Living with Love

Living with Love is my blog where I will comment on various things related to psychology, society, and culture.

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Attachment, Personal Love & True Love

February 6, 2017

Some Wisdom for Valentine’s Day:

When adults enter into a sexual relationship, they engage and develop physical and emotional routines that are similar to a mother and infant: they hug, kiss, rock and hold each other, comfort each other with baby talk, and provide care for each other. An adult “pair bond” forms from these activities (though they are being used for genital sexuality, not for infant protection and survival). Consequently, an adult sexual relationship produces feelings of infantile or childish attachment that happen even if the relationship is abusive or psychologically toxic. Adult sexual pair-bonding is a powerful emotional glue and it comes with universal emotional and psychological dynamics: identification with the partner, the desire to stay close, searching behavior in absence, feelings of vulnerability, and separation anxiety (wanting to know where the other person is and whether that person is committed, for example) when the bond is threatened, and grief if the bond is broken or the partner is lost. Whether or not you want to “feel” these dynamics — whether or not you have an “agreement” to an “open” relationship — you will feel the emotional effects of sexual pair bonding unless you are a sociopathic individual because they are a built-in part of being human.

And yet, attachment bonding does not provide the capacity to become a witness to another’s individuality and to remain interested through the ups and downs of that person’s life or to learn how to develop psychologically and spiritually in order to go on loving that person through conflicts and disruptions while being responsible for oneself. A secure attachment bond does not guarantee becoming and remaining a whole self or awakening to your own interior life. All of these things are required in today’s marriage in order for it to last and remain intimate and exciting. Human biology and reproductive drives do not provide the range of skills and development that personal love requires. When we confuse attachment bonds with love, we misconstrue what is required of two people to sustain a mature intimate relationship. We then mistakenly assume that closeness and ease will be guaranteed if we find the “right” partner and the right chemistry. It makes sense, then, to trade in a partner as soon as she or he does not “feel right” any longer or when you feel that you cannot personally identify yourself with that person. But a secure adult pair bond (a regular and satisfying sexual relationship), or even a secure attachment bond with a loving parent, does not translate into developing the psychological maturity that is needed to love another person as a changing individual. In fact, the mistakes we have already made in assuming that personal love is biological have badly distorted our cultural lens and caused us to ignore the psychological and spiritual demands that personal love places on a couple. Similarly, we may not appreciate the new horizon for growth and development personal love has brought into many of our lives.

Personal love – in order to become true love — requires spiritual and psychological development in both individuals. It also promises a new kind of human being: a person who can live with conflict without destroying a bond or becoming dishonest; a person who understands the importance of constraint and commitment in developing over decades as witnessed and being witnessed by another; someone who cannot ignore inner life because she or he comes to understand how unconsciousness shapes feelings and how we each need to become responsible for our feelings; and someone who learns to live with an equal partner in an atmosphere of harmony because conflicts can be negotiated. All the while, this someone continues to help and need and be interested in the same partner over time. Personal love, as an aspect of twenty-first century culture, may be promoting a new psychological horizon in relating to human difference, as we learn to achieve harmony by recognizing our own less conscious or unconscious motivations.

The Algebra of America: Racism and Oppression = Surplus Wealth

May 26, 2016
The Algebra of America: Racism and Oppression = Surplus Wealth

Polly Young-Eisendrath Ta-Nehisi Coates Blog            In Between the World and Me (2105), writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates presents the underlying formulas of racism, power, brutality and oppression that undergird the privilege and profits of American society. Here is one such formula: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear” (p. 17). In a compelling style that combines poetry, philosophy, political commentary, journalism, and intellectual intensity this slim volume is written in memoir form as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori. The father’s focus is especially on the physical and psychological nature of being black in America: the fear and anxiety, the confusion and chaos, and the enduring courage and commitment to life. Through the lens of Coates’s personal life, he details the early and continuous abuse and domination of black people to make possible the wealth of what Coates calls the “Dream” of being “white.”

