A few weeks ago, I facilitated a group Dharma discussion after an evening of sitting and walking meditation with Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. What follows is the topic I wrote up in advance of the discussion:
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my path in life: where I’ve been and how I want to move forward. I usually assume that my future happiness depends on setting the right goal, determining the best way to work towards that, and checking off each step as I go. I’ve even got a note taped to my computer monitor that reads “What can I do today that will positively change what I will be doing in two years?”
So I was intrigued to read an interview in Daily Good with Gina Sharpe, who has been a corporate lawyer and Vipassana meditation teacher, among other professions. The article’s author, Tracy Cochran, explains that she approached the interview much as I’ve been approaching my life, expecting Sharpe to present a tidy timeline when asked to described the choices that had led her to this moment. And yet instead Sharpe replied:
I don’t think of life as a sum of choices. I think of outcomes as a result of each choice. I’m not sure that so called ‘choices’ would have been as wise as what actually happened. We fool ourselves to think that we are making big choices that are going to direct our lives. What’s actually happening is that in every moment small, intimate choices present themselves, depending on conditions that previously arose. And appropriate responses can happen if we’re present. Those appropriate responses come together to be part of a kaleidoscopic pattern that can later on appear to be a huge choice that we made. Actually, the pattern is always changing, and if we look at it with spaciousness, it’s beautiful.
Reading this made me consider that trying to plan my life on a grand scale is the wrong approach. Perhaps in agonizing over making the right big decisions, I’m completely missing the importance of the small decisions. What is beautiful, wise, and valuable–those determinations must be made here and now. Conditions only exist in the present moment and can be met best with what Sharpe calls a beautiful mind: one that is authentically present to everything that arises, that integrates every experience yet carefully chooses which qualities to cultivate, that makes small decisions wisely and with equanimity in the face of impermanence. Continue reading →
The constraints I place on my blogging make it difficult for me to post regularly. When our children were young, I freely shared the many challenges my husband and I faced. I used to write extensively about the difficulties of parenting kids with behaviors and issues typical of post-institutionalized international adoptees. Now that our children are older and members of an internet-savvy peer group, I guard their privacy by posting almost nothing about them. I also cannot write about challenges I face at work. Since these two areas are the sources of most of my stresses, I’m self-censored, with little left to discuss except books I’ve read and my spiritual practice, often devoid of the context necessary to explain my motivations.
These constraints remind me of my email tagline: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Everyone faces challenges that they don’t speak about, whether due to privacy concerns, social mores, embarrassment, or fear. I am constantly surprised by how many people who appear through regular social interaction to be “perfectly happy” are actually combating illness, anxiety, death of a loved one, or family crisis. Often I don’t learn about what they’re dealing with until I talk about my own difficulties and see their faces flush with relief. I know exactly what you mean! someone will say then, completely unexpectedly. I’ve dealt with that too and I didn’t know you who had. It’s so hard to go through alone but you can’t talk about these things with most people.
I suspect that we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we did talk about these things more openly. Just like there’s still social stigma related to talking about mental health issues, I think there’s significant social stigma related to talking about suffering. From my own experience, I know there are myriad reasons for this beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Sometimes I’m worried about being seen as the person whose whining everyone else tries to avoid; we’ve all experienced a person who traps others in endless negative conversations. I want people to think well of me, to see me as someone who’s resolutely positive and who’s got things under control. I also have fear of being misunderstood, worrying that no one else could comprehend what I’m going through unless they’ve gone through it themselves. Many times I’m sick of thinking about my problems, many of which have repeated in seemingly perpetual cycles for more than a decade. The last thing I want to do is to spend even more time explaining all of that to someone else. And if I’m honest with myself, there is also a shame aspect: how can someone with as long of a spiritual practice as I have still struggle so much with suffering? Shouldn’t I have it all worked out by now – especially considering that the challenges I face are so small compared to those faced by so many other people? Continue reading →
Parenting, publishing, taking the metro to work each morning – I have found that every aspect of life benefits from the practice of equanimity, described by Kalu Rinpoche in The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, as a state of mind in which “you are not overpowered by emotional afflictions such as desire, hatred and stupidity, but instead remain in the natural state of the mind.” Without mindfulness practice to ground me in equanimity, I all too easily get swept away by the emotional currents around me. In parenting in particular I have a real tendency to get caught up in whatever is going on with my children and husband. I have nicknamed this “empathetically induced anger”, though it’s simply lack of equanimity. A phone call from an upset teacher, a email from a stressed spouse, a child crying about something his or her sibling has done, and suddenly my own mind is about as far from peaceful as could be imagined. Almost immediately I feel corresponding physiological changes in my body and soon I am mired down in the very hell realm that I’d like to be able to raise those around me out of.
I wrote In the Garden of Our Minds and other Buddhist stories over a period of years where I was struggling to maintain my own sanity while also co-parenting two very energetic children and working full-time. The dialogues and practices described in the book are based very closely on ones I experienced and developed during that time. Parenting has been the most challenging experience of my life; it requires such a high number of on-the-spot reactions. For instance, it is one thing to consider questions about life and death in the abstract, but I have found a much higher degree of pressure when the questions are being posed by small sentient beings who I’ve vowed to raise and nourish and who are looking to me for specific answers about what I believe – and why. And there is no test of mindfulness and equanimity like parenting. I can have the most positive intentions in the world as I calmly breathe my way up the driveway, but if I walk through the door into a room full of people on edge and cannot maintain my peaceful mind, I will soon find that my own seeds of anger are not seeds at all, but little grasping vines ready to rise up and choke away every last good intention. Continue reading →