January 29, 2009

Fricking Opinions

It's really easy for me to like people. Quite often, I'll meet someone and immediately feel some sort of connection. Sometimes I even go as far as picturing the two of us laughing together over a cup of coffee while divulging our thoughts on improving the world. (I'm exaggerating...kind of). This whole fantasy goes quite well until they actually open their mouth. And then I'm like "ahhh crap...this isn't going to work."

You must have had this type of experience. You're on a date. He's cute. He's charming. He makes you laugh. He's intelligent. You stare dreamily into his eyes. And then he says something like "Bill O'Reilly truly is the source of all wisdom." And at that moment the turn table stops. Silence. And you find yourself slightly cocking your head to the side and thinking "ehhhhh." And at that moment, the sparks are gone.

Opinions. Fricking opinions! They ruin it EVERY time. It's so easy to get along until the Vegetarian discusses meat with the friend who is a Carnivore, the uber-conservative realizes her friend's hero is Michael Moore, the housewife starts discussing family values with the working mom, the pro-lifer starts talking about abortion with the pro-choicer, and so on. And then, a perfectly lovely conversation quickly turns heated. And very often both sides stare back at each other with complete disapproval, thinking "I can't believe you ACTUALLY believe that."

I have one friend who vows not to date Republicans. Shocked by her claim, I asked her, "but, if you meet a guy at the bar and he asks you out, how the heck do you know what political party he belongs to?!" "Oh that's simple," she responded. "I just make sure on the first date the conversation turns to abortion, gay marriage, and his economic theories." Now, THAT makes for an "interesting" first date (one that I'm glad to say I won't have to go on).

And while my friend may appear slightly adamant in her dating preferences, we all kind of do the same thing. We have certain opinions, about certain things, which make us fit into certain labels, and then we go around convinced that "like attracts like." We basically go through life with motion sensors that beep more quickly when we're approaching a like-thinker. It's like "oh, you like the ocean?" (beep)," "and doing yoga?" (beep beep)," and you're an Obama supporter (beep beep beep), "and you're a card carrying member of the ACLU?" (beepbeepbeep beep)," and "and you think there's nothing better than sitting on the ocean, after yoga, and talking about Obama and civil rights issues" (beepebeepbeepebeep..JACKPOT). We all claim to like diversity, but at the end of the day, don't we just want to be surrounded by a group of people with common ideas?

Of course we do! Based on some nurture and some nature, we cling to certain opinions for safety and, in some regards, survival. If we are raised in an environment where those who surround us believe the same thing and then we look for cues to support that opinion, chances are we too will have that opinion. We then continue to pursue environments where others share the same opinions--communities of like minded people offer a safe haven to share opinions and ideas free of intense conflict. Communities also validate our opinions, which thereby strengthen these opinions and reinforce the truth of what we believe. Thus, our opinions are, in many regards, our truths that help us navigate through life as fluidly as possible.

So this is all pretty obvious. Nothing deep going on here at all. But the question turns back to the role of opinions. If we are not our opinions, what are we? And if we can't detach from our opinions (because it is inherent to mankind to have them), then how do we deal with them?

I know we are more than our opinions because I have friends who I disagree with on almost every political and religious realm possible and I still love them to death. If they were their opinions, we certainly wouldn't be friends. But there is something within their "inner-being" (if you will) that attracts me to them. And this inner-being (also called their Christ-like consciousness, Buddha nature, soul or whatever you want to call it) transcends their constructed thoughts on the world.

So once I became cognizant to the fact that we are not necessarily what we think (and the fact that just because we think something doesn't mean it's true), it was easier for me to separate people from their opinions. But that was only half the battle. Even though I knew people weren't their opinions, their opinions still drove me crazy! "Now whaaaat!?" I would bemoan (ahem whine) to myself, "It'd be so much easier if I didn't like these people because then I wouldn't have to listen to them talk. But now I actually adore these people, but can't stand it when they open their mouths!"

