Monday, May 27, 2013

Best graduation speech ever

Joss Whedon ’87 delivered the Wesleyan Commencement Address on May 26:

This is going to be great. This is going to be a good one. It’s gonna go really well.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and… no. I’m not that lazy.
I actually sat through many graduations. When I was siting where you guys were sitting, the speaker was Bill Cosby—funny man Bill Cosby, he was very funny and he was very brief, and I thanked him for that. He gave us a message that I really took with me, that a lot of us never forgot, about changing the world. He said, “you’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.”
That was it. He didn’t buy that back at all. And then he complained about buying his daughter a car and we left. I remember thinking, “I think I can do better. I think I can be a little more inspiring than that.”
And so, what I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.
This is a good commencement speech because I’m figuring it’s only going to go up from here. It can only get better, so this is good. It can’t get more depressing. You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.
I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”
And it is a contradiction. And that’s actually what I’d like to talk to you about. The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have, and hopefully, I can explain that.
Joss Whedon received an honorary degree.
Joss Whedon received an honorary degree.

But first let me say when I talk about contradiction, I’m talking about something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, that two roads diverged in the woods and you took the path less traveled. Part of you is just going, “Look at that path! Over there, it’s much better. Everyone is traveling on it. It’s paved, and there’s like a Starbucks every 40 yards. This is wrong. In this one, there’s nettles and Robert Frost’s body—somebody should have moved that—it just feels weird. And not only does your mind tell you this, it is on that other path, it is behaving as though it is on that path. It is doing the opposite of what you are doing. And for your entire life, you will be doing, on some level, the opposite—not only of what you were doing—but of what you think you are. That is just going to go on. What you do with all your heart, you will do the opposite of. And what you need to do is to honor that, to understand it, to unearth it, to listen to this other voice.
You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness-but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.
I talk about this contradiction, and this tension, there’s two things I want to say about it. One, it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.
The other reason is because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.
Now, if you do, does this mean that you get to change the world? Well, I’m getting to that, so just chill. All I can say to this point is I think we can all agree that the world could use a little changing. I don’t know if your parents have explained this to you about the world but… we broke it. I’m sorry… it’s a bit of a mess. It’s a hard time to go out there. And it’s a weird time in our country.
The thing about our country is—oh, it’s nice, I like it—it’s not long on contradiction or ambiguity. It’s not long on these kinds of things. It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite. That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who is spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it.
This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.
Freedom is not freedom from connection. Serial killing is freedom from connection. Certain large investment firms have established freedom from connection. But we as people never do, and we’re not supposed to, and we shouldn’t want to. We are individuals, obviously, but we are more than that.
So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before.
And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are—not in a clich├ęd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense—the future. After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just been yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.

Remember the Dead. Love the Living.



Many years ago my family was visiting friends on Memorial Day. My youngest child was an infant; the older one was 2. My friends' sons were marching in her small midwestern town's Memorial Day parade. Another visitor offered to stay at the house with the baby while the rest of us went to the parade -- which she viewed as a glorification of war.

<--break->
It can be seen like that. Or it can be a day off from work, the start of the summer season, a day for picnics and parks and beaches and beer.

Two decades later, I'm struck by the ages of the war dead, how much life I've lived in the years beyond the ones they attained.

Sit quietly and contemplate:

Death is real. It comes without warning.
This body will be a corpse.

Feel whatever comes up for you.

Contemplate that those who died serving in wars were human, just like you. And that while they may have had more warning that death was near, given the conditions they were in, they hoped as much as you do that it would not come today. Their families hoped that they would come home alive, not in a coffin, not in pieces.

This human life is precious: Yours, mine, theirs, everyone's. Can you see that in the faces you meet today? Let the knowledge of death open your heart to the living.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Here is a touching article about preparing the war dead for their funerals.
Sergeant Deynes began putting the final touches on Captain Blanchard’s uniform immediately after it returned from the base tailor, who had sewn captain’s bars onto the jacket shoulders and purple and gold aviator braids onto the sleeves — three inches above the bottom, to be exact. The sergeant starched and pressed a white shirt, ironed a crease into the pants, steamed wrinkles out of the jacket and then rolled a lint remover over all of it, twice.
Gently, he laid the pieces onto a padded table. Black socks protruded from the pants and white gloves from the sleeves. The funeral would be a closed coffin, but it all still had to look right.
“They are not going to see it,” he said. “I do it for myself.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
And here is Wilfred Owen's World War I poem, Dulce Et Dedorum Est
(The words mean "It is sweet and right to die for your country")

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How to act Like an Enlightened Being



This is Part 2 of a talk given at Unitarian Universalist Society: East on May 26.
Buddhist teacher Noah Levine says that everyone has buddhanature – but few chose to do the work to awaken.  And it is work. We have those glimpses of our enlightened nature all the time, but we don’t live from there.

