Saturday, October 3, 2015

The profundity of choice

One of the most profound, most defining, moments in my life came about 15 years ago when I was reading (for the umpteenth time) portions of Gary Zukav's book, The Seat of the Soul. I remember so clearly -- sitting in my car eating lunch in Eastsound, Orcas Island, WA.  I no longer have the book so I can't quote exactly, nor can I explain why this short passage resonated so strongly with me in that moment. But it did. I think that sometimes things simply enter our consciousness at the time we're ready to hear it, and when we most need it. I'm open to better explanations if anybody wants to offer one up.

What Gary said, paraphrased, is that we have a choice in every moment how we feel, how we react, what our outlook on life is for that moment. The proverbial light bulb lit up for me as the words sunk in. At the time, I was struggling with deep, deep, clinical depression and had been for about 20 years. My body didn't react well to most anti-depressants and their side effects, and most seemed to have little effect on the depression. I fought feelings about death being the best solution, although I never reached that suicidal moment where I actually tried to die. There was a really close moment in early 2000, not long before I moved to Orcas. A moment that scared me for its intensity. Had I been somewhere I could have done something, I think I would have. Fortunately for me, I was sitting in a theater watching some kind of ballet performance, with my housemate. By the time the performance was over, the intensity had passed and my inner strength was once again in control.

I mention all that merely to illustrate the depths of my state of mind at the moment the light bulb went off. What I took from those words in that moment was that I could make a choice in every moment to not be depressed. To let go of the overwhelm, the tension and sadness, for that moment. To feel the relief, find a little sunshine and change my outlook for that moment. I thought deeply about this while I finished lunch, then began putting the idea into action. I found that yes, I actually could make that choice. The relief from the overwhelm only lasted for that moment. There was no miraculous healing. But I was desperate, and thus driven to keep trying whatever I felt might work. I kept making the choice, as many moments of the day as I could manage. One moment at a time. Soon, one moment would become two moments. There were shorter time periods between the moments. They began to merge into longer moments.

Every small moment of success fed hope, and hope dislodges hopelessness. I was on the right track and I persevered until enough moments merged together, over and over again, until I felt that I, not the depression, was in control of my life. It was a powerful lesson. I was still depressed, but the intensity of the depression was considerably lighter.

Fast forward a few years and I attended my very first Buddhist meditation retreat, a grueling 10-day ordeal filled with exploding emotions and searing back pain. It wasn't until the 9th day of this retreat that I made a similar discovery about choice. I was sitting in the meditation hall in the morning, and realized that while the back pain was insignificant at that early hour, I was already creating suffering by thinking about how bad it would become as the day progressed. Another light bulb moment for me about making choices in any given moment. I could choose to focus on the pain that would be coming later in the day, or I could choose to go with what was happening in that very moment. I chose the latter, and it was a huge lesson for me that has had truly profound ramifications in my life over the past 10 years.

There's an adage around that says what you focus on increases and what you ignore decreases. I don't know the source of the adage -- pop psychology, real psychology? Doesn't matter, but it's something I've found to be true, certainly. If I sit around and whine, feel sorry for myself, about something or other that's happening in my life I end up being obsessed with it, keep the tapes playing around in my mind over and over, getting more and more miserable as a result. Even if it's something I perceive as a good thing, rather than a bad thing, the obsession eventually wears off and reality intrudes.

On a simplistic level, we all also have a choice in every moment whether or not to let something bother us. It's easy to get huffy, resentful, frustrated or any of a myriad other feelings when something doesn't go the way you want it to and is out of your control. Just as easy, but requiring a little effort until it becomes a habit, is shrugging it off. Choosing not to let it bother us, then going on with life.  I use that one a lot for things like noisy neighbors and yappy dogs.

It took me a few years of Buddhist study after that 2005 retreat to begin to really understand and use the Buddhist theory of impermanence, or anicca,  which can be seen as an underlying basis for making choices in the moment. I've referenced impermanence more than once on this blog, most thoroughly in the link that's highlighted. I urge you to read this if you want to understand the theory more thoroughly.

Basically, impermanence means that nothing is permanent -- big surprise there! If we look at the world, our own lives, our own bodies with honesty we can see the truth easily. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes every day, moment-to-moment. Wanting things to be any different creates struggle and misery, because stopping change is impossible. Observing life with an open mind will show you the truth in this. For me back in 2005, it meant that depression wasn't permanent. In 2010 it meant that back pain wasn't permanent. And it meant that I could choose to not focus on these things, thus stopping the proliferation of the depression, or the back pain.

