The Trauma of Life

“I find it fascinating that Buddhist practitioners barely acknowledge the existence of childhood trauma and what may be needed in order to release it. I feel fortunate that I got through it and was able to release some of the traumatic energy that my body held frozen inside. My breaking down had been a breaking through. Someone had seen me and held a space for me to come undone.” Edward Brown, “Being Shaken,” p. 59, “Buddhadharma”, fall 2014

I understand where Brown is coming from. I can’t sit still, either, especially in the evenings when I sometimes have restless leg syndrome. It is unbelievably annoying.
To me, the real issue is the fact that life itself is traumatic. Barry and I go to the neurologist Monday. I am concerned about his losing weight because I’ve read that it is a sign of end-stage Huntington’s. What if he lives another six years? I need to know the doctor’s expert opinion because the prognosis determines my plans. If the doc thinks Barry will be gone within two years, I would probably stay in Michigan until his end. On the other hand, if he could still be around six years from now, then this is probably the last winter we will stay here. He will need to live somewhere without stairs that does not freeze over six months a year, due to falling issues.
I hate dealing with this stuff. It is so morbid. But it’s the truth. Reality is traumatic sometimes. What is the most compassionate response? I have no idea.
One of my attractions to Buddhism has always been its realism. Part of my problem with Christianity was its otherworldliness. I was dealing with a cancer-stricken husband, going to school, and trying to work, while the women in my church wanted me to help them make baklava for the fall bake sale. No kidding. Their concerns were so irrelevant to me that going to church felt like a farce. You want what? Seriously?
I hope to find a compassionate sangha once I leave Michigan.
Part of what I want to do with my life is to create that space for people to come undone. Life is not always pretty. But it is always real.

Suffering, Asceticism, and Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about suffering, my own and that of others.
One of the things I have always appreciated about the Buddha’s journey has been his rejection of self-mortification. As an Orthodox Christian, I always admired the simplicity and beauty of the lives of saints. However, I never saw that in the lives of real-life parishioners. What I saw were people taking pride in their humility (not recognizing the humorous irony) and their ability to fast during Lent and other ugly-underbelly aspects of Christian asceticism.
I think the real problem with addiction is not the pleasurable aspect, but the negative physical and social consequences. I am not into creating misery for oneself for its own sake. If someone wants to have an occasional drink, I don’t see a problem with that. My problem comes with physical addiction. The addiction destroys the addict’s health, their ability to perform their job, their intimate relationships, etc. Addiction turns the person into an unapologetic narcissist. Everything becomes about getting the next fix. Lying to conceal the addiction destroys any possibility of trust.
The interconnectedness of all things makes all choices inter-personal, not private. Consequences have a way of migrating through families and communities.
I have a friend who believes that the best way to find out how much of one’s physical problems are dietarily related is to cut out, uh, basically everything but meat, fruits, and vegetables. Then you add back things like wheat, dairy, etc., to see how they affect you. This is theoretically sensible. In the real world, however, the average person attempting this would likely have to take time off from work, perhaps more than a week. The sugar addiction withdrawal alone would give the headaches from hell. And digestive issues? It could get ugly quickly. No cheese? Or pasta? Or baked goods? We’re talking no pizza, pasta, or even birthday cake.
Over the years, I have made many dietary changes. The only ones with staying power have been the ones I’ve made gradually, very gradually. By slowly consuming more healthier food, I have necessarily let go of many unhealthy choices. For example, I now consume a lot more fruit and nuts. I can’t remember the last Pop Tart I’ve eaten, and they were staples for many years. I always had a box of chocolate ones and blueberry ones. Now I eat low-sugar dark chocolate and actual blueberries.
I believe in delayed gratification, not zero gratification. I believe in making choices that benefit more and more people and have fewer and fewer negative consequences. The Buddhist ramifications of that remain to be seen.

Manipulation of Experience

I’ve been reading “Being Upright” by Reb Anderson. I have found it enlightening, especially his discussion on the turbulent Baker Roshi years of the San Francisco Zen Center. Now I am reading the chapter on the forbiddance of intoxicants. I don’t know if I have issues with what he says, but I do have fundamental questions.
He relates a minor incident where he goes back to his native Minnesota during the fall. I understand his appreciation of the all-too-brief beautiful colors of the leaves that do not necessarily occur in warmer climes. Michigan is the same as Minnesota in that respect, briefly and brilliantly colorful.

