Nothing Whatsoever Should Be Clung To…

There is nothing more self-centered, selfish, or needy than the human infant. It assumes that it is the center of the universe, and cares nothing for you, except for your ability to provide and cater to it. Supposedly, as we reach such human milestones as “toddler-hood,” puberty, and the ‘teen years,’ we gain more independence and maturity. Then, once we become adults we are to “put away childish things.” Yet, for many people, this never occurs. Instead of going from infancy to adulthood, we go from infancy to “enfantcy” (i.e., enfant terrible).

Instead of expressing maturity and independence, we simply grow older and, instead, remain just as needy but in different ways. Instead of a diaper change, a butt rub, a warm bottle or breast, or a pacifier while sitting on a shaking knee, we “need” other people’s admiration, agreement, acceptance, fear, friendship, fairness, or love. This state of “need” is called ‘craving’ or ‘clinging.’ Clinging is, in part, “all about *me,* and as stated by Ajahn Buddhadassa:

The spiritual disease of our time is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of “we” and “ours,” “I” and “mine” that is regularly in the mind… So it follows that all unenlightened people must experience this feeling of egoism arising continually… It is the greatest danger of our time (from Essential Point of the Buddhist Teachings).

When the Buddha still walked the Earth, he was asked if it were possible for him to succinctly sum up the essence of all his teachings. He answered in the affirmative. His response was “Sabbe Dhamma Nalam Abhinivesaya.” This is the Pali for “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” The Buddha discovered that “clinging,” conditioned by “craving” was (and remains) the most deadly infectious disease known to humanity. And except for engaging in meditation, active mindfulness, and study, there’s no other method of “treatment.”

Now, for some examples of clinging:

To want some situation, or some person, to remain always the same is clinging. Conversely, to want some person, or some situation to change is also clinging, but to something or someone that does not presently exist but that you would prefer, or like to exist. And either way, we can never be “happy” because in the first situation, we will always have the nagging fear that our perfect situation/person will change; and in the second, we’re simply afraid that it/they will never change. The problem with both these perspectives is that everything always changes because of ‘impermanence.’ Impermanence is the “theory” (until we realize it for ourselves), that everything is ‘impermanent,’ and this is applicable even to ‘permanence.’

Subsequently, depression is clinging. Complete self-assurance is clinging. Resentment is clinging. Contentment is clinging. Arguing (to be ‘right,’ or to avoid the embarrassment of being ‘wrong’ is clinging). Happiness is clinging. Sadness is clinging. Anxiety is clinging. And anger is clinging — to name just a few examples.

Now, imagine how different life would ‘feel’ if we didn’t always need things or people to be a ‘certain way’ in order to support our self-centered, egoistic need to have things our way. Imagine if we took this a bit further, and looked at the Buddha’s statement that there is no “self” to defend, or be fearful for (yes, that’s another post), and we lived our lives in the dispassion that comes with  experiencing the Truth. If we can do this, it’s called nibbana (Pali), or as it’s more commonly known, nirvana. Many people think that Nirvana is some place, or something that happens after one dies. This is not the case. Nirvana is freedom from suffering in one’s present lifetime. No informed person has ever claimed that one had to “die” to attain nirvana.

Imagine how different we would feel if we weren’t so deeply offended by such insignificant events as someone walking in our “lane” on the sidewalk (making us have to walk around them, yes,us — can you imagine?). Or imagine how differently we would feel about everyday life if we didn’t become upset or offended that that “ingrate” didn’t say “thank you” after we held the door open for them because we’re such nice people. In truth, if we were that nice, holding the door open for someone would be its own reward — and we wouldn’t need their thanks to make us feel like good people… i.e., is it our actions, other people’s recognition of our actions, or the intentions of our actions that make us “good people?” The answer to these questions being quite obvious, let us now consider the chained, imprisoning effect of always wanting and needing approval, acceptance, and recognition from everyone, even complete strangers! And this is how we go from being self-centered infants to self-centered adults.

A doctor or midwife or police officer cuts our umbilical cord — and we spend the rest of our lives trying to find someone else to whom we may reattach it.

