Blooming Through the Unbearable

No danger that we are facing today is greater than the deadening of our response.

Roshi Joan Halifax, 7/18/2022

These were some of the first words shared at a talk centered on the spiritual Deep Ecology work of Joanna Macy Sunday, and a beautifully expressed warning against meeting immense challenges with despair.

That includes global warming, which refuses to fade gently into the night. And it’s a doozy – the most overwhelming, global, human threat to date, or at least for tens of thousands of years. A friend saw Elizabeth Kolbert speak at a university a few years back and was appalled when she answered the inevitable audience question of “what can we do?” with something like, Nothing. There is nothing you can personally do that will stop the headlong tumble towards an unlivable human planet. Here is where she is literally right: our household recycling, our composting, even our electric cars and solar panels are not enough, individually, to make a difference. The only individual actions that could make a dent would be those of leading political figures or the CEOs of prominent polluting corporations.

Here is where she is wrong: there is no such thing as an individual, isolated action in a living, social species. Not only do we bike instead of driving, we normalize biking and spark interest in others. We get the attention of those who want to sell bikes, who create tempting advertising around biking, generating more participation. Politicians glom on to boost their cred with the voting bloc of cyclists. Communities organize and successfully advocate for safer and more accessible bike paths, and more fearful folks now join in the ~carbon-free fun. The press reports on the changes in city planning. Car companies produce more electric vehicles in attempt to lure climate-conscious riders back. No single action occurs in a vacuum, and all have unseen reverberations.

And here is where she is deadeningly wrong: we have no idea what will actually improve our chances on planet Earth. That Not Knowing isn’t just a Buddhist practice, it is as scientific as it gets. Every scientific “truth” is literally a Theory, even the ones we take as gospel. No one knows how high the temperature will get, what exactly that will mean for our viability, or what might deflect us from that path. We have good models and predictions and explanation that we use to guide our actions, but we do not know what awaits us. Some people find this frightening. Some cling to the best guesses and worst case scenarios and despair in the presumed inevitability of The End. But Not Knowing, as a practice, is ultimately liberating. If we don’t know the future, we are free to accurately assess and focus on the present: is this act loving, kind, compassionate, meaningful, wise? Is it done for its own sake and not to reward my ego? Am I using the terror of the future to justify cruel behavior in the present? Whether it all fell apart tomorrow, or humanity were saved with the sunrise, would this still be a Right Action?

And here’s the other spiritual bit, the bit that Roshi Joan alluded to at the top: If we close ourselves off to action, because we believe it won’t fix anything; to our own heartbreak, because it hurts; to the pain of others, because it’s hard and uncomfortable; to lapping up the beauty of our world, because it will go away; to laughter, because there are so many reasons to cry; to love, because of impermanence, why are we even here? We do the best we can because it’s the right thing to do, not for an anticipated payout. Better to fail to save humanity by using less and loving more than to succeed by brutally annihilating a third of the population, right? It’s not about the fix; it’s about nurture.

Impermanence is the (admittedly shaky) foundation on which the Four Noble Truths sit. Everything is impermanent, including us and our planet. From the Buddhist perspective, it shouldn’t matter whether Earth’s temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius tomorrow or in 2500. The urgency may increase, but the mindful behavior would be more or less the same.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Certainly the ongoing Heat Death of living creatures and landscapes makes me ponder quitting my job and devoting myself to whatever beneficial behavior I can muster up, and the likelihood of that happening increases as record-breaking temperatures and other environmental events become more dire. But I (breathe) try to return to the center of kindness, empathy, joy, and love. I love being alive. I love this planet so much it hurts. And I’m working on loving the people who share it with me. If I let my fear control the narrative, that love turns to despair. And there is really no reason to despair, because we are here in this unbearably beautiful place, and every moment is an opportunity to help others see it. Sitting with one suffering person is lifechanging. Planting one hazelnut tree is lifechanging. Feeding water to one parched koala is lifechanging. Returning one starfish to the ocean is lifechanging. No single one of us can stop global warming, but the lives we live can contribute to a wave of carbon reduction, and every single one of us can contribute to the wellbeing of a living creature on this gorgeous Earth.

