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Monthly Archives: August 2016

(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Buddhism 150Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.

For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.

So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.

Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.

That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.

But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.

Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.

For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.

So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Right Effort

Buddhism 150So far we’ve gone through five different spokes on the Noble Eightfold Path, comprising two groups — Wisdom/Prajna and Moral Virtues/Sila. They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Together, they make up the understanding/philosophy and practice/action parts of the path. Now, we head into the third and final group of the Path, spokes six through eight — the Meditation, or Samadhi group.

Right Effort is the very first step in that process, and to me it feels like sort of a companion step to Right Intention, stretched out from two to three dimensions. Right Intention tells us to make sure that we enter into each situation with a proper understanding of what we want to happen as a result of it — preferably the compassionate connection with another sapient being, allowing them to go on about their lives in peace and contentment. Right Effort is the mechanism we use to keep making sure we do that; it’s the way we sustain our drive towards Right Intention.

Specifically, Right Effort asks us to release these negative impulses that enable us to cling to attachments far too easily (called the Five Hindrances) and cultivate positive impulses that allow us to be more mindful and compassionate (called, appropriately enough, the Five Antidotes). The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will (remember that one?); sloth, torpor or drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and uncertainty or doubt.

Sensual desire is more a manifestation of greed than anything. Whether our craving for sex or doughnuts is at the root of it, this pull to titillate the senses can lead us to a lot of trouble. It’s rare that we become satisfied once we’ve actually attained the object of our craving; a lot of the time, there’s that short hit of bliss while we indulge, and very quickly we’re already wanting a repeat of that experience. Or maybe it’s just me, but man, when I make a candy bar disappear, the taste of it has scarcely left my tongue before I’m thinking about how much another one would be so great.

The antidote to sensual desire is RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and — eventually — Non-Identification. It’s a nice way to move through the steps of mindfulness, really. Acknowledge the desire without judgment, because it’s just a part of the human condition. We aren’t any less enlightened people for wanting to have sex or being in possession of a sweet tooth, but we must face that impulse in order to be more mindful of it. Investigate it once we’ve moved past our judging of it; what is it like, and where does it come from, and what’s the underlying desire that drives it? Meditating on our desires, noticing when they arise and turning it over in our heads can be a really helpful tool to become more aware of ourselves and our specific natures. Once we’ve recognized and investigated it, we can let it go, and this is where the magic happens. We realize that the desire is an impermanent, transient thing, separate from ourselves; we don’t have to act on these impulses — they, like everything else, come, stay with us for a time, and then go.

Ill will is pretty much what it says on the tin — thoughts of rejection, hatred, bitterness and overall hostility. We all have people we’ve viewed as enemies at one time or another, people who raise our blood pressure at the mere thought of them. We’ve wished harm on them; insulted them mentally or verbally; even possibly dehumanized them in some way. This, too, is a part of the human experience. There are always going to be people whose personalities rub us the wrong way, or through some means or another will come to represent everything we believe is wrong about the human race. This is especially true when you’re politically active. It can feel like there’s an entire world of them out there, actively working to make the world a more terrible place.

The more we give in to this ill will, the easier it becomes to indulge in it. We may find ourselves wishing harm on other people more and more often, for lesser and lesser infractions. Any pattern of thought we regularly engage in becomes easier to recall. So it’s important to cultivate an attitude of loving kindness instead. Meditating on loving kindness allows us to restore the humanity of our enemies, to make a genuine attempt to understand them and see how their impulses are also our own. Extending this consideration to people we’re diametrically opposed to makes it easy for us to extend it to everyone; strangers become more easily recognizable, and the things that annoy or enrage us are easier to understand. When we get to a place of loving kindness, we can brush aside the things that ruffle us to focus on the true intentions of the people we interact with all the time. We become more open, more accepting, and more forgiving.

Sloth and torpor is ennui, more or less, and this is a tricky one for me to talk about. In my struggle with depression, I’ve frequently fallen into a torpor of sorts when I’m at my worst. It’s an emotional exhaustion that makes it almost impossible to do anything, even if I want to, even when I know I should. That in itself would be agitating, if I could muster the energy to care about it. There are several friends I know who struggle with the same thing, that inability to focus or muster energy of any sort — and it’s through no fault of our own. This is an illness that affects our brain, which in turn affects our ability to rouse just about anything else. The sloth and torpor we speak of as a hindrance is not this kind, this illness outside of our control. It’s something else.

