Your Weekly Diversion, Week 20

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Week 20 in our parade of unbelievables. As I hear several times a week, if not more than once a day, you can’t make this stuff up.

Quick, let’s get to the diversions!

First I’m going to share with you two pictures I took in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Then I’m going to explain why the Village has been so near and dear to me.

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View of my therapy office through a ceramic mirror

 

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Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Union Square Park, New York, sculpted by Kantilal B. Patel

Today, I was sorry to read in the New York Times that Bleecker Street of New York’s Greenwich Village has experienced a bust after years of being bustling and trendy. Once drawing crowds to the hangouts of the “Sex and the City” cast of HBO, the high-end shops and eateries have moved on. I first heard of Bleecker Street as a teenager listening to Peter, Paul and Mary. Mary Travers, a famous Village denizen, changed the lyrics of the traditional folk song “Freight Train” to sing,

“When I die please bury me deep, down at the end of Bleecker Street, so I can hear old Number Nine as she goes rolling by.”

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Photo by Chuck Kearns

As it happens, Mary Travers, who died of leukemia in 2009, is actually buried in Umpawaug Cemetery in Redding, Connecticut. I loved her clear voice, and I loved Peter, Paul and Mary and all their music. I owned every record and knew every word. I learned to play many of their iconic songs on the guitar. I saw them in concert several times and have Peter Yarrow’s autograph in the attic. When I moved to New York 25 years later, and then opened a private psychology practice in the Village, I was thrilled. I would walk down to Washington Square on my lunch hour and soak in the vibes. The beat poets, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac and others, used to hang out at a bar right down the street from my office, many years earlier, of course. The block where I practiced, University Place between 12th and 13th Streets, changed greatly in the 20-plus years I was there. Shops opened and closed. Two corner delis closed. Two parking garages closed. The iconic Bowlmor Lanes, a nightspot as well as a bowling alley, closed. New establishments opened. The hardware store on the next corner expanded to feature much fancy merchandise in addition to hammers and nails. Japonica, an excellent Japanese restaurant, closed, and several long months later reopened a block further down in a much smaller space. Eventually the entire block upon which my 10th floor west-facing office looked was razed with months of great noise and clouds of dust and dirt. A high-end condo building was going in as I closed the office to relocate it to the country last summer.

So the Village has changed. All of New York continues to change. Our Brooklyn neighborhood became so trendy and crowded with cars and grocery delivery vans that we sold out and moved to the country. A friend who lives in Soho told me today that her neighborhood is changing, too. “So many empty stores – more at the end of every month – and the ones that open tend to be totally uninteresting and useless to those of us living here.” But for me, New York, and especially the Village, will always hold magic, no matter how things change.

Here is your toe tapper for the week. Having been out of my usual bounce and vigor, it’s all I’ve got this time, but turn up the sound and enjoy:

Namasté

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Being the Change We Wish to See in the World

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As Mahatma Gandhi said to us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” What does this mean? Figure out what you feel needs to change in your world and change yourself and your life with its thoughts, intentions and actions accordingly. For example, if we abhor the degrading of our environment, wreaking havoc with our climate, we do what we can to change it. We advocate for sustainable energy and recycle or reuse metal, glass, paper and plastic objects to avoid consigning them to the rising refuse piles on the planet, and we minmize buying products that waste our precious resources. Here in New York City many residents can now compost much of what once ended up in landfills. If we grieve the suffering of farmed animals in the factory production of meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, we buy only humanely raised foods, or as some would deem to be even better, switch to vegan or vegetarian eating, easier to do today than ever. I know, because I have been a fat and sassy vegan for years with no harmful health effects. If we aim to live in a peaceful and conflict-free world, and to be free from anger in the Metta sense, we practice compassionate listening, and we resist the seductive lure of defensiveness and even of playing devil’s advocate, as well as avoiding blatant arguing, righteous indignation and ego-driven defiance. Of course, we may fall short repeatedly, but we can try again and learn over time to eliminate our knee-jerk and hair-trigger reactions to bombast, offensiveness, false accusations and rage, stepping aside to avoid engagement with the fire of that anger lest our own be ignited as well. Fiery anger spreads rapidly through the tinder-dry undergrowth of mindless existence, running along the ground, up tree trunks, onto roofs, and into untended hearts and minds.

