About my hair…I have a lot less of it now. If you’ve known me for a while, you know my hair means a lot to me. More as a tool than a vanity thing, though vanity, of course, plays a part. My hair is one of the main ways I process transitions in my life, those moments when I need to change something on the inside, and the easiest way to set things in motion is by making it show on the outside. When the change is visible, I’m more committed.
I’ve worked my way through everything from bicced bald to butt-length tresses. Dreadlocks and numerous shades of purple, pink, and red have also made appearances. After I shaved my head in 2008, I waited three-and-a-half years to feel like “myself” again because at that point in time me had uber-long, fairy-who-wandered-out-of-the-forest hair. I needed it. Those long locks helped me feel like things I needed to show were visible: that the world is too much sometimes, that though I am trying to get by in normal reality, daydreaming comes easier, that I’m definitely a bit bizarre and also probably more sensitive than average, that I believe in magic, and if you give me the chance, maybe I’ll enchant you.
(Ahem…apologies to all the people I cropped out for this vanity project. Thanks to all the people who took these pics…Di, Reubs, Bettina, Tay, and thanks extra to my sis for being uncroppable). Anyway…
I lived a lot of years with all that hair or without it but feeling like it was a part of me. I don’t think it’s fair to be categorical about what it all meant, but in the process that led to cutting my hair, a few specific things about what it signified for me kept coming up. So we go from there. When I had long hair, I always felt that people were more inclined to take care of me. Maybe it has an element of little girl-ness to it. My long hair always made me feel a little like a princess from one of my childhood storybooks (they did pretty much all have seriously long locks). I got to be the main character and enchanting and the one you root for and all that, but, in the end, somebody else saves the day, and I just get to ride away on the white horse.
Maybe this makes me sound more helpless or hapless than I probably am or hope to be, but in the background, I can’t help fighting the outer circumstances that make life hard. Yeah, I want to be a good person, and help others, and develop on the path, but there’s always this part of me fighting what is. Impermanence is such a bitch; it hurts, deep. I have always maintained the part of me that holds on to things I cannot keep. I recognize myself in what is beautiful, not necessarily because I am, though who knows, depends on the day–but because that is what seems good and right to me. I have been told and I have repeated that romantic nostalgia is my primary emotion. I have always been attached to feeling deeply, having big emotions, expressing them, and having them recognized.
So much of my identity as an artist up until recently was about this. So much anguish, but beautiful anguish. If you read enough of these blog archives, you will find certain recurring terms. Keening over moors, wailing like a banshee, feeling small and sorrowful, untamed.
This is a choice I have always made about how to relate to the world: feeling like I don’t belong to it. Which, in a way, is a rebellion against the fact that its rules apply to me. This is the plot conceit in literature referred to as “man versus nature,” though in this case it’s more “girl versus the nature of reality.” It’s a good story. It’s compelling, with lots of juicy struggle.
But it’s also tiring. All of its resolutions depend on waiting for people and circumstances other than myself to change. Its rich, emotive drama is never-ending. And I…don’t want that anymore.
I think—I’m okay with not being so damn special. I’m okay with not having some kind of magical distance from the gritty, boring, real world, with not always being protected by my paintbrushes and poetry, my big emotions and ready tears, and my wave of a wall of long, long hair. I’m okay with everything I experience not being colored by some kind of profound, sweeping meaningfulness. I’m okay with just doing the hard work, dealing with mundane shit, and looking like a total ass because investing in anything and standing for it—people, projects, ideas—means giving everyone around you the opportunity to disagree with you and judge you. I’m okay with letting reality apply to me.
Accepting that I am part of this reality seems like a necessary prerequisite for understanding it. And that’s the proposition, isn’t it? Accept the situation. Understand its roots. Realize that it is not permanent. Get free.
And in real terms, that means getting my shit in order and prioritizing. Is it more important to me to protect my vision of myself and the vision that others have of me or is it more important to let others see all of my weaknesses, biases, and failures, so that I can a) grow out of them, and b) get over the importance of myself and how I appear to others? Especially if maintaining this complex system of veils and appearances takes hours of my life that could otherwise be spent on…getting actual things done: anything—reading transcripts, having conversations, doing prostrations, ironing the Lama House couch covers, writing all this perplexing nonsense out for myself, so that I can make sense of it and also share it with you guys.
And so. I cut my hair. And frankly, I’m thrilled. I still shed in the shower and I still sort of have to do my hair in the morning if I sleep on it too funny. But it’s sooo much easier. I feel it inside as much as outside. Yeah, I know. It’s just a step. I still probably spend the greater part of my time defending my sense of self and keeping up appearances, but at least I can (um…sometimes) admit that I’m doing it, and I have the inner conviction that comes from deciding I don’t want to keep digging myself into this same hole.
