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."


  1. I was thinking recently that if I had paid less attention to the intense things and more to the subtle as I was growing up, that I might know more about how I got here and remember more of where I have been.

    My aspiration in the second half of my life is to honor the subtle.