“What do you think of western civilization?” a reporter asked Gandhi. “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.
You who are most afraid of this country that we have become, hear this.
There is only one place. The one you’re in. You can never leave, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Peace or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place.
Do not waste time deceiving yourself with “what ifs” or “how comes” or that noisy drum of self-righteousness, “I told you so.” I, for one, will not listen to any more ugly, ignorant blame. The facts are simply too blatant to argue. More people are suffering, and will suffer, at the hands of their own neighbors. We don’t need to know how this started to know how it will end. Will you merely stand witness to destruction and degradation or will you heed the bell?
Our daughter went to the public school down the street. The hallways were a little scruffy. The classrooms were crowded. The kids were just neighborhood kids. Not a single one looked like any other. She called them her friends, and she had far more friends than I did. The money there was scarce, but the opportunity was wide open and free.
It wasn’t my first choice, but in the end, it was my only choice.
On the first day of kindergarten, the teacher stood before an array of beautiful faces. She spoke loudly to reach the pack of teary parents spectating at the back of the room.
“Our job is to create citizens,” she declared, and turned to face the flag. I placed my hand over my heart with allegiance. I didn’t know I still had the old feeling in me, but at that moment, the school for citizens had created one more.
It’s a new school day. There is so much to learn and share. Claim your citizenship. Stand up and speak. Correct wrongs. Defend rights. Demand fairness. Do good without ceasing. And do good not just for yourself, but for the very ones who are causing the most harm. I happen to know some of them. I have to overcome my own fear, hatred and resentment of them or my pledge is false.
My kindergartener is now 17. The morning after the election she went to school as if it was a normal day. At 7:22 am, she sent me a text. “Mommy, I am scared.” Not scared of the school or of the radiantly diverse people there, but scared of her own life and future. And so I pound out these words with hopeful urgency. Wake up!
This is based on a chapter from Hand Wash Cold, a book I wrote nearly eight years ago. Eight years is not so long. Four years is even less. One week has already passed. The bell has rung. The bell has rung. The bell has rung.
The grieving among us (and I am one) have asked for guidance as we enter this dark and savage night. Below is a link to the recording of a talk I gave in Kansas City last weekend to those assembled in the sanctuary of retreat.
The poet has come to set these things first of all: to lift up his eyes and see the mountains; to lower them and listen to the stream; to look about him at bamboos, willows, clouds, and rocks, from morn till nightfall. One night’s lodging brings rest to the body; two nights give peace to the heart; after three nights the drooping and depressed no longer know either trouble. If one asked the reason, the answer is simply—the place.
Is it possible to live in a universe without fear?
I wish more people would ask.
Anxiety disorders are the number one diagnosis of the mental health industry. Each year, about 40 million American adults seek treatment for debilitating fear and dread. Now children are swelling their ranks. In one recent year, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the leading antianxiety drugs. Antidepressant use has quadrupled over the last twenty years. About one in ten people suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Deaths from prescription painkillers are epidemic and higher than those from illegal narcotics. There are 140 million people in the world with alcoholism. In America, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death. These numbers may not be completely accurate, but they are entirely true. If they don’t apply to you, then they apply to people you know and love, people you live with or used to live with, people barely alive or dead too soon.
We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts — and if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh.
How do we end up like this? I don’t know why we reach for noxious cocktails to drown our fear and pain, but we all do, and they don’t work. Every time we turn away from what is right in front of us we are headed in the wrong direction. So don’t turn away.
These days we live in what we consider to be a mobile society. It seems like we can do anything from anywhere. And yet, we are immobilized as never before. Some of us are too terrified to unlock our doors and step into our neighborhoods. Too timid to take a walk, drive our cars, or board a plane. We live straitjacketed by our touch screens and chained by convenience. If what we’re looking for isn’t on the closest corner, like Starbucks, or streaming, like Netflix, we don’t feel terribly inclined to go farther. I hardly ever have to leave my own confines, having fashioned a world in which nearly everything is delivered to me automatically.
When my mother graduated from high school in 1950, she was the valedictorian, captain of the volleyball team, head cheerleader and homecoming queen. Granted, hers was a class of less than 50 students in a town of 800 in the empty farmlands of Central Texas. Her parents spoke German. Her father raised sheep. Her mother took in boarders. The family of seven lived in four rooms plus a parlor opened for Sunday company.
As valedictorian, she was awarded a full scholarship to a teachers college. I’m not sure if a desire to become a teacher preceded her enrollment in a teachers college, but that is what was available to her in 1950. It must have been impossible to imagine going anywhere else or becoming anything but.
Her father had to be convinced. He opposed the idea at first. He intended that only his sons would receive college educations, one by entering a seminary, the other by enlisting in the Navy.
But she left home and graduated from college in three years. The next year, she had her first child. Two years later, I came. She was a full-time teacher when my youngest sister was born in 1960, and she never stopped teaching or learning again.
