Monday, December 24, 2007

The Butterfly

(cross-posted with The Buddha Diaries. Please note that I have re-dated my "sample" entry in Accidental Dharma so that it now appears at the end. Should you wish for guidance about the intent and purpose of the blog, please refer to it. In the meantime, to submit a your story, please click on the appropriate link in the right-hand column.)

Thanks to my wife, Ellie, who put this book into my hands--with the words "Accidental Dharma." It's very short, for reasons that will become obvious. I read it in a couple of hours... and she's right, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the archetype of the "gift wrapped in shit." Jean-Dominique Bauby, its author, was at the prime of his creative and, yes, rather glamorous life as the editor of the French magazine Ellewhen he was struck, at the age of 43, by a massive stroke. (Ram Dass, remember, fondly calls it being "stroked.") Bauby was left totally debilitated, but for the ability to blink his left eye. The "diving bell" is the metaphor for the nightmare prison in which he finds himself isolated, and deprived of even the least of those things that had brought joy into his life: his family, his work, the physical activity of the body, food and wine...

The gift was the "butterfly," the life of the mind which becomes his last refuge ad solace. With it, he studies the inside of his diving bell with feelings ranging from despair, to inner rage, to bemused irony and gentle, self-directed humor. When self-pity rears its head, he nudges it away with wit or memory, reliving incidents of his past life with gratitude and pleasure. Or rides on the wings of his butterfly into the world of the imagination, inventing vistas of which he is physically incapable. All in all, Bauby takes us with him on an agonized--but also tender and delightful--voyage into the furthest reaches of the human mind.

How does he manage this, with his near-total disability? He blinks an eye. Working through the alphabet with the aid of an able and infinitely patient assistant, he stops her with that one good eye at the letter that he needs, and thus dictates the words, the sentences, the paragraphs that make up this short but powerfully eloquent little book. Reading it, we come to understand that human life stripped of everything but the barest of essentials can still be a life worth living, thanks to that invisible, intangible and infinitely mysterious of qualities, the mind and its ability to experience love.

Julian Schnabel has created a film version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which has already been honored with multiple awards and nominations. Schnabel, known first for his work as a painter, is also the creator of two earlier outstanding biographical films, Basquiat, about the ill-fated young African American graffiti artist, and Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, both men who faced great adversity in their lives and whose creative minds proved at once their burden and their triumph--either one, if you haven't seen them, a great rental.

Signing off here, for Christmas, with all good wishes to those generous to read my ramblings. May you and yours be blessed with peace and happiness in your lives.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Blow to the Head

With thanks to Gary at Forest Wisdom

Today I bumped my head on the low ceiling in the storeroom at the school I work in. My first thought was that it felt a pretty hard hit and that there would be blood, but I didn’t feel anything running down my forehead. I stood a little dazed for a few moments before putting my fingers onto my scalp, and when I looked at them they were covered in blood.

As I couldn’t look at the wound myself, I stepped out into the corridor and my wife was stood outside as she was looking for me (she works in the same school). The look on her face was a picture as blood began flowing down my face and dripping onto the floor below! Soon, students and other teachers were gathered around me expressing concern or giving advice. The best immediate advice was to sit down, which I duly did, wary of falling over as I was feeling somewhat dizzy. My wife and another teacher at the school got me into our car and we sped off to the hospital.

Once we arrived in the accident and emergency department, I was told to lie down and a nurse examined me before cleaning the wound sight and shaving a small are of hair off ready for stitching. Rather than associating with any feelings that were arising, which were a mixture of almost manic humour and a slight embarrassment, I rested in the awareness, watching people come and go in my field of vision. It was actually quite a peaceful experience!

The doctor came eventually and injected an anaesthetic into my head before stitching up the wound. He told me that this would hurt somewhat, which it did, so again I associated with the space in which the unpleasant sensations were occurring, rather than the sensations themselves. Before I knew it, the procedure had been completed and I was told I could go. (As it turned out, the doctor was the father of a pupil that had given all the English department teachers Xmas presents today, so at least I had a chance to thank him in person!

