Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hello Grump, my little friend...

Blue sky, golden streaks of sun, cool pine trees and snowy mountains.

The air is dry and delicately sweet.

It's so beautiful here today. I'm so fortunate to enjoy a full view of a mountain stream and several peaks out of the large window (that opens!) in my private office. I'm so fortunate to have free classical music all day from my $15 radio. I'm so fortunate be able to look forward to a 20 mile bike ride after work on a quiet, tree-lined road where drivers are considerate of cyclists.

Days like this is why we put up with the snow and ice and mud and winter isolation.

Literally, the birds are singing in unison.

But none of this beauty, none of this incredible luxury means anything to me today. I feel grumpy. There's no clear reason for it. I slept enough, exercised enough, ate well. No one's done or said anything unpleasant to me. I'm not sick. I just feel grumpy.

I've been working on simply being there with the grumpiness. It's an arising. I'm not owning it. I've greeted it properly, and asked it to sit down next to me so I can take a look at it. But I'm not seeing a whole lot. That's progress, I suppose. In the past, my habit was to take the grumpiness at face value, as a signal that something is seriously amiss with my life. I would stress, and whine, and start to pick apart all of my commitments, goals, dreams and values, trying to figure out what I needed to tweak in order to make the grumpiness go away.

I'd find something, of course. Then I would proceed to make a list, a plan, and start to feel really good because the grumpiness was replaced by a sense of progress. At least I'm not wallowing! I'm going somewhere! And that new somewhere is a better place than the old somewhere I was going pre-grump, because the place I am going now is such that all the grump has been ironed out along the way. Elation!

Never mind that the real reason I felt better is that I had given in to my impatience and inability to be with myself. Of course, the feeling better would only last until the next bout of grump (or anger, or sadness, or some other uncomfortable emotion). As soon as another emotion became uncomfortable, I'd create a story to explain it, and do something (anything!) to make it go away.

Here's an example: I'd feel sad on a Sunday evening. Then I'd start to think of all the Sunday evenings that I didn't feel sad. If family members happened to be present in the memories I was recalling, I'd start to think that my family is what made Sunday evenings happy. Then I'd create a story about how my sadness is actually missing my family (who live a plane ride away), and how clearly moving away was a bad decision, and how I'm taking my family for granted by living so far away. Now, on top of the sadness, I'm feeling guilty and stupid. And then I'd make myself feel better by discounting all my previous decisions and planning out my imminenet move back home.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, here I am today. Day so beautiful, it's almost silly. All sorts of prior causes and conditions have come together to enable me to enjoy this day; we all know it could easily be my last, etc. And I'm grumpy. And it's okay. Sometimes folks are grumpy. Through practice, I understand that it the grump will go away eventually, and by giving in to my irritation and impatience, I'll only make the whole situation worse - I'll turn an uncomfortable emotional arising into suffering.
And whaddya know? After muttering that last sentence to myself over and over again for the past hour while looking out the window, I finally cracked a smile - if only at the absurdity of our collective condition. We're the only beings who, upon finding ourselves in heaven, tend to turn around and say, "Nah. This isn't it." And descend right back into hell.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Creating The Retreat Experience At Home

A little while back, Sweetie and I participated in a weekend dharma and meditation retreat. It was held over a period of three rainy days in a windowless basement space usually used for dance classes. There was an adjacent small room that contained a kitchen area (some creaky cabinets, shelves and a cooktop) and a sitting area with an old couch, some folding tables and chairs. A very standard public bathroom was across the hall. Fluorescent lighting was everywhere.

Sounds pretty miserable, huh? But it wasn’t. It was really peaceful and cozy. We had such a nice time over the weekend that on our way home on Sunday, Sweetie and I started talking about some of the ways that we could replicate the experience in our home. While it seems counterintuitively materialistic to focus on the Arrangement of Stuff, a good vibe can have an important function in Buddhist practice. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, the purpose of arranging our surroundings properly is to inspire our minds and inform our practice. The theory is sort of Pavlovian – we associate certain appearances with certain states of mind – so when we enter into a space that is set up to facilitate meditation, the atmosphere will act as a trigger to calm us and encourage our practice.

