It’s not that I haven’t been writing lately, or that my mind and body haven’t been churning with thoughts and confusions and frustrations and the need to purge them through organized language. I’ve just had a really hard time doing so. I started 5 blog posts in June that just spiraled into anger or despair or pathos. Still working on some of those, but in the interim I find it necessary to summarize the just-concluded Supreme Court term for my own sanity, to explicate the sources of my feelings of horror and doom that have been growing ever since Merrick Garland was denied a hearing in 2016.
A potential life (no constitutional protections for people carrying dead fetuses) potential birth (no constitutional protection for ectopic pregnancies) an embryo (no constitutional protections for IUDs or Plan B pills) a zygote is more important than the life of a living woman or other pregnant person (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization)
Border patrol agents cannot be personally sued for physically abusing and harassing citizens (Egbert v. Boule), and police officers cannot be personally sued for failing to inform suspects of their Miranda rights (Vega v. Tekoh)
The rights of people to carry hidden, loaded guns wherever they want is more important than the rights of states to vet those people in order to protects its citizens and law enforcement officers from random or impulsive violence (New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen)
Our tax dollars can pay for students to attend religious schools that may choose to decline admission of students who are gay, trans, queer, or non-Christian (Carson v. Makin)
The right of a public school employee in a position of authority to publicly perform and encourage participation in a Christian religious practice in front of his charges at his school is more important than protecting students from religious targeting, coercion, and potentially unfair treatment (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District)
Hearing the Supreme Court’s decisions roll out this term has left me feeling the same way I did when I watched a before and after video of war-ruined cities in the Ukraine – art and culture and homes and lives crushed before my eyes. For what? Who does this serve? How do we let this happen? Will we ever recover?
In the excellent podcast Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick has been framing Supreme Court decisions in terms of what they say about where our compassion lies/ who and what we care about. On this July 4th in 2022 we do not appear to care about women, LGBTQ and non-Christian youth, Tribal sovereignty, victims of gun violence, people abused by law enforcement, or the environment. We do seem to care about veterans, at least in some circumstances; and although the safety of refugees and immigrants was not the impetus, I am pleased with the dismissal of the Remain in Mexico policy. I don’t know if that’s enough to keep me hopeful for this country. Nor are the January 6th hearings, despite the committee’s dispassionate, indefatigable, truly exceptional work restoring some of my faith in elected officials. There is so much worth saving. I hope the foundation will be strong enough to build on if these fires of hatred, violence, greed, and neglect burn our country to the ground.
I wasn’t ready to propose solutions last week, and I still hesitate, because, after all, what hasn’t been said, and attempted, and written off and what can we possibly do about it anyway? I post this only as an attempt as a Buddhish perspective on this ongoing nightmare of violence and pain.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the current wave of ideas, because most of it is the same old story: lots of people centering gun regulation, other people focusing on mental health (though not doing anything to improve it). I did read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on the interesting theory of the slow motion mob, which aligns with the increase in fame-motivated and bigotry-motivated incidents (hate seems far too broad a term for attacks on specific identity groups), and I listened to an interview with Drs. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, (Minnesota!) Professors of Criminology who have written what seems to be THE book on mass shooters. Their research supports my (upcoming!) proposal, but like every human I know my brain is choosing which information it wants to hear, so I won’t claim objectivity. With that caveat, here are their key findings, based on extensive data and interviews. A few that stood out to me:
80% of shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to shooting, 40% had been for years
Psychosis was not a factor for 70% of mass shooters, and was minor in another 10%
70% of mass shooters were suicidal prior to and/or during their attacks
Other than shootings at houses of worship (typically motivated by religious or ethnic hatred), shooters were part of the targeted community nearly 90% of the time
Dr. Peterson has summarized:
There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.
What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.
I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.
How do we stop mass shootings?
How do we stop people from wanting to commit mass shootings?
If you’re just interested in #1, then gun regulations make the most sense, especially those that restrict the number of bullets and the speed at which bullets can be fired. Obviously, background checks and red flag laws make sense. Putting age minimums on most gun purchases makes a fuck of a lot of sense, since the brain isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. (Do I have to say it? We don’t think people are mature enough to drink, smoke pot, or, in some places, buy cigarettes until age 21; but they can buy an AR-15 as young as 18, are “adult” in the eyes of the justice system at 18, and can be tried as an adult when as young as 12, depending on the crime and the state.)
