In recent weeks, the leader of our meditation group has been out of town a few times, and I ended up in charge for those evenings, just because that's the sort of thing that usually happens to me. Last night I not only facilitated the meditation, I gave my first dharma talk. A dharma talk is sort of a sermon, I guess you would say; some lesson or something insightful about the world and the Buddhist place in it. I think it went pretty well, considering I was nervous and going from notes and so on. (It's that whole public speaking thing. Even though there were all of three people there. Small crowd.) Anyway, here's what I said, more or less:
I've been thinking about politics a lot lately. Well, it's hard not to think about politics lately. Every time you turn on the TV or log into the Internet, there's another story about who said what to whom and how everyone reacted. I think we have something like 17 people running for President. They're all different, but they have one thing in common: They all think they're right. What's more, they think they're right and everybody else is wrong. People are lining up behind their candidate of choice, all thinking the same thing. This poses an interesting challenge to us as Buddhists because we have this little thing in our philosophy called non-attachment to views.
Non-attachment to views is pretty important. It's referred to in the Noble Eightfold Path under Right Speech. Thich Nhat Hanh also cites it pretty early on in his Five Mindfulness Trainings: "Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world."
What is non-attachment to views? Well, basically it's keeping in mind that you might be wrong. You may be absolutely positive about a thing, have reams of evidence on your side, but you never know when another fact might come up and change your whole interpretation of the situation. It doesn't mean you're not right, though. It just means being open to the possibility that there may still be more to learn.
I have a bad habit. I love to argue with people. I'm trying to break that habit and spend less time trying to prove to other people that I'm right, but I still do it. I especially like the kind of argument where I'm actually not sure that I have the right answer. Depending on who I'm talking to, I might actually learn something.
Unfortunately, presidential candidates and their supporters don't often have the kinds of arguments where they might learn something. To admit to having learned something means they were wrong before, and most candidates aren't going to admit they were ever wrong. (One in particular, when confronted with evidence that some of the things she said--oops, I said she--are obviously false, basically keeps talking like she doesn't care. Maybe she doesn't.) So what do we do, as Buddhists, when we come upon a situation where people think they are right and everyone else is wrong? How do we defuse the situation, or at least not create any more harm?
Well, one way is to leave, I guess. If you aren't there, you can't get into an argument. But that's not very satisfying and it doesn't really help the relationship. I got some insights about this in two relationships I've had before. One was with my uncle Al, who had Alzheimer's disease. I'd come to see him and he'd say, "Now, you're Jane, right? You work at the bank?" and I'd say, "Why, yes. I am." For the time of the visit, anyway, I wasn't married to being Jennifer, music student, or Jennifer, aspiring writer, or Jennifer, whatever else. I could be Jane. In fact, since he wouldn't remember if I was Jane or not, I didn't really have to be anybody at all, which was kind of nice, in a way.
The other is a friend of mine who was about as far right as I am far left. We used to fight like cats and dogs until a couple of years ago, when I got tired of it and started changing my approach. I guess I was convinced that someday I'd say the right thing or quote the right person and he'd believe me and I'd win. Well, nowadays when he goes off on one of his rants (and I know nothing of this ranting, myself; I am completely innocent of ranting), I try to respond with, "It sounds like you believe (blank.)" If I do this right, he says, "Yeah," and usually adds, "It's not just a belief. It's a fact." Then, if I'm not caught up in trying to prove I'm right, I can say something like, "How did you come to believe that?" and just listen to what he says. What he says is actually not relevant, though I might learn something. What's important is that he starts thinking about it. If you really want to change somebody's mind about something, you have to convince them to do it themselves. How that starts, is by getting them to actually think about it.
See, most of our beliefs about the world and our place in it aren't really ours. If you examine some of your beliefs and how you came by them, you might be pretty surprised to discover that you believe them because someone told you to. Very rarely do we actually look at the pros and cons of a thing, evaluate them and then decide, on the basis of the evidence, what to believe. Most of our beliefs are pretty knee-jerk. This is of course true of other people, as well. In a way, you can't blame them for believing what they believe, since they've never really examined those beliefs.
Now, that doesn't mean my friend thinks about where he got his ideas and suddenly says, "Why, you're right. It's all bullshit." (You can say bullshit in my meditation group.) But sometimes I can see the wheels start to turn in his head, and that's pretty cool. And our arguments--they're more like discussions now--have become a lot more interesting.
