the original kStyle blog.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Becoming a Transformer (Warning: Infinite Navel-Gazing Ahead)

One of my aspirations is to become a transformer. There are those people who can truly help others transform their difficulties, sorrows, anger. Thich Nhat Hanh is the obvious example for me.

It's so easy to absorb rather than transform. When a friend tells you about her bad day and then you feel weighted down--absorption. That's how I've spent most of my life so far, absorbing. I think I was taught, not overtly, that this is the proper and compassionate response. But really, absorption just adds more "icky" to the world and doesn't help the first person feel any better. And I've noticed that champion absorbers become very tired and burnt out and then can't even listen to their friends or family. I've been there. I've been a sponge.

I've learned not to absorb, mostly, and I'm so grateful for that. I learned that as part of my shiatsu training. One day in my first semester I told my teacher that I developed the symptoms of my shiatsu recipient, but the recipient felt better after the treatment. My teacher--I will always love her for this--told me that we should not have porous energy that lets in the pathologies. We shouldn't be sponges! I'd never heard that before, not really. So I began making myself solid, and finding I could help others better when I don't take on their stuff.

Then, through the teachings of Thich Hhat Hanh and other great Buddhists, I've been learning not only not to absorb, but to transform the negative emotion. Watering positive seeds in myself and others. Sitting with hurting people and listening without judgment. And this really works, even in my barely-developed capacity to practice. The first step, of course, is to do it for myself. For myself and for the good of others! What a concept for someone raised Catholic.

Since returning from the retreat, I've been trying to find ways to water positive seeds. My grandma was complaining that all the "old people" in her assisted living community talk too much to her and ask her whenever they need help. Why do they ask me? Why do they talk to me so much? My former response choices would have been: 1. agree but later roll my eyes about how Grandma is such a complainer; 2. sympathize and possibly feel irritated along with Grandma; 3. ask follow-up questions that reinforced Grandma's negativity and feeling of victimization. Instead, I breathed in and out, smiled, thought for a moment, and replied, "Grandma, it's because you have a such a friendly face and a nice personality." And I could see it--her perspective changed, she smiled and looked more relaxed, dropping the subject. It was no longer that they were taking advantage--it was a compliment!

Over the weekend, my mother was stressed out (and resentful) because she had to plan Grandpa's birthday party at last-minute. I'm familiar with many of the storylines that run through her head: I'm the child who does all the work and is never appreciated, I hold the family together, my parents manipulate me. So after the party, at which Mom was in an anxious and irritable state but putting on the tight smile, I wondered how to approach her. Usually I end up reinforcing her storylines, which makes no one happy; or retreating from the unpleasantness and leaving Mom hanging, feeling badly. I didn't want to do either. I said lightly, "Mom, you did a great job pulling together that party at the last minute. Everyone seemed relaxed and I think everyone had a good time." That night she was still crabby (but not directed at us; directed inward, but I can still feel it!). Then, a few days later, she called and thanked me for saying that! She said it made her feel so much better! It was wild, and such a nice thing for me to hear--I felt good, too.

Oh, and at the party, Grandpa couldn't finish the clams he'd ordered. He first announced generally that we should all eat some clams. No one wanted any. Then he called each of us until he got our individual attention (interrupting conversations etc) and offered the poor clams. Everyone said no. But he wouldn't let it drop. I could feel irritation rising. I could see that Grandpa was for some reason anxious about leaving all the clams and he almost couldn't let it drop. So I said, "Sure, Grandpa, I'll take a clam. Thank you." I put it in my mouth, Grandpa relaxed and moved on with life, my stomach said, "Don't you DARE swallow that thing," and I discreetly returned the gritty clam to its shell. (Note to restaurant: You're supposed to clean the steamers. CLEEEAAAAN them.) In the past, I never would have thought to make this ceremonial gesture, but I was glad it came to me. I was the Sacrificial Clam that night, but we all won in the end.

The Buddha is the great physician and his teachings are the great medicine, they say. I'll agree with them.

