Category Archives: Buddhism

End Of The World– Getting Cozy With Dukkha

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The world is ending right now because there are dirty dishes in the sink and a bunch of moldering, half-eaten yogurt cups and tubes strewn throughout the house.

I just got home from the Urgent Care Center.  It is 8 p.m., and any mom who got up as early as I did this morning knows that 8 p.m. is the middle of the fucking night.

My husband is engaged in a power struggle with our seven year old son, Jack, over universe knows what.  My three year old, Emily, is wandering around like a lost lamb because she wants mama milk and cuddles before bed.

But first things first.

Since a huge vat of Purell or rubbing alcohol isn’t available, I hop in the shower.  It serves the dual purpose of warming my chilled, aching body, and cleansing off the filth of the walk in treatment place.  I had anxiety upon anxiety the entire time I was there as people coughed, hacked, wheezed, and made all sorts of moaning cacophony.  In the curtained area next to me, there was a woman chanting, “Germs, germs, germs, germs, germs,” over and over in a haunted whisper.  True story.  I can’t make this shit up.

The chest X-ray confirmed bronchitis and the doctor wrote me a script for antibiotic and a cough medicine, but then changed his mind when I told him I still breast feed twice a day.  He forgot to call the pharmacy and change the prescription, which resulted in an hour-long wait in the parking lot of the pharmacy, where I sat in my car, heat on full blast, shivering and crying.

Wait!  Before you stop reading because you hate me for bitching about First World Problems, please know it was pretty much the worst week of my life, followed by an exhausting weekend of poorly behaved children, and ending in body aches that rate waaaaayyyy at the grumpy and sad end of that smiley to grimace chart.

A client killed himself last week, and it left me reeling in confusion, guilt, panic, and fear.  While I have forced myself to accept there was nothing I could have done to prevent this tragedy, my heart has not caught up with my head on the matter, and being sick wears down the professional buffer I might have for such matters.

After spending the entire week in the aftermath of suicide, another employee of my program gave me her notice along with a few dozen clients to reassign.  Since my other clinician quit my program before the holidays, I have no one to reassign these clients to.  When I went, shaking and sobbing, to my supervisor for support, I was basically told to figure it out.

I came home looking for some solace, only to find my husband intended to work all weekend.  This is good news, in one way, because we need the money and he is freelance.  But it is bad news in terms of having the children, house duties, etc. ,and so on all to myself for the entire weekend.

So, contracting bronchitis was just the frosting on the crap cake I felt had been baked for me this week.  I feel like a jerk even writing that, while knowing I have access to better medical care and pharmaceuticals than 87% of the world.  (Note:  that is not a real statistic.  I’m making shit up because like I said, the world is fucking ending and who cares anyway.)

Sometimes I just need to vent.  Then I get sick of myself and get on with my life.

Some people have real problems.  I know this.  People like the family who lost their child in the most confounding, shocking, and traumatizing way last week.

After my shower, I hustle to put on PJ’s.  I ignore Jack’s tantrum and go straight to Emily, who is sleepy and sweet. She puts her hand on my heart as she snuggles into my breast, and touches my chin as light as a butterfly.

I’ve been contemplating the Buddhist concept of dukkha lately.  Dukkha roughly translates as “suffering,” and it is an important concept in Buddhism.  There has been ample dukkha in my life over the past few months. . .  the dukkha of motherhood; the dukkha of clinging to things during the process of our move last November; the dukkha of family issues at the holidays; the dukkha of yearning for things to be a certain way at work; the dukkha of physical illness; the dukkha of my anxiety and depression which has been rearing its ugly head over the past few weeks like a powerful and frightening dragon.

The dukkha of wanting to change the unchangeable, and to understand the incomprehensible.

And tonight, the dukkha of dishes left undone at the end of the night when I am sick and tired, and have already done dishes 17 times over the course of the weekend.