Much of Buddhist practice – from the simplicity of zazen, or Zen Buddhist meditation, to the elaborate bells and drums and thangka paintings used by Tibetan Buddhists – is designed to help us get in touch with our awakened nature for longer stretches of time and to develop familiarity with that feeling – to “bake it into the bones,” as one of my teachers says – so that it becomes our default setting and we go there more easily during our ordinary lives.

I want to focus on the Paramitas, or the Six Perfections. “Paramita” literally means to cross over. These are the actions of awakened beings – they’re also the actions of unawakened beings. The difference is in the intention. I see them as ways to put our Unitarian-Universalist principles into action.

The first is generosity. Nothing new there. Each week we share our gifts during the offering in terms of treasure, and we share our time by being here and our talents in our interactions. Generosity as practiced on the road to enlightenment is a practice of selflessness; we give without reservation or judgment, without wondering whether it’s enough or whether the person sitting next to you saw how much you put in – or whether you put anything in.

“Transcendent generosity is simply a willingness to be open and do whatever is
necessary in the moment, without any philosophical or religious rationale,” writes Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in his book “Rebel Buddha.” In monetary terms, you give what you can afford and what is appropriate. But you also give reassurance, praise where due, a smile. It’s a generosity of spirit, more than anything.

I see this as connected to our principles of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, and in promoting justice, equity, and compassion. When we are willing to be with someone simply because we are both human beings, when we give what is needed without regard to how it makes us look or what the reaction will be, when we give because we see that all beings – ourselves and others – share the same nature, we are putting those principles into practice.

The second paramita is discipline. The practice of discipline as a transcendent action is to “maintain a sense of mindfulness and awareness of your actions and the affect of those actions on others,” Ponlop Rinpoche says. He speaks specifically of discipline in
terms of anger – of recognizing when anger is arising in you and stopping before you splatter your anger onto others. In the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings, anger is related to wisdom, so that if you can recognize anger arising, you can see what the wisdom is – an injustice, an insult – and see the wise response that moves the situation toward connection rather than separation.

This connects to the right of conscience and the democratic process. We’ve all seen anger play out in the democratic process in recent years in ways that many of us have found disturbing. Yet that anger is revealing – it’s a fireworks display of internal fears and doubts. If we can be mindful of what we say and how we say it, we can have civilized discourse that allows difference.

The third is patience. Patience, in this light, is not forbearance or endurance. It’s connected with discipline and with the practice of responding rather than reacting. When you react, it’s habitual – you’ve acted that way before. When you respond, you’re in touch with what’s in front of you and acting from that.

Instead of reacting impulsively, Ponlop Rinpoche says, you become curious about the situation. If someone is upset at you, you connect with their emotion – pain, frustration, disappointment -- rather than feeling attacked. “It’s a voice of concern for the pain that is touching you and others equally and the thought of how to relieve it,” he says. 

Again, this practice extends to yourself. When you’re frustrated with your progress, you rely on the practice of patience to stay with the feelings and let the emotion settle so that you can get a clear view of what’s happening. Is something really not working – or are you angry or hurt because you’re not getting instant results? Patience helps you return to balance, brings you back from getting lost in a thicket of emotions or
intellectual thought. In that way, it’s connected to the free and responsible search for truth and to acceptance and encouragement in spiritual growth. Patience says, keep searching. The path is made by walking.

Next is diligence. We may think of diligence as connected with keeping our noses to the grindstone, but Buddhism connects it with delight. It does not mean that we spend all of our time in esoteric practices but that we make all of life our practice. “Diligence is energy, the power that keeps makes everything happen. It’s like the wind, a driving force that keeps us moving along the path. Where does this energy come from? It comes from the enjoyment and satisfaction we experience as we get further into the path.”

