Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Evil Ball

This year, Santa in His omnipotence left a bright blue Wilson tennis racket under the Christmas tree for Jack. My son never played before, but now on pleasant days you'll find us on the clay courts at the neighborhood park. Santa must have known Jack would have a knack for the sport—and he does. He will happily volley the ball for hours. 
   Although I've never taken a lesson, I love to play, and I've found myself slipping into the role of an offbeat,  Zen tennis coach.  I do not subscribe to the school of learning that insists on throwing babies into the pool to teach them to swim, but I always learn quicker by doing than by sitting on the sidelines. I'd rather play the game and figure it out than participate in mind-numbing drills, and Jack is the same way. I took the kid straight to the court and started hitting to him. I assumed he could hit the ball—and to my delight (and his), he could.
   At first, I praised him just for making contact. No matter that the ball soared thirty feet in the air or bounded over into the other (empty) tennis court, if he placed his racket in the proximity of the ball,  that was pretty darn good. He was so thrilled to make contact that he didn't mind when I showed him how to hold his racket, or how to hit the ball level and flush so as to send the ball in a horizontal direction rather than a vertical one. Pretty soon Jack was lobbing the ball over the net with regularity. After one particularly good, strong hit, I heard myself shout,"Awesome! I want you to remember how that felt and do that again!"
   I have no idea if this is a technique that coaches teach their students, but it makes sense to me. When you do something really, really right—even if by accident—if you can remember how it felt, then maybe you'll intuitively learn to enact that success again. Filled with new confidence, Jack grinned.
   "Okay, Mom!" he shouted, "Serve me another one."
   Moments like these are fleeting. The baby years are all about "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" but at ten, Jack's entering the age when he wants less and less to do with Mom. He and his buddies have hit the South Park phase where everything is an inside joke meant for boys only. And I know, for example, if I ask him, "Hey Jack wanna go hit some balls?" I'll receive a response worthy of Beavis and Butthead. Of course, girls are just as silly. I can recall sniggering about similar double entendre at his age.
    Likewise, being a typical 10-year old boy, there are plenty of times when Jack exhibits the sportsmanship of Andre Agassi. If he completely misses a ball or if he hits it wildly off the tip of his racket, he falls to the ground on his knees, sometimes feigning injury. (The first few times I was genuinely alarmed.) He spends more time on his knees sliding on the tennis court than Otis Nixon did heading into second base.* I encourage him to shake off these bad hits and keep playing, but sometimes he gets into the I-can't-do-anything-right-funk.
   The other night, after about forty-five minutes of volleying the ball back and forth, Jack became tired and repeatedly misjudged the ball, swinging his racket like a baseball bat, missing completely or hitting the ball into the side fence. After the third time he missed, he threw his racket down onto the court.
   "I hate that ball!" he yelled. "It's an evil tennis ball!"
   "Maybe we should call it a night," I said.
    "Noooo!" he cried
   He picked up his racket, retrieved the despicable ball and hit it hard. This time it took flight over the fence and landed in the grass across the street from the tennis courts. As it rolled out of sight Jack began to howl, "I lost my lucky ball!"
   I marveled at Jack's ability to go from aversion to attachment in record time. Now, the once-evil, lucky tennis ball was lost forever. Tears filled Jack's eyes, and his mouth trembled.
   "I'm a terrible tennis player!" he shouted. "And now my favorite ball is gone forever!"
   "Jack! I said sternly. "Calm down. Let's go find it."
    Jack and I exited the court through the gate and walked across the street. I was afraid the ball had rolled down a ditch, but it was in the grass like a prize Easter egg. Jack happily nabbed the ball. As we returned to the tennis courts, I stopped him outside the gate.
   "Wait a minute," I said. "I want to talk to you before we start playing again."
     I wanted to address Jack's overly dramatic behavior in a constructive way that would help him get over his funk.  I didn't want to make him feel worse. I remember feeling that same frustration with myself as a kid. If left unchecked it can ruin what was otherwise a nice experience or even sour you on trying again. How could I help him manage his frustration? It's moments like this when I stop and ask for divine inspiration, but before I could speak, Jack began to giggle. 
   "What's so funny?" I asked, slightly annoyed.
    "Mom!" Jack gasped. "Oh my God, look at that sign behind you!"
    There it was: A sign. A literal sign. It was, in fact the sign wired to the chain link fence surrounding the tennis courts. Originally it stated, "No Skate Boards or Scooters on the Tennis Courts," in black vinyl letters, but some clever vandal altered the message by extracting the top part of the capital "B" and placing it over the top of the "T" in tennis. .
   "Oh my God Mom! It says Pennis," Jack laughed.
   I started laughing too. Jack's funk was broken. After he got over the giggles, I knew what to say.
   "Jack, you're doing really well," I said. "There's no reason to act that way on the court. Okay?"
   "Okay, Mom," Jack said. 
  "Now do you think you can continue playing in a better mood?" I asked.
   "Yes!" he said, grinning. "Oh my God, I can't believe it says that!"
   "If you're tired, we should go home," I said. "But if you want to continue playing you need to shake off that mood."
   "Okay, Mom," he said.
   Jack ran back to his side of the court, and stood there waiting for me to serve.
   "Now, turn around three times!" I shouted. 
   'Why?" asked Jack.
    "It will help you get rid of your bad mood," I said.
   Jack complied. He slowly turned around one, two, three times.
   "Feel better?" I asked.
    Jack nodded.
   "Next time you get mad at yourself, shake it off like that,"I said.
 Then I took his lucky tennis ball and lobbed it lightly into his court. Jack adjusted his position, evenly swung his racket and solidly volleyed it back to me. The next time he missed, he turned around three times before he got back in position to receive my serve. I'm still not sure about my coaching abilities but someday, I might become a decent parent yet.
* For non-Atlanta Braves fans, Nixon shares the single game stolen base Major League record with 6 on June 16, 1991. He also holds the Atlanta Braves single season record for stolen bases with 72 in 1991. And yes, that is a random piece of baseball trivia that I pulled from my random knowledge of baseball. In fact, I was in the stands screaming my lungs out for many of those 1991 stolen bases. (1991 was the Braves' momentous "worst to first" season.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