I grew up in a working class area of Akron, Ohio, where my father (like other fathers) got up at 4:30 AM to leave for the factory at 5:30 AM. He worked long and dirty days and, by the time he retired, he was making $10,000 a year. In my school system, I was always (from kindergarten through senior year of high school) surrounded by and friends with black kids. I came to see and understand their circumstances up close and personal, by visiting their homes and neighborhoods. I saw and sensed everything Coates writes about, even though gangs and guns were not as common in the 1960’s in Akron as they were in the 1970’s in Baltimore. In Coates’s language, my family “thought it was white,” that is we were called “white” and called ourselves “white,” but from family photos from Kentucky and West Virginia two generations back, I could see people in my father’s family who looked African American and Native American. I always wondered why we were “white.” My family was not pursuing the Dream that Coates writes about. We were just trying to survive and get on with life, but I think my parents would have found it impossible to question our hypothetical whiteness.

As Coates makes clear, of course, there are no “races,” the category of race having been invented in order to keep black slaves and white indentured servants from becoming a united tribe of oppressed people Polly Young-Eisendrath Ta-Nehisi Coates Blogwho could rebel against the landowners and slave holders. The ruling class invented the marker of skin color to “elevate” people with lighter skin shades and turn them against those with darker skin, and promise “whites” the Dream if they cooperated with the slave owners. Different from our darker brothers and sisters, the “whites” were promised emancipation from indenture and, perhaps eventually, the Dream. And so, the laws were laid down about “the races.” On this topic, Coates says, “I have not spent my time studying the problem of ‘race’ – ‘race’ itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard – usually believing himself white – proposes the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same ‘race.’ But a great number of ‘black’ people are already beige” (p. 115).

In Akron, I went to school with black kids very much like Coates – smart and curious about life with good parents who were caring. Most of them were also religious and well mannered. Coates grew up with better-educated parents (than most of my working class friends) who wanted him to see into his own life circumstances and to know himself and do something valuable in the world. Coates’s parents were also informed about Black Power and the importance of black identity. Even with these supports at home, he was nevertheless confused and terrified a lot of the time, alternately threatened on the streets by gangs, in his home by beatings from his father, at school by standards and ideals he couldn’t relate to. Coates makes his reader feel what it felt like to grow up in a black body in Baltimore in the 1970’s. His perspective and feelings are also colored by atheism, something he emphasizes and incorporates into his analyses. Coates wants us to stay close to the physical and psychological threats that surround black lives and not to retreat into any excuses or softening that the Black church might bring.

In addressing his son about the meaning of being black in America, Coates is addressing all of us. He wants us to see and feel how our country is founded on a formula of oppression and racism = surplus wealth, and how all of us are seduced into believing the Dream until we wake up. “The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown” (p .98).

Akron OhioOn the back jacket of the book, Toni Morrison says “This is required reading.” I couldn’t say it better. If you want to “find America” outside its marketing of itself, you will find it in these covers. It is an America that is murkier and more horrifying than you may have thought, but Coates clarifies it for you. And yet, he does not leave you with a hopeless feeling. He helps you reclaim your sense of hope by meeting the people who, like himself, are called “black” and have forged together an extraordinary and resilient culture cut from the fabric of fear and oppression. Through his sojourns in Paris, Coates comes to see his America through a new lens: “what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us” (p. 120).

Ultimately, America has to change in a way that is still unknown. And this change has to be led by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates who says, “I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform color or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the weight of the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream” (p. 119). Please read this book. It will tell you something new about what it means to be American.



Liberation in One Fell Swoop? Conversations About Awakening in 1958 and 2015

August 1, 2015

Conversations about Human Liberation: 1958 and 2015, Buddhism & Psychoanalysis

Hisamatsu ShinichiOn May 16, 1958, the Japanese Zen master and philosopher, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu (1889-1980) met with the psychoanalyst and writer, Carl Jung (1875-1961) at Jung’s home in Kusnacht, Switzerland. Hisamatsu asked to meet with Jung to talk about the nature of human awakening or liberation. As a part of his comparative research into Eastern and Western religion and philosophy, Hismatsu had lectured extensively in 1958 throughout the US. On his way back to Japan, he visited with a number of prominent European thinkers to talk about various topics relevant to Zen and Western philosophies of liberation. The most complete English translation of this complex and fascinating conversation between two masters is published in Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy, (2002, Routledge, edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath and Shoji Muramoto). The translation is by Muramoto.

