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Time

September 26, 2014
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Two and a half years later. A friend said so today. Is it really? Two and a half years since I shared a joke with you? Two and a half years since you made me think? Two and a half years since the text message came that told me you were gone? Yes. It is two and a half years later.

Your friend died. We memorialized him today. Forty years your elder and yet he outlived you. We remembered you and thought what you might have said or done. I was sad. I knew him less than you, but I was sad because I know you would have wept. And joked. I was sad because I missed you.

Your picture is in my office, on a shelf. You’re smiling. You’re in other offices, too, all over this place. I would say “like a guardian angel,” but no one who knew you would call you that. Maybe you’re our guardian devil, or our trickster at least.

I hope you would be proud of me. Proud of all of us. I’m still working on the questions you made me ask myself when I met you, four and a half years ago.

It seems like a gyp when I think about it now. I only got to know you two years. How unfair. How wonderful. Because I got to know you at all.

Burn My Ego Down

August 5, 2014

'Hattie' by Gabriel Radley via Flickr.com

‘Hattie’ by Gabriel Radley via Flickr.com

This is a prayer to the dead Buddha

who can’t hear me.

Dear Buddha,

please burn my ego down.

Please give me wisdom like a flame,

let that flame burn and brighten,

and burn my ego down.

Let me let go of the dead wood

of attachment, aversion, and delusion

that I carry on my scarred back like a weight.

Let me let go of this burden

and set it alight

and dance around the flames

while I burn my ego down.

And let me not fear the fire

that burns my ego down.

Let it be a warmth, a light, a balm.

Dear Buddha,

I don’t think you can hear me,

but I don’t think you need to.

This is a prayer to the buddha inside me

when I have burned my ego down.

Even Shakyamuni Had ‘First World Problems’

July 30, 2014
First world problems internet meme

First world problems internet meme

We use the phrase ‘first world problems’ to denote inconvenient things that happen to relatively affluent and comfortable people. There’s even a meme for that. We use it as a joke when something trivial makes us sad. On the one hand, it’s telling us to get over ourselves.

On the other, it’s reinforcing that our sense of relative security. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to have ‘first world problems.’ Just think of those Tibetan monks and nuns who, though being tortured for years, never lost compassion for their jailers. Now those are real problems. Think of how strong that made their practice. How in the world are we supposed to cultivate a practice like that?

But even Shakyamuni had ‘first world problems.’ He was a prince, remember. His life was as affluent and comfortable as it was possible to be for his time. Yet he was not immune to suffering.

In fact, it was precisely because of his affluence that the problem of suffering bothered him so deeply. He had been given everything a person of his society might want, yet he was not free from the dukkha of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Many of us now living in relatively wealthy, safe countries have almost anything a person of our society might want. We live like royalty of previous ages, yet we want more. And we are not free from the dukkha of becoming and unbecoming.

I often wondered if my comfortable life was a hindrance to my practice. The suttas say the gods do not seek liberation because they do not have enough suffering to motivate them. Even with all my small struggles, I wondered, am I living in a small heave-realm on earth? Are we all?

 No. Affluence is not the problem. Ego is. Wondering if we’re ‘too comfortable’ keeps our mind fixated on our ‘selves’ and reinforces ego. Attachment, aversion, and, most insidious of all, delusion is the problem. Although we have so much, we are still beset by tanha, craving. This is the problem.

Shakyamuni had a radical solution. He walked away from it all. He cut off his hair, gave up his fine robes, left his palace, and became a wandering aesthetic. He almost starved himself to death before he saw that was not the eay either.

We should not envy those who have cultivated their practices through the adversities of torture, poverty, or illness. We should respect them and pay homage to them, but recognize that the Buddha would never have prescribed that as a method of practice.

Nor should we regret that we were born into more fortunate circumstances. That is just craving of another kind. We should use those circumstances to support our practice and to help others as much as we can (those are the same thing, to my mind). Even though we have much, we can still crave for little.

Finally, we can recognize that even we silly people with our ‘first world problems’ are capable of enlightenment. Perhaps even more able than people in starving, war-torn countries who have never heard the Dharma. We can be grateful for our good fortune. We, of all people, can help others the most, if stop worrying about ourselves and practice!

