Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cultivating the Heart State

Today I asked myself an important question, one I have been asking almost daily for the past year:  Why is there so much suffering in the world?  Suffering is an epidemic today and society doesn't show any signs of recovery.  My practice of Buddhism explains how the ignorance of reality leads to suffering, and to awaken and find contentment and peace, one needs to meditate, practice mindfulness and understand the reality of cause and effect.  But I wanted to see it in simpler terms, one that even a layperson, without any knowledge of Buddhist Psychology, could understand.  So I started by asking myself, since it is the "heart" that suffers,  what is the heart?

In reality, the heart is just another organ in the body, a mass of tissue flowing with blood, much like the pancreas or the liver.  It keeps us alive through an intricate cycle of electricity and pumping valves.  But when we make statements like, "my heart is breaking" and "open your heart" and "home is where the heart is" and "he has a heart of gold," we are strictly using a symbolic term.  We know this, and yet it feels so real, so physical when we experience euphoria or intense grief, often with an accompanying physical sensation. That sensation is throbbing or heavy or empty or painful and often resonates in the region of the chest.  It stands to reason that we might believe that this is where the physical and the symbolic "heart" live.

But the symbolic "heart" is really not a place or a thing.  It is a state of being.  And I believe that we are all born with an equal capacity to live in that beautiful and natural state on a never-ending daily basis.  I do not believe that mental illness or traumatic experiences or anything can keep us from this state of being once we know it is already here for us in this very moment, simply because we are alive.  We achieve the "state of heart" after we let go of what was or what will be and embrace this moment with gratitude.  We achieve the heart state when we take a deep breath and then drop our facades and fear of someone actually seeing our true selves.  We achieve the heart state when we trust that we are enough, right now, just as we are, perfectly imperfect. There is no better way to be than right at this moment, however we are.

Cultivating the heart state means opening fully, becoming truly vulnerable.  A wonderful, natural side effect of the heart state is compassion and lovingkindness and the ability to continuously stay in that openness even in the face of another person's suffering.  Learning to stay in the face of someone's suffering and be there with them throughout, is a wise and courageous decision because it unravels years and perhaps lifetimes of bad karma (if you believe in that).  That leads to more joy in this life and the next.

Cultivating the heart state means seeing that nobody is alone or separate but one with everything and everybody else.  We are no more different or independent than an apple is independent of the farmer or the soil or the rain or the sunlight that conditioned its existence.  In fact, what elements make us also make the apple.  There is nothing on this earth or in the universe, which is composed of unique ingredients!  We are an interdependent web of life. When we look into the eyes of the another human being, we know this is true. We feel it and yet so many of us pretend that is not true, that somehow our lives are different, special, superior or inferior.  We constantly compare ourselves to each other, longing to create a persona that is uniquely our own.  Why?  What are we afraid of?  What is it that we are trying so desperately to cling to by setting ourselves a part?  Thinking we are or could be separate from others, in terms of ultimate reality, is as deluded as comparing your own face to the reflection in your mirror.  Once we see this is true, gratitude and love naturally arise in us.

Cultivating the heart state doesn't mean always being happy or never feeling sad or angry or worried.  It means not holding onto or running from or pushing away any of it.  It means accepting all of it as part of life, the inevitable pendulum swinging back and forth, from good to bad, from happy to sad, from pleasure to displeasure.  We are human beings and will always, as long as we are alive, feel pleasant or unpleasant feelings.  It is what it means to be sentient. Our bodies/minds perceive, then generate thoughts, sometimes associated with memory, and then accompanying feelings.  But we can decide whether to "react negatively" or "respond positively," whether to resist or accept... and if we accept, we can learn to let go of whatever comes naturally.  Everything changes, and everything comes and goes, whether it is something we want or do not want.

Cultivating the heart state means no longer suppressing what makes life truly wonderful:  Our desire to love and be loved unconditionally.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cultivating Right Speech

I am a passionate being and love, love, love to talk.  In fact, my passion is what makes me a good writer.  I always have something to say!  But this chat-ability has a darker side:  When I am having a conversation, and am especially impassioned about a topic, I fail to take turns speaking, and often interrupt others when they are speaking.  Sometimes it's with a short-lived interjection of "Oh - yes!" or "That's true!"  And sometimes it's an outright and lengthy diatribe of my own that spews out like molten lava from my lips.  Even when I'm aware that this about to happen, I can't seem to control myself.  Watch out, everyone!  She's going to blow!