Once I actually began to really understand the Buddhist teachings on impermanence on a personal experiential level, rather than simply reading about it in a book, my life changed profoundly once again. No matter what is happening in my life, I can see it in the light of impermanence and its power over me disappears. Big things, little things. I simply choose to not focus on the negativity. Changes within the aging body (inevitable!) or frustrations with a living situation, other things that arise from day to day, are all impermanent and do not merit the waste of my energy that comes with focusing on them. Granted, some physical conditions are here to stay and more will probably come as I continue to age. I may not be able to cure or heal such afflictions, but I don't have to sink into misery by focusing on them, either. I can make other choices. The choice is all mine, free for the asking, and available in every moment.

What choices could you make in your life that could lessen your physical or emotional suffering? Look closely, openly and honestly. Ask yourself the question sincerely and if you see something, give it a try. What do you have to lose?

What you have to gain is wisdom.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Believe nothing

Many westerners seem to lump Buddhism in with other 'religions' and then reject it out of hand because of presumed dogma. I find frustration with this approach, because in conversations I find these people to be unwilling or unable to look at the subject in any way other than what they already believe. I'm hardly a spokesperson to say what Buddhism is, but one thing I can say unequivocally is that whatever it is, it's not dogma, or blind belief.

One of the first things I learned, in my first ever meditation retreat where I heard my first Buddhist teachings (a 10-day Goenka retreat many years ago), was that we should not accept the teachings blindly, that they were intended to be used experientially. They only asked that we try it with an open mind and see for ourselves whether or not the teachings and practice were beneficial to us.

Many years later when I lived in Georgia and attended a monthly half-day retreat at someone's home for about 3 years, the host always ended the retreat with the above words (from the book Beginning to See, by Sujata), which always stuck with me because of their beauty as much as because of their message. But the message is the basis of what I follow and what we are asked to follow, and the explanation far better than any words I could put together.

For most of us who approach our Buddhist practice with this philosophy, we find that the path indeed leads to good and happiness for all creatures, including ourselves first and foremost. There is no 'idol worship' involved. I've been accused of that, among other things, from a preconceived bias of another person. For most of us westerners who practice Buddhism, the draw is Buddhist psychology, which simply teaches us how to train our own mind for our own benefit, which ripples out to benefit others we encounter. It's not a religious practice.

For me, this simple bit of philosophy from the renowned Thai monk Ajahn Chah, says it all:

 The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are.

We learn to let go of unwholesome mental states such as anger, hatred, greed, attachment and judgment. We replace these with more wholesome mental states such as metta (loving-kindness), compassion, generosity, acceptance and goodwill. None of it happens overnight -- you can't simply decide to never be angry again, for example, and have that come to fruition. For most of us, it's a continual process, based in mindfulness and awareness (a relaxed, open state in which we can observe our thoughts, feelings, and behavior as they arise, without being overtaken by them), that releases the anger or other unwholesome state bit by bit until one day one becomes aware that yes, anger is gone! It comes from deep inside, not from a surface thought, and it's permanent. And it certainly does not come from believing that if we accept the principle as a dogma, the Buddha will then grant our wishes, or that some rite or ritual will be our salvation. WE are our salvation. The Buddha only taught the steps that lead us there. WE have to do the actual work to arrive at the destination, the goal, which is simply a state called true happiness.

You have to do your own work;
Enlightened Ones will only show the way.
Those who practice meditation
will free themselves from the chains of death.
Dhammapada 20.276
As opposed to situational happiness, which comes from circumstances in our life that bring joy for a short while, true happiness comes from releasing unwholesome states, from replacing them with wholesome states. And until you try it for yourself, you'll just have to take my word (and the word of thousands of others who've tried it) that true happiness is far, far better than any situational happiness could ever be because it's steady and lasting and always with us. We don't need outside influences to bring happiness, we only need what's inside ourselves.

As to the subject of whether or not Buddhism is a religion, I leave that to more learned folks than I. From my experience and observation, and from my earliest teaching (at the above-referenced Goenka retreat), it was impressed upon me that the teachings were non-denominational and were appropriate and non-conflicting for people from any or no religious background. It's not at all unusual to see a Catholic nun, for example, at these retreats. There was one at my first retreat. The Church does not see the teachings as conflicting with their own teachings.

