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.

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.

Comfort

“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.