Category Archives: Loss

Been gone, been down, still am

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It has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I have not been active on my Facebook page either. Why? I think because I am having trouble making sense of the world right now. I simply do not understand the hate and violence that are so pervasive at this moment.

I used to think I understood people who express their anger demonstrably, because I used to manage my own anger so poorly. I thought I had some insight, based on my own struggles as a young man, when it was so easy for rage to rise up inside of me and spill forth. Maybe I did, but I don’t feel like I do anymore.

I don’t understand most of the anger I witness on social media and on TV. On my worst days, when anger overwhelmed me completely, when I literally shook from the negative energy boiling up from deep inside, I never displayed such naked aggression, never verbally savaged another being, never even considered doing either. So I try to imagine what torment these angry people must be suffering, I try to put myself in their place, to contemplate their plight, to fathom what could possibly propel them to these states of frothing, thrashing, tearing, unbridled fury. But I fail repeatedly, fully unenlightened.

I am left distraught by my confusion, by my utter inability to grasp what is happening in the world, in this country, in my own backyard. I cannot comprehend the acts of violence that take place every day, many times a day. I am even more confounded by the eagerness of so many people to act on their violent impulses, by their hair-trigger readiness to lash out with deadly force.

I fear that I am despairing, losing sight of humanity’s inherent goodness, losing touch with creation’s core of love. I do not love my fellow beings any less, but I admit I sometimes wonder what good it does. Am I helping at all? Am I contributing, in any way, to stemming the angry tide? Could it possibly be any worse if I weren’t here at all?

The sadness I feel is nearly unbearable. My heart aches for the beloved of the brutally murdered. Compassion continues to swell up even for the perpetrators, even though I don’t understand them, even though I believed that well had run dry, even though their acts are so repugnant and inexplicable that I begin to fear that my own loved ones are no longer safe.

Today and yesterday and the day before, each brought more unwelcome news, more tragedy, more devastation. Unremitting, incessant, unflagging, unstoppable. At least it seems that way. Though I hope, I do, I really hope. And I do what for a Buddhist passes for prayer, and I cling to the possibility that the storm will be a little less fierce at dawn, and I focus on the inevitability of the sun rising, and I remind myself that the powerful, unquenchable power that fuels creation is still there. Love remains and, if we can manage to get out of its way, will prevail.

I believe that, I honestly do, even now, even when it is so terribly difficult to make sense from any of it.

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The Big Uneasy

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I just got back from a trip to New Orleans on business, and it was a real eye-opener. This was not the first time I’ve been there since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, but it was the first time I had ventured away from downtown and seen what Katrina hath wrought. Though I’ve heard many tales from friends and colleagues who live in New Orleans and were displaced by the storm, this was the first time I really saw the lasting damage that it had done to the populace.

Riding a public bus out to the Jazz and Cultural Heritage Festival, I saw building after building boarded up, uninhabitable even if someone wanted to open a business in them. Houses lay in ruins. Open lots were full of weed-choked debris. Though the touristy part of the city, downtown and the French Quarter, look relatively unscathed, the rest of the city and surrounding areas are, for lack of a better word, seriously scathed.

Barely a sentence seems to be uttered by Orleanians without mention of Hurricane Katrina. It might be tiresome if the hurricane’s terrible legacy weren’t so evident. Katrina changed everything there. Amazingly, the citizens and their leaders have done some amazing things in the almost seven years since. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt. A new school system (or, as educators down there prefer to refer to it now, a system of schools) was created from scratch essentially, and in the next two years every single school will be in a new and thoroughly reconstructed building. Yet something like 3 out of 10 residents have yet to return, and the homeless—always front and center in the past—seem to outnumber the tourists in some parts of the city. Nothing comes easy these days in the Big Easy.

