Category Archives: Applying Buddhism

Till Things Change Enough that We Should Part

Insights from meditation are notorious for being both obvious and profound at the same time.

One of the key insights Buddhism offers is that “everything changes.” Look anywhere, and it’s obvious this is true. Yet every day, we live life as if this is not true, as if there are things we can count on to last forever.

This is one of my (many) beefs about marriage. “Till death do us part” leaves little room for the change and growth two people might go through in their lives. In the examples of long term marriages I’ve seen, too often it appears to be that one or both people make major sacrifices in their happiness and self-fulfillment in order to maintain the relationship. My independent self chafes at the thought.

Yet I’m also unafraid of the kind of commitment to working through hard places that marriage requires. I have been in several long term relationships which required challenging, emotional conversations. I’ve learned to enjoy digging in to these messy places as “the goods” – this is where trust and intimacy and connection are forged.

My initial forays into online dating have been focused on casual connections with people who seem interesting, attractive, and fun to spend an evening with. My profile is playful, focused on meeting new people, detailed about the activities I’d enjoy having a partner for, short on qualities I possess that might be interesting to people seeking a longer term relationship.

My beefs about marriage have had me turning my nose up at the thought of a long term relationship, something even more than the serial monogamy I’ve practiced most of my life. Yet I have other models. Some friends of mine say that their long-term partnership will remain, as long as it’s still better to be together than to be apart.

On my meditation retreat, James Baraz talked about love and lovingkindness. In his book Awakening Joy, he talks about his marriage, and how his commitment with his wife was to use their relationship as a vehicle for growth. In his talk on love, he asked (as I remember it), “What beliefs do you hold about love that might not be true?”

I was able to see instantly a core belief about relationships. My belief that “Marriage = Stagnation of Self” has had me ignoring all the other forms that long term relationships can take. If I stop believing this is true, what forms of relationships might I really want?

I’m not entirely sure of the answer to that question yet, but I think it’s going to require an entire rewrite to my online dating profile!

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A Meditation on Panic

Breathe in. This is panic. Breathe out. Panic feels like this.

I spent 40 minutes tonight meditating on the experience of panic. Something about my day set off the cascade of emotions and body sensations that I call panic – racing pulse, tightness in my chest, cascading thoughts, an edge of tears. I knew today was going to be hard. The rush to leave town is always hard, and I’d packed in an unreasonable amount of responsibilities into a 12 hour period. I’d spent the weekend partying with friends, so I was less prepared for Monday morning than I like to be. So when everything I’d planned took longer than anticipated, and I realized that I was going to be working much later into the evening than I would like, I freaked.

Even when I anticipate the hard, the bodily experience still overwhelms me. I can rationalize as much as I want, and I worked this strategy hard today. “This time tomorrow you’ll be on the boat. This time tomorrow all this will be put into perspective. In the broader scheme of things, will you even remember any of these things you are so frantic about today?” But rationalizations totally miss the irrational experience of panic.

I went to the dharma center tonight, mostly because I was too pissed to let my work interfere with my meditation practice. As I drove to the center, the tears welled up as I let myself feel the overwhelm that I’d been holding at bay all day. I arrived, sat down, and closed my eyes. Breathe in. Ah, panic. Breathe out. I see you, panic.

I sometimes expect meditation to “fix” my emotions for me. But breathing did not make panic subside. Panic increased when I actually let myself feel it. I let the tears flow as silently as I could, worried that I was interrupting other people’s time for silent meditation with my need to sob.

I covered my face. Oh oh oh, I’m so ashamed. Ashamed? I thought we were feeling panic? Why is shame showing up? I’ve learned to ask less questions, and just go with it. Breathe in. Ah, shame. Breathe out. Shame feels like this. I’m letting so many people down. So many depending on me, and I told them I would be there for them. And I’m not. They are expecting me to be there for them, and I’m dropping the ball. So many old feelings, old messages, old ways of being.

As I let the shame cascade, so little of it is about now. And that finally helps me feel a little better, knowing that I’m letting go of some old feelings, and I’m not really feeling that panicked and ashamed of my current situation. It’s hard when current situations trigger old feelings – my rational mind kept saying, “Really, I don’t think things are that bad. So why the hell are you freaking out so much?” And while my rational mind was completely correct, it was also true that my body & emotional self had some old freaking out to do.

Breathe in. Feel. Breathe out. Feel.

May You Live With Ease

Ease at expressing just what is there.

Ease at naming your bare experience before it gets all wrapped up in a story.

Ease at knowing without a doubt the next right thing.

Ease in the transitions.

Ease with the hard parts of life – pain, loss, disgrace.

Ease of enjoying the good parts of life – happiness, gain, joy.

May you live your life with ease.

Pain for the World

In April, I attended a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on Transforming Distressing States. Joanna Macy was one of the teachers, and is an amazing feminist Buddhist ecophilosopher, who wrote World as Lover, World as Self.

One of the most profound shifts for me on this retreat was Joanna’s revelation about the pain we feel for the world that we totally repress. BP’s oil spill destroying the Gulf, thousands (or millions) of people dying in multiple never-ending wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about to blow, Arizona getting more racist by the minute, and whatever else is going on that I don’t know about because I can’t even stand to read the news. Every new piece of information is like a blow that hits and retraumatizes that wounded, vulnerable part of me – it’s a wonder I can even get out of bed.

