Image by John Morgan
Recently, I realized that I have been going through a subtle process of grieving. I say subtle because it’s not as if I experienced a more obvious and tangible loss. No one close to me died, my personal relationships seem to be doing well, and my life has been quite enjoyable and fulfilling. So, it took me a while to realize that what I was observing wasn’t just a mood.
As the reality of grieving settled in, I began to examine: What was I grieving? What was the loss? Often, an aspect of grieving the loss of something – regardless of cause – includes acknowledging the loss of a hoped for future. We build dreams, and then we’re faced with the reality that these dreams are no longer possible. At least not in the shape and form we hoped for.
I’m not someone who is easily prone to regret and remorse, but over the last couple of years, I have come to recognize a deep and pervading guilt. What I see is guilt over what I am not, what I have failed to accomplish, and doubting my value and usefulness in this lifetime. I realize that I am grieving the loss of a hoped for past. The dreams that I had that would validate my continued choice to remain unemployed that never materialized.
As a feminist, I am still a bit taken aback by how my lifestyle has manifested. But, that too is an example of how we shape our identities based on cultural and contextual beliefs, judgments, and expectations. If you would’ve asked me prior to this: Are you someone basing your life choices on expectations? I would have answered with a resounding NO! And, there is another delusion uncovered. My liberal mind is just as susceptible to external conditioning as a conservative. And there goes the rebel in me; exit left.
In Buddhism, we are frequently reminded that our identities do not represent who we truly are. “Not me, not mine” is a common phrase many of us use to foster an ability to simply observe, experience, and let go as opposed to avoiding, denial, and aversion. We attempt to not attach and become what we are feeling. Attaching to identity stops the process of growth and sustains suffering.
For me, one of the strongest themes in this lifetime is a desire for personal and spiritual growth. Even though I told myself that not being employed was a choice for what really matters, I just couldn’t shed the ingrained conditioning that somehow in some way I was wasting my life and screwing up. I realize that frequently I discount the skillful choices I make due to a sense of not measuring up. Consequently, I understand that I am far more attached to a conventional reality and the identity that creates than I like to admit.
Enter community and monastics in my life. This was a real game changer for me. It’s as if just hanging out with monks validates, on a deep level, so many of my life choices! Hence, I experience the realization of deep guilt that I have been carrying and burdening myself with. I start to see the illusion of old excuses and how they serve no purpose but suffering and dukkha. I start to glimpse the self-created hell I have sentenced myself to as I realize the limitations that I’ve created and placed on myself and my life. I acknowledge the prison that I sent myself to even though no crime has been committed.
Suffering really is optional. The reality is that if I am genuinely committed to a path of Buddhism, then I am required to believe that liberation is not only possible, but attainable. I am asked to take responsibility for how I feel, think, and behave without attaching to or denying any of it. I am called upon to free myself from the prison of my mind.
What really amazes me is how diligent the mind can be at discounting what is fulfilling in the name of supporting a lack perspective. It’s as if I can’t be trusted to make responsible choices, so I have to limit the value of that which does not fit within the more acceptable life view. It’s ironic really and quite amusing. Once again, I have another testimony to how easily the mind can trick us with politicking and marketing.
Image by Sohil Patel
Here’s the good news: Recognizing, observing, and experiencing all of the above leads to realization. Another identity and defilement is exposed creating space and energy for transcending and healing. The truth is: I am sitting at the doorway of amazing opportunity. I have created a life that is everything I could ask for in spite of all the feelings of inadequacy and guilt! I can see the bars on the jail cell for what they are: Self-created dukkha! All I need to do is step out, enjoy the freedom, and remember that expectations, especially the subtle ingrained and less obvious ones, are simply another hindrance to happiness and well-being.
As the grieving process comes to an end, healing and opportunity abound! Out of the muck comes beauty.
© Sallie Odenthal 2014
Image by Bob Jagendorf
I find myself wondering: What do I really want in a community? Is there such a thing as a healthy functioning community – spiritual community in particular? Is the desire to be part of a healthy, respectful, and functioning community even realistic? Given that the previous statement seems idealistic, do the benefits of committing to an individual community outweigh the unwholesome consequences?
