Friday, April 01, 2016

How was I supposed to know you were mad?

I see the angry, aggressive crowds at the Trump rallies and am reminded again and again of the Anaïs Nin quote: "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." 


It's easy for Liberals like me to become  incensed at Trump supporters who show up at rallies primed for a fight, but we do well to remember that each of them has a reason, a reason that makes sense to them, to be angry and hostile. You might say they are each like a bear with a broken tooth. Though the pain of the tooth is totally invisible to me, it is nonetheless provoking behaviour which, for the most part, is uncharacteristic in the bear as a rule. 

Journalist David Brooks said something interesting on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago. Here's a man who's a principle political columnist for the NY Times. He's on PBS Evening News as a political commentator. He's thoughtful and intelligent and he ought to be aware of what's going on, and yet the rage that has fueled Trump's rise caught him completely by surprise. He freely admitted he didn't see it coming, he didn't realize people were angry or were even discontented. 

But how has it escaped Brooks, or any of them, that the American working class has paid the price while 100% of the economic growth in the USA in the last 20 years has gone into the pockets of the wealthiest families in the country? The Guardian reported that the top 1% in the USA are now worth as much as the bottom 90% put together.  

Since the 1980s money has been steadily moving in an upward direction, with what were once well-paying jobs moving off-shore to unregulated jurisdictions, where work can be performed by slave and prison labour if need be, to maintain a large profit margin. 

Jobs that pay minimum wages don’t keep a family fed, clothed and housed adequately, even with both partners in a marriage working two or even three of them, and that equals a lot of anger. Many people have lost everything they have worked for all their lives; homes, retirement savings, college dreams for the kids. They are deep in debt and they have no financial security. They fear for their future, and this fear and anxiety has been honed by the Republican Party to turn against always reliable targets of racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants, and newer ones such as "Constitutional Freedoms", fear of losing one's guns, and "religious freedoms" like the right to pray in school, right to impose fundamental Christian beliefs on school curriculums and ban the teaching of subjects which "disagree" with a Biblical view.  This strategy has backfired in a horrific way and the Republicans are now in a panic, trying to find a way to pull the nominational rug out from under Trump. They raised the dragon and let it out of its cage, and now find it does not obey their command. 

No wonder people are ready to listen to a man who expresses their anger openly, directs it at the targets they didn’t like in the first place and have been told to blame their troubles on for the last 30 years. Now Trump says HE will fix things, HE will make America the way it used to be, back when it worked for them. He bullies dissenters openly, encourages violence, makes his audiences feel powerful and in control. Of course he’s full of shit. He hasn't a clue what politics are about, his "policies" change with the wind, and he’s completely and entirely amoral, but no more so than politicians who stand up and politely promise to fix things but are as superficial and slick as a spray of PAM on a non-stick skillet.   

But we are playing a very dangerous game with our unbridled capitalism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped in and pulled the USA from the brink of democratic collapse when this kind of inequality happened during the Great Depression. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century,   French economist Thomas Piketty argues that "extremely high levels" of wealth inequality are "incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies" and that "the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed. 

But back to David Brooks; even now, when he says he’s now aware of the anger at the political system and politicians in general he still believes the Republican Congress was willing to work with President Obama, but President Obama made no effort at all to work with Republicans.

He also thinks there are lots of good jobs out there if you’re willing to look, and there's no lack of opportunity for a poor kid (of any colour or class) to move into the upper middle class if they're willing to work hard. As far as he's concerned the determining factor in a person's success is how much their mother loves them. 

***Seriously***

He actually said there was a study which showed that a man’s success, and how far he rose, promotions, business, military rank, etc. depended not on his education, class, or financial advantage but on how much love his mother poured into him. Also high achievers tended to be people who lost a parent by age 12 and had to pull up their bootstraps and do for themselves.  

Of course this plays into his wheelhouse and supports his philosophy that spending money on social programs is useless, because what the country really needs is more loving mothers. Bless his heart. I don't know if he's drinking too much NyQuil before he comes to work in the morning, or if someone's dosing him with horse tranquilizers, surely the man couldn't be that naive and hold down his job. I mean come on, even Ben Carson is quicker on his feet than that. 

He's the most willingly deluded thing that ever wrote a column inch. One expects the fairies at the bottom of the garden to flutter up and start sprinkling sparkly bits all around him. Love cures everything and money (from the government to the citizen) does no good at all. The only place money does a power of good is in the pockets of the 1% and the 90% can go fish or starve, whichever comes first. 

David, you are gorgeous and I could eat you and your rose-tinted glasses with a silver spoon. Let me pass long some advice from a very wise old man. Trump may not get elected this time but if someone doesn't start paying attention to a lot of hurting people soon Trump will be the least of your worries.

“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, ...awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. If we get in touch with the suffering of the world, and are moved by that suffering, we may come forward to help the people who are suffering.” 

― Thích Nhất Hạnh 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Zen of An Empty Mind

The ability to achieve a mediative state has long been second nature. Like dropping a stone into a deep, quiet well. No need to pay attention to the breath, no chant, no posture but the chair. Awake and aware, but uninvolved in the thousand thoughts that usually crowd the moment.  

Maybe we make it too complicated. There’s no need for all the bells and chants and incense and such, though most of us like the comfort of ritual. But we need to be able to drop into a meditative state without the prompts if needed.   