At a key moment in the conversation, Hisamatsu poses a question about liberation: “Can psychotherapy liberate us from suffering in one fell swoop?” Jung responds, “Liberate us from suffering? One tries to reduce suffering, yet some suffering is always present. There would be nothing beautiful if the beautiful were not in contrast with ugliness or suffering. The German philosopher Schopenhauer once said: ‘Happiness is the cessation of suffering.’ Psychotherapy must not disturb the problem of suffering too much in people. Otherwise, people would become dissatisfied.” And Hisamatsu replies, “Suffering is, in a sense, necessary for life. You are right. Nevertheless, we have a genuine wish to be liberated from it.” What ensues after this key interchange is somewhat confusing because Hisamatsu is trying to find out what Jung thinks about the Zen notion that we are liberated from the “I” or “self” in a moment of awakening and Jung is trying to make use of some Sanskrit terms from Buddhism as they apply in his model of mind and to the notion of psychological healing through individuation. It is this exchange about “liberation in one fell swoop” that I want to focus on here.

In 1958, there was not much knowledge available to either Europeans or Japanese about models of psycho-spiritual development that originated outside of either culture of origin. Jung and Hisamatsu were opening up a new frontier. In 2015, however, there is a remarkable body of knowledge about all of the traditions of Buddhism — very capably translated into English – and more refined and developed psychoanalytic models of mind and methods of psychotherapy. Conversations about human liberation are still on the outer reaches of what we know about the conscious and unconscious mind, however.

We now know that the model of mind that originated with the Buddha’s “supreme awakening,” as it’s called, includes a highly developed understanding of unconsciousness, hidden motivations, and emotional habit patterns that are very hard to break. This is the classical Buddhist model of mind that was developed in the Abhidharma teachings on Buddhist psychology. In this model, the mind wants to be awakened – to have the light of mindfulness shine on its unconscious meanings and habits. The mind is happiest and most serene when it is awakened and conscious of its true nature. By contrast, the model of mind that comes from psychoanalysis is one in which there is inherent conflict between conscious and unconscious desires, wishes, and views. The psychoanalytic mind cannot tolerate all of reality, ever, because of the complexity of the human personality with its hidden aggressions, competitions and longing for omnipotence. Later in the interview Jung states the psychoanalytic goal of liberation: “If a person is able to adopt the attitude that both good and bad are part of life, that person will suffer less. With an objective attitude, he or she can find a way to be released from morbid neurotic suffering. If he or she can say ‘yes’ to the suffering and accept it, the pain is suddenly diminished.” In psychoanalytic practices, there is no “liberation in one fell swoop” because it is impossible for the mind to know itself and its motivations all at once.

Enlightening ConversationsThese two models of human liberation – the Buddhist model of insight through mindfulness and the psychoanalytic model of insight into conflict – will be the subject of spontaneous inquiry and conversations between renowned Buddhist teachers and psychoanalysts at Harvard Divinity School this fall, November 12-13th. We will be talking about enlightenment, Buddhahood, idealization and disillusionment, as they are relevant to human liberation in the twenty-first century. Please register now and join the conversation. Seating is limited.


A Review of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gwande

March 3, 2015

Vital Signs: Staying Alive Until You Die

Being Mortal BookBravo to Atul Gwande for writing a book about the end of life that is both a pleasure to read and chock full of vital information about what happens in our current health care system when our bodies fail us in old age or fatal illness. If we are not prepared with some kind of self-determination and perspective, we are doomed to emotional overwhelm and confusion in trying to make the best decisions about our medical options and care. Instead of enhancing our last years, months, weeks or days, we could imprison ourselves in a round of “health care” that is unrelated to our actual survival, supported by statistical analyses that don’t take the individual into account, and often psychotically delusional about hoped for “recovery” — holding out fantasies about what “could” be accomplished from painful and expensive medical treatments.

As Gwande, a doctor and writer, says, “[O]ur most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” When Gwande sat with his mother (a doctor) and his father (also a doctor) to review his father’s “options” in dealing with a progressive spinal cancer at the age of 75, the three Gwandes were overwhelmed and confused. “The oncologist was now center stage, but she lacked [the] ability to take in the whole picture. We missed it keenly. She proceeded in information mode. She laid out eight or nine chemotherapy options in about ten minutes. Average number of syllables per drug: 4.1. It was dizzying. He could take bevacizumab, carboplatin, temozolomide, thalidomide, vincristine, vinblastine, or some other options I missed in my notes. She described a variety of different combinations of the drugs to consider as well. The only thing she did not offer or discuss was doing nothing.” And at the end of her speech, she added, “You could be back on a tennis court this summer, hopefully” – an utterly bizarre fantasy, as the Doctors Gwande (but others would not) recognize.

