How Not To Be Good

How Not To Be Good

I got the greatest compliment ever at The Gathering Place Friday. Our lovely Sister was leading discussion, using idioms as a jumping off point for participant opinions and experiences. I was sitting next to L, the older (but not that much older) Native guy who has become one of my favorite parts of The Gathering Place. He’s full of wisdom and teasing and bullshit and generosity, and is clearly a model of stability and decency for many of the folks who hang there.

The idiom was “don’t judge a book by its cover.” A few folks offered their agreement (I objected only on the literal topic of books, since I’ve found several favorites that way.) L raised his hand. “Yeah, I totally believe that. Because this one next to me, when she came in, I looked at her and thought she was what we call a do-gooder. But I got to know her these months, and she’s a real person. She thinks about things and listens to people.” I tried not to tear up and briefly touched my head to his shoulder in gratitude. “Hey, now she’s head-butting me!”

I know why this was such a big deal to me, but in case you haven’t struggled with this dichotomy, I’ll try to lay it out for you. In Buddhist dharma (and, certainly, elsewhere), donating your time, money, talents, skills should never be an act of charity. If you’re not doing it for your own benefit, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all. Give til it hurts doesn’t fit in this philosophy. You may give everything you have, but if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.

You may peg this uncharitable charity as (White) saviorism, or noblesse oblige, or do-gooderism. One of the best descriptions does not come from Buddhism (though it has been promoted in contemporary Buddhist circles: https://ny.shambhala.org/2018/05/20/rev-angel-kyodo-williams-why-your-liberation-is-bound-up-with-mine-podcast-194/) but from the Aboriginal Rights movement in Queensland, Australia.

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

delivered by Lilla Watson at the UN Decade for Women Conference, 1985

You can see parallels to Dr. King’s “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I deeply believe that as well, but I feel the first quote speaks more intimately to our personal, rather than political or economic, connection. It’s not only that we are dependent on each other, it’s that we are each other, or rather that there is no other. It’s the Buddhist-inspired closing of a recent novel that made me weep: The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.

No person can save another, and none of us is deficient or in need of fixing. (That illumination came largely from the disability justice movement.) Providing for the needs of others should be like your left hand scratching your right: you aren’t debating whether your left hand should waste its energy, or thinking of how benevolent you’re being towards your right hand, or expecting thanks or praise from it. You’re just doing what needs to be done, doing what comes naturally.

I mean, that’s the goal.

I’m not even within shouting distance of that yet. Despite the words of my buddy.

The Gathering Place presents me with a particular dilemma, because it’s the only volunteering I’ve done in which there is no particular task that needs to be accomplished, no thing I’m supposed to do. I may help clean up, or restock supplies, or try to answer questions, or dish out or hand out lunches, but my “job” is to talk to people. It took me a while to accept that interaction as my primary task, but once I got comfy with it, I was faced with another quandary.

I love going to The Gathering Place. I mean, I love going to The Gathering Place, even though that love is not unaccompanied by less salutary feelings. Most days, it feels like Cheers. People greet me as I walk in each week, and seem genuinely happy to see me. Some hug, some elbow bump, some wave from across the room. Someone might engage me in intense conversation for an hour, or I might shoot the shit with 4 or 5 people on the patio during lunch. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like volunteering; it feels like I am the one being cared for.

I’ve had similar dilemmas at other volunteer gigs. I love the time I spend doing food prep for the meal delivery nonprofit – the kitchen is bright and sunny, everyone’s almost always in a good mood – but I see the results of my work. I’ve cut this many veggies, sealed this many meals, labeled this many cookies. There was no doubt I was accomplishing something. I could check that off the list. When I edit loans for Kiva, it’s almost nothing but checking off the list – I’m asked to edit 40 loans a month, and I do.

Completing the assignment clearly does not fit in with the philosophy I supposedly ascribe to, but as a citizen of capitalism it is the language I understand. It’s hard to shift to a different idiom. I struggle both with the purity of my intentions and the worthiness of my feelings of belonging and joy. If I were ascribing to the strictest Buddhist teachings on volunteerism and the like, I would not engage in any of these activities at all, not until I had reached some stage of enlightenment – the idea that the best thing you can do for the world is to work on yourself. I can hang with that to a point. I do believe that there are massive amounts of harm done when people engage with social or political causes out of anger or self-righteousness or ego. (Look at the racism of various Feminist movements, the violence of some people who stand in opposition to violence, the infantalization of group after group of exploited people that we seek to “help.”) But let’s be realistic: there are, what, 7 or 8 enlightened people in the world? And so much work that needs to be done.