Please note that I am in no way saying that I am there, “all that,” or anywhere near being free of “clinging disease.” Far from it. I am simply one more pilgrim on the journey to, hopefully, enlightenment. In closing, the Buddha said,

I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.

So, let us begin to end it…

Namaste.

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Robin Williams: Depression Isn’t the Point…

There’s a man I see, roughly every other day, whenever I ride the bus. I doubt that I would have noticed him at all, except for one thing: He is always smiling. And that smile is warm, beautiful, and exuberant – almost to the point of hilarity. Normally, that would be a positive quality.

Now, at the risk of appearing ‘slow,’ I must admit it took me a good month to realize that I had never seen his face, which is now forever engraved in my mind, without a smile. In fact, if he wasn’t smiling, he was either laughing raucously or giggling childishly. And this morning, upon boarding the bus, he paid his fare, giggled like the stereotypical gay man screaming “Fabulous!” and literally skipped down the aisle of the bus laughing and conversing with himself.

I thought, “I’ve got to get to the bottom of this!” whipped out my cell phone, and Googled “condition when you are always laughing or smiling.” Here’s what I found: Angelman Syndrome. But before I explain, I must first give you a brief, physical description of this man. I won’t get detailed out of respect for his privacy, even though I am quite certain it’s not one of his major concerns. What I can share is that when he’s not skipping, he’s definitively masculine in carriage; taller than the average man; well-proportioned, and middle-aged. This is why he was particularly notable as he giggled and skipped down the bus aisle…

Angelman Syndrome is categorized not as a “disease,” but rather as a genetic disorder. Perhaps, unlike you, I’d never heard of it until today’s Google search. Those born with this disorder are always, as in unceasingly, smiling and/or laughing. Additionally, though they actually do feel the full spectrum of emotions, including anger and sadness, they cannot physically convey or portray those feelings through their facial expressions. They also have awkward, “jerky” movements, often flinging their arms, shaking their bodies, and stopping and starting, suddenly; and they suffer from a number of developmental disabilities. So, even if they were telling you that they hate you and wish you’d drop dead, it would be with the most radiant, warmth-engendering smile you’d ever seen. But that would not be likely to happen because like people with Down Syndrome, those with Angelman Syndrome are often very loving, warm individuals… This man has warmly greeted me, directly, on a number of occasions, and is always quick to point out that my bus is arriving —  and I’m not quite sure how he knows it’s my bus because I ride more than one line…

We spend our entire adult lives trying to be happy. When that doesn’t happen, we spend about 50% of our time trying to look happy. And when that doesn’t work, we get “depressed,” or worse… I’ve wondered if life would be any less exhausting if we didn’t have to try so hard to look happy, strong, unperturbed, and in control. In one respect, Angelman Syndrome would save us a great deal of energy; but, as mentioned, the disorder is not without its negative aspects. This man, who is always giggling, smiling, and moving spasmodically, still experiences the normal complexities of the full range of human emotion – perhaps, even embarrassment?

From a karmic perspective, which will no doubt offend those who either don’t believe in, or understand, karma, this raises a few questions, even for me, a Buddhist who believes in the laws of karma. For example:

  1. Was the man on the bus, in another life, someone who was never happy with what he had? Or,
  2. Did he expect others to act happy when he knew they were unhappy? And,
  3. If there is any truth to either #1, or #2, what, or how, can this man, with obvious developmental disabilities, learn anything from having this condition?
  4. So, is this man being punished? Or is this disorder the result of something someone else did?
  5. If  contracting this disorder is the result of past negative karma(s), could this be the way he expiates that karma? (Mind you, people often base claims of “No God,” on the “fact” that “innocent” babies suffer for “no reason” in this world; but in a world where karma is ‘law,’ few if any are truly “innocent,” hence the ‘justice’ of karma… Or,
  6. Is the man on the bus, strangely, blessed?

Yes, I realize that many people would tell me, “Some people are born ‘normal,’ and some are not. You’re the one who’s nuts!” But Buddhism teaches us that not only can we live many lives in the future, but also that we have already lived many lives in the past, and that our every ‘karma,’ i.e., ‘action,’ including our state of mind at the moment of our death, will determine the circumstances of our next re-birth. For a Buddhist, every death is a rebirth, and every birth the start of another round of dying.

