Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

August 2, 2008—November 1, 2008

August 2, 2008
It’s sometimes said—though not often enough—that we shouldn’t make decisions out of fear or urgency. Perhaps we should rephrase that to say that our decisions should always be made from a positive space, from a Yes and not from a No. A decision made from a negative space will always be a bad one, because if we carry it through it will build up the strength of the negative forces within us.

We need to hold onto our decision-making until we can turn our attention from the negatives on either side of our choices and shine a light to see on what side most of the positives lie. If we have a deadline and can’t find our Yes, we can either look for a third way that provides a Yes or toss a coin. The coin toss is less harmful than acting from negativity.

Of course it is always important to know that our negatives and positives are only imagined ones, and that, as Ajahn Chah repeats, it is uncertain.

Choosing Yes! over No! can become our pervasive way of being in the world, beyond obvious decision-making, since our lives in the ordinary world are made of constant moment-to-moment decisions, small and large.

If a rapist or an earthquake is threatening our lives or our safety, it is still better—more effective even in the moment—to feel “I will save myself” than to feel “I won’t let him/it get me!” which reinforces the problem rather than turning to the possible solutions.

August 6, 2008
Another reason why mindfulness is so refreshing and energizing. When our mind is engaged in what we will be doing next or what we have done in the past we are actually requiring that it be in two places at the same time, cleaning the mold from the shower curtain and also arguing with our cousin last Thanksgiving. When most of our day is like that, it’s not surprising that after all that activity we are tired and find it difficult to sleep.

August 15, 2008
Sande and I were talking this morning about self care, about being able to sink deep into the knowledge that, no matter what the demand on us, we will recognize what it is we need and find the way to it. Driving home it occurred to me that when we do not take care of ourselves in that way, we spend immense energies trying to change others. If I haven’t cultivated the skills to make myself comfortable in my mind-body, I will be looking to you and others to give me comfort, and I’ll be disappointed in you when you don’t.

August 23, 2008
Buddha was very Zen in his refusal to explain his koans, and early in our practice, it may seem an oddity to vow that we will help “all sentient beings.” Of course our helping is for ourselves anyway, since in reality there are no separations, except those we create, between “us” and “them”, between the helper and the helped. The “all” is simply our reminder that even if we are Mother Teresa helping countless sick and malnourished homeless, it is not enough. Even a Mother Teresa needs to be able to lift her head from the sick and dying and see that the well-dressed Brahmin across the street and the people who have come to assist her in her work may, like all sentient beings, also need her help. “All” reminds us at once of the universality of suffering and that every sentient being, without exception, deserves our help.

When I walk down the hospital corridor and open doors at random to offer “spiritual care” to whoever may be lying there, it is deliciously easy to feel that, like the nurses in the ER, I am here to help “all sentient beings.”

Of course, the Buddha also reminds us that, in the ultimate reality, there are no sentient beings to be saved.

September 6, 2008
Krishnamurti writes that if we are living in contact with ultimate reality, we will see our beloved with fresh eyes every day, without the expectations based on who she was yesterday, last month, last year.

In ordinary reality, these expectations are what passes for love. The unquestioned, unspoken rule of conventional love is that we will remember who our lover or friend was yesterday, last month, last year, twenty years ago, and will be guided in our words and actions by that. Reality tells us that we, like everything around us, are in continual change, so that what we call knowledge is what Krishnamurti calls outworn “images.”

One pitfall of our relationships can be that they keep us from that awareness. For the sake of the relationship (or what we imagine it to be), each of us pretends that we are who we were yesterday, last month, last year, with only the most minor variations—we gave up smoking, we changed jobs, we prefer this wine now. For the sake of the relationship, but really for the illusion of stability it gives us, we hide the reality of our continual changing not only from each other, but more important, from ourselves.

This is why we may suddenly, and quite to our own surprise, “fall in love” with someone new. Because she is new, she sees us afresh. She sees and values all the changes we have incorporated over the years, changes which our beloved, and we ourselves, have collaborated in denying. Through her eyes, we see ourselves afresh.

Love and knowledge do go together, but it is the knowledge born in this present moment that is the real knowledge. It is this knowledge, free of the baggage of history, that brings about, and is brought about by, real love.

September 7, 2008
I just came across a saying of Ajahn Chah that I’d written on a yellow pad: “If I was suffering, I would ask, ‘What am I attached to?’” I burst out laughing.

Last week I saw that saying and puzzled over it. The unfamiliar fragility, the tears on the ready, the surge of anger, were not about attachment as far as I could see. They were about exhaustion from a challenging summer, about wanting back my sangha which I saw as having slipped away, wanting my practice confirmed. Surely wanting to practice was not attachment.

