Modern lives here in a "civilized" world are hectic, to say the least. We are bombarded by things coming at us all day long. At work, at home and everywhere in-between there are responsibilities to take care of, goals and ambitions to pursue. The more we achieve, we more responsibility we take on. No wonder at all that most of us have a hard time managing our priorities or making sound decisions. And in our "spare" time, when we are commuting to work or sitting on the coach half-asleep watching TV, we are fed by advertisement to further impair our judgment and tell us what we should want from life and what is normal. The news makes us feel powerless and the lack of inspiration robs us of our right and responsibility to question what we can do to change the world to be a more peaceful harmonious place.
As an animal rights activist, I have talked to many people about taking steps to make a difference, and most become defensive or say that it doesn't matter because they are just one person and one person cannot change things. Deep down we all know that it isn't true, I can easily produce a list of amazing people who have singlehandedly changed the world, and so could anyone who takes a few moments to focus on remembering their contributions. We, the people, need to take pride in our humanity and learn humility, for all life is precious and it isn't just our species that have been awarded this amazing gift. And we need to snap out of this numbing haze that we find ourselves in and think about the consequences of our actions and about our contributions to what the world has become as a result of them. We need to take responsibility and adjust to a kinder, more compassionate way of living, to appreciate and honor ourselves, our human and non-human brothers and sisters and cherish our planet. Every individual deserves love and respect, including animals. When we stand up for them, we are also standing up for ourselves.
Most people claim that they want world peace and that they love animals, but when presented with an opportunity to shift to a non-violent way of living they hold on to old habits as if their life depended on it. I was stunned by the way my fellow Buddhists responded when I explained to them how raising animals for food promotes violence and wastes valuable natural resources. There was a moment of silence and then people started grasping at straws as to why they had to continue doing what they are doing despite the fact that billions of animals are dying every year in this country alone and before they die they are treated like machines, without any compassion, love or respect. If we truly want to work to promote world peace, we can't turn behavior that seeds from violence on and off as it’s convenient to us. If we participate in violence by producing and consuming animal products, we have a foundation of violence in our bodies and our minds. How can we then be peaceful with each other? Do we think that we can be violent at certain times and not at others? After being desensitized by the “necessary” violence, it becomes the norm and a habit.
I know that it isn't easy to face what is being done and take responsibility for your part as a consumer (which essentially translates to paying factory farms to kill the animals for you or enslave them in horrible conditions to save a buck during milk and egg production). It took me some time to get where I am, but now that I have fully grasped the reality of situation, I can see clearly that making excuses for irrational behavior is a sign of addiction. One should feel compassion for people who are addicted and for those who feel that their actions won't make a difference. And I do, but the bottom line is that the suffering of those beings that are treated as machines and slaughtered for food is so much more acute then what people who eat them ever experience. Sorrow that I feel in my heart is overwhelming at times and there is little room left for making sure that I don't step on people's toes. I try not to tell anyone what they should eat while they are eating it, but if you repeatedly comment on how good-looking “your” bacon is, I will mention without fail that it must have come from one-good looking pig and I won’t feel the need to apologize.
I have pledged my life to creating world peace through non-violence toward all living beings. I am committed to giving a voice to those whose cries cannot be heard by the time they become a meal and to our precious planet without which we cannot exist. We are not separate from one another, all of us - animals, humans and environment. Whatever happens to animals also has an impact on people, thus the prevalence of modern disease such as heart disease, cancer and AIDS. Whatever happens to the environment impacts not only the quality of our lives, but our very existence. It is common knowledge that we need air, water, food and shelter to survive. Then why are we letting factory farms pollute our water and soil? Why do we accept it as a normal practice to use poison to grow our crops and pay money for food pumped with chemicals and antibiotics, and sprayed with pesticide? We, the people, are fully capable of standing up for what's right and making a difference, even if the only action we take is refusing to give money to greedy farm factory owners and corporations which put profits above all else. We, the people, haven’t even scratched the surface of our true potential. It is time to live our lives to the fullest, healthy, happy and inspired, and to let other beings have what we want for ourselves - the right to be free.
