Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Impermanence, friend or foe?

I remember a friend telling me how for her Buddhism made sense when she understood the concept of impermanence. As I considered her comment, I realized that impermanence has been a part of my life for a very long time.


 My father died when I was 13 years old. At that time, I couldn't imagine this could ever happen to anyone. Of course, I heard about tragic things happening around the world, even in Paris fires would happen, and car accidents, but my life was so perfect and protected, I could never imagine this would change.

But change it did. In fact my life was shattered when my father was diagnosed with cancer and died merely 6 months later. Nothing was ever the same. My small world was destroyed, my mother and I moved to a different country, a different continent, a different culture and language and it was extremely hard for me to adapt.

But I did adapt in the end. El Salvador became my home and I lived there many years and built a life for myself and my children.

However when I became a Buddhist I realized impermanence has been part of my life for a very long time... so when the Buddhist teachers spoke about it, it wasn't earth-shattering, it was right there inside me, a natural concept, one I understood all too well.

After my father died, I continued experimenting loss. My boyfriend died when I was 17, later my grand mother and then a very dear friend my own age. To say I am well acquaintanced with death is quite the understatement.

I also lost my home in Paris, and later other homes followed, and with them friends, familiar settings and routines. I eventually came back to Europe, and I am now living in Budapest, Hungary, trying to make a new life for me and my girls, trying to settle in, to make friends, to grow professionally and to feel at home, since I don't really know where home is.


But impermanence is more than a liberating concept that we learn when we become Buddhists "Everything will change" or "This too shall pass". It is a constant feeling of possibilities, and not the comforting type. It is the possibility of loss... at any moment, in any way, all the time.

I often reflect on the possibility of my own death, and how this would affect my girls, my mother and all those who love me. I often reflect on their death, and how this could happen right now, in this very second, and there is nothing one can do about it.

I am not comforted by this. I am not traumatized by it either. I just think about it more frequently than other people do, I guess. I also have a tendency to have the darkest worst-case-scenario come to mind quite quickly if my daughters or my husband don't answer the phone.

I had an accident recently. It was a small accident, but it required hospitalization, and it involved a lot of pain. This was not pleasant, of course, but not that big a deal in the end. What really makes me tick though is how it makes me think so morbidly about my health, and of course, the possibility of dying.

And so here it is, once more... the confrontation with my own impermanence, the possibility of death staring at me in the face, making me feel like the ground is collapsing under my feet, and I realize this is not the Buddhist impermanence. This is the opposite, this is fear.

The reality of things is there is no safety net. Yet, after so many years, I still don't know how to deal with impermanence, or how to make it become my friend.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

On the quality of meditation

I recently read this quote from the Buddhist teacher Hannah Nydahl:

"In practice, quality and quantity are united. Quality gives depth to the practice, it is connected with understanding, deep motivation, dedication to the teacher and compassion for other beings. Quantity means a consistent habit to not be lazy and using a little more time for practice than is comfortable for us at present. This will always be rewarded. Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje said, "If you meditate, strengthening diligence when confronted with difficulties, you wiil get rewards in the form of incredible qualities."

I have already understood that quantity is important. The more we push ourselves to sit on the cushion, the better. Sometimes our busy schedules don't allow for as much time as we'd like, but arrangements can always be made to increase our time. Waking up one hour earlier is an option, although not welcomed by everyone. It is also possible to use any "window" of time that opens up to us.

A friend of mine spends an incredible amount of time meditating. He has a full time job, but uses whatever free time he gets for meditation and ends up accumulating hours each day. Of course, this is not about putting hours upon hours of meditation every single day. It is about giving it your best, even if that means 20 minutes instead of 3 hours. The point Hannah Nydahl makes in her quote, I think, is the importance of meditating "a little more time" than what feels comfortable. Once again our teachers push us to go beyond our comfort zone, where all the magic appears.

What really shook my neurones this time however, was the comment regarding quality. As Buddhist practitioners, of course we feel a deep devotion to our teacher, and we work with compassion, spreading it more and more around us as we develop. But what is real quality in meditation?

As my friend RĂ©ka - who is a traveling teacher from Hungary - explained at a lecture a couple of days ago, it is only natural for thoughts to constantly emerge in our mind during our meditation sessions. However, meditation is about resting in the here and now, and the thoughts that arise in our mind are rarely conducive to "here and now", but are much more likely to take us to yesterday, tomorrow, or to the possibility of tomorrow.


Instead of following the waterfall of thoughts, which is our most natural response, we should simply notice the thought, and go back to the Buddha. It is a simple shift in our attention, and it transforms it into awareness. This of course requires discipline. But as practitioners we already know a bit about creating positive habits, so pushing a little bit more is simply taking the next logical step. The first reward we will reap is a focused meditation, which feels much shorter than a dissipated one, and gently invites us to stay longer in the practice.


