Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Narration Cessation

To continue with my report on the Tejaniya-style retreat I attended at Spirit Rock earlier this month, when giving instructions the morning after we arrived, one teacher jauntily said something like, “You know how we normally choose an object, such as the breath, and focus on it? We’re not doing that on this retreat.” From that, I thought we were not supposed to attend to sense objects, but only to pure mind itself, which was perplexing: would I know it when I perceived it? Doing my best, I spent the day wholeheartedly trying to withdraw my attention from sense objects and notice the mind itself. Yes, that was a rather strange day, and I was glad to learn that was not what the teacher had intended to convey.

For one thing, we need sense objects in order to know the mind, by noticing the mind’s responses of liking or disliking. Besides noticing the attitude in the mind, we can notice whether our attention is restless or steady, tired or alert. We can have a general sense of knowing that we’re knowing something, but we can’t really study the mind itself for long in the absence of an object, such as a physical sensation or sound or sight. One teacher said that the moment when we awake from a reverie is a moment when we can know the mind without an object, but that this is fleeting. So, trying not to notice sense objects was not the prescription, but rather to use them as helpful, with the aim being to put equal or greater attention, or nearly all of our attention, on the mind’s response to objects and its manner of noticing them, or on the open sense of awareness underlying that.

But without a lot of noting! That was also challenging. I’ve gotten very used to noticing what I’m doing throughout the day, via or accompanied by quite a bit of narration: stepping, reaching, lifting …

But Sayadaw U Tejaniya says noting is not necessary, so I spent another day—fortunately, not the same one as the one where I was trying not to notice sense objects—attempting to eschew silent self-talk completely, and found that rather rudderless and disorienting.

Over the next days, I decided to eliminate two categories of self-talk and retain two others. I’ve been in the habit, when sitting in meditation, of making a note when I cease being lost in thought: “planning,” for instance. But by the time I apply this note, I’m no longer planning. It’s basically just a way of announcing to myself what I was doing a moment ago, and from the rather loud volume of these mental notes, it’s clear that they’re also a way of scolding the mind for doing what it does naturally. I know when I’m no longer lost in thought. I don’t need to announce it by noting “awake” or the like, and certainly don’t need to name what is no longer even happening, though it’s been worthwhile to do in the past in order to get an idea of where my mind habitually goes. I’m now very clear on that: It’s a whole lot of planning, including a whole lot of thinking of things to say in the future, verbally, or via email or blog post.

Another category of self-talk that doesn’t seem needed is to note what is going on in daily life: turning, bending, placing. This merely drains a bit of attention from the experience itself. I have also noticed, since returning from this retreat, that I’m in the habit of plastering over boring experiences, such as walking up or down stairs, or waiting for a glass to fill with water, with metta phrases. Aha!

A helpful form of self-talk, I think, is reminders now and then of what I’m intending to practice: relaxed continuous awareness. Also useful are questions that can stimulate wakefulness or understanding, such as, per a handout we were given at the retreat, do I want something? Do I want something to happen? Do I want something to stop happening? And, of course, in times of emotional distress, one will want to employ Ezra Bayda’s excellent questions: What thought am I believing? What do I feel entitled to?

(Ezra Bayda's books: highly recommended.)

It was mentioned by the teachers that this is a very simple practice, just being aware in a relaxed way, not trying to achieve a certain state or drill into a certain experience. They also said that when you get into noticing what the mind is up to, it can become quite fascinating. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, but I did come to very much appreciate the simplicity and ease. One teacher said in a group interview that if you spent the day just noticing whether or not your mind and body were relaxed, you’d be doing this practice.

Since this style of practice was new to most of us, they lent us copies of one of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s three books, which was helpful. To paraphrase, he writes something like, “Can you feel your hands holding this book? That is all the effort that is needed, but applied continuously.”

Another thing that was different on this retreat was no individual interviews, only groups. My group was the same seven people each time, and in the course of the retreat, we met once with each teacher. I really liked this approach, because it gave the sense of having a little meditation team within the larger sangha, and you got the benefit of hearing the experiences of others and what the teacher had to say in response, and it also seemed to cut way down on personal history review and the resulting upheaval. When you have a teacher to yourself for ten minutes or so, it’s very tempting to begin your answer to the question “How is it going?” with “Well, I have to start by saying that two years ago … ”

A final post on this retreat is forthcoming. Or maybe two!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Because That’s the Way My Grandfather Did It

On Sunday, April 6, I went with a friend to a daylong at Spirit Rock, an introduction to insight meditation, taught by Jack Kornfield. As always, he told wonderful stories and read marvelous poems in his extremely soothing voice. He has a droll sense of humor. We spent the day sitting and walking and listening to Jack, as well as to the never-ending sound of folding chairs creaking loudly, as the audience fidgeted ceaselessly.