"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves." - Henry D. Thoreau
Henry D. Thoreau was a leading transcendentalist who believed that society and its institutions such as organized religion, political parties and government that stops serving its people ultimately corrupt the purity of an individual. I guess that I have always been a transcendentalist as well for I loathe any kind of authority over myself or my children and feel sorry for those who are not able to think for themselves. I believe that the government was created in order to provide structure for human societies and to look out for the best interest of its people and organized religions might have once been meager attempts to provide people with a tool that helped them cope with a harsh unpredictable reality of life. I say "might have" because of all the holy wars that were started in the name of god and all the people that were forced to practice a religion that was foreign to them or killed defending their beliefs. There is something seriously wrong with any religion that declares a holy war and proclaims that god supports us killing one another and reprimands anyone who disagrees with what it is preaching. And there is something wrong with any government that promotes the wealth and power of the few that are in influential positions while disregarding the welfare of the rest and turns a blind eye on the aimless waste of its natural resources by greedy corporations.
To my family's disappointment, Russian or Ukrainian culture and Christianity never appealed to me. Being spiritual, I had a lot of questions about nature and purpose of life. The violence and indifference that I saw in the world around me didn’t make sense. Even as a child, I had a different view of how the world should be and deep faith that it was possible to create it, if people tried hard enough. I longed for a philosophy that would allow me to explore my inner world to a greater extent and after struggling with the cultural misalignment for years as a child and a young adult, I made a decision to seek my own truth. I see life as an endless stream of questions. Answers are found when sought and then new questions are formed from the higher level of conscious understanding. The purpose of our lives is to learn and develop, and that can't be done from the state of fear, denial or obedience. A seeking spirit should never be confined!
A few disturbing encounters in the last few weeks fired me up to urge people to wake up from whatever dream that they are sleepwalking through as I realized that acceptance in our society is hard to come by. Some people just can't accept when others think or do things that go against their upbringing or choices in life. Culture is the playground for adults. It is where children, born with innate ability to recognize that such differences are inconsequential, are taught to discriminate and to exclude. With time, they too will take pride in being a privileged member of a religion, race or heritage and start living out of habits of their ancestors. They too will become convinced that they are right to the point of trying to strip others of their human rights and liberties. I remember the outrage last summer over gay marriage law that NY state government has finally passed. A man outside the church in his community was furious that such thing should be allowed. He said that it doesn’t work for him, but nobody is making him do anything that he doesn’t agree with. It is between people who love each other that now have the right to join in a civil union and has absolutely nothing to do with him. I wonder where his preoccupation with what others do with their lives comes from and why he is so certain that he’s right and they’re wrong!
I have officially emancipated myself of all religious establishments because it became painfully obvious that they all, without exception, try to fit people in their view of the world, leaving no space for spiritual exploration. I have been chased by madmen with “Bibles” enough. It is now time to stand tall and firm, proclaiming my independence. Only I decide where my boundaries are because I live out of the box. As a free spirit and a citizen of the world, I serve no person and no social or religious organization. I don't follow any traditions that don't completely make sense to me. And I am yet to find any that do. Therefore, I pledge my life only to the love and peace that is the foundation of the universe itself. I play in other people's "sandboxes" of cultures. I pick and choose what brings joy to my heart and enlivens my spirit. Tradition can be beautiful and I understand its importance in people's lives. It can serve as an instrument of unity within the cultural group. However, tradition can also become a tool of separation. At first it’s something like "us and them" and then grows further into "us against them". But, in reality, we are all one. We are all sparks of Devine consciousness that in this lifetime chose to incarnate into human form on this planet. A person of one cultural background can potentially become a person of another, it is a choice that we made and continue making on daily basis. We can be anything that our hearts desire. And shouldn’t our hearts desire peace, love and freedom above all?
