Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Joy and Creativity

It has been a long several weeks. CK and I have met with two members of our Sangha Harmony Committee about the feelings around our vegan practice not being recognized or included. For me these meetings have highlighted just how terribly uncomfortable group dynamics can be for me. I feel utterly at a loss around them at times. Having moved over and over again throughout my childhood, really up until the time I moved out in my early 20s, I really never learned the knack of groups. Whenever I started to fit in at all, we moved, as it was I didn't fit in well with a lot of peers to begin with.

The 17th I got to play host to a day of creativity for our Sangha. A spring community day celebrating Earth Day and the Earthstore Bodhisattva. It was small, intimate, joyful, silly, and simple. I put myself in charge of the food, carefully labeling things with known allergens for one of the participants and items that weren't vegan (only one thing that had dairy). Friends came with a box filled with vegan cupcakes, which was really touching. I had time to sit down, enjoy making a Jizo shrine, sharing lunch, and listening to stories.

Although I was tired at the end of the day I felt contented and connected by it. This was just the kind of sangha activity I needed! It was especially sweet when a Dharma sister, who has been part of the Harmony meetings, later emailed me to say that in the evening it had occurred to her the mindful attention I'd paid to her dietary needs. How having all the food labeled so she knew what to take was something that could be felt as an expression of being loved and cared for. It helped her to understand why this is so important to me.

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Vegan Practice

This past Sunday CK and I met with two members of our sangha that are part of the Harmony Committee. It was exceedingly painful to open up to them about how I'm feeling excluded. Despite reassurances to the contrary, just trying to address it leaves me feeling as though I'm breaking the vow to not speak ill of the sangha. It was sobering and upsetting to acknowledge that the lack of respect I feel as a vegan is something that has kept me from feeling safe and included for the entire time I've been practicing with my community.

Monday evening one of my teachers phoned me at home. I found it a little ironic that he rang just as I got up from sitting zazen. He had wanted to touch base with me, having heard that I was experiencing a lot of unease lately.

We talked a little about my feelings of being excluded as a vegan in the community. He said to me that he felt it was important that our community feel very inclusive. He'd also commented about seeing the ethical choice I make being a vegan and that as a teacher he feels pleased to see a student exceed him in this area.

I believe it was the first time one of my teachers actually discussed my veganism with me. Acknowledging that it is an ethical choice that is the foundation of my practice. It was good to have it really seen as that important. Some part of it did feel painful, my wishing it could have been acknowledged this way, without my having to express how much suffering this has been causing me.

What has struck me the past few days are these thoughts:

Being vegan is not an allergy, but it feels like it is treated as such. This difference is accommodated but not celebrated as a deep expression of practice.

Our community is built upon a deep respect for people who's sobriety is an essential part of their practice. I feel like

I feel terribly guilty for not having spoken up sooner. Had I vocalized these feelings to my Zen community sooner than perhaps the environment would be more inviting to CK now.

Although I am hurting tremendously about my Mom, it does not lessen the importance of addressing this. I am not the only vegan who's felt excluded at times and it has been quite painful to me to see how this has impacted CK.

Although I appreciate that people in my community, including one of my teachers, seeing my veganism as being further along the path of compassion for all living beings, I don't just want to feel complimented. I feel that some change in our community is important. Just compliments have left me feeling like I have been - left out.

I also appreciate the suggestions that I show people through cooking how easy making vegan food is. However, just making cupcakes hasn't solved the problem. I've been doing this for years and although people appreciate my cupcakes, it hasn't cultivated mindfulness around this being my practice. Those same people might very well bring a non-vegan dish to a practice group that has asked that vegan dishes be brought.

I also acknowledge that people in my community may not understand that the lack of options around vegan food is seen as alienating and disrespectful to me. At the same time I have to recognize that for now that alienation feels rather painful.

Through all the busyness and discomfort I am trying to find my way along the thin thread of practice.


