Turning Loss Into Depth And Wisdom

January 15, 2011 by  
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By Angie Rubin

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with a woman who had been my late husband’s friend.  I had seen her once before since his passing two and a half years ago.

The friend wanted to check in with me and again offer her support.  We talked for a while and then the conversation shifted to her brother.  She said we both had a lot in common; he’s a Buddhist – she said. Even though I don’t know her brother, I intuitively knew what she was trying to say.  She was referring to the quality of acceptance.

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The World Is Built On Appearances. How Can You Thrive In It?

December 15, 2010 by  
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By Angie Rubin

I sometimes feel like I sound like a broken record but again I must share how important it is for each one of us to connect with who we are and live accordingly.

Life is complicated, busy, and often misleading.  If we are not connected to our core we become victims of appearances and overload of information.  But here is the catch: respecting who we are assumes we also invest in being truthful with our own selves while acknowledging other people’s rights and existence.  I’m definitely not in support of anyone who thinks the world is for them or about them.

Buddhists often say we live in a world of illusion.  I’m not a Buddhist but I do agree with the statement.  Why?

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“A Buddhist Perspective on Grieving”

May 12, 2010 by  
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The below is an excerpt from a book by Roshi Joan Halifax.  It is one of the most insightful and delicate pieces on death and dying I’ve ever read.  So I wanted to share with you.


by Roshi Joan Halifax

The ultimate relationship we can have is with someone who is dying. Here we are often brought to grief, whether we know it or not. Grief can seem like an unbearable experience. But for those of us who have entered the broken world of loss and sorrow, we realize that in the fractured landscape of grief we can find the pieces of our life that we ourselves have forgotten.

Grief may push us into the hard question of Why? Why do I have to suffer like this? Why can’t I get over it? Why did this one have to die? Why… . In the tangled web of “Why,” we cannot find the reasons or words to make sense of our sadness.

Dying people also can grieve before they die. They can grieve in anticipation of their death for all they will seem to lose and what they have lost by being ill. Caregivers will grieve before those they care for have died. They are often saddened by the loss of freedom and options of those that are ill and the knowledge that death will rob them of one more relationship. Those that have been left behind by the dying are often broken apart by the knowledge that they cannot bring back that which has been lost. The irrevocability of it all often leaves them helpless and sad. And then there is the taste of grief in Western culture which is conditioned to possess and not let go.

We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion. Grief is often not addressed in contemporary Buddhism. Perhaps it is looked on as a weakness of character or as a failure of practice. But from the point of view of this practitioner, it is a vital part of our very human life, an experience that can open compassion, and an important phase of maturation, giving our lives and practice depth and humility.

To begin, it is important for us to remember that the experience of being with dying for many does not stop at the moment of death. As a caregiver of a dying person or family member who has been at the death of a relative, we may attend the body after death and offer our presence to the community as they and we grieve. When the details of dying and death are settled, then what arises from the depths of the human heart is the many expressions of sorrow when the presence of loss is finally give the room to be seen and felt.

Sometimes grieving lasts not for weeks or months but for years. Frequently the reason why grief is not resolved is that it has not been sufficiently attended to just after the loss of a loved one. Family and friends of the deceased can become consumed by the busyness of the business that happens right after someone dies.

This is one of the great problems that we face in the Western way of dying, that business is so much a part of the experience of dying and death. Survivors often face a complex situation on the material level in the after-death phase. They find themselves looking for a funeral home, letting friends and family know that a death has happened, and creating a funeral service. Unraveling health insurance, taxes, and the last will and testament also take time and energy at this stage. Later there is cleaning up, dividing and giving away the deceased’s property, and other seemingly endless chores of closure. Resorting to the business of death can be a way for survivors to avoid the depth of their own loss.

Like dying, grieving has its phases, and it is important to pass through them.
Similar to the phases of dying, grief can be characterized by numbness and denial, anger, great sorrow, depression, despair and confusion. Finally, there can be acceptance and even transcendence as sorrow has opened the door of appreciation and compassion. These phases are similar to those experienced in a rite of passage: separation, transition, return.

