Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

April 2, 2007—April 27, 2007

April 2, 2007
I’ve been reading Emotional Healing, conversations between medical scientists and the Dalai Lama. They are speaking of the immune system. “The immune system allows us to have a bodily existence. If you interrupt the immune system...your body starts to disintegrate,” says Francisco Varela. Daniel Brown says that “autoimmune disease, the body misrecognizing its own cells, is a kind of delusion from the body’s perspective.” Sharon Salzberg pulls it together saying, “I wonder if there isn’t a similarity to the autoimmune diseases, where the body doesn’t recognize its own cells, its own integrity, and so begins to destroy itself. Perhaps an external version of that happens when, out of ignorance, we don’t recognize others as ourselves. We start to destroy ourselves when we don’t recognize our integrity, when we don’t have a sense of all of life being like ourselves.”

I think Salzberg is talking here on a personal level. But I see it too as a way of thinking about our self-destruction, from climate change to wars, of the world we have known. Like the body’s reaction in autoimmune diseases, our failure to recognize our interconnectedness on the planet has been destroying the whole, and probably has reached a point where we have attacked our own cells in so many different ways that there may be no going back.

I always feel the need to find a way to be with knowledge. How to be, then, with the knowledge of global destruction? Hearing Salzberg, I could see that it can be exactly the same as though we had heard our own diagnosis of AIDS. Our first work, with that diagnosis, would be not to indulge in denial. Denial—the denial of our interconnectedness—is the root cause of our diseased state and we are now in equal denial of the seriousness of our illness (are the diagnoses right? surely we don’t really have AIDS at all) or how close we are to death. Assuming we have practiced “living in the light of death” we would be less likely to meet our diagnosis with denial, more ready to recognize that our ending will now probably come sooner rather than later. As in facing AIDS, it need not seem impossible to us that we could extend a similar acceptance to the likely death of the world as we have known it.

And as in facing AIDS, as in the rest of life, we need the ability to find a middle path. We need to fully accept our painful destiny, the many different diseases that are going to erupt,—while at the same time recognizing the importance of taking special loving care of our rebellious bodies/our violently erupting world, and of remaining open to at least the possibility that there is a cure that we cannot currently see.

If we can imagine doing this complex dance with our own diagnosis, we have at least a way of imagining how to confront the painful dying of the world.

This analogy feels helpful in finding a way to be. As with any illness, there’s an odd freedom that comes from Salzberg’s diagnosis of our plague of pains: we are destroying ourselves globally because we don’t recognize our integrity, because we don’t have a sense of all of life being like ourselves. As I take in the full meaning of all that our collective denial of reality—the reality of interconnectedness, the reality of the seriousness of our illness, the reality of our probable self-destruction—has led to, it only increases my thirst for truth. It also adds an extra urgency to my struggling efforts to fully recognize my interconnection, my integrity and to know ever more deeply that all of life is like myself, so that I can work harder at not being part of the autoimmune disease that is destroying us all.

April 14, 2007
“Arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” seems a nice metaphor for all of the fussy concerns we indulge with such false importance (a false importance that introduces most of the kleshas into our lives) on our way to certain and imminent death and, as it seems clear, the certain and imminent dying of our world. Larry Rosenberg has titled his book “Living in the Light of Death,” and in that light whether or not we have Dijon or Germanstyle mustard for our carrots, the argument with our partner about whether the sofa should be against the left wall or the right wall—all that bourgeois suffering—seems the ultimate denial.

Living in the light of our rapidly sinking ship doesn’t mean we sit in a stupor on our deck chairs. We can’t stop ouselves from sinking, but we can live the life we have with clearer priorities. When we smear the mustard on our carrots we can smear it in the light of death—mindfully treasuring the golden stream of crushed mustard seeds against the orange stalk, seeing how the carrot comes to us from the earth, from seeds, from farmers and truckdrivers and grocery clerks. The light of death may make us aware that how the sofa came to us—from trees and loggers and carpenters and truckers and salespeople and delivery people, the enormity of that gift—may be more important than which wall it rests against. Living in the light of death means living as though life mattered in more than those petty ways we have accorded importance for so long that we have become like mindless stewards on the Titanic, believing in the value of our deck chairs, fussily serving them, while the water of death, which is also the water of life, rises all around our ankles.

April 17, 2007 (written a couple of months earlier and not typed in)
The more we allow ourselves to experience the full range of our feelings in their depth and in their subtlety, the more we can penetrate the first noble truth. The variety of our own suffering gives us insight into the variety of suffering in the world—from the intensity of anguish to the way one can quietly protect our heart even on a “good” day.

More and more I see that uneventful closing of the heart as itself a form of suffering, since while it means to protect us from wounds to our ego, it stubbornly keeps us from the joy and peace and freedom of connection.

April 20, 2007
I have come alone to the desert house to be with myself, to listen to what is happening to me with attention and respect. Of course it may still be molasses, but I can still give it my attention and respect.

April 22, 2007
After that, I couldn’t write more. Yesterday I sat down to finish a letter to Grace I’d written a few days before in what I believed was a molasses-free patch, a half-hour of clarity I could snatch to think and to write. I had felt such deep pleasure from this little reprieve that I was startled to realize the letter before me was poorly expressed, even a bit incoherent.

