Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Codependence; Who Knew?

After my last post comparing becoming Buddhist to being in recovery, I thought it would be funny (yeah, real funny, you sicko) to come here and write, “I relapsed!”

In fact I did not.

photo-1 copy photo-2 copyBut I realized this past week that this whole mindfulness/meditation gig does not remove the tendency or the temptation to be a nervous, anxious wreck. In fact this has been my tendency for as long as I can remember–or since I was seven, whichever comes first.

I have definitely been angsty of late, angsty about career and friendships and fertility and parenting, and with each move towards anxiety I have to breathe, strive for mindfulness, renew my commitment to the zafu, and remember my boundaries.

This last one is a biggy. Coincidentally, after I wrote that last post, I went to dinner and yoga with a friend who is in Al-Anon. Over sushi at the local Whole Foods (look, that counts as dinner these days, okay?) she explained to me the concept of codependence. Holy cow. I always thought “codependent” was the word you used to describe a couple who can’t spend any time apart. I didn’t realize that codependent has much more to do with boundaries, with not respecting someone else’s, with not being heard as an individual or listening to someone else as an individual, with trying to be all up in somebody else’s bisnatch all the time. With control.

What a revelation for me.

A revelation because I finally had some language to describe:

A. My sometimes difficult relationship with my parents

B. My often difficult relationship with various friends

C. The feeling I get when someone pushes me to do something after I have said no, or offers advice for a scenario I have made up my mind not to pursue

D. My own instinct, lately, to really strive to meet friends and family where they’re “at,” instead of pushing them to be different or offering advice

How does this relate to Buddhism? Because, if you’re working to remove attachments (to outcomes, to other people), somehow the urge to be codependent starts to go away.

And, at first, your tolerance for other people’s codependence goes down.

But maybe you have better tools to deal with codependence as it comes up. I hope. I’m still figuring this out. As Anne Lamott says in her lovely book Operating Instructions: “Little by little I think I’m letting go of believing that I’m in charge, that I’m God’s assistant football coach. It’s so incredibly hard to let go of one’s passion for control. It seems like if you stop managing and controlling, everything will spin off into total pandemonium and it will be all your fault.”

I guess this is part of the path.

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The path was in Northern California this whole time.


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Triggers

I had the revelation the other day that becoming Buddhist is a bit like being in recovery from drug addiction in that you’re wandering along, feeling like you’ve conquered the thing, when all of a sudden there’s a particular sort of trigger that throws you back into danger. If you’re an addict, the trigger might be a breakup, an illness, sad news, who knows, and the danger is that you’ll start to use again. If you’re working on your mindfulness, the danger is falling back into anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and attachment.

This could sound incredibly lofty, I realize.

But I’m serious. The other day around 7 p.m. I told Marc how much my meditation practice is helping me with my career angst. When I sit every day, I told him, I feel less sure that my book sucks and that I will never achieve success. When I sit every day I feel less attached to its success at all. I feel proud of the work–but not too proud!–and good about how far I have come. I have this realistic understanding of process, of the path, of the journey that the book and I are on together.

I am much less hard on myself.

I said all of this, and meant it, and really felt I had had a breakthrough.

At 8 p.m. I checked my email to find that a school colleague had had an awesome career success. (One I instantly felt he hadn’t deserved, because I was being petty.) And just like that, my whole night was ruined. I started to panic about how little writing I have done this week, and how little writing I will be able to do this whole month, what with all the papers to grade and not being able to afford more childcare for Lex, and since I am so shamefully bad at managing everything, and because I waste time with blog posts and jealousy–and because, let’s face it, I have no talent to speak of, anyway………………

Yes, folks, I got triggered.

Yuck.

The mindful Buddhist response, of course, would be to notice the trigger and move on. And I am relieved to say that at this, at least, I succeeded in doing what Pema Chödrön says we should do: stop making everything such a big deal.

“I’m jealous of J.,” I said to Marc. “I am just going to admit it.” And saying it helped immensely.

But of course, that doesn’t solve the thing. I’m sure the addict who resists the fix still kind of wants it for a few days and feels bad for having almost gone there.

More, I realize the world is filled with triggers.

And that, I think, is what this is all about.


