Posts Tagged ‘chogyam trungpa’

Very happy to have been reviewed by Kirkus Indie:


“Hollenstein (Understanding Dietary Supplements, 2007) makes it clear from the start that her book has none of the drama of typical addiction memoirs. She has no harrowing, cinematic rock-bottom moment to report, for example; instead, she focuses on her slow realization that “[a]lcohol numbed both [her] pain and [her] joy.” This quiet process of introspection, however, proves to be just as engaging as any tale of alcohol-induced havoc. Hollenstein writes eloquently of the complex role that alcohol once played in her life, and her insights into drinking’s cultural currency are especially sharp. Of alcohol’s transformative power, for example, she writes: “Champagne with oysters transported me to Paris….I drank whiskey to express my saltier side.””

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The practice of meditation has afforded me what appears to be a lifetime of food for thought. Yet the simple act of butt meeting cushion can be reduced to a very basic question: Can I try to focus on just being for 15 minutes today? 20? During that time, can I relinquish my urge to do stuff? Yet, without fail, while practicing I find myself ping-ponging between being and doing. Mentally writing this to-do list or that blog post. Then remembering the breath, noticing the things going on around me, the honking rush hour traffic, the oscillating fan turning my way, the flicker of the flame in front of me, ceaseless feline activity. Perhaps part of the point is just noticing this tendency with a light touch and a sense of humor. I think of it as my doo-be-doo-be-doo practice. I hum it to the tune of Strangers in the Night, perhaps an apt analogy for the struggle between accomplishing and simple existing.

Recently, I came down with pneumonia that had me flat on my back for a week. Then I was traveling in a country where I speak the language poorly and could not do many of the things on my growing to-do list. Without the ability to doo-doo-doo, I found myself wondering, like Little Orphan Annie, how am I going to earn my keep? As if my self-worth and very value was tied to my ability to do, to achieve, to cross things off the list.

But part of what I am learning from my study of Buddhism and practice of meditation is that I don’t need to earn my keep, per se. That inherently I, and all beings, possess basic goodness, something that is constant and pure, though often forgotten or obscured. I’m not unrealistic: I know how important it is to do, to make progress, and to bring home the bacon, or in our case, the tuna. But I do feel it’s important to periodically remind ourselves that even when we are not able to doo-doo-doo, we can just be our basically good selves. And that is more than enough.

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The other day I was walking to my new gym with a serious case of gym-timidation. I imagined that the other members would all be younger, prettier, and fitter than me, and had therefore procrastinated most of the day. Finally I could delay no longer. I put on my sneakers and headed out, tail already between my legs. About a block before my destination, I was stopped by a young man who asked, “You going to work out?” You might ask why I even acknowledged such a question, and rightfully so, but I was still receptive to any and all distraction standing between me and sweating among the beautiful people.

Besides, he was just brimming with confidence. When I told him where I was headed, he responded that he used to work there as a physical trainer. He didn’t just work there: he dominated (!), such that the management had to redistribute clients among the other trainers so that they weren’t just sitting around while he worked out one adoring customer after the other. He was the best. And since he had broken out on his own, he shared, he was working only with the “elite, elite, elite.” Every time he said this, he made a horizontal slashing movement with his hand that reached higher with each repetition: elite, elite, elite.

My intimidation receptors already primed, I initially took all of this as truth. I didn’t question his presentation, his story about himself, his superiority, because his words and manner were so convincing. It took me a few moments to realize that this apparently confident young man was in fact standing on a street corner, wearing dark glasses, with no formal business presence to speak of online or elsewhere, accosting strangers with his pitch. After extricating myself, I walked the final block to my gym wondering, is that real confidence?

I think about confidence a lot these days. I’m starting a business and am riddled with self-doubt. I realize this doubt is based on fear and uncertainty rather than reality, but I feel torn between a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach and something different, something that would allow me to access confidence more genuinely, from within.

In the November 2011 Shambhala Sun magazine, Sakyong Mipham wrote about having confidence in our basic goodness, which is probably where it all begins:

The energy of splendidness comes from being fully present in whatever we do. My father, Chogyam Trungpa…put it this way: “You are not hiding anywhere.” Hiding means our splendidness is obscured by embedded habitual patterns. One characteristic of hiding is that we are always self-observing. Self-observing comes from not trusting our inherent goodness, and therefore keeping the reins tight on our mind….”Not hiding anywhere” means we have reduced and lightened our embedded habits and tendencies, which allows us to shine.

