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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54 percent

I use Insight Timer as a meditation tool, not the free app but the “real” one, which gives you a timer; about ten options for starting and ending bells (I use the lovely “Kangse”); and stats about your friends, your sessions, your percentages, your progress. It may seem counter-intuitive to measure mindfulness–it’s certainly very 21st-century!–but I have found it to be a lovely little tool for some reason. I like seeing that Susan in Berkeley has been meditating alongside me, or that my friend in Norway has gathered four gold stars. Meanwhile, I’m hovering at a mere 54%.

Huh?

Well, I meditate 54% of the days. When I started this gig, I was closer to 60%, mostly 59%, if I’m being honest. I’m not sure why, exactly, but over the spring and summer my percentage dropped to 55% and then to 54% and I started to feel a little panicked: am I only half mindful, I wondered?

It seems wrong, because I actually feel like I’ve become more like 65% mindful. Over the weekend I managed to avoid several potential conflicts with Marc’s family by choosing silence, for example. And when I woke up feeling out of sorts and depressed today, I reminded myself that this too shall pass, that it’s okay to sit with the strange revealing dream I had about wanting another baby, or the fact that I feel this week like there hasn’t been enough intimacy in my life, and this slow-dawning realization that I’m not that into my job(s). For example. I feel more mindful, yet I get to the zafu about five percent less.

I wonder what’s the end goal, here, if there is one. I know Pema Chödrön talks about the importance of sitting every day, but Pema Chödrön also lives in a monastery and doesn’t have a four-year-old jumping on her head every morning. (This morning, 7:25: “Mama, I thought you were meditating!” Yep, me too…) But I mean–is the idea to get so mindful that you don’t need the sitting anymore? Or is the idea that the sitting will always be necessary because mindfulness will always, always be challenged?

And is it possible to become, well, better at the practice, so that even when you’re making it to the cushion less often you’re being more mindful in your life? Or is this some self-serving illusion I’ve created?

I love asking all these questions, because I know there aren’t really answers. I have this feeling that if I asked Pema, she’d say: sit every day, and find out.


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Bodhichitta

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.


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The Path

I’m a little obsessed with The Path.

Last night before bed, I read a few pages of When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodrön. (Disclaimer: no, I am not in love with Pema Chodrön. Yes, I read other things.)

Marc climbed in next to me.

“God I love Pema Chodrön,” I gushed. [Okay, fine. I love her. Busted.]

“Why?”

“Because, when I’m having a difficult time, she always calms me down.”

“Because she validates your feelings?”

Not exactly, I said.

A gorgeous, muddy path at Pt. Reyes, California

A gorgeous, muddy path at Pt. Reyes, California

I explained to Marc that lately, I’m feeling a lot of conflict in my life. Mostly, this conflict comes from a happy thing: inspiration. I’m inspired, lately. I’m inspired to revise my memoir, I’m inspired to send out my work. I have an idea for a short story. I have an idea for an essay. I wrote a poem a few weeks ago, after a long hiatus. I have so many irons in the writing fire, and it’s terribly exciting.

The flipside: I don’t have the time to do all the work I want to do. And I’m still getting rejections in the mail, sometimes twice a week. And I’m still wrestling with questions about who I’m supposed to be: a fiction writer? Poet? Memoirist? All of the above?

And I’m still asking myself: am I any good?

And I’m still jealous of other people’s success.

And I’m still obsessing about turning forty this year.

And I’m still trying to get pregnant. And I still have a kid who loves and needs and challenges me.

And it’s still tax time, so I’m worrying about money.

And all of this adds up to me feeling like I’m probably doing something wrong.

But Pema, and Buddhism in general, teaches us that all of this—noise—is an illusion. It’s not a message of “this is human, and you’re normal to feel this way, sweetie!” No. The message is that this is all part of the path. Life is about suffering, dukkha. Life is about struggle. There will never not be struggle or difficulty. I am not doing something wrong; there is no wrong. There is just life.

It’s so hard to articulate, and I’m not sure I explained it to Marc very well. But when I said, “It’s almost like Buddhism teaches you to look at your life like a movie. It’s happening—all that struggle, all that difficulty—but you don’t get involved in it. You just accept it. It’s just The Path, and you just keep walking down it. So in a way, none of it matters. It’s supposed to be exactly like this.”

“Wow,” Marc said. And I thought, yeah. Wow.

It’s enormously comforting. Was it supposed to be? Why didn’t I find it sooner?


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Triggers

I had the revelation the other day that becoming Buddhist is a bit like being in recovery from drug addiction in that you’re wandering along, feeling like you’ve conquered the thing, when all of a sudden there’s a particular sort of trigger that throws you back into danger. If you’re an addict, the trigger might be a breakup, an illness, sad news, who knows, and the danger is that you’ll start to use again. If you’re working on your mindfulness, the danger is falling back into anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and attachment.

This could sound incredibly lofty, I realize.

But I’m serious. The other day around 7 p.m. I told Marc how much my meditation practice is helping me with my career angst. When I sit every day, I told him, I feel less sure that my book sucks and that I will never achieve success. When I sit every day I feel less attached to its success at all. I feel proud of the work–but not too proud!–and good about how far I have come. I have this realistic understanding of process, of the path, of the journey that the book and I are on together.

I am much less hard on myself.

I said all of this, and meant it, and really felt I had had a breakthrough.

At 8 p.m. I checked my email to find that a school colleague had had an awesome career success. (One I instantly felt he hadn’t deserved, because I was being petty.) And just like that, my whole night was ruined. I started to panic about how little writing I have done this week, and how little writing I will be able to do this whole month, what with all the papers to grade and not being able to afford more childcare for Lex, and since I am so shamefully bad at managing everything, and because I waste time with blog posts and jealousy–and because, let’s face it, I have no talent to speak of, anyway………………

Yes, folks, I got triggered.

Yuck.

The mindful Buddhist response, of course, would be to notice the trigger and move on. And I am relieved to say that at this, at least, I succeeded in doing what Pema Chödrön says we should do: stop making everything such a big deal.

“I’m jealous of J.,” I said to Marc. “I am just going to admit it.” And saying it helped immensely.

But of course, that doesn’t solve the thing. I’m sure the addict who resists the fix still kind of wants it for a few days and feels bad for having almost gone there.

More, I realize the world is filled with triggers.

And that, I think, is what this is all about.


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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.