Thursday, May 27, 2010

Addiction... Path to enlightenment! No, Really

I have been using tobacco (Copenhagen specifically) since I began serving in the Army about 15 years ago. The Oh-My-Buddha! early mornings, unit PT on top of the 2 hours of "extra PT" I put myself through, combined with my wife's pregnancy, new children, etc etc, I grasped for my crutch, anything to keep me alert for another hour or two.

When I left the Army and got a "real-job," I continued with this learned habit.  I used rationalizations similar to the ones described above, and further more ramped up my intake of alcoholic beverages.   I was like a hungry ghost, looking for the wrong fuel to keep a nuclear chain reaction of work-sleep-work going for as long as possible.  I made myself impervious to my "soft" civilian co-workers' disgusted looks as I spit brown crap out of my mouth.  Alcohol, combined with "Crackenhagen" is a potent combination resulting in a dangerous cycle of consumption.  The more I dipped, the more I could drink, and the more I drank, the more I wanted to dip.  Since I loved both, and honestly believed that no-one suffered as a result of my behavior, yay for me!  Party-on.

Alcohol was the first to go.  I took the Bodhisattva vows and have been working on how to apply them in life and through my job.  I always believed in physical fitness as a gateway to better living, but after taking the vows and studying them, I realized that in order to save beings, I had to be strong, both physically and mentally.  One look in the mirror was all it took for reality to hit.  I had allowed alcohol into my body and it wreaked havoc.  How could I presume to be a protector of all beings and still be forty pounds overweight?  Since I really had no physical dependency on beer, leaving it behind was more like burying a beloved pet.  It would be tough for a little while, but I could get past it.  The precept to abstain from intoxicating substances used to make me laugh a little.  Now, after of month without even a sip of wine,  every aspect of my life has improved.  I've lost fifteen pounds and am getting back into great shape.  I no longer lose days to headaches and hangovers.  I sleep a hell of a lot better.  Meditation practice has gotten much much deeper, and I'm better able to face all the challenges of the day with equanimity. I'm not laughing at the precept now :)

The tobacco however,  wow.  How many tries, how many times?  I've tried a number of times to quit.  I've done cold turkey, gum, even drugs.  In the end I always fell off the wagon.  Yesterday, as I saw, really saw with Buddha mind, my youngest son.  In a flash of light all at once I realized that in poisoning myself with tobacco, I was also poisoning my children.  Every time my kids saw me pack a can, or spit into a cup, they got the message that "this is what grown men do"  Over and over and over again.

To be continued...

So, it's been about a  week without tobacco.  Here are my observations:  Mindfulness training has helped a great deal.  Cravings inevitably appeared.  By observing them arise, acknowledging their existence and letting them go their own way, I have been needing to concentrate very deeply, often while doing things like driving, reading, teaching working out.  Cravings have become a mindfulness bell... Thank you craving :)

One Month Later...

It's no big deal, but I fell of the wagon this week.  In my weakest moments,  "the wagon"  reminds of the corpse wagon in Montey Python's Holy Grail, and I feel like the guy saying : I'm not Dead Yet."  In my attempts over the years to master myself, I have learned a few things.

1.  Being angry with one's own failure's is counterproductive. It only reinforces attachment to craving and quitting.

2.  Cravings get worse as time goes on, not easier, but one's ability to cope with them gets better.  This leads to a tenuous balance, like walking a razor's edge between craving and release. Only constant meditation keeps one from falling over.  The more consistent the meditation, the easier it is to resist nicotine cravings.  This time, I found less time to meditate and as a result, became unbalanced.

3.  Once one succumbs, the way out again is to go through the quitting ritual again, without judgment.

4. Repeat as necessary.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Crescent Moon Bear.

THERE ONCE WAS a young woman who lived in a fragrant pine forest. Her husband was away fighting in a war for many years. When finally he was released from duty, he trudged home in a most foul mood. He refused to enter the house, for he had become used to sleeping on stones. He kept to himself and stayed in the forest day and night.

His young wife was so excited when she learned her husband was coming home at last. She cooked and shopped and shopped and cooked and made dishes and dishes and bowls and bowls of tasty white soybean curd and three kinds of fish, and three kinds of seaweed, and rice sprinkled with red pepper, and nice cold prawns, big and orange.

