Thursday, October 30, 2014

Angry Baby

My daughter Grace in an angry moment.

I read this last week, from Mark Epstein, one of my favorite Buddhist writers:

If you are angry and you meditate to get rid of your anger, you will only frustrate yourself. Meditate because you are angry, not to eliminate it. Thich Nhat Hanh says we must learn how to hold anger like a baby: we need to learn how to be angry, not how to express or repress it. Whenever we take any emotion and make it into an It (as in "I can't stand it any longer" or "I have to get it out of my system"), we are in trouble.

And now I don't really know what to do with that. I am angry. I am hurt. I'm so angry I wake up from dreams of it. While driving my car I have flashbacks of the events that make me angry. I'm so angry my blood feels as though it has been poisoned and I have difficulty breathing the air as though it too has been poisoned.

I know the poison is coming from within me, from memories of my childhood that have been stirred up. If I continue to repress the anger, I'll continue to be sick from depression and anxiety. If I express it, I'll cause harm to others. So what the hell am I supposed to do with this damn Anger Baby that I didn't even ask for in the first place!?!


I've read a lot about anger this week. Buddhism seems to suggest that forgiveness is the way to go, even if the perpetrator isn't sorry and continues to be abusive. Yeah, I'm not there yet. Am I supposed to eventually wind up as some kind of Mother Theresa-esque figure? No wonder so many people think Buddhism is nuts.

But Mark Epstein doesn't jump on the forgiveness train. He says,

So you're still angry and you're wondering what's the matter with you? Probably nothing. Don't compare the Bodhisattva path with being a Buddha and expect yourself to have purified every emotion.

Okay. So I don't have to be Mother Theresa. But I'm still mother to this Anger Baby. Guess I'm just supposed to sit here and hold it. Nurse it? Rock it? Throw it out with the bathwater? No. Just hold it. Maybe hold it and realize I am that angry baby.

And maybe that's enough for right now.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Quarreling on the Internet.

In this world 

Hate never yet dispelled hate. 
Only love dispels hate. 
This is the law, 
Ancient and inexhaustible. 

You too shall pass away. 
Knowing this, how can you quarrel? 

- from the Dhammapada 

We read this passage from the Dhammapada this weekend at temple. Our guiding teacher mentioned (while laughing) that this passage comes in handy when dealing with internet arguments. 


That stuck with me. I can't tell you how many times a day I have to walk away from internet fights. I don't like to fight. Don't get me wrong. I hate conflict. But when it comes to issues of social justice and equality, or child abuse or prejudice … these issues get me riled up!

Most times I walk away. I mean, I realize that arguing on the internet is like throwing sand against the wind. I get it. It blows back in your face. But sometimes I just can't stay quiet! Even though I know I'm not going to change anyone's mind with a really insightful and well-written response on a Facebook post.


What a timely reading for the week the SCOTUS decision came down on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. It's hard not to quarrel this week, my friends.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Father's Day: Unsung Hero.

A guest teacher stood in yesterday for the morning meditation session. I really appreciated the talk. Much of it focused on the act of fatherhood and the unsung deeds we as parents do for our children. So often fathers don't get all the glory that moms get. This reading stuck with me, a poem by the late Detroit poet Robert Hayden:

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he’d call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, 1913 - 1980

My husband had agreed to go to temple with me and I was extra conscious of him as I sat listening to the poem. Our knees were almost touching and I kept sneaking glances at him to see how he was doing during the service. I thought it was awfully nice of him to come to temple with me on this his day, Father's Day. He didn't even get to sleep in. His crazy wife dragged him to downtown Detroit to sit inside in silence on a beautiful Sunday morning. And then this poem.

How the last few words of the poem resonated. I couldn't help but think of the dedicated husband and father sitting next to me. I thought of the million small deeds that my husband does on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis without much recognition at all. 

He pays all the bills. He puts a roof over our heads. He is literally having a new roof installed over our heads next week. If anything breaks, he either fixes it or calls someone to come and fix it. He takes out the trash. He changes the light bulbs. He organizes the storage containers in the basement. He edges the lawn and sweeps the driveway. He makes me coffee. He grinds the coffee beans. He empties the dishwasher. He combs our daughter's hair. Sometimes he even braves a pony tail. He sets up a television in my son's bedroom so he can play video games undisturbed. He sends our daughter to a beautiful preschool right around the corner from our house. He's sent his three older children to college so that they won't have to start out their lives with debt. He takes our cars to the dealership for tune-ups and repairs. He organizes the garage and hangs the bikes from the rafters. He cleans out the grill. He stops to pick up my medicine on the way home from work. He sometimes works 70, 80 or 90 hour weeks in order to make sure our future and our children's futures are secure. He worries about our retirement. He had our wills drawn up. He buys me purses and rubs my back. He calls his dad on Father's Day and he checks in on his older kids to make sure they're okay … but he tries to give them the space that they've earned as adults to live their own lives. He navigates us all.

