Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Taking a Break

Long silence. (Actually I blogged on Christmas, but just found that post saved as a draft. Oops.)

I was with my family in New England for the holidays, and though I managed to meditate the first few days I was there, the practice quickly went out the window. This had to do with logistics, like jet lag, and not much private space, but I think also, mostly, had to do with the culture at my parents’ house, where I grew up.

My folks are lovely, lovely people. They really are. And they are also the type of folks who get up every morning and steep a cup of black tea for 10+ minutes before popping it down the hatch. They have another cup around noon. They bustle about, finding things to do. My dad is prone to periods of hanging out, but my mom seems to always feel that something needs to be done and is not getting done; she’ll invent errands or jobs or projects. When we were there we drove to the store every single day, I’m sure, and every meal was a production (a delicious production, but still).

A couple days in, Lex said to me, “I feel like we’re never going back to Berkeley!” I knew what he meant. I was drinking that strong tea along with everyone else, getting impatient with Marc’s…laid-back ways, and generally feeling the East coaster in me coming out. And I was definitely not meditating.

But I was noticing. I was noticing that I was not blogging and I was noticing that I was not meditating and I was noticing my impatience with a) my husband’s laid-back ways and b) my mother’s moments. Mostly I felt like I was on vacation from the practice. But this morning, back home, I got up for a very stiff yoga session and a brief meditation.

And so I start to build again.

One of my resolutions–and I have addressed the idea of resolutions before–is to work at this practice in January. That resolution goes in the pot with the plan to finish my book; start a fossil-fuels divestment campaign at my alma mater; clean my house to within an inch of its life; and explore my fertile and not-so-fertile self. The biggest resolution is to do it all calmly, mindfully, and in a balanced way. I don’t teach in January, you see. I am so excited for a break.

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The Newtown Dukkha

We spent the weekend at Pt. Reyes, which, if you have never been to California, is a gorgeous peninsula on Tomales Bay. Or maybe it’s on Drake’s Bay. Either way, it is typical coastal Northern California, which is to say: often cold, foggy, and wet. We went with friends, all of us celebrating a 40th birthday. Lovely to be away, not listening to NPR. Lovely to go for some wet hikes, eat good food, rest a lot, laugh a lot, read, and catch up with friends.

One of the women who was there is a Buddhist, and she invited me to chant with her on Sunday morning. Her sect of Buddhism is called Nichiren, and she chants twice daily. Such a different practice from the one I have been cultivating (a silent practice; I managed six days last week!). The chanting felt like something I’d like to do more of. It’s very grounding to put your voice into the silence. But I am still sort of in a catch-all, learning phase of my practice, so I don’t think I’m ready to sign on with one sect/teacher/persuasion. I might never be.

It feels a little false to blog, today, about anything other than the tragedy in Connecticut. So I won’t say much more, besides that I am holding love and light for the families who lost beautiful little children at the hands of a troubled man. It occurred to me this morning that the true mindful way would be to hold love and light for that troubled man, too, though it’s difficult.


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Mindful Resolution #1: Embrace Abundance

Last spring, Marc and I had one of those terrible moments when we realized that the reason we were perpetually broke was that our income and our expenses were EXACTLY THE SAME. Seriously. I figured this out one day when I sat down with ye olde calculator and the checkbook and the credit card statements and afterwards I felt so bummed–we have jobs, we’re well off in the scheme of things, and it just felt crazy to think that we were incapable of even saving $100/month.

So, as is my way, I immediately sprung to action. And, as usual, action made me feel better. We needed to either increase our income by X number of dollars or reduce our costs by about the same amount, and after a month of phone-calling and moving things around and me finding a little more work and really embracing frugality, I am pleased to say that we now, knock on wood, come out ahead by a few hundred bucks a month. It’s not amazing, but it sure feels better not to be stressing out about money all the time.

So why do I still live like I’m holding onto my wallet for dear life with my fingertips?

This resolution is two-fold. One, to appreciate the abundance we have. We can afford preschool, a nice, albeit small, apartment, occasional meals out, good organic food and occasional free-range meat. We have music, books, magazines, and Netflix in our lives. We sleep on a gorgeous expensive mattress we bought during a flush period. Lex has his own room. We have bicycles, a car, and BART passes. We have generous grandparents and a safety net, should things get hairy. In other words, to quote Marc’s mother when he was a kid and whining about wanting a new toy: we have everything we need.

Resolved to remember that, every day.

Abundance at the Union Square Farmer’s Market (photo courtesy of Emma Brode)

And, on a much more practical and mundane level, resolved to keep my house full. Today I opened the fridge for the umpteenth time and found: a quart of milk, a jar of preserved lemons, some boring old vegetables, and some corn tortillas. So after I picked up Lex from school, we made a giant pot of Cuban black bean soup and a batch of granola, plus started soaking chick peas for hummus. And we cleaned the kitchen and emptied the compost and swept the floor, listening to very loud music the whole time.


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Tuesday, November 13: The Reading Books Phase

I have been worrying about the free-form, feel-it-out nature of this project. I think this is probably because a) I am reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, meticulous in its planning and organization; and b) because I have been teaching the idea of experiments to my students and have stressed the importance of having a hypothesis, a plan, and a list of materials. Honestly, these days I feel like I am just swimming in a sea of possibilities, ripping teeth off coffee-shop flyers that advertise mindfulness, taking book recommendations, and having random ideas about what this project should look like. Not disciplined at all; in fact, rather messy. And not, to date, too mindful, either. But there are glimmers.

So I didn’t think I had found a framework until a couple of Buddhists popped by last night (whaddya know?). They brought me some books and asked a few questions about this project, which I cryptically answered; I am not trying to be cloak-and-dagger about things, exactly, but I’m also trying not to bring everyone I know into it just yet. So I told them it was a personal exploration but that, because I am a writer, I will document it as I go. And that for now, I am just trying to gather information and figure it all out.

“Oh,” Alison said breezily. “You’re in the reading books phase.”

“Some people are perpetually in the reading book phase,” Don added.

I don’t know why, but it made me laugh and feel good. I think because it almost sounds like the Reading Books Phase (and for grammatical reasons too esoteric to explain, I have chosen NOT to hyphenate “reading-books phase”) is one of the ten steps: Animality, Anger, Reading Books, Buddhahood…

Great. Et voila, my framework: I am, now, in the Reading Books Phase (check the sidebar on the left to see which books are crowding my nightstand). I will let you know when I reach Enlightenment.

I think also I am in the Noticing Phase. One somewhat unhappy consequence of being more mindful is noticing all the ways in which I am not mindful. So, even as I managed five minutes of meditation this morning, I also managed to freak out about a small miscommunication (as perceived by me) half an hour later. Even as, while I was meditating, I registered the birds begin chirping in the yard…and the freight train running through the mau-mau (a friend’s kid’s word for the railroad crossing, now a word adopted by our entire family)…and the smell of the heating duct in its first use of the season…I also had to refrain from writing this blog post in my head the whole time.

One big notice for today: I write my life in my head while it is happening. This is an exhausting practice, probably pretty normal for a writer, but not ideal for someone trying to live more in the moment. I do it all the time, and have done it since I was a little kid. I am walking to the store. I am picking up my son from daycare. I am noticing the ways in which I am not mindful.

Alison said she used to do it, too, back when she first started practicing Buddhism. Now, she said, it doesn’t serve her.

Amen to that.