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 31, 2014

On Balance

My nephew the extreme athlete just passed through and when I confided how I feel I'm losing balance-- at least I think I am, he immediately took me to a sporting goods store to find what's called a Stability Disk. This turned out to be a black rubber pancake you don't fully inflate in order to make it squishy when you stand on it, so squishy you have to struggle to keep balanced. One foot or two, the same frustrating effort to hold yourself straight up as the rubber bobbles below.

The disk packaging is covered in ecstatic claims about strengthening your "core", toughening your abs, and as my nephew suggested, stretching your hamstrings. Frankly, when I whipped out my credit card, I didn't care squat about achieving any of that. Nobody will ever accuse me of fitness. No, I just wanted to get rid of this new feeling I'm slip-sliding away, this troubling sense that I am living on a banana peel. When I climb into a kayak or walk on waterfront rocks or even go down the flight of stairs from bedroom to kitchen to get my morning coffee, I feel like I'm teetering enough to topple. Since I really need to get to that coffee, this is seriously distressing.

It seems agility is another crucial skill you lose when you gain in age, a birthday present nobody tells you back when you were pinning the tail on the donkey you're don't get to keep. It comes on loan like eyesight that also diminishes more rapidly than you'd like. It's part of the impermanence plan we all signed up for at birth. It promises we get to keep absolutely nothing. 

This still shocks me even though Dharma harps on impermanence and I can tell you all about it. I can even encourage you to embrace the idea as I have: throw out those clothes, beliefs and friends that don't fit. Pack up and move on, mentally or physically because we go through life as nomads anyway. Yet I now find myself very unhappily suffering the indignities of Father Time's takeaway. Unhappy because he's got no give back, so there's no escape. The onset of cataracts, thickening of waist, change in sleep pattern and loss of short term memory are already more I can manage... as gracefully as I'd like to think I am, so I wasn't prepared to lose stability. I guess there is the good riddance thank God impermanence (getting rid of the bad boyfriend) and the bad news hang on a sec dear God impermanence I am now suffering.

I am trying to liberate myself. I so much do not to be super klutz, I religiously do what my nephew suggested: step on and off and back on that squishy rubber pancake a few minutes every morning to try to get my agility back. I do this right after I offer tea to Mahakala remover of obstacles, say prayers for blessings and recite mantras to benefit others. I didn't plan it that way, but for space reasons, I had to put the pancake on the floor beside my shrine. So I've now got a mind/body balancing ritual going.

I think this inadvertent juxtaposition of mind/body balancing just gave me a new Aha! My struggle to stand on that slippery black, shape shifting rubber disk trying to be somebody in control of herself on wobblies takes place right next to my altar, which reminds me I am not the only one who wants this happiness of holding my own. Everybody does.  In our own ways, each of us is struggling to get stability on this bobbling disk called life.

I thought about my 95-year-old uncle who visited me two weeks ago, a month after my aunt passed away. After 72 years of married togetherness, he was suddenly on his own, an amputee feeling the phantom pain. He seemed to be filling the void by getting everyone he was visiting and telephoning to tell him stories about their adventures with his wife. He told me he was going to compile them into a book about her. I suppose this is how he is keeping her alive and staying married, the core strengthening needed to keep balance.

I thought about my friend who abruptly abandoned me in May, because three weeks ago in a burst of tears, she said she couldn't stand (get that word: stand) not having me in her life. As she went through the days and had to deal with death, family and other disturbances, she kept missing me, talking to me about what was going on. She felt strangely empty without my advice. She wanted me to be her best friend again.  She wanted me to stretch and make things "right."

I thought about other friends whose house and lives had been vacated by grown kids or deceased pets. I thought about how they dealt with the impermanence, the sudden imbalance in their routine, by going right out to get more pets or taking in foster kids. I thought about people I've known who came from dysfunctional families and feel so wobbly when they find themselves in a stable situation, they upend it, trading momentary joy for good old familiarity.

I recalled the headlines about the brutal aftermath of the messy divorce between Russia and Ukraine. The physical shrinking of Russia makes Vladimir Putin too wobbly for comfort, so he's having a big case of the Nastees. Determined to deny impermanence and not move into the future, he's pushing toward the past, destabilizing Ukraine until it tips over into his arms. 

I have started standing on that shifty black rubber pancake to really get it: what life feels like when you are willing to admit it's a struggle for agility. I  step on and off not only to regain balance, but to teach myself compassion for everyone of us trying to gain it as well, everyone of us taking strange and sometimes desperate measures to stand firm on our own invisible squishy disk.

