Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Grace

Two dear friends visited over the weekend, and the talk turned to meditation. My friend Original Steph started meditating shortly after I did, and has embraced it beautifully; she even has a mindfulness counselor she sees once a month. Annie said she’s started to sit a little, too. “I can get behind the sitting and clearing my mind thing,” she said. “Meditation as stress relief. But I can’t get into meditation as a spiritual practice.”

Then she asked the question I’ve been mulling over since Sunday: “I mean, Buddhism isn’t a religion, is it? There’s no God in Buddhism, right?”

That, I thought, is a very complicated question.

On the surface, she’s right. Buddhism predates Christianity and Christ; the Buddha never met a Jew. As such, there is no one God in Buddhism. And no afterlife. And yet, I have always thought of Buddhism as a religion, and since embracing mindfulness last November I feel for the first time in my life that I have found a spiritual practice. That I believe in something. When I meditate, when I have those glimpses of clarity and feel that the universe is connected to me and I to it, I feel I am praying. At the end of my sit in the mornings I send out compassion to all beings. I single out a few: my friend Elizabeth, whose ten-month-old has autism. My family friend Jonathan, who is battling cancer. My brother, who was at Brigham and Women’s hospital right after the blasts on Monday. And the people maimed or killed in that horrible attack. And all those suffering, everywhere. Is this prayer?

On Monday night, at dinner, Marc asked whether we should say grace.

Grace? He surprised me.

Growing up, grace was something we said three or four times a year. My grandfather might say, “God is good, God is great, let us thank him for our food.” I was taught that I was a Protestant, but we never went to church. When I was older and could understand such things, I learned that no one in my family believed in God. I counted myself among them.

“Should we say grace?” Marc asked on Monday, and I said, “Yes. I will.”

Here’s what I said:

Thank you to Mama and Daddy for working hard for this food that is on our table.

And may we send love, peace, and light to all beings who are suffering tonight.

Prayer? I guess so.

I love the double meaning of grace: grace as prayer, and grace as the ability to be detached from suffering. I realize sometimes how difficult it is for me to find and maintain grace, how difficult it is for me to find that quality of detachment from the things that make me suffer.

I wonder if one kind of grace is the way to the other kind.


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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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Angsty Pants

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths:

1. There is suffering (dukkha).

2. Attachment causes suffering.

3. Suffering can end.

4. There is a path to end suffering.

What’s the path? You guessed it: meditation and mindful practice.

It’s a rainy morning in Northern California and I am ruminating on my daily dukkha. Funny, because if you’d seen a movie of my life yesterday you might have suspected that the greatest dukkha was either a) the awkward five minutes when I attempted to hook up the bicycle trailer to my bike, in the dark, after preschool—with Lex trying to be helpful (some kinds of help are the kind of help we all can do without…)—and then dropped one of the critical safety bolts in a pile of wet leaves (and remember, it was dark). At this point, Lex really started to be extra helpful by shouting “it must be in the leaves, Mama! In the leaves! How come you dropped it, Mama? Huh?”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAor b) the moment when, having survived the bike trailer incident and a slightly harrowing ride to my favorite happy hour joint where I was meeting my dear friend Katie, Lex lost it in the restaurant. One minute he was happily eating a taco and chips, chatting away, and the next he was howling, big fat tears running down his face. You see, I’d eaten a bite of a chip he’d declared ruined because it had broken (silly me for thinking it a discard). He howled so much that half the restaurant turned to stare and the host came over to inquire whether there was anything she could do. I’m sure Katie was appreciating her birth control pill in that moment. He howled so much that a woman at another table, sitting with a child who was probably ten, came over to tell me “it does get easier, you know.” I found her concern very touching.

But oddly, while both of those moments, well, sucked—I didn’t hold onto them yesterday. No; the much greater dukkha for me was nothing you’d see in a movie; it was going on in my head.

My greatest dukkha is angst.

I suppose one might call all dukkha angst, and all angst dukkha, and maybe that would be right. So perhaps I should say that angst is my biggest challenge. And lately, some days I just wake up angsty. I am angsty about my writing, which I feel I am not doing enough of; I am angsty about being 39 and not pregnant; I am angsty about money, perpetually; and then I am angsty about my career more generally. Then I am angsty about this mindfulness project, for not meditating enough, not studying enough, and/or for wasting time with mindfulness when I should be getting published and becoming famous. Oh yes, it’s a hamster wheel. And for me, the wheel feels all too real most days. I honestly, after an angsty hour, will come to the conclusion that yes, I am wasting time with mindfulness because I should do a better job of juggling work, parenting, writing, publishing, being Martha Stewart, blogging, finishing all my Christmas shopping in a timely manner, exercising, putting out, getting pregnant, and—oh yeah—nurturing a budding music career.

