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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

a circle of desks, with the Buddha in the middle ~

The Buddha talks quite a bit about teaching, about learning. He did almost almost all his teaching outside, to my knowledge (which isn’t as encyclopædic as I’d like!). Not in a circle of too-small desks, in a room w/out windows, dominated by a green chalk board and a broken clock. Not in anything remotely resembling my classroom, in other words.

College classrooms, as I’ve written elsewhere, are abysmal. They’re either too small or too big. Too cold or too hot. Dominated by technology or bereft of it. They have stadium seating, too often, so you can’t even move tables & chairs to work in groups. Short word? Impersonal. At best.

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We sit in circle in my classroom, even big Oklahoma guys. And I try to move around the  class, so I get to sit next to each student. They laugh at this, but it gives me the opportunity to be within their space physically, to pat their arms when they say something smart, to whisper a one-liner just to them. I think it’s important.

As a teenager living in Thailand, I worked for a short while at an orphanage. There were infants there, the children of American servicemen and Thai prostitutes. Beautiful babies, some w/ the soft full curls of their black fathers, others w/ the bright green eyes of mixed-race children. Some days when I would come in to help, a baby would be missing. At first I hoped s/he had been adopted. But soon I began to dread the empty cribs. Almost always the deadly ‘failure to thrive‘ syndrome had claimed another tiny victim. Overcrowded to begin with, the orphanage was no place for quiet infants, wilting into lethargy from lack of touch. Enough food, proper diet, but too few hands. Too little contact. No one to snuggle or dote for more than 1/2 an hour, maybe two. I know human touch, and connection w/ the natural world around us, is necessary.

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The Buddha did nothing ‘by accident.’ So there’s certainly a reason that his lessons weren’t taught in windowless rooms. I have to make my students stand up, sometimes, to ‘get the blood out of their butts.’ (And yes, I tell them that.) I have to make them shake their hands & heads and feet (we look like wind-blown scarecrows). Even outside, I sometimes make them stand up, if the wind stops, and the Oklahoma sun is as warm as butter dripping off of Sunday waffles.

You don’t learn sitting in rows. A sterile environment distracts; it doesn’t ‘fade into the background,’ as one explanation claims. Which leads me back to yesterday: My students finished our last class of the year. Responding to a plea from a later class in the same room, they ‘put their desks back.’ But not in linear rows. Not the way they found them.My students piled their desks in total chaos, each desk high upon another. They laughed the entire time they did it. And they slapped each other on the back, high-five-ing, totally connected.

There was contact, physical and emotional.This is what exuberance looks like in a classroom. Not always controlled, but healthy. Happy. And it reminds me every time I encounter it how lucky I am to teach. And that the Buddha is always sitting in the middle of the circle. Even in my sterile college classroom. With us.

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every day, the laundry: a tale of Buddha nature ~

I hate laundry. Really — I mean it. I once told my sons, in a fit of I’ve had it! that I would remember their childhood years as great mountains of laundry. And while I also remember games and hugs and shared confidences and the smell of baby hair, I still remember laundry, too.

It’s just that laundry NEVER GOES AWAY. It’s always there, multiplying in secret corners — a closet, a bathroom, a floor, the top of a washer… And as soon as you do it, you find stuff you missed. What can we say about that except ARGH!?

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So it’s kind of like Sisyphus, rolling the rock upwards eternally. Which even Camus casts as a kind of  Buddhist meditation: as Sisyphus accepts the inevitability of his fate, he ultimately achieves contentment, Camus says.

And that’s what happened this morning. Not that I had some moment of happiness doing the laundry, but that these past months of working consciously, in an ongoing fashion, at accepting what I can’t change, led me to see laundry as a gift. Obviously if you have a lot of laundry, you have a lot of stuff. Not so good, on one level. But on another? We’re not hurting for clothes.

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Or hot water. :) Having lived in places where hot water — or any water! — may run only 2-3 times weekly, I never take it for granted. And clean sheets — what transient bliss is better than sinking into a bed made w/ freshly laundered sheets?

If I take time, laundry becomes a meditation. Not a joy, ever — I’m not trying to change my nature! But I can rest in the actions of folding, filling washer compartments, burying my face in a warm sheet. If I work at it, I can see laundry as a fight against entropy, even. Creating order from the chaos that seems to be just one day away at our house. I remember that the Buddha said everything has Buddha nature — including actions. So the laundry has… Buddha nature?

