It could be us

Tributes are pouring in for Elizabeth Edwards, who died at 10.15am yesterday.

Fare Well Elizabeth Edwards

As one cancer survivor says:

“It breaks our hearts, because it could be us,” Schmid said. “She lived through everyone’s worst nightmare — the loss of a child, cancer, infidelity.”

She did. Imagine how hard it must be, for example, to face leaving your remaining children behind. Along with many others, I feel for her and her young family and pray for their happiness in all their lives.

Truth is, as Schmid’s statement implies, everyone who lives long enough has a sad story to tell. It is hard to get through a human life without facing nightmares of our own and of  course no one gets out of here alive. So the only thing we can control is how we deal with that, and Elizabeth Edwards dealt with it admirably by all accounts.

I’ll let President Obama sum it up:

“In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain,” Obama said in a statement. “… But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration.”

The other day I wrote on a Bodhisattva’s two main activities, compassion and rejoicing. Elizabeth Edwards today is giving me the opportunity to practice both — empathy from putting myself in her shoes as “it could be us”, and rejoicing in her giving the world another example of how to face difficulties without self-pity.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

I just had my flu shot. (I know, I know, some of you will disapprove, I do a bit myself). But it reminded me of Geshe Kelsang, my Teacher’s, explanation of transforming adversities into the spiritual path, where he uses the example of a needle.

So, in normal circumstances, I would not let a stranger anywhere near my arm with a needle, even a stranger with an official Walgreen’s badge. I would not let her inject me with some alien virus. I certainly would not say, once she had inflicted the pain: “Oh, thank you, you did great!”

But because I knew that the needle contained something I needed to ward off greater problems in the future (namely flu when I visit my long-neglected relatives in the UK over the holidays), I did let her jab my arm with a pointy thing.

Same with adversities. If we know something will do us good — make us stronger and/or immunize us from future suffering — we are far more likely to put up with it than if it is just some random useless suffering (whether inanimate or administered by others). According to Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

In other words, adversities can propel us along the spiritual path.  In which case, if we are in fact interested in being propelled along a spiritual path, we need not shy away from adversities, however scary they may first appear.

(I am well aware that a flu shot barely qualifies as suffering, btw, but the needle thing made me think… )

The cycle of lives

The other day I was at a yard sale with my neighbor and friend, more like family actually, searching for stuff for his and his fiance’s new property. There is, ermmm, about 20 years difference between us in age this time around, and this is sometimes obvious. For example, he can solve any computer problem at the speed of light and gets paid handsomely for doing it; but when we drove past several streets with the names “Whitman”, “Chaucer” and “Blake”, his face went blank when I said brightly: “Well, this is a literary area!!”

At the yard sale, he saw one of these zimmer frames and said, cheeky bugger: “Maybe we should get this, you might need it one of these days.”

Revenge was sweet. A few minutes later I saw one of these and said: “Maybe we should get this, you might need it pretty soon.”

This is because my friend, for all we know, could be closer to his next rebirth as a little girl than I am to old age and dodgy knees in this life.

Letting go before we are swamped

One of my dearest friends is a hoarder. He is gentle, kind, thoughtful, funny, and very unable to let go of his junk. For him, of course, that is because it is not junk. We tried to do a yard sale of all his stuff earlier this year and after weeks of work involving a small army of his loved ones, we raised all of $300. This to my mind proved that his big house-load of stuff was junk, but that reasoning does not work on him. This is because for him it could all come in useful one day, either for himself or for someone who really needs a toy plastic truck or box of expired cereal.

And I know that feeling. I have also found it hard to let go of things that have no earthly value, let alone spiritual value. Last Christmas my boyfriend and I had to move out of our apartment in the space of a week as we were both jobless and suddenly rootless.

I was dreading packing up the house and finding homes for all our stuff. But he has always liked the idea of traveling light, preferably with just two suitcases, and found it liberating to just let it all go… That attitude was infectious and we had one of the nicest Christmas days choosing and packing up about 70 gifts for our friends from amongst our possessions.

Hoarders feel a sense of loss parting with insignificant possessions, such as old newspapers or deceptively glossy magazines. But it is a question of degree. I realized that a lot of my possessions are yesterday’s news too, I don’t really need them today, someone else could get a lot more out of them. Attachment is a mind that believes happiness inheres in external objects (or people). But one man’s treasure is another man’s junk. I would gladly pay someone to cart away my friend’s stuff so that he could actually move around in his house again (but dealing with strong attachment is clearly not as easy as that, as any hoarder or their family will tell you.)

