Friday, August 22, 2008

And by evening....

A fourth practical truth arises out of the first three.  Fully experiencing the pain with which I awaken in the morning, learning something of its causes while I am in the shower, remembering on the way to work that joy is a possibility, I  now try to observe my simple experiences of life during the day. If I can, I try to avoid and minimize those things that exaggerate pain, and cultivate those things that support peace. In virtually every aspect, this path is about recognizing and removing friction and restriction.

I am not so fully evolved that I can remain awake from morning to nightfall. Many days, I awaken and fall asleep several times during the course of the day. Some days, I'm pretty much frozen and sore and asleep all day long. The next morning, though, I may find myself born into a day where I'm free much more often than not. 

And though I can't predict when exactly it will happen, I can see the possibility that  eventually there may come a time when I may fall asleep at the end of the day with all my energy flowing freely, pretty much devoid of fear and arthritic soreness, utterly unconcerned and trusting about what will come the following morning.

That next day's rebirth, the morning after falling asleep in trust,  that will be the one worth watching. 

In the third hour...

Having accepted the important truth that I hurt when I awaken in the morning, having looked deeply into that pain to discover the truth of its cause, a third truth follows instantly.

Even while faced with the truth that I am experiencing pain at this moment in time, I also immediately recognize that there are times when I do not hurt. At the very least, I can remember moments of bliss and utter freedom.  In this very moment, even, I may  get a brief glimpse of this freedom, especially if I have recognized very clearly what is causing my pain. 

Perhaps the most important and noble truth of all: Pain and suffering ends. There is an end to it. If I have ever in my life known a moment of genuine happiness, this is proof of that fact. Though life as we know it includes pain and suffering, the fact that we know moments without it tells us that pain ends and joy exists. 

The fact of joy is the third important truth. 

(continued above)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just after the beginning....

Awakening with an awareness of discomfort in the body, in the mind, of the spirit, there is an immediate choice to make in the morning. I can either disagree with the fact of my pain and try to distract myself with diversions; or I can choose to simply experience it, look deeply into it, respond to it. 

The first strategy, disagreement and distraction, can pretty much guarantee me a day of quiet though familiar woe. It was my strategy of choice for many, many years, and sometimes I'm convinced that this is the typical mode for most people. Disagreeing with and running from the simple fact of pain is the normal course.

On the simplest physical level:  if I awaken and immediately choose to disagree with the fact that premature arthritis makes my ankles and hips ache, even though I am only 53, I enter the day in resentment and bitterness.

Another strategy, though, is to enter deeply into the ache of my ankles and hips, to investigate it, and to wonder about its causes.

When I don't fight my pain, but rather accept it and look into it, what I realize in the case of the physical pain of my joints, is that it arises because I have been motionless for many hours. I hurt in the joints because the energy flow seems to be dammed and restricted within me. The pain begins to dissipate almost as soon as I begin to move and allow the energy to flow once more, which tells me that my suspicion is correct.

I see somewhat the same thing when I stop disagreeing with some experience of emotional or spiritual pain and begin to look into it.  Like physical pain, it quite often arises out of some restriction or energetic friction within me.  If I cling to some hope or ideal or concept, or idea, for example, this often leads to emotional unhappiness, but when this energy moves freely, my pain lessens.

Following closely on the first noble truth ("We hurt"), a second important truth, perhaps equally noble, becomes apparent. Pain and suffering, for me at least, is a matter of frozenness. Pain has trouble existing in conditions where muscles, tendons, joints, thoughts, emotions, concepts, beliefs flow freely. 
(continued above)

In the Beginning...

I sometimes make the mistake of imagining that my own experience is somehow universal, that I represent the archetypal human experience. My daughter, though, likes to point out that I'm "one weird guy," and so it is perhaps a mistake for me to make conclusions about how life works for the rest of humanity. It might well be that it's this way for me alone, and not really for other people at all.

But what choice do we have?  Atfter all, the only thing we can do is genuinely experience how life is for us, share it with others, and if enough sharing goes on, we're likely to discover enough commonality to relieve our aloneness in the world. 

This is the way life is for me....

During times when I'm particularly mindful and objective, I notice in the morning that the process of awakening starts with an awareness of pain and discomfort. It's a relatively rare thing to awaken with a heart that sings. Much more often it is some form of pain that  starts the awakening process.  Sometimes the very first sensation is the ache of muscles and joints that have been inactive for many hours. Sometimes it's a bit of emotional discomfort of some kind—memory of an unpleasant event from the day before, for example. 

