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Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

The art lessons, the dance lessons, piano after school. Mom was teaching me to meditate.

This kid Elliot whom I work with in the dishroom had a dream involving me the night before last:

He and I were talking. We were surrounded by enveloping blackness of night. The sky was doubly dark with emptiness and rimmed full of brimstone fire; apocalyptic. I left the conversation by stating I had to “get back to work,”

I climbed in to some sort of egg-shaped vehicle. Inside it I was surrounded by mirrors. Using my hands on the mirrors, I began to orchestrate the energy of the sky, calling forth lightning, controlling the very atmosphere.

I asked if Elliot felt afraid of me or what I was doing. He said he didn’t feel I was doing anything evil or adding to the apocalyptic feel. It just overwhelmed him. He couldn’t handle the intensity of the power I had at my very fingertips.

I had to get to work. Not a job. Real, True, Work.

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I woke up this morning all out of sorts. An hour shy of noon. I’d been awash in a dreammare all about this distant man I seem to share some portion of soul with. I was hanging on the edge of my seat, voluntarily oversleeping to see its unfolding, the conclusion. He’d come here to visit. To see me. And as I was showing him my life, all that now surrounds me, he was excluded by circumstance. The people I now knew were ignoring him, pressing him to the outer boundaries. I couldn’t understand it. It then passed beyond exclusion and he was blamed for misdeeds. Hunted. I was losing him.

he was going

going.

he got lost

I woke in the clutches of sorrow, approaching a day laced with hanging fog and the threat of uncontrollable weather. Another cyclic sore reminder that Life Is Suffering. Time and time again, like anything, as steady as breath or the rise and fall of light in the heavens – joy will always, incontrovertibly, turn to sorrow. Elation to depression. Pleasure into pain. I entered the world today in a haze of energy depletion despite what should have been a completely restful night of sleep. Lord, am I tired. My senses dulled. Awareness limited and difficult to tap. Today is a day of suffering.

But my use of language is troubling here. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism does state that life is suffering – but to me, that is half the story. One eliminates much to reduce life to Suffering in some kind of ultimate (and impossibly terse) rule. The deeper meaning is meant to be implied, but for those needing more guidance within the words, how could we instead incorporate that life is not just suffering but that life is cyclic, repeating phenomenon that range from highs to lows? That life is not merely suffering, but it is also happiness? After all, death produces life! Pleasure could not exist without pain! In a brief moment of clarity last night, I realized that pain and confusion should be relished. For they are no different from exaltation! They are merely experience, after all.

Mourning over pain is akin to mourning over exhalation. We inhale, we exhale. Without exhaling, we couldn’t inhale, we couldn’t exhale, life would not be sustained. Would anyone think to mourn over releasing their breath? No. Why, then, should pain and suffering depress us? It follows that it should not.

Easier said. For whatever reason, after this long of a period on earth (within the present lifetime), the nature of pain and how to deal with it continue to elude me. Personally, I engage in a few bad habits which encourage, ignite, and prolong my own suffering. I will speak about these habits candidly in an effort to encourage the sharing of truth between individuals. The most pressing habit for me is disordered eating, which began for me over four years ago at the end of 2005.

At that time and at a normal weight, I decided to become vegan. I made this decision because 1) I’d become interested in sustainability and eco-friendly living. As a result I learned about the vast, appalling waste of land and nonrenewable resources due to our meat-loving lifestyles. 2) I had a mild dairy allergy and asthma and wanted to explore alternative health via diet change. 3) Victoria’s Secret catalogs would show up at my house occasionally, and I dreamed of dropping a quick five pounds so i could look as flawless as the oiled-up near-nudes on the runway. Before becoming vegan, I generally had great self-esteem. I was a normal weight and fit the conventional standards of beauty. My body had begun to change shape in its shift to womanhood and I wasn’t comfortable with it. At that point in my life and with the social education I’d endured, “curves” was nothing but a cheap and fancy word for “fat” to make overweight women feel better about themselves. I didn’t have curves. I didn’t need them. I’d never have them.

