Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

September 20, 2007—October 30, 2007

September 20, 2007
Last night Linda, who works in an OR, told us about a recent operation she’d attended where the surgeon did not wait for the usual “time out” to review name of patient or nature of operation and such—he just started cutting, lightly but all the way from chest to lower abdomen, before discovering that his patient was there for a thoracic aneurism. We talked about the feelings of the patient and his family, the possibility of a lawsuit, our own varying degrees of shock and horror.

When we spoke of it this morning, Bettina said something that left its impression on me. She was guessing that in a poor Third World community where medical care was scarce, and one was lucky to find a surgeon at all, reactions might be very different. While feeling pain for their loved one’s suffering, family and friends might still recognize that mistakes, even ones with terrible consequences, do happen, that they are a part of life. They might not feel the same self-righteous horror and indignation that so characterizes Western responses—whether to receiving a steak well-done when we ordered medium or the wrong leg amputated. The same sense of personal affront—how could this happen to me?—as though there had been an intentional violation. The same anger and contempt towards the person who made his or her human error: “What kind of waiter would be so careless?” “What kind of surgeon could do such a thing?” And in most cases, the anger and contempt reaches higher: “What sort of establishment hires waiters who are so careless?” “What kind of hospital is this anyway?” Almost as though a larger sacred order has been found wanting in that single human mistake.

Bettina suggested that a society that is more a community than ours is more likely to have a sense of interdependence and shared humanity in place of our arrogant assertion of the supremacy of our individual rights. We could see that there is freedom for the spirit in that view of the world, and a deeper understanding of the nature of reality.

September 29, 2007
In the film “The Straight Story,” a woman’s car runs into a deer and kills it. In a very moving performance by, I believe, Marcia Gay Harden, the woman loses it. She bangs against her car, she weeps, she bends over the deer’s body, she screams, she keeps up a torrential monologue to herself and to the unfairness of the world. She has tried everything along this road, beeping her horn, keeping her lights on, looking out carefully on both sides of the road, and somehow, once or twice a week, a deer appears out of nowhere in front of her car—“Where do they come from?” she calls out to no one—and she has killed another deer. This is the only road between her house and her work, 40 miles each way, she has to take this road, but that means she will keep on killing deer. “And I love deer!” she cries, and we believe her and understand her rage and grief.

And yet perhaps this too is a very Western outcry. She has been a good person, done all the right things, even the right technical things—the horn, the lights—and yet everything does not come out right. In affluent Western culture, it is supposed to. We have a powerful illusion of control. Recently I read in an editorial for a widely-circulated Senior magazine, “Old age is a thing of the past.” We do believe that we can control illness, aging and death, with pills and operations and fitness machines and lifestyle changes, just as we believe that we have a right to expect that a good surgeon will never make a serious error.

I suspect again that in a poor country, closer to the natural world, there is not the same sense of entitlement, a kind of Western-world version of karma—if I do everything right, I have a right to expect that I can control the outcome. In a culture where some years I plant the corn and it comes up beautifully, and other years I plant it just as carefully and it dries up and must be fed to the cattle, in a world where my children are as likely to die in infancy as live to be ten, Marsha Kay Harden’s indignant protest would be unlikely.

All to say that we live in a society where affluence has separated us so far from the natural order that we have developed vastly exaggerated expectations of our ability to control cause and effect, and are horrified and betrayed when those expectations are not met. It is a heavy burden.

October 5, 2007
I told Sande yesterday that I felt like someone beginning to turn a corner—I am turning, I can glimpse what is there to see though I haven’t quite turned it.

As so often happens in our practice, I thought I had turned that particular corner. It’s the corner of allowing one’s feelings to exist, not trying to push them away, giving them our simple awareness and compassion.

I had worked with “feeding the hungry ghosts,” actively inviting in the unwelcome feelings. In my entry of September 4, 2007, I spoke of giving the caring attention to our feelings that we would give to a sobbing child, and later of my caretaking of Little Cynthia. But for me the corner that I suspect makes all the difference has been one word, that I found myself saying to Little Cynthia: “forever.” I had told her that she could be sad as long as she wanted to, but on one occasion I went farther and said, “You can be sad forever if you want to. Even if it’s forever I won’t start to hush you or turn away from you.”

I felt the difference, and I can see why. When we say to our Little Selves, “I accept your anger,” “I care about your anger,” or even, “You can be angry/sad/afraid as long as you need to,” there is for most of us, there is for me, a well-hidden but real agenda: “I hope it won’t be too long.” “I hope you can get this out of your/our system so that I can get back to happiness and equanimity.”

What makes forever so powerful is that it closes the door on our secret agenda, on all the reservations we have about staying with our feelings. It is acceptance at its fullest.

Whenever we say, with compassion, “You can be sad/angry/afraid/irritable forever if you need to,” two aspects of ourselves are present. One of course is our Little Self, the being who is sad/angry/afraid/irritable. But the voice that speaks to her with compassion is the voice of our Large Self, our Buddha nature. The more patient and compassionate that Large Self, the more she expands. Perhaps she only started as a tiny light beam of awareness, much smaller than the Little Self, then grew to feel compassion for the Little Self (“it’s ok to feel that way”), and then more and more (“you can have this feeling as long as you need to”), but when she has come to a place where she has the patience and love to say “forever”, she is a radiant expanse, unlimited, as large as the universe.

