Saturday, March 25, 2017

Peaceful Suffering: How Buddhism Helps Me Cope With Anxiety

    Having anxiety means that my brain always jumps to the worst-case scenario in any situation.  If I lose my keys, I'm convinced that a sociopath is going to find them, come into the house, and kill me in my sleep.  If I text someone and they don't reply back right away, I wonder if I've offended them, and start thinking of ways to make amends.  These types of thoughts run through my head from the moment I wake up in the morning until the moment I go to sleep at night, and they're exhausting.

     Thankfully, Zen Buddhism has provided me with a series of teachings which help me cope with this emotional angst.  They are as follows:

1.  Seated meditation is important-  When I first started practicing, sitting for just 5 minutes without squirming or checking the time was a struggle.  However, I now sit for 20-30 minutes every day.  I've found that doing this has created a greater space between my thoughts and my emotional responses.  The more I meditate, the better I become at simply observing the anxiety without getting wrapped up in it.

    I'd almost compare it to standing at a bus stop, and having a bus named "that salad tasted funny and now I'm going to die of food poisoning" pull up to the curb.  Before I began meditating, I would have jumped on that bus and gone for a long, miserable ride that involved googling food poisoning symptoms for hours.  Now that I have a regular practice, however, I'm able to see the thought come into my brain and let it leave again without getting so worked up.

2.  Everything is out of control (and that's okay)- Buddha taught that desire is the root of all suffering.  There are many ways to interpret this teaching, but for me it basically means that there are two versions of the world in any given moment.  There is the world as I want it to be, and there is the world as it actually is.  The more these two overlap, the less anxiety/ suffering I have.

     Before I started practicing, I tried to get these two versions of the world to overlap through controlling behavior.  I tried to control other people, I tried to control the environment, and I tried to control the future by attempting to plan for every possible outcome of my decisions.  But it never worked.  Something unexpected almost always happened,  And on the rare occasion when things did go exactly as I wanted, I couldn't enjoy the moment because I was wrapped up in thoughts about how it could have been better.  My practice has taught me that the wisest path is often the path of least resistance.  I've learned that while it is important to do my best in every moment to ensure a good outcome, I must always be willing to throw up my hands and accept that the end result may not be what I want.

3.  All suffering comes from the mind-  As I've continued to study my mind, I've realized that my thinking is divided into two types of thoughts.  There are what I call "karmic" thoughts that arise through no control of my own as a result of past experiences, genetics, environmental influences, etc.  And there are volitional thoughts which are essentially my thoughts about my thoughts.  My anxiety is made up of karmic thoughts at its root.  I can't control those anymore than I can control the sunrise.  However, I can control my volitional thoughts.  And in this way, I can manage the intensity of my anxiety.

     I came to this realization a few years ago when I was running late for work.  I still had a car back then, and I was stuck in traffic.  We had an important meeting scheduled for 8am, and at 7:55am I was idling about 100 feet from the company parking lot.  I could literally see the building, but I was powerless to get to it!  A panic attack started to set in, but then I realized that I wasn't really upset about being late.  That hadn't happened yet, and I had suffered no negative consequences as a result.  Rather, my anxiety was caused by the idea of being late.  "I'm going to be late" was the karmic thought that I had no control over.  But all of the garbage that came after that about getting in trouble and having my boss be mad at me was purely volitional and in my control.  When I made peace with the fact that I wasn't going to get to my meeting on time and stopped trying to figure out what was going to happen as a result, my anxiety subsided.

     I wouldn't say that Buddhist practice has cured my anxiety.  However, it has certainly lessened the severity.  On a scale of 1-10, I would say that my panic attacks were at an 8 before I started practicing and now they rarely go above a 3.  I've also noticed that the frequency of the attacks are a lot less.  I still have anxiety, but it doesn't control me anymore.  Instead, I'm able to take a step back from my mental formations and see them for the random bits of karma that they are.

*Please note that anxiety is a medical condition.  This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment options for those who may suffer from anxiety or other forms of mental illness.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Donald Trump Is A Great Buddhist Teacher

     My jaw clenches as I read the headline, "White House Says Cutting Meals On Wheels Is Compassionate" A fire burns in my chest as I continue reading, and soon it feels like I can barely breathe.  "So we can spend 14 billion on a wall, but we can't feed old people!" I scream at my laptop.  My breathing becomes rapid and adrenaline pulses through my muscles.  I want to punch something.  I want to burn things down.  Angrily, I standup and begin pacing around the room.  Cursing under my breath, I imagine elderly people sitting alone in their houses; their stomachs growling as the food they've depended on for years never comes.  My anger hits a fever-pitch.  And right when I think I can't take it anymore... I stub my toe on a chair.  

