Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Holidays When You’re High on Mindfulness

A few years ago I had to admit that I have a tough time with holidays. The difficulty is almost intangible; I’m excited for Thanksgiving, can’t wait to show off my gluten-free lemon meringue pie and my fetching vegetable side dish–but then I get terrified about a car crash on the way out of town. Or I just, all of a sudden, wish that it were a regular long weekend, with no obligation to be cheery, to drink wine, to participate.

I am pleased to say that this year, I weathered Thanksgiving with aplomb.

We visited Marc’s family–lovely folks with strong personalities. During holidays past, there has been some drama, arguments and the like. But this year, everyone was on their very best behavior. It helped that I was, too. It’s hard to explain what was different; I didn’t feel quite as pressured. A couple of times Marc was looking for me and there I was, reading a book in the guest room, letting someone else do the dishes and watch my kid. Maybe I embraced laziness? Not exactly. I just removed expectation. And I wonder if my lowered expectations affected those around me, because there was absolute harmony. Good food, many laughs, some alone time, some togetherness, a night out with the siblings while the grandparents put the kids to bed. And lots of love and gratitude being spread around. I was happy to come home late Saturday night, but also sad to have left.

I’m chalking this up to my newfound meditation practice, my morning yoga, my resolutions to enjoy my kid, embrace abundance, and give myself a break.

Four weeks to Christmas…

Thanksgiving harvest–probably the last big haul of the year!


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Mindful Resolution #5: Give Yourself a Break

I toyed with two other ideas for this last of the five mindful resolutions: “spend more time alone” and “say ‘no’ more.” I think all three get at the gist of the thing, which is that I tend to try to rise to unreasonable demands. Lately, those demands take the form of what feels like excessive socializing and community-building. Maybe that sounds a little bitter, but it has kind of felt that way: like there are social obligations I can’t get out of or enjoy as much as I would like. For my birthday in October I told Marc all I wanted was to have a weekend where we didn’t make any plans. I am craving both spontaneity and just a few days when the calendar is…empty.

So, resolved: no more double- and triple-booking; white lies are okay for the sake of my sanity; time alone is gold; yoga can be skipped in favor of staying home, if that’s how I want to roll; and it is okay to say “no.”


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Mindful Resolution #4: Be Grateful

In meditation a week ago, the guy who led the session and gave the dharma talk read some work by poet Danna Faulds. These lines stuck with me:

“It took years for me to realize that the very twists and turns and shadows I labeled ‘problems’ were really sacred ground, grace disguised as obstacles, the whole path a pilgrimage, mysteries baring themselves before me all along the way” (from “Every Step is Holy, in From Root to Bloom).

I grew up in a family where we all held on by our fingertips so nothing bad would happen. As an adult, I tend to remember, in my more graceful moments, that adversity brings growth. Here on Thanksgiving, I want to remember that the only way through dukkha is by experiencing it and growing stronger. Grace, disguised as obstacles.

But I think Poi Dog Pondering maybe said it best.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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Mindful Resolution #2: Enjoy My Kid

I’d be lying if I didn’t say this one is a little hard to write this morning, since yesterday goes down in the annals of bad days with toddler. I never thought I’d have a kid who would say things to me like, “You’re the worst Mumma I never wanted!” (the grammar and syntax are astoundingly difficult to figure out, when you get down to it). But there you have it. From the moment I picked him up from preschool to the moment I left for meditation, he acted like a drunk, abusive husband, berating me for my inadequacy (then begging my forgiveness) while I tried in vain to get him to stop bursting into tears in utter despair and, clearly, exhaustion.

Gretchen Rubin talks a lot about enjoying her kids. Like me, she knows that there is always one voice in your head reminding you, “they’re little for such a short time.” On the other hand, she knows that as the mother of a toddler, you experience a roller-coaster of emotions almost as up-and-down as theirs, which is to say, in one day you might feel joy, confusion, despair, boredom, happiness, nostalgia, longing, and sadness. They’re little for such a short time, you think. Then: Thank God.

“What’s the most difficult thing about parenting for you?” I asked an old friend, who had tried for over two years to get his wife pregnant before they went through a very intense and drawn-out adoption. “Probably the mind-numbing boredom,” he said without missing a beat.

Rubin says, the days are long, but the years are short.

(Modest Mouse said it slightly differently: “The years go fast but the days go so slow.”)

Maybe because I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever have another toddler, lately I’m bringing more loving-kindness to the days with Lex. (Okay, okay, I’m lying. My behavior turned distinctly un-Zen around 6:30 p.m. yesterday.) I’m trying to enjoy getting down on the floor and playing more. I’m trying to bring compassion to his very un-Zen moments. I’m trying to remember that an hour after I was the worst Mumma he never wanted, he kissed me and said, “I love you, Mom. You’re the best mom I ever wanted.” And that the night before, we’d had one of those ornate, chatty, sweet bedtime tuck-ins that was absolutely magical.

