Sunday, June 19, 2011

Uncommon Wisdom

My Dad was, and remains, one of my most honored teachers in this life. 
I am still learning from his example. (Above: Me, age 4, with my Daddy.)

Although my Dad offered many sage words throughout the years—“Never let your health insurance lapse.” “Always buy a used car.” “Don’t put baby calves in a pen together because they’ll suck each others' ears.”—one lesson in particular stands out. 
   During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college I came home to work. Southwestern at Memphis, the small, liberal arts school I had chosen to attend, was expensive and I worked three jobs year-round to pay for tuition, room and board. My parents contributed all they could and I had grants and a small student loan, but even with financial aid, I had to come up with several thousand dollars—a huge amount at that time. While most of my friends vacationed at the beach, traveled abroad or attended their debutante coming-out parties, I juggled a schedule that gave me 60+ hours of work each week. One of my jobs was working for my Dad in his feed and farm supply store. 
  I worked at Uncle Jack's Feed & Farm Supply since age fourteen, when my Dad started the business. I started out writing up receipts, running the cash register, and sweeping the floors, but over the years, I learned quite a bit about feed and fertilizer and animal care. I could hoist a fifty-pound bag of sweet feed onto my shoulder and tote it out to a customer’s care “faster than a cat could lick behind it’s ear,” as my Dad liked to say. I didn't mind the work and I rather liked saving my money towards a worthy goal. I kept a sheet of paper tacked to the wall in my bedroom with the figure two-thousand dollars at that top. Each week, I filled in the amount I saved. It was gratifying to inch the ledger up, knowing I would return to that lovely campus with its classic stone buildings and slate-floored refectory in the fall.
   In mid-summer that year, I received a letter from the provost of the school. Room and board expenses were increasing by $500 a year. It might has well been five million in my mind. I didn't know how I could earn any more money. I ran the numbers again and again. Even with financial aid and my parents’ contribution, I would fall short of making the initial payment, which was due in September. 
  That afternoon I went to the feed store a little before my shift. I thought Dad was away, picking up a load of feed from the mill. Alone in the cool, dark store, I let out a frustrated scream and began to sob. 
   "What in the world happened?" shouted my Dad. Turned out, he was in the office. I neglected to see him behind the stacks of unfiled invoices, bags of Sevin dust, boxes of dog wormer and a hulking dog-tag making machine that he’d bought in an auction. (He swore would pay for itself "in no time.")
   I tried to quickly wipe my face and make up some excuse for my outburst. I knew my parents didn't have any more money to contribute to my education. They were retired, on a fixed income, and were already doing all they could to help me. I didn't want Dad to know that I was in over my head. I knew when I was accepted to this school that it would be a stretch. I told myself—and my parents—that “I would pay for it myself if I had to.” I was that determined to attend Southwestern, and yet, the reality was more stressful than I expected. But now the cat was out of the bag.
   “What’s the matter, baby girl,” he asked. I couldn't lie.
   “I...just...don’’!” I sobbed, barely getting the words out through my heaving breaths. 
   With five women in the house (I have three older sisters), Dad must have grown somewhat immune to feminine tears. He was able to deftly sidestep our hormonal tantrums, dating woes and the heartbreaks over not making cheerleader, but this problem fell directly into his court. It was financial, and he knew it was not going to be an easy fix. As I drew breath in, my hysteria was audible. I squeaked and wheezed and sniveled. 
   “Now, calm down,” Dad said, the way he might talk to a horse who had thrown a shoe. His tone pissed me off. I didn’t want to calm down! I wanted to scream and shout about how unfair it was that I had to work three jobs, one in a dusty old feed store for Chrissake, while my friends frolicked and perfected their tans at the Country Club. 
   “You don’t understand!” I shouted. “They’ve raised tuition! If I can’t find a way to make another five hundred dollars, I can’t go back to that school!” 
   A new flood of tears followed. Dad walked from the with a armload of merchandise and stood in front of me, placing cans of Shoo-Fly powder on the already crowded shelves. He took a deep breath and although my vision was obscured by the blur of my tears, I could feel his steely blue eyes on me. I had cried myself into a dither, and I was hiccupping, trying to catch my breath.
