Poem – the cross, the tree, the altar. The thing isn’t the thing.

Consider
the cross of Saint Damiano,
the cross that St. Francis was praying under
when he got the commission
from God
to rebuild the Church.
The cross is now guarded by the Poor Clares
and a copy
hangs in the chapel.

Consider
the bodhi tree
Buddha sat under
and achieved enlightenment.
Sad looking monks sit under
that same tree
now.
Nothing happens.

I once found
a temple to Mithras
in a sheepfield somewhere in England,
the foundation is there,
but the altar is at Newcastle
in a museum.

Why do we idolize the thing?
Why do we think the thing
is the thing?

The cross isn’t special,
the tree isn’t special,
the altar isn’t special.
What happened was special,
is special.

Are the guards
of the cross and the altar
trying to prevent others
from having that same awakening,
that same experience,
not knowing that
lightning never strikes
in the same place
twice?
God is everywhere,
awakening is everywhere.

Are the monks hoping that
by sitting there
they will awaken
too?
If only Buddha were here
to say,
go find your own tree.

Perhaps he just did.

Waiting in the middle

I’m back in the waiting room at the VW dealership. I’m waiting until they get the time to work on the car. I wonder why I even make appointments, because they always seem to be delayed. Back again for a valve. Last week it was gaskets. A month ago it was the battery. The car is old, after all.

I’m reminded of the Jewish prayer for use in the bathroom, about openings and cavities, that if just one of them ruptured or were blocked, we’d die.

I’m grateful it isn’t one of my openings or cavities that is ruptured of blocked. That would require a trip to the hospital, and surgery, and a long recovery period.

I’m grateful that the dealership is just 20 minutes away and not an hour, like the lady next to me.

I think there is something about being grateful that is good, but also something about acknowledging the pain and loss. This is my day off. This is really early in the morning. I don’t quite want to spend the money on this. We’ve spent too much money recently on this car.

So maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. Not happy, not sad. It just is the way it is. Not forcing myself to be happy and grateful, not getting stuck in sadness and loss. It is, and being happy or upset won’t make it change or go faster or cost less.

Maybe this is what Buddha meant about non attachment.

Not wasting energy on transforming the situation into something it isn’t. Accept it for what it is, and understanding that what I know is limited. The middle way, of no extremes.

Widow’s weeds

There is an old custom of wearing black while you are in mourning. Some people would wear all black clothes, while others would just wear black armbands. People still wear black clothes, but it isn’t just for grief. They will wear black just because they like wearing black.

So the meaning is lost. People don’t know if you are grieving, or just fashionable.

The purpose of wearing black to indicate grief was to warn others to be a little more gentle with you. You had your leave time that you were allowed from work, and now you are back. Whether it was three days or a week, it isn’t ever enough, especially if it was someone close to you.

Wearing black while you are grieving is a bit like wearing a “trainee” tag. It tells other people that you aren’t quite all here yet, and to go a little more slowly. It is a kindness to them and to you, to not expect much out of you for a while.

But perhaps we should all do that, all the time. Perhaps we should all treat each other with a little more kindness and cut each other a little more slack.

Everybody we see is struggling with something. Everybody has suffered a loss or has a problem. “Dysfunctional” is the new normal for families, don’t you know? We all are faking it, and we all aren’t making it. We are just getting by as best we can.

Now, problems can also come in when we think we are the only ones who are suffering, or that our pain is worse than anybody else’s.

I remember a time where a patron said that she wanted to get on disability because she had migraines all the time. She went on and on about it. Every time she came in she told her tale of how hard life was. She was really wrapped up in her own problems. So I decided to share. I told her that I’m on medication for the rest of my life for three different chronic conditions.
I wanted her to understand that we all have our burdens to carry. She got it, and softened.

Buddha told a story about a lady whose young son had died. She went to every person in the village, carrying her dead child with her. She refused to admit that he was dead and begged each person for medicine. One kind person directed her to the teacher, Buddha, who lived in the village.

When he saw her, he understood exactly what the real problem was, and how to address it. He told her to ask for a mustard seed from every person in the village who had not ever grieved. She was to then come back to him with the mustard seeds and he would make a medicine for her from them.

She went from hut to hut, and every person she talked to had experienced grief. Every person had lost someone they loved.

She had no mustard seeds, but she had the medicine she needed. She understood that she was not alone in her suffering. Her life was not harder than anyone else’s. At that moment, she finally was able to accept that her child had died, and bury him. At that moment, she was able to rejoin the community.

May we all be kinder with each other.
May we all understand we are equal in our suffering.

On process and pain – chewing the steak.

We all have problems. Don’t identify with your problem.

You aren’t an addict. You aren’t an abuse survivor. You aren’t a cancer patient.

With the new guidelines for talking about children with disabilities, we are supposed to talk about the child first, and the disability second. He isn’t an autistic child. He is a child with autism. He is a person first. He isn’t defined by his diagnosis.

Apply the same rules to yourself. You are a person first. The diagnosis is second. It isn’t you. It isn’t who you are. It affects you, certainly. But you are so much more.

When you define yourself by your diagnosis, you are giving it power, and you are diminishing your own.

Now, you also aren’t going to win any friends if you are constantly talking about your terrible childhood or your abusive husband or your sciatica or how you have to take care of your Mom with Alzheimer’s.