I went straight from being a lifelong omnivore to being vegan overnight, and my type-A personality led me towards avid perfectionism on that path. At first, I toyed with cookbook recipes and learned about new grains, vegetables, and legumes I’d never worked with before. I baked vegan desserts and casseroles. I was excited about all the opportunities that lay before me within the constraints of my new diet! But very quickly, I realized that vegan food was in short supply in rural/suburban America where I lived at the time. And between school and work and life in general, I was rarely home. My diet dwindled to oatmeal with soymilk, salads without dressing, tofu sandwiches, granola bars, and frozen mixed vegetables. I became obsessed with “health” and began going to the gym for three hours every morning. I memorized the calorie count of every food I would eat within the vegan window. My mental energy was completely consumed with counting and re-counting the calories I’d already consumed that day and how many I had left. My limit was 1,000, and I was rarely tempted to exceed it.

I was the perfect vegan anorexic. And completely unaware that what I was doing was abnormal. I didn’t even notice I’d lost any weight at all until my skirt slipped completely off my hipbones as I walked to work. At first, my skin was flawless. Girls at my dance studio praised my weight loss. After being sick and bedridden during detox the first few weeks of my diet change, my energy soared. I felt immense comfort in my routine around sleeping, eating, working, and time with my boyfriend. But as time progressed, I was using my break between work shifts to pass out from exhaustion in a nearby park. I was irritable and picking fights with everyone I loved. I was freezing cold all the time. My ass bruised every time I sat down and mysterious wounds began to appear on my body, refusing to heal. The hair on my head lost its luster, fell out, and turned from deep brown to wispy blonde. The hair on my body became fine, thin, and plentiful. I was growing fur. And the skin on my arms became scaly. I developed edema – retention of fluids – which swelled my body from my stomach to my ankles, restricted circulation, and itched like crazy. When I saw a holistic nutritionist to correct this, she congratulated me on my perfect diet, saying only that “maybe I should increase portion sizes” and told me to buy a bunch of expensive “green food” pills to help restore balance to my body.

Inexplicably, people began to dislike me or worship me (I realize now that this depended on their own opinions of themselves). Either they praised me in admiration of my self-discipline or they loathed it. Strangers would spit hateful comments my way, especially at the restaurant at which I served tables. Telling me to eat became a great insult and a personal affront. It held countless implications. My mental and emotional relationship with food changed forever. My feelings toward others changed, too. If they left me alone or praised my “progress,” I loved them. If they said any word against my “healthy lifestyle” they were instantly my nemesis. I hated them and their deep ignorance about what w as obviously (my personal) truth.

Long story shortened somewhat, after six or seven months, my body reacted to starvation by causing me the irresistible urge to binge eat. This terrified me and I confided to my mother that I might have binge-eating disorder. I never thought I was anorexic. Hospitalization revealed a resting heartrate so low it might have been lethal and diagnosed me with physical-but-not-mental anorexia nervosa, sometimes called an EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). I was apparently starved but because I had a pretty good body image that translated to an absence of body dysmorphia I wasn’t typically anorexic, from what I could understand. Because of unusual circumstances I won’t go into, I was instructed to re-feed at 3,500 calories per day. For someone who had been eating between 500 and 1,000 calories for many months, this was incredibly painful physically and emotionally, as well as confusing. Despite popular belief, it was not a joy to eat icecream or pizza again after such prolonged and stringent choices.

When the prescribed refeeding period was over, I wasn’t cured. I was no longer anorexic, but I had now become a compulsive overeater. Thoughts about food still colonized my mind for the better part of each day. More than three years after “recovering from anorexia,” I still struggle with food.

I have been blessed enough to experience times when food is not an issue for me. When this happens, it feels incredible. I am free! I am free to enjoy food and feel nourished and blessed by it and revel in the beauty of the universe as it pertains to glorious food. I am free to live and let my mind grace what it will without constant interruption. And I even start to love my body, weight aside.

