Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life



I wasn’t going to blog this week, because nothing really stuck, but then as is often the case, life intervened and gave me something to think about.

I did something last night that I kind of regret.

I got a rejection from a writing event and instead of graciously filing it in the Rejections folder, I responded. I didn’t say they’d made a mistake, I didn’t tell them they sucked, not exactly; but what I did say was that I was disappointed and that it would have been a good event with me in it. So in a way, I guess, I implied that they’d made a mistake. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t terribly gracious, either.

This morning, my wise writer friend K. suggested I not send it. “I know it’s disappointing,” she said. “But you don’t want to burn any bridges.” And this morning, it turned out she was right. (She often is.)

But last night, when I sent it, I wanted to burn bridges. I wanted to rage. Even though it’s not a huge event or even a huge deal, it felt like one because of my sense lately that there’s that cocktail party going on that I’m not invited to. I hate the way this sounds—self-deprecating, whiny, weak. But there are times when I want to scream out to the world that life is unfair, that I have been personally wronged, that everyone is making a mistake about me.

Yes, that tiny little rejection sent me into a very dark and ugly place last night. I admitted to Marc through many tears that I honestly can’t envision happening for me the two things that I want desperately right now: to get published and to have another baby. Friends will say optimistic things like, “when you’re pregnant” and “when you get published” and I will immediately think, if. IF. And I don’t even really believe the if. I believe that lots of good things could happen for me, but I don’t believe those two things will.

I grew up believing that our mistakes would kill us. I grew up with a dad who would order the wrong thing in a restaurant and still be talking about it six hours later. “I should have had the oysters,” he’d say. This seemed like normal behavior to me, and I am still very prone to regret. I shouldn’t have sent that stupid email, I told myself over and over again this morning. I’m such a train wreck.

I called a friend. She agreed that if I’d reflected longer I wouldn’t have sent the email, but that it wasn’t, really, such a big deal. And then she reminded me that the real issue is not this small rejection, and my regret about it, but this dark place that I’m in.

“What if you really acknowledged it?” she asked. “What if you really let yourself feel that darkness? What might be on the other side?”

Taped to my front door is this quote, from my Osho Zen tarot deck:

Zen, or meditation, is the method that will help you to go through the chaos, through the dark night of the soul, balanced, disciplined, alert. The dawn is not far away…but the dark night has to be passed through.

This morning, meditating, I thought how lately all I do is sit on the zafu and worry. I’m not meditating, I’m sitting there thinking. And then I realized that part of the path is showing up even if you’re just sitting there thinking the whole time, even if Enlightenment feels as far away as Pluto.

Who knows what’s on the other side. Do I want to find out?

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On Being Self-Critical (Or: Why Facebook is a Bad Idea)

Last night I was lazily zoned out on the couch, trolling Facebook. Lex was asleep in my bed, Marc was at a Giants game, and I was killing time. I’d been feeling pretty good about things. Sunday night I went to a reading in the city and afterwards was chatting with two good friends who are also writers along with a book publisher and another writer I’d just met. We were chatting about writing and publishing and mutual acquaintances and I had this nice feeling of having a place in the world. There was nothing pretentious or annoying happening, no one was trying to compete. We just were.

So last night on Facebook I see that two–two!–people from my grad program have just been offered tenure-track positions at prestigious colleges. Did I mention I haven’t had anything published since 2011?

And so off to bed I went, grumbling. I was pleased for these colleagues, honestly. But I keep feeling a bit like the flunky cousin who just can’t get it together. Lately it seems like everybody I know is getting tenure-track positions somewhere or publishing a book, while I’m just stinking up the joint.

And as I lay there trying to fall asleep next to Lex, I had this image in my head.

It was a cocktail party.

And everyone was there except me.

 Cocktail Party At the Imperial Hotel March 13, 1961, thank you Wikimedia Commons

Cocktail Party At the Imperial Hotel March 13, 1961, thank you Wikimedia Commons

If it wouldn’t have woken up Lex, I might have started to laugh out loud. Because I realized I’d had this image before. I’m not talking about a metaphor, here, like “everyone’s invited to the party but me.” I mean that I literally pictured, for a second, all of the wildly successful people from my grad program hanging out together, having drinks, changing the world. In some remote corner of my brain, I thought that this happened. They all get together–despite the fact that everyone lives in different cities, now–and have drinks every week because they’re all terribly successful and I’m not.

I’m so relieved I realized this was an illusion. Because laughing at myself completely diffused the situation.

Lots of work to do, I reminded myself. Lots to do. And I went off to sleep unfettered.

Isn't it so great that I just got tenure? (Thank you Wikimedia Commons)

Isn’t it so great that I just got tenure? (Thank you Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, I noticed that one of the women who posted on Facebook about her great new appointment said something like, “I feel like this is the life I’ve always wanted, and it’s just beginning.” Seeing that in print made me realize how much that notion–that life will begin when I find success–has been with me. Later (at the time I couldn’t see this) it was lovely to notice how much this practice has helped me to see that my life has already begun. That this is all life.

In other words, the path, not the cocktail party.



