December 22, 2006

Dazed & Confused

I’m so confused. Things have been falling apart at work all week and I’m been racking my brain for some way to figure things out. I ask myself “What would the Buddha do?” but that doesn’t really help me because the Buddha wouldn’t have ended up in this situation in the first place and I don’t know what he’d do anyway. I try to apply the teachings I’ve learned about ego and attachment and deep listening. When I’m starting to get too upset I remind myself nirvana is now and it really can’t be all that bad. I’m just too attached. I sit and I breath and I simmer. I haven’t been this stirred up in a long, long time and I need to find my calm. Before being Buddhist I would have retreated, escaped, ignored the problem until it went away. First of all, I’m pretty sure that won’t work, and second, that doesn’t seem in keeping with the dharma.

My boss got a new job, a great job, and we were all simultaneously happy for her and panicking for ourselves. She wanted to stay on in some capacity on our project, but her last day came without an answer from her own boss and there was a time of limbo. We didn’t know if she’d ever be back, but we all hoped.

In the meantime, her boss starts chatting me up. My boss had spoken very highly of me to her and now she wants to know “Where do I want to take the project?” No amount of caveats about my own lack of knowledge or experience and no references to my boss, who designed the project, could put her off. Truth be told, I always have my own opinions and rarely see any harm in voicing them. I’m prepared to be wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t count on others being prepared to know I am frequently wrong.

So, I tell her where I want to take the project. Off the cuff and with no real forethought or preparation or research. There really was only one answer given my limited and single-sided experience and education, but she loved it. We were right in sync, which was a little disconcerting, but it is always nice to be appreciated.

Time passes. My boss is still out there in limbo, in touch, but out of the day to day operations and maybe never coming back. The semester comes to an ear-shattering, unsatisfactory close. I go on vacation for a week. The last day of work before I leave, my boss’s boss wanted to have another discussion. “How do I see the project being run?” I am assuming this is in the absence or only minimal involvement of my former boss. I know no one could replace her depth of knowledge and experience. So I propose two graduate assistants to co-lead the project, each with a certain area of expertise and each with overlapping responsibilities to make up for the fact that neither would be available full time. Good, wonderful, she nods and nods.

The first day back at work, I’m late. I mistimed the bus schedules. I’m flustered and still suffering from a little surreal culture-shock between my vacation spot and my ‘real world.’ Immediately I have a meeting with my boss, who’s somehow back on board, though the details are still fuzzy, and my team. She “puts her foot down.”

I’m trying to change her project, take it in a direction it should NOT go, morph it into something totally different – which I honestly never had in mind. I just wanted to expand the follow up on the back end. Though I started in May, through circumstances beyond anyone’s control and with no blame anywhere, I never got a thorough briefing on all the theories, models, and goals behind the design and intent of the project. I finally get that lecture. I am grateful for it, and the knowledge was interesting and important, just what I was trying to learn on my own all this time. But the longer and longer it went on, the more and more I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing. The more incompetent I became. All the stresses and anxieties and competency issues which had run rampant all semester came crashing down and here I was crying all over the middle of our strategy meeting. Which is silly because I was still glad to have it all explained to me and could have listened to my boss talk for another three hours and still been interested.

But now I’m stuck. I’ve laid down this direction in which my boss’s boss wants me to go, and truthfully, I would like to go there myself. But I don’t know how and I know I’m not qualified. In the meantime, if I want to go there, my boss wants to be totally divorced from the project. I don’t see it as a whole separate project, but she does, and I can understand her logic. Which means, if I go with it, I’m off her team and out on my own totally unsupported trying to run a mythical project which will go exactly nowhere without the cooperation of her project feeding into it.

So, I keep working, under her supervision and scared to death that I’ll open my big mouth and chop off the limb I’ve found myself on. But at the same time, I’m hoping she’ll come around. I truly don’t understand why she seem to think this project, my project as it has become, is so dangerous. Why is she so threatened? I could just chalk it up to ego and attachment and all those other pesky human vices, but I really don’t think that is it. Of course, as often happens in any disagreement, I just think if she understood what I was trying to do, she’d see it’s not that big of a deal. It seems to me like a logical extension, one which just hasn’t gotten the attention it needed in the past two years when they were trying to get the initial, more important parts of the project working. So I keep sawing away at the limb, hoping she’ll ‘get it.’ All the time knowing that if one of us doesn’t ‘get it,’ it’s a hundred times more likely to be me. Maybe even if she doesn’t get it she’ll at least come up with a better way to explain it so I get it.

