The last post

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I’ve been posting less frequently lately. This is not because I haven’t been practicing. Quite the opposite.

But yes, my motivation to keep writing this blog has certainly waned, and I recently decided to discontinue it. Of course, conditioning immediately jumped in to tell me that I’m a quitter and just another statistic to add to the growing number of Abandoned Blogs. “Told you this would happen!” Blah blah blah…

I almost got sucked in to that conversation. As I was pondering my decision, Cheri Huber’s monthly e-mail newsletter landed in my inbox. She had recently decided to give up the day-to-day responsibilities of running the monastery in order to focus more on the parts of practice that she loved and wanted to spend more time doing. In addition, she announced that she would soon be offering a daily practice blog on Facebook.

This was all I needed to hear. I felt completely at peace with my decision to discontinue my blog.

When I was thinking about what to write in my last post, how to explain my change in direction, I came across a parable in the Cheri Huber book I’m currently reading, When You’re Falling, Dive, that perfectly describes my experience:

A student came to a master seeking freedom from suffering. The master gave the student a fish and sent her into her room to observe it. A few moments later the student, excited about the prospect of enlightenment, dashed out to report the length, breadth, and color of the fish. The master explained that that wasn’t what he meant by paying attention. The kind of observation he had in mind is much more than a quick perusal; it’s being deeply aware of and present with the object. Back the student went. An hour later she returned with more information. Again the teacher rejected her superficial examination. The next day the scenario was repeated, and the next, and the next. Finally, the teacher realized the student had not appeared for quite some time and sent a monk to fetch her. When the monk knocked on the door, the student called out, “Please go away. I’m very busy observing.”

Thank you to everyone who has read and responded to my blog. I am filled with deep gratitude.

Gassho,

The Sitting Duck

Lies, all lies

Bringing awareness to my work process is like having two jobs — there’s the job itself, and there’s the work of seeing how I cause myself to suffer in that job. Yesterday, I felt mentally exhausted and anxious as I worked, and I looked to see how that was happening. I saw that I was operating out of several false beliefs:

False belief #1 — Stress is necessary for success.

False belief #2 — I’m lazy and I have to hide that.

False belief #3 — I will probably not meet people’s expectations, and they will be disappointed in me.

False belief #4 — I can avoid #3 if I work hard enough. (illusion of control)

False belief #5 — If I’m not suffering, I’m not working hard enough.

All of these beliefs are complete bullshit, formed during the conditioning process as I was growing up. Because I wasn’t conscious of them, they held a lot of power over me. They still do when I’m not paying attention.

But I’m really trying to pay attention. As soon as I wrote down these beliefs, I looked at them and thought, “Jesus, no wonder work was exhausting and unpleasant.” Just being able to see this made my experience of working today so much better.

Back to school

A few days ago, I went to Staples to buy office supplies. When I went to check out, I encountered a massive line of customers, many of them kids with their parents. I realized it was the first week of school and everyone in town seemed to be buying their school supplies on that very afternoon.

(On a side note, when I was a kid, we didn’t start school until September. When did August become the new September?)

Waiting in a long-ass line is always a great practice opportunity for me. I go through various stages of feeling irritated, considering walking out, projecting wildly onto the people around me, and wanting to strangle the old lady who is very slowly writing a check while 15 people wait behind her.

This time I immediately thought, “Just my luck, I picked the absolute worst day to do this.” But was it? As I stood in line, I watched the kids with their shiny new notebooks and pens, those cool black-and-white speckled Composition Books, boxes of No. 2 pencils… The smell of a freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencil is one of my favorite smells in the world. It is the only thing that made taking the SAT bearable.

But before the days of SATs and college applications and all that really hard scary stuff, I actually used to love school. Not the Lord of the Flies-like socialization part of it, but the school part of it — the classes, the books, even the homework sometimes. And I loved that time in the early autumn when a new term was about to begin and I’d get new school supplies and school clothes, and I’d have a renewed sense of willingness. There was a feeling of possibility, new beginnings, a chance to start fresh.

I realize that getting jazzed about school may make me a freak. But we all have our own associations, and this one is a powerful one for me. So, as I stood in line at Staples, buying paper in preparation for a job that I was feeling a little less jazzed about, I thought about how I might approach the work as if I were jumping into a new school year. Maybe that means putting on a new “school outfit.” Or setting up a cozy place to do my “homework.” Or maybe it means sniffing pencils.

Just the idea of this makes the work seem like an adventure. Which, of course, it is.

