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The Traffic Light Method (Relationships; Real Peace/September 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2012


The Traffic Light Method

Try this mindful communication technique, says SUSAN GILLIS CHAPMAN, when you’re experiencing stress in your relationships.

Intimacy is a precious but fragile gift that’s easily damaged during difficult times. In times of stress or crisis, our survival instincts send us mixed messages. At some level we know that our partnership is a lifeline we need to protect. Nevertheless, it’s easy to start blaming each other, to pull up the drawbridge and hunker down in the fortress of “me.” Depending on which survival tactic we follow, stress can either make or break our most important relationships. Switching tactics can happen in a heartbeat, but the positive or destructive consequences of that choice can last a lifetime.

Meghan, a mindfulness student, tells a story about a turning point early in her marriage. “Josh and I were arguing. We stopped the car and walked out onto a beach, too angry to talk. I picked up a rock and held it clenched in my fist. When I opened my hand, I saw it was shaped like a heart. I glanced over at Josh, and without saying a word, I reconnected to him. The little kid part of me wanted to hold on to my anger, but I knew I had to let it go.”

In the middle of a painful argument with our partner, creating some space—creating a heart–rock moment— interrupts the momentum and allows us to listen to the wiser part of ourselves. To create space, here are three mindfulness techniques, using traffic signals as reminders.

Red: Stop

Stressful situations have built-in stoplights we can learn to recognize. Start by reconnecting with the physical environment, which Meghan and Josh did by stopping their car and walking onto the beach. Feel the bottoms of your feet, the weight of gravity holding you. Perhaps focus on a single sense perception, as Meghan did with the rock in her hand. Listening to our body can interrupt the domino effect of our reactions and bring us back to the here and now.

Yellow: Take Care

Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” Take a deep breath and make room for any vulnerable emotions that surface. Unclenching the fist of blame enables us to hear the heart’s inner messages: I feel hurt, frustrated, sad, powerless. Listening deeply to feelings of disappointment can illuminate our blind spots, the unrealistic expectations we project on each other. Compassionately relating to our own pain softens us and builds an empathic bridge to our partner.

Green: Go

In the middle of a stressful situation, a single thought or act of gratitude or kindness can restore equanimity to our communication. The uncertainty of a crisis can inspire courage and curiosity or it can reinforce our barriers. When stress hits, claustrophobia sets in and we’re preoccupied by a mind-set of “not enough”: Not enough money, time, or exercise. Not enough energy, attention, or sleep. Buddhist psychology describes this state of mind as a “hungry ghost” realm. This refers to the beings of Buddhist cosmology that have tiny mouths and huge, starving stomachs; they try to consume but they can’t get enough down their throats to satisfy. The hungry ghosts are miserable but within their realm there is also a buddha, a moment of wakefulness, showing the way out. The buddha’s hand is open in a gesture of generosity, breaking the spell of “not enough.” We don’t have to shut down emotionally when tension is high with our partner. Instead, we can open fresh pathways for reconnecting by creating a gap of wakefulness. That gap is a miracle moment, like finding a buddha in the palm of your hand.

Susan Gillis Chapman is a marriage and family therapist and the author of The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see what else is in this issue.

The Middle Way of Stress (September 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2012
You'll find this article on page 42 of the magazine.

The Middle Way of Stress

By Judy Lief

Life is stressful. Although some people claim that contemporary life is especially stressful, I am skeptical whether that is so. Living beings have always had to struggle for food, for shelter, and for safety. They have always had the stress of finding a mate and reproducing. The world is no Garden of Eden.

You could say that the question of suffering, or stress, and what to do about it is central in Buddhism. This is the question that set the Buddha on his journey at the very beginning, and over the course of its development, the Buddhist teachings have examined the topic at many levels and from many different perspectives.

Like medical researchers, Buddhist scholars and practitioners have catalogued the details of this syndrome in order to both treat its symptoms and find the ultimate cure.

So what is stress and what do the Buddhist teachings have to say about it? What is our proper relationship to stress? Should it always be avoided or can it be productive? To what extent is it inherent in life or our own creation? What are its symptoms and what is its cure?

The Experience of Stress

The experience of stress could be looked at as a family of unpleasant sensations. We may experience stress as pressure, anxiety, or claustrophobia. Sometimes there are so many challenges facing us that it is as though we were drowning. We feel overwhelmed, capsized by it all like a sinking ship. Stress may make us feel cornered and that we have no way out. We may simply freeze, or we may stir up so much anxiety that it feels like we are choking to death. With stress there is no air. No space. No looseness or freshness. Under the influence of stress, what once may have seemed easy becomes completely impossible, and no matter where we turn, there seems to be no escape. With stress we become distressed, as though we were being pulled apart and are about to break.

When we are stressed, our body gets tighter, as if it is shrinking into itself. Mentally, our thinking gets tight and does not flow freely. Emotionally, we are edgy and fearful. The slightest irritation may set us off and we may lash out in anger. Or we might withdraw into ourselves, close off, and shut down. We forget to breathe; it is as if the core of our body is one big ache of pain.

