Mind Over Clutter

June 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Buddhist Monk Sweeping

Buddhist principles have their place in everyday household routines -- and even help alleviate some of the stress associated with doing them!

Housework — it’s that thing in our lives most of us dread doing. I used to get very frustrated that my house didn’t look like it belonged in a magazine even after hours of cleaning. That frustration would grow when, just moments after I polished off a surface, food would get eaten, crumbs would fall onto the counter, dishes would begin to make their grubby presence known in a once sparkling, pristine sink, and a bread bag would get left open on the kitchen table, hanging open and growing more stale — and ugly — by the passing moment.

Feelings of resentment toward those with whom I co-habitate would grow: Why can’t they just pick up after themselves? Why am I the only one who seems to know how to replace the roll of toilet paper in this house??? Does no one else know how to wash a dish? Turn on the washing machine? Make the bed? Put dishes away???? Good lord!

I’d love to be able to say that Buddhism helped me see through the fog of all this resentment which, by the way, usually results in complete avoidance of the tasks that need to be done to remedy the situation (“Why should I do the dishes again, I just did them! It’s ‘someone else’s turn now.”) To be honest, there is another source that helped me work through all of this. This other source, though, I’ve grown to find shares common threads with Buddhism. That’s my topic for today — That, and how the Other Source AND the Buddhist point of view have helped me with the issue of resenting housework.

Perhaps some of you already know about FlyLady .  Despite this strange name (which she explains on her web site, along with what FLYing is), she offers words of wisdom that really snapped me into reality when it comes to everyday living. Her mantra, “Jump in where you are,” urges those who feel that they are drowning in the “should do’s” around their house to just start — anywhere. Because if we wait for that perfect moment before we start cleaning, we’ll never get started. Nothing will change unless we just start SOMEWHERE.

Through a routine which she helps individuals establish through her Baby Steps, she instills in those who subscribe to her e-mail service (and Web site) this idea of cleaning, and shedding what we in Buddhism would call dukka. She refers to what we would consider ‘labeling’ and ‘judging’ as ‘negative talk’ and gives examples through testimonials sent in by subscribers of how these things causes our own suffering. After a while, we see her message is one of letting go of expectations and accepting impermanence.

Another common theme in her daily messages is the letting go of the idea of ‘Perfect’ (a big part of expectations). She tells us to clean, dust, put things away, and “put out hotspots” (clear surface area clutter) for anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes, whatever fits into our schedules. The important thing being, to just do it. Whatever it is, just do it for a few minutes, and STOP. Look. Admire what you’ve done. Slow down. Appreciate … starting to sound familiar? Yeah, once I started looking at Buddhism, it did to me too.

Mindfulness 101, here you go. Another good one in the mindfulness category is “Do one job, and finish it. Don’t start another one until you’re done.” It’s the anti-multitasking message which is also part of what being mindful has taught me to do. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Give it your full attention — doing that will allow you to be mindful of your actions, ‘being in the present’ helps us approach aspects of our lives with less anxiety, stress (aka “suffering), and from the FlyLady’s perspective, it allows us to get things out, sort, purge, put away, and actually see the job through to the end.

My absolute favorite message of all that belongs to not just Buddhism, but also to the FlyLady, is the Anti-Perfectionism message. If you wait for perfect, you will never start cleaning. If you wait for perfect, you will never be satisfied with what you have. If you strive for perfect, you will hurt yourself, resent those you live with. If you strive for perfect, you will start to perceive your co-habitants as keeping you away from achieving perfect. “Perfect” is an illusion, it’s expectation, it’s dukka! FlyLady nails that idea right on the head, and it’s central to her message of Finally Loving Yourself.

My favorite chore of hers she gives us to do once a week? “Vacuum each room, JUST THE MIDDLES (no going along the corners or edges, and NO moving furniture allowed). Set your timer for 10 minutes and STOP!” No matter what. If we think it’s not perfect, she urges us to put the vacuum cleaner down, and take a REAL look at what we’ve done. Notice everything, including the fact that post-“imperfect” vacuuming, the room is already much better than it was. Be happy in that.

LOVE that message.