Working meditation

As I began a new job this week, I thought about something my meditation teacher told us in our sitting group one night. At the monastery, students are given various work assignments, which often have nothing to do with the student’s abilities or proclivities. But one day, she was assigned to work in the kitchen, assisting the chef, and cooking was something she was good at — it was her “thing.” Although she was supposed to simply follow the recipe, her ego had better ideas.  She started improvising and adding spices, trying to make the dish her own, until the chef caught on to her extracurricular activities.

Now maybe the stuff she added to the recipe actually did make it better, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that she saw how ego had hijacked her working meditation. Her ego’s frustration with the assignment was the source of suffering. It was entirely possible to simply follow the recipe, assist the chef as was needed, and not have her identity wrapped up in that dish.

My ego thinks that writing is my “thing.” It wants to constantly assert itself to prove that. Is it any wonder that writing has been such a huge source of suffering in my life? A lot of writers would call this a “love-hate relationship” — writing is how I feel good about myself, and also how I feel awful about myself. This duality is the process that egocentric karmic conditioning uses to keep us in suffering.

So, as I embarked on a new and yet familiar work assignment yesterday, I saw how ego wanted to jump in there and prove what a great writer I am. But my authentic nature doesn’t want to prove I’m a great writer. What it wants is to enjoy my job.

If my job were to mop floors, I would do my best to mop the floors well. But I wouldn’t feel that the cleanliness of the floor was some sort of statement about who I am as a person. So why should it be any different with my writing job? As Cheri Huber says, “The content is irrelevant.”

Conditioned mind says, “You can’t treat this job like working meditation. It’s too important!” I say, what is more important than working meditation?

Random act of kindness

Today, as part of my awareness practice, I decided to perform a random act of kindness in the form of courteous driving. I would politely let someone cut in front of me instead of doing what most drivers around here usually do — speed up and pretend they don’t see the car that’s trying to merge into their lane.

Since I’m still on jury duty and it’s a long drive to and from the courthouse, mostly on freeways, I thought this would be an easy task. But habits are hard to break. Somehow I managed to drive 30 miles without once letting someone cut in front of me. Aggressive driving — or shall we say, “assertive” driving — is a survival skill in these parts. It’s as hard to drop this skill as it would be for a boxer to stop blocking punches.

I was on my way home and had just gotten off the freeway, when I saw a monster pickup truck in the lane to my right. We were waiting at a red light. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the driver trying to get my attention.

I thought he wanted to cut in front of me. Sometimes people do ask before they try it.

“Ah, finally,” I thought, “here’s my chance to be kind.”

But when I looked over at him, he just grinned and stared at me lasciviously. For the next few minutes, I had to drive with this perv ogling me from the next lane. I practiced kindness by not giving him the finger.

The story doesn’t end there.

Minutes later, just a few blocks from home, I finally saw a real chance to let someone cut in front of me. They had their signal on and they were waiting for an opening. I slowed down to let this car in. Just as I was feeling awesome about this, the car behind me honked and sped around me, the driver clearly pissed off that my act of kindness was slowing him down.

Okay, that annoyed me for a second. But then I laughed. This whole situation — trying to be kind while driving and having my efforts thwarted, one after another — was pretty funny. I realized that if I can laugh at what happens on the road, I’m disidentified, and that’s an act of kindness toward myself.

Road Rage

Jury duty

I haven’t had time to blog lately because I’ve been on jury duty the past couple of weeks. But I’ve discovered that jury duty is far from being a break from awareness practice — it’s actually a great practice opportunity.

Usually, when I’m summoned to jury duty, I see it as an inconvenience and a bore. When I call the hotline the night before, I’m praying that I don’t get called in. Then, when I’m called in, I pray that I won’t get put on a jury panel. Then if I get put on a jury panel, I spend the whole time thinking about how I can get myself excused and worrying that I won’t get excused.

Until now, I never realized how much energy it takes to do all that resisting.

This time, I got called in and didn’t let myself get pissed off about it. I just planned my day accordingly. When I got to the courthouse, I entered a room packed full of people who looked like they would rather be getting their eyes gouged out. That air of anxiety and dread was familiar. For many people, jury duty is the epitome of not wanting to be where you are, and not wanting to be doing what you’re doing. But I turned my attention away from that energy, and instead, focused on my own inner experience, which truthfully was fine.

The biggest thing that conditioning used to harp on in this situation was, “I can’t miss work to do this!” And if I was unemployed, it would be, “I need to be looking for work right now!” Either way, the idea was that jury duty was not as important as ME AND MY SHIT. “I’m the center of the universe!”

