Sunday, June 25, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 311: On Maranasati

On Maranasati

In Theravada Buddhist monasteries, the monks display pictures of dead, decaying bodies. This is part of their religious tradition of maranasati, mindfulness of death. One of their standard meditations is a form of exposure therapy. On a regular basis, they contemplate the end of their mortal existence. Pictures of death and decay are their visual aids and props.

Although I read about it decades ago, I brushed it aside as meaningless to me. That's because I grew up thinking about death in much the same way, though. Every day, I contemplated dying. Occasionally, I saw relatives die. I buried any number of pets. The Theravada tradition of imagining the stages of a corpse seemed like a childish thing to me precisely because I'd done it as a child. Ultimately, no corpse can be you in any meaningful sense. The transitory, illusory sense of self that was once associated with a pile of bones is completely irrelevant to those bones eventually. Your corpse may give something for your loved ones to ponder. But I doubt it. At the least, I doubt it will do them much good.
Recently, in a book called From Strength to Strength, I came across a modern version of the Theravada tradition. It is a sort of maransati for the second half of life, a pre-death meditation. It is possibly more interesting.

Strength to Strength is not necessarily a good book, nor is it bad. It is a book that could just as easily be entitled, "This guy discovered Buddhism late in his life and wrote a lot about it." It might prove useful to many readers because there's always a bit of usefulness to be gleaned from reviewing the transitory nature of everything. Also, everyone's personal experience adds a bit of helpful context.

Here is the modern maranasati proposed in the book. It is written for self-perceived "high achievers" who are having difficulty reconciling themselves to their natural decline with age. The idea is to visualize each stage.

1. I am aware of my competence declining
2. People around me notice I am not as sharp as I once was
3. Other people receive the professional accolades I used to receive
4. My workload is decreasing
5. I'm no longer able to work well
6. Many people do not know me from my work any longer
7. I'm alive but professionally, I'm no longer a good example
8. I'm losing my ability to communicate well
9. I'm dead and no longer remembered at all

Despite my initial reaction decades ago, I think the practice of maransati is useful. What's more, I see some potential for this modern take on it. I plan to think about this some more.


In response to comments/questions about the careerist nature of the advice, I should again note how the book assumes that the readers have their self-images wrapped up into their careers. This problematic part of human nature is the essential target of the book. Careers fade, of course. That's where the author, Arthur C. Brooks, begins to notice his personal need for Buddhism. Naturally, this approach seems late in coming to most Buddhists.

However, the author correctly identifies how mental and physical capacity diminish with age. I found this aspect encouraging. Such diminishment is assumed in the traditional maranasati, too, but it is not the focus. 

According to Buddhism or Stoicism, before he wrote the book, Brooks should have questioned his desire for accolades and worldly successes. He does acknowledge his problem with those. Letting go of attachments is not really the approach he takes, unfortunately. He recognizes his striving for status is dysfunctional. He compares it to alcoholism and other addictions. Yet his yearning for status and approval shine through in the book. 

Nevertheless, he comes to his version of the maranasati. He develops other strategies related to Buddhism that may be encouraging for him and his readers. These are good things, although the author aims himself and others at high-performing rebirths into new professions rather than into any forms of enlightenment. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 310: Biomythography - Note 58, The Birth of Acacia, Pt 2

Biomythography 58

The Birth of Acacia - Planning and Reality

I walked from room to room in the house, checking the birth equipment setups. I kept cleaning and re-cleaning pieces, making sure everything was ready. But it already was. The black delivery bag had been wiped down. We weren't allowed to handle the sterile scissors. The mats were fine. Even the lime green carpet had been cleaned. This was the sixth or seventh time through our group routine.

While I paced, Diane and Gail made the critical decision to cut the amniotic sac. It's a procedure done by medical staff to induce birth but, for a home delivery, it carried the risk of forcing us to go to a hospital if it didn't work. No one wanted that, especially Diane. It had to be her decision to take the risk.

Less than half an hour after breaking her water, Diane entered heavy labor. So by then she could confirm she had made the right decision.

Around the bedroom, everyone moved into place. Jenn turned on her video cameras. She started some of her background recordings. Leslie propped Diane up with pillows. She got ready to hand instruments to Gail and possibly to me. Gail drilled me on how to use the instruments and warned me she might not hand me any. My job was to make the catch. If there were complications, Gail would step in to take care of them.