I also habitually bring the attention back to my own life, how I feel, what I think.  I recently heard this termed as, "self-referential talk."  Yep, that's what I do, as innocent and well-meaning as it seems at the time.  The end result is hurt.  I know how much this hurts my co-conversationalist as it has happened to me, too.  I never want to be the cause of someone's pain.  There is enough pain in the world without me adding more into the mix.  I want to be what one spiritual leader called "safe for others."

And I am an impulsive blurter.  I rush ahead in an effort to "share" and do not always think before I speak.  Just the other day, I am almost certain I offended someone by blurting.  I was not well-acquainted with this person nor could I remember their name, but I knew their spouse.  So I blurted, "Oh, you are John's wife, right?"  In that comment, I discounted her existence as a separate and unique being.  Use your filter, I said to myself, and made an extra effort to get to know her the rest of the afternoon.

So how does a capricious chatterbox learn to overcome these unskillful communication habits?  Well, up until now, I have read umpteen self-help books on the topic of better communication, even took an Inter-personal Communications class at the local community college.  I've approached it from all angles of psychology, thinking that if I could get at the root, the motivation behind my chronic interruptions and overall egocentric listening and speaking habits, I could become an excellent communicator.  But nothing, up until now, has really offered a practical guide for me to follow.

What has helped is all aspects of Buddhism, and especially Right Speech.  This is one of the aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  I've been studying and practicing Buddhism for about a year now, and it has been one blissful revelation after another.  Meditation and Mindfulness and all aspects of Buddhism have helped me become more serene, more compassionate and most importantly, more awake.  Recently, I began to really focus on Right Speech, finding some very helpful, practical advice from the writings and Dharma talks of several Buddhist teachers, most notably, Donald Rothburg and Joseph Goldstein.  I've been listening to pre-recorded Dharma talks via this awesome, free website called Dharma Seed (the site offers talks conducted at numerous Buddhist retreat centers).

Today is my first day of focused Right Speech practice.  For the first week, I am implementing just two of six simple guidelines that Rothburg suggested.  I am about to share them all with you here, because I truly believe we all could be better communicators.   Note that communication is not just speaking but listening.  This is where many of us need practice.  Being better listeners.  One of my books on Buddhism suggested if you want to talk to someone, ask them a question and then listen.  I like that.  When I think about all the wars that could have been prevented, the murders, the divorces, etc., had we been better, more compassionate communicators, it is truly crazy that this subject isn't taught at every level of education, right alongside Math, English and Science.

Our words have power.  We can unite or divide, help or harm, inspire or discourage.  Our words can be the first sentence of someone's sad story.  Or they can be their first ray of sun.

Here are the six guidelines of Right Speech:

1) Be Present.

2) Pause more frequently.

3) Be truthful.

4) Be helpful.

5) Be compassionate (good heart).

6) Be appropriate and timely.

As we practice and become more self-aware (mindfulness comes in handy here) of our own communication style, we should regularly refer back to number three, to "be truthful."  We need to be HONEST with ourselves about all six guidelines.  Are we really being present?  Are we really being truthful?  Are we really being helpful? Everyone likely needs to polish up on one or more of these guidelines, perhaps all six.

Two other facets of Right Speech are "No Gossip" and "No Useless Talk," which Goldstein discusses in great detail in one of his Dharma talks.

"No Gossip" is one that is especially challenging because it does not mean only speaking negatively about another.  No gossip means not speaking of another who is not present, period.  Just try for one day not to speak of another person who is not present nor to engage in this type of conversation brought up by someone else.  It's not that easy.  And yes, this can be necessary in some situations in the real world.  But it is something we can be aware of, limit our frequency and watch our intention when we do it.  We can be careful we do not gossip out of boredom or ill will, however subtle, and ask ourselves -- are the six guidelines still being addressed as I speak, as I listen?

