Freedom’s just another word


An old Yiddish proverb goes:

If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything

I was thinking about this today after talking to a friend who was quite distraught over the state of the economy and his low amount of incoming work. He needs to maintain projects and billing at a pretty high rate just to keep his financial life in place and meet all of his obligations. I asked if he wanted to go out to dinner this week and he told me that really, he couldn’t, he was “broke”. When I told him I was surely the far more broke of us two, he assured me that he was the more destitute.  Being quite sure that he generates many times my income, this could only be true in the sense that he has far more to lose than I, and that he is freaking out about losing his multiple mortgages and style of living to which he has become accustomed. And he is not the only one. I have other friends who are likewise entrenched in a certain level of material comfort that they are hell bent and determined to maintain, seemingly for its own sake.

With each passing day it seems, I continue to be thankful that I have so few possessions compared to so many in this country. I mean, I don’t feel deprived of anything (except health care, but I should have that taken care of soon). I really don’t. I go out to eat and drink with friends quite often, I have a roof over my head and easy transportation. I have a gym membership and Internet access and a laptop. I read books and watch movies and meet people. I drink coffee, I take strolls. And of course, I travel. Out of the possessions I have, they could all be destroyed in a fire or taken in a theft and it really would be no big deal.

I keep returning to this theme since I have been back, because I am confronted with it everywhere. The more things people aquire, the more worried they are about protecting them. The more worried they are about losing them. The more stressed out they are about maintaining a certain level of income to be able to support all these things. At my current billing rate, I will make about a third of the money that I made when I was VP of Technology, but I can honestly say that I am orders of magnitude less stressed than I was when I had that position. I also have a great deal more freedom in my schedule. If I feel like working today, I will. If I feel like taking part or all of the day to go to a museum or read or stroll or meditate, I will. The things I have “given up” to be in this way are not in any way necessities of life. I do not “need” expensive clothes, a multitude of gadgets, or excessive displays of wealth. I live very well indeed without owning one or more houses or cars. I feel a great freedom to try new things, consider any life changing option whether it relates to the kind of work I do, the place I do it, who I do it with or how. People often ask me if things are less exciting now that I am no longer traveling. But to be honest, I still feel pretty much how I did while I was traveling. I don’t feel settled or tied to this particular thing or place, but neither do I feel a need to be constantly moving somewhere else.

There are a vast array of potential reasons for our conspicuous consumption, or the acquiring of vast amounts of things well outside basic need or comfort. We acquire them for reasons of status, to show others how important we are. We acquire things out of a false sense that they will make us safe and secure. We do so because in our consumer culture if we do not acquire, we are not participating in the organizing principle of our society. We acquire to fill the loneliness and to pass the time. But is more stuff really the answer?

I am not in principle opposed to having any of these things, but in anything that generates great feelings of attachment there is a danger. Buddhist teaching sure has that part right anyway. They teach that our unhappiness comes from our attachments to some things on the one hand, and our aversion to others on the other hand. Of course, grasping is very much at the core of what it means to be human, and no amount of conditioning or meditation will or should wipe away the sensual responses that are central to who we are. It is the greatest gift to be born into existence, all of it. But we strive so much to contain the uncontainable, instead of appreciating the breathtaking thing our very existence is and sharing it with others. We should be able to enjoy the experiences we have without needing them to continue. In short, we should be striving for being, not having.

Unchained Melody


I came across something rather funny this morning. Around the corner from where I am staying there is a little coffee shop with a sort of public sitting area out front. There are benches and plants, a kind of small and sparse urban garden. Next to one of the trees, there is a laughing Buddha. As I was looking at it, I noticed something around the feet of the Buddha. It had been chained to the tree, one assumes so that no one would take it. I find this hilarious. One of the main insights of Buddhism is that our unhappiness in life is very much tied to our attachments to things, yet here is one of its surest signs in this poor chained Buddha.

Grains of sand


“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it is the grain of sand in your shoe”

It is funny what sticks with you. The above quote I actually heard from a world civilization teacher in 7th or 8th grade. I could swear that he told us it was an old saying from Confucius, but a quick look on the web appears to verify its author as Robert W. Service. Whatever. It is a great quote, and one which has come back to haunt or instruct me on so very many occasions in life. We humans are like that, really. We let the most petty annoyances turn into giant stumbling blocks. And the really big things, the really big questions in life, glide by with such little weight and such little notice.

These thoughts were occupying me this afternoon after my Monday meditation group. It seemed that the entire environment was conspiring to pull me out of “the zone”. Random honking from the street below, the floors being resurfaced in the next room, the giggling group in the hallway, the guy in the room who shifted his place three times, while loudly sorting his pile of keys and change.

