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(Personal) The Importance of Love

Buddhism 150We’re less than 24 hours away from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that a lot of people out there have a problem with. Traditionally we’ve thought of it as something only people linked in romantic relationships care about — single people need not apply. I’ve always thought that this was kind of a limited view of love, and it would be awesome if we could expand the focus of the holiday towards something a bit more egalitarian. Love comes in so many forms, and instead of taking the day to focus on the one kind of love we don’t have it would be much more in the spirit of the holiday to sit back and focus on the kinds of love we do. What do we love? Who do we love? Even if we’re not in a committed romantic relationship, what are our closest and most enduring bonds? When do we take the time to celebrate those?

Full disclosure: I’m a happily married rabbit, so my perspective on single people might not be the most accurate. But I would like to talk about the importance of love and how necessary it is to take the time to be grateful for its presence in our lives. One of the ways in which society (and our biology) conditions us is to make us acutely aware of the things we lack. We look at the successes of our friends and neighbors and wonder why we don’t have the same things. Meanwhile, it’s quite likely that our friends and neighbors are regarding something about us with an equally jealous eye. When we spend most of our energy focused on the things that need to be improved, we tend to miss all of the things that could bring us enormous contentment.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in assorted corners of the Internet. In our fandoms, we gripe about the direction our favorite shows are taking, the theories or pairings that become most popular in our cultures, or wage war on other, more inferior or stranger communities. With our politics, we’re ready to whip out the pitchforks at a moment’s notice, our outrage on ready standby for the controversy of the day. I don’t mean to belittle the value of anger about injustice. It’s important, and even necessary, to speak loudly against the things that we will not stand for. However, I think it’s equally necessary to speak up in support and defense of the things we love. By being open and passionate about the ideas that make us feel like better human beings, we remind ourselves of the kind of world we want to build, and aren’t solely focused on the things we need to tear down.

This is going to be a rough few years for us progressives. Conservatives control the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal government, an overwhelming majority of governor’s mansions and state legislatures, and they’re launching an all-out blitz to increase and preserve their power, push through an agenda built on fear instead of facts, exhaust and alienate those that oppose them. We’ll have to absorb that and fight against it every step of the way. In 2018, we have our first chance to oppose them through the electoral system — but any candidates that rise up in the mid-terms will need to have a message more inspiring than “We aren’t those guys who will try to take away healthcare, reproductive and minority rights, or put more power in the hands of businesses and bankers!” The people who hope to shift the country towards the left will need to outline a vision of what they believe America can be, what their values will lead them to focus on if elected, and remind us of the love we have for our country and each other.

As activists and informed citizens, we need to do the same. Yes, President 45 is a terrible embarrassment for our country, but why is that? What values do we, as Americans, see him and his administration stripping down for political gain? What ideals do we want to see restored, and where else can we find them in times like these? What WOULD a more just and progressive society look like for us?

It’s important to think about these things. We need something to work towards as well as something to work against. We need to imagine the society that we want to live in, the community that fulfills America’s promise. What do the people in that vision look like? What kinds of things do they do to help their fellow Americans? What role does government, business, and economics play in all of this? How does our country interact with foreign governments, allies and rivals alike? How does America influence other countries to be better in their own ways? What does a successful progressive vision for the world look like?

For me, it’s a world that embraces the collective responsibility that we share for one another. It’s a world that respects individual and cultural differences while also balancing that against the need to take better care of our planet and each other. It’s a world that gives everyone — no matter who they are or where they come from — the means to achieve their dreams with hard work, patience and a sense of fair play. It’s a world built on mutual respect and consideration, one that acknowledges freedom must be tempered by wisdom — that just because we’re free to do what we like we’re free from considering the consequences of our actions. My dream is that the world recognizes itself as one community with a common goal, the survival and advancement of the human species and the recovery of our home, the great planet Earth.

I want to spend more time speaking up for the things I love — compassion, creativity, and connection. I know that there are a whole heap of fires out there that need fighting right now, and I’m rolling up my sleeves to put them out. But I also want to remember that we’re fighting these fires because we’re trying to save our house; the place that we were born, or moved to, that shelters and protects us, that forms the basis of our best memories. I want to remember that my house is worth fighting for, and that there are so many reasons why.

