Milking the Lesson(s) is a term I started using many years ago. It describes something that I started noticing during my tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Hungary from 1990-92. But this is just the time period when I started noticing. I believe that it has always been there, at least in embryonic form. At that time, I was not Buddhist but I was aware enough to know that my particular situation was extremely stressful for me. During my bouts of insomnia during service events and interpretations would wake me up and then keep me awake as if I were reliving the events over and over again. Some people would call that the hell realm. During the day, I was busy living my life as a PCV while in the background I would hear the thoughts, and feel the emotions accompanying those thoughts… The thoughts had me and I knew it, but there was nothing I could do then, except be angry, and angrily surrender my sleep. If I had been in the army instead of the Peace Corps, I would label what was happening to me as PTSD.
Years passed. It was not until I returned to the US, and even later when I went out with PC again as a trainer that deeper interpretations or understandings of past events would seemingly emerge of their own accord. These understandings helped me see more clearly, and allowed me to interpret the events as the potential for deep-felt learning(s). And over the years, I began to trust. I now trust that whenever I am in the midst of situations that are too intense, and I feel on the verge of being overwhelmed, if I let things be, without trying to force myself to understand, or to fix them, they can and will perhaps teach me something deep.
Many years have passed since I served with the Corps, and now the lessons are some times milked without my having to wait so long. But please notice that I have said “some times”. There are no guarantees. It is in the light of Milking the Lesson(s) that the following understanding emerged.
A week or so ago there were making repairs to the gym where I go. Entire sections were blocked off; and there was paint, dust, sound, but the gym did not close its doors. Instead, classes and training sessions were offered in alternative smaller spaces in parts of the gym where repairs were finished or not needed. Two trainers and their respective trainees, as well as one or two individuals training on their own, were in a small training room with a fair amount of equipment along the walls, floors and ceiling. For me, this was a new space with new stuff. Since my trainer had stated that we would not do our usual training, I just allowed the session to happen as was necessary: moving around others and compensating on the spot for what was not available to us at the moment. At some point, the trainers talked but I don’t remember what their exchange was about. What I do remember is that I felt a shift, a difference that I can only describe as being in the space around me. The other trainer said something to my trainer, and punctuated or signaled the end of what he was saying with: “this is not about comfort”. I looked up at the person talking and I think he took my gesture to mean that I had gotten what he meant. He then smiled and added: “See? She’s got it. This is not about our comfort”. The trainer stressed the word our and with his hand signaled that he meant the trainers’ comfort. I guess I had indeed gotten his intention and I think I laughed with him. But there was more packed into what I got than what was perhaps intended by the trainer who spoke.
When I looked at him, his face looked different than usual: it seemed somewhat hardened, angled. I had never noticed this particular trainer stressed, or tired. For myself I can say that I was exhausted by a hard and dark week at work. I felt ugly, and judged myself accordingly: that I looked tired, not worth looking at or dealing with… Monkey-Brain was surfacing. I had gone to the gym, not to sweat my tiredness out, but more out of a sense of curiosity and of let’s see what happens, if something shifts for me today; let’s see how much can be held by my sense of spaciousness (which goes hand in hand with my spaciness).
I sensed that the word our conveyed: you are seeking your own comfort and not your trainee’s. This is not about us trainers… I sensed tiredness in the speaker’s face, and in his words perhaps even a sense of we just have to make due with what we have; whereas from the start of our session, I sensed that my trainer was saying let’s try to do this together with whatever is available to us. While both trainers seemed to be looking at the same props, they seemed to be dealing with the situation in the gym very differently… (And to be clear, I am not judging their attitudes.)
As their exchange was happening, I felt a tightening of the space around me, probably my own tightening; and then a wordless wave of OK, let’s keep on working with what we have, from my trainer. From my trainer I got the sense that he was simply trying to deal with things as they came, and that perhaps he was also attempting to ease other people’s minds. And from that there was a shift for/in me. My tiredness no longer mattered. My feeling ugly lifted and left space in its stead. And it was suddenly not about me. My comfort and discomfort became irrelevant and gave way to the need to hold or protect the space so that we could all be there, and so that the trainers could have a touch of intangible goodness or space in which they could work, feel and be with whatever they were experiencing. The lesson came when I sensed and perhaps decided that they too needed a break, and I would give them what little I had. And the lesson emerged because I was able to listen within and outside of me without having to add anything. I am grateful for the teachings that allow me to reframe events and thoughts, and for the teachers willing to share the teachings. May this be of benefit.
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Originally written on November 26, 2015.
There is a thread weaving through any and all of my experiences and though I may not always be aware of the thread, nor particularly happy about it when I am aware, it is nonetheless there. So, on a day like today, I wonder what to do about an aspect of my existence as a human being that is elusive at best, and as un-graspable as when a child tries to grasp air with his bare hands… And all I can come up with is a sense of deeply felt and quasi-arrogant gratitude.
