Melissa and I participated in a Precepts Ceremony yesterday at the Greater Boston Zen Center with our dear friend and colleague, Josh Bartok, Roshi. The ceremony marks the formal entry into the Zen Buddhist path. I’m always moved as the initiates receives the sixteen Buddhist precepts and each speaks of the personal meaning these ancient teachings hold for them.
Three of the initial precepts are called the ‘three pure precepts’. They are quite simple: Avoid evil, Practice good, Save all beings. I could go on at length about the first two, but it’s the third, Save all beings, I’m interested in this morning. But first some theological background.
The essential Zen teaching parallels one of the core teachings in Christianity. In Zen we say everyone is already awake – already enlightened. Christians might say we are already saved. Both ways point me to a life where the most important work has already been done. I cannot be good enough to earn my salvation and I cannot work hard enough to achieve enlightenment. It’s already happened.
I find these teachings to be a deep mystery. My ordinary experience is that I am a quite imperfect human being who is clearly not good enough deserve salvation. And I am certainly not in any kind of state that I would think I should be if I was enlightened. But when I let these teachings sink in, and consider the possibility that I am acceptable, loved and awake as I am, it brings tears to my eyes. Could it be so? Is it possible that I don’t have to earn my life?
In this larger context, what could the precept to ‘Save all beings’ mean? All beings are already saved, already awake. And beside that, in Zen we say that ‘all beings’ are ‘one body’. The separation between me and you, between us and them is simply a perceptual stance that fails to acknowledge the true interdependence and interpenetration of all things.
In my experience, the ‘many beings’ appear both within me and outside of me. Some of the beings that appear come in the guise of people I like and admire, people I think are ‘like me’, people I want to spend time with. Other beings appear as difficult, untrustworthy, different from me, people I judge and don’t want to be around. In ordinary life, we simply try to spend more time with those we like and less time with those we don’t like. (And we try to elect the former and defeat the later.)
There are several problems with this approach. First is that each of us actually contains many different aspects of our self—many different ‘beings’ within us. Sometimes we are patient, sometimes we are in a hurry. Sometimes we are kind, sometimes we are callous. Sometimes we are brave, sometimes cowardly. And though we might prefer some parts of ourselves over other parts, the truth is that we are many things. We might even say we are many beings – one coming after the other. So how do we meet the parts of ourselves we don’t like? How do we save the many beings within us?
Similarly, even the people we most love (especially the people we most love?) appear in many different guises. Sometimes as kind partner, sometimes as disturber of my peace. Sometimes generous, sometimes selfish. And then there are all the people who we judge to be ‘different.’ We may look out at Chris Christie and say ‘What a conniving politician he is. I would never do something like that.’ Or look at the Dalai Lama and think ‘What an amazing human being, I could never be like that.’
So what could this vow to ‘save all beings’ mean? (….to be continued)
Last night, I woke around two a.m. and slowly realized I was caught. I often drift into awareness at various points in the night, only to float back into a deeper sleep. In fact, sleeping has been one of my life-long talents. I’ve been told that one afternoon the four-year-old me went missing. After some increasingly frantic searching, I was discovered—peacefully sleeping behind the couch. But that wasn’t last night.
Last night I woke up entangled in the mind of anxiety and fearfulness. It happens to me sometimes, so I’m beginning to know its contours. This mind-state appears first as thoughts about some important issue that needs immediate attention. The thoughts are accompanied by a feeling of unease, sometimes quite subtle, sometimes quite strong. At first, it all appears quite rational – ‘Oh, there’s an issue in my life that needs some attention. I’ll try to figure out what to do about it.’
But looking closer, the thoughts are really quite repetitive. It’s not thinking as much as obsessing. If I turn my attention to something else, that subject too appears as disturbing. But often, the mind refuses to be diverted from its important business of ruminating.
Last night, the great issue I was grappling with as I lay awake in the post-election darkness of a new President appointing men of questionable character to his cabinet, was the bathroom door of our new house. I have come to the firm conclusion that our decision to have it open from the left was incorrect and it should open to from the right. Now, I have to admit that most of the time, this matter is not one of my bigger concerns, but last night I was stuck amid the looming Trump presidency and the ongoing affairs of the Temple and my life. But last night, I was stuck going over and over the urgent issue of the bathroom door.
