A journal article about seeing a white deer and the new direction this blog will take.
A journal article about seeing a white deer and the new direction this blog will take.
I’ve never visited any of the places Anthony Bourdain recommended. I never owned a Kate Spade purse. My palate is limited and my sense of style is best described as Mid-Life Lesbian at a Baseball Game. Still, I lived in a world where Mr. Bourdain, by osmosis, gave everyone a sense of culinary pleasure and adventure. I lived in a world that popped with color and style as emerging female executives carried a sense of accomplishment and fun on a strap as they walked down the sidewalk. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade had no personal influence on my life, and yet, I feel like I’ve lost so much in such a short time. Suicide – it does that. It’s not just about them; it’s about us, too.
Stop Fearing; Start Feeling
When anyone, particularly a famous person, takes his or her life, it doesn’t immediately bring out the “better angels of our nature” – in fact – we tend to knock those poor angels to the ground and trample them in a rush for information.
How did they do it?
Was there a note?
Was it her marriage?
Was he on drugs again?
Did they see a therapist?
Where was the family?
What was the last social media post?
Who did they leave behind?
What were the signs?
How did we miss the signs?
It’s not the suddenness of the loss that makes us so immediately ghoulish. It’s the fear – that unspeakable chill that jumps out from the lock box in the corner of our mind and makes us believe it could be us, or someone we love, next. The feeling of cosmic helplessness when someone goes to work one day and takes their life the next is pervasive. We paw our way through the haystack of news reports grasping at straws for our comfort – hoping to discover depression, discord, confusion, things we don’t have in our world, so we can find the elusive needle that says, “It won’t be you” or “It won’t be your daughter.” It’s illusion, you know, that assurance. We seek it all the same.
A better way is to stop rummaging around for signs of protection, and actually let ourselves simply feel our loss, our world’s loss, and remember that loss can come to us, too. Instead of running from the specter of death, it would serve us to kneel before it and cry, admitting how very much it hurts when someone, anyone, says goodbye. Instead of the self-serving language of “going on” – it would benefit all of us if we just admitted such a death knocks us beyond reason.
In a world where it’s hard enough to deal with the demons we see every day, we are outmatched by the invisible, insidious, and internal forces that show us only shadow, often too late. If we spent less time ruminating on the “causes of their pain” and more time admitting to ourselves and out loud – our loss, our sorrow, and our fear, it would not make us weaker. We would be pulling ourselves together by the collective thread that is our humanity.
Right Now, It’s Like This
How do we process this? With up-to-the-moment, absolute honesty. The mantra I’ve used for a while now is one designed to bring me back to ground level from the illusion of constant optimism and or the vulnerability of admitted pain. It centers me on the most important moment – this moment – and the most important understanding – the reality in this moment. The mantra has been so powerful that I had a bracelet custom made to remind myself frequently where I am and where my mind should be also.
It encompasses that great comfort of temporal awareness the teachers always remind us about. “If it is something bad, it will change. If it is something good, it will change.” So, endure or rejoice, but be where you are, because it’s the only real place to be and it won’t be that way much longer.
For Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, they hit the “right now” moment all of us fear most, and they dealt with their pain using the only option they felt they had left. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter why. I hurt for their hurt. I hurt for their choice. I hurt. I can admit that, because I know I will not hurt forever. And I will ultimately remember their larger-than-life spirit and outrageous talent. I will play with my dogs, hug my wife, and write some words. All will be well. Still, I’ve been sad most of the day. Right now, it’s like this.
What do Buddhists believe? When I’m asked that question there’s a flood of answers I could give ranging from 5 seconds (“We don’t believe, we practice.”) to 4 hours (“There was a man named Siddhartha…”). The answer I give most of the time is this:
We believe that every being has basic goodness.
Basic goodness is the understanding that we all (yes, all) have a core of goodness as the central feature of our being. This enrichment of good is the spark of life that takes hold before our first breath and will remain luminous after our body returns to dust. It is something we can connect with, reach into, and rely upon. Meditation is the park where we encounter it, walk with it, play on its swings, and learn at its feet.
The world may pull some of us away from this goodness. Emotional damage can drown out its voice. Our own confusion about who we are or what will make us happy builds walls around it and disconnects us. Yet, it remains – shiny and steady – until we return to it again. And again. And again. Understanding that we as beings are basically good is the key to a happy life and a better world to live it in. Want world peace? Basic goodness, baby. The only problem is – sometimes it’s hard to believe.
Oh my goodness!
It’s easy to grasp the concept that each human being has a core that is basically good when you’re meditating on a cushion with a fully belly, a good job, shelter, and health insurance. It’s tough to believe it when your memory becomes a slide-show of every cruel thought and action you’ve ever done – the harmful words, the vindictive plans, the lies, the apathy, the jealousy, the letting go, the pushing away. Although you realize many of those acts were reactions or driven by a personal need you did not fully understand, it’s still a stretch sometimes to know that good is the basis of all you are. Let’s face it, we’re a mess.
Confirming our good nature as a species is even harder when you watch parents publically shame their children on Facebook to get enough “likes” to satisfy their ego. It’s a challenge when greed and corruption invade the government pervasively and the people who need an honest government the most are the ones used and lied to on a daily basis. It’s impossible when a young man kills 20 children and 7 other people at an elementary school, or a father murders his offspring so his ex-wife can’t get custody, or when terrorists fly planes full of innocent people into buildings filled with more innocent people – killing whole worlds in a moment. Where was basic goodness during the Holocaust? Where was basic goodness when people with AIDS were told it was “God’s punishment” and denied care or compassion? Where was it when a Syrian child washed up on shore?
You’re going to need some courage to make this first important step to a happy, mindful life. It takes bravery to embrace your outrage, heal your self-inflicted bullet holes, and still stand in the world with an open heart and compassionate soul. Many of us are raised with messages of inadequacy, shame, or destruction coming from parents, teachers, or peers. Clipping those wires won’t happen overnight. Some people require therapeutic intervention just to point out which wires are the bad ones and help trace the power source. With time and intention, you can re-route your consciousness to see your beauty, your inherent value, and your goodness. The first step is to be willing to believe in your inherent worth. Then you can stand for those who cannot and should not stand alone.
