Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Birds of the Air

At the lake this weekend we found a nest on the dock set up by a dutiful mother bird. The tangle of grass and sticks was built right on top of the receiver in a cabinet that holds the stereo system. With great care, my friends who own the lake house gently removed the nest and the four chicks inside and placed them in a cardboard box on the dock. We were told (by someone who rescues wild critters and nurses them to health) that the mother would come for them. Although we all doubted the ability or the probablity of a mother bird to swoop down and carry off her young ‘uns, we had hope that this might happen, and yet, on that first night, there was no sign of momma. 

Jason cradles one of the funny-looking chicks.
My friend Janet fed the chicks ground beef leftover from the hamburgers we grilled for dinner and we tried not to think about the fate of the babies. Already these little lives touched our lives and life of their mother and the environment in so many ways. Of course, I don’t know how these little creatures will affect us each of us, but they will and have and will continue to. (You're reading this blog, so you'll be affected too.) That’s just the way life works. 

When I say that we are all interconnected, I don’t mean in a woo-woo, supernatural, New Agey way. And I don't even mean that our fate on this planet is all bound together in a ecological manner, which I believe it is. When I say we are all interconnected, I believe it means that every life touches and influences every other life in some way great or subtle. And every great or subtle nudge moves me and you and that dude in a bow tie who's walking down 5th Avenue,* in some way and gently prompts us to look up or down or see things we haven’t seen before—or shut down and refuse to speak at all.

Nothing is wasted. Every action is essential. No life is insignificant.

Saturday passed, and there was no sign of the mother bird. Again, my dear friend poked hamburger into the gaping mouths of the hungry babies. Only two were still alive. I wondered if the effort was futile, but I loved my friend for trying. We were all saddened by the sound of the baby birds' cries. After she fed the chicks, they quieted down for the night, stomachs full. My friend worried that she did not have a dropper to give them water. Would they die of dehydration?  Fortunately, God—in the form of Nature—provided what we could not. Sunday arrived with thunder and rain showers. We watched movies inside my friend's snug house and played cards on the covered porch. The cardboard box that held the fledgelings grew damp, but at least the chicks' thirst was quenched. 

By mid-afternoon the clouds began to clear and the sun came out. The children ran outside to play and everyone followed. As my friend and I sat on the dock and talked, we heard a commotion coming from the box on the far edge of dock. I turned my head in time to see the shadow of a bird dip down into the box and then fly away. We cheered, "She's doing it! The mother is feeding them!" Sure enough the mother bird returned with her beak filled with wriggling dinner for her surviving children. Their fate was still not certain, but the babies were being cared for, this we knew—and it was a relief for many reasons.

In this world, we want to know that mommas will return to care for their young and that the weak will survive. We want to see signs of compassion in the natural order of life. If we do not see these signs in nature, what hope can we have for ourselves? I'm reminded again of that verse from Matthew 6 in the New Testament that I love so much. (Yes, I'm quoting the Bible. Get over it!)

"Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? ... So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself." 

* Even from my Alabama home, I rest assured that there is almost always a dude in a bow tie walking down 5th Avenue at any given time. And if not, there'll be a bow tie-wearing dude coming along soon enough.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sum of the Parts

Sixth grade algebra isn't just about finding the variables.
(image from The Things We Say)
I love math. Yes, this card-carrying English major has a definitive  math jones. I love math's logic and black and white answers. In a world of words where meaning  shifts with context, the constancy of math is refreshingly straightforward. An answer is right or wrong. As much as I try not to judge, having one area in my life that I can rely upon to be absolutely correct or incorrect is a relief.
   This year, Jack studied the basic principles of algebra and my math-geek heart was soothed with remembrance of the thrill of discovering The Answer. (I warned you. I'm a math nerd.) I used to make excuses for my penchant for logical equations but now I realize why I love math so much. Math is cause and effect. If this, then that. Math is karma, except the Buddhist principle of karma (cause and effect) is not quite as straightforward or predictable.