     The pain tears through my body like a bullet and wipes my mind clean.  In that moment, I look around the room and come to a realization.  I'm alone in the house.  No one is impressed by my temper tantrum.  No one is listening to my rants about the obligations of the state to the individual.  And the 10 minutes that I've spent filling my corner of the world with sound and fury have accomplished... nothing.  Embarrassed, I laugh quietly to myself, and look down at my laptop.  An image of President Trump is on the screen.  Without thinking, I place my palms together; and bow deeply.

     In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong focus on reincarnation and past lives.  I'm not sure I believe in literal reincarnation as it's taught in Tibetan schools, but that's another article for another day.  I bring it up only to say that one fantastic teaching that comes from the Tibetan tradition states that everyone you meet was your parent in a past life.  So every interaction you have with another sentient being is nothing more than a parent (them) trying to teach a child (you) a valuable life lesson.  If you're open to learning these lessons, then your progress on the path to nirvana will be swift.  If not, that's okay too because you'll have countless opportunities in future lives to try again.  You win either way!

     Clearly, I have not mastered this teaching.  However, meditating on it has caused me to realize that there is only one way for me to get through the next 4-8 years with my mental faculties in tact.  I must train my mind to see President Trump as a teacher and not as an adversary.  He is a Buddha.  And like all Buddhas he is acting with great compassion in order to help me along the path to enlightenment.

     I should stop at this point and tell you that I'm a progressive liberal.  If it were up to me, America would be the land of basic incomes, paid maternity leaves, and free college educations.  President Trump and his agenda represent the opposite of everything that I hold dear.  But that doesn't change the fact that he's my teacher.  It just means the lessons are harder to learn.

     I must learn to see the Buddha in people who engage in unskillful acts.  I must learn to show kindness to people who wish to do me harm. I must learn to maintain calm-abiding when anguish fills my heart.  And I must learn to do all of these things while working for the betterment of all sentient beings through activism and volunteer work.  A Trump presidency will teach me all of these things, but only if I'm willing to learn.

     This will be some of the hardest training of my life, but that's to be expected.  If enlightenment was easy, everyone would do it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Enlightenment Is Simple. But I Want It To Be Hard

Enlightenment is one of the great mysteries of spiritual practice. Do we attain enlightenment or do we realize it? Is it a higher plane of existence or a deeper understanding of our ordinary existence?

 More importantly, how do you know if a teacher is truly enlightened?! These are all questions that I’ve wrestled with throughout my time as a meditation practitioner.

 Different traditions answer these questions in different ways, so I doubt a final consensus will ever be found. As a result, I’ve come to think of enlightenment as just another concept that we scared, frail humans use to try and make sense of world that seems cold and unappealing at times.

For my part, I’ve practiced in Zen centers where even mentioning the world enlightenment was forbidden. In contrast, I've also been told that realizing enlightenment is as easy as going to the movies.

 I’ve even read a book by one teacher who was insistent that there is no such thing as enlightenment, and Zen is a waste of time! Naturally, he followed up this proclamation by stating that we should practice hard in order to realize enlightenment in this lifetime. How strange?

I believe that all of these contradictions are the result of human beings attempting to describe something that is "beyond name and form". It's like trying to explain the color red to someone. There's no real way to put a color into words. The best you can do is point at something that's red and hope they get the idea.

 With this in mind, I've arrived at my own definition of enlightenment which I believe is helpful to Zen practitioners who are following the householder path. Simply put,

Enlightenment is the ability to accept the world exactly as it is, while simultaneously working to make it better

I like this definition because it's extremely practical and has applications in everyday life. I remember when I first started practicing I had some concerns about how I would be able to live an ordinarily life once I realized enlightenment which at the time I envisioned as a near-constant, blissed-out meditative state.

 However, if we define enlightenment as being able to live 100% in the present moment then that’s no longer a concern. Suddenly, enlightenment is the mother who focuses with rapt attention as she feeds her baby, or the father who gets up early each morning without fail to provide for his family. In short, enlightenment becomes a state of being which allows us to be completely open to the world and what it gives us while continuing our work to save all sentient beings from suffering. Simple.

That being said, there is a part of me, my ego, that rebels against this idea. I don’t want enlightenment to be simple and ordinary. I want it to be exotic. I want the enlightenment that requires you to climb mountains in Nepal and learn secret breathing techniques that have been passed down for 1,000 years.

 I want enlightenment on par with the movie Dr. Strange which opens my mind to the existence of parallel universes and magic talismans. My ego doesn’t want to live fully in this ordinary existence so much as it wants to escape it.

 And it secretly hopes that if I can learn to be ordinary enough, then one day something extraordinary will happen.

I guess this is why practice is so important; it teaches us to experience the world exactly as it is while quieting the mind that thinks this world isn’t good enough. Thus, while my definition of enlightenment is simple, it's also very difficult to accept.

Perhaps I need to realize enlightenment before I can truly be enlightened.

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Enlightenment Is Simple.  But I Want It To Be Hard