And yes, there are weird family dynamics on my mom's side.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Last evening was the Harvest Moon. We went for a walk in the park and (to our surprise) saw a bunch of children--mostly Chinese, but a mix--placing candles in the water. Then we rounded the bend and saw a huge, red moon hanging low in the bluegray sky. I did a Moon Salutation; G. was too self-conscious to join me in that, but he enjoyed looking at the moon.

If only I knew where to get a moon cake outside of the city. A sticky sweet cake with a whole egg yolk in the middle--sort of gross, but also really yummy. (I guess that's why the Chinese only eat them once a year!)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tell Me True

Anyone else here like liver? Delicious.

I'm in favor of tribal casinos in Massachusetts because I believe in letting the First Nations enjoy a clever way of getting back some of the wealth, livelihood, and dignity robbed of them. It's bullshit when people say these are "fake" tribes. If the tribes are in fact shadows of their former selves, let's pause for a moment and think why that might be. And also, casinos give retired old ladies and the Chinese something to do. The Chinese reportedly love those casinos.

That's all.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I Feel Bad for Britney.

That's all.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


My yoga teacher had a potluck at her house on Friday. She is a strict vegetarian; really, she's quite strict about her diet in general. She tried the ice cream one man offered, but commented about how she hasn't tasted ice cream since the last potluck, which I found slightly awkward.

The next morning, G and I drove to Chinatown to meet friends for one of my very favorite excursions--dim sum! For dim sum enjoyment, you must bring a sense of adventure and leave behind your shellfish allergy. What's in that dumpling? Who knows! The women pushing the cart does, but she doesn't know how to tell you in English. Why is there pork in the middle of a sweet, angel-food-cake-like roll? And how did the pork itself become sweet and bright red? Who knows! But hey, sweet pork can be delicious! And oh look, there's a shrimp in that other thing! Yum!

This unusual combination of food experiences--Vedic asceticism straight to delightful Taoist openness--made me want to start a new food movement, or maybe a branch of the Slow Food Movement: The Omnivory Movement. Food movements are usually defined by what is not eaten--meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, sugar, pork, shellfish, eggs...vegetables, if you're one of those Neanderthal Dieters...Let's have a movement that instead celebrates the wide variety of foods that humans can eat! We shall rejoice in fresh tomatoes, crusty breads, pungent cheeses, meats and sweets!

PS I was very grateful that our dim sum friends appeared interested in my 3-minute dissertation on why the sesame roll filled with red bean paste is a perfect Taoist food, complete with detailed description of the yin and yang elements of said roll. Very polite.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dying Takes Longer Than I Thought

One of the basic Buddhist teachings, especially prevalent in Tibetan schools, in the immediacy of death: You could die today! Wake up! Wake up! That teaching (as outlined in Lama Surya Das' Awakening the Buddha Within), plus a friend dying at age 25 of cancer---along with reading Thich Nhat Hanh's beautiful teachings on dying; an article by a massage therapist about his work in hospice; and a book I once produced on hospice---these sparked my desire to volunteer in hospice.

I had this notion that people on hospice were about to die. Right now. Any second. Because, after all, we could die. Right now. Any second. So, hospice patients could especially die. I was surprised to learn, then, at my training that there is the dying process and then there is active dying. Patients can begin hospice once a physician estimates that they have six months or less to live. Humans begin active dying--with its particular set of signs and symptoms--two weeks to a few days before leaving their earthly shells. And this article states that there is also a pre-active dying phase.

Which is to say, I began visiting hospice a month ago and both of my patients are still alive without even a trace of the rattles. Disorientation is another sign of the Angel of Death, but one of my patients has advanced Alzheimer's; disorientation is a given. She had thick oral secretions during one of my visits, but then they went away. I had expected that I'd be getting a new patient every-other week, but it turns out: Death, like Buddha, takes its time.