Yesterday on BART I was reading a little more from When Things Fall Apart. I realize that reading about Buddhism is a bit like reading difficult philosophy: the concepts aren’t ever immediately clear, and sometimes I have to stop at a chapter and go back and read the previous one, and even then I sometimes don’t get it and have to wait for life experience, further study, or meditation to illuminate the concept for me. But yesterday I was reading about Bodhichitta, “awakened heart,” and for probably the first time since beginning this journey I felt I understood something immediately.

Pema explains Bodhichitta as understanding “the pain of all beings.” Instead of running from suffering, Bodhichitta means that we cultivate the capacity to experience all suffering. With an awakened heart, we feel the pain of those suffering in Ethiopia, those dying of AIDS, those struggling with loss. We don’t turn our backs on suffering or try to shield ourselves from it; instead, we take it in with an awakened heart. As Pema says:

We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears and to caring only for the people nearest to us (87-88).

I’ve been trying, for the last day or so, to reconcile Bodhichitta with sensitivity. As a child I was often told to stop being so sensitive. Everything affected me. (It still does.) It wasn’t until my twenties when someone told me that being highly sensitive was a gift, that I was intuitive. What a beautiful reframing! And so when I read about Bodhichitta, I thought to myself, yes. I have an awakened heart.

But having an awakened heart can be an incredible burden, and that’s when my understanding starts to break down. Pema reminds us not to turn from suffering, but what if we…wallow in suffering? I can remember so many times over the years when, hearing about a tragedy that happened to someone I didn’t know at all, I started to cry. For example, I remember my brother telling me about a kid he knew who had been beaten to death with a baseball bat at a party and I completely lost it. My family was bewildered by my violent sobs. Nowadays, I feel an almost irrational drive to save endangered species. When I learn of a poached elephant, I start to cry. And when I heard about those three women who had been kidnapped ten years ago and kept locked up in a basement, I could barely see straight.

I have what might be called an active imagination; I can imagine suffering only too well. And so there has been a part of me that for many years has regretted this awakened heart of mine.

It’s popular, these days, to talk about “not taking something on.” As in, “That’s sad, but I just can’t take that on right now.” It’s self-protective. I usually admire someone who knows her boundaries enough to say something like that, and I have wanted to have that strength. But someone like me has a kind of permeable layer around her. I take on tragedy, I feel it, I take stuff on that’s not mine all the time. And it is painful, and difficult, and sometimes it means you don’t take care of yourself because you’re so busy worrying about other people.

That can’t be what the awakened heart is all about, can it?

Pema explains the concept of tonglen, in and out, and a practice where you breathe in the pain of others and breathe out peace and happiness to them. We’re talking about a practice that works on a tiny, micro-energetic level, here, but it strikes me as a beautiful and powerful concept. And I wonder if through tonglen I might turn what is a sometimes-unhealthy sensitivity into a more productive and more powerful practice of Bodhichitta.

I’m going to give it a try.


Growing Pains

I’m back.

After writing that post last week I felt clearer but also more vulnerable, a little raw, like I had revealed too much about my body and my desires and my self-absorption and my weakness. In case you’re wondering, I am officially not pregnant, TCOYF and its 18-high-temperatures-rule notwithstanding. It’s silly to feel betrayed by a book, but I do.

On Monday afternoon I was sitting on the deck at my friend Steph’s house, watching our children play nakedly in California spring sunshine, when all of a sudden I turned to her and said, “I am learning so much this year. It’s astounding.” When I said it, I could almost feel my head expanding, like a little brain growing pain.

I said this because I’d just had yet another revelation about the patterns I’m interrogating and trying to change this year, on this mindfulness journey. Context: A writer friend had offered to read an essay for me, and when she emailed, her response was simple and to the point: “I enjoyed your essay. I have some comments. When should we meet?” But all day I had been worrying that she wasn’t more effusive. What kinds of comments? Was there anything good in the essay at all? And as I revealed this paranoia to Steph on a sunny Monday afternoon my brain grew a little with the understanding that this is another of my unhealthy patterns that I need to change.

It seems I have this kind of revelation every week, lately. I notice so much more than I used to, or at least, I notice it and don’t let myself turn from it anymore. I can only assume that this is a consequence of taking the road to Enlightenment. But in the present, in the moment, it’s kind of a drag. I don’t want to be reminded of my patterns of behavior every week and realize how much they’re not serving me. I don’t want to feel so acutely hurt by an offhand comment from a friend that ultimately means nothing. Lately everything feels very weighty: the things Marc says, the times when we don’t connect, the coldness I perceive on the part of friends, my guilt over letting other friendships go, changes with Lex. These are things that a year ago I would have been able to turn from and ignore, or at least, not dwell so fully on.

I’m reminded of when I was a kid and told not to be so sensitive.

It’s occurred to me that, a bit like therapy, with mindfulness practice things might get more difficult before they get better. I say that because I do trust that the end goal here–if it’s not too anti-Buddhist to talk about goals–is to stop being attached to small hurts. But it feels as though in the short term I need to be MORE attached to small hurts. I’m continually surprised by this, and I’d love to hear from you if this is a phenomenon you’ve experienced, too.

I think I will look back on this year and remember it as a period of intense growth and learning. I just didn’t know how painful some of the growing would be.