Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Monday, July 6, 2015

#WithCompassion: A Small, Good Thing

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, The Dalai Lama asked those who wished to honor him to simply use social media with the hashtag #withcompassion to post photos, videos, or quotes that illustrate people treating one another with kindness.

It's a humble and simple gift, befitting of the man; certainly, one done more to uplift our own faith in humanity than for his sake.  As the joke goes, "After all, what do you get the man who has nothing?"

In an age when cynicism is our default setting, and stories of hope are dismantled by the media as quickly as they seem to happen, finding such generous acts may seem illusory.  Yet, they exist.  They're happening a half-mile from your street and half a world away.

In Germany last month, the country agreed to turn 60 former military bases into nature preserves.

COMACO is helping turn poachers into farmers, with Zambian farmers being given the sustainable farming tools they need to yield enough food to keep them from relying on poaching to make ends meet.

Neighbors in Rochester, New York donated 400 bicycles to a Conkey Cruisers after dozens were stolen from the organization, which gives bikes away to promote exercise amongst lower income families.

In my community alone, I've witnessed over $75,000 raised to help my friend Greg as he recovers from being run down on his bicycle by a motorist last year.
  Greg Germani - Give for Greg! by Beth Anne Harrill - GoFundMe

My friend Frank Barham was on a mission to raise money to fund wheelchairs for those who couldn't afford it, traveling from Atlanta to Savannah in his wheelchair.  Tragically, he didn't get there, but donations poured in to help make his dream a reality:  Frank Barham’s final act | A&E Feature | Creative Loafing Atlanta

When a colleague lost his home, wife, and daughter in a fire, and had medical bills for his badly burned son, not only did contributions pour in on a GoFundMe page, but friends created a 5k race to help raise funds and bring the community together.  Jack’s Rabbit Run benefit in Avondale Estates « The Decatur Minute

And I'll continue to draw inspiration from the women & men who made up the family known as Girl Fight Club, rallying around the courageous Jessica Lucas for over a decade during her battle with cancer.

Of course, not every story of compassion is borne out of tragic circumstances.  It sounds trite, but it's a smile at a cashier who is having a particularly rough time of it, checking in on a neighbor recovering from surgery, or reaching out to a friend who needs encouragement, or simply a reminder that they're appreciated.

And yet, some days, it's the hardest damn thing in the world.  Not because we lack compassion, but because we get caught up, distracted by our own circumstances, or even a little fearful of what might happen if we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, even for a moment.

I know I live far too much of my life with my guard up.  I declared 2015 as my year of becoming more of a "Yes Man", accepting more opportunities to fear less and be more.  I can't say I'm batting .1000, or even .500, but at least 'yes' is starting to pop up in my vocabulary now and then.  It's a start.  A late start, but a start.

My two favorite stories of compassion come from literature.  Both involve food (two pieces of candy, a birthday cake and warm rolls) and the people who provide them (a waitress, a baker).  One is from one of the greatest novels of contemporary American fiction, the other from the most masterful short story writer of the 20th century.  I return to both of these stories whenever I need a reminder that kindness is always within arm's reach.

What's It To You? 

This first story comes from - with apologies to Mark Twain - the novel I most associate with American literature.  The Grapes of Wrath helped me define my spiritual and political beliefs in one simple speech (Tom Joad's goodbye to Ma, Chapter 28).   Yet, for all of the moral gravity that the Joad family brings to their meager table, it's a Route 66 cafe in Chapter 15 that brings me to tears.   While Steinbeck's words cannot be improved upon here, Kris Kristofferson did a masterful job of bringing the scene to life in song.  Here are the lyrics to "Here Comes That Rainbow Again":

The scene was a small roadside cafe
The waitress was sweepin' the floor
Two truck drivers drinkin' their coffee
And two okie kids by the door

How much are them candies, they asked her
How much have you got, she replied
We've only a penny between us
Them's two for a penny, she lied

And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
And the smell of the rain on the wind
Ain't it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
Them candies ain't two for a penny
So what's it to you, she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
Got up and nodded goodbye
She called, hey, you left too much money
So what's it to you, they replied

And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
And the smell of the rain on the wind
Ain't it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

▶ Kris Kristofferson - Here comes that rainbow again (1982) - YouTube

As if the waitress giving over to her better angels wasn't enough, the truck drivers leaving her a tip that outsized her own gift always makes me tremble.

