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Waiting for the Other Shoe

May 8, 2018
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‘167/365 Teetering on the Edge’ by thebarrowboy via Flickr.com

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

For weeks, I’ve awoken from disturbing, anxious dreams. All my teeth fell out. My dog died. I screwed up at work. The funding disappeared. My partner turned away from me. The audience laughed at me. The house blew down.

Often, when my dreams carry a certain emotional tenor, I can trace it back to my waking life. When I’m feeling like I have no control over my real life circumstances, I dream of an out-of-control car. Anger in a dream is often some small resentment or irritation that needs to be addressed with a real person before it festers. Patterns are easier to spot over the years.

I brushed off the first anxious dream and the second, because outwardly, everything is going extremely, surprisingly well.

We did the big scary thing. We picked up and moved across the country in daunting weather into a house we’d never seen with one job for two people at an institution I’d barely heard of a few months ago without any idea when our belongings might arrive or how long our financial resources might last. And I slept more soundly during that period than these last few weeks.

I love where I work, what I do, and who I work with. Colin quickly found a good job with a short commute. We love our cute and quirky house. Our things arrived late but intact. The weather has it’s challenges, but we both prefer it. I’m on track to graduate, slowly checking off each little box from dissertation submission to cap and gown. We’re content, happy even.

Life is going well, so what’s the deal subconscious?

I realized I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Brené Brown, famous for her research on shame and vulnerability, calls this “foreboding joy.” She writes:

“In a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a setup. …When I started asking participants about experiences that left them feeling the most vulnerable, I didn’t expect joy to be one of the answers. I expected fear and shame, but not the joyful moments in their lives.”

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, p. 119

Of course, this makes perfect sense though, doesn’t it? Only when we have something do we fear losing it.

We don’t see it at first. We think if we get what we want, what we work hard for, then we’ll be happy. But once we get what we want, we become fearful and anxious.

This is why desire, craving, thirst, tanha, is called the source of suffering. We suffer because we desire, not because we do not get what we desire. We suffer when we do not get what we desire and when we do get what we desire. This is why the Buddha called craving a “fetter.” It traps us in the cycles of suffering.

Okay, so what do I do? Part of me says “Suck it up. Life is good. Stop bitching. This is just first world problems, right?” The other part says “Take a pause. Have some self-compassion. This anxiety is so normal, it even has a name. It’s okay to feel this way.”

Neither of those responses help very much. What does help? Deep recognition of samsara. Deep recognition of the trap I’ve caught in is of my own making. Deep recognition of this predicament inclines me to embrace it’s antidote.

What does the Buddha advise? Let go.

“Whatever is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit. And what is not yours?”

Na Tumhaka Sutta, SN 35.101

Everything. Our senses, forms perceived by our senses, sense-consciousness, and the pleasure, pain, or neutral feelings that arise of sense-consciousness, for all of these the Buddha advises “let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.” Even the Dharma itself should be let go, at a certain stage. Perhaps I’m not at that stage yet, but I can practice letting go of these things.

Let go, like the hand releasing, like the muscles relaxing into sleep, like the breath leaving the lungs, like the still point between the exhale and the next inhale, like the clouds passing through a sky that never seeks to detain them, like time flowing without heed for our little cares. Let go.

Let go of pride in my accomplishments. Let go of satisfaction. Let go of fear, both baseless and well founded. Let go of anticipation.

In a mundane sense, I do that by breathing and centering myself in the breath, being aware just of the breath, then slowly of other sensations, without grasping. It’s like being a participant-observer, an anthropologist in the life of a person called “Monica.” It’s being present.

Honestly, when I can get to that place, it’s very relaxing. It’s stress-free, but not in the sense of idleness or apathy. There’s still a lot of work do to in that place, but it’s the work of liberation, not the work of grasping.

It’s like tilling a garden by tilling a garden, rather than tilling a garden by worrying it will rain too much this year and kill the plants and looking up long-term weather forecasts. Tilling is hard and rewarding work and worrying about next month’s weather changes it not one bit.

I feel like some people may misunderstand me when I say I wish to let go of pride and satisfaction. They may think I am also eschewing all positive emotions, like happiness or joy. That is the opposite of what I mean.

Because clinging creates fear of loss, it also creates an aversion to joy. I’m afraid to be happy because I’m waiting to be disappointed. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Letting go is neither attachment nor aversion. The opposite of attachment is not detachment; it is, rather, non-attachment. When I let go of pride and satisfaction, I also let go of fear and anticipation because they are inextricably bound up in my psyche.

The thing to let go is desire itself, tanha or craving. Wanting and not wanting don’t change having and not having, only our relationship to that which is. It is in that relationship to that which is that suffering arises. Not pain, mind you, but suffering like foreboding joy and fear of loss.

