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

“Defense is the first act of war. Practice responding with love.” –Byron Katie

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…



Come, Let Us Reason Together…

We often think of ‘renunciates,’ i.e., those living lives of “ascetic self-denial,” as holy people who have given everything away for the purpose of living lives of poverty and contemplation. Yet, even after giving away all of our material possessions, we can still be encumbered by immaterial ‘possessions’ such as anger, greed, and delusion. And lately, it seems to me that if we could free ourselves of our delusions, we’d be done with anger and greed.

If we cannot stop clinging to our delusions, we might as well keep our money, fine clothes, big houses, or just the hard-earned pittances of the grueling 9-5 minimum-wage existence because nothing will change, and as the old saying goes, it’s easier to be miserable with money than without it. Nothing will change until we ‘let go’ and stop clinging to our puffed up sense of ‘self’; our delight in others’ misfortune; our need for others’ approval; and our “right” to revenge. I know this because I’ve lived “with” and “without,” and additionally, despite being aware of some of my delusions, my actions often tell me, at the most disheartening times, that I am still  under the influence of those delusions.

In the  Dhammapada, the book to which I like to refer to as the “Buddhist Bible,” the final verse of chapter 7 says:

Delightful to the worthy
are the places where others
find no joy.
Being free of the pull of passions,
the worthy rejoice anywhere
precisely because
they seek no delight.

That verse means something to me because I’ve read it about a million times. And it was, perhaps, the 999,998th time that it really started to mean something to me. It is now a quite common experience for me to reread something in the Buddhist canon that I’ve already reread, maybe hundreds of times, only to discover that it had either completely gone over my head or hadn’t even entered it before.

I keep mentioning my deficits, not because I want people to think how “humble” I am, but rather because it’s so scary to write about these topics because I am not a monastic, monastic scholar, or initiate. Also, as someone who has always loved words, and was an English major in college, I’ve learned, through my studies, and as a result of my meditation practice, that words are all but useless. The Buddha told his followers NOT to believe what he said because he said it, but rather to believe it because they’d EXPERIENCED it. Now,  that’s  humility. But it’s also true. We will not attain nibbana (nirvana) by reading “just the right book,” and even the Buddha, himself, if he still walked this Earth, could  not  grant or give us nibbana (nirvana) with a magical wave of his hand. As he directed us, we must be our own saviors:

“Monks, be islands unto yourselves,[1] be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things:[2] ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [What is their origin?] — from the Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself. translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe

I must say, here, that I am so fascinated by this directive to be islands unto ourselves. Prior to this, as any good English major, I’d always quoted the great poet, John Donne:

“No man is an island…”

Mr. Donne was very right — and very wrong…

It’s very different “knowing” something because someone (even a reputable someone) has told us something, and knowing it because we’ve experienced  it. This is why someone could tell us the ultimate “secret to happiness,” but their words might mean nothing to us because we are either not ready to “hear” or “see” it, or simply because they are simply not the right words for us.

“Eureka moments” are usually quite personal and uniquely fashioned.