Heart Homework

When I first learned about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism in college, I understood that the monks said the name of Amitābha Buddha over and over in hopes of saying it with perfectly attentive consciousness because then they would attain enlightenment. I thought, that’s stupid, what does saying the Buddha’s name over and over have to do with enlightenment?

Turns out I wasn’t listening very well. First, according to that master spiritual resource Wikipedia, this chanting is a mindfulness exercise that can lead to a high state of consciousness different from enlightenment. Second, what you say matters much less than whether you pay attention when you say it. If you can say Cheez-Its with perfectly attentive consciousness, enlightenment might be right around the corner.

I recently read an explanation of how our interactions with the same wisdom teachings change over time. The author (apologies for not remembering who it was) pointed out that the teachings remain the same but we become more “transparent” to them. The interior stuff blocking their entry gets removed over time.

God must have wiped off a tiny pin head of space on my interior window recently because I’ve been seeing myself trying to figure out with my mind teachings that can only be grasped by the heart. Up until now, I simply resisted them, concluded they were wrong, and complained to God that I couldn’t get to wherever it is I’m supposed to be going.

This approach is like trying to solve an algebra problem using arithmetic and, after failing, saying that algebra doesn’t work. It’s true—algebra doesn’t work when approached solely with the rules of arithmetic. But that doesn’t mean algebra isn’t true. You just need to learn an entirely different way of approaching mathematics in order to do algebra.

I never took this, if I can’t do it, it’s not true approach in school. I assumed it was true, paid attention in class, did the homework, and learned. In life, on the other hand, I often start with resistance, especially in matters of the heart.

I’m not recommending that we throw away our ability to approach things critically, but I might try setting aside that tool occasionally and doing the heart homework to see what I can learn.

Momma Told Me

I don’t know why we’re designed to go two steps forward and one step back, but I’m convinced we are. Last week: Zen master. This week: whiner.

I exaggerate last week’s accomplishments, but I did have this miraculous moment of getting over myself. One of the software systems at work appears to have been designed to decrease productivity, and I generally spend a lot of time and energy hating it while using it.

This time a moment of spiritual brilliance flashed upon me. If I changed the goal from finishing the task to being present and paying attention, I could stop fighting the inefficient system because its inefficiency would no longer matter. So I changed the goal. My mind cleared up. My patience increased. My work probably improved, though I have no way to measure that.

Fast forward to this week. While working on another not favorite task, I said to myself, you could use this time as practice; where is your attention? I replied, somewhat snappishly, I don’t want to practice, I want to be miserable and complain. I clearly saw myself making that choice, but changing my approach still didn’t interest me. One step back—at least.

I kept this up most of the day and wore myself down sufficiently that, by the time I was chopping kale for dinner, I could consider the option of simply relaxing and accepting my sour disposition. Then this line from William Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” came floating in: “Tell everyone just to remember/their names, and remind others, later, when we/ find each other.” Some days that’s all we can do, remember who we are, and that’s OK because that day is not eternal. The next day we’ll be capable of making different choices.

I’ll end with the rest of Stafford’s stanza because he sums it up so beautifully:

“…Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.”

Getting Un-Busy

When someone asks us how we are, there are so many responses we never use: ecstatic, grieving, lonely, joyful, sad, afraid, pensive, loved, happy. The acceptable emotional range runs from pretty good to fine on the positive side and can’t complain to hanging in there on the negative side. But if we want to make it clear that we are suffering nobly we say, “Busy!”

I hear busy more often than any other answer at work. It is accurate. Most people wear more hats than comfortably fit on their heads and have been tasked with more than can be accomplished in forty hours a week, or fifty or sixty.

I sometimes feel myself competing to be busier than others because it equates to working harder and being a more responsible, valuable employee and therefore a clearly superior human being. Because that’s the point of life, really—to be better than everyone else. That will lead to fulfillment and a sense of profound peace every time.

A few months ago, I decided to stop focusing on the busy-ness, stop comparing overwhelmingly behind horror stories, and find some other way to describe my state of being. I was doing pretty well. Until last week.

Then I got really busy. Emails went unanswered. Projects fell off my plate, pushed off by more urgent projects. When people asked me how I was, I didn’t say overwhelmed or distracted or struggling to enjoy my accomplishments because the next task is always looming. I said busy. I’ve been saying it ever since.

The week before last, a hummingbird came and hovered in front of my window and commenced turning flips in the air. This is the kind of thing I don’t notice when I’m caught up in having too much to do. This is the kind of thing I think is most important to notice in this life.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is another one from William Stafford that suggests a possible alternative to a constant focus on our ever-growing to-do list.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?