"Is there any chance of a surprise?" Leslie asked.

"None," I replied. I knew what she meant. Diane and I had planned for months to get a girl. No one quite understood it the way we did because we'd been the ones slogging through it.

We knew acquiring the money for a laboratory-assisted fertilization was beyond us. Instead, we had to be smart, precise, and lucky. We'd read the advice about hot baths to kill the fragile male sperm, the times of day, the body positions, and intervals in the menstrual cycle to get pregnant. We had changed our habits. We'd adjusted our diets. All of this was because we saw what had happened without the changes.

On my father's side of the family, the odds looked like they were strongly against us. The ratio seemed to be four boys for every girl. That's the way it is in some genetic lines. It's balanced out by other lines historically favoring girls. But we didn't want three or four boys. We wanted balance in our immediate family. We did what we could to achieve it. And we were fortunate. After I gradually dialed back the hot baths killing all my sperm, we reached a point where Diane got pregnant. We knew the odds were good that it was from female sperm because they are slightly more resistant to the heat. A few months later, an ultrasound confirmed our hopes.

Although the ultrasound showed images in shades of fuzzy grey, we could see clearly enough. We were going to have a girl. 

Even if we hadn't known by the images on the screen, Diane would have been able to tell. At least, she early on knew something was divergent about this pregnancy. She got sick in a different way. She felt muddle-headed, too. Her memory started to fail. 

The symptom of memory failing startled us. Her recall of events had once been perfect. I got so accustomed to it that I stopped keeping calendars. I simply relied on Diane to remember what event happened on what day and time.  She could cite facts about incidents in our past, including (for instance) what shirt I was wearing and, when I was getting to know her I would respond with something like 'I don't own a shirt like that.' But then I'd look in the closet and see the shirt she had described. 

It occurs to me that I haven't consulted with her about the events of Acacia's birth. I haven't watched the videotape, either. 

But Diane no longer has the perfect recall she once did. That ended when she was pregnant with a girl. As the brain hormone changes started happening, neither of us quite realized it. Even when we acknowledged it, Diane certainly wasn't used to not having a perfectly ordered calendar of past and future events in her head. She had never had to deal with memory aids before like handwritten notes, calendars, schedules, or lists. She had to learn about those.

Sometimes she reached too hard to recollect something I asked about and she confused some memories with others. She would insist on something I knew wasn't true. Or she would cry in frustration at not being able to remember what someone said over dinner at a particular restaurant eating a particular food, using a fork that only had three tines and what was so surprising about what they said. For her entire life, she had gotten to recall whatever memory she needed. To her, well-ordered recollections were normal. It was frightening for her to feel her mind decay into vagueness. 

"Go ahead and feel inside," Gail said. "Tell me your estimate."

I knew she was talking about dilation. I had already applied lubricant. Following Gail's gesture, I was able to slip my hand inside and get my fingers into position to touch the baby's head. The sensation startled me for a moment. 

"More than three fingertips," I replied. I paid careful attention to position and to the cervix edges. "Four."

"Yeah, I got nine centimeters." She nodded in agreement. Maybe she meant she'd gotten the same measurement I was getting or maybe Diane had dilated more since her last midwife check. 

"Do you feel the head?"

"Yeah."  I nodded. "Well, it's right there."

"She's starting to crown."  Gail dug into her bag to lay out another instrument.  She unpacked a small blanket.

"That means we're close, right?" That's how it had been the first time.

"Things could move fast," she warned me. "Be ready."

In fact, events happened one after another quickly enough to feel seamless and almost timeless. Gail told Diane to push. Diane announced that she was already. The baby's position stayed fine but the process paused for a moment. Then came a harder contraction, much harder. Combined with Diane's pushing, the contraction moved the baby's head through the cervix. The next push sent the baby out into the air. Another, and her tiny body slipped through the birth canal. She moved fast. Making the catch was easy.  

Baby Acacia cried with a healthy set of lungs. She took a deep breath and cried again while Gail dabbed her.

"Put her on me," said Diane. "I want to feel her."

I laid the child on her mother's cold belly.  Acacia took a shuddering breath. She felt the change in temperature. Her complaint changed into a scream of rage against the coldness. 

"Shh, shh," Diane tried to comfort the child. Leslie, Jenn, and I looked at one another.

"Uh-oh," someone said. 

