Archive | September 2014

Strapping Myself In

“So the practices that Ajahn Chah taught were surrendering and opening to experience. Then he taught how to work with difficulties by overcoming them and letting them go. This led to the fourth level of his teaching: living in balance, the simplicity of the Middle Path. Ajahan Chah rarely taught about levels of enlightenment. He didn’t think the system of stages of enlightenment and levels of insight was helpful, because it took people out of the reality of the present.” Page 163, “Bringing Home the Dharma,” by Jack Kornfield
This is where I am. Everything is about letting go. I hate this because I am accustomed to taking responsibility and feel like there is something I should be doing, but pushing the river does not help.
And now things have sped up. One of the things I have felt like I need to do just got done—and not by me. I believe Barry is on his way out, slowly but surely. I even told him he need to get things right with his daughter Bailey. I kept thinking I needed to call her and dreaded doing so because she has made so little effort to see him, even when he was diagnosed with cancer. So she called. I about fell out of my chair when I listened to the message. She never calls. She called because it was his birthday, but that had never been a sufficient reason in the past. So he called her back—and she actually answered. That also never happens. He always gets her answering machine.
So now she is supposed to come over Tuesday evening. If she comes, it will be one less thing on the to-do list before he passes. If she doesn’t, it might depress him sufficiently to cut months off his life. Her lack of contact has been burdensome on him. Life is truly speeding up.
According to Chah, life is about letting go. Once you let go, things can go quickly. Like he emphasizes, you have to overcome difficulties. I can do that. However, most of the difficulties I am dealing with now are not mine. I can only let them go. I cannot overcome someone else’s karma; I can only let it go and not create bad karma for myself as much as possible. And strap myself in for the ride.

Absorption and Obsession

“The misuse of absorption can lead to denial.” Jack Kornfield, “Bringing the Dharma Home”, page 19
I’m not sure if there is a difference between absorption and concentration, but everyone I have ever known, including myself, has misused concentration/absorption for the purposes of maintaining denial.
How can you not? Sometimes, reality sucks and there isn’t much that a person can do about it. Focusing on the problem does not necessarily empower a person to implement a solution, particularly if the problem belongs to someone else. Compassion makes a person care about others, but it doesn’t always enable the carer to fix the concern.
I have obsession issues, not that anyone could tell. (Ha ha.) Once my brain figures something out, then I want to understand how that thing impacts every other area of my life and the lives of others I care about. In other words, once I find a new dot, I want to see how it connects to all the others. And then I’m off….I’m living in my head. And sometimes, particularly when my reality is unpalatable, living in my head is a relief.
But that’s the problem. I’m living in my head, not dealing with my current situation (by distracting myself with some issue of irrelevance to my daily life), and time is going by. My life is slipping through my fingers because I’d rather focus on anything else rather than dealing with the current reality.
Reading female self-help authors is revelatory. A woman will write a book about empowering other women and realize that they are not practicing what they preach. The next thing you know, they are divorced. I am thinking specifically about Melody Beattie and Sarah Ban Breathnach (sorry if I mangled the spellings, it’s been a while). They feel time passing and are not willing to let their life slip by being unhappily married or in a relationship with a practicing addict or whatever. Divorce isn’t a guarantee of happiness, but if you’re already unhappy, there may not be a lot to lose through divorce. At some point, it becomes time to take your own advice. Integrity demands it.
Sometimes I wonder if OCD is the ultimate absorption/distraction. People think they want to let go of their obsessions, but their obsessions serve a purpose—distracting them from their current misery.
I saw it as a Christian. I saw churches obsessed with politics and abortion while their young people fled the icky, manipulative political sermons of the pastor. I saw one woman go to Joyce Meyer events, ignoring the fact that her son was flamingly gay. I have a sister-in-law that will tell you all about the evils of diet pop, while her husband (my brother) kills himself one beer at a time.
I don’t want to fall into the same ditch as a Buddhist. I don’t want to use any religion as an escape from reality. Mindfulness has been my savior at times. Feeling my breath. Listening to what people are saying and comparing/contrasting that with their actual behavior. Feeling the sun on my skin. Taking my husband’s no’s seriously. I want to deal with reality, not develop supernatural concentrative powers. Escape is easy and time (life) slips away minute by minute.
Maybe when your options are gone and you can’t do anything anymore, concentration can be handy. Distraction may not be such a bad thing when someone else is changing your diapers. I don’t know. I just know that I don’t want to live like that now.

