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)

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Knowing Vs. Realization, Or, Am I Enlightened, Yet?

“Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”
— Mr. Miyagi,  The Karate Kid
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Recently, after months of reading, meditating, and re-reading, I came to, as I would have articulated it, “realize” something.  Strangely, it didn’t feel all that great. I “realized” that I’d arrived at a point where I had grasped, in a shallow fashion, the  mechanics  of a concept, but somehow, not the  soul  of it. For months, I’d been wondering just why a Buddhist practitioner would seek “extinction,” on the one hand, or want to be a Bodhisattva, on the other.

For those not quite familiar with the terms ‘extinction’ and ‘Bodhisattva,’ here are two definitions, which shall suffice, but upon which no one should base their own learning. ‘Extinction,’ also known as “nirvana without residue,” refers to “dying,” once and for all, without returning to the chain of suffering experienced in sequential, potentially never-ending lifetimes (samsara). ‘Bodhisattva’ refers to an individual who has, through meditation, arrived at a state in which they can choose not only to be ‘reborn,’ but the exact circumstances of that rebirth, so that they may fulfill their vow to not enter ‘nirvana without extinction’ until every last human being has been freed from the sufferings of samsara. So, there I was, wondering at the same time, why anyone would want to die, once and for all, as well as why anyone would want to stick around, forever, when they actually could die, once and for all, and not have to deal with all this crap anymore. I mean, haven’t we all had days when we thought, “Get me outta’ here!” Well, if you haven’t, I have. But then I’d remember that death is just a beginning — the beginning to one’s next life. Here’s a link to the post where I discuss the “realization” that helped me to understand that I am far from “realized.”

As karma would have it, I happened upon a discussion in the book, Momentary Buddhahood, Mindfulness and the Vajrayana Path, by Anyen Rinpoche. An acquaintance of mine, who is a yogi, told me that he doesn’t like Tibetan Buddhism, doesn’t like “the guy,” and would never read one of his books. I add this simply to emphasize that there are always, at least, two million sides to every story, as well as to point out that others’ recommendations, including my own, can mean everything or nothing. Unlike the yogi, I, for one, like “the guy.” This is one of the first books on mindfulness that I’ve read and not felt like a total idiot. Anyen Rinpoche’s words resonated with me, deeply. And here’s an excerpt, from Anyen Rinpoche’s book, in a section titled  Abide in the Experience of “No Self.” Please note how I use ellipses in this excerpt: three dots indicates the omission of words  within a sentence; four dots indicates the omission of one or more sentences in between one sentence and another. I mention this for both purposes of clarity and respect for copyright:

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“…a cursory analysis shows that the self is simply a concept….While this is somewhat helpful for developing a Buddhist foundation, ultimately, it will not take our practice to the next level….Merely knowing is not the same as experiencing and realizing.”

Rinpoche, A. (2009) Momentary buddhahood: Mindfulness and the Vajrayana path. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
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This quotation from Anyen Rinpoche’s book stayed with me. I’ve read and reread it because short of ‘realization,’ I can, at least, try for internalization. But something happened, this morning, that made it even more “real” for me. Last night, I went to bed rather unhappily because of being repeatedly dive-bombed by a huge fly. Citing “reverence for life,” I did not try to swat it, and hoped that by morning, it would either go somewhere else, or die. No such luck. As I sat to begin my morning meditation, it repeatedly bounced off my head, literally got in my face, and even had the nerve to ‘buzz’ in an extremely loud, particularly distracting manner (I wonder if the Buddha had those sticky fly strips?). Finally, I grabbed a copy of a magazine I didn’t particularly like and “went” for it. Yep! You got it! I might not have been  mindful, but I sho’ nuff  minded! That was two hours ago, and I still didn’t manage to catch it. And that’s when I remembered a scene from  The Karate Kid  (1984). In this particular scene, Mr. Miyagi is sitting at his dinner table, trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks. Daniel (Karate Kid) walks in, views this with some amusement, and asks if it wouldn’t be easier to use a fly swatter. Then, he asks if he can try. Mr. Miyagi smirks, and assents. After a couple tries, Daniel catches the pesky fly with his own pair of chopsticks, and the nonplussed Mr. Miyagi throws down his own chopsticks, leaves the table, and says, “You, beginner luck!” They then go outside and Daniel receives his first lesson in fence painting…

So, catching the fly is just the beginning. And I’m Daniel (if all goes well).