This is connected with all the principles as it is with all of life. Do we see the inherent worth and dignity of every being we meet? Do we encourage others to search for truth even if we think we know the answer? Do we support democracy even when we lose?

The fifth paramita is meditation. In Buddhism this is related to specific practices. For
non-Buddhists, though, it means making time for whatever feeds you spiritually, whatever makes you feel whole. If that’s being in nature, make time to do that. If it’s music, carve out time for that. Same for reading, dance, being with others, art, Suduko … only you know what takes you out of your mundane mind and social roles. Do it. In Buddhism, busyness is seen as a form of laziness – you use activity to avoid being with yourself. Setting aside time for what rejuvenates you is as important as attending a committee meeting.

Finally, the last paramita is wisdom or knowledge. This connects with respect for the interdependent web of all existence because that’s the wisdom at work here. Everything is interconnected. That’s what we’ve learned from diligently and consistently working with generosity and patience and mindfulness, from seeing that all of our actions have consequences for ourselves and others. It is a gnosis, a knowing that is beyond words.

Jack Kornfield says that we exist in an interconnected web of “wholeness amidst a sea of Buddhas, visible whenever we open the eyes of love and wisdom.”

He writes:

Years ago, Ram Dass went to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, to ask, “How can I best be enlightened?” His guru answered, “Love people.” When he asked about the most direct path to awakening, his guru answered, “Feed people. Love people and feed people. Serve the divine in every form.” …

Service is the expression of the awakened heart. But whom are we serving? It is ourselves. When someone asked Ghandi how he could so continually sacrifice himself for India, he replied, “I do this for myself alone.” When we serve others, we serve ourselves. The Upanishads call this “God feeding God.”
It’s the same if you say buddhas feeding buddhas. Or humans feeding humans. Our enlightenment happens when we see that all beings are enlightened, in their nature if not their actions, and we meet their enlightened nature with our own.

What is enlightenment?



This is Part I of a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on May 26.
You know how it’s said that the Native People in the northern climates – in my childhood we called them Eskimos – have 50 words for snow?  It’s very important to them to know the condition of the snow to make their plans for the day or the month, so they developed lots of descriptive words to note subtle differences.

For Buddhists, the word “enlightenment” is kind of like that. Enlightenment is the promise of the Buddhist path, and it has many synonyms – grace, basic goodness, awakening, buddhanature, ground of being, original mind. The Buddha didn’t call himself enlightened.

This is the account given by religious historian Huston Smith in his book “Buddhism:


Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him … asking what he was. “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “Are you an angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?”

Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root “budh” denotes both to wake up and to know. Buddha, then, means “The Enlightened One” or the “Awakened One.” While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking state of human life, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dreamlike vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.

Let me ask you, did you wake up this morning? Obviously, because you’re here, sitting upright. 

Now let me ask this: Are you enlightened?

 Yeah, you are. 

“Nobody believes his or her life is perfect,” says Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless.”

Buddhism begins with a man. Not quite an ordinary man. A rather well-off man. But just a man – no divine parents, no divine interventions.  His parents, like all good parents, tried to shield him from the disturbing things in the world; they kept him on the grounds of their home, controlling the environment as much as possible. But one day he snuck out, with the help of one of his servants, and he saw sickness, old age, and death for the first time. He was disturbed by it and wanted to understand it. So he left his parents’ home and became a spiritual seeker. 

According to Joseph Campbell, the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment fits into the archetype of the hero myth – like Odysseus or Luke Skywalker. After an awakening to the conditions of the world he renounces the comforts of his princely home. He struggles to find answers in various spiritual disciplines, then sits down under a tree and vows to stay there until it all makes sense. In the fourth and final stage of the archetypal journey, he wakes up and sees the interconnectedness of all existence. 

And that’s where many hero myths end -- although Disney now plans to continue the Star Wars saga beyond Episode 6, which was originally Episode 3 before the prequels. Perhaps Buddhism today is the equivalent of Episode 2563, in which subsequent beings continue to aspire to the same realizations the Buddha had that night and still use his map to attain enlightenment in a world that seems to have little in common with the one he lived in.

