May 19, 2009

summer supper

I love cooking summer dinners for pika. Today we're having watermelon, braised kale with cherry tomatoes, little tiny salt potatoes, and a bean-corn-pepper salad. And lemonade! Perfect :)

May 14, 2009

retreat part 3: i know it when i see it

One of the teachers pointed this out: the mark of a true thing is that when you hear it, you instantly feel as though you've always known. You integrate it in to your consciousness so completely that it's sometimes embarrassing to look back at how you acted previously ("how could I have been so ignorant?"). On the other hand, sometimes you look back and see that if only you had trusted yourself, or had some support in asking the questions you were asking, you might have realized the truth much earlier ("I *was* on to something!").

In some senses, being on retreat - and in specific, hearing the teachers speak - has been much like coming home after years and years away, and suddenly finding that I am once again - or is it for the first time? - not alone with my questions. I've had quite a strong sense for most of my life that the things I stay up late thinking about, not coincidentally things I write about here, are of much less immediacy to many people than they are to me. Fears about whether or not there is a reality? Weird, right? Wanting to live with the emptiness of the world? Utterly insane! But those ARE the very questions that are attended to in the context of a retreat. Mind you, nobody can answer these questions for you, but it hardly seems to matter, as long as the questions are honored...

Reading through this blog after having been in an environment where those questions are so respected, and where I have learned a new vocabulary to describe my experiences, has been quite a trip...

From October, 2007:
A little bit later I realized that actually, I'm fine. The baby mouse was sad, and yes, I do cry about such little things, but that little sadness didn't have to ruin the day. I'm busy and tired, and sometimes I just want to go to sleep, but does that necessarily mean that I'm doing badly? I don't think so. I think I'm ok. Sometimes I get stuck in this strange frame of mind, where "good" is this unattainable state of rest and contentment, with no outstanding responsibilities to speak of. That doesn't happen here at MIT. But that's all right - there are other ways to define "good".

From October, 2007:
And then I suddenly realized I was being totally ridiculous. I spent all afternoon getting freezing cold and soaking wet on purpose, as part of my SCUBA lesson. I can take as many warm showers as I want. I have plenty of clean dry clothes. Was I really all that uncomfortable? Nah. I merely had stopped being aware of my surroundings. I had decided that biking in the rain isn't nice, and so of course it wasn't. Honestly, the rain was actually quite mystical and gentle.

Anyway, I decided my awareness needed some tinkering.

From September, 2007:

Sometimes I feel like the gain on my internal amplifier (please excuse the EE talk, it's all I've been doing lately) is turned up way too high. Sigh. Sometimes there's nothing to do about Life's Persistent Questions other than curl up in the dark, listen to the rain, and secretly fall asleep with your fingers crossed, hoping that it is possible, and worth the effort, to understand each other.

From September 2007:

And that might just sum up what I love most about the violin, and what makes me so resistant to the idea of super-accessible music making. What else is there these days that actually requires you to meet with a master, one-on-one, and try to do the impossible? What else takes 40 years to get good at? What else connects you with a whole world of other questers who are desperately trying to awaken something that a guy centuries ago imagined?

And is there anything as magical as taking out a funny-shaped, hollow wooden box, drawing some sticky horse-hair across it with everything you've got, and finding, in the end, that somehow you *have* managed to communicate something meaningful to other people?

From September, 2007:
Well, for starters, it does sometimes do exactly what it's supposed to, so score 1. When it's misbehaving, it gets me to slow down and realize that I must sleep, eat well, and take care of myself. Because of it, I now know a jillion things to suggest to anybody who needs help with a stomach problem. I know what it's like to feel stuck in a pit, unable to dig one's way out of the wrong perception that life will never be easy or cheerful again. Because of my stomach, I've learned a lot about the brain and how fear works. Perhaps above all, I've learned that when I see somebody sitting in a meeting looking distracted or unhappy, there are a thousand ways in which just being there, sitting in that chair, could be unimaginably hard for them. Actually, even if somebody doesn't LOOK distracted or unhappy, it still might be hard.