So, here’s a side-by-side of what Buddhism teaches, and the messages I’ve received from the FlyLady over the last few months. What I’ve learned from FlyLady is in parentheses, what I’ve learned from Buddhism are not … if this isn’t practice applied to every day life, I’m not sure what is:

Impermanence (accept the breadcrumbs on the kitchen table, it wasn’t going to stay clean for long anyway)

Letting go of expectations (accepting the fact that after 10 minutes of dusting, my house was still going to be a 150-year-old farm house in serious need of updating — it was NOT going to turn into a quaint New England farm house ready for one of those magazines)

Mindfulness (the ‘stop and look,’ ‘pay attention to one job at a time’)

Right Intention (am I cleaning the house to make a point to those who co-habitate, or am I cleaning it so I can feel good about where I live? Am I cleaning with the intent to be perfect, or am I cleaning with the intent to provide comfortable living space?)

It’s been about a year now, since my more serious study of Buddhism, FlyLady and I have crossed paths. It’s taken a lot of practice and training of both Buddhism AND FLYing to get myself there, but I can now happily say that I hang the laundry on the line and feel thankful for the few minutes to do what I call a “standing meditation” — that is, notice the hanging laundry, the motions, the breath, the thoughts, label my past, future and thoughts of fantasy, set them aside, and bring my mind back onto my task with equanimity — no resentment, no grumbling, no expectations. Dishes get the same treatment, as does any other chore.

The result? Not a perfect house, but people can walk in any time, and we’re not mortified any more (FLY Lady calles that “C.H.A.O.S. [Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome]”), and best of all, I’m not angry any more — no mess to make me stressed, no resentment while cleaning, which means happier me, happier kids, happier everyone all around.

Thanks Sid. Thanks FlyLady 🙂


Dharma in Parenting

March 29, 2011 § 6 Comments

Since beginning my studies of Buddhism and really taking a look at how I view the world we live in, and how I approach the events that arise in it, I’ve been surprised at times at how what I’m learning about will crop up in my daily life.

I do try to meditate here and there, grab snippets of time for study (reading articles and blogs to learn myself up!) and sangha time. Mostly, though, my life is about being a mom, a wife, and a secondary school teacher.

Brushing my hair with a peanut-butter smeared hair brush and rushing in to work with dried up kids’ toothpaste smeared on my work pants is just daily reality for me; more so than thinking about dhamma and mindfulness, the eightfold path or the four noble truths. That’s hardly the image I see in my mind when I think “Buddhist.” You know, serene, calm, golden aura all around this unflappable person. A BUDDHIST. That Buddhist, is not me. It’s not most of us.

That being said, there are moments in this daily life in which the teachings will just scream out to me, and I’ll find something we talked about during sangha, or something that I read about popping into my head and out of my mouth.

My kids are still pretty young — 7 and almost 5 — so very impressionable and still in the shaping phase of their lives. I hope they pick up a couple of things here and there.

A few days ago, I had what in the teaching world we call a “teachable moment.” It’s that moment, completely unexpected, when you have a golden opportunity to impart some knowledge on someone, and THEY are the ones who are asking for it, and are fully ready to receive. I had such a moment when my son’s heart almost audibly broke when he realized he would NOT be getting an iPod touch any time soon. We had to tell him that an iPod costs about $229 for a brand new one, and that most kids his age don’t get their own. He is, currently, exposed to a couple of his friends who DO have their own — and also have their own TV in their room, their own computers, and who knows WHAT else.

We had to explain to him that on the salaries of two public school teachers, there just really wasn’t any way that we’d afford a $229 present for him … and that it would take him the better part of almost two years on his current allowance to save up for his own iPod.

I’m sure this is a familiar speech for most of us — either because we got the same speech from our parents, or because you’ve given the same speech to your own children, or both.

I found myself saying “If you keep looking at what others have that you don’t, you’ll always be unhappy. You’ll always feel like life isn’t fair. Look at where you are now, and what you DO have, and try to be happy in that. Be happy with where you are NOW, because you’ll only be unhappy if you keep your eyes on where you think you WANT TO BE.”

What’s this? Dukkha? Suffering? Coveting? Attachment and ambition causing suffering?

I think I would have used almost those exact words, honestly, regardless of my having studied the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, or anything else about Buddhism. The difference, though, is that I now feel that I have a deeper understanding of the message in those words. Rather than repeating in an empty way, something that my parents told me, there is a more fully developed Intent (yes, with the capital “I” because, I mean the Buddhist Intent) behind the words I am using to communicate with my son. I can also back it up by example in how I lead my own life. It’s not just something I say, it’s also what I do. As a teacher, I call that ‘modeling,’ and it is considered the most effective way of communicating a behavioral concept.

