“But that doesn’t make it okay…”

Cloe Ridgway via Unsplash

Just before leaving the house this morning, I flipped open a book by Pema Chodron that I’ve been slowly reading.  I specify slowly because it’s a breakdown of an eighth-century text called The Way of the Bodhisattva by the Buddhist sage Shantideva, and most of it takes some time to process.  I usually have to be in either a very concentrated or spiritually depleted mood to focus on the densely packed text–and then take a bit and walk around with it throughout the day.

Well, this morning, I was the latter of those two–spiritually (and in this case, physically) depleted.  As I hoped, the book’s message was exactly what I needed to read in that moment.  Not only did Shantideva talk about the damaging and purposeless effects of self-resentment, but I was also reminded of Pema’s tonglen meditation method–or, the process of breathing in someone else’s vices, and breathing out peace.  In this practice, you are fully experiencing someone else’s anger, hatred, confusion; recognizing it in your self; and breathing out peace for both parties. It got me thinking about a dilemma I’ve had during this rough time.

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It’s Been 10 Days

Just a heads up that this is not going to be a normal post.  I honestly just need to rant, and writing privately for myself is not doing it for me right now.  I have woken up every day since the 8th angry and deeply, deeply worried.  Even hearing people managing to go on with their days sends me into a personal fury, and I am still at a loss of how to move on without rage.

I’ve heard the whole, “This is how the other side felt when Obama won.”  Well, here’s the thing about that.  My fear is based in the idea that people (including myself) will lose their rights.  Fear of Obama was based in racism.  Even if people were unaware of this deep-seated bias, all their vocalized fears can be traced back to the fact that a portion of the country does not trust a non-white man to make intelligent and caring decisions.

I’m currently struggling with the difference between intent and impact.  I have always been a blind believer that intent is by far the most important thing, and that we must find a way to have ultimate compassion for those who act with the intention of genuinely doing good for themselves and those around them.  But the past ten days have truly made me realize that choosing not to recognize our impact hurts others, and for this, I am losing patience.  As someone who has studied Buddhism inside my bubble of suburban peace, I am lost on how to build the discipline to have empathy for those who could threaten the lives of literally millions of people around the world.

As usual though, my Buddhist studies are helping me work through the pile of garbage that has been the past two weeks.  First off, let’s talk about:

Ignorance and fixation on strength.  One of our largest challenges as human beings is seeing the world without lenses and biases.  It has become our nature in the Western world to believe there are only two sides of things, right and wrong, good and evil, democratic and republican.  We often ignore balance and, strangely enough, see the idea of balance as weak.  And heaven forbid if anyone calls us weak!  It’s like we’re a country of Biffs from Back to the Future, waiting for someone to call us yellow so we can unleash our wrath of Facebook vitriol to prove them wrong and show the world how strong we are.

We’ve only just passed Mental Health Awareness week, and already we are judging ways that people are choosing to cope with this legitimately frightening occurrence.  As someone who has spent large amounts of energy and many years managing my anxiety, I recognize projection.  When someone online calls another person weak or whiny, it’s because they are not at peace with their own confidence and mental wellness.

Anyway, lenses.  I have them, you have them, the Dalai Lama has them.  If we didn’t, we’d all be perfect, enlightened beings and wouldn’t need to be on earth anymore.  These lenses fog up and misdirect ideas and information around us.  The issue has become so extreme that false news stories are actually shifting the results of world-altering decisions.  Our job in the coming months is to remove these lenses, and to challenge others to remove theirs.  We should not give others our lenses, but instead, actively seek out the truth–actively seek out what we would still see if we were wearing neither side’s biases.