To clarify, when I speak of committing to a spiritual community, I am referring to an organized group of lay people and like-minded practitioners not the actual path or teachings. I am, and I remain fully committed to a Buddhist path. The Buddhist teachings in the Thai Forest tradition form the foundation of my life. I take refuge with deep gratitude in the Sangha (monastic community). Yet, I keep getting the sense that there are more aspects to a lay person organization that have to do with supporting personalities than genuine practice.
Where do we draw the line between recognizing the limitations of our own defilements and delusions with one another and simply avoiding that which is unwholesome?
Part of the question for me lies in the issue of control. I listened to a talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Ajaan Geoff) titled Independence. He was speaking about how others are frequently trying to keep us in their grasp. I realized how much I struggle with that. Far too often for my liking, I observe people attempting to keep me and others in their grasp; usually by exhibiting manipulative and passive aggressive behaviors. The issue of control is obviously not new or rare. Certainly if one is to get involved in leadership, it is very likely that we will encounter someone who is attempting to maintain control. Not far away will be codependent supporters. It’s a common dynamic regardless of context.
To be honest, I doubt that those who seek control genuinely understand the consequences of their behavior. Born from fear and anxiety, the desire to control is an attempt to defend against pain and suffering. Unfortunately, these attempts are then projected onto others as if they don’t really exist independently or as equal beings. It can be easy to feel invisible when on the receiving end of passive aggressive, manipulative, and controlling behaviors. In community, these behaviors create isolation and disconnect amongst participants. In the long run, it’s unlikely to be sustainable and it prohibits healthy membership growth.
Even though we may not be able to escape interactions with those who seek control and their codependent supporters, we can limit how much we chose to expose ourselves to the behaviors. Hence my question: Is being part of a spiritual community worth enduring the unwholesome and unskillful? I realize that we are unenlightened human beings with plenty of work to do. For me, it’s not about expecting the behavior of an Arahant. It is about how one responds to challenges, difficulties, and diversity.
Is it too much to ask for simple kindness? In the absence of kindness, are we required to endure lack of respect, not being heard, and isolation? Resolving conflicts doesn’t mean enduring them. First, one has to ask: Is there really a conflict or is it simply resistance to something unfamiliar or unwanted? Where does the “conflict” really lie? Does it serve any constructive purpose – as in wholesome growth – or is the situation simply fostering unskillful behavior? Is expanded awareness and personal responsibility embraced or is delusion running the show?
image by Joao Vicente
Often, I have been the recipient of genuine kindness and compassionate support with community. For that I am grateful. No surprise, I’ve also experienced lack of respect and unkind behaviors. I think that is to be expected. What I struggle with is the attempt to corrupt diversity into conflict. Instead of opening to a variety of perspectives as strengthening, they’re viewed as a threat or challenge. In my experience, the result is rarely skillful or wholesome and it serves avoidance of reality, denial, and delusion. Defilements win. Compassion and empathy are overshadowed.
For me, the question regarding whether participating in a dysfunctional (good luck finding one that isn’t) spiritual community creates more benefits than hindrances remains unanswered. It’s not about what we are but how we function as a community. I attempt to balance the awareness of reality and genuine desire to practice and grow with acceptance, compassion, and empathy. Yet, I cannot ignore that I have a choice. I am no less committed to my path if I choose to simply remove myself from unnecessary suffering. I also do not want to limit myself to the solitude of not being part of a spiritual community and the many gifts that arise from that.
In the end, as is frequently the case in life and relationships, there is no real answer. The world is complex and being human is not an easy process. Balance is key and boundaries are required. I find that it helps significantly to have a sense of humor, lighten up, and to not take myself too seriously – even in the face of Dhamma drama!
© Sallie Odenthal 2014
Sometimes we really do reap the rewards of good practice. I’m about to turn 56. To be honest, I have grown to simply accept the karma of my life that relates to self-reliance and lack of support. I figured: Oh well, I may as well keep working at it and trust that I am accomplishing more than my consciousness in this lifetime can grasp. Hopefully that’s true. Regardless, my intention is still the same: Less suffering, more peace and harmony.