WBT Tuesdays

Tuesday night is now known in my house as "Wendy's-Buddhist-Target" night. This is Jack's name for the evening that begins with chicken nuggets and often culminates in a shopping excursion, with a nice, hour-long Buddhist service in between. At first, Jack was skeptical about attending Buddhist services with me, but now he looks forward to it—and not just for the pre-service fast food or the promise of perusing our favorite Big Box store (Target is located near Losel Maitri.) My pagan son has created his own Buddhist ritual.
    Upon entering the dharma center, Jack slips off his sneakers without bothering to untie the laces and bounds in to the meditation room. As I'm placing our shoes neatly in the vestibule by the door, I hear Lama Deshek greet him with a salutation he reserves for Jack: "There's the happiest person I know!"
  Jack doesn't quite know what to make of the saffron-robed Tibetan monk, but I sense there's an understanding between them that doesn't require a lot of chit chat. By the time I enter the room, Jack is in the corner where the meditation cushions are kept, building a fort out of large, black pillows. He will happily play there throughout the hour-long dharma talk, prayer service and meditation.
   The first night Jack attended this service with me, he set up plastic soldiers along the pillows. As we sat in quiet meditation, I heard his whispers as he spoke commands to his troops. I was grateful the other meditators didn't seem to mind, but now he knows that when Lama Deshek is teaching or when the brass bell chimes signaling meditation time, he must be quiet. And every now and then as we pray, I hear his reedy voice trying to incant the Tibetan prayers. By the time the service ends and hot chia tea and cookies (Buddhist communion) are served, Jack has forgotten the Promised Land of Target, and begs for more a few more minutes when I announce that it's time for him to abandon his fort.   
   My son isn't exactly a Buddhist, but he does seem to have set aside his trepidations about shaving his head or learning Tibetan. In fact, the other day he hinted at a true sign of acceptance: He asked if his friend Nathan could come to Buddhist services with us. I'm not sure the Sangha of Losel Maitri is ready for two ten-year-old boys setting up a fort in the meditation pillows, but no doubt Lama Deshek would welcome them with the same loving greeting.

