Friday, March 28, 2014

Empathy for the unempathetic

Hatred has never stopped hatred.
Only love stops hate.
This is the eternal law.

- The Still Point Dhammapada

It's not easy to love those who hate -- especially those who preach hate and shove their hatred in the faces of other people when they are most vulnerable, those like Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers picketed funerals and other events (reportedly more than 53,000) holding up hate-filled signs.

But hatred has never stopped hatred.

Meeting hate with hate creates the conditions for combustion. It increases separation, hardening the lines between us and them. It inflates our sense of self with the hot air of righteous indignation.

And it ensures that hatred will never stop. How could it? Even if the person you hate dies, others will carry their hate for them.

A lot of people hated Fred Phelps. The cruel protests he led sparked a visceral response -- a sense of outrage that someone would treat grieving families so horribly along with sympathy for the victims, which is probably not what he wanted.

But hating Fred Phelps or his actions didn't overcome them. Screaming hate-filled anger at a funeral is still screaming hate-filled anger, not the way we want to honor our loved ones.

In Buddhism, we're instructed to notice the strong emotion of hate arising but to act from a place of compassion. That's one of the hardest things to do. I can attain some equanimity around hatred in meditation, but to act, to come face-to-face with haters and stay in compassion, seems impossibly difficult.

But it happens.

It happened around Phelps' protests. Often when he announced his church would picket a funeral -- he always announced it, and sometimes that was all he did as the threat carried the hate with it -- the community would respond with an outpouring of people who stood between the protesters and those attending the funeral, a living river of compassion that aspired to sweep away the hate instead of feeding it.
And when Phelps died, his opponents responded at his church's next protests.

The Westboro Baptist Church members stood outside a Lorde concert in Kansas City this week. Megan Coleman, who helped make the banner, told NBC 41 Action News in Kansas City:

We realized it wasn't so much about antagonizing them, but sending out the counter-message, you know, that we are here for people that who need that message and need some positivity.

The Buddha's teaching of emptiness says that anything is possible -- we choose to hate or to love, to antagonize or to soothe. Our actions create our karma; our actions have consequences for us and for our world.

Choose love.

The photos above were used under Creative Commons license and can be found here and here. The other photos are screengrabs from the video, by NBC Action News.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Being Mindful About Mindfulness

The first time I saw Oprah Winfrey, who has a net worth of $2.9 billion, promoting mindfulness on the cover of O! Magazine, I was taken aback. I was fairly new to Buddhist studies then, and I was protective of the dharma. How did mindfulness -- the practice of recognizing what's going on in the present moment and noting the distractions of desire and despair as they arose -- fit with a magazine that promoted buying pretty things to make yourself happier? (O! highlights a monthly list of things Oprah likes -- that I could never afford.)

But Oprah persisted, and I made my peace with it. She introduced hundreds of thousands to Buddhist nun Pema Chodron's teachings and featured other Buddhist teachers along with fashion and food. Any increase in mindfulness is of benefit, I told myself.

But now I wonder whether that's true.

We're in the midst of a "Mindful Revolution," according to Time magazine, and mindfulness proliferates -- there are publications devoted to mindful money, schools, and eating. There's dozens of studies confirming its benefits: lower blood pressure, brain changes, improvements in immune system function, decreased symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and on and on. Much of the research looks at Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Harvard Medical School.

This is mindfulness divorced from Buddhist teachings on ethics and the development of wisdom. This is knowing what is without insight about how it came to be and how it might be different. (Josh Korda explains this aspect.)

Questions have been raised in several forums lately about whether mindfulness -- which so far has been found to have only beneficial effects on individuals' health and well being -- might be detrimental to society when separated from other aspects of spiritual development.

In an essay called "The Mindfulness Racket" Evgeny Morozov posits that mindfulness is being used to reinforce the status quo, especially among tech companies whose leaders now advocate for technology detoxes. He writes:

No wonder (Ariana) Huffington hopes that the pursuit of mindfulness can finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism. “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned — or at least that they can, and should, be,” she wrote in a recent column. “So yes, I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations — by emphasizing the notion that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line.”
Ironically, perhaps, he concludes by urging mindful use of mindfulness -- know why we're doing what we're doing, whether it's to be more rested and productive or to undermine the effects of technology promoted by the corporations. (In a further irony, there are ads for "sound meditation" interspersed in the article.)