As I waited for my wife to sort the payment details - I was covered by medical insurance so we didn’t have to pay as such - I sat and chatted with an attractive receptionist and a pretty nurse. When I joined the missus to sign a document at the desk, she remarked that if I wasn’t careful I’d receive another heavy blow to the head! (I think she was joking!)

The interesting thing was that throughout the experience my mind seemed to go into quiet mode, and rest in the position of observer rather than participant. This gave a calm spaciousness for events to occur in, and I was able to crack a few jokes to reassure those around me that I was okay. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who helped me today and are reading this blog – you were great.

It’s funny, really; I’ve only been working in the school for a couple of months or so, but today I was temporarily promoted to the position of ‘head teacher’!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Clock Winked

From John Torcello

The clock winked; or, so it seemed. Peeking out from the wall out onto the room; through the hands on his face; he resembled the 'man in the moon' with an upturned smirk of a smile and those big wise eyes.

There!...I thought...he winked again!...was he winking at me?, or, was he winking for all to see? To me, at least, that wink sent the message that 'everything's gonna be alright'.

I was lost in a moment; thinking about the very nature of clocks; their persistence to move on, while observing us and remaining relatively neutral to the world and events around them. Clocks tick, gauge moments passing and provide for us a sense of our time and place; one moment to the next; on and on. It's clocks, along with their buddies, the unstoppable 'time' and 'change' - these cousins - who work together to illustrate to us the notion that 'now' has just passed, replaced by a new one; over and over again...

That's how it should be! I thought, That's how it is!...the next moment never really the same as the last; and, a tendency to delude ourselves about the inevitability of the repetitive cycles of history. I did see that clock wink!, I understood his clue!...we can change our past; and thus our likely future by what we choose to do now...this instant!...

"What time is it?", as I lifted my head from the bar. "Bartender!, one last round for all of my friends", I shouted.

It was 3:00am and I knew I had to get home. I had to be in the office for a 7:30am meeting. Coming to my senses, in one gulp, I felt the last icy hot shot head down my throat and into my stomach.

Awake now...I couldn't help but come back to reality and think, with my sour stomach, about the traffic jams I'd face in just a few hours; and the money I'd be burning sitting there in my car, stuck in the ritual traffic jam, on my way to another day...another dollar. Damn those oil companies!

Fragments of the truth glimpse through to the man in the bar... albeit for a brief moment and when he is in a drunken stupor...

And, like the failed challenges of karma we all often miss... he wakes up (not wakes up!) to the so-called 'real' world (not real world!)... to the negative side of samsara; dismisses the challenge, and returns back to the repetitive cycles of work tomorrow, traffic, money and drinking at the bar each night...

If only he would heed the clue..the wink of the clock!...time...and change... That's the 'shit'; and the missed opportunity...the Dharma's there...he almost sees it...but...?!...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Change of Life

From Amanda Hohmann

The idea of 'accidental dharma' is something that I believe has an important place in the life of any Buddhist. Indeed, for myself, the most profound lessons - the ones that have moved me forward the most on my path - have all come in the form of unexpected (and at the time) seemingly detrimental circumstances. I think that perhaps when a lesson comes from an unexpected source it has more impact than one you deliberately went seeking. You have to try a little bit harder to see the lesson, it isn't something handed to you - you have to really 'get it'. The story I want to share with you today is one such lesson .

My story of accidental dharma is not a simple story of a particular incident - it takes place over many months, and describes an awakening of sorts. It begins in May when I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I were to be married only 3 days later, and although a shock, it was not an unwelcome one. At the time I was living a rather unsuitable lifestyle for carrying a child. My days were spent working at a very demanding job (which we'll talk about later), and my nights were spent drinking, dancing, and generally not paying any sort of mindful attention to my surroundings. Life was something that would begin 'at some point'. We were constantly dreaming, and planning for the future - for the day when we could finally 'do' something.

