Thursday, December 29, 2016

Impermanence, Karma, And The Zen Of A Broken Heart

     I broke up with my girlfriend this week.  Or maybe she broke up with me.  Honestly, I'm not sure what you call it when two people who say, "I love you" every day mutually decide that things aren't working out.  I just know that I started this holiday season with a significant other, and I'm going to end it all alone.  What's confusing the hell out of me, however, is that she's a good person.  And I'm a good person... I think.  So what does it mean when two good people can't make a relationship work?  This is the question that I've been pondering the past few days as I power through the five stages of grief, and the word that keeps popping into my head is, "impermanence".

     Buddha tells us that everything arises and everything passes away. In other words, impermanence is a permanent part of life (see what I did there).  Furthermore, it's our desire to keep things from changing that causes suffering.  That makes sense when we're discussing the weather.  But how do relationships play into that?  No one says, "I love you... Until circumstances change and I no longer have the same feelings."  In fact, romantic relationship hinges on the idea that your feelings won't change.  It's like a shared delusion where two people convince themselves that, "love conquers all." My ex-girlfriend and I gave up weekends, birthdays, and time with friends to be with one another because in a universe where mountains crumble to dust and stars explode in the sky we thought our feelings would never change.  In short, we created a fantasy world where our love would last forever... until it didn't.

     And that's where I'm standing right now.  I'm in the place right after love stops lasting forever, and I'm trying to find a way to move forward.  Intellectually, I understand the teaching of impermanence.  I get that everything changes.  I understand that relationships are no exception to the rule.  But that understanding isn't helping me right now.  Because there's a hole in my chest where my heart used to be, and it feels like I'm going to die.

     I observe this feeling when I meditate.  It comes and goes in waves as different memories play in my mind.  Sometimes it feels like a dull ache in my chest, and I barely know it's there.  Other times it feels like an anvil, and I can barely breathe.  I try to not take it personally.  I remind myself that this is karma manifesting itself as physical sensations in my body.  Just as a room goes dark when you turn out the lights, a heart aches when it's broken.  All I need to do is maintain calm-abiding, and let the feeling run its course.  Thinking in this way lessens the pain.  It gives me a way to move forward.

     What I'm experiencing right now is the dark side of impermanence.  It's easy to accept that life is constantly changing.  But it's hard to accept that the karma associated with those changes can be unpleasant.  I think the key thing to remember, however, is that karma is impersonal.  It doesn't manifest itself based on what we do or do not deserve.   It just manifests... and we must find the skillful means to cope with what it gives us. So now I'm in a situation where my relationship has ended, and my karma demands that I be in emotional pain for a while.  What to do?  I think I'll call my parents and tell them, "I love you."  Then I'll take the dog on a walk.  If I have to endure suffering,  I'll balance it out by bringing joy to others.  In the face of impermanence, that seems like the logical choice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Finding Peace In The Midst Of Emotional Chaos

   The grey winter skies dampen my mood as I look out the window.  My mind begins to tear away at itself as I sit cooped up in the house until suddenly there is a knock at my door.  I answer, and see Depression standing on my porch.  He wears an expensive suit, and there is almost no emotion on his face.  The cold day grows even colder as he walks into the house, and my body goes numb as he embraces me in a hug.  I try to hide from him.  I wrap myself up in thick blankets and lay on the couch without moving.  I hope that if I'm quiet enough, he'll get bored and go away.  But Depression is a patient beast.  When I refuse to speak with him, he simply sits down at my desk, and whispers just loudly enough for me to hear.  He tells me that it's pointless to get up.  He reminds me how cold and uncaring the world can be.  "Trust me," he says, "It's much better in here.  You're much safer alone in your house; with the lights off and the curtains closed.  Just stay in here... with me."

     We stay like this for a while, and then I hear another knock at my door.  I answer it, and Anxiety walks in without waiting to be invited.  Her frazzled hair and threadbare nightgown fill me with panic as my thoughts degenerate into static white noise.  There's so much to do!  I have a report to finish for work, and there's that book that I want to read.  I wonder if anyone commented on that Facebook post I've been following... Oh shit! I forgot to walk the dog.  I literally run around in circles as I attempt to do one thing, but then change my mind and attempt to do something else.  But Anxiety doesn't miss a beat.  She runs in circles with me rattling on about protests, wars, grocery lists, and a million other things that need my attention.  I turn on some loud music to distract myself from her ramblings.  But it doesn't matter how loudly the stereo plays... Anxiety still makes herself heard.

     Suddenly, Anger appears in my living room.  I literally have no idea when he arrived, but it feels like he's been here from the beginning.  I don't have time to ponder this, however, before he pulls out a laptop and starts playing videos for me to watch.  More specifically, he plays an endless loop of all the injustices that I've suffered in my life.  I sit silently as the screen shows a bully stealing my Game Boy in fifth grade.  Next, I relive an argument that I had with a close friend.  Finally, I'm on the verge of screaming as the laptop shows me riding my bike and almost getting hit by some guy in a Hummer.  "There was plenty of room on the road," I mutter to myself, "Why the hell did he have to pass so close to me!"  As the images flash across the screen, Anger offers "helpful" advice on what I should do.