Brené Brown prescribes gratitude as an antidote to foreboding joy. I find this a very suitable prescription, especially when combined with letting go. When I want very little, yet have much (and I do have much, in the form food, shelter, companionship, work, and basic physical safety). Brown writes that:

For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, p. 123

When I let go of my desire to get what I want, I also let go of my aversion to loss or to getting what I don’t want. Therefore, I let go of the fear of the other shoe dropping, but accepting the fear of the other shoe dropping, by letting it be there without drying to push it away. By letting the fear of the other shoe stand as a reminder to continue the work of liberation rather than clinging, to redirect my attention to the present moment.

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I can chose to wait in a state of fear or a state of equanimity and welcome.

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The Karma of Compassion (or Forgiveness)

April 18, 2018
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‘You give love a bad name (now with added robin!)’ by id-iom via Flickr.com

“So what is the Buddhists understanding forgiveness and mercy?”

That was the gist of the question I received in a public conversation on religion this week.

“Well, first, there is no the Buddhist understanding of much of anything. Buddhism is an extremely diverse religion,” I started. “But in general, forgiveness and mercy are not words you will hear often from Buddhists or in Buddhist writing. The sentiment is certainly present, but expressed differently.”

I spoke instead about compassion. We sat is a small circle of chairs, so I tried not to make it into a Dharma talk or a lecture. Instead, I spoke of my own struggles to come to terms with those who had harmed me.

Before I can extend compassion to the one who has harmed me, I must first extend compassion to myself for the harm done. (I’ve tried it the other way round and it just doesn’t work.) I must pop the bubble of my egoistic delusion that I am unassailable. I must admit that my Buddhist practice is not yet so advanced that insults to my pride do not sting or that I do not sometimes wish misfortune to befall those who irritate or hinder me.

“Let’s say, to put it bluntly, that someone screws with me,” I told the gathered group. “What do I do with that?”

I realized later, the choice of language was telling, though perhaps not obvious. What do I do with that? Not about that or about them, but with the situation and my response to it.

Usually, when we are wronged, we jump straight to a response. ‘Ef, with me, will you? I’ll ef you up!’ or something along those lines.

But Shantideva advised,

When the urge arises in your mind
To feelings of desire or angry hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.

– Bodhicharyāvatāra 5.48

Do not act on anger, irritation, mockery, pride, arrogance, envy, or jealousy, Shantideva warns us. Instead,

Examine thus yourself from every side.
Take note of your defilements and your pointless efforts.
For thus the heroes on the Bodhisattva path
Seize firmly on such faults with proper remedies.

– Bodhicharyāvatāra 5.54

The buddhadharma is filled with such remedies. The one that work best for me are compassion and patience. For others, it may be loving-kindness or equanimity or wisdom.

Shantideva tells us not to act from these poisonous emotions, but he does not say they are unwise or that we ought do nothing at all. Instead, we must examine them. Where do they come from?

Anger can point us in the direction of injustices to be remedied. But it can also just as easily point to our own thwarted selfish desires. Pride can point towards our skills, which we can use to benefit others. But it can also just as easily point towards delusions we hold about ourselves and others.

Thus, take note of your defilements and your pointless efforts. Do not act if it is pointless! Act where you can do good, starting with yourself! (But don’t stop there, for humanity’s sake.)

When someone has harmed me, I must first acknowledge the harm, acknowledge that I am vulnerable, and acknowledge that often this is a good thing. We are vulnerable because we are interconnected and because phenomena are impermanent.

Change is very good news. Because of change, enlightenment is possible. Hurt and suffering are possible, too, but so are joy and nirvana.

I must acknowledge that I have been harmed. I have been struck by an arrow. And then I have compounded my own suffering by being angry at the person who shot the arrow, by railing against the unfair circumstances that allowed me, me!, to be struck, by resisting anyone who wanted to pull the arrow out, afraid that it might hurt more.

Naturally, I have a good rant against my attacker in my head (or not so silently). They are stupid and mean and selfish and every bad name in the book. And they are also suffering.

When I acknowledge my own suffering, I can start to see the suffering in others, the suffering all around me. When I turn away from my own suffering, I turn away from the suffering around me.

I breathe in and acknowledge the suffering. I breathe out and wish myself liberation from suffering. Then, I feel better. Slowly but surely, I feel better, and slowly but surely, I see their suffering also.

When our suffering is acute, it is hard to see suffering in others. We must clear the air around ourselves before we can see even into even the near distance.

I told the story of Angulimala, the mass murder who tried to kill the Buddha. Angulimala chased the Buddha, but could not catch him, and called out for him to stop. The Buddha replied,

“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”

…”I have stopped, Angulimala, once & for all, having cast off violence toward all living beings. You, though, are unrestrained toward beings. That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.”

Angulimala Sutta, MN 86, Access to Insight

When I first learned of this story, it usually ended with Angulimala renouncing his murderous ways, becoming a monk, and achieving enlightenment. When I read it for myself, I realized, the story doesn’t end there.

