A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For December 2014, I had three books to read: Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I feel delighted that these three books fit together so well, weaving one with another in all kinds of past, present, and future. The first two I knew would fit together, but Ruth Ozeki’s book was a bit of a surprise. I had it on my to-read list, but it was my spouse who picked it for me for December when he checked it out from the library for my birthday.

What I’m wondering is, would any three books I picked up during December fit together? If I’m reading three books at essentially the same time, will they all blend together regardless of what they’re about, or would they all have to mention, say, Socrates, as all three of these books did?

Whatever the reason, I do think that the fitting-together of these three books enhanced the reading of each of them. They’re all sort of mushing together in my mind right about now, but I’ll try to write just about A Tale for the Time Being.

My thoughts:

1) This book is shelved in the YA section of my library. With a daughter who’s started dipping into the YA section, I find this a little alarming. I’m not into censoring my daughter’s reading, but I would feel strange if she were to read about the torture, bullying, suicidal thoughts, and sexual content in this book. It’s not filled with those things, and I wouldn’t even be thinking about it were it not for the “YA” sticker on the spine, and perhaps if my daughter were actually a “young adult” and not a precocious nine-year-old, I would feel less uncomfortable about giving her free rein in the YA section.

2) This book has really made me crave out-of-the-way places, like Zen monasteries and remote Canadian islands. Maybe I am in one or both of these places right now in alternate universes.

3) With as weird as I find quantum mechanics and parallel universes (and the people who talk about them) to be, I really enjoyed Ozeki’s take on them. The story led a place I didn’t expect, and that was actually pleasant. Good and bad are all mixed up—planting non-native plants to keep one step ahead of climate change, losing house pets because of the reintroduction of large predators to the ecosystem, a friend who helps but perhaps for not-so-helpful reasons—which makes a story all the more messy and real.

4) The mixing up of the narrator/author/character division really worked for me, even though it left me feeling kind of unsettled (I kind of like feeling unsettled).

So, there’s my messy review. I liked this book, but I’m going to wait a few years before telling my daughter about it.

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Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Emperor Was Divine follows an American family of Japanese descent from their home in Berkeley, California, to the Topaz internment camp near Delta, Utah, and back again three-and-a-half years later after World War II has ended. Read More

The Elusive Middle Way

It occurred to me recently that I like extremes.

I go to extremes a lot with my diet. The strict elimination diet I did when my daughter was two-and-a-half is one example. No gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts, beans, chocolate, alcohol, or sugar of any kind (including grapes). You are right to wonder what I ate during this time. Then my “meat at every meal” diet. This was actually healthier than the “cheese, bread, and beer” vegetarian diet I consumed for nearly seven years because the meat diet actually included vegetables. Then there’s my most recent (largely failed) experiment in vegan, gluten-free, no-oil eating. And in case you’re wondering, no, I do not ease myself into these dietary changes. I’m one Whole Foods trip away from a major dietary shift at any given moment. No wonder my kids refuse to eat the food I cook anymore.

I go to extremes with choices about where to live, too. I joke that I don’t travel; I move. It’s a joke, but it’s also true, and I have the six states’ worth of drivers’ licenses to prove it.

I binge-read like nobody’s business. I either check Facebook 235 times a day or I delete (or attempt to delete) my profile. I buy those yummy mini-meringues at the store and eat the whole package before bedtime. I let my hair grow to my waist and then hack it off dramatically all at once, only to let it grow out again for the next three years (by which time I need to find a new hairdresser because we’ve moved to a different state again). I stop running for eight months then immediately jump back into running 3-5 miles three times a week. I end a yoga fast by doing a 1.5-hour vinyasa practice every morning. I wake up at 4:30am for 6 weeks to meditate. And then I meditate again before I go to bed (at 8:30pm).

I’m keen on Buddhism, and when I’m engaged in these reactionary and extreme patterns of behavior, I remind myself of Siddhartha’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. After attempting all manner of extreme religious practices, Siddhartha eventually adopted a more moderate path, attained enlightenment, and started a religion to boot. The “Middle Way” continues to be at the core of Buddhism, and while it seems like a really good and simple idea, it’s a lot more complicated to apply to real life.

