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, October 30, 2011

Dharma in HD

I treated myself yesterday to the live HD feed of the Metropolitan Opera's Don Giovanni at my local movie theater. Although I sat four hours in a stale dark space on one of the most glorious HD blue sky days San Francisco has ever offered --with my iPhone turned off and my water in my lap because the woman to my right colonized the drink holder, I left giddily sunny from sheer joy. Driving home, I got even more ecstatic when it occurred to me that something created before electricity and jet propulsion --written during the gunfire of the Americans Revolution, something that old was very much alive and well in our high tech time of nanosecond obsolescence. Even more amazing: something more than 220 years old could astonish and enthrall me more than my sparkly new iPad.

The transporting joy of this period piece with breeches and capes, exquisite chamber music vocals and harpsichord embellishments, was a Dharma teaching. For one thing, two far apart and disparate eras had lovingly held hands, and their union-- the high tech, high definition transmission of the devilish antics of an 18th Century Don Juan--gave birth to that sublime happiness called joie de vivre. How lucky I was to live now when I didn't have to be an aristocrat in Vienna, or fly to Manhattan and spend $150 to participate in vocal and visual splendor. How dependent I was on the generosity of others who willingly donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to make my experience possible. How special to witness the union of the electrified and the electrifying. How magical that my mother who has been dead over 40 years could suddenly be so alive because it was she who bequeathed me love for music, beauty that widens my world by lifting me into heavenly possibility. A gigantic web of interdependence was supporting me.

The glory of Mozart's music was also a reminder that the arts exist as training for our senses, a way to help our consciousnesses make sense. Music shows us how to hear, painting how to see, cooking how to taste.... . Of course to make art, great art, or to appreciate it, requires absolute focus, absolute stability, absolute ruthlessness in avoid the extraneous, absolutely being right here right now in touch with life's essence. This is what the Buddha taught as the pathway to enlightenment.

These revelations were comforting enough, but the most comforting teaching was about the harsh consumer seduction by corporate come-ons as unrepentantly self-serving as Don Juan. It was a teaching for all the wannabes and aspirational buyers of our time who think that buying an expensive penthouse or Porsche or Prada handbag is going to catapult them to some stratosphere of power where they will be immune to the daily depredations of ordinary life. Mozart, the man who created a sublime, eternal work of art like Don Giovanni, Mozart who had written dozens of equally breathtaking and beloved compositions before he passed away at 35, died uncelebrated, and was buried anonymously in a pauper's grave. Ditto Herman Melville, who on this side of the Atlantic a century later, created the most profound portrait of America ever envisioned, the novel Moby Dick, and died in humiliating obscurity.

They didn't matter then. They were not the "indispensable people", as Charles deGaulle once snapped, cemeteries are full of. And yet these lonely, unheralded, dispensable beings were not forgotten once they were laid to rest because they have never been laid to rest. They are still very much alive, nourishing us.

In this time of obsessive getaway travel and private jetting, it's useful to remember that Picasso, who saw everything he needed to change the way we see, never left the ground. Neither did the Buddha. Or Galileo. The Serbian-American engineer Nicola Tesla so lionized by computer geeks today was not recognized during his own lifetime as the genius we understand him to be. The Moroccan cooking maven Paula Wolfert said at a book talk I sped to yesterday after Don Giovanni, "In Morocco for centuries cooking was cared for by women, anonymous 'housewives' and mothers who preserved the techniques and recipes that today fame the kitchens of celebrity male chefs."

So, we all need to examine what's really important. In all probability, the people, places and philosophies that will actually change our lives by changing our minds are not the "indispensable" celebrities now boomeranging around so profitably and cavalierly in the spin of our cyberkaya and its overwhelming media echo chamber. Anonymity, indispensability, and nonrecognition are, like everything else, temporary phenomenon in an ever changing universe. Mozart in HD can certainly teach us that.

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

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Adjustment for Inflation

While my friend's grandson was suffering from the delusion that he could save his mother from herself, my Tibetan goddaughter fell into a terrible and very uncharacteristic funk. All the good girl effort she had put into working overtime and volunteering new programs and income means for a museum did not get her the full-time job she thought all that deserved.

Every time she would call to tell me the founder of the museum stopped to say: "I'd really hate to lose you," or somebody on her guided tour said she was the best guide ever or how she had done so much to improve the place out of her great love for it, I would quietly cringe. I was standing back far enough to see how the girlfriend convinced herself that being responsive, competent, and consistently available, not to say carefully manicured and dressed, would have to win a guy, because it would force him in turn to be that into her. I kept trying to warn her that a museum is just another bottom line business. Unless its financial handlers could see monetary profit in finding her a special job outside the extant hierarchy, which was to say get more money back than they would pay her, they had no motivation to hire her no matter how much of her heart she'd given to the place. Heart was not a PhD or MBA.

But for six months she insisted on not looking elsewhere for work, believing the museum really didn't want to lose her. She imagined the guy at the top who admired her contributions to his namesake institution would come through and rescue her, especially now that he knew how badly she needed a full time job. All she wanted was $40,000 and health insurance. But it was never offered. And when he subsequently donated another $25 million to the place with not even a penny of it earmarked for her, she exploded from the pain. "He lied to me," she said, "when he said he would hate to lose me. It's him who didn't come through."