So.... hey buddy. Yeah, you, Stomach. I know you're tryin' hard. I'm getting someplace, I really am. Thanks for all the hard work. You can be quiet now. I'm paying attention.

From March, 2007:

If you really tried, could you stop being stressed? Imagine making a concious decision. Imagine some day, a month from now. You have 2 problem sets and a paper, all in one night. You could either feel horrible about it, stay up until 4 AM with a feeling of anguish because you know you can't do it all before you collapse of exhaustion, or you could stay up until 4 AM, realizing that worrying that you can't do it all won't make you work faster, and get the same amount done. The evening would probably be more pleasant.

And yet when *I* imagine this situation, there's a niggling feeling of guilt. I think I'd actually feel like I was telling the world "I don't care that I can't do this", and I guess I'm afraid to project that image. But it's not true - I do care, I just realize that worrying won't help the cause.

From January, 2008:

Hence I feel inauthentic, not-myself, not-really-who-I-want-to-be. I find myself talking to people and only afterwards realize that what I said was 90% idle chatter (most of which is funny, light-hearted, and kind of pieced together every example I've ever seen of how to be entertaining in social situations) and 10% Real Meaning. It's not that I'm making stuff up, it's just very superficial. I feel as though I'm in a huge crowded swimming pool, and everybody's splashing around and whatnot, and I've got my eyes closed and I keep wincing from all the splashing. It takes so much energy to keep the water out of my eyes and keep treading that I haven't managed to discuss much beyond the metaphorical equivalent of sunblock and potato chips. It's fun for a little while, but too much of it leaves a hollow feeling behind.

A whole post rom April, 2008.

A whole post from August, 2008.

retreat part 2: your animal soul

Early morning, pouring rain, chilly. I was up early as usual. There were hundreds of worms on the driveway, escaping a flooded drainage ditch. I was taking them off of the driveway and placing them on higher ground. At first, I was an efficient worm-rescue machine. Moved 'em off the driveway and on to a raised patch of grass. Went back for more.

But then I got curious. The worms looked a bit pale, or perhaps a bit flushed - it's hard to tell with worms. They'd been practically swimming up on the driveway. Maybe, I thought, they are hungry. Or maybe their skin can't stand the open air like this. Maybe they are too weak to get back in to the earth.

So I dug some holes, and tested them out with some feisty-looking worms. No luck. My holes were not up to worm standards. Perhaps worms do not like holes that have been pre-made, lest the holes belong to somebody else. So I roughed up some nice dirt patches, the easier to begin digging, and put the worms in them. No luck. The worms oozed away. I tried covering them with leaves, in case they didn't like light. That didn't help. I was a total failure at worm rescue! It was just like trying to be witty in front of somebody important. There were those worms, staring at me without any eyes at all, forcing me to make excuses about my lack of knowledge about all things dirt.

So, after putting all the worms on high ground, I left. Twenty minutes later, they were all gone. No thanks to me!!


Before dawn, in a tiny little gazebo, in the middle of the woods, I was meditating. It was extraordinarily windy, and there was a huge full moon. I was enjoying the sound of the howling wind when a new sound started up. Huge chunks of bark being ripped off a tree, not too far away. The sound of a powerful breath. A bear! A HUNGRY bear, looking for a snack! And there I was, all alone in the forest. My heart skipped a few beats. I was motionless, exactly like a hare waiting for the perfect opportunity to make a dash for her hole - except there was nowhere to go. I breathed silently. The noise stopped. Minutes passed. I was frozen.

Unexpectedly, my timer went off, indicating the end of my sitting. I opened my eyes. New sunlight was mingling with moonlight. The wind had stopped... and a doe was only a few feet away, eating sprouts calmly by my side, totally unafraid.

Who is the timid animal in the woods, exactly?

retreat part 4: rain or shine?!?!?!

