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.