When I envision the Middle Way, I picture something very much like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” only with three roads diverged in a wood rather than two. The decision about which path to take should be simple: take the one that’s in the middle. But, for me at least, that middle road isn’t easy to discern. Not only is it grassy and wanting wear, it’s so overgrown it’s practically indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

If I want to take the Middle Way, I’m going to have to keep a very keen eye on the faded blazes along the path and the subtle signs that there actually is a path here. I’ll need to have my machete handy to hack away the vines and poison ivy. The going will be slow and punctuated by frequent stops to move fallen trees off of the path and to pick off ticks that have found their way into my hair and are fixing to burrow into my skin and give me Lyme disease. (I’ve never been a fan of ticks, but moving to New England has made me remarkably paranoid about Lyme disease.)

Today my osteopath told me that the “neck headaches” I’ve been getting are caused by the extreme tension in the muscles all the way along my spine. She recommended finding ways to release tension, specifically changing my perspective on exercise from building towards something or training towards a tangible goal to being a way to quickly release tension in my body.

With this suggestion in mind, when I got home I turned the kids loose with some Wild Kratts DVDs and went back to reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I started it months and months ago, but I stopped reading when I got to the chapter about stress, which is rather amusing when I think about it.

Kabat-Zinn writes about the fight-or-flight response and the negative effects it has within the body if it’s triggered too readily and not allowed to dissipate in a healthy way. The thing that stuck out to me was the broad range of circumstances that can trigger a fight-or-flight response:

Anything that threatens our sense of well-being can trigger it to some degree. If our social status is threatened, or our ego, or our strongly held beliefs, or our desire to control things or have them be a certain way (“my” way, for instance), then the sympathetic nervous system lets loose. We can be catapulted into a state of hyperarousal and fight-or-flight whether we like it or not.

Maybe I stopped reading the book at the stress chapter because I wasn’t ready to admit that I’ve been fighting against threats to my ego and my sense of control (because there sure aren’t any tigers around here threatening me). None of the information about stress is new to me, but every time I encounter it I read it with new eyes. This time it’s in the context of my realization about my going to extremes and my osteopath’s suggestion to cool it a bit.

So, here I am at the head of these three paths, machete in hand and a vague idea in my mind. I might just stand here for a bit before I head out.

Review: How to See Yourself As You Really Are

How to See Yourself As You Really Are
How to See Yourself As You Really Are by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is deceptively complex.

I started out with the audiobook version, but after listening to the first two CDs about three times and not really taking any of it in, I checked out the hardcover from the library. That worked somewhat better, but the book was still quite confusing.

In a way, it seemed like a very long koan. If the self doesn’t inherently exist—although it does, in fact exist—what is its nature? If you can’t locate it in the mind or the body, where is it?

One thing that I found frustrating (beyond the basic incomprehensibility of the book) was that the Dalai Lama asks these questions and then gives the answer while insisting that the process of exploring the questions is more important than just having the answer. I don’t doubt this is true, I would just kind of prefer if he kept the answer a secret and let me figure it out on my own. Or at least gave a spoiler alert. Having an endpoint for my contemplation makes the contemplation itself less satisfying.

The sensation I had reading this book kind of reminded me of when my then-five-year-old asked me where we were before we were in our mommy’s bellies.

“Where do you think we were?” I asked, thinking that, since she’d been there more recently than I had, she might have a better idea than I did. (“Nowhere,” was her matter-of-fact answer, incidentally).

I’m not at all sure I get the book, although what I think I get is fairly liberating, if I’m actually understanding it correctly. Of course, the fact that I use the word “I” so often is probably evidence that I’m not getting it at all being that it’s all about the emptiness of existence of the self.

From the book:

“Ordinary happiness is like dew on the tip of a blade of grass, disappearing very quickly. That it vanishes reveals that it is impermanent and under the control of other forces, causes, and conditions. Its vanishing also shows that there is no way of making everything right; no matter what you do within the scope of cyclic existence, you cannot pass beyond the range of suffering. By seeing that the true nature of things is impermanence, you will not be shocked by change when it occurs, not even by death.”

At any rate, this book seemed to fit well with the daily meditation practice in which I’ve been engaged for the past five and a half weeks. And contemplation of the nature of the thing I think of as “I” has been…interesting. I’d read it again.

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Paralyzed by Indecision

It’s now halfway through August and I still haven’t decided what my next “project” will be. I know I don’t have to have a project. But I would like a focus at least.

I was so pleased with how my Happiness Project went, I want to design a similarly profound program for this upcoming year. I’m just not sure how to do it.