For me, it’s a matter of continually checking in on my motivation, and trying to adjust when it veers into icky territory. The work that I value and enjoy the most is also the most emotionally risky. When I first started at The Gathering Place there was an encampment across the alley, and a lot more fights and antagonism and overdoses. Even now, it scares me to some degree to engage with people I don’t know, because of the ego hit if they don’t respond or respond with disdain; and I feel helpless and useless in the face of others’ pain and delusions. When I participate in Restorative Justice conferences (elsewhere), I always have to prep by telling myself I can only do the best I can, I’m not going to ruin anyone’s life, etc. But I still have that fear that I won’t really contribute to their personal or community healing, that I’ll sound preachy or out of touch. I’ve learned to simply accept my apprehensions and dive in.

A recent Restorative Justice participant shined a light on the purpose beautifully. He said that in all the months since he’d been arrested and interacted with his lawyer and made trips to court and paid fines, this was the only Human element of the process. He felt seen and heard for the first time. I think that’s the point of The Gathering Place, too. It doesn’t seem like much, but for some people – poor people, incarcerated & post-incarcerated people, addicted people – their humanity is undermined daily. Somewhat ironically, loosening my grip on the ego that sets me apart from these folks is the path to helping them get a better hold of their own individuality and humanity. Not so ironically, when they can see their own value, they may be more likely to value the humanity in others.

books: I am a fan both of How Can I Help? by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman, and, for different reasons, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.

Work Drama!

Work Drama!

My excuse for my uninspiring job (defensively crafted in case anyone asks) has always been that I work for a company that isn’t doing harm, the work is fine, I like the people, and it minimally infringes on the things I care about more: volunteering, writing, my spiritual growth, my peeps, my life in the world. My theory is that doing plain old work can be as good & ethical as a mission-driven career, and that the nature of the work itself does not determine the Rightness[i] therein (e.g. there are public school teachers who enshrine racist treatment of their students; there are sexist and unethical environmental lawyers). All of this was true for many of my years at Nonprofit, but it has not been true recently. The work is no longer fine: I have been underinvolved in engaging projects, so I find necessary but mindless and soul-sucking data cleanup work to fill my hours. I search for problems to fix. I spend time on my DEI Committee work and documentation of that work, which has been the most important part of my job for the last five years, even though it’s not actually part of my job. I keep being told that I will soon be utilized on various projects which need my considerable expertise, but they keep being pushed back. During a three week, at-home, meditation intensive in April, the downside of spending 1-2 hours every day paying close attention to reality forced me to concede that I have got to leave this job. Not urgently, but eventually. I can no longer pretend that I can hang on until retirement. The work is now doing harm – to me.

And in the last few months it’s been doing harm to others. Our new CEO has demonstrated a firm commitment to toxic masculine leadership. They [CEO referent from this point forward] have led a massive structural transition in the organization with the compassion of Elon Musk, and it no longer feels like a good place to be (though it has, like most tragic events, brought much of the staff closer together, if covertly).

I am committed to being compassionate at work. It is part of my spiritual practice. I do get annoyed when someone sends the same question multiple times or phrases a request in a way that seems demanding or rude, but I recognize my own snobbery and defensiveness and remember my goal of kindness and empathy, and always try to respond with open-mindedness and supportive pleasantries. As far as I know, no one has complained about me in any way for 5 years (prior to that, my directly worded emails were a bit much for some Minnesotans. I checked my communications ego and started adding 😊s and !!!s. It worked! 😉)

The focus of my DE & I work has likewise shifted to the I part lately. As much as I want to push changes in the equity of onboarding and stakeholder analysis and conflict management, since COVID shook up the world I am most concerned about how our employees, in particular, are being treated and included every day. It informs how I run meetings and trainings and facilitate any discussion. I am far more aware of taking the needs not only of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, but neurodivergent employees, including those who exhibit characteristics as common and ignored as introversion, into account.