Once you start thinking of all the things to be stressed out about, the list goes on and on. It could start with the close-at hand problems such as the need to pay the rent or find a job. But merely by reading the newspaper it can quickly expand to include global problems such as famine, war, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. We may even use the fact that we are stressed out about such global issues as a credential, as though our stress and worry were a virtue or a proof of our insight, empathy, and sensitivity.

When we experience stress, we struggle to find someone or something to blame. We assume that there must be some external reason we are feeling this bad, and that if we just remove that situation, we will be okay. If there is an obvious external cause, we should simply remove it. We could stop seeing the person who drives us crazy or stop agreeing to put ourselves in situations we know to be upsetting. However, there are many situations we may not be able to do much about, no matter how stressful they may be.

Four Styles of Hope and Fear

There are many different maps or geographies of stress in the Buddhist teachings. Because it is considered important to make a commitment to do what we can to improve the conditions of life for all beings, it is necessary to understand how we needlessly tangle ourselves in layers and layers of stress, and how we can begin to unravel some of that entanglement.

To begin with, we need to look at the underpinnings of emotional stress, which are described in terms of entrenched patterns of thought. Due to such mental preoccupations, we take stressful situations and make them worse. Through our confusion, we change neither the situation nor our attitude but just add fuel to the fire.

Classically this is described in terms of an endless cycle of hope and fear that dominates our lives from day to day and moment to moment, from beginning to end. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna describes hope and fear in terms of what are called the eight worldly preoccupations: hope for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and fear of loss. Basically, we spend our lives trying to hold on to some things and get rid of others in an endless and stressful struggle.

You could ask, what’s wrong with preferring happiness to sadness or praise to blame? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness what it’s all about? Isn’t it obvious that gain is better than loss? But it is one thing to recognize what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of, and quite another to be obsessed with getting our way and terrified of things going wrong. The problem is that hope is joined at the hip with its partner, fear. We can’t have one without the other. When we are caught in this hope–fear cycle, our attitude is always tense and even our most satisfying experiences are bounded by paranoia.

Happiness vs. Suffering

In the first style of hope and fear, we look at things in terms of happiness versus suffering, pleasure versus pain. We hope for happiness, but once we have it, fear arises, for we are afraid to lose it. Out of that fear we cling to pleasure so hard that the pleasure itself becomes a form of pain. And when suffering arises, no amount of wishful thinking makes it go away. The more we hope for it to be otherwise, the more pain we feel.

Fame vs. Insignificance

In the second style of hope and fear, we are obsessed with fame and afraid of our own insignificance. We scramble our way to the top, hungry for confirmation, and when it is not forthcoming we get pissed off and huffy. Then when it dawns on us how hard we need to work to be seen as someone special, our fear of insignificance is magnified. Behind our façade of fame, we suffer from a kind of inner desolation and hollowness.

Praise vs. Blame

With the third style, we are obsessed with praise and fearful of blame. We need to be pumped up constantly or we begin to have doubts about our worth. When we are not searching for praise, we are busy trying to cover up our mistakes so we don’t get caught. But there is never enough praise to satisfy us, and we are never free from the threat of being found wanting. Only if we are perfect can we count on continual praise, but although we struggle for perfection, we can never attain it. The slightest little mistake is all it takes to re-trigger our fear.

Gain vs. Loss

Finally, with the fourth style we are obsessed with gain and loss. We invest in situations with high hopes, and we expect that if things have been improving, they will continue to do so. That quality of hope is so seductive that we forget how easily situations can turn on us. But just as we are about to congratulate ourselves on our success, the bottom falls out, and fear once again holds sway. Our hope falls apart and we are afraid that things will keep going downhill forever. Over and over, things are hopeful one moment and the next they are not, and in either case we are anxious.

These cycles of hope and fear occupy our minds and capture our energy. No matter what is happening to us, we think it could be better, or at least different. No matter who we are, we think we could be better, or at least different. Nothing is ever good enough and we can never relax.

Six Patterns of Stress

Another way of looking at stress is through the teachings of the six realms of being. These six realms are the god realm, jealous god realm, human realm, animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and hell realm. They represent the experiential worlds we create out of ignorance and inhabit out of fear. They describe worlds in which struggle is the underpinning, and no matter how hard we try, we never truly get what we want. It is said that we cycle through these realms constantly and it is hard to get out.

Each of the six realms has its own dominant preoccupation, its own pattern of hope and fear, and its own form of stress. But even when we are caught in one of these realms, there are ways to break free from the fixations that entrap us and perpetuate our stress and suffering.

The God Realm and the Stress of Perfectionism

The god realm refers to a world of refinement. It is one of spiritual bliss, material pleasure, or psychological satisfaction. The god realm is fueled by pride joined with ignorance, which allows you to dwell in a self-absorbed haze. Finding yourself in such a realm is like a dream come true. But when you finally have everything you ever wanted, you worry that it might all be lost. You might create hideouts, whether in the form of spiritual retreat centers, gated communities, or mental la-la lands. But to maintain such islands of perfection, you need to close your eyes to suffering. You need to close off your heart. Since you don’t want your bubble to burst or to experience unpleasantness of any sort, you have to ignore anything that threatens it.

