Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Buddhist and the Paper Plates

It was my first daylong silent satsang. Dorothy Hunt was teaching, at a church that stood on a hill in Tiburon overlooking the water. The day was grey and cold, and, as always for such things, I had to force myself to get out of my comfortable bed that Saturday morning and drive over the bridge to Marin. But the promise I had made to myself to take care of my spiritual life was strong and clear in my head as I drove over and up the windy road to the church parking lot.

I had volunteered to help in the kitchen. I figured everybody there was going to volunteer to do something; isn’t that how these things go? I didn’t realize until I went in and introduced myself to Dorothy’s assistant that I would be the only one. Oh well, it wasn’t that hard: just keep the water hot for tea and lay out the snacks for after lunch.

The assistant obviously had a very clear idea of what needed to happen, when, and exactly how. Here were all the dry snacks in this bag, and dried fruit on this tray here, paper plates and plastic forks and spoons here: just lay them out during lunch and cover the food with towels until the snack break. And don’t forget to make sure there’s enough hot water for tea!

Almost immediately, I felt like I was failing. I hadn’t come as early as I was clearly expected to: the tea things were already set out. Then I kept asking questions about where things were kept. I figured I was being oversensitive when I sensed that she was irritated by my questions. But OK, that was her thing, I familiarized myself with the task list, filled the canister to heat the water for tea, and went in to the other room to learn about enlightenment.

I was surprised by how distracted I was by my duties. They weren’t that hard, or complicated, but I found myself worrying if I should go now to put out the snack things or check the tea water. I didn’t have a watch and the room had no clock. But that didn’t matter, since I didn’t know what time lunch or snack time was anyway.

The teaching was about staying in the present moment and letting our true self make our decisions for us, rather than the false self of our minds and their stories about what’s happening at any given moment. I recognized my kitchen issues as a real-life lesson in the concepts being taught. As my mind scurried while the rest of me tried to stay present, I watched it all from another place. Was this the Observer self?

The big trouble happened at the end of lunch. We had over an hour for lunch, so I drove down to the supermarket, about a 10-minute drive, and got some soup to eat in the car. Then I took a walk. I came back to the church and there was about 15 minutes left until lunch ended. The assistant was in the kitchen, looking worried, even though there was plenty of time. When she saw me, she went away to do something else, and I started setting out the snacks.

Now here’s the thing: I don’ t like paper plates and plastic utensils. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a lazy and mindless way to create more useless trash for landfills. I’d rather wash a mountain of plates and silverware than rely on disposable ones, if there’s any other option. I’ve even been known to forego using any sort of plate or utensil when I could get away with it, rather than use anything disposable.

In the church kitchen, were cupboards full of heavy-duty ceramic crockery and drawers full of silverware. I reasoned, OK, here I was learning how to rest in the wisdom of my Essential Self, so because I feel so strongly about the paper plate issue, I will put out the ceramic plates and the silverware, and wash it all myself rather than put out disposable things. I did so, and went to put some of my stuff back in the car.

When I returned to the kitchen, the assistant had put all the crockery and silverware away and had put out the paper plates and plastic utensils. I explained that one of my passions was living lightly on the planet, and that I really hated disposable plates and utensils. She talked about how I’d then have to wait for the dishwasher to go through its entire cycle before I could leave after the satsang. I didn’t even realize there was a dishwasher; I told her I’d handwash everything afterwards, and not to worry. She was having none of it. “I think we should just use these,” she said, “I mean she brought them, so we should use them.” I got irritated, but rather than show it, just said OK and started to walk out. “But there are still things to put out,” she said, pointing to the tray of dry fruit I’d forgotten.

I set about putting them out, and she left. I was pretty hot under the collar, and felt stupid, to boot, to have forgotten the fruit. Something about this woman got under my skin. Her attitude was haughty and controlling. I immediately felt like she disapproved of me, like I’d done something wrong. I observed my mind getting angry, and fought to keep it under control. I felt sullen, like I used to as a child when I was scolded.

Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be pleasant and smiling all the time?

Stubbornly, I told myself that I needed to live in my integrity, so I put away the paper plates and plastic forks, and put out the ceramic crockery and silverware again. I covered the food with towels, and went back to the teaching room.

