The Invasion of Terrible Thoughts

November 18, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m going to deviate a bit from my plans to write about one part of the Eightfold Path a week, although what I do want to talk about today is in fact a part of it. I will, though, return to that plan in the next couple of days or so.

What I do want to write about here is something that happened to me while I meditated a couple of days ago. What I TRY to do here and there is to grab anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes every other day or so during the week, right before bed, to meditate.

I don’t do anything fancy really, I just set my Zen Timer iPhone app, let it gong, and try to focus on my breathing. Once the ending bell rings, I’ll use the journaling function on the app to vent out my frustrations with wandering thoughts, nodding off (yikes, I just fessed up to that!), or rave about how well it went.

I’ve been out of practice lately. I’ve been finding it really difficult to find the time to sit lately — there was the passing of hubby’s grandmother, then last week was just … well … last week. I was exhausted through most of it (it’s just that time of year for us teachers — burnout time approaches) and I knew that if I tried to sit at the end of the day, that I’d just nod off and get mad at myself for it.

So, for the first time in almost a week, I sat. My mind was oddly well … not sure what it was or how to describe it. Not still, but not really racing either, just … busy. I could focus on my breathing, but there was definitely something in the background, and I felt like I was unconciously fighting it off. Eventually, I realized that my mind was filling with horrible, violent images and thoughts. I really don’t feel the need to describe them, but needless to say, I was very disturbed by them.

I kept trying to push them away, but it seemed the more I tried to, the more they’d come back, and be worse for it. Like it was trying to get me to notice — a child that wants attention, when pushed away, screams louder. That’s what this was doing. I was convinced for a bit that my job was to push these thoughts away — then, I seemed to remember in one of the podcasts I listened to a couple of weeks ago (I think it was an interview on Buddhist Geeks, or maybe Secular Buddhists? If anyone recognizes this, I’d love to be reminded of the podcast and episode so I can correctly refer to it here). The gist of what the interviewee said was that there are some forms of meditation in which we are not encouraged to push thoughts aside, but to “sit with them, as with a friend.” He also talked about examining the persistent thought, and try to find its source so that we may understand why it keeps coming up.

So, well, I thought, I’ll try. I’d never done anything like that before, all I’d ever done was concentrate on my breath. But, this darned though, DID NOT WANT TO GO! So, I let it win, and it sat with me.

Once I stopped fighting it, I realized what it was — remnants of news I’d heard that morning, about the doctor in Connecticut who lost his family after two men broke into his home, assaulted him and his family (and this is putting it mildly, they did some disgusting, horrible things), and burned the house. Unfortunately, I’d listened to every detail that CNN had to give. Frankly, mothers shouldn’t be subjected to listening to these things — because the irrational fear and paranoia that news had instilled in me that morning, had gone unexamined by myself, simply pushed aside as I went about my morning routine to get us all out of the house and to school. And it sat there. And festered.

When I finally sat, it popped up. It didn’t go away because I pushed it aside and busied myself with my routine. Without my realizing it, it had simply slunk off to a corner of my brain, and waited for that quiet moment to manifest itself.

So what did I do with it as I sat with it, as with a friend? There were a few things that came to my mind as I realized all of this had happened — I remembered a talk we’d had, where we discussed the futility of worrying over the unkown, the need to let go of ‘anticipation’ of things — whether good or terrible. We can drive ourselves completely mad worrying about all the things that could go wrong, and we do! We need to — I needed to — let go of that expectation, that fear, because it was and is, irrational. There is no way to know whether terrible things will or will not happen to my kids. I can only know that right now, they are tucked in bed, that they feel safe, and that I love them. I need to be present in that knowledge, and thankfully, I was able to get myself there.

Now that I’ve written this, I seem to remember Dana Nourie putting up in the Secular Community radio in Second Life, a talk on Distracting Talks, that did address the issue of the intrusion of thoughts … Dang. Now I have to go and find all that info! LOL.

Eightfold Path: Take One — Right view or understanding

November 14, 2010 § 6 Comments

OK, so I’m several days late and a dollar short on this one but, well, that’s the way I roll. The Skeptical Readers of SL reading group just wrapped up a few weeks’ worth of discussion on the Eightfold Path, which was really great!

I think I’m pretty good on, at this point, basically understanding the premise of what the Path is for (I’m lazy, I’ll just call it “the Path” from now on), and what each part basically is for or asks us to do. My big problem always is remembering ALL THE PARTS OF THE PATH! Ugh.

