Archive | April 2015

Attention, Neurological Issues, and Stuckness

Everyone knows that I have been crawling out of a pit of being stuck. I slid into it so easily and find it now a challenge to escape. I am doing it, however, simply because I refuse to remain stuck indefinitely.

What is blowing my mind at the moment is how everyone in my life is having their own issues. We all have issues. This is different. I have three primary friends. Two have ADD and the third has a closed-head injury, or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Oh yeah, and I am also married to someone with Huntington’s Disease, a genetic, progressive, neurological disorder. See the theme? Seriously. What are the odds?

My response is to figure out what I can and can’t do.

My friend with the TBI is driving me a little nuts. Every time I speak with her, I dread when she brings up the topic of diet, because she is obsessed with it. Once she starts, she is off and running for the next couple hours. She is stuck on the topic. She is stranded in the eternal now. When I have attempted to steer the conversation in a different direction, she brings it right back. For her, this is a new obsession. For me, I have already “been there, done that.” I was obsessed with food twenty-something years ago when my life was spinning out of control. I made a vow back then not to ever let myself go back to that dark place. I am unsure how to handle the situation today. What I do know is that changing your diet is not a primary treatment for a TBI. I don’t know what I can do for her. I’ll just send her blessings for now.

I have been reading Healing ADD by Dr. Daniel Amen. It is fascinating. It talks about seven (!) different types of ADD. They have some commonalities and significant differences. Diet is one facet of treatment, along with exercise, medication, supplements, behavioral therapy, and nixing the video games. The book is fascinating. I also feel confident that I am not ADD. If I can figure out how to relate better to my friends, that itself would be worth the purchase price.

I am also reading Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen by Dr. James Austin. I am looking for guidance for my zazen to help me be more beneficial to others. Isn’t that the ultimate occupation of any bodhisattva?

I know what it’s like to be stuck. I keep plugging away at changing things. It is so hard to watch my friend be stuck. I don’t know if she has the ability to get herself unstuck. When I attempt again to change the topic, we’ll see what happens. Or perhaps her husband will contact me. I’ll try to help, if I can. If I am out of my own pit by that time.

Attachment as a Spiritual Obstacle

A  funny thing has been happening: nothing.

I have made herculean efforts to get change to occur and then…nothing. People are not responding to my struggles.

I have come to believe there are spiritual obstacles to what I am attempting to do (get the house ready for sale, check out Medicaid eligibility, etc.). I have never put forth so much energy and achieved so little. I am accustomed to getting things DONE.

So I have started to get rid of Barry’s things. I just threw away most of his VHS tapes, many of which I purchased for him before we moved to the house. He has never watched them while we have lived here (for over a decade), so it is not as if I pitched stuff he uses regularly. And, due to the Huntington’s, his awareness of what he even owns is minimal.

What has genuinely surprised me is how viscerally I have reacted. Even though he never watched them, I felt ill getting rid of them. It was like getting punched in the gut. The videos had sentimental value to me that I was clearly unaware of. I bought these videos when he enjoyed them and some of these sets (like “Crusade in Europe” and “World at War”) costs hundreds of dollars.

I am spiritually attached to Barry and his possessions more than I ever knew. I believe everything we touch has our energy attached to it. I have been trying to do things in the least traumatic way possible, and that means gradually. Part of the reason I am trying to simplify everything is because, when the shift does finally occur, things could accelerate quickly and develop a life of their own. I am doing what I can now because I can. Things, for this moment, are still in my hands. That will not remain so forever.

The Buddhists are right. Attachment is the source of suffering. If I am having this deep a reaction just getting rid of old videos, what kind of mess will I be when Barry actually dies?

Lesson: Don’t let yourself get attached to stuff–ever.

Is Openness the Antidote for Stagnation?

It seems that previous Zen cultures had some of the same concerns with stillness I do. In The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination by Sheng Yen (p. 84):

“During his time, many people criticized Hongzhi and his Silent Illumination practice. They called people who sat in Silent Illumination ‘withered logs,’ and likened the state of clarity to stagnant water. The true state of Silent Illumination is vastly different than that. Although the mind is still and serene, it is lively and clear. So the state of Silent Illumination is likened to ever-flowing water, clear and transparent to the bottom. Because the mental state is like this, it is described as spiritually potent and vast, bright, and luminous.”

Clearly, others saw hazards back then that I am seeing now. To dismiss their observations addresses nothing.

I wish to help others and myself. I am looking for solutions in my life that I may turn around and help others. On page 35, Yen says, “We are most compassionate when we strive not for our own liberation but for the liberation of all beings. When no-self is realized, one can roam freely in samsara responding to the needs of sentient beings.” My feeling of what he is saying is that stagnation is unlikely when one is open to the sufferings of others. Like a spring meadow, while there may be utter silence, there is activity teeming within. Anyone spreading out a blanket for a picnic knows how close this activity really is to the surface. The meadow is not stagnant because it is affected by everything: breezes, the angle of the sun, humidity, and the activities of local critters. It is open and vibrant.

