The news is thick and fast these days and people are asking, “How are you managing these days?” I recall the time, when I was very young and the United States was fighting in WW2, that I awoke every morning to my parents worriedly listing to the radio for the latest news. We had air raid drills in school that were practice alerts for the possible eventuality a real raid. I did not understand the scope of what was going on, and it was certainly far away—I knew that—but still, I felt nervous in response to the tension around me. I have a sense that these days of unsettled government must feel that way to young children now. People get up and turn on the TV to see what happened during the night. No matter what voting choice people made, I think everyone feels upset by a sense of vulnerability, of not being safe.
Mostly, in teaching situations I respond to questions like, “What is the Dharma response to what’s going on?” by saying, “I try to stay balanced. I try to remember that the startle I am feeling from the news I am just hearing will not help me figure out my best response. If I can say to myself, “This is what is happening now. Let’s see what happens next,” I am calmed by remembering that there will be a “next” and I can prepare for it best by steadying my mind. Then I actively respond. I phone my senators and my local congressman. I exercise my right as a citizen to be heard. Even when I am most disturbed about what is happening, I feel good to be engaged and active. I leave messages, mostly electronically but sometimes to a real person. When I am finished with those calls and the requests to forward or write or sign resistance documents that come by email, I phone my friends.
I phone like-minded friends, people who are concerned, as I am, about the future of the world for generations to come. In many cases they are people I’ve known for years, people with whom I marched for civil rights and an end to the arms race and an end to war and a woman’s right to choose and an end to the death penalty. Sometimes we say things to amuse each other like, “Didn’t we already do this?” and, “Honestly, I have the same zeal as ever but not the same strength!”
I do not feel discouraged when I surround myself, in person or on Skype or on the phone with noble friends, the people the Buddha called “the whole of the holy life!”
When I was a young mother I think I thought about protecting my closest kin, especially my children. As I have gotten old, I see my view has widened, by itself, to the world of everyone’s children. Mine, of course, but everyone else’s too, because otherwise it would not be a real world.
The Buddha taught that “whatever the mind ponders and dwells on, by that is it shaped.” In these difficult times, it’s uplifting to see kind messaging like some of the commercials presented before and during yesterday’s Super Bowl.
Coca Cola brought back their 2014 commercial that proclaims “America Is Beautiful.”
Liane Rief was a classmate of mine at Barnard College for Women from 1952 until 1956. We were Chemistry majors and although there were not many of us, I did not get to know her personally. I remember her as being quiet and industrious. It was not until decades after graduation, sitting next to her at dinner at an alumnae weekend, that I learned that she had been a passenger on the St. Louis, the ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler in 1939 that had been refused entry into the United States. I was surprised not to have known before, but have come since to understand that survivors of the Holocaust were often reticent to talk about their experience, both because it was so terrible to remember and also because remembering brought with it memories of those who did not survive.
In recent years, reading more about the politics of those terrible years, I discovered that President Franklin Roosevelt was persuaded by his aides not to allow the ship to dock because it would “label him as a Jew-lover and cost him the next election.” That was another moment of rude and sad political awakening for me.
Today I phoned the offices of my senators and congressman to register my opposition to the sudden and unwarranted closing of borders to refugees from particular countries. If the voice mail is full, you can email your comments. And, I signed this petition from T’ruah.
I hope you make your voice heard too.
I thought of my mother often, yesterday, as I marched in the Oakland Women’s March. Her politics, when I was a child in the 1940s, were informed and very progressive. She supported labor unions, did not cross picket lines, and took me into the voting booth to show me how she pulled levers to support the candidates she favored. She wore dangling earrings that read FDR during one election campaign, in a neighborhood where our voting did not match most other people’s. She went to work as a typist at a county hospital right out of high school to help support her family. I’ve always felt her confidence and courage and resolve in me. I was a very young mother when she died, but I have felt her spirit in me as I marched, with my children, in protest marches in the 1960s, as I lobbied for and taught the first Women’s Studies Course at College of Marin in 1972, as I got arrested for civil disobedience for protesting the United States invasion of Afghanistan. I was among the older people at yesterday’s march but a friend and teaching colleague of mine was marching with his five year old son riding on his shoulders. People sometimes ask, “How can I teach mindfulness to my children?” I think what they means is, “How can I teach thoughtfulness and kindness?” I think we do it by taking our children with us to see how we move in the world.
