Finding Your Own Path
Dear Blog Readers:
I fully intended to continue my reflections on the meaning of borders in our fraught world, but because the arising news about ongoing injustices on our southern border was so grim and because something came up in my life to stop me in my tracks, I decided to make a little foray into spiritual practice. For those of you not interested in the “coming to practice” theme, I invite you to pass this over. It’s a bit personal, it’s a bit of rambling theoretical, and it still seems important to me over a week after I wrote it. I always appreciate any of your sincere response(s) to what you read here! Gratefully, Mag
There are probably as many particular stories about the spiritual journey as there are changes in the weather around the globe, or the clouds in the sky. I grew up without any spiritual conditioning and for many years of my long life I gave it little thought. I did get myself baptized at age fourteen when my sweet Italian (Catholic) boyfriend panicked at the vision of my going to hell unbaptized. My grandmother Dimond, who had nurtured me for many of my young years, had her own very private version of religion, and from time to time she expressed her concern that I was wandering through life without an anchor or moral compass. She treated the subject gently always and when she died at the age of eighty-nine, I never knew how deeply I might have disappointed her. Some months following her death, I remember sitting alone on the beach feeling a vast pool of sadness and sense of being lost in my life without her. I was forty five years old at the time, and felt like an orphaned child. As I sat watching the enormous waves, marveling at their immense power, I had an epiphany of sorts: I suddenly understood that I had not really lost this grand woman who had helped raise me, but rather I saw that I carried her inside me now. I had not been abandoned. And needless to say, that gave me some comfort and courage at what was a confused and unhappy period of my young life.
Years later I moved away from San Francisco after abandoning my marriage and family and setting my sights on a careless narcissistic character. Though my landscape was different - northern New Mexico, not California - my troubles were certainly familiar, part of an old pattern of emotional hunger and neediness. It seemed to be about careless decisions made without attention to what was happening inside me. Despair set in when I realized I had made a very bad choice. I was heartbroken and my sense of self seemed to be withering in the dry mountain air. And then … a dear friend who did bodywork gently pointed the way when she suggested meditation might ease the suffering I carried in my body. I followed her lead despite my doubts, found a little sitting group, and when I listened to my first dharma talk I began to understand that there was a way to cope with pain of both my heart and body. The light bulb moment came, and I saw that I could rely on this practice - this refuge - as I moved forward. All that was over twenty years ago.
My spiritual journey has been continuous and also unorthodox. I have made it my own largely the way my grandmother made Christianity her own practice; since that revelatory New Mexico moment, I have personalized it. Then … a recent conversation with one of my fellow practitioners at our monthly meeting stirred up confused and unsettled feelings about the nature of this tailor-made practice. The message I heard in this conversation was that somehow I might not be taking the Buddhist way seriously or intensely enough. It was true that I wasn’t practicing with the intense goals of liberation that many dedicate themselves to, running any spiritual marathon or mastering every possible concentration practice and reading all the suttas and commentaries in different translations, and therefore I felt regarded as a bit of an amateur. In short, it appeared I wasn’t striving sufficiently. Instead of reflecting on the ways I could serve Buddhism, I frequently considered how Buddhism could help me in times of pain and confusion - in particular, how the teachings could help me live with the dark political climate we find ourselves in these days and help me be a better human being in the world. I was quite aware of how fortunate I was to be following a venerable lineage of practitioners, but I didn’t seem to be able to sacrifice or purify; I was frankly somewhat attached (not a desired state in the Buddha’s view) to pleasures and experiences that were part of my life’s fabric. So, instead of feeling gratified that I had worked at staying on “the path” all these years and seeing my life transformed, I judged myself (another unwholesome choice according to Buddha) because like many Westerners I too frequently lack faith and confidence.
