Archive | December 2013

Surreal Encounters

I had an interesting encounter yesterday. I was sitting in a Biggby, as I do pretty much daily, and I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. He is a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian. He is a good person and very enthusiastic about many Christian issues: pro-life, pro traditional marriage, anti-syncretism, etc. I sat and listened to him for probably longer than I should have. Of course, he invited me to his church, the local Russian one. It was all very nice.

And I couldn’t get away from him quickly enough. I wanted to slough off his energy as quickly as possible. What I respect about him is his desire for integrity; he truly tries to live his values. What I have a problem with is his lack of self-awareness. I sat there quietly, saying only a few things. He thought my insights were powerful. What he didn’t get was that my insights have come about from separating myself from Christian culture in general. Many, if not most, of the social issues he talked about, I oppose him totally on, but did not let on to my position. What point would there have been?

One thing I told him was:

When Christianity is the state religion, it survives.

When Christianity is persecuted, it thrives.

When Christianity is forced to compete, it dies.

He even wrote it down, seemingly oblivious to my blatant statement that Christianity is incapable of competing on a level playing field with other spiritualities. He clearly feels that there should be no competition and that Christianity should be enforced nationally, even as he decried the open hypocrisy in churches he’s seen. What can I say to someone that just listened to what I said and yet managed to miss the point entirely?

It was just another example of a huge spiritual disconnect. I speak and people hear what they want to hear. I would have felt more real had he inquired about my statement, as in, “What do you mean that Christianity dies when there is competition? Are you saying it is irrational?”

I’ve been having these encounters with Christians lately. It was reminiscent of when the priest gave a sermon about abortion a few months ago—to a congregation full of senior citizens! Most of the women there probably have not had a menstrual cycle since Reagan was president. Then there was the congregation trying to sell baklava to the poor to fix the parking lot; meanwhile, the local economy was collapsing! To say these encounters were weird would be a major understatement.

My encounters with Christians—even the most sincere and wonderful among them—seem to have a rather surreal quality about them. I find myself shaking (or scratching) my head or just simply saying, “Huh? What? Did that person really just say that? Are they kidding?”

I may just as well have said, “Blah, blah, blah.” Can no one see my lips moving?

Discovery, Not Doctrine

“Buddhism is a process of discovery, not a list of principles. There is no book of Buddhist principles. Buddhism is about realization. It is about transformation of consciousness. It means throwing everything out, including Buddhism, and going very deep within yourself to find the foundations of your life. And once you have done that, to learn to live your life out of that which has been realized—not what you’ve been told you should or shouldn’t do.” Wisdom Seeking Wisdom, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi, True Dharma Eye, Case 241, Xuansha Hears the Sound of a Swallow

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48, Stephen Mitchell Translation

 

I can tell that my values are being transformed. I now ask myself if something is necessary before I purchase or do it. I don’t need to look it up or automatically indulge. This is a much higher level of consciousness. I feel like I am not groping for things as much. During the holiday season, there is just so much to say no to.

I feel like I am doing less, but accomplishing more. By rejecting most of the values I grew up with, I now live with more integrity and simplicity. The need to please (which was never that strong in me to begin with) is almost gone. I am spinning my wheels less.

I come from a blue-collar family, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types. I inherited a good work ethic, but, other than that, I am not particularly proud of my background. They would give you the shirt off their back, but were nothing short of horrified that a black man became president. Racism runs deep in my white trash family. Worse, there is no real priority placed upon education, as if people with no skills should be able to easily support a family on one income. That’s the time and place they grew up in. I never had that luxury. I’ve been forced to deal with a changing world from an early age. I have shed off most of the more destructive values.

With fewer and clearer values, my life is much simpler. There are fewer moral dilemmas if one’s primary value is the wholeness and healing of as many in a given situation. Not many values compete with that.

 

 

No Excitement

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

I like Zen’s emphasis on the ordinary and orderly. It provides an antidote to my culture’s obsession with speed and novelty. Just because something is new or fast doesn’t make it a worthwhile sucker of your time and life energy.

I just started volunteering at a local non-profit nature center. I do administrative things. Ironically, I am not a fan of the outdoors. So, people kept asking me, “Tell me more about why you are interested in volunteering here,” seeking my motivation. I told them that I am bored and want to use my skills for a useful purpose and that I cannot commit time-wise to a normal job.

I spent four hours in the office. Nothing particularly noteworthy happened. Until Liz came in. She was psyched to have someone willing to help organize some of the computer files, in particular the registration database. She wants to make it mail-merger friendly.

Now I am off and running. I spent last evening separating last and first names and moving columns of common information to the same relative locations on different sheets. It was boring, but it kept me busy and I know that what I am doing will make her job much easier.

