Tuesday, May 9, 2017

true practice

"You think that you can only establish true practice after you attain enlightenment, but it is not so. True practice is established in delusion, in frustration. If you make some mistake, that is where to establish your practice. There is no other place for you to establish your practice." - Suzuki Roshi

I've always been a good student. One of those pupils who listens attentively, studies assiduously, tries very hard to "get it right". When entering into my sangha, I paid close attention to the forms the practice took, the proper way to open a shrine, light the candles, sit on one's cushion, ring the gong and so on. These forms exist for a reason - they help to create a strong container for the mind to practice in. Strong forms are conducive to deeper meditation. Strong forms create a wide corral for our minds to roam in and then settle. Strong forms can also rub away at the ego like fine sand paper, smoothing out all the quirky ways we like to exert our "selves" into any situation. When related to with an attitude of openness and curiosity, they can really show us where we get stuck, where our hang ups are, what triggers us - in other words, they can be a wonderful antidote to ego.

We have been taking our boys to a famous zendo the last couple of months. They run a very established and wonderful dharma program for children and teens, and after years of wanting to attend, we have succeeded finally in showing up, dragging reluctant, sleepy, children out of bed at a very early hour on a Sunday in order to travel an hour and half into the mountains to participate. The boys enjoy it. Except when they don't. This past weekend was the Buddha's Birthday, and they participated in a wonderful puppet show relating the story of "Sticky Hair" and (in this case) "Princess Five Weapons". The children performed it for the sangha, after first participating in the beginning portion of the celebratory practice, where they offered flowers and water to the Buddha with the full sangha present.

I would like to report that the boys all behaved appropriately in the zendo, that they "followed the forms": standing still behind their cushions, being respectful of the space, joyfully making their offerings, excitedly performing the play. That would have been easy, right? What actually happened was, yes, my eldest behaved appropriately while in the zendo. My younger two sat on the meditation cushions at various times, rolled around on them a bit, poked eachother, pulled some sibling hair, reluctantly offered flowers, and proclaimed at various moments in a loud whisper, that they were BORED. Towards the end of what was a genuinely beautiful ceremony, my youngest pulled me out of the shrine room on the verge of tears, cranky and hungry.

Prior to the play performance, there were several run throughs. All three of my boys at one point or another during the next two hours of run throughs (yes, that is a LOT for small kids), QUIT THE SHOW. As a former actress, I had to fight my urge to admonish them that one DOES NOT SIMPLY QUIT THE SHOW DURING THE FINAL DRESS. My three year old demanded rice crackers for going onstage. My eldest broke down because his 7 year old brother had gum and he did not. My 7 year old was upset when one of the puppets he had been rehearsing with was given to another boy without a role. Much frustration was experienced by all.

They weren't the only children having a roller coaster of a day. When it was finally time for the puppet show to be performed, all my boys rallied, although my three year old insisted I move his puppet for him, rice crackers or no. Not all of the other children did, though. A couple sat out, their individual disappointments not salved. The show went on. The sangha was delighted. The children all smiles (I think). It was all perfectly imperfect.

Isn't that all it ever is, though? Perfectly imperfect? We might have illusions of perfection before having children. We certainly have an easier time performing a task for instance, cleaning a room, completing a thought, sitting in the proper way on our meditation cushion and respecting the forms of a zendo. Children quickly show us how it's all been a bit of a charade though. When have things truly gone completely to plan? We clean the floor and discover the scratch in the veneer. Empty the sink of dishes and catch sight of the chipped plate. Paint the room and see where water has made a small, corrosive pocket. Get the job and discover our manager is unkind, the tasks unreasonable, the coworker a bit weird. Sit silently in zendo and accidentally allow a loud fart to escape. Trip over our feet during walking meditation. Children, because of their energy, authenticity, chaos, show us immediately how silly the entire enterprise of "getting things right" is.