This commitment to compassion & inclusion, and knowing my days at Nonprofit are numbered, has put me on the CEO’s shit list. When I see Them dismiss employees’ feelings as irrelevant; or take over other people’s meetings to demand that every participant make a verbal comment about an insignificant topic; or accuse Committee members who do not behave, process, or communicate exactly like They do of incompetence, I have felt it is my responsibility to speak truth to organizational power. I am willing to lose my job and other people at the organization can’t afford to do that, because they may not have the financial safety net, minimal familial responsibilities, or other privileges that I do. The times that I have felt compelled to do this (twice in my analysis, but as the CEO may perceive every disagreement as insubordination, maybe 6 times), dozens of staff have reached out to thank me, express their concerns, or share their plans. I won’t say I don’t appreciate that, but that’s not why I did it. Being engrossed simultaneously in my spiritual responsibility to my fellow humans and issues of equity and inclusion for years now, the urge to bring the darkness to light comes naturally. I am as propelled by ego as anyone, unfortunately, but I don’t believe ego compelled my actions in this regard. They were organic, and with the fear of job loss removed, the barrier between desire and action dissolved.

I have zero criticism of any regular staff who haven’t spoken up (though I am disappointed in some of the leadership). Jobs are important. I haven’t heard of many instances of people standing up to Them. One who did, quit. Another was quickly shut down and their competence questioned. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my supervisor told me, a few months ago, that the CEO was questioning what I actually do in the organization. Or when he confessed yesterday that They told him They don’t want me added to any projects. They are actively limiting what I am allowed to do in the organization, apparently in retaliation, since there is no evidence anywhere of me being bad at my job. No one from HR or anyone, including the CEO, has openly responded to, questioned, or formally disciplined me for anything I’ve said or done either – presumably because the objections are ego-driven and indefensible. Instead, the plan is apparently to shut me down or make me miserable or in some way push me to the point where I quit. Because Nonprofit doesn’t want to pay for my unemployment. Or get sued for wrongful termination.

Of course a person without the compassion to care about people’s feelings and relationships and fears, and a person without the humility or self-awareness to apologize or course correct when an error is called to their attention would hold a grudge and use their power to put that grudge into action. It should be no surprise, but it still hurt. Because, let me repeat, I take kindness very seriously, and even though wanting to be liked is a definite weakness of mine, if being liked comes out of an acknowledgement of decency and respect, why should I dismiss it?

So here I am. The new CEO of the company I have worked at for 8 years wants to push me out. It’s weird to know that. It feels so unjust. I was riding an anger rush for an hour or so after I found out (and anger fumes for a few hours more). I don’t love this org, but I like it, and I care about the people in it. And it breaks my heart that in an effort to increase profits at Nonprofit, the board has brought in a person who has built her management philosophy on … I don’t even know enough about this shit to give you another example … how about Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley? … but in an organization where most of the staff makes less than $25/hour. Not to mention the backsliding on goals of universal inclusion. I’m not sure what to do. Part of me wants to hang around indefinitely just to annoy her – to show up and comment on every insensitivity at every open meeting and force her to fire or confront me. Part of me wants to fuck off with all my exclusive knowledge of systems and processes and leave the whole damn place in the lurch. But neither of those is in my nature. I will probably stay for a while, see if my job gets any better, maybe cut my hours, work on my resume, and make a promise to my worthy self that, barring Their departure and other massive changes, I will get out by 2024. I will also, after the next meeting where I ensure that our plans for the future get heard, step away from the DEI Committee entirely. I’ve simultaneously resigned/been forced out of my leadership role on the DEI Committee, which would be fine except that the way it was done felt punitive, and now I know why. Knowing that the DEI Director (a competent and kind woman, but in a role created without consulting or even informing the grassroots DEI Committee) is reporting to Them and their toady, THE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD WHO DON’T LIKE ME 😉, it might inhibit the advancement of good ideas if there is any suspicion they are coming from *this bitch*.

In honor of my Life Themes, I made myself take a moment after the anger subsided to ask what this series of events was teaching me. Even though I grew up with activist parents, one of whom was repeatedly beaten and thrown in jail for their activities; even though I refer to John Lewis as a personal hero and have undying admiration for anyone who sacrifices their wellbeing for the greater good, there is some weird little thing inside me that seems to think I will be appreciated for doing the right thing, who believes justice will prevail, and who somehow, bizarrely, thinks that the world in which I move carries more or less the same make of moral compass as I. I can’t defend this position intellectually or historically, but perhaps because I sometimes view the world from a place that is beyond human frailty, that higher, irrefutable, eternal truth may get blurred into the realities of our fucked up world. If I am generous to myself, I can put myself somewhere in the ranks not of Gandhi & MLK (topical reference!), but of those who point out that maybe we should make the effort to caption this meeting for folks with hearing loss, or say, hey, Bob, do you realize that you just repeated what Ngozi said without acknowledging her? or suggest that we provide a range of times for Parent-Teacher conferences, so that parents can attend regardless of their work schedules. I see you, friends. You may be punished directly or indirectly or not at all or praised for your actions, but they matter. Moments of deliberate kindness and inclusion matter. I hope you know that.

