Becoming Buddhist

Attempting to Live a More Mindful Life


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The List

So last week I wrote about how I was choosing silence a little bit, and I am, still, but–I also am feeling this nice little pull towards this blog but totally unsure what to write about. This happens a lot to me. I kind of want to just settle in to this blog like it’s a comfy chair–no no, a welcoming zafu, rather–but then the words don’t come. So I had this idea that I would just throw out all the words. You know, the ones swirling around in my head as I try to meditate, as I fall asleep, as I pretend to be present with my kid, as I manage to be present with my kid, as I teach, walk, love, be, do.

Black flies, buttercups, two butterflies flying out of jars this week, one I was sure would be dead, but wasn’t, L’s desire lately to put in jars every creature the yard will throw at him: roly polys, caterpillars, earthworms, three salamanders under a rock last week, rock me to sleep, meditate with me, I should meditate more, I should meditate at all—no shoulds—my to-do list for today (send out an essay I have been writing for a month and really really think is good, take that big faithful leap and email it off, fingers crossed; blog; blog about poetry; grade papers, check in on classes; grocery shop, pay bills, try to buy a house, email Amelia to see how she’s doing; pick up L and his friend R at three, keep them safe and happy; play music tonight with the Buddha, every Thursday night—wait, laundry—return library books—wrap my head around the weekend—have M. call the landlady’s lawyer, who is sending us threatening notes) and sometimes I want to say no to it all, but it will never change, these words and these lists and this to-do-ness, will always be just. Like. This.

 

 


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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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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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Thinking

Faithfully meditating. Faithfully, five mornings a week, showing up to the zafu and…thinking too much. Then doing the Pema Chodron routine and gently saying to myself, thinking. Focusing on the birdsong helps, too, but it’s fleeting. This morning it occurred to me that it could be like this for six months, a year, two years, five. All the thinking. Then what? One day I reach Boddishatva, then Enlightenment, and cease to overthink? (I can hear my husband chuckling.)

Sometimes the thoughts are needling; more often, petty, small needs to run over and over some logistics in my mind. Because I suffer from anxiety, I have real trouble with routine changes. And so a lot of this morning was spent trying–trying!–to create space for today’s different routine: the early-morning visitor, a different work schedule for me, the arrival of my parents this afternoon, Lex being done two hours early. Breathe. Birdsong. Thinking. Thinking!

Lex taking the time to smell the flowers.

Lex taking the time to smell the flowers.

I loved Amanda’s post Turning Nine. I loved it because yesterday (routine change), I was home with Lex all day and did not feel that awesome contentedness that Amanda writes about. We did “medium” (this was reported to me by Lex at the end of the day), but I confess there were many moments when I felt unsatisfied, or he did, and I also hollered significantly at one point (because we were driving down 880, which may be the Bay Area’s sketchiest highway, when a size-ten purple Converse sneaker whacked me in the side of the head). And of course I was thinking about this, this morning, too. Every day with a 3.5 year old I resolve to do better than “medium.” Breathe. Thinking. Thinking.

I think I found the practice at the right time in my life.


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Codependence; Who Knew?

After my last post comparing becoming Buddhist to being in recovery, I thought it would be funny (yeah, real funny, you sicko) to come here and write, “I relapsed!”

In fact I did not.

photo-1 copy photo-2 copyBut I realized this past week that this whole mindfulness/meditation gig does not remove the tendency or the temptation to be a nervous, anxious wreck. In fact this has been my tendency for as long as I can remember–or since I was seven, whichever comes first.

I have definitely been angsty of late, angsty about career and friendships and fertility and parenting, and with each move towards anxiety I have to breathe, strive for mindfulness, renew my commitment to the zafu, and remember my boundaries.

This last one is a biggy. Coincidentally, after I wrote that last post, I went to dinner and yoga with a friend who is in Al-Anon. Over sushi at the local Whole Foods (look, that counts as dinner these days, okay?) she explained to me the concept of codependence. Holy cow. I always thought “codependent” was the word you used to describe a couple who can’t spend any time apart. I didn’t realize that codependent has much more to do with boundaries, with not respecting someone else’s, with not being heard as an individual or listening to someone else as an individual, with trying to be all up in somebody else’s bisnatch all the time. With control.

What a revelation for me.

A revelation because I finally had some language to describe:

A. My sometimes difficult relationship with my parents

B. My often difficult relationship with various friends

C. The feeling I get when someone pushes me to do something after I have said no, or offers advice for a scenario I have made up my mind not to pursue

D. My own instinct, lately, to really strive to meet friends and family where they’re “at,” instead of pushing them to be different or offering advice

How does this relate to Buddhism? Because, if you’re working to remove attachments (to outcomes, to other people), somehow the urge to be codependent starts to go away.

And, at first, your tolerance for other people’s codependence goes down.

But maybe you have better tools to deal with codependence as it comes up. I hope. I’m still figuring this out. As Anne Lamott says in her lovely book Operating Instructions: “Little by little I think I’m letting go of believing that I’m in charge, that I’m God’s assistant football coach. It’s so incredibly hard to let go of one’s passion for control. It seems like if you stop managing and controlling, everything will spin off into total pandemonium and it will be all your fault.”

I guess this is part of the path.

photo copy

The path was in Northern California this whole time.