How “the story” effects us

Monday I finished work around 9 pm.  I took a load out to the car and let Chispa, my dog, out so she could enjoy a few sniffs around the parking lot.  I went back into the spa for a few last things.

When I came out I called her name and a young fellow asked me, “Do you have a dog?”  I answered in the affirmative and he responded, “Sorry she took off running that way.”

I was jovial and replied, “You scared her, didn’t you?”

He said, “I didn’t mean to”.Chispa

I went off in the direction he indicated confident that we would be reunited in a second.  The parking lot is long, as it sits behind a “strip mall” type shopping center.  Chispa is familiar with it.  Now that the weather is cool, I bring her to work and walk her off leash on my breaks.  She is a little fearful of the world, so she never goes far without me.

I couldn’t see her anywhere so, I called her name and was surprised when she didn’t come running back to me.  I turned the corner to go up the street at the end of the parking lot.  She was no where in sight.  I was perplexed.  I’d only seen her bolt once in fright before and I imagined that is what happened this time.  Yet, certainly after running the length of the parking lot she would have stopped.  Maybe when she slowed down she caught the smell of something good…

Anyway, I spent an hour walking around the neighborhood calling her name and an additional half hour driving in a wider circle through the neighboring streets.  The whole time I was monitoring my thoughts and emotions.  I noticed that I was perturbed with the man that had scared her and I had a tendency to blame him for my predicament.  However, I was also aware that I could just as easily blame myself for leaving her unattended.  Parallel to these thoughts, I held the knowledge that correct view is that neither one of these things was responsible for my situation.  Buddhist correct view claims that this situation was a result of my previous thoughts and actions and that those thoughts and actions must be similar in nature to my current predicament.

Approaching a situation with correct view and mindfulness can serve to prevent a recurrence of unpleasant circumstances.  So I continued to monitor my thoughts and feelings and refused to be a slave to them.

Early on in the adventure I had an automatic thought about how I was losing sleep and needed to get up early in the morning to go back to work.  I felt a fleeting moment of desperation and the need to rush to find the dog.  I analyzed that impulse and easily dispersed it by telling myself that I could handle a sleepless night and that I need not be in any hurry.  Life is not in the future, it is in the moment.

The mind has a tendency to get ahead of itself and make up a story.  For instance, I imagined Chispa scared, confused, and cold or perhaps dying by the side of the road in the shadows.  I could feel the mind trying to make up a story in order to figure out where she was.  It took some awareness and discipline not to allow these stories to become real.  Yes, it was a possibility that I would never see Chispa again, but in the present I was simply without my dog.  That was a circumstance that happened all the time.  I am often without my dog.

I was able to stay remarkably calm.  This ability is evidence of a strong mindfulness practice.  I was acting and not reacting.  Since peace is my spiritual goal, I am always pleased when I am able to see the fruits of my practice.  I reminded myself of Master Shantideva’s advice:

If there is nothing you can do about it, why get upset?

If there is something you can do about it, why get upset?

I was doing what I could.  I knew that I would not be able to rest without a thorough search.  I also knew that I would not be able to sleep at home with Chispa still at large.  Once, I had satisfied my need to comb the neighborhood I left Chispa a blanket in my parking spot, went home, packed my food for the next day, grabbed my sleeping bag and headed back.

I had expected to find her waiting for me in her blanket, but she was not there when I returned.  I set up my bed in the minivan and lay down to sleep.  I checked in with myself and acknowledged my feelings of loss.  In my mind’s eye I could see her running up all wiggly and I longed to see her again.  I imagined I never would and the story got the best of me.  I released by feelings with tears and was unable to let her go in that moment.  I sat back up and looking in the direction she had run off, I willed her to come back.  After what seemed like forever, I was able to convince myself to let her go and lay back to sleep.  I replaced the story that was playing in my mind with a prayer and was quickly asleep.

Just before 2 am she scratched on the car door.  Without much fanfare I let her in and we drove back home.  She seemed warm and content.  Whatever her story was, she was tight lipped.



Denial means the act of declaring something is not true.  A simple enough word, but the way people use the word has become somewhat of a pet peeve for me.  I find that people use it in a derogatory way when they are judging another person’s actions and/or their stage of change level.  As commonly used, if I say you are in denial, what I am really saying is that I have the only truth.  And, perhaps, I know your truth better than you.

I’m not sure where our use of the word got off track.  It feels quite neutral to say that someone denies something, e.g. for many years I denied that eating saturated fats and eggs caused heart disease.  However, to say one is “in denial” feels charged, e.g. I was in denial that eating saturated fats and eggs caused heart disease.  “Being in denial”, inherently means I’m wrong, when it should just mean I don’t agree with something.

Consider the saturated fats and eggs example.  For many years, the mainstream thought that these items needed to be avoided for a healthy heart.  I denied this reality and, despite heart disease running in my family, continued to have the best cardiovascular system in my family.  Now, the mainstream has come around to my way of thinking.  Would I say they were in denial all those years?  Doesn’t that seem like a silly use of the term?  Perhaps they would have disagreed (denied) that my way is healthy, but it would seem strange to say they were in denial.

