Thursday, December 31, 2009

Coffee in the Sun

(image from Kohler Art Center Artery, where you can make art of your own)

All I can hear over the distant hum of traffic on 151 is the sound of eggs whirring around in a pot, boiling hard so there's protein in a one-person package for my students on Saturday. In preparing for a retreat, I like to give myself a broad list of things to do - make the soups, cut images out of old National Geographics, make a list of prompts - and then putter my way through the list in no particular order. If I am headed to the basement to get the cooler I may also pick up the lingerie in the washer and hang it on the drying rack upstairs.

It's not exactly multi-tasking. There is far less a sense of force and far more a desire to allow space between these tiny tasks. I prefer to do just about anything this way. Whatever I am working on - usually one major thing (preparing a manuscript, preparing for a retreat, etc) It takes me all day, and during that day there are all kinds of other occurrences - a call from my godmother in England, a text or two with a friend in distress. And the coffee and sun continue all throughout, a reminder that there is no reason to hurry in ending out the last day of this year and preparing for a solid start to the next one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Christmas equals ambivalence for me, as I am sure it does for others.

And yet, this morning, I woke with the song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" in my head. In fact, it won't leave. And I have to say I don't mind it, strangely, though I am feeling somber today and a bit tuckered out from too many (even if good) social interactions over the weekend.

There is something about how this time brings people together. Like overloading with food, especially rich food, I am overloaded with guests and invitations and visitations. I am grateful that I am on break, so that the energy normally reserved for classes is spread out into my broader social life.

And yet, I also have to say that I am tired. Very tired. Tired of rich conversations, productive boundary setting, even silly jibber jabber about this and that. I want to sink back into Jane Eyre, which I began reading last week (as Natalie assigned Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel of sorts, and I thought it was time for me to read the classic, too). I want to get lost in my own writing, my own past relationships and made up townships, and I keep popping up, numerous times a day, into reality.

I trust, I hope, that others of you out there can understand this - that it is not a lack of appreciation, but appreciation of all the wonderful people in my life mixed in with a writer's natural inclinations - those which require lots of time alone, lots of time reading and writing. In fact, I'd say that both are writer's inclinations - the need and desire to really listen to people and be with them intimately, which contrasts - though doesn't always conflict, except maybe at this time of year - with the need to be alone and processing it all through writing.

What a conflict! I guess in a way I am grateful that this should be my conflict. Of all the things I could be worrying about, struggling with or fretting over, this is it. I don't mean it is little - it doesn't feel that way at all - but it is special and a privileged conflict, in a sense. That I have so many I love in my life and who love me. That I have plenty of rich conversations - and food - to feel overfull on. That the one thing here I am not experiencing, at the turn of the darkest time of the year, is lack of any sort. I am grieving, of course, always am from before Thanksgiving until after New Years, but even that feels like a strange celebration - I had people to lose, which means having to begin with.

That produces its own wonder in me.
Definitely a wonder-full time of the year, even if not always easy.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

14 Questions about Buddhism

Awhile back, a student at Edgewood College here in Madison asked me if she could interview me for a paper she's doing on Buddhism. Actually, the paper is on the role of silence in spiritual practice, I found out when she came to interview me. We talked about John Cage and chanting and all kinds of stuff. She took notes and recorded our interview, but it turned out the tape didn't come out right, so she asked me recently to "re-answer" some of the questions.

Here's those answers. Some fun stuff to consider. Also interesting to remember how I answered them then, off the cuff, not knowing what was next, versus now, the second time - partly because I have had more time to consider them, and also because I have changed, even in a few short weeks...

1. How did you initially become interested in Buddhism?
1. I read a lot about Buddhism in High School. A boy I had a crush on was really into it. But it was all intellectual discussion - no meditation and no real heart connection.

Later, in college, I got back into creative writing (I had gotten a scholarship to college for my writing in High School, but dropped it after my mom died) and after college, hooked up with a local community of writers. One of them brought me to a class with a woman who taught what I teach now - writing with a Buddhist bent. From there I joined the meditation center downstairs from her office and the rest is history.