Maybe #2 seems too hard, but you want to reduce gun violence overall? Gun culture is one of the defining characteristics of the US, and the obsession with gun “rights” in some communities seems to prevail over almost everything else. Gang violence is dominated by shootings. It seems pretty clear that people are more likely to grab a gun in the face of internal or external conflict here than in other countries. Just look at the data on gun purchases during the pandemic. I doubt you read this blog for the research, but it’s worth noting that I could not find a single article on the increase in gun sales in other countries during the pandemic, while in the US nearly 20% of households bought a gun when COVID showed up, and 5% of those bought a gun for the first time. We view crisis as conflict and conflict as threat and threat as something that can only be fought with deadly weapons. Maybe there’s another way to think? Maybe we could see crisis as an opportunity for outreach and connection? Despite the emphasis on self-defense, people who purchased firearms during the pandemic were more likely to be suicidal. Suicides make up 2/3 of our gun deaths and the majority of mass shooters are suicidal.
Although folks like to put them in non-adjacent boxes, the culture that encompasses fearful self-defense and gun ownership and aggression goes to the source of #2. Why do people want to commit mass shootings? Whether they are glorified suicides or not? The illusion of separateness. Whether you believe it’s an illusion or not, the feeling of separateness seems to me pretty clearly the source of every act of aggression, ever. Sometimes the illusion is made unbearably realistic through abuse and neglect. As Dr. Peterson said above, early childhood trauma is the foundation of this behavior. Bullying is an act of separation, and creates feelings of separation. Inflicting abuse in general is impossible without the belief that you are harming a distinct, separate entity, even though the consequences inevitably impact both the one performing the action and the one it’s performed upon. Othering particular races or religions or other groups is creating separation, but young men like the Buffalo shooter are likely to join White Supremacist groups for the feeling of belonging and purpose they offer. If we want to stop people from committing mass shootings, we need them to feel connected to nonviolent, caring people.
Okay, great, Z. So what if we agree with you? What can we do about it? Can we force people to see the world in a different way? Can we compel compassion?
Last weekend we watched Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s delightfully weird and fun, and, being the kind of nerd I am, I was particularly excited about both the fairly casual acceptance that there is no given purpose to life, and the transformation of the unimpressive husband from a nice, nerdy simpleton into a hero with one line: “this is how I fight.” That he is not supportive and loving out of weakness or fear or blindness or shallowness, but as a philosophical stand in the face of meaninglessness. His kindness is his weapon. I’ve said it before and I’ll surely quote it again: “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”
Big problems set us searching for big solutions. Perhaps that’s right, but the big solution to suicidal/homicidal acts may be comprised of millions of actions perceptible only to the actor and, sometimes, the recipient. What does it cost us to show a little extra kindness – a bit of embarrassment? A twinge of awkwardness? A minor inconvenience? And what is the payout – a potentially life-changing impact on another human and their community. I assume that every one of us has had a bad day in which a few words from another person completely turned us around. Kindness, just regular everyday kindness, has stopped people from attempting suicide that day. No one person can be held responsible for another person’s horrific act, but as a society we are not guiltless. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because we are fundamentally interdependent and a connection to others is an essential part of every person’s wellbeing. I’m not a gamer, but I do appreciate the practice some video games offer – an alternative lifestyle, even. If you run across another character in a game (provided your goal isn’t to kill everyone you see), it’s generally a good idea to talk to them – you don’t know what you could discover. If we could play life with the same curiosity and fearlessness, I think we’d be a lot better off.
Yes, some people make it hard to be kind. Those are usually the ones who need it most. And yes, you should listen to your own warning bells and no, you can’t save everyone, and often you won’t even see the rewards of your work, and not everyone with a gun can be helped with simple kindness. But the return on investment is enormous.
Yes, vote to make it harder to shoot people, and support free mental health services, but I truly can’t think of anything that would make more of a difference than a concerted effort to be kind to people we interact with, to look at people as though they were something more than extras in our lives.
Upon completion, this all seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth posting. I hope it was worth reading. As by kickboxing instructor says, at least I showed up!
I have neglected the blog lately not because I have nothing to write about, but because there is too much. And writing feels so petty. And what does it accomplish. What does anything accomplish?
So here we are.
I have so many thoughts about the recent killings, and I have my opinions on solutions like everyone else, but for now, a heartbreaking moment of connection.
About a week ago, there was a clip of Amerie Jo Garza’s stepfather talking to a reporter on NPR, crying as he spoke, grasping at narrative.
She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong. She listened to her mom and dad. She always brushed her teeth. She was creative. She made things for us. She never got in trouble in school. Like, I just want to know what she did to be a victim.
She always brushed her teeth.
That gutted me, and I spent the next several minutes sobbing harder than I had during this entire ordeal.
