Following the Heart of Dharma

This post is a small contemplation about gratitude and the paths that lead us to wonderful places.

I was lucky enough to stumble on the Heart of Dharma sangha through Meetup when I moved to Boise. I’m not much of a joiner generally but this meetup seemed undemanding and familiar, raised as I was in a non-monotheistic household.

And let’s face it: there’s no denying I need need all the meditation practice I can get. Not to mention practice in compassion. And letting things go.

You know what's cool about the roly poly Buddha? It all slides off.
You know what’s cool about the roly poly Buddha? It all slides off.

First meeting was great. Guided meditation followed by an illuminating talk. A teacher (Dana Marsh) who spoke with compassion, kindness, intelligence and humor. Kindly people who smiled a lot. Even being thanked for sharing my practice with the group; the loveliness and wisdom in that every practice gesture still strikes me with awe.

As with all great starts, I imagined myself attending the guided meditations at every opportunity, learning amazing things and attaining some of the wisdom my treasured sister Erica makes seem so effortless. The schedule was easy too: an evening meditation on Tuesdays and one on Sunday mornings. One hour, in and out, and even a bikeable distance!

Now, a few years in, I find my attendance is more inconsistent than I’d like or would be helpful to me. Yet, every time I go, I come away uplifted, optimistic and peaceful. And I feel so fortunate that the sangha exists, so accessible and so near to me. As my sister has pointed out, this wasn’t available to me where I lived in California and the nearness of a wonderful teacher . . . it’s a priceless gift.

This year I’m feeling especially lucky because in an unusual fit of resolve, I decided to attend the Eight Week Spiritual Jump Start, Sunday mornings at 9:30. In theory, it sounded like a good thing but in practice, I wasn’t too excited about it. I don’t like making commitments. Classes or anything that I feel I should do makes me want to flee. I’m the guy that, the minute I say I’ll do something marginally social, I want to do the opposite.

Classes started and I’m pleased to say, I haven’t skipped one yet. (This is slightly miraculous.) Still, last week was a bit pressured and over-scheduled. As I was contemplating another over-scheduled week ahead, I decided to reduce the pressure. No Sunday morning alarms. No rushing to get the beast to and away from the dog park in order to trundle into class on time. No inhalation of breakfast and coffee. I was not going to feel bad about missing class today. And, if we all slept in and I still wanted to do something for my battered, dark soul, I’d hit the 11 o’clock guided meditation session and call it good.

You get where this is going. With no pressure or expectation, I woke early, naturally, in time to catch a beautiful sunrise. Had quiet coffee and a clementine by the fire (I do love clementine season!). Made myself a mint tea to go. Actually showered and put on clean clothes. Max and I ambled off to the dog park where he staggered about leisurely and managed to secure the attentions of kindly dog hosts like Star. When it was time to go, no civil disobedience. We actually made it to class a few minutes early.

And of course, it was again wonderful. Today’s class helped me get some perspective on some issues, renewed my respect for my teacher, reminded me how much the person or creature sitting next to me has to teach me, and generally gave me an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and peace.  Also, I laughed out loud a few times. (Yeah, I know, that paragraph was all about me. In fairness, I’ve never claimed to be an evolved Buddhist.)

Anyway, before this day gets into busy and doing mode — or not busy and lollygagging mode, not sure which — I’m taking these few minutes to make a note of gratitude to the sangha for existing, to Dana Marsh for teaching, to all the volunteers and supporters of Heart of Dharma that make it so accessible. Thank you.

Note: If you’re not a Boise local but would like to benefit from this teacher (Dana Marsh), her book, Extraordinary Freedom, is available on the Heart of Dharma website and online. I found it accessible, engaging and helpful.

Sometimes the Buddha is just pretty. This one lives in a teak temple in Myanmar.
Sometimes the Buddha is just pretty. This one lives in a teak temple in Myanmar.

Be Careful What You Ask For

So easy to become obsessed whatever isn’t, instead of appreciating what is great about what is.

I’ve often wished for a more cuddly, affectionate dog. You know, the kind that doesn’t creep away from me. And that the cats would allow him to sleep next to them. Yup, another learning moment for me is coming up . . .

Cue an unexpected, extended lightning and thunder storm last night. It’s warm, so I’m blasting the AC and fans, trying to block the sound, even though there’s actual hail outside. Hail. In May. In T shirt weather.

Max terrified, making it impossible for me to sleep on my bed (he keeps trying to get under it, doesn’t want to get on it). Cats skeetering around, in either glee,  nervousness or random insanity. Hard to tell when you just want some sleep.