Another thing to consider, here, is that in the **caste system of India, people are thought to be born into certain castes, or ‘classes’ as a result of their actions in previous lives. So, if you are born into the caste known as the ‘untouchables,’ whose “career path” might be cleaning latrines, or retrieving the dead bodies of animals, and sometimes people, with little or no hope of escape (upward mobility), there’d be no sympathy for you because you are simply getting “what you deserve.” The assumption might also be that your current state is an expiatory condition, i.e., the working out of your negative karma. And “karma,” more properly referred to as ‘vipaka’  (specifically the ‘fruit’ of your actions/karma) is always ‘just.’ In fact, the Buddha, who was Hindu, was born into this culture. And it is quite obvious, from his teachings, that he went the way of compassion.

**I want to make special mention, here, that while issues of caste are still relevant in Indian communities (in and outside of India), the confines of this belief system have become much less stringent. Discrimination based on caste, in India, is now illegal, but this doesn’t mean that it has been completely eliminated. The concept of caste is relevant to Buddhism because Buddhism was born from Hinduism. Nonetheless, just as Jesus of Nazareth never used the word, “Christianity,” the Buddha never coined the term, “Buddhism.” It’s important for us to keep in mind that nothing and no one exists in a vacuum.

All I really know is that neither money, nor family and friends (whether they love and support you, or not) can make you happy. The late comedian, Robin Williams, probably owned a tuxedo, or pair of cuff links, the value of which could have paid off my student loan, including the mind-numbing interest I’ve incurred from several forbearances. But Mr. Williams still wasn’t happy. For Robin Williams, there wasn’t enough money, love, cocaine, alcohol, comradery, family, friendship, recognition, or even “God” to make him “happy.” And when you look at the aforementioned string of “happiness triggers,” it’s fairly easy to see that they are all rooted in what the Buddha defined as ‘impermanence.’ Nonetheless, I’ve known people with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and other devastating diagnoses, with much less fame, money, and influence than Robin Williams who did not commit suicide. My own Daddy was one of them. And he was a physician. He could have written himself, or procured a prescription for a ‘death cocktail’ any time he wanted. And though I didn’t want him to do that, I often wondered, during his considerable suffering, why he did not do this. I neither fault nor criticize Mr. Williams for what he did. The choice is always ours, and few, if any, know another’s true circumstances or motivations.

Sometimes, we have to lose “it” all to discover that instead of being left with “nothing,” we’re instead in possession of the only item of true value we’ll ever own – the ‘say’ that we have in the creation of our own futures. The excruciatingly hard part is dealing with that initial loss. The past is gone; the future is not yet here; so, all we have is our ‘now,’ and what we decide to do with it.

Dear Mr. Williams, our Angelman of nearly half a century,

Thank you for imbuing some 20 years of our lives with gut-busting, body-wracking laughter. Our Mork from Ork, you were a blazing, breathtaking meteor shower across some very dark skies, fulfilling your promise, beautifully, and burning out, probably less suddenly than it seemed.  From the minute we are born, we are always dying; and death is but another beginning. All your good will be returned to you, and may your next life be your last. Happy goodwill hunting…

Namaste.

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Related Reading:

The boy who can’t stop smiling: Genetic disorder means James, 11, always looks happy – even though he can’t speak from Daily Mail Online

Caste Is Not Past from Sunday Review/New York Times/The Opinion Pages (Website)

Are Some Lives More Sacred Than Others?

In the American classic novel, Animal Farm, author George Orwell famously writes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I first encountered this novel in the 1970s. I believe it was on most high school ‘required reading’ lists at the time. It was the absurdity of the statement that struck me as a girl in my mid-teens; now, some 40 years after first reading it, I only find it absurd that I found it absurd.

I recently read a newspaper article in the July 6, 2014 New York Post by Maureen Callahan titled “Is Your Dog Mentally Ill?” The article begins by discussing world-famous Gus, the polar bear, who in 1986 was diagnosed with a “mild neurosis,” and prescribed Prozac, an [human] antidepressant. Callahan then introduces us to a new book by Laurel Braitman: Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Braitman’s thesis: Animals’ emotions run the full spectrum of human emotion. Callahan writes: “Increasingly, research is showing that animals – from flies to falcons, emus to elephants – have feelings, behaviors and rituals that we humans would recognize, from joy to OCD to burial rites.” So, if this is the case, could it be problematic that we treat animals… like “animals,” and other people worse than animals?