It may seem that this realm has very little stress. But under the surface of spiritual pride and tranquility, there runs a river of fear. You have to hold yourself very tight to prolong your special experiences and to protect them from decaying. You hope that your transcendent experiences will go on forever, but you are afraid that you will not actually be able to hold on to them.The problem is that as soon as you create a protected area and surround it with a wall, whether it is a literal wall or a psychological wall, there will not only be constant struggle but also the stress of realizing that your experience is a manufactured one, not real. However, there are moments when you let go of that striving and something fresh arises. The more you pay attention to such gaps in your scheming, the more expansive is your perspective. With your roomier mind, that mentality of striving begins to dissolve into insignificance.

The Jealous God Realm and the Stress of the Rat Race

The jealous god realm is marked by envy, speediness, and competitiveness. In this realm, you are never satisfied with what you have as long as someone else has more. You are striving all the time, afraid to ever stop, afraid you might get passed by. You have no sense of yourself except in comparison to those who are ahead of you and those who are coming up from behind.

Once you step onto this kind of treadmill, you cannot get off. You are always competing and see everything in terms of winning and losing. Fueled by envy, you are ground up in the maws of competitiveness, trapped in a rat race that never slows down.

If you continue to be obsessed with success and failure, with winning and losing, your actions will be constricted and stressful. But there are times when the actions speak for themselves, and whatever you do becomes more simple and effective. This gives you a glimpse of the possibility of another way of doing things, a way to act more skillfully and with less effort.

The Human Realm and the Stress of Insecurity

The human realm is the realm of passion and longing for relationship. You feel incomplete and look for ways to fill that empty feeling. When you are lonely, you try to connect, but once you make a connection, you feel claustrophobic and disappointed. When you choose one person to connect with, you wonder whether you could have found someone better. Whatever you do, you think there might be something better that you have missed out on.

In the human realm, you are fueled by neediness and desire. You worry about how you are perceived by others and obsessed with your popularity. Although you create shifting coalitions of relationships, none of them is all that stable. You are always insecure, and your mind hops all over the place. On top of it all, you think too much, which complicates everything. In the human realm, you long to feel more substantial and are afraid of your own vulnerability.

If you are always looking outside yourself for some kind of confirmation, you will be stressed out all the time. But from time to time, moments of spontaneous insight arise from within you. This clarity needs no external confirmation. You find that you do not need to second-guess yourself. You can appreciate what you are experiencing whether or not there may be something better going on somewhere else.

The Animal Realm and the Stress of Habit

In the animal realm, you establish habits of stability that are boring and repetitive, but you lack the imagination to do anything else and are afraid to change. You are set in your ways and find new ideas threatening. You might have glimmers of inspiration to change, but laziness and inertia drag you down. You would like not to be stuck, but you keep doing the same things over and over again nonetheless. You are fueled by ignorance and are afraid to rock the boat or to venture out from what is familiar, even if it is unsatisfactory. You create bureaucracies with incomprehensibly mindless regulations and procedures.

A person in this realm may seem to be calm and stable, but this is not true stability. It is more like a pillowy buffer protecting them from facing the energy and intensity of life. The stuck quality of the animal realm is a refuge of sorts. However, it begins to feel very heavy and depressing, and you are afraid that this will never change.

The stress of this realm is not sharp but dull. Your habits of body and mind seem completely solid and invincible. There is a frozen, mind-numbing energy. Murky as this is, there are occasional openings when something sharp comes through. You begin to recognize how painful it is, which is driven home by the negativity and fallout your ignorance has created around you.

The Hungry Ghost Realm and the Stress of Never Having Enough

In the hungry ghost realm, you want more and more, yet never get enough. No matter how many riches you accumulate, you still feel poor. There is always more money, more power, more gravitas you could acquire. If you can’t play with the big boys, you no longer know who you are. You are fueled by greed and are always hungry. Without all your things around you, you begin to feel naked, so you pile on more and more. There is a kind of delight in having the most and the best, but there is no stopping point and no real contentment, no matter how much you have.

In the hungry ghost realm, there is a painful contrast between inner poverty and outer richness. The need to satisfy that inner hunger can come to dominate your life, but it is possible to break that pattern and bring the inner world and outer world into greater balance, so that your appreciation of outer wealth is matched by the recognition of your inner richness.

The Hell Realm and the Stress of Eternal Warfare

In the hell realm, you are always enraged. You find enemies everywhere, and you are always fighting. You are always on edge, ready to defend yourself or to lash out. You are afraid that if you relax, you will be threatened or destroyed, so you strike first if you can. You are either red hot or ice cold. Fueled by hatred, you create wars and conflicts both large and small. You are fearful and in pain, like a cornered rat, and all you can do is attack.

This mix of resentment, pain, and anger makes it hard to even breathe. Seeing the world in terms of us and them, for us and against us, keeps fueling this anger and warfare. But there are moments when you are not caught in those polarities. Rather than living on a battlefield, you begin to open to the textures and nuances of your experience.

The Three Culprits

Underlying all these styles of stress—the engine that keeps them going—is a gang of three culprits. They are: ego fixation, emotional grasping, and habitual actions. If you look into your anger, poverty mentality, competitiveness, or greed, you will find them there. If you examine how you continually cycle between hope and fear, you will find they are the cause.