This openness is what I am guessing that Yen says makes stillness not stagnant. I relate this to people that I know that seem to live in the past, particularly at a moment when their lives seemed to stop. For example, I have a brother whose eldest daughter died in the 1990s. He and his wife moved out to the country with the settlement money and, as near as I can tell, checked out of the real world like a cheap motel. Going to their house gives me the heebie-jeebies. It is like stepping into a time capsule. The fresh air of current reality never blows in their world and I am still treated like I am twelve years old. Eeeuuuwwww. My family remains mystified as to why I don’t participate more in family events. I can barely deal with my current reality, let alone go time travelling for various holidays.

I am leery of some of this philosophy because it seems so passive and reactive. When I learn a lesson in my own life, I do not simply wish to help others respond likewise. Rather, I wish to help prevent others from going through my current situation at all. My desire is to be proactive so as to prevent suffering altogether when possible.

I feel like I have awakened rather abruptly in certain areas of my life, such as realizing that I am simply not up to taking care of my house by myself. How do I help others to wake up to whatever their situations may be? I don’t want others to go through what I am dealing with, if at all possible. How does this work?

The Future is Just as Real as the Present

“Spiritual advisors exhort us to invest in our much more important bardo retirement plan. That’s our real future. Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room. What’s the point?” Preparing to Die by Andrew Holocek, page 126

This is how to escape the McMindfulness of living in an empty Eternal Now.

My current obsession is with glacial-paced change/deterioration. Nothing, as near as I can tell, ever changes for the better without some level of intentional effort. Without intervention, rocks roll downhill only. Think “turtle on a fencepost.” Go to any bookstore. Self-help/spirituality sections are filled with titles that include words like “deliberate”, “intentional”, “aware”, and “conscious”. We humans do have the radical ability to change our lives for the better. It’s this little concept I like to call “taking responsibility.”

My question is simple: How do you notice all the little micro-changes that will kick your butt in the future? Attention is necessarily selective. No one can pay attention to everything simultaneously. I am currently overwhelmed with consequences from slow-changing situations from the past decade, and I try very hard to notice changes around me. The future has a way of arriving rather unexpectedly. I am trying to let go of my need for financial security. I guess that is my challenge for this lifetime.

One thing I am rediscovering is Kaizen, the Japanese art of positive, intentional, glacial change. Perhaps I can get Barry to accept different changes if I go slowly enough. I am looking for non-traumatic ways to change things, to use slow change in  positive way, instead of letting it kick my butt. What an idea.

Painfully Slowly

I have no idea what is going to happen. Barry and I may or may not qualify for Medicaid, which would enable me to get help for him.

We may have to spend down some of our assets to qualify, but that may not be a problem, given that we might have to spend a lot of money getting the house sellable.

This level of uncertainty is enough to make me want to throw up. This is not an exaggeration. I feel like someone is stepping on my chest.

The pretense is gone. Of being middle-class. Of being able to take care of the house by myself. Of keeping my old hopes and dreams.

Getting rid of books, I have uncovered my collection of Pema Chodron classics, including When Things Fall Apart. I bought it when my life was much more stable and my insecurities were vague and haunting.  I am re-devouring it. I think I always figured I would need it someday. Someday has arrived.

The changes were so gradual I didn’t even notice. I am not alone. I looked up “Lansing, Michigan” on Wikipedia. The population chart says it all. Lansing’s population peaked at about 130k in 1970. It has been all downhill since. It is now about 113k, about a 12% drop. That averages about 370 people per year leaving. That leaves plenty of room for denial. “What population drop? You’re wrong.”  Who notices one U-Haul a day? The younger generation has no memory of a more prosperous, populated Lansing. I am not elderly; I just feel like it and remember what Lansing was like when I was a kid in the 1970s. It is a diminished town, but you have to be old enough to even know what the “good old days” were like. You don’t know any different until you visit a state where the population and jobs are growing. I visited Lynchburg, Virginia, a few years ago. I went to some strip mall there and hung out at the Barnes & Noble. First, there was nowhere to park. Second, people there are horrified at 7% unemployment. I spent time talking to locals. (Michigan’s at the time was about 15%.) In a country that gained over 20 million people between 2000 and 2010, Michigan actually lost population. But it happened so painfully slowly that no one noticed. Normal went from prosperity, youth, education, and good jobs to poverty, elderly folks, the disabled, ignorance, and welfare-eligible jobs. And nobody is still noticing.