The Opposite of My Mother

Mom was having a bad day yesterday. She tried phoning the house at 10:30 to say I shouldn't come out, but I'd been gone all morning and was already headed out the Gresham. She didn't answer the door right away and I could hear her dog whining a little at the door. When she finally did I could tell immediately she wasn't alright. Her blood sugar was a little low and she was very nauseated, immediately lying down on the sofa with the crackers she was trying to eat.

I'd picked up a gluten, soy & sugar free muffin from Sweetpea for her as part of my morning errands and put it on a plate for her. As she started to try and eat that I took out her trash and put her outgoing mail in the drop. I went up to the office for her apartment complex and had them make a key for me. I also had them put my contact information down for emergencies since Mom's husband is sometimes up on Larch Mountain and could miss a call quite easily.

When I got back to the apartment she'd managed to eat the whole muffin and felt a little better for it. Mom hasn't been very forthcoming with details, so I tried to get a few from her about her health. Aside from just wanting to have a more complete picture of what is going on with her health, CK and I are hoping that an early October date for our wedding will be soon enough for her to be there.

Mom ended up saying something about it not mattering. She is so happy for CK & I and she loves CK. She doesn't mind it if she has to miss our wedding. Mom ended this exchange with the comment that if she had to feel the way she was feeling at that moment for many months she'd rather just die now.

And it hurt. It really hurt. She totally missed the point that maybe we were trying to have a wedding when she was well enough to be there for my sake, for our sake. That we wanted her to be there. I left pretty soon after this exchange to let her get some rest.

Later in the day she phoned me and we talked for a while. I said I wanted her to make sure I could speak with her doctors. Ultimately what I found out was that after being informed about the cancer Mom has cut off most of her contact with the doctors. She was referred to an oncologist, but felt like she was being pressured to sign up for tests, chemotherapy and all the things she doesn't want to go through. She hasn't done much of anything since, falling back into a typical behavior for her - throwing up her hands and refusing to deal with the situation.

I ended up talking her through some things. EB had advised me that Mom is entitled to ask for a hospice team and CK noted that Mom should be referred to a palliative care specialist. She's been given a very serious diagnosis and she shouldn't feel that she has to choose "treatment". I told her on Thursday we could look at some things at Kaiser. She also agreed to try acupuncture if I would help her find someone.

Once again I found myself stepping into the role of the "grown up" in dealing with my Mother. I've been the adult in our relationship most of my life. Even now we are each falling into the roles we know best.

I feel pretty beat up today. It hurts seeing her suffer, the familiarity of it has never lessened the pain of it. The inevitability of eventual death for everyone doesn't in anyway soften the blow. Her behaving exactly as I expect her to, exactly as she's always done doesn't make it any less painful. There's a part of me that just wants to scream at her and ask why she cannot be the grown up at least once in my life.

But she can't be the adult. If she couldn't at the rare times she was healthy, to expect her to do it when she is dying isn't very reasonable. As painful as it is for me to have to once again take care of things, especially the arrangements for her approaching decline & death, it feels wrong to mimic her. I really would rather throw up my hands, claim despair and not deal with all of this, but I have always done best in life when I choose to behave the opposite of my Mother.


The Weight of Her Regret

It has really hit me the past couple of weeks just how ill my Mom is. It wasn't that I was truly in denial, but just a real depth of grief that I've been feeling. I think the bittersweet energy of getting ready for a trip to the Oregon coast this past weekend, the sense of urgency around taking trips with her while she can still enjoy them is part of it. Another was overhearing her say to someone at a gallery that she was dying.

What occurred to me is that I've never heard my Mom make that kind of admission. She's always met cancer, or her other ills, head on and ready for a fight. Her response has always been that she's going to beat this latest assault to her body. Now she doesn't say that, she says that she is dying. She's does offer that she believes in miracles, so who knows what could happen, but that is usually an aside to saying she's finally, right now, alright with dying.

The cancer, somewhat at the top of her stomach, is late into Stage 2. This usually means it has spread to multiple layers of the stomach and/or the lymph nodes. It is causing her discomfort, nausea, and vomiting, particularly if she eats things that are difficult for the stomach to process. Because of these problems she's fighting some malnourishment already.

