What It’s Like to Live the Dharma Every Day

A note: I wrote this as part of Shambhala Publications’s call for personal essays:

This is a call for writings from Buddhist practitioners under the age of 35 on what it’s like to live the dharma every day.

If you are here, please read it. I plan to submit this to Shambhala, and I appreciate your feedback.

Okay, here goes:

It’s like… afternoon. Early afternoon. Saturday, August afternoon. This is a little embarrassing, but I woke up not too long ago. I can only think in fragments at the moment. Or maybe not just at the moment, but perhaps most of the time. I most likely think in 140 characters, given that I’ve been using Twitter since… hold on, I’m going to check.

I flip to Twitter. I flip to articles in my tweet stream. Oh look, something about the ramnification of HP’s move and the effect on the the PC market. Look over here, another piece about how software will eat the world.

Now I’m hungry. I’m tired and groggy. I was out until 2:30am last night at a friend’s birthday party. I’m 29. I’m getting too old for this. No, really, I have been saying that for a couple years now, probably since 25. I’ve been hyper aware that my time is running out ever since I read Auden’s poem:

‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

I fear turning 30. A little. Maybe a little more than a little. I think about how funny it is that I declare frantically: “I don’t want to waste the remaining days of my 20s!”, then I sit around and browse through my Flipboard endlessly, reading tech news and rumors and comments from strangers on TechCrunch. I’m certain people with different opinions from my own are idiots, since they aggravate me with their nonsense.

I go back to Twitter. I read something funny. I watch a funny cat video. I laugh. I retweet it on Twitter. I post it on Facebook. I half-hazardly browse through Facebook. I have one milisecond of realizing I don’t want to be sucked in here. I hit Command + W, closing the tab like a dieter throwing a bag of cookies in the trash (again).

I get up to open the fridge. I peer inside to evaluate my options. After a lengthy debate with myself, I decide to stir fry some vegetables.

I fire up the stove. I glance at my Twitter stream again. Has anyone responded to my funny and witty tweets? And comments? I flip to my email. Just coupons and deals. Has anyone written *me*? I check my mail and Twitter on my iPhone, as if it’d be different somehow.

Oh, right, my food. I pour some frozen vegetables in a pan, thinking about my day, where I need to be, and who I need to see, and email, and text. I think about all the things *I* want to do by myself. All the blogs I want to write, books to read, videos and podcasts to make. The running, the stretching, the sitting, the foam rolling, because I am sore.

Why did I wake up so late? I regret having wasted half the day, so I go back to wasting even more time absentmindedly reading news and commentary, and getting entangled in other people’s drama. I get antsy.

In Pema Chödrön’s lecture on Unconditional Confidence, she talked about a kind of nervousness, a hum that’s always in the background which we’re really good at ignorning. We run away from it the moment we feel it, by reaching for something to do to entertain ourselves.

I’m familiar with this. I work in the Tech industry. I’m always worrying about my inbox. I’m always afraid that I’m missing out on some big important shakeup or new products. The stream of information turns my mind into a hyperactive gerbil on amphetamine. Psychologists even have a name for my condition: FOMO—Fear of Missing Out.

Speaking of my inbox, I open a new tab to see if there’s an important email from work I may have missed since yesterday. Part of me is pulling me back as I type the password to my work email. Noooooo. Don’tttttt doooo itttt. The little voice says, as my fingers, with their amazing muscle memory, breeze through the sign-in.

Where was I again? I’m scattered. I’m looking for ground. I can hear it. I can feel it. The background hum. The nervousness. This raw energy inside me. I’m ambitious. I’m part of the generation that’s making stuff people haven’t seen before. We’re innovative! We’re ground-breaking!

I keep reading about Young Entrepreneurs. The kids creating multi-million dollar startups from their dorm room, or bedroom. What am I doing? I’m browsing memes on the Internet! I’m reading Reddit and Hacker News and Women 2.0. I compare myself. I feel inadequate.

