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.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ordinary Day

My yesterday started with the usual cup of cappuccino in the ordinary one size fits all morning. I sipped. I sat at my computer trying to get it all together because I don't wake ready to roll. I wake up slowly. I opened my email and was immediately drawn to a message from an old college friend who had been spectacularly generous to me. She wrote to say her husband of 48 years, from whom she'd been inseparable--business partners, best friends, yacht crew--for the last 25 died two days earlier. "I'm already at the point where I realize I need to be around friends," she said. "This is hard... ." 

I could only imagine. But what to do? I immediately wrote back offering to come right over and I invited her to join a mutual friend and I for dinner next week. With a heavy heart, I read the rest of my mail, three newspapers and my Facebook feed, always thinking about my friend suffering. Then I washed out my coffee mug and did something hard. I went to the public pool for morning swim. I have such a long tradition of being lazy, I always say rather cheerfully: "Nobody will ever accuse me of exercise." Lately though, I find exercise imperative because as my late aunt warned me: "If you don't move, you won't move."  

Thinking about the loss of a life motivated me to make the effort to extend my life. I killed myself for 25 minutes in that pool, doing jumping jacks with Styrofoam barbells and laps with a kickboard, stretches with a noodle and breast strokes galore. I was grateful I could do this, glad I did and dedicated the merit of my good fortune to have access to this pool and time to use it.

 I was in the locker room elatedly exhausted when I heard a cell phone sound. Certain it couldn't be mine, which is normally quiet, I kept toweling myself. The phone kept ringing. How come nobody was answering? Just in time I realized, it was coming from my locker, my purse. I almost missed an even longer term friend, one from childhood. She's been the athletic one among us, queen of exercise. She's been encouraging me in my less and less feeble attempts. "So," I began brightly, "you got me in the locker room. I did all the things you told me to do in the pool. I hope you're proud."

"Not right now," she said just above a whisper. "I'm calling at this odd hour because i needed to tell someone my dear friend Joyce's daughter was just killed while riding her bike. I've known her since she was a baby and she became this terrific person. She's the one I was going to visit on the way to visit you. Now I won't be coming. This is just so so...horrible."

I told my shaken friend I'd call her later to see how she was doing. I dressed, drove home, sat in front of the computer and tried to continue an ordinary day. But I got other hints it wasn't the usual. In the midst of a brutal El Nino winter, spring was sending a save the date message: the sky was cloudless, the wind still and the air temperature a very balmy 74º. The next day was forecast as cold and cloudy, more rain on the way. 

I made another coffee and went back to the computer and tried to keep on keeping on. But two deaths with signs of Spring gnawed at me, gnawed...pawed... . Finally, I got out of my cushy chair, grabbed my keys, put on my sunglasses and went outside. I needed to see the trees bursting into bloom, hear the birds chirping as they made their nests. I watched all the human beings in their various get-ups and brightly colored hair scampering along the sidewalks happily oblivious of their final destination. I walked on the brightest side of each street, stuck my face into the sun and eventually even threw my arms out wide. That I could courageously do this like jumping jacks in the pool made me smile. The sunshine took my thoughts to all the Dharma gurus and the message they're trying to deliver and the way every single one of them who gets the message so easily laughs at everything, and I said to no one in particular: "Yes!"  Out here exulting in the sunshine, the fragrant blossoms, the melodious birds and gurgling babies being rollered by,  I am alive!

Then I went back home.

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

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

The mental transit system

About ten years ago at a group teaching, Rinpoche urged us to give up negative thoughts. Mind has a direct route to the tongue, he said, so whatever we think in private will inevitably exit and become public. Many thoughts shipped on this bullet train can be dangerous explosives and the hurt they inflict on someone else could easily boomerang back to harm us. So, he concluded, it's better not to have negative thoughts. 