Resolved to to enjoy my kid.

Resolved to enjoy my kid when he’s like this…

…and like this.


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Mindful Resolution #1: Embrace Abundance

Last spring, Marc and I had one of those terrible moments when we realized that the reason we were perpetually broke was that our income and our expenses were EXACTLY THE SAME. Seriously. I figured this out one day when I sat down with ye olde calculator and the checkbook and the credit card statements and afterwards I felt so bummed–we have jobs, we’re well off in the scheme of things, and it just felt crazy to think that we were incapable of even saving $100/month.

So, as is my way, I immediately sprung to action. And, as usual, action made me feel better. We needed to either increase our income by X number of dollars or reduce our costs by about the same amount, and after a month of phone-calling and moving things around and me finding a little more work and really embracing frugality, I am pleased to say that we now, knock on wood, come out ahead by a few hundred bucks a month. It’s not amazing, but it sure feels better not to be stressing out about money all the time.

So why do I still live like I’m holding onto my wallet for dear life with my fingertips?

This resolution is two-fold. One, to appreciate the abundance we have. We can afford preschool, a nice, albeit small, apartment, occasional meals out, good organic food and occasional free-range meat. We have music, books, magazines, and Netflix in our lives. We sleep on a gorgeous expensive mattress we bought during a flush period. Lex has his own room. We have bicycles, a car, and BART passes. We have generous grandparents and a safety net, should things get hairy. In other words, to quote Marc’s mother when he was a kid and whining about wanting a new toy: we have everything we need.

Resolved to remember that, every day.

Abundance at the Union Square Farmer’s Market (photo courtesy of Emma Brode)

And, on a much more practical and mundane level, resolved to keep my house full. Today I opened the fridge for the umpteenth time and found: a quart of milk, a jar of preserved lemons, some boring old vegetables, and some corn tortillas. So after I picked up Lex from school, we made a giant pot of Cuban black bean soup and a batch of granola, plus started soaking chick peas for hummus. And we cleaned the kitchen and emptied the compost and swept the floor, listening to very loud music the whole time.


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On Making Resolutions, or What I Learned from Reading The Happiness Project

I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a book that in a roundabout way had some bearing on my decision to undertake this project. As I said in My Story, I’m not doing an experiment in happiness, exactly, but nonetheless Rubin’s decision to take a year to improve her relationships, be more mindful, clear out clutter, and pursue a passion definitely appealed to me. She and I are very different people, but I liked and admired her strange, thoughtful, and sometimes-hokey journey through self-improvement.

The Goddess in the side yard

The book is full of resolutions, and I must admit that was part of its appeal. I love to make resolutions: resolutions to be more tidy, resolutions to write more, resolutions to do yoga everyday, and the biggie, this resolution to find a spiritual life and live more mindfully. I have to admit, though, that I can’t tell whether resolutions are actually antithetical to what I’m trying to do. I struggle with the dichotomy of “get your ass to yoga, slacker” and “actually, if you choose not to go to yoga–and have a glass of wine instead–that’s A-ok.” I know Buddhism, and any spiritual practice, really, is about discipline. I also know that personally, I err way on the side of giving myself too many tasks to accomplish and things to do, and sometimes, the best choice for me would be saying no–even to yoga.

So I had an idea. I decided to make some mindful resolutions. What’s a mindful resolution, you ask? Well, resolutions that take me beyond those states like Ego, Anger, and Animality–and closer to Enlightenment. Resolutions that ultimately might help me end dukkha (suffering). Being more tidy is a good resolution, but let’s face it, it won’t bring me closer to God. Or will it?

Stay tuned, readers: next week. My mindful resolutions.

To read: The Happiness Project


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Tuesday, November 13: The Reading Books Phase

I have been worrying about the free-form, feel-it-out nature of this project. I think this is probably because a) I am reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, meticulous in its planning and organization; and b) because I have been teaching the idea of experiments to my students and have stressed the importance of having a hypothesis, a plan, and a list of materials. Honestly, these days I feel like I am just swimming in a sea of possibilities, ripping teeth off coffee-shop flyers that advertise mindfulness, taking book recommendations, and having random ideas about what this project should look like. Not disciplined at all; in fact, rather messy. And not, to date, too mindful, either. But there are glimmers.

So I didn’t think I had found a framework until a couple of Buddhists popped by last night (whaddya know?). They brought me some books and asked a few questions about this project, which I cryptically answered; I am not trying to be cloak-and-dagger about things, exactly, but I’m also trying not to bring everyone I know into it just yet. So I told them it was a personal exploration but that, because I am a writer, I will document it as I go. And that for now, I am just trying to gather information and figure it all out.

“Oh,” Alison said breezily. “You’re in the reading books phase.”

“Some people are perpetually in the reading book phase,” Don added.

