Tag Archives: karma

The art of not knowing everything

I once worked with a woman who gave elaborate thespian phone performances. Not the nasty $2.99 per minute kind, but plenty that had the undertow of a more genuine nastiness.

She lived at the desk next door to me in our little room in newspaperland, so eavesdropping was essentially unavoidable unless I brought in headphones and blared L7’s “Smell the Magic.”

I overheard her cooing sympathies for various health ailments and workplace stressors, humble babydoll requests for interviews, breathless apologies for misprints and uproarious laughs at jokes that couldn’t possibly have been that funny. But the minute the receiver hit the base, she would start swearing at the phone like a late-night cable comedian. She’d make colorful hand gestures at it, slam nearby file drawers with her foot, shake her head, yell at the ceiling like a thin, malevolent, female Charlie Brown.

If you threw a softball “what happened?” question her way during the episode, she’d gladly assail the character of her phone acquaintances (minor characters in her life, really) with ruthless assessments. They were incompetent morons at best, insane morons at worst. She was certain.

I was young and at first, I found her routine pretty funny. There’s a sexy, star-chamber quality to cattiness and gossip, especially in the workplace. Moreso in the media workplace, where you high five each other when you manage to unearth the failings of powerful people in the world and lay them bare in print. You feel like an insider. You know stuff that it seems like you shouldn’t. You feel smarter than other people. You find new, cleverer, wittier ways to call out what you perceive as stupid, inane or otherwise inferior. It’s so easy to know everything when you’re young.

But at some point, I realized that it wasn’t funny. It might even be dangerous. Not because I am a great arbiter of morals, but because it became easy to see that this behavior was bound to come home to roost on my own rear end.

I saw the same people who had bitched together about someone else bitch separately about each other. When you’re dancing in the middle of that kind of social quagmire, there’s no question that you’re going to be the bitched about person eventually. You will hurt people and get hurt. In the pernicious culture of the newsroom, I’m pretty sure I did my share of both.

I don’t remember a light bulb moment, but I remember the desperate feeling that I needed to extract myself from toxic work socializing as best I could. I started nodding more. Listening more. Withholding judgment. I searched for metaphors that would properly reflect what I was hearing from the person about how they felt instead of joining their rigged jury. This kind of listening has actually come in handy in my writing life a lot since. And my spiritual life. And my mothering life.

Finding the words to celebrate or applaud things authentically, meaningfully is much harder than finding new, clever ways to bitch about things. Vengefulness is easier than compassion. Suspicion is easier than faith. (This is clearly part of the way that Buddhism appeals to my protestant work ethic.)

It is harder to celebrate and find joy in other people’s children than it is to pick apart the alien ways that they might influence yours. It’s definitely easier to judge other parents and children than it is to see your own flaws. Playgrounds, like newsrooms, are breeding areas for cattiness. Yet, when I make a conscious effort to look for what to celebrate instead of what to criticize, I’ve discovered that finding joy makes everything easier. The older the kids get, the harder it looks, but it is easier. It’s more fun. It’s lighter. It’s less isolating. It’s worth the effort.

I make no claim that I’ve mastered these things. I decided early this year that aspirations are my gig, not hardened vows or easily fractured resolutions. I’m determined to remind myself of the mistakes I have made, or keep making. I’m determined to keep trying.

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A place to be silent

I’m really not a good Buddhist, or technically even actually a Buddhist. I have sung the Refuge prayer in spirit dozens of times but never taken it in formal ceremony. I really don’t have any meditation practice other than a long history with yoga, childhood theater classes that taught me a lot about visualization and a propensity to chant Om Mani Padme Hum while I fold the laundry.

Right around the time that I got pregnant, I started spending time at a Tibetan Buddhist center (Kagyu tradition). This was partly because I had written about an extensive exhibition of Buddhist meditational art called The Circle of Bliss, went to hear Robert Thurman speak and caught the desire to know more. It was also partly because of the gratitude that I felt for an AA meeting held at a local temple that did – and still does, just by the fact it exists – help some people who need that program but feel put off by it because it can seem so Christian-centric. Twelve-steppers aren’t supposed to promote whichever “higher power” they believe in, but I hear that it can be hard to find a meeting where Jesus isn’t name-checked. And that can be a major obstacle for people with religious baggage.