     "You should do something to get back at that friend of yours." he says.  I nod ruefully as my mind becomes filled with thoughts of revenge.  "Maybe he's right," I think to myself, "I shouldn't let people walk all over me."  I look over at Anger as he sits down on my couch.  He's wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off and a trucker hat.  The logical part of me knows that his suggestions never lead to anything good.  But it's hard to hear that part of myself when he's around.  It's like his presence shuts off my ability to think clearly.  Instead, I just want to stew in the unfairness of life and how others have done me wrong.  For his part, Anger looks very pleased with himself.  The more I dwell on the past, the stronger he becomes.  In this way, he derives great pleasure from my pain.

     That being said, this isn't my first rodeo.  I know bad things will happen if I don't take action quickly, so I stop what I'm doing and open the door that leads to my basement.  It's wet and cold down there.  But I like to imagine that Bodhidharma's cave had a similar mystique. That's why I carved out a small corner of it for myself and created a meditation area.  That's where I'm heading as I walk down the creaky, wooden steps.  Depression, Anxiety, and Anger follow close behind me.  They know what's coming, but they aren't going down without a fight.

     As I do prostrations in front of my altar Depression whispers, "It's late.  Why don't you just skip it tonight and go to bed early."  When I take my seat on the cushion and begin chanting Namo Amitahba Buddha Anxiety taps my shoulder, and recites a list of tasks that won't get completed if I stay down here too long.  And when I close my eyes to begin meditating Anger jacks his laptop directly into my skull so that painful memories flash nonstop on the back of my eyelids.  Suddenly, I'm sad, scared, and pissed off all at the same time, and in this sea of mental confusion... I sit on the cushion and focus on my breath.  I breathe deeply, and focus on the feeling of air moving in and out of my lungs.  But my emotions don't like being ignored, and they grow louder in their protests.  Depression tells me that I'm worthless, and Anxiety calls me a failure.  Anger pokes me in the chest, and questions my manhood.  But I block them out and continue concentrating on my breath. Eventually, something shifts.  It's as if the more they scream, the less I can hear them.  I keep breathing, and revel in the newfound silence.  If my emotions are a hurricane, then I'm the eye of the storm.

     Time passes, and eventually my alarm sounds.  Has it been thirty minutes already?  I open my eyes and recite the four Bodhisattva vows.  Then I look around.  Depression, Anxiety, and Anger are still here.  But they're sitting quietly against the wall with their eyes closed.  Upon closer inspection, I notice that their appearances have changed.  They were solid and substantial when I started my meditation.  But now that I'm finished they all seem faded and less real.  Intuitively, I know that they can't hurt me anymore.  'They're like old tigers who've lost their fangs," a voice whispers from deep inside me.  I nod in agreement as a feeling of peace flows through my body.  Smiling broadly, I do three final prostrations before the Buddha.  Then we all walk wordlessly up the stairs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Does Spiritual Practice Look Like?

     I have a job in corporate America working as a business analyst.  The money is good and the hours are great.  My coworkers are reasonably friendly, and my stress level rarely goes above a six on a scale of one to ten.  In short, I have very little to complain about.  But that doesn't stop me from feeling like my job is interfering with the real work that I should be doing.  Every day, I sit down in my cubicle and begin my daily tasks.  As the day progresses, a feeling of dark discontent grows in my stomach. Eventually, the feeling in my stomach reaches my brain and becomes a question...  Why am I wasting time responding to email when I should be focused on my spiritual practice?

     To be fair, this feeling of discontent isn't new.  I felt the same way when I worked my last mid-level corporate gig, and I responded by quitting my job and going to work on organic farms for eight months.  It was a great experience.  Seriously, you can't spend eight months pulling weeds and shoveling manure each day with out learning some things about yourself.  But I felt like I was hiding from the "real" world, so I came back to conventional society, and traded in my work boots for dress shoes.  But now that I'm here, the only thing I seem to do is reminisce about what life was like on the road.  So I have lived two very different lifestyles as a practicing Zen Buddhist in the span of a year, and neither one of them seemed quite "right".  I'm starting to think that maybe the lifestyle isn't the problem... maybe the problem is me.  More specifically, maybe the problem is what I think it means to walk a spiritual path.

     Case in point, when I envision spiritual practice there are two images that come to mind.  The first would involve life in a monastery.  I've always had a deep love for ritual and sacred spaces.  Cloistered environments with long histories and strict rules of conduct have always given me a feeling of safety, and the desire for that feeling has only become stronger as I've aged.  Even as I type this, the idea of waking up every day in a temple that is hundreds of years old and dedicating every waking moment to the practice of the dharma brings a smile to my face.  I have no illusions that it would be an easy life.  All of the stories that I've read paint a picture of hard manual labor, strict adherence to a schedule, and very few creature comforts for people who are novitiates in a temple.  But in this sensory overloaded world of instant gratification and bad reality TV shows I think there is a certain beauty in learning to do without.