I don’t know that he’ll get it, although not being biased AT ALL (haha) I think he will. I don’t necessarily want he or my daughter to be Buddhist — it may not be ‘for them.’ I do, however, want them both to learn to be TRULY happy.

If I’ve learned anything in my studies, it is that happiness comes from where we are NOW, appreciating our reality the way it IS. That’s not just a Buddhist concept anyway. Take the Latin expression ‘carpe diem’ — ‘seize the day.’ While the origin behind that expression is not necessarily the same as the Buddhist ideal of ‘living in the moment,’ it shows an awareness of the importance of the here and now. You hear that platitude “Yesterday is past, tomorrow is a dream, today is a gift, that’s why they call it ‘the present,'” (which makes me want to gag, as an aside), which also demonstrates that awareness of the need to appreciate the moment, the immediate surroundings and where we are NOW.

I’m going to have to thank my children some day for bringing me daily reminders of what is important in everyday life — and for highlighting the teachings for me, even while I’m rinsing out jam from a dress-up princess costume.

Anywhoo, there’s a sink full of dishes with my name all over it — someone please find me the dharma in THAT, ok?

Finding Yourself (Or Not) In Buddhism

February 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

The concept of "No Self" in Buddhism is central in understanding parts of the Four Noble Truths, but is a difficult concept to grasp.

So, you’ve undertaken this journey. This study, this way of thinking, a philosophy, which finally SPEAKS to you. You find thoughts in it you knew you’ve been thinking all along, and you find they’re not just YOUR thoughts, they were also the thoughts of one important person who lived thousands of years ago — his name was Siddharta Gautama. Happily, you read along and learn about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and slowly but surely, this thing creeps into your consciousness … You realize, there’s no “you” in Buddhism.

You read along and you wonder, WHAT? How could I not be me? How could there be no “me”? “I”‘ve been here all along! Look, “I”‘m still here! See? See that? “Me”! Lookit, there “I” am again! Oops “I” did it again! Here “I” am see? “Me”!

But no, says Buddha, there is no you. The “you” that you think of as “you”, nope. Not there. Not, there, at, all.

And that’s about where I’m finding myself right now in my studies, and BOY is this a tough concept to wrap my head around. It’s an especially tough concept, I think, for most Western-thinkers because of how we structure our idea of ‘self.’Truly, we have a pretty set idea of who ‘we’ are — democrat, republican, Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, Mom, Dad, Wife, Husband, Brother, Sister, and any combination of those things. We’re any of those things, and that’s it. We don’t really change it. Everything we think and do must fit into the parameters of those things that we’ve identified as part of who that “I” or “self” is.

What I see, though, from what we’ve been reading with the Skeptical Readers of SL book club that I run, is that part of letting go — part of the cessation of ‘dukkha’ or suffering, is understanding this very concept of what is often referred to as ‘no-self.’

Part of understanding the idea of the “I” that we refer to is in taking a look at the Five Aggregates, which I’ve got links to articles and explanations for on my Terminology page. Even with these articles, the idea of there not being a ‘self,’ is really tough to grasp. At one moment I feel like I get it, and the next moment, I clearly do not.

Taking into consideration previous discussions with my virtual Sangha-mates and group discussions, my readings, research, and desperate attempts to wrap my head around this, I’ve come up with this analogy (I need to work in analogies because concepts like this? Yeah, I need to put them into terms I can understand. Remember, I’m SO not academic, ugh.)

“No-Self” is like the color white because …

  • just like white is composed of all the colors of light in the spectrum combined, the picture composed of ‘myself’ comes from the Five Aggregates — how “I” react to various stimuli — sensory, mental, etc., makes up the ‘me’ that I know.
  • just like the color white, that ‘me’ is not unchanging. It is reflected differently at different times — just like the color white can be on cloth, stone, a flower or clouds, and it’s still ‘white,’ “I” take different forms as well.

So, it’s not really that there’s ‘no me,’ just like there’s no ‘no color’ in ‘white,’ it’s just that “I” am made up of the Five Aggregates, and how that ‘me’ is reflected out depends on, well, the ‘material’ on which they are being reflected by–just like all the colors of the spectrum that make the color (soon to be known by me as ‘no-color’) white. White doesn’t change, just what the white is on.

