Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


Scattershot Summer

I’ve had a post brewing for a few days but it’s felt scattered and unformed, and then I realized: perfect. How appropriate.

I’m in Maine with my parents and my son, and I’m thinking about how everything, always, is a duality of good/bad, right/wrong, confusing/clear, difficult/easy.

For example:

This is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places I know, yet I miss the bustle of Berkeley.

I craved the peacefulness of this place for weeks, but now I’m here, I can’t relax.

Being close to my parents makes me realize how much I miss them, but it also makes me realize how difficult it is to be with one’s parents.

Lex is adorable, but he is also, as a friend recently remarked, “fucking four”–loud, rude, inconsiderate.

Lex is perfectly normal, yet I worry that my relatives think maybe he’s an asshole.

I told myself a break from making a baby and a break from writing would be okay, good, but since I’ve been here I’m anxious about all the hours I’m not writing or making a baby.

I have been wanting to make space for these feelings of dissatisfaction, while at the same time, I feel guilty when I remember how lucky I am to have this nice life.


Lately I have been reflecting on how my meditation practice this year has gotten me out of some sticky situations, mostly because, when I’m being mindful, I’m kinder to myself about what I perceive as failures and setbacks. I remember to be gentle, to have lovingkindness and temperance.

Lately I have also been reflecting on how challenging this year might have been if I hadn’t been meditating–and already, it feels like it’s been quite challenging. If anything, the negative voices in my head have increased. The stress about my writing has felt more overt, more divisive, more painful. The pain about being–say it–infertile–has been palpable. Meditation has helped me to deal with these feelings more, sure, but the feelings are still there, and I wonder if, along the road, when you start to practice sometimes things get worse before they get better.

On this issue in particular, I really want clarity.



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.


Sorting It All Out

Since my surgery a week and a half ago, I’ve run through the gamut of emotions, not to mention aches and pains. But I have not meditated even once. I know, I get hung up on the practice–but then, it is a practice. One I’m not doing, despite many hours at home and even a good chunk of alone time.

My tiny, tiny scar--and the weirdness that is stitches, dried blood, and glue in my belly button. The camera, and then some instruments, went in one of these incisions, I'm not sure which.

My tiny, tiny scar–and the weirdness that is stitches, dried blood, and glue in my belly button. The camera, and then some instruments, went in one of these incisions, I’m not sure which.

My daily resting place has moved from the bed, where I was fairly ensconced until Wednesday of last week, to a sunny spot on the couch. My father-in-law asked me yesterday what the “rehab plan” was. I said, “you’re looking at it.” I take a short walk every afternoon, I get up to pee or make myself food when no one else is around to do it. I can now take a shower with no fear of passing out. Marc drives me everywhere we need to go (not many places). My parents have left. Lex keeps saying, “Are you better now, Mama?” and the other night, when I was crying, he asked, “Are you doing okay, Mama?”

This may make it sound like I’ve been quite depressed, and I haven’t been. I’ve been amazed by how upbeat certain moments have felt; when you go to the brink and come back, there’s a certain joy to be found in things like fresh-squeezed juice, smoked salmon on toast, Netflix on demand, a good book. But I also feel in the last 48 hours like maybe the emotional piece is starting. I have been wondering whether my butt is still on the couch because I’m actually exhausted or because I just don’t want to go outside, get fresh air, run into anyone, think about whether I want to try again, any of it.

You know what’s weird? When you start wishing you were back in the hospital and you had to do it all over. Marc said maybe it’s like prison, you get out and then part of you wants to go back in. I don’t think that’s it, exactly, but nonetheless this healing phase, this almost-better phase, is much tougher, emotionally, than when I was hopped up on Vicodin and nauseated and the knowledge that I could have died was very fresh in my mind. Today I faced the boring realities of a Monday: calling to get out of jury duty, checking in with my work, arranging playdates for Lex. It’s kind of like life continues as it was, only I got spun off the axis and landed somewhere…else.

I guess I am hiding out.