The weekend we found out I was expecting we were at our friend's annual camp party. It's a 3 day party taking place on an island, typically characterized by a lot of drinking, a lot of dancing, and a lot of music. I had been looking forward to the party for weeks, as this was just the sort of thing that was right up my alley. However, the morning we were to head out rolled around, and I just couldn't get into it. We loaded the car with our camping gear and our dogs, and headed out to the island. I should have suspected something was amiss when I declined the offer to stop at the liquor store - the idea of any sort of alcohol was absolutely abhorrent to me. I spent the entirety of our first day and evening there just sitting near the camp fire with my dogs, reflecting. I wasn't interested in dancing or partying or revelling with my friends - I wanted solitude. Around midnight I put the dogs to bed and headed into the tent to try to sleep. That whole night I just felt wrong - wrong that this was how I was spending my time, wrong that these were the choices I was making. The next day I was so repulsed by the entire scene that I made my husband pack up and head back into town. On the way into town I suggested that we get a pregnancy test. I don't know what made me think that that might be the source of my feeling 'off', but as soon as I took the test I knew what it would say. Several other follow-up tests confirmed.

From the moment the test showed two little pink lines I realised that I had been asleep. I hadn't been living my life, I had been clouding my mind in an effort to get from moment to moment, with the focus always on the future. I was always looking forward to what I COULD do, not what I WAS doing. At that moment I realised how wrong this was - that I needed to be here, in this moment, and experience this moment. I would never again be pregnant for the first time. I would never again experience THIS moment. I didn't want to miss any of these moments with my child - I wanted to remember and live and experience the entire process.

I'm not sure what it was that made me realise the error of the lifestyle I had been living. This shift started even before I knew I was with child. But it was profound and it caused some very difficult times between myself and my new husband. He wasn't interested in partaking of my new desire to live mindfully in the moment - he liked our old life. While I was brutally aware of every action I engaged in, every moment of every day, he wasn't interested in such things. Our relationship eventually mended itself over time, as he too gradually made these connections. Whether this process is something that would have happened to us both independently anyway, or whether it is a direct result of growing into our new roles as parents, I don't know. I suspect that it's a combination of the two, since I know many people whose experience of parenthood did not result in such radical shifts in the way they view the world.

The second milestone that occurred during my pregnancy happened in October. I was working as a bar manager at the local university pub. For a while I had been having problems with my job (selling liquor to students does not really fall under the 'right vocation' category). But I had always grown up with the idea that your career was important - that you would find meaning in the job that you do. So, although I wasn't finding anything other than negativity from this job, I continued to work hard at it, hoping that I would find some sort of fulfillment. After a particularly stressful few days at work (a lesson in 'accidental dharma' in and of itself) I began to have contractions. Being only 25 weeks along in my pregnancy, having my child at this point would have been devastating. My midwife quickly ordered me to leave work and spend my days at home, resting and avoiding stress. This might sound great to most people, but to someone who has, for her entire life, scheduled every last second of every day to insure as many activities as possible get done, this was catastrophic. I had been working fulltime since I was 16. Up until 2 years ago I had also been attending school. My days were used to being crammed - I now had no schedule, no where to go, and nothing to do. For the first time I was FORCED to slow down.

Since October I have gradually become more and more grateful for this time. Living in the Western world we're taught that everything needs to be done quickly, on a schedule, efficiently and that free time is a luxury. We are taught to work hard and make lots of money and buy many things; that we can judge our progress in life and how 'successful' we are by these yardsticks. It's taken me many months to be ok with saying 'I don't work.' I've struggled to be ok with the fact that I have friends who I went to college with moving up the corporate ladder, earning 3 or 4 times what our household income is. I've struggled to be ok with the fact that I live in a space that is about 300 square feet. I have struggled with these things because for so many years I was taught that the measure of my success as a person was not how happy I was or what I was contributing to humanity as a whole, but how much prestige I could earn. Being forced into unemployment, I now realise how ridiculous this concept is.