Uhhhhmmm, so am I even close? This is how far I’ve developed my understanding of this question. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten it, or am getting close to getting it, because understanding this idea of ‘self’ is central to fully understanding the concepts of ‘suffering’ (second part of the Four Noble Truths) and the ‘cessation of suffering (Third Noble Truth).

Understanding the self, and how it clings, and how the idea of self and how it should actually be formed are important parts of the idea of reaching nirvana, nibanna, or however else you say ‘enlightenment.’

Not that I ever really expect to actually REACH enlightenment, realistically speaking, but I would still like a shot at trying to gain a glimpse of it, anyway 😉

So, yeah, if any of you who do read this have something to add, a point to clarify, or a way of making me (and consequently others) see this more clearly, I very much welcome you to share! Thanks 😀

Eightfold Path: Right Action

January 29, 2011 Comments Off on Eightfold Path: Right Action

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood can help one lead a happier existence.

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood can help one lead a happier existence.

So, on to right action. This, as well as right speech and right livelihood are grouped together into the category of ‘Ethical Conduct.’ They actually all very much go hand in hand, and when you take a look at it (I recommend The Big View), you can easily see how they all tie in to one another.

right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. (From The Big View.com)

When looked at really quickly, my first, gut reaction was “Wow, this sounds like a bunch of rules.” Particularly, on the surface-level, I found a lot of similarities between the above and the Ten Commandments. Being a Skeptical Buddhist — generally we aren’t fans of rules with consequences being spelled out for us — that immediately made me itch. I think most of us are very used to having laws, rules or commandments (i.e. external sources) dictate our actions for us. These same rules, laws and commandments were created as a way for society to provide external pressure for individuals in a society to abide by cultural and societal norms. That sounded really brainy, so let me just say that the way I would normally say it — these laws and commandments were made to make people feel like they HAD to act a certain way in order to fit in and be accepted by others in their community.

The big difference between Right Action (or anything else found in Buddhism that might be interpreted as ‘rules’) and any laws or commandments is that in Buddhism, largely, the consequence of not following parts of the paths and all the little bits that goes with them, are found within yourself. There’s no jail, no hell, no heaven (for rewards), none of that stuff. If you live according to the path, you get to look at yourself in the mirror and feel good about yourself. You get to go about your day weighed down with less stress, angst, or ‘dukkha (suffering)’. Really, the price you pay in deciding to kill, take part in sexual misconduct, or steal,  is in the here and now — not after you die, not in some abstract future, but NOW. Right away. Who’s to blame? YOU. Who’s responsible? YOU. Period. How scary is THAT??? But it’s true, and it sure makes one sit up a little straighter, doesn’t it?

Another important difference is — if you’ll notice — the lack of a list of consequences for not following them. There is also a lack of real detailed breakdown of the ‘whens’ and ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of following Right Action. You can find more detailed explanations of Right Action. If you want or feel that you need it (I did), you can take a look at Access to Insight’s essay on Right Action. At least, what I see is that there’s a lack of this breaking out in detail in early suttas … (my more scholarly friends — please correct me here if I’m wrong!). I bet later monks and followers decided to add to the original teachings with their own two-cents’ worth of details and consequences — as often happens.

My personal preference is to stick to the early stuff — mainly because Siddharta Gautama (Buddha) seemed to feel that we all have within us a moral compass that when listened to, ultimately tells us what is right and what is wrong. It is the decision to follow the right while not having our jugment clouded by the things that cause ‘dukkha (suffering)’ — like ambition, greed, attachment etc. — that allows us to be happy.

I personally don’t think there’s a whole lot I can add about Right Action — it’s pretty straightforward, and the details of this is better explained by the links I provided here.

I’m off to watch Toy Story 3 again … because in all honesty, there’s a lot of Buddhist lessons in that movie. Think I’m kidding? Stay tuned 😉

Eightfold Path: Right Speech

January 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

Soap In Mouth

The practice of Right Speech in the Eightfold Path is a good reminder to all of us of the power of words, spoken or written.

Had to check where I was with this endeavor, and it looks as though I’m only on the third part of the Eightfold Path, which is Right Speech! Bahaha. Too many distractions, ah well.

Here is a tidbit on what Right Speech deals with according to one of my favorite go-tos, The Big View:

“Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct.”