Why we — as a society and as individuals — operate in the ways we do, when faced with our mortality, is a story that Gwande sets out in careful biological and historical detail. Mostly, though, it is a story of psychology. In a society that holds out fantasies of being forever youthful, and has intelligent citizens who believe (honestly) that technology will (soon) unlock the secret of eternal life, we have forgotten how to face a debilitating and fatal diagnosis with any hope of happiness in our remaining time on earth. Instead, both doctors and patients indulge in impossible fantasies about fixing things, even when people have lived past the normal lifespan. We seem to have forgotten how to remain vital while turning out the lights.

What Gwande shows, again and again through his well-crafted stories of individuals of different ages with fatal diagnoses — and his review of large-scale research about life’s meaning — is that, in fact, we do not want to lose our autonomy (our ability to make decisions for ourselves) or our dignity in the final chapter of our life story. And yet, when offered unrealistic and poorly informed “choices” (even though the doctor may be giving us all the “facts” and consequences) both the dying and their loved ones tend to lean into the “choice” of “extending your life.” BUT, that choice too often goes in exactly the wrong direction — into a prison of miseries that defeat the individual, exhaust the resources of the family, and guarantee an undignified death.

Gwande begins the book with a contrast between his Indian grandfather — a wealthy farmer in India, who lived to be 110 years old, surrounded by family, living in his son’s home, still surveying his property on horseback at the age of 100 — and his wife’s grandmother. The latter was a strong-willed Southern lady (American) who lived alone for two decades after her husband died, unwilling to make any arrangements for residential care. One day she took the (typical) fateful fall, broke her hip and eventually died in circumstances that she did not want. At first, I thought Gywande’s narrative was headed into a comparison between extended and nuclear families: “Look how the extended family and home care provide exactly what elders want and need while the American nuclear family abandons its elders, hyper-valuing individualism.” But, no, Gwande’s account is, thank goodness, more nuanced. His Indian uncles (his father’s brothers who stayed in India after his father moved to the States), especially the one who housed his grandfather, resented their father and hated losing their own autonomy during the many years the old man remained in charge of the family, while being in their care. He insisted on his ways about everything and never let his sons emerge into their rightful leadership of the family business. Conflict reigned over the years of his slow demise.

And Gwande tells other stories, too, about family members having to care for the ill and aging over decades, losing their own will to live and engage with their lives. The picture of caring for debilitated and old family members is never straightforward and smooth.

I know because I cared for my beloved husband for ten years as he reversed his emotional and physical maturity in the course of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote a memoir about my experience, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Discovery (published by Rodale). My husband died a day after the book came out in October 2014.

My dedicated care for him and my fight to retain my own autonomy is the story I am now attempting to talk about in programs for the general public and mental health professionals (I am a psychologist and Jungian analyst and I do speaking engagements). Presenting this material to any kind of audience is difficult, though. Listeners don’t seem to believe that it is possible for early onset Alzheimer’s disease (especially as they’ve seen it in the movies, rarely in their lives) to be tolerable, acceptable, or spiritually transformative in the way that other life events (the birth of a baby, the growing up of a child) inform us as human beings. The fact that I continued to cherish my husband (while moving on in my own life), to place him into a supportive and pleasant residential care center, to recover from the financial disaster his illness spawned, and never collapse into resentment or hopelessness, does not seem to be readily understood as good news. The story seems instead to be too Pollyanna-ish.

Not only that: My story is rooted in spiritual practice. I have been a Buddhist for 45 years and that perspective has grounded me in the reality of impermanence and mortal being. My husband was a Buddhist, too. I wanted to write our story in a personal and revealing way because I thought it would be good news that early onset Alzheimer’s can be not only a soft landing (mostly it is not painful), but that it could mean spiritual development in both the stricken and the caregiver.

What I went through was tragic and upending and completely unwelcome. But it was not a bitter disaster. I didn’t freak out. I started accepting it, the moment I knew that it was not possible to fix it. Through taking everything one step at a time, and holding tight to my own compass, I found that both my husband and I could retain our dignity, our vitality, and our humanity even when his functioning reverted to being a very young child and then an infant. There was a reality about his situation that could not be changed, but could be embraced. He had some of his happiest years in this “second childhood” as a result of the disease.