As we get older, we tend to lose interest in our lives and the world in general. Well, at least, I recognize this within myself. I can feel myself calcify, almost — I’m a creature of comfort, and when I find a comfortable state I just want to wallow in it for as long as I can. It can be very difficult to remain alert and present to the world, or to accept the things that we find challenging. When our days become full of the things we do to maintain our lives, it can be easy to become incurious, to turn away from things we don’t know to seek the comfort of the things we do. But when we do that, we expend less energy; we become used to that easy and comfortable life, and find that we have less energy to spare for the things that shake us out of that. Torpor sets in. And before we know it, we find ourselves asleep — uncritical, unthinking, on auto-pilot.

A beginner’s mind is a good antidote for this. When we don’t have the context we learn as adults, we have to ask questions about almost everything we come across. Why do we work only five days? Why do we have to work for five days? Why are things as they are? What would it be like if they were different? Why do we sit a certain way while meditating? Is suffering in life really inevitable? Isn’t that kind of a downer? By stretching ourselves, remaining curious, learning just a little bit each day, we hold on to precious energy and a curiosity about life that keeps us spry, flexible, and critical.

Restlessness and worry is the other extreme of this continuum. I kind of think of it as “monkey mind”. Again, this is a tricky thing for me to talk about. If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, then the last thing you need is some asshole on the Internet telling you that your anxiety is a spiritual failing — it absolutely is not. But, there is an aspect of our attention that we can bring about to focus, with time and dedication.

It can be extremely difficult for me to focus on things at times. In the short term, I could be writing this blog entry when all of a sudden something in my brain tells me to see if there’s anything cool on YouTube. Then, I’m looking at spooky paranormal countdown videos, professional wrestling interviews, TED talks, cartoons and assorted science education vlogs for an hour. In the long term, I forget about my health or writing goals the moment a giant piece of cake or a fun, relaxed evening turns my head.

Sometimes it’s difficult to be still with whatever I’m thinking or feeling. Somewhere along the way, boredom became the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Or I’ll worry about the state of the country; the way our ecology is being pushed to the point of collapse; or my nonexistent relationship with my mother. These thoughts fill me with fear and dread to the point I can become paralyzed and blinded to the way things really are.

Learning to be present and content is the antidote to this. We live in a culture where this is extremely difficult. Advertising is all around us, and it works by telling us that we really lack something in our lives that a certain product fills. Even though we think we’ve become inoculated against us, in so many ways we’ve become conditioned to be discontent. We don’t have the latest phone, computer, game; we don’t have new clothes or furniture; we don’t have that cheeseburger we’ve been craving. I know for me, it’s become a matter of habit to just reach out and get something as soon as I want it. The world has made it so easy to do that, why not indulge?

Because, like I’ve mentioned before, acquiring the thing we want reflexively all too often doesn’t satisfy us for very long. For a short time, there’s a sense of relief or contentment, but then — an even newer phone comes out. Or that burger is gone and now we want a milkshake to go with it. There’s always going to be something we don’t have, but want, and as long as we chase after it reflexively we’ll never be satisfied.

We must be still, and cultivate contentment and gratitude about things as they are. Yeah, I really want an Oreo shake right now, but…I had a good dinner and a glass of beer. If I stop and pay attention, I can feel my full belly and that nice little buzz of intoxication. And it feels nice. The desire for a shake, that restlessness, falls away.

Finally, there is doubt. What’s interesting about doubt is that it is a very necessary thing to have. We must be critical and questioning of ourselves, our beliefs and our world. (Who says? Good question.) But doubt can also be crippling; we can feel so lost in it, with no idea where to begin, that we throw our hands up and give up on the whole endeavor. With meditation, we can often feel as if we’re not doing it right because we’re not in the lotus position, beneath a bodhi tree, with the morning star clearly twinkling in our field of vision. We will stop ourselves from stretching, from trying something new, from taking risks, because we doubt our own ability to do it, or the ability of the people around us to forgive mistakes. Doubt all too often leads to fear, and fear leads to paralysis, blindness, stagnation.

