Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gratitude Tree

This year I've proposed to my in-laws that we do a Gratitude tree on Thanksgiving. I saw the idea in Body + Soul magazine, which I get at work. The idea is to find a large fallen branch and put it in a tall vase. Then each person fills out a card saying what they're thankful for, and you tie each one to the branches like ornaments. You keep the gratitude tree up until after Christmas. I liked the idea of creating something that can be displayed throughout the holiday season. I've also discovered how gratitude can improve your outlook (and your health). Everyone has something to feel grateful for. Here's my top 5:

  1. My parents are healthy and look after each other
  2. My husband is very sweet and makes me laugh (also good for your health!)
  3. I love my job
  4. New books
  5. My friends, even if I don't get to see them as often now that I'm in Boston.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Anger and lust for Anthropologie sweaters are not Buddhist

I started my day angry. That's a little different than being cranky, as discussed in a previous post. Angry, to me, is wanting to kick something or someone, hard, maybe even draw blood. Cranky is just being mildly annoyed. I have days when I can't stand being around anyone, and I'm sure my antisocial vibes reverberate like a gong, compelling people away from me. The truth is I like being social, but only in the right circumstances, when I'm feeling and looking my best, the lighting is right, the people are friendly, and the music is lounge-y and not too loud.

Living in a city with so many college kids, I often don't feel any of this--it's more like noise and yelling and cheap beer and obnoxious 18 year-olds and bright lighting in fast food joints. I've done this, and frankly I'm glad to put it behind me. But now it's back, barking at the door, except I'm a different person, a person who wants to find peace and loving-kindness and longs to just chill out.

Today, for some reason, I was not feeling the loving-kindness AT ALL. I guess I haven't been doing my part to appreciate the now. I did notice the leaves on the ground the color of popcorn kernels as I was walking to the "T." But beyond that, I was deep in my angry thoughts, just wanting to get to the office as quickly as possible so I could bury myself in my work. But even then, I was short with an author whom I usually like. And I fed my anger mindlessly with mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, popcorn, and cinnamon almonds.

When that didn't improve my mood, I started online window shopping (screen shopping?), lusting after soft sweaters with laced butterflies and silky tops embroidered with irises. I'm not supposed to shop, no one should with the economy the way it is. I'm actually working on a book about shopping addiction--an addiction I don't have, but would love to acquire--and sometimes talking about the book makes me want to go out and spend money!

The only things I allow myself right now are drug store products. I'm a CVS junkie, wielding my Extra-Care card and various coupons. Yesterday I bought yet another red lipstick (I have yet to find a shade in the drug store that I like as much as MAC's New York Apple.) I also bought new mascara and brightening concealer to hide my dark under-eye circles--or at least deceive people into thinking I don't have any.

I think I was hating on people today because I've made their opinion of me the only one that matters. I have to learn to accept myself first, and then I can accept and even help other people. But accepting myself--that's like solving the riddle of the Sphinx. It's like scaling a wall covered in grease. It's something your mother tells you as if it should come naturally to you because it does for her. But when you try to accept yourself and not take everything so seriously, you end up feeling like you're letting yourself off the hook. For me, I'm always striving for improvement and other's approval. It's a recipe for unhappiness, for sure, but a hard habit to shake off.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I like to think of myself as a very empathetic person. I felt the pain my grandmother felt when she lost her husband of over 30 years and ended up collapsing in the funeral home of heart trouble and immediately brought to a local hospital. For years after, she wore a necklace with a picture of my grandfather cast in gold, and she kissed it at every holiday. I worried over the surviving adults and children from 9/11 and the tsunami, and really any major catastrophe I read about in the newspaper. Those bad turns could just as easily happened to me, and sometimes I would feel so depressed that it WAS like it had happened to me.

But in day-to-day life, I don't do much with this empathy. I don't volunteer (although I did apply to help seniors through a company called Springwell, but I haven't heard back from them yet). I hardly make eye contact on the street, and if someone was publicly distraught, I would feel relief if SOMEONE ELSE stepped in to help.

Just the other day, an old lady whom I see in the neighborhood where I work was attempting to cross the busy avenue. She was hunched over her walker, shuffling slowly into harm's way as the light was about to turn against her. I wonder why I don't see more people these days helping old ladies (or old men) cross the street. I hesitated, then shyness and fear gripped me and I kept on walking. What if I tried to help her and she got angry? What if I scared her off, a stranger approaching her and grabbing her arm? So I did the shameful thing and walked away. That's why I don't help old people across the street--I'm too caught up in my fear, my discomfort at entering a stranger's world.

