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.
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.
One day, Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, comes back from a day of meditating. I imagine he’s been out in the forest with one of the senior monks, perhaps Sariputta or Mogallana, and they’ve had some inspiring conversations.
Back at the monastery, Ananda greets the Buddha and says, “This is half the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
The Buddha reproves Ananda. “Don’t say that Ananda. Don’t say that. Noble friends and noble conversations are all of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, she can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”
This clear teaching points me toward developing relationships with my spiritual friends. I feel very grateful to my Dharma friends who keep me on the high road, even when i’m tempted to go low.
But what about my “ignoble” friends? I love people who don’t know anything about the eightfold noble path and aren’t interested in it.
I asked Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia this question. “I love my ignoble friends” She responded, “Then be a noble friend to them.”
Reading this verse from the Dhammapada, I imagine the ascetic Buddha walking down a dusty road. A farmer falls in beside him and chatters on about his sons and his crops. Perhaps on another day, a villager talks about the politics of the village he lives on. Or maybe a young man is in love and tells the Buddha how beautiful the girl is. Oh, if only his parents would agree; if only her parents could afford the dowry.
That’s when I’d want to extract myself as gracefully as possible and ask, “Which way are you going? Oh, I’m taking the other turn at the crossroads.”
Then I imagine another scenario as the Buddha happens to meet up with Sariputta. “Which way are you going, friend? Let’s walk together.”
I start my day by spending Zoom time with my noble friends—my meditation friends. At six, I meditate for an hour on Skype with Elizabeth, who I met at a five-day retreat with Culadasa in September 2017. That retreat offered a bi-weekly study group as a follow-up, and one Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth asked, “Does anyone here want to meditate for an hour in the morning?” I jumped at the opportunity.
In his book The Mind Illuminated, Culadasa recommends meditating for at least an hour a day; I knew I was unlikely to follow through on that intention all by myself, so I am grateful for the spiritual companionship. After an hour of meditation, we chat about our practice for a few minutes. I am inspired by Elizabeth’s steady progress.
Thanks to Zoom, I can hop over to the 7 a.m. meditation at Vermont Insight Meditation Center. Though I am always five or ten minutes late, the timekeeper lets me into the silent Zoom room. Afterwards, I stick around to chat and catch up on any local Dharma news.
My neighborhood meditation group meets at 8 a.m. as it has for the past 24 years. It’s a big enough group that there are always at least two of us; in Zoom times, there may be five of us; if we meet in person, there may be eight. After catching up on neighborhood news and reading a page of a Dharma book, we sit for twenty minutes. We close with chanting the refuges and reciting the precepts.
By 9 in the morning, I’ve spent between two and three hours meditating with my Dharma friends, my noble friends. These are the friends who always encourage me to take the high road, even when I’m feeling low.
Following in the Buddha’s footsteps, I spend as much time as possible with my wise, spiritual friends.
Every time I think a thought, the self refreshes itself like a website refreshing itself when I hit the Refresh button. When thoughts peter out to occasional wisps, the self drifts off into scattered clouds, and the spacious, clear blue sky can be seen.
Thoughts are often self-referential, which is to say, i’m often talking to myself about myself, not unlike James Joyce’s character, Mr. Duffy, who lived a short distance from his body.
Outdoors, in the garden is a good place for thoughts to drift away. Suddenly, there’s just a body walking on a path to the vegetable garden. Hmmm. I wonder who she is. A coalescing of very familiar habits, including mental habits. Continue reading →
On Monday, Bill went to the dermatologist to have skin cancer removed from his bald head. On Wednesday, he went to a neck specialist because he can barely turn his head. On Friday, he had knee surgery for a torn meniscus, and, by the way, the surgeon removed a one-centimeter sized floating piece of cartilage.
That’s three doctor appointments in one week. One definition of old age is when you have a doctor’s appointment every week. Bill had three in one week. The neck specialist diagnosed the problem with Bill’s neck as O.L.D. His neck is old. Arthritis plus the vertebrae and discs are worn thin. Nothing to do but go to physical therapy. Continue reading →
From the foldings of its robe, the Ghost of Christmas Present brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Wheregraceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. Nochange, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, hasmonsters half so horrible and dread.
‘Spirit. are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down uponthem. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye.Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’ Continue reading →
A year ago, i wrote 10 blog posts about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which i see year after year for its Buddhist teachings. Now i have yet another insight into this old chestnut of a story.
The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own death, and this is his transformative moment. We may have several insights in our meditation practice, but only a very few of them lead to a transformation of our personality. Continue reading →