faded images: where we go when we’re gone

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Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.

Book Review: Why Buddhism is True – the art of being Wright

Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.

Is Wright right?

Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?

By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.

Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.

Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.

Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.

After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).

But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.

When Wright writes:

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.

The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.

If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there. 

Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read

Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.

 

Other Reviews

Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017

What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)

A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017

Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017

 

the untamed rose

Rose petals. I don’t collect them. Passive little things that they are, they simply drop off the bloom and collect themselves in languorous little stretches across the floor. Sometimes, in exasperated tones, I huff out the first syllable of “Really…” which, were I to complete my exhale, I mean to follow-up with a stern “Must you?” But, reaching down, I don’t get past that initial contact of dry skin on those petals.

And I am lost.

The rose I love most was among the ones we rescued from my parents’ home just before the new tenants took charge of destroying the carpets and sinks. It – and its friends – took up the back of the little truck, probing into my ears with each stop and start from Montreal back home. You’ll love it on the farm, I tell them as if they had been extracted from a disastrous setting. In truth, they seem to have thrived on the neglect, unlike my mother who had left for her own journey from hospital to long-term care. I, on the other hand, firmly believed they were bereft and pining (oh evil pun) for my father’s evening companionship and his obsession with every leave and petal.

There’s no real evidence that the rose I call Dad’s rose was truly his. Besides, we know that one cannot own a rose. They are actually quite indifferent to all that attachment – as I often wish I could be. Regardless, I came to believe it had been passed on to my care. A bloodline from somewhere further back than Shakyamuni, flowing through innumerable nurseries of stock roots and grafts, to be propped up in the back of my truck nodding at passing cars. It’s sad, really. I might have been better off had I not impressed ownership by claiming a birthright or planting it in a bloodline.

But there you have it. I desire to be embedded in a bloodline that flows backward and forward. Because what would we be without something that carries us along, that holds us as if it is always forever. Because all our very best intentions to pay attention to our stinky attitude don’t stand a fig of a chance at the rose petal’s soundless dropping off. Practice, if you will, the breath, the posture, the yells-bells-smells of your preferred rituals. (Don’t get me wrong: I love the dance of chants and circumambulating a rectangular room made circular step-by-step.) But, in that moment when you hear the sound of one hand dying, will you live the lesson the untamed rose petal has been offering season after season?

buddhism can’t make you happy so why bother: what being failed teaches us

The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.

The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.

To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.

I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?

The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.

These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.

However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.

I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?

Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?

The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.

 

not-zen, not-memes

A quick round-up for this week:

James Ford lists his favourite Zen blogs – and in true Zen fashion includes those Zennish and those not-quite-Zen but nice enough to read. I’m touched to be in the list and somewhat relieved to be a “not Zen specifically”. It’s actually an awakening to the truth that I’ve lost the zap of Zen and am quite happy hanging out here in the fourth jhana, chillin’ with my pups.

As you know, Facebook is a magic land where your actions are given immediate reward. No sooner had I posted something about equanimity – i.e., hanging out in the 4th jhana – when this post from Jack Kornfield appeared on my feed (they call it a “feed” for good reason).

“Spiritual life takes courage : Equanimity is not indifference, and compassion is not pity. True spirituality  requires us to be fully present for life. For us to begin to look directly at the world situation is not a question of ceremony or of religion. Meditation helps us to look deeply at the sorrow that exists now in our world, and to look at our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge it instead of running away. Without mindfulness and compassion the suffering is too great to bear. We close our minds. We close our eyes and our hearts.”

So… about meditation: in a discussion with someone about their resistance to mindfulness practice and meditation, I said: You can’t substitute memes for meditation! No sooner had I posted that on my FB feed (they call it a “feed” for a reason, ya know!) when some smarty-pants posted a meme…which I improved upon:

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No promises about the New Year and whether I will discover my Zen mojo.

However, do have an awesome Holiday Celebration!

the angels of our better nature

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No fear mudra

 

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Abraham Lincoln, Great Speeches / Abraham Lincoln: with Historical Notes by John Grafton

When Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister, he appealed that we allow ourselves the influence of the “angels of our better nature”. Today he published, on behalf of the Canadian government and its peoples, this congratulatory statement:

Ottawa, Ontario
November 9, 2016

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today issued the following statement on the result of the US Presidential Election:

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I would like to congratulate Donald J. Trump on his election as the next President of the United States.

