Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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On the Advice of a Friend, Woman Writes Letter to Her Paranoid Self in a Time of Crisis

Dear BB,

Don’t be a fucking idiot. Many people lose some hearing with an ear infection and get it back just fine. You’ll be one of them. The Buddha would remind you that everything is always changing, that this—this horrible tinnitus and hearing loss—is what’s happening now. It does not mean it will be happening in a month. I know it’s been scary and all, that the other night you sat shivering and crying and saying “please make it end, please make it end” for hours all alone in bed with your ears roaring, absolutely roaring, after you read some scary stuff on the Internet, but put things in perspective: there are women being raped and murdered across the world. ISIS is terrorizing us. Ted Cruz just announced he’s running for POTUS. Your fucking ear problems are small fish. Seriously. Everyone—all the doctors—have said you will most likely regain full hearing when the infection clears up. Let’s assume that “most likely” actually means “definitely” or “100% positive” and just stop with the horrible anxiety that somehow you’ll live with tinnitus and compromised hearing for the rest of your life, okay? Don’t be an idiot. You know in two weeks you’ll look back and think, well, I knew deep down I would be okay. What was I freaking out about?

I should say—I know this illness has been absolutely the worst for you. It’s rare to get what you think will be a relatively mild cold and have it turn into a ten-day flu, complete with 102-degree fever, chills, aches, exhaustion, a racking cough, and congestion so bad that it turns into an intensely painful double ear infection after a week. I know it is doubly shitty that this all happened during your spring break, when you had big plans for that book proposal and that book revision and maybe even just a few hours puttering in the back yard without a care in the world, and instead, you spent the entire thing in bed. Yes, that sucks.

Still life with used tissues.

Still life with used tissues.

I know you’ve tried the following over the last two weeks:

Osha root tincture

Licorice root tincture

“Wellness Formula”

Advil

Tylenol

NyQuil (never again)

FloNase

Nasal decongestant

Mucinex

Antibiotic ear drops

Garlic-mullein ear drops

“Xiao Chai Hu”

Lycopodium 30c (homeopathic for tinnitus)

Vitamin C

Zinc throat spray

Azithromycin

…and none of it has worked, but still, don’t lose heart. Don’t assume that you’re going to be deaf for the rest of your life. That’s crazy!

Oh, and, I know you’ve also tried:

Acupuncture

Hot steam

Salt water as a gargle, in the neti pot, and in the humidifier

Raw garlic

Visualization

Bone broth

Acidophilus chewies

Acidophilus fancy drinks

Prayer

…and you still mostly feel like crap, but seriously. Enough is enough. Take a deep breath, a hot shower, another shot of zinc, and a slow walk. Clear thy head, girl.

Remember Pema Chodron when she reminds us to think of adversity as no big deal. Remember the adage: this too shall pass.

No really, this too shall pass.

Love,

BB


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And February Was So Long, That it Lasted Into March*

I’m calling it: January is the cruelest month. Or maybe February. Or maybe the entire January-February continuum, from New Year’s to the first of March. I always have high expectations for January. I’m off school, so I make a copious to-do list, embrace the time, and plan to walk into February light as a feather, with 56,000 new words written, my closets cleaned out, my shoes polished, my psyche clean, and my body well-rested, in shape, perfect.

Instead, this January kind of sucked. I struggled constantly to figure out which project to work on. I got some good notes towards a novel but ended up only finishing one essay. The entire family got sick, and days went to tending L and M. I fought off low-grade depression the whole time. I did clean out my closet, the last night before school started, in a burst of desperate energy. I did not get to Goodwill, get my pants hemmed, find the Savings bond I was looking for, locate an affordable piece of furniture to house the six or seven box-worths of junk that’ve been waiting in the living room since we moved in in October. I did not get a date night with M. I did not sleep very well.

I did have some nice times: one perfect, lovely weekend in Inverness, a tiny town next to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, with my creative lady friends. We hiked, meditated, did yoga, read books, drank wine, chatted about writing and art and creativity. The last day, L and M met me there and we spent the day at the beach, L frolicking in his underpants in January sun (Boston, eat your heart out). We went out for lunch in Pt. Reyes Station, the charmingest of towns. Driving back into Berkeley, I felt M’s and my energy kind of sink with the weight of the impending week, though I held onto the nice feelings from the weekend for a few days, felt lighter, happier, more possible.