Obsession with Winning.  We have been taught, through our myths and fairy tales, through our religions, through our schools, through our superhero movies, that good wins and evil loses.  The whole week, all I’ve seen is “You’ve lost, get over it.” It comes from this mindset that the world through their biased lens has prevailed, and that peace and certainty will be restored to their unstable lives.  “Before” was bad, and “now” is good.  They chose their hero, ignored any words against his qualifications to be a hero, and fought for his victory.  Now that they believe they have “won,” they are confused by those around them looking outside of winning and losing.  They think we’re upset about losing a race, they think we wanted the trophy.  No, we don’t want the trophy, we want everyone to have the freedom to safely live their damn lives.  We want everyone to feel supported by our country’s system and to feel equal to someone they pass in the street.  Because, guess what?  We are equal, we just aren’t treated as so.  It’s not about winning, it’s simply about living and having the option to work and thrive.

Levels of Awareness.  When you’re driving in your car and someone cuts you off, what’s your first response?  I flail my arms and usually scream something like, “What is wrong with you?”  I see others do it all over town.  I am, quite literally, seeing the world in my small bubble of awareness.  I am protected there.  I then get to work and talk to my coworkers, talk to my husband online, and occasionally hear from my family and college friends through email or on the phone.  This is my medium bubble of awareness, and I want to protect this bubble.  Both Bubble One and Bubble Two feels within my control.  For some people, this is where their world ends.  They only have these two sections, and seeing outside of this world feels daunting and confusing.

Then there’s Bubble Three: everyone else, both in time and space.  People from America both now and 100 years ago, people from Australia, from Pakistan, etc. You get the idea:  not you and not your personal circle.  This circle most likely will not come to you, you have to go there yourself.  For me, I read constantly, if I’m busy, there are audiobooks.  I listen to podcasts, I read blogs, I read articles across political lines, across country lines.  I don’t get locked into one job for too many years at a time.  I work in theatre–a job that constantly pushes you outside both small levels of awareness.  I study religions other than the one I was raised on.  And hey!  I am not wealthy.  I am also not an Ivy-League educated person.  I do have extreme, extreme privilege, however, and I recognize that.  I am also still incredibly ignorant to so many things.  But, these are my weapons against staying safe inside my small levels of protected awareness.

When the bubble breaks.  I always felt a little different from my childhood friends because I was forced to see the outside world when I was very young.  It was obvious to me the moment my house was broke into that my small level of awareness was not all that existed.  Illness can also be something that breaks this myth.  On the other side of the spectrum, really amazing surprises like winning the lottery or getting hired for an incredible job can break this bubble as well.  They are all reminders that you are part of a larger world.  But without an occurrence like this, or without the push to seek out the environment outside yourself, what happens to someone?

It’s sadly clear that many people choose to only protect and defend their space, oppose to reaching out and learning about the greater world.  They build walls, they buy guns, they erect a fortress of fearful beliefs.  They keep themselves locked in a tower. Now suddenly, all these tower dwellers have felt that they’ve won, that their tower will be protected.  No one is going to force them to look outside their bubble anymore.  Hooray!  What these people don’t realize, is that by hiding, they are perpetuating the idea that those without the privilege of a protective bubble will be stripped of their rights as citizens.

But tower dwellers are not just rustbelt Republicans.  When I get really low, my bubble shrinks.  I often literally feel like the space around me is getting smaller.  I lose motivation to read, to reach out, to find new career opportunities.  I want to hide inside my personal space and protect myself from anything that will challenge me to come out of it.  I develop what, psychologically, is known as learned helplessness.  I begin to accept that I will always be in my small bubble, and nothing will bring me out of it.

This is what I see when someone tells me they are unwilling to see outside their own views.  I see the pattern of learned helplessness–the acceptance that what they know is all they can ever know.  Their small bubble is protective and perfect and strong, and the large bubble of the world only wants to threaten that, to destroy it.

But this week, I am watching their fear, and using it to become more aware of my own.  I am not helpless, and neither are you.  This past week has allowed me to feel justified in my anger, in my fight.  I got over my fear of writing to representatives and electors, I got over my fear of defending my choices online.  I got over the fear of reaching out to friends with opposing views and trying to gently start a difficult conversation.  And I am so uncomfortable. I feel terrible.  And you know what?  Good.  It’s really good I feel terrible.  If I didn’t, I would still be going on long walks and thinking lofty thoughts about my plans for next summer.  I would still be assuming that Obama’s beautiful presidency had actually calmed the racist fears of many Americans too afraid to see their weaknesses.