Buddhist ‘Theology’? Yes, No, and Sorta.

July 25, 2014
'Young Buddhist Monk at he Koth Doowa in Mesmerizing Madu River' by Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr.com

‘Young Buddhist Monk at he Koth Doowa in Mesmerizing Madu River’ by Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr.com

Can or does Buddhism have ‘theology?’ Well, yes, no, and sorta.

If one interprets theology in the strictest sense, going back to the roots of the word, ‘theo’ for god or the divine and ‘ology’ for study of, then the answer depends on how we define god. If God is capital ‘G,’ the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, the omnipotent, omniscient creator of all things, then the answer is no. Buddhism has no reference to such a singular, personified deity. Some Buddhists, such as Nyanaponika Thera, have even concluded that such a deity is incompatible with the Buddhadharma. I am not so sure.

Even if one broadens one’s understanding of the Abrahamic God a little, as many modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims do, to encompass some ineffable, divine basis of reality, I would still be inclined to say no. Because even when monotheists broaden their understanding what of God is, their traditional religious histories of what God does remain fairly stable, although the methods become more allegorical and metaphorical. And, no, Buddhism has no reference to those things which the Abrahamic God is purported to do or has done, such as create the universe. In Buddhist cosmology, the universe is generally considered both beginningless and endless. The Buddha also cautions that this is not a question we should waste our time on.

Conjecture about [the origin, extent, etc., of] the cosmos is an inconceivable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it. – AN 4:77, from Skill in Questions: How the Buddha Taught by Thanissaro Bhikkhu p. 292

If we interpret the nature of gods, small ‘g’ and plural, or divinity even more broadly conceived as a sacred basis of reality, then certainly Buddhism has much to say on this matter. After all, it was born into Vedic culture, the precursor of modern Hinduism. The notion of gods, ghosts, devas, demons, and other supernatural beings was a forgone conclusion. Hinduism itself is a centered around these gods. However, in Buddhism (not Hinduism) these gods are not central to the Dharma, but rather just another form of existence subject to it.

Buddhism does not deny that there are in the universe planes of existence and levels of consciousness which in some ways may be superior to our terrestrial world and to average human consciousness. …Yet, according to Buddhist teachings, such higher planes of existence, like our familiar world, are subject to the law of impermanence and change. – “Buddhism and the God-idea” by Nyanaponika Thera

The gods do not play a soteriological role in Buddhist religions, even though they often appear as characters in Buddhist scripture. Therefore, if we use these gods to understand ‘theology’ in Buddhism, I can, at best, say that Buddhism sorta has a theology, but it’s not very important.

However, in western religions theology is generally considered very important. Perhaps it is merely an intellectual curiosity to the critical religious studies historian, but to the religions themselves it is a very big deal. Theology is both how they interpret what is and moralize what ought to be. Yet the divide between the twin academic disciplines of Religious Studies and religious Theology is entrenched. And it has left the academic study Buddhism strangely imbalanced in the west.

Scholars all over the Americas and Europe have the opportunity to engage in the study of Buddhism as an object, that is, from the historical critical perspective of Religious Studies. However, they have precious few opportunities to engage with it as a subject for constructive worldviews. Among Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, this latter task is traditionally taken up by the seminary. It is part of the training of clergy and theologians. While the religious historians have welcomed Buddhist scholars for the past several decades into the west’s most prominent academic institutions such as the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there has been no corresponding opening of arms (either warm or begrudging) to Buddhist practitioners. In fact, Buddhist scholar-practitioners who both study (as object) Buddhism and practice (as subject) Buddhism have been regarded with a mildly hypocritical suspicion. (See Charles Prebish and Rita Gross on this topic.) There was almost nowhere for Buddhists to go, so to speak, to academically study the Dharma in the west.

Buddhist universities have been around since the 1950’s, when second-generation Japanese-Americans (nisei) founded the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley as little more than a study group for Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. It is now part of the Graduate Theological Union of affiliated seminaries. Naropa University in Boulder, CO, was founded in the mid-1970’s by Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. It was the first to offer degrees beyond Buddhist Studies, in fields such as psychology and literature. There have been a few others since then, including my own alma matter and current employer, University of the West.