So how do we react to the inevitable mistake? Do we find ourselves getting really uptight? Letting the frustration build and control us? Do we feel shame? Do we rebel? Do we laugh and move on? Do we make it into our practice, as Suzuki Roshi admonishes us to? The zendo is a kind place. The forms are very very strong there. Which is why the chaotic energy of children can be welcomed into it on the Buddha's birthday and allowed to play. Which is why we can notice when our back stiffens and our fingers wag at a child poking his brother. Which is why we can notice tears coming to our eyes when our three year old pulls us out, and sit, and breathe and open to what lies beneath those tears - a longing. A longing not for perfection, but for touching space. That is the irony of tight forms - they create a vast space. But only if we relax within them. Only if we can let go and accept things as they are. Sitting on a hard wooden bench, a wiggly, nursing toddler in my lap, watching the sangha complete their prostrations and chants, I let go. There was the space. There was the practice. There was the perfectly imperfect. All of it. The wiggling kids, the yawning parents, the contained sangha, the wooden Buddhas, bathed in water spooned gently over them by small, sticky hands. All of it. All of it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

no escape

I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Don't sing!" my three year old warns me. Unlike his older brothers, my youngest seemingly detests my singing. He began to express his dislike around 14 months old - putting his hand over my mouth when I began the nightly lullabies. So, after more than five years of this nightly ritual, I stopped singing my little ones to sleep. My older boys sometimes still request me to sing our favorite - "Edelweiss" - and I acquiesce - but I have to do so hurriedly, almost sotto voce, in order not to provoke the ire of the preschooler in the house.

"I hate you! You're the meanest mother in the WORLD!" shouts my newly 7 year old. I have offended him by not allowing a second piece of chocolate cake before bedtime. This child, who would sometimes break down into tears over the thought of me dying, now informs me at least once a week of his antipathy towards me. When this happens, I take a breath, tell him that I recognize he is really angry, that it is hard to accept limits/disappointments/changes in plans, and that although he may despise me, I love him and I like him. The rages pass. We reconcile with hugs. "I love you so much, mommy" he whispers to me as I tuck him in.

"I don't want to be a Buddhist." This is said sternly, resentfully, by my 8.5 year old. We have just finished volunteering at a local food bank, sorting through boxes and boxes of donated toiletries. After several hours hard work, even by the three year old, we clamber into our van. I ask the boys to pause and recite the "Dedication of Merit" with me. This is a traditional Buddhist prayer to dedicate any good gained from an activity to all other beings, rather than keeping it just for ourselves. My eldest shakes his head. Refuses. "I don't want to be a Buddhist." Glares at me. "Ok" I say. "You don't have to be. But your family is Buddhist. Maybe you will change your mind. Maybe not." I finish reciting the brief prayer. Make sure everyone is buckled in. Drive back home.

I think of these episodes as the "slings and arrows" of daily parenting. Also big, challenging opportunities to truly let go of how I think things should be. When I am able to be present with my children when these occur, I am able to stay curious - about their sentiments, about my reaction to them. Curiosity invariably leads to greater perspective, understanding, compassion, patience. I have been thinking alot lately of my own childish critiques of my mother. She also loved to sing. I also would ask her to stop. I think of that now and feel a pain in my heart. This pain leads me to more memories of times when my childish ego got in the way of accepting my parents for who they were, not just as my mother and father, but as people going through life. I think of being embarrassed about my mother's toe nails. I felt she kept them too long. I hated that she insisted on painting them and wearing sandals in the summer, rather than hiding them under socks and closed toe shoes. This memory comes to me as my youngest repeatedly pulls off the knit hats I like to wear three seasons of the year.

This is a little taste of what we Buddhists call karma, in its more simplistic sense. The causes and conditions that come together through habitual mind and actions, leading to flowering, or echoes of past actions. When we notice such an echo, it is a good reminder to stop and look deeper. To laugh, if we can. This flowering of karma keeps us stuck in samsara, the endlessly turning wheel of birth, old age, sickness and death. We often fool ourselves into thinking that we can somehow escape this wheel, thinking a change of scene, a different path choice, a different partner, job etc will stop us from experiencing the flowering of old karma, take us off the wheel of suffering, but then we wake up once more, like Emerson in Naples, and see our same "Sad Self" there, still with us, as inescapable as our shadow.

