Wednesday, December 29, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

My first home coming, November, 1962.
There was a legend about the stone house at 16110 Cantrell Road. As this story goes, it was once a honky-tonk, set out in the country beside the two-lane highway, three miles west of "Devil's Holler" on the outskirts of Little Rock. It was a watering hole where folks could go to grab a beer and settle in with friends. The house was only about 1200 square-feet and built of rocks indigenous to the countryside. My Dad purchased the property in 1952, or there-abouts, paying $11,000 for the home and six acres of land. The property, on the flood plain, had a small creek running through it.
   My mother told an alternate version of the story: The house was brand new when they bought it, no mention of being a juke joint. Of course, I liked the honky-tonk version. I like to imagine the people who visited there, singing songs and telling tales, while downing a pint or two. In my version of the legend, the house was dimly lit, pub-like, with a fire stoked in the hearth and a piano in the corner ready for a tipsy patron to pound out Happy Days Are Here Again or You Are My Sunshine. In my tale, at 2 a.m. when the place closed down for the night, revelers, reeking of beer, hickory smoke and tobacco, stumbled out into the brisk night air, climbed into their Packards and headed to their city homes, singing all the way.
   It doesn't matter which version of the legend is fact. What matters is that the rock house was the place I called home for more than 40 years. My parents resided there until October, 24, 2005, when my Dad had a heart attack and my Mom's dementia aggravated to the point that she held conversations with people and pets who were not there. It's easy to be sentimental now, but the truth was: I hated that house. It was drafty and cold in the winter; stuffy and hot in the summer. The plumbing never worked properly, the shower was a mere trickle. The house had only the one bathroom, and it was tiny even by 1950s standards. Compound the lack of square footage by the addition of four girls, and you can just imagine the fun times we had getting ready for school in the morning.
   One by one, we left this crowded nest and went off to college. I was the last, of course, being the baby by six years. Those last six years in the house, as the youngest-only child, were more tolerable (no offense to my sisters) simply because I had the bathroom all to myself, which gave me too much time to stare into the tarnished mirror over the lavatory, dreaming about what I would do when I graduated from high school as I put hot rollers in my hair, or applied way more make-up than any 16-year-old should wear on near-perfect skin.
My first Holy Communion, with my sister Gretchen
and (now) brother-in-law, Mike, 1971
   When I left for college, I was happy to be shed of that old house. Returning for holiday breaks, I was miserable and counted the hours until I could get back to Memphis. Likewise, that one long, hot summer I spent in Little Rock between freshman and sophomore years felt a prison sentence. My world had expanded and I couldn't fit myself back into the old house again.
   Since then, I've returned to the house a hundred times, but only for brief visits. The last of which was on Monday, and it will be the final one, too.
  When my parents grew too ill to remain in the house— Dad was 89 and Mom, 86, a remarkable feat that they remained independent for so long—my sisters and I removed everything of sentiment or value. The house remained untouched for about a year before thieves and vandals found their way in. They cleaned out what we had left—a form of recycling that's illegal but inevitable when you leave a house standing empty too long. It was disturbing to think of strangers riffling through the maple china cabinet that no one in my family cared to take, tossing out the J.F.K. commemorative plate and the old paper mache fruit before hoisting that piece of furniture out the broken back door. I imagine my Mom's wedding-present linens, stained with time from years of chocolate birthday cakes and holiday cranberry sauce, ended up on a card table at a roadside flea market, perhaps purchased by someone from Michigan or New Mexico, who thought they got a real deal on antique table clothes.
Sisters on the front porch (Dad in b-ground), 1995
   For the next few years, the house decomposed behind the hedge of holly and pine trees that my mother planted as a buffer from the growing traffic of the expanded highway. After all the valuables were taken, there were signs of what she would have called vagrants (most likely average teenagers) who were using the place to get away from their own homes to drink beer and smoke pot. We boarded the house up, but it only served to abate the trespassers temporarily. An empty house is fair game, it seems, and irresistible. By then, Mom had passed away, and it was only after Dad died that we began to talk in earnest about what to do with the old farm.
   Before Christmas, my eldest sister, Gretchen, called to tell me that the house had been razed. We had discussed developing the property last year after Dad passed away, so it wasn't a surprise, but Gretchen wanted to prepare me before I came to Little Rock for Christmas. To be honest, I was relieved. Many nights I lie awake thinking about the people who might break into the old house for nefarious reasons. Let's face it, the house was a meth lab waiting to happen. What if someone overdosed there? Not exactly the lasting legacy you want for your family homestead.

Remnants of my childhood home.
   I was in Little Rock for four days before I found my way out Cantrell Road to see the place. There, where the house once stood—where we celebrated Christmas' and birthdays and yelled and screamed and cried over good news and bad, where we were brought home as babies, and where we so blithely took our leave, one by one, as young adults—was a pile of rocks.
   I expected to see some sign that this had been a home—a copper wire or shard of ceramic plate—but there was nothing but cement and rock and dirt. In effect, the property had been returned to the way it looked more than sixty years ago, before it became our honky-tonk home. And in this moment, it occurred to me that I no longer had a home in Little Rock. In as many times as I left, vowing not to return (and I have not lived in Little Rock since that last fitful summer), I always had a home there—until now.
   Yes, when someone says home, that drafty, cramped stone house, will always come to mind, but home, it seems, is not a location on a map, nor where the heart is as the saying goes. Home is the place where your past is held—and that house held more of my past than any of the other fourteen different places I've dwelled since graduating college. Driving away from 16110 Cantrell Road, I realized that my Past is no longer contained by mortar and stone, but now resides in a renewed understanding of who I am and where I'm going, and in that way, I will always be home.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Refuge Taken

