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.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Meditation Class1: Discovering Your Own Personal Operating System
Meditation...mindfulness...you've heard these trendy words, but what do they actually mean? What are we talking about when we're talking about meditation? You've probably heard someone, maybe even you, say: "Go meditate on that" as if meditation is simply a synonym for "think about it." Well, ironically it's a synonym for "don't think about it."
You could say the whole point of meditation is to get over thinking, especially that long hot shower mulling over something. You could say meditation is about finding out what you think isn't worth the paper it's printed on. It's just a lot of heavy baggage weighing you down. You could say this getting rid of baggage is why meditation is known to be en-lightening.
Here's a good example. People believe, often with dismay, that meditation is something Buddhist, something "religious" like Catholic mass, so they don't try it because they don't want to get near religion. That's the idea they carry around and operate on when in fact the Buddha who brought us meditation, based on the available Hindu spiritual technology of his time, wasn't a Buddhist himself. That word was invented more than two thousand years later by Europeans, searching for a way to equate this "exotic" practice they'd found in Asia with something very familiar back home. Buddhism....Catholicism.... Protestantism ...Mohammedism ....Judaism..... The Buddha called himself a teacher. (I think of him as a spiritual Sherpa.) The Buddha clearly said over and over: "I simply teach how to tame your mind." And he did/does it by just telling us how he managed the job.
So if you like your religion you don't have to give it up to meditate and if you don't like Religion, you don't have to fear finding it all organized in this practice. Think of it as mind science because that is actually what it is.
In case you can't believe me, let's try a very basic introduction to genuine meditation. Push back from your computer and sit in your most comfortable chair in the most comfortable position. If you can, cross your ankles and rest your hands on your thighs. Do not close your eyes but do let your mouth open just a tad so it isn't pinched. Once you're comfy, set a timer for 60 seconds. One minute. One minute that could change the rest of your life.
Now all you have to do for 60 seconds is sit still and notice that you are physically breathing. Breathe comes in, burrows, then leaves your body. Over and over this happens, has been happening since the second you were born. So just sit there and notice what you forgot. Sit, see and count every breathing cycle: one in, burrow, out; two in, burrow, out.... That's it. Just do that for 60 seconds, no cheating because it's only yourself who will lose, and let's see what you discover.
I'm going to bet you got as far as two, maybe even a heroic four breathing counts before your attention bolted for tomorrow or yesterday or maybe even ten minutes ago. Instead of paying attention to what your body is actually doing right now, you were reliving the past or plotting the future. In retrospect you can see attention deficit. Your operating system was not paying attention to how you are operating. Your mind--your thoughts and awareness--were like a riderless wild horse galloping all over the range. If I am right, you just discovered that while you sat there, your mind took off, meaning your entire life has been an out-of-body experience. That is why the Buddha said: I teach how to tame your mind. If I am right about what happened to you, you just discovered how incessantly you daydream. That's why Buddha literally means: one who is awake.
If you found this helpful, tune in again. Lesson 2 will explain the process for meditation and what mindfulness means.
My Nepali heart son flew off last Thursday to Australia to begin his 2014 world tour. He plays the bansuri, a simple bamboo flute, and has become so wildly popular, his every post on Facebook instantly attracts at least 600 fawning Likes. He tours as the extra man, the unplugged Asian musician added to a European duo with electronic keyboards and guitars. The trio specializes in "kirtan", which translates loosely as sacred chant or what it calls "ecstatic chanting." Whatever name, their performance comes across as religion with a rock beat. You might say they turn sacred Hindu and Buddhist mantras normally heard in ashrams and monasteries into public karaoke-- Strum, strum, strum, om shanti shanti alltogether hum hum trillstrum trillweeeeeet om... Om mani ...strum strum... peme... tweeeet...hung...
