Friday, March 18, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe Easy

Whenever a tragedy occurs, like the earthquake, tsunami and impending nuclear meltdown in Japan, there is a collective grief that hangs in the air.   Everyone feels it.

What do we do in the face of such suffering?

We might turn away.  Or obsess over CNN.  Or feel overwhelmed, guilty, helpless, numb.  We may become more self absorbed as a defense to such enormous grief and then think: "How can I be so obsessed with my little life when there's bigger fish to fry in the universal pan?"

In Buddhism, the first Noble Truth that "life is suffering" is not a proclamation that "life sucks".  It's a truth urging us to be more willing to face suffering squarely.  To really look in to its eyes.  When we practice this, we can handle anything that comes our way.

There is a belief – especially in recent years – that we must think only happy thoughts and to avoid, avert and distract ourselves from what is.  We avoid "bad energy" at all costs and after awhile, we're living like ostriches, with our blindfolded head in the pink sand, believing that this will attract shiny happy things in our lives.  This way of living can actually create more fear.  It can make us live smaller.

And facing suffering, understanding suffering, doesn’t mean being glued to the TV watching horribleimage after horrible image for hours on end.  This, actually, can be a hysterical indulgence after a certain point.

So what do you do?

You could donate to The Red Cross, you could call to make sure friends and relatives are safe, you could organize a benefit.  But beyond this, what the hell do you do in order to understand such suffering on a deep level?  I don't know completely.  But I've been doing Tonglen.

Tonglen is a beautiful practice for suffering.  Basically, you breathe in suffering and you breathe out relief.  You actually relate to suffering, rather than turn away.  Rather than worry and obsess.  Rather than wish things were different. 

The Buddhist path is one of fearlessness.  When you truly feel that nothing in life can touch your inner sense of grace, deep peace and happiness, you become braver in life.  You take risks.  You live bigger.  You're happier.

Funny, that.

So.  What to do in the face of such suffering?  When there is seemingly no compassionate action you can take in the moment?  Try Tonglen.

Heart of Bodhicitta:
Get in contact with your open, loving, wise heart.  If you have trouble with this, just think of you at your best.  This heart is from where all your good deeds have ever sprung.  This is a place of spaciousness, wisdom, stillness, clarity, compassion and loving kindness.  A collection of all that is good in you.  Trust me, it’s there.  If you don’t think you have it, borrow someone else’s.  Hell, Angelina Jolie’s will work.  Or Mother Theresa.  Or your great grandma.  But see it as a beautiful orb of light in the center of your chest.  Maybe golden light, or pure white light.  However this resonates with you, get in contact with your heart of bodhicitta, your inherent goodness and compassionate wisdom that is there.  Rest your attention here for a while.  Count to ten breaths.

Breathe In Suffering:
Now see the suffering of another, perhaps a loved one, as a black cloud.  It’s hot and thick.  Breathe this black cloud of suffering in to your spacious, open, loving heart.  Your heart uses it for fuel and…

Breathe Out Relief:
...As you breathe out, exhale relief to those in suffering in the form of this beautiful light from your heart.  Exhale compassion, loving kindness, stillness, expansive clarity and wisdom.  All that is limitless and true in your heart of bodhicitta.  Let these qualities touch and relieve those beings who suffer.

In, suffering, out, relief.  In, blackness, out, light.

We want to not do such a thing, right?  I mean, breathing in suffering?  Are you nuts?  Try it anyway.

Breathe in the suffering of others.  Focus on a single being at first.  Perhaps a woman who has lost her child in the tsunami.  A nuclear plant worker.  A dog who cannot find its master, roaming the devastated shoreline.

Breathe in your own suffering; your own resistance to life, your resistance to your meditation practice, your resistance to washing the dishes after dinner and the fight you always get in to with your loved one about it.

Breathe in the truth of life; that we all have suffering of some kind or another, taking various shapes and forms that are no more and no less suffering.

Breathe out the truth of inherent wisdom, kindness, compassion, spaciousness, stillness, clarity.

Eventually, with this practice, you begin to hold suffering and bodhicitta together, in the palm of the same hand, neither fearing and averting, nor attaching and preferring.  It’s all of it.  Just like life.  

I do Tonglen for myself, for loved ones, for a woman with a suffering face in line at the grocery store.  For my parents, who did the best they could.  For ex boyfriends who didn't do whatever they didn't do.  For those who have caused harm to me.  For those to whom I've caused harm.  For a dear friend who's going through a breakup.  For an entire nation that is ravaged by loss and devastation. 

And I begin to be able to face the un-faceable.  And I begin to know there is something else there alongside all that suffering.

And low and behold I find I can truly handle whatever comes my way more often than not.  This breeds a trust that is always there.  Well, most of the time.   And so I keep practicing.  In and out.   In and out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

True Nature Calls

I’m all about growing and getting better at being human.  Let me clarify: not becoming a better human but getting better at being human.  Because this shit’s hard.  And I think there is an art to it.

I do a lot – I meditate, I’m in therapy, I read spiritual books, I am consciously trying to break patterns and habits that do not serve me or the world.  It’s a full time job.  And some days I just feel like screaming:


So I let myself be stuck and miserable and feel sorry for myself.  And I really let it wash over me.  I’m a method actress, you know.  I get in to it.  I'm that good.  And after about a day of honoring how I feel - which is so important - I think:

"Wow.  This sucks.  This is actually a lot harder than doing it the other way."

So then I go back to growing and changing and evolving and expanding and transforming and transcending.  Which actually feels easier on some level.  Maybe because the Universe is always growing and changing and evolving and expanding and transforming and transcending.  So it must be that when I am, too, I'm in sync.  I am aligned.  I am honoring my true nature.

