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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Respecting the Practice.

This morning after I got up off of the couch in therapy, I started brushing off the couch with my hand. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I started laughing.

"It's not OCD, I swear!" I said to my therapist. "It's Buddhist!"

I think it's so funny because when you mediate, you brush off the meditation mat before and after you use it. Sometimes when I'm in the temple with a room full of people all meticulously brushing off their mats, I'm amused to think that it might look like a room full of people with OCD. No wonder I like it there so much. I totally fit in.

But all kidding aside, it's not obsessive or compulsive. It's a gesture to show your respect for the practice, to give it your full attention. I guess it's no surprise that since I've started to focus on my Buddhist practice, it's starting to infiltrate other areas of my life.

Like therapy.

Anyone who has ever been in therapy will appreciate the gesture. To respect the practice of examining your mind and opening your heart to therapy does indeed require your full attention. It is not unlike meditating, chanting or prostrating. Or writing even.

You can't make changes in one area of your life without effecting the others. Once you start paying attention in one place, you'll find you're paying attention to everything.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I Got 99 Prostrations.

Grace demonstrating how to do a prostration.

Okay, I don't really got 99 prostrations. But I did do 90 prostrations and chant the 3 refuges 99 times yesterday. I've been a little under the weather so I missed a couple of days doing the 30 prostrations and the 33 three refuges so my husband insisted on catching up.

"I just want to not be behind on one thing in my life," he said.

He's been super slammed at work, working something like 15+ hour days and there's no hope of catching up on any of it anytime soon. So if he could catch up on one thing, this little Buddha practice of ours, who was I to disagree?

And really, doing the 90 + 99 wasn't that bad. We talked about how it does clear your mind. If you're doing a physical action over and over again, your mind and body are both concentrated on doing that motion. If you are chanting three sentences in a  foreign language over and over again, the only thing you can think about is which word comes next.

"It was the first time today that I wasn't worrying about this case."

I think having us do these prostrations and chants is a sneaky way of showing us how useful daily practice is in your life. Whether it's sitting in meditation for 15 minutes a day, or doing 15 minutes of prostrations, or chanting for 15 minutes …. it's 15 minutes of your day that your brain isn't worrying about your problems.

And I like that.

(Hope you enjoyed the video of my three-year-old daughter imitating my prostrations. I like how she really commits to it.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

There's No Such Thing As Cheating in Buddhism.

The Kamakura Buddha sitting on my mantle.
My husband had a huge deposition that he had to prepare for this week. Most nights he managed to slip home just in time to read our daughter a story, do the prostrations and chants with me, and then hunker down on the couch with his giant pile of papers so he could cram more information into his brain until 1 or 2 a.m.

A pretty good track record for a very busy man.

Then we hit a speed bump. One night he couldn't come home in time to read stories or do prostrations … but fortunately it coordinated with me trying to cut down on my Diet Coke intake. Which resulted in me falling asleep with my mouth hanging open on the couch while I watched American Idol with the kids.

We all went to bed by 9:00 p.m. and I didn't even know what time my husband crawled into bed.

"Sorry I missed the chants and the prostrations with you last night," he said when we woke up.

"Oh you didn't miss anything. I've been asleep for 10 hours."

"Can we do that? Are we going to get kicked out? What are the rules?" he asked.

"I don't think there are any rules. I think we just do 60 tonight to make up for the 30 we missed last night and we'll be fine."

"Oh, okay. That's a relief," he said.

The same thing happened again the next night. The herbal tea I've been drinking is doing nothing for my ability to stay awake past 9:00 p.m. I figure we can just do 60 prostrations and 66 chants for the next two nights. No big deal.

I hope this doesn't mean we have bad intentions. I think our intentions are good. And it seems to me that what matters is that you do your prostrations and chants with intention. So much of my inability to practice Buddhism consistently is the fact that life keeps getting in the way. Granted this week has been a special set of circumstances. My husband has been in full crisis mode on a case. Typically we can spend 15 minutes together, chanting, prostrating, meditating, or whatever. So I'm not going to throw the baby Buddha out with the bath water.

Every time you fall down, you pick yourself back up.

The new Mandy Buddhist is not a Perfectionist Mandy Buddhist. I realize I've been putting my own perfectionism onto some sort of ideal Buddhism that I created in my own mind and that never really existed in Buddhism itself. That's my own hangup.

I'm going to pick myself back up and do my 60 Buddhist reps tonight and be back in the Precept-Taking Saddle again.

"It's not cheating, right?" my husband asks.

"There's no cheating in Buddhism," I say as though I am an expert and am 100% certain. The more I say these kind of gentle, affirming statements, the more I believe them. I mean, who are we cheating? Ourselves? Maybe. But there's no Big Buddha Eye in the Sky watching over us, judging us, and sorting out a final tally of who gets invited into Buddha Town and who doesn't.

Maybe these are Western thoughts? Maybe we keep putting a Western lens on an Eastern philosophy? There's no hand of an angry Buddha waiting to point down accusingly at us from up on high. This is part of the reason I picked this particular path.

There's only the two of us here, waiting to do 60 prostrations on the mat together. It's so simple, really. What's taken me so long? It's amazing how much your life expands when it doesn't have to be perfect.

