on the death of a beau

My first heartbreak – the first boy I loved. He died today; suddenly, due to suicide. The community is reeling from this – as we will, for some time to come.

I had been thinking about him just last Friday, as I sat in the shade with a friend on a bench beside two bright yellow school buses at my kids’ rural school. I have a pleasurable association with school buses singularly due to this young man; on field trips we’d sit together and flirt, and I adored him. Shortly after one such trip he broke up with me at the Aquatic Center because I was too “straight” – late-eighties parlance for not being more willing to kiss, or hold hands, or advance along those lines – and he broke my heart. I was twelve. Later that evening my father picked me up in the family 1984 Cougar and drove me home in the rain; my eyes spangled with tears and windshield diamonds as the Poison ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorns” played on the radio. I was quiet; my father never asked why I was sad. I knew the moment was maudlin but at the same time it was very real. That wouldn’t be my last romance with the young man in question. And in this funny way that breakup toughened me up and we remained friends through the friendship, and more, that followed.

This man left behind many who loved him deeply; none more than, I suspect, his parents, his widow, and his children. I know a little about suicide and it’s a special kind of heartbreak – although any sudden and early death is hard to come to terms with.

Tonight I’m thinking of the times we spent together – from my preteens on through young adulthood. Many memories are too personal to share here. This man was a wonderful man and he must have loved his family very, very much. I remember suicidal thoughts, and the memory is a spooky one: somber, serious, not even full of pain, quite-matter-of-fact. I stood at my kitchen sink and thought, “The world would be better off-“. A moment later I knew I had to call someone. It was the thought of my children: impermissible. I felt numb, but I knew better.

I got through, but many do not.

This news, coming on the eve of my thirteenth wedding anniversary, touches me deeply.

Life, it seems, is not easy, and it is not fair. It doesn’t make sense, not to my mere mortal brain at least – and it doesn’t have to. I am here to comfort, and to understand – not to write the playbook.

Goodbye, dear boy. Know you were loved deeply, and by many.

a poem on humility

Yesterday a man I just met, recited a version this poem. The circumstances and story of his life are such that it was all the more meaningful to me:

It is only a tiny rosebud,
A flower of Allah’s design;
But I cannot unfold the petals
With these clumsy hands of mine.

The secret of unfolding flowers
Is not known to such as I.
ALLAH opens this flower so sweetly,
Then in my hands they die.

If I cannot unfold a rosebud,
This flower of Allah’s design,
Then how can I have the wisdom
To unfold this life of mine?

So I’ll trust in Allah for leading
Each moment of my day.
I will look to Allah for His guidance
Each step of the way.

The pathway that lies before me,
Only Allah knows.
I’ll trust Him to unfold the moments,
Just as He unfolds the rose.

I was so impressed by this poem. It is a reminder that present circumstances are not all they seem; and that I have a good life, as long as I don’t interfere with it.

when the thieves come

One of my mentors first brought my attention to the adage:

“We’re here to build character, not be one.”

This has been a most meaningful concept which drifts in and out of my consciousness, usually at two separate times: when I am facing an opportunity for growth, and about to take that opportunity – or when I’m watching someone else at that same juncture.

I believe most people have a tendency to resist growth. We resist growth and as a result, our lives get more painful and pinched. We become consumed in obsession, or rage or anxiety, our ambitions, our “busy”, our self-absorbed “life isn’t good enough”. Our days can go on this way for years. It’s a painful way to live.

At best we try to manage and direct our growth. “I’ll read this self-help book and then I’ll feel better.” “I’ll pretend everything is okay and then somehow it will be.” “I’ll tell the story about how I’m the victim so everyone will see how Special I am.” “After I get this job/quit this job/get a boyfriend/lose this boyfriend/move/stop moving I’ll feel better.” Ad infinitum.

In rare cases we will see the futility of this life, this resistance. We will feel a pain – maybe a little, maybe the most we’ve ever known. We will give in, give up, let go. We will be come teachable. Perhaps we’ve been wrong about the whole business after all!

Then, and only then, are we able to grow. And wonderful things are ahead.

Let me tell you a recent story from my life.