There is a part of you that no abuse, no violation, no decision, no oppression, or no ambition can take away. It is indelible and indestructible. When you can’t see it, you’ll have to trust it’s there. Trust is critical to reconnecting with your compassionate core. When you look for evidence of goodness in the world, and you trust you’ll find it, the picture comes into focus with a myriad of lenses.
Follow the waters of life
Follow the babbling brook that branches off the blood creeks of history and you’ll notice water finding its way over, around, or through the rocks. You’ll see:
The people who rise up and call out when it is in their best interest to sit down and look away.
The parents who shield children not their own.
The survivors. The lovers. The quiet reformers.
The men and women who did not survive but lived a stalwart story of their faith, their passion, and their dignity to the last moment.
The ones who would not give in.
The lights that did not go out.
The books that would not burn.
The dams that would not break.
When you look with clear eyes you will see unparalleled good outnumbering horrific evil exponentially. First, you have to believe there’s something worth seeing. Stopping and seeing is another way of saying “be mindful.”
Our potential to be delighted, to be generous, to be compassionate, and to be enlightened all point to the core of good that is our base state. As individuals we have an amazing capacity to change, learn, give and forgive. We get confused by hurts, needs, or cultural messages and we lose touch with the notion of all that is good within us. But with a little courage and trust, we can reconnect with our primal, compassionate, good state of being. We can make choices that come from kindness. We can stop questioning ourselves, and affirming our light in a still dark world. We can have confidence. We can have peace.
—– The Bottom Line —–
Life used to be pretty sweet. I could go about my business happily enjoying alone time, Star Trek, and computer games while the people who loved me just said, “Oh, she’s not very social” and sent me nice notes about events I was invited to, but not expected to attend. Then it happened. Author Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was released. And the world didn’t stop talking.
Suddenly everyone was an introvert or knew an introvert and was compelled to talk to me about how they respected my need for solitude (often interrupting me while I was working, just to show me they understood I didn’t like to be disturbed). My normally placid Facebook page was flooded with cutesy comics of “10 Ways to Love an Introvert,” along with notes saying “This is just like you!” And then, like that horror-filled scene in Jurassic Park where they look at the broken fences and realize velociraptors are freely roaming the island, playing chess and plotting to eat the children, a new animal emerged: the “extroverted introvert.”
Extroverted introverts are those wonderful folks full of energy, light, loud voices (and the willingness to use them) who think they might be introverted because they would rather “Netflix and chill (really just chill)” than join a flash mob singing “Thriller” at a Burger King. They are so sure of their introversion they will talk to you in never-ending sentences about how much stress they feel out of their bubble, and that while they have the need to be constantly seen and surrounded by people, they are really very quiet in spirit. Just not in practice.
Personally, I think those of us who are actual introverts should sue Susan Cain for unwarranted exposure, defamation of quiet time, and disabling our pursuit of happiness. But, that would involve talking to lawyers, leaving the house, possible press coverage, and sitting in a room with people we don’t know. So, Susan Cain, please just go stand in a corner and think about what you did.
The Power of Shut Up
The problem isn’t that people aren’t as introverted as they want to be. It’s that most people can’t stand to be quiet when they are in a room (real or virtual) with another person. Learning to resist the urge for “pleasant conversation” or its horrible hillbilly cousin, “uncomfortable opinion spouting,” takes time and discipline. This is the information age where we reward talkers, typers, and those social “lean in” kind of people. How do those of us embedded in a system of constant communication learn to stop the chatter? By taking a spiritual adventure through the power of “shut up.”
Language is all around us. We don’t have to go to a party full of alcohol enhanced strangers to be talked up. We don’t even have to leave the safe confines of our recliner. All we have to do was turn on a laptop, iPad or smartphone and…so much talking. Some of it from us.
In an era filled with free-falling verbiage, most of it untrue and damaging, my life became an epic journey in the jungle of other people’s communication. I devoured comment section weevils who eat the truth with alternative facts. I slayed fake news dragons, won reply wars, and laid down my weapons at the feet of “agree to disagree.” In short, like so many of us typing the good fight, I was exhausted.
I realized I needed to stop. I was going to hurt myself – or someone else – if I kept responding to all the people shouting around me. I put down the phone, turned off the computer, and sat back to take a deep cleansing breath. I opened my eyes to discover the spell of silence. It was far more powerful than anything Harry Potter could conjure, and it filled me like cool spring water from the river of life. I wrapped my mind around the simple truth hidden in plain sight.
Personal peace doesn’t happen when other people stop talking. It happens when you do.
At first I was afraid. What would I do if I wasn’t communicating? Wouldn’t I cease to exist if I didn’t immediately add my voice to the fray? In our hectic 24-hour news cycle, if I listened to others and waited to form an intelligent, considered opinion – the topic would be over by the time I was ready to speak. What a loss! Still, I decided to give it a try. Stepping back to look and listen, I discovered there are some wonderful reasons to be iQuiet:
It lets you feel. Listening to what others have to say without thinking of what you want to say in response is one of the bravest, most revolutionary, things you can do. If you aren’t measuring their thoughts on the scale of right/wrong or looking for the weak link to break their logic, you will experience actual feelings about what they are telling you. The topic may make you sad or sentimental. The way they say it may bring up anger or happiness. There’s so much emotion going on in the silence. Feel it.
I know, I know…feelings? Sounds horrible. But once they start – even the unpleasant ones – you begin to change the way you see people and people begin to change the way you see. It’s worth it. I promise.
It makes you think. Most highly communicative folks like to believe they think a lot. The truth is – thinking isn’t the act of pondering something in your head while constantly re-confirming your own opinion. Thinking is taking in new data and adding or subtracting it from your mindset, leaving room for change and discovery along the way.Listening to someone else’s experience or ideas gives you building blocks for the castles of thought you want to live in.
