The alarm rang. It was still dark out. With slight hesitation I opened my eyes and stretched. Was it that time already? My feet found a way out from under the warm blanket to the cool floor. Still sleepy, I encouraged myself to wake up with some more stretching as I headed for the bathroom. I opened the door and Rio stormed out, ready to play, as usual. Yes, it was time to feed the cats and do my morning yoga. A bare thought of an unfolded yoga mat on my floor sent pleasant sensations through my body. Sun salutations here I come!!!
My son had a hard time getting up, but with help of playful Rio nothing is impossible. There is only so many times that you can get bitten without thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea to get out of bed. All four of us were awake and ready for the day. Max went to school. I headed to the bus station. My usual cheerful “Good Morning” was not reciprocated by the bus driver. Well, sometimes the bus drivers are friendly and sometimes they are not. I didn’t necessarily expect a reply, it is “a nice to hear”. My card didn’t work for some reason, so I tried again. It beeped with that annoying dull sound that makes you feel broke and somewhat retarded for not refilling it on time. The irritating sound was ill deserved - I just refilled my card last week.
The bus driver was motioning me to take off my headphones. I took one out and looked at her questioningly. She was pissed off, “You’re like one of the school kids walking around with headphones on, not hearing anything that I’m telling you!” She had a nasty attitude toward me. She even raised her voice with authority! My agreeable mood was washed over by irritation. Who was she to tell me that I can’t wear headphones! I was about to call her a bitch, but my feet moved me toward the seat, lucky for her, me and the rest of the passengers. I steamed from my seat until the ride was over and then got off the bus as fast as I could, not trusting myself to behave in a polite way. I would be suggesting a Midol if she as much as opened her mouth.
I get angry easily, that’s one of my challenges. My temper can be hot and unpredictable, especially when my pride is hurt. Even as a child I hated being talked down to, by anyone, didn’t matter if it was my parent, my teacher, another adult or a peer. I couldn’t wait to grow up so that I could make my own decisions. I haven’t changed much in that respect, if my supervisor wants something he needs to find a polite way to ask me about it, if my boyfriend needs a favor he better have an appreciation speech written before he brings it up, and my mother is always reminded that I am an adult and all she can do is cautiously suggest. I don’t recognize religious authority and believe that the purpose of a government is to serve the people.
With the world being very different from my idealistic expectations, my patience is constantly tried. Some days I am more easygoing than others, depending on how much time I have had to myself and how much I chanted. But even when I am on a brink of an emotional explosion, I still have a chance to choose what I’ll do. My thoughts might be chaotic, but almost instinctively I know that reprisal would only make things worse and so I walk away from stormy confrontations until I can calmly approach the person and have a dialogue. Once the anger is gone, it is easier to make wiser choices. People have bad days - there is no need to make it worse. Most of the time it isn’t personal when someone lashes out, they are simply reacting to something else that has happened in their lives and it has nothing to do with us. But our reactions determine which direction our life will take. If we stop and think before we respond to a negative person with anger, we will create a positive cause for everyone involved. If we let the proud arrogance take control and lash out with the same kind of attitude at others, we will become the source of negativity in other people’s lives as well as in our own.
Another creative writing assignment was to write about a dream that we had as if it has actually happened. I chose a particularly memorable one from the time when I made up my mind about practicing Buddhism.
"It was so dark and quiet that I seemed to be engulfed by nothingness. It felt like I was effortlessly moving in no direction in particular. There was no ground under my feet or walls around me, as if the space I was in had no boundaries. Total absence of sound should have probably been alarming, as there is always some noise in the background, even if it's just the sound of my breath or the buzz in my ear that can only be noticed in complete and utter stillness, but I was comfortable in these strange surroundings. I wasn't flying, just being there in slight motion, floating without any sensation of being up in the air through emptiness. And then, in a quick instant, there was an unbearable brightness that seemed to come from nowhere and I saw them, two giant statue-like figures, cast in gold, propped up on their colossal royal thrones. I stood next to them, an insignificant ant in comparison. They shone in all their glory with intensity of a fresh fallen snow, consuming the dark nothingness until there was just the three of us left with no empty space between or around us. Bulky Buddha statues with faces of a Christian God, they looked immovable and rigid. I was shocked when they unexpectedly raised their arms in threat and roared in spine melting fury, "How dare you defy us, you pitiful human!"