Anything to Celebrate?

Anything to Celebrate?

Hello, dear readers.

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)
  • US carceral authority is more important than tribal autonomy Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta
  • Protecting corporate profits is more important than the planet’s capacity to support human life West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency

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.

This Is How I Fight

Everything Everywhere All At Once

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.

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/27/stopping-mass-shooters-q-a-00035762

I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.

  1. How do we stop mass shootings?
  2. 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!

Waking Up is Hard to Do

Funny what intensive meditation will do to you.

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.

What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

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.

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

When The Guy asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I didn’t have much of an answer. My big plans for a trip and a party with my contemporaries from college had dissipated with the contagion many months before.

“oh, nothing really. I mean, be nice to me, but that’s about it.”

As if this was a special request. As if he isn’t typically nice to me. What did I even mean by that? Maybe that I’d get a pass for anything shitty I did that week? I’m usually pretty nice, too – to the extent that I’m capable, so what was I actually asking for? What unpleasant scenario had a decent chance of evolving?

The person I need a pass from is me.  

Hitting five-oh during COVID sucks, as far as birthdays go, as it has for so many millions of folks and many of my closest friends. So I kind of grumpily, snottily want to say Fuck It to the day. But I also want a chance to enjoy and appreciate this ultimately passive but still noteworthy achievement, so I decided to give myself the year to celebrate.

And what does that mean?

Again, the only answer I could find was “be nice to myself,” which rounds us back to

What does that mean?

Lots of folks take birthdays, holidays, vacations as a time to indulge themselves: eat, drink, smoke, fuck whatever they want, without “guilt” and that’s all fine & can be fun, but what is framed as a gift to oneself is often one you’d rather return. Drinking too much, eating too much, random sex, thoughtless purchases can all make you feel shitty. How is making yourself feel shitty an act of kindness? Or is it an act of niceness? Is there a difference?

I won’t dig into etymology here, but most of us recognize a pretty clear difference between nice and kind when it comes to other people. Nice is performative; kind is helpful. Nice takes little or no effort; kind may require something of you. Nice is habitual; kind is thoughtful. But when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s sometimes harder to distinguish. We associate indulgence with pleasure, even though the pleasure is so often fleeting, and the pain long-lasting. I’m not against fucking up and going overboard every once in a while, and I am actually thankful for the regret that keeps me from doing it much. I’m also not advising against a modicum of ridiculousness if it doesn’t seriously damage yourself or someone else. Rigidity is for the enlightened or unhappy few. But where is the kindness in those acts? Where is the love, baby?

How can I actually be Kind to myself for a year?

I am the only person calling me lazy or selfish or weak or thoughtless or disappointing or unworthy or simply inadequate. Others may think it, certainly, but if so, it’s hidden enough that I couldn’t identify who those folks are. That leaves me. I am the only one turning a perfectly pleasant day into a missed opportunity to save the world, an indulgent avoidance of important learning, a wasted chance to become better, stronger, faster – The Six-Million Dollar middle-aged woman. If I really want to be good to myself, I have to stop that.

Stopping the running critique seems selfish. Stopping seems privileged. Stopping seems immoral. I’ve managed to turn my fairly generic childhood psychological abuse into a moral compass: the words that have formed the voice in my head – others’ fucked up ideas – morphed into a sadistic, abnegating nun disguised as a conscience. Or perhaps it has turned itself into that in an effort to stay relevant. Our egos are infinitely clever in that way. Regardless, it’s much harder to recognize a critical voice as destructive and abusive if it’s saying things you know to be true – I am privileged, I do want to do more, I will feel better if I give more, participating is the way I want to live, I don’t want to “waste time.”