[i] In the Buddhist sense of Right Livelihood; much more on this in an upcoming post.

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

Personal Non-Violence

punch(There may be a related “political non-violence” piece in the works, but that will have to go on the race blog. By the way: upcoming Race Blog!)

Since Trump’s electoral college win, we seem to have embraced more violence as a country. Not just the lunatic fringe of proud racists and anti-Semites, but also the liberal Left. Let’s call this the “punch a Nazi” philosophy, as it shone most blindingly after a video went viral of Richard Spencer being socked in the face during an on-the-street interview.

Many Facebook Friends loved this. Facebook Friends who didn’t were called racist or stupid or ignorant by fellow White Liberals. I didn’t get involved, because I’m allergic to commentdebate, but I watched reasonable people get taken down and shut down en masse.

I am not pro-violence. I think it’s bad for the perpetrator and the victim, and almost always creates more pain and suffering than it prevents. But not always. I am not a pacifist. I admire pacifism, but I am not a pacifist. At least, I don’t think so. One can only know one’s true stance when forced to defend it. Maybe I could look with compassion and kindness and forgiveness on someone who hurt me, but at this moment, I doubt it.

I believe in defending myself. I admire those who make a conscious decision not to – Jesus and his ilk – but I am a woman who has been physically assaulted and I believe in fighting back. Not just to avoid pain, but to show the attacker that women are not walking targets and hopefully discourage him (yeah, I think I can assume Him) from hurting another woman. If I were a man, particularly a physically imposing man, I could see how turning the other cheek might be illuminating as well.

I also believe in defending others. I would hope that if I saw someone being attacked, or knew an attack was imminent, that I would try to prevent it. It seems more likely that this would manifest as getting between than taking on, but I’m not opposed to physical action in this situation, either.

And I think that’s it. So if Richard Spencer (heretofore referred to as Fuckwad) were an actual Nazi: killing, deporting, and enslaving Jews, homosexuals, etc, I could justify personally taking up violence against him. But only – and this is the crucial element of my philosophy – if it did some good. You might say that Fuckwad promotes racism and anti-Semitism and slavery (which the fuckwad does), and that therefore he is a justifiable target, but does targeting him do any good?

Here’s where the pro Punch a Nazi contingent loses its rational footing. I get that you want to see Fuckwad punched; I get that you might want to punch him yourself, but punching him accomplishes nothing. I know many anti-Fuckwad folks laughed and cheered when they saw the video, but it did not accomplish any of the following things:

  1. embarrass him: he recovered calmly and smoothly, in a civilized manner, saying he’d taken a hit before, and continued with the interview
  2. hurt him: see above
  3. prevent him from spewing his calm vitriol: see above
  4. turn any of his followers in another direction: Fuckwad presented either as an innocent victim or as the masculine “man” they love to – platonically! – love. Plus, the attacker may appear irrational, violent, and animalistic, playing into the lie Fuckwad and team have crafted.
  5. move any anti-Fuckwads to worthwhile action: posting about how much you love violence against people you don’t love is not worthwhile action, not if you want to make the world a better place, as you purport to do

I cannot think of one positive thing the sucker punch accomplished, other than, perhaps, making me more wary of liberals. I guess that could be a good thing. If you can think of a positive impact, please let me know. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.

Pseu-Bus (soo-boos)* like myself probably shouldn’t say this, but one could better justify killing Fuckwad than punching him. I don’t condone that, either, but it would have shut him up. There’s a tiny, tiny chance that might have done some good in the world, though it’s really unlikely. If he were The Creator of these ideas, or the only public figure still promoting them, then yeah, removing him might dramatically weaken the support for those ideas; but he is far from the first and far from the last, and disabling him would more likely bring about a martyrdom than a dissolution of support. Again, let me be clear: I’m not endorsing this, I’m just saying it holds more water than the punching defense. No one wants to go back in time to “clock Hitler a good one.”