The Winter Solstice Moon pre-eclipse
Tuesday was an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar, and a most auspicious day for me. At 2:17 AM, a rare event occurred that has not been seen in 372 years: a total lunar eclipse coinciding with the winter solstice. And Tuesday, night Lama Deshek offered Refuge, Lay Precepts and Bodhicitta Vows.(Bodhicitta is the wish to attain enlightenment.) And yes, I took Refuge in the Buddhist vows. This means I've made a formal commitment to conducting myself mindfully with the intention of extending loving compassion to all, and ending suffering and the causes of suffering in others and myself. No lying, or stealing. No killing and no inappropriate sexual conduct. I'm also being more mindful of my drinking, though I didn't take the fifth vow--no intoxicants- just yet. (For a full description of the Vows, see my blog entry entitled appropriately On Taking Buddhist Vows.)
   Growing up Catholic, I lived by the Ten Commandments, and the Buddhist Precepts aren't so different, yet there's a lot to be said for making a commitment to living mindfully. I always thought I was a fairly good person, but after studying Buddhism, I realize I am often thoughtless and selfish, and these action could, potentially, harm others. Thankfully, I've caused more harm to myself than anyone else.
   Don't get me wrong, I think the Big 10 are great, even if the language is a bit antiquated. I memorized them dutifully in grade school and took inventory of my sins when it came time for confession. I imagine priests who hear First Confessions must have to suppress their laughter when the line of angelic second graders cues up for the first time to recant their evils. My biggest offense was under the category of Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, and later, taking the Name of the Lord in Vain. But whereas the commandments were literally cast in stone, the Buddhist Precepts are much more personalized and up to the practitioner to interpret and uphold. There is no God in Buddhism to absolve you of your sins, so if you transgress, you must make your own atonement. It's sort of like the honor code we had in college, but with next-life consequences instead of a trip to the Dean's office.
   For this reason, taking the Buddhist Vows is serious stuff to me, even though I believe I'm already pretty much living by them. As it was explained to me, when you promise to live by the Buddhist Precepts, you are taking refuge in the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and thereby you can sort of relax knowing that those parts of your life are covered—providing, of course, that you uphold the terms of the vows. 
   And I love that sense of refuge, shelter in the storm that is life, and being mindful in all ways of my actions and how they effect me and those around me. Taking refuge concedes that the world is a difficult place in which to live, and I need a safe place to go when things get a little too stressful. I need a place to touch ground, and feel secure, and that's what Buddhist Practice has become for me. I don't know that I will reach true enlightenment in this life—and isn't that a remarkable goal!—but every time I edge a little closer too it, I feel this distinct ding!—like the sound of a new email in my inboxthat validates I'm on the right path.
   On Tuesday, I was headed to my weekly therapy session and my therapist called to say she was doubled-booked and could I come an hour later. I felt that initial wave of disappointment (I really look forward to these weekly sessions, they've become another lifeline for me) and then a feeling of annoyance, since I had arranged my day, and Jack's, so I could be at the appointment on time. But I quickly recovered and said, sure, of course I could come later. I had errands to run, and thankfully, Jack was at a friend's house and a quick call to the parent (thanks Todd) assured me he could stay an hour longer. So instead of fuming and having the change ruin my day, I took some packages to Fed-Ex and then treated myself to lunch. 
   In honor of the auspicious day, I wore a Tibetan-style top that I bought for the Buddhist Temple's "gift shop" (it's a card table offering Dharma books and prayer beads for sale, along  with a rack of cute Free Tibet  t-shirts and mandarin collar tops and the like). A young waitress promptly took my order. She complimented me on my top and asked where I got it. When I told her about the Buddhist Temple she gave me a questioning look. "Sounds like a cool place to shop," she said "Well, yes," I said, kindly. "But it's also a cool place to practice Buddhism and meditate. There's even a real Buddhist monk from Tibet who teaches there." "Oh," she said, genuinely impressed. "I didn't know we had anything like that in Birmingham. So, are you a Buddhist?"  "Yes, well, I practice Buddhism," I said, smiling. "It's a way of living your life, being nice to everyone." "That's cool," she said. "Here's your menu." 
   As she walked away to get my chicken taco salad (and no, I don't have to become a vegetarian now), I felt really happy and contented. It's nice to know where you stand in the world, and to be able to explain your beliefs to a stranger is less than a dozen words. It's also comforting to have convictions—a road map, so to speak—that I can carry with me for the rest of my life. I'm not saying practicing Buddhism will be easy. But taking refuge will help. I practice Buddhism. It's a way of living life, being nice to everyone. What could be better than that?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sounds Like Christmas

Jack, (age: almost-3) on Christmas, 2004
Today we pack up the car and make the six-hour drive home for Christmas. It's been at least 10 years since I spent Christmas "at home", and by home I mean Little Rock, the town where I grew up and first began laying down words to paper.
   Since Jack was born, we've woken up on Christmas morning in our own house, but things being as they are this year, I thought it high time to reroute Santa and spend the holiday where it all started, so to speak. This is the year to create new traditions—or revisit old ones.
   And yes, this Christmas will be full of bittersweet memories—and I'm more of a semi-sweet gal. The house I grew up in is gone now, and my parents are no longer with us, but the Christmas' we shared still provide comfort and joy. How could I ever forget the site of Dad monkeying around beneath the freshly-cut-from-our-woods cedar tree, trying to get it to stand straight despite the fact the tree's trunk was severely osteoporic (and yes, I just coined that word.) And, of course, I cannot say the word Christmas without conjuring up the perfect, crispy sweetness of my Mom's fabulous sugar cookies.
   Four years ago, when it become painfully clear that my mother had succumbed to dementia, I wrote this essay for our local NPR station, WBHM. So today, I'm sharing this story via audio file as my Christmas card to you—and no, you will not be receiving a paper card in the mail this year, please get over it.  My Mother's Cookies, From Tapestry, WBHM December, 2006
   Safe travels to everyone who is going home for the holidays this week, and all the best to you who are already there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finding the Good

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth, 1802


Becoming a parent opens up windows of insight into our own childhoods.Whether your childhood was a happy one, or fraught with anxiety, as a parent you are allowed the ultimate do-over—and I'm not talking about the ability to finally justify buying the Barbie Dream House, complete with all accessories. When we have a child, we often vow to be better Moms and Dads than our parents were—even if we had great ones. Having a child often allows us to right wrongs and heal old wounds because, in raising our children, we are transported into childhood along with them. 
   But there's a lot more to it than nostalgia. Actually, neurology comes into play. The brain stores emotional memories, which erode grooves in our minds. From earliest childhood, we lay down tracks for how we perceive the world and record the emotions evoked by that perception. As adults, we play that record (or DVD) over and over again as we experience events that occur in our lives. When someone disappoints us as adults, we set down the needle on the exact spot where we experienced similar disappointment in childhood and play that familiar tune. Of course, many times those tunes are way off key, and they resonate very bad melodies in our heads, so we react to the situation much as we did when we were children, and that's probably not going to be a very compassionate melody. 
   I think the holiday season can be particularly difficult because, by it's very nature, it's often filled with strong memories and expectations from childhood. In other words, there were a lot of unharmonious grooves worn during Christmas' Past. 
   For example, last week I discovered I wasn't invited to a neighbor's Christmas party, and my mind immediate went back to second grade when Julie Kreth threw a party and didn't invite me. That was forty years ago, but I still distinctly remember the sting of being left out, the sorrow at the discovery of being snubbed, and the feelings of inadequacy that Julie didn't like me enough to include me. I can get myself quite worked up over it today—if I let myself. But with my new-found parenting eyes, I realize that Julie's parents may have limited her guest list. My omission for that list may not have been my friend's doing at all. Maybe I didn't rank in her top six best friends at the time, but that didn't mean I was a total outcast, which was the way my seven-year-old brain laid down the track. So this week, when I didn't make the Christmas party cut, I took in the knowledge that my neighbors have their own reasons for not including me—and these reasons have nothing to do with how much they value me as a friend. Sure I could play it up in my head that I'm being ostracized and make myself miserable, but rationally I know my neighbors like me and they are probably entertaining a group friends from work, who I wouldn't even know. I could create a lot of mental anguish if I let myself return to that old groove and play the all-time hit Poor Me, I've Been Left Out Again over and over in my head; or I can let those feeling go and, in effect, record over the old hurt with my new rationale.
   In the excellent book Buddha's Brain, Rick Hanson, PH.D. and Richard Mendius, MD, contend that by becoming aware of past hurt and its root in our psyche, we can circumvent dredging up pain by replacing those feelings with new, revisionist thinking. We can, in effect, rewire our childhood brains with our grown-up understanding of life and fresh perspective. One simple way to rewire the brain is to find the good in any given situation. Here's how it might play out.
 So I didn't get invited to the party, no problem. It's not a personal slight and now I can have the evening to relax and play cards with my son. Maybe I'll even tell him about the time I wasn't invited to Julie's party when I was his age, and how I know now that it was no big deal. And perhaps he'll handle that situation better than I did when he doesn't make the guest list for some future grade school soiree. 
   There is good to find in any circumstance. Don't believe me? Give it a try. Yes, it's the old sentiment of seeing the cup half-full; and it's not bogus. When you think of people around you who are happy and positive most of the time, it's because they are optimistic and choosing to find the good. The personal benefit of finding the good is two-fold: It provides immediate relief from potential anxieties; and it burns a new track over the old negative childhood response. For parents of young children, there's a third benefit as well: You can teach your kids this very valuable ability and thereby help them to set down good grooves from the get-go. Unlike the longed-for Barbie Dream House that will eventually end up as landfill, finding the good is an enduring gift because, when your children become adults, they won't be pulled down by negative tunes when things go wrong. Instead, they'll be happy and humming along to their own greatest hits.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Compassion: The Pause That Refreshes