Then, quite simply, and almost effortlessly, quantity and quality meet.



More about Hannah Nydahl

 

 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do you judge your meditation?

Of course you do, and you're not alone!

Over and over we hear our meditation teachers tell us not to "judge" our meditations. But of course, we all do. It's always somewhere between the "What a great meditation!" and the "This was terrible".

We are all trying to be "good" buddhist and students, we want to practice the different methods, we want to become better parents, better partners... better people! We want to stop experimenting anger, or pride, or to recognize these emotions as soon as they are triggered so we no longer cave in and produce negative karma... We want to be worthy of the Lama, we want to become Buddhas!

Sometimes I am so disappointed at my meditation I wonder if I meditated at all.... Was I actually meditating? or did I just sit there, letting the thoughts go wild while I repeated a mantra like a parrot. Yes... I can be pretty hard on myself.

I recently asked a meditation teacher about these experiences, and whether "they counted" as meditation or not. With lots of compassion he said they do. "When it comes to our practice - he said - whatever we did is done." And of course he said not to judge our meditations... yes... I know...

I am working on this now, on sitting on the cushion to do my thing, as best as I can, and then just stand up and leave the cushion behind. No further thoughts, whatever I did is done. Seriously, I am!

So there was I Sunday evening, in our Buddhist Center gompa, happily meditating away, while other friends were doing their own stuff; when in walked a man with his three year old little girl.  Quietly he took her around the room, shoing her the Buddhas on our altar and the different thangkas on the walls. He was very respectful of us and whispered quietly. But a three year old is a three year old. She could appreciate that her father was whispering, and she answered in whispers also; but mainly she saw a big, long room, all to herself. She started running to and fro, giggling, she went up to the altar and grabbed a mala (what a wonderful toy!), and daddy sat down somewhere and left her to it.



I will be fair, she wasn't being noisy, but she wasn't quiet either. She was running around, not loudly, but still... running around. To say I was irritated would be just. I was. And the more time they spent there, the more frustrated I got... My mind was giving me pictures of the carpeted area full of toys, devoted to children in our cafeteria, a mere 100 meters away, and I was seriously wondering why this man could not simply realize that a more appropriate place lied in the next room.

Changing rapidly, I next had images of my daughters, years ago, when I first discovered the Dharma. And how much I wanted to share it all with them, how touched I was when they would mumble a mantra, or stroke a statue. All in all, my meditation was a disaster.

As all this intense drama unfolded between my ears, the guy simply sat there, on the carpet and watched his girl run happily to and from the altar. As I followed her with my gaze I saw the statue of the particular Buddha aspect I was meditating on, and somehow was able to resume my concentration. I repeated the mantra a little louder than before and closed my eyes tightly. I focused on the visualization of this perfect Buddha form and suddenly the little girl, her father, and actually the whole room was gone.

For a delicious time I enjoyed one of the most focused meditations I have ever practiced. What a joy! (yes, I know, I am still judging.)

As I came out of the gompa, I met the papa and the little girl. I sat next to them and stroke her soft hair, and in halting and clumsy Hungarian started a conversation. His very first words were an apology. I told him how frustrated I had been, and he further thanked my patience. I said I was anything but patient, but explained what happened after, and how much more intense my experience had been thanks to their visit. I thanked him. He smiled and went on to explain in great detail why he had taken his child to see the Buddhas, unfortunately, I didn't understand much of that. We later said goodbye and he enthusiastically congratulated me on my command of the language... basically that was the only part I really understood.

Haha!

What a great meditation!!! :)


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Outside the comfort zone

So we've all heard it before... "Development happens beyond the comfort zone". Especially in the Diamond Way Buddhist Centers, we hear it everyday because our teacher, Lama Ole Nydahl, continuously advises us to follow his example and go "beyond the comfort zone". In fact I've heard this so often that I truly believed I understood what it meant.



After all it's pretty straightforward, isn't it? going beyond the comfort zone means taking on challenges, facing difficulties, turning suffering into dramatic and profound insights, and embracing changes through adaptation. So yes, I thought I knew all about it... After all I'm quite the expert at adaptation... right?

Well, last weekend a very inspiring teacher gave a few talks in our Budapest Buddhist Center. During one of his teachings, I had one of the famous Aha! moments that carry the potential for changing our lives. As simple as it may seem to others, my clear insight moment revealed what it meant for me to go beyond the comfort zone...