That returns me to Gwande and his book. In some ways, he doesn’t tell the story of caregivers as well as he tells the story of the patients and the elderly. He implies that caregivers need to retain vitality and autonomy. What he does not tell us clearly, though, is that caregivers must look just as honestly and wholly at their situation as they look at the patient’s. He spends quite a lot of time supporting the development of humane and livable residential care houses that can support people when they have long-term illnesses, but he doesn’t emphasize how important these setting are to caregivers.

Gwande has done a great compassionate service in writing this book. He clarifies that we need to be wary of a “health care system” that does not recognize the meaning of our everyday lives and that loses track of the bigger picture of our humanity as soon as things cannot be reasonably fixed. Our vital signs must remain connected to being truly alive until we die — instead of feeling trapped and imprisoned in the sad analogy of “fighting the good fight” while lying in a hospital bed or being tied to regime of gut-wrenching treatments.


Excerpt from The Present Heart

September 16, 2014

The following excerpt is from Polly’s new memoir, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery (Rodale Books), out on October 7, 2014.

You can pre-order from , , or .

Feeling loved by Ed meant he took delight in our daily contact, wanting to see and accept me just as I was. He wanted to hear the details. Every day he held up a mirror and helped me see myself through his eyes. I did the same for him. The reciprocal sharing of our lives enhanced the colors and tones of daily life. Our love offered a way to transcend our individual separateness and step out of our self-enclosure and it was mutual/circular/reciprocal. Our love required empathy, mindfulness, equanimity, emotional maturity, open communication, and truth-telling. Those skills are eroded and eventually erased in people with Alzheimer’s disease. When I look back over the long road I have traveled in learning how to love and in helping others love, I have learned most through the tragedy of loving someone with premature dementia. Ed’s capacity to know me as a particular person and keep me in mind was scrubbed away in the endless storms of neurons dying. We do not usually include “knowledge” as a component of love, but I can say definitively from my experience that knowing your beloved as a particular person and holding him or her in mind is a requirement. Otherwise, that individual seems only to fill a role and feels used or disregarded.


The Illusion of Balance

August 28, 2014

People still say “I want to find a balance in my life” and internally, I respond with an almost cynical, “Good luck with that!” Life is motion, change and imbalance and within the fluctuation of activities and moods and physical states, you do need to find some equanimity. But that balance has to be as fluid as the fluctuation of life in motion or it will become opinionated, judgmental and idealistic. And then you will have standards and goals you need to meet in order to find your balance (for example, you have to meditate X number of minutes per day or swim X number of minutes). And that kind of rigidity and control (something like, “Now I have to do my such-and-such in order to maintain balance”) is not balance at all.


What is the Problem With Your Feelings?

August 18, 2014

Most of us don’t know what to do with our feelings. When we feel them strongly, it seems as though we should do something: ignore them, express them, develop a narrative to explain them, identify with them. Many of us have the impression that our feelings say something about REALITY as in: “I can feel this in my gut and so, I know it’s true. It feels more true than anything else!” Then we may feel it is almost an obligation to tell someone else about how we feel, and if our feelings directly affect that person, we may start a ball in motion that keeps rolling on its own accord. And then we may become embroiled in some ridiculous argument about whose feelings are right.


On “Looking into the Eyes of a Master”

March 28, 2014

Tricycle_buddha_head_pilar-489x204Pilar Jennings PhD. recently wrote a piece for Tricycle that generated many thoughtful comments online. In “Looking into the Eyes of a Master” Jennings examines the student-teacher relationship in American Buddhism, and the ways in which teachers are people, too.

Jennings is a relational psychologist, lecturer at Columbia University, and author, and will be part of the Enlightening Conversations event Opportunities and Obstacles to Human Awakening, on May 9-10 in New York City. The following is Polly’s contribution to the conversation kicked off by the comments on Jennings’ article.


Listening to Leonard: Relishing Our Defeats

January 26, 2014

170px-Leonard_Cohen17b-170x204The following blog post was originally posted on the William Alanson White Institute’s blog, Contemplative Psychoanalysis.  Polly will be speaking there on February 5 as part of the White Society Colloquium, giving a talk titled Taking Our Selves Less Seriously: Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Views of Subjective Freedom.  Anne Harrington will also be speaking at the Colloquium.  For more information, visit their events page.


