Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hungry Ghosts



Although I did begin to experience brief moments of calmness, dread and fear continued to haunt me like hungry ghosts...
- Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living


I recently came out of an emotional bad spell - emerging from it felt a lot like hitting the surface after you've been underwater just a little too long. This spell of anxiety/fear/depression/whatever it was taught me more than usual because it happened smack dab after I had a really awesome year business wise. I was on a high. Things were so good I had to go buy a suit so I could go to Las Vegas and get an award for being so awesome. That is important to note not because getting an award is important (but it is kind of cool, right?) but because of what happened after the award.

Intellectually I knew that all the activity I had in the funnel would end, and I'd be back in building mode. I knew it and even tried to prepare myself for the letdown. My business is cyclical - I know that. And I like building mode. Building mode is how one gets to closing mode. I just had a run of especially good fortune and my building mode was a distant memory, which I knew was not such a great thing for me. In the midst of my crazy happy frenetic good luck mode, I tried to prepare for what would come after the constant activity of balancing all the stuff in the hopper died down. I know how I can be - I get nutty sometimes, so I tried to protect myself.

There is a saying: "Trying lets us fail with honor." I failed. I'm not sure I had any honor, either.

I woke up one morning and I was scared. Not just a little scared, either. I was in full-on panic mode. I remember thinking, "Dammit, Lisa, this is exactly what you worked to prevent." Yep it sure was. In my defense, I had a crazy end of September/October. We had family in from out of town (stressful), my Mom had spine surgery (surprisingly stressful), the foster greyhound we rescued need to be carried up and down our stairs in order to go outside (it takes both of us - constantly coordinating schedules is stressful), I bought a car (consumerism is, for me, fraught with drama, tension and guilt - stressful, but I sure like the car) and Ginger decided to feng shui our bedroom. Not only was I going through something hard, I had to do it with our bed facing a new and opposite wall. Things like that do bad things to me. I spent an entire sleepless night focused on whether the bed facing the other direction was symbolic of me never closing another deal. During that mental wrestling match I started doubting my employ-ability (I only have one suit!!) and by morning I had tearfully decided my only option was to make this thing work or I'd end up living in a paper box. I went to bed scared, I woke up panicked and I think Ginger wanted to throttle me (I wanted to throttle me).

The really bizarre thing is that during this period of maybe three weeks, I started to see the fruits of my labor begin to appear in my bank account. That didn't help me - nor did the knowledge that I now have a small cushion - something I haven't had since I started. Okay, it might be more of a thumb rest than a respectable cushion, but we are better off than we were a year ago. Logic and reason were clearly not helping me out of the funky miasma of my fear and dread.

Intellectually I knew this was just my mind playing tricks. I knew there was no reason for my surging adrenaline, sweaty palms and pounding heart. But still my fear and dread consumed me like hungry ghosts, and it was a drag. I was worried about losing my freshly attained success (perhaps I clung to it too strongly?), but not getting a handle of my anxiety was the one sure way to lose it.

During this period I threw myself back into my meditation practice, which had slipped. Eventually my perspective got a little more solid, and my palpable fear receded. I do credit my meditation practice with my respite from fear, which also motivated me to do more digging into the science of meditation, mind, depression and anxiety.

We own an old issue of the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche on the cover. I like looking at his face; He has an incredible smile, and like his story too. We don't often hear about Buddhist monks who battle anxiety disorders. He is open about his history and I find his approach to Buddhism and science illuminating and refreshing.

"When you are trained as a Buddhist, you don't think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, "Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should do to avoid unhappiness." Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living

I enjoy his discussion about the brain and the mind. I love the interplay of scientific language like brain stem, limbic region, neocortex, neuron, synapse, and action potential with Buddhist phrases like suffering, impermanence, and mindfulness. The current studies on meditation and neuroplasticity are really exciting. The fact that we can physically change our brain by training our mind is fantastic, and offers incredible hope and relief for suffering people. It offers incredible hope for me.

This weekend I realized that I love Buddhist theory in the same way I first reacted to postmodern and feminist theory. That first exposure to critical theory turned my world upside down - it was a fresh lens of critique that shaped (and still does) how I see the world. I learned to fearlessly turn that critique upon itself - because that is always where the really juicy stuff happens. I especially loved Audre Lorde's critique of feminism (and everything else) because of her unique views on self, identity and power. She was able to deconstruct so much of what was held as sacred. It felt very true to me then, and still does.

"I am defined as other in every group I'm part of," she states. "The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression". She described herself both as a part of a "continuum of women" and a "concert of voices" within herself. - Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals.

This weekend I realized that Buddhist theory might be the one of the most fundamental critiques there is, because it is offers a deconstruction of mind, perception and meaning at the most essential level. I am always dissatisfied by the limitations inherent in whatever flavor of critical theory I use. While feminist theory offers valuable insight, patriarchy is not the root of all evil, neither is racism, nor classism at the heart of every problem between people. All of these provide valuable analysis, of course, and I am not in any way denying their power. But I often feel that we face a crisis even deeper than the problems those analyses illuminate. We wish to find happiness and avoid suffering that seems a part f our existence, and so much of our problematic behavior is an attempt to do that.

Here is a great passage from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's book, The Joy of Living:

"The basic concern shared by all beings - humans, animals, and insect alike - is the desire to to be happy and to avoid suffering.Although each of us may have a different strategy, in the end we're all working for the same result. Even ants never stay still, even for a second. They're running around all the time and building or expanding their nests. Why do they go to so much trouble? To find some kind of happiness and avoid suffering.

The Buddha said that the desire to achieve lasting happiness and avoid unhappiness is the one unmistakable sign of the presence of natural mind. There are in fact many other indicators, but listing them all would probably require another book. So why did the Buddha assign so much importance to this one particular sign?

Because the true nature of all living creatures is already completely free from suffering and endowed with perfect happiness: In seeking happiness and avoiding unhappiness, regardless of how we go about it, we're all just expressing the essence of who we are.

The yearning most of us feel for lasting happiness is the "small still voice" of the natural mind, reminding us of what we are really capable of experiencing.The Buddha illustrated this longing through the example of the mother bird that has left her nest. No matter how beautiful the place she has flown to, no matter how many new and interesting things she sees there, something keeps pulling her to return to her nest.

In the same way, no matter how absorbing daily life might be - no matter how great it may temporarily feel to fall in love, receive praise, or get the "perfect job" - the yearning for a state of complete, uninterrupted happiness pulls at us.

In a sense, we're homesick for our true nature."

Seeing the world through this lens helps me stay focused on my practice, and to my periods of fear for what they are - products of my mind. It gives me great comfort to know that my mind can be trained, and I'll make sure to read this for a reminder if/when my ghosts get hungry again.



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