good to go. Black Friday turns green before dawn, the New York Times announced.

We stuff our turkeys, our faces, our mailboxes, our closets, our academia, our lives, filling up with "happiness" to prevent a way for the Buddha’s truth of suffering to get in. But you can’t keep it out. The morning after Thanksgiving when the Playstations were flying and the new Snoopy balloon deflated, my South African host and his very pregnant wife were cleaning up the gold plated dishes in their Bay view triplex when he got a call that his best friend, age 42, inexplicably dropped dead in London where he’d gone to help his aging mother.

Suffering is what's complicated. So is all that manufactured cheer that makea us think we can escape it and makes those who know we can't feel depressed this time of year. All that stuffing. We’re up from the table and zig zagging like chickens with their heads cut off on a stress baste marathon of voluntary must-dos: gotta get the presents, the wrapping, the cards, the tree, the treats, the airplane tickets, gotta yatta. And smile! for the digital camera. Just like getting the turkey and cranberry and pumpkin pie on the table Thursday, everyone’s clinging to the same unexamined self-imposed volunteer must-dos for the same moment, certain the world will come to a crashing end if we don’t stuff the stockings, get to the Bahamas or get the new Zune for Junior by December 24th. There is nothing out there but a frenzy whipped up out of thin air like the cream that went on the pumpkin pie (can’t have pie without whipped cream, I was told by a Chinese American guest). Thursday was the proverbial calm before the swarm when all the stuffed turkeys got up from the table.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006


One basic law of gravity Isaac Newton evidently didn’t discover is that as that energy pushes relentlessly down, your waist pushes relentlessly out. I used to think this was divine retribution on men, since a pregnant woman has a swollen midriff only as long as nine months while they get to carry a big belly through years of middle and old age, delivering nothing in the end-- if you don’t, noises. But it isn’t fair or funny that gravitas settles down on women so that our waist uncontrollably widens until we are no longer an hour glass but rather a Stonehenge monolith. The last thing I need is that kind of growth opportunity.

Yet ready or not here it is. The little button in my right hand has fallen a telltale half inch short of that little hole in my left and all the breath holding in the yoga canon doesn’t get it in there. Neither does giving up chocolate croissants to show the universe I am making some kind of compromise here, that I am a player. Gravity is a merciless opponent. While I was playing it killed three skirts and eight pairs of pants, three of them part of pants suits.

It’s mind boggling how something as seamingly little as a half-inch can matter so much. After years and years of carefully collecting—spending and getting, I have three closets packed with expensive clothes but absolutely nothing to wear. It’s going to cost such a small fortune and eat up so much time to re-upholster myself, I am having a fit that nothing fits.

Besides, I am quite used to my stuff. Some of my clothes have been with me for a long time. Having them hanging around is comforting for they are like old friends. That purple silk skirt was at my 50th birthday dinner, those khaki pants were in Bhutan with me. How can I just throw them out? That red chemise dress from Manhattan days could come back in style any season now, maybe those fleece lined Maine jeans that got me through so many wet San Francisco winters will fit next month if I stop eating this one. I have a sweater that keeps reminding me I wore it when I sat through a snowy 30 day retreat in 1991. I have jackets I can’t bear to part with because the fabrics are so exquisite and the tailoring so elegant you can’t replace them in this era of quick sewn crap.

In truth, I have so many hangers-on on the hangers in my closets, it’s almost as choking tight in those hope chests as my clothes are on me. But also in truth I have kept stuff through thin and thick in case of a fashion emergency. I never know who I will need to be and fear I won’t have the proper props to be it. I stagger out of bed every morning, stare in the mirror and trigger a crise de couture. Who do I feel like today? What should I look like? Intimidating? Simplified? Expensive? Suburban colorful or downtown black? Whimsical? Comfortable? My age, whatever that looks like? When society says clothes make the woman you can’t do one guise fits all. There is so much more to pull together than just a top and bottom that it’s always a struggle to dress —you know, for success. Every morning is a Halloween put on for a day of trick or treat put on so you’ve got to get it just right. Be all you can look like.