A few years ago at a retreat at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, Bhante Gunaratana was speaking in the meditation hall and brought up the question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion. He (a Sri Lankan by birth) said that it is indeed a religion, an old and respected religion, but he also acknowledged that most westerners don't practice it as such. A friend of mine, Bhante Cintita Dinsmore of the Sitagu monastery in Austin, TX is a western monk who has written extensively on the subject from a western viewpoint. He wrote of what he called 'folk Buddhism', which came about as the Buddha's basic teachings traveled slowly from India into the various countries and cultures of southeast Asia. Here, he said, the teachings were blended with the already-existing religious cultures and became part of those religious cultures. If you are interested in his writings, visit his blog Through the Looking Glass.

A student of Buddhism will readily see that there are still differences between Burmese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, the Buddhism of Laos and Vietnam and Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia and others, all home to Theravada Buddhism practices.  Most of southeast Asia practices Theravada Buddhism, as I do. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism have evolved into quite different and thus separate divisions of Buddhism, no longer under the Theravada umbrella. But as different as they may be, all of these follow the same core psychology and teachings of the Buddha. It's only the expression of these teachings that may vary from place to place. The Buddha himself said that he was not a god and that he was not to be worshiped. All he asked was that people follow the path to true happiness that he learned in his years of meditation and finally, his enlightenment. Meditation and a search for these things had been long-practiced in India even 2500 years ago, but he brought something new and profound to the picture and that's what made him The Buddha, as opposed to other buddha's or wise men who had come before him.

But, don't believe me, either. Try it for yourself, with an open mind and a willingness to trust that 2500 years and thousands of people who have benefited can't be all wrong. This much is required initially. A closed mind with immovable pre-conceived ideas will never budge. Give it time. Learn from people who know (don't make it up for yourself). If indeed you find that the path works, then and only then should you follow it, like the moon in the path of the stars.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Aranya Bodhi - A Forest Hermitage for Buddhist Women

From upper access road, headed down to common areas
Hidden deep in the hills of the Sonoma Coast in Northern California lies a true jewel, a refuge for Buddhist women that's unlike anything else available in this country. Carved from the surrounding redwood forest, off-grid and primitive while at the same time offering running water, electricity and internet access in common areas, Aranya Bodhi is a perfect place for deep meditation and practice away from the busyness of the modern world.

I admit to bias. I've spent time there during each of the past three summers and I consider the Bhikkhunis to be good friends. But bias aside, I've watched it grow and develop over these years and I see it as it is, without pretension and without hype. This is a special place and it's run by very special women who are a constant inspiration to those of us who spend time in their presence. Personally, I am deeply drawn to go there and stay, as I have been from the beginning, yet there remains in me enough resistance that I know permanent, or even long-term, residency is probably not for me. This isn't a reflection on the people or the place, but my own shortcomings that I've yet to overcome, as well as creeping old age.

An ancient Korean stupa sits high on a sunny hill.
After my first visit in 2012 I wrote this on another blog, long before this blog became even an idea. There's a good bit of history, of the land and the place, written here and rather than repeat myself, I'll let you choose what to read. Missing from that story were photos of the infrastructure, which was minimal. Two old travel trailers composed what's referred to as the lower landing, serving as a tool shed and sangha hall/office. There was also an outdoor shower in a tent. The water was hot some of the time, but once that warmth was turned off the cool forest breeze would blow aside the flimsy nylon 'door' (which looked into the forest, actually quite private), and encourage a quick dry-off and dressing. Nippy! Mold was a constant battle in the trailers, with the cool and moist coastal conditions.

The new tool shed, built almost entirely by women!
On the upper landing, another old travel trailer held the kitchen, very inadequately so. There were challenges with the space, with storage, with workability, with rodents, yet everyone made it work and met the challenges with the Buddhist attitude towards working with challenges in life. Several individual wooden kutis (huts, for sleeping and meditation, with heat but without electricity or plumbing) were scattered through the redwoods. Things were on the primitive side, all around, but good plans were in the offing, awaiting sufficient funding to put them in place. Still, things were happening -- more kutis were constructed and a new tool shed. One old trailer was hauled away.

