A Different Speed

I’ve been thinking about speeding and thinking about writing about speeding for a long time. I get that it’s kind of a strange thing to think about speeding – it’s more something we DO, than something we think about, but if you haven’t gathered this about me already, I think a lot. To a fault, for sure. I wonder what that says about me that I find over-analyzing fun? 

Anyway, the reason I’ve thought a lot about speeding is because just over five years ago, I moved to this lovely city of Austin. Where weird is good, where gluten-free is the norm, and where people drive really fucking slow. I can be a little weird – that’s certainly relative. I DO eat gluten (gasp!), though I know enough about food and health-food lingo to be accepted. But the driving? I immediately wanted to write about it because I found it so frustrating – but that just seemed darn-right rude. Move to a city and then publicly criticize most of the drivers? Who does that? So, instead, I’ve just been thinking about it for five years. And in the last month, I’ve officially forked over $410 in speeding fines for 2 tickets (I had another one at the beginning of the year for which I forked out another $200 and 6 hours of time for a defensive driving course), so this issue has come to a head. Specifically, I’ve had to admit that maybe I have a problem (deep breath, still kind of hard to write). 

First, let me explain the backdrop on my belief about speeding. I think everyone is wired, like in a biological way, on a few key aspects in life and so it’s very hard to go against these things. I have developed this theory because I am a person who is wired one way, but grew up in another way. For example: Climate preference. I am wired to live in HOT climates – 85 degrees is my sweet spot, I am cold in anything less than 70 degrees and I think anything below 50 is absolutely intolerable. The astonishing thing to most people is that I grew up in Wisconsin. It was 23 years of seasonal hell. Sure, I appreciate the beauty of the first snow-fall and crisp, cold sunny days where the snow crunches under one’s boots, but you better believe that on the finest of winter days, I am wearing at least 5 layers and honestly, I just don’t think one needs to live where one feels the need to be is so heavily protected. 

I also think the wiring comes into play in the big city/small town choice. Linked, clearly, to the central nervous system, I think people are wired for the lively energy, loud buzz and constant magnificent moving machinery of a big city OR the slow-pace simplicity of a small town. I’m a big-city gal and I grew up in a town of miniscule population (3,000 people). I remember my first trip to Chicago when I was in middle-school. I went with a friend who had cousins that lived in the suburbs. We all went into the city for the day and I was speechless from the beauty of the skyscrapers, the sophistication of the inhabitants and the abundance of things to DO there. I felt at home. 

All of this is to say that I think how fast (or slow) one drives is a hard-wired attribute as well. The climate gene, the urban gene and the speed gene. Perhaps not identified yet, but I’m pretty sure they exist. I say this because I think there is a certain speed that everyone is just comfortable driving at and I’ve been, in the past, an advocate of people driving at the speed they are comfortable at, EVEN (deep breath) if that means they drive below the speed limit. While this drives me nuts when I’m behind these people, if I think about it, I don’t want them to speed up if they don’t think they can handle driving at the speed limit. I MIGHT be inclined to make the argument that the speed limit be sort of a barometer for whom we let on the streets,  but as my clearly slow-driving neighbor argued, it is a speed LIMIT and not a speed minimum. Hmmmm. Yes. Semantics will get me every time. Not to mention I have a harder time making the opposite argument because there certainly is something like ‘excessive speeding’, which of course, no speeder thinks they do, present company included. 

On my first draft of this post, this was the section where I was going to justify my speeding. I felt it was part of getting to acceptance of the problem. I was right on that, but much to your benefit, I have been talking about all of this among friends, and I’ve realized that my arguments sound pretty ridiculous when voiced out loud. My whole ‘drive at your comfort level’ argument really sounded obnoxious when I presented that one in front of my book club – 12 highly intelligent women who all presumably like me a little bit on some level – but who were happy to put me in my place. That was like a sweat-lodge: I had to purge a lot of beliefs and notions I had about it as I ranted like a crazy person. The book for that month was “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.” In all other areas, I agreed with the author, I still wasn’t with him (yet) on the speeding.

There were actually other speeders in that group, and over the last 6 weeks (since court) I’ve bonded with others and we all concur on one point: we are APPROPRIATE speeders. I really want to cling to this idea because I really think I AM an appropriate speeder, but I do recognize that enforcing ‘appropriate speeding’ is a little trickier. And so when I finally dropped that argument, and with countless hours of scoul scraping (it’s been painful) this is where I got to with staying within speed limits: I don’t like people to tell me what to do. I’m not sure anyone does, but speed limits, in particular, seem a tad arbitrary – where I’ve been picked up twice, the speed limit changes from 30 to 35 within blocks of each other and it’s actually faster downtown, which makes no sense to me. It really bugs ME to follow rules that don’t make sense to ME – because I am so important. Or so my ego believes. Interestingly, I ask my children to do this every day. I can reason that my rules make sense (I am not a strict mom by any means), and they DO to an adult, but to my children? Not always. So, the speed limits are arbitrary to me. To a police officer? To the judge? The people who actually matter here? Not so much. It’s pretty simple. It’s their rule. Follow it. 