My blogs are often illustrated by my daughter Elizabeth. Here is an Instagram post by her daughter Honor. Also about the march yesterday.
The signs said it all: Women’s Rights are Human Rights. The Best Quality is E-quality. An End to Racism. Replacing Hate with Real Love. Sisters United. Men in Support of Women. And, of course, the signs that I won’t repeat (my age and my sense of modesty prevails) but that I nevertheless laughed at. And the crowds of women flooding the streets with pink pussy-cat hats. Women of all colors and all ages and all abilities. I cried a little each time I saw a woman leading an obviously disabled child by the hand, steering carefully through the surging crowds or women pushing other women in wheel chairs. I felt as if all the individual signs added up to saying, “Everyone who has felt frightened and demeaned is here to say, together, ‘NO!’ We will resist.” The streets of Oakland were so jammed full of people that it took an hour after the march officially started for me to take the first steps forward on the route. I felt, for myself, that I needed to be there because I represent old. Riding on the BART train to the starting place, people tried to stand up to give me their seat which didn’t happen because the train was so packed that no one could move until it pulled into the station and we all poured out into the street. It was a long day and/but I feel buoyed up by the positive air of peaceful protest that has begun today and promises to continue.
Ananda, the Buddha’s trusted disciple, asked, “Is it true that noble friends are half of the holy life?” The Buddha replied, “No, Ananda, that is not true. Noble friends are the whole of the holy life.”
(I love these photos from marches across the country and around the world!)
“The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world”….is what President Obama said at his last press conference before leaving the presidency. It reminded me of the famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration speech in which he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In both statements I hear the wisdom of the Buddha explaining that the ability of the mind to stay reasonably balanced in the face of an potentially alarming challenge allows for the possibility of a thoughtful, effective response rather than a frenzied, impulse driven reaction. I am very concerned about what seems to me to be a new government prepared to reverse the socially progressive democracy that has been in the process of being built over the last 70 years. As the child of immigrants who arrived in America impoverished and uneducated, I rejoice at having been part of my parent’s dream for me and my children. As I have watched the millennial generation erase boundaries of race, sexuality, and gender, I have delighted in thinking of the world my great-grandchildren will be part of. Now, on the eve of a new government, fear arises in me as I hear signals that forward progress will reverse. I am trying to avoid imagining the worst possible scenarios, those that evoke fear that clouds my mind and makes clear planning impossible. I will go out and march on Saturday. I will continue to sign petitions and vote for officials who support my view. I will stand up and be counted. I will try to do it in the company of friends. Knowing I am not alone is the counteractive to fear. Now is not the time to be invisible.
Images generously shared by artist Shepard Fairey
NYPD Detective Steven McDonald died last week. His story is a gift and inspiration. Although this account of wisdom manifesting as forgiveness does not need anything extra to make its point, I'll add a line that a man named Tom, in a class I taught many, many years ago, said to me after I'd spoken about the futility of anger: "Well Sylvia, I'm sure you know that forgiveness is the price you have to pay for freedom."
Here's Steven McDonald's story. May it encourage your heart, as it did mine.
Yesterday, I was explaining the way the Buddha’s message about the possibility of being engaged in the world, challenging as it inevitably is, without being overwhelmed by it. I was specifically quoting the Buddha’s message to monks he had trained who were venturing into the larger world to spread those teaching of liberation. What he said, in contemporary language is, “Go forth and teach this important understanding in the idiom of the people.” That message, “Teach so that you can be understood so that what you say is helpful,” is endlessly inspiring to me. I used the image we find in the back of airline in-flight magazines where all the routes of that particular carrier are arcs branching out from a central hub. I was saying that, in the time of the Buddha, teaching monks traveled by foot so that it took centuries for the Buddha’s philosophy to spread from India across China and Tibet to the China Sea. In my mind’s eye, I see images of little monks walking those arcs across Asia and then rowing across to Japan in little boats.