Almost a year ago now, our family was wronged by members of another household. The painful experience was swift, baffling, hurtful, and confusing. Despite my path of faith, wonderful friends, family, and mentors, I felt cast into darkness.

I relied on my faith as I never previously had. It was the only place I found even a little comfort. I talked with my mentors and trusted friends. I tried to take helpful, sensible action and help my family – and myself. For a long time, I was almost numb to the fact I’d been wronged. I was so busy trying to figure out how to recover our losses I didn’t have time for the people who hurt us. Over time I began to know they had hurt my family in a way that I found difficult to take. My mind began to obsess – how could they do this? Why did they do this? What is wrong with them?

It has been a while now, and my family is doing well. But these memories are sometimes painful. On my drive to and from errands I see the house where these people live. I am reminded of my pain, humiliation, fear, and confusion on an almost-daily basis. Sometimes I see the parties who hurt myself and my family.

What should I do? Should I bring up my grievance? Should I, as so many do, nurse that private grudge and relive my past pain? Should I knock on their door and extend an olive branch?

This is where I have an opportunity to grow.

My old behaviors are not healthy or helpful. They have me wishing revenge, or that harm would come to those have hurt me. Sometimes, my old behaviors have me go the other route – that of denial. Constantly wanting everything to be “okay”. I want to have a talk with those who’ve harmed me so we can sort it all out, drop the ill-feeling. I want them to, if not admit they wronged me, at least tell me they like me and wish me well. I want to manage my reputation – I want people not to know the worst about me (or my family); I want people to hold me in high regard.

These are all attempts to manage my pain, or to make it go away. Plain and simple. When we see we are trying to manage our lives, we can laugh – a little.

“Building character”, for me, means to accept that I’m in pain, that I was wronged, and that I refuse to wrong others. I don’t have to be friends with these individuals. I don’t have to “have a talk” with them where we (supposedly) clear up any misunderstandings. I don’t have to do anything about them except refuse to nurse a grudge, and to extend to them courtesy, my well-wishes – and leave them be.

It can help, sometimes, to take the long view:

The other day I received a thorough and heartfelt apology from someone who believed she’d wronged me three years ago. Her infraction had weighed on her mind. She detailed her wrongs, and apologized thoroughly.

I ask myself this: I must live in a way that I will be okay if I receive an apology in three, ten, twenty years. But I also must live in a way I will be okay if I never receive an apology, if I never know why these people sought fit to hurt us.

I refrain from causing harm to others. I will not gossip, or wish them will. I will not slander their characters (aloud or in my mind).

I refrain from causing harm to myself. I will not constantly relive painful memories. I will not criticize myself for the pain I felt (and sometimes feel), for my best-attempts when I suffer, or for my mistakes.

“Patience, persistance, & prayer”. It ain’t glamorous, it ain’t exciting. But growth? Yes. It makes for growth.

a wish on mother’s day

When I had my first child, people were very kind. They said wonderful things about the joys of caring for children. They honored me with their well-wishes and their respectful words.

Twelve years later, I grieve a little. I wish my place as a mother had always been so honored, but this was not to be. The world is hard on mothers. We are sentimentally sanctified by turns, then torn apart in every way imaginable – figuratively, and literally (the leading cause of death for pregnant women is homicide). We are made into angels for others’ convenience, and then raged at when we so often demonstrate human imperfection.

We are told we had too few kids, or too many, or not the right kind of children, or that we have been neglectful – or over-involved. The world is critical of all women, but mothers especially. For when our children err or are hurt, or are simply children, mothers are always criticized as well – usually quite ruthlessly. We have always done too much or done far too little.

Yet no one is so hard on the mother as the mother herself. Doubts pile up, mistakes are made. Envy, anxiety, the stress of providing for children – their clothing, their food, their education, their environment. And yet all this is nothing compared to the distress we feel when the day comes that our children suffer. On this day most mothers will experience a pain almost indescribable, almost beyond the reach of God herself.

I can’t pinpoint the moment – the month, week, or day – that I departed from how hard I’d been on myself, for my mistakes as a mother. All I know is, at some point I knew I had to set foot on a different path. I know I had to first admit – as the saying goes – to God, to myself, and to another human being just what those mistakes were. Maybe that was the hard part. Then once those mistakes were out in the open, I had to do something about them. I had to pluck up my courage. I had to dig deep. I had to let some relationships die (they’d been dead a while anyway!). I had to grown new ones. I had to stretch out my hand for help.

