The Lesson You Need

The Lesson You Need

If you’re on “the path,” as we spiritual nerds call it, you’ve doubtless found yourself connecting more intimately with some teachings than others, and that changes over time & circumstance. I have been glued to this one for a few months now, and it’s been life-changing in that subtle, Buddhish way.

I don’t actually remember who this came from – a contemporary Buddhist text or dharma talk, or Ram Dass or one of his ilk, or all of them. But it fits into all of that stuff. There are lots of ways to phrase it, but I like this:

The lesson you need is always right in front of you.

There are lots of ways to interpret this. You can go with the idea that everything is preordained or meant to be. Despite not believing in free will, I don’t find that helpful. For me, it’s another version of the belief that every moment is an opportunity to awaken. But it’s better. Because awakening seems beyond my control. I can’t reason myself into awakening, so perpetual opportunities just seem like missed opportunities. But the lesson I need being here, right now? And not having to sign up for another intensive retreat to experience real spiritual growth? That I can work with.

Basically, it turns every difficult or shitty thing into an opportunity for practice. How can I Buddha my way through this situation? Now that moments present themselves in this way to me, challenges have become a fun and enlightening game.

My partner’s changed our plans at the last minute? Okay. Am I attached to the previous plan & if so, why? Would getting pissed off at this moment improve anything? Teach anything? Cause suffering? What does my past experience tell me?

Someone wants to discuss a topic on which we are ideologically opposed. How can I open my mind while still being genuine? How can I be simultaneously engaged in the conflict and loving? Can I hear what they are saying without shoving them into a pre-labelled box? What is my goal here and what is theirs? Is mine driven by ego or empathy? Can I find a way to connect & namaste either within or outside the strictures of that conversation?

At the State Fair: why do I feel the need to judge my fellow fairgoers? What is it in me that is reacting to something utterly superficial in them, whether it’s how they look, the clothes they wear, or the slogans they brandish? How can I soften that?

Even moments far pettier: I think we’re supposed to cook something one way. The guy thinks otherwise. Instead of fighting him on it or grasping onto my opinion at all, I admit that I just heard my theory somewhere and have no idea whether it has any validity. We carry on from there.

Put another way, in one of Ram Dass’ lectures he recalls requesting a particular type of microphone for a talk he was giving, and when he arrived they didn’t have it. He started to get pissed off, then recognized, “oh, there’s my yogi, disguised as a microphone.”

Some of you will likely think this isn’t even worth sharing; others may find it revolutionary. I haven’t even told you the best part yet: I do this all without self-criticism. When everything is a lesson, I’m showing up as a student, not a fuckup or an asshole.

I can’t adequately express how much lighter the combination of pausing, sitting in not knowing, and the lesson perspective has made everyday challenges. So much of it is about space, which feels to me like a pause paired with a distancing and a refreshing breath. That Space allows the witness room to step in and observe what’s actually happening outside of the ego; outside of an agenda, personal history, or judgement. The witness doesn’t tell me what to do, it just gives me perspective. All I do with the perspective is bring it into my thoughts and actions and see where it takes me. It infuses a bit of wisdom into the situation, which allows me to make better, more conscious, more loving choices. I cannot recommend it enough.

Annoying Little Boddhisattvas Everywhere

Annoying Little Boddhisattvas Everywhere

I was walking with B & V after the most recent of the January 6th Committee’s televised hearings, describing the witness tampering that Liz Cheney had teased at the end, when I stopped myself mid-sentence. “My god, there’s no hatred in my voice when I say that name. Do you know how long I’ve been hating the name Cheney?” Decades of (arguably justified, if unhelpful) emotional enslavement to anger and disgust and horror around the lies, war promotion and profiteering, torture, and spying that defined her father’s vice-presidency vanished from my current self as I appreciated his daughter’s impartiality, levelheadedness, search for truth, and willingness to risk her political standing for our cherished institution of democracy. She has shown me that I can let go of the fraught attachment to the feelings, and that the letting go is not a forgetting or absolution. I think her political philosophy is inhumane, plutocratic, and destructive. I think her father was a war criminal. I would doubtless vote against her if I had a chance to do so. And I can hold all those beliefs and take any oppositional actions made available to me without hating her, without feeling any tension or revulsion at all; fully recognizing her as a part of the greater human mess and a person worthy of compassion. Liz Cheney has helped lower the bar in the best way, though I’m still working to drop it further: how little can I understand or sympathize with a person’s actions or beliefs and still empathize with them as a part of me, an interdependent element of my complicated world?