"No Useless Talk" refers to "small talk" that has no other purpose than to pass the time or to fill in the uncomfortable gaps in conversation (we all do it!) is not considered skillful or right speech.  Though the Buddha offered the guideline of "no useless talk" mostly to monastic members, vs. lay people like us, we can all be more mindful of this tendency and use restraint the next time we are tempted to comment about the weather.

I wish you all wonderful communications, today and always.




Monday, August 11, 2014

We Call Ourselves Animal Lovers

We call ourselves animal lovers.  And I see lots of folks who really are.  I am impressed and filled with joy when I see the compassion and generosity that many people have for animals.   But why do people adopt animals and then subject them to cruel and painful procedures that take away the very traits that make them what they are?  I think it's mostly out of ignorance.

Dogs are devocalized. Cats are declawed.  Birds get their wings clipped. And so much more.  Many people still get their pets' tails and ears lopped off because it makes them "more attractive."  How about this?  If you don't want THOSE traits, don't adopt THOSE animals.  Adopt another type of animal or wait until a better time to adopt.  At the very least, become objectively informed about the true nature of these procedures so you can make a compassionate decision.

Dogs bark.  Cats scratch.  Birds fly.  This is the reality we have NO right to change!

 I aim this angry diatribe toward myself, as well as to others who do it.  I had one cat declawed back in 1994, back when very few veterinarians had any qualms about performing such procedures.  This was one of the most abominable things I have ever done. And I have terrible regrets about it still.  I always will.

So why did I have my cat declawed?  It is no excuse -- nor does it even partially absolve me of any bad karma -- but to help you understand my motivation, I will tell you why:  I did it because I was selfish and desperate for love.  My marriage was on the rocks.  And I had always wanted a cat.  But my husband at that time, who was depressed and distant, was vehemently opposed to owning a pet and was afraid that the cat would tear up our apartment. He was very angry with me for bringing this cat home without talking to him about it first. He insisted that I have this surgery done and convinced me that it was harmless (though deep inside I knew better).  We argued for many weeks about this before I finally caved in.
A wonderful thing happened many years later, however.  My ex-husband is now dead set against declawing and I know he regrets it too. And he loved that cat so much that he begged me to let him keep it when we decided to get a divorce. I knew that I had turned him around for life.  He even became a vegetarian!

Everybody suffers, and we all make mistakes. But truly, I think I will pay for that evil deed one day, either in this life or the next. The damage it does to your heart and to the poor cat is immeasurable.

Cat declawing is a tremendously painful and crippling procedure and should not be done under any circumstances. I feel the same way about any unnecessary and painful surgical alteration done to our animals.  There is simply no excuse to slice, bob, clip and amputate bodily parts from our supposedly "beloved pets."  There is no moral justification to do it.

It's been twenty years now, and I have matured, become more compassionate and am in a loving  relationship with my darling husband, David.  We have had four cats and none of them were declawed or ever will be.  It is a beautiful thing to see our cats stretching up to clean their talons on the scratching post (we have four posts distributed throughout the house).  Our cats do fine in our house and are very happy, as are we. There are many ways to train a cat not to damage your home.

And I know there are many ways to train a dog not to bark 24/7.  And who decided that a Cocker Spaniel does NOT look cute with long tails?  Or a Doberman does NOT look cute with floppy ears?  And is cuteness really a justifiable reason for mutilation? Really?  I am not sure about birds, but my guess is there are some tricks to keep them from flying out the window (window screens for one).

Please do yourselves and your animals a favor and become informed about these completely  unnecessary procedures.

Watch "The Paw Project" movie (on YouTube) all about the reality of cat declawing:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNspYhNeHhU





Friday, June 27, 2014

Confidence and Humility

Confidence and humility are good neighbors.  I believe confidence is a good trait to have, but confidence must be present in equal measure to humility or it quickly explodes into arrogance, however subtle.  Confidence is about not trying to be different or better, feeling 100% honest about and secure in who you are and knowing you are "enough."  Humility is the trait that reminds us we are all in the same boat, that we don't need to be in the limelight and can even help others shine because it brings us genuine pleasure.  It's our reminder to reel it in, take a deep breath, wait before you speak, especially about your own accomplishments, experiences or abilities.