People are out and about, raising funds and making banks. And I’m… What am I doing? I’ve got half written blog posts and a shelf of unfinished books, and a basket of laundry to do, and my bed is still unmade in my non Vastu—, non Feng Shui—compliant room.

My dharma teacher, Shinzen Young, gives the advice in his lectures The Science of Enlightenment, “When you don’t know what to do, just have a complete experience.” Pema Chödrön asks for courage in Don’t Bite the Hook, “Sit with the raw energy of the nervousness.”

I don’t feel so brave to sit right now. So, having a complete experience it is. I walk away from my laptop so I’d stop flipping from browser tab to tab to tab to tab. I walk outside onto my deck. It’s sunny and warm. A rare thing around here in the Pacific Northwest this year.

I stand there looking at Evergreen trees puncturing the sky. I don’t think much of anything. My bare feet start to warm up through the wooden planks that’ve been beaten down by the sun all morning. It feels good. I feel like a cat. Content by the warmth. I would purr and rolled around if I could.

I am still tired. I move slowly. Everything looks like the pictures that my old phone used to take: grainy and pixelated. I could make out the general shape of things, but the details are lost, and it’s annoying, because I want to see more clearly.

My mind does laps again. I have a soccer game coming up soon. It’s so far away, I think. Why does it have to be so far away? Why did I sign up for that? Why am I even going? I feel so tired to be running around in the heat for 90 minutes. I’m going to suck really bad, I predict.

I go through the motion of getting ready. Shorts, shirt, cleats. My eyes feel like what my car windshield would look like after driving through a dirt road and kamakazi bugs. It’s Maya, literally. I think, I need to wake up. No really, I need to wake up.

I’m driving to the game, which seems like going to Middle Earth. There’s an enormous and ridiculous amount of traffic on this nice Saturday summer afternoon. I am surprisingly calm despite this. I notice that I’m noticing myself breathing.

I remember what Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.” Thank God for that simple instruction, because that’s all I seem to be capable of at this moment to not get caught in road rage. That’s all I can do at this moment to follow the dharma.

What is the dharma? Right now, I don’t even know for sure. But what I want is to not lose it and yell at traffic and call every driver on the road an idiot. What I want is to have *some* control over my deeply ingrained habits that sabotage me. What I want is to focus more and frustrate less and fear less.

By some miracle, I get to the soccer game on time. I play defense. I notice some other people on the opposing team, and I hate them. I know nothing about them, but I hate the way they walk and the way they talk. I think of Jack Kornfield’s lectures when he talked about the “Vipassana Vendatta”.

I laughed then, and I laugh now. I laugh because I see right through myself. I laugh because I can see my own storyline. I remember Joseph Goldstein saying in Abiding in Mindfulness, “The story-making factory is alive and well.” Oh yes, it so is.

The opponent team is very good. They play well. They score often. My emotion runs all over the field, like me. I go from being pissed, to feeling guilty, to self-shaming, to self-congratulating. “I should have been there to block it!” I think when someone scores. “I shouldn’t have done that” when I cause a turnover. “Yeah, take that! Not in my house!” I thump my chest silently when I prevent a goal.

I oscillate through the whole spectrum, but I linger more when I’m getting mad. “We are always working with our potential to be bothered,” Pema Chödrön’s astutely observed. I look at the rolling soccer ball coming towards me on the field. Here comes some bourgeois suffering. Here comes another chance.

The game ends. I get in a boiling car drenched in sweat. Oddly enough, I’m not tired. Oh, sure, I’m exhausted from the physical exertion, but I’m not nervous and anxious. I am in my body. I don’t think about fifty million other things and my mind is not darting around like a crazed drunken squirrel. All I can think is, “I need a shower.”

I sit in front of my steering wheel, thinking about how I’m actually really glad I made it, despite all the resistance, despite all the excuses, despite the less than optimal preparation. I think of what it took for me to get to this point, a moment of stillness.

“And I meditate! And I practice yoga!” a half amused and half confused voice inside me proclaims. I laugh at the naïveté of that, as if that’s a safeguard or guarantee for anything. But, I think, what if I didn’t have a practice? What if I didn’t know the dharma? Would I have blown up in traffic? Would I have blown up on the soccer field? Would I have even shown up?