I didn't need Donald Trump's campaign to know just how deadly negative thoughts the mouth fires off like darts can be.  "What's on her lung is on her tongue," is how kinder people described my grandmother whose mouth was an assault rifle aimed at anybody in hearing distance. Since family was in closest range, we were her constant target and her words permanently maimed all of us one way or another. I don't think she even noticed. Asked in her mid 90s by a group of ladies who lunch how she managed to stay so sharp and strong, she shot back: "i don't keep anything in. I just let it all out." Those women thought my grandmother being a pistol was funny.

The one thing in life I did not want to be was a mental firing squad. Then, ironically, shortly after she died, I participated in a blizzardy winter 30 day group retreat where we were asked to note every time during one single day we got peeved, annoyed, or irritated. I spent that day noticing nonstop silent bitching: about having to eat tedious Oryoki style, and why didn't anybody shovel the front path because it was icy dangerous to walk? How dare someone move my shoes outside the meditation hall! Why did she push her cushion back like that and crowd me? Why didn't someone put the outside lights on since it was dark and perilous to walk out there? Nothing was right. What was wrong with these people? Didn't they know what they were supposed to do? How it should be? By evening, I was exhausted piling up evidence of my discontent and shaken to the core discovering what a full time fault finder I was. Dissatisfied with everything and everyone, I was my grandmother.

You better believe I wanted to fix that right away, but I didn't know how to not have negative thoughts. That still feels like a very advanced practice for yogis isolated in caves instead of someone struggling along the crowded sidewalks of Samsara. Maybe this is because I seem to have come into this world equipped with an acute sense of right and wrong that is always demanding to be outted.  One astrologer says: "According to Capricorns, there is only a right way and a wrong way to do things and ...their way is usually right."  Evidently, it's my nature to know what's best and get everybody to shape up. I must say it did make me a good investigative reporter and opinion writer, maybe even why I started this blog.

It is also unimpeachable psychological truth-- and a dead giveaway--that those perpetually disappointed by their own imperfection will be relentlessly hard on themselves, and by extension thanks to habit mercilessly critical of others. 

The jolt of that retreat made me try my eyes out to stay mindful of constant irritations so I could swallow them lest somebody discover my inner Bitch. Then Rinpoche came along and gave his teaching on the mind-to-mouth information highway, the mental transit system guaranteed to deliver news of negativity. Now alerted, I began to see even if I did manage to keep my critical opinions from spilling out, they leaked into my behavior. I was impatient or grouchy, snide, stand offish or rejecting. "No thanks, I don't want to go there...or don't want to see them." As I got more adept at noticing my rejection of what was sent my way, I remembered the late Trungpa Rinpoche said boredom was simply resistance to accepting what's happening. It's a firewall that lets us refuse to participate because we don't like the scenario. What it really is, I find now, is petulance because we want something "better." We set up a huge pile of "might have beens", what we missed. O how we hurt ourselves.

Negative thoughts have so many on-ramps to the information highway, it's impossible to patrol all the snits all the time. Rinpoche was right: it's best to stop negative thinking all together.

Since I don't know how to do that, I've been trying to stop as much as possible, just to get the feelFor instance, I share a two-unit house with the nicest young family anybody could want for neighbors. Except for laundry. They don't do it and then suddenly three or four humongous containers of dirty clothes show up in front of the machines. The washer gets so stuffed to the gills, its controls blink Error. Often for days. Or the dryer is equally jam packed and nobody empties it or notices what's in there is still damp. For days. They have to start all over again.  I try to do my laundry in the lulls, but I never know when the tsunami is coming. So there are times I go down with a small basket of dirty underwear and towels and want to scream: Just pay attention to your laundry and give me a chance! But I don't say a word.