First, the king comes with soldiers and chariots to kill the murderer Angulimala, but the Buddha talks him out of it. The words forgiveness and mercy are not used in this passage (or their equivalents), though clearly the king had every legal right to execute Angulimala and, seeing he was now entirely peaceful, chose not to.

So Angulimala remained with the Buddha and, no longer focused intently on his mission to kill, began to see the suffering of people all around him. He learned from the Buddha how to wish for their wellbeing.

But although his intentions had been purified, he could not undo what he had done in the past. The suffering he had inflicted on others followed him. They suffered grief for lost loved ones, fear for their own lives, and anger towards him. And even though he was now a monk, wearing a monk’s robes, they assaulted him.

Then Venerable Angulimala, early in the morning, having put on his robes and carrying his outer robe & bowl, went into Savatthi for alms. Now at that time a clod thrown by one person hit Venerable Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Venerable Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming from afar and on seeing him said to him: “Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!”

Angulimala Sutta, MN 86, Access to Insight

Angulimala bore with it because he saw that these people were also suffering. In time, he attained enlightenment and release from all suffering. And this story has been used by Buddhists for centuries to teach forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.

Whether we believe in the fires of hell or not, we can see the suffering caused in the here and now. We feel our own suffering keenly and we begin to notice the suffering of others.

It has always helped me to remind myself “Hurt people hurt people.” Suffering begets suffering. This does not excuse it (we cannot escape our karma), but it clarifies a chain of causation that needs addressing.

It helps me have compassion. When I have compassion, I suffer less, I act more skillfully, and I do not compound the situation with further anger.

Then, I can often reach out and help alleviate the suffering of the person who hurt me, not immediately, but after I have first had compassion for myself and developed a bit of calm and insight. When their suffering is addressed, they do less harm to me and others. They may even work to redress the harm they have already caused.

This is why patience is often described as the antidote for anger. In order to serve as an remedy, it has to be an active sort of patience. It is patience that does something. While outwardly, we remain like a log, inwardly we are working hard, applying the antidote to the poison.

To use active patience, sometimes we need time and space in which to work. We remove ourselves from the immediate situation and return after the antidote has neutralized some of the previous animosity. I prefer to go home, take a shower, take a nap, take a walk around the block with my dog, sit is stillness and silence for a bit, sleep on it, maybe write about it, all the while breathing in my suffering and breathing out compassion for myself, then compassion for others.

It is important to have healthy boundaries and a keen ability to spot when we have been harmed. This is not always easy, because some of us (myself included) like to think we are invulnerable. Other people tend to think they deserved the harm and so should excuse it. Neither idea is skillful. Healthy boundaries help us know when harm has been done and prompt us to start considering how to both protect ourselves and deal with the perpetrator. But this is another blog post in what has already become quite a long reflection.

Religions play an important role in teaching us how to respond skillfully when, to put it bluntly, someone screws with us. Almost all religions call for some manner of forbearance. Call it forgiveness and mercy. Call it compassion and loving-kindness. Call it remaining like a log!

These teachings are wise in a way not immediately obvious. We think we ought to forgive altruistically or have compassion altruistically, but in my experience, I have compassion because it reduces my suffering first. Maybe that’s selfish, but that’s just how it works. As my suffering is alleviated, I am better able to help others and more inclined to do so. That’s the karma of compassion, the chain of causation it sets in motion. And this, in my opinion, is a very good karma.

Stories of Suffering

April 2, 2018
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‘Jesus’ by Argya Diptya via Flickr.com

“Crucify him! Crucify him!”

“Let my people go!”

This past Friday, I participated in the stories of suffering of two different religious groups. I attended the Good Friday Catholic Mass, which tells the story of the passion (torture and crucifixion) of Christ in preparation for his return from the dead on Easter Sunday. Later that evening, I attended a Passover Seder with the Hillel Jewish community, which remembers the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Both are stories of profound suffering. They deal in death and blood. The innocent and the righteous die. Yet in the end God’s will is done, according to the storytellers.

Buddhists talk a lot about suffering, but on Good Friday / Passover, I notice how we talk about it differently.

In both the Catholic and Jewish stories, I got the impression that the suffering was regrettable but ultimately purposeful. In the passion of Christ, Jesus suffers and dies to redeem the sins of humanity. In the Passover story, plagues are visited upon Egypt to win the freedom of a chosen people from hundreds of years of bondage. In both cases, the outcome was good, even worthwhile.

When Buddhists talk about suffering, I don’t get same impression. Rather, suffering is unfortunate and unnecessary. It is a not a noble means to an end. The very distinction between means and ends is even challenged. Suffering is to be transcended.

Nevertheless, we know the Buddhist path is not always rainbows and roses. Sometimes we describe it as the destruction of taints, the uprooting of the ego, the cutting off of attachments and delusions, or, heck, just the pain of knees and back from too many hours of meditation. Suffering is pervasive to the human condition.

