Pondering Stuff

The Christmas season tends to stir themes of materialism and simplicity for me. I am reading the book Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict and the little section I came across this morning was on nonattachment. It refers to the monastic tradition but in my life, I find many of the teachings and practices helpful in my non-monastic life. Both Benedictine and Buddhist communities teach about ownership and the risk that too much stuff will compromise one’s spiritual growth. Yet the two communities differ in their teachings. Joseph Goldstein, one of the contributors to the book, explains the difference as he sees it. “A Buddhist wouldn’t echo Jesus’ judgment that ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:24). I don’t think there is a bias against wealth. The Buddha had wealthy supporters who were living householder lives.  It’s more a question of generosity or stinginess.”

I have grappled with attachment to things over the years. In fact, that struggle is history for me. At my age most possessions are an annoyance. Possessions mean dusting and storing and reorganizing ad nauseam.  I don’t necessarily think that makes me more spiritual than others. More likely it means I am lazy. I admire it when people take delight in what they have. They have an appreciation for the beauty of things that I sometimes lack.  Gratitude, after all, is also a spiritual attribute and to complain about or diminish one’s possessions seems not very grateful.

Most people my age are down-sizing and getting rid of stuff. “If the kids and grandkids don’t want it, out it goes,” they say. I anticipate having to face a move some day to smaller quarters. A retirement home, assisted living, a little space with a child or grandchild…who knows? Then I will have to get rid of stuff. I have sometimes looked about my house and asked myself, “What would I take with me? What is meaningful? What is important to me?”  The list is getting shorter.

Does this tendency to detach indicate more spiritual maturity? I don’t know. I think it may have something to do with getting tired of caring for the stuff as the old body deteriorates. Nothing much  spiritual in that. It is also about awareness of what makes one really happy. During these weeks of recovering from knee replacement surgery, I was stuck at home a lot. I can tell you that the stuff on my walls or on my shelves didn’t do a thing to lift my spirits. Now, able to get out, I find that being with people I find interesting and those I care about is what does it.

That is enough on this! I don’t want to work myself into a frenzy of guilt like that young woman years ago. I need to foster gratitude for what I have rather than contempt. The Buddha suggests generosity. Maybe if I pay attention generosity will unclutter my house of stuff. .

 

“Don’t Figure Others Out” and “Don’t Be So Predictable”

People in 12 step recovery programs have slogans that they hear over and over again that help them remember the important attitudes required for a healthy recovery. A couple of these are “One Day at a Time” and “The only thing you have control over is yourself.”  I was surprised this morning to read that Buddhists, too, use slogans the help them in their spiritual growth. Norman Fischer, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, shared a few of these that are useful to help people handle their anger. In his article, Abandon Hope, from the Sept. ’14 edition of Shambhala Sun, there are two slogans he writes about that make me think about my own program. They are similar. The first is “Don’t figure others out.” The other is “Don’t be so predictable.”

I can really relate to the first, not just in the way I have always dealt with people, but in the way most of the people I know do. “Think of how much we all talk about our friends and relatives, analyzing their words and deeds, sizing them up as if we actually knew what made them tick.” I have a history of analyzing people. If they behave in a certain way, I find myself explaining them to myself or others: “She was born into poverty,” “He was raised by a man who was driven by money,” “She has had to live with pain all her life.” While these things may be factually true, they don’t necessarily explain the person’s current behavior. In fact, no one thing, no morsel of truth about a person can capture who they are. We are each complex, mysterious human beings.  We can’t possibly figure anyone out. Once in a while, the assumption I had about a person turned out to have truth, but more often than I care to admit, I’ve been way off the mark. I usually regretted my judgment. And I have to take responsibility for sharing my assumptions with others who may now believe what I shared with them.

Fischer says, “The fact is, any version of who you, they, or anyone else is, is incorrect…(people) are full of contradictions, unacknowledged issues, and unfinished business. There are so many good and bad sides to you that it would be hard to precisely define your character.”