Not just hail. Fat hail.
Not just hail. Fat hail.

The only thing to do at this point is haul up, and move the bedding to the couch. This is the one time that M will allow himself to get on the couch (his natural good manners, nothing I’ve taught him). I hoist him up and lay down under the duvet, hiding from the fan air blast.

Instantly Max starts working his way up my side of the couch and ends up laying across me, giant head on my tummy. I can handle it, it’s only 90 lbs and a slightly awkward angle. He’s still panting away an hour later, looking around anxiously every time there’s a flash. I’m not really sure whether pinning me is his bossy way of keeping me safe or if it’s somehow comforting to him. I do know it’s my only hope of some sleep. Time ticks by and those heavy pants begin to quiet. I start to drift off.  Rrrrooop! There’s that soft feeling of cat on board. Pinned, I can’t do much. Five minutes later, Marmalade is laying in front of my face, eye-to-eye with Max, Gus is wedged between Max and the sofa back, on my arm. Jack is on my feet. So that’s another 45 lbs of pressure.

I felt a little like Maria von Trapp except no one was singing about favorite things. Or wearing curtains.

But I got what I wanted! Snuggly Max! Non-hostile cats! Yay me! Thanks storm! Although today might just be about appreciating my distant dog and stand-offish cats.

That dog was not smiling last night.
That dog was not smiling last night.



15 Musings on No Spend Spring

I’m a shopper. I admit it. I wish I were one of those people who disdain stores just like I wish I were someone who loved being endlessly dirty, or sleeping on rough earth. Sadly, no.

Poking about in almost any kind of store stimulates me. I like seeing how things are made, what they cost, and how they are displayed. I enjoy comparing prices and thinking about how to get the best deal for something (love you Red Laser!). I adore finding something beautiful and/or functional and imagining how it might improve my home or life. I can shop for hours and buy little, or nothing even, and still be happy and inspired.

My favorite museum is the Victoria and Albert, so much about home crafts there, so carefully curated. Not to mention the vastly entertaining Casts Courts (imagine those empire builders zipping around the known world, making plaster casts of everything that caught their eyes! Much nice than looting it and hauling it home to the UK).

I grew up without much money so shopping was a treat. My mother hated it, which made me love it more. I swore that when I grew up, I’d be able to shop whenever I wanted, and be more like my classmate’s families, not so continually pinching pennies.

Life advanced and my professional years started. Here was the time when I had income and opportunity. Plus I was surrounded by media messaging about the joy and wisdom of acquisition. It seemed like setting up a comfortable, pleasant home was the next important rite of passage. Being able to buy things became a sort of code for well-being, for freedom from worry.

Boy did I get that one wrong! Life happened with a vengeance! After some years of success and increasing confidence, things stopped going so perfectly. Sorrows mounted. As for many, the spiral down has felt swift, a combination of my own poor choices, family mishaps and a dicey economy. Enough moaning about that. As Pema Chodron tells us, “start where you are.”

No Spend Spring has been both a challenge and a necessity. The essentials of my little fixer egg house were there.  So in a time when cash is tight, everything not necessary is . . . just not necessary. This is a real mind shift for me, redefining “need,” and breaking a habitual pattern of not thinking too much about buying “essentials.”

That said, I know myself to be among the fortunate. I’m not crying poor when so many genuinely are. Right now feels like battening down the hatches and weathering a storm, not the end game. These musings are in no way intended to minimize the struggles and triumphs of the genuinely poor, just describe my own halting progress.

My challenge has been is the continuation of nesting, of genuine home improvement at a time when there’s no or little cash to throw at a problem. For me, making my home a tiny bit better every single week is meditation, stress relief, a confidence builder, and an embracing of hope. Living through No Spend Spring could not be allowed to block any of these solaces from my life.

No Spend Spring hasn’t eradicated my general enjoyment of shopping, but I do seem to be evolving. Here are a couple of thoughts I am embracing:

1. Good enough isn’t. It really is better to wait to get the perfect item. I’ll always regret money wasted on the good enoughs. And each time I look at them, I have that sour feeling instead of delight.

On the flip, annoying as the good enoughs littered about are, using them up does eventually clear physical and mental space. When they are gone — used up or donated or hacked — there’s more breathing room around here.

2. Three days on the list kills impulse. These days, everything goes on a shopping list and lives there, unfulfilled for at least three days. (This even includes standard grocery list food.) It’s amazing how, after three days, an item stops holding my interest. Or, if the thought of it continues to engage my interest, I’ve come up with a way to get it, or something similar, by making it myself, re-purposing or rearranging. So the outcome of the wait is often much more satisfying (and less costly) in the end. And often, I’ve just stopped “needing” it.