Only One Head!
I had a funny meditative experience once. Before beginning a new medication which had a potential for producing seizures in those who are prone to such, I had to have an EEG to make sure I didn’t have undetected seizures. 

My appointment was for 7:45 am, an unholy time of day for someone who hates getting up early. Part way through the test the technician said, “I’m going to turn the lights off for 20 minutes. You can rest, but don’t go to sleep.” So I decided to meditate for those 20 minutes. 

When the results came back I had no propensity for seizures but the neurologist reading the EEG noted that I had increased levels of alpha and theta wave activity, and suggested my doctor ask me if I had a problem with alcohol. 

I told my doctor I’d been meditating during the EEG but she looked at me as if I’d just grown a second head. I don’t drink (at all) but I don’t think she ever believed I wasn’t a dedicated booze hound after that. She checked my liver enzymes each time she did blood work, and would say things like, "I can tell if you've been drinking by your liver enzymes." 

Of course meditation creates the same increase in alpha and theta wave activity in the brain as alcohol, but while the neurologist who read my EEG may have come across a drinker or two early in the day, she’d probably never come across a practiced Buddhist meditator at 8:00 am before.  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

How to Deal With People Who Frustrate You

This article comes from the blog Raptitude which has as its byline “Getting better at being human”. It’s an interesting blog and worth following. This post bites close to the bone to anyone working on enlightenment. Okay okay, [True Confessions: this post bites close to my bone. I should read it to start most days.]  

Deep down I knew better, but I couldn’t stop myself.

An opinionated Twitter acquaintance of mine had tweeted a snarky comment that dismissed all forms of self-improvement as new age feel-good fluff. It was such a sweeping, cynical remark that I felt I had to set him straight.

So I hammered out a sharp rebuttal, and felt a little better, but there was still uneasiness. He would surely come up with a counter-attack on what I said, and it would go back and forth until one of us let the other have the last word.

After a few minutes, I got the lesson he was trying to teach me: to let go of my need to be right all the time. I deleted the tweet and he never saw it.

A few years ago I learned an ingenious method for dealing with other people when they’re doing things you wish they wouldn’t do. It’s adapted from a technique by the late author Richard Carlson. It’s easy and works exceedingly well.

You go about your day as normal, but you imagine one difference:

Everyone is enlightened but you.

That includes:
  • The impatient, tailgating driver behind you
  • The intern at work who drinks all the coffee and never puts on a new pot
  • The friend who knows he owes you ten bucks but is waiting until you ask him for it
  • The guy who keeps clicking his pen during the meeting
  • The “greeter” at Walmart who tapes your bag shut every time even though you’re a loyal customer who’s never stolen anything in your life
  • Whoever tagged your garage door last night
  • Your kind old Aunt Sally, who keeps on talking after you’ve said you really need to get going

Imagine all the people in your world are completely enlightened and aware of what they’re doing to you, and they’re doing it only to teach you something valuable. Your task is to figure out what.

A true master won’t simply tell you what he thinks you should know. He’s too wise to say, “Always be patient,” and expect that it will make you a patient person. Instead, he’ll create a lesson that challenges you. He will push a button of yours, and see if you know what to do.

If you knew you were being tested on purpose, what would you do? When your friend was supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago and is nowhere to be seen, what is he trying to teach you? To be patient? To avoid assumptions? Unconditional love, maybe.

This is a very empowering way to field whatever  life tosses at you. It works so well because your mentality changes from that of the know-it-all, the teacher of proper behavior, to that of the student.

If you insist that you already know the sole cause of your frustration to be that other person and their bad driving or selfish attitude, then: 
a) you’ll continue to be frustrated at the whim of others, and 
b) it won’t turn out any better for you next time. 

To habitually regard yourself, like many do, as the knower — the wiser one — in each of these run-ins is to cling to an unenforceable rule that states, “Other people must always behave in ways that make sense to me and are sympathetic to my needs.”

By responding to the behavior of others with the mindset of a student instead of a teacher, you develop a habit of self-inquiry that gradually replaces the habit of condemning others for being less considerate or less refined or less aware than you. You’ll learn to look for the smart move instead of the first one comes to you, and you’ll be building a mental toolkit that can handle just about anything.

The Most Powerful Skills of All

When my enlightened Twitter-mate made his apparently cynical comment, he was presenting me with a precious lesson. I immediately felt a powerful urge to set him straight — a really strong need to make him understand me. At first I took the bait, but after a few minutes I did grasp what he was trying to teach me: Let others be “right.” Cease to cherish opinions.

If you’re somewhat familiar with any spiritual teachings - from the Bible to the Tao Te Ching to The Four Agreements - your new lesson may trigger your memory of a quote or passage that illustrates it, and that passage will then take on a deeper meaning for you. Cease to cherish opinions. Let the baby have his bottle. Love your enemies. You might already “know” them all, but perhaps you’ve never consciously experienced each of them as a lesson in action. Well now you can, and you have brilliant teachers everywhere you look.

The skills your enlightened masters teach are the most powerful and widely-applicable skills you can learn: patience, self-questioning, open-mindedness, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, letting go, and love. If you make a habit of seeing everyone else as enlightened, you will be strengthening each of these potent skills every single day.