I’d rather feel terrible now than later find out I had spent my life living in ignorance.

Day 20: The Day I Became a Catholic Buddhist

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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Traditionally, I was raised in a rather predictable Catholic fashion.  Until we moved in 1998, I went to Catholic school, memorized the textbooks, participated in the school’s morning group prayers, and went to church with my family on most Sundays.  I didn’t understand that there was an option to believe anything otherwise.  Every Catholic kid from our church was introduced to the religion in the best possible way, through a caring man named Father Charles Hudson.  He told stories in a conversational, calming tone, he spoke to the whole audience, he preached kindly and collaboratively about other religions, he invited other spiritual groups to Mass–he was an open-minded, inspirational dude that left the world quite suddenly at the age of 61 after a heart attack.  He was known for his extensive list of humanitarian work, founding a hospice center, and creating inspiration tapes for the ill.  My mom said that you couldn’t get near the church for the funeral, it was so packed that people spilled out into the parking lot.

I was lucky that when all the anger brewed up in me later in life, when the broken politics of the church sent me running from Christianity, I had people like Father Hudson (and awesome Catholics like my grandmother) to remind me it wasn’t all bad, there were those that rose above the ulterior motives of the outdated system.  However, I took a sharp left turn in high school, when the community surrounding my hometown church went against any teachings of the religion.  To me, this group of parents acted like a special club for those with outwardly “perfect” lives, and only those that followed the rules were welcome to socialize with the grade-A Catholics of the town.

And so, after a fateful trip to a bookstore one afternoon, I found Buddhism instead.  I was at that age when everyone seemed to be finding Eastern religion, but the snooty comments thrown my way about being a part of a “typical and predictable” trend, only pushed me father away from what felt like a bitter Western tradition that was losing members by the day.  Buddhism simply made the world seem clearer.  Instead of focusing of accruing good deeds to be given good fortune, you are encouraged to revel in the discomfort of pain and confusion–these were the challenges that helped you grow into a more caring person.  Fear and sadness were nothing to blame yourself for, they were emotions recognized as passing clouds that, in the meantime, could bring you closer to understanding someone else’s suffering. Continue reading

The Buddhist Actor and the Audition

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The Mental Life Cycle of an Audition

If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past 20-some years of acting, it’s the twisted, complex labyrinth of psychological grief I embark upon each time I lock down an audition.

Step one: What a cool opportunity, I’m not going to get hooked on the idea of getting the role, it’s just great to go. Yay me.

Step two (approximately an hour later): Great!  I have officially figured out all the logistics of how to schedule/travel for this role if I get in the show, but totally won’t count my chickens before they hatch.  If I don’t get it, that’s cool too.

Step three: Irrational confidence/justification stage: It’s a small theatre in a small town so I bet they won’t get that many women and I know that guy through that lady who I think is stage managing so I feel really good about this one.  Also, I’m now obsessed with the character.

Step four (the night before): Maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe this is dumb and it would stress me out to go anyway.  They have other people who would be perfect for it, and I’m really not feeling prepared.  Also, I’m totally getting sick.

Step five: The audition waiting room: Everyone knows each other but me. They’ve all apparently been working constantly.  I’m gonna sit here and stress over the weird shoes I’m wearing.

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Public Journal in Peterborough

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Today is the first day in months, many months, when I find myself sitting in a town where I’ve never been, with nothing to do and no one to see.  I didn’t have to plan anyone’s hotel, their car, the food.  I could head up to our rental house right now and lay on the porch all afternoon and no one would know or care. No one would call or email, or ask me to just “do them a quick favor.” Right now, I sit in a large renovated mill-turned-coffee brewery and have no intention of moving anytime soon.  There’s no fancy dinner to arrange, no museums to visit, no prime-time beach time to take advantage of.  There’s just a room full of coffee beans and the view of a small dam and waterfall.