A young LA friend of mine dismisses this phenomenon as "kumbaya." I wanted to disparage it too, not as kumbaya but "Ma do na", sacrilege. What else to call people profiting from the last holy words on Earth, with electronic instruments no less. But crabby me took their efforts too personally. My perspective was not wide enough to see their screaming success fed by the world's mammoth, insatiable hunger for what's left of the sacred in it. As capitalists chant in their holy mantra: they found a need and filled it.
The craving for kumbaya, for something corporations haven't co-opted for cash, has given this trio a global brand. In
all our diversity, our longing to transcend our stressful daily lives
and touch the inner peace of the sacred is one and the same need. More and more
people flock to these Om Tare om Svaha singalongs for pain relief.
The box office is bigger than Bach, older solace for the sore spirit. Fans pronounce the trio members' names
with hushed awe. They wait for the next year's tour stop by soaking up
CDs. Every year more improbable non kombucha places are
added to their tour: Moscow, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Kiev,
Phoenix, Lima, Montreal... . Even when the venue is huge (Grace
Cathedral in San Francisco, Town Hall in New York, the Stockholm Concert
Hall), tickets sell out. The duo my heartson joined and works for have
magnetized so much money, they have offshore bank accounts. He and his
bag of bamboo flew to Australia in first class.
Part of the allure is the crowd itself, the sense that here among, say
850 others all singing along, one is not alone in one's misery. It's
okay to let it be public. The way the 60s kumbaya singalongs were, led by the venerable Pete Seeger who just died. Many people winced at that news.
My heart son tells me he has lost all interest in becoming the gazillion dollar rock star he could be because he gets tremendous satisfaction using his time and talent to make people actually feel better. The do-good aspect of the feel-good music, the thought that he is helping others, continues to inspire him to stay in this particular line of bansuri work.
And it does do good. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit my little charity Veggiyana is the recipient of 1/3 of the profits from one single CD and to date we have been blessed with $15,000 that is buying food fields at our Nepalese monastery, more orchard work at the monastery in Vancouver, more cooking classes and food for our boarding school in Kathmandu, real food for a remote new monastery high in the Himalayas where there has been famine, and monsoon protection for our nunnery garden there as well. That's my ecstatic chant. Sacred music isn't the only thing spiritually hungry people crave nowadays. As I've written before, mindfulness and meditation are trending white hot. They were the cover of last week's TIME, advertised by a porcelain skinned, young blonde right off the cover of SELF. Sort of Cash and Carry Buddhism for Whole Foods shoppers. Meditation was on the agenda at the just concluded Davos Forum of world makers and shakers. In typical Davos style, the corporate benefits of Buddhism were advertised to the powers that fee by a celebrity endorser, the movie star Goldie Hawn. Yes, how to stay focused on lust for your brand in a distracting world. Kah..shing! Kah...shing! Or as Rinpoche's monks jokingly chant: Oh money may me come.
As soon as it was announced the world's best advertisement for the benefits of meditation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was coming to San Francisco in February, in less than five minutes Symphony Hall sold out. People were willing to pay anything, anything.... Kah...shing! Kah...shing! Meanwhile, no-tech meditation continues to fascinate the high-tech minded of Silicon Valley. As I wrote earlier, a Dharma brother of mine who works for Adobe Systems fielded so many questions about his personal practice, he finally set up a lunch time meditation group. The start-up took off to the point where my friend actually set up a scientific study to measure the mental, emotional and physical benefits of 15 minutes of daily meditation. He got about 250 volunteers. He also got stellar test scores: significant fall in blood pressure and heart problems, significant rise in joy at work. The most heartbreaking comment I saw on the secret final report was: "I just learned I don't
need to worry about what I couldn't get done in the moment. There will
be more moments, fresh chances. I've never been taught this."
This past weekend while we were hosting two of our Rinpoche's most senior lamas, my friend told me the outcome of his project is that a consortium of three universities is taking his project a step further by pulling together via Iphone app a massive scientific study of the benefits of corporate cubicle meditation. Maybe when it's all over, they will be able to sell a magic bullet or perhaps just an app for on the job meditation. Oy oy oh mmm kah...shing!