Doubt is one of the big ones for me. The antidote for this is preparation and trust; we learn what we can, while we can — and we trust in our ability to discover the answers we don’t yet grasp. With meditation, for example, learning the various traditions will help us understand a common thread that all meditators seek and we learn which ones will suit our own individual preferences as we seek the same thing. And we trust that any mistakes we make can (and will) be discovered and corrected, and that these mistakes are part of the process. It’s another way we learn and grow. And I know that it is very much easier said than done, but there you go.

Guarding ourselves against the Five Hindrances, recognizing the form they take within ourselves, and working on the traits that encourage us to be more open, accepting, curious, loving and prepared constitutes Right Effort for me. This is done through meditation, but also carrying the mindfulness cultivated on the meditation bench with me through the rest of my life. It’s an ideal I continually strive for, even though I fail. Frequently. But hey, part of the process, right? It isn’t Right Perfection, after all.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health

 

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(Buddhism) Right Livelihood

Buddhism 150The fifth spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path is also the last one in the Moral Virtues (or Sila) group — Right Livelihood. Together with Right Speech and Right Action, these form the backbone of how our understanding of the principles of Buddhism translate into practice through the rest of our lives. For most of us, especially the lay Buddhists who won’t be joining a monastery, Right Livelihood means abstaining from taking work that harms people through cheating or fraud, killing, etc. It can be interpreted as, well, not making money through wrong actions. But it can also mean a lot more than that.

Let’s tackle the job thing first. We live in a country where it’s absolutely necessary to have a job in order to survive. We can’t easily do odd jobs as they come to us, or rely on the goodwill of our community; we must choose a profession and spend significant time with it in order to make enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. And a lot of the time, those jobs require us to do things that might run into trouble with a strict interpretation of Right Livelihood.

For example, I work for a company that specializes in digital marketing, providing platforms for companies to reach people through email, text and digital advertising. A lot of our customers have very questionable business practices, and there are one or two of them that I am in direct moral and political opposition to. However, the nature of my job means I can’t necessarily discriminate between the customers who don’t violate my principles and the ones that do; whenever I’m in contact with them, I must treat them all the same. Even if I believe that by helping them, I am in fact helping someone hurt someone else.

It feels like most of us are put into positions like that with our work. It’s very difficult to be politically or morally conscious without realizing that there are a number of different ways we all contribute to a system that succeeds, even thrives, on practices that harm other people. In order to step out of that system, we would need to spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing each company we do business with, what their business practices are, and what (if any) alternatives there may be. In order to be certain that our lives don’t contribute to the harming of another living being, I think we’d have to remove ourselves from a capitalist system almost entirely.

So what do we do about that? I honestly don’t know. I think, in some way, we have to make peace with the fact that there are certain moral compromises we all make in order to participate in society. At least, we must recognize all the ways in which our lifestyles are problematic. I’ve lived in poverty and near-poverty right into my late-20s. I’ve had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers more times than I can count. Only recently have I been in a position where I feel like I have “enough”. And now that I’ve spent some time here in the middle class, I’m beginning to realize all the ways I’ve allowed myself to indulge to excess.

I eat too much food, buy too many things and give in to impulses too often. It’s very difficult for me to save money because I’ve always thought that the moment I have it I’ll need to spend it on something sooner or later. The idea of holding back is kind of foreign to me; being able to purchase something purely for my own comfort is a novelty that hasn’t worn off yet.

Then again, does it ever get old? I think we just get used to a certain level of comfort, then get very reluctant to make sacrifices in order to serve some different purpose — whether that’s being prudent with our finances or satisfying a personal moral obligation. I know that I’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to my lifestyle more than once; I know how bad being poor sucks from experience, and I’m reluctant to put myself in that position again.

That brings me to another interpretation of Right Livelihood. For many, it means to make a living from begging — but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary. That could mean maintaining a minimalist home — one plate, one knife, one fork. That could mean holding on to the things you have as long as they work, not chasing after the latest and greatest version of something. That could mean being more mindful of your impulses, and living comfortably but not excessively. I think the ultimate interpretation you choose is the one that your conscience will bear, and that’s different for everyone.

So what does that mean for me? I suppose it means making sure that my lifestyle minimizes the harm it brings to other people. And that means buying less, being content with what I have, and doing whatever I can to address the ways in which harm is unavoidable. That means doing my best to combat climate change and environmental degradation; counteracting the ways in which I may be helping to further the aims of people who wish to perpetuate consumer culture, mindless bigotry or the insidious way advertisers are trying to make it easier and more effective to sell you things; and hopefully, trying to pursue a life in which I can make a living without feeling like I have to compromise my morality.