This concept of no longer hiding resounded with me deeply. In taking this frightening step, I am risking myself in a way that wouldn’t be necessary if I were to keep working for someone else. Being my own boss requires that I take ownership of my decisions, that I make my own mistakes and learn from them, that I blaze a trail rather than following one that has already been worn.

The last time I felt this way – the last time I tentatively came out of hiding – was when I quit drinking nearly 6 years ago. The first couple of months that I approached life without the buffer of alcohol, I felt barraged by reality. That overstimulation took on a physical presence in the form of anxiety, a vibratory sense in my fingers and lips, a slight quickening of my breath, occasional light-headedness. Little by little, I grew to accommodate the stimuli I had previously softened with wine or liquor, at first through less productive means – shopping, eating, and your garden-variety dry drunk behavior – and then through more sustainable approaches: creating space, acknowledging my pain and discomfort and learning to lean into them with kindness. Gradually I grew more confident in my ability to navigate life sober.

Susan Piver recently wrote:

Confidence actually begins with lack of confidence. Without the latter, we would have no idea what the former meant. In some way, when we lose our confidence we could imagine it not as the first step into the pit, but the first step out of it. Just as light would not exist without dark, confidence would not be possible without lack of confidence. So, to begin recovering self-confidence, a great first step is allowing yourself to lean into your doubt.

If confidence begins with lack of confidence, then I got this. As I make my way on this unpredictable path, rather than putting on a false face, I am not ignoring my doubts, fears, and anxieties, but not deferring to them either. And gradually, my hope is that I will gain the type of confidence that is quiet but authentic, one that doesn’t need to proclaim itself on street corners. One that is born of the basic goodness we all possess.


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“Excuse me for living!” Remember when this was a common rebuke? Variations included “Pardon me for living” or “Excuse me for breathing.” I used to say this when someone took issue with something I did or said, as a somewhat overdramatized apology for being however I was being, said with an air of exasperation. But I often did feel the need to apologize for being who and how I was. Often still do. In a way, it is out of a misguided kindness for others that I apologize for myself, so as not to inconvenience them, make them uncomfortable, but an unintended side effect is that I am not being genuinely me.

Part of Buddhism’s appeal and relevance is the teaching that I am good enough right now, inherently and basically good, and don’t have to apologize. Still, that impulse to excuse myself remains in subtle ways.

Toward the end of a recent weekend meditation retreat, I sat in a group and listened to our teacher discuss the meaning of awakened heart, how it involved existing in the world with dignity. One woman raised her hand from the back of the room and said something we could all relate to: “Sometimes I just don’t feel so dignified.” We all laughed a little at the uncomfortable truth pouring out of her, at how messy our lives often feel, how we all have our unsavory bits that we hope only reveal themselves when no one else is looking. As part of the response to her question/comment, another participant offered her perspective on dignity, that it could be viewed as not being embarrassed by who you are, by allowing your true self – with all its associated imperfections – to exist in the world without apology.

A similar theme arose in the movie Crazy Wisdom, a film about the life and times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. At one point in the film, some of interviewees wept at the loss of their friend and teacher who had given them the unparalleled gift of being completely and unapologetically himself. And in doing so, how he helped them to see their inherent brilliance, wisdom, goodness, and perfect imperfection.

In Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

The discovery of basic goodness is not a religious experience, particularly. Rather it is the realization that we can directly experience and work with reality, the real world that we are in. Experiencing the basic goodness of our lives makes us feel that we are intelligent and decent people and that the world is not a threat. When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others. We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.

This concept of being unapologetically authentic has stayed with me for weeks now. What would it mean if I dropped all of my embarrassment at who I am? How would it feel? What might my mind be capable of if not weighed down by that anxiety and restriction? In addition to the kindness I could extend to myself by living with dignity and without embarrassment, it might also be the most generous and loving thing I could do for others.


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Did you ever ride the go-karts at Disney World? Each car is situated on individual, parallel tracks that prevent crossover and collisions, so that everyone basically drives around without incident. At the starting line, the track beneath the car is wide, encompassing the full width between the tires, and as a result the drive is quite smooth; but soon the track narrows to a thin rail and the driver must find the proper steering wheel position that will prevent the car from zig zagging the entire way, slamming into the track on the inside of the right tires, then the left, over and over again. I could never do this. Every time I tried to drive the Disney go-karts, I gave myself whiplash (physical and emotional) because I could not find the middle ground.

