Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

April 15, 2008—May 31, 2008

April 15, 2008
Ajahn Sumedo compares the body to a hotel room we have rented, and I’ve found that useful, though I find the following a slightly more exact image:

Imagine that you have been given only one suit of clothes for the coming week. If you are smart, during that week you will take very good care of your suit. If you spill something on it, you will remove the stain, you will hang it up neatly every night, if a button falls off you will sew it back on, you may even iron it if it gets wrinkled. You will say, “I’m trying to take care of my suit”; you will look in the mirror and say, “My suit is looking pretty good today,” or “I’m afraid my suit isn’t holding up too well.”

You will not be thinking, “This suit is me,” “I am this suit.”

April 18, 2008
In the past week I’ve had a sudden onset of osteoarthritis which an x-ray says is cervical degeneration of the spine. It’s been a trip and mostly a worthwhile one, with discoveries on the way. I’ve found myself, in C.S. Lewis’ words, surprised by joy. I had several nights wakened with acute, shocking pain radiating from my shoulder and chest down my left arm into my tingling fingertips. I practiced by allowing myself to feel the separation I describe above between myself and my body, so that I could still feel the pain but the pain was not me. I went into the study and began checking out websites, thinking it unlikely but still possible that the heart was implicated, feeling that anything was possible, but all without urgency and in great peace.

A visit to the doctor, an x-ray, the next day, were also strangely peace-filled. That evening I tried explaining to Mannie that I saw this as an opportunity to practice with pain, and how that was really the opposite of masochism. In an e-mail the next morning, I wrote:

I don’t know about Mother Teresa (maybe she thought self-inflicted pain would get God to talk to her). What I couldn’t explain properly last night is that I’m not into pain—it’s kind of the opposite. I’m into learning to expand the part of me that is suffering free, that doesn’t pile any stuff at all on top of the reality of the physical pain and discomfort. What we call our “pain” is really like a simmering stew of the actual physical pain stirred in with our additions to the pot of a half-gallon of worry, a pint of self-pity, two quarts of urgency, etc. until sometimes it could feed an army. When we take the add-ons out of the recipe, our “pain” in fact shrinks a great deal. That’s what I’m playing with, and it’s great. That’s what I mean when I say I want to practice with pain—it’s really practicing with diminishing pain. You will know what I mean.

I find this idea of the stew really useful, because for most of us when we think of physical pain it is very difficult for us to separate out the additional ingredients from the stark simplicity of the pain—it is not just suffering added on, it’s suffering added in, hugely enlarging the space and changing its composition.

Early this year, I wrote a series of “intentions” on 3x5 cards. One of them is: “I intend to expand my love and gratitude to pain when it is present.” These days, in my best moments, and without leaning on a conscious intention, that is exactly what I find myself doing.

April 20, 2008
Of course enlightenment is not always. Yesterday, with my mallergy clouding my mind, tired from the pain and the surprise of new difficulties (new to me, that is, the difficulties of opening a jar or fastening a bra or grasping a steering wheel), with a doctor’s appointment and a physical therapist appointment requiring that I ask smart questions within their famous fifteen minutes, I was mainly out of practice. It felt rather as though someone had left the room, and I was even having some difficulty remembering who she was. Still, to paraphrase the Buddha, “the practitioner at least knew that her mind was not capable of higher things.”

This morning, stumbling a bit in the kitchen, since the pain in my wrists comes sharp in that first hour of the day, I stumbled on a lovely realization, that reminded me what deep pleasure practice can bring me. Bettina was talking a few days ago about recognizing in herself what Cheri Huber calls “sub-personalities,” an idea that neither of us had understood before. “Sub-personalities” are the voices of the child—sometimes the judge (“you shouldn’t do that”), sometimes the needy one (“I want that! no, I want that!” which always means that our child wants something very different—love, understanding, compassion, nurturance), sometimes the jealous one (“Her piece is bigger than my piece!” which is also all about love and value), and so on. In a few instants in the kitchen this morning, the pain that kept stopping and slowing me from making breakfast turned to a brief self-pity, a pre-verbal sorry-for-myself, different from compassion, and I recognized that as a sub-personality, Little Cynthia lifting up her head.

