Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 14, 2005—June 20, 2005

May 14, 2005
Paula has adopted a new habit, spraying her fingers with an antiseptic after she serves herself at a restaurant buffet. It felt so prissy to us that Tessa and I started to tease her, but then I found myself saying that, in truth, we all have special habits or rituals that comfort us because they give us the illusion of control in a world so vastly beyond our control. Prayer, germicides, smoke detectors, vitamins, fat-free cookies, hoarding—the obsessive compulsive is only someone who has more extensive rituals of control than most of us. To Tessa and myself, Paula’s new ritual seemed over the line, but who decides where that line is? Probably the laughter when we think someone else’s control ritual is excessive serves to ward off our uneasiness that our own magical reassurances may be equally foolish.

The problem with control is not that we decide to wear our seatbelts or buy long-term care insurance. That’s fine. Squirting your fingers at a buffet is fine too—except that most people will accept the others and may giggle at the last, only because it’s a ritual that isn’t commonly shared. The problem lies when our ritual is a way we avoid actively embracing the reality that we live in a world where we have absolutely no control. Sure, we may be able to influence events slightly one way or another, on this or that particular occasion, and that may be well worth doing. In Buddhism Pure and Simple, Steve Hagen reminds us of the proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Of course it’s fine, desirable to lead him to water. But often we believe that if we lead him in just the right way, talk to him in just the right way, surely he will drink. When we let ourselves believe, at however unconscious a level, that the seatbelt will prevent death or injury in an auto accident, that the insurance will be there for us when we might need it, that the antiseptic can ensure that we won’t get sick from the buffet, we haven’t moved outside the field of fear, which always has many more landmines than we can deactivate. And somehow we always know that even those mines we think we’ve taken care of can still explode in our faces.

It sounds terrifying to know that we have no control over outcomes, but actually it frees us from fear. Most of our fear is our fear that we will not have done enough to protect ourselves, will not have adequately ensured the outcome we believe we need. My fear is not that I will give the best presentation I have ever given and my boss will reject it; my fear is that I will somehow have not prepared enough and will forget my main point. My fear when I hear a noise at night is not just that a burglar will break in, but that I will not know what to do when he does, that I don’t have a gun or didn’t get double locks on my door. If I can let go of those fears of not being in control, get rid of the illusion that I should be in control, I am less likely to be immobilized, I am freer to do what needs to be done in the fluid situation of the moment, when the boss interrupts with an unexpected question or the burglar orders me to dance with him. To know clearly that we have no control over outcomes leaves us free to negotiate more appropriately in the world. When we see the reality of that world, we can go to meet it in all of its unpredictability. Otherwise, we spend our energy shoring up the illusion that if we just do it right we can force everything to be ok., waste our resources in endless worry, and then in self-blame when our attempts at control fail.

To know that we have no control is not to abdicate action and responsibility. It is to act more effectively and responsibly, since we are responsible not to an illusion, but to reality.

May 22, 2005
The terms often used in Buddhist teachings for our reactions to “pleasant” and “unpleasant” experiences are “attraction” and “aversion.” While “attraction” means pulling towards, “aversion” means turning away from. Who wouldn’t instinctively turn away from what is unpleasant? In reality, though, if we have a pain in our back or someone insults us, the likelihood is that, instead of averting our consciousness, we will be drawn to it as if it were a desirable feeling rather than an undesirable one. Emotionally, we are often like looky-loos at the scene of an accident, clogging up the highways of our mind in our fascinated attraction to the unpleasant, so that the necessary vehicles can’t get through.

Steve Hagen’s use of the word “leaning” seems useful. It invites us to observe our subtle responses to experience, as well as reactions as strong as the words “attraction” and “aversion.” But also “leaning” does not prejudge whether what we lean towards is pleasant or unpleasant. Because in the end that is unimportant. Our practice is to develop an ever more refined awareness of all our leanings.

May 28, 2005
Jo says I make too fine a distinction between dukkha (dissatisfaction, discontent) and what I call “suffering.” She almost convinced my mind, though my spirit did not join, by saying, “Buddha would not feel grief.” For awhile, that seemed almost inarguable. But today I’m not so sure.