These days, I see these same arcs in my mind as I write this blog, or sign a petition that someone has offered up for support. I’m thrilled by the idea that a good cause, a good new idea, can spread over the whole world in a day. Late last night I decided to start a petition on Change.org and I realized, as I wrote it, that the very decision to start to do something that I believed would be helpful, one particular way to reduce suffering in the world, made me feel better even before I was done with the writing. I felt empowered. Here is the link to the petition I wrote. I hope you’ll open it right now and sign it and send it to everyone on your list. It is about our political system, but it is not partisan. You can send it to everyone. I hope you will feel engaged, part of an arc of a good idea being spread out along lanes of friends.
“Public pressure has a very real impact on political power. Don’t be silent. Don’t be invisible.” –Charles M. Blow, NY Times
Here comes inauguration day. As many of you know, I am a progressive voter and this past election season and the November election dismayed me. I’ve been thinking about what I could I do or say that could make a difference.
This morning I read the New York Times opinion piece by Charles M. Blow and was heartened and encouraged to take action. I am not going to turn on the TV coverage of the inauguration on January 20th. On January 21st, I’m planning to participate in one of the many women’s marches that are happening across the country in solidarity with that day's Women’s March on Washington to highlight support for women’s issues. Perhaps if enough people take enough positive steps, our collective voices will be heard!
I just heard on the news that around the world today an extra second is being added to the universal clock time (used to be called Greenwich Mean, now it’s something else) because the earth wobbles just enough in its orbit that it comes up one second short in matching cumulative time and orbital time. Apparently, it does that periodically and needs to be corrected. The last correction was seven years ago. I had the thought, as I heard that, that ten seconds put aside for a correction, with instructions that the whole world tune into some shared frequency and listen to the ten second message, could change the world. Here is the Pablo Neruda poem, Keeping Quiet, that I had carried with me every place I teach for many years waiting for the chance to read it.
Happy New Year
I heard on the radio yesterday how airports and highway patrol and train stations are preparing for the extra number of people expected to be traveling this Thanksgiving weekend. They called it the Superbowl of Travel Days. I was touched by the idea that everyone seems to want to go home and spend time with kin. I was sad to hear, right after the election two weeks ago, that some families are cancelling their Thanksgiving gathering because individual family members are not willing to sit down with people who voted differently from the way that they had. I hope most of them have relaxed enough to remember the many other dimensions of relationships that have endured over years. Even the awkward moments, “Remember Uncle Charlie’s bad jokes” and, “Margaret brought that same terrible pie year after year,” that endure even after people die, are part of the legacy conversation of family meals. My children, all adults now, already tease about “Remember what Mom and Dad used to say…” at family dinners. Stories and reminiscences are the glue that connects us to a group of people who fill out our identity. Everyone who has been part of our life is part of who we are now.
I am looking forward to sitting down with nineteen people this afternoon and I feel grateful that they are all still there and I am still there. For incalculable reasons, it might have been otherwise, but it isn’t.
May everyone, everywhere, have enough to eat today.
May everyone have people who remember them and care for them.
May all of us who have enough keep those who do not have enough in our hearts and minds. May we be inspired to serve this world. May this be a world of justice and peace.
On the evening of November 8 I was scheduled to give a talk about the perennially timely wisdom of the Buddha to guests at a large health and fitness resort and as the audience was assembling for the 8PM start time, someone told me the election results that had just been confirmed. I was personally shocked as I had very much believed and hoped that Ms. Clinton would be elected. I also was very troubled by what I thought a Trump presidency would mean for this country’s future. I also knew that not everyone in the audience shared my opinion and that my role was to be a representative of the Dharma, not a partisan speaker.
