Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Unexpected Gift

I celebrated my 48th birthday last week. By all rights, it should have been a miserable, lonely day. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I are getting along okay, but it is less than ideal. I could have just written off the day as a bust, but fortunately with my new Buddhist practice, I am finding that perception is everything.

Knowing that I would not receive flowers, I bought myself a dozen multicolor roses. (And flowers teach impermanence. All things fade and die and there is beauty in every stage.) I also scheduled a full day for myself, beginning with a trip to the local day spa and ending with a chick flick with a friend, and in between, breakfast with my son, Jack, lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant and my annual GYN exam. No this last appointment was not my ideal birthday activity, but my doctor had an opening and I figured I might as well get it over with since I was taking the day off anyway.

So the day is going along nicely. I'm all relaxed from my facial, happy from my time with my son and sated by cheese dip, and it's on to my GYN appointment. 
In record time, I'm called back to the exam room. This is great! I might even have time to do a little birthday shopping before the movie. I skim past all the pregnant women and strike up a lively conversation with the nurse, who, as it turns out, is about my age and recently divorced and happy. The doctor arrives and I disrobe and now we're ready to get down to business. She begins performing the routine examine, starting with my breasts. And. Then. She. Stops. And says, "Have we noted this lump before?"
The world stops spinning on its silver axis. What’s that? Come again? 
She digs through the charts, but I know we have not recorded a pea-sized lump in my left breast since I’ve been coming to this practice. I had a benign, fibrous cyst ten years ago, and I tell the doctor (and myself) that this is what The Lump must be. The doctor smiles and says she wants me to get a sonogram and a mammogram today. She efficiently, and without alarm, strides down the hall to radiology and orders the tests. Obedient, I follow her down the hall, and take a seat to watch happy couples parade past to find out the sexes of their unborn children. I wait. I flip through a magazine, but, of course, the women's titles are filled with breast cancer survivor stories, and I really don't want to ingest that, so I close my eyes and try to meditate. 

For the next hour of my life I think about The Lump. I am faced, quite literally, with the inevitable. In truth, we all are walking around like ticking time bombs prone for some medical crisis, and there is a great argument for ignorance being bliss. My bliss has been greatly disturbed. It’s my f----g birthday! I’m getting divorced. I have a young son. Most of my girlfriends live in far-flung cities. And I'm a freelance writer without a real job.
I put down the magazines and close my eyes and let my mind reel through the possibilities. Among the alarm and panic, two definitive thoughts emerge: 1) I know that, should I succumb to cancer, I do not want to try to patch up my marriage, nor will I depend upon my ex-husband to take care of me—although I suspect that he would do it out of pity—he's a nice guy when he's not loathing me for leaving him; and 2) I am pissed because I just became inspired to write and, hopefully, become a reporter for NPR and I now I'm not going to get to do all that because I'll be too sick and weak from chemo—or worse.

And then the realization quietly settles in: Even faced with adversity, I must absolutely continue on. Despite the backwards way I arrived here, I am on the right path! That is huge, and very good to know on one’s birthday when all things are in do-over mode.

An hour later, by the time I am called back for the sonogram, I am calm. I am determined that no matter the outcome, I will be okay and I will find a way to stay the course. I disrobe and lay down on the table. To ease the tension, I joke with the sonographer, asking her let me know if The Lump is a boy or a girl. (She laughs.) I hold my breath while the she expertly scans the area of my breast and declares The Lump is indeed a cyst and is not solid or cancerous! She advises me to cut down on my caffeine intake. I kiss her. (On the cheek.) And before I know it, I am back on my path, driving to the cinema to to meet my friend for a matinee of Love and Other Drugs, which is awful, and confirms my suspicion that good writers are indeed hard to find, so maybe my talents will find a place. 

So, it was a great birthday, perhaps the best birthday I've ever had, and finding that clarity in a most-unlikely circumstance was truly the icing on the cake that I did not have. Bertolt Brecht has a more profound summation to my tale: Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On Taking the Buddhist Vows

