A Bunch of Questions Designed to Provoke Thought

Look at your life circumstances, like your health, wealth (or lack of). Did you chose them? Look back at the series of events that got you to where you are today. How much were you really in control?

Some say that people need to make good choices if they expect to have a good life. This POV downplays the role of one’s background, environment or family and instead prioritizes self-determination.

Do you think people in dire straits have made poor choices, or were they swept up by forces outside their control?

Does it scare you that people can get swept up by forces outside their control?

If you admit that others might not have had a choice about whether they went bankrupt, contracted AIDS, or became refugees (for example), is it then scary to admit that these these could happen some day to you or someone you care about?

What if true strength comes from learning to navigate the stormy waters of life’s unpredictability with acceptance? What if instead of judging yourself or others harshly, you just accepted what has happened and what is happening?

Photo of Some people having a blast letting life take them on a twisty ride

Some people having a blast letting life take them on a bumpy ride. Click the pic to learn more about where this.

I don’t claim to have any answers, but I think the questions are worth asking.

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NaPoWriMo 2017, poem 16

“Jesus died for your sins.”

Wait…what?

But “He is risen”

so how is He dead?

 

True stories – hadith —

of the Prophet Muhammad

told by trusted narrators

but…some of these storytellers

contradict each other.

 

Zen’s surface — a web of contradictions.

Each koan designed to take you beyond

thinking there is

something solid about your ego

and its beliefs.

Don’t get stuck in your thinking

A few weeks ago I posted something about chronic pain and recently I realized that the same lesson could be applied to other areas as well. The revelation occurred to me when I was reading an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center about hate groups. I realized that in the past, I too, had occasionally had unpleasant encounters with people of different races. The difference between me and people who go onto become passionate in their hate for others is that I didn’t allow those negative experiences to entrench themselves in my mind. I just let them go. It seems that people actively involved in Hate really cling to their negative experiences, replay them in their minds, discuss them with like-minded people who reinforce their views, and thus cement their experiences as if they are truth.

As this video below shows, it can be challenging to take the leap to learning something new, but any thought path taken again and again will become easier and easier to follow. In this way, our thinking about certain topics, people, and experiences can become habitual. Some times that’s a good thing, like when we need to train ourselves to overcome a fear of public speaking, for example. Other times, it just leads to trouble, like when we convince ourselves through repeated thought patterns that someone or something is causing us pain or trouble, when there’s little or no factual basis for that assumption.

 

 

Because I like to up-end my own thinking when I can, this idea led me to ask myself what types of thinking are habitual for me, and how can I break of the limitations those habits impose on my ability to understand and learn new things? How can I become more flexible in my thinking? This is a work in progress.

 

Something I recently learned about chronic pain

“Pain depends on how much danger your brain THINKS you are in, not how much danger you are really in.” – Dr. Lorimer Moseley

After several years of chronic upper back pain, my doctors had done all they could for me, and sent me to Carolyn McManus, a specialist in managing pain with mindfulness. I learned some things from her I wish I’d known thirty years ago.

Once an injury has healed, if you continue to feel pain in the area for months or years, this is happening because of the messages your brain is sending to the area. A feedback loop is created when you think things like, “There’s that pain again, will it ever go away? Maybe I will be like this for the rest of my life! I wonder why my doctors can’t find anything wrong? I better take another Tylenol…” By thinking these sorts of thoughts, you are effectively making things worse. The new hypothesis of chronic pain indicates that emotional memories modulate our experience of pain, and the result is “a brain that has learned to filter emotions, actions, and reward through the lens of pain, rendering the brain addicted to pain.” (From this research paper)

Professor Lorimer Moseley has a fascinating YouTube talk called “Getting a grip on pain and the brain.” He explains how a person can continue to feel pain in a body part, even when they no longer have that body part. Damage to a body part doesn’t have to be painful. Conversely, you could be in a lot of pain without any tissue damage. He tells a story that may feel vaguely familiar once you realize once he’s getting at: pain accompanied by fear and worry is significantly worse than pain accompanied by a relaxed acceptance.