Where my Happiness Project was designed around a breadth of activities, I would like this year to be more about depth. I want the assignments I give myself to be free from the “one month” duration. If I feel like I want to focus on an activity for longer than a month, I’d like to postpone the next activity. If I don’t like the chosen activity and want to move on after nine days, I want to feel free to do that without feeling like I’m breaking the rules.

Of course I could have done this even with my Happiness Project. But that would have broken the rules I’d set for myself, and we can’t have that. Living outside the rules is chaos. Anarchy. Or something like that.

I also know that right now I’m hungry for learning. I want to absorb information, assimilate it, digest it, make it my own.

In addition, I recognize that right now, I’m not really in a position to add much more to my plate. I’ve got a homeschooling first-grader and a toddler who just learned to jump with both feet at the same time and a new home and a blog. Either I need to drop something, or I need to find a way to be more efficient so I can eke out more time for new projects.

With all of this in mind, I’ve got a whole slew of ideas of things to do for this next year. I cannot do all of these. I know that. But I’m having trouble narrowing down the list, which means I can’t seem to pick a manageable number of things to work on, which means I can’t seem to decide on anything to work on.

Here are some of my ideas:

-Finish Levels 1, 2, and 3 of Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish.

-Complete a naturalist course so I can be the smartypants who names all of the plants and animals on our hikes.

-Join Toastmasters and attend weekly meetings.

-Read Classics of literature, poetry, biography, drama, history, math, and science, and start a book club in order to discuss these Classics.

-Continue the two other monthly book clubs I’m part of already.

-Enroll in the online/off-campus Master’s Degree program through George Wythe University.

-Take piano lessons.

-Take a sign language class.

-Take an online Buddhism class.

-Go to a bible study at at least two different churches of different denominations.

-Attend the weekly Buddhist meditation at one of the local UU churches. (There aren’t any Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples in Massachusetts. I’m a little surprised at how much I miss going to the Shin Buddhist services.)

-Write a novel for National Novel Writing Month in November (again).

-Implement the FlyLady housework, meal planning, and self-care routines.

-Join a gym, buy some personal training, and become buff (as buff as a 35-year-old mother of two can be in no more than thirty minutes a day).

-Play flute in a community band/orchestra.

-Do a 365 photo project.

-Attend an entire Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction series (I only attended three classes worth before we moved from Utah, so I’ve reduced my stress a little, but imagine how laid back I would be if I went through the entire series).

-Just going to town on my vast “to-read” list on Goodreads, reading like 50 books in the course of the year or something ambitious like that.

I was going to do something like a zero-waste challenge or a “buy nothing for a year” challenge something trendy like that, but I just don’t think I can do that without it being tremendously taxing to me emotionally. I already agonize over expenses and waste. No need to intentionally increase the intensity of that agony.

So I’ll just agonize over my wish list instead.

(Update: I forgot the online fermentation class I’m considering. That should be added to the list, too.)

How Not to Pray for Me

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...
Image via Wikipedia

During a weekly Skyping session with my in-laws, we were discussing my husband’s job search. My mother-in-law said that she was praying for us.

“I’m praying to God, though, not to Buddha. Sorry!” she said.

I want to say that I love my mother-in-law. She’s one of the nicest, warmest women I’ve ever known and while it’s trite to say so, I feel grateful all of the time that she’s my mother-in-law. I also recognize that my religious exploration is a little confusing to her (or perhaps just unsettling given that, for her, the stakes are so high…we’re dealing with her grandchildren’s immortal souls, after all).

I ended up smiling and saying nothing because I really didn’t know what to say. I mean, in Buddhism, God isn’t really an issue.

From the Buddhist perspective, an anthropomorphic god isn’t something that can be proven to exist and neither can it be proven not to exist. As a result, their basic response to the question of God is, “no comment.” Buddhism is about living our lives with compassion, using the teachings of Buddha and other teachers to help us with the struggles that go along with feeling compassionate towards ourselves and others, especially those with whom we disagree or even those who mean us harm. Buddhists don’t pray to Buddha (at least not any Buddhists I’ve met). Some chant the sutras (the teachings), some meditate, but I’ve not met any Buddhists who pray, per se. And certainly none who pray for something. “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a new pair of shoes,” is not something you’d hear from a Buddhist. Buddhism is a personal path towards compassion. The other stuff doesn’t really come into play. Buddhists also have no trouble with people being some other faith in addition to being Buddhist. You can be a Christian Buddhist or an Atheist Buddhist or a Jewish Buddhist, except that that one’s really hard to say fast.