No, I’m not to mention it any more. I just makes her angry and the one thing I can’t stand is for people to be angry with me. She’s the only sounding board I’ve got, so now I’m really stuck. Her boss is no real help, even though she’s the one who got me into this mess, in cahoots with my big mouth. What the hell am I supposed to do? I’m so afraid I’ve destroyed all the good opinions she ever had about me and created all kinds of problems with just two simple little brainstorming conversations I never really thought could do much harm. I honestly, never even thought there’d be another ‘project’ since I’m more used to things not working out more than I am to finding a receptive audience. I dream big and I know it and I’m okay when those dreams stay dreams. Now someone has actually asked me to make one real and I have no idea how to do that and the one person I was counting on to help is mad at me.

Deep breath.

I’m taking council of my fears. Never a wise move. What I have is an opportunity. I can learn and grow. My boss is still there for me, still my friend, but there are limits to every friendship. No one has infinite time and energy to give, including me. We’ve all been stretching ourselves thin lately. I know deep down I’ll be okay. I’ll manage somehow; I always do. I’ve gained greater insights into myself, my relationships with other people, my connections to the world around me. If anything, this is a lesson in emptiness and non-self, those two most difficult of Buddhist concepts. I do not exist independently and cannot act in a vacuum.

I just have to be brave enough to grab these opportunities with both hands and I can’t do that when I am clinging to someone else with one of them.

December 21, 2006

Refuge - As It Happened

The week after Thanksgiving a Tibetan teacher, Khen Rimpoche, was in Lincoln and I was able to take official vows of refuge. Carla called to give me the address at which he was staying, a furnished apartment normally let to business travelers just across from the clubhouse where the sangha meets. I was to come on Wednesday evening after dinner to take refuge. I was early, as usual, and waited in my car ten minutes because I did not want to be rude and interrupt. I found the apartment and went in through the patio door, as Carla had instructed.

Sure enough, sitting in an overstuffed chair in the living room was a Tibetan monk, complete with dark red robes, yellow sash, and mala. I had never met a Rimpoche before, or any monk or nun in any religious tradition for that mater. He smiled and bid me with a gesture to take my shoes and coat to the entrance. Two other members of my sangha were already waiting on the couch.

When I returned, he held out his hand and I gave him mine, which he clasped between the two of his. I was not sure what the etiquette was for greeting him, so I smiled and said hello and sat in the other chair. He asked my name and what it meant. Monica, I told him, meaning ‘patience’, derived from a French name. Soon Carla arrived and we took seats on the four cushions on the floor in front of his chair. He stood and rearranged his robe, and then hunted for another pillow for his chair before folding himself into it cross-legged. He seemed as unused to a chair as we were to the floor. There was a little box set up like a tiny alter on the end table next to his chair with a little doll-like Buddha made of cloth and an offering of fruit and water.

Then began the talk, and I strained to understand through his accent, though his English was good. After a few minutes, I was listening better. At first his talk seemed to ramble, covering topics I had not heard about before in relation to refuge. He spoke of the Buddha and his four qualities, the Dharma, our two opportunities (internal and external and their various types), the Sangha, the four benefits of taking refuge, and many other things which I have already forgotten. I should see if I can look it up on the internet so I can commit it to memory because it is important.

Then he led us through our vows, first explaining them in English, then showing us how to bow three times to the Buddha and three times to him as the teacher, hands held together at head, mouth, and heart before kneeling. He gave me and Donna Tibetan names. Me he called Tsetan Dolkar and spelled it so I would not forget. Then he slowly spoke, with us faltering in our repetition, through the Tibetan words syllable by syllable of our vows of refuge, repeated three times.

When this was done, he returned again to the topics he had covered earlier and I shifted nervously. There was a pregnant pause when he waited for us to fill in the four qualities of the Buddha. I wished he had told us there would be a test! I was concentrating to make out the words through his accent, and I hadn’t tried to commit the content to memory. Between the four of us, we managed to do alright.