Things I Really, Really Missed While On Retreat:

-the weather report (somewhat hilariously - I had no idea I was so fascinated with the weather report, but almost every day I had some deviant thought about opening up my cell phone NOT to call anyone, but to send a text message to Google and get the weather report)
-fruit juice (particularly grapefruit juice)
-hugs (it's funny... it's not the silence, or lack of communication, or lack of technology, or physical pain, or relative lack of entertainment that gets to me... it's the lack of hugs)
-my cat (I even missed her meowing and trying to climb in to my lap while I'm meditating and digging her claws in to my thigh when I ignore her)

Things I Unexpectedly Didn't Miss All That Much While On Retreat:

-my phone (except for the weather report!)
-my computer (I thought about email all of twice, I think)
-eating (whenever mealtime rolled around, I'd think, what? again? I just ate!)

Things I Missed A Little But Didn't Feel Urgent About:
-running (there will be plenty of time to run)
-playing the violin (there will be plenty of time to play the violin)
-learning new stuff (Wikipedia, anyone?)
-people (in my darker moments, I missed some people terribly, but mostly, I felt as though I was doing the retreat for them... so it was ok)

retreat part 1: enough

Another silent retreat. At the beginning you go in like a brand-spanking-new greenhouse, all glass walls and unsprouted seeds in bare dirt... and as time goes on, an atmosphere develops, and clouds form, and the seeds sprout and grow and bloom, and pretty soon you've got a whole ecosystem and condensation on the walls and broad jungle leaves blocking the view... Mostly, it's a very good thing, because it means you are alive and something is really happening, but it makes it nearly impossible to explain the experience! Like trying to explain how things are different after a spring rain...

At an afternoon sitting a few days in to the retreat, I started to feel sick. It's a familiar feeling, my stomach being the troublemaker that it is, but it's *really* unpleasant. And it makes it almost impossible to sit up or swallow. I tried all the tricks in my bag. First, I just acknowledge that I'm not feeling well and turn my attention to something else. When it gets bad enough that I can't pay attention to anything else, I try to dissect the experience. Which sensations are painful? Which are uncomfortable? How am I reacting? How very studious. Eventually, some little fuse blows in my mind and all my efforts to be calm and observant are out the window. I stay seated, but it's like trying to hold a squirming cat. And of course that's a losing battle... I was finally forced to get up and leave. In the middle of the sitting. In front of all those silent people sitting there, ears attuned to the tiniest of noises...

I got out of the hall and collapsed on to the floor, feeling sick, embarrassed, and cuttingly sarcastic with myself. Geez, said that nasty little voice in my mind, you might as well have busted out your toenail clipper, or power drill, or jackhammer. How considerate. Now they probably hate you. There is nothing you can do here to show your respect and concern for anyone except to not screw up, and you couldn't even manage that. I was lying on the floor listening to this voice - my own voice - taunt me like I was 8 years old again, cornered on the playground by a bully twice my size. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I started to cry. That nasty little voice became a whiny little voice. Listen to yourself, it said. You're treating yourself like rubbish. You're preying on your own weaknesses, and you're really, really good at it. How pathetic. Haven't you suffered enough already???

Yes, came a clear answer. Let's stop.

I opened my eyes. A new voice. My own voice, without a doubt, speaking in my own authentic way, from somewhere quiet. Not straining, not struggling, not trying to contort my experience in to something positive. Not trying to prove its kindness, not trying to be good, not trying to be better - just completely, utterly kind. There was no failure. Suddenly I felt the cool floorboards underneath me. I heard the silence all around me and felt the peacefullness that was still blanketing the meditation hall. I got up. I made tea.

I was fine.


Some people complain that Westerners are going to Buddhism like they go to Wal-Mart, picking what they like, leaving an ugly consumerist mess behind.

I am, apparently, one such Wal-Mart shopper. You can pin me with almost all of those negative stereotypes. I'm a middle class intellectual who lives a comfortable life and is pursuing a PhD. I don't consider myself Buddhist. I turned away, by choice, from religion because I couldn't stand being told what to think or believe. One thing I like about Buddhism - well, let's be specific, the practice taught here that includes among other things vipassana and metta - is its rationality and openness. I view it as somewhat scientific. I feel there is something of unspeakable value to be learned and known, but I am not interested in becoming a nun. I dislike complicated or unexplained rituals. I do not wish to revere authority simply because I am told to do so.