It’s not the message itself that’s destructive, it’s the judgment. Oh, and the way the message is delivered. When I have my dog tell me I suck in her weird, Cartman-like voice, that’s just not cool. Even as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying, “you’re just looking for a way out … all the talk about self-criticism being destructive is just created by lazy people who can’t hack it … being mean to yourself is motivating!” But I do actually trust science, and I trust my own negative reaction to “shoulding all over myself,” and I’m ready to try something different.

I suppose it’s a kind of behavioral therapy. I haven’t been able to work on my self-forgiveness and kindness from the inside out, so we’re going from the outside in.

For now that means that whenever I say something mean to or mean about myself, I’m going to stop and correct it. Or say something nice about myself. Or something sappy like, “I am enough.” Ugh. Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m also getting rid of the word “should” in relation to the way I live my life and replacing it with “could.” None of this sounds easy. I’ll need help, so if you know me, please point out when I’m doing it. The Guy’s pretty good at calling me out on this bullshit, but I’m going to further empower him as well.

It’s worth a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

Application Essay for Enlightenment

Okay, that’s a little misleading. I am starting a year-long training on Socially Engaged Buddhism next month and was asked to submit an essay on why I am participating and the social justice work I do. Here’s ’tis:

I think of myself as a philosophical and spiritual Buddhist. I’ve been meditating regularly for a decade. I don’t practice any religion, but I’ve read enough (mostly Western) Buddhism to feel I have a grasp on what it’s offering, and what I’ve understood resonates as true – that clinging and aversion create suffering, that putting shoes on your own feet makes more sense than trying to carpet the world, that emotions should be felt and acknowledged, but not sanctified or given a leadership position; that the vagaries of the world can’t hurt you much of you can get to a place where you recognize your own learned, egocentric, knee-jerk bullshit.

At the same time, I write and talk and facilitate discussions on & occasionally protest about race and racism and I know how important it is for Black people, in particular, to have space where they can express anger after hundreds of years of being forced to counter a false stereotype and actual threats to their lives for having genuine emotional reactions to abuse. And I think it is important to hold the country and individuals accountable for causing pain, even when it’s not intentional, or at least not consciously so. And in theory, at least, these seem to stand in opposition to my Buddhist beliefs.

As a pseudo-Buddhist (or Pseu-Bu) and a former door-to-door fundraiser, I believe in “assume good intent.” I know how the expectation of rejection creates negativity in a very real way. But I totally understand and have defended the reasons why that is not always possible, and perhaps not even best, when confronting White people’s harmful words and actions; that it may be important for White people to experience the pain that has grown out of their complicity in White Supremacy. Maybe it’s just fine that they feel discomfort when faced with the consequences of their actions, intentional or not. Maybe the best thing isn’t always the kindest thing. I get all that. I don’t even object to BIPOC folks acting out of anger, as long as it’s not violent.

But I only accept this behavior b/c it is a reasonable response in an unreasonable world & a racist, genocidal, cruel, unfair country. If those circumstances did not exist, these behaviors, while perhaps educational and cathartic and rightfully disruptive, would simply be creating more suffering.

I am not saying I need to reconcile these – one of the big hallmarks of White Supremacy is either/or thinking, and Eastern philosophy seems to allow space for apparent contradiction as well. But I want the support, I want better understanding of the foundations of my beliefs, and I would like to be able to understand, defend, and articulate them well (and from a place of love).

I also don’t think everyone has to agree or have the same role in social justice movements. Folks can have myriad approaches to activism. While I believe hate is the wrong path, that acting in anger is only the right move by accident, that sucker punching a White Supremacist during an on-camera interview or screaming Fuck the Cops is ultimately counter-productive, that doesn’t mean those things are wrong in every context or that there may not be a place for them. Some people oppose violence in any circumstance, whereas I believe in self-defense and protecting others when necessary, especially for women, people with disabilities, & BIPOC folk. I respect complete non-violence, but for me it isn’t always the right path. One of the things I love about the Buddhism I have studied is that there are no absolute rules. I love the story of the (as I remember it) Buddhist monk on the ship who kills the murdering pirate who tries to take over, not only to prevent the inevitable loss of life, but to save the pirate himself from further self-torture.

