Monday, December 15, 2008

What do we do when it all goes pear shaped?

As I progress through my life review (during the week of 03-12 December, my time-line focus is on the period between 1976 ((when I was 16 going on 17 years of age)) to 1981 ((when I was 21 going on 22 years of age)) -- Just the time period where I began to make my first forays into making major screw-ups, fouls, and failures.

The basic method of following this practice is to move through the selected time-period using the 'Gratitude practice' method... allowing situations, persons, and events play through my mind and bringing focus upon those specific factors for which I am grateful, or should be grateful, and mindfully expressing my gratitude.

In some cases, I find that I am grateful for certain turns of events that, at the time, struck me as being catastrophic. Whether this means that they were actually fortuitous at the time, and I was not skillful enough to recognize it, or whether they were in fact catastrophic and I managed to respond to them skillfully enough to garner some measure of gratitude is a question for another day, perhaps... when all is said and done, however, I am grateful for most things... and find that I am surprisingly grateful for many things that were on the face of it, not very appealing or enjoyable at the time.

In retrospect I have come to see how those painful and difficult times, places, people and events have served to shape me in sometimes surprising ways; by making me dig deeper into my spirit to find reserves of resiliency, strength, toughness, tolerance, endurance, kindness, compassion, and in most cases; acceptance.

Not enough can be said for that last, I think.. particularly in light of the fact that I am a relatively insignificant person, with not so very much power or influence, and not so very much in the way of wealth or financial solvency... who happens to live in a world where these things count for much. So. I have had to learn to accept many things that I am powerless to change. It has, I think, made me become a better person. Maybe not better than others around me... but better than I would have been otherwise. For this, if nothing else.. I am profoundly grateful. So, it seems that even when I fall, the universe has a way of embracing me.

Once the time period has been gone over using Gratitude practice, it is time to go back to the beginning and start again, but this time with the focus being on 'Forgiveness Practice'. (After forgiveness practice, we go through the time-period an additional time, using a practice called 'Open-Gate Practice' in which we move chronologically through the time period allowing whatever situations happen to come forth to do so.. and dealing with them as we see fit, or as seems appropriate... perhaps revisiting them with 'soft-belly', 'noting & observing', 'gratitude' or 'forgiveness' practice as the situation demands. In this journal entry, I want to touch on forgiveness practice for the most part.)

In this practice, call forth situations where either we have committed wrongs or made mistakes, perhaps hurting others, perhaps hurting ourselves... or both, and we also focus on situations where others have wronged us. The goal of this practice is to recognize that a wrong has been committed, to understand the ramifications and consequences that resulted, and to try to follow the chain of dependent origination back to the point where the first delusional or wrongful thoughts may have occurred, in an attempt to recognize such similar thoughts in the future (the idea being that every action is preceded by a thought... and every thought is preceded by some causal factor).

Once we have investigated the circumstances surrounding the event, we call forth the wrongdoer (whoever they happen to be) and forgive that person. By opening our heart, and opening the fist of anger and resentment, we give our spirit room to breathe, room to grow, and room to live.... and we do so by setting aside the burden of blame, remorse, hatred, anger, and all of the afflictive emotions that are associated with such burdens.

I find that it is quite difficult for me to find a way to forgive myself for whatever wrongs I have done. Particularly when my actions have resulted in harm to others... harm being mental anguish, sadness, disappointment, pain, etc.

I am able to 'mouth' the words adequately (or whatever verb is used when you are speaking within the confines of your own mind... I suppose 'mouthing' is inappropriate since the mouth is not involved... but... well.... pfwssht!) but, when it comes to actually buying into the forgiveness... I am having a very hard time.

You see... I was there when I screwed up. Each and every time. I was there when I should have been making better decisions... when I was making horrible decisions... and when I was avoiding the prospect of a decision... I know that I could have done better, and I let myself down... and although I know that it is important to be able to put these things aside, I also have some inherent resistance to self-absolution.

I imagine that if there was some method by which reparations could be made, it would be helpful... but, what if the someone who you wronged or could have treated somewhat better has since died or is no longer in contact with you? What if the situation is not something that lends itself to reparations? How do we find a way to allow ourselves off the hook for what we know was not our best day or best choice?

What I understand intellectually, if not viscerally, is that we all make mistakes. We all cause problems. We all fail to abide by the rules. We all let ourselves, and others, down at some point. Everyone does this. This is what it is to be human.