My retreat was to start the very next day, and I’d thought going to Spirit Rock for a daylong just beforehand would be a nice lead-in, but by the end of the day I was sick of being at Spirit Rock. I grumpily thought about not even going on retreat, and eventually noticed the monstrous power of aversion burning my mind: It’s going to be hot. I hate living in community. I can’t bring my little electric fan. People are going to be drenched in laundry detergent. Even though the odds are that you won’t have a roommate, I always have a roommate, and I know I will again.

I undertook my nightly practice, inspired by my mother, of accepting the unacceptable: Yes to it being hot and bad smelling and inconvenient. Yes to living with a hundred people for a week or so. Yes to having a roommate.

The next day, Tom drove me back to Woodacre in a City CarShare car. Knowing I’d have a roommate, I’d added to my packing list reminders of things to discuss with her, like having the window open at night or not, and was astonished when I found I’d been granted a room to myself, and not only that, one with a stream burbling by outside the window.

This retreat proved to be marvelous, unlike any other I’ve been on. Its official name was Through Dhamma Eyes: Training in Awareness and Wisdom, and it was devoted to mindfulness of mind (the third foundation of mindfulness), in the style of Sayadaw U Tejaniya of Burma, who recommends relaxed, open, continuous awareness, as opposed to choosing a particular object (such as the breath) and focusing on it in a more or less penetrating manner. He was a businessman before he was a full-time monk and teacher, and so his style of practice is uniquely suited to laypersons.

The biggest surprise was the schedule. Normally there are defined periods for meditating while sitting, then meditating while walking, alternating all day long: sit, walk, sit, walk. You’re perfectly free to do the reverse, or hike all day, or sleep all day (though your teacher might give you a nudge if you report doing nothing but hiking and sleeping). However, one tends to fall in with the crowd and follow the posted schedule.

At this retreat, in contrast, the schedule specified three hours in the morning for self-directed practice, and the same in the afternoon. There were also a few scheduled sitting periods, such as the one before breakfast, the one in the morning where instructions are given, and the one before the dharma talk in the evening. I thought that sitting during the self-directed periods would be non-stop noisy interruptions, with people entering and exiting the meditation hall, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet and tranquil, with minimal coming and going. (Unlike when there is a scheduled sitting period and 75 people arrive on time and the remaining 15 tiptoe or clomp in late, resulting in 10 or 15 minutes of near-constant noise.)

As for what to do during those three-hour periods, teachers Steve Armstrong, Carol Wilson and Alexis Santos recommended alternating sitting and walking, but left it up to us to decide on the details. Often at vipassana retreats, the recommendation is just to walk back and forth for 25 steps or so, in order to keep things very simple, but that was almost discouraged on this retreat, and we were invited to notice how we decided when to walk and when to stop. How did we choose how far to go and how fast? What made us turn around, and why to the right or to the left? How did we know when to sit, and when to get up from sitting?

This has obvious applicability to daily life and proved to be a worthwhile investigation. I quickly saw that I do a thing because I’m supposed to, because it’s what I did yesterday or what I always do, because others are doing it, because it promises to be pleasant, or per some pattern that seems orderly. Because of the unusual schedule of this retreat, much of the “supposed to” was eliminated.

I didn’t want to spend these hours fleeing walking when sitting started to seem like it might be more pleasant and vice versa—being driven by aversion from activity to activity—and so I often did one or the other until I noticed some sense of strain or goal orientation arising, and then I went to do the other. It turned out that I spent more time walking than sitting.

More on this retreat to come.

Friday, April 25, 2014

High Tempers at the Gas Station

A week after getting home from Michigan, I went on a Saturday to the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, in Redwood City, to hear about careers in Buddhist chaplaincy. Topics included the Sati Center’s own Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program, and the Buddhist Chaplaincy master’s program at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in Berkeley.