So where does this leave me? (I switched to the present tense because I'm still working on this as we speak.) It leaves me with a choice: only surround myself who think exactly the same way as me or have some friends who hold different views on certain issues. Once I decided on the latter, I knew I needed tools to deal with our different opinions. And through people wiser than me (ahem Buddha and other gurus) I found the answer...detachment!!

Now this may sound brutally blunt, but this is the best way of summing this point up--the best way to free yourself from the burden of other people's opinions is simply "not to give a shit what other people think." It simply is what it fricking is. They have those opinions because of COURSE they have those opinions because their own environment and experiences LED them to have those opinions. And it actually doesn't matter what they think, because they are entitled to those thoughts, and at the end of the day, it doesn't really affect me at all. That is not to say that there shouldn't be dialogue or discussions or debates about certain issues, because I think our opinions should not necessarily be definite; these conversations offer opportunities for self-exploration. But, if I can't change people's opinions, then the only thing I can change is how I react to them. I can let myself get frustrated and upset and angry and emotional OR I can simply "let go." Deep breaths. Mindful awareness of our constructed differences. And move on.

This is like soooo easier said then done. But I'm working on it. I really am. But, until I can free myself from the web of attachment of other people's opinions, the most I can do is take deep breaths, shake my fist and wail, "fricking opinions, they ruin it every time!"

January 22, 2009

The World is a Metaphor for itself?

We are really good at convincing ourselves that things are exactly as they appear and accepting the way the world works.

And if things are exactly as they appear to be, then we should stop looking for answers because we already have them: Things are what they are; life is life; death is death. Get over it.

But if the world is beyond what it appears to be, then that means there is something more. And if there is something more, then that means we need to find it. And if we need to find it, where do we do look?

Now as someone who likes to search for answers, I'm really good at buying books, listening to lectures, discussing issues, asking questions to the older and wiser, etc. But what if the answers to the world weren't found in books or songs or letters? What if the answers weren't "hiding" anywhere? What if the answers to the world ...were found in the world itself? What if God provided all the answers to "why" the world worked the way it worked in the workings of the world itself (say that ten times fast--maybe I should quit blogging and start writing tongue twisters?) This would be GENIUS!

Shit, I totally lost you. Too many "what ifs" and not enough examples. Bear with me. This is something I've tried to put into words for a while, but failed every time. Partially because it's so obvious and simple that it is hard to explain and partially because I'm still an idiot 65% of the time.

But here's what I'm thinking...we have largely convinced ourselves that the workings of the world is simply the world and not something OTHER than the world. We think that the sun is just the sun, a rock is a rock, the ocean is an ocean. But what if we entertained the theory that everything is symbolic? What if the workings of the world were an exact metaphor for how God planned for our life to be? What if the world itself told us the answers to why we can't see God, why our bodies are the way they are, why there is suffering, why the soul is buried deep? Would things make more sense? Would we stop being so confused?

For example, if someone asked you "why can't you stare at the sun?" you would probably respond, "I don't's too bright?!" (and then you'd laugh to yourself and mumble under your breath, "dumbass.") But if someone asked you "why can't we see God?" you would probably spend the next three days engaging in philosophical discussions, whipping out CS Lewis, seeking Jewish mystics, and using a lot of hand motions to try and convey a still unsatisfactory answer. A simple "because He's too bright?" probably wouldn't work, because we don't think of the sun as symbolizing God. But should we? Do we make things too complicated?

To better explain this, I'm going to you give some examples. My friend James Pearson ( ignited this whole thought process, so I'll share with you his own example.

He wrote: "The moon tries to shine its light on us every night, but is shaded by the earth herself. We fear the darkness, but we block the light. It is the nature of our world."

My other friend, Mitchell Moses, made a similar type of observation: "Funny how fitting it is that our body is made up of 60 -70% water. Maybe a hint from God on how our lives should look - Refreshing, Radiant, and Fluid. Water flows effortlessly from one form to another, but never loses the essence that defines it. " This is the nature of each individual.