On Salon, in an article called "Gentrifying the Dharma: How the 1% is Co-Opting Mindfulness," Joshua Eaton writes:

Corporate America has embraced mindfulness as a way to raise bottom lines without raising blood pressure — much to the chagrin of people ... who feel that Buddhism’s message is much more radical.

Eaton quotes Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who he says "has long argued that 'Western Buddhism,' as he calls it, is an ideal palliative for the stresses of life under late capitalism — their 'perfect ideological supplement.'
“It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game,” Žižek explains in a 2001 essay for Cabinet magazine, “while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.”
Several major corporations offer mindfulness programs to their employees, including Google, Coca-Cola, and General Mills.  

It was Google, in fact, that sparked much of the recent discussion of the role of mindfulness. At the Google-sponsored Wisdom 2.0 conference, protesters disrupted a panel of speakers from Google with charges that the company may be mindful but it's lacking in compassion.

One of the protesters, Amanda Ream, wrote about it in a blog post for Tricycle Magazine:

“Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but [they do so] without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. ... “The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.”

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini is a meditator and yoga practitioner who's used his bully pulpit to Bertolini announced a partnership between Aetna and actress Goldie Hawn designed to expand a school-based stress reduction program called MindUP that’s sponsored by The Hawn Foundation.
promote mindfulness. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on a panel led by Arianna Huffington,

A month later, Bertolini announced Aetna's annual profits: $1.9 billion for 2013.

How does a company mindfully spend $1.9 billion? It seems that it primarily rewards its stockholders -- and promises to continue doing so.

But corporations aren't people. They don't have hearts or minds. And corporations aren't necessarily mindful, even if they are filled with calm, compassionate workers who are present for each other and their customers. For all the good it may do to have happy workers, if they're functioning in a larger system that values profit over people, the value is limited.

In Salon, Curtis White and Andrew Cooper write about the contradictions between Buddhism and business.
In the literature of mindfulness as stress reduction for business, we’ve seen no suggestion that employees ought to think about — be mindful of — whether they or the company they work for practice right livelihood. Corporate mindfulness takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, Buddhism, and redefines it. Mindfulness becomes just another aspect of “workforce preparation.” Eventually, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.

The question is no longer whether mindfulness is good or whether it can find wider acceptance. The question is whether individuals can move from awareness of their own present moment to the their company's moment and to society's moment -- and how those are interdependent.

It takes wisdom and ethics, not just mindfulness, to make societal change.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in 1962:

If you do not specify and confront real issues, what you say will surely obscure them. If you do not embody controversy, what you say will be an acceptance of the drift to the coming human hell. 

Meditation is our way of identifying and seeing those issues. Acting with wisdom and skill, born of ethics, is how we change the drift of society so that it is headed away from individualistic and profane to enlightenment.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Honoring our women ancestors

Though they have no objective reality, gender constructs affect our place in society. They influence how much pay we receive for the jobs we do and the roles we play at home in the family. They affect which aspects of our personality we feel comfortable expressing and which we do not.They determine the clothes we wear, and they can impact our relationship to our own body ... This holds us back, limiting men and women to socially constructed boxes and causing a great deal of suffering for everyone." 
-the 17th Karmapa, Orgen Trinley Dorje

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day. While gender is -- on an ultimate level -- a projection, a construct, on a relative, or everyday, level, it matters. As the Karmapa says, it affects pay, appearance, how we're seen, how we're comfortable presenting ourselves.

For women, that's often meant not being seen, being comfortable with invisibility. But that diminishes everyone, not just women.

In Tibetan Buddhism, both the masculine and feminine qualities must be present -- and integrated -- for enlightenment to take place. Denying or hiding the feminine throws things out of balance. Bringing the feminine forward, then, is a step toward achieving balance, or equanimity.

