Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bike Basks in Admiring Glow

I know the main thing you’re wondering about my retreat is: what kind of mattress did I sleep on? Well, I will tell you! It was very, very firm and it was on a platform, not a box spring.

My back was a little seized up in the morning, but after my customary a.m. bit of qi gong, it was fine for the rest of the day, which was pretty much a miracle, for which I can think of only two possible explanations.

Before I left, I had seen Jack Eiman once, and I have concluded he is a genius at what he does (“manual integrative bodywork”). When I left his office, I swung my leg over my bike seat with considerably greater ease. In ensuing days, I noticed my neck felt better than it had in years, and the crater in my butt where my gluteus medius had gotten mashed was detectably smaller.

Nonetheless, since you can go on retreat feeling perfectly dandy and be in searing agony three days later, I expected to have a tremendous amount of back pain and was utterly astonished that there was none, beyond morning stiffness.

Besides Jack’s ministrations, it may also have been somewhat attributable to the type of practice, concentration rather than vipassana. The latter encourages close investigation of mind and body states, and can have almost an exacerbating effect.

For instance, my cat sitter one year called the retreat’s emergency number to announce that my kitchen faucet had vanished and I was mad at him off and on for days: How should I know what happened to the faucet from 50 miles away, and what could I possibly do about it?

(That turned out to be as nothing compared to how I felt when I got home and saw that Thelonious’s water bowl was dry as a bone and dirty. Stern words were spoken—I’d been gone for four weeks; how often was it like that?—and now that guy and I pretend we don’t see each other when we meet.)

Besides the emotional storms, it is probably almost unheard-of for anyone to be completely free of physical discomfort on a vipassana retreat.

So, why does one volunteer for this? One great thing that can happen is seeing that you can be perfectly happy regardless of the state of your body—your body is unhappy but your mind is not. It’s not pain that makes us unhappy; it’s aversion to pain that makes us unhappy. And this means we (theoretically) can be happy regardless of circumstances.

In contrast, in concentration practice, you pick an object and attend to it exclusively (as best you can) and you don’t investigate anything else. This has the effect of keeping both desire and aversion at bay, which is extremely pleasant, and I’m guessing it may also dampen the perception of physical sensations.

After eating so many vegetables at Spirit Rock, I switched to nothing but cookies, potato chips, ice cream, orange soda and burritos upon returning home, plus I was brooding about my job after my calm-erasing day on Friday, so by this past Sunday, I could barely get out of bed. I had planned to cook a couple of new dishes, but realized they would probably rot in the fridge, and that it would be safer to make a couple of known favorites.

Eventually, I rode my bike over to Rainbow—Dan at Freewheel recently raised the handlebars, which makes it even more comfy to ride—where I ran into Rita L., who was in a very good mood. She came out to the garage with me and admired my bike, and while she was doing that, the guy who often works as garage attendant on Sundays came over and said he also thinks my bike is beautiful; he said he thinks that every week when he sees it.

I bought The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr for someone recently and found it had a new introduction by the author, in which she says all the stories she has heard since publishing her book have taught her that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.

She also mentions a new acquaintance telling her, “You must read The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr,” after which she got to say, “I am Mary Karr.”

I saw Jack Eiman again yesterday—I’ll probably go every two weeks for a time—and, when I got up today, my back was hardly even stiff. I could probably have skipped my morning stretching, but I didn’t. The basic version only takes about two minutes.

Jack told me to walk for twenty minutes last night when I got home, so I called Tom and asked if he could come down for twenty minutes. When we met in the hallway, I said we were going to walk in one direction for ten minutes and then back home. “OK,” he said.

Not, “Why are we going to do that?” “Why for ten minutes?” “I don’t want to go for a walk.” “I can’t; I’m busy eating two pints of Ben & Jerry’s.”

Discussions with the Pale

I’m back from a refreshing week at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. There was much meditating, much napping, and much ingestion of delectable vegetarian fare.