I wondered what I did to make them so angry, but remained surprisingly calm, as if I knew that they couldn't hurt me even if they tried. I looked at them without fear or shame and thought that I owed them no explanation. I was certain that I was free to live my life as I pleased without a permission of a deity. At that moment I realized that they must have been mad because I didn't believe that they even existed. I didn't say anything, there was no need - it was as if they could read my mind. They roared some more, threatening, bellowing, raging inside at my disobedience. But, clearly, there was nothing they could do to frighten me and soon enough their voices grew fainter and they started to shrink at an exponential rate until they became as big as I was. As I looked them straight in the eye, they shrunk even further and disappeared, leaving me in the nothingness that was there in the beginning, before their arrival. I was surrounded by fullness of silence and welcoming darkness again. There was an immense sense of peace permeating through me and all around. I was at home, like a single drop of water which has merged back in the ocean after being separated from it by the naughty wind."
Celebration of my birthday this year coincided with the ten year anniversary of 9/11. There is nothing more humbling than such great tragedy. I didn’t want anything fancy, no breakfast at Tiffany’s, no drinks on any of Manhattan’s rooftops, no extravagant presents or loud parties. I never do, a quiet afternoon with my loved ones is all I ever want. I am full of gratitude for being alive. Thank you mom for having me, for staying up all night when I was sick and for doing your best. Even though we have arguments sometimes and it seems that there is a deep void between us, somehow we always find a way to see how much we love each other and to forgive.
Every year before my birthday my mind goes through a process where it evaluates everything in my life and looks for things to leave behind. Past few years my focus has been on getting rid of negativity. I find that there are two major forms of negativity that we deal on a day to day basis, our internal negativity and the people around us who drag us down. I believe that all people have both positive and negative inside them. Some people have a naturally positive disposition and others don’t, but everyone is capable of becoming more optimistic. It is up to each one of us to determine which side will be predominant going forward - we can make a conscious choice and challenge ourselves to be positive every day.
For years I have been working on transforming my internal state to be lighter and more positive, so much so that by now it has become a habit. And even though there may be some days when it is harder than others, I see every day as a fresh start. I don’t get discouraged if I don’t feel like I am happy every single moment of my life. The key is to figure out what’s bothering you and come up with a way to address it. Buddhism works great for me - all I need to do is sit down and focus on the problem for a second. Then I let it go and the solution floats in my mind while I am chanting.
It is more of a challenge when it comes to other people because we can’t directly change them. All we can do is be positive and approach them kindly. With time they too will change, but meanwhile they might take their sweet time and torment us. I had a few people like that in my life and was tired of waiting for them to become kinder to me, so I chanted for their happiness and for my own and decided that it will be in everyone’s best interest if they were physically out of my life. There was not much more I was willing to do for them from that point on than to chant from a safe distance for their happiness. They were selfishly hogging my energy; stopping me from growing at the rate I was capable of developing and preventing me from helping other people.
This year, finally, my life had no such obstacles and I was able to concentrate on clearing out my living space from old memories and physical junk. Things that should have been thrown out awhile ago are little by little being let go. Just like when I was moving my stuff at work, there are feelings involved. We get attached to things and get mentally stuck in places because of them. But, life is about moving forward and there is no better time to reflect on it than your birthday. I guess that the gift that I give myself this year is doing just that by clearing out the house, from the now broken couch that served me well for almost nine years to the messy closets full of useless junk. Time to let it go, birthday girl, time to move forward!
Summer has flown by in an instant and as I am saying my last goodbyes, the rain is insistently wetting everything in sight. Without encouraging rays of the sun, it is not an optimal choice of a day to move from my desk to a new location. It would have been easier if I were able to see its glow from the big dusty windows of the room that I am moving to; after all, having windows was the number one perk of the move.
