Motel Dharma.

Dear Friends,

Neon Motel Sign and Arrow

I met a Buddhist monk last week. The encounter made me laugh, it made me think, it made me feel heart-full.

Like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in “As Good As It Gets,” I believe the highest praise you can give a person is to say he or she makes you want to be a better person. I left my conversation with the Venerable Pannavati aspiring to do so much more in this world, to radiate her kind of warmth and wisdom on all souls in my orbit.

The part that made me laugh: Pannavati was traveling through my town on her way to a larger city for a meditation retreat she is hosting this weekend. I mentioned to you a while back that I recently joined a local Sangha (a sanskrit word for a Buddhist community) and our leader was kind enough to arrange for several of us to have individual consultations with Pannavati at a local motel. The motel is on a busy thoroughfare and is more than a little “tired.” (I’m being kind. It’s the biggest dive in town.) Anyway, I showed up for my midday meeting, dressed to the nines because of an important work engagement, and ended up having to stand outside one of the rooms for several minutes while the monk finished a previous appointment. I’m pretty sure the heavily tattooed man in the parking lot who complimented my sports car and my clothes wondered why the person I was meeting didn’t immediately let me in the room. I’m also pretty sure a drug deal went down in the parking lot while I stood there. And, I feel quite certain at least a handful of townsfolk drove by the cheap motel, saw me standing outside one of the rooms, and felt sorry for Mr. Mom thinking I have a thing on the side. The whole scene was like something out of a Cohen Brothers movie and was NOT the kind of setting in which I expected to seek enlightenment.

On the other hand, it was probably just the kind of place Jesus would have gone to minister to the needy. In fact, I think he would have consorted with the cast of Motel Dharma so — in the words of my favorite Pope — “Who am I to judge?”

The part that made me think: Our entire conversation. I can’t explain it except it was like reading and absorbing five different holy texts in less than a hour. Actually, it was more like chugging all the wisdom in the world, if all the wisdom in the world could be poured into a beer gong and you could gulp it in a matter of seconds. (Disclaimer: I have never drank from a beer gong but I’ve observed the activity in my younger days and can appreciate the “intensity” of the experience.)

I wish I would have taken notes but I didn’t and so I’m still remembering and reflecting on many parts of our conversation. One thread of our discussion that still has its grip on me has to do with the nature of blame and forgiveness. I’ve spent a good bit of my life contemplating forgiveness (what it means, how to cultivate it, how to make it sincere) and yet it never once occurred to me that blame is a necessary antecedent to forgiveness. No blame, no forgiveness.

That little nugget rocked my world for a minute. (Or several thousand.) As Pannavati put it — and I’m paraphrasing liberally here because she was way more eloquent than me but my mind was too blown to capture it all — in any given situation involving two or more people, we each come to the intersection of our encounter with our “stuff” (where stuff equals our fears, anxieties, anger, desires, aversions, etc.) And we may think our stuff is really the other person’s stuff, but it’s not. It’s ours. We can do with our stuff what we will, but we only control our stuff, not the stuff of others. We may think the other person’s stuff is the root of our problem, and that of course causes us to blame the other person and their stuff, but the root of our problem is our stuff. If you own your stuff, meaning if you acknowledge it and deal with it, there’s no need to cast blame. And if you’re not blaming, who’s to forgive?

During a subsequent meditation on this theme, I thought of it this way. Does the flower forgive the clouds for stealing its sunshine?  Of course not! Therefore, can I approach the next situation where I might be tempted to assign blame and instead conclude that just as I am a flower striving to bloom, the clouds of unfortunate circumstance are merely trying to move along their path?

Yeah, it’s deep. I’ll let you know how I fare.

The part that made me heart-full: By the way, heart-full is my own made-up word because there was no other way to describe how overwhelmingly grateful I was. I am.

I live in a small town in a rural part of a flyover state. (Not so different from the small town in the rural part of the previous flyover state I lived in.) How I came to this moment, in this place, with this Sangha, to this intersection of earnest souls and wisdom and love and openness, Lord only knows.

It’s a gift like no other.

With gratitude {for what is},

Joan, who will never be venerable so she’s shooting for practiced

 

 

 

Half-assed Buddhist.

