Friday, December 31, 2010

Playful Humility

Today, the calendar year comes to an end.

This is no longer my New Year's. I have become too familiar with other traditions to see the end of this calendar as the end of my year. Naturally, fall feels most the end of the year for me, but according to the Tibetan Buddhist Calendar, my "calendar of faith" it comes in the beginning of March, which also feels pretty right. February is what we call "Mamo" season - a time when the tough stuff gets toughest, which is especially true to my experience having lived in Wisconsin my whole life. That's what is my real New Year's, now, in practice.

That having been said, for some reason New Year's Eve can be hard for me - I have always thought it was because of a pressure to perform - to enjoy parties, kind of like Halloween and St. Patty's Day, which don't trigger me but which I also mostly avoid. Maybe it's because it's the end of a tough time - the natural grieving period of the end-of-year holidays.

But this year I feel a slight change. A release in pressure, a chance to take it easy, and a desire to turn over to a new calendar. This quote was in my box today, from a weekly service sent out from a Shambhala teacher, and it hit the right chord (to join the mailing list or see the blog, click here).

PLAYFUL HUMILITY Humility in the Shambhala tradition involves playfulness, or a sense of humour. In many religious traditions, you feel humble because of a fear of punishment, pain, and sin. In the Shambhala world, you feel full of it. You feel healthy and good. In fact, you feel proud. Therefore, you feel humble. That’s one of the Shambhala contradictions, or we could say, dichotomies. Real humility is genuineness.
-Chogyam Trunpga Adopted from "Discipline in the Four Seasons," in GREAT EASTERN SUN: The Wisdom of Shambhala, page 63.

I hear that. I feel that. A humility that comes not because one is humiliated or trying to be "not humiliated (ie puffed up pride)" but a sense of wonder, of awe, and of course, of humor.

Here's to 2011, whatever you are, and my increasing sense of humble awareness, which, as it increases, I work to be even more humble about. There's nothing like the Dharma to be both awfully profound and ass-kickingly ironic at the same time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Flea in Your Ear?

(a blurry shot of a Buddha in the Himalayan and Southeast Asian permanent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago juxtaposed against the LED exhibit of Jitish Kallat's steps)

"Puce a l'oreille" is a phrase in French I only learned late in my time studying abroad. A French friend and I were driving to her parent's house* and she said the phrase quite quickly, in regards to a set of friends she was describing to me. "A Flea in the Ear?!" I remarked back, slowing down the phrase, and she laughed. I imagine she was recalling, as was I, the time I was in a laundromat down the street from my flat and heard a suspicious-acting guy behind me say "Putain de la Merde!" which literally means "Whore of Shit." I thought he was talking to me, but it turns out that is a common - though vulgar - euphemism, similar to "Fuck this."

She giggled and then said that having "a flea in your ear" is like in English when we ask someone if their nose was tickling, because we were speaking of them. It means a rumor, and the idea is that the person the rumor is being told about would feel an itching in their ear, like a flea.
"But why a flea?" I asked - I was a linguistics student but still expected a story to answer every metaphor. "Good lord," she replied, "your guess is as good as mine."

I am studying currently for a seminary - Buddhist, secular, called "Sutrayana Seminary" in the Shambhala Tradition. I'll spend most of February in a small center - Karme Choling - in the middle of nowhere Vermont, surrounded by snow and other seminarians. I won't come out a monk or nun - it is simply to further my classical Buddhist "sutra" (scriptures/study) education. In the text today, as there is much studying to do in preparation for the retreat, I ran into the following description from Chogyam Trungpa. He is describing big, distracting thoughts while meditating, versus subtle, almost undetectable ones:

"It's like the difference between an elephant walking on you and a little flea on your nose."
I stopped in my tracks and laughed - though Trungpa was born in Tibet, his English was superb - very accurate, very precise, very curious. I don't know if this is a euphemism he is translating from another language (Tibetan? Sanskrit? Pali?), a classical description of the difference between "big" thoughts and flickering, idle "subtle" thoughts, or if he made up the images on the spot. But it brought the story of the flea in the ear right back to me.