I also realize that without mistakes, we would find it very difficult, if not impossible to learn, grow, and mature. It is through stress, pain, and difficulty that we forge our spirits... chiefly because the monk who is warm and comfortable in his bed is less likely to get up and start a long day of training if an extra blanket is placed over him then if he is doused by a shockingly cold bucket of ice water!! We don't change when we are comfortable. We change when the situation becomes no longer tenable for us. So... difficulty and discomfort are part of the process... and this is so particularly when we cause the difficulty for ourselves.

It is through this very pain that we force ourselves to look inward to address whatever it is that must be addressed so that we can improve ourselves.

In so many aspects of my life, when I look back with the clear eye of hindsight, I lament to myself that I could have done *so much* better. (Naturally, I have now learned the very thing that enables me to recognize that I could have done better... but very likely would NOT have learned it had I not 'Put my foot in it' in the first place!)

So, it appears that I am torn between two mindsets... Learn from the mistakes, or, failing that, recognize them as being part of my story, for good or otherwise... resolve not to make the same or similar mistakes again... and forgive myself, setting aside the burden of guilt and moving forward with a somewhat lighter heart... perhaps thinking that the whole thing is a huge crock...

Or; Being continuously disappointed in whatever bad decisions or bone-headed mistakes that I have made, and soldier on determined not to let it happen again, but with a bleak and disappointed view of my past actions.

Neither seem quite acceptable... so I have to wonder if there is some way to simply forgive myself for making mistakes... or for not doing as well as I think I should have and moving on from here... having become a little bit wiser, hopefully.

I think that we all tend to be a bit egocentric when it comes to these situations.

As children, the sun comes up so that we can go out to play... it rains in order to prevent us from going out to play... and mommy is there solely to love us, feed us, and do all the things that moms do.

Eventually, we come to learn that we are not the center of universe (though we are, each and every one of us *AT* the center of the universe... since the universe extends infinitely in every direction from whatever point we happen to be occupying... but that has nothing much to do with my screw-ups, thankfully!!) and that we are a part of a larger society of other beings, and that our actions impact upon the lives and feelings of others, and that their actions impact upon the lives and feelings of ourselves, and our loved ones.

We all tend to harbor some belief, (mostly, I would imagine, due to our folk stories, mass media input, and socio-religious beliefs -- at least in Western society) that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, crime does not pay, the good guys always win, and they live happily ever after. But... does it work that way? WHO says so?

This is a perfect example of the gap between our EXPECTATION and LIFE AS IT IS causing us unnecessary pain and suffering.... and this is why the Buddha instructed his disciples to not automatically trust anything that was said to them, or anything that they read, even though it may have been the Buddha himself who had said it or written it!! UNTIL they had tested whatever was said or written against their own observations and their own experience and wisdom. The bottom line here being that we are each and every one of us charged with the sole responsibility for our own well being and for the awakening of our own consciousness.

We must all be a lamp unto ourselves... open our eyes, open our ears, open our minds and our hearts and investigate the world for ourselves... live life FIRST HAND and not through the eyes and ears of others. By doing this we get back in touch with life, living, and the world as it is.. just as children are in touch with the world. Everything is new, and interesting, and full of the promise of some new thing to be learned or experienced!

We have proforma conversations... not really listening to what is said by others.... we ask people how they are doing.. without in the slightest bit wanting to know how they are REALLY doing... and we look to others to answer questions that we are too lazy to ask!

Nobody can answer these questions for us... nobody can give us answers,.. and nobody can solve our problems. We must do it ourselves. We must realize that holding ourselves to some lofty and unattainable standard is not only impossible and fraught with danger and the certainty of failure to come... but also arrogant. By understanding that we are all fallible, that we all make mistakes from time to time... and that only by mutually supporting one another, caring for one another, and truly finding ways of coexisting in a peaceful and caring fashion can we hope to survive as a people for much longer. It is so easy to point the finger of blame at others... to be impatient, angry, and critical... so easy, in fact, that we begin to point the same accusatory finger at ourselves... and we begin to find ourselves wanting. We are intolerant of our own shortcomings, and forget how to love ourselves and how to love others... and this is the beginning of trouble. Because we are a social species, and we cannot do it alone. Every one of us impacts upon the lives of every other one of us. This is a very simple truth.

We make mistakes. We screw up. Things don't go as planned.

