Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

a belief in lists ~

Buddhism is a system of lists: the three jewels, the four noble truths, the eightfold path. And there are many more. As an inveterate list-maker, this appeals to me. It makes spiritual achievement seem, well, do-able. As if even this waffly seeker can figure it out.

I love lists. When I began to keep a journal, so many years ago my 1st son hadn’t been born yet, I called it my ‘book of lists.’ It seemed to me then, before I had made my living writing, less pretentious than saying I kept a ‘journal.’ Somehow a journal was what ‘real’ writers did…

Now? I call it whatever I’m doing in it at the moment. Drafting a poem? A writer’s working journal. Grocery list? A book of lists. Clippings of the weather where I’m traveling? A traveler’s journal. Cartoons and notes and the ephemera of my hectic life? A kind of visual journal that helps me collect, reflect on, and make sense of my life.

What the lists in Buddhism do is similar, on a grander (and much more significant!) scale. They lay out goals — things we mortals can aspire to. What a business-admin-savvy friend of mine calls a ‘stretching objective.’ They remind us of our priorities: Buddha, dharma, sangha. The Buddha, his teachings, the community. They record for us our inevitable sufferings ~ the four noble truths.

This comforts me enormously. As if the Buddha, his followers, and all the Buddhists since were aware how lists ground and sustain me. It’s kind of like a  Buddhism journal, if you think about it. With Tibetan sand mandalas for illustrations…

 

(active) sitting ~

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog — more than once — that I’m a lousy traditional meditator. I suspect a lot of working American Buddhists are. It’s hard to find time to sit on a zafu and meditate. Dinner, work, email and other stuff  take over my days like petty despots. They scream like the gulls in Finding Nemo: ME ME ME ME! And so I attend them, ever dutiful.

I’m better at what Thích Nhất Hạnh talks about ~ active meditation. Immersion in petting the cat, the rhythm and cadence of chopping peppers for goulash, carefully pasting a picture into my  journal. So my ongoing sitting practice is rarely on the zafu. It’s in the kitchen, at my desk, and often on the deck, watching the seasons change. I can sit for hours (I’m not kidding) in one of the deck rockers, barely moving, leaning into the sun as if it supports me.

Birds are like the hands of some great seasonal clock. The goldfinches that aren’t migratory, for instance, flock back to the sunflower feeder about now. They’ve exhausted the small supplies of natural food stuffs, and despite what the bird books tell you, ours will spurn the thistle feeder for the black sunflower seed. Their migratory cousins won’t be in for a couple of months, but already the flashy resident males are beginning to gild up, breasts ripening like wheat.

This has been the winter of robins, a new hour for us.  They’ve even visited the feeders and the birdbath, unusual for ground-lovers. I watched as one slurped long swigs from the birdbath, cocking his head as he drank. Every time I see one, I hear my father’s voice, singing little robin red breast, high up in a tree ~

And there are the woodpeckers, surely the most persistent of birds. Ours convinced us yesterday that we had to make time in the day not for meditation, but for an emergency trip to Wild Birds for suet. He just couldn’t reach the last bit of suet in the hanger, but was working at it diligently.

When I sit on the deck, wrapped in the thin yellow fabric of winter sunlight, the birds are what my meditative mind should be — thoughts that come & go, flying through the blue sky that’s always there. And then comes spring, when to get back outside is utter bliss. The soft green fragrance of new life is everywhere, and birdsong is a loud orchestra re-tuning. Then summer’s hummingbirds, fall’s bright flickers…

Each year these seasonal hands seem to move faster. The goldfinches come earlier. The hawk flies closer to the house as it grows colder, cruising for an easy lunch. So sitting on the deck birdwatching is a very Zen meditation on my mortality, the finite arcs of life & beauty. It’s the equivalent of Buddhist meditation in a graveyard, or the old Tibetan skull cups. Both were to remind us that death is all around us, so we would live more mindfully in the moment.

Sitting on the deck, watching the birds form a queue for the millet, and stand in another line for the saucer of water, I’m reminded that life is often about waiting. About being patient in the moment. About taking turns and believing things will turn out as they should. About changes that sometimes are new robins, sometimes the fragile corpse of a wren on the mat, the present of a predatory cat…

It’s not a bad lesson for a beginner’s heart, this reminder to be present while we can. And it’s far more pleasant than the graveyard I once lived next door to ~

mind poisons, anger, & desire ~

Anger. Greed. Delusion. Ignorance. Attachment. Aversion. The three root Buddhist mind poisons.

