Here’s Ten Dollars; Keep the Karma.

Sometime in the nineties, I started noticing tip jars (often just plastic cups) sitting near the cash registers at certain casual restaurants… specifically, tip jars bearing cute little signs to the effect of, “Tip! It’s good for your karma.” I still see them around, and I always think to myself that if someone is going to use a religious concept as a charming way to get people to leave optional tips, why stop at eastern religions? One could just as easily frame it in western religious terms: “Tip! All your sins will be forgiven,” or “Tip! You’ll go to heaven.”

But I know the answer to that. Western religions aren’t hip and trendy in the western world the way eastern religions are, so the lure of “good karma,” it is. Moral causality. Throw money into the jar, and the act will work in your favor.

It’s a much more serious matter to talk about sin and heaven. Whether or not we Americans believe in karma, seeing the word “karma” on a tip jar isn’t going to pack the same psychological punch as the words “sin” and “heaven.” We’re largely a nation of people hard-wired to react strongly to those words in one way or another. The notion of karma just isn’t culturally ingrained in us in the same ways.

Where “karma” on a tip jar is cute, clever and cool, the words “sin” and “heaven” on the same jar would come across as preachy, flippant or even sacrilegious, and the effect would be adverse because of it. No matter how many ribbons and rainbows and flowers and smiley faces you put on it, a jar labeled with holier-than-thou signage isn’t going to work.

So, fine… it’s cool, cute, hip and trendy to decorate your tip jar with the word “karma.” Here are some examples I found online:

 

Karma: the new currency!

Karma: the new currency!

 

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

 

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

 

It’s light and fun and people dig it. I get that. I myself use the word “karma” lightly, every time I park somewhere and think, good parking karma! because I scored a prime parking spot. Here’s the thing, though. Here’s why “karma” on a tip jar bugs me. It’s one thing to remark and laugh about “parking karma,” but another thing entirely to use the word in an attempt to influence peoples’ actions.

Moreover, there’s this: I usually see the “karma jars” in trendy eateries where you order and pay for your food at the counter. Tips at these kinds of establishments are optional and gratuitous, since you’re not receiving table service. Tipping gratuitously at a counter in this case is simply giving.

Giving, in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism – to simplify, let’s just default to Buddhism, since that’s the trendiest of the eastern religions, and that’s the one I know the best – is dana, which is a Pali word that indicates “selfless” giving. I shall be helpful to others. To give selflessly means that you don’t want or expect anything in return. You give without thinking of what you might get back.

I grew up spending Sunday mornings sitting in a Jodo Shinshu church (Jodo Shinshu is a type of Japanese Pureland Buddhism on the Mahayana side) listening to dharma talks (sermons) and going to dharma class (Sunday school), and I’ve heard countless lectures on what it means to be selfless. From what I understand, putting a sign on a tip jar that says, “Tip! It’s good for your karma” is actually anti-Buddhist in nature. Dropping money into a jar thinking of what you’re going to get out of it later isn’t Buddhist. It’s the opposite of Buddhist. It’s selfish, not selfless, because you’re putting money into the jar thinking of yourself.

I just can’t see it as cute or cool or hip or whatever. All I can do when I see these “karma” tip jars is try to be a good Buddhist and have compassion, but it’s hard when I’m inwardly rolling my eyes and biting my tongue. I am not a good Buddhist.  I’m always trying, but I see where I need to tweak my meditation practice in an attempt to improve.

The proliferation of tip jars asking for money with the promise of something good in it for me has always irked me, as the general cultural appropriation of eastern religions by westerners has irked me (please note that I’m differentiating between earnest students and converts to eastern religions and those who just dig certain aspects of the religions to the point of, say, slapping a “karma” sign on a tip jar while not actually knowing what that means, much less studying and practicing said religion). Buddhism seen as a hip and trendy cultural thing just confounds me. I don’t know what to make of it, really.

I’m confounded by those tip jars.

I’m confounded when people think that being Buddhist means that you have to be a vegetarian. (Unless you’re a monk in certain temples, you can eat whatever you want.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks authoritatively of having a soul. (Buddhists don’t believe in the existence of souls.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks of sin. (Buddhists don’t believe in the concept of sin.)