Hammett was very happy to see me when I returned, but also relaxed and cheerful, so I think the cat care lady did a good job, though she does seem to be a tad forgetful, in that when she came over to meet Hammett and get the key, I told her my living room was a shoe-free zone, but before the end of her brief visit, she walked into the living room in her shoes.

The day before I left for my retreat, I heard what sounded like someone bumping against the outside of my apartment. Then I heard someone fumbling at the door, a key turning in the lock. “Interesting,” I thought, and stood near the door to see who was going to come in. It proved to be the cat care lady, one day early.

So then I was slightly worried she would space out and open a window while I was gone or something, but she didn’t.

The night before I left, I got together with Susan B., who was visiting from Vancouver, and Nell, who lives here. I hadn’t seen either of them in a million years (certainly ten years or so) and we had a really nice time. We went to El Toro for burritos and as we were waiting to pay the cashier, a street person, black, apparently male-to-female transgender and with a line of snot running down her upper lip, approached us to make some sort of a deal: “If you have a five-dollar bill, I have four dollars and seventy-five cents.”

One of El Toro’s employees walked up to ask her to leave, probably for the millionth time, and she snapped at him, “I’m talking to a white person!”, which made everyone within earshot smile.

Kind-hearted Nell stepped outside with the woman to negotiate, but it turned out that the four dollars and seventy-five cents was not literally available; when it came right down to it, it was more of a request for the five-dollar bill, period.

Meanwhile, Susan asked in confusion, “Wasn’t there just a tip jar here?” At this, the cashier silently brought it from its hiding place, eliciting more understanding smiles.

I have been on this particular retreat three times. It focuses on samadhi: concentration. It’s offered only once a year, amid about a million vipassana retreats, where the aim is insight. Two years ago, we were warned to be careful in our communications once we were back at home, as we might find ourselves being harsher than intended, with all the concentration we’d built up fueling whatever we might say. Sure enough, just a couple of days later, I mortally offended a coworker without having meant to.

However, last year’s homecoming was smooth and peaceful, so I wasn’t expecting problems this year, but it has actually proved to be extremely rocky. I returned home Thursday about noon, went to work on Friday, and was about one inch from quitting my job by the end of Friday. My goal for the weekend was not to think about my job at all, which I did not succeed in.

On Saturday, I saw After the Wedding, a Danish film featuring the exquisite Mads Mikkelsen, whom we saw in Casino Royale, playing Le Chiffre. In After the Wedding, he plays a Scandinavian aid worker in India—he cares for orphans—who is obliged to travel to Denmark to accept a large monetary gift to his charity. This he is not exactly eager to do; he arrives in a barely civil mood, despite what hangs in the balance. He attends the wedding of his benefactor’s daughter and surprises ensue. Recommended.

In the bathroom after the movie, I was thinking about one of the teachers at the retreat, Pascal Auclair, who was very charming. He is French and speaks in heavily accented English, stopping now and then to seek a word. In a talk he gave, he spoke briefly about passive effort versus active effort. For instance, if you are studying beavers in the passive investigation mode, you “don’t mess with the beavers. You hide in the bush and you look with your binoculars and you say, ‘Huh! Lookit that!’”

Another time, he said, “I would like to support your efforts, and to make sure I do support your efforts, I am going to speak in English.”

At the end of the retreat, he advised not making any big decisions for one week, such as “belly or nostril?” Twenty seconds after I got done thinking about him saying that, I walked out of the bathroom and smack into one of the women who had been on the retreat! (There were 84 retreatants, all told; people come from all over, including other countries, to go to Spirit Rock, though I don’t know if we had any international visitors on this retreat.) “My god, I can’t believe it,” I said.

We walked to Market St. together and had a very nice chat.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Diminutive Addendum

I didn’t mean to imply that I ever think anything I wouldn’t want my parents to know, heaven forbid! They are welcome to know every little thing I think. In fact, they probably would like to spend less time hearing about every little think I thing. More accurately, I meant I hesitate to recount lurid incidents of the past for fear of causing distress.

