Brimming Over

Over the last few days I’ve been emotionally raw and sensitive.  A very good way to say it is the way my friend Grace said it – my emotions are very close to the surface.  I feel on the verge of tears or laughter throughout the day.

I didn’t see it coming.  Then suddenly, Friday morning, I felt a maelstrom of emotion just below the surface, threatening to bubble over.  It has not gone away.

It didn’t, and still doesn’t, worry or frighten me.  It’s not the first time.  It won’t be the last. 

I try to trace the feeling back into my person.  What I see is that this rawness, this sensitivity, is a response to the suffering I create for myself in my desire for the current circumstances of my life to be different.  These circumstances are temporary and by this time next year, will be mostly alleviated.  But for now some of the decisions I’ve made over the past 4 years have had ramifications that have come to pass.  Some of them were unforeseeable, some pretty predictable. 

But the stress and suffering the uncertainty creates for my home and family wears on me.  The constant stream of pressure at work builds on me.  I’ve taken on more responsibility in the community than I normally would in order to save a music program for children from being cancelled.  I love it, but it’s all a bit too much.

I feel raw and a bit at sea.  Yet there’s an immediacy and a beauty to the feeling – as if a confirmation that I really am in control of very little.  Most of life is living in the present, accepting what is, doing what one can to live well and with compassion, and letting go of the insistence that life be something different than it is right now.

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Gentle Misnomer

The other day I was discussing my Buddhist practice with my wife and a couple of our friends.  Speaking about some aspect of the practice that escapes me right now, I’d mentioned that I’d addressed that topic in a post on my blog.

Now, when you’ve been happily married for 24 years, it is true that nobody knows you like your spouse knows you.  Nobody else even comes close.  And they have no compunction against reminding you of that fact.  She interjected:

“You know, hon, the name of your blog amuses me.  You are many things, but you are not gentle.”

She is right, of course.  I am not gentle.  I came to the Dharma by way of my anger.  Much of my practice is affected by my anger, positively and negatively.  Anger has kept me off the seat and anger has driven me to it.  I try to understand it, make friends with it, and let it go.

So why Gentle Dharma?  Perhaps something akin to Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen or Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx would have been the right attitude?  Not that they’re necessarily angry.  I simply would have run less risk of presenting something that was not, perhaps?  Am I being dishonest?

I don’t believe I am.  I named this blog Gentle Dharma very deliberately.  I wish to let go of the attachment, the shenpa, that fuels my anger.  I aspire to be free from the craving to be right.  I aspire to cease my own suffering in anger.  More so I desire to cease inflicting suffering on those around me through my anger.

In the beginning and in the end, Gentle Dharma is a statement of aspiration.  It is not so much a description of what is, rather what is possible.  That I would be free, and thereby free those whom I love.

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness
and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great joy,
devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity,
free from passion, aggression and prejudice.
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My Eulogy

There is a beautiful post on Tiny Buddha today.  It is a tribute by Lori to her grandmother, who passed away on June 4th.

Lori describes her grandmother’s beautiful character distilled in four beautifully stated guidelines.  Please take the time to read it.

What got me thinking, though, was the idea of Lori’s eulogy, which I assume was similar to the article.  We are all going to die someday.  Like all of the impermanent world we are going to return to the earth.  All of the tiny atoms will scatter over time, always apart of the universe, but never again organized into me.  What remains of who I am will be memory to my wife, should she outlive me, to my children, to their children, should they have them, to my extended family, and to my friends.  It may last another generation or two, then for generations after be a simple branch on the family tree, a footnote in the archives.

But for most of us, there will be one afternoon where everyone coalesces all their memories, while they’re still very fresh, and in their grief, share you, share me, with each other, wrapping up all of our lives and intention into a final memory.  For some acquaintances, this will be the best they ever know you and me.  For some who were closer, it will only be a movie trailer, the best parts, edited to convince us that the movie really was worth seeing.

It strikes me that each of us has some say in what is said on that day.  I think each of us hopes they will say wonderful things to a gathering that pours out the doors of the hall and into the streets.  But what are we doing to, well, beautify that eulogy.

It inspires me to write my eulogy, not as it is now, but as I’d like it to read if it was up to me.  To write it not with the idea of influencing someone else’s memories later, but with the idea of creating a pool of intention from which to drink each day.  To inform and remind myself what is important.  To remember that I am simply a part of universe, and that how I fulfill my intention will be the memories that are later spoken to a roomful.  Or to an empty room, should I be so unskillful.

I will do this over the coming days and I will post it here.  This is not to show you how wonderful I am, but to show me how far I have yet to progress on the middle way.  More than that, to encourage you to examine your practice and your intention along with me.

What do I want them to say?  What am I doing to make those things true, to make compassion, kindness, gentleness, acceptance, and love the things they remember about me when I am no longer awake to hear?

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A Blazing Fire

Anger brought me here.

