Many of us have been experiencing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty over these past few weeks. Sometimes the issues are personal stemming from our intimate relationships or work situations. Sometimes they seem more global as we navigate the stormy seas of a new and unpredictable political administration.
These times make clear to me the thinness of the line between personal and political, because when we are in the terrain of disturbance, the landscape is similar regardless of the cause is. We are living in a field of intense uncertainty. Problems that appear to be personal are, in some way, a product of the emotional atmosphere of fear and strong emotion present our country now. It can be helpful to remember that what we are feeling is not just personal, but an expression of something larger that we are in the middle of.
One of the tools I have found helpful in working with states of fear and agitation is a teaching of David Reynolds, the founder of the short-lived branch of new age psychology known as ‘Constructive Living.’ He offered a three-step teaching for living in disturbing times: 1) Feel your feelings. 2) Remember your purpose. 3) Take the next step.
- Feel your feelings. Reynolds begins one of his books with a wonderful rant about the mystery of feelings. In spite of what psychology sometimes claims, he says that no one knows where feelings come from, what they really are, or how to ‘fix’ them. Feelings come and go. You may have noticed this yourself. One morning you feel panicky and uncertain, the next you feel settled and grounded. Feelings come and go. They are the weather of our lives. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes the snow comes. Sometimes the shift is gradual, sometimes sudden.
To feel your feelings, means to be present to the weather of the moment. They’re already here anyway. Instead of fighting them, trying to change them or getting lost in figuring out who is responsible for them, you can just feel them. We can simply be present to what is already here.
- Remember your purpose. This instruction invites us to turn our attention to something deeper. Rather than trying to fix our feelings, we let our feelings be whatever they are and turn toward some sense of what it is we want to move toward. This purpose appears at many levels. Purpose may mean what we want to accomplish in the next interaction: ‘I want to communicate my position clearly and without blame.’ Or it might be more global ‘I want to be an instrument of peace in the world.’ Purpose is what is calls you to something more than the immediacy of the moment. What direction are you headed in? A purpose might be prosaic – to find a job that pays me enough money to live on. Or it might be transcendent – to wake up to the truth of life—to move closer to God.
Whatever purpose you find when you turn toward your heart is fine. The point is to touch something more than the weather of the moment – to remember what you’re really here to do.
- Take the next step. This is the step that moves us from navel gazing into engaging with the world. We take some action in the direction of our purpose. It doesn’t have to be the best step or even a big step. The point is to DO something. When we do something, we learn something. Even the wrong direction is fine because we learn what not to do. Every action we take leads us into the world that generously gives us feedback. This world teaches us how to be ourselves – teaches us what works and what doesn’t work. The only thing necessary is to step in the direction our what we truly want, then notice what happens. You don’t have to be right or wise or good.
So, a big thank you to David Reynolds, whom I have never met, as I pass this framework on to you. If you’re intrigued, give it a try and see what happens.
Driving in to Boston last night to give a talk at the Boundless Way Zen group that meets in Newton, I was deeply upset by a news story on NPR. And it wasn’t about our new president. Or only tangentially. What really disturbed me came after a rather routinely depressing report about the morality of our government and Trump’s behavior and changing positions.
The first story reported the decreasing likelihood of ever declassifying a senate report that roundly condemns torture both as inhumane and as ineffective*. As part of this, we heard a clip of Trump from a pre-election rally in Ohio. He asked himself: ‘Would I approve waterboarding?’ Then answered himself (to the wild delight of the crowd): ‘You bet your ass I’d approve it. You bet your ass – in a heartbeat.’
Following this, we heard John McCain (who I didn’t like or trust when he ran for President, but now looks like a figure of moderation and integrity) saying ‘I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard.’ And even Trump was reported saying he was ‘considering his position’ after being told by a general that a soda and a hamburger are a more effective interrogation technique than torture.