Today I no longer say “had to”. I say, “get to”. I get to let relationships die that are harmful. I get to grow new ones. I get to show courage on a daily basis. I get to love myself. No matter what.

Today my thoughts are with the world’s mothers, and the world’s children – and those who believe themselves motherless, and those who believe themselves childless. May we all be freed from our selfishness, and our self-absorption; our preoccupation with our personal woes and the wrongs done to us. May we open our hearts to others, and more fully to ourselves.

For those with hard hearts, with a spirit of unforgiveness and anger toward their mothers, I offer my soft heart, my listening heart. I know what it is like to hate. I know what it is like to go over – and over, and over – wrongs (real or perceived). It’s a hard place to be. I wish you peace.

For those whose mothers are gone, and who miss their mothers, I offer my condolences. I know these loved ones live on in your hearts.  May your memories bring you peace, strength, and bittersweet love.

My mother, and the mothers in my lineage, taught me a great deal about love – but they taught me even more about toughness, about resiliency.

For my mother, I thank her for the years of service she gave me. I thank her for being a wonderful grandmother to my children.

For my father, I thank him for honoring me with autonomy, and for showing me a little of the way of Buddhism. I miss him, but his spirit lives on within me.

For my husband, I thank him for joining hands with me on this journey. I am proud to call him my husband and I have never wanted another by my side. My love for him grows in breadth and depth daily.

For my children, I kneel at my shrine in the morning and name them, and dedicate them to the Buddha. They are my greatest teachers. I love them more dearly than anything.

On this day I honor Mothers, and I honor the ability of Nurture that dwells within each of us. We all have it; it is a gift no one can remove save ourselves. We should never denigrate it, never treat it with cynicism or apathy.

May we have safety; may we have health; may we have happiness; may we have peace.

on making mistakes

Tonight my heart is heavy as recently I had the opportunity to take an action that wasn’t an easy one. I do not regret my decision, and I am proud of how I handled myself through it. And even though my life has a new element of uncertainty and fear, I am willing to live with the consequences – and learn from them, hopefully. It is one of those things where I come to really rely on my Buddhist practice, my faith. In the trials of life I find that’s all I can rely on.

It is easy, when doing something new, or when contemplating a change to one’s life – a large change or a small one – to become preoccupied with our mistakes. It is easy to self-criticize even more when we see our mistakes, our behaviors, repeat over and over, sometimes long after we began to wish for something different.

Let me illustrate. As an alcoholic, I understand what it’s like to drink more than I want. Or drink on occasions I didn’t think I wanted to. Or drink, then experience unpleasant consequences that were out of my control. Now – even then, someone could experience these things and not consider themselves an alcoholic. But for me the clincher was this: I felt shame about drinking, even when I’d only had a little, and nothing catastrophic or unseemly occurred. In facing this mysterious shame there seemed only two possibilities: either I was neurotic, or I was an alcoholic. Since there is no other substance, food, or activity that imparts me with the sense of shame that drinking did, it seemed the label alcoholic might apply.

This example might seem arcane or even off-putting to those who are unfamiliar with substance abuse. But if you don’t understand the experience I describe, it isn’t because you’re not an alcoholic, but because you have not come to see how our lives are often in the grips of forces beyond our control. You are still asleep, and have not come to grasp the gravity of your situation. But don’t worry! It is possible to wake up at any moment.

People grow into adulthood and are forever chasing: grasping at pleasurable experiences, or trying to satisfy desires, without even knowing their lives have become fruitless, increasingly lonely and scary. They grasp at esteem, for material “security”, for status, for forced intimacy, for Enlightenment itself – but the more they chase, they less they are satisfied.

It is a great relief to one day realize the truth of our lives.

Therefore it is an act of bravery to look our mistakes in the face, and yet it can be a scary experience as well. We can feel a great deal of dismay, and a sense of being lost. Perhaps a part of us, even a large part of us, no longer wants to keep up the chase. We are exhausted. We no longer want to continue a friendship that feels inauthentic, or participate in the family holidays that are so tension filled, or work a job we’ve come to loathe. But even so, we can’t let it go. Who will we be, without these experiences? What will give our lives purpose if we let these things go? How will we find someone who understands?