By the time the ‘official’ stuff was finished, I was very cold from sitting right next to the patio door, and very stiff and pained from trying to sit up straight on a cushion on the floor. But I was happy. Rimpoche gave each of us a white ‘kata’ scarf and a little red string blessed by the Dalai Lama, which he tied around our necks. He also gave us a picture of himself with the Dalai Lama. I understand having photos of one’s teacher for one’s shrine is important in Tibetan Buddhism, even though it seems odd to me as a Westerner. Dean, from the sangha had brought his camera and set it up to take a photograph. We rearranged some furniture and the girls squeezed onto the couch with Rimpoche. Dean pushed the delay button and sat on the floor before us. I hope the picture turned out okay, though I’ve not seen it yet.

We fetched out coats and hats and prepared to leave. I stopped to ask Rimpoche what Tsetan Dolkar meant. Tsetan means ‘long lived’ and it sounds like a fairly standard name. I had heard it mentioned as part of Rimpoche’s full name. He gave it to Donna as well and Carla already had Tsetan included in her Tibetan name. Dolkar meant ‘white Tara,’ Tara being the chief (and only, I think) female bodhisattva, or deity/saint, in the Tibetan cannon. He said she stood for liberation. We made our farewells and stopped briefly outside to confirm that we would see each other at the public lecture on Friday.

I was, and am, happy and grateful to have received such teaching and I only wish I could remember it all.

December 12, 2006


What happens when there are no answers? When there are no precedents, no scripts, no etiquette? It is like hitting a wall. A big white wall, with no doors, windows, or signs. My mind draws a total blank. The monkey is finally quiet, struck dumb and sitting in a corner.

This is what happens when one introverted intellectual encounters another introverted intellectual. I always felt I should end up with an extrovert, because I need to be drawn out. I can’t carry the bulk of a conversation, or take the initiative in matters of romance. Trying to do so is unnatural and tiring. So what happens instead? If possible I find myself drawn to the male mirror image of me.

Okay, not exactly, that would be creepy, but close enough. Somehow we manage to talk, cautiously skirting the issues we really want to talk about, and finally managing to get around to what we really want to say one way or another. Plenty of heavy sighs and nervous giggles to go around. And we both seem to be thinking the same things. We are both staring at the same white wall. And we both know it.

When we finally reach frustration, at almost exactly the same time, and take the initiative – great, wonderful, fun, what a relief. And then I run away, because that’s what I’m good at. It didn’t feel like running away. It felt right and good. I know danger when I see it and I also know when to stop.

But now I’m left staring at this same white wall and wondering if I’ll be able to keep the stupid grin off my face at dinner tonight in the very public dining hall.

December 10, 2006

The Moment

It has been a good day, a day just for today, not yesterday and not tomorrow, a rare day. I read. I painted. I hiked. I enjoyed every moment. And yes, the sky seemed brighter and the air fresher. I returned to the dining hall after my hike and fetched my latest issue of Tricycle and opened it to page 33, “What’s So Great About Now?” by Cynthia Thatcher.

“It’s true that strong concentration can seem to intensify colors, sounds, and so forth. But concentration alone doesn’t lead to insight or awakening. To say that mindfulness makes the winter sky more sublime, or the act of doing the dished an exercise in wonder, chafes at the First Noble Truth.

“This myth points to a misunderstanding of the role of mindfulness. Mindfulness, accompanied by clear comprehension, differs from ordinary awareness. Rather than seeing the conventional features of object more clearly, mindfulness goes beyond them to perceive something quite specific – the ultimate characteristic common to all formations, good or bad. There are only three of these: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-selfness. (Note that beauty isn’t among them.) Mindfully noting mental and physical phenomena, we learn that they arise only to pass away. In the deepest sense, we cannot manipulate or actually own them. These traits are unwelcome – unsatisfactory. So the more mindfulness one has, the clearer dukkha becomes.” –Cynthia writes.

So you mean the more I pay attention the more suffering I see? The more I witness the First Noble Truth which states life is suffering? Well, thanks for bursting my bubble, lady. And here I was quite happy being mindful of my sublime winter sky.

But wait, just a sec! So the first hallmark of existence is impermanence, and because things are impermanent we find them unsatisfactory, forgetting all about the third hallmark, non-self, for a moment. What if we see the impermanence but we don’t mind? What if the impermanence doesn’t equate with dissatisfaction? Perhaps a thing could even be satisfactory because of its transience? I have questions and concerns about the author’s interpretation, but as I read further I understand the point and I feel less and less petulant.