But last week, when classes started, this low-grade panic took over my body. Monday night, I told M I wasn’t sure I could do it (teach these classes I have taught a gazillion times, that is. I did it, obvs). Tuesday night, I junked out on the couch, exhausted. All I could think about was getting to Friday. But now that it’s the weekend, I feel more of the low-grade panic, plus a general feeling of malaise and depression, kind of like I just don’t want this life of mine anymore. Kind of this feeling that I never get a break, that a weekend isn’t even a weekend. And that maybe I wasted January.

I know how this sounds: whiny, extreme, annoying, privileged. And I must confess that I woke up with a really rotten cold and spent the morning moping in bed, trying to sleep, so that can’t be helping my mood. But it’s kind of, well, how I feel.

I wonder if this is a problem of expectations. Or of connectivity. Like, if I hope too much for things and don’t just accept things as they are. And if I feel depressed because I realize that, even when I don’t have students to attend to, I’m already too “on.” I used to look forward to weekends; now I dread soccer and the social events that characterize them. And I’m anticipating things to come—a conference I’m participating in, a workshop I’m leading—with an unhealthy level of anxiety. The other day, I thought to myself, I just have to get through February. And at least once a day, I have fantasized about getting in the car and just driving back to that beach in Inverness and hiding out until it’s all over. Until what’s all over? Exactly. Who knows.

This doesn’t seem like any way to live.

Last week, I saw this therapist I’ve been seeing lately, and I confessed that sometimes I wonder if January has been hard the last couple of years because it’s the anniversary of the miscarriage that nearly took my life. She looked shocked; I hadn’t told her of my dramatic ectopic explosion in January of 2013. I told her that last year, in January, I commemorated the miscarriage by getting salmonella and spending a week in bed, thinking far too much about what had happened a year earlier. This year, the depression, the family getting sick, and then a trip to the ER because I thought I might have a blood clot. I told her how, being back in the ER for just an hour (I was fine) last week, I had this strange desire to go back upstairs to my old room and stay the night, nurses poking and prodding me, everyone else in control. I didn’t want the loss again, but I wanted something else.

“Well,” she said. “Trauma works like that. We often have trauma anniversaries, times when we just feel off as the body remembers what’s happened.” She suggested I revisit the trauma, heal it, so I can move on. I haven’t thought of myself as deeply traumatized by what happened, honestly. But it still makes me teary to think of it, to write about it, so maybe there’s something to it. Maybe January is a little doomed because of it.

And I feel better even having written this. I’m sitting on my back porch. It’s the most gorgeous day ever. M is happily working in the yard. L has been a love lately. And tomorrow, it’s February. Maybe February will surprise me. Maybe next year will too. To quote Dar Williams: “You never know how next year will be.”

Love,

BB

*A line from a really fabulous and sad Dar Williams song called “February,” which you can listen to above. Thanks, Dar


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Extra! Extra! Woman Feeling Guilt, Shame, and Negativity Writes Herself a Love Letter

photo-4 copyFriday: one mom, me, talking to another mom, Kate, about a situation at my son’s school. I tell Kate that I want to say something about it but am concerned about backlash. I also admit to feeling like a coward, and thus, am thinking maybe I will complain anonymously.

“I hear that,” she says, gently, “but I think it’s not a great attitude for a parent to have. Because we all need to advocate for our kids, right?”

Me: awash in shame. Instantly. Kate is so much wiser than I am, and I am truly a coward. And a bad parent, likely because I am infertile and only have one child to practice on. 

Thursday: L has a playdate with one of the most ill-behaved children I have ever met. When I tell him we’re out of cream cheese at lunch time, he screams at me that he hates me. When it’s time to clean up, he tells me, “I’m not your slave!” When he bonks his head and I try to comfort him, he yells, “Stop touching me!” I know this kid well; he went to preschool with L, so I worked with him in the classroom every week, and we have relatives in common. So I feel pretty comfortable with him. So comfortable, in fact, that when he screams at me the last time, I say, calmly, “If you’re going to speak to me like that, T., I’m not going to invite you to my house again.”

Told the hubs, M, about it. He was a little shocked, said it sounded kind of harsh.

Me: awash in shame. Instantly. I’m such a terrible person, for speaking that way to someone else’s kid. And T’s dad is going to find out and tell all our friends that I’m a monster. 

Wednesday: I’m applying for this…thing. I need a letter of recommendation. I email a couple of friends who have academic jobs and ask a couple of questions about whom I should list as recommenders and whether I should include X or Y on my CV.

My friend Brooke writes back. “Don’t make assumptions about what they’re looking for,” she says. “This is a prestigious *thing* and they’re going to get a ton of great applicants, so just pull out all the stops.”

Me: awash in shame. Instantly. There’s no way I will be competitive with all those great applicants out there, since I am just an untalented 41-year-old wash-up whose career is in the toilet. 