While following arbitrary rules is slightly painful, it’s more painful for me to be paying these exorbitant ticket prices (in TX, you can pay more money to avoid it going on your record, an injustice for sure, but one that has been working out for me), so I have been working on re-wiring. That’s right. Just because I believe we have the climate gene, the urban gene and the speed gene, doesn’t mean I believe we can’t live another way. San Francisco, for example is the town closest to my heart, but it is arguably downright chilly for much of the year. I know plenty of people who prefer small towns, but live in big ones and vice versa. No one DIES from this. And then there’s this big one: As a Buddhist, it does seem a tiny bit contradictory to insinuate that happiness is tied, even in the slightest, to our external circumstances or constraints. And in fact, this is much what a spiritual path is about: re-wiring our habits and thoughts that create our unhappiness. It just took an interceding party (the police) to make me unhappy about speeding, otherwise, it suited me just fine. It takes an interceding party (the police) to keep people from doing lots of things that suit THEM just fine. Yes, I get it. 

Back to the night of book club, a self-proclaimed slow-driver (she told me she uses her cruise to ensure she stays at the speed limit when I told her I was having to use mine a lot to stay at it) and I were arguing back and forth about speed limits and she kept saying, “it’s fast enough”…”that area? 30 miles per hour is fast enough”, “65 is more than fast enough on a highway through town”, etc. etc. Her words were like a slow-working esthetician, annoying and painful. However, as I’ve been working on the re-wiring, staying conscious of my speed at ALL times (I took an oath in court to not be picked up again within 6 months, so paranoia has been high), using my cruise control in particularly challenging areas, I keep hearing her words in my head. I know the re-wiring is working because lately I’ve been answering her, even as other drivers speed past me, saying yes, it is. It wasn’t that I was in a hurry before, it’s just that I was just trying to get everywhere faster; going my own speed. But I live in Austin now. It’s a small-ish town, relatively speaking from where I and so many people who have moved here come from, and it’s a great place to be. And yes, it is, indeed, fast enough.

And Everything Worked Out Just Fine. The End.

It’s funny how things just keep working out for the best. It’s so cliché, right? I know. But, like stereotypes, which become stereotypes for a reason, perhaps clichés suffer from the same fate. My husband, the cynic, would question, “How do you know it’s the best? How do you know another outcome wouldn’t have been better?” Touché. 

To that, of course there is no answer. So perhaps instead of working out for the best, I’ll just say, they just seem to work out really well. They work out just fine. This is how I’m feeling about life right now. I am sitting in an interesting position where I can see how some things have been through their questionable times and now they’ve worked out for the best, wait, I mean, they’ve worked out really well, while in other areas I am squarely in the ‘I don’t know how this is working out for the best’ bit, but I have this strange calm about them, because of the ones that HAVE worked out nicely. 

The first is my daughter’s pre-school. If you don’t recall, the short story is: removed her from prior pre-school (drop-offs were bad for over a year), with the intention of going to School A or a back-up, School B. But School A didn’t work out because of an assessment Eliana refused to take part in (yes, there’s a whole crowd rooting for her, so go ahead), and we were three families away from getting into school B, which meant we had school Z, for zilch. I made a couple desperate phone calls, but several weeks before school was starting, we still didn’t know where she would be going, if any place at all. And then we got the miracle call out of the blue that there was one opening at one of the schools that we love, due to a child moving last minute. They needed a girl born between March and August. Eliana’s spot. It’s been a very successful venture – while she doesn’t love getting dropped off, she has not shed even one tear – if you only knew the stark contrast from the scenes we had before, you would understand my measure of success. She seems to really like it there – she talks highly about it and some of the other students – something we didn’t get with the last one. I have no doubt that this worked out for the best brilliantly. 

If I take step back, big-picture, for our family, I also feel things are working out rather pleasantly. Early this year, my husband was at a cross-road professionally. He had been deciding between a couple career moves. I knew which route I DIDN’T care for (one of them would have had him traveling 4-5 days a week), but was prepared to stand by him and his dreams and make whatever worked out work. Because under my current argument, had that worked out, that would have been ‘for the best’ also. I know, this kind of messes with your head. One of his paths didn’t work out – it closed down for him. I know it was a real blow to him at the time and perhaps he didn’t see it as such, but I could see that that one really was working out for the best, well, the best for me and our family, which arguably, is also the best for him right now. He is currently pursing his PhD, another life’s dream of his. I had my own set of reservations about this option, but it was my preferred of the two by default because I so didn’t want the other  to happen. One of my concerns was financial. Shortly after starting the program, there was a sizeable stock market crash and we didn’t weather it very well (he’s a finance guy so he manages all of our money). I didn’t panic, but we did cancel the travel plans we had slotted in for the rest of this year – we were going to travel for both holidays – beach at Thanksgiving and skiing for Christmas. I wasn’t wed to either trip – we are very fortunate to be able to travel a lot, so it seemed easy enough to take a break from it. What I didn’t realize was how lovely this would all feel. I have actually enjoyed trying to cut back on spending – it’s like a daily challenge to see how many deals I can get on things we need. We’ve started to discuss holiday plans and it feels really good that we are going to be here. Even with school starting and everyone ramping up activities after summer, it actually feels like we’ve dialed back our family’s pace. Our family metronome has gone from Allegro to Adagio. I didn’t know I wanted that or needed that, but it feels soooooo good. It feels like, despite the stress of financial woes (which, truthfully, are not stressful yet and I’ll get back to you on this when and if they do) and a major upheaval like my husband going back to school for 5-7 years, it feels like everything is working out for the best agreeably. 