Even though I don’t pray, I really appreciate when people I care about say they’re praying for me. I respect the sentiment behind it when people say they’re praying for me. I translate that into, “I care about you, and I want you to feel the good feelings I have for you.” My mother-in-law saying she’s praying for us is an expression of her love and compassion for my family. I heartily accept that love.

An example of a situation in which I have trouble with a person saying they’re praying for me happened today.

A friend is in Prague for a month with her two children and is blogging about their experiences homeschooling in a foreign country. I really enjoy reading her insights, both about the homeschooling bits and about the differences between living in Utah and living in Prague (there are a few, it turns out). In one of her posts this week, she described the difficulty she had explaining the graphic depiction of the Stations of the Cross in one of the churches they visited.

“I have tried to shelter the kids from the brutality of the end of Jesus’ life, but alas the Catholics hold nothing back,” she wrote.

I am also friends with her on Facebook, and soon after her post there were comments on her link from two friends of hers talking about how important it was for children to see the brutality of the crucifixion because that’s their only path to salvation. I, wanting to empathize with my friend’s position, commented that my daughter is very sensitive to brutality unless it’s part of the predator-prey relationship, and recognized that a lot of religious imagery wouldn’t be age-appropriate for her sensitive nature, and that it’s intense sometimes even for adults. One of the commenters replied and asked how my daughter would feel if she were the prey. Then she asked me about my relationship with Jesus.

She quoted the book of John to me and suggested that if I “can find a bible,” I might feel differently about things.

If I can find a bible? I have five different versions of the bible on my bookshelf, in addition to the Tao Te Ching and writings on Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I graduated undergrad with a minor in Religion. I may lack faith, but I know about religion, and I love talking about it, especially with people of faith (way more interesting than talking to atheists about it, in my experience). I was the kid in college who invited the Mormon missionaries in to discuss scripture. Two of my closest friends have minister/priest husbands (nondenominational Christian and Russian Orthodox). And hello? I live in Utah, where one can’t escape religion even if they try (and I don’t try).

With as much self-control as I could muster, I pointed out that she knows nothing about me and that disagreeing with her was not the same thing as ignorance of her position.

She offered to tell me about how Jesus has changed her life, and then she said she would pray for me.

That kind of praying from a stranger who’s just trying to win an argument with me is the kind that I find offensive. Pray for me because you know me and care about me and want me to have the strength to handle the adversities of life. Don’t pray for me because I disagree with you. Pray for yourself that you can have compassion dealing with people who disagree with your deepest convictions. That’s what I do when I meditate.

Sunshine, Lollipops, Rainbows

Every time I go to the Buddhist temple, Sensei talks about something that seems to speak to me where I am right at that moment.

After so much pessimism and anxiety this week, I’d just decided that I wanted to focus more on the positive things in my life. The very next day, Sensei did his Dharma Talk about the practice of gratitude.

“I still get angry,” he said, “I still get annoyed, but by practicing gratitude, I have somewhere to come back to, another way of looking at a situation that keeps that anger from getting out of control.”

He went on to explain that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism contains very little in the way of practice. There’s no monastic order, no hours and hours of meditation, no hitting people with sticks. The only thing a Shin Buddhist is supposed to do is recite the nembutsu sincerely (“Namo Amida Butsu,” which means, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”). This is intended to bring awareness to the qualities of the spiritual Buddha that we wish to emulate, like compassion and, yes, gratitude.

OK. I get it. Gratitude it is.

Knowing that a gratitude journal isn’t my thing, I’m going to devote the next couple of blog posts to noting things for which I’m grateful. You know…things that don’t suck?

Tulips: Nope, they dont suck.

Today, I’m doing a list:

  • Baking cookies with the kids from start to finish with no one yelling, hitting, or asking me to wipe their butt.
  • The tulips in my flower bed.
  • Hugging my husband.
  • Snuggling in bed and reading books to my daughter.
  • Reading an engrossing novel with a glass of wine by my side.
  • Watching a movie that’s neither animated nor a kid-oriented nature show with my husband after the kids are in bed.
  • A well-shaken martini. (Thanks to my buddy Ken for teaching me this art.)
  • Walking to the library in the sunshine.
  • Lying next to my baby and hearing him laugh in his sleep.
  • Taking pictures of gingerbread cookies bathed in natural light from the kitchen window.
  • Gingerbread ducks with currant eyes also do not suck.

