Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 3, 2008—February 29, 2008

February 3, 2008
I have felt sad when I have thought of Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of mindful housework—how we should wash each pot as though we were washing the Buddha’s head, sweep the hall as though the Buddha would be coming to walk down it. Lately I’ve come to see that what prevented me from performing household taks with loving care was the intervention of a fear being judged. If I tried to do full justice to a task it became tainted with perfectionism—better to leave a few spoons in the sink to show that the work was unfinished and so no judgment was possible. I am coming to feel freer now to experience housework in another way, and that is sweet.

Today, with a small rising of tears—of sadness and gratitude mixed—I suddenly understood something about myself that I have been mildly curious about for years.

I spend an inordinate time on fixing, arranging things that nobody will ever notice—efforts that feel right but seem absurd even to me. It’s not OCD—it’s a secret pleasure. I buy a shampoo because it is in a bottle of a color that will, as they say, “pick up” the color of the shower curtain and of a box or bottle across the room, and play with another color the same way. Or, while not dusting or properly organizing the study, I will be meticulous about some detail of how the plants are set out or the color—again—of the file folder on my desk. Even shopping—I will spend absurd time in thrift shops and kitchen stores to find a potholder with exactly the color and shape for its place in the kitchen, while I might not do a thorough cleaning of the refrigerator because there is an outside standard for that task.

It is all very slow and very subtle, and it is not to create House Beautiful for an imaginary guest or to please my partner. It has seemed to me both silly and lovely, as though I were my own lover, not understanding but cherishing some little odd habit of the loved one.

Today I discovered: blocked by childish fear of judgement—by others or myself—from the kind of loving mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh describes with common household tasks, I went underground. I created my own slow, loving, careful, mindful way, protected from judgement, of relating to the world, in which the shower is the Buddha, treated with that respect and caring, only not in a way that anyone would ever consciously recognize.

The tears were sadness for the child in me living in such deep fear of being found wanting, and joy at realizing that she had found her own secret way into the mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh describes.

February 9, 2008
I want to try to record my dream of last night. It will be difficult because so much of the importance of the dream lies in its affect—the calm, clear feeling tone of its dreamer. It is the affect that goes with insight and discernment, freedom from grasping and aversion.

I am in a doctor’s waiting room. It is Friday afternoon and there are many people waiting in the chairs outside the office door. When I am called, I go in and explain my symptoms to the doctor, a pleasant, intelligent-looking, short and slim man, Jewish I think. “I have a lot of pain in my stomach, about two inches below my belly-button,” I say, pointing to the spot, amused that I have used a non-technical term. He slowly turns away from me, and I see that there are tears clouding his eyes. It is clear to me that there is only one disease that has this symptom and that he knows that I will die. Without judgment, I am aware that his reaction is non-helpful, more about himself than about me. Finally he explains to me, very briefly, that I will need to have six treatments of radiation, which I can tell from his manner will not prevent my death, though he never uses the word. He calls in a tall woman doctor who measures me with a tape measure and nods to him, confirming his opinion. She is neither grim nor cold, just seriously doing her job. I am not her patient, and she trusts my doctor to take care of my needs. When she leaves, my doctor goes into his inner office, and I realize that he is waiting to see another patient.

I follow him in. As I go the few steps down the hall to his open door, I prepare what I will say, slowly, firmly but gently: “Look, this is one of those moments that you went to medical school, did all those years of training, for.” Meaning, to be really present and helpful to a patient at a time like this, which he is not being. I know he is truly sorry that I am going to die, but that is not useful to me. I am not looking for sorrow or comfort, only for time taken in a professional but caring way to answer questions or volunteer the information that he possesses. But at once I realize—I discern—that that is not at all what he went to medical school for, that he went to save lives not watch people die, that death is an enemy to most doctors, who like mine, turn away when they feel there is nothing they can do to stop it.

Instead, as I enter his office, I say: “Look, I know there are a lot of people waiting out there, and this won’t take much time at all. First, I want you to know that I am somebody who has looked at reality for a long time,” I repeat: “for a long time, and I have a wonderful partner.” I am reassuring him that if he takes a little time to talk to me, he doesn’t have to worry about needing to empathize or comfort. I just want him to be present for me at this important moment.

Meanwhile, I am taking in this new reality. I think very briefly, barely wistfully, that this isn’t the time I would have chosen to die, because my practice is so interesting right now. Then I think, not co-dependently but with quiet discernment, “Wow, this is probably the worst possible time for Bettina, because it is exactly the time when she is learning to be there for herself, not always helping others, and now she will need to be there for me.”

The dream ends with my responding almost immediately to that concern, by thinking, “Oh well, that’s not so important. She’ll be fine. This will just be another way in to engage with what she needs to work with. It will be different, but it will be o.k.”

The dream ends there, because whatever the doctor does, and I imagine he spends some time with me now, what is important is the how and not the what of the dream.

I lay in bed, as I rarely do, when I woke up, wanting to stay with the gift of the dream, the feeling of my own clarity, my readiness to be with life.

February 13, 2008
Our kleshas, our dukkha have their seeds, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, in our storehouse.

