21 August 2012

The Summer Passing

The new academic year is now officially underway.  As people approach me and ask, "How was your summer?" I find that I'm smiling broadly and saying, "It was a great summer."  And it was.  All manner of good things seem to be going on now that weren't just a few months ago.  A sangha member noted to me just yesterday morning just how differently I was carrying myself, how clearly at ease I am in ways I hadn't been.  "You're really feeling it, aren't you?" he asked.  "Oh yeah," I said, "no doubt about it."

Just more causes and conditions, though.  Nothing to hold on to, nothing even to let go of.

10 August 2012

Orthorexia, Orthopraxis, and On and On

I know someone who will reveal every few weeks or so some new thing that either "is not good for you," "is made under the wrong conditions," "supports the wrong causes," "is made in China," "contains ______, which is also not good for you," etc.  This person will apologize for bringing to the Center food from this store rather than that one, non-organic rather than organic, and so on.  Vegetarian with a vengeance, organic with ardor, I'm never exactly sure if the person is striving for personal purity or just alignment with causes this person perceives to be the right ones to hang with.

Time was when people were grateful to have enough food to make it another day, enough shelter to stave off some of the elements, and enough clothing to stay modest and somewhat protected.  They went out in tears to sow, because they had to deny the grain to the family's mouths in order to plant the crop; they came in rejoicing bringing in the sheaves, because they could now make it another run of months.

Enter the late 20th/early 21st centuries, with innumerable choices laid out before those of us who live among middle-to-upper class humanity.  If you have cash enough, you can buy organic over non-organic.  If you have access enough, you can go to the locally-grown, sustainable-agriculture practicing farmer's market.  If you have time enough, you can research your products from source to sink, make your call as to the size of your ecological footprint, and purchase accordingly.  Things have improved dramatically.

Still, I think there's a difference between things being better and us being better.  We have access to arguably better things, but I don't know that a focus on them necessarily makes us better people.  Better people are brought forth when they don't have an easy checklist of do's and dont's, when they can abstain from abstention when the time is right, and – above all – when they never lose that sense of utter gratitude for drawing another breath and getting some food in the belly without at the same time feeling the need to pat themselves on the back for a job well done or money properly spent.

In my heart of hearts I think the Buddha said what needed to be said on the matter of diet when he set forth the model of begging one's food and accepting everything – everything – put in the bowl.  There was only one exception, that no animal was to be slaughtered expressly for feeding a bhikkhu, and the bhikkhu was not to accept the offering if there was any suspicion such had indeed happened.  Other than that, there was nothing further to be said or thought about one's daily fare.  Nothing at all.

People ask if I'm a vegetarian, and I tell them I'm not.  When I make my own food selections I follow the Mahāyāna and aim for the ease and comfort of all sentient beings.  When I am a guest at another's table, I appear as a beggar and eat what is set before me in gratitude and out of respect.  I get the veggie burger in the restaurant; I eat mom's baked chicken when I'm visiting, because that's what she has made for everyone's dinner.  As Robert Aitken put it, "The cow is dead; the hostess is not."  I may suffer a kalpa or two in some reasonably warm hell for consuming flesh food, but I will have been a good and grateful house guest, and that's not an unimportant thing to be.

Now that I think of it, maybe there's a lesson in that (though I didn't start out to make this point).  Rather than fretting about the food that comes into our bodies, maybe it's better to fret about becoming ourselves food for the life of the world.  Do we not affirm as much in the meal chant, remembering of course the toil of all beings (perhaps sometimes animals, too) that gave of themselves for us, but turning it around with the resolve to take the food, not as an indicator of our 'enlightened' state of mind, but as sustenance for the work of attaining the Buddha Way, the extinction of self and the liberation of all?  When we give in as good or better a measure as we've received we cannot be far from the Buddhadharma, can we?

07 August 2012

Utterly Beside the Point

I had a discussion with one of my colleagues at work some months back that worked itself to a point where I said, "Most of what we do in academics, particularly in the humanities, is utterly beside the point."  He took offense, but I would still stand by it.

On Sunday in teisho my attention was drawn to a NYT article, "The Busy Trap."  In it, the author, Tim Kreider, makes the broader point that the busy-ness so many in our whole society seem to suffer under is, at bottom, a self-imposed burden, brought about by toiling over the absolutely unnecessary:
More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
Most of what we do doesn't matter. 

I would stand by that, too, as well as by his observation that we do this as a way to cover up some deep-seated insecurity about our place on the planet, about our right to live another day, about whether in the end it will be said of us that we "made something" of ourselves.

I understand the anxiety.  Although I get decent enough annual reviews at work, I have to admit that I'm just waiting for them to sack me because I'm not up on the latest, or publishing at a steady pace (or really much at all...).  It's not that I don't do my job, and it's not that I don't do it well enough.  It's just that there's a culture there, as most everywhere, that "well enough" isn't "good enough," that the More and Better buttons need to be constantly pushed.