Through Buddhist practice and meditation I saw that we all carry everything we need inside us and that there are numerous ways to access these treasures. It is not important what name we give to the higher power, as long as we realize that we are all essentially referring to the same thing and that the higher power is an integral part of each of us, waiting to be recognized and awakened. A person’s existence on this planet is not confined to a social bubble where he or she belongs, we are all citizens of the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. There is no separation between us but in our minds! There will be no lasting peace and happiness in the world until people start caring enough to transcend the differences that they were conditioned to see by their cultures, religions and governments. The boundaries of separation so carefully built by countless generations of ancestors need to come down so that people can start to think for themselves and live from the perspective and wisdom of their souls.
This year has been keeping me up on my toes. One significant change in how I live, think and function has followed another in a roller coaster of happenings and realizations. At work, I am moving to a different office location yet again. An office co-inhibitor that has to move as well was seriously upset. She has been sitting there for a decade and all of a sudden there is an announcement that she will be relocated within a week. I haven't grown any roots to the new desk so my only regret is that the new office will be devoid of windows. Natural light is like food to me and I sure am going to feel its missing presence. But I am not the one to insistently complain, if I hate something I am free to find a different path. It is important to always remember that we do have a choice. No one is making us stay in a bad relationship or a job we dislike. We choose to stick around. Whether it is fear, guilt or lack of optimism that is stopping us from achieving that freedom, the cause is internal. And that is great news because once we realize that we are empowered to create our own future, we obtain the power to do so.
Sadly, people tend to gravitate toward complacency. Once a comfortable place is found they would resist with all their might to abandon its familiar feeling. The fact that future is uncertain is one of the reasons for this. Another reason is that people don't want to do more than necessary - being proactive is a rare trait in today's society. Many are content with life as long as they know what to expect. Unknown is feared and familiar is worshiped unjustly. It is hard to talk to people about things that aren’t widely accepted by surrounding society. It is almost impossible to get a person to think for themselves. One step toward the unexpected and a few words of caution from “helpful” friends and everyone is back where they started. The vicious cycle continues and people are powerless to initiate change on their own. However, doing nothing doesn’t bring stability, life keeps moving either forward or back, progress-wise. The change will either be initiated by us, in which case we have better control of the outcome, or be sprung on us with or without warning.
It is important to notice the positive in situations that we find ourselves in and to embrace the change - after all, life is constantly moving. Buddhism teaches that change is life's inevitable reality. It is a catalyst for opportunities that present us with chances to evolve as human beings. Physical exercise develops the muscle, learning exercises the brain and life challenges forge a strong unbreakable spirit. It isn't always easy and sometimes we can't see why we have to encounter certain problems until after a solution is found. There are lessons to be learned from every person and situation. A great deal of lessons are loud and clear – don’t give up on yourself, you are stronger than you think.
Back in January 2004 I have met an amazing person, Sidney Springer. He came to DDC where I worked at the time with his wife and daughter. His daughter was probably about two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second child. He came to share his experience at the weekly Buddhist meeting that we had during lunch breaks on Wednesdays. I knew he was coming and made sure that nothing interfered with me being there. Carlyle, the man who introduced me to Buddhism (he also introduced Sidney to the practice), said that a young man will come to the meeting who was recently diagnosed with cancer. He said that this young man wanted to encourage people with his positive outlook and victorious spirit. Despite Carlyle’s confidence, I wasn’t expecting a happy encouraging person. How can someone recently diagnosed with cancer not be swayed by the fact that he was probably dying? Forget encouraging me with my silly inconsequential problems, I wanted to go so that there would be someone who supported him during this trying time.