A few days later, our little Socially Engaged Buddhist group met online, and our facilitator referenced the exact same line.
What is it about that sentence?
In a different context, it might even be funny. Some joke about a guy being dragged down from the locked gates of heaven, yelling, “I always brushed my teeth!”
Is it the clash of the mundane with the profound?
Is it the conflation of obedience with the Goodness? Practicality with morality?
Is it that we all can relate to it, down to the feel of the brushes on our living gums? That we ourselves avoided it, whined about it, that we were worse kids than Amerie? That we could, if we chose to, be reminded of this little girl every morning, every night?
Is it the amorphous agony of hearing this man try to understand the incomprehensible? He wasn’t trying to paint a picture of his daughter for the reporter; he was searching for meaning, for an explanation. Here are the facts – how can it come to this conclusion? How could this happen to her?
It’s such a simple question, such a standard accessory to any crime against an innocent victim that we barely notice when people ask it. She always brushed her teeth forces us to consider it again, puts us face to face with the horror of loss and injustice, makes it real and specific in its universality.
It’s a piece of instrumental music that leaves you in tears without knowing why. It draws us together like a manifestation of our interconnectedness. We bear witness to all of it – the love, the pain, and the confusion.
You can leave it there, with that man, with all of the people who loved all of those children, with all of the people who loved the victims in Buffalo, in Tulsa, in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen and anyone who has ever lost anyone. You can sit with it and let it break your heart open.
In my experience, it’s never what you expect. Most of the influence on your life is subtle and hard to read – maybe you’re a little more patient, a little quicker to laugh, a bit more generous. I haven’t had a lot of big revelations that I can attribute to the causality of sitting.
But I got one this time! And I didn’t necessarily want it.
Not long into my intensive meditation course in April, and just minutes after an hour long sit, I went up to my office, logged into my work desktop, and heard, crisp and clear inside my head,
“girl, you cannot keep doing this.”
Yep, I have to leave my job. I don’t have to do it now; I don’t have to do it before I find a new one; there is no great urgency to it, and the admission has made every day a little more bearable, but that doesn’t mean I’m talking myself out of it. I have to leave.
I’ve spent the last 7 or so years justifying my job (not that anyone has asked for that, but the ego do take a bite out of honesty), as such:
I work for a nonprofit
my work doesn’t do any discernible harm
I am improving things for some people, if in an indirect way
I’ve learned some stuff
the pay is fine
I’m mostly respected and appreciated
I don’t take my work home
the benefits, particularly the PTO, are generous
as a result, I can do good (questionable term) in my free time
Many of you are probably looking at this list and thinking this is a pretty low bar. Some of you may think this is pretty sweet, and hardly worthy of complaint. I can take either perspective, but as someone who wants to do good (ugh), to have some kind of positive impact (meh), to increase the net amount of love and reduce the net amount of suffering in the world (that’s it), I have to open my eyes to not only the opportunities missed by spending my time at this essentially neutral job, but the fact that I am suffering from boredom and the knowledge that I do actually have skills and talents that could be applied in a manner that could actually reduce suffering, but I’m afraid to put myself out there.
Thus, this phase of this journey begins: the resume I haven’t looked at in 8 years (and can’t even find), the blahdom of job hunts, the agony of interviews. I am fortunate in that there is currently no rush. If I stop hoarding PTO, I can reduce my suffering by reducing my hours. If I increase my engagement outside of work, I can minimize the impact of my current work life. If I allow myself to be myself in job interviews (if I trust that I am not a shameful, broken thing who has to pretend to be someone else in order to be acceptable), I might actually find a job that I deserve and vice-versa. I’m excited about it, despite many avenues for fear and dread.
There’s a reason so many of us walk around with our eyes half-closed most of the time. Once you see what’s in front of you, you may be compelled to do something about it. And that ain’t always easy.
Friday was gorgeous GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I cut out of work early, dug up some grass in my yard, and biked over to the pie place in the hopes of some weekend dessert slices. The line at the pie place was a block long, so I laughed it off and kept biking. I couldn’t just turn around and go home because the weather was GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSS. Like, perfect. Like, bike down the street no-handed singing and conducting songs from the playlist of your youth gorgeous. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. No – joyful. I was filled with unintellectual, full-body joy. It was fucking glorious. The only stain on the afternoon was a brief realization that, “fuck, I’ve become my father.”
I wasn’t mostly naked, I wasn’t riding an old Schwinn, but those were the only significant differences in our behavior. I didn’t hate my dad’s weird behavior as much as my sister did, but it was sometimes embarrassing. It wouldn’t have felt like such a betrayal if he had allowed us to be ourselves as he insisted on being himself, but it was only acceptable to be authentic if our authenticity matched his, and we were continually shut down for not behaving, thinking, or being exactly what he wanted us to be.