In my former two-unit house, the young family downstairs monopolized the machines in the same selfish way, and while I struggled not to voice my frustration, the roommate I had to take in went ballistic. She lived by an absolutely inflexible routine that for some mysterious reason mandated laundry on Thursday from 3 to 4. While I quickly figured that out and stayed out of her way, the folks downstairs definitely didn't know, so if they had stuff in the machines at her must moment, the whole house exploded from her rage. I spent a lot of time apologizing for how absurd she was, which brought that family and me to wink and nod intimacy-- and forever stopped me from venting my own frustration with them.

What I started to do then, I do now: I take their stuff out of the machines, put my stuff in, do my wash, dry it and put their stuff back. Usually they never know.  Or I bite my tongue and wait one day, leaving my basket of dirty clothes in front of the machines as a message. This resourcefulness keeps me on happy terms with my neighbors and causes at most a day's delay. Annoying but no real harm: I still have clean underwear in the drawer and towels in the closet. Just yesterday, the young woman upstairs texted me a long apologetic message whose drift was: "I know I've been doing laundry for 10 days but I am trying to create spaces for you so please tell me if it's working."

I like to think quietly adjusting my expectation and irritation is what Sylvia Boorstein calls "managing gracefully."  Of course I now know those two--expectation and irritation--are joined at the hip. Give up the first and you automatically never get the second. You get nothing to grouse about. You can be sunnier. 

Expectation is "should be." It's our very own handmade opinion of what's right, how things are supposed to go--essentially happily ever after. Expectations are makeup and manicure, all the past conditioning we apply to the present moment to make us happy with it, to let us own it. We travel with overweight carry-on baggage so we can style every moment. What a waste when the moment is really just sailing off into the sunset and look! here's another.

Wonder of wonders! Buddha said, when he discovered deep in our heart of hearts, every last one of us has our very own perspective on how things should be. We each have bespoke expectations. And we each expect them to be met or we go all negative. That's the art of the deal or maybe there's the rub: my "should" is not yours, neither is my must-do list. So who's right? What's wrong? Which opinions do you trust on Yelp! And what's so great about yours that it beats mine? Why do you have these opinions in the first place?

More to the Buddha's point: trying to make those once upon a time "shoulds" come true is what causes  our irritation and suffering. There's the harm boomeranging back. Remember the laundry on Thursday woman? Do you wonder why she had no friends? Expectations and opinions cut possibility off at the pass. They shoot us in the foot.

We all know the sad jokes about the Jewish mother or the insufferably opinionated in-laws who have to be banished, or at least kept at bay. There's an easy way to see negativity boomeranging back to harm. When my peers got married, meddling parents were always a worry. Now we are the parents, the in-laws. Our eyesight is dimming but experience lets us see very clearly what's going on and what the outcome is likely to be. Sadly we have all discovered nobody wants their life lacquered with our opinion. Everybody prefers their own. As my cousin says: "I use the excuse of hearing. I pretend I don't hear what's being said and that way I can't jump in or even comment negatively to my son. You just have to be deaf if you want to stay included."

Nobody likes a busybody because shoulds and musts are not necessarily shared. (See Culture Wars: zealous people busily interfering with other people's lives instead of the harder work of tending the hardship of their own.) Nobody wants to be bombed by a barrage of negative opinions. I can't be my grandmother any more because now that I am fully focused, I find steering my own life hard enough to not have the energy, time or inclination to interrupt anybody else's. I can't know everything they are dealing with and factoring in. Besides, the world has radically changed. What do I know?

When I don't expect, I find I can be pleasantly surprised. Discretion is a gift that keeps giving back, even laundry time. I'm getting better at keeping my mouth shut. Of course, as Rinpoche says, negative thoughts eventually find a way out. On the phone or at lunch, we old folks tell each other all the things we don't dare tell the young, and we agree that all we can do is silently hope for the best. Our version of course.

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

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Monday, March 07, 2016

International Women's Day: March 8, 2016

 Owed To Women
(I have published this before in slightly different form)




~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

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Cooking as Dharma practice

This is not what I intended to post this week, But after reading the answers I just spent two hours writing to a newspaper reporter's questions about me and my new alter ego Nana Chef in relation to her new program and Kickstarter campaign, I realized talking about Nana and cooking was talking about Dharma in my life. And I couldn't do it any better as just a post. So here's the Q and A:

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background in cooking, etc? 