In the quietness of our hearts, perhaps we can be a little honest. We can admit to ourselves what is no longer working for us, even if it hurts our pride. Perhaps we feel no hope, but then if we look deeper we may know someone who can help us. A spiritual teacher or a mentor is just that helper. It doesn’t have to be any particular person. Someone who we trust, and someone who has a sense of purpose and satisfaction, real satisfaction, in their lives. Who has something that you want? Who has the strength that you lack? Is this person willing to share? They often are.

Our mistakes don’t seem all that glamorous while we’re living them, and re-living them, and even in those early days when we’ve relinquished them. But if we give it time – and patience, persistance, and prayer – our mistakes become something beautiful. The garbage of our mistakes becomes – in an analogy that has its source in a much greater spiritual teacher than I – the rich compost that grows flowers. These flowers couldn’t grow without the compost. Look deeply, and you will see this is true. Life long enough, and honestly enough, and you will come to see this is true.

just keep swimming / just keep swimming

Today I swam my thirteenth mile-swim. It was the second session I’d managed consecutive and consistent bilateral breathing (that is, breathing every third stroke). I am pleased with this accomplishment as I’d been struggling with the technique for a couple weeks.

Funnily enough, since mid-February when I started swimming, I avoided developing a lopsided stroke and a one-sided preference by breathing on my left side down the length of the pool (stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe and so on), then breathing on my right side when I returned. I thought this was a rather clever plan of mine so that bilateral breathing (that is: stroke, stroke, breathe, then repeat) wouldn’t be as difficult as I’d be used to rolling to each side. And I think I was right. Now that I’m doing a little research on the topic, I’m pretty impressed with my progress!

Swimming isn’t solely about physical fitness for me, but about stretching myself mentally and spiritually as well. Learning to swim has not only been beneficial to my cardiovascular health and to the practice of meditative breathing, but it has also shown me so many things about myself. Mostly humorous, silly things!

Swimming has been illustrative, most of all, in my fears. You know, I still have a fear of the deep end of the pool! And some days – even after all these miles, and about nine hundred lengths – this fear grips at me as I first head to the sharp downslope of that end of the pool. It is very interesting to have a fear live on in my body, long after my cognitive capabilities understand there is “nothing” to fear.

In fact, nearly every session has been an opportunity to experience, and perhaps alleviate, a fear. The most often-experienced difficulties are boredom and fretfulness. It goes something like this: I can’t believe I’m going to swim for forty-five minutes. I should be doing something else. What is the point? I just swim back and forth, back and forth.

As you can imagine, this can be a near-daily struggle.

Other fears are more gripping and acute: when I first attempted flip-turns, I experienced a surprisingly large amount of anxiety. My daughter taught me the basic premise. And the first few sessions I missed about half of them, which made me feel (and probably look) foolish. I also only attempted flips at the deep end, because I was afraid of hitting the pool bottom in the shallow end.

Now, however, flip turns are one of my favorite parts of my swims. I enjoy the freedom I feel in somersaulting in the water. I am learning to somersault to my “blind” side, or to somersault sideways, or to put my hand briefly on the pool floor when I flip at the shallow end. Flipping feels rather joyous! When I think back to a few weeks ago and how fearful I was to flip, the memory of gripping and releasing the pool edge seems rather sodden.

Because living in fear doesn’t feel great.

I don’t think I will ever be a truly fearless person. And I don’t know where or how I grew all the fears I have. Living in conscious contact with fears, however, is very different than attempting to live as if they have no effect on me.

Swimming has helped me develop a lighter touch about “who I am”. Only a few weeks ago I could barely swim a length; that skill level is also where my swim classmates left off when lessons  ceased – because, I think, they were trying to “push themselves” to swim, instead of learning to love it. I outstripped my classmates and now I easily swim a mile and have started to stretch myself further. Gently stretch myself. Who knows where I might go?

So while it is hard for me to imagine, for instance, ever being comfortable in open water (more of that fear!), I also know – that future is possible.

