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, August 25, 2013

Wake Down

I've been wallowing in the duh days of summer when colors are exquisitely vivid, the air is baby soft, the sky spotless blue, heat radiates on lovely wisps of breeze, and the sun just beams and beams that all's well-- if you let it be. It's too achingly beautiful to do anything but stop everything and bask in the glory of being alive. As the Dharma says, rejoice in having the precious human body and karma to be free to enjoy this magnificent gift. How lucky I am and we are here in the August days to soak up the sun, the squawk of the Canada geese, the cackle of the great blue heron, the sight of pleasure boats putt putting by, the feel of warm salt water on hot skin, while too many other are being bombed, shot at, gassed, imprisoned, enslaved, crammed, infirm and otherwise engaged.  We must have done something right. So I'm celebrating by doing nothing, like a bump on a log, being real duh.

Too blissed out for work, I've been paddling around in my fat yellow kayak, Nana Banana. Just leisurely glides through the inlet, going against the tide on the way out so on my return, going with the tide magically floats me home. I love the silence, the peaceful slide through the sea, the rhythm of the paddle as it rises and slices the water from side to side, in and out as I chant a mantra, usually om mani pema hung, to dedicate all this merit. 

But I am not alone. Last week a seal swam by. There are always cormorants and gulls swooping at close reach. And there are motor boats, sometimes fleets of them. Some have the decency to slow when they see a kayak nestled low in the water, some continue speed storming by as though nana banana is invisible. (Why do you think I have a bright yellow kayak?) They keep churning up huge waves that rock and roll so fiercely, the kayak plunges.  These jerks keep reminding me the first lesson I learned in boat handling class: you are responsible for your wake, for any damage it does.

What duh hell is wrong with these guys? Are they the only people on Earth, oops, I mean on the water? Frankly, because so many boats whiz past, I don't know if it's still the law that you're liable for the trouble your speeding causes, particularly when you are zooming past special buoys that say Headway speed only.

It's always a fight to steer clear of being upended and thrown into the sea. Immediately I have to stiffen, paddle like hell to change in seconds the direction of my kayak. I vehemently labor to get  across the surfer's waves at 45 degrees. That, I learned in boat handling class, is the safest angle.  Whether I'm foundering or not, my mantra always changes from Om mani pema hung to oh you bastard, may you drop an incarnation rung.  Sorry, but it really is upsetting...and sometimes scary being ignored and being left to fend off the mess they created with their wake. How can I have a nice day?

And so the duh! of my duh days: Dharma is actually about being responsible for your wake. As we say now, it's not laying your trip on others.  In a book I am reading on the lounge chair, Traleg Rinpoche is saying it's about not rubbing others the wrong way. (See: suddenly white capped wake waves smashing against a yellow kayak.)

Traleg Rinpoche kindly explains the whole point of shamata and vipassyana practice, the whole point of the whole Insight Meditation/Hinayana is to teach you to get control of yourself so you don't spew harm on those you come into contact with. Then the Mahayana teaches you that since you just can't avoid coming into contact with others, you might as well learn to deal directly with them positively. As he puts it: "The Mahayana view is that we are all human beings living in the same world and whether we like it or not, we have to relate to each other, so we may just as well relate properly." You know, basic courtesy. When you see a kayak, cut your motor to quit whizbang speed so it doesn't capsize from your boat's tumult.

Dharma practice can be like driving a speedboat through an inlet of kayaks. You recognize that the way you express yourself through the actions of your body, the words from your mouth and the thoughts in your heart has consequences for people sharing your circumstance. And because the law of karma makes you liable, you need to take responsibility for yourself. You need to be sure when you come into sight of others, you do not zoom by and churn up wake that upends them. You need to develop skills to use words that aren't hurtful, actions that aren't deadly, thoughts that are helpful. My teacher always says whatever you think, you will eventually say --and damn, he is right, so watch those thoughts. You may think they're hidden and nobody will know, but sooner or later they're going to zoom out of your mouth and create a wake.