There are some particular things that are certain to set me off.  Bullies set me off.  Injustice sets me off.  Republican politics (being honest, right?) set me off.

My sons fighting physically really sets me off.

Tonight I showed a remarkable lack of skill.  I could hear them upstairs fighting and hitting each other.  This was a full-blown.  My 11-year-old came down holding his stomach and crying.  I lost it.

I didn’t yell at my 14-year-old.  I screamed at him.  In his face.  I was like a drill sergeant.  A 14-year-old might find reasons to cry, but it shouldn’t be his father making it happen.

I cooled down and talked about what I did wrong, and I apologized to him, as well as to my other son.

He’s forgiven me, and I him for getting physically violent with his brother, but I’m having trouble forgiving me.  I’m still so young in practice, and in learning to be awake and aware, but I’d let myself be caught up in a poor mood all day long, and rather than skillfully address it, I just let it simmer, so that when something challenging came up, my mind wasn’t prepared for it.  I was sleeping.

I don’t think you can behave like that without leaving scars, even little ones.  My mother was verbally violent on occasion.  Even though she was a great, dedicated mom, those things stick with you.  Not so much the damage to the psyche as the picking up of habits.  I’m so much like her in that way.  I have the chance and the power to break the patterns – to replace anger and violence with gentleness and compassion.

But I didn’t do that today.  And I can’t go back.  There is only now.  Some time on the cushion is needed.

Off to spend some time with my sons first, though.  They need me to spend some time with them gently, not hole up by myself.

And I need it too.

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I was driving in Ventura the other night.  While I was stopped at a light, a ragged man, apparently homeless, rode his rickety bike across the intersection in front of me.  A jumble of personal possessions was secured under plastic in a basket on his handlebars.

My initial thought was “There but for the grace of god…”

But that’s not really accurate, and not just because I no longer believe in a personal Christian god.  It’s not the grace of god that leads to a homeless, nomadic life on a bicycle.  What are the right questions to ask?

What does lead to such a life?  Is such a life bad, or is it only bad through the filters of my experience?  Or is it bad through the filter of my desires?  Is the man on the bicycle unhappy?  Is he happy, but less happy than I am?  Is he more happy than I am?  Is he right where he wants to be, or does he dream of something better?  Does he dream of something just out of reach?  Does he dream of the impossible?  What are his thoughts as he crosses the intersection?  Is he suffering?  If he’s suffering, is he suffering for the reasons I think he is, or is there some other aspect I can’t even see?  What is it that leads me to think that the quality of life I lead is an ideal for this man?  Do I really think I’ve got it right and he’s got it wrong?

I can’t actually answer those questions, but I can explore where the question comes from.

The quality of life I lead is an outgrowth of my desires.  These desires both inspire me to meet my goals and create suffering when I miss the mark or don’t achieve that which I desire.  The choices I make in the pursuit of those desires can be skillful or unskillful.

I think the first step is to remember that the idea of Quality of Life is an artificial construct.   The one true quality is enlightenment, right?  To be truly present and awake.  The creature comforts we enjoy are part of the impermanent landscape.  Not to be pursued, but still to be enjoyed, I would think.

I have a loving wife of nearly 24 years to whom I’m very close.  We are deeply devoted to each other.  We are best friends as well as beloved.  The comforts and security I do pursue I intend to give her the space to be herself, and to find contentment and enlightenment for herself without the constant worry of our own sustenance.   We have three beautiful children who are getting to the age of being launched out on their own.  Part of what I pursue I intend to provide them opportunities to find their niche in life, to find what fulfills them as members of society and of this world.

I do try to recognize the impermanence of it all.

But is that enough?  Is it wrong to focus on those temporal means of comfort?  Should I not rather be encouraging them on the dharma path?  Encouraging them to find the raft?

Thinking about it now, still so young in the practice, I think it’s alright to pursue the good of my loved ones in a temporal sense.  But true practice is to pursue as skillfully as you can without being attached to a particular outcome.  If I desire outcome A and instead get outcome B, and I accept that B is the present, then I am awake.

If I pursue A and instead get outcome B, and I don’t accept that, I suffer – with worry, anger, denial, and whatever else I lose trying to change B back into A.

I’ve made the best choices I can.  I still try to live skillfully – in light of the practice.  Awake to the possibilities of the present.  I have a pretty comfortable life.

So when I see the man on the bicycle, perhaps it’s not so much that I’m grateful that I’m not him, but rather that I didn’t make choices that would have me out riding a bicycle in the middle of the night.

In that manner I don’t impose any disapproval on a manner of living that, while I would consider it suffering, may be very simple and peaceful for that man.  Instead, he chooses what is peace and presence for him, and I choose the same for me.

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Mad Skillz…

I’m not a big fan of lingo.  I don’t care for buzzwords.  Yet spiritual traditions are full of proprietary lingo.  Come out of a Christian tradition, like I have, and you’ll have a small dictionary full of them.  Even more disliked is a word I already understand in one context that has a completely different meaning in a particular religious context, so that one must immerse oneself in the dogma to get it.