Yeah – barely!

a heart hardens; a heart softens; a heart grieves

Recently I gave a ride to a woman I’d just met, who called me for assistance after having car troubles. When I picked her up we fell into conversation, mostly about her life and what had brought her to where she is today.

She had recently moved to the area. As she shared with me, it was immediately evident she’d undergone many major changes in the last few months: a divorce. A move. A hysterectomy. Other health problems. Then she told me she’d lost her own mother this last winter – and without warning, she began to cry shakily. “I used to call her up every Sunday to talk with her – and now she’s not there.” I sat in the idling car with her and my thoughts were taken to my own father’s death. I offered some words of comfort, and some of my own experience.

“This is my mama,” she said, revealing her phone screen and an image of a vintage picture of a young Latina beauty. In the photo, the framed portrait was set up against large roses. “Was this from the memorial service?” I asked; she affirmed. “Were you able to be there?” I asked. “Oh, of course,” she said.

Later in the evening, as I drove her home from our engagement, her conversation returned to her mother once again. She revealed that for years she’d been angry with her mother and that now she regretted this. Again, I was brought to my own life experiences. The resentments I carried, the ones I carried for years.

Sometimes we hold a resentment for two minutes, sometimes two months, sometimes two decades – sometimes much longer. Even if we had good cause to be angry originally, soon no justification will be enough to soothe our angry minds and our hurting hearts. Holding resentments is perhaps the number one way people will poison themselves daily.  Over time resentments change us from the inside; we will no longer know the real from the false.

I don’t know exactly how this happens, but resentments come to have a life of their own. We may believe they are keeping us safe, or that they are righteous, or that the wrong is such that it justifies these years of bad feeling. This thought life warps and twists us without us knowing it. If we live long enough, we will one day fall into a resentment that is overpowering. Then we will begin to wish to be free of it. On that day we will come to see how baffling and strong they can be.

We hold onto resentment. Yet one day, somehow, we are able to set it down. This process of release is still a mystery, since many live and die with their resentments unabated. Most people who know about real forgiveness will tell you something spiritual has to be involved – because without this practice, there will be times we find it impossible to forgive on our own power, however much we would like to.

While I was spending time in conversation with this new woman, a very dear friend of mine had traveled north to see the grave of her father. He died when my friend was a very little girl, and for many years this friend blamed her father for the hardships in her life. She held a resentment for a man who’d been dead decades. Later in life when she found herself in a personal crisis she sensed this resentment was eating her alive, and she set to work on dismantling it. Her visit to her father’s grave has come now that her heart has softened and she is experiencing grief, not anger. On the day she was visiting the grave I texted her to ask how she was doing and she wrote,

“i am here with my dad
it is very emotional
i hear birds”

The memories of my resentments remind me to resolve not to pick them up again. When my friends – new and old – share with me their stories I am reminded, once again, that my heart has the capacity to harden. I don’t know much about how to let it soften again, except from the practice of my faith tradition. I must reach outside myself for wisdom and steadfast love. Without my practice, and without the other human beings who help me, I would soon grow withered and angry.

Life is simply too short, and too precious for that.

staying sober in soggy climes

I work, in an avocational sense, in the world of alcoholism and addiction. On a daily basis I spend time in a group, or one-on-one, with other alcoholics – and addicts.

Sobriety is rare these days. Where I live, most people drink whether they have a problem with alcohol or not. Yet a sober life has given me more gifts than perhaps anything else in my life – besides my husband and children. I share my sobriety with others who want sobriety as well. When we work together, we both have a chance to stay on a path that many fear to tread.

One thing I’ve been asked over the years by those new to sobriety has to do with the availability and socially-acceptable role of alcohol in our culture, and in our families. I have been asked how I can walk past alcohol in the grocery store, or stand to have it my house (rarely; when other people bring it here), or be at a restaurant where others are drinking. Doesn’t it tempt me? Many self-identifying hardcore addicts have expressed wonder and admiration for this supposed “strength” I have. A couple years ago in a meeting one woman said she couldn’t imagine how I stayed sober, when liquor was everywhere. “It’s not like there are crack stores you can go to!” she said in wide-eyed exasperation.