These schools tend to follow either the IBS model and stick to religion or the Naropa model and offer a slightly more secular education, similar to Jesuit institutions. In both types, Buddhist scholar-practitioners finally found academic homes, though such schools had their own drawbacks. In general, they are smaller and less prestigious that the older, well-established, well-resourced Religious Studies departments of major universities. If one really wanted to become a name in Buddhist studies, it was still at least somewhat advantageous to squelch one’s theological leanings and maintain a historical critical stance.

Even in the Buddhist universities, there was plenty of talk about the Dharma, but very little about so-called Buddhist theology, due to the problematic nature of the word. That began to change slowly, as those prestigious Buddhist Studies scholar-practitioners in the Religious Studies departments of major universities, who had both a both more nuanced view of the meaning of theology and a deep understanding of the Dharma, gained enough credibility (and tenure) to step out on the limb.

This trend culminated in 2000 with the publication of an anthology titled Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by Roger Jackson and John Makransky. In it, Jackson, Makransky, and other scholars make a credible argument for the appellation of ‘theology’ to Buddhist. Other scholars, such as Rita Gross and Musashi Tachikawa have also taken up the question in separate works. Sadly, in the fourteen years since, Jackson and Makransky’s anthology remains the only book-length treatment of the subject (and it is sadly lacking in practical topics). My exploration of their perspectives yielded the following synthesis in a paper I composed this past spring:

Gross defines Buddhist theology as “the self-conscious reflections of recent Western converts to Buddhism who also have professional training and interest in the construction of religious thought.” This definition owns the necessity of coming up with a term for the constructive acts of Buddhists within their own religious tradition as particularly important for those of us who wish to discuss these topics with others of western religious traditions. When we call it ‘theology,’ western religious professionals know what we mean, even if our fellow Buddhists may not. (Gross, p. 155-156) The term may hardly be necessary in certain eastern contexts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Asians cannot ‘construct religious thought’ or engage in theology, as Tachikawa demonstrates.Therefore, it is not yet a sufficient definition of Buddhist theology.

Tachikawa and Gross share many of the same terms in their call for a Buddhist theology, including “self-conscious” and “constructed.” Buddhist theology must engage religious practice with contemporary issues. It must also “possess a method communicable to others,”(Tachikawa, p. 8) which is also why Gross proposes use of ‘theology’ over alternatives like ‘dharma-discourse,’ ‘dharmology,’ or ‘buddhology.’ Both Gross and Tachikawa also point out that Buddhist theology must work from within and engage the tradition. This is not merely ‘philosophy,’ which Gross regards as personal and open to being idiosyncratic, but an endeavor in which “one considers oneself to be working within a given system and under its authority.”(Gross, p. 156-157) Tachikawa characterizes this difference as part of what is “recognized from the outset,” such as the existence of the Buddha, which the religious philosopher is free to discard, but the Buddhist theologian is not. (Tachikawa, p. 8)

Cabezón, in contributing the Jackson and Makransky’s anthology, defines theology as “roughly, a normative discourse, self-avowedly rooted in tradition, with certain formal properties.” This would seem to fit both Gross and Tachikawa’s description. From here, Cabezón claims that “’theology’ can be meaningfully modified by the adjective ‘Buddhist,’ (Cabezon, p. 25) rendering Buddhist theology as: normative, reflective, and constructive discourse self-consciously rooted in the Buddhist traditions with formal properties defined by the systematic study of those traditions.

-From “Buddhist Practical Theology: A Literature Review,” by Monica Sanford, 2014

From this perspective, it seems clear that there is such a thing as Buddhist theology. It hangs on the wider reading of theology as “the more strictly intellectual interpretations of any religious tradition, whether that tradition is theistic of not.” (David Tracy in Roger Jackon’s chapter) Under this interpretation, any religion can and almost every religion does have its own theology, regardless of what they call it.

That begs the question, other than making ourselves intelligible to scholars and theologians of western religions, as Gross indicates, what exactly is the point of having a Buddhist theology? Why not just keep calling it Dharma? Isn’t that good enough?

