Adventures in Shoveling

Only when people are under duress do you really see their true selves.

That Nor’ester that dumped two feet of snow on us is a prime example. I waited a tad too long to get out there and as a result, then untouched snow was nearly up to my knee and the plowed stuff rose to mid-thigh. Before long, I ran out of places to put the it, which slowed me down considerably. I had to take shovelful after shovelful and stagger down the walk to the other side of the house to find a semi-clear spot to dump it.

Making things even more fun was the fact that the plows seemed to be afraid of the curb. The heaviest and deepest mounds stretched far into the road and because of how densely packed it was, I couldn’t just leave it. So out into the road I went.  It didn’t take long for my arms to ache and my legs to shake. Looking at my pathetic progress was disheartening. I tried to just keep my mind on the current load but that was tough to do when I had two cars and two sets of stairs to clear.

My landlord is an elderly fellow and I’m happy to say that not once during my hefting of the heavy wet white stuff did I feel indignant. Nor did I continue on with the thought of some compensation in mind. No, I shoveled us both out because I knew it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t fathom simply shedding myself from the blanket of snow and leaving him; Not even when the plows came by to bury the end of the driveway with heavier and wetter snow just after I had just cleared it.

To be fair, I did end up with a reward. I was a little more than halfway done, when the Landlord’s daughter showed up and gave me a hand. She helped me finish and then helped clear the cars off. Then she thanked me with heartfelt sincerity and that was reward enough. The feeling of being thanked is truly special. It just makes me feel right, as if my mind and my heart are in agreement.

I sat and stared at that last night for a solid minute. I was trying to puzzle out how you, dear reader, would take that. Being a guy, would you think me soft and weak? Being a poet would you think me lacking poetic imagery? In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. The line is true and that’s what’s important. While, it’s sad that there are many out there that would shovel out just themselves, I  take heart knowing that if I can put in the right effort to shovel out more than my share, then there are others out there that will as well.

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Dystopia and Optimism

In the name of simplifying, I’ve cut down my reading to one book at a time. Because of that, I seem to always be reading in themes. I’m of the ilk that loved school reading lists and to that end I am always on the lookout for common school-assigned books that my education neglected.

For example, I took multiple courses in college on Shakespeare but somehow ended up reading “Macbeth” 2 or 3 times but “Hamlet” not even once. So I went back and read it on my own. I’m slowly working my way through the complete works tome from one of the aforementioned courses, reading those plays and sonnets that I never got a chance to read in school. Hey, at least I never claimed to be normal.

Now, though, I’m on a dystopia kick. I just finished Lord of the Flies, which is more of an investigation of the human psyche than a dystopia. Next up is The Handmaid’s Tale. In both introductions, other dark works were mentioned; 1984, Catcher in the Rye, A Brave New World, etc. The first, I read and loved so when put beside those other works, ones that I didn’t particularly care for, I found myself reassessing my opinion on the book.

What I found was the reason I liked 1984 was because it was the first novel of its kind that I read.  For me, all subsequent novels are just retreads, just variations of a theme. I’m not going to take anything away from them; most were very well written and very powerful. People don’t like to hear the truth and these types of stories present some dark truths. In doing so, they instill themselves in your mind with a very commanding presence.

It may sound like I prefer the blissful realm of ignorance to this harsh reality we live in. That’s not the truth (pun, as always, intended). The truth is I’m an optimist. This is the part of the post where my Buddhist inklings come into play. The reason I don’t like dystopian novels is because I believe in the inherit goodness of people. I was at the Drikung Meditation Center last night and we did the Green Tara Meditation. I’ll spare you the details, but at the end there’s a dedication, whose purpose is to direct the good karma achieved through the meditation. And to whom do we direct said karma you ask? Why, to all sentient beings of course!

Powerful stuff, that. Nowhere is self-deception more useless than during meditation. If you don’t honestly feel the desire to help people then you’ll not achieve the peace of mind mediation helps you achieve. That’s the great Catch-22 of Buddhism:  only when you put the welfare of others before yours, when you honestly wish for your good karma to be passed onto all sentient beings, only then can you achieve the good karma you seek. I read somewhere that Buddhism is rife with contradictions, only in the Buddhist way of thinking, it’s perfectly acceptable to have accept to diametrically opposite thoughts at once. I don’t fully understand that yet, but the aforementioned Catch-22, I feel, is the first step in understanding.