   The following is my favorite prayer from the Tuesday night service at Losel Maitri. It invokes a desire for patience and compassion through a shift in perspective about the way we judge others and experience life. He may not understand its meaning, but it is gratifying to know that when we say this prayer on Tuesday night Jack is quietly listening.

Eight Verses for Training the Mind 
by Langri Thangpa

With a determination to accomplish
The highest welfare for all sentient beings
Who surpass even a wish-granting jewel
I will learn to hold them supremely dear.

Whenever I associate with others I will learn
To think of myself as the lowest among all
And respectfully hold others to be supreme
From the very depths of my heart.

In all actions I will learn to search into my mind
And as soon as an afflictive emotion arises
Endangering myself and others
Will firmly face and avert it.

I will learn to cherish beings of bad nature
And those oppressed by strong sins and suffering
As if I had found a precious
Treasure very difficult to find.

When others out of jealousy treat me badly
With abuse, slander, and so on,
I will learn to take on all loss,
And offer victory to them.

When one whom I have benefited with great hope
Unreasonably hurts me very badly,
I will learn to view that person
As an excellent spiritual guide.

In short, I will learn to offer to everyone without exception
All help and happiness directly and indirectly
And respectfully take upon myself
All harm and suffering of my mothers.

I will learn to keep all these practices
Undefiled by the stains of the eight worldly conceptions
And by understanding all phenomena as like illusions
Be released from the bondage of attachment.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Buddhist Book Club: Shantideva

On Thursday before New Year's Eve, I left Jack at Aunt Betty's so I could run a few errands. I meant to go to Publix, but somehow I ended up in the Homewood Public Library. It's a lovely little branch that has a surprising selection of books on Buddhism. I generally rely on my book karma to place in my hands the volumes meant for me to read, and indeed my book karma held true. On the shelves I found a copy of Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva. I plucked the well-worn paperback from the shelf, and as I turned back its cover to examine the table of contents, the distinct aroma of incense floated from its pages. I knew I'd found something very special.
   I had heard of Shantideva and this book.  In The Way to Freedom, the Dalai Lama quotes heavily from this 1000-year-old text written by the renowned Indian scholar. If the DL quotes Shantideva, it's gotta be an honored teaching.
     There are copious introductions and appendixes, but Shantideva's teaching consists of ten chapters, each explaining the attributes required to attain Buddhahood, or to at least live a compassionate and serene life. A bodhisattva is generally any person who is motivated by great compassion to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the Mayhayana Buddhist tradition (which is what I practice), the end goal is not to reach enlightenment only to sit on a mountaintop and bliss-out in meditation. The objective is to attain enlightenment in order to return in human form to end the world's suffering and help others reach enlightenment too. On a gross-level, the way of a bodhisattva is the same sentiment as the Soldiers' Creed, "You never leave a man behind!" (And yes, I'm familiar with this phrase because it's one of my favorite lines in the Pixar movie Toy Story.) As long as one sentient (conscious) being is left in the Universe, the bodhisattva will not rest. A lofty goal, yes, but a beautiful one too.

   That night, I sat in my little meditation room and lit some incense to set the mood.Taking a deep breath, I randomly allowed the book to open to a spot of its comfort and choosing. Of course, the fragrant pages offered the perfect lesson for me: Patience.
   As I began to read the words aloud, I was delighted to discover that Shantideva was a poet! And the book was comprised of his wise and witty verse. The words were not foreign or difficult at all (thanks, I'm sure, to a fine translator.) In fact, when read aloud—as was surely its purpose when written—the verse takes on a Shakespearean lilt, although I don't think Shantideva composed in iambic pentameter. Here are the first verses in the chapter entitled Patience:

Good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
Or offerings to the blissful ones—
A single flash of anger shatters them.

No evil is there similar to anger,
No austerity to be compared with patience.
Steep yourself, therefore, in patience—
In all ways, urgently, with zeal.

Those tormented by the pain of anger
Will never know tranquility of mind—
Strangers they will be to every pleasure,
Sleep departs them, they can never rest.

Noble chieftains full of hate
Will be attacked and slain
By even those who look to them
For honors and possessions.

From family and friends estranged,
And shunned by those attracted by their bounty,
Men of anger have no joy,
Forsaken by all happiness and peace.

