Archive | August 2014

Timing, Honesty, and Delusion

“The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:
Words known to be unfactual, un-true, unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be factual and true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be factual, true, and beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.
Words known to be unfactual, untrue, and unbeneficial, yet en-dearing and agreeable to others.
Words known to be factual and true but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.” KAREN MAEZEN MILLER

I’ve been struggling with self-honesty lately, and not even knowing it.
As Barry’s health has continued to decline, I have been doing everything in my power to make him comfortable, an increasingly impossible task. I kept thinking he would die soon and I would move at that point. And he kept living. And going downhill very gradually.
I denied how stuck I felt. I succeeded at that for a few years, until a few days ago. The thought of remaining in Michigan, pretending things were the same, was destroying me emotionally.
I haven’t been lying to others. That’s not the issue.
I think the issue is one of timing, the “proper time” issue. This is where the potential for delusion manifests. If I knew with absolute certainty that Barry would pass in the next six months, I would have totally been able to keep my big trap shut. Why potentially traumatize him with the threat of a move for no reason? I can wait.
But not forever.
Now I am contemplating moving with Barry. That makes Charlottesville the destination because the University of Virginia has a Huntington’s Disease Society of America Center of Excellence, something absent in the entire state of Michigan. Even the University of Michigan, with its awesome hospital, doesn’t have one. Also, the place we live needs to be all on one floor (no stairs) because Barry has taken a couple headers down the stairs in the past few years. At some point, he will need a wheelchair and we will need accommodations. The reality is that there are more resources out there for him than there are here. He may not be comfortable with moving, but tumbling down the stairs is no better.
I guess I’m just not accustomed to such ethical complexity. As a Christian, the rule was that lying is wrong. As a Buddhist, more discretion and sophistication is required. Sometimes the timing is wrong. And sometimes the timing issue is an excuse for hypocrisy and cowardice. Delusion, perhaps, is unavoidable. Sometimes, reality itself is “disagreeable and unendearing.”
I feel so much better, but maybe more overwhelmed, now that I am more honest with myself. I am looking at doing all the prep work (e.g., getting the house ready for sale, selling the house, finding appropriate housing out East, etc.) myself. Pretending that things weren’t changing was definitely the simpler (if not at all easier or better) option.

Doing it wrong?

I feel like I may be missing the point of Buddhist ideas. I’m not sure.
I am fairly sure now that “being in the moment” doesn’t necessarily mean not having a plan or goal. I’m not certain where I got that concept from.
This is the hazard of going it alone. There are no Zen centers around Lansing.
What else have I gotten wrong?

No Waiting for Change

I’ve been trying to “live in the moment” very unsuccessfully. The harder I try, the less it seems to work. I know there’s some irony here.
I’ve been hoping things will change for a while now. I have come to a point where I know I need a goal.
Don’t get me wrong. My life was crazy for a quite a few years. I finally got my MBA in December of 2012. This is with Barry’s declining health and me trying to find jobs in order to have something, anything, on my resume for when I would need to support myself. I badly needed a break. And I got one. It’s August 2014 and there is no change on the immediate horizon.
To say I am bored would be an understatement. Trying to be a good Buddhist, I dug in my heels and tried to focus on this day, to become intimate with my life. Perhaps I am just bad at it. I got accustomed to a certain level of intellectual stimulation that I no longer receive.
I keep reading these Buddhist authors, such as Jack Kornfield, that have spent decades of their lives in Asian monasteries honing their skills. I envy that, but I also wonder how that would work in my real life. I do not have the freedom to do even a two-week sesshin. Say I did one and came out with a deep inner silence. That sounds absolutely wonderful–and totally debilitating. How would I go back to a work-a-day world and function like a productive member of society? I can only imagine it happening after Barry passes, and even then, how would I go back to a job?
The idea of change excites me. Today, I decided that I will make change happen, as opposed to waiting for anything to change. One thing I learned in school was taking complete personal responsibility for something. Waiting for things to change is pointless. Things will change, but slower than you want and in the direction of the desires of those individuals and groups that have taken personal responsibility for making the change happen. Anything less is pure victimhood. It reminds me of a song from a few years ago, “Waiting for the World to Change.” I dubbed it, even back then, “The Loser’s Anthem.” Nothing in the past few years has changed my perspective.
This week I have a lot going on, with appointments and the like, but I plan on using my hands to do more cleaning. I also plan to look at homes built out of more ecologically sustainable resources.
I’ve been watching TV shows lately showing bizarre, over-the-top RVs and houses. (Barry can’t do much more than watch TV and therefore it is almost always on, much to my dismay and boredom.) Some of them are truly engineering marvels and I admire the craftsmanship and personalization that goes into them. However, I also see other things, such as bar stools that cost as much as feeding a family for an entire month. I keep thinking, “There has to be a better way.”
I have a lot of thinking and planning to do. Now that sounds like something someone with an MBA in Strategic Management should be doing.

What’s not happening?

