Friday, December 14, 2012

traumatic grief

Today a horrible tragedy occurred when a young man with two guns shot and killed approximately 30 people, many of them children, at an elementary school in Newton, CT.  Police have named the suspect, who is himself now dead, as Ryan Lanza.  I'm sure the media will inform us about who he is over the coming days, and for the moment we can only speculate about his motivation for committing such a negative deed.  We can and should also reach out to those who have lost loved ones to this horrific act of violence. 

The death of a child is never easy because whether or not it is expected, it runs counter to the expectations of our support systems.  Parents are supposed to die before their children.  And we mentally and socially prepare for the deaths of our loved ones as they age.  We don't typically prepare for the deaths of children unless that situation arises, and our social networks aren't typically set up to support grieving for children. 

The loss of a child becomes much harder to bear when the death is unexpected and/or violent.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross articulated a theory of stages of grief in relation to loss in her 1969 classic On Death and Dying.  A person is supposed to move in time through denial, anger, bargaining, despair/depression, and eventually to acceptance.  This process can become arrested in the face of an overwhelming loss due to traumatic circumstances such as today's.  When someone is intimately affected by such a shock and loss, their nervous system goes into survival mode curtailing the process of healthy grieving in order to get through immediate events. 

I hope that those most directly affected are able to connect with mental health services and disaster response.  I have quite a bit of confidence in EMDR's Recent Traumatic Events Protocol as well as the effects of treating traumatized children with Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy including its supplement for traumatic grief. 

It is terror to imagine children being killed and witnessing killing.  Other than organizing for direct response in order to provide appropriate mental health services to the survivors and families, I think one of the best responses is to offer metta--real loving-kindness.  May they be safe; may they be happy; may they be strong; may they live with ease.

I was an elementary school teacher for DC Public schools during the DC sniper's reign of terror.  Someone called in a suspicious person on a nearby roof, which led to several 4th grader's puppy piled in a corner with me, while I anxiously read them stories for almost two hours while waiting for the "all-clear".

No one among us has not experienced overwhelming fear.  Likewise most of us have experienced moments of overwhelming anger and confusion.  Whether the killer was suffering from the type of extreme alienation (first described in modern psychological terms by Karen Horney) or acute mental illness (Melanie Klein's schizoid position), he was having a hellish human experience that led to the murder of children.  The easiest way to widen the gap between our own state of mind and the mindstates that lead to violence is to practice kindness and clarity. 

Start easy and direct your love towards the surviving children.  They need it.  May they feel safe.  Give it also to family members of survivors and victims.  May they feel strong.  Add others as you can.  The first responders: May they feel content and strong. The police and public officials: May they live with ease

The perpetrator will probably be harder.  Keep in mind that he once was a little baby to his caretakers.  At some point along the way he became oppressed by mindstates that led to a combined lack of clarity and kindness so sever that he could take the lives of children. And whatever the circumstances, he did what he did in order to attain something that would put him more at ease.  May he be released from affliction

If you're not there yet, don't sweat it.  Give yourself some metta.  May I feel safe; may I feel happy; may I feel strong; may I live with ease.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Here are some photos of a scarf I wove in the Zen style of Saori:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Metta in the Spirit of Zen

Metta is a wonderful practice and a wonderful mindstate.  The act of blessing or making an aspiration for someone or ourselves is powerful.  And I'd like to make a point about metta that I haven't yet written about on this blog: metta is not a practice about making things nice

Metta as a practice is radical: it is radical in its openness; it is radical in its clarity; and it is radical in its scope(links jump down)

When we practice metta as a formal practice daily, we bring to the practice our state of mind however it appears in that moment that we sit down and then moment after moment afterwards.  Whether or not we feel open in any given moment, it is a practice of opening up.  We practice dropping our agenda and conventional thoughts towards the object of metta (whomever we have chosen to be the recipient).  Whether the person has slighted us or nurtured us or both, we direct our kindness and openness to them.  And whether we are practicing by chanting Kwanseum Bosal, or by reciting Om Mani Peme Hung, or by repeating phrases such as "May he feel safe", etc., we direct as much kindness as we can without getting caught by thoughts about the relationship. 

