Walking Around with No Skin

On Tuesday night, I gave a student dharma talk at our Zen sitting group. The topic that I chose was anger, the precept that I have been studying, and struggling with, and turning inside out on a daily basis for the past few months.

I spent several days carefully planning what I would say, trying to balance my own story with a few insights culled from the pages of Buddhist teachers like Robert Aitken and Thich Nhat Hanh and Seung Sahn. It felt pretty reasonable and coherent, on paper.

But when I sat in front of my sangha members, fourteen of them, and began to talk, all sorts of doubts cropped up. As part of my dealings with anger, I chronicled instances from my past when I had lost my cool. In sharing them, speaking them out loud, it seemed they became shocking, startling. It felt as if I was portraying myself as a person who snapped easily and often, a walking time bomb. I grew uneasy as I looked around the circle, trying to read everyone’s faces. Did they think I was a monster?

A piece of me wanted to backtrack, and rewrite the script, to begin making explanations. After a reference to anger with a girlfriend, I longed to say, “I have been in a relationship with Sabrina for six years, and not once in that time have I ever yelled at her, or even raised my voice.”

I scrambled through my memories, thinking of all of the other reactions that come with far greater frequency than my own anger or outward violence: disassociation, depression, fear, self-doubt, nightmares. Those have been my main battle.

But, no. That is not the point. I also have anger. It is there. It is inside me, often buried, but inside me nonetheless. And at times, it does burst out, usually inappropriately. I need to face that in all honesty and courage.

After the talk, a couple of my sangha members thanked me for my honesty. This, too, is something that catches me a little off guard. I appreciate the comment, since I know it is offered genuinely enough. But, there is simply no other way I know how to be. Even when at times it might be better to keep some things more private, out of self protection, I’ve never been very good at drawing that line. Most of my life, I have walked around with no skin. All you need to do is ask. If I know the answer, I will tell you. It’s all here, right on the surface.

The downside to that, of course, is that on the day following such a talk, I feel completely naked in front of the world. And it is only through sitting, and breathing, and writing it down, that I can begin once more to believe that I will be able to walk into that room and face those people without fear. It is a process, one that I undertake over and over again.


Sitting in a Hut With Anger

The passage in Jack Kornfield’s “The Wise Heart” that spoke to me goes something like this:

Jack Kornfield had graduated from college, and gone to Thailand, where he had joined a Buddhist community and taken monk’s vows. One day, he became upset because he felt he had been mistreated by a senior monk. It made him feel angry. He spoke to his teacher about the incident, hoping to find resolution. His teacher said, “Good. Go back to your hut, put on all of your robes, sit, and be angry.”

It was in the middle of summer. He went to his small hut, put on all of his heavy monk’s robes, and sat down to meditate. He was hot outside from the heat of the day and the heat of the robes. And he was hot inside, from the anger churning inside of him. The anger boiled up, all out of proportion to the incident which had occurred with the senior monk.

Kornfield had grown up in a home with a father who beat his mother. As a child, he had tried to be the peacemaker. All of his life, he had imagined that he was incapable of anger, that it was something that did not exist within him.

Sitting in that hut, he began to open that old wound, and slowly started the process of healing, by experiencing the anger. He worked with anger over the next few years. He realized that all along, he had been much closer to his father than he ever realized – so close, that he had suppressed the anger out of a deep fear of hurting himself or others.

I completely understand the flash anger that is out of proportion to the incident, such as Kornfield experienced when mistreated by the senior monk. My sense of righteous indignation is strong and fierce and sudden. Most recently, I have been dealing with some issues in my work, where I feel people are not being truthful with me. It is not personal; we are playing out roles, with me as a representative of “the press,” while they are representatives of “interviewees.” But I become incensed, enraged by the apparent dishonesty. I am quick to judge, and relentless in my determination to “win.” My years of training have allowed me to camouflage that anger in their presence – I am a master at playing nice. But in the office, in front of my peers, I pace and rant and storm about. It seems that I am gradually losing my ability to tamp down the feelings. They keep popping up unexpectedly, lingering, following me home. I’ve been feeling really pissed off.

Although this feels like a loss of control, it is, ironically, I believe, a move in the right direction, a step towards greater cohesion. If I can face these little irks and problems, maybe then I can begin to tap into that deep well of rage boiling deep down inside of my gut. I think it is my time to go sit in my hot hut in all of my heavy robes.


Does That Evil Little Voice Ever Shut Up?

In two short months I will go through my jukai ceremony. I am feeling woefully unprepared. It’s been so crazy recently – with the extra load at work, first because of a co-worker’s illness, and then because of my boss’s long vacation, and then my grandmother’s hospitalization and recuperation, and now this ongoing worry about our parrot – on Saturday, just as I was about to head out the door to my Precepts class, he had another “vascular event,” as the vet put it, and we had to race him to the emergency clinic to put him in a tank with oxygen again. He is home, but still weak, and we have no idea what the prognosis is, and that is too much to even think about right now, so we are taking it one hour at a time.