So while I’ll finish The Handmaid’s Tale, and most likely appreciate the skillful writing style, I know that it’ll leave a sour taste in my mouth. While there is some truth in the bleak vision of the future the author sees (one Ms. Margaret Atwood in case you’re interested) I prefer to think of the future in a more optimistic light. There is enough good in this world that the dedicating my good karma to others isn’t wasted. While I don’t deny the evil in this world, I’d like to think that when push comes to shove most people would prove their mettle; most people would do the right thing.

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Solo Conversations

 I once heard a story about a homeless man that rode the T. Every morning he would be seen on the bus talking to himself. Naturally, folks gave him a wide berth. Then one day he was seen with his hand to his ear whilst having his solo conversation. Apparently, he had witnessed enough people gabbing on their cell phones and not getting his treatment that he realized what he needed to do. So by mimicking the hand-to-ear pose of cell phone holders, he became more normal. Or have those constantly talking on a cell phone become more weird?

 Now, years later, thanks to the advance of Bluetooth technology and other hands-free gadgets, it’s quite common to see someone having a conversation with themselves. This morning walking across the Navy Yard, I heard a lady chatting away hands-free. While she had in ear buds to clue me into the fact that she was on the phone, she was still talking loudly enough that me in all my hearing-aid-wearing glory had no trouble listening into her conversation. But listen in I did not, for I was too preoccupied with chanting.

 For the passed month, I’ve been going to The Drikung Meditation Center in Arlington, which is, ironically enough, across from the Baptist church I attended growing up. It’s funny how my spiritual quest took me mentally to the far east, but physically across the street. It’s a small world sometimes. But anyway, I was lucky enough to sit with the resident Lama during one of my nights there. His Tibetan accent and my poor hearing didn’t always play well together but I heard enough to know that I respect the man very much. So when I got an email from the center last week saying that the Lama’s brother had died, I felt for him. He then requested that the Sanga recite the “Om Manu Padme Hung” mantra 1 million times. I was a wee bit taken aback.

 At first, it sounded like a very odd thing to do. Then I realized it’s no different than asking someone to say prayers for a loved one that has given up the ghost…well ok a little different in that I’ve never heard someone say “Please say 1 million prayers for Aunt Bessie.” The more I thought about it, though, the more I wanted to contribute. The real reason I was hesitant to do so was the fear of being labeled a loony. Letting my own self-doubt get in the way of helping someone mourn was ludicrous. So I decided to buy a wrist mala to help me keep count and I set out on my chanting.

 And that’s what I’ve been doing on my walk to work each morning. I don’t chant loud and proud for the whole Navy Yard to hear, in fact it’s more of a quiet whisper. I even stop momentarily if I am passing too close to someone else. At first I would stop if someone was even in sight but each morning I see more evidence that I needn’t worry. The first morning it was the fact that nearly everyone had on headphones and couldn’t hear me anyway. This morning, as I mentioned, it was a lady talking away on her hands-free cell phone. So while I still am hesitant to chant at times, I’m getting better. After all, respect for the dead in something that spans all religions.

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Moderate Musings

The older I get the more I come to realize that there are very few instances where your choices are black and white. More often than not you’re presented with variations of a theme, choices that are simply different shades of grey. I think people try to see things in black and white because it’s easier. If someone gets arrested for stealing, then the man is guilty. Case closed. What happens if we look a little closer and find that the money he stole was used to prevent him from starving? What happens if we learn that he had done it before and had always paid back the money? He is still guilty? Of course  he is, if your law of choice is societal law. On the other hand, he may not be, if yours is ethical law. Where the waters of choice once contained only stealing or not stealing, they’ve now been  muddied by starving  or not starving. So, since you can have neither two shades of black nor of white, you’re left with shades of grey. Granted, if you’ve ever tried to paint a wall white, you know that there are, indeed, an incredible number of shades of white.. But we’re not painting walls here.