    Making an origami pelican and having it turn out like the picture on the instructions (mostly).

  • My kids singing Led Zeppelin’s “Black Country Woman” in the backseat of the car (the little guy singing, “Hey hey, Mama!” is especially awesome).

My husband read this list and said, “Wow, you are a ray of sunshine today!”

Well, I don’t know about that. I hesitate to claim that my cloudy mood is over and done with. Mostly now I’ve decided that I’m tired of feeling crappy emotionally and the least I can do is to start trying to steep myself in happy stuff and mixing metaphors rather than rolling around in the yucky stuff all day long.

We’ll see how long I can handle the treacle before I need something more substantial to chew on (like melancholy and malaise…mmm, satisfying!). At least if I’ve gotten myself into the habit of gratitude, it will be easier to see the light before I get dragged as far into the darkness as I have been lately.

Trial by Water

We arrived just as the bell was being rung at the beginning of the Hanamatsuri service. We bowed and entered the hondo, the baby on my hip, my daughter clinging to my husband’s hand. We slid into our pew and opened our service book.

Hanamatsuri is the Buddhist Flower Festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha as his mother rested in a garden on the way to her parents’ home on April 8, 563 BCE. (I didn’t realize they had April back then.)

At the Shin Buddhist Temple we’ve been attending, Hanamatsuri is celebrated with a special Dharma Service, then a luncheon (which unaccountably included fried chicken, baked beans, and cole slaw in addition to the onigiri and colorful but unidentifiable Japanese festival foods I’ve come to expect at food-related functions at the temple), then a series of skits and dances performed by the youth of the sangha. My daughter’s class was doing a dance about ebi and kani (shrimp and crabs). You can see the dance here on a Japanese kids TV show:

The kids weren’t quite so trippy as I find this video to be.

At any rate, this all happened after the Dharma Service. During all of the rising and sitting and sutra chanting of the service, my children entertained themselves by playing with the smaller service books, putting them on their heads and making each other laugh. When their laughs became too loud, I would put my finger to my lips and furrow my brow and quietly shush them. My son would then stick his finger in his nose and say, “Ssss!” at his sister, and my daughter would put her finger to her lips and very loudly say, “Shhh!” at her brother.

Despite the fact that I knew this course of events was going to repeat itself every time I shushed them and be a greater disruption than the thing I was shushing about, I continued shushing. Shushing is something of a reflex for me.

When Sensei began the Dharma Talk (like a short sermon), my son was sitting between my husband and me on the pew. We’d given him his sippy of water in flagrant violation of the “No food or drink in the hondo” rule posted on the outside of the doors. I go through life pretty sure that the rules are different for kids than they are for non-kids. Like if an event says “no outside food or drink,” I would still bring in fishy crackers or applesauce for my toddler. So while I wouldn’t drink in the hondo, even water, I don’t worry too much about my son drinking water there.

Sensei talked about how he and his friend disagreed about whether the story of the Buddha’s birth was literally true or just a legend.

“He was just a baby,” Sensei-as-a-boy would say. “Babies can’t walk and talk. It’s a myth.”

“No, it really happened,” his friend would argue back. “It says when Buddha was born he took seven steps, pointed at heaven and earth, and spoke. It happened.”

Sensei then segued into how regardless of whether you believe the seven steps were literal or figurative, they still have spiritual significance. The first six steps represent the hell-worlds that we travel during our daily lives. They are the thoughts and worries and anxieties that plague us and distract us from our true selves.

“But if we are lucky,” Sensei said, “we can take that seventh step and become fully realized in this life, just as the Buddha was.”

I sat reflecting on this and the sense of relief that would attend such a full realization. The hondo was quiet as others in the sangha reflected as well.

The only sound was my son’s breathless gulping as he chugged his water beside me. Then came a hitch and a sputter and a cough as water sprayed from my son’s mouth all over the pew in front of us, saturating the back of the shirt of the man sitting there. There were even droplets of water on the inside of the lenses of the man’s glasses. The man jumped, touched the water with his hand and smelled it.

“It’s just water, it’s just water,” I whispered repeatedly, alternately feeling mortified and commanding myself not to laugh as I tried to reassure him that he’d not just been vomited upon.

