Category Archives: Dharma

Where Is All This Anger Coming From?

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Where Is All This Anger Coming From?

Since the 2016 presidential election, shit has been hard for some of us. For the rest of us, shit has been hard for a while. ~ Lama Rod Owen, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger

Flying north to New York the night of Election Day 2016, I watched with dawning horror as the results shown on the seatback TV screen gradually confirmed that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. A numbness spread through my brain and down into my body. The only thing I could feel was nausea.

Never had I been so scared in my life. Not even close. I was terrified of what he would do in the White House. Four years later, I realize that what damage I imagined he could do was minuscule compared to the things he actually has done. This year alone – with his responses (or lack thereof) to the coronavirus and the roar of protestors against racism and police brutality – far exceeds any nightmare my febrile brain could have cooked up in November 2016.

Fear is not the only emotion I have felt since then. There has been much anger as well. I felt anger toward Trump. Toward his enablers. Toward his supporters. Toward Fox News and the other right-wing media. Toward the police that commit violence against people of color. So much anger that it began to ooze out of my pores, giving off a scent that I imagine made me unpleasant to be around.

That feels foreign to me so many years after I began to practice meditation and mindfulness and took the first steps on the path toward Buddhism. I had learned to contemplate feelings of anger with equanimity and curiosity as to their source, and to not treat them as inherently bad. One of the primary benefits of that practice is that I rarely act in anger. The periodic outbursts that characterized the first 30 or so years of my life were virtually nonexistent. The barely controlled rage that turned my face red and made my skin feel like it was burning was a feeling I hardly recalled.

This year, though…oh man. It’s not that I’m ranting and raving. There are no viral videos of me losing my shit. But it is taking a lot more work in my practice to cope with the anger I am feeling these days. I am not certain that I fully understand why I have felt so much anger. It is too simple to pin it on Trump’s actions (and inactions), or on the more than 120,000 deaths from COVID-19, or on the tragic deaths of so many Black people at the hands of those charged with protecting them. Those things mostly make me feel profound sadness.

I have a sense that at least some of the anger I feel is borne of fear. Fear for my health. Fear for the lives of my older family members and friends. Fear for the lives of my Black friends and my mixed-race nephews and niece. Fear that the society, government, and planet I am leaving to my daughter are irreparably damaged, that I have failed to set her up for an adult life that is at least a notch better than mine.

The anger may be a response to those fears, like my body is trying to change the channel to a less-discomfiting emotion. The emotion may be different but the physical and psychological response to anger has felt every bit as unpleasant – more unpleasant, really – than the fear.

Truth is, I’m not sure. I have much more work to do to figure it out and process it healthfully. I am hoping that Lama Rod Owen’s new book, Love and Rage, will help. His other book that I’ve read, Radical Dharma, overwhelmed me, but in a good way. He and his co-authors taught me things in that book that simultaneously felt completely foreign and absolutely true. I feel a kinship to him, different as we are in so many ways, but linked by sharing a connection to Lama Norlha Rinpoche, with whom I first took refuge in the Three Jewels.

I also hope that Lama Rod’s book will help me to better understand the anger and fear and other emotions experienced by Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color. My fear and anger have been nearly debilitating, despite my many advantages as a white male, despite the minuscule chance that I will be the victim of police brutality. What must they be feeling? I imagine it is a magnitude several factors greater than anything I’m feeling. And I have little conception of what that must be like.

Will you join me in trying to understand, to educate ourselves, to make amends and advance the process of making things right? Commit with me to learn how we’ve contributed to the unjust society we live in, no matter how uncomfortable or shameful it feels. Commit with me to act on what we learn.

Everyone Suffers

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We are apt to compare our suffering with that of others, and to think things like, “He’s in much better shape than I am. My problems are much worse.” And we somethings convince ourselves that some other people don’t suffer at all.

Everyone suffers, even the people who seem to have it made in the shade. We cannot see their suffering, so we do not, in fact, really know.

The Buddha taught that all people suffer, even those who appear to be very wealthy and healthy and happy. Those people suffer, for example, from fear and anxiety over losing those good things they have, to the point that they cannot even enjoy their blessings.

So treat everyone with compassion and, thereby, avoid exacerbating anyone’s suffering.

be kind

Stuck in a Moment

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Man Sitting In Valley

A recent blog post by Wray Herbert describes sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to persist with an endeavor once we’ve made an investment of money or time or effort.” He paints it in a negative light, calling it an “irrational” behavior.