Last week CK and I picked up Mom and took her to a small place south of Yachats. She had been a little worried at first about what she'd eat, but finally decided she was up for trying new things. I spent much of last week cooking several dishes that were vegan and all soy-free except for the chick pea salad, which had Vegenaise in it. Mom has at times been a little sensitive to soy, although it has been hard to pin down.

We noticed she did pretty well with small meals. I made her a fruit smoothie each morning and added some brown rice protein. She enjoyed our vegan, some raw, dishes very much and didn't seem to get sick from eating them. She did end up eating too much of the lentil/walnut loaf with mashed potatoes & gravy, this made her somewhat nauseated, but she was alright after laying down to rest for a while.

One afternoon we ate out and she ordered a hamburger with bacon and cheese. We didn't say anything, at this juncture it seems rather pointless to bug her. After, back at the inn, CK and I went out onto the rocky shore and Mom lay down. She told us later that this overly indulgent meal ended up making her really nauseated and she eventually vomited. I was relieved when later that day she was able to eat and enjoy a tostada with homemade, refried black beans on a baked corn tortilla.

There she was, very literally made ill by her bad choice and regretting it. I would later point out, after she was feeling better and able to hear it, that the animal proteins and fats are probably more difficult for her stomach to deal with, especially in such a large serving. I don't think a vegan diet will save my Mom's life at all, but I did see in the long weekend that the smaller, vegan meals we're easier on her body.

I later recalled listening to her order that hamburger, hearing the mix of defiance and guilt in her voice. She knew she was doing the wrong thing for her body, but she didn't want to feel like she was somehow denying herself. My Mom's choices so often seem like a child is making them, a child who wants to be indulged and doesn't give a damn about any potential consequences. I've watched this pattern with her again and again, in so many different variations.

Like so many things it seems pointless, cruel even, to shine a light too brightly on her continually making poor choices. Once or twice something she said triggered a painful memory and I felt angry at her for trying to rewrite events in my life, trying to cast herself in a more favorable light. It would strike me how childish the behavior was in many ways, like the bad choices about food, and how sad. The anger would die down pretty quickly I noticed, leaving behind layers and layers of sadness.

I'm sad my Mom is dying. I'll think about something, like what she's doing for Christmas, and it will occur to me that she could be gone before then. I'm sad for the anger I still feel over many of the selfish, mindless choices she's made, but it seems so trivial to bring them up when I watch her and see the layers of pain she's dealing with. I'm sad for all the poor choices she's made and the many ways those choices have left her regretful and unhappy; I can see the weight of the unhappiness and regret on her.

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Zen Vegan

I haven't written a lot about the struggles in my practice with my Zen community around my veganism. Instead of writing about it publicly I've just reminded and reminded people about the need for vegan food, brought my own treats, and have practiced tolerance & patience when I feel hurt. When people engage me with questions I openly talk about the way in which I feel my veganism is intrinsically linked with my practice.

No group, no community is ever perfect. Everyone is unique, struggling, and trying to make their way. It is inevitable that we step on each others toes once in a while, so to speak. In this way Maezumi Roshi likened sangha to a bag a rocks. It is by rubbing and grating against one another that we are polished.

I'm feeling rather over-rubbed and raw right now about my sangha. I've spent over 4 and a half years facing the discomfort of trying to feel like I belong to a community at all. One of my extra-honed skills from surviving trauma is my ability to find nourishment even in environments that aren't supportive or perhaps even toxic. I can adapt and find something that is beneficial almost all of the time. I have managed to do that when I've felt hurt by my community and in staying I've learned a lot that has helped me so far.

Around my veganism it has become increasingly tiring to stay, to smile and remind, to continuously make food because I can't assume something will be there, and to patiently listen to comments I find insensitive, at best . I accept that being vegan is separating myself, stepping away from commonly held beliefs and emotions surrounding the use of animals and refusing to take part. I don't feel that my veganism is an act of fear or anger, rather I see it as an act of deep compassion. Living peace, feeding peace for the sake of ALL living beings.