When I went to fetch the City CarShare Prius from the garage at 21st and Bartlett, I found the gas gauge on empty, a first. You’re supposed to return these cars at least half full of gas. Once or twice, I’ve gotten one that was a bit shy of that, but never one on empty. Also, I think a rear window was open, though maybe I accidentally did that myself in the course of things.

Fortunately, the steering wheel was so low I could barely turn it, which justified, sort of, calling the emergency number, so someone could tell me how to get the steering wheel not to be mashed against my thighs and I could also mention, hmmph, that the car was nearly out of gas. The associate I was speaking to said the previous driver would be fined. Yay!

I went to my regular gas station to fill the car up, using the CarShare credit card, but after I swiped it, I got a SEE AGENT message. The cashier said I would not be allowed to fill up, but would have to choose an amount. Since I rarely drive, I have little clue in that regard—$20, $40, $60? I decided to try $30, but then it turned out that the card was declined. At some point, I was returning to the cashier to continue our evolving discussion, and another customer thought I was cutting in line. I said mildly, “I was here before,” and he screamed, “Fuck you!”

I called City CarShare again and the person said I could use my own card and they’d reimburse me, so I did that, which had the benefit of allowing me to fill the tank (just over $30, so that guess had been good).

Then, finally, after by far the most hassle I’ve ever had with a City CarShare car—usually, everything is perfectly smooth—I drove down to Redwood City and arrived at the event thoroughly late. I found about 15 people sitting on chairs in a semicircle with two Zen Center folks up front. One was the Rev. Daijaku (Jaku) Judith Kinst, who is the director of the program at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and the other was Ren Bunce, who works as a hospice chaplain. She told us all about her job, with commendable candor, and it was quite interesting. Later we heard from someone who had done the Sati Center program (and loved it) and then Jaku told us all about her program; she said that every one of their graduates immediately gets a job. To be a chaplain, an M. Div is required, or equivalent thereof, and accreditation by the Association of Professional Chaplains.

I love the idea of spending all day hanging around a hospice or hospital, meeting new people all the time, providing a kind human presence as best I can. Being a chaplain can also involve directing and organizing things, which I
m good at. That sounds like the perfect job for me, but the idea of getting an entire master’s degree in Buddhist studies is unappealing in the extreme. Im interested in the practice of Buddhist meditation and the benefits arising therefrom, not Buddhism as a religion. 

I will give Jaku a call one of these days and discuss the equivalent thereof. I think she said her program is 67 units. If you do the Sati Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program, that takes care of six of those units. That’s not very much. The Sati Center’s program meets one Friday per month with writing assignments in between, plus a volunteer commitment. It’s led by Gil Fronsdal (the founder of the Sati Center) and my very favorite Zen Center teacher, Paul Haller. I’m contemplating doing this program, but haven’t decided yet.

I left about 4 p.m. and once again disproved my theory that if you just drive in whatever direction for long enough, you’ll bump into the desired freeway on-ramp. I drove for quite some time, and knew that I must be going north or south, because I was on El Camino Real, but  wasn’t sure which, and finally had to ask someone for directions. Progress thereafter was swift.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cheesy Snacks: Miracle Health Benefits

To conclude my report on my recent particularly nice visit to Michigan:

My favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor is Seva, which recently moved from its downtown location to a shopping center at the west edge of town, Westgate. I think their rent went way up or something, and many of their patrons who don’t like to go downtown are happy it is now somewhere with easy parking, though I never have problems parking downtown. There are at least three perfectly satisfactory parking lots or structures near the old location.

One gloomy evening, Ginny and I trekked over to Westgate to try the new Seva. It was formerly in a house with a comedy club in the basement and the main room was carpeted, funky, slightly worn. It was pleasant and welcoming. You could tell hippies had been on the premises and might still be. When I was in high school, the long-haired older brother of a close friend worked there.

The new location is in a strip mall and is one large room, bigger than the old place, with concrete floors, and a cold, modern feel. I also noticed right away that it smelled weird, no doubt due to its having opened only a couple of weeks before. We sat down and while we were looking at the menu, my head started to feel strange. We went ahead and ordered, but I got a premonition of myself two weeks later, with a lingering headache and covered with an unsightly rash, lamenting, “This all started that night at Seva! Why did I sit in there for 90 minutes?”

