Archive for November, 2009

What Do Friends Do?

About 12 years ago I did an informal survey of a bunch of my friends, both male and female.  I wanted to know what traits were most important to them in their friends.  Are you surprised to hear that what men valued in friends was very different from what women thought most important?  

What do women want… in their female friends?  Most all the women I surveyed mentioned traits or interactions that I could characterized as warm and fuzzy: they want someone they can talk to about the most intimate details of their lives, someone who will be there when they just have to talk to someone, even at 3:00 a.m., someone they can vent to and someone they can just hang out with and chill.  But mostly, it seemed to be about emotional support.  (For me personally, it was being able to count on not being stabbed in the back by a female friend.  That shows you where my head was at back then.)

The guys were looking for support, too, but of a very different kind.  Once I began asking them what was most important in a friend, each answer was so similar to all the rest that I began to wonder whether they’d made a policy decision to all respond the same way. And what do you suppose was most important to the men I asked? One guy’s answer summed it up: “A friend is someone who will help you move.”

At first I couldn’t believe it.  That was the basis for male friendship?  Heavy lifting?  I was surprised, even a little amused.  But then I realized that this type of support really is analogous to the emotional support we women crave.  The men would probably laugh at our responses and wonder who the heck we women think will help us move when the time comes…

Well, since I conducted my last survey on this topic so long ago, I think it’s time to update my results. The idea came to me yesterday when I was talking to a male friend whose friends had come to his house yesterday to … help him do some moving.  So, I told him about my survey results and asked him whether that really is what matters to men.  ”Oh yeah,” he replied.  ”It’s all about the moving.”

So, gentle readers, I pose the question to you, male and female alike:  What traits are most important to you in friends?  Please write a comment and let me know.  And I’ll start.  What I value most in my friends these days, whether they’re male or female, is sincerity of interaction.  The more sincerely we connect, the more I value the friendship, even if we don’t always agree.

Now it’s up to you. I look forward to hearing your answers!

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No Quick Fix

How would you rate the cleanliness of your stovetop right now, on a scale of 1-5, 1 being “I can’t even see my stovetop surface” and 5 being “100% spic and span”?  Mine’s about a 4  today, except for the grate that the pots rest on.  That’s about a 2.  And it’s not that I never clean it. I do.  But it never gets perfectly clean.  No matter what cleaning product or implement I use – unless I break down and spray it with oven cleaner – there always seem to be traces of past spills that I just can’t get rid of.

Maybe that explains the fact that  when a friend and I were standing in my kitchen talking last week, he suddenly asked, “Have you heard of those Mr. Clean Magic Pads?  One swipe and that’s it.”  Or words to that effect.  I felt like I was in the middle of an infomercial, except that no one burst through my door to demonstrate miraculous cleansing powers.  That was disappointing.

Which is the point of today’s blog post.  Wouldn’t it be utterly Fantastik! if those cleaning products really did wipe away every last bit of grime and greasy gunk that they do on the ads?  With no effort whatsoever?  Totally effortlessly?  That is definitely a homemaker’s dream. And probably the dream of enough American homemakers to keep sales up.  My guess is that what really drives sales is that we Americans are suckers for the promise of the quick fix: with one easy swipe, you can clean away all the accumulated filth from your kitchen. And, metaphorically, from your life.

At least that’s the metaphor that sprang to mind for me.  We generally seem to want the easy way out.  Or if it’s not the easy way out, at least we want a guaranteed result, an assurance that we’ll definitely have something to show for our hard work, assuming we choose to put in the hard work.  But I really do think that often, when faced with an arduous task, we work on it for a bit and then just wave our hands and say, “TME.”  That’s the story of my stovetop grate.  I clean it frequently, but never 100% thoroughly.  Why not?  To do so would require spending a LOT more time scrubbing, or getting out the noxious oven cleaner, and neither of those options is appealing.  And so, I take the scrubbing pad to it every now and then and remove the stuff that comes off easily. And leave the rest.

Cut to my Buddhist practice.  That’s the area of my life in which I really do know that I can’t expect a quick fix, and the area in which I’m totally committed to putting in whatever effort is necessary to clean out the accumulated filth of my life/lives.  I look at the bottoms of my 28 year old Farberware pots (which have been thoroughly cleaned once, I think, in about 1987, when my then mother-in-law did the job) and don’t consider trying to bring them back to their aluminum-clad shine. And yet, somehow, in spite of living in a culture in which I’m constantly exhorted to take the easy route, I managed to sign on for removing layer after layer of karmic grime from a whole lot more than 28 years worth of living.  How did that happen?