Is there a way to advocate living in the present moment without inadvertently promoting hedonism? I see many of the problems around me as coming from short-term thinking decisions of yesteryear, with people doing what felt good then. Now the “chickens have come home to roost,” so to speak. Is there such a thing as “living in the now” and having a sense of responsibility?
I was talking to someone yesterday that has owned businesses in the past in the Mid-Michigan area. I was talking about how the Michigan economy seems to have two main problems: people who have no skills thinking they should make $20/hour for doing very little and employers seeking applicants for jobs requiring advanced-level skills while offering $10/hour or less. He completely agreed on the first point. I have no idea what he offers compensation-wise to applicants. I don’t get the impression that he even fully understood the second point as being problematic.
One guy at our table (at the wedding reception of my best friend’s son) said that these problems are natural and will work themselves out in a generation. I responded that I do not believe that Michigan has a generation for these factors to find a more normal equilibrium. There will simply not be a sufficient number of educated people left to attract businesses of any ilk.
I have been watching educated people, such as my friend working in Washington DC and living in Maryland, leave Michigan. She left a $10/hour job here for a $22/hour job there with the exact same skill set. Good luck, Governor Snyder, trying to get her back here. I have watched this for years. I even watched it in the last church I went to. The kids left Michigan seeking opportunities and then the parents followed, wanting to be near their descendants. The implications of that staggered me and were completely lost on the rest of the congregation, as far as I could tell. Not only are the young people are leaving; they are drawing their parents away from Michigan as well.
The business owner talked about how he worked 70+ hours a week. No wonder he doesn’t see the consequences of his choices. He’s busy catching the next plane and making the next meeting.
Thinking about this last night (and being over-caffeinated to boot, not a good combination) made me realize that it is almost impossible to notice things that are not happening, especially when ridiculously busy. I missed the exodus for at least a few years when I first started business school and did not awaken to reality until 2007, when it left me totally disoriented for about six months. I walked around in a state of disbelief. How did I manage to miss so many of my classmates, not to mention staff and faculty, leaving? What else did I fail to notice? But how do you notice the person who doesn’t sign up for classes for next semester? When dealing with the trauma of living, it is very difficult to keep track of what is going on, let alone keep track of what isn’t happening.
Then reality catches up with you. At some point, you need the input or contribution of someone you know or a group of people at your church or school or wherever and they aren’t there anymore. How long have they been gone? The assumption that they would be there when you needed them has gone from being perfectly reasonable to worthless. They left and you didn’t even notice. In a school setting, perhaps that is inevitable. In a church, it’s nothing short of devastating. The people are leaving and telling others, “I left and I don’t think they know I’m gone yet.” That, my dear friends, is the ultimate anti-evangelism.
The only solution I can think of is to deliberately have fewer commitments, at least to the point of not working 70+ hours /week. Perhaps this is an intuition issue. I don’t seem to have any. I am just thinking that someone, somewhere, would have a more immediate approach of figuring out the right questions to ask. I seem to only figure them out after-the-fact. And, even then, people don’t want to hear what I have to say.
I want to solve problems, not just be a buzz-kill. How do you notice in the present moment things that are not happening anymore (that need to be)? How do you get stressed-out people to think in the long-term? Don’t people need some hedonism? Can people endlessly put their nose to the grindstone without some relief? Can we find things that feel good now that don’t do long-term damage that future generations will have to deal with? Am I talking about a level of discipline that is unheard of in modern culture? What would a good Buddhist response to the short-term thinking that is destroying lives and economies?
I went hunting for an applicable Buddhist quote. I kept finding quotes on compassion (whodathunkit?) and discipline. What I did find was a quote from my favorite nun, Pema Chodron. I think it addresses the issues I am referring to: improving conditions for people and having a sense of responsibility for how our actions are impacting others. I am starting to realize that I just don’t fit into normal society anymore.
“We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.” Pema Chodron (quoted in

Preparation in the Present

I have been looking for Buddhist quotes regarding the present moment. I haven’t quite found what I’ve been looking for. What I find, particularly in Zen, is the concept of being intimate with the present moment or activity, withholding nothing. That is not the same as the idea that this moment is the only moment.
Buddhism always brings me back to reality. The emphasis is always on the ephemerality of this moment, the never-ending change of this moment, not a denial of later, future moments. Anicca is the ultimate reality; solidity is the fantasy.
Since nothing huge is going on in my life at this time (yea!), I have been trying to do a little organizing for when Barry passes. I’ve been chipping away at this for a few years. Perhaps I am just paranoid, but while lying in bed, sometimes I listen real hard to try to hear his breathing. I’ve started writing his obituary, a morbid but necessary task. The main reason I do such things is because I know that I will be overwhelmed when the time comes. I will have no excuse for not having done everything in my power beforehand. Lots of people are blindsided by a loved one’s passing; I have no such defense.
Part of me wants to just focus on now. I’ve dealt with so much in the past few years. That is the irresponsible part of me. “Don’t worry about later. Everything will be fine,” it tells me. Will it really be fine, if I don’t take careful steps today? I look around at Michigan’s economy and the answer is NO. I see people all around me just waiting for the good-paying jobs to come back. The smart people continue to leave. (Why would an intelligent person stay and make peanuts for their skillset?) The exodus of talent and education from the state guarantees that businesses looking for talent will look elsewhere. Maybe it will be fine thirty years from now, when the powers that be finally deal with reality. Until then, it is so very not fine for those who remain. Pretending that this moment is the only moment only compounds the problem.
We all need to deal with the temporariness of things, making plans and accommodations for the predictable. We can only make those preparations in the present moment. This may not be my preferred way of spending a beautiful summer day, but the alternative is to risk being totally overwhelmed when the weather sucks and everyone is demanding instant answers and cash.

