From Daycare to Afghanistan

From Day Care to Afghanistan

by Susan Downing

My son Michael started day care when he was not quite a year old, and he spent every day of his first year in the company of either one or both parents, with a few hours here and there being tended by his grandmother, my mother.  At first, I didn’t feel totally comfortable leaving him with her.  Like all new mothers, I feared that my own mother, despite having far more child-raising experience than I, might not really be competent to care for my precious infant.  And so, when I was away from Michael, or Mikey as we called him then, and still occasionally do, I would always feel a little tug of anxiety.  As soon as I got home, I’d ask my mom for every possible detail of how the two of them had spent their hours together.  I didn’t want to miss anything. But gradually, after leaving the baby with her a number of times, I stopped worrying that something would go wrong in my absence and settled into a calmer frame of mind.

When Mikey started going to day care for a few hours a day, I didn’t cry at the door when we’d say goodbye the way he sometimes did, but in the course of the day, I would find myself wondering how he was doing: how long he’d cried after I’d left, whether he’d eaten enough, whether he’d napped, and so on.  And it didn’t matter that the woman who took care of the infants was the most wonderful care-giver you could ask for.  I would still sometimes worry.  After all, one hears horror stories about day care providers…  But before long, both of us grew accustomed to this new stage of life.  It got to the point where Mikey would barely wave goodbye, because he would rush off to play with his new friends as soon as we got to day care in the morning.  And I was also no longer plagued with worries about him.  We’d adjusted.

Almost 24 years have passed since those first day care days that were marked with tears and anxieties, and in these years, Mikey has moved through all the stages that come with growing up: from day care he went to kindergarten, from there to a new school in first grade, then a new class and new teachers and new friends each year, all the way up through high school.  Each new school year came with its own anxieties. Would the teacher be good? Why did they separate him from his closest friend this year?  How hard would AP English end up being?  Which colleges should he apply to, and where would he get accepted?

The day Mike’s dad took him out to Chicago to get him settled into his college dorm room was a tough one for me.  It was a little bit like leaving him with my mom for two hours, or dropping him off at day care for four hours or school for 6 hours, but it felt like a much bigger transition.  He’d be living far away, I wouldn’t see him every day, and I had absolutely no idea who all these people were he’d be living and studying with.  If something went wrong, getting there would be a lot more complicated and take a lot longer than driving down the block to the day care center.

But after the initial period of adjustment, once again, I settled into the new state of things. I think it was because by that time, I’d had 18 years of practice at making these transitions.  It wasn’t that I’d become casual about them or that I didn’t care what happened.  Not at all. It’s just that over time, with practice, I’d gradually and improved my ability to remain calm in the face of longer and more intense forms of separation.   I started out being able to tolerate that separation calmly for only a couple hours at a time before missing him or becoming a little worried.  Then I grew able to see him off peacefully for the morning, then for the whole day, then overnight, and finally, for the entire college term.

I was lucky that he moved from stage to stage rather slowly, because that gave me time to settle in after each transition, and find my equilibrium, instead of feeling constantly caught off guard.  If, say, he’d started day care one week and then I’d had to go away on a month-long business trip the next, I’m sure I would have been a mess, one giant bundle of maternal nerves and sadness.  But that isn’t the way it happened.

Certainly, one reason I was able to remain calm in the face of each of these transitions was my growing confidence in Mike’s ability to take good care of himself.  By the time he went off to Rome for the fall of his junior year in college, I trusted his good sense and intelligence enough that I was spared sleepless nights worrying about how he’d survive on the other side of the world.

But the other reason for my equanimity was that I’d had all those years of practice, repeatedly seeing him off and having enough confidence in his safety that I had been able to develop the habit of not worrying excessively.  Or obsessively.  I learned to redirect my mind, from worry to more positive thoughts.  It wasn’t that there was never anything to worry about, objectively. There was always something I could have freaked out about, had I chosen to: he lived in Hyde Park in Chicago, for heaven’s sake, and Rome is full of crime, and planes sometimes crash, don’t they, and what if he’s riding with someone who’s been drinking… There is never not a list of things that can go wrong.

That was certainly the case last year, when Mike was going through the Marines’ Officer Candidate School – followed by The Basic School and the Infantry Officer Course. All of last year, he was under more pressure than ever before in his life, in more danger.

And that’s precisely why I am so grateful that over the years I’d been able to develop that habit of not freaking out. Although we had less contact with Mike last year than ever before, because he was often unable to call home for weeks at a time, I got used to that, too.  The slight worry I felt at the beginning of the new stage settled down and I was once again able to approach the situation with calm.

I say habit, and I talk about developing that habit, because being able to respond with calm in the face of uncertainty is not something that comes naturally to us. It takes consistent practice and effort to develop such a habit.  When the Buddha sat down beneath the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he was free of suffering and misunderstanding (see Jeff’s post from last week,) he was able to respond with calm and equanimity to everything he experienced that night because of his years of practice.  He hadn’t gone straight from the palace life to the Bodhi tree.  After leaving the sheltered life of the palace, he spent years training his mind and developing his insight into the world around him.  And that practice and insight enabled him to face the destroyer of worlds with equanimity.

Now, at first glance, seeing my son off – first to day care and then to each subsequent step on his path – may seem to have little in common with the path the Buddha followed.  But in fact, it is only a difference of degree of intensity.  The Buddha succeeded in part because he had developed the ability to hold his mind perfectly steady and calm in the face of distracting and destabilizing circumstances.  And although my level of equanimity can’t yet compare with the Buddha’s, I feel I am following in his footsteps: I engage in a practice that enables me to develop a steadily growing ability to meet the challenges I encounter in life without totally losing my bearings.

I described the transitions I’ve gone through with my son precisely because they are very every day transitions, familiar to all of us. And the calm it takes to make it through them without falling apart comes with continued, conscious practice.  Each time a new, more intense challenge comes our way, we have the chance to gauge how well we’re doing beneath the Bodhi tree of our everyday life.  But more important, we have the chance to make good use of each new challenge and strengthen our habit of responding with calm and equanimity.