She believed in people, and she believed in opportunity, even if the opportunity you got wasn’t quite fair or equal. She believed in working harder if you had to, and in charity, humility, and love.
She typed her master’s thesis on a portable typewriter that sat on our dining room table for months or maybe years, the same table where we ate the breakfasts and dinners she cooked every day. She did all that. She did everything, seeming to be made of steel.
For one very long stretch of time, she drove 70 miles round-trip several nights a week to take classes to earn a curriculum consultant’s credential, and then an administrative credential. With all her qualifications and after 37 years as a classroom teacher she still had to wait for every football coach in the district to be promoted to principal before she got a shot at the job she was most qualified for. When it came, it was at the worst-performing school with the least-skilled staff in the most run down building in the poorest part of town, a job that no one else would take.
But she did her best, and she made it as good as she could. She loved the kids, mentored the teachers, came early and stayed late. Having started out in life with nearly nothing, she cried for these little ones who had been given even less. She saw what the world was becoming.
And for all this, she took blows. Her own relatives ridiculed her as an educated woman, and worse, a liberal. They laughed at all her reading, writing and opinions. She served her critics Christmas dinners and sat at their bedsides when they were dying.
She loved every last one of them and they knew it. She never turned away from the opportunity to give, or do, or care. She showed up.
She raised three daughters who knew that they could do whatever they wanted to. Not because we had money. Hell no, we had none of that. But we had the opportunity to do our best. It wasn’t even an issue for discussion, and certainly not for brag.
So when I look at what is happening in our presidential election right now, I’m looking into a mirror. Yes, the face I see is my mother’s. A woman who works harder than everyone else. Who’s trivialized, marginalized and stigmatized. Who’s been told time after time that it’s not her turn because she’s too hard, or too weak, or too smart, or too this or that, or just not a man. When has it ever been different?
And if you wonder when the tired, old woman who’s writing this is going to stop giving a damn, the answer is never. There are so many who will hurt so much if we turn back in fear, stupidity, bigotry, and hate.
See what the world is becoming, and then rise up. Now.
I’ve been practicing meditation for 23 years now, and this question tells you why. It’s why I do retreats as a student, and it’s why I offer them as a teacher. Each of us, no matter what the circumstances, can find ourselves in a daily struggle to stay sane. And if not completely sane, at least positive. And if not totally positive, than at least moderately hopeful. There is so much going on. We can’t catch up or get ahead. Even our kids are too busy. Everyone is stressed, pressured, and anxious. The outlook is for more of the same. We may feel an urgent need to slow things down, or a depressing belief that nothing we do will make a difference.
We might think that chaos is a unique feature of our 21st century culture, but that isn’t so. True, technology means that we can work 24/7, and we have our devices to thank for our chronic distractibility. We may lack the support of family and friends, and feel disconnected from meaningful relationships. But I bet that you don’t need to look very far back in your family history to find a time when your own ancestors struggled just to maintain adequate food and shelter, or labored under catastrophic wars, disasters, and economic or social injustice. In short, life has always been hard, and often a lot harder than it is now. The proverbial “simpler time” we yearn for might not have been simple at all.
Contemplative practices such as meditation originated many thousands of years ago and haven’t changed. They don’t need to change. They don’t need to be modernized or adapted to the millennial mindset. They depend solely on oneself. And they work. This is what I have observed in my own meditation practice: stillness and silence bring peace, and from that peace springs radiant joy that you can experience for yourself.
It begins in chaos. Are you troubled, confused, anxious or overwhelmed? You’ve taken the first step to joy.
Enter the chaos
All spiritual practices are born in chaos — the shock of loss, the pain of despair, the sobering certainty of old age, sickness and death — the recognition that time swiftly passes and you are not in control. When the world is moving too fast, we always have a choice: to be tossed about by external events, or to center ourselves in the midst.
The fact is, you’re upset. Frustrated, disappointed and annoyed. Resentful, regretful or indignant. Uncomfortable, uneasy and afraid. Most of us have developed a hard outer edge: the edginess that comes from resisting the way things are. Once you recognize what you are holding on to, you can drop it. It’s a lot of work to haul that extra stuff around, and it makes you feel terrible.
No longer struggling against anything, you might instead feel . . . tired, very tired, and tender, very tender. Your heart softens, and you feel genuine compassion for yourself and others. Everyone is simply doing their best. This is a key step on the journey, because now you are courageous enough to do the most difficult thing of all.
A great teacher once said, “The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all.” Using breath as a guide, meditation draws you into the still center of your being. You can stay, rest, and relax there. Your core of stillness, which is pure presence, is the place where healing and transformation occurs.
Enter the silence
Some people approaching their first retreat think that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. I always remind folks that silence is not a prohibition. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but without the noisy rat-a-tat-tat of our judgments. Inner silence harmonizes with all outer activity.
