buddhism

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.

 

Lessons in Epic Smackdowns

“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.”  ~The Smiths

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Slimy Steps of Despair in Connecticut

A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.

A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.

I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.

A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.

I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.

It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.

Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.

 

The Permanence of Impermanence

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Saw this pink flamingo slowly dying on the street this morning. Wonder if someone is missing it? 

You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.

My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.

When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.

Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.

This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.

Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.

Putting A Lid On My Monkey Barrel

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Bowls so full they almost look solid

(Snapped this photo quickly on my way out of my first Buddhist meditation class tonight. It’s not an impressive photo or anything, but I was drawn to these glass offering bowls from the moment I saw them. How did they fill them so precisely? They remind me a bit of the offering candles in the Catholic church we attended while I was growing up. I’m not sure if the intentions are the same behind both, but I find it intriguing where different traditions intersect.)

The idea of physically attending meditation classes, rather than attempting to learn meditation solely through an iPhone app I bought, came to me through my incredible drum instructor, who also happens to be a Buddhist monk. He is a calm, centered person who listens intently, thinks before he speaks, and is a perfect antidote to my nervous personality. He has talked to me about how mindfulness can help me get into a better mental state for my drumming, and I certainly could use any help I can get. But, beyond that, I noticed recently that I have been letting my mind run away with me too often. It’s embarrassing what the lawless monkeys in my head will get into if I leave them unattended.

Before Christmas, I was speaking with my father about world religion and he said, “Buddha is good for personal improvement, but I don’t need it.” While I appreciate his self-assurance about not needing help with personal improvement, I don’t have that same certitude. I openly admit that my head is a mess in need of a maid. If I want to overcome negativity and increase happiness, if I want to foster the mental fortitude for writing a book, then I need to rein in those damn monkeys and harness their energy for later use. Given how active they’ve been lately, this may prove a harder task than I imagined. And given that I was also born in the Year of the Monkey, perhaps I was doomed from the start?

Still, hope springs eternal so Steve and I drove to the Kadampa Meditation Center downtown where tonight’s theme at the beginner’s class was New Year, New You. Ruth first spoke a bit about New Year’s Resolutions and how people (myself included) think that by changing external things in our lives, like getting a new job, finding a significant other, or getting fit, for example, we will find happiness. She then burst our bubble by telling us something we probably already knew…happiness only comes from within. So, all our work running around trying to establish new habits or make changes to create a better sense of self are more or less worthless if we don’t change our minds at the same time. We can create the illusion of happiness externally but, the minute something derails, our minds will still freak out and remind us we aren’t really happy after all.

After speaking to us for a while about meditations and Buddhist teachings, she guided us through a short meditation. I have meditated before, mostly for short periods of time, and I’ve some experience with conscious breathing courtesy of yoga practice, so I didn’t find the exercise altogether impossible. I was able to redirect the monkeys that began jumping around when my legs got twitchy and even shut up the ones that started chattering when my phone vibrated in my bag courtesy of an unexpected, ill-timed Facetime call from my sister, although Steve did mention he could hear my yoga breathing get louder during that episode. Hey…wait a minute. He shouldn’t have been focusing on my breathing. He was supposed to be paying attention to his own breath and keeping his mind on his meditation. Hmmmmm….guess it’s a good thing we both attended this class.

Before we left, I took a moment to notice where my mind was. I felt relaxed, focused, and confident, which is the way I usually feel after a yoga class. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and learned a thing or two as well. I’m ready to train my mind not to fly off the handle or to become overwhelmed by negative thoughts. I think I’ve got the timing right on this journey too. If the current media reporting is any indication, this country is on the precipice of major upheaval. I’d best begin taking lots of meditation classes and getting a lid on my monkeys. 2017 may be a bumpy ride.

Baby Bunny Hops

Don't let the clouds fool you

Don’t let the clouds fool you

I am supposed to be training for our Inca Trail hike in July, but this week the spring weather has been wholly uncooperative. Monday and Tuesday were very windy, which left me indoors to practice yoga and put time in on the spin bike. I considered that better than nothing, although it was not what I was hoping for. This morning, though, I looked out and noticed it was sunny and fairly calm. I thought the weather might be handing me a small break. I would take it.

By the time I had dropped the boys at school, loaded my pack and the dog in the car, and made my way to the trailhead parking lot, I began rethinking my decision. The skies were darkening, and the car thermometer registered all of 50 degrees. While pulling my pack from the trunk, I noticed the winds were picking up. I hate wind. I reached for my GPS-enabled sports watch only to discover it was low on battery. Of course. I would not be tracking today’s workout. I had also forgotten my headphones. Seriously? It was starting to feel like I should just turn around and find a warm yoga studio instead.

