Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 15, 2007—March 14, 2007

February 15, 2007
This has been a year of dramatic—and sometimes as with Hurricane Katrina tragic—swings of weather. Sometimes people have dismissed it as no more than an “El Nino” effect, and “El Nino” is certainly capable of creating extremes of weather. But others have pointed out that, while El Nino plays a role, the changes we are seeing are almost surely intensified by our planet’s underlying climate change.

I suspect that the same is true for my mental functioning this spring. While I am clearly affected by what I call my “mallergy”, a yearly sensitivity that slows my mind down to molasses, it also seems that the slowing has become more acute, that whether I am in an early phase of Alzheimer’s or a normal slowing of aging, the molasses comes on top of that, and in combination with my ADD makes for a more profound change this year.

I can feel more and more what it was like for Barbara in her daily life with Alzheimer’s—the forgetting from moment to moment, the sluggishness, the effort required to focus. I sometimes wonder if the practice of remaining in the present makes me lose the discipline that the attempt to remember involves. And oddly, remembering Barbara’s serene acceptance, I am sometimes concerned by my own acceptance of this condition, while at the same time as a practitioner I encourage that acceptance. Barbara in her present world almost never had kleshas; we know the apparent cheerfulness of many who have Downs syndrome. I can’t be the only person who has wondered how we tell the difference between enlightenment and dementia!

I am deciding that the key is found perhaps in the quality of our investment in the present—not simply resting there by default, but whether we are actively engaging with our presentness.

February 20, 2007
I see more that the fundamental effect of the growth of our practice is how it gradually expands the observer—though I think that the word “observer” too much implies a “me.” Better perhaps to speak of simple “awareness.” We often begin our practice life with our dukkha filling almost all of the available space. Our discomfort that the zafu is too lumpy or that our back hurts when we breathe, takes up almost all of the room, stretching out even into the meditation hall, with only the slightest edge available for awareness of our exaggerated reaction. Over time, the awareness gains confidence and begins to grow, slowly shrinking the dukkha. In time it also spreads outward, into the room, beyond the room, beyond limits.

I didn’t have a great deal of emotional dukkha when I began to meditate, so when there was physical comfort the awareness could expand; since then the awareness has expanded around physical discomfort, but I still feel a beginner around what I perceive as pain. I think, though, that by practicing with small pains, the same effect will show, and that over time the awareness will spread in a wider circle, shrinking more severe physical pain into a smaller and smaller space.

March 9, 2007
This has been a strange and elusive time, and I am writing now out of another space. These days when I try to write I can’t trust it, as though I had lost the place of knowing, or if I enter it for a moment I move out of it as soon as I touch. It is either what I call my “mallergy,” the state I enter every spring where everything becomes an effort, my mind becomes molasses, I have difficulty remembering. Or it is a rapidly encroaching dementia—or it is both, with a side order of attention disorder.

Sometimes, as I suggested in my entry of February 15, this condition seems like a mockery of practice. Thoughts go by like clouds, just as meditation instruction suggests. I have no shen pa (is that the Pali for the “hook” that Pema Chodrun speaks of, where you can’t let go of a thought or feeling?). I have no worry. I have no attachment (though it is more like detachment, which is quite another state). And of course Krishnamurti would be thrilled by my moment-to-moment lack of memory and my growing acceptance of that lack. It is almost amusing to feel the groundlessness of not knowing whether I am—molasses aside—in a further development of my practice, or utterly losing it.

To practice without having room internally for an observer has challenged me. A few times I have felt the old excitement of practice, of internal movement, the hope of growth, the tiny lotus bud springing up from the mud. Once was when I read Thich Nhat Hanh, pointing out that irritation and compassion are equal, that one is not to be more welcomed than the other, both simply to be recognized. Though I’ve cut back hugely on what I expect of myself in the world, I had been feeling at least a brief sharp stab of irritation, frustration when I lost track of an insight or couldn’t perform a simple task or remember a simple thing. I was able to absorb Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom and begin to notice irritation with some of the interest I might find on experiencing a feeling of compassion. (Oh, and that is an important difference from former practice—I have had less access to the well of compassion that before this change was filling up for me, was spilling out to water the path that I thought was before me and that I was excited about following as far as I could.)

I actually began to experience irritation less (I stop, as I often do, to wonder, is this the acceptance of practice or the acceptance of Alzheimer’s?). What came up for me then—probably the layer beneath the irritation—was sadness. When I sat down to write and found only fog in my mind, when I lost an insight I had tried to catch by the tail, I would be briefly swept by a wave of sadness, feeling that loss. The other day I suddenly saw the reality: Sadness is Craving. Somehow that reframing has been hugely helpful. It is so easy for sadness to have a seductively sweet life of its own, a justification of its self that makes us victim to it. Craving is something I actively do, something that I know I do not have to do, something I have learned I can stop doing if I can recognize and name it. It is freeing to see that.

There is something we name sadness which is different from the sadness of craving, a sadness we often need to honor if we are to free ourselves from the craving sadnesses. It takes us to the place deep in our being where our longings had their beginnings. Linda went to a workshop recently where someone was crying, and the facilitator pointed out that these were not tears of sadness, but tears of homecoming. Like the tears of pure grieving (without the dukkha) that are tears of gratitude for what we have lost (the tears recognize the loss, but the feeling is not about frustrated attachment but profound love), tears of homecoming are not about craving but are the tears of the recognition of past craving, our appreciation and love for the child self who suffered.

March 14, 2007
Through the molasses of my mind this spring, I’ve been staring into the loss of my identity, whether I’ve named it that or not. It feels different from other strippings away of persona. Who am I if I can’t write, be even the least helpful to others, interest myself with the speculations of my own mind, keep an awareness that permits my practice?

Walking through Florida Canyon with Bettina yesterday in meditative silence, I thought:
The consolation for not having an identity, is connection.
If I am nobody, I can be everybody.

I interrupted our silence to say this to Bettina. But found myself adding:
But it is easier to see this if you don’t have molasses.