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Sleeping Baby Post

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As I tap this message on my phone, a warm, clinging lump of baby is sleeping on my chest. I’m seated in a gray rocking chair in a dark, Winnie-the-Pooh themed room. A white noise machine breathes steadily as I turn my head from side to side every so often, doing my best to deal with the crick in my neck, since her little head is resting nearly atop my throat. 

For this sixteen-month old I hold, so much comes and goes, and so quickly: feelings, desires, irritations, joys. Distraction is the key that turns her universe. One moment, a bouncing ball, the next moment, a blinking toy. Both sides of the toddler coin — the unceasing curiosity and the fragile temper — challenge me to find my inner Buddha.

There’s the yin and the yang: the way her eyes always catch the gossamer white butterfly that frequents the backyard — a reminder to Look. On the other hand, when she leans in unexpectedly and chomps into my arm, I’m pretty well forced to cultivate compassion and breathe into the discomfort, whispering, “Gentle” until she lifts her teeth out of my skin.

I’ve been reading two well-known Buddhist authors recently, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Chodron writes about the middle path, which describes a way of living in which a person does not move “right” or “left” in response to the moving tide of desires or fears. Instead, she does nothing, moving straight through them as they inevitably pass. 

The “middle path” obviously requires an attention span longer than a few minutes, and thoroughly contradicts the existential reality of a toddler. What’s interesting to me, though, is how many full-grown adults’ inner monologues resemble the behavior of toddlers. How many of us are, in our heads, making an angry mess, of dare I say, sinking our teeth into someone trying to look out for us? How many of us would break into tears or flail our arms, metaphorically speaking, if asked to sit with our hunger, our boredom, our exhaustion? 

So it turns out that “Haley Grace,” the little person in my charge from 8:30-5:30 before I return to my desk (or more likely, my kitchen island) to work through the latest writing or reading assignment of my MFA, has something to teach me. Gentle, I repeat, gentle… as I try to walk the middle path. 

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Mountain Wisdom

Pic 1 Mountain Wisdom

When I think back on a recent weekend get-away to Asheville, North Carolina, I picture the four of us — my husband, Padraic, and I, and another couple, two of our closest friends — trekking up a steep dirt path on the Appalachian Trail, our sporadic dialogue muted by the thick prairie grass, the dense clouds overhead and the slope of mountains cushioning us at every side. This was a short hike on our way back to our friends, Allison and Nic’s, home in Nashville, but still, we took the pains to wind our way through a maze of gravel switchbacks, blocking out the road’s deep trenches, (which gripped at least one unlucky, abandoned vehicle), for the chance to be held by something soft and strong — and silent — in the midst of lives swirling with transitions.

Pic 2 Mountain Wisdom

Allison and Nic are high school sweethearts, and I’ve known them both since seventh grade. At this point in our lives, we’ve been through countless changes together: graduations, weddings, buying homes, landing jobs, changing jobs, moving across the country, picking up and moving again. So there’s something about a leisurely, circuitous hike through the mountains that can’t help but feel suggestive of the bigger picture — quite the literal version of “upward mobility”… No seriously: the rhythm of rest spots and overlooks, not unlike weddings in their capacity to present broad swaths of life from one dramatic vantage point, and the circuitous piece, of course, with the ups and downs and rapidly shifting views that somehow begin and end in the same, asphalt parking lot, with the panting dogs and the dubious bathrooms. Whether the parking lot represents the grounding force of friendship or marriage, I have no idea, but I do know that we are all slightly different on the way down than we are on the way up, and ambling sweaty and thirsty into the backseat of the car, there’s a joy to living so-called “real life” together as buzzing and blossoming life, on the side of a mountain.

Pic 3 Mountain Wisdom

In the evenings, the four of us roamed around Asheville’s city-center, snapping pictures at a local print shop of slyly Southern sayings like “Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit.” We sampled local beers and people-watched from the periphery of the famous drum circle, where I watched a fit, tanned, solo silver-haired woman skip and dip and lose herself in the drumming, beautifully alone in a circle of strangers.

Pic 4 Mountain Wisdom

Meanwhile, Padraic and I had a day to bum around Nashville while Allison and Nic were at work. We studied hanging sculptures composed of pill bottles, and abstract landscapes painted by Australian aborigines and canvases of thickly layered ribbons representing motherhood. With our heartfelt and respectful studying, a student of performance studies married to a student of philosophy, I confess that the art on the walls, with my honest reverence for it, sticks with me like the wildflowers on the mountainside – something beautiful and precious, designed with formidable intelligence, but so fleetingly experienced.

