Your Weekly Diversion, Week 18

 

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Week 18, and each day this week seems to have brought one Breaking News story after another. What do we do with the parry and thrust, the he said-he said, the weird, the loony, the scary and the unbelievable?  To paraphrase Bette Davis in “All About Eve”: Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy fight.

So of course we need our diversions. Here goes. Mother Jones magazine says that we are turning to comfort foods to salve our fears and quell our anxieties.

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Some turn to Pinterest to ogle food porn, those succulent photos of cheesy macaroni casseroles, pans of iced cinnamon rolls, plates of pretty cookies, pots of spicy chili, and recipes for every imaginable ethnic cuisine or dietary plan, and every way to cheat you could possibly want. If you want to enjoy a meal and not go crazy off the dietary deep end, it helps to search “healthy smoothies” or “salads” or your desired way of eating, be it vegan, paleo, low-carb, plant-based, high-protein or what have you. Then the food porn is at least in your wheelhouse. Hmm, sorry for the mixed metaphor 🤔.

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It is during times like these when mind-fulness, focus on the experience of the here and now, is crucial. The projection into the future doom and gloom, the downfall of our democratic civilization, the climate meltdown of our planet home, a nuclear holocaust, and all the other scary prospects that the future might hold if this or that happens, is a kind of mental exercise that only brings suffering. We have enough suffering, or dukkha, in our lives as it is. The Buddha said that dukkha–suffering, is the First Noble Truth. So to learn to stay focused, meditation is a great help.

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Helping others can help lift us from a potential pit of despair. Suffering may be unavoidable, but it brings good karma to help alleviate it whenever we can. A dear friend of mine and his wife are helping to bring water to an arid part of Africa, a location where women and children have to carry heavy containers of water on their heads up hills just to cook and wash. If you would like to help the Abonse Pipeborne Water Project, they have a GoFundMe campaign on right now.

This week’s musical diversion comes to us from 1962 when cellist Yo Yo Ma performed for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy and President Eisenhower after having been discovered by famed cellist Pablo Casals. His older sister played the piano to accompany this precocious 7-year-old boy’s amazing performance.

Namasté

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Treatise on the Wisdom of Living in the Now

 

I read this recently and found it a wonderful treatise on mindfulness, present-centeredness, and living more in the now. Although this too is a WordPress post, and I have reblogged Buddhism Now posts in the past, I wasn’t able to do it the usual way this time. So please keep in mind as you read my post that these are the words of Buddhist scholar Sir John Aske

Regular Everything
by John Aske

Posted on 24 February 2017 by Buddhism Now

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Stupa (chorten), 17th-18th century Tibet. Metropolitan Museum of Art

We all like things to be regular, and what’s wrong with that, you might reasonably ask? We all want stable conditions as well. We don’t want anything to change, either — we want it to stay the same — or more or less, always.

Having a regular job, regular meals and somewhere regular to sleep at night can only be good, better than sleeping in a ditch and being hungry all the time. The gravedigger at Drewsteignton preferred to sleep under a hedge, he told me, because a roof ‘made the place stuffy,’ but he was an unusual man.

But these are all physical conditions, and though they can strongly affect the way we behave and think (our views and opinions), we must be careful that they do not blind us to what is really happening. It is not so much what we have, but what we depend upon having, now and in the future, that gives us problems.

How often, acting upon our need for comfort and security, do we sacrifice our freedom and happiness? An old friend used rather ruthlessly to extract from people what they really wanted; it was often living in the South Seas in those days, though that sounds rather old hat now, with modern air travel. He then explained to them how easily they could fulfil their dreams. In virtually every case, he told me, they invented a thousand feeble excuses why they couldn’t. With the exception of Scott of the Antarctic and William Thesiger, we are nearly all terribly attracted to a conventional lifestyle.

That is one reason why the Buddhist sangha of monks and nuns is so vital. It consists of people (often quite successful people) who have gone into homelessness and given everything up to ‘follow their dream,’ as Joseph Campbell calls it. But even more than that, they know from what the Buddha taught that their dream is not a fantasy, but a greater reality. We cannot truly live in the moment — and that means truly live — if our minds live somewhere else: next month, next year, or often, sadly, last year.