"She's got a temper."

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 309: Biomythography - Note 57, The Birth of Acacia, Pt 1

Biomythography 57

The Birth of Acacia - A Slight Delay

At four thirty in the morning, I opened the front door to my townhouse in Walkersville. I leaned on the glass storm door for a moment, then stepped out. I knew I had to change my circumstances. I had been falling asleep standing up as I was trying to help my wife. She was attempting to induce labor with our second child, a daughter, by way of exercise. The night air would revive me and get me back to her side, I though.

It worked for a while. I headed out around the block at Fortune Place. The glow of the streetlights reassured me while my eyes widened in the mostly-dark night and gave me the illusion of being more awake. The smell of the warm summer evening energized my body. However, I had been raised on the idea that going without sleep was smart because it was what high achievers did. As a teen, I'd trained myself to rest four hours a night. In retrospect, it was a weird habit. It left me always on the edge of too little sleep and susceptible to feeling sleep-deprived before anyone else.

Staying awake overnight, even to deliver a baby, felt beyond me. Desperate for adrenaline, I caromed through the grass near the road. I hopped over puddles and stumbled through a patch of gravel. But when the path grew level and smooth again, my thoughts drifted. Abruptly, I saw myself dancing in a club. Strobe lights made me squint at my surroundings. Two girls danced up next to me, one in black. Beside us, a table of people were eating colored plastic bubbles. A girl popped one in her mouth. The young men and women around the table laughed. In their hands and mouths, they manipulated bubbles the size of golf balls or tennis balls. The bubbles were translucent like fruits of colored air. 

"Ugh." I stopped under a streetlight and blinked. This was what had happened to me inside my house as I'd listened to Diane and Jenn talk. It had happened again as I'd paced up and down the townhome stairs. I kept getting flashes of dream life.

The fragments were here, too, even outside. 

I turned and aimed for my front door, half a block away. A single dream image came to me as I sped up my pace. For a moment, I was back in a dance club again. This time, the floor around me was empty. Instead of strobe lights, there was a single spotlight. A woman in white spandex danced under it. 

"I'm back," I said as I strode through the entrance. A wind chime next to my door jingled. 

Jenn and Diane turned to face me. 

"Do you feel better?" my wife asked. She had taken a seat in the space between the dining room and living room. Her sister stood by her, looking wide awake and ready.

"Not really. Is it going to be okay if I nap?"

"How can you nap?" someone asked, either Jenn or Leslie. I had blinked and hadn't noticed anyone talking.

"Yes," Diane replied. 

"Okay." I tried to give everyone in the room a reassuring smile. I had forgotten about the other people in the house. Our friend Leslie was there. She occupied a corner of the couch. Like Jenn and Kendra, she had come to act as a douala for Diane. Kendra had left on the next leg of her trip but Jenn had stayed. The midwife, Gail, had arrived as well and was hanging around the house somewhere. Everyone had rushed over for the initial contractions. But we had gone into a holding pattern, waiting for more, and all I could think about was getting to bed. My legs took me up the carpeted stairs.
My body seemed to be shutting down. My school of thought had winnowed itself to a single fish of think and then into a tadpole of emotion. And even my feelings seemed to flee, distant and elusive in the currents of my mind. 

From the viewpoint of Gail Chapin, it was a few second later that I walked into the room she had occupied. 

"Your husband came in," she told Diane the next morning. She had laid herself down in our queen sized bed because she was trying to get much-needed rest. The room was dark. I marched in without turning on any of the lights. I didn't need them. Gail froze. "He didn't seem to look at me. He didn't even notice I was there. I was worried. He stumbled to the edge of the bed and laid down next to me. I didn't know what to do."

Gail held still for a second as she wondered if she should announce herself. Here was her client's husband literally getting into bed with her. My body lay six inches away. Gail normally administered to Mennonite families who had strict rules about propriety. 
"I was paralyzed for a moment because I was trying to think of something to say. Then he took a deep breath. A moment later, he took another, quieter breath. By his third breath, I knew he was asleep."

After a while, Gail felt reassured. In fact, she managed to doze off. 