Honing these skills will boost your quality of life more quickly than anything else you can possibly do. They’ll create better outcomes at every juncture. Each improvement compounds all the others, for the rest of your life. If you can learn to deal painlessly with critical colleagues after just a few pointed lessons, you are saving yourself untold frustration over the next five, ten or fifty years. The return on investment is astronomical.

Once you figure out what the current lesson is, it’s hard to stay annoyed at its teacher, because you’ll know that only you can drop the ball, by rejecting the lesson. Only you can make you frustrated. And how could you stay angry at one of your enlightened masters for administering such a brilliant lesson?

Only when you convince yourself that you know more than your teacher can you fail to learn.

You’re Headed There Anyway

After a while, you’ll notice that the lessons you encounter will cater to your weak areas with such uncanny perfection, you may begin to suspect that your pathetic co-worker and the perfume-soaked lady on the train really are enlightened. Each lesson will offer you exactly what you need to overcome the trouble it causes you, but only if you are looking for it.

This hints at a powerful idea, which has been suggested by Eckhart Tolle, don Miguel Ruiz, and other spiritual teachers: no matter who you are, the universe is conspiring to enlighten you.

Just as the stones in every fast moving stream will eventually become smooth, rounded discs from years of friction and tiny collisions, it seems we human beings are destined to outgrow our suffering simply because we are constantly running afoul of it. Over time, we can’t help but learn to get better at dealing with what ails us. So each time we butt heads with life — whether it’s in the form of a belligerent customer or a dishonest mechanic - we get a chance to learn something of immeasurable importance.

For many people, this learning takes place only by accident. Over many years, life’s inevitable bumps and bruises gradually clue them in on what works and what doesn’t. It can take most of a lifetime to make a noticeable difference in quality of life, because they don’t see themselves as students. They just want to school everyone else. And that’s an order much too tall for any lifetime.


If you graciously accept the role of student and open yourself up to the wisdom of the enlightened individuals all around you, you’ll be miles ahead of the curve, and your wisdom will be no accident.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Of Course I’m Angry!

As his marriage falls apart, Gabriel Cohen obsesses over all the things his wife has done to make him angry. But a chance encounter with Buddhism shows him the anger is his alone, and never serves any good purpose anyway.