But mostly it was because as soon as I began to tell people I was pregnant, these questions of faith started to come up. What would I raise my child to believe? It was suggested that this was something that I needed to answer as soon as I could. It was also suggested that I had to pick something because wishy-washy in-betweenyness would inflict moral ambiguity on my child. I was raised Christian (baptized Episcopalian but confirmed Presbyterian) but open to all kinds of possibilities. Once, during the Shirley MacLaine vein of the 1980s, my dad told me that a transchanneler told him that he and I were sisters in a past life in the Southern U.S. and that we were very good friends then indeed. He also went to a stark and classic New England Episcopal church regularly. And he had my astrological charts done when I was born.

My best friend’s father was a born-again minister and try as I may to heal my mosquito bites by uttering a lot of Amens and Praise the Lords and Hallelujahs and trying to open my heart during one of his faith-healing Bible studies I could not get it to work. But my Presbyterian confirmation as a 14-year-old followed a year of questioning and analysis at a church that had me go and sit through Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox mass and African American Baptist services so that I might have a decent idea about how diverse Christianity really is. I loved that my minister wasn’t afraid to give sermons about the Cold War or racism or abortion (there was, and still is, a NARAL chapter in that church). I was asked to become a deacon, but that minister left and I lost my closeness to the church and the faith. I am just more comfortable in faith when I’m invited by its envoys to question it.

I’m not the kind of Christian girl who ran screaming from her church thinking that having no religion would make me intellectually superior or that Eastern religions would have all of the answers. When I started going to Dharma talks and public talks by Buddhist teachers, mostly what I found was a way of thinking about the world that is much more Christ-like, as I understand it, than what I find in a lot of churches now. To try and see my worst enemy with the compassion of 10,000 mothers, to dedicate my actions to the benefit of all beings – these things have the spirit I think of when I think of Jesus. And here in the west, anyway, we have the luxury of contemplating Buddha without watching him turn into a political football. Jesus, on the other hand, gets punted and kicked and used for touchdowns and spiked in Washington DC all the time. Most Christian organizations and a lot of self-professed Christians make me feel alienated from the faith. Still, there is no question that I will raise my son to understand that Christianity is part of his heritage and give him the opportunity to explore it as a faith if he so chooses.

Meanwhile, there really isn’t a space for kids in the Buddhist center that I visit. They’ve been kind enough to put speakers in the basement that have enabled me and a handful of other parents to listen to dharma talks while our little ones babble around us and we all worry that they’ll be too loud. But the most popular event there every week is Shi’nay (a silent) meditation, and people – including some parents trying to get that hour of silence – don’t want that kid noise adding to the roars from the nearby freeway and the barking dog neighbors, even if it’s just creeping through the floorboards of the temple from our subterranean space.

A very good yoga teacher of mine taught me that quiet meditation is something you work to do amidst the clamor – that you can’t control your environment, but you can learn to control your response to an environment. I try to stem my resentment that childcare of any form never felt like a consideration at the center. When I’m there, I generally want my son with me. I can’t let go of my expectations that kids are part of the spiritual package. I’m not comfortable being there when it seems he’s not welcome or might raise hackles if he acts as what he is – a child – without feeling like he might be resented for it. So I’ve never sat Shi’nay. And I’ve never felt like I could fully embrace the practice. It seems like many Westerners come into Buddhism in such a solitary way, or in ways that so firmly reject anything that reminds them of their Judeo-Christian upbringing, that a Sangha (community) can feel like it’s being built out of pebbles instead of bricks.

So a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine who is deeply involved with Zen Buddhism came to town, I went to a Zen meditation with her. I had no preconceived notions about taking Declan because the group is very small and rents a room in a church, and while there are several differences between Shi’nay and Zen meditation, there are thin
gs that are the same. During that 5o minutes of silence I employed just about every way to clear my mind that I know. I turned numbers into clouds and blew them away. I saw their outlines in the sand and brought in waves to clear them. I burned them as sticks, I wiped them off like chalk, I flicked them off the table like peas. (I guess I used numbers because someone there told me to count to eight to clear my mind.) And I understood something new about the benefits of finding silence, but I found Zen’s coolness a little less cozy than Tibetan Buddhism.

And so, much as in the days when my dad and I were a couple of southern belles, I find myself returning to the laundry.

