Today in Trumpland and Dharmaland

In the days and weeks after the election, I wrote a number of articles and gave several dharma talks that reflected my own response, as well as the ways in which I see the dhrama path as a resource during such uncertain and difficult times.

The holidays came along and my time and attention turned to other commitments and writing went on the back burner. Today I’m back for this article. As the news and actions of our new president have become more and more disturbing to me, I continue to look into my heart for what’s true for me right now and to find the best ways I can respond and to be involved. As many of us know, there’s a fine line between constructive action and emotional overwhelm at this time.

In this era of social media and online information, it’s easy to become inundated with one rattling headline after the other and social media posts loaded with fear and divisive anger. There’s nothing wrong with fear and anger per se, they are human emotions and certainly are not unreasonable responses right now. Channeled constructively, they can even be driving forces for good. A skillful relationship to these emotions and what we do with them counts. This is where dharma practice can make a big difference.

When we allow ourselves to lose touch with the love in our hearts and respond from divisiveness and separation, we become lost ourselves. But how in the world do we maintain an attitude of love and kindness for all while actively resisting dangerous and destructive acts coming from the new administration? On the positive side, social media provides a ready-made resource for organizing and connecting constructively. But if we haven’t also found a source of refuge in our own hearts, burnout and despair can easily take us over. We may slide down the slippery slope of the dark side of social media while also losing touch with our own inner guide.

As dharma practitioners, I believe it is vital we remember in our hearts that this isn’t about “us against them.” This is what we’ve all been practicing for, we’ve cultivated a great resource that can help us not lose ourselves in the frenzy.

If you do fall short and get caught in the whirlwind, as I have at times, just start again with kindness and compassion, let go of the judgment. Remember your heart’s true intention and align yourself with that. Most of us who practice the dharma care deeply about the welfare of all beings, and when we see so many people who are vulnerable and unable to defend themselves being targeted, we feel a strong urge to act. Let’s do it while also remembering to keep our hearts and minds nourished and awake. Lets not turn those we oppose out of our hearts even as we stand against many of their policies and actions. When we personally feel attacked and vulnerable, this is even harder work, but it’s a central element of how dharma path can help us maintain a global awareness of our humanity and interconnection.

For me, this capacity to remember and reconnect means taking time out to meditate and to retreat, to find a home in the great nature of heart/mind, where I access timeless wisdom of interconnection and compassion for all. In fact, I’ll be off grid soon for my own weeklong retreat as my weary heart is much in need of this extended time to repair and restore.

– Lisa Ernst

“Hatred Will Never Let You Face the Beast in Man”

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I’m seeing two trends since the election that are ultimately in opposition to each other. The first is that people are feeling galvanized to get involved, to take action and speak up when they see injustice, to connect and engage with communities that need our support. Right now we truly need people who are willing to get involved and not remain silent. This is an ideal time for Buddhists to engage and not leave our wisdom on the cushion.

The post election down side is that many are using this situation to justify division, intolerance and even hatred. “Its different this time,” I see again and again. But whatever their justifications, this mindset can quickly lead to escalated division, fear and hatred. To me, this is both disturbing and sad.

What’s a better approach? First, we need to understand that standing up for what’s right and helping those who feel vulnerable (including ourselves) is not incompatible with unconditional compassion and “loving the enemy.”

Many of our greatest spiritual leaders have emphasized this point, even while they spoke out and took a stand. On Saturday I heard a beautiful message from civil rights icon John Lewis on this point, as he referenced the role model of non-violent resistance they used during the civil rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the downward spiral of hating those who hate you. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” he wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” This is up to all of us.

Buddha taught us that we must cultivate compassion for all beings, without exception. This doesn’t mean that we stand by passively while people trample over us, or behave with hatred and violence toward those who are vulnerable. Compassion isn’t incompatible with firm boundaries that declare, “this is not ok.” If we begin to justify holding hate in our hearts, we become no different from those we feel in opposition to. The Dalai Lama understood this, even as he was exiled from his homeland of China. And Albert Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

Thich Nhat has been one of the most eloquent voices advocating that we always remember interconnection and that we love our enemies. Not that it’s an easy easy path. We have to overcome habitual tendencies to create division that naturally arise out of fear.

Here’s Recommendation, a powerful poem in which Thich Nhat Hanh encourages compassion for all, without exception.

Recommendation” by Thich Nhat Hahn
Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember, brother,
remember:
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
untroubled
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.

This poem was written in 1965 in Vietnam for the School of Youth Social Service. This group rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. They worked with the Buddhist principles of non-violence. Thich Nhat Hahn was banned from his homeland in 1966. He has never become bitter or let hate fill his heart even as he became a great teacher for the world. If he had not had this heart of compassion and interconnection, its doubtful he would have risen to the stature he has. His mind and heart were bigger than those who  created division, destruction and war. May we all remember to keep love and compassion in our hearts, even while answering the call to step up and make a difference in these challenging times.

