Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2 books by Pema Chodron

The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Pema Chodron

            Last night I came home from work and I didn’t feel good. I was tired and my eyes were glazed; I felt brain-dead and a little sad. Anxiety about time and losing it, and a familiar associated feeling of guilt and fear started up their regular rotation in my brain. I recognized that I was on the edge from which I have so often fallen into a pit of depression. This time, though, was different. This time I remembered what I’ve been reading in Pema Chödrön’s books about gentleness, curiosity, and non-judgment, and I decided not to feel bad about feeling bad (I didn’t even try to stop feeling bad, just to stop feeling bad about feeling bad). I remembered that instead of being angry I could make friends with myself and notice with a friendly curiosity how I was feeling and maybe why, but I didn’t have to condemn myself for it; I didn’t have to fall into the trap of thinking there was something wrong with me just because I didn’t feel great. As soon as I remembered this and relaxed into my feelings, allowing them to be what they were, they changed. The negativity seemed to break apart, dissipate, and pop like carbonated bubbles in the air. I felt lighter, better. Such is the power, when we’re strong enough to use it, of a Buddhist approach to life’s everyday trials.  
            This is why I study Buddhism, at least in part. The other, even better part is that the benefit is not only personal. In this case, because I felt better I didn’t pick a fight with my husband when he came home. Because I was relaxed, I was able to go out and be kind to my friends and to strangers. Because I was at peace I could smile and pass that peace on to others, instead of infecting them with depression. Buddhism teaches this mutual benefit, and Chödrön reminds us of it in The Wisdom of No Escape: “… we are actually needed. Individuals who are willing to wake up and make friends with themselves are going to be very beneficial, because they can work with others, they can hear what people are saying to them, and they can come from the heart and be of use.” This is the other reason I study Buddhism - because, selfishly, I want to help the world.
I say that wanting to help the world is selfish because the state of the world often causes me a great deal of fear and anxiety and guilt. So, selfishly, I want to change things so that I can get rid of these unpleasant emotions in myself. But what I’ve learned from Buddhism is that actions driven by fear and anxiety and guilt cannot generate peace and happiness and love - they will only perpetuate more fear and anxiety and guilt. I (we) need a way to find peace and gentleness inside of ourselves before we can expect to produce those qualities in the wider world. I’ve read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh in the last six years, and he has taught me this. Like many westerners, TNH has been my introduction to Buddhism and, through his books, my spiritual teacher. I love him and am so grateful for his work, which has quite literally changed my life. At the same time, though, I decided it might be a good idea to diversify my spiritual diet, to diverge from my comfortable habit, so to speak. My sister, who has been studying Buddhism too, lent me these two books by Pema Chödrön, and I have benefited greatly from them both. I don’t think you have to have studied Buddhism previously to benefit, though a little bit of background could definitely help.
            Neither of these books gives a general overview of Buddhism or its teachings, and neither is focused around a single topic, as Hanh’s sometimes are. Instead, both books are comprised of the transcripts of short talks by Chödrön: Things Fall Apart from various talks between 1987-1994, and No Escape from a one-month meditation retreat in Nova Scotia in 1989. As such, Things Fall Apart is somewhat less cohesive and harder to follow than No Escape.            Despite When Things Fall Apart’s lack of obvious progression, it is a very worthwhile read. If you’re new to Buddhism, you might read it slowly, over the course of a few weeks or a month. If you read a chapter or two at a time, and then stop to let them sink in, it doesn’t matter as much that each chapter is completely new, and in a “plot” sense (though definitely not a spiritual one) unrelated to the last. Perhaps it’s even appropriate that the book is a bit jumbled, a bit here and there; life is like that, too. We encounter this and that and the other thing all the time, all at once, and presenting each point separately might in fact give us an unduly simplistic view of the teachings. A lot of the stuff discussed in this book was familiar to me already, but one topic was completely new, and extremely enlightening and useful. That is the practice of “tonglen.”
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique that means “sending and receiving.” “It is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite.” Chödrön, who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala meditation centers, and Naropa University, talks over and over again in both of these books about our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This habit, she suggests, actually contributes to our pain. In running away and attempting to wriggle free from pain we defeat the purpose of the pain, which is to understand it. Tonglen is a method for staying with and addressing the pain we see around us. “When we see a woman and her child begging on the street, when we see a man mercilessly beating his terrified dog, when we see a teenager who has been badly beaten or see fear in the eyes of a child, do we turn away because we can’t bear it? Most of us probably do. Someone needs to encourage us not to brush aside what we feel, not to be ashamed of the love and grief it arouses in us, not to be afraid of pain.” Instead of getting away from these unpleasant feelings, Chödrön advises us to do the exact opposite – to actually open further to the unpleasantness. “Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy. It’s a practice that allows people to feel less burdened and less cramped, a practice that shows us how to love without conditions.” This idea struck me right away as revolutionary, and very practical. Off and on, (definitely with less than ideal discipline) I’ve been trying to cultivate it as I move about the suffering-filled streets of NYC. It’s not at all easy; it requires opening rather than closing. But what I like about it is that it offers a solution: instead of being bitter and angry about injustice, which only makes things worse, we can be gentle and loving towards those who suffer, which might just help us all.