From time to time, I would escort my attention to the sensation of my breath. For a little while, I would rest there, but my mind would eventually return to the disastrous situation of the door. I also tried doing a ‘body-scan’ — just being aware of the sensations in my body lying in bed. I tried thinking of other things. There was momentary diversion, but the beast in the dark pit of anxiety appeared to have no intention of allowing me to crawl out.
Then, after what felt like a very long time, I realized that I was where I was—caught in the mind of anxious fearfulness and that it was really unpleasant. I remembered that part of geography of this mind-state is the not wanting to be here—the feeling that I must get out. And somehow, realizing that I was simply in mind-state I didn’t want to be in and was feeling things I didn’t want to feel—I was able to relax and struggle just a little less. Then it was morning.
I report all this as part of an ongoing investigation of how to live with the full range of our human experience. Also to illustrate that the political uncertainty and anxiety may express itself in indirect ways—less flexibility of thought, less reserves of patience, more easily upset. This is normal as the line between personal experience and the political landscape is not as clear as we might wish it were.
Golden trees illuminate
the Temple garden.
I trudge alone
toward the rising dead leaf pile
dragging the blue tarp
laden with dry brown leaves—
this season’s generous offering
of what is no longer needed.
Solo yellow leaves still ease
to disappear back
into the dark source
of life. This year my father too
vanished, as did a precious
friend, and a dream I had
about my country. I keep trying
to remember to keep my head
up to see the beauty that is
undisturbed in the midst
of these predictable
and staggering losses.
Each trip to the leaf pile
a pilgrimage into
the golden world.
(It’s quite revealing about my life and the tribal segregation of our country that, to date, I have not yet had even one conversation with someone who has told me they voted for Trump. So I am writing for those of us whose worldview was upended on 11/9 when the election results were confirmed.)
Today, I want to report the obvious. All of us are dealing with our shock, grief and loss in a different way. I want to affirm that, aside from obviously self-destructive behaviors, however you are dealing with the election is how you should be dealing with the election.
Here’s my partial list of time-tested methods that support human beings coping with loss that you may find familiar:
Denial is an expression our wonderful human capacity to turn away from something that is overwhelming. We stop watching the news and refuse to enter the endless conversations about what happened and what will happen. This turning away can allow us to go on with the necessary and comforting rhythms of our life and to deal with the trauma in our own time and in our own way.
Grief is the beating of the shattered heart—a place of deep sadness. We know we have lost something that cannot be retrieved. Some of us wail and cry, others simply feel the depth of the loss with dry eyes. Some of us need to be in the presence of others to be safe enough to feel this depth of pain while others need to be alone. In this territory of raw intensity, we meet and feel the overwhelming thoughts and emotions.
Confusion is the place where our world no longer makes sense. Like being in the middle of a thick fog, we look around and can’t find any familiar points of reference. We feel groundless and uncertain. We may feel the urge to panic—to run toward some kind of certainty.
Anger is an arousal of strong emotion. We rage against what has happened. We are certain in our perceptions and often look for someone to blame. This must be the fault of someone—ourselves, others, God—anyone will do. This an important and potentially valuable energy. Anger can fuel extraordinary action. The intensity and certainty of anger can also cause us to lash out and intensify the conflict.
Depression is a dark place of low energy. We feel hopeless and often without impulse to do anything. Why bother? Though we may know there are reasons to be hopeful, those reasons don’t touch the certainty of our hopelessness. Depression can be a huge problem is we get stuck here, but is also a natural and necessary break from the world. The disconnection of this place can be a place for our biological organism to regroup and find the strength to re-emerge at a later time.
Action is another form of arousal. We take stock of what is happening, and we feel the impulse to DO something. We have conversations, we send emails, we go to rallies. This different from the place of ‘I should do something.’ In this state, we feel aligned with our deep values and our action is an expression of our love and our deep values.
It’s easy for many of us to imagine there is some way we should be feeling or that there is some path through these many territories that will be neat and sequential. I don’t find this to be true. Over the past nine days since the results were announced, I find myself cycling through all these and many more states. All are healthy, normal and wise.
It may, however, be helpful to be aware what state you are in at any moment. Many of these places feel strange and uncomfortable. That’s OK. Knowing they are a part of a larger process of healing can allow us to abide where we are without having to force ourselves (or others) to be different than we are. In this way, we can support the natural range of our human experience and move toward uncovering the path that is right for us as we move deeper into the mysterious unfolding of our lives.