I've been confident most of life, at least since I emerged from my cocoon of adolescent "dork-hood."  But humility?  I'm not sure. Certainly I've been humble at times, but the ever-present trait was confidence, sometimes bordering on arrogance.  As I grew up and entered my chosen career, I think I bowed down to the pressures of competition in the workplace, and I became more rigid and stressed, always showing my best side, straining to prove myself so I got the job, the promotion, the pay raise, etc. 

Since I left the "rat race" and began to work from home (although currently on a hiatus from work due to a back and hip injury), there is much less pressure.  There are fewer reasons to try and impress and fewer people in my day-to-day life that I perceive are in need of impressing.  But it's still challenging to let the impressions of others develop organically.  Even now in my much simpler lifestyle, I find myself trying to show off my good side, although in the most subtle ways.  And being more mindful these days, I see this and laugh at myself.  I ask myself, "Why am I doing (this or) that?"

Humility is a character trait that I would like to foster within myself. It's a character trait which I admire most in others, far more than any other.  One of the reasons I married my husband is because he is humble. He had a refreshing light around his heart that attracted me. That light was humility in its purest form.  And though he is confident, he is willing to wait for people to discover his value, rather than foist it upon them.  It's really a beautiful thing.

I look around me and see so many frustrated, stressed out people trying to prove themselves in any given moment with any given person. Trying to be more than what they are, trying to prove themselves, be better, seem better. Trying to prove themselves to their parents, their children, their siblings, their nieces and nephews, their aunts and uncles, their friends, their coworkers, their employers, their neighbors… why is it so important to us to be thought of as competent? Smart? Interesting? Talented? Funny? Brave? Capable? Generous?  Friendly?  Practical?  And the list goes on and on.

We may be smart in one moment and completely stupid in the next. We may possess talents toward one endeavor and lack them completely in another. We may be interesting or funny in one instance and completely boring in the next. Or interesting or funny to one person and make another person fall asleep from disinterest. And that is okay. We are not perfect. We are flawed because we are alive.

It seems to me that we are all so exhausted from trying so hard to be someone that we are not. Why can't we all let our guards down, feel like we are finally enough?  Let people see us for who we are, flaws and idiosyncrasies and all?  I think the world would be more joyous if this were the way we lived.

From this day forward, I am dropping my pretend mantle of perfection.  And the next time someone asks me a question that I don't know the answer to, I will without hesitation say, "I have no clue!"  I may even laugh at my own ignorance.  I may let someone come into my dirty house and not apologize for the mess.  I may listen without interruption to the friend who rambles on and on, simply because she needs to be heard.  I may even let someone arrogant and controlling have the final word, knowing they need that triumph more than me.  I may smile and nod at the next person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store.  I may apologize and assume I miscommunicated the next time someone misunderstands me, rather than get angry that they weren't listening or don't care or all the other silly conclusions we immediately jump to when people don't "get us."  I may keep my mouth shut the next time someone compliments my husband on something I did myself.  I may remain peacefully silent the next time  someone writes Carrie Gunn on an envelope (thinking I changed my name when we married). In retrospect, it's all so self-important, isn't it?  In the grand scheme of things, does any of this really matter?   Will these more positive, humble reactions to things change the course of my life or affect my livelihood?  NO!  In fact, they may add years of bliss to my life.

I am going to make an effort to be a model of humility for others to follow. But even if no one notices, that is okay. Because their praise or acknowledgment is not why I choose to live this way from this day forward. My reason for practicing more humility is this:  FREEDOM.  I am flawed, world!  See me for who I am. I have nothing to prove to you, nothing to prove to anyone or even to myself. I am enough. I am exactly as I should be. And letting go of all my fears, and all my desires to control and grasp and make a good impression on others will give me an absolute freedom and with that, absolute JOY.  


Monday, June 2, 2014


My heart is breaking.  Seriously, my chest is physically aching.