It’s important to understand that this theory does not mean “pain is all in your head.” The pain is real. But if I’m honest with myself, I know that thinking negative thoughts about it isn’t doing me any favors. By continually focusing on the area and how it feels, I’m not only tensing up the muscles inadvertently, but I’m also burning neural pathways that make it easier for me to go down this same negative thought spiral again and again.

The solution, then, is mindfully being aware of the “sensation” you’ve labelled as pain, and noticing that it comes and goes, just like a cloud in the sky. “You are not your pain” to quote a book of the same name. There are other suggestions as well, which you can find either in the book and other links I just mentioned.

This focus on mindfulness and meditation resonates with my practice of Buddhist meditation to some degree. In fact, it could be argued that Buddhists who have reached a high level of attainment have managed to eliminate pain and suffering…after all, isn’t that what Shakyamuni Buddha was said to have done for his own mindstream? Look at this real life example from the life and death of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, as described by his Doctor (minute 27:50 of this documentary).

His Holiness Jigdal Dachen Sakya Rinpoche

The first time I ever encountered His Holiness Jigdal Dachen Sakya Rinpoche was on the staircase of the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. I had followed some other newcomers to the temple up the wrong set of stairs and we encountered him as he was coming down. Instinctively I put my hands in the prayer position and bowed to him, even though I had no clue who he was. Later I learned he was not only a founder of the temple there, but also a Tibetan Buddhist master of high rank, one of the few aside from the Dalai Lama who could be called “His Holiness.”

Less than a year later, in July 2014, he led the refuge ceremony that ushered myself and a handful of others into the Buddhist community there. During that ceremony, he broke from speaking from Tibetan to say clearly in English, “no meat for a year.” The translator sought clarification, as Rinpoche had led many refuge ceremonies before and had never made this request. Being vegetarian is not a requirement for a Buddhist, but in this case, Rinpoche was recommending we be vegetarian for a year. I figured he must have a reason for saying this, perhaps a certain clairvoyance. One of us must need this commandment, and perhaps that someone was me.

So I started off the next day trying earnestly to be a vegetarian, which is challenging when you also eat gluten-free. I succeeded for four or five months, with only a few slips that were not really my fault as I recall. My resolve slipped around the holiday season, partly because I didn’t want to burden my mother-in-law again with trying to figure out what to feed me. But a change had occurred: I was eating more soy products, possibly more dairy. I believe this is why in March 2015, something shifted in my digestion and I began to have gall bladder issues. For months I struggled with gall bladder disease and had the little squeezer removed in June 2015. But not before things got really interesting.

Along with the health challenge of having gall bladder disease but not gallstones comes lots and lots of tests. And one of the tests I had was a colonoscopy, which revealed precancerous polyps, which were then removed. This is what I believe: if I hadn’t attempted vegetarianism through Rinpoche’s suggestion, I would not have had the gall bladder trouble which led to the removal of precancerous material in my colon. It likely would have been three more years before I learned about the polyps and by then it might have been too late. So I am grateful to my gall bladder — and to Rinpoche — for possibly saving my life.

Yesterday I learned that Rinpoche has passed into parinirvana, like Shakyamuni Buddha before him. Like many others in the sangha, I will be remembering this great master for what I hope will be many years to come. Thank you, Rinpoche, for all you have done.
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Poem: A Walk in the Woods

Eyes downcast
see the fallen leaves
contort into laughing, crying masks
as drama unfolds
in your mind.

Tilt your head
like a bird who has heard a worm
and consider
more deeply
the voices in your head.
Who lets them prattle on like that?

Look straight ahead at the walkway,
and perceive
that the trees, animals, birds and insects
buzzing around
are mere distractions,
when the path itself is the only real goal.

Now in the clearing
Tilt your head back,
follow the solid trunk
past the tree branches bent toward the sky
and know
that clear cloudless expanse
is the mirror for your original mind.