There is a mostly unspoken tension that exists among meditators that revolves around environment. What is a suitable space in which to meditate? Almost without fail, the goal is to pick a tranquil environment that involves a simple room that is mostly cutoff from outside sound, with a low light level and comfortable temperature. The idea is to have the fewest distractions possible, thus allowing participants to concentrate and focus more deeply on the meditation at hand. Whenever there is an extra stimulus (which is very often), the individual or group is confronted with a small dilemma. A major goal of Buddhism after all is to accept all things with equanimity and not to cling to cravings (such as for an “ideal” space) or run from aversions (such as a chaotic environment). Therefore, it is ideal to simply “deal with it” and find a way to notice and accept without judgement. Ultimately, we all live in the imperfect world (even Buddhists) and the goal is too see clearly and find peace in the present moment, and the present being. This of course includes the chaos that is life.

The great lesson I keep coming back to is that these little things are not only the grains of sand in my shoe. These grains of sand in some ways ARE the mountain ahead, in that they are as much a part of the totality of existence as the mountain. And neither the mountain nor the grains of sand are much without our acquiescense to their power. All things hinge on our attitude towards them, and our willingness to reach out and accept them, to touch them and let them touch us without craving or aversion. To appreciate and experience them, and then let them go.

Prayer as meditation


I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.

Over it


Really.  Feeling much better today. Let’s face it, it is part and parcel of being human to experience these moods from time to time.  I have had way fewer of them in the past couple of years than at previous times in my life and they have been much more short-lived and mild when I do have them.  And to put it bluntly, they are bullshit, aroused by things that do not matter.  And no matter the variety of the situation, they are always caused by the same damn thing.  Being out of phase with the present.  Projecting into the future or the past, neither of which exist.  It is a human tendency I know, but if I have learned anything in the past year and a half it is that now is all we have in a very real sense.  It is not that we do not plan for the future, but obsessing about a state that one can do nothing about in the present is a recipe for unhappiness.  And there are techniques to combat these feelings when they arise that seem to work pretty well (for me at least).

Try the following the next time you are experiencing an unspecified feeling of anxiety, of being down or blue or whatever you want to call it.  Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and focus on the physical manifestation of your feeling.  Really search your body for the physical feelings, not the emotional ones.  As you hone in on whatever sensations your body has (perhaps a shortness of breath, perhaps a tightness in the chest or stomach) and really observe these sensations, you will find that they disappear.  They are elusive, created by our emotional states and worth nothing at all.  They are anxiety about things we have no control over.  They are anxiety about the states of our ego. They are outside the realm of being and the present, and they are obstacles to our happiness. Chalk one up to lessons in meditation.

Metta Bhavana en Español


Today I went to my first drop-in meditation at the Buddhist Center here in Mexico City.  Although not understanding all of the words our guide was using, I did get that today’s meditation was a Metta Bhavana, which I was pretty familiar with from my time at Igatpuri. With all the noise from the street and construction going on in the building, it wasn’t the most focused meditation I ever had, but I still left feeling pretty at peace. The center itself is really lovely and just a short walk from my place.

From Random DF

The concept of home


I believe this is the longest time I have spent in Indianapolis since I first left in 1985. It has been great seeing the family and getting reacquainted with the city. It is a far different place than the one that I left over 20 years ago. The city has grown up a bit (as have I). It is a lot more culturally diverse and interesting than it seemed to me so long ago. It still doesn’t feel like “home” to me, but then what place does? When people ask me where “home” is, I reply with a blank stare. If it is just a question of scale, I could say the Earth. Earth definitely feels like home.

Then again, home is a feeling and not a place at all. I feel “home” at the Thanksgiving table. I feel “home” when talking politics with my family. I feel “home” when giggling with my nieces and nephews. I feel “home” when I am with friends sharing a great dinner. I feel “home” when I am walking on a beautiful day in a remote or familiar place. I feel “home” when I am confronted with a new idea. I feel “home” when I am laughing. There are many physical locations that I have this feeling, although I am not bound to any of them. Mostly I feel “home” when I am in the present.

Moon River and Me.


Dallas and Dmitri (at whose house I am staying in LA) had a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I hadn’t seen it in a while and had to watch. I find the message very Hollywood in a lot of ways, and sweet in others. At one level, the idea that unless you are willing to jump into loving others you are in a cage no matter how glamorous your life may otherwise seem or be is sweet. The same could be said of so many experiences that life holds for us. On the other hand, there is some pretty scary dialog from the film along the lines of “You belong to me, I love you!” This is the message of so much of our culture, that we can posses people as well as things. I strongly believe that despite all the noise and urging, we can not, nor should we strive to. We should enjoy the sharing we have with each other for as long as it is, but when it changes or is gone, strive to appreciate that as well. Every part of life can and should be celebrated for what it teaches us. To need things to be a particular way is to miss what beauty is actually there in front of us and a part of us. Buddhism teaches not that we don’t strive for things, but that we accept with equanimity what is, regardless of whether reality reflects exactly our original goals. I can’t count the number of times in my life I have had some difficulty or struggling that turned into joy and bliss, either from the lessons learned or from the cause and effect of an unexpected outcome.

To paraphrase the song, we are crossing the river at every moment (and in style) not someday, but today. If we let ourselves.