Grief can also arise as a person is dying. Family and friends as well as the one who is dying can experience what is called “anticipatory grief,” the bones of loss already showing. Working with that grief is an important part of what one can do in the care of the dying. In fact, most caregivers have to cross and recross this territory of grief in being with living and dying many times in the course of just one person dying…Continued


A Sandy Pool with Just Enough Water

June 15, 2009 by  
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This past Sunday morning at the Buddhist meeting I rolled out of bed to attend, the floor was opened to the meditators who’d come here seeking enlightenment (or just a little peace), as the monk that usually gives the dharma talk was presiding over a funeral.

We were invited to share our experiences of how the path and practice of Buddhism has brought about positive changes in our lives. This raised a question as to whether it is really possible to gauge the progression of spiritual growth in one’s life. Or whether there is any real point in trying to assess such a thing. As I sat listening to the exchange of ideas and experiences, and ruminated about what I might say in turn, a sense of futility lodged itself in my mind. As far as this spiritual journey is concerned, I often feel like a haggard wanderer, marching through the desert in search of a drink. At the last moment, just before keeling over, I find a sandy pool with just enough water to keep on trucking toward the promised oasis.

Such frustrations are like an unwelcome traveling companion that reminds me of my own distinct lack of “progress” in matters of the spirit. Like a stowaway on my spiritual journey, it keeps on my trail, whispering a vague message of the ultimate futility of all of my undertakings, both spiritual and secular. It’s a message that creeps in through some subconscious backdoor, then slowly diffuses into conscious recognition. It spells out a humbling verdict: all my plans and projects, the one’s I carry on dreaming about, amount to a pot of fool’s gold, puddles of inconsequential nonsense. (That includes this essay, in its current impoverished state). Paradoxically, I find this uplifting somehow, an acknowledgement of my own state of relative meaninglessness and cosmic ineptitude. It provides a real sense of relief from the pressures, expectations and obligations that the burden of a good education can place on a man’s life.

This is not to say that I don’t continue to take my pet projects seriously (I wish them all the best), nor that I should chuck them aside in a tantrum of despair. Like every other life form that’s been set loose on this planet I need an outlet for the photosynthetic energy that nature has stored up in my system (thank you Sun!) Better to channel this natural bounty toward mildly consequential pursuits than to allow it to dissipate and find dark crevasses to ferment in. And by recognizing the skimpy stature of my own schemes within the grand scheme, I am better able to impose order over the unruly hatchery of my dreams. After all, dreams complain incessantly when they aren’t allowed to come true. Unfortunately, they are like those little sea turtles on the mad dash for the ocean. All of them want to see the watery world. Only a few are truly destined for a taste of existence.

Anyhow, I think there might just be some real value hidden in my pot of fool’s gold. The phony bills I’ve got stashed there can be used to redeem existence from a sad state of excessive seriousness. We are all playing with the same pile of monopoly money; it’s a currency that can convert the dour business of living into a more enjoyable game.  An existential game that is, not a nihilistic slugfest.

The rules of the game are the same as those that apply to living anyway: The clock is always running. It all amounts to naught. The final score will always be zero. And you play as though your life depends on it.

While such thoughts wandered back and forth in my mind, all I had to contribute to the discussion was the following simple definition of spiritual progress that the monk had previously offered: If you are suffering less, you are making progress.

It’s hard to argue with that.


A Roadmap To Peace…

May 29, 2009 by  
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“Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

 “Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger just might be what it takes to save the planet from extinction.”

– Pema Chodron

In the Buddhist tradition much of human suffering is attributed to the effects of three primary forces that are at work in the human mind. This triad of psychic forces is generally translated as Greed, Hatred, and Illusion. Other wisdom traditions have developed similar frameworks in their analysis of the causes of human anguish. For example, the Roman Stoics warned against the influence of lust, pugnacity and acquisitiveness. According to these pragmatically oriented traditions, the task of building character, or of cultivating spiritual growth, aims to diminish the intensity of these forces that are circulating in the body-mind system. In doing so the practitioner creates a climate of inner peace from which an array of virtues may flow into the world.