It’s difficult to separate the action from the person, and difficult to separate admirable behavior from a person whose behavior was often inconsiderate or cruel, but there is always that yin & yang. No one is all evil all the time, all inappropriate all the time, all annoying all the time, but our need to recognize and predict patterns and our emotional attachment/aversion to the behavior of people with whom we have complicated relationships is often tough to work past. As is our assumption of impure motives. Sure my dad was unconventional and weird, and I generally value that in people, but because I associate it with his narcissism, I don’t give him the credit others may earn from the same nonconformity. But what do I know? Just because he had narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean he was incapable of a pure act of joy & self-expression. And just because I express my joy in a similar way doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.
Or … does it?
Honestly, I don’t fucking care. I’m not hurting anyone and I’m alchemizing bliss out of spring air. The critical they can roll their eyes and think whatever they want. I am so tired of our joy-crushing culture.
I have been trying to spread the word about Wynn Bruce, and whenever I do I get choked up and blurry eyed. So it seems I should write about him. Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and died a few days later, a few days ago.
Wynn Bruce was a Buddhist and he cared about the warming planet and he set himself on fire. He was not explicit about why, or only in a coded way, but his father and his friends believe he was intending to call attention to climate change. He would not be the first to do so. I fear he may not be the last.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this. That is, it’s hard to have one feeling about it. It’s horrifying, brave, ridiculous, extreme, understandable, admirable, and frightening. As a pseudo-Buddhist, I rest primarily on honorable and heartbreaking.
Bystanders said he didn’t scream as his skin burned.
I can’t say this is the wrong thing to do, if he wanted to do it. It appears that no one ever suggested it, so there is no fault to be laid. I can’t say it’s the right thing to do – causing pain to loved ones in a deadly act that will have little, or any, impact. Removing yourself from the playing field, instead of staying in the loving fight. I wouldn’t argue with a chronically, fatally depressed person who took their own life.
Is it even suicide?
The only thing I can say, the only thing I may know, is that if he burned himself alive in order to call attention to Climate Change, we owe him the honor of paying attention to Climate Change. I don’t know what paying attention means to each one of you; I just believe that we bear witness to his death by bearing witness to the deadly changes in our living environment.
He attributed this beloved quote to Thay:
The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.
thich nhat hanh?
There is more than one way to do that. It will be painful, but it may also be generative and invigorating. The end is uncertain, but despair is not an extreme reaction. I hope we can move past it.
My intellectual energies are being diverted to my other blog this week, so this will be relatively short and feely (gross); call it observational, if you prefer.
I am a week into a mildly intensive three-week practice through my local meditation center, which entails as much as participants can manage or want to include of the following:
an hour or more sit in the morning
meditation in the afternoon
meditation in the evening
attending a weekly talk
attending weekly Qigong
read the recommended readings
listen to the recommended listenings
post (but only a little!) in the community Google group
read and comment on (but only a little!) others’ posts
attend Practice discussions with a teacher
attending a daylong retreat at the end of the 3 week practice period
Looks like a lot, listed out, for a practice that is supposed to be incorporated into your everyday life, rather than taking you out of it, as a retreat would. But you are encouraged to set your own goals according to your abilities and responsibilities. It doesn’t seem excessive to me.
Let me get my petty bullshit out of the way first. I’ve been to a handful of sits at this meditation center (and another dozen or so online) and I like the space a lot. Many meditation centers in the area are Zen, and while I love my UPAYA peeps and so many more in the Zen tradition, I’m not big on the type of ritual and formality it typically expects. Fortunately, this closest place to my home is pretty generically Buddhist. However, I was hoping for more from the main teacher, who I first sat with on Monday. My assessment is based on almost nothing: I didn’t get much of any vibe from him, and he didn’t laugh or smile at all during the 10 minutes or so he spent talking to us, so Fuck That Guy!
Just kidding, of course. I look forward to sitting with and listening to him more and seeing what he has to offer – I have no doubt it’s a lot. But I can’t deny that I am greedy for one of those knock-you-off-your-feet, Holy shit experiences that the White folks who interacted with Baba Neem Karolyi or Tcich Naht Hahn or the Dalai Lama talk about: that thoughtless knowing that this is someone special, the embodiment of, or at least confirmation of the possibility of, enlightenment. I know the hope that I would just happen to run across one of these exceptional folks at the Center that just happens to be a mile from my house is asking a bit much, but I’m disappointed whenever those hopes are dashed. Giving up hope is “the beginning of the beginning,” as Pema Chodron wrote.
