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Strike! Rise! Dance! - bell hooks & Eve Ensler (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Strike! Rise! Dance!

EVE ENSLER & BELL HOOKS on fighting domination and finding love

They’re two of the most fearless women we know. bell hooks, a longtime contributor to the Shambhala Sun, is a public intellectual who tells truth to power—and to all of us. Eve Ensler is an artist-activist who has changed women’s lives with her play that became a movement, The Vagina Monologues, and a global celebration of women’s empowerment called One Billion Rising. Prepare to be challenged by their dialogue on “Beyond the Body” held at The New School in New York City.

bell hooks: Eve and I agree that love begins with the body. So we want to start our discussion with the whole question of our bodies and where the love is.

Eve Ensler:
Maybe I’ll start with how trauma and violence take love out of the body, or at least make it hard to have love in the body. How do we get back into our bodies after we’ve been traumatized? How do we get back to the love in our body? How do we take back our bodies and see them as these stunning miracles that were given to us? Just the way they are.

Because of the methodology of violence, so many of us have become separate from our bodies. We have become objects to ourselves. When I got cancer, and I woke up after nine hours of surgery and had lots of organs and nodes missing, it was the first time in my life I was in my body. I felt how amazing it is to have a body! How incredible it is to have a body! It was like I hadn’t been getting it my whole life. I didn’t get it. I have a body!


bell hooks: It is domination that separates us from our body. People who read my books know I use the phrase “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” [laughter] It’s not so much that I like that phrase, but it connects all the forms of domination that are enslaving us in the world today.

Domination separates us from our bodies no matter which of those forms it takes. Especially, we want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy—forms of domination maintained by violence—that are primarily enacted on the bodies of women and children. White supremacy has divided us along the lines of bodies—black and brown bodies exploited, oppressed, and dominated by white bodies.

Eve’s new book, In the Body of the World, is a memoir of her seven years working with women in Congo. There are not many white women who put their lives on the line to help protect and serve black women’s bodies. In fact, there’s hardly anybody at all who puts their lives on the line for the redemptive saving of black women’s bodies. So, I’m hoping that Eve will open her heart and share with us some of what motivates her.


Eve Ensler: Seven years ago I interviewed an extraordinary man named Dr. Denis Mukwege, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. He is a surgeon and gynecologist who is devoting his life as a Congolese man and a doctor to healing women who were being eviscerated and raped and destroyed in war. Dr. Mukwege asked me, “Would you come and help, because we’re completely alone and we’re drowning? We’re drowning in the rapes; we’re drowning in the violence; we’re drowning.”

I went because he moved me to my core. I went because the injustice that has been wrought on black women’s bodies has always moved me to outrage. I spent weeks with women at Panzi Hospital who had been eviscerated by a war over a mineral that is used in our cellphones. I saw the hundreds and thousands of women’s bodies that were literally being destroyed because of greed.

I was shattered. Something changed in my life forever. The connections we’re talking about were so clear—this colonial, capitalist plundering of a country, and of women’s bodies simultaneously.

I met with many Congolese women and asked them, “How can we serve you? What do you want us to do?” I’ve been taught by activists throughout the world that our job as people of privilege is to go and listen and serve. I have a motto over my desk that says “Shut up and serve.” It’s not our right to dictate what people should do. It’s none of our business. Our job is to find resources so people can do what they do best.

The seven years we’ve worked in Congo have been radically transformative for me. I watched the women determine what they wanted, which became a community for survivors of violence called City of Joy. It is owned by them, run by them, directed by them.

The women who come there are all survivors of gender violence, so the first goal is to transform their enormous suffering. But then we train them to be leaders. This morning I was talking to the extraordinary director of City of Joy, Christine Schuler Deschryver. We just had our fourth class graduate, so that’s now at total of 300 women who have graduated. It’s a miracle that happened because these women had the resources to do what they do best. I think that’s what I’ve learned about service—to be present when you’re needed and disappear when you’re not.


bell hooks: I want to ask you a hard question, Eve. Because of internalized racism, when a white person comes to serve or help people of color, we can put them in a position where we almost worship them and not raise the kinds of critical questions we would ask people of color. So how do you avoid reinforcing the framework of white privilege, for instance through their gratitude? I think it’s a real question for privileged people of all kinds when we go to serve people who are without privilege.


Eve Ensler: It’s something one struggles with. Look, I grew up in a racist world. That conditioning, that story, is in me. So if I am dominating, I want to be called on it. I want to be pointed out. Because we need to keep decolonizing every day.

