Category Archives: emptiness

My Center

We Quakers talk a lot about “finding our center”, “centering down”, etc. Ask a dozen Quakers what we mean by the term “center”, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, though many of the answers would likely mention God, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, “that of God”…

But when I talk about the “center”, I’m talking about a real place. A place I go to at least twice a week and more if I can manage it. A place where I find joy, and love, and peace. A place where I know I’m needed and know without a doubt that this is where I’m called to be.

And that “center” isn’t my Quaker Meeting or my meditation group. That “center” is an adoption center at a local no-kill and cage-free feline (and canine) rescue called Chesapeake Cats and Dogs. I began volunteering at CCAD 4 years ago. My role was to help socialize the cats, and it’s a role I take seriously. If a cat is shy or skittish, I try to work with the cat, to help the cat understand that people aren’t a threat and that human affection is a good thing. But I also try to make sure that I find the time every time I’m there to pet every cat that needs it most.

And here comes the first challenge: in an adoption center that at times has housed over 60 cats at one time, how do I prioritize? How do I make sure that when I’m petting one cat, I’m not distracted by the dozens of other cats I want to find time for?

In short, how do I truly be present with each cat?

It’s just mindfulness meditation, in a different form. When I’m petting one cat, I’m just petting that one cat. I’m aware of the subtle body movements that indicate if I need to change my petting technique. I’m aware of the cat’s condition: has he or she lost weight? does he or she have any fleas or ticks? is he or she congested? What does the cat’s purr sound like? Are they any behavior changes, for better or worse, that I can notice? Are there other cats approaching that may make this cat feel defensive? And the only way I can answer these questions is by being with the cat, in the moment. And when I fail to stay in the moment, the cat always notices and reminds me to return to it.

There are always cats I don’t get to. When I leave, I make a mental note to make those cats a priority my next visit.

But there are also always cats I particularly look forward to. In a real way, some of these cats have become friends to me. Figuro, Snicker, Ethel, and Emily are the cats I’m most attached to. All of them have been at the center for more than a year; all of them except Ethel have been at the center for as long as I’ve been volunteering there. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I absolutely adore and love these cats.

Which brings me to the next challenge: how do I love and adore these cats without holding back any affection, but also without becoming attached? After all, I can’t adopt them all.

When I first began volunteering at the center, I would cry whenever a cat I’d grown to love would get adopted. It’s hard developing a relationship with an animal and then having to say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see the cat again. I knew that this was our goal, that we wanted the cats to be adopted and never returned to the center, but it struck me as a loss each time. I asked the office manager, Debbie, how she dealt with this, knowing that she loves those cats even more than I do. She said something like, “It gets easier with time. There are some you’ll always miss and the goodbyes are always hard, but it gets easier.”

And it has. Slowly I’ve become able to feel joy when a cat is adopted instead of sorrow. Slowly I’ve learned how to love without attachment, but without holding back either. It’s not about me and what I’d like. It’s about what’s best for the cat.

And this brings me to the third challenge: how to cope with the death of a cat or kitten.

This doesn’t happen often (and certainly not for lack of care or veterinary treatment), but it does happen. It’s par for the course for any rescue, whether the rescue is a no-kill or not. Some cats and kittens we try to rescue will have health problems. And some of those health problems won’t be curable or even treatable. And sometimes, a kitten just wastes away and no one knows why.

There is no answer to this challenge. Only the opportunity to practice and to remember that nothing is solid and every one dies. All I can do is be sure that when I’m with each cat or kitten, I’m giving them my all: all my love, all my attention. Because there’s no guarantee with any of them that they’ll be there the next time I come in. Maybe they’ll be adopted before then, or maybe I’ve already noticed that this cat or kitten is going downhill and may no longer be alive when I next come in.

The answer to this challenge is in the answers to the other two. All I can do is all that I can do. There is nothing else.

My center may not be overtly religious or spiritual, but it’s a good teacher. When I forget to be mindful or become too attached or my ego starts parading about how important it is, these cats bring me back to center. They remind me of what’s important and what isn’t. They show me what real love looks like. They fill me with joy, happiness, love, and sometimes sorrow, despair, and sadness.

But through it all, I always return to my center. Because it’s where I’m meant to be.

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Suffering… End of Suffering

I’ve read a lot of Dharma books and have felt time and time again that I Get It, I know what to say and what to think, I Am A Good Buddhist ™.

But I haven’t been “getting it”. When JB was dying and I was angry and sad, I felt like a bad Buddhist. “The Buddha wouldn’t have gotten so attached,” I thought. “The Buddha would have realized that JB is impermanent and wouldn’t be so upset at the news of JB’s impending death.” “The Buddha wouldn’t be sad like this.” “I’m not a good Buddhist because I’m sad, angry, irritable.”

