Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What About Me?

Please watch this two minute video first.

I have returned from my two and a half week secular Buddhist seminary retreat, where I spent half of each day sitting in silence and half of it studying in not silence with 50 other Buddhists. Guided by two senior teachers Acharyas Bower and Greenleaf (Acharyas - "teacher" in Sanskrit, considered in Shambhala to be next to the Sakyong in the hierarchy - Pema Chodron is an acharya, for instance) in our tradition, and a bevy of cooks, meditation instructors and coordinators, it's been a bit rough to come out of such a sacred container back into every day life.

Especially because instead of it taking me 8 hours to get home, it took me 36.

The weather between Madison and Burlington wasn't pretty. The airlines were taken unawares, and so were many travelers - naively, I arrived at Burlington not having checked any of the forecasts for anywhere west of where I was, and Burlington looked fine and clear. I was tired, having been gone and somewhat sick for over two weeks, and I arrived to find the second leg of my trip, Detroit to Madison, had already been canceled, and the first leg was on the block for potential cancellation. People were outraged, hopping up and down mad, wanting the poor clerks who saw a long night ahead of them to fix it for them. I cried, not to "get" anything, but spontaneously, from exhaustion, and took it aside so that no one had to see but me and poor Dylan on the other end of my call, also crying. By the time they canceled the flight, hours later, I was doing tonglen for the clerks working for Delta and for all those around me, and myself.

After a good night's sleep, I went to the airport expecting nothing, and this made all the difference. When I was told my first flight had technical difficulties, I laughed. Two women around my age sitting near me, both looking on the edge of deciding whether to cry or yell, joined me half-heartedly, then fully. The irony of combined technical error and weather between us and our destinations (one going to Florida, one, like me, to Madison) became absurd, and these two and I developed a tight bond, convinced the only way to survive was not to take it personally. Over the next twelve hours, this attitude literally saved us, for we boarded our flight no less than three times, only to have to get off twice due to doubts about the ability of the plane to fly, not to mention conditions at Detroit. When others had given up, blown a gasket (which got them nothing, but in one case, an arrest) or paid hundreds of dollars for a flight on a competing airline, we were eating Twizzlers and giggling and talking about photography.

This morning, home with Dylan and reading the New Yorker, a line from an article about the Kabul Bank struck me in the chest:
"Salehi, like so many of those who occupy high positions in Karzai's government, appears to harbor no ideology other than his own survival."

A story that Acharya Bower told, of her position helping the Sakyong to edit Turning the Mind Into an Ally (which is a fabulous beginner book on meditation, by the way), came to mind. She spoke of working for him, ostensibly concerned for the success of the book, for the Sakyong himself, but one day realizing she was only concerned about saving her own neck. The Sakyong had just made a video and song about this belief we all base every moment of our lives on: What About Me? and she had to realize she was disguising her own self interests under a seeming support of him. What About Me? was wearing the mask of "What About Him?"

Our desire, our desperate need, to make sure we live under all costs, to make sure our habits continue (even as small as coffee in the morning and chewing our fingernails) because we believe them to be directly related to our survival, in cases far less risky than Salehi's, hit me upside the head in the airport over those two days. Every time something went wrong, the people who were suffering the most took it personally. The people who realized it wasn't about them laughed, cried or moved on. This isn't an issue of those who had it easiest - one woman was trying to get to her chemo appointment, another to her all-alone daughter in the Orlando airport. Someone, just like me, trying to get home or go on vacation, without a time crunch, would be just as likely to swear at an official as someone who actually had a crisis on their hands.

My brother Alex once told me that trying to break our own habits (in this case, the habit of assuming it is all about us and feeling justified in getting it all fixed for us, not just justified, but terrified that if it doesn't get fixed, we will die or it indicts us in some way) is like trying to break our own bones. When I read the quote from the New Yorker to Dylan this morning and brought up this idea, Dylan smiled and stated that sometimes it is "less dramatic" than that - that trying to break our own habits can be like trying to squeeze something large through a small space - tiny gestures, long time, seemingly no progress. We give up, thinking there should be a big boom or sign of progress - even breaking bones would be a better sign. And then, quite suddenly, though it took a long time to get there - we are out the other end of the tube, and suddenly, we don't take it so personally any more.

I hope this perspective lasts. I will do my best to practice every day in as many ways as I can, asking myself, asking others to ask themselves: is it really personal? Contemplating my actions, the results of my actions, the causes of those actions acted upon me - the only way to see clearly, the only way to laugh in the face of adversity. Like an image from the dharma texts I studied so thoroughly the last few weeks - when drowning, remember that we survive by relaxing, not by thrashing. Thrash and we will die. Relax and we will survive.