Along with my whole family, I’ll soon have the opportunity to strengthen my calm and equanimity even more, because this fall Mike’s battalion will be deploying to Afghanistan for six months. And while he’s facing destroyers of worlds there, we at home will be facing our own version of them, supporting ourselves and each other by relying on the precious habits we began developing back when the biggest worry we faced seemed to be whether Mikey had gone down for his nap while I was out for the afternoon.

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Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddha sat with his legs folded up on a circle of grass, shielded by the branches of a tree. After 17 years or three countless eons of search and preparation he decided not to move from that spot until he was completely free of suffering and misunderstanding.

There he sat. And before the morning star appeared he was confronted by three vicious enemies. These enemies were sent by dark forces to destroy his good, and the blessings he could bring to all beings forever. He knew the stakes when he sat down. He knew the enemies he would face before he faced them. He had faced these same enemies countless times before but never in the ultimate battle, never before in the most extreme form in which he would face them now.

He faced seduction. This might not sound like a big problem. It might sound very good. But to understand the danger of pleasure we only need to look around and see the effect that an addiction to pleasure has on the addict and the way in which people lose their opportunity for complete and lasting happiness by exchanging their lives for things that fade and leave only yearning and pain when they have gone.

He faced war. Vast armies appeared. He was surrounded. They launched spears and razor tipped arrows in his direction. The lure of war is the danger here, not the threat of death in battle. Sometimes people describe the difficulty he faced in this extreme of adversity as a letting go of his attachment to life. But there is also the attraction to battle that tempted him. The excitement of annihilating an enemy is nearly irresistible. All we need to do is look around and see infinite examples of people irresistibly drawn into conflict, seduced by the prospect of smashing their enemy and intoxicated by the results.

In all the great books people are fighting their neighbors. The Old Testament and New, the Koran and the Mahabharata, the chronicles of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, and in everything else ever written, people are setting each other’s teeth on edge and eventually it comes to blows.

We hear in the stories that people suffered injustice and exploitation. They overcame it. They want the generations to come to remember what happened to them and what they did about it. People want the world to know what they did to restore justice to the world. There is nothing wrong with that of course.

In the way the stories are told we can tell that some think they restored things to the state of primordial harmony that existed before their enemies disturbed it. Some speak as if they brought justice into the world for the first time, redeeming the world from perpetual chaos and bringing about a golden age.

But to us, after all this time, after all those stories, and all those wonderful lives expended and terrible lives extinguished, it looks like their victories did not stick. Their great battle was followed by another; another battle between brothers; another war between neighbors; and another and another; each taking precedence in the minds of the people who fought them over the dimming battles of the past, each new story told with fresh urgency, to the generations who followed.

If we feel comfort we might wonder why people keep fighting.

If we feel miserable and humiliated we might wonder why people would tolerate their misery like mice, without fighting back.

The Buddha remained seated, in equanimity. He did not get up. He did not drift away in his imagination. His blazing laser focus did not waver or fade.

This was not because he did not care about winning or losing. He did it because he had a broader perspective than an ordinary combatant or an ordinary lover or an ordinary person has.

It was as if he was sitting on top of the highest mountain in the Himalayas or on top of Mount Meru itself and could see the way in which everything, from his eyes to the horizon, from the highest heaven to the pit of hell, was in touch and connected to everything else.

He could see them move and transform. He could see without distortion that the boundary between life and death, the boundary between blessings and suffering, the boundary between past and present, the boundary between near and far were constructed by the movement of the mind.

That is how the razor tipped arrows turned into a torrent of flower petals. That is how the demons were banished and the search for salvation through physical experience was exposed for what it was in the light of that dawn.

Because his perspective was not limited by the idea that death was the end, or that you are your body, or that personal gain and loss are the measure of a life, he could see infinitely.

He could see how wonderful your family is, your tribe is, your band of brothers is, your race is, your religion is. He could see that building connections to the rest of the beings of universe is even more so. And that the only way that this connection can be made is by training your heart and mind to understand what you share with all these beings, and how they depend for their happiness on you.

He did not recommend tolerating their wrong deeds. He did not overlook the faults or shortcomings of the people he encountered. On the contrary. He saw clearly what was going on and did everything he could do to restrain harm, to protect whoever he could, and to further justice and kindness with skill and courage.

When we hear that “the greatest warrior is the one who conquers himself”: it is this battle, waged perfectly by the Buddha, we are hearing about. It is up to each of us to take on this challenge if we are serious about our cause.

When we say “he who knows himself and who knows his enemy will win every battle” it is precisely this knowledge, the insight achieved perfectly by the Buddha, which we are encouraged to seek. This does not mean to overlook tactical skill or practical battlefield knowledge. It means that may be necessary but it will not be sufficient.

We may never know what an oracle might mean by “Know Thyself.” But we can be sure of the possibility that is open to whoever among us achieves it.

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In Mid-Spin

In Mid-Spin

by Susan Downing

Turns out that Mr. Spider was Mrs. Spider. (See my previous post, “Out of the Threads of the Past” for the story of how I came to be acquainted with this arachnid.)  I’d been watching the nightly web-building for nearly two weeks.  Some nights I’d seen a smaller version of my web-builder hanging out at the top of the web, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about.  So naïve of me!  Because at the beginning of last week, gazing out through the glass of my slider door, I noticed five tiny little spiders in the same spot where the big spider spun its nightly web.

These little ones were just like the big one, except super tiny. So small I could barely see them.  But once I did, all the details fell into place (with a little help from the internet.) Of course!  The big spider was the female, and the one hanging out above was the male.  Had I seen an egg sac around, I would have gotten the picture earlier.