I did not have time to plan, so I began by telling the truth about how that moment was for me. I am not sure of my exact words, but they were something like:
I know from seeing everyone here on their cell phones and talking to each other that you all have heard the result of the election. We are a large group, and it is most likely that we represent diverse political opinions and that each of us voted in the way we thought was best for our country as well as for our individual families. Some of us are happy and relieved and the rest of us are unhappy and concerned. I think it is likely that our opinions, one way or the other, are strong opinions since this has been a remarkably contentious election season. More than ever, I understand why terms like “battleground states” and “war chest” are used in strategy discussions as if the United States is having a war rather than an election. And, how we come to think of people who vote differently from the way we do as our enemies. Each of us, no matter who we supported, has had more than a year of hearing other people vilify the person we chose. Even now, I won’t ask you to identify you choice of candidate to the people around you. You’ve been here half a week hiking together, sharing communal dining tables, taking fitness classes together, stretching and balancing your bodies on adjacent yoga mats and you’ve exchanged cordial greetings, or at least friendly smiles. We are the same good people who hiked and ate and chatted congenially with each other all this time. We all are interested in nutrition and health and fitness. All of us love our families. All of us hope our families will flourish in a peaceful world. We chose the candidate we voted for because we believed it would be the best choice. If we were all in relaxed mind states, we could talk to each other about the reasons we had for voting the way we did. Now would not be a good time to have that talk. The negative rhetoric of these last months and weeks have traumatized us all. Those of us who feel disappointed are likely frightened by what we imagine will happen next. For myself, I hope to use these next days to let my nerves calm down and my mind settle, to talk to my friends, to have the remind me that equanimity is the ability to say, “This is what is happening now. Let’s see what happens next.”
The Buddha would have said something like that, if not those exact words. His last words in his life we, “Move confidently into the future.”
I have been very sad since the election. The good things that I had imagined would happen with a Clinton presidency won’t happen. As I spoke with one of my friends this morning, I realized that although my sadness persists, I haven’t been angry and for that I am grateful. That would be extra, and it would make things worse.
I saw the big orange sun rise this morning over the Berkeley hills and thought “That same sun, in that same place, will rise again this Wednesday morning, November 9th.” Then I remembered that my good friend and colleague Gil Fronsdal defines equanimity this way: Equanimity is the ability to say, “This is what’s happening now. Let’s see what happens next.” Whatever anxiety I have about tomorrow’s election is mitigated by that thought. After all, I only know what’s happening right now. And, there is always a “next.” I do care passionately about this election and I do have a very strong preference. I’ve already voted so there’s nothing more I can do except keep my own piece of mind and remain calm for those around me. Let’s all see what happens next.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. –U.S. Department of Labor
I am working on Labor Day this year. I am happy to be sharing my day with others, practicing mindfulness meditation.
Many people have the day off from their regular work schedule.
Others may have to work even though they would enjoy having the day off.
I feel gratitude that I am able and eager to work. I also feel gratitude for the baristas who get up early on this national holiday to make my latte so I can feel awake at work. I feel gratitude for the sanitation workers who pick up the garbage on holidays. And I feel gratitude for the police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, hospital staff, members of our military, and many others who work on this and every holiday to keep us safe and render assistance if needed.
The Buddha talked about Right Livelihood, one of the parts of the Eight Fold Path. There are a number of definitions for what it means to engage in Right Livelihood with the common denominator being attaining prosperity through ethical work. How is my work affecting others? Me? The Environment?
I am hopeful that your Labor Day is filled with all good things and that you will take a few moments to think about those who are working, those who are enjoying a day off, and the meaning of Right Livelihood to you.
Jerry Emmett, the 102-year-old honorary chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic delegation who cast her state’s votes for Hilary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, was born before women had the right to vote in this country. She wept as she did it. By the time I was born on July 24, 1936, women had voting rights. My mother wore big, dangling, FDR earrings in 1944. I remember that my father cried when the news came the following April that President Roosevelt had died. I remember that my mother cried when she opened the newspaper and saw the photo of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima the following August. I remember exactly where we both were sitting when she explained to me what had happened.
Not very many people remember Dick Tracy these days. He was a cartoon strip police detective in the 1940s. He wore a wristwatch that had a walkie-talkie built into it and he could speak to colleagues who were around a corner, out of sight. That was a big deal. I often think of Dick Tracy when I am standing far from any electrical source or telephone wires and phoning my friend Monique in France or when I text my grandchildren wherever they are in the world. I think of myself as a hip grandmother because they often text me back with photos attached and I can open them. I delight in thinking that the whole world is my reference library and Google is my librarian. I am amazed not only with how much has changed, but how fast it seems to have happened.
