I just wanted to thank Chris, Ashley, Karen and Pam for leaving some great comments to my last blog entry about Pema Chodron. These are all women who have experience with mental illness and yet each in different ways are deep into recovery. They are smart, creative, talented and perceptive people and they have come a long way and have a lot to offer the world. I respect and admire each and every one of them and am honored that they took the time to read my entry and comment.
I would like in this entry to address some of Chris' comment. She wrote that while she responds to several of Pema Chodron's books, she can't commit to being a Buddhist or following Buddhist principles mainly because she believes that Buddhism shares with other organized religions the imperative to follow without questioning. She also wonders whether it is appropriate to pick and choose what to believe while leaving the rest behind, which is an approach that I have supported in previous blog entries.
First of all, I have to say that while I am strongly influenced by Buddhist principles and have applied many to my life, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. I did not grown up living with any form of organized religion and was taught to be suspicious of religions in general. I turned towards Buddhism in my thirties, after having survived an abusive relationship but before I became actively ill with schizophrenia, because I had begun practicing yoga and meditation and I was curious. The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, was my main teacher via audio programs. He introduced me to the practice of mindfulness.
There is no dogma in the practice of mindfulness. It's all about focusing your attention on what you are doing in the present moment and really staying aware. Thich Nhat Hanh gave examples of mindfully eating and mindfully washing the dishes and said that one could apply mindfulness to everything. And what was the point of doing this practice? For me, as I practiced, the point was to really appreciate my life. When I was mindful, and mindfulness lends itself to a kind of heightened perception, I was not lost thinking of the past or planning for and worrying about the future. There is a great freedom contained in the practice of mindfulness, freedom and common sense. I found it to be both enlightening and healing to my spirit and so I touched base with Buddhist practices just before my breakdown and then during it and beyond.
The Buddhist teachers that I went on to encounter in books and audiobooks over the years did not browbeat their readers and listeners into swallowing what they were teaching without questioning. Instead they offered up a variety of practices and invited their audience to test these practices out in their own lives. Pema Chodron has often said that she provides hints and clues about applying the practices, but that the ultimate test has to be done by each of us alone. It was the Buddha himself who said that people should not blindly follow what he was teaching, but should test it out.
One of the reasons why I'm so enthusiastic about writing about Buddhist practice is because I have tested some of it out and found it to be, without a doubt, beneficial to myself. The basic principles and practices encourage open mindedness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, generosity and love towards oneself and all others. Being a pacifist, this loving philosophy gives me a lot of support to continue being a pacifist. It also gives me hope that a lot of other people are turning towards the philosophy of peace in the world simply by applying these Buddhist practices to their lives. When you embrace mindfulness, you embrace self responsibility and responsibility towards others, be they friend, stranger or foe. Mindfulness is about gently becoming more and more aware, more awake. Too many of us are on automatic pilot, going through our busy lives without stopping to reflect and appreciate ourselves and life.
My purpose in writing about Buddhism is not to get readers to become Buddhists, but rather, to encourage them apply some of the Buddhist practices and attitudes to their lives. The practices of mindfulness and sending lovingkindness prayers out to self and others alone are enough to benefit individuals and ultimately communities as well, if enough people turn their wills towards being aware and non harming. What I'm proposing, along with most Buddhist teachers, is a gentle, gradual shift in awareness towards love, not just for self and loved ones, but as a basis for relating to people and life in general. But in order to shift into love as a basis for relating to all people, individuals must have at least one or two spiritual practices to follow and guide them. These do not have to be Buddhist practices, but I have discovered that Buddhism is rich in various practices and is quite accessible.
Chris questioned in her comment whether it was okay to pick and choose what to practice and what to ignore from either one religion or various religions. I still believe that it is perfectly okay. The point is to do what works for you and that could mean that you adhere to only one religion and follow it in an orthodox manner. Whether you are orthodox or not, you are nonetheless on your own path. You can choose no religion at all and be on a spiritual path. I think we are all on the path whether we can consciously acknowledge it or not. This is because we are beings that gravitate towards love, love of other people and love of all kinds of activities, with and without people. It's the ones who turn towards anger and criticism, perhaps because of having been abused earlier, who are hurting the most, along with the ones who have moved from having been abused into the role of the abuser.
Even people who have been severely abused as children have experienced times of love and acceptance, if not from within their families, then from outside of them. I think we are all born with the instinct to recognize the deep value of giving and receiving love. So many of us lose sight of this when we've been hurt by people and life circumstances. I know my heart went into a deep freeze and stayed frozen even after I left the abusive situation I had been living in. It took a severe form of mental illness to wake me up to the absolute necessity of valuing myself and others daily. The method of waking me up was harsh and painful, yet at the same time the lessons I was learning were branded in my heart and, over a decade later, I am still practicing what I learned then: to be of benefit to myself and others. The aim of Buddhist practice is the same, which is why I have been able to embrace it, apply it and share it.