All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do? — Dhammapada 129 130
My son and I have been watching a pair of peregrine falcons that laid three eggs on the roof of the advertising agency where I work. The entire agency and surrounding community have been watching the pair with great interest. I have to say, I've been quite drawn in by this bit of falconry on the roof. A few weeks ago, two of the eggs hatched. One did not. Since then, my son and I have been watching the two peregrine parents as they watch over their babies.
We rush home after work and school to see what the babies are doing. We check on them before we go to bed. We watch their mother as she sits on the edge of the building, her proud profile outlined by a spectacular spring sunset. And we watch them first thing when we get up in the morning. My son even shared the livefeed of the peregrine falcons with his third grade class.
It touches me to watch the careful parenting going on not so many floors above my head. I watched as the falcon parents tucked the eggs underneath their bodies to keep them warm. And I watched as the mother falcon spread her wings to keep her babies dry during the rain. One of the commenters on the livefeed affectionately called her, "Mombrella."
Max and I fretted when strong gusts of wind whipped up over the top of the building, the mother falcon struggling to stay on top of her babies. Her feathers ruffled, but her babies stayed in place, thankfully.
We were somewhat scandalized to see mother and father tear up seagulls and pigeons for meals. But we marveled at how much those babies could eat and how fast they grew! The one remaining egg seemed so small in comparison to the growing birds. But I watched as the mother and father still tried to tuck that non-viable egg in with the rest. It made my heart stir, how could it not?
Last Friday morning my son and I awoke to a sad sight. The mother falcon was sitting on one baby falcon, trying to keep it warm. The other baby falcon was off to the side, not moving. I'm not sure if it was the cold snap we experienced the night before, or if it was smothered, or whether it got some kind of sickness — but one of the baby falcons was dead.
I scrolled back through the livefeed to see what happened. At around 14:25 you could see what appeared to be the mother or father peregrine trying to warm the dead baby. The falcon nudged and poked at the baby with its beak. The parent repeatedly tried to brood the baby, perhaps trying to revive it with the warmth of its body? I don't know.
It was hard to watch.
We have watched these peregrine parents as they so tenderly and attentively watched their eggs. Tucked them under their feathers. Scooted the babies back to where they belonged. We watched the parents fly and kill for their young. We watched the parents feed their young. Brooding them. Holding their feathers carefully over the tender white heads of their babies as we ourselves might do with our own children.
I don't know who among us can't feel empathy for this scene. I feel connected to the universe in this moment of grief over a dead baby falcon. I know it might seem silly, but it feels as if we are all parents. As if we are all babies. That we are all beings that want to survive. That we all fear death. And yes, we all tremble before violence.
I went to the funeral of my best friend's father last week. I watched as my friend threw dirt on the coffin, in the ground. I wept to see it. The final goodbye. Death, it is not gentle or kind. I attended my step-mother's funeral earlier this year. My step-father has passed away. I have lost friend a friend who was far too young to die. I have attended the funeral of a child. We all hear of so many deaths in the news. Such news is unrelenting.
The older I get the more I witness death. The more I witness death, the more I see that I am undeniably connected to every living thing on the planet. Every person. Every animal. Every leaf on a tree. We're all trying to survive on this bright blue marble in a sea of stars. We're all being born and we are all dying. The pulse of the universe beats with our births and deaths.
It is one heartbeat.
It is one pulse that contains us all.
And my heart breaks just a bit for one baby falcon. It's just a tiny bird. Practically insignificant. But in this moment I feel as though it is significant. Just as another falcon somewhere, perhaps today even, is pushing its beak through a shell. Is tasting life. Is being born again. Just as we are all being born and dying and living in the space between. We all have our moment as we hang here between the stars. It all seems impossibly fragile and precious. All of it. All of us. Just for today.
I heard this at my temple today in celebration of the Buddha's birthday. It filled me with joy. As does this sunny day in Detroit. Happy birthday to all of you Buddhas, whatever form or mood you may take on this fine day in May.
by Ven. SongCh'ol
The Late Patriarch of the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism
To all you noble Buddhas currently living in prison, happy birthday. To all you austere Buddhas selling your smiles in taverns, happy birthday. To you countless Buddhas twinkling in the night sky, happy birthday. And happy birthday to all of you brightly smiling, beautiful Buddhas in the gardens.