 It’s because of thoughts like these tumbling around in my ol’ noggin’ that I find myself shying away from extremes.  Perhaps the only other aspect of Buddhism that spoke to me as strongly as Karma, was the story of the Historical Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince. At first he lived, as they say, in the lap of luxury. He never saw any suffering  and he wanted for nothing. When that veil of ignorance was lifted and he saw the omnipresent suffering in the world around him, he turned to a life of denial; that is he denied his body not only luxuries but also necessities. Food, clothing, shelter. However, this, too, was not the answer. Thanks to him, we now have the Noble Eightfold Path or The Middle Path.

 So that is how I try to live; moderately. I try to not go to extremes. I used to think that the saying “Too much of a good thing,” was asinine. Then I ate an entire pumpkin pie for dinner. I love pie. In fact, I don’t have birthday cakes, I have birthday pies. So after I moved out on my own but before I picked up how to cook from Sean and Jason, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a pie for dinner.  To say that wasn’t a good idea would be an understatement. I couldn’t even look at a pie for months.

 So now that I’m older (and theoretically wiser) I’ve learned to apply that moderate lesson to all aspects of my life. While I may not have complete equanimity, I can usually stay calm in a crisis and don’t get too elated when things are going grandly. Well, ok, not always. There was the B’s playoff game last year when I lost my voice for 2 days after I spent the entire 2 OT periods cheering. Besides that, though, I tend to keep an even keel. This trait comes in particularly handy in traffic, of which there was plenty this morning.

 As I mentioned in a previous post, Boston drivers are just plain wacky. This morning I sat in traffic thanks to the fact that the road before Winter Hill was being repaved at 7:30 in the morning. All around me people glared at the road and took angry sips from their coffee-filled travel mugs. I was able to go with the flow. So whether it’s knowing not to get irate at gridlock or knowing that I need to put the fork down, my Middle Path is filled with guideposts to keep me away from the extremes in life.

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Step by Step

Some people act when they should think. I think when I should act. I’m not saying that I need to switch sides, here, but rather admit that there are times in which I need to simply act. I know this perpetual hesitation comes from being a corpulent callow schoolboy. Ironically it’s one of the ways that I stopped being chubby that helped me stop over-thinking things.

About five years ago, I had my not-quite-annual physical. Much to my dismay, the doc said I needed to be put on high blood pressure medication. There I was in my mid-20′s and I needed drugs to keep my body inline. I was mortified. Luckily, he had more information for me. He said that it was borderline and that should I take off 15 lbs, then I may just be able to come off the drugs. So, along with the advice, he gave me the name of a nutritionist and sent me on my way.

Armed with a guideline of fat-fighting foods, and a newfound determination to make my on-again, off-again, lifting regimen more on than off, I started to make headway. But that wouldn’t be enough I knew. So I took up jogging. It was a sight to behold, a 297 pound man stumbling and bumbling his way up Lexington Street. Many was the time that a passerby would yell “Run, Forest, run!” At those times, I was glad that I replaced my hearing-aids with ipod buds.

 Honestly, during those first days, hell months, it was more a walk than a run. Sometimes I stopped because my legs burned too badly to keep the pace, sometimes it was my lungs. Eventually, though, it became my head. I set myself a 3-milie goal and instead of concentrating on my next step and keeping good form, my mind wandered to the end of the jog.

“Damn, this is taking forever! Is that a cramp I feel forming? My breath is even now, but how long can it last?” These thoughts and more swirled through my head. They proved victorious quite often. It took quite some time for me to realize that I was thinking when I should just be acting. But when I did, I decided to try to be mindful, to concentrate on the moment and not worry about things that might happen. I started to get lost in the moment.

My steps fell into a smooth rhythm and my breath evened out. I was able to focus on the moment and even enjoy my surroundings. I saw the progression of a house being built; from foundation to front porch. I saw squirrels scampering from tree to tree. I saw leaves fall and ice melt. I just took in my surroundings, not looking forward to any one spot in my run, but rather taking them as they came. My runs soon become head-clearing and meditative.