I am not a pacifist because we don’t live in a perfect world and I do think there is a place for violence. If we let go of our egos and reactive anger, that place would be really, really remote.

Beyond that, violence is not my role in the world. There may be a place for violence in the activism that is necessary to save an environment or society worth living in. But every movement has numerous roles – speakers, writers, artists, event planners, even bodies. Don’t look to me to be the muscle. I am an overly compassionate wuss. It breaks my heart to see footage of the losing bench in a finals game, even if it’s the Patriots. It breaks my heart to think of a dog waiting for its dead owner to come home, even if the owner is Fuckwad. I have never felt good after saying something mean to even a vicious, loathed person. Not if they seemed hurt by it, and if they didn’t, then what was the point? I lose either way. Right Speech and Right Action in Buddhism aren’t just about protecting the world, they’re about protecting yourself.

I guess what I’m saying, dear reader, is I am not the resource for all your Nazi-punching needs. I can’t take on that role until it’s the only role left.

*Pseu-Bu: pseudo-Buddhist; in my case, someone who has put together some semblance of a Buddhist philosophy based almost exclusively on contemporary Western interpretations of Buddhism.

Do All That You Can

climate strikeI have a hard time just doing what I can. These days (ugh) in particular. There is the desire to shame myself for not doing more. You know the quote?

Do all the good you can,
In all the ways you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

The provenance is in question, but it was probably some religious leader. I should know better than to take advice from relgious leaders. But I’ll cheerfully latch on to any opportunity to criticize myself. Wheeee!

So I can read about Climate Change and create bite size chunks of facts for Minnesotans to absorb at the State Fair and write blog posts read by ones of peoples and bike to work and not have kids and skip that flight back to LA to see an old college friend. But I still felt obliged to attend the Day of Action for the Amazon (or whatever it was called) in the Cargill section of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Do all that you can.

Sooo not in my wheelhouse.

So not in my wheelhouse, in fact, that once I surmised the size (small) of the protest group, I decided to give myself a night at the museum instead. I don’t go to museums nearly enough! Being present with art is probably of equivalent spiritual value to the protest’s social value! Maybe I can weight them equally? Did I perhaps research whether the museum was open late that night before committing to the action? Was I looking for a smooth way out of the lack of fray, if the situation was fray-less? I’ve said too much already.

I have no problem being a number in a protest – one of thousands or even hundreds. I know that numbers are important and I’m happy to add to them. But to take public, political action in a small group requires certain qualities that I just don’t do well.

  1. Keep it simple, stupid

I hated this when I had to do it in door-to-door canvassing, while completely understanding the need for it. To me, nothing is simple. Everything has nuances and unknowns and alternate theories and history and gray characters. But those subleties don’t get donations and they don’t get media attention and they don’t get supporters pumped up. Catch phrases do. Rhymes do.

  1. Coordinated speech and action

Or what I like to disparagingly call Groupthink. Part of the problem is you need to be part of the group to be part of the think, and I tend to show up to protests alone and haven’t joined an activist group in a long time. (Ever?) Of course coordinated action can be visually arresting and effective when it’s a mass demonstration (take the prescriptions that rained down in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler wing) and chants and songs can show energy and purpose, and rouse spirits and draw attention. But coordinated action doesn’t seem coordinated unless it’s en masse, and I can rarely listen to a chant without judgment. I cherry pick my chants, and that’s not what organizers are looking for. Here’s what I hear from the maybe 30 or so people gathered outside the museum after their action.

“Did you hear? That museum guy said ‘a museum is no place for social activism!'”

“What? Hahaha! That’s ridiculous! Booooo MIA!”

So, was this guy a museum representative? A guard? I’m mostly seeing guards. I mean, was he speaking for the museum?

“Art is social activism!” All: “Art is social activism!!! Art is social activism!!!”

Sure, sometimes.

“Social activism is Art!” All: “Social Activism is Art!!!”

Hm. Much less so.