     The next image that comes to mind involves me living the life of a hermit monk.  Home-leaving is a time honored tradition in many schools of Buddhism.  In fact, one of the things that helped spark my interest in Zen practice was watching the documentary, Amongst White Clouds, and learning about the hermit monk tradition in Zen Buddhism.  The monks in the documentary have almost nothing, but the peacefulness and real happiness that each of them exudes is incredible to see.  I'd gladly trade in my few worldly possessions and live in a hut if I could have what they have. The Chinese poet Li Po did a beautiful job of describing this tradition when he said:

You ask me why I dwell amidst these jade-green hills.
I smile. No words can describe the stillness in my heart.
Peach blossoms drift away upon stream waters
deep with mystery.
For I live in the other world,
the one that lives beyond the whim of men

     Seriously, I can't read that poem without wanting to drop everything, follow Li Po's example, and spend the rest of my life in the mountains.  But here's the catch, I'm not Li Po.  And I can't live his life any more than he can live mine.  Zen teaches us that the Buddha's path is identical to the Buddha's life.  Our ordinary, everyday existence is our spiritual path whether we want it to be or not.  So when I describe my "ideal" spiritual practice, what I'm really describing is the life I wish I could live.  My fantasies about living in a monastery or retreating to a hermitage are beautiful.  But their beauty comes wrapped in a web of desire.  And desire always leads to despair.  I experience that despair every day when I sit in my cubicle wishing that I could live the life of a monk or a hermit.

    Despite my misgivings, I'm beginning to realize that real spiritual practice consists of being content with what life gives me in each passing moment.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's a mistake to lust after the spiritual practice that others enjoy.  Rather, it's better to focus on being a good student of my own spiritual/ life practice and learning everything it has to teach me.  I want life to give me a monastery for my training, but it's given me an office building instead.  What can I learn from that?  I asked to wear robes as part of my practice, but life gave me a shirt and tie instead.  Why did it do that?  I don't know.  Honestly, I have no idea what being a business analyst can teach me about Zen.  But I'm willing to learn, and I'm sure that life has no end of things to teach me

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play

     One of the habits that I've stumbled into recently is watching movies that were produced in the mid 80's and early 90's.  Back then, I was old enough to watch the movies, but I was too young to really appreciate what was happening.  So I'm finding that watching some of my old favorites is a lot like seeing them for the first time.  The most recent feather in my movie-nostalgia cap is War Games starring Matthew Broderick and directed by John Badham.  The plot of the movie is fairly straight-forward.  Broderick's character is a hacker who gains access to a military super computer named Joshua that controls all of the nuclear weapons in North America.  I don't want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that by the end of the movie the super computer is convinced that Russia is launching a nuclear strike against America, and World War III nearly ensues.  However, Broderick saves the day by getting Joshua to run simulations of all the possible outcomes of a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Upon realizing that there was not a scenario that didn't end in stalemate, Joshua calls nuclear war a "strange game" and states, "The only winning move is not to play."

     A casual glance at my social media feeds makes me think that most things on the internet fall into that category.  In fact, with each passing day I'm realizing that the best way to deal with internet trolls, hatemongers, and people who comment, "yum bacon" on Facebook posts about veganism is to make the choice, "not to play," and just keep scrolling down the page without posting a comment. In the past, my first instinct would be to "educate the masses" with a pithy, well-written three paragraph response.  Next, I'd share the offending article on my wall with a comment like, "Can you believe people like this actually exist!"  Finally, I'd spend the rest of the day engaged in a flame war with anyone who disagreed with me while simultaneously talking to people in real life about the epic battle that I was waging on Facebook one "liked" comment at a time. But I'm realizing that my actions were a mistake, and a source of unnecessary suffering.  This understanding came to me when I was chanting the Heart Sutra as part of my evening meditation, and my mind seized on the following lines:

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita
and the mind is no hindrance;
without any hindrance no fear exists.
Far apart from every perverted view 
one dwells in Nirvana
     
     This is a really beautiful passage, but I think the most important word in the whole thing is "fear".  Because if I'm being honest, the reason that browsing Facebook occasionally sends me into an epic rage spiral is because I'm scared by what I'm reading.  I read articles about what's happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I'm scared corporations are going to destroy our planet.  I read about the water crisis in Flint, MI, and I'm scared that the next generation will grow up without clean drinking water.  In short, if I'm not judicious about how I spend my time while using Facebook and other things online, I feel a good bit of fear in regards to the current state of our world.  And as the wise Zen Master Yoda  once said, "Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering."

     Thankfully, this passage in the Heart Sutra provides an alternative course of action.  Essentially, it says that if I rely on the perfection of wisdom (prajna paramita) and let go of my conceptual thinking which is rooted in the mind, then my fear will naturally vanish because fear (like all negative emotions) is a product of the mind.  Furthermore, if I can learn to let go of my perverted view (which is ANY view that's not 100% grounded in the present moment), then I can dwell in a state of Nirvana and be free of suffering.  I used to think that this passage only applied to meditation, but now I think it might be applicable to internet browsing as well.  That is to say, if I can observe my thoughts on the cushion without engaging them or feeding them with any emotional energy, why can't I do the same while browsing Facebook?  

     I've been attempting to cultivate this mindset for the past two weeks with good results.  Each time I log into my Facebook account, I treat everything on my news feed the same way I treat my thoughts during meditation.  I observe what's in front of me, I acknowledge any emotional response that it brings forth, and then I let it pass away like clouds in the sky.  Of course, that's not to say that I agree with everything that I see online.  However, I find that when I take a step back and strive to remain non-attached to my views about what I'm reading, my responses become much more skillful.  Sometimes I just click on another article without leaving a comment because my feeling of anger is strong, and I don't trust myself to not say something hurtful.  Other times, I try to "balance the scales" by posting something positive and uplifting on my social media feed.  And if things really start to get crazy, I just turn off my laptop and choose to spend more time in the real word riding my bike, playing with the dog, and talking with friends.  Actually, I've been doing the last one a lot lately.  Because I'm realizing that when it comes to Facebook, there are a lot of battles that can't be won.  And those are the situations where the only winning move is not to play.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What The Super Moon Taught Me


      When I was a child, I had a strong fascination with astronomy.  In fact, some of my earliest memories are of standing in my backyard with a flashlight in one hand and an encyclopedia in the other as I tried diligently to match the constellations in my book to what I was seeing in the sky.  This hobby has stayed with me as I’ve become older.  And now that I’m a man, I see the constellations less as patterns of flickering white light, and more as close friends who visit me from time to time.