Years later, in a style of writing as deliberate and direct as Steinbeck's, Raymond Carver offered the redemptive tale of a young boy who is struck by a car on the eve of his birthday.  Earlier that day, his parents ordered a birthday cake for him from a rather brusque, awkward baker.  Unaware of the tragedy, the baker begins to call the parents in the days that follow and taunt them for not picking up the cake, for treating his hard work as if it didn't matter.  When the boy dies after a short time in a coma, the parents go to the baker's place of business before the sun has risen. They insist on being let in, though he has not yet opened the bakery.  They tell him - in grieving, harsh language - what has happened, and he sinks into shame.

While this may not seem like compassion, the next act - for me and many readers - exhibits the most beautiful thing about compassion: its capacity to redeem.  The notion that anyone has the opportunity to turn away from their baser instincts, their own pain and self-absorbed story lines, and extend a small, good thing.

Here are the final paragraphs of Carver's story:

A Small, Good Thing (final page) 

"Let me say how sorry I am," the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. "God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten, I don't know for sure. But I'm not any longer, if I ever was. Now I'm just a baker. That don't excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry. I'm sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this," the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. "I don't have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I'm sorry. Forgive me, if you can," the baker said. "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please," the man said, "let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?"

It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.


Despite their origins, these characters - the waitress, the truckers, the baker, the grieving parents - are no more fiction than you or I.  They're everyone we encounter, each exchange along our journey.  They are our chance to act #WithCompassion.  And we are theirs.

His Holiness refers to this phenomenon as Interdependence.

We are all connected, a fragile tapestry of connective tissue, capable of crushing blows and axis-tilting kindnesses.

Everything matters.

And that's why compassion will always be the right choice.

May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection,
A guide for those who have lost their way,
A ship for those with oceans to cross,
A bridge for those with rivers to cross,
A sanctuary for those in danger,
A lamp for those without light,
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter,
And a servant to all in need.
Composed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Common Ground

We all suffer.  We all want to end our suffering.

That's it.  Draw the dividing lines any way you want to - gun advocates and peaceniks, pro-gay marriage or anti, Confederate flag wavers and those who see it as a symbol of oppression - those two sentences define what we share.   We all suffer.  We all want to end our suffering.

Where this unifying thread begins to fray is how we perceive we might bring an end to our personal suffering.  Often, it seems, it involves how we perceive the threat of others depriving us of something, passing undue judgment upon us, or somehow inhibiting our freedoms.

And of course, it's this kind of thinking that brings about….you guessed it.  More suffering.

This past month, I've struggled mightily not to respond to posts on social media that strike at the very core of what I believe is right and just.  Those of you who know me know where I stand on these kinds of issues, and for those that don't, well, a blog that is largely devoted to my interpretations of Buddhist dharma likely leave little question.  Suffice to say, Ann Coulter skipped right over my eHarmony profile.

So, as I reboot this blog, under a new title, my hope is to connect with an audience that appreciates my best attempts at a compassionate, thoughtful, and at times humorous view of various teachers as The Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Geri Larkin, Chogyam Trungpa, and Sakyong Mipham.   My hope is that I won't get so bogged down in Buddhism that I lose those who might just want some insights on life in the 21st century and how to navigate the often tumultuous tides.  My hope is that, whether your Hybrid has a "Jon Stewart for President" sticker covering up your dancing Grateful Dead bears or your '93 Dodge Ram has an airbrushed "Don't Tread On Me" plate, you'll find something here that gives you pause, and perhaps gives you a bit of peace in a time of great restlessness.

I'm a writer.  That's what I do.  More than what I do, that's who I am. As I wait for my next round of short story ideas to come bubbling forth, I feel the compulsion to make some connections here, to do whatever my meager talents allow to strike a little sulfur against the phosphorous in hopes of igniting a spark or two.  Mostly I'm writing for myself, creating a journal so I can better understand the Dharma and my perspectives on it.  But gratefully, I can invite others along for the ride, and I hope you'll join me.

 I can't promise scholarly perspectives or ones that come without the occasional gaping hole, but I can promise a sincere attempt to offer up some layman's wisdom, a thimble of hope, and the occasional smile.