While liberation from suffering is the goal and some suffering for the sake of the path seems inevitable, we don’t ritualize or celebrate it the way our Catholic and Jewish friends do. I have to wonder, what is gained by this? And what is lost?

Let me start with what is lost. Sometimes Buddhists I meet seem almost embarrassed by their level of suffering. As though we think, “If I were a ‘real’ Buddhist and sincere in my practice, then I could let go of my [insert negative emotion here] and abide in equanimity.” So we hide our distress. After all, the Buddha abided in equanimity? Shouldn’t we?

Even in the Jataka stories of self-sacrifice, the bodhisattva who would become the Buddha demonstrated supreme calm when cutting off body parts to feed hungry tigers.

In these stories the right path is often difficult, but always clear. (Of course, they are primarily children’s stories.) So we think a Buddhist must also act with confidence. A “real” Buddhist would not be confused about right and wrong. So we elevate our teachers and gurus onto planes of “do no wrong.”

In the Catholic and Jewish stories, I appreciated the frank approach to human suffering and the flawed nature of people. Simon Peter denied being a disciple of Christ three times out of fear or embarrassment. Moses, as a young man, killed an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew and hid the body in fear. The world is a horrible place. The people in it suffer and, in their suffering, they do horrible things.

Sometimes, as Buddhists, I think we distantiate ourselves from our own suffering and thereby from our own wrongdoing in the name of nonattachment and nonselfness and tribal identity in some mythical form of “real” Buddhism.

Perhaps this has given modern Buddhism its warm, fuzzy, and peaceful image in the western world. But it has also made us complicit in suffering, even atrocities, to which we have turned a blind eye because we didn’t want to think “real” Buddhism and “real” Buddhists would behave that way. We are guilty of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and, yes, even genocide.

Suffering is never noble so suffering becomes only shameful and shameful things are to be hidden but the hidden cannot be healed. Thus the wheel of samsara keeps turning.

But what is to be gained from the idea that suffering cannot be justified? From de-valorizing it? We gain an ultimate hope that suffering can end.

Through distantiation we can also gain clarity. It does little good to act the way we think a nonattached, egoless person ought to act, because all such ideas come from delusion. But it does us every good to actually be nonattached and egoless.

In my reckoning, becoming such means also letting go of our attachment to the idea that a “real” Buddhist is somehow above or beyond suffering. First, we have to work with our lives as they are, bloody and dirty. Liberation from suffering then becomes possible.

To use a Christian term, we must admit our sins. We must turn towards our suffering, both personal and social, and we must recon among that suffering the wrongdoing we have committed against others.

Among the sangha, the monastics confess their ethical transgressions every two weeks. As laypeople, we have no such obligation. Some communities (see Chanting from the Heart, by Thich Nhat Hanh) have integrated rituals for repentance that name the suffering we have caused through wrong speech, wrong actions, and the afflictions of greed, hatred, and ignorance. These rituals tend to use formal and nonspecific language about “immeasurable lifetimes” and “untold suffering.”

Stories are different. Stories are specific in their characters, contexts, and details. Stories persist because they are relatable and powerful. Stories are measurable and told.

One of the reasons twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are so powerful and persistent is that they provide a platform for stories not just of suffering experienced, but of suffering caused. One of the reasons Catholics celebrate the Passion of the Christ and Jews celebrate Passover, thousands of years later, is the sheer humanity of these stories, not just the divinity. Through these stories, we can then reflect on both our own suffering and our own transgressions.

It makes me wonder what stories of suffering we tell as Buddhists, both communally and individually? The Vietnam war? The struggle for Tibet? The racism of America? The genocides in Burma and Sri Lanka? The time we yelled at our girl/boyfriend? The time we beat that guy half to death? The time we stole from our mother and lied about it?

And how do we tell those stories? Ritually and publicly? Or shamefully and in whispers? How do we listen to those stories? Are we open and accepting? Or are we reluctant or judgmental? If we don’t know what we’re holding, how can we let go?

My Little Known Self

March 22, 2018
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“There was a hole in the wall. It’s gone now” by Sergio Y Adeline via Flickr.com

Yesterday was a good day. I slept, ate, worked, socialized well. Then around 8:30 p.m. for inexplicable reasons, I was grumpy. Colin and I were having a conversation and everything he asked was irritating, the way he ate his pasta was obnoxious, the effort involved in getting ready bed seemed like a giant burden. I was just grumpy.

Maybe I’m just toddler-ed out, I thought. You know when you see a toddler in a supermarket who was happy one second and then suddenly they’ve depleted their energy reserves and they’re tired and they want to be done and can’t handle their own existence anymore? Like that, but for adults coming at the end of a full day.

I tried to be as transparent as I could with Colin. I knew it didn’t make any sense. How can anyone eat pasta obnoxiously anyway? He took it with aplomb and I got ready for bed.