I have written before about not looking to our children to make us happy. If I wasn't so rusty at this blogging thing, I would be able to link that entry properly. Ahem. In any case, looking to our children to save us, or in fact anything to save us, is futile. Our children will throw these slings and arrows at us. All children do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes, these arrows will hit their target with some force. The work then is to stay aware, stay curious, and not get sucked into resentment or retaliation. Yesterday, my eldest, very angry that I had taken away his screen time privilege as a consequence for bad behavior, told me I was "failing as a mother". This arrow really hit me hard, and of course I knew why. I often feel I am failing as a mother. Every single day, to be honest. I began to engage in an argument with him, and then, feeling a familiar ache in my belly and heart, I was able to stop. This feeling of failure, of feeling like a helpless, unsuccessful dilettante, is a very very old feeling for me, much older than my children. Older, too, is the feeling of being judged and rejected by others. Our children are so skillful at uncovering our old, unhealed wounds. I am not going to tell you I was immediately able to switch gears. No, in fact, I went into a bit of a wallow in self-pity and self-loathing. Fortunately though, I was able to notice that as well, take a breath and just sit with that old, old pain. The longer I sat with it, the better I was able to see it for what it was - old story, old patterns, nothing more. My urge to argue with him was an urge to somehow escape those old feelings, my old shadow. "No escape", I thought. I left the room. I made dinner. My son came up to me as I was setting the table, hugged me, and told me he loved me.

Surrendering to the reality that we cannot escape our "selves" allows us to actually get off the wheel of suffering, to stop creating the karma that keeps us trapped. Being present with our children when they let fly those arrows, being present to our reactions, helps us break the chains of karma, weaken the patterns that hold us fast. The more we can do this, the smoother this path will be.

Monday, January 30, 2017

working with aggression

"not setting up the target for the arrow,
connecting with the heart,
seeing obstacles as teachers, and
regarding all that occurs as a dream."

During times of widespread aggression, you may begin to notice how your own aggression becomes amplified. Perhaps you find you are more impatient with your children or partner. That you are more liable to use shaming language, or to yell. Authoritarian parenting becomes more atttractive, or you begin to stray regularly into unkindness. Your children will in turn begin to behave more aggressively, modeling what their grown ups do. The good news is that in the path of parenting, to notice when you begin to behave aggressively within your family, whether through thought, word, or deed, is the first step to being able to transform that aggression.

Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism, taught that contemporary times are a "dark age" where the forces of materialism and dehumanization are prevalent, and we are often cut off from the experience of our own basic, fundamental goodness and that of others. Current events in the United States seem to give evidence of this, as aggression and prejudice, fear, and ignorance are on the rise. The challenge for a practitioner of a spiritual path, for a parent, during difficult times is to maintain clear seeing and continue to cultivate compassion and patience, gentleness and dignity in daily life. This can be difficult, but to cultivate within our own families and homes the seeds of goodness, can actually be a powerful action for the greater good.

So, first off, let's breathe. Just feel your feet on the ground, solid, really there. Breathe in slowly, for four counts, then out for four counts. Repeat a few more times. The more you can do this throughout your day, the steadier you will feel. Times of chaos remind us of the truth that life is inherently groundless and always changing, which adds to our feelings of fear and anxiety. So ground yourself in the breath, whenever possible. Our breath is always with us, and we can always touch it and let it anchor us to the present moment. This kind of deliberate slowing down of the breath is a useful tool to use even with young children when they are also anxious or upset. When very small, I use the "Three Little Pigs" technique - I have them blow down first the straw house, then the wood house, then the brick house. Just that can help calm and anchor.