Yup, that’s the week I’ve had. (I won’t even tell you about Monday and Tuesday.)

I go through these periods where I feel I just can’t do anything right. I’m a bad parent, a bad writer. I’m a bad teacher. I don’t keep my house clean enough. I have gray hair, I’m no longer pretty. I eat too much cheese. I yell at my kid. I can’t keep my room tidy enough. I’m not financially savvy, and generally, I suck.

If I’m honest, I spend a lot of my life in this pattern of thinking. Some weeks, when I’m meditating a lot, when I remember to be mindful, when things with L and M are smooth, when I’m exercising enough and writing enough—I can take these small, relatively insignificant moments and roll them off the back like so much water. I can remind myself that at 41, I’m still learning. That it’s okay to make mistakes. That Kate, M, and Brooke are not out to get me; they’re trying to be supportive, helpful, and kind. That really, geez, these are tiny things to get all het up about.

But other weeks, small wounds like these go straight to some place in me that believes it’s not okay to make mistakes, and more than that, that my tiny falters somehow indicate terrible things about my character. On these weeks, it feels like the whole world is persecuting me. I’m hypersensitive about everything. Negativity runs the show. Look at me wrong and I just might freak out.

I’ve thought a lot about this pattern. At 41 I am no longer in therapy, and honestly (no, believe me!) not so tethered to my anxieties and insecurities all the time. I’m actually a pretty functional and whole person, capable, kind, evolved. But I have this dark place in me that still holds a lot of sway. It comes, I think, from having grown up with parents who second-guess every move they make; in addition to brown eyes, good teeth, and olive skin, I got this tendency towards self-doubt, and this belief that mistakes mean weakness.

And I am heartily, heartily sick of it. In fact, one of the reasons I started a meditation practice was to try to let some of this negativity go. And it worked, for a while; or at least, meditation helped me remember not to make my life, and these small parts of it, such a big deal. But lately, for a thousand reasons, my meditation practice is spotty, at best. The mornings have become too tight, since we’re trying to get everyone up, dressed, fed, and out the door in a calm fashion (instead of what was happening before: bedlam, fights, tears). I sometimes manage to meditate before bed, but it just doesn’t feel as powerful, somehow. L’s own negativity and moods have been weighing heavily on our house—it’s amazing how powerful the discontent of a five-year-old can be—and that’s been hard to be mindful through. Also, it’s been raining and raining and raining, and while my joy and happiness that this is the case (remember our 4-year drought?) is palpable, it’s also meant less exercising for me and just more time indoors, with cabin fever (and that cranky five-year-old, did I mention him?).

So it’s been a tough week.

And so here, at the end, I will just note the writing prompt that appeared in my inbox this morning, from Kat McNally and her #Reverb project (a reflective writing prompt a day, in the month of December):

It all starts with kindness. Everything I have learnt, everyone I have interviewed, every word I have studied has guided me to this simple but profound conclusion: true happiness begins and ends with self-kindness.

No more guilt. No more shoulds. No more comparison.

And the very best way to give your weary soul some kindness at the end of this year? A love note.

Write a letter from you to you… filled with forgiveness, love, and a big bear hug.

Here’s mine:

Dear BB,

I forgive you for making mistakes. I forgive you for being oversensitive. I forgive you for not meditating. I forgive you for making things such a big deal. You’re tops.

Love,

BB

This post is, sort of, part of the Reverb 14 December daily writing challenge, a series of reflective writing prompts designed to help let go of 2014 and move into 2015 with intention.

 


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Reflecting on a Year of Becoming Buddhist

Hi; long time.

BirchesagainstskyI’ve been realizing, in that way we realize when a ridiculously long period of time has seemed to pass in a ridiculously short one, that it’s been a year since I started this blog and this project. It was about a year ago that I collapsed crying on the couch one night and, when I came to, decided that I really needed to change something about my life.

Reflecting on this past year has been a bit like a roller coaster, every day a different tiny revelation. The first one came in the form of the tight thought “NOTHING has changed in this past year. I’m still an anxious mess.” But a few days later—I can’t remember what I was doing—I realized that for a blissful second I was watching my life like a movie, utterly unattached to outcome. Also, some dear friends broke up, and while Marc has been terribly affected by it all, I’ve really been able to watch their process of separating with something like detached compassion. And, most of all, my Insight Timer stats tell me that since I started using the app (254 days ago, or about 8.5 months ago), I’ve meditated 140 times. There are days that number feels small, but it’s about 139 times more than I had meditated a year ago, right? On some level it amazes me: 140 times?

