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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Unintended Consequences

This week, I was back in my groove.

I meditated or practiced yoga each day just as I’d planned. I’ve ordered a zafu and zabuton rather than continuing to use my yoga mat/two pillows/nursing stool contraption. This works okay for shorter sitting meditation, but during longer practices, my right leg falls into a very deep sleep. I figure buying a meditation cushion is a reasonable way to celebrate five weeks of meditation practice.

I’ve been contemplating oneness this week. Unity of mind and body, the interconnected web of existence, etc. In  How to See Yourself As Your Really Are, the Dalai Lama writes about how the language we use to describe ourselves implies a kind of duality. To say, “My legs,” or “My memory,” implies that there is a separate entity to whom the legs or the memory belong. When we talk about a car, we talk about the steering wheel or the manifold (which in itself seems to relate to unity) with the understanding that it is still a part of the whole. The car is made up of parts, which, together, make it a car. There is not a separate entity to which each part belongs. It’s all “car.”

I wonder if this kind of contemplation might be why I’ve been forgetting names this week. In one conversation, I forgot the names of three people. I remembered other details about them (like the one person was from Vermont and was the person in his family responsible for preparing gefilte fish), but the names escaped me.

Perhaps I’m so focussed on unity and the threads connecting us that superficial distinctions such as names have lost their relevance. Or perhaps my 4:30 wake-up time is simply catching up with me.

I prefer the first explanation but admit that the second is more likely.

I have also been struck this week by a strong interest in going vegan. This has, so far, manifested itself in my eating enormous salads for lunch every day.

Big Old Vegan Taco Salad (One Serving) (And homeschool and crochet stuff)

Susan Voisin’s blog, Fat-Free Vegan Kitchen, has aided me in this pursuit. Putting hummus on salad. It’s so simple and yet until I read the suggestion on Susan’s blog, it had never occurred to me.

Next week’s menu is strongly influenced by the recipes on Fat-Free Vegan Kitchen. Although in the interest of making an incremental and sustainable change rather than an extreme one I cannot maintain, I’m still planning two chicken-containing dinners and eating eggs for breakfast every other day. But for a woman who not long ago published posts such as “Classic Beef Chili – With Bacon!” and “Too Much Pork For Just One Fork” (which is a reference to a song by the band Southern Culture on the Skids, whom I met once hanging out in a bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina), this is a fairly significant shift.

So Week 5 included forgetfulness, a dietary shift in the direction of veganism, and a sense of unity between mind and body and the entirety of existence.

I wonder what Week 6 will bring.

Besides my mom. I pick her up at the airport tomorrow. Other than her, I’m not sure what to expect.

The Dinner Party

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been intrigued by the question, “If you could invite anyone over to dinner, who would you invite?” I’ve always limited myself to living people because I’ve always thought that the shock of being raised from the dead would make any potential dinner guest less interested in being at the table. They’d probably want to be with their loved ones and not eating dinner with me.

When I was ten, I wanted to invite Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” What can I say? I liked horror films) and Robin Williams.

When I was in high school, Leslie Nielsen was high on my list.

In college, Gloria Steinem was on there.

Now in my mid-30’s, I’ve decided that I would love to invite “Weird Al” Yankovic and His Holiness the Dalai Lama over for dinner.

This might seem an odd combination, but I think they’d actually get along quite well.

They’re both quite eloquent and have unique perspectives on the world, which would make for very interesting conversation. They’re both very tolerant and soft-spoken. They both embrace the joy in their lives and seek to share it with others. I think they would both find my children entertaining and would interact with them compassionately.

I would, of course, also invite Al’s wife and child, if they wanted to come. Hopefully the three kids would get along well, too, since they’re relatively close in age.

The menu would be easy. They’re both vegetarians, so I could make my signature dishes, my vegetarian and vegan lasagnas, without further modification. I’m pretty sure neither of them drinks alcohol, though, so I’d have to decide if it was poor manners for me to drink wine with dinner (I’d probably err on the side of caution and abstain for the evening). But I do have a very yummy non-alcoholic punch recipe that I could mix up for the occasion so we could have something a little fancy to drink.

I think autumn would be a nice time to have them over. It wouldn’t be too hot in the house (no air conditioning + lasagna baking = sweltering in the summer), but it would still be warm enough to eat out on the sun porch where the only table big enough for a dinner party is located. I hear fall is a gorgeous season in New England, anyway, and it would be nice to provide a draw for them in addition to my lasagna.

I don’t know what questions I would ask them, but I’d kind of rather just chat rather than make it like an interview. Afterwards, if things went well, maybe they’d like to play Trivial Pursuit. It’s unlikely either of them plays euchre, but perhaps my husband and I could teach them, and we could all play that while we ate homemade vegan strawberry ice cream.