The ghost-like nature of the boarded-up businesses and homes reminded me a lot of what I saw last year in Belize. The parallels are startling. Both are incredibly beautiful places full of lovely, warm-hearted people. Both are suffering from crushing poverty. Both have economies that are entirely too dependent on tourism, with little prospect for developing alternative sources of income. Both are populated with the husks of former houses and businesses. Think of it—Katrina turned New Orleans into a third-world country.

I came away from my few days in New Orleans moved by its plight, choked up by its pain, saddened by its losses, but encouraged by its resiliency. The people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes need our prayers and energy as much as our business and resources, and we need for them to return to vibrancy, health, and prosperity in order to restore our universal shared energy and peace.

What a Difference a Year Makes

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A little less than a year ago I wrote here about how I learned a life lesson about disappointment. I had traveled across the country to see the Dalai Lama for the first time and to participate in an initiation he was conducting. His physicians asked him to rest an extra day before traveling from Tokyo to California and as a result he missed the event. I spent one night angry, sad, and disappointed, and then spent the next day begin taught about humility, compassion, and real suffering and disappointment.

I knew right away what an important event that was, and one year later I can confirm that it was life-changing. For one thing, my practice shifted in tone and pace. I stopped being in a hurry to reach enlightenment. I began to focus on the present moment and where I was on the path at that time, rather than craning my neck to see what was coming up around the bend. I learned to appreciate what I was doing and experiencing at any given moment, instead of counting up the things I’d done or the things I wanted to do. I stopped trying to accumulate experiences and knowledge (though, to be honest, I haven’t stopped collecting books—my love of reading and learning continue to overpower my will and overtax my shelves).

I also started to get over myself. As deeply spiritual as my life has been at many times, both as a Christian and a Buddhist, I think I sometimes have been a tad too impressed with myself. Despite feeling somewhat lost exploring my path as a Buddhist, I still managed to inflate my spiritual self-importance. I was a bit too proud of the new spirituality I was developing, of the experiences and knowledge I was collecting like baseball cards and comic books (I should write sometime about The Green Lama).

A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Dalai Lama’s conducting of the Kalachakra. I had difficulty trying to decide whether to go, so soon after the humbling I received in California. Was I succumbing again to the temptation to hit a spiritual home run? I seriously doubted my motivations at the time. In the end, I went, and it was a phenomenal decision.

When I received word late last year that His Holiness would be returning to Long Beach to “make up” the initiation he missed, and was invited by the event host to return free of charge, I wasn’t sure if I should go. The experience of the Kalachakra  would be very hard to top. And although Gaden Shartse Thubten Dargye Ling would be comping me the event tickets, I’d still have to pay for the flight, hotel, meals, rental car, and so on. I was ready to pass. Then my boss asked me to attend a conference that he and I alternate going to; this was supposed to be his year. The conference was in Las Vegas, practically all the way to California, it was the same week as the Dalai Lama’s return to Long Beach, and my employer would be paying for the flight out to Vegas. I realized I was being led back to California; who was I to kick against the goads.

I got chills when I drove into downtown Long Beach Thursday evening, past the convention center where the Dalai Lama was supposed to appear last year, by the Westin where the humble Khen Rinpoche shamed me for my “disappointment” and the wise Robert Thurman put my feelings into perspective. When I checked in at the Courtyard, the desk clerk said he was switching my room to move me away from a large group of noisy young boys. My new room number was 619, which looks an awful lot like a yin-and-yang to me. I took it to be auspicious.

Two days later, as I type this, I am still processing the experience of see His Holiness again and participating in the initiation. I’ll write about it soon. In the  meantime, here are a few fuzzy photos I took with my phone. Hopefully, there are some better ones on my camera.

Namaste. Peace be yours.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1

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A collection of recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Laissez-Faire v. Micromanagement

“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet.” – Diane Ackerman

Achieving a balance between laissez-faire and micromanagement is tricky. We accept that change is a fact of life, inevitable, and remind ourselves that the more detailed the plan we construct, the more likely it is to go awry. A life that follows strictly along a meticulously laid out plan is illusory.

Some degree of planning and preparation is necessary, though, isn’t it? Eating healthy requires real planning, I find. Being a vegetarian adds to the challenge. So where do we draw the line between obsessive attempts to control life and flitting about on the wind without any direction?

Perhaps it is at the point, still hard to discern, when “planning” one’s life becomes “attempting to control” it. (I say attempting, because I don’t believe we ever reach a point at which we are truly in control of life.) The practice I try to embrace is “flexible” planning—don’t make your plans rigid, but leave room for the unexpected (which, if past is prologue, really should be expected) and be ready to adjust. Expect things not to turn out as planned. Or, minimize your expectations, and thereby minimize disappointment. Not always easy for me to accomplish, but I’m working on it.

The Common Thread

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have long held an ecumenical view of religion, and never believed that my religion was any better than anyone else’s. My belief was that god, the higher power, whatever you call it, manifested itself differently to different people, in ways that were meaningful and understandable to them. But underlying all of the surface differences, they were constructed on the same basic foundation.

True, in their attempts to live out their religions, some people go astray and lose sight of the sameness of everyone, the inextricable connectedness of all beings. That does not, however, diminish the fundamental similarities of the various religions as they were originally conceived. One may try to establish that their way is the right way, their view is the correct view, but the things they do to distinguish themselves, to make themselves appear unique, in my opinion lead them away from the universal shared values of love and compassion.

Flexibility of Mind, Body and Spirit

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” – Everett McKinley Dirksen

A yoga teacher was making a point about achieving balance by keeping flexibility and ease in poses, and avoiding rigidity. While the students were in tree pose (standing on one leg, other leg bent at the knee with the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg, arms raised straight above the head), the teacher wandered the room, lightly poking the students on the shoulder. The students that were rigid, with locked knees and clenched jaws and gritted teeth, would teeter and drop out of the pose. The students that maintained ease in their pose, who were not overly rigid, teetered…but then regained their balance.

Have you ever been in a tall building and felt it sway? If buldings were not designed with flexibility that allows them to move in the wind, they would risk collapse. It’s not much different with us. If we go through life inflexible, unable to deal with anything less than our imagined ideal, we are destined for pain, suffering, and eventually collapse. The ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life, to “roll with the punches,” to “bend in the breeze,” is essential to the presence of mind needed to progress toward enlightenment.

Human-ness and Saintliness

I read a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s brother about the Dalai Lama’s fascination with technology and invention as a child. His brother said the Dalai Lama’s favorite invention was super glue, second only to the invention of the stuff that removes super glue.
Reading that, I was reminded of the thing I love most about His Holiness: his human-ness. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly special person. And he is just a person, like you and me. He often refers to himself as just a simple monk, which he really and truly is. And yet, he also is so much more.

Two of my great spiritual inspirations have been Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Obviously, they were two amazing people. But what first attracted me to them was how they were both very human, with all the frailties that come with being human. I read each of their autobiographies (The Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness, respectively; I highly recommend them) as a young man and was amazed by how flawed Thomas and Dorothy were, how matter-of-factly ordinary, how much like everybody else. Their extraordinary accomplishments and the example they set for me were all the more remarkable in light of their human-ness. I couldn’t believe that these amazing, saintly people were little different from me. That never fails to encourage me

For a Dear Departed Friend

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I lost a very dear friend recently. He was a tremendous comfort to me in a time of deep sorrow. His companionship, willingness to show and receive affection, warmth, and mischievously twinkling eyes buoyed my spirits innumerable times. I will miss him terribly. This blog post his about him.

I first met him at the Elmsford Animal Shelter in 2008. My daughter asked if I would take her to play with the cats. Just a month before, I had had to put down my cat, Dakota, after a prolonged illness. I received Dakota when she was just 6 weeks old and had lived with her for over 17 years. At the end, I held Dakota in my arms while the vet administered the dosage that relieved her pain and suffering and concluded this lifetime for her. Left alone with Dakota, I literally wailed and howled with my own pain and hurt. When I finally departed, carrying my heart-breakingly light pet carrier, the waiting room was packed with humans and their animal companions. Who knows what they thought my wailing and howling was—some poor, distressed animal, scared out of its mind, probably. Indeed, it was. I was.