I told Ginny, and when our server came back, I said I thought we would need to cancel our order. I’ve never before canceled a restaurant order after placing it, but I believe there is precedent for this. The server asked if we’d like to have it packed up as takeout, and I agreed to that, but Ginny, thankfully, could see I was acquiescing to something I didn’t really want. The server said that if we didn’t take it, they’d just have to throw it out, and I am sensitive to that, but it was cold and raining and the thought of standing in the parking lot holding bags of food, trying to figure out where to eat it, was rather cheerless.

So off we went and ended up at Café Zola, which is downtown (where there is plenty of easy parking!), and which has agreeable ambience and (I think) fantastic food, but is always extremely loud. I had a super-delicious salmon burger and Ginny had a newfangled thing with an egg in it that she said was good.

Speaking of salmon burgers, Whole Foods was for a time selling some that were really tasty, but then they stopped. When it was clear they weren’t coming back, I asked my father to draft some correspondence expressing our disapprobation. I’m getting excellent-tasting canned salmon now from Vital Choice, which tests for a host of things, including radiation, and I noticed they have sockeye salmon burgers, so I ordered some. They have two choices, one of which is made with all organic ingredients, besides the salmon itself, including organic extra virgin olive oil.

The 24 frozen-solid burgers arrived in a Styrofoam crate packed with dry ice: not exactly environmentally friendly. At first, I didn’t like these as much as Whole Foods’, which were somehow yummier, but that’s probably because there were too many added ingredients—they were probably a variety of junk food. The Vital Choice salmon burgers just taste like salmon, with a hint of seasoning, and now I like them a lot, but maybe shouldn’t order any more of them, due to the Styrofoam. Is there a biodegradable Styrofoam equivalent? I’ll call Vital Choice and discuss the matter with them. I also came upon a recipe for making burgers out of canned salmon, which I will try. You add an egg, flax meal and almond meal, form patties, lubricate with olive oil and bake.

The day after Ginny and I went to Café Zola, Amy and I met up at for lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. What I had wasn’t very good—an extremely soggy veggie burger made with beans—but there’s probably something else there that would be good another time. It was excellent to see both Ginny and Amy. Amy has just gotten married and showed me pictures of her wedding, which were very moving.

To pass our time in the hospital while Mom had her surgery or slept, and in between my runs to the vending machine or the little café, Dad explained to me how a logarithmic chart differs from a linear one—he’d printed out a number of pictures and sheets covered with equations—and why a logarithmic chart might be better for expressing returns on a stock holding: “The annual rate of return is directly proportional to the slope of each plot. Percentage changes or fluctuations appear the same size no matter what the absolute value is.”

Dad explained the equation for compound interest and then got interested in seeing if he could prove why the value of a decimal number whose digits add up to a multiple of three is also equal to a multiple of three. The morning after I spent the night in the hospital, Dad seemed a bit late in returning, which turned out to be because he had worked on and completed this. He brought a printout, and when we were back at home, he explained it line by line.

Wednesday morning, when my mother otherwise would have been released from the hospital, it was discovered that her blood sodium was too low. My father asked the doctor, “Should we encourage her to eat salty foods or is that too simplistic?” The doctor said that was not too simplistic at all, so we ran for the salty nuts and Cheetos, and later that afternoon she passed the sodium test and we all came home.

I took a break from my dharma book and read a book I found in my mother’s voluminous (literally) library: Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. She was in Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean tsunami occurred, which swept away her two little boys, and her husband, and her mother, and her father. She lived because she spotted a tree branch above and grabbed it, but writes that if she’d known her whole family was gone, she wouldn’t have reached for the branch. It took her nearly four years to return to the London home they’d shared.

It sounds like something that would be unbearable to read, but it’s mainly a vivid portrait of her lost loved ones, beautifully written, skillfully paced. A movie about this event features Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, because it’s a lot sadder when it’s blond-haired blue-eyed people who are affected, as my favorite cashier at Rainbow said, and in the movie, by the end, every member of the family is still alive. So that’s a little different.

Monday, April 07, 2014


I went a couple of weeks ago to Michigan because my mother was having more joint-related surgery, and just to visit. The night beforehand, a friend told me the place where he works was hosting a gathering of anarchists, if I was bored that evening and had nothing to do. Normally I wouldn’t go out the night before traveling—the flight was at 7 a.m. and SuperShuttle was therefore coming at 4:30 a.m.—but I was curious to see what these anarchists would look like.