I really started cooking big time when I moved to Maine in 1973 because there were no restaurants or quality food stores. I'd traveled widely and learned in many kitchens. My kitchen became a kind of salon. From there I was asked to cook for other people having parties and that led to the catering business first in Georgetown as Captains Cook and then in Brunswick as the very popular Tastewrights. Part of Tastewrights was the first upscale bakery in Brunswick. That came after a season selling my baked goods at the Brunswick Farmers' Market where I introduced baguettes. 

Sadly, a massive orthopedic crisis forced me to immediately halt the physical effort of cooking, so I went down to Radcliffe and into the first ever Food History seminar. To help promote the farmers' market, with four area farmers, in 1990 I wrote the first ever farmers' market guide based on all the questions I heard people asking over and over while I worked in one.  How to Fix a Leek...and Other Food from Your Maine Farmers' Market turned out to be popular and so beloved I did an updated edition in 2011 aimed at farmers' markets everywhere. I believe you can still buy it on Kindle and at the Brunswick Farmers' Market from Keogh Family Farm. Last summer (2015) I worked with Bath Housing Authority to hands on help residents  cook and preserve the harvest from their organic gardens.

Even though after 1988, I became too handicapped to keep cooking, people would call and ask me to do a small event or just please bake them a batch of the special cookie I had developed at Tastewrights. Well, baking those batches led to an explosion of demand and suddenly I was back in the baking business as Cakesphere. Orders were flying in especially from California where I was a huge hit but it was only me and my orthopedic system broke down again and I was in so much pain, I had to stop instantly. My Dr. said: "If you do this again, I won't help you." Sadly I did go to the state's so called Business Development Center to see if I could get support to hire people and grow without my having to do all the physical labor and the response was pathetic--like it was for Roxanne Quimby at Burts' Bees. The guy said: "Yes I know your cookies. I see them all the time at Bow Street Market but I wouldn't spend $1 for one so as far as I'm concerned, your business won't get our support."  

By then I was deeply committed to Buddhism and became the go to cook for gurus visiting Maine and Boston and Baltimore. Then it became Vancouver and San Francisco. I was in Nepal a lot and after I spent a whole day cooking 3 meals for 300 kids in a kitchen with no water, no floor, no electricity and a stove that was a burning tree shoved into some bricks, I started a cooking and better nutrition program for impoverished kids at my teacher's boarding school: it's still going after 15 years! Then monks and nuns asked for my help so I started a small charity, Veggiyana, registered in Maine, to provide food, cooking lessons and food gardens to Buddhist practitioners.  From all this Wisdom Publications in Somerville MA asked me to write a cookbook so in 2011 they published Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking: essays on food history with 108 deliciously simple vegetarian recipes I'd gathered from my travels and cooking all over the world. In 2012 I was invited to Ulan Baator, Mongolia to teach cooking and revitalize a Buddhist owned vegetarian cafe, which I apparently did in my six nonstop weeks there because I was told it became a huge success that year. The income funded free Dharma classes.

In 2014 I was invited by the Bath Freightshed Alliance to cook their June Farm-to-Table fundraising dinner using all local ingredients i helped to scavenge and I believe that dinner raised the most money of any in the three-year series. By then I was also starting to make jam and cookies with my friends' granddaughters who came to visit. In 2014 and 15 I volunteered as a chef for San Francisco Cooking Matters elementary school classes so I could test out this idea of being Nana and it was the kids at the worst low income school in the system who named me Nana Chef. That's when I decided to help all kids get skills, confidence and something to bring to the table. I volunteered for Brunswick but nobody even bothered to answer me. 