The force of greed is born from an innate yearning to maintain a continuous stream of good inner feelings. It fuels the relentless drive to seek out experiences that will provide a steady stream of pleasure. This dimension of mind is charged up with an assortment of habitual cravings; with varying degrees of addiction that are directed towards objects or experiences that often lie beyond reach. The mental state of greed could consist of anything from lust, to an obsession with collecting handbags. It is a state in which appetites fan their own flames, generating an inner momentum that drives behavior.

The Buddhist approach to this problem is not an inordinately severe or ascetic one. It is not a position or path that endorses abstinence or a “just say no” mentality. It is a perspective that places the array of human desires in a sober context: Desire is seen as a good servant, but a bad master. It has an appropriate time and place. Moderation and proportion are necessary to keep its living flame from engulfing us in an inferno of agitation and addiction. Such states feel like a powerful spell that can compel us to make some really bad decisions. Desire is to be enjoyed when available to experience. When the world does not offer up the objects of our desire, despite having taken our best shot at getting them, letting go enables us to hold on – to a balanced and poised state of mind.

The mental force of hatred refers to the anger and aggression that can arise and overtake the mind when threatened in some way, or incited by a hostile or unpleasant presence. The mind of anger operates with an internal logic that is spelled out in its own native tongue. Under the influence of such a state, decisions and actions that would be seen as outrageous and destructive from a clearer and calmer vantage, seem entirely consistent and appropriate. They actually feel gratifying in the heat of the moment, often providing a sense of momentary relief and satisfaction. Invariably, this is followed by feelings of regret or even self-loathing, in proportion to the damage that has been done.

One way of looking at the phenomenon of destructive anger is through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. When applied in retrospect such postmortems often reveal great costs and negligible benefits. The primary cost of being drawn into this mental state comes with the loss of peace of mind – it leaves you shaken and disturbed.

Reflecting in this way can lead to a realization that the mind of anger is to be regarded with a healthy sense of skepticism and distrust. Bearing in mind its power to mislead, to contaminate our perceptions and to steer us down the road of regrettable action, can help us resist its gravitational pull. Doing so brings its own rewards, in the form of tranquility and a sense mastery that nurtures self-esteem. Of course there are practical benefits to exercising such restraint as well. By regarding the mind of anger from a skeptical distance we can preclude unnecessary confrontations, or at least prevent an escalation of hostilities. All of this takes real guts.

A distinction should be made between anger that has been channeled toward appropriate action, and anger that simply corrodes the mind until it boils over and unexpectedly explodes. Consider an example of injustice in the world, such as the Chinese occupation of Tibet. When hearing of daily events in this part of the world – the persecution, oppression and destruction of a people and its culture – it is hard not to feel a sense of indignation and anger toward the Chinese authorities. If such feelings become the basis for a course of constructive action – e.g. active participation and opposition to these injustices, then it has served a useful purpose. Such anger has been harnessed to good effect. If however it is just another source of distress, another axe to grind, further evidence to fuel a sense of despair about the condition of the globe, it only serves to erode one’s peace of mind. The idea then, is to engage energetically while maintaining a clear sense of conviction and a cool head.

The mental phenomenon of illusion is the grand-daddy of the entire family of woes that inhabit the human mind. The mind of illusion consists of distorted or partial perspectives, of perceptions that are clouded and buffeted on a sea of unstable emotions, and is the root that grows beneath the other two categories of mental anguish.

I have no illusions about having breached these walls of illusion – or more accurately, my head is filled with just such illusions. So I will say just a few things based upon the occasional glimpse behind the veil …

… It is a state that is charged with expectations that are levied upon an indifferent and impersonal universe. It is a vantage from which it is difficult to distinguish circumstances that can be influenced or controlled through personal effort, from those that unfold independently of our will and wishes. The mind of illusion obsesses with schemes and configurations of thought that are designed to sway the world in its favor. It imagines a desired outcome will emerge from the nervous energies it brews up in high doses. While it may succeed in generating an abundant supply of such energy, the only certain outcome will be the erosion of our own peace.