For me, anyway, awakening begins with a recognition of pain.  It's the thing with me when I climb out of bed and into daily life. Sometimes I think that without pain, there would be no reason for us to awaken in the morning at all.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't really think this means that I'm some sort of melancholic, depressive personality. It seems to me that almost everyone awakens with pain of some kind. And if we're perfectly honest, if we drop our defenses at any given moment during that day, we'd also likely have to recognize the underlying presence of some discomfort and pain.

It seems to be a human truth, and since truth is by definition honorable and noble, this is the first of the noble truths:  Life is painful. To pretend otherwise is deception, and serves only to obscure the truth. 

(continued above)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reflections on Fear

I've been giving a lot of thought to the subject of fear lately. 

I've been seeing a lot of it in friends and colleagues lately, perhaps a natural response to unsettled economic times and political upheaval. Good friends are either struggling to find work, or are queasy about their current jobs. Northwest airlines, 3M—I have friends wondering about their futures with these local corporations after 20, 30 years of service. 

I know fear pretty intimately m self. Earlier in my life I had a couple of periods where I was plagued by panic attacks that pretty much disabled me for months at a time, and even today, when I have the courage to look beneath whatever petty irritation or annoyance I might be feeling at the moment, there is very often a ground floor of quiet fear that serves as the foundation for other unpleasant emotions. 

These days, I'm a bit more equanimous as regards my own fear.  I see remnants of the old stuff, though,  in my feelings when I see other people's fear. I don't like it in others, at least partly because I'm still a bit afraid of my own fear. 

With a particular employee of mine, I find myself feeling some annoyance during routine meetings, and I'm aware that what I'm reacting against is my sense of his inner nervousness. At all points, he insists on knowing details of issues that really don't need to be worried about. Energetically, I feel his center of gravity humming up about the level of his Adam's apple, and I don't react well to his compulsive fearfulness and perfectionism. It puts me off, and my response is vague irritation. Same is true of family and friends: I sometimes respond to their fears with a little bit of quiet annoyance. Clearly, a bit of old baggage in me.

This morning on the bus, I paid attention to how people survey the seating opportunities when they climb aboard.  Except in instances where they know one another well, people will always look for the one seat that allows a bit of personal space to remain.  Nobody sits directly next to someone, unless there is no other option. Quiet fear at work.

When a stranger sits next to a person, that passenger always struggles briefly with just a little discomfort and mild fear, visible in nervous movement—they shift their legs, shrink away from the possibility of brushing shoulders. 

Some people have enough fear that they absolutely cannot meet the eyes of any bus passenger. 

What is it that we're all afraid of, I wonder?

This morning, observing fear in others, I found myself remembering the old days when panic lived along side me all the time. A panic attack, for me, was experienced mostly as a mind that raced frantically, utterly unable to rest on the present.  Thinking back, I now see that a panic attack was for me an attempt to desperately escape feelings that were even more unacceptable to me.  Panic was for me an escape from feelings of fear and anger and betrayal and hurt that I'd been running from my entire life. A panic attack is fear of fear itself.

As a young man, I turned the corner toward a real life at the moment when it became just plain impossible to run any longer. When there was no longer any option other than to face fear and be overwhelmed by it, it began to dissolve. 

Sometimes I forget the old lesson and find myself inadvertently running away again. This can feel good for a little while, but then pretty soon I find that there is more and more to run away from, and I need to run faster and faster to maintain the illusion of being separate from the difficult stuff.  Then irritation arises, I feel my mind begin to spin a bit faster than is comfortable, I might find myself troubled by cruel thoughts.

There is an antidote for me.  It's a strange coping mechanism, I'll grant you, but it was born long ago out of my failure to escape fear.  The answer is always to look for the fear and experience it. Once known, it stops looking for recognition. 

Somebody smarter and healthier than me once suggested a better approach, though I've never exactly made this work for me. He told me that once you learn to ignore everything that is superficial and temporary and not real,  you begin to recognize that there is nothing that ever threatens our essence. Fear then disappears entirely.

Yet another goal for a future life. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Country Boy in the City

I'm a country boy at heart. But I choose to live in the city, even though I'm a bit saddened anytime I walk late at night and look in vain for the Milky Way, washed out of the night sky by the brightness of the city.

There are some obvious reasons I live in the city. It's where the jobs are, for one thing, and since I really don't much like commuting in a car, the city is the logical place to live. My bride is now a city girl, and she'd be truly unhappy living out in the sticks, as I once did. There are more important reasons though for my choice of domiciles.