Only in the morning did we gather all together for more discussion. Diane recapped the story from Gail about me falling asleep. Soon enough, we returned to the main topic of the childbirth. Everyone was thinking about the best way for Diane to induce her labor. She had tried nearly everything. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 308: Biomythography - Note 56, The Birth of Dylan Kyle

Biomythography 56

The Birth of Dylan Kyle

On the twenty-seventh of July, 1994, I drove home from the office to have lunch with my wife. Our townhouse was close to work, so I could occasionally enjoy breaks there. Although it was obvious I’d never get rich working at Hood College, I did get my graduate education and the commute time was twelve minutes.

My body hadn't yet grown unfit from the long hours at a desk. I had started to work out at the college gym before or after the job to maintain myself when I could, so I got hungry on schedule.

"You don't want to eat?" I asked as I tossed together a sandwich.

"Not really." The sun shone through the back window behind Diane. She put her hand on the back of her chair and lowered herself into the seat. Our baby was nearly at nine months. Although we had two weeks until the due date, technically, Diane felt impatient to get the birthing over with and have her body back.

"You got me crackers," she added. "That's plenty. Besides, I'll throw it up."

"So what? I'll clean it up."

Diane sighed and looked at her cup of grape juice. She took a sip. In a moment, I finished wolfing down my food. She rose and grabbed my arm.

"How much time do you have?" she asked.

"Depends on how late I want to work this afternoon." I'd finished most of my tasks. I was pretty fast with the programming and sysadmin parts of my job and I knew my schedule.

"You don't have a meeting or anything?"

"No. Why?"

"I'm having contractions again. I could use you here. Be a distraction."

At half past noon, when it was time for me to leave, I reached for my car keys. I paused to give Diane a look, though, in case she hadn't changed her mind. She asked me to call into the office, so I did. Fortunately, one of my co-workers, Doug, had left for the day while his wife went to the hospital to have their child. Everyone in my office had been waiting for me to do the same. They seemed pretty understanding.

"You really want me at home?" I asked as I made another call. "Today?"


She decided to pull me upstairs with her. As she lay in bed a while later, both of us reading, she threw up. It wasn't much, mostly juice. After I cleaned the bucket, I set it next to the bed again. She might need it, I thought.

"Is everything ready?" she asked.

I knew what she meant. Diane felt strongly opposed to giving birth at the hospital. We had made a plan to have a home birth. It wasn't a perfect plan because we meant to have a midwife for it. The midwife we had held our discussions with hadn't returned our calls lately. Clearly, we'd lost touch with her.

"I'll get it," I said. Working with Diane, I had put together a birthing kit of sorts.

The kit was only a first-aid box, a few extras, and a list of things to grab on the fly. I started gathering the final items: a stack of clean towels, lye soap, baby clothes, blankets, and scissors. We hadn't gone out for plastic bed protectors, unfortunately. It was on our list. Diane had thought we would have time to shop for new shower curtains or something similar to lay under the clean blankets and towels. Maybe we were out of time, though.

I walked into the bathroom and unhooked our plastic curtain. I gave it a quick rub-down with soap and water, then alcohol.

When I returned to the bedroom, Diane was breathing hard. Her gaze was a bit glassy. When she noticed me, though, her faraway look returned to the present and she started telling me her preferences.

"Let me get up," she said. "There's no way we're ruining this mattress."

While I stripped the bed and put on the plastic protector, she arranged the other supplies. She stopped to pull the plastic curtain flat underneath the sheets.

"Go get the older sheets," she said. "These are still pretty good. Let's not stain them."

We switched sheets. I picked up the free, weekly newspaper and used it to protect the floor around the bed. Step by step, we went through our procedures. Although I had already asked Diane repeatedly for months if she might consider going to the hospital, I felt I had to suggest it again anyway. She dismissed the idea so fast - after all, she'd heard it a hundred times - she moved onto the next choice in the same breath.

"Do you still have the number for the midwife?"

"Yes," I admitted. "But there was no answer last time. Or the time before."

The only woman we had really considered for the job gave me the impression of being new to it. Nevertheless, she was the best midwife responding to us at the time. She had warned us she would go on vacation before our due date. That might have been the reason for her lack of replies recently. We hadn't followed up as much as we should have, either. We’d been busy with the other details of our lives.

We had read books on natural childbirth and the midwifery process. That was pretty much our level of experience.

After I called the midwife and got, as expected, no answer, Diane asked me to put a movie into the VCR. She chose a comedy to distract her from the pain. She watched and waited. I spent a lot of my time walking around the house. I did some writing. That’s the way I was. The wait before birth was an opportunity to write.