In the 90s, Ram Dass’ shrine featured Neem Karoli Baba, Buddha, Jesus, and Bob Dole. (Remember when Bob Dole was the ultimate enemy? FunnyNotFunny?) He said when his gaze settled on the latter photo, he would feel his heart tighten, and know where his “spiritual homework” lay. I don’t have a shrine, but if I did today I wouldn’t put Trump on it. I’m not welcoming that daily dose of constriction, but I know it’s something to strive for.

Last week, while picking up garbage around the community center where I volunteer to hang out with unhoused and economically marginalized and other random folks from the area, a guy started harassing me about why I was cleaning up there. He wasn’t happy about it and wasn’t, I realized a few sentences in, interested in actually conversing with me so much as lecturing me, and it wasn’t pleasant. But it didn’t take long for me to recognize several truths he had unveiled. First is my persistent desire to be liked and even appreciated, which has been a barrier for as long as I can remember – causing an often immature reaction to criticism and at times preventing me from being honest with people when it’s important to do so, and, as in this case, taking too personally words aimed at the idea of a person, and having little or nothing to do with me. I also have a compulsion to explain myself, which I guess I can attribute to ego attachment. (As my best friend once said to me, “I bet you’re one of those motherfuckers who has to explain why you’re leaving to your boyfriends.” It had never occurred to me that not doing so was an option.)

When my critic was giving me shit about “my own house,” I also had to recognize that I have neglected my own community in favor of coming to this one every week. I view the unknown neighbors on my block as unworthy of my attention – comfortable, middle-class white people who are so polite and reserved that I have written them off as repressed and dull. I have thought about hosting a happy hour, but never done it. I have convinced myself that I wouldn’t know what to say to them, yet I’m literally and figuratively going out of my way to converse with what are often mentally or chemically ill folks in another neighborhood. I’ve often declared in the past several years that my particular talents serve best through my talking to well-intentioned White people who don’t see the destructiveness of their internalized racism, ableism, etc. yet I do that almost exclusively in structured, deliberate environments, rather than creating open spaces where those meaningful conversations might unobtrusively and effectively seep in. There is work to be done here.

The final and perhaps most successful boddhisattva who came into my life recently is The Fireworks Guy. I liked fireworks well enough as a kid, but both of the dogs I have lovingly raised as an adult have been terrified of fireworks. Like most good mothers, I have loyally hated the things that cause harm to my kids. A few weeks ago we took V to our local dog-friendly restaurant patio for the first time in a year, and as soon as the server delivered her beloved marrow bone, a massive firework went off a few houses away. V started shaking, I yelled an obscenity, and B took off in anger (rare for him) to find the people who did it. What he reported back was that the guys (a racially mixed group) saw the fireworks as an intentional act of rebellion to annoy “yuppies”, protest “gentrification”, and generally disrupt people’s comfort. On the flip side, I have long held fireworks to be a deliberate act of toxic masculinity, symbolic violence, and cruelty towards nearby animals and traumatized humans. In fact, there’s little truth to either my accusation or their justification, certainly in the sense of a higher truth. Both beliefs are lacking in compassion and overflowing with resentment and blame. Something clicked in me after B’s interaction, and I made a conscious decision to stop getting angry about fireworks. V isn’t nearly as traumatized by them as she used to be – CBD chewies have worked wonders, and thunder (which we can’t pin on anyone) is much harder on her nerves – and I’m tired of crafting narratives of cruel, abusive men in my head. There are enough real ones out there. I haven’t got time for the pain.

Weirdly, that worked like an off switch. Once I let go of my manufactured justification for harboring the anger, the anger disappeared completely. I still don’t like the sound of fireworks, and I still wish it didn’t bother V, but I’m no longer wasting a single iota of energy on hating the perpetrators. Crazy, right? I’ve certainly tried to let go of emotional attachments in the past with far less success. I don’t know if this one came easily because I’ve been practicing more, or because I recognized the weirdly ideological motivation for the resentment or what, but it does give me hope for my indubitably lifelong efforts to let. shit. go.

Thank you to all my teachers.

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!

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.

Be Like Putin

Putin as a boy

Oh, that’s right. We already are.

Like many of you, I presume, I’ve been feeling pretty down about the world – specifically humanity – of late. Not just the invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing US-backed Saudi slaughter of civilians and starvation of children in Yemen, the abandonment and starvation of Afghans, the anti-truth and anti-LGBTQ legislation passing in state after United state, the infestation of voting restrictions and other steps toward the de-Democratization of our country, the Congressional blocking of nominees because they recognize climate change, and so on.