Everyone knew he was coming and there was sadness in the air - he was only twenty eight. However, when he stepped into the room with his wife and his daughter at hand, the atmosphere transformed in seconds. It was still sad, but now that we met him, we were encouraged by his remarkable strength and positivity. He was living his life to the fullest, without fear, without regrets and without asking “why me”. He talked about his sickness, but I could tell that his main reason for coming was to encourage everyone not to give up on their dreams no matter what. It was as if for him living to the fullest was touching as many hearts as possible. He fearlessly cheered people on to pursue their happiness without a selfish thought. It was beautiful how his wife supported him with her genuine loving smile and gentle touch.
I often thought about the bright young man that I have met on the cold day In January years ago. His smile, his words and his love for his wife reminded me about important things in life time and again. I hoped that he got well and overcame his sickness. I wished that someday I could tell him how grateful I was and give him a piece of my happiness to return the favor. Sadly, the only favor I could return was attending his memorial this October. He died on September 2, the day before his 36th birthday. On the day of the memorial it was raining and snowing, and everyone knows how I dislike going to the city without a class or dinner incentive, but there was no question that I had to be there for him and his family. My boyfriend came with me, knowing how important this memorial was from what I have told him. My grandfather also had lung cancer and died, but all he had was six months after the doctors got involved. Sidney was fortunate enough to have another eight years with his family. He got to meet his second daughter and see both of his children grow. He didn’t just disintegrate mentally, physically or spiritually, he lived with joy and vigor while he was alive.
During the first part of the memorial there was a lot of chanting, this would have made Sidney happy. I chanted for him with appreciation - thank you for being who you were, thank you for bringing so much optimism into the world that it stayed there even after you were gone. People shared their memories of Sidney. His wife remembered the lessons that he taught her, most important ones being that one has to be happy first before he/she can make others happy and that we need to chant for people who make us miserable because they need it most since they are suffering. One of his friends remembered how toward the end Sidney was so week that he had to be rolled in his chair from one room to the next, but he was always up for chanting. Another friend shared Sidney’s confidence that we always get back what we give. Sidney firmly believed that no smile is wasted, that each one will be returned by the person smiling back at us. That’s how he lived his life, bringing his smile wherever he went! His daughters danced for daddy, his friends sang and told jokes. It was a celebration of a wonderful young man’s life, a young man who deserved to be remembered. Sidney’s spirit is now a part of all the people that he has touched and therefore will live on through us as ripples of goodness and compassion that we project forth with him in mind.
An abrupt awakening to a possible challenge that my body was facing last February got me revisiting my existing beliefs about health, doctors and food. After the initial shock subsided and I could again think somewhat clearly, I decided that I was done relying on others when it came to my health. As a Buddhist, I know that I am responsible for my health, my happiness and my wellbeing. There is no external source to pray to, no predetermined destiny to follow without having a say. Therefore, I have the freedom to choose what I’ll do and what kind of effects I’ll create in my life. I continuously applied this to my life in all other aspects, except for when I fell ill, that is. I chanted for positive energy and best doctors, which is all good and well. But I forgot, or rather it didn’t occur to me, to chant about what I can do to help myself. However, in case of this particular challenge, passing the reins of my life to doctors was simply not an option.
I took a walk, letting the cool February air sober me up and get me focused on the task at hand - being healthy. Immediately, all other worries not only seemed insignificant in comparison, but it became clear that I had to be more relaxed about everyday things that I often stress myself over in order for them not to become the very reasons of my disease. I am a workaholic and at times when there is a problem at work I would still search for a solution while I ride on a train, exercise, or wash dishes at home. There seemed to be no boundary where my job ends and my personal life begins, I was all merged and as a result of that my work duties tended to transgress on everything else in my life. I would often skip meals, stay late, and back in the day when I was still married, come to work on an occasional Saturday “to catch up”. It wasn’t healthy or fair, and it had to stop because the stress that my attitude toward work was generating was contributing to my health problems. As I walked and sipped ginger tea that replaced my usual morning coffee I saw hope ahead.
