Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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Why Are Blessings So Hard to Accept?

I’ve had such a wonderful few weeks. On May 17, my spring semester ended, and I turned in final grades a few days later. Lex’s school has been in session the whole time, which means, yes–my somewhat harried usual 15-20-hours-of-work-in-20-hours-of-childcare (and grading on the weekends) became long days with no grading to do and no kid to chase around until 12:30 or 3:00 p.m., sometimes 4:00. Sometimes, during these breaks (I get two long ones, and one short, per year), I can’t concentrate, and I fritter away the days worrying about the missing paychecks, but for whatever reason I fully embraced this break.

I:

  • Fulfilled my goal of sending out my memoir to at least 3 agents a week (my general goal was 5 submissions a week, of the memoir, of essays, whatever)
  • Finished up and sent out one essay
  • Drafted and polished another, and sent it out, too
  • Blogged
  • Figured out Twitter (insofar as one can do such a thing!)
  • Lazily graded the papers and exams I needed to for the other school where I teach very part-time
  • Got caught up with my preschool chair duties
  • Cleaned my house
  • Read some books
  • Cooked some good food
  • Meditated
  • Relaxed and concentrated on my IVF
  • And, today, went to yoga.

Formal yoga classes have left my life sphere in the last year or so. This started as a logistical issue; I couldn’t find a teacher I particularly liked, and all of the classes were either too long or at the wrong time. Then I decided that I’d rather save the money for a house (in these parts $16 per class is a good deal–oof–and a tiny house costs $650,000–double oof). So I began just doing a little yoga at home and the occasional 20-minute video here and there, which, actually, is pretty sustaining (try it!). So when I decided last minute today to hit a lunch-hour yoga class with a friend, it felt indulgent, exciting, and just a little bit like…a guilty pleasure.

Ah, guilt.

A little reminder that sits on the kitchen cupboard at a friend's house

A little reminder that sits on the kitchen cupboard at a friend’s house

At the class, the teacher talked about the concept of wounds, and how we heal from wounds by seeking out experiences that fulfill needs we missed as children. Some of this didn’t make sense to me; I of course have my wounds, but the ones the teacher was referencing were not ones I feel I need to address, exactly. Nonetheless it got me thinking about ways that I hurt–that we all hurt–and how those same hurts come up, again and again. And my experience of being in that class–feeling an inexplicable guilt because many of my friends were at work; my husband was at work; I was paying someone else to watch my kid while I was at yoga; etc etc etc–was compounded by the realization that one of my wounds is this inability to accept the blessings in my life without feeling guilty for them.

Put another way: why, when I have the chance to go to noon yoga, or morning meditation, or take a nap in the afternoon, why do I not think, wow, what a lucky, blessed life, that I can do this? and instead go to, you’re such a privileged little shit, you who only works part time and gets 12 weeks off a year. You suck.

This kind of guilt has pretty much plagued me my whole life. Call it white guilt, or privileged guilt, or just plain-old guilt, I always feel guilty for the good fortune I have had and conflicted when things are really going right for me, like I don’t deserve it.

Interestingly, this revelation dovetailed with something that happened yesterday. A writer friend told me she thinks I need more “mystery” on my writing blog, less an air of “Oh God I want to be published so badly” and more of an air of “I have so many irons in the fire, so much great is happening, look at me.” At first, this unsolicited advice really hurt. It made me feel I was doing something wrong. After, it made a little sense. It made sense because she reminded me that a) a prestigious publication has an essay of mine right now and is deliberating; and b) a prestigious literary agent is looking at my book. Both of these things are true! They’re flattering! It’s great! BUT, I am also the type of person who feels that more than likely neither of those great possibilities will pan out, and, I guess I am too superstitious to assume they will.

Now I’m a bit muddled. I think what I’m getting at is that it feels difficult to accept that blessings are all around me, and that, well, great things could happen for me and do happen for me and that I’m very lucky and I don’t need to feel guilty for having time off or good fortune or the ability to go to yoga sometimes. And, on the other I hand, nor do I need to feel less than authentic when shitty things happen to me.

—-

May I be open to the joy and happiness in my life. And may you, reader, too.

 

 


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Post from Paradise

ForogBuddha I’m in Hawaii.

