Sunday, April 19, 2015

What would I do with 37 days?

Notice that this is a repost from seven years ago

August 5, 2008

About two weeks ago I was looking out over the Welsh countryside at this vista of the rolling hills, dotted with sheep and little lambies. I painted it in my journal to remember the view from my window. If I knew I had only 37 days to live I think that I would keep on painting and recording my wonder. I’d look at moths as well as roses, at our queen -sized bed with all its pillows and puffy quilts. And, I’d look more slowly at everything in my house and yard.

I don’t want to go anywhere other than where am I now. I love this house, this room where I am typing looking out on a picture window that is engulfed by the pine tree we planted twelve years ago. It is one of the happiest trees I’ve ever seen.

Everyday life is my miracle, my magic, my dream come true. So, I would savor it, including whatever aches and pains or potboilers I’ll run into over these fine gifted days.

The one thing I would add is to write a letter every day for the next 37.  Each letter would be a thank you and love note to someone who has made my life what it is: a blessing beyond measure. I am in the process of making the list of the 37 people who will receive the letters.  I’ll start with my husband, Ronald Whitney Madson as #1 and then on day 37 I’ll write him another letter, so he’ll get "the last words" of Petrushka.  In between I’ll look for and identify those folks living or dead to whom I need to give my thanks and/or apologies. It’s pretty clear that 37 days isn’t exactly enough time to do this completely. So, heck I really do have to start this now so that if for any reason I get lucky and get to hang around beyond the day XXXVII, then well, I’ll be able to keep on going and maybe catch up on the full list.
So, a letter a day . . . and a bit of time to paint or draw something. And, all the rest, I’ll just improvise my ordinary life. I will taste the warmth of Earl Grey tea, the salty sweetness of tomato soup with Gorgonzola cheese, the savory delight of pasta with pesto and peas, and I’ll pull that homemade cherry pie out of the freezer. I will hold hands with Ron a lot. I’ll keep an eye out for things I own that I know friends would love and write little notes saying, "this scarf is for Dalla" and "this book of poetry for Trudy," and "these silk paints for my sister, Kathleen."

There is nothing lacking in my life. There is nothing lacking in my life. I have had joy beyond joy and a field of blessings. So, 37 more days of this paradise will be a lot, thank you.

-Patricia Ryan Madson
August 5, 2008

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reality's Work

Reality's Work

Patricia Ryan Madson
                                                     Effort is good fortune. Shoma Morita

                  Masatake (Shoma) Morita was a very bright, extremely sensitive but sickly youth prone to insomnia and gastroenteric disturbances. He was studying psychiatry at the university and was accustomed to receiving a regular stipend for tuition, medical, and living expenses from his father. At one point the regular checks stopped arriving. His father had come upon financial difficulties and was forced to cut off his subsidy. Morita was extremely upset and felt betrayed by his family.
                  He decided to get back at his father for this treatment. To show off his "miserable state" he would cut off all medication (since he now couldn't afford it) and overexert himself. Or, as the story goes, he decided to "study himself to death." This would surely teach his parents the error of their ways in abandoning him financially.
                  But instead of dying the young Morita thrived. In fact, his physical symptoms all but disappeared as he applied himself to study full time. Not only did he appear to "get well" but his efforts produced spectacular academic marks! His own effort had inadvertently led to the relief of his suffering and the discovery of what he would come to describe as "the healing power of work." It laid the foundation for Morita's understanding of the relation of effort to mental health and became the basis of Morita Psychotherapy.
                  Morita Psychotherapy in combination with another Japanese form, Naikan "Reflection," are the foundations for an American Buddhist-based practice known as Constructive Living. Both Morita and Naikan have their origins in Buddhist thought.
                  The term "Constructive Living" was coined and developed by the American psychologist and anthropologist, Dr. David K. Reynolds. Reynolds creation of this paradigm was a result of decades of direct experience in Japan and a lifetime of study in Eastern thought and practice. He has written prolifically in English and Japanese on these themes in both the popular and scholarly presses. He is the acknowledged authority on Japanese Psychotherapies in the United States. But his creative work in developing the clear language of the Constructive Living model is perhaps his most valuable contribution. By taking the essential teachings of the Zen inspired Morita model and the Jodo Shinshu inspired Naikan model, Reynolds has developed a simple prescription for living. The language is straightforward and secular. Its advice easy to understand and humbling to practice.
                  1. Pay attention to reality.
                  2. Notice what you are receiving and what you are giving.
                  3. Know your purpose.
                  4. Accept your feelings.
                  5. Do what needs to be done.

Pay attention to reality.

