Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Lengthy Treatise on Self-Relieved and Self-Inflicted Misery

I lately began and finished Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit, about the dissolution of her marriage, the final years of her drinking, and her getting sober and finding not only God but religion, and not only religion but Catholicism. She has lived a colorful, vivid life and has a voice to match, so it might be worthwhile to read Lit to enjoy her prose. On the other hand, she can say in one paragraph that a certain person never smiles, and two paragraphs later that this same person smiled at her, so which is true? Or go on and on about being unaccomplished and undereducated and refer vaguely to a teaching position which turns out to be at Harvard: Something does not add up and, after a hundred pages or so of this, a flavor of disingenuousness creeps in, unwelcome in a memoir, though not as bad as Augusten Burroughs’ “memoirs,” which to me are unreadable. Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was superb, and that I wholeheartedly recommend.

When I was feeling gloomy several weeks ago, I temporarily put aside Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and reread Ezra Bayda’s Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. It was his first book and maybe not quite as gracefully written as his later three books (he also has a book with just a few words on each page, excerpts from his other books; you could use it as a daily reminder), but it contains all the suggestions that have been so helpful to me: to notice what we’re thinking and believing, and to reside as often as possible in our actual, physical experience. Despite the title, it’s not at all “Buddhist,” not canonical or dogmatic. I don’t think the word “Buddha” even appears in it. It’s simple, clear, utterly practical advice, and it was very helpful to read the whole thing again.

Now I’m back to Joseph Goldstein’s book and find that it has had an improving effect on my life practice. I’ve taken to noticing my posture, observing explicitly to myself that I am sitting, or standing, or lying down, this being one of the many, many things we might choose to notice, as detailed in Joseph’s comprehensive volume, which definitely is canonical. I also often inquire, “What is my attitude of mind?” Generally one is looking for grasping or aversion, expressed in whatever terms are helpful. At this moment, is my mind accepting, opposed, rigid, open?

This has more or less eliminated my problem with my new neighbors, at least when I remember to employ this approach. Before, I would often drift off into resentful ruminations, or cover up the ill feelings with rationalizations (“Why, I’m sure they’re very nice people, when it comes right down to it!”), or misuse metta. Lovingkindness practice may or may not result in friendly feelings at a given moment. Since it’s a form of purification practice, it can bring up the opposite. It may bring up rage and grief. My understanding is that, since we create our worlds with our minds, and our minds are malleable, it’s valuable to nudge our minds in the direction of openness and kindness. But when it came to my new neighbors, I was using metta practice to lard over the feelings I didn’t want to feel, the ill will and negative judgments.

Lately I pass a new building full of condos for the wealthy and think, “I’m riding my bike and what is my attitude of mind? Aversive. Hard. Rejecting.” The act of bringing mindful attention to what is happening often makes the feelings themselves vanish, though that is not the goal. I’m seeking to act in as constructive a manner as possible, and I am convinced that trying to see clearly what is going on is more constructive than the techniques described above. Yet it so happens that when the feeling is observed rather than taken as truth, its underpinnings are gone and it can’t persist. Plus, being back in reality is refreshing and inherently satisfying.

Then, if that doesn’t do the trick, not meaning that I still feel resentful or upset or whatever, but meaning that I’m still getting pulled into the story, I apply a little Ezra Bayda: “What am I thinking? What thoughts am I believing? What do I feel entitled to?” I note my thoughts explicitly, in the form “Having the thought that … ” and also note what it is that I feel entitled to: Having the thought that these people are wrecking my neighborhood. I feel entitled to having the people around me behave as I see fit. I feel entitled to my neighborhood being the way I want. I feel entitled to not having my neighborhood change.

And, finally, Bayda’s question, “What is this?” This is a reminder to notice exactly what is happening physically and to rest our attention there.

Oh! That reminds me of a little story about entitlement. At my grocery store, Rainbow, the bicycle racks have been arranged so that not all can actually be used at the same time, so I’m always happy when I get there and find an outside spot free. A couple of people have trailers attached to their bikes, and one fellow has a massive red front-of-bike cart, in which he transports his children, to whom he speaks in both English and in some other language. This rig obviously cost a pretty penny, and I have formed the probably unfair judgment that he’s the cyclist equivalent of a BMW driver: rich, arrogant, pushing his children to excel from the moment they’re born so they can also be rich and arrogant one day. That’s why the two languages, so they’ll have a leg up on everyone else when they get to kindergarten. Again, probably not the case at all.

I stopped by Rainbow Thursday afternoon to pick up some rice crackers and found there were only a couple of other bicycles parked at the racks, and both outside spots were free, along with nearly every other spot. Lately a sign has appeared above the racks asking that the outside spaces be left free to accommodate bikes with trailers, and just as I was locking up, this fellow came along, talking to his children in Language 2. He stopped, stared, and asked if I’d use a different spot. I was opening my mouth to say, “Oh, sure,” when I realized I didn’t really feel like it, so I said, “I think I’m going to stay here. Looks like you have plenty of options.” Which he did.

Aghast, he was silent for an aggrieved moment, and then asked, “Can you read that sign?” This was rather rude, implying as it did that I may not have the ability to understand the simple words on the sign (unlike his bilingual, at least, children), but I ignored that and said, “Yes, I’ve read it, and I’ve decided to stay here. Looks like you have plenty of options.”

He said, “Thanks for blah blah blah” and set about parking his massive vehicle. I don’t know what he was thanking me for, since I tuned it out and made no further remark, but it was obviously sarcastic, since what he really wanted to say was, “I hate you! I hate you! I hope you get cancer!”

Because, despite having plenty of room to park his bicycle and cart, he felt entitled to that outside space, and all the more so because there’s a sign saying so. One can easily see why he felt entitled to that space, and therefore disgruntled. In his case, he then also felt entitled to be rude, which not everyone would. It probably wrecked his entire evening, which he probably spent thinking of cutting things he would have said to me if he’d thought of them in time. (How do I know this? Psychic! Or from doing it myself a million times.) Actually, I think he was thanking me for my “commitment to the environment,” or something like that. Evidently shopping for groceries by bicycle indicates gross disregard for future generations if not accompanied by speedy acquiescence to the requests of those whose much greater concern for the environment is demonstrated by their much larger conveyances.

Anyway, he could have proceeded accordingly and been done with the whole thing in five minutes:

Now what’s happening? What is my posture? I’m arriving at the bike racks. I’m standing up. I’ve asked this person to move, per the sign.

What is my attitude of mind? Angry!

What do I feel entitled to? I feel entitled to an outside space. I feel entitled to having other people obey the sign. I feel entitled to enough space for my bike and cart. I feel entitled to other people saying yes to my reasonable requests.

What is this? There’s a knot in my stomach. My jaw is clenched. My hands are tense.

Had he kept his attention on his visceral experience—which, for all I know, is exactly what he did do—the whole thing would have been history in no time. Which is why I didn’t feel bad about saying no. I could see he didn’t like it, but I didn’t harm him, and I could see he was the author of his own misery. The more entitlement, the more misery.
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