For the next couple of days I delighted in watching the little ones.  At night they’d build tiny webs at the corners of mom’s.  (I wondered how they could possible eat anything that might fly into their webs, and then I learned that baby spiders feed on nectar at first.)  Like most young’ns I’ve known, these spider toddlers got up much earlier than their parents and took advantage of their temporary freedom to race around and play house. A couple of them would hang out in their own webs, while the others crept along remnants of their mom’s.  All of them seemed to be saying, Hey, look at us, we’re here on this web.  We’re cool! We know what we’re doing!  We’re tough! We’ll eat you if you get too close!

That phase lasted only a few days.  By week’s end, they were gone, off to explore the world on their own, I guess.  But Mrs. Spider was still there, spinning her nightly web, and Mr. Spider would make occasional appearances, too.

A few evenings ago, once darkness had fallen, I walked over to the slider doors and, as had become my habit, flipped on the outside light to see what Mrs. Spider was up to.  There she was, spinning the top anchor line for her web.  I turned off the light and went about my business.  When I returned a bit later to check her progress, I noticed that she was still working on that same line.  That was odd.  Usually she’d have her whole web done by now.  I leaned a little closer and noticed that she wasn’t moving.  At all.  At first I though she had just paused in her work, hanging from the line for a moment.  Then, leaning close to the glass to get the closest possible look, I saw that three of her little legs were curled up in the way you see dead spiders’ legs curled.

Aside from the curled up legs, she looked quite alive.  One front leg was gracefully, even elegantly, stretched out, lightly touching the web, while her back legs also still seemed somehow poised, in mid-step. In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider knows when death is approaching.  She tells her friend Wilbur the pig, “I’m done for. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t strength enough to climb into the crate. I doubt if there is enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground.”

Who knows whether Mrs. Spider sensed the end coming in some way.   It didn’t look that way to me. It seemed that she’d gone out as usual that night to build her web, and then, suddenly, death had taken her totally by surprise.  Or perhaps she had some unusual sensation, but just kept to her routine anyway.  As if denying the possibility that she might not complete her web that night.

Although I know that Mrs. Spider certainly didn’t engage in conscious reflection on her own experience of approaching death, it’s quite possible that she was aware that something was amiss, even if she didn’t express this the way Charlotte did.  And in keeping to her routine, denying the approach of death by spinning up until the very last second, Mrs. Spider seems a lot more like us humans than does Charlotte, despite the literary spider’s eloquence.  For when Wilbur the pig responds in a very human way to his friend’s announcement, with grief and denial, Charlotte says to him, “Come now, let’s not make a scene. Be quiet, Wilbur. Stop thrashing about.”

Who among us humans would be able to muster Charlotte’s sense of peace as death approaches, consoling our loved ones as they fall apart beside us?  It seems a rare achievement to me, to die without fighting it, to accept it as the inevitability it is.  Accepting a loved one’s death with equanimity is often more than we can manage, too.  It can also give us pause when animals die. And so I, realizing that Mrs. Spider had died, felt sad.  Partly because I had grown fond of her, but more because she seemed to unprepared for death, taken by surprise, and because this is the way we humans mostly die, too.

Before Charlotte dies, she enlists Wilbur’s help: she asks him to safeguard her egg sac so that her babies will not perish.   She tells him, “This is my egg sac, my magnum opus, my great work, the finest thing I have ever made.”  Wilbur carries out Charlotte’s last wish, and one fine morning, the tiny newborn spiders begin climbing out of this sac in a corner of the barn.

Given this joyful moment of new life at the end of the book, it’s easy to conclude that Charlotte managed to approach death with remarkable acceptance because she knew that she had done what she’d come into her life to do: to produce that egg sac.  But the young reader’s response to Charlotte’s death, and our responses to loved ones’ deaths, and whatever visceral response we have when we think about having to die ourselves some day – that grief or fear or denial is not something that will vanish as soon as we remind ourselves that the deceased achieved something in life that we see as valuable.  We use that reminder to distract ourselves from the very real grief or fear we’re feeling.  Because it can be too terrifying to think of death itself, of the moment when we ourselves can be unexpectedly taken by death.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings called the Lam Rim (“Stages of the Path”) talk at length about death, its inevitability and its unpredictability:

“You will not get a message warning you, “Now prepare to die.” Death will strike suddenly one day and you will just have to leave whatever you are doing.  Even simple monks have to stop drinking butter tea, eating barley flour or noodles and go to their next life: this shows how uncertain the time of death is.

Grasping at permanence tricks you into thinking you have many years left, but the day will come when you will die.  People who will die from illness today are still thinking, “I will not die today.””

The Lam Rim makes such a big deal of the uncertainty and inevitability of death because knowing we’ll die, believing that we really will die, can prompt us to study and practice the Dharma:

The great risk is: before the tomorrow when

You were going to practice Dharma comes,

The time for you to die will come today.

So do not let your head be turned;

If you would practice Dharma,

Do it from today.

And His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his book Becoming Enlightened, explains the benefit such practice will give us:

“The fragility of life calls us to make a decision to implement spiritual practice right now.  Religion is not physical.  Although both physical and verbal virtuous actions are important, religion is a matter of mental transformation.  This means not just understanding something new but suffusing your mental continuum with this knowledge in order to tame your unruly mind and put it in the service of virtue.  This means that you must practice now. If you do whatever you can at the present juncture to transform your mind, then even sickness and pain while you are dying will not disturb the strong sense of peace, firm like a mountain, deep in your mind.”

The Lam Rim tells us that the Dharma is “your guide, captain and provisions for your journey when you die.”  It says that if we don’t practice, when we die, our death will be no different from that of a “stray dog in an alley.”

Or perhaps from that of a spider who perishes in mid-spin.

Now, the very night Mrs. Spider died, as she still hung there on the one completed strand of her web, a small spider busied itself weaving its own web in the corner.  But the next night, Mr. Spider took center stage, spinning a web right where Mrs. Spider’s had always hung.  And he’s been there every night since. There’s something comforting about that, I guess, a sense of familial continuity, just like the nice warm feeling I had when I watched the baby spiders begin their life of weaving.  But that’s not the essence of what I see in this story.

