Saturday, October 19, 2013

Trying too hard

Since discovering Buddhism as a way of life in 2007, I have seen some interesting things happen to people, including myself. For example, when I first started along the Buddhist path, I was very, well . . . let's just say I was enthusiastic. 

What I mean by that is once I was comfortable with fundamental Buddhist ideas, I really dove in. I read books, went to retreats, meetings, and events focused on Buddhism; I meditated and walked mindfully. Most of all, I had compassion for ALL living beings. No matter what, I strove to be compassionate and wise in all my actions . . .

I think you can see where this is going.

Then one evening I was walking home, a to-go vegetarian meal from Panera in my hand (a rare treat for me at the time). Out of nowhere, a homeless man came up to me asking for a dollar. Me, in my ever-noble "Buddhist" mode, handed him the dinner I had so been looking forward to. At first taken aback, the man thanked me, but proceeded to ask yet again for a dollar! Now it was my turn to be speechless. "But . . . but, I have just given you my dinner," I stammered. "Sorry, I don't have a dollar for you." (That was true- I had just spent my last bit of cash on the meal I had given him!). 

As you can imagine, I went home more than a little miffed. There I was, a grad student living paycheck to paycheck, "compassionately" giving my dinner to someone with the nerve to only ask for more! What the #*$@? 

Then I realized my mistake. For all my good intentions, I was trying too hard- and expecting too much. But I couldn't say that I didn't know better. Buddhism advocates that we should all work diligently to improve our attitudes and habits- However, we must also acknowledge that these changes take time. Although by nature we are all Buddhas-to-be, instantaneous revelation of our Buddha-nature (especially through self-righteous actions) is unlikely. Reflecting on that encounter with that (grateful, but) persistent homeless man, I was forced to revisit that fact. 

From that evening onwards, I started to let go a little bit. I let myself make mistakes, to be apathetic and impatient, to get angry. But, in contrast to before I had set along the Buddhist path, each time I engaged these negative emotions I learned from being aware of the harm they can do. Being more mindful of the consequences of my thoughts and actions has been a practical approach that I believe has helped me become a better person.

Since then, I have seen this type of experience happen to others. With the best of intentions, people (but especially it seems, new Buddhists) try so hard to be compassionate to all beings, wise in all their actions, striving towards enlightenment (and more often than not, humbly broadcasting their compassionate thoughts on social media!). As one can imagine, all this puts enormous pressure on any individual who is making their way along the Buddhist path- or any other path for that matter. 

Based on my my observations, there are generally two outcomes to this behavior. Some people eventually realize that their efforts are not sustainable and step back towards the Middle Way, while others buckle under the pressure and have a complete meltdown. Obviously, I think most of us would prefer the former. 

It is important to remember that as human beings most of us are struggling to find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives. As we stumble along, it is painfully apparent how many wrong views and negative emotions we have. Overwhelmed, we may be tempted to go into fanatic overdrive to somehow make up for our unskillful actions. 

But we have to face the truth: Years -perhaps lifetimes- of bad habits are not going to disappear today. This type of change requires more than attending Buddhist retreats, switching to a vegetarian diet, and sitting in lotus position. It requires time, a lot of self-awareness, and most of all, hard work. As we slowly become more honest with ourselves, our thought patterns and actions will eventually be less driven by ego, or the the delusion that we have found some quick fix for years of carelessness. 

In truth, this is much more easier said than done. As I travel the Buddhist path, I for one am only making very small steps in what I believe is the right direction. But through it all, I am grateful for having found the Middle Way as a practical, balanced, and straightforward guide for my intentions, behavior, and life. 

What did you think about this post? Have you witnessed others trying too hard to improve, or done this yourself? Do you think the Middle Way is the antidote to overzealousness?  

May all beings be happy!   

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Happy Dussehra!

For something a little different, I just wanted to wish my Hindu friends and family a Happy Dussehra! Dussehra is the celebration of the female Shakti, or trinity of Goddesses Lakshmi, Durga, and Saraswati. As one can imagine, women are central to the celebration and prayer, of which the focus are the Goddesses and offerings of their favorite foods. There is often also a special and creatively decorated construction called a Golu, which women build and show to other women who, along with their children, come to their house to admire- and also to eat delicious foods and socialize.

Below is a very simple Golu I put together for this year's Dussehra. Enjoy!

May all beings be happy!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mealtime meditation: reflections on food

A few days ago I came across this beautiful mealtime meditation. It is from Ajahn Sumedho's The Way it is - a wonderfully introspective lecture-based book that delves into emptiness, dependent origination, and non-dualism. Sprinkled throughout are several thought-provoking reflections, including this one focusing on food. I thought it was a great reminder to be grateful for the food we eat and the nourishment it provides, so that we may continue our efforts to lead a good and wholesome life. 

Reflections on food

Wisely reflecting on this alms-food
I use it not to distract my mind
Nor to gratify desire,
Not to make my form impressive
Or to make it beautiful,
Simply to be sustained and nourished
And to maintain what health I have
To help fulfill the Holy Life;
   With this attitude in mind,
'I will allay hunger without overeating
So that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.'

I think this also goes nicely with another wonderful mealtime meditation I posted years ago. I hope you enjoyed this blessing- What is your favorite mealtime prayer or meditation?

May all beings be happy!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Letting go of dread, letting go of suffering

After several stressful weeks at work, this weekend I was finally able to kick back and relax for a bit- at least in theory. However, instead of thoroughly enjoying my time, I was (like millions of other people) bothered by a nagging sense of dread about going back to work on Monday. Of course, this put a little bit of a damper on my enjoyment of this much-anticipated down time. 

Last night it finally clicked: There I was, relaxing and spending time with my husband when the dread came over me again. Instead of giving in, I stopped for a moment and thought about the feeling. Sure, I had experienced a stressful few weeks, where weekends were just days crammed with more work. I acknowledged that it may actually take some time to 'come down' from the frantic pace and the pressure I had been under. 

But most of all, I realized what was happening was the flip side of what I usually do, the behavior I am aware of; and that is avoiding unpleasantness. From a Buddhist perspective, this can be called aversion. When viewed in the context of the Second Noble Truth, that suffering is caused by tanha, or selfish craving, it is clear that aversion is just a way that we express tanha by avoiding how things really are because of our own self-centered view of how they should be. Thus, we suffer.  

However, this time my dread was not motivated by aversion, but rather attachment, which is really another facet of tanha. When we experience something pleasurable, we hold on to it in our mind, grasping at the pleasure and fun because we never want it to end. But we know it will, and as we are reminded of this fact, we suffer. 

It is not that I have never done this, or that I no longer am prone to attachment (far from it!), but that in many ways I (thought I) had become better at enjoying myself in the moment because I had also become more accepting of the impermanent nature of all things, especially the good ones. Yet there I was this weekend, suffering as I grasped at joyous moments- and suffering in the moments between! 

My conclusion? I can only guess that this attitude is a product of stress, and that I need to find a way to deal with it. Moreover, I also suspect that my heightened feelings of attachment are directly (perhaps even proportionally) related to the strong aversion I felt towards that stress, indicating that as far as tanha goes, attachment and aversion seem inseparably - and profoundly- linked.  

What can you say about your experience with aversion and attachment? Do you agree they are linked in the way I described? Any advice? 
May all beings be happy!