Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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The Practice

We have a family friend with Stage Four cancer, and this morning my mom sent me his latest YouTube video reporting on his progress. I don’t know him terribly well; I wouldn’t say we are close; but throughout the last twenty months I’ve watched his YouTube updates and sent him lovingkindness and generally felt both terribly saddened by his experience and enlightened by it. In addition to Western medicine and chemo, he’s found a Traditional Chinese Medicine healer named Master Lee, and he talks about his work with Master Lee in every video. Master Lee treats him with herbs and acupuncture but also teaches him to do yoga, to meditate, and to be mindful. In this latest video, Jonathan said: “My advice to you is to look into these things.” (Yoga, meditation, breathing, mindfulness.) When he said it, I found myself starting to weep in the coffee shop where I’m sitting, and I thought two strange and disparate thoughts: one, that no one in my family, watching this video, knows that I have been meditating since last November; and two, that my own personal, bodily dukkha these days is not cancer but my journey to try to get pregnant. For a second, they felt on the same plane, though I know they are not. Jonathan will likely not come out of this with his life. But we will all look back on this as the period in his life when he came to truly know himself, when he got as close to enlightenment as one can get. And I wonder how I will look back on this period of disappointment and confusion, whether it will feel worth it, whether it just is.

The other day my friend Steph, who has a new baby, said something I found terribly enlightening. She talked about how the baby had been up for six hours crying and she had to continually remind herself, “This is happening NOW. It is not happening tomorrow or the next day, and there’s no point in worrying about whether it will happen again tomorrow or the next day.” This was enlightening because I realized that the opportunity for mindfulness is continually happening. It is not something we do when we sit on the zafu, though sitting on the zafu is practicing—practice for real life, I guess. I feel when I am not finding the time or space to meditate that I am not practicing, but actually, the opportunity is always there, and that, it seems to me, is where I need to go next: the practice of daily life.

I share these stories because they help me see that not being pregnant NOW does not mean I will not be pregnant another time. And being sad today does not mean I will be sad tomorrow. It’s deceptively simple, really, but a good reminder for someone like me, who tends towards anxiety and fear and not being in the present. It’s not just a simple “this too shall pass.” It’s the realization that the feelings can be sat with and experienced, not passed through or tossed off. And it’s the realization that I can approach the dark moments and the frustrating ones alike with presence and a sense of, I am here now. This is my experience. This is the dark night that must be passed through.

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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.


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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