Sympathy Deficit Disorder

I admit, I’m just trying to be clever with the title. Well, mostly.

Amidst all the “usual” emails in my inbox at work Thursday morning was news that a co-worker, had lost her dog. I happen to know that R, the director of one of my client teams, absolutely adored her dog. He was really her little furry “kid” and he meant the world to her. R even gave people pictures of Spike!

As a person with little furry “kids” in my life I really felt a lot of sympathy for R. I’ve had to make the decision to be a part of ending a pet’s life due to the suffering that comes of extreme illness or old age. It is the hardest part of the joy of pet companionship. My heart went out to her when I read the news.

During a break between meetings I made a point to pick out a sympathy card to send to R while picking up some lunch. I sent a message out to my team that I had a card at my desk her, letting people know they could sign it before I mailed it off. Everyone in the office on Thursday signed the card and we talked about our own pets.

Except one person. K told me, with great discomfort and awkwardness, how she really didn’t know about Spike at all. Then K went on to say how R had been a major part of a decision to downsize a team in Portland several years ago. K had been part of that team. Many of her team mates at the time had lost their jobs and K ended up transferring onto the team we are both now a part of. K said she’s never been able to let go of those hard feelings and didn’t feel right signing a sympathy card. I responded that it was quite alright, that K need not feel pressured to sign the card.

Really I felt funny about it myself. Inside I was surprised that someone would withhold sympathy from another suffering being. I appreciate how deeply the wounds are when a company eliminates a team, the last job I had ended when the parent company closed the Oregon office. Despite understanding that on a very personal level it feels so obvious to me that we should respond compassionately to the suffering of others.

In some ways I was reminded of my Mom and the way she holds grudges, holding onto her anger even after a person has died. I believe there are people my Mom would withhold her compassion and sympathy. My whole family could be begrudging emotionally and materially.

It was after this brief, terribly awkward interaction with a co-worker I normally find so compassionate and recalling the own miserliness of my own family I was reminded of the eighth precept, “Not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give it freely when needed.”

I guess I see responding with sympathy and compassion, particularly towards someone grieving a loss, is a reflection of eighth precept. It is an area where all we have to do to give is to listen and acknowledge the suffering another person is experiencing. Nothing more is necessary than that, just the compassion of a sympathetic ear.

On the edge of illness

I’ve felt exhausted and not fully well pretty much all week. Haven’t been ready to call myself “sick” yet, but just not well or at my usual standards. On top of that, or because of that I’ve felt extra down on myself all week. Something about feeling on the edge of illness that brings out my inner critic.

I actually decided to take off the planned yoga class for this evening and we gave our usual Friday night event, watching BSG at the Bagdad after eating Fujin’s while waiting in the queue to get in. CK’s still not fully back to health and I look as exhausted as I feel, so it seemed like a good evening to just hang around, make some tacos (used pinto beans in my “Quickie Lentils” recipe – yum!), watch something from iTunes, and look at the theater season.

We’re starting late tomorrow, 3:30, because Joy has caught this bug going around. I feel hugely relieved that I’ll get so much of my Saturday free tomorrow. After the intensity of last Saturday, which I’m still feeling tonight, I felt hugely grateful for the rest tomorrow.

Coraline

I’m too tired and burned out feeling to write about me today so instead I’ll talk about seeing Coraline instead.

I read the book when it came out and like pretty much everything Neil Gaiman has put down, I found it charming, thoroughly engaging, and in the bits where it was supposed to be, creepy. I’ve never lost my appreciation for chapter books for young readers, picture books and other such things and as a person who’s appreciated Mr. Gaimen’s work for quite a long time (it was 1988, I’d finished reading Black Orchid and became an immediate fan) I was delighted when he started writing books aimed at young readers.

When I read the news that Henry Selick was adapting Coraline for a movie I was really hopeful it would be wonderful. The Nightmare Before Christmas has been a favorite of mines since seeing it the week it was released. As news further developed that the film was being done in Portland by a fledgling company, Laika, I was completely draw into the anticipation.

Life has been such increasing madness and CK has been sick since Friday, which has hampered plans to see it. I’d heard from a couple of people that it was really fun to see it in 3D, worth the effort of trying to squeeze it in mid-week (since the Jonas Brothers thing is going to bump the 3D version come Friday). All that in mind I rushed over to pick her up at 4:40, she didn’t look well but was gamely getting herself together so we could make it over to Lloyd.

Love the trick with the Fandango machine… No, don’t go to the bother of pre-ordering the tickets, just use the machine to purchase them directly and go directly to theater. So much better than standing in line to get tickets and I continue to be surprised at how many people haven’t figured this out. I’m actually one of them, CK figured this trick out.