It rained all day yesterday. The ‘Stand Up Against Hate’ rally was held inside city hall rather than on the front steps. Worcester Interfaith was the organizer and Melissa and I had signed on as supporters. A few clergy and a couple politicians stood in front of a small crowd and one TV camera. They all expressed deep concern about the current state of our nation and affirmed the importance of standing together. The Mayor of our fair city said: ‘It is a sad day when mayors across America have to stand up and reassure people they are safe.’
But isn’t this just an expression of the bubble we have been living in?
Many Americans have not lived lives of safety (and privilege). Both across the rust belt of grinding economic decline and in cities large and small, many American children have grown up in homes where instability, violence and abuse are woven into the fabric of their lives. Maybe it’s a good day when elected officials across the country stand up against hate and violence?
In the book HILLBILLY ELEGY, J.D. Vance recounts the story of his growing up in southern Ohio, in a family recently migrated from the hills of Kentucky. Now a graduate of Yale Law School, he reflects on the impact on repeated childhood trauma on his life and the lives of those around him. It’s a good read and a glimpse into a part of the America that received Trump’s message with enthusiasm and hope. A part of America that has been hidden from many of us.
The MC of the rally was a local minister who reminded us that showing up to a rally in the rain and signing on to support the declaration against hate* are not enough. In the weeks and months ahead, he said, we need to hold ourselves accountable.
But how do we hold ourselves accountable? And what are we accountable for? These are essential questions for every members of a democracy.
Most of us have been used to practicing democracy in a rather lax way. We may make sure to vote every couple years, but we have been too busy in our lives to do too much more. It seems clear that more is required of all of us now. What exactly that more might be is what we have to find out.
*STATEMENT 11/15/16 Worcester, MA firstname.lastname@example.org
We stand in solidarity speaking directly to our neighbors, our co-workers, our sanitation workers, court advocates, store clerks and police officers. We stand in solidarity talking to all of the students and young people. We stand in solidarity speaking as mothers, fathers and parents, to the Refugee and Immigrant families who have fled pain-filled pasts to come to our city and also to those who count generations here; this city is YOUR HOME, it is OUR HOME. You are welcomed here, we are glad you are as a part of our community and grateful for the many contributions offered through your presence. You are not only welcomed here you are appreciated & LOVED here!
For years we have reprinted, emblazoned and trumpeted our City as the“Heart of the Commonwealth”. Today we are being challenged to make these words mean something. The events across our country and Commonwealth have challenged us to put our words into meaningful action.
As the heart of Massachusetts, Worcester must be a community committed to justice and ready to defend justice. We pledge today as community leaders, elected officials, community organizations and faith leaders to be voices that reject hate and racism.
We pledge to challenge and resist those attacking immigrants and refugees, our transgender GLBTQI brothers and sisters, Blacks, Latinos, and those who practice the Muslim faith.
We pledge to rebuff those who seek to create discord and hate.
We pledge to denounce and challenge those who choose to demean and attack.
We pledge to use our collective power to support and protect anyone who may be targeted because of who they are.
We know that many are fearful of the climate of animosity, racism, bitterness and hatred that has been stoked over the past few months.
We will not be part of going backwards. We seek working together to ensure that, as the Heart of the Commonwealth, the only BEAT you hear in Worcester is that of LOVE and not hate.
You’re Invited! Come Help us Share in the HEARTBEAT of LOVE! Tuesday Nov. 15th 6pm in front of City Hall.
I just saw an on-line petition* to ask the White House to demand that Trump disclose his personal finances and put his assets in a true blind trust BEFORE the electoral collage votes on December 19. Trump has bragged of his extensive international business operations that will certainly be impacted by his decisions as President. He has also said that he will be leaving his business interests in the hands of his children. Now these same children are part of the transition team that will be appointing the very people who will ostensibly be regulating their business activity over the next four years.
Reading the petition, I feel the rising of the now familiar fear and panic of the past week.
I have signed the petition and will also post it on my Facebook page. This evening (11/15/16) I will attend a community rally at City Hall in Worcester. I am glad to do something, but these actions feel so feeble in response to the daily bad news of Trump’s appointments. I am happy the RNC guy will be chief of staff, but deeply disturbed that a racist who has spent his career stoking the fires of otherness and hate will be a senior advisor in the White House.
I oscillate between catastrophic thinking and a more measured, even hopeful, response. Sometimes I have faith in the better traditions of our country and the founder’s intentional constraint of the chief executive’s powers. But then I see evidence of the forces of greed and disregard of common decency that Trump proudly embodies and I fear the worst. Are we just going through a time of difficulty or are we in danger of moving toward a totalitarian society?