There are also a couple areas of life that don’t feel like they are going very well. Namely, my endeavors to make money through my marketing consulting business and my desire for me to spend more time writing and potentially make money in this area as well (make money from writing, now that should be an easy nut to crack, no?). The thing is- because of the mode I am in right now, I can really see these things for the phase that they are – and that eventually, I’ll be able to say how both of these things have worked out for the best, smashingly, even if they don’t work out at all. I just have absolutely no idea what that’s going to look like right now. And that can be really frustrating. Really, really frustrating on some days. Again – I am lucky (I think) to have the luxury to have these picking-the-lint-from-the- belly-button moments about these things while I continue to earn little – not a position a lot of people have. I say “I think” because perhaps if I absolutely had to figure something out (think R.K. Rowlings who, after hitting rock bottom, turned things around with ‘her old typewriter’), then maybe I would. But I will. For now, the only thing I can do is keep on keep’n on. The rest will work out. Even if I have to find bottom first to find my way up…I then just hope I’ll have the good sense to read back on my own blog and remember….

everything is going to be ok

 You didn’t hear it here first.

Death by Steve Jobs

I’ve alluded to this before, but I think a lot about death. I sometimes attribute this to being Buddhist, but really, I’ve always thought a lot about death. About my own, about losing those that I love, about how lucky I’ve been to be sheltered from it because I also often reflect on the heartbreak and tragedy it brings. I’ve written very long blog posts about death, never to publish them because death is… messy. It is so simple and yet, so complicated. One of the most interesting things about death, I think, is that we call the ones who are left behind the “survivors” when, in fact, I am certain that these are the victims. Dying is easy* – dealing with death is hard.

It seems appropriate, however, today, of all days, to write about death – the day that the world lost an incredible one of us. I also find it interesting that when people are great in life, their death seems to have as much, if not more of an impact as their life. I say more because death is the one thing that truly humbles every one of us. In this humility, we are acutely aware of own humanity. It forces us to reflect on our own lives, on the lives of others. “We” lost a public figure – a man who did think differently and whose ideas changed our material world, whose character may have changed our emotional one. But a few lost a father, one lost a husband. Their grief is the same grief shared by every person who has ever lost a father or a husband. Or a wife or a sibling or a child. So then “we” empathize with those most affected by the loss of an individual, and we can look at the ones we love through the lens that lets us all see what’s important. That we are alive. It’s the tougher of the two options, but wow, isn’t that great?

Perhaps reflecting on the loss of a man such as Mr. Jobs, whose life has impacted our world so greatly inspires us to be better,  but I think that what better means is that it actually inspires us to be us, more human, more connected. Death is happening all around us, every day, but when it happens to someone like Steve Jobs it reminds us that life, no matter how big and boldly it is lived, is fragile. It is said that the reason the Buddha chose to die was to teach impermanence – that no matter how enlightened one is, they are not free from the cycle of life. Steve Jobs was a great man – but really, his life was no more precious or valuable than our own. The same potential resides in us all. Thanks, Mr. Jobs, for reminding us of that. He did change our lives and how we use technology, but perhaps his greatest gift is right now, our collective nod to one another and our appreciation for life.

*clarification: I don’t think the process of dying, of leaving this physical world, is easy at all, I think it’s very very hard. What I meant here was more the after-math of death.

Blood, Sweat and Triathlon

Soooo, tomorrow morning I am getting up at something like 4:00 a.m. to go swim 1,500 meters, bike 40k (25 miles) and then run a 10k (6 miles). All in a (Labor) day’s fun. It’s funny – I spend a great deal of time working out – especially as I prepare for events such as this, and while I am out swimming, biking or running, I almost always formulate that day’s blog post. I have created great tales and life analogies, been inspired and have even made myself laugh, which must leave people wondering about me. I often think I should create ‘Fitness’ as it’s own archive category because staying in shape has been a pretty big part of my life since college. I think this may be one of the things people even sort of associate with me – if they were asked to describe me in 3 adjectives, “fit” may very well be one of them. YET, I don’t really write about it. I have a couple theories on this.

The first is plain logistics. Especially since motherhood, I often find myself sneaking in work-outs where I can. Yes, I am one of those crazy people you see out running in 100 degree heat at 1:00 in the afternoon. I try not to use too much nanny time for working out, but occasionally, when my husband travels, that’s the only time I have for it, and if I have meetings or other commitments earlier, I end up doing my work-outs at less than ideal times. I also feel like I am always squeezed for time and I need to shower and get on to the next thing in at least 5 minutes less time than it usually takes me to get ready. So, my formulated blog posts go straight down that shower drain, along with my sweat and tears (usually not blood, and actually tears are rare too, but I liked how this sounded and I really got attached to this as the title).

