Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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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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In his poem “64 Elmgrove,” Mark Halliday says,

I am not at all a Hindu, I’ve never been a Hindu,

I want to keep things—

(from Tasker Street, University of Massachusetts Press, 1992)

Yup, me too. That’s about how I feel about becoming Buddhist on the eve of starting this project: that I may not be cut out for this. Because I, too, badly like to hold on to the way things were.

This is the sum of my experience with Buddhism to date:

  1. I have meditated.
  2. I have been to the San Francisco Zen Center once, and to Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin twice.
  3. I have a CD of Pema Chödrön’s that I like to listen to (oddly, when I’m cleaning house).
  4. In college I took a course called “Buddhism in Contemporary Poetry” and loved it. We read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, as well as work by Gary Snyder and Jane Hirshfield—and, come to think of it, Mark Halliday.
  5. So I have read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and some Buddhist poetry.
  6. I have attempted to understand and emulate the Buddhist concept of shunyata. I wrote a short story called “Shunyata” and a poem called “Windfall,” both about shunyata.
  7. I think that’s it.

 

And what, then, do I really know of Buddhism? Here are my perceptions:

  1. It is a Godless faith.
  2. One of its main tenets is the idea of not being attached to outcome. Perhaps incorrectly, I call this “Zen detachment.”
  3. Zen detachment is the part that appeals to me most.
  4. Zen is only one branch of Buddhism; there are many.
  5. Pema Chödrön is a Tibetan Buddhist, actually.
  6. You don’t have to meditate with your eyes closed. Sometimes it is preferable not to.
  7. The awesome round meditation cushion is called a zafu.
  8. Shunyata can be translated as “emptiness,” but that is only half the story.

 

As for mindfulness, well. I do live in Northern California, after all. I’ve visited more than one energy healer. I read tarot cards for fun sometimes, I notice magic around me, I believe in ghosts. At a different time in my life, I went to yoga three times a week—and acupuncture and therapy, too. But with a kid, who has the time? Or the money?

Eerily, I saw a shaman once, a year ago. A South African bush medicine man. Among other terrifying things, he told me that my life really needed a spiritual practice, and for a month or two afterwards I managed a morning yoga routine. I built an altar that I never prayed on. But his words have haunted me, surprised as I was to hear them.

Mindfulness and spirituality are not new to me. Sticking with them is new to me.

My plan, at this stage, is loose (can you tell?). As are my definitions: I know mindfulness and Buddhism are not the same, though I do know that mindfulness is an important part of Buddhism. And I know one can be mindful without being Buddhist.

But back to the plan. Like all experiments, I arrive with certain goals and a hypothesis, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. I am not attached to the outcome (see? I’m halfway there!). An imperative to meditate every day would undoubtedly feel like one more thing I could fail to do, and beat myself up about.

So here goes: I plan to spend the next—six months? Or year?—learning to have a spiritual practice. Learning to breathe. Attempting to define mindfulness. Reading Buddhist texts. Slowing down. Practicing detachment and shunyata. Meditating, perhaps. And living in the moment. For me, “becoming” is the key word: it implies a process, an evolution, a state of metamorphosis.

Something to watch happen.