He does all of these things in a very unremarked and uncelebrated way. He'd do all of it whether we thanked him or appreciated it or not, of course. It is a most selfless kind of love. One that knows it won't always get recognition but he does it anyway. Because he wants us to have nice lives. He wants to take care of everyone. He wants us to be safe and secure. Because that's what dads do, he would say.

And then our four-year-old daughter hollers for Mama. She wants to sit next to Mama at the dinner table. Wants to go wherever Mama goes. Wants Mama to brush her hair and Mama to sit next to her on the couch. Mama this and Mama that.

But Daddy has to read the stories. And Daddy has to serenade her to sleep with his guitar. And Daddy has to make up songs about her that make her laugh. And Daddy will always say "Yes" to the park.

But what do any of us really know of "love's austere and lonely offices?" What do any of us know of a love that is so freely given that we almost don't notice it? That is the love of parents, is it not? Children will never know how much their parents loved them. Even in their flawed and stumbling efforts. God knows we all screw up. God knows we'd all take so much back. But the love we give and the love we have for all of them. Our children. Our spouses. Our families. Our friends. Sometimes that love is so great it is almost unbearable.

So often love seems unbalanced. Someone is more loving than another. Someone has more to give and someone else needs more to take. The way of love is not steady. The way we give it and the way we receive it. And so often we feel unremarked, uncared-for and unappreciated.

And yet we continue to love. We continue the gestures. We change the light bulbs. We pay the bills. We chase the cold out of the room. And sometimes our loved ones don't even notice the warmth and light. I guess this is my way of saying, I notice you, Frederick. I do. Thank you for loving all of us the way that you do.

Frederick and Grace. 2010.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Coming Home: Taking the Five Precepts.

After practicing Buddhism for 25 years, I finally took the Precepts this past Sunday. If you're not a Buddhist, taking your Precepts is pretty much the only big ceremony you'll have as a Buddhist. I mean, unless you become a guiding teacher or a dharma student or something along those lines. But for your average Buddhist lay person, the Precept-Taking Ceremony is the big show. It's like getting baptized, taking your first communion, getting Bat Mitzvah'ed and all that rolled into one. With this ceremony, you are publicly stating in front of your temple and all the world that you are officially taking the Five Precepts into your heart and walking on the Buddha's path.

The Five Precepts have many different interpretations and translations, but this is the gist of them:

1. Don't kill.
2. Don't steal.
3. Don't lie.
4. Don't be unchaste.
5. Don't drink or do drugs.

This is an over-simplification of course, but this is just my own humble blog. I don't feel the need to explain what "unchaste" means or what all the possible interpretations of "not clouding the mind with drugs and alcohol" could be. I have read the "unchaste" precepts as "do no use your sexuality to cause harm to yourself or others." So that doesn't mean No Sex Ever. I've also seen the "don't do drugs or alcohol" as "don't drink to intoxication." I'm getting sidetracked. But you get the main idea that there's some leeway in the Precepts, in case you thought I was going to live the life of some kind of nun.

The Precepts are not an end, as our guiding teacher reminded us, they are a beginning. Taking your Precepts does not mean that you have to be a perfect person from here on out. A lot of people avoid taking the Precepts because they fear that they cannot live up to them. My teacher says that taking the Precepts only means that you are on the path. It is a beginning, not an ending.

Others avoid the Precepts because they do not feel worthy. Some people have issues with not feeling good enough to belong. I can say in my early years of Buddhist practice, I was more concerned with not being able to live up to the Precepts and not wanting to give up all my vices.

Now that I'm older, the vices aren't as much of a concern to me. And I've seen all kinds of Buddhists living all kinds of lives and it seems like you're pretty much allowed to forge your own path. So for the past decade or so, I would say avoiding the precepts has not been about the Precepts themselves.

It's been about me.

It's been about not feeling good enough to belong. I built the Precepts up in my mind to something really, really big. Something that I did not deserve to have. Ceremonies are funny that way. Think about the marriage ceremony. You can live with someone and love them for your whole life and never marry them. You can have children, live together, die together and never go through that one public ceremony. Why is that? For some people, the ceremony itself brings out a lot of deeper issues.

It's kind of that way with me. I guess I've had cold feet with the Precepts for 25 years. I didn't think I was worthy of them. And so when I asked my husband to take them with me, it was with great relief and gratitude that I heard him say "Yes, I'd love to."

Maybe I needed someone to hold my hand? And how perfect that it would be my husband.

I never had anyone love me like this. Never had anyone convert to my religion for me. I never really thought it was necessary. I never really thought I cared. But my husband desires closeness above all else. And for him, taking the Precepts was a way of being closer to me.