For the record, I’ve never actually seen any movie in 3D before. Several comics, yes, but never a movie. Having seen this I’m glad I waited until the technology was this far along, at times it was really quite striking how detailed the 3D effects were, particularly in scenes were things were floating through the air. Very happy to have made the effort to see it this evening despite the rushing and feeling a wee bit guilty for having CK out when she clearly feels poorly.

Visually this is a stunning film on many levels. I loved the vibrancy of the colors especially since the loss of them as the story nears the end is all the more striking for it. The real life, hand crafted things were as amazing as all the comments I’ve read. Craft has been buzzing with images, comments, and adoration for the miniature knit gloves. Everything has such focus on the details and accuracy. It is truly inspiring for any DIY person!

And the adaptation of the story was charming, sweet and true to the original. At times, when called for, it is downright creepy and sinister. I particularly loved the voices of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible. I wondered and hoped that Ian McShane had a fabulous time voicing Mr. Bobinski. The unexpected appearance of a TMBG composition was a delightful surprise!

No Such Thing as Nothing

Briefly, because I’m not a physicist of any means, I’m fascinated by the fact that truly there is no such thing as “nothing.” There’s always something, the buzzing of matter. Nothing I can see and stuff that eventually makes my brain go all quiet in awe when I hear about it, but very certainly something.

My Zen brain pings around with this. I think about the part of the Heart Sutra which reads, “Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.”

Then my mind zips over to ponder Dogen’s words in the Genjo Koan referring to an ocean of an infinite variety of realities.

Physics speaks of an emptiness that is never empty. We are constantly awash in that ocean of infinite realities in our world consisting of swirling, changing matter. It is the something that is the form out of emptiness.

The Critic & Writing

I was really touched by a comment on a recent post from a friend from my Sangha. I thought it was really interesting to know how another person could spot my inner critic at work. I didn’t even think of it that way, but as soon as I read Patrick’s comment I thought, “Ah-ha, there you are again!” I could suddenly recognize the same voice of my critic stopping me from using art supplies until my creations were “good enough”.

I am trying to be mindful of this critic when I look at my writing and learn not to dismiss my writing in the same ways I tend to dismiss my art, my voice, and my own needs & desires. I’m trying to look at writing as a practice for learning how to spot my critic, hear her words more clearly, and am then able to work more effectively with her. It is also remind myself that writing is a means for sharing with my community.

Honestly, I’ve always enjoyed writing. Pretty much since I figured out that I could do more than merely read the books I dove into at a very young age. I would draw my own pictures and write about my life. When I began to learn about poetry, haiku first, I wrote that too. I even enjoyed writing papers in college, especially researching for them. At work now I enjoy creating clear, concise, helpful documentation.

The past year seems to have been about my voice. From the very literal way of become one of the chant leaders for my Sangha, being asked to write about my experience with mindful eating, to writing about the places I visit — all of it deepens my connection to this practice of words.

Lineage of Yoga & Elephant Jackets

Yesterday I spent the day at the Portland Dharma Center as part of a small workshop on the theme Upholding the Sangha Treasure. I’ve been drained from the intensity of yoga teacher training and this was my only Saturday off since beginning of the year. In some ways it was the most focused discussion I’ve ever been a part of with Sangha members and I finished it just aching from the attention, the searching, the thinking, and often feeling like I wasn’t doing a very good job.

CK had come down with a cold Friday evening and I was exhausted mentally & physically when I returned from the workshop. After minimal discussion I phoned Dalo’s and placed an order. Once we’d enjoyed injera with the veggie platter (spicy lentils, mild split peas, cabbage/carrot/potato, and spinach/onion) we felt up to popping into the video store. Wall-E in hand we went home and curled up to watch it.

I’d wanted to catch Wall-E in the theater, but it didn’t work out. I’ve heard and read nothing but good things about it since the release. I’d already purchased a copy of ‘Down to Earth’ to put on my iPod (well, that’s more due to my decade-long appreciation of Peter Gabriel). It was really comforting to finally get to settle down and watch it, especially when I really felt the need for a quiet night. It was as beautiful, charming, and thoughtful as I’d heard.

Today I woke up feeling kind of shaky, not sure if I’m coming down with CK’s cold, but my head hurt and I felt drained. I did not want to go teach yoga. It was certainly a morning where the commitment to teaching, the fact that people will show wanting me to teach them, sustains my practice. Without the knowledge that students would arrive starting at 11AM I would have easily crawled back under the covers the rest of the day.