I get what he’s talking about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put up with an unhappy situation as if there were no alternative. Part hopelessness, part fear of change (even if just about any change would be an improvement), part stubbornness (“No one’s going to make me do something against my will…”).

This may be an instance of painting with too broad a brush, though. Sometimes, even when we are suffering and a situation is far less than ideal, there are good reasons for remaining right where we are, continuing to do the exact same thing. We may know that things will get better soon. We may believe that the intolerable situation we’re experiencing is worth it to achieve a goal we consider important.

I’ll give you an example. My first marriage, for all practical purposes, was over after about a dozen years. It would be 18 years, though, before we divorced. Some of those intervening years were among the most painful of my life. If I had physically left the marriage after 12 years, though, I never would have experienced the final three years. During that time, we attended marriage counseling, where we discovered that, ultimately, we did not wish to save the marriage. In the process, though, we worked out most of the issues that had undermined our marriage. Consequently, as we worked through the particulars of the divorce and chafed at the shackles of trying to sell our home in the wake of the 2008 housing market collapse, we rediscovered the friendship that had brought us together in the first place. We also gave our daughter a lasting image of her parents as friends, rather than as mortal enemies and screaming lunatics. Tough as those years were, I wouldn’t go back and redo any of them.

Mr. Herbert points to mindfulness as the solution to the inertia of sunk-cost bias. I’d amplify that notion, though, to say that mindfulness allows us to discriminate between the moments when we are being irrationally anchored to a painful experience and the times when the best course is to stay put. Sticking out an unpleasant situation is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes the right thing for us and those around us.

The teachings I have received as a Buddhist also remind me that change is always occurring – in fact, change is an immutable part of existence. Which means that no situation is permanent, no specific form of suffering unending.

In dire times I remember the words of a Sufi poet, “This too shall pass,” as well as those of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And then a song by U2, “Stuck in a Moment,” starts playing in my head. I sing along and the present situation seems less dark, less inevitable.

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you. Ooh.
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
‘Cause tears are going nowhere baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake the colors that you bring
The nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see

You are such a fool to worry like you do.. Oh
I know it’s tough and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
My, oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh love, look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh lord look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment  and you cant get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm ’til you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass

Mirror, Mirror

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Have you ever tried to look at yourself in the mirror without judgment? I mean, simply observe your reflection without commenting in your mind on what you see? It’s really hard, isn’t it?

The actual reflection is the real you – everything else you think about what you see is unreal. The things that we think when we view the reflection – old, ugly, fat, skinny, pimply, undeserving, bad, monstrous – are the stories we layer upon reality. They’re not real, but we act and live as if they are.

I heard a story recently about a landmark house whose original owners made their sons paint the inside walls as punishment for misbehaving. When the home was restored not long ago, more than 50 layers of paint were found on those walls and had to be peeled away, layer by layer.

One of the goals of meditation and mindfulness is to find the real person inside of us. The real person is the original, unpainted wall – but throughout our lives we have added layer after layer of self-judgment so that the real person is no longer visible. We have convinced ourselves that we are bad, that we do not deserve good things, that we have earned our suffering and do not deserve to be free of it. We have labeled ourselves gluttons, liars, perverts, thieves, cheaters, and many other unpalatable titles. But those are not who we are – they may describe things we have done, but they are not us.

For example, almost everyone lies at one time or another – that does not make one a “liar.” Liar is a label we attach to ourselves because – as astounding as it is to grasp – it is simpler for us to believe that we are incapable of telling the truth than it is to wrestle with the notion that being a natural human being and lying are not mutually exclusive. We are so hard on ourselves, so quick to judge ourselves (far quicker than we are to judge others, and that’s pretty quick), that it is easier to accept the delusion that we are inherently bad than it is for us to accept that we sometimes do things we would prefer not to do. The healthy path is to show remorse and to make amends when we have hurt another person; the path we more often take is the one of self-recrimination, self-loathing, and self-punishment.

Through a practice of meditation and mindfulness, we strip away the labels and judgments that we have laid upon ourselves, slowly but surely, until all that is left is the true person beneath. At the same time we are stripping away those falsehoods, we learn not to add any more layers, concoct any more stories, apply any more labels. We learn to treat ourselves with compassion, to love ourselves – the true selves that are buried beneath dozens of layers of untruths we tell ourselves.