Smiling shyly, she carried the food to the woods and knelt beside her war-weary husband and offered to him the beautiful food she had prepared. But he sprang to his feet and kicked the trays over so that the bean curd spilled, the fish jumped into the air, the seaweed and rice spilled into the dirt, and the big orange prawns rolled down the path.

“Leave me alone!” he roared, and turned his back on her. He became so enraged she was frightened of him. And finally, in desperation, she found her way to the cave of the healer who lived outside the village.

“My husband has been badly injured in the war,” the wife said. “He rages continuously and eats nothing. He wishes to stay outside and will not live with me as before. Can you give me a potion that will make him loving and gentle once again?”

The healer assured her, “This I can do for you, but I need a special ingredient. Unfortunately, I am all out of hair from the crescent moon bear. So you must climb the mountain, find the black bear, and bring me back a single hair from the crescent moon at its throat. Then I can give you what you need, and life will be good again.”

Some women would have felt daunted by this task. Some women would have thought the entire effort impossible. But not she, for she was a woman who loved. “Oh! I am so grateful,” she said. “It is so good to know that something can be done.”

So she readied for her journey, and the next morning she went out to the mountain. And she sang out “Arigato zaisho,” which is a way of greeting the mountain and saying, “Thank you for letting me climb upon your body.”

She climbed into the foothills where there were boulders like big loaves of bread. She ascended up to a plateau covered with forest. The trees had long draping boughs and leaves that looked like stars.
“Arigato zaisho,” she sang out. This was a way of thanking the trees for lifting their hair so she could pass underneath. And so she found her way through the forest and began to climb again.
It was harder now. The mountain had thorny flowers that seized the hem of her kimono, and rocks that scraped her tiny hands. Strange dark birds flew out at her in the dusk and frightened her. She knew they were ‘muen-botoke’, spirits of the dead who have no relatives, and she sang out her prayers for them: “I will be your relative. I will lay you to rest.”

Still she climbed, for she was a woman who loved. She climbed till she saw snow on the mountain peak. Soon her feet were wet and cold, and she she climbed higher, for she was a woman who loved. A storm began, and the snow blew straight into her eyes and deep into her ears. Blinded, still she climbed higher. And when the snow stopped, the woman sang out “Arigato zaisho,” to thank the winds for ceasing to blind her.

She took shelter in a shallow cave and could barely pull all of herself into it. Though she had a full pack of food, she did not eat, but covered herself in leaves and slept. In the morning, the air was calm and the little green plants even showed through the snow here and there. “Ah,” she thought, “now, for the crescent moon bear.”

She searched all day and near twilight found thick cords of scat and needed to look no farther, for a gigantic black bear lumbered cross the snowfall, leaving behind deep pad and claw marks. The crescent moon bear roared fiercely and entered its den. She reached into her bundle and placed the food she had brought in a bowl. She set the bowl outside the den and ran back to her shelter to hide. The bear smelled the food and came lurching from its den, roaring so loud it shook loose little stones. The bear circled around the food from a distance, sampled the wind many times, then ate the food up in one gulp. The great bear reared up and disappeared into its den.

The next evening the woman did the same, setting the food in the bowl, but this time, instead of returning to her shelter she retreated only halfway. The bear smelled the food, heaved itself itself out of its den, roared to shake the stars from the skies, circled, tested the air very cautiously, but finally gobbled up the food and crawled back into its den. This continued for many nights until one dark blue night the woman felt brave enough to wait even closer to the bear’s den.

She put the food in the bowl outside the den and stood right by the opening. When the bear smelled the food and lumbered out, it saw not only the usual food but a pair of small human feet as well. The bear turned its head sideways and roared so loud it made the bones in the woman’s body hum.
The woman trembled, but stood her ground. The bear hauled itself onto its back legs, smacked its jaws, and roared so that the woman could see right up into the red-and-brown roof of its mouth. But she did not run away. The bear roared even more and put out its arms as though to sieze her, its ten claws hanging like ten long knives over her scalp. The woman shook like a leaf in high wind, but stayed right where she was.