So now we know the Buddha was onto something, something that's becoming more desirable than a ride on the SST, a third penthouse, two Tesla's and an iPhone 5C. Now we know how much suffering there is in the world, and how little those things have done to liberate us from it. Kumbaya.
Do you know what that really means? Not what the Urban Dictionary tells you: "blandly pious and naively optimistic"--which I'd call Fox News. No, Kumbaya comes from the American South's lowland Gullah (Creole) dialect. It comes from an old Negro spiritual, a prayer from the oppressed for divine intervention, the American equivalent of our Buddhist prayer to Chenrezig, the stainless white deity who sees and soothes all suffering. It's "English" for the mantra--which my heartson's trio sings at every show-- om mani peme hung. It means: "Come by here, Lord, where people are suffering." Only a Republican on Fox News would have a problem with that.
P.S. That said, I am going to try and enter this current of meditation events. In the spirit of the Buddha who created the first open source software for the hard driving mind, and in the spirit of Chenrezig who wants to soothe all suffering, I am going to start to post on this site free lessons in what meditation means and what is the real deal. Feel free to share them with everyone.
Somehow I got into one of these times that try the soul. Next week, or close to it, will mark 27 years since I, as they powers that be like to say, entered the door/gate of Dharma, and when I heard about a special weekend retreat in that stage-set of a town, Carmel-by-the Sea, I thought it would be the perfect anniversary celebration. Kind of like when I discovered Dharma that frigid January night in a room over the only Ben & Jerry's store outside Vermont. Double nirvana.
The retreat master of ceremonies was to be the current hot rockstar of Tibetan style meditation, Anam Thupten, called rinpoche. He is young, handsome, trim fit and fluent in English. He has a center in the East Bay but has mostly been turning up everywhere else, even in Maine where he now does an annual week-long retreat. That alone seemed such an auspicious connection, I wanted to check him out. So I paid a hefty fee for my anniversary present. I also paid for a hotel room during a holiday weekend. I organized my schedule to make this all work, including the 3-hour drive to Carmel.
I of course have my own precious teacher to whom I am proudly devoted, but Rinpoche is 81 now. He's had a stroke and a knee replacement. He has to watch out for diabetes and high blood pressure. So this was not double dipping, not disloyalty, just prudence. I have been investigating future options, to at least know who is out there to tow me through the void that will inevitably come. I have been doing this for some time now, but my diligence was rewarded with emptiness. The dynamic young Rinpoche I found ideal abruptly abdicated the debilitating and distracting international demands of being a rockstar rinpoche and vanished. He left a note saying he wanted to practice pure Dharma, so he was going to be a cave-dwelling yogi roaming the Himalayas.
Much has been written by the masters and drilled into us about selecting a genuine teacher. You can't be too careful; you are putting your life in their hands. So you need to put them to the test, listening to the way they teach, sensing a karmic connection, and confirming the authenticity of what they say. It's hard work. I was teacher shopping for about six years until it occurred to me, without doubt, that Rinpoche was the one. But it took hearing one lama's one same answer to every question: "Buy my book", and sitting for two years in a crowd being mercilessly screamed at and abused, being crushed by rampant self-serving hierarchy, ignored by misogynists, plus personal feelings of don't go there, to get it about Rinpoche who, by the way, I once rejected as too gracious, elderly and Tibetan.
The opening night of this weekend retreat was advertised as a "public talk." That means the Carmelites were welcome to come tune in to a very general explanation of meditation or the story of Tibetan Buddhism--or at least that's usually the function of a public talk. Following instructions, I got there early to get a seat--the room was set up mostly with folding chairs--not meditation cushions. Most everybody else piled in at the last minute, nobody looking like the Carmel public. Hardcore Dharma groupies can be distinctly detected by their gaunt scruffiness and the 100 or so there did not make a liar out of me.