That conviction gives me a second of pause before I react when I feel threatened, or, when it’s too late for that, it gives me the perspective to realize when I’ve acted out of fear and self-preservation rather than looking at a situation as a whole. It also seems to slow down the falling-into-depression business because I’m committing to failure as part of the path instead of feeling like I have no power over it and am thus doomed. So that’s something.
Coincidence…or not? This week is Losar. The Lunar New Year. Six days of wrathful protector practice, two ritual fire offerings, the raising of new prayer flags on the hill, and the installation of a golden Kalachakra in front of the Institute, a symbol that represents the Buddha’s teaching across the three times, through the universe and through our own body. It is an auspicious time for change.
May our aspirations be granted—not by somebody else, but by ourselves, because we are committed to realizing them.
I don’t think I can come close to describing this week. In French, there is a term for when life is so dense that you just are just filled up to the tip-top and no more experiences fit in. Being saturated, like when a sponge is soak-sopped full with water or when you ram the colors up to an extreme in Photoshop. Whatever the analogy, it’s all just a bit too much.
I think I hit that point around Wednesday, and I’ve spent the last three days slowly squeezing out the excess, all the while trying to stay productive. This is life right now, a new exercise in productivity. Every time I think I have a full and busy life, new important things appear: a training program connected to the Bodhi Path centers that could one day help me fulfill Shamar Rinpoche’s instructions, the conception of a Dhagpo blog to celebrate our forty year anniversary (how happy I am to be included in this “we”), a renewed vigor to actually try and run the Lama House in an organized, efficient way rather than just running around trying not to let it all get the better of me, burgeoning usefulness as a native English speaker and translator, and deepening relationships that are nurturing and thus need to be nurtured.
And all this falls into the the category of “action,” not even yet speaking of meditation or study. These are the three pillars of the Buddhist path, or one way of laying out the path anyway. The volunteers got called together for a special chat with Rinpoche on Wednesday, which is maybe not a small part of why my head reached near-exploding point that day. For three hours we exchanged with him about what the program of life at Dhagpo is about and what that means to us and for us. He said, “I think everybody here wants to be useful. Wants to be a good person. For this, we need these three together.”
So now I am looking at my days, color-coding them in my Google calendar, and figuring out how I can tetris my life and schedule into making me useful, making me a good person. Into making all of my time count. And also into understanding that time is an extendable concept; in a way there is always more, just as there is never enough. What matters is being both present and relaxed such that the activity of this moment is part of the path, whatever form it may take.
Also, well…happy Valentine’s Day. I go back and forth between hating this holiday because it perpetuates an idea of love and romance that I don’t understand or ascribe to–one that is commercial, exclusive, and imagined to last forever–and kind of secretly getting into it because it’s a great excuse to make everything pink and red and heart-shaped and tell everyone I know that I love them. Making heart-shaped cookies and red cake didn’t fit into this year’s V-Day Google cal, but that doesn’t change how much love you all and wish you hugs and sweets and whatever it is you need on this day of celebration. Buy yourself a damn rose and a box of chocolate. I’m thinking of you.
Our study retreat finished this week. On the last day, Khalsang Puntsok told a story about the end of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha, with his attendant Ananda, went into to the forest to find the right place to pass into his final meditation and leave this life. As he lay between two trees, the gods sent a rain of flowers and the trees bowed down. The Buddha asked Ananda if Ananda thought that this pleased him.
Ananda said yes and the Buddha, replied that, no, this was not what was important to him. Then he asked Ananda to summon all of his disciples. The Buddha’s disciples gathered from near and far, but there was one monk who did not come. Others set out to fetch him, but the Buddha said to let him be. He was practicing and it was good that he continue, and this, in fact, is what the Buddha wished for, that his disciples would be diligent and practice what he taught them.
This is about the right conclusion for us now. We have eleven months to work through all we received in order to be ready for the follow-up next year. Pretty straightforward.
But I admit, all through the story, I was expecting, in part, a different emphasis. A famous aspect of the story of Ananda and the Buddha’s parinirvana is that the Buddha gave Ananda several opportunities to request for him to stay and not to die at this time, but Ananda did not realize until it was too late.
I thought of Shamar Rinpoche and how many of us must have asked ourselves what chance we missed to make the right request. Listening to Khalsang Puntsok these last five weeks, I realize how close we are in many ways, all of Shamarpa’s students. In Nepal this summer, the monks and nuns from Asia were mostly a sea of burgundy to me. Hearing KP tell stories of playing soccer with Shamarpa, of a torrential downpour that stopped on a moment when Rinpoche addressed a gaze to the sky, of the stories that Shamarpa told them at Kalimpong Shedra that they are telling us now here in France…it’s strikes me how little separates us, how much we are indeed family.
We didn’t grow up speaking the same language or eating the same food. I am sure many of us never imagined we would see or set foot in the other’s home country, but when we meet to talk about the Dharma, we share the same roots. And whatever chances we may have had or missed or that were never really there, the Shamar Rinpoche we knew is gone, and in his place he left us his teachings and also each other.