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What is the path we are walking in our lives today? Are we part of the solution, or are we by our advocacy, silent assent or apathy being a part of the very problem we seek to change for the better? When we decide to no longer be a part of angry interactions, inflamed rhetoric, and the need to be right above all else, or the abuse of our fellow sentient beings and the world we share with them, we step onto the path of peace.

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Let us find and keep on the beautiful path of peace with every step. Naturally we will stray in our steps, especially at first, but we can with each moment of awareness step back where the peace is, where the love is, where the healing is.

Namaste

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Coping with Discomfort on the Fly

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When we decide that anger, and aggravation, irritation, frustration and similar states of inner discomfort, are no longer welcome in us, what happens when they arise?

What do we do, and how do we handle those feelings? First of all, these feelings are normal human states and happen to everyone. What matters most is how we react or respond to them.

As we can read in depth in The Noble Eightfold Path covered by American Buddhist Bhikkhu Bodhi, we can gravitate to one of two extremes wherein we tend to cope with those feelings: 1) giving in to them and allowing them full expression, and 2) repressing them and escaping their immediate influence. The first may feel great in the moment but creates unease, tension and dissatisfaction within us, the nervous system arousal we experience can be very addictive, and usually this behavior exacerbates or causes problems for us with others. Repressing the emotion only momentarily frees us from the interpersonal inflammation so that we can stay peaceful on the surface and in a state of denial that we are angry at all. The bolus of anger, hot and dangerous, sinks deeper into the psyche to cause damage down below our conscious awareness. When anger is submerged it creates vague distress, depression, anxiety, and apprehension, and these can lead us to self-medicate with addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, compulsive overeating, spending, and other efforts to relieve the anger we don’t even know we have.

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Walking the Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Way by the Buddha, puts us at neither extreme but in the middle where we neither express the an ger nor repress it but face it and learn about it and let it go. In Metta meditation we aspire to learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving and delusion in ourselves. We learn to look at what inflames anger within us and see how we can better deal with it. We stop trying to run to or from that anger but sit with it. We let it teach us about ourselves. We welcome it as our teacher but we do not let it control our thoughts or drive our actions.

Recently we attended a community gathering. My husband went to secure our seats while I went to the refreshment area for a cup of tea. Someone I see rarely spotted me and gave me a happy greeting and big hug. But as I moved toward the hot water urn, she said something insulting about my husband, insinuating that if he wasn’t with me she’d be glad. I didn’t engage in that conversation, probably laughed nervously as I moved away. But I didn’t feel very good about it. I was trying to repress the anger. A few moments later I heard this same person tell my husband she had hoped he wouldn’t be at the gathering. He became angry and made a retort that I also tried not to experience. We sat and listened to the lecture, but I was very troubled by the anger I had tried to ignore in myself and by the anger my husband seemed to be feeling as he muttered about the exchange under his breath.

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This is how I dealt with this. I focused on my breathing, using the gatha “Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.”  After a minute or two I had indeed calmed. I then wished the nine Metta aspirations of my daily practice for myself, then for my husband, and lastly for the individual who had provoked our discomfort. I was able to identify fear and anxiety in myself, and I explored my desire not to be in the middle between angry people  and my own indirect avoidance of the conflict without addressing it honestly. I knew this sudden attack had angered my husband, and I felt terrible for him. I also remembered that this person had a history of mental illness with frequent episodes of unwelcome hostility and impulsive blurting, and I wished for her to be free of that affliction. The lecture was a lengthy one, allowing me to get in about 20 minutes of sincere Metta before the gathering broke up. I chatted with others I hadn’t seen in a while, and the troublesome individual hung nearby. I attempted to pass to leave when she walked in front of me to hug me again. I stepped back slightly, and without anger or confrontation in my voice or in my heart, I simply said, “You insulted my husband.” The response was surprising. She stood staring at me for quite a while, silent. Then she said, “I live to insult husbands,” and moved away laughing as we left. I wish her healing, and I hope she can be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit. When we experience these blessed attributes, we do not attempt to hurt others with our words or our actions.

I am so grateful for my meditation practice and for the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh from whom I have learned so much.

Mindful calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Namaste

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