What I would really love is to be able to live closer to nature, tell stories and be dedicated towards helping people to be better. It may be a long time before I get to do that, and I accept that possibility. I think now it would be best to try and align my lifestyle closer to the one I want, where moderation is a habit painstakingly cultivated and my priorities are straight. I’m not sure that’s the case now, so it will take some doing to get it there.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: Emergent

Writing 150It was my first day back in school after the mugging, and people were treating me surprisingly well. I guess word had spread about what happened, which was cool, but what was most interesting was how the story changed based on who told it. The teachers talked about how I nearly got away by telling a story about this little Br’er Rabbit figure I had, which is true — I made it up on the spot because I didn’t know what else to do, and all that fear and anger and desperation just came out of me in this huge rush. It felt great. It made me dizzy, and sick, like I was high af. I couldn’t remember what the story was if I wanted to.

If you talk to my classmates, though, they’ll tell you how I started “acting crazy” after the first punch was thrown, speaking in tongues and all that. I was pointing to things that weren’t there, and having conversations with myself, and got in a fight with thin air. The people who attacked me were so confused that they were about to run off until I clocked one of them real good upside the ear. Then they jumped up and beat me down.

That’s true, too, but I don’t like to talk about it.

I’m adopted, and my mother was institutionalized for being a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was in the hospital, there were a lot of doctors who told me that I “had taken a pretty good blow to the head” and to let them know if I started seeing things that weren’t there. I couldn’t tell them that my room was filled with balloons of all sizes and shapes, that somehow managed to change color right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t tell them that these had been brought to me by a bunch of creatures that couldn’t exist — rats in waistcoats, or CPR dummies that told me where all the good drugs were, or an elephant that liked to be the size that would be most disorienting for you. I knew where that road lead, and that was one I wasn’t going to take.

So I pretended everything was fine, and I got pretty good at living a double life. In one of them, I was the victim of a violent crime recuperating from a possible concussion. In the other, I was this storyteller that every imaginary friend in the hospital would come to for advice or jokes they could take back to kids in other wings. I have no idea where these stories came from; it was like there was some doorway inside of me I could access now, and it all came spilling out. I really liked that feeling, and that disturbed me. I knew that I was getting whatever my mother had, and it was only a matter of time before things went bad.

I really did think that would be my first day back in school. There was so much going on I could barely keep it together. I saw a dragon on the roof, casually muttering to itself how these “insects couldn’t appreciate” the value of its own personal “hoard of knowledge”. I think it might have been the mascot for our football team. I saw trees gossiping to each other about who did what and when. There was a tiny bus that my mother nearly ran over, taking rats and squirrels right up to the building. The sky was made of rainbows, a feverish ripple of color that never stayed the same thing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it was also terrifying.

My aunt thought that I was nervous about being back in school after my whole “incident”, and I was fine with letting her believe that. The walk from the car to the front door was the longest walk of my life.

How do you tell someone that your mind is broken forever? I knew, deep down, that whatever this was wasn’t going away. If I sat down and closed my eyes and told myself that none of it was real, the colors would fade and all of this madness would get harder to see. But it made me feel sick. I was pushing that door of stories further and further away every time I did that, and there was some different part of me that fought against that hard. When the visions came back, they were more intense than ever.

So I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore the squirrel seated next to me in a little desk, chattering away about how excited she was to learn about American history from the tree out in the quad. The other students either came up to me to ask if I was all right, or snickered at me for being crazy. I was just getting calmed down when Mr. Foster walked into the room.

Mr. Foster is one of those guys that everybody in your neighborhood knows. He’s been at Highland Park High School forever and taught Social Studies to an entire generation of people around the block. He lived alone, and hung out with a bunch of people way younger than he was, and he had this thing about swords. We started calling him “Ghost Dog” a few years ago, and the name just stuck. He was a tall dude with an Afro and a 70s moustache. He wore a trenchcoat like he was Shaft, even in the summer. He was an awesome guy, but he was easy to make fun of.

At least, until now. He ducked under the doorway and pushed himself into the room. At first, he looked like he always did, but then there was this weird snap, like electricity popping. Then he was eight feet tall and blue, with these little horns and ridges coming out of his forehead. The coffee mug in his hand was this this hammer as big around as my chest. His trenchcoat was this steel suit of armor that shined like lavender when the light hit it.