I know, I know…that’s so much effort. Your new ability to understand, re-imagine, create and infuse your life with the world around you will give you wondrous insight.
It connects you. Buddhists believe that we have all the wisdom and knowledge of the world already inside of us. Thus when we encounter or hear something externally, the inner knowledge connects with its outer counterpart. That’s how we have those “ah-ha!” moments where we hear something new but we know instantly it is the truth – or at least – our truth.
I know, I know…other people, ew. Yet, that is the basis of Namaste – the divine in me honors the divine in you. We are connected.
I can’t say I spend loads of time in the practice of “shut up.” But my rest here – listening to others, reading news from international perspectives, checking in with my own heart – before joining the commenting world – has been of benefit. Maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you will join me. Before we call out, speak truth, dialogue justice, and cry havoc – we can all sit down and shut up, together.
—– The Bottom Line —–
This isn’t about guns. This is about the tragedy that goes way beyond the AR-15 used to kill four innocent people. This is about the first and foremost thing this shooting should do – which is break our hearts wide open. This is about me. This is about you.
There is an ocean of lists in Buddhism, but they all flow back to this first, foundational insight- the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are:
Yes, it’s true. The end of the first leads to….another list! But for now, let’s focus on this one.
The Suffering of Illusion
While the murder of four people at the Waffle House in Nashville certainly reflects a great deal of suffering, it’s the second truth that is the most revealed. We suffer because we cling to what will not last or is not real. Or, as a teacher I dearly love said a dharma lesson recently, “The second truth is when you insist on seeing something as you want it to be, instead of how it is.” In a word – illusion.
Travis Reinking, the young man who entered a Waffle House in the wee hours of the morning and took four lives, by any account suffers from severe and persistent mental illness. There’s a well-documented list of delusional and dangerous behavior. His guns had been confiscated more than once. How, then, did he get the weapon he used to gun down strangers? His father gave them back to him.
Why would a parent with a clearly troubled son repeatedly return deadly weapons to him? At first look it makes absolutely no sense. Life doesn’t happen at first look. It happens in the hearts and minds of human beings. Human beings who cling to what is not real. Why? Because love. Because denial. Because heartbreak. Because exhaustion. Because fear. “He’s okay, now. He was just having a hard time. Everything’s going to be alright.”
There’s a lot of judgement and anger focused on Travis Reinking’s mom and dad right now but who hasn’t retreated to the story in their head when a fearful, powerless reality is knocking on the door? What parent doesn’t stare at the door when hours go by without a text and tell themselves over and over, “Everything’s okay. He probably lost his phone. She’s just focused on her friends. It’s nothing.” Most of the time they are right. Sometimes they are not. Is that the same as giving a mentally ill person an AR-15? No. Not in any way. What is the same is the place it comes from – the need for any story that’s better than sitting with the dread or fear. We don’t have to approve or understand the Reinking’s thinking or actions. They were clearly and terribly in error. We do have to admit we’ve been there at some level, too.
Suffering of False Hope
The first time a parent’s illusion broke my heart was when I read an article about Adam Lanza’s mother. Another young man with mental illness who should not have been anywhere near a weapon, Adam Lanza lived in a house with access to many guns. I read a number of articles about Mrs. Lanza’s isolating, frustrating journey through her son’s illness and a mental health care system that couldn’t seem to help. The thing that stood out was an interview from a friend of the family who said Nancy Lanza loved taking her son to the shooting range because that was the only time he seemed happy; the only real connection they shared.
It’s easy – now – to say “Why would you put a gun in that kid’s hands?” Put your heart in the body of a parent whose only ability to connect with her own child is to take him to a firing range. It’s the only smile he has. It’s the only light in his wide, troubled eyes. It’s the only hope. It’s false hope, but it’s hope. Nancy Lanza died without knowing that false hope she clung to would create unimaginable suffering for so many. The Reinkings now walk in their reality every moment of the day.
According to a “5 Things to Know” article, Travis Reinking’s mom believed in guns, God, and home school. One of her last facebook posts was a meme about how saying the pledge of allegiance and reading the bible in school kept school shootings from happening. It’s not hard to imagine with how much of her heart she wanted to believe that having a “good Christian home” would protect them from the heartbreak of a son suffering from delusions and behavior problems. It was false hope, but it was hope. His illness could not be “prayed away.”
The Way to Stop Suffering
We need to stop screaming and meme-ing at each other, and start with a commitment to compassion. We don’t have to agree with anyone to feel their human value in our heart. When we see each other with equal value we can let go of the need to be right (or someone else to be wrong) and we can communicate. We can come together.
Together we can forge a compass based on what’s real, not what’s comfortable or easy. Together we work on ways to dismantle both the mystique and illusion surrounding guns, mental health intervention, and people in crisis. Together we can stop laying piles of blame and accusation at each news update. We can keep each tragedy from instantly becoming a way to ‘prove a point about…’ and learn to mourn together.
Mourning is real. Mourning is the end where we begin. There are lives lost. There are people hurting. There is much mourning to do.
We should not cling to the past or the illusion this kind of shooting is never going to happen again. We can only reduce our suffering by acknowledging it will happen again and it could happen to anyone. Only then, will we find the heart to make a change in our world.
—– THE BOTTOM LINE —–
Want a sure way to rejected by every publisher ever? Start your query letter with, “This is a character driven novel.” I guarantee you’ll be getting the “Thanks, but this is not for us” email before your tea gets cold. Characters create feelings, give insight, and spur our desires, but in Western culture they don’t drive the story. Readers flock to plot driven stories because, let’s face it, we live in a plot driven world. Nowhere is this more evident than the daily news.
Every news story, 24/7, is some combination of “action,” “reaction,” or “the next act/reaction/implosion/explosion/backtrack/side-track/thing to get us all killed.” Day after day we endure countless assaults on our psyche with our fear center targeted as ground zero. When your day starts with, “What will happen if I lose my health insurance?” and you take a lunch break to ponder, “Is someone going to walk into my child’s school with a gun today?” before watching where the bombs (literal and figurative) are falling while you cook dinner, it’s a sure bet peace of mind isn’t what you’ll be having for dessert. Petty lies, personality politics, devastating injustice, and this horrendous weather (Spring shouldn’t feel like December) – it’s all too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.