Chances are, we actually have a lot of things in common.  We all suffer.  We all want to end our suffering.  There's two right there.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


Dalai Lama's 80th Birthday Wish Is That We All Live #WithCompassion

The Dalai Lama is turning 80 years old on July 6, but he doesn’t want any gifts. Instead, your social media presence is the present.
In honor of his milestone birthday, His Holiness is asking people to share photos, videos and quotes depicting people simply treating one another kindly, along with the hashtag #withcompassion on social accounts. 
“He has done so much to spread peace and compassion to the world – this is our opportunity to truly say thank you and to show him the incredible impact his work has on the global community,” Ven. Lama Tenzin Dhonden, founder and chair of Friends of the Dalai Lama nonprofit, said in an email statement.
The Dalai Lama’s network of friends -- including Common, Arianna Huffington, Larry King, Russell Simmons and Randy Jackson -- are helping get the word out in the video above. Watch the clip and help celebrate the big day by sharing a post about what it means to live #withcompassion.
Dalai Lama's 80th Birthday Wish Is That We All Live #WithCompassion

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Samsara is a sanskrit word that, loosely translated, refers to the cycle of suffering we all endure.  It's a suffering we bring upon ourselves, in the misguided ways we let our minds, our story lines, and our actions take us through the same painful experiences time and again.  It's also a communal suffering, one in which our collective societal actions bring about unnecessary tragedies, violence, and hatred.

Given the term has been around a few thousand years and used in myriad cultures and spiritual traditions, it begs the question, is there anything we do about it, especially at a time we seem more divided and distracted than ever?

As a species, humans have been perfecting ways to impose suffering on one another with a severity and persistence that would make even the Marquis de Sade want to seek shelter inside a rusty iron maiden.  Sometimes I think the only way we can claw our way through another harrowing headline is by reminding ourselves that our historical timeline is awash with barbarity, and that somehow, the sun continues to struggle up, and humankind continues to greet it with open hands.  Calloused and bloody, to be sure, but open, as if we anticipate something resembling hope should we just concur to bend our bodies toward the light, armed with nothing more than our understandably tattered faith.

This week, many are finding it hard to see the sunlight, much less lean toward it.  We're weary, we're angry, and we're wondering if unjust suffering is becoming the universe's default mode. We're adding up the injustices and, chillingly, the bodies, and the math is sobering.

As a culture, it's easy to feel we are doomed.  We hear it every day, sometimes in nuanced news stories designed to slowly paralyze us with hourly injections of fear; other times in the more overt warnings of talk show hosts and televangelists who rely on a more, shall we say, combustible approach.

In her book Practicing Peace in Times of War, Pema Chodron says that "our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we're feeling."

In my mind, that distress, both as individuals and as a collective of broken communities, is fear.  Fear of change, fear of loss, fear of uncertainty in an age where being certain of something feels so genuinely, fleetingly rare.  We are afraid of what we cannot control, and for most of us, that feels like almost everything.  Once we feel so groundless, it's not unusual to start creating story lines to justify that feeling.  For some of us, these story lines feed our neurotic tendencies enough to send us to places that will give us a temporary cocoon from their relentless insistences, be it a beer buzz or a Facebook feed.  For other people, though, their story lines feature real life enemies who are working to keep them off balance, and deeply confused strategies for righting the power structure.  Fear is an inside job, but with decidedly outward results.

Pema Chodron goes on to say, "When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You're able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And, you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”

As with so many passages of wisdom, I read thoughts like Pema's and feel bathed in a certain understanding of where at least some answers lie in regard to our basic human condition.  Then, I stop and think about how hard it is to pull that off - to face my fears, to stop watering the negative seeds in my own backyard, and to open myself up to a sea of uncertainty.  I think that, perhaps, someday I could do it, with enough practice and discipline.  But then I think of the people who perpetuate violence, who thrive on creating chaos, and I feel that thoughts like Pema's are merely wishful idealism in an age where the glass is not only half-empty, it's riddled with bullet holes.

And yet, today, in the wake of something architected to destroy our faith, human beings in the center of the firestorm did something so humbling and hopeful as to offer forgiveness to the unforgivable.  They showed us a strength we presumed impossible.  And we realize that if they can be that unshakeable in the midst of their own groundlessness, perhaps we can dare to - in some small way - attempt the same in our own humble lives.

Tomorrow the sun will rise.  Tomorrow, more people than we know will choose to bend toward that light.  They'll perform acts of kindness, charity, and forgiveness because they realize that anger and hatred cannot be diffused by more of the same.  These people are called bodhisattvas, those beings who have devoted their lives to alleviate the suffering of others.  They recognize that the only way for the samsaric cycle to end is if a willing few choose to do things differently.