Listening to the teacher, I was even more distracted than I had been before lunch. So many things were happening, but the main thing was that I was terrified of the assistant’s disapproval. I worried that she’d discover I put the paper plates away and be mad at me. For about an hour, I went back and forth in my head about it. I knew if I went back into the kitchen and put the paper plates back out, I’d feel relieved. But it felt wrong. Why was I letting her control me like that? Why were my principles less important than her need for control?

But, in the bigger perspective, did it really matter if people used paper plates and tossed them in the trash? If I washed all the dishes, wasn’t that using water – a precious resource - and toxic soap, that would end up in the bay anyway? Who was to say what was more damaging?

Then I came up with the perfect plan: I would put out both! People could choose paper or ceramic, and I’d wash the ceramic plates and silverware. So I went to the kitchen and set out both sets of plates and utensils. I came back to the satsang and thought I’d feel better, but I didn’t. I was still terrified of the assistant’s disapproval. What if she was right? What if there really was a reason not to use the ceramic plates, and I just didn’t know what it was? I hated the thought of feeling her disapproval.

Finally, I decided that I was wasting so much time worrying about it, and that I might as well just put the paper plates out and the planet be damned. I knew I’d feel relieved, I’d be able to pay attention better, and let the assistant be the one to shoulder the karma for throwing more trash into already-overflowing landfills. I had tried to do the right thing and been cowed into submission. But I was sick of worrying about it.

So I went out and put the ceramic things away. And immediately I felt better.

Then, of course, my mind tried to tell me I had been wrong by submitting to her unreasonable demands. Hadn’t I said I’d do all the washing-up? What difference did it make to her? But the immense feeling of relief overpowered the righteous indignation. I was just glad I wouldn’t have to have any more run-ins with her.

Everything else went smoothly that night, although I doubt I’ll volunteer at any more satsangs. I learned how terrified I am to forge my own path, of meeting with anyone’s disapproval. I learned how the brain can turn anything into a big drama, even a one-day “silent” retreat about discovering your inner wisdom. I still don’t know what the right thing to do was in this situation: should I have stuck to my guns, or was it better to give in? But, as everything is, this was a learning opportunity, and not the learning I expected to get from the teacher, but the kind of learning we can only get from life.

Driving away into the evening, I realized that, after worrying about the paper plates all day, I had forgotten to re-fill the canister at lunch for hot tea!

Monday, January 18, 2010

All the Textures of Love, Part I

Shoving an Elephant into a Shoebox

Lately, I’m slowly coming to the realization that love has more than one face. It happened when I fell in love, and our love staunchly refused to be put into any box. The details aren’t important, but what I ended up with was a love relationship that had no name – he is and was sometimes my lover, sometimes my boyfriend, sometimes my partner, sometimes even my future, but at other times, none of those things. The only constant has been that we have always felt love, but the love has looked very different at different times. And in my futile efforts to give our relationship a name, I’ve experienced sadness, jealousy, anger, disappointment, frustration, and dashed hopes. I’ve cried, I’ve writhed on the floor in pain, I’ve regretted ever meeting him, I’ve despaired of ever being able to move on. And through it all I’ve learned some deep truths about myself and the great hole of need I’m asking love to fill.

After struggling for over a year, it started to dawn on me that maybe it’s OK for it not to have a name. Maybe, it’s OK for it to be exactly what it is, and to not have me constantly trying to make it into something it doesn’t want to be, as pointless as trying to shove an elephant into a shoebox.

In my deep, far-ranging conversations with my love about love, I realized that what we have been talking about has been nothing so much as the difference between fettering love and letting it free. True freedom, I realized profoundly from this experience, is terrifying even though it’s something most of us claim to want. And having structure, expectations, and rules is comforting, even when some of the rules can chafe sometimes. What is more terrifying than letting someone you love go to be exactly who they are? With no rules, no expectations for the future, and no right to chasten them when they show a facet of themselves that you didn’t know they possessed?

The implications, for most of us are frightening and confusing. What if he meets someone better than me and wants to be with them? What if we has more fun with someone else? What if they have better sex? Can I really trust him? Is he telling me everything? What does it mean about me that he doesn’t want to be my one and only? What if, what if, what if….???