    “You... just... don’t... underst—” 
   “STOP IT!” Dad said, raising his voice. “Stop it, right now!” 
   His firm tone, not quite angry, but clearly annoyed, surprised me. My hiccups subsided, as if someone had sneaked up behind me and yelled, "Boo!"
    “Crying about it is not gonna help,” he continued. “Now cut that out! We’ll figure it out, but you’ve gotta stop that foolishness. You’re just making yourself sick, and that’s not helping anything.”
   I nodded my head and wiped my eyes. “Okay,” I said, chastened, and feeling oddly better. We hadn’t resolved anything. The same amount of money was due in about 45 days and I was short my goal, but Dad said the magic words, “We will figure it out,” and I believed him. 
   I went to the bathroom and blew my nose and splashed water on my face. On my way back through the storeroom I grabbed the push broom and got to work, sweeping out the store. Dad continued restocking the shelves with pinkeye oinment and udder balm, and we didn’t talk about my deficit again that day. "We’d figure it out," Dad said, and I knew we would.
  That fall, I moved into an off-campus apartment with a girlfriend and was able to save money on room and board by eating peanut butter sandwiches and walking four blocks to campus each day. I stayed at Southwestern for the duration and received my dipolma on schedule, without a hitch. 
   Although I learned a lot at on that college campus, for all the thousands spent on tuition and all the time spent studying Shakespeare and Chaucer, I gleaned more wisdom that day from my Dad. He taught me that when difficulties arise, we have two choices: We can scream and cry and allow irrational thought and emotion carry us down the rabbit hole and make us sick; or we shrug off set-backs, and choose to look for solutions, turning the problem over and over, like a Rubik's cube, until an answer arises. By the way, that’s Buddhist Practice. My Dad for his devotion to the Catholic Church was actually an excellent Buddhist. 
   Yes, I’m fortunate to have had a father who was wise and compassionate. And yes, on this Father's Day, and everyday, I miss him. He wasn’t perfect, but he gave me and my sisters a lot of good tools that continue to help us through this life. Among other things, he taught me how to run a business, how to file quarterly tax reports and maintain cash flow. More important, he demonstrated how, even in business transactions, one can extend loving-kindness and compassion. He treated every customer—whether he had a few scrawny chickens or a posh Quarter Horse ranch—with the same dignity and respect. Often, customers would ask Dad to extend credit for a bag of feed until their next payday. I can’t recall a single time Dad turned them away. He even if he knew he would not be repaid, he could not stand the thought of an animal going hungry. As it turned out, that old feedstore was the best classroom I ever attended. And my Dad—with his high school degree—was certainly my most learned professor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tiny Seed. Huge Lesson.

Jack and I traveled to my friend Janet's lake house last weekend. Her house is the perfect retreat, and the cool breeze coming off Watts Bar Dam is welcome relief from the south's thick, humidity. This trip; however, was made more poignant because it was an anniversary of sorts. A year ago I drove to Janet's lake house to ponder a very difficult decision that would change the course of many lives. As Jack and I made the four-hour drive last June, I had no idea what would transpire in the months to come, and had I known, I probably wouldn't have left the comfort of her pleasant home.
Sunset at Watts Bar Dam.
   This year, the drive zipped by. Jack and I sang to OutKast and David Bowie tunes and talked about Pokemon. Then he played his new Lego Harry Potter Nintendo game on his DSi while I listened to the news on NPR. In Chattanooga, weekend traffic slowed our pace and Jack grew restless. "How much longer, Mom?" he asked. "Do you want me to tell you a story?" I offered. "I heard this story called The Mustard Seed and I wanted to share it with you."
   The Mustard Seed is a Buddhist parable. (Apparently, Buddha—like Jesus—sometimes imparted his wisdom in parable form.) Jack picked up on the I've-got-an-important-lesson-to-impart-to-you tone in my voice. "Um, not now, Mom," he said. "Maybe later." He refocused on his DSi, where Harry Potter's battle against Lord Voldemort continued. By the time we wound our way through traffic, down Lookout Mountain and were speeding north up Interstate 40, we'd both forgotten about the story.