Buddhist practice is about demonstrating compassion with the goal of ending suffering and the causes of suffering in the world. At first it might seem a lofty goal. For example, wars, natural disasters and terrorist threats all cause a lot of suffering, but what can we really do about those global events? Fortunately, or unfortunately, there's a lot of suffering that occurs in everyday life, close to home. We throw angry words at family members when they do something that disappoints us. We lash out at colleagues who miss a deadline or don't follow-through on a project to our liking. We ignore the email from a friend who is going through a tough time because we just don't want to become immersed in his problems, again. 
   It's a strange realization when you discover that your everyday actions—or lack thereof—may cause anguish in others, but it's even more shocking to discover that you cause a lot of suffering within yourself. Of course, it's far easier to identify actions that hurt other people, even if it's after the fact. It's much, much harder to be conscious of the hell you put yourself through everyday. 
  To be a compassionate person, you first must be compassionate to yourself. This doesn't mean just excusing your bad behavior or giving yourself a break from taking responsibility for your actions, but you cannot possibly be kind and loving to others if you are paralyzed with anxiety, guilt or despair. Being kind to oneself takes a lot of effort and it begins with understanding the root of the problems that vex you. Again, easier said than done, because often we don't truly understand the motivating or mitigating factors that cause anxiety and mental anguish in our lives. We may see what is on the surface, but delving deep into the origins of that pain can be difficult work. That's where Buddhist practice comes in. It's therapy, yes, but of a very directed nature which aims to replace negative and harmful thoughts and behaviors with positive, loving ones.
   Yesterday, Jack provided me with a wonderful example of self-created anguish. Since he's out of school for the holidays, I arranged for him to attend an afternoon camp. He played dodge ball for three hours. The camp was held in a gym about four blocks from our house, so I walked over to get him. He groaned when he saw that I hadn't brought the limo to pick him up, and he immediately began complaining of thirst. "Let's go back in the gym and get a drink of water," I suggested. "No!" he said stubbornly."I don't want water!" We walked a few more yards. "I'm so thirsty, Mom, I'm gonna die!" he said.  We were still near the gym so I suggested that we go back so he could get a drink from the water fountain. "No!" he said. "I want juice!" "Okay," I said, "We'll be home soon, and there's lots of juice there. It's only a few more blocks." He trudged along behind me for another block or two occasionally making sounds like a man crossing the Sahara without a canteen. At last I turned to him and said, "Son, if you were that thirsty, we could have gone back for water. But you decided that's not what you wanted. It was your choice to remain thirsty. Now you have two choices, you can forget about your thirst for the rest of the way home, or you can focus on it and make yourself miserable. Either way, we'll be home in about five minutes. It's up to you whether that five minutes is painful or pleasant." Then we walked past some houses decorated for Christmas and he became distracted—he chose pleasant. The whining stopped and we enjoyed the rest of the short walk home.
   Mental anguish is like this. We often think we need something or are lacking something or can't live without something and become so fixated on the deficit in our lives that we make ourselves miserable. We cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain. We are thirsty, but not just for anything that will quench our thirst. We want something sweet and satisfying—something that we don't have. That's what Buddhism calls craving or grasping. 
   When we are compassionate to ourselves, we take the time to talk to that child inside us and rationally explain the options: You can drive yourself crazy with anxiety and grasping over the things you don't have; or you can choose to focus on the good things all around you and take yourself to a place where you can feel better. Like Jack, instead of focusing on thirst for what you don't have, you can enjoy the journey until you get the refreshment you really need. And, believe it or not, that mindful action is the first step to ending a lot of strife in the world. Try it and see.
   

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happily Ever After Redefined

I've finally forgiven Walt Disney for his part in my dysfunctional love life. Years ago, I thought about suing Disney & Co. for filling my head with romantic ideals about love, but I knew I wouldn't get far with their legions of attorneys at the ready, so I dropped the case. To be fair, Disney didn't start the problems, those classic fairy tales—Cinderella and Snow White—had been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, but Disney perpetuated their romance by animating the tales, throwing major marketing budgets behind them, and then building an entire corporate empire off the proceeds. Disney knew a good storyline when he saw one, and in even in the 1930s when he first released Snow White, he saw what are now collectively known as the "Princess" tales would sure-fire box office hits for generations to come.
   I remember distinctly going to see Snow White at the movie theatre with my sisters. It was first released in 1937, but that was way before feature films went to DVD and cable within a year, so I guess it routinely made its way into the local box office. I recall watching the beautiful Snow serenading woodland creatures with the tune Someday My Prince Will Come, and I was hooked.
   Of course, we all know how that tale goes, and it's much the same story plot for Sleeping Beauty (released by Disney in 1959.) Pretty, rich girl is resented by her evil stepmom. Kindly caregivers—fairies or dwarves—whisk the kid away for safekeeping. All goes well until the girl comes of age and starts befriending woodland creatures, and then despite all attempts to stop the inevidetible, the heroine meets her fate, falls under an evil spell, and goes into a coma. The antidote? Something even House wouldn't deduce: The kiss of a handsome—not to mention powerful and wealthy—man.
   Okay, do I need to spell this out for you any further? Plenty of sociologists and psychologists have analyzed these fairytales to the nth degree, and feminists have torn them to shreds. Julia Roberts played the slutty version of Cinderella in the blockbuster Pretty Woman and her character even owned up to "wanting the fairy tale," which Richard Gere's character ultimately obliged by scaling her fire escape. We all know real life doesn't work this way, and yet...I admit, I have always been a hopeful romantic.
   In my version of the myth, however, Prince Charming doesn't swoop in and save me from the evils of the world, nor from certain death. Honestly, I've never wanted a man to just whisk me away from all strife and set me up in a McMansion. What I have longed for was someone who could challenge me to be a better, smarter person and be my traveling companion. Yes, at one point, I thought that I would meet a man, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. And in a way, that's what happened, but the difference between my imagined fairytale romance and my real life experience is that Prince Charming is a collective, not one solitary knight in shining armor.
   I realize now that each of my significant romantic relationships has nudged me into consciousness in one way or another, just as each travelled with me for whatever time we had together on our journey. Roads diverge, of course and sometimes, like now, we must part and go our separate ways, but it doesn't mean the time spent together was meaningless or a loss. It was what it was, and what it was is a significant part of my history and certainly informs my future. I marvel at friends who met their true-loves in high school or college, married and found themselves in a life-long commitment. I definitely see the advantage there. But that is not my lot. I'm not sure if my ex-husbands (for those counting this is number two—don't give me shit, okay) or ex-boyfriends (headcount? don't ask) would be quite so nostalgic or sentimental about our time together. I will never know. But I hope they look back and say, "Oh, yes, if not for our time together, I would not be enjoying the life I now lead." Truly.
   Marriage vows or no, sometimes couples just grow apart and can't grow back together. You can meet at a significant point in your lives when you both want the same things and are on similar paths, and travel a while together only to find that after a period of time, you want very different things. That doesn't mean that one person was wrong, or bad, or uncaring, it simply means the fundamental common ground that brought you together shifted and you can no longer continue together.
   Sure, I could beat myself up for making mistakes, for dating or marrying the "wrong guy," but I have to give myself some credit and give credit to the guys too. He wasn't wrong. I wasn't wrong. We just weren't meant to spend our entire lives together. These relationships were basically happy and loving—if even for a couple of months—and were not entirely negative experiences. Sure there were plenty of heartbreaks and tears along the way. Unrequited love is never fun, no matter which side of the equation you are on. Yet, I would not be in the place I am now, if not for the lessons I learned—some of them real eye-openers. Yes, just like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, each significant man in my life opened my eyes to greater possibility, even if that possibility did not include him.
   Of course, every good fairy tale ends on that definitive, positive note "and they all lived happily ever after," and I contend that still holds. We can all live happily ever after—just separately, and not under the same McMansion roof.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