To all you Buddhas who have become endlessly changing clouds drifting across the sky, to all you Buddhas who are quietly biding your time as boulders — a very happy birthday to you, too.
And happy birthday to all you cute little Buddhas swimming in the waters. To all you lively Buddhas soaring about the sky. To all you reverential Buddhas singing hymns in churches, and to all you handsome Buddhas chanting in temples.
To all you Buddhas hoeing and plowing the fields and paddies, to all you Buddhas sweating in the humming factories, to all you Buddhas working in dust and dirt, and to all you Buddhas quietly studying in classrooms — let me wish you all a very happy birthday.
When I open my eyes, you are Buddha, and when I close my eyes you are Buddha. Everyplace in the universe is filled with Buddha! Although we all have different guises and appearances, we're all manifestations of this One Buddha. Everything is equal and everything is magnificent. So let us transcend our torments in this world of Buddha and be happy. How marvelous that every single place is a site for liberation from suffering and ignorance.
To all you Buddhas wearing the gentle smile of compassion and delivering the Dharma in a sound even greater than thunder, to all you Buddhas who fill every corner of the universes — every day is a wonderful day, and every day is our birthday. So let us all eternally respect and congratulate one another!
I've been in and out of psychotherapy since I was fourteen. I've been a Buddhist since I was eighteen. Despite many decades of working on my mind, I'm still not exactly mindful. Maybe I'm mind-full as in full-of-mind? Too full of my own mind, if you ask me. Too stuck in my own perspective. I can't always get out of my own head in order to see where other people are coming from.
The truth of the matter is, if you are depressed, you're going to have a heck of a time getting out of your own head. Depression is consuming. It colors the way you view the world and the people around you. Now I have fought the good fight. For over a decade I had a therapist who assured me that my depression was caused by my environment. There wasn't anything chemically wrong with me. I'd simply developed coping mechanisms for my dysfunctional world. When I finally found myself in a non-dysfunctional world, I didn't know how to react in any other way than the way I had learned.
And hey, that made a lot of sense for a long time. But the funny thing about life is that it constantly changes. What you didn't need at 15, 25 or 35, you might need at 40. I can't tell you why exactly I find life a little too overwhelming right now versus any other time in my life. It's not like I've led a simple life. I never took the easy road. I always managed to screw things up, to overhaul, to destroy what came before and create something entirely new. I walked away from a teaching career. I left a ten-year marriage. I raised a baby on my own. There have certainly been times that were more stressful than this. Or should have been.
And yet here I am.
All of this is to say that I finally went on an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant medication. After a lifelong battle to avoid medication, I have finally waved the white flag. Maybe I didn't feel like I had to fight so hard anymore? Maybe I just wanted a break? Whatever the case, something had to give.
So here I am. On the medication bandwagon. I'm in therapy. I have a therapist and a psychiatrist. I can't really imagine being on medication without being in therapy. The two things work so well together. Together they are like Wonder Twin Powers activating my brain to form of a happier organ.
So after seven weeks of being medicated, what can I tell you?
I am less reactive. I am less short with people. I am more patient. I can actually wait to see where the other person is coming from before I jump in and start spouting my opinions. Being able to get out of my own head has enabled me to see other people a little more clearly. To wait it out. To not assume that everything is about me.
And the result?
I'm less depressed. I'm less anxious. I'm a little more peaceful. It's still not easy, don't get me wrong. I'm still aware of things that annoy or upset me. But now I'm able to sit with it a little longer without reacting to it. I lash out less and I listen more.
Maybe this medicine enabled me to listen to my inner Buddha? I know we all have one. Perhaps my mind was just so noisy I couldn't hear him.
The guiding teacher at my temple told a story that resonated with me. The other day, he stopped by a local sandwich shop in order to grab a quick bite to eat. He was in a bit of a hurry and a man and a woman were standing in line in front of him. Another man walked in just after he did and stood in line too.
