Thursday, July 13, 2017

STILL MUCH TO LEARN...

It should have been an easy enough job, to replace the filter on the intake unit of our air conditioning system. Why pay a handyman to do a job when I could do it quickly for myself?

Well, I should have known better. I am no handyman. And I chose a bad time, with a whole group of artist friends arriving shortly for a potluck evening.

Not so easy, as I soon discovered. First, the panel that covers the intake vent was thoughtfully placed behind the bannister on the way downstairs. It couldn't be opened without removing--or, I thought, at least loosening the bannister, which is held in place by four small circular supports spaced about two feet apart. Each support is attached to the wall by three screws, spaced in a triangle around the center. Easy enough, I thought, to remove the screws and loosen the banister to gain access to the air vent panel.

Except... one of the three screws on each support was placed immediately behind the arm that held the bannister in place. I don't know how the people who installed it managed this miracle, but the Phillips screwdriver had to be held at a slant to get to the screw head, which meant that it kept slipping out as I tried to turn it. And the screws were not only tight, they were inordinately long. I was soon, I'll admit it, swearing like a trooper. And sweating. It was hot.

Then, once I finally had the bannister loose enough to open the panel and remove the old filter, I found that even then the access to the space behind to replace to with the new one was a narrow angle, barely wide enough to slip the filter through, let alone use an arm to set it properly in place. Also... the draft of air being drawn into the system was powerful enough to pull the new filter out of shape, making it impossible to seat it squarely in the slot designed to hold it.

By this time, I was in full frustration mode, becoming more furious with each attempt to get the bloody thing flat and firmly seated. I discovered that my meditation practice has not yet depleted my reserves of anger, nor developed the virtuous skill of patience. My language... well, let's just say it was fortunate that my five-year old grandson was not on hand to hear me. It was very far removed from my aspiration to Right Speech. I was soon yelling at Ellie to switch the whole system off, in order to stop the draft of air... why had I not thought of this before? And finally managed to get the filter flat and (approximately) placed where it was supposed to be.

Then came the need to return the misaligned screws and tighten them, and restore the bannister to its rightful place. Time had begun to close in on me, with our friends arriving shortly. And by this time I was badly in need of a shower, not to mention the restoration of my equanimity...

Ah, well. I learn, at least, that there is still much to learn!

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE BRAIN/THE MIND

I found myself engaged in this discussion a couple of nights ago, on a hot night out on our balcony overlooking the city of Hollywood. My friend was arguing, essentially, that forces beyond our personal control govern our lives and that any control we might think we have over them is illusory. I understood it as a rationalist, deterministic, reductive argument with which I profoundly disagreed.

I may not be doing justice to her thinking, but it seemed to me that my friend's argument relied heavily on her understanding of the human brain--and the minimal control we can exercise over the way in which it processes causes and effects. We humans have remarkably little knowledge about the workings of consciousness, she argued, and the incessant stream of messages sent out from the brain to control our actions is emitted for the most part without our active supervision or intervention. Free will and choice, by extension, are therefore nothing but the illusions with which we seek to reassure ourselves about our meaningful existence in the world.

For myself, I see the human mind as infinitely greater and more powerful than the human brain. The analogy I like to use is that of a car driving along a highway. The brain is the engine under the car's hood. Mind is not only the whole car, it's also the road ahead and the road behind, and the entire landscape, so far as the eye can see. And more, it's greater yet, reaching far beyond the puny range of vision, way beyond the horizon and out into the universe. It's that great.

Obviously, we have no more comprehensive understanding of mind than we do of the functions of the brain. In fact, even less. If we watch carefully enough, however, we can gain occasional tiny insights into the functioning of mind. Beyond the reach of such insights lies the great mystery that embraces consciousness itself, and the vast, immeasurable realm of the unconscious mind. The watching, as I understand it, is the work of meditation. In order to free ourselves from the ultimate tyranny of chaos that my friend imagines, we work bit by bit to gain insight into the cause of the reactive patterns that can control our actions without our knowledge or permission. Once spotted and identified, those patterns can be slowly disempowered.

In a later conversation, for unimportant reasons, my friend and I grew angry with each other. I become rude and boorish. Then, the next morning, in meditation, I found the space in which I could safely watch the anger arise and identify its source in my emotional resistance to anything that feels like an attack--the kind of attack I too often experienced as a youngster in boys' boarding school, when impotent rage was the only response of which I was capable. Observing the source of the reactive pattern, I was able to diminish by just a little its power to control me.

And so it goes...

Monday, June 19, 2017

BACK TO BASICS

Someone important to me asked me yesterday if I was happy and I gave the wrong answer. I started waffling away about happiness being the acknowledgement and acceptance of who I am...

Wrong answer. Or at best a detour. The more truthful, direct and authentic answer is that I think I know how to find happiness, even though I don't always succeed. What I have come to understand from my still limited grasp of the dharma (my "beginner's mind"!) is that I can find happiness if I learn how to release myself from suffering; and that the cause of my suffering is clinging--both to the addiction to everything my mind tells me I want or need in my life, and the compulsion to avoid all those things that cause me fear, hatred, or disgust. I need to learn to recognize when these reactive patterns arise, and let them go.