In my very own little personal universe being beyond the comfort zone means braving the winter cold; it also means "no ocean"; it means a very strange foreign language, and it means my closest most beloved friends are very, very far away; so is my mom's house, her embrace, and her kitchen. As a matter of fact all of my favorite kitchens are far away and beyond reach, as are beloved and familiar places. My habits no longer hold true in this "beyond the comfort zone" place I call home now. My favorite pizza is unreachable, as is my best friend, my confident, my always wise adviser, and when I have real problems, there is no running over to her to spill the beans, to share my deepest feelings, or my unconfessed fears.

This makes it very difficult for me to run away from my troubles, from my pain, there's no one left to complain to, because frankly Skype and Facebook are useful at keeping in touch, but not really at "being miserable together", if there is such a thing...

So what happens when there's no where left to hide? what do you do when all your established safety systems are all out of reach? Where do you go then?

It turns out there is only one place left...


I don't think it had ever made as much sense as it does now... but in the absence of the familiar outlets for my periods of unrest, what I do now when there is pain is meditate. When there is doubt I meditate. When I feel like complaining on and on... I meditate. When I am angry, I meditate. When I am unsure and afraid... you guessed it, I meditate.

And it works so well, because this is where comfort is found ultimately, and yes, this is where development happens, because there is only one place left to turn for refuge, and that Refuge is giving us everything.

So, as I reach out to this deeper place, my fears subside, my doubts are set to rest, my pain is soothed, there is nothing to complain about, and there is nothing to accomplish. I open my eyes stronger than before, I see clearly now, if only for a moment, and the vision sustains me until the next sitting.

Does it mean that there is no more rage, no more tears, no more hesitation in my life? Of course not. This happens again and again... but the hold it had on me once is slowly fading away, and the clarity my Refuge gives me reappears quicker than before. This is why I now welcome these difficult times, because now I know they are the ultimate gift. They happen here and now so I can see them, taste them, and grow beyond them.

I am braver now, I know I have all the tools needed; so I can take one more little step, go out and explore.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Obstacles

The past couple of years have been hard. Not dramatically so, but hard. Relocating to a different country, where they speak the (apparently second) most difficult language in the world, building a relationship - a marriage!!! bringing my two daughters to live with us, and trying to get everyone to get along, working 9 to 5 at a job I hated, earning less money than... I don't even remember making so little money... And to think I used to complain about my income in El Salvador... It was divided by four when I came to live in Budapest, and it wasn't easy.

But of course a lot of wonderful things happened... I relocated to a different, exotic country, I took on the challenge of learning the second most difficult language in the world, I am married to the greatest man alive, who has become a natural second father to my two beautiful, sweet daughters,  I quit a horrible 9 to 5 job that I hated, and decided to set up a freelancing business...

And I would say I have quite an amazing life, I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (decidedly!), in a cozy and warm little flat with my loving family. I have made new friends. I feel more and more at home in Budapest day by day. I am excited about my new business, although I have never been a business woman before. And it's a learning process.

In El Salvador I had a growing, successful career. I had a professional reputation and made good money doing something I both enjoyed and was good at. I was a simultaneous interpreter. I was in and out of super interesting conferences, or airplanes, meeting Heads of States or of huge Corporations, and working by their side. Going on the field to the rural areas, connecting to people with realities so different than mine. From a UN conference to a glacier in the Andes... Yes, I loved my job.

But I never had to really make that happen, my good friends Ute and Gretel, as well as others, who were true business women and owned top-of-the-industry translation agencies were the ones giving me the jobs. I did get a few contracts on my own here or there, but basically I just relaxed and enjoyed... Unfortunately, neither Ute nor Gretel are operating in Hungary, and after one year as a regular Multinational employee, devoting my days to meaningless tasks, I decided something had to change. So I did.

Of course there was a miracle, as it always happens when you're a true Pure Land Resident, and the miracle was a 6-weeks contract in El Salvador. The money I made there is buying me the time to set up my new venture, and hopefully turn my life around and be a huge success... (Make strong wishes friends!) So I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk, working like never before. Who would have known setting up a business could be so hard? Then came the first opportunity, 2 days in late November, in the French booth. I promptly confirmed my availability and smiled big. This was not so hard after all! The date came and passed with no further news from the recruiter. No answers to my emails...

I know it happens... Events fall apart, busy people forget to answer emails... But to say I wasn't disappointed would be a lie.

Yesterday, as I was stepping into the Gompa at our Buddhist Meditation Center, a wonderful friend, who is also launching herself as an interpreter (Hungarian-German) told me she got a job in a few weeks. She was joyful and excited.

It immediately brought me back to my own "event" and how it didn't come through... I was almost jealous for a minute, but the faithful sign on the entrance of our gompa, which reads this gentle reminder:


made me realize I was not jealous at all. I am just used to believe in my emotions. In truth, I felt genuinely happy for my friend! I realized how what happened to me was just a simple obstacle, like one of the many I've had to face since moving to Budapest, or worse... since birth :)

The XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Living Buddha of Tibet and leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage once said "When you do things, then obstacles will come and you can go through them. Obstacles are a sign of success".

