Cheryl Wilfong teaches mindfulness meditation at Vermont Insight Meditation Center when she isn’t rearranging one of her 28 flower beds or tending her out-of-control vegetable garden. Master Gardener and mistress of metaphor, she delivers the Dharma into daily life in the garden.
My friend, Nancy, renewed her Christian faith in her 50s. I asked her how she did it. “I re-interpret everything I hear,” she said.
Ai-yi-yi, i thought. That sounds like way too much work.
But let’s try it. Let’s translate the well-worn, worn-out greeting, “Merry Christmas” into Buddhist-speak.
Take the word “merry”–an old word, not much in use in nowadays. Merry Christmas, merry-go-round, Merry Wives of Windsor, merrymaking. Or “Row, row, your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily….”
Merry means joy or joyous, and joy is a more familiar word to us meditators. Joy is one of the Divine Abodes (Brahmaviharas). Joy is one of 7 factors of awakening. Joy is the first of the meditative absorptions (jhanas).
Christmas was originally Christ Mass–the mass celebrating the birth of the Christ-child (though he wasn’t a Christ yet.) The Christ is a personification of love and compassion. Some of my friends who both meditate and go to church say they like the loving-compassion of Jesus, while the Buddha left a boatload of very clear instructions for living our everyday lives.
A mass is a time of communion–communing with our spiritual community. Here we recognize the refuge of sangha–our spiritual friends who keep us on the high road even when we’d rather give in to our low-road impulses.
One of our nearby rivers is shallow and sandy. The other evening i walked out about a hundred feet and sat down on the sandy bottom. The water came up to my armpits. I felt like i was sitting in the river of Life.
One of my personal mantras is “Surrendering to the flow of Life.” As the river flowed around me with a definite current, i felt i could be carried wherever. I practiced surrendering to the river of Life.
A student recently asked about worry. “If i don’t worry, i don’t care,” he said.
Question that belief.
In the first place, worry is a hindrance. There is no reason in the world to cultivate worry. Cultivating worry or anxiety just spreads negative vibrations around. Why would anyone want to sprinkle (their own) anxiety into their child, for instance.
Worry is a mental weed. Stop planting weed seeds. Stop worrying.
July 4 is the day we celebrate freedom in the United States. Have you noticed how the word “freedom” has morphed over the years? Currently, freedom means “free to do whatever I want to do.”
The Buddha taught a different definition of freedom–free from stress, free from discontent, free from dukkha, which is the thirst of wanting, wanting, wanting. Wanting stuff, wanting certain people and not others, wanting things to be different than they are. Here’s the conundrum: How would it feel to be free from “free to do what I want”?
Just imagine the freedom to accept things as they are, in this very moment. Accepting things as they are comes with the shadow of resistance–“But i don’t want to accept….” that awful person, that traumatic event, that unpleasant situation. How to drop the resistance and let life be just as it is?
Regret over the past is useless. The toothpaste is already out of the tube.
Worry about the future is useless. As Shantideva said many centuries ago, “If you can do something about it, why worry? If you cannot do anything about it, why worry?”
Nowadays, there’s a very popular belief that “if i don’t worry, i don’t care.” Question that tangle of beliefs. Caring is stress-free–it’s a natural opening of the heart. Worry is loaded with stress. The so-called caring that comes with worrying is loaded with trying to control the situation or the people so that I won’t suffer. That kind of caring is all about me; it’s not about the loved one, the friend, the suffering one. Take a very close look and tell me what you find.
Happy Freedom Day. May you be free from stress. May you be free from wanting things to be different than they are. May you relax into the All-Being Oneness.
In the Eightfold Path, the Buddha gives us directions about Wise Speech, Skillful Speech. For our own well-being, we are instructed to refrain from false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter.
Not lying makes sense to me. I value honesty very highly; it’s even hard for me to tell white lies.
The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” which also covers slanderous speech. There is no divine judge (according to Bhikkhu Bodhi), so we can consider these directions about Wise Speech as a set of guidelines; they are not something anyone else is going to judge you on. You are your own judge, so be kind to yourself.
I know from experience that harsh speech—which I call throwing a hot potato at someone—usually results in having the hot potato thrown right back at me. Mother told me to count to ten, and all these years later, it’s still good advice to refrain from harsh speech or at least think twice about what I’m ready to fling off my tongue.
But idle chatter? That feels like I’m being asked to give up the good stuff. I do like a bit of schmoozing now and then, although I don’t really want to participate in talking behind someone’s back or in shooting the breeze. I myself don’t have much patience for people who run off at the mouth.
The Buddha offers us a long list of inappropriate topics to talk about.
kings, robbers, & ministers of state;
armies, alarms, & battles;
food & drink;
clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents;
villages, towns, cities, the countryside;
women & heroes;
the gossip of the street & the well;
tales of the dead;
tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea;
talk of whether things exist or not.
2500 years ago, people talked about the same things we talk about today. Although our content is different, the topics are the same.
Conversations about kings, robbers, & ministers of state
You know who these people are: the Presidents of various countries, the Secretary of State, or my current favorite villain, the Postmaster General. “We didn’t receive any mail at all on Monday,” I complain to my neighbors.
I suppose robbers are the white-collar crime guys, those who engage in insider trading, and lobbyists as well as obvious burglaries.
Armies, alarms, & battles
The coup in Myanmar. An air strike on Syria. The Iran nuclear deal—or not. Will Israel and Palestine ever reach a peaceful settlement?
“Alarms” would be the Security Alert level which you hear announced in the airport. The insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021. But it could also be the Police Log in the newspaper or the fire trucks rushing by. “Where are the EMTs going?”
Food & drink
Now we get down to the real idle chatter. So what’s your favorite restaurant? And your friends’ favorite cafe? Your favorite wine? Beer? Coffee?