The first time I heard them, I knew immediately which one was mine. (Anger, just in case you’re wondering — this will come as no surprise to friends, family & colleagues who hear me rant far too often!)

There are actually five kleshas, in yogic tradition. But Buddhists believe that they all stem from these three. It makes sense.

I’m not greedy, although I often do want ‘more.’ Usually chocolate :) But I can be happy w/ very little: sunlight, a balmy January day, the sight of two manic dogs chewing each other’s jowls.

And I don’t think I delude myself — if anything, I’m overly cynical, my elder son will tell you. :)

But I am angry quite often: angry at injustice, at ignorance, at the fact that Tulsa had three fatal hit-&-run accidents involving pedestrians in just 3 weeks. One a week? I have to take deep breaths when the cashier is mean to the elderly lady in front of me in line at  Reasor’s, because she can’t make her ATM card work. And when my students tell me of the way the educational system treats them? I’m verrry angry.

Each of the three mind poisons — certainly anger, with which I’m intimately familiar — stem from desire, from attachment. The deluded desire not to have to wake up, not to have to deal w/ whatever the reality is that they avoid. We all know people like this, who seem to be able to ignore the facts as they please. The greedy are the purest form of desire: they simply want. More. Money, status, material goods, and sometimes things that appear ‘good,’ on the face of it. The greedy may want more wisdom, to the point where it consumes them. Hence the Buddha’s injunction against becoming an enlightenment junkie. :)

But anger? For me it’s a constant tension. At first I couldn’t see the connection: what’s up w/ anger being about ‘desire’? But over time, as I meditated on it? Yup. I get angry because I desire something different. I’m attached to what I think is the ‘right’ outcome, the ‘right’ action, the ‘right’ whatever ~ It’s not easy, is it, this beginner’s heart?

In the past, I tried ‘channeling’ the anger. Into work, into writing, into exercise. But what I’ve come to realise is that instead of re-directing my anger, I need to re-focus my energy. I need to let go of the idea that I can possibly know everything about even one thing. So how on earth can I think I have the ‘right’ answer(s)?

Here’s my new plan: I’m going to breathe. Just breathe. When I feel angry. When I want ‘more.’ I’m going to take a deep breath and detox. And maybe that’s a start ~

 

the gratitude journal ~

I keep a gratitude journal. It’s actually a tire grateful for a 2nd life as a journal cover, a gift from my younger son. Since it still smells, even now, of the tire-it-used-to-be, it became a journal I use, but don’t live with. My gratitude journal.

But more than a year after I began it, I wouldn’t want to live without it. My life seems different, as I chronicle 4-5 times a week just what I’m grateful for.

Today, driving with my wonderful husband to breakfast in mid-town, I watched as 60+ Canadian geese cut the blue Oklahoma sky with strong wing beats, each goose within place, soaring and wheeling and stopping all the world’s motion around them. Until all there seemed to be was the climb of geese into the sky.

A gratitude journal saves these moments. And unlike poetry, which is hard work, all I have to do is record. If I’m in a bad mood, tired or feeling out of sorts, the simple act of listing five things that happened today to be grateful for smooths the rough edges. Days when the bus trip to work seems one long jangle, and the neediness of colleagues, students and even friends almost too much to respond to, a quiet moment of gratitude for  the everyday magic that dances through my life is enough to reframe everything.

Late last fall a friend and I were discussing gratitude journals. She asked how long I’d been keeping mine. Not long, I told her — less than a year. And she said the loveliest thing: she said she thought I must have had one for  quite a while, because I seemed grateful for things. And I listen, she said.

Because I think of myself as a complete motor-mouth (my father used to tease me that I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle :)), I was deeply touched. She also asked me if I think that keeping the journal has changed me. And I do.

There is great sadness and injustice — even evil — in the world. But there is also so much to love: beauty that stops the breath, music that heals the heart, a sun and moon that rise and set in clouds of light. There is honey from the bee as well as the possibility of sting. There is warmth from the fire that can burn. The thing about a gratitude journal? It helps you remember: life is good ~

 

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