My fourth child was born when my oldest child was five and a half years old. I remember that Seymour and I bought a washing machine, second hand, from a neighbor who was moving and that we seemed, perpetually, to be washing diapers. I was an only child and my experience with child care had been limited to being a camp counselor in summertime, but somehow it worked out with all those newborns and toddlers. I think it must have been an all-consuming task but I remember loving doing it. I painted a rafter across my kitchen ceiling with the phrase that means, “This, too, shall pass,” in Hebrew inscribed across it. I think I felt proud about doing that, as if I was saying, “How amazing that I am managing this scene and being witty about it.”
The thing is, it did pass. Pretty quickly. All of a sudden, it feels, I got to be middle-aged and now old, my boy babies have grey beards, my grandchildren all are driving cars and often drive me to appointments. I am eighty years old, officially, having passed my birthday a week ago, although I have been saying, “I am eighty,” since we turned into 2016. I am proud to say it, not because becoming old required a particular talent (I consider it the result of good genes and good luck), but because I am happy to tell my age and grateful to all the feminists before me, including my mother with her dangling earrings and progressive politics, for making that easy for me.
When I was a very young mother, my mother-in-law would often say, in a tone that sounded to me wistful and sad, “One turn around in your shoes and it’s all over.” Probably that was her way of being both bewildered by life’s inexorable changes and witty about it. I used to think, “Oh, that’s just something old people say,” but now, because I am an old person, I get it. I have a lifetime of memories, some of them very happy, some very sad, and all of them gone like vanished frames of a movie. I once mentioned to my Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein, that the disappearing nature of all phenomena felt so sad to me. “Look,” I said, to him. “All these past-their-prime roses outside this window are dying and they were beautiful two days ago. It’s so sad!” He replied, “Sad is a just a story you are telling yourself. It’s just what is true.”
I know it is a story, and opinion, an elaboration of a plain cosmic truth. “Transient are all created things,” is what the Buddha would have said. But, to me, that truth is now plain. It elicits poignancy in my mind and heart, and it makes life precious to me.
A friend of mine is part of intensive yoga training this summer. She arrives at the studio at 5:30 every morning and practices—asanas and chanting—until 8:00 am when she leaves to start her workday. At Spirit Rock Meditation Center this summer I will be co-teaching, with my colleagues Larry Yang and Konda Mason, a three-day Labor Day Weekend retreat at which people will arrive at 9:30 in the morning, practice mindfulness intensively until 5:30 in the evening, and then leave to resume the rest of their lives until they return the next morning. They are not “getting away from their life” as much as they are “practicing in the middle of their lives.”
When I began practicing mindfulness nearly forty years ago, we only thought of mindfulness as being an away-from-home, cloistered practice. It required making arrangements to be gone, packing a suitcase, traveling, entering into silence and practicing exercises designed to calm the mind and focus the attention throughout the day. Activities were limited to sitting and walking meditation, eating meditation, and performing simple chores. All of the retreat time was contemplative. It was lovely. I loved it then and I love it now.
And, I am thrilled to be part of this new adventure of bringing elements of intensive practice right into the middle of one’s life. Here are some of the immediate benefits we hope will accrue:
1. People will be able to notice differences in how they are in their interactions with others as soon as the evening of the first day.
2. The calm that people cultivate in the day should modulate the impact of the outside world of messages and news.
3. People will be practicing going in and out of retreat mode and will likely be more able, after the retreat, to realize that what we think of as “practicing,” receiving each moment with poise and good will, is, in fact, not apart from daily life in the world.
4. No packing, no getting your pets looked after, tucking your children into bed, no leaving your partner. It should feel like regular life with a retreat tucked into the middle of it.
It will be different from a residential retreat, perhaps in the way that a week of camping in the Sierras for a week is different from a walk in the park around the corner every day of a week. Both are lovely things to do. Leaving a Sierra campground probably elicits sadness in leaving it behind. The park around the corner is, after all, always around the corner.
I hope you’ll join Larry and Konda and me for this inaugural event. We’ll be glad to share the beautiful new Community Hall with you.