This morning I decided that postponing the inevitable is torturous and I should just do it. It would be like pulling off the band aid, one quick jerk and that’s it, no need to prolog the pain. I start with the move and it feels like I am downsizing from a house to an apartment. I can’t fit all my stuff in properly, so I spent some time going through piles of paper and cleaning out the drawers. It is a perfect chance to get rid of the clutter that I have accumulated over the years, personal and otherwise. As I lugged massive piles of useless paper to the recycle bin, I felt some relief from the anxiety I felt about moving. Cleaning has a therapeutic effect on me. My energy seems to flow better when there is less clutter around and the absence of dust adds newness even to the old desk that’s to become my new home. Two towering stacks of thick technical books have been already moved over and are taking one side of my desk. Picture of my son from when he was one year old is affectionately displayed next to them. It is evident that at times I have a hard time leaving precious memories behind. My son is nine now, but I just love having his baby face smile at me from the small silver frame.
Little by little I move things over and the new place starts to look more inviting. As I come back one last time to get whatever is left, deep emotion wells up in my chest. Tears start to tickle my nose and I know that it’s time to go. I chant in a soft whisper. It is my way to bide a warm goodbye to the place and its memories. I sense deep appreciation as I leave the room. This is it - off I go to make new memories. Out with the old, in with the new! I remind myself how much I love the fall and its richness of color. There will be more sunny days ahead, more inviting blue skies and more smiles. And there will definitely be more adventures, wherever I go. When something ends, something new begins.
Sunshine is the nickname that I was given by one of my dear friends, the friend that has introduced me to Buddhism. I carry my nickname with pride - what can be more praiseworthy of one then to be called a human ray of sun. To me, this appellation implies an ability to reflect the radiance of life and to illuminate the darkness of human condition.
I haven’t always been sunny and cheerful. I have had my dark moments, more than plenty of them. There were times when I wondered the streets of New York, feeling absent from life, observing others with apathy and speculating whether they could go through me if they kept walking straight and I didn’t bother to turn. I felt paper thin, invisible at times, ghostly and wretched. What was the reason for my existence, I wanted to know, but no one had the answer that would make sense to me. I was alive because my parents had made me, science explained and I felt angry that no one asked me first if I wanted to be born. I was alive because god gave me life, church declared without really answering my question. Questions are not encouraged when it comes to god’s will, we should just have faith. I was alive because somehow I was special and meant to contribute to the world in my unique way, whispered my heart and then the mind forced its murky discernment over the tiny sliver of hope.
One day an older Jamaican man with long braided dreadlocks and funky attitude came up to me and asked why I had a look of an old disappointed woman on my face. I didn’t like the question, but after a brief hesitation I did let him know what I thought about life. “I see”, he said. And then he taught me how to chant. I chanted on my own for a few months, every day seeking him out at work to talk more about Buddhist philosophy. I was thirsty for it like a dried out desert was for a drop of rain. The more I learned, the more I realized that I was always a Buddhist at heart.
However, the battle hasn’t been won yet, the past was resistant of letting me go. I was chased by a Christian madman, pleading and urging for me to come to church. I knew that there was nothing there that would make me happy, but was scared to move on and officially practice Buddhism. I was feeling the fear and guilt that were instilled in me from childhood. If you hear that lack of faith in god will send you to hell after death a million times, it kind of becomes a certainty in your mind, on a deep subconscious level. And the talks of Christ dying for people’s sins weighted heavily down on my soul. The Christian guy, sensing my fear and guilt pressed harder, pushed further until it became quite hostile between the two of us. He upset me to tears with his threats and the predictions of my demise if I continued to chant.
But I kept chanting because it was helping me. I felt lighter and happier, and the little sliver of hope was emerging from my depths and blooming like a flower. I was beginning to discover the wonders of who I was and seeing the beauty around myself to which I was previously oblivious. There was no way any man was going to stop me from diving even deeper into the welcoming embrace of my being. However, the feeling of guilt and fear was still ever present in the background. It is not easy to change something that is hidden on a deeper level of conscience. It takes a lot of effort and work. My friend put it very logically, though, he said that practicing a religion for the wrong reasons, such as fear and guilt, is really equivalent to not practicing it at all. If your heart is not in it or it doesn’t make sense to you, you might as well look for happiness somewhere else and get over that fear and guilt, they are not constructive.