In the couple of weeks following the retreat, we thought about what it was, exactly, that the folks setting up the retreat space had done to create the warmth and peace of the atmosphere. Here’s what we’ve come up with:

No Clutter. The retreat space was fairly sparse and austere. Our home is not. Or rather, was not. In the week following the retreat, we went through a major house-wide purging exercise. We ended up carrying about ten large bags to goodwill, and five large boxes of books to the library. The purge was not easy. Not because we couldn’t let go of our things; rather, it wasn’t easy because it was such an enormous, time- and thought-consuming task. The payoff, though, is enormous. Not only is our house airier, but our minds are too. It was really surprising how subconsciously ‘heavy’ all that stuff was. In a way, the difficulty and annoyance of the purging task is a good thing. It's an excellent lesson to encourage mindfulness in future purchases and accumulation of stuff.

Cleanliness. We noticed this immediately in the retreat space. The floor wasn’t in great shape, but it was without a trace of dust or dirt. Every surface in the kitchen area shone. In our house, we can be pretty lax sometimes with regular cleaning, especially with respect to the floors. We vacuum sporadically at best, and the tile floors in our kitchen and bathroom are lucky to see a mopping once a month. It makes sense to me that a clean environment is healthier and shows a great deal of respect for oneself and one's practice. So we pledged to do a better job of keeping everything clean. And we're seeing a difference. Our home feels more wholesome, and we are much more inclined to sit regularly when we don’t have to brush dog hair out of the way first.

Lighting. This was the aspect where the retreat center folks nailed it most impressively. They turned off all the fluorescent ceiling lights in the main room, and, instead, arranged about a dozen halogen and incandescent floor lamps. Each lamp cast a pool of soft light on the ceiling and reflected off the formerly stark walls to warm up the whole space. All the small tables in the side room and kitchen counters also had at least one table lamp, which added both visual interest and more warmth. I couldn't believe how much impact the lighting had, especially in contrast to the (depressing) halls and bathroom, which were both lit with gray-casted flourescent ceiling lights. In our home, we rearranged some lamps so that they would be more functional, and have gotten in the habit of using softer individual lamps instead of overhead lighting when the brightest light isn’t required.

Color and Fabric. The entire retreat space, including the small sitting room and the kitchen, was decorated with brightly colored tankas and other Tibetan and Buddhist pictures and wall hangings. In the main room, red meditation cushions were scattered over the floor, maroon cloth was draped over the dingy walls, and red and yellow wall hangings were strategically placed, giving the space a great deal of warmth from color. Even in the kitchen area, scarves in rich colors were draped over non-work surfaces and tables. Interestingly, the fact that nothing really matched or coordinated only made everything feel more cozy and authentic. At home, we now have a basket of soft throws, all in various warm colors and fabrics, in the living room (and frequently draped on the couches and chairs). We put colorful cloth napkins and dishtowels on tabletops and under framed photos. Our bedding is a mishmosh of rustic creams, tans and navy. Like the retreat center, nothing really matches. But also like the retreat center, we’ve found that our home is warmer and friendlier for it.

Tea and Snacks. I adore tea. Black, green, flavored, herbal – I drink it all, happily, and in vast quantities. But while tea alone is good, I believe it becomes perfect with a little smackerel of something: some fruit, a cookie, a piece of biscotti. So why it never occurred to me to keep more tea and snacks in my house, I have no idea. The retreat center’s kitchen was stocked with all types of teas and other hot drinks. There was a large hot water pot and a bunch of mugs for the drinks taking up a large part of the counter space. A bowl of fruit and selection of other goodies took up another large part of the counter. Nothing was nicer after a long meditation session than to quietly pour a cup and have a small snack with it. It’s a humble thing, but so nourishing. We now keep a similar selection of our favorite teas and cookies at home, and our electric tea kettle shares a prominent place with a big bowl that we try to keep filled with fresh fruit. I also started storing teas in different glass jars instead of the boxes they came, which keeps them fresher and adds a cozy touch to the kitchen.

In looking over this list, I am impressed by how simple and universal these changes are. Even the darkest and most tired space could be improved by implementing them. And they don’t require spending much money, if any at all. Aside from tea and food, bringing the retreat home didn’t cost us a dime. It was instead a matter of giving our home the proper attention and approaching the task with mindfulness. In the months since we’ve made these changes, we’ve found that both our minds and our practices have benefitted.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Learning to love lentils

This is one of my favorite anecdotes about Diogenes, a Cynic philosopher who lived in ancient Greece during the height of the Classical period. He famously pursued the Cynic ideal of self-sufficiency by trying to live independently of the 'luxuries' of civilization.