Callahan also writes about Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who published a paper on the complexities of fish culture. Not only do fish have a culture, but they also feel pain! Could it be that chomping down on a fishing hook is not truly the fish version of water skiing? But what really ‘got’ me was reading about David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay, “Consider the Lobster,” in which he questions the ethics of boiling lobsters to death. Yes! Ethics! Callahan comments on Wallace’s “logical observation” based on comparative neuroanatomy:

The lobster, when placed in boiling water, scratches and thrashes and attempts to get out. “In other words,” Wallace wrote, “[it] behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming).”

No, I have not yet retrieved Wallace’s essay, but I plan to do so once I am able to remove this wincing grimace from my visage, so as to re-enter the world of gentlefolk less obtrusively. And the lobster being unable to scream shall be my jumping-off point.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If dogs, cats, deer, and fish cannot speak our language, and we cannot immediately understand theirs, does it mean that we are superior to them, or that they couldn’t possibly have languages? Are poor people, who can’t afford to retain high-powered attorneys, less likely to see justice? And when a woman, who is permanently bedridden, possessed of limited speech capacity, and unable to feed, bathe, or otherwise take care of herself, is forced to engage in sexual intercourse with several men, has she been gang-raped? Yes, there’s something to be said for being able to articulate one’s needs in ways that others can easily understand.

Callahan further quotes Braitman’s book regarding our treatment of “non-human animals”:

It’s inconvenient for a lot of our daily life,” she says. “If we really internalized this idea that other animals are as complicated and individual and as quirky as we are, there are things we’d have to change that would be really uncomfortable.

Many children learn about responsibility, reciprocity, and love, by taking care of animals. Other children use the same opportunity to express their potential for becoming serial killers. If, as research has revealed, even fruit flies have emotional lives, Laurel Braitman’s assertion that we might have to change our lives in some very “uncomfortable” ways could be true. I thought about this the other day as I observed a young mother watch her 10-year-old daughter use a stick to bat some type of ‘roly-poly’ bug back and forth at the bus stop, and later stomp on it for “fun.”

Of course, we don’t all mistreat animals. I’ve seen tiny animals, riding in Gucci handbags, wearing little outfits much more fashionable and ornate than anything I’ve ever owned. I’ve seen dogs eat steak off of dinner plates, and grown men and women eat ground mystery meat from dumpsters. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in pampering an animal we love. It’s pleasurable to have someone so ‘into’ you. They hang on our every word. They lick our faces. They rarely argue with, or contradict us. And if we run out of room to house them, or time to take care of them, we can always drop them out the car window as we truck on down the highway, or leave them locked in the garage when we move. If only wives, husbands, and children could be so… convenient.

For Buddhists, the first precept, admonishes us not to kill because  all  life is sacred. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s usually not the person with 150 cats living in her house who’s a ‘people person.’ We worry about keeping creatures, with fur, warm during winter months, while the authorities are, quite literally, recovering the frozen remains of human beings from back alleys and abandoned buildings. It’s possible to kill both people and animals by doing nothing. It’s possible to kill opportunity, hope, dreams, and visions, too.

If bugs and animals are so much more complex than what we’d imagined, or had been willing to admit, could the same be true for human beings? It’s an arbitrary and dangerous practice to deem some lives as more valuable than others. De-valuing someone, or something, is always the first step towards domination, degradation, and in some cases annihilation. This was true for the antebellum American South, Nazi Germany, and more recently, the Rwandan Genocide. The difference with animals is that once they’re near extinction, we almost always initiate some type of conservation effort.

How perplexing it is to note that when we take care of animals, we are, at once, at our best and worst. We are so much the better for taking care of helpless creatures; yet, so much the worse for not being capable of extending the same mercies to other human beings. I seriously doubt that we can fully love each other until we reconsider the value of life — from insects to pachyderms. This is not to say that should we find ourselves in a lifeboat, having to decide between saving a cockroach or a human being, that any extended period of deliberation need take place.

