Zen mom, overextended mom

Central Tibet, 17th Century, Rubin Museum of Art

This picture on my home altar because it is not only beautiful but because I feel very connected to the imagery.  Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is my favorite bodhisattva insofar as one can have a favorite bodhisattva.  I guess if I was Catholic, and she was too, she would be my patron saint.  Her name means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction”.  In Japan she is known as Kannon which means Watchful Listening, or “The One Who Sees and Hears All”.

From the Lotus Sutra:

Living beings are beset with hardships,
And oppressed by limitless sufferings.
The power of Kannon’s wondrous wisdom
Can rescue the world from suffering.

Undefiled pure light,
The sun of wisdom that breaks through the darkness
Is able to quell calamities of wind and fire
As it shines on all worlds.

Compassionate substance: the thunder of precepts.
Kind intent: a wondrous great cloud.
He rains down sweet dew and Dharma rain,
Which extinguish the flames of affliction.

I love the idea of rescuing the world from suffering simply by offering compassion.

But here’s the thing.  When I first sat with this image, I didn’t see it.  For a long time, I saw something more like this:

No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough.  If I had 1,000 arms I should have had 1,001.  Either I was saving the world single-handedly or I was failing.  The harder I worked, the more I began to feel like this:

(You don’t see me in the picture; I’m the half dead animal on the side of the road.)

I became exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed.  In my efforts to embody Infinite Compassion, I was pushing it away.

But as I sat with Avalokiteshvara, I noticed that she isn’t running around, frazzled, putting out fires.  She isn’t shape-shifting, trying to be all things to all people.  She is seated, centered, focused and wise.

She is simply, beautifully, herself.

John Daido Loori says,

One of the characteristics of Avalokiteshvara is that she manifests herself in accord with the circumstances. So she always presents herself in a form that’s appropriate to what’s going on. In the bowery, she manifests as a bum. Tonight, in barrooms across the country, she’ll manifest as a drunk. Or as a motorist on the highway, or as a fireman, or a physician. Always responding in accord with the circumstances, in a form appropriate to the circumstances.

In other words, I am just one of Avalokiteshvara’s arms.  I am in a particular place at a particular time, and my job is to realize my Buddha nature within the context of my particular form: Suburban(ish) Middle-Class Mom.  My manifestation is just as valuable as any other.

My work is not to do it all, but simply to do what is in front of me, right here, right now.

Over time, I began to notice something else.  The bodhisattva is not surrounded by tired, poor, tempest-tossed huddled masses.  She is surrounded by Buddhas.  Her work is not only, or not necessarily, about serving the wretched refuse.  Her work is about living from her own Buddha nature and recognizing the Buddha in everyone else.

Despite slight variations, all the Buddhas are basically the same.

There is not one that is more deserving of, or in need of, compassion.  Each person’s needs look different, and they are all equally valid.  I am not failing to manifest compassion because I sit in a warm home with a full stomach while I deal with first-world problems like car repairs and whether Harry should go to preschool or not.

The problems that my peers and I face may be less critical than those of others, but they are no less valid.  Perhaps our disconnection from community and spirituality leaves us more in the need of Infinite Compassion.  Perhaps it is in touching the Buddha nature in each other that we will begin to responsibly use the power we have to affect the lives of others and the health of our entire planet.  Perhaps I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count

My mindfulness journey: The Relative and the Absolute

morningmeditationAs I delve more deeply into my spiritual practice, I struggle more with the idea of “either/or”.  How can we sit in non-judgement when we are taking vows to refrain from behaviors we judge to be wrong such as killing and stealing?  How do we advocate for peace while respecting that other people have their own truths?

My confusion, according to my Sensei, stems from the fact that I am stuck in dualistic thought, and I must strive to overcome the human tendency to organize the world into categories.  It can be uncomfortable to see things as “both/and”.  If something is bad, we fight against it; if it is good we support it.

If it is both…what do we do?  It requires a certain degree of sophistication, maturity, and creativity to hold this tension.

While intellectually I am comfortable with this, on a deeper level I am still clinging to my habitual way of seeing the world.  As it turns out, it is quite scary to let go of my rational mind.  I accept that there is good in the bad and bad in the good, but I want to find, study and understand it and these things are beyond that kind of understanding.

When you follow your breath during meditation, Sensei asked me, what is between the breaths?  Nothing, I answered.  Theoretically, my true nature is between the breaths.

Not theoretically, he answered.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days at my in-laws’ house at the beach where I was able to sit by the ocean each morning.  I watched the ocean, constant flux within permanence, and I wondered: what is between the waves?  Nothing.  Or everything.