From one perspective, a somewhat bitter perspective in my opinion, I'm just another greedy Westerner who wants to apply a feel-good salve to her broken Western life at the expense of Asian tradition. If I'm going to be involved with Buddhism, I should call myself Buddhist (out of respect?). I shouldn't "pick and choose" which parts of Buddhism I pay attention to - the thing exists as a whole for good reasons laid down by smart people, and I am unwise to leave out the traditional aspects. I shouldn't be grabby - either I can live my opulent Western life, or I can ordain or become homeless and discover the true meaning of the teachings. I should be laughed at, or at least corrected, for insisting that there is a scientific quality to the teachings. I should believe Buddhist scholars about what is ethically correct before I should be so cocky as to trust myself, because I haven't thought about things as much as they have. I should not fool myself in to thinking that what I am doing is as valuable as what a real Buddhist is doing.

Oh, this makes me sad. And it scares me. Truly. This is precisely why I do not call myself Buddhist, and why I do not identify myself by any other label. Please, world, I beg you - do not judge me for following my heart. I am trying, with more earnestness than I could possibly convey, to wake up, to find out what is true, to bring happiness to the world instead of suffering. You do not have to believe me. I do not want to take anything away from you. I do not want you to think I am noble or correct.

This is so similar to the complaint that surfaces in Christian communities every December. Non-believers flock to churches on Christmas Eve, apparently, it would seem, to complete their sordid Christmas shopping list by taking advantage of the beauty that true believers create on such a special night. There is such outrage that these "cultural Christians" take comfort in a Christmas Eve service. I can imagine ways in which these infrequent church-goers could be a genuine problem - perhaps they are disrespectful, noisy, or otherwise clueless about how to participate. But I think most of them are respecful people with a genuine desire to mark a special day in a way that means something to them. Why is there such an impulse to deny them that opportunity? I do not think that they degrade Christianity with their sporadic enthusiasm and sharing. I do not think that their happiness is undeserved.

In some ways, I think it's human nature to want others to follow our path. This is evident to me even in daily life. If I find, while eating dinner, that combining my salad dressing and my mashed potatoes produces a fantastic new dish, I am likely to tell everybody at the table. I want them to experience it. Maybe I'll feel disappointed when my neighbor decides that she's perfectly happy with her food the way it is. This sort of thing happens all the time. Have you ever read a really fantastic article, and wanted everybody you know to read it, too? Some people will find it boring. Others will find it thrilling. Others will read the first paragraph and then become distracted by something that is more important to them at that time. In those moments we can have such a strong sense that THIS article is THE MOST IMPORTANT, and that everybody MUST see it. It's very strange.

This, I think, is the danger of religion. People have profound experiences, and they want to share. Some are intersted, others are not. There is this terrible tendency to think that if another person is not interested in following your path, he or she does not respect the depth of your experience, or even worse, denies that your experience is valid. This becomes so complicated when it comes to religious traditions. It is so easy to assume that if your neighbor does not do things exactly as you do them, he or she is missing out, and will never understand the wonderful things that you understand. I think this assumption comes, fundamentally, from a warm-hearted impulse, but is among the most damanging thoughs a human being can act upon.

The Buddha said:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

This passage is oft-quoted by Western Buddhists, and perhaps they (I?) cling to it too hard, as proof that they are not being duped or brainwashed, as many fear. It may be that my love for this passage is merely a product of my cultural background, but if so, I am not ashamed, because I do not pretend to be somehow existant without a culture. I do think it is important. I think it invites us all to do that most vile deed, and "shop" for what we believe. I call it "shopping" in order to make a point, but I do not think there is anything consumerist or cheap about refusing labels and refusing to be told what to think. I realize that this very attitude, one focused on independence, is very Western, and that everything I say is being colored by it. There are no absolutes. I can prove nothing. I can only act.

