Sunday, February 28, 2016

Spiritual Productivity

Recently I read The TibetanBook of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman. More accurately, I read his introduction to Tibetan culture and Buddhism, and only a couple of the actual prayers for the dead. I found the prayers too esoteric to be of any meaning for me.

But I found the introduction well worth reading. A couple of ideas jumped out at me. One was the concept of Tibetan Buddhists as ‘psychonauts.’ Thurman asserts that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is a science rooted in empirical evidence, and the explorers are like astronauts: where the astronaut explores outer space, the psychonaut explores inner space.

The other idea was ‘spiritual productivity.’ Thurman writes that
In contrast to Western ideas, the Tibetan view is that the mental or spiritual cannot always be reduced to material quanta and manipulated as such—the spiritual is itself an active energy in nature, subtle but more powerful than the material. The Tibetan view is that the ‘strong force’ in nature is spiritual, not material. This is what gives the Tibetan character its ‘inwardness.’ Thus while Western and Tibetan personalities share the complex of modernity of consciousness, they are diametrically opposed in outlook, one focused outward on matter and the other inward on mind.
This difference of personality underlies the difference between the two civilizations. While the American national purpose is ever-greater material productivity, the Tibetan national purpose is ever-greater spiritual productivity. Spiritual productivity is measured by how deeply one’s wisdom can be developed, how broadly one’s compassion can exert itself.
What an amazing concept! Imagine measuring our national economy and our personal lives not by the growth in GDP or income but in the growth of our compassion. What if when we meet someone, our defining question is not ‘what do you do?” but ‘what wisdom have you learned? How are you serving others?’

Note: Robert Thurman is a Buddhist, and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. He’s also the father of Uma Thurman.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Even Desolation is a Country to be Explored

Last year someone kindly gave me a book of daily meditations for grief, called Healing After Loss, by Martha Hickman. Each day has a quote by someone else and Ms. Hickman’s reflections on the quote. A few days ago the quote was:
“Even desolation is a country to be explored.” Sylvia Townsend Warner
There are some platitudes that people in our culture fall back on when confronted with uncomfortable situations, like being around someone who has just lost a loved one. A particularly distasteful one, to someone who is freshly grieving, is the intimation that the experience will make you a better, stronger person. I have hated the idea that grief could be a growing experience. It’s a horrible concept to imagine yourself profiting by the death of your loved one in any way.
But this quote has a different spin for me. This says: I’m here in desolation, what is this experience? What is here for me to learn?
In an earlier blog post I wrote about my first trip to the grocery store after Arthur died. I was raw and bleeding and it felt like it must be obvious to all who saw me. And yet the woman at the register acted like everything was ordinary. She couldn’t see my pain! I turned and looked around me with wonder: what sorrow was under the surface of all the people around me that I couldn’t see?
In her discussion of this quote Ms. Hickman writes of a Buddhist tale in which a woman whose child has died went to see Buddha to ask him to bring her child back to life. He told her he could help her if she brought back a handful of mustard seeds from a house where death had not visited. The woman traveled far and wide but she could find no one who hadn’t lost someone they loved. This experience taught her that suffering is a part of life. And she found a way to heal her suffering through compassion, understanding, and love for all of humanity.
This week three people I know are exploring their own personal countries of desolation. The first is a single mom who underwent emergency surgery yesterday. Her mother died a few years ago so she was lacking that most basic support. What worries must she have endured in the few days between her trip to the ER and her surgery?
The second is a man who has worked brutally hard for fifteen years to build a successful business. Today he had to tell his lenders that he will default on his loans.
The third is waiting on test results for a fatal illness.
I find myself holding these three in my heart, walking that desolate country with them, holding them close. And I can do this only because I have become so familiar with my own personal desolate landscape.
Through the exploration of the country of desolation—the understanding that everyone lives in this place at least some of the time—I am beginning to experience a profound fellowship with everyone on Earth, bringing a deep compassion to life. I ask every day that my exploration will open my heart to the suffering of others and help me to love without judgment or condition.

Note: The Buddhist story brings to mind Jesus’s admonition that if your faith was as a mustard seed you could move mountains (Matthew 17:20). What is it about mustard seeds? I know they are tiny, but is there something else?
Footnote: I'd like to give credit for the quote but Ms. Hickman does not provide any information for where these quotes come from.