By Gabriel Cohen
Three years ago I was standing in a real estate office filling out a rental application when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big man enter and approach the realtor. The stranger muttered something, then shoved the young man. I thought he was just kidding — a friend roughhousing? — until he pinned the realtor against a wall and started punching holes in the sheetrock, four of them, circling the frightened man’s head.
Breathless, I ran out to the store next door and urged the woman behind the counter to call the police. “The guy next door is about to be killed!”
I tiptoed back to check on the realtor. Thankfully, his assailant had disappeared, leaving him alive and unhurt, but the man was still trembling.
“Who was that?” I asked. “Some crazy person off the street?”
“No,” the realtor replied. “His ex-wife used to work here. He was drunk, and he was looking for her.”
I walked out of the office into a New York heat wave, a day so hot that the asphalt was threatening to melt. I was in the middle of the worst period of my life: a month before, my own wife had suddenly-without warning or apology-walked out of our marriage.
I thought about that stranger’s anger, and I thought about my own.
I considered myself a generally cheerful person, prone to corny jokes and bad impressions of TV characters, but that jovial self-image had been severely tested during the last few months of my marriage. Our landlord had decided to sell the house my wife and I were renting an apartment in. Though she and I had gotten along well for four years, our search for a new home led to all sorts of disagreements, and then to outright verbal fights (which pointed to other hidden problems in our relationship).
After our marriage fell apart, I trudged through the city streets, praying that I could find an affordable place on my own. I spent endless hours playing a mental loop in which I railed against my ex-wife, her friends, and even her therapist. At around that time, fortunately, I stumbled across a poster for a Buddhist talk. 
I knew little about Buddhism; I saw it as a foreign, esoteric religion full of rituals and chanting, or a New Age fad for rock stars and Hollywood actors. But the title of the talk grabbed my attention: "How to Deal with Anger" (not-as my preconceptions might have led me to expect; How to Bliss Out and Pretend You’re Not Really Angry). Under ordinary circumstances I would have passed on by, but I was suffering and desperate. What did I have to lose?
That very first talk turned my whole world upside down-or right-side up. I was greatly surprised to hear that if I was angry at my wife, my wife was not the problem. My problem was my anger.
I used to think of the spiritual path as a detached, solo journey, like Moses trekking up the mountain, or the Buddha wandering off to sit under his bodhi tree. I imagined how challenging it would be to renounce life’s pleasures and meditate in a cave. Now I realize that life offers a much more common but just as powerful spiritual trial: just try getting along with one other person for the rest of your life. Tie the knot. In good times, the rewards are great: the intimacy, the support, the joy of being loved and of loving someone else. 
Sometimes, though, the positive energy of a marriage seems to derail, to twist, to spiral into a negative whirlwind. It almost appears as if the more good energy you put into a relationship, the more bad feelings come howling out the other side.
In my case, I was sorely tempted to blame my wife for our problems. After all, I had gone into marriage with the understanding that it would inevitably entail struggling through some hard times; she was the one who had refused to put in the hard work that any relationship requires. I thought she was making me feel angry - and heartbroken, and betrayed, and all that other fun stuff. I mean, I knew my anger was an internal feeling, but it felt as if it was coming to me from her, as if it could leap from one person to the other. I didn’t see my anger as a sign of my own irrationality; I thought it made perfect sense. My wife had behaved unreasonably - of course I was getting upset.
As I mentioned, though, that Buddhist talk rocked my view.
It took place in a yoga studio. The teacher held up a book. “How many of you think this exists independently of your mind?”
Everyone in the audience raised their hand.
As the teacher led us to see, though, our only way of knowing the book was there was by filtering our perception of it through our own minds. And that’s true of every single thing in our lives: the objects around us, the people, our concepts, everything. Our entire experience of life is shaped by how we perceive and how we think.
Normally, we believe that we need to reshape our external circumstances to improve how we feel (more money, a better job, a more accommodating spouse), but that’s a huge, never-ending, continually frustrating quest. Buddhism recommends a much more feasible, achievable goal: we can transform our lives by changing how we think about them. As the eighth - century sage Shantideva put it, if we want to avoid stepping on thorns, we can’t possibly cover the whole world with leather - but we can cover our own feet.
Somehow, I realized early on that being pissed off at my ex was not making me feel better. I needed to find a more positive way out of my suffering. The fact that my emotions only existed inside my own head was great news; it meant that they were not dependent on my ex - wife, or how the legal proceedings developed, or on any other external factors. I could improve my experience of divorce by taking responsibility for my feelings, and by learning how to train my mind. And so - like millions of Buddhist practitioners before me - I set out on a journey of internal exploration, observing my thoughts like a scientist peering at electrons buzzing around inside a cloud chamber. I made some fundamental discoveries.
I found that I was not “an angry person” - I was simply a person experiencing angry thoughts. Like all thoughts, they were just temporary, just passing through my head like storms through a clear blue sky. They didn’t have the power to damage the inherent clarity of my mind. And they couldn’t force me to act in an angry way. I learned that it was possible to put a little pause, a breathing space, between an external event and my reaction to it, in order to discover a broader range of options.
As I probed deeper, I realized that - in almost every case - my anger arose out of a deep, internal sense of pain. That feeling was uncomfortable, often intolerable, and I would try to get rid of it by projecting it outward. That seemed to offer some sense of relief, but it had hurt my wife and damaged our relationship.
Often, my pain arose out of a perceived sense of injustice. Like legions of foolish men before me, I believed that being right was the essential thing. When conflicts arose, I argued like an expensive trial lawyer. I won some battles, but I lost the war.
I don’t want to overstate how angry I was. My wife and I actually got along very peacefully and lovingly for the great majority of our time together. I’m generally pretty upbeat and laid-back, and I have friends who say that they can hardly even imagine me angry.
On the other hand, that Buddhist talk made me realize that I was probably underestimating how angry I - and most people - really are, much of the time. We tend to believe that anger is an aberration, an emotion that only arises in exceptional circumstances. But pick up any newspaper and you’ll see how prevalent it is in the world at large: abuse, assault, murder, war. And it’s pervasive in our daily lives. We’re peeved that it starts raining just as we decide to go out for a walk. We’re disappointed that we didn’t win the lottery (even if we didn’t buy a ticket!). We’re irate because our parents didn’t love us enough, or loved us too much. We’re aggrieved that our life is not turning out as we wish or believe it should. Some of us can’t acknowledge our anger; we suppress it and become depressed, or try to salve it with alcohol or food or shopping - or we run away. If you doubt that there’s an unacknowledged current of anger underlying your daily existence, just notice how it flares up the instant someone cuts you off in traffic or steals your parking space. Did it arise out of nowhere, or was it already there?