Dear Friends,

buddha-lotus-flower-symbol

Today I read this essay by author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage about the Duggar Family and enjoyed it so much I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Fair warning: if you are queasy about matters of sex and religion, don’t read it. Dan is an openly gay man and the Duggars are a conservative Christian family with a reality television show  on TLC (“19 Kids and Counting”), and these two polar opposites mash up in Dan’s essay about like you might imagine. The essay is simultaneously funny and crude and thought-provoking and reminded me that this wild soup we call American culture is indeed fascinating.

As much as I was tickled by the humor in Dan’s essay, I couldn’t help but be bothered by his assertion that families like the Duggars (and, by extension, their beliefs) are “actually pretty scary.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m almost as far removed from the Duggars’ point of view as is Dan, but I’m not frightened by their particular strain of patriarchal theocracy (Dan’s words). I’d just as soon bite off my tongue as advise my daughter (or son) according to Duggar philosophy, but the fact they believe what they believe and live how they live doesn’t frighten me. To each his own, I always say. And, yeah, I get Dan’s point that the family is proselytizing their beliefs, but so is he. Heck, what is this blog but propaganda for my world view?

I could write an entire post about how the temptation to be scared by people unlike ourselves is the root of our world’s problems, but that’s not my point today. My point today is that Dan’s essay reminded me of a season in my life when I spent considerable time examining the issues at play in Dan’s dispute with the Duggars. Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the topic which was published in a now-defunct online forum for female writers, and so I was inspired to pull it out of my archives and share it with you today.

Consider this another fair warning: I write about sex and religion with considerable candor and if that’s not your bag, skip this one. I promise I won’t be the least bit frightened.

With gratitude {for my friends from varied faith traditions — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai, — including those with no prescribed faith, all of whom accept me just as I am, which is exactly what I think Jesus would do},

Joan, who’s been half-assed at far more than Buddhism but hopes you aren’t keeping track

***

Half-assed Buddhist

I first tried my hand at proselytizing the summer after sixth grade.  I had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School sponsored by our town’s First Baptist Church.  Full of the kind of evangelical zeal one experiences after singing 10 rounds of “This little light of mine” and chugging five Dixie cups of Cool-Aid, I announced to my two best friends that they were going to hell.

“Really? Why?” one friend, a Catholic, said to me as the three of us climbed the high-dive ladder at our city’s swimming pool.

“Because you aren’t Baptist,” I replied matter-of-factly.

The thing is – neither was I.  Oh, sure, I had been baptized months earlier but it was at the First United Methodist Church, which I attended regularly under the watchful and approving gaze of my paternal grandmother.  I don’t recall why I was two-timing with the Baptists that summer, but it wouldn’t be the last time in my life I summarily traded teams.

My other friend, a non-denominational, looked really hurt and simply said “That’s not nice.”

“Well, it’s true,” I retorted, and sometime between leaping off the edge of the diving board and surfacing in the middle of the deep end, I forgot the topic entirely – including the fact that I was going to hell, too, by my own definition.

By the time I was 17, I spent considerable time contemplating damnation.  Still a regular church-goer, I had heard enough sermons to realize I was a sinner.  And the worst part was, I enjoyed every minute of it.  My senior year of high school, I discovered sex . . . glorious, immoderate, sweaty, teenage sex.  Usually in a car, but sometimes in the park or even a bed if my boyfriend and I could score an unoccupied house, sex became my favorite diversion.  Such wanton behavior made church attendance a tad uncomfortable, especially given the mere hours that typically separated fornication from communion. Plus, I was still more than a little confused by the seemingly intractable divisions between Christian denominations – divisions that just a few years earlier had led me to declare my best friends hell-bound.

It just didn’t make sense to me that one group of Christians could be so certain that their path to salvation was absolute while their brethren down the street were damned.  If the jury wasn’t in on this thing, why should I waste my time? So, one Sunday morning, I announced to my mother that my church-going days were over.  “Why?” she asked, stunned.  “Because I don’t enjoy it.  And you don’t go.  So I don’t really think it’s fair for you to tell me I have to.”  She said nothing and I went back to bed where I stayed every Sunday morning for approximately the next five years.

My sophomore year of college I briefly contemplated returning to the fold.  I had my eye on a really cute guy in English Lit and I started finagling ways to talk to him before and after class.  It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place. When I arrived, he offered me a Coke and we sat down at a cramped table that served as both his eating and study space.  He shoved his textbooks aside, pulled out a black flip chart, and announced he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told me he liked me a lot, that he thought I was really smart and pretty, and that he wanted to share his faith with me.  I was thrilled.  “He thinks I’m pretty and smart!” I mentally gushed as he opened his guide to the Mormon faith and launched into the most earnest testimony I had ever witnessed.

