career: shaken not stirred

Now that Chaplaincy study is coming to a close, people often ask how this will change what I do. Usually they mean will I be earning my money a different way.  Let’s be honest, very few people ask if or expect an answer that your training is going to lead to a career in which you likely will not get paid much or have no prospects of advancement.  I loved the section in David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, in which he contemplates telling the world of his decision to live in alignment with his true self.

If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are going full time as a poet.  Who would give me a word of encouragement if I did?  It has never been easy to go full-time as a poet in any recorded portion of human history.  When we announce to the world that we are about to go full-time as a poet, people do not come up to us, slapping us on the back, saying, “Great career move, David,” or “I hear they are taking them on at Lockheed right now,” or “Marvelous.  I hear there’s a decent dental plan comes with the verse.” (p. 123)

I remember telling my parents I had left my job as a Chemist in the Federal Government to become a free-lance writer.  After the ear-piercing silence, they shook their heads, mystified that I would walk away from a good pension plan (health care!) for a life of… of … of what? my father demanded.  Even worse was my defensive attempt to explain that Frank had a good job as a self-employed consultant.  They could not grasp the link between how he “did” his job and how the money came in; there wasn’t a bi-weekly pay cheque.  This was crucial.  That flow from production to recompense was what made their world feel safe and secure.  Of course, their perplex mystified me equally because they had both endured losses of their treasured careers through the capriciousness of political upheavals.

I amuse myself these days having conversations with the (likely aggravated) spirit of my dear Dad.

“Well, Dad, I’ve decided to close my private practice to become a Chaplain,” I announce to his portrait on the ancestor’s altar.

“A Chaplain?  Does that have a better salary than a psychologist?”  His right eyebrow would begin a syncopating twitch. It makes the little mole on his eyelid a bouncing ball I follow to sing along with the “career catastrophe” song.

“Um.  Well.  No.  I don’t know.  I mean, I don’t know if Chaplains get paid.  Not in private practice anyway.  In hospitals, they get about $32 an hour.”

“And what do you get paid now?”  I can feel the rabbit hole opening up because he’s never understood how self-employed professionals pay themselves.  “Draw?” he would ask.  “That’s what you do with crayons!  How much is your cheque made out for each week!”

“Well, it doesn’t matter what I get now, Dad.  I’d be following my heart – you know, doing what’s important to me… for the world… to ..er..um… save all beings… creations… numberless… vow…”  I’m floundering and the other ancestors on the altar are now looking very interested in how this is going to end.

He seems to be silent long enough for a few ashes to topple from the incense stick.  “Saving all beings, eh?”  He glances over at his mother who in her portrait is about to walk over to him and plead my case.  “Like a Bodhisattva.  Well, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it.”

I’ve never really considered that Bodhisattva-hood is a career choice.  It seems to just arise for most people I know whom I think of as compassionate beings committed to easing suffering in the world.  Perhaps they just make it all look simple.  Or perhaps it is really just that simple; choose the path.

The Heart Sutra is emphatic that seeing through the illusion of separateness and an abiding self is the step to being unhindered to be of service to the world.  Grounded in this understanding that separation and interconnection are the figure and ground of our life, we break free of the things that hinder us, that hold us back from being who we are, which cloud our vision, our dreams, our intimate truth.   “Without hindrance, the mind has no fear.”  Anger, desire, sloth (my favourite), restlessness/rumination, and doubt cannot shake or stir us from our career choice – poet, writer, Chaplain, Bodhisattvas all.   Without these blockades in our path, we enter fully into that pilgrimage of discovering who we already are.

Over the next few months, I took the time (to speak) with person after person (in the organization)….  I began to see that in an extraordinary way the conversations themselves were doing all the work.  It forced me to ask the next question: “If this kind of conversation will bring you the work you want for yourself within an organization, what kind of work do you really want to do in the wider world?  What are your elemental waters?  What courageous conversations will bring you to your poetry?”  Each of us has an equivalent core in our work, whether it is the path of the artist or the explorations of the engineer.  Even if we already possess the work of our dreams, there is a way of doing that work that will deepen and enliven it, a way that begs for a daily disciplined conversation. (p.135)

Thank you for the daily disciplined (if somewhat raucous) conversation.

heaps in my bucket list

Everyone’s got one these days.  Bucket lists, I mean.  My friends no longer talk about dreams or dreams-of-a-lifetime; they talk in terms of bucket lists.  I have nothing against lists.  In fact, I am an inveterate list maker.   I have lists of kanji characters I intend to practice; they are lovingly copied and cross-referenced with the indecipherable dictionary of kanji  variations that is also on my list to learn how to read.  I have a list of books I intend to read; these are written by Nobel prize winners in Literature.  I have a list of ways to remember what Frank says so that next Christmas I don’t forget and I complain to Frank that he never tells me what he likes.