We all look so forward and move so fast, we're those jerks driving the speedboats who don't think to look back and check their wake, the consequences of their behavior. So watch your back. And remember, especially in groups, headway speed only.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ouch: They're monetizing Mindfulness

Oh dear. We Americans do love bingeing. We so love to be obsessed by the next big thing, perpetually moving as we do en masse from the happiness we just charged on our credit cards to the newer must-do we just gotta get right away: Crocs, Glocks, Krispy Kremes, quinoa, yoga, instant video...  charging ever onward. We've really mastered impermanence so exquisitely, the Buddha would probably congratulate us.

However,I don't think he would have LIKED the last big obsession, our body, that great high temple of self worship. So many got on board this supposed bullet train to happiness that reality, which the Buddha told us to friend, turned around and went the other way like a scared dog. This opened up a lot of space in which rigor became the de rigeur of having a personal trainer, Photoshop, diet du jour and piles of spandex clothing. Loose clothing that kindled imagination was an absolute no-no in this age of literal showmanship. Actually, the exercise clothes company Lululemon refused to make large sizes. Doctors swore you shouldn't consume carbs and new mothers felt shamed by their postpartum bodies. Having the flat abs, hard gluts and bulging pecs of a picture perfect bikini bod was mass aspiration because it promised all the celebrity lucre media attention can magnetize, and no other industry pays these days. Hell, if bulimia was your thing, you could even binge on the Kardashians and be applauded for throwing up. 

Well let go of your yoga mat. The love fest is over. We've divorced our body and moved on. Really. I just learned from a seemingly smart, slick in-the-know reporter's request for experts, the trend for designer bodies has given way to a mad rush for what she called designer minds. You know, your thoughts all manicured and muscled and perfectly toned. Doubts by Dior. Memories by Armani.

Boy am I glad I caught that query. Now I won't die wondering why the word "mindfulness" has suddenly been showing up everywhere, just everywhere like those Kardashians. It's in essays about how to deal with the dentist, and in credit card ads. That's right, mindful shopping. You don't have to stop shopping. You can still have it all. You just get the Buddha to be your personal shopper, your very own consultant, so you shop better than ever with more likes. We're talking focus.

Well. America has a new one.  Mental fitness is being promoted so prodigiously, if I had a nickel for every time I've seen or heard "mindfulness" mentioned in the last few months, I'd be personally training with the one percent. Here's a toe dip into the endless stream of headlines from The Huffington Post in the past few weeks: Mindfulness at Work: 5 Tips for a Healthier Stress Free Work Day; How Mindfulness Can Save Your Relationship; The Tipping Point for Mindfulness; Mindfulness: So What's in It For Me?  Here are a few more from the "spirituality" website the Mindfulness Game; 5 ways to Combine Cardio and Mindfulness; Free Your Mind: See Free Your Mind (the movie). Even the venerable New York Times is running a story right now about how mindfulness can improve your writing.  Really.

I'm sure it was not the Buddha who said: "Apres moi, le deluge," but there's nowhere I can escape this tsunami. Last week I drove 2 1/2 hours into the mountains to give a talk and demo on what I think of as intelligent eating--the feng shui of food: eating with the season, locality, time of day to avoid dis-ease-- but the organizer billed me as an expert in Mindful Health and Meditative Cooking. Ha ha. An autodidact book reviewer panned my Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking because it never talked about how to be mindful in the kitchen. It turned out, as her review rambled on, what she wanted when she saw the word Dharma was not awakened awareness of our connection to each other and the food in front of us--how the food got into the kitchen and what it means there, but a step by step guide on how she could focus without distraction while chopping and stirring.

Anybody notice the self emphasis there? Well, keep that in mind because this latest craze is just another fling at self-improvement. You know: something's wrong with you so you have to go pay an expert to fix it. They're out there, in droves these days. Just like the hills are alive with the sound of music, the shills are alive with the sound of ka-shing. They are pouring out of coaching schools faster than the Japanese beetles swarming out of the soil onto my bushes. They come to preach the new original sin: not focusing.

