March 11, 2007

Unwholesome states of stomach and mind

Warning: This post will include a somewhat graphic discussion of my bodily discharge. If you're not into scatological humor, you won't want to read beyond a certain point.
I recently wrote on anger and how ineffectively I handle my own. As I said in that post, I know of methods, mostly Buddhist, to deal with negative emotions, but I don't yet have the discipline to catch myself before those emotions get blown out of proportion (notice the hopeful quality of the word "yet" in that sentence). I've tried once or twice to begin a sitting meditation practice, but I can't seem to commit to it. Instead, I read Buddhist writings and hope that the teachings will sink in that way. So, in the latest issue of Tricycle magazine (Winter 2006), I found an article titled "Changing Your Mind: Six steps for transforming unwholesome mind states." I've read about unwholesome mind states before. I understand how they work, and that they are, ultimately, delusions constructed by our own grasping and aversion. When I'm able to stop myself and think before I react, I'm able to shake loose those delusions. What I need is to find that space between stimulus and habitual response.

Anyway, the article made me think of one of the women I work with. This particular person is someone I click with, with whom I have a similar background and some vaguely similar interests. We talk at length about situations at work and how to deal with them. I've loaned her the Dalai Lama's Ethics for the New Millenium and we've discussed human interaction from the Buddhist perspective. We trade rants over things that piss us off. In addition to the occasional rant, though, she has a tendency to feed the things that annoy her, looking for examples and not letting go of things. When I rant to her, I usually catch myself at some point and comment that I'm being unskillful and need to let go of the situation. Her response is, invariably, that it's ok, that we need to rant instead of letting things build up inside. As much for my own benefit as hers, I usually reply by explaining the difference between ranting as a form of release, and just plain letting go. I think I need to suggest that she read this article from Tricycle. I'm going to quote at length (bolding is mine for emphasis):

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni made a big deal of the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. Most religious and philosophical traditions probably share this point of view to some extent, but the Buddha was unique in offering a detailed way of understanding how and why the mind manifests as it does in any given moment. There are patterns of cause and effect that can be seen in experience and traced over time to explain the dynamics at work shaping each moment of consciousness. The word for this is karma, and it does not mean "fate."

Moreover, the Buddha offered a simple and universal method for transforming mind stated from unwholesome to wholesome. This is important because, as the very first verse of the Dhammapada says, we become what we think. Every thought, emotion, intention, attitude, and aspiration shapes how ensuing experience will unfold. This means that every single moment of consciousness is a moment of practice, whether we like it or not. We are practicing to become ourselves. The critical question, really, is just how much we want to participate in the process.

As I understand his teachings, the Buddha was expounding what we might call a post-Copernican revolution. The world really does revolve around us, insofar as our mind is the instrument for the local construction of meaning. Left unattended, the mind will tend to organize around greed, hatred, and delusion, and will create unwholesome states that "obstruct wisdom and lead away from awakening" (Majjhima Nikaya 19). The solution to the problem, at least according to the earliest strata of Buddhist tradition, is to learn the healthy skill of transforming such mind states.

The author of the article, Andrew Olendzki, then goes on to outline the six steps of transformation as laid out in the Anumana Sutta. Again, these steps are concepts I've read about before, and that I attempt (poorly) to practice. But the points Mr. Olendzki makes leading up to them sum up very well what I've been trying to get across to my work compatriot. What we choose to think, what we choose to brood over, shapes the state of our mind. As the cliché goes, attitude is everything, and our thoughts are what create our attitude. So when I get annoyed repeatedly over those silly, uncaring salespeople downstairs who can't process their sales transactions correctly, leaving me stuck fixing their mistakes, I need to be very careful to not let those thoughts coalesce into an attitude towards those salespeople. Unfortunately, it's too late. I've spent the past several months brooding and building up seriously unwholesome thoughts towards our sales staff. Yes, I do believe that they take us, the administrative staff, for granted. But that doesn't mean I have to respond with seething resentment that spills out and poisons the attitudes of everyone else in the office. And, according to Mr. Olendzki, ranting about it with my office mates is how that poison is spread: "Accepting what is unwholesome out of attachment, or acting it out in an attempt to purge it, will just strengthen that quality of mind… Abandoning involves seeing it for what it is, recognizing the conditions that contribute to clinging to it, and gently releasing one's hold on the unwholesome quality, one moment at a time." Seems easy, huh? I need to tape that onto the wall over my desk. And then, of course, I'd need to read it, too...

So, now we come to the scatological portion of today's musings. Fun word, isn't it? Scatological. I love it when big words are used to describe something incredibly mundane, even gross. So, anyway, if you're easily grossed out, stop reading right now and hope that I don't make a habit of this.

I'm not sure why I feel the need to talk about this, except that, as with everything else, I've tried to find a lesson in it. I got sick last week. Dizzy spells, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. No fever, though, so I wasn't sure what was going on. When it got to the point that I was having trouble walking across the room, I called the doctor. They said it sounded as if I was dehydrated and they recommended a trip to the ER for intravenous fluids. So, as there was no way I was gonna drive in that state, I called a cab and went. The diagnosis ended up being gastroenteritis, which is what contributed to the severe dehydration. I'm still partially on a fluid diet (broth, Jell-O, etc), though I am cheating a bit. I want solid food, dammit. I'm not going to regain strength on broth alone, no matter how my gut rebels. The really fun part of this, though, has been that my doctor wants stool samples so he can determine whether the condition is viral or bacterial.

You haven't truly lived until you've had to collect your own stool samples. They don't do it at the lab. No, the lab gives you however many little vials the doctor has requested, partially filled with various liquid chemicals. You then get to go home and poop into a clean, dry container. Using the teeny-tiny little scoop included with the vial, you then must fill the vial to a certain level with your poop, stir it a bit, then (tightly!) close the lid and shake to mix your poop with the liquid chemical. It's a perverse little science experiment that would have your average 7-year-old howling with laughter. I kept feeling like I was in one of T00l's early videos, except that my bathroom is too brightly lit to have the right atmosphere. And I feel sorry for the poor lab tech who has to analyze my concoction.

And the lesson? Well, scooping your own poop is a great way to shed delusions. It's humbling, and the absurdity of it really helps to put other things into perspective. And the next time I'm accused of thinking my shit don't stink, I can reply, "Well, as a matter of fact, I happen to know very well that my shit stinks somethin' awful!"

Time to go have tea.


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