Bucket lists however make my skin creep up one side of my body and down the other.  They feel riven with the need to prove we’ve lived life to the fullest.  It’s as if at my funeral you will all be checking my list and deciding whether to say, “Well, she had a good life, didn’t she!”  I can spare you the dilemma and even the cost of flying across the country to make any such pronouncements.

Anything I do with my life is going to be the result of a confluence of an innumerable number of things, most of which I will have had little control over.  So should I win the Nobel Prize, it’s not me doing it.  Should I summit a mountain somewhere or cross a burning desert, it’s not me.  Should I meet you in a coffee shop and have a deep, heart-felt exchange of spirit of love, it’s (definitely) not me.

So who is it?  Who is it then, who crosses burning landscapes, shivers with delight at the peak of success, collapses in a heap when things just fall apart?

In the Heart Sutra, Avalokita sees through the bucket list.  He sees that “all five streams of body and mind are boundless.”  While I love the feel of boundlessness, don’t go dropping me into a place without guardrails too quickly; I may turn tail and make off to a place on my own bucket list.  The version I like says Avalokita “gave rise to the five skandhas.”  It feels nice to think that someone as accomplished as Avalokita would be contemplating the nature of reality and the five ways we interface with the world pop up for him too.  (Form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and discernment (consciousness in some versions) co-create what I see as “I-me-mine.”)

The difference, of course, between a Bodhisattva like Avalokita and me, is that he isn’t bothered by the five streams or his mind.  That’s the whole point of this verse; he sees them for what they are.  He brings them into focus, gives rise to them so that they can be smack in the cross-hairs of his investigation.  Me, I turn into a Venus fly trap for all the ways the five heaps can become a drama.  Objects don’t meet my needs, itchy noses and runny eyes are clearly unpleasant and harbingers of doom, everyone has it easier than I do, or no one appreciates that I’m “special.”  That’s only four.  When it comes to dealing with the heap of my mind… well, that says it all, doesn’t it?

But maybe that’s just what my practice is for the moment.  These five heaps are plunked around me and they remind me of the true nature of “I-me-mine.”  So every time someone pulls out a bucket list, I notice the five streams of body and mind burbling to me about digging deeper than defining myself by what I’ve done or not done or going to do or not do.

the quality of my tears

After the heroics of trying to suppress my coughing fits over two weeks, I began to see flashes of white light in my visual field.  Thankfully I’m not so deluded as to have thought it was anything more than my sense organ having a conniption.  But when dark gashes started appearing around the periphery of my vision, I began to ruminate about blindness and incapacity.  Frank, of course, routinely carries the sharp sword of wisdom and quietly made an appointment with the eye doctor.  She was a delight; perhaps I only think so because she took me seriously and spent a good chunk of time checking my eyeballs out – inside and out.  No retinal tears (I had already self-diagnosed via Dr. Google)!  What a relief.  I returned to my state of being a superior practitioner feeling quite smug that all that meditation does pay off when you’re having your retina scanned.  Which is, of course, why we meditate, right?

Then the lovely lady informed me that the problems I’ve been having with a burning sensation in my eyes is not allergies.  Since it only happens when I read, it would have been tragic to learn I was allergic to books, Kindles, iPads, and iPhones! No, no allergies.  Hence no quick fixes of antihistamines twice a day.

It was the quality of my tears.  Apparently, my lacrimal glands suck at expressing themselves.  In the realm of aspiring bodhisattvas, this could be a problem.  So I have been faithfully applying hot compresses and massaging my eyelids.  Now instead of burning sensations, they feel like they’re stumbling through a sandstorm.  I am told that this too will pass.

All of this has me thinking about practice.  I know, I know.  I’m always harping about practice but you must admit, I’ve backed off a bit by dropping the ending salutation on each post: “Thank you for practicing.”  It began to feel rather preachy and I couldn’t decide between “practising” the Canadian way and “practicing” the American way.

Nevertheless, it is about practice – and not only because some forms of practice get us through an MRI, a dental exam, a prostate or pap test (yes, gents, we too suffer), or anything else that reminds us of our mortality.  In the Heart Sutra, Avalokita, that great practitioner of compassion (whose lacrimal glands produce high quality tears that are a nectar of healing, I’d imagine) is said to have been engaged in “deep practice” when he/she realized the profoundness of our being.  That’s the first line.   If we never get beyond that line of the short version or never delve into the 125,000 verses, that one phrase is enough.

“Avalokiteshavara, while moving in the deep course of perfect understanding…”

Does it boggle your mind?  It knocked the socks off mine.  Here is someone who has attained enlightenment, defers transcending into absolute boundlessness… and she’s still practicing!

If you haven’t just run out of excuses, I have!