Just Breathe by jurvetson
Then, to my complete surprise, something unexpected happened. Once again, I found myself in familiar territory as I attempted to navigate the rough seas to calmer waters. I hoped and prayed for wisdom and guidance to find a middle way, to be proactive, trust in myself, and not take on another’s suffering as my own. I took action as skillfully as I could. And there it was: Support, kindness, and compassion.
What made the experience surprising was the source of such kindness. All I had to do was open to receiving it. I had made my choice, and followed through with action. But, this time there were others who bore witness and recognized my wholesome intention. I wasn’t invisible which has been a rare occurrence in my life.
It’s interesting to me because I did what I’ve done so many times before. I recognize unkind and unskillful behavior which is being directed towards me. I practice, and then I practice some more. One of the luxuries of a simple life style is that it creates a lot of space to support practice. I don’t have to wait until I have time or can go on retreat. I try not to push something off into the future. I dig down, do the work internally, and adjust my choices and behavior from there. Frequently, it then becomes a matter of dealing with the fallout and trying to move on.
I’ve also written quite a bit about energy. While I was processing what was going on, I was sensing a lot of toxic energy directed my way. I admit to not being so skillful at disconnecting from it, and it really messes with my sleep. In part, that is due to my tendency to own more than my share. Once I was clear on how I wanted to proceed, I noticed a shift. Toxic energy was replaced with metta from friends including monastic support. Such a gift! I can’t even convey with words my deep appreciation.
Image by Tom Bech
Compassion and kindness can go a long way, and they can be wonderful signs that let us know we’re heading in the right direction. Instead of finding myself stuck in current, I break free and sail on. Kindness fills my sails, joy and peace calms the waters, and I gently move out of the storm. Due to the kindness and compassion that I receive, instead of cleaning up debris, I am basking in the sunshine.
A senior monastic was visiting last weekend. He said that the way we know when we have acted skillfully and with wholesome intention is by what it creates within us. Peace verses suffering. Harmony verses chaos. Peace with myself and harmony with those that offer support. Those are the rewards of healing.
So, I find myself having weathered another storm. It seems like so many journeys that I’ve taken before. And, in many ways it is. However, we do grow, we can heal, and eventually if we stay true to a genuine intention to ease suffering, we may find ourselves surprised by the gifts we receive. For that I am grateful.
My practice for this moment: Accept the metta (loving kindness) and support; enjoy it, heal the stress, and reap the rewards of healing and growth.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
Image by sskennel
Encarta Dictionary defines trust as: Confidence in and reliance on good qualities, especially fairness, truth, honor, or ability. The definition also includes references to: position of obligation, hope for future, and care. What does that really mean? How does trust factor into our self-view and relationships?
For a very long time, I have experienced a karmic pattern that relates to self-awareness and the experience of being the target for others ego driven projections. I realize this is by no means uncommon; however, my personal history involves an ongoing pattern that I (and those that know me well) cannot deny. It is a karmic theme for this lifetime. Ever the optimist, I still cling to the dream that someday I will heal my karma and transcend the drama that comes from being the target for another’s projections. In the meantime, it still catches me by surprise!
Trust, in a similar fashion to anger, initially can present itself as an issue that is tied to an external source. But, underneath the ego’s defenses to defer attention from oneself, is the usual suspect: We are the source. Even when we have valid reasons to trust or not trust, to be angry, and so on, deep down, we are questioning our ability to trust in ourselves. All of that can create fear and anxiety that easily spawns anger.
Welcome to the delusion fest! Dukkha is here to dance. Sukha is hiding in the corner. Why did I buy into that? Why do I keep finding myself in similar positions? Why did I trust that someone else would take responsibility for his or her own neuroses and unskillful behavior? I must be stupid! If I’m stupid, then I can’t be trusted to be kind and wise with myself. And, that means that I can’t be trusted to discern and respond appropriately. Wahoo, the party goes on, and here comes the hangover.
There is hope. I am stronger, less reactive, and better able to discern where my responsibilities lie. I am able to observe the screaming monkey mind and gently nudge clarity and patience into the conversation. Instead of jumping in and taking more than my share of the blame, I can say no, not this time. I can observe another person’s antics without feeling responsible.