Basically, Buddha teaches that life is dukkha—  not that everything sucks, but that by its nature, our existence is flawed, impermanent, and difficult.  We can struggle against it and fight with it as something bad, or we can accept it for what it is and go from there.

What does that mean?

I don’t know.  And at the moment, I don’t really care.

I started writing a post last weekend about trying to sit with the grief and anxiety I felt in the light of my client’s death.  It was hard–  both to sit with and to write about–  because it made me fiercely restless.  I didn’t end up posting it.

Kuan Yin sat with the dragons and made friends with them.  What would it be like to do that?

I guess I could do the dishes.

Or I could not.

Maybe dukkha and I will cuddle up in bed with some Ceftin and Mucinex and try to get to know each other.  And maybe the world will keep ending, and I will lie in bed and hear things screeching and banging and popping outside my window.

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“All That I Know Is I’m Breathing”

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“All that I know is I’m breathing.  Nothing can stop me from breathing.”  —  Ingrid Michaelson, from her song, Breathing.

 

I curled up on my bed, sulking because Emily flat out refused to allow me to slather her in sunblock.  She ran around the living room like a banshee, screeching, “No Mommy do!  No Mommy do!”

All of a sudden, she is in an impossible phase.  Every moment with her is a struggle–  she refuses to nurse on a certain side, she screams when I try to dress her, she tear-asses around the house when I attempt to change her diaper or coax her onto the potty.  She pushes me away and yells for daddy when I try to hug her.

She’s been my “easy” child, so this phase is super disheartening.  And while I know it is “just a phase,” and it is a normal part of her development as a little, two year old human, it is hard not to take it personally, like I am doing something wrong because my toddler howls and smacks at me when I try to protect her delicate, creamy skin from the harsh rays of the sun.

So, I walked away from her and flopped down on my bed.

Breathing in, I feel how frustrated I am.

Breathing out, I accept how tired I feel.

Breathing in, I acknowledge how much I love my daughter.

Breathing out, I give thanks for her independent and strong spirit.

Breathing in, I feel my anxiety about getting sunblock on my kid.

Breathing out, I let go of my doubts of myself as a parent.

In his book Planting Seeds with Music and Songs:  Practicing Mindfulness With Children, Thich Nhat Hanh describes short mindfulness poems called Gathas as a tool we can use to “bring more awakening into our daily life.”  He calls them “breathing poems.”

My husband recently bought this book for my Kindle, and I’ve been reading bits of it here and there when I get a few moments.  It’s a good book.  It’s simple, straightforward, and sweet.  A lot of Buddhism seems really complex and difficult for me to attain, but Hanh has this gorgeous ability to make it really practical and applicable.

As you can see from the above examples, I’ve been trying to use Gathas during the more difficult moments of my days.

Breathing in, I feel helpless and inept.

Breathing out, I give myself permission to be human and fallible.  

I stayed on my bed, doing this for a while.  When I came back into the living room, my daughter was on the floor watching Caillou.

Breathing in, I feel like a crappy mom for having the TV on all morning.  

Breathing out, I pick my battles and feel okay about it.  

In the end, my husband came out and performed the slathering on of Emily’s sunscreen.  I didn’t lose my cool with the kids, and we all got on with our day, one breath at a time.

if i can’t be happy here and now

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if i can’t be happy on a walk with my son

as we stoop to admire an iridescent beetle the size of my thumb,

upside down on pavement, waving its frail legs

as if only for my child’s wonderment,

then i will never be happy.

if i can’t be happy listening to his chatter,

if i can’t be happy stopping to indulge in every flower’s fragrance,

if i can’t be happy here and now

then i will never be happy.

we watch a tug boat work itself down the bay with surprising speed,

and my boy asks me where i would want to live, as we plod past

the huge houses and fancy cars with their water views.

envy arises, but then another sentiment clear and bright as his voice:

if i can’t be happy here and now, i will never be happy.

in this moment it is easy to believe and be satisfied

with the movement of my legs along the sidewalk,

with the tickle of sea grass and daisies against my skin,

with my son’s chipper companionship.

in other moments i will struggle

with other words that don’t make nearly as much sense,

with the tantrums of my children and stress of work,

with traffic and time,

with bills and clutter,

with the primal longing for escape.

i hope i can remember there are beach roses that need sniffing,

and beetles who need to be gently set right and placed back on a leaf.