“Painfully slowly” is the operative term here. Who wants to deal with change? The problem is that change = reality. If you are not dealing with change, you are not dealing with reality. It’s that simple. You are delusional. Just like me for so long. Then, when you do start to deal with the truth of impermanence, it is so unnerving as to be nauseating.

Stillness and Stagnancy

I have always been fascinated with stillness and silence. I feel like I am losing my interest in stillness because I have had so much of it lately.

I laugh at myself now for having wanted to be a nun at an earlier developmental stage of my life. I admire the simplicity and silence. I knew I could handle the celibacy. I longed to develop spiritually and make a statement regarding our over-consuming, stupidly busy, and noisy culture. I now realize that at least some of my longing was nothing more than not wanting to deal with the real world, which I knew I was woefully unprepared for. Thomas Merton saw his shortcomings after many years of the cloistered life. He eventually took a lover in “M”. He said in a journal (quoted in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, where all these quotes come from), “I have surrendered again to a kind of inimical womanly wisdom in M. which instinctively seeks out the wound in me that most needs her sweetness and lavishes all her love upon me there. Instead of feeling impure, I feel purified (which is in fact what I myself wrote the other day in the “Seven Words” for Ned O’Gorman. I feel that somehow my sexuality has been made real and decent again after years of rather frantic suppression (for though I thought I had it all truly controlled, this was an illusion).” The hilarious irony of it all is that I now live a life of relative poverty and celibacy. I come close to living a nun’s life now. I am almost monastic now, and not by choice!

Merton recognized his own immaturity, something many never do. I am so glad I never had the opportunity to be a nun, not that I could have handled the obedience part of it. Obedience is a fine value—for a six-year-old. It is not an adult value and it is mutually exclusive to independent thought, meaning that the more you do of one, the less you do of the other. I have chatted with nuns and found them to be weirdly innocent. Their innocence is genuine, and entirely age-inappropriate. Imagine knowing you would always have your basic needs taken care of. They are girls dressed up in women’s apparel. Not having to deal with the real world makes emotional maturity completely superfluous and threatening.

Yet, I still kept seeking stillness and silence, even in a Buddhist context. Our culture is still obsessed with consumption, speed, and noise. The real world is truly insane at times. We all need an escape, a vacation.

What I understand now is that there needs to be a balance of activity and stillness. Stillness is like an island in a turbulent ocean, or, as Iyer states, a way station. “Indeed, Nowhere can itself become a routine, a treadmill, the opposite of something living, if you don’t see it as a way station: sometimes during his days on Mount Baldy, Leonard Cohen would get into his car, drive down from the mountain, and stop off for a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s. Then, suitably fortified, he’d go back to his house in one of the more forgotten parts of central Los Angeles and stretch out in front of The Jerry Springer Show on TV.” For years, I went to school and tried to work. Graduation was such a relief. I really needed a break. It’s been a couple years now since I’ve been in classes. Not doing anything meaningful, with a sick husband, in a house I can’t take care of, in a state lacking decent jobs, creates stagnancy. This is the ugly side of stillness. This is stillness gone wrong. The break was nice, at first. Now, it’s just meaninglessness writ large. It’s time to swim away from the island back into the turbulent waters, get back on the horse of life, however you want to put it. It’s time to move.

My Dukkha and Everyone Else’s

I was in an AA coffee shop when a worker there told me that many people who were instrumental in her initial steps in recovery were now relapsed.

My heart broke. I have been struggling this past winter. I let the whole world know through my blog: this is my life and, for the moment, it sucks. Apparently others around here feel similarly and are dealing with it even more poorly than myself.

Dots started getting connected. How long can people do without a job or even a remote hope of getting one? How long does one live without hope? Define “living”. I’ve been so busy digging myself out of my own pit that I hadn’t noticed others mired in theirs. The person telling me this did not know that just a few hours earlier my god sister told me that she had just lost her minimum-wage job because she couldn’t keep up with the output quota. Seriously? A quota for a job where you still qualify for welfare? And we wonder why so many people are “mentally ill.”

How can I help? I have to be more functional before I can reach down into someone else’s pit.

I looked around and saw that there is no longer any kid of social/financial safety net for people anymore. I don’t know if it is fixable or if we should just start over. It would not shock me to hear a few years from now about an ongoing suicide problem in Michigan. Hopefully, by then, I will be long gone. Living without hope or sunshine is a bit much.

But people do not acknowledge the problems because they have come upon us so incrementally. I hear people say all the time (including my god sister), “I’ll be fine.” They still falsely assume that a social safety next exists. It reminds me of an old episode of Roseanne. She and Dan were having financial problems and someone told her, “Don’t worry. Things will be fine.” Her response was perfect. “‘Standing on our own two feet’ fine? Or ‘eating government cheese’ fine?” In other words: define fine.