So I walked away, and they all chanted a little longer and took lots of pictures and seemed very pleased with themselves. And that is great. I am not being facetious. Those people have to exist – people with strong beliefs who are unashamed to be one of a few mounting a protest that will get no press and disrupt almost nothing. Because that is where things start. But I am not one of those people. It hurts my soul to pretend things are simple, because my soul is a place of complexity and confusion and contradiction. How do I Do All I Can if I don’t do this? Is this something I can’t do? How is that defined? What does the word “can” mean? Does doing all you can mean giving up everything in your life that isn’t benefitting someone else? If that keeps you from sustaining yourself as a human, isn’t that detrimental to the cause? If I gave up my job, my possessions, my time, my beliefs, would that be enough? Would anything ever be enough?

Of course not. And I do accept that I am not going to completely dedicate myself to the world outside myself. But I also know that what I do is not enough, and what I’m good at doing doesn’t do enough. So I’m going to the Climate Strike on Friday.

*sigh*

Maybe there will be lots of people there and I can fulfill my role as a body without angst before biking home, reading something important, and watching BoJack Horseman. Cross your fingers for me.

Do What Works, Instead of What Makes You Feel Good (The End of Empathy pt. 3)

cc imageSorry for the inconsistent posts, folks. I’ve been wrapped up in a State Fair exhibit and thus entrenched in Climate Change lit. It’s taken an emotional toll, to be honest. I’m not proud of that. Oooh, middle class American White Lady feels bad about the warming planet. Pooooor American White Lady. Yeah. I’d like to come up with a better excuse for the depression that engulfed me when I dove into this swamp, but this is what I’m left with.

Happily, a different kind of climate change book has been helping me cope. I just finished Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which got me to jump off the doom train and mount the bipartisan babble bicycle (sorry). I loooove books about the human brain and how it fucks us up. The Invisible Gorilla, Why Buddhism is True, and the somewhat discredited Thinking Fast and Slow are all excellent. This is another in that genre, but with the specific task of improving communication about climate change in order to push us towards a critical mass of action.

There is a lot of excellent information here: about our attachment to identity, our need to conform to the ideologies of the social group we’ve chosen, the way we assess risk, confirmation bias, etc. I could nerd about all of it for paragraphs, but I’m committed to the same goal as the author; improving communication and action on climate change. With that in mind, here is my biggest takeaway from the book.

Do whatever the fuck it takes to get people to move on climate change.

Maybe that’s a big extreme, or maybe it’s not. I could say that whatever the fuck it takes means chaining myself to an oil derrick or lying down in the middle of a freeway or  blowing up a CAFO, but would that really be more effective that building support for carbon-reducing legislation? Most likely any non-believers who heard about my awesomely dramatic actions would be gifted with yet another reason to shun (what they view as) my “beliefs,” so those performances aren’t actually what it takes to get shit done. Let’s adjust:

Do whatever the fuck it takes to actually get people to act on climate change.

This is harder, because it’s not about declaring my convictions or self-righteously putting myself in harms way. It’s about doing what actually works, instead of what makes me feel good. And what works is letting go of my own narratives and beliefs and biases in order to join with my Others to fight the real enemy: the end of humanity and the world as we know it. (I don’t say the end of life as we know it, because that’s not necessarily an enemy or a bad thing. Moving towards a lower carbon lifestyle is necessary and can be even fun.)

This means I have to stop thinking of CC nonbelievers as stupid or sheep and start seeing them as vulnerable little human beings just like me whose circumstances have led them to the same kind of groupthink and bigotry and skepticism as mine have, just from the other political side. They critically distrust authority like I critically distrust the White House. They believe their community of caring, like minded people just like I do. They mold evidence to match their ideological beliefs just like me.

If I want them to join the fight against global warming, I have to make it their fight. I can’t just wait for the government to draft them into my war.

How do I do that? My embracing religious perspectives, by expanding the consequences of CC beyond the realm of environmentalism, by moving away from blame. It feels so good to blame, but it’s worse than unproductive. We have shared values, and if we identify and build on those, we may actually be able to fight the corporations that don’t have values because they’re not people with consciences but vehicles of production and profit, and the politicians who don’t have values because they’re only interested in what will get them through the next election cycle.

What are the shared values? Protecting children, being responsible, enjoying life, making decisions for ourselves, and maintaining good health may be a few.

So I clearly have the brilliant idea. I could work on turning it into actual communication. And I’ve tried a bit of that with the abovementioned exhibit. But how much is that really going to do? Who else should I be reaching out to? Through what medium? Why would any of the nonbelievers believe me, a believer, anyway? Any ideas on how to disguise myself? Help?