Anam Thupten was astonishingly prompt. At precisely 7:00PM he walked up the center aisle and sat on a simple, wide maroon-colored cushion. He was not wearing monks robes or anything that might resemble Tibetan garb. His pants were white flimsy Chinese style pull-ons and his maroon shirt Mao style. There was no prostrating, not even head-bending as he passed--all the ritual respect I've been trained to show the Dharma.
All Rinpoches have their favorite launch pad: mine has us recite a lengthy lineage prayer that asks all those who came before to bless us now in what we are doing. Others have you recite the full refuge and Bodhisattva vows or pray to Manjushri, forever young god of wisdom. This night we simply recited the original Sanskrit for: I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Anam Thupten smiled a lot. It's good he has such perfect teeth. He smiled and sat stone still on his maroon cushion, trying to look beatific. Sometimes very softly between the smiles, he said something. Most of it made no sense and all those smiles made the words sound giddy. But the adoring crowd was hanging on every utterance, at least until 7:40 when he really really smiled and said something like: Now go celebrate joy. Talk to each other. Enjoy each other's company. Sounded like the old Maharishi who used to say "Go and do it, love one another." Nobody dedicated the merit, which made me wonder if there had been any.
The same unmanicured faces and outfits, just more of them showed up this morning for the private retreat. Again it began precisely as advertised, at 10. Again in the same outfit, Anam Thubten walked down the aisle, nobody prostrated. Everybody said those three Sanskrit lines of refuge. Then the smiling got underway, and the silence. A few unmemorable words were uttered, in the soft soothing tone of a kindergarten teacher. The subtle salesman's giddiness was still there.
We were told to meditate with eyes closed--something every respected Rinpoche I ever heard says: do not do. There was some very soft spoken guidance for the meditation about realizing your awareness, about finding joy in every breath, about cultivating love. I could not imagine what text that Facebook post came from. In my experience, Rinpoches always make telling you what text they are quoting and its entire history a big deal; it's the authenticity thing. a guarantee of continuing purity of the teaching lineage, and it's the fear of pollution that keeps them teaching only from texts by the masters and stubbornly insisting on reciting the whole lineage of how this text was handed down from lama a to guru b to rinpoche c and now to you.
That was pretty much the morning, 2 hours and 20 minutes of Eckart Tolle with endless smiles and three tea/toilet breaks. To be honest, I did not sit there meditating with my eyes closed: I didn't want to give my 81-year-old teacher with omniscience apoplexy. I did not find joy having to pay all that money and drive all that way to hear that I had awareness after I've been studying its finer points for the past 26 years. I did not have a positive feeling about anything happening in that space. I had such a strange sense of con, I wanted to get out of there.
Naturally I did the only thing a self-respecting teacher shopper can do. I Googled Anam Thupten to find out more about him. Seems you can't. You just get the same Facebook profile repeated on every site: born in Tibet (never says where), wanted to study Buddhism (never says at what monasteries), never says what lineage he was supposedly trained in, who was his great master or how he became a rinpoche. Or where he got that perfect English.Talk about emptiness! All the back-up facts are missing. The basic Tweet is that he wanted to modernize Buddhism for the West.
And he did seem to be going at that in Carmel, the American way: spooning people the feel good they want to hear. Dharma without its protective rituals or conclusive texts. Just spongy touch feely simplicity. I can't help it. After 27 years of having the genuine Dharma drilled into me, after sitting at the feet of at least a dozen extraordinary teachers, I feel bad about that. And I feel even worse that I do. After 27 years of practicing awareness, what if I still don't have a shred of it?