And now, a word from our sponsor about karma...


Feeling anxious and tired? Can't lift your head off the pillow? Are you afraid your past lives are catching up to you? Well, now there's new and improved karma! It lifts and separates, it dices, it slices, it julienne fries. It does everything that old karma did, but better, faster and without those embarrassing underarm stains! Let's step back into the lab and see how karma really works...

Take a look at this example. This apple seed here is karma. You plant the appleseed today, but it may take seven years for the tree to bear fruit. When the tree does blossom and fruit does grow, it will certainly produce an apple—not a pumpkin or a potato or a cumquat. 

Karma acts in much the same way, but karma is not a tangible object. Karma is action—good, bad or indifferent. All conscious activity generates karma. And Karma is cause and effect. If we act in a manner that causes someone pain and suffering, then we create a karmic imprint of pain and suffering on our mindstreams. If we make the people around us feel loved and valued, we are creating positive imprints. It's that easy! 

So, how can I get more good karma in my life, you ask? 

Good question! And to answer, here's the Venerable Thubten Chodron with some thoughts on karma in your everyday life: 
Whatever we're doing, whatever situation we are in, we recognize that we are creating karma. When you go to work, you create karma. When you are with your family, you create karma. When we have this awareness, we are careful about what we say or do. We are mindful of what we think and feel. If we are aware that we have a negative emotion, a malicious attitude, or a greedy thought, we take time out to correct our way of thinking...This process of being aware and monitoring our mind, applying the antidote to negative emotions, enhancing our beneficial emotions and realistic attitudes - this is the practice of Dharma....If that's your thought - "I'm going to work to get money" - then those hours you spend at work are under the control of the self-centered attitude. All the hard work you do is done only for the happiness of this life - just to get money for yourself and your dear ones. It's done with greed. That doesn't mean you should not go to work. Rather, you should change your motivation for going to work. Instead of going to work with a greedy attitude that makes your work become negative karma, you change the way you think. You think, "True, I need to go to work because I need to make a living and survive in society and support my family. But I'm also going to work to offer service to others. I want my work to benefit society and the individuals whose lives are made better through my efforts at work." If you work in a factory, think, "We make things that are of use to people. I wish these people well. I'm working so that their lives will be happier." If you work in a service profession, think, "My work benefits other people. I want to contribute to society and the well being of the planet and that's why I'm going to work." Also think, "I'm going to work to benefit the people at my work place. I want my colleagues, boss or employees to be happy. By being cheerful, cooperative, and responsible, I will make their lives easier and more pleasant." If you expand the scope of your motivation, then the time you spend at work becomes Dharma practice.**

You see, you too can get more good karma in your life! Ready to get started? Try new and improved karma today!


Disclaimer: Karma carries a lifetime guarantee to follow you from this life into the next. 


** Source:



Postscript: For all you good Christians out there who are scratching your heads and thinking this concept sounds vaguely familiar—ie:"You shall reap what you sow."—but you just can't place it, let me help you out. Paul (the Apostle, not the Beatle) talks about karma in Galatians (6:7-8)—and yes, I googled it. The Biblical passage reads: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. For the record, I'm not so keen on this passage because it implies that sing-song sentiment, "What goes around comes around," which tends to mean if you do something shitty to someone, something equally shitty will happen to you— the Golden Rule played backwards, at 45 RPM. And it's usually evoked as a hope that something shitty happens to the person who did something shitty to you. And that type of thinking could generate some bad karma right there.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Easier Said Than Done...But Good To Know and Practice


This year, Jack is eight and it's an amazing, dare I say, "perfect" age. He is still an innocent, so full of love and sweetness and hope, and yet, his mind is shockingly astute. He possesses the ability to appreciate subtle humor and sarcasm—as well as the overt slapstick and gross-out jokes that all kids enjoy. We have real conversations now about life and death and everything in between. Not that these musings last more than a few minutes, but when they do happen, it's astounding. It's so easy to look at Jack and think That's my kid! He's got my nose, and my ability for math, and my stubborn streak. 
   But in truth, as Kahlil Gibran writes in his beautiful verse On Children, Jack is not mine anymore than the air is mine. Yes, we share DNA. I carried him into this world. I have nurtured and loved and cared for his every need since before he was born, but he does not belong to me. It's easy for parents to feel that their children are their possessions, but that is folly. It's easy for parents to heap all sorts of attachment on their children, too, and that is equally foolish. You can hope and pray that your child becomes a happy, successful person, and you can give them all the advantages in your power to help them turn out that way, but at the end of the day, they will become individuals beyond your reckoning. And although, yes, they need you now to provide them with food and shelter and love, all too soon will come a day when they do not need you at all. And that is the real gift that children provide us: The opportunity to love unconditionally. In case you've forgotten, here's an excerpt from Gibran's poem. It's beautiful, and says it all.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