2. How does it shape your life?
2. The other day I had a really gross interaction with a woman I am acquaintanted with who has a pretty cranky manner. During the interaction, I watched as my emotions went from offended to sad to angry, but I kept an even keel with her, though called her out on some of what she was saying. Once we were done, I realized that the way she was acting isn't "her" - it was just the way she was acting. I also realized I had a choice - I could continue to wreck "vengeance" by acting like a jerk to everyone all day, or I could accept what happened, and use it as a positive lesson - to think twice before snapping at someone and act with compassion.

It affects everything, but this is a particularly poignant example. Sitting allows me to actually see what is happening and act with wisdom and patience.

3. What is it like to live in Madison as a Buddhist?
3. There are a LOT of Buddhist groups here and all are pretty active. At a dinner party recently, I was "the only Buddhist" and so was a bit of a novelty, but everyone understood the basic tenets of Buddhism and respected them. So it's not Buddhist "paradise" but also a pretty privileged place.

4. What are the challenges, if any, to practicing Buddhism?
4. The challenges are all interior, really. This morning I want to practice Yoga, for instance, and I keep putting it off. Why? Yoga really connects me with my body and spirit, is an extension of my Buddhism, and yet, I put it off. I make excuses, choose to do other things. I "forget the instructions" - the most basic ones - to do it, just show up and do it. Once I show up it is far easier than the battle to show up.

5. Does it affect the friendships and relationships in your life? If so, how?
5. Well, see 2 and 3, but in addition to that, it is true that certain friendships have been strengthened because I have had the good luck to have, for instance, my two closest female friends, both friends "before Buddhism" also be Buddhists. And there have been folks who's behavior - drinking constantly, doing a lot of drugs, not being very mindful in their lives, etc, I let fall away because we could no longer relate. It's not that I am better than them by any means, but that we have different goals.

Also, because of my sangha (community), I interact with people I wouldn't normally interact with - different ages, interests, beliefs - and I think that is very healthy. It's good to not just hang out with people "like us" as much as possible.

6. Have you experienced or witnessed the practice of Buddhism in other parts of the world or United States? If so, is how you and others in Madison practice different from other places?
6. I am a part of Shambhala, which is a modern re-configuration of two ancient schools of Tibetan Buddhism - Kagyu and Nyigma. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, was a Lama in both of these traditions. I haven't spent much time with other groups - when I got to this one, I knew I was "home" because there is so much emphasis on the arts and on everyday life here, something a lot of other groups don't focus on as much, from what I understand.

So I travel a lot to teach, actually, in Shambhala Centers across the USA and a bit in Europe, and the centers I visit are a lot alike - similar aesthetics, practices, etc. I haven't necessarily seen other communities on my travels.

7. Do you follow a specific school of Buddhism? If so, explain the difference between yours and others.
7. Besides what I said in 6, Shambhala has very similar basic core beliefs, like all of Buddhism, but the feeling of it, the aesthetics, the focuses, and the intentions are different. For instance, we share a shrine space with a Korean Zen group and they all wear black robes to sit, sit facing the wall, chant in Korean. We wear regular clothes, face out into the room with our eyes open, and chant in English.

8. What is your perspective of classifying Buddhism as a religion?
8. It's hard not to. "Back in the East" (I hate to say it that way, but it's pretty much true) Buddhism has been used, still is used, as a religion. But our main Western understanding of religion is that it is "theistic" (meaning: belief in a deity) and no Buddhism is that way to the same extent that the major Abrahamic religions are - like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In this way it is more akin to other philosophies - Taoism, Confucianism.

I have read a great passage about how Buddhism fits the container, like water, it is put it. So some places that flask is a religious shape, some times more secular, like here in the US.

9. Being raised as an atheist, is it hard to classify yourself as a Buddhist, because it is portrayed as a religion in society and to outsiders?
9. At first I was really shy about it, but now I don't mind. We can't control what others think of us, and I'd rather be a "Buddhist" than any other label, regardless of any inaccurate associations. It was hard for me to have faith in anything, thinking that would be a weak thing to do, but Buddhism encourages healthy doubt, and eventually, I realized it's not as much faith as it is understanding from personal experience.