Mrs. Spider’s nightly spinning reminded me that we can transform our mind and our life by making good use of all that we learn as we travel through cyclic existence.  Her seemingly sudden death reminded me just how urgent it is to prepare for death by practicing and living out the Dharma.  That way we’ll be able to look back on a life we can be proud of, and we’ll also be able to leave the this life with genuine peace of mind, instead of thrashing about like a terrified moth unexpectedly trapped in one of Mrs. Spider’s webs.

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New York, London, Paris, Munich

New York, London, Paris, Munich

by Jeffrey Brooks

In 1957 pop star Nat King Cole had a hit with his song “When I Fall In Love.” The younger brothers and sisters of the World War II generation were growing up and falling in love and learning how to make their way to adulthood.

He sang

When I fall in love it will be forever
Or I’ll never fall in love
In a restless world like this is
Love is ended before it’s begun
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun

When I give my heart it will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I fall in love with you.

(All these performances are on You Tube. It’s hard to get what’s happening in the song just from the lyrics so you might want to check them out.)

The poetic couplet about the moonlight kisses, corny as it might seem now, shows that in the convention of this kind of song the intelligence and artfulness and tenderness of the singer matters.  With this, and through each verse, the lyric conducts a romantic persuasion beyond just yearning. The intention is a lifetime of committed love.

“The Way You Look Tonight” was written in 1936, but it was covered dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the collegiate vocal quartet the Lettermen, who had a hit with it in 1961. This was the year of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the post-beat, pre-hippie moment of Jack Kerouac and the Red menace.

But for most of the pop music-buying public this retro cover captured how they felt about love. In this song, still popular in the early 60’s, he rapture of romantic love was expressed as an appreciation of the qualities of a specific individual person.

They sang:

Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

Yes you’re lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you,
And the way you look tonight.

With each word your tenderness grows,
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose,
It touches my foolish heart.

Lovely, never, ever change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it?
Cause I love you, just the way you look tonight.

(The Lettermen’s version is not close to the best but the fact that it was popular in 1961 matters here.  There are plenty of elegant versions to listen to.)

In 1967, one of the most popular songs of the year was the Motown hit “I Second That Emotion,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. No need to take the pun in the title too seriously, because it was just for fun even then.

But if you are inclined you can see that the song is about following the rules and the title is a reference to Robert’s Rules of Order, one of the most beloved manuals of parliamentary procedure ever created.  (Debate could be halted by a motion from the floor requiring a vote on the matter at hand, only if the motion was seconded from the floor.  That was a way to prevent a lone individual from undermining the deliberations.) The reference would have been clear to citizens, students organizing student government or clubs, or anyone who had learned some of the ways in which human beings learned to work together even when they disagreed, instead of screaming or killing each other, like thugs.

This was just as the Great Society welfare programs were about to gut the family, depreciate men, valorize (and fund) multi-generational single motherhood; it was four years before Roe v. Wade, and it communicated a man’s right to choose, at least to take the responsibility to do the right thing. And it communicated the importance of self-restraint and a committed relationship to the kids who listened to it. And this was no prudish self-restraint. You watch Smokey Robinson sing this and you will see that he understands the suffering that inevitably follows the withdrawal of pleasurable experience. And he builds his insight into the hurt that comes from sloppy self indulgence and the psychology that produces it, verse by verse:

Maybe you want to give me kisses sweet
But only for one night with no repeat
Maybe you’d go away and never call
And a taste of honey is worse than none at all

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

Maybe you think that love would tie you down
You ain’t got the time to hang around
Maybe you think that love was made for fools
So it makes you wise to break the rules

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

And he mentions “breaking the rules” and he is referring to pre-marital sex or one night stands. These were soon quaint rules. There were strains on them.  Soon they ceased to be rules at all.  But for him and his millions of listeners, in 1967, this was a real issue and he had something to teach.

Then the deluge.

For example in 1970 Steven Stills releases “Love The One You’re With.” This was the year after Woodstock, dorms were full of weed, heads were full of acid, the streets were full of war protesters, and the stock market was rising like the morning sun.

It was the 1971 Crosby Stills and Nash version that everyone heard and learned and lived by. (At first it seemed like freedom. Ask anyone.)
Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/s/stephen_stills/love_the_one_youre_with.html ]
If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking too
Concentration slips away
Cause you’re baby is so far away

Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with

Don’t be angry – don’t be sad
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do

Turn your heartache right into joy
Cause she’s a girl and you’re a boy
Get it together come on make it nice
You ain’t gonna need anymore advice

In this case the poetic couplet – the rose in the fisted glove, etc. – isn’t coherent and isn’t even English. But it fit within the convention of stoned, Dylanesque obscurity. It was acceptable and it was not the part of the song anyone was paying attention to.

The same year, 1971, Carole King’s song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was a kind of anthem for listeners who thought it expressed what was in their hearts with utter honesty.

(It was a hit again a few years ago when it was covered by Amy Winehouse in a sincere sounding version she recorded just before she died at 27.)

It is a song full of longing and hope. It is stylish in a tin pan alley sort of way. But there is nothing more than hope in it. No volition. None of Smokey Robinson’s decision-making.  It presumes helplessness, as if there was nothing you could do but hook up and hope for the best. It has the intense yearning every gambler and drunk can relate to.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Tonight you’re mine completely,
You give your love so sweetly,
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure,
Or just a moment’s pleasure,
Can I believe the magic of your sighs,
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Tonight with words unspoken,
You said that I’m the only one,
But will my heart be broken,
When the night
Meets the morning sun.

I’d like to know that your love,
Is love I can be sure of,
So tell me now and I won’t ask again,
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Naïve, self indulgent and without the benefit of either a psychology or social structure that could guide her to a healthy stable romantic relationship and life. If it was a one-time thing maybe she could learn from it. But it does not seem that that is how the song was heard or used.