I was impressed, and felt joy, with the liberation that this recognition brought me. Instead of being some slightly shameful feeling of my adult (who wants to be self-pitying?) I could see that this was a wholly legitimate feeling on the part of the little girl who received no compassion from others, that self-pity is the child’s version of compassion for self.

May 13, 2008
In the past two weeks, freed up by Naproxen to do more than practice with pain, I have begun my new work as “Spiritual Care Volunteer” at UCSD Hospital down the street.

After I decided that for many reasons I no longer choose to do the kinds of activism that I did for almost half a century, I spent a long time trying to decide what to do next. I knew I wanted to move to something more “hands on”, with an opportunity for more individual connection. As one of my “intentions” for 2008 my friend Zonzon has said that what we intend in this year will manifest itself—I wrote on a 3x5 card, “I intend to expand my love of others to those who are most ‘unlike’ me.” But I lived with uncertainty about what volunteer work I might do. Slowly but suddenly, as often is the experience, I realized that it wasn’t as important as I was making it—What I Should Choose and What Would Use My Abilities Best—because what I was really looking for was an opportunity to experience even less I. I attended a UCSD volunteer orientation, and later wrote down how I wished to approach the work there:

to approach with a pure heart and humility
to put aside the yearning to be recognized or even to be effective.

Bettina and I had been recalling Krishnamurti’s beautiful distinction between being an individual and being a human being, and when I told Bettina about the relief and wisdom that comes with letting go the yearning to be effective, she nodded, saying, out of her experience as a social worker: “As long as you are feeling incompetent you are operating as a human being, because life is so complex and encompassing, like a rich stew. Life is always flowing, always changing—there is never an expert.”

These past weeks at UCSD have been like diving into the rich stew of life, and I see how it is in the letting go—first of “I”, then of expertise, and finally of effectiveness—that the human beings I’ve visited and I have been able to meet each other and interconnect in that stew.

And even though I can find myself telling myself that I Chose the Perfect Work to Use My Abilities Best, I know that the rich stew is really the world, and once we let go of I and expertise and effectiveness, we can dip in anywhere and discover this joy.

May 15, 2008
A Buddhist friend used to wonder how she could feel more connected to people. It becomes clearer to me that connection is not a goal to be worked towards. Connection is already there. It is our natural way of being.

It may be more useful to focus our awareness on the obstacle that stands between us and that simple state. That obstacle is always our childhood conditioning—the kleshas and the protections that so cloud our vision of others that we cannot see who they really are and that they are not the others we imagine them to be.

May 29, 2008
What I’ve learned in these last weeks at the hospital: The truth of what I’ve so often told others—that when our being is clouded, the clouds seem an impenetrable wall that will take us forever to chip away at. In some ways it’s useful to be able to say, “Even if I have to keep chipping for a lifetime, I will do that, because that way lies my authentic life.” Still, I remind people that it is not a wall, only a cloud, and so on any day we can find it suddenly removed with the blue sky revealed. When I wrote my intentions on five 3x5 cards, the one that felt most likely to take a very long time was “I intend to expand my love to those who are most ‘unlike’ me,” and I meant for the work I was seeking to be an opportunity to slowly chip away at that intention. Causes and conditions at the hospital—the nature of the work, the willingness of people to open up their realities to me, along with my practice and my intention—have made possible such a leap through the clouds that I hadn’t imagined.

May 30, 2008
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that from an unconditioned aspect it is not meaningful to talk about “my life” and “the plant’s life” as though these were entirely separate lives, that in reality there is only one life that flows through me, you, the animals, plants, insects. We all share and interconnect in that life flow. This is the experience I have visiting the patients in the hospital. It is as if, because of all of the causes and conditions there, I can step directly into that life flow, and much of the time I feel no separation between myself and the brain-damaged lawyer who cannot make a sentence, the Mexican prisoner in chains, the homeless alcoholic. In that short space of time, in that odd place where mortality cannot be easily denied, we swim in the same waters.

May 31, 2008
What you decide to do is not so important. Discernment may tell us that in the conditioned world it is better to finish painting the porch instead of cleaning out the attic. But in an awakened state we can see that when we are engaged in any task—or making love, or listening to our neighbor—with mindful attention, we are at that moment attending to everything in the universe.

Mindfulness is not simply focussed attention. It involves awareness and appreciation. It takes us into the place where through the object or person before us we can see the miraculous that is present everywhere in our everyday lives.