Zen and everyday life

lotus_flower
[Image from North Dakota State University]
I had plans for another post today, in light of a fellow blogger nominating me for a Liebster Award. But a night at a Franciscan retreat center has prompted me to write something a little different.

Since I first learned about Buddhism in high school, I’ve been interested in it. I still remember filling out answers to the Four Noble Truths on quizzes in the front of my ninth grade class, alongside sanskrit terms.

Since then, I’ve come a long way.

An independent study in Buddhist philosophy, numerous books, a few meditation retreats, and a daily meditation practice that lasted a few years have all increased my awareness in Buddhism, especially Zen.

But two winters ago, my interest culminated in a three day retreat at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. I still recall the final day of the retreat. After the exhausting stints of 5 a.m. zazen meditation and work projects–where I silently cracked over a hundred eggs–we concluded with a koan and a dharma talk by the sensei. The koan was about the diamond sutra, a central text in Mahayana Buddhism, called “diamond” because a true understanding allows one to cut through illusion and ignorance like a diamond.

The sensei brought up the ending of the sutra itself:

“So I say to you – 
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; 
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, 
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

Building on the Buddhist notion of impermanence–that life contains unceasing flux and change–the sensei stressed our need to “leave no footprints” as we moved through life, negotiating the tricky balance of “equanimity,” a peaceful abiding between aversion and desire that does not fall into indifference. Life is indeed brief. It is full of change and interdependence. Like a dream, things come and go.

Sitting in zazen position, legs folded and “heart open,” I felt a change. Buddhism traditionally has different levels of understanding, ranging from the merely intellectual to the silent but sure understanding of an Enlightened one. Somewhere between lies a heart understanding, where one truly “feels” a new insight that cannot fit into words.

In the midst of the dharma talk, I felt that insight.

Continue reading “Zen and everyday life”

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What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

Continue reading “What does it mean to be happy?”

89 days of insecurities

To be honest, I’m struggling a little bit.

Okay, a lotta bit.

We celebrated my brother’s 27th birthday this past weekend. Twenty-seven; six-ish years my senior. He has an apartment that he shares with his 5-year-old Golden Retriever. He’s a success story; an internship he had during his undergrad summers morphed into a career. He’s single. He watches seasons of TV shows on Netflix, takes the dog out for walks and visits friends. He’s happy.

In fact, I’ll never forget what he told me during my birthday celebration a couple months back when I told my family about a guy who wanted to take me out on a date.

“It’s okay to be single for awhile, Em,” he said.

You may have read this post a few months back. I wrote that 89 days ago. I’ve kissed six different guys over these past 89 days, ultimately (drunkenly) sleeping with two of them. I looked up the word “slut” in the dictionary and have concluded I am neither promiscuous or slovenly –– I’m merely going for the men who seem to readily give me attention. “Promiscuous” implies I’ve had sexual relations with each of these six guys and that is simply not the case.

Sounds about right
Sounds about right

Still, in the process, I’ve lost real feelings. So imagine me a little over a month ago when a really nice, respectable guy began giving me attention. I went a little nuts and it scared me shitless. He scared me shitless. My friends told me they could tell how much I liked him by the speed of my talking and the high-pitch tone my voice adopted. That scared me, too. Now I think I’ve scared him away. Real smooth, Em, ya dummy.

I’ve realized that being rejected really depresses me. I go into full-blown nihilism mode and lose track of everything I’m working for, everything I’m trying to be. I’ve lived under the mindset of what good is anything if I have nobody to share that ‘anything’ with? for a very long time, leading to never watching movies by myself or going shopping for fun by myself.

I need to get back in touch with the adventurous version of myself I found while living away from home last summer for an internship. My brother’s found it. I’d like to join him. I’d like to be happy, learn from my past mistakes and begin a new relationship when I’m good and ready for it. Too many of my insecurities rule my life and my way of thinking –– I need to squash them before I begin anything new.

Fuck.

New semester

I moved back into school today to start the next semester. A new semester has always had more of a “New Year” feeling than actual New Years, since school provides a ready-made change of scenery and lifestyle.