Strange as it may seem, I think the answer lies in the marketing. When I started going to Jeff Brooks’ zen meditation group and listening to his talks about Buddhism, he didn’t work the room like a pitch man, (even though, ironically enough, he had worked in the advertising business for many years.) Each week, he would describe this or that tool that Buddhism offered and how our life might change  for the better if we incorporated it into our practice.  But only if we were diligent and attentive and sincere.  And patient.  Because Buddhism is no quick fix.  That facts hits you right away when you learn that the timeframe usually mentioned for reaching Buddhahood is three countless eons.  Countless.

But it’s been my observation that if you practice Buddhism, your life actually can start changing for the better pretty quickly – again, if you’re diligent, attentive and sincere about using the Buddhist equivalent of a Scotchbrite pad.  And once the world around you begins to grow a little more shiny and bright, like the long-obscured base metal of an old cooking pot, that motivates you to keep scrubbing.  It doesn’t seem quite so tiring then.

The point is to start and to keep at it and not be discouraged if, at first, the layer of grime doesn’t seem any thinner at all.  Sometimes, in fact,  the caked-on grime seems worse than it did before you took up your cleaning tools, and there’s a moment when you think, “Oh, no, this really is hopeless.”  But that’s just because you never really took a close look at the state it was in before you began cleaning in earnest.  And actually, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with. What you’re up against.   Which is the residue of so much careless past action that you’ll be cleaning forever. Or at least for 3 countless eons.

My stovetop grate will definitely require less cleansing than my accumulated karma. Maybe that’s why I tend to concentrate on my Buddhist practice instead of the stovetop.  That’s a great rationalization, isn’t it? But I guess I shouldn’t fall into that trap.  Cleaning the stovetop is not separate from my practice, after all.  Sigh.  And so, with heartfelt thanks to Jeff Brooks for giving me the tools and for teaching me how to use them properly, I’ll wrap it up for this week.  My stovetop is calling me.  I think I’ll be at it quite a while – unless someone offers me a Mr. Clean Magic Pad.  Maybe one quick fix in life wouldn’t be such a bad thing…

P.S.  Check out Jeff Brooks’ new website, www.JeffBrooksKarate.com.  It contains many of his writings on karate and Buddhism.  Check ‘em out!

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Why I Do This

         “And a rabbit gives up somewhere/ And a dozen hawks descend; /Every moment leads toward/ Its own sad end, yeah.”

These lines are from the middle of a Mountain Goats song (”Sax Rohmer #1″, for you fans) that catalogs all manner of bad outcomes, from shipwrecks to pointless battles, to the succinct tale of the rabbit.  The first time I heard that song – my daughter Emily put the CD on in the car on the way to school one day – the lines about the rabbit made me want to cry.  They still do. And it struck me last week that for me they are closely tied to the Buddhist concept of renunciation.

I’ve heard it said that you really become a Buddhist at the moment when you experience true renunciation.  In order for this to happen, you first have to understand enough of how the law of cause and effect works that you realize with horror the extent to which your own past actions have caused you to suffer (and will continue to do so.)  All of them.  Yes, all of them.  Because even though you’ve done enough positive deeds in the past to end up having a certain quantity of pleasurable experiences, there is nothing you can do to keep those pleasures from ending.  Your favorite ice cream runs out; the warm fall day grows cold when the sun fades, and you’re caught without your coat; the TV remote stops working and you have to change the channels manually.  That’s the little stuff.  Then there’s the bigger stuff.  A family pet perishes beneath a passing car.  Friends and family move away, or get sick and die.  You get sick and die.  That’s the big one.  There’s really no way around that last one, is there?  

Study Buddhism and the law of cause and effect long enough and seriously enough, and at some point you realize that everything really, truly does end in suffering.  ”Every moment leads toward its own sad end.  Yeah.”  When that realization hits, maybe it’s because something really devastating has happened in your life.  Or maybe one day you glance at someone you care for and have the sensation that you’ve known each other before, in a past life and had to endure the terrible pain of losing them to a slow or sudden death.  If you are lucky, when this happens, you’ll experience a moment of visceral horror in which you think, “^@#!!, as long as I’m stuck in this cycle of birth and death, everything will sooner or later go to shit.”  