How beautiful is that? How beautiful is he?

When we arrived the morning of the Precept-Taking Ceremony, we did an hour of prostrations with the other people who were taking the Precepts and with teachers and dharma students. The guiding teacher described prostration as a kind of "full body prayer." I like that a lot. Though we so often pray for others and dedicate our prayers to those who are suffering or ill, our guiding teacher asked us to do something different on this day. He asked us to do the prostrations for ourselves. To do them for the child in us who felt we didn't deserve love. For the child who did not belong. For that ancient and wounded part of ourselves.

And of course that made me cry. The tears slid down the sides of my face. I was too embarrassed to wipe them away because I didn't want anyone to know I was already crying. I pretty much knew I was going to be a wreck through this entire thing.

We did prostrations together in that room. Over and over again until the sweat dripped off the tip of my nose. We did prostrations until our t-shirts were soaked through with sweat. We did prostrations until we left sweat marks on the meditation mats. We did them until I became one with my mat and even thought to myself every time I came back down on it, "I LOVE YOU MAT."

People can get very attached to their mats.

I full-body prayed to the little girl I once was. I had compassion and love for her. And I allowed her to belong at long last.

When it came time for the ceremony, my husband was called up before I was. I cried the whole time he was up there. Cried as he stated his name. Cried as he accepted the Precepts. Cried when he got his Buddhist name "Jin Ung" or "True Harmony" and then cried some more as he bent his head to receive his prayer beads.

The entire time he was up there, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of absolute love. I could not believe how generous he was being with his love. Here he was, standing in a strange temple, performing strange rituals that are not native to him, and yet he did it willingly and happily. What did I ever do to deserve such a person?

By the time it was my turn, I was the last to go. I stood up to walk down the aisle and I was already crying. The words that kept repeating in my mind were, "You're coming home. You are finally home." And that is really how the whole experience  has felt to me. I cried the whole walk up to the altar. I cried as I recited the words my guiding teacher said to me, I cried to receive my Buddhist name Jin Hwa or "True Flower," and I sniffled my way back down the aisle with my beads and my book.

I wore my beads the next day to work, underneath my clothes. You don't have to wear your beads, but I wanted to. I wanted to feel them on my skin. I wanted to be reminded that I was home. Finally.

Monday, June 9, 2014

True Flower.

I took the Precepts this weekend. Taking your Five Precepts is the major event for a Buddhist. The only equivalents I can think of are perhaps choosing to get baptized as an adult, becoming confirmed as a Catholic or being Bar Mitzvahed as a Jewish person. While I have so much to say about this ceremony and this major event in my life, for now, I will just comment on my newly bestowed Buddhist name.

When you take the Five Precepts you are given a Buddhist name. Everyone who takes the precepts with you at the same time receives the same first name. Then you are each given your own second name. The guiding teacher picks that second name especially for you.

This year the teacher chose names that began with J. He chose the word Jin which means "True." My husband, who took the Precepts with me, is Jin Ung or "True Harmony." It's such a fitting name for him on many levels. One, because he desires harmony more than anyone I know and has worked harder to achieve it than anyone I know. And two, because he is a musician. Isn't that beautiful?

My name is Jin Hwa or "True Flower."

The name immediately reminded me of the time my teacher told us about Rev. Suzuki's talk on the Flower vs. the Weed. The quote that stood out for me at the time was:

"Flower falls, even though we love it. The weed, which we do not care for, will come up."

I wondered at the time whether guilt was a flower or a weed. I wondered about many aspects of myself and whether they were flowers or weeds. Perhaps my unwillingness to take the precepts for the past 25 years has been because I thought I was a weed. Not good enough to belong in the garden of the sangha, you see.

But my teacher named me True Flower.

And this reminds me that I am good enough. I do belong. And I would like to bloom in the company of my sangha.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are You Sure?

Before the Forsythia blooms.
In temple this past weekend, the guiding teacher spoke of right and wrong and how it isn't always entirely clear which is which and what is what. Right and wrong can be shades of gray. And if you doubt that, just look to the disagreements you've had with the people in your life.
Surely both you and the person you disagreed with felt as if you were each "right." So who is correct? It's partly a matter of perception. The guiding teacher cited Thich Nhat Hanh's story of hanging a sign on your wall that reads, "Are you sure?" In that teaching, Hanh explains:
"The mantra I would like you to practice is, 'Are you sure?' Are you sure of your perceptions? Don’t stick to that feeling, that perception, that belief, that impression. You will avoid a lot of suffering in the future if you are open to reexamine and explore each of your views. 
… In each of us there is a river of perceptions flowing day and night. To meditate means to sit on the bank of the river and observe all perceptions. With the energy of mindfulness, we can see the nature of our perceptions and untie the knots that bind us to our wrong perceptions. All our suffering has its roots in our wrong perceptions, so please practice the mantra, 'Are you sure?' Always refer to it and try to look more and more deeply. Our views can be more or less wrong. When we have true understanding, we transcend all kinds of views, even our views of the Four Noble Truths."