This morning I’m still grumpy. My mind is discursive and dwelling far too frequently on the negative and the unknown, whereas int he prior two days I felt positive and energized for everything I had to do.

Yesterday over lunch I watched a TED talk by Tim Harford about complexity. We actually know so little about how things work, he argues. Mostly we got here by trial and error. We find out what works by finding what doesn’t work, but most of the time, we don’t know why one thing works and one thing doesn’t. We know so much less than we pretend we do.

I feel that way about myself. I really don’t know how my self works. I mostly get along by trial and error. Right now, I suspect I’m under the influence of a swing in hormones or fluctuation in neurotransmitters, but I really don’t know. Maybe my immune system is fighting a virus? Maybe I was subconsciously psychologically triggered by something I read or watched? But I know from experience that getting into a fight with my partner would be an error and going to bed will probably work out better for us both.

The point is, I don’t know why I was grumpy but I know I wasn’t fully in control of what I was feeling. Something happened and I was just observing it and trying to do as little damage as possible to those around me.

It’s moments like this that remind me of just what a construct the “self” actually is. It’s an aggregate of fluctuating causes and conditions popping in and out of existence over which we really have so little control. It’s not random. It’s just inexplicable.

The “Self” (big “S”) is the idea that we have more control than we think we do. That we understand. That whatever we’re feeling or thinking or doing is somehow validated and justified because it’s “me.” It’s the idea that I have every right to tell Colin off for being an obnoxious jerk and pestering me when I’m tired and he should know better, even though his behavior was no different from any other night or even the hour before.

Little “self” isn’t much of a problem. It’s just a handy label for a collection of phenomena that really have no hard and fast borders. It’s like looking out at a body of water and calling it the Missouri River. You know that the water you’re looking at from one second to the next is never the same and if it dried up it wouldn’t be a river anymore.

Big “Self” can be a big problem when we let it. We buy into our emotions and thoughts, identify with them, create stories around them, act them out among others. We try to hold the river still. When someone dares suggest that our feelings or thoughts might simply be momentary or not really caused by whatever story we’ve made up to explain them, we feel like they’re challenging our very identity – an identity we built. It hurts.

I fall for this trick a lot. I see my “Self” one way and I invest in that. I build walls around it and defend it from attack. But the joke’s on me because I can’t control what’s coming in an out anyway.

Last night it was too inexplicable and I was too tired and maybe this whole anatta thing is starting to sink in, but I just noticed I was grumpy, shrugged, apologized to Colin, and went to bed.

This morning as I brushed my teeth, still grumpy, I wondered about how western psychology and culture reifies the big “Self.” As a chaplain, I’m trained to accept and validate people’s emotional reactions. I meet them where they are, hear their stories, and try to empathize. Sometimes, I’m the first person to really provide that kind of nonjudgmental witnessing and support and it can be immensely healing.

As a Buddhist chaplain, I take it all with a grain of salt. There’s a trick to absolutely believing what someone tells you about their experience while simultaneously believing they really don’t know what’s going on simply because nobody does (including me). It’s about validating their emotions and seeing through them at the same time. It’s about understanding their thoughts and reasoning and knowing that whatever they can put into words is only a fraction of a fraction of the truth behind it.

It’s what Zen Buddhists call the not-knowing mind, neither affirming nor negating, just letting be. It creates a tremendous sense of possibility. Great anger can turn towards forgiveness. Great passion can mellow into deep friendship. Mild grumpiness can be humorous. When we think we know, many possibilities are foreclosed, so I also try to not-know when it comes to myself.

I hold myself in skepticism. My emotions aren’t always justified or valid or useful. They’re just there and they tend to drive my decision making, whether I want them to or not. Sometimes they’re wise and trustworthy, sometimes not. My rational mind is powerful, but tends to operate post hoc most of the time, helping me make sense of what’s already happened. It’s also a big fat liar, trying to explain the inexplicable and justify the ridiculous. Just look up the lists of logical fallacies and cognitive biases to which we are prone on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

But you know, once I began to approach myself with that skepticism, it lifted a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I feel so much lighter for not having to invest in my every passing emotion or thought. I don’t have to build those walls around big “Self” quite so high. They’re still there, make no mistake. (I’m still an academic after all, so my whole identity is built on confidently knowing stuff.) But sometimes I get to look at those walls and realize how silly they are.

In Defense of Solitude

March 9, 2018
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“Solitude” by Dino8 via Flickr.com

The most calm moments of my life come when I am alone. I cherish these moments of calm, still, quiet, undemanding solitude. In a country and culture obsessed with the sadness of loneliness, I want only to be alone for a few moments. To be lonely is a tragedy, but to be alone can be a joy.