August: Thoughts About “Mindfulness Month”

I am so glad that I started this project with mindfulness. Making a practice of bringing awareness to the moments that make up my day is a great foundation for the rest of the project.

I started the month with three resolutions:

  • Daily Emotions Log
  • Be Aware of Judgmental Thoughts
  • Breathe

Within the first two weeks, I abandoned the daily emotions log. Instead, I brought awareness to my emotional state and recognized the needs that were being met or not, but I didn’t write them down. It could have been useful data as I fine tune my resolutions for the upcoming months, but it just wasn’t happening. I decided that the awareness part was more important than the data collection part.

The overall effect of practicing these resolutions has been that my mind feels calmer. The little hamster that’s usually racing away in my head is much more chill. And he uses much less foul language. I have more patience with my children, with my husband, and with inconvenient situations in general. I definitely want to keep up these practices in the coming months in addition to my new resolutions.

I’ve had several challenges that have given me extra practice using my new skills of breathing and awareness. The dishwasher broke down, and I got to practice mindfulness while my hands were in a sink of soapy water several times a day. Then it took three visits from the installer guy and the removal of several floor tiles to finally install the new dishwasher. My daughter and then my son developed separation anxiety and for a period of time wouldn’t let me leave them with the babysitter. Breathing and awareness helped me make it through these challenges with much more grace and gratitude than I normally exhibit under duress.

I’ve also done some great reading this month and gotten some great support and suggestions from people reading my blog. I’ve read portions of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living and The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. I’ve read part of Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh and re-read portions of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I’ve also discovered several blogs, both by friends and by people I’ve never met, that I enjoy and that give me food for thought. And most recently, I’ve read portions of the Bible and added several more books to my to-read list as a result of suggestions from friends. As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading, and I love incorporating other perspectives into mine.

In the future, I hope not only to be aware of judgmental thinking, but to transform it into empathy and compassion. I feel disappointed that I’m not more compassionate. I take small comfort in the knowledge that I’m even more judgmental with myself than I am with others. I realize that this lack of compassion with myself is probably the largest barrier to my having compassion for others. I’m working on it and trying to be gentle with myself when I fall short of where I’d like to be.

I remain surprised at how intense my mindfulness practice has been this month. I feel such profound changes as I struggle to be aware of my thoughts and emotions. I’m looking forward to seeing where my project will take me, even as I’m feeling a little anxious about the challenges that I’m certain await me.

Week 3 Review: Minor Epiphany

I was meandering through this week feeling like nothing much was changing for me. I’ve been breathing and reflecting about emotions and being aware of judgements, and I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and books about happiness, but there were no lightning bolts or “aha” moments. Until Friday night.

For some undetermined reason (I have my suspicions, but no solid conclusions), I can’t seem to tolerate sugar or alcohol. At all. It’s not like a standard overindulgence scenario. It can happen even if I don’t drink any alcohol and just eat something sugary (i.e. meringues) before bed. I go to bed feeling fine and then I wake up about 3 hours later shaking and drenched in sweat. Panicked and irrational thoughts run through my mind along with things like, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you drink wine/eat meringues? You knew this was going to happen!” It can take me more than an hour before I feel well enough to go back to bed.

On Friday night I had two glasses of wine and an obscene number of bite-sized cocoa meringues.

Fortunately, before bed Friday night I also read Chapters 2 and 3 of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler. The Dalai Lama describes the way we train our minds towards happiness by identifying those things that cause us suffering and avoiding those things, and identifying those things that bring us happiness and seeking out those things. Sounds simple, but he admits that it’s much more challenging to do than it is to say. He suggests that we begin each day with a “sincere, positive motivation.” At the end of each day, we reflect on what worked and what didn’t, identify the factors that contributed to negative or positive emotions, and decide how we will change our actions the next day. There’s no beating ourselves up for doing something “bad” or not doing something “good.” There’s just awareness and trying to change in the future. Once we’ve identified the things that lead to negative and positive emotions, it’s our choice whether we apply that awareness and choose the option that leads to happiness.

The Dalai Lama explains that it’s easy to confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure feels good in the short-term, but doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term happiness. Happiness is a condition of the mind and heart that transcends the moment. Actions that lead to happiness are not necessarily pleasurable in the moment. For me, running is like this. I don’t enjoy running while I’m doing it. But I feel emotionally positive and physically healthy afterwards. We can choose whether to go for pleasure or happiness. Once we’ve made our choice, it doesn’t really help to beat ourselves up for it. It is what it is.

