Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

July 4, 2005—September 28, 2005

July 4, 2005
I have been asking myself whether our concerns and fears that other people will think badly of us are not simply projections of our own mean-spirited thoughts about ourselves. Most of the time I am indifferent to the opinions of others. It is pleasing if they like or admire me, but I don’t take it very seriously. There are too many reasons why they might that have little real meaning. If they dislike or disrespect me, the same is true. It’s a shame, because that way I may lose the opportunity to interact with them in a positive way, but still it doesn’t tell me much about myself. But any time that I lapse into a state of discontent with myself, I am surprised to discover that I have suddenly become concerned with the evaluations of others, restlessly wondering how I may appear to them.

July 8, 2005
I don’t feel much need of it these days, but I’ve come up with a little device that might be handy in meditation practice. If we begin a train of thought, we can immediately picture it as a stick we are holding in both hands, and just as immediately we break the stick. At the moment we break the stick, what we experience, if only for an instant though it may last longer, is—emptiness.

August 1, 2005
We go through our daily lives exercising the habit of judging because we believe that judging is a tool. We believe that all those judgments will allow us to organize and ultimately control our world. So we work hard to get it all straight—deciding what is right, what is wrong, who is good, who is bad. Such arrogance, conscious or not, is extremely tiring. When we let go of all of that day labor and overtime work, we discover that our world is none the worse for it, is not even aware that we have stopped, and our relief may be profound.

August 10, 2005
We spend so much of our lives carefully constructing an identity (I am the kind of person who/ I believe/ I think/ I don’t/ I do/I have this past/I am planning this future), and we use this to ward off our own uncertainties and also to offer up this construction of self as a commodity to others, a way of negotiating our way in the world.

I am less and less interested in the constructions other people present to me, except as a way of understanding their present suffering, pain or freedom. I am more and more interested in the question, “How are you changing?” as I become more and more aware of how we are all continuously changing, and how stubbornly we try to avoid knowing that.

August 15, 2005
Coasting off the mountain of Deer Park I am thinking today about equality, as in liberty, equality, fraternity. While there, I deepened the evolving consciousness of others that has come with my practice. The true equality on which society should be based, isn’t an equality of circumstances imposed as a technical regimen, although much greater technical equality (of opportunity, education, wealth) would result. But a saner society would be based first on the profound, felt understanding that I am beginning to experience: that we are all not only interdependent (fraternity) but in many fundamental ways interchangeable and so we are irremediably equal in value.

August 16, 2005
It is remarkable that there is so much difficulty around the idea of “non-self,” as something truly esoteric, not for daily consumption. In our everyday world, we all use the expression “self-conscious.” We understand, without a Buddhist text, that the consciousness of self creates all kinds of problems in the world, prevents us from seeing clearly and acting effectively.

“Non-self” of course also means a consciousness of how we are inextricably interwoven with other animals, objects, forces in the world. But that larger awareness comes to us only when we have taken the step of learning how to lose our attachment to our identity, our self-consciousness.

September 1, 2005
The believed thought, “I am not good enough,” can bring intensely painful, sometimes paralyzing feelings. It can seem to possess our being, as if the person who is not good enough is who we essentially are. If someone we know is about to give a political speech or perform as Juliet, we often reassure: “Of course you’re good enough. You’ll be just great.” But those reassurances, to others or to self, rarely feel substantial enough to carry us through.

We may not be able to transmit the knowledge to others, but at least what we need for ourselves is: the acknowledgement that of course we are not good enough. Not good enough for what? The politician can never give the political speech that will change the world, the actor can never render every nuance of Shakespeare’s Juliet, or even change or move every member of the audience. Where’s the cutoff? Half the audience changed how much and for how long? And in the larger sense—that cosmic sense that becomes the indictment, not just of our ability to perform a particular task but of the essence of our being—how could we ever be a good enough human being? Probably we cannot even be Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Mother Teresa or Bach or Tolstoy, and they were not good enough. What would be the measure of good enough? How would anyone know?

Not good enough is the central force that drives all dukka, and lurks behind envy, aversion, attachment, fear, all of those manifestations. No wonder people are drawn to religions that promise that if they perform, or don’t perform, certain clearly defined acts, they will be good enough (though the certainty is rarely quite there). No wonder they flock to a religion that promises that all they need is faith in Jesus, and once they have been born again they will ever after be good enough.

One of the best ways to speak to the voice of “not good enough” in our own hearts is also one of the best ways for us simultaneously to grasp the first noble truth and to experience metta. That is, while we are suffering, we can look at people on the street, or people who seem very self-assured, maybe our our boss, or a judge or the president, and take in, in a deep way, that this believed thought, “I am not good enough” lives always somewhere in their being. It may not be on the surface today, maybe it will not rise up in them for weeks or months, maybe for some not for a year. But still it lives inside them, and most people, however unconsciously, struggle with its various forms several times a day. If they do not give it those words, the belief lies there behind their momentary shyness before going into a room, their moment of shame when they make a mistake, their stab of disappointment when they reread something they wrote yesterday that isn’t as good as they’d hoped.

