Running with the Bulls…or Pema Chodron, AGAIN


I will get to the subject, but first I would like to share the history of combining unlike things…in other words, just watch me make sense of that title.

In studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona, I was required to take literary criticism classes.  Like, two a semester.  My first papers, which were, according to the teachers, well-constructed and thorough, discussed Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot because I LOVED those two poets.  I wrote about the meaning of their work through the lens of my life, from my need to understand the temporal nature of, well, everything (T.S. could have been a Buddhist if he wasn’t such a fanatical Christian.).  And with Frost, I contemplated the nature of non-conformity or whether in fact there was such a thing.

I got D’s.

I don’t like D’s.  I learned from those two papers that teachers weren’t looking for a 20something’s real interest in poetry and its relevance to her life.  They wanted Literary Criticism.  They wanted esoteric analysis.  I understood that applying, for example, Freudian theory to Beowulf would probably get me an A, even though such an application is %#25398  ridiculous.

But, I have a sense of humor.  And making fun of Literary Criticism while giving these people what they seemed to want appealed to me.  I wrote a paper comparing the women in William Congreve’s The Way of the World with the houyhnhnms (yes, I did have to look up how to spell that and they are super intelligent HORSES) in Gulliver’s Travels.  It was the most ridiculous comparison I could make, but it was, at least, feminist in outlook.  I got a B+.  And after that, only A’s.  It was fun to write tongue-in-cheek papers with complete seriousness.  My friends in the Comparative Literature MA program said that the teachers were so bored reading undergrad essays that anything unusual would score high.  My GPA skyrocketed.

So, unlike things.  Or, back to Pema Chodron.  AND Running with the Bulls.  You never know which way I’ll go with this one, because I don’t know which way I’m going to go either.

This weekend I had no plans so I signed up for a 3 day meditation retreat at the Shambala Center.  I also felt pretty unbalanced after Arizona and figured meditating for hours on end had to re-establish SOMETHING.

Shambala is Pema Chodron’s tradition.  Had I known that I might have run screaming the other way.  But it was only $100 and near my house, so I didn’t really do much research.

Shambala, which was developed by Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan monk who became a householder and is a secular form of Buddhism associated with the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, though really the books seem to all be by…Chogyam Trungpa.  Who, two women in the retreat told me, sadly died an alcoholic.  (BTW, I don’t really know much about these lineages or the lineages of Buddhism overall, but in case you do, well, I’ve impressed you.  Sort of.  In other words, there we go.)

And while I hesitate to show off my judgmental mind by telling the truth about what I thought, here this goes.  I DON’T GET SHAMBALA!  How is it even Buddhist?  I think the Buddha was mentioned once all weekend.  The talks were pop psychology and I know Western Buddhism is anti-intellectual, but REALLY.  We all possess basic goodness, which comes in moments of being who we really are?  Well, that’s a relief since I’ve been bending my mind around this whole concept of NO SELF since March, screaming silently the entire time trying to surrender Western prejudices.  So in Shambala, we do have a self?  We actually exist?

Then, I went to a women’s sangha with my partner to try and facilitate harmony following what has got to have been the least harmonious six months of the last ten years of our very long marriage.  I listened to a talk by Pema Chodron on line with the sangha.  She was talking about fear and being our own best friend.  And is this rocket science?  Save me from Buddhist pop psychology.  I mean, PLEASE.

I’m going back to no self.  Or perhaps to running with the bulls.  (See, I’m getting to it.)  Because I had an actual revelation when I ran with the bulls.  I’ll tell you about it, but I think you need the whole story.

I was twenty-four and in love with Ernest Hemingway.  Really, I was just in love with Spain, where I’d been living for the last year, and since Hemingway wrote about it and his prose was only about 1000000000000% better than Michener’s, I fell in love with Hemingway by association.  (Hemingway, though insane, knew better than to run with the bulls.  Michener was probably sane, but he did run.)

I’d learned to dance Sevillana, I’d lived with a Spanish family, and for the first time in my life I felt at home.  First of all, my unbridled passions, which in this country qualify me for intense psychotherapy, made me NORMAL in Spain.  I mean, squealing when you’re happy and raising your voice when you’re angry and singing just because you feel like it are actually part of life in that country.  At least in the South.  At least in Sevilla.  I heard people singing outside my window in Los Remedios, their voice lifted on the humid air, the night cresting in through the window, warm, heavy, laying over my body…it was magic.

Plus, if you’re a foreigner, any weird thing you do is attributed to the fact that you come from a different culture.  (The fact that I was weird in that culture never occurred to anyone.  My Spanish surrogate mother, Maria Dolores Garcia Fraile, rejoiced in every non-conformist thing I did.)

I wanted to BE Spanish.  I wanted to dive into the culture and be coated with the smells and songs and colors.  If it is possible to love a place more than I loved Spain, I can’t imagine it.  The gypsies begging, the women in their mantillas, the courtyards with the smell of orange trees, the white villages, the language, the language, the language…the rats outside in the alley, so big, so frightening, the women who pulled me to my feet and danced Sevillana, looking into my eyes, the cries between the plucking of guitar strings in bars with sawdust on the floor, the bars, the bars, the disco dancing, the piropos called to women in the street, which I hated…I loved everything, though, even the poverty, even the heat, even the dirt.  Even the sexist catcalls.