Anger (The End of Empathy, pt. 2)

rageAh, Anger. It’s the hip vibe of the Trump era. Friends and acquaintances and annoyances and feminists and proud white supremacists all sing the praises of anger. It’s the caffeine of activism: perceived as necessary to wake up.

Trying to categorize sensations or psychological states as feelings or emotions is about as difficult as trying to distinguish between Empathy and Compassion. Just so we’re on the same page, though, let’s agree to this: emotions are uninterpreted physical sensations: they start in your body and often are almost instantaneously translated into something else (one of the things meditation tries to slow down), but they are real things, no matter how you interpret or indulge in or ignore them. Feelings or secondary emotions (don’t ask me to distinguish between them), are emotions interpreted on a very quick and base level: maybe fear or anger or attraction. I used to be a proponent of the Two Emotions: Love and Fear theory (pretty, isn’t it?), but now I buy into four: pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness. These are vague and hard to describe, but I think that’s the point. Meditation in the back yard on a lovely summer day: calmness; light breeze: pleasantness; neighbor’s dog growls menacingly: arousal; dog bite: unpleasantness; your neighbor calls you an asshole for bothering their dog. Anger is the most obvious next step, right? Probably. The neighbor’s reaction is unjust, and you have been done wrong, which typically leads to anger. And that’s fine and natural and all that.

Here’s the thing: the anger may be caused by the injustice, but it isn’t necessary to address the injustice. The most gut-level, emotional reaction would be to punch the person or kick the dog or both. Most of us would agree that this is not the ideal reaction, however, and few of us would do it. Maybe we know the neighbor’s going through a rough time, or the dog is sick, or maybe now that you think about it, you might have accidentally hit it in the face when it startled you. There are reasons why you don’t act on your anger.

And yet, people love to talk about how anger is necessary to social justice work. I simply don’t believe that the most effective actions that have been performed in the name of reform and progress are actions of anger. The anger may well have helped the recognition of the social ill, but acting in anger, instead of assessing the situation, looking at the history, finding an appropriate organization through which to organize, or a creative way to call attention to the issue, is typically feckless and often disastrous.

I used to love the saying, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” but now I find it offensive. No one should judge or police anyone’s feelings. You can be informed and aware and active and mindful. You don’t have to buy into anger activism. At best, the anger clouds the message of the activism. Did the marchers in Selma act out of rage? No. Were they angry? Fuck, yeah, but that was not how they chose what to do. They marched because of a reasoned decision that this action would bring attention to the cause and have the greatest national impact and likelihood of changing the law. Nonviolence itself is a suppression or redirection of anger. Action in anger leads to riots.

Maybe you like riots; maybe you think they’re effective. I can’t say you’re wrong, I can only say my heart hurts when a single innocent (no one is innocent, yeah yeah) person is hurt in blind anger. Not only is it immoral (the forces that led to it are immoral, yeah yeah), it makes those in the right look like they’re in the wrong. It’s a terrible recruiting strategy. It is true that the organizations working for civil rights in the South in the sixties knew that white kids would have to die before the national media would pay attention to what was happening, but they didn’t kill those white kids. Riots are understandable, and they may sometimes lead to indirect positive action, but the pain caused is deep and awful.

My father was extremely angry, and did not hide it. He did a pretty good job of not expressing it in the form of physical abuse, which his parents did, but the threat of violence was always there nonetheless. I wasn’t really allowed to be angry around him, so I suppressed it or let it out in short bursts of screaming to punk music. And then when I got out of the house, I exploded with anger all over Los Angeles.

When I was in college, anger was my #1 go-to secondary emotion, by a longshot. And it suuuuuuucked. Yes, there was something invigorating, something exciting about it, but at the same time I could feel it eating away at me, depriving me of sleep and joy, draining me of energy and focus. I chain smoked and cut myself to release some of the stress of that raging rage, but my main outlet was on the streets of LA, where I could drive recklessly and aggressively and yell at people from the bubble of my car without consequences (usually), and lay on my horn and speed on the freeway at 3:00am. But none of it made me feel better, and some of it was truly dangerous.

I am now a recovering rageaholic. If you catch me on a bad day, I don’t look like I’ve recovered much. (My partner would agree.) But the bad days happen less since meditation, and even better is my ability to move on when I am overtaken. I used to cling to anger, because it is energizing and it feels purposeful. It can be a kind of hot, thrilling mania. But I have never made good decisions while I was angry. Most of the really embarrassing moments in my life have been born in anger.