Among all our spurs to anger, why is a failed marriage so especially powerful? Partly, it’s because our expectations are so high and unrealistic. We buy into a fairy tale that our spouse will relieve us of all our existential suffering and loneliness; we believe that they should make us happy all the time. As Buddhism points out, that’s not love; it’s an ego-based delusion called desirous attachment. When that false ideal falls apart, it’s quickly replaced by disappointment and hostility. It’s much easier to blame our spouse than to acknowledge the fundamental wrongness of our own view.
It’s not a thin line between love and hate; Buddhism says that true love is never the cause of suffering. It’s a thin line between unreasonable expectations and the stinging disenchantment that arises when they can’t be met. A big part of the solution is learning to let go of our expectations of what should happen, and to be more accepting of what life actually brings. As the thirteenth-century Zen teacher and philosopher Dogen beautifully put it, “A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.”
As I developed a practice, I came to understand that my feelings of disappointment and hurt and injustice were all rooted in the same toxic soil: an inflated sense of the primacy of my own needs and desires - what Buddhists call self-cherishing. My anger was a childish wail of complaint: What about ME?
A remarkable meditation called taking and giving helped me start letting go of my self-centeredness and resentment. As I went to more Buddhist talks, I became familiar with the technique of imagining that I was exhaling my tensions and frustrations as dark smoke, and that I was inhaling a clear, blissful light. One day, though, after a talk on anger, the teacher offered an astonishing, counterintuitive exercise. She said that if we were angry with someone, we should imagine breathing in their suffering as dark smoke, and that we should imagine breathing toward them that blissful light. In the early days of my divorce, the last thing I wanted was to imagine that I was taking on my wife’s troubles, but when I tried the meditation, it had a profound effect: it helped me to see her as a suffering person in her own right. I had already found that when my heart was full of anger, it held no room for compassion. While doing this meditation, I discovered that the reverse was also true.
In regard to my big desire to be in the right, Buddhism offered another counterintuitive, helpful method: accepting defeat and offering the victory. Instead of always trying to win, I could surrender my own agenda in the service of a greater peace: I could lose battles, and the war might disappear.
Buddhists say that the antidote to anger is patience. One thing that has helped me move toward that goal has been learning to see that things do not inherently exist in the way that I perceive them (the Buddhist concept of emptiness.) That may sound abstract and intellectual, but it’s easy to apply to relationships. When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked to sum up the essence of his philosophy, he replied with just three words: not necessarily so. If I get riled up now, I repeat those words to myself, a reminder that my perception of what’s going on is undoubtedly incomplete and likely faulty. The anger I perceive in someone else may be arising out of hurt; their seeming stubbornness may cover insecurity and fear.
Did all this new knowledge miraculously enable me to eradicate my anger? Of course not. But at least I started getting better at recognizing it when it first arose, and calming myself before I might act on it.
Eventually, I came to see that anger was a false friend. Though it might seem to bolster me, to save me from depression, to keep me moving forward, it worked against me. Each impetuous e-mail, each vengeful riposte, each passive-aggressive refusal to respond - they all came back to bite me in the end. In fact, Buddhism says that acting out of anger is never the skillful thing to do.
You might think of certain exceptions. What about anger directed against social injustice? And isn’t it necessary and therapeutic to express some anger?
I can think of at least three answers to these objections.
First, anger causes us to perceive its object in a distorted way. We turn the person we’re mad at into an ogre. We become unable to see their good qualities, and we get pumped full of a blinding adrenalin that often causes our interactions to spiral out of control. Anger leads us to see things in a polarized, sharply dualistic way. We believe we’re good; we believe our enemies are evil.
If you think that’s a helpful way to look at conflict, just look at what it has done for the Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, Armenians and Turks, etc., etc., etc. Of course, it’s important to work against injustice, but we need to do so wisely, with clear eyes and a compassionate, understanding view of all sides. As Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama have so ably demonstrated, a calm mind gets better results. These wise leaders were able to see that, just as our anger is a delusion arising out of our suffering, the anger of our “enemies” is also a delusion, like a sickness in their minds. We should fight the delusion, not the people who suffer from it.
Second, though some therapists tout the benefits of expressing anger in a controlled way, such as punching a pillow, recent research in neuroscience contradicts that notion: if you punch a pillow, you’re actually exercising your brain’s neural pathways for aggression.
Finally, our anger damages us as well as the object of our wrath. It increases our heart rate, elevates our blood pressure, and has other serious health effects. As the saying goes, anger is an acid that corrodes the vessel that holds it. This seems stupidly obvious to me now, but when I was tromping around the streets of Brooklyn running my resentful little mental loops, I failed to realize that they had absolutely no effect on my wife. I was just working myself into an increasingly agitated state - punching holes, in effect, in a wall that only I could see. I was carrying around an entirely unhelpful burden, and I had to resolve to set it down.
In case I needed a more forceful demonstration of the dangers of anger, life soon provided one. A few minutes after I left that real estate office, I came across another realtor. Miraculously, she drove me straight to a fantastic apartment, in a big old Victorian house with a front porch and a back patio, a stained glass window, and even a chandelier. By New York standards, the rent was cheap. It wasn’t until a few weeks later - just before I moved in - that I found out why. It turned out that my landlord had been having troubles with his own marriage.
One night, in a fit of rage, he had killed his wife.
In my new apartment.
The message could not have been clearer: this is what can happen if you let anger win.
Three years of working with Buddhist insights and practice have certainly not turned me into a saint, but occasionally I see evidence of progress.
My writing desk faces a window that looks out on the street. My neighbourhood is generally quiet, but several days ago a stranger parked a luxury car directly outside. After a few minutes, its car alarm started going off — the worst kind, the one where the horn continually bleats. I sat there trying to work, getting increasingly frustrated and annoyed. Finally, I wrote a note, and then I marched out and stuck it under the windshield. (What kind of note? Let’s put it this way: the salutation read “Dear Asshole.”)
When I came back inside, I sat there listening to the alarm. And I stared at my note. It took a while, but eventually my new training kicked in. At first I thought my blast of anger would cause the owner of the car to feel regretful and ashamed; I finally realized that it would only make him angry in return.
I replaced it with a new note. I did my best to keep my emotions out of it. Calmly, I explained that the car alarm was broken. What else did I have to say? I didn’t need to inflate the problem by adding all sorts of self-righteousness and drama; I just called it to his attention, and then I let it go.
At the end of a long path, after extensive mental training, we might hope to become completely free of anger. In the meantime, it can act as a fire that consumes us, or a bell that warns us when something is wrong - not with our circumstances, but with the way that we’re thinking about them.
The choice is ours.
Gabriel Cohen is author of Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce, as well as three novels, including The Graving Dock, a mystery with a Buddhist subplot. He lives in Brooklyn and likes to meditate next to a lake in Prospect Park.  