That knowledge propelled me into the shower and out the door to Dishman. A brand new student arrived who’d decided to try a class out since she’d gotten tired of her DVDs at home. Dove’s Mom, Claudia is visiting from Eureka. It is always a delight to see both of them. We did some side opening, hip opening, and several poses for the core muscles. I ended the class with the challenge of half-moon pose.

After class there were smiles and people telling me how much better they felt than at the beginning. I too felt better, I nearly always do feel better after teaching a class. It is those classes where the disciple of practice and the respect for my students brings me to the mat, but I just let myself be a vehicle for the five thousand years of history. At those times I am grounded, centered in the practice of upholding the lineage of teaching asana.

When class was over, as people were gathering up their stuff to go, Zoe held up a marvelous white jacket asking if anyone would like to have it before she donated it to Goodwill. The jacket has embroidered patches featuring elephants, beads and small bells. It had been a gift to her from a friend but she no longer wore it. I asked to try it on and everyone still there smiled, saying I had to keep it.

And so I did. I believe I’ll be wearing it at the “graduation” party when teacher training ends. I look forward to a suitably festive ZCO event to wear it to in the future.

Investing in Self

I was chatting with CK today about technology. Well, my want of newer technology. I have an iBook that came to me 4 years old… a year ago. I said it was OK, really I mostly just write, blog, email, but it gets boggy & hard to work with… a lot. In fact, as I as I try to write this.

With the way my back bothers me carrying around a laptop gets really tiring. For travel I’ve been considering a micro, maybe something running Linux. Really, I’ve coveted a Macintosh Air.

I’m getting a bonus at work, which both surprises & delights me. I thought maybe I’d just set a chunk aside for my birthday in August and if there was enough left over buy one. Not think about it too hard, just go do it.

The day after I found out about the bonus the hot water heater went. What I then discovered as a home owner is that the cost to install the hot water heater professionally was going to cost more than the unit itself. We talked about it and picked out the most energy efficient unit we could get, with a 12-year warranty, and $1120 later the house has very hot water again.

And so go the thoughts of an Air. Only this afternoon CK was talking about how we should get one for me. What I came to see how my worry about the money, that I was spending too much, frivolously, was based in not seeing myself as worthy, devaluing myself. I finally commented to her how until the last year or so no one had ever commented upon my writing as something useful to them.

In the past year people have told me how much they’ve enjoyed, found useful and even meaningful my writing has been to them. This week my teacher Chozen asked me to write about my experience with mindful eating for her blog. Something I already wrote for her was included in her recent book.

Despite this evidence of merit, that my writing isn’t merely some frivolous thing I do, I still am questioning if I really need such an expensive piece of technology. Regardless of the improvement to me, the help to my back, or any of those positive things it is hard to recognize that it is OK to want something like this and have it. What it really makes me wonder is why it is so hard to really invest myself at that level when it is easy to spend truly small amount of money on myself frivolously. To really spend money on myself that isn’t absolutely necessary, like a hot water heater, that I judge as not being responsible.

Wisdom’s Heart Includes All

The following article appeared in my Sangha newsletter, Ink on the Cat. Since a few people have asked me about it, I wanted to post it here too.

Wisdom’s Heart Includes All

Inclusive (adjective)

Including the specified extremes or limits as well as the area between them: the numbers one to ten, inclusive.

I believe that at wisdom’s heart, the absolute center of wisdom, is love. Love is the foundation of the Brahma-Viharas. It helps us to grow into wisdom like trees reaching towards the sun. From this place of love we learn to be at peace with ourselves and open to the world. This opening allows us to accept unfamiliar people, ideas, and beliefs. We develop a greater capacity to see the limits and the extremes, as well as the area between, and enfold all in our boundless heart.

Our sangha is committed to finding a building for a downtown center. I hold the aspiration that our sangha grows to include the community in which we practice, and look forward to our home becoming a safe, inclusive place for all people to experience the container of zazen and the support of an open-hearted community.

ZCO has grown to welcome a small, rural community to the beauty of Zen practice and the melody of marimbas. Our practice of inviting teachers, writers, artists, and musicians from many traditions enriches the ground of our Dharma knowledge. Members in pilgrimage together deepened their practice by visiting ancient sites and, in including non-travelers back home through beautiful emails.

This spring we grew to include two Burmese families in our sangha. We have found that despite differences of culture, language or even faith (the families are Christian), we are a community because we share our humanity and the desire to be happy. Our practice with this family has taught me about the ways in which we communicate as humans first and, when we do that based in the love at wisdom’s heart, language is immaterial. I’ve also had the joy of learning that Legos require no directions, only a surface where they can be safely strewn and playfully assembled.