Needless to say, the project of quelling these energies, of redirecting mental and physical currents that are charged with their own natural momentum, of rearranging errant and longstanding habits of mind, is a daunting one. It involves the cultivation of a form of insight that watches over the mind with an increasingly refined eye; it entails keeping a vigil that observes the impulses and tricks the mind involuntarily plays.   

Through the habitual cultivation of this form of contemplative perception, a practitioner can progressively strengthen the power of an inwardly focused lens that observes the activity of the mind. In doing so she creates the conditions that make it possible to see her world with increasing clarity – to recognize what separates conscious experience from what is referred in Buddhism as the “basic goodness” that is inherent in all Being. It is a path whereby one may cultivate an increasing experience of an inner peace that ultimately blossoms to express itself in the world.


Point Dume…

May 22, 2009 by  
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A small wedding party has climbed out onto a rocky promontory that overlooks the Pacific and offers a sweeping view of the Santa Monica Bay. From the beach a few hundred feet below I watch the windblown figures and imagine their vows rising above the ocean currents, and falling into the wind. The contrast between the fragility of these figurines, and the stillness and solidity of the ancient rock they have been momentarily set upon, is apparent on this windy day.

This rock was once a sacred site to the Chumash Indians who inhabited the region in another time. The body of water that lies between the Channel Islands and the mainland comprised the watery universe this people lived upon, adorning it with myths and ways that have been washed away, essentially without a trace. I wonder about the rituals that were enacted atop this rock as the Chumash and others before them made their passage through time.

Human beings tend to view their lives with a sense of ownership, an implicit assumption that we are permanent fixtures of the landscape we inhabit. We have been wired with a distinct preference for immortality and a strong distaste for its alternative. Our culture further barricades our sensibilities against the uneasy murmurings of impermanence that surround us. This leaves us unclear as to the terms of a natural contract whose only guarantee is that we are just passing through. It is an outlook that comes at a cost, as most delusions do.

Not long ago I listened as a Zen monk delivered a dharma talk that touched upon this delusion, and on the human capacity to pierce it. A consideration of the Buddhist idea of “insight” was central to this discussion. This is a term of particular significance in the Vippassana Buddhist tradition, whose central practices are referred to as insight meditation.

The definition of insight that was offered by this monk was unusual in its simplicity and directness. It did not elaborate on complex theories of mind, or offer sublime strategies to unveil the illusory and errant machinery of human consciousness. Rather, it defined insight in the following way: it is a recognition that we are all occupants of transient vessels, that each of us is confronted by the same fundamental circumstances, that the human lifespan is alarmingly short, that our passage through the world is a one-way, one-time trip, that we will all ultimately disappear without a trace. The natural consequence of such insight, the monk continued, is a disposition and an inclination to co-exist with our equally impermanent neighbors, in a manner that is conducive to peace and harmony. The attainment of such insight (which is tantamount to grasping the central Buddhist tenet of impermanence) yields an attitude of empathy and gentle regard. It generates a desire to maintain a consistent course of action in this singular life that is guided by an ethos of shared vulnerability. The inclination to over-power, to make trouble for ones fellow beings, is subdued by such a vision of life. It is a vision that situates each of us within a highly intricate and fragile ecosystem that is defined by its ephemeral beauty. Nevertheless, it is a vision rooted in hard reality, not  soft ideals and the benevolence it generates is a natural ethic that flows from an awareness of our mutual, magnificent transience.

There is a wistful sense of surrender in such an attitude towards ones own life and the lives of others. We have each been designed with the fatal flaw that insures our own mortality. In this, if in nothing else that may be apparent to us, we are undeniably and inescapably brothers. This recognition compels us to confront a simple and profoundly significant question: How do I wish to behave toward my brothers, what is the legacy I wish to leave when I too disappear without a trace?