Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

July 1, 2007—June 30, 2007

July 1, 2007
On our little meditation altar, I’ve posted a 3x5 card that reads, “pushing away what we don’t want is aggression.” I don’t remember where I found that, but it’s been very helpful to me in my current practice. The other day, settling in to meditate I thought of an addition: “not to push things away is integrity.” Our wholeness comes from experiencing all of who we are—and ultimately that means acknowledging our interbeing (in Thich Nhat Hanh’s word) with everything and everyone. To push away any of those parts of ourselves—our anger, the dog’s feces, the irritable boss, the night sky—is to do violence to our wholeness.

July 2, 2007
I want to welcome a change—a slight shift, really, that, as so often happens in our practice lives, helps us into a different world. A few weeks ago, I came into the morning feeling sad. Standing in the kitchen, about to prepare breakfast, my relationship to sadness shifted. I had practiced with awareness of feelings with acceptance, awareness of feelings with interest, but that morning I could feel myself going towards the feeling of sadness with welcome, opening the door as a host would to a valued guest. I opened the door so wide that after a moment I could feel it spreading out to join the flood of sadness in the world. Instead of sadness being an isolating and lonely experience, it was a vast connector.

That shift has, I think, allowed me to rest comfortably and lovingly with my growing incapacity, a memory loss and a kind of fog which were decidedly a part of the sloth and torpor of my “mallergy” but these days are just as decidedly present without it. I spent today consciously practicing with just that awareness, and I observed that I was reacting with an ease and dignity to the spluttering of my mental processes. To paraphrase the Buddha’s observation, and as I’ve said to fellow practitioners long before I read The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, it is of great value to note when anxiety or self-judgment are not arising. Today, they were not arising.

The sadness arises often, without apparent “cause”, and I allow it in the moment to remain causeless. I know it is simply a natural state for the awakened heart, while I believe in these days my heart has been awakened in part by my gradual taking in of the impermanence of my beloved mind.

A sadness that one has no need to change is a kind of joy.

July 2, 2007
Talking to Sande about the sadness, I add that it seems easier to accept a deep sadness than the occasional bouts of irritability and frustration that can still bedevil me when I have a task to do and my mind won’t focus, or hold a thought from moment to moment. Telling her this, I find myself saying, “I think it’s because sadness has nobility. There’s nothing noble about irritability.” Many hundreds of thousands of poems have been written on sadness, but we can’t expect a poet to ennoble our irritability at not being able to organize our papers.

July 3, 2007
I smile when I realize the task Bettina and I have set for ourselves. Tasks, rather, because we have, deeply respectfully, decided not to join in the spiritual work of the other. That seems a simple decision, perhaps, but truth is that when one partner is going through something of life-changing intensity, the instinct is often to drop everything and stand beside her at the center of her struggle. In these days we can see that the challenges we are each encountering are deep at our lives’ core, and require our devoted and singular energy and attention. It’s for that I smile. Both of us find easier the role of concerned partner trying to be helpful than the caring partner who disentangles herself from the pain of her beloved.

In these days, each of us has a full-time job in the mines, but we are working in separate shafts. Sometimes we are choking with the dust, sometimes feeling our way skillfully through that darkness, sometimes stumbling in the dark, sometimes baffled and exhausted, but coming out again from time to time into the sunlight with our wagons full of the earth’s glowing minerals. We meet then as practitioners sharing what we have gleaned, holding and valuing one another’s difficult treasure, now so simple and pure.

July 4, 2007
I’ve been observing these waves of sadness, and today I felt more clarity about them, and that makes them easier to experience. I believe they are a manifestation of a natural grieving...like the waves of grief that followed Barbara’s death, they come and go, and between them I can experience deep pleasure, be filled with a quiet and profound joy or a simple contentment. I experience the waves as periods of deep sadness rather than grief, but I believe they are mourning the loss of my mind as I have known and enjoyed it, even delighted in it, made it my sweet companion who—as Bettina does—has brought me precious insights, ways of viewing the world, skilful ways of expressing those perceptions. As when I was grieving for Barbara, it’s extremely rarely—almost never—that my thoughts, energies, feelings go to wishing my loss otherwise. And occasionally, as I’ve described it, I can feel my personal grief moving outwards to embrace and connect me with the larger world, even as I feel narrowing of my world which will reduce, sharply limit, my abilities to interact with others.

With this understanding, I can feel a loving tenderness and compassion for this sadness of mine. A respect, as it were.

Somehow, naming it mourning today made it possible for me to find a consolation—an answer to the question of what I can have when the mental faculties, limited as they have been by ADD, that have brought me joy have left me. I saw that what I could have is my consciousness—the being, the presentness that is there for me in meditation when I move into simple awareness without language, without thought, without busynesss of any kind. So there is that, and I almost smile at my possible naivete even while I remind myself of the mantra Thich Nhat Hanh suggests for the beginning of a sitting, “May I be free of mental processes.” So there’s that, and delight in nature. Why not—with a little help from my friends—a life observing the immense variety of the world’s beauty?

