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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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Zen & The Art of Getting Shit Done

 

Buddhism 150It’s been a hard couple of months for me, mostly because of a few unexpected emergencies. I got into an accident at the end of February that totaled my car, and it took about a month for my insurance company to make that decision and offer me a write-off settlement. I had spent a bit of time researching available cars for a while, but past a certain point I had to blitz through buying a car because of the other sudden explosion — family. I’m still working through that one, and it looks like I’ll be devoting time and energy to that for a while yet.

My ADHD intersects with my Generalized Anxiety Disorder in weird ways. I’m not sure if I’ve talked about my anxiety disorder, but here’s a quick summary. Emotions are like the dashboard warnings on your car, right? They’re indications that there’s something you should pay attention to. Sometimes, the sensor and trigger for those warning lights can be faulty or over-sensitive; so you’ll feel angry at the slightest provocation, or your body will suddenly panic for no real reason. In my case, my anxiety trigger is really sensitive — it doesn’t take very much to trigger it, and that makes it harder to absorb new sources of stress when they arise. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed.

When that happens, my ADHD kicks in. It feels like I have…hummingbird brain, let’s say. I’ll flit from thing to thing, rarely staying in one place or on one thought at a time. The more I try to settle down to focus on a problem, the more my brain slides away from it, distracted by the nearest shiny thing. Because there’s an urgent matter that needs my attention, some part of my brain will send an anxiety response to draw it back, but I can’t focus and I’ll slide to another distraction. This happens again and again, and I end up spending so much energy trying to get my brain on track that by the time I’ve wrestled it into submission exhaustion has set in and I don’t have much energy for whatever problem I’m dealing with.

It’s frustrating and awful. It means that instead of having the capacity to deal with what’s in front of me, my anxiety will throw me into a state where that’s more or less impossible. Flight becomes my default response, and I’ll get caught in an anxiety-flight loop until I’m too tired to run, metaphorically, from my problems. But I’m also too tired to deal with them.

This is one of the reasons that self-care is so important. I know that laying a foundation of care allows me to absorb stress better, recognize when I’m about to become overwhelmed, and pull back to manage stress as necessary. It does mean that things get done more slowly, but the process is a whole lot faster than letting the hummingbird tire itself out and trying to deal with things that way.

A big part of that self-care is taking time to practice meditation. Allowing myself to do whatever it is I’m going to do helps to ground me. It’s like…setting aside space to honor the hummingbird by letting it flit as much as it wants; sometimes it settles down to sip the nectar of a particularly attractive thought and I discover a solution for something I need to take care of. Sometimes, it simply gets tired and goes back into its cage of its own accord. Either way, meditation helps immensely to replenish my capacity to absorb stress and deal with unexpected things as they arise, without attachment or judgement. I can enter a state of flow more easily, and it’s not quite as devastating when that flow state is broken. Panic happens less often, and even if I’m tired at the end of the day it’s not that raw and troubled exhaustion that happens after time fighting anxiety; it’s a contented kind of weariness, knowing that I got shit done.

Those of us who have to deal with mental health issues have all kinds of other considerations that others might not. Whenever someone comes up to ask me something or make a bid for attention, there’s an instinctive rise of concern about how much this exchange will take out of me. If I’m dealing with a lot of stress-inducing stuff at the moment, I might not be able to spare much energy at all, but I want to help and I want to listen, connect, work with people. If I wake up too late to meditate, I realize that I’ve compromised my ability to deal with difficulties for the rest of the day and my focus will suffer. I worry a lot about being understood or communicating my internal life to others in a way that they will get or care about; it’s hard for me to open up or be spontaneous with people. There’s all this damage that makes the regular stuff so hard, and it’s hard to explain that in a way that doesn’t feel like a bid for pity or a plea for recognition.

With self-care, it can often be that a small change yields big results. Without stress management or coping mechanisms, the medication I take for ADHD can make it more likely that I’ll hit “hummingbird brain” — which is counter-productive to what the medication is supposed to do. Taking just 15 minutes in the morning to encourage quiet and focus can be the difference between a hectic but successful day and a total hot mess of wasted opportunity.