The normal translation of dukkha is “suffering” and I think that covers the more dramatic and sudden situations, but there is also another translation that I simply love: “unsatisfactoriness.” I think that covers the bulk of human experiences: not quite fulfilling.

I feel like my job now is to get on my own two feet so I can help others.

No “Rupture”, Just a Slow Leak

I’ve been reading an article by Pema Khandro Rinpoche from the Spring 2015 issue of Buddhadharma. It talks about disruption.

“The Tibetan term ‘bardo’, or ‘intermediate state”, is not just a reference to the afterlife. It refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives….Milarepa referred to this disruption as a great marvel, singing from his cave, ‘The precious pot containing my riches becomes my teacher in the very moment it breaks.’ This is the Vajrayana idea behind successive deaths and rebirths, and it is the first essential point to recognize: rupture.”

This sudden sense of displacement is real and there is social support for people undergoing such obvious trauma. A plane dives into the ocean or mountainside and the grief-stricken relatives are supported by family and friends. That makes sense.

But the world I live in is different. Most of my losses are more gradual. Barry’s health and our income did not vanish in one day. The issue was gradual; it was only my emotional realization that was sudden. The pot did not crash to the floor. Rather, it imperceptibly developed cracks and gradually leaked water until it was bone dry and useless. Then I desperately needed a drink and had nothing.

I see this everywhere both on TV and in my life. On one hoarding show, this lady had a Jacuzzi and wanted to give it to someone who needed water therapy. The haulers came to donate it only to find that vermin had chewed out the insulation to nest within it. Also, when I still attended church, in one of the last sermons I heard, Fr. Mark said that the church had 200 families. That startled me because he had told me the exact same figure a decade earlier, when attendance was at least a third higher. There is no way he was correct both times. Reality had changed dramatically, but his perception had not changed one iota. No rupture, just a slow leak.

I am accustomed to churches living in a fantasy world. That is part of living in the Midwest. Churches live in the past. Whatever.

However, I won’t go for a Buddhist version of Fantasy World, either. I do not currently reside in Shambhala. I have always greatly appreciated the nitty-gritty Buddhist understanding of suffering and how to deal with it compassionately and realistically.

Right now, I am reading The Method of No Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination by Sheng Yen. On page 47, he talks about just doing whatever you are doing wholeheartedly. “You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present.” You are not left stranded in the Eternal Now of McMindfulness. The past and future are taken into consideration before commencing with the task at hand.

Many years ago, I was chronically overwhelmed and did not deal with many things. “I just can’t handle this now,” was my refrain. I knew I would have to deal with things “later.” Guess what?  Later has arrived. Karma cannot be evaded. Cause-and-effect still rule.

What I am running into now is the lack of social support for even acknowledging the slower, equally real, changes of life. Denial is more powerful than crack. If I say something someone else is not ready to hear, I am informed that I am mistaken and exaggerating the problem, assuming one actually exists. Pardon me for warning you of the oncoming train. I am so gauche. What was I thinking? Never fear. I won’t be making that mistake again.

My Buddhist problem is simple: How do I handle changes honesty and mindfully without using discursive thought? Is it even possible?

Starting the Next Phase

I am in a tough spot, at least somewhat of my own making.

I realize that I cannot take care of a house. It is all beyond me. Mowing, raking, shoveling, Roto-Rooting, mopping, scrubbing, dusting, you name it. I can definitely do some of it, but not all of it, and not all by my myself.

When Barry and I got the house, we were both working and in much better health. I started back in school in 2004. In 2008, he retired and got cancer the next week. I was occupied with him, school, and trying to work so I would have something on my resume. His health slowly declined. He did less and less. I did not pick up the slack. The slack came about extremely gradually, so slowly it did not register on my radar.

Now it is 2015. There is a gaping chasm between what the house requires and my ability to handle it alone.

We went from being a dual-income, middle-class couple to neither of us working and now we live on a pension and disability.

If I have learned anything about change, it is this: if it happens slowly enough, even the most radical of changes can fly under the radar. No bells and whistles, just a substantially diminished existence.

Part of me feels like I am cruel to Barry because I want to move him away from his sponsors and support system. A growing part of me now feels like, “Just how long do you plan on waiting to move? How bad of shape does the house need to be in before you pack up and go to a warmer state with more resources?”

I’ve been waiting for a “clean break” to start the next phase of my life. I was waiting for him to die. This realization did not rise to the surface of my consciousness until the past year or two. Time went on. The winters kicked my butt. The default was that nothing got accomplished. My needs did not get met–at all. The only progress to the next phase will come solely from my initiative. I understand that now.

So I have started the next phase: a realtor has come out to my house. I cannot wait for something outside of my control to kick-start the next metamorphosis of my life. It is time to take responsibility. This is not how I would have preferred to have things unfold. I feel oddly empowered and ridiculously frustrated simultaneously. Honesty is like that.