3. Buying too soon ends the fun of the hunt. And the chase is fun!

4. More free stuff starts showing up. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because without cash to spend, I check the free piles at garage sales more frequently. Or accept things from friends instead of an automatic decline (thanks for that lumber D&D! Expect some serious raised bed veggies this summer from those and the salad bar I made out of your old bunk bed ladder). The landing strip seating made from Johanna’s old sewing chair and leftover fabric wasn’t planned but is so functional. Without a wallet to finger, maybe I’m just more open. But all this openness has got me an two handy new shoe racks at a savings of more than $100 off the Ikea price.

5. Any charity is better than none. I almost passed a giving bowl one day because I didn’t have my usual $5 to put in. I had fifty cents. It felt embarrassing. Then I slapped my prideful self upside the head and doubled back. Plinking fifty cents in the bowl might not my first choice yet still, the cause was advanced.

And there’s always something to give. Sometimes it’s something a friend could use more than I need, like a dog crate. Sometimes it’s one of those cool Kohl’s $10 gift cards that come in the mail right when there’s nothing I actually need. Sometimes it’s extra plastic bags for pet waste. Sometimes it’s just being kind, friendly or appreciative. Occasionally it’s brushing the dog or cat beyond my boredom threshold. Whenever I feel empty and pointless or that I will never be a successful philanthropist (thanks for putting that in my head, Austin), I try to remind myself that while my day might be crap, someone else’s could still go a little better were I to bestir myself slightly.

6. No Spend Days are really peaceful. With the option of spending off the table for the day, it gets boring to obsess about all the stuff I want. I’m quicker to redirect thoughts to what is already lovely and wonderful in my life.

7. It’s all just stuff, much of it landfill. Nowadays, estate sales particularly make me think about the temporary nature of everything. I’m still a fan, still a shopper, but estate sales make me think about how my family will hold one for my stuff someday. What really does need to be brought into my home? Am I really going to spend X for it when I know it will go for a fiftieth of that in an estate sale?

8. Stuff takes energy. This is an old Buddhist sentiment and it’s 100% true. My sister reminds me of it repeatedly (and despite the evidence, I am listening, Toad). Anything you acquire takes time and resources to get it, bring it home, and then take care of it, storing it, cleaning it, etc. Energy is limited. Does the item under consideration warrant the drain?

9. Real friends will take a walk. Or do something else entirely free. Holding off on the friends and activities that require resource outlay gives you more time for the people and creatures who matter.

Full moon walk at Camelsback.
Full moon walk at Camelsback.

10. It’s smart to limit shopping. Much as I enjoy it, having dense, goal filled shopping trips helps me to spend less, prioritize more.

11. No Spend means appreciate more. Sure, I will always lust for a new pair of yoga pants, especially when those catalogs show up. However, taking the possibility off the table for now redirects my energy to relishing what I already have, yoga-pant wise. And speaking of appreciate more, thanks to the Konmari method, while my closet is only slightly pruned, I can actually see all those yoga pants.

Konmari folding makes it easy to stash and find my yoga pants. I've gone from two drawers to one!
Konmari folding makes it easy to stash and find my yoga pants. I’ve gone from two drawers to one!

12. No spend living is healthier. I’m limiting mileage on the car in earnest. That means if I forgot something and the car isn’t necessary, it’s time to hop on the bike or take a walk.

13. No spend is cleaner. When I’m feeling twitchy to shop or upgrade the house somehow, I’m reminded that the single best way to freshen it is to . . . freshen it. Thirty minutes spent cleaning usually has a bigger impact than two spent shopping. And using up languishing supplies or good enough purchases clears the air even more.

14. No spend is more creative. In this time, I’ve tackled a bunch of small projects that weren’t on my priority list. Still, I had a twitch and the supplies were already on hand and I learned something. Every time I see my silly little fence tip planter, stash shoes in my wall rack, or harvest some arugula I do the smug dance.

15. Organization makes No Spend living easier. With drawers jammed full, I used to forget I had stuff. I’ve been on black t shirt purchasse restriction forever yet still, whenever I needed one, I couldn’t find it. I read about the Konmari method and took a half-baked swing at it. I didn’t expect to purge a lot of clothes, since I’d done that pre-move, but hoped for organization help. Wow! With shoes organized and accessible in my new DIY shoe racks, buying dupes has ended. Closets and drawers are now navigable and pleasant. Next up, books and papers . . .

