Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Secrets of Adulthood Revealed

photo (1)It’s Thursday. Thursdays have long been my favorite day of the workweek. When L. was smaller, Thursdays were his long day at school but my work-from-home day, which meant a day I could do as much writing as I could and still have time for grading/planning, a load of laundry, a trip to the store. And then, it was Friday. Now that I’ve gone full-time at work, I teach on Thursdays, but not until 3:30, which means I still have a nice long day before I have to get on Bart and go into San Francisco. I mean, look—it’s only twenty past nine, and already I’ve tidied my desk, made the bed, done a load of laundry, and checked my email.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an adult. The days peel off the calendar, and then it’s Thursday again, and some Thursdays, faced with all this time, I feel at loose ends. All week I look forward to having time to write–but then, on Thursday mornings, what I really want to do is tidy my very messy house and make sense of everything that’s been piling up all week. This, it occurs to me, is both totally mundane and totally what being an adult is all about. Balancing all these pieces–lunch boxes, laundry, clean bathrooms, messy desks, student papers, agent letters, bills to be paid, things to be mailed, gardens to be watered, dinners to be prepped, food to be shopped for, garbage cans to put out, novels to be pondered, soccer uniforms to be located, emails to be sent, tea to be drunk, lost items to be located–is this really what it’s all about?

In class this week, I had my students read the first chapter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, where she lays out her year-long experiment to become more happy. I’d been resisting sharing it with my students since I worried they would all declare her an old lady, and boring, and while a few of them did just think she was having a “midlife crisis,” many of them found the reading really compelling. We talked about how sometimes you’re just rolling along in life and you forget to work hard and appreciate what you have and that that is true for everyone, at every age. I liked hearing from students in their twenties that they also contend with this feeling, because I’d worried, a bit, that it was just me.

I’ve realized that for the past four years, M and I have had this very strong diversion in our lives. Coloring everything–L’s milestones, our work, our marriage—has been this persistent drive to get me pregnant. In some ways, it’s been the hardest four years of my life. And in others, it’s been a project that has diverted us from everything real, and from the mundanity of adulthood. Last week, that project ended. We learned that our second frozen embryo transfer was not successful, and the dream of me ever being pregnant again went poof.

Of course miracles happen. Of course it’s not a definite. But I have to think of it that way in order to make it real, because hope hasn’t gotten me very far on this journey.

And so it’s been a week of adult-style reality. The reality is a nice one: I have a beautiful five-year old kid, a husband I genuinely want to be with. We have enough money (yay!), we have a loving family. We have, knock wood, our health and our happiness. But this is also it, this life of lunch boxes and lost sweatshirts, of work and taking out the trash and food prep. For many years, we have tried to add a piece of joy and chaos to this life of ours—a baby—and it hasn’t worked. It’s devastating, and it’s sobering, and it’s confusing, and it’s unreal, and mostly, it’s just a deep and central sadness that I suspect will be with us for a long time. And on the other hand, it feels like it’s just our path. It’s what was supposed to happen, it’s what we have to sit with, it’s our dukkha. It’s our adulthood.

In that first chapter of The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin lays out her Twelve Commandments (the first one: “Be Gretchen.” I like that). Then, her Secrets of Adulthood, which includes gems like “If you can’t find something, clean up” and “Turning the computer off and on a few times often fixes glitches.” After we read, I had my students write either their own Secrets of Adulthood or their own Commandments. I loved how into it they got. One eccentric student who always comes to class in a suit and tie wrote “Dress for Success” and “Don’t Boast”; another, “Eat Happier.” One student’s list consisted of items like “Don’t smoke so much,” “Don’t drink ’til you black out,” and “Don’t eat out every night.”

And me? I wrote my own Secrets of Adulthood. It felt like a really happy moment in an otherwise sad time. I can’t exactly say why. I think because I remembered for a second that despite a large disappointment, I am still me. Me, who has lived on this earth for 40+ years and has gathered some basic wisdom. Me, who knows herself. Sometimes a tragedy or a loss can really shake your core. It’s good to remember who you are in those moments, that you still need a cup of tea first thing and a snack in your purse at all times.

—-

My Secrets of Adulthood

It all has to get done.

Putting things away when you’re done with them saves time later.

It’s okay to go out to dinner occasionally.

Don’t check email after ten p.m.

A cup of tea first thing.

Exercise saves all.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

No cell phone at dinner.

It’s worth it to instill good table manners in your kid.

Back up your data regularly.

If you can’t find something, clean up.*

If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.*

Don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

Be honest—but not too honest.

A little TV will not kill you.

Bring a snack.

Enjoy each other.

Guilt is the enemy of the good.