Last Pic Mountain Wisdom

More deeply seared in my memory was standing on one leg, upside down, after the art museum jaunt, holding a yoga pose next to Padraic on one of the hottest days of the summer. Trying in vain to focus on my “intention” and not simply grit my teeth through the intense heat, I watched a steady tap of sweat drip from our foreheads onto our mats. Which brings me back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and The Appalachian Trail, and hiking with Padraic and Allison and Nic, the taste of salt on our skin and the gulp of cool air when we reached the mountaintop. Perhaps it’s not the majestic views or the lovely little wildflowers that transform us, but the shared, steady suffering of the climb.

Lovingkindness and Positive Psychology

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha.

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha. CC 2.0

It seems appropriate, following the anniversary of so much death and destruction, to share the Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation, something I’ve been practicing lately in honor of September being National Yoga Month. Just kidding — I only know that September is National Yoga Month because of a few instructor shout-outs at my gym, whose classes, if we’re honest with ourselves, definitely lift our collective mood for their powers to tone and tighten, but can also remind us, spiritually speaking, of our inherent interconnectedness, even if it’s just a momentary “ohm” that does it.

The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of “psychological Buddhism,” where we integrate certain principles and practices of the Buddhist religion into our lives for therapeutic purposes. On September 11, 2001, I distinctly remember being despondent and silent as I rotated through my set of high school classes, and being unable to stomach any food. As a matter of fact, I remember my mom made lasagna that night. Hah, my sharp memory for all things edible has been with me long before I became one of those people who takes pictures of food and blogs about recipes. As I pushed it around on my plate, my dad, with his characteristic rationality, put things into perspective by pointing out that this was the first national tragedy that my brothers and I had lived through. Actually, I think he used the phrase “our generation,” words that somehow normalized the awful, horrific events of the day.

Earlier that afternoon, my AP European History teacher had asked me and a friend if we were okay, that we seemed quiet and scared. A classmate cracked a joke about my demeanor, and then, in a rare instance for my high school self of not caring what my peers thought of me, I snapped back about how I was “empathizing with all the people in that plane.” Everyone sort of stiffened, respectfully, and then another friend after class approached me, saying “I can’t believe she asked you why you were scared.”

Undoubtedly, we all have our own distinct memories of what that day felt like. Looking back, I’m almost proud to share that I was viscerally affected by what happened, even if my rational understanding of the international politics was null, and AP history classes were the bane of my high school existence (until I took elective history classes, and then grew to really like history, especially historical fiction, and then taught high school history, if dance history and theatre history count…)

Lately I’ve become interested in practicing positive psychology. According to “Psychology Today,”

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

“Pathology” is the study of diseases. The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of positive psychology, with its emphasis on recognizing our spiritual interconnectedness with people and the environment, and by reminding us of our potential to subtly affect the outside world by projecting positive energy.

In this article, Buddhists and psychologists compare beliefs about managing emotions in order to achieve overall well-being, comparing the tenets of Buddhism and the status quo in modern psychology. According to the authors, Buddhists view emotion and cognition as part and parcel — they don’t even have a word for “emotion.” In Buddhism, what’s more important than shifting through distortions of thought is cultivating suhka, a state of general happiness and emotional equilibrium. Suhka

“includes a deep sense of well-being, a propensity toward compassion, reduced vulnerability to outside circumstances, and recognition of the interconnectedness with people and other living beings in one’s environment.”

To achieve this state of mind takes decades of mindfulness training — mindfulness, I also know from personal experience, from practicing “psychological Buddhism,” means to observe your experience in the moment, from your environment to your own thought process, and distinguish between reality, versus subjective ideas or beliefs that you are projecting onto that reality.

Buddhists categorize negative emotions more broadly into three fallacies: cravings, animosity or hatred, and the belief in a fixed, concrete self, apart from the world. I find it so interesting that these emotions are viewed as inherently toxic because they inherently deny our interconnectedness with other people and our environment. When we crave something or feel strong hostility toward someone, in both cases, we exaggerate the qualities of the object we desire or resent, and we seek to claim ownership of it in some way. In reality, according to Buddhist philosophy,

“the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux, arises in different ways, and is profoundly interdependent with other people and the environment.”

In my opinion, there’s something so eye-opening and soothing about this concept of the self, however much it clashes with Western culture. It’s so refreshing, may because of “the dynamic flux,” element, which suggests that the self is eclipsed and the universe at large is broadened, buzzing. At church, I often find myself wrapped up in my own, individual worship, and then it takes a conscious internal reminder to simply look up and acknowledge the other Christians who are present with me, undergoing the same weekly, re-conversion. Psychological Buddhism, and the lovingkindness meditation in particular, gives me a chance to broaden my immediate awareness. I think it benefits us all, so here are two versions, borrowed. (One’s a transcript and the other is an audio download.) Namaste.

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Sergiu Alistar, YOGA 2, CC 2.0

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