For six years, I lived alone. I often traveled alone, in cities and wilderness, and generally enjoyed myself. I often worked in my studio alone, choosing odd hours when classmates were elsewhere. I never compromised on where I chose to eat or sleep, what shows I watched, what music I listened to, what furnishing I bought, how long I sat on a rock in an aspen grove listening to the stream. I never indulged in compromises or permitted unwelcome activities, foods, sounds, or decor. It was not always joy. Sometimes, I was lonely, but on balance, I was content.

Then I moved to California and had a roommate again. As roommates go, he was very low key and I still enjoyed many hours alone most days. He had buddies over late at night to drink and talk, but only on weekends. I learned to sleep with earplugs in. The decor was spare, bachelor-ish, but not unpleasant. He cleaned the house like a machine each Saturday, which benefited me unequally. I was still occasionally lonely and I longed for my own place again, but I was not discontent.

I found a partner and we moved in together about five years ago now. I would not trade our relationship, but since then I have enjoyed less and less solitude. Rarely was I home alone. Errands were often run together. I spent more and more time at work around people. When I traveled, it was for crowded conferences or family vacations, no more solo wanders. Even spiritual retreats were confounded by others.

Yet my spirit, such as it is, never feels so calm, clear, and refreshed as when I am alone. The Buddha needed to be alone for his growth. Hermitages continues to be a vital part of Buddhist tradition, though it is less practiced now for economic and cultural reasons.

Today I experience blessed solitude with something like nostalgia. Like a warm cup of my favorite tea not tasted for many years. It is something to savor and stretch. In such rare moments, I find myself unwilling to do any work or even move around too much, lest I disturb this moment of peace. With regularity, I hope this reluctance will pass and the calm remain.

Colin and I have settled into our new routine in Rochester, which allows me to spend Friday mornings home alone after he has gone off to work. This morning, I spent the time reading on the couch under a pile of blankets, the dog’s head in my lap, watching the snow fall outside our living room windows. I told myself I should get up and work a bit on my dissertation, but I didn’t want to disturb the moment.

We’ve settled into our little old house just south of Downtown. For many years we’ve lived in “open floor plan” apartments. Our last apartment had enough bedrooms that we could each have a separate office, which was delightful. This is the first house we’ve had with a separate living room, complete with a door. We both agree it is preferable. We find open floor plan homes, like open offices, to be overrated. Colin no longer has a separate office, which we agree is unfortunate. He’s taken over the dining space by the kitchen, which is less than ideal, but sufficient in size.

I love people. I love them in their particularity. They are fascinating. I often seek them out and enjoy when they seek me out. I love my family, my in-laws, my partner.

But I also love solitude and separation. Having a little now and then helps me love people more, not less. It gives me time to refresh and reflect and return to them better than I could be had I never been alone.

If you have someone who loves solitude in your life, think of it like a gift you can give them now and then. Like cookies or flowers. And remember, wanting to be alone doesn’t mean they don’t want to be around you. It means they want to be around you in the best way they can. Being alone doesn’t mean they are lonely.*

Perhaps we’re not all built this way, but I am. I can cope with much less solitude than I used to enjoy, but I still crave it and savor it. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy winter. There’s so much more cultural permission for solitude in winter. It refills me for the remainder of the year. I am at my best with others when I have had some time without them, even those that I love the most.

*(Many people in this world are lonely, especially the elderly and those struggling with depression or disability. There are many charities that provide home visitation and, if you love people, consider volunteering for one.)

Don’t Say That, but Forgive Yourself When You Do

March 5, 2018
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“Hands Up” by Poster Boy via Flickr.com

Last week I watched an African American student tell their instructor about a racist incident they witnessed and how it made them feel. I watched him tell it three different ways and pause to replay various parts of the conversation. Then we broke it down and discussed reflections with peers. How often would we like to be able to do that with difficult conversations?

This was part of a sketch put on by the Michigan Players from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, who were invited to campus by a program called Advance RIT, whose slogan is “Reimagining our Careers and Campus Culture.” As far as I can tell, Advance RIT is a grant-funded initiative from within the division of Diversity and Inclusion to improve how the campus responds to incidents of discrimination and harassment based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, or various other statuses. In other words, they want everyone to be welcome at RIT.

I enjoyed the use of theater in this workshop. Too often when we have these conversations, which are difficult and triggering by their nature, we rely on the victims (our colleagues/students) to speak up and tell us how bad it’s been for them. Then, all too often, we invalidate their experiences either because it hasn’t happened to us or we don’t want to believe people we otherwise like and respect could behave that way or we think maybe they’re being “too sensitive” or, or, or any host of reasons. It takes what is supposed to be a conversation about how we can be more welcoming and leaves everyone feeling a little more divided. It’s just too personal when its our own house, but using theater gives us the sense of personal distance we need to seriously consider these important issues.

Using theater steps neatly around re-traumatizing victims and defensiveness in peers. It uses drama to put a situation before us for everyone to see. The situations are plausible because they are based on real events from case studies compiled by the University of Michigan. They actually happened, if not to the people who are now dramatizing them. We, the audience, can immediately relate to them. We can imagine similar events happening on our campus to our students and colleagues without the need to point fingers and name names (though that may come later).