“I was out driving in the countryside, and I noticed a thought come up in my mind: It is so beautiful, but it would be a little better still if the sun were shining….It does not seem like such a terrible thing, to wish for a little sunlight. But this precept is gently indicating a way of being upright that is so much at peace that you are free of the impulse to bring something in….If you want to realize the bodhisattva precepts, then you should not blithely dismiss the natural and lazy human tendency to try to manipulate situations….Ironically, using individual effort to try to control our behavior is itself a violation of the ultimate meaning of the precept, because it is akin to manipulating our experience.”

If he had been indoors with the curtains closed, would he have hesitated to open them out of concern for “manipulating” his experience?
I see life itself as a mood-altering experience. I thought the whole concept of Buddhism was the alleviation of suffering (or “unsatisfactoriness”, I love that word), that of others’ and one’s own.
I completely agree that anything can be used addictively. I’ve seen it in my family and myself (in a less chemically-dependent way).
However, I see the issue as not so much avoiding the manipulation of our experience (which I am unconvinced is even possible) but rather taking responsibility for our experience and being honest with oneself about one’s motives. Self-dishonesty is so complicated and difficult.
We humans have a very large survival range and an exceedingly narrow comfort zone. We can survive all sorts of calamities, in a huge range of temperatures and humidities. But we are seldom comfortable. Misery seems to be a normal part of the human condition.
What I have always appreciated about Buddhism is how reality-based it is. It doesn’t pretend something is wrong simply because someone is unhappy. That’s just life. We are here to find ways to deal with our own and everyone else’s suffering. Part of Buddhist ethics is to try not create more suffering for all sentient beings.
For example, I have less will to live than most people I know. I believe that at least part of that comes from being severely depressed as a teenager. I believe I permanently screwed up my biochemistry back then (during an extremely important developmental stage) and will likely always need anti-depressants. I am always on the lookout for signs of worsening depression, especially in the past few years as I have tried to radically lower the dosage. Getting down my levels of anti-depressants has been part of my attempt to streamline my life and live more cheaply in retirement and in preparation for widowhood.
Also, I try to use my lower desire for life to benefit others. I have been willing to “catch a bullet” for others in social situations. If I were in a dangerous situation, I would be unlikely to care as much as others for my own well-being. People sometimes see me as generous, but, to me, you just “use what you got” for the benefit of others.
The hard part for me is the self-honesty part. I am accustomed to sacrificing my own needs and wants to benefit Barry. I am now in a phase of life where I need to start more aggressively preparing for life after Barry and Michigan. I denied it for a long time. Barry’s been good to me and part of me is not ready to leave my native state and vigorously seek medical and other resources for Barry elsewhere. I don’t want to start over. Ugh. But I’ve gotten an advanced degree and not preparing won’t help me. My goal has been to keep Barry comfortable, which I no longer believe is possible. My desire to live in my current situation is gone and it was a hard realization.
The bottom line is that I am in charge and must take responsibility for myself and Barry. If I need to open the curtains, I will do so, shamelessly “manipulating” my and his experience.