Buddhist philosophy is difficult and complex, and I’m certainly no one to judge when Buddhist-curious people or admirers of Buddhism or actual converts display ignorance. I’ve been working toward the realization of a higher prajna (wisdom) my whole life, and I can tell you, it’s not easy. I have a stack of books, some of which I’ve had as long as I can remember, as they were passed down to me by my Grandmother, filled with my questions scribbled in the margins, post-its with more questions marking pages, hundreds of my questions that haven’t yet been answered. Karma is just one of many challenging concepts in eastern religions, so the sight of those tip jars with their blithe karma signs written by people who (probably) aren’t Buddhist acting like they care about the welfare of my karma so they can get money just annoys me if I see them when my patience levels are low. What do you know about karma? I want to ask on the days I’m cranky when I see the karma tip jars. Please enlighten me, because I was raised Buddhist, I am still Buddhist, I’ve been studying Buddhism/Buddhist philosophy/eastern religious philosophy all of my life, and I still don’t fully grasp the doctrine of karma.

 

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

 

The truth is, I probably have a decent grasp on eastern religious philosophy, but its complexity is such that some aspects of it seem to elude my understanding the more I study it, and at this point in my life, I just want to enjoy the feeling of serenity and peace I experience when I release my mind during my practice. So I don’t study it as much anymore. I just do my practice and try to live by Buddhist principles as best as I can. I try to “practice intention with detachment from outcome.” I try to practice mindfulness and gratitude, saying “thank you” freely and often, and really feeling it. And I try to be patient, but as you can see from this post, I still need a lot of work in that area. A part of this is that I tend to be impatient by nature (in some contexts).

This tip jar at one of my favorite local restaurants is a welcome breath of fresh air every time I see it:

 

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

 

I’m going to happily continue partaking of their somewhat luxurious fare every once in a while, because the Chop Shop Tempe guys are honest, and honest is what’s cute, cool and clever… plus, their raw vegetable salad with grilled tofu (which I order without cheese) is delicious and vegan and therefore good for my karma! (If you know me well, you know that I’m giggling as I write this.

Carry on.

The Darkest Hour

Right now, as I witness a number of my friends working through some pretty daunting life challenges with strength and courage, I’m inspired to muse on my default coping strategy. I prefer the word “strategy” to “mechanism” because it’s action-oriented, but the one I have in mind is actually more of a simple trick.

The idea is to navigate hardships with the cautious confidence of a surfer standing, feet planted on her surfboard, on the crest of the wave rather than flailing every which way in a murky turmoil, struggling in the lung-burning angst of one who gets pulled underwater and tossed around… right? Like everyone, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the bewildering throes of the latter. I thought I’d relay the trick that pulls me up and out, since I’ve been thinking about it.

That is, I think about words and language a lot.

I’m talking about popular axioms in the forms of adages and idioms, proverbs and platitudes. Many of these are interchangeable, these banal sayings and feel-good, preachy expressions, and they’re clichés. They’re filler material in our lexicon, the expressions that writers are advised to avoid. If we want to write in those terms, we’re told, we can apply for jobs writing for greeting card companies or cranking out fortune cookie fortunes. We’ve developed such a knee-jerk reaction against these age-old “words of wisdom” that our eyes start to roll before we even finish hearing them, and we tend to feel insulted when someone throws one at us in the depths of our struggles. A saccharine platitude weighed down with didacticism all dressed up in a cheery tone of voice makes for a hell of a life raft, even if the people offering it have their hearts in the right place.

 

Definition: Adage (Merriam-Webster)

 

But I’m thinking maybe it’s different when you repeat those tired, trite expressions to yourself, because they have a way of getting me through when I’m the one using them to coach myself along. In keeping with the definition of “filler material,” the words are always right there, spilling out over the edges. The trick is to start paying attention to them, at which point you can turn them over in your head, repeatedly, performing a sort of mental twiddling of the thumbs. Then the expression takes on the function of background music, and somewhere in the repetitive space of this thinking about it without thinking about it, a sedative effect comes over you, numbing you so you can forge ahead. Dull pain is still pain, but it’s manageable, and you can work through it.

Maybe I’ve just described the power of a mantra, which would suggest that you don’t have to read tomes on Eastern philosophy, convert to Eastern religion or become a yogi to experience this effect. Ordinary Western sayings can work as mantras, too.

A perfect cactus bloom from my house in a past life.

A perfect cactus bloom from my house in a past life.

 

It began in elementary school when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek and came across the adage “the darkest hour is just before dawn” for the first time. Aside from finding this to be a metaphorically beautiful expression, it just resonates in a way that other, similar sayings don’t.