This reminds me of when my father referred to the fingle finker of fate. Indeed.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Teensy Steps in What One Hopes Is the Right Direction

I was brooding again lately about why I can’t be nicer. I know people who seem to be effortlessly friendly and patient and magnanimous on all occasions, though of course this is the view from my perspective, which misses most of their true thoughts and feelings. (They say in 12-step programs, “Don’t judge your insides by other people’s outsides.”)

I’ve been reading Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, by Lama Surya Das, a warm-hearted soul. After reading the section on Right Effort, I was thinking that I am probably never going to have a personality fundamentally different from the one I have now, and that if I want to make a change, it will require sustained effort balanced with self-acceptance.

I’ve made a million mistakes and I will make a million more. I can’t undo them and beating myself doesn’t help; it hurts. What I can do is decide on some means of heading in the right direction, and try to remember to put my intention into practice. To that end, my new mantra: This person is just like me, and wants the same things I want. (Namely, to be seen, to receive attention, to be treated kindly, to be loved.)

Be being nicer, I don’t mean saying yes to things that warrant a no, or not sticking up for myself when necessary. I mean having a feeling of friendliness and good will. My newest note to myself by my front door says:

If it were easy, everyone would do it all the time.”

It’s not easy. It’s work.

Obviously, perfection will not be achieved. I will do the best I can, maybe going one notch in the right direction as often as possible. For instance, if I can be kind, then I’ll be kind. But if I can’t, I can try to keep my mouth shut. Or if I’m mentally savaging someone, I can try to just drop it, which I can usually do if I remember to.

So maybe it is lucky that my personality is naturally rigid and exacting, because it gives me a million opportunities to practice being kinder, which I am convinced is the most worthwhile goal I could have. I do believe it is absolutely true that my problems are not obstacles on my path, but as Ezra Bayda says, the very path itself.

So now I feel rather liberated: My gosh! All I have to do is have the right intention and do my best! I can do that.

I had mentioned that I almost always do something wrong on my taxes such that they send me some surprise extra money months later. This year, my refund was less than I expected, and in due time, I got a letter saying I had done something wrong in regard to Schedule D.

Well, indeed I had—I had carefully entered my capital gains amount on Schedule D (which gains, by the way, were themselves the result of a mistake I made) but never bothered to transfer the amount to the main tax form, so my taxable income appeared to be less than it was.

That kind of surprised me, because I’ve always had such a tight grip on those kinds of details, but I take it as a sign of general letting go, which is a good thing.

I just finished quite a good book, Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq, named after the Black Flag song; I have that album. He holds a rather surprising set of attitudes, and writes with great directness and equability. I guess it’s a quality of acceptance, of himself and of what he sees around him, which leaves him free to describe everything without equivocation. At one moment, he mentions considering throwing a grenade at a baby alligator; the next, he says what a huge fan of NPR he is. More than once, I found myself saying, “I like this guy,” though of course any mention of hurting animals is utterly abhorrent. (They didn’t throw the grenade.)

Ugh, I have to say that yesterday Twisty Faster posted a video of a 17-year-old Iraqi girl being stoned to death in an “honor killing.” I forced myself to watch it and was grateful it was short and pretty murky. The girl is lying on the ground in a shirt and underpants, with her long black hair streaming around her, and rocks the size of basketballs. No one came to help her. It took 30 minutes for them to kill her. I felt gloomy the rest of the day, and again now.

Colby Buzzell started out blogging from Iraq and ended up publishing this critically acclaimed book. His website is still up, and it looks like he is a full-time writer now. I’m totally jealous. But then, he started out by saying every single thing he thought—while he was in the Army in Iraq!—whereas I don’t because I don’t want to lose my job and also my parents read this. So he deserves it. He followed his heart exactly, it appears.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Still Got It!