We're all prone to bad days.  And we're all meant to thrive. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?

Life is tough.  Often, things don’t go the way we want.  It’s messy, imperfect and unpredictable.  Plus, it’s always changing.  Just when things get comfy and we believe we have some ground under our feet, shit happens.  And we resist it.  That makes things worse.  So this covers at least two “marks of existence”, according to Buddhism: suffering and impermanence.

Oh!  And that suffering and impermanence business I just mentioned is always about ourselves.  Me, me, me.  It’s all about me!  How can I make this about meeeee?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, covers the third and final “mark of existence” known as not self.  In a nutshell, we perceive everything through the lens of self and really, in the largest sense, it’s not about us.

Which brings me to me.  I had a bar show the other night that I want to tell you about.  But before I get back to me (which I can assure I will) let’s just review for a moment those curious three marks of existence, that are the foundation of Buddhist teachings:

Suffering (dukkha)
Impermanence (anicca)
Not-Self (anatta)

You might be thinking: “That’s great, but what does this have to do with me?”  Aha!  Now you’re doing it.  OK, we’re all doing it.

Anyway, I had a bar show the other night.  Bar shows are unpredictable and messy.  There’s usually one or two tables that refuse to shut up and a TV is blaring with some sports game and the patrons who are supposed to be listening to your brilliant comedic rantings are wasted.  Not fun.  At least not for the comics.

There’s an old Catskills style joke that goes like this:

A man on a New York street stopped a passerby, asking:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The passerby replied: “Practice, practice, practice.”

A while back, I made the choice to view every challenge in life as an opportunity to practice something.

This came in handy in 2008, when I almost died.  Twice.  I had undiagnosed appendicitis and by the time the doc figured it out, some shit had not just gone down, it had hit the proverbial fan.  A raging infection, two surgeries, ongoing care from a nurse, much pain and uncertainty and four months later, I was finally able to get back to my life. 
When the first ghastly pangs of appendicitis started - during my birthday weekend, no less - and nobody could figure out what it was, I remember my inner voice saying stuff like:

"But it's my birthday!"

“I wish this wasn’t happening!”


"Why me?"

…and then a light bulb went off.  And I relaxed.  This is what’s happening.  Wishing it wasn’t will only compound my suffering.  So surrender.  Which is not resignation, by the way.  Surrender is not giving up, but giving over to whatever situation you find yourself in and meeting it fully.  And I had plenty of opportunity to practice this during the four-month-appendicitis-hell.   Which wasn't so hellish after all, thanks to the practice of surrender.
So back to something almost as painful as appendicitis: bar shows!

At the bar show the other night, waiting to go on, I took in the surroundings.  There was a table up front texting and talking, a few tables laughing and enjoying things (thankfully); a large table in back YELLING at each other throughout the entire show and some tables off to the side cheering whoever was winning the game on TV.  And the inner voices inside me were almost winning:

“Oh god, I wish I wasn’t here.  I wish they were listening.  I wish the sound system was louder” and on and on.

Right before I was about to get up on stage, my loving, wonderful, mind-reading boyfriend got up from his chair, whispering to me:

“That’s it.  I’m going to tell them to be quiet.” 

Heart flutters.  My prince!  But I paused a moment as the light bulb went off and I whispered back:

“Thank you, but don't say anything; it’s fine.”  And he got it.  He knows me so well.

I wanted to meet what is and work with it.  That’s the spiritual way of looking at it.  The comic’s way of looking at it?  I love a challenge, it’ll make me better, so bring it on, bitches!!

So I stepped up there and met the moment.  Dealing with TVs on, audience members who had no idea they were audience members and a noise level that rivaled the circus helped me get very present and very creative.  I was relaxed but on my toes. 

I didn’t compound my suffering by wishing it was different.  I practiced surrendering to what is and thus found a place from which to work with the situation.  In resistance, we can’t find that place.  Throughout my set, I picked and chose material that suited the circumstances.  Perhaps not a night to whip out the subtlest and smartest comedy material, but a night for material that would get their attention.  I talked to them.  I called out the situation and made fun of it.  But more than anything, I just worked with what was happening, even though I wanted to hate what was happening.

I kept practicing the release of the desire to make this about me.  My ego wanted to let the circumstances tell me something about my identity, my “self”, even though in a larger sense it really had nothing to do with me.  It was just another show.  Not self.  I wanted to listen to the inner voice that told me I’m a failure for still doing bar shows.  And that because I’m not performing at Carnegie Hall but instead at a place offering $5 baskets of shrimp, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me, my life and everything I stand for.  But I chose not to go there. Well, not completely.  Practice, practice, practice.  

And finally I practiced releasing attachment to things staying a certain way.  At various points during my set, they were listening instead of watching TV, laughing instead of drunkenly shouting to their friends.  But I accepted it might not stay that way.  ImpermanenceChange is the only constant we have.  I may have their attention now, but I refuse to take it personally or get thrown if two minutes from now they’re back to cheering on Kobe.  Or whoever has the football at the moment.  The Lakers are a football team, right?  Can’t remember.  Anyway, back to me.

Success!  I had a good time, the audience (that was listening) had a good time and miraculously some people who weren’t listening actually listened and even laughed.  Sure, I was proud of myself for meeting a small challenge like this with awareness.  The practice is paying off.  But then I proceeded to get in a fight with my boyfriend on the way home where I said things I wish I hadn’t and generally acted like an asshole. I’m human, what can I say?  We’re all trying to do our best.  Practice, practice, practice.

In every aspect of our lives, practice, practice, practice.  And eventually we will get to Carnegie Hall...whatever that is for each of us.