Well, my jury is still out, but I’ll close with a few thoughts. Yes, we have Dharma, a perfectly good word for the truth as taught by the Buddha. We should own that word, be proud of it, and use it wherever applicable. I can’t always claim that what I do is Dharma, however, as I am not the Buddha. Being subject to attachment, aversion, and delusion, I know the Dharma only through the glass darkly. But I don’t think theology is the same as Dharma. Rather, theology is an approach or way of doing Dharma. Theology is a systematic study of not only the Dharma, but the Buddha and Sangha as well, that helps us understand,  interpret, and apply those teachings to our everyday lives. I can do theology and it helps clear up that hazy view of the Dharma when I do.

The Dharma itself will guide our approach to theology. Indeed, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Skill in Questions can serve as just this type of theological guide. In this sense, Buddhists have been doing theology for a long time. That’s what the Abhidharma is, after all, but the Abhidharma has become codified and fixed into its own set of scared texts. No one does abhidharma anymore, lest they arrogantly usurp the mantel of those early Buddhist masters. (So far as I know. Correct me if I am wrong.)

It is only our encounter with western religions that has given us a new word, a flexible word, one in which all Buddhists can participate, be they scholars, clergy, laypeople, masters or beginners. For this reason, I believe the notion of Buddhist theology is eminently worth our consideration. Is there Buddhist theology? Yes, in my humble opinion. And we need more of it.

 

Stories I Tell Myself and Other Confessions…

July 15, 2014
Brandon and my black eye. Lincoln, NE, 1985.

Brandon and my black eye. Lincoln, NE, 1985. So I guess that happened.

Most of my life is true. The rest is stories that I’ve told myself for so long that I’ve forgotten if they were true or not. I only remember telling them to myself. Like the story of how I got my first black eye when I was five (my brother and a baseball bat were involved). Part of that story involves going to kindergarten then next day and impressing the tough kids with my shiner. We don’t have photographic evidence of that, and I can’t remember what they look like, but one seemed short, stout, and outspoken (Ernie?) and the other tall, thin, and calmer (Bert?). Sometimes there are flashes of images, light, half remembered smells, but not enough to account for every detail of the story. A few I know are lies, but I believe them anyway. Sometimes that’s important because it protects that little piece on the inside that we think might fall out if we don’t keep our hand over the hole. But the lies don’t fit right, not like the other stories, even the forgotten ones. They rattle around until I reach in to take them out, hold them up to the light and think “Huh? I had no idea that was still in there. I told that lie when I was thirteen.” But most of my life is true.

I have conversations with people who aren’t there. Not just that usual mental rant at my absent boyfriend/mother/coworker for the thing they’ve done wrong now. This morning I was making oatmeal in the kitchen and explaining to my boyfriend’s cousin why bowing to the Buddha isn’t ‘idol worship.’ Not that she’d asked. Not that she was there. She’s updating her Facebook feed from a summer trip to Israel between her sophomore and junior year of college, which is why I was thinking of her (and religion) while I was making oatmeal. I’ve done this for my entire life. I explained quantum physics (badly) to Isaac Newton and why we only get to see one side of the moon to William Wallace.  Anytime I didn’t understand something, I’d pretend to explain it to someone else in my head until I had it worked out. Whenever I was sad (often enough then, less often now), I would tell someone about it and they would listen and ask only the right questions. It’s not precisely like having an imaginary friend. More like an imaginary entourage.

I like being alone. This is hard on my boyfriend because he likes being with me. I like being with him, too. It’s great because we’re both introverts and we can be introverted together. But sometimes I also like being alone, traveling alone, taking a nap in an empty house. I enjoyed being single. Sure, sometimes I was lonely and horny and couldn’t do anything about it. Sometimes I’m still lonely and horny when I can’t do anything about it (like in committee meetings or driving on the freeway). I also enjoy being in a relationship. It has perks (perk #1: my boyfriend, who is my hero; perk #2: love and all that stuff). It’s a qualitatively different sort of happiness. I wouldn’t trade it. And I still like being alone.