For kids whose age is in the single digits, birthdays are a silly time for eating cake and trying blindfolded to pin the tail on the donkey. On mine this past week, my about to be four Nepali "granddaughter" got on her mother's mobile phone to sing "Happy Birthday" and find out what flavor ice cream I was eating. The truth is, since I wasn't turning four that day-- or even seven, I celebrated with champagne instead of ice cream, so I had to tell a little white lie about Dulce de leche. I usually don't give a fib, but how can anyone tell an innocent child whose birthday is just a week away, for people climbing the steeper end of double digits, birthdays are a chilly time for eating crow and trying, now that life has blindsided them, to pin their dented hopes on anything that looks like the jaws of life.
Once you find out cake clogs your arteries, birthdays do get tricky. On the one hand, they celebrate the fact that you are here. You gotta love them. Parents pouring money through ice cream, clowns and takeaways definitely tweet the happy message that their kid has come out to play. Kids seem to intuit the gift of their being here from all the gift wrapped hoopla that surrounds them, so they just can't wait. "I'm 3 and three quarters!" Birthdays feel good when you're shiny new and not yet shopworn.
At my age-- ten with a humungous value added tax, birthdays celebrate the truth that you are still here. That means old, our youth culture's dreaded old, BUT, (get the big but) it also means getting closer to winning Survivor! Looking back over the wars I had to fight, the shortages I had to compensate for, and the mess I made struggling to find my way, my still being in the game seems miraculous indeed. It's an achievement for which a birthday can be the perfect award.
For getting me this far, for its supporting role, I thanked my body with a spa massage. For rescuing me from myself, for its starring role, I thanked my mind---or spirit or soul if you prefer, with the joy of visiting the Charles M Schulz Museum to spend an hour reading all the old Peanuts cartoon strips. You know, the ones in which Charlie Brown asks the principal if there's more to life than getting the answers right, Lucy Van Pelt reserves the right to be crabby, and Sally announces she's going to try to be a better person...well, maybe starting the day after tomorrow. For making all this possible-- producing me, my life and a very happy birthday, I thanked all the deities in my universe by toasting them, then putting a separate glass of champagne on my shrine. (One of the truths I learned getting this far is you can't keep "friends" if you take them for granted.)
Coming upon a birthday is also like happening upon one of those black and white maps in front of elevator banks, the ones with the arrow and bold print that says: "You are here." The most miserable birthday I ever had was my 30th because that particular moment on the time line made me keenly aware I was no longer a bright, shiny penny, squeaky clean with promise. I had a past. Life had been a relentless litterbug leaving very obvious trail, a warning tale of crazy patterns certain to shape the years ahead. I stayed in bed in fetal position, afraid, very afraid. When, in spite of myself, I made it to 40, I went out and bought festive red. Red reminded me of the cape toreadors brazenly wave at the charging bulls. It.seemed a perfect declaration of triumph: life may have gored me and tried again, but I was still here. I ate the birthday cake without caring about the fat on my thighs.
I am now a former ice cream eating birthday girl who is antique and vintage, a doyenne and cicerone --and boy, you should see all the cards
I got about this old age thing. So, about this old age thing since no one dares talk about it... My past has become way larger than my future can possibly be, weighty enough to tip all scales and drag me down. Its map is enormous, almost encyclopedic. My hard drive RAM is so crammed, I can no longer find stuff; I have become forgetful, a faulty operating system. Last October I sent a childhood friend her birthday card as I have been doing for maybe close to 50 years, pleased at myself for remembering. Until that is, I found out I forgot her birthday was in November.
All the memories, mistakes and tiny triumphs piled up like cairn stones should be my burden, my weighty cross to bear, but at this point they feel like my bounty, gold that can be mined. The last Trungpa Rinpoche liked to say it's only our shit that will save us in the end because it's only our shit that can turn into the fertilizer that makes our richness grow. I think, once I decided to make changes, I grew up fast because I had so much of it.