But it was the story ten or fifteen minutes later that somehow managed to pierce my protective shell of denial and deeply disturb me**. The story was investigating the ‘rash of small earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas in recent years.’ These earthquakes have been directly linked to standard industry practice of disposing toxic oil wastewater by injecting it into the earth. In September, Oklahoma experienced its largest earthquake ever – one that reached a magnitude of 5.8.
Oklahoma has now taken steps to outlaw injecting wastewater, but Texas is still debating what to do. Where the injections have stopped, the earthquakes have stopped. They then briefly touched on the now-common practice of fracking that involves a similar procedure. Fracking uses injected liquid to intentionally destabilize the geology of an area so we can extract more oil. Trump has promised to take away all barriers to energy production so fracking will be fine under his administration.
Hearing these stories in proximity, I couldn’t help connecting the two and feeling that injecting these huge amounts of toxic waste water and other liquids into the earth is a form of torture. And that the many large and small earthquakes are the shuddering of the earth in response to the brutality of these injections.
Now, I know the earth is in trouble – ice caps are melting, water sources are being permanently polluted and air quality in some places is nearly toxic – but I usually manage to keep this knowledge at a safe distance. But last night, on my drive, the image of the earth as a beautiful body of life that is being tortured by the forces that allow me to drive my car with impunity, was almost more than I could bear.
I rely on the New York Times for keeping me up to date on what is happening in the world (and in sports). I take my daily laptop dose with a strong cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. I’m not a systematic reader, but a skimmer and toe-dipper. The headlines are often enough, and sometimes almost more than I can take. I have also come to value the Times’ editorial and op-ed writers who offer well-informed and insightful views on world affairs and even life.
But what is the difference between ‘well-informed and insightful’ and ‘basically agrees with my position’? Researchers report that we human beings have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our preconceived position. This pattern of perceiving the world is called the ‘confirmation bias.’ We filter and remember information in ways that support what we already know. Both consciously and unconsciously, we scan the overwhelming amount of data that comes to our senses for bits that reinforce our pre-existing map of the world. When there is dissonance, our inclination is to ignore or dismiss the offending information and go about our merry way. We’re also good at interpreting whatever data we do receive, in a manner that supports our pre-existing condition.
This tendency to see the world from a particular point of view and to seek information that bolsters our position is not something that can be fixed. Paying closer attention or simply being aware of the problem is not enough to change this mechanism of perception. Confirmation bias is simply part of the way our minds construct reality. We can’t change it, but we can be aware of it and put ourselves in positions to consciously let in that which feels foreign and uncomfortable.
The election results were a shock to my assumptions about our country and about acceptable behavior in the public space. (Here, in an act of self-management, I will avoid arousing and rehashing my rage at our President-elect’s disrespect of the common decencies of civil interaction—but just barely.) Hearing from people who share my world-view and also suggest new perspectives is helpful as I begin to reconstruct my mental maps in a way that reflects this new reality.
Over the years, I have read many studies about the effect of meditation on the brain. There seems to be general agreement that the overall impact is positive, but lots of different theories about exactly what that positive change is. One study showed that long-time meditators still reacted strongly to external stimuli but that the length of time of the reaction was significantly shortened. They were equally disturbed by the sound of a loud bell, but the meditators returned to a baseline calm after the sound much more quickly than did the non-meditators.
I’m thinking this may be a useful skill for many of us as the Trump presidency moves forward. Now, several weeks after the shock and despair of the election results, I’m on more of an even keel. I’m not happy about the situation, but I’m mostly back to being concerned with the ongoing life here at the Temple, my coaching business and window treatment options for our new house.
But yesterday I got angry and depressed all over again reading the New York Times. Charles Blow’s op-ed piece ‘No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along*’ was what sent me over the edge. Blow reports on the recent meeting Trump had with the Times editorial staff where, after months of viciously attacking the integrity of the Times, Trump turned flattering and genial. As if nothing had happened.
Blow goes on to address Trump directly saying: “You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions. I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.”