[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/]
[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/%5D
That said, I try not to treat “resolutions” like “revolutions.” Often, this time of year–especially the first week or two at the start–gets annoying. Everyone has a hundred hopes, impossible plans, and vague outlines, all aimed at turning them into a new person. I respect the hope and spirit that goes into this, but as with many things, the hope outshoots the reality. Would-be gym-goers, dieters, meditators, and volunteers slump back into their old habits, like a well-worn couch, and lose momentum until “next year.”

It’s happened to me a dozen times. To people I know. To people I don’t know, but see peppering the gym this time of year, then slipping away like a trial product that never goes big. According to a recent study by the University of Scranton, used by Time and Forbes, only about 8% of those who try a resolution say they usually make it.

Other research has different numbers, but the conclusion seems pretty clear: resolutions don’t come easily.

One thing that may hamper our ability to reach our goals is an inherent limitation to self control. Recent research seems to indicate that we can only use so much self control before we succumb to temptation. Or, at the very least, we get more likely to succumb. That pizza, ice cream, and beer hits us much harder after a long day at work.

Sometimes we even rationalize it, saying “Well, I worked hard today and kept up my diet, so I deserve a little something.” The psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who studies willpower, critiques this particular tactic that she calls “moral licensing” in an interesting video.

Moreover, moral licensing and limited self control aren’t the only things that impede resolutions. The stubborn resilience of bad habits, our inability to visualize future selves, competing priorities, guilt-saturated procrastination, and more set strong roadblocks between us and progress.

Continue reading “New semester”

Stoicism at the Airport

airport-security-line
[image from “theotherhubby.com”]
Flying is stressful. Flying during the winter is even more stressful. Last week, the winter storm “Hercules” hit the northeast United States, dumping feet of snow. Now, an Arctic chill creeps eastward across the northern midwest, chilling the air in some places to negative 65 degrees Fahrenheit (with windchill), as further storms hit. Coming at the end of the holiday season, the timing couldn’t be worse. U.S. Airlines canceled over 2,300 flights last Thursday and about 1,500 flights early Friday, according to the New York Daily News, and the trend continued, with over 6,000 flights canceled yesterday.

My parents, meanwhile, struggled to navigate the Kafkaesque airline industry to reroute, cancel, or reschedule flights for their long-ago-planned anniversary trip to San Francisco and Sonoma. They didn’t have much luck. Saturday, I spent an hour and a half with my dad waiting in a line stocked with people with canceled and delayed flights–some of them trying their luck for days–only to be told we couldn’t do anything in a flat, minute-long answer. Sunday, United Air canceled their flight, and they canceled their trip.

On both days, when we called, a pre-recorded message said the company was too flooded with calls to help. The others in line had the same problem, one man insisting he waited on hold for six hours before giving up and driving an hour to the airport to meet with someone. Others told similar tales.

Meanwhile, indignant flyers hammer employees at desk with questions, as their machines occasionally froze and their administration sorted through the swath of situations.

From a large perspective, airport stress is insignificant. It is, as the internet memes say, “a first-world problem,” and seems a minor cost to pay for the ability to hop in a metal machine and fly around the world in relative comfort at record speeds, going from New York City to Cairo in 12 hours. Compared to the Silk Road, the bandit-laced treks of merchants in the Middle Ages, and the tenuous crossing of the Atlantic on cramped wooden ships by early settlers, flying is easy.

But in the midst of it, airport travel is a difficult endeavor and that stress requires serious effort to overcome. Fortunately, stoicism provide a few helpful tips.

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Introverts and the holidays

First of all, happy New Year. Perhaps 2013 was a down-and-out scrape to get through or an idyllic gallop on the pig’s back. Whatever the case, it’s ended and a new window aglow with resolutions awaits. But since New Years resolution posts have already flooded the internet, I wanted to write about another timely topic: being an introvert during the holidays.

I don’t handle holidays well. The noise, social obligations, tedious traditions, ostentatious meals, and blitzkrieg shoppers exhaust and overwhelm me. Each year as Christmas crawls around, my stomach knots up with dread. And the past few years I’ve reached saturation points, where at the end of a long string of busy days, I crash like stretched out spring ripping back into place. I cannot put on the act any longer.

With the holiday season on the wane, I can say that I survived this year. It took an effort, but in the end, this was the best holiday season I’ve had in a while. Perhaps some of you weren’t so lucky. In that case, here are a few ideas that helped me.

Continue reading “Introverts and the holidays”