I started reading the book that my mom urged me to read for years now. The author of the book, Maya Gogulan, was seriously ill. She was bedridden for over a year and was deemed to die by her doctors. She was slowly approaching her end when she found out about Nishi System of Health. This system combines a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables with special exercises that improve circulation and help detoxification that even people who are bedridden can do, thus cleansing the body of toxins and nourishing it so that it could heal itself. Within few months of eating this way and performing the exercises she was not only out of bed, but leading a normal life, completely overcoming her illness. She surprised doctors when she came by the hospital, they thought that she surely died by then. But, as amazed by her miraculous recovery as they were, no one was interested in learning how she did it. The doctors wanted to continue doing what they were doing. So, being a journalist, she took it upon herself to let people know about their options by writing books and giving lectures. Through her knowledge many were able to overcome cancer, the tumors shrank in front of the doctors eyes. As part of her book, Maya included research done by renowned dietitians on the effects that different foods have on our bodies, the role of vitamins, minerals and enzymes, and the consequences of taking over the counter and prescription drugs. As I read the book it all started to fall into place and make sense. The way our bodies work is amazing, we don’t give them enough credit! Instead, we over abuse them, poison them and take them for granted. I gained tremendous appreciation and respect for my body, it is truly a temple!
We live in a competitive material world, and while it is absolutely essential for us to be able to support ourselves, the aggression and the never ending pursuit of financial gain slowly strip our lives of joy. Everyone who has a full time job knows that the job becomes a big part of who we are. Because we spend the majority of our waking hours at work or commuting to and from work, there is little time left for anything else. In general, my day is extremely hectic – wake up, do morning yoga, get my son and myself ready for the day, take him to school, get to work, work, lunch with a few minutes of chanting/meditation, back to work, get home, pick up my son from afterschool, dinner, review homework, if lucky, there is a little time left to do some cleaning, if very lucky, there is some time to do more chanting/meditation, if very, very lucky, there is some time to do something creative, and then story time and bedtime for us both. With that kind of routine, I have got to either enjoy what I do or expect a nervous breakdown. And I am one of the people who seldom, if ever work overtime. I can only imagine what some people feel after working ten, sometimes twelve, hour days. When do they see their families? When do they do anything that they enjoy? Do they have any energy left but to collapse in exhaustion?
More and more people are becoming the lemons of greedy corporations. They are being squeezed till the last drop to produce. More profit for the company, perhaps more wealth for stockholders – how nice, we feel prosperous as a country. As if stock prices were a valid measure of happiness that common people are experiencing in their daily lives. Instead, it is the despair and the uncertainty that they tend to reflect. The more money we make, the more we think that we need to accomplish financially to be happy. There is always something that we haven’t achieved yet that is stopping us from fully enjoying what we have. Comparing ourselves to others is something that happens naturally, without much thought. However, it is not constructive in any way to feel inadequate just because someone has a bigger home or a nicer car, or earns more money. I admit, at times it is hard for me to pass a beautiful house without a thought that I should somehow figure out a way to get one of those, or to see someone with 400 dollar shoes on and a fancy outfit and not to feel poor for a second in my everyday clothes and somewhat worn-out sandals. It isn’t easy, but nothing is impossible and we have to try because there will always be someone who is wealthier, more beautiful, having something that we desire and don’t yet have. It took some practice to silence the hunger for material things and be able to pass something that I would fervently desire without a feeling of urgency to immediately acquire it.
Buddhism is the science of life and it teaches in its common sense way that while desires are and will always be a part of our lives, they shouldn’t dictate how we live. Our lives should instead be aimed at balancing all three aspects of true prosperity – beauty, gain and value. Beauty is accomplished by creating something from the heart and having the time to see it in the world around ourselves. Gain is the financial security that a good job supplies. Without it our basic needs for food, water and shelter will not be met. Value is an ability to positively and productively contribute to our environment, be it our society or the world on a bigger scale. In this day and age, it is very rare that a job will satisfy all three. The focus seems to be mostly on gain, choosing beauty or value will most of the time lead to poverty and while some of us bravely storm through life following their passions without a penny to their name, others count their possessions and try to convince themselves that having a job they intensely enjoy is awfully unrealistic.