So of course I wanted to run with the bulls.  I wanted to run as if I were a Spanish man, proving his courage.  I went to San Sebastian, because there was no room in Pamplona, and I stayed at the youth hostel.  Women lent me the white pants, white button down shirt, and I bought my own red satin sash and bandana.  I drove to Pamplona with four Spanish men, and we partied all night, and they swore they wouldn’t let me run.  The bulls were released at 8am to run through the streets.  At 7:30am I said I had to go to the bathroom, and I walked out the back door of the bar onto the cobblestone streets, I walked past college students puking, past men asleep on the sidewalk.  (There is no good behavior in Pamplona during Los San Fermines.)  I climbed between the slats of the wood fence that barriered the street where the bulls would run, went down near the gates, and sat against a building with some Spanish men, trying not to be noticed.

Ten minutes later, the most handsome of the men I’d come with found me hugging my knees to my chest.  He sat down beside me.  “You’re determined?” he said in Spanish (that was all we spoke).  I nodded.  He sighed.  “Don’t run,” he said.  “The greatest danger is getting trampled.  Just stay on your feet on the right.  The bulls will run to the left.  If they are in a pack you are safe.  But if one is wandering, get to the fence and climb under right away.  People are gored by the bulls that wander.”

“Gracias,” I told him.

He left me, the bell rang, and I moved toward the gates with the Spanish men (most Americans ran further up the street near the bullring…the bulls pass everyone, because they are FAST.).  Then the bulls were released and we all turned the other way and sort of ran.  Mostly, the men behind me, pushing my back, hard, harder, yelling, “Corre, corre, corre.”  (Run, run, run.)  Keeping on my feet, trying not to slip, the pushing non-stop, hands, push, hands, are the bulls here, and then they were.  Two were white, I seem to remember.  On the left, as he had told me.  And here is my real revelation:

BULLS ARE BIG!  I DIDN’T STAND A CHANCE!

Of course, I lived to tell about it…which of course I will continue to do for as long as I live.

And, it may not seem like rocket science to you, but for me, idealistic, passionate, so very, very young, wanting everything, wanting life, more life, all the time, realizing that I was so small…was very important.  It was the first time since I’d hit puberty that I realized there were things I couldn’t conquer.  The idea that I didn’t stand a chance was new.  I did not want limits…what twenty-four year old does?

Now I look back at that girl, and I think, oh, no wonder.  In battle since the day I was born for my own soul, and here I was, in the midst of one of my life dreams, one I hadn’t known how to get to, and then a scholarship to college, some grants, and I could pay for it, I could go, I could HOPE.  I might not have stood a chance with the things I was up against in my life, I might have, at one time, before puberty, despaired, but at twenty-four, I was winning, and I knew it.

I know running with the bulls probably doesn’t qualify me for being my own best friend.  And I know that we all have work to do in that arena.  But really, basic goodness?  It may be hard to sit with our low self-esteem and contemplate accepting that what we feel about ourselves is dead wrong.  But I’d rather do Vipassana and lay my awareness on my low self-esteem (or my high self-esteem, or my mid self-esteem or my inflated self concept, or pretty much whatever) and investigate it.  I’d rather learn about the Buddha and the outer edges of his thought than listen to pop psychology ANY DAY.  (And I am an intellectual.  Sort of.  Minus literary criticism.  So shoot me.)

Maybe it’s just that I hate therapy with every bit as much passion as I loved Spain.  I don’t want to analyze, pop psychologize, therapize, or pathologize anything.  I want to dive in, be, sit in silence, feel the boundaries of my wild unruly mind and my very uncomfortable body dissolve.  I LOVE Vipassana meditation.  I love how hard it is, and how peaceful, and how troubling, and how full of kindness.  I love that it’s an adventure, every time.

I don’t have to run with the bulls.  I can just close my eyes and be with what is.  And while the patterns of my craziness sometimes become recognizable, I am an endlessly creative human being and I am sure I can amuse myself into eternity with my suffering, my humor, my longing, my joy, my beauty, my darkness and ugliness.

In Shambala, you keep your eyes open and concentrate furiously (well, probably not furiously) on the out breath.  I’ll try it again, but.  Well, you know. I will continue being the only woman I know who doesn’t feel Pema Chodron or even refer to her by her first name as if she were my best friend.

So far, when it comes to teachers, I like Jesse Frey-Vega.  He’s an approximately 35 year old multicultural activist meditation teacher who uses the word dude when he talks.  He even swears as he’s teaching about being with what is.  I don’t think my liking him should surprise anyone.  (He was my teacher in June.  And, I think he might be Jesus reincarnated, since he exudes love more than any human being I have ever met.  Look at that!  I can happily merge my Jesus-dominated unconscious with Buddhism, making this whole blog just wonderfully absurd in terms of bringing unlike things together!)

May all beings be free from suffering.

Except therapists.

I’m just not enlightened enough to include them.