The whole ocean is between the waves.

The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute calls to transcend our dualistic understanding of the world.

Within light there is darkness,

but do not try to understand that darkness.

Within darkness there is light,

but do not look for that light.

Light and darkness are a pair,

like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

It’s all there, all the time.  Light in the darkness, darkness in the light; good in the bad, bad in the good.  One does not make sense without the other, but don’t bother looking for it because it is outside the purview of the analytical mind.  This is not the fatalism with which many approach the world, comforting themselves with the idea that everything happens for a reason and one day they may be able to understand their misfortunes.  This is about recognizing the divine spark in all of creation.  We are all, good and bad, sacred manifestations of life.

Each thing has its own intrinsic value

and is related to everything else in function and position…

Do not judge by any standards.

I am nothing and all things; I am a temporary expression of the eternal, a particular accumulation of molecules and energies.  So are we all.  Some of the molecules in my body, maybe, once belonged to the body of Jesus or Thoreau or Rachel Carson; others, maybe, once belonged to the body of Hitler or Pol Pot or Caligula or even a dinosaur or saber-toothed tiger.  We are all waves in the ocean, momentarily surging forward to embody the infinite mystery.

My mindfulness journey – Frustration and Beauty

Since I believe that mindfulness is such an important part of nonviolence in general and as a parent in particular, I am going to occasionally share stories about my own mindfulness journey and I hope that you will share yours. By seeing how others undertake this process, I am hoping that we will all feel less alone along the way. I wrote this piece in January.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

Photo courtesy of flickr user Luigi Torreggiani

After a month of regular meditation practice I still can barely keep my body still, much less my mind. I do not feel calm or centered; I feel frustrated. I keep trying different positions, different cushions, but my knees and back ache. I set the timer and give myself a pep talk. “You are resisting. Give it time. If it was easy, everyone would achieve supreme enlightenment.” So far, my time on the cushion has not been spent in deep contemplation, and certainly not in a state of alert relaxation. It has been spent persuading myself to stay there.

Stillness is not comfortable for me. Neither is patience. This is why I’m on this cushion in this cold room in the predawn darkness while my family and my left foot sleep. My need to control, to painstakingly, meticulously craft every moment for myself and the people around me through a flurry of nonstop action, is no longer working for me if it ever did. I know it is time to abdicate authority over my life to something greater than myself, I know it in my bones, yet my zone of comfort is well-fortified by ego and maintained by inertia.

I think about my first car, affectionately called The Tank. It wasn’t in great shape when I bought it, and after seven years of faithful service to me it was clear that it was time for The Tank to retire, but I had worked hard to buy it and I wasn’t ready to give it up. It had given me many miles, many fun road trips. It was ugly, embarrassing even, and increasingly unreliable, but it hadn’t always been that way. Against all reason, I held out hope that one more trip to the mechanic would bring it back to life.

I return to my breath, wiggle my toes and check the clock. Ten minutes have passed. It feels like it’s been ten hours. Armed with a list of things I’d rather do with these rare moments of quiet, I decide to bail.

I am about to rise from the cushion when I’m stopped by a breathtaking scene emerging beyond the window. The sun peeks over the horizon, illuminating the fog while bold calligrapher’s strokes are etched across the stark white canvas of mist. I watch the sun inch higher, the moisture burn away, and the black lines become the limbs of familiar trees before my eyes. I am surprised when the timer rings and my thirty minutes are over.

I want to capture what just unfolded. I try to photograph the scene through the window, I sit on the wet pavement of my driveway, but it is gone. That particular instant of fleeting beauty is unique to the particular vantage point of the zafu on my office floor and a particular moment when the weather and the sun’s position in its ascent are just so.

I think maybe I’ll sit again tomorrow.

I sent this to my Sensei, and his response was, “Keep sitting. Expect nothing.”

2013 – Bring It! and, Word of the Year

Image courtesy of Flickr user kaseycole

Image courtesy of Flickr user kaseycole

So, 12/21/12 has come and gone, and here we still are!  Phew!

These past few months have been tiring, complicated, sad, and full of opportunities for growth.  My energies have been focused on healing and introspection as we try as a family to find the new normal, over and over again.  We are still scrambling a bit to find our footing, but I think we are well on our way.

I am grateful for the arrival of 2013, and the new beginnings it represents.  I have never been one for resolutions, but this year I do feel that we are in the perfect place to push the reset button and make a fresh start.  The chaos of Hurricane Sandy and the holidays and the flu has passed, and we are finally settling back into a routine.