  And so Shantideva goes on for 134 verses, explaining how patience is not a passive sense of waiting, but an active shield against the afflictive emotion of anger. He expounds in vivid example how those who cause us anger or distress should indeed be blessed, because it is through them that we earn a stripe towards becoming bodhisattvas. Each of the other nine chapters are equally as beautiful and profound.
   It is a comfort when you stumble upon a work so old and yet still so relevant and accessible. And this sums up the beauty of Buddhist Practice: ancient, yet relevant and accessible.

As You Like It

One Saturday afternoon, as I divested the interior of my car of a week's worth of empty Capri Sun pouches and chia latte cups, Jack appeared on the deck urgently shouting, "Mom! Mom!"
   In the milliseconds that followed, I imagined smoke billowing from the basement, an armed robber busting through the front door and/or the toilet overflowing. I hurriedly extracted myself from the cramped backseat of my Honda.
   "Jack, are you okay? What is it? What's wrong?" I shouted.
    "North Carolina is up by three points!" he said, pushing his iTouch under my nose so I could see the score. Then he let out a little yelp and ran back into our not-on-fire-not-broken-into-toilets-are-working-properly house.
    In the state of Alabama it's heresy to admit this, but I am a football-agnostic. I believe there might be benefit to following Auburn or Alabama, but I'm just not comfortable with that belief until I can be shown definitive proof. Jack, however, was swept up in Cam Newton fever last winter and the thrill of seeing Auburn go all the way to the Championship was enough to christian him a die-hard fan. (He deftly shifted loyalties and backed the Tide at this year's BSC National Championship.)
    Throughout that afternoon, Jack apprised me of the game's progress, and I mustered as much enthusiasm as I could. I appreciate his interest in sports, but what's fascinating is his overwhelming need to share the play-by-play with me.
   It must be an inherent part of human nature to want to share our interests, ideas and experiences. The 750 million members of Facebook are proof positive of this burning desire. Since we've entered the Age of Instant Affirmation, everyone and—quite literally—their dog wants to share with their network of family and friends. We think (or hope) that someone out there will "Like" our posts and gain some insight, or at least a chuckle. And it is fun to read all the posts, and many of them are very funny, informative, even educational. 
   Of course, I'm right in there too, uploading my life for all to see. (And yes, this blog provides even more evidence of my compulsion to share.) Yet, usually the retelling of an event, or even a photo, is a pale comparison of the real deal. And most of my posts are mundane: "Look, I made a pumpkin pie!" or "Check out Jack's bowling score" or "Hey, I'm in Central Park eating a pretzel!" Why isn't it enough to simply experience something cool and wonderful and just enjoy it quietly by myself? Is this a matter of "I share there for I am"?
  A dear friend gave me a copy of Simple Abundance for Christmas and one reading talks of appreciating "everyday epiphanies—occasions on which we can experience the Sacred in the ordinary." This practice is central to living each day, taking in every nuance with the deep and sincere gratitude that it could be your last. But does sharing everyday epiphanies make them more poignant? And what if no one else Likes my epiphany? Do I require consensus to make something remarkable? I suppose this line of logic is akin to the old chestnut, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?" 
  One odd side effect of being single is having no one in particular with whom to share the epiphanies of my life. This morning, for example, as I read aloud a particularly beautiful and profound passage on impermanence, was it less beautiful and profound because there was no one there to enjoy it with me? The answer is no. If an inspiring verse is read aloud and no one is around to hear it, it is still profound. I Liked it, and it makes no difference if anyone else likes it or not.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No, No, After You...