The pattern of my life at 30, at 40 and beyond was zigzag. I kept moving: geographically, culturally, work-wise. I couldn't have explained why back then, but not long ago Mingyur Rinpoche said in a teaching, when you suddenly shake your leg or move your arm or just take a deep breath, you are responding to a signal that something is not quite what it should be. At some consciousness level, you are aware that something needs improvement, could be made better, is not satisfactory. And by shaking your leg or moving your arm, you also signal that you know what needs to be done. Deep down in our heart of hearts, we all know what perfection is.
The bad news is we don't know how to reach it. I tried who knows how many ways, from Bergdorf Goodman to Bhutan. We all deal with our sense of dissatisfaction, our feeling that something is a bit off, in our own karmic way, beating our own idiosyncratic path from year to year. Between
my body massage and my mind's outing at the museum, I had a leisurely
lunch with a no longer young man--he's at that point where I wore red-- I've known since he was born. He told me about his plans for this new
year, now that there weren't many threads left from last year to sew
into it. He was going to have this lunch, make that contact, finish this
script, run that race, maybe move to Denver.
I sipped my wine and bit
my tongue because I'd heard all this before, except maybe Denver because it had been L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta... I'd hear it more than
once before. When he finished I didn't really know what to say. Age may take away your eyesight but that gets replaced with so much hindsight, you get fabulous foresight. Age
turns you into an unwitting fortune teller. Except we live in a time when
nobody wants to hear bad news or negative reviews. You can't be Lucy who
keeps pulling the football out,
even if what you want to pull away is delusion.
I casually moved the salt cellar
to one side of the table and the pepper mill to the other. "That's
where you are now," I said, pointing to the salt, "and the pepper is
where I am. Having crossed over, I know what lies in between. I could be
a guide but you want to do it on your own. I hear what you're saying.
There's not much I can say except the Buddha's definition of Samsara and the textbook definition of insanity perfectly match: doing
the same thing over and over again expecting the next time to get a
different result. I hope by the time you get over here where I am,
you can see that."
High up here on the age ladder, looking back at life below is like looking out the airplane window as it starts to descend. All the lights string together in sparkling jewelry patterns to enlighten the darkness; all those cars inching along a roadway could be ants on a trail; and the box houses lined up one after the other on street after street look eerily like cemetery markers. Whatever is going on down there that seems so overwhelming, so urgent and upending is just nothing from this view, nothing and nowhere at all, and you wish you could scream: "Hey, the disappearing boyfriend, the nasty boss, the cancelled trip, the ten extra pounds, none of it counts for anything, except perhaps making your life a real page-turner."
I think that's supposed to be the Buddhist view here on Earth, the jaws of life.
Anyway, it wasn't much in the big gilded age scheme of things, but I had a remarkably happy birthday. The people at the spa spontaneously sprung open a bottle of champagne, the people at the museum spontaneously gave me a huge book as a gift. I got to eat a great thin crust wood cooked Margherita pizza and give my best to a person I love. Calls, cards and emails came from around the globe, even from an almost four-year-old. The day ended with a Skype video chat between me and Mongolia. I poured my own champagne and made the deities a toast to say thank you for making my day magical. It hasn't always or usually even been pleasant. So I thanked them again for whisking me away from the burden life had been to the joy it feels like now. I celebrated the map arrow and bold letters of my timeline no longer saying: "You are still here."
I do not get up in the morning expecting to turn into the next chapter of It's a Wonderful Life, but it does seem the universe has "friended" me. At the height of holiday hoopla, its blessing goddesses logged on and sent a post to Kennedy Airport. Actually, to the taxi line outside Terminal 8.
At 10 PM in 20 post-snowstorm degrees, I was standing there in the queue like two dozen other travelers, shivering, gripping my bag, trying to ignore the touts aggressively hawking their unlicensed car services. With a few battered Crown Victorias and an occasional soccer mom van between, one bumblebee yellow Prius after another pulled up and ejected turbaned Sikh, bearded Muslim or dreadlocked black-skinned drivers chattering on cellphones while they grabbed suitcases. The fur coated blonde in front of me got one of these obnoxious blokes who make the suspicious car services appealing. My turn came ...to a shiny new Transit connect van with windows.