   The weather on the lake was ideal. Hot, but with those temporal breezes that make the warm sun bearable. Janet's two children played with Jack in the water near the dock most of the day and after dinner, they snuggled together, creating a fort in the upstairs loft. Around ten pm they finally exhausted themselves and their laughter grew quiet.
    I was just falling asleep when I heard a rumble outside. A storm was moving in, cooling the air and bringing much-needed rain. Then a glint of lightning flashed across the starless sky. The trees began to sway their leafy finery and, at last, heavy raindrops pinged the tin roof of the cabin. I snuggled in the soft sheets of the comfortable guest bed and listened for the inevitable: Jack padding downstairs, seeking comfort from the storm. He's old enough, of course, to not be afraid of a clap of thunder or a lightning bolt, but inclement weather provides an excuse to return to a time when he needed me more. I know the days are numbered when I can count on him to seek me out when thunder rumbles, and I thanked the stormy night for giving me this sweet gift.
   I closed my eyes and was just dozing off when I heard Jack say another soon-to-be-extinct phrase: "Mom? Will you tell me a story?"
   "A story?" I said. "What kind of story?"
   "The story you were going to tell me in the car," he answered.
    I smiled and set aside my own desire for sleep. Then I remembered that the story of The Mustard Seed was not exactly a comforting bedtime tale, but I was too drowsy to think up another tale.
   "More than two thousand years ago, in the time of Buddha, mustard was a very popular spice. It wasn't like the bright yellow stuff we put on hot dogs."
   "I hate hot dogs," Jack interrupted. "And I don't like mustard."
   "I know, I know," I said, "But many people do like it, and the point is that at that time two thousand years ago, everyone used mustard like we use salt and pepper, okay?"
   I felt Jack nod his head.
   "I'm telling you this because it's important to understand that everyone, rich or poor, at this period of time in India had mustard seeds into their homes, just as everyone has salt today," I continued. "So at this time, in a small village in India, a young mother was mourning the loss of her daughter. She was inconsolable because she loved the child so very much and she could not bear the pain. For months the mother sobbed, until one day, a neighbor took pity on her and told her a secret. 'You should seek out the Buddha,' the neighbor told her. 'Can he return my child to me?' the young mother asked. The neighbor looked at the woman and smiled. 'It is said that he knows the secret to end suffering.'
   So the young mother wiped the tears from her eyes and rushed off to find the Buddha. For the first time in months, she was filled with hope that she might be relieved from her despair. Why had she not thought of this before? Surely this wise, holy man could bring her child back to her. For days she traveled and finally she came to the village where the Buddha resided. Upon seeing him, she prostrated before him."
   "She pro-what?!" asked Jack. Well, at least I knew he was listening.
   "Prostrated. She knelt down before the Buddha as a sign of respect, and touched her forehead to the ground."
   "Oooh," said Jack. "Keep going. What happened next?"
   "Well, the young mother poured out her sorrow to the Buddha, explaining that her only child had passed from this life and she could not go on without her. The Buddha listened and nodded. 'Please, Master Buddha, it is said you know the way to end my suffering,' she said. 'Please help me! Can you bring my daughter back to me?' The Buddha smiled his beatific smile and took her hands in his, looking into her eyes. 'I can help you,' he said finally. 'But you must do exactly as I ask.' The mother agreed at once to follow the Buddha's instruction without question.
  'Very well,' said the Buddha. 'You must go to every single home in this village, and gather a single mustard seed from all those households who have not known death and experienced it's pain and loss. Bring me one mustard seed and I will restore your happiness.' 'Of course!' said the young mother. 'I will begin right away and return with what you request.' She clapped her hands thinking of how easy it would be to find a single mustard seed among all these homes in this large village. Surely it would not be long before she was reunited with her daughter, happy again. And so she set off, going from house to house, asking everyone she met if they had experienced the pain and loss of death.
   She knocked on dozens of doors that first day, and the answer was always the same. Some had lost a mother or father or grandfather or sibling. Others had lost a friend or cousin. Each day, the young mother continued on her task, and as the weeks went by, she had still not collected a single, tiny mustard seed. She went to grand homes and modest shacks, but the answer was always the same. No one she met could tell her that he or she had not known the pain of loss. On she continued, rising early each day and continuing until dark, walking from household to household asking the same question, and receiving the same answer, never collecting a mustard seed. After twelve months, she had visited each and every home and still she was empty handed. But in the process something miraculous happened. As she talked with mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles about their losses, she felt the sharp pain of her despair lessen. Often she found herself comforting the people with whom she spoke, sharing the story of her own precious loss. Finally, she returned to the Buddha.