   In the karmic equation, there are far more variables  but the principle is the same. My accomplishments and actions in this life are the sum of every experience I've ever had, every person I've met, every emotion I've felt, every response I've given to every emotion. Buddhism prescribes that this moment is born from the previous moment. Think about it. This moment in time (10:42:01.51) could not exist if not for the moment directly before it (10:42:01.50) and so forth.
   Sure there's debate about whether or not time is a concept/illusion created by the human mind/condition, but let's just accept for now that there is some measure of continuum. Not that time is fixed or fluid, matter or anti-matter, but strictly speaking, there is a measure that we will call time to describe the passing of the present moment.
   The present moment passes and begets the next present moment. In so far as I have knowledge, there will always be the next present moment. Just as we know numbers can continue on into infinity, we can see that present moments may continue. The only moment; however, that I have any control over is the present and fleeting one. The present quickly becomes past and thereby, illusive.
   My life consists of an unbroken chain of moments strung together like a (Buddhist) rosary without a definitive beginning or end. Therefore, the person who you know today as Brigid is the product of every moment that happened in this life—and Buddhists would include every moment that happened in my past lives too, from beginningless time. The Brigid you know today is the sum of a whole lotta parts, all of which are in constant flux. This sense of impermanence is a comfort to me because it helps me have compassion for my ego and grants me much-needed humility.
   Although I am responsible for my actions, I am not solely to blame or to praise. Knowing that I do not exist independently from the rest of the world, I am less likely to grow too proud of my accomplishments, nor too ashamed of my misdeeds. Pride and shame are self-centered responses anyway. These feelings can only keep me stuck in the past. For example, although I typed this blog entry from the thoughts that entered my head, all of these thought impulses were informed by experience I've gathered over the past decades. Nothing that I write is 100-percent free of influence. If you've spoken with me or I've experienced or read it within the last 51 years, that knowledge is woven into every word that comes out today in this blog.
   I take great comfort in this knowledge as a writer and a person. I also tread a bit more softly as I go about my work and my life. This is where my karmic equation and the laws of math differ, because even though I know that what I write, say and do will affect other people, I can never predict exactly how. One plus one will equal two, but I cannot know for certain if the answer will be positive or negative—or both. But I do know that every action yields affects on the world around me, and with this in mind I now take a little more time to consider the variables and the outcomes before I begin to cipher.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Devil Made Me Think It

That devilish voice whispering in my ear may 
not be my enemy after all.
Self doubt can feel like the enemy. Doubt can certainly be a fearsome foe. Perhaps you never experience it. Chances are you do.

Self doubt can cause what is known in my profession as writer's block, a type of sneaking feeling that I am a no-talent sham. In other situations and occupations, self doubt causes all forms of stuckness. Doubt causes the inability to make a decision or move forward for fear that we might make a mistake. Ultimately, doubt causes us to suffer.

More than 2500 years ago a young Indian prince named Guatama Siddhartha wrestled with self doubt—and won. Siddhartha witnessed suffering in the world around him and vowed to find a way to put an end to it. Many people believe he was successful. His tale of enlightenment holds truth to how doubts arise, their value in our lives, and the way to dispel them— if we have the mind to try. Here's my interpretation. I don't believe the tale literally, of course, but it does hold a wonderful psychological perspective into the power of thought. 

On the night of his enlightenment, Siddhartha vowed to meditate until he achieved pure awareness. As night fell, Mara, a powerful demon, entered Siddhartha's consciousness and did his best to distract him from his purpose. Knowing the weaknesses of men, Mara sent his sexy daughters to dance for Siddhartha and seduce him. But the holy man maintained his concentration.

Next, Mara send an infinite army of hideous creatures to attack Siddhartha with poison arrows. But as the arrows flew through the air, the holy man saw them for what they really were. The deadly weapons turned into young sapling shoots and flower blossoms, which perfumed the air around him. 

Frustrated, Mara resorted to his last and most deadly of weapons. He crept very close and whispered in the Siddhartha's ear, "What makes you worthy of enlightenment? Do you think you're better than everyone else? I should be the Enlightened One! I am the rightful heir. Look at all my witnesses!" 

Mara's army stood beside him, attesting to his claim.  And Mara went on and on about how great he was and how Siddhartha was stupid and inept, but Siddhartha remained centered and focused on what was real and present. "You are just a fake and a phony! Why should you become enlightened?" shouted Mara. "Why are you so special? Even if you did become enlightened, no one will know and no one will ever believe you! You have no witness! You've achieved nothing! You are a nobody!"

All this time through temptation and threat of death, Siddhartha remained in deep meditation. But now, as Mara stood before him gloating, he reached forward and touched a single finger to the ground in front of him.

"The Earth is my witness," Siddhartha whispered. 

With that, the Mara disappeared and Siddhartha attained the state of full enlightenment. He became known as Shakyamuni Buddha, The Awakened One.*

But the story doesn't end here. Mara doesn't just descend into Hell and Buddha, into Heaven. Rather, Buddha and Mara continue their relationship on earth. It seems Buddha could not exist without Mara's test and Mara could not exist with the challenge of the Buddha. In his teaching entitled The Mara and Buddha—Embracing Our SufferingZen Master Thich Nhat Hanh relates the moral of this story.

Years later, Mara visited Buddha and asked that they trade places. Mara was tired of always being the bad guy. He didn't want to be feared and loathed anymore. You'd think Buddha would say "Be gone demon!" but he didn't. He greeted Mara as his dearest friend. He embraced Mara and listened to his problems. The Buddha explained that it wasn't all fun and glory to be the Enlightened One either.  He told Mara of all the crazy things people did in his name and how difficult it was to practice compassion and love all the time. Mara saw his point. "The best thing is for each of us is to stay in his or her own position and try to improve the situation and enjoy what we are doing," Buddha said. 