I startled, and Mr. Foster looked at me. He sputtered, and then stared. He flickered a couple of times, back and forth between the old teacher and this monster dude. But then he stayed there. A rat on his desk asked him who the new kid was, and Mr. Foster flicked his hand like he heard it.

When all of the imaginary rodents at the edges of the room piped up with a “Good morning, Mr. Foster!” and he grunted in acknowledgement, I knew that he was seeing and hearing the same things I was. And I have no idea how that’s true.

But if I was crazy, then so was he. We shared the same visions. And if he could somehow live his life outside of an insanitarium then he had to teach me how.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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(Buddhism) Right Action

Buddhism 150For my own spiritual practice, I’m writing about each “spoke” on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path for a while. Reviewing what I know and think about each step of the path helps me clarify my understanding, expose any misunderstandings, and allows me to take a snapshot of where I am in my Buddhist practice. Sometime later, I can come back to this series of posts to see how my understanding of these aspects has changed over time.

Right now, we’re in the second of three groups within the path: Sila, or moral virtues. Right Speech is the abstaining from divisive, abusive, untruthful and idle speech, striving for honest, open, compassionate, helpful and relevant speech instead. What we say is a subtle but powerful way to create our karma; it can either foster hatred and fear, or happiness and connection.

Now, we look at Right Action. For the most part, Right Action covers the abstaining of killing, stealing and committing sexual misconduct. It can also be extended to mean any action we take and whether or not it contributes to connecting us with the world around us, clarifying our senses, or spreading compassion towards our fellow beings.

Right Action is one of those subjects that can be very controversial, especially when we parse what it means to “kill”, to “steal”, or engage in “sexual misconduct”. I’m not an authority on this by any means, but I’ll share what I think it means here and how my understanding of it affects my engagement with it.

Killing, for me, is the intentional act of ending the life of someone else at its most basic definition. However, it’s really difficult to refrain from that entirely. We slap at mosquitoes and other insects on our own almost instinctively, and we don’t necessarily alter our paths when we see beetles or flies crawling on the sidewalks. When insects or rodents invade our homes, we often lay down traps or poison for them to discourage them. Is this a wrong action? It depends on who you ask, and what your intentions are.

Again, stopping to think about our intentions can help us to review our instinctive impulses and learn that we don’t have to act on them. Those impulses fade, and are often replaced by better ones. Do we really need to kill insects that are on or near us? Why is it necessary? Thinking about this before you’re placed in a situation where it’s us or them can help us to check that initial behavior and make a more informed decision on what gets us closer to behaving consistently with our beliefs. If we decide that insects are fair game, that’s all well and good; but we must be aware of our views and intentions to see whether or not our actions are consistent with them.

However, killing doesn’t just mean ending someone’s life. It could also mean making their lives more difficult through harmful or ignorant action; destroying a significant emotional, social or spiritual aspect of our fellow beings; revising their history to something that untrue through lies, deception or hiding. Physical death isn’t the only one we should consider.

Stealing is the taking of something (or someone) without it being offered, either by force, stealth, fraud or deceit. Taking someone’s TV out of their house obviously applies here, but so does misrepresenting ourselves in order to gain someone’s trust for nefarious purposes. If we loosen our view of what constitutes a possession, then we see all the ways we could (and might) steal without even realizing it. If our intentions are to follow the path, then we must understand as well as possible how this aspect of it might be applied — or how it doesn’t apply.

Sexual misconduct, of course, means different things depending on your intentions. For monks, this part of the path is where they lay down their vow of celibacy. For laypersons like us, it means doing our best to understand and respect the boundaries of any sexual situation in which we find ourselves. Consent is the most basic aspect of this — is our partner willing to engage in sex with us at this time? Are they in a position to make a conscious and informed decision? Are there other factors beyond their consent that may lead to harm or divisiveness?

These questions can only be answered as each situation arises, and it’s very important that we know the answers clearly before engaging. If there is any doubt, refrain until that doubt is removed. Even if we’re in the throes of our lust, there is no “point of no return”. If doubt arises at any point, then the expectation (at least in my view) is to abstain until that doubt is removed. Learning to be mindful — even in highly emotional or sensual situations — is one of the best ways we can avoid ever being in a situation where we’re “unable to stop”. And if we can’t trust ourselves to be mindful and respectful in a certain situation, we shouldn’t be in that situation at all if we can help it.