We all have problems. We all have something we have struggled with. Sometimes we have overcome it. Sometimes not. Sometimes it seems we can’t ever catch a break. But if you only talk about this, you are going to be lonely. The only companion you will have will be your problems.

Buddhism has a story that speaks to this. A lady’s child had died, and she was unable to accept it. She carried her dead child around the village, going to every house asking for medicine. They were all horrified. One kind person suggested she go to the teacher and sent her to Buddha. Buddha told her to go to each house and ask if they had experienced a death in the family. If nobody had died in that family, she was to get a mustard seed from them. She was to collect all the mustard seeds and bring them back to Buddha, who would then make a medicine for her.

She went all over the village and wasn’t able to find a single family that had not experienced death. She came to realize that her experience wasn’t unique or special. She came to realize that death was part of life, and to hold onto it and identify with it was causing her more problems than the death itself.

Simply going to each person’s house, she created her own medicine. Buddha taught her to look outside of herself, and to not identify herself with her suffering.

How often do we hold on to our pains and sufferings, just like that lady carried around her dead child? How often do we think we are alone in our suffering, that we have it worse than anybody else?

We all suffer. That is just part of life. Holding onto it makes it worse. Accept your loss and your pain, but don’t identify with it. Accept it, because to not accept it means to not process it.

Pain, like a big steak, needs to be chewed thoroughly to be digested. Choke it down and you’ll get sick. Spit it out and you’ll miss the lessons it has to teach you.

Pain teaches us about holding on and letting go. It teaches us about what we think we have to have in our lives and what we really need. It teaches us to accept, and live in the now, rather than in the past or the future.

The past never was as awesome as we think it was. Even in the past we were looking back to “the good old days” and thinking about how great things will be “if only I get…if only I can have…when I finish…” In the future we will do the same thing.

The only island is now. When we aren’t on that island, we are drowning in the sea, stuck away from the solid stability of that island. The past isn’t real. The future isn’t real. The more we live there, the more we are missing out on the only real thing that is, and that is now.

How to get back to now? Start looking at it. Start being thankful for it. Make a gratitude list. Notice what you have, right now, and be thankful.

Pain teaches us about ourselves.

Once we are through chewing on it, we need to swallow it, and then digest it. Then it does its work and then we have to let it go. Holding into pain is just like holding onto poop. We get sick if we can’t eliminate our toxins. But it still has to go through us, all the way. Resist it, fight against it, and you’ll only hurt yourself. Just like a tree in a strong wind, if you don’t bend, you’ll break.

Compassion

Compassion is about love. It is not only about feeling love, it is about showing it and making it real. Prayer is great, but action is greater.

Part of showing love is being aware that every single person is worthy of love. This includes the nice people and the not so nice people. Jesus tells us that it is easy to love the nice people. The real test is how do we treat people who are mean?

A lady asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was in Louisville, KY on May 19th, 2013 how to be compassionate towards the Boston bombers. I think his answer can be used for any situation where a person has been violent. He said we must separate action from actor. The person is not the deed. The action is bad. But there is hope for the person. The person made a bad choice. The person is still deserving of love.

Jesus tells us we are to love our enemies. Buddhists tell us we are to do the same. I’ll add that perhaps if the person had been shown more love in his or her life, she or he would not have been violent.

All behavior is communication so the behavioral manuals say. Children will seek attention in a negative way if they don’t get it in a positive way. What can we do, in our own actions, to make this world a better place? Every single act of kindness can literally save the world.

Remember the story of Abraham bargaining with God that Sodom and Gomorrah would not be destroyed if just ten good people lived there? Sadly, ten good people weren’t found. But how do you know that the same situation isn’t about to happen with your town?

This gives a whole new meaning to the line “Be good for goodness sake.” Your goodness isn’t about getting you a present from Santa Claus. It is about saving the world. It can bring about true healing.

So how can you show compassion? Start off with not being judgmental. You never know what the other person has gone through. Be kind to everyone. Smile. Complement them. Think of the other person’s needs. Put yourself in their shoes. Learn about other faiths and cultures. Learn how to say thank you in other languages.

Think about what you say you believe and what you do. Are they in harmony? If you believe that it is important to take care of the earth, then you need to recycle, and use less gasoline. Buy less stuff. Consume less of everything. Be mindful about your actions – what are the repercussions of what you are going to do, what you bought? Who is affected? How does this affect the earth? Everything is connected.

Being compassionate is about respecting the idea that every person is on their own journey. It is about being patient and kind with everyone. It isn’t about converting others to your belief system – it is about sincerely practicing your own.

It isn’t here.

It isn’t about the tree that Buddha sat under.
You won’t find enlightenment no matter how long you sit there.
Go find your own tree.
Or a rock.
Or an island
in the middle of a freeway.

The birthplace of Jesus shouldn’t be a pilgrimage site.
It isn’t the place. The place doesn’t matter.
That it happened is what matters.

Don’t charge admission to truth.
Don’t sell tickets to joy.

Where any enlightened person walked or lived or taught should be forgotten.
You can’t learn from ghosts in places.

Follow who they followed, back to the root.
Who is at the beginning?
Who is at the source?

You don’t have to go to the holy land.
Black Elk tells us that
the holy land is everywhere.

Right here, right where you are,
put a plaque. Memorialize it for future generations.

Have it say “I am here”

And then burn it down.