Sometimes I remember an older woman I met years ago who confessed she had stayed in the military after World War II partly because having an assigned uniform spared her wasting time agonizing in the morning over what to wear. She hated that. I hate that --which is one sneaky little reason I like to go into solitary retreat: it’s comic relief to wear whatever I can grab without giving a hoot about aesthetics or approval because there’s nobody around to hoot. Throwing on checks with plaid or red with green and anything baggy is a good reminder of how profoundly opinion affects us and how great is the joy of letting go. But of course like everything else, reminders and joy and retreats are impermanent. I still have three closets jammed with killer clothes.

Among them I do have what my friend Nancy calls a “ reach-for.” This is a piece of clothing you instinctively reach for when you start to get dressed, something you could probably find blindfolded and will definitely grab to save the second someone hollers Fire! A reach-for is a no-brainer, dependably comfortable and thus comforting. It’s you! It’s right. It’s the mode juste. I tell myself I need to reach for a closet pared down to that kind of lived-in loveable, Linus blanket stuff. I need, as they say, to get down to the Zen of wardrobe. What needs to be coming soon to the closets nearest me is emptiness.

From time to time I have tried, as the late great writer E. B. White once put it, “to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone.” But I ended up as he did: “impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world.” I have sacked my closet, pillaged some of the no-fits, and dutifully carted them off to the nearest consignment shop where some were immediately rejected as not being up to the second a la mode or not having a fancy enough designer label. I must say it hurts when the clothes off your back fail an admittance test like that but it really stings when they are sent home after an eight-week enrollment because they failed to attract anyone’s attention. Sometimes I try to make the ignored feel better by putting them on again—if of course I can fit in--in a little rescue mission I call ”shopping for something new in my own closet.”

This makes clothes confusing. I sometimes feel smug about hanging on to things in the midst of a frenetic throw away society and righteous about flaunting something timelessly classic—and vintage-- to the slavish fashinistas out there on the streets. They are just so totally nouveau. Yet I do know it is profoundly cathartic to clean out your closets, to stop hanging on to what does not fit. Not having dead weight improves your feng shui; energy flow isn’t blocked. So the question is always: to free or not to free? To chi or not to chi? And how can you part with the skirt you wore on your 50th birthday? Look at how many women still have their wedding dress.

This week I got motivated to find answers to those questions. I got ready to get really ruthless and throw out all I have outgrown, all that for one reason or another doesn’t fit. I was shamed into this because the American people suddenly made it look easy. In one election day they got rid of everything they don’t want on their back any more. They got a lot of people and attitudes out of the closet where they found out how badly these fit. Now there’s light and fresh air and space for new things that do not choke or cling. The American people had a Buddhist moment. They let go, moved on, lightened up. I knew it was my turn to get into outing.

I revved into toward Good Will mode and emptied my closets significantly — for me—getting rid of all that stuff I was saving for a strainy day, all the stuff I know, if I will only admit it, is never going to close around my waist again even if I totally avoid chocolate croissants ‘til death do us part. I realized I have been holding onto this idea that I am going eventually to get my teenage waistline back the way George W. Bush is holding on to the idea that he is going to make Iraq look like a Western democracy. I have been holding on to memories and souvenirs of events that are now irrelevant and will not be reproduced, attachments that may have blinded and yoked me to keep me from moving forward without stumbling. I faced up to the fact that I really do not need those khaki pants to get me back to Bhutan.

I have to go with the flow and let clothes go just the way I have to keep cleaning out the old attitudes and neurotic patterns hanging in my mind. After all, it’s quite possible, indeed, it’s probable that yesterday’s ideas will not fit today’s happenings because thoughts, perceptions and attitudes eventually get as stale, moldy and shrunken as bread. And that’s Dharma for you: paring down to the Zen of them. One advice fits all: there is no instant replay, no second time around, no point in hanging on to what’s hanging around because outgrowing is inevitable and it is normal. As Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche put it: Whatever makes you feel secure—money, honors, ideas, clothes—will eventually make you very insecure because you will constantly be afraid of losing it. Even, I have to say, a waistline.

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