I work a lot. This semester I took four grad-level courses and finished up a fifth incomplete I had left over from last fall. I worked twenty hours a week and dedicated at least ten to a student government that always seemed to be tripping over one vital project after another. I moved house twice, bought a car, raised a kitten, and then adopted a puppy.
So it’s no surprise that after the graduation cap came off and all the grades were in that I “checked out” for a little bit. I binge-watched half a dozen television seasons I’d missed out on in the past months of meetings and homework. I slept in, took the dog for walks, and went out to eat with my partner. I ignored my blog and I didn’t meditate at all. Not a single minute. I went to work each day, did my job, and didn’t read a lonely snippet of Dharma. In other words, I pretended to be “normal” for half a minute.
And over the last couple of weeks of my “vacation,” I’ve noticed my mind slowly shifting. I feel more irritable, less patient. More materialistic, less content. I resented my partner more and I wasn’t as understanding with the puppy. And I really didn’t like what my practice-free life was doing to my brain.
Sometimes we think learning the Dharma is like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget. But it’s not; it’s like exercising a muscle. If you don’t keep exercising, you’ll lose everything you’ve gained under the corrosive power of popular culture, habitual patterns, and evolutionary biology.
I decided it was time to check back in. So I did some research on training methods for stubborn that are more gentle and less reliant on brute force. I made time in my schedule to attend weekly sangha meetings and I found a local temple that offers half-day retreats several times a month and sent them an email. I unearthed my copy of In the Buddha’s Words from where it had gotten buried under textbooks and loaded Ajahn Geoff’s Dharma talks back onto my cell phone. I started meditating again, as I always do, but usually forget in a few days before trying again. Just from the realization and renewed commitment, I feel better, but only time will tell if I can whip this muscle back into shape. After all, it’s the most important muscle we have – the heart – and I let it atrophy while I checked out.
While I was checked out, I realized it’s easy to check out and forget about all that stuff. At the same time it makes life horribly difficult because of the suffering and chaos and uneven mind creates. The Buddha advocated the Middle Path, between the “easy” life of apathy and the strenuous path of asceticism. We don’t all have to be body builders, but we shouldn’t be couch potatoes either. Time to wake up and start exercising again.
I realize I’ve been off the blogosphere for a while now. Trying to manage a fundamentally unmanageable life will do that. Oh, don’t worry. I’m not getting all dramatic on you. Just a little Buddhist humor. Bit dark for some, but it always makes me smile.
Happy June, everyone. I realize now, on the first day of the first month of summer, that I have yet again survived another “final” semester. I walked across the stage, shook hands, bowed, and hugged, and smiled, and walked off with a white folio bearing a golden lotus, the seal of our university. Of course, it was empty. They’re all empty. No one can say for sure a week before grades are due whether you’ve passed or not, but everyone is happy to give you the benefit of the doubt so as not to ruin the party.
My family came and went. The relaxing weekend on the beach was more of a go-hither-and-yon chauffer-a-thon than a real vacation, but I don’t regret a minute of it. I love my family and enjoy sharing a small part of my life with them, seeing the fun we all still have together. It was my brother and sister-in-law’s first time in Southern California. My Dad had the right idea with that beach house. Got us all out of the city and the smog, though they caught glimpse of it enough to know how good they had it at home.
I miss home. Every time they talk about thunderstorms in Oklahoma, I feel a little nostalgic, a little envious. Irrational, I know. Those thunderstorms are killing people right now, and the devastation puts cracks in my heart. But they’ve always been the flame to my moth, beautiful and terrifying and nowhere I’d rather be than right in the middle of one. Here, on the edge of the continent, the closest thing I have to that terrible, unstoppable, sublime force is the ocean. I am reminded every time I walk into it that it’s trying to kill me, an intuition this prairie girl cannot shake but does not turn away from. At least, not in the gentle waves of Newport Beach.
I’m starting a new life, but still clinging to the vestiges of the old, working for my most recent alma mater. There’s a one-year contract for “Accreditation Assistant” sitting on my desk waiting to be signed and a reception for the new President on Monday. I’m planning the class I’ll teach in July, “Information Literacy 101.” When they asked me to teach it, I thought “I don’t know anything about ‘information literacy.’” When I read the definition, I thought “I know everything about ‘information literacy.’” They just didn’t bother to call it that when I went through undergrad, not too long ago, in fact. I’ll be faculty, adjunct, but still faculty, real and actual. At least, that’s what my teaching contract says.