Adventures In Meditation: Sitting With Fear

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My favorite spot is a rocky point of land overlooking the Atlantic ocean. There is an old, white lighthouse which coos and beams at the choppy waves. Recently I drove there for a brief visit by myself.

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It had been a stressful week. I carried heavy, inner turmoil I couldn’t name, but from which I longed to free myself. I got it into my head to sit and meditate on the cliffs for a bit.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, you may have caught on that I am attracted to Buddhism, and the concept of mindfulness. There are many fancy, eloquent, and poetic definitions for mindfulness. I think of it as being 100% aware of my surroundings, body, breath, thoughts, and urges and how these factors influence me at any given point in time, then accepting these factors without trying to influence them.

In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron writes, “We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is. . .  This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it is always with us.”

When I am mindful in a situation, whether it is painful or pleasant, I can be present without trying to block or diminish what’s going on.  Here’s the thing:

I’m not very good at it.

But as someone pointed out to me, it is called “practicing” Buddhism because we aren’t perfect at it. We are always practicing.  (Thank you to Shannon from Game of Diapers for that gem!)

I probably would be a lot better at this gig if I meditated more.

Most practitioners of Buddhism meditate, or sit, for a period of time in quiet space to alter consciousness, gain enlightenment, develop compassion, or for relaxation among other things. Some meditate daily, others do it a couple times a week.

Meditation-wise, I compare to Christians who go to church devoutly on Christmas and Easter.

Time, space, and lack of privacy are among the hollow excuses I have for not meditating more.   Also, I just don’t really like it. The perfectionist in me becomes confused and overwhelmed by all the different types of meditation and if I am doing it “right enough.”

Anyway, there I was with some hurt in my heart, at that beautiful spot. I got out of my car and trundled down to the cliffs, noting that clogs were not really made for traversing shaley rocks. I got my body safely to a spot and sat down.

Assuming a comfortable position, I took some breaths. I chanted om tare tutture ture soha, a chant for Green Tara and compassion.

The view before me.

The view before me.

My gaze was gentle and calm on waves that flickered and danced in the sun. Ten minutes passed easily. For the most part, my mind was clear. When occasional thoughts came up, I remembered Pema Chodron saying to simply notice the thought, label it “thinking” and return to the meditative state. I did this several times.

Oh, yeah, look at me! I am totally rocking this meditation! I should do this more often because I am kicking meditation’s ass! 

Then I realized despite the spring chill in the air, and the breeze off the ocean it was quite warm on the rock. I smiled, feeling content as a cat in the sun.

Panic smacked me full-frontal like an icy wave.

Snakes like warm stuff. 

What if a snake crawled out of his hidey hole and was attracted to my warmth here in the sun? 

My eyes snapped open. I twisted my head around and sure enough, there was a hole in the moist earth behind me.

And the view behind me.

And the view behind me.

Rationally, I know any number of things could have crawled out of that hole– a skunk, a mouse, or some other warm-blooded, furry critter. I live in a part of the world where there are barely any dangerous or large snakes, and any reptilian creature that may or may not have crawled out of that space was likely small and harmless.

But phobias are not rational. The breeze rustled the branches a bit and I leapt from my spot, scampered up the cliff like a mountain goat, and ran back to the safety of my car. Even then, my legs felt creepy crawly and I shuddered.

I felt goofy and embarrassed.  Once again, I failed at the meditation, wannabe Buddhist thing.

Or did I?

