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Crazy Train

I’ve been meditating, contemplating, praying, journaling, painting… and asking the Universe to help me loosen up, see what is around me, and get some fulfilling, lucrative work going. A few weeks ago I just put it out there – I want to teach. I taught my last class at the university I adjunct at last fall, and it’s been crickets since then. With only a Master’s degree, I fall somewhere in between someone with a PhD and a janitor in qualifications. Enrollment has been down, so adjuncts at my school have been hurting. But on some level I tend to get caught up in the “good things happen because I’m doing it right” and “good things don’t happen because I’m doing it wrong” trap. A mental distortion I’m quick to point out in others but slow to recognize in myself.

Anyway, last Thursday the Universe ponied up and I got the call to teach a class for the fall. In a week and a half. That I had never taught before. Yikes. I’ve done this twice before, but usually with at least a month of lead time. Luckily, the topic is Marketing Communications, a field I spent a long time in and feel relatively comfortable with. That said, there are more complications. The first night of class is on the second day of my family vacation. So I need to figure out how to do an online class. Lots of boring but time-consuming logistical complexity entailed with that. Plus, the day after I get back from my vacation, I am supposed to do a training session at a non-profit in town on a completely unrelated topic and I’ve been kind of blocked up about how to approach it. So, now I have a week to figure all of this shit out. While maintaining my normal over-committed schedule and praying (please please Universe) that nobody in the family gets sick, including catching that 24 hour stomach bug from hell that is going around.

So, I’m writing in my blog. Procrastination is part of my process. No, really. I am also epically sleep deprived since my kid has decided 5:30am is a fine time to wake up, and I’m trying to wean off the sleeping pills I’ve been taking since she was born.

Do I sound stressed out? I’m a little stressed out. But I have to say, being stressed out about teaching a class is my favorite kind of stressed. My husband will attest that I’m a happier person when I’m teaching.

Meditation – I’ve been doing it consistently. I was really attached to the Shamatha form for a long time, but during a fit of crazy, I signed up for a 20 day yoga challenge, a 21 day meditation challenge, and a 28 day meditation challenge. The upshot of which meant exposing myself to a lot of styles I wasn’t so familiar with. Both meditation challenges were Vedanta based, so that was interesting. I’ve really just done Buddhist meditation, and they similar on the surface but different underneath. In a nutshell, it seems like Vedanta (and Kundalini Yoga) meditation are more about tuning into a universal frequency that is blissful and supportive. In the process, it is easier to accept what is going on in my body and mind with more compassion. Buddhist meditation is more about just sitting with and accepting the present moment, whether it’s blissful or painful or tired or happy. I think both are really valid, good practices. I tend to alternate between them, depending on what I need. If I’m keyed up and jittery, Shamatha is more helpful since I’m not going to be letting much in when I’m all armored up. But when I feel vulnerable or depressed (sometimes I call it porous), the practice of connecting to something greater can be (and has been) really powerful and healing.

Anyway, I could go on for a while but I think I had better crack open that syllabus and start figuring out what the hell I am doing. Have a blessed day!

Through the Looking Glass, Part the Second

For the first part of this story, check out my guest post on The Pagan Princesses where I talk about my first brush with the divine, from the perspective of five years after.

Godess Durga painting

Durga, Mother of the Universe

In recent years, with the advent of my marriage and the birth of my child, it seemed as if I had backslid in my spiritual development. I stopped meditating regularly, and just kind of coasted on the faith of what I had experienced before. But during my pregnancy, and when I was suffering from postpartum depression I felt profoundly isolated and alone; I felt abandoned. I still thought God was there, but it was as if It couldn’t reach me, or I couldn’t hear It.

Now I am again at a crossroads in my life. Stress and questions about my identity have driven me back to meditating, back to actively seeking. Five years have passed since my spiritual awakening, and while I still have faith that what I experienced was authentic, that sense of being connected to the source of being has faded leaving only memories and occasional flashes of insight.

As I rediscover and reconstruct my faith, it is clear to me our experience of the Eternal changes as our lives change. When I had my awakening I was unmarried, childless, and between careers. There was a lot of room for God to slip in and make Itself known to me. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment also seemed to make a great deal of sense when my life was in this in-between place.