And the damned thing is, we can all be bodhisattvas.  That is the most axis shifting, uplifting, joyous news I can give you on this difficult day.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Hometown

Walking through downtown Decatur today, amid the bustle and shine of the Arts Festival, I'm reminded of a thousand tiny things I love about this town.  Why we were drawn here, why we've stayed.  

It's an eclectic little place, brimming with independent stores and restaurants, straining to retain its idiosyncratic identity as the demands of life in America stand on the outskirts, beckoning, threatening to smother us with its polyester and mortar. 

We've got a children's bookstore on the square, a couple of laid back coffee shops that still serve small and large instead of tall and venti.  There's a CD shop that stays open, we are most certain, out of defiance, and there's a New Orleans themed sno-cone eatery.  There are more great indie restaurants than you can shake a soup spoon at, a pair of yoga studios, and multifarious specialty shops that get by, somehow.

Everything, these days, comes with the suffix of somehow.  

As much as it feels like we live in our own little Mayberry bubble here in Decatur, this town has felt the effects of the past five years as much as any on the map.  Businesses have come and gone, and growth has been slow.  While no one likely wept over Ruby Tuesday's going away - in fact, some of us danced on its foreclosed roof - most all felt the blow of Watershed deciding to leave Decatur for the the promise of trendy Buckhead.

We're a citizenry that roots for the little guy, the underdog, the shop owner who knows us by name.  We don't mind the occasional chain if it's not obtrusive, but when we can, we go out of our way to look out for our neighbors who chose to make Decatur their business' home.  

Our politics run the gamut, though we're known as a blue spot on the map - there's a lot of diversity here.  Lots of nationalities and lifestyles, a healthy representation of generations. Plenty of churches, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque just on the outskirts, Quakers.  Who has Quakers anymore?  We do.  

But, we're also constantly reminded that "progress", and I put big, hefty air quotes around that word, is imminent.  We've got a Wal-Mart that is all but a done deal in our backyard.  We've got a light rail line being proposed to run right through the biker-and-walker friendly streets.  We've got chain stores lining up to seize property that no one was interested in three years ago (because wherever Wal-Mart goes, after all, the sheeple follow).  

There's earnest trepidation about what all this will mean for our small town lifestyle, our trendy-and-indie status.  It's a tapestry of close-knit neighborhoods, adorned with individuality and distinction.  So, what happens when the world starts to eat away at that?  What happens when that convenience many secretly want becomes...too convenient? 

The good fight is being fought to protect against, or perhaps inevitably, peacefully co-exist with the machinations at our doorstep.  We're a small town that thinks too big to ever be wholly consumed by consumerism, to ever let our annual Book Festival take a backseat to the two rows of shitty paperbacks that Wal-Mart tosses onto endcaps between their Xboxes and "Now That's What I Call Music Volumes 1-42" CD catalogue.  You can build around us, but you can't unearth our roots.  

So, today, as I walk around an Arts Festival that seems as at home here as Picasso in Paris, I'm reminded of the words to a song that seemed written for Decatur, though I'm sure the fella who penned it had a few square blocks of his native New Jersey in mind:

Here everybody has a neighbor
Everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again

My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone

And, as he reminded us in a song some two decades earlier, "This is your hometown."

Today, I'm really grateful for that.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ode to Jack: An Open Letter to Jack Kerouac

Dear Jack,

It took me too long to find you, and for that I'm eternally sorry.  I'm one of those late bloomers, someone who stayed too close to the farm for too long and it took some discomfort and some courage to get out there on the open road you so eagerly invited us to ride upon.

So, I was close to thirty when I read it.  You know the one.  The scroll that sent you into orbit and made you an avatar overnight.  The one that put you on the map, Smiler, and the one that started you down a road to ruin.

It took me even longer to step out beyond the beatnik - God, you hate that word, don't you - ok, the beatific fray and get to know you all casual-like.  To sit down with a good cup of black coffee and really listen to what you wanted me to hear.  Eyes open, ears perked, mouth shut.

It wasn't the lure of the open road, but the cries of the open soul you were trying to get me to react to, but I'd have none of it.  To me, it was all about the hip and the hep, the birth of the cool, the everlovin', never-ending rhythm of the tomes and the poems and the rhyming and the times.  Romancing the stoned.  Digging it because it was cool, not because it was true.  Birth of the Fool.

It got so you couldn't take a piss without someone setting it to a backbeat and calling it a beat poem.  You couldn't answer your door without some young girl wanting to screw you or some cat wanting to share a drink with you, or punch you in the stomach just to say, "Yeah, I brawled with Kerouac."  Everyone wanted a piece.  It got so "The Road" was more like a prison.