There seems to be two choices – shut yourself in a cave and learn nothing of the world, or continue to endure the daily carpet bombing of breaking news until the foundation shatters and you plummet into despair. Fortunately, there’s another choice – a chance to be aware, but not overwhelmed, involved but not consumed. Sit down, breathe deeply, and see the story through a different motivating lens. Transcend the plot.
We are taught in meditation that every single breath matters. Every inhale, every exhale, is another chance to take in courage and send out compassion, take in trouble and send out comfort, take in lies and send out truth. Like a tree that absorbs toxic gasses and releases oxygen, we can mindfully bring life, hope, and happiness back into our narrative – one breath at a time.
How it looks in my practice:
News: The family of a burglar, who died after being stabbed while robbing a home, put up a memorial in front of the house where he was killed – only to have it torn down by angry neighbors supporting the elderly man who killed the burglar to protect his wife and home.
Transcend the plot: Take out the judgement, the action, the labels.
Breath in: A human being is dead; another human being was frightened and took a life. A family is in mourning. A neighborhood is angry.
Breath out:Peaceful passing to the next life for the man who is dead; healing and comfort to the homeowner who is damaged. Compassion for the ones who mourn. Wisdom and patience for the ones who act in anger.
News: President Trump announced the US, France and UK did a joint operation to bomb Syrian weapons factories after Syria was discovered to have used chemical weapons in an attack earlier this week. The possibility of Russian reprisal is feared.
Transcend the plot: Take out the action, the personalities (yes, it’s hard to do), the fear of the unknown future.
Breath in: A war torn area has seen death and destruction. There is so much suffering. Leaders are manifesting what they think is best for them or their country. Conflict is high. Fear is present.
Breath out: Compassion and kindness for the weary people of this land. Communication and collaboration to all leaders. Empowerment and support to those who can ease the suffering of the people and the land. An awareness that we are not separate from one another, no matter what the boundary lines say. Courage, fearlessness, life in this moment.
Once you step out of the plot, the world isn’t any less wounded, but you are more able to see past the illusions of partisan ideologies, privileged judgement, and mind-numbing frustrations to the single most important hopeful truth we hold: none of this rests on us alone; we are all in this together.
A good character may never sell your novel, but being a person who sees beyond plot – to truth – can make your story a better one every day.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
High on the list of my favorite literary characters is Tevye, the world-weary spiritual optimist from a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem called “Tevye and His Daughters” who became more popularly known as the central figure in Fiddler on the Roof. Carefully balancing surly come-backs and a soft heart, Tevye shows us such a human portrayal of a people beset by every unfairness who continue to keep going with confidence in who they are, and who, generations later, they will still be. In a village caught between brutal changes and rich tradition, Tevye discovers the unstoppable evolution of love.
True confession: I would pay my entire fortune to see a version of Fiddler on the Roofwritten through the eyes of Tevye’s wife, Golde, and then have Idina Menzel star in the role. Since my entire fortune consists of $15.37 and free pastry on my Panera Club card, I’ll just have to stick with what I have, and like Tevye, make the most of it.
Dreaming about better prospects, Tevye sings about how different his life would be if he had more of a fortune than some milk cows and five daughters can create. He dreams of the things we all wish for – nicer clothes, comfortable house, lots of food, happy wife. Then he pauses to reflect on the change in his social status money would bring because people would start listening to him. He chuckles,
“And it won’t make one bit of difference
If I answer right or wrong
When you’re rich they think you really know.”
He gets serious about what his heart most desires, time to pray and be engaged with the wisdom and community of his faith. “That,” he sings, “would be the sweetest thing of all.” I’ve seen the show and film countless times and each time that line comes up I find myself nodding. Yes. Yes it would. Then a timer rings, the dog barks, an email reminding me about the electric bill appears and I must rise from imagination and go on about the business of life.
Tevye’s right. There is a tendency to see people who have financial wealth as somehow intellectually or spiritually endowed. Money equates to something valuable in our way of thinking. It plays a role in everything from the brand of coffee we buy to who we vote for or against in an election. We think people who are wealthy must be successful, even if they were born into, married into, or lucked into that money. We think people who are struggling must not be disciplined, blessed, or have good karma. Something is wrong with them, or they would have more assets.
The truth is, money is a tool. No more. No less. Most people work hard, long hours away from family and memory making to build financial security for their household. Others are immensely talented and working in a profession or situation that doesn’t reward with money. Money doesn’t exalt or demonize you and it certainly says nothing about your IQ or the state of your compassionate heart. It’s neutral. How we see money, or any other “richness,” is what makes the difference. It inspires us, challenges us, or destroys us. You can use a hammer to build a bridge or tear holes in the wall. The hammer doesn’t care. It’s the intention that matters.
While money may or may not play a role in how we view richness in mindfulness, there’s always some ruler we are holding up to others and then ourselves. There are many ways to be “rich” in mindfulness:
Rich in time:There are people who don’t have a punch-the-clock job or kids at home or demands that keep them busy all day. These chronological tycoons can listen to four dharma talks a day, meditate for hours, journal about their spiritual insights, and brew a cup of tea by painstakingly choosing each leaf in the infuser and reciting the heart sutra while slowly pouring the water. They will then curl up in their bay window reading nook with their third book this week and sip their tea while absorbing the meaning of every word. Surely they are wiser than the rest of us.
Rich in travel: Folks who get around the world so much you can’t tell if you’re looking at their Facebook page or the website of National Geographic always pique my interest. They unpack from a trip to Italy while preparing to go to a week-long meditation retreat in France. When that’s over, there’s a mandala demonstration in Spain they simply must see. Just when they think they would never see something more beautiful a friend invites them on a trip of a lifetime to Dharamsala. When I was a young woman I used to wonder if they ever burn out. Does having one amazing journey after another eventually fade the experiences into sepia photographs neatly labeled in the envelopes of your mind? Now, I’m more curious about how they manage to have jobs, hobbies, and relationships because it can take me three hours just go to the grocery store. Add extra time and a nap if I need to check the mail or gas up the car. With all they’ve seen – the rich in travel must have insight we don’t.
Rich in personality: Everyone knows that person who just pops when he or she enters a room. You don’t even have to watch the door (which is sad, because door watching is one of my favorite things to do at a party, along with snack bowl hovering and playing with the host’s cat). Their energy arrives about two minutes before they do. The lights get brighter, the conversation bubbles, and all eyes point in their direction. People like that never seem at a loss for words or challenged by the simple task of greeting. They smile. You weren’t planning on smiling, but there you are grinning wildly and hanging on every word they say, even though they are just asking where to put their coats. People who radiate energy are in tune with all the secrets of the universe.
Where am I in the sea of amazing people? Singing to the milk cows. I meditate daily with time borrowed from the snooze button and listen to dharma talks in my car (“Today we are talking about the 4 Immeasurables….” “Get out of the way, you jerk! I’m changing lanes here!”). Almost every vacation I’ve taken is within eight hours of my home, except for a friend’s wedding in Hawaii (I had jet lag for a week and can’t get the taste of those Hawaiian kettle chips out of my mind). I’m an introvert who isn’t the life of the party because I am lucky enough to have friends who invite me places and then cancel the plans. How am I going to obtain enlightenment? The same way as those other folks – one moment of awareness at a time.
Like money – the blessings of others – time, travel, and all the rest – are simply a tools. Nothing more. Nothing less. Awakening isn’t a test of how far you’ve gone or how much you know. Heck, you don’t even have to be able to spell “Bodhisattva” correctly. Awakening is about being who you are, where you are, and seeing both the reality and illusion of it all.
Those people who travel are the best. I’ve been to Walt Disney World a few times in my life but the only trip I’ve ever enjoyed was via the Facebook feed of a friend who spent a week there. I didn’t have to stand in lines, pay a fortune, or get puked on by a kid in mouse ears full of cotton candy and adrenaline. I saw all the sights, and when I wanted that dizzy, wind-blown feeling of a ride, I turned on the overhead fan and watched a POV clip on YouTube. When she posted the pics of her last day there, I cried. This was the best vacation I ever had.
“But that’s illusion!” You say, and you’d be right. It’s all illusion. The rides, the food, the mousy merchandise, even the waiting in line and getting snubbed by a Cinderella who didn’t wave in the right direction. None of it is real, not even for the woman who actually did it. What’s real is the joy, amazement, and love she experienced. What’s real is how she showed patience in line and compassion to a stranger who needed someone trustworthy to stay with the rest of the kids while mom took a barfy boy to the bathroom. What’s real is the experiencing of being. It’s real for her. It’s real for me.
Buddhists call the celebration of the richness of others “sympathetic joy.” You are connected to them, elated and excited by what is happening in their world and in yours. It is the act of opening your heart to experience all the wonders of the moment without a barrier telling you it is “their moment.” One of the Four Sublime States, sympathetic joy is surely a way to combat jealousy, multiply experiences, and end suffering. It’s like a generator that uses natural energy to create more energy. Joy begets joy.
Start training your eyes to see the doors of good tidings in the lives of those you meet. Let yourself go through those doors with them. Encourage, cheer, laugh, and love life there. Filled with undeniable power of connection you will discover you, too, are rich in joy. That will be the sweetest thing of all.
—– The Bottom Line —-
“You lost, get over it.” I’ve heard that. I’ve seen it on Republican friends’ facebook walls and in right leaning media since November 2016. It crops up every time there is a protest, a challenge, or a searing question about helter skelter way this country is being governed. I’ve been called the other stuff too - “Libtard”…“Snowflake”…Dummocrat (which is weird because I’m not a Democrat). The only phrase that has ever really bothered me is, “You lost, get over it.” Because they are right. I have lost something.
A Promise Broken
Agree or disagree, I was raised to hold certain positions with unquestioned respect:
Police and Authority (judges, courts)
Helping Professionals (Doctors, Ambulance Drivers, etc.)
My parents were not very political people, but they were both raised in the south and carried a sense of “southern values” when it came to patriotism and the office of the President. I grew up in a home where I was not allowed to make jokes about the President (even when it was Ford), talk badly about the President, or suggest any harm or challenge to the President. One night, when I was in high school, I came home late from a debate tournament and saw my mother watching Saturday Night Live do a pretty good send up of Ronald Reagan. She was cackling like an old hen. She turned to me, pointed at the TV, and said, “This is very bad. They shouldn’t do this.” Then, she went right on giggling. Parents of teens - if they didn’t send mixed messages, they’d have no message at all.
The idea my parents taught me was that the Presidency was more than a person, more than an office, more than a title. It was a promise. It was the promise America made to her citizens - to defend our constitution, protect our liberties, and represent us well. It was the promise America made to the rest of the world - to exemplify democracy, to participate globally with responsibility and honor, and stand for human rights throughout the world. It is a promise I believed. It is a promise I imagined eternal. It is, without doubt, a promise broken.
Now the same age as my parents were when they lectured me about respect for the President while Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (potentially putting my father, a man who worked on ABM’s for a living, out of a job), I have said more damning, angry, and ugly things about the current office holder than I have any other person on earth. I can’t even say I’m ashamed of my behavior - because I’m not.
What I am is afraid.
What I am is angry.
What I am is embarrassed for my country to be represented so poorly.
What I am is tired of seeing one lie after another get explained away or laughed off.
What I am is sad, so very sad, that the constitution three generations of my family fought to defend, is nothing but an afterthought (at best) and a snot-rag (at worst) to the person whose office it establishes.
I am feeling the impermanence of the ground I stand on. My Buddhist teachers remind me that encountering and reckoning with impermanence is a good thing. It is the path to enlightenment, and it teaches us to cherish each moment. The part they don’t always tell you? It hurts like hell.
It’s not the loss of my respect for the Presidency that hurts. It’s the loss of a piece of my being that keeps me up at night (Well, technically I’m always up at night, but this is what I’m thinking about these days instead of Batman or Emma Thompson). Being an American, even one who recognizes the failures of justice and inclusion in this nation, is part of being me. It’s something that I always counted on as part of my life. It’s something I held with affection, and gratitude.
When Cathy and I were married in Canada in 2005, we spoke openly that we were just doing it to solidify some rights until the US caught up with justice. In 2014, we got married in the US, because this is our country. Now, it’s not just a fact my marriage may be revoked by this egocentric christo-facist nightmare, but a fact the country and what it has always offered - (freedom of speech, press, petition, religion, assembly) has been sold to a higher bidder for something as fleeting as a “win.”
It’s one thing to realize the tomato plant in the kitchen is impermanent and will someday die (especially if you forget to water it more than once). It’ s another to realize the moral, ideological foundation of your home is impermanent too. I’m not enjoying this lesson. In fact, it probably fuels more of my real anger and sadness than any lie the White House tells or back-office deal congress makes. Those are the symptoms. Constitutional Decay is the disease. I am sick with it.
The Dark Sacred Night
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself…
what a wonderful world”
Written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss
What do I do with these feelings, this fear, this disgust? I am taught that the best way to deal with something impermanent is not to cling to it, but release it - to love every minute you can of it, and find every ounce of gratitude inside you for it - and let it go when and where it will.
I enjoy the freedoms I still have (I’ve been using that free speech one a lot these days), and I support the press, the communities, the path to justice as much as I can. I am thankful for leaders who speak truth to power, and journalists and scholars working to preserve the history and intent of the constitution to give as much of its goodness to the next generation as possible.
I am slowly letting go of the hurt, but holding on to as much of me (and my eternal optimism) as I can.
I can’t count on my country to be free, just, equal, and whole.
I can count on myself to be free, just, give and love equally, and live as a whole person.
I cannot stop violence.
I will not be violent.
I cannot stop racism.
I will not knowingly engage in racism, and when I do through error or blind spot - I will be open to correction and education about it. I will listen. I will learn.
I cannot respect the person who is currently President.
I cannot trust what he says.
I cannot hope he will get any better.
I will respect the person I am.
I will trust myself to do the best I can with what I have.
I will hope for the bright blessed day.
I will learn from this dark sacred night.
And, I say to myself, “what a wonderful world.”
Sing with me:
Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.
“What is the problem?” I hear that. You hear that. We read it in the comment section – an area where problematic people define the problem with other people by becoming a problem. We ask it, late at night when the only clarity the chaos of the world gives us is the assurance it is a mystery. A million writers chained to a million keyboards fail to come up with the works of Shakespeare but clack out a million blog posts all saying essentially the same thing, and still we are nowhere close to an answer.
This week, as a group of Neo-Nazis and KKK members marched their hate through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia they encountered a violent opposition, an overwhelmed police force, a group of counter protestors caught in the fray, and a horde of news media. That created a feeding frenzy for the problem. But, what IS the problem?
The message relies on the messenger. Depending on your source or lens the problem is:
Full disclosure: In reflection of this tragedy, I do believe there is only one side.
So now that I’ve used lots of words, what’s the problem?
The problem is we don’t have or use proper language to deal with the problem.
So much of the discord and our inability to deal with the problem is the vague, tainted language we use to communicate it. We hide evil under euphemism. We minimize interference with poetics. We deify and demonize with word choices designed to reinforce our bias rather than explore our reality. We fling words into our cart like a manic Black Friday sale shopper instead of choosing them as carefully as a hippie at Whole Foods. We talk about things there are no words to describe and in doing so perpetuate illusion. The most glaring example of our failure with language is the use of the terms Alt-Right and Alt-Left.
As a lesbian who has been slathered with the phrase “alternative lifestyle” most of my adult life, I have a natural tendency to wince at this terrible, aggrandizing word choice. Alt-Right used by media and advocates, makes it easier to talk about a group defined by xenophobic, racist hate speech. Alt-Right is a way of saying “they are just like the right-wing conservatives – only – different. They are just a little more extreme.” Well, no. Red/Blue, Left/Right, are words chosen to distinguish two sides of our political spectrum and they are woefully inadequate most of the time. However, there are two sides to a coin. If you flip a coin and it falls on the ground, slips through a grime covered grate and rolls into the sewer – you don’t call it “alt-heads.” In the same way, Antifa isn’t “just like the left, only different.” They are violent reactionary group claiming good indentations to justify property damage, violence and feeding their visceral need for thrills. Both terms need to be tossed in the sock drawer in favor of more accurate descriptions.
The more clearly we address the problem – even though such words as white privilege, systemic racism, and fictional heritage are uncomfortable – the better chance we have of navigating it.
Action vs. Reaction
Once I was at a spirituality conference and ended up eating lunch with two very different members of the Christian clergy. One was Pentecostal pastor who was expounding on the idea that he never prepared for sermons. He just read the scripture before getting in the pulpit and let the Holy Spirit speak with fire and power. He was adamant that preparing and writing a sermon squelched the Spirit’s ability to work. The other was a Disciples of Christ minister known for her careful examination of the lectionary and well written homilies. In response to her colleague she said, “When I sit down to write the first draft of my sermon, I find the Holy Spirit can indeed speak to me with fire and power. By the third draft, it’s sober.”
The problem is we want to quickly fix the problem.
We are a culture dedicated to the quick fix, the easy answer, the sudden inspiration without the work of examination – our sad devotion to “eye for an eye” illustrates that – even though Jewish and Christian scholars have been telling us for a century that’s not really what that text means, and it doesn’t fix anything at all. There is no duct tape, no magic spell (“transformo hateesimo”), no fast reflex that is going to change the systemic and brutal racism infused in this country or our addiction to violence as a viable solution. I’ve seen and agreed with a lot of people saying “Inaction is not an option.” However, the truth is - we need considered actions, not just passionate reactions.
Groups of people descended on Charlottesville ready to “Stand for love” and make a courageous counter-protest to the white supremacists marching around Robert E. Lee. At first look, counter protest sounds like a great idea and it has been talked about in the most poetic of terms. For every hate-spouting Nazi, we’ll have 3 love bombing activists. That’ll show them. What it did was create an oppositional force that brought a new level to the whole thing. The problem? The counter-protesters weren’t acting, as much as they were reacting. They have signs about hate. Let’s have signs with funny sayings about love. They march and yell atrocity. Let’s march and shout inclusion. So, instead of a group representing oppression and a group countering with undeniable love - what you had was two groups raising the volume. Action, meet reaction.
Make no mistake. I’m not suggesting it is wrong to stand up against racist, nazi rhetoric. What happened there is solely on the shoulders of the Neo-Nazi organizers, the man who drove his car into the crowd and the politicians who gain power from encouraging that base. I am suggesting that the stand against it should be a considered independent action, not a “they-say/we-say” reaction. What would have it looked like if, instead of standing across a police line shouting about love, there was a drive to register minority voters, a “rights fair” where people are taught what their legal and civil rights are and strategies to stand up for them, or a cultural fair at a local park sharing food and music of many places and taking up donations for the those who need food and care? It would have looked more like “standing for love” than just “screaming at hate.” If you want to claim moral high ground and reverse hate - you need to do more than exactly what they are doing only with an ironic sign and a rainbow button. You need to be different, not just in words, but in method. They have bad ideas. We need to have good acts.
The Myth of Understanding
Western culture places a great deal of value on knowledge and understanding. So much so, more ancient cultures are often horrified by us. Instead of honoring our dead with sacred space, chants, and a funeral pyre with honored family and friends as the spirit is sent onward, we strip them, cut them open and take out their organs so we can understand how they died. To us, information is essential, the ritual can wait. Our blind spot is our inability to admit that more often than not understanding something doesn’t make it go away.
The problem is we want to understand the problem.
I live in Richmond, Virginia, so I’ve heard, known, and loved people absolutely devoted to the Confederate Flag, Robert E. Lee, and the statues on Monument Avenue (even though my sweet Northern friends call that street “Losers Lane” and refer to the statues as “participation trophies”). In listening, what I hear is a beautiful, courageous, rich heritage of soldiers and ladies, mint julips, and good old rebels like Bo and Luke Duke just bein’ good ol’ boys. These southern generals were patriots fighting for a way life. It’s the siren song of the old south. Like those generals, what folks today are fighting for when they erupt at public hearings and march around with the Confederate flag is nothing less than their “way of life.” I get it. I absolutely understand where they are coming from. None of my understanding will change the fact the way of life they are defending didn't exist and the past they glorify is imaginary.
Robert E. Lee was a calloused and calculating slave owner known for his cruelty as well as his valor. The idea that slaves were really just loved workers who were “like family” is a stone-cold lie and the laughable notion that the south didn’t fight the civil war to preserve slavery (“It was going out of style anyway, ruining the southern economy,” people say) is a perpetual falsehood. To say the Southern “way of life” is a cherished history without mentioning it was built and sustained on the backs of indentured black people is as ludicrous as saying Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress” (Hemings was his slave, repeatedly forced to have sex with Jefferson and bare six children who were also raised as slaves). However, try to tell these folks they are fighting over an illusion, and you’ll learn really pretty darn fast that understanding something doesn’t always change it.
In the midst of the pain caused in this nation by racism, it would easy to retreat into sociological psychobabble about how a white supremacist became President, or read articles deconstructing white privilege and disaffected communities. It’s interesting to read theological blogs on the nature of evil and the exegetic origins of division. Those things aren’t bad. But – they aren’t going to change the problem. Sometimes, they purposely allow you to hide from the problem. Analysis paralysis.
Intentional invention on a personal level, then a relational level, then a national level is the only way to resolve the problem. Do you use accurate language to reflect what is happening and be an avenue for change and hope? If you’re white, are you able to communicate your understanding of privilege and develop a consciousness about changing the world around you? Are your responses to racism actions or reactions? Do they serve to shine a light on you or do they involve open doors for minority voices and collaboration? Are you as willing to sit and think as you are to stand and fight? Do you have a good balance between understanding and standing?
Best practice: Start in the center – your heart – and work your way out so that when the challenge comes you are able to stand side-by-side with others. Whatever you do, try as hard as you can – not to be part of the problem.
----- The Bottom Line ----
By the Book
"Racism springs from the lie that certain human beings are less than fully human. It's a self-centred falsehood that corrupts our minds into believing we are right to treat others as we would not want to be treated."
How awesome is my wife? Walking in the house with arms full of groceries I said, “I accidentally offended a Christian woman while talking to the flowers at Kroger.” Cathy didn’t look up from the paper she was writing. She wasn’t surprised about any of the phrases in that sentence. She simply nodded and said, “I’m sure she’ll survive.” Just another Sunday I went skipping to the store with a song stuck in my head, offended religious people, and had a conversation with some lilies. No chiding. No worries. Nothin’ to see here. That’s an awesome wife.
Of course, it helps that she’s been living in the chatty internal musical that is my life for a long time now. I have always talked out loud to everything around me. When I park the car I pat the steering wheel and say, “Thank you.” I talk to food I take out of the oven (“Don’t you look pretty?”), I talk to the dog water bowl (“Why you so empty?”), the television (“That was a great show, thanks.”), clothes going into the dryer (“It’s gonna be warm but you can handle it.”) and coming out (See, you look swell.”). So, the talking to flowers part wasn’t a shock. The rest? Well, what do you expect when I’m allowed out of the house on a blistering Sunday afternoon in basketball shorts whistling musical theater numbers?
It all started when I was in the kitchen making lunch with Briscoe the Beagle who was standing by in case things got crazy and food fell on the floor. After sidestepping around her a few times, I started singing “Shall We Dance” from The King and I. The earworm promptly got lodged in my cerebral cortex with the repeat button activated. By the time I grabbed my keys and danced out the door, the volume was on silent but the song continued on. Sing it with me:
Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music,
Shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say “goodnight” and mean “goodbye?”
When the last little star has left the sky,
Shall we still be together with our arms around each other,
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?
© 1951, Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers
Impressively, I remembered every word of the song. What did I forget? That Mechanicsville (the nearest town with stores) is home to roughly 3 kabillion Christian churches which all release their congregants sometime around noon each Sunday. It was one of the few ninety degree days we’ve had this summer, and I arrived at the store wearing shorts and a T-shirt, whistling softly with a list that included veggies for dinner, treats for beagles, and some fresh cut flowers to go beside the Buddha in our kitchen.
Kroger was packed with over-dressed, word-weary, cranky people. One woman pushed my cart out of her way while I was picking out flowers. Another man was angrily muttering and sticking his arm in front of me when I stopped in front of the apples to see if they were on list. I didn’t complain. I got it. They were hot, they were tired, their “day of rest” was nowhere near peaceful, and there wasn’t enough room for anyone to breathe, think, or be. No time for manners. No space for patience. Here was this smiling, bouncing (my secret dancing looks a lot like I’m on an invisible pogo stick), heathen in shorts and sandals in the middle of things. It was all too much.
Somehow, I made it to my car in one piece. A nice SUV with one of those PRAY bumper stickers was parked beside me. I opened the trunk, blocking my view from that side and obscuring a sharp-dressed dad, skirt and heels mom, and 2 middle-schoolers who were exiting their vehicle. At that moment, all I was thinking about (besides that song) was whether to put the cut flowers in the front seat with me or keep them in the back with the groceries. I found a safe looking niche and nestled them in.
“I know it’s hot in here, and there’s some scary water jugs, but it’s a short ride and I think you’ll do fine,” I said to the flowers. “You aren’t just any flowers. When you get home you will be an offering for the Buddha! You’ll sit right beside him. How awesome is that?”
“UGH!” The Christian woman said, loudly. It was my first inclination anyone was nearby. I put down the trunk to discover myself face-to-face with her. She looked straight at me, her lips curled in disgust as she frowned. She had a cross around her neck. I had a mala dangling from my wrist. I smiled. She gave me a hissing sigh, rolled her eyes, then put her arm on the back of one of her kids and guided them hurriedly away as if the car may explode at any moment, burying her in lotus petals and compassion.
I would love to say I’m so thick-skinned and self-assured that her judgy rejection slid off me like cookies on a non-stick sheet. But it didn’t. I felt the sting. Even when I started singing loudly on the way home I was covered in the residue of her derision. My good humor remained, but it was tempered with those feelings you get when you've been put on notice that you are outside of the lines.
I started thinking about the “Pray” on her car. Who did she pray for? Her kids, her friends, her marriage, for sure. World peace, job security, sick relatives, and safe travel? Possibly. Would she pray for me? Not likely. And if she did – would she pray for me to be happy, healthy and loved? No. If she did, she’d probably pray for me to change, to “see a light,” to become who she thought I should be. As it was, I’m reasonably sure I took up very little space in her consciousness once she voiced her opinion and guided her children away. I was thinking about her, but she had long since left me. I thought, “Goodnight.” She meant, from the moment she saw me, “Goodbye.”
In one moment of interaction we got to experience the truth about “tolerance” versus “acceptance.” I see the “Teach Tolerance” bumper stickers a lot (and their more friendly cousin – Coexist). I hear the pleas and language of tolerance in many places, and it has always been as unsatisfying to me as cotton candy for dinner. Even "coexist" doesn’t provide long-term nourishment. I didn’t know why until I sorted through my feelings about this experience.
Tolerance means she didn’t stab me in the parking lot. She didn’t call security to have me removed, or stop and force me to confess (she thinks) it is wrong to offer anything to Buddha. She tolerated my presence for the few moments my circle met hers, non-verbally expressed her opinion, and left. We co-existed in that hot humid space. Not peacefully, not happily, but functionally.
What would acceptance look like? In this briefest of moments, would it look like a smile? A nod? A murmured “hello” as two strangers found themselves face to face? At best, it would be a neutral space between us, with nothing but air and acknowledgement of another sentient being at close range. Acceptance would have offered her a chance to save energy. There wouldn't need to be display of displeasure. She wouldn’t have to draw a line between us. She wouldn’t need to scurry away. She could just be. Acceptance doesn't mean you approve. It means you understand the value of the person with you to make their own decisions about life/faith/being.
And then, the mirror turns just long enough to let me know she’s not the only one who could have saved some energy that day. I am sad she doesn’t understand that flowers for my kitchen Buddha give us such joy and brighten the whole room; that we aren’t engaged in worshiping a false god. We aren’t worshiping anyone. We are showing our gratitude for teachings that make our life better, and respect for the teacher. It’s not really different than taking an apple to the lady who leads your Sunday School class. And yet, I am aware she is also sad – in a mask of offense/anger – that I don’t recognize or follow her life-honored belief that Jesus is the only way and the only one.
Truth is – I had the same feelings about her “Pray” bumper sticker as she had about my flowers. I just waited to get in the car before rolling my eyes. If acceptance is the lesson, I need to slot myself in the student’s seat, not behind the teacher’s desk. In fact, we all do. Acceptance – recognizing someone’s sovereignty of belief, and dignity of being – frees us from not only the walls built by judgment, but the energy spent on ill will, the time lost to replaying the episode, and the illusion that we are disconnected. Acceptance allows us to remember we are all in this together.
That’s the difference. Tolerance is a space you give to others. Acceptance is a gift you give to yourself which allows you to see the ties between us, no matter how different we are. Tolerance may spare you from discord but acceptance keeps you from being alone.
Acceptance is an acquired behavior in our fractured world. Before it becomes a reflex, it will require some exercise, repetition, and reflection. To be who you are in the world, and letting others be themselves as well, is a treasure way worth the effort. I’m willing to try. How about you?
There are a number of sources about dharma:
By the Book
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."