This image came to me yesterday: Yes, there are seeds, and something else as well. Those seeds from long ago can send up tough, poisonous weeds that take over the meadow of our minds, sometimes forcing out the flowers that come from more wholesome seeds. We need to find the stubborn roots of those dukkha weeds and tear them out. We need to dig down deeply enough to expose them, to uncover the profound pain of childhood that we’ve dreaded revisiting, if we are to uproot what has sunk that deeply into our soil. While the dukkha weeds will always have their seeds scattered about in us, so that an unexpected wind can dislodge the soil and blow them up to our consciousness, they are seeds only. Once we have torn out the hidden roots, we can learn how to wave away those seeds like the fluff of dandelions that they are.

February 23, 2008
One thing that happens when there is transparency—no veil of dukkha or judgments, no past or future between us and the world—is that everything becomes alive, or reveals its life to us.

The difference between life and the kind of death we impose on the world is that what is living can never be summed up, defined, explained, stopped, entirely known.

Seen with transparency, people and animals shed the one-dimensionality we have stamped on them with our judgments and evaluations and labelings, and become flowing and luminous, rich in their suffering and pain as well as in their buddha natures. Seen through transparency, objects too leap into life with the fullness of their beings, vital and pulsating in the play of light on their surfaces and the depth and variety of their histories—who designed them, who formed them and how, who loved them, who transported them, who picked them, who planted them, who constructed them, who painted them, and in what soil, light, factory, workshop, large intestine, studio, garbage pail. They dance in the richness of their realities, their secret lives that are always there and that we can glimpse and love when we lift our veils.

I think that when we say we are missing someone, we are not really “missing” that person. We are missing how we feel when we are with her—maybe lovable, maybe loving, maybe smart, maybe at ease, maybe interested in life, maybe appreciative. If we can identify that feeling, which is what we are really missing, it can tell us a great deal about what is “missing” in our own lives, either generally or at that moment. It can make us aware of the direction we want for ourselves, what we want in our life or on that particular day that should not be dependent on another human being for us to experience. When we feel that an experience—a dramatic sunset, perhaps, or a powerful film—means less to us because it is not shared, we need the awareness of how we ourselves must not be wholly present.

Of course, another person can be important in showing us what it is like to feel lovable, or loving, or smart, just as spending time in the desert or at a monastic retreat can show us what it is like to be mindful. Still, when we are with that other person, or in the desert or at the retreat, we need to know that whatever we are experiencing is ours, and that we need to be packaging it “to go.”

February 25, 2008
All fear—unless we are being chased by a tiger at that moment—and all sadness is rooted in childhood. I can’t prove this, but I know it (as much as one can know when, as Ajahn Chah loves to say, “it’s all unknown”).

Last weekend on the desert I felt sad, a heaviness in the heart without words. I practiced with it, letting it be, watching it, and finally, just as I was readying to leave, it came to me. These past weeks, through Bettina’s explorations of the narcissism in her family, I have come to a deeper understanding of my childhood, how everyone, from sister to grandmothers, was narcissistic and quite incapable of seeing me. I took this in with my mind, added it to the knowledge I had already stored, felt a kind of relief that now I could comprehend the confusion that my sister had brought into my life—with such insight earlier I would no longer have needed to be baffled, her relation to me would have been clear and obvious. All of that felt helpful and clarifying.

As I wiped the floor before leaving, I saw that what I had not done was take that information, those insights, and do honor to Little Cynthia who lived in that desolation, who did not have the insights and so kept the longing and the deep sorrow for what she did not have. My sadness on the weekend was sadness for her, an insistence that I acknowledge in a deeper way the loneliness and longing of those years. My sadness, I recognized, was the sadness of compassion, the kind of compassion one might feel watching an early Rosselini film (I had just watched “Two Women”) or The Pianist”. How could you watch without compassion? How could I, as a feeling human being, understand more deeply the utter isolation of Little Cynthia and leave her purely on a mental level of understanding? Well, I couldn’t, and the sadness of the weekend was my necessary and appropriate tribute to that little girl.

February 26, 2008
Practicing with the transparency I describe on February 23, 2008 a recognition came to me this morning in the shower. We often speak of nature as sacred, feel that depth of appreciation, that awe at such wonder. This morning I saw that everything is nature. When looked at transparently, seeing it in its full life, there is nothing that is not part of the natural world. The plastic bag comes from the rich lush oil of the earth’s depths, contains the heat of fire, the hands of hundreds of living folk. To the transparent eye, whether it is a pencil, a rusted pipe, a gas pump—even a gun? asked Bettina, and I insisted yes—everything in the universe is from nature, belongs to nature, affirms nature. To the transparent eye, everything in the universe is full of wonder, awesome, sacred.

February 29, 2008
Yesterday Bettina was talking about the vision she often returns to, a vision of how she would like to live—a simple life, almost like a shepherd, and she spoke about her days having rhythm. At first I didn’t quite understand rhythm, because I think more about flow, and that felt different. Then I saw that nature has a rhythm, is a rhythm, a rhythm that urban life disturbs, and I saw that the days I spent in the trailer on the desert had a rhythm.

It occurred to me that there are two elements that take us out of life’s rhythm. They are urgency and stuckness. They seem to be opposite: urgency says, “I must move right now!’ and stuckness says: “I can’t move, I’m not willing to move.” Truth is, they are the same conditioning, and whenever we experience either one we can know that we have temporarily left the place of wholesomeness, left the flow, left the rhythm of life.