My theory is that we do this psychoanalyzing of people in an effort to get a handle on things. If I think I know you, then I know what to expect. If I think I know what motivates you, I can perhaps write off something you said or did to some cause other than me. The truth of this slogan is beginning to dawn on me. I am starting to catch myself when I try to analyze someone’s motive or assume a connection between their experience and their recent behavior. I am actually listening to myself in disbelief. When I realize what I am doing, I often backtrack. I might say, “I don’t really know. I am just trying to figure things out.” Reading these words by Fischer, I might take on this slogan to help me let go of my ridiculous opinions before I give them too much time in my brain.

Another slogan he shared is this: “Don’t be so predictable.” Fischer says this is a compliment to the other. It means don’t be so sure that you have yourself figured out. “Most of us have plenty of evidence, over a lifetime of experience, that we are this way or that way,” he writes. “We are an angry person. A compassionate person. We are cheerful, phlegmatic, depressed, repressed, expressive, extroverted, introverted.” He says we do have genetic predispositions and we may have been conditioned by our culture and family, but “none of us believes that we are 100 percent of the time doomed to have the same reaction to things we have had before.” Life is various and we have a free will. We can be compassionate in one situation and be self-centered in another. We can be withdrawn at one gathering and outgoing at another. Fischer is suggesting that we can’t fully get a handle on ourselves any more than we can anyone else. Best not to draw any final conclusions about who we are. More is always to be revealed. We can be observant, even surprised. We are just as deep and complex as anyone else. Enjoy the ride.

Memories, Dreams, and Reality

I created a phrase once about certain behaviors in people I knew. I called it “soap opera mentality”. These were folks who always had dramas going on in their lives, at least from their point of view. Sometimes, the drama was a situation occurring in my own life but I wasn’t all bent out of shape about it. I have learned another thing about these people. They are among those who think life is all about them.

One situation I remember is when a woman trying to stop drinking told me about a couple of friends who were having marriage problems. She was in so much pain over these friends’ troubles that I remember wondering if her friends were suffering as much as she. She was excellent at suffering in her own problems, too, but it especially startled me that she did the same with other people’s problems. It was almost as though she so enjoyed suffering that when she’d run out of things in her own life to suffer over, she looked to other people’s problems for excuses to suffer.

Anyone in serious recovery would say that this woman was just looking for an excuse to drink. I get that. But Adyamashanti in his book Falling into Grace offers some insight into this business of suffering.
Suffering is a fact of life, but “Why is it,” he wondered, “that human beings have such a hard time putting their suffering down? What is the reason we often carry it around, when it becomes such a burden to us?”

Ady (my nickname so I don’t have to write his name out) suggests that the primary reason we suffer is because we believe what we think.” The truth is, he says, “the thoughts in our heads come uninvited into our consciousness, swirl around, and we attach to them.” The woman I spoke about may have a thought about her friends with marriage problems and she invites it to linger. Then she plays with it a while and it begins to make her feel good. Yes, good. Her thinking about it affirms to her that she is a caring person. She is bolstering an idea that she wants to believe about herself. It doesn’t matter whether she does anything to help her troubled friends. Just holding onto their pain is enough.

Buddhists talk about the things we experience as being an illusion. It took me a long time to get this. I mean, this computer that I am using to write this blog is real. At least I think it is. My fingers are touching it. I am looking at it. But when I walk away from it and think about it…that is the illusion. My thoughts are not real. They are only representations, memories of the past  or imaginings about the future. In the case of this woman, the marriage problem is real for the couple in it (we assume), but it is an illusion for the woman. She is only thinking about it and she is believing what she is thinking. She believes that the illusion is the reality.

When I pray in the morning, I often pray for people I care about who I’ve learned are having some problems. The truth is that I am remembering something they or someone else told me. By the time I pray, the problem may be no more. Any belief I have about them right now is a figment of my imagination. It is fine. Using my imagination gives meat to my prayer. But if I really want to pray, the best thing I can do when a thought about a person comes to mind is to let go and let God. God, after all, is privy to the real situation right now.