I decided to soldier on and in the end I was glad I did. While the weather wasn’t perfect, it was a great day to be on the trail. It was mostly empty and I was able to enjoy my own private hike. Without my headphones, I was privy to every little sound. Movement in the underbrush uncovered a couple spotted towhees hopping through the crumbling leaves. Bees and hummingbirds whizzed by my head. The wind whistled heavily in several spots and yet I noticed other areas the wind completely missed. Several times along the way I confronted memories of my sons, paused with their backs to me, still as stone fountain boys peeing into the wind. It was a solitary, contemplative hike filled with sensory experiences. I was 100% in the present for an hour outdoors, and it was lovely.

On the way down, I thought about how easy it would have been to look at all the negatives gathering on the balance sheet before the hike and scrap it all together. I thought about this Bunny Buddhism quote:

I would rather hop and see what happens than sit and worry about what might go wrong.

Too often we imagine scenarios that keep us from doing something we could easily accomplish. We find reasons not to do something we determine might be unpleasant. We don’t give ourselves a chance to face the situation and see how it plays out. I’ve been ruminating on this thought lately. We have a choice. We can either make excuses or we can make progress. Sadly, it’s easier to make excuses than it is to risk vulnerability. And this is where we get stuck. It’s easy to let the clouds fool you into expecting rain when none is coming.

I put myself out there today in a small way, and it paid off. Now if I could just convince my inner self to be brave enough to make progress on my book idea, then I’d really be getting somewhere. Baby bunny hops, I guess.

 

 

 

Beginning Bunny Buddhism

I don't patronize bunny rabbits.

I don’t patronize bunny rabbits.

Late last week, my sister introduced me to a book I knew was a game changer. The minute I saw it I knew I needed a copy for myself because it fits right in there with two things that appeal to me…working towards my zen and coveting fuzzy things. (Yes. I know to be truly zen I would have to not covet things, even soft, fuzzy things, but this is why I said I am working towards my zen. I am not there yet, people.) The book is Bunny Buddhism by Krista Lester. It is an adorable tome filled with wisdom about life and illustrations of darling bunnies on the path to bunniness. As soon as I got the name of the book, I was one-clicking my way through Amazon to get it here as fast as humanly possible. (Yes. I know instant gratification also goes against my path to zen, but I can only make this journey one step at a time.) Today the book arrived, and I devoured 186 pages of bunny thoughtfulness, carefully marking statements that resonated with me. Fifty some Post-It tabs later, I realized I have a lot more travel ahead on the road to zen than I originally thought.

Last week, a fellow blogger (and all around kind gal) commented that she missed my blog postings. She told me she was planning to write every day in April. I was tempted to join her on her journey, but ultimately decided that after all this time off I’d gotten too lazy to commit to a whole month. That seemed like an awful lot of work. Then Bunny Buddhism arrived in my mailbox, and with it came my inspiration. And so for the next couple weeks, or until I am plumb bored with cute, fuzzy things or deep, life-changing wisdom, I am going to pick a thought from the book and blog a bit about it.

Today’s Bunny Buddhism mediation is this:

Even a reliable bunny misses a hop sometimes; then the important thing becomes simply to return to hopping.

That is what I am doing right now. I am returning to hopping by blogging again. Once I was a reliable writer, composing something every day for a full year, but I lost my way. I decided other things in my life were more pressing. I reasoned that because writing is not a paying gig for me, I had best focus on my primary job as wildlife manager (aka “mom to two sons”). I thought maybe all the time off blogging would give me more time to focus on writing a book. It didn’t. I found other ways to occupy my time when I put writing on the back burner. I rewatched all the seasons and every single episode of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and LOST. I read way too many articles about our food system that scared the bejeezus out of me. I spent appalling amounts of time on Facebook. And through it all, the only thing I learned is that I am a first-class escape artist. But at the end of the day, no matter what I do or don’t do, the one thing I can’t avoid is the knowledge that I am a writer. I may not be a world-class writer or a published writer or even (gasp) a working writer, but I am a writer. It is what I do. Writing is as much a part of me as my blue-hazel eyes, my constellations of moles, and my stubby fingernails. Denying it doesn’t make it less true. It only takes me further away from my true self.

My writing is not unlike my path to zen. I have a great deal to learn and a lot of room to grow. But I can’t make any progress by freaking out and freezing up when I miss a blog. Life will continue whether I write or not, but every day I skip writing I miss an opportunity to be my most authentic, wonderful, flawed, and yet-somehow-still-perfect self. And so I begin again. They say a journey of a thousand hops begins with a single hop, right?