As you begin your Buddhist journey you’re invited to join in the pursuit of wisdom, compassion, train the mind to settle and see what is true (otherwise known as meditation), and adopt principles of ethical behavior and wholesome habits. I see a thread that binds all these deep principles, which is non-harming. Until we see the cause/effect between causing harming and then suffering, then we go forward in ignorance. Sustained meditation practice shines the light on what is true in every moment, and brings us from ignorance to awareness and understanding. Of the many lists that the Buddha created in his teaching career, the Eightfold Path lays out a game plan or what I might call a “to-do list” to help his followers continue on the path to freedom from suffering. When you look at the elements of this path, they make infinite sense. After all, who could argue that speaking wisely, making wholesome efforts in life, practicing compassion, staying true to principles of non-harming, training the mind to be wise - are not beautiful and solid goals? These steps of the practice belong in the realm of common sense, and yet it takes ardent, relentless effort to practice them and integrate them into your life. Which gets me to my own story…
All my life I was drawn to becoming wiser and more aware, and so the Buddhist precept of “Right View” gave me comfort and felt familiar the moment I heard it explained. I had spent many of my childhood years not only studying in school to master such subjects as History, Literature, or Latin, but because I lived in an unstable and chaotic family environment, I also became a keen observer of my environment so I could understand what was authentic and reliable in my life. Meditation practice as a means to stop, breathe, and see what is real felt as though it made infinite sense. Of course, sitting on the meditation cushion for long periods counting one’s breaths wasn’t as easy as mastering my fourth year of Latin in high school, but as soon as I had that one crystal clear view of what I was dealing with, of who I really was, I said hooray! When we can finally see clearly then we can let go of the ideas and opinions we have about things that weigh us down and are not who we are. I grew up surrounded by people who dissembled and spoke in code, and I always hungered to find out who I was and what my life looked like. Buddhist practice gave me that opportunity.
I worked hard at it but not always. Right Effort (another piece of the to-do list) is hard because it involves relentlessness. You have to keep on doing it, continue to bring yourself into the present moment so you can find the clarity and openness of heart. The fluctuating rhythm of our lives and our susceptibility to distraction makes this difficult. We take many detours, such as eating, drinking, movies, books, traveling, making plans, daydreaming, and fabricating the story of our lives, and then what is to be done? Begin again. And again. And again. “Beginners Mind,” a phrase coined by Zen Master Suzuki Roshi, tells us it is never to late to wake up to our lives. Having lived a life where I frequently abandoned intentions and dreams because of the inconsistency of those around me and my own fears of inadequacy, the ability to come back to the important idea again and again and again suited me just fine.
I’m convinced now that my grandmother was Buddhist in her heart, though we never had a chance to talk about it. She was a born teacher, and shone light through the way she lived her life on several Buddhist behaviors: “right speech,” and “right action” which point to using language in a compassionate, timely, and wise fashion, and acting ethically, giving every being the regard and respect they deserve. The years I spent in her home watching her gracefully embrace people of diverse backgrounds no matter what the circumstances, treat them with infinite kindness, and stand up for righteous and just principles, taught me the tangible benefits of being a wise, kind, and conscious human being. I lived around her for many years from the time I was about five years old, and I breathed all this in as the years passed; much later when I first heard a dharma talk on compassion and ethical behavior, I was able to understand exactly what the teacher was saying. It all felt most natural. When I first became involved in the Buddha’s teachings, I remember feeling sorry that she was no longer around to share the experience with. She would have loved it and would have been so gratified I had discovered a path that would help me find ease in life and foster kindness in the world. Like the Dalai Lama, I do believe that “my religion is kindness.” As we practice right view, right speech, right action, we are helping cultivate a sane and harmonious world where the cause of no harm is paramount.
I grew up in an atmosphere of heedless self indulgence and a sense of privilege, and inherited some less than healthy habits, but since I started sitting, reflecting, and understanding the consequences of my actions, I have seen that I had a choice: I could either cause harm to myself and others or I could stop, look, and make healthy choices for myself. This involves continual grappling with all my negative conditioning and bad habits. Like or not, they are part of my baggage. The more consistently I see them clearly, the lighter the baggage will become. When my sitting practice becomes inconsistent and devoid of energy, I gently remind myself to stop and sit and become aware; in doing this I become a better caretaker of the miind and body. I am seventy-three and my wish is to live long (at least as long as my beloved eighty-nine year old grandmother), and to love well.
I am not on a crusade to become enlightened, but to use some of these profound teachings to discover the joys and sorrows of inhabiting this human form. I can work on myself each and every day, speak the truth that I see to those who will listen, and open my heart to the beings who cross my path. This looks pretty consistent to me with the Buddha’s vision of the lay practitioner’s journey. And that is enough for me. The Dalai Lama once offered this in a teaching I attended: you cannot bring peace to the world until you find it in yourself. Yes. The Buddha said that there’s no one more worthy of love and compassion than yourself. Yes again. I’m a little curious about what enlightenment looks and feels like, but as long as I’m looking at what’s real inside me, I have to say that it’s not on my“to-do” list, and that’s okay. I feel deeply gratified I can offer my loving attention to those I encounter, work on bringing about positive change in the world, foster my mind’s clarity, strive toward equanimity, and always, always speak the truth.
I bow to my secretly Buddhist grandmother from South Carolina, and to my own instincts for survival and learning which have brought me to this place. It may look a little unorthodox but it sure feels right. I don’t think perfection was ever my strong suit…