Then came disco. In 1976 a hit song sung by a porn performer called Andrea True captured the moment: over the top sex, and musical performance with a strange, anesthetized affect. This song and this sound were the soundtrack for an era of cocaine and cruising, Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights:  The mention of ardent love for a particular person in pop music was gone. Intoxicated by massive amounts of anonymous sex, partiers had to crank it up with drugs and porn and that is what pop music described:

Ooh, how do you like my love
Ooh, how do you like my love
But if you want to know
How I really feel

Just get the cameras rolling
Get the action going
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you’ll steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
Ooh, how do you like my love

Ooh, how do you like my love
And if you want to know
What it means to me
Just hear the rhythm grooving

Get your body moving
Baby you know my love for you is true
Any time you want to
Do what you gotta do

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love

A celebration of tab a and slot b. Not a hint of wit, or a gesture of seduction.  Nothing personal.

No need to trace the decline further: the generations that came of age in the 70’s and onwards were relentlessly advised by these values and examples. It is like that now, even more so.

Americans of the early and mid 20th Century lived through economic difficulties. They had to work hard to live and to maintain their dignity. This showed in their love songs, and the ideals they aspired to in their relationships. The songs were sweet at a time when life was hard.

The generations that served in WWII and the conflicts that followed understood that evil spreads if you don’t stop it, and they participated in stopping it.

Since then generations have come and gone who have been crippled by the comforts won by those earlier generations. While many have trained hard, studied hard, worked hard, and behaved with courage and decency, many have lost their way.

Subsequent generations believed they were wealthy enough to bribe their way out of difficulty; to appease tyrants and buy off discontents. They were wrong. Now the money is gone and the difficulties, the tyrants, and the discontents are stronger and more numerous.

People in the past few generations have been exploited by mass media; by producers who know they can pander to our weaknesses and desires – who know that we will pay and they will make money; they do this so they themselves can indulge, on a large scale, the same weaknesses and desires they have encouraged in all of us.

My generation was poisoned by the music we listened to and the values we absorbed. One of my professors, Neil Postman, wrote a book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We have just about done it.

Contrary to what we were told, it turns out that people like to have a stable family to take care of and which they can depend on to take care of them, out of love, not out of contractual obligation, and not until something better comes along.

It is evident now that people want to have purposeful work, and have that work recognized and rewarded. We want to share our sense of purpose with our community and face the difficulties that arise together with others, and do it with courage and skill.

But to achieve this, good values and skills have to be taught and modeled, and they have to be learned.

If we neglect to create mature individuals, healthy families and communities then people will be unhappy. They will seek some way to overcome their loneliness and their uselessness.

A life of subsidy, pop music, movies, games and computers drain the life out of people, humiliate them, making them paranoid and angry.

They join gangs and become thugs that use violence on people weaker than themselves. They have affairs and become thugs that use sex without regard to others. They trick people and exploit them for money, through scams and advertising, as economic thugs.

As all these thugs, high and low, spread their values, our society declines. The connections between people dissolve. People get lonely.

Their minds fill with malignancy. Some will go looking for a target. Tall buildings. Movie audiences. Cities. Nations. There is no end to it.

Unless we put an end to it.

Let’s prepare now to do right: to act kindly when we can and courageously when we need to.

If decent people stick together, the thugs won’t disappear in a day, but they will never get a chance to take a second shot at stardom.

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Out of the Threads of the Past

Out of the Threads of the Past

by Susan Downing

One night a couple of weeks ago, I happened to glance out the slider door that leads to my back porch.  Glimpsing something moving on the outside of the glass, I flipped on the porch light to get a better look.  It was a good thing that it was on the outside of the glass, because otherwise I would have really freaked out: a spider that looked just like a black widow except for being brown, was busily building his web.

Once I’d determined that, despite his bulbous abdomen, this fellow was a common orb-weaving spider, I stood there watching his progress for quite a while, long enough to see him complete enough of a web to catch a small moth and a tiny green stinkbug.  The next morning when I got up, there was no sign of Mr. Spider, his dinner, or his web.

The next night, he was back.  As he has been every night since then, with the same pattern of activity: build the web after nightfall, catch dinner and eat it.  But what happened to the web?  Why and how did it mysteriously (at least to me) vanish before the break of dawn each day?  The spot is pretty sheltered, and it seemed unlikely that it would be so fragile as to disintegrate within a matter of hours.  Was it an engineering flaw?

Until the other night, this seemed to me the most likely explanation.  I have observed Mr. Spider’s construction techniques, and I can tell you, those first few days, I was not surprised at all that the web didn’t last until morning. He would race helter-skelter, throwing anchor lines here and there, and then, in a breathless frenzy, connect them with other lines, using a pattern that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  There were large gaps between the strands.  I was amazed that he caught any dinner at all those nights.

Then one night toward the end of the first week, when I turned on the porch light as usual to see what Mr. Spider was up to, I was surprised to see that in place of the crazy quilt webs of days past, he was methodically laying down a spiral of web atop the anchor lines.  Now this looked like a spider web! There were still a fair amount of space between the lines, but the whole effect was entirely different, both in the web that was taking shape and in Mr. Spider’s approach to the work: he was taking his time, step by step, carefully fixing each segment in place before moving on to the next.  By the following night, he’d tightened up the pattern, and his meticulous work paid off: a seven-course meal awaited him by the time I went to sleep.

But in the morning, again – no more web.  I was puzzled.  Certainly these new webs were sturdier.  Could they really not survive?  If he himself had taken it down, why on earth would he choose to do that and have to rebuild it again on each subsequent night?  It seemed so inefficient – a waste of time, energy and silk.

Evidently, I am not the first to be confounded by such questions, because the internet is full of discussion of whether spiders can learn to build better webs (they can!) and whether they rebuild them daily (some do, including my orb-weaving spider!) and why.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the last question:

Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location. Thus, the webs of orb-weavers are generally free of the accumulation of detritus common to other species.

It turns out that this process not only results in a new, pristine web every night, but has an added benefit: because the web silk is very high in protein, consuming it provides the spider with essential nourishment.  So, he feeds himself on the threads of his past web and then uses the energy he gains from them to consciously and carefully construct a new web.  A fresh start each time around.