This is inflammatory language that does nothing to build bridges or affirm our common humanity. And yet, as I read it, I felt a deep agreement. Blow articulates the deep anger I have that someone who would play so fast and loose with the truth is going to be our next president. (And I know that many people who voted for Trump would say this same thing about Hillary.)
Even a day later, I am disturbed by this perspective of our incoming president. I do believe it is an accurate assessment of how Trump has behaved up until now and I see no reason to assume that he will change.
For many of us, this new era will be one of regular disturbance offering the opportunity for repeated recovery. Our meditation, our inner work, will not change Trump, but it may help the rest of us live fully and responsibly in difficult times. The point is not that we should not be upset, but rather that we come back to center again and again—both to appreciate the blessing of everyday life in the midst of it all, as well as to organize and take action where we can.
Sixty-four years ago this morning, a young woman in a hospital in Houston, Texas, gave birth to a very different baby boy. Yes, he had ten fingers and ten toes. He also came complete with the wiggling arms and legs, with eyes that saw and tiny ears that already knew how to hear. Even as an utterly helpless (but very cute) little creature, he survived those first intimate moments and days, then the years, and now nearly six and a half decades. For many years, I have affectionately referred to him as ‘me.’
He is quite different from everyone else I encounter. I can’t step back to get a proper perspective on him. I catch glimpses in mirrors and see reflections in the people and things around, but it’s all second-hand inference. When I look closely, I can experience his activity itself – the hands on the steering wheel and butt in the car seat hurtling down the interstate, but I can’t really be sure who the driver really is. Who’s doing all that doing?
Everyone else resides easily in the category of ‘them’. They exist ‘out there’ while he remains forever ‘in here.’ But even these safe categories shimmer and lose containment upon closer examination. All ‘those’ people, where do they exist? If they are out there, who is it that resides in my mind? I have certainly seen pictures of my younger mother and father and they appear to have an independent existence from me. But the parents that I remember and talk to my therapist about, are they really outside me?
Then there’s the small matter of the past sixty-four years—where are these alleged years now? Where is this past now if not here inside this moment’s memories? This time we call ‘before’ is knit into the fabric of my being – inextricably living here in the particular form and function of ‘me’. And I suppose the future, the days and weeks, the hopefully years and decades, must live here now too.
Mystery man. Time traveler. Resident of infinite universal space. ‘Me’ is now sixty-four years old. And I’m aware of sitting here on this august occasion with all of you ‘others’. Parents and teachers, family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, students and clients. I may not ever know who I really am, but I know for sure that you are all a part of me.
And I am grateful.
Last night I dreamt I was being sent away into the wilderness. There were two of them with guns and the two of us together being sent. We were told to turn away from the road and keep walking toward the woods. Not to look back. They could have shot us then and there, but we weren’t afraid and it wasn’t terrible, this being sent away. The two with the guns weren’t angry or mean. We simply could no longer stay in the society.
The ground ahead sloped down and was fairly open. We couldn’t walk in a straight line because there were various hazards poking up through the ground. The leaves had fallen. The trees were bare. Ahead seemed safer than behind. We didn’t know the territory but weren’t afraid. We knew we had to go deeper and deeper into the woods to find our way.
Then I had to figure out how to get people to go into the wilderness. In the dream, this seemed important and logical, an issue I should find a solution to. How to get more people to go into the wilderness. How could people get beyond that fearful moment when you have to turn your back on someone who is pointing a gun at you? This would require people to be very clear about their commitment and their motivation for going. They would have to balance clarity of purpose with an openheartedness to be able to survive in the wilderness.
Upon waking, I am surprised by the calmness and naturalness of this dream. I’m not a very brave or adventurous person – even in my dreams I’m afraid of a lot of things. But in this dream, there was no fear. I wasn’t being brave, I was just walking into the wilderness. I felt no animosity to the men with guns that were sending us away. I almost felt as if they were helping us.