One day we were talking, as usual, and he presented me with my first pair of beads for chanting. The beads were inside a container, so I didn’t know what I was holding until he told me. The Christian man who harassed me came by and forcefully handed me the Bible before I could object. So, there I was, standing with Buddhist beads in one hand and a Bible in the other. Everything around me seemed to disappear, time slowed down and froze - the universe itself was waiting for me to make my decision. I knew at that moment, that most profound moment of my life that I will be happy and that I knew how. I gave the Bible back to the man, smiling with confidence and determination, “No thanks, I am good.” He looked bewildered, clearly in shock of my instant transformation from being somewhat gullible and easily harassed to a person of unshakable resolve. Something wonderful has happened to me in the moment when I was making my choice - the feeling of being broken was gone, it was replaced by sensation of bottomless joy. I felt truly complete. Without any doubt in my mind I knew that there existed the beautiful marvelous everlasting me and that the feeling of being special that followed me through life was not some ego nonsense, it was who I truly was.
The man has never bothered me again even though I have made no attempts to avoid him. I passed by him almost every day when on the way to my friend’s desk. I held my head high, politely smiling with joy, not to him per se, but because I just couldn’t stop. That was my first true victory over negativity. And today, after over seven years of chanting, I still have a giddy smile on my face more often than not.
I am not going to pretend to be perfect, pretending is a foreign concept to me, as alien as socializing with an alligator, although even that is probably more likely to happen given my concern for the animal co-habitants with whom we share our world. I am quirky, I am “out there”, or so I have been told. I am the black sheep, or rather, the “Black Russian”, and it has nothing to do with the color of my skin. I genuinely enjoy people’s perception of me as out of the ordinary. It is not a call for attention, but it is truly nice to leave a feeling behind after you meet a person where they are kind of confused and flabbergasted by what or whom they have encountered. Usually the reaction is favorable, but sometimes, I can clearly see the person struggling to figure out where to categorize me and that always makes me chuckle inside. Great, I have given them something to think about!
I am outspoken and sometimes I tend to make people uncomfortable with my direct comments and observations. Sometimes I accidentally insult people and other times the comment is well thought out and targeted to be heard. Lately, I have become better at judging when I should bite my tongue and let the person be. Occasionally the need arises for a person to learn for themselves, without my interference, especially if I already commented on the subject. A small consolation to all is that I am not cruel. I always have the victim’s best interest in mind, always try to be helpful and phrase the remarks as kindly as possible, that is, until someone gets on my nerves and lets my tongue loose, they then should run for the cover and wait it out somewhere safe.
It is not a Buddhist thing, but a Nadia thing, a trait that I have been born with. Since I can remember, I have spoken out in any situation if there is a call for it. I have answered back when my drunken step-father was insulting me or my mother, I have yelled out my discontent when my ex-husband treated me unfairly, and I have scolded my boss for acting inhumane toward others. Maybe it was stupid to deal with fearsome people head on, without any regard for my physical or financial safety, but I am passionate about fairness and justice. Plainly, I am a work in progress, there is always something to improve, something to tweak. Just like the car needing an oil change once in a while, there is a necessity for me to perform maintenance on myself to smooth out the rough edges. Even though I think of myself as a diamond-in-a rough kind of person, I humbly accept that a world can do with less hot shots gleaming wildly, pocking and sticking others with their untamed inconsiderate flanges.
In Buddhism, there is a concept of “turning poison into medicine”, which is a process that person undergoes while turning a negative aspect of their life into positive and somehow using it to create value in their life and the world around them. Nichiren Buddhism is not the kind where you withdraw from the word. It is all about being fully present and living your life with courage to speak your mind and to follow through with your dreams, it is all about action. Learning from its teachings, I have fine tuned what I say to be more compassionate and understanding toward others and found comfort in the fact that speaking up is not as imprudent a trait as I once thought it was. Besides, imperfections are necessary and inseparable aspects of our lives, they serve as springboards for us to develop ourselves as human beings. The more we challenge the dark side of ourselves, the brighter will the light side shine. There is no need to be embarrassed by them or imagine that they don’t exist, look at them straight in the eye, acknowledge them and then roll up your sleeves.