Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 3, 2013—February 27, 2013

February 3, 2013
Reading how Ken and Treya Wilber (Grace and Grit) discovered the practice of tonglen, which I have practiced consciously in the past, made me realize that this is what I do unconsciously in the hospital. I begin by creating an environment where people can feel safe to tell me about their physical and emotional and spiritual suffering, and I deeply breathe it in, absorb it into my being. Then I breathe out my consciousness of their light, their buddha natures.

February 4, 2013
My patients (I always feel a bit uncomfortable calling them “mine,” only it feels too cold to call them “the” patients) teach me how they use the power of religious mythology in the service of their spiritual growth. I think of the African American woman who lost touch with her son for many years because of her drug use. She’s now been clean and sober for several years, let religion into her life, and she has been trying to find him. Finally, she was able to locate him, had his phone number, and was about to pick up the phone, when a voice tells her, “What makes you think you can just call him up after you abandoned him? He won’t want to have anything to do with you.” And then it comes to her: “That’s Satan talking!” She turns to God, who tells her to make the call. She does, she asks her son’s forgiveness, tells him how she has changed her life, and their phone call leads to true healing. To me that is not very different from the Zen teacher Cheri Huber’s voices of conditioning and the mentor.

February 5, 2013
The other day I listened to a social scientist on KPBS talking about a study she had done on what she called the “click”—the moment at which we are really tuned into something, an analysis, a sharing, a story. The moment when we are really aboard. She studied the brains of her subjects and is able to identify the change that takes place when we “get it,” whatever “it” is. She then experimented by telling a story of something that happened to her, each time to someone different. She would ask her subjects afterward when they felt that moment of “clicking on” had come, and it correlated to the change in their brain. (She was very annoyed with her fiance, because he never clicked on.) Interesting enough, but she continued. She then examined the brain of the person who was sharing the story or information, and at the moment when the hearer clicked, the two brains, in that area, looked the same.

This feels to me like a scientific expression of Buber’s “I-Thou,” where in that moment there is no separation. It’s what I feel with patients in the hospital. I think I could pinpoint that moment when I click, and they almost certainly can tell that too. This morning it happened very early on with the Mexican American husband of a young woman who has been made severely and tragically helpless by an illness I couldn’t identify. Today after that I had some good connections with other patients—connections that I thought were helpful for their healing—but they were more shallow than usual. I hovered very close to a true click with a young African American woman with a heart disease who had spent a lot of her life in prison, but we couldn’t continue our conversation. With another Mexican American man I was aware that I was not in the space I usually inhabit—he was rigidly fundamentalist, wanting to repeat doctrine rather than share spiritual realities, and for once I felt like a fraud when he called me an “angel” as I left, because by my standards I had scarcely been there at all. Mostly at the hospital the clicks come early in our conversations, and I can feel the separations fall away.

February 8, 2013
We are very often not the center of our own universe. We are the center of our universe when we are experiencing our bodies—our breathing, the pressure of our sitbones on the chair or the texture of our denim jeans against our hand—at the same time that we may be preparing for a meeting, grieving the loss of our terrier, sending an email. In our most enlightened state, of course, we extend outward into the larger universe beyond our bodies, beyond our breaths—this is not, however, where a Dalai Lama or a Thich Nhat Hanh plans his next dharma tour, though we can be sure they stay centered in their own universe. Whenever we allow ourselves to be pulled out of our center, we are allowing other people, other places, other agendas, other times—or, most often, their shadows—to shape our lives.

February 19, 2013
More and more these days I’m aware of how my mind is changing. Some days it feels almost mechanistic—as if the wires in my brain had become surprisingly slack. I’m aware now that while tension has a negative association, there is a very pleasurable slight tension that takes place when we begin to retrieve a memory or make an intellectual connection—maybe what an athlete might feel as she experiences her muscles tightening. I feel its absence.

Some days it’s simply that I recognize that I can recall less and less. When I write, I often can’t remember what I said in the last paragraph or what is the meaning of a note that I wrote to myself yesterday—to make sure that I would remember. I have to exert effort to remember who came over this morning.

I know, I know, it’s like crying wolf. Five years ago I also felt my mind to be slipping away—that was where dharma gleanings left off. But with yoga and perhaps changes in the diet and brahmi—who knows what all?—my mind began to function more readily, though of course with less information at hand. Now it seems--with the convergence of ADD, and my allergies that create lethargy (though not much of the kapha-like heaviness of the earlier times—I think the yoga really worked there) and normal aging—I have less and less clarity, a mind less capable of making the connections that give her pleasure. I am not unhappy and impatient or judgmental about it. Sometimes I recognize very clearly that if I were to add the second arrow of judgments to these difficulties, it would even intensify the disability. By not fighting it, I have more energy to work (even if sometimes just plod) through it.

February 21, 2013
These days I’ve been experiencing feelings differently. I don’t just “accept” my anger, grief, jealousy, envy, et al., understanding their origins in the difficulties of childhood. I’ve been celebrating them. I can celebrate the way that they affirm my humanity—”I am someone who feels anger! I am someone who feels jealousy!”—without holding on to them. It’s like watching the film Beasts of the Southern Wild—I celebrate this world at the same time that I don’t believe it.

People say of feelings that they are precious because “that’s what makes us human.” That is true, that is what I am experiencing as I celebrate, but we don’t stop there. I’m also much more aware of the insubstantiality of anger or jealousy, how those feelings come and go, ebb and flow. In the end to be awakened means much more liberation from these feelings, much less belief in their reality, and much less attachment to them.

What I think I’m celebrating is that combination. I’m fully capable of experiencing all those feelings—including being the rapist pirate of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem—at the same time that I don’t buy into them.

February 23, 2013 I think it’s valuable not to name what we’re experiencing as “frustration” or “sadness” or “embarrassment.” We can use those words with others to describe that this is how they are manifesting themselves at the moment. With ourselves, I find it helpful instead to call them “anger,” “grief,” “shame,” which is what in their original form they are. (Advanced practitioners can also practice acknowledging that anger is rage.) The paler names are cover words, “making nice” to ourselves, holding the reality of what lives within us at a distance.

Once we see that feelings actually are immaterial, we can afford to bravely say hello—hello rage, hello grief, hello shame—to their original essences.

If Thich Nhat Hanh can know that he is the rapist pirate, why not we?

February 27, 2013
I sometimes need to remind myself not to confuse an absence of urgency with sloth and torpor. We can be very slow of speech and movement and very alert and present—that is what mindfulness is. More and more I’m seeing the unwholesomeness of all kinds of urgency.