The second is that I often write about things I struggle with, e.g. parenthood, parenthood and parenthood. I do write about other things, but mostly I struggle with being a good mom. My blog tends to be my therapist on the screen – I work through things through my writing. Staying fit and healthy is important to me and working out really is a sanity tool for me – but I don’t struggle with it. I am not a competitive person, so there isn’t a lot of ‘thrill of victory’ or ‘agony of defeat’. It’s like going to the grocery store or dropping my kids off at school. It’s just a part of my routine. My husband’s sports abilities provide much more interesting material, as he is the real athlete in the house – his chosen sport at the moment is road cycle racing and he actually wins things. I am often amused by his type-A competitive behavior, which differs so greatly from mine – I would let someone pass me just to make them feel better about themselves, if I knew that is what they needed. Case in point: when Mark was training for IronMan triathlons a handful of years back, he went to listen to a pre-race talk by one of the coaches. I tagged along because there isn’t usually a whole lot to do at Ironman events other than Ironman-related activities. The coach was a very competitive guy and he told the group a quip – that when he raced, as he passed other people, he would visualize “sucking their energy” as he passed them, because he figured they didn’t need it anyway. I was appalled. The Buddhist in me vowed to right the world and from that moment on, whenever I pass people – in a race or just out for a daily run, I visualize giving them energy because I can see that they need it more than I do!

So here I am, writing about sports while I explain why I don’t write about sports. Every day needs a little irony. This, as I sit next to a bottle of “Liquid Endurance – Heat Tolerance” – a chemical mixture I am taking 3 times today to help me in my race (all pre-race activities and diet are dictated by the athletic A-type hubby). I thought it funny that on the same label, it says, “Please keep this container in a cool dry place. Do not expose to excessive heat, moisture or sunlight.” Perhaps that is how it would work best – if I kept myself in a cool dry place and didn’t expose myself to excessive heat or sunlight either. Naaaahhhhh – where’s the fun in that? I’ve got some energy to give away.

The Perfect World

I went to a movie last week, in the midst of my blahs. I went to see I Am – The Documentary (not to be confused with I Am – the Movie). It’s a film by Tom Shadyac (movie director who ‘discovered’ Jim Carey), who, after an injury to his head, came out with a lot of clarity about what is important in life. There is something kind of funny about, literally, being hit over the head here, but it was very serious, so I’m going to refrain. He realized that making gobs of money was NOT the important part. It didn’t make him one iota happier. So he did what he does best, and he made a movie about it. He approached the documentary setting out to answer two questions: What is wrong with the world and how do we fix it?

It’s not exactly original, if you’ve seen What the Bleep Do We Know, or dare I mention, The Secret (I know, I know, lots of controversy around that one, but there was a definite ‘connected’ theme), and he uses a lot of similar sources – examples in nature, spiritual anecdotes and a lot of quantum physics – to come up with answers to his questions. But what it might lack in originality, it more than makes up for in the importance of the message – especially being put out there from a Hollywood funnyman icon, like him, in order to attract a wider audience. The movie starts broad – pointing out the insanities of our society and whittles down to the idea of connectivity – that we are all (everyone on the planet) connected, and how we live, how we have set up our societies tends to be very disconnected. Agreed, Mr. Movie Maker. By the end, the message is boiled down to one word: Love. All we need is love. (I think I’ve heard that somewhere before). Well, love and a little action. Not action as in snogging in front of the television, but action, like, show love and compassion to your neighbor. To everyone, really, but at least to your neighbor.

With messages like this, not only as a Buddhist, but also just as a human, I have to give the movie a thumbs-up. But here’s where I am potentially finding a tiny bit of fault. And this is where I am going to go into some pretty crazy philosophical musing, so bear with me.

What if there isn’t anything wrong with the world? What if where we are at, as humankind, is actually – now brace yourself – perfect. On my own spiritual quest, I have come to understand that everything is perfect. Me? Perfect, in my imperfect way. Life? Perfect, in it’s imperfect way. So, if we project this out, and everyone is perfect in their imperfect way and everyone’s life is perfect in it’s imperfect way, then isn’t everything perfect, in it’s imperfect way?

Wait, wait wait! Before you close your browser or flip over to something less crazy, like, Desparate Housewives of Orange County, give me one more chance to explain. I see it. It’s not right. The greed. The poverty. The violence. The wars. The killing…oh, the killing (my heart bleeds). The insanity. The abuse. The illness. The disparities of basic living comforts, let alone living luxuries between countries. Between people. The homelessness. The gluttony. Lord, do I see it. And it pains me. And it must change. But you know how, in life, when you go through some tragedy? When things are so hard, so heavy, you think you might break? When you feel hollow and think that you are being testing on that ‘God/The Universe only gives you what you can handle’ piece of advice (I love that one of my closest friends has dispelled that one by pointing out that plenty of people have nervous break-downs, though, admittedly, that isn’t dying so maybe it is still, technically, ‘handling’ it)?  Well, I talk to or read about very few people who don’t come out transformed on the other sides of those tragedies and rough times. Not that they would ever want to re-live them or anything like them, but that they can see how that period in their life changed them. Usually, they report that, in the end, it opens their hearts. And that, I am going to argue, is always a good thing.

