Tuesday, November 23, 2010

be grateful to everyone

"If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities, which we project onto the outside world. In traditional teachings on lojong it is put another way: other people trigger the karma that we haven't worked out. They mirror us and give us the chance to befriend all of that ancient stuff that we carry around like a backpack full of granite boulders." -Pema Chodron
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library)

We are celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the United States, and so I have been contemplating this particular lojong slogan. It is a tough one. It is so tough that I often feel that if I was truly successful in following its teaching, I might actually wake up. Can I really be grateful to everyone? Not only that, but can I really be grateful to every circumstance that arises, no matter how challenging?

It is easy to appreciate the good things in our lives, the people and circumstances that make us happier. But to appreciate the other stuff - the people and situations that only cause us trouble and agita - well, that seems to take some practice. "Be grateful to everyone" is a radical way to live. It requires you to open up and let go when you would really prefer to close down, lash out, be right, hold onto a preference or opinion, and maybe just crawl into bed and stay there all day. It requires me to thank those circumstances and those sentient beings that I find difficult, distasteful or distressing. Because without them, I would have no opportunity to see where I still get stuck, caught up in this illusion/delusion of "me" and "mine". I would ultimately have no path to walk, nothing to transform. The difficult people and circumstances are the friendly reminders to me to wake up. They are the constant feedback telling me which way to go on the path, what I still need to make friends with. They show me where I still create suffering for myself and others.

In his teaching on this slogan, Chogyam Trungpa says some truly radical, ego shattering things. He also says a very small thing that always sticks with me: "if there is no noise outside during our sitting meditation, we cannot develop mindfulness". Our usual modus operandi is to try and protect ourselves from the noise, to shut it out. We want to try and wrap the world in bubble wrap rather than relate to the phenomena that arise constantly to disturb our peace of mind. But if we are really committed to manifesting our basic goodness and to getting unstuck, we need that noise, and we need those people - you know - those people that make us want to run away and wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. As I gather with family this week during the holiday, I will be holding this slogan sharply in focus. Our families are often so hard to be grateful to, especially when all gathered together with the expectation of having a celebratory day. So many buttons can be pushed during this time together. It is a good time to practice our mindfulness, especially with our children watching. A good time to practice gratitude for the troublemakers we know in our own inner circle - who hook us into our habitual pattern, into our old karma.

This is ultimately a friendly practice. It doesn't mean that we allow people to abuse us or walk all over us. If we need to set a boundary, then we do so. We can do that out of compassion for ourselves and our troublemakers, and not out of aggression. We do it out of gratitude. They are teaching us how to take care of ourselves, and by extension, others. This slogan can be contemplated on a daily basis, and I have found it invaluable in my own life with small children. There are times when I don't feel particularly grateful to my children even, and it is in those times that I bring this slogan to mind. It helps. I see where I am stuck. I see where I am not very friendly to myself and others. Slowly, I let go. Gentleness grows. Appreciation dawns.

So this Thanksgiving, try this slogan out for size when you feel like grabbing the turkey leg and running out the door. Or when the children are screaming in the car, when the person behind you in traffic cuts you off, when your mother-in-law makes her passive aggressive comment about your parenting, or whatever. Happy Thanksgiving, and as always, be gentle.

Friday, November 19, 2010

being present makes you happier

A great little article today in the New York Times about a scientific study measuring people's happiness when their minds wandered. I find it interesting that ultimately the author dwells more on staying busy than the power of being present in whatever one is doing, and he does not touch on meditation practice. But in any case, worth a read, and a good reminder of what it costs us when we are not present.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

letting go, again

"It is better to do nothing than to waste your time." - Sharon Salzberg

"Every morning, look in the mirror and repeat three times: "It's not about me." - Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Ah yes. These are the lessons I am still, always learning. I am always finding myself holding on so tightly to something or other - a project, a person, a storyline, a hope or a fear. I guess ultimately I am holding onto myself the very tightest - this illusory, shifting, changing self I call "me". Because I still make everything all about "me".

There is a traditional teaching on generosity that says if you are having trouble giving to others, start very small. Start by passing an apple from one hand to your other hand, back and forth, back and forth. Once you can do that without resistance, try giving the apple to someone else. I feel lately like I am starting very small when it comes to letting go. Leading up to Halloween for instance, I spent many late nights crafting a very cute costume for my toddler, a Thomas the Tank engine made from a box, poster paint, cardboard, glue and some other odds and ends. It looked awesome. When I first showed it to him, he ran around our apartment with glee and wanted to wear it immediately. Flash to the big night of trick or treating, and he adamantly refused to wear it. He screamed and tried to destroy it when it was placed on him. And I found myself beginning to fight him - trying to force him to wear the silly thing when coaxing wasn't working. When fighting him didn't work, I neurotically voiced my disappointment, using a line learned by heart in my own childhood "I don't know why I even bothered going to the trouble of making this for you!" Hearing me, my father who was present agreed, saying "Exactly right!" or something along those lines. And that's actually what stopped me in my tracks. He was the perfect mirror, reflecting back to me the frustrated resentment I was letting leak out onto my little one. I just stopped, walked into the other room and took a very deep breath. And then I started to laugh. Why did I care so much that he wore the costume? Had he even asked me to make him this train? He had only the barest notion of what the evening was celebrating. I was the one who wanted to make the costume. I was the one who wanted him to wear it. I was the one who wanted others to coo and praise him and me for the cuteness I had created. How ludicrous. How unnecessary. How silly to expect a certain outcome from a two year old. How painful to expect a certain outcome from any being, or for our particular agenda to work out in a particular way. How very much against the flow of life to insist on that particular agenda when things as they are say no to it.