“Canada has no closer friend, partner, and ally than the United States. We look forward to working very closely with President-elect Trump, his administration, and with the United States Congress in the years ahead, including on issues such as trade, investment, and international peace and security.

“The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world.  Our shared values, deep cultural ties, and strong integrated economies will continue to provide the basis for advancing our strong and prosperous partnership.”

Social media reactions have been mixed: some positive and some angry that we could even think we have values in common with the American President-elect. I can truly understand the fear and anxiety.  However, there is a deeper truth in the Prime Minister’s statement that we cannot afford to ignore: This is not about individual values – that path has lead us far astray from our true values.

As cousin nations, we do share a common set of values. As global peoples, we do share the same values. We wish for peace, for respect, for kindness, for compassion, for safety, for love.

We deeply wish for the liberation of all beings from their suffering.

In our fear and worry for the future, for our children and grandchildren, for our friends and families, we cannot afford to lose sight of this.

Because, simply, this is the moment for which we have been practising.

transitions, light & faith

from the dark

from the dark

“…or I can forgive and forget…Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…we always have a choice.” Character in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been shaken by a book. Stirred, certainly. Bored, frustrated, annoyed, informed, inspired – yes. But shaken? Not recently. And that’s saying a lot given the hellish six months of holding together body and soul. Or may be it’s just easier to be shaken when there’s no more resistance to what the universe decides to throw at you.

“Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.” Tom, one of two principal characters in The Light Between Oceans.

The story takes place on Janus Rock playing on the trope of the Roman god Janus, who presides over transitions and can see both past and future. Janus Rock is home to the main character, Tom who is its lighthouse keeper and later to Isabel his wife. Their transitions, as with most beginnings and endings, are turbulent, riven with loss that leads to secrets, and decisions that can be argued from both sides of one’s moral face. It’s a slow read, evoking the meticulous cleaning of the lighthouse light, its record keeping, the passage of time on an island between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Sea half a day away from the coast of Australia. But that steady unwinding of the tale only makes the ending more breathtaking.

Many of our moral judgments are made sitting on Janus Rock, between here and there, what I want to say and what I say, what I believe and what I need to you believe. We craft our stories with threads we summon from past and future – often at will and if only to gather evidence to justify a decision already half-made. We tell stories and tell them so well that we often forget what is truth and what is needed to be heard by the inner and outer senses. Or more correctly, we forget there is no real truth and that what we hear (inner and outer) serves only as the chinking that holds together a rather wobbly lighthouse tower.

gold center

center light

And in our story-telling we are so convinced that our intention is noble, protective, caring. These are beacons we send out hoping that someone will be saved, alerted to our edges. Because for as much as we believe we are good, well-intentioned, loving and caring, we are also terrified that we can do harm by the structure of our very nature.

My dear friend, Carole, over at the dot (Zendotstudio) has written an eloquent post about stories. She does summon the devil in me though with a poke about Eckhart Tolle. What I think of Tolle is my well-worn story perpetrated on anyone I think needs to be saved from the shoals of Tolle’s teachings. In fact, there are a number of characters in the convoluted political states of mindfulness, psychology, and Buddhism who have sent me tearing up the lighthouse stairs to set the beacon afire.

Yet lately, I have begun to tire of that long climb up the lighthouse. I’ve learned that a lighthouse beam is set at night and turned off during the day. Once set, it needs no further tending; it functions with equanimity, sending out electromagnetic metta to anyone who wishes to attend to their state of being. It really only needs us to act our discipline by polishing the lens, oiling the nuts and bolts, and turning it on and off at its assigned time.

There’s an element of faith in this. All this to-ing and fro-ing trying to keep shipwrecks from happening simply stirs up resentment when we are disregarded and as the character quoted at the opening of this post, it can be burdensome to keep those fires burning. In the end, it is a choice to see the rose glistening as the rainfall pauses rather than the soaked, muddy ground. It is a choice to see the wonderful fruition of all our hard work rather than what didn’t flourish despite our care. And making those choices generates faith in our commitment. And faith is so much lighter to carry.

As for Tolle, I had the cheeky rejoinder though it is true of psychology and meditative practice: I have come to realize that if I hold true to the hope of my own transformation then that has to be rooted in the hope of all beings’ transformation. Ole Tolle included.