The quote at the top of this post is from an excellent Pema Chodron piece on working with anger/difficulties. These teachings are pulled from the lojong, or mahayana mind training slogans of the great teacher Atisha. These four pithy reminders can help us in our daily lives with our children as we transform our own aggression. "Don't set up the target for the arrow" - in other words, if we don't keep strengthening our anger habit, when our children misbehave or disappoint, those actions will cease to solicit our push button response - we will no longer have a button that can be pushed in that way. Have you noticed that when our children begin to irritate us, that irritation often builds and builds, and however hard we try to ignore or push that anger away, however hard we really wish we did not respond with anger, we eventually blow up? Just this morning, my middle son, who gets very anxious if he is late to school, began to send out arrows my way that all hit their target. First he didn't want to get out of bed for school. Then he insisted I come back upstairs and choose out his clothes for him. Then he didn't like the clothes I chose. Then he wouldn't eat his breakfast quickly. Then he ignored my warnings that we would be late for school and instead chose to play with his Legos, without responding to my reminder that we needed to leave. When he finally got in our car with his brothers, when we were at this point 5 minutes late, he chose to fiddle with something in the seat rather than sit down and get buckled in. I finally blew up at him. Each time I saw him actively work against both his own and my own goal of getting him and his brother to school on time, rather than feeling that discomfort of anxiety and anger, and then choosing something different, I chose to feel exasperated, anxious, and mad. Which built to the point of blowing up.

Here is where I need to pause and add that like all afflictive emotions, anger has a seed of wisdom or enlightened energy it. In this case, clear seeing. I could clearly see that the choices my son were making would make him and his brother late to school, which would upset all of us. Where I ran into trouble was then trying to push the anxiety around that away - rather than just acknowledging it. I find when I am able to really touch my fear (which is often what lies beneath anger), and really acknowledge it, then it releases its hold on me and I can be resourceful and playful in what I do next. So, rather than pausing, and getting present to my son and to my own emotions, I just carried on with the busyness of the morning routine, allowing myself to get annoyed and frustrated at each impasse, until it all fell apart. I allowed my view of my son to change - I viewed him as an obstacle, rather than as a small human who was struggling with waking up and going to school after a weekend at home. That is another way we set up the target. We view other beings and phenomena as for us or against us. What better way to prime ourselves for aggression?

This leads us to the second little slogan above - "connect with your heart". By connecting to our own discomfort which lies beneath our aggression, and with the discomfort that is often being experienced by the person giving us trouble, we can begin to feel some compassion for our shared predicament. Just as we can welcome into our arms the toddler who stumbles and hurts himself, we can begin to welcome our own stumbles with some love. Holding our anger in loving arms encourages us in turn to look on the aggression of others with compassion, and even curiosity. Millions of other humans are tripped up many times each day by anger. We can hold that truth in our heart-minds and create a kind space around all that misery, rather than continue to respond with aggression, feeding into an endless loop of mutual lashing out.

The last two reminders are encouraging us to cultivate gratitude and equanimity around the things and people that provoke us. By seeing all "obstacles as our teachers", we are reminded that until we have transformed our own aggression, things will keep showing up in our lives to help us to do so. One of the many profound ways in which our children teach us is by ripping off any mask we may have. My children have shown me repeatedly how much aggression lives in me, how deeply it is rooted, and how much of a habit it is. These small people, who I love more completely than any other being, are also those who provoke me the most. When I am able to be grateful to them, to view them as teachers intent on awakening my heart to a more boundless compassion, a more genuine patience, any anger or irritation becomes workable. If I instead lose mindfulness and just become resentful, then our day (or evening) together is lost. Our last reminder, "regarding all that occurs as a dream"- I think Pema does the best job explaining this:

"Rather than making it so important, we can reflect on the essencelessness of our current situation. We can slow down and ask ourselves: “Who is this monolithic me that has been so offended? And who is this other person who can trigger me like this? What is this praise and blame that hooks me like a fish, that catches me like a mouse in a trap? How is it that these circumstances have the power to propel me like a ping-pong ball from hope to fear, from happiness to misery?”

When we believe the story our ego has written around us and our lives, thinking it solid and true, we suffer. If we can view every situation and being (including ourselves), as like a dream - a passing memory, constantly changing and shifting - those stories lose their grip on us. It becomes a bit harder to get so angry, to feel so at war with what we think opposes "us". So, try some or all of these today, during this difficult time. The more we can use these reminders, and unseat our habitmind of aggression, the more manageable the aggression of the larger world will become.