How could I tell her it was she who lied to herself with expectations when at the moment I wasn't doing that much better at managing my own?

When my book Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, was published in September by Wisdom Publications, I expected my life to light up like a switchboard. I expected ka--shing! I had downloaded 50 years of powerful information that would help two generations of people clueless in a kitchen, so I expected invitations to talk or cook or be interviewed for magazines. I expected agents to line up asking me what else I had to write--because this in fact happened to me decades ago after one op-ed piece in the New York Times. But all I got was silence. A vacuum. An echo chamber of disappointments. As Buddhists like to say: nothing happened.

I needed a new job as badly as my goddaughter, and had been counting on this book to be a life changing launch. The oblivion that punctured those high hopes became unbearable. I badmouthed the publisher and distributor for not doing their job and took to promotion with a demonic vengeance. But I kept hitting walls. When I couldn't even convince my local bookstore to care enough to buy more than one token copy to stuff on its shelf, I bought two books from Amazon to dent their independence.

Eventually I got over it. Being that angry was ruining even sunny days. It was a bummer being grouchy 24/7? I didn't like myself so much that I finally stepped back and looked in the mirror. What I saw there was a sick joke. I had been flogging myself with the nasty whip of my expectations--very personal expectations that nobody else in the universe knew about. Great expectations for the same sort of happily ever after my goddaughter and my friend's grandson wanted. My own idea of happily, of course. Not that anybody would know that.

In that mirror was a pathetic Dharma student, still crazy after all these years because she sometimes thinks she gets no satisfaction. Here was someone who somehow threw her Buddhist practice aside and thus forgot to remember its most important mind training sound bite: Give up all hope of fruition.

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

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Adjusted for Inflation

The past few weeks have been stuffed nonstop with suffering. So many loved ones around me were hurting so badly, I felt like full time 911. And now that I have wiggled out from a pile of pathos and put my Buddhist glasses on, I can see that despite the unique details of each situation, all the pain actually came from the same damned thing: great expectations.

Probably the clearest case of how high hopes can lay you low was my dear friend's 22-year-old grandson tying himself in paralyzing knots of worry about his mother, making himself literally so sick, he was unable to eat or get out of bed. This was understandable since blood is thicker than brains when it comes to the mother-child bond. Even though this mother long ago abandoned this child, now that she was back begging for help, he was wrestling like Jacob with the angel. What was the "right" thing to do?

As it happens, his mother has a chemical imbalance that makes her what we call "mentally ill." Whether she's bipolar or schizophrenic is unclear because, for two decades years, she's medicated herself with street drugs, especially crack cocaine. That's what led her away from her 4-year-old son into a degrading odyssey through a wretched netherworld more squalid and sordid than anything Dickens or Hieronymus Bosch ever depicted, a propulsion into a hell realm where she even stole money right out his pocket while hugging him. Now she'd come to a full stop: jail, for drug dealing, and she was beseeching him by phone and letter to bail her out, to get her out of there. She was pulling his heartstrings, promising the moon.

Nothing had changed for 18 horrific years, yet my friend's grandson thought if just this one more time, he gave her the money and bailed her out, he could save her and all would be well. That's what he wanted: all well happily ever after. All the devils and demons forever gone away in the light of this new day. What he said was: "I have to try this one time, just to prove to myself that I did everything I could. And maybe she really will come clean."

My friend asked me to help, so I fed her grandson dinner garnished with a little Buddhist advice. Whenever students ask my teacher what to do when confronted by street beggars, I explained, he always tells them they have to be clear about the situation so they don't make matters worse. Causing harm is bad for your karma. "Compassion doesn't mean giving money to everybody who asks. If somebody is begging for money to go buy more drinks or drugs, you shouldn't give it to them," he says. "Give them an orange if you have one or give them nothing. It's okay. Maybe this way you are actually helping them to get help to stop their suffering." Since figuratively bailing his mother out of difficulties for years hadn't changed anything, perhaps, I hinted, this time letting her stew in her own juice would be more beneficial. Maybe it would finally force her to confront her circumstances and want to change. Sometimes not doing anything is the best way to help somebody get their own act together.

Compassion also means taking care of all sentient beings, ALL without exception. That means you too, I said. I told him he had as much an obligation to free himself from suffering as he did to free his mother. In fact, he had a bigger one because other people like his grandparents and his employer were depending on him. Failure to deal with his own suffering would dramatically increase theirs--and his. He had to make himself strong for others and that in the end would make him strong enough to do the "right" thing for his mother.

As he went out the door, I hollered one more bit of advice: "There is no 'right' thing. And there is no 'wrong' thing. That's just your imagination playing trick or treat with you. It's your intention that really counts. Take care of yourself. That's always the right thing when others need you. "

The next morning my friend called to say her grandson was a changed person, much relieved and more relaxed, even smiling again. Yes. The Buddha had given him permission to let go--of what he had no control over, his mother.

And as it turned out, he didn't bail her out. She was eventually freed, having turned states' witness. She is now waiting at a motel for the attorney general to get her into a state-run rehab program, something she wants very much. Last week she went to her parents house where her son also lives. She walked through it without stealing and sat down quietly to enjoy a family dinner. "I"m worth more than I thought," she said out of the blue. "I deserve better than I've given myself. You make me see that."

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

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Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy GarsonAll rights Reserved