I thought they’d all be older men, unshowered (that much we’d have in common), sporting scraggly beards, of grim demeanor, and spouting boring political rants. Not at all! The anarchists were of all ages, including many in their 20s and 30s, and a good percentage were positively sprightly in manner, smiling and happy. So that solves the mystery of what anarchists look like.

I made a point while in Michigan, as I’m trying to do all the time now, of doing what I do when I am seated in meditation practice: to return my attention as many times as needed to a chosen physical object (I use the area of my heart) and also to keep an eye (as it were) on my mind, noticing if thoughts are occurring or not, and if they are, what kind they are.

Basically, sitting practice consists of noticing some form of thinking, noting “thinking,” and returning my attention to the chosen objects, over and over and over. Quite a number of thoughts are planning thoughts, of what will happen when: “planning.” Thoughts of wording an email or something I plan to say to someone, another form of planning, get the note “drafting.” Thoughts of the (imaginary) future get the note “future.” Thoughts of random situations unlikely ever to occur get the note “imaginary,” or the all-purpose
“thinking.”  These are applied silently, just a whisper in the mind.

In the seconds between thoughts, there are glimpses of the spaciousness and peace that are always present, just usually obscured. At those moments, we are not lost in a story whose vividness makes it seem true when in fact it’s just an imagining that arose by itself and will depart by itself. Noting over and over what kinds of thoughts are arising provides a good look at customary preoccupations, which can have a big effect on our lives and happiness, for good or ill. As a teacher at the Zen Center said, “What we take to be real is real in its consequences.”

This is more challenging to do when walking around and doing things than when sitting quietly on a chair, but my intention is very strong at this point, and it’s proving to be very beneficial, eliminating lot of the stress and misery that come from all those zillions of thoughts taken to be the truth. I even suspect it’s going to help with lucid dreaming. I’ve already noticed dreams becoming longer, with storylines sustained over more twists and turns, and I really observed a difference on my recent trip to Michigan: many fewer excursions into the past or the future. Everything just seemed so simple. There’s just so much less going on when much of the imaginary exits the picture. Like, almost nothing.

In addition, instead of thinking, “One day my parents won’t be here, and that will be so sad,” as is my custom, I thought from time to time, “One day my parents won’t be here, and I’ll wish I could see them again even for just one moment, walking, talking, smiling. Well, right now, here they are! Walking, talking and smiling! How miraculous!” This does not constitute employing bare attention to notice chosen objects, but was wonderful nonetheless. I felt a strong sense of appreciating what is here, now.

I think it also helped that instead of bringing along a stack of novels and memoirs, I brought along An Unentangled Knowing, by Upasika Kee Nanayon (translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu), which I don’t necessarily recommend (it’s very repetitious), but it did keep my mind focused on my intention. She really hammers it in about observing the mind and body. She was a Thai woman born in 1901, the foremost Buddhist woman teacher of her era in her country. She started her own meditation center. Here are my two favorite sentences from the book: “The defilements [greed, hatred, delusion] have monstrous powers for burning the mind in the twinkling of an eye,” and “Sensory contact is our measuring stick for seeing how firm or weak our mindfulness is.” I like the first because of its lurid quality, and it certainly is true that a single thought or two can take us from peace to anguish in no time at all.

My mother was in the hospital from Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon, with my father and/or I present at all times (well, not in the operating room). I slept in my mother’s room Monday night on the fold-out chair, and my father did the same on Tuesday night. As before, the surgery seems to have gone really well, though my mother said this one was more painful than the first.

My sister came over a couple of times, and I had lunch with Ginny and Amy, separately. It was a really nice visit and I have a few more things to say about it when I post next, which should be middle of next week or so.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Complimentary Embrace with Medical Enhancements

A couple of weeks ago, I took BART to Berkeley to go on a walk with Lisa M. in Tilden Park, a vast and wild expanse. Our walk took us to the edge of Lake Anza via steep single-track paths deeply strewn in tree droppings and bordered by poison oak. We had to pick our way along carefully to avoid twisting an ankle, and because the track was only one person wide, I was mostly looking at Lisa’s extremely svelte posterior. One highlight was a very large rat tail attached to just a bit of the hind end of the former owner. I’m using to seeing every variety of squished pigeon, but this was a grisly sight. When we were back at BART, I told Lisa, “Very nice walk, except for the walk part.” Fortunately, there are many other options.