So I let it go. I stopped wasting my time and my toddler's time. We dressed him in his winter coat (it was freezing), stuck an engineer's hat on him and off we toddled to receive refined sugary treats from strangers.

It was such a small thing to let go of, but it helped me realize how busy I still keep myself wasting time. I am always so busy with my projects, trying to mold reality into something more to my liking. And this causes me so much suffering, and causes those around me to suffer as well. It wasn't wrong to spend so much time and energy on my son's costume. It was just unhelpful for me to expect a certain reaction from him and others when presented with it. And it was really unhelpful for me to try and change that reaction into what I wanted it to be. It made me angry. It made him unhappy. Any space that existed around the gift and the night quickly contracted into neurosis and tears, because ultimately, I was making it all about me and what I wanted, and not about him and what he wanted. When I was able to see what I was doing and just let it go, the space opened right back up and we went on to enjoy our evening.

Almost every day I catch myself busy wasting time, trying to deny things as they are. I find myself pushing my projects onto my children. Whenever I start getting really frustrated or anxious around them, I need to stop and just look at what is going on. What am I up to? Is it really important that we go to the museum today? Is it really important that we not be late to this playdate? Is it really important that I spend 12 hours making the elaborate Thomas the Train birthday cake that will be forgotten in 2 seconds? Most of the time, the answer is "no". It's not crucial. We can relax, let go, and see where we really are and what is actually needed. We go to the playground instead. We call the other mama and tell her we are running a bit late today. I make a simple layer cake and let my son decorate it with animal charms from Red Rose Tea boxes. How happy he was when we presented the cake to him and our guests. How in love he is with the charms. How relaxed I was not having stayed up until all hours molding a train from cake and fondant. It can seem like doing nothing. And it is doing nothing, in the sense of not doing our habitual patterns. Not so busy being us. Better to be present to what is actually happening and respond authentically to that present in all its richness or chaos or boredom or whatever, than to waste our time trying to push it away, cover it up or force it into our very narrow expectations of how things should be.

This letting go takes practice, but the more I do it, the happier I seem to be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

honoring our children

I just read an interview with the wonderful children's musician Raffi (forgive me, but I can no longer find the link to it) where he discussed his "Child Honouring" organization, dedicated to, in his words, "a vision, an organizing principle, and a way of life - the children-first way of sustainability." I found the covenant and principles he wrote in fulfillment of this vision very inspiring, and very much an expression of basic goodness and the importance of cultivating this goodness in our own heartminds and homes. Raffi has presented these principles to no less a bodhisattva than the Dalai Lama, who wholeheartedly agreed with the view and activity contained within them. I was really excited to read and contemplate his vision, as it seems so much in accordance with mindful parenting.

I see Raffi's vision as such: that through the recognition of our children as whole, sentient beings deserving of respect, love and happiness, we can begin to create households and larger communities that nourish them and within which our children can flourish. This endeavor seems central to creating a more sane and compassionate society and world. If we do not strive to respect and care for our children in a way that honors their goodness and wisdom, how can we manage to honor the adults in our life? Or the countless other beings who populate our world?

If you have a moment, please read his vision here. You will see that "Conscious Parenting" is prominent among the principles.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

birthdays and their lessons

"If we don’t understand impermanence, we don’t have a sense of immediacy. Without a sense of immediacy, we remain under the influence of the protracted illusion that we are eternal. In other words, we become very comfortable in our habits."
- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

"They grow up so fast", people say. "It goes so quickly", kind strangers murmur at me in grocery stores, on the street, at the museum. "Before you know it, they'll be all grown up and you'll wonder when they will visit", this one from a middle aged man who passes us on a cold, autumn walk. "Appreciate it while you can." He adds, and sighs.

My eldest turned two this week. What more piercing example of impermanence than to see our children grow before our eyes? To change from this:

to this:

in lightning speed. How can you even pretend this living, changing thing is permanent and fixed?? What these strangers are really saying is "things change - be present." "Be present" they implore me. "Don't miss your life. Don't miss their lives." So I try to be present. To pay attention. To pay attention to them, and to the moment by moment unfolding of their little lives. "Appreciate your life", say the buddhas.

So, to my little big boy, thank you for teaching me the truth of impermanence. For giving me a definite reason for immediacy when I get too settled in my old habits. For making me appreciate my life. Here are some things I appreciate about the unique expression of buddhahood which you are:

The way you are so proud to have picked apples off the tree I lifted you up to, so proud that you then ate the entire half bushel in one week. How apple then became one of your first and most oft repeated words.