When I hit a breaking point with these kind of current affairs, I hit an empathy barrier – not for the victims, but for the perpetrators. So? You might ask. Why waste empathy on them? They don’t deserve it and they’re certainly not worth your emotional energy. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction, but Buddhism and other forms of Love offer other perfectly reasonable reactions as well.

If you can love something, you can love anything

I stole this from John Lewis, who said something to this effect in an interview I have yet to place. Simply put, hate creates hate and love generates love. The more you open your heart, the more open your heart is. Loving “bad” people doesn’t make you bad, it exercises your capacity to love. Love and loyalty are not the same, nor are love and admiration. But loving, or let’s step back from that loaded word – generating empathy – for flawed humans is a good thing. Because we are all flawed humans. And we all deserve empathy.

There are no Monsters

Okay, maybe there are; but far, far fewer than we like to assume. Some of the easiest people for me to hate right now were once damaged children – Putin grew up in poverty and Trump in privilege, but they both were (heard tell) deprived of much affection or unconditional love and their desperate striving for approval, power, and money seem an attempt to compensate for that. That’s not the focus of my argument, but I do think it’s important to remember, as President Bartlett passionately averred, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”

So, muster up some sympathy for the shitty childhood if you like, but there is a path to a deeper understanding. I’ve been engaging in a practice of tracing what I presume to be Putin’s motivations and seeing if I can find those in myself. And – surprise! I easily can.

  • greed – whether it’s hiding the last piece of chocolate or giving the guy at the stoplight a dollar instead of $5 (or nothing at all)
  • nostalgia – Putin’s is for the Soviet Union; mine is for the best year or two of college, my reign at the theatre bookstore, or the best years in Minneapolis, where I could always find a friend at my local bar
  • heroism – if you think I don’t care about being the “good guy” you don’t know me well
  • revenge – rarely practiced it, kinda horrified by it, but have definitely thought about it
  • power – not obvious for me since I’m not career ambitious, but I absolutely want to be the one people defer to when I care enough to have a strong opinion
  • lying – yup; not as a habit, but sure
  • covering up bad things I’ve done – when I can, and when my conscience hasn’t stopped me. I once scraped up a car when I was driving buzzed in college. Never told anyone.
  • silencing people who talk shit about me – I’m sure I’ve talked shit about people who didn’t like me in an attempt to render them untrustworthy
  • taking my bad mood out on others – all the fucking time

It’s the actions Putin takes, the things Trump says that horrify us, but they all come from some combination of the above motivations and others. Just as everything we do is motivated by something

Recognizing the self in the other isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. It’s both the foundation and the goal of my spiritual life. Which is not just about being kind or forgiving or certainly “good,” it’s about recognizing our Oneness, that we are all different expressions and perceptions of the same consciousness, or, if you haven’t studied Buddhism or taken large amounts of psychedelics, it may be easier to see it as different parts of the same body. I love this metaphor, originally (?) from Santideva – if your foot is impaled by a sharp object, your hand pulls it out. Your hand doesn’t ponder whether the foot pain has anything immediate impact on the hand; your foot doesn’t have to ask for help or explain its plight; your hand doesn’t expect recognition or payback; and your mind doesn’t have to oversee and assess the situation. Nothing could be more natural than moving to relieve your own pain. That is where I want to get, with everyone. With everything.

One of the reasons I love this metaphor is that you can extend it to almost any situation. Sometimes you can’t alleviate the pain and you just have to live with it. Sometimes you choose not to do the work to alleviate it and it pulls at your conscience like a bad deed. And sometimes that foot is so far gone, you have to cut it off. You don’t hate the foot, you can’t even really blame the foot. The foot is a product of the body and the world it interacts with. But just because you feel bad about the foot doesn’t mean you’re going to let it infect the rest of the body. We can practice compassion for the Putins and Trumps while still passionately working to stop them. But when we call them monsters, pretend we don’t understand them at all, exclude them from the pettiness, cruelties, and failures that are our shared human bullies, we fail to recognize these things in ourselves and fail to appropriately address them when they rise up and likewise try to motivate us.

Understanding our own pain and suffering, and how that plays out in our thoughts, connects us to the suffering of the world, and may prevent us from acting on it.