Besides, people like talking about themselves. If you're ever in an uncomfortable social circumstance where you feel like you're being interrogated--meeting the girlfriend's parents, for example--one way to ease the situation is to turn the questions around. "Oh, enough about me. How did you decide to go into investment banking?" Not only will you feel less on the spot, the other person's going to go away from the conversation thinking you're pretty cool. Why? Because you encouraged that person to talk about himself. And people like talking about themselves.
So that's the advice I have. Don't marry your opinions, and try to get other people to tell you where theirs came from. It might not solve anything, but it might defuse a few arguments and open up a little space for discussion. And the world needs some space for discussion. That's all I have for you today.
Warning: this post contains the word "vagina." If you cannot handle the word "vagina" without giggling, please do not read this post. Go over to Yahoo where you will be safe. I'll get to that in a minute.
Today, I learned that some body parts are more equal than other body parts. But first, I have an ugly confession to make. Everybody has a bad habit, and this one is mine: I hang around in the comments section of the Yahoo page.
I'm not sure why Yahoo, exactly, except that it seems to have stories that I like to read. Rather it has stories that I care about, and it would not surprise me if Yahoo picks stories for the home page based entirely on what you click. Sort of like Pandora Radio but with a much more sinister intent.
I'm not proud of this. I have tried to break myself of the habit and number of times, but apparently, I like a little drama in my life, and / or, I just like arguing with people. The only fortunate in outcome of the incident I'm about to relate, is that I might have just gotten myself banned from Yahoo for life. Apart from the trouble of finding another email address, I might actually come out ahead.
It was an article about abortion. Of course it was. I really don't have anything else I feel the great need to argue about, except abortion. And the mistreatment of pregnant women by the legal system, but that's another thing. Anyway, some wit had just made the brilliant observation that women must enjoy having abortions, or else they would just take birth control pills. Now there's all kinds of things wrong with that particular twist of logic, but let's stick to the points made. I answered him with, "Why yes, it is a great thrill to take a day off work, go to a surgical suite, take off all my clothes, lie down on a steel table and let somebody poked a hose up my vagina. I'm surprised everyone doesn't do it."
This, by the way, is called sarcasm. Or rather, sarchasm, that vast gulf between your witty remark, and the person who is incapable of understanding it. My post came up on to the comments section, and much to my surprise, the word vagina was spelled "#$%$.". I was unaware up until this point that the word vagina was a swear word. I thought we were all adults here.
I made another post, in which I observed that the word vagina had apparently been censored by Yahoo. I used the word penis just to see what would happen. To nobody's surprise, the word penis came out just fine. The word vagina was once again spelled #$%$...
Ponder that for a minute. Seriously, think about it. Female body parts must be censored from the delicate minds in the Yahoo comments section, because obviously the word is too coarse for the ears to hear. However, male body parts are just fine. How does it make you feel, ladies, knowing that Yahoo thinks your body parts are swear words?
Well, you know what I did next. Or if you don't know, you can probably guess. I typed the word vagina vagina vagina vagina vagina vagina vagina vagina and clicked send. It came out #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. #$%$. So I did what everybody should do, when there's an issue that needs lots of attention immediately and you don't know how else to get it. I went over to Twitter and called out Yahoo for being the sexist bastards they obviously are. Several times. And then I went back to the comments section and typed in v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na v@g1na.
I don't know how Yahoo will take to being called out. Thus far there have been no replies. They might answer, or they might do nothing. Or they might ban me for life from the comments section. I did mention, did I not, that my going into Yahoo comments is a bad habit? Getting banned for life might actually be a good thing. If nothing else, I could probably get back those chunks of my life I keep losing 5 minutes at a time.
Anyway, that is my story, and I'm sticking to it. I'm sure I will have something more significant to write about next week. Like maybe world peace, or the Syrian crisis, or global warming or who knows. In the meantime, please be advised that this is the first blog post I have ever composed entirely in Google Voice, while driving, in the rain, in Dallas. Cheers y'all.
Ever since I put that post on Facebook, people have been asking me what the heck happened to Caesar, anyway. Well, as you all know, he was not young, nor was he entirely well. But the real story of the life and death of Caesar the Cat actually goes back to before 2005, when he was just a young whippersnapper and I was still working for the Federal Government under the psuedonym "F. Mulder."
