Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

November 10, 2004—December 16, 2004

November 10, 2004
A few weeks ago, I told Jo that keeping a meditation practice is like cleaning a garage. The garage is unbelievably cluttered, there is every manner of stuff everywhere, going back for many decades. Some of it is dusty and rusty, some of it has been taken out from time to time and sits on top of the old cartons, some of them tightly taped.

When we begin to clean out the garage, the first thing we must do is look at each thing as we pick it up. We may not want to do that since all we really want is a clean garage, but we can’t have that without observing what is already there. It’s part of the process. Once we start opening ourselves to the process, we are going to come across some things that we had forgotten, and gladly forgotten, but we can’t be rid of them unless we look at them first. Oh yes, those are my divorce papers; there’s the summons for drunk driving; these are my dead child’s shoes. We realize we don’t need to hang onto these things, but until we pick them up and look at them, we can’t put them aside to throw out, and the looking can be painful or disquieting. It seems odd that when our goal is to be clean and neat we can only reach it by facing some serious dirt and disorder.

November 11, 2004
Most of us believe that the continuous presence of our thoughts is valuable—our planning, our speculations, our memories, our associations. If they’re a bit chaotic, we try to bring them into line to tell a more coherent story. If our thoughts were to stop, wouldn’t we be wasting our time?

As we continue our practice, we begin to realize that most of those thoughts are actually interference, like a background noise that prevents you from hearing what’s really going on. Imagine that you are trying to write a poem, or solve a quadratic equation, or have a serious conversation with your child about why she is unhappy at school, and the television is playing in the room. We can’t find the remote. Our minds are the television set that we haven’t learned how to turn off so that we can pay attention to our real lives. As we practice, over time, meditation is our remote.

Of course, there will be an occasional tv program we choose to listen to—maybe a news program or a good drama or a cooking show—but it’s a choice now. It’s not that constant noise.

November 12, 2004
I’ve been thinking about extreme responses—fear, intense anxiety, explosive anger, powerful cravings—that are part of many people’s daily lives. It’s not that something my boss said might not mean I am losing my job, and if so, I should probably pay some attention to that possibility. But how?

It’s a little like how we set an alarm clock. We need to get up at six, that’s a reality, and we need to be wakened. So we set the alarm to “loud,” and every day at six it blares, shocking us into the morning. We’ve become accustomed to that, and we think we need it if we are going to respond. But some people who have been used to waking this way come to discover that they actually need only the faintest buzz to waken them. Or even, amazingly enough, that they waken automatically at the right hour without any alarm at all.

That’s how it is with our reactions to events in our world. Maybe we don’t need to feel that blazing anger in order to correct an injustice. Maybe we don’t need that wave of fear in order to make sure our back door is locked at night. Maybe we don’t need that panicky craving in order to make sure we get lunch. Maybe the merest hint of these warnings would be enough. Maybe we would act appropriately just by thinking, “That’s unjust,” “I need to check the back door,” “I should get lunch now,” “It’s possible that the boss’ remarks about my work mean he’s thinking of laying me off.” If some people can wake up with no alarm at all, couldn’t we?

December 16, 2004
Ever since the changes that happened in me during Barbara’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve been interested in how, more often than we may give credit to, life itself can create changes that we usually attribute to therapy or Buddhist practice, for example. For several years I’ve been maintaining, almost crossly the way one does when you think you won’t be believed, that before I began meditating I had experienced most of the gifts of Buddhist practice—the release of shame and self-judgment and anxiety, the focus on the present, the simple pleasure in service and generosity without an agenda, the freedom from attachments. I’ve said that the reality that people can attain this peace without Buddhism makes Buddhism more true, not less.

Last Saturday, I had lunch with Kathy P., visiting from Washington. Three years ago, on another visit, I urged her, as strongly as I knew how, to get some therapy. She was a workaholic, filled with anxieties, feeling that she was never good enough, always desperately trying to meet some impossible standard, still trying to be a good girl to her impossible and denigrating mother.

Since then, her husband, whom she loves dearly, has developed a ravaging bone cancer, leaving him with occasional dementia and physical helplessness, involving chemo treatments but also wildly invasive treatments such as removing and replacing all of his blood. It has been a truly wild journey, far and away more challenging than anything I faced with Barbara. Meanwhile, she has been juggling a demanding government job, sometimes with one of those bosses-from-hell.

I had a strong sense of the changes in Kathy from our phone conversations, but sitting opposite her in Ranchos restaurant last Saturday, I was moved by a profound recognition mixed with my wonder. In her face, her eyes, her voice, in everything she said, her transformation was unmistakable and clearly irreversible. She spoke of it herself—how her mother’s judgments can no longer hurt her and how she no longer has that need to please; how she no longer frets about what she did wrong if she doesn’t hear from a friend (“I realize they all have their own lives”); how she values each day of the time they have together, even though that day may be a difficult one; how she no longer is driven by work; and how, even though she is dealing with grief and loss she is even more aware of a profound gratitude for the time she has had.

So she took my advice and saw a therapist, only the therapist was life, was herself. And she became a Buddhist without a sutra or a precept or a moment of meditation.