Life is Not a Rodeo (So, Let Go of the “Bull”)…

“Defense is the first act of war. Practice responding with love.” –Byron Katie
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I’ve always been fascinated by the sport of bull riding, but it wasn’t until I googled the “rules of bull riding” that I truly appreciated it as a very apt metaphor for life. According to the rules of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), a successful bull ride lasts only eight seconds. That’s the goal. Eight seconds. I’d always thought that someone might hold on for say, a minute or two, and win; but it’s not as simple as that. During those eight seconds, the rider must keep one arm secured to the rope, and the other arm in the air at all times. If the free arm ever touches the rider or the ground, during that eight-second span, the clock stops and the rider is disqualified. Even more interesting, the bull, too, receives a performance score. So, a ride is a 100-point event, with each participant being scored from 0-50 points. What this means is that if the bull just stands there for eight seconds, or simply meanders from one end of the arena to the other, even if the rider maintains the required “posture” for eight seconds, for a total of 50 points, that rider is not going to win…

If I’d known this, and had the opportunity to think it through much earlier in life, I might have had an easier time than I’ve had. For Buddhists, the problem of “attachments” is of primary concern. We learn that because we become attached to results, outcomes, and maintaining things such as reputations or relationships that truly need to end, we only end up increasing our suffering. Believing that things and people should be and act only in ways that we approve is a function of our own egos and insecurities.

Giving the finger to the person who cuts us off on the road; making a snide comment to the man who walks through the door in front of us, but doesn’t hold it for us (not recognizing either that we are “ladies,” or that it’s just the polite thing to do); or perseverating on the person who seemingly dislikes us for no reason (even though we know that we are the nicest people in the world) causes us stress not because those people are jerks, but because we are invested in the only “right” version of how things should be – our version. Yet, believe it or not, most other people are just as invested in their versions of “reality,” and for some inexplicable reason, holding the door open for you has absolutely nothing to do with their happiness. Their happiness.

Throughout my life, I’ve had a repeated, unpleasant experience that I would guess it’s fair to say happens only to women. I even remember the first time it happened – back in 1995. I was walking home from a friend’s house through the downtown portion of our city. Even though I lived in Michigan at that time, I still walked like the New Yorker I am, now. I needed to cross a busy intersection and was rushing to get to the corner so I could cross with the light. I noticed a rough-looking man sitting in a doorstep smoking a cigarette, to my left. I didn’t know him, and it didn’t occur to me to greet him. After I’d passed him, and was about 30 feet away, he said, “Hello, sexy!” I decided to pretend that “sexy” wasn’t my name, and didn’t really feel like stopping to converse. The light changed, and I started to cross the street. The next thing I knew, he had run into the middle of the intersection after me, getting in my face and calling me an “uppity bitch,” for not acknowledging him. I was stunned motionless for a moment, but when he started to reach out for me, I screamed and swung my book bag at him. The light had changed back, but traffic remained stationary, and this must have given him a clue that if he was going to attack me, he’d have to do it in front of a whole lot of people…

Since then, I’ve noticed that though getting up and assaulting a woman for not returning a greeting is not common, waiting for her to walk several feet beyond, and then saying “hi” is. It would be just as quick and easy to say “hello” before the woman passes, but to wait until after she passes is a control issue. You see, some people can only get a feeling of being someone through other people. Bishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “A person is a person through other persons.” Somehow, I don’t think he meant it in this sense. So, if an “attractive” woman stops, turns around, and returns a stranger’s greeting, he thinks he must really be “something.” Never mind that she might be late for work, or that it’s late at night, the streets are empty, and he and she are the only two people on the street – and she’s scared; he expects an acknowledgement… There’s the expectation that he should be able to turn, “heel,” or pull you up short, as if you were on a leash. Yet, he doesn’t even know you… And if you were to stop and acknowledge him because you thought he was cute, or whatever, that is how he’d treat you as his wife…

The Buddhist path is about learning to “let go.” We need to let go of presumptions, expectations, the demands of ego, and the feeling that everything that happens to us is “personal.” It’s not all about “us.” We see ourselves as being one way; yet, others don’t see us that way, at all. If we really were the “nicest person in the world,” everyone in the world would like us… If we were “hot” as all that, we’d never be upset that that man or woman whose attention we desired didn’t even give us a second look because our “hotness,” an “indisputable fact,” would have protected us from that indignity… All of these wants, desires, expectations, and even, demands, spring from our need to be affirmed by external sources. This is what “attachment” does to us…