Whatever is happening, it probably doesn’t do too much good to get lost in the place of fearful imagining. On the other hand, when we are fearful and discouraged, it doesn’t help to pretend we are some place else. So how do we find a middle way that acknowledges and respects whatever is arising in the moment, but doesn’t get carried away in the intensity of it all?
The truth is, we can’t really know what is emerging here because it has never happened before. We (always) live in unprecedented times. We can, however, be certain that our actions and our inactions will be a part of the reality we are moving into.
A dear friend of mine has written to the host of his traditional Thanksgiving gathering to request that certain family members be disinvited because of their political persuasion. When I suggested the possibility of another approach, I was informed: ‘I’m not ready to forgive the people who took my country from me.’
It’s only day six and the shock, anger and pain are still strong for many of us. But Thanksgiving is coming up and this may mean intimate exposure to ‘those people’—the other half of the country who voted differently from us. What can we do?
Some useful perspectives on this question are offered in a Ted Talk* on the possibility of healing after the election with social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt. Listening to the talk helped me understand some of the natural human mechanisms underlying the wild polarization now manifesting in our country.
It turns out that humans have a natural tendency toward tribalism. Who knew?
Haidt offered a folk saying for the definition of tribalism: “Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. Me and my cousins against the world.” Growing up with a brother who was my best friend and occasional mortal enemy, this was a particularly vivid description. One of key factors in how we perceive our world is the size of the circle we draw around our ‘tribe.’
Trump supporters focused on the wisdom a smaller circle—our first duty is to take care of the people already here in America before we let others in. The Clinton supporters are proposing a larger circle—we are all human beings and the world is our tribe, we have a duty to those who didn’t happen to be born in this country.
Another researcher uses the image of a drawbridge. At any moment and on any issue, we can divide people into ‘drawbridge uppers’ and ‘drawbridge downers,’ depending on whether their inclination is to expand the tribe (in good times) or contract the tribe (in times of threat.) Before the election, when I thought my side would win, I was already preparing to let the drawbridge down and reach out to ‘those people’ who would be hurting. Now that I find myself on the side of the ones who are hurting, feeling betrayed and confused, I notice that my first tendency is to want to pull the drawbridge up.
Both the drawbridge uppers and the drawbridge downers are right.
Over this past week, I have found much comfort in being with people ‘like me’—people who voted for Clinton and are angry, sad and uncertain how to proceed. Being in the presence of ‘our tribe’ is one way to feel safe enough to go through the many feelings and thoughts that are here. In the presence of each other, we can begin to make sense of the shock and trauma of a world that we thought we knew that has suddenly changed in profound and disturbing ways.
But if we want to go forward, at some point we will need to reach out to more deeply hear the truth of ‘the others.’ This does not mean giving up our own values and convictions, but rather it requires that we also acknowledge the humanity and wisdom of those people who initially appear to be wholly other.
*thanks to Bob Waldinger for alerting me to this https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_can_a_divided_america_heal
I took an unintentional news fast yesterday and spent the day in community, meditating and teaching Zen. As part of ‘Buddhism 101’ course here at Boundless Way Temple, we were looking into the teaching of the Third Foundation of Mindfulness.
This third foundation points to the possibility of paying attention to the state of our heart/mind. (The language in which these teachings of the Buddha were recorded, these two were not yet separated.) While it is obvious that there are many different qualities that arise in the mind, we are often so focused on the content of our mind, that we don’t notice the changing quality of the field in which the thoughts and feelings appear. In the sutra which contains the original teaching, there is a lovely list of different states of mind that sounds familiar today, nearly 2,500 years later: shrunken (constricted) mind, scattered mind, enlarged mind, collected mind, released mind, the mind of ill-will, the mind of desire, the mind of lostness.
Many of us have experienced the range of these states and more over the past five days since the election. The teaching is that all of these conditions of the heart/mind come and go like the weather. Though we would like to control them, we cannot. The invitation is to begin to see them as they are. So in the constricted mind-state of fear, we can know we are in the constricted mind-state of fear.
This awareness does not necessarily change what is present, but it does give us just a tiny bit of perspective on what is happening. One of our teachers yesterday referred to these mind-states as rooms that we pass through. Each room of the heart/mind has a particular quality to it and all the thoughts and feelings that arise in the room have this same general sense. Knowing this, we can perhaps not struggle against what is here.
