Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Pema Book!

Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron goes on sale 9/8/09. It's about freeing yourself from destructive habits and ways to live with courage and wisdom. She talks about the Buddhist concept of shenpa, which can be translated as "getting stuck" or "getting hooked." I have an advance copy and I'm looking forward to reading it and sharing insights from it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Letting go of obsessing

"The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the "mistaken mentality." One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and "problems" as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean getting rid of problems, but rather shifting one's focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one's neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself. When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable."--Chogyam Trungpa, from The Pocket Chogyam Trungpa

I picked a longer quote this time because it all felt like it needed to be there. I definitely "cling" to my neuroses! In fact, the two of us are inseparable! I used to think it was because I was working in Manhattan, where there's a higher than usual concentration of neuroticism, but no, here I am in Boston, still obessessing about the same things, mulling over the same (or similar) problems. It used to be "when will I get a boyfriend?" and I'd shoot arrows with my eyes whenever I saw a happy couple pass me on the street. Then it was "when will I get married?" and I'd wander around Kate's Paper, looking despondently at the wedding display with the satin guestbooks and the Cranes Thank You cards with the line drawing of a bridal bouquet or a car with "Just Married" on the bumper. Yes, I was in it for the cute stationery.

Now it's "when will I feel at home in Boston?" and "when will I find some girlfriends to invite over on a random Tuesday night or to go for a drink with around the corner?" It's been a long time since I've had any local friendships; everyone I meet seems to live somewhere else, somewhere you need to take two trains to reach. My neighbors are about the right age and are friendly but busy with their own lives. I find myself walking around town alone, and wondering why. Once upon a time I had my group of girls whom I met up with regularly, saw movies with, invited over for wine and cheese parties, had long discussions with. Does that naturally go away when you're in your 30's and married? I don't want to depend on my husband as my only emotional outlet and source of entertainment. He's a great guy, but that's too much for him, and let's face it, he's not going to cluck over clothes or gossip with me.

I worry that maybe I've lost the knack for making close friendships. Maybe it's something that you're only good at for a while, and then the older and more guarded you become, it gets harder and harder.

So that's what I've been obsessing about, and I'm tired of it. Maybe it's like when you're looking for love. You always find it when you're not thinking about it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kind Mind

"We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much more kind. Smile a lot, although nobody is watching you smile. Listen to your own brook, echoing yourself. You can do a good job. Please give yourself a good time."--from The Pocket Chogyam Trungpa

What does it mean to be kind to ourselves? Does it mean being easy on ourselves when we fail? Does it mean it's OK to procrastinate because we're just being good to ourselves? For me, being kind to myself is scary. I mean, I can be kind to myself with a salon visit, or a new blouse, or a chocolate eclair. But truly being kind to would mean accepting the things I want to change but haven't. It might make me lazy and complacent and mediocre. I don't want to be kind to myself if that means I become a mediocre person.

Not that the alternative is working out so well. Chastising myself for not getting something done fast enough or not knowing how to do something, or having a bad hair day (or week) is supposed to whip me into shape, but it only seems to bog me down even more. My husband and I are alike in this way--the constant recording in our heads ticking off our failures is so loud that it drowns out the bird songs, the wind chimes, the pleasant things. And when has negative reinforcement ever worked for me?

I don't laugh enough or even smile enough. I take life too seriously, like it's a terminal affliction. Well, I guess it is, but still...Trungpa's phrase really resonated with me: please give yourself a good time. It's in my power to do this. How will I feel if, decades go by and I'm looking back from my sick bed, wondering why the heck I didn't have more fun?! I don't want to have that regret hanging over me. In fact I'm 35 and running out of time to be a more lighthearted, fun-loving girl. And I'm not just talking about the times when I'm tipsy or on vacation--I mean, a happy person even on a Thursday when nothing exciting has happened.

My friend Linda who I see every Tuesday has had some problems with depression. Because she's practically a shut-in, she spends a lot of time just staring at the wall. She struggles to find purpose in her life. I tell her she has purpose--everyone does--I mean, if she wasn't around her lovely cat Maxine would be homeless and probably even dead, her disabled friend Chris would not have someone to spend time with who he can also help out. I think depositing her checks and picking up coffee from Shaw's--even lending her his old laptop--makes him feel good. I'm starting to see how much people actually LIKE helping. Anyway, without Linda, both of us would be less.