This threesome is like an internal Mafia to which we pay protection money daily. Once we lose our sense of the whole and identify with this one little part, which we label “me,” “myself,” or “I,” there will be conflict and struggle. In order to prop up and defend that “I,” we need to apply our arsenal of negativity: our grasping, ignoring, hating, and all the rest. And once those energies are unleashed, we start doing stupid and harmful actions. For those actions, we reap consequences, and once again the cycle is set up, as we react to those consequences in the same harmful manner.

Fundamentally, until we penetrate these deeper supports for the stresses we experience on the surface of life, we will continue to be tossed about by hope and fear and cycle through the six realms. Our stress level may fluctuate, and we may have good times and bad times, but there will continue to be an undercurrent of stress in whatever we do.

Stress and Growth

Relating to stress is not as simple as just trying to reduce our stress or to relax. A certain amount of stress is necessary for growth, and at times we need to purposefully put ourselves in stressful situations. It is easy to confuse the virtue of contentment or peacefulness with the pseudo-peacefulness born of inertia and the fear of change. It is an oversimplification of the Buddhist ideal of ease to think that it means the avoidance of stress. Great teachers like Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandita have pointed out that to learn we need to exert ourselves, and that to progress along the path we have to give up our attachment to ease. According to Nagarjuna: “If you desire ease, forsake learning. If you desire learning, forsake ease.” And Sakya Pandita wrote: “The wise, when studying, suffer pains; Without exertion, it is impossible to become wise.” In fact, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. Life is movement, and movement is stressful. Without stress there would be no path, no wisdom, and no attainment. Ironically, without stress we could not be at ease.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged students to “lean into the sharp points” of experience. What all this points to is that although stress can be an obstacle, it can also be a catalyst for growth. Trungpa Rinpoche routinely placed students in positions beyond their comfort zone and encouraged them to do the same to themselves. He was particularly pointed in his critique of the approach of always looking for comfort, whether it was loose, comfortable clothing, air-conditioned housing, or comfortably unchallenging belief systems. He taught that a bit of discomfort was not just an annoyance but a reminder of the need for ongoing discipline.

Not only do we have to lean into our own stress at times, but we also have to be willing to allow others to learn in that same way. It is hard to watch someone struggle without feeling anxious and wanting to help out—and often that is what you should do. But it is not always so simple. For instance, I was told that if you see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state and may even die. The butterfly needs the stress of working its way out of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings. Likewise, a master gardener told me that when you plant a sapling, it is better not to stake it if possible. She said that if the sapling has to secure itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be healthier for it. In this example, once again there is acknowledgment that growing inevitably involves a degree of pain or stress. The hothouse flower or the overprotected child simply does not acquire the tools needed to survive.

Middle Way of Stress

Clearly, a certain amount of stress is part of life, but how much stress and what kind of stress? How can we navigate a course that is challenging but not overwhelming?

The Buddhist tradition acknowledges the reality of stress and discomfort. It is realistic, uncomfortably so, in describing the stress, pain, and suffering that accompanies our individual and collective lives from beginning to end. The simple teaching of the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, may be the most difficult to understand and accept. We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents—you name it—things would be different. But things are not different; they are as bad as they seem! Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that good in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.

In dealing with stress we need to look at both the conditions we face and how we are dealing with them. It is sometimes possible to remove the causes and conditions that are stressing us out, but other times it is not. So it is important to distinguish between the two. If we can change our situation for the better, we should do so. There is no point complaining about it—it is better to fix it. However, we may be stuck with a stressful situation we cannot change. In that case, we still have the option of changing our attitude.

We need to be realistic and honest with ourselves so that on one hand, we do not hold back when we could act, and on the other hand, we do not act just to do something, when there is no benefit in doing so. In looking at your external situation, there is no need to cover up problems or look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But you also do not need to stew and fret over all the world problems you are bombarded with daily in the news or let yourself be mentally glued to the endless vicissitudes of ordinary living.

When the great Cambodian teacher Mahagosananda was asked how he maintained his cheerfulness and equanimity in light of the violence and horrors of the Khmer Rouge he had gone through, he smiled and said, “Life is full of ups and downs.” There is great teaching in that statement. If we take that kind of attitude, we can release some of our heavy-handed expectations about how life is supposed to go for us, which frees us to deal more simply with whatever we encounter. If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions.

This attitude is different from passivity or detachment in the negative sense of disengagement, defeatism, or fatalism. It instead points to a form of engagement with the world that is intelligent and not merely reactive, that is realistic rather than dreamy. To paraphrase the great Mahayana teacher Shantideva: When you can do something about a problem, then just do it. Why worry about it? And when you do not have the ability or the circumstances to do anything about a problem, why worry? Worrying and stressing about it is not going to help anyone.

Training the Mind and Heart

What I like about Buddhism is that it is so practical and hopeful. You may be the type of person who gets stressed out at the slightest little thing or you may be more hard skinned, even oblivious. But either way, you are not doomed to be under the control of the stresses you encounter because you were just “born that way.” No matter where on the spectrum you start out, you can begin to change your relationship to stress for the better. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending to be other than you are, but by training your mind and opening your heart.