How many times have we opened our mouths one moment too soon, to let escape some words we wished we could snatch back and stuff back into our brains. Possibly beat those words? Then puree them? Then drink them as a smoothie? Yeah, I’ve been there too.

To me, there’s no bigger reminder of the power of words than those moments when one of my students say “Madame (“Mrs.,” in French, which is what I teach), remember that time you said …?” and they’ll rattle off some horrible-sounding thing I said. Then, when I do recall the moment, I’ll remember that I never intended those words to sear themselves into anyone’s mind, nor did I think that the words sounded as horrible as they did when the student repeated them back to me. In fact, I may have assumed that what I was saying would be brushed off … but clearly, it wasn’t. Unintentionally, those words will have settled into the mind of that student, possibly to shape their thinking of themselves, how they do in my class — or worse — how they perceive themselves as students in general. Hopefully, some of what I say moves them in a positive direction — but I suspect there are more of those off-hand comments I make that get taken much more seriously — and negatively — than I expect. Same with my own biological children — it’s those words you don’t think they pay attention to that seem to stick the most. How many of those comments do we all make in a day? Who knows? Who’s paying attention? If I’m not, I’ve got a room full of students who pay more attention than I suspect. That’s the way it is for all of us.

Thinking of this in the context of work, here’s one to chew on: Does your job allow you to practice right speech? Do you have a profession that challenges this part of the path? Specifically, I’m thinking of a profession like, say, journalism, copy writing, advertising, promotion, writing in general. What about a profession like mine, where you have to use words in order to impart knowledge, shape the minds of future and barely-of-age adults? Does what you write or say impact the world positively? Do you perpetuate lies, half-truths, rumors — whether directly or indirectly? Anyone in professions like journalism and advertising have a particular challenge on hand — how to walk that path of practicing right speech, but still do your job. Be able to write copy, but still be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say “I done good today.” How do you correct a student’s misbehavior without making said student feel bad, but still learn how to act appropriately?

I don’t pretend to have the answers here, but I think the fact that one pauses to think about these questions seriously is a step in the right direction. I re-listened to a podcast from The Secular Buddhist, in which the host — Ted Meissner — interviewed journalist Doug McGill on the very issue of Right Speech in the context of his profession and in the context of life in general. Do click on the link below to the episode page, and have a listen. Click on the link called “Listen To This Episode” and come right back 😛 Listen while you read, okay????

It’s a great interview with some really great bits of information and insight:

The Secular Buddhist Podcast :: Episode 34:: Doug McGill :: Right Speech

I really loved that Doug questioned the intent behind the words he used as a journalist. Having worked in a newsroom myself for a few years, I’m familiar with the challenges. It’s not an easy task for someone who makes a living in a cut-throat, deadline-oriented environment like a newsroom to always be mindful of how their story affects all the players — the ones they see, and the ones they don’t see. One of my favorite lines in this interview occurs around 11 minutes into it:

… I started to wonder if wasn’t kind of unconciously serving masters that I didn’t want to be serving.

This was in the context of the part of the interview in which Doug talks about writing for Bloomberg News, the financial news information machine. From here, Doug talks about some of the changes in his approaches and thinking in the context of his writing. Whether you’re talking about journalism, teaching, or otherwise, it’s a good thing to ask yourself: What master am I serving with these words? Greed? Ambition? Anger? Or am I aiming for nurturing? Learning? Growth? Will I be making myself feel (temporarily) better? Will I be injuring someone?

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” — SN 45.8

Sounds simple, right? There is so much to it, though, when we start to look at it in the context of our every day lives, and we examine all the LITTLE things we say that we give no thought to — or the messages we send out (think e-mail, text messages etc.) in annoyance. How much of our day would be spent in silence — and perhaps better served for it — if we were to abstain from those?

My particular favorite is the idea of abstaining from “idle chatter.” Just saying something to have something to say. Gossiping about someone. “Going off” on something that you’re not sure is right, yet still triggers an emotional response from us. Think about the “water cooler chats.” How much of that is truly constructive talk? Almost none of it, in my own personal experience.

The challenge with cutting out idle chatter, in my opinion, is the level of discomfort people in North American culture (I can’t speak for other cultures, really) feel when met with silence between people. I happen to come from a ‘quiet family.’ Growing up, we were taught not to just natter on about nothing, just to fill dead air. I’m not sure if that’s a function of the influence of my mother’s Japanese upbringing, but either way, I know my friends sometimes would feel uncomfortable because we didn’t chatter on all the time.