I think most people are basically good and I don’t like them anyway. Not specific people. I like the people I meet specifically. We get along very well. I love their stories. They are all so interesting. That’s why I like being a chaplain. I hear the most fascinating stories (that I can’t share with anyone, which is frustrating as a writer). But I don’t like ‘people’ in general. I love ordering pizza online, self-checkout aisles at the grocery store, automated kiosks at the movies, buying car insurance without an agent. I make my boyfriend call the apartment complex when we need maintenance. Otherwise, I would just live without that dripping faucet or creaky door. If there’s a line, I don’t join. If there’s a crowd, I go the other way. People are noisy and they suck my energy like vampires. They let their children shout in restaurants and use English improperly. But when I talk to them, they becoming fascinating because they all have stories, which come alive with the innovative grammar of unique dialects. I learn that they are trying so hard to be and do good and getting it wrong sometimes, like me. We get along very well when they become specific persons to me. But I still don’t like people.

I think life is shit and that’s okay. I call it cynical optimism. I mean really, what were you expecting? That life wouldn’t be shit? Of course life is shit. Birth sucks, being a kid sucks (I particularly hated that part), puberty sucks, the rat race sucks, getting old sucks, getting sick sucks, being hurt by other people sucks, and to top it all off, dying sucks. Oh, and other people we like dying sucks, too. But that’s all okay because we can deal. At some fundamental level, we can all deal and manage to be happy anyway. Isn’t that fantastic? No sarcasm here. I really think that’s absolutely fantastic. I’d call it a miracle if I weren’t too cynical to believe in those. It’s brilliant, really, perfect in a way. We have everything we need to make life not suck, but sometimes it’s like having all the parts to a piece of Ikea furniture and none of the directions. That sucks. And isn’t it grand that we get to figure out how to get to put it together ourselves? I mean, it could be anything. How brilliant.

I think the Buddha may never have existed. His story may be entirely made up and his teachings actually the compilations of dozens (hundreds?) of different authors. But I don’t mind. I think all stories have truth in them, especially the fantastical ones. It’s not a factual sort of truth. It’s something subtler and deeper. I believe in Frodo, and Yoda, and the Doctor (but not Santa Claus). I’ve learned great truths from between their greater fictions. Of course, there’s a lot of actual evidence that Siddhartha Gotama (he has a name, you know) was an actual person. Scholars basically agree on this, and that he was called the Buddha and revered as a great teacher during his lifetime. But that’s just a story, too. If I only barely believe the stories I tell myself about my own life, why would it bother me if this one wasn’t (mostly) true either?

PS – Written stone cold sober. And I have not been diagnosed with a mental illness. In fact, most of my friends think I’m one of the sanest people they know. Suckers.

Where I Come From

June 30, 2014
by

Family is a peculiar form of karma. Whether I believe in rebirth or not, whether I believe that something in my prior life guided me to this one, whether I believe that those forces shaped who I have and will become, I believe in the karma of family. I don’t disbelieve the other, but the jury is still out. (Ask me again in my next life.)

Looking through old photos on Father’s Day, I reflect on the karma of my family. I see my grandparents as adults in midlife, my aunts and uncles as children, my parents as crazy teenagers, my brother and I as babies and toddlers. We live in this delusion that the ‘I’ who is now is the ‘I’ who has always been and will always be. “Be in the now,” they say, but inexpertly applied that simple direction cuts us off from our past and future. Be in the now, but also spend some time in the now reflecting on change. Who we were is not who we are and who we are is not who we will be, but each of those lives touch each other like the balls on a pool table, each one imparting direction and momentum to the next.

Roger and Brandon Sanford, family library, Tripp, South Dakota, c. 1982.

Roger and Brandon Sanford, family library, Tripp, South Dakota, c. 1980.

We have a lot of photos of my Dad and brother from when Brandon was little. I can imagine my mom took them, but somehow managed to avoid being in them. She still doesn’t like having her picture taken, something I’ve noticed in women of her generation. My Dad always has that big goofy grin on his face. There are very few pictures of me and my Dad when I was that young. More often, they are of the four of us, a little nuclear family, Dad holding Brandon and Mom holding me. Dad always has that same grin. Mom only smiles in about half of her photos – except their wedding pictures. She can’t seen to stop smiling in those. That was the family I was born into, Dad, Mom, Brandon, and then me.