A primary mind-training tool is mindfulness practice, through which you learn to settle your mind and to tame its wildness. As you repeatedly bring your attention back to the breath, you are becoming more familiar with your own mind and it is getting stronger. It is as though your mind has more weight, so it is not easily blown about by every little breeze. It is reassuring to discover that, amidst all the mental commotion and ups and downs, there is something steady and reliable about your mind at the core. When things get tough and you feel stress beginning to take you over, you can draw on that inner strength.

Along with mindfulness comes the tool of training the heart to be more open and compassionate. Compassion practices draw you out of yourself and remind you to think of others. When you feel the force of stress narrowing you down and drawing you into yourself, you can resist the tendency to close down. You can look around you and through compassion get a larger perspective.

Stress is exaggerated when your mind is flighty and unbalanced, and it is also heightened when you are weighed down with self-concerns and preoccupied with yourself. The practices of mindfulness and compassion give you a way to work with both of these problems. It is unrealistic to expect your life to be free of stress, but there is a real possibility that you could transform the way you deal with it. Stress brings to light harmful habits of mind and heart. So instead of viewing it as an enemy, you could regard stress as a teacher, and be grateful for it.

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of the forthcoming Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, a three-volume series presenting the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Seminary teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Author of Making Friends With Death, Lief teaches a contemplative approach to facing death and working with the dying and leads an annual retreat for women touched by cancer entitled Courageous Women, Fearless Living.

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

The Tweeting, Yelping, Flickring, Foursquaring, TripAdvising Mentality (September 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2012
You'll find this article on page 27 of the magazine.

The Tweeting, Yelping, Flickring, Foursquaring, TripAdvising Mentality

MICHAEL A. STUSSER on the wildly overstimulated brain.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me one of those smartypants TED videos featuring some brainiac who babbles over a slide show for eighteen minutes or less on how he or she is more accomplished in a field  of expertise than I’ll ever be. Case in point: Louie Schwartzberg. Lou is an award-winning cinematographer who has spent the last thirty years shooting time-lapse photography in rain forests all over the world. The clips in his presentation were breathtaking. You know the scene: dewdrops slide down flower petals in the mist, monarch butterflies softly land on mossy pads, and the sunlight glimmers through the clouds floating past the canopy overhead, completing the circle of life.

After viewing this slo-mo masterpiece, did I contemplate for a moment the stunning splendor of science? Did I join Earth First! and begin to defend our precious and limited resources? Did I make a pledge to kick-start my own artistic acumen and bring it to the ignorant masses? No. Instead, I closed the YouTube  window, saw a red circle with the number four on my inbox, clicked that icon, and moved on to  the next thing. The impulse running through my wildly overstimulated brain was simply, “What’s next?”

This Louie character had wallowed in a muddy Peruvian bog for three decades to bring me closer to God or creation or nature or enlightenment, and I had left his vision behind for a cat video. And not Cat Stevens, either. (That would have almost justified the jump…) A blind cat flailing at a hair dryer. What’s NEXT ? How ’bout a straitjacket?

Today’s Tweeting, Yelping, Flickring, Foursquaring, TripAdvising mentality generates such a carnivorous hunger for stimulation and instant gratification that, no matter how much storytelling, love, humor, philosophy, music, contemplative content, 3-D imagery, or wisdom we shove into our systems, it still leaves us wanting.

Posts and links and apps and texts—ew—and memes and mashups and tweets and tags and viral vids and blogs—eww—and pics and FAILs and eVites—ewww—are flying at us so fast we no longer give them the due respect they might very well deserve. It’s been called Digital Distraction or Modern Multitasking Madness, but a better moniker might be Frenzied Facebooking Feed Fragmentation. It’s one thing to get momentarily distracted from your tea leaves by a hummingbird at the window. Angry Birds on your lap while driving the minivan and perusing your network posts is a far more dangerous endeavor.

Our perennial Googling is like an insane speed round in the game show of existence. “Tammy, for a grand prize of one billion dollars, tell me the first thing that pops into your head, and relate that thing to five other completely random things—and you win!” There’s nothing wrong with instant access to entire volumes of work. It’s very cool, in fact, that the entire Library of Congress is at our fingertips. But just because you can download War and Peace onto your Kindle in four seconds doesn’t mean you should only spend five minutes reading it. We need to stretch—to explore deep concepts, as well as kitty porn. Yet not only do we demand instant access, we also insist that every resulting experience be three minutes or less.

Forget listening to Martin Luther King’s entire “I Have a Dream” speech. We’ve got no time for that! Luckily, we can just fast-forward to the twenty-two-minute mark where MLK says the famous catchphrase. And speaking of famous heroes reduced to soundbites, the History Channel has compiled mini-clips from the twenty-five best biography movies ever. Who is not going to waste five and a half minutes on that?