And diamonds and gems, which lie deep below the surface, are only available to those who dig to find them. Beneath the superficiality of the grass, beneath the messiness of dirt, and beneath the seemingly impenetrable rock lies the most valuable and precious stones. It is the nature of our souls.

And the rain, the source of growth for almost all living things, is accompanied by dark, heavy clouds. At times, they completely shield the sun to those looking up. And the rain sometimes sprinkles and sometimes storms, but it always ceases when the winds from the west dissipate the darkness. And then, though the earth is damp and heavy from the water, true growth occurs and new life begins. It is the nature of suffering.

And the sun, the source of light and the source of life, is the only thing at which we cannot directly stare. We can feel it, but cannot see it. We perceive its rays, but are blinded by its core. And yet, in the early morning, as the new day approaches, and in the evening, when dark meets light, its brightness is subdued by the softness of colors, and in those moments we catch a glimpse, though our eyes burn after. It is the nature of God.

I could go on, blurb by blurb, to dissect the symbolism of nature's nature. About the ocean. About the tides. About mountains. But I'll leave it at these five examples for now because what may strike me as symbolism may strike you as silliness. Regardless, here's to searching for answers in symbolism.

January 13, 2009

Why I listen to my bladder more than my heart.

I have two persistent fears in life: severe turbulence and squirrels. Irrational, I know. But regardless, there you have it. In order to calm my fear of squirrels, I usually cross the street when I see one lingering on the sidewalk. (I am always about 90% sure that the squirrel is probably rabid.) In order to calm my fear of turbulence, I like to sit by the window. This ensures that I am able to see if the wings are still attached to the plane (not that it matters or changes the circumstances of anything, but go with it).

The need for the window seat, however, results in a certain situation: two people sit between you and the aisle. And this is especially a problem when, like me, you are obsessed with hydration and just chugged two gallons of water prior to boarding the plane.

The scene usually goes like this. Chug water. Board plane. Sit by window. Two strangers sit beside me. We smile at each other. Take off. Window staring. Ten minutes later, the urge arises. Already!? I ask myself. I don't want the strangers to think I was irresponsible in not making a pit stop before I boarded the plane, so I decide I'll wait a few minutes. A few minutes later, my bladder calls again. I look at the strangers. They're asleep. Frick! I cross my legs, put on Enya, and stare out the window. Try and distract myself. I can't distract myself, all I can think about is that I need to pee. Like bad. Deep breathing. I sneakily unbutton my top jean button. It helps for like a minute. We hit a big bump and the plane jerks to the left. The strangers wake up and look out the window. Now's my chance! I unbuckle my seatbelt to make my move and then the buckle seatbelt sign comes up with that cheerfully annoying "BING" sound. Nooooo!! I shriek to myself, as I sit back down. The flight attendant warns of turbulence. Deep breath. Turbulence plus bladder equals bad. You get the idea....

The last time I found myself in this situation (aka yesterday), I started thinking about the anatomy of the bladder. When our bladder calls we listen; if we don't, we explode. We stop what we're doing and we make the pit stop. Doesn't matter where it is. Doesn't matter if it's inconvenient to stop. Doesn't matter if we don't want to. We do it, nonetheless. And this obvious realization made me think how incredibly unfortunate that humans are wired to listen to our bladders more than our hearts.

You know that horribly cheesy techno song that is played in seedy clubs: "Listen to Your Heart, when it's calling for you...i don't know where you're going and I don't know whyyyyy, listen to your heart...before you say goodbyeeeee"? If you don't, it's better that way. But the point of the song is to "listen to your heart when it's calling your name." And this horrible song has some wisdom. Too often our hearts feel compelled to do something, whether it's in a relationship or in a career choice or in volunteering, but we still ignore it....because we can. Unlike our bladder, our hearts won't explode if we don't listen to it.