More illusion than we think. When someone shares with me their problems, they are sharing their beliefs about their situation, another illusion. The words about the situation is not the situation itself. It is all an illusion, the Buddha says, because anything we think is about the past or the future. The only thing real, the Buddha teaches, is in the present, right now. Oops, that slipped away. It is right now, no, now! Oh, what a dilemma! The moment keeps slipping into the past and what was in the future suddenly becomes now only to slip away again. (I have to stop thinking like this or I’ll never get this blog written)

Reading what Ady has to say about our thoughts, I began to wonder about patterns of thought. An example might be paranoia – when a person always thinks others are trying to hurt them. This thinking is based on illusions. Even if someone is trying to hurt you, not everyone is trying to hurt you. Here the thought about someone trying to hurt you is not just an illusion but it has become a habit of thought. I think PTSD may be a bit like this. One may have been hurt one time or witnessed a hurt, but they then create a habit so that of when something similar occurs, the hurt returns, at least on a feeling level. It is all in their imagination, of course, but very real to them.

I remember listening to an author being interviewed on MPR one day. He’d written a fiction, but it was based on his own life. He was asked about his portrayal of the mother in his book who was supposed to represent his own mother. Was his mother was upset?  “Not at all,” he said, “She doesn’t even connect with her.”  Even among his own siblings, he said, each has a different story to tell about the same events he tells in his story. I found this hysterical as I thought about a gathering of my cousins a few years ago where we told stories of our lives growing up together. We not only remembered different events, but we remembered them totally differently. Sometimes I wondered if we were really all living in the same place at the same time.

So, it is all an illusion, this world of thoughts. But don’t despair. Thoughts are good and helpful, especially the fun or sunny ones. Even the dark ones can be stepping stones to deeper understanding of things. So don’t stop thinking. Just don’t be fooled into believing that they are the same as reality.

Surrender

I finished Paul Knitter’s book this morning: Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian. As I mentioned in a former blog, this is one book in which I underlined almost every sentence because I so identified with his experience. In the end he showed that his Buddha experience is one that focuses on one’s being, his Jesus experience on how that being is manifest in one’s living in the world. Knitter was a peace activist so his focus of being is Being Peace. And his doing is his involvement in trying to bring peace to the world through his relationships and through various involvements in the peace movement.

I’d like to add one thought to his wonderful presentation. As I have experienced becoming or awakening through the practices that our Buddhist brothers and sisters suggest, I have also experienced a surrender that I have not been able to achieve through any practices offered to me throughout my Christian upbringing. I am learning to surrender “in the moment”, paying attention to leadings that come as a whisper, sometimes barely sensed. There may com as shift in direction as I walk through my day. I may be called to go where I’d not planned to go or go where I’d planned but find a totally different experience than I’d thought.  Chance encounters. Traffic jams. Detours.  A call to serve that makes me have to drop other plans for the day.  I pay attention to all invitations knowing that God’s will for me may be hidden in there somewhere.

I have also learned to surrender outcomes and having to know the why’s of things. Last week I found myself helping a woman who has no car and needed to get to Best Buy to get a new phone and then who spent 45 minutes sitting in my car trying to get it activated using my phone. As we sat, I was aware that I would likely be late for a gathering with other friends. A call from my daughter to do her a favor and the gathering was off my list of things to do altogether. But I knew, I really did, that this was a whisper from God that I could either surrender to or resist.

The Bigger They Are

I wrote yesterday about waking up. The waking up I was referring to is awareness…awareness of myself and what I am thinking and feeling, of my life and how it has impacted me. I was referring to my awareness of all that is going on around me right now…observing, noticing, sensing. Living in the moment. Consciousness. In the words of yesterday’s blog, those who are asleep are those who are not aware. These are people living primarily in their own heads. They are thinking and feeling, but they assume that what they think and feel is real. If I see a person agitated, my thought might be that this person is agitated at me because I didn’t prepare his eggs just right. This may seem reality, but the person may be agitated because he had a poor night’s sleep and has a big project ahead today. What the person is really agitated about is real. What I am thinking is fantasy, something I am making up in my own head.

An awake person is one who knows that they only know what they know. I cannot accurately know what another person is feeling or thinking unless they tell me. I might guess and my guess may be close to the truth, but it is still my guess. I might ask them the reason for their agitation. If they tell me their eggs are too hard, I can fix that. If it is the loss of sleep and a big day ahead, I can offer to assist them. But I cannot change their feelings. Over that I am helpless. Awake persons know that they cannot control others, only themselves.

