Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 23, 2014—May 31, 2014

May 23, 2014
On retreat with the Theravadan women monastics at Spirit Rock, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta spoke of our profound interbeing with the earth and all its inhabitants, including the reality that every insect, plant, animal breathes. Of course I knew about plants breathing, still somehow I’d kept that knowledge as a scientific fact and hadn’t fully absorbed it as a spiritual reality.

In taking that in, I also took in as I hadn’t before how the reality that all human beings breathe allows us to drop our apparent differences. I’ve spent years feeling interconnection with other people by seeing the suffering (May 7, 2005) or the buddha nature (August 6, 2007) or the Clear Space (October 30, 2013) that we all share, and I’ve found these connections to be true and beautiful. However, this new awareness that we all breathe feels different to me—it feels so elemental, requiring no effort to recognize, and it wakens in me an immediate tenderness, a consciousness of their vulnerability and impermanence. It’s as though—much more than the intellectual awareness that we all eat, defecate, suffer—I can instantly take in the reality of their fragility, their dependency, their moment-to-moment closeness to death, since only this elusive whiff of air stands between them and ceasing to exist in the material world. To recognize that Hitler had a buddha nature takes some work—it seems simpler to recall that at the height of his arrogant and hate-filled power he could not have continued more than a few moments without breath.

To see that every living thing in our universe breathes is to see a connection that trumps our busy aversions and preferences, our separations.

As we deepen our practice, we are more aware, even while we are talking and cooking and driving, of our own breath. If we can develop the same awareness with others when we are talking to them, waiting in line with them, dealing with difficulties with them, that will keep us experiencing them as more than just their heads, which is where most of us (except dudes) usually focus.

May 24, 2014
I loved it when, on the retreat, one of the monastics spoke of how we manipulate our suffering. It’s not different, really, from Joko Beck’s focus on our “ego strategies,” still it’s simpler and it becomes easy to see that almost every minute of every day almost everyone is engaged in manipulating their suffering. Beginning yogis are encouraged to keep in mind that everyone is suffering, still that can be a little abstract. Manipulate suggests the discomfort, the effort, the awkwardness and the improbability of success. And if everybody is not just suffering but constantly having to manipulate to end their suffering, that awareness can make us more tender-hearted to their not always lovely behaviors. It can also help us to feel a deeper connection, to remember that they are engaged in sincere efforts, just as Buddhist practitioners are doing, to end their suffering. The only difference is that their efforts are misguided and random. Even when we fall on the path we know there is a path—they are forced to improvise and manipulate because they don’t see the direct route to finding peace and liberation.

May 30, 2014
I continue to draw deep nourishment from those words “measurable” and “immeasurable.” They have been immensely helpful to my work in the hospital. As Jo points out, the hospital is a place where measurement is everything: the tumor is so many inches in diameter, your blood pressure is 119/50, you have lost three pounds since you came in, you have perhaps three months to live unless you undergo this measurable procedure which may give you two more months. So it is a place where it is easy to lose sight of the immeasurable, and refocussing on that is my job.

Especially where the patient has no spiritual life that she is aware of, it’s been helpful to find ways that encourage her to identify the most rewarding experiences or relationships in her life. “Immeasurable” provides language she can accept and incorporate, language that clearly differentiates what is most important from the “measurable” world where all that seems to matter is the number of fluid ounces she is supposed to ingest.

Another place where those words have been helpful to others is with friends who are caregivers of partners with Alzheimers. They can see how not to get sucked into the measurables of “management of the disease” or monitoring the decline, and to focus as much as possible on the immeasurable of the relationship as it has been and on its manifestation even in the craziness of the disease.

I can’t speak for those with severe dementia, however I recognize in myself (see October 9, 2013) how the words “measurable” and “immeasurable” work have helped me to relate to my own loss of memory:

In the measurable world, losing your memory is a horrible tragedy. In the immeasurable world, it can be an advantage.

May 31, 2014
There is a progression in love, and it seems that one stage exists to prepare us for the next. For most of us, our love for our partners is mainly a measurable love. This love is the joy we discover in finding our needs met, or believing that they are met, and the amazement and awe we feel that someone exists who can make us so happy—later we may turn away in disappointment. However—if only at the beginning or in between our angers and disappointments—our measurable love can give us a venue, an opportunity to glimpse or cultivate something so much larger and wider and less ego-driven: a love that is entirely separate from whether our little—or large—needs are being met, whether (to quote a mainstream couples therapist) we are “getting the love we want.” (Too rarely, but sometimes, and very often in glimpses, parental love can be immeasurable.)

It is as if these glimpses, or a steadier experience we may develop of immeasurable love for one beloved person, are designed to light the way, to show us what is possible, so that our next stage might be to expand that love to include more and more, and ultimately all, beings. Any experience of immeasurable love reveals to us what it means to have a love with no limits, no closure to our heart, no negotiation, no agenda. This love is very different from the measurable—how we like the same films, how she makes me feel in bed, how neither of us likes to argue, how she is really very smart.

Fully unleashing the power and joy of this immeasurable experience is what universal love is all about. Your immeasurable love is no different from mine or from the Dalai Lama’s or the love felt by the guy down the street—our love, though it most often begins with an individual, is not individuated. It is part of a great ocean and it really does not matter where we dip in if we can begin to scoop up the water.

This observation describes what seems to be a natural process though it is not everyone’s experience. It should never be forced—otherwise those of us who think ill of ourselves will never dare to “ask for the love we want”, and we all need to be able to “ask for the love we want” so that when and if we experience our immeasurable love we can claim it, not with the contraction of self-abnegation and instead with the expansion and joy that come with freedom from self.

Perhaps it goes without saying, though I will say it, that for many or most of us sexual desire serves as an energy force that is powerful enough to propel us into taking the risk of vastly widening our capacity for such love and interconnection. It can unite a Montague and a Capulet. Sexual union, when it is more than mutual servicing, can show us the beauty and joy of having no borders. There is no my pleasure/your pleasure. Later when rifts occur in our relationship, and we are tempted to retreat to a tightly bound self, it has the power to override our fear and distrust buttons and to reaffirm and renew the amazing awareness of our interbeing. That awareness, that may begin with the power of our sexual connection to another individual, can then open us to a possibility for interbeing with a wider world. Still—despite the messages from a sex-obsessed society—it is one of many routes to what is possible for us and is not our destination.