The robes shed, with part of the outdoor kitchen visible
Then, in early summer of 2013 the mold issue drove almost everyone from the property just as Bhikkhunis and lay women from around the world were gathering in anticipation of a summer vassa retreat. While once more attempting to make the kitchen trailer work, with a new interior to offer more space and fight the rodents and mold, a worker accidentally punctured the black water bladder that served the old (and non-functional) toilet. A miasma of unhealthy and unpleasant odors and air permeated the entire clearing, along with toxic mold fumes uncovered when tearing out old interior walls. Many of the women became ill, developing allergic reactions and some required medical assistance. All but one Bhikkhuni and one lay person fled the property to stay with scattered supporters inland. The sangha trailer had become dangerous from toxic mold and offered no refuge. Things looked bleak indeed. Women who had thought to visit that summer, or think about long-term residency or ordination, changed their plans as word spread quickly through the community.

Yurt interior is always pleasant and peaceful
Back in Georgia, I kept vaguely abreast of these happenings, although I didn't realize the extent of it until I returned from a retreat at Bhavana. Then, I learned that Ayya Sobhana, the prioress and dear friend, was mostly alone there and working alone to overcome the many obstacles and continue to develop the property. She had one lay woman visiting, another due soon for a few weeks, but then no visitors were scheduled for a long time period. When I read this after my retreat, I immediately offered to come out and help, even though I hadn't planned to visit that summer. She chose dates of greatest need and I flew to California for about 5 weeks.

By the time I arrived, the kitchen trailer had been demolished down to the frame and work was soon to begin on building a new, wooden structure on the frame. In the meantime, an outdoor kitchen had been put together under canopies near the laundry area. Kitchen equipment consisted of three deep laundry tubs, a refrigerator around the side of the robes shed, two big camp stoves, a few cabinets and a counter top. Food storage was in a couple of old chest freezers, not plugged in but rodent proof, on the other side of the clearing near a portable shed that held dry supplies. We rotated jugs of ice between the two cold storage units and the refrigerator freezer. The sangha trailer was still there and we still used it -- against common sense -- for shelter while using our computers.

Ayya Sobhana
Still, some fine meals came from that primitive kitchen during those weeks as I met my own fears and challenges about being responsible for daily meals for anyone other than myself. I learned to cook with whatever was on hand, often veggies I didn't even recognize and others that I recognized but had never cooked. Shoppers in town loaded us up on fresh food every couple of weeks, and it had to last and it had to be kept fresh. Fortunately, Ayya Sobhana is an 'easy keeper', not fussy about food, but for me one big challenge was preparing enough at each noon meal, since the monastics can't eat again until breakfast the following morning and Ayya worked hard physically, from morning to night.

Somehow, we both survived my cooking challenges and when I left, it wasn't without a lot of sadness. I'd come to really enjoy being outdoors for food preparation, even on foggy mornings. It had been a good visit and somehow I adapted to living in the forest much better than I had the previous summer. Work was underway on the new kitchen trailer and the other Bhikkhunis were settled into a long-term rental in Santa Rosa, where they still reside, with frequent visits to the forest.

Upper landing, new kitchen on right
Fast forward a year or so and after driving west from Georgia late last April I returned to the forest for a longer visit. Three months had been planned, but then it turned out that there were needs at the vihara in Santa Rosa (and my body was getting tired of the hills), so in the end I spent only two months at the hermitage, and my last month in a lovely home in the country, caring for and getting to know the other two resident Bhikkhunis better.

New sangha hall, lower landing
By then, the new kitchen trailer was long finished and the new shower had been completed. More solar panels had been installed and internet had been expanded up the hill to the kitchen. Running water in the kitchen was potable (!) and other improvements made, including removal of the last travel trailer and newly-finished construction of a wooden sangha hall on the lower landing.

Formal blessing of new buildings last summer
Kitchen interior
There are still challenges -- although this phase of construction is finished and the entire place is quiet, peaceful, fresh and healthy with plenty of time for individual meditation or supported personal retreats. Those two months last summer were blissful. I still did the cooking, as I was the only lay person there for most of the time, but while I had a lot of nostalgia for the outdoor kitchen, I enjoyed the luxuries of the new one, and the new shower. The yurt had been cleaned and disinfected (the toxic air penetrated into that, as well), insulated, and with a wonderful gas fireplace to warm it up.

Shower - just like home!
There is still no indoor plumbing of the toilet sort, and won't be until the next building phase at some future date. Laundry is still done by hand or sometimes, at a laundromat in a town about 20 miles away.
Laundry equipment

The hills are still steep and one cannot go anywhere without going up or down a hill. The trails are in good shape, but can be difficult in low light. There are insects, cougars, rattlesnakes and various other wildlife, although rarely encountered. Still -- the trade-off is all those quiet acres of redwoods for practice, for walking and exploring. The daily meditation and chanting in the yurt, the whole monastic experience, is invaluable.To succeed here one needs to be in good shape physically, comfortable with 'camping out' in a rustic kuti or tent out of sight or sound of others.