Disciples were born - hundreds of them - and they took some of the weight off, and put other fetters on.  The spotlight might've shifted, but now someone else was 'the new Kerouac' and you were 'whatever happened to...'

What happened was you crawled into a cave, Lawrence's place out on Big Sur.  You were transcontinental, riding that California zephyr to somewhere you could just go and be again.  A place to chop wood, take a walk, and write.  Write like there was no tomorrow, because for the first time, it really seemed like there might not be one.  At that point on the map between despair and disaster, you realized the only hope was to disappear.  One fast move or you were gone.  You had to escape for a while, because that glint of hope and promise and the spark of enthusiasm in your eyes all dimmed because so many others had to feed off of them.  Your spark, their fire.  Their desires, your demise.

And so, you tried to wear a jovial cap and make it all seem ok, but the only way to do that was the dharma and the drink, and the drink started to win.  The world drank you dry, and so you responded in kind.  But Big Sur became as much a dark cave as a retreat.  The damage had already been done.  A snail across a straight razor, a slow painful sinking into the desolation for our beat angel.

What drew me to you, and still does, pal, is the heady mix of the profane and the sacred, the search for truth in a world tattered and frayed by our own turpitude.   You may have been the King of the Beats, but you were also a Dharma Bum.  Freight trains and detours and Catholic guilt and girls with long silky legs, Charlie Parker on the bandstand and something cold in a glass.  There was swagger and wonderment and hunger on the page, and that's because you lived it.  Some of us cowards don't, but you did...until it caught up with you and you ended it.  Not like Hemingway or Thompson.  There was no gun blast to signal the tintinnabulation of the funeral bells.  No, this was a slow, sinking suicide by drowning.  Drowning inside a bottle we put in front of you and you opened.  Drinking deeply from the chalice of life, then deeper still from Diablo's bottomless jug.

But writers have the distinction of never really dying, because they leave this trail for us to follow, and it's a living, breathing trail of words and pages and dreams and murky journeys that take us through muck and confusion and fear and eventually, if they did their job right (and you did, kid), out into the light of day, out into a warm sunlit field sparking with enlightenment and Elysian song.

I don't give a flying f what Capote said about you.  Who was he anyway?  No, I look down the road of what you left us and I see your brother, the sea, and the subterraneans the and dharma bums and Maggie and Mexico City and scattered poems and visions and towns and cities.  Orpheus emerging and lonesome travelers finding a home.  I see a Book of Dreams.  I see Allen and Gentleman Bill and Lawrence, I see Dylan and Kesey and Dr. Thompson and Pynchon and Robbins and Bangs and Murakami and Waits and Shepard and Miles and Trane and Diz.  And they're all smiling, Smiler.  They're all smiling because you put a little fuel in all their tanks for their Road.

And mine too.  Mine too, Memory Babe.

You never signed on to be larger than life.  You just wanted to live it all.  Live it all with gusto and gratitude.  But so did we, and some of us - most of us - lacked the courage, so we clung fast onto your coattails as you flew down boulevards and blind alleys.  I'm sorry if our endless enthusiasms slowed you down, but it was a hell of a ride.

I'm headed up to Lawrence's cabin sometime soon.  The one where you wrote "Big Sur".  I'm headed to Jack Kerouac Alley and the City Lights Bookstore and the streets where you wandered looking for a good sandwich and a smoke.   I'll probably romanticize you a bit.  That's what I do.  But I'll do it honest.  Like an early morning in China and I'm five years old in beginingless time.  If all of life is - as you said - a foreign country, then I hope to get acquainted and inspired by some of the ones on your map.

I assume the invitation is still open, one Dharma Bum to another.

You once said "I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life."

I'm here to tell you it's true, Dreamer.  You tapped into something primordial and true and alive in the ever-present now, and you spread it around like some sort of Bodhisattva Johnny Appleseed.  And I just wanted to say "thanks".

See you under that empty sky.

As ever,


Zen Toon: That's Karma

Karma is a word that gets thrown around a lot in popular culture.  I hear people say it all the time, and considering less than 1% of Americans are Buddhist, you've gotta figure it's treated more as slang than sacrosanctity.