“The day has now ended. Our lives are shorter. Now we look carefully. What have we done? Noble Sangha, with all our heart, let us be diligent, engaging in the practice. Let us live deeply, free from afflictions, aware of impermanence so life does not drift away without meaning.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh (from “Touching the Earth: Conversations with the Buddha”)
I have concluded that comfort is the enemy of diligence. We all want to be comfortable. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The problems come, not when we fail, but when we succeed at finding comfort.
Let me give an example. When young people enter young adulthood, supports are often withdrawn from them. It’s time to “stand on one’s own two feet.” The assumption is that young people will transition. Often, they do not. They seek for ways to cope and function in the adult world, some healthier and saner than others. Some get educations; some get and stay drunk for a number of years. Regardless, they are all seeking ways to feel comfortable.
By their thirties, they have generally found some ways of living that work at least temporarily. Things are stabilizing, for better or worse. Now they may have an education and a kid or two. Things may not be great, but they are okay, finally.
Their forties bring more stability. Now they are comfortable. And their lives are half over. Some have “mid-life crises” if they are aware enough of the passage of time, but most are not. The bloom is off the rose. Health may start to decline, particularly if they made poor choices in their twenties and thirties. The long, slow decline has begun. Unending reminiscence has begun. “Remember back when…”
Where did the time go? It went to television, the bars, video games, and other diversions that sucked their attention. They got comfortable. Not even necessarily “complacent.” Just more at ease. As if life were meant to be easy.
Organizations undergo the exact same process. Their glory days may have been in the seventies, but it doesn’t matter. Unless something interrupts the process, decline begins and their best days are past. All organizations have had to deal with the life cycle of start-up, growth, stability, decline, and death. For example, IBM does not sell the same products and services it did in the 70s. If you don’t want to go down the decline side of the life cycle, new ideas, products, services, processes, and people are required.
I look back on my own life and realize that my efforts at comfort have succeeded, to my detriment. I did not have to work when first married. I was tired of one teen crisis after another. My brief stint in the Army had been physically injurious. I just wanted to relax. And I did. I wish now I had made more effort to have a career, but it wasn’t a priority. I was finally comfortable. Whew!
I went back to work when Barry’s Huntington’s became emotionally real to me. I found a really crappy job at a bindery, which ended up going bankrupt maybe a year after I left it. I couldn’t find a job and no longer had any skills employers were looking for. Back to school.
Going back to school was not comfy. Dealing with Barry’s cancer did not make me feel good. What these things did was to make me function at a higher level. Every time I have made myself comfortable has resulted in a halting of my progress. No human can handle endless trauma. At some point, rest is necessary. The problem is that rest turns into complacency without awareness. Life moves on, but growth has not continued. “Stop the world. I want to get off.” So you get off, but you need to get back on at some point, or your usefulness to society and your family are ultimately impaired. The effort needs to be resumed, or the speed of decline starts to accelerate…
When growth stops, it is easy to falsely assume the world stops with you. Then you talk to someone whose growth has continued, and you can feel your lack of growth. If you listen to people that have stopped growing (often in their twenties or thirties), you can hear it. They sound the same as the last time you spoke with them. It can be very weird to listen to someone who hasn’t learned much since the seventies or eighties, a little déjà vu. You know you’ve had this conversation before.
We all know people that haven’t learned much in the past few decades. I know someone my age who still talks like it is 1985. The last church I attended is stuck in the seventies. The state of Michigan government is in the nineties. People are waiting for the good times to return. They are further along the slope of decline than they know. But the people who are listening to them do know.
I am sometimes envious of people that are comfortable. My periods of comfort feel all-too-brief. I feel like I never get to exhale. I feel like I have never been allowed to ever get really comfortable and relaxed, like my generation got gypped out of the security my parents were allowed to take for granted.
The flip side is a reality-based sense of urgency. I know that I don’t know what the future holds. I know that stuff means nothing to me. I know I don’t have forever to make a difference. And I know I don’t want to relax too much.
“Let us live deeply…”

McMindfulness is Mindlessness

I suspect I’ve been misunderstanding the concept of mindfulness. I’ve always had a fascination with consciousness/awareness/mindfulness, whatever you want to call it.
I rebel instinctively from mindlessness. I see mindlessness as essential to maintenance of a dysfunctional status quo. I abhor being expected to be grateful for a minimum-wage job so that I can help a millionaire make money hand-over-fist. I despise the mentality of “work hard/play hard”, where the employee lives for “Miller Time” after being abused by his employer for forty hours that week. Corporations want an honest day’s work without feeling obligated to provide an honest day’s pay to compensate.
The only thing that keeps the whole system running is making sure that workers do not actually stop and think about what they are doing, let alone why. Mindless corporate culture is absolutely essential to the status quo. That’s why Dilbert is so hysterically funny. Adams nails it.
As a spiritual seeker, I’ve always desired silence, simplicity, peace, etc. I easily resonate with the concept of “mindfulness.” It seems to be the obvious antidote to mindlessness. But now I see businesses talking spiritual language, attempting to tap into deep human longings while distracting workers from the reality of their occupations. “Living in the moment” is being used to try to make workers more efficient. But more efficient at what? Efficiency is an unworthy goal on its own. You can only be efficient at something in particular.
“Mindfulness” is an easily abused concept. What happens when employees start looking at their jobs, their pay, etc., and say, “Wait a minute. This is insane. I can make the same crappy wages anywhere and maybe find a more meaningful job to boot”? To be aware of your feelings is the beginning of the end of the status quo.
I see businesses trying to get their employees to pay more attention to their task at hand (undoubtedly a good thing) and trying desperately not to allow their employees to contemplate the business’s bigger picture and the employee’s long-term best interests (likely at odds with their job), which is my definition of McMindfulness. I don’t see this as feasible in the long run. Once you start looking at the what, it is hard to avoid the why, especially if your health is demanding a lessening of physical responsibilities.
McMindfulness is corporate America’s attempt to look spiritual while diverting attention from people’s real lives. It solves nothing and reinforces an iniquitous status quo.
I think I have been sucked into it to some degree. I have been struggling to maintain any motivation because I’ve been trying to “live in the moment” and “be mindful.” I’ve bought into the fallacy that living in the now means accepting whatever happens without question or protest. I’ve been trying to pacify my feelings so I can keep a semi-functional status quo. “Things aren’t that bad,” I’ve been telling myself. “I can live with this a little while longer,” I think, as my good years slip away. This is exactly the kind of religion Marx was referring to when he said that religion is the opiate for the masses. I’ve done the Christian version and I guess I needed to do the Buddhist take on it as well.
Somehow, I think the Buddha would be horrified to see his brilliance being used to justify maintaining a status quo that is so harmful to so many, just so the few can make more money.