Anxiety, Election Fallout and Finding Calm in the Storm

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Over the past month or so at One Dharma we’ve been talking about our practice in relation to this election. Many people have reported feeling challenged at a level they rarely, if ever experience. Anger, fear, discord in relationships and remorse. We’ve covered a lot of practice approaches to work with these. And remembering self forgiveness when we simply can’t act out of our best intentions in the heat of the moment.

While the divide in our country won’t be erased just because the election ends, we can continue to consciously work on our relationship to our inner and outer terrain, especially when its rocky, and find a path to be of help in whatever way we can. Jack Kornfield shared this short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that is very timely to our current situation:

“Remember the story Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh told of the crowded refugee boats. “If even on person on the boat stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Embracing “don’t know mind” has been an important practice for me, the willingness to hold in open awareness what I can’t understand. This practice allows me to access my heart rather than just staying in my head and trying to figure it out. It also helps me to let go of what I can’t control and find a calm spot in the middle of the storm.

I’ve read some good articles that have analyzed the political divide we’re engulfed in right now. Many of the articles make a case for trying to understand and empathize with people who we disagree with and remember our shared humanity, our interconnection. I wholeheartedly agree with this. But I’ve also found these articles are too general about demographics. They speak of the people who are angry and feel left behind, usually pointing to older white males without college degrees. Yes, we need to try and understand their pain. But deeper demographic analysis shows that many privileged people are angry too and want radical change, regardless of what it is or how dangerous it might be.

Because I can’t understand it all through reading articles and analysis, I find that an open ended question is helpful to me – what is the most beneficial response right now for myself and others? This is coming home to my own heart. It takes the edge off my fear. It shows me what I can and can’t control and a compassionate way forward while being rooted in the present.

May all beings find peace and the causes of peace.

Brothers and Sisters in Suffering

This morning I read an article from Ajahn Sumedho that inspired me to post this excerpt about our shared humanity. Thanks to Geoff Lovettf for the link.

In Thailand they say: “Brothers and sisters in suffering, old age, sickness and death.” When we think of ourselves as brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death, we stop the foolishness. But if we want to build up an army to fight, we can’t say we’re brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death. We have to say, `Those people over there are demons. The more you kill, the better. They don’t have any feelings. They like to bayonet babies and butcher old women. They have no respect for anything.’ And then you think, `Oh, I’m going to kill them.’ Propaganda is like that. It’s a way of making you think the best thing you can do is kill them. But in reflective knowledge we see the common bond — from the most despicable human being to the most saintly. That is a reflective teaching. We think, `Yes, yes, that is the truth. When you think about that — brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death — we’re all getting old and . . . ‘

Excerpted from Brothers and Sisters in Suffering, Old Age, Sickness and Death by Ajahn Sumedho.

Bridging the Gap: Compassion Starts Here

As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating compassion as vital to a spiritual life. Most of us want to be compassionate at heart yet at times we may struggle to manifest it skillfully in daily life. What happens when we see a homeless person on an empty street and we recoil rather than feeling a warm prod to reach out and help? Maybe a family member needs our support but we’ve had a long history of conflicts and misunderstandings and we struggle to extend a hand. Perhaps a co-worker who always seems aloof or combative has a tragic loss. Instead of feeling a sense of caring and interconnection with their suffering, we feel neutral, detached.

At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering is misaligned with our ideals. When we see this gap, we may feel even more separate. This can easily turn into self judgment and criticism: “I’m not a very compassionate person;” “I don’t have the courage to help;” or even, “that person doesn’t deserve kindness.”

When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that compassion won’t blossom until we accept our immediate reaction. This is the gap—when our response and our ideals are out of sync. Instead of identifying only with our ideals, or judging ourselves for an unwanted response, we can learn to stay in the gap, the open place where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. This is where compassion begins. Returning to this place, our bodies, our hearts, what is truly arising at this moment?

If you’re walking down the street and encounter a homeless person, can you see the moment aversion arises and just experience it? It may not happen immediately, but once you’re aware of it, take a few breaths and stay in the midst of your experience. As you learn to do this, your conditioned response will begin to diminish, even dismantle. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering directly. We know its not different from our own, just another flavor made manifest. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help. Sometimes the correct response is to distance ourselves if the situation seems unstable. But if there’s no immediate threat, perhaps simply a smile, an acknowledgement that we actually see this human being, is the kindest response. Longer term, we may seek out concrete ways to help if we feel moved in this direction.

The roots of suffering run deep. As we learn to stay in the gap, not turning away from our fear or aversion, a skillful and compassionate response is closer at hand. As Ajahn Chah puts it, “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.”