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Ascetic Master, probably a Mahasiddha, Tibet, 17th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fearing death, disease and taxes, we build a whole raft of tomorrows and sail off on it into the future. But it is not the future, it is a dream world that surely prevents us living our real lives and moments fully. We are so preoccupied with our self-created world, that we fail to see and attend to this one — the one in which we really live and of which we are a real part. When the fiction collapses in the face of change and disaster — as it periodically must — we are lost, for the world in which we find ourselves is one that seems to have been thrust upon us, and not of our choosing. Reality is certainly not of our choosing, but it is what it is and what we are, and until we recognise this, we will keep blundering around in the dark and banging into things we didn’t know were there. It’s like going to the lavatory during the night, half asleep. A natural need overtakes us and we know we have to go from point A to point B somewhere, but it is as if we have forgotten or never noticed the way before, and we collide with all sorts of obstacles that wouldn’t bother us in the light of day and in full consciousness. And it is just this full consciousness or rather awareness that is lacking in our daily lives. This unawareness is so comfortable and convenient to us in our daily lives, that we create obstacles where there would otherwise be none. Sometimes these obstacles are called ‘karma’.

Our obsession with things and targets prevents us seeing the ground beneath our feet and if we do look at it, it may be with dismay, for it is not quite as we want it to be or as we expect it to look, like coming back to an untidy room after a holiday.

Our minds are themselves like untidy rooms full of yesterdays and tomorrows, always chasing after this and that, seldom contented with what we have and where we are.

But the more we remain aware in these moments, the more remarkable they become, and the more we belong in them. The more we live truly in these moments, the more they lose their separateness, and the more we take — and are — everything as it comes.

(First published in the August 2006 Buddhism Now.)

Namasté

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They are Everywhere

UPDATE: I just reread this post after more than two years. It merits sharing again, especially in this new, frightening climate of political extremism and the threat of diminishing entitlements for those who need them most. — Shielagh 2/23/17

They are everywhere. 

The Four Noble Truths: – The truth of suffering – The truth of the origin of suffering – The truth of the end of suffering – The truth of the path to the end of suffering

 

I cannot help but see how they suffer. I am not sure what the blessing is in suffering through homelessness and hopelessness. I see them on the subway, asking for money, food, Metrocards, help, hope. I see them sleeping in corners and in doorways, laid out awkwardly across subway platform benches that are uncomfortably partitioned for four. I see them at the end of subway cars, sleeping or pretending to sleep, surrounded by bulging bags of their things, some with a plastic hospital bracelet on one wrist. Flip flops in winter, dirty feet in slippers or worn-out shoes, sometimes in wooden surgical boots. Reddened, swollen ankles blotched and shiny with edema. Often and more now than before, I see well-groomed men sitting behind polite cardboard signs asking for compassion, for a hand up, bus fare home, a meal, as they read a book or magazine, avoiding eye contact. Groups of grimy kids sleeping on cardboard with dogs or cats, their cardboard signs asking for money for food or a hotel room before the next storm hits. I see the long, matted blond dreadlocks about begrimed, drawn faces of kids young enough to be my grandchildren, skateboards under arms and sleeping bags and backpacks weighing them down as they move from place to place, rousted by police or in search of something much needed right then. I see the African hair, wild and long, grizzled into shaggy beards framing dark, dusty faces. I’ve seen men and women, in couples and alone, sleeping against buildings in midmorning in mummy bags or bedrolls, their things in bags about them, the smell of old urine strong by the nearby broken payphone enclosure. Once I looked up from my own thoughts to see an old woman defecating into a plastic bag between the bike rack and the litter can by a busy intersection downtown. I didn’t want to see. I felt her suffering, a reality that seemed to say, there is nowhere else for me to go.

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Homeless man on the F train

I see the bloody socks, the bandaged hands, the haunted faces, the vacant eyes. I see the plastic rosary beads around scrawny necks, the cigarettes, the brown-bagged cans and bottles, the battered paper coffee cups hopeful for change. I hear the  guitarist on the subway platform singing a Neil Young song as tenderly and tunefully as Neil himself. I watch as passersby waiting for their train or heading towards the stairs drop a dollar into the guitar case, or hurry by unaware of the fragile life of the man behind the instrument. I have seen him for at least ten years now. He no longer has teeth. I have given many dollar bills over those years. Once he stood near the stairs crying and asking if anyone could help him get new guitar strings before the music store closed, saying someone had damaged his guitar at the hospital. I gave him a five and told another woman who stopped, looking worried, that he sings as beautifully as Neil Young. He was too upset to respond and kept weeping. There is something very broken in him now, because between his haunting songs he sometime yells and screams at no one in particular about world injustices, thoughtless people, all the “motherfuckers” and “assholes,” whoever and wherever they may be. I am sure he suffers greatly.