In the last week, I have had the following evening excursions:

* A picnic supper at the Lake Harriet bandshell, where a string trio played folk ballads while beautifl sail boats passed by the open vista behind the bandshell.

* A bike ride around lake Calhoun, with a stop at the Peace Garden & Lydale Rose Garden, where an improv comedy troupe was giving a free performance.

* Dinner at a nearby Mongolian restaurant within walking distance, followed by a walk around yet another city lake, this one landscaped with a variety of garden styles. Elderly gentlemen entertained us by describing how they built the elaborate model boats they were sailing on the Centential Lakes pond.

* Went to the Minnesota Zoo, where a fabulous new exhibit of Kodiak Bears entertained us for an hour, just before outdoor concert in the zoo's amphitheater.

* Watched the Twins beat the hated Yankees at the stadium that is a mere 5 miles from my house.

* Last night, we drove to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for an ice cream social event held for the members (we've belonged for 30 years now). The Arboretum is a true world-class public garden, and we arrived at 7:00 pm, just after a brief thunderstorm dampened everything and ignited the gardens in glistening crystal light. In the far distance, towering bluish grey thunderheads moved off, now touched with salmon and pink light from the setting sun.

Most of these excursions were within 15 minutes of home, and several required no car trip at all.

None of these things are really possible if you live in rural areas. A couple of times we drove through suburbs to get to our outings, and I"m frankly a bit mystified by the suburban experience. Though originally intended to mimic the look of genteel rural life, the suburbs offer me nothing of any appeal. In no way does life there really resemble life in the country, and it's also missing all the advantages of the city. No charm, no culture and high gas prices to boot.

I'm a country boy at heart.
But if that's not practical, give me sidewalks to stroll late at night, and interesting restaurants to find, and parks, and gardens, and museums and ball parks any day of the week.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why I-phones & I Pods Were Invented

There's a whole lot that's pretty darned magical about the I-phone, but at long last I've discovered it's true reason for being.

Last week, I discovered Podcasts, and quickly subscribed to something calls "ZenCast," a series of lectures on Buddhist philosophy and practice. Lasting from 30 to 70 minutes or so, this series of talks by leading Buddhist teachers gives me a perfect beginning or ending to my work day.  

Hop on the bus, plug in the earphones, and I arrive at my destination with an open heart. 

There are about 150 of these delightful little talks, so I"m pretty well set until the end of the year. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Evening at the Band Shell

My work day yesterday was stressful, to say the least, and by the time I walked home from the bus stop at 6:30,  the tension had crystalized in a painful burn in the junction between my neck and shoulders.

Wisely, my wife suggested that we make nice salads and go to the Lake Harriet bandshell to have a picnic dinner. 

About 60 minutes into the 90 minute concert, which featured a simple but skillful trio of bass player, violinist and guitarist playing old pop favorites, I felt the tension in my neck finally begin to loosen up.  Too tired to think, I blissfully stopped thinking. 

An odd, oblique and apparently random recognition came to me then, unbidden. Here is what occurred to me while listening to a pleasant rendition of "Norwegian Wood":

No music is ever created without the destruction of silence. 

This was a new expression of an ongoing intuition I have; namely, that almost everything about the way the world works can be explained as an expression of the ongoing dance between two strains of energy, one positive, the other negative.  Simultaneously, these energies are conflicting, opposing, and complementary.  They fight with one another, but also cannot exist without the other. 

Culturally, we describe these energies in different ways. Some people like to talk about the underlying male and female energies of the universe. Others might think in terms of creation vs. destruction, and for still others the dualism is between good and evil. My father in law insists you can divide the world into Chevy people and Ford people. My own father divides the world into Republicans and Democrats.

All these paradigms are different ways of describing the same basic truth, though, which is that there are opposite energies that exist in a constant dance with one another. 

The truth of this was clear to me last night, in my exhausted, thoughtless state. It was inherently obvious everywhere I turned my head. Up front near the stage, small children danced to an Irish jig, the very fact of their existence speaking to the creative power of the universe. Directly across from me, though, was a 65-year old man dressed in a muscle shirt that exposed a midriff that would be best kept covered. Relatively hale and hearty, but a lifetime of exposure to sun and simple life showed in his wrinkles, sagging skin, round belly. And this was the other half of the universal truth: creation always comes at the price of destruction. The fact of birth dictates the fact of aging and decay. A building cannot be constructed unless trees or clay are sacrificed for the building materials. A song cannot be born except at the sacrifice of silence. 

If we were not mortal, no children would ever joyfully dance a jig. 