Short-Sightedness as 8th Deadly Sin

“Remember the seven cardinal sins? You’re given the serious task of adding a new one to the list — another trait or behavior you find particularly unacceptable, for whatever reason. What’s sin #8 for you? Why?”
This was a Daily Prompt (which I use when my brain cannot think of a topic).
My 8th cardinal sin? Refusing to look down the road at possible consequences of (in)actions. Most of the problems we face as a nation, world, or even individually, come from questionable past choices. I am reading a book by Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, “Active Hope.” Some nuclear engineer was bragging to her that the drums full of toxic waste in his area of responsibility would be leak-proof and vandal-proof for the next hundred years. She looked him in the eye and said, “And then what?” His baffled look was the response. Why he should care was beyond his imagination. Lust, gluttony, greed, etc., have nothing on short-sightedness.
I totally understand having a short time frame of reference. There were weeks in school when I had a few things due that week and that didn’t even count Barry’s doctor appointments. When someone would ask what I was doing two weeks later, my mind would go blank. I hadn’t even lived through this weekend yet. How on earth could I have a clue for something 336 hours away?
Part of the problem is the sense of urgency created by marketers. “You must take advantage of this offer today or you will miss it forever.” The problem? You don’t actually need what they are selling at all. There can be no urgency to purchase something that is utterly unnecessary to begin with.
The solution? As near as I can tell (and I am open to suggestions), the way out is to deliberately live a slower lifestyle. This is counter-cultural in the extreme. I believe that part of the cultural agenda is to distract us from how harmful our activities are to ourselves and others in the long run. I can do this now that school is over. In fact, my life is maddeningly slow at times, with Barry’s gradual descent health-wise. I am looking for a long-term vision and I know that that can never happen while being artificially motivated by marketers. The Huntington’s has smacked me off the ever-accelerating cultural merry-go-round. Perhaps gratitude is a better response than frustration.


I’ve been looking at different spiritualities, and especially mine over the years.
What bothers me is phoniness. I don’t do well with play acting. Watching protestant TV is annoying, partly because I used to be one. It comes off as a show. The lights, the cameras, the commercials, and the production smack of entertainment. Contrast that with this example. The catholic TV channel, generally a couple of times per winter, occasionally shows a documentary. It is silent and lasts for three or four hours. It shows these monks going about their business: chanting, shoveling (I think they are in the Alps), feeding the cats, etc. It is beautiful. Their lives are simple, unpretentious, and silent, but they get everything done.
In the latest issue of Parabola, there is an article, “About Thomas Merton, A Seeker of Truth”, by Roger Lipsey. Merton said, in 1963, “The task for Zen in the West is probably a healthy reaction on the part of people exasperated for four hundred years by the inane Cartesian spirit—the reification of concepts, the idolization of reflexive consciousness, the flight from being into verbalism, mathematics and rationalization. Descartes made a fetish of the mirror which Zen shatters.” (Pages 41-42) Amen.
People want authenticity, not empty words. I believe that people leave shallow versions of the religions they grew up with for the deeper versions of other religions. In the same edition of Parabola, I saw that Huston Smith became a Sufi, a mystic Muslim. I’m willing to bet that he had been a shallow Christian previously, or perhaps an atheist or agnostic. He didn’t, in contrast, go from being a Benedictine monk to becoming a member of Al Qaeda. In the latest “Shambhala Sun” is an article about Burmese Buddhists persecuting Rohingya Muslims. Jack Kornfield relates how the Buddhists are of the devotional type, not understanding the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and thinking for oneself. American Christians, such as myself, every day abandon our churches with verbose and hypocritical members in favor of a more contemplative version of Buddhism.
I have always loved silence, stillness, simplicity, and beauty. As an Orthodox Christian, I loved the concept of hesychia. However, the reality is that I (as a female) do not have the option of ever living on Mount Athos. I can only be on the receiving end of religious oppression from the hierarchy’s demand for obedience. I simply cannot leave my brains at the door when I enter a spiritual building.
I’m not certain I am so much an “ex-Christian” as I am “ex-everything-shallow-without-integrity.”
What I love about Buddhism is how it gets to the heart of the matter: how you think and developing the self-control not to act on one’s impulses. It is definitely part of what I have been looking for my whole life and I am so grateful to have found it.