Friday, July 23, 2010

When you're ready to move beyond Oprah...

The gorgeous, always imaginative Rubin Museum of Art is well into a series of seven Wednesday evening conversations called Tibetan Book of the Dead Book Club in association with its special exhibitions, Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife and Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures. Each Wednesday, curator Ramon Prats explores the TBD from different perspectives with an expert representing a particular discipline. They inquire: Does the TBD have relevance, wisdom and practical application for us today?

This week, I attended Prats's talk with Jungian psychoanalyst Morgan Stebbins on "The Analysis of Dreams," a topic of perennial relevance. According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, dreams will always be relevant as long as humans exist, as long as humans remain unenlightened. Enlightened beings do not dream. They no longer have to, for to dream is to open onto an altered level of awareness in which we come face to face with avoided, unknown or normally inaccessible issues.

Stebbins discussed how Tibetan ideas and traditions around this heightened state of awareness parallels the theories and practices of Carl Gustav Jung. Jung's psychoanalytic approach, he said, represents a journey into the "totality of one's being--the Buddha nature" where one can gain information on unconscious patterns of behavior, insight into so-called symptoms that are actually "symbolic attempts to get to somewhere new." Dreams herald a shift towards liberation.

And the TBD considers this liberation through hearing, as Prats mentioned, in his intriguing introductory remarks. Why hearing, I wondered? One sentence from a TBD passage read later suggested the reason: "So, recognize what I show you without distraction." We are simply too distracted by illusion to get with reality. Like children in school, we have to be brought to attention and made to hear. The Bardo afterlife process, Tibetan Buddhists believe, first brings the soul to that required place of attention and learning before it can move on in its journey. But dreams offer powerful opportunities for growth within our lifetime.

And what of the images of deities of wrath, featured in so much Tibetan art? And what of our own terrifying nightmares?

"Psychologically speaking, nightmares are great news," says Stebbins. "Wake up! Look at this! It has a lot of energy. You have a lot of energy you're not using. Change is scary."

Upcoming TBD Book Club sessions will feature Rabbi Neil Gillman on "The Death of Death" (July 28), Brooklyn Museum curator Edward Bleiberg on "The Egyptian Book of the Dead" (August 11), medium Jesse Bravo on "Channeling the Dead" (August 18) and Roshi Enkyo O'Hara on "How to Die" (August 25)--all at 7pm. Click here for full information and tickets, and promptness--in both ticket purchasing and showing up to get a good seat--is strongly advised.

150 West 17th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), Manhattan

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Toni Bernhard offers a practice for life


I've had the great fortune to be introduced to Toni Bernhard, author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, scheduled for publication in September (Wisdom Publications). In this lovely, informative volume, Bernhard tells of how she suddenly fell ill in the spring of 2001 while vacationing in Paris with her husband. What at first felt like a tenacious, energy-sapping flu was, in fact, a far more serious viral infection that would make it impossible for her to resume life as she'd known it. The university law professor with a treasured marriage and family soon found herself unable to work, shop, travel, meditate or even enjoy the visits of loved ones without a flare-up of debilitating symptoms.

Bernhard remains ill today, usually confined to her bed. Her book describes how she came to apply her longstanding Buddhist practice to this new reality and to the feelings of frustration, grief and envy of other people's freedom that often arose. Would it surprise you, though, to learn that her difficulties have inspired a lively, enjoyable book? With endearing candor and lucidity, this fine writer and teacher explores principles and practices that should help anyone who suffers, whether physically sick or well, and whether or not that person identifies as a Buddhist.

I have always respected Buddhism but felt distanced from its philosophical ideas and approaches to life and spirituality. In fact, there was much about it that I could not fully grasp. But Bernhard leads readers through easy-to-follow discussions and illustrations of practices such as mudita—taking joy in the joy of others—that not only offer liberation from resentment, loneliness and suffering but, in and of themselves, are just delicious. I suddenly realized that I've been practicing mudita and metta most of my adult life: It has always felt wonderful to enjoy the happiness of others and to sincerely wish them well. The trick is to extend this to all sentient beings and, trickiest of all, to remember to offer this loving gift to oneself. Bernhard shares what has worked for her.

Bernhard's experience reminds us of the preciousness of vulnerability, the impermanence of all that is, the value of the present moment, and the importance of releasing one's anxious tendency to grasp and desperately quest for answers that may never come. She admits that her life with chronic illness is a work in progress. Well, every life is a work in progress, and it is a fine thing to have allies and guides along the path. I am happy to have met Toni Bernhard through her generous teachings in this book and, in gratitude, I wish her peace and freedom.

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

Paperback, 185 pages
Coming September, 2010 from Wisdom Publications 

Also see What are you reading this summer?, posted on
InfiniteBody blog on June 29, 2010.