I carried that with me outside, and it always interested me how uncomfortable people would feel around me because I simply wouldn’t have a lot to say. Add to that the fact that I was painfully shy, and well, it didn’t make for a pleasant mix in middle an high school. In our culture, talking to one another is a form of acceptance. We talk to people we like. We show we want them to be around us, and vice versa, by talking to them. So, we fill the air with chatter — gossip, idle talk about the weather, perhaps false compliments, what Mary had for lunch today and why would you eat that when you’re saying you want to lose weight, seriously? Admit it, you’ve talked that way. If we’re not talking to them, it’s a social cue to tell them “I have nothing to say to you. Please go away,” even if that’s not what we really mean at all.

We have a lot of challenges when it comes to this part of the Eightfold Path. We’re met with cultural issues, workplace/professional issues, and issues of human nature (snapping back a remark when someone says something to irritate us, pressing that “send” button after firing off some angry retort to an annoying manager, etc.).

I’ve tried to handle this problem a couple of ways: One is by practicing some mindfulness. Meditation. When I can. I’ll admit that I haven’t gone much beyond observing the breath, and if I catch 15 minutes, 3 days a week, I’m doing awfully well. But I do it. And it has helped a bit, I think. I have less of those mindless retorts I snap back to my children and my students. I stop myself. I don’t know if it’s thanks to the practice of reining in my thoughts while ‘on the cushion’ or not, but I do attribute it to that. If nothing else, being aware of “right speech” as being part of the path has made me think twice about the words I put out there — a lot.

The other is, simply, never sending out a text message, posting a reply on Facebook, or sending out an e-mail, while annoyed or irritated. I also try not to have an immediate verbal response when someone says something that triggers a quick emotional response. I bite my tongue, get my hands away from the keyboard, and walk away. It’s harder than it sounds.

That being said, here’s one last link that I think might be a good tool. It’s from Access to Insight, and it’s their entry on Right Speech. If you read through all of it, you’ll see that the Buddha really very clearly sets out guidelines on WHEN to respond, HOW to respond, and under which circumstances. Much of what he says can easily be applied to our everyday, modern lives.

Access to Insight Entry on Right Speech

Are most of us ever really going to do this perfectly? Of course not. But as my friend Ted likes to say, “It’s practice, not perfect.”

The Lay Practice

December 27, 2010 § 12 Comments

Going to come back around to the Eightfold Path project, and just grab this opportunity that has come around for me to think on this topic which has been itching the back of my brain for a while anyway.

The issue is of the lay practice — so those of us who practice Buddhism on a daily basis by somehow cramming it into the nooks and crannies of our already jam-packed lives. The virtual group in Second Life that I meet with on a weekly basis has reached Chapter 8 in Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught,” in which the question of the lay practice and Buddhism in today’s world are addressed.

When starting off on this exploration of Buddhism, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the question of “How intensely does this need to be a part of my life?” Even now, I feel like a fraud among scholars who pour over texts, suttas, learn Pali and study history and science. I do none of these things. I may glance through a relevant sutta here and there and stumble through it, grasping at phrases and ideas. I’ll go through snippets of blogs, and listen to podcasts when I can while I scrub dishes (and help kids with this that and the other thing). I’ll try to read discussions on various web sites and re-read complex phrases about five times on average, JUST to make sure I’ve understood what various contributors to the discussions are saying. I’m going to admit here that many times, what many people say go WAY over my head.

In these discussions and podcasts, I see and hear the word “retreat” so often being bandied about — either those who have gone on them or being suggested as a means to become more skillful in meditation, etc. — that I started to fret that, well, I haven’t gone on one.  Honestly, I don’t see myself doing anything like that until my kids are at least in college. I just CAN’T take off for a week, a month, let alone several months, without my family. Attached much? Absolutely. Gonna change it? Hell no.

Compared to all these people, I feel like the ULTIMATE lay person. I have no hopes of taking classes in Pali any time soon, if ever. I’ll never be a scholar of philosophy, culture, or history … definitely not the way many of my Sangha-mates seem to be. And I often wonder … how many people — lay people — become intimidated when they see some of this stuff and just run away? I’ll circle back on that issue another time, hopefully. All this, just to convey that I consider myself a VERY lay practitioner of Buddhism, in the interest of full disclosure (because I was worried you wouldn’t be able to tell, hahaha).