I responded, “But there are crack stores. They’re a little harder to find. But you know where they are. I don’t. But you do.” The room relaxed into laughter for a moment. Because it is true. Whatever has a hold on us, whatever has its hooks in us, we are so lovingly familiar with this person, or this thing, or this life. It – or he, or she – is as precious to us as a child.

Perhaps it does seem a mystery how an alcoholic can walk in safety in a gin-soaked world.

But alcoholism is not contained in a bottle, or in a location. Alcoholism is within me. Perhaps it was passed down though my family but even so, if they were to all expire my alcoholism would not die with them. Just as blaming others for my drinking is a false construct, so is the concept that alcoholism is a condition one can conquer by managing life’s circumstances – by carefully stacking the dominos just right so they fall where they should. Alcoholics are a great example of nearly inexhaustible attempts at this. They try to cut down. They switch types of alcohol. They start making bargains about when they can drink. Doctors tell them to stop but they decide the doctor doesn’t really know what she is talking about. They “mis-hear” or ignore these orders. They start talking about when they drink, or hiding when they drink, or making light of drinking. And so on.

Alcoholism as a social problem is a very old problem, and much attention has been devoted to it. Nevertheless, it has not been conquered by scientific research, intellectual analysis, or even the constant development of perfectly intelligent treatment strategies. Alcoholism is not conquered in a personal way by making a list of my “triggers”, or being around only such-and-such sorts of people, or making sure to perform rituals or stay out of certain places – or spend inordinate times in certain other places. Alcoholism is not conquered by a self-improvement program, either ruthless or gentle, where I supposedly surgically-remove all the unsavory parts of me that compel me to drown my troubles in drink.

I am reminded of a very precious passage in the Dhammapada:

Not by rituals and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy,
nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana
until you have extinguished your self-will.

Most alcoholics die drunk. The wouldn’t call it that, and their families don’t like to admit it. Yet they will go to their graves denying alcohol had a grip on them. They die without ever getting more than a wheeze or two of sobriety. They die with their hands wrapped around the neck of their obsession while cheerfully denying they are even in a struggle. They die with a deep-down knowledge that something was amiss, but without ever having experienced a sense of freedom.

This is true for people who are non-alcoholic as well. They live and die in the grips of their attachment and their aversion. It is not difficult to see this in a person; I see it when this season they are still complaining about the same people, and circumstances, as they were last year. They are still blaming others, or circumstances, for their problems. They live in perpetual servitude to their desires, and they make bitter enemies of others.

Who is your real God? If I spent time with you, I would probably be able to make a few intelligent guesses. I would look at this – what do you practice daily? Who, or what, are you obsessed with? What do you complain about? Who are you frightened of?

My grandfather died last fall. He was on very large amount of medication and so was sleeping almost all the time. I rarely got to speak with him. Shortly before he died he and his caretakers were still trying to manage his drinking, and his diet. My mother told me a doctor of his recommended some quantity or habit of red meat, to help my grandfather drink less. I was surprised to hear this, and I said – “But – isn’t grandpa an alcoholic?” After a bemused pause my mother said, “Well, yeah.” Then we both laughed.

I don’t know what was in her laughter – but I know my laughter spilled out of me in Love. Love for my beloved grandfather – my last grandfather, lost to me now. Love for my mother, and for my aunts and uncles, and for a family who continues on in the way I remember from my childhood. Love regarding the silly games we play, that some consumption of red meat is any kind of treatment plan for an alcoholic! Love even for hubris, for pride. For trying to manage our Ego and our reputation right up to the moment of death. This is the human condition; untempered, this is how we are, or at least how we are by the time we are grown.

Obviously this leads at once to a great sense of freedom. I am free to love my grandfather, and miss him. He wasn’t any less of a human being for his struggles with alcohol, and if he did not come to terms with those struggles, he died with unfinished business as so many of us do. I loved him very much and I only wish we could have been better friends.

My legacy to my own children – and, should I be blessed, any grandchildren and so forth – would be honesty, and a spiritual practice. Like most parents and carers I would like to leave them some monies, maybe an estate, maybe a few beloved personal items. But in the end what I would like to offer them, if they want to take it, is a faith practice. In the end I believe as it is said – “My actions are my only belongings. My actions are the ground I stand upon.”