In a lot of cases, our actions will fall into a grey area. One example I really like is dealing with a pet who, for some reason or another, is facing an illness or injury that may lead to death. Is taking them to the vet to be euthanized a violation of the “no killing” part of the Eightfold Path? What about taking office supplies home, or pirating music or movies — does that count at stealing? If we’re in a sexual encounter and we’re not sure if going ahead with it is actual misconduct, what do we do?

It all comes down to our intentions and being honest about what those are. We must have an objective, self-aware knowledge of what’s in our heart at the time and be forthright enough to make our decisions based on that. If we want to end the suffering of our pet, euthanizing them is OK. If we don’t want to pay the vet’s bills or deal with the hassle of caring for them, maybe it’s not. If taking office supplies home helps us to do our job more effectively or makes it easier to help our coworkers, then it should be fine to ask. If we just want free staples and pens, then it’s not. If we’re sure that our sexual encounter will increase happiness, connection and compassion AND we’re sure that informed and conscious consent has been given, it’s OK. If our own pleasure is our primary motivation for moving ahead, we want to reconsider.

For me, the right action is the one that is not entirely selfish; hurting or degrading someone else in order to put myself ahead or make my life easier is not OK. I believe that human beings are innately social creatures, and we’re at our best when we’re working together. Fostering a spirit of community and companionship is my guide for action. Easing the suffering of other people is an impetus to act. Making my environment worse through action or inaction is the thing I need to watch and abstain from.

What do all of you think? Do you agree or disagree? Are there nuances on this that I’ve missed? How do you determine whether an action is right or wrong?

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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(Buddhism) Right Speech

Buddhism 150So for a little while now I’ve wanted to go over the “spokes” in the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path — more for my own benefit than any pretense of instruction. One of the things that I’d like to get more serious about is my understanding of Buddhist ideas and how they relate to mindset, action and life. Going back to the basics is a great way to do this; making sure your foundation is sound helps you to be sure as you can that your belief structure is well-constructed.

Last week, I talked about the two spokes in the Wisdom or Prajna group: Right View and Right Intention. Right View is an accurate understanding of reality and how it works, though there’s also the understanding that this will need to be adjusted as we gain knowledge and experience. Right Intention is the decision to act upon that view to be harmless at worst, and harmonious and helpful at best. It is making the commitment to be the best person we can be, and to pursue improvement not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with.

Now that we have our best understanding of the universe and our best intentions towards goodness, we move to the next group of the path: the Sila group, or the “moral virtues”. These are how we manifest our understanding and sharpen our focus towards being as helpful and compassionate as possible. These three virtues are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Right Speech is a very important one for me. The idea is to refrain from four kinds of speech that are damaging and uncompassionate: we are meant to abstain from lying; from divisive speech; from abusive speech; and from idle chatter. At least for the layperson, telling the truth while doing our best to connect and uplift people is the best thing we can do. Idle chatter can be…just talking for the sake of talking, speech that offers no benefit or takes attention without giving anything in return. It can also be gossip that bonds us to one person by distancing another — especially when they’re not there.

I’ll be honest right now: I’m terrible with right speech very often. I have a hard time being honest with people — mostly because I learned how to be secretive at a very early age and being open and vulnerable is very scary to me. I can be gossipy and uncharitable towards folks who have habits or attitudes I find annoying and harmful. When I’m stressed, I am often impatient and snappy towards people who turn to me for help. And as much as it pains me to say it, I am not nearly as good as I’d like to be with comforting people who turn to me with their problems.

I don’t like these things about myself, of course. Focusing on Right Speech is a great way to unlearn these bad habits and inclinations, then replace them with alternatives that foster a sense of compassion and connection. I believe that ultimately, what we say has a powerful effect on the people around us; it fosters a sense of emotion that tends to develop unattended because we’re not talking about it directly. If we look for and speak negatively, we begin to think along the same track and encourage others to do the same in order to communicate with us. Others might think that in order to connect with us, it would be easier to complain or share outrage. We might only look for the things that upset us, because those are the things we speak most about.