It was in this manner that I dropped the 15 pounds and got off the pills. Then I dropped 15 more, and 15 more. I kept losing. I now hover around 225; depending on if I have a bad week and I miss a day of jogging or my jogs end up being more walk that run. I still get lost in the moment but am mindful enough to listen to my body. Running along the Mystic River, as I do now, there are times when the uneven trail screws up my rhythm. If it does and my foot catches a divot, then I’m mindful enough to stop jogging and settle into a fast walk. I know that if I sprain my ankle it’s going to give me plenty of time to my mindful of how comfortable my couch is.

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Beggars Can’t Be Choosers

On my way to Trader Joe’s or on my way to work I see them. When I do, a feeling of unrest washes over my mind. Should I or shouldn’t? The answer isn’t as easy as I’d like it to be. I still haven’t figured out what to do about beggars. Usually I try to keep these posts to subjects about which I have made definite decisions. Not this one.

I had a friend in high school that made us empty our pockets of change whenever our paths crossed with a beggar’s. Not too long ago another friend almost got into a fight a beggar when he told him to get a job. A lot of thought meander though my mind when I encounter a person of the street.  The cloying after-school specials; the ones where a wet-behind-the-ears kid innocently takes a homeless dude home and finds out he’s a genius that ran into tough times. The two of them become fast friends and they help each other grow into stronger better people. Then there’s “The Soloist,” the movie with Jamie Fox and Robert Downie Jr., where a reporter takes an interest in a musically gifted but mentally ill homeless guy. That one gave the old heart strings a tug.

I know these two examples are just Hollywood-ized takes on a serious social situation.  A situation so serious that I vaguely remember reading something a while back about how San Francisco tried to make it illegal to be homeless. But those are just extreme cases. For me, I truly wonder if my giving money to the panhandlers would actually help anything. There’s the hackneyed worry that he’ll go spend it all on booze as well as the concern that I’m enabling him. I will fully admit ignorance of  his history; I don’t know what he’s doing to not be homeless or how he got there in the first place but perhaps my money would be well-spent, so to speak.  So do I give to every homeless fellow I see? Or give to one guy every time I see him? I know that’s all or nothing thinking and as a man on the Middle Path, that’s not something I should be doing.

I don’t know what the Right Action is here. Perhaps there is none. Just because I can’t be sure it won’t be wasted doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give; I know that. The fear that I’ll start giving out of a sense of guilt and then run into my own financial dire straights is a Chicken Little fear. The other side of the coin is that they are, indeed, spending it on booze. I guess that just means I have to make a decision and keep the faith that it’s the best one.

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Stuck in Traffic

My daily commute is a progression of anger and parade of frustration. The closer I get to Boston the more worse people get.

When I was living up in Newburyport, the ride in took me anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. I never really got angry, just frustrated. Most of my frustration came from having to be stuck in the car for that long and not being able to use the time jogging or meditating. The other drivers weren’t all that bad. Then again it’s tough to drive aggressively when you’re in gridlock for 20 miles.

Now that I’m in Arlington, I get to skip the highway altogether; which is great time-wise but bad aggression-wise. Again, not much anger from yours truly. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other drivers. This morning I sat in line at the first rotary that honors me with its presence along my route. When it came to be my turn to dash into the Circle of Death, I noticed the oncoming barrage of cars had pulled up. So I naturally thought something was wrong. Looking up I saw that the light had turned red, for this was one of those multifaceted traffic circles that comes with the added bonus of crosswalks and traffic lights. So I stopped, which was  where I went wrong.

From behind me, a horn roared to life. By the time I looked in my rear-view mirror, the car was already gone. Screeching passed me went the victim of my obeying the traffic laws. I shook my head at the all too frequent occurrence. It’s amazing how often not driving aggressively in Boston causes anger. I do find myself getting frustrated by all the ignoring of traffic laws and the slaloming of cars.

More often than not, though, the Speed Racer that blew threw the light or the Speedy Gonzalez that bobbed and weaved down Broadway, I find sitting next to me at the next light. That’s a lot of effort for such little result. I can’t claim amnesty from such actions, for I do find myself doing it from time to time, Boston certainly exerts its influence upon all who drive there. But what I can claim is that you feel a lot less flustered if you make the effort to not get swept away in the Spirit of Boston Driving.

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