And so the Buddha had it right, as usual. What there is to do is to share them and to live them, together. Also to remember that our heritage is not just that of Shamar Rinpoche or the Kagyu lineage, but that of the Buddha himself. And the family is not only those of us who love and learn from the same masters, but all beings, whatever their creed or calling.
I guess that’s about where five weeks of philosophy gets me; now it’s back to the salt mines to put it all to work. The steam-infusing vacuum machine and pre-Lhosar deep clean await!
Week five of study retreat. Each week has been steadily less and less in retreat mode, as regular life needs creep steadily in. Around week three I started panicking about all the things that would need to be done if I left them till the end. Around week four I realized that a lot of things couldn’t be left till the end. And now I am just trying not to feel too feckless or lacking in diligence for the fact that, beyond attending the formal teachings and rereading the transcript or maybe my notes once, I’m not devoting my time to studying. Four hours a day is already a lot, but it’s not enough to memorize what’s being given, which is what I would like to do and what feels like doing justice to the teaching.
I know I’m not wise enough and I haven’t studied the prerequisite subjects enough to truly understand the Abhidharmakosha, but I’m convinced that if I could just solder all the lists of associated faculties and mental activities and types of sovereign mind into my memory now, I’d be able to make sense of it all properly in some future time. Only I can’t.
Partly because the groceries and the new steam-infusing vacuum machine and the pre-Lhosar deep clean and next month’s schedule and departmental meetings and new tasks with the communications team (yours truly may be contributing to a Dhagpo blog in the near future!), not to mention life, like teaching English classes, paying doctor’s bills, and studying for my French driver’s license (speedbumps are called donkey backs here). So yeah, partly all that. But partly also my heart.
Every time I study seriously, intensively, I live this. And every time, I forget. I always tell myself it’s the schedule, the being with people all the time, the intellectual gymnastics. But no, actually, if I can say it this way, I think it’s my heart.
Last night at dinner, Micka said, “After a certain amount of time with the teachings, I start to only see the flaws in everything.”
The first of the Four Noble Truths is that the nature of conditioned existence is suffering. The teachings go far beyond this, to its cause, to its ending, to the means to achieve that. Becoming free from suffering is the whole goal after all–well, half, anyway, getting everybody else free too is the whole goal. But for my part, when I start really looking and listening, I can’t help it, I tend to get a bit mired in the first part.
I am SO far from anything resembling clarity, one-pointed focus, or non-self-referential love. My faith is emotional and my understanding is personal. My discipline is superficial and mostly neurotic when it does function. That long list of mental activities that accompany afflicted mind…yaaah, I know them well.
Whenever I reach this point, I tend to think of three things. Well, no, actually what happens is that I tend to start slipping into motionlessness, into the grey static where no act is meaningful enough to combat the hugeness of it all, and I no longer know how to greet the day or my mind or other human beings. Trying to be fair, this overwhelmption is maybe part of me, and I will have to accept it perhaps at many turns in my life. But Shamar Rinpoche said that if a person practices calm-abiding meditation long enough, she will no longer experience depression. Until my efforts take effect, I’m building a toolkit for when reality becomes overwhelming.
Here are my three things:
1) Some enlightened being in some treatise or sutra (maybe Gampopa in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation?) once said, “Ordinary beings cannot perceive the true nature of reality, of emptiness. It is too vast for the ordinary mind.” Which helps because it means that it’s normal that touching on this vastness through the teachings sends me spinning. I’m an ordinary being. I can only understand as much as my mind can take, and increasing my understanding means working the edge. Vertigo is part of the process, and I need to rest with that.
2) Dhongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche said in his book Not for Happiness that true compassion is like a dagger in the heart. So all this pain and this vision of anguish perhaps simply mean that I’m headed in the right direction. And practice is learning to see them and keep moving.
3) The Buddha gave us this one directly, and in the Heart Sutra no less: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness. Emptiness is no other than form.” Though I am far from understanding it truly–speaking of that emptiness too vast for the ordinary mind–I try to remind myself that for all of its sharp edges and smothering weight, suffering has no essence. That if I keep going, the illusion will fragment on its own and I will be able to see suffering and its formlessness at the same time. And from there, I will truly be able to act, and act for the benefit of all.
It’s not exactly a monkey wrench or a tape measure, but it’s what I have for now and it helps, even if it doesn’t silence the static completely. And like always, the little worldly things that make up my worldly life are still here for me. They are what I know and where I’m at and maybe I am learning to be kind about what gives me solace on the path. I made cookies almost completely without feeling frivolous, and much more with gratitude for something simple and solid that I understand and touch and share. It’s not ultimate anything, but it might be relative something, and I think it’s going in the right direction.