Desiring Right Intention

I have been reading about right intention. I saw the question “Does your desire to make changes in your life come from wholesome motivation or unresolved issues?”
I am interested in intention right now because it seems so central. I am unsure what kinds of changes I am capable of making right now. But is that a cop-out? I want to have harmless intentions. I do not want to create unnecessary suffering.
The flip-side is that I feel like I am responding (reacting?) to changing circumstances the best I can. And I find myself surrounded by people that seem to live in the 1970s or 1980s. My actions seem rash and selfish to people living in the past. Perhaps, if I had done some of the things back then that I am contemplating now, those actions would have been rash. They would have seemed un-called-for. However, in 2014, my alternatives have changed (expanded in some areas and contracted in others) greatly in the past ten or fifteen years. I have options today I didn’t have ten years ago and, conversely, there are options that have vanished in that same decade.
Can I make my intentions pure? Is that possible?
I have made the worst choices over the years from unresolved issues. I partly became an Orthodox Christian out of my childhood unmet needs. The problem: these issues were completely subconscious at the time and I only started to sort them out after a decade of being in that church. I had to get completely out in order to see the issues clearly. Is there a way of seeing these issues prior to making these huge, life-altering choices? This is the kind of wisdom I am seeking.

Losing Everything

“We have to continuously return to this, recalling that we are here, in this zendo, to lose. We are here to lose everything, including the possibility of claiming status by virtue of that abandonment….
“Frequently people are drawn to the [Zen Mountain] Monastery because it feels rigorous, disciplined, and serious, but fundamentally we don’t come here for that. The tight little ship of sesshin is not powerful so much because of its rigor or form—it’s because it is a potential springboard, launching us to that place where all of this is already falling apart.” “The Unexpected Rears its Head” by Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei, “Mountain Record”, Summer 2014
Part of me has a hard time believing that people want to realize deep in their bones that everything is already falling apart. Such people are truly the spiritual elite among us, trying to see everything falling apart without developing a big, fat ego as to their spiritual attainments.
My life is spent trying to keep my psychological boat afloat. I am trying to deal with innumerable changes, great and tiny, while maintaining some semblance of a routine. It has worked fairly well until recently, due to Barry’s gradual decline in health. Routines only work as long as you are capable of physically and emotionally handling them. I am only trying to function as leaks keep springing in my boat while I am on the high seas. Structure feels like a luxury.
People lie to themselves out of necessity. People can only handle so much at a given time. When I was going to school, attending an abusive church, and trying to work, many things (such as housekeeping and moving issues) were on the back burner. You could have told me my house was burning and I would have responded, “And your point is…” I wasn’t trying to live in delusion; I just didn’t have any help. People want to believe things are controllable, or at least predictable.
My god sister was telling me Sunday that the priest wasn’t there that day. I told her that she’d been saying that for a few weeks in a row. I said that if he comes back after Labor Day, everything is fine. If not, something is up. It didn’t occur to her that he may have already left. I have no clue. All I know is that, if I still attended, I would be sneaky and try to peek in his office to see if his stuff was still there. She assumes everything is fine and normal. I no longer know what fine and normal even mean anymore. I am watching everything change and too many assumptions of mine have been obliterated for me to take them seriously.
You will lose everything, including your very physical life. No sesshin required to understand that.


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