The sun will rise over our neighbor’s rooftop to the southeast and shine right into my face in the middle of our second round of morning meditation – right around 7:45. It will rise on a low diagonal trajectory and soon be lost behind a tree trunk and the window’s lattice. Our sitting will end just before 8:00 and we will chant the four Bodhisattva vows. Then at 10:44, winter solstice will officially arrive.
This is shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. The solar powered light we installed over the Temple stairs is now receives only enough power to function intermittently. The gardens lie frozen and fallow. This is winter, or rather, just the beginning of winter. Though it has always puzzled me that the sun should be rising in the sky and the days growing longer as the winter grows deeper. Brighter and colder coming.
But today is the darkest. It matches my mood. The fall of Aleppo and the continuing Syrian tragedy. The truck rampage in Berlin and the random acts of terror that appear to be part of our new normal. The actions of DT that reinforce my fears that his will be an authoritarian administration that feels entitled to disregard any and all democratic processes. Everywhere I look there is suffering and the foreboding of worse to come.
I try to remind myself that sometimes human beings feel depressed and discouraged. This is not new and may even be a rational response to a world on fire. I can’t fix things and I don’t have to pretend it’s all OK. These are dark times. This is a dark day.
On days like this, I try to remember to narrow my focus. There is so much to despair about and so much I cannot change. But I can make my bed and straighten my room. (I’m sure this brings a smile to my mother’s face.) I can be kind to myself and to the people I meet. I can continue take steps to strengthen the relationships that support positive work in the world. I do my best to open my heart to this suffering world and try to remember to appreciate the grace of each breath and the miracle of the sun rising on a cold day.
When the time comes
to say one last thing,
sing one further song,
make one final choice,
how will it be?
On that last certain day
when so little is left—
what will you say?
Maybe you will have
run out of options on
the white bed bound with
respirator mask pulled
too tightly on tender skin.
Maybe you can’t remember
where you are but familiar
voices say your youngest
daughter is on her way
to see her father and you choose
to wander on a little longer.
you wish to speak
the dark secrets
that have cost so much.
Or your final words open
you to joy concealed
and now revealed.
But for now, this certain day
in the great rush of being,
in advance of the conclusion,
what is the one thing
you will choose to say,
to be, to sing?
Nate Silver became a prominent political forecaster with his wildly accurate prediction of Obama’s 2012 Presidential victory. His web site, FiveThirtyEight, gave Obama a 90% chance of winning the Electoral College. He also correctly predicted the results of the Presidential election in every state that year.
Silver’s political predictions are always framed with probabilistic language. Through most of 2016, FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a reassuringly high chance of winning the Presidency. But even then Silver reminded his audience that a high probability is no a sure thing. The chances of surviving in Russian roulette may be quite good, but no reasonable person risks their life on good odds.
By election day, FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton somewhere around an 70% chance of being elected our next President. 70% means that seven times out of ten, in a similar situation, she would win the election. But seeing as there is only one election, a probabilistic prediction can be right and feel wrong at the same time. Technically, a probabilistic prediction can be considered correct in any outcome as long as the odds were between 1% and 99%. The only way to judge the ‘accuracy’ of a prediction is over time and is of little consolation in this world of singularity.
In his thought-provoking book THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE: WHY SO MANY PREDICTIONS FAIL—BUT SOME DON’T, Silver writes: “The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths. Paradoxically, the result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious line. The instinctual shortcut we take when we have ‘too much information’ is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.’ (page 3)
Silver is referring not to the internet, but to the invention of the printing press, which he claims was one of the prime contributors to the next 200 years of wars between religions and nationalities. Whether historians would agree or not, his observation that more information can actually lead to a narrowing of perspective rather than a broadening, feels true to our time of false news cycles, tweets and information hacks.
In THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE, Silver points out the poor track records of most predictions: many ‘expert’ predictions are ‘barely better than random chance’ and the clarity and specificity of a prediction may have a negative correlation to its accuracy. Silver engagingly educates us in the ways of uncertainty, risk, chaos and complexity. Reading the book, we can become better consumers of information and perhaps even a little more at home in this probabilistic and unpredictable world.
Our President-Elect, whose name I am increasingly reluctant to say, will clear one more hurdle on Monday with the vote of the Electoral College. While I think the members of the College should break ranks and vote against the presidency of this incompetent and dangerous demagogue, this will not happen. And even if it did, it would only throw the election into the Congress which would promptly confirm the current candidate rather than face the terror of a Democratic president.
There’s nothing to do now except wait, watch and not get lost in numbness or fear. The time will come soon enough when we will be called on to stand up and act.
I recommend two pieces for you media diet today:
- Gail Collins’ op-ed essay in the New York Times yesterday about Trump’s self-imagined bromance with Putin.Trump & Putin, in the Barn
- Saturday Night Live’s cold opening last night with the wonderful Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon about Putin coming for Christmas.S.N.L. Trump Chistmas
Both pieces are disturbing and humorous. I guess that is about as good as it gets these days.