I feel deeply grateful for having been born, for being alive. I am grateful for every breath I take, and for the whiffs of cologne, or incense, or all the scents of our world regardless of my opinions of them as pleasant or not. I am grateful for they are reminders of the fact that I am alive, that I have a beating heart, and that I can feel, breathe, see, hear, touch, taste and share the loneliness of never being quite able to make another human see or feel what I feel. But the art and the dance of this life is in the willingness to share, and be… So, I am grateful for this precious-fragile human birth.
Needless to say, not everything I have experienced in this life, nor contributed to, has been beautiful or benign. And therein lies the savage, wild, raw beauty of the human experience: if we are brave enough to let ourselves be touched by it; better yet, when I am brave enough to let it touch me and when I maybe look or touch back in return, then there is the possibility of being awake, soft-hard, sadly-joyful…in touch with the very moment in which I am, and with the vastness of time and space from where all moments and experiences arise…
I am here in this very precise moment totally present with heartfelt gratitude and with certainty that I have done this before, that I have felt this way before, and that this knowledge needs no confirmation. I know that for as long as there is consciousness encased in a human body, caught in this fleeting precious human birth, there are reverberations or ripples for each and every action charged with intention which I effect. And I know that this sense of ripples, like the rings that form around the spot where a stone thrown within water in a pond falls, this sense of ever expanding ripples, opens and travels and inevitably encounters those of other people. What I do has effects that touch others and carry over time… So I am grateful for the opportunity to be touched by others, and the ability to clarify not my each and every action, but the heart and intention from where I act and be; i.e. the ability to choose what to accept and reject so that the field or vast space where my heart-mind resides, interacts or plays with others remains clear.
The waves of gratitude for being alive are truthful waves… The waves speak of the constant changing of the cells in my body, of the movement of the different people that I may encounter on a daily basis, of the socio-political changes that I have seen in the world…of the wars, invasions, genocides, of the emergence of new faiths and world views… The waves speak of the human tendency to desperately want to freeze or fossilize any one of its experiences. I still do. With humbleness I recognize that this is just a part of being human, and something that may help soften me/us: seeing that change simply is; that it is inevitable; and seeing with an open hearted attitude, that in spite of instinctively knowing about the inevitability of change, we will still forget about it in our attempts to be happy by capturing or freezing those fleeting expressions of life. The truth carried by the waves of gratitude for being alive is simply this: change bound to life, is also bound to death. And opening to change, regardless of (my) being able to do so for very brief moments at a time, also brings with it the possibility of starting out from a softer space, of being awake, and of being present to my world.
And then there is this, this last wave of gratitude. I live in this merry-go-round like world where I have had the opportunity to visit and revisit past mistakes, relationships, good deeds, falling in-through-or-out-of love… All of it over and over again, as if to say: what will you do differently this time? Anything? And I am grateful because it is in the ups and downs of this merry–go-round that I have been given teachings that touch my heart and speak to a life worth living as long as I allow myself to feel and share the openness, as long as I am open enough to embody as much as the teachings as I can, so that others, in turn can be touched, softened, lit from within.
And so it is that in a moment of crystal clear awareness I can both feel and express my gratitude for the depth and power of the priceless teachings, for the presence of those who teach me whether or not they are called teachers, for the willingness to be taught, and for the circumstances dark and light, painful and loving that mark the path I share with you today. Because it all served to bring me here, ¡Gracias a la vida!
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December 31, 2014: A weird day… Let’s see…
Yesterday I wasn’t doing too good. I woke up in a bit of a funk, sadness, and of course, with a tinge of anger. I thought about my good ol’ friend, Samsara: Do I get sad around this time of the year just because of the force of habit? Looking back, last year I spent New Year’s Eve by myself in my apartment. I dressed up a little, put music on my computer and I danced. I also played guitar and sang, and I talked with some friends and/or family members. I connected with long distance friends on FB and Skype. I think I had a glass of wine, and that perhaps I even wrote. But I remember being upbeat, happy.
This year is somewhat different. My dogs are with me yet I’ve felt lonely. So today, when I woke up, the funk was still there, keeping me company I guess. I watched an episode of Doctor Who, and it helped. I have always loved stories with heroes and possibilities… I had wanted to bathe my dogs, and when a plan to get some freelance work today failed, it somehow felt “right” to bathe them, today, and one dog at a time. First, Hollins. I always need to use the furminator on him, a tool that helps remove a lot of his shedding. So I locked myself in the bathroom with him, and after furminating him, I helped him get in the tub. He was not too happy about it, but the promise of a treat kept him there until I finished towel drying him. After finishing with Hollins, it was Niki’s turn. She does not like being bathed either, but she will go in the tub on her own and look OFFENDED until I’m done. I took Allegra in order to do this without too much sneezing or itching, and it helped that after finishing with them I got in the tub and purified myself. I felt lighter. The funk did not feel as heavy.
