A life amounts to a collection of choices — large and small, but mostly small. The quality of a life relates to the truthfulness of those choices.
There are certain sects of Buddhism that believe that karma binds us more to some of the people in our lives, to the extent that those bonds continue throughout various reincarnations.
I have uncomfortable feelings about reincarnation, but the idea of having a greater karmic connection with some folks sees obvious to me. I believe that all things in our lives play a role in our awakening. They are our teachers, unwittingly offering the challenges we need to develop into our true selves. In my experience, they return us to our path when we’ve meandered. And our meandering most often has to do with the challenges they’ve given us in the first place.
My point is, you start out on what you think is your path with the best of intentions: I will be this kind of mother; I will be that kind of wife. Then the folks you have chosen to walk that path with reveal to you bit by bit—or sometimes in much more significant ways—that you were never on your true path to begin with. They reveal yourself to you, and slowly you discover your footing on the right path.
I find that the most basic lessons take the longest to understand. And by understanding, here, I mean that kind of knowing that feels knitted in your bones—the kind of understanding that makes you realize the truth has always been with you, if only hidden from your view. So, things like how to love unconditionally, the significance of loyalty, the grace of self-sacrifice, the relief that comes with compassion and kindness (both giving and receiving). All the things the sages and prophets have shown us through the millennia, the things we know by heart (but not by bone). These are the fundamentals that take a lifetime to master but that life seems to be all about.
I discovered that for myself one day, trying frantically to unlock the mystery of enlightenment. You see, I had come to believe that the only way I could know how to help my oldest child, the only way I could know how to behave properly to best support my youngest, the only way I could truly be a good partner was to become enlightened, to become a buddha myself. Obviously, I am not enlightened, but these are some of the things I have come to understand from my seeking:
- There are certain basic concepts that I will struggle to stretch my mind to understand until I realize I don’t need to understand them. I plant the seed, and eventually my understanding will grow in its own time. I think that is the “faith” that most belief systems refer to. It’s a kind of letting go.
- Enlightenment is not an epiphany; it is the path, the daily practice of being. Like most things of universal value, enlightenment occurs by degrees, almost imperceptibly, through behaving as one who is enlightened.
- The concept of the not-self is fundamental—there is nothing more distracting from my true path than my ego, my will. This, I think, is also a cornerstone of all belief systems, but one of the most difficult truths to fathom. Because, after all, how do we remove the self-interest from ourselves?
All of this started today with my children arguing—the oldest being mean to the youngest. Half of my cucumber seeds not germinating. Me feeling like an inadequate parent. Waking up to dog shit on the doormat. The potato plants flowering too early. Me uncharacteristically wanting—no, needing—social interaction—like, with people. Sunny still sitting on her unfertilized eggs.
I more or less violently reject all of these things. I am attached to my idea of how all these things should be. But these things have something else to teach me, I feel, and I can only learn their truth by letting go of my ego, my own thinking about what is right, and recognize that there is something much larger at play here, something that I cannot see all the parts of.
I am fighting with myself about publishing these thoughts, partly because of my irrational fear of exposure, partly because I may be wrong, and partly because I may feel differently tomorrow (and somehow we have come to the strange conclusion that inconsistency is a bad thing). I am having to remind myself that the whole point of this blog was for me to catalog some of my thoughts and experiences before my cognitive functioning disintegrates entirely as part of the fallout from my neuro-eccentricity. I wanted proof, documentation, that I had thoughts, was capable of thinking. I wanted my children to see more than grocery lists for bologna and vodka, like I discovered in my father’s apartment after his death. There is more to us all, and to have only the litter of our choices be our legacy feels incredibly empty to me. But I am fighting with my ego here again. Ultimately, living a good life would leave no trace. Neither Buddha nor Jesus left any writings. So why my preoccupation with leaving evidence that I once had a mind?
Maybe that’s not really my goal. Maybe my goal is to outsource my memory so that in the darkest times to come, I can read this and remember the seasons, my preoccupations, the suffering and the beauty, my humanity. Maybe I am writing in celebration of and to remember living.
Or maybe it’s all more immediate than that. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me put names to feelings that might otherwise disrupt my mood. Writing for an audience requires me to frame things more positively or, ideally, with humor, and my final thoughts on a subject are then colored by that positivity.
Yes. I like the sound of that one best. I am not having an ego or attachment crisis—just making sense of some of my experiences. And in the process of writing this, it has been revealed to me that all those things that I so violently rejected this morning are simply the stuff of life. Accepting those things and dealing with them with compassion is, in fact, my path.
