House or Buddha?

June 7, 2008

I’ve spent a lot of the last three or five years of my life trying to be more compassionate, more understanding, more mindful, calmer, kinder, more loving, and really pressuring encouraging my partner to do all of this too. I was sort of an obnoxious know-it-all teenager (yes, more so than your average teen) and this started declining after, one morning at church in college, I had an epiphany that I didn’t have to be this intense, that it actually was not good for me, and that the world did not need my intense drama, debate, provoking and proclamations in order to keep moving along and that I might be happier and make more progress toward my goals in life (liberal political stuff, justice, and all that) if I was nice to people instead of lecturing them. (Not that it is terribly relevant here, but my 180 turn toward gentleness and avoidance of conflict probably also had something to do with rejecting a conflict-ridden household growing up, but that is another post). So, I got all into unconditional love, forgiveness, and this ended up morphing into more Buddhist-ish formulations once I finally decided (I think) that I really can’t be a Christian even if I really really want to.

And now enter Gregory House M.D., mean doctor who is cynical, jaded, rude, super-smart, and probably pretty sad, and lonely. I LOVE THIS SHOW. Unreasonably. At first, I thought I loved it like I liked E.R. Interesting relationships, medical drama. And there are things to solve (sort of like Law & Order only medical and less predicable). Or maybe I just liked it because I don’t have a T.V. and it was a show I had seen a few times and sort of got hooked because I really wasn’t watching much else.

But this is not the case. I am drawn to this show. My spirit is drawn to it. I cannot tell if I want to be more like House (more confident, strong, uncaring about what others think about me, super-insightful, more selfish). Or if I want to rescue House (just like I wanted to rescue Will in Good Will Hunting or Joey in fourth grade, or Levi in ninth grade, etc.). Or both. Maybe it is just fun to live vicariously through someone who is pretty much never wrong, and is cold and calculating, but really soft on the inside.

Why post this on my blog, you say? Because it raises actual questions for me about how we might live our lives. I have started but not finished two other posts on this topic that have something to do with how nice is too nice and how mindful and meditative can you be before you are just dull? The Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hahn are great, but how Buddha-ish do I want to be or should/can I (we) be and how House-ish should we (I) be, just calling people out on things, and not entertaining their mush and drama? Is part of being a good minister (or just human) sometimes not saying, “Oh, and how does that feel to you?” and instead just being like, “Seriously, you need to just get over that.” How much is all my compassion and love and la la la so others will like me and feel cared for by me, and how much of it is really that that is what they truly need?

I will continue to do more research on this by watching as many House episodes as I possibly can. I will report back.


Murray the Kitten Teaches Me About Compassion

January 30, 2008

good-picture-of-murray.jpg

So, we took in a foster cat named Murray last summer after another foster home said that he was impossible to tame. He was found on the streets of Dorchester, MA as a kitten and all the cuddling of him didn’t seem to work like it did with other kitties. He is the only kitten we’ve ever had to wear gloves with because of biting. But he has improved. He even purrs sometimes when we pet him when he is half-asleep and he ADORES our semi-outcast cat, Gustav who none of the other cats like so well.

June passes, as does July. Come Christmas, Murray is still happily living with us, only letting us touch him when he is sleeping or eating, of course making it impossible to adopt him to a permanent home.

Wolfgang says to me, “Murray is such a cute little dum-diddle-dum.” Just sort of wandering through life, not knowing how good he has it, maybe not the brightest cat ever, and with this funny little waddle where his legs sort of fly out in every which way. But he loves Gustav so much and snuggles up to him and is clearly a happy little guy, enjoying eating a lot, and taking 8 naps a day.

Come mid-January, we are saying, “Gosh, do you think something is wrong with Murray’s legs? His walk does seem to get worse.”

And come yesterday, Murray was running away from me and he legs got all tangled up and he fell. Maybe just a slip?

Then eating his breakfast this morning, his legs were slipping out from under him. The vet said it isn’t an emergency, and tomorrow will be just as fine as today so we take him in tomorrow. I’m not sure if this is because they were just too busy and figured it is so dire, what difference does a day make? (Preliminary internet searches don’t paint a promising picture of back leg problems in cats.) But we can only go to this one vet because he only charges the shelter we volunteer for half-price, so we just wait until tomorrow.

As I was trying to lure Murray out from under the bed to check on him, I realized how much he has taught me. Wolfgang and I are just so worried about him. We want to make sure he isn’t in pain. Enough to eat? Does he want to rest in the nice warm cat bed by the heater? We want everything to be okay with him and for him to live a happy, good life. And it just made me think about all the animals that have sweet little personalities just like Mr. Murray who suffer so much and never get the sort of love and kindness that Murray has been able to get – Murray brings out the love in us – the caring, the compassion, and the selflessness. No small task to bring that out in humans which, in some respects, have a spotty record of caring, compassion, and selflessness, this human included! But, Mur says, “Hey, even though you were planning on going to a class at 1:30 tomorrow, this is the only time the vet could see me so you’ll just have to not take that class.” In their own ways, animals and other dependent creatures (like human children) call us to be our best selves – to care for those who need caring for, to attend to suffering, to give love.

