Without Suffering

One of the very first things they teach you in Zen is a little slogan:

May I and all beings be happy and free from suffering.

Two interesting things here. First, suffering does not necessarily mean something like pain or hunger or sadness. It can, but it’s more usually intended to mean the narratives that we tell ourselves that expand those things into an internal drama. For example, I am sick and have to take a day off work, and I spend the whole day being both physically sick and telling myself over and over that I am going to be so behind at work, and I am never going to catch up. My coworkers are going to think I’m just lazy, so I’ll never get that promotion I wanted. Me never getting the promotion is not my sickness; it’s my (entirely imaginary) suffering.

Secondly: As it was explained to me, the I doesn’t exist in the original; it had to be added to the translation when Buddhism came to the West. It’s not because we are selfish and insisted on putting ourselves in, but rather because we come from a cultural and religious background that values martyrdom. When westerners heard “May all beings be free of suffering,” they didn’t automatically include themselves.

Zen’s relationship to the self, the I, is complicated, and it’s beyond my beginner’s vocabulary to explain it well. In its essence, though, Zen insists that we are not separate from one another, so obviously reducing our own suffering is for the good of the world. In the cosmic scheme of things, one less instance of suffering is great, no matter whose it is, because it is all actually everyone’s. We’re also just more useful in the world when we can give it our best attention.

It seems to me [note: switching from a fairly standard, if imperfect, explanation of the teaching to MY OWN EXTRAPOLATION] that what this leaves us with is an ethical duty to attend to ourselves to the best of our ability. Not exclusively, but definitively. This is both because no one can fix our suffering as well as we can, but also because we don’t want to visit all of our garbage on to the world. If I am hungry and skip snack time, then I become a mean and hateful person who will externalize my crankiness onto other people. If I listen to the news in my car, I will be twice as annoyed when someone cuts me off in traffic. Obviously not every way that we suffer is something that we can quiet so easily, but sometimes we can, and to the extent that we can, it is an ethical good to do so.

I find this to be a really compelling way to think about self-care beyond the truisms.



The Progress We Don’t Make

This morning I dragged myself to our local Zen center for the Sunday dharma talk.

I was going to say something pleasant, like “I found myself at” or I “stopped by,” but the truth is, I was mentally kicking and screaming. I adore the Zen center, and I’ve been attending evening classes off and on there for months, but I’ve never had the courage to go during the daytime to the formal practices. I have some pretty intense anxiety about being in new places, and that’s multiplied times about 1000 if there are also rules I might not know. And Zen, bless it, has a rule for pretty much everything.

So, the thing that seemed like a great idea in a fit of insomnia was, basically, terrifying in practice.

But I did it.

You can listen to the talk here, if you’re inclined. It was lovely.

First, the speaker reminded us that Zen is, in essence, a renunciatory practice, and the thing we are most called to renounce is whatever separates us from the present moment.

I thought about my smart phone with a little pang, but the teacher’s encouragement was, much more broadly, to renounce the “tyranny of the subjunctive.” Let go of “if I could,” and “if I were” and “I should” and “if I had only.”

This is something in Zen teachings that has always seemed so funny to me. We have a dedicated practice, and yet there is also no “should” or “if.” There is no “I should be meditating.” There is only “I am meditating” or “I am not meditating.” (Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen to the effect of “you will meditate when it seems like the only thing to be done.”)

When something is what we “should” be doing, truly, there is no longer a “should.” We just do it. There isn’t a reason to think about doing it; we go do it. In the middle of the night I stopped thinking “I should go to the Sunday dharma talk” and set my alarm clock to really go. When the clock rang, I went, and when I broke out in a cold sweat on the sidewalk, I kept walking in. It was time.

But what about the other side? Would I have ever gone to the talk, if I hadn’t spent all those weeks thinking that I “should” go? (Note that “would I have” is also a subjunctive. This is tricky.)

The thing I can say with certainty is that “should” does us a lot of psychological violence, and some of those consequences are the very opposite of what we want for ourselves. We are a rebellious species, and nagging, even our own internal version, will often stop us in our tracks. How many dieters wind up eating ice cream straight out of the carton, after weeks of “I shouldn’t eat that”? How many would-be-runners tell themselves they “should” be going on a run, until they never want to think about it again?

It also, to return to the talk’s point, forces us to live outside of the present. We eat ourselves alive over the past (if only I had…) or poison our present by imagining it to be different than it is (I should be…)

Try letting go of the burden of the progress you aren’t making, toward goals that are obviously not important to you. Instead of thinking about all of the things you could be doing, think about the thing you are doing.

To Know

Christmas 2017I want to know the value of thinking very carefully in a world that does not value thought.

I want to know the impact that an individual can have on a system that denies the individual right to exist.

I want to know if opening my own heart is good enough, when everything is so difficult for so many.

I want to know the exact price of change, so that we can gather together to pay it.


What Is the Value of Individual Effort?

A friend of mine sent me this article yesterday, and it bothered me.

The gist of this article, and dozens of others like it on almost any topic, is that individual effort in environmental causes is misplaced. It doesn’t matter if we are careful shoppers, when most waste is created by industries. The money and intellectual energy we spend picking out the best XYZ for the environment would better be spent lobbying congress. The money we spend on greener household gadgets should be spent on charity. And so on.