Now, when the cyclical rhythm of life gears down to “Low” and I find myself spiraling off into what I call The Great Abyss of WTF for a stay of indefinite duration, that old adage comes clanging back at me like a rabid cow with tricked-out bells… yet somehow, the accompanying sound is sonorous rather than cacophonous.

“The darkest hour is just before dawn.”

Many of these expressions of age-old wisdom often ring true. It’s maddening, but expressions get overused for a reason. “Things will get better.” Circumstances in life usually do get better, but not, for some reason, before they get worse. In fact, things often have a way of getting exponentially worse just when you’re thinking that they couldn’t possibly. Right after that, though, something happens… you reach a breaking point, and then you get a consolation prize! That’s the magic. The breaking point is where the magic happens. The breaking point creates a wellspring of potential. Disaster prompts action, action leads to change, and change leads to improvement. Or, change leads to sub-sets of challenges – small steps, baby steps – that will inevitably lead to better times. “The darkest hour is just before dawn” is a potent reminder. In retrospect, I can spot the breaking points in my life and see clearly that they were just turn-around points, flashing with the lessons I needed to learn.

“Hope for the best, but expect the worst” is also helpful. For me, this proverb provides encouragement to proceed with cautious optimism and requires just a bit of old-fashioned samurai stoicism.

“This, too, shall pass” comes to mind, but this expression is more of a reassurance than a warrior cry for perseverance. It’s useful when you want to will yourself through some sort of unpleasantness. It’s what you think when you’re sitting in the dental hygienist’s chair and she’s earnestly working away with that sinister, metal tartar-scraping hook thing pierced halfway into your gum-line and she hits a nerve – zing! – every other second, and you find yourself holding your breath while your fingers curl into fists until your nails dig into your palms and sweat pops out of the pores all over your body. Breathe. This, too, shall pass. (And then it does, and then you’re fine, until the next cleaning appointment rolls around six months later.)

It’s when situations in life get tough that I brace myself for the darkening and I actually hear those words in my head, repeatedly, mantra-like: “The darkest hour is just before dawn.”

It’s true that “things could always be worse,” but this adage doesn’t inspire or motivate me in any way. It’s merely an observation, and an annoying one, at that. “Things could always be worse” is the “You don’t have the right to feel that way because that’s a FIRST WORLD PROBLEM” adage.

Yet, perspective is a profound thing, and perspective is the take-away from “things could always be worse.”

For instance, when I came back from six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War, I didn’t have a bad hair day for literally years, because the concept of a bad hair day is inconceivable once you’ve lived in the desert with no semblance of civilization for six months and your main concern each day is whether you’re going to live to see the next. Good/bad hair doesn’t factor into survival mode. I was able to wash my hair every once in a while out there, but it was a tedious and dicey affair (you’re vulnerable when you wash your hair!) that required using rationed water. We had small bottles of Pert (Shampoo and Conditioner in One!) that were either issued or donated… I don’t remember which, but I remember that its fresh, green scent in my hair was an unspeakable luxury once the hair-washing production was over. (I haven’t used Pert since, but I would probably recognize its scent instantly.) That’s what clean hair amounted to: an intermittent, tense luxury. 23 years later, I now certainly do have bad hair days, but I haven’t forgotten. It’s the little things, and I don’t take them for granted.

“The darkest hour is just before dawn” is my favorite adage because it does inspire and motivate me. It turns out that a lot can be done in the dark. You can do some of your best creative thinking in the dark; sight deprivation amps up your remaining senses, and with that bolstering comes an almost supernatural ability to strategize your way out of your predicament. Perhaps this is partially why some of the most compelling poets and writers in history wrote from dark places, oftentimes chronically. It’s like The Great Abyss of WTF was a grungy old motel they checked into one night and never left. (Sadly, many brilliant poets and writers died in that darkness, dissolving into addiction or turning to suicide… but they left us with a body of written work that will inspire and captivate people until the end of time.)

Another thing I do when facing extreme difficulty is I veer in the opposite direction and convince myself that the worst-case scenario will happen, and I focus on that. I plan for it. This may sound counter-intuitive, and it goes against all the variations on the “Envision your perfect situation and it will happen!” theme popularized by the self-help genre of the last 20 years. (The Secret, anyone?) But somehow, focusing on the worst rather than on the best has been a tactic that’s been of enormous benefit to me. (Here, I’m tempted to segue into the topic of Buddhism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

To focus on the worst is to put yourself in survival mode, and there, you begin to craft an action plan, since there’s nothing else to do. Once you’re in survival mode, you’re forced to take steps, many of them drastic. The alternative is to perish. That phrasing might sound dramatic, but that’s how it feels… and besides, presenting yourself with a life or death proposition works. As you funnel your energy toward that darkest imaginable place in your future, you suddenly find a). solutions to problems in unexpected places, and/or b). that while you were busy preparing for the worst, things were actually getting better… and the amelioration of your circumstances came about while you weren’t looking directly at them.