“So, rather than frantically looking for loopholes in the teachings, isn’t it wiser to accept that mindfulness won’t make the plum any sweeter or the kettle any brighter? But here’s the hopeful part – the more we practice mindfulness, the less we’ll care about sweetness or brightness…This is not numb indifference but true liberation. We’ll have learned the great secret that nonattachment is a lightness and freedom complete in itself, separate from the impressions pouring in through the sense-doors.

“…Then let us be mindful, not to imbue the pan of suds with a fabricated beauty, but for the reason the Buddha intended: to see the distress of clinging until we behold the plum – nibbana. [nirvana]” –She concludes.

I see the wisdom of this as a path to nirvana, but it makes me wonder what her understanding of the nature of nirvana is. I have always taken a delight in understanding that nirvana is now. All that separates us from it is an ability to see it clearly, without grasping, aversion, or delusion – all of which mindfulness is to help eradicate. Nirvana does not suffer from the three hallmarks of existence, it is permanent, satisfactory, and, well, whatever the antonym of non-self is (the most difficult concept to understand) though I know it’s not self. Very strange, that.

To be able to find nirvana in every moment if through mindfulness we see only dukkha, suffering, in every moment seems counter-intuitive.

December 09, 2006

Going Home by Leaving Home

I have arrived. Things are different and things are very much the same. Like returning to your parent’s home after your Mom has rearranged the furniture. It is still home. There is snow on the ground here, though the sun is shining brightly and melting it. The feeling of belonging is uncanny. Every step of the way, the little Amtrak station in Lincoln, big Union Station in Denver, the little coffee shop with the Buddha in the window where I like to have breakfast, the bus to DIA, the shuttle to Fort Collins, and down the twisting dirt road to the front gate, the feeling of coming home grew stronger. Shambhala, I’m back.

The trip was probably as good as it has ever been. I took Marilyn’s advice and swallowed half a Dramamine before boarding the train and slept better than ever before. I still woke several times as I got stiff crunched down across two seats and body parts fell asleep, but I was able to role over and drop right back off. I am not so tired today, though I can feel the lack of oxygen dragging on me a bit.

It is the middle of the afternoon, and quiet here as everyone goes about their tasks. Already I have seen a few familiar faces and exchanged a few hugs and hellos. The lodge feels mostly empty. Next week winter dathün, a month long meditation retreat, will be starting and this place will fill up. I have not participated in a dathün, and though I have been advised it is a wonderful thing, I still regard the entire concept with a wary skepticism. At least as far as the possibility of my participation in one exists, though I can see how others may enjoy it, I think it will be a long time before I join in the doing of nothing on such a large scale.

Even the smell of this place is familiar. The smell of the outdoors, of the lodge, the dining hall, the registration building. It is said that smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory. Which I find odd considering humans have such comparatively poor noses.

I wonder that it shouldn’t tell me something that this place seems so comforting while the places I am every day, school and work, can seem so awkward at times.

December 07, 2006

Coming Out Buddhist

The day before Thanksgiving, I “came out” to my parents as a Buddhist and a vegetarian. I had been dropping plenty of hints – the books I carry around with me and casually leave sitting on the end table, the two Buddhist magazines I still have sent to my parents house left over from the summer I lived with them two years ago, the mala I wear every day, my choice of vacation destination, not to mention numerous Buddhist references in our conversations over the past three years. I think they had their heads in the sand.

I told them I was Buddhist and that a senior Buddhist teacher was coming into town and I was going to take official vows. I told them I abide by the five precepts and that includes not killing or harming of humans and animals, therefore, I’m vegetarian. I also told them I don’t expect anyone to go out of their way because I’m vegetarian and we don’t have to tell Grandma Del. After listening with that blank look on her face, my mother promptly changed the subject. The only response was an agreement not to tell Grandma an brief “You better not expect me to cook vegetarian because I don’t know how.” Which is really just silly, because she hardly cooks anyway and it’s not that different from any other cooking.

My Dad is coming around. He asked a few questions the next day and teased me a bit. He wanted to know if that meant I was celibate. I told him no such luck since I’m not a nun, just a lay Buddhist. I have a feeling this is going to be another one of those topics of non-discussion with my mother. I can live with that. I suppose they see it as just one more odd thing to add to the list of their odd daughter. They didn't try to talk me out of it, but then I think Dad never felt inclined to talk me out of anything and Mom gave up a long time ago.

Inside, I'm still the dissapointed little girl who wants her Mom to take an interest, but mostly I'm happy that they are accepting of me for who I am.