Some guy on NPR was recently talking about the three pillars of happiness in modern American society: a fulfilling relationship, financial security, and a sense of purpose.  Apparently if you have those three, everything falls into place and you have nothing to complain about. Well, I can confidently say those three things have been relatively solid for the past year, and I have been anything but at peace with the world.  I am grateful for all the wonderful things we have in our lives, very very grateful.  But I am also definitely not the first person to discover that “playing the game” of society will not necessarily bring you fulfillment.  The passionate drive to collect: money, furniture, resume additions, and above all–actions of purpose, have been long overshadowing my ability to step back and try to remember who I wanted to be before I jumped on necessary the “collecting game” with everyone else. My long things-to-do list may make me look like a proper contributor to society, but I drag through my list with frustration and coldness, slowly becoming another artist who became too busy to create anything.

Perhaps ironically, I find myself in the beautiful town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, the town where Thorton Wilder wrote and set Our Town.  I did this show my senior year of high school when my personal and family life was disastrously falling apart.  My pillar of predictability, my main source of joy, was the option to return to Grover’s Corners every afternoon after school, and marvel in the beauty of the world I had overlooked as Emily Webb. The beautiful simplicity of life is lost on the townspeople engulfed in its details, its day-to-day predictability.

In a way, by moving to Montclair and stepping back from the obsessive pursuit of an acting career that seems to want very little to do with me, I hoped to find this simple daily schedule that reminded me to appreciate the mundane, the calm.  This is a concept I definitely never had growing up.  After years of emotional roller coasters and endless family hurdles, all I wanted was to be like some of my friends and live a life in my own personal Our Town.

So where am I going with this? I’ve realized in the past several months that I’ve been seeking simplicity and clarity in the wrong place. By moving toward a life that our society deems as predictable and fulfilling, I have settled in a place of “making the best of things.” No, I don’t enjoy being an assistant, and yes I have a hard time feeling like I spend 75% of my day working toward nothing other than a paycheck, but what is the alternative?  The crazy, frustrating, and financially stressful life I had before when I was auditioning?  If I am run by the amount of money needed to maintain my life–a life that frustrates me–then maybe the answer is needing less, is requiring less money.  Instead of making more, needing less.

My recently enhanced studies of Buddhism have reminded me that the things we desperately pursue are the root of our suffering, of our discomfort, and our disconnection with reality: even when it comes to things like chasing an artistic goal. The more you chase, the bigger the idea grows, and that harder it is to reach. Your bank account never looks big enough, your promotion never sounds high enough, your acting resume is never up to par with everyone else.  You’re never quite there. And all the while, here you are, missing it.

For the past two to three months, I’ve had a recurring and undiagnosed health issue that makes me feel like I have the flu every couple weeks and achy and uncomfortable every day in between. It could be any number of things, and hopefully I’ll know more soon, but as of now, it feels like my body is fighting back against my obsession with “making the best of things.” I don’t actually want to collect.  I don’t need to be rich, to have a long or impressive acting resume, or be considered the best darn personal assistant in my school. All I really hope for is a place to sit by a river, in a simple town with friendly faces full of artists who want to create something. I’m not sure how to get there yet: this mysterious “there.” But I do know that letting go of the ladder climbing is part of it. In my opinion, the artistic game is broken, and becoming more and more for the wealthy, and only the wealthy.  So the only way I see around this is by cutting down the things I purchase, collect, and obsessively seek.  This is the first step toward this elusive, perhaps unattainable freedom, that I wouldn’t have to “make the best of.”

In the Pema Chödrön book I’m currently reading, she provides a beautiful image to help with meditation.  She said that a person who meditates without expectation of enlightenment is often compared to the image of an older person sitting on the beach and watching their grandchildren play in the sand.  They have reached a point in their lives when they no longer feel they are supposed to pursue something, to reach some socially acceptable career goal.  They simply sit and enjoy the happiness and enthusiasm of those around them, and through this, are truly present. This is the state of mind, the freedom, that I seek before hitting the age when everyone tells me I’m supposed to retire from the practice of collecting things.  To be present with the beauty around me and add to it the best I can.  How to reach this, to break the rules of how our artistic society is set up, is another story.  I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m relieved to be able to articulate it.