I guess this is my own little tradition. I can start the year acknowledging 2014 on its way out, being clean and dancing or singing. Gerard had asked me if we could take the dogs out together for a walk. I said yes. They were very happy to see him, and to go to the park in spite of it being a very cold day. I had had music going on while I was bathing the dogs, and after Gerard left I turned it on again. It is dance music and music that touches my heart, with a little bit of nostalgia. I know I will dance at least a piece or two (if not more) tonight to celebrate the New Year. I might even call a couple of long distance friends back in the island, connect to FB, or drink some wine.
I had not wanted 2014 to end without my writing and sharing something of my heart, myself. This has been a somewhat difficult year: new job, deciding to declare bankruptcy, some health issues, friends that died, friends that have undergone major surgery, friends having babies… and I have the sense that 2015 will be a year of further opening for this heart/person. While I know that I can always close myself in fear, I also know that the dharma has helped open the wings of this heart, and so it is that I raise the soft voice and I pray:
Heart of all and mine,
Allow my life to be of service
And continue to rent the veils that keep me hardened.
Take my voice, my skin, what’s left of me
That I may learn new songs of light and joy.
May all beings be happy.
May we all be free from suffering
and the roots from which it grows.
May we rest in the space that can hold it all without naming it
as “mine”, “refused”, “ignore”.
May our actions spring from a heart that thinks
and a mind that feels,
both with and without thoughts.
Happy New Year!
Earlier this morning I reached out to the sangha, because once again, I am under serious financial stress. I am being sued because of debts, and in order to file for bankruptcy I need to pay the lawyer’s fees. Knowing this, it is pretty awesome, I think, to feel the gratitude I feel tonight, in spite of those fears. And I would like to share about this deeply felt gratitude.
Today, I reached out in spite of ego-monkey-brain’s screaming that it is embarrassing to confess one’s needs, especially financial needs, to people outside one’s household. That is simply part of the very ancient programming, or habitual mind, that I carry. But becoming a Shambhalian Buddhist means that I get to listen to all those voices, and I get to cradle them in that cradle of loving-kindness, because they are afraid. And knowing this, I feel sad for the adults that so many years ago trained me to believe as they did, because they were afraid and embarrassed too. While I was forbidden to speak about our financial problems, they felt the brunt of the fears. I did not believe necessarily that being poor was a reason to not speak, ask for help, or be embarrassed, but I was bound by the shame I learned to feel, and the desire to not cause them pain.
However, times have changed and the winds of faith and Shambhala have cooled me enough that I can move in spite of my fears, and go against the screaming voice within me to follow the softer voice of sanity. Today that softer voice said that I needed to ask friends and sangha for help. And also today, shortly after I wrote, a sangha brother responded that he will help me with the fees. My heart sank and bounced up again partially in disbelief, and partially in awe and gratitude. A little later, I felt a second wave of relief when I realized that those who had responded to my message of need were not saying what my monkey-brain was saying: WHAT? YOU ARE ASKING FOR HELP, AGAIN? Instead they were kind, supportive, and caring; not punishing me as the loud voice in my head was doing.
The winds of faith and Shambhala have cooled me enough that I listened to the softer voice of sanity a second and a third time today. The voice whispered: go practice, and I did. I sat with White Tara, and I did my Ngondro. And while practicing, I saw that Monkey-Brain felt embarrassed to ask for help even from the lineage. I cried, the tears just rolled and I kept practicing because, what else was there to do? After I finished practicing I felt lighter. I remembered that tomorrow is Thanksgiving so I decided to write this note of gratitude.
The sense of gratitude I feel at this moment goes beyond the help and words I received today. I am relatively healthy. My niece has become a dental hygienist (still waiting for her license, so no job yet). My brother and his wife are doing well. I like my new workplace. I have found true friends in my new job. I have friends that I love and care about, and friends from childhood that I keep in touch with. I have friends from the larger sangha. And I have Shambhala, and the Austin sangha.
I am grateful to the Sakyong for choosing to remain as our beloved teacher. I am grateful to Chogyam Trungpa for the bravery to cross the Himalayas and come to the West to teach and bring the teachings. I am grateful to all my teachers in Shambhala and outside the context of Buddhism, because I know that it takes heart to stand in front of others with the intention to help them develop their potential as human beings. And finally, today I am thankful to the soft voice, for not giving up on me. I guess that soft voice is the voice of Basic Goodness. And I guess that Basic Goodness is that soft sanity that can also be immovable. But I am just guessing.
I wish you all, together with your friends and family, a very Happy Thanksgiving wherever you happen to be. Peace.