And then a couple of weeks later, I accepted that my emotions were what they were and let go of the idea that they should be something else. Yet still, deep inside, I felt disappointed that I “wasn’t as far along the path to enlightenment as I thought I was”. Yet this disappointment was easily overshadowed by the grief that followed, especially the day of JB’s death.

Tonight I attended a dharma talk at my local sangha, which was given by a lay teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition who leads the local sangha. (The sangha itself is unaffiliated with any particular tradition, but the leader happens to be trained in Insight Meditation.) Tonight’s dharma talk was about the Noble Eightfold Path. During the talk, the teacher spoke about the benefit of having an intention, such as the intention to end suffering.

I made the intention to end suffering in myself and all others when I took my Refuge and Bodhisattva vows almost a year ago. But it suddenly struck me tonight that ending suffering doesn’t mean what I’ve always thought it meant.

I’ve always thought that ending suffering meant ending those emotional states that we find unpleasant and painful: anger, agitation, irritability, jealousy, rage, sorrow, despair, sadness, boredom, loneliness, etc. That when I feel any of those unpleasant emotions, it’s because I’m not enlightened yet.

But what is suffering, really? The day that JB died and I cried for almost an hour, was I suffering? No. I was full of sorrow, but I was not suffering.

Why not? Because I had given up the judgment. I wasn’t adding something to my emotion that wasn’t there. I was just experiencing that emotion–grief–completely.

I read a book a few months ago titled “How to Be Sick”, written by a Buddhist who is disabled. In this book, she makes a powerful argument that physical pain doesn’t always lead to suffering, that the suffering comes in when we judge our pain as good or bad, i.e., when we add something extra to the pain. This made a lot of sense to me at the time, since I’ve certainly experienced being in pain and being happy at the same time.

Tonight I realized that emotions are like physical pain and discomfort. They come and go. They’re not good or bad. Suffering doesn’t come from having emotions; it comes from feeling that the emotion you’re having isn’t right, from judging that emotion and labeling it. Just as one can be in physical pain and not be suffering, so one can be in the throng of despair and also not be suffering.

As Pema Chodron wrote, “Nothing is what we thought.”

And that is perfect.

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Death: A Slogan Post

Today’s slogan is:

For one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.

(Rumi)

I’m having trouble with this one today. It’s funny… a few months ago, I read a Buddhist book called “No Death, No Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh. While reading the book, I was feeling kind of smug, the way I sometimes do when I’m reading spiritual books and think “I got this. I’ve accomplished this; I understand it; let’s move on.” (Yeah, I may appear modest, but in my mind? No, I am IT. I am AWESOME. I GOT THIS.) I felt that I really understood already how I view death and that I’d become comfortable with it and accepted it as just a necessary part of life.

Of course, at the time, it had been a while since I’d been faced with death and lost a loved one. (I think you can see where this post is heading…)

Earlier this week, I found out some bad news about a being I care very deeply for, a young being, too young. She’s possibly dying, but no one really knows for sure because there’s no definitive test for the thing she’s suspected of having.

That smugness is laughable now. I’ve been crying. I’ve been sad. I’ve been angry. I’ve felt this whole thing is completely unfair. I’ve felt powerless. I’ve felt despair.

I am trying to see the beauty: that I got the chance to know her, that she is still living.

But comfortable and accepting of her death (which, after all, would have been coming at some point…)? No, I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable at all with this.

I want to be able to end this post with some sort of meaning, but I think that’s at the heart of this discomfort and pain: that perhaps there is no meaning at all to be found in what’s happening. Perhaps it just IS.

All I can do is be there for her now, for as long as I can.

And I can try to remember this horrible feeling of despair, of powerlessness, when I start feeling smug the next time, especially when I start giving in to my ego and believing that I am somehow better than those OTHER people who get upset when someone they love is dying.

Because life, after all, is rooted in impermanence. And there are no guarantees, despite the term “life expectancy”.

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Discontent

I have not been attending Meeting for Worship regularly recently.

I have not been meditating regularly recently.

…And yet I gave up sweets for Lent, though I haven’t been Catholic for years and don’t really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as Christ…

The truth is that I go through phases: phases where I’m meditating every day, where I’m attending Meeting for Worship twice a month or more, where I feel very grounded and connected to both the religions I’ve claimed as my own.

I haven’t been feeling that connected recently.

Still, I see their subtle effects in my life: my tendency towards always telling the truth as best as I know it; my constant attempts to do as little harm as possible, or at least cause as little suffering as possible (even to bugs!); the constant background to every action that nudges me towards living up to the Quaker Testimonies and the Buddhist vows I’ve taken.

The truth is, I suppose, that I’m not sure how much I miss the outward “actions” I’m “supposed” to be doing. Shouldn’t I be missing meditating and Meeting for Worship?