So maybe, just maybe, global humanity is going through a really freak’n hard time right now. Like, we are really being tested here – the pain, the suffering, how can it be?? It definitely looks like we are headed to a breaking point. Sometimes, it SEEMS like people are turning a blind eye. BUT are they? Didn’t Mr. “living the life” movie-maker see the light? There is more and more out there, raising our consciousness. I mean, Oprah just created her own NETWORK to espouse this stuff. Right??? Even the natural disasters? Lordy, this stuff makes my heart hurt, but doesn’t it also open our hearts? Empathy drives home at least one thing: that we are all… connected. And so it goes. One of these days I think we’ll get it. All of this heinousness is leading us into really really getting it. People are changing, and even if it’s one person at a time, eventually that makes everyone. We will save ourselves and I think we are going to come out on the other side a transformed, globally connected society.

You were warned – crazy philosophizing. I could be totally wrong here and we are all headed for hell in a handbasket. But in case I’m not wrong, in case I’m right, remember where you heard this first…from the Bumpkin. Then put me on a pedestal and throw gobs of money at me. Just joking.

Forgiving George Bush

In a Buddhist meditation center in the middle of London, let’s say the year 2000, a group of us meditators were being led in an exercise called Tonglen. It’s a lovely practice of sending out love and compassion to, well, everyone. The instructor had us start by first thinking about people we love and are close to and sending love and compassion their way (on the out breath), then he has us open up our circle to others we knew, but to whom we might be indifferent or have nice feelings for, but don’t know as well. The next step was go a step further and to think of those that we specifically didn’t care for. He was saying how everyone in the world needed love and compassion – even the likes of – and he used the example of, George Bush. There was a small, but collective gasp heard in the room and I was one of them gasping. It hit a cord. This Buddhist compassion stuff is certainly very inclusive stuff, isn’t it? I had to let that sink in.

Around a conversation about George W. Bush, perhaps I should start out by saying that I am not even a little bit “into” politics. I am hopeless at keeping up with current events, let alone the intricacies of all of the political players. But with as much as I do pay attention (I did notice some things, like, the WAR in Iraq), I had developed a very very strong dislike for G.W. Bush. I don’t like to use the word, but my feeling towards him tends to flow dangerously close to that cesspool called hatred. Even before the war, I despised him and I was absolutely appalled by the American public for choosing AGAIN, for it’s leader, someone who appears not to be much brighter than say, me (I personally don’t want a president that I feel like I could hang out and have a beer with – wine is preferred AND I want a president that I would actually feel intimidated by AND if I go all the way, I would want her to be a woman). Since his departure from office, I’ve done a good job avoiding hearing about him because it makes me a little ‘off’ inside my gut to hear his name or God forbid, see his picture. While I have been very comfortable hating him – it’s very popular in my circles to do so, even in Texas – I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with how much I do. I’m a nice person. I’m a Buddhist, for crying out loud, I have practiced sending him love and compassion!

So I found it interesting, my reaction to an interview in the New York Times magazine with his wife, Laura. I have never had an opinion of her other than a close association with the dark feelings I feel for the guy she chose to spend her life with. I’m not sure what possessed me to read it, other than it was light and I was on a plane without children so I was thoroughly enjoying all of my frivolous reading. It was an interview on how “normalish” her life is now and the conversation brought up G.W. twice – once to say that they do almost everything together. I had to take pause and admit that that was very sweet. It’s what we all hope for in our retirement, right? A companion in which to enjoy all of the leisure? The sign-off of the interview ends with him texting her on her blackberry wondering where she is. Again, I leapt to all of the texts and e-mails I get from my own husband when he’s not sure where I am – a very sweet connected – “coupl-y” thing to do.

Somehow, I am uncomfortable with the humanizing of this man that, honestly and clearly, I love to hate. His time as a leader, as having my and the American population’s future in his hands is over. I feel like maybe I should be moving beyond my hatred at this point too. It’s just not good energy to have that inside, let alone for someone who isn’t affecting my life anymore. At the end of the day, he’s a human. He wants to be loved. He is loved – by his wife, his family and friends. There are probably even some people in the U.S population who liked him as a President (sorry, I still shuddered when I wrote this).  It’s been fun and rewarding, in it’s own way, to hate him, but I realize it’s time to let that go too. Go, George Bush, run and be human. Be loved. Find love. And if you run out, you might find some being sent from a meditation cushion here in Austin TX.


For my few loyal followers of this blog (and I LOVE that I have even a few!), just a quick post to say that I’m SORRY that I have not been posting. I am behind behind behind! I did some travel and thought I would get caught up this week, but have not, in fact, done anything of the kind. I plan to post again next week. And so as not to leave you completely empty handed, I thought I would include a favorite quote of mine that says, quite nicely, what attracts me to Buddhism:

“There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness.” – The Dalai Lama

Snake in the Waters

There is an analogy in Buddhist teachings (Buddhist teachings are almost all analogies, by the way) that Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan Llama I followed for many years, often spoke about and that is ‘not confusing a rope for a snake’. Its meaning is to teach about discernment and to not allow every little thing to derail us from life or from our practice. An analogy better suited, of course, for a time in history when people, and specifically, monks, were walking everywhere they went, but an effective teaching nonetheless, as a fear of snakes is something everyone can relate to. The analogy actually works the other way too – don’t mistake a snake for a rope! This teaching ran through my head this past weekend when I was in this very dilemma – figuring out if I was being faced with a snake or a rope. Or a snake in ropes clothing….oh wait, that’s a different story.