I don’t know exactly what sparked these thoughts. I was thinking about the phrase “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Yesterday I suggested that for some people to wake up, it takes an event that is really dramatic. I think this phrase is referring to the ego. Recovering people often talk about the ego as that part of me that thinks only of me. My feelings are important, more so than anyone else’s. My agenda usurps anyone else’s agenda. My idea about the causes and effects of things are the accurate ideas. What I believe to be real is real. We have words to describe such people. Egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, drama queen (or king) are a few.

The Buddha sat under a tree one day, as the story goes, and he “woke up”. He woke up out of his dream state that he realized he’d been in since the day he was born. Buddhism, the religion that his followers created after him, is about waking up, seeing life as life is, stepping away from the fantasy world I have created.

“The bigger they are” refers to the bigness of the dream, how deeply have we bought into the dream are creating. A good thing to notice is how angry we get when someone disagrees with us. Very angry…BIG! A little annoyed…not so big. Not annoyed…awake.

“The harder they fall” refers to the bigness of what it takes for a person to let go of their mistaken beliefs. If you ask people in recovery from any kind of addiction, they can tell you stories about big falls. But they are not alone.

One thing I know is that when it comes to waking up, a hard fall can be the best thing that can happen.

Karma

Befitting a book on Buddhist meditation, Pema Chodron has a chapter in Turning the Mind into an Ally on Karma. Most of us are familiar with the idea of Karma. We think of it as consequences or cause and effect. When we do good things, good things happen. When we do bad things, bad things happen. Chodron suggested that Karma is much broader and more inclusive than our little minded sense that when I do something good or bad this will have a good or bad effect upon me. He sees that the suffering we experience is a consequence of not just our behavior, but the behaviors of our fellow human beings who inhabit the earth with us as well as those who have came before us. We don’t operate in a vacuum.

This idea is both disconcerting and comforting. The comforting part is that I don’t have to take the blame for all the bad that happens in my life. The disconcerting part is that I don’t have as much control over the events of my life as I’d thought. Just altering my own behaviors won’t necessarily eliminate my suffering or the sufferings of others. Nevertheless, I can do my part by examining my own behaviors and making more loving choices. It is a start at changing the world.

And I would add that good behavior begins with good attitude. That is something I can work on every day beginning when I wake up in the morning. Today, I will choose love in each encounter. May the outcome of my actions bring peace and joy for myself and others.

Fishing for God

Another blank-mind day. My mind isn’t really blank. I just don’t know that I want to put in my blog what it is entertaining.

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Someone told me recently that Buddha is the master of the mind and Jesus is the master of the heart. I liked that idea a lot. I have been drawn to Buddhism for what it does for the mind – clear it of the crap. Is that crass? Well, it is what it is. I don’t have a problem with using the mind. Thinking is good. But I have this sense that all of the really good ideas come from some place other than out of our own heads. I often feel like I catch them rather than create them. When I was a little girl, my dad would tell me that if I have my bait ready on the hook attached to the line hanging from my pole and I sit very quiet and still, I just might catch the fish passing by. I don’t have to think about it, I just have to be ready to pull it in when it takes the bait. Meditation, or sacred listening, is like that. If my brain is too busy with thoughts of my own, I won’t catch the divine thoughts swimming around.

I’ve heard people say that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening. As I sit in meditation and I start to have some kind of inner conversation with myself, I remember my father’s admonition: sit very still, be quiet, and wait. I haven’t really had the experience some people tell me about which is that they hear God’s message as they meditate. The message of God usually comes later for me. It comes when I least expect it, most often in the words of a person I encounter or in those written in a book or sung in a song. It comes in the metaphors in nature and in the objects I handle throughout the day. It comes with the interruptions in my day, which I call surprises if my attitude is right. It comes when I set out to help someone and find that I am the one being helped. It only comes, though, if I have dropped my bait in the water and I am ready to pull it in when the fish bites.

So, meditation is beneficial to me, it seems. As for the other part, Jesus and the heart, that is still a mystery to me. But I suspect that it is mystery because I try to understand it with my mind which is the problem, of course…which is why I meditate.