“All [beings] are equal, but some [beings] are more equal than others[?]”

Namaste.

Mindfulness vs. Ritalin

I am currently reading Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life.  The Sakyong is the son of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, subject of the documentary, Crazy Wisdom. In 1959, it was Chögyam Trungpa who led 300 people out of Tibet and into the exile (the result of a conflict with the Chinese government) that stands to this day. Trungpa’s son, the Sakyong, whose title means “Earth Protector,” was born in India, in 1962; and he, himself, would not see Tibet until the year 2001. I am struck, and deeply touched, by the pains taken by Chögyam Trungpa in teaching his young son the ropes of mindfulness and discernment (not that this can be ‘taught,’ so much as sought, and certainly, I’m sure Trungpa did not find the instruction ‘painful’).

In  Ruling Your World, the Sakyong shares memories of his father teaching him the elements of mindfulness, through meditation, from an early age. It was serious, pointed, incremental training, with a particular goal in mind, but loving, as well. Interestingly enough, at one point, the Sakyong shares that his father handed him over to the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, for meditation instruction. Chödrön writes that not long after that, it was she who became the student of the young Sakyong, a relationship that stands to this day.

I’ve often wondered, while reading this book, if the young Sakyong played peek-a-boo, bounced off the walls, and ignored his teachers, preferring to talk and giggle with an imaginary friend instead of engaging in instruction. I’ve wondered if his mind ever raced with the energies of youth, or if somehow, because of the nature of his birth, because of his being the incarnation of a great meditation instructor, he was somehow, unusually sedate.

The reason I’ve wondered about the Sakyong as a little boy is because I know of another brilliant little boy whose father, rather than teaching him mindfulness, or working to constructively direct his youthful energies, decided to give him Ritalin. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that the conditions we’ve labeled ADD/ADHD are real. As a teacher, I’ve seen how children with this ‘disorder’ can disrupt classrooms and drive everyone around them practically insane. It’s quite obvious that these children are suffering, just as everyone else around them. But I’ve also seen the suffering that entails once they’re drugged. Imagine being six- or seven-years-of-age, and being “depressed’ (a side-effect of Ritalin), but not knowing what depression “is,” and having to take other medications to try to balance out the combination of a hyperactive nature and a drugged depression. And yes, Ritalin is the same drug that teenagers used to traffic in because it has the opposite effect on adults.

This other boy’s father, besides medicating his son, also engaged in self-medicating. And he didn’t teach his son mindfulness and discernment through meditation because he did not have that knowledge or experience. Additionally, in his own way, though a successful man, he, too, was “hyper.” And now, decades after the Ritalin Rush, we are seeing the purported (or probable) extended side-effects this drug has had on the young people we drugged, some almost into a malevolent, macabre “extinction.”

Is it possible that we could try something other than drugging our children into oblivion? What if these children were taught mindfulness meditation? Obviously, the parents, and even the doctors would have to be trained, too. And this is not to say that parents and medical professionals have not tried other methods, alternative and organic. I simply can’t help but think that treating ‘youth’ as a psychiatric emergency is a dangerous thing. And consider this: A fair number of mental health professionals claim that it is not possible to diagnose such mental illnesses as bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) in youngsters due to their not having yet reached a certain age of maturity and level of cognitive functioning. So, why do we take children, as young as four or five, and do everything but bind them in a strait jacket and inject them with Thorazine?

In the interest of balance, please check out the links for the music video on ADHD meds, below (yes, music video), and a blog post by someone with ADD,  for whom Ritalin has made all the difference in the world (in a positive way).

Do ADHD meds work? We break it down for you in our latest music video from PandoDaily (Website)

I have ADD from Modern Day Artemis (blog)

Namaste.

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Related Readings:

Kids Getting On Your Nerves Again? from HADDOCKWALLOP! (blog)

ADHD could be a fictitious disease?/TDAH pourrait être une maladie fictive? from Another Day in the Marathon of Life (blog)

i don’t want comfort from Wake Up Tiger (blog)

Children — ADHD & bipolar (history etc) Robert Whitaker – Psychiatric Epidemic from Beyond Meds (blog)