I’m always a bit alarmed by articles like this, because individual praxis is what we have to hold on to. Lobbying Congress for better chemical standards or cleaner power is very, very abstract stuff compared to buying recycled toilet paper instead of the other kind. Unless you are a rare kind of person, pure abstraction doesn’t do much to warm your heart at night.

It’s a kind of pragmatism that easily turns in to fatalism. It doesn’t matter what I do, this logic suggests, because Dow Chemical and Exxon do all the real damage, and my ability to affect Dow or Exxon is very small indeed. Maybe that’s true. And, yet, what value to me is that truth?

Is my reusable cup or mended jeans going to change the world? Does it make a “real” difference for there to be one less cup or pair of jeans, out of billions? Maybe, maybe not.

But, it does matter what I do. It matters to me, because it is part of my ethical interaction with the world. If nothing else, it makes me feel better to make my own individual choices well. In this political moment, sometimes an easy win is the thing that keeps you from despair, and I’m thrilled to take it.

That is: one kind action is certainly better than one unkind action, whatever the net outcome for all of humanity is.

The point this article missed making, in favor of being self-aggrandizing and “provoking” is that we need to, in fact, live in a world where we do, with softness and compassion toward ourselves, both the large things and the small ones. Calling my senator (again, to leave one more voicemail) feels like a waste of my energy; skipping a plastic bag does not. The long scope of history will say which is right. In the meantime, I still do them both, as much as I can, because doing them both is the best thing to do.




Brains are funny; you have to pay attention.

I’ve developed a set of less-shopping coping mechanisms over the years, and as I’ve gotten older I care less and less what anyone thinks of my clothes.

My wardrobe lives in two really distinct planes. I have a job that is about half a step away from requiring a business suit. (I buy most of my work clothes second hand.) The other is getting quirky these days, by local standards, although it’s pretty typical among my sustainable fashion folks: political themed T-shirts, State the Label Smocks, hand knit sweaters, tunic dresses, flat shoes, layers of things.

And then I got invited along on a business trip of my husband’s, and I was in a wardrobe panic. An actual panic. I almost bought things, just so that I would have “something to wear.”

My work clothes are Too Much, you see, and my weekend clothes are an entirely different Too Much.

Fortunately I snapped out of it before I went on some weird buying spree. (I did pick up a very justifiable new pair of shoes.)

I do not have to perform as the site of conspicuous consumption to impress my husband’s work peers.

It’s absolutely astonishing how fully we’ve inhabited those things, and how deeply they attach to our subconscious identities, no matter how fully we think we have evolved past them.


I listened this week to a lovely talk by the lovely, smart Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca Solnit loves maps, and as part of her talk she mentioned that we have outsourced our knowledge of our surroundings to our smart phones. People who do what Google Maps and Siri tell them to don’t learn to navigate, but people who look at paper maps do. By looking at maps, we become, she says, our own maps. By following a GPS, we merely learn to follow a GPS.

Christmas 2017

Tonight I went to a meditation class, where the Abbott mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s well known anecdote of washing dishes, the point of which is that our most mundane tasks are also some of our most profound vehicles for active meditation. That is, the mundane task allows us to both let our minds drift and to draw it back to the task at hand. Except, we’ve also outsourced most of those tasks, to machine or human domestic help, and when we can’t outsource them we do our best to distract ourselves from them.

What are we giving away, blindly, because it is inconvenient or time-consuming?


On Having a Body

My mother starved to death.

It was the side effect of a spreading abdominal cancer that closed her digestive tract, but, still, she starved to death.

Her 60th birthday would have been two days ago.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, she weighed about 230 pounds. For years I had listened to people say negative things about her body to her and I had listened to her say negative things about her own self.

She was beautiful. Everyone thinks their mother is beautiful, but mine really was. And she was strong.

She lost weight steadily throughout her treatments. Chemotherapy never made her violently sick, but she lived mostly on fruit and salads for her last two years.

The same people who had criticized her for gaining weight now praised her for losing it. Her doctors told her she “looked great,” even having seen the not-great scans of her abdomen. I was so incredibly angry. People were praising my mother for how wonderful she looked because she was dying.

Even she was happy about it, for a while–she called her weight loss the “silver lining” of her cancer diagnosis.

And then she kept drifting, smaller and smaller. 160 pounds made her happy, 140 terrified her and concerned her medical team. And then it was 130, and then it was less.

The last time she stepped on the scale, it registered 100 pounds, and I lied to her that it didn’t take.

After I came home from being her caretaker for that last six weeks, I casually stepped on my own scale, and it congratulated me for “my lowest weight ever.” I came very close to having a panic attack.

As a feminist, and as someone who has very little patience with what other people “expect” of me, (and, to be honest, as someone who is the kind of below-average weight that most people assume is average) I was never much for negative body talk, but these days it is an exposed nerve.

I try my best to opt out of diet talk and body talk whenever I can. I even find myself drifting toward the kind of clothes that de-emphasize the body, away from my ever-present “tailored basics” style. (This look of Elizabeth Suzann’s, for instance, or this one from State.) Not that women are ever allowed the kind of invisible body that men are, but I am not interested in clothes that I have to fill, or not-fill,  in exactly the right way.

But I know so well that opting out and de-emphasizing isn’t enough. If my mother had been able to see her 230 pound body as something other than an encumbrance, would she have sought medical treatment sooner? At a “medically approved” size, would she have been given adequate care earlier?

The war with the aesthetics of our flesh has, as its very real casualties, our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I don’t want to step out of that war only on my own behalf–I want to bring everyone along.