But ultimately, in my venture towards veganism four+ years ago, I upset some equilibrium. Now I consciously use food to distract myself from life. I now make the choice to overeat when I am feeling bad both to distract myself from the suffering and prolong it. What is that about? Do others experience this phenomenon? Not with food directly, but when you are feeling shitty, do you experience the want to wallow in it? I struggle with that, and it begins to come clear to me that sometimes I make the conscious choice to suffer and to participate in actions that will prolong initial feelings of shittiness. Is this what Buddhism means by training the mind? It certainly is not a philosophy of repression. Suffering is rather embraced. But Buddhism teaches to move away from self-indulgence and towards productivity, which I see can easily be applied to the self-indulgent state of wanting to remain miserable for the rest of the day, and thus avoiding actions one consciously knows will help them to feel better. Misery doesn’t love company. Misery loves misery.

I’d like to think that food has become such a vice for me because I taught myself to think about it. But it isn’t as simple as that, because food is not merely food, and I encourage people to think about it. Food is politics. Economics. Health. Privilege. Food is a drug. It is relationships. Food is products, commercialized. The way I use food is a statement on what I believe, as well as strides made toward a certain lifestyle and/or self-healing or harming. I still believe that a vegan diet is morally and ethically proper. I am against factory farming and industrial agriculture and I believe that the world consumes far too much meat for its physical and karmic health. I try to monitor my feelings of well-being as they are related to food. I avoid caffeine and notice that sugar sends my system haywire. I have a feeling grains are overused and it’s ultimately beneficial to avoid dairy and eat an abundance of raw fruits and vegetables grown without the use of chemicals and pesticides.

But despite all of my beliefs about food and the fact that I’ve got a pretty clear picture of the perfect diet, I cannot seem to destroy my overly-dependent and addictive relationship with it. Sometimes I am able to eat this perfect diet without becoming restricted and I feel amazing. I feel healthy and radiant and my self-confidence abounds. But soon enough life’s weekly downswing will hit and I find myself binging. Or eating mindlessly. Or being unable to read my hunger signals. And it’s not about how much yoga I do or writing anything down or feelings of deprivation or any of that. My problems with food, just like bad habits of picking my face and scratching my head, is obviously a symptom rather than the problem itself.

A symptom of what? The suffering I inflict upon myself with misuse of food is an indication that something deeper is going on to cause me disharmony. Is it simply that suffering is an inherent part of life and these bad habits are just an exhibition of that? I have found, though, that these symptoms and bad habits can dissipate and disappear. This happens when I feel extremely connected with myself and through that, I feel connected with everything. Mindfulness, it’s been called. Thus, the way to eliminate these symptoms of suffering must be to deepen that connection and to uphold that as top priority. For what does this call?

Do more yoga, I would have said a few months ago. And certainly, it helps incredibly. But doing yoga does not automatically liberate me from suffering. It helps to connect me with my body and consciousness, but that no longer curbs my appetite for abusing food. Perhaps I have normalized the mindfulness I get through yoga now? Become used to it so that it no longer serves me? And when I am in the midst of suffering I am self-indulgent, as previously mentioned, and thus less inclined towards mindfulness practices. This is the conundrum. And monastic Buddhism’s response is simple: buck up and use self-discipline, you weakling. Study the principles of life for hours every day! Do yoga even when you don’t feel like it! Meditate for hours every day according to a routined schedule. Overcome your suffering by constant mindfulness cultivation by taking spiritual refuge.

I mean no disrespect and I speak only in personal terms, but monastic Buddhism seems like either a wasted life or a cop-out to me. Is suffering truly to be relieved by removing yourself from the goings-on of the world? What of all the employees in this monastery who cook and clean while these monks are busy enlightening themselves? Where is the recognition that this is a hierarchy, and that entering monastic life is a type of privilege in this sense? Buddhism would say that, depending on past life experiences, some humans are automatically disposed to becoming monastic while others are disposed to being servants to monastics. While this has some grounds to stand on, it also seems to breeze over the stark reality of oppression and result in inaction in terms of dealing with that in this lifetime.  Monastic Buddhism seems almost like the easy way out: follow some principles already outlined for you and you can achieve the great goal of enlightenment! I can see the flashy ads right now, reading “8 step plan guaranteed to free you from the cycle of suffering!” I always felt that organized religion was bogus because it seemed so much more valuable and valid to discover your own beliefs rather than adopt those prescribed systematically by others

