It may be the time of year, or maybe that we are on vacation from the day-to-day grind of being on call as small businesspeople, but I am in a reflective mood. I am thinking about the immense gift of clarity and heart offered to me in this lifetime, and how taking it has changed my mind and opened my heart.
Yes, hearts and minds can change.
I was a bit nutty in my teens and twenties. Maybe we all were, but I thought I was more so than others. My brother Stephen threw me a life-preserver while I entered therapy with a pretty bad shrink. The life-preserver was zen, and I was off and running in a very short time. I sat alone, no sangha (due to my work load and location), and read voraciously, the same books over and over sometimes just to keep my sanity, using the words like a mantra: Watts, Merton, then on to the Real Deal, Suzuki, Kapleau, Aitken, Lao Tsu. It all seemed so sane. I listened to my monkey-mind for ten years while sitting and trying to be silent, becoming very familiar with its craziness, while walking further into sanity on many levels. Exposing the insane chatterbox to the light changed it all, and began to change me in the process.
I fired the Freudian therapist within a year. All he ever did was ask me what I thought about what I had brought up until one day, I sat up and said, “Really? All you can do is ask me my opinion about the damn Neil Diamond dream? That is what I pay YOU for!” Outta there.
I found a better one, a Jungian, and we had real dialogues. He showed me that alcoholism patterning was right there in my DNA, and more, in my mind, ticking like a bomb waiting to go off. While I fought him for a while (“I can stop anytime” and “I don’t drink that much for God’s sake”), the many years of listening to my chattering mind in meditation allowed me to reflect when I fully stepped into the pattern in the middle of my workaholic lifestyle. It happened one night with one brandy, and I heard the whole dialogue and felt the anger rise, and it was terrifying.
I took a plane back from NYC to lalaland the next morning and went to a meeting. I worked the 12 steps, sober. I remember my first meeting, when I really could not believe I had anything in common with these people, and a dentist grabbed my hand and said, “The worst part of being sober is the feelings.” I thought he was nutz; and maybe he was. And he was also right.
The 12-step program and sobriety showed me the underbelly of all my anger. HURT. The hurt I later came to know as tathagatagarbha, the soft spot which allowed something in to affect me, to get under my shell, was a good thing. I was human. I wasn’t angry, I was hurting, and had no resources other than to protect. Protect = fight. What would happen if I didn’t protect, but allowed it all to hurt? Curiosity, more openness followed, and falling away of more defenses, and finally, tentatively, walking into vulnerability. Oddly, the vulnerability didn’t make me a door mat, just made me more human.
I continued, but found more teachers for me in Tibetan buddhism: Chogyam Trungpa, Chagdud Rinpoche, Pema Chodron, with a little Katagiri Roshi thrown in. I began to read the original buddhist texts themselves. I found two perfect practices that were antidotes to my particular brand of insanity — and now I speak to the insanity that all humankind experiences daily, minute by minute. Buddhists believe we are all insane in this duality we call Earth. I concur.
Brugh Joy’s meditation practices moving the focus to an awakened heart center changed my daily sit tremendously. I adapted his meditations to my zen meditation. After twenty years I moved into periods of relative silence in meditation whereby I felt the expansiveness of my compassion. Would I have done this without the 20 years of sit practice? I don’t know. My path is my path, I don’t know another. I bow to a great teacher, Brugh, and to all the others, here and gone, including that nameless dentist who lost his practice to cocaine.
Tonglen, the boddhichitta practice of sending and taking, along with the lojong slogans were a simple way to work daily on refining my mind/heart, now connected, has stuck with me for another 15 years. Oddly, I bought Trungpa’s blue book on the Seven-Point Mind Training in the Boddhi Tree along with my first zen books 30 years ago, but could not crack it. It was gobbledygook for a long time, but gobbledygook I slept with next to my bed, and perhaps I absorbed its portent through the ethers. Now it is a dog-eared best friend.
Connecting my mind and heart, which sounds so logical and simple, is taking me a lifetime. I am a work in progress, with no dog in the race to get to the end. This is my reflection on this cold January day as I begin our rewrite on our book.
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