Well I’m out of coffee. And now there’s an antique shop with a bird on the sign that is calling my name.  Thanks for reading to my ramblings and happy weekend.

The Buddhist Actor

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Last week, I had a rare opportunity to sit in on a Taoist workshop lead by the head of the Chinese Taoism Society, Master Meng Zhiling.  I knew very little going in about Taoist culture and beliefs, only that they would be a great complement to my Buddhist studies (and helpful toward my goal of sitting and meditating for more than 10 minutes at a time without deciding the clean the living room).

During the second workshop, Master Meng spoke specifically about breath and meditation, focusing on body position and the role of Chi. In a nutshell:

  • Shoulders relaxed and down
  • Breath is focused three inches below your belly button
  • Spine and neck are in line
  • Head is lifted but not tense (like a basket on a string!)
  • Overall, you should feel physically light and balanced
  • This practice takes time and patience, since we most likely have been breathing differently all our lives

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Our Guilt Isn’t Getting Us Anywhere

Creative Commons via Unsplash

Creative Commons via Unsplash

Several months ago, I wrote an article for Offbeat Home about trying to make it through a yoga practice without stopping to clean up balls of cat hair floating by my face. Even though I’m still working on making peace with my occasionally fuzzy home, I still have issues meditating in the morning without glaring around the room in horror at all the papers out of place or sneaky dust piles that crept up over night.  It wasn’t until this morning that I recognized this feeling as guilt.  To my surprise, I feel guilty about dust, and somehow, about pretty much everything else.

Here’s my own cycle of guilt, in a nutshell:  It’s dusty in here because I don’t clean enough, I don’t clean enough because I’m balancing two careers at once, I’m balancing two careers at once because my primary career has yet to be financially sustaining, it would be financially sustaining if I were more talented.  The guilty accusations go round and round and round.  Substitute other life issues–family trouble, relationship bumps, money issues–and you have my brain on any given day.

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When Mainstream Advice Doesn’t Do It for You

I have a love-hate relationship with social media and blogging that fluctuates daily.  On the one hand, this community of 24-hour connection–whether you’re in a dense city packed to the gills with crowds, or in a Midwest office surrounded by prairies–can be a true gift.  It spreads ideas, it encourages opinionated discussions, and it allows for people to “stay” in your life, long after you’ve started hiking down a different path.  All good stuff.  Hooray interwebs.

It can also be incredibly alienating at times.  For the past several months in particular, I’ve been finding that the inspirational “go-get-’em-champ” part of the internet has been causing me to squish my face into a bitter twisted scowl, paired with an annoyed eye roll.

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A bit like this.

Stock photos of women standing on cliffs doing yoga with a superimposed text misusing Joseph Campbell’s “Follow Your Bliss” quote, don’t really do it for me.  It never has.  Honestly, they just make me nervous because I’m not particularly fond of heights.

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The Three Voices of Anxiety

A few years back, a very kind coworker of mine surprisingly blurted out that he thought anxiety was made up.  It was pretty shocking, since this person was a great listener and all around pretty understanding guy.  But in his experience, he simply “didn’t understand why people did it to themselves.”  It got me thinking.  I always assumed that those who didn’t understand the physical realities of anxiety were self-centered, unsympathetic jerk-faces.  But here was a friend of mine, whom I deeply respected, suddenly saying that he thought worrying was a choice.

That day, it hit me that some people genuinely do not experience the cycle of worry that some of us have faced ever since we found out that we could get lost in the grocery store when we were five.  I have spent the better part of my teenage and twenty-somethng years diving into the different approaches to address anxiety.  I am happy to say it no longer runs my life, even though it is still very present.  The major difference is that I have learned to recognize the funny little battle that goes on in my mind each time I make a decision or face a new experience out in the real world.

I can never speak for anyone else’ experience with anxiety, since we are all such special worrisome snowflakes, so it would be unfair to say that this is everyone’s process.  And yet, these are the three characters I have become deeply familiar with over my years.

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