 

*Thank you, Gretchen Rubin

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Keep Walking Forward, or: The Year of the Horse

I have been feeling totally pregnant with this blog post and felt almost irrationally worried that, with a to-do list a mile long, I wouldn’t get to it today. But a quick time-check has revealed that I can blog this morning. Yes!

My mother in law sent me a note about Chinese New Year that really resonated with me. Among the bits of (somewhat scary) wisdom:

“Decisions you make in any new cycle are important, for they can have a profound impact on the rest of the cycle. The decisions or choices you make now, as the Horse Year begins and unfolds, can be even more significant than those you made in 2013 – impacting you in big ways throughout 2014 and beyond.”

and

“To make the best choice, you must be clear about what you want. That takes mastery. You are learning to differentiate between what your conditioned ego-self wants and what is in your highest good to want. You must be grounded and in your heart to make the optimal choices. It’s not enough to mentally say that you are in your heart – you must truly reside there and operate from there. That sounds easy, as though intent were enough. In fact, it involves great skill and lots of practice.”

and, most significant:

“Compared with previous years, the energies of 2014 will involve more movement. That means more ups and downs, more twists and turns, and more peaks and valleys. The energy of the Horse Year is all about movement, journeys into new territory, and an intense desire to be free of past limitations.”

(I don’t know exactly where to find the note, though this web address was at the end of her email. Thank you, Intuitive Healing Worldwide!)

Now, I feel about horoscopes like many people do: I always manage to find something true in them, some perfect tidbit that relates totally to my life. (Aside: my husband, like many other people, thinks they’re a bunch of hooey. This is probably why we get along.) And so I was delighted to read these words just three weeks into the new year, when life has been feeling like it’s been throwing me a lot of fast pitches. And these words about choices, intent, mindful decision-making, and movement really got me thinking.

The Path.

The Path.

So much of my adult life has been spent agonizing over the right path to take. M. is a Gemini, and I’m a Libra, and I joke sometimes that we spend all our time weighing both sides of the issue and/or feeling “of two minds.” We’re the type of couple who discusses buying a new car or taking a vacation and then spends so long thinking about it that we’re still driving the same 1998 Honda Accord three years later (and no plane tickets have been purchased). It was dawning on me at the start of the new year that we—well, I, anyway—had become paralyzed with indecision around my infertility and what to do next. I felt like adoption was too risky; IVF too unlikely. I spent day after day trying to convince myself that I didn’t really want a new baby anyway—and gearing up to convince M.—but my heart felt heavy and sad. So I just trundled on, getting older and less fertile by the minute. I’m not sure when things shifted, but all of a sudden one day M. said to me, “let’s stop agonizing and just DO it,” and I was actually able to hear that message loud and clear. Later that week, I pulled some of my friend Other Steph’s “Goddess cards” and the message was the same: stop weighing everything judiciously, drop down into your body, and take a big, risky leap.

The next day, I called a new fertility clinic, and made an appointment.

At the same time—fast pitch—we learned that an old fixer-upper house in our neighborhood was for sale. It’s across the street from Other Steph, and next door to my friend C., in the best location possible in my view, and we decided to check it out, even though we have just started on the road to house-buying (and found ourselves thoroughly depressed about the Bay Area housing market, where 1,000 square feet typically sells for $650,000+). I just called the guy, and asked whether we could come by and look at it. And he said yes.

Now here’s where the revelation comes in.

In the past, I would have waited a week before making the appointment at the fertility clinic, worrying over it all the time. In terms of the house, I would have immediately decided it was too much effort to pursue (it’s a real dump; it may in fact be too much effort to pursue). But with a kind of lightning-rod clarity, I realized how easy it would to simply

Take.

A.

Step.

Forward.

Instead.

So I had that appointment, and then I had another one. And then I just scheduled the third and the fourth. I trust myself that if at any point there’s a red flag, or a clear reason to stop, I can stop. And with the house: we went to look at it. Then we arranged a time to bring by an architect friend and a realtor friend. We called for the inspection reports. We may decide it is absolutely not worth pursuing. But without moving forward, we’ll never know.

I feel like my meditation practice and my general efforts at mindfulness are almost entirely to credit for this shift in my behavior. I’ve been doing this guided meditation through my fave app Insight Timer, and the—what do you call the person leading the meditation? Anyway—voice says, “Breathe in unlimited possibility. Breathe out what no longer serves you.” It came to me immediately that what no longer serves me is fear.

And so, last week, when I….

  • Taught my first class of the semester…
  • Had an appointment at the IVF clinic…
  • Recorded another song with my friend Dave, one I’d co-written (!)…
  • Pursued the fixer-upper…

I kept breathing in possibility and breathing out fear. I just kept moving forward.