                  I begin by noticing reality, things as they are. This is the practical exercise of paying attention. I notice that the screen of my computer is blue. The letters are pink. There is a hum from the printer and the computer itself. This hum is the sound of this machine working to support my efforts now. Attention for me now includes noticing the time, 9:35 a.m., as well as my thoughts (currently doubting if this paragraph could possibly be of use to anyone--and while doubting, continuing to type). Remembering Natalie Goldberg's wise advice to writers: "keep your hands moving".

Notice what you are receiving and what you are giving.
                  The second principle informs my attention. It creates a particular lens through which I look. I am asked to notice what supports me, what I am receiving in this moment or have been receiving at other points in time. This lens cultivates the notion of interdependence, of noticing all the efforts that sustain me. Now I am receiving light from the sun, light from a desk lamp (which I observe is being used unnecessarily and so I turn it off). I am receiving help from the computer which records my thoughts, allows me to rearrange sentences, checks my spelling and finally permits me to make a copy to send to my editor. The printer receives this information and creates pieces of paper which hold these words and permit their passage to you the reader. In literally hundreds of thousands of specific ways I am being supported at this very moment. The clock functions--ticking--giving me information about time

Know your purpose.
                  Observing reality, noting all I am receiving, my purpose emerges. As I write this now, I reflect on that purpose. I have an immediate purpose: to write for one hour this morning. To this end I "keep my hands moving." My purpose in writing is to spread information about Constructive Living in the hope that this practical advice may serve to relieve unnecessary suffering. This purpose seems to spring from an inner sense or desire I have to give something back to the world.

Accept your feelings.

                  So, knowing my purpose, I accept my feelings. Right now I am feeling antsy, wanting to get out of the house, wanting to jump up and make a cup of tea, wanting to be doing something physical other than sitting here with my hands moving over the keys. I am feeling insecure about this essay, doubting the form I am using now to write these personal immediate illustrations of how I use Constructive Living. There is no need to "fix" these feelings. I do not need to gain confidence as a writer in order to write. I do not "need" to jump up and make a cup of tea (although sometimes that is exactly what does need doing). I don't need to do anything at all with these sensations. I feel them, of course. They are my feelings. I accept them as part of me now. I do need to write, however.

Do what needs to be done.