The two faith practices that have stuck with me are praying before sleeping and spiritual reading. Perhaps these are enough for now. Perhaps I should dispel the “should”s for a while and do what feels most meaningful to me.

Perhaps I should release the worry that maybe I’m not really a Quaker or a Buddhist because I’m not doing x, y, or z.

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Inherent Goodness

One of my favorite aspects of both of my religions is the belief in inherent goodness. This is the opposite of what I was taught as a Catholic growing up, which was the belief in Original Sin, man’s tendency towards wrongdoing and separation from God. I never really believed in the concept of original sin. After all, if God made us, then how could we be naturally bad?

As Quakers, we tend to believe that the “Kingdom of God” is available to us, right here, right now. It’s an internal, personal event, instead of the worldwide, external, apocalyptic event that many Christians view it as. We tend to believe that because everyone is a creation of God, we all have access to the Divine within, the “that of God within”. This is the theological foundation for our method of silent, waiting worship. We believe that everyone and anyone can commune directly with God*, no intermediary necessary. We believe that God can lead us; that if we pay attention, we can follow God’s will for us.

*(When I speak of God here, I am speaking of the Divine in general, no matter what name you may give it.)

This is a huge deal, and, in my mind, one of the most important aspects of Quakerism, if not the outright foundation. Other Christian denominations make the claim to be welcoming, but this Quaker faith in inherent goodness, in our innate ability to commune directly with God, in our ability to access that Seed within, makes us utterly unique and uniquely welcoming. “Come worship with us and commune with God!”

In Buddhism, too, there’s a belief in inherent goodness of people. This is usually named as our “inherent Buddha-nature” or “bodhichitta”. Any and all people have the potential to become Buddhas, or enlightened ones. We are encouraged to treat anyone we meet as a potential Buddha. By meditation and mindfulness, we can encourage the seed of bodhichitta to grow within us.

We are not inherently bad. We all have innate goodness within us. We just need to

“dig deep… carefully cast forth the loose Matter, and get down to the Rock, the sure Foundation, and there hearken to that Divine Voice which gives a clear and certain Sound.” (John Woolman)

Or come to realize that:

“Whatever good or useful things you want for yourself, others want them just as much. So just as you work hard at bringing about your own happiness and comfort, always work hard to others’ happiness and comfort, too. Just as you would try to avoid even the slightest suffering for yourself, strive too to prevent others having to suffer even the slightest harm. Just as you would feel pleased about our own well being and prosperity, rejoice from your heart when others are well and prosperous, too. In short, seeing no distinction between yourself and all living creatures of the three worlds, make it your sole mission to find ways of making every one of them happy, now and for all time.” – Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher

Notice that in both practices, there is an aspect of letting go of the primacy of self. What I mean here is that we need to let go of the idea that we are the most important person, the center of the universe. We need to let go of our self-centeredness. In Quakerism, we strive to let go of our self-centeredness so that God can become our center, so we can discern between our ego speaking and the “still, small voice” of the Divine. In Buddhism, we recognize that the foundation of compassion comes in the letting go of our attachment to our ego, to our self, because true compassion can only grow when we are no longer the center of our own universe.

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Competive: a Slogan Post

Today’s slogan is “Don’t try to be the fastest.”

This reminds me of an experience I had a couple of months ago. My massage therapist (and friend) made a passing reference to my competitive nature, and I was immediately taken aback.

“Wait,” I asked her, “what makes you say that I’m competitive? I’m just asking because I don’t think of myself as a competitive person.”

She chuckled and said, “T, you are one of the most competitive people I know!”

And as we talked about it more, the truth of her words sunk in. My ego flailed at the assault–after all, competitiveness is neither a Buddhist nor a Quaker ideal trait. Surely, I felt, I’d gotten “past that”… hadn’t I?

Casual competition, such as in a game, is, I feel, okay, as long as it stays casual and doesn’t become aggressive. But competition in general is rooted in ego’s power; it’s all about stroking your ego or making yourself feel more important. Even when one feels like one is less than someone else, the more one harps on the competition, the more involved one becomes with one’s Self.

This is a real problem with me, one that’s so rooted in my character that I was completely unaware of it until my friend mentioned it to me. I enjoy winning. I enjoy being “better than”. I enjoy “being more spiritually-accomplished”. I enjoy being “more educated”, “more intelligent”, “more more more”.

More than what, exactly? We all suffer. We all die. We all want to be happy. We all want to be loved.

Lord, may I come to know experientially the truth of emptiness and compassion.

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Christ and the Way of Non-Self

As often happens to me during Meeting for Worship, this morning I found my thoughts turning to Jesus. In particular, I found myself reflecting on Jesus’s statement that one must lose one’s life in order to gain it:

“Then summoning the multitude together with his disciples, he said to them: If anyone wishes to go after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For he who wishes to save his life shall lose it; and he who loses his life for the sake of me and the gospel shall save it. For what does it advantage a man to gain the whole world and pay for it with his life? What can a man give that is worth as much as his life? He who is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous generation, of him will the son of man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.”