   When Jack was born, it was—hands down—the happiest day of my life. I was filled with this undiluted joy when I first held him in my arms and saw his little face. And I did think That's my nose. That's my mouth, but I was also filled with awe, thinking, There is a new life on this earth and it's that the most remarkable thing ever, and how did I become so fortunate to have this experience?
   And after the awe waned, as the parent of a newborn, I was overcome by an almost paralyzing anxiety that washed over me when we were driving Jack home from the hospital that first time. It was not fear that I could not change the diaper on this tiny, squirming, yet seemingly fragile new life, rather, it was the overwhelming sense of dread that this beautiful baby could be taken from me in an instant. Having a child made me vulnerable in a way I had never been before: For the first time in my life, I really had something of value to lose. What if we were in a car wreck? What if Jack just stopped breathing? What if he suffocated under a pillow in our bed? What if he were taken from me?
   The instinct to protect our young is inherent in all mammals, but humans can get obsessed about it, just as we obsess about everything else. Of course, you cannot go through life paralyzed by fear of loss. Sure, you can take precautions to safeguard your children, but there comes a point where you just can't protect them from life. Slowly, I saw that Jack was resilient and hearty and he came with lots of autonomic reflexes built in—just as G.I. Joe came with Kung-Fu grip. At a point, I had to stop reading all the horror stories about SIDS and other horrific things that can happen, and just enjoy my baby. I can't tell you exactly how I let go of those fears, but I suspect it had something to do with self-preservation of my sanity, and the fact that babies are demanding. It's hard to be paralyzed with fear—or be or do anything else—when an infant is squalling at the top of their little lungs for food or a diaper change.
   Although we may not look at it this way, out of the gate, children seek their independence, just as baby sea turtles instinctively make their way from their warm sandy nest to the tenuous ocean's edge. There is no stopping them. Babies can't wait to get mobile, to rollover, to sit, to crawl, to stand, to walk, to run. And it all happens with amazing speed, really. Perhaps that's why parents sometimes try to slow the process down and end up heaping attachment or expectations on their children and weigh them down with the one thing that will stymie their growth: anxiety.
   Yes, anxiety. Anxiety is the fear of not being able to live up to what you perceive are expectations of you. In extreme circumstances, anxiety becomes a neurological disorder, which can manifest itself in many different ways, but this definition is a good, general one that sums it up nicely. The Venerable Thubten Chodron (whom I quote frequently) writes of anxiety in relation to Buddhist practice: Anxiety is very intricately related to self-centeredness. And this makes sense too, because anxiety stems from your perception of how the world effects you. And how easy it is for parents (me included) to make our children feel like they are the center of the universe because they are the center of our universe. Ah-ha! It's all coming together now, right?
   At some point, we must let our children go—hopefully sometime after they are fully potty trained, because if any sooner, that would just be disgusting—and become the individuals they are. Fortunately, this process happens slowly. And letting go of your child, as difficult as that might seem, makes life more pleasant for you as an individual, too.
   We feel so much for our children, but it's not fair to attribute our own hopes, fears and emotions to them. A friend recently told me that his two-year-old son was profoundly upset over the family's upcoming move because he would miss the old house. I thought for a moment, before gently reminding him that a two-year old—no matter how genius—could not possibly possess such a sophisticated sense of nostalgia, or even a sense of loss, over simply seeing belongings being relegated to boxes. I suspected my friend was anxious about the move himself, how it might effect his dear son, if it this the right move, etc., all the normal worries we have when we make a major change in our lives—or sign a 30-year mortgage. Doubtful that the son was plagued with anxiety over more than Where the hell is my favorite toy? Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps this child is uberkind incarnate, but I think it's a good example of how we, as parents, tend to project ourselves, our fears and concerns, onto our children, for good and for ill. So best to check those inclinations at the door, settle back and allow our children to feel and think whatever it is they will. For they will, you know, sooner or later.
   I'm not saying let them run wild, or stop brushing their teeth, or reading books, or doing their chores, or even allow them to pick their darling little noses. By letting go, we are simply taking the owness of expectation and attachment off of them. It's probably the greatest gift a parent can give a child: To love unconditionally, without need of anything in return. And the more remarkable part is this basic sense of unconditional love takes very little effort for most parents to accomplish with their children, it is just there. So, when thinking of Buddhist practice and how we strive to forego attachment and extend loving kindness and compassion to everyone, without expectation, this lovely parent-child relationship can become an example. And this is just a theory, but once you know how unconditional love feels it may be easier to extend that love out to others.
   You say, This sounds like an interesting theory, but can you really do it? Well, I think I'm on my way.

   When Jack entered first grade, I started a little experiment. Each day I walked him to school, all the way up to the door, holding his little hand. At the entrance of the school, I would kiss him on each cheek tell  him I loved him, and wish him a good day. The experiment was this: How long will it take for Jack to disallow me this pleasure of walking him all the way up to the school entrance, hand in hand?
   We got through first grade, no problem. Never a hesitation on Jack's part. In fact, there seemed to be insistence that we maintain our morning drop-off ritual.
   We got through second grade, almost. Although during the final week of school, one fine, warm morning, as we were walking up to the door, Jack spotted a friend and started chatting, and he dropped my hand. After a few steps, he turned to me and asked, Can I walk with Brady? Sure, I replied, and I felt a little tug on my heart.
  Then, during the first week of third grade, Jack turned to me and said After we cross the street, can I walk the rest of the way by myself? It's a block. A small city block—not a Manhattan block—with a sidewalk lined with tidy, old houses and well-kempt yards. I can see the crossing guard at the next corner, right in front of the school, and hordes of children and their parents are also in route. It's a safe block, as safe as any in this world. Sure, I replied, and I stood and watched him take off, running away from me and into his future.
  Yes, he is my son in temperament and spirit. He has my nose and my dipple in his cheek and the same silly sense of humor, but he is his own person, too. And thank God, we have at least another 10 years for us to let each other go.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Different Take on Seeking Hole-ness




I've marveled before about how amazing it is that there is a Buddhist Temple in Birmingham, Alabama—with a Lama from Tibet, no less—the only Tibetan in the entire state. But now I've made another discovery that is almost as holy and auspicious: Birmingham has the only Shipley Do-Nuts in all of Alabama.
   For those of you who've never heard of Shipley Do-Nuts, and/or think that I've just created an egregious typo, let me assure you that Shipley is a very worthy adversary to Krispy Kreme, and that is the way the word doughnut is spelled by many purveyors of the sugar-coated confection. On our recent trip to the rarified Alabama Shipley's, Jack astutely commented that do-nut was a misspelling, and he was right—by God, he has learned to spell, after all!—and wrong, because that short-hand has made it into popular culture. 
   If you’re keeping score, Shipley Do-Nuts was founded in 1936 in Houston, one year before Krispy Kreme got it's start in Winston-Salem. Over the decades, Krispy Kreme has out-stripped Shipley almost 3-to-1 in store expansion, with more than 630 locations around the globe. But the humble Shipley do-nut will always remain my favorite because that's the breakfast pastry my father brought home on very special Sunday mornings. Until recently, I thought the Shipley Do-Nuts on Cantrell Road in Little Rock was the only one in the world, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered a shop tucked away in an unassuming locale on Lorna Road, behind the coat factory outlet and near a Mexican sandwich shop. 
   There’s no fancy neon, or window through which you can watch the do-nuts on parade make their way through the glaze waterfall. Shipley’s do-nuts may be warm when you get them, but they do not pride themselves on serving ‘em hot. And yet another distinction of this pastry, is that they are shaped more like a hexagon than a circle. Jack and I conducted a taste test of Shipley v. Krispy Kreme and found the Shipley do-nut somewhat less sweet, and more chewy. First won over by the showmanship and the free paper hats, over the past few months of alternating between the slick Krispy Kreme shop and somewhat shabby Shipley bakery, I’ve managed to sway Jack to my way of thinking: Shipley is the superior confection. It was a coup as great as persuading my blue and orange-clad son to root for Alabama. (And those who do not live in the state or follow college football, you know the seriousness of this type of conversion.)
   It may sound odd to wax on about a breakfast treat, but rediscovering this delight, and sharing it with my son, was not dissimilar in importance to discovering the Buddhist temple here. Both provide comfort and sustenance in their way, and both provide pure joy—well, as long as the do-nuts are eaten in moderation. Finding a Shipley Do-Nuts in Birmingham allowed me to revisit a piece of my childhood. And as you may know—or not—I had a happy childhood. It wasn't perfect, but I was loved and well-cared for, and provided with a very good foundation that has served me well. 
   It seems so many people have had less that idyllic upbringings. Flannery O'Connor famously said Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. The wrongs visited upon children wreck havock upon their lives and send ripples out on all those lives around them as those children grow into adults, struggling to repair the damage done. Of all the evils in this world, the harming of a child must be the most sinister and unforgivable. So I do not take for granted the love and protection that was given me in my early days. There were times when I resented my parents for many trivial slights and inadequacies, but truly I was given a blessed existence. Okay, you get the point. 
   So finding the Shipley's Do-Nut franchise here in Birmingham was a bit of touching home, touching ground, rediscovering something familiar and comforting. The recipes are the same. The taste, sweet and chewy. Flakes of glaze fall to the floor as you take a bite. And one bite reminds me just how lucky I am, too, to share this tradition with my dear son, who now has a lovely memory of the smell of fresh baked donuts and a ritual of Saturday morning taste tests between Shipley and Krispy Kreme.
   Thinking again on O'Connor's quotation, perhaps it does apply to me, but in an upside down way, for my pleasant survival of childhood gave me the tools to appreciate the small things life, and surely that is a gift that will last the rest of my days. I hope so, at least.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the Rebound