Secretly, I always pray
for snow—lots and lots
of snow. I long for the high
mounds and deep banks—
for the innocent fluffy descent
that defeats the orderly intentions
of angry plows and easily shackles
the rushing cars to slowness
and creep. Now no urgency
on earth can defeat the downward
reign of whiteness. Schools everywhere
close and parents are allowed again
to see their children. At home, only
essential people are called out,
while the rest of us snuggle up
together in this great white world
with only a few good books
and a cup of tea.
The reality of the impending Trump presidency is sinking in and I am finding it difficult to remain both open and suspicious. My natural tendency is to put Trump into the ‘danger to democracy’ category and then interpret everything he does or says in that light. This may be true, but I also know the world is not simply black and white and I want to be as flexible and effective as I can in meeting what is arising.
How do we see a situation clearly without limiting its full possibilities with our rigid expectations? Byron Katie says that we can fight reality all we want, but reality always wins. But we often confuse our perspective on reality with reality itself. Is Trump a pathological liar with narcissistic personality disorder or is he a ruthless politician who just wants power or is he an agent of change who wants to disrupt the status quo and create an America that works for everyone?
It’s probably helpful to hold a number of simultaneous positions. Each one of us contains multitudes. But depending on a pathological liar to tell the truth is an exercise in futility. We should observe closely and see the patterns and work with what is rather than what we wish were true.
A friend recently sent Melissa an article called ‘Coping with Chaos in the White House*.’ The author claims to have a lot of experience dealing with people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). And while Trump may or may not suffer from this very real condition, and this author may or may not be a true ‘expert’ in this field, his/her suggestions on how to deal with someone with NPD seemed both accurate and helpful in thinking about living with our new President Elect.
I recommend the whole article*, but a few of the helpful things she/he said about living with someone with NPD:
1) It’s not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.
4) Entitlement is a key aspect of the disorder. As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office. He has already stated that rules don’t apply to him. This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents.
6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. While often intelligent, charismatic and charming, they do not reliably observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.
So I offer this resource this morning as one more perspective, one more tool for us as we live into the new reality of our country’s formal leadership.
The full moon is hanging clear in the dark sky of the early winter morning. It’s twenty-five degrees and predicted to get colder all day until the temperature is zero by tomorrow morning. Welcome to winter in New England.
Another winter morning twenty-five years ago I was in Maine on a dog sled expedition with Outward Bound. The temperature was ten below zero. The snow was shockingly loud as I trudged a short distance from the tent to pee in the still darkness of early morning. Every part of my body felt sick with cold, lack of sleep and fear. I was sure my feet would never be warm again. How would I find the strength to meet the rigors of the trip? I saw no way out of this fearful place. And we were still at base camp.
A brisk walk in my four-layered insulated mouse boots and a bowl of hot cereal with lots of brown sugar was enough to warm my body and revive my spirits. The rest of the trip was a journey of beauty into the white forests and frozen lakes of the north country. There were a few other challenging moments, but I most remember the enthusiasm of the dogs as the pulled the sled which held our food and camping gear. And laughing with each other as we struggled like turtles to right ourselves each time we fell on our cross-country skis. Who knew that having a large pack on your back would so radically alter the physics of the problem? And I remember one afternoon when the temperature rose up into the mid-twenties. The sun was bright and the wind was calm. At the crest of a hill overlooking the frozen white lake, we stripped down to one or two layers and basked in the warmth of the afternoon.
It’s all relative.
The essential question for the human mind is: ‘Compared to what?’ Tall refers to short. Warm is only meaningful when we know what cold is. Our language and our analysis of a situation is a product of comparison: how is this moment like and unlike other situations I have known?
But the essential question for the human heart is: ‘What is this?’ When we hold the direction of this question and don’t fall off into analysis and comparison, we can find our way into the aliveness of each moment. Along with our wondrous capacity for analysis, we are invited to find our home in the moment that has never happened before. The singularity of THIS is an unparalleled opportunity to find our place right where we are.
Despite about our many hopes and fears about the current political situation, Christmas is barreling down on us all like a Mac truck driven by an insane maniac in red pajamas. We are all pedestrians in the crosswalk of the dream who can’t quite move fast enough to get out of the way. For many of us, Christmas easily becomes a time of enforced gaiety and compulsory consumption. I find myself skating on the thin ice of the pond of resentment and loneliness. The holidays are a perfect time to feel terminally different and fully left out.
Whatever we are planning or doing can never live up to the images many of us carry: an unblemished nuclear family sitting around a meticulously decorated Christmas tree (neither too big nor too small) opening truly thoughtful presents that bring great joy to all. Who can compete with the images of holiday perfection that tramp through our heads like malicious sugar plum fairies?
For me, it takes an intentional act of defiance to break through the oppression of these cultural expectation and stay human amidst the rush and flurry.
One friend told me she spent last Saturday making Christmas decorations—in itself not a very remarkable activity. But she said she did it with a Syrian refugee family that recently moved into her community. She made the trip to Michael’s and came prepared with all the supplies. The whole family gathered to spend the time trimming the tree while the mother sang Christmas carols in Arabic. Who knew that even in Syria, Christmas is celebrated as a secular holiday.