For example, homelessness truly breaks my heart. And my heart constantly encourages me (with sharp pangs of burden) to drag my ass downtown to the Union Rescue Mission and start volunteering. Deep down, my heart tells me "you need to go." Now if this were my bladder, of COURSE I would go. I would jump in my car and drive downtown to Skid Row, disregarding the fact it is "inconvenient," disregarding the fact that it is "out of the way," and disregarding the fact that "I don't have any time." I would go...because I HAD TO GO. But because these signals stem from my heart, I somehow justify ignoring these signs because I can.

This pisses me off (no pun intended). Are humans still so animalistic that the priorities of our bladder outweigh the desires of our heart? And if this is the case, why is our heart, our most vital and powerful organ, the easiest one to ignore? Why couldn't we have been created with some sort of contraption that FORCED us to follow our heart? It would have been so much better for our own emotional health and for the rest of humanity.

Apparently, that would have been too easy. We as humans are left to battle with our own hearts. And because of this, when we don't listen to it, we are the only one to blame. If I don't go down to the Union Rescue Mission, it is my fault. If I don't pursue a career that my heart calls me to pursue, it is my fault. If I don't stay in or leave a relationship based on my heart's subtle signals, it is my fault. And although our hearts will not explode if we do not follow these callings, worse things result, like BURDEN. And burden is the worst...slowly accumulating weight as we try to navigate through life. I think I've unfortunately mastered some feelings of burdenment at this point in my life and I must admit the weight of burden pangs much more than the desires to urinate.

And so, another New Year's Resolution is for me to truly listen to my heart throughout the course of the year. To act on it's desires. To listen to it's callings. And through it all, of course, to still listen to my bladder.

January 2, 2009

The Joy in the ABC's.

So, it's the New Year. Didn't that already happen like a year ago? Weird. Anyways, like most of my New Year's Eves, this new years was overwhelmingly and pleasantly uneventful. Over a glass of wine with a dear friend (and in typical new years fashion), we toasted to our new years resolution. We pledged to "do this more and that more and this more," all in hopes of having a new year filled with "joy." And in this quest of joy, I was reminded of an event three years ago, when I found joy in the most unusual package....

Three and a half years ago, prior to starting law school, I traveled to Thailand with my friend Hannah to work in an orphanage. It was an amazing experience, but two months into it, I was incredibly burdened. I had learned that almost all of the girls (age 5-18) had been sexually abused at least once and it was hard to reconcile the fact that while these girls needed a home, intense therapy, and schooling, all I could offer was my presence (which would soon be gone).

Before returning home, I had the opportunity to stay in a Buddhist monastery for a five days. Feeling particularly weighed down and hoping to gain some insight on happiness, peace, and divinity, I eagerly jumped at the chance. Hannah, who had seen the monastery before, quickly opted out, which was fine by me as it was the perfect chance to have some quiet time and reflect on the months past.

I didn't blame Hannah for choosing not to come. The monastery was not quite like the ones you may typically envision. There weren't 50 foot gold Buddha's anywhere, the conditions weren't pristine and white, there were no flower gardens, no views of the valleys, and no clear lake filled with orange carps. Instead, the monastery lay on the outskirts of town, where roosters ran rampant, mangled trees shaded a murky pond filled with over-sized gray catfish, and tin shacks offered a place for the monks to sleep. The temple itself was...let's say....understated . I, lucky or unlucky, was not placed in a shack, but rather placed in an empty room (minus a mat on the floor also known as "my bed") on the second floor of two story empty building. Next to the room was a "bathroom" which consisted of a hole, a bucket, and a faucet. My room had one window, which faced the duck farm next door. Perfect, I thought, as I tried to subdue my fears of the bird flu virus, which had just started to trickle its way through Southeast Asia.

While it wasn't quite what I had expected (but is it ever?) I was excited to converse with the monks about Buddhism. The only problem was that I quickly found one spoke English. Like at all. The only information that was somehow conveyed to me consisted of the chanting schedule: 4:30 am and 6:30 pm. I quickly made my usual "to do" list and tried to calm the panic I felt when all I had written was "chant." This was going to be a veryyyy looooong five days.