One morning a few days ago, as I sat at my table, gazing out through the slider door from which Mr. Spider’s web had once again vanished, I began to see the webs and Mr. Spider’s approach to them as a metaphor for the process of moving through countless lifetimes.  With each new rebirth, the old life seems to be gone.  We may think we’re starting from scratch each time.  But we can’t say that about each of our lives any more than Mr. Spider could say that about each of his webs.  The past life is done, but its effects and usefulness are not exhausted.  We can make conscious, purposeful use of the elements of the past: we can begin to recognize the threads of unhelpful habits that have stretched from past lifetimes into this and learn to transform them, like spinning straw into gold.

And it isn’t only with each new life that we have this opportunity. We can see our missteps, nourish ourselves with the insights they offer, and then, every day, every moment, we can reweave the web of our life.

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The Human Realm

The Human Realm

by Jeffrey Brooks

Some of the realms of existence are visible to us – the human realm and the animal realm – the others we can only imagine. But each of the realms of existence is governed by a specific state of mind. In the heaven realm the heavenly beings are beautiful and are governed by feelings of pleasure. They live in ecstasy, until the good karma they have collected by their past good deeds is used up, and they descend to rebirth in a lower realm.

The titans are powerful and are governed by envy.

The animals live by instinct and seek food and shelter.

The hungry ghosts are deformed and they are desperate for nourishment.

The inhabitants of hell feel only pain – physical torment, mental torment, and despair.

All these beings inhabit those realms due to the things they have done, said and thought in the past. And all will move to another realm when the karma that has cast them into their realm is used up. The hell beings will ascend, the heaven beings will fall, and all of us have inhabited all these realms, infinite times.

This kind of view was common to many religious traditions in India at the time of the Buddha.

To a modern, scientific person this all sounds made up. We are materialists by training and we believe in nature, science, politics, money and culture. We believe that life is constituted by cells; that consciousness is secreted by cells, and that when our body dies that’s that.

The idea that our world is constructed as the consequence of what we, personally, have done in the past, does not match what we have been taught. But it is worth checking out. It is worth checking whether the materialist worldview we have been taught is accurate. Because it is failing to bring happiness. It is producing a crop of envy, greed, depression, anxiety and despair; and the things we do to hold on to pleasure are causing endless trouble.

As human beings we are ruled by desire. We always want something. We are rarely satisfied. Our minds are disturbed by wanting things and our lives get used up trying to get what we think will make us happy. The attempt to find happiness in this way always fails. But the premise is rarely questioned. Instead of putting an end to desire we just pick a different object to pursue.

This insight underlies the full scope of Buddhist teaching.  The most sophisticated and potent philosophical expression in the history of mankind began with a warrior prince sitting in place and explaining to five yogis this: suffering permeates everyone’s experience; this suffering has a specific cause; since this suffering has a cause it has an end; and that there is a path we can take which leads to that end of suffering.

The Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life following up on this.

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Can’t We Just Sit and Eat With Each Other?

Can’t We Just Sit and Eat With Each Other?

by Susan Downing

Sometimes when I’m talking with my Reiki friends about the great calm and happiness a Reiki session brings to both recipient and practitioner, we consider this question:  What if, when someone came to us for Reiki, we just had them lie down on the table in the dim room, maybe with some soothing music playing, and then just sat next to them for an hour, silently keeping them company?  Maybe they would feel just as good – or almost as good – as they do when we give them Reiki.

None of us has tested this, but last week I came across an article about food pouches for babies and toddlers. Reading it, I became convinced not only that we can all use the kind of undivided, loving attention from others that Reiki gives us, but also that it’s precisely this kind of interaction with others that is becoming rarer and rarer in our everyday lives.

The food pouch grew out of developer Neil Grimmer’s desire to provide “mobile food technology for the modern family” and to give kids a way to have more control over what they eat.  Parent response has been positive: they see the pouches as a way to avoid meal-time struggles that arise when they try to get their little ones to eat healthy foods.  They also appreciate that the pouches make it possible to feed the kids on the go. Give the kids a pouch of a tasty fruit or vegetable blend that they can suck down on the way to or from day care or a sporting event, and you’ve killed two birds with one stone: the kids get something healthy to eat, and you don’t have to take the time to sit at the table with them and spoon it into their mouths, or sit by while they struggle to feed themselves. The article’s author tells us:

The pouch “is about recognizing the moment we live in,” he [Grimmer] told me. “We have ideal selves as parents, but there are also real moments as parents” — I assumed he was referring to those less-than-ideal times when distractions like work make cooking food or cajoling a toddler to eat it almost impossible — “and you need to find solutions.”

Grimmer rejected the author’s thought that maybe regular mealtime is worth enforcing: “My kids are more scheduled than I am as C.E.O.: soccer, ballet, theater.”

Am I alone in thinking that this is a totally misguided way to approach our lives?  This is precisely why we end up needing the relaxation of a Reiki session: because our lives have turned into a frenetic race from one activity to the next, or rather, from one multi-activity to the next.  For some reason, we seem to have trouble rejecting the idea that we need to be doing at least two things at once. And now we’ve reached the point where it doesn’t even seem important to sit with our tiny children as they eat and learn to feed themselves.

All of this multi-activity results in part from our mistaken belief that simply being in someone else’s presence as we engage in shared or parallel actions gives us sufficient connection with them, and so it’s okay to do something else at the same time, too.  But what’s missing when we interact this way is the key non-verbal component of our communication.  Sure, we can dispense with sit-down  meals and instead jointly wolf down sandwiches or pouches of food as we ride somewhere in the car.  If we do that, we won’t starve.  Not literally.  But we will certainly be starving ourselves emotionally and spiritually.  Because sitting with our children or parents or siblings or friends at a shared meal is about a lot more than ingesting nutrients.  It’s equally about nourishing our loving connections to each other.  We can say the same thing about all of our interactions with others.  And if we don’t arrange our lives in a way that makes it possible for us to regularly share this vital undivided attention and communication, then we will suffer from emotional and spiritual malnutrition.

