Friday, December 30, 2011

Starting a New Play as the Old Year passes

Just a quick note before the year ends. I might have time to write more tomorrow, but in case I don't...
I'm outlining a new play. My title is The Stars Are Our Ancestors. It's my first science play. Might be my last, but I hope not. I've always had an interest in science, I didn't have the self-confidence to write about it. Now that I've reached the third act of my life, I will write whatever I please. Note to young writers: write whatever you please for all three acts. In this new play, my protagonist Jenny spends most of her waking life looking at the stars. She has become agoraphobic, but lucky her she has a flat roof where she feels safe. She spends her nights lying on the roof. As an astronomer, she feels comfortable with what she knows. As a genealogist, she has come to believe that her ancestry stretches back to the heavens. Her adoptive mother Verge thinks she has lost her mind. Her 17 year-old daughter is trying to get through her senior year of high school, get into MIT, and get her mom out of the house. No urgency except daughter Djuna is doing her senior thesis on her family tree, so wants Jenny to find her biological family in South Korea, meaning Jenny has to get cured of agoraphobia before Gramma Verge dies of her metastasizing brain cancer and can help them find the family.
South Korea is like a black hole pulling them all closer and closer to the edge, faster and faster ... What happens on the other side of a black hole anyway? Is it true that we all become one?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Step Eight on the Eightfold Path

8. Right Concentration
The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.
How did I do this past week with Step Seven? Shouldn't I start with that question before I move on to Step Eight? Poorly. Stumbling around, tripping over and over Step Seven. Right Mindfulness eluded me throughout the week. Each day I had to try again and again. Last night before I fell asleep I asked to dream about my new play, to find the starting point. What I got was a dream about my spiritual practice. I dreamed I was telling an unknown woman about how I meditate, how I have been returning to my old meditations, looking at what I used to meditate on, seeing how I have changed or not changed. My cornucopia was filled with onions. Chopped onions. My yoga mat was lumpy and uncomfortable. I needed a new one. I told the woman that my practice is Dzogchen Buddhism and I was sharing with her the ways I have been changed by my open-eyed meditation.
It has been years since I've attended sangha now. And ages since I've meditated more than a few minutes at a time. And believe me my yoga mat is pristine. I never use it. My cornucopia of blessings is indeed layered with fractured meanings. Some blessings are hard to decipher.
Today I try again to be mindful of my body, mind and spirit as I move through my day. Now, let's look at step eight. Oh! it is about meditation. What synchronicity! I dream of meditation, and step eight is about meditation. Hm. Today, I will reboot my meditation practice. I will concentrate on mindfulness during my meditation. And eventually, it will become natural to apply elevated levels concentration in everyday situations. Yes?
If you have been following along with me in these eight steps, I'd love it if you would let me know. Here, or on Twitter, on FaceBook, wherever you feel comfortable. If you have questions, or anything you're willing to share, please do so.
Happy New Year! Thank you for watching me stumble along!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Step Seven on the Eightfold Path

7. Right Mindfulness
Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualize sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facticity of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.
One way to think about this is to choose something specific to be mindful about. For me two things immediately spring to mind: walking and eating. Let's take eating. Pick up an apple, carefully wash and clean it. Dry it. Look at it, really look at its shape and color, notice whether it has any bruises, whether it is fully ripe. When you bite it, is it overly juicy, does the juice run down your chin? Be fully mindful as you eat the apple, how many times do you chew each bite? Do you set the apple down between bites? At all, or do you eat the entire apple without ever setting it down? What is the size of the apple? Do you eat it all the way to the core? How many seeds does the apple have?
What would happen if everything you ate were given this much attention? Would you eat less or more? Would you eat things that you didn't like? Doubtful, isn't it? Would you continue to shovel food in your mouth to stuff down your feelings? Would I if I were mindful of my feelings? Look at the four foundations of mindfulness: Contemplation of the body, feeling, state of mind and of the phenomena.
If I were to commit to being mindful of my body, feelings and mind, I don't think it would matter what the phenomena were. My life would change dramatically.
Thich Nat Hanh says: Peace in Every Step. There is the Mindfulness Meditation where you take each step mindfully, commiting to every step just the way we did the apple above. Imagine living your life that way. Well, we don't have that kind of time, do we? We don't take that kind of time, certainly.
Suppose, just suppose that when I am feeling anything other than blissful, I pay attention to my feelings, check out what's going on in my body, and honor my feelings by taking care of my body with something healthful. I have a hunch that might be right mindfulness. Just for today, I promise to give that a go.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Step Six on the Eightfold Path

Last week I was a day early, this week I am a day late. Life.

6. Right Effort
Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavors that rank in ascending order of perfection: 1. to prevent the arising of un-arisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.