I miss the America we used to be

January 25, 2014

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2-350x196How the French film “Blue is the Warmest Colour” reminded me of the pleasure of learning, and the joy of being human.

The French film “Blue is the Warmest Color” has gotten a lot of media attention recently.  Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and winner of the Palme D’ Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the film has garnered attention for several scenes that focus on two women making love to one another. The film, in my view, is certainly not about female love making that is, in any case, highly stylized and choreographed in the scenes where it appears.  Rather, it speaks to the way we used to live—loving learning, interacting, and being present.


Getting off the Emotional Roller Coaster with Polly at Omega

August 1, 2013
wave-and-rider-489x151To download an audio copy of Polly’s talk, visit Polly’s SoundCloud page.

Teaching at the Omega Institute with Anyen Rinpoche and John Tarrant on the topic of “Getting Off the Emotional Roller Coaster: What the Buddhists Teach” was enjoyable and engaging. Looking back at the course, and the 80 or so attentive people who attended, I am especially impressed by the ways we all stressed deep self-acceptance and self-compassion as the means of emotional healing.


Before Midnight: Kids, power struggles and passion in mid-life marriage

June 29, 2013

BeforeMidnight-489x204While movies rarely show us the reality of the struggles of long-term married couples, Before Midnight dives right in with a refreshingly authentic perspective on how intimate relationships change as we get older.

Like its predecessors, Before Sunset and After Sunrise, Before Midnight deals with the romantic and existential entanglements of its two main characters, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (played by Julie Delpy).  In this third segment of the relationship, the main characters have aged from their first meeting in their 20s, clandestine rendezvous in their 30s (when Jesse was married to another woman, but she was the wrong wife) and are now married and living in France. They have 8-year-old twin daughters, and host Jesse’s 12-year-old son for summers and holidays from the USA.


Karmapa’s Monlam Retreat – Bodhgaya, India

June 29, 2013


Karmapa(From my recent trip in Dec/Jan 2013)

As we got closer to Bodhgaya, the roads became crowded and hectic. We were immersed into the chaos: Bodhgaya, at this time of high spiritual pilgrimage, is an assault on all the senses. Nothing is serene. In the road, I see hordes of people, cows, bulls, dogs, goats and boars mixed with a barrage of motored vehicles, bicycle rickshaws.

There are hundreds of formally dressed Buddhist monks and nuns – mostly in gold and maroon robes, the colors of Tibetan religious orders – and hundreds more rag-tag Indians, some filthy and ill, carrying their loads on their heads or begging or pushing to get by.

Horns and motorcycles and motored rickshaws blare the sounds of their machines (sometimes a little rap music, here and there) against shouting and grunting and demanding. The mix of smoke, noxious pollution, nauseating sewage, and sweet spices and human sweat assaults the nose. The taste of sewage and various kinds of carbon fuels and occasional fried foods sticks to my taste buds.

My body alternately feels hot, afraid or exhausted as we bounce along into the jumble of life and death (once we saw a stiff long corpse, wrapped in a black blanket, being held by three people sitting in the backseat of an open-air Jeep). My mind was sometimes overwhelmed by the misery and chaos and then overwhelmed by stimulation and then uplifted by dogs playing or beautiful silver cows with calm pretty faces.

When I fell into Ativan-induced sleep that night in our supposedly Western-style hotel (but more Indian-style) aptly named “The Royal Residency” because it promised heat and hot water (though it didn’t always deliver) along with marble floors and veranda-style lobbies, my mind’s eye flooded with all that had flooded my senses. I land upon the playful dogs and fall asleep.

Inside a couple days, we have repeatedly braved the road into the main temple marketplace of Bodhgaya, on foot or in motorized rickshaws – with an on-coming flood of traffic and children, even toddlers – that sluices off as we fly forward into their opposing flow. There are no traffic rules. You are hurtling yourself wildly into everything coming at you. It is a dream instead of being dream-like. This is Bodhgaya.

We make our way to the concluding session of the Karmapa’s Monlam retreat, a yearly pilgrimage in which mostly Tibetan monks and nuns, and other religious and lay Buddhists, gather in the thousands to hear the teachings of the handsome fresh-faced 17th Kagyu Karmapa (, the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, the beloved spiritual leader of Tibet who was well-known also in America and Europe.