My nightmare in school has always been anything that requires rote memorization, while really, for some things in life, it’s really the only way. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is what is required for me here, ultimately. Much to my dismay.

To help myself along though, I’m going to try to get myself to write a few thoughts per week on one part of the Path. So, the first part of the Path is Right View or Understanding.

So, in a simple world, this would just mean “seeing things as they are,” which on the surface would be a “duh” moment, right? Basically, instead of telling yourself that the chocolate chip cookie you just scarfed down on the sly ‘didn’t count’ because nobody saw you eat it, you have to own up to the fact that it DOES count, and that you’ve added 360 more calories to your intake for the day (or however many calories a cookie is, who keeps track?) It could also be that really “simple” idea of seeing others for what they are, who they are, accepting them as they are, etc. So, removing labels from them, taking away the stories WE ourselves invent around them (the lady dragging her kids behind her grumpily and yelling at them may NOT be a bad mom, just someone having a bad day, or something else).

Simple right? Sure, if we’re going to be simplistic about it. Realistically though, Right View is really difficult. Here’s a snippet from the Path from

Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truth. As such, right view is the cognitive aspect of wisdom. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Right view is not necessarily an intellectual capacity, just as wisdom is not just a matter of intelligence. Instead, right view is attained, sustained, and enhanced through all capacities of mind. It begins with the intuitive insight that all beings are subject to suffering and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.

This is not simply a question of what we tell ourselves, how we label others, or events. Right view is about “understanding things as they really are.” Not just people, THINGS, as in all of them. Death, birth, life, rocks, mountain, trees, people, politics, religion, dolphins, the ocean, countries, nationalities, languages, all of it.

“It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas …” So letting go of expectations — expecting events to turn out a certain way, building up anticipation for plans — whether it be for our plans for the day, or those darned “10-year plans” some of our professions ask us to have. Part of the Four Noble Truths referenced in the quote deals with the idea of suffering, and that suffering has a cause. Part of that cause is — especially as Westerners — having such a difficult time with the idea of not being in full control of our own destiny.

We grow up with this sense that if we work hard enough, long enough, if we do things ‘just so,’ that our lives will turn out the way we want it to. We have 100% responsibility over the OUTCOME, the MATERIAL outcome of our lives. Here’s the big question: Do we really?

No. I think we can all think of several occasions when our best laid plans were dashed thanks to unforseen events. How did we react to that? Be honest. I often pitch a complete, total, tantrum. Cursing may be involved. As well as stomping. Pouting. Definitely pouting, too.

Why? Why all this anguish? Because instead of seeing, or having understanding that in the end, this turnaround is NOT the end of the world (most of the time), we grow frustrated because our house of cards got knocked over by a breeze we weren’t expecting to pass by. What if we had no real expectations for this stack of cards? What if, WHAT IF, you just started stacking those cards up. Didn’t have a plan. Didn’t get all excited about building it up 6 feet high with some fancy geometric configuration in mind. What if, you just built it. And that’s it. Would you mind then, if it got knocked down? What would your VIEW be, of that event? Of the knocking down of the cards? Of the breeze that passed by?

Then, it would just be a breeze (rather than that $%#(* breeze that messed up my )#$%@! cards), and because you hadn’t formed any attachment, any idea or expectation for those cards, you’d walk away from them with less frustration, or, simply, just start again, curious to see what kind of house of cards you’ll build next.

There’s more to this idea than just what I’ve written here, but my point simply is — there’s more to the Path that one might initially see upon reading about it. Nothing is as simple as it seems — if you think it’s simple, you’re probably looking at it from the wrong angle, so change your perspective!

And that, is MY interpretation of Right View.

Wonder if it’s all wrong? LOL!

On passing …

November 5, 2010 § 6 Comments

I’ve been mulling over this topic for the last few days, since my husband’s grandmother passed away earlier this week. Before journaling any of my thoughts here in a public way, I wanted to be really very careful about what I write and how I write it, so I’ve been writing and editing heavily for the past few days now.

There are so many questions and issues that arise when one experiences a loss that hits close to home. I have to say up front that, growing up in what amounts to a family with secular beliefs, the ideas of church, religious weddings and funerals have always been a very foreign concept to me … let me clarify, not the idea of getting married or dying and honoring the dead itself, more the rituals which surround these events. I suppose that unless you’ve grown up with an understanding of the symbolism behind the rituals and words, wedding ceremonies and funeral rites from any faith is alien — which is basically where I am coming from.