Last year, in lieu of a resolution I decided to pick a word of the year.  My inner geek loves the challenge of picking one word to embody my aspirations for the coming months.  Merriam-Webster picked two words for 2012 – “capitalism” and “socialism”; Oxford American Dictionary chose “gif” (pronounced “jif”, FYI); Dictionary.com chose “bluster”; and the American Dialect Society gave the honors to “hashtag”.  Personally, I don’t find any of these words particularly compelling, but whatever.

As for my personal Word of the Year for 2013:  NOW.  My challenge to myself is to cultivate mindfulness and presence – to be here now, to attend to what is true now.  Now.  And….now.

I am reading Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, and in it he describes the nature of life as a Buddhist monastic: we sit, we walk, we eat.  But doesn’t everyone do those things?  Yes, says the Zen master, but when we sit we know we are sitting, when we walk we know we are walking, and when we eat we know we are eating.

How often do we perform a task while our minds are in another place altogether?  I know I’m not the only one who gets in the car and starts driving only to arrive at my destination with no recollection whatsoever of how I got there.  Instead of attending to what is in front of me, I’m worrying about the past (which I cannot change) or the future (which I cannot control).  And I miss a lot along the way, not to mention the fact that this is not the surest road to mood stability.

I’ve started meditating regularly, and while it is often a struggle to just keep my body on the cushion – never mind cultivating a still mind full of concentration and focus – I have definitely noticed that I am much calmer and more able to meet difficult people and situations with compassion, patience, and attention.  I am a better parent, a better friend, and an all-around better person when I can stop the monkey mind for a moment and just do what I need to be doing NOW, whether that be listening to a story my kids want to tell, having a productive conversation with someone at work, understanding what a friend needs from me, or even paying attention to what I’m putting into my body instead of just shoveling in whatever food is convenient at the time.

So there you have it.  What about you?  What is your resolution or word for the coming year?

Phew! It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

Our focus this summer is on FAMILY FUN TIME!

My goodness!  It’s been so long….(I know you’re not supposed to call attention to the fact when you’ve been neglecting your blog, but I can’t help it!)

Things have been rough here.  This is one of those situations where I have to consider my daughter’s right to privacy, and so I can’t share too many details, but suffice to say she has struggled with the school year in general, and the ending of the school year in particular, and it has taken all my time and energy to keep the family afloat these past few months.  Now that school has ended, my attention and intention has shifted to creating a relaxing, fun, family-centric summer for us all.

I feel like I’ve not only been neglecting my blog, but also my efforts to record the goings-on in our family and in our lives.  So much has gone on, so much time has passed….and I won’t remember any of it, because I’m so focused on simply getting through the days!!!

I don’t know that much is going to change by way of my ability to take some concentrated time to myself to post here in the foreseeable future, but I do want to make an effort to document our summer.  I’ve decided that I am going to try to build a Summer Fun! plog, or Pinterest log – I don’t know if I’m coining the term, though I’d like to take credit for it.  I will make every effort to check in here, but in case I don’t, please follow me over at Pinterest and see what we are up to!

Scary moments in parenting

anaphylaxis in young children

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rolf Larsen

Hello all!  It’s been awhile…life has gotten crazy busy these last few weeks, but I’m looking forward to things slowing down a bit in the next week or so.

In the meantime, please check out my essay that was posted over at The Momoir Project:

[Bess] was playing with blocks on the living room floor while I loaded the dishwasher in the next room. Her piercing shriek brought me running. I found my daughter lying on the ground, face swollen beyond recognition, desperately clawing at her sausage tongue. With that inner calm that people find in moments like this, I picked up the phone. I dialed 911.

“What is your emergency?” I was the picture of composure.

“My daughter appears to be having an allergic reaction and is not breathing.”

Read the whole thing here.

Kids say the funniest things

kids say the funniest things

At a birthday party recently, Harry took a moment out of the action to pose for a photo op. He thinks he's awfully cute.

So busy!  We were in Washington, D.C. for almost a week, and work has been crazy, and Bess has been sick…and I’ve had no time to write!

And there’s so much I want to write about, too.  Our trip to D.C. provided much food for non-violent parenting thought, I’ve finished two books I want to review (both novels, unusual for me), there have been some interesting articles and blog posts that beg commentary, and I also read Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams (it’s free, you can download it in every format imaginable here).  Alas, all those things will have to wait for another day when I have some free moments to put together a coherent thought.