Sadly, our smartphones, laptops, and tablets have weakened our natural intelligence (and sense of direction) and, worse, left us with no stamina. My recent history lesson on the Middle East can easily be found in my search history. It began with a Google search of “Arab Spring,” then it jumped to women and the Arab Spring and to a few pictures I’m not proud of. After that it went to an amazing 9/11-conspiracy video, holiday-shopping ideas on Amazon, and the Qaddafi death video. Lesson complete! I’ve consumed and then dismissed so many links, posts, videos,  and songs in the last few years that I’ve become numb to the true experience of the artist, the artistic process, or how to absorb information and knowledge into my life. Watching a DVD of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, I actually paused during his opening remarks to skip to the bonus scenes in the menu! What the hell was I looking for? A gag reel? I guess the “chapters” on enlightenment, emptiness, and compassion didn’t hold anything for me, which is exactly the point!

There’s a movement afoot to “get lost.” People are going to extreme measures just to get out of cell-tower distance and/or remove themselves from the web—taking up sailing or outermost hiking or going on NLS (No Longer Surfing) retreats. Running away from civilization seems a bit extreme when it might be easier to simply turn off your PDA for a few hours. But either way, it takes discipline—every day—to put down the iPhone and step away from the data, even for just a while. Another way into mindfulness is to absorb yourself fully in to a particular topic (i.e., single-tasking)—Sanskrit or yoga or scrapbooking or making shortbread cookies—and then, instead of moving on to the next thing, stay with the moment at hand.

Last week I interviewed a lovely singer/songwriter named Star Anna on a podcast I co-host in Seattle. Star chatted about her inspirations, her struggles, and her day job (at a doggy daycare), and then sang a few songs from her new album. That afternoon I went home, bought her album on iTunes, and cranked the thing nonstop. (The band rocks like T. P. and the Heartbreakers on steroids!) The next day I decided to support my local indie record store and got her second CD, and then I downloaded her debut album. Within three days, I’d gone through her entire body of work and, once again, paused only long enough to ask myself the question: What’s next?

This young woman had spent the last decade painstakingly mining nuggets from her life, crafting songs, blistering fingers, developing a unique style of music, sleeping in crappy motels, and playing coffeehouses and dive bars to support herself. In forty-eight hours, I’d consumed her entire catalog, devoured the contents, and, still ravenous, wanted more. What’s next? How about taking five minutes to read the lyrics?

For those of you who are not geriatric (i.e., you were born after 1964), I will now regale you with a tale from 1977. There was once a very original and highly anticipated movie called Star Wars. It blew audiences away with its futuristic vision, Zen philosophy, fast action, and damn fine acting. After breaking every box office record, fans of the film (and that was pretty much everyone on the planet at the time) waited three years for the sequel. Three long years. No one demanded Tweets from the director, behind-the-scenes teasers, or videoblogs from stars on set. After The Empire Strikes Back smashed more box office records, we waited another three years for the final chapter in this epic trilogy! And it was FUN to wait! As the anticipation grew, people shared their hopes for their favorite characters, brainstormed upcoming plotlines, and rehashed all the great scenes from the previous films. Point being, patience is a virtue! Good things do come to those who wait! Nine-hundred-year-old Yoda said it best: “Control, control. You must learn control.”

Michael A. Stusser is a co-creator of several board games, including Hear Me Out, which was launched at Starbucks. He’s also the author of The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History.

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Perfectly Imperfect (September 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2012
You'll find this article on page 23 of the magazine.

Perfectly Imperfect

In a world of Botox, little blue pills, and “living your best life,” we could all use more wabi sabi in our lives. Because imperfection, says ROGER HOUSDEN, is what makes us human.

A few years ago a boy was born with abnormally large upper-arm muscles, and by the age of two he could lift weights that would be a stretch for a ten-year old. Curious scientists discovered he has a gene that most people don’t. Perhaps within a few short years that gene will be transferable to other newborns and a gym membership will begin to seem quaint. After all, if you can get the results without all the sweat, then why not pay up and have yourself biochemically and genetically tuned?

Welcome to the world of the enhanced human being.

Not that our urge to become an improved model is anything new. Young Greeks were working out two and a half thousand years ago, and in the seventeenth century French women apparently swallowed sand and ashes to deliberately ruin their stomachs so as to get paler complexions. Humans have always felt less than perfect in one way or another, and we probably always will. Even when we have developed the best body we could ever hope for; even when, a few years from now, we can buy a memory chip at Radio Shack, or have surgery for a math gene or some other enhancement, the feeling that we are incomplete will not go away.

It won’t go away because it comes with the package of being human. Something always seems to be missing, even if we can’t put our finger on it. We may succeed in ironing out one wrinkle, but then another pops up in its place. So we go into therapy or take pills. We take classes to improve our sex lives; we read books on how to follow our bliss; or we go for the ultimate perfection, enlightenment, as if it were something to get that we don’t already have. The sense that life is not as good as it could be— that we are not as good as we could be—seems built into our genetic code.

Over a lifetime, the obvious becomes inescapable: we will never achieve any ideal of perfection—either physical, mental, or spiritual—other than the realization of the perfection of who we already are, blemishes and all. And what is true for us is true for anyone, however glowing their life may seem to our eyes. We are, all of us, no more and no less than wonderfully ordinary, imperfect mortals. So why not give ourselves a break? Why not celebrate our blemishes, our imperfections, and dissatisfactions? After all, doesn’t Venus de Milo look better without her arms?