We'd had Seez for about three years at that point. He was a year old and homeless when he and his sister Chloe came to live with us. We got them from a cat rescue organization, and as usual, my only regret was that we couldn't take all of them. By 2005 Caesar had weathered the Big Move To Dallas (four days trapped in a car!! Howling at every 18-wheeler that went by!!) and had settled into a pleasant routine of long naps and extra snacks. However, we took him in for a routine checkup and found a lump on his leg.
The vet immediately sent us to a specialist to have a biopsy done. The biopsy confirmed what we'd suspected; Caesar had cancer, a kind of fibrosarcoma that is often correlated with the ingredients in kitty vaccines (though the link has never been proven). He also had the same kind of fibrosarcoma that had killed our previous cat, Uhura. However, unlike Uhura, Seez was only five years old, and healthy and strong, so he stood a good chance of beating this disease. I just didn't know how we were ever going to be able to get him to stop chasing his feather toy long enough for chemotherapy.
Turned out he didn't have to. Radiation therapy for cats had just become available. Yes, I said radiation therapy for cats. Presumably dogs, also, and iguanas and guinea pigs and who knows what. I had to be talked into it, because it seemed like a kind of crazy idea, but the oncologist was pretty confident that the radiation would do the trick. "You don't have to treat them like it's 1945 anymore," was basically what he said to me. So we decided to give it a try.
(Don't even ask how much this cost. I've spent my money on stupider things.)
Radiation therapy was breeze for Seez. As the oncologist put it, "He hops in a box, he goes to sleep, and when he wakes up he gets fed. What's not to like?" The hardest part was taking him in for treatment every other day for six weeks. Good thing I hadn't started swimming with the swim team back then because there's no way I could have done it. I would wrestle him into the kitty carrier in the morning, drop him off at the vet's on the way to work, pick him up on the way home and then do it all over again two days later. Of course, he got wise to the whole "being wrestled into the kitty carrier" part, so it got more and more interesting as the days went by. But he weathered the radiation therapy pretty well, even if he did glow in the dark a little at night.
After the radiation was over, Caesar had surgery. The oncologist removed the (mostly dead) tumor and found another tumor, also dying, underneath the first one. The margins were clear, as they say, and the oncologist was pretty sure he got all of it. If it wasn't a complete cure, it would at least buy him a lot of time.
At the time, all I really wanted was for Caesar to live a normal span of years. And he did. 16 is really getting old for a cat, though some cats live to be 20 and a very few have even made it to 30. As most of you know, he picked up an eating disorder along the way, and went through these phases of refusing to eat and dropping lots of weight. Toward the end of his life, I was sticking a vitamin supplement down his throat and giving him whipped cream every day to try to keep his weight up. It wasn't working very well, either, Also, we fed Seez on the counter so the other cats wouldn't get into his special food, and toward the last few weeks of his life he lost his ability to jump up there. He put up with being lifted, but you could tell he didn't like it.
Another thing--Caesar was gradually losing his position in the household. As the resident male, he was of course alpha kitty. He won the swatfests and disputes over treats that occasionally broke out. Or at least he used to win them. He had started losing face to Sparrow, the young upstart. Going from alpha kitty to beta kitty is not a good thing for a cat. A couple of times, Joan and I had the conversation about whether it was getting to be time. As long as he was eating at all, though, we were content to let him keep doing it.
Well, I took him to the vet two Saturdays ago for a routine weight check and maybe a blood test, and history repeated itself. Caesar had another lump, but this one was a big one. It stretched from the middle of his leg all the way up into the middle of his back. It was also hard, which the vet took to mean it was probably necrotic. It was right in the path of the old tumor. Which is weird, because did it really take eleven years to grow back? or was it something new and exciting? Why didn't we ever notice it? For that matter, why didn't the vet notice it, seeing as he was there for a weight check once a month? We'll probably never know. I called Joan to come down and we had him euthanized right there. No point in dragging it out and risking that he might be in pain. I got to hold him in his last moments, and that was an honor and a privilege. And it was so quick. One second he was there. The next, Caesar was gone.
Caesar was his own cat. Chloe is definitely my cat and Sparrow is Joan's cat without a doubt, but Caesar was Caesar's cat. He was calm and self-possessed, liked to sleep on my meditation cushion, and had a way of remaining Above It All, or at least above the other two. He was friendly, liked to be petted and have his ears rubbed, but he was a cat's cat. We are keeping his ashes on the mantle next to Uhura's. The household is a lot quieter with him gone, but it's certainly richer for his having been there.