Now I am a mother, and am totally, inexorably, tethered to this world and this life by my child. Accepting impermanence is so much harder when there is someone in the world whose existence is so crucial to me. When I first started meditating again, I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult. Why was it so hard to let go of my attachments for a little while and just breathe? It is because there is someone in my life whose breath is more important to me than my own. To get a little Pagan on you, I have passed from the Maiden phase of my life into the Mother phase, which I believe is by its nature profoundly attached. In Buddhism, non-attachment means accepting things like sickness and death. As a mother I find that pretty much impossible. I cling; I worry. I entered this phase relatively late, with a strong sense of identity — which motherhood blew to bits. What is the tradeoff for losing my ability to detach? Love. Mind-bending, terrifying, overwhelming love. The ability to love with a ferocity and depth and selflessness I did not have before becoming a mother. And I think that accepting my love, rather than my fear, is the path I need to follow to reconnect with my Spirit.

As I revisit the teachings that resonated with me before, I am also exploring the polytheistic aspects of Hinduism. The Hindu religion is incredibly diverse and varied. Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu prophet or “Avatar” from the late 19th century was the father of modern Vedanta. He was one of those people with a direct line to God, which made him a little crazy. He was able to reach the divine through almost any path. He could meditate on Kali, or Christ, or Krishna, or just on the breath itself, and ecstatically merge with God. (He also thought he was a monkey for a while. I’m glad I’m not a prophet.) So as I reconcile myself to the changes that motherhood has brought, I find myself looking more to the Hindu goddesses for identification. In the West, female archetypes are very strictly broken up into Maiden, Mother, or Crone. They tend not to share traits – you are in one phase or the other. Remember when Hillary Clinton got all that flack for not wanting to “stay home and bake cookies”? Our society is not so great at accepting that a powerful, intellectual woman can also be a nurturing, devoted mother.


Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Wisdom, and Music

The Hindu goddesses are much more complex. When I contemplate Kali, Durga, or Saraswati, I feel more at peace with the multiplicity of my own experience as a woman. I also have taken some inspiration from the Princesses and spent more time communing with my grandmother who passed away shortly after I was married. I’m learning that fluidity and flexibility are traits of the Goddesses, and my birthright as a woman. I find the fullness of contemplation is as useful as the spaciousness of meditation, and I can pass between them as I wish. Goddesses are all about transformation, and I am starting to allow myself to transform.

I will enter yet another phase of my life in the coming year – I am starting a Doctoral program. And while I can’t always look into the sky and see God, certain things resonate in my body and heart in an unmistakable way. This path, the path of the scholar, feels incredibly right to me. Looking into my daughter’s eyes or holding her hand feels as if a hot, beautiful, painful beam of light is penetrating my heart and connecting me to all the mothers and daughters before me. Meditation soothes my soul helps me be more compassionate.

The emptiness of Shambala doesn’t resonate with me as much as the fullness of Vedanta, although the practice of Shamatha meditation is still a good exercise for my busy mind. The Mother phase of my life seems the most tied to gender. I think God is still speaking to me, but that voice is now more female and urges me to embrace my own womanhood fully. Her voice sounds a lot more like my own. In Hinduism, there is a branch called Shaktism, where the highest form of Brahman stems from the feminine instead of the masculine. It is still practiced widely in India and elsewhere, and I find this idea entrancing. In the end, I hope I can be a little like Ramakrishna – that I can find Spirit through many different paths, depending on where I am in my life. That I can be a little less rigid, and a little more fluid with how I connect to my source, and to the people I love.

Suffering and Compassion

Due to some interesting tricky circumstances in my life of late, I’ve given a lot of thought to who I really am, and what I really have to contribute. Being a business owner takes tremendous energy, and selling my services and expertise takes not only energy, but conviction. Without conviction, it sucks your will to live. Seriously.

For me, conviction comes from being as authentic as humanly possible in how I present myself, what I have to offer, and what I value I believe it brings. Maybe there are people can sell anything to anyone, but I can’t.

Getting to this point is the result of many years of soul-searching, study, and most importantly, making lots and lots of mistakes. Often, those mistakes cause me to suffer. Sometimes things I totally can’t control cause me to suffer. And sometimes my own way of dealing with the world causes me to suffer.

I worry a lot. I worry mostly about how other people feel, and how what I do or say affects them. I worry about the things I can’t control like sickness and death, and the things I can, like money and relationships. Worry is really just another word for fear. I experience fear pretty regularly. Being me, and not anyone else, I have not idea of the amount of fear I feel is “normal” or not. I suspect that feeling it is, but admitting it is not.

