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.

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)

Paradox Note (Perfection, Part 1)

As an American, or perhaps as a Westerner, or perhaps as a White person, non-binary realities are difficult for me to accept. I have meditated and learned and experienced enough to believe that a thing and its opposite can both be true, but truly living that BothAnd-ness is another thing. What did it mean when Neem Karoli Baba told Ram Dass that the world is both perfect and terrible, when he told Larry Brilliant that everything was exactly as it should be and that he had to go out and eradicate smallpox? Practitioners can get caught up in the everything is perfect concept in Buddhism and use it as an excuse not to serve others or engage in the pain of the world. We are taught not to work with the sole expectation of achieving a goal, that the means is the end, and yet the Boddhisatva vows commit the sangha to relieve all suffering everywhere.

How can the world be simultaneously obviously, painfully fucked up and also just as it should be? How can we accept this non-binary without becoming cynical? Without believing that if this is the way it’s supposed to be, we are therefore meant to be miserable, greedy, tortured, imprisoned, violent, starving? I don’t think that’s the point.

Then there is My Dog. I have never used the word Perfect so easily as with this creature. Nothing else seems apt. She is moody and cold and stubborn and lazy and Perfect. There is no contradiction there; it’s simple and obvious. Her perfection doesn’t mean I don’t get annoyed with her, and her occasional brattiness doesn’t mean she isn’t perfect. Perhaps you have the same experience with your cat or your child. I’ve never felt that way about a human, even my favorite humans, and I don’t know whether it’s because I have some unattainable ideal in mind or no ideal at all. Perhaps it’s a failure of my ability to truly love human beings with the same generosity and vulnerability with which I love non-humans. Do I know them too well? Or the species too well? Perhaps that is the problem – trying to hang love on reason. Not in the love is irrational sense, but in the love is beyond rationality sense. Love is a spiritual pursuit, not a material or intellectual one. Perhaps, as such, it can withstand all apparent contradictions. And my neurotic, cat-like dog can be whatever she wants to be, and still be loved and perfect.

This is the only non-binary, nondual reality I can affirm as true rather than just believing it possible. I choose to see it as a jumping off point rather than a limitation. And I do want to take that leap, because something in me thinks that if I can really embrace nonduality, interconnectedness, bothandness, acting with integrity and wisdom will be a hell of a lot easier.

You Are What You Love

You Are What You Love

I have a friend in the Twin Cities, a guy I performed with years ago, who is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. It is always a joy to see him and it is not possible for me to wish anything but the best for him. At one point he made a comment about what a kind person I am, and rather than disillusion him with the reality of my day to day reactiveness to the vicissitudes of life, I realized, yes. Yes, of course he would think that I’m a kind, friendly, loving person because I am incapable of being otherwise with him. It’s as inconceivable as punching an affectionate puppy. And I reasoned that someone like him must have a far more positive view of humanity, because they are not getting the typical blowback that most of us experience on a regular basis in our grumpy or even neutral interactions in society. And how much, in turn, that must reinforce his naturally (whatever that means) loving behavior.

Some people simply bring out the best in us. I don’t think many would argue against that, but I do think a lot of us fail to fully embrace what that means: they bring out something that is already there. My friend doesn’t make me a better person, he creates a mini-culture around him in which that is the easiest and most acceptable way to be. He brings out my goodness; he doesn’t create it. He simply welcomes, embraces, and rewards it. I am lucky to have stumbled into several gracious, generous, joyful people like this in my life.

I attended a virtual retreat with Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember foundation back in August and this idea came up several times – how friends loved and missed Ram Dass, but that the love he evoked in them was as present as ever. Krishna Das talked about how utterly devastated he was when Neem Karoli Baba (his and Ram Dass’ teacher) died, how difficult it was and how long it took for him to recognize that the love he found in Maharaj ji came exclusively from inside of KD, that the holy man didn’t manufacture anything in him that he didn’t already possess; that the absolute, unconditional love that all of the Maharaj ji’s followers say washed over them as soon as they met was never other than what they were always capable of, indeed what they inherently, effortlessly are.

Another excellent explanation of this is in Duncan Tressell’s gorgeous “Mouse of Silver” episode of The Midnight Gospel (on Netflix), in which his dying mother assures him that the love she has for him could not possibly leave with her; that it is eternally present in the world and there for him whenever he needs it. It made me feel like we have the potential to keep generating more love in the world, filling up empty and negative space with this endlessly rejuvenating and infinite resource, restricted only by our capacity to liberate it.

There’s a moment in one of my favorite films, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, when the depressed of the Nicholas Cage twins brings up the time when they were teens and a girl pretended to be interested in the happier twin as a joke. But the latter didn’t take offense, and remembered his time with her fondly. He tells his brother, You are what you love, not what loves you. I always thought there was something profound about that statement, but honestly couldn’t get much of a handle on it. So an asshole obsessed with a good Samaritan gets credit for the benevolence of the one desired? But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the same idea as the stuff I’m talking about above. The act of love – not desire for dominance or ownership, but actual love – is what defines us. Our ability to love, to manifest love and draw out love and act out of love in the world is the best measure of what we are, what we have contributed to the world in our brief time in it.

It’s been a rough year for love. For me, anyway. I feel like I’ve been fighting against hate with almost every supposedly good thing I’ve done. So much of activism and politics is fueled by hatred and anger. I tried not to get wrapped up in it, but didn’t always succeed, and allowed what I thought was “important work” to take priority over the how of it all. With the election (almost) over and some more knowledge and experience under my belt, my 2021 will prioritize the motivation over the act, the being over the doing, to the extent that I can and as long as I continue to believe this is the path the follow.

I’ve lived long enough to know that change is the only thing I can count on, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get excited about the prospect of a stronger spiritual focus in the coming year. A joyful new year to all of you.