There's actually a slippery misunderstanding about what karma is, and it's an easy one to make.  I am currently reading a terrific book called "Dharma Road", penned by a Buddhist cab driver from Austin, TX (how's that for genetic gumbo?).  His name is Brian Haycock and he does a terrific job of tying a lot of the tenants of his beliefs into the metaphor of cab driving, the open road, and his daily, fleeting encounters with people from all walks of life.  It's a satisfying read and worthy of your time if such things are on your radar.

He reminded me that karma isn't about winning the lottery because you did nice things for people in your day-to-day life, nor is it the universe conspiring against you if you've done something against its moral code.  There's really no 'other' in karma, it's just you.  It's the cyclic set of dominoes you tip that come back around to you.

Here's what Brian says in his book:

Karma is not  "a cosmic system of rewards and punishments, meted out by some ultimate power far beyond our understanding...Karma is simply the law of cause and effect. Karma has been compared to planting seeds.  If you plant an acorn, an oak tree will grow.  If you plant a garden in the spring, you'll be eating fresh vegetables in the summer.  If you plant seeds of hate, hate will be the result.  If you plant seeds of loving-kindness, loving-kindness will grow within you.  

On a personal level, karma is psychology.  Our personalities are formed by karma.  Our thoughts and our moods are impermanent, but they don't just vanish.  Other thoughts and moods arise from them.  Over time, our thoughts form a pattern, and this pattern guides our thoughts.  We fall into habits.  We think a certain way...and before long, it's the only way." 

That's it.  The way we behave and react starts a course into action, and that course comes back around to us - not because God deems it, or the universe has subjective sway in teaching us a lesson - it happens because we created the track.  We paved the road for it to go a certain way.

When I was a kid, I was briefly fascinated with those chapter books where you chose your own adventure.  " Turn to page 13 if you want to go into the haunted cave, turn to page 24 if - instead - you want to climb over the cave and onto the 1200 foot high narrow ridge."  Thankfully, none of these books really had unhappy endings.  You never made a choice that took you to,  "So, you chose not to save Jenny and now her blood is on your hands.  Live with that, Skippy." or "Well, way to go, now you and your friends are dead.  Nice going, Dr. Livingston."

But in real life, karma is much like these books, and the results can sometimes be much more painful than the dalliances with death in those adolescent reads.  When we cut someone off in traffic and give them the finger, karma doesn't pay us back with a random wreck down the road.  Karma gets us when we carry that unchecked anger forward to the next intersection, into the office, or our family dinner table.   Karma sneaks up on us when we realize that the person in the parking lot with their hood up isn't going to scam us out of money, or toss us into their trunk.  They just need a jump start.  You give them one, you turn down their kind offer to give you $10, and you go on your way, with a heart more open and trusting as a result of your good deed.  You got someone else back on the Dharma Road.  And you start finding ways to do these kinds of things more often, because it feels too good not to.

When we gossip, it's not that the person we gossip about cosmically hears it and decides to sabotage us within our own social circles.  No, it's more insidious.  We find if we can bad mouth someone a little bit, we can do it a lot.  It becomes easier, and they - inexplicably - become more distant to us.  Then we realize we never meant for there to be a wall between us.  If we're enlightened enough, we realize the wall in question was something we built, and we work to bring it down.  If not, it just gets higher, and we find ways to build more in other relationships.

I am much closer to being a candidate for Attention Deficit Disorder than I was ten years ago because I choose flit from Facebook to Twitter to email forty times a day to break up my work day.  That's karma.  Not Mark Zuckerberg's karma, but my own.  If I opt to just focus more, or maybe meditate, rather than surf, I start the process of reversing that karma.

Karma is just the stupid and/or cool shit we do everyday that boomerangs back because that's what boomerangs do.

So, when John famously sang, "Instand Karma's gonna get'cha", he wasn't offering up a curse or a blessing, just the pragmatic human equation that what we do, say, and think stays with us.  As Jason Robards said in "Magnolia", "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."  That's karma.  We can put it behind us, but a cause set in motion has to complete itself, and sometimes - if that cause was a negative one - we have to work extra hard to stop those dominos from tumbling and set them right again.

The best I can surmise from teachings and personal experience, the best way to keep karma in check is simple Awareness.

Awareness allows us to minimize that karmic damage, and maximize the good.  Awareness is the key to making sure the seeds we're planting are the right kind.  Awareness is there to assure that, like John also sang, that "we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun".

So be careful out there on that Dharma Road.  Check your rearview and keep another eye on the road ahead.  Both hands on the wheel, and remember, each turn we make is our own decision.

That's Karma.