So here I go, steady on the road to success.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The very bad horse

In one of the Sutras the Buddha talks about the four kinds of horses: there is the excellent horse, the good horse, the poor horse and the very bad horse. The excellent horse moves before the whip even touches its back; just the shadow of the whip or a sound from the driver is enough to make the horse move. The good horse runs at the slightest touch of the whip on its back. The poor horse doesn't go until it feels pain, and the very bad horse doesn't bulge until the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.

I came to Europe approximately 3 weeks ago. And for most of that time, I have been a Very Bad Horse.



Somehow the separation from my family has been brutal. I understand at a very rational level that it is the psychological effect of "coming to stay". But the heart is seldom rational, and the memory of my child's face or voice has plunged me repeatedly into the abyss of distress. I have also missed my mother, the comfort of her home, the warmth of the linen on the beds, the smells of the kitchen, the flowers in the garden, the special way the sun touches the window. Every single little thing has made me feel homesick... An interesting affair when you were as eager to leave as I was.

Then, the death-blow... my best friend is diagnosed with cancer, and I am here, impotent, looking at my computer screen and wanting to jump out of my skin. How can something like this happen when I am so helpless and useless... But it does.



All this while, and for 16 days and 16 unbearable nights, I have the FLU, and I mean it in capital cases. I do not sleep at night, because I am too busy coughing, sneezing or snorting disgustingly. My boyfriend doesn't sleep either, and probably has the very urgent instinctive need to choke me or suffocate me with a pillow at the very least. Yet, praise his heart, he doesn't, but rather takes gentle care of me. I wish I could say his love cured me, but it didn't. Fevers came and went, sore throat at bed time, sorer in the morning. Mucus my constant and revolting company. And my mood just kept improving.



Christmas came and went, together with a quite frank speech from a concerned boyfriend who gently but firmly crossed every T and dotted every I. So I faced the new year with a strong decision: Stop complaining, stop the bleeding wounds, stop the heartaches... just STOP.

January 1st finds me in the Gompa, resolutely doing prostrations, cough or no cough, pain or no pain. I continue to ache at different times, when I see little children with their mothers for example, or see pictures of smiling little girls. I still miss my mom and my heart goes out to my best friend every single day. But the point is not to deny these emotions. The point is to accept they are there and go on. The point is, when you find yourself to be the very bad horse, you get inspired and try harder.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A joke

As I check my email rapidly - I don't have much time, I am in the translation booth and the topic is quite technical, no time to waste on Facebook and other timewasting devices... (yet here I am, ok...) Anyways, I open my email and find the strangest email ever. A Catholic group has my name in their mailing list and have been sending regular emails lately. Today I got two, and the last one makes me smile.

They are kindly letting me know that someone died and are now inviting me to messes, I assume, I didn't finish reading the thing before I deleted it. I am not smiling because someone died, although death happens all the time and shouldn't be considered so gravely when you are sure the soul will go to heaven. I guess the possibility of hell is to blame for all the solemnity. Anyway, what was funny was the wording of the email. Apparently the departed was someone's grandfather, someone they call "Consecrated". It was literally something like this: Our consecrated jane doe's grand father has died, please join our prayers, bla, bla bla...

It might not even be funny. I guess what I am laughing at in the end is how completely crazy this sounds to me, personally. And how these crazy things were completely out of my head after just a few months in Europe as a resident of the Pure Land, following my lama with my sangha all over central Europe, and later living in a Buddhist Center in Budapest.

I had forgotten what it was like to live in a country where there is no Church-Government separation (except on paper, somewhere on the Constitution), since the church has the power to collect biology books from all schools because there is chapter speaking of masturbation and homosexuality (the horror!!!), and also condemns AIDS awareness programs if condoms are distributed. Please understand I am not trying to offend anybody, I do not consider these things to be either good or bad, these are simply facts. This is a country where all presentable people are either Catholics or Protestants, where many carry a bible under the arm and are able to accurately quote from it, and where Buddhism is just a word, and not a well understood one.

I am not complaining or condemning. Just stating the fact. To be cool in this country, my young teenage daughter considers it necessary to participate in a Catholic youth group, however in disagreement she may be with the general dogmas of the Catholic church. She is my daughter, and has grown-up watching me meditate and practice Yoga, two practices heavily condemned by the Catholic church. She is inevitably a product of my meditation and has been brought-up to have a broad mind where she can understand and accept others, be empathetic and open. What I wish for her is a culture where you don't need religious affiliations to be cool, where you are free to believe and think what you want.

Freedom is a good thing.