Two Preteen Girls Stab 12-year-old 19 times in Planned Murder Plot

There it is.  Another terrible news story about violence, this time committed by two twelve-year-old girls in Waukesha, WI, a city David and I once called home.  Their schoolmate, another twelve-year-old girl, was lured into a wooded area and brutally stabbed multiple times in an attempt to KILL HER.  The victim very nearly died but is now recovering in the hospital.  Why did this happen?  Why did these young girls do this?  Oh, apparently it was in response to a challenge made by a fictitious character on a website.

What is happening in our society?  Every week I hear another gruesome story like this, sometimes multiple deaths, and so often very young people are holding the murder weapons.  It's bad enough when I hear an adult doing something so atrocious, but when it's someone young I have to wonder -- what happened to the innocent youths of yesterday?  Childhood is supposed to be carefree and fun  and even a little bit gullible, isn't it?  Our parents were there to watch out for us; they could worry about the bad guys while we played in the sandbox.

I truly believe that our disconnected and self-centered society is at least partly to blame.  It seems our young children are footing the bill for the wonderful convenience of modern communication.  Facebook and Twitter and email and internet are all excellent, sometimes convenient communication tools (I'm using it now), but I hear far too many stories of young people AND adults abusing technology, being "plugged in" 24/7, okay, maybe 16/7 to allow for sleep, but that's still too many hours to be plugged in!  And "selfies," obsessively posted every three seconds, are only one example of how superficial and self-centered our society is becoming.

What are we losing by building this kind of society, its heart frozen under voluminous layers and layers of pixels and high-speed data?  Everything!  Indeed, the very characteristics which make us human!  Compassion, patience, love, loyalty, effort, sincerity... those traits have virtually disappeared from our conversations because they cannot be fully exhibited in a few typed out words on a monitor.  They have to be FELT in an embrace, HEARD in a friend's heartbeat, TASTED in someone's tears.

We need more REAL human connections every day, real face-to-face meetings, real hugs, real smiles (vs. smiley icons flashing on our screens).  Please... everyone think about this.

Why not pick a day this week and make it your unplugged day?

Even if it's just this one week.  Do it.  If you are a parent, take your kids' phones and computers for one day, and give them plenty of love and heart-to-heart chats in place of those gadgets.  If you are an employer, set up Email-Free Fridays or have an "Unplugged Employee Picnic" and/or let your employees go home an hour early one day this week and tell them it's for REAL face-to-face family bonding time.  Everyone can do their part!  We can all lead by example.  We can all be unplugged more of the time.  It's a change, but we will discover something far more valuable in its place, real human connection.  The next time you have the urge to "message," "text" or "email" someone, can't you go see them instead or at the very least - make the effort and pick up the phone so you can hear their voice, share their life, breath by breath?

We can do this!!  We all have the power to change our world for the better.  Please, please, please WAKE UP WORLD!

If you agree, I beg you to share this, print it out and hand it to someone you love or better yet, a stranger.  Or if you're still plugged in, repost it with or without your own comments on your FB page and then do something even more meaningful by actually LIVING it from this day forward.   Go talk to someone face-to-face.  Give them a hug.  Give them part of yourself in a real human connection.

I love this video, "Look Up, posted on YouTube.  Really sums things up nicely for me...


Monday, March 31, 2014

Letting Go More and More

Today is a really good day. Some time ago I realized it was time to let go. It was around the time that I first began to study Buddhism. I began to let go of the illusions, see life as it really was, accept my pain and current disability and all the anger that went along with it.  I began to feel FREE.  At that time, I didn't think I could let go any more but today I proved myself wrong. Today I am letting go completely. 

I am writing this to to carve into stone in a sense for as things change, I may lose my way again and need reminded.  I am also writing this to tell my friends who follow me here so that when you see changes in me or notice that I speak differently about this injury or my current life, you do not think I'm giving up. I am not giving up on life, quite the opposite really. I am fully embracing it for the first time in years. Not just a superficial level, but on a deeper level and with complete awareness. It is wonderful!

What I am letting go of is this race I seem to have been on.  I am stopping. I am not rushing ahead or even gazing ahead with expectation toward some elusive and imaginary finish line.  There is nothing for me to complete, no one to fix.  I am letting go of the illusion that I have any control over this injury or my life. That is simply not reality.  

