Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 7, 2013—May 25, 2013

May 7, 2013
Tonight a young man in our sangha led an hour of guided meditation. I’ve heard him once when I thought he did a creditable job of presenting meditation without much ego. Lately, however—perhaps because we’ve encouraged him—his presentations are more ego-filled, with blinders to the extensive experience, which he’s well aware of, of the group he is speaking to. Tonight he was reading aloud from a book we’d let him know we’d all read and presenting his guidance as if we’d never meditated. Sitting there for an hour felt excessive as he talked down to us, and I felt myself chafing with annoyance. Often I can take in the teaching while not appreciating the teacher, but not this evening. His meditation was on loving-kindness, and as he led us through the familiar four recipients, I felt my annoyance interfering even with feeling what is usually easily accessible, loving-kindness for the pleasant or neutral persons in my life. Instead, I used every one of the opportunities to work on my feelings towards this young teacher, who should have been the last, the “unpleasant” person, the person we have most difficulty with. The exercise was helpful, and I made a discovery that I think will be useful in the future for the rare person who truly triggers annoyance or anger in me.

The Buddha sometimes tells us that we should imagine that someone we have negative feelings towards was, in another lifetime, our mother. That was never very effective for me, since out of my childhood, the word “mother” does not inspire instant love and appreciation. Instead I imagined this young man as my son, and my feelings instantly changed. Not that it made me feel superior—it simply let me feel, as I would with a son, that he was a person in progress who of course had not developed all of the human skills and understandings that he would, hopefully, someday have. I could feel a genuine and appropriate tenderness for what he didn’t yet know and appreciate where he was at this moment in his development. He was not fully formed. The problem lay, not with him, but with my expectation that he should be somehow finished.

Of course this was simpler to feel because he is in fact young, and still I believe I can draw on this with someone of any age. Because in truth none of us are fully formed, we are all doing very creditably for where we are in our lives, we are all in process towards awakening to our true being. I felt not so much the kindness of my feelings, though I was feeling kindness, as the rightness of how I saw him, the truth and reality of my changed perception.

May 8, 2013
Yesterday I met with a patient who had recently received a liver transplant. It followed many years of drinking, and twelve years of sobriety. As with other transplant patients, it was a joy to share his joy and wonder at this gift of life. John, however, seemed to be taking in the meaning of a new liver with a different kind of wonder. We wound up talking, in a very Buddhist fashion, about the changes in his life—from alcoholic “John” to sober “John,” from one liver to an entirely new liver. He seemed to be processing, in a way different from other patients, that these changes had meaning for his entire sense of identity, that his body had never been “John,” that his former liver was no more “him” than his new liver which was “someone else’s.” He saw that he was no longer the drinking “John,” and that whoever “he” was wasn’t dependent on anything he had assumed he was.

When I came home, I thought about how the fairly routine experience of transplants could be used as a series of questions for the examination of non-self, of “Who Am I?”

If you were to receive a new liver, a new kidney and a new heart, would your body still be You? Would You then be your stomach? Suppose you had a stomach transplant (presumably that will come)? If there’s no part of your body that is You, how can there be a You? Or would You be your thoughts and feelings and memories?

Which of your thoughts and feelings, which are constantly changing during any day, would remain as a fixed part of You that would continue from birth to death? Can you pick any one? “I will always feel pain when I see a child being hurt.” Maybe, but not necessarily so—at another time in your life it may change to anger, or to a much milder reaction. Also, millions of people have this same reaction, how does that make you You?

You were born without thoughts or memories, so how can You be your thoughts and memories? When did you become You? Are you only You at age 30 after you’ve accumulated a lot of thoughts and memories?

May 17, 2013
Recently I’ve come to see that the person whose principal hindrance is aversion is usually someone who is especially caught in thoughts—operating out of her mind rather than heart. This is not surprising, since we usually live from our minds in order to escape the possible pain and vulnerability of living from our hearts, and aversion is a very self-protective way of being. It is also a hindrance that can receive a lot of encouragement in the world—though others may recoil from being judged, they tend to admire the judger, the “critic,” the person who can zero in on a tiny flaw that the rest of us miss. The criticizer is seen as smarter than the appreciator, and that becomes an attractive identity. So the aversive person often clings more tightly to a sense of Self—though she struggles with the emptiness that comes from abandoning the heart, she has gained a reassuring Self-importance from her hindrance.

It occurred to me that the experience of yoga may provide some evidence for this theory. While introducing pigeon pose, yoga teachers frequently point out that the hips often carry a great deal of emotional baggage, and they also point out that it is very common for people to start to get lost in thoughts during that pose. They don’t make the connection, but it seems to confirm that many people will use thinking to avoid emotional pain.

May 25, 2013
I’ve resisted what I’ve called premature forgiveness—the almost universal pressure to forgive the abusive and neglectful people from our childhoods—because I’m aware that too often we haven’t yet held them fully accountable. Holding them accountable in a kind of Final Judgment, exercising that righteous anger of the adult self who finally lets herself acknowledge the full anguish of those past wrongs may be the only way we can give our child self the compassion she needs in order to stop acting up within us. The other day I heard myself saying, “You can know when it’s the right time to forgive—that’s when all of your negative voices about yourself are gone.” As long as those voices are still speaking up, the Little Person within us doesn’t fully appreciate how challenging her childhood was, the reality that she was always just fine and they—no matter what their story was—were cruelly wrong. Those voices lock us into the past, holding us our dukkha, to the unreal.