For us to take in that reality deeply—to realize that “I am not good enough” is not only absurdly meaningless but is also the groundsource of everyone’s dukka—frees us from our own narcissistic and alienating anxiety. But more: instead of allowing that stab of pain to isolate us as special and apart in our presumed unworthiness, we can use it to profoundly illuminate the secret experience of others. In that moment of our pain, we can uncover the shadow side of every other human being, the shared and poignant dukka of our human delusion.

September 8, 2005
Talking with Sande about “not good enough,” she raises the question of the labels of right and wrong. Because we feel not good enough, we feel that if we can name someone else as wrong, we must be right, and that temporarily relieves our own pain. I thought later how that is also true for judgments of ourselves. If we can name ourselves as wrong, not good enough, a failed human being, at least that labeling part of ourselves is right and good.

I’ve been wanting for some time to write about a thought that occurred to me about the concept of karmic rebirth. I thought that if the Buddha taught this, he was probably delivering what Brazier calls a “teaching of a lesser scope.” I imagine him using the teaching that the toad or the termite might have been your mother in another life as a way of introducing his listeners to the way of being in the world I described in the entries of May 7 and following. Perhaps it was his way of helping his followers to see how they might relate to other human beings, animals or insects, so that the barriers drop and we feel that merging, that interchangeability—or at least that connection.

September 9, 2005
Jo squirms a bit at the notion that there would be a single dukka driving all other dukkas, but she recommends that I should at least substitute the single word “enough” for “good enough.” Absolutely. While the underlying believed thought may indeed be “I am not good enough,” the response is clearly, “I am enough.” My teaching then (and here Jo parts company) would be that if we clearly knew we were enough, there not would be all the other forms of dukka.

September 17, 2005
I am approaching—shyly and tentatively—the practice of fully accepting physical and emotional pain. I don’t have a huge amount of either, but before my talks or—with The Old Women’s Project—large actions I often have a week or more of a queasy anxiety (whose root is clearly “I am not good enough”). This time, for the first time, I came to a much deeper comprehension that, whatever my state of mind, it is simply and purely what it is and I don’t need to fix it, bring it back to bliss or even to equanimity—that, indeed, the true equanimity is letting it be. Not letting it be as we do in therapy—in order to release it or understand it or feel compassion for it or heal it or whatever it. Just listening in, recognizing it, and going on our way not in denial but in simple recognition. Is this what is meant by “suchness”?

Though I say it with a certain timidity because I feel it so untested, I am coming to the same recognition with physical pain or discomfort. Like a 19th century young girl at her first ball, I shyly enter this new territory.

In both instances, the difference between my experience now and earlier is that I have moved to a place beyond acceptance. A comparison leaps into mind: As an old woman, I could look in the mirror and accept my wrinkles, the scalp that shows pink through my white hair. But I do more than that, I welcome my appearance, find a deep satisfaction in it, in large part because it brings me closer to life’s reality—almost as though my aging body were an accomplishment. Not “wow, look how long I’ve lived,” it’s not that at all, it’s “wow, look how real I look.” Acceptance seems weak and almost insincere compared to welcoming. If I say, “I accept that people of color are moving into my neighborhood,” that is a dreary and almost negative remark. It is lightyears from welcoming the change.

So now, working with the practice of pain, I am practicing not to accept but to welcome. This pain, this discomfort is more life, puts me in touch with more reality, with the real terms of life. It connects me with others who experience similar pain, brings me to that centered place where “nihil humanum mihi alienum est”—nothing human is alien to me. How should I not welcome that?

Sometimes, I discover, pain is so unaccustomed to being welcomed that it evaporates in the surprise of it.

Of course, as one not normally made shy by my own arrogance or over-reaching, I find I hesitate here with a new kind of superstitous humility. To claim even these tentative forays into a new relationship with pain—how easy it would be to strike me down! The mere flip of an all-powerful finger, a single outbreak of shingles. And so I quietly, shamefully hope for a very gradual introduction to this field of inquiry. As if to say: Please God, send only one or two people of color to my neighborhood this year—I think I could be really welcoming, bring cookies, even ask them over rather frequently. For God’s sake, though, don’t let them come at once and take over the neighborhood!

Though I don’t so much have difficulty quieting my thoughts, I’ve had occasion to use the same attitude towards the distraction of a crowded mind. “Welcome, thoughts!” I say generously, and only then, still smiling and gentle as to beloved children, “Now sit down and be still.”

September 28, 2005
There is a certain light that can fall into my apartment and when it does, everything looks beautiful. It’s not supposed to work that way—light is supposed to expose the flaws, the dust. But the smudges on my kitchen floor look beautiful, the stain on my vinyl tablecloth looks beautiful. Or maybe they just look like themselves and the attention of the light is like an artist’s attention, so that the way they are noticed by the light, the acuteness of the noticing, makes them valuable.

I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but I suspect it is. Maybe if not in one’s own kitchen then when we travel and come upon for the first time the different light in Florence or in Santa Fe or in Nairobi, so that a crumbling wall or even a dog’s shit can suddenly seem blessed. It’s the same when we allow our minds to be that light, seeing each thing, each person, with close and caring attention, for what or who they are.