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, November 30, 2010

Now, Where Was I?

I spent the holiday weekend looking for myself. It was perhaps the spiritual equivalent of all that strip-searching going on in airports, all that lighting up what’s hidden under clothes. When I started, I could’ve sworn I was here somewhere because even though there was no spoor, I did hear the sound of a toilet flush. And there were tracks of a sort since somebody drove the car registered in my given name from San Francisco to the Buddhist center and somebody carried all the clothes, food and dharma texts in it down to the retreat cabin. But where was I?

There was a body. Disappearing toothpaste, Kleenex and food plus dirty socks were clues to that. And after I figured out how to get the heater going and stuff all the cracks around the windows, the body was a warm one. It was mine all right, certainly not Kim Kardashian’s, but was this assemblage of skin, mucous and bones the real me? Was this collection of jittery atoms really me? Where was I in it? Was I hiding in the hand that pushed a black Pilot pen over a yellow tablet to write this? Or was I somewhere between the eyes reading the words that rolled along the blue lines? Was I the breath leaving as though the party’s over? Or that damned strand of hair that won’t stop curling the wrong way? When it falls out, will I go with it?

These are the Buddhist questions we get to ask, so in that cabin I was on a woman hunt. The book I was reading by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche said: “The question you should ask yourself is, ‘What am I clinging to?’ We should look deeply at this to see if anything is there. According to the Buddha, what we’re clinging to is a myth. It’s just a thought that says ‘I’, repeated so often it creates an illusory self.” And indeed I did seem to be everywhere—in the piles of clothes, the fridge filled with food, the body on the cushion, the hairs in the brush, but what color was I: the color of my hair or my eyes or my skin or painted fingernails? If the thoughts flowing through my mind like cars across the Golden Gate Bridge are me, then where was I when they evaporated, making room for newer ones?

I put out an APB for this MIA. But I already knew people would respond saying: She is the woman who lives upstairs. She is my mother’s sister. She is my American mother. She is my childhood friend. She is the property manager. She is the cookbook writer. To everybody I would be somebody else with a name like neighbor, friend, patient. I get it: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

I thought about Thanksgivings past and saw myself a dozen years ago at the table with the 23 people for whom I had cooked. Was that person here now as me? Science has confirmed that our cells constantly change so that every seven years we’re completely new. Guess I wasn’t there back then. So the body in the cabin wasn’t the body that won all those graduation awards from college many dozen years ago. Where did that go? Where was I?

It seems I am like a river. Even though it is forever moving, thousands upon thousands and thousands of molecules of water flowing forward with no cease, spinning and splashing, smooth and serene, white or blue or gray or maybe green, an ever changing array of atoms rolling along courses that slur or subside or swell and hold sway, teeming torrents of locomotion without end, we see a river as an invariable form and give it a solid name. Like mine. In that cabin I say it over and over, like a mantra, like a yoo hoo, like a question until I am so exhausted I see beyond all doubt I am just not that in me.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Honoring A Veteran

I just got the news that my old friend Sam passed away, which means the world is decidedly worse than it already was. Sam was old enough, or almost, to be my father, and since I never had a viable one, for at least a decade he played that role. He began spontaneously after I moved and a vicious neighbor legally attacked me. Needless to say, I was stunned. I was also furiously trying to figure out the most ruthless don’t tread on me response to the bastard when Sam called and politely insisted I dial my Scorpio down. I was going to have to live with this misogynist as my neighbor for a long time. “Better,” he said, “to phone him and seek some sort of accord. I know it’s difficult to swallow and make nice to someone so nasty, but if you want to enjoy your place and sleep at night, you have to knock the wind of the blowhard’s sails.”

Sam never tired of teaching me to respond to adversity with grace and to the tedious with charm. And I never tired of taking his advice because he had grace in abundance and what seemed a charmed life. He was a Connecticut Yankee who spoke French, was a Korean War veteran and in his early 60s was a devoted horseman with a seaside house that had enough acreage for a stable and paddock. With a Yale degree behind him, he was hanging onto the family shoe manufacturing business, trying to keep it running when everybody else was running overseas, quietly proud it could support four-dozen local families. He had a Mercedes and private banker and an in for a prime table at Wolfgang Puck's, yet he was a faithful, contributing Democrat of the liberal persuasion and supporter of the ACLU. He believed above all in fairness and decency.

Although Sam was physically small, he never exhibited that Napoleonic need to compensate with grandiosity. His house was a nondescript 1950s ranch with no fancy manicure on the lawn, and his clothes were modestly gray or brown. The calm of his veneer and voice made him seem content with life, and surprisingly with his longtime wife, a handsome dark-eyed woman of skewering wit and refrigerator warmth. He’d met and married her in Connecticut not long after law school at Yale and somewhere among the decades learned to live in what looked like peace with her shrewish blowhard tendencies, uptight taste and scheduling demands. He never complained or let on that he was unhappy in any way.

I was not jealous of his wife. I met her before I met him and we bonded. She was an art historian who liked hanging around younger, creative people and when she found we had a friend in common she became my friend. Over lots of coffee and lunches, I learned she was raised by a domineering narcissist who cared not a whit for her and that the brother she held so dear, her only sibling, committed suicide in his 20s, probably because he was gay. I understood where her hard edge came from but sometimes it drew blood from me and eventually I had to back away.

Knowing his wife as well as I did made me admire Sam's stoicism and think he was a Buddha. In spite of her cutting him off as an ungrateful bastard, Sam kept in contact with their son. He was slightly younger than I and although I never met him, it was easy to figure out, with a second-generation narcissistic iceberg for a mother, how severely troubled he had to be. Enough to self-medicate with drugs somewhere in Manhattan where he supposedly worked as a photographer and videographer and had a girlfriend. I think Sam secretly supported him, something he could never admit to his wife. I can't fathom how painful that must have been. His wife kept her focus on their daughter as her great hope. But the young woman must have been troubled in her own way, for she eloped with a man who was far older and who her mother despised, and almost immediately gave birth back to back to two children, both marred by fetal alcohol syndrome.

Abnormal grandchildren started a pattern of woe that made me wonder what my friend Sam had ever done to end up with the karma of Job. Although he and his business were losing money trying to compete with cheap third world shoe stitchers, he couldn’t bear the thought of shutting down and forcing four dozen local families onto unemployment in a place that had no alternatives. Finally it had to be done, at great personal expense to Sam because the state came after him on some technicality of an economic development package that had helped him keep his factory going that long. With vastly reduced resources, reputation and income, he sold the house with the stables and moved back to the middle of Connecticut not far from where his daughter was. It was his wife’s idea and she hated horses anyway.

Sam was just settling in when his son took ill and died before he could get there. A year later he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and in no time at all he could no longer ride a horse, drive a car, walk on a sidewalk, feed himself, talk, get out of bed. For two years he watched himself deteriorate enough to need fulltime care, not exactly supplied by his wife. Four days ago, he died. How odd that it was Veterans’ Day because my friend Sam was a courageous warrior. I hope he finds his way to Dewachen, the pure land of no suffering. It is supposed to be overflowing with fairness and decency.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy GarsonAll rights Reserved