I was tossing all of this around on BART yesterday when I read this passage in Buddhism for Mothers:

As mothers we discover life is no light experience. We have responsibilities; pitiable amounts of time to ourselves; desperate worries about whether our children are healthy, ‘normal,’ and able to meet the expectations of the judgmental world around them. We suffer guilt that we’re not attending to the hundred other things we could be doing. We agonize over our careers and, in many cases, the loss thereof. In our darker moments we may struggle with self-esteem as we watch the worry lines set in and our body parts begin to point down (5).

And I began to tear up.

What can I say? The angst didn’t all dissolve, but I did start to wonder whether all those negative thoughts are what Buddhism refers to as illusion.

On this rainy morning in California, I am thinking about angst. And I am thinking about mothers. And I want to shout out to the mother at my son’s preschool who is a single mom with no car and all kinds of other logistical challenges. She was crying this morning when I dropped off Lex. I am sending loving kindness her way, though she may never know it’s coming.

Thanks for reading this long and somewhat rambling post.


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The Daily Dukkha

I’ve received a number of great book recommendations since I started this project. My friend Lisa recommended a book called Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson,and Katie a memoir by Rosemary Mahoney called The Singular Pilgrim. I also just picked up Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers from my friend Steph, and that one seems absolutely perfect for me at this stage of my life, when so much of my dukkha is caused by angst about my kid or about the (im)balance of our lives since we had a kid.

Dukkha? Yes, dukkha. In all the books I’ve been reading, “dukkha” is translated as “suffering,” but then there is usually a quick disclaimer that by “suffering” the Buddha did not necessarily mean grief but discomfort. The daily discomforts. The dissatisfactions. The unsatisfactions. (Look, I made up two new words.)

Sarah Napthali says this: “…the first Noble Truth is that life is inherently unsatisfactory and imperfect. Before motherhood, we may have found this teaching overly pessimistic. If we felt less than happy we could catch a movie, ring a friend or distract ourselves in a myriad of ways from any pain.” And while she’s talking to mothers here, she’s also talking to the rest of us: every day, we feel small pain and discomfort, imperfection, and we distract ourselves from it.

I think a part of me, learning this over the last few weeks, has felt disappointed that this is all Buddhism can offer. The teaching is that I need to accept that I will feel anxious, that happiness is impermanent, and realize that my attempts to overcome this discomfort are distractions, tricks. My job, it turns out, is to learn to accept the discomforts and allow them. At this stage I don’t quite get how this leads me to get over my anxiety and be a happier person, but I think I trust the road nonetheless.

In any event, I decided over the weekend that one of the best things I could do on this mindfulness experiment of mine would be to notice the daily dissatisfactions and record them. And so I am introducing the Daily Dukkha, or, if that sounds a bit too much like me reporting on my…regularity, the Daily Challenge. Because I can’t promise to post every day, and wouldn’t want to impose that pressure on the girl who’s allowing herself to take a break, I won’t—but I will try to post as often as I can.

The Daily Dukkha. It has a nice ring, no?

So here is one for today. Well, since it’s only 10:00 a.m. here in California, I will post yesterday’s challenge (yes; the DD will likely be retrospective).

We were at a party, and I wanted to go. A well-meaning but overly chatty friend had cornered me, and Lex was running wild with the other kids. Marc was very much enjoying a beer. And all of a sudden I was done. It was past Lex’s bedtime, I hadn’t rested as much as I’d wanted to over the weekend, and I wanted to go. But extracting the boys was nigh impossible. Marc said sure, we can go—but made no attempts to remove himself from the chair where he was comfortably lounging. Lex pitched a fit when I gave him the five-minute warning. Marc stayed put. Finally when Marc rose and allowed Lex to take one more spin in the wagon even though five minutes were long passed, I felt myself get completely pissed off, and I hissed at Marc in the living room at my friend’s house.

On the ride home, I recalled some of the good advice from The Happiness Project, something to the effect of let it go.

At home, Marc asked whether I was angry. I made the “a little bit” sign with my fingers. And then I took a deep breath.

“It is hard for me when I say I’m ready to go and you say ‘sure,’ but then I’m the only one trying to get the three of us out the door,” I said. “It’s really difficult for me.” We talked for another minute and then I let it go. And Marc did too.

Because if there’s one thing that really gives me dukkha—ha—it’s when I feel I need to say something but then the whole night gets ruined because I’ve opened my mouth. You know that feeling?