Several days later, I was listening to KQED before work and they said that a singer from San Francisco, the first openly gay contestant, was on American Idol: M. K. Nobilette. I thought, “Could that possibly be my friend L.’s kid?” I had to think to remember the child’s given name, and remembered it is a girl’s name that is very similar to M. K. Then I took a quick look on Wikipedia and saw data that confirmed it.

Not long before M. K. was born, I went with her mother to a huge rock concert, and M. K., in the uterus, heard Alice in Chains, etc. In the Wikipedia entry, M. K. is quoted as saying her first musical influence was The Little Mermaid, but it was actually Alice in Chains.

I remember that M. K. as a baby was notably expressive, making all kinds of exaggerated faces, very comical. Three anecdotes:

—She and L. and I were going somewhere when she was about two, and the toddler later to be known as M. K. announced to us, “I’m not going to drive the car.” (“Good!”, said L.)

—L. reported that M. K. had walked up to a stranger on the sidewalk at about that same age and announced gravely, “I don’t play with knives.”

—Once she was over at my house (again, about that same age) and she saw a thing she liked and asked me, “Is this yours or mine?”

When I got home from work, I watched a video online of M. K. singing on American Idol—with J. Lo reacting!—and it was very thrilling. A couple of times, they showed what appeared to be a lesbian couple in the audience, one sobbing her eyes out. At first I thought it was some random women, there to support the first openly gay contestant, but then I realized one of them looked vaguely familiar, and then—duh—I realized these were M. K.’s two mothers and that the reason one of them looked familiar was that she was my partner for about two years in the 1980s, namely L. So if you want to see Bugwalk’s idea of a fine figure of a gentlewoman in the 1980s, watch an M. K. Nobilette video, look for the woman next to the crying woman, and try to imagine what she looked like 30 years ago.

The whole thing made me smile very much.

That same day, I had lunch with a co-worker at Chipotle. As I neared the restaurant, I saw two grinning people with professional-looking signs offering free hugs. The bottoms of the signs said “The Happiness Project” or some such. I’m all for happiness and for giving people an opportunity to be generous, so I accepted a hug from a beaming young gentleman. Beyond the two official hug-givers stood another woman, also smiling, holding a torn piece of cardboard with “Free Hugs” scrawled on it. Obviously some kind of amateur, but since I was now established in the hug-receiving mood, I went up to her and found myself not only hugged but lifted clear off the ground.

I told my physical therapist later, “Free hug and free chiropractic adjustment!”

“Free spinal injury,” she grumbled.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Mind Bottle

Some ruminations herewith on sfgate.com, which is not precisely the website for the San Francisco Chronicle, or is it? There’s another website explicitly for the Chronicle, which, now that I look at it, seems to be more serious in tone than sfgate.com, which goes directly for the lowest common denominator: plenty of true crime, cruelty to animals, Courtney Love claims to have found missing plane, etc.

To get an idea of how far it has sunk, try to picture the same content at the website for The New York Times. You can’t. However, sfgate.com is the best source for certain kinds of local news, as well as breaking news, so I visit frequently and comment on articles fairly often. The editors there well know what topics inflame readers and lead to hundreds of comments: outrageous rents, lifestyles of the affluent, Google buses and techies, off-leash dogs, people riding bicycles. The comments on some articles can be very funny, occasionally charming: “How and why this confuses people is mind bottling.”

Several months ago, they rolled out a new comments tool that is terrible, for a few reasons—aesthetically displeasing, sometimes not responsive to clicks, makes you click a “more” link to see the end of longer comments—but most particularly because there is no “Dislike” button, which immediately led to many complaints, but has not yet been rectified and may never be.

It appears there is a direct correlation between the presence of a “Dislike” button and the overall tenor of the comments. Comments now are much more likely to be hateful, displaying values you would think people would be embarrassed to reveal, even under fake names. Articles about income inequality now result in comment after comment advising that those who can’t afford to live here should just leave, for instance, and the level of explicit vitriol has gone way up. When Safeway installed a piece of metal atop all its low walls to prevent homeless people from sitting down, this received near-universal approbation: Why do we have to have homeless people? Why do they have to sit down? Can’t they just stand up all the time?

Also, come to think of it, why do we have to have teachers, waiters, line cooks, artists, dancers, musicians, police officers, firefighters, janitors, gardeners, child care workers, handypersons, writers or medical personnel? Who cares if those people can’t live here?