I put the key in the ignition and drive out of the parking lot, down a dirt road. There’ve been some construction going on, and the whole road is bumpy and dusty. It brings up the image of Joseph Goldstein’s explanation of the word dukha. The suffix du means difficulty and kha is the axle hole of a wheel.

Dukha means the axle of the wheel not fitting well into the hole. This makes for a very bumpy ride. And some other ways to convey bumpy are words we are familiar with: uneasiness, dis-ease, dissatisfaction, stress.

In the lectures on the Sattipatthana Sutta, he goes on to talk about what causes suffering, and how you can have a bumpy ride but not suffer. Let me show you how this happened to me.

Exhibit A: suffering on the bumpy road on my way in. I was a little disoriented, groggy, and grumpy. Part of me hoped the game would be cancelled, in fear of how badly I’d play. Part of me was prepared to be upset if the game did get cancelled, because I had driven so far to get here. I mentally added “stupid bumpy road” to the list of Things I’m Dissatisfied By.

Exhibit B: not suffering on the bumpy road. And now, on my way out, the road is the same. The ride is still rough as before. But I’m not spinning up any story or phantom fear. I’m not talking up or down on myself. I am just a girl with sore thighs and stray hair stuck to a sweaty forehead, with hands firmly on the steering wheel, in a blue car that’s quickly turning brown, bouncing on the gravel.

I know that this will last but a fleeting minute, maybe not even that. Soon enough my mind will be off, thinking about everything under the sun, wanting, wishing, grasping. Pema Chödrön knows this phenomenon, “We are always on the continuum of getting caught and being liberated.” That Pema, she’s onto something.

As a young practitioner, I am always riddled with questions, doubts, confusion, ignorant conviction, expectation, and ambition. I go to workshops, conferences, and retreats. I try to impose my intellectualism on my lack of knowledge. I read. I listen. I talk. I regurgitate. I blog. I tweet. I sit. I stretch. I reach for ground in what’s inherently a groundlessness world.

I have too many things to do, too little sleep, too little time. And sometimes it feels like my effort may be all for naught, since the world seems to be free falling into five or six or seven realms of hell.

In her talks, Pema Chödrön recalled Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche commenting on the world he saw coming:

“I have no doubt that the challenges would be great.”

Yup. Nailed it, Rinpoche.

I can tell you that, with whatever predisposition or karma I’ve got, with over ten years of yogasana and five of sitting meditation, I’m still caught up in my own storyline, I’m still not always kind to myself, my mind is still a wild horse unaware of its own speed and strength.

I don’t remember the exact words, but Pema once posed a question: If this group of people can’t work with our neurosis, then how can we expect anyone to slow down the momentum of our negative energy? Okay. So, like, what are you saying, Pema? It’s up to me?

Since I seem to have chosen to accept that mission, we now come to the million-dollar question: what does it mean to live with the dharma on a daily basis? What comes to mind is a Japanese proverb near and dear to me as a rock climber:

“Fall down seven, get up eight.”

I slide, and slide, and slide on that continuum of getting caught and being liberated. I fall, I snap out of it, and with any luck, I get up.

What also comes to mind is gratitude, respect, and pressing the Like button for myself. This wisdom from Joseph Goldstein speaks to me: there is a blessing of the rarity of connecting with the teachings and the opportunity to practice.

J-Gold (hope he doesn’t mind me calling him that) talked about how we have somehow come into contact with the teachings, or Buddha Dharma. Not only have we had the fortune of doing that, but for some reason, we’re inspired. And not only are we inspired by the teachings, but we’ve also made the effort to practice.

“So when we appreciate that, it leads to great respect for the dharma, our fellow yogi, and respect for ourselves.”

Living with the dharma every day is like when Frodo, lamenting on the difficulty of his task, told Gandalf that he wishes none of this happened, and Gandalf said, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” You’re quite a dharma teacher, Gandalf.

Sign on the street to the soccer playfield: Rough Road.