Not being perfect allows us to feel empathy and compassion, not just for ourselves but also, and especially, for others. We see our own frailties and shortcomings in our friends and lovers. Being imperfect joins us in our humanity. That’s a good feeling. We’re all in this impossible, crazy life together, which in large measure will take us where it wants to go. That may cause anxiety to our control needs, but it beats being lonely in a posture of having it all together when everyone around us seems to be less than capable.

Every spiritual tradition agrees that in the end we can only bow our heads to the fact of our limitations and to the mystery of existence. Those traditions would echo the words of T. S. Eliot when he said:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Humility brings us down to earth and lets us acknowledge our true condition, which is that we are flawed and were never meant to be otherwise. The perfection fantasy exists to shore up our illusion of having some control over a life that will never, in reality, conform to our plans. However sophisticated our spiritual practices, we shall never get to the bottom of who we are, never uncover all our fault lines and layers of subtle unrest. Like the puzzle of life and death, these are puzzles that will remain as ungraspable and nebulous as ever. That is their beauty, and our beauty too: we will always be just beyond our own grasp.

In Japan there is an entire worldview that appreciates the value of the imperfect, unfinished, and faulty. It’s called wabi sabi. The first term refers to something simple and unpretentious, and the second points to the beauty that comes with age. Wabi sabi is the aesthetic view that underlies Japanese art forms like tea ceremony and ceramics. It’s an aesthetic that sees beauty in the modest and humble, the irregular and earthy. It holds that beauty lies in the patina of age and in the changes that come with use. It’s in the cracks, the worn spot—in the green corrosion of bronze, the pattern of moss on a stone. The Japanese take pleasure in mistakes and imperfections.

In the West, no one more than Rembrandt took such pleasure in painting old people. He painted them from the time he was twenty until the month before he died. Young people didn’t interest him as models, probably because a young face, even if beautiful, does not have the mark of life upon it. Age spots, wrinkled hands, the lifetime you can see in an older person’s eyes—these fascinated him more than untested beauty. Rembrandt’s most riveting portraits were of himself in old age. He was able to look in the mirror with a transparent honesty, to reach into his own soul and reflect to us the human condition in such a way that, when we gaze at his self-portraits, we ourselves can feel our lives more honestly and also tenderly. The presence he conveys serves to bring us present too.

Day by day, tiny specks of us float away. No matter which exercise or diet regimen we follow, no matter which self-help guru or meditation practice we follow, nothing will dispel the reality that we are not built to last. Death is our supreme limitation, the final proof that perfection was never meant to be part of the human experience. A hundred years from now, there will be all new people. Sooner rather than later, we shall not be here: no eyes, no nose, no ears, no tongue, no mind. No you or me. Gone, and who knows where, if anywhere.

Yet knowing the extent of our limitation, feeling our soon-not-to-be-hereness in our bones, is the best condition we can have for waking up to the miracle that we are here now. That is the brilliance of the human design plan; the built-in “defect” is the very thing that can spur us to drink down the full draught as it comes to us. Better to taste this gritty, imperfect life we have than to defer it to some more perfect future that will never come.

Roger Housden grew up on the edge of Bath, England, and—living in the shadow of an ancient stone circle—always felt humans were creatures with one foot in this world and one in another, less visible one. Housden is the author of some twenty books, including the bestselling Ten Poems series, three travel books, and the novella Chasing Rumi. He’s also a writing coach and leads literary and art appreciation journeys.

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Booooring... Print


Like, say, staring into space. Or counting your breaths. Or living life just as it is. KAREN MAEZEN MILLER on the virtues of boredom.

The message comes with good intentions, as do most things designed to inspire, so I click on the link in my email and watch the short video.

First I see a sleeping newborn swaddled in a blanket, followed by a silken black butterfly perched on a finger, a dewdrop dangling from a leaf tip, and a nest cradling two luminous robin’s eggs. Images dissolve to a piano serenade—a foggy meadow at daybreak, the fiery blaze of an ocean sunset, a peach pie cooling on a plank table, and a vase of peonies gracing a windowsill. A boy bites a glistening red popsicle at that perfect instant before it slides off the stick. A golden-haired girl blows the dancing flames from her birthday candles. “Moments,” the voiceover says. “Moments like this are all we have.”

They are happy, captivating shots, drenched in color and sentiment. The eye wants to drink them in and dwell. Compared to this, my life seems mostly washed-out and even wasted.

I stop the show. Something’s wrong with this picture. Pies and popsicles are appealing, but these pictures don’t quite capture the essence of life. Not the whole of it.

Later on, in the bathroom picking up dingy wet towels, I notice the mildew creeping up the bottom of the shower curtain. This is not the life of precious tributes. It’s not one of the moments you want to frame and keep. It’s one you want to throw out. And many of us do. We replace people, places, and things that have grown charmless and tiresome— which they always do. Fascination fades and restlessness stirs.

Chasing the picture perfect, we can lose what we have in abundance—the times that teach us even more than the rare delight of butterflies or a robin’s blue eggs. We lose the hours, the days, and the decades when nothing much seems to happen at all. Time freezes. Paint dries. Mildew spreads. We’re bored out of our minds.