Attachment and clinging are painful states of mind, but an effective way to counteract them is to practice giving things away. Just doing it, starting small as needs be. What I discovered about even some of my more “precious” objects is that once the object was given, any pain evaporated, partly as it is hard to miss something you were not using! It is sometimes more the idea of the object that enthralls us than the object itself. Get rid of the object, hopefully the idea quickly fades…

But attachment and clinging are strong habits, so unless we do give a little regularly to counteract these, we might find ourself with a little bit of a hoarder’s mentality ourself…

Still, as for my loyal friend, when I needed somewhere to stay for a few months, he accomplished the remarkable task of clearing out half his house for me to live in. His unselfish love overcame his hoarding instincts, and was an inspiration. Someone else needs a place to stay now, and he is in the process of clearing a space for him. The trick will be, I can see, to make sure there is always someone in his life who needs a place to stay!

Share in others’ happiness or their pain

The two main practices of a Bodhisattva are compassion and rejoicing. If you think about it, that pretty much covers every variety of human experience — people are either experiencing suffering or misfortune, in which case they are worthy of compassion, or else they are experiencing happiness or good fortune, in which case they give us the perfect excuse for rejoicing.

Sudan

For example, in this New York Times article, there is a hero called John Prendergast, aged 47,  who has spent his entire adult life helping war-torn countries in Africa, drawing attention to them. He got interested in this at the same time and for the same reasons as my good friend N got interested in Buddhism, both aged 21, at the time that the  Ethiopian famine was on the news. They were both inspired by the same event to pursue activism and Buddhism respectively. I find this article makes it possible both to develop compassion for the horrors of Sudan (which needs our prayers as the upcoming referendum approaches) and to rejoice in Prendergast’s fearless and unselfish activism. And, while I am at it, I can rejoice in N’s incredible life and deeds in Buddhism, helping thousands of people to become more peaceful and positive.

I love the practice of rejoicing because it really is so simple — it just involves learning to be happy when things go well for others or when they do good things. As Buddha said, you can lie around on the couch all day, but providing you are rejoicing this is a great spiritual practice and you are gaining truckloads of “merit”, or good karma. The more we practice rejoicing, the more spontaneous it becomes, until eventually it is not so hard to share in the happiness of others whenever we feel like it. Rejoicing is the direct opponent to the green-eyed monster of jealousy and envy. And not only do we get a percentage of others’ good karma when we rejoice, according to Buddha, creating the causes to have similar experiences or do similar actions ourselves; but it also feels great to share in others’ happiness and good fortune. It is not so different from experiencing it directly, perhaps better in some ways as it is a mind that is free from self-cherishing. Look at the delight on a mother’s face when her child does something wonderful.

How would you save this bear?

Rusty the Bear

There is a little bear who lives opposite me. When i first saw him, at dusk, I didn’t see anyone with him and I couldn’t figure out what manner of being he was, even though he was clearly very cute. I exclaimed to my companion: “What is that!” “That” turned out to be Rusty, the little Pomeranian. Life was not always easy for him. Literally thrown around as a puppy (two boys were found playing catch with him on the beach), he was rescued by someone, only to spend the next five years in a cage, let out just to pee. Our neighbor Amanda from Columbia found him when she was cleaning the house where he was living packed in with many other animals. She asked if she could have him. Luckily for both of them, she could. He is now nine.

Everyone who sees him loves him, including the big builders next door who went gooey when he gambolled across the street toward them. I am no exception — i have to stop myself stalking poor Amanda whenever she appears at her front door with Rusty in tow. But he and I do have a good relationship already.

So, thinking of him spending five years in a cage is guaranteed to help me develop love and compassion for him, and then for all animals, and then, with a little further contemplation, for all beings caged in samsara in general. This in turn helps me develop bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible so I can bust everyone out of this dreadful prison.

The way to rescue him and every other living being not just from current suffering but all future suffering is to develop the real capacity to do that, a capacity possessed by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, not yet me.

If you look at this world clock, see if you can get the chicken counter to stand still:

http://www.poodwaddle.com/worldclock.swf

It is scary. There are limitless living beings who need our protection and love. A person who has realized their full potential and possesses omniscient wisdom and the universal love that can actually protect living beings is called a Buddha, or Awakened One, or enlightened being. Anyone can become a Buddha through training in wisdom and compassion. Can anyone other than an enlightened being do anything really effective about what is happening — the cycle of birth, death, & suffering represented by these rapidly changing numbers?

Here is a conundrum for you to solve. So my friend asks me: “If you had the choice to save 100 little Pomeranian bears from cruelty, torture and life in a cage or develop spontaneous bodhichitta, which would you choose?”