Dipa Ma- the great meditation master of the late 20th century was known to say on several occasions to say that metta practice and vipassana were not different.  The latter refines attention and directs it at certain phenomena until it becomes perfectly clear that while the car may be turning this way and that way, there's no one at the wheel.  As a correlate, the deep realization of not-self necessitates an appreciation for how a feeling of self is created from moment to moment as an attempt to  use an agenda to get comfortable. 

In metta practice, the order is a bit reversed.  We practice dropping the agenda as we direct metta towards whomever, and as we feel resistence to doing so, our agendas become crystal clear.  This is not a grueling practice, when done mindfully.  Metta itself creates a feeling of mental space in which things can arise clearly.  And in that clarity, all the ways we resist what is happening in the moment become very clear.  This is a very different state of affairs than how someone might imagine filling the mind with love.  And while blissful states of samadhi can arise from this practice, my experience of this practice is that it creates a sort of reflexive equanimity. May you be well, and you, and you, and you.  No exceptions.  And when that equanimity doesn't arise, it's like putting a big neon sign on whatever is causing resistance.  It can be uncomfortable, but that's really the fruit of practice- to be able to give attention to what requires it.  Clarity is a boon.

A scary realization can ocurr when a practitioner just begins to really give himself or herself over to the formal practice of metta. I experienced it as a child might feel when he has to apologize to someone and admit that he was wrong.  In this case what was brought to the surface for me was the recognition that I have nothing to lose by others being happy.  For years I thought I knew that to be true and believed it. I didn't think I was a phony. I mean, I had over the course of many years of practice gotten into the habit of wishing others well, wishing for freedom from whatever binds them.  I'm not suggesting that my previous years of practice and its effects were only skin deep, so much as I realized that they were conditional.  Finicky, even!  Metta brought home for me again and again how I imagine myself to be unhappy if a certain other becomes happy.  It's a little coo-coo, but metta's radical scope (metta for all!) exposed some faulty core beliefs.

My Tibetan teacher has said something in the same vein when he has talked about how peaceful deities and their practices are much more necessary these days than wrathful ones.  Wrathful deities can bring energy, and powerful compassion, and quick decisive action.  But according to him, people can get caught up in ego trips relating to intensity and peak experiences, and sensory stimulation (so much blood! so many flames!).  He says that peaceful deities by contrast accomplish the same goals through a different type of intensity: the intensity of unwavering love and compassion for all beings, even for all phenomena, and not as a trip but as simply an essential quality of their own being.  The unwavering aspect can be quite daunting as can be the bit about no exceptions.  Really thwarts the attempts at wiggling away.

I've never really thought about metta in the spirit of Zen before today.  What I mean by metta in the spirit of Zen is the practice of metta without even a goal or agenda for the practice.  Practicing metta simply as an expression of who we are in each moment of practice.  In this way, all the yanas are united.  A Theravadan practice takes on the Zen spirit of no path, no goal, no gain and arrives at what might be conceived of in tantric terms as a sort of purity or dignity.  These latter descriptors are without reference and not opposed to impure or undignified, and yet they point to an energetic state being able to relax into the state of things being just as they are.

So my advice is to please practice metta with as much kindness and clarity as you can. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Anathapindikovada Sutta

At the suggestion of a trusted elder, I've been acquainting myself with the connections between the Heart Sutra and the Instructions to Anathapindika Sutta**.  The sutra is comprised of Shariputra's instructions to the dying benefactor Anathapindika. 

It's pretty incredible as a bridge between schools of Buddhism both 1) in its essential message and method that it could be said to share with the Heart Sutra, and 2) the end of the narrative (see links) wherein Anathapindika uses his dying words to suggest that there are lay followers who should hear the highest teachings because they can actualize them even without becoming monastics. 

