As We are with Animals (the journey to who we really are)
by Rob Rossell
What can encounters with animals teach us about what is possible in our relationships with others within our own species? I remember years ago standing on my back deck holding out a hand-full of sunflower seeds to our resident Chickadees to see if one would flutter down and eat the seeds out of my hand.
We had many Chickadees, attracted to bird feeders hanging from a rope on a pulley stretching from our house to a large pine tree in our back yard. I absolutely loved those birds. They were very persistent and verbal in reminding me to fill the cylindrical bird feeders when they got low on seeds. I loved their playfulness and good humor. At times they would be willing to eat sunflower seeds out of my hand. I noticed that it would only happen if I was willing to wait and was exceedingly calm and centered. They became my teachers in mindfulness and presence and were unerring and reliable in giving me good feedback.
I am Buddhist and a therapist and my wife is Jewish. She recently told me a joke she heard from the Rabbi at services Friday night, “What do you get when you cross a Buddhist and a Jew? The answer: A person who sits up all night worrying about nothing.”
To me this poses the question, what does it mean to have a self and love the self? It is a question at the heart of my spiritual journey and how I approach offering psychotherapy. When people come to see me as a psychotherapist, they are, in a sense, sitting up at night worrying about nothing. They may not have the language or be settled enough to articulate their suffering in meaningful questions. In a sense I am asking over and over again, “What is your question?”
As I see it, the whole point is practice…practice… practice. Teach myself and my clients to love unconditionally, especially the self. Gently (and sometimes fiercely) move myself and clients away from self-harm and self-invalidation so they we begin to explore all the qualities and possibilities of self that are available. The main thrust is cultivating a way of not being trapped by our own minds as we move through the world. More and more, it seems to me, the core practice is developing a willingness to do nothing, and not run away from what is happening. Approach life freshly with intention every moment, just like the chickadee that came to my hand.
Practice by Carolyn Dille
Lessons from the Kodhana Sutta by Dave Barnett
I grew up thinking that everyone should play by the rules: give credit where credit is due; take responsibility for your mistakes; don’t cut in line; don’t cheat; don’t brag; don’t take what’s not yours. They weren’t written down anywhere, but they didn’t have to be. Everyone knows what the rules are. Life is fair, and if you play by the rules, everything comes out the way it’s supposed to.
As I grew older and experienced more of the corporate world, I noticed that people didn’t always play by the rules. There are people who take credit for things they didn’t do, and blame others for their own mistakes. They aggressively pursue self-promotion and aggrandizement, while tarnishing the reputations of rivals. Some of them bully and intimidate those below them, while flattering those above. They undercut others in order to make themselves look better. I don’t like these people.
I believed that if I continued to play by the rules, I would get rewarded, and the cheaters would get caught. What they were doing was so obvious, it was just a matter of time before someone would see through the phoniness and lies, and they would get what they deserved.
Instead, they got promoted, and the unfairness of it all kept me up at night. Stubbornly, I stuck with the rules. I worked to be a better person – meditation, self-improvement seminars, retreats, and following the rules.
One day, I met and became involved with a woman who was the one for me. A saint, always thinking of others, giving of herself generously, she brought out the best in me. The world was a better place because she was in it. Smart, funny, confident, fearless, and adventurous … she was right for me. Finding her was my reward for being a good person and always playing by the rules. We moved in together, we were happy, and I was at peace. This was how my life was meant to be.
I bought a diamond ring, and asked her to marry me. She put the ring on, looked at it sadly, and said she couldn’t get married– there wasn’t time. She believed she would die by the time she was 30, and there were still things to do in the two years she had left. I thought this was crazy — she was in perfect health, and full of life. I was really disappointed, and maybe a little resentful, but I figured we all have our quirks. It’s part of being human.
Things started to fall apart with the relationship after that, and she moved out. I tried to convince her that we could work things out, but she was too busy. I was patient. I believed she was the one for me, and sooner or later she’d come around.
About a year later, she called to tell me they found a lump in her breast, and she was waiting for the biopsy results. “Don’t tell anyone. You’re the only one who knows.” Two days later, we found out. “It’s malignant… Could you come over?”
In the end, the mastectomies and chemo didn’t work, and I knew that there was no God and the rules were a cruel joke.
“Anger fathers misery” and I pushed both down deep for years. I got on with life, worked hard, got married, kept busy. But I had lost my optimism and trust in the future, and things were not the same. There were no rules anymore, and nothing I did would ever really matter. Eventually, I had to make a decision to give up, or find a way out. Earlier experiences with Buddhism called to me, and I took up the practices again.
Bit by bit, I let go of the sadness, and learned to step away from it. Being angry at things that had already happened didn’t make them not happen; I couldn’t change the past, I could only accept it. Hoping that meditation would release me from the sense of entitlement to fairness, I started attending Vipassana sessions at the lighthouse a few miles up the coast.
Once a week, we would sit for about 30 minutes, and then have a dharma talk by a local teacher. I didn’t pay too much attention to the talks. I just sat through them to be polite.
One evening, the meditation and talk were led by Buddhist nuns visiting the area. They were nothing like the stern, serious, whack-you-with-a-ruler-if-you-misbehaved Catholic nuns I had grown up around. These nuns were happy. They laughed, made jokes about themselves, and didn’t miss a thing. This wasn’t what I was expecting from bald headed renunciates. They … sparkled.
One of them led an animated and entertaining discussion of women in Buddhism and what it was like to be a nun. I was thoroughly enjoying this when the nun seated at the far right caught my attention– because of what she wasn’t doing. She didn’t move around, shift her position, or clear her throat. She was completely still, like a pond in the forest when no breeze was blowing, no ripples or disturbance marring the perfect reflection of the surface. I watched closely. She was fully present and engaged, but at the same time, serene and totally at peace. I wondered if I could ever do that.