And that’s a good thing.  Because once you realize that, once you feel your first dose of renunciation, it’s like a kick in the pants.  You’ll be motivated to reach enlightenment to get out of the whole damn cycle for good.  You’ll start to pay a lot more attention to your actions.  You’ll delve more deeply into studying the law of cause and effect; you’ll look at your world and tried to figure out what past actions have caused the effects you’re experiencing now; then you’ll start to take steps to avoid repeating those actions.  

Renunciation isn’t something you intellectually decide you should feel and then you feel it.  It sneaks up on you.  At least that’s been my experience.  Maybe you’ll have one big moment of Renunciation with a capital “R”; maybe a string of small events which have a cumulative effect. But at some point, if you’re like me, something will click for you, and you will say to yourself, “That’s it.  I’ve had it.  I am going to do everything I can in this lifetime to reach enlightenment because I do not want to have to come back and go through all of this again.”  ”This” being seeing every single pleasure in your life come to an end – and having to watch those around you experience that, too.

It’s the combination of both of those that motivated me to take bodhisattva vows – wanting to be in a position not only to end my own suffering, but to help others end theirs, too.  Because no one should have to keep going through “this” over and over again, for eons on end.  That’s why I took the vows and practice as diligently as I can: to do my own part to help make sure that no more rabbits anywhere will have to give up any more.

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No Questions Asked

A few days ago I was rereading the introduction to the 8th century Buddhist classic, “Way of the Bodhisattva”, by Master Shantideva.  If I were ever to be stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life and could take only one book with me, I’d choose “Way of the Bodhisattva”.  (An aspiring bodhisattva is someone who has vowed to reach enlightenment not in order to enjoy that individual liberation, but so that he or she can remain in the world, reincarnating at will in order to help all other beings reach enlightenment, too.)

Shantideva writes in inspiring quatrains about how one goes about living the life of an aspiring bodhisattva.  To put it succinctly, the idea is that you work to achieve, nurture and increase “bodhichitta”.  Having genuine bodhichitta is what makes you a true bodhisattva.  It’s a boundless compassion which prompts you to work to relieve beings’ suffering.  All beings’ suffering.  A nice way to explain it (and this is from the introduction) is that because of his or her bodhichitta, a bodhisattva is able to act “to save beings from suffering, no questions asked.”

A pretty tall order, isn’t it?  I mean, it’s easy to want to relieve the suffering of those you love, sometimes even of those you like.  Maybe, if you’re able to push the envelope a lot, you can feel that way about near or total strangers.  But what about people you dislike, resent, despise?  Is it really possible to want to relieve their suffering?  Or desirable?  Shantideva says yes.  To save from suffering “no questions asked.”  You don’t ask who the beings are, whether they’re “bad” or “good”, or try to judge whether they “deserve” your help.  You just do what you can to help.  Easier said than done.  A lot easier said than done.  And the very day I was reading Shantideva again, I got the chance to not ask questions.

I got an e-mail from an acquaintance who knows a certain very popular nationally-known political commentator. My acquaintance said this person had just had emergency surgery, and she asked whether I’d send him distant Reiki to help his recovery.  I wrote right back.  Of course I would.

Doesn’t sound so hard, does it?  And yet, you have to understand that the person I’d agreed to send Reiki to is, in my opinion, one of the people who does the most in our country to incite discord, even hatred, among his fans, on the levels of politics, race and ethnicity.  And here I was being asked to send him healing energy.  So, even though I immediately agreed, the significance of the timing – that I’d just been reading Shantideva – was not lost on me.

As I sat down to send him the distant Reiki, I consciously pushed aside my awareness of my distaste for his views.  No matter how hurtful and divisive I might think his words can be, this man was still lying in a hospital now, having undergone unexpected surgery for a painful condition.  His life had been disrupted, he was away from his home, very literally out of his comfort zone.  Probably anxious and worried about all sorts of things, ranging from just feeling bad physically, to concerns about not being with friends or loved ones, and, on a more mundane level, about how this surprise medical detour would affect his work and related appearances.  I wouldn’t want to be in his position right now.  And if sending him Reiki could in any way help remove even a little of his physical, mental or emotional discomfort, then that would be a wonderful thing.  And so I sent the Reiki.

I don’t know whether he felt the Reiki at all.  I hope he did.  I hope it helps, even if he didn’t feel it.  I know that sending it helped me.  It gave me a chance to do the right aspiring bodhisattva thing.   It’s incidents like this that remind me that I am indeed an aspiring bodhisattva – after all, I don’t think fondly of this man.  But he was in pain.  So I tried to provide him some relief.  No questions asked.

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