Somehow – despite the fact that I was imagining him making out with me with the same conviction he was delivering his salvation appeal –his lavishly illustrated flip chart slowly caught my attention.  I wondered how I could have grown up in the Bible Belt and yet never have heard the extraordinary story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets.  I was mesmerized, and more than a little moved by Joseph’s words:  “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was . . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, “I know just how he felt!”  I talked about my lifelong distress over conflicting absolutes.  “How do I know what’s true?” I asked, as sincerely as one could while discussing religious beliefs with a hot new crush.  His eyes gleamed as he continued his story and I was momentarily lost in my imagined future with this guy.  I just might find the remedy to my existential angst and the man of my dreams at the same time!  So eager was I to convert (and cavort!) that I interrupted him before the punch line.   “So where are the golden tablets?” I asked.  “Can I go see them?”  Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were just the kind of confirmation I’d been waiting on and I was ready to sign on the dotted line if I could just glimpse these magnificent and holy relics.

Then my Mormon friend dropped the bomb: the golden tablets had been spirited away by a heavenly messenger.  Faith was required of me to believe Joseph’s testimony and to receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Damn.  I’d been down this road before.  Crushed, I said thanks but no thanks, and Elder Sexy and I parted ways forever.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college and moved as far away from home as a small-town girl could imagine – Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I roomed with two pot-smoking boys my age and explored a fascinating world where old money, new immigrants, and liberal politics were the ingredients for an alluring blend of cultural goulash.  One Saturday night while hanging around Harvard Square, two polite and clean-cut men struck up a conversation with my girlfriend.  I was ready to catch the train home, but my friend was really getting into these guys.  By the time we finally boarded the Red Line back to Boston, she told me she had their phone numbers and had agreed to meet them the next morning.  “For coffee?” I asked.  “No.  For church,” she said.

I would soon learn this was no regular church.  A year later, my family would call it a cult.  Ten years later with a little more perspective and a lot less bitterness, I called it an extremely effective marketing machine.  The Boston Church of Christ (BCC) was the precursor of what is known today as a mega-church.  Insidious, ingenious, infatuating – BCC was a Venus flytrap of spiritual misfits and its church leaders saw me coming.

The Church of Christ claims to be just that – Christ’s original church, free from denominational strife and dogma. This was no “mainline” Church of Christ like the one in my hometown, I was told. This was the Boston Church of Christ – the one true church and a spiritual beacon to the world’s lost souls.

Looking back, I know I was drawn to BCC by its followers. Young and old, American and immigrant, highly educated and blue collar, the 2,000-strong membership reflected Boston’s diverse demographic mix that I so loved.  I worshiped alongside Harvard Ph.D.s and Somerville laborers, all equally fervent in their conviction that BCC offered a panacea for all spiritual ailments.  As much as I had abhorred pat answers in the past, I literally jumped in with both feet, agreeing to a second baptism when church elders suggested my first, administered by Methodists so many years ago, wasn’t valid.  It seemed God wanted me to punch my membership card one more time.  Always a good sport if not a devout parishioner, I said what the hell and gave it a go.  Maybe this one will stick, I thought.  Most religious experience is nothing if not contradictory, so I ignored a personal paradox to satisfy my spiritual wanderlust.

What distinguished BCC from all other churches I had previously experienced, indeed what drew me in, was the devotion of its followers.  Unlike the Methodists I had known back home, these guys were serious.  I once attended a revival service where the faithful contributed more than one million dollars.  It still astonishes me today that some 2000 followers put cash, checks, and deeds totaling seven figures in passed collection plates.  I don’t recall how much I gave that evening but I know it wasn’t sacrificial in the way church elders had been encouraging all week; nor in the way that my friend did when she sold her condo and gave a check to BCC for more than $100,000. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” became a ubiquitous bracelet, the leadership of BCC exploited their version of the concept by encouraging asceticism for the sake of church coffers.  By the time I left the church and moved home, I realized I had mistaken fervor for truth.

In later years, I would approach truth as a human construct that is ever-shifting. I would qualify truth by asking “Whose?”  I quit worrying about the afterlife in favor of the here and now.  Not surprisingly, my focus on “the moment” led me to Buddhism.