Given that we seem to give and receive undivided attention so rarely, thank goodness for Reiki!  The warm, caring connection we experience during a session is a powerful antidote to all our harried, non-focused interactions.  But I think it would be much better if we could find a way to live differently, so that a Reiki session could function not as an emergency antidote to the poison of the rest of our lives, but as a gentle and welcome boost to an already healthy system.  And we can start right now.  Just for today, even just for ten minutes, we can give our full attention to interacting with one person we care about.  You can try that for yourself and see how both of you feel afterwards. You may find that it’s more delightful and sweet than even the most wonderful Reiki session.

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The Realms of Samsara

The Realms of Samsara

by Jeffrey Brooks

In heaven everyone is so happy to see you. They are delighted to catch a glimpse of you as you approach. They welcome you with tears of love. You feel the same toward them. The look on their faces, the grace of their bodies, the re-connection with people you love after not seeing them for a while, even if these are people you have never met before, or saw yesterday, is so wonderful.

That is how people feel about other people in heaven. That is how they got to heaven.

If you feel that way you will not hurt people or wish them ill or speak badly about them. You will act for their benefit, with their happiness first in your mind. And they will do the same for you.

The titans in their world, just below the heavens, can see the golden light streaming down through the clouds that block their view of the heaven realms. They can see the majestic mountains rising through the clouds. But they cannot see the tops of the mountains. And the mountains cast long shadows into their world. The titans know that up there everyone is happy and beautiful and serene and they just hate that. They want it. It is not fair. They do not know that it is a result of the past actions of the inhabitants in these worlds. That the mental habits of these people produce the conditions of their lives. They think that battle will tip the odds in their favor. So they take a break from contending against each other, and like Hollywood producers and movie stars, conspire together for a short time, against the people they envy. Then, for as long as their self-interests converge, they attack, sinking deeper into turmoil, calculation, conspiracy and exhaustion.

In the world of animals there is fellowship between a very few. A flock or a herd will travel together, but to all other species, all other flocks or herds, they feel no connection. To each animal, beyond their own tribe, all others are predators or prey, competitors or nothing.  To some degree they take care of their own eggs or hatchlings, and they mate. But mostly they eat others or are eaten by them, and most live their lives alone, occupied with the search for food and safety.

In the hungry ghost world everyone is isolated. Hungry ghosts live alone in a barren land, desperately hungry, goaded by thirst on an endless, fruitless quest for something to eat or drink. They are disappointed again and again, after crossing miles of blank desert arriving at the edge of what from far away looked like a lake they discover it was nothing but a mirage, now vanished, leaving them again desperate and unsatisfied. The karma that produces life in the hungry ghost realm is greed, and the selfish pursuit of things that cannot satisfy you, and being mean to others in order to get these things. People who are drug addicts or porn addicts or whose life is measured in money, whose unquestioned ideal is nothing more than “more” have a taste of the bleak obsession of the world of hungry ghosts.

In the hells there is no kinship, and no solitude. Any encounter with another person inspires instant, blazing hatred. On landing in the hells the being looks around and is immediately seized with overwhelming rage. The being will pick up anything they can find and start swinging and stabbing, trying to hurt or kill whoever they see. The others are doing the same to them. And that’s just the entryway. From then on, for as long as they stay, in each encounter, depending on the condition of their mind and the residue of the actions that brought them there, they will be tormented to a degree which is incomprehensible to people in this world. The karma that brings people to this condition is a radical separation from others, and cruelty toward them.

The human realm is very different. The karma that brings us here is very rare and good, but it is mixed.  Anything is possible. We can learn. We can discover that our lives are governed by our actions and that the conditions in which we place ourselves, the people we associate with, the things we value, and everything we do, think and say, form our lives.  We are free, not trapped by pleasure or pain, but free: We can learn. We can practice. We can choose. We can be heroes. We can save ourselves and others from suffering and protect them from harm.

These descriptions of the six realms of existence have a single through line – the regard for others. In Buddhism this is an essential part of our method.  Dedication to the well being of others is our path to freedom from suffering, and to freedom from the ignorance that creates suffering.

If we practice courage and kindness in this human world we will face difficulties. But we can bear even the greatest difficulties with equanimity if we know what to do and what to avoid; if our training is strong enough to do it; and if we understand the rewards of the path of a true hero.

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To The Mountaintop

To the Mountaintop

by Susan Downing

In my last post, “We Just Place Our Hands,” I wrote about encouraging my Reiki students to focus not on using set hands positions or striving for results when they give Reiki, but rather on make establishing and maintaining a connection with the recipient.  Today I’ll explain how this approach benefits not only the practitioner and recipient, but everyone around them, too. 

The benefits grow out of experiencing a shift in perspective, such as the one Jeff Brooks described in his recent post, “Thinking of You”:

Something feels good to us when we see our world from a distance. It’s like looking back over your life, after you have lived it. Or some of it. Or most of it. It looks different.

People go to the mountaintop for a reason. We need to overcome gravity to do it. It takes an act of will.

Mikao Usui, Reiki’s founder, went to the mountaintop.  Legend tells us that during a 21-day mountaintop retreat, he had a profound spiritual experience, and that as a result, he suddenly acquired the ability to facilitate healing in others using the energy flowing through his hands.  Up there on the mountain, Usui came to see the world around him differently.  I believe he experienced a great upwelling of compassion – which Buddhism calls “bodhicitta” –  and that he came to see, as Jeff described it,  “the vast interdependence of things, from a distance as well as from up close.”

Following his retreat, Usui set about developing and teaching a practice that would help others gain a glimpse of what he’d seen on his mountaintop. He didn’t just tell his students what he’d seen.  In fact, it seems possible to me that he told them nothing specific at all about what he’d experienced. But if he had, I think it would have sounded a lot like this (also from Jeff’s post):

As we train ourselves in wisdom we learn to see things and people and our own hearts and minds as inseparable from each other, inseparable from what we think, say and do, inseparable from what we have done and from what we will do and from every one we ever knew or will know or will never know.