If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. […] Without giving up hope that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be [that there’s someone better to meet?] – we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, Chapter 7
Second, the Google group itself. Again, I get it. People want to connect over their practice and we can’t all be in the same place every day, so it’s a nice alternative. When we had that option with my UPAYA group we never used it, because we were all so sick of written, online communication, I presume. But beyond that, the main guy gave pretty specific instructions about how we were and were not supposed to use it. In fact, we should only comment if we were really inspired and we should probably wait several days and see if anyone else posted before we posted at all, but we should definitely post, but really we should wait and make sure that what we wanted to say was worth posting, but there should be maybe three posts a week, with maybe five to ten comments per post …. And then he emailed us three days later to point out that no one had posted and maybe someone should post.
I know we don’t want folks to go nuts and annoy everyone with constant emails and notifications. I just thought that could have been better conveyed by simply saying, “be mindful about what you post, ask yourself if it is contributing something helpful, and go to essence” rather than a weird collection of rules/not rules that seemed to make everyone reluctant to engage and felt a bit infantilizing.
Honestly, I think those are my only complaints with the nuts and bolts of the Intensive. Pretty minimal for me, so yee-ha! I am so very happy to have this opportunity to suffer practice with others, and particularly for the weekly meets and full day at the end, because far more than being urged into more mindfulness for a short time, what I really want and need is a sangha. Fingers crossed this may become one.
Now onto my responsibilities and self-assessment. I am likewise mildly disappointed in my behavior this week. I’ve focused very hard on the long morning sit and 1-2 additional sits during the day, as time permitted; I’ve read some of the readings and listened to some of the audio, and attended the Qigong & weekly meet in person; but I have basically behaved as though pushing myself through that physical discomfort and clocking more time would magically transform me, rather than making the effort to apply mindfulness to my regular everyday activities. I have perhaps been more conscious of what I’m doing – how much I’m eating, how I’m reacting to conflict, etc. But it could be much more, and I want it to be. It is possible that the magic is making me reassess my job satisfaction, which is scary, so that is … something.
Funny how I so look forward to sitting down to a half hour meditation, and am filled with dread when I settle in to double that. As if time itself is the problem. It is, in the most obvious way. After a certain point, the pain sets in. It doesn’t always come in the same way, or at the same time, but I have never sat for more than 40 minutes without feeling something – pain or discomfort (hard to distinguish between them in the early days). For some folks it’s the knees or back that cry out for attention or just (just! LOL!) overwhelming restlessness and anxiety. For me it used to be the I’d rather rip my crawling skin off than sit a minute longer, but nowadays it’s typically hip pain. I don’t know why it’s changed, but I’ll consider it progress. It still ain’t fun, but it’s easier to deal with physical pain than what was essentially terror and self-pity, in my case. I had at least one good sit this week where I just focused on the pain – the physical pain, not the psychological shit that it picks up while rolling around inside me. But in other sessions I was like, what should I really be doing here? and can I really sustain lovingkindness meditation for a freaking hour? and this is boring, there’s got to be a better way to use my time. I like mixing it up with guided meditations or focusing on a particular intention in a sit, but the fact is, I don’t need that. The best meditation response to this is boring is, of course, the boringness itself.
Maybe I needed this week to just power through the physical adjustments before I could focus the spotlight of my consciousness more deliberately throughout the day. That’s what happened, so I might as well believe it’s true. Starting today I intend to pick up the mindfulness a little more often, carry it lightly, let it watch as I walk through the daily grind. We’ll see how that goes. I’m going to take the recommendation in Norman Fischer’s so-far-excellent book, The World Could be Otherwise and try not to criticize anyone (maybe anything?) as well. I guess that starts now, since I ripped into the teacher and meditation center above (facepalm). Trying to be honest without flaunting irreverence. I definitely sense a warning there.
I still have my birth date listed on Facebook, so I got a smattering of Birthday wishes this week. Most were from people I have never known well, one or two from good friends (most text instead), some from once-friends. No doubt I would have dived into some good old self-pity if I hadn’t had at least that, but despite the appreciation some sadness rose to the surface anyway. Not on the day: my birthday was lovely, with decent weather, a nice little hike with my guy & my dog, a delicious dinner, and all that. But when I went on Facebook the next day to address (“like”) the various acknowledgements of my birth, I felt sad. I started to write a post about social media and the pitfalls of not engaging with it – that the algorithms render me invisible and methodically shrink my reach, so that very few people see anything I post – but that wasn’t quite it. Then I logged into a webinar with Tara Brach and Frank Ostaseski today, and through the talk of loss and grief and death and living, one word connected with my current state.