On the other hand, I do love an apt word.  A word or phrase that takes a fuzzy concept and brings clarity is like the fresh smell of the first rain of spring.

So as I’ve steadily moved deeper into my understanding of Buddhism and its concepts, and as I’ve pursued my practice, a particular word has come up that, at first, raised my alarm bells.  I’ve seen several authors regularly use the word “skillful.”

Some people might not be so struck by this word, but I’ll refer again to my background.  As a Christian, my whole perception of spirituality was focused on faith, devotion, worship, sin, and dependency.  It was a doctrine of inadequacy.  Christians are taught that our personal efforts are empty unless they are powered by the Holy Spirit.  Works in our own power, for our own purposes, are empty.  They are  like dirty rags.  The emphasis isn’t on our own skill and ability.  It’s on trust in god and Jesus.  The quality is not in our effort, its in god’s faithfulness.

So when I encountered the word skillful, I first suspected a redefinition.  Keep in mind I was just trying to get my arms around the basics of meditation and mindfulness.  What am I saying?  I’m still just trying, but I am a few more steps along the journey.  But I was still laboring under a mindset of inadequacy.  I thought that humility meant that I was not going to respond correctly to difficult moments by default.  I still had the idea that I had to admit my inability and get out of the way.  But I’m learning that practicing the dharma is not the same.  I suppose if it was I never would have changed my tune in the first place.

The truth is that we each have the Buddha nature within us.  We have within us everything we need to find happiness and peace, to love, to end suffering, to live mindfully, and to be compassion to everyone around us.

To live skillfully.

As we get up off the cushion and interact with an impermanent world full of suffering people, we have choices at every turn.  Every intersection with another human being gives us the responsibility to respond.  Every situation, every conflict, every opportunity, every moment opens the door for us to either respond in a manner that increases our suffering or that of others, or decreases it.  It is a moment to give or to take.  Each moment has its own challenge, but it’s down to our response.  To act skillfully is to be awake to the impact of our response on ourselves any other party involved.  To act skillfully is to thoughtfully consider our attachments, to gently let go, and to respond to the situation as it is, not through the filters of our past.  To act skillfully is to do our best to choose the most compassionate response, the one that acts out lovingkindness, with as much awareness as we can muster.

It is not a measure of perfection.  It is a measure of mindfulness, a measure of maturity, a measure of our willingness to return to the breath and choose love over ego.

May we all learn to live skillfully during our brief journey on the river.

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Geographical Challenges

I live in a small town.  It’s where people stop for gas between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  We like our small town, of course.  It’s our speed, and we’re acquainted with just about everyone.

There isn’t much here, though.  No shopping to speak of, no real night life… typical small town.  What is here is what the few of us here make ourselves as a community.  As long as you don’t want to get rich doing it, you’ll gather enough people to have a go.  I formed a community choir two years ago.  We have about 25 people in it each season.  Perfect.  We have a small cultural arts center, a community theater group, service clubs, a dance troupe, scouting, and of course sports.

Becoming a Buddhist in a small (somewhat conservative) town presents its own challenges.

No sangha.

Well, not really anyway.  I’ve found a few other people who practice meditation of a sort.  I think we all approach it a little differently.  I think that’s okay, too.  The raft is not the shore, right?  Whatever gets you there?

Still, I do wish we had a little more organized sangha nearby (i.e.: less than 65 miles away) with a qualified teacher.  Then again, isn’t that wishing for something that isn’t part of the issue to begin with?

When you walk away from Christianity, as I have, you still have emotional reactions and attachments that are probably not very conscious, lying just below the surface.  One of these, for me, is that I still crave the security of authority.  Evangelical Christians depend on the authority of the bible, which to them is the direct Word (capital W) of God (capital G), and on the authority of those who teach them every week what that bible means to them.  They depend on pastors to guide them, to counsel them, to make them feel safely and clearly led by the Holy Spirit.  It is a leadership that is sure not only because it’s based on the Word, but because Christians know those teachers are going to help strictly accountable for the manner in which they lead.  Furthermore, they know that those leaders didn’t show up by accident.  They were called by God to be there.  It is His (capital H) will that those men (and they’re nearly always men) be there at that time to teach what they teach.  It is all providence, all predestined, and none of it is by accident.

What a contrast to what we believe.  Life is random.  It is what we make it.  There is no predestined future.  Future is imagination, the past is memory.  There is only now.  Versions of this may vary, but this isn’t far off the mark for most Buddhists.

So, we’re cobbling together a little raft.  We’re forming a little meditation group that will meet weekly on Sunday mornings to meditate and either study a book or discuss topics, maybe even have teachers in from time to time.  We’ll let it develop as we go, with no expectations, just our own skillful effort, as best we can.

Sometimes in a small town you just have to put it together for yourself.  There’s nobody else around to make it happen, nobody else to bring our thoughts to life.

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