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

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Monday, August 18, 2014

A Huffing Post Buzz Heed: How I turned Nirvana into Samsara

 Once a week now, on Sunday morning, words from my perfect teacher are posted via email to those of us who want to hear them. They are bracing. Here are Rinpoche's chosen words on July 27: "I would like to stress that increasing one’s presence of mind and cultivating the stability of shamatha should not be confined to the meditation session.  We should try to be more mindful in all situations and at all times in our lives." 

Here was a special favorite on July 6: "Presently it seems to us that the first bodhisattva level is miles away, is completely out of our reach and that it is impossible to get there.  But, because time passes and things happen quickly, before you know it, one day you will be there and suddenly you will be a bodhisattva on the first level.  Because things always change and continue happening, then one day before you know it, you will be a Buddha too.  So impermanence is very good."

And the week after that: "Everything stands or falls with this point.  Do we know the very identity of momentary thoughts to be the empty and luminously cognizant mind, or not?  That is what makes the entire difference.  If we know that the nature of any momentary thought or emotion is empty cognizance, we are no longer fooled by it."

I should truly like to say Amen to these mini sermons and sometimes I actually do. Most of the times, I cringe because my concerted effort to be more mindful of myself in all situations has now made me dishearteningly aware how foolish I am, and that just knocks the Buddhist right out of me. I am never going to be in the running for a Bodhisattva. How can I be when I finally had the precious chance to be in the same room with my aged teacher who so kindly came for a brief shining moment to America, and I spent the weekend pained by the chance I had sacrificed to be having a plain old fashioned good time back home. Yes there I was in Denver smiling among sangha mates and listening keenly to the teachings while regretting how on a sunny August weekend I was trapped in the dull flat tar and concrete sprawl of Denver when I could've been on the gorgeously vivid coast of Maine swimming and kayaking. I was with a dozen Sangha mates I hadn't seen for months, regretting how I was missing the opportunity to see 2 long lost friends who were suddenly appearing only that weekend. 

Of course being me, I regretted aloud not being able to eat my own good cooking or local food, stuck as I was with a gang that gravitated to the franchised vegan restaurant and franchised salad bar for every meal. I actually got into a dispute over tofu imitation food (tofu chicken, soy burgers) with my normally stoic motel roommate who lives on what I deplore. And of course, having been involved for decades in the world of food, I thought I was right. And I definitely wanted to be right about resenting something.

I got Rinpoche's blessing, twice, and his precious teaching for two full days, knowing all the while, given his age--83--and his frail condition, it might well be the last time. That's why I chose to go. And still I hated having to get on an airplane, hated more that it was both ways delayed by weather when I could've stayed home and enjoyed the only summer weekend that had real summer weather. There's actually no better teacher of impermanence than Maine weather.

Of course while I was hating and resenting and regretting, I was aware enough of my idiocy to try to counter it. I made the effort to remind myself at least once each day how my teacher and other Rinpoches remind us of the great troubles the ancient masters put themselves through to acquire the Dharma teachings we now benefit from. They trekked on foot from mid India over the Himalayas to Tibet or vice versa. They beggared their way and their stay, never knowing if they'd have food or lodging. They slogged through hells for this gold and all I had to do was eat vegan food and hang around airports to board Jetblue. 

I have been trying so hard to get over myself, for days I couldn't figure out what to write on this blog. I did of course re-read those words about Bodhisattvas and the value of time passing impermanence, hoping they'd sink in like marinade. Then this morning, one of the monks closest to Rinpoche posted these comforting words of his on Facebook:  "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."

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

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Do You Know Where Your Awareness Is?

I've just spent three overly hectic days hosting my childhood friend and her family, down to the six-year-old granddaughter. They turned on a lot of lights even though it was sunny bright, kept the little television going and never turned anything off until they went to bed. They did not notice the gardens they walked through or the moonrise off the porch they were sitting on. The six-year-old dismissed the very large horseshoe crab shell I found for her as something she'd seen before and preferred spending time watching Netflix shows on her mother's iPad. 

There was a lot of going shopping, and back at the house a lot of time spent fussing over distributing fairly to unseen family children at an overnight camp the tons of cheap candy they brought with them. My dining table was completely covered by bags of licorice sticks, jelly beans, peanut clusters and I don't know what because I've never seen such stuff before. To them this was very important as was getting the right looking clothes from a nearby Ralph Lauren store.