Two weekends ago (I guess I’m getting behind here) I bought a new bike helmet and took the rearview mirror off my old helmet and duct-taped it onto the new helmet. I had to do that over two or three times, trying to get the spot right. The mirror took a couple of days to get used to when I first got it, but now I love it. It’s like a little TV right next to my eyeball that always has a show on about a street.

There was no movie I wanted to see that weekend—I know I should want to see The Lives of Others; on the other hand, I did want to see Mark Wahlberg in Shooter, but, shockingly, it was no longer in the theater—so I got some long-deferred chores done, like patching bicycle innertubes.

I also finished sewing a pair of baggy pants, the final pair from last fall’s annual sewing project, in quite a bright shade of green; green is my favorite color for pants; I have five pairs of green pants. When they were done, I put elastic in the waistband, and did the same for another pair in an eye-catching yellow, and that takes care of that. It’s funny how you can’t tell if a pair of pants will be any good until they are one hundred percent done. Fortunately, all of my pants can serve as pajamas if it turns out I can’t leave the house in them.

In the evening, Tom and I watched Blood Diamond on DVD. There was farting, and an apology: “I’m sorry there’s always so much flatulence at your house: Saturday is burrito day.” It’s not so much the burrito per se; it’s the burrito plus ice cream, potato chips and orange soda.

“Can’t Sunday be burrito day?”

I have decided cooking one dish on Sunday instead of two is plenty, because making two really does take the whole entire day, so that weekend I made Cowboy Frijoles from the bean and grain cookbook, and this past weekend I made lentils and rice with fried onions from Deborah Madison’s cookbook, plus I saw Lucky You (Eric Bana!) and went to the farmers’ market.

I noticed trumpet playing was starting to fade out again, so I added a daily task just to buzz with my lips for a moment or two—the trumpet merely amplifies a rude sound one is making with one’s personal mouth—and this has really helped, because once I do that, then I think, “Hey, it would be fun to play the trumpet,” and then I do. Lately I’ve been practicing improvising with Aebersold tapes, or playing along as best I can with Horace Silver CDs.

The jury is still not quite in on the firm McRoskey mattress. I went to see a man who does osteopathic and cranial-sacral bodywork, who said my gluteus medius was mashed. What he did really helped my back, though it involved some frightening “adjustments.” In fact, I felt great after that.

I must have looked cheerful, too, because a couple of days later, someone tried to pick me up on the bus for the first time in 30 years. (When I told Tom that he said, “You still got it.”) Not only that, it was the cutest guy on the whole bus, a Costa Rican, judging from his baseball cap, about 65 years old.

When he got on, I thought, “Wow, this fellow is very handsome. He must have attracted women by the score in his day.” A bit later, he asked the man next to him how many stops to Geary St. The man didn’t understand, so I held up three fingers and told him it was three more blocks. At this, there were grins and waves and general expressions of enthusiasm.

When I stood up to get out at the movie theater, he asked, “Where are you going?” I saw he was missing some teeth in front and that others were entirely covered with silver. I said, “I’m getting off here; your stop is one more block.” Smiling winningly, he said, “Stay with me. I need you.” “That’s very flattering,” I said, and meant it.

I’m continuing my daily stretching, though prior to seeing Jack, I had noticed that sometimes it felt worse right afterwards, likely a sign of overdoing. I’m trying to remind myself to back off so that the stretch is slight, not major, and the experience pleasant rather than unpleasant. This is the same lesson I had to learn at last year’s concentration retreat.

Once I went on a retreat for three weeks and another time for four, but in recent years, it’s just a week, so I arrive determined to make the most of each moment, and always end up very frustrated after a few days, and then someone has to tell me to stop meditating and go take a nap. The teachers never say to strain or have a do-or-die attitude, but in the concentration retreats in particular, I’ve noticed they emphasize ease and pleasure. A fine reminder for all of life.