Because we believe that we have a separate individual self, we feel the pain for the world and assume it’s all OUR pain. Our individualistic culture tells us to do this, and look how much it helps keep us from fighting the larger corporate and political powers that are creating all this pain. While psychotherapy is generally awesome, it can contribute to this as well – when we talk about our terror over how the land and water is being raped and pillaged by masculine corporate interests, our therapist redirects us to talk about our “real” terror of our own bodies being raped and pillaged. As if there’s no “real” terror to be had over the destruction of our environment.

I’m certainly not minimizing or denying the reality of the pain and terror of our own bodies being brutally violated. But what if they BOTH get to be real? That when the pain & terror comes up, we can name it as about BOTH our own violation and the violation of our world? What if we flipped the therapist’s script, and when our trauma came up, we honored it AND asked “What other trauma is going on in the world that feels like this same pattern of individual trauma that shows up in my life?” And then we honored that too. For me it’s nearly impossible for me to tease out how much is mine vs. how much is the world’s … because it’s really all the same trauma at some level. My trauma ripples out and diminishes the rest of the world, and the world’s trauma ripples out and diminishes my ability to live.

I’ve found it immensely helpful to understand why I’m feeling overwhelmed, triggered, and ready to just shut down – there’s a lot of shit going down and it IS overwhelming and triggering to my system. A little Breathing Through practice is in order – just breathe it all in, and breathe it all back out. No need to transform it, and certainly no need to hang on to it. Open to let it in, and breathe it right back out.

Off the Typical Yoga Trajectory

I went to a new yoga class this Sunday. Near the end of the class, we held the position of Downward-Facing Dog for 5 full minutes. For non-yogis, in Downward-Facing Dog you have your hands and feet on the ground, tail high in the air. Your body makes two sides of a triangle, with the floor being the third side.

Instructions on Downward-Facing Dog, from Yoga Journal

The teacher gave instructions for holding this length of pose, similar instructions that I’ve heard from other yoga and meditation teachers. “Often in life, we don’t push ourselves. We would rather be a little lazy or take the easy route. Use the length of this pose to challenge yourself, to push yourself beyond your comfort zone.”

As we entered the pose, I thought to myself, “What if I’m the type of person who never takes the easy route? The person who is always pushing myself to work harder & longer, who skips lunch and drinks with friends so I can get more done?”

As my head hung down between my arms, I felt in my body the truth that no matter what the instructor said, I needed to apply the pose to my own needs. I don’t need to learn how to push myself harder. Instead I need to learn to relax, to listen to the subtle indications from my body that it’s time for a break, and to actually take that break so my body knows fully that I’m listening.

Three minutes in, I lowered to my hands and knees and rested comfortably. Instead of feeling guilty, I savored the experience of learning just what I needed to learn.

Buddhist Beginnings

I believe that I first started to practice Buddhism on a fall afternoon in Athens, Georgia in 2003. While I had taken a course on Buddhism in college in the late 90s, it had remained a purely intellectual pursuit. Early in 2003, I started going to Al-Anon meetings, as my partner at the time had become an alcoholic before my eyes. I’d resisted going for months, terrified of going to a meeting that talked about God when I was living in the middle of the Bible Belt. Once I was desperate enough to go anyway, I met other people searching for a spiritual path when all the traditional paths had failed them. One friend I met there decided to pack up her home and go to India for a few months. I offered to help her pack, because I’d appreciated her insight and was sad I was not going to be interacting with her for months.

While at her home, she gave me Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics). I knew this was a book I needed to know intimately when I turned to page 1 and read the first chapter quotation: “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” All I felt during this time was fear: fear that he would leave, even greater fear that he would stay; fear that I would do the wrong thing, fear of what would happen if I did the right thing; fear of whether he would survive without me propping him up, fear of whether I would survive a life of propping him up.

So I read and read, and learned about nonattachment, compassion, and just being with the feelings that were swirling in me. I most remember during that time feeling a strong desire to act, to fix things, to just do something, but finding the courage to do nothing. As Pema Chodron says directly, “Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks” (p. 137). My old tricks had got me in a pretty miserable place, so I was willing to try something else, anything else. Sometimes the gift of suffering is that our desperation makes us try something new.

The first in the “What is Practice?” series.

Refusing Renunciation

To Renounce:

Leaving it all behind on the path

Definition 1 : to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration

I chafe at the Buddhist concept of renunciation. I have too long lived a life of renunciation – but based on outside references about what I should do or who I should be. Or based on internalize references that said if I only renunciated a little more, if only I needed a little bit less, then perhaps I would receive the love I so desperately wanted. Neither of these is a path of renunciation based on a desire for good living, wise living, awake living. Rather than renunciation, they are perhaps annihilation.

Definition 2 : to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further

Being “Off Trajectory” is about refusing to follow any external references that say I “should” or “must” follow some particular path. It is about following my own rules, my own heart, even if it leads me into a place that appears far from renunciation. Because I lived too long renouncing my desires based on external ideas about what I should do, my path now leads me on a pendulum swing back toward reveling in sensuality. While this appears to be the opposite of renunciation as typically thought of, its truly a renouncing that external rules will bring happiness and contentment. I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs to enjoy the senses in order to break out of this Puritan work ethic into something with more freedom.