When we attach to the concept of a separate self, we immediately follow that attachment with the desire for our 'self' to be better than other selves... superior to others in thought, action, purity, and every other aspect. We are the star of our own show... and we want more, better, faster, harder, NOW.

But.. where does that get us? Run around, run around, no time, no room for others, no ability to connect, no time to listen, no time to FEEL.... and in the end, what then?

Same grave. Just as dead as every other dead person. And all that stuff just gets fought over by those that we leave behind.

This is the reality of being a human being, at least to my point of view;

I am human, with all of the strengths and weaknesses of a human. I am of the nature to grow ill, to suffer, and eventually to die. There is nothing that I can do to change or to avoid this. This is my nature.

I am human, and, being human I cannot see all ends and will often make mistakes. My mistakes will cause me pain and difficulty, and will likely cause pain and difficulty for others. There is little that I can do to avoid this from ever happening, and nothing at all to do that can change what has already happened. This is also my nature and the nature of the world in which I live.

The very best that I can do is to train and to culture my body, mind, and spirit, to the best of my ability... to allow my ego-self to settle and dissipate... and allow my 'greater' self, my 'true' self to arise. My method of doing this is to direct, concentrate, and distill my thoughts in order to achieve a calm abiding, serene, tranquil, clear and agile mind; this is important because whatever life unfolds and reveals to me (*WhatEVER life reveals!) will be better confronted by a calm and tranquil mind than by a mind that is clouded, confused, and in constant turmoil.

By doing so, I prepare a fertile ground for a better future by making calm, reasonable, sound decisions that are based upon accurate observations that are unclouded by inappropriate and unskillful emotional reactions, preconceived notions, and faulty apprehensions.

This will not guarantee that my future will be better, only that I will be better equipped to respond to whatever opportunities that may arise, if any, and better prepared to recognize opportunities for what they are and respond to them effectively. Even if no such opportunities should ever present themselves, I will still be better prepared to confront my life as it is, and will therefore have some capacity to find happiness wherever I am able, and to enjoy it to the fullest.

If I make mistakes, despite my best efforts, I can only accept responsibility for them, face whatever consequences that may follow, forgive myself for having done so... and move on to face the day. If I make mistakes having not put forth my best efforts, I can only do the same, and attempt to learn from this shortcoming.

Whatever I have done, and whatever I do *IS* my story... and this crucial.

Whatever I have done or have not done is not what I *AM*.

Every breath offers a choice.

Every moment is a new moment.

Every day that I awaken is a day. I have the power and ability to make of it what I may.

I may do nothing but good things, and bad things can still happen to me... I may do nothing but bad things and good things may still happen to me... this is not something over which I have any control... I can only exercise my judgment, and follow the moral compass that I have set for myself.

Having made my own share of mistakes and foul-ups, I can be more understanding and tolerant of the mistakes of others.

Being free of the resentments which arise from the judgments of others, and from false expectations of how life *should* be... I am better equipped to experience life JUST AS IT IS to the fullest extent possible.

So... maybe forgiveness practice isn't so much about forgiving in the sense of acquitting or letting ourselves 'off the hook' as it is about facing up to what has happened, accepting it for whatever it is.. accepting the responsibility for whatever our culpability in the situation happened to be, and then finding a way to move forward without letting past mistakes plant seeds that will only bring forth new ones... Like so many things then, forgiveness is all about learning to let go. Forgiveness is about letting go of all hope for a better past.

Sometimes we think that we are the only ones who make the mistakes that we make, think the thoughts that we think, or harbor whatever darkness we happen to harbor.. but, it isn't really like that. Every combat soldier has secretly thought himself the only coward amongst a company of brave men.

Having said this, it is also true that for some mistakes, we may face repercussions that will last the remainder of our lives, or some significant portion of it... and having learned whatever lesson that the mistake had to teach us will in no way lessen the impact of those repercussions or consequences.

The very fact of learning from the mistake or gaining some insight or wisdom may well make the situation all the more painful, difficult to bear, or poignant for us.

Well.. this is another of those things relegated to the nature of being a human being. This is karmic reaction.... karma being the results of our thoughts and actions as opposed to the somewhat misapplied definition that most westerners seem to have of karma as being some type of luck, or fate, or destiny... it is not. At least not in the sense that it is used in a Zen context. To us (Zen folks), if you throw a bucket of water straight up, and fail to move... the karmic burden that you have assumed will soon get you soaked to the skin!