For the first time in my life, I am truly and completely happy. For the first time I'm not struggling with depression and anxiety. Sure, I have a very basic existence, I don't have fancy clothes or a big house. But I'm spending my days and nights doing things that I LOVE and things that are helpful and productive. My days are spent in meditation and reflection, reading, learning and writing. After my child is born I intend to raise her with this lifestyle. I can imagine no better contribution to society than to raise a child who is happy and mindful and caring and gentle. The act of becoming a mother has forced me see the world differently. I no longer look for fulfillment from external sources, I don't look to the future for ways to be happy. I am truly and completely happy in this moment. It doesn't matter what tomorrow brings, because in this moment, right now, I have all that I need.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An Empty Glass

From John Torcello

It sat on the bar that night like so many nights before looking used and marred by handling.  

Instead of its once crystal clear glistening appearance, it sat there alone, yellowed by the apparent stain of remnants of something once inside but now gone.  

Accepting its existence and purpose of being; more or less ignored by its multiple users.  Once it had been emptied of its contents, it just sat there passively listening to all of the stories; the boasting, the bravado, the sadness, the cheers.  

And yet again, they all had finished with it; tonight, left alone by itself in the early morning hours   

Now the glass was ready to move on, ready to be washed, refreshed and re-shelved for another day...another round.

But tonight its existence would be different.  

Tonight the empty glass would get its revenge.  In a split second, in its last moments of purpose, it would shine like never before and beautifully reflect and bend the available light from the room in many directions like a prism.  

The glass was dropped to the floor; it shattered into hundreds of pieces...and, it seems, finally got the attention it felt it had so deserved; after night after night of quiet service.

The sound it made when the now broken empty glass crashed to the floor made it the center of attention to the people in the mostly empty bar.   

Even more satisfying for the glass was the need for its owner and handler to have to pickup its shattered pieces, clean up the mess, and finally serve the glass for its own sake.  

This surely was more than any previous share of attention throughout its life the glass had ever experienced; ironically, only now, at the time of its looming burial.  

But the glass wasn't finished one of its last acts prior to heading to oblivion in the trash can, it drew blood from its handler in his attempt to bury the pieces of the broken glass in the trash can once and for all.  

The glass which had for so long served so many so well, which had sat there quietly and returned to service night after night; with no recognition of its use or importance; had its final revenge and was outwardly cursed to hell by the one it had served so well.  

In its destruction, its last and accidental act, the empty glass had finally been heard, been seen, was recognized and caused blasphemy; it died got its revenge.

Later, the pieces of the empty glass ultimately were melted together with the pieces of other empty, broken glasses; to be reborn again in a new form; perhaps in a new shade with a new color; to return and serve those who would once again own it, ignore it, abuse it and use it until it found its release; its supposed happiness again...through revenge and subsequent release by its certain death.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Some Words and More Words

“Karma Dharma” might seem to the knitted brow of the avid practitioner, a frivolous jingoism for Devanāgarī, referring to the order which makes the cosmos and the harmonious complexity of the natural world possible. Dharma is simply represented by the eight spoke wheel the Noble Path taught by the Buddha. Karma is what we ‘do.’

1. Right Understanding (or Right View, or Right Perspective) - samma ditthi

2. Right Thought (or Right Intention, or Right Resolve) - samma sankappa

3. Right Speech - samma vaca

4. Right Action - samma kammanta

5. Right Livelihood - samma ajiva

6. Right Effort (or Right Endeavour) - samma vayama

7. Right Mindfulness - samma sati

8. Right Concentration - samma samadhi

Thus, most of us, Westerners and Easterners alike, begin with complexity of thoughts, the intricacies of semantics, words, new words, old words, our words. With a little luck samma ditthi transforms the holograph of our conditioned reality and the shocking appearance of truth blooms like the first perception of a Mandelbrot.

We begin practice with noise and then grow silent as the tiny mind begins to realize the joke on itself and can’t help but laugh at itself in the depths of its infinite capacity for delusion, its attachment to its self, and continually the realization of the utmost seriousness and absurdity of the wheel itself. ITSELF LOL

Karma Dharma might best be seen as karma yoga for those of us who practice in the maelstrom of a furious, materialistic, spectacle of American culture. And so, we are ever mindful of the joys, great or small, celebratory or grieving, that present us with ‘Accidental Dharma’ by which we practice in the world of illusion and create blessings of compassion in the world.