Solar panels and new shower on wheels
There are other benefits too, of the fun sort. A creek-walk to a beautiful waterfall. A visit to a beach at the foot of the hill. A full-moon kayak paddle (not always available). Quiet reflection and the opportunity to put the Buddha's teaching into practice in daily life around others who understand. These, and other, opportunities more than make up for the hardships.

The local beach

Scattered kutis
Lots of hiking trails

All in all, I urge any woman to give it a try. If you've considered a visit previously but were turned off by the mold/toxicity issues, be assured that this is long in the past and that it's clean and beautiful and safe, a refuge and a haven. If Aranya Bodhi is new to you, and if you are physically and emotionally able to live in the forest safely, I encourage you to contact them and schedule a visit. Spring, summer and fall are perfect times, as the weather is warm (other than the cool ocean breezes in the mornings) and often sunny. There are trails to hike, many private places to sit and meditate outside or in your kuti or a platform tent.

Contact and more information can be found at the Aranya Bodhi website.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Letting Go

Lots of people don't easily grasp the concept of letting go, but it's really quite simple and it's really quite necessary if we want to clear our minds of unwanted (what we'd call unwholesome in Buddhism) thoughts. All you have to do is change the subject. And yes, it is quite that simple, although it's not an immediate solution and requires vigilance on your  part. In that respect, you do have to do some work to make it happen.

We all have obsessive thoughts that plague us from time to time and the instinct is to grab onto those thoughts and dissect them. Try to understand them. Analyze them. Look at them from all angles. The same can be said for deep emotional damages, whether they are recent or long-standing. We want to get rid of them, but we don't know how. Again, we analyze and dissect as we search for a way to stop the pain. Some of this can be helpful -- at least you'll understand what the problem is and where it came from -- but it won't solve the problem.

Grabbing onto these thoughts, keeping them roiling around in our minds, is the worst thing we can do. There's an old truism that says what you think about increases. The more you think about this painful stuff, the stronger it becomes. Conversely, not thinking about all that painful stuff weakens its hold on you, so what we need to do is change the subject when these thoughts arise. It's like a radio station playing constantly in your mind with music you don't like. If you don't like the station, you need to change the station to a station you enjoy.

So, when an unwholesome or painful subject arises in your thoughts, immediately put your mind on something different. It doesn't matter so much what the new station is -- it could be pleasant memories of a beautiful place, or a person you love, a favorite pet, or even work. If the pain comes from a person in your life, past or present, dead or alive, you can offer that person sincere metta, or lovingkindness, which works as an antidote to the negative feelings. All that matters is that the original, painful subject has been replaced in your mind. You'll no doubt need to do this countless times, as the mind has a tendency to go back to that strong subject over and over until you let it go and it loses its power over you. But, keep doing it. Over and over -- hundreds of times, thousands of times, whatever is needed. All that's required is vigilance, combined with diligence. How long it takes until the painful subject loses its power over you varies from person to person, but it will happen.

The mind will react. It'll keep trying to push the pain to the surface, but if you gently and kindly change the subject, the mind will eventually get the message. Using metta can often speed things along, as metta is very powerful. The painful thoughts will arise less and less often, and when they do arise, you'll find it much easier to just ignore them and let them go. In fact, it's good to start using the phrase let go when you change the subject, each and every time until it becomes second nature. And it will become second nature. I tend to be lighthearted about things that arise that aren't wholesome. When I notice my mind beginning to obsess on something, I will often talk to it in a jesting way, such as Oh, no you don't! I see you and I'm not falling for it. Not going to think about you, or something like that. Then I change the subject. Those old painful thoughts will lessen, and the mind will recognize that those thoughts no longer have a hold over you. They might arise, but there's no more pain accompanying them. Because you've let it go.

You haven't analyzed it, solved it, beaten it into submission by stuffing it down (we all know how well that works -- if you stuff it down it always manages to rise to the surface again, often stronger than ever). You have let it go, and letting go is permanent.

I speak these words from personal experience, having tried all the wrong ways to rid myself of childhood issues, adult issues, and recognizing that none of it really worked. Learning to let go worked, it has worked for thousands (millions!) of people over many centuries and it will work for you. Give it a try -- what do you have to lose other than all that suffering?