A terrible event happened in Nice, France, last night in which more than eighty people were killed and many others wounded. The images on TV are shocking. The mind flinches even looking at them. Sadly, this seems to be the kind of news that keeps people tuned to TV stations which, in turn, replay the scenes over and over. With no evidence that this new terrible event was inspired by terrorists rather than the being the work of an unhappy, mentally ill man, a parade of counter-terrorist experts are commenting on it. I keep wondering what it will take for people to turn off the TV, or for the TV reporters to suggest caution and thoughtfulness before rushing ahead with alarming provocations.
What if a TV news anchor said, as someone did soon after the 9/11 attack, “Pray for the people that died. Pray for the people they left behind. Pray that your heart stays open.” What if people all went out of doors, summoned their neighbors to join them in the street, and comforted one another. What if, instead of naming “villains” or “villainous groups”, instead of rushing to conclusions, “It’s the fault of religions,” “It’s the fault of guns,” “It’s the fault of income inequality, or racism, or anything else that is a stressor in our culture,” we invited everyone to stop, to consider, to try to rebuild a world where the level of comforting modulated the level of pain.
Imagine John Lennon’s Imagine,
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today... Aha-ah...
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace... You...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
“You are never happier than your least happy child,” was the answer I gave to a list of questions that became a one page “Profile” in a national magazine. Letters to the magazine in response included one in which a dismayed mother wrote that her two adult daughters struggled with various difficult conditions and wondered if I was implying that she couldn’t be happy since she “loved her daughters more than anything in the world.”
I replied saying that the Buddha taught that the love of parents is the prototype of deeply committed loving. He describes the strength of the mother-child bond this way: “Just as a mother would give her life for her one and only child,” he taught in the Sermon on Kindness, “so should we love all beings.”
The problem with the motto I chose, “You are never happier than your least happy child,” is with the word “never.” In the middle of knowing that one of my children, or grandchildren, is having a difficult time, an awareness that saddens me when I think of it, I might have a phone call from a friend and feel gladdened by it, or see a hawk land on my garden fence and watch it just sit there, or decide to listen to a new recording of Joshua Bell playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. In all the times I am not thinking of the situation of distress, times I can cultivate by deciding to put my attention elsewhere or times that arrive by grace, like phone calls from friends, my mind gets a chance to rest. I find that the thought, “My beloved person is in pain,” seems less all-consuming. It remains a true thought, but in a larger field in which it is not the only truth. It feels easier to accept.
One of the ways I choose to rest my mind is to meditate. Even a short period of time of sitting quietly, in a comfortable space, feeling the rhythm of changes in the body as breath comes in and out of it. Paying attention to the way the shoulders rise and fall, or the belly pushes forward and then settles back down is both simple and soothing.
When my mind is relaxed, I am able to think of the person in pain with compassion and to think of myself with compassion, too. Compassion is another form of happiness.
My friend and colleague Larry Yang was a Grand Marshall in the San Francisco Pride Parade yesterday and I along with many members of the Spirit Rock Center community and the East Bay Meditation Center walked around and behind the convertible carrying Larry and his husband Stephan. There was a minute of silence called in the middle of the parade in honor and memory of the people killed and injured in Orlando on June 12th, but mainly the mood was joyous and celebratory.
My personal favorite moment was seeing a smiling middle-aged couple, a man and a woman, standing at the front of the crowd lining the parade route, each displaying a large sign. One sign said, “I am a white, Republican, mid-western proud father of a gay man.” The other sign said, “This white, mid-western mother is proud to support her gay son.” I smiled back at them and waved as I passed and hoped they understood that I appreciated what a significant lesson they were providing to the people at the parade as well as those watching on TV. I’m sure they did. I’m sure that’s why they were doing it.
I also noticed that although it was reported that there would be a seriously amplified police presence at the parade, my feeling of being safe throughout had nothing to do with police presence. In fact, apart from overseeing traffic flow at various intersections, I didn’t see a big police presence. I did hear about a contingent of gay members of the San Francisco police force in full uniform marching in the parade. I think the happy mood I felt throughout, and the enduring feeling of being safe, came from being part of the ethos of inclusivity that surrounded me.