Concentration and Denial

Reading about concentration versus generalized mindfulness, I saw in “Bringing Home the Dharma” (by Jack Kornfield) that a misuse of concentration can be related to denial. I have found that to be true.
But that still leaves the people not in denial the decision as to whether or not to “honor” the opinions of people in denial. This a moral/ethical issue with far-ranging consequences. It is so much easier to go along with denial than to confront it. However, once one starts to feel the reality of impermanence, the willingness to blindly go along with denial can evaporate like the morning dew.
I am dealing with a very weird situation. My husband Barry’s mind is not really present much, but his spirit is clear and understanding. He is refusing to eat more, in order to increase or even maintain his weight. Given that his dad was heavier than Barry is now when the old man died, Barry’s prognosis is not good. But his mind hasn’t connected the dots yet. I think he assumes he will live at least a few more years. His spirit has told me clearly in moments of extreme lucidity, “I am tired. I am done. Please don’t try to save me.” His exact words were, “Why couldn’t you listen to my no yesterday? Leave me alone.” And yet, when I mentioned that I thought he was going to die, he told me I was being “negative.” This is a very serious disconnect.
I still have to make choices, which will please some levels of Barry’s mind/spirit, while equally offending others. It now comes down to my conscience. I need to be able to feel good about the choices that I am making now ten, twenty years from now.
One problem with denial comes from unscrupulous people that can use these mind/spirit disconnections to their advantage. Another name for denial is “blind spot.” Some people have blind spots the size of Texas. Greedy people can come in and take advantage of the situations. Churches get ripped off regularly because they do not have the proper financial safeguards and blindly trust the wrong people. I’ve seen that over and over.
Another problem with denial is the cultural enforcement of it. To enforce denial, leaders have to prevent (how?) members from thinking for themselves and connecting the dots on their own. It didn’t work for Enron and, eventually, everyone finds out anyhow. And then the consequences are far-reaching. Even before the inevitable end, the smarter members of the denial-ridden organization will try to speak up and/or leave. “Good riddance,” the leadership says to the people that they will no longer have to deal with (and that belief can be a form of denial itself because, once a person leaves, the leadership now has zero authority of the leaver). So the smarter people with the higher integrity quietly leave…The organization loses its prestige and credibility and notices nothing.
Concentration is no excuse for a lack of mindfulness. I don’t care if I ever achieve any of the jhanas. Absorption is no substitute for being connected to reality.

Moving Forward

I feel like I have advanced several spaces on the board game of life because of my ability to be honest with myself about Barry’s prognosis. I feel no urgency to convince him of anything, nor to pretend things are better than they are. It is what it is.
I am starting to make choices without taking him into account. This is a first since we’ve been married. It has always been about him.
Sometimes, I think we cannot advance ourselves. Life has to push us forward or we do not move. Sometimes, choices would have bad consequences and we have to wait for life make the decision for us. Some choices are not ours to make. If we make the choice ourselves, there may be repercussions that dwarf the discomfort of things remaining the same.
Discomfort is the ultimate motivator. Once we find routines or habits that suit us, good luck getting us to change. Being uncomfortable can push us into dealing with issues we have spent years ignoring because there is no resolution in sight. It’s a matter of weighing consequences of action versus inaction. When the discomfort is great enough, suddenly there will be enough “courage” to make changes. When one sees the brevity of life, dying without regrets becomes a priority. Impermanence is the ultimate motivator, at least for me.
I see people in situations where they are comfortably miserable. That sounds like an oxymoron, but we all know it isn’t. Better the scourge we know than the unknown. We all know married couples that haven’t gotten along in years but, due to financial reasons, cannot even imagine separating. Will they go to their graves glad they “stuck it out”? I have a hard time imagining that. More likely is that they will wish they had made the effort, as expensive as it would have been, to live independently, date, and have had new experiences.
Without having to pretend things are different than they are, scales are falling off my eyes. Choices need to be made. To not make a choice is a choice.

The Explosion

Everything has changed and nothing has changed. I’m okay. Maybe better than I’ve been in a while.
I took Barry to the neurologist. I was concerned about his weight loss. I didn’t know how much weight he had lost, but I was sure he must’ve lost some because I’ve been getting holes punched in his belt. I wasn’t certain the doctor took my concern seriously the last visit.
Barry lost eight pounds. I was not surprised. Then Dr. Goudreau said that the involuntary movements of the Huntington’s was not sufficient to have caused the loss. I had been attributing all the weight loss to the Huntington’s. He suggested getting Barry to eat pudding with creatine powder to boost Barry’s muscle mass and weight. These are common-sense ideas, something I could implement immediately. He asked when Barry’s last appointment with the oncologist had been. (It’s been over a year because Barry was five years cancer-free in 2013. So no more routine CAT scans, etc.)
Once home, Barry refused any and all of Goudreau’s ideas. He was overwhelmed at even the idea of something new expected of him. I told him not to get upset at me for trying to save him. He told me to listen to his “no.” I said I was done trying to save him. He told me to leave him alone. My response? “Yes, sir.” I told him I’m not interested in shoving anything down his throat, metaphorically or physically.
Now I know what I’m dealing with. That’s why I feel better. I am no longer trying to prolong his life. I am hospicing him. Very different. I am trying to make him comfortable, insofar as possible. It’s not about keeping him up and running anymore; it’s about respect.
What about the weight loss? Clearly, the doctor thinks the cancer might be back. However, years ago Barry told me there was no way he could go through the whole chemo/radiation thing again, not that I think he could handle it now, anyhow. So, guess what? It doesn’t matter. We are not even going to address the issue, so the cause or origin of it is completely irrelevant. IT DOESN’T MATTER. Not one bit.
I feel a clarity now that perhaps I have never felt. I have confronted issues I’ve tried to avoid for a long time. That’s how it goes for me: little things bother me, increase their intensity, break through to the surface, and get dealt with. Sometimes life lights the fuse before things blow up. I couldn’t face these issues without knowing Goudreau’s positions and ideas. I needed a solid foundation of knowledge. I needed to try things out and see how Barry reacted. I needed those ideas to not originate with me (as if I had any interest in controlling or manipulating Barry).
Once the bomb goes off, you can sift through the rubble and see what you still have left. If I had lit the fuse, all of this would have been my responsibility. As it is, I am dealing with life on life’s terms and am relieved to finally have clue as to what I am dealing with.
Now it’s all about compassion and Barry ending his days as much on his terms as possible. My road is not easy, but at least I’m no longer pretending things are fine. I can’t believe how much of a relief that is.

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.