I’ve found that some people react badly when I’m transparent about the fact that I experience fear or anxiety. I find this strange. The leaders I most admire are the ones that are open about their frailty, their weaknesses, and their fears. I feel I can trust someone who admits they are human, admits that they make mistakes. I don’t trust the people who say they have the answers to questions that only I can answer for myself, and people who claim to know more about me than I know about myself.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I believe that fear, which is a form of suffering has value. We live in a society where emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and despair are considered undesirable at best. But these emotions are part of the palate of our experience. Imagine if food was only salty or sweet. Would we enjoy a lemon bar if it wasn’t a little sour? Or a grapefruit if it wasn’t a little bitter? If music was only consonant and harmonious, we’d be listening to the Grateful Dead for all eternity, and Stravinsky never would have composed The Rite of Spring (that actually sounds like the third ring of Hell to me).

And so I believe it is with suffering, and yet we brand those who can’t hide or escape their suffering as depressive, codependent, reclusive, or anti-social, as if we ourselves do not all experience those feelings too. How much harder is it then for those who seek help coping with suffering to find the courage to ask? And how narrow is our definition of what is healthy? I sometimes think that while diagnosis of mental disorders is immensely helpful for alleviating suffering, it also has been misused as a way for us to externalize emotions that are inescapable and innate to the human experience.

I’ve run across a number of people in my life who essentially told me that I suffer/think/fear too much, and to get over it (often with dire pronouncements about my fate if I fail to take their advice). And then they told me exactly how to do this (usually by emulating them). I have always found these exchanges disconcerting and kind of scary. I try so hard to be empathetic and open that sometimes I let people in way further than is healthy for me, and when I get scared sometimes I can temporarily lose my ability to draw healthy boundaries.

This has happened a couple times in recent years, and in spite of the fact that I have much better boundaries and self-esteem than I used to, it’s still thrown me for a loop. It’s gotten me thinking about my emotional world and its value to myself and to others. There is no doubt, I tend to worry, and when things upset me I often hang on to them for a while. If I’m feeling anticipatory of some unpleasant event, I’ll imagine possible scenarios even though I can’t predict what is actually going to happen. When something bad happens, I’ll often replay it mentally, imagining how I could have prevented or changed it. When my feelings are hurt, they hurt a lot, and it sometimes takes a while for the physical symptoms to leave my body. Basically, I feel things very strongly.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that feeling things strongly and struggling with fear is bad or wrong. Is it pleasant? No, not really. But does it have value? Absolutely.

The fact that I struggle with these feelings and behaviors means that I experience them fully. I don’t just taste fear, I chew on it, go for a swim in it, and take it out to the movies. I know the dimensions and colors and smell of my fears, and that means that when I see someone else suffering from fear, I know how hard it is for them, and I also have faith that they can get past it. Because I do, every day. Every time I fully face my fear, or guilt, or shame, or sadness, I get a little nugget of compassion for myself. And those nuggets become the ground upon which I continually realize how little separates me from other people. We all suffer. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is suffering. And without suffering, there would be no compassion, and no joy, and no love.

So the next time someone tells me I’m neurotic, and difficult, and that I should just “get over it” or “let it go”, I’m going to remember all my feelings have value. I’m going to remind myself to have faith in my internal process. That fully experiencing uncomfortable emotions is courageous, not weak. That compassion, one of my core values, means connecting to others through our shared humanity, which includes suffering. And that my ability feel compassion for that suffering is a gift, not a disease.

s'more thoughts

I’ve been reading a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan. It’s pretty cool, because it validates a lot of my own synthesis of the things I’ve learned from experience and study. Humans, especially modern American humans, have a tendency to run away from emotional pain. Back in the day, when our culture was less secular, we rationalized pain by saying that God was punishing us for our sins. Nowadays, we pathologize it and claim that not only are we suffering because we’ve done something wrong (not eaten right, not exercised enough, not prayed to the right God), but that suffering itself is dangerous to our health and should be eradicated. Newsflash, people, suffering is unavoidable. Also, life is terminal. Not happy facts, but facts nonetheless.

Greenspan (and the Buddah) believe that accepting suffering is the path to greater awareness, and a more fulfilling, awake, meaningful life. Greenspan thinks we’re medicating ourselves into numbness and through avoiding our own pain, we blind ourselves to that of others resulting in things like emotional and physical violence.

I tend to concur. When I’m feeling scared or upset, I want to fix or eradicate it somehow. I often blame myself for suffering and try to find some way I caused it. This means that I’ve absorbed the idea that I can somehow prevent myself from suffering (that there was something I should have done differently), and I hurt because I’ve made a mistake. This seems pretty pointless, as a good portion of the time we don’t cause our own suffering. Lots and lots of things that cause us to suffer that are unavoidable. I think that the idea of personal responsibility and personal power is great for helping you focus on your goals, but it’s fairly shit for dealing with suffering. Suffering is a fact, and it doesn’t matter if you brought it on yourself, your neighbor brought it on you, or it was an earthquake. All suffering deserves compassion, and I think that at least some of the people who espouse personal responsibility in this way (Stephen Covey, I’m talking to you) do so to not only avoid their own pain, but to inure themselves from the pain of others.