Once I read that happiness is making peace with (even learning to enjoy) the necessary tasks of life. Laundry’s that for me. And I’m making my peace with it. At least today.

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cowgirls, Buddhism, and the ‘t’ in meditation ~

I can’t run anymore. Haven’t been able to for years. My doc told me that if I fell one more time on either knee, I’d lose a kneecap. All that’s left pretty much is bone on bone — cartilage went MIA years ago. And I don’t walk on a treadmill, since my joint replacement. Worst of all, I can’t wear cowboy boots.

Digression: I love cowboy boots. Actually cowgirl boots.  They’re comfortable, and sooo cool! They remind me of my father, in a very good way. I remember his long strides, me running to keep up. They’re my own piece of family history. When he died, leaving only a very small insurance policy, we four daughters split it. I bought Dan Post boots, like Daddy’s. I’m sure he would have approved.

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So I’m not running — something that kept me sane through a lot of growing up. And I’m not treadmilling, which got me through some later bad spots. I’m barely riding that cool new bike. But I’m a lot happier, still. Yes, I’m dumpier :). And yes, I’m gimpier, as well :). But I’ve changed as I grow older (up?), and I’m okay w/ these ‘losses.’ It’s the upside of aging.

What has changed is my approach to everyday life. I don’t need running or treadmilling the same way I used to (I can’t say that I don’t still miss them — especially the boots!). When grief and frustration and anger come in to my life — as they always do — I’m a little better these days at letting them go. Sloughing them off like an outgrown snake skin. I try hard to live within the moment, these days.  Because as friends and loved ones leave my life, I realise that every moment is a gift. Even anger — which I’m prone to — can be owned and inhabited. I can breathe from the inside of anger as I do from the inside of joy. At least I’m trying to learn how. Not as much fun as whacking something, but ultimately better for everyone.

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I don’t think my attitude adjustment is as simple as medication. I think it’s more the meditation — and yes, I find it pretty funny that the ‘t(ea)’ makes all the difference. It feels more like my practice — which is polyphonic, like Tibetan Buddhist chanting — has helped me lengthen what teachers call ‘wait time.’

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neither here nor there ~

A  blogger I admire deeply — The Dalai Grandma — has been talking about a topic near & dear to my heart: everyday Buddhism. That’s not, I’m sure, what she would call it :). She is both far more educated in classical Buddhism and way better read. Which is, I suppose, one of the reasons I was so happy to see that she too struggles with everyday life. And, too, that she values it for what it is: neither nirvana nor its absence.

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I had a BIG birthday this month. And in part due to that, in part because retirement looms on the summer horizon, I’m thinking a lot about age. About what changes, mostly for the ‘worse,’ we often say. But far more often (at least for me), for the better.

We become invisible as we age. Middle age — old age even more, I suspect — is something that we elide, at best, in our culture. It’s not ‘pretty.’ It’s not attractive, literally. Like the force between two magnets turned wrong way round in a science lab, middle age pushes people away. But you get used to it. And it’s often quite funny :).

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What you don’t often hear about middle age is that, like Buddhism, it’s a space of reflection. I realise, now, that I will never be an astronaut (not that this was ever my dream). I’m okay with that. I also realise that my life now is perhaps my most precious non-possession. Because I rarely possess my life — usually it’s the other way! My life runs me ragged — especially this past month, juggling a national conference, a teaching job, writing, and a badly neglected personal life.

These days I don’t beat myself up over that. Unlike the Dalai Grandma, I don’t have a deadly disease. Other than the one we all die from — life :). Still, I struggle w/ the indignities of an aging physical reality. And while doing so, in my life of immense privilege, I remember Virginia Woolf’s quote: If I’m a woman of privilege, and I’m this unhappy, what about those who struggle? Arthritis is not my friend Diane’s multiple sclerosis, nor my friend Carol’s ALS. Nor is a bum foot the same as my friend Judy’s fatal brain tumour. And still I sometimes whine :). But less so. A lot less so.

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Because this is it, folks. It’s what we’ve got. This huge tangle of good, bad, indifferent. Gold & lead and dawn and darkness and the fragrance of roses and the odour of my wet dogs. All new every day. And I’m verrrry slowly beginning to understand, in this the afternoon of my life, that it’s enough. Most of the time  ~ :)

 

 

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