As a treat for myself, I signed up for the Trek Women’s Triathlon this year in Austin. It’s a short race (750 m swimming (approx ½ mile), 12 mile bike, and 3.1 miles running), and all women, so it seemed the perfect event to sign up for as a goal, almost 1 year after Eliana’s birth. As part of my “training”, which is in quotes because I have not done much, I went to a small man-made lake, called Quarry Lake, here in Austin, to do an open water swim. It was created for, or is at least used exclusively by, a gym here. If you swim around it’s perimeter it is only ½ mile, if that gives you an idea of how small it is, and it is man-made. My point is that it’s probably the safest open-water swim a person can do. I stress this because I only learned to swim laps, properly, in the last 4 years or so (for triathlon), so I have always been more comfortable swimming in a pool where I can see directly to the bottom at all times, where I am in a lane and where I have edges every 25 meters to grab onto if I needed to stop for any reason at all, like, to adjust my goggles, stretch a muscle, or any other excuse I can come up with in order to take a break. I know my fear of open water is irrational because there are very few things that could actually harm me in most lakes, and even if there are things, they tend to stay away from thrashing humans. But I have had many a mental moment about these open-water swims.

During my first triathlon (also a sprint distance), my swim portion did not go so well. I was not as strong of a swimmer then, and with the anxiety of the race, etc. I clearly went out too fast. I had to tread water about ¼ the way into it and regain composure because I was absolutely certain I was going to drown. By the time I finished the swim, I was so exhausted (I was not the last out of the water, but pretty darn close), I could not even run to my bicycle, which is pretty standard in a triathlon to jog to transition. Mark was spectating and I remember him yelling to me, in as supportive of a way as he could, “run, honey, run”, in a tone that suggested that maybe I was not aware that I was supposed to jog, and not stumble, to the transition area. The swim went very well for me, however, in my 2nd triathlon (Olympic distance of 1 mile swim), so I am over that mental hurdle of thinking I might actually drown. However, just to be sure, I figured I better do at least one open water swim before my race this weekend, and so the Quarry Lake was it.

I confidently strode down to the lake, with my racer-looking bathing suit, swim cap and goggles – all items that make me feel like a legitimate swimmer. I am rather cat-like when it comes to water, even in a nice clean pool, so there is always a long mental talk that I have to have with myself while sitting on the edge of any body of water, coercing my body to submerge. I finally did so, and started my swim. I had planned to do two laps of this 750m perimeter course, knowing that the actual course is only one lap, so if I could do two, I would have the utmost of confidence in myself for the event. The first half of the first lap was awkward. All of my mental anguish about not seeing the bottom surfaced, and without my lanes/ropes and edges, I started to feel out of breath after less than 100 meters. I switched to the breast stroke to catch my breath and do some mental pep-talking. After I was sufficiently convinced that I am now a much stronger swimmer, that there were platforms every few hundred meters anyway, AND that there was nothing in that lake that was going to eat me, I started again. By the last few hundred meters, I had found my rhythm and I was LOVING the open water swim. I made my first lap and then decided that I would, in fact, go another round. I started in, catching the same groove. I was approximately 200 yards into my second lap when I was thinking to myself this exact thought – “I am loving this! I don’t even know WHAT it is about an open water swim that I was so freaked out about!”

As if the universe heard me ask the question, it answered back through a burly Hispanic looking man. He was calling loudly from the water’s edge (there is a running trail that goes around the lake) – “Maam! Maam!” With a customized ear plug in one ear, rendering me ½ deaf, being ½ submerged in water, AND being in my own endorphin filled zone, how I heard this man calling me “Maam”, I have no idea. But I did, so I stopped to hear what he had to say. “There is a snake in the water” is exactly what he had to say. I heard him clearly, but as I didn’t see a snake anywhere near, I wanted to buy myself time while I decided what I wanted to do.

“A what?” I yelled.

“A SNAKE! A Water snake! I almost stepped on him on the trail and he slithered down to the water right over there”, and he pointed to an opening in the bushes.

Strangely, my mind was going wild with the ‘proper’ reaction. Surely we all know that there are snakes in the water, or at least at the water’s edge. I had gone over this in my head dozens of time before even starting this swim. But now I was really faced with the reality – one had been spotted. I also wondered what this man expected from me. Did he expect me to scream and come running out immediately? Did he want me to turn directly around and swim in the opposite direction?

“Where, exactly?” was my yelled response to buy me more time, and because I did really want to know.