Moving forward is scary. It’s so much easier to stay where you are, weighing things. I couldn’t sleep last night for dreaming of the possibilities of the house (and then another voice reminding me how much those possibilities would cost). As M. said, “When you move forward, things move awfully fast.” He’s right. It might be too fast. But I just want to keep walking.


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Choosing Silence

I didn’t actually choose to be silent the last few weeks. When I had the time to write and read blog posts, the Internet in Maine was like something out of the early nineties. I was on an island, and every thunderstorm or slight wind would knock everything out of commission for an afternoon or a day; once it came back on it would take five minutes to send one email.

The Path.

The Path.

Then when the Internet miraculously started working again I also started teaching again, picked up an online course that needed a sub, fast!–and I was spending all my kid-free time reading and grading. I kept wondering what I was missing over here in Buddhist Bloglandia, and one day I finally accepted: I’m not posting again, or checking in with Momaste, Bussokuseki, Amanda, and others, until I get back to Berkeley.

It was interesting, how difficult this felt. A few hours of work a day, that took me away from my blogging, while on an island Paradise with my family? Who could complain? And isn’t the point of a vacation to, well, unplug? On the other hand, I felt desperate to be blogging, maybe because, being on said island Paradise–with my family–I was testing my mindfulness at every turn, and I wanted that little piece of community and camaraderie to ground me.

The Path was everywhere back East.

The Path was everywhere back East.

I definitely felt conflicted, and aware of all these feelings like guilt (“I should be blogging!”), anxiety (“what if I lose all my readers?”), frustration (“fucking Internet!”)–fascinating. Finally I told myself that not being able to blog was perhaps one of the simplest yet important challenges of my new “Zen over it” lifestyle. I couldn’t post; there was no reason for guilt, frustration, or anxiety. It just was.

And so, without meaning to, I found…silence.

This morning, meditating, I thought a bit about silence, and it occurred to me how much of a good exercise taking a break actually was. While being away from the Bs (Berkeley, Becoming Buddhist, Blogs generally), I realized how important silence is, and how much, lately, I have been embracing it.

Now, I am a veritable chatterbox, and many of you close to me are probably cracking up at the moment (Right. Point taken). I mean, I have an ongoing case of laryngitis from talking too much. I cannot NOT process most facets of my marriage. I’m compulsively social. Etcetera. But lately I’ve been finding myself in a group situation and realizing, I don’t have to talk right now if I don’t feel like it. Or I’ll open my mouth to process something with my husband and think, I could skip it this time. Maybe I keep a revelation to myself instead of sharing it immediately. The idea comes to me and I think, oh my God, I could just…not…talk.

It’s a whole new world, people.

So this morning, after I’d ruminated on all this for a bit, I thought, wow, maybe I need to go on a silent meditation retreat. It just might be time.

Oops, I think that was a revelation that I shared immediately. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?

It’s good to be back.


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The Bliss Between Contractions

My dear friend An Honest Mom posted a two-part essay about her experience of letting go of the homebirth she wanted in favor of a hospital birth involving pitocin. I knew the story, but I loved reading her public writing of it because I always admire her ability to bring mindfulness to childbirth, crying babies, parenting. The thing I really picked up on in her post “How I Came to Love the Hospital Birth that I Didn’t Want, Part Two” was her saying that while in labor, she knew to look for the “bliss between contractions” (thanks in part to someone named Nancy Bardacke and a book about mindful birthing).

Wow.

When I gave birth to L., four years ago this month, I was unable to find any bliss—until I’d accepted an epidural. Sure, it’s fair to say that Lex’s and my birth was harrowing. My contractions were off the charts, both because they started at a 10 on the pain scale and then shot off into the stratosphere and because, somehow, despite the fact that they ripped me in two, they didn’t actually manage to dilate my cervix at all. Nonetheless. I have long wondered (four-years-wondered) whether some of that excruciating pain and difficulty was because I didn’t know how to find the bliss between the contractions.

But today, I’m not looking at this bliss between contractions literally, since childbirth feels a long way off. But the phrase is such an apt metaphor for life, isn’t it? Life painfully squeezes the hell out of you and in between, you have to find bliss.

I’m finding solace in the metaphor this July, when life feels very busy. In a couple of weeks, Lex and I are headed to New England for nearly a month, and why I always choose that itty-bitty period to schedule everything (dentist, doctor, hair cut) I don’t know. There was the attempt to make a baby, which seemed to eat up a week (ha–I know what image this conjures. That’s not what I meant. I meant the brain space, the acupuncture, the trips to UCSF…). Marc has a job interview neither of us can stop thinking about. I’m teaching four classes. Trying to get my book published. Etc. I’ve found myself looking forward to L.’s swimming lessons just so I can stare into space for half an hour.

Another path, in central California.

Another path, in central California.

Do you live your life like this, always chasing the sensation that once you’ve completed all your tasks, you can relax? But the tasks simply don’t abate. And neither do the problems.