Egocentric karmic conditioning, anyone?

It finally occurred to me, after all these times, that jury duty is one of the most important things I could be doing. (Not to sound all patriotic, but the 4th of July is coming up…) All I have to do is put myself in the shoes of someone who is accused of a crime, and I can see how important it is for our citizens to participate in this system, even when it’s inconvenient. If you were on trial, would you want your jury to consist only of people who had nothing better to do?

Courtroom

I was, indeed, put on a jury panel on my first day. I sat through 8 days of jury selection. This lengthy, sometimes repetitive process could’ve been torturous. But it was fascinating! I watched as various people tried to prove that they should be excused. I noticed how distraught they seemed to be, and recognized that I used to feel that way, and compared that to how peaceful I was feeling without the resistance. I watched as I made snap judgments about people based on their appearance, then discovered I was totally wrong. And I watched myself going through this whole process with a sense of openness and curiosity.

So, now I’ve got two amazing opportunities during the next couple of weeks: (1) to participate in our great nation’s justice system in a direct, tangible way, and (2) to practice awareness throughout this fascinating process.

I am so lucky to be an American and a Buddhist.

Once more, with feeling

I had some amazing insights last week and I realized I’ve been avoiding writing about them. Why? Here are the reasons given by the voices in my head:

“You’ll jinx it.”

“This is too huge. You aren’t capable of articulating this correctly.”

“You may see things this way now, but eventually you won’t.”

“If you don’t follow through” (put the insights into action) “you’ll be embarrassed.”

“No one will understand.”Carrie's Mom

“They’re all gonna laugh at you.”

Okay, this last one is a quote from the movie Carrie. But it’s definitely something that’s crossed my mind.

It occurred to me that all of these encouragements to keep my insights to myself were just another example of conditioning and self-hatred trying to brainwash me. The day after, I was already saying, “Yesterday was a total delusion. What the hell was I thinking?”

But I’ve had some time to sit with all this, and I’ve decided to write it down. Who cares if anyone thinks I’ve gone off the deep end?

The big insight that came up was this: The sub-personality inside me who hates my job and can’t get excited about writing anymore is a third-grader. Let me clarify that the writing she can’t get excited about is specifically job-related. She gets very excited about writing this blog and short stories and other things that she can’t make any money from doing. But when it comes to screenwriting, she has zero interest left.

The reason this was such a revelation is that I always thought that person was me — the adult version of me. So, when I tried to force myself to work on a script and I’d find myself getting sidetracked by every possible procrastination, I got really frustrated. Why was I drowning in resistance? Why should this be so hard when I’ve been successful at it for years?

I kept thinking it was just creative burnout. I just needed to recharge my batteries, refill the well. But the truth is, I never really felt that excitement and passion return. Sure, from time to time I felt like it was working. But then I’d hit that wall again, and the resistance would be even stronger.

What I’ve been longing for is the excitement I used to have in third grade. Every day we wrote for an hour about anything we wanted. Up till then, school had been boring: math, science, spelling. But creative writing was so much fun! I was bursting with ideas. I couldn’t wait to open my notebook and go wild.

And now, as an adult who’s made a career out of creative writing, I constantly think, “How did I lose that enthusiasm?”

Well, I could go over the events of my career and make a strong case that the enthusiasm was beaten out of me by a harsh, cut-throat business. But it would be more accurate to say that the enthusiasm was beaten out of that innocent little third-grader. It occurred to me that she was the person I was sending to the job. She was the one who was responsible for drumming up that passion. She was the one who got her feelings hurt when her ideas were criticized and rejected. After all that, she was the one who was resisting writing. And who could blame her?

Mozart

I was no Mozart.

When I was that age, my parents made me take piano lessons. I never enjoyed it because I was expected to perform. It wasn’t about making music; it was about being good. I would practice diligently, memorizing the music, learning the proper technique. When I competed (yes, they enrolled me in competitions — no wonder I’m so screwed up!) I would get good technical marks, but less than spectacular marks in the artistic category. What was missing? Passion.

This is exactly what’s going on with my career.

I finally made this important connection. As soon as I recognized this young sub-personality and realized everything she’s been through, I burst into tears. This third-grader was being forced to perform all over again, her creative merits being judged by so-called authorities. And on top of that, she wasn’t just expected to do it well, but do it with feeling!

Instead of beating myself up for the resistance to writing, I was finally able to feel compassion for the person who was scared and hurt. I saw that the mean things the voices said about my writing were things you’d never say to a child. Things like, “What makes you think you have anything to say?” It’s no mystery that hearing these awful things would make a person not want to write.