The couple was taking their sweet time about ordering. They wanted to sample each and every soup. They wanted to chat with the one and only employee who was working at the shop. My teacher was in a bit of a hurry but he tried to wait as patiently as he could. He could hear the growing irritation of the man in line behind him as he shifted his feet and made several audible sighs.
Finally, the man behind him stormed out of the store, clearly finished with waiting. My guiding teacher was quite pleased with himself, thinking he was a much more patient person than that other fellow. But after another five minutes of the couple discussing the merits of various soups and sandwiches, my teacher was shifting his own feet and making his own internal sighs.
In that moment, he realized that he was no different than the man who had stormed out. As he said, "My threshold is just higher." We asked the teacher how he managed to remain calm and not storm out of the restaurant himself.
"I decided it was an opportunity for practice," he said.
That story made me feel a heck of a lot better about myself. Sometimes I am the person I want to be. I'm patient. I'm kind. I get my ego out of the way and I can be a good listener. But more often than not, I am not who I want to be at all. In those times, I think I am the worst.
So here is an alternative way I can view myself. Instead, I can simply observe that there are times when my threshold is higher or lower. Sometimes I've got a heck of a lot more patience. Other times I am just raw and prickly.
I think viewing those times when I am feeling edgy and irritable as "opportunities for practice" will help me. Again, sometimes my big old ego gets in the way of being my best self. When I'm operating in egocentric mode, I tend to feel put upon. But if I can remind myself that whatever trying moment I am experiencing or whoever might be irritating me in the moment, that these things are merely presenting me with an opportunity for practice — well then that changes things.
It shifts me from being a victim. It shifts me from feeling put upon. It shifts me from feeling as though me and my big feelings are justified in being expressed each and every time they bubble to the surface of my mind.
I know how to sit. I know how to meditate. I know how to do that practice, in that environment. I know how to observe the hundreds of irritations and annoyances that come up. I know how to observe the fact that my nose itches or my back aches. I know how to observe the grocery list I'm composing or the imaginary conversation I might have with so-and-so. I know how to watch the ebb and flow of all of these thoughts. And I know how they all float away if I simply sit with them.
But to bring my practice to the real world? Now that would be something. One of my personal goals is to be less reactive. Funny that I forgot that this is what meditation is all about. This is what my practice is all about. And my practice is not just sitting alone in an empty room. Or sitting in silence with a room full of people in the temple. My practice is my life.
When I went to a Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the nineties, we washed our feet before entering the meditation room. It seemed one of the many odd and foreign things I did in that place. I came to love it, however.
It took me an hour to get there. I'd either go after I'd spent the entire day in school or I'd go after working the whole day. I'd drive across all that pavement on all those freeways to get to the meditation class on Thursday evenings. It was winter and my boots were covered in a sludge of salt, mud and snow. I pulled off my boots. I peeled off my socks. I crept upstairs to sit on a small wooden stool. And then I'd wash my naked feet in a stranger's house and feel somewhat ridiculous.
But something miraculous happened every time. This simple act stripped off the layers of my day. I felt the warm water on my tired feet. I enjoyed the feel of soaping up and rinsing off my feet. It felt good. And yes, I liked the ritual of it. I left the bathroom refreshed. Slate cleared. Ready to concentrate.
My daughter just started preschool. The decision to start her at 2 1/2 years old instead of 3 1/2 wasn't easy. She seemed ready. The time was right. Of course she's my daughter and I have a biological imperative to consider her brilliant. But she is a smart cookie. She is a learning sponge. She craved more. More experiences. More lessons. More friends. Clearly she was ready.
But was I?
So my tiny baby is now a preschooler. Her father drops her off in the morning and I pick her up in the evening. I rush across freeway miles to get there, hands gripping the wheel, heart palpitating at every red light, every orange construction barrel. And no matter how hard I try, I am always the last parent to get there.
I feel like a failure every day.