No Spend Spring is still going strong. It’s not always fun but I’m getting something of deep value every single day.

What about you? Have you gone No Spend? How long? What were the surprise benefits?

No Spend Spring

Circumstances dictate that this is a No Spend Spring for me.That means no cash outlay on anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Dog food? Yes. Crystals to finish my chandelier project? On indefinite hold. And what I must buy, I must find less costly ways to purchase and use less of it (sorry Max, that goes for kibble too).

This No Spend living is often NOT FUN. It’s tedious to always be counting, counting. It’s not fun to juggle or re prioritize a grocery list which started out modest (no really, peanut butter is a thrifty choice. And yes, we’ll be freezing that leftover baguette). I know I’m blessed not to be desperate. My version of No Spend living is about figuring out how to cover the important stuff until cash gets better.

In my heart and in my head, I know that this time is really good for my intellect and my character. Already I can feel myself stretching to figure out how to do the things I want to do without spending money. For middle class folks, it becomes so easy to do the convenient thing, especially if it seems modestly priced. No Spend living has raised my awareness of the general American addiction to convenience — and how that siphons away precious resources that most of us will wish we had back one day. Because right now I do wish I had that $20 back I blew on a “good enough” outdoor cushion that I now loathe.

I think also, it’s so easy to forget how hard it is for so many when you live in that middle class bubble. Living No Spend means living a lot like the the poorer among us. Little driving, a lot of walking and biking. Everything takes more time. A wickedly self-indulgent meal out is at a crappy drive through. Coupons are interesting. Socializing is sharing a home cooked meal, taking a walk or game night. All this reminds me that for so many, this endless figuring is an enduring fact of life, not a (hopefully) temporary glitch. So I feel like this is making me more aware, slightly less insensitive to the struggles of others.

Another benefit of No Spend Spring is that projects, instead of getting started and stalling when something else takes precedence, are slowly getting completed, especially if the supplies were already on hand. Also, because of the No Spend thing, many of the projects don’t get done in that idealized way that was the original plan. Sometimes frustrating, it’s actually always quite an interesting challenge. My view of a dollar has changed. Because I’m serious about No Spend, I think on every dollar, apply the want/need test, and only rarely indulge in satisfying the want.

So this is me, trying to embrace this time and way of living, hoping to get some lasting lessons from it. And it’s me, experiencing a lot of smug moments, as I do accomplish goals without reaching for my wallet. Living No Spend does not mean living No Do. Projects are my therapy and joy right now. Speaking of which, here are some of this No Spend Spring’s Projects:

DIY Shoe Rack: I wanted those shoes organized and accessible. The budget for new wood wasn’t huge but it wasn’t in the plan either. No Spend Spring scored me some free garage sale lumber and reminded me to shop the rafters of my garage first.

Landing strip chair: In my shoes off home, seating at every outside door is a must. I was making do with an awkward chair (kept hitting my elbows) when I lucked into one from a downsizing friend. I had a dream of what to re-cover the seat with but that beautiful new fabric would cost $17 . . .

Rustic fence tip planter: This is the perfect project for leftover lumber of awkward sizes!

Salad bar!: Diane’s old bunk bed ladder is now my salad bar!

Correcting the basement stairwell walls: Did it wrong the first time. Thought I’d have to wait and redo it when new plywood was in the budget. Turned out there was a “vintage” piece lurking in the basement rafters.

Gallery wall: No spend doesn’t mean no decorate. It just means mining your existing supplies.

Closet refreshes: Entry way or bedroom, No Spend Spring is an ideal time to freshen a closet.

Coffee sack pillows: The sacks had been languishing in the garage. If I could just find the right cushion insert, they could be come pillows.

What about you? Do you go through No Spend waves or is it just me who hasn’t managed things ideally? What lessons have you taken away?


A bit of “Boise Nice,” a little gratitude

In any neighborhood there are flyers stapled to poles and mine is no exception. The hound and I were walking about one evening. We came across a woman removing a flyer we’d seen all over the neighborhood for the last week or so. It was one of those that had me shaking my head: lost laptop, please return.

Ready to give sympathy for the loss I greeted her only to learn that yes, someone found and returned the laptop. She was tearing down her flyers to make room for others.

I guess it’s kind of sad that I was so stunned that someone actually returned her laptop. Or maybe it’s a commentary on the places I’ve been living. Either way, thinking about the compassion of strangers and the optimism of the laptop owner has stayed with me.

So this little note is just a moment of gratitude for all that kindness that flows around. Thank you, whoever it was, for returning that family’s laptop. Thank you lady, for having and working towards the hope that someone would do the right thing.