In contrast to Diogenes, the hedonistic philosopher Aristippus secured himself a place at the king's court thanks to his tireless flattery to the tyrant. One day Aristippus saw Diogenes preparing a meager meal of lentils and advised his fellow sage:

"If you would only learn to flatter the king, you wouldn't have to live on lentils."

Diogenes retorted: "And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter the king."

While I don't agree with much of the ascetic aspects of Diogenes' philosophy (he was also well known for sleeping in a barrel to avoid owning a house), this anecdote sums up quite nicely the relationship between freedom and needing less. We are free in inverse proportion to how much we need. Needs can be material (hello, nice car) or metaphysical (praise, recognition). Either way, those needs keep us tied to jobs that often involve some variation on 'flattering the king.'

There seems to be a sweet spot where a person spends enough to live in comfort, health and safety, but doesn't spend so much that working is an undue burden. Similarly, there is a fine line between meaningful and purposeful work and an ego-driven compulsion to achieve. The sweet spot is sweet because nothing is owed, nothing is wanted, nothing is a burden. This is a state worth working for.

I don't think our friend Diogenes was sitting around eating lentils and lamenting his fate. He was enjoying his lentils with a side of freedom, which probably made them much tastier than even the most lavish meal Aristippus was served at court.

Please allow myself to introduce…myself.

I’m 30, married to my best friend (hi, Sweetie!) and, like most people, struggling to find some measure of peace and happiness in this strange world. I have learned that life is pretty simple, but people are not. We create endless complications for ourselves and position ourselves as obstacles at every turn in our lives. If any of us succeed in finding peace or happiness, it’s largely in spite of our best efforts. I am definitely no exception.

Equal parts pragmatist and wannabe free-spirit, I have often felt trapped by the circumstances of my life, good and bad. What I wish for most is freedom, both material and mental. Life is too short to spend immersed in the rat race. Yet, here I am, ears-deep. First rate education and flexible graduate degree – two steps forward. Disliking my job but loving the money – one step back. Learning to enjoy life’s simple pleasures – two steps forward. Expensive travel spent actually enjoying those simple pleasures – one step back. Clear and unwavering understanding that debt is slavery – two steps forward. Constant accumulation of consumer debt – ten steps back.

As a present to myself for my 30th birthday, I gave myself two goals, each of which I would like to achieve by my 35th birthday. I would like to achieve financial independence. This includes freeing Sweetie and myself from debt and developing a stream of passive income that is enough to meet my/our basic living costs. I would also like to express my values in my life. Mostly, this means I want to live simply, to get off the treadmill of illusion and disappointment regarding material wealth, success, and the countless other “shoulds” that permeate our American lives. It also means that I want to develop purposeful work. Taken together, by the time I’m 35, I would like to as many options regarding where I live, what I do, and for how long I do it, as possible.

Here are a few thoughts on steps toward my goals:

1. Make as much money as possible. In addition to my full-time job, I would like to take on some forms of part time work. Ideally, this could be an area to explore different types of work that I may continue doing after financial independence.

2. Pay down debt. Sweetie and I currently have quite a bit of debt (mostly student loans). If we continue earning at the rate we’re earning now and saving as much as we are or more, we should be able to pay it off in five years.

3. Lower our cost of living. We’ve made huge strides in this direction already. But there’s definitely some room to improve – particularly with housing and eating out.

4. Work my possessions down to a minimum. I’m pretty much a minimalist already, but I’ve never undertaken a wholesale effort across all my things to pare down to just the essentials. I love the idea of having just enough that I can pack my whole life into a car and go.

5. Become more involved in meditation practice. This is one of those things, like running, that I know is good for me, and I know makes me feel great after – but I have such a hard time actually doing.

6. Cultivate more interests. I spend about ten hours a day thinking, reading and writing about a very narrow area of knowledge. This makes it very easy to develop an unhealthy attachment to career-based identity. Plus, it's lame.

So, welcome. In future posts, I plan to expand on some of the ideas I touched on here, along with providing updates my progress toward my goals. I hope what I write here will prove to be some combination of helpful and entertaining. Thanks for stopping by!