In this way we all become Bodhisattvas, tethered to human life by choice and do the dog work of Buddha. Buddhism is a complicated menu of living, but it seems to this slow learner that unless one grows silent or laughs loudly, the dream continues into nightmare. Better we dream lucidly. Some of us must think of the Sixth Patriarch when dusting our houses, or Jittoku laughing at the reflection of the moon in a still pond.

The wonderful opportunity of Accidental Dharma lies in all degrees of practice and is usually responsive rather than intellectual. This old monk thinks of my best friend Brother Bob, who died over ten years ago, with a great heave and sigh. Bob suffered terribly in the few years before his death. His illness encapsulated the suffering of the world. A deeply spiritual man and ex Franciscan he reached a point where sheer pain brought with every reflex and move the desire for death, for an end.

One day a neighbor called me in emergency saying that Bob had disappeared from his apartment and was lost. A building super eventually found him, standing confused before a storage closet. He thought it led to the rooftop garden. It happened again several days later.

I sat down with Bob and we had a long talk about how unbearable his life had become and he said that he just wanted to jump off the roof, would I help him? I said of course I would. I would meet him the next day and we would go together, but he had to promise to go with me and not alone.

On the appointed day I met Bob and we began the long, slow walk down the hall to the stair exit. He never questioned why we didn’t use the elevator. And so it went---fifteen to twenty minutes to negotiate the hall and another twenty minutes to execute the three story climb to the rooftop. When we arrived Bob found that the exit was locked. I said, oh well we’ll try again tomorrow and go a different route. We did, the other roof top exit was locked.

And so it went for a few more times, even returning to the first attempt and it was of course a ‘no go‘. After the last try, Bob said, “I think it’s a bad idea.” I said, “but we tried.” I tucked him back in bed and around three in the morning, he sat up in bed, looked me in the eyes, heaved his deep sigh and died.


From Carly

It is no accident that my gift wrapped in shit is my passion.

Being a double Libran, my particular essence is my secret dream world of beauty. My passion is the cause of my suffering in man's materialistic and ideological world. But I don't shirk from suffering, indeed, my passion won't allow it. In fact, the very fact that I suffer for my passion is what gives it meaning. Suffering is the source of my strength, because suffering means I am true to my passion. The pain lets me know I am alive and free.

It is universal law that passion brings suffering. The essences of who we are determine our passions and vice versa.

Show me a man who will do things to avoid suffering, and I will show you a weak man. And the irony is, such a man brings suffering upon himself, because he lowers himself by not following his passion and thereby loses himself. He is instead, bound by suffering. He suffers meaninglessness.

Suffering builds men of character because it only bends them, until they can carry the burden of a great load. The story of Christ is the classic story of a man who has the strength of character to carry the burdens of the weak in the world. The weak man shrinks from character and choses to lose himself in evil, greed, materialism, and other idle pleasures of compensation.

However, it is of utmost importance of what strength is based upon. The truly strong man understands that softness and weakness will triumph over hardness and strongness. This is the universal law that there is strength in being weak. The truly strong man only appears to be weak. He knows how to suffer the failings of the weak and lessens their pain. He knows how to lead by serving.

I don't believe in accidents of fate. Cause and effect means that life unfolds like a fractal, growing into infinite variations of itself. There are no accidents. We make choices which shoot us off into wonderful worlds of living. The weak man avoids things and shoots his life off into his world. The man of passion makes choices that shoot his life off into his world. Therefore, every man is attached. He is a part of this cosmos whether he makes this choice or that. To think he can escape that tact is the greatest illusion of all. Either way, some suffering will occur. But suffering is just another wonderful part of life to accept and put to good use. For, in the hands of a master, nothing is useless.

Personally, I choose to suffer for my passion, beauty. And gladly so, if I must.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Once Bitten...

From Carly

Strangely even to me, when I was two or three, they tell me, I would bite people. Until one day my cousin bit me back. I don't remember the event, but it must have taught me an early lesson, do unto others.