I promised the third-grader that I would never force her to perform again. She’s a creative person and has needs, and those needs aren’t met by my job. So, when she wants to sew or cook or plan theme parties or do whatever is going to nurture her, I will support that instead of letting the voices say, “You’ve had enough fun. Time to get back to work.”

(By the way, my husband pointed out that any voice that says, “You’ve had enough fun,” is not the voice of a friend.)

And the job — well, I still need to work. But maybe not in a creative job. Maybe it’s okay to try something else, without having to define myself as a creative person through my work. And while the adult me is earning a paycheck, the third-grader can just be a kid and have fun and not worry about anything at all.

A circle of compassion

“In our sitting practice, we go to that place of inherent goodness, we find that deep sense of well-being within ourselves, and we become friends with that.” — Cheri Huber, There Is Nothing Wrong With You

I’ve been re-reading this book, and I was so inspired by this part about sitting meditation that I wanted to write it down as a reminder. I never used to understand what Cheri Huber meant by this “deep sense of well-being” because when I first started meditating, I rarely felt that way. I felt agitated, distracted, disappointed. The bottom line was that I (actually, ego) was sitting to get somewhere. My teacher suggested a different perspective. “Why not sit just because it’s time to be with yourself, because it feels good?”

That’s what I’ve been experiencing lately on the cushion. I had a really tough day yesterday, practice-wise, and this morning I was still feeling anxious and beat up. I had what ego perceives as an unresolved issue in my life (a personal interaction left hanging) and I could feel the pull of that issue, the urge to put my attention there.

I’ve had the experience of sitting during such times and finding it so uncomfortable and unpleasant that I wanted to jump off the cushion immediately. But I think because I’ve been experiencing more compassion on the cushion, I knew on some level that it was a refuge. Not as in, I’m running away from my problem and after the sit I’ll have to deal with it again — but rather, I’m sitting with this “problem,” learning to drop it, and through that process comes a different perspective where it may not even be a “problem.”

Cheri says it better in her book: “We’re creating a circle of compassion, and we keep bringing the events of our life into it. If I am troubled and upset about something, I bring it into that still place, and there’s peace there. It just resolves itself. It dissolves.”

Cushion

Let’s talk about the weather

The last couple of weeks have been cloudy, grey and cold, and it’s making me think about an experience I had not too long ago when the weather was sunny, warm and mild. I was walking my dog one morning, enjoying the beautiful weather, and I thought, “This is perfect… but soon it’ll be too hot.”

I remembered last summer (THE PAST) when the temperature would often get uncomfortably hot by early morning, and I started thinking that in a few weeks (THE FUTURE) I would have to get up earlier and change my whole routine to avoid exercising in the heat. This idea wasn’t the end of the world, of course, but it was kind of a bummer… and while this conversation was going on in my head, I had ceased being in THE PRESENT and the pleasure I was experiencing had miraculously disappeared.

This was a simple, clear example of having my attention pulled into the past and future, leaving the now — the only thing we ever truly have.

How to greet the day

It’s been a few days since I killed the to-do list, and it’s been liberating. The big fear that I’d had about getting rid of it was that I would become totally unproductive. Well, that just hasn’t happened. The things that need to get done still get done. The difference is that the pressure is off.

But it’s amazing how the process gets played out in lots of different ways. I’ve noticed recently that when I wake up in the morning, in those few minutes before I get out of bed, I’m already making a to-do list in my head. Mentally going over what I’m going to do today. Most of the time, it’s not even anything that would require preparation, like giving a speech or taking a driver’s test. I’m just picturing myself getting up, making tea, checking my e-mail, walking the dog…

RoosterAnd when I catch myself doing this little preview in my head, I notice that my body is tense. I was just asleep a minute ago, and now every muscle is tensed up. I imagine this is what it must be like for soldiers or other people who live in unsafe conditions — it makes sense for them to wake up tense because danger really is lurking. But for me, what danger is there? None!

So, I’ve been focusing my awareness on that process of waking up tense, which is, of course, not a great way to start the day. I remember reading in Deepak Chopra’s The Book of Secrets, the idea of being with yourself in those moments of waking up the same way you would sit with a child as she falls asleep. You’re not doing or saying anything; it’s simply your presence in the room that comforts her.

I think I’m finally getting that. Instead of dragging that child out of bed, telling her everything she needs to do today, it would be a lot kinder to just sit with her as she wakes up, letting her know that she’s safe and everything is going to be fine.

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