For me, that’s what trust is really about. Trusting that I can behave in a skillful and kind manner in spite of being overwhelmed energetically by the plea of another to take what isn’t mine. To trust that even when another is projecting blame and denying responsibility, that I can still be kind to me. To trust, that even though another person is convinced that I am responsible for how she or he feels, I do not have to believe it.
Once again, I am reminded of the human condition that seems so easily prone to doubt one’s worth. This is not the middle way. Attachment to value and recognition is as delusional as abusing and bullying oneself into believing that self-view is a good driver. Sure, validation and appreciation can feel good. But, what happens when they’re not available? Then we are stuck with the disappointment which can pave the way for ego needs to trump wisdom and awareness. Consequently, I’m hesitant to trust praise any more than blame.
So it is that I find myself once again at the crossroads of self-reliance. I cannot depend on anything or one outside of myself to determine my value, worth, or ability to genuinely embody wisdom and awareness. It’s not an easy path. I’m not an authority, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha never said the path to freedom from suffering was an easy one. He did say to hang out with the wise, so that does call into question: Who do we place our faith and trust in?
I think that trust embodies faith. As the definition suggests: Hope for future and care. I hope for caring and kindness in my life and my relationships with others. I seek out the areas within that undermine trust and kindness. I recognize that trust nurtures confidence. Confidence can diminish fear and anxiety. Space is created. Observation and transcending like and dislike are supported. Wisdom can take over the driver’s seat and equanimity prevails.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
While meditating this morning, I found myself asking a question: How do I realign my life to more genuinely reflect the changes that have taken place? At first, my mind started chasing “what” I could do differently. I am quite familiar with that tact. Like a race horse out of the gate, it runs on with ideas. But, I know far too well that line of thinking will get me nowhere. Well, that’s not quite true; it will nurture suffering as I fail to execute the desire to do more. And, I’m not just talking about chores and responsibilities. The ideas that come to the forefront are things that I enjoy doing like creative projects.
Image by Frank Kovalchek
Part of the pitfall of chasing a path of what to do differently lies in where the energy is being directed. For me, the attempt to accomplish more physically can mask an internal imbalance. My mind tricks me into thinking that if I do more, my life will be more meaningful. What’s being masked are my old friends doubt and confusion. I remind myself that there is nothing I can “do” externally that will satisfy my desire to find genuine peace and an end to suffering. That is an issue that can only be addressed internally. So, I shift the question from what to how.
As a therapist, I was trained to look for what is working amidst, what can feel like, chaos and confusion. I had to laugh. When I bolted out of the gate with ideas, it didn’t initially occur to me to pause and reflect on what was effectively nurturing my well-being. My life has changed so much over the course of the last year that answers came quickly and easily: Committing myself to a Buddhist path, dedicating myself to extending and deepening my practice, continued support and involvement with Monastics, and contributing to the sustainment and growth of a Sangha. All of these changes have created greater meaning and purpose in my life and enriched my relationship with my husband.
One might wonder: What’s the issue? It all sounds good to me. The issue is that we are complex beings, our minds are strongly conditioned to follow a familiar path without regard to consequences, and sometimes, our current state of being just doesn’t fit with where we truly are. I find myself struggling to balance the past, present, and future. Then I realize: Maybe it’s not about balancing as much as realigning. My awareness needs to be recalibrated to more appropriately reflect the changes that have taken place in my life. I no longer need to cling to confusion and doubt due to a lack of confidence and trust in my ability to live my life in a skillful manner. If doubt does arise, it’s important not to assume it’s for a valid reason other than conditioning. What needs to change is my response.