I remember our library in Tripp. I remember that couch. I remember my parents sitting together in the evening reading books, sometimes with the television on and a sports game in the background. Dad had a business in Tripp, but it went under after a few years. We moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, just before I started kindergarten. Dad still works for a company that does that same thing as his family business. He still combs his hair the same way (he’ll never go bald), he still wears shirts with pockets, and those pockets are often full of pens and little screwdrivers. He still reads books in the evening, with the game on in the background. Brandon reads, too, and they share many of the same books. So do I, but less scifi novels these days, and more academic tomes.

Monica Sanford in the family library, Tripp, SD, 1980.

Monica Sanford in the family library, Tripp, SD, 1980.

Here I am in that same library, on that same couch.  I still have the teddy bear and the chipmunk. They are some of my oldest and most beloved toys. I don’t know if these photos were taken at the same time or not. What I do know, is that when Dad lost his job in Lincoln, he and mom sold those books for a nickle or a quarter each. They made the rent that way, until they both found new jobs in Omaha. For years, Dad regretted the loss of some rare scifi paperbacks. For years, they both slowly rebuilt their library. When the internet started and Amazon began, he asked me to go online, standing behind me at the computer while I searched for the second book in a trilogy that he hadn’t been able to find in a decade of weekly visits to the used bookstore. I was able to order it for him online. Shortly after, he signed up for a computer class at the local community college. He used his computer to scan in these photographs a few years later. He now uses the internet to research and book our family vacations.

Dayle Sanford, on the gulf coast of Texas, June 1978.

Dayle Sanford, on the gulf coast of Texas, June 1978.

My Mom is spooky. In all the photos I flip through, after I am born she looks like my Mom. Before I am born, she looks like … me. In found this one with her name and date attached. June 1978, five years after she and Dad were married, they took his Honda motorcycle down to Corpus Christy, Texas, and saw the Gulf Coast. She told me she made him buy that tall back because every time he stretched his long legs, he’d almost push her off the rear of the bike. I remember that motorcycle. I remember riding it (very slowly I’m sure) with my Dad around the little park in Tripp. He sold it, along with so much else, when they moved to Lincoln.

Mom doesn’t like change that much. She grumbles whenever Dad talks about buying a new house or a new car. She always says she can’t afford to go on vacation (we don’t believe her), but once Dad books the trip she always wants to come. When I was in school in Lincoln and would book flights to San Francisco or Chicago just because the tickets were cheap, she would tell me not to go (there are weirdos in San Francisco!), but I think she secretly wanted to come. I don’t know if she’s always been this way, but I look at this picture and I see a young woman having fun, being adventure and carefree. And about 4 or 5 months pregnant, since Brandon was born in October 1978.

Roger, Dayle, Brandon, and Monica, July 1982.

Roger, Dayle, Brandon, and Monica, July 1982.

This is the Mom I remember. I remember the big hair (that perm!) and I was glad when it went out of fashion. Her face still looks the same. I don’t know where this photo was taken, but I know it wasn’t in our house in Tripp. Both sets of grandparents were only a few hours away in Nebraska. They used to come and stay with us, or we would go and stay with them. They came up to help us move, Grandpa Dale driving their big van all the way from Tripp down to Lincoln, to our new home in a little brick apartment building. We couldn’t take our dog or cat and I was sad, but Mom found good homes for them. Mom used to bake bread in big coffee tins in that house in Tripp. She helped with Dad’s business, then went to work as a bookkeeper at the concrete plant outside of town.

When we left Lincoln for Omaha, she got a job with the big insurance company, Mutual of Omaha. She’s been there ever since. While Brandon and I were in elementary school she finished her bachelors degree one class at a time, going to night school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dad had to cook dinner on those nights. We ate a lot of PB&H sandwiches and boiled hot dogs, but we didn’t mind. Mom bought our first family computer, an Epson 387, so she could write college papers at home. Brandon and I learned how to use it and one of the first programs she bought for it, on a big 5-7/8″ floppy disk, was a floor planning software. She bought it for me. No wonder a decade later I enrolled in the College of Architecture.

I am not that little girl anymore, but only in the sense that an acorn is not an oak tree. My family planted the seeds of who I would become a long time ago, but the world watered and shined on them in interesting new ways. I didn’t stay in architecture. I didn’t stay in Nebraska. Ten years ago I was moving into my little condo in Lincoln so I could go to the university there and I never would have predicted I’d be here ten years later. I don’t think anyone would have, but when you look back on that long chain of karma, it doesn’t seem so far fetched. The most difficult trick shot on a pool table is easy to understand when you trace it backward. But everyone would say it’s impossible before it happens. Where will we all be in another ten years? Or twenty? I have no idea.