“Oh please, dear bear,” she pleaded, “please, dear bear, I’ve come all this way because I need a cure for my husband.” The bear brought its front paws to earth in a spray of snow and peered into the woman’s frightened face. For a moment, the woman felt she could see entire mountain ranges, valleys, rivers, and villages reflected in the bear’s old, old eyes. A deep peace settled over her, and her trembling ceased.

“Please, dear bear, I’ve been feeding you all these past nights. Could I please have one of the hairs from the crescent moon on your throat?” The bear paused and thought, This little woman would be easy food. Yet suddenly he was filled with pity for her. “It is true,” said the crescent moon bear, “you’ve been good to me. You may have one hair of my hairs. But take it quickly, then leave here and go back to your own.”

The bear raised its great snout so that the white crescent on its throat showed, and the woman could see the strong pulse of the bear’s heart there. The woman put one hand on the bear’s neck, and with her other took hold of a single glossy white hair. Quickly, she pulled it. The bear reared back and cried out as though wounded. And this pain then setlled into annoyed huffs.

“Oh, thank you, crescent moon bear, thank you so much.” The woman bowed and bowed. But the bear growled and lumbered forward a step. It roared at the woman in words she could not understand and yet somehow words she had somehow known all of her life. She turned and fled down the mountain as fast as she could. She ran under the trees with leaves shaped like stars. All the way through she cried “Arigato zaisho,” to thank the trees for lifting their boughs so she could pass. She stumbled over the boulders that looked like big loaves of bread, crying “Arigato zaisho,” to thank the mountain for letting her climb upon its body.

Though her clothes were ragged, her hair askew, her face soiled, she ran down the stone stairs that led to the village, down the dirt road and right through town to its other side, and into the hovel where the healer sat tending the fire.

“Look, look! I have it, I found it, I claimed it, a hair of the crescent moon bear!” cried the young woman.
“Ah good, ” said the healer with a smile. She peered closely at the woman and took the pure white hair and held it out toward the light. She weighed the long hair in one old hand, measured it with one finger, and exclaimed, “Yes! This is an authentic hair from the crescent moon bear.” The suddenly she turned and threw the hair deep into the fire, where it popped and crackled and was consumed in a bright orange flame.

“No!” cried the woman. “What have you done?!”
“Be calm. It is good. All is well,” said the healer. “Remember each step you took to climb the mountain? Remember each step you took to capture the trust of the crescent moon bear? Remember what you saw, what you heard, and what you felt?”

“Yes,” said the woman, “I remember it very well.”

The old healer smiled at her gently and said, “Please now, my daughter, go home with your new understandings and proceed in the same ways with your husband.”

from _Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype_ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD


The wind had been gathering all day and I knew a big system was about to roll through.  I didn't mind though, since my favorite part about any thunderstorm has always been the slow broil of darkening clouds, the coolness of the rising wind, and the smell of rain, the promise of life.  I feel truly united with nature, like a gnat caught in a twisting nether of coffee, about to be consumed, unnoticed, one with the milky blackness, and then one with the body consuming, gone and still eternal.

The rain began its slow probing volleys against my window, taps for a tired mind. I drifted off into slumber.  Then, like 500kg car bomb, a searing brightness ripped through my forehead, pulling behind it the slap of a blast wave and the instant recognition of my own impermanence.  In my mind, I was momentarily a fine pink mist, gently alighting upon my bed, forming a red angel on the sheets.  Again, impermanence blasted me back from formlessness into a body, pulsing, mist returning to blood and bone, my heart echoing the thunder outside.  Duck and cover drill pasted itself on my reflexes, and found only emptiness where a bunker should be.  A grown man, curling up like a fetus, I reached for my wife and pulled her bodhisattva peace into my belly and I entrenched my head between her shoulders, finding life, until the war passed away.

Meditating on this experience, it occurs to me that even still, even after a long and deep immersion in the dharma,
I am still mending, still processing.  What practice has taught me is to respect the process of healing.  I used to feel physical pain at any unexpected loud noise.  It was like getting hit in the head with a sledge hammer.  Over time, these episodes diminished in intensity, and now only appear in space separated by long intervals of time.  I have learned to address them now as bodhisattvas of impermanence, doorways to awakening, like a zen master holding a big stick, they point to my true nature.

With my palms together, I bow three times.