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The Preschool Meeting and the Path

LeoLegsI often find bussokuseki’s blog posts gorgeous, but I wanted in particular to reblog this one, “The Spiral and The Path.” A man and his kids make a spiral in the snow, only to discover its impermanence. It’s a lovely testament to non-attachment and it was one of the few things I sat down and read fully, without distraction, on the day I saw it. I hope you check it out.

I loved the post also because in a metaphorical and oblique way it’s about the difficulty of being Buddhist with kids. I sometimes think if I didn’t have a kid, what a great Buddhist I’d be. I’d be so patient, so mindful, so calm. Of course that’s absurd: having a kid is part of what sent me down this path, and part of what sustains this practice, and so in that way, without Lex there would be no Becoming Buddhist. No great need for patience and mindfulness.

I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, when things felt particularly dire on the home front. As with everything, that day passed, and another one arrived, then another. Then it came time for an all-school meeting at Lex’s school. The topic: ask a teacher all your burning questions about child-rearing. We were invited to submit questions anonymously; the teachers would each choose one to answer. I submitted one. It went along the lines of:

Do you have any strategies for dealing with kids who are argumentative, uncooperative, and unhelpful, rewarding “good” behaviors and discouraging “bad” ones?

I kind of cringe when I read it now.

The meeting solidified my feeling that—if I may brag for just a second—Lex goes to the best preschool in the entire world. Maybe down the line I will become jaded, but at the moment I’m astounded by how fully this school allows my son to be himself. It encourages his emotional, intellectual, and physical growth, and allows his parents to be involved in his education. For me, it’s like walking into a room every morning and knowing that despite economic diversity, different personalities, and probably philosophical disagreements, every parent in the room wants the same thing for their kid and wants to try harder to be the best parent they can be (I know, it’s so bourgeois, so Berkeley). So at this meeting, I found solutions to parenting problems that ranged from spiritual (“practice non-attachment and objectivity,” said one) to pragmatic (“there are two kinds of tantrums,” said another. “Here’s how you deal with type A…”). The last teacher to speak was Alyssa, Lex’s classroom teacher, and, wouldn’t you know it, she picked my question. Her answer was helpful, somewhere in the middle of spiritual and pragmatic, and I got some good ideas from her. But mostly I had this nagging at my heart the entire time she was talking. A voice came into my head, and here’s what the voice said:

You are not dealing well with Lex’s anger.

And I realized the voice was right. I have been scared of his anger, inconvenienced by his anger, annoyed by his anger. I have found it misplaced and confusing, so I have shut it down. In not so many words I have told him that his anger is inappropriate and has no place in our house. Because I have not always dealt well with my own anger, this realization scared me and made me want to do better.

When I got home, I shared my experience of the meeting with Marc. The surprising part was that I didn’t get more than two minutes into explaining about the anger before I started to sob. The tears felt like they came from someplace else, like they were moving through me; I sobbed and sobbed. I let go of all the difficulty of the past couple of months, with Lex, with the ectopic pregnancy. I realized how hard it has been to be a patient, mindful parent to a child who has tested my mindfulness and my patience at every turn.

I cried and cried and cried and cried.

The California equivalent of snow

The California equivalent of snow

And then you know what? I swallowed, and realized that the incredibly painful sore throat I’d had for a month was gone. GONE.

And I woke up the next morning remarkably refreshed and optimistic. And happy.

Parenting mindfully may be the most difficult thing I have done. At the end of the day, exhausted, practicing non-attachment feels like arduous work. Some days, reacting calmly to anger or rudeness takes every ounce of strength I have. Some days I really suck at it.

Lately, I am happy to report, Lex’s challenges to my Buddhism have been a little more pedestrian. Since the meeting and the cathartic cry, we have been better with one another again. I have been better.

Nowadays the great difficulty is getting up early enough to do ten sun salutations and sit for ten minutes before I hear the Thump! Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-shakow-Boom! that is Lex hopping out of his bed, bounding across the room, and throwing open the door to come find one of his parents. Often, I’m still on the zafu.

“Come here, Honey,” I might say as I pull him onto my lap and wrap him in a wool blanket. “We’re sitting quietly.”

The other morning the stillness was palpable. Lex’s warm body was the loveliest of meditations. Silence. Then there was a “pfffffttt!” as he let out this enormous morning fart on me and the zafu. We both paused, surprised; then he started to giggle uncontrollably.

Then I did, too.