Monthly Archives: March 2016

What seems good but causes trouble?

The answer? Hope.

the author as a childPeople often find it strange that Buddhist teachings advise against hope. It’s such a positive sounding word. But think of it this way: When I was little I stated proudly that I could swim with an inner tube. How adorable that a little girl thinks she’s swimming when the inner tube is holding her afloat.

Just like that inner tube, hope makes us think we’re managing in life. But we cling to hope because we have no faith in our ability to navigate life. It buffers us but it also hinders us. We can’t dive deep and explore life in a natural way, learning from our experiences. And it’s dangerous because while we rely on it heavily, it’s not all that reliable. At any moment it could spring a leak and whoosh! Then what?

That’s why Buddhist teachings advise us to abandon hope. It may sound scary, but ultimately it is life-affirming and empowering. We can live much more fully without it!

I am sure you can think of many examples where hope seems useful. You hope that a loved one gets well, for example. But how pale and ineffectual that expressed hope is compared to  the Buddhist practice of sending metta — infinite loving-kindness, with phrases like ‘May you be well’. This infinite loving kindness is not a far off dream but an almost palpable presence that permeates all being.*

When we rely on an inner tube instead of learning to swim, we are afraid of the water and know we are no match for it. Just so hope is an expression of fear. We fear the future so we hope things will get better. But here’s the thing about the future: It is in great part a product of whatever we are cultivating right now. If we are cultivating fear and anxiety, it’s useless to hope for anything different. When we actively cultivate spaciousness of mind, lovingkindness and compassion in this moment — and act accordingly — then we are creating a sustainable, even joyful future for ourselves and those around us. To the degree that we participate in the world by voting, volunteering, keeping ourselves informed, questioning our assumptions, speaking up when our words are truthful, kind and timely; and engaging in wise livelihood, that joyful quality of aliveness ripples out around the world. 

Hope is a helpless stance, a bystander’s point of view. But none of us are bystanders in this life. So abandon hope! And dive right in!

*If metta is not something that speaks to you, then just think of it as a way of really centering in and being present and loving.

Got too much stuff?

Kondo bookI just read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Instant inspiration! Suddenly a third of my wardrobe is bagged and ready to be donated. And it was so easy! Using her method, I didn’t have to get caught up in long inner deliberations. The piece either suited or it didn’t. If it didn’t, and it was in good shape, then ‘thank you for your service and off you go to someone who can really appreciate you.’

There is a very present meditative quality to this endeavor. It is a way of being in relationship with possessions that lets us practice the third Paramita of Renunciation or Letting Go. Tuning into how we feel about an object fosters a state of presence, clarity and compassion. The author asks us to notice which objects ‘spark joy in the heart’. This might come more easily to some than others. For me it was very subtle in most cases, with a few delightful and surprising exceptions. Sometimes the piece of clothing that sparked joy was buried at the bottom of a drawer, so there was less a sense of letting go than of discovery. This is true with all kinds of letting go: We clear the way for what really matters in our lives. Whether it’s objects or errands or emails, when we find a way to let go of the busy buzz, we suddenly see the world around us and the people in our lives in a more spacious and present way. We have made room for them and for our love to shine forth.

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering touches on another important aspect of letting go — not making an enemy of anything. She thanks her things for the good job they have done, whether she is putting them away after using them or bagging them up to be donated. She treats her things with loving kindness and respect. This creates a pattern of how we want to be in relationship to others and to our own inner thoughts and emotions: Compassionate, respectful, kind, grateful. We fool ourselves if we think we can be mindful in one area of our lives while being thoughtless and disrespectful in another. So this is excellent training.

In class we all agreed we have too much stuff, and that we keep things around for a lot of unexamined reasons. Ms. Kondo’s method is liberating because it short circuits the need to go through all those reasons. It doesn’t matter how you rationalize it! It either sparks joy or it doesn’t. How does this extend into relationships? What explanation do you give yourself for spending time with someone who drains your energy or treats you badly?

But back to stuff: At a certain point in our lives, most of us accumulate not just our own stuff, but our parents’ as well. When my brother and I were going through the detritus of our parents’ lives, I kept muttering about how when Gandhi died he left behind five things: his robe, his sandals, his glasses, his bowl and his spinning wheel. And look at what a difference he made in the world! I made a vow to manage my own stuff in a way that my children would not be overburdened. Marie Kondo’s book might help me keep that vow yet. Meanwhile, I still have unsorted papers of my father’s in plastic boxes in the basement over twenty years later!

Given that, I was recently moved when I heard that my friend’s father in his last years made a concerted effort to go through and get rid of most of his own stuff, and then went the extra mile: He left behind notes of appreciation for each of his children and grandchildren. Such thoughtfulness was not what any of them expected from this sometimes gruff and cranky fellow. May he rest in peace.

Having brought up death, let’s look at that great letting go. Actively letting go of stuff that doesn’t spark joy creates a pattern of skillful ability to let go when our time comes to transition into whatever unknown state lies beyond this body. I’ll never forget the glee with which my father announced that his doctor gave him his ‘exit visa.’ He was so relieved not to have to go through any more medical procedures. He was ready for ‘that sweet by and by.’

Let me be clear that suicide, however, is not letting go but pushing away, running away, seeking escape. Maybe this moment doesn’t spark joy (to say the least!). Maybe life seems hopeless. But the answer is not to end all possibility of joy. Instead, get the help needed to gain some perspective and see more clearly what really needs to be let go. And whatever it is — anger, shame, or something else — see if you can hold it with kindness and respect and thank it for its service.

Whether we are letting go of possessions, relationships, activities or life itself, staying present with our senses and noticing the nature of our thoughts, we can come into a state of grace. We create spaciousness and ease in the way we attend whatever arises in our experience. We make room for the joy not by pushing other things away or ignoring the mounting pile of objects or obligations, but by thanking everything for the service or the lesson they have provided us. In this way, we find the spark of joy in each moment, even, or perhaps most especially, the moment of our ultimate letting go.