On the other hand, don’t I want my love to be happy, no matter what? Even if it means letting him go? Isn’t that the measure of true love, in the same way a mother loves her child enough to let her go into the future, knowing there will be pain and hardship, but also knowing that clutching the child to her for too long will stunt the child? Isn’t that real love?

This is the question our culture doesn’t really encourage us to ask. As I’ve looked around me for role models for nontraditional relationships, I realize that, though I suspect these types of situations are far more common than we know, there is no conversation in the mainstream - or even most of the “alternative” media that I’ve seen - about alternatives to the “One man, one woman, one marriage certificate” type of heterosexual relationship.

In the moments when my heart has opened around this issue and I’ve let go of the clinging and the rules and the expectations of relationship, I’ve experienced a lightness, a joy, and a feeling of deep love for all beings. When I’ve felt myself constrict and attempt to hold on to a static, rulebound version of my love, I’ve experienced jealousy, doubt, and mistrust. Which of these is the better state? In which of these states do I want to live?

I intended to write all my thoughts about this in one blog post, but I realized that my questions about love are far too vast and complex to cover in one fell swoop. I’ll continue to explore this topic in future installments. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from readers about their feelings, experiences, thoughts, and questions about this issue. Post a comment or write an e-mail. I’d like to hear from you!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Meeting My Twin

Sitting in a circle at the monthly shamanic journey meeting that I occasionally attend, I only noticed my neighbor to my right because she was chomping her gum. For some reason, recently, noises bother me more than normal, and this noise bothered me a lot. We were in a dark room, the sun was just setting, there was a candle in the middle of the room on a piece of cloth that was surrounded by sacred objects – an altar in the center of the space. There was incense in the air. People talked softly. The shaman tested his drum. The space felt warm, healing, and sacred. And this girl sat, slumped in her chair, chomping her gum.

We went around the room introducing ourselves, and it was only when it came to her turn to tell us about herself that I turned and looked at her. Because she has the same name as I do. I looked at the gum-chomping girl, smiling in recognition and amusement at the coincidence that we had the same name, and noticed that, in some ways, she was a mirror of me. She had limp dirty-blond hair, like me, acne streaked her cheeks (I have had acne since I was 10), she had pale blue eyes. And she shared my name. There was something about her that reminded me of myself, or of some part of myself.

We continued going around the room, and after a few people had gone, I turned to my twin and asked her if she could take the gum out of her mouth, because it was distracting me. Barely looking at me, she started raking around in her purse for a piece of paper in which to deposit the gum, and did so. When I said thank you, she didn’t acknowledge me.

I found myself becoming judgmental of my twin; she was skinny and staring, slumped gracelessly in her chair. When she had introduced herself, she had said something forgettable, something about “Just being a random Meetup person” with nothing about why she would attend something as spiritually weird as a shamanic journey group. She had no personality that I could sense. She was without spirit, energyless. Later, when we went around the room sharing our journeys, she was the only one who chose not to share; when we held hands before breaking the circle, her hand in mine was limp and lifeless.

During and after the group, I kept thinking about her. Why was this girl so compelling, in a strange way? What did she trigger in me? I felt judgmental of her and also strangely protective. But I also wanted to shake her just to get some life into her.

I realized that there was part of me that was afraid I was like that – limp, dull, uninteresting and uninterested. Like she was a shadow part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge, a child part of me, that I wanted to protect . I wanted to turn to her and urge her to find the fire inside that would sustain her, or else she’d just fade away, the way I sometimes fear I will. I realize I still don’t respect her, but I’m fascinated by her. The way her eyes didn’t focus on anything, the way , in body language and vocal tone, she carefully communicated unimportance to everyone who saw her or heard her speak. Yet in the gum-chomping was a sort of brazenness; the part of her that gave the finger to the rest of us, and by not participating in the group, she was telling us, too, that we didn’t matter, and that our experiences were not important, the way she was unimportant.

And there is a part of me that’s like that, that hides yet projects “fuck you” energy to anyone else who dares stand up for their own spirit. There’s a jealousy there, sometimes, when I hear people speak unequivocally and bravely about their deep, dark life. I judge them or silently mock them. And that evening, I met part of my shadow, someone who physically manifested that part of me. And someone who reminded me to sit up, feel the fire and the energy of the universe flowing through me, to speak strongly, to show up, to own my own soul and spirit, and to never apologize for who I am nor judge others for who they are.