So, this entire step concerns the effort to either arouse, abandon, tamp down, or maintain and perfect "wholesome states." What does this mean? This is all in the context of concentration, or the training of our higher consciousness. We may have to meditate to gain a better understanding of how we can achieve right effort.

I am continuing my quest to be a better person by being more mindful of my thoughts, words and deeds. By watching where I step, what I say, and what I put into my mind and body.

After nearly eight months of avoiding most sugars and for the past two months really struggling to avoid sugar in the form of sweets, especially craving ice cream, I ate a huge bowl of ice cream last night. And did I pay for it. My body rejected it in every way possible, first waking me from a deep sleep, and then waking me repeatedly.

I am grateful for this reminder today of what it means to keep to the Steps, and what it means to fall off the path. Last night I fell off. Today, I'm back on track. Today I'm remembering that this body is the only one I have to get me through this precious life. Today my Right Effort is to eat healthy meals and avoid things that are bad for me. To be grateful for all that I have and to avoid self-pity because self-pity leads me to self-punishment.

Do any of you who read this blog share my foibles, I wonder? Ever indulge in ice cream because you wished you had more money to spend on Christmas gifts? Yeah, I forgot to pay my credit card bill and when I got a reminder that it is due before my next paycheck, I realized I'd have to spend the money I set aside for gifts to pay the bill instead. Oh boo hoo. So I ate a huge bowl of ice cream. That'll show me.

Please tell me this has never happened to you. Has it?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Step Five on the Eightfold Path

5. Right Livelihood
Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.
These days I'm earning my livelihood primarily by way of my retirement benefits from Social Security and a small pension from That Insurance Company for which I worked. I also work a number of part-time jobs. I edit books, screenplays, stage plays, and other materials; I work as a patient model (also known as a standardized patient) once in a great while; I dogsit for a select clientele; and even more rarely, I catsit. I write almost every day of the year, but that doesn't bring in a lot of dough. Still, it definitely meets the criteria of Right Livelihood: it is legal, peaceful, and righteous. I harm no one with my writing, as I do my best to write as I speak, aiming to hurt no one.
There are many people my age who are resorting to selling their prescriptions in order to buy food or pay their mortgages. A person can understand how one can be driven to desperate thinking. But if one is living a Buddhist life, one cannot consider that type of livelihood, any more than working for the OLCC, or working as a meat wrapper for Fred Meyer, or a butcher for Whole Foods. A job as a bartender, or cocktail waiter would also violate the principles of right livelihood for a Buddhist. As would working at a place that sells medicinal marijuana, I think. And I think this because I believe that people choose to stay there to use the marijuana. If people picked up their drugs as they do from a pharmacy and left, that would be a different matter. As a person who lives with pain on a regular basis, I feel no need or desire to socialize with other sufferers while I take my medicine and seek relief. Therefore, I don't understand why medical marijuana users need a socializing area either. I believe this hurts the cause. Well, that was a tangent. I could be wrong. Seriously though, people who need and receive morphine for their pain, do not need a cafe in which to "enjoy" their morphine. They pick it up or have it delivered, and get relief. Period. Why wouldn't marijuana be the same when used for the same purpose?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Living with Migraine Headaches

Most months I average 6 migraines a month. One month this year I had only three. In November, I spent 10 days down with migraine. Today I have another, even though the last one was just two days ago. This makes life difficult sometimes. On good days, I am on top of the world, especially when I have several good days in a row. On days like today, when I haven't had much of a break, I feel particularly gloomy. There are some migraine days when I feel like walking into the ocean with a pocketful of stones. Except that I don't feel like walking, or driving to the ocean, or going outdoors, or getting dressed, or even opening my eyes to the light. Or hearing the roar of the ocean.
I don't feel sorry for myself. I know there are people so much worse off. I've had worse pain myself. It does wear on me though. And there isn't a lot of comfort in numbers, even though there are more than 36 million migraine sufferers in the US alone. Most of us women. I think there are five of us in my family. I'm the oldest one. I'd like to tell the younger ones that migraine disappears after menopause, but it didn't for me. It got worse. I'd like to be able to say it's possible to find all your triggers and then just avoid them, but that hasn't been possible for me either, although I've been diligent, and I've been looking for over 30 years. I've identified my food triggers, and I avoid them.
I try new drugs, new "cures" as they come up. There was a new drug that was supposed to come on the market this past month, but it didn't pan out. In the last leg of the experiment something went wrong. I'm going to get some butterbur the next time I'm out -- if Whole Foods got it in -- and give that a try. It takes a few months to work, but I will try it. That's an herb that has been shown to work in trials in Europe. And here too in alternative medicine.
Today I just feel like sharing about migraines. I have written about them in the past, but not recently. If you are a fellow migraineur, I share your journey. I hope you are having a good day today. Make the most of it. That's what we all have to do, isn't it?