From what I'm learning about Buddhism, the practice of Tonglen is a meditation on your own suffering and the suffering of others. You accept your own suffering but also take on others' pain, too. In that way, you're helping bring peace and loving-kindness into the world. The famous example Pema Chodron uses is a man who's beating his dog. You feel empathy for the dog who is being beaten but also for the man, and then for all the dogs that suffer in this world and the men who are also in pain. I have trouble with this notion. How can you just walk by when an animal is being abused right in front of you? How is feeling the dog's pain actually helping the dog in that moment? I consider myself an animal lover, I'm a member of the MSPCA, and live with a cat. I don't think I could just take in the pain of the dog and the owner without also trying to intervene. Hopefully in this instance I would set aside my fear and jump in. My Buddhist friend J. says that I can take some lessons from Buddhism and some lessons from my Catholic upbringing (I'm no longer a member of the church, but I was raised in the Catholic faith). That is, I feel the suffering of both dog and man, but I also reach out to try and help the man see how he is hurting another living creature.

Empathy is important, but action is vital, and that's something I definitely need to work on.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What to do when you're cranky

I woke up at 5:30, having gone to bed at 1AM the night before watching CNN and Obama's speech. Sleeping through it would have been like going to bed at 8PM on New Year's Eve.

I thought I would try to meditate, but then my cat, A., jumped on the bed and knocked her head against my boob as she loves to do. I rubbed her belly and enjoyed the feel of her fur--like a rabbit's--and her pleasing familiar purr. Not much is complicated about a cat. They eat, they sleep, they want attention. Kind of like my husband, M.

So I never got around to meditating.

I did read some passages from my Pocket Pema Chodron book, though. I thought it would make me feel more open and loving today, but instead it made me late getting ready, and then M. wanted to talk finances which I hate because there's not much good news since we bought a place and now have a mortgage tied around our necks. I was cranky on the "T," cranky walking to my office in the rain, cranky when the meeting went overtime. No question, I love my new job. It's made moving to Boston seem like a well-planned idea, rather than a resigned decision made after I got engaged to M.

Pema would say I should let myself feel all the emotions: crankiness, bitterness, shame, jealousy, and joy. They should all have their turn at the bat. But my natural inclination is to want pleasure, not pain, not anger, not envy. Sitting with those feelings--does that make them go away? Like when you face your fear of a moving elevator by climbing aboard and grasping the handrail like it's the only thing holding you up? And then you're not afraid of escalators? Is Buddhism just another form of cognitive exposure?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I wake up early

I like the morning. It's quiet, I can drink my coffee (George Howell--my favorite but a splurge at $16 a bag), and stare at the fresh flowers on the kitchen table. This is my form of meditation, what gets me ready for the day ahead. The world outside is complex, but at my kitchen table it's just me and the warm coffee and the flowers.

I've tried the proper sitting meditation, and I will try it again. My Buddhist friend JM who married MC and I, sat with me. He wrote out a chant for me to recite as I sat. It was something long like "hohumismellthebloodofanenglishmanom" and I kept having to look down at the paper to remember it, and sometimes I said it wrong, and would chastise myself for not being able to say one phrase correctly. I was making a mockery of meditation and the last thing I felt was relaxed. Actually, I felt nauseous. Physically sick. JM said that was normal for first time meditators to feel uncomfortable--later I would listen to my new idol, Pema Chodron say that even long-time meditation students sometimes struggle with the practice. I find it hard to silence the racing thoughts, including What am I doing? This isn't working? I wonder if there are any cookies left. My back hurts, am I developing back problems already? With this bad back I'll be bedridden by 50. What am I supposed to be thinking? How do you think nothing? It's like trying to imagine where the universe ends; what's on the other side? This not thinking is making me sick.

But sitting at my kitchen table, letting the thoughts flow, I return my attention to the flowers, the table, the warm cup, and without really knowing it, I'm giving my attention to now.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The experiment

So I'm looking for happiness, just like everyone else is. Happiness is elusive. It pops up every now and then. You think, wow, I hope I don't screw this up by saying out loud I'm happy. But you do and then the moment passes. Now you're back to hating your hair, or worrying about the election, or feeling uneasy about your age whenever you're around college students, which in Boston is all the time, which then reminds you of high school, and the popular girl sitting behind you in homeroom sporting her tan from winter break in the Bahamas--well, with all that youthful sun exposure she probably didn't age well, so there's that to make you feel better--or the fact that you're now at the point that you'd rather listen to music you liked when you were 16 than anything playing on the radio now. How is it that at 35, it's still possible to be filled with angst? Isn't being angst-free one of the rewards of getting older?

Anyway, I'm going to try this little experiment I've been thinking about for a while, which is taken from the Buddhist practice, which is living in the now, regardless of what happened before or what will happen next, including death, my current obsession (will I die before my husband, or will he die first, leaving me to fend for myself in the nursing home? Will I make friends in the nursing home and will they all die before me, too?) These thoughts are not going to make me happy. Living in the now, noticing what I have right here, right now, even if it's a little rough around the edges, that might be the key or the portal or the wellspring of increased happiness.

I'm going to give it a try.