The Lord Who Looks on the World with Compassion


One of Buddhism's most important tenets is compassion, both for oneself, and for others. Buddhists use many stories and legends to illustrate compassion's many aspects. 

Avalokiteshvara ( "the Lord who looks upon the world with compassion") is seen as representative of the compassion of all the Buddhas. 

According to the legend, Avalokiteshvara was a Buddhist aspirant who was deeply moved by the suffering of the beings he saw around him and he vowed that he would not rest until he had liberated all sentient beings from suffering. 

Illustration by Tomi Um from Lion's Roar (see Blog Roll) 
After persevering at this task for a very long time, helping 
suffering beings one by one, he looked out and realized there were a vast throng of beings whose sufferings he had not yet been able to relieve. His despair became so intense that his head split into thousands of pieces. 

The Buddha lovingly gathered the scattered pieces and put them back together as a body with eleven heads and 1000 arms, each ending with an open hand and an eye in its palm, so that Avalokiteshvara could see the suffering in the world and assist thousands of sentient beings all at the same time. 

The mantra associated with Avalokiteshvara is the one most Westerners are most familiar with, "Om Mani Padme Hum", which is said to liberate all beings from suffering.

                            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now we will tell a few Buddhist stories/jokes. Buddhists love jokes. One of the things Buddhists find most amusing is a pompous, self-important teacher, and there is nothing more Buddhists like than using humour to make a point. 

The first is called; The Teacher Learns a Lesson

There was a devoted meditator, who after years of focusing on Om Mani Padme Hum, believed he had attained enough insight to begin teaching. His humility was not yet perfect, but nonetheless he felt himself ready to lead others. 

A few years of successful teaching left the meditator satisfied with his spiritual attainment.  He had no desire to seek further wisdom from others, but when he heard there was a famous hermit living nearby, he felt the opportunity too exciting to be passed up. The hermit lived alone on an island in the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row him across to the island. 

The old hermit received him graciously and the meditator was very respectful. As they shared tea the meditator asked the hermit about his practice. The old man said he had no special practice, except for the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, which he repeated all the time to himself. 

The meditator was secretly delighted, the hermit was using the same mantra he himself taught ~ but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified!

"What's wrong?" asked the hermit.

"I don't know what to say. I'm afraid you've wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!"

"Oh, dear!," the hermit cried. "That is truly terrible! How should I say it?"

The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful. He asked the visitor to leave immediately so he could start chanting the mantra properly right away. 

On the way back across the lake the meditator, now brimming with confidence that he was an accomplished teacher, pondered aloud the sad fate of the hermit.

"It is so fortunate that I came along," he remarked to the boatman. "At least now he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies." 

Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman had turned quite pale and seemed dumbstruck, and he turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

"Excuse me, please," the hermit said humbly, with a deep bow. "I am so sorry to inconvenience you, but I am old and and forgetful, and the correct pronunciation has already slipped my mind. Would you please repeat it for me?"

"You clearly don't need it," stammered the meditator; but the old man repeated his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced.

The old hermit thanked him quietly, smiled sweetly, turned and could be heard repeating the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to his island. 

Life is Transient
A famous spiritual teacher came to the front door of the King's palace. None of the guards tried to stop him as he entered and made his way to where the King himself was sitting on his throne. 
"What do you want?" asked the King, immediately recognizing the visitor. 
"I would like to sleep overnight in this inn," replied the teacher. 
“This is not an inn," said the King, "It is my palace." 
"May I ask who owned this palace before you?" 
"My father. He is dead." 
"And who owned it before him?" 
"My grandfather. He too is dead." 
"And this place where people stay for a short time and then move on - did I hear you say that it is not an inn?"

Gratitude 
Fred: "Why must we bow at the end of a meditation period?" 
Ho Chi Zen: "To thank God it's over."

Clothes Make the Man 
A Zen abbot went dressed in rags to the door of a rich man and was turned away with an empty bowl. So he returned in his formal robe of office and was invited in and served a sumptuous meal. 
Removing his robe and folding it, he placed it on the chair in front of the feast and departed with the words, "This meal is not for me; it is for the robe."

Reader's Digest Zen 
This true story was actually published in one of the humour sections of Reader's Digest many years ago: 
At an interdenominational religious conference in Hawaii, a Japanese delegate approached a Baptist minister and said, "My humble superstition is Buddhism. What is yours?"

A Blind Man with a Lantern 
An old Zen master always told this fable to frivolous students: Late one night a blind man was about to go home after visiting a friend. 
"Please," he asked his friend, "may I take a lantern with me?" 
"Why carry a lantern?" asked his friend. "You won't see any better with it." 
"No," said the blind one, "perhaps not. But others will see me better, and not bump into me." 
So his friend gave the blind man the lantern, which was made of paper on bamboo strips, with a candle inside. 
Off went the blind man with the lantern, and before he had gone more than a few yards, “Bang!” -- a traveler walked right into him. 
The blind man was very angry. "Why don't you look out?" he stormed. "Why don't you see this lantern?" 
“Fool! Why don't you light the candle?" asked the traveler.


Monday, December 28, 2015

In Search of the Genuine

Feeling disillusioned with this artificial world is the starting place of the spiritual path, say Anyen Rinpoche  and Allison Choying Zangmo. They offer a Buddhist take on the genuineness we long for. 