I haven’t felt grief in a long time, but this morning when I was in the car, the radio was playing “In My Life.” I was swept back to that moment on Humboldt Street, when Barbara placed a Joan Baez recording on my stereo and said, “Listen to this,” moved the arm to that song and looked at me. I had thought that it might well be fifteen years before I meant to Barbara as much as Marge, her partner of fifteen years, had meant. I felt secure in that little pact with myself, I didn’t long for something more as long as I had the fifteen years. But “In My Life” said: perhaps the miracle has already happened. Today, listening, the grief rose up, and so I had a chance to examine it.

I’ve examined, and I’ve decided that the Buddha could feel grief. Grief in its pure form—without the dukkha, the distress (without the Ohmigod how I miss her, or the now I’m all alone, or the I should have told her I loved her more, or she should have lived longer, without any of those add-ons)—is profound gratitude. It is not unsatisfactory. It satisfies a deep need to re-experience the preciousness of a gift. It allows us to squeeze yet more sweetness from life. I believe that the Buddha could have experienced grief, and that he could have experienced the joy of sexual merging, even if he never experienced either. Those experiences take us to the realm beyond attraction and aversion or leaning. They take us directly into the heart of life, to reality in an essential form.

May 29, 2005
Another truth that is counterintuitive if we rely on reason for our intuitions, but intuitive if we listen to our experience: the more spacious we feel—the more easy space there is around us— the easier it is for us to feel how we are merged with others. It is when we allow the world to crowd in on us that we feel isolated, single, atomized. This is not surprising, since the spaciousness means we have cleared away the clutter of restless assumptions, projections, judgments, dissatisfactions that keep us from meeting other lives.

May 30, 2005
In the last two entries, I’ve used the word “merging” instead of “connection” to describe the melting of the barriers we ordinarily set up between ourselves and others. “Connection” is a mechanical word, at best a handshake where my fingers and palm may firmly meet your fingers and palm, but we are still firmly clear on who is who. Merging is what happens when we lose those sharp distinctions, shake loose from those stiff boundaries of self. Sexual merging with a beloved tells us something we need to know about what it means to move beyond boundaries. Or when I enter the old man eating oatmeal, or respond to the mentally disturbed young homeless man who strokes my hair at the sleep-out, these also are mergings, not simply connections.

LATER (July 18, 2005)
It occurs to me that the distinction between connection and merging is like the distinction between “noticing” and “awareness.” Noticing is a fine thing in ordinary life, but it rigidly preserves the distinction between my self and whatever I am observing. Awareness is more fluid, it is a sea in which separations are not meaningful.

June 5, 2005
Pilates is a form of aerobics favored by dancers. When I attended Pilates classes at the Y, I was told that the effect of all of that body activity, the continuous flow of those exercises, is to strengthen the core muscles, and I could feel that effect in my abdomen.

When I attended a daylong meditation retreat on Saturday, I could feel the effect deep within, stable, secure. As we work to cultivate our awareness of impermanence—the constant flux and fluidity of our lives—we can sometimes forget it can lead us to this rock within, what Thich Nhat Hanh and others call “home.” Meditation is Pilates for the spirit. It strengthens the core.

Like Pilates, meditation teaches us that when we broaden our breath, when we enter wholeheartedly into the instability of the dance of life, we can find our center and trust it to hold.

June 7, 2005
When I talk about activism for social change, as I do, I’ve heard more than one Buddhist remark, “Well, you know, not everybody is political.” Indeed I do know. Still, the person seems to be suggesting something like, “Well, you know, not everybody is interested in astrology/good at math/enjoys long distance running.” Meanwhile, what I hear is something more like, “Well, you know, not everybody is compassionate.” That’s also true enough, but compassion is different from those other examples. Compassion is not just a question of whether I have a special interest or aptitude. Working for social justice is the natural and necessary extension, beyond our immediate families, beyond even those we serve in the soup kitchens, of the arc of caring to “all sentient beings.”

June 15, 2005
In the documentary “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” the man who tends the parrots refers to a Zen interpretation of the world. It fits my sense of things. In this metaphor, every being is part of a large stream. When it reaches the waterfall, the stream breaks up into individual droplets, and that is how we usually experience our lives—as separate, distinct one from the other, each one different. But when we fall to the bottom, we become once more part of the larger stream. Some people may know, much of the time at a deep level, about this larger oneness, our source and destination. I only glimpse it—in those moments of merging I’ve described in my entry of May 30.

June 20, 2005
Self-blame and self-exculpation come from the same place, and neither has the slightest use for the truth or curiosity about what that truth might be.