October 8, 2007
Many people are aware that there is something arrogant about preening ourselves for having done something to help another person. We might feel a mild pleasure at having given blood this morning or a deeper satisfaction at donating a kidney, but few of us would repeat over and over to ourselves, “What a wonderful person I am for what I did/said.” We would see such self-congratulation as egotistical, especially if it took all the credit for someone’s good fortune: “My letter got her into college,” “My coat kept that homeless person from freezing,” “Without my loan she could never have started her business,” “My lecture made him stop drinking.”

Yet so many of us exercise exactly the same lack of humility when we believe we have done/said something to hurt another person. To repent our Self-ishness, our thoughtlessness, over and over, is to stay trapped in Self-ishness. While it is valuable to recognize that we have done or said an unskillful thing, repentance in the form of ”I did a terrible thing, I am such a terrible person”, is just as Self-centered, just as egotistical, as insisting on our marvelous virtue. Both are exercises that build up the muscle of Self-importance. Like self-congratulation, our flagellations of guilt assume that that we are the only cause and condition in someone else’s life, that they are not on their own path with their own self-responsibility for determining what is harmful and what is helpful. We might as well beat ourselves up for not having saved all sentient beings, when the Buddha tells us that there are no sentient beings to be saved. We vow to be helpful and not to be harmful, but we must never presume to be so sure what is, in the largest sense, helpful and harmful.

Both self-applause and guilt are stances that lack humility, the humility of knowing that we cannot know the full consequences of our actions or all of the forces at work in any life—or death.

It seems interesting that religions encourage their followers to have humility about their apparently good deeds and to have self-importance about their apparently harmful ones. Bettina suggests that guilt and repentance serve religious structures well, since they bind us permanently to the institution that promises to temporarily relieve our self-hate—through repentance chanting or confession—while it keeps us coming back after every sin or misdeed.

October 11, 2007
Sande says that when she loosens her need to control situations she has a delicious feeling, which she calls, “stepping into the power of the flow.” When we can give up our own narrow little agendas—and that includes self-congratulation and guilt—we can feel the larger flow of the universe, with its wider wisdom, its quieter and more powerful energy.

October 20, 2007
As we free ourselves from craving, we may stumble upon a more subtle form of wanting. On a number of occasions, I’ve found myself missing wanting, remembering how wanting—a new CD, a new blanket, a new turtleneck—felt somehow good, seemed a pleasure in itself. I haven’t paid much attention to that curious nostalgia, that wanting to want, except to smile at it when it arises. But the other day it came clear to me. Wanting—regardless of what we may want—is a very effective distraction. Like turning on the tv, picking up a puzzle, going to a movie, wanting is one of our ways to escape having to be in the present when the present is somehow disagreeable to us. Our real wanting may often be, not that Lexus or this candlestick, but simply “wanting out.”

Some wanting, of course, feels pleasant, some feels unpleasant. Even an unpleasant craving can serve to pull us away from a present experience which may be more problematic than the pain of that wanting. I wonder whether a sexual addiction, for example, may be an addiction to the wanting, a distraction from other more painful feelings about our value or our deep discontent with our life.

We might test our feelings about the Lexus or the candlestick or the pornography by pulling back far enough so that we are able to be with the wanting rather than in it. Awareness always brings us back to the present, where we can begin to see whether we want or want out.

October 30, 2007
Bettina and I have been talking about energy. We recognize that, because we both have attention disorder, we are working on fewer cylinders than “normal” people do, though we question that labeling more and more. Sometimes it’s rather like trying to move an RV uphill with the engine of a VW Beetle. I’ve lived for 15 years with the relief that came from understanding that I have a disorder, and the compassion that accompanies that relief. Now aging has recently further decreased my cylinders, and I am adjusting to an acceptance of that change. Sometimes my earlier association of incapacity with unworthiness pops up, and Little Cynthia feels like a Bad Girl in ways she hasn’t for years. Bettina has just begun to recognize, with relief at the insight, how costly has been her effort to be constantly energetic, tirelessly strong.

But we’ve also come to identify that there are times when we marvel at our own energy, an energy of flow that is so different from the energy of will. After Barbara’s death, I was amazed that I could go on speaking gigs at lesbian or women’s conferences and keep going and going and going for long days and nights with no effort. Or when I lift and carry without stop all day helping to set up the water stations on the desert, I am not in the least tired at the day’s end. At those times, I am doing exactly what I choose to be doing for my life’s purpose and the people around me are doing the same—there is no ego to trip me, no negativity to interfere with the flow of positive work and interconnectedness. I think Sande experiences the same miracle of energy flow when she gives her giant Living Compassion yard sale. I reminded Bettina that she possessed that energy, that flow without force, this summer when, with back pain, she drove us all day and into the night on winding roads from Port Orford to Fort Bragg—because she was coming from a place of centered practice, and our time together was rich with insights. Later she remembered that she was in that flow for a year when she had her first social work job, doing work she believed in with people who shared her values.

Bettina remarked that if we can note those differences in energy—low or no energy, the energy of force, the energy of flow—it can be a guide to whether our work is wholesome for us, is what we are here to do.

The energy of force is an energy of accomplishment, of fixed goals and expectations. It derives its energy from the future and its judgments are often harsh. The energy of flow is an energy of creativity. Open to the unexpected, it moves with the present moment as it moves, with discernment but free of judgmentalism, nourished by the joy of the now.