Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

November 28, 2008—December 20, 2008

November 28, 2008
I’ve been reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu over the same weeks that I’ve been enjoying yoga. Both invite an expansion of the too-often limited concept of observing inbreath/outbreath to a breath that inhabits and explores the whole body and beyond, moving in and out of the pores and cells, reaching out to the universe. I am inspired (in the literal meaning) by Thanissaro’s comment that “the mind has an inherent tendency to shrink.” This of course is exactly what we feel when we are focussed on rage or desire or tightened with tension.

One of the gifts of the desert is that, although our mind can contract with suffering there as it can anywhere, we are continually invited to leave that tight space and to expand far out into the desert’s expansiveness. We are constantly instructed that it is possible to become one with the vast beauty and peace that lies outside our shrunken minds.

November 29, 2008
I have been much moved (I can feel the movement in my mind) by Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s account of the old ajahn who had delusions and yet who said that, while still in the delusion, the meditative state continued for him. I understand this very well. Even in our life of ordinary reality, dreams are delusions. I’ve discovered in my dreams, and in listening to Bettina’s, that what is as important as the content is the affect, the feeling that accompanies the dream. You can find yourself in a capsized boat trying to swim in the rapids, or being devoured by a tiger, taking a test for which you are unprepared, and if your feeling state in the dream is calm, the dream is a powerful affirmation, not a nightmare.

The more, in our ordinary waking life, we preserve and enjoy equanimity in the face of life’s varied challenges, the more easily we can face the challenges of our dreamlives as calm observer rather than terrified victim. Why would it not be so with the delusions of dementia?

Lately for me the challenge has been a compounding of the challenge I’ve worked with for so long, my “molasses.” Although this is not spring, my usual allergy season, for two months I’ve experienced a slowing of my energy and mind, as though moving through a kind of soup, a slipping away of familiar words and the memory of what I was doing or thinking just a moment before.

Yesterday a phrase came often to my mind, I’m leaving here. Each time I felt, thought it, without surprise or regret, with a recognition as simple as that the sun is setting. How can there be surprise? There are, for most or many of us, as many leavings before death as we have seen sunsets.

I find this calm when I am by myself, in my own relation to my loss of connection—for language has been such a rich source of connection for me, the exact word or phrase that can meet the mind or heart of another. In other ways, I’m limited by my dyslexias—can’t cook or sing or play sports or dance or find other, nonverbal ways of connection.

Here on the desert with Bettina, I’ve found myself stumbling with surprise on another less peaceful reaction, a raw sensitivity, a vulnerability I don’t usually know. I realize that my new state of incompetence in language takes me back, in the presence of someone with whom I share a household, to Little Cynthia, before she had found the words to heal the separations. I can feel naked without my words, isolated as I was then, and with the ancient fear that I will disappoint, be found hopelessly, existentially lacking.

December 5, 2008
I am deeply grateful that Thanissaro Bhikkhu has come into my life at this time.

These days when my grasp of the subtleties—sometimes the practicalities—of language is weakening, when fresh insights to invigorate my practice and to share with others seem to come more rarely, Thanissaro’s invitation to endlessly explore the breath, discover the breath’s healing powers, enjoy the breath, advance the practice through the breath, is a special comfort, truly a “breath of fresh air.”

One does not need much of a mind, many words, to observe and play with the breath. That realization is a comfort, yes, but also a wakeup call. I can continue to grow, expand my consciousness, deepen my practice, connect with the universe, through ever more subtle awareness of my miraculous breath.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that our breath is our one true friend—the only friend that will without question be there for us until the end. I can embrace mine now, rejoice in its company now, find my spirit, my inspiration, there.

December 6, 2008
One of the reasons we allow ourselves to be harassed by fear is that we believe that fear is useful. In its primitive origins, of course, it was, alerting us that it was time to call upon the resources of fight or flight.

We need to re-educate ourselves that fear, like its close relative worry, is useless, an alarm clock that we set millennia ago when we needed to wake up for a 4 a.m. flight, and which we now need to ignore if we don’t want to be cranky in the coming day.

Feeling a veil slip over my mind, watching my use of language become clumsier, there are dozens of possible alarms. What about this? what about that? what then?

I’m able now to catch myself with such fear at the instant of its entry through different doors, and in that instant to observe with even greater clarity its uselessness, how it distracts us from the business and the precious joy of living.