I have found that the times I feel most free are when I am not confined to some arbitrary structure – work, school, meal times, timelines, et cetera. I am rid of the habits I’ve mentioned when I rely on my own internal intuition devices to guide my actions. There is a prominent misconception that if you aren’t “doing school” or working some prescribed job, you aren’t doing anything of worth. We forget that worth has been ascribed to activities arbitrarily and purposefully to support structures that keep certain people in power and others in submission. Think of the work performed on a farm versus that carried out in the office of a CEO. Generally, most people desire the job of the CEO and associate a certain prestige with it, while farmers are considered lowly. Manual labor has been demoted to “idiots work” and has become valued much less that white collar work. This value is monetary – office employees generally rake in higher incomes than construction workers – but it’s also societal and political. Politics protect the interest of the economic elite. Society warns against ‘getting stuck’ in a blue collar job, operating under the assumption that work obtained with a college degree is not only more valuable but also better for someone’s life. It is assumed that white collar work not only generates more income which leads to a better life, but it is less likely that those in white collar work will get bored with the job itself or suffer in it. In my experience, however, a white collar worker suffers just as much as a blue collar worker. They simply suffer in different ways. Whereas a farmer may develop physical ailments from manual work, an office worker suffers psychological abuse from a manipulative boss, or is prescribed antidepressants or sleeping aids to help with symptoms that result from the oppression of working within the confines of a human system that is counter to natural initiative and impulse.

It frightens me when I hear people say after a vacation that they were excited to get back to work because they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Suffering, it is clear, is very much infused within the human-created structure of life! You suffer while you work, dreaming of vacation. You suffer while you vacation, dreaming of returning to work! In my experience, the solution to my own symptoms is to be myself as much as possible. Using mindfulness to follow the inner guide that naturally exists.

A question becomes: can this inner guide be found within structure? Or must we disregard structure in order to gain better and continuous access to our inner guide? And here is the difference between monasticism and tantra.

I have laid out my argument against monasticism, suggesting that personally, it is better for me to relinquish control and duck boundaries in order to feel free. But there is a major problem with this: how does someone like me survive in a world which operates solely on timelines, guidelines, structure when those things apparently harm me and make it difficult for me to live? Not only does this world (specifically in North America) leave little room for someone like me, it works to punish people like me. If I shape my life around my inclination towards tantra in order to heal myself of disorders and bad habits, I will be forced to deal with poverty. Lack of healthcare and access to general methods of remaining physically healthy, like maintaining proper diet and exercise. Discrimination. The loss of my friends and family. Social isolation. My ability to access certain information and opportunities will be limited. Where’s the happy medium? Will all of this loss simply lead to more gain?

This brings me to the question on the forefront of my experience now and for a while still: how shall I live?

I know my values. I know my sufferings and that I’d like to be rid of them. I know the importance of helping others to live lives free of suffering or at least not to contribute to it. I know my aversion to “the system” and deep desire to rid myself of it. I do not want to live a life chosen for me or defined by an economy. I want control over my personal wellbeing to the extent that I can have it. I don’t want my basic means to survival to be defined by some human circumstances having little to do with me, like economic climate. I yearn for self-sufficiency. Does this mean I grow my own food? It’s something I’m passionate about learning to do, but I fear it goes against my transient nature. Growing your food requires an amount of stillness and commitment that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. I noticed that my greatest and most long-lived hobbies (writing, dancing, singing, yoga, drawing) coincidentally are incredibly portable. “I’m not a one-place person.” Should I farm-hop? Working to grow and enjoying the fruits of my labor without the commitment of maintaining a garden over time? I have a great love of nature and a great love of people. I am drawn to the possibility of living somehow separate from the order of things. Making my own everything. Living in a community of folks who live simply and work to sustain life for one another there. Is this isolationism?

Thoughts on this are ongoing and this I’ll return to this later…

*I am speaking particularly of Mahayana Buddhism, for it is the only type I have studied in great detail. Please correct me if any of the claims or assumptions I have made in this writing are incorrect. I am still learning! And I appreciate respectful disagreements/corrections.

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