In silence we find quiet joy and gratitude for our life, and for all those who share it with us.
What a useful thing to bring home from retreat. Perhaps you could find out for yourself.
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A while ago someone reached my blog by Googling “teaching children about the beginning of time.” It made me wonder if what they really wanted to teach children was about the end of time. From time to time someone predicts time, or the world of time, is going to end soon. Anyone coming here for those kinds of answers is looking in the wrong place. I don’t know the answers. I don’t even ask the questions.
I don’t normally pay too much attention to how people reach this blog. Most of those who come for the first time come with this question in mind, another one that I answer, more or less, by saying I don’t know.
There’s a lot of talk out there about deep questions and dark fears, especially these days. I wish we’d all answer them more honestly than we allow ourselves. I wish we were more courageous about saying “I don’t know.”
That’s the answer to most things our children ask; that’s the answer to most things, period. Don’t know. Don’t even try to know. You can’t know.
That brings me to beginner’s mind.
If you’ve read Suzuki Roshi’s little book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind you may know a little something about what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Some define it as having an open mind. Some equate it with a child’s mind. I’ve seen it called a central concept in Zen.
That’s all wrong.
Whenever you start thinking about beginner’s mind it’s no longer beginner’s mind, because it’s not something you do inside your head. It’s something you don’t do. You don’t conceive it, define it, explain it, or label it. You don’t measure it like we do with the finite concept of time; you live in it as your infinite universe. Isn’t it lovely?
You don’t know beginner’s mind, but if you learn to slow down and stay in one place, you can begin to see it. And seeing it, you can totally be it.
There is an end to what any of us can know. But there is no end to this beginning. Can you see?
A: I understand the confusion. The current mindfulness movement originated as a way to share the benefits of meditation in a medical or therapeutic setting. Although the practice of meditation was retained, the word “meditation” was not, perhaps because of its association with Eastern traditions. As a result, today there is some confusion that mindfulness and meditation are not related. Mindfulness is attention, true, but meditation is the cultivation of one’s attention. We cannot be mindful without practicing paying attention. If we are only thinking, “I am mindful,” it doesn’t get us very far. The old masters didn’t worry about words, but having practiced seated meditation, they took their concentrated mind with them throughout the day in all activities.
If one happens to only read books about mindfulness, the practice aspect may be overlooked.
Another analogy might be telling ourselves that we are full, when in fact we have failed to eat.
Be generous with your attention, that you might dispel the loneliness and isolation that divide us. Be generous with your time and money. They go farthest when freed from your own hands. Make room for all the people—even the majority—that don’t think or act like you. Make an enemy of no one. Be humble. Let others speak. Let others rant. Give argument no mind. Your opinion alters no one’s. Be humble. Have abundant patience and trust, knowing that things change in ways you cannot imagine or predict. Recognize hate as fear, greed as poverty, and ignorance as our common plight. Have faith. Spread cheer. Do good. With an open heart and clear mind, vote. Everything you think, say, and do, however small, has a monumental consequence. Your influence is boundless, so take infinite care. You make all the difference in the world. Give it all you’ve got.
We say, “A good father is not a good father.” Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father. — Suzuki Roshi
The quote above is often misunderstood. How do you understand it? I’ll answer for you from my own experience. One who thinks she is a good mother is not a good mother.
Zen can sound like doublespeak, but it’s always as plain as plain can be. When you think “good,” that is not good. The moment you step back from total involvement in living life as it is and go up into your judging mind to evaluate it, you are completely mistaken. Do you know that place? Have you ever judged yourself to be comfortably ahead of the game? Or woefully behind? With an edge, an advantage, a method, or for that matter, a reason, excuse or handicap? Maybe you think all those things in a single day! When you indulge in either self-congratulation or self-criticism you are no longer present. You might even say you are no longer alive. Dead fathers are not good fathers.
One who thinks he is one of the worst may be a good one if he is always trying with a single-minded effort.
I have a teenager now, as if it isn’t obvious. And in the course of writing, however vaguely, about what I am experiencing, I hear from kind-hearted people of a venerable cast, folks who have a longer view of the road we tread. They tell me about inexplicable disappointments and deep sorrows, happy turnabouts, miraculous resolutions, and ultimate acceptance of what they didn’t know then and couldn’t have guessed would happen in a million years. Life is a tricky business, and no one knows how it will go. We all know this, and yet we don’t. Not until the illusion shatters.
From where I stand now it seems a parent’s learning curve goes like this: it starts out hard then it gets easier, and then hard, then harder, then quite a bit harder, then much harder. Humility is the face of love.
The people I take comfort from are the humble ones. They are quiet but outnumber the prideful ones a billion to one.
So how do we conduct ourselves without attaching to good or bad? I like this story about the 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah who was giving a talk on impermanence. He could be talking about anything.
Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”