Over two days, 160+ faculty and staff of RIT and NTID gathered to watch and reflect on two skits. The first demonstrated a number of micro- and macro-aggression targeting Muslim students through the life of one particular student. I came away with the sense that the student must live their life constantly on guard and how exhausting that must be. The second sketch centered around a single incident between an African American student and their instructor, described above. It demonstrated how heartbreaking it feels to watch someone in a place of authority witness a racist incident and do nothing about it, especially when its your own personal safety at issue.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, supportive, and engaging. Faculty and staff reflected privately, in small groups, and in large groups, and the hosts provided concrete strategies for how we can better respond to such incidents. I want to share one set of interventions with you for the future.

Dr. Sara Armstrong, the players’ artistic director, related that when they first provided the resource sheet titled “Responding to Campus Climate Concerns: Less Useful Strategies” to a group of faculty and then asked them to think of better responses, the faculty said “They’re nothing left!” So they did some research and in the following workshop, presented a two-sided sheet including “Possible Strategies” to demonstrate there were other ways to respond. Most of them come straight out of the chaplains playbook: listen compassionately, thank them for sharing, acknowledge the stress, tell them they matter, ask how you can help, show them how they have many supports, boost confidence, be sympathetic, share resources, collaborate on action (if any), and follow up. Sounds simple, but its fiendishly hard partly because the other, “less useful” responses get in the way.

To help understand those responses, I’m going to share the full text from that side of the resource sheet, then some thoughtful questions they asked us to consider during the event.

If your goal is to be an ally/ to act as a support for the individual who has chosen to share their concerns with you, consider not engaging in the behavior below. Though commonly used, these behaviors often limit the possibility of positive interaction and can exacerbate an individual’s already negative sense of climate.

• Don’t assume the role of investigator. It is not your role (at least not in this moment) to determine the veracity of this individual’s claims. “Did anyone else see/hear the incident you ‘re describing? “What exactly was it that was said?”

• Don’t minimize or trivialize the interactions the person experienced. “It could be so much worse, especially now. ” “People say stupid stuff all the time. ” “You should be glad that [this other ‘worse’ thing] didn’t happen.”

• Don’t attempt to explain or rationalize the motivations or beliefs of those that were
involved. “He’s a really good guy. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” “Well, he’s
from a different generation.” “She must have been under a lot of stress. I’ve never known her to do anything like that.” “He was just trying to be funny.”

• Don’t deny the impact of marginalization on those who have been marginalized. “I
honestly don ‘t see what the big deal is.” “He didn’t mean anything by it” (implying that any hurt experienced is irrelevant).” “Groupwork is always hard” (implying that it is not meaningfully harder because of the experience that has just been described).

• Don’t uncritically compare your experiences of marginalization to others’. “I completely understand It’s exactly like when …” “Yeah, people always assume that I … too. “

• Don’t assume that others will (or should) react to situations in the ways you would or that there is only one appropriate course of action. “You have to talk to him about it.” “You need to report him.” “You have to ignore people like that.” “I wouldn’t get too wound up about it.”

• Don’ t disengage just because others’ emotions don’t mirror your own. “Maybe we should return to this when calmer heads prevail.” “I don’t appreciate your tone.” ” Well, getting upset about it doesn’t help anything.”

Source: University of Michigan Center for
Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)

How often have we said these things to someone in distress? How often have I said them? A lot, I’m afraid.

But if they’re not helpful, why does anyone say them at all? This was a pivotal question for me, because it shifted my mind from judging to empathizing. 

Another colleague pointed out that we do them because that’s what’s been modeled to us. That’s how we’ve been treated in similar situations, especially as children telling an adult about something bad. So it’s a learned behavior, and we don’t know any better, but it’s also more than that.

Each and every one of these responses is, in some way, protective. We are protecting ourselves, our ego, our emotional, mental, and physical energy. And protecting ourselves isn’t a bad impulse; we’re just enacting it the wrong way. Staying with someone through a though situation is hard. It takes energy, especially when we’re trying to understand something that is beyond our natural frame of reference because of our different social locations.

I’m never going to understand what it was like for that African American student to hear his white classmates say racist things and watch the teacher hear them but fail to intervene. But I can imagine. I’ve heard classmates say sexist things and teachers do nothing or, worse, join in. It’s not the same (and I don’t need to bring it up), but it forms some basis for empathy.

But all that takes work. It takes energy to listen, realize he’s afraid for his safety, remember when I was afraid for my safety, experience the heartbreak with him, and … some days, I just don’t want to go there. I’m too tired, I’m too busy, I’m too … whatever, I just don’t want to go there.