The driver of this actually comfortable cab turned out to be a neatly dressed middle aged, cafe au lait skinned American, not attached to anything electronic. He didn't have a blaring AM radio or nattering intercom. All was calm, all was clean. He proceeded cautiously through slushy lanes and ramps, then flowed quickly but not recklessly down the Van Wyck. I apologized for making two calls on my cell phone, one of them to the apartment awaiting my arrival. Otherwise we didn't speak...until the Triboro Bridge when the $7.50 toll sign made me blurt: "Yikes! I thought the Golden Gate Bridge was ripping me off at $6.00. ... Do you get a discount for being a taxi or having one of those transmitter things?"
That's how conversation began. We rolled down the FDR comparing basic costs of living and trade-offs in San Francisco and New York. And traffic problems of course. All too soon I was at my destination. "Thank you," I said, handing him the fixed fare, bridge toll and tip. "I wish you Happy Holidays. And," I added, jacking up the handle on my wheelie, "I hope I find a driver like you when I have to leave next week. It's going to be dawn and I know how hard it is at that hour to find any driver, let alone one who will take you to an airport." Before I even left home, the ex-New Yorker in me had been worried silly about this.
"When are you going?" he said.
"One week from today at dawn back to Kennedy."
"I'll pick you up. Give me your phone number and I'll call you the day before to confirm."
I let go of the wheelie handle. "You're kidding."
"No," he said. "I'll call you if I can do it."
I have friends who think I'm outrageous or ridiculous for getting myself a cab driver I can call upon anytime in Kathmandu, Nepal. Now, it seemed, I found myself one in Manhattan. Not Kansas but New York. My own personal cabbie. The thought made me, a not 1% person who doesn't have a car service, giddy. But I did remember to thank the universe by dedicating the merit to all beings who can't get where they want to go.
I myself went on to where I had to go. Surprisingly, everything went very smoothly, without obstacles, frictionless as techies say. At least it did until that last morning when the check-in email for my flight the following dawn appeared on my smartphone screen and unzipped all the old get out of town stress I'd packed away. I tried to drown it in an extra large bowl of cafe au lait, sweeten it with a chocolate croissant, but it stubbornly hung around in the pit of my stomach, threatening to ruin my last day.
As I was arriving for an appointment, my phone blared. Not recognizing the number, I quickly silenced it and shoved it deep into my bag--my way of punching spam callers in the face. About an hour later, when I reached into my bag for the phone, it was flashing signs of new voice mail. From the mysterious number. Really nervy spammers do that, I thought with disgust, but I tapped it anyway. "This is Richard," the message began, "your cab driver. I can be there tomorrow morning. Just call me back with the address and exact time you want to go."
And at 5:30 in the morning, like in fairy tale dreams, that special cab miraculously turned off the deserted avenue and pulled in front of the building. "Good morning," Richard said, stepping out to take my bag.
I was in the middle of a miracle, a Christmastime miracle and I might have humming the Hallelujah! chorus, except 5:30 AM has never been my finest hour. At that point in time, I am a poster child for dysfunction. So the night before I'd stashed in my coat pocket the fixed fare, the toll and a fat tip for the extraordinary service--in the event he really did show up. I still worried about being stranded; maybe this was all a joke. But now as Richard abruptly made a U-turn, having suddenly decided to take the Brooklyn Bridge to avoid tolls, I panicked that the stashed amount was going to be wrong.
I think I did this because I am dysfunctional, actually dyslexic, with numbers. I have been known to wildly over or miserly under tip merely because I can't add up straight. In the back of that cab sailing over the Brooklyn Bridge, I was worrying like crazy about the math. I took the folded wad of cash out of my pocket and counted it. Maybe, I thought, I should give more. Trade the $5 for a $10. After all this guy is my private car service. He came before dawn, right on the minute, no hassles, no blabbering intercom or blaring radio. And it is Christmas.