I came here with my cousin, who has meetings on Oahu this week. Over Christmas, she called and suggested we splurge: meet a few days early for some R and R before she had to enter the world of business. And after some deliberation (money, childcare, logistics), I said yes.

We spent three days at a place called the Zen Treehouse, on the windward side of Oahu in a town called Waimanalo. Our Zen Treehouse was quiet and calm and spacious, with sliding doors to little lanais (decks), a sitting area, a giant bathroom with a rain shower. We were steps from the beach. I got up every morning to do yoga and meditate on the back lanai. One day we drove up to the North Shore to see surfers, stopped for plate lunch and shave ice, then came back and grilled some fish for dinner. Other days we poked around “our beach,” and explored several others, too. The sand was like cornmeal, unmarred by even many shells, so different from the East and West coast beaches I’m used to. We went on two great hikes, and on both, saw humpback whales far off in the distance. On the North Shore, the whales were slapping their flukes against the water and breaching. I have always wanted to see whales!

I also snorkeled a bit, finished a page-turner novel, thought a lot, watched a movie, drank too much rum punch one night, slept badly, slept well, missed L and M, etcetera.

Yesterday we left the Zen Treehouse and headed for one of the massive corporate resorts that dot the Hawaii landscape. We’re in a huge room six floors up, overlooking a pool and a human-made lagoon where, yesterday, we paddleboarded and swam. My cousin’s meetings started this morning; this afternoon, we’re being taken out on a boat to snorkel with dolphins (or something). Later, there will be cocktails, dinner, and schmoozing by the pool. It all feels a little unreal, to have gone from the Zen Treehouse and plate lunch to this fancy sixth-floor room with Top-40 hits blasting from poolside.

IMG_0895When I go on vacation, my prevailing difficulty is the realization that it’s hard for me to relax. I wish it weren’t so. We’re contemplating doing an IVF cycle next month, and I thought how great it would be for me to take this trip before we walked down that road, so I could come back rested and calm. There have been many calming moments, to be sure–those whales inspired something in me, and my daily yoga and meditation has been a luxury I don’t always afford at home. It’s good to have a break from L. But on the other hand, I’ve felt a bit untethered without my boys to anchor me, without M’s steadiness and consistency.

I’m writing and working this morning; since Lou is in meetings, I figured I should use the time too. Later we’ll be wined and dined, and tomorrow, I’ll leave. I expect to feel that mix of feelings when you come home from vacation: sad the adventure is over, but happy to be home, too.

Many alohas, friends!


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The Mørketid

In Norway, this time of year is called the mørketid, the dark time. You can guess why; in Oslo right now the sun rises around ten a.m. and sets at three. This morning, walking L. to school, I remembered how five years ago at this time I was morning sick and thankfully underemployed, so I spent much of November and December sleeping away the morning, rallying for the sunlight, then going back to bed. The evenings were the best time, the time I was able to consume the most tomato juice and watch The Simpsons with Norwegian subtitles on our tiny illegal television. Then we’d light some candles. My brother’s wife had just left him and he came to Oslo for three weeks, slept on our couch and brought me my tomato juice. Together we flew to Copenhagen for a few days and stayed in a one-star hotel, talked and talked and talked, weathered the cold, weathered his great tragedy.

photo-4I was thinking about this this morning because we had a frost in Berkeley. Marc and I are cracking ourselves up by refusing to turn on the heat until we really need to this winter. Instead we cook big pots of soup or roast whatever we can think to roast so the oven warms the small space; let’s face it, 40 is cold for Berkeley. But last night, Jack Frost painted the roof white and when I woke I could practically see my breath. There had been a strange dream, a man was trying to get into the house and the door wouldn’t lock against him and I couldn’t find my phone to call 911. When I woke, Marc was gone, off to work early, and L. was stirring so I just had a five-minute sit on the zafu before he bustled into the living room with a giant blanket. Our hands and feet, like ice. “One of these days Daddy and I will turn on the heat,” I told him, shaking my head, laughing. We are strange people sometimes. We like a challenge.

And all of it made me feel a little weepy: not being pregnant, not being in Norway, Marc off to work early, my love for L. feeling difficult because he has so forcefully been trying my patience lately, not being published, working so damn hard at all of it for what? For what? For what?