However, it is hard and draining to be out on the edge. I have found it increasingly hard in my Zen community because I feel that a spiritual community should strive toward inclusiveness. I often feel like my veganism might be accommodated (but not always, not reliably unless I remind), but I quite often do not feel included. I've written about this before, it was something I very strongly felt while attending a special function last summer and it hasn't felt like it has improved much.

I also have been watching how this lack of inclusion has been hurting CK and it has affected me a lot. The lack of support in our community, from our teachers, around being vegan is painful to her. Honestly, it affects me a lot as I hate seeing her hurt. It makes me look at my tendency to dig in and find some, small hospitable corner for myself, despite an uncomfortable environment, and question it hard. Am I clinging to the parts of my community that I do find insightful because I afraid of exposing myself to something new and have worked too long at what little comfort I have? Am I ignoring the pain I feel because I don't want to be judged as a bad student?

In the years I've been practicing I find that my sangha still must be reminded all the time if I am going to be attending something. If I forget to do this I will surely be left out of whatever special treat someone has brought. I've missed out on the special treats for teas, celebrations for teacher's accomplishments, and the fancy desserts served on Sundays at the monastery. I've also heard countless jokes about people being addicted to cheese, how veganism is just too hard, and the like. Even more painful are the times when people refer to our teachers, including Dogen, as a reason why it is just fine to consume animal products. I hear these types of comments from every level in my community, from priests to lay people alike, and they are really quite painful to me.

When I've missed out on a treat I've spent a lot of time reminding myself that I don't need a treat. That I'm trying to not gain back the 100+ pounds I once carried and a treat is just unnecessary calories. That only works a small portion of the time, if at all. Deep down, where it feels like the response of a small child, I hurt and feel unwelcome.

During retreat practice many of the most painful moments, times when I felt things went completely off the rails for me, have been triggered around not being included. Not having the same food at dinner, not being given very much of a specially set aside food, spending an entire week picking blackberries but the resulting pies contained animal products, and not getting a special treat with tea after a full day of meditation. I've learned, painfully, to bring treats I keep in the drawer by my bed. On some level they help, the 4-year-old who awakes with howls of fear and pain is somewhat comforted by the fact that there is a treat, but the pain of not being included weighs on me.

Despite my bringing my veganism up repeatedly to my teachers I don't feel a lot of engagement from them about it. I talk about how it is the very foundation for my practice, how I feel compassion in nurtured, but feels like something that is just shrugged off. My weight loss has been looked at as this remarkable accomplishment, but the fact that it is tied to my veganism doesn't feel to me as though it is regarded as important and is even brushed aside.

Tonight is a meeting with my practice cohort and I'm dreading it. Although one of the students who leads it now reminds people to bring a vegan dish, I am preparing myself to be calm when I see that someone has forgotten or brought an animal product anyway. Last month it was a bowl of cheese next to the salad. It honestly frustrated and pained me to see it there, like somehow the meal would be so incomplete if there wasn't some kind of animal product there. Most likely there won't be vegan cookies for tea unless I go to the market and buy some on the way there.

I was talking about my Zen practice a lot on Monday when I saw GM. I had burst out that some of my worst moments related to my PTSD, the most awful flashbacks and raw pain have shown up during meditation & retreat practice. How many of those moments have been triggered by not being included around food. I don't think I'd ever told her this before. She shook her head at me in amazement and asked me why I keep going.

The painful answer was that right now what is keeping me going is a sense of responsibility and bad-student guilt. I am coordinating a much-needed community day next month, preparing a yoga workshop for August, and I volunteered to create a practice cohort for sangha members who identify as queer. It is a group that we lack and are very much needing, but it is hard to feel enthusiastic when I feel unsupported in what I consider the very foundation of my practice.


Springtime Snow

Just a little haiku for spring. I added this to some artist trading cards I painted featuring cherry trees blooming.

Brisk wind shakes petals.
Blanketing the neighborhood
In pink, springtime snow.

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