Here’s a link to that scene from The Karate Kid.

Namaste.

 

 

 

 

“Bitch” Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe Karma…

“Karma’s a bitch.” –?
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Karma. You can’t pray to her. You can’t beseech her. You can’t make deals with her. You can’t seek her forgiveness. You can’t have a “personal relationship” with her. And you can’t expect her to suspend the laws of nature so that you don’t have to pay for the  evil you’ve wrought. Oh, wait a minute! I already mentioned prayer, didn’t I?

The term ‘karma,’ literally means ‘action,’ but it is widely and generally interpreted to mean “the result of an action, or actions,” which is incorrect. When our actions, i.e., karma, result in some type of payday, pleasant or unpleasant, there’s another term for that. It’s ‘vipaka.’ Vipaka means “fruit,” i.e., “the fruit of,” as in when our ‘actions’ (karma[s]) bear fruit (come to fruition), or when the seed(s) we’ve planted sprout, take root, grow, and multiply. So, when someone finally “gets what’s coming to them,” it’s not their ‘karma’ that finally caught up with them; it’s their ‘vipaka.’ The existence of the little-discussed (in the general public, anyway) term (vipaka) does not necessarily discredit other discussions, questions, or theories about karma. [And to emphasize this point, I have included, in my Related Reading section below, other discussions of karma that truly moved me].

Every action we express, whether physical, verbal, or even mental, is [a] ‘karma.’ An action as mundane as flossing one’s teeth is karma. The vipaka, or fruit, of flossing (particularly if that flossing is done regularly and well) is that of avoiding gingivitis. Better yet, commit the karma of regularly visiting your dentist. This type of karma is far-reaching and the results (vipaka), i.e., not losing all one’s teeth, are not necessarily immediate. This touches on the matter of different  types  of vipaka.

Sometimes, the results (vipaka) are immediate, and sometimes we don’t see those results (vipaka) for a very long time. Other types of karma bear almost instantaneous vipaka, whether good or bad. For example, when NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo bought a pair of leather boots for a man, and literally helped the man put them on his feet, he became, for a short while, the soul of the NYPD and the American public. He had no idea that his actions (karma) would be photographed and published all over the world. And then there are those individuals who commit murder (karma!) and never get caught (in  this  life, that is).

Consequently,the concept of karma begs the question of rebirth, even though one’s karma can manifest within just one lifetime, or even within five minutes of the karma committed. This seriously complicates the concept of rebirth, which is often viewed as mumbo-jumbo of the most primitive, pantheistic, and puerile kind. So, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider that the law of karma is more akin to a law of nature, like gravity, or even more specifically, the law of conservation of energy. This law states:

“…energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form into another or transferred from one object to another. This law is taught in physical science and physics classes in middle schools and high schools, and is used in those classes as well as in chemistry classes” (Your Dictionary.com).

And speaking of physics, interestingly enough, the differences between ‘energy transformation’ and ‘energy transfer’ have been used to describe the subtle differences some people make between rebirth and reincarnation, respectively. Additionally, the indestructible nature of energy, accepted as hard, scientific, even obvious fact, is also applicable to that energy known as “life.” For example, when a body breathes its last breath, where does that animating ‘energy’ “go?” If ‘life,’ itself, is a type of energy, and energy cannot be destroyed, is it so far-fetched to imagine that same energy being either transformed, transferred, redistributed, or redeployed? And even if you don’t believe in ‘rebirth’ or ‘reincarnation,’ does not some type of ‘transfer’ or ‘transformation’ take place when even a squirrel’s remains decay, merge with the soil, thus contributing to both the fertilization process and the growth and nourishment of other organisms? But that’s another post, isn’t it?

Namaste.

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Related Reading:

Well, we all know ‘Karma’ isn’t the bitch from The brooding architect (blog)

Our Mind Dictates Who We Are from Becoming Buddhist (blog)

Limitations and Expectations of Karma from Ayslyn’s Corner (blog)