But underneath, oh, underneath—there has been this beautiful and clear sense of gratitude lately, for that cold house, for the breakfast I put together, for Marc, for Lex, for having had so much luck and joy and happiness in my life. I’ve been feeling like I’ve spent a lot of time not understanding that one could have both: disappointment and happiness, or perhaps: failures and success. Or perhaps: struggle and ease. Yes, that’s what I mean. Struggle, and ease.

I loved Amanda Green’s Thanksgiving post for this reason. You overflow with gratitude, but it can almost feel like too much. And sometimes, even if you are a fortunate person, you overflow with sorrow for the things you miss.


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The Practice

We have a family friend with Stage Four cancer, and this morning my mom sent me his latest YouTube video reporting on his progress. I don’t know him terribly well; I wouldn’t say we are close; but throughout the last twenty months I’ve watched his YouTube updates and sent him lovingkindness and generally felt both terribly saddened by his experience and enlightened by it. In addition to Western medicine and chemo, he’s found a Traditional Chinese Medicine healer named Master Lee, and he talks about his work with Master Lee in every video. Master Lee treats him with herbs and acupuncture but also teaches him to do yoga, to meditate, and to be mindful. In this latest video, Jonathan said: “My advice to you is to look into these things.” (Yoga, meditation, breathing, mindfulness.) When he said it, I found myself starting to weep in the coffee shop where I’m sitting, and I thought two strange and disparate thoughts: one, that no one in my family, watching this video, knows that I have been meditating since last November; and two, that my own personal, bodily dukkha these days is not cancer but my journey to try to get pregnant. For a second, they felt on the same plane, though I know they are not. Jonathan will likely not come out of this with his life. But we will all look back on this as the period in his life when he came to truly know himself, when he got as close to enlightenment as one can get. And I wonder how I will look back on this period of disappointment and confusion, whether it will feel worth it, whether it just is.

The other day my friend Steph, who has a new baby, said something I found terribly enlightening. She talked about how the baby had been up for six hours crying and she had to continually remind herself, “This is happening NOW. It is not happening tomorrow or the next day, and there’s no point in worrying about whether it will happen again tomorrow or the next day.” This was enlightening because I realized that the opportunity for mindfulness is continually happening. It is not something we do when we sit on the zafu, though sitting on the zafu is practicing—practice for real life, I guess. I feel when I am not finding the time or space to meditate that I am not practicing, but actually, the opportunity is always there, and that, it seems to me, is where I need to go next: the practice of daily life.

I share these stories because they help me see that not being pregnant NOW does not mean I will not be pregnant another time. And being sad today does not mean I will be sad tomorrow. It’s deceptively simple, really, but a good reminder for someone like me, who tends towards anxiety and fear and not being in the present. It’s not just a simple “this too shall pass.” It’s the realization that the feelings can be sat with and experienced, not passed through or tossed off. And it’s the realization that I can approach the dark moments and the frustrating ones alike with presence and a sense of, I am here now. This is my experience. This is the dark night that must be passed through.


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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.


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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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Holidays When You’re High on Mindfulness

A few years ago I had to admit that I have a tough time with holidays. The difficulty is almost intangible; I’m excited for Thanksgiving, can’t wait to show off my gluten-free lemon meringue pie and my fetching vegetable side dish–but then I get terrified about a car crash on the way out of town. Or I just, all of a sudden, wish that it were a regular long weekend, with no obligation to be cheery, to drink wine, to participate.

I am pleased to say that this year, I weathered Thanksgiving with aplomb.

We visited Marc’s family–lovely folks with strong personalities. During holidays past, there has been some drama, arguments and the like. But this year, everyone was on their very best behavior. It helped that I was, too. It’s hard to explain what was different; I didn’t feel quite as pressured. A couple of times Marc was looking for me and there I was, reading a book in the guest room, letting someone else do the dishes and watch my kid. Maybe I embraced laziness? Not exactly. I just removed expectation. And I wonder if my lowered expectations affected those around me, because there was absolute harmony. Good food, many laughs, some alone time, some togetherness, a night out with the siblings while the grandparents put the kids to bed. And lots of love and gratitude being spread around. I was happy to come home late Saturday night, but also sad to have left.

I’m chalking this up to my newfound meditation practice, my morning yoga, my resolutions to enjoy my kid, embrace abundance, and give myself a break.

Four weeks to Christmas…

Thanksgiving harvest–probably the last big haul of the year!