Cause and effect. Pure and simple.

We all know of some person or persons who live a remarkably 'good' life and who are remarkably 'good' people but who have had many tragic, difficult, or painful events enter their lives.

Many people will react to this with anger, demanding to know how God or the universe can allow such things to happen.

I think that these things are not allowed or disallowed.. they just are.

The universe, as I have said, does not conspire.

We live our lives, and we must deal appropriately with whatever we are confronted with... that is simply the way it is.

Being good or bad has little to do with what may happen... though it is true that certain lifestyles are more likely to call 'bad' things, people, and events into our midst. Unfortunately, living a 'good' life is not an iron-clad guarantee against such things... There is some joy to be taken from living a 'good' life simply because it is a 'good' life, and not out of some sense of having struck a bargain with fate. Perhaps if we are able to avoid viewing things as inherently 'good' or 'bad' life will make more sense as it flows and offers us whatever happens to occur. When confronted with a situation, rather than label it 'good' or 'bad' and loading up our emotional rucksack with all of the adjacent feelings, judgments, and notions... what if we simply accept is as being whatever it is... and then find the true function that the moment demands and do our best to respond effectively? Easier said than done... I know. But... that's life! The better quality stuff is more expensive than the crap!

Looking back at my life through this practice, and watching this year tick past has sharpened my focus immensely.

I can see how life simply flows independent of my wants, needs, hopes, desires, and fears.

Life just..IS... I can see much more clearly that life does not necessarily respond to us and that there is often no connection between what we do and how life twists and turns seemingly in answer to what we do or fail to do. At least there is no connection that we can easily see.

However, that is not a problem that you or I can solve.

We are left to deal with the situations in which cause and effect are within the scope of our ability to influence via our thoughts and actions.

By focusing on what we *can* do to improve things rather than on what we cannot hope to do saves a great deal of time and energy, and may actually get some decent results into the bargain!

Case and effect - that is what the life review is all about, really. Good things happen, bad things happen, neutral things happen... but the universe does not conspire. Some folks have better opportunities, some have not so good opportunities... some are rich, others poor... some talented.. others less so. Most of us are somewhere in the middle... but we must all struggle with something.


The question is not so much "How do I get what I don't have?" as "How do I best proceed with what I DO have?" - and this is the crux of this whole life-review process.

Whatever has happened has happened... you are where you are... you have what you have... you have lost what you have lost... and now... what are you going to do with it, and where are you headed?

In other words, what is the best possible course of action given the present set of circumstances as you perceive them? (the perfect situation NEVER comes... and it is important to constantly re-assess your perceptions; as you take in more information, or revise and process the information that is available to you, your perceptions may change... and it is equally important to always remain open to this change and to be prepared to implement it if it is needful to do so!)

As for forgiveness practice;

For those of you who feel that you have wronged me in some way... if there are any of you out there who have such feelings.. please know that I forgive you for whatever slight or wrongdoing you may have perpetrated against me. I wish you only the best, and I profoundly hope that you will set the burden of guilt aside and move forward with a lighter and perhaps more tolerant heart. What is done is done, and today is a new day.

For those of you that I have wronged, whether you are still upon this world or have moved on to some other plane of existence: You may have forgotten whatever I have done.. or you may never forget whatever I have done... but I am very, very sorry for having done so, whether my wrongdoing was large or small, unintentional or deliberate, or due to my own ignorance.

Please know that I am working tirelessly to better my understanding and to improve my abilities to confront life and to engage others.

Though I would very much wish to undo whatever unskillful and hurtful thoughts or actions I have done in the past, which have had an impact either upon you, or upon others... it is not within my power to do so.

Though it may not be acceptable to you, I offer my most profound apologies and hope that whatever pain I have caused through deliberate actions, negligence, inconsideration, weakness or incompetence has either passed quickly or has helped to make you a stronger and better person as other pains have served to strengthen me.

Lastly, though I have no right to ask it of you, or to expect it, I wholeheartedly hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive me so that I may put this burden aside.

I will do whatever I am capable of doing to take wisdom from the experience of having wronged you, and to use that wisdom to do whatever good I am able to do to constantly enrich the lives of those around me. I thank you for being my teacher in this respect, more so for perhaps having had this role inflicted upon you against your will.

With palms joined in peace, love and humility...