But rather than relating his experiences in detail, Usui simply described Reiki as “the secret method of inviting happiness.”  For him, this was a particular kind of happiness, the kind he gained on the mountaintop when he came to feel inseparable from all around him.  You can think of it as a joy that arises from feeling so deeply connected to others that you can’t help but devote the rest of your time on earth to sharing that joy with them by treating them with love and working for their benefit.

Usui spent the rest of his life teaching people how they could come to experience this happiness, too.  But he didn’t lead his students to the actual mountaintop.  He brought it to them, or rather, he gave them the method for gradually ascending that mountain: practicing Reiki and sharing this practice regularly with each other.

I believe that everything Usui included when he taught the system we now call Reiki was designed to help his students sense and deepen a connection with each other through practicing Reiki.  More precisely, I believe he taught them how to develop the focus and calm presence that would make awareness of that connection possible.  I say awareness of the connection because just as the energy is always flowing from us to our recipient, even if we are not aware of it flowing, we are always deeply and fully connected to our recipient. It is just that we are not always aware of that connection.

So, I believe that Usui taught his students methods that would help them be focused and free of distraction, so that they could simply be present with their recipient.  It’s in those moments of attention – a relaxed, not forced, attention – that we can become aware of our connection to our Reiki recipient.  We will not sense it if we are distracted by thoughts about where to place our hands, or by a desire to bring about a result.  Every time we focus on something other than simply being with our recipient and offering them the Reiki without trying to make something happen, our attention is actually drawn away from our recipient, which means it’s harder for us to feel fully connected.  When we are present with our recipients, wanting nothing more than to give them our full attention – that’s when we begin to move upward, toward the mountaintop.

Now, while Usui himself seems to have gained the sense of our inseparability by stepping back and getting the larger picture on his mountaintop, he gave his students a way to access what he’d found not by placing themselves at great distance from those around them, but by interacting with them more closely than they were accustomed to doing.  And this shift from everyday distance to ever-lessening distance while practicing Reiki provided just as sharp a contrast with their usual vision as if they’d been somehow transported to the mountaintop.  Because it’s precisely when you practice Reiki the way I believe Usui taught – focusing solely on being present and energetically connected with your recipient – that you become able to chip away at your firm conviction that you and your recipient are clearly defined beings, existing entirely independently of each other.

Since even a tiny glimpse of this feeling of interconnectedness comes only with sustained practice, Usui offered his students the chance to share Reiki with each other over and over and over.  And he taught them methods to develop their concentration and focus, not so that they could actively facilitate some result in their recipients, but so that they could gradually experience a stronger and stronger awareness of their interconnectedness with each other.

Being aware of this interconnectedness, if only for a moment, makes you so happy.  It seems like a miraculous discovery. As you continue to practice and your awareness grows, your joy grows, too.  Each time you share Reiki with someone, you have the opportunity to feel that inseparability, and with time, you realize that it is not the inseparability that comes and goes, but rather, your awareness of it.  And then you begin to feel even happier, because you are feeling this connection more and more strongly and clearly.  In other words, you are inviting happiness into your life.

This joy isn’t the only benefit of practicing Reiki with a focus on being present rather than on results.  It goes without saying that your recipients will also really enjoy their sessions with you, because they will sense – whether consciously or not – that you are giving them your full attention and keeping them company without trying to manipulate this or that result. And they will appreciate that.

But there’s another way that we as practitioners benefit by approaching Reiki this way.  Over time, we establish the habit of coming to our sessions with an openness of heart and mind.  We learn to be aware of whatever we encounter when giving Reiki, and not to try to force the session to go in any certain direction.  We simply give our attention to being with and being kind to the person we’re with.  We’re able to do this because we’ve understood, through the positive feedback we receive – in the form of our own joy and our recipients’ – that this way of brings joy to everyone involved.

Then, little by little, we become able to apply this approach to other areas of our life, outside our Reiki sessions.  Although there are certainly times when we need to do something active and concrete to help others, we often find that all that’s necessary when we encounter those who are struggling is to interact with them the same way we give Reiki: we are fully present, with a kind heart, and we don’t push to bring about a result. We’re able to begin to come to all areas of our life this way because we’ve learned from our Reiki practice that this approach brings great benefits us and helps us feel our connection to others more strongly.  Which helps us and those around us feel happier and closer to each other.

So, what Usui came to see from a distance, he then spent the rest of his life giving his students the opportunity to glimpse from close up. Approaching our practice this way is no less challenging than scaling an actual mountain and reflecting on the world from its summit.  It’s an internal, rather than a physical ascent, but just as demanding. But if we devote ourselves to this internal ascent, then we really can glimpse that special “happiness”.  We will begin to experience it ourselves, and then we’ll find ourselves immediately, naturally, and effortlessly sharing it with everyone around us.

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Wonderful World

Wonderful World

by Jeffrey Brooks

I hear there are children who make a home for a caterpillar in a terrarium. They watch it spin its cocoon. They wait. They look at it every day. And one day the cocoon opens up. And out comes a butterfly. They can’t believe the miracle of this birth. They have never seen anything like it. They are amazed. They are delighted. They clasp their hands together and their eyes open wide and they look at each other without words not knowing just what to say, as if to say do you see what I see? There are times when we have our heads down. We have seen it all and done it all and we cannot see much besides perfidy and cruelty and pretense and lies. But there are times when I can’t find anything that’s not a miracle. A look out the window in the morning, or looking at the sky at night. Walking in the woods or sitting down at the table or looking at the face of a child or the eyes of someone you love, or look at anyone. Anyone. There are times when I cannot find anything that is not a miracle. Where did all this come from? Where will it all go? Sometimes I think I will miss it when I am gone but who knows what miracles are out there. Who knows what miracles we will find?

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