Life is not a rodeo. It’s not all about holding on as tightly as we can, for as long as we can. The reality, if I may be so bold as to use that term, is that it is much harder to let go for eight seconds than it is to hold on. Truly, in this crazy ride we call life, we can’t even begin to accrue points until after we let go, and those first eight seconds have passed. When a co-worker makes a smart remark, specially tailored to wreck our day, we can either latch on to that remark, thus escalating the situation, or we can “let go” and let peace begin to happen. And when we are no longer concerned with racking up that 50 points, the bull we’re riding won’t be doing it, either. This is not to say that life will become easier, or necessarily feel easier, but only that we’ll become something, and someone, more than “just along for the ride”…

A bull ride isn’t expected to last very long (though it probably seems like forever), and the expectation is that we will fall off, repeatedly, and keep getting back on until we no longer can. If bull riding is an apt metaphor for our lives, we need to let go of the bull…

 

The Three Poisons, Part I: Ignorance…

About a year ago, a young man in his early thirties who was having severe dental problems due to having no dental insurance said to me, “Well, I guess I’ll just get dentures sooner than later — it happens to us all!” Though he smokes, chews tobacco, and drinks only coffee and colas, I had to bite my lip to avoid exclaiming, “No, it does not!” By that time, I’d learned that arguing, stating “the facts,” or trying to persuade people whose minds are already made up is not only futile, it’s egotistical. Unless you’re a lobbyist, a member of a debating team, or an attorney arguing a death penalty case, it’s a useless, thankless endeavor, and the reward is small — being “right” for a minute, or forever, in nobody’s but your own fondest memories. Additionally, because everyone wants to be “right,” they resent it if you cause them to feel or look “wrong,” and the repercussions can be swift, or slow and insidious. And of course, issues of race, class, someone’s lack of self-esteem, or just plain accountability can define the difference between our being seen as intelligent or a trouble maker…

Nonetheless, much reading and discussion with dental professionals will lead one to the discovery that teeth were meant to last a lifetime, even if you live to be 100, but you need to know how to take care of them. Tooth loss is not an inevitable, unavoidable “fact” of life. This much, I knew. I also knew that if I’d disagreed with him, he would have discounted my views because I was a woman, and not “free, white, and over-21,” as he constantly reminded me and anyone else with whom he “conversated” no matter what they looked like. And this leads me to the discussion of one of the Three Poisons, ignorance, as identified by the Lord Buddha. The other two “poisons” are attachment and aversion. They are also interpreted, respectively, as delusion, desire, and hatred.

The word, ignorant, is actually a beautiful, compassion-based word that has, in the common usage, been bastardized into meaning “stupid.” Though I am not an expert in the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures, Pali (the language of Theravada Buddhism), I have learned that when Buddhists [properly] use the word “ignorant,” it does not necessarily imply stupidity, but rather “not knowing.” And that’s a significant, yet subtle difference. What this means is that it is possible to say people are ignorant not as an insult, but as a simple statement of fact coupled with the understanding that those persons are simply doing the best they can with the information they currently possess. Truly, even when it doesn’t look like it, most people are doing what they think is “best” — if only for them…

For example: Robbing a bank (however “justifiably” desperate one may be) is stupid; but telling a lie, however “white,” is ignorant. The Buddha famously said, to his young son, Rahula that a liar is capable of any evil, and thus, lying is never justified. Lying is bad karma — and here, it is important to remember that the term karma does not refer to what happens to us, but rather to what we actually do. Karma translates to “action.” So, karma is what we do, but vipaka is what happens to us as a result of that action. If someone falsely accuses a person of committing a crime, causing that person to be wrongly incarcerated, that’s bad karma (action). When the truth of their lie is finally revealed, and they, themselves go to prison for lying, that’s their vipaka, a term which translates as “the ripening or maturation” of [a] karma (action). So, vipaka is the consequence of [a] karma — whether it be good or bad.

