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.

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.

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.

Creative Imperfection (Perfection, pt 5)

Paris through the Window, Marc Chagall

We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.

Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.

What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.  

Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.

In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change

With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.


[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152

[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)

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.

Loving Autumn is a Buddhist Act

mono-no-aware“I’m loving autumn this year.”

“I thought you didn’t like autumn.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I’M GETTING BETTER.”

Global warming helps. We haven’t had a really bad winter since 2013-14, in which a handful of terrifying commutes left me in tears more than once. Cold-induced death doesn’t feel as imminent now as it was then, but it was never logical anyway. The odds of me dying in an icy car crash in the winter are no greater than the odds of me dying of heatstroke in the summer. (I’m not going to reference that; just go with me.)

Driving was only one road of terror. I think there were some times as a kid when I was not allowed to dress as warmly as I wanted to, and I know there were times when I was outside and cold against my will, so there’s some lingering emotional memory there. And then there was the winter of 2009-10 when I worked as a door-to-door canvasser. I had regular afternoon panic attacks as I tried to will myself out the door to face another night of begging in the freezing cold. It wasn’t just the temperature (walking around in winter at night isn’t so bad if you’re dressed right – and we fuckin knew how to dress right), but being repeatedly rebuked by strangers as I interrupted their evenings to resiliently pitch environmental causes and ask for money iced over my core, and the windchill dropped with the added pressure of having to hit a financial quota every week or lose my job, leaving me so bone-cold that I couldn’t get warm enough to sleep at night, no matter how thick the down comforter.

I’ve never loved fall because I fear winter. And I fear winter, clearly, not for the cold. What I really fear is being out of control in the cold, as if I weren’t out of control year-round. And when you carry that fear, fall is just an opening act for winter. Literally the calm before the storm. But fucking A, autumn is gorgeous. Such beauty in the transition of death and dormancy. I learned the concept of Mono No Aware while doing a play about Japanese art. That’s what those characters in the headline image above stand for. (Supposedly. I don’t read Japanese. The internet could trick me into promoting elephant tusks as an anti-depressant for all I know.) You can look it up yourself for an accurate definition, but to my understanding it is the ambivalent appreciation of the inevitability of transience, the wistful recognition of the passing of everything, the idea that all things are more valuable because they do not last, which is artistically expressed in the trope that things are most beautiful as they are dying. Nothing exemplifies that more perfectly than autumn.

I’ll throw in Jason Isbell here, too. I don’t know what it is about that guy, but I have fallen in love with no less with three of his songs on first listen, which almost never happens to me. I don’t know if I’ll love those songs forever, but that kind of brings me back to the point. In his most recent single (on The Current anyway), which had me tearing up on the way to work, he sings that “it’s not” (referent poetically absent) all the amazing things about “you,” but the inevitable end of their time together that makes it special:

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
Laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

When I’ve locked in on the coming cold and dark, I’ve missed the inconceivable colors, the smells, the softening air on my ever decreasing spans of exposed skin, holding hands without gloves or discomfort. I’ll dig out my thigh-high socks, add another cowl to the collection, and gather new soup recipes for the long months ahead, but I’m lucky enough to be here now this season. I can’t promise another day of black ice won’t pull me back, but it’s really, really nice to love fall.

Buddhish Moments in Pop Culture, #1

perksI found The Perks of Being a Wallflower crammed into my friend’s bookshelf as I was waiting for the group to gather for hardcore boardgame play. I loved the movie, and it turns out I went to school with the writer (and director), and he’s apparently a good guy, so I borrowed the book and gobbled it down in less than 24 hours.

I don’t let myself indulge in fiction often anymore. And while I know that’s ridiculous, it still helps me to get off my own back if I can make a mini-blog out of it.

Or one moment of it, anyway.

Charlie is our limited narrator – a quiet, observant high school freshman who carries a semi-dormant, unspecified mental illness and few meaningful friendships until he meets Patrick and Emma – lively step-siblings in their final year of high school who take him under their wing. That’s all the background you need for the moment. You don’t really even need that, but why would you want to read about a moment in the life of an anonymous character?

… we all got quiet
Sam tapped her hand on the steering wheel. Patrick held his hand outside the car and made air waves. And I just sat between them. After the song finished, I said something.
“I feel infinite.”
And Sam and Patrick just looked at me like I said the greatest thing they ever heard. Because the song was so great and because we all really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way.

I should just let that stand as is, but as J.D. Salinger once wrote, “Zoe’s voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth.” (shout out to my JD homies, whutwhut!)

I read a Paul Tillich book in a Christian Doctrine class in grad school, and it’s my earliest memory of thinking of the idea of “God” as synonymous with the infinite, as an existence distinct from the mortality of everything we can experience with our senses. This brought that back again, but couched in a simple, everyday example of how a moment “truly spent” is divine in every sense of the word. Because if the only reality that actually exists is the present moment – if the future and the past are illusory – then fully living that moment makes us immortal in that moment, which is literally everything.

Lovely, isn’t it?