“Karmapa” means “embodiment of Buddha activities.” Different from His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is both a political and spiritual leader, the Karmapa is dedicated to spiritual teaching. Born in 1985 to a nomadic family and identified as the reincarnated 16th Karmapa when he was 7 years old, this Karmapa is surprisingly practical and guileless.

I was in his first audience in America on May 16, 2008 in New York City – with 5,000 other people. Once again, I am in a crowd of at least 5,000 under this huge tent except now at least 3,000 are Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns — many of the monks being young boys.

We’ve all been searched and scanned in order to get into the tent on the grounds of the Karmapa’s monastery. His Holiness the Karmapa (HHK) makes his way into the tent with little ceremony. Immediately he tells us he is suffering badly from the flu. He wasn’t sure he could withstand the challenge of giving his talk.

I feel comforted by the fact that he speaks openly of his weakness because I have been feeling especially weak and white and fragile next to my brown brothers and sisters – Indian and Himalayan – who soldier on under conditions worse than I could have imagined.

HHK says he is weak and yet he is happy that the teachings for 2013 have concluded in a satisfying way because too often, he says, obstacles interfere with his plans. He wonders why. And then, he proceeds to give a clear and inspiring presentation about one’s attitude towards practice.

He begins by saying that one can do prostrations and mantras “because you see others doing them” and they are perhaps of benefit – better than doing nothing. But the true attitude of practice is to investigate your experience and see what happens:

If I do this practice, how does it benefit others and me? If I don’t do this practice, what happens?

In such a way, we become responsible for our daily practice with a sense of why we are doing it. We clarify our motivation. Until we have this direct awareness of why we engage in practices – meditation and others – we cannot get the full benefits they were designed to provide.

While he is talking, scores of old Tibetan people rise and do prostrations, saluting Buddha, Dharma, Sangha with prayer-hands at the forehead, throat and heart. I have the sense they are barely listening to the instructions of HHK. He concludes by encouraging everyone to investigate one’s own experience in practice and to be honest and responsible about what we are doing.

This is Bodhgaya. I love it.

Your Next Chapter

January 8, 2013

ucUnwelcome change disrupts what we regard as our “lives.” Although our lives occur only on a moment-to-moment basis, we have the belief that life should be stable or secure or continuous. When a deep unwelcome change cracks open our belief in security and stability, we have to make a profound shift in order to move forward. Our life context has been upended by death, illness, betrayal or some other kind of loss and we must change our identity in order to fit into a different life. The event – no matter how chilling or difficult – must be told in our own words to others in order for us to move on and transform ourselves. And yet, we must eventually shift away from the “event story” and into the next chapter of our “life story.”

But how do we move on from an event that has gripped our imagination and spirit and changed us forever? How do we surrender to the contingencies of a life we no longer recognize?

Contemporary grief and bereavement models appear to have limited usefulness for those who feel stuck in a sense of being lost, alienated, ashamed, envious or helpless. READ MORE

Minding the Gap

December 14, 2012

true-love1-420x204True love takes place in a particular kind of interpersonal space between you and your beloved. I use the metaphor of a “gap” – an opening between two people across which sparks may fly. In order for true love to strengthen over time, this gap should neither be too wide, like a chasm or an abyss, nor too close as though you share the same mind. If the gap is a chasm, you feel like strangers and you are no longer familiar with one another. If the gap is too small or seems to have disappeared or collapsed, then you feel the other person is completely known by you and you lose the mystery, uncertainty and desire to inquire. Finding and maintaining an ideal gap between two people in a close relationship is often the biggest obstacle to true love.

You might be confused by the notion that true love requires a special kind of distance instead of closeness. When you read the lines from the Milosz poem: “Love means to learn to look at yourself, The way one looks at distant things,” perhaps you feel surprise or disbelief. But to become a warmly attuned witness we have to cultivate a curiosity and open-mindedness about our selves and our loved ones, which must be practiced especially in the presence of our own pain and negative feelings. Love requires us to resist knee-jerk reactions, defensiveness, tired opinions, and sometimes even cherished ideals. When you love someone, you need to pay homage to the fact that you live in different subjective worlds. And that’s why the poet says you need to learn to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things.