One of the the beautiful, liberating things about understanding the difference between karma and vipaka is that we realize that we have much more control over what occurs in our lives than we might think. When something bad happens to us, it is not “right view” to say, “That’s just my karma.” Buddhists are not as fatalistic as they’re reputed to be. Then there’s the hard truth. It is more appropriate to throw up one’s hands and say, “Ah, well, I guess that’s just my… vipaka (i.e., the natural consequences of my past actions.) Nonetheless, at any given moment, we can choose what karma we wish to enact, and immediately influence our future vipaka, i.e., outcomes.

We do have some level of control over our vipaka until the moment we draw our last breath, but this does not necessarily mean that we will escape the vipaka (ripened effects) of our previous karma (actions/choices) in this life, or the next… Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who authored one of my favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning, said:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And God help you if someone knows you know this. They’ll often be happy to place you in a position to test your true adherence to this theory. Nonetheless, the ability to choose should be our greatest and most treasured freedom because our choices today are where we’ll live tomorrow — whether our role be that of punish-er or sufferer.

The story of the Maha-Moggallana, the arahant and beloved companion of the Lord Buddha aptly illustrates this. Despite living the holy life, he was murdered, according to the Buddha, because of murdering his own parents in a former life… This is why it is so vitally important to guard our actions and speech as if our lives depend on them — which they do… And just in case what I said didn’t register with you, Maha-Mogallana attained Liberation; yet, was beaten like a dog, dragged himself “home” through the streets to be in the presence of the Lord Buddha once more, and then died.

Buddhists believe that out of the many different types of sentient beings, of which humans are only one, the human rebirth is the most fortunate. This is because only human beings can attain enlightenment. There is a verse from the Holy Bible that I have always loved, and which is most appropriate here:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. –Phillipians 2:12(b)

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this all of the time. What I perceive as “right” today, I could realize to be a colossal mistake tomorrow — and it’s all because of my “ignorance,” my “not knowing.” According to the Buddha, there is much that cannot be learned in books or by talking to other people. No one can make up our minds for us. ‘Truth’ is an experience, ultimately too subtle for words, and can sometimes be relative. “What God has joined together, let no man (or woman) put asunder”; yet, some marriages need to end. We need to be willing to meditate,think upon and rigorously examine our experiences, remembering that because they are our experiences, we were there, taking part in them… Putting up a nasty meme on Facebook, e.g., “Some women think they are everything; in reality, they are everything but..,” without questioning one’s own self or culpability is not a solution — neither is drinking, drugging, or sinking into silent, angry bitterness. We all pay, one way or another, for negative karma we’ve committed, but often, the people who inflict these punishments often incur their own negative karma for inflicting your vipaka. They think they’re lucky dogs for getting revenge, but don’t realize that through that very act of revenge, they are sealing their own vipaka. If they were not ignorant of this fact, they’d be merciful…

For in the same way you judge others, so will you be judged… Matthew 7:2

And this applies even when those being punished “deserve” to be punished. Mind you this discussion is taking place outside of a discussion of any established legal system or the prison industrial complex…

When someone simply doesn’t know, or realize, that the results (vipaka) of their karma (actions) can only be unhappiness and suffering, even though their ignorance is to blame, they will suffer the consequences. Just as drunk drivers can’t use their drunkenness as an excuse for murder, we don’t get to use our ignorance as an excuse for the mistakes, or missteps we take. This is why I am so grateful to the individuals who have been merciful to me, and why I am obligated to try to be as merciful as I can be. We all act under the influence of “not knowing,” and because of our not knowing, we cause problems by judging or retaliating against people whom we, ourselves, may have been responsible for inciting.

Today, I will remember that as much as I care, and as hard as I try, I am still a “hot mess.” If that can be true for me, it can be true for another. Today, and always, I will strive to meet “in the middle,” as much as I can, and as much as others are willing, so that I do not hasten the end…

Namaste.

 

 

When “Friendships” Are Merely Factions…

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
In your pocket not one penny,
And your friends, well you haven’t any
Soon as you get on your feet again,
Then you’ll meet your long lost friend
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
I mean when you’re down and out.