Today, after stumbling through the morning and afternoon scarcely able to move in my body or mind, I stared down what felt like for me the ultimate Letting-Go. The desert wind, that had been fanning my mallergy, quieted and let the questions rise. Suppose I can’t write, suppose I can’t, even in the smallest ways, even by smile or gesture, inspire and encourage. Suppose I were no more than this lump I have been so often these past months, though never more than these past two days on the desert. How could I still want to live? What would I be then?

Somehow in the desert silence I found my way to caring for this lump, for seeing that, even with my senses so blunted, I am a sentient being. I took myself in.

Then suddenly, it occured to me that this may be exactly where I need to go. If I write myself off for being a lump, how can I properly value the existence of all those who, for physical, mental, emotional reasons are lumps, can’t inspire and encourage and can’t be inspired and encouraged. I realize that it is not that I’ve felt contempt for the lumps, the wholly unresponsive, the entirely dull of mind and spirit—rather they have not been in my world, I somehow haven’t bothered to enter them into my rolodex of humanity. Barbara with Alzheimer’s was not a lump.

I felt changed, enlarged. It seemed to me as if, after slogging through the mud all day, someone had unexpectedly leaned over and placed a jewel in my palm and my hand closed around it to make it mine. A jewel because it is so small an insight and yet it feels so valuable.

I see now that this may seem the same insight I came to on March 14, when I wrote: If I am nobody I can be everybody. This happens so often in practice. We keep discovering our truths at deeper levels, but each level feels, is, a new and different experience. My understanding on March 14 feels shallow now—it did even then—because it was a mental concept. I could see another way of being. The understanding here came on a cellular level. I was another way of being.

April 24, 2007
From a conversation last night with Bettina:

Couples come together, and stay together, for a number of reasons. Among these are comfort, pleasure, reassurance, shared interests, security. The problem with any of these comes when they meet up with impermanence. What gives me comfort this year may bore or annoy me next year; you may find that pleasure with me has lost its shine, and be driven to look elsewhere for that missing joy; I may find that I have come to a place where I no longer need reassurance from without, and may begin to find your reassurances patronizing; your interest in basketball or Russian literature may dry up so that soccer or Chinese history seem much more appealing; and if any of these happen, security is out the window, or rather we discover it was never there at all.

There is nothing wrong with comfort, pleasure, reassurance, shared interests, as long as we know they do not bring security, as long as we practice non-attachment.

The only real security, in relationship or in any other part of our lives, comes from not depending on security, from accepting groundlessness and coming to appreciate it. The corrective in relationship as in any other part of our lives comes from two people who—while they may give each other comfort and pleasure and reassurance and enjoy shared interest—keep their primary reason for coming together, their primary reason for being, their intention to meet life.

To meet life means, of course, that whatever happens—my loss of a job, an earthquake, your diminished pleasure, my annoyance with your comfort, your cancer diagnosis, my grandmother’s broken cup—what our life is about is engaging with that, not at the level of fixing it, though some things we will want to “fix”, digging out after the earthquake, glueing my grandmother’s cup, finding another job, but meeting life at the level of practice, using whatever comes up to allow us to absorb more of the underlying reality of life.

If that is our most profound reason for coming together, how could we lose?

April 27, 2007
Bettina and I were talking about intensity, our forceful and insistent personalities, and how we’ve seen that as part of our basic natures. I said, and I’ve been believing it more as I reflect on it in the past days, that that intensity is not part of who one is at one’s core. The intensity is what we and other “intense” people developed early on in order to protect our core.

I think of Krishnamurti’s distinction between being an individual and being a human being. As long as we need to see ourselves as individuals, having fixed and precisely articulated identities, we will mistake that individuality as Who We Are. But our core is something else altogether. It is who we are when we have stripped away our particular aversions and cravings. Our core is who we are as a human being. Bettina and I needed our intensity if our core was to survive the powerful challenges of our childhoods, the intense individuals who pressed their wills on us, and later, into our young adulthoods as we struggled to free ourselves from our childhood demons. We needed intensity to resist the violation of our core.

The core is a place of stability, peace, discernment, joy. It is our essence and it is sometimes our surprise to learn that we can preserve it best without the bells and whistles of intensity. It is trustworthy even in its fluidity, capable of transforming our judgementalisms into judgements, capable of turning our intensity into the steadiness of intention. I have known such transformation in these past years, felt my intensity shrug and slip away as I see more and more clearly the steady power of the core’s intentions. Bettina and I no longer need to scream, as it were, to be heard, or to convince ourselves: what my father, her mother, says is not always right! we can make our own choices! we are not who they think! That the intensity is the child in us, not our core, becomes clear when we see how it extends to the trivial, how we absolutely must have mustard with our carrots (“What is the matter with Mary Jane? And it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again.”).

The child deserves our respect and compassion as she does what she needs to do to preserve her core. You can’t make me! It’s not fair! Stop it! I won’t! Better that than to cower or to be indifferent to cruelty, injustice, suffering, or to be indifferent to the value of our core. Only, it is a gift to learn that we no longer need that intensity to do the work of our lives, that protecting our core protects it even from ourselves.