This makes sense: One cannot rush a natural process, not really. As the Chinese proverb goes, You can't make shoots grow faster by pulling up on them. Anyone who bakes yeasted bread knows that wait and patience are as essential as flour. Bread is alive and happens on its own time. My friends who are mothers have found that the baby emerges when it's ready, defying Mom's wishes from the start. And once, a friend was alarmed that her first tomato plant was producing only small, green, hard tomatoes. She thought that her plant was defective or diseased. It's just that it was only June, and tomatoes take time.

Friday, September 07, 2007

So. Tired.

Shout-out to Narya. I'm feeling your pain. The working + running a shiatsu practice + volunteering is wearing me down. I'm tired. Got home at 7:30 PM today after running around doing Shiatsu Practice Building and hospice volunteering, and still had more preparation to do for the festival tomorrow. (A literal festival, not a Plain Croissant Festival, at which I'll be doing shiatsu demos. And it's supposed to be 90 degrees out there again.)

Coworkers from Day Job enviously say, You have Fridays off!, but I don't. I work loooong days on Fridays, just not at Day Job. I'm hot and tired and worn out and won't get a weekend this weekend, once again. I work on Sundays. And this weekend, on Saturday. Tonight, affixing new address labels to business cards, I told the husband: I don't want to practice shiatsu anymore. I'm just tired. He said that most small business owners probably say this type of thing a lot. I pictured our ranks, all lined up and haggard through the ages, our houses messy and friends wondering why we can't lounge by the pool on Sunday.

I think I need to tweak this so it will work for me again. I'm a little too tired to figure out how.

Taking Refuge Gets Confusing, Part 2

I had a great talk with a friend about the Chattering Dharma Sangha, the group that was fond of interrupting each other during dharma discussion. This friend was on the TNH retreat with me, and she has lived in this area longer than I. She had the privilege of visiting Chattering Dharma when it was not so Chattering, back when its founder lived locally and ran the group. It was a strong and lovely group then. But shortly after the founder moved far away and the leadership changed, my friend felt that Chattering was no longer the group for her. She couldn't remember exactly why. She listened to my account of the group dynamics. When I said, "But maybe I'll go again Monday and see," she made some baseball metaphor I didn't quite get (something about 3 strikes and 4 balls), which I took to mean or you could just let it go. I thought she had a good point.

We talked about other sangha options in the area. There's the Tibetan one (led by the wonderful monk from afar while he works to renew his R1 permit and reenter the US), the Korean Zen one she just heard about, and the possibility of starting our own.

Neither of us felt qualified to start a sangha. We aren't Dharma teachers in any formal way. "Speaking of Zen without truly understanding it is no better than being a parrot," says an old expression. But we wanted to share in certain of the rituals of Thay's lineage, like Touching the Earth and reciting the 5 Mindfulness Trainings.

We decided there was a middle way. We would each choose a sangha we liked for regular practice and Dharma lessons. But monthly, she and I would get together and invite others to join us, to meditate and practice some of the rituals. I think this will work beautifully.

Last night I visited the Tibetan group. It was marvelous. Of course, it's different in subtle ways from Thay's teachings and practices, and that will take some getting used to; but I loved it. People were warm and open and interested in my "Zen take" on matters. Tibetan Buddhism is very medieval in some ways, but that's OK. I'll just reinterpret the medieval elements quietly to myself. Buddhism is not like Catholicism; I will not be forced to recite things I don't believe every week. In Buddhism, there's an acknowledgment that regardless of our own views, ultimate reality is what ultimate reality is. In any case, both Zen and Tibetan are Mahayana schools, so I'm not stuck in some harsh Theravada climate. (I'd link Mahayana and Theravada, but it seems the Theravadic Buddhists wrote all the articles online.)

It turns out many people in this sangha have also studied Zen. One practices Zen archery and invited me to watch! This month, there will be a Zen incense ritual after the Zen archery! I'm so excited! I'd never even heard of Zen archery before!

(One of my Big Life Goals is to learn Zen tea ceremony.)