Many of us turn toward the spiritual path because of our disillusionment with the world we live in. Some of us have felt disillusioned for as long as we can remember. Even as children, we saw that the world does not match what we’re being told. For others, disillusionment may start to surface as we grow into adulthood. We feel that everyone else is made happy by a hypocritical world that makes us miserable. Why is that? 
What is wrong with us? We may self-medicate by using drugs, alcohol, sex, or food to escape the reality of our lives. Others just “give it a go,” trying to fit into our families, our workplaces, and our social circle the best that we can. In the process, we ignore our inner experience. We self-medicate with denial.
If our disillusionment becomes too much to bear, we should consider ourselves lucky. In Buddhist teachings, we say that human life is precious. But life is most precious when we wake up and want to do something about our pervasive feelings of unhappiness. As a result of our disillusionment, we aspire to make a meaningful change in our lives. Often, this manifests as the desire to live in a more genuine way.
One common idea is that being “genuine” means expressing ourselves with sincerity—stripping away all pretenses and being in the world “just as we are.” We begin to strip away the layers of personality we’ve built up like a shell to protect us from painful realities. We make our first step toward genuine living.
Many Westerners have come to associate this quality of living genuinely, openly, and honestly with the Buddhist path. This is one of the most beautiful ways Buddhism has interacted with Western culture. Buddhism is an authentic means of transformation, and when we take the practice seriously we start to notice changes in ourselves, our attitudes, and our habits that we thought were impossible.
The Buddhist path makes us genuine in every way imaginable. However, this raises several important questions. What does it mean to be genuine according to the Buddhist tradition? What does a genuine person look like? How do we actually become more genuine? The wish to become a more genuine human being is one of the main goals of Buddhist practice. However, there are both similarities and differences in the way Western culture understands what it means to be genuine and the way it is understood by the Buddhist tradition.
In Western culture, our wish to be a more genuine person may be associated with openly expressing what is inside of us. We feel that for so long we have been participating in a world that we do not believe in, a world that disappoints us. 
As a result, we want to start living more honestly right away. We want to find a way to embody our emerging spiritual values and spiritual life, to make our outer life more closely reflect our inner beliefs. We sometimes describe this process as “being true to ourselves.”
Honesty is an important foundation of Western culture and its values. It is something we hold so sacred that we teach our children about it in school and we expect public figures and presidents to uphold it. When Buddhist teachers began to teach Western students, it is quite possible that their first impression of Western culture was of the value we place on honesty. So we have an excellent place to start working with the Buddhist path.
In Western culture, being genuine has to do with changes we make on the outside—we take what is hidden inside of us and express it honestly to establish some kind of authenticity in our lives. 
This is a good first step. But for a Buddhist practitioner, becoming genuine is much more. It is a complete transformation of mind.
In the Tibetan language, one meaning of the word “genuine” is “free of deception,” which is consistent with the Western understanding. But it also means “perfect purity” and “flawlessness.” Therefore, we say that the truly genuine person is the one who embodies perfectly purity: a realized person.
This is because only realized people are completely free of self-attachment. We ordinary human beings are filled with self-attachment, which causes us to have all kinds of hidden agendas and unconscious motivations. Such hidden agendas never lead to true openness and honesty. For this reason the Buddhist practice of genuineness focuses on cutting through all levels of self-deception and self-attachment, whether they are related to ourselves, others, or the outside world.
Cutting through our hidden agendas is not easily done. However, this is something the Buddhist path specifically trains us to do. According to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, wisdom is realized by practicing what we call “skillful means.” These are techniques to take the aspiration we have to become genuine and bring it to fruition. Traditionally, these skillful means are described as the first five of the transcendental qualities, or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, and meditative concentration. But I would distill all of these into the essential transcendental quality: the paramita of selflessness.
On the Buddhist path, motivation is paramount. Motivation can seem like a small thing, but actually it is everything. After all, it only takes a single match to burn down a forest. Even very small thoughts and actions can be the cause of things that are very great or very destructive. If we cultivate and train in the aspiration to be genuinely free of self-attachment, then our motivation will ensure that our actions are genuine, no matter how it appears.
Cultivating mindfulness is the essential first step to genuine living. When we lack mindfulness, we forget to reflect on and maintain a positive and unselfish motivation. We may start off thinking, “I am going to be myself, honest, open, and genuine,” but when a situation overwhelms us, we go right back to our usual patterns. This happens because our aspiration wasn’t strong enough to begin with. We haven’t trained in it enough to make it a true habit that we can fall back on. Checking in with what is happening within us and becoming more mindful of our own selfish thought patterns help us purify and cultivate a more genuine motivation.
For that reason, we could say that the path of skillful means requires continual training in our aspiration. As long as our conduct is infused with that perfectly pure motivation, we know that our conduct is wholesome. 
Other aspects of the Buddhist path that can support our genuineness are the practices of listening and contemplation. We can listen to, study, and contemplate texts that teach about skillful means. We might study texts that present teachings on how to embody bodhisattva* conduct, such as the Way of the Bodhisattva. We can also read the life stories of realized teachers, knowing that these individuals have cut through all traces of self-attachment and are the greatest examples of genuine living we could possibly find. They exemplify how to work for the benefit of others and, ultimately, for peace. 
Another way we can learn how to become more genuine is to become involved in a community and to rely on a spiritual teacher. One of the teacher’s primary responsibilities is teaching students how to embody skillful means. This is done by interaction, by example, and by direct instruction. It happens because of a deep connection that forms between a student and the teacher, which enables the teacher’s very way of being and interacting to influence and permeate the student. In this way, the teacher becomes an authentic example of genuine living—being in this world in a manner that best supports others.