But when one decries the intersection of Western ideals with Buddhist ideals, when one announces that Westerners can't possibly "achieve" anything with a watered-down Buddhism catered to their every desire... one misses the goodness that is already flowing in this newborn tradition. There is a certain sweetness here already. It is changing lives. Who cares whether or not it will "go as far" as Buddhism has in the East? We'll find out when we find out. Nothing is being desecrated. Right now - right here, and right now! - there is just a little more happiness. I've felt it - happiness isn't in the imagination.

In the end, we all want to be seen for who we really are. I am a middle class intellectual who lives in a co-op, organizes (among other things) for organic food to be delivered to my door, and believes strongly in living in a supportive, inclusive community. To the degree that I am able, I do not take part in consumerist culture, I tend the earth, I recycle, I reuse, I use technology responsibly, I take care of those around me, I take care of myself. I am pursuing a PhD in a subject which I truly believe will help relieve suffering. I don't consider myself a Buddhist because I don't want to espouse beliefs I haven't fully examined, and I don't want to be embroiled in conflict about which Way is Correct. I like the rationality and openness of Buddhist practice because I don't want to be a part of any belief system that is exclusive in any way. I view it as somewhat scientific because one's experience is not governed by the amount of one's faith. I am not interested in becoming a nun because I think I have more to offer the world on the path I'm taking and it would be false to abandon that notion. I dislike complicated or unexplained rituals because one can easily confuse the ritual itself with the quality of heart the ritual is supposed to invoke. I do not wish to revere authority when I am told to do so because I think there is more honor in being respected for a reason than for power.

That's all.

May 13, 2009

a friend took this picture of me

...and I rather like it.


Emily the Rat died on April 25th. She was euthanized because she had at least 3 tumors, one of which was inoperable and probably cancerous, and was unable to walk, groom or eat normally.

It was absolutely heartbreaking.

Emily in 2008, drinking mango juice out of a bottle cap.

The last photo of Emily, a few days before she died, curled up in her little house.

This seems like a good time to point out just how much I love this cat, Lilah.

She hangs out in the garden like a jungle cat.

She tolerates our affections.

And she really, really knows a good sunpatch when she sees one.

update #2

Next year, I will be studying biomedical neuroscience and pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine. I will have a good salary. I will have health insurance. This is a HUGE relief.

This acceptance was strange beyond belief. My application was discovered the day before the acceptance deadline, long after all the other applicants had been notified. It had been lost. Some very kind faculty called me up and we embarked on a bizarre week-long roller coaster of phone interviews, missed meetings, and extended deadlines before I was finally interviewed - unexpectedly - for a full 3 hours by faculty members. I was offered admission that evening. I accepted the next day. It's a good program. If you want to know more, here's a link.

The faculty members at BU were kind in many ways, but perhaps their greatest kindness was in helping me understand why I was not admitted initially, and why I was not admitted to other schools. As usual, with greater understanding has come greater acceptance of the unease of this spring.

I was honest. I spoke too much about interests other than science. I spoke too much about this year that I've taken off in order to examine my life. I did not "sell" myself. I wrote about my ethical concerns. I did not define a career path. I refused to be certain about what I want to do with my life. I wrote about my distaste for academic hierarchy and pecking order. I tried hard - too hard - to explain who I REALLY am, and it backfired. Instead of coming across as a thoughtful person trying desperately to make a choice that will benefit the world, I came across as a flaky person who could not be relied upon to deal with challenges. They did not trust me to finish the program. They wondered if I really cared about science at all, given how much I spoke about other things.

When I first heard this, I was incredibly frustrated. I put such a lot of effort in to authenticity, and not only did those efforts go unnoticed, I was regarded with great suspicion. Is there no such thing as a scientist with a heart and a mind for ethics? But the frustration faded in to... something else. I don't exactly feel as though I did "the right thing" in writing what I did on my applications - obviously I failed to communicate effectively about myself as a scientist. But neither do I regret not defining a career path or refusing to be certain about where I am going. I will not close doors now... not ever.

Somehow, this will work out.