The feeling of being included is not something I knew growing up. As a young child I knew that all living beings are deeply connected, but I felt alienated by my family. Because of this I have withheld myself, my essential being, in ways small and large. Any ease I had within groups was tied to a persona so elaborate that I no longer knew it was just a facade.

During the past seven years I have given up that persona as I worked to change my life in order to adopt a healthier way of living. Besides practicing hatha yoga and Zen, I’ve become a vegan, lost 150 pounds, lowered my cholesterol 100 points, started teaching yoga, and took the first five precepts. I’ve rediscovered the silence that was my childhood safe haven, while my teachers have encouraged me to find my voice hiding in that quiet. I’m slowly learning to trust that even when I reveal true differences about myself I am still welcomed in my sangha.

All I’ve learned in the three years I’ve been practicing with ZCO, combined with happy excitement at the thought of finding a literal home for our community, gives me great hope that we will grow to include others who may feel alienated from society, family, and self, that more people enter, feel the silence and wisdom that illuminates the heart of our temple, and sit down to rest in the essential self.

Kindness and the First Grave Precept

Of all of the Yamas and Precepts, the first of each is the one that changes, enriches, and fills my life.

The first Yama: ahimsa, “non-harming”
The first Grave Precept: “Do not kill. Affirm Life.”

When I was studying the precepts in more depth my teachers shared with me John Daido Loori’s writing on them. For each “do not” there is an positive “do”. This enriched my view of ahimsa greatly so that it not only contained the idea of non-harming, but grew to include the goal of sustaining, enriching life as well.

I’ve come to see kindness as a partner of non-harming in practicing the first precept. One could easily withdraw from the world, limit contact in order to promote non-harming, but to affirm life draws you directly into the world. Simple kindness provides a way to enrich and nourish life.

In 2000 I realized I’d moved away from being a kind person. I can recall about myself as a child that I was kind and genuinely interested in each being around me. My family didn’t exactly foster this and our society often disparages kind optimists as “Pollyannas”. The feedback I got over the years was to hone my wit and protect my heart. In doing so I grew disconnected from people and from myself.

There was a moment where I suddenly saw my behavior towards a person as being impatient, arrogant and very unkind. That night I reflected upon it and felt ashamed of myself. I hadn’t bothered to exert myself to remember I was interacting with another person, that I didn’t need to bother.

And I was bothered by it. Greatly. So I started with kindness.

Every time I talked to someone I tried to give them attention. When I was in a check-out line at a market I made eye-contact and honestly responded to the automatic, “How are you today?” greeting. What’s more I made sure to ask how the person helping me was doing today. I listened to their response. I made sure I wished them a good rest of their day too.

What amazed me was how little effort it took me. Even on a less than stellar days. Rather than be irritated or lie and say I was fine I would honestly tell someone I was having a lousy day. I tried to smile a lot.

Even more amazing was the response I began to see, how immediate and dramatic it was. People smiled back, all the time. They were gracious funny, sympathetic, caring and wonderful. I’ve even have learned new things from many people. When I tried this at restaurants and shops I would get awesome service that I then made a point to acknowledge, be truly grateful for.

There are so many ways in which the First Grave Precept has affected my life. Many of the major changes I have made are rooted in my vow to do no harm and to affirm life. Of all of the things this precept has taught me, the need to root ourselves in loving-kindness is one of nourishing.

Words

CK commented the other day I was prolific, maybe I’ve already mentioned this. I wasn’t sure at first if this was OK, if my wordy-ness was a bother. There’s a bit of a laugh in it since so often I feel like I am at a loss for words. I have tried to make writing be part of my practice in order to help me sort out words from the cacophony of competing voices or find the way out in moments of fear.

Next month some members of my Sangha have proposed a challenge — 30 poems in 30 days. Seems like both another outlet for writing practice as well as a way to reconnect with writing poetry. In the past few years the occasional haiku has been about it. Since it was the first type of poetry I learned about it feels like I’ve gone back to my roots somehow.

I don’t have any of those first haiku poems I wrote. I wonder now what they were like — full of all the earnestness, curiosity and silliness of my nine year-old self. 31 years later and I’m still fascinated by the rhythm of haiku, the way the handful of words shift around until they settle down.

On that note, one came to me last night when CK asked if I’d posted something to test a blog she’s started for the Sangha Poem Challenge. I didn’t have anything new to post there and couldn’t think of anything at that moment, I didn’t have any words handy.

And then words arrived.

Finding Words

Sometimes the words come
Slowly – like finding agates
Scattered on the shore.

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