The problem with dissatisfaction and suffering isn’t that they’re painful but that we misunderstand their nature and purpose. What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as “mine.” In fact […], it’s the common human suffering […] loss and pain connect me to others, and to life. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love.

from The World Could Be Otherwise, Norman Fischer

Okay, maybe (you say). But still, I’m not going to be like Putin. I’m never going to steal billions of dollars or kill an enemy or bomb a country. But those things are different from what most of us occasionally do by an order of magnitude only. Drawing a line on empathy is no less arbitrary than drawing a line between countries. If my empathy stops where someone’s political beliefs, or racial awareness, or capacity for kindness differ from mine, I’m just as narrowminded and closed-hearted as those whose empathy stops with my political beliefs, or race, or capacity for kindness towards them.

Yes, it’s kind of like saying you can’t fight love with hate, and maybe you don’t like that expression. How about, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Better yet, let’s examine the full context:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices

Audrey Lorde, from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Sure, Ms. Lorde was talking about the kind of terror and loathing that we “good people” know is “bad.” But it seems to me that her attention is not focused on the kind of hatred we practice, it’s centered on the practice, the terror and loathing itself. The separation, the hierarchies, the isolation and denigration: those are the master’s tools. Those are what we touch, what we reach down into. We can always and easily find a reason to hate someone, someones. If not the abused, then the abuser. But those roles are continually changing. The choice to empathize or reject are what remain.

The most loving people in the world have often worked the hardest against hatred and violence, and come out the other side without being destroyed by the work, or causing harm to others in the process. For me, that is worthy striving for.

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

I suppose 6 weeks is plenty of time for a little self-assessment, especially as I’ve noticed some … wandering, I guess you could say.

Meditation has been good so far this year – consistent in the mornings, which is always best for me. The quality of the sit varies, naturally. Sometimes I can barely manage two minutes of actual focus. Sometimes it’s more. Sitting before work is crucial to my overall wellbeing and I’ve recognized and therefore been disciplined about that, but it seems wellbeing without wisdom and oversight is not quite enough.

I’ve been an Officer at my employer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for years, almost since it was initiated. It’s probably time to step off, and I will in 2023, but we’ve always had trouble recruiting officers (few people have enough breathing room in their jobs to take on the commitment, company support for the roles is limited), and it is my favorite part of my work. It is also the place in my life where I have the most direct impact on the education of White people. Our staff is composed of lots of well-meaning White folks, many of whom have limited experience with different cultures and an unintentionally parochial worldview. The trainings we’ve commissioned and led, on everything from White Cultural Supremacy to Islamophobia to Indigenous Approaches to Disability, really seem to have opened people up, and rarely freaked them out enough to get defensive.

Nonetheless, more substantive Committee proposals have made painfully slow progress. We have been asking Leadership for an Inclusion Statement for 3 years, and the only movement in that direction has been from the committee itself. We asked for a policy on responding to Tragic Events (a weak email about George Floyd’s murder came long after he was killed, and only after the DEI committee had already communicated with staff – and been admonished for doing so), and were eventually told that Leadership would only respond to events that directly impacted operations. We have no people of color in leadership, and only two BIPOC supervisors in a 200+ employee nonprofit. There have been some improvements – a greater percentage of BIPOC employees and Board members, some other accommodations for non-European cultures, religions, etc. but the Committee’s frustrations are manifold.

Another Officer reached out to me about our antagonistic relationship with Leadership, with a goal to mitigate that this year. I wholeheartedly agreed. And then I fell into the seductive arms of collective anger.

Leadership had us amend our Black History Month post not because anything in it was inaccurate or offensive or inappropriate – they couldn’t call out a single word or line – but because it made them feel, let me translate: icky. A week later, they “asked” us to host a “space” for staff to talk about the police killing yet another Black man in the Twin Cities, and when we explained that a group of White DEI Officers should not hold space for Black people who most need that space held, they announced that to the organization that we would do it anyway.

Do you feel it? That delicious distemper? That noble nastiness? That righteous rage? They’re clearly wrong, right? And they’re not wronging me. They’re wronging others. Better still, I have a cohort that agrees with me, who will bring their own passion and lift up my own. People with whom I can, if not demonize, at least criticize and somewhat vilify our primary antagonist.

Many of my teachers in last year’s Buddhist training talked about anger. How could they not, since they were promoting mindful social action in a program imagined while Trump was still in office. There was a lot more ambivalence around this fiery emotion than I had anticipated, however. More recognition of its power to motivate and even purge. And I have much more to learn about it, undoubtedly. My relationship with anger is largely one of dismissal.