Another friend has decided to spend Christmas alone. Though he has several offers, he has decided to spend a quiet day at home with his friend. I was amazed to hear of his intention as I wasn’t aware that this is was an allowable option in polite society. Of course we are always alone wherever we go. Even in the midst of friends and family, we are still an island of consciousness in the midst of the large sea of life. But we are also always part of the family of human life—touched by the nourishings waters of aliveness at every point of our circumference. Whether separate or together, we are always held and supported by each other.
I like the original meanings of Advent better: a time of waiting in the dark—with hope. Not so much about the baby Jesus or about the presents, but about the deepening darkness. The days grow shorter and we truly don’t know what is coming. Our job is to wait in the darkness—to wait right where we are.
The cultural myth and the truth of human experience is that only through this dark waiting will the light blossom and our new life begin.
“Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.” This was the conclusion of Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece* ‘The Tainted Election” in the NY Times on December 12th.
Since the election, I have been torn between acceptance and outrage. I want to go back to my normal life. If Clinton had won, I would take a passing interest in her cabinet appointments but already be fading back into a kind of benign and general approval. But now I read the NY Times every morning as a way of staying engaged. It’s a little like waking up and sticking my finger into a light socket.
Every morning, I get shocked. I try not to overdo it. Being lost in despair is not helpful. One of my coping strategies to balance my emotional state is to escape to the sports page. Fortunately, my New England Patriots (those paragons of virtue and steadfast excellence and trickery) are doing well. But then I suspect myself of being the Roman citizen who distracted himself from the excesses of the empire by following the gladiatorial games at the coliseum. It’s all tainted.
My other strategy is meditation. Stopping and breathing. In the stillness of formal meditation and throughout the day, I make a practice of consciously turning toward the immediacy of life. This sensation. This emotion. This person.
Times are dire. The forces of greed, anger and ignorance have been unleashed in terrifying channels. But this is not new to human experience. These are the times that call us to practice more deeply what we say we believe in.
Not all the news is bad. Ten members of the electoral college have asked for an intelligence briefing on Russian intervention in the election before they have to officially vote Trump in. And Republicans are defying Trump’s irrational dismissal of evidence of Russian hacking and calling for an independent investigation.
This buoys my spirits, but then I think of the turmoil that would ensue if the election results are overturned by the electoral college. And Trump would not sit idly by as Clinton has done.
How do we behave with integrity in a system that has been compromised? How can we support our underlying democratic system and resist the forces that have taken it over so successfully?
Of course, the system was taken over long before Trump arrived on the scene. The forces of greed, ignorance and fear have been driving our democracy (and human behavior) since its inception and have merely been magnified over the years. Trump’s current ascendancy is both reaction to and culmination of the economic oligarchy that pulls so many of the levers in our wonderful and flawed country.
Let us be vigilant and keep our anger at injustice simmering. Let us recommit to the preciousness of life and to using our power to relieve the suffering of so many around us.
Probably good advice, no matter who is president.
The Buddhist teaching of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness was first set out in the Satipattana Sutra as part of the large collection of texts known as the Tripataka. These texts, that purport to be the words of the Buddha, were first written down in the first century BCE in northern India. The four foundations of mindfulness are one of the sources of the modern mindfulness movement that has become such a cultural force over the past decade.
Modern mindfulness is often confused with feeling better. Time magazine periodically runs a cover story on mindfulness that shows an attractive young woman serenely hovering above all worry. She is the same iconic image that is used to sell everything from diamonds to deodorant. Now the image of youth, ease and beauty is offered in the service of selling the latest way to be happy and calm.
It is true that we all like to feel good and that the practice of mindfulness can lead to an improvement in our appreciation of our life. But the original mindfulness teachings were offered as a way for helping us see into the true nature of human experience and thereby find our freedom.
The first three foundations of mindfulness are: 1) awareness of breath and body, 2) awareness of the rising of the gut reactions of like, dislike and neutral, and 3) awareness of mental states. The fourth foundation of mindfulness is experiencing the Buddhist teachings through our own experience. This points to one unique aspect of Buddhist teachings; they are not presented as doctrine that we are supposed to believe but rather they are pointers to help us move closer to our own experience.
All Buddhist teaching, as I suppose all spiritual teaching, is a path to help us see into the true nature of reality. The ultimate purpose of the study and practice of the four foundations is not about feeling more comfortable, but about being free. When we see clearly what is so, everything may remain the same, but we are free right where we are.
Practicing the four foundations, we can begin to see for ourselves that everything is continually arising and passing way—the weather, our feelings, the mountains, and even ourselves. We can also notice that dissatisfaction is unavoidable—sometimes we like what is happening in and around us, and sometimes we don’t. We also can realize that even the person we think we are is constantly changing—we too are of the nature of appearing and disappearing.
We can also know for ourselves that human life is shot through with grace—that even in the midst of difficulty and dailyness there is the possibility of seeing through the veil of ordinariness. And maybe, just for a small moment, we forget ourselves and remember that we have never been separate from the mysterious source that sustains and holds us.