It is said that the Buddha was reluctant to try to teach what he had discovered because it is experiential, not something easily reduced to words. He was asked to survey the world with his eye of wisdom and see that there were many beings who could benefit from his teachings. Out of deep compassion for their suffering, the Buddha went on to teach for 45 years before dying after eating a piece of bad meat.
 There are numerous versions of this story from different traditions, some very simple, some very elaborate. Most likely, none of them are precisely factual.

Here’s what is important:

Buddhism begins with a man. A human. And it ends with a human – who dies a human death. The Buddha set the example for his followers – upon attaining enlightenment, he stayed in this world and lived in this world – the same world -- in the same body with no super powers except the ability to see what is real.

For Buddhists, that hasn’t changed. Enlightenment isn’t a free pass to a new realm where all pain and suffering stops. It’s simply a new way to live in the world that we’re already in. And not only do we live in the same world, but we are the same people. For what the Buddha discovered when he became enlightened – in what Campbell calls 
the "Great Awakening" stage of the hero myth -- is the same realization the Dorothy, the archetypal heroine of "The Wizard of Oz," found at the end of her journey:  Everything she wanted, everything she had battled so hard to get, was right here -- picture Judy Garland in her blue gingham jumper touching her heart as she gazes into Auntie Em;s eyes -- it was right here, all along.
And it is in you.


Enlightenment is our true nature and our home, but the complexities of human life cause us to forget. That forgetting feels like exile, and we make elaborate structures of habit, conviction, and strategy to defend against its desolation. But this condition isn’t hopeless; it’s possible to dismantle those structures so we can return from an exile that was always illusory to a home that was always right under our feet.

Enlightenment is our true nature … but let me ask, do you feel enlightened right now? Have you had the feeling of being enlightened – of being awake, let’s say. I bet you have. In fact, I’m sure you have.
People go away for things called “enlightenment intensives,” where they engage in activities that are meant to put them in touch with their enlightened nature. You can spend thousands of dollars for a few days in a tent in the desert with a guru who guarantees you enlightenment. You can. But you don’t have to. Enlightenment is much more ordinary than that. It’s always with us – we’re constantly flickering in and out of contact with it. It gets obscured by concepts and constructs, social conventions and cultural conditioning that are like soap scum and fog on a mirror, blocking us from a clear view.

ChogyamTrungpa Rinpoche describes it as a state in which body and mind are synchronized. It’s the fusion of awareness and what it is aware of, the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.
Toni Packer describes it like this:

Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.

Now, let’s meditate.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

And she will be smart

Speaking to an audience at the University of Oregon last week, the Dalai Lama discussed the possibility that his successor could be a woman. Women, he said, are more sensitive, compassionate, and nurturing. He pointed to his own mother and listed the maternal characteristics women share.

 And then he leaned forward, as if to share a confidence with the thousands of people there. "And she will be attractive!" he said, and leaned back laughing.

I have the deepest respect for the Dalai Lama, and I watch his talks as often as I can because I think he is genuinely lovely, kind, and respectful. He is an amazing balance of qualities: happy, serious, intelligent, accessible, caring, and firm. I appreciate his support for women, including, I'm told, the often-neglected Tibetan nuns.

I am sad, though, that he describes women this way, using maternal stereotypes and bringing in looks, even as a joke.

Lama Tsultrim Allione, a New Hampshire native who became a Tibetan nun and now leads a dharma center devoted to promoting the feminine, says she was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism precisely because it presented a fuller view of women than western society. 

"What I found powerful was the blissful and active aspect of the feminine," she says. "The dakini is powerful and naked -- and she's wise." Dakinis, the female embodiment of wisdom in Tibetan iconography, are also wrathful and spiritual.

"The positive feminine isn't only about that compassion aspect," she says.

His Holiness certainly knows that. Despite his forward-looking work in science and his incredible compassion, he's a 20th century monk when it comes to discussing gender. Dalai Lama is a difficult job -- he's the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans, the face of Buddhism to much of the world. I hope his successor is compassionate and kind and wise and fierce and blissful -- and an extraordinarily gifted woman who can overcome the opposition her position would generate.

So much dharma in the drama

I was telling a Buddhist teacher about the latest drama in my life, and the farther I got into my twisted tale of miscommunication and projection, the bigger his smile got. "This is great!" he enthused. "You've got so much to work with!"