And in the fall, I’ll officially be on my way to a PhD. Someone told me the other day that only one in four people who start a PhD ever finish it. Long odds, but that never deterred me before. I’ll be at a new school, a “fancy, private, religious college” of the kind I never dreamed I’d attend, let alone on scholarship generously granted by people who seem to want me to be there, no less. Inside I’m still that trouble maker the teachers fought over to keep out of their classes. Getting a doctorate seems a fitting way to thumb my nose at them … though I suppose I owe them a thing or two as well. Perseverance, for one.
Friends are off to great new things, jobs and adventures and weddings. And I’m trying, once again, to rebuild my social networks. I often think that’s the hardest thing about college. You’re just getting to know someone well, in that way that real friends do, without words, and they up and graduate and move away. Or you up and graduate and move away. Lives change and suddenly there’s less room for each other. It’s good, but also sad, and always leaves me at somewhat of a loss.
Right now, I’m working into a new rhythm. Working a few days a week. Jogging in the mornings with the dog, getting my running form back after a lazy academic year. Binge watching every television show I missed in the last nine months. And still (always) figuring out how to live with a guy I care about without driving us both mad. That one may be a losing battle, but at least it’s interesting.
I hope you’ll hang tight with me while I get back into the swing of blogging. I hope I’ll manage to make it interesting, though of course I can’t promise. I’ve no plans yet, but we know that’ll change. As a Buddhist might say, change always does.
By all rights, I’ve been an “adult” since I was 14, when I stopped asking my parents for permission to do things and started telling them what I was doing and when I’d be home. I’ve held 18 jobs since I was 15-years-old, usually two or three at a time. I bought and sold two cars, two homes, and started on my fourth college degree before I turned thirty. I’ve dated and been single and never really thought too much about kids throughout it all. I traveled around the U.S. and abroad, frequently on my own. Yet I’m starting to feel all grown up in a way I never have before, like so many pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.
It’s not your traditional puzzle, of course, but it has some recognizable pieces. In two weeks, I’ll be graduating with a degree I actually plan to use and moving on to a doctoral program at a respected private college. After a false start, I found my life’s calling in the work of spiritual care and teaching. I have a spiritual home in Buddhism and a role in society as a caregiver and academic.
Today my partner and I adopted a dog from the Upland Animal Shelter (a lovely facility with a great staff which I highly recommend). He’s a 4-5 month old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix we’ve named “Archer.” We fell in love at first sight with his calm temperament and perky ears. He comes home tomorrow, much to my cat’s dismay and my unending excitement. I’ve longed for a dog for seven lonely years and this guy is the best graduation present possible. He is going to make a great therapy dog. We’re such proud puppy parents!
Last week I moved into a new office at work – my very own office. It has windows and everything. I’ve had offices before, but somehow they always felt temporary and transitory, as if they belonged to the job and not me. I rarely bothered to decorate and always tried to keep my stuff to a simple two box minimum of office supplies, books, and files. Now I’m thinking of painting and laying down rugs and hanging art, like I’m going to be here a while. I have a phone extension for the first time in ages and I might just request business cards. I like what I do and it is a definite stepping stone in my career path, rather than just another odd job to make ends meet. I feel valued and cared for by my boss and coworkers.
In March, I traded living with a wonderful but distant housemate for a far more wonderful and intimate partner. As we moved in twice (once from his place and once from mine) to our new shared home, somehow Colin got upgraded from “boyfriend” to “partner” in my mind. Sixteen-year-olds who sneak out of their parents’ house at night have boyfriends. Thirty-two-year-olds have serious, committed live-in partners. I guess that makes me officially a DINK. We settled into a nice apartment with a little courtyard in a good neighborhood not far from his work and my new school. He cooks dinner for me and I iron his shirts and together we talk about what to do on the weekends and where to spend holidays.
In February, I got a car again after living car-free for two years. It’s a brand new Smart car, red, of course. I like trains and buses and I hate traffic, but’s it’s lovely to be independent again. She’s a sweet little goer, too, and under warranty so I can be worry free. It’s my first new car since 1999. I truly love everything about it, including its ridiculous proportions, which don’t seem so ridiculous when you’re looking down on the low-slung, two-seat BMW convertible you’re passing while going uphill on the freeway.
It’s not to say that any of these things qualify one for entry into the mythical “adult” life. The anxiety of being young, of always struggling financially, socially, and emotional is beginning to wane. For a long time, my life was colored by that struggle and the constant uncertainty of unpredictable, uncontrollable change. Now, I feel different, expanded somehow, like I have room to breathe. I guess all I’m trying to say is that I’m happy. It really didn’t take much. Good guy, steady income, safe home, interesting work, fun friends, spiritual fulfillment, and, of course, a dog and a cat I love. None of these things precisely made me happy, but they have made me grateful and quite content.