A basic Buddhist premise teaches that dualistic thinking – the categorization of the world in black and white terms — is the source of all human suffering.  We self-torment with categories that are sharply drawn and that leave little room for the ineffable. Buddhists see that good and evil are shades of the same color.  We can draw an arbitrary line in the sand if we wish, but perhaps it would serve us well to look inward, to understand why we’re drawing that particular line, grasping for one kind of outcome and afraid of another.

I recently tried to explain this notion to a longtime friend who is as devout and earnest a Christian as I have ever known. I probably seem like a libertine to her  (or worse, a relativist) and she couldn’t understand why – raised a Christian – I couldn’t now continue to play along.  I struggled to provide an answer in her terms, and I finally offered, “I guess I needed a God who’s more expansive than the Christian God I was taught about in my youth.  I needed some new tools and different perspectives to confront and examine the notion of my soul.  And I find that the Buddhist teachings are helping me . . . helping me see myself and all religious thought in a new, more accepting light.”

My friend paused for a moment while she considered my answer, then finally she looked me in the eyes and said with a surprising dose of consternation, “Yeah, but you’re a half-assed Buddhist!  I bet you don’t even go to temple.”

I laughed heartily and hugged her and told her she had no idea how perfect her label is.  My god, what is a Buddhist but one who embraces the haphazard, the unsatisfactory? Her proclamation would be a badge of honor from that moment on, I told her, because it beats the hell out of the skeptical and cynical Christian of my youth.

Yes, my journey inward is sublimely half-assed; but for all its insufficiency and incompetency, it is still magnificently, reverently a journey into me, into the shadows of my heart where I am connected to and commune with both humanity and divinity, in all their definitions. For whatever reason, I never could seem to follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God inside me, but I can’t help but think it’s a good place to end up now and I’m grateful for the tour guide that got me there.

Material girl.

Dear friends,

I tripped across this quote while reading yesterday and couldn’t help sharing it with you today.

A bit of Friday inspiration, perhaps?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recent years contemplating attachments — and how to rid myself of them. I haven’t been all that successful, honestly. I’m attached to so many material things — food, clothes, trinkets. (Isn’t it ironic how material things are really so immaterial?) Mostly, though, I’m attached to outcomes.

As if.

As if I control anything — but still, I attach myself to my notions of how everything in my orbit should turn.

I’m learning. Really I am.

And gems like the one above help me. Help me to remember that I’m trying to steer my boat by love and attachment is the opposite direction.

So I must run. Gotta turn my boat around.

With gratitude {for universal reminders sprinkled throughout the universe},

Joan, who invites you to read the full article at tricycle

Sunrise.

Dear friends,

Source: Say it Sweet

I had a dispiriting day yesterday.

The reason isn’t important because we all experience them, don’t we? Sometimes it’s a work issue. Other times it’s a family problem. Or the dishwasher stops working. Or the dog gets sick. Whatever the reason, we sometimes have days that disappoint us, make us lose confidence, cause us to question what we believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Lately, when I have that kind of day, I go looking for words of inspiration and encouragement. Sometimes I find them as posters on Pinterest. Etsy is another good place. And my favorite Buddhist books and websites usually give me a lift, too. I’ve even been known to Google my particular disappointment and see what pops up — and like an encouragement lottery, I sometimes find a winning ticket or at least an interesting path to follow.

Yesterday, I tripped across the canvas above on an Etsy shop.  God bless Victor Hugo, because I really needed the reminder that sometimes, you just need to let the sun go down on your disappointment.

You’ve likely figured out by now I have a tendency to over-analyze. I mean, who else but a hopelessly introspective individual would publish a gratitude journal for all to see? And like most traits, my tendency toward self-analysis can be both a strength and a frailty, depending on the day.

Self-reflection has at times given me more empathy, more humility, more patience. And it has also driven those closest to me to distraction with my tendency to “talk it all out.” Really, you can’t just argue with me. Because then you have to dissect the argument. Discuss the motivations of the participants. Reflect on the outcome and opportunities for improvement. Have a meta-argument. (Did I mention my graduate degree is in Psychology? Top that with an interest in self-help techniques and an endless curiosity about spiritual beliefs of all faith traditions and . . . yeah, I’m one of those people. I suspect some folks wish I would just curse at them and storm out of the room. It’s certainly more efficient.)