This is not unlike other parts of my life. If I were to whittle down my life’s narrative to a single story line, it might be about my search for the middle ground. My natural tendency, however, seems to be vacillating between extremes. At a recent weekend meditation retreat, I spent the entire first day on the cushion ping-ponging between sleepy and speedy. Although I was a little tired, my sleepiness was about more than that. It was an avoidance technique, a way to literally shut down my body so that I didn’t have to deal with the difficult emotions that arose. When not doing the old college head-bob, I was feeling speedy, zooming through mental to-do lists, and wishing away the minutes on the clock so that we could get to the next thing, and then the next, and the next. And when we did get to the next thing, I wanted to just get through that. Sleepy, speedy, sleepy, speedy. That was my Saturday.

Another area where I vacillate between extremes is in expressing myself. As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to bottle up my emotions and then explode. This feels like a balloon taking on air, little by little. Because I’m elastic, adaptable, I rationalize that it’s easier for me to take on whatever it is than to verbalize my true emotions. But eventually I lose my elasticity. I get to a point where I can’t take on any more, even though I still wish I could. And then Pop Boom Bang! One of the many problems with this approach is that no one on the outside can see it coming. Another is that I might explode at something relatively innocuous, or at least something that would be considered incongruent with the level of my reaction.

But nowhere do I vacillate between extremes more than in romantic relationships. While I feel like a fairly effective communicator in other parts of my life, all of that seems to go out the window when love is involved and I switch between extremes of hope and fear suddenly and often without warning. Being so vulnerable with someone – placing my heart in his hands and trusting that he won’t squish it – sends my rational brain on an extended vacation. When things are going smoothly, I am full of hope, struck by how easily it flows, and wonder why all the fuss about how difficult relationships can be. And then, all of a sudden, it stops being easy. When this happens, I feel disoriented, unable to express myself. And I quickly switch from a sense of hopeful beginnings to one of fearful endings. I automatically go to that extreme. When trying to communicate, I run out of skills and feel utterly hope-less.

Eventually I do reach a point of exhaustion with these extremes. On the second day of my meditation program, for example, my practice was very different from the sleepy-speedy day before. It was as if I had worn down my avoidance of the present moment, fatigued my muscles of resistance, and could finally rest in awareness. So too has this happened with expressing difficult emotions with others. Rather than always filling the balloon to bursting and then exploding, I release tension gradually, mindfully, by trying to take a gentle approach, by giving myself permission to risk disappointing the other person. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes not. And in my relationship, often directly following the point at which I reach utter despair, I find myself softening and opening and developing curiosity about what is going on in the moment, less so about the outcome – good or bad.

On the topic of hope and fear, Chogyam Trungpa writes in Ocean of Dharma:

The experience of our day-to-day living situation consists of dissatisfaction, questioning, pain, depression, aggression, passion. All these are real, and we have to relate with them. Having a relationship with this may be extremely difficult. It’s an organic operation without any anesthetics. If we really want to get into it, we should be completely prepared to take a chance and get nothing back but tremendous disappointment, tremendous hopelessness.

Hope is the source of pain, and hope operates on the level of something other than what there is. We hope, dwelling in the future, that things might turn out right. We do not experience the present, do not face the pain or neurosis as it is. So the only way that is feasible is developing an attitude of hopelessness, something other than future orientation. The present is worth looking at.

Faith is a more realistic attitude than hope is. Hope is a sense of lacking something in the present situation. We are hopeful about getting better as we go along. Faith is that it’s okay in the present situation, and we have some sense of trust in that.

I have no reason to believe I would be any better at driving one of the go-karts at Disney but I am working on finding the middle ground in other (arguably more important) parts of my life. My faith in the process of meditation has only grown since I began practicing three years ago. I don’t think it would be extreme to say that sitting with myself, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, practicing letting go of hope and fear, and cultivating space, acceptance, and kindness is the most important thing I can do with my life.


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I always feel grateful for rain. As a child, I was happy to stay indoors reading or watching movies on beautiful, sunny days. My mother would coax me outside, shaming me not to waste a glorious day. Rainy days let me off the hook.

Even as an adult, waking up to rain gives me a singular sense of pleasure and comfort. If I’m lucky, I will have planned to work from home the entire day. To stay in my pajamas, cook pastina for lunch, shuffle from one room to the next between projects.

Usually, though, some commitment draws me out of the apartment. I contemplate calling and canceling plans, rescheduling appointments. I run the lines in my head first to see if I can pull it off convincingly, but give up when I remember that I am an abysmal liar. I then commence with the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, perseverating over what to wear, what shoes to sacrifice, what anti-frizz strategy to employ.