If it's Saturday night, chances are Jack and his friend Nathan are hunkered down between the sofa cushions intently killing alien grunts in the latest XBox Halo release. The boys happily play for hours. After defeating the aliens, they will produce their own digital drama with Jack's iTouch or watch videos on YouTube for tips on how to win at Pokemon. I like listening to the boys talk as they play. They yell at the screen or shout encouragement to each other, sometimes cursing when they fail to take down an evil alien. Boys will be boys.
   These sleepovers also afford time to retreat to my bedroom, pile my bed with books and snuggle in for an evening of reading and writing. But more often than not, just as I'm comfortable and wrapping my head around a passage on patience by Shantideva the cry goes up, "M-O-M! Can we have a snack?!" And it's good-bye Buddhist philosophy, hello Rice Krispy Treats.
   As an only child, Jack is spoiled. I try to instill a sense of independence in him at every opportunity (as in "Get your own darn snack!") but it's hard not to lavish attention on my one and only child. Sleep-overs give Jack a chance to think of someone else's needs for a change.
   When I was a kid, my mother taught me that I should always think of my guest first. If I had my friend Krista over for a playdate, she received the first graham cracker and was given the first glass of grape juice. When we played, I was told to let her pick between Monopoly and Sorry, or give her first dibs on Barbies and Barbie accessories. No matter that when I went to to Krista's house she always took the newest Malibu Barbie with posable arms and legs and the best-looking Ken, when she was a guest at my house, I was expected to defer to her.
   Even if my mother's enforced hospitality seemed unfair when I was young, I grew to appreciate the practice of providing others what I myself would want, aka The Golden Rule. Now I'm trying to pass this policy along to Jack.
   Walking downstairs to the mayhem that was once my tidy living room, Jack's head appears from beneath a large sofa cushion that the boys have made their bunker in their own version of Halo. But apparently hunting down and defeating aliens is thirsty work.
    "Mom!" he says. "Can I have a Coke?"
    "Try that again," I say.
     "Mom, can I p-lease have a Coke?"
     "What does Nathan want?" I ask.
     "Hey Nathan do ya want a Coke?" Jack asks.
     "Yeah sure," says Nathan.
   When I ask Jack to accompany me to the kitchen, a groan goes up from beneath the sofa cushions.
   "What about Nathan?" he whines. "Doesn't he have to help too?"
    "Nathan is our guest," I remind him.
    And so it goes. Jack is an empathetic kid, but he is also used to getting his needs met right away, without deference to anyone. After I pour the drinks, I ask Jack to serve his friend first. Jack examines the two glasses and selects the one that has slightly less to deliver to Nathan. I let it go, not wanting to embarrass him in front of his friend, but I make a mental note to talk to Jack about it later. At present, I have Rice Krispy Treats to make.
   "Mom!" Jack says. "Nathan says he'd like some Fritos!"
    "Sure thing," I say.
   I'm proud of my son until I overhear him asking, "You like Fritos, don't you?" How quickly this child has learned to work the system.
    I retrieve a bowl from my cabinet. It's a piece of my Mom's "good china," which she gave me before she died. Since rejoining my single life, I've used this fancy, gold-rimmed, floral china as my everyday dishes. In fact, they are the only dishes I own. When Jack has his pals over, I don't haul out the plastic plates, because I don't have any. If and when these dishes break, so be it. I believe in using the possessions I acquire for their intended purpose, or what's the point.
   Growing up, we rarely used the good china, but Mom did bring out the "good everyday" dishes on the occasions the family gathered for birthdays or Thanksgiving. This set was also a wedding gift, but as four children arrived over the years, it was promoted to special occasions. A set of pink, hard plastic Melmac became the place setting de jour. The chips and cracks in the plates and saucers and the handle glued-on to one of the coffee cups proved that the "good everyday" dishes had indeed once been used everyday. But on those good-everyday-dish occasions, when it came time to set the table, Mom would always say, "Put the broken dish at my place."
   And this is how our Mother doled out life, taking the second-best, the well-worn, the most diminutive option, giving her husband, her children, her guests the better, more sound pieces. In many ways, Mom often deferred her own pleasure for others. I can now appreciate her sacrifices. It's a selfless act to always give others the best of what you have and accept second-best. Certainly the lesson of demonstrating consideration of others is one that Jack needs to learn, and I will continue to remind him to serve his guests first. That's just common courtesy.
   But lately I see that my own compulsive desire to sacrifice is not always the best practice. In my efforts to show my love for others, I've often taken the lesser portion of attention, focused on their problems to the exclusion of my own, and given away my time to those who had little to give in return. Were my acts of selfless love, truly selfless? Or did I hope to gain recognition—or even love—in return for my sacrifice and generosity? If the latter, who is to blame? No one but myself.
   My mother's acceptance of the broken, less than desirable, make-due, second-best option was the hallmark of a good hostess, but for me, there has been no virtue in giving away the better parts of myself. My guests—like Jack's—will always be well attended, but never again at the expense of my soul.