In 2010 the Soto Zen Buddhist Association approved a document honoring women ancestors in the Zen tradition, the Zen Women Ancestors Document. Grace Shireson says that recognizing women ancestors "is a solid step toward bringing Buddhism more fully into the reality of Western life."

Because the historical women did not receive the same support as male practitioners, they were less
likely to become monastics, Shireson writes.  Women survived by banding together, offering support to their communities, not by withdrawing to remote locations and extoling the virtue of transcending worldy attachment.

"Women expressed their humanness and longing to actualize their vows amid daily life -- even as they lived with worldly attachments... Women's Zen teaching laments the loss of loved one and extols the beauty of life. No matter how deep their practice, their human heart is exposed."
The Zen document begins with Prajnaparamita -- the ground of being or womb of totality -- and moves through a list of dozens of names of women Zen practitioners. Without knowing the stories, the names may not mean much.

But the practice is available to us all. Every one of us had women ancestors. They may not show up in the formal lineage chants that Buddhists speak, but we could not be here without them.

I've been thinking about personal lineage lately as I've witnessed a friend reflect on his father's death and my teacher share about her mother's passing. I see that lineage is not just the line of practitioners that connects us to the ground of being; it's also the people whose DNA is in our bones, whose views were our views.

-- Think of a woman in your life -- a mother, aunt, teacher, mentor -- who helped you on your path in some concrete way. Consider what they've done for you and feel the preciousness of that auspicious connection.
-- Then think of someone you don't know in real life but who has inspired you through her example: An author, teacher, someone you saw on a video or heard speak or follow on Facebook or Twitter for daily doses of wisdom. Consider how this person has enriched your life.
-- And finally, consider the sacred feminine, the accepting, non-judgmental space of emptiness, and contemplate how you experience this. Maybe you carry Tara or Mother Mary or Sophia in your heart; maybe you're drawn to the moon. In the vajrayana, the feminine represents wisdom, space. (The masculine represents action.)

Recognize that, honor that. Sit in the presence of your personal women's lineage, and integrate it into your being.

Recognize that, honor that, and integrate it into your being.

We cannot become a buddha unless both the qualities that are labeled 'feminine' and those qualities that are labeled 'masculine' are present and integrated within us. ... It is beneficial and important for us to have all these qualities, regardless of the gender they are associated with.
-- the 17th Karmapa

Monday, March 3, 2014

Surrender to the present moment

“Surrender Dorothy,” the Wicked Witch of the West wrote in the sky in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” What she meant was, “Give up. Stop fighting. Stop struggling.” 

Taken out of the “us vs them” context, that doesn’t sound so bad. No fighting, no struggling – sounds pretty good, actually.

In Buddhism, surrender is not about handing over our power to another entity or becoming subservient. It’s about giving up, not giving in – as the song says, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield … ain’t gonna study war no more.” It’s about surrendering our small, limited concept of ourselves in order to see the larger, interconnected, fullness of being. We give up the things that keep us trapped and gain freedom.

Surrender is similar to the concept of renunciation in Tibetan Buddhism. In “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Pema Chodron writes that “it has to go with letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teachings of the present moment.”

What we surrender are the self-defensive strategies that keep us separate from others, that lock us into the self-other binary. Instead of measuring ourselves and our accomplishments against others, clinging to what we’ve managed to accumulate, we see that we can be OK without that. “The ground … is realizing that we already have exactly what we need, that what we have already is good,” Chodron says.

It’s also seeing that everyone stands on that same ground, that everyone is inherently whole and worthy of respect and dignity. If we are truly living in that place, there’s no need to struggle, to fight for a bigger piece of the pie, to try to defeat everyone else and come out on top.

Letting go, surrendering the things that keep us apart and opposed ends the struggle and lets us relax.
“The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, through understanding and gradual training,” Jack Kornfield writes in “A Path with Heart.” … “When we let go of our battles and open our hearts to things as they are, then we can come to rest in the present moment.”