Meditation: Your Life is a Borrowed Thing

Your life does not belong to you. It is a borrowed thing. Someday, you will be required to give it back. Until then, you must use your borrowed life as an instrument. Do good work. Contribute everything you can. Hold nothing aside. Increase happiness. Help others make the most with their borrowed lives. Learn without fear. Help others learn without fear. Be relentlessly generous. Give until you have nothing left. This is how you live the kind of life worth living. This is how you honor the gift you have been given. This kind of life does not come easily. Practice everyday. Do not tell others how they should live. Show them. Prepare the way for those who come after you. Return your life when it is required of you. Stand aside. Smile. Breathe.

(for JT)

There Are No Words

There are no words to explain what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut. There is no consolation to give the parents of gone children.

There is no rule to govern why it was some other person’s child and not mine. There is no way to measure how much future genius, energy and insight was lost.

I am angry. I am baffled. I am scared.

This happened. This can happen again.

And yet, I must send my daughter out into the world. She needs to be in the world. The world needs her to be in it.

And so I am working with impermanence. I am working with fear. I return to these like a mantra: attachment and impermanence; impermanence and fear.

I am not a prayerful person and yet I wrap my whole life up in one single prayer. That I can help things become bigger rather than smaller. That I can help open spaces rather than close them.

My entire life wrapped up in one single prayer that has no words, only action. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can be awake and alive. Constantly working to make the world a place where we can live.

Living Someone Else’s Dream

I teach at a community college and know that there are thousands and thousands of students with no idea of how they want to use their lives. Many are being trained for vocations in which they have little interest or enthusiasm. Somewhere along they way, these students have borrowed someone else’s dream. Some are starting on career paths with the belief that the point of their work will be to make money which will allow them the freedom to magically discover their interests and pursue a better life. That doesn’t happen. The pursuit of money fuels the cycle of disappointment.

Samsara is the Buddhist concept of being entrapped in the cycle of perpetual despair. We are trapped. Our children get trapped. Their children get trapped. We build lives that justify the experience of our suffering. We habituate ourselves to routines and expectations that do not serve us. Our children learn to do the same. They teach their children to do the same.

This doesn’t need to happen. Disappointment is a wheel. It doesn’t have to turn.

My wish for my students is to find a measure of the purpose Alan Watts describes in this video:

My hope is that more of my students can wake up to the realization that they are living someone else’s dream. They can stop the wheel and ask themselves, “What would I do if money were no object?” And then, they can commit themselves to learning about their true passions. Our world needs people who are awake and committed to becoming their best selves.

Gratitude is a practice

I don’t call myself a Buddhist but there is much about the Buddhist approach to life that feels right to me. I am drawn to the belief that my life, and everything in my life, is practice. Not practice for an abstract, future-tense state of being where everything is perfect and all potential fulfilled. Not time-served through adversity to merit everlasting rest in unseen perpetual bliss.

I’m not talking heaven or nirvana or any other metaphysical end state. I’m talking about right here, right now.

Life as practice means everything I do and everything done to me is raw material. I can work with everything to be more fully present in my life. This, I think, is the point of life. Not worrying so much about future states of perfection at the expense of the present moment. The future is never what I expect nor what I believe I will need it to be. Much better to focus my attention on right now, which is, of course, always exactly as it is.

This is not a recipe for nihilism. This carries me toward selflessness.

If my life is my practice, then I can work with everything and everything belongs. Being happy is temporary. Being unhappy is temporary. Being sad, frustrated, angry, elated are all temporary. These emotional states change. They intensify, and they weaken. They disappear.

Gratitude, however, does not disappear. Gratitude remains constant. Gratitude is not a feeling. Gratitude is a practice.

This time of year my mind habitually produces lists of the great things I appreciate. This is the Count My Many Blessings approach to gratitude. Keep doing this, but don’t stop here.

Gratitude as practice means seeing, recognizing and appreciating those things in my that are uncomfortable, unpleasant or just plain difficult. This stuff is my life, too.

And so gratitude as practice requires a list of not-so-pleasant things that make my life as it is. This does not come naturally to me. This requires a lot of practice.

Here goes.

Pay Attention. This Isn’t My Life.

There have been plenty of times I have thought to myself: this isn’t my life. My life isn’t the 45 to 50 hours I work every week. My life isn’t the stuff I do around the house or the trips to the grocery store. My life isn’t my Wunderlist website of long term projects or the daily Stky list of tasks I keep on my phone.

My life is the thousand beautiful moments happening every day, which I am usually too busy to notice.

Occasionally, my life leaps out and grabs me by the throat.

Today my life caught me by surprise. The trigger was a cataclysmic sunset, both beautiful and terrible, like the  edges of the world caught fire. This, like a poem, grabbed me and could not be ignored. I turned the car around to admire the conflagration and, too soon, it was gone.

Memories of another fleeting sunset while listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn play “Little Wing”. This is my life: small, subtle moments of profound beauty where the world is simultaneously made and unmade. Reaching out to capture me, when I pay attention.

Would the Buddha use an iPad?

Interesting fact about me: I follow dozens of blogs about iPad, iOS and other Apple accouterments and yet remain relatively uninformed about the actual workplace conditions of the factory workers in China who assemble these miracle devices. There have been many recent stories, of varying credibility, about the work conditions in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing units.

I hear stories about dust explosions, blindness and suicide nets. And yet, somehow, I never can find my way to read the entire story. I hear a whisper of something ill afoot and my mind grays out.

I don’t have this problem when reading about the latest iOS upgrade features, the comparison points of new iPad vs. iPad2 or keeping track of the best new free apps.

This is called practiced avoidance. Some call it compassion fatigue. It is, undoubtedly, a kind of moral disconnect.

And yet, I feel oddly relieved to read that the recent “This American Life” story about the deplorable conditions at FoxConn were made up. As if, somehow, I can simultaneously credit myself for being more informed about the working conditions of the people who make iStuff and yet also feel absolved of some of my own complicity in the horror since this one story wasn’t properly fact-checked.

I think Erik Sherman has this one right:

Too many people will use This American’s retraction to smooth over their momentary discomfort at using products that require harsh working conditions to maintain cheaper prices and corporate margins. But the problems remain — not just for iPads and iPhones, but also for all those Android devices, many TV sets, radios, GPS units, just about every other electronic wonder of modern life. Daisey’s reporting may be phony, but when you look at the bigger picture of most consumer electronics manufacturing, he was right. The biggest shame will be if people use this episode as an excuse to go happily back to dreamland.

He’s right. I’m not throwing away my iStuff, but I’ve got to sit with this one for a while. Everything and everyone is interconnected. That’s a Noble Truth. Suffering is inescapable and happens to everyone. That’s another Noble Truth. Attachments (like to iStuff) create suffering. Yet another Noble Truth.

I’m going to continue using my iStuff knowing that the creation process harms others and probably harms the environment. Where’s the mindfulness in that?

Would the Buddha use an iPad? I don’t know. Probably not. But if he did, he wouldn’t let himself pretend that his iPad appeared magically on a lotus petal one morning. That iPhone came from somewhere. Somebody made it. Making it might have cost them something. It might have cost them a lot. It almost certainly cost them more to make it than it does for me to use it.

Sit with that. That’s mindfulness for you.