I am preoccupied with thoughts of my eldest child. But hers is not my story to tell, so I’ll talk about Sunny and belonging—two topics which, on the surface, seem completely unrelated.
Sunny is my most fussy chicken. She’s a fancy French breed with a noisy call and five toes and feathered feet. She reminds me a bit of a country music star—yodeling, fringed, and spangled.
The days are lengthening, so Sunny is trying to make her unfertilized eggs hatch. She has spent three days cooped up in the nesting boxes, taking only a few minutes each day to scarf down some peas, gargle some water, and shout at the other girls, who are not so shaken up by their hormones. Today, I locked her out of her nesting box for the morning, and returned to the chicken yard to find that she had flown the coop—into the children’s play yard.
I can only say that I am incredibly grateful that my fence is so high, so that nobody could watch the spectacle of me trying to round up a temperamental, broody hen. In short, she’s back in the chicken yard, the nesting boxes are open for service again, and I have no idea what I will find when I next make it through the orchard to chat with the chickens.
Hormones make us crazy. I’m sure that’s a loaded statement, but I mean to discharge such a load. Hormones make us so blind to how things really are that we can view a loved one trying to help us as an assailant trying to cause us harm. They can make us obsess fruitlessly until our feathers are dull. They can reveal aspects of our personality that we don’t even recognize as part of ourselves. And all the while, everyone watching from afar knows what it is and that it will pass, though we do not.
I have read and watched many biographies of folks with bipolar, and there are a few common threads among all those fraught stories: namely, the age of the first (albeit, mild) episode and the feeling from childhood of being apart, an alien, or in the wrong family—basically, of not belonging.
I’ve covered the first in my Sunny illustration. The doctors believe bipolar first reveals itself at adolescence. But you ask any parent or sufferer, and they will likely tell you that the turning point was closer to nine or ten. The flood of hormones that occurs at adolescence only amplifies the potential that has been there for years.
The second is significant because I believe you cannot achieve mental health without a sense of belonging to something, someone, or someplace. This is the relational connectedness I talked about in an earlier post. And folks with bipolar seem predisposed to feel that they do not belong—and in fact, our difference unfortunately makes it so in so many cases.
I remember a time a few years back when I was in corpse pose following root chakra yoga. There came a point in the deep relaxation of all of my muscles when the instructor said something like relax into the Earth; know that you are welcome; know that you belong; know that you are home. I burst into an ecstatic fit of tears, grieving for my poor lost self that had struggled for so many years, and elated that I had found my place; I had inhabited my place all along.
That new sense of belonging to this world was crucial for my awakening (or maybe a result of it). In any case, I felt reborn. I had spent so much time fighting against everyone and even myself, and all because I felt I did not belong, that no one wanted me. And once that sense of belonging was intact, I was free to begin building my life, truly, for the first time. Previously, I had been going through the motions, and then regularly tearing down all that I had built. Belonging meant I could now build with stones instead of paper.
My worry is that you cannot bring another to a sense of belonging. Perhaps you can offer her comfort or respite along the way. And hope she doesn’t succumb to oblivion-seeking behaviors in the meantime. But there is no magic word, no perfect touch to help someone realize that she already belongs. I make a habit of saying to my children that they belong to me, to our family, to our community. That they have an important role to play in this world. That they could have come into existence at only one point in the history of the universe, and that makes them magnificent beings with significant work to do here—that we need them. And I hope, with skin-tingling, hand-shaking effort, that those words find their way into their bones.
My eldest child’s struggles are by no means new. But it is the first time she is experiencing them. And it is deeply troubling to come to this point, after decades of personal struggle and suffering, and still not be able to give her what she needs to find her way. We can inherit our parent’s shame, but not their wisdom. It seems that wisdom is something we can only gain through first-hand experience. And with hormones beginning to mold my child into an adult, I once again find myself battening down the hatches in preparation for an incredible storm.
I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.
This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.
When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.
In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.
The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.
After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.
I am beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as failure. Failure suggests an absolute system of judging correctness, success, goodness. But, in what has been revealed to me of the universe, there are few true absolutes—and certainly moral absolutism is far too small to be of universal consequence.
What I’m getting at is that on an individual level, failure is an illusion. Take this morning. Despite all my preparations to help things run smoothly (but oh! Even now I am thinking of more things I could have done! My monkey brain working to accept responsibility for the failure of our morning), my neuro-eccentric daughter lost control and had another one of her fits. It could have been very messy indeed, but there was no shouting (from me at least), no holding of arms and legs, no attempts at “controlling” the situation. I sat and acknowledged that the natural consequences of her actions were sufficient. My children were late to school, but I feel no responsibility for that fact.