There is this naggy little voice in my head that is berating me on a daily basis. You missed your Tuesday sitting group again. I can’t believe you’ve missed Precepts twice now! And you had to find a substitute last week for doan duty! You’re not blogging regularly! When was the last time you had dokusan? Are you serious about this? What kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

It would be bad enough if the evil voice was only echoing around in my head during the day time. But it even shows up in my dreams. The other night I dreamed that Tony and Darlene were both mad at me, and took me aside to tell me how disappointed they were in me. The next night, I dreamed about my mother being disappointed in me. The next night, it was my boss. Hey, get in line! Apparently, everybody gets a turn!

In the middle of all of this mess, though, there is a tiny little voice saying, “But you’re working really hard on some big issues now, too.” The precept I chose to study for my year leading up to jukai was the one dealing with anger. For a while, it seemed that I had made a mistake, that it wasn’t the right one. But in the past two months, I have come to realize that it is exactly the right one – my anger was simply so deeply buried that it has taken a long time for me to unearth it. Lately, it is spilling out all over the place, and I am learning a lot, about anger, and about myself.

When Tony and Darlene said people were one of three types, either greed, hate or delusion types, I could never figure that out. None of them seemed to fit for me. But reading a book by Jack Kornfield recently, I finally heard an analogy that opened it up for me, and I clearly saw myself – and I knew instantly that I was a hate type, which horrified me. I’ve been burying that for my entire adult life. That’s where all that anger is.

So there’s this part of me that knows that even though I haven’t been able to keep every commitment I wanted to keep recently, I am still doing the work. I am still here, opening my heart every day, looking deeper, showing up.

I wish that other evil little voice would pipe down every now and then and give me a break. Any suggestions on how to hit the mute button?


Taking the Fifth

The Fifth Precept is: Avoiding the deliberate loss of awareness. It is sometimes defined as “no intoxication” and also as “to cultivate clarity for self and others.”

The most literal interpretation is to avoid alcohol and other drugs. That, for me, is easy. I am ten years clean and sober, after earlier escape finally proved too problematic to continue. So when I first read this precept, I thought, “No big deal. I’ve got this one licked already.”

But as our discussion in last week’s precept class unfolded, it became clear to me that there was still much work ahead. In Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche’s explanation of the Five Precepts, on the fifth he says, “I commit myself to the avoidance of mindless and unskillful consumption of anything.” Now that opens up a whole new dimension.

Suddenly, everything is on the table: my cigarettes, my chocolate, my naps, my online shopping sprees. “Mindless and unskillful consumption” pretty much sums up what happens when I’m trying to avoid myself.

I know this is true, because when I try to quit one of them, just as when I first quit alcohol and drugs, the discomfort and dis-ease of each moment is nearly intolerable. The last time I tried to quit smoking, about six months ago, on the second day I thought to myself in total despair, “I’m never going to enjoy anything ever again!” Talk about drama! And for the last two days, I have been unable to sleep through the night. Normally, sleep is a refuge for me. Lately, it has been filled with bad dreams, and fitful awakenings. Instead of getting up and sitting zazen, or writing in my journal, or doing anything that might be a way of being present with myself, I go into a total tailspin of anxiety and fretting, worried that I will never be able to sleep again.

Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche does offer an alternative to the “checking out” mode. He says, “I commit myself to inebriation from the hot blood of compassion, and to the experience of kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings.”

“The hot blood of compassion” – sounds racy and enticing, yes? And who can argue with experiencing “kindness, merriment, and freedom for all beings”? Makes the sugar and the nicotine look paltry by comparison.

I guess it’s time to take the Fifth.


Vowing Not to Steal

On Saturday in our precepts class, we discussed the second precept (no theft) as explained by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche.

At first glance, vowing not to steal sounds pretty straightforward, something fairly attainable. As long as you avoid grand theft auto and shoplifting, you’re good to go, right?

Not according to Chogyam Rinpoche. As Tony Patchell puts it, the man must be a lawyer – his dense paragraph about the myriad ways in which one can commit larceny leaves no legal loophole. Everybody can be caught up by this precept.

The first line: “I commit myself to refrain from stealing my own opportunities for realization and squandering the proceeds in attempting to create more comfortable methods of remaining in samsara.” Samsara is defined as the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. What a concept! That we seek to make ourselves more comfortable in our suffering – more money, better security, more things, excellent health – instead of coming face to face with the reality of the human condition, as it is. Choosing not to pursue the path of Buddha, choosing not to hear the truth of dharma, choosing not to work towards alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings – this is a theft, stealing from ourselves our opportunities for enlightenment.

And the next line is just as hefty: “I commit myself to the awareness that I cannot extricate myself from involvement in exploitation, social injustice, oppression and theft.” We are all players in this drama – not one of us is free from implication in the dark forces of the world. This was a good line for me to read. The things I am most passionate about are issues of social injustice and oppression. In that fight, I fall easy prey to the tyranny of self-righteous anger. And then I help no one, especially not myself. There is never a clear role of victim/perpetrator. We all have a part in this. No good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats. Instead, a whole lot of grey.