Let me assure you, I don’t enter into this commitment lightly. Let me also assure that taking The Five Buddhist Vows or Precepts for Laypeople does not require that I shave my head, give away all my worldly possessions or wear saffron robes. What it does mean is that I am making a more formal commitment to living my life in accordance to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha.) 
Lama Tenzin Deshek, the teacher at the Loseli Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center in Birmingham, is selecting an auspicious day on which I should formally take my Vows. Did he seem just a little surprised when his student of just six months told him she was ready for this step? It was hard to tell. “The Vows for Laypeople?” he asked. Surely he didn’t think I wanted to become a Buddhist nun... (Click on the photo (right) to see the inside of the “temple” and to learn more about Lama Deshek.)
Here's what I know about the Five Precepts, and more generally, how Buddhism views the taking of Vows. Turns out Buddhism provides a lot of latitude about such things; in other words there is no shame in giving back one's vows at any given time. (Case in point: Robert Thurman, father of Uma.) You can take the vows for an hour or a day or for the rest of your life. Perhaps that goes to the whole sense of embracing impermanence: Everything changes, all the time. And yes, that is a little comforting that I can “give back” the vows if they don’t suit me, but frankly, the Vows are ones that I readily embrace. Well, four of them anyway. And you should also know that these Vows can and are interpreted differently among Buddhist sects and from translator to translator, so what I provide here is my understanding after speaking with Lama Deshek yesterday. The Vows serve a great purpose in Buddhist practice: they help you become more mindful of your thoughts, words, deeds and intentions.
Precept 1. No Killing
Okay, I’m good with this, even though it means no stomping on cockroaches, to which I have a visceral aversion—and next week I will be in San Antonio, where the beasties are the size of VWs and have wings. No killing; however; does not mean becoming vegetarian, although I don’t have a problem with that either, but yes, I am quite grateful to know that I can still have an occasional cheeseburger or a crisp, salty piece of bacon—as long as I did not cause the death of the cheeseburger or bacon.
Precept 2. No Stealing
Again, no problem here. Lama Deshek provided a very straightforward definition a'la Thou Shalt Not Steal, and there’s another interpretation from Thich Nath Hanh (www.plumvillage.com) that goes a bit above and beyond the taking of things that don’t belong to you. He includes a commitment to practicing generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. All good.
Precept 3. No Sexual Misconduct
Pretty much says it all, right? But Thich Nath Hanh adds this, specific:  you should determine not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment. Sounds Catholic to me. And yes, a big sigh of relief that Buddhism doesn't nix sex altogether—although monks are celibate—it only prohibits the misconduct part. Okay. I’m in.
Precept 4. No Lying
So now we’re four-for-four with Moses’ Big 10, but the sense of lying in Buddhism is a bit more general in its meaning. Again, from Thich Nath Hanh’s interpretation: you should be aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others. You should commit to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Now, that’s good! Lying to save the life of another person is okay too. And white lies, for examples, said to friend who asks you if her ass looks huge, are fine. It’s all about ending suffering, remember? And yes, we discussed this in Buddhist class yesterday. I’m not making it up! Oh, and along those lines, I specifically asked if continuing my son’s belief in Santa Claus was a problem, and was greatly relieved that the Buddha is down with Santa. Makes sense, but I had to ask. I have friends who sweat it out over “lying” to their kids about Santa for fear that it will set a bad precedent and, God forbid, cause their children to question other things down the road. Come on! It’s Santa!
Precept 5. No Intoxicants
This is where I falter. No Wassel at Christmas? So no champagne on New Year’s Eve? I don’t have to take all five vows. Buddhism, as I’ve mentioned before, is not an all-or-nothing gig. But I will vow to be very, very mindful of my intake of alcohol, lest I break Precept #3. And I’ll abstain from icy, straight-up, three-olive, Stoli martinis and salt-laced margaritas and other hard booze, and limit my intake to a cold cerveza or a nice glass of Malbec, or yes, a nice glass of champagne. Just one—and only under happy circumstances. And frankly, if my auspicious day lands after January 1, 2011, then I’m all in.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on Attachment and Expectation

Today is a glorious, sunny Sunday in the south. A bit chilly, to be sure, but it is late-November and it seems winter is finally settling in. Last week the trees were resplendent in their fall foliage, almost surreal in vibrant golds and reds, and now that season has passed, as quietly and quickly as it crept in.

We talk a lot in Buddhist practice about the transitory nature of all life, and the changing seasons provide us with excellent example. The study of impermanence is part of the mediations on death, which are essential to attaining freedom from attachment. Death and Attachment. Okay, maybe I'm biting off more than I can chew in one humble blog, so let me speak first of attachment, because understanding its nature is fundamental to all else in Buddhist practice, and it is one of the most difficult habits to transcend.