Though now I adhere to "non-action", I still carry the trait and don't understand it, but I am much more careful about biting someone. Maybe it's because I was born in the Year of the Monkey (the monkey sits in the tree and throws peanuts at the elephants). Or maybe it's because, my astrologer says, I have a strong Mars influence in a certain place which causes me to surprise attack. It amazes me that it is quite involuntary and one must be prepared or certain of the other before applying satire or acerbic action. They might retaliate and throw a drinking cup at one.

Lessons learned are best put by Nietzsche, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." and an old proverb, "Anger without power is folly." But both aren't quite the lesson. I would say, 'That which does not kill us makes us more sensitive.' and 'Action without power is folly.'

Also, the silver lining in this dark Martian cloud is that at least I am not detached from life and strongly care enough to speak up if the time is right.


From Forest Wisdom

“I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.”

The words above are part of a chant called *‘The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection’, which are recited and contemplated on regularly by forest monks. Today, I have a chance to reflect on these words myself, as I have a sore throat and an achingly tired body, so here goes!

“I am of the nature to sicken” is true enough. Throughout my two score years, I’ve fallen victim to the usual list of minor ailments, some of which I’m suffering from today: a cold, a headache, and a stomachache. Like all other human beings, I am certainly prone to sickness, and have been occasionally ill on a regular basis since childhood. Not that I’m looking for sympathy you understand, as no doubt you could say much the same, and perhaps you have suffered from much worse illnesses in your life. But recognizing that I’m liable to be sick can reduce the amount of suffering experienced when I am ill, rather than hoping that I never am poorly and resenting the fact when it happens. Observing this body now, there’s an unpleasant series of feelings going on: soreness when swallowing, a vague throbbing in the head, and a general lethargy that seems to pervade its every cell. This is the way it is, and allowing feelings of resentment to arise won’t make the situation any better; they’re just going to exasperate matters. Taking note that there’s soreness in the throat, a throb in the head, and an aching all over is enough. Being aware of how the body is in this moment can lead to an acceptance of how things are, submitting to present circumstances. After all, Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent, and that includes unpleasant sensations.

“I have not gone beyond sickness.” Reflecting on these words, it can be seen that no one has gone beyond being sick: it is part of the universal nature of living things that we’re subject to illness. Despite achieving some level of success on the Buddhist path, I have not become immune to sickness, unfortunately. Even highly realized beings such as the Buddha and the many Arahants (enlightened ones) described in Buddhist scripture were not above feeling sick: the Buddha died after becoming ill from eating spoilt food. Now if such a thing can happen to the Buddha, how could I be out of reach of any such ailment? The trick is not cutting oneself off from the way things are right now, but opening up to them, recognizing that it’s like this, and that’s that.

So, I’m sitting here at my computer, not feeling that great, typing out the various thoughts and feelings that are arising regarding my present predicament. Am I happy or humorous? No. Am I angry or frustrated? No. I’m just ill, and that’s the way it is, for now. Tomorrow: who knows?

*The five subjects in total are: Aging, sickness, death, separation and kamma.


from Thailandgal

This past weekend, I made a decision that needed to be made a long time ago but inertia got the better of me. I am going to be moving from here sooner rather than later.

A lot of things plagued me about this decision. First, and the primary thing, is that I am a control freak. Risk is not my friend. Leaving things to chance is not something I am comfortable with at all. I like things planned and calculated for risk and having a Plan B for every situation keeps me in my comfort zone. I also play absolute hell with my rather weird sense of ethics. Things came to mind like "what if she dies alone because I abandoned her?" I battled a lot with trying to create a balance between what might be an entirely selfish decision with what on some levels is strictly healthy self-preservation.

While meditating in the garden, I began acknowledging the six directions, the winged and four-legged creatures, the water, the sky, the rocks, and all living things ... something I practiced and continue to practice since my time in Thailand. The fact that yesterday was a significant Thai holiday during which people honor water had me in that frame of mind anyway. I talked out loud to these spirits as I pulled weeds and removed dead blooms from many bushes and plants. Sometimes I stopped to play a dedication on my penny whistle. This is probably as close as I get to what might be considered conventional prayer.