PS – If you think you won’t change that much in years to come, here is Dan Gilbert to explain it with graphs:

Living On Purpose

June 11, 2014
'Road Less Traveled' by anjan58 via Flickr.com

‘Road Less Traveled’ by anjan58 via Flickr.com

This theme has been rattling around in my head for a while. Conscious living, mindfulness, intentional living, whatever it’s called it usually sounds pretentious and far too privileged. It seems silly to talk about a purposeful life to someone frantically trying to feed three kids on as many minimum wage jobs while her neighborhood is getting shot up. But sometimes I wonder if more privileged people (including myself) were living fully-awake lives, maybe there would be fewer people trapped in situations like that because we’d all give more attention to poverty and violence than we do to shoe styles and sitcoms.

No, I’m not trying to take all the joy out of life. Squarely facing all the worst problems our country and world has to offer is like staring into the sun. We just can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. These aren’t things any individual can solve in one fell swoop. But the world isn’t made up of individuals. Actually it is, but not isolated individuals as we assume, but rather people embedded in systems that perpetuate violence and poverty. One person can’t change every system, but they can change any system, an inch at a time if necessary. Which brings me back to a purposeful life.

No matter how they were started, by whom, or to what end, systems of suffering can only be perpetuated when people fail to tear them down and transform them. Even when we’re not actively building them, even when we’re intellectually opposed to them, if we are not also actively trying to change them, we are, in effect, perpetuating them. When we fail to live in ways that disrupt these on purpose, then we end up feeding the monster on our table scraps and it gets bigger.

Moreover, even if we aren’t living hand to mouth in an urban war zone, our stress hormones can’t tell the difference anymore. We’re running from one deadline to another, trying to satisfy a dozen different powers-that-be who barely know our names, and just hoping that this will look good on our resumes so that someday we can get that job we really want – so we can do all that stuff, but with a slightly better paycheck. Yeah…why, again? No wonder we haven’t solved immigration reform or the gender inequality yet.

So I keep thinking about this purposeful life. What would it be like to live a life where I knew that what I did every day went just a little way towards transforming the systems that perpetuate suffering? What would it be like to live a life that didn’t feel so frantic and reactive, but rather felt focused on the task at hand under my conscious direction? What would it be like to have a sense of purpose and direction that didn’t send my chasing after every possible rainbow, because I already knew what I needed to do when I got out of bed in the morning? Wouldn’t that be better?

The answers to those questions seem so natural and positive. It sounds like a no-brainer. I don’t know anyone who would turn that life down.

But I don’t know anyone who has achieved it. At least, not personally, though I’d like to think they’re out there.

This theme keeps rattling around in my head and in my spare time, I pick up books, skim articles, and watch TED talks. I didn’t even realize what they all had in common, this theme of a conscious life, until I started listening to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown on audiobook in my car. Because it’s an audiobook, I can’t crack it open and pull out a handy quote to demonstrate it’s cleverness. I have many questions for Mr. McKeown, including what would he tell the single-mom with three kids and three jobs living in gang territory, but mostly I appreciate the track he’s on. And I appreciate the track he’s put me on.

Because I realize that I’m looking for the same thing now that I was looking for when I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching a dozen years ago – a purposeful life. Thay would call it a mindful life or maybe just to be awake, since that’s the ‘Buddh’ in Buddhism. What I’ve been reading and listening to and watching online are all modern-day Dharma talks, backed up with social scientific studies and statistics, but still Dharma. I constantly amazed by the resonance it has with two-thousand year old Buddhist teachings, until I remind myself that there’s no reason to be amazed. Universal truth and all that…

I have an entire summer to contemplate that new track. I’m interested to discover how I can downgrade my life, clear out the busy-ness, design purposeful routines that become ingrained habits, empty my house, purify my spending habits, pursue the essential, and focus on the task at hand. And maybe when I’ve accomplished those cliches, I can spare some attention for the problems of poverty and violence and, you know, liberating the world from suffering and stuff.

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