With fanfare, Bi-Rite, the farm-to-table supermarket in San Francisco, recently touted a class series called Mindful Eating taught by a young woman who personifies the phenomenon. She used to be a personal trainer, then a yoga teacher but is now a mindfulness consultant and coach, a personal mind trainer certified by an organization called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and another called Mindfulness Based Eating Awareness. You can trust her: she has a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed. She's in Google circles.

That's San Francisco. Across the country and the spectrum, the fellow who invited me to his "wellness" seminar last week insisted on opening for me with a "mindfulness relaxation" exercise. He'd started attending an upcountry weekend New Age spiritual group and just had to share the love, plus a few handouts. One explained the word meditation comes from our word medicine. Well how about that. The word meditation actually comes from the Latin for contemplate, and the Tibetans translated it to mean "familiarize." But I digress. 

The opening exercise went like this: he asked the 16 participants to lie flat on their backs on the floor. He told them to close their eyes. He clicked some repetitive New Age electronic flute music onto his iPad and fiddled with the volume. He asked me to turn off the table fan, the only source of air in a room where windows didn't open and the air conditioner was kaput. He didn't want anyone to be distracted by its whisper. Once no air was moving, he started spewing a nonstop stream of coaching instructions: breathe deeply....don't think... visualize a beautiful oasis...just meditate on how peaceful you feel there. Whoa. This was definitely what not to think, at least if you are a genuine Buddhist practitioner. So I got into the basic Buddhist meditation posture, sitting with crossed legs, leveling my gaze, and tuning into my mind, ignoring the distraction of his constant voice. (I would've preferred the fan because it was as hot as hell in there.) Having distraction is, of course, the best way to hone your mindfulness, but who wants to quibble with people relaxing on the floor with their eyes closed?

The good news is that back in San Francisco, a dharma brother of mine responded to the high stress of high tech workers by volunteering to teach meditation, the authentic version straight from instructions of our Rinpoche. It was evidently so helpful that he went on to craft a scientific experiment for his megacompany: Project Breathe. Everyday for four weeks, 116 employees volunteered to do 15 minutes a day of authentic Buddhist meditation, focusing on heir breathe, and the results were startling. Medical conditions evaporated, stress disappeared because people now felt better equipped to face their own fears.

I just published a piece about this on the Opinion Page of The Daily Dot, an Internet newspaper, not under my preferred title: To Breathe or Not to Breathe, because the editor wrote: You don't need another app, you just need to breathe. I wrote the essay because I wanted everyone to know genuine meditation instructions in unadulterated descent from the Buddha were out there as quite the app. I wanted multitaskers to know that breathing is a task too, one that we need to focus on because it has powerful side effects. One is mindfulness.

Which brings me, if I may, to paraphrase the late great storyteller Raymond Carver: what do we talk about when we talk about mindfulness? So many have talked so much about what Buddhism would become when it came to America, what's happening to it may be a sneak peek. After all, we are fanatic monotheists who like extracting one element from a whole, obsessing over one contributor to a complex network. One God, one magic bullet, one winner take all, beta-carotene!  Vitamin D! Mindfulness!

Perhaps this is what the ancient prophet Padmasambhava, aka Guru Rinpoche, meant 1500 years ago when he warned of a degenerate age that would dilute and probably destroy the Dharma.  When mindfulness gets extracted from the hard work of meditation, and dedication to doing it so you eventually get the wisdom that can help others, when it gets sold like stuff at Walmart, it's doomed like the word "organic" whose verifiable meaning commercial interests so exuberantly looted. 

I do not think Shakyamuni Buddha would friend or LIKE this turn of events because real mindfulness is the study of, the focus on, reality: that real unabashed hardcore reality we drive further away with each new fad. It really is all about your focus.

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

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