This is not as passive an approach as it sounds. The human mind naturally searches for solutions in everything, I think, even if we’re not aware of it. We take pleasure in solving mysteries and riddles and identifying patterns and finding answers. With our vision muddled, we discover other ways to make sense of things. Such as it is that things evolve… and that evolution happens in the dark.

The darkest hour is just before dawn.

 

Spring in the desert is always the dawn!

Spring in the desert is always the dawn!

 

What I’ve come to realize is that the darkest hours are important. The darkest hours are hard, but they’re also the pivotal, life-altering and transformative times that are essential for growth and the wisdom we need to prepare ourselves for future hardships, because there will always be future hardships. No one is exempt from the vagaries of life.

A penultimate favorite quote: “In the end, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Now those are fighting words! If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

And finally, you know what they say: “When nothing goes right, go left.”

Which is about change. It’s all about change, and progress through change. It’s revitalizing. It allows me to be the surfer standing on two feet on the crest of the wave not only with determination, but with joy, as well. There’s a sense of liberation there, and the view is stunning.

This Post Contains Sleep-Laughing, Stevie the 4-Runner, Movies and the End of an Era

I often experience insomnia and nightmares pending a big move. It happened when I was getting ready to move out to the Superstition Mountains. It happened when I was getting ready to move to France. It even happened when we were getting ready to move here!

Now, another big move is pending, but instead of having sleep issues, I’ve been sleeping very well… and last night, something totally bizarre happened. I had a dream in which Callaghan and I were laughing boisterously at something (I wish I could remember what). Suddenly, I found myself awake, and Callaghan was laughing and saying, “You were laughing! Really loudly!”

Can you believe it? I actually woke Callaghan up because I was laughing in my sleep. Unheard-of! I opened my eyes laughing and he was laughing, too, just as he was in the dream, because my sleep-laughter was infectious, he said. We snuggled close, laughing and kissing each other back to sleep. It was sweet and weird and different and awesome.

I think I can take this as a sign that moving back to Arizona is the right thing to do.

We had a busy, fun and emotional weekend.

Busy because: We got some boxes, did some packing, and reserved a trailer. We knew we’d eventually see the end of our blissfully unfettered non-vehicle-owing days… they came to a screeching halt when we bought an old (1999) Toyota 4-Runner last week in preparation for our move to Arizona. We got a truck because a) we prefer them, b) cargo space, and c) trailer hitch. We named her Stevie, after Arizona native Stevie Nicks. She rocks! She’s not the worst gas-guzzler we’ve ever seen, so that’s good. We can strap Ronnie James and Nounours safely in the back seat in their respective carriers, load up the rear cargo area and hook the trailer to the back so we can drag the material contents of our lives across the expanse of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona we need to cover to reach our destination. No airplanes, movers or shippers for us this time!

 

Stevie, dressed in black, just like her rock star namesake! Callaghan got creative with the blurring out of her plate.

Stevie, dressed in black, just like her rock star namesake! Callaghan got creative with the blurring out of her plate.

 

Fun because: We spent all Saturday afternoon right up into the evening ensconced in movie theaters. We do this thing where we wait until there are several films out that we want to see, and then we spend a whole day watching them back to back. The last time, we went for Pacific Rim, The Conjuring and The Heat. This time, it was Prisoners, Rush and Gravity… and again, it was well worth it. The films ranged from very good (Prisoners) to great (Rush) to OUT-OF-THS-WORLD stunning (Gravity), with plenty of thrills all around.

Emotional because: After we emerged from the theater, we headed to a nearby McDonald’s to get online (their free internet is the best thing on the menu!) and check our phone messages. This led to finding out that my Grandma had died earlier in the day, in Hawaii, where she’d lived all 99 years of her life. She was ready to go. She went to sleep and dreamed herself a peaceful, painless end to a life that had been rich and fulfilling. Devout Buddhists in the Japanese Jodo Shinshu tradition, she and Grandpa had derived a lot of joy from the work they did for decades at their hongwanji (Buddhist temple) in Kahului, so our family will get together there next summer to memorialize them both.

She was my last Grandparent. It’s an odd new circumstance, not having Grandparents.