Before I go on much more, I do feel the need to acknowledge the individual who has left our circle this week — known to many of us as in my family as Gramma B, and to many others as Aunt Mary, or simply, Mary. To one important person still with us today, as Mom.

She was indeed a very special person who cherished family and friends, and was very interested in daily happenings, both locally and around the world. She kept track of the news in the neighborhood (not necessarily in a nosy way, either), and around the world. On the day of her passing, I visited my mother in law to find many members of our huge family gathered in her kitchen, going through Gramma B’s stacks of notebooks in which she recorded anything that happened that she found of local importance. She was our historian. Thanks to her, we are reminded of the one-room school house that was moved by being drawn by horses, the ‘highway’ made of planks of wood that used to run by our town, and that my mother in law (her daughter) accidentally washed her hair with dog shampoo *snicker*.

Gramma was very spiritual, and valued a great deal what she saw as moral behavior, honesty, and hard work. She loved her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and made sure she gave what she could to anyone who would ask — or didn’t ask. There wasn’t much that would escape her notice. One of my favorite memories of her is of when I first realized that I was pregnant with my son, before we were ready to tell anyone our happy news, Gramma B came right out and asked me if I was expecting (she was also brutally honest!). I lied and said no, but I could tell she didn’t believe me for one second. To her credit, I believe she kept her suspicion to herself. I still have no idea how she knew, but she did. Hawk’s eye, she had.

The outpouring of care shown by neighbors, friends and families since Gramma B’s passing has been impressive. I suppose that is one of the purposes of some of these rituals — the viewing and the funeral — to show those who are feeling the loss that they are not going it alone, that they have emotional and material support to get through this period of grieving. It’s an instrument of survival.

That being said, there are parts of it that remain a mystery to me, but that isn’t really my purpose in writing right now.

Since Gramma’s passing, the question of my own Skeptical Buddhist perspective on death and what happens afterward has very much come to the forefront for me — as the questions of death and the hereafter do for anyone else at a time such as this. I’ve heard some individuals make interesting comments about Gramma’s passing — that it was tragic, terrible, that it’s unfortunate that we should have to suffer a loss like this. I certainly do understand these sentiments — losing someone is difficult. Gramma B had a very special place in all of our lives. Losing her is no small matter.

That being said, in all honesty, at the risk of sounding cruel — I was happy for her. I miss her, and I cried at her funeral today, but that was for me. I don’t find it particularly cruel that death should be a part of our lives, or a part of hers. It’s inevitable. As Stephen Bachelor wrote, when talking about Buddha’s teachings and on meditating on death

Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?

The only uncertain part of death is the when of it, not that it will happen. Why should we resist the idea that this will happen?

No conditions are permanent;
No conditions are reliable

That’s the Buddha. The idea that anything in life should be permanent — including the state of being alive — that is what causes us the most grief, is it not? The loss of what we hope and dream would last for ever. The fear of death coming to take us away from our status as ‘living.’ These are the things that cause us fear, anguish and stress. The avoidance of this inevitable fact leads us to pursue so many strange things — Botox injections, herbal remedies against signs of aging, plastic surgery, and more. When these things fail us, and we appear to be making that inevitable progress toward the inevitable end, we grow unhappy. Simply because we resist what is patently inevitable!

I say that I am happy for Gramma B, because all of us who knew her, know that she was not happy in the nursing home. She had hoped for the moment of meeting her Maker for a long time, and was very well prepared for it. She lived her life in such a way so as to make sure she would be ready for this day whenever it were to come. She had many, many years to prepare, and she did. Her memory had been failing her these last few years, and in the months preceding her moving in to the nursing home, she was clearly frustrated and sometimes embarrassed by some of the ways in which her memory was failing her.

I am sad for us, the living, but I am happy for Mary Barnes, the woman I met 13 years ago. Her death is not terrible or tragic, but a beautiful, inevitable, part of our lives — at least, from my point of view. Not one to put much stock into the idea of after life, I do still have a sense that she has been released from the restrictions of the vessel in which she was housed, which had been failing her for many years now. Part of me has to believe that she has found some relief in this. How could I see that as tragic? Or terrible?

I don’t believe she’s and angel or a ghost out there, but I do believe that I see her in the smile of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In that way, she lives on, and will continue to as the generations continue to move on along their course.


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