Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

June 25, 2012—July 30, 2012

June 25, 2012
I’ve come to see more clearly that while it is important to practice with powerful, disruptive emotions that grab our attention when they arise, it may be more important to give our attention to everyday minor disturbances. When we can catch a slight desire or grasping (“if only she would say she liked my report, I would feel better”) a slight aversion (“that broccoli they’re serving looks unappetizing”), a light judgmentalism (“doesn’t the guy in the car ahead of me know there’s a law against using your cell phone?”), we don’t need to change anything at all, only to note, each time note. Aversion. Grasping. Judgmentalism. Jealousy. It’s rather like housework—if we wipe each bit of spilled tomato sauce or ghee or mashed potato or curry powder off the stove right away, it’s easier than trying to scrub the whole surface at the end of the week.

June 29, 2012
We tend to believe that being comfortable is the norm (May 29, 2011) and we are always trying to pull reality back into its proper comfort zone. A favorite meditation practice for me, when I am feeling most comfortable, is scanning my body and closely noting all the tiny nudges that signal discomfort—a little tingling here, a slight itch there, a bit of tension here, some pressure there, a whisper of a floating ache in my hip. They move around constantly, mostly under the radar so we tend to ignore them until they gather more force, and they are my reminders that, as someone—Ayya Khema, I think, quoting the Buddha—said, simply to have a body is suffering. Our expectation that there is something wrong about discomfort creates a world of opportunities for distress.

This practice is of course a lesson in impermanence and letting go. I recently heard a Spirit Rock teacher, Kamala Masters, say these words: Letting go is “not giving up things of the world but recognizing that they come and go and being in alignment with that.” Of course when we recognize how very quickly they come and go we may also recognize that we don’t have to hold on to so many things of the world.

July 4, 2012
We often speak of the importance of “acceptance”—of the loss of a loved one, an illness, financial setback. For most of us, “acceptance” comes with a slightly positive association—we accept a proposal of marriage, an invitation to a party. For beginners, or the beginner in us, it may be more helpful to speak of “no resistance.” It’s clear the energy that we expend in resistance might be turned to more positive use, we can feel the stress inherent in the word, and that may motivate us more than if we feel we’re asked to welcome our loss, our illness, our setback.

July 30, 2012
Bettina suggested that I listen to an online dharma talk on compassion by Joseph Goldstein that moved her when she heard it at Spirit Rock. I shared her appreciation, though I felt it was missing two elements. They are elements that I often find missing in such talks. He barely touches on self-compassion, and he doesn’t mention the benefits for ourselves when we extend compassion—the joy that is with the pain in that open heart.

The second absence is to me minor, the first—a reminder of the importance of self-compassion—feels serious.

Sometimes I think the teachers skimp on self-compassion, because they sense (September 16, 2009) that it leads directly to childhood pain, and they are not prepared to touch that.

Goldstein speaks of the value of developing our consciousness so that in each day we might try to perform multiple acts of compassion, how the impact even of the smallest acts of kindness—the perennial “word or smile”—is unknowable (though, I would add, their cumulative effect on ourselves is very knowable). It occurred to me in listening that one of the profound consequences of the proliferation of technology is that it radically reduces the opportunities—in a day, or a lifetime—that allow for those small, immensely important acts of kindness that Goldstein wants to see us develop. It isn’t just some generalized “human contact” that is missing when we face a machine instead of a person, it’s the chance—with the trash collector, the bookstore owner, the bank teller, the grocer—to sow those valuable seeds of loving-kindness that can reduce suffering in others and in ourselves.

I often say that in a practice life, we feel that at last we “get it”—about impermanence, or non-self, or whatever—and six months or two years later we are feeling that at last we “get it.” The levels of “getting” dharma go ever deeper and deeper. So lately I feel in a new place of “getting it” about death.

I’ve come to identify less and less with my body, see it more as the continuously changing process that it is, rather than as an entity (I think I picked up that last definition from someone, and find it so helpful). I can no longer easily identify with my thoughts, opinions or feelings, since I’ve now watched them enough to see how rapidly they too can transform and even mutate into their opposites. I feel comfortable without the need of an identity. Even while I apparently arrogantly claim the “identity” of Bodhisattva, I don’t need it as a title, it just says what I do all day, as if I were a Writer or a Pianist.

As old identities (“I am my thoughts, I am my body, I am my emotions”) fall away, I “identify” more with my essence, my awareness, my spirit, the part of me that is unattached, free-floating, capable of flowing into the unattached spirits of others and being indistinguishable from them. The other evening I wrote this: When we are in awareness we are in the deathless. We don’t need to die to be immortal. Later I read the work of Peace Pilgrim, who seems to have operated out of this space as she walked the more than 25,000 miles back and forth across the country, with no money in her pocket.

Since I have so many opportunities, in the hospital and often outside it too, to be in an I-Thou relationship to life, it has become easier and easier for me to rest in that space, loosening the attachments to my personal body, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, identity. The more we come to feel that our spirit is a comfortable, even delicious place to live, the more we feel that death/the coming into the deathless is not something alien—it has always been our only true natural home. Anne Bancroft in Women Mystics of the 20th Century says that “perhaps all of us sense a timelessness dwelling in our heart, an essential core of being which does not change” (Of course this must be distinguished from our constructed identity: “I am the kind of person who likes mushrooms/wouldn’t hurt a flea/is a control freak.” I spend time in the hospital helping people to deconstruct those definitions of self).

Reading about Peace Pilgrim, who perfectly embodies this changeless way of being, has helped me to see more clearly the reality that it is attachment to our bodies (and feelings and thoughts) that makes us afraid of death. The more we practice, the more that attachment loosens and we release our fear of death (If we could truly rest in the I-Thou consciousness, we would not only have no fear of death but no cause for war, since—I think Peace Pilgrim says this directly—it’s fear of death that causes war).

After writing this, I reread Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Death, No Fear, which I’d already reread a few months ago. And of course what I am saying here is what Thay, drawing on the Buddha in “Discourse on Teachings of the Sick,” and Peace Pilgrim have all been saying to me. If I wrote the above almost as if it were my own insight, that is because it is. The waterings of these Buddhas’ teachings have sunk, not just into my understanding, but into the earth of my being, so that they are now mine.