They went there in the gas guzzling car they think makes a status statement without the slightest inkling what it costs the world to get the gas into it. They just know they can afford the gas. They have no idea where from or how the electricity comes that keeps all the lights and TV burning; they have no interest in knowing about dams or wind power, coal pollution or oil wars. They just want their lights to be on. They have no idea where the water in the sink, the toilet and washing machine comes from or what it takes for me to keep it pure and flowing. They just expect it to be there when they want it. They have no interest in knowing the real toll of the electricity or water or stove gas or TV.

I have known my friend since childhood and I love her, so I cooked two four-course dinners with local farm ingredients for her family and left them on their own with the refrigerator for breakfast. Because I am proud of what the people around me produce and because I take care of my aging body by eating as local and seasonal as I can, I had filled it for them with farm fresh jumbo eggs, local artisan cheeses, freshly picked raspberries and blueberries, homemade jam and farm butter. They buried it all in bottles of drinks that came in shocking colors from some supermarket or convenience store. That is where they exclusively food shop, which is why my friend also put in my fridge three Granny Smith apples, making me wonder how anyone could buy in July, the heyday of berries and melons and stone fruits, a winter fruit imported from South America to convince people to eat the same thing all the time. It amazed me that her husband felt compelled to go to a nearby supermarket to buy a plastic container of Del Monte grapefruit sections because that's what he likes to eat at home all the time. 

It was extra super painful to watch my friend make a second breakfast for her husband one of the mornings. Since there were three jumbo eggs left in the carton, she took the what the hell route toward all three for his omelet. Then she took my $17 a lb artisan local cheese and peeled off half the block as though it were Velveeta to put on top. It wasn't the money but the cholesterol pileup and total disregard for the handcrafted specialness of that cheese and the fact that she served the dish with ice water (they don't drink anything not iced) that made me have to leave the kitchen for a moment. 

I've now spent about two dozen years studying and sharing the world's accumulated wisdom of eating. I know we're not created to eat the same thing everyday, even every month because the body can't process the same chemicals over and over without them becoming a toxic buildup that leads to disease like cancer. The universe prompts us to eat for the moment by providing a huge panoply of ever changing fruits, vegetables, greens and animal life. I know we can't eat too much of anything without negative blowback like diabetes, high blood pressure and liver failure. I know we need to eat salty oily foods in the times we sweat and need moisture. I know we need to eat fatty, warming foods in times of frost. I know we need the tonic of greens to get us tuned up in Spring. Yet even though my friends know I've written two books and taught all this, they never ask me about it. They don't bring up what I do at all, even when I'm serving them a four-course dinner.

To be fair to that omelet, my friend loves cheese. She always says she does and always digs in to eat lots of it, even though she has a serious cholesterol problem. In fact at this point, she has so many physical problems, she comes with one of those long white plastic pill containers with a section for everyday. I know she has at least 8 different color and shapes pills in each of those seven sections because I watch her dump them out and sort. Her husband comes with an entire dopp kit of pills that he always leaves on the living room coffee table for quick access.  

I have no idea whether or not my friend has ever noticed I don't take any daily pill at all. Nada. I just know she's never asked me why, never connected the fresh unpackaged, unprocessed seasonally pertinent food in my fridge and at my table with my strong health. Years of meditation practice and focus on what's happening around me let me see just how oblivious humans can be. I totally get what the Buddha meant when he said we are all clueless, existing inside a bubble of imagination, day dream walking, reaching out for unreal things we think we need to make us happy, wreaking real harm we never notice. I saw these dear old friends as perfect images from a thangka painting, perhaps of the 12 nidanas: the wheel of Samsara shown as the interdependent causes of suffering- the Buddhist if this, then that. 

In Mahamudra, we do the Jungne Drolsum or Three Questions practice to become more aware of the relationship between us and our thoughts: where do they come from or originate, where do they stay while we recognize them and where do they go afterward when we move on to think about something else? I think we can fathom the same connection to everything else in life too: where did it come from, what is it doing here and where will it go when we're over it. Yes, where did you come from to slip in utero? Where did the you of the past go? Can you actually pinpoint where you are and where you will go when your heart stops beating? I mean, there's more to life than headline news and shopper's specials. It's 10 AM: Do you know where your awareness is?

~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 Garson All rights Reserved