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A good friend visited from out of town this week. At one point she asked if I remembered a time when she lived in town and was going through a painful relationship split.

“You let me come to your house and just be there and you made me juice,” she said, and put her hand on my shoulder. “It was so nourishing. I always remember that when I think of you. That juice was amazing.”

I forget sometimes, in the middle of loving a child whose demands are mostly joyful but many, in the middle of thin and precarious economic times, that I have had the space in my heart and life to do things like open my home and make juice for a friend. We’ve lived a few hundred miles apart for a few years now, but she has somehow managed to appear at the exact moment that I needed support within that time more than once.

My juicer is currently buried in a kitchen cabinet, somewhere behind Tupperware containers and sippy cups and old Comfest mugs. I’m thinking that I need to grab some carrots and apples and ginger and pull it out again, to join a CSA to help ensure a summer of raw nourishment, to sow some karmic seeds.

I can’t believe it’s nearly June again.

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Karma bombing

I believed in karma long before I knew the word. I imagined it as though it was a cosmic superhero, capable of righting all injustices. It’s also known by the grandma wisdom that spills forth when you’ve been hurt by someone else: “don’t worry about it, he/she will get what’s coming to them eventually” or “what comes around goes around.”

Maybe because the golden rule was the rule of law in my childhood home, heaven and hell made less sense to me than the idea that at our life’s end, our soul would be momentarily shattered by a karma bomb. It would be one thing to be presented a list by St. Peter, another to realize fully who we’ve been and how our actions hold up. Every piece of a karma bomb’s brilliant shrapnel would fill us with an empathic experience that would help us vividly understand the joy and pain we inflicted on others during our lifetime.

This belief has been a salve I’ve used on my ego in painful situations, particularly when I’ve needed to accept defeat or, really, reality. It was there when I needed a way to cope with feelings of powerlessness in the face of infinity, or, more often, in the face of one of the world’s big mean jerks. I sometimes went so far as to let it keep me from promoting or defending myself, instead thinking that this cosmic force was going to somehow let the real me, my real intentions, be seen, appreciated, and especially understood by whoever was that I needed to have understand it.

I’ve spent too many wee hours searching for the components to construct my own small karma bombs – usually words. I’ve searched for some kind of truth in language that I hoped would suddenly bring another person to a full-bodied understanding of how their mistreatment of me, or worse, of someone I care about, truly felt. It would let them know all about the parts of the story they don’t know, or fail to look at, powerfully and instantly. And for all of that time I’ve spent laboring, these letters are largely unwritten and unsent.

Some of my journalistic peers say things like “our readers aren’t interested in reading about X,” because they have marketing data that they’ve come to trust beyond their own, far less limiting, human instincts. And X is almost always something that illuminates a social concern, something that asks the reader to consider life outside of themselves. I’ve seethed over our lack of faith in people.

I have heard morally questionable actions repeatedly excused with “it’s only business.” I’ve also seethed over this regularly in my karma bomb-making quarters, because in my mind, business doesn’t get to exist without people. Business is people. Period.

But I’m guilty of trapping ideas about other people under glass myself. Once we grouse about a friend or family member or colleague as thoughtless or incapable or difficult or uncaring, it’s hard to back off of that precipice and learn to see them any other way. The late Randy Pausch has a simple-sounding remedy for this in his Last Lecture — he basically says that every person has a good side, we just have to wait for them to show it to us. And that good side is always, always worth seeing. I believe that, whether or not I can find the patience or the time or the desire to do the searching that uncovering that thing may require.

The more I’ve learned about karma, the more it’s come to mean something else to me… something that’s not about righteousness or judgment or berating myself for being passive or mentally bombing people with my version of reality. My karma is what I do with it. It’s about being loving, taking responsibility for my own actions, sowing what good I can in the world and seeing people if not for what they are, for the way that they ask me to see them, if only just to know what that might be. My karma bombs are useless on everybody but me. Or maybe everybody, including me.

What about you? Do you make them?


By now, you’ve probably guessed that this is little more than a pointed pep talk meant to help me convince myself to stop mentally swearing at bullies, editors, politicians, queen bees, unpaid bills, the life I thought I deserved and mosquitoes so often.

Now back to deep-fried garlic mashed potatoes on a stick.

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