Growing up, I always knew that there are Buddhist monks and nuns who devote their entire lives to just practicing — the Dharma is the sole focus of their lives. Seems that there are schools of thought that have come to believe that monks and nuns are really the only ones who would be able to reach Enlightenment (Nirvana).

So, as a mom, a wife, the holder of a full-time job, where’s my place in this picture? Where do I fit? Where does Buddhism fit? Mindfulness? Where do I have room for THAT?

I kind of suspect I’m not alone in this. Most of us just can’t set our whole entire families, jobs, and LIVES aside for this practice of Buddhism, or anything, really. Most of us don’t, and don’t have to, thankfully.

Seems that way back when, lay people had the same concerns and questions, and addressed them to Buddha. The Buddha laid out for the lay practitioner (or householder), how individuals can make sure they live their lives as lay people and still very much ‘be Buddhist.’ In doing so, he also showed his own sense of respect for the relationships ‘every day people’ have between each other:

From the Sigalavada Sutta: (an excerpt of the sutta regarding how a ‘householder’ should practice)

And the Exalted One spoke as follows:

“Inasmuch, young householder, as the noble disciple (1) has eradicated the four vices in conduct,[1] (2) inasmuch as he commits no evil action in four ways, (3) inasmuch as he pursues not the six channels for dissipating wealth, he thus, avoiding these fourteen evil things, covers the six quarters, and enters the path leading to victory in both worlds: he is favored in this world and in the world beyond. Upon the dissolution of the body, after death, he is born in a happy heavenly realm.

The above goes on in much detail, and I encourage everyone who is a lay practitioner to go through and read the information (as much as you are able).  The essence of this sutta, however, is simply that every day Joe Schmoes can very much follow Buddhism and ‘be Buddhist’ by following the basics of ‘leading a decent life,’ or ultimately, just following the Eightfold Path. The purpose of this sutta really seems to me, to be, to break out the essence of the Eightfold Path in a way that is more accessible to ‘regular people.’

Wikipedia had a great graphic for the portion of this sutta that deals with the protection of close relationships, in which Buddha talks about the six major relationships that individuals have. I really liked this part of the sutta because it served to show the respect that the Buddha has for these various relationships each person develops over the course of their lives.

Looking at all of this, it was an interesting project for me to see which part(s) of the Eightfold Path some of these things like Five Precepts, the ‘acts’ in the six major relationships etc. would fit into, and why.

I don’t pretend that I really ever expect to reach Enlightenment. To be honest, as I ponder over my dishpan hands, throw together lunches before school on weekdays, do the many chores that need to be done around the house, I believe that I’ll be lucky if I ever get a handle on mindfulness, understand all the bits of the Eightfold Path and manage to keep Dharma in my life. Most of the time, I don’t really feel that I’m doing anything to really “be Buddhist.”

That’s the honest truth. I think that’s the truth for many of us lay practitioners. So, it’s a relief to find that built right in to this philosophy is the idea of the ‘noble’ in simple, every day living. There is reverence and respect to be cultivated and found in family, work, friendships and just going about our everyday, lay person’s life. Just as is defined when looking at the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, ‘being Buddhist’ has more to do with how it is we approach these relationships and ‘mundane’ tasks and interactions of every day life, rather than our decision to shave our heads and don robes.

So, while I may nod off in the middle of my attempt to meditate and go through anywhere up to a week between sessions ‘on the cushion,’ I am glad to now be able to take comfort in knowing that I am still ‘Buddhist’ simply because … well … I looked this stuff up 🙂

Eightfold Path — Right Intention

December 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

Well it’s been a bit tough for me to find time to do anything like read or write lately, LOL. Starting this post while at home with a sick child and home from work. Definitely having a hard time sitting still and being idle. I’ve cleaned about as much as I can, so, going to see if I can catch a few moments here and there to read a bit on Right Intention and write about what I’m finding. The way things usually go with this though, is that I’ll start it today, and not be able to finish it up until Thursday or so hahaha. Ah well, at least I’m finding the time, right?

My main sources in reading about Right Intention are from the Access to Insight web page and from The Big View (click on their names for direct links to the articles I read from), although I have read some from “What The Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula on the topic as well.