At three in the afternoon, the pushing contractions began. Diane sensed the difference immediately. She scooted into position. So did I.

I suppose I should mention the obvious, that childbirth is a messy, bloody process. Less obviously It’s also beautiful, magical, and I felt totally in love with my wife and child the whole time. The reading I’d done, the checking on the position of the baby, the feeling that I’d do whatever Diane wanted was complete. I was ready to do what was best. It made me incredibly sure of myself. The only confusion I felt was for one detail that had gone wrong in the birthing process. I could see the baby’s head. The amniotic sac hadn’t broken. In the birth canal, a dark, bluish skull had risen into my view.

I told Diane, “Something’s wrong. It’s all blue.”

“I don’t think my water has broken.” She huffed. She sweated. Her brain had drugged her with endorphins but clearly she was still thinking well.

“Oh, yeah. That must be the amniotic sac. I don’t think that’s normal.” I had time to get paranoid, which is probably a decent trait in someone who’s always determined to act. “What happens if the child is born and the sac doesn’t break?”

“I don’t know.”

“I guess I could cut it.” That seemed a bit too strange for me. There was going to be no easy, by-the-instructions way to slice open that sac when the head was pressed up against it. The last thing you want to do in that situation is cut the baby’s head. (Years later, our midwife broke Diane’s water for her and did, in fact, give Rowan a scratch on the top of his head. It was nothing harmful, actually.) We had agreed that if anything unusual came up, I should call 911 and get an ambulance crew over to help. So I asked Diane if she wanted me to call.

"Call the doctor first," she replied. She recited the number.

When I called the number, I realized I had reached the dentist's office. And I didn't remember the seven digits for our family practice.

"Wrong place," I sighed. 

“Call 911 if you have to. But do you have to?”

“I don’t know. The head looks like it’s about to come out but your water hasn’t broken yet. It’s weird.”
She didn’t reply right away but after a little while, she agreed it was right to call even if it meant she’d have to leave in an ambulance.

“I really don’t want the ambulance,” she said. “But I have to go to the hospital anyway. We need to get him a birth certificate.” That was something a midwife would have done for us. Apparently, it was hard for us to do it for ourselves.

Naturally, the 911 operator assumed the labor was an accident of timing, not a deliberate act. I didn’t try to tell her otherwise. I just gave her the information. After the verbal paperwork had been completed in triplicate, I managed to get some help with the diagnosis. The woman on the other end didn’t quite believe what I was telling her.

“Are you sure her water hasn’t broken?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“But she’s giving birth?”

“Yes. I can see the head. It’s covered in blue stuff. There’s water in there and I can see stuff floating in it.”

“You can see the head?”


“Can you lean closer and describe it, please?”

I’m pretty sure she only asked the question to buy more time. But I did what she asked. I was doing it anyway. I put my finger in the birth canal and put my face in position to see the head during the next contraction, which came in a second or two.

“It’s …”

That’s when the amniotic sac broke a couple inches from my face. It was like a water balloon explosion. I got wet from shoulder to shoulder and, of course, everywhere in between. Blink with me as you imagine it. The burst made me laugh. Diane, sweating and feeling some pain, laughed, too. Maybe it was the only thing that would have gotten her to do that.

When I finished wiping my face, I had to explain to the operator what happened. Then I told her I was going to catch the baby but I wouldn’t hang up on her. I put down the phone, put out my hands, and caught Dylan Kyle's head, gently, with support under the neck. Diane smiled. Then she yelled. During the next contraction, her hardest, the shoulders came through. Our son slipped into the world, mouth open, and took his first breath. 

I placed him on his mother's stomach. She gave me a dreamy smile and turned it downward to her boy.

"Tie off the cord and cut it," said the operator in a distant but distinct voice.

"With what?"

"Do you have string? A shoe lace?" 

I leaned down and untied my shoe. I swung around and, with the overworn lace, clamped the umbilical cord. After two tie-downs, I cut the umbilical between son and mother using a pair of kitchen scissors.


The following day, we cleaned and reused the scissors, the ones with beige finger holes, because we were poor and practical. A good pair of scissors cost money we didn’t have to spare. We were buying groceries off of my credit cards every week, going further and further into debt. We wondered how we could support ourselves through college.
We had no idea if we could raise a son while working and going to school.