And that’s where it’s at: making people’s jobs easier and things run more smoothly. So much of what we do is routine. To spend your day frustrated at the inability to get the routine stuff done expeditiously will make any worker frustrated. Frustrated workers seek alternative employment.

I am no expert on mail-merging. I’ve done it a couple times. So I have some brushing up to do. But the better I am at this stuff, the more I can help them and the more valuable skills I have. It feels good to help some place be more organized. Now I just need to apply more of that to my own life. When I was less organized, I felt like things were “good enough” for the longest time. Now that I have started the process, I just see everything as a big mess. If I ever get everything in my life in order, I will probably think things are more out of control than ever. I need to channel Suzuki Roshi.

 

Staying Home

“So whatever meditation you may be doing, make the hara your home. Take yourself there whenever you can. Take your meditation there and bring the two together—even if you consider yourself to be contemplating something more mental—don’t consider yourself abiding separately from your body and be up there in your mind. By staying at home you are abiding in the practice center of your being. By centering yourself there you are gathered up in a controlled and balanced state, so that when life energy wants to wander off in its frustration at its containment you can catch it quickly and drag it home again.” Dharma Mind Worldly Mind by David Smith, page 50

 

Zen is a combination of Buddhism and Taoism. Taoism is all about returning: seasonal cycles, going back to the feminine after masculine excursions, that kind of thing.

The hara is the spiritual energy center a couple inches below the navel, and is also called the tan dien and the second chakra.

The point of this quote is to not live exclusively in one’s head. I’ve spent most of my life living in my head. It’s a great way to avoid my feelings, but it doesn’t take long for it to feel very surreal. My mind is doing one thing and body is doing or expected to do something completely unrelated. That disconnect between body and mind is a relief during high-stress experiences, but it also isolates one from the changing sensory world of useful information. The stress level is reduced but at the cost of being informed and useful in this world. Go ahead. Take a nap in your head. Visit for a few hours. But don’t camp out, let alone build a house there. Living in one’s head can be peaceful, but it is not real. Others will see your detachment from reality and might visit you, but they will not seek advice from you.

Staying at home means, at the very least, not wandering too far off. Keeping the mind’s energy there helps to avoid dissipation. We all need energy and letting the mind suck it up depletes the body. Reconnecting the mind and body may be stressful at times, but at least the stress is real, not the product of an out-of-control mind. People, including myself, sometimes complain about not having a life, but the life we are seeking can never be found in the head; it is always necessarily connected to the body and the outside world.

Not a Child

“What is it to return to, discover, and completely embody today? People and situations can’t save us. It’s easy to see how tempting that is: to want to be saved. It’s like the mind of the child, who, in the right situation, is saved by the parent—a child is provided for every day; she is protected. All her big problems are solved, so she can just be a child. But what about when we’re no longer children?”

Tending the Flame, Dharma Discourse by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei, Book of Serenity, Case 53, Huangbo’s “Dreg Slurpers”, Featured in Mountain Record 29.1, Fall 2010

Where was this when I was in such emotional pain and wanting to be saved? I have spent many years seeking salvation, desiring to be a child. I felt like I had little guidance growing up and was willing to do anything someone told me to do, if they were willing to mentor me.

I have learned, the hard way of course, that others are more than willing to “save” me, as long as I give them my eternal unquestioning obedience. They promise protection but provide abandonment. Then, when I balk, I am chastised for “never having been committed” in the first place. Really? You avoid any type of relationship with me and criticize my lack of fidelity?

This is for all those women/girls looking for someone to take care of them: you may be “lucky” and find someone, but the price is always too high. Instead of being taken care of, you will be doing the caretaking. If you should ever complain, you will likely be labeled as “uncommitted” or “selfish”. Be “selfish” now. Don’t fool yourself to begin with. Take care of yourself now. If you find an organization or relationship that demands conformity, keep going. Don’t walk. Run! Your sanity, emotional health, spiritual health, and maturity depend on it.

 

 

Consumerism

“This ignorance frees us up to be what our culture most highly esteems: citizens of the marketplace, global consumers of goods and services. The Canadian social critic, David Suzuki, has written “consumerism has taken the place of citizenship as the chief way we contribute to the health of our society.” This focus on what we own as the definition for who we are may have many positive economic results, but it has also helped to create a deeply personal crisis in how we view our potential and purpose as human beings. By accepting the daily advertisements and the “news” that tell us what to fear, what to desire, how to be in the world, we undermine our own bodies and our own potentials.” Lifting the Veil, by Peter Forbes, Featured in Mountain Record 25.1, Fall 2006

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post.

If we are what we own, then what? I notice that this article was posted in 2006, before much of the economy collapsed, particularly Michigan’s.  I believe the economic collapse has had very positive effects in terms of forcing people to think about what possessions are necessary versus which items are simply luxuries.