My immediate association with the dream is of Jesus in the wilderness—of his being tested in the beginning of his ministry and also of the many times he would withdraw from the crowds and retreat into the countryside. Wilderness is a place of danger and hardship but also a place for nourishment and revelation.
This morning, as Black Friday dawns and the acquisitive frenzy of our culture reaches its zenith for the year, I am comforted by this strange dream.
Our problem is not just Trump, but a culture that has lost its moorings amidst the greatest abundance known in human history. The still growing chasm of disparity between the rich and the poor. The desperate sense of isolation and meaninglessness in the midst of so many bright and shiny things that stubbornly refuse to bring us satisfaction and ease.
A turning away is of course required. Ready or not, we are sometimes forced into the bountiful darkness and must find our way in the wilderness. Leaving home is the beginning of the journey.
Outside the cocoon of your usual haunts,
lies a world you have not yet considered.
Resist the urge to put what you find
into for and against what’s already done.
Open your soul to the broader view
of what’s new and what’s now and what is to come.
Then travel with ease wherever you go
as world upon world rises to meet you.
As we move into this new cultural era, many of us are still trying to find our way. I’ve heard our recent electoral shock compared to the collective trauma of 9/11. Another friend said: ‘This is the Pearl Harbor of our generation.’ Whatever we compare it to, it’s easy for many of us to become frightened and feel overwhelmed. It’s also easy to go numb and pretend nothing has happened. But how do we avoid the extremes and find some middle way?
We human beings are naturally inclined to either/or thinking. Should we reconcile or should we resist? Should we be worried or should we be hopeful? Is he good or is he bad? The mind simply wants to settle the matter. But the answer to all these questions is YES!…or as one ancient Zen teacher famously said: ‘NO!*’
When we frame a problem from two opposing views, there is always truth in both sides. This is not to fall into the quagmire of complete paralyzing moral relativism, but rather to acknowledge the reality that we all see the world from different points of view. We might even say that we all live in different universes.
Part of our life as human beings is learning to acknowledge and even appreciate this fact. Arny Mindell**, author, thinker and founder of Process Work, has spent his life considering and exploring how we can work together with others who do not share our beliefs and world views—even those we radically disagree with. He calls this endeavor: World Work and one of the foundational teachings in the process is the concepts of Deep Democracy.
Deep Democracy asserts that each person in a situation speaks not just for themselves, but for the situation itself. Each person deserves to be heard, not just because they have a right to be heard, but because they see and experience some unique aspect of what is occurring.
Mindell teaches that there is wisdom inherent in every situation – even situations of violence and chaos. Our job as participants is not to control and impose our will on a situation, but to learn from what is emerging. Our work is to trust that something of value is trying to be known. We work to join with what is happening rather to learn and support that which we do not yet know. We uncover what is already happening that may lead to new resolutions of ancient problems.
Curiosity and courage are the two essential skills here. We have to be willing to step beyond right-and-wrong thinking and to set aside, even briefly, some of our cherished certainty. This requires an intentional practice of flexibility and growing capacity to deal with the many inner opinions and feelings that may arise. This is not a trivial matter, but it is critical work.
So, this day before Thanksgiving, can we practice curiosity with whatever and whoever we encounter? What if everyone (excluding no one) is speaking some important truth? What if these difficult times are part of an important transition into a better way for human beings to live together? What if our job is to not to sort and filter everything to confirm our position, but to be open to the new and unexpected that is trying to be born?
*for a wonderful collection of essays on this ‘No!’ see THE BOOK OF MU edited by my colleagues James Ford and Melissa Blacker https://www.amazon.com/Book-Mu-Essential-Writings-Important/dp/0861716434/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1479900211&sr=8-1&keywords=the+book+of+mu
**http://www.aamindell.net/ Mindell has written many books, but my favorite is still LEADER AS MARTIAL ARTIST
This morning, I notice that I’m not feeling as anxious as I have been. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? On the one hand, it’s nice to be a little less on edge. On the other hand, maybe I’m just falling into complacency about a situation that is dire. Am I becoming the frog in the pot on the stove who is appreciating the warmth of the water as he slowly begins to boil?