Chogyam Rinpoche continues: “I recognize that it is impossible to be ‘pure’ and disconnected from the causes of loss, impoverishment and deprivation of other beings. Because of this I commit myself to making the attempt to deprive others as little as possible through my presence in the world. I recognize that simply to live is to have gained personal advantage from the disadvantage of countless others.”

This part is important – he points out that although it is impossible to avoid causing loss, impossible to take nothing from anyone in the world, still we can make a vow. We can commit ourselves to depriving others “as little as possible.” Every day we make purchases that can be traced back to exploitative labor practices and disastrous environmental policy. Every day we our wages, our food, our general affluence, is gained at the expense of others less fortunate on the planet. But what is crucial here is that we cannot despair in that knowledge. We still need to make the commitment, to vow each day as much as possible to minimize our negative impact, our plunder the treasures of the Earth. Every small step counts: the conscious choices at the grocery store, the reusable canvas bag, the boycotting of companies that employ child laborers in sweat shops, the adoption of a vegetarian diet, the sharing of our personal wealth and time with service organizations. Living as gently as possible is something that each of us can reach for each day.

Chogyam Rinpoche says, “I commit myself to generating kindness and generosity, by sharing my time, energy and resources with those who experience need.” In other words, the second precept is not just about vowing not to steal. It is about committing to the reverse of stealing – promising to be open and magnanimous, giving from our hearts, our wallets, and our minds.

Quite a vow. And yet, all it takes is this action, in this moment, to begin.


Getting Intimate with Anger

As part of the jukai process (lay ordination), each of us was asked in August to choose one of the Buddhist precepts to practice literally for a year. The intent was to select something that would be challenging, something that touched a deep part of yourself.

I chose the Ninth Precept, which deals with anger. One version reads: I vow to not harbor ill will, but to practice loving kindness. Other times it is listed simply as: There is no anger.

At first, I was drawn to the “no slander” precept, which is definitely something I could use some work on – especially at the office, where we find great delight in pointing out the shortcomings of various people we run into in the course of the day.

But something about the “no anger” precept drew me, even before I could clearly articulate why. The expression of anger for me is almost taboo. I grew up witnessing a lot of rage and unpredictable outbursts, and experienced more as a young adult living with explosive partners. Other people’s anger terrifies me. I will do anything to get away from it.

Equally terrifying is the knowledge that I myself have the capacity to get angry. I have spent much of my life burying those feelings deep in my body; although outwardly it may appear that I rarely blow up, inwardly anger resides in secret pockets, behind closed doors, and I live in constant fear that it will leak out into the open.

I have been kidding myself that I have successfully entombed that inner rage. I am listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, Don’t Bite the Hook, which deal with anger. In her words, I am hearing how my anger has nested itself into my life.

I have always been strongly opinionated. When I was very young, I was incredibly rigid in my belief system. I like to think that I have grown a great deal in the last twenty years, softening some of that extreme version of the world in clear-cut black and white sides on every topic. But there are a number of things that I still feel so passionately about, truths that I have come to through intense and hard personal work, that I can still be amazingly intransigent, convinced that I am right.

I’m talking about things like speaking out against racism or ethnocentrism or homophobia or violence against women. I’m referring to bigotry and religious intolerance and xenophobic rants. Those are the things that make my blood boil.

For all of my talk of compassion and acceptance, hearing that the local cop who happens to be a friend of mine had voted for Prop 8, taking away the right of gay marriage, I became so incensed that I had to leave the room.

One night at a club, a Filippina woman I was dating made a racist comment about the black karaoke singer. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her violently towards me, demanding, “What did you say?” It wasn’t until I saw the fear in her eyes, the way she recoiled from me, that I realized I had completely lost it, becoming as dark as the bigotry I was sworn to combat.

When I was walking downtown in Los Gatos, and a pick-up truck of guys drove by, hollering out the window at me, “Fucking dyke!” – instead of being a warrior bodhisattva, facing that assault with kindness and patience, I spun around and flipped them the bird, yelling, “Fuck you!” at the top of my lungs.

The day I saw a man strike his girlfriend and throw her to the sidewalk, I was so enraged that I began to run towards him. I had every intention of leaping on top of him and pummeling him with my fists. The only thing that stopped me was the friend who physically held me back.

Even though these particular examples make me feel ashamed, I have always justified them. I am a lesbian who has been discriminated against, and physically threatened because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-racial/cultural family, and witnessed too many examples of racism in the society at large. I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don’t want any other woman, ever, to be afraid the way I was.

I was in the right. I was working for social justice. It’s necessary to get angry to fight back. How else are we going to defeat all this hatred?

Well, well. I wonder why I chose the Ninth Precept?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved