Category Archives: Pain

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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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

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.

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.

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

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Bearing the Pain of Others

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I learned a lesson today about walking the Bodhisattva path. It started with a painful conversation with my daughter. She was in pain, sad, distressed, and it made my heart break. I never understood that expression, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” until I became a parent myself. When I first understood it, my eyes opened wide with the realization of how much my own parents love me. I felt incredibly humble and enormously grateful. The unconditional love I have for my daughter amazes me no end, and to know that there are people who love me the same way—well, that’s just stupefyingly mind blowing.

A manifestation of the unconditional love I have for my daughter is that I would bear any pain to spare her pain. I would rather endure agony than see her suffer the slightest pain; seeing her in pain is agony. I would bear any pain to spare my wife pain. I would bear any pain to spare my father, my sister, my nieces and nephews—really, anyone in my family—their pain. I love them, feel compassion for them.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be in any of their interests for me to spare them of all their pain. Pain is natural, common, unavoidable, because we are human and prone to suffering. Yes, we all desire to be free of it, but it exists nonetheless. The people we become, we become in part because of the suffering we have endured and overcome. Even if I had the power to spare my family all of their pain, I’m not sure I’d be doing them any favors.

The desire to free them of their suffering, however, is paramount. The compassion I feel when I see a family member in pain springs from my awareness of what pain feels like and my own desire to be free of suffering. Knowing pain’s unpleasantness, knowing that a family member is experiencing it, drives me to want to do all I can to help my daughter, wife, sister, father free themselves from their suffering.

I’m getting to the lesson now, bear with me. It occurs to me that a Bodhisattva is one who feels that love, compassion, and desire to help others free themselves from suffering, but for all beings. I try to imagine what it would be like to feel that kind of universal love, and it is difficult to comprehend.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my daughter for a close friend? Would I willingly bear his pain? Yes, I think so.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my wife for an acquaintance? Would I willingly bear her pain? Maybe.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my sister for a stranger? Would I willingly bear his pain? I don’t know.

Could I feel the compassion I have for my father for someone who has committed terrible crimes? Would I willingly bear her pain? If I’m going to be honest, then no, I don’t think I’d be able to. Not yet.

But I want to. I really do. And that’s a step in the right direction.