You may think I’m fickle, but within thirty-six hours of my very emotional break-up with Earthlink, a new provider just moved into my apartment. I know what you’re thinking, “Give yourself some time! Don’t jump into a new relationship too quickly! You need to figure out what’s really important to you before making another commitment.” Yes, yes, I know. But let’s face it, there are some things a girl just cannot live without, and DSL access is one of them. 
   I asked around and a friend of a friend told me about Charter, and how he was good and fairly reliable and actually answered his phone, even called back when he said he would—all the things a girl wants. (Okay, my bar is set pretty low at this point, I admit.) I thought, what the heck? Time to get back on the horse. I can’t mourn the loss of Earthlink forever. I need to find a new DSL provider while I’m still young. Then I did what my mother told me never to do: I made the first move, and gave him a call. 
   I admit, I was nervous at first. I felt a bit vulnerable putting myself out there. It’s been 14 years since I’ve been seduced by a new Internet provider and a lot has changed since then. But I put aside my fears, swallowed my pride, and dialed the number. 
   Within minutes I was talking to Charter, and he was actually in my time zone. It so refreshing!  After all these years of being taken for granted, and yes, even abused, I felt wanted and desirable again. He made me remember what it was like to feel happy. When Charter began purring about all the things he could do for me, a giddy sense of pure joy washed over me. He was so much easier to talk to than my Ex. Why did I stay with that clown for so long? I know it sounds crazy, but all Charter had to say was “I’ll provide you 16MB” and “We’ll install within 24-hours” and I was head over heels. Well, he had me at 16 MB. 
   If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t make a long-term commitment to Charter—yet. We’re on a month-to-month basis. If he doesn’t treat me right, or live up to my ideals—he’s out. But I have a good feeling about him. He just seems nice and caring and responsive. So, we’ll see.
   Oh, and wouldn’t you know that as soon as I hooked up with Charter, Earthlink called to say he wanted me back. Yes! Isn’t that just the way? Truth be told, I called him to tell him that I was returning his modem since I wouldn’t be needing it anymore ( it was just too painful to look at it after all that happened) and would he kindly provide me with his address—because I didn’t even know where he lived now. I guess that made our breakup a little too real for Earthlink because he got all, “Oh, let me see if there’s some way we can work this out. We’ve been together for so long, we hate to lose you.”  But I was strong. You would have been proud of me. “No,” I said, “I can’t go back to you after everything you put me through. I’m sorry, but it was just too painful. I’m over you now.”* Then he offered me dial-up! Dial-up! Were we back in 1995? That’s the best he had to offer, so I thanked him again and wished him well, and after confirming that I would be reimbursed for the unnecessary new modem he sent me, I said so long. 
   Today my Charter moved in, and I am already so much happier. Just having him here makes me smile. It’s not that he makes me happy, it’s that I am happy and having him—and everyone out there in Internet Land—to share my happiness with, gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. With him, I feel alive and connected again. And isn’t that what good relationships should be? Validation that you are not alone in the world. 


* I really said this to the Earthlink representative, honest.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The End of the Line

It has happened. Just when I thought there was nothing more I could lose, nothing more I could possibly give up or change in this do-over life I am leading, it happened: Earthlink broke up with me. Yes, I was dumped by my DSL provider.
    I met Earthlink fourteen years ago when I was young and just starting out as a freelance writer. He called himself Mindspring then and he was cool and hip and fast and easy. I was naive and impressionable and I had needs. And there was Mindspring, so strong and capable and full of all the bandwidth I required. We hit it off immediately. I turned him on and we went at it 24/7. I fell in love with my Internet connection, and I thought he loved me. Sure he had others, but I knew I was special because I was one of his firsts. When I chose a personal email address, I didn't even have to add numbers. I took his last name and became brigid@mindspring.com. We were so, so very good together.
   Mindspring was there when I started my first business. He helped me every step of the way. Truly, I could not have done it without him. He was my lifeline. My connection to the world. My everything. I would rise each day, so happy to see him. The honeymoon lasted for years. I turned him on each morning, and I would end each day, gently turning him off. He delivered my mail and important information. He was my confidante, my friend. I trusted him with the darkest secrets of my hard drive. And he seemed so happy with me! I believed he would always be there.
   When Mindspring changed his name to Earthlink, I didn't mind. I was committed to him. Names didn't matter. It was all about what he did for me, and how he made me feel. But, looking back now, I know that's when the problems began. He started becoming cold and indifferent to my desires. As he grew more successful, he became too busy to give me personal attention. But I was patient, and went right on using him, ignoring the problems and the tension that was building between us. Now, I see so clearly how we were growing apart, but at the time, I didn't want to believe it. I thought as long as I was loyal to him, we would be okay. We had a contract that was sacred—and besides, it renewed automatically each year.
   But as the years went by, our relationship continued to change. He became fickle and distant. He never answered his phone. When I had problems and needed to talk, he told me he preferred that I fill out a form online. I knew something was wrong, but I ignored it. I threw myself into my work and tried to tell myself that things would get better. It was just a phase. All relationships go through difficult times, right? We would get through it and be stronger.
   Around this time, I admit I was tempted by others who said they were faster or more reliable. Yes, I had eyes. And yes, I more than once I daydreamed about dumping Earthlink and running off with Yahoo or Verizon or AT&T, but something held me back. Maybe I was just in denial, but I tamped down my feelings of uncertainty and dissatisfaction, and remained faithful.
   When I moved to Birmingham, he moved with me. There was no question about it. By then I felt I needed him to sustain my very identity. I was brigid@mindspring.com. How would anyone find me if I left him and went off with another? No, I couldn't think of it. We had so much history together! And I thought, I hoped, we had a future.
   We rocked along for another six years, but we barely spoke to each other. We shared no intimacy. We were just going through the motions. He provided perfunctory service and I just got used to it—yes, I settled. When I moved into my apartment two months ago, he reluctantly came with me. I asked for assistance with the move, and he acted as though he hardly knew me. I hoped my new place and my new life would reignite our passion for each other, but it was too late and our connection grew weaker each day. For two more months, we existed like this, barely getting through the day, me frustrated, bewildered, hurting, and him totally indifferent to my needs. I felt trapped, but what could I do?
   Then last week, when I returned from a business trip, I discovered he was gone. He left without even writing me a note. I called to find out what had happened and got the run-around from his minions, who were—no doubt—covering for him. I found myself on the phone at 11 PM sobbing, Can someone please just tell me what the problem is? My connection is gone! We've been together for so long! Doesn't that mean anything to you?
   Finally, Earthlink sent his repair man, and that's when I learned the cold, hard truth. I was at the end of the line. Earthlink just didn't have the capacity to connect with me anymore. It wasn't me, it was him. Still I didn't want to believe it, and for the next week I lived on the hope that somehow, someway, our connection would be restored, and Earthlink and I would again enjoy the love we once shared. But, alas, it was not meant to be. Tonight, Earthlink had his representative call me and let me know that our relationship was over.