            The Wisdom of No Escape, the second Chödrön book I read, was shorter and a little bit easier to read. It hangs together better because she’s talking to the same group of people over the course of one month. In both books I really like Chödrön’s voice. She is humble, gentle, and not overly cute. She often tells seemingly banal stories about how she failed to uphold her own ideals and how she (and we) can learn from that. For example, if you intended to only eat one cookie, and then you ate three (as I did the other day), you can respond in a variety of ways. You could get angry at yourself, or depressed, or say “Screw it; I’m going to eat badly for the rest of the day, because now it doesn’t matter,” or any number of less-than-useful reactions. Or, you could respond with a gentle curiosity about why you overate. Obviously it wasn’t about being hungry; perhaps you were upset about something or feeling scared, or tired, or put upon in some way. You can notice and not judge, instead of spiraling into a pit of despair. These are the kinds of stories Chödrön tells because these are the kinds of “problems” we so often have. Ridiculous problems! And yet if we don’t address them in a positive way, they can become very big, very real problems. If we don’t figure out why we made the choice we did, we will just carry on with our habits that lull us into sleep when we need to be awake. And if we can’t react well to a small problem, we’re certainly not going to do any better when shit really hits the fan.

It’s very important that we are awake to our own thinking because “by the way that we think and by the way that we believe in things, in that way is our world created.” Chödrön is not saying that she has it all figured out, or that Buddhism will tell us what is true and what is false. Actually, what she’s saying is that it’s problematic to believe anything to the point that you no longer question it. She refers to a Buddhist teaching that says, “‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.’ This means that if you can find Buddha and say, ‘It’s this way; Buddha is like this,’ then you had better kill that ‘Buddha’ that you found, that you can say is like this. … when you see that you’re grasping or clinging to anything, whether conventionally it’s called good or bad, make friends with that. Look into it. Get to know it completely and utterly. In that way it will let go of itself.” This kind of advice – to “look into it” – is very Chödrön. It’s very Buddhist. It’s also very hard, and often, as the title of one of her final chapters reflects, quite “inconvenient.” It’s a lot easier to let someone else tell you what is true and what isn’t, but figuring that out for yourself is the only way to see clearly what is. Chödrön’s books are extremely helpful tools in that endeavor. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Travel Reading

Hello! It's a sunny day here in New York City, but it hasn't been that way much lately. It's that time of year when we all get really tired of winter, and start daydreaming about the easy days of summer: flowy dresses, flip flops, rum cocktails, walking in hot sand... Like many of you, no doubt, I don't plan to wait for June to enjoy such luxuries. To get our fix quicker, my husband and I are going to Negril, Jamaica at the end of March. I've never been to Jamaica, and I can't wait to go swimming (look at that water!!) and soak up some sun.

As I've been told that Jamaica, while incredibly beautiful, is perhaps not the safest place on Earth, I don't plan to bring any electronics to entertain me. (I hate the way they heat up in the sun, anyway). So, it will be old fashioned books all the way. (I'm making silly excuses; it's pretty much always old-fashioned books for me.) So, I need to know what to read! When I travel, I like to read things about the country I'm in, or that seem related to the environment in some way. I'd love to hear suggestions for the right thing to read in Jamaica. I've recently watched the documentary, Life and Debt, about how the IMF and the Worldbank have, to put it delicately, screwed Jamaica over, so I have a teensy bit of knowledge about the country's history, but I'd love to know more. Also, as I tend to gravitate to the heavy, philosophical stuff, additional recommendations for light-hearted beach reads would also be appreciated.