Boredom is the unappreciated path to patience, peace, and intimacy, so who would read a paean to it? Let that be your koan.

Face the Wall

Bodhidharma faced the wall.

The Second Ancestor, having cut off his arm, stood there in the snow and said, “My mind is not at peace yet. I beg you, Master, please put it to rest.”

Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

The Second Ancestor said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot take hold of it.”

Bodhidharma said, “There, I have put your mind to rest.”

I happen to love this koan. Every time I look at it I notice something beautiful. You might not see it, because there’s not much going on here. Plus it doesn’t paint an especially pretty picture. One guy faces the wall. Another one stands frozen in a colorless landscape, going stir-crazy. It’s the crazy part I relate to.

Bring Me Your Boredom

“I’m bored.”

Schoolchildren can be afflicted with it by the second day of summer; workers by the sixth month on the job; spouses by the seventh year of marriage; and readers by the tenth paragraph. Or before.

Are you bored yet? Nowadays, boredom is considered a scourge. We blame boredom for the death of curiosity, learning, productivity, innovation, and commitment. Boredom is the antecedent to all kinds of distractions, disengagements, overindulgences, and infidelities. The worst crime is being boring, the joke goes, but we all know that the real crimes are likely to come after. In the name of boredom, we overfill our minds, our bodies, our senses, and our time. We flee what fails to amuse. Boredom breeds contempt, and contempt breeds calamity.

If boredom is such a menace, let’s bring it out into the open. Can you show it to me? Like the other thoughts and feelings we use to torment ourselves, boredom is something we can’t locate except in our own deadly pronouncement: “I’m bored.” By the time we say it, we believe it, and believing is all it takes. This is where the story can get interesting.

When we’re bored, we go looking for something new. And let’s face it: we’re nearly always looking for something new. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we’ve got—how well we each manage our store of talents or prospects—we are somehow convinced that we haven’t yet got “it,” not enough to be completely satisfied or secure. We might think we need something as harmless as a cookie, a game, or a gadget—or another career, lover, or child. We might call what we want higher purpose, wisdom, passion, or simply a change of scenery.

Until we are at peace with ourselves, the quest continues. Until we know that there is nowhere else to go, and nothing more to get, we are trapped in delusion. We cannot resolve delusion with more delusion, but we try, and in the search we drive ourselves further away from reality and into raving madness. Fighting boredom is a full-time occupation.

What does it take to liberate ourselves from the chase? What if we could release the grasping mind that is always clawing after some precious new thing, even if it’s only a new fantasy? That would be excruciating, or so we fear. It’s the fear of letting go that afflicts us, but letting go is pain free.

Search the Mind

One time I was interviewed by a radio host about meditation, and she seemed alarmed, even offended, by the idea. Staying put runs contrary to the religion of self-gratification.

“It seems to me you’re telling people to settle,” she said. I was flummoxed, and I searched my mind for a response. If I’d had the equanimity of my Zen forebears, I would have said what I really meant.

I would have said, “Yes.”

What’s wrong with settling? What’s wrong with being patient and making peace? What’s wrong with quieting the crazy-making, egocentric mind? And for that matter, what’s wrong with boredom? It’s not the feeling of boredom that hurts us; it’s what we do when we try to run away from it.

If we find one thing boring, we’ll find everything boring, so we’d better learn to look at boredom differently. We’d better see things as they really are. This is why we begin our practice, and this is why we keep practicing even when we are no longer entertained. If we are really committed, we can indeed bore ourselves out of our ruminating mind and into a world at rest.

In the Soto Zen tradition, we meditate with our eyes slightly open, facing a blank wall. Like Bodhidharma, who was said to have faced the wall for nine years before his first student appeared in the snowdrifts, we are called wall gazers. People often ask about the meaning of the wall, since it seems so extreme, or at the very least, extremely boring.

It’s true; sometimes the wall we face is a bare white wall, where we are looking at nothing. This wall is called a wall. At other times, we turn around and face another kind of wall, where we are looking at everything. This wall is called the world. There always seems to be a wall of some kind or another in front of us; the question is whether or not we can face it.

Whatever the scenery, our practice is the same. Our practice is to face everything life is, and everything it isn’t. Everything we think and feel, and everything we don’t. Wall gazing is a very thorough practice in facing the fleetingness of things, and not getting trapped in momentary apparitions. All apparitions, it turns out, are momentary. When your eyes are open and you are intimately engaged with what appears in front of you, it’s hard to stay bored because nothing stays one way for long. Even walls disappear.

When my husband comes home, he asks me what happened during the day.

There were no piano serenades at my house. No misty meadows or fiery sunsets. No newborns. No birthdays. I did not make a pie. It was a day like any other that can bore you out of your mind.

“Nothing,” I say.

But that doesn’t mean I’m bored. I have been facing the wall where the snow falls, paint dries, towels fade, and mildew spreads—the same wall where the light blooms in a continuous spectacle of color, sensation, and imagery that is the undivided whole of life. I have been practicing the equanimity of my Zen forebears, but even now I have not said what I really mean when I say, “Nothing.”

I mean, “Everything.”

What could ever be wrong with this picture?

Karen Maezen Miller is a teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. 

From the September 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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