Today I laughed with recognition at Ajahn Chah’s words. Here on the desert I have come to see more clearly. What I have been attached to is peace. I thought I was seeking enough space around me to allow me to practice. I am learning that my deepest attachment is not to a more peaceful outside environment. It is to my own inner peace. I write this now through a mental cloud, but these days I can accept the mental clouds when they arise. What this unquiet period has to teach me is, once again, to do what I thought I had learned to do, to accept ever more fully, in Ajahn Chah’s words, the way it is now: both whatever way it is outside myself and, more importantly, to fully embrace the fragility, the tears on the ready, the surge of anger—any and all of the unpeaceful ways of my own spirit.

September 18, 2008
To accept the unpeaceful ways of my own spirit.
I’ve come close to doing this before, and now I’ve ratcheted up this central piece of my practice. It’s similar to the practice of cordially inviting in the hungry ghosts when they come to visit. Two years ago, Bettina and I even put out some fancy sweet cakes on the altar to show them how welcome they were. (I’m not sure we fooled ourselves.) A year and a half ago, when I struggled with sloth and torpor, I found it helpful to see that condition as permanent, and found that acceptance ended a struggle with it that was tiring and pointless. A year ago, when I comforted Little Cynthia, I learned that it was healing to assure her that she could be sad or angry forever.

I’m simply extending my forever practice until at the slightest discomfort, I think to myself, “This feeling can stay forever.” It’s less expensive and more effective than the sweet cake. It opens up the world. It’s rather like an instant access to what we experience when we have an accident that results in a life-changing disability—after awhile, when we have fully embraced the permanence, we can stop the “why me?”, the fixation on the limitation, the desire to change it, and, our energy freed from that suffering, we can re-enter the flow of life.

September 19, 2008
Driving through the Cleveland mountains to the desert yesterday, we marveled at a great glowing cloud above the road ahead of us, full of powerful billows and luminous shades of white.

It’s interesting how we can find immense pleasure looking at a beautiful cloud and yet, unless we’re an artist or photographer, we have no need to hold on to it, we do not become attached to that beauty. We know that of course a cloud is ever-changing and will disappear quickly, and we don’t grieve that this is its nature. Of course everything around us is ever-changing and will disappear quickly. That is its nature. To be fully awake is to to be able to have immense pleasure from the people, the places, the objects, everything we love, with the same calm knowledge about their nature.

September 28, 2008
Sande was talking insightfully about her tendency to approach what she reads with skepticism: Can this book/article really tell me anything I don’t know? Is that really true? So that sometimes she dismisses a book or article that might have something to offer. I read this way all my life until just a few years ago. I read Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodrun through that lens. I didn’t know there was another way to read.

In the phenomenal world the critic’s pose may have some uses. The habit of looking for trouble helped me become an excellent editor, and it was immensely helpful in the work of deconstructing patriarchy.

Like all judgmentalism, the critic’s pose feels good too. It reassures us, as we open a book, that we are not in the child’s/student’s position of inferiority and vulnerability (I don’t know, I need you to tell me), we are in the parent’s/teacher’s position of superiority and judgment (I am knowledgeable, I can catch your weaknesses). It’s another instance of the false choices that childhood has often taught us: fight back or be bulldozed/ be a taker or a giver/ be a workoholic or be lazy/ judge or be judged. Practice or therapy can reveal that none of these alternatives is necessary or helpful.

There is another way to read, just as there is another way of relating to people. We can approach others with that same “show me” attitude—she’s probably boring, she’s probably arrogant, she has nothing to tell me, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Or we can open ourselves to others as human beings, seeing the suffering and the causes of suffering in them with interest and compassion, and looking with interest beyond to whatever aspect of their true nature they may reveal. Only discernment can tell us which books or articles will nourish us at what time, which people we will interact with in a way that is fruitful for both of us at this time in both of our lives. We can rely on the feeling of superiority to signal when we are exercising, not discernment, but the judgmentalism that we use to cover our own weakness.

November 1, 2008
Bettina had an interview for a job she feels she really wants and for which she seems truly fitted. We both have been using the prospect of this job as an opportunity to practice with no grasping, no expectations.

She said, with some wonder, “It’s the best job interview I ever had.” When she described it, we agreed that it was very much like my experiences at the hospital. No thinking, no deciding, no “I wonder what’s the best thing to say.” Instead the feeling of the ideas and responses and words simply flowing out with no need for processing, a natural flow. It reminded me of what I’ve called (October 30, 2007) the “energy of flow”, so different from the “energy of force,” which is caught up in the will, a kind of ultimate pressure from the self. The energy of flow feels, Bettina agreed, selfless, the true meaning of “unselfconscious”, as though the universe is flowing through us. It’s what poets used to call their Muse, recognizing that, when conditions are right, however distinctive and individual their voices in the poem might be, an energy flows through them that is larger than their personal selves.

For Bettina and myself, the conditions are our life of practice.

When we are conduits for the energy of flow, the words that come out may be about ourselves, our experiences in the conditional world, as in a job interview they must be, but the place they are coming from is selfless, unconditional.