I fluctuate between two poles. One voice says ‘It’s OK. We’re the same country now we were before the election. Sure Trump will do some terrible things, but we can survive this. This is just what a real democracy looks (and feels) like. ‘
The other side is: ‘These are unprecedented times. It’s never been this bad. We have never had President-elect so unqualified and temperamentally unsuited. He is a con man, racist and misogynist who will do irreparable damage to our earth and to our world.’
Over the course of the minutes it took to write the previous two paragraphs, the external world itself changed very little, but my internal experience changed dramatically. I now feel again the rising fear and uncertainty in my body and mind. Quite an amazing demonstration of the power of words and thoughts.
As human beings, we are always telling some story about what is happening. Stories are a necessary part of how we make meaning and how we live in this constantly changing world. But stories are also always partial and, to some degree, arbitrary. The same situation can be described in an almost infinite variety of ways.
All stories are true, but not all stories are not equally useful.
To say ‘everything is fine’ when the house is burning down, may be true in some existential way, but is probably not helpful in doing what needs to be done to bring the people in the house to safety. On the other hand, ‘everything is fine’ is a story that may have the power to help us heal and appreciate the life we do have even after terrible things happen.
When we are conscious of the perspective we are taking, we can sometimes have more freedom of choice and action. What is the story you are telling about Donald Trump at this moment? Are there other stories that are equally true and might lead you to a better quality of life and a greater range of actions?
Feeling anxious is unavoidable, but not always necessary or helpful. Maybe I can feel less anxious and still be alert to stand up for the values and beliefs that are important to me.
Recap of Part 1: The injunction to ‘Save all beings’ is one of the Zen Buddhist Precepts. But, according to these same teachings, we are already saved/awakened and there are no ‘other beings’ that are completely separate from ourselves. So how do we practice the Precept to ‘save all beings?’
Sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we get what we don’t want. When we get what we don’t want, we have several choices, but not getting what we already have is not one of them. (This applies to whatever mind-state you are experiencing as you read this as well as to the identity of your President-elect.) We can spend our time complaining and wishing it were otherwise, but at some point we may choose simply to acknowledge what is already here—both in our inner world and in the world around us. We don’t even have to like what is here, but it is indeed here.
Saving all beings, is a vow to meet whatever arises without turning away. Rather than living a life of simply trying to get more of what we want and less of what we don’t want, we set an intention to meet what comes with an open heart.
In our inner world, ‘saving all beings’ means to be present with the many ‘beings’ that arise within our own experience. And we ‘save’ them by allowing them to come as they come, and go as they go. Rather than fighting and trying to manipulate our inner experience, we do our best to cultivate a basic friendliness. What is here? What is it like to feel what I’m feeling now? We don’t have to like it, but we do vow to set aside the usual complaining and resistance, to simply notice what is already present.
We take this same vow toward what arises in our outer world. Part of this is beginning to see that everything we encounter in the world is some part of us. The greed and ignorance we see in others, is actually a part of every human being (including ourselves). It is so easy to dismiss some people as ‘those kind of people.’ But this Precept of ‘saving all beings’ invites us to practice this basic friendliness toward everyone – omitting not one single person.
So saving all beings means to open our hearts to what is arising in the moment – the pain and joy, the wisdom and the folly. This is not to be confused with falling into a state of passivity, but rather an invitation to stop fighting the reality of human experience. From this place of basic friendliness, we can move from judgment and resentment to reconciliation and action. We see what is happening and are free to do whatever we can do to alleviate the suffering of the world. Where people are hungry, we can offer food. Where people are hurting, we can offer comfort. Where injustice appears, we can stand on the side of justice and dignity.