Here are some highlights (abridged by me, translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Deep Listening II

Here's the audio from this past weekend's meeting of Queer Sangha, where Rev. Do'an and I speak about deep listening.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Deep Listening

It's been too long, friend. Strange and hard and wonderful things have happened in my life since the last post. I've continued to enjoy the honeymoon period with my love, and consequently I've been working on being the best partner I can be and also thinking about what that means. I've had a bout of my recurrent illness, and I was in the hospital for a week. I've been recovering well, and I'm grateful to have health insurance and a job that gives me sick leave for this sort of thing. My birthday, and my mom's birthday, and mother's day have come and gone. And I recently learned to weave and to make simple backstrap looms.

I haven't had much contact with my Zen teacher lately due to my illness/recovery and circumstances affecting our schedules, and I miss him. He has a wonderful way of balancing the iconoclasm and freshness of Zen with Truths as they are presented in other Buddhist traditions in ways that are not in conflict. For example, I sometimes feel tension between the viewpoint of Zen schools that have stopped even talking about enlightenment or the four noble truths and teachings about liberation as they are presented in other Zen schools and lineages of Buddhism. I can eek out a point of view in which there is no conflict, but he does it with much more ease. I know there are benefits to both ways of looking at things, but easily fall into a mindset that necessitates choosing one approach or the other, whereas he sees them as not different.

Yesterday, my Dharma brother Rev. Lawrence Do'an Grecco and I gave a Dharma talk on deep listening to the Queer Sangha for which we teach. I'm sure he'll throw a link up to the audio in the next few days, so check back. It was a wonderful thing to reflect on. I was inspired to suggest it as a topic by a chapter on listening in Norman Zoketsu Fischer's book Taking our Places; a Buddhist path to truly growing up. I highly recommend this book and Normal Fischer in general.

I'm also looking forward to meeting someone I've been interested in for some time and with whom I seem to share much in common: Barry Magid- psychoanalyst and one of the Dharma-heirs of Charlotte Joko Beck. We're going to get coffee later this week.

I've been taking this time lately to pull back from some commitments and to do some deep listening inwardly and with some nears and dears. I think this may be what this season is about for me. I will try to post more often though

Monday, March 19, 2012

Poppy in the Graveyard; Getting to know Avatamsaka teachings

I have never loved someone the way I love you
I have never seen a smile like yours
And if you grow up to be king, or clown, or pauper
I will say you are my favorite one in town
I have never held a hand so soft and sacred
When I hear you laugh, I know heaven’s key
And when I grow to be a poppy in the graveyard
I will send you all my love upon the breeze
And if the breeze won’t blow your way, I will be the sun
And if the sun won’t shine your way, I will be the rain
And if the rain won’t wash away all your aches and pains
I will find some other way to tell you you’re okay

The Avatamsaka Sutra (Chin. Hua Yen Jing, Eng. "Flower Garland Discourse")is an enormous Mahayana Sutra. One English translation wraps up at well over 1,000 pages. Though it's an Indian work, it had its hayday and largest influence in China in the 600s-800s thanks to adepts like Fazang who were able to plumb and communicate its depths. It describes a cosmology of infinite realms, each interpenetrating and containing the other.

This song by My Brightest Diamond reminded me of the way these teachings were explained to me by my Zen teacher: There is a beautiful sun in the sky. The sun evaporates water below, which forms clouds. The clouds fall as rain. The rain and sun nourishes grass. Cows eat the grass and see with the sunlight. The cows make milk. The farmer collects milk and processes it. He sells it to people who make ice cream. They sell it to a little boy. The little boy eats it on a hot day, and he smiles. His smile contains the sun and all the other factors. His smile IS the sun, and also many other things. The sun is also the little boy and his smile, and grass, and cows, etc.

I have thoughts about how this idea might enable us to live happier lives by perceiving reality in a different way, but before I write a post about it, I'd love to read your comments about what you might take from such an idea.