All I can do, need to do, is stop... let go.  And most importantly, be happy and grateful for today.  I realize that my sole purpose today is NOT to get well or to regain my former life. My purpose (and everyone's purpose) is to be happy.  And I can only be happy if I let go. 

I think due to habits and our society, I have viewed this time in my life as a fight. And everyone around me has been rallying to my side, like my own personal cheering section.  The love and encouragement I have felt throughout this recovery process has been immense, and it is partly what helped me get this far.   For that, I thank you!!  Perhaps early on, I needed to fight.  I am not sure.  But I do know that today, fighting is the last thing I should be doing.  Only time and rest will heal my wounds.  

This is not time to fight.  It is time to stop and breathe.  The back and hip injury I experienced in August 2012 is simply cause and effect. It is nature.  From the moment we are born, we begin to die.  And nothing stays the same.  We are always changing and aging.  We feel pain and we feel joy.  But as someone once said, pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. Oh my gosh... I have been suffering for far too long.  And I thought I had all the pieces to the puzzle a few months ago.  I realized today that a big piece was missing.  That piece is how I speak and think about my current life. I was DOING all the right things.  But still inside and with everyone I interacted with, I was looking ahead, wanting to fix myself, forgetting that in the meantime I am wasting TODAY.  In Buddhism, how we behave is important.  But just as important, in fact, in some ways MORE important, is our intention. It is at the basis of how we think, speak and act.

From this day forward, I hope to let go in more than my actions, but in my thoughts and in my conversations.  This will be new to many of you.  So please know it comes from a good place.  A place of self-nurturing, where I need to be now.  And help me let go.  Help me just be here now.

I will continue to make wise choices for my health.  I will continue to stay active, meditate, eat healthy foods, sleep... And my body will heal in it's own time. Meanwhile, the big change will be how I perceive my life now and how I speak of it with my loved ones. I do not want anything more than I have at this moment. I have been given a precious allotment of time while my body heals. And with it, I am enjoying a path of discovery. 

Too often over the past year and a half, I have heard the question, "Are you writing?"  I have also asked myself the question, "when will I write again?" And today, honestly, I am no longer interested in the answer. Honestly. I may never write a single story again. That is the reality. And I'm able to accept it without regret. I also make no excuses.  I have tried and it has been an uphill battle, only causing me more pain and more disability.  I may write again in a year or two.  But for the near future, it is not likely.

What I have been given is precious and wonderful. Time. Wisdom. Enlightenment. I am happy. I am whole.

How could I ask any more of this moment? And even if I could ask for more, it would be pointless. I believe that this time can be useful. It is a time for me to meditate and develop wisdom and listen. Listen not only to my own heart and soul but to the world around me and realize how connected we all are. I know this yet I am still really beginning to feel it. 

Something else occurred to me today.  Perhaps this is not a time for me to write. Perhaps this is not time for me to engage at all, especially with the daily or hourly fervor that I once did, constantly writing or speaking every thought, every dream. No.  I believe this is my time to stop and listen and just BE. And with this time I can grow wisdom and eventually, I hope, give back to the world.  It may be with my writing or it may be via some other vehicle.  I am excited about the prospect of doing that, giving, helping, nurturing someone else.  

So, my friends... I have not given up. I intend to enjoy this time in my life to the fullest, and to not spend another moment regretting or wishing for more or different. 

All I ask of you is that when you see me, try not to see something that is broken and needs to be fixed. I know some of you may want to offer suggestions as to how I can be repaired. But I assure you I am full, complete and perfect just the way I am today. I am in the place I need to be, living the life I need to live in this moment.  I want to speak of other things.  Please talk to me of flowers, of cats, of love, of courage, of freedom, of the environment, of music, of art!  

For the moment, I cannot sit and I cannot drive. This continued injury and pain still limits me in my ability to spend real time with you all. But I can be with you in other ways (phone, email, video chats, letters)... We are truly blessed with so many ways to connect with our loved ones.  And these ways have to be enough for now. I know we will be together again someday when the time is right.

In the meantime, know that I am very happy and well and wish the same for all of you.