Prayer works best when it is not for anything in particular. It just opens a dialogue. But that doesn't matter, not really, as a message from God, the Gods or however you define That Which Is Bigger Than All Of Us is usually incomprehensible or passed over and not noticed - not immediately anyway.

Yet as the day went along I began to notice the answers to my concerns in the form of a phone call and a visit from someone I know will help the person I am concerned about after I leave.

The pieces fell together as I realized how I can execute the move without either getting into debt or having it cause a great deal of upset. It was as clear as if it had been given to me on a step-by-step list.

I know I will be able to leave here with a free heart, knowing that I am not leaving anything behind that will create harm. It still amazes me that we can give up some control and trust the flow. This has been my most difficult lesson. I needed this obvious synchronicity to drive the point home, to put me at peace with my choice. It is very reassuring to know that I can make some decisions on my own behalf, because they benefit me, and still know that I will not be leaving a trail of harm behind.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Hair's Breadth Away...

By Anonymous...

One by one we dropped like flies. My family and I were on safari in Botswana, and had all picked up a local stomach flu. My two cousins and I, sharing a tent together, were the first to go. It was a harrowing night filled with intense and repeated cycles of vomiting and diarrhea. Hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor and unable to sleep through the nausea, I began to realize that death was not an impossibility. Meanwhile, even though we had been strictly forbidden to leave our tents at night, my family braved the lions, elephants and hyenas (all very much audibly present out there in the bush) to sit with us and refill our water bottles.

Fortunately we all survived the experience. The gift was a potent reminder me that though surrounded by creature comforts and the illusion of invincibility, everything can come crashing down in an instant. A sudden car wreck, a cancer diagnosis, or an economic disaster...and suddenly you're out (metaphorically speaking) in the African desert, exposed to the toughest of what nature can hurl at you.

Another gift that I treasure from the experience is the knowledge that even though life can seem mundane and even trifling on occasion, there are people in my life who would risk life and limb to be with me in desperate times.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Gift Wrapped in Shit

We all get them, these gifts wrapped in shit. They arrive when we least expect them, and certainly didn't want them. But if we unwrap them carefully, we find that they invariably have a heart of gold. Think of Al Gore. He was screwed out of the presidency and ended up with an Oscar and a Nobel Prize.

That's actually a bad example, because the gift is not about prizes and awards. It's about the inner teaching such gifts bring with them, and we'd have to find out from Al himself just exactly what the gift was.

Here, in brief, are two examples from my own history:

First, a big one. I spent twenty-five years of my life in academia. In each of the three major appointments I held in that period, the job came to a painful end. The first, in a tenure battle, which I won. But lost, in the deeper sense. I got to keep the job, but it wasn't what my heart or soul needed. The second ended after a war with a governing board and a new administration. The third exploded into a battle with the Carmelite priest who was my Academic Vice President: I quit. Here was the gift, which it took me twenty-five years to unwrap: I was never supposed to be an academic from the start. I was always supposed to be a writer. The gift was the guts to recognize that fact, and to open up my life to what it was given me for. (Or, to be punctiliously Churchillian, "to that for which it was given me.")

Alternatively a little one, about which I wrote at greater length in The Buddha Diaries the other day. I was standing outside the house at night, when a maniac rounded the bend by our hillside house at a great rate of speed and I indicated my disapproval with a relatively innocent gesture (NOT the proverbial finger!) In appreciation, the driver flung a paper cup filled with ice cubes at me as he roared on past. The gift in this alarming piece of sh*t--beyond the clear justification of my mild action--was a glimpse into the self-righteousness that provoked it, and an opportunity to look at myself from the driver's point of view. Interesting--and instructive.

Thus we learn about ourselves, in pieces large and small. This is the kind of thing we're looking for in "Accidental Dharma": your stories. What was the shit that happened to be flung in your direction? And, if you were fortunate enough to pause for long enough to tease it out, what was the gift?