One of the great gifts of Buddhist practice is that you can stop seeing life as a series of unfortunate events that make your path more difficult and start seeing it as territory to explore. Maybe you don't welcome it with the great good cheer with which the teacher greeted my situation, but you get curious. Here's a roadblock -- what is its shape, color, texture? Does it remind you of another roadblock? What is the feeling in your body, and what is its shape, color, and texture? Is it really a road block -- do you have to change direction? -- or can it be surmounted or passed through? How do you relate to that roadblock -- and who are you when relating to it? Can you see it clearly? Can you meet it with compassion?

Many times you discover those roadblocks as you walk the path with companions. That's why sangha -- the community -- is up there with the Buddha (the example of a person achieving enlightenment) and the dharma, or teachings. You practice meditation; you live Buddhism as you walk in the world. You find your rough edges when you rub up against others.

I used to say a refuge vow from Thich Nhat Hanh that included: "I take refuge in the sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness ... Dwelling in the refuge of the sangha, I am supported by its shining light that keeps my pathway free from obstacles."

That has not been my experience of sangha; I have not spent time With Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers. For me, being in a sangha is like being a rock in a tumbler, where the barrel spins and the rocks knock
together to get the dirt off.

Josh Korda, the teacher at Dharma Punx NYC, writes about the importance of other people to our practice here:
Until we develop the courage to open up in partnership with others, we bury many of natural and authentic vulnerabilities beneath all of our reactive coping strategies: suspicion, doubt, micromanaging, suspicion, defensiveness, knowing-it-all, seeking attention at all cost. As a result we wall ourselves off from deep emotional connection, believing we are safer when our thoughts take charge but our hearts are not engaged.
Emotional connection is necessary to enlightenment. Sounds odd, does it? We think of enlightened beings as above it all, free from the roller-coaster ride our emotions take us on. And it's true that enlightenment is about equanimity -- nonattachment -- with those emotions. But it's not possible to really know interconnectedness, to see the basic goodness in everything and every one without feeling it in your emotional center.

Believing rationally and intellectually that all beings have buddhanature is just the start; you have to know it. And that starts with knowing it in yourself.

"Whoever steps beyond individual self and connects with eternity is naturally drawn back to community. This is how we express the heart's realization, by bringing it to maturity with others," Jack Kornfield says in "After Ecstacy, The Laundry."

Korda again:
When we take the risk to step out from behind the wall of our social mask, we grant ourselves and others a safe space to be authentic. In being vulnerable we may experience, at times, the feeling of not being met, understood, or wounded. Yet we must continue. For the real misery and emotional pain lies in staying remote and hiding behind our views and opinions, rather than our empathy and compassion. The reward of taking risks and daring to be emotionally exposed is that, with persistence, it will lead to real deep connection and growth in unison with others.

We're all just walking each other home.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy All Beings Have Been Your Mother Day

Traditional Buddhist teachings tell us that we should love all beings because -- over the course of many lifetimes -- everyone has been your mother in one of them. In traditional Buddhist southeast Asian cultures, this is a valid metaphor for creating an attitude of love, respect, and gratitude for all beings.

Here in the west, that ain't necessarily so. Our relationships with our mothers are fraught with tension. We rebel against them, seek to separate from them, blame them for our messed-up psyches. So if you tell a westerner that all beings have been there mother, instead of unlocking a well of love and respect you might find the thought, "So that's why they're so hard to get along with."

Buddhism also tells us that those two aspects can co-exist -- can co-arise -- that there is wisdom and confusion in each. At the very least, some woman somewhere enabled you to be born, to experience this precious human life. If that had not happened, there would not be pain but there also would not be joy. Gratitude for your human birth and existence contains some measure of gratitude toward your mother.

If you are a mother yourself, you realize the impossibility of perfectly filling that role. "Raising a girl has similarities to looking closely into one of those magnifying mirrors where you can see every little pore and hair," a friend posted on Facebook this week.

Achingly true. But as an adult -- especially one with a Buddhist practice -- you can look at the flaws with kind eyes. Loving your child and watching them go through the same things you went through allows you to soften the judgments you made back then (and may have solidified into a personal history that makes you who you are today). You may also find yourself softening your judgments about your parents once you realize how hard it is to know just what to do as a parent yourself.