Sometimes I wonder if part of what you learn from doing the prostrations is also what you learn from not doing the prostrations.

Oooooh. Now that's some zen right there, motherfuckers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Prostrations, Chanting and All That Jazz.

In preparation for taking the precepts, I have to do 30 prostrations and say the three refuges 33 times every day. Because I asked my husband to do this with me, we go through these exercises together each night. I figured it would be a nice experience to share and it would help me to have a preparation buddy.

Each night, after the kids go to bed, we start out with the 30 prostrations. A prostration is sort of like a Buddhist burpee. A burpee is a Cross Fit exercise that works out your whole body. A prostration is a sort of a whole body bow that works out your whole body and mind. It is a reminder that we are on the Buddhist path. It is a reminder of the Five Precepts. And it is honoring the Buddhas — the historical Buddha, the Buddhas of the past, the Buddhas of the present and the Buddha within ourselves. For me it is a physical reminder of my commitment to this path.

By saying the three refuges 33 times a day, we remind ourselves of our commitment to the path and of the support network we have. We have the Buddha (Buddham) and his wisdom and also the Buddha that resides within us. We have the teachings of the Buddha (Dhamman). And we have the community of the temple (Sangham) and their kindness and wisdom. By repeating the three refuges we focus our practice and calm our mind.

None of this is to say that my husband and I don't laugh while we're doing all of this. I've been working out every day and doing a lot of squats and lunges. Now, if you clicked on any of the links thus far, you've seen that a prostration is a physical practice that involves your thigh muscles. So after doing a good 50 to 100 squats and lunges at the gym that day, by the time I'm doing 30 vigorous prostrations with my husband, it's a bit painful. There may be groaning on my part. And the two of us count aloud after we finish each prostration to keep track. I may tend to skip ahead numbers.

"Hey, you're cheating!" my husband says. I'm too fatigued to argue and I usually laugh helplessly as I skip ahead from 21 to 25 once again.

"I'm telling your guiding teacher that you're half-assing it!" he says and devoutly conducts another prostration without skipping numbers.

"Look, I can't count well under normal circumstances," I collapse onto the floor and flip my hands over.

My husband is also better at chanting. We started out very slowly, of course, because neither of us is all that proficient in Pali. We chant these words at temple but it's more of a song so just saying them and not singing them is unfamiliar. Plus I also don't chant them 33 times in a row at temple.

Over the course of the past few days, we've gotten rather good at saying them. At first it was a bit of a tongue twister.

Buddham Saranam Gochami
Dhamman Saranam Gochami
Sangham Saranam Gochami

You try saying that 33 times and see if you don't start slipping some Buddhams into your Dhammans and Saranamforth.

My husband can really pick up speed and say them fast as we go through the chant. I think it's because he was a trombone major and his lips are agile. Chanting is rather musical. You have to maintain a certain rhythm. Therefore it figures that he would be good at this.

I think it's interesting how if you say something over and over again 33 times it sort of naturally becomes a chant. It's like I've discovered the origin of chanting. We started out just saying the words but the faster you go, the more you get into a rhythm, and the next thing you know you're humming along like a chanting monk.

It's kind of cool.

And I like that we do it together each night. This way it's something we can share. We laugh together. We focus together. We approach this journey together. I like it quite a lot, actually. I'm sort of sorry to think that we won't do this anymore once we've taken the precepts. I'd kind of like to keep it as a daily practice.

Funny, coming from me. I'm someone who has never liked chanting. I bet this is all part of the plan.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Precept-Taking Ceremony: Belonging and Feeling Worthy.

Sometime I feel like the Desperado of Buddhism. You know of the Eagles' song, I'm sure. The lyrics have always spoken to me, because I have a little of the wandering cowboy in me. That is, despite the fact that I'm a suburban chick. The idea that we walk alone in the world, free from ties, free from need, free from love and the need to be loved is very appealing to me.

I've been writing a lot about the need I have to protect myself. I protect myself by being distant. I try to make myself free from need. I don't need anybody too much. I don't need love too much. I don't need to belong too much. If I don't join you, how can you reject me?

I've never taken the precepts despite the fact that I've been a Buddhist for almost 25 years. Yeah. See? Free-ranging cowboy out on the range is not so far off from little old me. It's sort of the "I don't want to join any club that would have me as a member" effect. 

But when you get right down to it. Down to the nitty gritty, in the deep dark places that hurt, the truth of the matter is that I've never thought I was good enough. Not good enough to take the precepts. Not good enough to receive my Buddhist name. Not good enough to belong. Maybe even not good enough to be loved.

And so I hover around the temples I have joined over the past 25 years. Never quite belonging. Never quite needing the community. Free-ranging around out on my own, not getting too attached and not letting anyone get too close.

But now I'm going to do it. I'm taking the five precepts this year. And I've asked my husband to join me. Maybe that's my way of letting him in too? I'm accepting the community of the temple, I'm accepting my husband, and I'm saying that I'm good enough to belong to both. Good enough to want to belong. Good enough to ask my husband to do this. Good enough to be loved, maybe even.