Thubten Chodron's Buddhism for Beginners defines attachment as follows:

Attachment is an attitude that exaggerates other people's good qualities or projects good qualities that aren't there and then clings to these people. With attachment, we care for others because they please us. With love, we want sentient beings (defined as beings with consciousness) to have happiness and its causes simply because they are living beings just like ourselves. When we are attached to others, we don't see them for who they are and thereby develop many expectations of them, thinking they should be like this and they should do that. Then, when they don't live up to what we thought they were or should be, we feel hurt, disillusioned and angry. When we love others, we don't expect anything in return. We accept people for who they are and try to help them, but we aren't concerned with how we'll benefit from the relationship. Real love isn't jealous, possessive or limited to just a few near and dear ones. Rather it's impartial and is felt for all beings.

That's quite a different take on the word than we hold in Western culture, where we tend to equate attachment to something or someone in terms of love—or it can mean a document or other electronic file sent along with an email. But the clinical definition of attachment, per my good friends at Wikipedia, goes to the attachment theory, which was pioneered by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the late 1960s and stated that a young child needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. (And for those of you, like me, who are thinking that the fact that this theory only surfaced in the latter part of the 20th century and that it had to come from a scientific study, and wasn't just common sense  is quite amazing, and perhaps very revealing since I—and many of you, I suspect—was raised during this decade. But that's a different blog altogether!) I'm parsing definitions now, but the point is this: When I hear the word attachment, my Western-side thinks good thing, but when coming to understand its Buddhist meaning, attachment begins to unfold with an entirely different connotation. And it's important to note this distinction because understanding the Nature of Attachment is central to all other Buddhist practice.

Attachment in the Buddhist sense is perhaps the answer as to why we have so many difficulties with relationships. Let's face it, it's why I'm here. 

I love Chodron's definition. (And for those Bible scholars out there, yes, there is some symmetry with Corinthians 13:4—and yes, I had to Google that, don't be too impressed.) But the first part is what hit me between the eyes: Attachment is an attitude that exaggerates other people's good qualities or projects good qualities that aren't there and then clings to these people. With attachment we care for others because they please us. Okay. Guilty as charged. I have certainly heaped attributes on others unduly, particularly in romantic relationships. I always thought that was a good thing. I thought I was seeing the good in those men. I wanted them to be my ideal but then I was very disappointed when they failed to meet my expectations. Oh, there's another good word: expectation. Buddhist practice espouses to end expectation. You should give love freely, without expectation of return. With expectation creeps in dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction breeds discontentment, and discontentment makes you feel, well, crappy. So there I sit with my attachments and expectation feeling miserable. And guess what? The other person didn't do a thing to harm me, but I feel miserable. I brought it upon myself. 

Remember how I said in my previous blog entry that Buddhism was all about ending suffering and the causes of suffering? Well, my friends, attachment is one of the main causes of suffering. And suffering in the mind is an affliction that the pharma industry banks on, quite literally. There are infinite pills you can take to end suffering, and I assure you none of them are sanctioned by the Dalai Lama. (And a note of disclaimer here: I realize that some people do have clinical depression, anxiety disorders and neurosis, and they probably should take a pill, as prescribed by his/her physician.) For me, the realization that I was the cause of much of my own mental strife was an enormous breakthrough. Not that I have attained total freedom from said suffering, but knowing the cause of a malady (aka diagnosis) is the first step to any meaningful recovery, right?

As I've stated before, sometimes it is in asking the right questions that we find, if not the answer, then at least some peace. So my question remains: How do I love without expectation or attachment? Is it enough to just love for love's sake? Is it possible to acknowledge that the feeling of warmth and compassion is just there without cause or motive? Can human beings possibly be that altruistic? I contend that it is possible and even easy to extend love and compassion to strangers, but it becomes so difficult when the relationship has history and presence and future. Therein lies the dilemma, and perhaps, the key. When we desire a future with someone, expectations creep in. And I know what you are saying, Isn't this where staying in the moment comes in? Don't Buddhists prescribe to live in the present, in the moment? Yes, yes they do. And that, my friends, is a blog for another day, because in this moment, I must get ready to go to Buddhist practice, the insights from which I will share with you soon. And yes, that is an expectation, but one that is realistic. Truly.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

X Marks the Spot: You Are Here

My journey started years ago, of course, so I can't say this is Day One of my Buddhist Practice any more than I can say I was born today. Here I am. Mark the spot.