It’s important to do what you need to do to make it through the day; we all have those things that make us better people. It could be exercise, or conversation, or medication; writing, or singing, or hiking. Whatever it is, do it — and make space for others to do what they need. We never know what burdens other people might be under. We scarcely know how our burdens will affect us. But if we encourage and support one another, it makes everyone’s burdens a bit easier to bear.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Right Concentration

Buddhism 150You know how there are certain people who, when you meet them, make you feel like you’re the only person in the world for as long as they’re talking to you? The full weight of their attention is startling at first, because it’s not something we’re used to. In these busy times, there are always distractions trying to tear us away from where we are. If we’re at a party, there are snatches of interesting conversation; if we’re on the street, there’s no end to visual stimuli. Even in relatively quiet surroundings, we often have to battle with someone’s inner thoughts or phone for their attention.

So it’s noticeable when it’s clear someone is paying attention solely to us — to what we say, how we say it, and all of the non-verbal cues we give both consciously and subconsciously. That level of focus can make us feel important, even confident. And then we notice that the next person this same fellow meets gets that same treatment.

When this happens to me, I feel confused, maybe even a little slighted. People can’t actually work that way, right? Focusing on one individual at a time, one conversation at a time, being fully present in the moment they’re in before letting that go and moving on. What gives?

It took me a long time to realize that cultivated concentration looks just like that. Being able to focus squarely on the one thing we’re doing while we’re doing it, giving it our total effort and full being, is one of the best things we can do as Buddhists. It is the practice of Right Concentration.

Mindfulness and concentration are closely connected, but I think it’s good to view them as a broad searchlight (mindfulness) and a narrow spotlight (concentration). While mindfulness allows us to take in the many different aspects of a situation and come to an understanding with it to determine the best response, concentration is what allows us to commit to that response wholly and fully.

A lot of what we see as stereotypical monastic life feels like it’s geared towards this purpose. Monks simplify their lives in order to learn how to live each moment with total concentration. When they are meditating, they meditate; when they’re cooking, they cook; when they’re gardening, they garden. The act of losing one’s self in the absorption of their activity has always been tremendously appealing to me, and I think this is why.

You see this a lot even outside of a Buddhist context. My favorite conversations with people are when they “step out of their own way” and become a conduit for the wonder and excitement that their favorite hobby or life’s work brings to them. You see them get so lost in the work that there’s almost no ego at all; just someone performing this activity. It’s a kind of rapture, this state, where you’ve drawn in to the pursuit of the perfect sentence, or musical phrase, or brushstroke. It’s so difficult to get to, but it’s a wonderful place to be.
Right Concentration posits that this state can be expanded beyond a rapturous creation of art and carried with us into everyday life. In fact, the very idea of total concentration and complete absorption is actually nothing special. It can be reached when you’re shopping for your groceries, washing the dishes, putting the children to bed, or lounging by the pool. You can do it in conversation, or solitude, in passive observation or active participation. The most important thing is to allow yourself the chance to concentrate on the task in front of you.

That is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s difficult to perform one task with a single-minded focus in this day and age. It’d be much easier if we were monks in a temple, with no distractions. But that is not the world we live in. There are countless things vying for our attention every waking moment, and part of our practice is to understand and accept this, then move forward with clear concentration anyway.

This is why our time on the meditation bench is so important. It allows us to simply be with what is present — whether it’s a pain in our legs or a troubling memory we can’t shake. By accepting what is present, we learn how to shift our perspectives so that what arises is not suddenly our entire world, but just a temporary piece of our experience. It will be with us for a while, and then it will fall away.

With mindfulness, we can determine whether or not what arises should have our attention. If so, our views and intention will direct our speech and action to work towards the most harmonious outcome. And our concentration will allow us to continue that work whole-heartedly, without ego, clear and faithful in our work.

The steps on the Noble Eightfold Path aren’t linear. Right View does not necessarily lead straight into Right Intention, so forth and so on until we reach Right Concentration and into Right View again. Sometimes we will need to focus on one aspect or group above the others, or sometimes we’ll need to take things step by step in order to steady our footing. But overall, the Noble Eightfold Path is one of those things that can’t helped but be worked all at once, with one aspect helping us to move forward in every other. Wisdom, ethical conduct and mental training go hand in hand; it’s really difficult to focus on one without the effects of your study filtering through everything else.

So for me, this is what the Path looks like. It’ll be interesting to revisit this in a year or two to see what’s changed.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(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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