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.

The Perfect Definition (Perfection, pt 4)

Let us first acknowledge that any idea of perfection was made by humans: specifically, almost always men, and usually White, European man. I’ll start with one of the most influential men: Jesus. (Depending on what culture and century you live in, he may or may not be White.) The religion founded in his name has had an immeasurable influence on European-American culture, though I’d argue that his actual message (even the distorted, subjective transcriptions of his message) is far more universal, far less anthropocentric, and far less judgmental than what Christian, European culture has chosen to latch onto. Still, there is definitely some judgey stuff in the New Testament. This one was occasionally thrown at me when I was a kid, from Matthew 5:48. This translation from the King James Version of the Bible:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your
Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Since I took up with Buddhism, I find echoes of that same nonbinary and compassionate worldview hidden in secret pockets all over Jesus’ rags. So what did he mean by perfect in that quote? It’s difficult and perhaps pointless to parse language in the Bible – the flaws inherent in multiple translations (in this case from Aramaic through however many versions before the English), the inaccurate memory of the people recording his words, their own bias that led them to that memory, etc. But I still think it’s valuable to interrogate the choices in the translation. From my beloved Shorter Oxford Dictionary, at the time the Bible was translated into English (1611), perfect had many different meanings, including

  • Completed; fully formed; adult
  • Having all the essential elements, qualities, or characteristics
  • Not deficient in any particular
  • Being an ideal example of
  • Of or marked by supreme moral excellence
  • (Rare, but thanks to our buddy Shakespeare): in a state of complete satisfaction; contented

All sorts of stuff going on there, but only one aligns with what I, and many of you, have hanging over us: the goal of being exceptional, without flaws, and lacking in nothing. Perhaps older definitions shunned that, because only GOD could be perfect. In our contemporary, more secular language, we have these Google-ready definitions:

  1. being entirely without fault or defect : flawless a perfect diamond
  2. corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman

Who decides when to apply those adjectives, and how? If we take a moment, we can surely all recognize that an ideal standard or abstract concept is a construct, that there is no universal, objective ideal. But the idea of without fault or defect is just as fraught, inviting all kinds of ableism. Who decides what a defect or fault is? If it’s a variation from the norm, would that also include instances of what we might consider excellence? What if someone is exceptionally fast, intelligent, or beautiful? Is that a defect? If perfect is ideal, what is ideal? Standard? Doesn’t that seem like a low bar? I’m starting to think there are at least two clear problems with the idea of perfection: the burden of the unattainable goal, and the limitations of the standard of ideal. Both too much and not enough.

The World English Bible translates Matthew 4:28 passage as:

Therefore you shall be perfect, just
as your Father in heaven is perfect.

I know I’m a word nerd, but this reads very differently to me. First of all, the structure seems to imply a precursor, something that led to the therefore, whereas “Be ye therefore perfect” stands more easily on its own. The prelude is the Sermon on the Mount, which is filled with mostly groovy stuff, the grooviest of which comes right before this statement. Matthew 5:38-5:47 is all about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and those who don’t. I particularly like his critique of “love your neighbor,” which basically says: any asshole can love their neighbor; that’s amoral. Loving your enemies takes work, and is generative. Stop picking sides: God shines on everyone and rains on everyone. This is how you get to perfect – loving everyone and treating everyone without prejudice. Shall (all you lawyers out there know this) means will. It’s a commitment from Jesus, not a command. It’s already there. If you care for others as you would for yourself, you are already perfect.

Let me circle back to the “complete” definition of perfect. It could be the most fucked up or most forgiving option of all of them. In my monkey mind I have used complete as a standard for a painfully long time. Particularly when it comes to writing. I had to keep editing, keep refining, keep proofing until a work was complete, and despite never getting there, I never abandoned the quest. I was so thankful for deadlines in school or work, because I would eventually have to stop writing, imperfect as the piece always was. But as hard as it is to complete an essay, or painting, or symphony, it is exponentially insane to think of achieving completeness as a person. If at some point one becomes complete – when they have the spouse, home, and child/ren perhaps; or when they break the world record while winning gold in the Olympics, how do we characterize everything after that? Who are you post-perfection? We see people struggle with this all the time. What do you do when you’re “past your prime”? How do you find meaning if meaning is tied up in perfection/completeness and you’ve reached your destination with nowhere else to go? How much more liberating would it be if we held onto no ideals at all? Is that absurd?

In the Buddhism I hang with everything you need, including enlightenment, is available to you at all times because Buddha nature already exists within everyone, and perhaps everything. So we are already Complete, already perfect, with just a wee bit of really fucking calcified artificial frosting hiding all that nutritious goodness.