I hope you have a spring fling planned yourself! Let me know if you need book recommendations!

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Great Month for Books

It has been a great month for books so far in the Morgan household! Since school has been out I’ve been collecting books like they’re going out of style, which of course you and I both know will never be the case. Here’s a run-down of some of my recent good biblio-juju.

Alabaster Books, NYC          
The first great book day was a couple of weeks ago when I went to meet a friend for coffee in Manhattan. While we sat sipping our small black brews in the window of Think Coffee on 4th Ave near Union Square I noticed a small, unassuming book shop across the street with an unusual name: Alabaster Books. Not that either of us “needed” any new books, but we both love them and were in no hurry so decided to do some browsing. Alabaster is a small, jumbled place that felt quaint and inviting on a Sunday morning before the hordes had ventured out. We spent a long time in there and both walked away with some very nicely priced items. I got Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which I've never read before, and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, which I've read a lot about but also never read. We headed to The Strand after that and had a wonderful hour browsing in there, but I resisted buying more because the prices weren't as good as Alabaster and I remembered that my dearest step-dad had sent me a gift card to Amazon.com for my recent birthday…

Of course, I used my gift card to buy books. I got: Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee (just finished reading it from the library but decided I needed to own it, too), Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell (to compare), Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, and Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. It’s amazing what you can get for $50 on Amazon! So cheap, but much more fun to go browsing at The Strand and little shops like Alabaster. Anyway, so far I’ve received all of my purchases except for Fun Home, but haven’t started reading any yet because right now I’m on Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang by Hunter S. Thompson, which I borrowed from a friend. Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, I have a Woolf (and also Wolfe) project in the works.

Propeller Books, Portland, OR
I love getting books in the mail! I love it even more when they’re beautiful, as the titles from Propeller Books always are. Because I’ve been writing a recurring column (titled Mostly Novels, wouldn’t you know) for their online magazine, www.propellermag.com, the good folks at Propeller saw fit to send me a couple of their books that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. The story collections, Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women, by Mary Rechner, and Disorder, by Dan Deweese, arrived in my mailbox a few days ago, and I can’t wait to get started on them. Everyone says this about Propeller Books but I’ll just go ahead and repeat because it’s so true: they are beautiful objects. The covers are soft and supple, the papers are crisp and smooth, and the designs are uncluttered and soothing to the eye – all of this combines so that the experience of reading is elevated beyond the intellectual to the sensual. It all makes you want to arrange the rest of the reading experience to match – smoking robes and low light and just the right cup of tea. I know this because I did read another book published by Propeller, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, by Evan P. Schneider, which is beautifully sparse and sad, and about which I have been meaning to write a post for far too long now.

The Dude
As I told you in my last post, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of New York City. As such, I’ve joined a email list that provides information about free and cheap things to do around town. This email let me know (as did New York magazine before it, my subscription to which is part of the same plan) that The Dude from The Big Lebowski, aka Jeff Bridges, and Zen Master Bernie Glassman have written a book together called The Dude and The Zen Master, which they would be discussing in person at Barnes and Noble Union Square on Tuesday night. So off I went. I had to buy the book to get a seat (this was not the case when I saw Candace Bushnell there seven years ago), but it was worth it to see and listen to Jeff Bridges up close and personal. The talk was a little haphazard, but so far the book is nice. Not too heavy, man, but still deep, you know?

So now I need to buy more bookshelves, and/or find a bigger apartment.       

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Reflections: Doing What's Best for Me

 Happy New Year, novel readers! As is customary, I am spending today reflecting on the past year. 2012 was a big one for me: I got married, moved back to NYC, and turned 30. In addition to all that, I think I’m finally moving in a positive direction in my career. Writing, editing, and teaching jobs keep coming my way, piling up slowly but steadily. I feel more focused and engaged in my work than I have in a long, long time, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This is a result of other changes, of course – there’s a lot less partying in my life these days, a lot more cooking and running and writing and sleeping, but that’s as it should be as one grows older, or so I’m told. Which brings me to what I want to talk about today: how things, or rather how we, “should” be, and what that means to me lately. In the past few months, with the holidays and the end of the semester swarming all around me, I’ve come to realize a few things about “should” that I thought I would share with you.