Once outside, I can feel my body clenched and my brow furrowed, as I tip toe through puddles, hike up my pant legs, and clutch my purse to my chest beneath my umbrella. I walk as swiftly and efficiently as I can to ward off unnecessary wetness, and try to avoid becoming a casualty of speeding cars and busses that hug the curb too tightly.

The only problem is, I am not the only one in this predicament. As I battle for real estate on the sidewalks, begrudgingly raising my umbrella to accommodate others, and aggressively inserting myself into busy intersections to ward off turning vehicles because I (CAPITAL, BOLDFACED, ITALICIZED ‘I’) have the right of way, I sing a little song that goes: ME, ME, ME, ME, GET OUT OF MY WAY!

Finally I reach a point at which I resign myself to the rain. I give up my fight, release the tension from my muscles, unfurrow my brow, and give myself over to the dragging pants, the shoes sloshing, the hair growing larger by the minute.

It is only at that point that I can look up and see something other than myself. To view the people around me, not as obstacles standing in my way, but as other beings probably feeling similar feelings, wishing to be safe and warm and dry at home. I notice their clenched faces, hasty movements, and self-righteous irritation. Harried drivers and weary pedestrians all. And my compassion for them (and myself) grows. Suddenly my sodden walk becomes very interesting indeed. Sometimes I even take the long way home.

Not that I remember this when the next rainy day comes along but I’m trying to pay closer attention. I realize it’s easy to smile at strangers when it’s sunny and beautiful, but less so when we’re all soaked and annoyed. That it’s easy to be kind when I’m comfortable and more challenging when I’m cold and wet. Although initially I resist the discomfort, at a certain point I renounce that resistance, and my own selfishness, for a little while. And I get a glimpse of what Chogyam Trungpa writes about in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

What the warrior renounces is anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle and open to others.


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Recently, as part of Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, we learned about the lojong slogan “3 objects, 3 poisons, 3 seeds of virtue.” The three objects are things we want, things we don’t want, and things we ignore; the three poisons passion, aggression, and ignorance; and the three seeds of virtue freedom from passion, aggression, and ignorance.

In delving deeper into this slogan, contemplating it and reading Chogyam Trungpa’s and Pema Chodron’s thoughts on the topic, I recognize how my drinking covered all of these bases. I used drinking to hold on to pleasurable experiences way past their expiration date; I never wanted the party to end and I thought it couldn’t end as long as I kept drinking. Other times I used alcohol to try to change the way things were, to counteract feelings of anxiety and fear, to replace them with the joviality and good times I thought were to be found in the bottle. Last, my drinking allowed me to zone out, to disconnect from issues that needed attention – a relationship that was hurtful, an unsatisfying career.

This is not to say that alcohol is inherently poisonous; but the way I used it was problematic for me. That kind of self-awareness has helped me to see how I engage with the different aspects of my life. It’s also shown me that while all three poisons are present at different times, I tend toward one in particular: aggression, or as I think of it, resistance.

From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, my mind is constantly resisting the way things are. “I should have done this…or that,” “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I wish I were more…,” “I wish…,” “If only…,” these are a constant refrain, like elevator muzak that has been playing in the background so long you almost don’t notice it anymore. Sometimes I even hope that things will turn out differently in a movie I’ve already seen or one in which I know the ending; I spent the majority of the film Titanic hoping there would be some twist that saved everyone.

In Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron writes “resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time.” She also writes about how the 3 poisons provide fertile ground for change, a rich source from which we can pull self-awareness and gentleness, and can open up to the much wider possibilities life has to offer.

As I write this post, I feel immense confusion as to what to do with my life. My severance period is about to end, I’m completing a small business course that I took with the hope of starting my own nutrition counseling and writing business, I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing the Drinking to Distraction book, and I have the outline of another book I would like to write when the first is completed. I feel at once exhilarated, overwhelmed, frightened, capable, and bereft of the stamina needed to take the next step. My tendency toward aggression makes me resist this confusion; I have a strong drive to exorcise it, oust it, banish it, even if that means making a decision that I haven’t completely considered, or reverting back to a professional plan that seems more of a sure thing.

My challenge, if Piver, and Chodron, and Trungpa are right (and I know they are), is to hang out in that confusion long enough to really experience it. To drop the story about how my life will end up in the shitter if I made the wrong decision. And to feel my way toward the next step, and the next, and the next, knowing I can change course at any point. First, I must give up the fight against reality. This is the way it is, for now. Resistance is futile.

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