     For example, Orion comes every winter when the days are short and the nights are cold.  His bow and arrow are always nocked and ready as he continues his eternal search for prey.  When I’m feeling brave, I’ll take a cup of tea out to the backyard, and chat with him for a bit.  He likes to reminisce about my stint working on an organic farm when I would look up at him from the bunkhouse porch, and wonder aloud what tomorrow would bring.  I’m also good friends with the vain queen Cassiopeia who hangs upside from her thrown in the northern sky.  Despite her precarious position, Cassiopeia has always been quite the talker.  She enjoys chiding me about my many misadventures in college, and the nights I spent sleeping in the campus arboretum.  I could go on, but suffice it to say that the stars are a great comfort to me.  They remind me of pleasant memories from the past, guide me in my journey on dark nights, and act as a constant reminder that no matter how hectic things become here on Earth, there is a place above me that’s peaceful and still.

     However, there have been many times in my life where I couldn’t see the stars.  I live in the city, and there have been nights when the light pollution was so bad that I couldn’t find my celestial friends.  Other nights, worldly events have cluttered my mind to the point that I barely noticed the beauty of a clear night sky.  It has been on those nights when circumstance has stopped me from seeing the stars that the moon has been my companion.  In fact, I remember getting lost in the woods one evening when I tried to take a short cut back to camp.  I couldn’t see the stars because the trees were too thick, but the moon didn’t leave me.  She just shone as brightly as she could through the branches- lighting up the path so that I could find my way home. 

     After this year’s presidential election, I started to feel lost in much the same way that I felt that night in the woods.  Primal fear and sadness bubbled in my stomach as the election results came in, and the feeling became more intense as time passed.  I bore witness to the collective suffering of our nation as it flickered across my social media feeds, and I had no idea how I should respond.  What is the skillful means that one uses to deal with so much pain?  This question battered my brain for the better part of a week until the night of the super moon.  It seemed like I hadn’t looked up at the sky in decades, but I didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime event.  So I dutifully brewed a cup of tea, walked out into my backyard, and looked up.  The moon was bigger and brighter than I had ever seen it.  The craters on her face were more pronounced, her glow was stronger than usual, and it almost felt like I could reach out and...  Instinctively, I took several deep breaths and asked, “What should I do”

     “Just do what I did when you were lost.” The moon replied, “Keep shining as brightly as you can.”  Immediately, a sense of calm came over me.  My anxieties melted away as my mind grabbed onto the one thing in this crazy turn of events that I could control… my own behavior.  I couldn’t control the Electoral College.  I couldn’t explain why so many people voted the way that they did, or predict what would happen to our country in the next four years.  But with the help of my spiritual practice, I could radiate light and compassion in the face of adversity.  I could be a light unto the world, and do my part to help our country find its way home.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Newsflash: Life Doesn't Care What You Want


    When I started practicing Zen back in 2013, one of the things that got me hooked was the incredible bleakness of the stories that I read.  There were students getting smacked by their teachers, guys realizing enlightenment by stubbing their toe, and hermit monks getting their huts burned down by angry old ladies.  The general message was always something along the lines of, "Life sucks.  Deal with it!"  And that appealed to me because I was broke, my personal life was in shambles, and my favorite pass time was drinking until I passed out.  In short, my life sucked, but it felt good to find a spiritual practice that didn't sugarcoat that fact.  Instead, Zen gave me a tool in sitting meditation that allowed me to look at my life from a distance, investigate why everything seemed to suck so badly, and then come up with creative solutions to make things more manageable.

     It wasn't easy.  There were days when sitting on the cushion for 30 minutes felt like psychological torture.  But I always felt better when I was done... So I kept going.  I learned a lot about myself and the world in general, but the biggest lesson that I learned is that most negative emotions (anxiety, anger, depression, etc.) come from wanting something from life, and then not getting it.  Furthermore, wanting things from life is a losing game because life doesn't care what I want.  To be clear life also doesn't not care what I want, necessarily.  In fact, I don't think life thinks about me at all.  It just kind of does what it does.  The only choice I have is whether I'm going to keep pissing in the wind, or get with the program and stop waiting for life to hand me things (peace, happiness, fulfillment, etc.) that I can only find inside of myself.

    There was an incident early in my professional career that hammered this point home for me.  At the time, I was working in middle management for a home security company in Indiana.  My job was pretty straight-forward.  I had a department of about 25 agents who were responsible for taking calls from our installation technicians, keeping track of what had been installed in the customers' homes, and accepting payment for any additional equipment that had been purchased.  For my part, I was there to make sure people showed up on time, make the schedule, and to answer any questions the installation technicians might have.  Things were running smoothly until a new manager, we'll call him "Mark", was hired to help me cover the department. Mark and I had been good friends before he was hired, so I was happy to have him come on board. But my attitude quickly changed after our first few weeks of working together.