When I woke up feeling miserable early Saturday morning, I counted my breaths and tried to clear my mind of all other thoughts. When the critical and blaming thoughts came up, I reminded myself that I had opted for the momentary pleasure of sipping wine in the backyard and devouring meringues while watching The Big Lebowski. Reacting to the situation in this frame of mind really seemed to help decrease my suffering. I not only wasn’t feeling guilty and stupid for doing something I knew would make me feel bad, I wasn’t feeling as bad physically. The shaking and sweating diminished with each breath, and within a few minutes, I was able to go back to bed. I still slept fitfully the rest of the night, but when I awoke, I just breathed and reminded myself of my choice, and then I would fall back to sleep.

Amazingly, when I woke up for the day I felt happy and hopeful. Instead of feeling bad about myself for being a victim of my impulses, I recognized my wine-drinking and meringue-eating as choices I had made. This gives me the power to make different choices in the future (or to make the same choices again with the knowledge that I’m also choosing to feel miserable).

I really get the sense that I’m flexing my mental muscles and doing the daily, repetitious practice necessary to change the wiring of my brain. I had no idea when I started out that my Happiness Project would be so intense, but I’m really pleased that it is. The challenge helps me feel more like I’m accomplishing something important.

The Purpose of Life

From The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by HH the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, MD:

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think the very motion of our life is towards happiness.

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama

A Look Back at Week 2, and Looking Ahead to Week 3

This past week has brought me some promising experiences, like actually feeling happy, which is a nice treat, as well as more questions. I think the main thing the mindfulness is doing is opening a little path through the thoughts to the emotions that lie beneath. I think I buffer myself a lot of the time with my brain. This prevents me from connecting deeply with myself or with anyone else. Cutting through the mire of thought gives me access to the happiness underneath, but it also opens me up to the pain, doubt, and fear that reside down there. The past two weeks, I’ve found my eyes tearing up with surprising frequency, although I’m not exactly crying and I’m not exactly sad. It’s more a feeling of fullness. That leaks out of my eyes. I think it’s a result of just feeling more than I have been.

This week I’ve had the chance to examine some superstitions I apparently hold around feeling happy. And I’ve had the opportunity to see what happens when I pull back from mindfulness: I start feeling overwhelmed and irritable and uncharitable again.

Saturday night we went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. Most of the people there were my husband’s coworkers and their families. My children comprised 50% of the children there. I was the only one wearing a skirt. And Birkenstocks. These things may have contributed to my feeling outside of the group, but I had the sense that my mindfulness was keeping me away from social connections, too. Well, not the mindfulness directly, but my kind of pulling-into-myself defense of that core of feeling I’m just starting to expose to the world via mindfulness. I also noticed that I have trouble thinking of things to say when I’m aware of my judgmental thoughts. (How full of judgment have my conversations been in the past? I shudder to think.) I’m hoping that as I grow more accustomed to mindfulness and to feeling more emotions I will gradually be able to connect with others better and more empathically. Baby steps.

I’ve basically abandoned a written emotions log. I just can’t seem to record my emotions. But I am pausing several times a day, becoming aware of my emotions, and reflecting on the needs behind those emotions. While I don’t have a record to analyze for patterns, I am at least doing the work of being more aware of my emotions and needs.

The breathing is going beautifully, though. I really enjoy it and it really seems to help ground me.

For Week 3, I want to explore a bit more what happiness is. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about defining happiness,

“I decided instead to follow the hallowed tradition set by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who defined obscenity by saying ‘I know it when I see it,’ and Louis Armstrong, who said, ‘If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,’ and A.E. Housman, who wrote that he ‘could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat’ but that he ‘recognizes the object by the symptoms it evokes.'”

While I think this is probably a reasonable overall definition of happiness, I think I might be able to hone it a little more to define my own personal happiness. Specifically, what does it mean to be “happier”? Would I feel happy more often? Would my baseline emotional level be a couple notches up? Would I simply experience a deeper lever of happiness when I did feel happy? Am I still “happier” if the happiness I feel is still tinged with that underlying fear and superstition? Of course, that last question starts to get into the realm of “am I doing it right?” which is probably not terribly helpful.

I’m really intrigued by the idea, which I’ve seen attributed to both the Dalai Lama and Aristotle but which may well have been asserted by others, that happiness results from virtuous action. I don’t really know how to pin down a meaningful definition of virtue, so I don’t know how to analyze this assertion. It seems logical that happiness wouldn’t result from immoral or harmful actions. At least not lasting happiness. And then there’s the whole issue of the flexible definitions of “moral,” “ethical,” and “virtuous” that gives me a whole hatful of trouble. I would like to find a way to think through this without getting sucked into a semantic vortex. Or perhaps the trouble is that I’m trying to use my mind to understand something that exists in my heart. Did I mention a vortex? I’m clearly swirling about down here.

