I’m taking my son, Brendan, to Nepal, for two months this summer. At first he was really excited, but now he tells me that he does not quite understand why he feels so miserable about leaving the United States and going to teach English in a Buddhist monastery. He worries that he will not know what to do in the classroom, and it does not help that he has received very little information about the age his students will be, or which monastery he will be teaching in, or what he will be expected to do. He is afraid that he will not enjoy the work, that he will be lonely, and that in the two months that he spends in Nepal the world that he knows at home will go on without him. I suspect that he unconsciously fears that he will be different when he returns.
Although he was thrilled and enthusiastic when I first proposed the trip, he has balked every step of the way since it started. After he packed his bags, he sent me a text saying that he did not want to go. We talked about it and he felt better. He even returned to his silly self when he filmed me at the airport:
We flew to JFK . Over a very nice, very expensive dinner, he tried to talk me into letting him fly back to Pittsburgh. His distress was real, and deep, but I knew he would regret not going ahead with the trip in the long run, and I could also see that he wanted me to hold firm and help him keep to this path.
Sometimes the path is very painful, frightening, and hard. Two weeks before departure, my boyfriend Tim, who has lived with me for the past three years, abruptly broke up with me, out of the blue. I was driving on Route 8 North at the time, with two loose dogs in the back seat, and I only managed to keep the car safely on the road because my biological response to profound and catastrophic situations is to shift into a robot-like rationality and calm. Later on, when the initial danger has passed, is when I fall apart. I am still falling apart a little bit.
I knew we were going through a rough time, but I also thought I knew that we loved each other dearly and would work through it. I didn’t understand how unhappy he was because he never told me. Looking back on it, I cannot say when he changed, or when what had been abiding love for me transformed into courtesy. He says he still loves me, but that he only now realizes how important it is for him to be with someone who is more like his mother, a devout Catholic and avid sports fan. I’m an atheist and I can’t stand American football. I thought the fact that we loved each other in spite of our differences was the important thing.
He has been very nice about it all, very sincere, very courteous. He will stay in my house while I am gone and look after our dogs. He drove us to the airport and told me I could ask just about anything of him. My mind boggles. What had been a certain reality wavered and evaporated, like a mirage in the desert.
He berated me! He hurt me!
He beat me! He deprived me!
For those who hold such grudges,
hostility is not appeased.
He berated me! He hurt me!
He beat me! He deprived me!
For those who forgo such grudges,
So reads the first chapter of the Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings on the way. No good, no peace, no happiness will come to me if I complain and wail and moan about what my boyfriend, whom I loved very much, did or did not do to me. I am suffering, yes. My heart aches. But how I respond to this particular experience will determine how I will feel in the next few months and the more distant future. I choose to let go lovingly. As the Buddha says,
In this world
Hostilities are never
appeased by hostility.
But by the absence of hostility
are they appeased.
This in an interminable truth.
I am here on this journey with my son, my only child, in order to give back to him some of the attention and care that I could not give to him for most of his life. His father and I divorced when he was six, and due to a set of unfortunate circumstances Brendan spent all of his school years in his father’s house. I lived far from him and saw him only once a month, sometimes for only a few hours, during that period. When I dropped him off at his father’s house, into which I was rarely invited, I wept at the side of the road in my car. Because I diligently worked to have a relationship with him, we are very close now.
We had a very easy 13-hour flight to Doha in exit row seats on Qatar Airlines. Best airplane food I’ve ever had. Both Brendan and I slept most of the way. Then we took a taxi to our elegant hotel, an old-fashioned Arabian manor with hand-carved mahogany doors and marble floors, right in the middle of the souq.
Shortly after this video, Brendan broke down again. I thought he was having an allergy attack, but he was crying. We are both limping along at the start of our journey together.
He needed some time along so I wandered out into the souq, a warren of covered walkways and open air courtyards, cafes and shops. I quickly came back because I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone at night, and a few men had made comments to me. I asked Brendan to come out with me. I wanted him to see how beautiful it all was–the men in long white robes and headdresses, the women in sleek black abayas sitting in the outdoor cafes smoking hookahs—the coffee shops and the spices in bulky burlap bags, the men lounging over their dinners and beautiful women in turquoise headdresses. Our hotel sits at the edge of the souq, where the bird-sellers hawk feathered and furry creatures, stacking cages of chicks on top of kittens.
He came out and we walked here:
Then we settled down into an outdoor cafe, where I ordered hummos and tabbouleh, which were delicious and fresh, just as spicy and lemony as Tim’s concoctions, and maybe even a tiny bit better. I also ordered what I thought would be a minty-apple drink, but which turned out to be a hookah. The smoke made me light-headed and slightly sick to my stomach. Brendan sank down into his funk again while I prattled on about how lovely it was to be out in the Arabian night admiring the parade of tourists and locals. We came back to the hotel. Brendan retreated into the familiar comfort of the internet and I wrote this blog.
It is now 3:22 am, Qatar time, and the muzzeins are singing beautiful prayers into the darkness. Brendan has scrambled out the door to look over the balcony towards the sound. Here is a video of the view that he is looking at.
The first lines of the Dhammapada are:
Preceded my mind
led by mind,
formed by mind.
If with mind polluted
one speaks or acts,
then pain follows,
as a wheel follows
the draft ox’s foot.
The words are profound and simple. Our minds–both our individual consciousnesses and the ancestral/cultural consciousness that we each inherit–shapes, forms, and interprets the mental objects, the phenomena that we encounter in this life. It is not the other way around. We are not blank slates, not clay tablets that life writes itself upon, but rather intelligent and emotional beings who interpret everything that we encounter. Therefore it is important to free ourselves from the bad habits that we have inherited or learned.
We unlearn bad habits–delusional thinking, hatred, violent, attachments to passions–by meditating and becoming more conscious of how we respond to phenomena, and more conscious of how we wish to respond.
Both Brendan and have begun this journey in pain. Some of that pain is unavoidable. The Buddha taught that all beings experience pain. He also said that he taught one thing and one thing only: pain and its cessation.
The first of the four noble truths is that we cannot avoid pain. What we do have some control over is how we respond to the pain that we feel. We can either behave and speak in ways that will prolong the pain and increase our suffering, or we can behave and speak in ways that will lead beyond the pain to a sense of ease.
The Buddha said,
If with mind pure
one speaks or acts
then ease follows
as an ever-present shadow.
Neither Brendan nor I know what we will encounter on this journey. We know that we will be living with a Nepali family, but we do not know where that family home is, or how many people are in it, or when we will begin living there. Tomorrow we fly to Kathmandu. We are scheduled to arrive at midnight, and our very kind Nepali host will meet us there, so late at night. We have much to learn, but we also have much to unlearn.