Yes, I miss socializing. During the most locked down days of the pandemic I think I most missed just going places – coffee shops, bookstores – and having casual, brief, human interactions with the workers or other shoppers. I value those almost meaningless interchanges far more than I realized. But that’s not the problem these days. I miss being known, being seen. And this is from someone with a partner who does know and see me. So greedy. I want more. I want to be seen in different ways by different people. I want what they see reflected back at me so I can remember who I am.
Even within intimacy there is so much variation. When a friend from college moved into town – someone who wasn’t part of my inner circle back in the day, but who I liked and knew and saw 5 days a week, 9 months a year for 4 years for fuck’s sake – I was thrilled, because we shared an intimacy. I was able to have a deep conversation with him right off the bat because I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or to perform my personality (whatever that is) or anything like that. He knew me, I knew him. We trusted each other. Even though almost all the details of each other’s adult journeys were mostly unknown, there was something there that I don’t feel with most people I know in my city now, people I’ve seen with some regularity for nearly two decades.
I also feel an intimacy with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group – 5-20 people who met online monthly, more or less, while studying a variety of topics under a variety of teachers for a year through a Zen center. I feel a deep connection to them, due largely, I’m sure, to our mutual commitment to open ourselves up to self-awareness and empathy and honesty and change. Certainly ego and etc. pop up sometimes, but there too I feel known and free to just be. I think it’s almost the opposite of what I have with my college friend. Whereas I think he knows me at my core, with my Buddhist group there is no core. Whether we can practice it consistently or not, we are all more or less committed to the idea that The Self isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We share our spiritual and mundane struggles and strivings and return again and again to acceptance, love, and not knowing.
I have long-lived, deep friendships for which I am forever grateful, but they are mostly with people hours away by car or plane, and that distance is wearing on me. Since I can’t forge lifelong friendships overnight, I am attempting to make that other intimacy happen – the connection of spiritual commitment. As much as I love my online sangha, they are not HERE NOW, and I need an intimacy that is present and tangible, not just electronic. The weather is finally, way too slowly, changing, opening the world up again to my carless, afraid-of-the-frigid-cold self. I’ve enrolled in a 3-week, semi-intensive mindfulness course and plan to get to the nearby Meditation Center for talks and sits as much as possible. I’m hoping it will set me on the patch of feeling connected to a local sangha, but I won’t be disappointed in a better understanding of myself and the paths available to me right now.
None of that is bad. It just is. Wishing you all peace and moments of intimacy.
Like many of you, I presume, I’ve been feeling pretty down about the world – specifically humanity – of late. Not just the invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing US-backed Saudi slaughter of civilians and starvation of children in Yemen, the abandonment and starvation of Afghans, the anti-truth and anti-LGBTQ legislation passing in state after United state, the infestation of voting restrictions and other steps toward the de-Democratization of our country, the Congressional blocking of nominees because they recognize climate change, and so on.
When I hit a breaking point with these kind of current affairs, I hit an empathy barrier – not for the victims, but for the perpetrators. So? You might ask. Why waste empathy on them? They don’t deserve it and they’re certainly not worth your emotional energy. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction, but Buddhism and other forms of Love offer other perfectly reasonable reactions as well.
If you can love something, you can love anything
I stole this from John Lewis, who said something to this effect in an interview I have yet to place. Simply put, hate creates hate and love generates love. The more you open your heart, the more open your heart is. Loving “bad” people doesn’t make you bad, it exercises your capacity to love. Love and loyalty are not the same, nor are love and admiration. But loving, or let’s step back from that loaded word – generating empathy – for flawed humans is a good thing. Because we are all flawed humans. And we all deserve empathy.
There are no Monsters
Okay, maybe there are; but far, far fewer than we like to assume. Some of the easiest people for me to hate right now were once damaged children – Putin grew up in poverty and Trump in privilege, but they both were (heard tell) deprived of much affection or unconditional love and their desperate striving for approval, power, and money seem an attempt to compensate for that. That’s not the focus of my argument, but I do think it’s important to remember, as President Bartlett passionately averred, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”
So, muster up some sympathy for the shitty childhood if you like, but there is a path to a deeper understanding. I’ve been engaging in a practice of tracing what I presume to be Putin’s motivations and seeing if I can find those in myself. And – surprise! I easily can.