At any rate, I want to make sure that I keep a picture of my goal in mind as I go about honing and practicing my resolutions so I can be reasonably certain I’m following the path that I mean to. It’s very easy for me to seek refuge in my mind, where I feel safe and protected but alone, rather than exploring my emotions, where I worry there may be a Pandora’s box that, once opened, will unleash feelings and emotions over which I have no control. One thing of which I’m certain: growth and change don’t generally happen when I feel safe. Perhaps that can be one of my measures; if I’m feeling unsettled and maybe even rebellious, I’m probably on the right track. If I’m feeling safe, maybe I should consider shaking things up.


More Thoughts on Happiness

It is self-evident that a generous heart and wholesome actions lead to greater peace and that their negative counterparts bring undesirable consequences. Happiness arises from virtuous causes. If we truly desire to be happy, there is no other way to proceed but by way of virtue: it is the method by which happiness is achieved. And, we might add, that the basis of virtue, its ground, is ethical discipline.

HH the Dalai Lama

I’m not clear what he means by “virtue” and “ethical discipline.” It seems like both of those things are dependent on culture since morally right and ethical behavior varies by culture. Is there a universal path to happiness, or is it always subject to interpretation through one’s cultural lens? Or are the cultural differences in morals and virtues just in surface behaviors, and the deeper morals and virtues are universal?

For that matter, does “happiness” always look and feel the same to different people? I recently read Crazy Like Us by  Ethan Watters (well, I read half and skimmed the rest) in which Watters provides evidence to suggest that mental illness manifests itself and is effectively treated in different ways in different cultures and in different times. If depression looks different in the US than it does in Japan, does happiness look different, too?

Motherhood as an Opportunity for Spiritual Growth

Today is my son’s first birthday. One year ago today, I first snuggled with him warm against my chest and basked in the expansiveness of birth and complete and total love.

I try to remember that feeling daily, but caring for a baby and a five-year-old often leaves me more negative than I would like. The past year is a blur, even more than the first year of my daughter’s life was. I feel utterly disoriented in time. I feel frightened at how quickly time has passed. Will it continue to speed up? Will I turn my head to notice something else and when I turn back, my children will be grown?

I know I can’t hold onto them as children, nor would I want to, really. But I would like to hold them in this moment and notice them for who they are now instead of wishing them on to a less challenging stage (which I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist. Everyone I talk to assures me that as some things get easier, other things get more difficult).

I found a message about compassion and happiness by the Dalai Lama that has given me much to consider. One of the points I’m pondering on the anniversary of my son’s birth is this:

I must emphasize again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them…For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind!

Now to be clear, I don’t consider my children my enemies. But too often, I do find myself viewing them as my adversaries. “Why are they doing this to me?” I think. “Why can’t they give me a break?”

Of course, they’re not doing anything “to” me. They’re simply trying to meet their emotional and physical needs in the only way they know how. They can’t give me a break because we are in a relationship. They need my love, and I need their love. They need to give me their love, and I need to give them my love. But they do offer many, many (many) opportunities for me to practice compassion and reason and patience. I would love to feel grateful to my children for such opportunities. That seems like it might be the advanced level of this process, though. If I can just remain calm in the face of situations to which I would otherwise respond with anger and harsh words, perhaps I can assume positive intent, be my best self, and strengthen our relationship rather than simply trying to get them into the car or out of the tub or home from the park. But the first step is just awareness. Just breathing and being and noticing.

The biggest challenge for me in this endeavor will, I think, be letting myself practice and not viewing it as a test that I’ll either pass or fail. It’s not about being Good Mom or Awful Mom. It’s about growing with my children and making my best effort to be there for them and to let them be there for me.

It’s always so much easier to write this stuff when everyone’s asleep and the house is quiet than it is to remember it and actually practice it when my daughter screams, “Never!” to me in response to a request not to pet her brother’s face with her feet or when she perches him on top of a chair and then walks away.

Baby steps. The only thing I need to do this month is increase my awareness. I don’t need to actively change anything.

Have others had success feeling grateful about situations that challenge you? What challenges in your life have you found to be the best opportunities for growth?


The Nature of Happiness

I discovered the Dalai Lama’s Facebook Page today. That seems like kind of an odd thing to say and even odder to find, but it also seemed fortuitous as this was on his wall for today:

If indeed the qualities such as love, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness are what happiness consists in, and if it is also true that compassion, defined as concern for others, is both the source and the fruit of these qualities, then the more we are compassionate, the more we provide for our own happiness.

-HH the Dalai Lama