"We can no longer provide you with DSL service at your present address," he said.
"Are you breaking up with me?" I asked. "Is that what you're doing after all these years? Just come out and say it!"
"I am very sorry, Mam," he said. "But you are at the end of the line, and we are just not able to provide you service."
"So this is it? It's over?" I asked, incredulous.
"I guess so, Mam," he said.
[awkward pause]
"I'll miss you," I said. "You know, I really enjoyed being with you over the years."
"Okay, Mam," he said. "You will have to find a new provider for DSL service."
"Aren't you going to miss me, just a little?" I asked. "Aren't you just a little sorry to see me go?"
"Yes, Earthlink is sorry that we can no longer support you as a customer, Mam," he replied.
"Okay then," I said. "Well, it's been nice knowing you. And...I'll never forget you."
"Yes, Mam," he said. "Earthlink appreciates your business and good night."
"Good night," I said. "Good-bye."*

  So, it's time to move on. The writing is on the wall. But it's not easy leaving my old email address behind. I'll keep it for a while, to ensure I get messages. I know that somewhere in this great, big, wide world, there's another provider out there waiting for me—a better, faster, kinder provider who will surely love me and fulfill all my needs. And I will fall in love again, someday, although it's too soon to think of that now. But one day in the very near future, I'll find myself with a brand new email address and a blazing fast DSL connection, and he'll be everything I ever dreamed of and more—and maybe, if we are very lucky, we'll even grow old together.

*This conversation actually happened. To that dear customer service representative in India, please forgive my warped sense of humor. I meant you no disrespect. I don't think you really understood my analogy, and I hope that you are not still scratching your head as to why a woman in Birmingham, AL seemed so strangely emotional about being dumped by her DSL provider. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tootsie Roll Philosophy

I love parades. It wouldn't be the holidays without the annual Homewood Christmas Parade. The big event happened on Thursday night—a shift from the Saturday morning tradition, which we've enjoyed for the past seven years. By street light, the parade took on a more festive feel, the homemade floats looked grander, and somehow running around in the chilly night air seemed more befitting a holiday festival than the Christmas parades past when I was roused from warm covers to pile on layers before venturing out too early on a Saturday morning.
   This year was also different because instead of standing on the sidewalk grabbing up candy and prizes, Jack rode on a float as a member of a local Cub Scout troop. For the first time, he threw bright, shiny plastic beads to hungry onlookers below.
   I strode alongside his float for a while, scooping up stray beads and waving to Jack when I caught his eye. Did I feel conspicuous scrambling with the children for choice Nestle Crunch bars and Airheads? Just a little. But I was under strict orders from Jack to collect candy for him while he rode like a King on his float. (Okay, I enjoyed the scramble, and I promise I did not take candy from babies.) The bounty of Homewood, an idyllic in-town neighborhood if ever there was one, was made evident by the fact that after the floats floated by and the horde of kids gathered their share, there was still plenty of candy strewn on the ground. There was so much candy that children picked through it looking for "the good stuff" and left jaw breakers and peppermints for the street cleaners. We live a fortunate life.
   After the initial frenzy died down and I had secured enough sugar to satisfy the King, I strode the parade route enjoying the crowd.  It was then I spied a personal favorite treat: a perfectly wrapped, unmolested, extra large Tootsie Roll. It was lying just at the feet of a man who was taking pictures of his children. I approached the photographer and scooped the prize from his feet. Then I proffered the the candy to him on my outstretched palm, lest he think I was a candy poacher of the worst order. "Want a Tootsie Roll?" I asked. He smiled and shook his head. "All yours," he said. "Sometimes what you're looking for is right at your feet."
   I thanked him profusely as I pocketed the Tootsie Roll and his words. I love random wisdom from strangers just as much as I love parades.

Somedays I worry that in my do-over life I am grabbing for bright and shiny things that may be egotist and self-serving—delicious and sweet, but, ultimately, not really mine to own. In Buddhist practice this habit is called grasping. Humans are often bound up in futile grasping for superficial goods, success and relationships, which have no real intrinsic value in our lives, simply because we desire them. Buddhism teaches that when you stop grasping, give up attachment to ego and become aware your intentions, you learn to recognize the bona fide "good stuff." Then, and only then, there'll be no need to grasp, because the true gifts in life will be found right at your feet.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Buddhism: The New Xanax?