So I encourage Linda to appreciate her life, even as I struggle to do the same. I tell her to take a short walk, get some sunshine on her face, read a great book, or cook something yummy. Linda plays the recorder, and performed for me. She's good and the sound is pleasant. If she can do more of these things--be kinder to herself and be more lighthearted--then maybe the depression will start to lift. Ditto for me.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday, 5:04PM

I'm playing around with the format, colors, header of the blog. It's fun, but the options--like in most supermarkets in this country--are overwhelming.

You may wonder why the cappucino and chocolate croissant? It's an example of a perfect "Now" moment for me. Wow, I sound like a commercial for Folger's. This is my "me" time!

I need to get away from the computer for a while...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become." -Buddha

I got this off of Daily Buddha. Say it aloud. Repeat.

It's like we are what we eat. That would make me a peanut butter sandwich or a strawberry parfait from Whole Foods.

We are what we think we are.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Here's the Story...

"When the storyline starts, we can do the tonglen practice of exchanging ourselves for others. In this way everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds."--Pema Chodron, from Comfortable with Uncertainty

In my lessons in Buddhism, I've learned that I need to be aware when I start to spin off into my own storyline. We all have a storyline, a running narrative with ourselves as the star. When someone gets in our way or is rude or dismissive, we take this personally and the rage becomes a part of our daily storyline. Being as reactive as I am, I find myself going along, not feeling particularly moody, when all of a sudden, Bam! the counter person in a taqueria where I've stopped to get a chicken burrito is rude to me . Bam! A woman steps in front of me to get on the train, causing me to be the last person to board even though I was the first one there. I end up having to exit the car because I'm standing on the stairs nearest the T conductor, and then I have to wait for another train, which makes me late for an appointment. Bam! I'm at the gym, weary from a difficult workout, and in the locker room I find that someone has laid out all their things on the bench in front of my locker, so I only have one small end for my own things. I employ the passive aggressive technique of kicking her sneakers away from my locker, knowing full well that she's right there, curling her stupid hair in the mirror and looking at me in the reflection. Instead of feeling better, I feel more angry, and just a little silly.

If only I had stopped a minute and said to myself, "Is this really all about me? Really?" Maybe that taqueria guy was rude because he's got a stressful home life. Maybe the woman who stepped in front of me to board the train didn't even see me. Maybe the woman who had strewn her stuff all over the bench was just dense and didn't realize she was being thoughtless. Is that making excuses for people? I don't know. All I know is I'm terribly angry today and kind of depressed, too (depression is anger turned inward, though right now my anger is definitely focused outward!) It would be nice to find a different way of thinking, one that didn't involve clenched teeth and the desire to step on someone's foot.

I bought a light box to put on my desk at work. Light therapy is supposed to help the winter blues, so I'm counting on it to help me. It's cold and snowy here in Boston, and we're only at the beginning of my least favorite month of the year. I've been trying to distract myself from bad feelings by doing some online shopping (Rue La La has some pretty good sample sale deals) and thinking about my trip to Paris at the end of June. And I try to get lots of hugs and kisses from my husband, Mike. One of the things that I love about him is that, although he gets easily angry like I do, he's also capable of being very affectionate. Doting even.

On a Pema audio book I was listening to over the weekend, Pema suggests spending a week thinking about someone who loves you and doing everything you can to receive that love. I'll bite. But is there anyone else besides my husband who loves me even when I'm at my brattiest? My mother, certainly. The cat likes me, but only because I regularly feed and scratch her. She does not love me when I chase her away from the pumpkin tea cake on the counter. I'm not sure about my two best girlfriends--I mean, I think they love me and wouldn't bolt if I showed my anger or stubborness, but I haven't really put them to the test (well, maybe I have, I just didn't know it at the time!)

So I invite you to also try the Pema homework--think about the people or animals that love you best, and try to receive that love fully and openly. This is the first step to being capable of loving back. Ultimately, if we can learn to love ourselves and the people we're closest to, eventually we can learn to love strangers and not blame them for disrupting our life or our good mood. That's the theory, anyway.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Take a Hike

Tomorrow night is my last class of the six week course: Six Weeks, Six Essays. We had to revise an essay we had written and I chose a piece I've been working on since the summer. I had to cut it considerably to get it down to 1,000 words (a requirement.) I'd like to submit it to Skirt! or some other publication. I promised myself (and Mike--these classes at Grub Street ain't cheap) that at the completion of each class I took I would submit one piece for publication. I think I'd like it to be this one.


“Check out that view,” Mike, my husband, says. He’s looking down at me because I have collapsed on a rock leading up to the summit of Blueberry Mountain, an innocuous name that suggests berry-picking in a flared skirt. For the past half hour I’ve taken to calling it “Death Mountain.”