In the Zen tradition, sometimes when the practitioners are sitting deep in meditation, someone walks around and periodically hits with a stick a person who appears to need to be awakened, either physically or spiritually. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism doesn’t include this practice, but I hope that the impromptu shower helped bump our poor neighbor into some higher plane of spiritual existence.

He was very forgiving and engaged my husband in small talk after the service. I find myself feeling both thankful and amazed that we weren’t escorted out after that.

God bless those Buddhists and their equanimity.

Week 34 Review: The Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path

This week has been tough.

I’ve been feeling down. I’ve been dwelling on how far short of my expectations I’ve fallen this month. I’ve been beating myself up for how I’m not following my resolutions well, which, of course, makes me less likely to follow the resolutions at all, which leads me to beat myself up some more. It’s a vicious cycle. In Buddhist teachings, I think this is what’s called “samsara.”

We went to the Dharma Service at the Buddhist Temple this morning. Sensei shared “The Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path.” Apparently it’s a story shared frequently in Jodo Shinshu temples, but since I’ve just started going, this is the first I’d heard it. It came at a good time for me.

The basic story goes like this:

One day a traveler was trying to cross to the Other Shore. The path to the Other Shore was about 4 or 5 inches wide and ran between two rivers. The river on the left was a river of water. The river on the right was a river of fire. As the traveler stood at the threshold of this crossing and considered his options, he found that there were fierce animals and bandits coming after him from where he’d come. He faced “Three Certain Deaths,” drowning in the water, burning in the fire, or being killed by fierce beasts and bandits if he chose to stay.

At this point, he heard a voice calling him from the Other Shore, urging him forward.

“Come just as you are,” it urged. “You will be fine if you just travel the White Path.”

He started walking carefully on the narrow path between the two rivers. About halfway across, with the fires lapping at his body to the right and the waves crashing against him from the left, he began to sway. He heard the voices of the beasts and bandits behind him.

“You’ll die if you continue on that path,” they said. “Come back, and we promise we won’t hurt you. We have your best interests at heart.”

But another voice rose above the calls of the beasts and bandits, back from where he came urging the traveler forward.

“Keep going!” it called. “Don’t listen to the beasts and bandits! You’re on the right path!”

The traveler continued on and eventually reached the Other Shore safely.

The voice from ahead is described as the voice of Amida, the spiritual Buddha and embodiment of the teachings. It is also described as an internal voice. Once the traveler internalizes the teachings, the voice pulling him forward comes from inside himself so it’s both the voice of Amida and an internal voice.

The voice from behind is the “external” voice, or the voice of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, rising above the voice of the ego to help the traveler leave behind the attachments that would hold him stuck at the point of Three Certain Deaths. This is the voice of the teachings that Shakyamuni left behind to help others find the path.

The bandits and beasts are well-meaning others, whether individuals and relationships in our lives that would hold us back or the “isms” and patterns of belief and behavior we’re holding onto but that no longer work for us.

I found an interpretation of the parable online that put the message succinctly:

To walk the white path seems at first like a lonely endeavor, but with the two voices, the external teacher and the internal aspiration, the traveler eventually reaches the land where all who surround him are friends.

While I’m disappointed with the way March has gone, and I feel disheartened when I consider April ahead of me, I’m going to do my best to hear the internal and the external voices that I know will help lead me towards generosity, patience, and compassion, both for myself and for those around me. I want to let those voices rise above the voices of the beasts and bandits (and my inner critic) who would have me stay stuck between two lands, afraid to move forward and also afraid to go back.

I want to focus again on the daily celebrations: My son dancing to the beat of my daughter’s metronome. My daughter imitating the language of Clutch, the street-wise mouse from the book Ragweed (the prequel to the Poppy series by Avi). The little kids in my daughter’s Dharma School class dressing up like shrimp and crabs and practicing their “ebi kani” dance for Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha.

The negative voices may keep me from feeling lonely, but they’ll also keep me from really connecting with anyone else and will keep me from feeling joy at the things around me.

I want to accept the suffering and loneliness so that I can also accept the joy and love that’s around me.

It always comes back to mindfulness, doesn’t it?

Week 15 Review and Some Thoughts About Religion

NaNoWriMo Word Count: 24,809

I’m now two weeks into National Novel Writing Month and less than 200 words from the halfway point. I find that I have a fair amount of fear and hesitation around writing when I’m not doing it, but so far, I’ve been able to continue showing up at the computer every day. Once I’m here, it’s easier to play.