December 7, 2008
A familiar adjective for the desert is unforgiving. For me, in these days—and probably long before as I lived with my unnamed attention disorder, its clumsiness of body and too often of mind—the desert is the forgiving place. It does not expect me to move or think at a faster pace. It does not ask me to be a different person or even to be the person I once was. It tells me there is space and time for everyone and everything, including myself.

It allows me to expand out into its infinite space of white and brown and grey and lavender hills and endless stars and solar systems. It requires no words for understanding. It is not surprised or pained or frightened by my loss of abilities. It loves all things and beings sweetly and without fuss, even as they limp on a wounded leg or devour one another or turn to bleached bones in the sand.

December 8, 2008
For the past couple of days Bettina and I have been on a retreat of silence, speaking only when there is some practical necessity or to share the dharma.

It is a great gift to both of us, and it gives me the space to quiet my mind and listen to myself at a time when I often find myself swimming in alphabet soup, bumping into one letter of thought after another quite randomly as it seems. L does not seem more important than D and here comes Y, and what to make of it all.

At the beginning of our mini-retreats, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oh, I wish I could tell her that,” or “She really should know this.” I may have felt it more this time because I have not been sure that I would remember to tell her when the retreat was over.

One value of a retreat a deux is that it provides an opportunity to recognize, once one settles in, that none of these things one is so eager to share has any such importance. By inflating the importance of so many things in our daily lives, we succeed in distracting ourselves—often fulltime—from what is truly important and meaningful in our lives.

December 16, 2008
When we are young, especially if we found little love in our home, our loving feelings for others can often seem less important than our preoccupation with our own hunger for love—does he like me? does she love me? if he really knew me would he like me? am I lovable? she loves me! As we grow older and we look back on the relationships of our life, what feels important is not how delicious it felt to be loved, but how delicious it felt to love.

December 20, 2008
A gift of practice is that we learn to look at the difficult behavior of others with compassion, to see how it arises from their suffering, and so not react with aversion and have it become our own suffering. Lately I find myself coming to what seems a deeper understanding that seems to put me on firmer ground.

I thought of Bettina working with her beloved student, Achad, who is developmentally disabled. Sometimes he ran around the classroom, sometimes he made loud noises, sometimes he hit her and she came home with large bruises on her arms. She was able to work with him so harmoniously, learning from him rather than becoming exasperated with him, because she saw clearly that his behaviors were not within his control.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out that when the Buddha talks about “ignorance” of suffering, he means that although everybody experiences suffering, few people have discernment about their suffering. The neighbor who screams at us, the person in the store who snaps at us, the friend who reacts with tears or fury at some innocent comment, are entirely ignorant. Lacking discernment about the causes or cures for their suffering, they do not know how it is possible to act or react differently, unless they are forcibly restrained by fear of punishment or a guilty fear of violating their moral codes. People who began their Buddhist practice with the precepts may remember how challenging it can be to rely simply on a code, before we have incorporated our direct experience of the four noble truths.

We need, it would seem, a discernment that sees beyond simple compassion for their suffering. We need to see that, at least at the moment, the “obnoxious person” cannot behave differently, just as Achad, at least at that moment, cannot restrain his need to bang on a table or hit Bettina’s arm. We need to see that, in relation to their own suffering, they are developmentally disabled.

To perceive their innocence feels a deeper understanding of the first noble truth, based more solidly on reality, rather than relying on simple compassion for their suffering.

We powerfully resist recognizing that an “obnoxious” person is ignorant and therefore innocent. We tell ourselves that we must “hold people responsible for their behavior”, and if we do not, we are guilty of “letting them off the hook.” Of course, like Bettina in the classroom, we need to seek out whatever skillful means we can find to encourage them in the direction of ending suffering for themselves and others. Like Bettina, on some occasions we may find a need to firmly stop or prevent dangerous or disruptive behavior. We may find some later moment when they are less at the mercy of their ignorant suffering to encourage them to see where their best interests lie. Most often, however, we refuse to accept that not only are they reacting to their own painful feelings but, like Achad, they are entirely innocent about the nature of those feelings and so can find no reliable means for control. We fail to see that the hook they are on is the real hook of life—the hook of unexamined suffering.

I get it now that to understand the four noble truths is to see with clarity that the world we are living in is a classroom of the developmentally disabled. In our insistence that someone’s behavior is “intolerable”, meaning that we cannot tolerate it, in our self-righteousness and indignation, in our determination to “teach her a lesson”, we do nothing more than join him or her, wriggling and miserable, on the hook of ignorant suffering.