It’s not that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from our mistakes. I just think that in the moment that we experience emotional pain who or what is to blame is not so relevant, and the search for the source is a way we avoid the experience. After the storm has passed, reflection is a good idea and helps give meaning to our suffering and allows us to feel compassion for others. But in that moment, I think the best thing to do is actually check out that storm – is it rainy with sorrow, or full of jarring, bright, scary lightening? Not all pain feels the same, I feel fear in my stomach sometimes, and grief more in my back. Greenspan talks about the value of checking in with the body when we feel emotional pain and letting ourselves experience it rather than fight it. It’s tricky, but when I have managed to do so, I’ve generally come out the other end a little wiser and much calmer.

While this may seem a bit of a jump, I think the topic actually relates closely to leadership and ethics. Leaders have responsibility to those who follow them, whether it’s a transactional relationship (like a job), or a transformational relationship (like a priest or teacher). If a leader has no relationship to their own suffering, then the organization they lead can become a reflection of that inner disconnect.

In modern companies, fear is often viewed as an undiscussable and taboo emotion. To show fear is to admit weakness, and in our patriarchal organizations weakness is not tolerated. So the leader who not only hides their fear from others, but also from themselves, has no little incentive to experience compassion for the followers who feel fear, trepidation, or insecurity when facing a challenge. A culture then emerges where fear is banished from what is espoused, creating a powerful undertow that erodes at the morale, relatedness, and development of employees, and damages the organization as a whole. I believe that in this way unsurfaced and undiscussable emotions create entropy that organizations have tremendous difficulty diagnosing, let alone overcoming.

Thougths on personal ethical responsibility

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” – Gandhi

This encapsulates for me the issues I’ve struggled with in Buddhism. Gandhi, a Hindu, points out that the teachings of one religious leader or another never, ever, trump morality. If you behave in a way that is immoral (or unethical) you are acting against the will of your spiritual practice – REGARDLESS of what your pastor, priest, rabbi, or guru says.

I had a personal falling out with Shambala after I read some of the details of the founder’s behavior. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did some seriously unethical things in his life. He was promiscuous with his followers, he was known for being verbally abusive, was a raging drunk, and he even encouraged and condoned the promiscuity of his HIV-positive successor, resulting in several people becoming infected. Rinpoche did some amazing things in his life, too, and a lot of his teachings are really wonderful. Now, if you follow Buddhist teaching, everyone is allowed to be a fuck-up. Fucking up is part of what it means to be human. But in my estimation, he took this a step further, and found a way to conveniently sanctify his screw ups. He claimed that a guru could behave in an irrational, abusive, and destructive manner towards his student, if he felt that the student needed that experience to progress in his or her personal growth. He called this “crazy wisdom.” Uh-huh.

Let’s review Gandhi’s quote again, shall we?

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.”

So do non-theistic Buddhists have a loophole because they have no God to answer to? As a non-theist, I’m going to answer with a resounding “no.” If anything, we non-theists should understand with perfect clarity how important it is to strive to be ethical and compassionate in our lives, since we don’t have a strong belief in a post-mortality cosmic spanking or reward. What you do on earth matters, because as far as we know, it’s all we have. If you’re unkind, cruel, or abusive towards another person, no matter how “enlightened” you are, I don’t believe that it’s justifiable. I’m not saying that you can be a teacher and never hurt someone’s feelings. We’re not talking about being truthful, we’re talking about being deliberately hurtful.

Since the Buddah said that the first noble truth of life is suffering, I believe that life presents us enough opportunities to suffer and then grow, without some crazy-ass guru screwing with us. Call me crazy. Just don’t call me crazy-wise.

There are countless examples throughout human history of a movement, religion, or organization deciding at some point that it supersedes the boundaries of morality. We all know, in retrospect anyway, that the Spanish Inquisition, the concentration camps, and 80’s hairstyles were all fundamentally wrong (okay maybe not the last one, but you know what I mean).

I had a point here. What was it? Oh, right. No matter what you believe, you don’t get a golden ticket that says you can turn your ethical decision making process over to someone else. And even if you think you do, you don’t. Whether you have to answer to a God at the end of your life, or just your own conscience, your actions are your own.