I know there’s a popular book about the power of women’s rage. I don’t need to read it, but I’m sure it has value. Black people have historically been pressured to stuff their anger because of the manufactured stereotypes of primal, unbridled emotion; and because it could sometimes get them killed. And of course that’s horrific and of course women and Black people have the right to be angry. Anger and rage are a part of life, but sanctifying rage or dwelling in it is always destructive to the rager, and often to others. Maybe I’ve put too much weight on this – it’s the longest post I’ve written in months – but a central tenet of the great Claw to Enlightenment is not acting on my base instincts, my raw emotions, the bullshit behavior that’s fucked up humanity for centuries. I’d like to better. I think we all can do better, but we first we have to know what we’re doing.

More Moments in White Awareness

I’m attending a once-a-month, 6 month Unpacking Whiteness discussion series at a local Buddhist centerI signed up hoping to uncover an unbreakable bond between Buddhist philosophy and racial justice, where I often find conflict, at least on the surface.

More on that at some point. For the moment, I’ll just say that it has not served that purpose, at least not yet. And Yet, it has been enlightening in a different way. I wasn’t thrilled with the first session, but introductory meetings tend to be pretty thin. Most of the people in my little group hadn’t spent much time thinking, and less time speaking, about their own Whiteness and Whiteness in the world, and I facilitate those discussions whenever I can, so I was metaphorically twiddling my thumbs for much of the March meeting.

But this week things got good. By which I mean, they got vulnerable.

We started by going around the room and each sharing an act of historical racism committed by White people, preferably in Minnesota. I liked that everyone was instructed to phrase it as White actions, rather than Black or Brown or Red victimization. As in, “a mob of White people lynched three young Black men in Duluth in 1920” (fact) rather than, “three black men were lynched in Minnesota in 1920.” The passive voice is a powerful way to excise blame. I was intrigued by how many of the responses focused on atrocities committed against Native Americans. I don’t think that would have been the case in my hometown of Chicago. For better or worse, Minnesotans have more awareness of what they have done to Indians than what they have done to Black people. Many people think Black people just chose not to live here because it’s so cold or White; whereas, even if they can’t tell the story, they know Whites screwed over the people who lived on this land before us.

There were then two questions assigned to our small groups. How have you benefitted from White privilege and how have you been harmed by White privilege? The answers to the latter were particularly interesting. I honestly had no idea how I was going to respond, allowing me to, for once, answer pretty spontaneously. Everything I said bounced off of some excellent point a previous participant had made. Whether it was the shame I carry for being White; the feeling that any Black person would be crazy to trust me or any White person with real friendship; the fear of asking POC real questions about race because I know they’ve been burdened with the reality their whole lives; the oppressive White supremacist system of Capitalism and how it engenders competition, and constant dissatisfaction, and environmental destruction, and exclusion. (I highly recommend you have this conversation with a group of friends or open-minded strangers. Or in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you come up with.)

Our final task was to go around our breakout circles and say a few words about how we were feeling. One of the Zen priests, who happens to be in my group, said he felt terribly sad about the feelings of separation from POC that everyone had touched on. But I had to honestly say that I was both relieved and excited. Relieved that I had brought more muck to the surface, and excited at the prospect of embarking on disinfection. I don’t know how yet, but you can’t change what you can’t see.

To Explain or Exclude?

genderThere’s a tasteful sign in the most liberal of liberal coffee shops in my city that “asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” Great. I have no problems with the sign. But I’ve whined to a couple of friends about not yet having the huevos to ask the business to clarify what they mean. Yes, I know what they mean, and most of their liberal patrons in their liberal neighborhood in one of the most gender-spectrum-friendly cities in the country know what they mean, but what about the ones who don’t? Continue reading “To Explain or Exclude?”

Bribery Ain’t The Half of It

USCLook, I’m as grossed out as anyone over the bribery & deception scandals that have been unveiled in the past week, and I’m happy to see these people of privilege (POP) get indicted. But this is just one example of the much larger issue of inequity in education in the US.

There’s nothing novel in that statement, and maybe that’s the problem. We treat inequity like it’s an innate, intractable fact of life and are rarely horrified by it. Continue reading “Bribery Ain’t The Half of It”