The connection between body and mind, experiencing our thoughts physically, literally as sensations, comes up again and again in the texts. Whenever I teach, especially Miksang but also in writing, I refer back all the time to the importance of treating our mind as a sixth sense organ and our thoughts as something that organ senses. This is classic Buddhist phenomenology - I certainly didn't make it up - but when I teach something again and again, even if it is taught from my own experience, sometimes it becomes dull. This reading today really sharpened up for me the trust that we need to have that we can actually tell what the heck is going on at any given time, most especially in our minds. That we can train to sense even the tiniest sensations - even the tiniest thoughts, worries, elaborations, and learn to acknowledge them, then let them go and come back to what is happening now.

A common description, again, in classic Tibetan Buddhism, for the increased sensitivity of a practitioner of meditation is this. In regular life, before one began sitting as a regular practice, one experiences irritation like a hair on the back of one's hand. When having sat a lot, becoming more aware and present, it feels like a hair on one's eyeball. Why would one want that kind of sensation? Because the hair was actually that "damaging" (even beneficial) or intense all the time. The hair on the hand sensation is the delusion - it's not that we become more sensitive meaning we interpret things as more personal - we become more sensitive to how things actually are. We notice that even the tiniest, discursive gossip (flea in the ear, or flea on the nose) can cause disruption, pain, bad choices, hurt ourselves or someone else, and we learn to work with them.

We can instead run a flea circus, so to speak, where we train the fleas to do what we need done - working toward supporting ourselves, knowing ourselves thoroughly, not being so surprised and hurt all the time, helping others.

Trungpa describes samsaric body/mind as being unsynchronized. Again, we talk about this in Miksang, and a bit in writing practice, but somehow it really hit home with all the flea analogies. Just because we don't feel something in our body or mind doesn't mean it is not in pain - how many friends of mine have gone to the doctor for a regular checkup, only to have them find a tumor the patient never would have detected on her own? This kind of awareness isn't paranoia - it's finding out where the hurt is, dealing with it, healing it, before it kills us. We can equally stop hurtful words or thoughts before they "go too far" - beyond our control. Even gossip (about others, about ourselves to ourselves...) can grow the same way - cell upon cell until a flea has become an elephant, crushing everything in its sight.

*Her parents lived in a quirky little country town called "Perne les Fontaines" - a Provencal village famous for having more fountains (40) than any other town. In particular, my favorite was the "Fontaine Gigot" - "Chunk of Meat Fountain."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Indoor Storms

Where have I been?
That's a good question.

I use this time of slowing down end of semester and year to consider how the past 365 days have gone. Where have I visited and taught, what has worked and what hasn't? These questions are crucial and it's not that I don't consider them throughout the year, of course. It's just that New Year's approaching brings revival to mind, and review.

The last month or so has been consistent with the rest of this fall - a blur of Hakomi therapy and resultant heavy emotional processing, weddings and other significant high-caliber celebrations, way too much travel for my own good without enough weekends off, buying the Shambhala Center here in Madison, and endless richness in my weekly writing classes. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to enact something I had been considering doing for awhile - actually using the last class of the week, Wednesday night, to write a "summary" of the week's replies from students and myself. Only, of course, it comes out in writing practice form, so it isn't a list, more a channelled essay. Because the first week I did it was a very rich and somewhat heavy topic (Sacred Space) the end piece blew us all away. This last week's (looking at images of landscapes and writing from there) didn't take as much out of me, but still helped to "process" all the 35 or so stories I hear each week. Anonymously, of course.

I hope to bring these pieces to this blog. I would like to let the students have that as a resource - a combined "hive mind" of wisdom that I don't want stopping at just me. Also, all of these pieces - mine and students' - I am ongoing collecting for an eventual book. Eventual meaning "I have enough on my plate right now but that doesn't stop me from planning it."

Today Dylan and I will finish hanging our new indoor storm windows, a somewhat dated way of keeping out wind that appealed to us when his grandfather in Maine demonstrated his to us a few months ago. I like this idea of the protection from leaking coming from the inside - and as my friend Morgan joked on Facebook when I first posted that we were considering them - "indoor storms are somewhat rare." It never hurts to have a little extra insulation for when things go a bit amok inside and not just out there, where tonight we are expecting our first big blizzard of the season.

The image the indoor storm windows give me is of a classic Tibetan Buddhist analogy: If you want to be able to walk the path, don't try to cover the whole path in carpet to keep your barefeet from getting poked and prodded. Instead, cover your own feet in shoes. Take responsibility for what hurts and work with it internally. This doesn't mean no social justice, but it does mean not making everything about us. Indoor storm protection seems like a good first step for me this way. After all, we can't stop the blizzard from coming, but we can keep the homefires burning.