At home, I consulted Chodron’s book.  I read, “In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal– quite the opposite.. .   If our experience is that sometimes we have some kind of perspective, and sometimes we have none, then that’s our experience.  If sometimes we can approach what scares us, and sometimes we absolutely can’t, then that’s our experience.”

So, is she saying, in a sense, I totally nailed that meditation, (even though I literally ran away from my irrational fear) because it was exactly the experience it was?

I like to think so.

Of course she is probably speaking of metaphorical fears within us with which we may or may not feel companionable.  That we may not have enough compassion.  That we may be judgmental.  That we may be angry or even hostile.  That we may erect walls to insulate ourselves from becoming vulnerable.

Or, we are terrified of nature despite the fact we would like to present ourselves as an earthy-mama-goddess who isn’t afraid to get a little dirty.

As I sit here trying to figure out how I will wrap up this post, I realize I could write an entire series about my fears.  Even as I laugh at myself for beating feet from an imaginary snake, I am struck by how fearful I have become.  A decade ago I had a delicious sense of safety, but now life feels precariously balanced.   I think it has to do with “stuff” in which I am stewing over turning 40 in a couple months, my fears of growing older and death.  In my work as a clinical social worker, I am also exposed daily to horrendous acts of humanity which have certainly tainted my world view and inner monologue over the past ten years.

I feel like if I lean only slightly to the left I will become terrified of bridges or bees.  Lean forward and I will become one of those people who never leave the house.  To the right and I will spend every second of every day cleaning for fear of germs.

What would happen if I just let myself fall back in a trust-fall into the universe?

Well, those are all matters for other posts.

What purpose did my adventure in meditation serve?  Did it further my awareness?  Did it help dispel fears?  Was it the silly punchline to a cosmic joke?  Or was it simply my experience?

I like to think so.

 

 

Letting Go…

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I’m not a Buddhist, but I play one on TV.

At least that’s how it feels. While I’m very attracted to the philosophy of Buddhism, and have a tremendous respect for its teachings and rituals, I have never considered myself an actual “Buddhist,” nor do I feel I truly understand what it means to be one.

This morning I was thinking about what a crappy Buddhist I would make. I don’t meditate and I don’t like meditating, and I guess those are things a Buddhist gotta do.

Also, I’m a control freak. Letting go is really hard for me whether it is just letting go of an expectation or outcome, or letting go of a relationship, or cleaning house of all the crap we don’t need anymore.

I cling.

As I understand it, one of the principle underpinnings of Buddhism is that pain and suffering comes from our attachments. To people. To things. To ideas. To routines. To expectations. To our concept of ourselves.

I can certainly understand all that. But even as I become more mindful of my attachments, and of when I am clinging tooth and nail, it is still not easy for me to just… let… go.

Maybe I’m working on it.

Or maybe I am not working on it.

Maybe I’ll loosen my grip eventually.

Or maybe I won’t.

I’m not quite sure.

But every once in a while, I get these little reminders. I have an app on my phone called Pocket Zen. It sends me quotes and affirmations. This morning I checked my phone to find this gem by Deepak Chopra: “Holding on to anything is like holding your breath. You will suffocate.”

Hmmmmm.

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2/27/11

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It was my last day with my dog.

We woke up that morning and she couldn’t walk.

We took her to the vet and the decision was made.20131216-123403.jpg

She was 16.

She was decrepit and couldn’t hold her bladder or bowels any longer.  She was losing her sense of hearing and sight.  She had been with me since I was 21.

I can’t remember our last day together.  It isn’t like I had planned to put her to sleep, so there was no final supper or walk by the bay.  I had always known that it would have to happen like that- in an emergency, because I would never be able to make and keep a date to have her put to sleep.

I remember there was snow on the ground, and several days or a week before, she had been outside in the snow, sniffing at my son’s snowman, frolicking like a puppy-rabbit for one second before becoming elderly again.