A million times a day you meet moments where you can react from habit -- reactions you probably developed in your own childhood -- or you can meet freshly and be present with what's going on now. Of course, that happens for everyone, parent or not, but when that moment is looking at you with a smaller version of the same face you see when you look in the mirror, it is particularly piercing.

And when they stumble over the same roadblocks that tripped you up, you can hand down your reaction -- or help them find their own. As you mindfully look for the words or gestures that your child needs during a difficult time, you may discover what you needed. And you may be able to provide that to your inner child -- which may allow that child to mature (at last).
(Buddhist and psychologist John Welwood says that the ego -- which Buddhist practice seeks to dismantle -- is "a child version of the self." Buddhist practices for shedding the ego are also a way of nurturing your inner child so they can grow up.)

Mother's Day calls for metta all around. Here is a practice that I love, based on teachings by Noah Levine:

Get into a meditative posture and ground your self with mindfulness meditation for a few minutes.

Think back in your life to your earliest childhood memories. If you can't call up a memory, maybe
you have a photo you can recall or think of a young child you know or have seen. Say to your younger self: I see you. I care for you. I love you.
Move up through your life at intervals -- maybe every three years, if you're young, or every eight or 10 if you're older. Look for sticky places, those spots where you felt unlovable at the time. See yourself, accept yourself, and love yourself. Or aspire to.
Continue up to the present day.
Then, if you like, go back and go through the years, bringing to mind your mother. Can you see your mother -- as a human in those moments of chaos and confusion? Can you care for her? Can you love her? If you can't use those words, find ones that express what you can say, genuinely.
And extend to all beings.

Know this: No parent starts with the intention of destroying a child's life. Some have very confused ideas about how to protect and love children that may be at odds with what that child needs. But that parent is doing the best they can with what they know.

* * * * *

I wanted to share this perspective:

Anne Lamott, in an essay on Salon.com called "Why I Hate Mother's Day," laments that Mother's Day elevates parents above the child-free and hurts those who have lost their mothers or had mothers who didn't meet their needs. Her view feels a bit extreme to me, but I like her conclusion, that our gratitude should be extended to all those who have nurtured us and filled a maternal role in our lives:

No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day, but no one is more often blamed for the culture’s bad people and behavior. You want to give me chocolate and flowers? That would be great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.
 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Another meditator heads to Congress

Mark Sanford, who on Tuesday was elected to Congress by South Carolina voters, reveals he turned to meditation after the spectacular implosion of his political career as governor of that state after the revelation of his trip to Argentina in pursuit of a woman while he told his wife and staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Interviewed on the campaign trail, the Republican said he retreated to his remote family farm after he left office and began studying meditation, a practice he continues to this day.
Mark Sanford meets with voters at Whole Foods. (Cristina Caraballo)
"A buddy of mine said, 'Mark, you're becoming a Buddhist Christian.' I come from the after Christian faith. That's my faith tradition. But  I do like about Buddhism is the idea of being present," Sanford said. "I think that that's missed in Western culture, where we're so busy looking a week out, two weeks out, a month out, a year out, and we're hurried and we're busy. And I think if there's any one thing I learned from that year I spent on the farm in the wake of getting out of office and just having a very, very quiet year, is the importance of stillness and quietness. And that extends beyond just the physical location. It extends really into the moment of, are you really with that person or are you thinking of the next thing you've got to do? So I do like very much that part of Buddhism. I think it's right."
Sanford declined to describe his meditation techniques, but said, "I've tried to be disciplined about a quiet time each day."
His practice was evident earlier in the interview as he spoke to shoppers individually at campaign stops:
"My view is, bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes," Sanford said. "If you can just keep moving as an individual and you're present — I don't want to sound Buddhist on you—but you're in the moment. You're present with them, you actually can have a real conversation. You can talk about issues that they like, what they don't like, in a way that you can't if you have a crowd."
Maybe he and Rep. Tim Ryan, author of "A Mindful Nation," can start a meditation group on Capitol Hill. Maybe they could move from mindfulness to cultivating compassion.


May it benefit all beings.

Note: Sanford's not the first famous adulterer to find solace in Buddhism.

Photos of Sanford with voters at Whole Foods by Cristina Caraballo, from Yahoo.