In the meantime…more funny things my kids have said recently:

  • John: “Harry, have you brushed your teeth yet?”  Harry: “I brush my teeth on Thursday, Tuesday and Sunday.  Is it one of those days?”
  • Harry has had a cold, and whenever he sneezes he runs around the house saying “Snot alert!” which sounds like “Snot aloit!”  And then, usually, he wipes his snot on my shirt.
  • The other day, my mom put Harry in the bath and then went home.  When I started taking the toys out of the bath so I could wash him and get him out of the tub, he reprimanded me: “No, Mommy!  Oma (pronounced Oooh-ma) put those in here for FUN!”
  • Bess wanted Harry to get out of her bed, so she said: “Here’s the rule, no boys allowed in my bed!”  I thought this to be a most excellent rule.  But then she amended it to “No boys allowed in my bed except Daddy and Evan”.  Evan is her friend across the street.  This is a significantly less excellent version of the rule.  I suspect that we will have to revisit that rule in approximately ten years, specifically as it relates to Evan.
  • Harry asked me the other day: “Remember when the police came and Bessie was a little bit arrested?”  I still have no idea what he was talking about; I do not recall Bess ever having been arrested, a little bit or otherwise.
  • Over the weekend, Harry was supremely uncooperative and I may have become uncharacteristically impatient at a few points in time.  After he lay in bed for an hour chatting me up and I was desperate to go to sleep, I may have asked him in a less-than-pleasant tone to stop talking and go to sleep; the next morning, when I needed to go to work and he refused to put his shoes on after approximately seven hundred billion requests, I may have made my request a bit louder.  So Sunday night he had one of his epic meltdowns, spearing me with a hockey stick and throwing toys at my head.  When I finally got him to calm down, he said: “Mommy, remember when you yelled at me last night?  I didn’t like that.  And remember when you yelled at me this morning?  I didn’t like that either.  Now that we’ve had this little talk, I feel much better and now I am sleepy.”  And he rolled over.  And he went to sleep.

Adopt a senior, you won’t be sorry

Touch of Grey

This week marks the second anniversary of the day Touch of Grey (Grey for short) came home.  We had lost our dog Sarah in December 2009, and we were still mourning and weren’t ready for a new dog.  But Chryssi, who came from an abusive home and can be anxious and – ahem – confused under ideal circumstances was not adapting to her life as an only dog.  She was depressed and lonely without her fearless leader.

So, when John showed me Grey’s picture in the paper… naturally I immediately jumped in the car drove through a snowstorm to see him.  He had been in a shelter for five months and had pneumonia, so we met in the warmth of the lobby.  When a chihuahua came through the door, got all up in his face, and started pitching a Napoleon Complex barking fit, you could just about hear Grey (tipping the scales at 100 pounds) laugh.  ”Seriously?”

I’ll take him!

The shelter manager said he was five years old.  John said eight, at least.  My vet thinks maybe ten.  When people learn his story, they invariably respond with something along the lines of, “What a charitable and kind of stupid thing you have done for this old, decrepit dog who is going to get cancer and die, probably next week!”  (Maybe that’s not exactly what they say, but it’s what they mean.)  But I think I’m a lifer with this senior dog thing.

Shelters are not comfortable for any animal.  But they are especially uncomfortable and even dangerous for senior animals, with their aching joints and aging immune systems.  Many people think that if an animal is in a shelter then something must be wrong with him, but that is simply not true.  Companion animals often end up homeless after a death or divorce.  Sometimes an animal simply becomes an inconvenience to her person and gets dumped.  Animals who get lost and are not wearing identification cannot be reunited with their families.

That’s what happened to Grey.  He was wandering around wearing an electric fence collar but his microchip was outdated and his first family never came for him.  He had obviously been well-loved; he has had knee replacement surgery, and he knows tricks including speak, sit up, and roll over (not easy to teach a dog of his size!).  He came to us a ready-made family member, house-trained, well past the chewing/nipping/scratching stage, a mellow yin to Chryssi’s neurotic yang, and a perfect family dog.

His flaw?  Cats.  You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it isn’t easy.  A younger dog would have eventually learned to peacefully co-exist with the cats (particularly considering that every feline encounter has left him bloody).  But Grey has not adjusted and we have had to take steps to keep everyone safe and happy.  In my opinion, managing his cat chasing has been much easier than dealing with puppy nonsense, though I’m quite certain the cats would strenuously disagree.

Of course, there’s the obvious drawback: We will have to care for another dying dog within a few years.  Old dogs tend to have more problems, and it tends to cost more to keep them healthy.  But there are no guarantees with young animals either, and if you are lucky old age will still come.  Yes, Grey is stiff in the winter, and yes he gets ear infections easily and gets rid of them only with great effort.  But when you compare a few courses of antibiotics with the cost of obedience school, chewed furniture, ruined carpet, lost sleep, and all the rest…I would (and most likely will) do it again in a heartbeat.