She was a lab mix. She never got over 36 pounds in her entire life, even though she loved cheese with her whole heart.  Although she was initially terrified of water, she grew to love the ocean, and walked the beach hundreds of times with me.  She shed black fur everywhere, so I took to wearing mostly black so it would blend in.  She slept in my bed, curled up in my arms each night for years when I was single, lonely, and sad.

She was never like my baby, as some people call their pets.

She was my sister.

If there is a hell, and if I am destined to go to there, it will be a movie theater where I have to watch myself mistreat my dog in her elder years over and over for all eternity on a giant screen.  I yelled and scared her.  I hurt her feelings.  I had no patience when her bowels let loose all over my carpet and I slipped in it coming home from work with toddler-Jack in my arms.  I was frustrated with her when her toenails click-clacked on the hardwood floors in the middle of the night because she was startled or confused.

I did her wrong.

At one point, someone recommended euthanizing my dog “because you never want to make a bad memory with your dog.”  Wiser words have never been spoken, but wisdom was wasted on my shallow ears then.  I understand it now.  I didn’t have the compassion, energy, or insight to care for a sick and elderly creature.

Maybe karma will reign and I will be mistreated as an elder.  Gosh, I hope not, but I suppose it could be a possibility.

When I was much, much younger, before I ever had a dog, someone told me your dog always comes back to you.  When your dog dies, they somehow find their way back to their owner.  This thought stuck with me for over 20 years.  I pondered it quite a bit after my dog died.  I even contacted the person online.  He was a total stranger after 20 years, 87 years old and living clear across the country.  But we struck up a conversation of comfort an faith.

My husband said, if she comes back, it won’t be as a dog.  She lived too good a life as a dog to be reincarnated as one.

We gave her a good death, I believe.  It was peaceful and kind, and in her final moments, she was happy, in my arms.

It started snowing while we were in the vet’s.  I asked if I could take her out to walk her around for a bit before we made the final decision.  She limped out with me into the parking lot, making little footprints in the snow.  She stumbled, looked up at me, and let me know.  Or maybe I projected that onto her, as my husband suggested.

But in that moment, I knew it was time.

I hugged her and thanked her and let her know if she ever wanted to come back to me, I would always be waiting for her.  I apologized for being such a horrid human to her and told her I loved her.

After, the grief was intense, mostly because of my previous cruelty, but also because my life had been so shaped by her–  feeding and walking her, brushing her tufty old fur so it would shed less, hearing her trip-trapping across the floor to greet me after work.  There was an emptiness so vast it took my breath away.

And it still does take my breath away three years later.

Sometimes I dream of her still.  Her slightly square jaw poked up at me, her eyes looking at me like I am the only thing in the universe.

I don’t feel her presence in my life, and when I think of her, I am still mostly sad.  Sure, the grief has dulled, as it will over time.  A week after her death, I went to collect her ashes.  They were in a very small, wooden box.  Smaller than you would really think is possible.  I thought they would give me a sense of closure or peace.  They did not.

Someone at the animal crematorium made a print of her paw for me.  There was a black hair stuck in the clay.  The texture of her gritty, little paw was evident in the print.  I held it to my nose, only smelling a faint, chemical smell.  I had always loved the smell of her paws; like corn chips rubbed in fresh cut grass.  It was the best smell ever.

I keep the paw print with her ashes on a shelf in my bedroom, next to a picture of her and my husband when he and I were first dating.

We have not gotten another dog.  I don’t know if I could ever love again, as I loved her.  And I don’t know if I am much better of a human, if I could be better to an animal, although I would like to think I could be.  I’m sure I don’t deserve another dog.

But here is why I think the universe and karma might not totally be out to get me:

One week after the death of my dog, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.  I couldn’t help but wonder. . .  and sometimes still can’t help but wonder because Emily has an uncanny affinity for doggies, and an abiding love of cheese.

This post was written as a part of the WordPress Daily post series.  http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/daily-prompt-sweet-dreams/