Reactive patterns may arise in the form of thoughts, emotions, or actions. A reactive thought might be, for example, the familiar "I'm not good enough." A reactive emotion, the disgust that arises at the sight of something that revolts me. A reactive action, loading up my plate with food I don't need at the breakfast bar. Simple stuff, really.

A more complex reactive pattern, as I see it, takes the form of the egos I create for myself, the images of who I think I am, or want to be, or might be, in the eyes of others. I spent many years, for example, under the spell of the "writer," and suffered accordingly when I failed to live up to the complex image I created around this concept. Once I learned to recognize the "writer" as nothing more than the construct of my ego, having no relation to my personal reality, I was able to free myself from his spell and get on with the business--and the pleasure!--of just writing. (Though I must confess that the writer does insist on coming back to inflict me with suffering, once in a while!)

So this thought occurred to me yesterday, on Father's Day, a little too late to answer that question more thoughtfully than I did: another one of my ego constructs--and one that is particularly powerful and resistant to rational analysis--is the image of father whose absolute duty is to ensure his children's happiness and protect them from anything that might cause them suffering in their own lives. It's an obviously impossible task, one to which I have notably failed in many ways to live up, and my failure has caused more suffering in my life than I can say. I note that this is one aspect of my ego to which I continue to cling.

So these are the basic questions to get back to: what is causing my suffering? What thoughts, feelings and actions do I persist in repeating over and over again, despite the suffering they cause? What thoughts, feelings and actions no longer serve me, and what can I do to let them go? Consciousness is a good part of it--recognizing these things for what they are. Reactive patterns do their damage precisely because we are for the most part unaware of them. Also, acknowledging them for the way they might have served me in the past--for how else could they have become the reactive patterns that they are today? And perhaps, in meditation, learning simply to breathe them away.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

STILL LEARNING

I made a mistake yesterday. I allowed myself to be seduced into a situation that resulted in a continuously ringing telephone. It did not stop ringing yesterday and has continued ringing since early morning today.

It started innocently enough, with a communication (via email? social media? I forget) suggesting that I could easily access information that would allow me to determine if my monthly mortgage payments could be significantly reduced. I took the bait, and clicked. And having taken the first step down this rabbit hole, I found myself venturing further with each click--because now, I would not want to have wasted the already invested time!--until I finally reached the page that wanted me to choose a mortgage company. Where I balked, realizing I'd been tricked into this from the start. I clicked no further.

Since then, of course, every mortgage company in the United States has my email address, my telephone number, and probably every other piece of personal information about me since the date of my birth. And the phone keeps ringing several times an hour.

I ask myself the Buddhist questions. Was it my greed that led me into this commercial trap? It's not exactly greedy, is it, to want to reduce one's monthly mortgage payments? That's common sense, surely, and the Buddha never asked us to sacrifice our common sense. Right Action? It's true that I acted impulsively, without the benefit of mindfulness, without thinking the thing through to its (highly predictable!) consequences. Right Understanding? An imperfect grasp of reality...? True enough.

So I'm left debating these things and noticing, of course, not for the first time and surely not for the last, that my least actions have consequences. I'm left wondering what the wisdom is, in this particular case. I know there's something here that needs to be learned. But... there goes the phone again.







Friday, June 2, 2017

BECAUSE HE CAN...

Along with everyone who thinks-like-me, I was appalled by the event yesterday at which Tr*mp announced America's withdrawal from the Paris Accord. First, it was not simply what he did, it was how he did it, summoning a select audience to applaud his performance under the hot sun. It was clearly a carefully produced reality television show, promoted with endless will-he won't-he teasers and staged to feature himself as the lead actor in the drama. It was a shameless act of self-promotion in a matter that has consequences for the entire planet.

In this context, the withdrawal itself was little more than a petty act of spite. As numerous commentators more informed than I have pointed out, the stated rationale about jobs and economic repercussions was based on an economic study that has been widely discredited as biased in favor of energy corporation interests. Worse still, he resorted to the now familiar whine about "unfairness"--as though America were not the most prosperous, the most blessed with natural resources, of all the nations that signed the agreement. It is unbecoming, to say the least, for this country's president to so pitifully play the victim on our behalf--and this in front of nearly two hundred far less privileged nations that found their way clear to committing to a communal effort to save the planet from our destructive humankind.

This is, however, only the latest in this president's seemingly senseless acts of destruction. He is intent, clearly, on reversing everything achieved by his predecessor--from the historic, desperately needed national health insurance plan to the acknowledgement of the "dreamers" and the designation of national heritage sites. He acts like a spoiled, ill-tempered child who takes pleasure in destruction for its own sake. Pundits spend hours on television parsing his words as though they carried some intentional meaning, but more often they are spontaneous, ill-thought verbal ejaculations unworthy of examination or analysis; or searching for intelligible motivations for actions prompted by the president's gut rather than his head.

There's an element of guile, an element of childish spite, too, in his actions. He is possessed of a kind of reptile intelligence that glints, at times, through his small eyes. Perhaps for some long-internalized psychological reason, he has an obsessive need to assert himself, as though he were always driven by an inner fear, a sense of insufficiency, a feeling that he has something to prove to himself and those around him. Which is why, perhaps, he appears so often to act for no better reason than... because he can.