Friday, August 28, 2015

Final Chaplaincy Class

Hammett’s thyroid medication, which is applied to his ear morning and night in the form of gel, seems to have set him right. As of two months ago (yes, I’ve fallen woefully behind here) he had gained back 44 percent of the weight he’d lost, and his thyroid is completely normal again, also his kidneys. For a while there, I could easily feel the bones in his little spine, but not any more, and he seems calm and happy. Weirdly, he’s producing a lot more fur than he ever has before. I could go months without combing him for the first many years of his life, but now he generates a big clump of hair weekly.

In early July my final chaplaincy class at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City met. At our yummy potluck lunch, I sat next to one of our teachers, who asked if I plan to continue with chaplaincy. I told him I have decided not to, as I don’t want to learn about a lot of different religions. He mildly said that wasn’t necessarily required—if a hospital patient needs a priest, you fetch a priest, though he immediately followed that by saying there are a number of things non-priests can do in a pinch, such as baptisms. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to do. Instead, I’ll continue to be a stealth chaplain at the soup kitchen and in life.

Generally, it’s my custom to start things and then drop out, but at our first class, we did a ritual where we wrote down a word that expressed our biggest challenge in completing the course and gave the pieces of paper to our teachers, who promised to make our difficulties magically disappear. My word was “fickleness” and their magic worked. I feel great about having completed the entire class, including attending every session, turning in every writing assignment on time, completing the requested 100 hours of volunteering, and reading every word of the book assignments—I appear to have been the only student who did this. I also read every word of the online assignments until the final month, excluding five or six extremely long and scholarly articles. In some months, there were 15 or 20 things to read online.

They’ve been teaching this class for several years now and the teachers said that ours was the only group to date that didn’t have someone drop out mid-course. I gather it was also the first group that had the kind of brouhaha we did, over the evidently racist remark. Every one of us hung in there through that whole process, and we emerged with good feeling all around. It seems that that difficulty actually cemented us together. However we felt at different times, none of us left the room.

This class was a tremendous experience—I will never forget my wonderful fellow students—and what I learned comes in handy every day. At a recent Thomas House potluck, I was sitting next to a woman who has been through quite a number of difficult experiences in the past year, as has her husband, and I listened in the way that has now become familiar to me. Afterward, she said something like, “Thank you for listening to me so kindly, with such caring and patience.” I wasn’t seeking a compliment, and I also wasn’t particularly trying to be kind, caring or patient, though I suppose that’s better than trying to be mean, heartless and hurried. I was listening to every word and also tracking my own visceral experience, so that I remained present; that’s all. I didn’t give advice, but now and then, I said “That sounds awful” or “You have been through a lot.”

Periodically Mission Dharma offers an introduction to insight meditation class, taught by two senior students. Earlier in the summer, Howie invited me to co-teach one of these classes for the first time. It met in the church’s library on five consecutive Thursday nights. Anne and I had 15 people sign up, plus a few on the waiting list, though after the first night’s full house, about eight people showed up weekly, not always the same eight.

I gave talks on mindfulness, the five hindrances, and the Noble Eightfold Path. In between, Anne gave talks on the Four Noble Truths and on metta. I wrote my talks out word for word, though I tried to deliver them without staring at the piece of paper. These were my first official dharma talks ever, and I figured they wouldn’t be the world’s best talks, but decided that if one person heard one helpful thing, that would be good enough, and the feedback I got indicates that was the case. In addition, I myself benefited tremendously from having to rethink what I believe and understand, and then having to research to fill in the gaps.

I most often consulted Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein, which is an absolutely splendid book. Getting to give these talks was also an opportunity to pass on my favorite quotes from various dharma books and teachers, gleaned over these 25 years.

A friend asked why writing the talks was so helpful to me. This is how I answered her:

I had managed to get along without thinking often of the first thing the Buddha taught after his own enlightenment: The Four Noble Truths. 1) There is suffering in life: sickness, old age, death, not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want. 2) Suffering has causes: grasping and aversion, to employ the most commonly used terms—trying to get something, trying to get something to go away—and ignorance: not seeing clearly how things are, or seeing how things are but not understanding them. 3) If suffering has causes, then there must be an end to suffering. 4) The path to the end of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right View: Understanding the first three noble truths.

Right Thought: Inclining toward thoughts of good will rather than thoughts of ill will or grasping.

Right Speech: That which is true, kind, useful, timely.

Right Action: Not physically harming living beings, not stealing, not causing harm with our sexuality.

Right Livelihood: Not causing harm with our work.

Right Effort: Encouraging wholesome (e.g., kind or generous) states of mind to arise and persist; discouraging unwholesome states of mind from arising; once an unwholesome state of mind has arisen, encouraging it not to persist.

Right Mindfulness: Mindfulness of the sort that leads to understanding.

Right Concentration: The steadying of the mind that comes from practicing mindfulness which, besides being calming and pleasant in and of itself, allows the sustained observation (mindfulness) that leads to insight, which is what ultimately liberates us from suffering, not our efforts to get rid of suffering.

Suffering: Besides what is listed above for the First Noble Truth, the very states of grasping and aversion themselves and the effects of the speech and action that can arise from these mental states. And that’s what fell into place while writing my three talks.

I thought all the time about mindfulness and of course tried to be mindful, but didn’t think enough about the causes of suffering, let alone about the Noble Eightfold Path. Now I am reminding myself frequently: grasping causes suffering. Aversion causes suffering. In fact, grasping is suffering, and aversion is suffering.


Dw said...

Wonderful. I checked in to see if you'd written anything new and sure enough.. and so timely, as I'll be leading the next class for Mission Dharma. Great insights!

Bug Walk said...

Thank you, Dw, and I hope your experience teaching the next class will be as fruitful as my experience was!