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.

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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.

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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


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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.   

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