In my neighborhood, many people have lost their homes, sometimes leaving all their furniture behind. This is the ultimate fresh start. Part of me envies them a little. It is bad to envy people that have lost everything, but that’s where I am sometimes. There is no shame in leaving Michigan and a foreclosure behind. You start over again wherever you may be.

The bad economy has also forced people to work together in a way I’ve never seen. People are pooling their resources and helping their neighbors in ways I thought were long gone. Creative solutions are coming about in my area, greatly aided by the Allen Neighborhood Center.

The bad economy has clarified issues in ways difficult to even imagine a few years back. People have done some serious soul searching. It was long overdue.

 

Narcissism

“More and more, we’re shaped by a closed and artificial world of our own creation. We’re told this smaller, shadow world is sufficient, yet we are rarely satisfied by it. In response, many seem to strive for wealth, thinking money will provide longed-for meaning and safety. Today, our sense of humanness comes from gazing upon ourselves and upon our own creations. Our most dominant creation is the technology that permeates all aspects of life and has people going faster and faster to the point where bodies and nervous systems have little physical connection to the world around them. The land is out of body, out of mind, out of sight. Is it any surprise that the average American today can recognize over one thousand corporate logos but can’t recognize ten plants or animals native to his own region?” Lifting the Veil by Peter Forbes, Featured in Mountain Record 25.1, Fall 2006

 

Isn’t this the essence of narcissism, gazing upon our own reflections?

I can tell you that, when Barry got cancer, my nervous system was so overtaxed that my emotions simply shut off. I haven’t fully recovered and have no huge desire to do so. It is much easier to function in the larger world being numb than it is being aware of my feelings and everyone else’s as well. It is easier to function as a mindless Dilbert than as a fully-functioning human being.

That lack of connection to nature is hard to avoid. I am starting this Friday to volunteer at the local nature center to do administrative things. I am not really interested in doing outdoorsy stuff. Mother Nature and I have a tenuous relationship. I love her beauty, but any nearby mosquito will make a meal of me and the tree in my back yard has pitched limbs onto my car. Only growing up near farms has saved me from being one of those people that thinks meat comes from Styrofoam packages.

It is difficult to feel our connection to everything. It is overwhelming to understand our responsibility to all. It is easier to pretend that our individual, immediate needs are all that matter. Other people? The earth? Who cares? Until, that is, those people vote or the local critters eat our trash. Oh yeah, other people’s feelings and opinions do matter. Who’d a’thunk it?

 

Not Disliking Anything

In the Linji Lu (The Records of Linji) is the following passage: “The Self far transcends all things. Even if the whole universe tumbled down, I would have no misgivings. Though all the buddhas in the ten directions might appear before me, I would not rejoice. Even though the three hells might appear before me, I would have no fear, since there is nothing I dislike.”

Imagine not disliking anything. Many years ago, I was struck by how almost every decision I made was based on fear of one thing or another. I try not to make decisions based on fear anymore, but I confess that I definitely do prefer doing some things as opposed to others. In Faith in Mind, the scripture says that the way is not difficult for those who hold no preferences. I am so not there. At this point, the best I can seem to do is to accept my annoyance at activities that I must do regardless of my feelings.

What would happen to the economy if people had no preferences? The whole “faster, better, cheaper” mentality might dissolve. Focus could be placed upon what works best for the majority of us long-term. People could delay gratification. Having delayed gratification for themselves, they could then look around and meet real (as opposed to manufactured by the advertising industry) needs for themselves and others. Creativity could replace expedience.

I’m not sure the world is ready for this.

Intimacy and Samdhi

 “Whatever it is, you don’t analyze it; you don’t judge it; you don’t try to understand it; you don’t categorize it. You just watch it. And somehow, by that attentiveness, the thoughts begin to diminish. They lose their strength and then gradually stop arising, until they finally disappear. Body and mind fall away. The same is true of a koan. All of your attention goes into the one question until you become that question. You don’t think about it. You just be it. Again, that’s samadhi. Gradually, absolute samadhi becomes working samadhi and it begins to function in everyday activities. There’s a bit of that samadhi in the life of all of us.” The Direct Experience of Reality, Posted on April 6, 2013, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi

 

This is what is called “identity activity,” where one is identified with the task, where there is no gap between oneself and what one is doing. I, for one, am particularly bad at it.

Observing everything? I am fabulous at that. Abandoning unskillful thoughts? Check. Being one with the activity I am doing? Horrible.

Zen seems to demand two contradictory skills/ways of being: acute observation of every perception and getting into the “flow” so that I am one with the activity. I am excellent at the first and lousy at the second. When I really get into an activity, I notice little else and am easily startled. Is this supposed to be a paradox? Is there a balance to be achieved?

I want to find that bit of Samadhi in my life. But if I become the looking, then I have already found it and if I don’t become the looking, I will never find it.