Since I don’t drink alcohol or coffee, I am totally lost when social conversation focuses on these subjects, as it does for 10 or 20 minutes at a time.
Clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents
Goodbye Vogue magazine, Vanity Fair, and Martha Stewart. Goodbye Pinterest.
Unsubscribe from the L. L. Bean catalog and all the other catalogs that come in the mail. While you’re at it, unsubscribe from all the email newsletters telling you about special sales.
No more shopping with girlfriends, but that’s okay. I’d rather take a scenic walk than walk the mall or its parking lots.
This means refraining from talking about our children or our grandchildren and how cute they are and how smart!
This could mean not harping about our aging parents, which otherwise takes up a lot of conversational space.
Not complaining about the relatives or in-laws with whom we have problems—the mother-in-law, the daughter-in-law, the estranged sibling. Just call it dukkha and feel it. Then practice loving-kindness for yourself.
We think that talking about Teslas and Porsches is so very much more interesting that talking about donkey carts and ox carts and chariots. But vehicles have a fascination all their own. I’ll be happy to talk to you about my Prius and the gas mileage I get anytime.
By the way, are the 777s safe?
Villages, towns, cities, the countryside
The current issue in my village is school funding. The police in the town I live near practice racial profiling.
In the city, there’s a great new exhibit, and there are so many possibilities in New York. Where are the best delis in “The Village”?
Women & heroes
We might say movie stars or sports figures. Refraining from ESPN and videos. This category also includes girlie magazines and pornography.
The gossip of the street & the well
Oh-oh. This means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all of our social media. People magazine and any of the entertainment-oriented magazines.
Some of the news we hear or see is actual news, but much of it is a repeat. Consider cutting way back on the news you read or listen to.
Political pundits confidently make their educated guesses, but they are not necessarily accurate. Research shows that most pundits are as accurate as a coin toss.
Tales of the dead
I do like to read obituaries in our local paper. History is also “tales of the dead,” and I like history. In fact, I wrote a history book about a bunch of dead people.
Does this mean I have to give up murder mysteries?
Tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea
Now we’re getting into more philosophical conversations. Maybe you and I don’t talk much about this, but my evangelical friends can go on and on about the Second Coming of Jesus.
Talk of whether things exist or not
The sort of article you find in science magazines—string theory, chaos theory, the Big Bang, the universe, the particles that make up an atom.
Oh brother. If we can’t talk about any of these subjects, what can we talk about?
I cringe when I read the last word of this verse. Fool. Fool is a pejorative word. None of its synonyms are nice. Since I want to be a nice person, I can’t imagine saying this word outloud, unless I sneak it in behind someone’s back. Yet, Dhammapada 61 is just the first of sixteen verses from an entire chapter entitled “The Fool.”
If I substitute the word “deluded” for “fool” in this first verse, then I feel less judgmental. “There’s no fellowship with the deluded.” But, since we are all deluded, the verse loses it meaning. Maybe I could say “the seriously deluded”?
How can I dance away from the (inner) accusation that I am being judgmental? I might waffle and say I am discerning, not judging someone as good or bad. Although the dictionary gives a bland definition of judging—to form an opinion—the word usually carries the added moral weight of “bad.” In common usage, judging is almost never good.
Using my discerning eye, I look at my more distant foolish “friends,” the places I spend time. Social media, for instance. If you, like me, sometimes say, “Facebook is a time sink,” then you already feel like you are wasting your time with this “friend.” Sometimes, Facebook can be useful, but after my twelve-year friendship with Facebook, I can truthfully say the “cost” of my time outweighs any benefits I receive.
News. Another addicting habit. Can I listen to the news once a day? Can I spend five minutes reading my local paper and let that be it? A friend, who is an empath, says she has to strictly limit her exposure to the news if she doesn’t want her feelings to be overwhelmed.
Now that we’ve gotten started on our list of “foolish friends,” we can add to our personal list. Mine includes shopping, chocolate, and salty chips.
When it come to people, this verse from the Dhammapada sounds judgmental. Who’s to say who is a fool? Am I judging my friends? Then I feel ashamed to admit: Yes, I am judging my friends. I still love them, but maybe I don’t want to spend that much time with some of them. The toxic friend. The drinking relatives. The neighbors who can’t stop talking about politics—even if their view is the same as mine.
When I say I don’t want to take a walk every day with my toxic friend, part of what I’m saying is that I don’t want my mind to be contaminated by her frequent anger and hostility. We are friends, so I will walk with her once a week. That’s enough. I’d rather take a walk by myself than spend too much time with her.
Since my mother was an alcoholic, I do not particularly like to spend time around drinkers. Yet I am related to several. Many of my “social drinker” friends and relatives don’t stop at the single glass of wine suggested by the American Heart Association—which equals one bottle of wine per week. My friends are of the one bottle per night variety, and sometimes that means one bottle per person per night.
I take the Buddha’s admonition about refraining from intoxicants quite seriously. Any intoxicant is the gateway to breaking the other four precepts—sexual misconduct, unskillful speech, taking something—such as air time—that isn’t freely offered, or harming someone.
My sweetie, who limits himself to 1.5 ounces of whiskey per evening, is much more likely to snap at me after his drink. He doesn’t notice it, even if I point it out to him. I myself prefer clarity of mind. I spend quite a bit of effort trying to mindful. Why would I throw it away on a glass of alcohol?
These relationships with in-toxic-ants are surreptitiously toxic, because, at first, they are fun and can even be intoxicating.
Would I really rather be alone than spending time with a fool? As an introvert, I can easily say Yes. I prefer to spend my time with wise friends. Sometimes that means taking a walk by myself in the woods and noticing the wisdom of Nature. Sitting by myself in meditation. Reading a Dharma book by myself.