Hahn explains that it's easy for us to think of Buddha as a flower, fresh and beautiful, and compare Mara to garbage, that is unwanted and stinky, but this is a limited point of view. "All flowers become garbage," Hanh says. "Although garbage stinks ... if you know how to take care of the garbage, you will transform it back into flowers ...  Flowers and garbage are of an organic nature because both ... are living realities. Buddha and Mara are also organic, and they need each other. It is thanks to the difficulties, thanks to the temptations, that the Buddha has overcome his suffering and his ignorance and become a fully enlightened being ... That is why the people who suffer a lot now should not be discouraged. Suffering is their garbage. If they know how to take good care of their garbage they will be able to make the flowers come back to them, the flowers of peace, of joy."

Just as Buddha needs Mara, I need those negative thoughts to challenge and help me perceive the truth. Of course, sitting with my negative thoughts and not responding to them takes effort and self awareness. But ultimately, if I take good care of my garbage, I can turn my doubt into roses.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Mother of all Mother's Day Wishes

FTD would love me if I send roses to all my mothers.

Celebrating Mother's Day reminds me of a prayer we say at the Buddhist center called the Eight Verses for Training the Mind. (For those unfamiliar with Buddhist practice, the title of this intersession says it all. I mean, what other spiritual practice asks for help training the mind? This is why I love Buddhism. Anyway, I digress ... )

My Mom, 1972
The Eight Verses compose a beautiful prayer that asks for wisdom and a shift in perspective when encountering difficult situations and—especially—when interacting with difficult people. It's the whole "my enemy is my greatest teacher" thing. You know, realizing that people who are obnoxious or mean or otherwise unpleasant are really helping me more than people who are pleasant and kind and compassionate because I have to really work hard to overcome my aversion to unpleasant assholes.
Digressing, again ...

We say this prayer and ask to transform our minds so that we can perceive the truth. The seventh verse is relevant today:

In brief, may I offer benefit and joy
To all my mothers, both directly and indirectly,
May I quietly take upon myself
All hurts and pains of my mothers.

The first hundred times or so I recited this verse, I didn't really understand it. I thought it was an analogy or metaphor. But as I learned more about Buddhist beliefs, this verse took on a  deeper meaning. I still can't claim to fully understand it, ( His Holiness the Dalai Lama provides a commentary on this pray on his website which I linked here and above,) but what I do understand now has opened up my heart to the world—at least on my less-bitchy days.

Buddhists believe everyone has been born in various forms countless times. Therefore, the theory follows that at some time or another my mindstream (or consciousness) has been embodied as your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your cat, your dog, your hamster. And visa versa. In sum: We're all spiritually related. (And no, not like the backwoods characters in a James Dickey novel.) This may or may not be a literal relationship. No one really knows, except maybe someone like the Dalai LamaThe point is that I should revere all beings as if they gave me birth. I should not discriminate about who I love if I am to truly practice compassion. All life is precious. All men and woman are of equal value. That's equanimity, and it's tough to practice.

In a literal—but not necessarily Buddhist—sense, I should revere all my fore-mothers and recognize that their suffering is my suffering. This is what Buddhists call karma, or action, the law of cause and effect. I am indeed obliged to the woman who conceived, carried and gave birth to me as I am to the woman who gave birth to her, etc. Likewise, I am the product of all my forefathers and and their mothers and fathers. If not for my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-infinity-grandparents, I would not be here today exactly as I am. Millions of actions had to happen exactly as they happened, when they happened, in order for me to have been conceived and my mindstream to have joined this particular body.  I revere that amazing process and how incredibly miraculous life is. When I start to think about it all ... well, it's mind-blowing.

Today and every day, I pray for the benefit and joy of all my fore-mothers and I humbly (quietly) take on all their harm and suffering. In doing so, I accept that I am the sum of the parts, the product of all that has happened and that I have a part in what will happen. My actions matter—often more than I count on or know. How I respond to life does not just affect my happiness, but it affects the happiness of all those around me, and all those around them, and so on, and so on ...

So Happy Mother's Day to my dear mother in this life and all my mothers infinitum!

Eight Verses for Training of the Mind*

With the 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 or others, I will firmly face and avert it.

I will learn to cherish beings of bad nature, and those pressed by strong sins and suffering as if I'd 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 all loss and offer the victory to them.

When one whom I've benefited with great hope unreasonably harms me very badly, I will learn to view that person as an excellent spiritual guide.

In short, I will learn to offer to everyone all hope 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 worlds conceptions, and by understanding all phenomenon are like illusions, be released from the bondage of attachment to self.

*There are many translations and this is the one we say at Losel Maitri Buddhist Center.