For me, care for Murray and care for the suffering of other animals that have the ability to suffer are such important parts of my faith and my life. I know I am not a perfect and it is just a little part I can do. But, as much as it hurts me to see Murray’s little legs, I am so happy to be able to care for him, take him to the doctor, and give him extra treats. I just feel like so often we say, “Oh, what can we do about all the suffering of the world? All the misery?” And our little animal friends are sometimes teachers to us if we are wiling to listen.

So thanks Murray for letting me love you. And thanks for reminding me to love all animals the best I can who suffer just like you do with your little legs. I hope it is nothing and the vet makes you better.

Love, Elizabeth


On Kindness, Mindfulness, and Coping With Difficult Situations

January 4, 2008

It is no secret to my friends and family that living in the Northeast has been difficult for me. The weather doesn’t help, but the most difficult thing has been dealing with people being unkind, difficult, impatient, rude, and just downright mean. Let me be clear: I have met MANY wonderful, kind, generous, loving, selfless people here. I am not talking about the absence of amazing people. Rather, the culture of politeness, gentleness, kindness, and patience in everyday situations is just very different from what I have experienced in the Midwest and South, the areas of the country where I am from. I am talking about the general level of kindness, politeness, and respect that I encounter on a daily basis – professional situations, landlords, neighbors, random people I encounter at the store, etc.* Some people think that the kindness and friendliness people find in places like the South is fake or somehow inauthentic. Not me. Give me “fake” friendliness any day over “authentic” rudeness.

But this is not a lament about the culture of everyday politeness and warmth in the Northeast. It is about how we learn to cope with situations that we are not used to and that make us feel bad. Clearly, lots of people find the Northeast/Boston to have a perfectly fine culture of politeness and everyday friendliness and patience (my mom being one of them who is always telling me, “Gosh, I just don’t know what you are talking about, Elizabeth,”when she visits). While it is very hard, I have been trying to practice mindfulness and non-attachment related to these sorts of situations, but in the last few days, they have been accumulating. I find that all my thinking and reminding myself of how want to react to these situations and how I want to feel about these situations doesn’t quite work. My stomach still feels queasy, and it is all I can do not to burst into tears when I think about difficult situation x, y, and z involving unkindness, gruffness, lack of empathy, and selfishness. Like I told my partner today, my zen is being sapped.

What are we to do when we know how we should feel and act about a particular situation, yet we just can’t bring ourselves to feel that way? I tell myself to be mindful, non-attached, calm, to be in the moment, to realize that I cannot control how others treat me, rather only how I react to them. And, I tell myself that all I can do is show the kindness that I seek in my own life, hoping that the anger, or lack of patience, or resentment that people show me, might be gently eased by the understanding and patience I show to them. I work to practice non-attachment – letting go of my need to be treated a certain way, or letting go of my own desire to have others validate or be understanding of me (my driving habits, my work habits, my shopping habits, my mere presence, etc.).

Yet, the last few days have been a good lesson about the ongoing nature of becoming who we want to be. We must also be gentle with ourselves, understanding that we have developed structures of understanding and life-practice that have taken many years to form and, likewise, take many years to un-form. This helps me remember that just as my structures of sensitivity, desire for kindness and gentleness and understanding have developed over many years, so have the structures of impatience, anger, gruffness, and unkindness that cause people to, for instance, yell at me because they think I am putting snow on their sidewalk when shoveling out my car. Perhaps their anger and screaming is okay with them and doesn’t represent any sort of underlying pain or struggle. Or perhaps it does, but they do not yet know where that anger comes from or how to ease it. Either way, learning how to detach from these things that hurt us, and show the sort of understanding and kindness that we would like shown toward us, is a process that cannot take place overnight. It is a journey, something that we must continually be attentive to, understanding that suffering due to attachment to our desires and wants is not something we can or should totally avoid, rather something we can seek to ease with our mindfullness practices, and with time.

May we be gentle on ourselves and gentle with others as we all try to make our way in a very difficult world.

*Please understand that I know that there are plenty of problems with the Midwest and South. I am talking about one particular area that I struggle with and deal with. Of course there are mean, rude, impolite people in the South and Midwest. I am just talking about overall culture here. Also, the difficult professional situations I refer to do not, to this point, include my ministerial ones. In that area, I have been very blessed.