Holding on to that feeling of gratitude and contentment when we find it is one of the most challenging things we face in life. It’s so easy to think we need more and better if we want to keep hold of that happy feeling. Below a certain level of income, safety, and security, lasting happiness is very difficult. Living in poverty, fear, and uncertainty leads to suffering which makes gratitude and contentment difficult, if not impossible. However, above that very basic level, when our most pressing needs are provided for, our value and worth affirmed, and some level of security in our future assured, happiness is nowhere near as difficult to find as the ads on television and in fashion magazines would have us believe.
I think I’m finally feeling “grown up” now because for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I’ve hit upon that magic combination. I’m not looking for my next job or next home or next life. My goal now is to remember my gratitude, cultivate contentment as deeply as I can, and work diligently to help others find the same. Of course, don’t expect me not to bitch about life every now and then anyway. All things are impermanent, remember!
The Joy of Cooking, the 1974 edition, sits on my bookshelf. I don’t cook. Don’t get me wrong. I can cook, but I don’t enjoy it. Several years ago I gave it up, to the measurable improvement of my life and mood. Yet I keep the book, partly because it was my mother’s and partly because one never knows when the need to prepare wild boar (yes, it’s in there) will arise.
Likewise, I study pastoral care, but I’m not Christian. Christians are to pastoral care what Julia Child was to American cooking in the 1960’s and 70’s. In his essay, “Much Depends on the Kitchen: Pastoral Practice in Multicultural Society,” (in the book Healing Wisdom: Depth Psychology and Pastoral Ministry, 2010) K. Samuel Lee likens his education as a Korean man studying in an American seminary to that of a Korean cook trying to make a dish in an American kitchen.
I have to become familiar with the ingredients: mango, plain yogurt, cardamom, syrup, and coconut. I grew up in Korea, where I had no experience of tropical fruits, other than banana and canned pineapple. What makes yogurt “plain”? What is cardamom, and how is it used in cooking? Also, the recipe assumes that I know specific measuring systems. How much is a “pint” and a “teaspoon”? What temperature is 350°F in Celsius? Further, I have to be familiar with the tools used in this recipe. Do I use a regular teaspoon to measure “1/2 teaspoon full:’ or is there a special measuring spoon? What is a “cookie sheet”? How do I use an oven? So many things are assumed in this simple recipe. (p. 35)
Although my own situation is somewhat different, I can relate. I was lucky enough to be raised Christian, so many of the kitchen utensils are familiar to me. But I left the church at 15, so I missed out one a great deal of the technique. How much more difficult for my classmates who lack even a passing familiarity with Christianity? Or any Abrahamic faith? And who are new to America and speak English as a second language? Aya!*
It does, however, make for some interesting discussion. A Chinese classmate of mine recently observed “There is only one incarnation of Jesus? How sad. If one is good, more would be better.” In Asian culture, religious leaders and saints (bodhisattvas) are reborn lifetime after lifetime to continue their work of aiding suffering beings. The idea that Jesus Christ was born and died only once for the sake of humanity left him feeling very disappointed, as though he’d just tasted crème brulee only to be told there was no more cream in the whole world.
We are baffled by the Trinity, stumble to understand the differences between process, systematic, and liberation theologies, and the metaphor of the shepherd commonly used in Christian care simply does not fit. At the same time we are trying to understand our own religion to the best of our ability. We’re trying to cook an authentic Buddhist dish in a Christian kitchen.
Although difficult, this process does have an interesting side effect – it leads to common unveiling of our cultural unconscious(es), or the unconscious pool of mental patterns shared by persons of a particular culture which manifest as archetypes, symbols, rituals, and behaviors. Merely placing a bunch of American Buddhists and Asian Buddhists in a room together accomplishes much of this task; throwing us together in the proverbial Christian kitchen accelerates it.
Lee points out that
In order to achieve an adequate relationship between one’s interiority and exteriority – an important goal in depth psychology – one must also pay attention to the relationship between one’s intention and practice. Our practices often betray unconscious and culturally bound assumptions and values that contradict our consciously held intentions to be practitioners for all peoples. (p. 53)
One of the great things about being in a multicultural classroom (where even the professors are figuring it out as we go) is that the links between our intentions and practices are constantly being called into question. Actions have implied meanings and assumed intentions which are far from universal across cultures. What seems caring in one cultural context is horribly rude in another. And my classmates are not shy about demanding “Why would you do such a rude thing?” To which I might respond “Rude? My intention was to act compassionately.” Discussion ensues.