(Gospel of Mark, 8:34-38)

And again in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples: If anyone wishes to go after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For he who wishes to save his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it. For what will it advantage a man if he gains the whole world but must pay with his life? Or what will a man give that is worth as much as his life? The son of man is to come in the glory of his father among his angels…”

(Gospel of Matthew, 16:24-27)

The first ministry that was offered in Meeting for Worship today was about how Third Haven encouraged this Friend to love God with all his being:

“But when the Pharisees heard that he [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together, and one of them who was versed in the law questioned him, making trial of him: Master, in the law, which is the great commandment? He said: That you shall love the Lord your God in all your heart and all your spirit and all your mind. That is the great commandment, and the first. There is a second, which is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments all the law and the prophets depend.”

(Gospel of Matthew, 22:34-40)

Here’s the point: one cannot worship God if one is too busy worshiping oneself. If one is too caught up in ego, in the life one wants and feels one deserves, one cannot love the Lord with all one’s heart, one’s spirit, and one’s mind, because one is too caught up in one’s self.

But what does losing one’s life and one’s love of self have to do with the second commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Buddhism has two core teachings (in addition to the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path), that of emptiness and compassion. Here is how the logic works in Buddhism: when one finally realizes that the Self is merely an illusion of the mind and does not have an independent, permanent existence, the distinction between Self and Other vanishes. Thus, one can literally love your neighbor as yourself, because there is no longer a difference between the two.

To be able to love God as He deserves–with all your heart, mind, and spirit–one must give up one’s life and one’s attachment to one’s self. (As Jesus says in many of the Gospels, “No one can serve two Masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”) And in the process of losing one’s life and sense of individual self, one can come to another realization: that we are, all of us, children of God, equally worthy of His love, and as worthy of our own love as we ourselves are.

The first step, though, in both Buddhism and Christianity is to give up the idea of one’s individual self. And this I struggle with. I’m very attached to Me. I have such a tendency to turn my spiritual growth into accomplishments that bolster my ego: “Look how many times I’ve read the Bible! Look at how I’ve taken my Vows at such an early age! Look how spiritual I am!”

I want to love others as myself, to follow where God leads me, to truly KNOW the way of emptiness and compassion as taught in Buddhism, but the truth is that I am too bound up in love and pride of my own Self.

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Emptiness and Compassion

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen is perhaps one of my favorite Buddhist practices, and one of the first Buddhist practices I incorporated into my daily life. This practice is an act of breathing in someone else’s pain or suffering and then breathing out the remedy or relief of that pain or suffering. I’ve often thought of this process as a way of opening oneself to the potential everyone has for reducing suffering in others. The idea is that you open yourself to another’s suffering and share what you can to reduce suffering. Taken more broadly, the practice encourages one to reduce suffering in the world by practicing non-attachment to one’s own joys.

This morning, as I was practicing tonglen, I let images of those who were suffering rise up. First on my mind was those who are suffering from the oil spill, especially those beings who live in the water.

“Oil,” I thought as I breathed in deeply. Then, “water” as I breathed out.

Then on to more general suffering: “Suffering” breathe in; “Peace” breathe out.

Then I thought of a dear friend of mine who is recovering from a painful surgery and whose daily life is filled with pain: “Pain” breathe in; “Relief” breathe out. I let my own pains act as a way of empathizing with hers.

Then I felt my stomach growl with hunger, and I thought of all those in the world who suffer from hunger: “Hunger” breathe in; “Food” breathe out.

As I alternated between these 4, I began seeing a connection between the last 3. Instead of imagining that I was transforming suffering into peace through breathing (what I consider a metaphor for actions), etc., I began to see how suffering pointed or led to peace. For example, when one is suffering, one becomes drawn to end that suffering. And the lack of suffering feels most potent when one has experienced suffering in the past. Pain always leads to relief, one way or another. No pain is permanent. Any pain will either end on its own, or the person with the pain will find some way of relieving the pain, or, in the worst case scenario, the pain will stop when the person dies. When one is hungry, one seeks food. If one does not find food and one dies of hunger, one’s body becomes food.

I used to have a concern that the practice of tonglen encouraged dualistic thinking, which is contrary to the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. But now I see that tonglen is not only a practice in developing compassion, but also a practice in understanding emptiness. The relief of suffering is bound up in the experience of suffering. They cannot be separated.

“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”

(You may have noticed I was unable to see this kind of connection in the first formulation of breathing in oil and breathing out water. But perhaps the oil spill will lead us to take better care of our ocean’s and the water resources on this planet.)

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