I started paying more attention to the talks, and tried to understand what they meant. When I first heard about taking refuge in the Buddha, I thought this meant praying to the Buddha to destroy evil. Then I discovered that taking refuge was more like getting under shelter during the monsoon season. It was still wet and miserable outside, but the shelter protected us from the rain. I discovered that taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha was not a ritual, but a strategy.
I continued to attend the Wednesday night talks. I discovered the Dharma Seed and Audio Dharma websites, loaded up my iPod with talks, and listened to them whenever I could. I discovered the Pali Canon, and things started to connect and make sense. The Dharma talks are not metaphysical musings, they are tools. The Eight Fold Noble Path is not a catechism, it’s a roadmap. The Five Precepts are not commandments, they are guides to liberation.
I’m a practical person. If it works, I use it. I discovered that dwelling in destructive emotions damages me, and leads to bad outcomes. The more I practiced metta, karuna, and mudita, the easier it became to accept what was given. Even extending a little compassion towards those I disliked changed my outlook. My anger, resentment and contempt dissipated, and injustices no longer mattered very much. Things are the way they are, so don’t waste time and energy trying to change things that don’t change.
Hindrances arise. I feel anger, restlessness, and doubt come up. So, I do as they tell us for mediation – I note it. I feel anger coming on, and I say “oh I’m getting angry” – and that usually stops the anger in its tracks, or least slows it down. I practice the antidotes. This really works.
There was once a Samurai, named Nobuchika, who approached the Zen master Hakuin, and asked whether there were really Hell and Heaven. The Zen master asked him, “Who are you?” The Samurai answered, “I am a Samurai, sir”. “Uh! Are you?” the master exclaimed, and said, “You don’t look like a Samurai; you look like a beggar”. The Samurai got angry and grabbed his sword. When Master Hakuin saw that, he said, “Ha! You have a sword. It looks very dull and useless. What can you do with that dull sword?” Nobuchika drew his sword out of the sheath. Then Master Hakuin said, softly, “See! The gate of Hell opens now”. When Nobuchika heard that, he stopped, and put his sword back in its sheath. Master Hakuin said, kindly, “The gate of Heaven opens now”.
I used to get stressed out over things that might or might not happen. When something unfair happened, I would replay it in my head for days, building up the resentment. I was angry when life wasn’t fair and when cheaters won.
Now, I just let these things go. When a series of unfortunate events occurs, I look at it like a situation comedy and laugh. Life has become much easier now that I realize it is as it is.
This year, the company I worked for was acquired, and I was laid off. In 1688, Masahide’s house and business burned, and he wrote:
Barn’s burnt down
I can see the moon.
Never So Moved By a Prune by Bruce Freedman
It was five hours before noon.
Sitting on retreat, about to eat
The usual oatmeal and stewed fruit treat.
Beholding a prune in my spoon,
I realized the prune would soon be me.
Insight of oneness, I could see.
Enlightened for a moment.
One with the pruniverse!
What a boon that prune in my spoon.
For now I was in tune, smiling like a goon,
Never so moved by a prune.
A Lucid Dream by Jin Liang
I was in a gathering accompanied by my husband and some friends. The room was bright and well decorated, plenty of food and drinks lying around. Sunlight streamed through lacy curtains, bringing in views of hills, trees and clouds. People around were mostly strangers to me. A woman with gray hair was dancing with a young man in silence. They did not look at each other, nor touch each other. There was a sense of isolation. The air breathed lightness. People moved about freely without any obligation to nod or smile. It was quiet, as if the volume of sound in the world had been turned off, leaving us performing in mime. Each of us seemed to carry a buffer space around us. Events took shapes and evolved through each private space. The spaces often collided with each other, sometime distorted a little, but never quite intermingled. A young woman carried a food tray, a man reached over with his hand to pick up a slice of chocolate. A child ran over from the sofa to the middle of the room where his mom was standing, and pulled her skirt for attention. A passerby bent down with a cookie to look at him, and made a funny face to the little boy. An old man dropped his napkin on the far side close to the window, and the blonde lady with long hair next to him picked it up for him. A nod and a smile were exchanged. In each of these encounters, their bodies moved towards each other, squeezing out the space between them, then, the interaction took place accompanied by hand or body gestures. Some of the interactions were brief, some lasted longer. In the end, their bodies curved backwards, prepared for exit.
Watching the events unfolding in silence, I felt suspended, and unable to play my parts. I turned and looked into the illusive eyes of my husband, wondering what his next move would be. “This is not real. You are in a dream,” an inner voice came to me. I looked around me. Everything was surprisingly vivid. It was impossible to make it vague or disappear. “I need to make myself wake up to prove that I had been in a dream,” I thought to myself. Yet, I was immobilized. Everything around me seemed to exert certain grips on me, forced me to stay. As I dwelled deeper into the thought of leaving, my sense of confinement and urgency increased. I had to find a way to break away from it. I had to wake up.
Not having any better means, I sought after my will. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and began visualizing myself leaving the room I was in. Slowly, the furniture in the room began to distort, human figures began to warp with exaggerated expressions of pain and stun. The room was tilting towards one side, objects tumbling on the verge of sliding off the horizon. I did not expect that in order for me to leave the scene, I had to destroy it and everything in it. And I was still in it. When the space continued to be strained to its limit, a splitting headache spread across my head. I bit my lips, closed tightly my eyes, thinking that I was about to collapse or go insane. I simply couldn’t hold this any longer. Suddenly, I lost my strength, and vanished.
I did not remember what happened after that. What happened to that dream space? Had I gotten out? Or, had I gone back to it? Obviously, I fell asleep. When I finally woke up in the morning, my awake space began to bear some semblance to the dream space I was in.