2. Can you tell me more about the Nana Chef program? 
First I want people to know RSU5 (Freeport, Durham, Pownal) is offering a Nana Chef summer camp to all cookees for a week at the end of June and I think it's going to be great fun to give these cookees joyous memories to nourish a lifetime by making strawberry jam and peach tarts, fancy tuna fish baguette sandwiches and pesto sauce with Nana.

Nana offers her cookees basic training: safety, skill, sensing. Kids smell spices and decide which ones they want to add or not. They learn the magical medicinal properties of herbs and the differences in salt. They learn simple baking, artful display, fast foods like smoothies and peanut butter and pesto sauces. The essence of the program is to bring back the universal tradition of elders passing wisdom down to the young by gently letting kids get familiar with kitchen art and craft and its importance to their own survival.

Right now on her website,, cookees can learn to make applesauce, dilly beans, and banana bread. They can watch a video to learn kitchen words like mince and cream. They can learn a little about herbs and spices and above all get some safety tips for being in the kitchen.

3. What was the drive behind it?  
Nana is coming back into the kitchen to nourish kids with a lifetime of the joyful memories of smells, tastes and delicious love many of us elders have when we remember growing up with an older woman spoiling us in the kitchen. Now too many mothers and grandmothers have to work and too much food is industrially processed to be nothing but fast, so kids won't have those sublime memories to magnetize them into the kitchen as adults. That could totally destroy cooking--humanity's greatest accomplishment, and we can't let our lives be decimated like that. We're already suffering massive health and environmental crises because that's underway.

Nana wants to show today's Harry Potter struck kids how magical cooking is: the poof! of a popover, the smoosh of heated berries into jam, the mystery of milk turning into yogurt, the cucumber into a pickle. Cooking should not be cutthroat competition it has become or some AP pursuit for a resume. It should wonder-full fun. Cooking is really all about survival, sharing and love. Nana wants cookees to know preparing food is not a dumb dull chore. It's where science meets art and sharing is everything.  It's giving life and showing love. Nana is real because there is no app for that!

4. What do you hope students will learn?
First, that they really can do something very very important for themselves and the people they love. This means they are important. Secondly they learn actual skills, survival skills, that give them confidence they can take care of themselves and survive. And thirdly, that everybody brings something to the table; everybody in the world cooks and eats so they are not alone in the kitchen but part of something huge and important that binds them to every other human on Earth as an equal.

5. Tell me more about your YouTube channel and why you are starting that up.
It's very hard for one person to break through all the noise, clutter and firewalls to reach the world. The easiest way nowadays seems to be via video and indeed some young mothers familiar with Nana Chef suggested I introduce her on a You Tube channel. The idea is similar to the old Mr. Rogers' shows: Nana talks directly and gently while imparting wisdom and love. She can't do that in print, only in life and the only way to bring it to life for kids so scattered is via a video. So to get this idea of Nana into public consciousness, I'm trying to put together a video channel.

6. What has the community response been like to your efforts? 
Whenever even the most sophisticated or most technological people hear the phrase Nana in the kitchen they instantly fill with rapture, glow and smile as they remember some smell or taste and show of pure, non judgmental love. Nana turns out to be a powerful concept I am trying to restore, at least to cooking. 

7. Why is cooking your passion? 
I started as a political scientist in international relations and when I got out into the world, the first thing that hit me was how politics divided people and killed people but food, food always brought people together and nobody got hurt. I can go anywhere in the world and immediately relate by asking someone what they eat or how they cook a particular ingredient. It never fails. Everybody on this planet brings something to the table; we are all equals in the kitchen. So cooking became my politics. 

Equally important, when I started to cook a lot I discovered cooking is the cross of science with art, nature and nurture. It's endlessly fascinating. And magical. And it's traditional every which way, so it binds you to the whole of humanity past and present. But most of all it's about love--love of life itself and love for others, and about sharing that love. It's a very spiritually satisfying activity.

~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 Garson All rights Reserved