So often I think, "Yes, of course! It's so obvious." But then I am quickly reminded by how fallible I am. Just a day after I'd heard this story I had a disagreement with my husband. And while I stewed about how unjust it all was and how terribly wrong he was about it, a little voice whispered, "Are you sure?"

Man, that little voice pissed me off!
Just kidding. I actually listened to that voice and let doubt seep into my brain and heart. So much of what I react to is more about my old feelings of injustice and neglect. So often these feelings have nothing to do with the present I am living in today and more to do with the little girl I once was who lived in a house with an alcoholic parent, with no one to watch over me and take care of me.
So am I sure? Am I sure I am being neglected or treated unfairly in the present day?
No. I'm certain of my feelings, but not the facts. I don't always know what is right or wrong or who is right and who is wrong. Often I'm wrong. Sure it sucks to be wrong, but at least I can do something with that knowledge. I'm not a powerless child who is a victim of her circumstances. I'm a grown woman with the capacity to take care of myself. This perception (and this reality) changes everything.
Yesterday I went to see my psychiatrist for a six-month check up on how the Lexapro is working on my depression and anxiety. I've been on the medication for just over a year and we took an overview of how I've been doing on it. When I first came to see the psychiatrist, I was very unhappy with my job and felt completely overwhelmed by working full time, taking care of two children, and maintaining a marriage. I was depressed and had almost no energy for anything in my life. I was convinced I had to change everything in order to change anything.
"Right now, I'm the most productive I've ever been!" I said.
We both marveled at how much I'm managing to do right now. I still have the full-time job. I still have two children and a husband. But now in addition to those things, I'm going to graduate school at night. I'm writing a book and working with a writing coach and an editor. I've formed a writer's group. I'm more content despite the fact that the basics of my life have not changed.
But my perceptions have changed. Not my reality. Not my job. Not the two kids and the husband. And instead of removing things in my life in order to decrease the stress, I've added to it.
The things I've added have added energy and meaning to my life. I'm reinvigorated. Writing a book has given me meaning and purpose. Going to graduate school has given me a sense of accomplishment and pride. I'm fulfilled by writing the book and going to school in ways that I am not fulfilled in my professional career.
Yet I did not need to quit my job in order to change the way I felt about my life. Nothing has changed, except my mind. And once my mind changed, I changed. Was I sure a year ago that I needed to change my job? Change my life? Do fewer things to reduce stress? I thought I was. But turns out I wasn't right. Am I sure about everything in my life right now?
It turns out I don't know everything. I'm not always right. But what I do know now is to ask the question. To reconsider. To make changes from within. To always ask, "Am I sure?"

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sans Drama.

Spring has finally arrived after a long winter.
Yesterday I was sitting in temple, supposedly meditating but instead thinking about this blog that I haven't posted in lately. I started thinking back to why I named it Buddha Mama Sans Drama. I sometimes wonder if people read that title and think it's hubris on my part to call myself that.

Because I assure you it's not.

I'm in no way under the illusion that I will live my life without drama or that I am a person who is free from drama. That actually makes me laugh. The name of the blog was always aspirational.

When I first started blogging under this name, it was because I was a single mom with a baby and a whole lot of drama. I was trying to extricate myself from a dramatic relationship. I was trying to land on my own two feet. I was trying to learn how to live on my own, in a new job, in a new apartment, with a baby and no family nearby to help. It was a very dramatic time.

The idea was, I wanted to be a Buddha Mama Sans Drama. A drama-free life sounded like perfection at that time. Have I attained it? Hell no. I have a job. I have two children. I have a marriage. I have friends. I have family. I have bills. I have a body. I have a mind. I have a life. Therefore, I have drama.

Sometimes I think life is drama.

I mean, what is drama really,  if it isn't what's happening on the stage of your life?

Life keeps happening so long as you're alive.

It's funny that way.

So back to Buddha Mama Sans Drama. I still love that name. And I think it still fits. Nope, I never attained the drama-free life and I never will. But what I am still searching for is that place within me that is still.

A quiet place within where I can retreat in times of stress and upheaval.

The girl on the mat.

The mom holding her child.

The writer tapping the keyboard.

The jogger pounding the treadmill.

The woman sipping wine, watching the sun set through the trees.

These moments are within me. Sometimes. Not all the time. Of course the Lexapro and Xanax are helping too.

That moment I'm seeking reminds me of these words of Albert Camus:

In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized through it all that …
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger — something better, pushing right back.