At 4:00 am the next morning, the roosters "politely "summoned me to awake, so I stumbled down to the temple to begin the one hour Sanskrit chanting fest. I had no idea what I was chanting, but I'm pretty sure it was holy. After chanting, the monks started walking in a straight line in silence into town for their daily ritual of "begging" for food. I, not knowing what else to do, brought up the rear. We walked for miles, into town, around town, through the market. And one by one, people in town waited patiently for the monks to arrive so they could place a bag of homemade food into the large silver bowls the monks carried. Upon inquisitive glances of locals, I just smiled and waved--I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked, a white girl with blond hair, wearing a mock nun outfit, ho-humming around behind a line of robed Thai monks.

By the time we returned to the monastery, we had accumulated enough food for a feast. Which was important because we were only to eat one meal a day (although we could continue to drink (non-alcoholic beverages of course)). This would not be good for my low blood sugar, I thought, already feeling myself get hungry the second we finished our meal. Trying to distract myself from future hunger pangs, my thoughts drifted to my disappointment that the monks would not be able to translate their knowledge into tangible words. I felt like the Little Matchgirl, standing in the cold outside and salivating upon staring into a window where a happy family is about to sit down for a warm turkey dinner. I could see the wisdom in the monks eyes, my brain salivating at the taste of such knowledge, yet I couldn't quuuuuiiiiite grasp it. This is a sick joke, I thought to myself and whipped out a book on Buddhism (I had thankfully brought), while grumbling that I could have fricking been reading this Buddhist book on a Thai beach somewhere and instead I'm reading it in a crappy farm monastery.

The next morning at 4:20, I dressed for chanting and basically slept-walked into the temple. No one was there. Typical, I thought, to myself, obviously no one communicated to me that there wasn't chanting this morning. After crawling back to bed, ahem laying on the mat on the floor, I was awakened an hour later by an eager nun. She frantically motioned "let's go." Confused, I jumped up and soon found myself being crammed into a van with 10 other monks. Two hours later, still having no idea where I was going, we arrived at a temple in Bangkok. Apparently there was a huge Buddhist festival going on (I still to this day have no idea what this celebration was supposed to be). I spent the next 8 hours walking around the grounds of a massive temple being a bewildered spectator. Monks were everywhere, eating, laughing, praying, chanting, reading, and meditating. I sat under a tree and hoped that through simple osmosis I would feel wiser and enlightened. Instead, I felt confused and dumb.

When we were ready to leave, ten tired monks and I got back into the van. Halfway through our ride home, we stopped at a Thai 7-11 and all got out. The head monk got a large cherry flavored slurpee and walked around the shop. Suddenly, I heard giggling. I turned around to see the head monk, in his robes, trying on cheap yellow sun glasses and doing a little dance which consisted of moving his arms in a robotic fashion. Completely caught off guard, I burst into giggles too. And then, once we were all back in the van, the head monk turned around to me, smiled, and said "English?" I smiled back. "Yes," I said. He pointed to himself and said "English." I looked at him curiously. And the monk, the wise and enlightened man that he was, started singing joyfully "the ABC's." Soon the other monks joined in and clapping their hands to each letter they sang together the Sesame Street Version of the ABC's. And, at that moment, I did what any other person could do at the sight of a van full of Thai monks singing the ABC's... I joined in. And once the ABC's were finished, we sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." And once that was finished, I taught them "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

And halfway through "Mary Had a Little Lamb," it hit me. THIS is exactly what I so desperately sought. It didn't come in the form of words or doctrine or a teaching or a lesson from a wise man. It came in the moment of an innocent surrendering. And It was joy at being where I was (in a van in Thailand), with who I was with (strange monk men), when I was there (at that moment) and feeling peace. And I realized that THIS was the fundamental teaching of Buddhism: being present and letting go and finding joy in the ABC's.

Needless to say, the next four days in the monastery were transformative. And while I often need to remind myself that joy is in the simplicity of life's moments, I am so grateful for that wonderful, albeit utterly surreal, experience. And so, my friends, Happy New Years and here's to a year filled with the joy in singing the ABC's.