In part, I’m looking for spiritual and philosophical reinforcement. And to better trust myself to make the right decisions for me. And to have patience and love for my fellow White liberals when they typescream “if you’re not outraged youre not paying attention!” and “if this doesn’t make you cry you don’t have a heart!” The policing of and sublimation of emotions is such a quick, easy, cold, infantilizing approach to dismissing our fellow humans.

I know that the best practice is meditation practice, and if I could take a bullet train to enlightenment and drop that ego, I probably wouldn’t even need this. Short of that, I am hoping a better, intellectual understanding and community and education will help me speak and perform my own truth – not without a willingness to change, but without shame or fear of confrontation and challenges from groups I feel compelled to defer to.

I live in Minneapolis, less than 2 miles from where George Floyd was killed. I attended the first protest and several cleanups and more protests and volunteered at the memorial and food shelves and attended online discussions about race with folks who were just setting foot on the path I’ve been traveling for decades and wrote and facilitated and taught about inequity and White Supremacy, and while this all sounds frantic & thoughtless, it was & it wasn’t. I knew this real, yet manufactured urgency was temporary. I knew I would “git my Buddha on” and transition to thoughtful, spiritually integrated action in the near future. I was relieved beyond expression when I stumbled across and attended a Love Serve Remember weekend months ago which gave me the spiritual strength to get me through the election, another path where I had given in to just doing masses of whatever until I crossed that finish line, and planning to re-center myself afterwards.

So I stopped attending unhelpful (to me) conversations on whiteness and race, sent my 100 postcards to Georgia, and allowed myself a breather at the end of the year. And one day this training showed up in my gmail. My only hesitation was the expense, but even that didn’t last long. It looks like exactly what I’m looking for – a grounding in reality and connection and a shift away from white guilt and white supremacist behaviors like urgency and perfectionism doing over being.

This very piece is practice in moving away from perfectionism, which for me blares most loudly in my writing and editing. A dog walking injury of a broken wrist makes it difficult and a bit painful to type, so I won’t be editing this to my usual standards. I am trying to let go of the idea that you (without even knowing who you are) will therefore like me less at the get-go (insert nervously smiling emoji here).

Have I answered your questions? Perhaps not entirely. Racial justice is obviously my main focus, and writing and facilitating are the main ways I focus, but I also work on food justice, and occasionally climate change, disability rights, and other issues, and am open to doing more work as I feel I can.

And with a deep breath, I dive in.

Thanks for reading,

The Darkness of the Womb

The Darkness of the Womb

I’ve been slowly attending a virtual retreat offered by Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember organization and it has done me an ineffable amount of good.

I can still eff it a bit, though.

Today’s speakers included a relatively young Sikh racial justice activist who did some important shaking up of the primarily septuagenarian group. Valerie Kaur challenged the ideas both of accepting things as they are and turning inward for the sake of turning inward, fraught concepts among activist meditators, and the main reason I sought out this retreat. Her greatest gift to me, however, was an image that totally flipped my idea of where we are right now and where we might be headed.

She suggested that we might not currently be in the darkness of death and decay, but the darkness of the womb. What if we are about to be born? And if we, as the United States for example, have not yet been born, what does that mean for our potential?

The seed was planted by the guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, right? That all men are created equal; that they have inalienable rights; that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are among those, that it is the duty of a people to “throw off” a despotic government – these were truly revolutionary ideas. As any fair-minded student of US History knows, they had all been denied, prevented, and/or deliberately perverted even before they were penned by the men who penned them, and the betrayal has continued every day since.