Well, for starters, when the big one hits and you’re lying under several stories’ worth of rubble, do you really want to wait for help to arrive from Antioch? Are you positive you yourself, or your elderly parent, won’t ever fall down in the Safeway parking lot and need a place to sit other than the grease-dappled ground?

The lack of charity is stunning, and I’ve even seen it in myself, posting comments that depart from the civil tone I had formerly cultivated. Because there is no “Dislike” button! Before, if I saw a comment that seemed lacking in compassion or with which I didn’t agree, I simply clicked that button and experienced a warm glow of satisfaction: “I guess I told him!” But now it’s incumbent upon me to post something—lacking in compassion—to tell that person exactly why he or she is a selfish, clueless moron, and I assume the same mechanism is working in others.

It’s rather horrible at sfgate.com these days. I keep resolving not to look at the comments at all, and certainly not to comment myself, and one day this will take hold. I read recently yet another comment asking why people should remain here who really can’t afford it, and I felt like weeping. I’d love to avoid the entire website, but, as I say, certain kinds of local news are not to be had elsewhere.

This post was going to end here, but since I wrote it, I’ve started to make a heroic (if I may say so myself) effort to literally do all day what I do in formal practice, which is to notice my body and notice my mind. More on this later, but it’s already for the most part restored my civil commenting tone.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


A couple of the newcomers at Howie’s on a recent Tuesday night appeared to be in their 20s, with several others in their 30s, reminding me that one of the great things about our Mission Dharma meditation group is how people of all ages attend, our biggest success when it comes to diversity. At least one person in the group has been tweeting about our weekly gathering, and that’s probably why younger people are coming. Various genders are represented (primarily the conventional two), and there appear to be gay and straight people and who knows what else?, but the crowd is largely, though not entirely, white, so it’s good that we’ve got people from 20ish to 70+.


On a walk not long ago, I came upon a mother in her 30s carrying a small child and walking next to another of about four, both girls, charmingly attired in colorful old-fashioned dresses. The mother was evidently trying to explain to the four-year-old why her younger sister had received something while she had not. The mother finally said, loudly and firmly, “Let me tell you something. There are going to be many times in life when you don’t both get something.” I couldn’t hear any response at all, but the mother evidently picked up something that qualified as whining, and she roughly yanked the child’s arm to turn her around and nearly yelled, “You’re making a big fuss over nothing!”

It was awful. I don’t think a statement that a person three feet away can’t even detect qualifies as a big fuss, and couldn’t this mother understand how it might feel to have a sibling seemingly favored? I can assure you there is nothing more terrible.

I felt like I should say something, but what? My inclination was to say, “You know, when I see an adult touch a child in that way, it makes me wonder if I should call Child Protective Services.” This was right on the street, with many people around—what happens when no one is watching? It really put a knot in my gut, but I didn’t say anything, except that when I went past them, I looked at the mother and kind of went, “Whoa,” just to let her know someone had noticed. They happened to follow me into the post office and were behind me in line, and when I left, I smiled at the older girl, who looked pretty sad, as you might imagine.

I know there’s no excuse for domestic violence, but was this domestic violence? When I was a child, it was perfectly acceptable for an adult to administer a spanking, but beyond a handful of spankings with fair warning (“You’re going to get a spanking!”), I don’t remember any adult ever yanking my arm or doing anything to cause physical distress. Being thwacked on your butt with the back of a hairbrush is not going to injure you (not saying it
s enjoyable), but having your arm wrenched hard enough might.


I may have mentioned that in our neighborhood there’s an older man who shuffles slowly up and down the sidewalk, determined not to lose the ability to walk. Several weeks ago, he ended up in the hospital, and Joe at the corner store later reported that he’d gone on to a care facility in San Rafael, and probably would never return home. He lives with roommates, and if he is unable to get to the store and back, he would be unable to continue that arrangement.

But a few weeks later, Joe said Fidel would be coming home, after all, and one day not long ago, there he was! I was delighted to see him, looking a bit skinnier, but up on his pins, and now speaking only Spanish, whereas he used to also speak a bit of English. We conversed as best we could. I’ve given Joe my phone number in case Fidel needs help. I don’t have time for a lot of extra cooking, but I could certainly go to the store for him and carry things up to his place.