Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

December 8, 2006—December 27, 2006

December 8, 2006
Bettina tells me about a friend who was asked, for some reason, to go into a preschool with survey questions for the children. She asked one four-year-old, “What do you think is the major problem in the world today?” The little girl considered the question and, with some conviction, answered: “Dinosaurs.”

We may laugh in amusement at how different the adult’s world is from the child’s. But most grownups think in the same way. The little girl sees a television newscast, and it shows what is “really happening” in the world. When “Jurassic Park” is being shown, she watches the same screen, and for her it has the same reality as the newscast. Adults may find a profound difference between the two experiences, but in fact neither has reality. The flickering images and sounds of the newscast seduce us into believing that we now know something about the “real” world and about relative importance that we didn’t know a few minutes before. Unless we are offended by what we decide is some bias, we forget that someone has selected which sights we are to see, what voices we are to hear, in the newscast as in the film. The “major problems in the world today” have been defined for us out of someone else’s head just as Steven Spielberg defined dinosaurs as a major problem in Jurassic Park. We are much more like the little girl than we realize.

Any of us who have spent serious time meditating know that it isn’t only the unreality of the media. It’s the unreality of reality. Our minds offer us almost entirely the same kind of untrustworthy flickering screen as the television—filled with other people’s definitions, old scripts with players who may no longer be alive, old newscasts and films and books and articles, other people’s ideas and our ideas from last year of what is important and what is not. We run that private mental television constantly and we give it the same importance that the little girl gave to “Jurassic Park.” Our minds, like the movie, are filled with dinosaurs, and that is our major problem.

December 10, 2006
The other day, Bettina was talking about what she might want from her work, and I began to ask myself what I might want from mine. It came to me for the first time to ask, not what kind of work I want to do, but what it is, through my work, I want to give. And the answer came simple and clear: I want to give inspiration and encouragement. This is what I have had the deepest satisfaction in giving in all the forms my work has taken, whether teaching writing, whether working with programmers at Digital, whether teaching ESL, whether introducing meditation to newcomers, whether The Old Women’s Project—and of course in all my work in the women’s movement. For me it was a kind of revelation, as if I were in my twenties and couldn’t decide whether to be a doctor or a fashion model, and suddenly I realized that what I had always loved to do in my life was work with numbers. Such a revelation doesn’t tell one instantly what one should do, but it brings a necessary clarity to the search.

So my revelation shows me which kind of doors to open, though I haven’t opened one yet. Today, on the desert again, I noticed a mild restlessness. It was a faint dissatisfaction that I haven’t “gotten my act together,” haven’t been recently exercising my gift in a meaningful—to me? to the world?—form. Then I had another kind of clarity. I saw that this little nudge for accomplishment/achievement/a clearly defined purpose/a way of defining my value to myself and explaining myself to others was what Thich Nhat Hanh calls a cow. In the story, Buddha is giving a dharma talk in a meadow when a distraught farmer rushes into the group, begging everyone to tell him if they have seen his cows, which are so valuable and have escaped from their pen. He is yelling and tearing his hair. The Buddha explains that they have not seen his cows and he should look elsewhere. (Bettina pointed out that the Buddha’s compassion had such discernment that he did not offer to help the man look for them.) When the man has run off, the Buddha says, “You see how fortunate we are, my friends. We have no cows.”

I understood intuitively that my need to find work in a hurry was a cow. Later I remembered that in practice we are urged to refrain from seeking enlightenment, from pushing our practice towards any goal, but to stay with our intention and do what promotes that intention. If this is true for enlightenment, surely it is true for the rest of our lives: we can stay with our intention and do what promotes that intention. To deeply accept Being is not to turn one’s back on Doing; it means only that we refrain from all Doing that comes out of our fear of simply Being.

December 27, 2006
I’ve sometimes talked about a turning point, common to new meditators, when I allowed a fly to crawl slowly across my cheek without swatting it or even waving away. It happened several years ago on a cushion at Deer Park, and it turned me towards seeing what it means to let go of the need to control our environment, the liberation and peace that flows from that. That day, or perhaps later, I learned the pleasure of enjoying harmonious relationship watching a fly walking on my arm.

A few days ago, sitting on a mound of sand on Black’s Beach, meditating with my eyes open, I had another such gift from flies. They began to gather on me, small ones who, conveniently for my experience, were neither buzzing nor biting. Instead they walked slowly and with interest for a long time across my arms and hands, occasionally across my cheek and nose. This time my experience was of a different kind of relationship. I was serving the flies, not with some small sense of my own importance as when I feed an animal or the desert birds, but with the sense in that moment of being less important than they. In that moment on Black’s Beach my arms and hands existed for them, as objects of their curiosity, as walkways for their little legs and feet. I could feel a shift in my sense of my place in the world, a deeper equality with all sentient beings. I could feel how sometimes I can seem more “important”, more powerful, more the center of the action than another sentient being, but that would be only causes and conditions, as the Buddhist says, not something inherent in my value, not something for me to measure myself by. Sitting on Black’s Beach, with the little flies using me for their purposes with no input from me beyond my stillness, it seemed easy to feel my way to being my corpse fed upon by the flies and the worms, and to be comfortable with that. I felt closer to the miracle of my death, and to the sweetness that comes from that. I sat there amazed at how with our crematoria and our heavy boxes we try to avoid a reality which was creating in me such a feeling of peace with the universe.

Krishnamurti writes about the emptiness of the search for more and more “experiences”, and I take heart from that, since attention deficit disorder has severely limited my own ability to cram my life with experiences. Of course my sense that he is on a right path is tainted by a self-serving hope that what I have always felt to be a limitation might not be a serious loss and perhaps has helped me to cultivate other ways of being. But even if one is unwilling to dismiss the value of packing our lives more and more fully, it seems likely that our powerful attachment to experiences creates an important hindrance to our acceptance of death. The cynic might say, “Well yes, of course the more one enjoys life, the less one will welcome death.” Still, I enjoy life deeply and though I’m a bit queasy about dying, I don’t fear death. More than that, I sense that the more fully I accept death the richer is my “experience” of my life—I can hold it and view it with an open hand rather than have it shut off from me in a closed fist.