First of all, Christmas. You should be with your family at Christmas, right? Well, I’m from Iowa, my husband is from Oregon, and we have family all over. We both love our family and treasure the time we get to spend together, but with the prices for plane tickets at Christmas astronomical, and the expectation of gifts nearly as high (expected by “society,” that is, not by our family necessarily) Brian and I decided that we were just not going to do it this year. We’ve had a big year, and, truth be told, New York and our jobs have been wearing us out. We needed sky and air and trees and rest, not events and presents and all day eating fests. So we went skiing in Vermont for five days, just the two of us, and it was perfect. It was exactly what we needed, and when we came back to New York we were rested and rejuvenated, not fat and exhausted. This is not to say that next year we won’t want to go home, or plan a joint trip with our family. It’s also not to say that if you went home and sat around eating for five days that you did it “wrong.”  It’s just that we knew that right now, this year, flying far away didn’t work for us, and so we didn’t let anyone else’s idea of what we “should” be doing deter us from what we really wanted to do.

I should clarify something – the “should” in this equation is, in a sense, not real. No one actually said that we should do anything in particular at Christmas. No one literally told us to travel anywhere or buy anything. Our family were 100% supportive of our plans. The “should” I’m referring to is, mostly, in my head. It’s some little voice inside me that tells me what other people are going to say, either to or about me. Yes, there are the advertisements; those are real. There are the Christmas songs, and those are real too. But I knew (or at least I expected) that our families would be fine with our Christmas plans; it was only my inner critic that was hounding me, a critic based on my real or perceived understanding of American traditions that I seem to have been cultivating all of my life, to my own detriment. Let me give you another example.

What are you supposed to do on New Year’s Eve? You know the answer – wear a sparkly hat, blow a noisemaker, and get drunk, right? But what if you don’t want to? What if you live in New York City and you just want to go out and get dinner with your husband in your quiet Brooklyn neighborhood? Is that okay? According to my inner critic, and plenty of real people I have heard over the years, it is definitely not okay, not if you want to be cool. On the other hand, according to the new, older and wiser me, who’s learning to ignore that bitch, it’s totally okay! And so that’s what we did. We hung out with some neighborhood friends and chatted and drank very little and had a relaxing, if not terrifically exciting, New Years Eve. Maybe next year I’ll feel like getting drunk. Or maybe I’ll feel like staying in and going to bed at 10 o’clock. Either way it will be okay, as long as I’m doing the best thing for me on that day, and not living my life based on other people’s ideas of how it should be done.  

Figuring out what works best for me does not mean that I have to go against convention; it also means that I don’t have to follow it. It does not mean doing the hardest thing, and it does not mean doing the easiest thing. It definitely does not mean being selfish – I’m not saying I’m doing what’s best for me at the expense of everybody else. I’m doing what’s best for me so that I can better love and cherish and appreciate and inspire everybody else. Taking care of ourselves is good for each other. You taking care of yourself is good for me.

Obviously, the hard part is figuring out what’s best for me. It doesn’t come in a daily email; there’s no app. It’s hard for the same reason that writing is hard – because it changes every single day, every single moment, because you have to constantly accept new data and reevaluate. But that’s where reading comes in handy. I know that a big part of the reason I’m coming to these realizations at all is because of what I’ve read, both fiction and not, and because I’ve been reading extensively (some might say excessively) since I can remember being alive. Books have taught me that there is no standard response to life’s complexity. From reading novels I have learned that people do things differently, feel things differently, have different religions, and different priorities. But underlying all of these differences are general truths – kindness and generosity are universally acknowledged as positive forces. Forgiveness of self and others seems less obviously a shared value in our everyday culture, but in novels it is. I have traveled near and far, but most of what I know comes from reading novels. One thing I know is that judgment, both of self and of others, is a negative force that helps no one. This is something that I’m going to try to do a better job of remembering in 2013. May I read books that remind me of it, in a million different ways.

A few other things I want to do in 2013 are:
See more live music
Do more yoga
Make better use of all NYC has to offer
Write more posts for Mostly Novels!

Thank you so much for reading my blog. May you know what is best for you this year, and have the strength and faith to act on that knowledge.

Happy New Year, everyone!