-Lyrics by Jimmy Cox
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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider friendship to be a rarity. I have “Facebook Friends” with whom I’ve never spoken, and others with whom I have spoken, but except for an occasional [like] or comment, that’s as far as our “relationships” go. I consider most people to be acquaintances. This does not mean that I do not aim to value and respect everyone. I just understand that friendship goes much deeper than mere acquaintance. The result is that I have come to know the value and beauty of people who play a demonstrative and interactive part in my day-to-day existence, and I in theirs, even if we do not physically interact every day. In just the past few days, I can honestly say that without two of my closest friends, I would not have been able to achieve a recent, life-changing goal. And for that, and them, I am so grateful! The Buddha said that a good spiritual friend is “all of the holy life”; yet, if we cannot find a true friend, it is better to walk alone…

Some time ago, I  relocated to a new city where I knew no one. I soon became involved in a volunteer project in my apartment building and found myself working consistently with “Donna.” We discovered that we had much in common and could discuss almost anything. Her best friend, “Beth,” lived nearby, and she and I got along swimmingly, as well. Then, one day, I noticed that Donna and Beth would pass each other in the hallway of our building without so much as glancing at each other. Donna told me that Beth had stopped speaking to her for “no reason at all.” She showed me a “snippy little text” that Beth had sent her, went on for several minutes about all Beth’s negative qualities, then said, “F**k her! Who needs her!”

The next day I saw Beth in the hallway, I wished her good morning and asked how she was doing. She seemed shocked that I had spoken, but then smiled and we engaged in a few minutes of pleasant chit-chat. Later that day, Donna, Beth and I converged in the foyer of our building, and again, to the obvious surprise of Donna, I said “hey!” to Beth. It had not occurred to me that based on what Donna had told me about Beth, that I, too, should stop speaking to Beth. It’s not that I’m such a great person, but rather that I considered it their fight, not mine. Additionally, if you add our ages together, the sum is just a bit over 175. So, I’d gotten over the whole junior-high-schoolyard-faction thing years ago, baby…

This situation went on for three weeks until Donna got angry at me for dropping out of the volunteer project and we stopped speaking to each other. Immediately, Beth started speaking to Donna, and they were, once again, best friends. Then, the next time I saw Beth, with whom I had never stopped speaking, I said, “Good morning!” and she did not respond. Giving her the benefit of a doubt, I assumed she had not heard me and again spoke to her later in the day. Again, she did not respond. Another woman told me that I should keep speaking to Beth and “force” her to say hello. Instead, I chose to stop speaking, as well, because I do not believe in trying to force anyone to do anything. I also understood that I was dealing with people who consider friendships to be “factions.”

The primary definition of “faction” is “a group of people in an organization working in a common cause against the main body.” For Donna and Beth, I had become the “main body.” Also, due to my prior experience with Donna, I knew that she was probably now referring to me as a “b**ch,” and complaining about all my little annoying habits, imperfections, and fatal flaws. I’m thinking about this as I read the book, Divergent. If you don’t know the story, it’s a fascinating and disturbing piece of fiction about a society comprised of factions much more pronounced than we have yet to experience.

Remember Denzel Washington’s role as the attorney in the movie, Philadelphia? Whenever he wanted to understand something, well, he’d say, “Explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old.” Well, dear reader, I’ve got some bad news for you. Explaining this to you like you’re a two-year-old is not what I’m about to do because I don’t quite get it myself. I do understand how a man might stop speaking to his wife’s friend after she stops speaking to her. He doesn’t want to find himself “cut off” for several weeks or months… But in general, why would all, or most, of this woman’s grown-ass friends stop speaking to the object of her disaffection, as well? And mind you, I’m talking about adult women, not junior high girls. That, I get.

If I have a choice, I don’t let others make up my mind for me. If a conversation takes place between two people, and I was not anywhere in the vicinity, or one of those two people conversing with each other, the only thing I can “assume” is that I don’t know what happened, or what was said. Also, if I have an ounce of intelligence, I know that when someone is angry with someone else, they will often try to make the object of their anger look wrong, stupid, or unworthy, and expect their “friends” to support them. And with reference to the Noble Eightfold Path, this violates Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration i.e., like, all but one step on the Path…

Obviously, there are exceptions. The object of someone’s anger could be a former abuser; a well-known busybody; or someone who has established him- or herself to be insane, a criminal, or dangerous in some other way. I “get” that. What I don’t get is why people shun others for no other reason than that of being told that they should do so… Even in our courts of law, which often fail miserably, a person is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Perhaps besides criminal and civil courts, we need “friendship” courts…