I hear the crazy rants, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness, and see the dirt, the empty eyes, the pathos written all over the faces. I used to tell myself they were students in a sociology class, running experiments to see how others react to homelessness, poverty, need and hopelessness.  It’s been a very long time since I comforted myself with that fantasy. I know there are police patrols and pairs of homeless workers who travel these streets to see who needs help, but many withdraw from them and are not seen. When winter comes and rough weather prevails, vans traverse our streets with workers trying to get homeless men and women into shelters for the night. Places they’d rather die than go, mostly. Addictions, experiences being robbed, histories of abuse, compounded fear and layers of hopelessness scare them away from shelter and often from helping hands up and out of their despair. Such suffering.

I hear the pleas on the subway cars as we rattle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, from the tall man in fatigues asking, “Can you help a homeless Veteran?” From a small dark-eyed woman with a large child on her hip, both with doleful expressions, who stands in front of each passenger holding a sign that says, “I am deaf and mute. We need food. Can you help us?” And the young woman with several children in tow, repeating the length of the car, “My house burned down, we have nothing. My children and I are homeless, can you help?” Sometimes while the person is traversing the car, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker reminding us that it is against the law to solicit on the subway. “Ladies and gentlemen soliciting money in the subway is illegal,” it drones. Ignore the suffering, it suggests. Others will see to it.

I don’t always, but I’ve offered what I can, a Metrocard with a few trips left on it, a little money, a protein bar, a sandwich, dog or cat food for a homeless person’s animal companion. And when money or food or something else is offered, they nod and sometimes say, “Thank you.” “God bless you.” “You are very kind.” And when nothing is offered and they stand at the doors as the train comes to a stop, I’ve heard, “You folks have a good day now.” “Hope you never know how hard this is,” and “God bless you.”  And then there was the weather-beaten old woman I once offered a plastic container of holiday cookies that I’d planned to share at the office. She screamed at me incomprehensibly and batted away my offering with as much force and rage as if I’d pulled a knife.

They tear at my heartstrings, and their suffering fills me with fear from depths unknown, fear of destitution and homelessness, fear of extreme isolation and loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of untreated mental illness, fear of surrender to hopelessness, fear of losing faith in my ability to manage, fear of losing the belief I will be taken care of if ever I cannot take care of myself, fear of giving up and giving in to addiction, fear of illness and parasites and dirt. Fear of growing into very old age alone and defenseless, of outliving savings. And my practice has taught me that it is out of fear that aversion grows. Every day I aspire to be free from aversion, attachment and indifference. I am learning to see past fear and into fellow beings, beings whose lives are as transitory as my own, to see their suffering, to have compassion, and to remember that within each of them learning and growing and karma are also taking place.

So I read every single day, and recite aloud most days, the Buddhist text of the Metta Sutta. I often read it in the morning during my subway ride. My version says, “Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state,” to despise no beings–none, to have loving kindness for all, no matter how small or great, no matter the circumstances. To love each being, human and otherwise, “freed from hatred and ill-will,” to love them all dearly, as a mother loves her only child. How difficult this is to do, and yet how important it is to try.

And today this is my practice.

Namaste

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Ending Suffering

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All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings large and small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way. Libido, according to Freud, is the life force, the very energy which makes us gulp air even when trying to hold our breath. We associate libido with sexual intention and it does guarantee procreation for the perpetuation of life, but it is far more general than that. Libido drives creativity and interconnectedness, and many in the religious life find that in denying the sexual, they transcend the baser urges into altruism and selfless love. Thanatos, or the death force, is far less known and runs deep underground in most beings. It can be activated when suffering becomes too great.

All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings from the largest to the infinitessimally small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way, or so it seems.  Instead, many humans seek suffering through self-harming behaviors and often have difficulty giving them up, so powerful is the addiction to certain very painful experiences. Humans often perpetuate suffering for themselves, and many more who would avoid their own suffering at all costs willfully inflict suffering on their fellow humans, and even more routinely on the animal kingdom. Ironically, by routinely condemning to misery and painful death the 100 or so animals each meat eater consumes yearly, the human hand contributing to this misery by virtue of paying for it, even at a distance, pulls in secondary traumatic experience and, as some believe, bad karma. This is guaranteeing ongoing human suffering. Psychology Today recently published an article on the phenomenon of loving dogs, cats and horses but consigning other animals such as cows, chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and their newborn offspring, to unimaginable terror and suffering without a second thought. Please read it for some interesting political revelations.

Without Prejudice

The Meat Paradox: Loving but Exploiting Animals

Unpacking stereotypes, bias, and discrimination
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And today this is my practice.
Namaste
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