     The short version is that Mark had ideas about he wanted to run the department, and I had completely different ideas about how I wanted to run the department.  Coincidentally, a new call center director was hired right around the same time that this was happening, and he tended to like Mark's ideas more than mine.  As a result, in the span of a few weeks I went from being able to run my department exactly like I wanted to having to defend every management decision that I made at our weekly meetings.  Sadly, words like "compromise" and "chill out" weren't in my vocabulary back then.  So Mark and I argued... a lot... about everything.

     After one especially epic argument I stormed back to my cubicle full of self-righteous fury and started slamming things around on my desk.  I'd only been meditating for a few months at that point, but I knew enough to know that I should at least take a few calming breaths before I completely annihilated my work station.  While doing that, I noticed something about my anger.  It didn't feel good, and I don't mean that in a new-age "my frequency was lowered" kind of way.  I mean that my anger physically didn't feel good to me.  My shoulders hurt from being hunched over.  My head ached.  My heart was racing. And to top it all off, I'd managed to spill coffee on my keyboard.  Why was I doing this to myself?

     Asking myself that question allowed me to calm down just a little bit and take in my surroundings.  I looked around and saw Mark joking with the other managers.  Mark didn't care that I was angry.  Next, I looked at the phone reps.  They were all diligently hunched over, entering data into their computers.  The phone reps didn't care that I was angry.  Finally, I looked out the window. The sun was setting behind some office buildings in the distance just as it had done countless times before.  That's when it hit me... No one cared.  Mark didn't care that I was pissed, the phone reps didn't care that I'd spilled my coffee, and the sun didn't miss a beat as a result of my shenanigans.  Life was moving forward just like it always had.  And the only person that was suffering because of my anger... was me.

     Coming to this realization was very empowering because my emotional state was suddenly completely in my control.  I was angry because I wanted to have complete control of my department, and life wasn't giving me that anymore.  But once I accepted the fact that life (and Mark) didn't care what I wanted.  Then I stopped expecting to get anything from them.  Instead, I learned to focus on the things that I could control (making good recommendations for the department, coming to work on time, being polite to my employees, etc.), and I did my best to stop caring about the outcome of my actions.  I did this not because the outcome didn't matter, but because the outcome was not in my control.

     It's been several years since I had that realization, and this way of thinking hasn't completely cured me of my negative emotions (anxiety, anger, depression, etc.).  But I've noticed that focusing only on the things that I can control causes my mood to level out much faster than it once did.  Also, I'm able to live with more openness and compassion because I'm not so afraid of what will happen from one moment to the next.  All I know is that something will happen, and then I'll respond in the best way I know how.   If something bad happens and life starts to suck again, I'll respond to that too.  Honestly, I want more certainty than that.  I want to feel like the whole world is subject to my will, and nothing unexpected will ever happen to me.  But life doesn't care what I want.  I just gives me what it gives me.  And I'm learning to be okay with that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Poem Number Three

Show compassion in the face of oppression
Be still in the midst of a storm
Does Donald Trump Have Buddha Nature

Mu

Friday, November 11, 2016

Buddha Will Make America Great Again

   In the wake of this week’s election there are many different emotions running through me.  Anger, sadness, and confusion would probably be the big three.  I honestly don’t understand how something as illusory as politics has the ability to take a country of intelligent, decent human beings, and turn us into raving, hateful, lunatics.  My social media feeds have been filled with an incredible amount of vitriol over the past several days, and as a Zen practitioner I’ve been at a loss at how to respond.  To say nothing feels like giving silent consent to comments that I find repulsive.  But to say something, on the other hand,  is a sure way to continue the karmic cycle of people using hateful speech to get more "likes" on Facebook.  What to do?

     Thankfully, I recently started reading a book by Beatrice Lane Suzuki called Mahayana Buddhism which provided me with some clarity on this topic.  In it, she investigates the writings of Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher in ancient India,  and the work he did in making Buddha's teaching of emptiness or sunyata easier for lay people to understand.  I took a crack at explaining the concept in a previous blog post when discussing environmentalism.  But the truth is that the idea of emptiness has always been difficult for me to put in words.  In fact, I have a funny memory of reciting the Heart Sutra for my sister one day.  I got as far as, “Therefore in emptiness no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth…” before she interrupted me and stated quite truthfully, “But you do have eyes, ears, and a mouth!”  I’ll admit that I didn’t have a good response, so I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and continued chanting.  Meanwhile, she just chalked it up to her weird, hippy brother talking nonsense once again!  But according to Nagarjuna, we were both right.  

     Essentially, Nagarjuna separates reality into two parts.  There is conditional reality which is our humdrum, everyday existence.  And then there is absolute reality which is existence before we start putting labels on everything like Democrat, Republican, good, bad, etc.  It's important to note, however, that the two are not separate entities.  Conditional reality exists as a part of absolute reality.  In other words, I do have eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth.  However, that’s not the whole story.  I'm also a part of every living creature that exists on this planet, and they are a part of me.  In the realm of absolute reality, we are all connected in infinite ways that we'll never fully understand.  The problem is that we get so wrapped up in our humdrum, everyday existence that we forget absolute reality exists.