Image by saamiblog
In the midst of simply wanting to enjoy life more, confusion may steer me off road as I do the dance of doubt. Yet, just because I feel unsure, doesn’t mean I need to feed it energetically by disengaging my mindfulness and crashing into a ditch. Even though it may feel like the more things change, the more they stay the same, I know better. I remind myself that the path I’m on will lead to a cessation of suffering if I allow it and if I remain steadfast with diligence and discernment. I remind myself that even though the road seems like one that I’ve traveled before, it’s newly paved. Undiscovered territory lies ahead. I can let go without discarding, be in the present without doubting, and look ahead without anxiety. I can honor my past with strength, open my eyes to where I am now, and glimpse a future free from suffering. I can realign, get out of the ditch, and back on the road to the Middle Way.
© Sallie Odenthal 2013
Image by Nicolas_T
The other day I went to a day retreat that included four to five hours of meditation. A couple of things caught me by surprise. First, apparently I can barely walk! I have memories of dancing so lightly from rock to rock down creek beds that made it seem like level ground. Ok, I was much younger then, but I’ve usually had a reasonable sense of balance. Yet, when doing walking meditation – which is new to me – I couldn’t seem to stabilize. I would step down at various paces and wobble. Friends have reassured me that it’s just something new to my body and that it will adapt. Really? After almost 55 years of walking, this is new? Ok if you say so, I’ll remain hopeful.
As the day went on, physical aches and pains came and seemed unwilling to release. So much so, that by the last sit, the sharp stabbing pains in my back were intense. This was a bit puzzling to me since I can sit on the exact same cushion at home for one to two hours without a problem. Plus, during the retreat we alternated between sitting and walking, so the stages were under an hour each until the last one. When I settled in for the final hour, I decided to take a different meditative approach.
That is when the second insight came. Well, maybe more like a silly cartoon. I have heard an Ajahn (monastic teacher) say that he could tell which new monks would make it for the long term based on whether they could laugh at themselves. I am blessed – or cursed – with the ability to keep myself amused by attempting to maintain a sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously… or at least trying to. Internally, I am usually the butt of my own jokes.
For me, reflection and insight seem to come naturally. It’s just something that I have embodied from a very young age. It’s probably the most significant reason that I was able to keep growing and practice on my own for most of my adult life. What I struggle with is cultivating deep abiding stillness. Reflection requires a different type of energetic attention than stillness. In some ways, it’s “doing” which I am more comfortable with internally. But, that can also lead to grasping if it’s not balanced with stillness.
When I started the retreat that day, I decided to focus on cultivating stillness. However, by the last sit I realized that the sharp stabbing pains were going to make an hour seem like a long time. So, I decided to do what comes more easily, reflect. For me the time goes quickly when I do, so I admit to an ulterior motive that wasn’t very wholesome or skillful. Yet, it was appropriate given what my body was manifesting.
I asked myself: What is underneath the pain? In other words, why is my body responding in this manner? I thought that I had been doing fine otherwise, so it’s just the physical that I was struggling with. Ha, way to go trickster, if that was true, then I wouldn’t be having any issues with the pain! It would simply be, and I would be observing it without creating any suffering. So much for that rationale.
Image by AlicePopkorn
I focus on the actual pain. Again, I ask what the root of it is. Immediately, my mind starts bouncing around with distractions. Including a No Doubt song: “In my head, it’s only in my head.” Well, that is certainly true. Interesting, I realize that my mind is creating a defensive response to my inquisition. Gee, I imagine there must be something really unattractive at the root of all this. I can be pessimistic when it comes to my suffering in that I assume that the cause is always something negative and unpleasant.
Ok, brace yourself, prepare to dive, here we go…. Then it hits me. What?! It’s not pain, it’s JOY!!! I wanted to laugh out loud (not considered polite etiquette when meditating with others including three monks!). So, I chuckled on the inside. What a knucklehead. Leave it to me to have swept joy and happiness under the rug for so long that it was actually causing tension, and painful tension at that.
I’ve written before about how much my life has changed in a positive manner over the last year. My body’s reaction is a firm validation that it is time to let go and surrender to the joy and well-being that I am so fortunate to be experiencing at this juncture in my life. Joy and happiness cannot be cultivated by sweeping them under the rug any more than stress can be alleviated by denial and delusion. Awareness of joy is as crucial to happiness as facing pain is to freedom from suffering and stress.
May we all bring joy out of the closet and to the forefront of our lives!
© Sallie Odenthal 2013