Fear and anger can make us cruel when it gets out of balance with our love and our courage. We’re all afraid right now, and we’re all angry. It’s more important than ever to spread love and encourage each other to be brave. So, tomorrow, in addition to romantic love, let’s spread any kind of love we have in our lives. It could be the love between friends; the love of family; the love of our country, culture, background; the love of cherished ideals. Spend some time thinking of what you love, and if possible, encourage that love, spread it wherever you can. Loving what is good is just as effective a form of protest as hating what is bad.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

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(Movies) Hold On To Each Other or The Krampus Will Pick Us Off One By One

Entertainment 150Christmas-themed horror movies have a really poor track record; except for Gremlins, I can’t think of anything that could even remotely be considered good. Well, until now at least. I’ve already gotten into a few debates about this particular film with other folks, so please understand your mileage may vary. But for me, last year’s “Krampus” — which I only now got around to seeing — blends horror, comedy, and Christmas spirit perfectly. It delivers a cautionary tale that’s endearing and relatable, deeply silly, and actually kind of chilling all at once. The story turns out to be a meditation on what Christmas — and every winter holiday before it — is meant to be for the people who celebrate it, and the horrors that befall us if we forget it.

Tom (Adam Scott) is the patriarch of a typical American family preparing for the chaos of Christmas. Sarah (Toni Collette) is his wife trying to make the perfect holiday; his mother is an old-school German-speaking home-maker, while his daughter Beth is more interested in her boyfriend than her family. Adding to the stress, Sarah’s sister Alison is visiting for the holidays — with her obnoxious alpha-male husband (David Koechner) and four children in tow. To top it off, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy crashes the party to add her particular brand of cynicism, chain-smoking and binge drinking.

Only Tom’s son Max still believes in the Christmas spirit. That changes when his cousins embarrass him at the family dinner table by reading his letter to Santa out loud, exposing true and tender feelings about secrets that might be better left unrevealed. Hurt and angry, Max rips up the letter and tosses it into the wind, inadvertently summoning the shadow of Saint Nicholas. A supernatural blizzard cuts off power to the entire town, and that’s when the bloodletting begins.

Krampus tries to blend a kind of existential horror with demonic set-pieces that feel designed to be crazy enough to force a laugh, and how well it succeeds depends on your tolerance for tonal whiplash. I found it best to just buy into the film’s big request for a suspension of disbelief; once I did, I discovered that there was something surprisingly thoughtful lurking beneath the silliness.

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— HERE THERE BE SPOILERS —

Beth goes first, heading out into the storm to visit her boyfriend. She finds his home open to the elements, unnaturally frozen and everyone missing. On the way back, she’s chased by a horned figure jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she hides under a truck. Just when she thinks she’s escaped, another monster attacks her from the bushes. Tom and his brother in law are attacked as they go looking for him, and the family barricades themselves in the house. This, of course, doesn’t work — one by one, they’re isolated and abducted. As their numbers dwindle, their relationship to one another changes. Instead of focusing on what they hate about one another, they cling to each other a little tighter. Each terrible, strange disappearance forces them to band together that much more desperately.

This is where the movie starts to feel like it actually has something on its mind. Omi, the German grandmother, tells the story of how the poverty of her village made her lose her Christmas spirit when she was a young girl. Krampus visited, took everyone, and left her alone to serve as a witness. Now that Max and his family realize what is happening, they do their best to escape together; Omi stays behind to confront the demon, and that leads to a series of sacrifices. Tom gives his life to save his family, then Sarah gives hers to save her children. Eventually, Max tries to give up his life to save his cousin.

I might be overthinking this, or it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, but it was fascinating to watch these people realize the importance of unity against an often harsh and unforgiving world. As the home becomes increasingly unsafe and the family is driven into the bitter cold, I’m reminded of people learning to band together in ancient times for warmth and shared resources through the dark chill of winter. The festivity and merrymaking isn’t just because there was nothing else to do; these holidays are meant to deepen the bonds of community and remind us of the importance of our relationships. Gifts aren’t the meaning of Christmas; they only represent it. We give each other offerings to show our loved ones what they mean to us.

The consequences of forgetting how to be part of a community are often invisible and can easily go unnoticed. And by the time we realize that something has gone dreadfully wrong it’s too late. Max’s family struggle against a world that has suddenly turned against them in the worst way, and they display tenacity, ingenuity and bravery in the fight — but it does nothing to stop all of them from dying. Max begs and pleads with the demon to reverse what’s happened; he apologies, he promises to remember his lesson, he even gives Krampus back the coal bell he received as a token of his ordeal. Then he is thrown into a pit, and wake up in his bed.

Downstairs, his family is enjoying Christmas morning. For all of their flaws, they share a common bond that fills the room with warmth. Then, Max opens his gift — Krampus’ coal bell. A chill quiets the room, and everyone looks away from each other as they remember the horrors they’ve experienced.