The common translation of the Summary of the Law has Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we loved our neighbors the way we really “love” ourselves, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. We often treat others far better than ourselves, are more willing to show them compassion, to cut them a break, to give them the benefit of the doubt, than we are ourselves.

What many of us really need to do is to learn to love ourselves as we love others. When we learn to do that, then our ability to love others and act compassionately toward them will grow by leaps and bounds.

If you’re interested in hanging with people interested in meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual growth, come check out the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Oprah, Meet Ommmmmma

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What can it mean when Oprah Winfrey is becoming a leading touter of meditation? I’ll tell you what it means: a lot more people are going to start meditating. If Oprah can do for meditation with her 21-Day Meditation Challenge what she did for reading with her book club, the cosmic consciousness is going to get an enormous boost.

The following is an article about Oprah’s recent appearance on David Letterman’s show, ostensibly to publicize her new movie, but which ultimately became one big plug for the benefits of meditation. Oprah teamed up last year with Deepak Chopra to create the meditation challenge and, by all accounts, it appears to have touched the lives of many people who otherwise might never have tried meditation. Imagine the benefits to all beings if just a fraction of those people continue beyond the three weeks to practice meditation regularly. What a wondrous development that would be!

Chopra may be the model for successfully espousing the benefits of Eastern practices and medicine in the West. Some people think he waters down the practices he preaches to make them more palatable to the masses. But, even if that is true, what’s wrong with it? You cannot expect most people to sit down and meditate in silence for an hour right off the bat. Or ever, for that matter. I think that, by and large, Chopra manages to make meditation and other practices more accessible without robbing them of their value.

I am mindful of a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Chapter 4, verses 12-14) Not everyone can start out with the meditative equivalent of solid food. Sure, it’s pabulum, but not in the negative “baby food” sense – it is really a very nourishing meal that the newcomer to meditation can easily digest.

Please drop by the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook to interact with thousands of other people who, like you, are interested in meditation, living mindfully, and spiritual development. And follow along on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

In Praise of The Huffington Post

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I have found that The Huffington Post is a tremendous source for informative articles and columns about meditation, mindfulness, and general healthy living. I don’t know why Arianna Huffington decided to make HuffPost a venue for reporting and commenting on those topics, but I am grateful that she has. And I believe it really is her, because she just chaired a conference on women and wellbeing in the workplace.

There is an entire section on Healthy Living. Not every article is right for me (see, for instance, “Are condoms good for vaginas?“), but most are incredibly interesting and relevant. The Religion section is equally compelling. There is a lot of overlap between the subsection of Buddhism stories and reporting on mindfulness and meditation. Here are some great recent pieces:

Come hang out with other folks interested in meditation and mindfulness at the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Everyone feels stress, everyone suffers. Thank goodness for meditation!

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Everyone gets stressed out, even the “experts.”

How do you think they became so adept in the first place? They needed what meditation had to offer so much that they made a concerted effort to practice it. Meditation teachers are not superhuman, unless by superhuman you mean “even more subject to the frailties and flaws of being human.” They’ve been in the same place we all have, and they’ve survived in no small part because of their meditation practice.

So take heart: if they can do it, so can you. You have the very same ingredients in your being that they do, all the elements necessary to pursue a beneficial meditation practice and lead a mindful and compassionate life. Buddhists might say that we all have the same essential Buddha-nature inside us and, therefore, the same potential to achieve enlightenment.

All of us suffer and all of us desire to be free of suffering. That’s all that is necessary to begin meditating and for meditation to bear fruit.

Along those lines, here’s an article from Pooma Bell of Huffington Post titled, “What Does The Founder Of Meditation App ‘Headspace’ Do When He Gets Stressed Out?

Check us out at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

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The impulse to label the things we feel and think threatens our ability to meditate in a manner that improves our wellbeing and supports our mindfulness practice. We feel sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions that discomfit us, and we call them “bad” emotions. We have thoughts that trouble us or spark attacks of anxiety, and we call them “bad” thoughts. The normal human flow of thoughts and emotions seems to get in the way of our meditation, making it difficult for us to get into a groove or a flow or to another place, however we characterize that satisfying feeling we crave when meditating.

The solution, in my view, is not to find a way to block those thoughts and emotions. Frankly, for most of us, it’s probably not even possible to shut them down. So what can we do?