Earlier this year, I found myself in a major personal crisis and I decided to end my 14 year marriage. Of course, the circumstances began long before I decided to end my marriage. And let me just say this now, I was married to a lovely man. Relationships are what they are. Sometimes they last an hour. Sometimes a day. Sometimes six months, or six years, or sixty years. All relationships are important for different reasons. Often, we don't realize the reasons until somewhere down the road, long after you've said good-bye and moved on. But I am very conscious of all the relationships in my life right now, both past and present, and I honor them all. I have learned and have grown from each and every one. The end of my marriage was a marker in time, to be sure, and it will be a measurement henceforth. That was before I was married. That happened when I was married. That happened after my divorce. Etc. This blog will follow my journey post-marriage.

Now back to the crisis that was already in progress...Crisis. Yes, that's the appropriate word for it. Defined as: Any unstable and dangerous social situation, especially one involving abrupt change. More loosely, it is a term meaning 'a test of time' or 'emergency event.' Thank you, Wikipedia, you are dead-on. I think that's all you need to know. And like any good crisis (not an oxymoron), it brought me to my senses in a number of ways. And it brought me back to an ancient practice that had appealed to me in the past, but for which I was not yet ready—until the Crisis occurred.

People often turn to religion when times are difficult. When someone receives a bad diagnosis, experiences a profound loss, or feels the effects of any tragedy, it's time to run to the nearest synagogue, cathedral or temple. I ran to the Buddhist Temple. And yes, there is a Buddhist Temple in Birmingham with a bonafide Tibetan Buddhist monk who studied at the Dalai Lama's temple in Tibet, no less. I am most fortunate. The temple is located in a nondescript suburban strip mall, behind a Starbucks. It is attended by a varying number of faithful practitioners and there are always new faces showing up on Sunday and Tuesday. Yes, we practice twice a week, just like good Baptists. And may I say now, I was raised Catholic and I have a great appreciation for the Catholic faith, but I never felt comfortable as an adult attending Catholic mass. I could never quite embrace the faith that my parents had in spades. That said, I find that Buddhist services are familiar to me because of the traditions in which I was raised. The incense. The candles. The icons. The chants. The prostrations. All very similar and comforting. That is important to any spiritual practice. You must feel at home within the community that the church, or mosque or temple provides. After years of struggling with my beliefs, I found myself very much at home in a community of people who openly acknowledge that, whereas they do not have all the answers, they have some very poignant questions. And it is in asking those questions that I am finding my way as a Southern Buddhist Catholic in Birmingham, Alabama.

For those not familiar, Buddhism is simply the practice of living a loving, compassionate life, of being fully aware of one's intentions in thought, word and action, and—most important—doing everything possible to end suffering for others and for oneself. Buddhism is not a religion. It has no deity. Buddha was a man—and yes, he was a real man, a prince, in fact—who lived 2,500 years ago. You can Google him to learn more. Buddha has good Google. Buddhism is the practice of the teachings of Buddha, who attained enlightenment and then chose to share his knowledge with all the world in an effort to end suffering and the causes of suffering. All suffering rises from three basic afflictions (or poisons) of the mind: attachment, ignorance and aversion. Those are the basics, and that is my interpretation, based on my current understanding, which, granted, is very rudimentary. It is in the practice of Buddhism that the real definition becomes evident. Anyone can practice Buddha's teachings, regardless of other religious affiliation or background. You don't have to give up being Jewish or Catholic or Baptist to practice Buddhism. In fact, it is a great complement to any spiritual belief or practice.

A lot of people get hung up on the afterlife, and understandably so. So let me just say this: Buddhism provides for reincarnation in the sense that the soul or spirit moves on, after the body fails, to another life. You don't become You in Life B, just as You are in Life A. The transference of spirit does not retain personality, but it does retain your karma, or the actions of your past life. So the goal is to lead a good, thoughtful, compassionate life so that when you are reborn in the next life, you will continue to move toward enlightenment, and not regress because of bad deeds. And the ultimate goal of enlightenment is not to just drift off into the ether, but to help end all suffering. There is no heaven or hell in Buddhism. There is only existence after existence, with the hope that each existence will be improved in accordance to the teachings of Buddha.

This is where my Crisis brought me, and I am happy to be here. I am now ready to up the ante, so to speak, and embrace the Five Buddhist Precepts or Vows. And this is where my life is going to get really interesting, my friends. So stay tuned. You know where I've been. You know where I am. Now, we'll find out where I am going.