I was not interested in getting a new cat, not for a long time anyway, and I told my daughter this. But I agreed to bring her, because I thought it was darling that she wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon showing affection to these poor animals in the shelter. We spent about two hours at the shelter, peering into cages, reading biographical statements about the adoptable critters, and occasionally asking for one to be removed so we could hold it. Among the darling animals we cuddled that day was a middle-aged blind cat, absolutely adorable and affectionate. Another was a juvenile tabby mix with splayed legs, sweetness personified. So like my daughter to be drawn to shower love on cats with physical problems (she’s very much like her mom in that regard).

As I was beginning to feel the urge to leave, I stopped before a large cage with three cats inside. As I read the laminated feline bios hanging from the cage door, an orange tabby paw stretched out between the bars and knocked all but one of the laminated cards out of my hand. The remaining card was for a cat the shelter had named Angel Buff. I looked up into the eyes of the owner of the offending paw, and what eyes they were. Golden. Not yellow. Golden. I’d never seen eyes that color before. I looked down at the card, and back at the cat, and once again at the card. It had been Angel Buff’s paw. I stared at him, he stared at me. Neither of us said a word until I asked a shelter volunteer to take him out of the cage.

To paraphrase J.K. Rowling, “The cat chooses the human.” This cat literally reached out and grabbed me. I accepted him from the volunteer and he immediately curled up in my arms, against my chest, purring like a jackhammer, closing his eyes. I didn’t know then that this would become a routine, this curling up on my chest, this immediate contentedness, this going to sleep almost uncomfortably close to my neck. But I knew I liked it. A lot. I didn’t want to let him go, even when I needed my hands to complete the paperwork.

Cat, medical and adoption forms, carrying box, food samples—everything came home with us, except the name. Cats deserve a good name, one with personality, one they can wear proudly. Angel Buff became Deuteronomy. But, like every pet I’ve ever had, he was never called by his full name. We called our new companion Dude, for short, and it fit him like a glove. “Dude, get off the dining room table.” “Dude, what have you been doing all day?” “Dude, stop clawing the carpet.” “Are you hungry, Dude?”

Dude was a mix of Siamese and domestic shorthair. He had the coloring of an orange tabby, but his body and head were pure Siamese. Small round head with overlarge ears and big round eyes. His whiskers protruded at odd angles, a bit like Salvador Dali’s moustache. Large, powerful hind legs and a short, thick tail. When he tried to saunter, as felines will do, he waddled instead. It was endearing.

Dude loved affection, craved having his ears rubbed, and eventually learned to enjoy exposing his belly for a prolonged scratching. He was curious, mischievous, naughty, adorable, hilarious, sensitive, and devoted nearly to the point of dog-hood (a point of embarrassment in the feline community, I’m sure).

Dude healed the raw place in my heart left behind by Dakota’s passing. Unsought, unbidden, he pawed his way into my life and took over. He insinuated himself into my heart, much the way he would insinuate himself between me and my body pillow every night at bedtime.

He was with us for too short a time, by a wide margin. He was but 9 years old when he passed from this life. I don’t know how or why he died, but he was peaceful and unruffled when I found him, so much so that I thought he was merely asleep at first. We shared a home for just three-and-a-half years, during which we shared a lifetime of love.

I am sad with loss at his death, but the memory of his life fills me with happiness and gratitude, turning tears of pain into tears of joy. He was a good boy, a good friend, a good being.

In this brief life, he amassed a wealth of positive karma as he tended to me and my family. I believe that a precious human birth and the possibility of enlightenment await him in his next life. I hope I get to meet him again soon.

Hey, Dude. See ya later. I love you.