That image is a chilling one. Instead of reaching for each other to share and relieve their suffering, they retreat into themselves. It strikes me as a particularly nasty version of hell; taking a moment that should connect us and trapping us within it with people who simply cannot do so. Being alone in that room full of people is an exceptionally lonely feeling.

So, this Christmas, I’ll make it a point to be more open about the things that frighten or depress me — and I encourage you to do the same. It’s more important than ever to bring ourselves together, to hold on to one another before it’s too late. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but I worry that it’s so close. We have to learn how to band together; we may have our differences, and we might disagree, but what happens if we don’t is terrifying and irreversible.

Hell is a banquet table where everyone has no option but to use forks that are too long to feed ourselves. Heaven is what happens when we decide to feed each other instead.

 

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(Personal) Affirmations

Myth 150One of the things it’s been recommended we do to prepare for the Trump Administration is to learn how to be our own lights, to live our values openly and consistently. What does that mean? Well, Gandhi put it best when he said to “be the change you want to see in the world”. I know how horribly pretentious it is to quote Gandhi to open up a blog post, so I’ll beg your forgiveness now but also ask you to really think about what that means and how important it is to act upon. What kind of change do you want to see in the world? What do you want people to think of as a typical American? Be that person. Rearrange your life to make those values your priority. I wanted to take a moment to write down who I want to be and what I want to stand for now, so in the months and years to come I can come back to this as a North Star.

I am a Buddhist who believes that none of us are free from suffering until we’re all free from suffering. Enlightenment isn’t a static goal reached through years, decades, even lifetimes of work — it is an active state of being, a mindset that compels your thoughts and actions. Enlightenment is not being at peace under a bodhi tree in the lotus position; it is a life lived with complete focus and dedication to the eradication of suffering. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be tragedies; floods will still come, we will still lose the people we love, and we will still get sick, grow old, and pass on. However, it means that we are clear about the precious and impermanent nature of our lives, appreciate what we have while we have it, and learn to let it go once it’s gone.

Suffering comes from the unhealthy clinging to the good things in our lives and a pathological avoidance of the bad. We must learn to be uncomfortable, because that discomfort carries with it the promise of deeper understanding about who we are and what we’re about. The good times never last, but the bad times don’t either. Each carries with them a small truth about the nature of our existence, and our work is to sift through the sand to find that glittering and unmistakable gem.

Human beings are social animals, and I believe it is our life’s purpose to connect and engage with one another. Each one of us is an amazing creature, an entire world of thoughts and experiences, simultaneously common, vulgar, divine, unique. We must never forget that our potential is limitless when we learn to work together, and our doom is assured when we come to think of our fellow man as an enemy that must be eliminated rather than a companion that must be embraced and understood. It is difficult to connect with something as complex as another human being, but our life’s work isn’t meant to be easy. It is meant to be illuminating.

I will do my best to overcome my fear in service of that work. I will persist in trying to connect with other people, to connect other people to each other, to build and nurture a community that challenges and inspires its members to be more compassionate, more engaged, more devoted to the realization of our potential. I will endure the setbacks, dangers, and disappointments of this work because failure is only as permanent as I allow it to be. Abandoning my life’s work is a fate worse than death. I will not bear it.

I will protect those who are different, whose differences make them vulnerable to the whims of the mob. I will not tolerate intolerance of those who were born another race, worship a different God (or no God at all), who love different genders, who are different genders. I will stand up and speak loudly against those who would isolate their fellow human beings through cruel speech, aggression, violence. I will do what is necessary to make sure no harm comes to another human being simply because they are different. I will not assume someone else will take care of it; it is my life’s work to eradicate suffering, whatever form it takes.

I will keep learning how to tend to my life’s work better and more compassionately. I will correct my mistakes as soon as I am aware of them. I will be forgiving and understanding of the mistakes of others. I will be patient, kind, open, and honest. I must be brave in order to uphold these virtues.

I believe in a future where humanity embraces the full spectrum of its existence. I will work towards that future by respecting others and demanding respect in return. I will not allow myself or others to be mistreated. At the same time, I must be aware of my limitations and respect myself and my needs. I can’t continue my life’s work if I don’t take care of myself. I will do what I need to do to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can; to do otherwise is to give in to despair. I will not bear it.

My name is David, and I am a gay black man living in the United States of America. This is my country. I refuse to let it stand for values that promote suffering, isolation, ignorance and selfishness. I will do everything I can to make sure we are a nation of united peoples, respectful and respected, engaged in the world and dedicated to making it better.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, 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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