July 9, 2007
One of the bonuses of these apparent losses, which I’m still exploring, seems to be that, with less mind to distract me, I am beginning to be able to move deeper into mindfulness. For many years I’ve been able to enjoy mindfulness in the shower or out walking or just sitting or working at my desk or talking and listening. Now I find that simple domestic tasks begin to feel like a rich territory I have for a long time looked at without being able to enter. Oh yes, on a day when the light is just right and the world is silent, as it often is on the desert, the act of slicing a carrot or washing a dish can feel sacred and delicious, but more commonly something has stood between me and the simple act. I recently uncovered a resistance I feel around completing a task, and realized that it was because a finished task was something others could use to judge me, and I see that when I’m dusting, vacuuming, preparing food, a monkey mind that carries me away from the task seems not so much there on its own as there to shield me from those judgments. Somehow it seems that this most recent and sweeping of letting-gos, of self-acceptance, may be releasing me from the subtle self-judgments that have hung like a veil between myself and the pleasure of simple tasks, the most basic forms of mindfulness. I find a kind of eagerness to move towards the simple pleasures of simple tasks; I took out the ironing board this morning with a gentle thrill of anticipation, and setting up the board and iron, moving the iron across the cloth, finding the right corners to nose it into, offered me just the peace and happiness I expected.

July 10, 2007
Since living a practice life, I’ve learned to be fond of the word “intention.” It’s lost its flavor of determination: “If it’s the last thing I do, I intend to win this battle.” It’s no longer an exercise of ego, but a centering of self to keep in our minds where we are going.

There’s a difference, to me at least, between the partners who intend, in that centering sense, to meet life together, and the marriage vow. We speak of the “sacred vow” of matrimony, but actually intention is more sacred. It is not a forcing, an aggressive steeling of the will, an arrogant presumption “I will keep this promise no matter what.” Intention is sacred because it is more open to reality, which does not respond well to rigidity. It is more open to the beautiful insight from a poem by Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

July 11, 2007
Michael Owen the other night described himself as not a Buddhist, but Buddhish. I took the term and ran with it. How lovely to find a word to express who I am, and many others of course. Not accepting a religion, but finding in Buddhism truths and insights that, instead of “guiding,” can nurture and confirm and expand my spiritual experience. I love the squishiness of it, the way it rests in not knowing—and thus of course becomes more Buddhist than Buddhism.

July 12, 2007
Bettina has been reading Joko Beck’s Simple Zen, which was the first Buddhish book I read. She recommended that I read the beautiful section on relationship, one page of which I’d marked years ago. But what struck me freshly was something I probably was not able to absorb before. Joko describes relationship as not simply between partners or friends or other people or even animals, but as something between ourselves and everything else in the world. We have a relationship with a table, a leaf, a stone, a bird. Yes. As I sink more deeply into a mindful life, less clouded by the chatter of mental processes, and look at life more directly, relationship with everything that is becomes more and more valuable and loving. Relationship is experienced when we don’t just look at a chair, when our minds are clear enough so that we can see that the chair looks back at us.

July 14, 2007
I am very moved by Joko’s distinction between people’s behavior and their experience—her observation that what we see, and judge others on the basis of, is their behavior, but who they actually are is their experiencing of the world. Mostly we go through life judging books by their covers.

The word “selfish” to describe someone is all about their behavior. “While we were out she ate the whole apple pie.” “He wouldn’t give up his seat on the bus to that lame old woman.” What almost always is the reality of someone we call “selfish”, their actual experience, is someone walled in by their own kleshas.

Outside the window of our apartment is an ornamental pear tree. It gives us pure joy. In spring it’s awash with white blossoms, in summer it’s a glistening green, in fall and into the San Diego winter, its small leaves are a luminous red, sometimes with streaks of bright green.

For the first time this past month we’ve seen whole branches brown and dead. We went to the best San Diego nursery, spoke to their pear tree expert, who told us that the tree—and the red apple ground cover beneath it—shouldn’t be watered, that “overwatering is the cause of 99% of plant deaths.” Rick, the gay young man with AIDS who lives downstairs, waters heavily and often; John, the apartment’s 80-year-old part-owner, who comes weekly for maintenance, waters it heavily. I shared with each of them my concern, told them if they had any question they should call the tree expert themselves. They each seemed ok with this, agreed to stop, but in a few days when they thought we weren’t home, we saw each of them was watering just as heavily, just as often. Yesterday morning I heard the full force of the hose. When I went outside, I learned that the African American administrative assistant in the office below, has also been watering our poor tree. When I gently told her the same story, I realized that the expression in her eyes was the same blank stare as that in Rick’s and John’s—not confrontational, or even disbelieving, simply tuned out. I knew she’d be watering another day.

At breakfast I told Bettina that I suddenly got it. People today—Rick, John, the office worker—are starving for a moment of mindful peace with nature. It is so rare and so precious that the friendliest, most compelling argument won’t change them—even if their mindful contact is the kiss of death.

I was guessing of course, but suddenly I could imagine their experience as I hadn’t before. Before, I’d been free of judging them—even as I tried several times to change their behavior, which I judged foolish, I’m aware that there are always kleshas and perceived needs behind such apparent disregard. But now I can connect at a deeper level with how their experience might affect their behavior. I can see that their behavior is no different from mine when I smoked to get a snatch of peace even though I knew it could kill me, even after I learned my “second-hand smoke” might hurt Barbara.

As Bettina said, it’s odd how we are so entirely focussed on the behavior of others, instead of imagining their experience, even while our sense of our own reality comes almost entirely from what we are experiencing and very little from observing our behavior.

It’s only when we begin to caringly imagine the experience of others—at a deeper level than guessing how they feel about us or “he’s in a bad mood,” or “he does that because he’s selfish” or “she doesn’t talk because she’s shy”—that we can even begin to make deep connection to others.

First of course, we must make connection with ourselves, at a deeper level than “I’m a controlling persons” or “I’m shy”, which are ways of seeing ourselves that are also almost at the level of behavior. It’s by knowing our feelings at that deeper level that we can learn to feel compassion for ourselves and extend the same compassion to our brothers and sisters in their suffering.