My actions are my practice. Sobriety is a practice; Love is an practice; Forgiveness is a practice. In the end perhaps my life won’t have a great deal to show for it, but if I’ve delivered these things to my children I will consider my time well-served.

Grandpa Bill

arrogance: the finest armor a man applies

Today a friend and I entertained our once-weekly meeting where we discuss our spiritual practices. We were speaking on the topic of Self-Worth and the word “arrogance” came up. My friend asked me what I meant by this word. I first said we’d be best looking it up, really, because I did not have the definition by any means! I was quiet for a moment and thought a bit more, then I said:

“For me – I am arrogant when I believe you and I are irrevocably different, in such a way you can’t understand, and in such a way that can’t be bridged.”

Now keep in mind, I have known for some time that having money, or a degree, or a flash car, or my physical health, or a particular skill, or a marriage, or happy and healthy children, that none of these things make me better than someone who does not have these things. So I have for some little time had a broader definition of arrogance than what many people might mean by the word (for instance, today I think of someone who goes about self-publishing their accomplishments and material possessions in an irritating fashion as someone who displays hubris, rather than arrogance).

If you notice, I define arrogance not as believing I’m better than you, but believing we are different in some particular way. I will come to this distinction a bit later. But while growing up, the concept of “arrogance” was that of a braggart, a loud person making boastful claims of superiority. I was taught this was a very taboo behavior – especially for a young woman. Emotional? Fine. Laughing, or crying? Tolerated – when appropriate. Angry? Unacceptable! And a vocal, direct, self-confident woman? The worst. We have special words for such women (“bossy”, and “mouthy” are a few fit-for-print which immediately to mind; invective we rarely afford men). The message is loud and clear: if you are good at something, if you have any attributes, keep your mouth shut about them!

For many girls and women, we are taught to take this a bit further, and to actually perform rituals of self-deprecation. If someone compliments something we own, or the way we look, we are taught to rebut and downplay the compliment. Then the other woman presses the compliment; and so on – a tiresome conversational charade. Men have their own versions, their own games they’ve been taught to play.  More incredible still, people who’ve learned to refuse compliments think they are being humble by doing so. However, the opposite is the case: rebutting a compliment is as rude as openly disparaging a gift just as someone hands it to you.

When I first re-entered the Buddhist path, I didn’t know this. I didn’t think I was particularly conceited. So the first time my spiritual mentor told me my self-absorbed guilt, and my by-rote refutation of compliments, were both displays of arrogance, I was shocked – and a bit stung. After all, I knew arrogance was “bad”, and I didn’t want to be “bad”! Arrogance was “bragging”, and I didn’t “brag” – right? Besides, self-absorbed guilt, like worrying, or like the diminishment of a compliment, can often feel quite virtuous!

Despite my initial shock, my spiritual mentor’s statements quickly became incredibly helpful. Hundreds of times since this teaching was given to me, I’ve remembered to say “thank you” to a compliment. I’ve been able to set aside those painful “old tapes” of my past, the unpleasant memories that can invade the mind when it is time to sleep, or in a quiet moment. Like the adage says – “If the past calls, don’t answer – it has nothing new to say.”

But in order to truly gain freedom from the past – it has to be the past. Another saying comes to mind: “Old behavior is not old behavior if you keep doing it.” If deep in our hearts we know we are doing wrong, the same wrongs that didn’t work out yesterday, we will not have relief – no matter how much self-justification we employ – until we stop the behavior.

The mind is a slippery customer. It doesn’t always serve our best interests. No one wants to believe themselves undeserving of compliments, but since we aren’t willing to practice accepting them, and to sustain the effort, we become incapable of believing them. No one wants to be tormented with guilt, and yet, because we are not careful, this mental exercise becomes a compulsive thought-life of its own. The work of dismantling our arrogance isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, either, as these matters of the mind can mean the difference between happiness and misery; between life and death. The rehearsed experience of arrogant “uniqueness” has led many to their doom – and usually, not before they hurt a lot of other people on their way out.