Buddhism teaches us that life is going to throw things in our path and we have to keep walking down it anyway. These might be small things—too much socializing, unhappy at work, too many meetings—or huge things—cancer, divorce, death. Finding bliss in between is kind of like pausing on that path, taking a deep breath, then tackling the next boulder.

I kind of love this.


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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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The Preschool Meeting and the Path

LeoLegsI often find bussokuseki’s blog posts gorgeous, but I wanted in particular to reblog this one, “The Spiral and The Path.” A man and his kids make a spiral in the snow, only to discover its impermanence. It’s a lovely testament to non-attachment and it was one of the few things I sat down and read fully, without distraction, on the day I saw it. I hope you check it out.

I loved the post also because in a metaphorical and oblique way it’s about the difficulty of being Buddhist with kids. I sometimes think if I didn’t have a kid, what a great Buddhist I’d be. I’d be so patient, so mindful, so calm. Of course that’s absurd: having a kid is part of what sent me down this path, and part of what sustains this practice, and so in that way, without Lex there would be no Becoming Buddhist. No great need for patience and mindfulness.

I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago, when things felt particularly dire on the home front. As with everything, that day passed, and another one arrived, then another. Then it came time for an all-school meeting at Lex’s school. The topic: ask a teacher all your burning questions about child-rearing. We were invited to submit questions anonymously; the teachers would each choose one to answer. I submitted one. It went along the lines of:

Do you have any strategies for dealing with kids who are argumentative, uncooperative, and unhelpful, rewarding “good” behaviors and discouraging “bad” ones?

I kind of cringe when I read it now.

The meeting solidified my feeling that—if I may brag for just a second—Lex goes to the best preschool in the entire world. Maybe down the line I will become jaded, but at the moment I’m astounded by how fully this school allows my son to be himself. It encourages his emotional, intellectual, and physical growth, and allows his parents to be involved in his education. For me, it’s like walking into a room every morning and knowing that despite economic diversity, different personalities, and probably philosophical disagreements, every parent in the room wants the same thing for their kid and wants to try harder to be the best parent they can be (I know, it’s so bourgeois, so Berkeley). So at this meeting, I found solutions to parenting problems that ranged from spiritual (“practice non-attachment and objectivity,” said one) to pragmatic (“there are two kinds of tantrums,” said another. “Here’s how you deal with type A…”). The last teacher to speak was Alyssa, Lex’s classroom teacher, and, wouldn’t you know it, she picked my question. Her answer was helpful, somewhere in the middle of spiritual and pragmatic, and I got some good ideas from her. But mostly I had this nagging at my heart the entire time she was talking. A voice came into my head, and here’s what the voice said:

You are not dealing well with Lex’s anger.

And I realized the voice was right. I have been scared of his anger, inconvenienced by his anger, annoyed by his anger. I have found it misplaced and confusing, so I have shut it down. In not so many words I have told him that his anger is inappropriate and has no place in our house. Because I have not always dealt well with my own anger, this realization scared me and made me want to do better.

When I got home, I shared my experience of the meeting with Marc. The surprising part was that I didn’t get more than two minutes into explaining about the anger before I started to sob. The tears felt like they came from someplace else, like they were moving through me; I sobbed and sobbed. I let go of all the difficulty of the past couple of months, with Lex, with the ectopic pregnancy. I realized how hard it has been to be a patient, mindful parent to a child who has tested my mindfulness and my patience at every turn.

I cried and cried and cried and cried.

The California equivalent of snow

The California equivalent of snow

And then you know what? I swallowed, and realized that the incredibly painful sore throat I’d had for a month was gone. GONE.

And I woke up the next morning remarkably refreshed and optimistic. And happy.

Parenting mindfully may be the most difficult thing I have done. At the end of the day, exhausted, practicing non-attachment feels like arduous work. Some days, reacting calmly to anger or rudeness takes every ounce of strength I have. Some days I really suck at it.

Lately, I am happy to report, Lex’s challenges to my Buddhism have been a little more pedestrian. Since the meeting and the cathartic cry, we have been better with one another again. I have been better.

Nowadays the great difficulty is getting up early enough to do ten sun salutations and sit for ten minutes before I hear the Thump! Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-shakow-Boom! that is Lex hopping out of his bed, bounding across the room, and throwing open the door to come find one of his parents. Often, I’m still on the zafu.

“Come here, Honey,” I might say as I pull him onto my lap and wrap him in a wool blanket. “We’re sitting quietly.”

The other morning the stillness was palpable. Lex’s warm body was the loveliest of meditations. Silence. Then there was a “pfffffttt!” as he let out this enormous morning fart on me and the zafu. We both paused, surprised; then he started to giggle uncontrollably.

Then I did, too.