   'Have you brought me a mustard seed?' he asked. 'No, Lord Buddha,' the young mother said. 'I have been to every home in this village and not one household has been spared the suffering of loss. I return to you with empty hands.' The Buddha looked into the woman's dry, clear eyes and smiled. 'What have you found?" he asked. 'Death touches all,' she said. 'But life continues on.' And with that realization, the young mother felt a sense of peace and resilience. She returned to her own home empty handed, but with heart full. By setting aside her own pain and considering the suffering of others, she found her cure: loving-kindness and compassion...'
   As my voice trailed off, I heard Jack's gentle, even breathing. The thunder had subsided, and the downpour, gentled. I closed my eyes to find sleep, but before I could drift off, Jack stirred. "That was a good story, Mom," he whispered.
   Over the past twelve months, I've often looked for the simple solution, the simple fix to my problems. And like the mother in Buddha's parable, in seeking the answer, I've found solace. The quest has been enough to get me through.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sit. Stay. Heal.

After almost a year of trial and error, I've finally accomplished a feat central to Buddhist Practice: I've learned to meditate. Before, just the word "meditation" was enough to make me squirm. The very thought of sitting for any length of time, doing nothing, thinking nothing, could send me running for the nearest exit. Then, I realized I was going at it all wrong. Let me be clear: I am not an expert in meditation or Buddhist Practice, for that matter. Yet, I've discovered a few of the "tricks," which those who are far more evolved and enlightened than I, might omit when providing meditative instruction—most likely because it seems so rudimentary to them. By Buddhist standards, I'm a baby, and as such, I take baby steps. Here's what I've learned.
   First, from the experts. Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who's studied and practiced Buddhism in India and Nepal since 1975. Her book Buddhism for Beginners is my essential primer. In it she defines mediation as "habituating ourselves to positive attitudes and correct perspective." Chodren provides wonderful instruction for basic meditative practice on her website. (Gotta love 21st century Buddhist nuns who are into the digital world.)  She describes two basic forms of meditation: stabilizing and analytical.
   According to Chodron, "stabilizing meditation (the type I practice) is focusing our minds on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enables us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not worry so much." Chodren does prescribe that one study meditation with a teacher, and certainly if you want to get into analytical contemplation, such as a mediation on emptiness or death, it really is a good idea to not go that alone. But basic meditative practice can be accomplished without a lot of muss and fuss.

   Meditation is central to Buddhist Practice, but not because we are trying to levitate off the floor, or clear our minds of all thought, or drain our egos to nothingness. Rather, it is a discipline of the mind, which allows us to train ourselves to "sit" with our thoughts, both difficult and pleasant, and place them in proper context. In other words, we learn to not become carried away by our fears, emotions, anxieties or bliss so when we are not meditating it is easier to get past those vexing thoughts in everyday life. Like physical exercise, the more we do it, the more we build the muscle of our minds. And that has basis in neurology. (Don't believe me? See the link below about gray matter.)
   When meditating, thought appears, is acknowledged and then gently set aside. There are many ways to meditate, but the most common approach is to focus on one's breath when erosive thoughts arise. "Go back to the breath," is a common instruction in guided meditation. This reminder (hello! ya gotta breathe!) pulls the meditator out of whatever little fantasyland he is entertaining in his cinematic brain and back into the most basic function of the human body. 
   The idea is to sit, either on a floor cushion or in a chair (no, that is not cheating,) using relatively good posture, for a period of time. Most people start with ten or fifteen minutes and work their way up. 
 You sit and breathe, focusing on your breath whenever you find your mind wandering out the door. It bears repeating that the point of basic mediation is not to clear your mind of all thought. The point is to sit, relatively still, with those thoughts but not dwelling on them. For those sport-fishers out there, you can think of it as a catch and release system. It's really that easy. The hard part, for me and most novices, was keeping my ass on the floor for more than two minutes. Funny how resistant we become to the very thought of sitting with our thoughts. For months I tried to no avail. I would sit for about a minute and my to-do list would start wrestling for my attention. "Dirty dishes? Is that you calling me? Be right there!" 