I am not different than you in some “special” way. My mind will grasp at this illusion, attempting to comfort itself or to distance itself when your behaviors frighten me. But if I look deeply enough, I will find you experience the same pains, the same fears. You want to be safe, and you want to be loved – just like me. I am not better than you, if my life has fewer misfortunes. I am not lower or worse than you, if my life or my person seems less glamorous, less healthy and hale, or less blessed with friends, family, and prosperity. And I am not the same as you. I can’t know your experiences, until you tell me. You can’t know why I do the things I do, until we know one another a little better.

It is only natural we will compare; we will experience revulsion, we will experience envy, we will experience self-pity. If we know these are all operations of conceit, we can return to Right View. As my preceding paragraph alludes to, arrogance is a seductive practice. The Buddha is said to have identified three forms of conceit: thinking oneself superior to others, thinking oneself inferior to others, and thinking oneself the same as others. This seems like an impossible riddle, until we see with clarity how often our mind tries to separate itself. The humble mind knows there is no “self” and no “other”, and the calm spirit can experience those distressing moments of illusory separateness with a smile – and a return to mindfulness.

shooting the wounded: the sickly thrill of gossip

“The only thing more frustrating than slanderers is those foolish enough to listen to them.” ― Criss Jami

I write and speak a bit about gossip because it is one of those things we rarely discuss – but we probably should. It is endemic, it is hurtful, we all “feel” it when we hear it, and we “feel” it when we engage in it.

Most of us recognize the toxic potential of gossip, but we don’t know how to stop. We can’t stop gossiping, we can’t stop participating in the gossip of others, and we can’t stop reacting in response to gossip. More incredible still, we do these things, and somehow convince ourselves we are virtuous while we are doing them.

What is gossip?

Gossip is the inappropriate sharing of information, usually at least partly true, about other people.

The fact is, a great deal of time when we are talking about another person, we probably shouldn’t be.

I’m a talkative person. I have many friends. So gossip is something I take very seriously.

Every day my friends and family share personal information with me. Most of the time the specifics of what someone tells me and the name attached to the experience, falls into a kind of black hole in my body. That “secret” is never coming back out of me! There are many things about many people that my husband, my soulmate, doesn’t know. I don’t use my husband as the person to blow off conversational steam with, and I don’t need to share exciting secrets of my friends to feel important or interesting.

Many people are not as careful as I try to be. A while back I let something pretty personal slip, in the presence of someone I know who spreads information about others quite freely. Sure enough, a little while later I heard my personal disclosure from the lips of from someone else and I knew exactly who had leaked it. I was stung, but I recovered my composure and the conversational buck stopped right there.

I was hurt and angry at the time, but I also knew I had been careless around someone who was not likely to respect how I’d feel being talked about, on such a personal matter. Over the next day or so the sense of betrayal gradually lifted and I regained my sense of humor. Mostly, I think, I had been angry at myself for “forgetting” not everyone is a safe person to talk to about my personal affairs.

I have valid reasons for not trusting the people I don’t trust. Or, to flip that concept on its head – I do trust people. I trust them to be themselves. And I trust my own observation of their behaviors.

Long ago I heard of a sort of four-part sieve used for measuring one’s words, before speaking:

Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Is now the time to say it?

Once I got over the panic of realizing I was utterly failing so very often, I discovered it is possible to practice these criteria. Gossip is almost never necessary, kind, or timely. It is a destructive force, providing a sense of pseudo-comfort to the person speaking. It has ruined lives, driven hurt people to suicide, meddled in the thoughts of kind and noble people, engendered tremendous misunderstandings, and wasted a whole lot of time for those uttering, those listening (and therefore sanctioning), and those who are the subjects of this most injurious speech.

I am not perfect. I probably make mistakes daily. I try my best to correct my behaviors, including talking with my spiritual mentors and listening to their perspectives. I can trust them to correct my behavior; in fact, I rely on it.

Right Speech is a long road – sometimes funny, often frustrating, and occasionally grueling. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. I doubt I’d have the friends, love, and trust I have without my commitment to practice.

My wish for you is you have the bravery to take up a practice of your own. Don’t let your past mistakes, or your previous way of behaving, keep you from wanting something better for yourself. And – I smile as I write this – I can promise life doesn’t suddenly get boring if you try your best to refrain from gossip.