     I’d almost compare it to being a single leaf on a very large tree.  Yes, the leaf is real.  It has a life and it’s able to function to a certain extent all on its own.  But it’s still part of a much larger entity which is the tree.  In this example, the leaf represents conditional reality and the tree represents absolute reality.  They’re both real.  But if we focus too much on the conditional reality of the leaf without caring for the tree as a whole, then everything dies and we create suffering.  On the other hand, if we focus solely on the rest of the tree (absolute reality) and ignore the leaves, then everything still dies.  Either way, we suffer.  Our challenge is to care for both the individual leaf AND the rest of the tree at the same time.  In other words, we must live in emptiness but work in form.  

     So what does any of this have to do with politics?  Well,  I think all of the pain and ugliness that I've witnessed this past week is a direct result of people, including myself, losing sight of absolute reality. We created these special clubs for ourselves called Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Party. Then we spent the better part of a year launching verbal missiles at each other in the false belief that we could harm other people without also harming ourselves.  And where did that get us? We are all angry,  confused, and filled with anxiety. It's not a good thing, but it's to be expected. Because that's what happens when people forget that we are all leaves on the same tree.

     Please don't misunderstand.  I'm not saying that we should get rid of political discussion.  Politics are an important part of conditional reality.  The United States literally couldn't function without multiple parties with multiple viewpoints duking it out in the political arena.  It's messy, but a certain amount of conflict is healthy in order to help us grow as a nation.  But that only works if it is balanced by the knowledge that we are all children of the absolute.  We are all leaves on the same tree, and the same basic goodness that lived in Buddha 2,500 years ago lives in all of us regardless of our political affiliations.

     With this in mind, when I have political discussions in the future I'm going to focus less on the conditional reality of the other person's politics, and more on the absolute reality of their basic goodness.  Furthermore, I'll focus less on the conditional reality that says I'm talking to a political opponent and more on the absolute reality that says in some small way I'm talking to Buddha himself.
     

Monday, November 7, 2016

Keeping The Faith In Uncertain Times

 
  Tomorrow our country will vote for the next President of the United States.  It’s a big deal, a time-honored tradition, and I’ll be incredibly happy when it’s over.  As a nation, we are very polarized in this moment, and the record of our collective suffering is spelled out on our computers in Facebook memes, YouTube videos, and angry Twitter rants.  It’s a sad, and incredibly stressful situation.  For my part, remaining politically active without succumbing to the poisons of greed, anger, and attachment is a daily struggle, and I fail more often than I succeed.  But while reflecting on my college days this morning, I’ve come to a realization in regards to having faith and keeping things in perspective that may prove helpful as we all head to the ballot box tomorrow. 

     I was a member of a fraternity during my undergrad, and we were widely known as the nerd-house on campus.  Our members dressed up as Jedi knights on Halloween, Saturdays always included at least one game of Magic the Gathering, and our overall hygiene was creative to say the least.  I loved it, mainly because we all got along fairly well.  But there were bad parts as well.  Because once a year we would have elections to install new chapter officers, and like clock-work, all of that brotherly love would disappear.  It would be replaced by 40 guys who divided themselves into groups based on how they thought the future of the house should look.  Some groups wanted bigger, better social events while others were focused on increasing our philanthropy work.  Some groups wanted the house to be more active on campus while others wanted greater outreach to chapters at other colleges.  The closer we got to election day, the deeper the divides became.  Personal attacks were launched, feelings were hurt, and one year it got so bad that even our chapter advisers got involved… in order to tell us who they thought should be elected. 

     Please keep in mind, we all got along just fine the rest of the year, but there was something about the election process that brought out the worst in us.  I think it had something to do with our human desire to possess power and have a secure future.  Looking back, I remember truly believing that the future of the house and by extension my entire life rested on who won those elections.  I thought about all of the “good” that I could do if the “right” people were in charge, and I used those thoughts to justify actions that were hurtful to the people around me.  But all of the anger, fear, and frustration that I felt back then seemed perfectly reasonable because I knew that everyone would be better off if my people were put in office!

     But that wasn't the case.  In fact, not much really changed from one year to the next after elections.  Sure, some of our chapter presidents were better leaders than others, but that didn’t stop us from getting to class on time.  Sure, some of our chapter secretaries took better notes than others, but that didn’t stop the food truck from delivering to our kitchen every week.  In fact, now that I’m several years removed from all of that drama, I realize that those moments before, during, and after house elections where I worked myself into a tizzy really weren’t all that special.  They were just moments in time where I got to choose whether I wanted to interact with the world from a place peace or from a place of fear.  In that way, they were just like the moment we're experiencing right now in regards to tomorrow’s election.

     To be clear, I understand that electing fraternity house officers and electing the next President of the United States are very different things.  However, I see definite similarities between what I experienced in college, and what I'm witnessing now with the presidential election.  In both cases people are concerned about what will happen in the future.  As a result, they divide themselves into groups of "us" vs. "them", tie themselves into knots of anxiety and frustration, and then say/do terrible things to anyone who doesn't agree with their worldview.  Given everything that is at stake, it's easy to understand why they'd react that way.  The person we put in office tomorrow will have access to nuclear weapons and the ability to choose several Supreme Court justices.  The idea that one person could have that much power is a scary thing.  The idea that the one person with all that power might be someone we disagree with is absolutely terrifying.  Personally, I feel afraid and very weak when I think about that scenario.  As a result, I’m tempted to lash out at the people who disagree with me like I did back in my fraternity days. 