Our “founding fathers” ejected the seed, and then, like many men, they walked away – into slavery, capitalism, sexism, concentration camps, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, voter suppression. What if all of this was part of the germination? You’ve heard of the century plant? What if this is the four-century plant and we are about to bloom?

What if the ideals of the country haven’t been a failure since birth, but have all been shoots navigating through choppy ground, now ready to finally spring forth into the waiting sunlight? What if it’s not that America has never been Great, but that America has never been? That this is all, if not a delusion, then a nascent idea, one that depicted itself as fully formed, but never was? What if what we needed all along, for America to finally be, was the liberation of Black and Indigenous (and disabled, and trans, and all other) people? What if the horrors and revelations of the last few years are the magic ingredient, the secret, obscure symbol, the dance, that, when the moon is full, gives birth to a nation of liberty and justice for all?

What if America is not a mess of a country that Others its own and uses that Othering as a weapon to centralize power for people who look like the hypocrites who wrote down these good ideas, but one that, once it comes to fruition, would horrify people who grasp onto White Male Fear and Supremacy, like Roy Cohn is horrified by the heaven of flowering weeds and beautiful trash and destruction and voting booths and “big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion” that Belize describes in Angels in America?1

What if we have been waiting for the right time to be born? A time when we are recognizing our enslaving, genocidal history and our present-day racism and sexism? A time when we have witnessed the failings of capitalism in the deaths of 200,000 people, the unemployment of millions, the lines of masked neighbors lined up for food and diapers? A time when the revolution will be tweeted and Zoomed?

My favorite metaphor comes from the chrysalis.2 When you cut open a chrysalis, you don’t see a half-butterfly. You see a rotting caterpillar. What if we’ve been the hideous chrysalis all along? We’re still a young country; it’s not that absurd an idea. Change is painful and ugly and we have been pained and rotten.

What if the “rough beast/ its hour come round at last”3 is approaching its birth, but the second coming is not one of fire and brimstone, but of justice and compassion and equity and those things that Jesus appears to advocate for in the New Testament, the ideals that every religion seems to hold at its core, the ideals that our country has been waiting to realize for hundreds of years?

Look, all I’m saying is we don’t know. As much as it seems to many of us like the end of all we hold dear, we cannot help but notice all the love generosity and compassionate action that surrounds us. We do not know what will happen. This is a mysterious place.

Today I’m indulging in possibility. Happy Labor Day.

  1. Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika; Act 3, scene 4
  2. Rebecca Solnit introduced me to this image in A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  3. William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming, of course
  4. the image is Georgia O’Keefe’s Flower of Life II

Selflessness and Outreach

particle headSome of you may know that I struggle with deeply seeded self-loathing, despite actually liking myself quite a bit. I tried DIY brainwashing, which didn’t work. (Maybe I need a guru? Ritual? Drugs and a sex cult?) I’ve also tried changing my inner monologue – rejecting negative commentary, not allowing my dog to critique me in a voice that sounds a lot like mine. It’s really hard, y’all. Maybe if I put “be nice to Zoe!” signs in every room of my house. And on the inside of my glasses. And in little notes in all my books. And in post-its on every screen I view. It takes a ridiculous amount of attention.

Here’s the new plan:

I can’t hate myself if I don’t have a Self! You Buddhists and pseu-Bus out there know what I’m talking about. I believe that if I just stop identifying with the idea of the self, it will be the answer to all my problems and thus open up my capacity to engage & contribute to the world.

Easy enough. No more self =

  • no more self-loathing
  • no more self-doubt
  • no more self-judgment
  • no more selfishness

I was scrolling through Ted Talks last night while putting together a cheap compost bin, and was excited to find one on Not Taking Things Personally. Wasn’t crazy about the guy’s style, but the first half of his presentation was good. When people have a problem with you, it’s not about you. It’s about those people themselves. People react to you based on their own problems, preconceptions, and present state. Sure. No one sees what’s really in front of them, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

But then he addresses those (no doubt extremely rare) situations when it actually is your fault, and his solution is: compassion. Be nice to yourself. This pretty much puts me right back where I started: I am bad at being nice to myself, dude.