Anyway, I spent the better part of yesterday obsessing about this particular setback until I decided some time around 8:00 pm that I was done with it. I turned my attention elsewhere and let the sun go down on it.

I’m not fooling myself. The matter is messy and unresolved and I have to pick it back up again at another time or it will continue to fester. But on Wednesday night, I bid it bon nuit and released myself from the responsibility of absorbing it any longer.

And Thursday morning . . . well, the sunrise looks a little brighter today.

With gratitude {for words of wisdom sprinkled throughout the universe},

Joan, who once took an aptitude test and was told she should be a writer or a psychologist and can’t figure out how in the world she ended up as neither

Says who?

Dear Friends,

Source: Best Made, available here

A couple of nights ago Mr. Mom and I were watching the local news.

This was, in itself, newsworthy. We never watch the local news for reasons that could fill another post but will become clear in just a moment.

For the weather lead-in, the female anchor said “It’s a rainy and miserable night out there, folks.”

To which Mr. Mom shouted “Says who?”

I looked at the man talking to my television, but he was clearly not done yet. “Really!” he continued. “By whose definition is it miserable?”

I wasn’t sure what surprised me most — a broadcaster declaring my evening “miserable” or Mr. Mom arguing with the broadcaster. (He’s really not the quarrelsome type, not to mention he generally avoids televised knotheads.)

Mr. Mom left the room, then, but I contemplated the point for a good 24 hours, reflecting on what makes people think they’re miserable.

Surely not a little mid-winter rain, do you think?

I could go on and on about the power of words, about the self-fulfilling prophecy of negative thinking, about the necessity of gratitude to positively shape one’s life, but instead of launching into what would probably be a very dry lecture, I think I’ll share this little gem instead, from Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine:

Whatever your difficulties . . . you can always remember that you are free in every moment to set the compass of your heart to your highest intentions. In fact, the two things that you are always free to do—despite your circumstances—are to be present and to be willing to love.

Oh, how those words sent joy pulsing through me. Just think, your heart has a compass and you are free — in every moment — to set it to your highest intention.

Have you ever heard anything so revolutionary? So empowering? So potentially potent?

And if it’s true, if we may chart our course by the nobility of our hearts, then there is really only one relevant question in our lives:

Why don’t we do it . . .

Every.

Single.

Day?

With gratitude {for the power of words to awaken and enlighten us},

Joan, who has always thought cock-eyed optimism is peculiarly underrated

Just breathe.

Dear Friends,

I tripped across these words of wisdom yesterday on – of all places – Facebook:

One way to handle the impulses that bind us to suffering is through cognitive intervention. If we’re behind the wheel and another driver cuts us off, leans on his horn, or otherwise drives provocatively, we can construct a narrative to explain his aggressiveness: “He’s late for something, and probably not for the first time. He’s desperate to get there, and you know yourself what that’s like!” The same line of creative speculation works in the face of any form of hostility: “She may have just lost her job,” or “He just had a fight with his wife.” These kinds of stories, even if fanciful, offer us some breathing room, interrupting the reaction chain that binds us to suffering.   — Bodhin Kjolhede, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

There are two thoughts from this passage that really resonate with me. The first is: breathing room. In today’s fast-paced, uber-connected, over-indulgent world, it seems like we have such precious little space or encouragement to breathe. To reflect. To consider for one moment something other than our own immediate need or impulse.

Take Facebook, for example, which seems to offer as its chief attraction a fascinating and addicting milieu of low-brow instincts, mundane chatter and pseudo-aspirational bromides. I consider the site a virtual testament to a world increasingly devoid of impulse control and thoughtful reflection, though its entertainment value and instant gratification keep me coming back even as it depletes my world of oxygen.

The second is: impulses that bind us to suffering. I dare say you aren’t human if you claim you’ve never allowed aggression or insolence to beget your own rude response. The notion that my own thoughtless impulses bind me to suffering really stopped me in my tracks and begged the question – am I willing and able to interrupt the reaction chain?

I wish I had an answer for you but I don’t. I do have the impulse to give it a try . . . to search for more breathing room in my world and, in doing so, to create space for grace and kindness and joy for others in my orbit.

With gratitude {for wisdom that transcends my own},

Joan, who endeavors to breathe deeply every day

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