Your unexpected love of Halloween decorations, even the ghoulish ones. This has led me to enjoy a holiday I previously chose to ignore.

Your love of the wind, an element that I always associated with discomfort, but that I now associate with excitement and wild joy.

Our walks together, which are full of pauses and explorations of the sidewalk, pinecones, squirrels, birds, flowers, leaves, dirt mounds, rocks, cars, people. Because of your unbridled curiosity, I need to allow at least 30 minutes to travel three blocks, but our neighborhood now seems like a very large, friendly world.

The way you smell flowers so deeply, so passionately, and with such enthusiastic "Hmmm!" and "YuMM!" as though their colors and scents were nourishing the deepest parts of you.

Your love of trains and trucks and cars and all kinds of vehicles I previously knew nothing about. I have become an expert in all things vehicular due to your tutelage.

So many things, but most of all, the opportunity to wake up, again and again, no matter how many times I forget to just be here with you and your brother and your unfettered basic goodness. You have taught me more in the past two years than all my years of practice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

bowing as the cure for the pain

“The cure for the pain is in the pain.” - Rumi

We celebrated Halloween this past weekend at my parents' house upstate. My elderly mother is ailing from late stage, multi-symptomatic Parkinson's Disease, and is being cared for very inadequately by my elderly father. I haven't been visiting as often as I would like since my youngest was born this past spring - the four hour trip is hard for us, and it is difficult to care for my children while also caring for my mother and father, and vice versa. Whenever we visit, the house is in complete chaos: emotional, physical and familial. It is very hard to not get pulled into that chaos, and lose one's mindfulness. I find that the difficult circumstances often lead to the unfortunate flowering of seeds of aggression - there is just so much fear and sadness in the situation, that it is hard to open to what is. Especially when the ancient family dynamics and neurotic habitual patterns are in play.

Sometimes my awareness is strong enough that I am able to see the pattern and pause, step away, not engage in the old scripts we have been acting for so long with one another, exacerbated by my mother's illness and my father's overwhelm. But this weekend, I really failed at it. I engaged in silly arguments with my husband, my father and my sister who was present. I literally cried when my toddler refused to wear the Halloween costume I spent all week working on for him. I gave into exhaustion and despair. I felt totally undone by the reality of the situation and instead of opening to it, touching my sadness, I just behaved like a big, stressed out grump.

How appropriate that during the time of year when evil spirits are said to walk about, I was overcome by my own ghosts and demons. Lately in my parenting, I have seen so clearly the places where, if I fail to bring my awareness to them, the neurotic patterns I have inherited from my family rise up and get projected onto my own babes. I have seen clearly the places where I hesitate, an old fear gripping me, preventing me from being in compassionate action, and I have seen where I want to just vomit out all of my own stuff - my fear, my resentment, my rage, whatever- onto my little ones. It is in those really claustrophobic moments, when I feel all the karma from my own past and mind hurtling out of me towards my children, that I am beginning to just bow to it and to them. I literally find myself stopping mid-sentence, and bowing to my toddler. "You are my perfect guru" I tell him repeatedly. When I am feeling paralyzed by fear, I kiss my baby and say to him "You are my perfect guru" as I wipe his nose. Something in me relaxes when I voice this. Something stops running away from my own mind and turns instead and bows - bows to my stuckness. Bows to the demons and the ghosts. And the bowing leads to them melting away.

What I realized this weekend is I need to bow to my family of origin as well, if I really want to stop the flow of karma. If I really want to end this lineage of neurosis, and not inject my children with the old familial poisons, I need to bow down to them. I need to touch the pain. Open to it, even though I really don't want to. It is too scary, too raw and, it feels at times, absolutely devastating. Sometimes instead of bowing, I would really prefer to just be really angry and right about what a toxic environment I grew up in. But I realize, that is just a thought, a story, a delusion. It isn't so solid, so permanent and monolithic. The more I open to my pain, the more holes seem to grow in it, the more it loosens and I can see through the cracks the moments of basic goodness and nurture that my parents and family gave and give me. By bowing to them, I offer up my heart, and recognize their hearts as well. I recognize their buddha nature, their goodness. I recognize their struggles. I recognize that they suffer, greatly. Then I can help. Instead of arguing with my father, I can move the carpet that keeps getting stuck under my mother's wheel chair. Instead of arguing with my husband, I can help him roll that carpet up and bring it to the basement. Instead of snapping at my sister, I can apologize to her and recognize she is really sad about my mother dying. I can touch my own sadness about my mother dying instead of covering it up with all that aggression and fear. And I can begin to work with my tangled feelings around that, and begin to unwind them and let them go.

As the great yogi Milarepa wrote:
Previously, I was confused by delusion, And staying in the dwelling
of ignorant confusion,
I perceived gods who help and demons who harm as real...
With the realization that confusion is groundless,
The water that reflects the moon of awareness is clear of murkiness.
The sun of luminosity, free of clouds,
Clears away the darkness of ignorance from the edges.
Deluded confusion disappears.
The true nature arises from within.
The precious thought that perceives demons
Is the wonderful clarifier of the unborn bias.

Bowing to our demons- what a powerful practice for the Halloween season.