From the outside, I failed. According to society, my job today as their mother was to feed them, clothe them appropriately, and get them to school on time with all they needed. While this morning didn’t go how I had hoped, and my own schedule and emotional equilibrium was disrupted, I succeeded at being mindful in my words and actions. This success is significant for me. So much so that I cannot view the morning as a failure. But perhaps that is because I am getting better at not holding myself and my neuro-eccentric daughter to society’s standards of success.
This is the key. People like us cannot function well within the socially defined parameters for how one should behave or even according to the standard definitions of productivity and success. (Many would argue that it is because we exist outside those norms and many others that we are valuable tools for social change, while others would argue that that is precisely the reason we need to be locked up or at least medicated, sedated.) Thus, “failure” is a highly charged concept for a neuro-eccentric.
My point is, I have spent a great deal of my life feeling ashamed of my “failures,” holding myself to standards that were not meant for me. I did an incredible amount of damage to myself. From the age of nine, I have been aware that I am different. What I did not know was that that was something to be celebrated. So, I spent decades hurting myself in one way or another, trying to be more like something that was accepted, raging against all that was accepted, or punishing myself for not being acceptable. And for what? Some nonsense absolutist ideal of success and failure?
I wonder what I could have accomplished by now if my difference had been celebrated from the beginning. And then I hear a little voice that says that my value is in my path, in the way I walk that path, in the discoveries I make along the way. Not in accomplishments, because, quite frankly, no accomplishment would ever have been enough to make me feel truly accepted.
I don’t mean to get all pop-psychology here. I mean to talk about the false structures that inform our perception of who we are and what our purpose is. Society paints a backdrop of a world based on false absolutes. The world we see in that image is not the real world. The real world lies beyond the backdrop, and the way to see it is to dissolve society’s falseness in our minds. This is part of what the Buddha’s teachings mean to me.
So, I am not a failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am in fact making progress on my path.
The morning air is fragrant with mountain laurel. The plum tree is covered in blossom and bees. The chickens are frantically laying and then settling on their infertile eggs, expectantly. In much earlier times, we would be preparing for the end of our late-winter fasts, as the ground would finally be workable again, and the first edible leaves would be emerging.
My sap is rising too. I am feeling hopeful about the true start of the new year—when I feel truly reborn. I suppose, then, it makes sense that I should be thinking about forgiveness. Spring is our release from the suffering of winter—forgiveness is our salvation from self-imposed suffering.
I found myself talking to my father this morning. I have always struggled to let go of my difficult feelings about him—and there have been many. But it wasn’t until he was murdered almost six years ago that my failure to forgive turned inside out, and I became aware of my need to forgive myself. I can’t explain the alchemy underlying that strange transference, that backwards inheritance of my own failings. Yes, some of my need for forgiveness had to do with not being there for him when he died, or somehow not preventing it. But most of it had to do with the way I had conducted myself in our relationship: laying all the burden of guilt on his shoulders when I could always have thrown off the mantel of the victim and embraced him for the lovely man he truly was.
So, daddy and I chatted today about one particular instance from when I was a child, an instance for which I now realize he unjustly punished himself. He didn’t need my forgiveness today, but his own—this I understood. I, too, need to forgive myself for carrying the memory of that hurtful event for far longer than I should have. I need to lay down any blame I am carrying for how his life unfolded.
At some point in my yoga routine, Sean Corne asks: “Can you forgive yourself for the things you have done?”
The answer is: I have not managed it yet. Though I recognize that this is the root of so many difficulties—this is what makes me a bad person in my own eyes, unworthy of love, a narrative which in turn informs my interactions with others, none of which can ever seem to erase that essential fact, regardless of how loving those interactions may be.
And this is the point. If I cannot forgive myself for the things I have done, I will continue to believe myself unworthy of love and kindness. Forgiveness starts with the self: a kind of psycho-spiritual renewal brought about by simply letting go of the narratives we have about who we are and what we’ve done. Only then can we let go of the narratives we have about others.
There is a Buddhist story that involves two monks. The monks come to a river crossing and find a well-dressed woman there who needs to cross, but who does not want to spoil her silk dress. The first monk grumbles and crosses without her, angrily gesticulating as he does; the second monk carries her on his back across the river. On the other side, the second monk leaves the lady by the bank, and the monks continue on their path. After walking a great distance, with the first monk growing more and more angry with every passing moment, he asks his companion why he carried that self-absorbed rich lady across the river. The second monk replies that it really was no burden: he had put her down by the river long ago, though his grumpy companion still seemed to be carrying her.
Spring, ripe with its resurrections, is the time to set our own rich ladies by the river and continue, unencumbered, on our path.