greed – whether it’s hiding the last piece of chocolate or giving the guy at the stoplight a dollar instead of $5 (or nothing at all)
nostalgia – Putin’s is for the Soviet Union; mine is for the best year or two of college, my reign at the theatre bookstore, or the best years in Minneapolis, where I could always find a friend at my local bar
heroism – if you think I don’t care about being the “good guy” you don’t know me well
revenge – rarely practiced it, kinda horrified by it, but have definitely thought about it
power – not obvious for me since I’m not career ambitious, but I absolutely want to be the one people defer to when I care enough to have a strong opinion
lying – yup; not as a habit, but sure
covering up bad things I’ve done – when I can, and when my conscience hasn’t stopped me. I once scraped up a car when I was driving buzzed in college. Never told anyone.
silencing people who talk shit about me – I’m sure I’ve talked shit about people who didn’t like me in an attempt to render them untrustworthy
taking my bad mood out on others – all the fucking time
It’s the actions Putin takes, the things Trump says that horrify us, but they all come from some combination of the above motivations and others. Just as everything we do is motivated by something
Recognizing the self in the other isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. It’s both the foundation and the goal of my spiritual life. Which is not just about being kind or forgiving or certainly “good,” it’s about recognizing our Oneness, that we are all different expressions and perceptions of the same consciousness, or, if you haven’t studied Buddhism or taken large amounts of psychedelics, it may be easier to see it as different parts of the same body. I love this metaphor, originally (?) from Santideva – if your foot is impaled by a sharp object, your hand pulls it out. Your hand doesn’t ponder whether the foot pain has anything immediate impact on the hand; your foot doesn’t have to ask for help or explain its plight; your hand doesn’t expect recognition or payback; and your mind doesn’t have to oversee and assess the situation. Nothing could be more natural than moving to relieve your own pain. That is where I want to get, with everyone. With everything.
One of the reasons I love this metaphor is that you can extend it to almost any situation. Sometimes you can’t alleviate the pain and you just have to live with it. Sometimes you choose not to do the work to alleviate it and it pulls at your conscience like a bad deed. And sometimes that foot is so far gone, you have to cut it off. You don’t hate the foot, you can’t even really blame the foot. The foot is a product of the body and the world it interacts with. But just because you feel bad about the foot doesn’t mean you’re going to let it infect the rest of the body. We can practice compassion for the Putins and Trumps while still passionately working to stop them. But when we call them monsters, pretend we don’t understand them at all, exclude them from the pettiness, cruelties, and failures that are our shared human bullies, we fail to recognize these things in ourselves and fail to appropriately address them when they rise up and likewise try to motivate us.
Understanding our own pain and suffering, and how that plays out in our thoughts, connects us to the suffering of the world, and may prevent us from acting on it.
The problem with dissatisfaction and suffering isn’t that they’re painful but that we misunderstand their nature and purpose. What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as “mine.” In fact […], it’s the common human suffering […] loss and pain connect me to others, and to life. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love.
from The World Could Be Otherwise, Norman Fischer
Okay, maybe (you say). But still, I’m not going to be like Putin. I’m never going to steal billions of dollars or kill an enemy or bomb a country. But those things are different from what most of us occasionally do by an order of magnitude only. Drawing a line on empathy is no less arbitrary than drawing a line between countries. If my empathy stops where someone’s political beliefs, or racial awareness, or capacity for kindness differ from mine, I’m just as narrowminded and closed-hearted as those whose empathy stops with my political beliefs, or race, or capacity for kindness towards them.
Yes, it’s kind of like saying you can’t fight love with hate, and maybe you don’t like that expression. How about, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Better yet, let’s examine the full context:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices
Audrey Lorde, from The Master’s ToolsWill Never Dismantle the Master’s House
Sure, Ms. Lorde was talking about the kind of terror and loathing that we “good people” know is “bad.” But it seems to me that her attention is not focused on the kind of hatred we practice, it’s centered on the practice, the terror and loathing itself. The separation, the hierarchies, the isolation and denigration: those are the master’s tools. Those are what we touch, what we reach down into. We can always and easily find a reason to hate someone, someones. If not the abused, then the abuser. But those roles are continually changing. The choice to empathize or reject are what remain.
The most loving people in the world have often worked the hardest against hatred and violence, and come out the other side without being destroyed by the work, or causing harm to others in the process. For me, that is worthy striving for.
It’s been a good year for mice in the Twin Cities. Are the raptors in bad shape? Are mice fucking more than usual? It hasn’t been a particularly frigid winter (79th most cold, which hardly seems worth mentioning), so it doesn’t seem like their survival is under unusual threat, but many people we know in the area have had exceptional mouse problems this winter.
Ours has been a blessing.