On the other hand, speaking up more about the things we love and make us excited can generate a sense of openness, contentment and positivity. If we focus on the things that make us happy and share them with others, it invites them to do the same. If we look for the best in people and compliment them when we find it, it lifts them up and encourages them to do the same. Speech is a powerful thing, and being aware of how we use it can enable us to use its power towards our best aims.

It can be difficult to remember this in the immediacy of conversation, especially at first. If we’re among friends who tend towards being divisive or abusive, then it’s really difficult to turn that around or find ways to abstain from that and still be a part of the conversation. But I think the difficulty of it is precisely the reason it’s worth doing; it’s far too easy to let ourselves be negative and distancing, especially online and in this political climate. It’s hard to change a thing for the better, but it must always start with ourselves first. We must make the commitment to strive for compassion and connection any way we can, and how we communicate with each other is one of the most fundamental ways we can do that.

Online, almost all we have is our speech. Armed with our understanding of the situation and our intention to improve it, speech is a very powerful tool that we can use to achieve that. When we speak up to each other in person and online, we can ask ourselves whether what we’re saying is truthful, helpful and worthwhile. At the very least, we can resolve to remain quiet if we catch ourselves lying, tearing someone down, or talking just for the sake of it. By choosing not to take action, we learn how to pay more attention to our impulses, and we also learn that we don’t have to act on the first impulse that arises; it will subside, and often a better one will take its place.

These changes won’t happen all at once. But the more we pay attention to our choices when we speak, the more we’ll be able to make better choices more quickly. Personally, I’ll be doing my best to be more honest and open to others, and to connect with someone where they are to the best of my ability. Where helpful, I will discourage abusive, divisive and dishonest speech and attempt to redirect the conversation towards something more positive. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll try not to be an annoying and sanctimonious asshole about it when I do.

Now, my friends, what are the particular challenges you face with your speech? What has worked for you in trying to be better with it? Or do you have a different view about speech entirely?

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Right Intention

Buddhism 150Right Intention is the second spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it makes up the concept of Prajna in Buddhism together with Right View. These two spokes form the foundation of Buddhist thought; once you have an accurate understanding of reality and have decided that you’re going to try your best to do what’s right according to that understanding, you’re ready to move on to acting on what you understand.

Right Intention has also been called “Right Resolve,” because it represents that step where you’ve gained this knowledge and resolve to act on it and incorporate it into our daily lives. We take what we’ve learned about ourselves, other people and everything else and aspire to use those lessons to make ourselves better. It’s a commitment to align your life to principles you’ve adopted. But, as you grow in wisdom and knowledge, it’s often necessary to review your views and adjust your behavior accordingly. This is a lifelong process; refinements will always happen.

This has been a huge part of the practice for me, because making sure I have the right intention essentially forces me to be mindful of my words and actions — especially with matters of great importance. When I stepped into the social justice sphere two years ago, I wanted to make absolutely sure that I knew what my intentions were whenever I engaged with someone who didn’t agree with me. Was I trying to understand them better so we could seek commonality? Was I trying to persuade them towards my point of view? Was I trying to make them feel bad about themselves or look bad in front of other people? Figuring out my intentions helps me to frame my argument towards that purpose. And knowing that people are essentially afraid, all the time, and that fear puts you in a space you feel you need to defend at all costs, a lot of the work I try to do is addressing that underlying fear inherent in uncompassionate ideas and behavior.

I believe that intention matters, and if you have really thought about your intentions then you’ll naturally follow that up with careful and considered language and action. It’s one of the reasons why careless, reckless behavior drives me so crazy. It points right back — to me, at least — to an ignorance of your true intentions or worse, willful disregard for the effects of your behavior on other people. In a world where all we have are our words (especially the Internet), choosing them carefully is one of the most fundamental things we can do to make our communities better and more harmonious.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. One of my favorite sutras is the Metta Sutra, a Theravedan text that’s often chanted by monks. (At least, so I hear.) It’s one of those things that I use to bring my focus back to my intention with all interactions. When I get overwhelmed and anxious, I can often lash out at people who are asking for my attention. I get really whingy about all the things that I have to do when I feel like it’s too much; and I can always tell when I’ve lost perspective when I start in on a rant and people just go glassy-eyed.

So, here’s the Metta Sutra. Just reading it over, I’m again struck by how wonderful it is. It really is one of those things I’ve tried very hard to work towards:

This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.

Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.

Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.

Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again
will lie in the womb.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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