When it comes to Right Intention, my main observation is that we’re talking about a domino effect type of situation. When we take care of how we view the world, how we interpret people and events (Right View, first part of the Eightfold Path), Right Intention naturally arises — or so the theory seems to go according to Access to Insight. It’s a little of the “chicken or the egg” question, I think, but I think I see the point being made. If you think right, you act right, if you act right, your next thought/idea etc. is more apt to be right.

I sometimes wonder how much of this “Eastern thought” actually does influence our everyday thinking, and I do see it popping up in surprising ways here and there. For example, reading up on Right Intention, it made me think of a poster that hangs outside of the Guidance Office at the high school in which I work. To paraphrase it, it goes something like this:

Watch your thoughts,
as they become your words.
Watch your words
as they become your actions.
Watch your actions,
as they become your character.

That’s not 100% it, but it’s the idea, and it is a similar idea shared in what is written on Access to Insight about Right Intention. I’m also not sure if this is attributed to anyone in particular … I’ll have to check that out and credit them if it is 🙂

Basically, it’s the idea that our words and our actions are more than just our words and our actions, it’s practice for future words we choose to use, and future actions in which we choose to engage.

Since starting my active practice/study of Buddhism not so long ago (about a year, off and on perhaps?) I have seen evidence of this phenomenon. What’s frustrating for my Type A, “I want everything neatly pigeon-holed and to happen in an orderly fashion” mind is the ‘messiness’ of the practice, of the path. There’s no real linear progression — you kind of pick up what you can as you go along. Grrrr! You jump in where you are, start SOMETHING — picking up a book on Buddhism, joining a group, talking to people, reading this blog (haha), then naturally, other parts of the practice fall into place, which cause other bits of it to happen, and you try to catch it all as you walk along.

While that has indeed been a point of some frustration for me, what has been deeply satisfying is seeing this “If you do A, then C might happen, X is not far behind.” It’s a progression that follows its own order, but it is progress nonetheless. I really started to actively practice when I began meditation, or practicing more mindfulness, which lies at the bottom of the pile of the Eightfold Path. Regardless, somehow Right View started to show up, which, as is said, brought Right Intention along. So when it is said to jump in where you are, to start with anything — that’s why. It doesn’t really matter, because one action begets another, then another, and another.

That’s not to say most of us do not have Right View or Right Intention all along in our daily lives, without practicing Buddhism. The question is, however, how many of us are actually MINDFUL about it? Do you actively choose the right view? Or do you act without reflection, and smile when it happens to be the right thing, or alternatively, fall into dismay because it wasn’t?

Do you stop, pause, and ask yourself the questions “What will this do to me? To those around me? Is this RIGHT?” Do you examine your thoughts, your view, your approach, your intent? That’s where the difference has lain for myself. I find myself pausing more often now, before letting my mouth open to let the words out. I stop myself before pressing that “post” or “send” button and ask myself, “What is the purpose of these words? What am I trying to accomplish with this action? With these words?” I so often find myself deleting things now, or changing what I have to say.

It has also shown up in my work — as a teacher, I pause to observe my students more often. Instead of reacting instantly, I find myself taking an extra second to pause and think about my reaction. In that split second, I’ve changed my course of action to opt either for silence, or, to ask a question rather than make a statement. What a difference that has made! Instead of the “Well that homework was due yesterday, so it’s too late,” which used to be my stock answer to students handing in late assignments, I’ve taken to asking not a more confrontational “Why is this late?” but rather, “What happened?” The question changed in that split second pause I made myself take, because I wondered in that split second, what is the purpose of my question? To berate? Or should it be to truly investigate the cause of this student’s situation?

The benefits have been immeasurable. In changing my question to “What happened?” I found the capacity for more compassion for my students, which offers them the opportunity to try their assignment again, or in a different way perhaps, and therefore, sets them up for more success in my class. More importantly, I’ve taken a step toward being what a teacher ought to be — a guide, a mentor, a firm but guiding hand .

Big difference! Please don’t think that this action has me taking long meditative pauses in the middle of a lesson, or in my day. How odd would that be? Rather, the act of meditating seems to have trained my mind to have the ability to quickly press a ‘pause’ button before I react, think quickly about what my reaction should be, then again quickly press the ‘play’ button on my  mouth. It’s a literal split second moment, but it MATTERS.

So, next time, before you react, ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” It takes far less time than you think, and the effect is tremendous.