While my hiking partner dangles himself from various cliffs, I find an even flatter rock and hunker down. One good thing about hiking with my husband: Cool Ranch Doritos®. It’s a little ritual I started when Mike and I first came up to the White Mountains together. On solid ground I rarely eat them—they have Monosodium Glutamate in them, and I’d read somewhere that this flavor-enhancing additive strips your taste buds so you have to eat more and more of it, until soon you can’t taste anything. That sounds too much like heroin to me, so I generally eat pretzels.

With one exception. Whenever my husband drags me on a hike, I reward myself at the summit with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos®. Just knowing they’re in my pack keeps me moving toward the summit when my legs are rubbery and my feet feel like concrete blocks tied to a dead body. Mike loves hiking and has read every book on the Appalachian Trail available at your local REI. He even reads the wacky blog entries of thru-hikers with names like OfftheGrid and Ranger Randy (how do they keep a blog when they’re supposed to be out in the wilderness for six months?) When Mike takes me along with him, he spares me the 4,000 footers. We’re not peakbagging here, just trying to maintain some marital harmony—like when Mike sits in the husband chair at Macy’s nodding and smiling at me as I emerge in another sundress.

Attempting to catch up to my husband, I crawl on all fours, spider-like, up one rock ledge, hoping to see something vaguely horizontal. But right above me is another ledge. I suck on my Camelbak® mouthpiece like I’m taking a hit of oxygen, then repeat the whole awkward scramble again, this time scraping my knee. I haven’t had this many bruises since I was a regular at the Roller-Rama.

“C’mon Jenn, you can do it,” Mike the Cheerleader cheers. “Just think, would all those city girls with their fancy gym memberships and their manicures be doing this?”

No, they probably wouldn’t. It’s likely they never felt the need to act out a fantasy of being the ideal wife, who can scale any mountain or sail any channel to be by her husband’s side. I like this picture of me more than I do the prissy girl who prefers to lay on a hammock and read books about other people who climb mountains.

Then just as the ledge in front of me has been conquered, there…is…another …Goddamn…LEDGE!

“No more,” I say between labored breaths, “Just leave me here. I’ll catch you on the way down.” I sound like a climber on Everest, telling my teammate to leave me in the snowbank where I’ll ultimately be buried in an avalanche and flung into a crevasse. It’s OK, you go.

“You’re capable of more than you know, Babydoll.” Coach Mike implores. “We’re almost there. You’re doing really well.” He could be talking to a 6 year-old who, after weeks of swimming lessons, is still clutching the foam noodle.

When I think I can’t stand another minute of this, when I’m gushing sweat like a deceitful wife on Snapped!, I see it—the neat pile of rocks that looks like the Statue of David to me. The cairn means the summit is within our grasp.

As I heave myself onto the top of the next ledge, I realize we’re not alone. Three women are climbing down toward us. I knew Mike was right when, at the trailhead, he took the lipstick and eyelash curler out of my pack and tossed them onto the dashboard of the car. But my disheveled appearance goes way beyond undefined eyelashes—I am a wild woman with sweat-slicked hair, bloody scrapes, and about a thousand mosquito bites that have flared up into angry welts. My Camelbak mouthpiece has sprung a leak from all my nervous chewing, and now my left breast is soaking wet like I’m lactating.

A radiant young woman whose lustrous brown hair is neatly tucked back with her Buff® multifunctional headwear glides by me. Behind her are two older women with no-fuss ‘dos who look like they’re out for a Sunday stroll. None of them look like they have broken a sweat. And they aren’t just going down ANY mountain face, but a mountain face so steep they might have an easier time skateboarding down it.

“Why are these people here,” I grumble, after they float past us and vanish. “Why don’t they hike Sabattus like all the other tourists?”

“Did you see that? They were going down the north trail. That’s harder than ascending.” Mike says, with the admiration that only minutes ago had been reserved for me.

Yes, I think, because going up is a trip to Storyland. At the summit at last, I fall onto a patch of grass, exhausted, and quite possibly in the feverish throes of West Nile Virus.


The sun is starting to set behind the pines, and I’m breathing normally again. A slight breeze has picked up, rustling the half-empty snack bag beside me. There are less bugs up here, although a few gnats manage to find their way into my mouth as I’m eating. I watch Mike take in the view, looking more peaceful than he has in weeks. Now that I’m sitting down with the endorphins of all that physical exertion kicking in, I’m actually feeling pretty good. I’ve made it to the top of another mountain with my husband. I’m a tough cookie after all. I may never be ready to follow him up a 4,000 footer, but I can definitely meet him halfway.