When we can begin to be conscious of the arising, abiding, and passing away of states of mind, we may find a new freedom—right where we are. In the shrunken state of mind (my current favorite) we can know we are in the shrunken state of mind. In this awareness, there is the possibility of not being carried away by what is appearing. We can be with what is happening as what is happening. We can even begin to get curious about this particular state of mind. What is it like to be here? What are the contours of this landscape? How can I act wisely as I pass through this state of being?
This awareness of the impermanence of the state of my heart/mind is not, however, a call to relativism and quietism. The purpose of being present with our own experience is not to call everything a passing state of mind and proclaim there is nothing that needs to be done.
The Buddhist teachings are clear that we are interdependent and each called to honor our connection by acting in some way to relieve the suffering and injustice we see around us. As Melissa said yesterday, each one of us is called to do something. You may not yet know what it is that you are called to do, but don’t doubt that what you say and do in the coming weeks and months and years is important and will be necessary.
Four days into the reality of Trump’s victory, I thought I was doing better. After all, this is not the Weimar Republic of the 1930’s. We live in a country with strong democratic traditions. We have a government and social institutions of checks and balances to guard us against authoritarian takeovers. A vote for Trump was a protest vote from the many who feel the country is already broken and needs to go in a new direction. Trump may chose to surround himself with people who bring a wisdom and consideration to issues that he himself has not exhibited to date.
Then, last night, a friend alerted me to the news that Trump has appointed Myron Ebell a ‘climate change skeptic’ to oversee the transition in the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell’s job will be to oversee the necessary steps toward Trump’s stated goal of removing as many environmental regulations as possible.
This is how the Washington Post described the new appointee: “Ebell, who is not a scientist, has long questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is fueling unprecedented global warming. He also has staunchly opposed what he calls energy rationing, instead arguing that the United States should unleash the full power of coal, oil and gas to fuel economic growth and job creation.”*
This news terrified and disheartened me – though it is just what Trump promised he would do.
Then, even worse, last night I dreamt I was a young man in Austria in 1938. I was in the army. I was scared and confused—was trying to find a way of obeying orders and doing no harm. I knew what was going on wasn’t right, but didn’t know what I could do.
In the dream, I was attracted to a young Jewish woman who wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything. She too was trying to follow the rules and not get into trouble. I knew I was dreaming but I couldn’t find a way out. And then I had to tell another young woman that she was going to be sent away. I was ashamed of myself and terrified.
Now awake, I am still scared and ashamed.
I had thought I was doing better. I was thinking that, after getting over the initial shock, we could perhaps go back to a smoothly running, mostly benign country. But with Trump beginning to act on some of his destructive policies I see this is not so. And even in my dreams, not only are we back in Weimar Germany with Jews and women being singled out for violence, but I’m sitting on the fence still trying to be a good boy.
After Trump had won the Republican nomination, I heard a wonderful interview with one of the many pollsters who had gotten it wrong. He was from a web site that was known for its thoroughness and unbiased approach. Over the past two elections cycles, their predictions had been unusually accurate. (Spoiler alert: they did not get it right this time.)
The pollster reported that every time they had compared Trump’s position to the position of similar political figures in the past, they came up with the prediction that his candidacy would quickly fade away.
The problem, he said, was that Trump’s political trajectory was unlike anything they had seen before. Since their models are based seeing the patterns in data from the past and extrapolating into the future, they could not have predicted the emergence of this particular new pattern. At the end, the interviewer innocently asked: ‘So our predictive models and our capacity to forecast the future are only valid as long as everything stays as it has been?’ The interviewee had no reply.
The 20th century anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson explained it using number patterns. In the pattern 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… what is the next number? If you said ‘6’, you probably did well on your SAT’s and got into a good college. But, in truth, the next number is 11. With the series being 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15… and you know the rest….only you don’t. The next number could be 21 or 111 or 67. The pattern holds until it changes. Than all bets are off.
And so here we are with a looming Donald Trump Presidency that none of the mainstream authorities saw coming. Many of us are still in shock, trying to deal with the failure of our internal models of who and what our country really is. It is important for us to begin to make sense of how this happened. What are the realities that were not included in our understandings? How do we use these difficult times to come to a richer and more nuanced acceptance of the many realities of our country?
We can use our predictive failures to enrich our understanding and increase the accuracy of our capacity to predict what will happen next. AND we also might be well served to remember the limits of what we can know. We live in an emerging and creative universe. While this can be wildly disturbing, it also means that what is yet to come is the adventure of a lifetime.