She loves preschool, but she hates being the last kid there. She doesn't shed a tear all day until the second-to-last child leaves. It is then that my child asks: "Where's my mama?" I dry her tears and curse myself for being the worst mother in the world when I get there. Sometimes I feel the bitterness seep in. It isn't fair that I have to work. It isn't fair that everyone else works closer to preschool, or works fewer hours, or feels less pressure, or does something more conducive and somehow better for their children than I do.
Defeated, I drive her home. My mind spins a web of what a failure I am. Being a working mom means you get to do both of your jobs poorly. You fail at everything. Surely my daughter will wind up in therapy because her father and I don't want her to have to get student loans or pay for our retirement.
Try explaining that to a two year old, I think.
And so we come home and I take off her shoes. Every day I forget that she loves the sandbox most of all. Every day I forget as a pile of sand pours out onto the floor. Every day I pull off the second shoe a bit more carefully than the first and dump out the sand through the sliding glass door. Her sweaty feet are covered in sand, with sand clustered between her toes.
"Let's wash your feet," I say and lift her to the sink.
So there we are. Her feet in the sink and me washing away the sand from the day. In my heart I know she feels good. I know the water is warm and the soap is slippery. I know when I put her down on the floor to play, she will run off on fresh feet. I know she's ready to settle into home. Into something new. To start over on this part of her day.
And maybe I'm not the worst mother in the world. Maybe despite the imaginary list of her future complaints about me that she'll recite to her therapist, she'll pause and say:
"But my mother washed my feet."
It will be good. She will feel loved. And perhaps I won't be a complete failure after all.
Over the years I've encountered many people who have been troubled by the concept of impermanence and how Buddhists seem so keen to embrace it. I think they presume Buddhists are some sort of cold-hearted clinicians with an easy, breezy "Everything's impermanent" mantra and so we let things and people go.
"What if my mother died?" you ask.
"Impermanence," we say and shrug our shoulders.
"Or if you lost your job?"
"Everything's impermanent," we say and let it go.
"Your boyfriend dumped you?"
"Everything's impermanent," we say and chide you for your heartache.
All wrong. All completely and totally wrong. Not Buddhist. Not right thinking.
"Everything's impermanent." Have I thought such a thing to help soothe myself over loss? Yes. But that's got less to do with me being a Buddhist than it has to do with my abandonment issues. Yes, I am guilty of using "Everything's impermanent" as a talisman to protect me from hurt. If I don't hold on to anything or anyone, then I can't be hurt when they inevitably abandon me.
But don't take that action as Buddhist action or right thinking on my part. When I have thought or acted that way, I was acting out of childhood hurt not Buddhism. If I build a protective shell around myself so no one can hurt me, no one can ever leave me, then I will be safe. Perhaps if I hold you just far enough away from me, I won't miss you when you're gone.
But this whole being Buddhist thing is about love. How do I open myself to love? How do I crack that shell and cast aside my defenses? How do I learn to have a healthy attachment to someone else? In my case, I need to work on attachment before I can ever get this whole "nonattachment" thing down.
Buddhism isn't isolation. Buddhism isn't living in a cave carved out of the side of a mountain with a long white beard and a wooden staff. Buddhism, for me, is learning to live with my fellow human beings. It's learning to love them. It's learning to open myself up and risk getting hurt by them.
A healthy psychological attachment to other human beings is desired in Buddhism. In psychology, an infant's healthy attachment to its mother is what enables that baby to feel safe and secure enough to explore the world. In Buddhism, a healthy attachment to life and the people in it is what enables us to explore the world too. It enables us to explore the world of our minds, to brave sitting on a mat and being comfortable with our own thoughts. It enables us to experience the discomfort that can come with self-discovery and self-awareness.
None of this evolution of the self could occur without healthy attachment. And what does healthy attachment lead to? What is the desired end result in Buddhism? Is it the so-called detachment of the wise old sage? No. It is this:
"[A]ccording to the Buddhist point of view, nonattachment is exactly the opposite of separation. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?"
For me, it all boils down to the fact that you can't have a healthy nonattachment until you have learned how to attach to people. That's where I'm at right now. I'm getting more comfortable with attachment. I'm still learning how to love. Really love. Without fear and ego getting in the way.