My hunch is that a lot of human misery occurs because we can't quite get our heads around this truth. Often, I think, we would like to seize upon positive energy as belonging to us, and would like to banish negative energy altogether. Unfortunately, it can't be done. We suffer because with disagree with the inevitable—we disagree with what IS.  Upon getting sick, for example, we may react with bitter disagreement with this fact, and as a result we suffer unbearably. Or, we can perhaps accept decay and the truth of negative energy, and thereby eliminate a lot of suffering. 

It occurs to me that a fair definition of "art" might be that it is any human effort to articulate and communicate this universal drama between energies. In any case, when I think about works of literature or painting or sculpture that have moved me powerfully, they share this in common: creation and destruction are always dancing inside them.

In any case, for those few moments last night,  I gave up struggling against my black mood, and mused upon it as perhaps just a natural manifestation of negative energy seeking expression. Like the atmosphere needing to periodically discharge static energy through a lightning storm, perhaps our occasional moments of sorrow and woe really are nothing very serious at all. 

It's a place to start.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Spiritual Goal

In my adopted tradition, "good" is defined as any chosen behavior that has the intention or effect of reducing unhappiness and suffering for sentient creatures.

Interesting concept, "sentience".

The dictionary defines a sentient creature as one that is "receptive to or conscious of" sense impressions. And "sentience" is defined as "feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought." In other words, to be sentient is to be aware of the sensations of pain and pleasure—having the capacity for suffering  on the one hand, and to experience peace on the other hand.

It is quite a mixed blessing, this capacity for sentience. Looking around, you can readily see that it is the managing of pain and pleasure that drives virtually everything we do. Almost every human behavior you can study becomes pretty easily understandable as an expressions of sentience. The man honking frantically behind me in traffic this morning probably was not really trying to make the rest of us suffer; some kind of fear and pain was making him desperate to reach his workplace. He was just trying to relieve his suffering.

We hurt, and we want to not hurt. This is the human condition, as well as the condition of all living sentient creatures. It is true of me, and it is true of all creatures. It is the first truth, and one upon which all others are based.

This knowledge, this truth of suffering, is indisputable. It is a noble truth. To pretend it is not so is to live in delusion, and delusion is the root of all evil.

To call someone a "pleasure-seeker" is thought to be a pejorative label. In reality, though, the avoidance of pain is the instinct behind the spiritual urge, too. Though the goal here might be more accurately labeled "peace-seeker," the goal of the spiritualist, like that of the most blatant hedonist, is to minimize pain and suffering. If the hedonist makes an error, it is only because he imagines that pleasure conquers pain rather than being its intimate partner.  

So I'd argue that an effective spiritual path must be one that acknowledges the phenomenon of pain and suffering, studies it, even; and proposes practices that reduce that pain and suffering for ourselves, for other people, for any creatures who experience suffering. 

If your tradition doesn't offer you any help in this most basic of needs, then something is seriously wrong.

May you know happiness, as well as understand the causes of happiness. 

Friday, August 1, 2008

Please Loiter

Earlier this week, I found myself sitting in a public park area on the way back from a walk to the bookstore. The day was beautiful, clouds scudded by overhead, and it was quite pleasant to simply sit and meditate for a short while, doing nothing whatsoever.

When I opened my eyes, my gaze fell upon a sign posted on a lamp post. "No loitering," it said. "Please limit your visit to 60 minutes."

I was saddened, amused, and a little outraged, all at the same time. Here was a place landscaped in a manner to encourage people to sit and relax and reflect, and yet the "authorities" had posted a sign asking people not to use the park in this manner. Logically, such a space should have a sign that says "Please Loiter." If my meditation had lasted 61 minutes, though, I technically might have been in violation of public policy.

I find this indicative of a primary human foible, this sense that we're not exactly welcome in the world, that we must always be striving for goals and accomplishment——headed for somewhere——to be legitimate. To simply exist——to sit and just BE—— is not an acceptable condition. The human condition seems to be primarily one of restlessness. We get angry, in fact, when people aren't restless.

Of course I understand that the intent of this policy was to protect the park patrons from beggars and vagrants, and it wouldn't be very likely a solid middle-aged citizen would be ousted for dawdling for, say, 90 minutes. Still, it's telling that our society frowns upon non-accomplishment and aimlessness of any kind. Whenever a person is seen to be simply sitting without a clear destination, we view it with suspicion and even fear.

I'm going to the same park some night next week, and I plan to sit and do nothing whatsoever for at least two hours. My experience, you see, is that the more aimless I become, the more I genuinely accomplish.