Unlike many women, apparently, I have never had difficulty expressing anger. For whatever sexism I was raised with (less than many, more than some), anger was not discouraged in my household. I couldn’t get angry at my father – that was not allowed – but I could get angry at the world, at people we disapproved of, at the police, at politicians. I had no problem pulling off theatre performances as an enraged wife, director, prostitute, actor, medical student. (Apparently I have a very scary glare.)

I couldn’t turn it off, though. I was an angry, angry person. My cohort in acting school was, for whatever reason, chock full of angry, angry people. In our group of ~25 students there were a half dozen guys periodically flying off the handle, and me. I chain smoked and drove dangerously fast and drank a half dozen cups of coffee every morning and slept very little and in the rare times I noticed my body, it was like every blood cell was a whirling dervish of rage. All the pain I had been unable to express to the people who had hurt me perpetually simmered under the surface, spitting out steam at my fellow drivers and uncooperative retail employees, through sing/screaming to loud music, and onstage.

Once I got beyond that turmoil and saw it for the grating, exhausting force it was, I became vigilant about avoiding that state of being. Weirdly enough, it’s not that hard most of the time. I don’t worry about screaming at the radio when a politician puts their own reelection ahead of the lives of other human beings, or any of the other countless injustices that happen every day. Because I don’t hold onto it. I yell, I let go, I move on. (Meditation can take much of the credit.) I try to redirect any lingering energy towards something positive, or at least neutral. I remember that we are all flawed, fucked up little humans.

But that righteous group anger …. mmmm-mmmmm. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels delicious. When the DEI Officers got together to air our grievances about Leadership, it felt like getting together with a group of close girlfriends to talk about an overlooked artistic triumph. There was camaraderie and passion and pride and joy and frustration and fun. I didn’t feel like I was crawling with subdermal fire ants; I didn’t feel the need to scream to a Hole song. And there was something valuable and perhaps spiritually neutral in it: sharing frustrations, validating perceptions, and discussing & interpreting behavior aren’t inherently negative or destructive. But retrospectively, I saw that we had simplified the matter; that we had concentrated the complicated world of White supremacy down to a single point – the messenger for the organization; that our focus had subtly shifted from doing the right thing to winning. I did not have the courage to address an unearned insult thrown at the absent messenger, because I had been walking that unethical, cruel line in my own speech. Once the conversation was over, I had to take a good look at myself.

Right speech is hard. Our culture subtly and incessantly encourages talking shit. There is community to be found around naming a common enemy, around demonizing the other, around denying their humanity. I’ve been able to recognize it and avoid it on the large topics of the day – I don’t call all anti-vaccers idiots; I don’t call all Trump supporters Nazis; I do my best to look for a reasonable explanation for behavior from the right wing, and when I can’t find it, I look for the source of the behavior in the system, not in the “evil” of specific individuals. I try to practice my favorite cheesy aphorism: Don’t get furious, get curious. Why did I fall off the wagon at work? It’s not the first time. Groupthink has definitely seduced me before, and it’s so much easier to get sucked into it when COVID has left so many of us so lonely. But it is truly icky. It goes against what my Buddhish heart and mind believe, and it simply doesn’t help me be a force of love in the world.

So, 44 days into 2022, I guess the resolution that has forced itself upon me is to practice Right Speech, and hope it wriggles on down into my thoughts and bones. I will doubtless fail again and again, but they say the path, like the precepts, is not a do or die. Just as you haven’t failed if you get caught up in thoughts while sitting, you haven’t failed if your speech lacks empathy once in a while. It’s a practice, it’s about returning to the commitment again and again. Sometimes method acting is just too hard, sometimes you have to work from the outside in.

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,

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

Minnesota White

mnniceLast night was the last night of our 6 month, once-a-month, Unpacking Whiteness exploration at the Zen Center. I honestly got more out of it than I thought I would, and when we went around the circle to give a brief comment on our reaction to the process as a whole, mine was that I was surprised how much I learned from the White people in my group: that I’ve been exploring this topic for a while, unlike many of the participants, and hyper conscious of race my whole life, unlike (based on what they’d said) nearly all of the other participants, and I wasn’t sure I’d get much from the others in my little circle. But every week someone brought up something I hadn’t thought about, or hadn’t been able to put into words, or hadn’t been brave enough to confess to, and I deeply appreciated both what they gave me and the hope they gave me for the potential of other White people. Not that this group of Zen meditators is representative of all White people, but still, I’ll back pocket that optimism.