Of course, we (Buddhist chaplains) should and must continue to pursue the development of our own discipline. I sometimes lament the time we waste in figuring out not only how to cook in the Christian kitchen, but how to redesign it as we go! How much more efficient and effective it will be when we’re cooking in a Buddhist kitchen! Then we can raise issues of cultural unconscious and multiculturalism actively rather than accidentally. But in the meantime, we can learn from the process and pass those insights on to the cooks who come after us. Thanks to K. Samuel Lee and his great insight into this phenomenon.
*Asian version of Oy Vey!
I’m annoyed. I’m grumpy. I’m just downright irritated. People are irritating me. My body is irritating me. My irritation is irritating me. This is a very curious emotion. I can recall being this irritated before, but not for many years. I can even recall periods of my life lived in a state of constant irritation. If you’ve been a teenager, so can you. A lot of this irritation eased when I let go of the delusion that I could or should be able to control other people. As it returns now, I realize this is a form of aversion, one of the three poisons. It seems like it is often overlooked and socially tolerated in our hurry to focus on the more powerful forms of aversion like hatred, anger, and fear. But irritation is also a poison, insidious and pervasive and dangerous.
The danger of irritation is that it kills compassion and empathy but masquerades as wisdom. “Well, if people would just stop being stupid and see it the way I see it, we’d all be fine and I wouldn’t get so annoyed!” It can lead to a false sense of justification or righteousness. Likewise anger, but anger brings a destructive potential that makes us cautious. Irritation is a candle to a anger’s inferno, but a candle can burn just a surely. Anger is often triggered by injustice in the world, but irritation more often comes from unmet expectations. I expect my body to be healthy and I am irritated when it is not. I expect people solve their problems and I am irritated when they complain.
Irritation is therefore rooted in desire. It arises as a form of aversion when the world is not the way we want it to be. We are confronted with a world we do not want. At a visceral level, we DO. NOT. WANT. And we feel a strong desire to push it away. But the world is a little bigger than us, so we’re unlikely to be able to shift it whenever we desire. Therefore we experience aversion in the form of hatred, anger, or irritation.
This aversion is fed by an ignorant belief that if I can just get what I want and avoid what I don’t want, then I will be happy. If I can just get my body to be healthy and get people to stop whining and get myself to stop being preoccupied by all this, then I will be happy. Delusion is another layer on top of this basic ignorance. It is the belief that I can or should be able to make this happen; this belief convinces me to chase after these things in often unskillful ways. Worse yet, my delusions are often fed by underlying kernels of truth. There are things I can do to be more healthy, but once I do them I sometimes just have to wait for my body to sort itself out. This can be irritating. Life isn’t always fair and we should all try to recognize and correct unfairness, but we often spend more time on step one than step two (thus, complaining). In my delusion I impute a greater truth from these small truths. Thus irritation masquerades as wisdom.
In order to counteract my irritation, I can try to cultivate better wisdom by going back to the Four Noble Truths and understanding desire in light of the Three Poisons, but a diagnosis is not a cure. Knowing I have a cold, doesn’t actually cure the cold. Instead, I need an antidote. That’s a very interesting word all by itself: anti-dote. The second half of the word actually comes from a Greek root that means “to give,” which I didn’t know. But the first part is easily understood by any English speaker. “Anti” means the opposite or “not that.” So if irritation has an aspect of corrupted wisdom, the antidote is not that. The antidote is that thing which irritation most endangers – compassion.
In the Titthiya Sutta (AN 3.68) the Buddha spoke about the three poisons and he had this to say about aversion:
“[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion arises, or arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of irritation,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of irritation, unarisen aversion arises and arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance…’
“[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion does not arise, or arisen aversion is abandoned?’ ‘Good will as an awareness-release,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends appropriately to good will as an awareness-release, unarisen aversion does not arise and arisen aversion is abandoned…’
Therefore, the antidote to my irritation is to cultivate compassion, goodwill (metta), gratitude and other generous qualities. Which is especially irritating just to think about when I’m already irritated, like pouring disinfectant on a wound. Yet oddly enough, even a few minutes helps. When I’m so irritated that I can’t generate metta for others, I start with myself. I generate goodwill towards myself and my stupid unhealthy body. From that goodwill I can expand to others, including the people with whom I feel most irritated. Soon enough I notice some of my irritation subsiding. As my irritation subsides my mind magically seems to function again. I feel more productive and useful, which sparks a chain reaction of goodwill and reduced irritation.
If you’re anything like me, writing also helps. Writing is an important part of my emotional process. So just by writing this post, I also find my irritation reduced. Which is why it’s nice I have this blog and I can be grateful to you, my readers, for putting up with my grumpiness from time to time. Writing is a form of sharing, so if you don’t like to write, you can also talk to someone and share how you feel. Just don’t complain too much about it. That’s irritating.
(PS – I define “complaining” as talking about a problem we have no intention or ability to solve.)