Genuine living is innate and natural. Inside each of us is the potential to cut through self-attachment and express ourselves openly, honestly, and unselfishly. With repeated training in and insight into our motivation, we are able to make real and lasting changes to ourselves and our behavior. When we do this, we have found the genuine wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. 
*a person who pursues a course in life that leads one to develop buddha-like qualities.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

One of my goals is to become ever more compassionate. And until you have begun to wrestle with your ego, and have lost, time after time, you don't know what a struggle "compassion" can be. 

The following was a TED talk  given by Joan Halifax which touched me deeply. I have watched this talk again and again and would encourage you to first read the text of her talk below, and then follow the link and watch her presentation. 



------

I want to address the issue of compassion. Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise. A line that the Dalai Lama once said, he said, "Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." And I would suggest, it is not only humanity that won't survive, but it is all species on the planet, as we've heard today. It is the big cats, and it's the plankton.


Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India. I was so privileged to be able to teach in a hospice on the outskirts of Bangalore. And early in the morning, I went into the ward. In that hospice, there were 31 men and women who were actively dying. And I walked up to the bedside of an old woman who was breathing very rapidly, fragile, obviously in the latter phase of active dying. I looked into her face. I looked into the face of her son sitting next to her, and his face was just riven with grief and confusion.


And I remembered a line from the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic: "What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?" And Yudhisthira replied, "The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don't realize it can happen to us." I looked up. Tending those 31 dying people were young women from villages around Bangalore. I looked into the face of one of these women, and I saw in her face the strength that arises when natural compassion is really present. I watched her hands as she bathed an old man.


My gaze went to another young woman as she wiped the face of another dying person. And it reminded me of something that I had just been present for. Every year or so, I have the privilege of taking clinicians into the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. And we run clinics in these very remote regions where there's no medical care whatsoever.



Avalokiteshvara's Mantra
And on the first day at Simikot in Humla, far west of Nepal, the most impoverished region of Nepal, an old man came in clutching a bundle of rags. And he walked in, and somebody said something to him, we realized he was deaf, and we looked into the rags, and there was this pair of eyes. The rags were unwrapped from a little girl whose body was massively burned. Again, the eyes and hands of Avalokiteshvara. [My Note: Avalokiteshvara’s name means “The Lord Who Looks Down (in compassion).” He took a vow to relieve all beings of suffering.] It was the young women, the health aids, who cleaned the wounds of this baby and dressed the wounds.

I know those hands and eyes; they touched me as well. They touched me at that time. They have touched me throughout my 68 years. They touched me when I was four and I lost my eyesight and was partially paralyzed. And my family brought in a woman whose mother had been a slave to take care of me. And that woman did not have sentimental compassion. She had phenomenal strength. And it was really her strength, I believe, that became the kind of mudra and imprimatur that has been a guiding light in my life.


So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there's referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I'm not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we're so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.


Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.


And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent, from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you'll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.


And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.


Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities. For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.


Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what's called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchers at Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey, we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.


You know, if compassion is so good for us, I have a question. Why don't we train our children in compassion? (Applause) If compassion is so good for us, why don't we train our health care providers in compassion so that they can do what they're supposed to do, which is to really transform suffering? And if compassion is so good for us, why don't we vote on compassion? Why don't we vote for people in our government based on compassion, so that we can have a more caring world? In Buddhism, we say, "it takes a strong back and a soft front." It takes tremendous strength of the back to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions. And that is the mental quality of equanimity.


But it also takes a soft front -- the capacity to really be open to the world as it is, to have an undefended heart. And the archetype of this in Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-Yin. It's a female archetype: she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world. She stands with 10,000 arms, and in every hand, there is an instrument of liberation, and in the palm of every hand, there are eyes, and these are the eyes of wisdom. I say that, for thousands of years, women have lived, exemplified, met in intimacy, the archetype of Avalokitesvara, of Kuan-Yin, she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world.


Women have manifested for thousands of years the strength arising from compassion in an unfiltered, unmediated way in perceiving suffering as it is. They have infused societies with kindness, and we have really felt that as woman after woman has stood on this stage in the past day and a half. And they have actualized compassion through direct action. Jody Williams called it: It's good to meditate. I'm sorry, you've got to do a little bit of that, Jody. Step back, give your mother a break, okay.

(Laughter)

But the other side of the equation is you've got to come out of your cave. You have to come into the world like Asanga did, who was looking to realize Maitreya Buddha after 12 years sitting in the cave. He said, "I'm out of here." He's going down the path. He sees something in the path. He looks, it's a dog, he drops to his knees. He sees that the dog has this big wound on its leg. The wound is just filled with maggots. He puts out his tongue in order to remove the maggots, so as not to harm them. And at that moment, the dog transformed into the Buddha of love and kindness.


I believe that women and girls today have to partner in a powerful way with men -- with their fathers, with their sons, with their brothers, with the plumbers, the road builders, the caregivers, the doctors, the lawyers, with our president, and with all beings. The women in this room are lotuses in a sea of fire. May we actualize that capacity for women everywhere.


Thank you.


Watch her presentation here