I don’t know why, but it made me laugh and feel good. I think because it almost sounds like the Reading Books Phase (and for grammatical reasons too esoteric to explain, I have chosen NOT to hyphenate “reading-books phase”) is one of the ten steps: Animality, Anger, Reading Books, Buddhahood…

Great. Et voila, my framework: I am, now, in the Reading Books Phase (check the sidebar on the left to see which books are crowding my nightstand). I will let you know when I reach Enlightenment.

I think also I am in the Noticing Phase. One somewhat unhappy consequence of being more mindful is noticing all the ways in which I am not mindful. So, even as I managed five minutes of meditation this morning, I also managed to freak out about a small miscommunication (as perceived by me) half an hour later. Even as, while I was meditating, I registered the birds begin chirping in the yard…and the freight train running through the mau-mau (a friend’s kid’s word for the railroad crossing, now a word adopted by our entire family)…and the smell of the heating duct in its first use of the season…I also had to refrain from writing this blog post in my head the whole time.

One big notice for today: I write my life in my head while it is happening. This is an exhausting practice, probably pretty normal for a writer, but not ideal for someone trying to live more in the moment. I do it all the time, and have done it since I was a little kid. I am walking to the store. I am picking up my son from daycare. I am noticing the ways in which I am not mindful.

Alison said she used to do it, too, back when she first started practicing Buddhism. Now, she said, it doesn’t serve her.

Amen to that.


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November 7, 2012

Three days in.

I realized something about myself last night. I realized two things, actually. One: I think in terms of getting through things, like, “if only Obama gets elected, everything will be okay,” (done!) or, “if I get pregnant, all my problems will be solved.” The revealing thing last night was that in the elated moments after my guy won, I had a call from a doctor friend to discuss my disappointing fertility and there I was, five minutes later: down in the dumps, thinking about my next hurdle to cross. Like: check the election off the list; now move on (drudgingly, cheerlessly) to the next problem.

Harumph.

Do I think once I achieve the things I want, I will be “fixed?” “Enlightened?” That I will have achieved happiness, perfection, success, maybe even Buddhahood, that ultimate goal? I am reading, in Basics of Buddhism, about the ten states of being, e.g., Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattvahood, and Buddhahood.

The beach at Tennessee Valley Road

I am not entirely clear, yet, what all these states mean, or whether we move through them willy-nilly or progress through and find ourselves, at a certain point in our lives, arrested at one of the stops, waiting to move on. Or whether we move through these states in different lives. I am still learning. (But let’s just say that numero diez, Buddhahood, is a long ways off for yours truly. I will be amazed if I hit Bodhisattvahood.)

Hmm.

The other thing I realized last night was much more pedestrian, but also more important in some ways. The conversation with my friend was to get a second opinion about a very expensive test that my doctor, Dr. A.,  says I should get. Expensive, like, three-grand-out-of-pocket expensive. When my friend asked me why the doctor wanted to give me this test, all I could say was, “I don’t really know.” Steph suggested I take a very different and more simple route, an ultrasound. It should cost, she said, a couple hundred dollars.

On the way home, with Marc, and Lex sleeping peacefully in his carseat in the back, we turned off the radio for a minute and just talked it through.

“I just get these one-line emails back from the doctor,” I said. “I don’t understand her logic, whether I really need this test or whether it’s just the next thing in the line, the next step in the usual infertility process. It seems to me that there is a better test out there for me—Steph seems to think there is—but I don’t know because Dr. A. hasn’t told me.”

Marc: “Have you asked?”

No, I had not asked. What I had done was email and tell Dr. A. that given the expense of the test, I might hold off for a while. What I secretly hoped was that she would write back and say, “Well, given the financial constraints, maybe we should consider a different approach. Let’s schedule a phone call to discuss.” Instead, I got back an email that said: “The order will stand when you’re ready. — Dr. A.”

Then Marc dropped a bomb.

“Are you worried she won’t like you if you ask for what you need?”

He really should reconsider this law gig and become a therapist, methinks.

The question made me feel very sad. Sad because the answer was yes. I think in my struggle to be more laid back—that Sisyphean task—I mug something like calmness, a defense mechanism, maybe, and people who don’t know me very well respond as though I am indeed calm and laid back. They think I am treating things lightly. When in reality:

I have realized in the past month how badly I want to be pregnant again.

I have realized that I have this kind of fog around my own fertility, many questions about whether my very harrowing birth with Lex a few years back caused some sort of uterine trauma that has made me infertile.

And that I am terrified to find out.

But that not knowing is killing me.

And that I am not asking very well for what I need: information, and a plan.

And that I do not feel laid back or calm about any of it.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin says something to the effect of, “I wanted to take myself more seriously, and also less seriously.” I so know what she means. I want to be laid back, calm, Zen. And yet it may be that the only way I get there is to take myself more seriously.

On today’s to-do list: write another email to doctor, asking for more information and a better plan.