I am rich with experiences that taught me appreciation for life. When I look at my life as it is at the moment and ask myself if I am happy and if I am doing my best to live it to the fullest, all that matters is how I feel about it and how I feel about myself. The career is not the first thing that comes to mind and it is not the second. Treasures of the heart make my life full, not the number of properties that I own. Did I love enough? Did I laugh enough? Those are the questions that I ask myself. I am ambitious. I take pride in my skills and in my success. I need to have a job that I enjoy doing. I need to be able to support myself and my son, to live comfortably and to be financially secure. However, I am not interested in trying to get rich while my life is slipping away without anything happening that’s worth remembering. Ambition is important, but once you pass the invisible boundary separating reasonable striving for success with a seemingly inevitable all-consuming obligation, the reward at the end of that tunnel is not really worth it.
A day before my birthday my mom, my brother, my son and I went out to eat, but for some strange reason the restaurant that I wanted to go to was closed. My boyfriend teased that it wasn’t strange at all that one of the few Raw Food restaurants in Queens will be closed down. I felt sad, disappointed and cheated out of a healthy meal as we headed to Chilies’ instead, my brother was hungry and he just had to eat something. We arrived and were seated promptly. The waiter was very pleasant and respectful of my finicky vegan requests, “No cheese, no cream, no bacon, got it”. I found something decent to eat and even though it wasn’t organic (good luck finding that when eating out!!) or all raw (I had some brown rice and beans on the side for my big salad), and definitely made with table salt (hate that cooks put that crap in the food and call themselves chefs), I enjoyed it with realization that it didn’t have to be all or nothing kind of deal.
For me, a true Virgo perfectionist, this is a huge step away from the very principles that drive me forward. Everything needs to be in order and I need to be in control of every situation that I am involved in, well at least as far as it comes to me and everything that has to do with me. Giving up control is not something that I like to do, so you would never see me drunk or riding crazy roller coasters. I always wear a seatbelt, even as a passenger in the back seat. I imitate the beeping sound that the car makes when someone in the front seat is driving without a seat belt without thinking about it. My boyfriend, who has a nasty habit of driving around without buckling up, complains that I am annoying, and that’s when I usually realize that I am making the beeping sound again, “Sorry, just want you to be safe.” How selfish of me, but I want people that I love to stay around longer! Driving without a seatbelt to me is asking for an early departure.
However uncomfortable it is for me to accept that life is rarely if ever perfect, if I look for that feeling of perfection and tie it in with happiness on top of that, I will never be happy or content and spend my life on an unrealistic quest toward an unreachable goal in misery. Buddhism teaches that happiness is not the absence of problems and I totally agree. I filed for a divorce, had a surgery and was in a car accident within three month of each other in 2007, but through every challenge I was accompanied by protection – an order of protection from the Family Court, a doctor that I have personally known and trusted my life to and a seat belt together with a sense of calm that enabled me to respond the best possible way for us to stay alive. Thankfully, I don’t leave a husband with anger issues, go through emergency surgeries or collide with Hummers every day!!! I don’t wish that on anyone, especially if they don’t feel any pain relief even after being given morphine. Suffering seems to be an inseparable part of life, and yet there is always an ability to feel joy, no matter what the circumstances are. 2007 was the most difficult year for me, but all through the challenges and even physical pain I was able to feel happiness - I was alive, I was free and I was starting over. From major life emergencies to a disappointment over a closed restaurant, we are constantly reminded that absolute happiness is within us and can’t be taken away. Life is truly not an “all or nothing kind of deal”.
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."
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.