   I finally got over myself. One night recently during Buddhist practice at Losel Maitri, I sat in meditation (with the group) and dipped for a second into that cognitive sweet spot. I'm not sure this is everyone's experience with meditation, but for one brief and shining moment, I believe I cleared my mind—either that or I ever-so-briefly nodded off to sleep, but I'm pretty sure it was the former. Akin to learning to ride a bike, once I felt that sense of peace, I felt sure I could do it again. And, like bike riding, it does require balance, mental balance that is, through placing aside all those pesky thoughts and chores and just let yourself relax into being. It's worth the effort.
   Most of the time I don't dip into that warm, peaceful ocean of the clear mind, but I finally got it and now I'm much more inclined to sit. In fact, I went from not being able to sit for 10 minutes, to sitting for 30 minutes without much effort. The trick is: Let the thoughts come. Don't fight them. Lean into them. Don't hold them. Don't fixate or ruminate, or start analyzing. Just see the thought, and let it go, like a helium balloon. Then focus back on your breath.
   Why should you meditate? Basically, it's good for you. Even if you have no desire at all to attain Buddhahood, meditation is excellent exercise for the brain. There's much scientific evidence that mediation provides relief from depression and anxiety. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MCBT), which uses meditative practice as its core therapeutic device, is practiced by many psychologists and therapists in the treatment of these disorders. And guess what? It works. There have been countless studies and applications of this type of secular therapy—which finds its roots in Buddhist practice, but does not prescribe it necessary to read one single Dharma book in order to find this mental exercise effective.
   One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto. In a paper published in the APA's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Segal and his colleagues found MCBT significantly reduced risk of relapse/recurrence of depression among patients with three or more episodes of depression. Zindel recently released findings that MBCT is on par with the use of antidepressants for the prevention of depression relapse. (Why take a drug when meditation provides the same benefit, and has no adverse side effects?) Likewise, earlier this year,  NPR reported that meditative practice has helped death-row inmates in an Alabama prison find peace with their (more recent) past lives and misdeeds.
   But MCBT and meditation isn't just for depression and anxiety. It's used to treat physical conditions such as high blood pressure and obesity. It's my theory meditation may even help children with Aspergers, ADHD and some types of autism—and there's some inroads in medical research that may prove me right. I also believe with some certainty that meditation can prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Yes, there's some evidence of that as well. In fact, a report was issued in April of this year illustrated via MRIs the effects of meditative practice among monks. In 2009 researchers at UCLA showed meditative practice increases gray matter in the brain.
   What more evidence do you need? Still, we are more reluctant to sit with our thoughts than we are to strap on a pair of running shoes or hit the gym on a regular basis. Inertia is a terrible thing, and there is irony in the fact that people who are depressed—and could most benefit from meditative practice, or consistent exercise, for that matter—are often plagued with the lack of energy and initiative to do so. It's a vicious cycle.
  Here's the good news: Meditation is not difficult. It requires no special equipment or membership. You just have to sit. A timer is nice to have because it keeps you from checking your watch every ten seconds. Other than that, you can meditate anytime, anywhere. And it's free. Why not give it a try?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Carrot

Quite often in life, things don't turn the way we hoped. As John Lennon famously said, "Life is what happens when we're busy making other plans." That's not just a cute euphemism shellacked onto a piece of wood with smiley faces and peace signs all around. We're a goal-oriented society. That's a good thing, unless we're too rigid in our goals to perceive that whatever the outcome, that's the goal.
   It takes a shift in perception to truly embrace Lennon's philosophy. That's where Buddhist practice comes in. What we think is the ultimate goal—the denouement of all our longings—is often just a means to some other, more distant ends. Often the "carrot" dangles before us, not so we can enjoy the crunchy goodness of that Vitamin A-laden veggie, but to entice us though a tough spot.