You’d think we’d be a rodent nirvana, here. We are both messy and Buddhish. We are a philosophically and temperamentally no-kill family. Yes, we still eat fish (for the time being) and I honestly have no problem killing mosquitoes, or the wasps that have come after me that last 3 summers (because wasps are all-around fuckers and mosquitoes are humans’ most powerful enemy) but other than that, we remove insects from the home rather than kill them and try to protect the baby bunnies that their shitty mothers dump in our dog’s yard. Even the dog is exceptionally gentle. She observes and lightly bats at beetles, and tries not to drool when the bunnitos emerge. Mostly she squishes them. I think she likes the sound. 😦
We have occasionally had A mouse over the last decade. They say you never have A mouse, but since we never saw more than one at a time, we could convince ourselves otherwise. But this year, we had to face up to it. Unless they were teleporting, we had mice. The good thing about being messy is that it was easy to know where to first address the issue: we cleaned. That is, we started cleaning. We (my partner mostly, far messier than I and afflicted with ADD) are still cleaning. Because of some dabbling with diffusers and lotion-making years ago, I already had plenty of clove & peppermint oil, which I scattered all over the house (peppermint in the living areas; clove in the sleeping areas). We cleaned areas we’d never cleaned before, we shoved steel wool in anything that looked like a hole, we started picking up the dog bowl when she wasn’t eating, sealing her food in a plastic bin, not leaving plates on the floor for her to lick for longer than a few minutes, sweeping regularly.
I knew this wouldn’t fix it – most of our friends with mouse problems were clean people – but it was a start, and it was a life improvement, regardless. We were also very lucky. The mice never got on a counter, never got to even the second from the bottom shelf of the pantry, never got into the dog food or any food container. (I started keeping all my bottom-shelf food in glass or ceramic jars ever since the first mouse appearance way back when.) so when people laughed at us when we said we weren’t going to put down poison (Big No) or even traps (death isn’t the worst, but having your face or leg scraped off is), we would explain that they weren’t more than an inconvenience. Then came the emailed articles on hantavirus and other hazards. We kept cleaning and hoped the critters would find the living situation unpleasant and leave … from wherever they came … which we still haven’t figured out.
They had made it upstairs (shiver) to the bedrooms (shiver), so I thoroughly cleaned out my tiny shoe closet for the first time since we moved in, jettisoning some heels I will never again wear in the process. For a month, I refreshed the water and dropped clove oil into my diffuser every night; folded my clothes and put them on a shelf, tossed them in the laundry, or draped them over the hamper for reuse. I did not leave an AlterEco truffle or peanut-butter filled pretzel on my bedside table in case I woke up in the middle of the night and needed a snack. I (sloppily) folded up my meditation cape and blanket after I sat every morning and placed them on the designated ottoman instead of leaving them on the rug.
The mouse has done wonders for us, honestly. It told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply. We are still not clean by many standards, and we will probably never be neat, but we are so much cleaner. I have been disciplined about my bedtime habits for the longest stretch of time ever. That’s right, I have never consistently put my clothing, etc. away in my life. Better still (and YES, I AM AFRAID TO SAY THIS BECAUSE DESPITE EVERYTHING I AM STILL STUPIDHUMAN SUPERSTITIOUS), with all of these changes, and perhaps with the help of the meditations I have devoted to asking them to leave, there have been only two mouse appearances in the past month, and none upstairs, even though we’ve had some very cold days. It seems almost unbelievable. I find it hard not to believe it is a combination of right effort and right thought and right intention and … I know it sounds ridiculous, y’all, but I have learned over the past few years that there are more things in heaven and earth […] than are dreamt of in your philosophy and that it is possible that the winning combo of changing our habits and asking the mice to leave so that we didn’t have to kill them to protect the health of our dog & ourselves may have sent something out into the universe that encouraged them to find another home. The mice told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply.
Whatever it is, I hope it all continues. Not only the absence of the little guys, but my discipline, our increased cleanliness, the commitment to close up potential house holes in the spring, our squishy no-kill policy, and my spiritual concern and attention to the little guys. All of that is good, and more than that I am so happy that the path of compassion appears to have won out over the path of fear or aggression or convenience. I don’t begrudge those folks the killing of their invaders – we all have our stuff, and mice can be scary – but for us, it looks like it’s working. And I’m honestly a little astounded that I have kept up the new habits for so long. Really, I’m pleasantly surprised that I have adopted any new habit, at my age. Folks used to think that the we were far less flexible as we age, but studies of meditators, in particular, have shown remarkable plasticity. I’m not an example of a great meditator and this isn’t an example of an exceptional change, but I have to say I’m really enjoying it.