However, if I am just a collection of genetics, experiences, and particles, there is nothing to forgive, nothing to improve, nothing to loathe, nothing to regret. There is just this slice of life held together by a structure, some skin, and a more or less recognizable countenance. There is no master conductor that makes bad decisions and thinks bad thoughts and therefore no one to take anything personally when confronted by the perceived critiques or abuse of others. There is only the ability to incorporate that input into the particle stew and see how it changes the flavor.

Of course, the meal is incomplete without recognizing everyone else as their own particle hot dish, pozole, sega wat.  (Thank you to the kishka of particles named Brian Greene for the particle idea of the self.) No one is really choosing the way they behave or the way they think. Everyone is a product of their environment or, as Buddha put it, (per Sharon Salzberg), “nothing exists independently of the causes and conditions that bring it about.” Judging, critiquing, excluding, ostracizing people for being the particulate arrangement that they are is pointlessly cruel and self-destructive. If instead, I can poke at that arrangement and try to reshape it in a way that I believe is more generous, more compassionate, more curious, if I don’t hate those particles for what they have been led to become at this moment, then I don’t tribalize and build walls and thereby prevent myself from using the most effective approach to try to recruit them to my antiracist, antisexist, humanist team. That is, I find the ways that our particles connect, find the shaping forces that we have in common, and recognize that neither of us had any say in being who we are.

But we do have a say now, at least in the sense that we have been brought together in this hypothetical moment and can listen to and learn from each other, to send our particles in a different direction going forward. Change is inevitable. How we change is contingent upon our environment, including everyone who reaches out to smack us down or lend a hand up.

Defunding Police & Seeing Clearly

IMG_20200606_152227604Two hours ago, the Minneapolis City Council voted, in a veto-proof majority, to Defund the Minneapolis Police Department. This will be a hasty post, but I’m just sooo excited, friends!

I have never been so proud to be a Minneapolitan. Today, I add this label with pride to my geographic identities of Chicagoan and Angeleno/a. There is no city I would rather live in right now. Real change is resting in our hands; not just in policing, but in community resilience and care and connections and in our way of thinking.

As a pseu-Bu* meditator, this week has been an inspiration. Sure, some of the folks who I marched with yesterday may have been anti-police across the board, or anarchists, or willing to swallow whatever the most radical voices were saying, for better and worse, but some of us have spent decades living in cities, witnessing corruption and brutality and racist policing, and yet have not imagined, until recently, that there was any other way for us to be. Getting rid of the police sounded as crazy as getting rid of capitalism, or personal car ownership, or one of the many other exciting ideas on the horizon that now seem possible.

BECAUSE IT IS ALL POSSIBLE.

One of my favorite things about Buddhism is the commitment to see what is really in front of you, without preconceptions or embedded beliefs; letting go of ideology and history to see what is really there. And we old (over 30) folks who were willing to look at the problem differently, to consider the evidence and recommendations that had been put before us by younger, less White, more revolutionary people, really did do something significant.

We changed our minds.

If you’ve studied the way the brain works, this is really not easy to do. And while we are not by any stretch the heroes of the Defund movement – that label goes to Reclaim the Block and MPD150 and many other brilliant and tireless activists, it will take those of us who are plugging along, doing our best, wanting to help, all the clearsightedness we can muster to support the changes that are coming. How do we reimagine policing? What can we actually do to help? How do we think of crime? And punishment? How can we build a beloved community where people help each other instead of anonymously calling an outside, armed force to intervene when we have problems? How can we see these as our problems? Loosening our grip on the way things have always been, our beliefs, our fears, will all be necessary in the new world to come.

I am so excited, I can hardly stand it. I just want to throw my arms around everyone. Love and peace and resilience to all.

*pseudo-Buddhist