   Case in point. Last fall, I heard about a job opening at WBHM, the NPR affiliate in Birmingham, and I was down one full-time job at the time. I had freelanced for the station before I became an editor for Time. In fact, the stories I produced about healthcare helped land my editorial gig. Now I found myself spit out of corporate life, but with one foot still in that world. When my job was eliminated, I had been able to retain some editorial work on a contract basis. I knew that was not my bliss, but until I found another job, it seemed prudent to retain the income.
   Soon after I heard about the job, I was talking to my friend Emily in New York. She had just undergone a career change as well, and shared some advice she received from a life coach/career guru. "You have to think about what you want to do in five or ten years," Emily said. "But not like when you were twenty-five. Ask yourself, 'What do I see myself doing down the road?' and then aim for that." "Well, that's easy," I said. "I want to be a reporter for NPR." After I said it, I let those words sink in. I don't think I'd ever been so sure of anything in my life.
   That night, I woke up at 2 AM with a clear and definitive thought: If I want to reach my goal, I must resign the Time business altogether and put my full effort into becoming a journalist. As an editor, I was so involved in the day-to-day business of publishing a magazine, I couldn't focus on my own writing. It paid well, but the job required the full-time occupation of my mind. And, of course, I had other aspects of my life to contend with as well: Taking care of Jack, muddling through a divorce, trying to piece my personal life back together, all took up brainspace. If I was going to give myself the chance to truly become a writer, let alone write and produce stories for NPR, I had to clear my path. And that's just what I did. The next morning I sent an email to the Account Director at Time and let him know that we needed to talk about transitioning my work to another editor. I had to shift all my energy into preparing for that job.
  Stepping out on that limb wasn't easy, but then again, I knew it was the only way I could begin to focus on what was most important to me. Yes, I was scared, but I had my carrot—the job opening at WBHM—dangling before me. It seemed like fate. The job was posted on January 1 and I submitted my resume right away. The position would only pay about half of what I made as a freelance editor—this was public radio, after all—but for the first time in my career, the paycheck didn't matter. What mattered was I would be writing and reporting, and bringing to life stories that might not otherwise be told. I wanted to champion the underdog, the people who would not otherwise have a voice.
  Weeks went by and I felt like a nervous teenager waiting for the phone to ring before the big, spring prom. Finally, I did get a call and my interview time was slated for Valentine's Day. I was on a freelance assignment that day in Gulf Shores, reporting a story about the aftermath of the BP oil spill for WBHM. I took my interview call as I ate lunch in between my interviews with charter fishing boat captains and tourism specialists. The interview went well, but I realized that the successful candidate would most likely be chosen for his or her direct experience in the issues of education in Alabama, the beat this job specifically covered—and that was not my forte.
   After my interview, I drove down to Orange Beach for a ride-along with the city employee who's in charge of tar ball clean-up. As we bumped along the white sands, I realized how much I loved being out in the field, meeting new people and gathering up their stories to share. It wasn't lost on me that I was alone on Valentines Day, but it was perhaps the best day of hearts and roses I'd ever spent. I was in one of the places I loved most in the world, doing the work I definitely loved beyond all other work—and possibly, very soon, I'd be gainfully employed as a reporter. I'd take a day in the field over a box of Godiva's any day.
   The next week I found out that I didn't get the job. I let the news sink in. For months I had prayed and hoped and worked toward this goal, and it didn't pan out. For a few moments I felt stunned, but soon—more quickly than I would have ever suspected—I let the disappointment wash over me and then, it was gone.
   Yes, I hoped to get that job and further my career as a radio journalist (not to mention have a nice benefits package with insurance,) but in the process of shedding my former editorial skin to focus on writing and reporting, I was now actually doing the work. I had two Gulf Coast radio stories to produce, and other writing assignments, too. I didn't have a time to feel sorry for myself or wonder how I would make ends meet now that I no longer had the contract with Time. In the process of chasing that carrot, I started a new career and, after all, that's what the hoped-for job was all about.
  Often in life, the pursuit of a relationship, career, or other goal pulls us through to whatever comes next, which ultimately may be better for us than the original object of our desire. The lure of the WBHM job turned out to be a catalyst. Would I have walked away from that lucrative contract without that carrot dangling brightly before me? Probably not. And that's the beauty of the carrot, it looks so good that we pursue it, but then, we don't even have to take a bite to receive all its benefit—if we chose to perceive the value of the chase.