     But now that I’m a bit older, I realize that faith is a much better reaction in uncertain times than fear.  I’m not describing faith in a supreme deity, mind you.  Rather, I’m suggesting that we should have more faith both in ourselves and in each other- a faith that says if we choose to interact with the world from a place of peace rather than from a place of fear, then food trucks will keep delivering food, and people will keep showing up for work.  My fraternity brothers and I didn’t have that kind of faith back in college, and we hurt each other as a result.  But no matter who wins tomorrow, I have faith that our country won’t make the same mistake.    

Saturday, October 15, 2016

No Such Thing As Good or Bad


The new bike... I named her Kennedy!
    It's been three months since I hung up my farming boots, and returned to conventional society.  I expected that there would be some culture shock, but the transition was tougher in some ways than I thought it would be.  I spent the first two weeks trying to not feel like a, sell out as I went about daily tasks that most people take for granted.  I bought food from the grocery store, and thought about children starving in developing nations because of capitalism. I rode in cars, and thought about carbon emissions destroying the ozone layer.  As you've probably noticed, I have a tendency to overthink things.  And trading the quiet of the countryside for the bustle of city-life didn't help to quiet my thinking.

     As time passed I did a few things that I hoped would assuage my concern about becoming a cog in conventional society.  I bought a new bike, and began riding the 30 miles round-trip to and from work.  I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan.  And I got involved in front-line activism.  In the past two months I've protested against deer culling in suburban neighborhoods, and  I've collected signatures in support of SB 195 which would make bestiality illegal in Ohio.  I've fasted in solidarity with farmed animals that go days without food when they're sent to slaughter, and I've advocated on behalf of the Indigenous Leaders at Standing Rock Nation who are fighting desperately against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  But it's hit me in the last few days that the harder I try, the more inadequate I feel.

     I never felt this way when I was farming.  I've thought a lot about why that might be, and I think it has to do with the lifestyle that I was living at the time.  Both my activism and my practice felt more authentic when I was on the road... because I was on the road.  My bank account was shrinking day by day, I went to bed feeling cold most nights, and my wardrobe resembled a cross between Mad Max and Old McDonald's.  But it all had a very cool DIY, anarchist feel to it.  Furthermore, there were clear lines and I was on the side of the "good" guys working for free on organic farms and refusing to take part in the racist, capitalist, homophobic system.  

Are house plants good or bad?
     It felt good because I believed in what I was doing, but it also felt good because I had solid ground to stand on.  I had a mission to save the environment, I found purpose in my work on organic farms, and I honestly felt that I had the whole "good vs. evil" thing figured out. But now I'm not so sure.  Because if working on organic farms outside of conventional society made me a "good" person, doesn't that mean that not working on an organic farm and living in conventional society makes me a "bad" person? Thinking about this makes my head hurt... a lot!  And it only gets worse if I continue down this rabbit hole.  For example, I spent eight months working on organic farms (good) that raised nonhuman animals for food (bad).  Now I'm an IT worker who rides his bike everywhere (good), except sometimes I use Uber when it's cold out (not as good/bad), and my clothes were almost definitely made in a sweatshop (bad).  So what does that make me?  Am I a Bodhisattva-in-training or the devil-incarnate?  Am I asking the wrong question?
     
     Zen Master Seung Sahn used to implore his students to keep a "don't know" mind.   He believed that if they kept a "don't know" mind and cut off all thinking, then their inner wisdom would tell them what to do in each moment.  Not knowing is torture for my left-brained, type-A personality.  But I'm finally starting to see the wisdom in his words.  Because I don't know what's good or what's bad.  Furthermore, I'm starting to realize that thinking in such terms is a trap- not because good and bad don't exist.  They do.  It's just that my flawed, puny human brain is incapable of knowing which is which.  So I'm done trying to figure that out.  But that doesn't mean that I'm giving up on my vows.

     I can't tell the difference between good and bad.  But I certainly know the difference between suffering and not-suffering.  I can definitely recognize suffering in my self, and I almost always know when I'm causing suffering to others.  So that's going to be my marker from now on- living moment to moment while trying to not harm other sentient beings.  I'm going to fail, of course.  I realize now that it's impossible to truly do no harm.  But I think there is still value in trying; especially when trying is the best that I can do.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Returning to the Market Place


     In Zen Buddhism the path towards enlightenment is often described through a series of illustrations called The Ten Ox Herding Pictures.  At the beginning of the story the Ox is wild and escapes every chance that he gets.  But he is followed by a young boy who slowly tames the animal until he is able to ride him back into the market place at which point the Ox inevitably escapes again, and the cycle repeats itself.  Eventually, however, both the boy and the ox disappear.  And in the final picture we see a monk who is simply walking the path, helping sentient beings when ever he gets the chance.  As I understand it, the boy in the story represents a Zen practitioner, and the Ox is his mind which starts off as unruly but slowly becomes calm and peaceful through the practitioner's continued effort.  One thing that has always confused me about the story is how the boy keeps going back to the marketplace.  Why doesn't he remain in the wilderness with his ox/mind and live in peace?  This question is weighing especially heavy on my own mind at the moment because two weeks ago I chose to leave the organic farm that I was working on, and return to the market place which is conventional society.  