I opened my wallet and took out the few remaining bills. It was dark outside and in the cab. My eyes were half closed with sleep. As you know, if you've ever heard foreigners complain, our greenbacks all look alike: $1, $5, $10, $20....you gotta look at the face on the front to distinguish. I put the $5 from my pocket back in the wallet and replaced it with a $10. I did wonder why I was bothering to do this, wondering why it is I can be reckless when it comes to giving, a little too much sometimes into sharing. I decided, as I always do, it's better than being stingy by mistake and creating negative karma. I think it's a girl thing. So even though I'm at a point where every penny has to count or else I'm going to miss payments, I felt very merry about giving a generous tip to this driver. I looked forward to seeing the joy in his face, and before I forgot, I texted thanks back to the universe by dedicating the merit to all those who don't have enough.
When we got to Terminal 8 departures, Richard took my bags out of the back and wished me a Merry Christmas. "Same to you," I said and handed him the folded bills. To my dismay, he didn't open and count them. He just said: "Thank you," stuck them in his pocket and walked back to the driver door.
I got over the disappointment by getting through security fast, somehow blessed by PreChek. I got home on time. A friend picked me up, saving me a $60 fare. The trip had been as perfect as anything in a dream. I was riding high, feeling all ho ho ho the day before Christmas. I unpacked, then realized I needed to run to the grocery store before it closed. No problem, I thought. I've still got the last $50 bill in my wallet because I never spent it. But it wasn't there. Only a $20 and some $1s, just enough to get what I needed. I insanely tore apart the suitcase and my pockets and my purse desperately searching for that $50 bill that I never spent.
I was so disgusted, I got on my own case really really hard for being too blind and stupid at that hour of the morning to see the difference between a $50 bill and a $10. Why did I even think I had to be exceedingly generous and replace that $5? The original amount would've been plenty. What was I thinking? I need every penny I can get to get on and I'd let a $50 slip away. Dunderball had tipped Richard almost double the fixed fare. And didn't even get a thank you.
For days I yelled at myself. I tried to get over it by reminding myself I saved the getting home fare upon arrival. I saved $4 not buying a Starbucks latte at the airport. I preached to myself about Patrul Rinpoche who threw all this gold into the river so he didn't have to worry about being robbed. Eventually I calmed down. I needed to focus on getting over the New Year's threshold. I needed to concentrate on doing positive things that would summon positive energy to push me into 2014. That was the important stuff.
I made a batch of lucky peas and a batch of corn pancakes, corn representing the wish for gold. I figure you can never do too much to get lucky. I emailed good wishes around the world: to Mongolia, France, Germany, Nepal. Maine, Canada, Arizona... . I donated what tidbit I could to charity. I poured bubbly because you should never miss an opportunity to bubble. I waded into the flood of Viber, text, email and Facebook wishes for me to have a banner 2014. I sat in front of my shrine and prayed to Chenrezig to soothe all the world's suffering. I beat a drum to beseech the black skull-crowned Mahakala to remove all obstacles and three times sang the prayer for rebirth in the pure land of joy and wisdom. I went to bed at 12:05AM praying that 2014 would buoy me over the troubles of 2013.
The ringing phone woke me at 7:30. On New Year's Day! Who does that? Nobody I know, I grumped. Indeed the number was nobody whose number I know but, in the fizzy spirit of the hour of the holiday, I answered. "This is Richard, the cab driver. I just wanted to wish you the happiest of new years. I just wanted to thank you so much for being so kind to me. I hope all goes well for you. And if you come back to New York, just call me and I'll come with the cab wherever you are."
When I officially got up, I made coffee, opened my email and found a message from London addressed to the tiny charity I run, Veggiyana. "We've made a miscalculation in the CD profits we are sharing," it said, "and find we owe you an additional $3,000."
I ate another huge bowl of lucky peas, feeling like this could be a wonderful life.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.