Ram Dass keeps returning to Completeness in How Can I Help. That is, recognizing that every person on the planet is already complete. When we seek to help people, we may be serving them food or companionship or understanding or shelter, but not because they are lacking in some way; rather because we have or have access to a thing that they need, so it’s only natural to transfer the resource to the area that requires it, like putting lotion on your own dry skin. In a sense, both giver and receiver are just fulfilling our parts as members of the ecosystem, and in that way we are perfect. If we approach others as lacking, imperfect, incomplete, we are not really serving them, we are serving ourselves and our own judgment and rules and fears and ideologies. That kind of help may give someone the calories they need to go on another day, but it can leave them with a feeling of inferiority, of insufficiency, and it doesn’t actually serve us as individuals or us as members of a human and ecological community, because it is reinforcing separateness and contributing to inequitable thinking and behavior. Recognizing everyone’s completeness, everyone’s perfection (as I can so easily do with Vicious) is a path to an equitable and multifarious world.

To be continued. Again. I could go on and on… and I do.

Next time: Creative Imperfection

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.

The Darkness of the Womb

The Darkness of the Womb

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

I can still eff it a bit, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast-tracking Enlightenment?

enlightenmentA lot of people come to meditation through drugs. Usually in one of two very different ways. Either they find meditation as a respite and palliative from alcohol and drug addiction and toxic patterns of behavior, or, like the recently deceased Ram Dass, they touch another, entirely different world through drugs – psychedelic drugs – and seek a spiritual life as a way to hold onto, or expand upon, or share that world.

Why psychedelics? I’m certainly no expert, but in reading Ram Dass, and Michael Pollan’s latest, and watching countless YouTube videos (both biographical and scientific), psychedelics offer your brain a method of functioning that stretches above and beyond our typical patterns – in fact, it can help break patterns that bury people in rumination and anxiety, as well as offering a view of reality that is entirely different from what we’ve come to accept as acceptable. Psychedelics have helped dying people lose their fear of death. They have broken depressive cycles for some people for years on end. For some lucky few, these experiences may be enough to change the way they live, completely, for years. But most of us need help.

While a psilocybin or ayahuasca trip can show someone a different view of the world, it doesn’t show them how to live in that world. Everyday living takes practice, and unlearning the way you’ve learned to live through a lifetime in a competitive society is even harder. So now that you have seen that love is all that matters (for example), how do you bring that to work, to a traffic jam, to your abusive parent? There is a huge gap between knowing and doing, as anyone with any philosophical leanings will surely recognize.

It seems to me that the role of meditation is more or less the same whether you’ve experienced a transcendent moment or not: it’s practice for better living in the world. You practice, second by second, guiding the mind instead of letting it take you for a ride; you practice not automatically scratching that itch, not adjusting your body to relieve that pain, not clinging to that feeling of joy that just came out of nowhere. You practice being in the moment so that you can love without expectation or fantasies; you practice nonattachment so you can give when someone needs help and can accept generosity without pride. Enlightenment is a glimpse of something better than what we currently live in, but it doesn’t change our living. I imagine it’s great to know that there is a real, true universal love underneath it all, but we live on the surface. And letting go of the ego? Sign me up, but I still (have to) live in this person, in this place, with these abilities and failings as best I can, and good god that takes a lot of practice. In the words of Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

The idea that drugs are cheating (as some meditators have proposed) is pretty ridiculous, and pretty Protestant-Work-Ethicky. If it were a shortcut to nirvana, wouldn’t we all benefit from more enlightened people in the world? More realistically, if shrooms or LSD or ayahuasca can motivate people to live more lovingly, with less fear and less ego, if it can motivate them to find meaning in compassion and connection, who cares how they get there?

And if you’re wondering why the government has been so resistant to exploring the benefits of these drugs, imagine what a monumental increase in compassion and egolessness and acceptance, and reduction in competitiveness and ambition and greed would do to the economy. It’s not just the “dropouts,” those few who choose to detach themselves entirely from the mundane, who can disrupt the enforced order. There are so many ways to live, and many of them do not revolve around money, careers, or the nuclear family; some of them don’t even see the self as the most essential unit, or self-preservation as the highest goal. Imagine that.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Sigh.

Book Review for a 46-Year-Old Book: Be Here Now by Ram Dass

be here nowIf I had not known of the joyous awesomeness that is Ram Dass, I never would have read this book.  I’ve had a lot of luck in my life judging books by their covers and this one would not have received a fair trial. It is a perfect square, with a cover that reads the same whether you’re holding it like a literate adult, or glancing at it sideways, semi-conscious, or doing a headstand in front of it, and that is only the beginning of its material weirdness. Continue reading “Book Review for a 46-Year-Old Book: Be Here Now by Ram Dass”