At this stage in my career, I’m trained to go there. I go there everyday at the drop of a hat. But I’m also trained to handle it, to come back, to self-care. Most college instructors don’t have that level of training. I didn’t always have that (and even now, it sometimes isn’t enough). Our packet also included a five-page essay on healthy boundaries from Kerry Ann Rockquemore for that reason.

Once I realized each of these behaviors was a form of ego-protection, I was no longer shaking my mental finger at them. I felt deep compassion for myself in the past for using them and for others who respond this way (including me, from time to time). It also renewed my commitment to stick to the other side of the sheet. To listen and validate more, without jumping right into investigation and problem solving (although there are times for that, too).

It also affirmed the damage that comes from our warped sense of an enduring Self. Responding the other way, the more difficult way, because much easier and much more natural as I learned the Dharma. When I learned there was no Self to protect, as such, I could be much more open and less defensive while simultaneously being less enmeshed in the other person’s trauma. Being open also suddenly required so much less energy than it had before (still considerable, but less).

I must thank the Michigan players and RIT for reminding me of this Dharma. Overall, this is a fantastic approach to helping organizations understand the impact of marginalization and what they can do about it. I highly recommend it. If you’re still using these responses when students in crisis come to you, maybe consider letting them go, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Consider how you could listen and meet people where they are, but also be aware of your own boundaries and practice good self care. Finally, if you can, loosen that grip on ego. It’ll pay off in the long run for you and everyone around you. Good luck!

Who Will Build the Bridges?

February 21, 2018
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“Reach out and touch faith” by Gaellery via Flickr.com

“Who should receive the bill or bear the costs of the rise in hatred against the U.S. government and the consequent pain and suffering of its citizens?” asks Pamela Ayo Yetunde, in her introduction to the winter issue of American Buddhist Women, the online magazine of Sakyadhita USA. It is a timely question, both politically and personally.

If you asked the Catholics at mass this past Ash Wednesday or the students at Friday night’s Crusade for Christ meeting, they might say “Jesus did, so we should.” In the Christian narrative, Jesus died for the sins of humanity; he accepted the suffering of the world onto himself. Christians are called on by their churches to be like Jesus. Thus, was a long tradition of martyrdom founded.

Thus, do some Christians today still see themselves as the persecuted, snug in their religious hegemony to do some persecuting of their own, to build walls and support bans. Thankfully, many other Christians their mission as one of opening arms, rather than closing doors, though the votes were not in their favor recently.

Siddhartha Guattama saw the suffering of the world and resolved to know it, leaving his princely palace and practicing austerities. The Buddha stood between armies, not to keep them apart, but to bring them together in peace. He reached out to the untouchables, the lowest of castes, women, and murderers to include them in the sangha.

Yesterday, Colin and I saw Black Panther, the newest Marvel superhero movie and so much more than that. The character of King T’challa speaks directly to the spirit of this age by saying “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” The context of the scene, which I will not spoil, lends additional weight to these words. It is as though the filmmakers are speaking directly to us, the voting public.

All these sources swirl around in my mind as I read Dr. Yetunde’s essay, calling on us Buddhists to also step out of the walls we have built around ourselves for the sake of peaceful contemplation. I too am guilty of this. I too have decreased my intake of news media for the sake of my mental health. I too have sat on my cushion and told myself it was for the good of the world, while allowing evil deeds to go unchallenged.

Where is the balance between the self-care that renews us for the work of being bodhisattvas and hiding from the pain of it all? Dr. Yetunde challenges us:

Bearings the costs and paying the bills will fall on the bodhisattvas because they have opened their very selves, through no self, to receive the sufferings of this world.  Are you ready to pay up?

For this reason, I am so glad to be stepping into this role in this place at this time.

Completing a doctoral dissertation is, in many ways, a profoundly selfish act. It has required a sustained focus on myself and my work that few other projects have entailed. It was hard to maintain mindfulness of non-self in the midst of such focus. Yet, it has also enabled me to take the next step of unfolding what I have learned through this process to the benefit of many.

Dr. Yetunde’s words, my inter-religious encounters, the life of the Buddha, and even a big-budget superhero film remind me that now is the time to take the second step. They invigorate my efforts to reach out to collaborators across this new campus when introverted tendencies would rather see me ensconced in my cozy office. They compel me to take the risk of rejection for paper proposals at conferences and in publications to disseminate and continue beneficial research.

They also remind me that politics and religion are not and can never be divorced. I have contemplated this over the past week, walking in and out of the interfaith center where I now work. Where are the symbols of ally-ship? What does their lack in this space communicate to others in need of refuge?  How might we communicate and serve as that refuge for all the members of this campus community?

The Dharma is everywhere. I encourage all of you to seek out Dr. Yetunde’s essay, to remain open to learning from those of different worldviews, and to go see Black Panther, when you are able. But also, I encourage you to be mindful of where you have built barriers, both emotional and physical, and to what end? Boundaries can be healthy, but when do they serve as walls rather than bridges?