He explained where he entered. We both knew, however, that this was of little relevance, given that a water snake is pretty adept in the water, so he could be anywhere by now. This again raised the question to me as to WHY this man felt compelled to tell me. If I had seen a snake, would I alert the swimmers? I am still not sure. I knew this guy’s heart was SO in the right place, but as I swam away, after reporting that I would “avoid that area,” which really was my plan, I found myself a little angry at the messenger. My thoughts were going crazy…now I KNOW there is a snake in here with me…why did he have to tell me…of course we all know there are “probably” snakes in here. Aha – probably. Prior to this moment, I was comfortable with the fact that there were probably snakes in the lake. Now I really knew. And if I got bit by the snake after being warned, it would not only really hurt, but I was going to look like a total idiot on top of it. Interesting, I thought, that I was worried about his and other people’s reactions. But don’t we all dread, at least a little, the dying with egg on our face scenario? I didn’t want to end up in the annual Darwin awards e-mail, detailing out famed idiots demises. So, I did cut my lap slightly short and “avoided the area” where the snake had entered. Instead of just sighting in terms of going in the right direction, I was then surveying the surface of the water every time I turned my head for a breath, to ensure I wasn’t headed into any snake traps. All the while, I was wondering some of the things that, perhaps, you are wondering at this point – is there such thing as a ubiquitous “water snake”, and if so, is it poisonous, and if so, could this man really be able to identify it, and if so, is THAT why he felt compelled to stop me and let me know?

I found out later that afternoon, with a tiny bit of research, that cottonmouth snakes are the only poisonous ‘water snake’ variety, and while it’s possible that it was such a snake in this area, it is almost impossible that I would be bitten by one in the water. They, like all of their other lake dwelling friends, avoid thrashing humans at all lengths. And so you know for your own, “there’s a snake in the water” experiences, snakes don’t attack very well in the water b/c they don’t have much leverage. These were the things I had supposed and used to comfort myself through the end of the swim.

Though my snake or rope dilemma was slightly different from the scenario in the teaching, I thought it a great teaching, nonetheless. Indeed there was a real snake, but the danger was probably equivalent to that of the rope. The fear itself was the rope on the side of the road, and it was my choice to react to it as if it were a snake or a rope. Fears, themselves, are always ropes – they pose no real threat. And I felt a lesson had been learned. I thank the man because 1) his heart was absolutely in the right place to warn me of potential disaster, and 2) I not only got in a good 1 mile swim that day, but a great mental exercise as well. It turned out that I had a fear that I thought that I had conquered. I then conquered the fear that I thought I had conquered that it turned out I still had. And then peter piper picked a peck of peppers, and we both headed home, not spotting a thing along the side of the road.

Life is but a dream

The following is a quote / teaching from a renowned Buddhist teacher in the same ‘school’ (Nyingma) that I have been following. This comes from the Rigpa Glimpse of the Day, a daily e-mail from Rigpa, the Buddhist organization I “grew up” in (www.rigpa.org). I love this because of its simplicity and flow…i hope it inspires you in the same way…

Always recognize the dreamlike qualities of life and reduce attachment and aversion. Practice good-heartedness toward all beings. Be loving and compassionate, no matter what others do to you. What they will do will not matter so much when you see it as a dream. The trick is to have positive intention during the dream. This is the essential point. This is true spirituality. – CHAKDUD TULKU RINPOCHE

On Desire

I got a comment on one of my posts asking the following:

Given the Buddhist premise that human suffering is caused by desire, and that we should strive to overcome desire, how can the individual deal with this concept in a capitalist society, and try to live in a non-materialistic way? Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?

This comment inspired me, not just to comment, but to write an entire musing…

I have struggled with this myself, along the path, but this is where I am am with it at the moment. This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that, of course, this is NOT an official Buddhist answer (which you will clearly see), but one Buddhist’s feeling on the matter in one point of time.

First, it was interesting for me to hear that a non-Buddhist perception is that of the “premise” that human suffering is caused by desire. Not that this is incorrect, but desire is not THE premise of human desire, which may or may not have been implied in the comment. From what I have learned, I would clarify as to say that desire is actually just one of the many thoughts that contribute to our ignorance, and thus, suffering. Ignorance is defined as the misunderstanding that we, as individuals, create a distinction between ourselves and others. In short, that there is an “I’, or “The Ego”. This creates Desire and jealousy (I want what they have), hatred (they are not like me, or are against me), pride (I am better than them), etc. etc. etc. Really, I could go on and on here. It’s just that in our capitalistic / materialistic society, desire can, for some, seem like a bigger obstacle than others. I, for example, really enjoy clothes / fashion. I struggled with this at one time because I felt that this, at its least, was superficial, and at its worst, harmful to others (I don’t know or look into how or where most of my clothes are made). Also, many of the people I have encountered in the Buddhist community are very well off. They live in big homes and have the best of the best in everything that they have. I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of material wealth mixing with Buddhism. Like an avocado and grapefruit cocktail – they just did not seem to go together. I, too, felt that a true Buddhist had to live life with minimal THINGS in their life. Interestingly, however, there was the Buddha himself. He was a prince with every earthly comfort available at the time. He set out to find true happiness and in this process, renounced all of these comforts. He learned that renouncing material comforts / living in extreme hardship was also not the answer….and eventually just sat under the infamous Bodhi tree, eventually gaining enlightenment (hugely abridged version of his life).

