This is about a practice many of my colleagues who study meditation and Buddhist philosophy engage in called The Book. The Book is a way of checking in on your mortality and meditation progress by writing down, six times a day, a brief update on how well you are keeping your vows (such as not lying, not harming other people, not stealing, etc).
I was talking to a therapist the other day (oh, yes, I have numerous therapists who work collectively to keep me from jumping off proverbial cliffs as I try to navigate the dark forest of grief, illness, and general insanity).
What usually happens in these therapy appointments is I explain how horrible I feel; the therapists then asks me what I think will help; and I go on to teach Buddhist philosophy both to the therapist and to myself, reminding myself that I KNOW how to do this—I just need to remember and practice it.
On this particular day, I was teaching about the Book practice and how helpful it is to check in every two or three hours, in writing, about how well I am practicing mortality.
“Does this Book practice involve self care?” my wise therapist asked.
This question sparked a long discussion of the translation of Buddhist philosophy from east to west. What I tried to explain, and will attempt to do so again here, is that Buddhism doesn’t just need a translation of language but also of culture.
Let’s face it. Buddhism (and Christianity for that matter) was developed in deeply patriarchal societies by and for MEN.
So when the question about self-care came up in our discussion, I had to answer, “No. It does not. But it SHOULD!”
This then led to a homework assignment for myself (given by myself as is often the case) to re-imagine the Book practice to include, and even focus on, self-care.
Here are four Book vows relating to speech, for example:
Tell the truth
Speak only meaningful things
Use your words to help and not hurt others
Use words to support others and speak kindly of them
All of these relate to OTHERS. The only advice I was given as a student of Buddhist philosophy was “you’re a person to, so of course you’re included in ‘others.’”
But that’s not enough. That’s not a strong enough translation for a culture of people—women and men—who tend to think badly of themselves, idolize “others,” and suffer from low self-esteem. It’s simply NOT enough.
So I will take the liberty of writing a new set of vows for the Book practice that I will be using for the next few weeks (months, years—however long it takes), and if you are suffering from loss, sadness, illness, depression, PTSD, etc, regardless of whether you’ve practiced the Book before to try these out with me.
Here’s the old version, which focuses on “others:” (NOTE: these ARE important, powerful, life changing vows and should NOT be disregarded—but may be supplemented with the below version for those who are in deep pain).
1. Don’t harm other living beings
2. Don’t steal
3. Respect relationships (no adultery)
4. Don’t lie
5. Don’t hurt others with your words
6. Don’t speaking meaningless words
7. Don’t speak badly about others
8. Don’t wish ill on others
9. Rejoice when good things happen to others
10. Develop wisdom and a deep understanding that you create your experience of your world.
Here’s my translated version for those of us in pain:
1. Take care of yourself, by which I mean spoil yourself; eat, drink, even smoke if you need while in crisis, and do so without guilt. But keep in mind that your body is your temple, and you should try to nourish it with health (to the best of your ability, even if that means letting it rest on the couch with a glass a wine). Take a shower if you feel like, and don’t if you can’t muster the energy. Cancel that appointment if you are weak. It’s OKAY! If it feels right, do yoga. If it doesn’t, get a massage. Cuddle with your pet or your lover. Love body as you would love a friend. Give it what it wants and needs while you recover.
2. Don’t steal from yourself. Don’t NOT (oh here’s some double negatives for you) stay in bed, thus stealing the time from yourself that you need to heal. Don’t NOT answer the phone if you don’t feel like talking. GIVE YOURSELF WHAT YOU NEED. If you don’t, you’re stealing from the most important in your life. The one person who can help you; the one person who can help others when you’re stronger. Don’t steal anything from YOU including but not limited to pedicures, flowers, medications that you don’t THINK you should take but your doctors do.
3. Give and accept love freely, but don’t let ANYONE manipulate you in your time of grief. Don’t let anyone take advantage of your vulnerability, sexually or otherwise. Don’t accept the jealousy or anger of a friend whose partner wants to sit with you all night to keep a knife out of your hand. Love them, respect their relationships, but also allow them to love you—without feeling any sense of obligation or pressure. You need love, safety, and support. Accept it.
4. Don’t lie to yourself or anyone else. You are in pain. Admit it. To yourself and others. I deserve to grieve. I have suffered a great loss or I am in pain and it’s OKAY to be NOT okay. “I can’t go out at night—I’m afraid.” Don’t make excuses. You have enough truth. I’m scared; I’m lonely; I’m hurting; I don’t know if I can survive this. You should be able to tell your friends: I want to die WITHOUT being taken away in handcuffs, because sometimes grief is THAT heavy. Speak these truths only to those who you can really trust. I admire police and firefighters, but they do NOT belong in my bedroom when I’m crying—unless they are my dear friends. And if you are in serious danger of hurting yourself, tell someone who you can trust to help you.
5. Don’t hurt yourself with your words, verbal or mental. Do not tell yourself to “get over it,” nor listen to anyone who does. Don’t call yourself lazy or weak. You are surviving pain. Don’t add to that by insulting yourself. Don’t even THINK of calling yourself fat, unhealthy, or a loser. Every breath you take is a win for Team You.
6. Don’t spend time with bullshit. Lots of people will have lots of advice about how to heal. They may or may not know, but they are NOT you. Instead, watch endless episodes of your favorite TV shows that make you laugh or keep you interested. Talk if you want to; keep silent if you prefer. Spend as much time listening to your deceased love’s favorite song as you want. Sing “Angel Flying to Close to the Ground” over and over until you collapse in a sobbing mess of pain and let it wash over you.
7. Don’t tell others that you’re a loser. Don’t talk about your failures. Talk endlessly about how well you cared for a dying friend/spouse. Talk endlessly about what a kind person you are trying to be TO YOU. Inspire people with your ability to say good things about yourself.
8. Believe things will change for you and things will get better. Dream about a new life without pain for yourself.
9. Feel compassion for yourself and your pain. And pray your own heart will heal. As it does, you can help and inspire others—but heal first.
10. Remember that you are not in control of this pain (or yourself). You didn’t CAUSE this pain; you are experiencing it. And knowing that, you can see the pain as a horrible thing, or a beautiful lesson that will be the inspiration you need to become stronger, more lovely, more caring person. Don’t fight against the cocoon of your illness or pain. Let it transform you by surrendering to wonder of it all.