                  And so I act. Now, this means the action of writing. I sit at the computer. I keep my hands moving. Writing happens; through me. For me this is right livelihood: Doing what needs to be done. "What needs to be done" and "What I want to do" may coincide. However, my personal desires are not driving the inquiry. My personal needs are a subset of what needs to be done overall. Sometimes "my" needs lead, sometimes they follow. In reality there is no distinction. I return my attention again and again to reality to learn what needs to be done. And then I do it. In most cases "what needs to be done" is crystal clear, right in front of me. It is simply that I am not yet doing it. Constructive Living reminds me that I do not need to "get motivated," "gain confidence," "get psyched," or "get ready." I do need to act. It is in the doing itself that meaning is often revealed.
                  Both right livelihood and Constructive Living imply a principled standard. Everything we do has a consequence. No matter how small, there is no action that does not impact others in very practical ways. In Constructive Living the lens of Naikan (noticing what I receive and give) helps to replace the customary ego-centered perspective with a broader more holistic view. This may discourage self-interest as the sole motivating factor. What needs to be done is never an abstraction, never theoretical. It is always specific, concrete. My awareness of interdependence can clarify and inform my actions. What needs to be done is always a more inclusive question than simply what I need to do now.
                  Constructive Living would view the question of right livelihood from the vantage point of purpose. Right livelihood occurs when work is purposeful. So if my purpose in life is "to benefit others and not to injure" then anything and everything I do which serves that end can be considered as right livelihood. My work as a Drama teacher, my work on neighborhood committees, sweeping the street, volunteer work, making lunches for my husband, composing this article, washing dishes--indeed, whatever reality brings me that my mind tells me needs to be done qualifies.
                  If I accept that right livelihood is "doing what needs to be done," then the question arises: "How do I know what is right for me to be doing?" This question assumes that there may be some work that is not> right for me to be doing. Further, it assumes that there may be some particular work that is right for me.            
                  Reynolds has a quotation neatly typed and posted near the computer in his home office in Coos Bay, Oregon. It reads: "There is Reality's work that only you can do." If you ponder this for a few moments, it will be clear that this phrase contains at least two perspectives. From one perspective, everything I do derives from and returns to Reality. It's inescapable. The other perspective implies "specialness." Only I can do certain jobs. Another way of putting this is that there are some jobs, some kinds of jobs, which seem uniquely suited to my aptitude, abilities, and interests. How do I find them?
                  Constructive Living suggests two strategies: 1) Examine your purpose(s) and 2) Pay attention to what Reality has placed in front of you.
                  The question of purpose is best studied in the clear light of Naikan reflection. To practice Naikan means to examine the self in relation to others by asking three questions: What did I receive from them? What did I return to them? What trouble and bother did I cause them? I begin the inquiry by recalling my earliest memories of my mother and father. As I sincerely reflect on these questions, I begin to discover the details of the thousands of meals that I was fed, the specific clothing bought for me, the rides I was given, the lessons, the times my mother sat by my bedside when I was sick. The specific answers to these questions provide me with a ledger. Naikan examination shows me that, even by my own standards, I have been receiving more than I have given back to others. These findings often bring about a personal realization of my debt to the world. I cannot find right livelihood by thinking only of myself.
                  The person in search of his purpose who is asking the question, "What would I really like to do?" isn't yet asking the instructive question. Starting with such a feeling based question is missing the mark. The question implies a loop between the questioner, the specific job, and that job's "ability" to please the doer. Further, it appears to promise that if I get the "right job," it will make me happy and I will after that be doing "work that I like." While this may appear reasonable, it makes my "happiness" the measure of my success.
                  Realistically, I know that I cannot "be happy" all the time. My feelings come and go, changing often like the weather. If I go in search of work that "excites me" I am likely to be disappointed at least some of the time. Even the most stimulating work contains tasks that must be done whatever my motivation. Reality doesn't bring work that is always pleasant to do. While it is unrealistic to seek work that will always make me happy, it is possible to seek and find work that consistently supports some purpose of mine.
                  For example, my purpose may be to make the world a more beautiful place. To that end, I may choose any number of jobs that focus my time and talents on creating aesthetic environments. I can serve that purpose, not only when I go to work as a graphic designer, but also in the way I set the breakfast table for my children. I can serve that purpose by picking up trash in the park or in my neighborhood. I may serve that purpose as well, when I refrain from rough language or gossip. Or my purpose may be to help relieve unnecessary suffering in the world. To that end, my choice to refrain from an unkind word to a colleague forwards that purpose no less than my job as a nurse or social worker. So the answer to the question of purpose precedes and informs all that follows in the search for my true work.
                  When Morita saw a patient who complained about his job, wishing to quit, he had a stock response. Before counseling or allowing the patient to quit Morita asked him to examine his purpose. If, indeed, his purpose could not be served in this particular job then that was considered a sufficient reason to change. If it was possible to serve his purpose within the current job setting then Morita would insist the client remain in the job and apply himself with greater attention and diligence. Morita saw that satisfaction in work came not so much from finding the "perfect job," but rather from "doing the job in front of you perfectly"--that is, with full attention.
                  As I grow to appreciate all that I have been given in my life a natural desire to return something emerges. Out of this desire comes my purpose and from this my work. It is clear also that right livelihood comes both from my own purpose and from Reality's purpose, achieved through my hands.

Reprinted from MINDFULNESS AND MEANINGFUL WORK, Parallax Press, 1994, edited by Claude Whitmyyer

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Meaning of Life

Excellence Reporter essay on the meaning of life

Patricia Ryan Madson: Joining the Chain of Givers

I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world.
Trinka's Nice SmileWhat is the Meaning of Life?
Meaning is a concept that humans have created. We give meaning to behavior or events. Do plants or animals have “meaning?’ However the question is a worthy one. Allow me to revise it: “What is the purpose of life?”
The purpose of life is to uncover and execute the purpose of life. For me that purpose has been to learn that life is an unfathomable gift. Each of us is the recipient of countless gifts moment by moment. And, one of the ways to understand these countless gifts is to count them. I first encountered this through a Japanese practice called Naikan.
Take a breath, look around and begin to innumerate what you are receiving at this moment. The wind cools me as I sit on the porch on a comfortable chair designed and fabricated by people I’ve never met. This computer assists me in gathering and storing these words compliments of a word processor that corrects my spelling and saves these thoughts. Someone spent great effort to create and execute this technology. Right now an electric oven is cooking potatoes to nourish me for lunch. Farmers planted and harvested these potatoes. In the distance I hear a foghorn that signals location for fisherman and boaters on the ocean nearby. A fleece blouse keeps me warm and fashionable. This blouse has a chain of makers and movers who brought it to me in the mail. People working in the Social Security Administration who sent me a check this month have allowed me to pay for this blouse.
I believe that the purpose of life is to come to know the myth of the “self made person.” No one has ever ‘done it on her own.’ Every human continues to live thanks to the efforts of others who make things and do things that support life.
Once I began to see this realistically I was moved to join this chain of givers in contributing something back that is useful or helpful. I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world. I can use my daily calories to either contribute to the solution, or if I am mindless to the problem.
The Dalai Lama wrote: The True Meaning of Life: “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During this period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”
~Patricia Ryan Madson, author, professor Emerita from Stanford University
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