If I’m honest, I self-centeredly wished to be in a different place than I am, this year later. I wished to be unaffected, or at least, differently affected, by life’s difficulties: my waning fertility, my extreme anxiety about my book. Just two weeks ago I decided I was going to write a multi-part post about The Infertility Dukkha, in a moment of deep sadness about my failure to make another baby (I still might). I thought to write about the terrible process of getting published, or not, and the way I beat myself up and tell myself I’m not good enough. Then I heard myself say to someone over the weekend, “I consider myself very lucky,” and I realized that’s true, too. How lucky I am, how fortunate. How lucky I am. How fortunate. I think I used to say that with some feeling that I should, but some misgiving that I was, and maybe in the last year Buddhism has made me more grateful, realistic, mindful, and humbled.

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

Things to be grateful for: a tiny fall harvest from our garden

And that is obviously a good thing. But it’s still all very mixed.

This past week, I was wrestling a bit. I have a lot on my plate these days: teaching isn’t letting up; L never stops talking; I’ve got appointments and meetings scheduled til Kingdom Come. In the midst of this, I decided to write a new pitch for my book and when I sent it out to friends to read and give me feedback, the response was not what I wanted. Several blew it off; several made lukewarm comments, and one old friend told me to scrap the whole thing and start over. I called Marc, crying. I told him that I should have known it might be that way, that I wished I could keep this in perspective, that every time there’s a minor setback I needn’t lose it. But I did lose it; I felt my self-worth challenged, again, by this difficult business of art-making and what I perceive as my failure to do things right. I thought, again, about giving up. And the worst part is that because of that busy week (poor planning, lady) I had no time to actually work on the damn thing. The words just sat in my inbox, tormenting me. And then it was Friday, and as luck had it I had a day to myself.

But I sat on the couch and read all day instead of scrambling to work on the pitch.

So over the weekend there was guilt, fear, confusion. I wasn’t working hard enough, etc. And then, trickling up like the first lava, there was this better, clearer sense that actually, I needed to take that tiny Friday break. It reminded me a little of the decision to start this blog and this project. Because if I had manically panicked to fix the pitch, to send it out, I wouldn’t have fully experienced the disappointment of not having gotten it right the first time. I wouldn’t have been at all present. (Not to mention I wouldn’t have read that wonderful book.)

I don’t know if this is making sense. I guess: I paused in the difficulty. I didn’t just press through it. And after a bit of time, I let go of some of the deadly importance I had attached to the task.

Yesterday, my neighbors had L over for a long playdate, and I was on my own, cleaning house. I put on my Pema Chödrön CD. Earlier, I’d listened to a guided meditation on Insight Timer, one where, partway through, the speaker tells you to make space for the difficult feelings that undoubtedly are coming up (yup; there they were: guilt, anxiety). I noted that I was on a nine-day meditation stretch, that I’ve begun to crave sitting like I crave exercise and my morning tea. I couldn’t do a retreat, this weekend, and I don’t know when I will. But it nonetheless felt like I had a mindful weekend, a triumphant one, one where I just might have become Buddhist.

Here’s to another nine days. Here’s to another year!


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Thinking

Faithfully meditating. Faithfully, five mornings a week, showing up to the zafu and…thinking too much. Then doing the Pema Chodron routine and gently saying to myself, thinking. Focusing on the birdsong helps, too, but it’s fleeting. This morning it occurred to me that it could be like this for six months, a year, two years, five. All the thinking. Then what? One day I reach Boddishatva, then Enlightenment, and cease to overthink? (I can hear my husband chuckling.)

Sometimes the thoughts are needling; more often, petty, small needs to run over and over some logistics in my mind. Because I suffer from anxiety, I have real trouble with routine changes. And so a lot of this morning was spent trying–trying!–to create space for today’s different routine: the early-morning visitor, a different work schedule for me, the arrival of my parents this afternoon, Lex being done two hours early. Breathe. Birdsong. Thinking. Thinking!

Lex taking the time to smell the flowers.

Lex taking the time to smell the flowers.

I loved Amanda’s post Turning Nine. I loved it because yesterday (routine change), I was home with Lex all day and did not feel that awesome contentedness that Amanda writes about. We did “medium” (this was reported to me by Lex at the end of the day), but I confess there were many moments when I felt unsatisfied, or he did, and I also hollered significantly at one point (because we were driving down 880, which may be the Bay Area’s sketchiest highway, when a size-ten purple Converse sneaker whacked me in the side of the head). And of course I was thinking about this, this morning, too. Every day with a 3.5 year old I resolve to do better than “medium.” Breathe. Thinking. Thinking.

I think I found the practice at the right time in my life.