On Monday, my friend and I will go visit the Korean Zen group. Maybe it will be even better than the Tibetan group, but I really really like the Tibetan group. We'll see!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Taking Refuge Gets Confusing,
Probably Part 1 of Several

I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

My retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh impressed upon me the importance of the Sangha, a community of Buddhists that support one another in practice. Buddhism is a practice, something requiring cultivation. Belonging to a sangha strengthens us in our practice. It helps to meditate with others; meditation actually becomes easier. It helps to be accountable to the sangha for regular practice. It helps to receive inspiration from one anther. It helps to have friends with whom to discuss the Dharma and its application in our own lives. During the retreat, I felt the strength of practicing with a Fourfold Sangha* of over a thousand individuals, the power of sharing our joy and suffering, and returned home with a resolution to practice with a sangha here.

We all belong to the great, capital-S Sangha of all Buddhists ever, but it's also nice to have a more concrete, little-S manifestation for support.

My 30-person dharma discussion group from the retreat has kept in contact through email. This contact with my retreat small sangha has been incredibly nourishing. We became very close from only a few days physically together, and I've already received great support from these wise people via email. I've shared some support, too. Lots of love flowing there.

But finding a local sangha with which to practice is more tricky. In a sense, I'm very fortunate; there are two local sanghas I could choose from. I was initially more inclined to join the sangha in Thay Nhat Hanh's tradition. They meet every Monday evening for an hour of meditation and an hour of dharma discussion and tea. I've been twice.

The first time, last week, there was only one woman there. She said that many people were on vacation and there are usually 8-12 members at a meeting. We hit it off terrifically. She expressed to me some reservations about the sangha, however. She indicated that they are not as "formal" as many sanghas, and she would prefer a more formal group. I wasn't sure what she meant. She also said that the group was not as centered in the Order of Interbeing (Thay's tradition) as they had been under past leadership. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I liked her very much and felt refreshed after the meeting, eager to return. Let's call her "Wilma".

Last night I attended for the second time. To my disappointment, Wilma was away for the long weekend and therefore not at the meeting. Three members were in attendance, including the woman who is the de facto sangha leader; let's call her Tory. Tory has been there the longest and so runs the group.

Tory told me straightaway that they are "less formal than many sanghas". She was clearly happy about that, telling me that it may take getting used to if I'm accustomed to a "more formal" practice. I still wasn't sure what she meant. We began with meditation, which was fairly standard, even if posture was poor (as Wilma had warned me it may be).

Then, as soon as meditation ended, the chattering began. The excessive chattering about nothing; the kind the Buddha warned against. Tory was the biggest culprit, which is alarming, because she is the one setting the tone for the sangha. Now, don't get me wrong, these are very nice, friendly, good people. But it struck me that this lack of "formality" was sort of undermining the effort of mindfulness. Then the ladies settled in for the dharma discussion. They quieted a bit. We took turns and listened fully to each other, as is the point. But then Tory started interrupting people, talking over. Before long, the conversation was a chaotic free-for-all with much more talking than listening going on.

So I'm left to tease out whether this is my own negative judgment getting in the way, or a legitimate concern about whether this is a good sangha for me. I'm leaning toward "legitimate concern" right now. No group will be perfect, to be sure, but this dharma discussion was not nourishing for me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Still, I'll go back again to see whether last evening may have been a fluke. Yet it strikes me that strong, grounded leadership may be important for a sangha to thrive.

The other option is a sangha in the Tibetan tradition run by a very good monk who lives locally. I've been a few times in the past and enjoyed it. But it in isn't the Zen tradition, which is the lineage I best relate to, and here is no dharma sharing between members that I know of. Still, I'm thinking that a strong Buddhist root may be more important than the exact right tradition, especially since the chatty sangha seems to have sort of abandoned having any strong roots; and I get lots of dharma sharing from my e-sangha. I'll revisit the Tibetan sangha on Thursday to see.

I mention all this in the hopes that one of my smart blog friends (and y'all are smart) will read the whole looong thing and chime in with sound advice.

Choices, better to have 2 than none!

*monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen