Category Archives: politics

When things fall apart

hurricane“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
– W. B. Yeats, ‘Second Coming’

Even when our personal lives are satisfactory, many of us are deeply stressed by the current state of the world. If this is your experience, you may find it challenging to be tranquil in the midst of it all. And perhaps you don’t feel it’s right to cultivate tranquility when so much in the world is so wrong. You believe times like these call for action, not ‘navel gazing’.

But where does wise action come from? If things are falling apart and the center cannot hold, doesn’t it make sense to center ourselves?  Cultivating tranquility assures a better chance to be wiser and kinder in our choices, actions and words.

From that tranquil center arises gratitude for being alive to do even the hardest work. It provides clarity to see our purpose, where we can help and where we can remember that ‘it’s not all up to me.’ We can find true forgiveness for our own failings as well as for the misguided words and behaviors of others. We may discover a sense of deep connection to all beings of all species of all eras. That connection can provide additional support and meaning to our efforts. When tranquility is discovered and nourished through sitting in silence, then loving-kindness for ourselves and all beings blossoms forth into wise and skillful interaction.

And we are much less likely to succumb to despair.
My mother was a lifelong peace-worker, and on occasion she would fall into despair, especially in her later years when she could look back on all her efforts and judge them a failure, as it seemed the world was no closer to peace than it had ever been. It was hard to scrape herself off the floor and begin again. She had great strength but it was borne of pure will. She would give herself a good talking to and began again. She had the grit we Americans admire, but grit can only take us so far, and it rubs us raw in the process. Knowing how things ‘should’ be, and feeling we ‘should’ be able to solve every problem, entangles us in a deepening misery of fault-finding. This wasn’t commonly understood when she was alive. Meditation wasn’t a common practice and the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ had not come into common parlance.

I believe if she had lived long enough to learn about and try the skillful techniques to cultivate an inner strength that doesn’t rely on teeth-clenching determination to sustain her noble commitment, she would have been less likely to fall into despair.

When she died on ‘March Forth’ 1989, I had a year of magical thinking, a gift of the unbearable grief I experienced. In my mind, my mother, once freed from the limits of embodiment – get this! – single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall, ended apartheid in South Africa, inspired over a million Chinese to demonstrate for democracy in Tienanmen Square, ended heavy-handed communist rule in various eastern European countries, etc. etc.

But even with that great post-life work, she might have despaired. After all, if she was doing all that, couldn’t she have stopped the earthquake that devastated her beloved Bay Area? Couldn’t she, with her love of oceans and marine life, have taken a moment to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill? That sense of despair, familiar to us all at times, comes from the belief that perfection is possible, and that anything in life can be permanent. J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.

This is such an important thing to remember. We don’t know! Tranquility is possible if we can acknowledge that simple fact. Our inherent negativity bias makes us more inclined to think the worst is coming, and it’s enforced by the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality of the news. But the news only shares the events that stand out because they are unusual. That means that most of everything that is going on in the daily life of most people is at least tolerable, and likely to contain moments of laughter and contentment.

Even when it seems that politicians are up to their gills in debt to interests not aligned with the public good and are only skilled at lying, we discover newer faces on the scene, with clearer kinder vision and a way of bridging the great divides between us.

There’s a Buddhist expression ‘No mud, no lotus.’ In the context of the current political shenanigans, we might open to the possibility that out of this period of mud-slinging, goodness is also arising. These newcomer candidates would likely not have been inspired to run if they thought everything was going along just fine without them. And if we were satisfied with the status quo, would we be so inspired to support them, to volunteer to get out the vote and spread the word? Probably not.

With so much we don’t know, one thing we can be sure of is that change is the only constant. Can we center ourselves and open our arms to embrace the ever-changing nature of life? It is possible to experience tranquility even in the midst of tumultuous events, seasons, power, politics, cultural favor, etc. The Eight Worldly Winds are always blowing: Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain, Praise and Blame, Fame and Censure. As long as we are alive, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows are the gift and the challenge of earthly life. Why rail against it? Why make an enemy of it? Why add to the suffering? If we cultivate tranquility at the center of our being and operate from that place of calm inner strength, we can not only nourish ourselves but all life. We can be a light in the darkness, joining together with a whole world of others who are centered in tranquility and cultivating wisdom.

 

Tranquility is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and spending time with it has been a very rich experience for me. A few posts back we looked at ‘grudges, pet peeves and other mental knots’. Since then I have continued to notice my grudges when they come up, and I’m finding an unexpected increase in my capacity for compassion, forgiveness and letting go. It’s as if I’m a snake in molting season. Letting go, letting go, letting go. What a great unburdening!

Yesterday I was in the grocery store parking lot and saw the car of the tech who many many years ago ‘fixed’ my computer, and in the process made it unusable, leading to a whole slew of painfully expensive solutions. For the past twenty years whenever I saw that car, my mind would get caught up in that tangled knot of blame. Grrrr. This time I felt the rise of that knot again, so I paused and sat with the grudge for a moment. Just then the ‘fixer’ came out of the grocery store and got in the car. Oh my, how that person had aged. I felt compassion. And in that feeling compassion, the knot untangled more and dissolved. How could I hold a grudge against someone for so long? Someone who was, after all, just trying to help, even if it turned out not to be very helpful? Have I never made mistakes? Ha! Of course I have. Plenty of them! As have we all, even though we do our best not to. What a lovely release I experienced. And I expect there will be many more.

Who in your life entangles you in knots? Is there room for forgiveness? Not forcing anything, but just making room for the possibility? Are there some assumptions you’ve been clinging to that are in need of questioning – Is this true? How do I know this is true?

Tranquility arises from compassion, forgiveness and letting go. The tranquility, in turn, births skillful words and actions. Even, or perhaps especially, when it seems things are falling apart.

Imagine

t-b-med(1).jpgImagine those twelve Thai boys meditating in a cave not knowing when or if they would be rescued. Now imagine what greater anguish that hungry darkness might have churned up in them without the anchor of the meditation practice taught by their coach, once a Buddhist monk. Om mani padme hum. Over and over. The distress of waiting and wondering at times no doubt gave way to simply being alive together in the dark here and now, radiating light, cradled in the warm welcoming sense of oneness with all being.

Now imagine the immigrant children in the US, ripped out of their parents arms at the border and later vanished into vans bound for distant undisclosed locations. Then imagine if in this horrendous and totally unacceptable situation, these children had at least a gentle meditative practice to hold onto: A way perhaps of feeling held by their understanding of God, by Jesus, by the Virgin, a way of entering the oneness of being, where distance does not exist and separation is not possible. Perhaps some have found a way to provide that for themselves, but most are likely in heightened states of fear, anguish, worry and distress that will impact them for the rest of their lives, and ripple out in all manner of ways to all life.

What of those whose job it is to guard them? I imagine many must feel the inherent cruelty of this dreadful task that was never what they signed up for.

And what of he who assigned them to do it? Can anyone touch his heart and awaken compassion? Can anyone find his heart? It seems buried so deep in a dark cave where likely no one held him and assured him he was okay, where no one led him in the delight of discovering the intrinsic oneness of all being. And so he is caught up in his craving for everyone to see him as the wondrous one, the miracle maker, not knowing that no amount of praise or adoration will fill his achingly empty heart.

Now imagine that Thai monk-turned-coach being invited to the White House — or, hey, why not the Dalai Lama? Someone please! — to share the open secret of joy with the man who has so little, so these children can be quickly — already too late for ‘quickly’ but still — reunited with their families, and all people can be reminded of their intrinsic place in the oneness of being.

I know, I know, I have quite an imagination.

But I’m not the only one.

 

The words you use shape your world

As we continue to look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we come to Wise Speech.

a heart of wordsTraditionally wise speech is using words that are true, kind and timely. If any of those conditions are not met, then it’s not wise speech. We can see unwise speech in so much of what is being said and written in social media, especially by one who holds an office where words are usually carefully considered.

We can see untruths. We can see unkindness. Whether it’s timely or not, it’s hard to assess, but in its harshness and scare tactics it seems bent on stirring up volatile emotions and prompting reactions that are equally unskillful.

It may be tempting to turn away, and to some degree this kind of self-protection is useful, but only long enough to anchor ourselves in the present moment, remember and reset our truest intentions, check in with the quality of our effort, cultivate mindfulness and wise view through concentration practice. Then, and only then, we can engage as effective citizens of the world.

It is certainly not a time to be silent. But giving ourselves the gift of silence in daily practice or on a retreat is especially valuable in volatile times. We are not seeking escape. We are not running away. We are not sticking our fingers in our ears, shutting our eyes and saying ‘lalalala’ to shut out what we don’t want to hear. Instead, we are finding our center, anchoring ourselves in the sensations of breathing, hearing, feeling whatever sensations are present in our experience. And in doing that we see how things change from minute to minute. That gives us the gift of understanding the nature of impermanence. No experience, whether difficult or wonderful, goes on forever. And that informs us as to our role in engaging in life. We are not separate beings shoring up our isolated identities in order to feel safe. We are part of an amazing whole, integral to the well being of all life. Our actions matter. Our words matter. No matter whether we are talking to a child or putting words out into the twitter-sphere, we are setting into motion something powerful that cannot be retracted. Our words matter. So let them be true. Let them be kind. Let them be timely. Let them inspire compassion rather than hatred.

As someone who spends a lot of time writing, I find words and language are much more interesting and complex than simply making sure that they are true, kind and timely, although that is an important aspect. So in this post I want to explore the power and beauty of words, in the context of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

The power of words is undeniable. George Lakoff has long pointed out that in politics the words you use deeply influence the populace in how they think about policies. He uses the example of ‘regulation’ — a word that carries the burden of oppressive government interference. This word can be felt in the body as a tightening in resistance if one feels the government is prone to overreach. But notice how differently the word ‘protection’ is felt in the body. This is a word that accurately can be applied to the laws, such as environmental laws, that were created to protect the health of our streams, ocean, air and ourselves as living beings who are deeply dependent on a healthy environment. Choosing the word that more accurately reflects the nature of what we are discussing makes a huge difference in how it is received, doesn’t it? This is not just word play, but an insight into the nature of our relationship to language.

In class, when I shared this comparison, a discussion arose around the word ‘protection’ and how it can have a negative effect as well. One student pointed out that sometimes it is suggested that women need to be protected, and that patriarchal belief doesn’t sit well with many modern women. Another student said that inciting violence at an international level is often done in the name of ‘protection’. So the investigation continues for each of us as to how we use words that accurately reflect our truest intention.

Word choice is so important because it shapes our understanding and attitudes, and it impacts how what we say is received. In a personal conversation this can be just as true. There are words that may be well-meant but they push buttons in the other person that we never intended. In the language of intimacy in particular, we may feel like we are walking on eggshells. And we may become so fearful that we might say the wrong thing that we say nothing, maybe at a time when the other person very much needs something to be said!

Language shapes and potentially limits understanding. The recent movie Arrival had this idea as one of its theme. Visitors from outer space arrive and the main character, a linguist played by Amy Adams, is asked to communicate with them. Their language is unlike anything on earth but somehow she manages to understand it. Of course her military colleagues wanted to know are these beings friends or foes, in order to know how to treat them. She tried to get them to understand that setting up an ‘us and them’ paradigm by asking questions that assume they are here to attack or take something from us, locks out the possibility of other intentions because it will feel threatening to them. Language shapes and potentially limits understanding and outcomes.

We can see how true that is in our own conversations with each other. When we are in a conversation with someone and suddenly there’s a shift of mood, or an escalation of tension, where did we get off track? What happened? It certainly wasn’t our intention (or was it?) to irritate, aggravate, denigrate or any other kind of -ate. Yet here we are in a very different place than we intended.

Speaking of language and power, here is a very interesting quote from an article on the blog Vox by Emily Crockett where she says, “Women, and women leaders in particular, often get criticized more for how they say something than for what they actually say. They have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.

“When women speak, people tend to mentally turn up the volume. Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like “vocal fry” and “upspeak” when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as “aggressive.”

What’s a woman to do? In class last week, one student shared that within her she felt an up-welling of powerful feminine energy, a fierce protector power that is inherent in us when what we love is threatened, like a mother bear protecting her young.

Another student was surprised because, as it turns out, she was currently writing about the very same subject. So in our women’s group, we will certainly open to this needed energy, and cultivate it to be skillful, with wise intention, wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise view and wise use of language, assuring that our words are true (as in speak truth to power!), kind (as in compassionately speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves) and timely (as in speaking up when our voices are most needed, like Now! and persisting even when cautioned that it is somehow unladylike to use our power for the benefit of all beings.)

We all have a seat at this table of life. We don’t have to wait to be invited. We were born with our seat already there and the table set for us. Yet many women, and some men, are in a state of waiting for permission, waiting for an invitation. Wait no more! Our voices need to be part of the conversation. And we need to be wise in the words we choose, knowledgeable about how powerful words are, and how easily misunderstood. If we speak from our truest intention, respectfully, compassionately, our words will be powerful.

I have written a number of other talks about Wise Speech. Here are links to past posts if you would like to explore further.

Meta-Metta

Immense compassion springs forth spontaneously toward all sentient beings who suffer as prisoners of their illusions.
– Kalu Rinpoche

This political season is such an opportunity to actively send metta! When my students were talking about an upcoming debate last week, I challenged them to see if they could send metta (loving-kindness) to the candidate from the party they weren’t supporting.

I knew how challenging this assignment might be. When I was young and watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates on black and white television in my best friend’s living room, we threw ice at Nixon whenever he said something that drove us crazy. I’d like to say it was an act of kindness to cool his sweaty brow, but it was an act of violence plain and simple. We were lucky the TV screen didn’t break! So I understand how challenging this assignment might be. Many times over the course of the recent Bush presidency our class at Spirit Rock imagined him and his cabinet members in the center of our circle and sent them metta. What a challenge! But what an amazing practice. We’ll never know if our loving-kindness was felt by Bush, but sending it out certainly had an effect on us.

Naturally I was curious to see what my students experienced if they attempted to send metta during the debates.

One meditator said that she just couldn’t bring herself to send metta to someone who represented policies she abhorred. She didn’t want them to achieve their goals or be effective, so why would she wish them well? If she was supporting the other candidate’s success, then obviously she wanted the opposition to fail. So why would she send them good wishes?

What a great question! And it made for a very rich class. I so appreciated the opportunity to clarify what metta is and what it is not. I realize that if she, a very wise woman, was unclear about the nature of this loving-kindness we are sending then many others probably are as well. So I would like to explore the concept of metta more thoroughly, and hopefully make the purpose of sending metta to difficult people understandable and the practice more accessible.

First, sending metta is not wishing for everyone to succeed at getting everything they want. The human condition is to want. We want all manner of things all the time. Our desires are boundless. But, as we have discovered in our exploration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth and the causes of suffering, fulfilling our desires does not bring us the deep sense of joy we long to experience in life.

So when we wish someone happiness, we are not wishing for the fulfillment of a current desire. We are wishing them a much deeper sense of happiness, one that comes from a sense of completion, of being a valued expression of a vitally interconnected whole. We have been discussing this energetic interconnection over the past few weeks as we explored the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth. (Of course, if they are lacking in the basic needs of life, if they are going to bed hungry or have no bed to go to, for example, then out of a sense of caring connection we include that in our well wishing, and hopefully follow up with some material aid to whatever degree is possible, practicing generosity.)

But generally, we are sending a kind of meta-metta, an infinite permeable all encompassing blessing. If you missed the last few posts, please go back and read them. This sense of interconnection — the physical (subatomic particle – energy vibration) as well as spiritual truth of our being — is ever present but often overlooked in the busyness of our lives. It may be paved over with calcified constricting fear. So when we send metta to someone, we are sending this sense of a flow of loving energy to help soften that calcification and remind them that they are an intrinsic part of a complex whole, not an isolated disconnected soul struggling for survival, any more than a drop of water leaping above the rapids is alone.

Is there any person, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or desires, that we would not wish this kind of awakening? How does our withholding metta from anyone serve ourselves and our awakening? Withholding keeps us tight and constricted and feeling disconnected and at odds as well. So when we send metta to that most difficult person it is a deep awakening practice for us.

We are not sending metta to change people. We are not seeking results. We are sending metta because we are sensing in to the universal nature of loving kindness, we are accessing the boundless flow of metta, and that level of access is like being a conduit of energy. The conduit does not determine where the energy will go. When we send metta we feel the powerful flow filling us and overflowing. We allow ourselves to sense the boundless energy of being, the powerful love that can be talked about in so many ways but is fully present and accessible in every moment for those who pause and open to it.

Another meditator says that she sends metta at the end of her daily meditation practice, and she hoped that sending it out to ‘all beings’ was sufficient, because she’d really rather avoid having to think about any difficult people in the middle of a pleasant meditative experience.

I appreciate the practice of simply sending metta out to all beings, and we end our class by dedicating the merit of our practice to the benefit of all beings. I sometimes remind my students that there are probably people at this very moment sending metta out to all beings, and to remember that this includes us. We can take comfort in actively receiving that interconnected sense of well wishing.

But this one step ‘all beings’ well wishing doesn’t take the place of a full metta practice.
Traditional metta practice starts with sending loving-kindness to ourselves. Then we bring to mind an ‘easy’ person for whom we hold nothing but loving thoughts and send metta to them: May you be well, May you be at ease, and other such phrases of general well-wishing. Then we think of a ‘neutral’ person, someone we see in the course of our day but don’t really know like the bank teller or grocery clerk and send them metta. And then we think of a person for whom it may be very difficult to muster up kind thoughts at the moment. This could be someone in our personal life that is driving us crazy, but it could also be a public figure with whom we disagree about policy. And then finally we send metta to all beings.

When do we do full metta practice? For some people it is a regular part of their day, for others a more occasional group experience. But certainly, whenever we notice we are avoiding sending metta to certain people, then there’s a perfect opportunity for practice. Recognizing avoidance is a gift of awareness and an invitation to deepen our practice.

We noticed in class that a key thing about a ‘difficult person’ is the level of control they seem to have over things that affect our lives. This is a really valuable aspect to explore. I noticed that once Bush was no longer president, the challenge to send metta to him was absent. His power to harm me and those I love was gone. He was no longer ‘the difficult person’ of my metta practice. Whatever errors in judgment he might make once he was no longer in power would probably not gravely impact me the way they did when he was in the White House.

This power issue holds true also with people in our personal life, and is a valuable thing to look at. But when we send metta to them we are not wishing them success at driving us crazy! We are dropping to a deeper level than our personality-based interactions into a state of deep interconnection, where there is no distinction between us. By dropping to this level – the namaste level where ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ – we allow for the possibility of a softening of the constriction that keeps us at odds.

We ended our class by doing a metta practice to a difficult person we each brought to mind, and perhaps you might like to give it a try, imagining a person to whom it would be challenging for you to send loving kindness.

We wish them ease. We wish them healing. We wish them a release from the tight constriction of fear that holds them, that shuts them down, that shuts all of us down. We wish them the same in-depth understanding of the nature of our inter-connection that we wish for ourselves and all beings.

Since being constricted in fear is the major cause of all dis-ease and discomfort in the world, feeling threatened and reactive instead of loved and responsive, it only makes sense that we want loving release for anyone who is knotted up in fear and reactivity, anyone who sees themselves as isolated and the world as a threatening dangerous place that must be fought with violence.

Is there any person, no matter how wrong-headed or evil we believe them to be, from whom we would withhold that sense of deep connection? If everyone felt this opening and easing into the flow of the infinite energetic is-ness of being, would this not affect them in a way that would be beneficial to themselves and to all beings, including ourselves?

I leave you with a little treat: Sylvia Boorstein leading a brief metta meditation. Sylvia was my first Buddhist teacher who read my book and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ She is a treasure of compassionate wisdom to both Spirit Rock Meditation Center students and to the Jewish community in Santa Rosa.