I do have to say that being Buddhist has given me a ton more respect for people's relationships with religion, and I like that. I used to be pretty intolerant.

10. I've been reading articles about the effects of meditation on psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD and addition. What do you think are the benefits of meditation? Do you agree with these findings?
10. Absolutely beneficial. I have a Buddhist friend who tells me that being a Buddhist is like "having a therapist who totally understands me in my head 24/7, free of charge." That having been said, that same friend has sometimes insisted when I am depressed or having a panic attack (I am prone to both) that if I "just sat" i'd feel better.

For me, though not true for everyone, I also rely on meds, therapy and exercise to keep me going. As a "team", meditation keeps this act all very strong. None of these "solutions" work on their own for me. I guess I believe it's really personal - has to do with trauma, chemistry, and a lot of things we don't understand. I am generally pretty wary of any "one solution" kind of answer - life is too complicated for that, though it may work for some folks, like my friend.

11. What do you think about programs in jails that teach meditation?
11. I think they are superb. They have wonderful results again and again. What a great way to use that time, away from society, as a retreat? I know it can be tortuous, and I think meditation seems to really help. I have had friends teach it in prison and it has really changed my friends, too. I think that gratitude and curiosity, two of the biggest things that you develop connects to in meditation, are big salves for a lot of the world's social ills.

12. Do you meditate in silence or using mantras or music?
12. Silence.

13. What do you feel is the importance of silence in meditation?
13. Spaciousness. We cram our lives full of sounds - radio, tv, conversations. Just like being in a quiet, calm place visually, it is good to reduce stimuli and allow us to have an experience of auditory space, too.

I have never really used mantras. Not in our tradition. But I have done long periods of chanting, and while it is not the same result as meditation, I think I understand the purpose - to alter the mind in another way, open up to a different kind of space. But me, personally? I am very partial to silence.

I actually listen to less music and talk radio than I used to. I can sit around for hours in silence, reading or writing or doing "nothing". It's calmed me down a lot.

14. Do you feel you have reached enlightenment? If not, why not? If so, how can you tell?
14. This is such a great question. I mean, all your questions are great, but this one is so "controversial" in the Buddhist world. Why? Who knows why. Enlightenment is supposed to take a lot of work, but in relative terms, the Buddha found it really quickly. Some teachers, like the rogue named Adyashanti, say you find it all the time and shouldn't deny it, that Buddhists are in this weird state of self-deprication/deprivation and are denying themselves the benefits of what they already have. I think there is some truth in what he says, and yet?

I experience flashes of major insight. It's not like a solution to a math problem - I don't suddenly know all the world's answers - but more like total clarity, awareness. From that space I can answer with complete compassion - my problems, someone else's. But they aren't that common. They were something I experienced before practicing but they were random - now they are pretty regular, but still more like on and off lights than a constant experience. My guess is that if I were "like that all the time" I would "be enlightened".

It's funny, too, because although we "talk about enlightenment" Buddhism is very anti-goal orientation. You can shoot yourself in the foot if you put the cart before the horse. The path is the way, you are already enlightened, is what the teachings say. That's what I wonder about with someone like Adya. But we all have our own paths to hoe.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Muscle Connects to Bone, Bone is Filled With Marrow

(title is a lyric from St. Vincent)

Outside, the first layer of sticking snow covers all the horizontal surfaces and clings to those half between up and down and side to side, like my 45 degree roof. Inside my body, all the connections adjust to the new cold, another 10-20 degrees lower than it has been previously, and my eyes contract with the new light reflected by all the whiteness out there. I feel the snow and winter sink deeply inside of me. It's an intimate feeling, my thirty-second rendition of this in a life of living in Wisconsin - except for the one year I was in the south of France for their farce version of "winter".

Rich foods fill my blood with the fats and minerals needed to keep warm from the inside out for the next three months. Others complain, but I look forward to the sustained spaciousness of this new visual world, and the chance to turn inward - mentally, emotionally, physically - and restore.