Though we may not all believe in karma, we do all believe in “seed technology,” the theory that if one plants a certain type of seed, given the right conditions, a certain type of plant will grow. If we plant a seed of hate or discord, and the tree thrives, we might find ourselves freezing to death in its shade. And even if we, ourselves, do not plant that seed, we share responsibility for “watering” it. Forming factions is divisive, dangerous, and just plain childish; and any friendship based on faction-forming is a fatally-flawed encounter, not a friendship. The wise understand that everyone comes into their lives to teach them something. Some of those people will stay; others are just passing through. In Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, by Jack Kornfield, he says (in a quotation often erroneously attributed to The Buddha):

Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn perfect patience, perfect wisdom, perfect compassion.

If we can remember this, we have less of the feeling that our lives are constantly under siege. We can even feel thankful for the opportunity to progress in our practices.We will be less likely to say, “S/he makes me so angry,” and more likely to realize that we, instead, often allow ourselves to become angry. Personally, it is the people who have “hurt” me most that have shown me my own large-scale weaknesses and foibles. Additionally, people who already know this “secret” have an option for dealing with their so-called “enemies.” They  can choose to take a close look at themselves before running out and seeking to recruit all their “friends” into committing a “hate crime” in support of their own overblown egos and hurt feelings.

Today, I will remember that just as “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” friends do not require each other to take on the added burden of another’s hate or insecurity…

Namaste.

Compassion is a Compass…

It only recently occurred to me that the word “compass” comprises most of the word “compassion.” This has been very helpful to me in my own daily endeavors to become a more compassionate being. I’ve come to realize that compassion isn’t about looking down on another being from one’s own lofty height and feeling sorry for them. More often than not, we have more in common with the homeless person, or even the deer caught in a thicket, than we’d care to admit or imagine.

Compassion is the ability to comprehend that we are all looking for the same thing: happiness — albeit in different ways. If you work at a drive-in window at a fast food establishment, the middle-aged executive in his Lamborghini, screaming his head off — at you– because he got the five-piece chicken nugget meal instead of the seven-piece, is truly only trying to be happy. His spouse is cheating on him; he hates his job; it’s an election year and X is probably going to become president; and now, he can’t even get the right number of chicken nuggets! Is that fair? How much more is he supposed to bear? Is asking for seven pieces instead of five so much to ask?

It’s very tempting, when someone verbally abuses us, to want to shovel the abuse straight back in their direction. We think that it might do them some good to realize the impact of being subject to another’s rude and angry words. Don’t they know that being rude accomplishes nothing? Yes, we’ll yell right back, give them a taste of their own medicine, and perhaps save them from ever treating anyone so rudely again. Yep! Tough love! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way because if we truly understand the nature of compassion, we also understand that someone else’s inability to understand the nature of compassion is no excuse for us to act in a retaliatory fashion. It is we who bear the greater responsibility if we do not let compassion be our compass. It is we who shovel the greater amount of negative karma onto our paths by yelling more loudly to ensure that that “idiot” will be sure to “hear” us, thus understanding how rude they are… And the Universe has not provided any type of GPS for determining alternate routes around these types of self-imposed “road blocks”…

It is the height of hypocrisy to become angry at someone for being in a space that we, ourselves, once occupied. How can we stand there, with the compass of compassion in our hands, and do everything but try to assist a faltering being in finding a better direction? Did we act any better when we were lost? Do we not, yet, understand that the people who annoy us most are the ones who have the audacity to act as we once did and occasionally still do? If we do not understand that there is a significant difference between telling people “where to go” (because they’re “idiots”) and assisting people in finding a better path, we do not truly, yet, have the compass of compassion in hand. Of course, there will always be those who are “tripping” in ways we’ve never seen, much less imagined. But that’s another post…

Compassion is how we find our way back to each other. It never leads us to believe that we are better than, or more deserving of happiness than, any other being…

Today, I will practice using the compass of compassion to help myself, and others, find a better path. Today, I will meditate on the thought that if my compassion is not a compass that leads me to my commonality with all beings — it is I who am lost…

Namaste.