After we had all said something, anyone was welcome to pick up the talking piece and say whatever they were inspired to add. I didn’t think I had anything else, but a few people’s comments sparked (another!) revelation, and I decided to share.

So many Minnesotans I’ve spoken to talk about never having had Black friends, about having grown up in an entirely White community, about having no relationships with people of color, and it occurred to me that the very culture of Minnesota may in fact be racist.

I doubt that is the main reason why this state is still so white. I would but the biggest blame on the racial covenants that are just now coming to light, the people harassed out of their homes, the lynchings in Duluth, etc. But if you look at Minnesota today, how welcoming is it to people who aren’t White, Christian, and Mild? Minnesota Nice isn’t just about passive aggression and passing politeness. It means you made all the friends you’ll ever need in 5th grade, and there is no reason to let strangers into your life. It includes complaining about things to everyone except the people who can do something about it. It means not talking during a movie, but also not having the huevos to tell the person who is talking to be quiet. It means glaring at the person who laughs too loud; and calling the person at work who answers an emailed question directly, without copious smileyfaces and explanation points, “rude.” It means an inordinate amount of people who do not like to be touched, a preference I’d never before encountered. It means that social anxiety can go undiagnosed, because that’s just how people are here. If you are physically expressive, people think you are dramatic. If you are physically affectionate, people think you’re an artist. Or gay. (You probably are.)

I brought this up at work a few years back, when we were talking about culture. (This was before I was brave enough to bring up the fact that we were entirely avoiding a discussion of race.) Nobody was volunteering an answer to the HR Director’s question, so, like many before her, she went to me, because she knew I’d have something to say. I don’t really have a problem with that, except for that fact that in this workplace it is sometimes used against me. But fine. I decided to grab the spotlight and broach the issue of Minnesota culture.

Being indirect in speech, being passive, continually deferring to others is perceived as “normal” here. I know I am perceived as different or bold or whatever because I express opinions when asked, because I sometimes reveal what I know to be true, because I have the gaul to disagree with someone in a meeting where we are supposed to be giving feedback on a topic. You think this perception is normal, but it is not. It is cultural. My behavior was not unusual in Chicago or Los Angeles. It may have been slightly less typical for a woman, but it was not abnormal. You think it is abnormal because people do not typically behave that way in Minnesota, but your standard is not universal, and people who don’t follow that standard should not be Otherized.

Despite the reality that what I actually said was far less coherent, I had several people approach me in the days after that training to express how I’d opened their eyes. It was kind of stunning.

So my revelation last night was looking at this culture through a racial lens and finding even more that was unwelcoming. If I, a run of the mill middle-aged White woman, perceive this culture as repressive, what kind of impact does it have on various people of color? People who might culturally express themselves through spontaneous song or dance? People whose religion is built on argumentation? People who express trust and affection through touch? People who laugh loudly and look for friends across borders? So the Jews plant themselves in St Louis Park and surround themselves with other Jews. And then the Hmong came. And the Somalis. And they also tend to plant roots in neighborhoods that cater to their own culture. And why wouldn’t they? I don’t blame them, and I don’t think it’s all about the language or affinity bias. Minnesota, even Minneapolis/St. Paul, is dominated by a White, Christian culture in a way that Chicago and Los Angeles were not. Yes, the uber-culture in the US is always White, but there was too much of a mix of folks in LA & Chicago for any one cultural standard to dominate. I can’t define either of those cities by culture. When people do single something out, it’s usually an aspect of White culture, like the hippie laid back Californian, but that’s never representative. Minnesota Nice is far more accurate.

So it’s not just the poor transportation and the ridiculous rental  prices that keep the Twin Cities from becoming Manhattan. It is our culture of Whiteness and Christianity. It’s oppressive and it is inherently exclusive. And it keeps these goodhearted meditators from having Black friends and Latino neighbors. It makes me sad, but recognizing something concrete always inspires me because concrete can be broken up. I felt inspired when I broached this in the circle last night. I thought it was another eye-opener, another way in which life could be improved for everyone. Something else we could work on!

But no one talked to me afterwards. No one thanked me for this awesome peek behind the curtain. No one openly agreed with me. Of course, that may be because I headed straight for my Chacos and walked out right after I helped put chairs away. I’ve never felt entirely welcome in the Zen center, and that also makes me sad because I set admittedly high expectations for Buddhist communities. Too much ceremony & formality for my comfort? Too little magical ability on their part to reach past my defenses and psychically will me to stay and commune? Aren’t they all enlightened already?!

yeah.probably my own weirdness.

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.