At the risk of being accused of trying to perpetrate some kind of reverse psychology mumbo jumbo, I think the answer is to not block them at all. Let them flow. Treat them with compassion and don’t label them as either bad or good thoughts or feelings. They’re just thoughts and feelings — inanimate objects — and are, therefore, incapable of being either. When we cease to label them in this manner, we can pay attention to what they mean, to what our brain is trying to say to us. Many times, they are just random, fleeting, and we can let them go as quickly as they came. Other times, we make a mental note to come back to them later after our meditation, and then we let them go. And occasionally, the thoughts or emotions are worth dwelling upon for a time because they feel urgent or particularly important.

The point is, being present with and open to those thoughts and feelings allows us to treat them with equanimity and get past them. Trying to block them is like placing a dam in a river — the pressure on the dam builds and builds until, finally, the waters (our thoughts and emotions) burst through and overwhelm everyone and everything in its path (us and our meditative practice). Better to employ a sluice that directs the waters but does not attempt to block them entirely.

Like a lot of dharma, on the surface it seems like an oxymoron, but it is truth: As long as we try to resist the thoughts and emotions that arise during our meditation, the more they will undermine us; but when we learn to accept our thoughts and emotions and to coexist with them, our meditation can rise above them.

For some more good thoughts on this subject, check out Joseph Mauricio’s post, “Living Meditation,” on ny.shambala.org. And come spend some time with us at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

The Best (and Worst) 12-12-12 I’ve Ever Experienced

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The night of 12-12-12 was a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, I was very fortunate to be able to attend the 12.12.12 Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. If you saw any of it on TV, then you have a sense of what an incredible experience it was. The emotions in Madison Square Garden were real and palpable.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinarily challenging person standing next to me for over six hours (when she wasn’t excusing her way in front of me over a dozen times to fetch beer or whatever). Long story short: she spent much of the night invading my personal space. Perhaps you might say that it is ridiculous to expect to maintain personal boundaries during a crowded and often raucous concert. No disagreement there; I attend many concerts every year, frequently standing in general admission, and am well familiar with the experience of a tightly packed and enthusiastic crowd. I’ve done my time in the mosh pit.

But this was no run of the mill invasion of private space. It was a full on, preemptive tactical nuclear strike at my private space. The private space version of Seal Team Six storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. This otherwise pleasant woman (we chatted amiably for the first hour or so) would not stop touching me—holding my hand and lifting it up into the air, looping her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. No matter how far I turned away from her, no matter how I contorted my body like a yogi, I could not escape her tentacular reach.

Did I mention that I brought my 16 year old daughter to the concert? I inched closer and closer to her on my right-hand side as I sought to escape my friendly neighbor to the left. At one very loud point in the concert (Kanye West’s lower-intestine-vibrating performance?) my daughter shouted in my ear, “What is that woman’s problem?” Actually, it sounded like, “Why do goblins hate Gollum?” But that would be a ridiculous thing to have said at that moment, even with The Hobbit opening this week. Somehow, my brain intuited her meaning.

Upshot: At a time when I should have been out of my mind with excitement at the panoply of stellar musicians performing before my eyes, my attention was being divided between the stage and the seat next to me. I wrote recently about praying for challenging people, so with that freshly in mind I offered some prayers for my grabby new friend. Except, my initial prayers came out mostly as pleas that some greater power would stop her. Praying for her necessitated thinking about what was going on with her, why she was behaving that way, what kind of suffering she had experienced and wished to be relieved of.

With everything that was going on in the arena, that was nigh on impossible. But I did elicit some personal details. She had lost her home last year during Hurricane Irene. No doubt, she can feel more keenly than most the losses that Sandy victims have endured, and that reminder must have been painful to experience. What’s more, here she was witnessing an outpouring of love and financial support to the victims of Sandy, likely making the efforts to help the victims of Irene seem paltry by comparison. As she said to me, no one helped her rebuild her home.

The focus of the prayers I offered from that point on—relief from the lingering pain of losing her home and from the reopening of fresh wounds from last year—shifted my perspective on the situation. Gradually, I felt myself relax, the tension in my back and neck melt away, as compassion for a fellow being replaced discomfort and annoyance at her behavior. I didn’t, by any means, offer myself up to be groped, but I did stop turning away from her, both physically and emotionally. I could not see how to ease her pain at that moment, but I certainly could refrain from adding to it.

In the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Be well, my friends. Peace be yours.

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.