I'll go back in a week or two and admit that I wrote nothing at all over the summer.  Heck, I didn't even read a single book cover-to-cover in all that time!  While I'm hearing of others' accomplishments, I'll own that I spent almost two weeks total staring at a wall, for instance, or that I killed a lot of time getting more exercise than I had been.  I did do some gardening, but that doesn't register on my service report.  I will confess that I spent a lot of time doing nothing of consequence at all.

But, if Tim Kreider is right, this will put me on precisely the same footing with my colleagues and everyone else who did not enjoy their summer because, even though they were so goshdarn busy, they didn't accomplish anything of consequence, either!  It's just that I will have gotten a lot more fresh air and sunshine and time with people and places I love than they did.  And I'll be all the richer for it.

04 August 2012

The Dating Game

A few months ago I signed on to an online dating site.  I had it in my head that I needed to get out more, meet more people, have some good times, get to know a few people better, and maybe (hopefully?) settle into working on a new relationship.  Since living as a home-leaver wasn't really working out, I figured I'd take a shot at being a householder for a while.  The jury's still out on the success of the experiment, but a few things have happened along the way.

My wardrobe has improved somewhat.  I've moved from two shirts for work and two pair of pants, one pair of jeans, one sweatshirt and a stack of 6 blue or black or gray T-shirts to including a few things I can go to dinner or a play in.  I got an early instruction in how Wal-Mart jeans really don't cut it in the dating market, and I've made amends.  I was gifted some nice shoes, and I'm actually grateful not to have to be worried about having passable footwear any more.  (I used to fret it even for nice functions at work, so this isn't just about being all trendy, etc.)  It all still falls within Rochester-lineage ordained wardrobe specifications, of course, and any new shirts I've purchased have quickly made their way to the seamstress for collar removal.  (OK, maybe I've inched across the "avoids ostentation" line by a hair, but not by more than a hair!)

I'm getting a lot more exercise these days, and I'm down a notch or two on my belt and about 10 lbs on the scale.  I tell myself that it's about more than just trying to look better, and I have some justification for that in that my blood pressure has moved from mild stage 1 hypertension back down into the normal range, and my resting heartbeat is now in the "excellent" range for men my age.  Nothing wrong with that, really.

I'm certainly learning about myself again and the personality items that (alas, still) fall into the "too much," "too little" and "just right" categories ("just right" being the least populated set).  I see the promptings of my insecurities, the tugs of my hopes and the ease of my distractions ever more clearly.  Living at the center and working at the university, with a limited range of personalities to deal with in accordance with rather clearly prescribed modes of engagement, was, I think, giving me a sense of being more on top of things than I really am.  Negotiating past a first or second date is, was, and, I'm seeing, always will be newfound territory, since the person on the other side can't but be bringing an unknown set of issues, wants and the rest into the picture.

And I suppose that is what has me sitting here after 9pm on a Saturday night, content to have a quiet evening at home.  It's the first Saturday night in almost a month and a half that I am not in a sesshin, coming back from one, or having my daughter with me.  No matter what fun I have out on the dating scene, I do know this much about myself: I need occasional alonetime, and not just by the hour but by the whole day.  Far from lamenting the lack of something to do tonight and someone to do it with, I'm grateful for the solitude, the quiet, and the lack of structure. 

Who knows, though?  Maybe next weekend I'll be out until all hours!

03 August 2012

From the Dukkha Diary

As of two days ago I no longer need corrective lenses, both eyes having undergone cataract surgery within the last week and a half.  The one eye is corrected for reading, the other for distance, and between them I just open my eyes and see what I need to see.  Over the course of some 43 years I've gone from glasses to contacts to contacts with reading glasses to glasses with progressive lenses to – this!

But last night, toward evening, I had this irrepressible urge to "take my contacts out" (I knew there were no glasses perched on my nose).  It was as if I was somehow saying, "OK, enough with the clear vision.  Back to the nighttime blur routine."  My hands actually felt drawn to my eyes, and I have to wonder whether in some lapse of memory or wit I might not have actually tried tugging at the corner of my eye again and again, hoping to pop out the phantom contact lens.

I used to speculate about the people in the miracle stories in the Gospels, how it was for them post-healing, whether they ever "wanted their money back," so to speak.  Plato, of course, went to lengths to describe how those who were accustomed to the "Cave" neither wanted to leave to begin with, nor were particularly interested in staying out in the light of day once they had been dragged there, either.

Seems there is always something comfortable about business as usual and something uncomfortable about change, even if it's an improvement, and particularly if it's permanent.   How many habits and addictions did I hold on to, just because I didn't want to be without them ever again?  How enamored have I been of one kind of rut or another, just because it was well-worn and part of who I thought "I" was?  How funny is it that, even now, I would find myself drawn to blurred vision, just because it was my blurred vision?

How I love this goofy, always unsatisfactory, life!