What has been explained to me, and which makes the most intuitive sense to me, is that it’s not having material things, or even enjoying them, that is the problem. It is the ATTACHMENT to material things that may set us off course. Attachment is a HUGE premise in our daily suffering. We, as humans, attach to people (I can’t live without you), attach to the way things are (what do you mean, my position no longer exists?), attach to things we have (I LOVE my house. IT makes me happy)… It’s absolutely FINE to have material things… even lots of them, if you have the good fortune to have them, as long as you don’t ATTACH to them or attach your happiness / well being to them. For someone who has great attachment to things, renunciation may be a good exercise for them, but there is no premise to say that Buddhists can not have things, or nice things. It is true, however, that contentment is something to practice and strive for. So if an intense desire for things gets in the way of this, then it’s something to look at. But if the root of it is not attaching to an idea that something will make us happier (and I think there is a distinction between getting some pleasure out of something and thinking it makes us happier), then OK! And sure, there are lots of stipulations for monks or nuns where they renounce all sorts of things that us lay practitioners do not…..speaking of desire. Ah-hem. But I digress.

Here’s something tricky about most spiritual paths that I am coming around to realizing. Everyone’s path is totally individual, so ‘desire’ looks totally different for every person. For some, a constant wanting of material goods, living in this material society, would be a huge obstacle for them in finding their true selves. Because they are attached to material things and the desire makes them feel like material things will make them happier. Another person, maybe an artist, who is content to live a life without many material THINGS may have an intense desire for recognition. Even the Dalai Lama has an intense desire – to free all sentient beings from suffering. So, desire comes in many flavors. There are some Buddhist scholars who believe that desire can not be done away with – that it is a human trait. I can not source this example, but I do remember one quote/story/ saying that, as humans, if we took everything away but a cot and a chair (like a monk may have), we become attached to our chair. Hmmmmmmmmmm

Another way I think about it is this – if Buddha said to ‘eliminate desire’, what I would take from that is that in a completely enlightened state, desire does not exist. I can certainly believe that. But even then, a desire for material things – from what I know, enlightened beings still desire for other beings to find true happiness. But, in the world of being human, we live in a continuum of many of these idealistic states. On one end is ultimate enlightenment where we don’t have to give up desire because desire no longer exists. On the other end is, let’s use addiction. Drugs or alcohol, sex, even shopping. Any addiction, the strongest form of desire/attachment, that ultimately causes huge amounts of suffering to the addict themselves plus countless individuals who are affected by that person’s addiction – the addicted individual, family, friends, someone a drug addict robs in order to obtain money, etc. Addiction is an extreme case of desire where having the object/substance of choice does not satisfy, but for a moment, and then desire sets in again. Most of us do not live in either one of these extremes, but somewhere on this continuum.

If all paths are individual, then how do we assess what we need to work on? An honest look inward, or an honest look outward at our reactions is all we need. Sometimes we may need help in seeing it – this is where a guru, teacher, or even your BFF will help. Here is an example – going back to my love of clothes. I don’t think that clothes MAKE me happy. I enjoy having new / nice clothes, but in general, would not consider myself dependent upon clothes or anywhere near addicted to shopping, etc. Then there was my Banana Republic ‘zipper jacket’. It was black number with a tiny dashed pin stripe and I called it the zipper jacket because it had lots of zippers on the pockets, which were plentiful and they stood out and defined the look of the jacket. It fit great, I could wear it with anything, and it even had enough thickness that I could wear it for some warmth in cooler weather, but it was not so warm that I couldn’t wear it casually. I loved this jacket. And if you think that is a crazy statement, then you have never owned a jacket like this. But I would not have called myself “attached” to the jacket. Like any good Buddhist, I thought that if one day it disappeared, I would shrug it off. And then it actually disappeared. Literally, just disappeard. I had it in a bag while traveling in Chicago. We had gone out to a bar and then a restaurant, but I had not taken the jacket out. Later that night I went to put it on, and it was gone. I have no idea what happened to it. I was very upset. I retraced my footsteps of the prior day, calling every possible place that I might have left it. I called multiple times. I stopped by. And then I had to accept that it was gone. AND I had to accept that I was attached to this very material thing – a jacket! It wasn’t even sentimental, like being attached to a wedding ring (ooh – that’s a good one, I am probably attached to my wedding ring!). And then I let myself be human, and I MOURNED the loss of the jacket. It took me a couple days, maybe more, but then I was over it. I still have fond memories of the jacket and if I found one like it, I would buy it again. But instead of beating myself up over my attachment, I could see that it was a great EXERCISE in attachment. And that’s what it is to be on the path – practice, practice, practice.

“Living in a non-materialistic way…” (from the comment), well, we can. Maybe we should. It’s up to the individual and what makes sense on their path. If it means to not suffer with constant wanting and not placing our happiness and well-being in the hands of these material things, then yes. If we deprive ourselves of things that bring us pleasure and try to live in hardship, and thus cause us more suffering, then I wouldn’t be a proponent of this.

One final word in responding to the post – Jean also asked, “Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?” To this, I would say, do we HAVE to be content? Like, these are not enough? Well, again, that depends on the individual. But small gestures can have huge impacts, so we CAN be content with little actions and gestures. Or we can go out and do something big. Little actions and gestures coming from a person in a good place with the right intentions are far better than grand gestures done for the wrong reasons. And I think the quote that was used in a prior post is quite relevant here, and I’ll sign off on this note:

You may never know what results come from your action.
But if you do nothing, there will be no results.