The “authorities” had taken all the available information and come to a different conclusion than me.  Then the mainstream had followed their advice. (I started to say they followed it “mindlessly” but realized that would be adding a judgement. Let’s just say they followed it without examining it further.)   In some traditions (Buddhism), this would not be called denial, but ignorance.  “Everybody” in my saturated fat example was simply ignorant of the truth.

The word ignorant rubs me wrong as well.  Inherent in the way it is commonly used, it suggests a mental deficiency, instead of just a simple and temporary not knowing. I prefer the term awareness.

Sometimes one is not aware that something is really a problem because no time has been taken to examine the situation objectively. This is the case when people accept things at face value, or accept information from people that they trust without examining it personally.

Other times people may be aware they are having a problem, but they ignore it because they cannot imagine an alternative or they think this is just how it is.  This is the case of the alcoholic/drug user that is surrounded by others that are drinking, using, getting DUIs and calling in sick to work due to hangovers.  It just doesn’t seem like a problem because it is normal.  I wouldn’t call that person in denial, they are just not aware of the alternative and/or aren’t looking for an alternative because they are already “normal”.

I think Socrates may sum it up best…

The unexamined life is not worth living.


Second Path

In Buddhism there seems to be a lot of lists and steps and stages.  We have the Three Principal Paths, the Ten Bodhisattva Bhumis, The Seven Step Method to achieving Bodhichitta, etc.  There are also two other ways, besides the Three Principal Paths, to organize the realizations needed for enlightenment that are called the Five Paths and the Four Paths.

The Four Paths or Four Stages of Enlightenment are an organizing structure that is part of Theraveda teachings.  The first path is stream-entry.  The second path is a once-returner.  The third path is a non-returner and the fourth path is an arahant or enlightened person.  Sometimes people consider obtainment of first path, enlightenment, so you have to watch your terms.

I’ve been thinking about second path a lot lately.  The task of the second path is ending all craving especially:  1) the desire for sensual pleasures and 2) the aversion towards unpleasant things.  Although I have not had a direct experience of no-self (or emptiness), which some people consider a requisite for first path, I am intrigued by the possibility of ending all cravings.

It is clear to me that my gross cravings for my drug of choice are unpleasant, but I am becoming more and more aware that all of my subtler cravings are also tiring and useless.  And, unfortunately it is most likely that these subtle cravings are in control of much of my behavior.  How can I possibly get rid of them all?!

I was talking to Master Culadasa of the Dharma Treasure Buddhist Sangha about this just last month.  First, the task of getting rid of cravings is a task of someone that has already achieved, and perhaps solidified, their first path position.  It is not a task of someone in an earlier stage of spiritual development.

(Ahhhh, yes, I need to be able to walk before I can run and dance. Never mind that I feel ready to fly.)

Let’s take a peak into the future.

Once you get the realization that the only acceptable state of mind is one free from craving, Master Culadasa, says that you will then seek to eradicate craving by putting yourself into situations where it arises and turning your mindfulness on it. For instance, you go for ice cream and watch craving arise when you enter the store and as soon as you take the first bite you watch craving arise for the second bite, etc..

Now this is the opposite action that people with addiction are advised to do.  In early recovery you want to avoid your drug of choice and the people, places and things associated with it in order to avoid uncontrollable cravings. Unfortunately, this can be very hard to do and it is not unheard of for people to relapse due to cravings arising from a trigger.

However, the idea of seeking out triggers when you have the proper support is an idea supported by the information in the Pharmacology of Addiction class I’m taking. If the sight of something associated with your drug use gives you cravings or a physiological change, then it is better to desensitize yourself before you encounter that something without support.  This means actively putting yourself in situations that trigger cravings and not using  – so the body can establish a new predictable reaction to the trigger.

In dog training language this is called extinguishing a behavior.  Lets say your dog likes to bark and you don’t like the noise.  The trick is to teach your dog to bark and consistently reward it whenever it does.  Then, to extinguish the behavior all you need to do is never reward the dog again and the behavior will die out.  However, if you are inconsistent and reward it one more time or intermittently, the behavior will persist, perhaps forever.

Once again we see that addictive cravings may be on the same continuum with regular everyday cravings given the same advice is offered to eliminate them.  The idea is to not react when craving arises, but to turn mindfulness upon it. Mindfulness leads to wisdom and wisdom is the tool that cut all dysfunctional behavior.

I find that not feeding my cravings only makes them stronger:  what I resists persists.  This perhaps supports Master Culadasa’s point that the task of removing cravings is appropriate after first path has been reached.  I feel like I am weak-willed, but the truth is I’m simply powerless to make the change at this stage.  The power to make the change is given by the wisdom obtained in spiritual practice leading up to second path.  Not only are we given power at that time, but also the motivation and desire to eradicate cravings.