In Buddhist practice, we study the causes of suffering. Understanding the causes of physical suffering is easy. Comprehending what brings about the mental anguish that sends us spinning into bouts of anxiety, depression and even addiction—afflictions of the brain, all—is much, much more difficult, and yet, these forms of malaise are so prevalent and present in varying, often, subtle ways. In other words, the causes of mental suffering can be much more tricky to sleuth out.
    During the height of my Crisis, I was filled with the paralyzing sense of free-floating anxiety. One morning, when things were at their darkest, I awoke and quite literally did not know what to do with myself. It was a Saturday morning—the first with my husband gone—and the first time my routine was clearly altered. During the previous weeks my life had changed, but until this morning there was no outward distinction.
     On this morning it hit me: I was alone. I didn't want to remain married, but I hadn't counted on the fact that I would be—at this point in my life, after 14 years of marriage—alone. And yes, Jack was there with me, but in my mind, I was all alone. And it was Saturday. I couldn't just get up and throw myself into work. There were no conference calls to take or emails to return. I honestly didn't know how I would fill the day. I lay in bed, gazing at the hazy morning light that filtered through the French doors and tried to remember what is was that I normally did on Saturdays. I honestly had no idea.
    Fortunately, Jack appeared in my bedroom and announced that he was hungry. Waffles! I make waffles—from scratch—on the weekends. I stumbled out of bed, put feet to floor and walked to the kitchen. Preparing breakfast—with its measurements and pleasant aromas and rituals—helped, but only temporarily. Once that task was complete, I had to think of what would come next. Staring down the long, hot, lonely weekend, I felt desperate to fill each minute so as to block the thoughts of despair. (I was so pressed for ideas of what to do that weekend I took Jack roller skating, even though I had not been skating in decades, and Jack—poor thing—had never been. Oh, and we had fun.)
    In this manner, I stumbled through the weekend, and through the next week, and the next. But I was often overcome by self-doubt and with thoughts of regret and guilt. There were also times—often late at night—when I thought the feelings of panic and loneliness would consume me. If you have ever felt this way, then you know this is an incredibly disturbing state of mind to maintain.
   You'll be relieved to know that I was under the care of a very astute therapist, who, when I asked her about dispensing an anti-anxiety medication, promptly shut me down. I am grateful she saw in me the ability to overcome my anxiety through introspection and therapy. I was not clinically depressed nor suffering from anything more than the expected emotions one goes through when embarking on a divorce and major life upheaval. Riding it out was not easy, but I'm glad I did. And of course, my Buddhist study and my friends were the cornerstones of my recovery. We all know that friendship is an important balm, but Buddhism, as it turns out, is the new Xanax.*
   I'm not kidding. But before you sell all your Pfizer stock on my advice, let me assure you that this theory has been vetted by those who hold more than an BA in English. Researching this thread, I discovered a book entitled—appropriately—Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (Hanson, Mendius) published in 2009. Hanson, who has a PhD, and Mendius, a neurologist, explore the relationship between the mind and the brain, and theorize that mindful practice and meditation (aka Buddhism) can, in fact, enhance one's ability to increase the brain's levels of serotonin and dopamine. It makes sense because when you observe your thoughts and emotions in Buddhist practice, you head off feelings of anxiety, frustration and despair and replace them with a sense of understanding and compassion for yourself and others, and this generates a sensation of general well-being, and yes, even happiness. And of course, one of the goals of Buddhist practice is happiness.
   Anxiety and depression are caused by a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that, among other things, makes us feel good. It is generated in abundance through a number of naturally occurring circumstances (such as falling in love), by various foods (fatty foods such as shellfish, cheese and chocolate are all processed into dopamine in the brain) and through activities (aerobic activity is a great dopamine producer, and, not surprising, having sex is the best dopamine producing-activity around.) You literally need dopamine to move (lack of dopamine causes Parkinson's Disease). Dopamine drives you for good and ill. It is essential for decision making, happiness, survival, even sleep. Too much or too little dopamine; however, and you start experiencing problems. For example, a dopamine deficit can cause depression, lack of ambition and loss of sex drive. Too much dopamine, and you've tilted the other way into the land of anxiety, compulsion, risk-taking, sexual compulsion and aggression. (And too much or too little dopamine can trigger all sorts of addictions.) At normal levels, you're golden: happy, compassionate, loving, content and well-adjusted. In a word, you're a Buddha.
  Yes, Buddhist practice takes a commitment of time, and it means digging deep and grappling with your patterns and consciously changing your negative behavior. It takes work, and it can be unpleasant to take responsibility for one's own suffering and determine to stop reactions and behaviors that create that suffering—even when these actions are things that seem to, at least initially, produce a hell of a lot of feel-good dopamine.
   Yes, taking Xanax or other mood-altering pills may provide a practical and quick way to control the maladies of the mind, but unlike that little blue oval, Buddhism does not cause drowsiness, dizziness, memory loss, decreased alertness, nausea, constipation, blurred vision, nightmares or erectile disfunction. Oh, and Buddhism is not processed in the liver; however, like Xanax, mindful living can become habit-forming, but only in a good way.

* Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. If you are on Xanax or any RX for depression or anxiety, please, please, please talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your prescribed dosage. Even an English major knows this: You should never stop taking your meds without a doctor's supervision.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bedtime Stories

When you become a parent, you are allowed back into a world that you long ago left behind—that place of possibility, which I've mentioned in my previous entries. 
     One delicate way parents are reinitiated into that world is through the ritual of reading bedtime stories. I spend more time with children's books now than I do with The New Yorker or the latest novel. As Jack is now eight, we've happily moved into the realm of the chapter book. But I'm afraid that he will have to wait a while before we launch the Harry Potter series or other popular titles because, for now, I choose the stories I read at night. And, for now, he doesn't mind. 
     My favorite books are titles from my childhood: Charlotte's Web (E.B. White), The Borrowers (Mary Norton) and The Bitter Green of Willow (March Cost), an obscure, slender volume of short fiction given to me by my sister Mary when I was 10 years old. Reading these stories again as an adult is like picking them up for the first time. Reading aloud gives the stories more dimension because the language in each of these books is so beautiful and rich and filled with artful description. Often I find myself pausing as I read a sentence and rereading it again, each word so carefully plucked to fulfill its purpose in the tale. These are the books that taught me how to write, gave me my meter and even inspired some of the antiquated vocabulary I use today. 
   But there is one contemporary children's book that has made it into my all-time favorites: Zen Shorts (John Muth). Jack selected this book from the bookstore one day because its cover boasts a very large, very kind-looking Panda named Stillwater. This Panda is a Zen Master and he gently teaches three children Buddhist principles based on the everyday adventures they have together. (If you are looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a child, now you know what to buy.) There are three simple lessons in this book, each quite profound, but the one I like best is the retelling of an old Buddhist parable about the wise farmer. If you'll indulge me, I'll retell it here, because if you have not heard it, you should. (And if you want the full effect, read it aloud to yourself.)
   Once there was a wise farmer who lived with his son in a remote valley. Nearby lived a nosey neighbor who liked to take stock in all things. One day the farmer's prize stallion broke free from his stable and ran away. The neighbor, seeing that the horse was gone, went to console the farmer. "Oh, I am so very sorry," he said, "I see that your wonderful horse is gone. What bad luck for you, my friend!" The wise farmer smiled, shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Who is to say? Good luck or bad luck?" 
   The following day the stallion returned to the farm and brought with him six beautiful mares. Upon hearing their neighing, the neighbor ran to see what had happened. "My friend, you now have a herd of horses, what good luck for you!" he said. But the farmer just shrugged and said, "Who is to say? Is it good luck or bad luck? I do not know."
   Soon the farmer's son, in whom he relied to help him on the farm, determined to tame the most spirited and graceful mare. No sooner had he climbed on the horse's back than he was thrown to the ground, his leg broken. The neighbor, upon hearing the cries of the boy, came running over. "Oh, no!" he cried. "What bad, bad luck for you!" But as the farmer knelt to console the boy and he only replied, "Who is to say?"
   The next week, a war broke out in the neighboring land and soldiers came through the countryside consigning all the young men into the army. When they came to the wise farmer's home, they saw that his son was lame and therefore passed the boy over for service. After the soldiers departed, the neighbor came running over to see what had happened. "Oh, how fortunate you are my friend!" he said. "Your son has been spared from the war." The farmer simply shrugged. He thought to himself how his son might have been a good solider and protected many lives. "Good luck? Or bad luck?" he asked. "Who is to say?"


I've thought of this fable often over the past months as events in my life have unfolded. I see clearly now that some things which I originally perceived as tragedies—being laid off from my job last year or even the death of my father—have opened possibilities and given me strength that I never before fathomed. In the end, it is in our limited perception that we dub something good or bad. Buddhist practice provides no judgment, only an openness to see that within any life-altering event we have the ability to find the good. Buddhism also teaches that all things change. The prize that we hold dear today, may very well turn into our darkest nemesis tomorrow. And just as surely, that ill-fated circumstance may open up opportunity we never imagined. Who is to say?