     To put this into perspective, before I started this blog and moved to New York I was living and working on an organic farm in Indiana.  I was there for five months, and worked with two other people to construct a tiny house on the property.  During that time, I learned that I could be happy with very little in the way of material possessions, and that it is possible to meet all of my needs (food, water, shelter, human companionship, etc.) without large amounts of money.  With this in mind, I went to New York in the hopes of adding some farming skills (planting, harvesting, transplanting, etc.) to all of the building skills that I learned in Indiana.  While I was there, I got to do some really cool stuff like:
  • Cleared brush from a half-acre orchard to make room for more fruit trees
  • Planted and mulched countless fruit trees (pears, cherries, and plums) 
  • Constructed wooden garden beds for herbs
  • Planted and mulched blue berry bushes 
  • Planted and weeded a strawberry patch
  • Shoveled chicken crap out of a coop
  • Fed and watered 100 chickens
  • Attended farmers' markets
  • Maintained a greenhouse
  • Unloaded hay wagons 
  • Packaged herbal teas
  • Harvested ramps
This is the tiny house that I helped build in Indiana
     In short I learned some really fantastic skills.  I definitely don't feel like I could run my own farm at this point, but I'd feel comfortable taking care of a greenhouse and a small orchard/garden on my own.  Furthermore, I found that I really enjoyed the work.  It was hard and I was filthy at the end of every day, but I always went to bed feeling like I'd spent my day doing meaningful work.  Of course this all begs the question, "Why did I leave?"  I guess I started to feel like I was hiding from the world, and it's problems.  It just got too hard for me to justify working on a farm where I was meditating every day and feeling incredibly peaceful and centered when there are activists working on the front-lines; risking their bodies and their freedom to enact social change.  That being said, there are some pragmatic reasons for this change.  I've been on the road for eight months between my time in Indiana and my time in New York, and my funds are starting to run low.  If I'm going to continue traveling, and studying my mind, then I need to earn income and rebuild my savings.

     On the plus side, I can continue doing everything that I was doing on the farm (eating vegetarian, not owning a car, meditating, etc.) in conventional society, so this doesn't constitute a failure in terms of my wanting to live nonviolently in the world.  Additionally, I'm hoping to get more involved with front-line activism (protests, resistance classes, flyering, etc.) in support of animal rights, environmentalism, and peace activism.  I miss the simplicity of farm life, but I honestly feel like this change is necessary both in terms of pragmatism and spiritual development.  I learned a great deal from farming, and I hope to return to that life one day.  But for now, I need to see what the marketplace can teach me.

     

Monday, June 13, 2016

Bodhi the Bodhisattva Rooster



     The first rule you learn when working on a farm is, “Don’t name the animals”.  The reason for this is that naming an animal opens the door for you to develop an emotional attachment towards them, and then not being able to slaughter them when the time comes.  I’ve chosen to obey this rule for all of the animals on the farm except one.  He’s a Rhode Island Red rooster, and I’ve decided to name him Bodhisattva or Bodhi for short.  In Buddhist tradition, a Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment and escaped the karmic cycle of suffering, but refuses to enter into nirvana until all sentient beings can go with them.

    This name fits Bodhi perfectly because he has proven to be the world’s greatest escape artist.  Countless times, he’s been captured and put back inside of the electric fence at the end of the day only to be found running free the following day.  It’s gotten to the point that we’ve just stopped putting him back inside the fence.  Farming is hard enough without chasing down a rooster at the end of each day.  That being said, I always smile when I see him running through the fields, eating crickets, and scratching in the dirt.

     One thing that’s interesting, however, is that even though he’s attained liberation Bodhi hasn’t left the farm.  Instead of walking into the woods and living a life free of electric fences and chicken soup, he spends a fair amount of time foraging less than thirty yards from the rest of his flock.   He never goes back inside the fence, but I sometimes see him walking around the outside of it, clucking softly at his friends who are still trapped within.  I don’t speak chicken, but I imagine the conversation goes something like this:
Bodhi:  Hey guys!  You have to come out here.  It’s incredible, there is grass, and bugs, and all kinds of cool stuff.
Chicken #1:  Thanks for the offer, but I think we'll stay where we are.  We have plenty of grain to eat in here plus the humans give us a warm chicken coop to sleep in at night.
Bodhi:  But you can get all that stuff outside of the fence.  Yeah, it’s a bit harder, but you’ll be FREE.  Plus there is this really cool spot across the road…
Chicken #2:  Okay, now you just sound crazy.  Why the hell would a chicken cross the road!
          Bodhi: So he can get to the... Ugh, never mind.
     
   And so it goes... But Bodhi never gives up.  He just keeps living his life outside the fence, and through his example he shows his friends a better way to live.  This is a really important lesson for me as I continue to grow in my activism because I'm dealing with a fair bit of cognitive dissonance at the moment.  I'm a left-brained, facts-oriented type of person.  So I think I approached this fight from the viewpoint that people just needed to be educated.  I assumed that once people were made aware of the intense structural violence that takes place as a result of our imperialist, consumption-based society and watched documentaries like Cowspiracy which show how much damage we're doing to the planet with our eating habits, then they would make better choices.  But that hasn't been the case.  I don't know.  Maybe people are like Bodhi's friends.  Maybe they know their situation is precarious, but they are either too comfortable or too scared to make changes.  Maybe the only thing we can do for them is to continue living just outside the fence; setting an example and showing them the way.