My mom suggested that I’m writing a novel in the same way most people read one. There’s a different feeling to writing this novel than there is to reading one, but I get her point. There’s a certain amount of discipline and faith that goes into both the writing process and the reading process. And both give me that sensation of being in a dream. When I wake from a particularly vivid dream, some of the dream sometimes gets mixed in with reality for me. I’m having a similar experience with this novel.

My characters seem to be taking on something of a life of their own. I always thought it was a little precious when an author talked about his characters doing something unexpected. The past two days of writing, my main character has surprised me by taking some different paths than I expected her to. There may be a lesson about judgment in here.

In other news, I attended another church today in my ongoing church-hopping adventure. So far I’ve been to two Catholic churches, an Episcopal church, a Buddhist temple, a Baha’i Center, and, today, a Congregational church. I’ve been somewhat surprised by my reactions to the different churches I’ve visited (for simplicity’s sake, I’m using the term “church” generically to mean “the place where the religion stuff happens”).

For example, the Congregational church had no gendered language in their materials (except for the readings from the Bible). They repeated the word “God” rather than using the pronoun “Him.” When I was in college, I thought this would be a major factor in whether I chose to attend a church or not. Turns out, it doesn’t seem that big a deal now. I like that they don’t have gendered language, it’s just not as important a factor as I thought it would be.

The places I felt most comfortable, theologically, and the most challenged (in a good way) spiritually were the Catholic churches and the Buddhist temple. The most friendly places were the Buddhist temple, the Baha’i Center, and the Congregational church.

There are some things that have turned me off in a few of the churches. One of the Catholic churches was a little too large a space and laid out in such a way that I felt no intimacy with the rest of the congregation. The Episcopal service began with a comment about the election that I thought was a bit too political for my taste. The Congregational service had more intercessional prayer than I was entirely comfortable with.

This church-hopping has helped me to better define what it is I’m looking for in a church. I’ve narrowed it down to four things:

  1. A community in which I feel comfortable developing my spirituality.
  2. A community in which my children can develop relationships with their peers and with caring adults.
  3. An atmosphere of curiosity about and openness to spiritual growth.
  4. A community in which my children are welcomed not only in the places designated for children, but also in the spiritual life of the congregation as a whole.

So far, the one that most closely meets all of these criteria is the Buddhist temple.

One thing that really appealed to me about the Buddhist temple was how different it was, but how comfortable it felt in spite of (or perhaps because of) this difference. The dharma talk was about the ordination (if that’s the right word) of an Episcopal bishop that the minister had attended. He described his disorientation sitting in this service, but also his surprise that, although the other ministers sitting with him were from Christian denominations other than Episcopalian, everyone seemed to know when to sit and when to stand, and they all knew the same hymns.

His anecdote struck a chord with me. Not having grown up attending religious services, I often feel a similar sense of disorientation in church services. I didn’t feel disoriented in the Buddhist service. Or rather, I felt a little confused upon walking in (Should I bow? Should I take one of these little books? Does it matter where I sit?), but the demeanor of the other people in the service put me at ease almost immediately.

Another thing I loved about the Buddhist temple: the Sunday school happens after the service. The children are expected to be part of the service, and then are in class while the parents socialize at coffee hour.

The reason I’m on this quest is because we were asked to leave the service at our Unitarian Universalist church earlier this year when my then 6-month-old decided to sing along with the choir. It’s only the feeling that there is a gap in my life without a spiritual community that’s brought me back out to risk that kind of embarrassment and humiliation at churches across the city and across denominations. Of course, I’m going to the services without the children first, so I’ve not risked much child-related humiliation just yet.

During the coffee hour after the service at the Buddhist temple, I asked if it was OK to have my toddler in service talking and running around. (I don’t tell people at the other churches why I’m no longer attending the UU church, I just ask about kids in the service.) The woman I spoke with said, “Of course! Look at our kids! They’re crazy!” gesturing towards the kids running around and shouting all around us. “Unless he’s crying, he’s fine in the service. Eventually the children will learn what’s expected during the service. And how else will they learn unless they’re in there with us, watching what’s going on?” This woman’s answer and the fact that the temple’s commitment to having children in the service is backed up by their having Sunday school after the service are very reassuring to me. I’m planning to go back, and I’m planning to bring the kids with me next time I go.

My husband will be thrilled to have his Sunday morning back. He’s been waiting patiently for me to find somewhere I felt comfortable taking the children.