I’m just beginning to understand the nature of true service, which is how we do the work and yet know we’re not separate from the struggle. Gratitude would mean that I’m somehow separate from the struggle, as opposed to being engaged in it. Why should anyone be grateful to me? I’m part of this same struggle to end capitalist patriarchy and racist practices. That’s what I feel my life is devoted to, so where is the outside and where is the inside? I’m working to get out of the outside and be more in the inside, if that makes sense.


bell hooks: Yet we are affected by how people perceive us. Years ago when I wrote Ain’t I a Woman? I was accused of being homophobic because I didn’t use the word “lesbian.” My lived experience in my little Kentucky town had always been as an advocate, as an ally who could be counted on to stand up for lesbian and gays. But as a nineteen-year-old who was just beginning to create feminist theory, I felt that I shouldn’t say anything about lesbianism because I didn’t know enough about it. I wish I could find the words to talk about how crushed in my little spirit I was by that criticism.

So we don’t always have control over how people respond to us, and that’s where the integrity of one’s intentions are very important. Because—let me be totally honest—a lot of times when you get slapped down, you want to just stay down. Then you have to come back to your commitment to service.

What does it mean to be a servant leader? I feel my life has been committed to militant, visionary feminism, to using whatever insight this mind has to push people—especially women and men of color—to be more engaged in the ways that feminist thinking can alter our lives.

You know that Sweet Honey in the Rock song that says Sometimes you look for friends, and friends just can’t be found, and sometimes you’re standing all alone? That’s when the strength comes in, and it comes from the level of your commitment and the belief that you’re making a difference. For me, that rests on a larger framework of spiritual practice. You keep asking yourself—through meditation, through prayer—“What should I do? Where should I go?”

In the case of Eve, her commitment to go to the Congo is dangerous. It’s about that kind of choice. Many, many times I have thought about Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, two wonderful Jewish boys and a black boy who died fighting for voting rights, and asked myself, “What is it I’m willing to put my life on the line for? What am I willing to give?” That is a question we have to continually ask ourselves: What are we willing to give? What are we willing to do?

Eve Ensler: When you serve, there’s ego that’s operating and then there’s the reason you’re there, which is to transform reality. Sometimes they’re at odds. When The Vagina Monologues first started, Rosie Perez and Lisa Gay-Hamilton had this vision to bring it to Harlem and do this incredible women of color production. As we worked on it, all kinds of class and race issues came up. Finally, they came to me and said, “We’ve decided we really don’t want you in the show. We want it to be an all women of color production.”

I remember thinking, “I’ve just been disinvited from my own show—but yeah, absolutely, I will not be in the show.” Because this was a production looking at violence against women of color, and women of color wanted to own that show. Part of me felt really left out, but another part of me said, “The bigger story is operating here. Shut up and serve.”

There’s that lesson again. And in the end it was absolutely the right choice. But my ego wanted to be in that show with all those amazing women! So part of service is learning to let it go. It takes a lot of service and spirituality and coming into one’s center to know the right places on that axis of service.


bell hooks: Most of America’s intimate social relations are governed by racial apartheid. Many white people don’t have people of color in the dailyness of their intimate lives. People may work in an office with a black person, but when they go home their world becomes white again. In that world of intimacy, the deepest forms of racial apartheid continue in our lives.

So, Eve, I want to hear more about your own process of decolonization. Because part of how we get away from imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to decolonize our minds. That’s true for all of us, irrespective of our color. What led you to place your body within a sphere of equality with other bodies, and with bodies of color?


Eve Ensler: To a large degree it was being a survivor of violence myself. I came from a white middle-class family in which I was treated with contempt. I was violated regularly. I was raped. I was beaten. I was exiled from that family at a very young age, and I think as a result I’ve always identified with people who have been annihilated and eviscerated, outsiders.


bell hooks: But part of it—and this is where we link up from two very different class and race locations—is your critical reflection on what is taking place in society.


Eve Ensler: Absolutely. I grew up in the 1960s, and I witnessed the incredible injustice that was being done to black people. My witnessing of the racial oppression that existed in this country had, of all the things in my life, including sexism, the deepest impact on me. I felt called to that, but it took me a long time to understand how to be in that struggle in a way where I would be welcomed and could serve in a meaningful way. And be trusted. I think that was a big part of it.


bell hooks: Where does the trust come between dominator and dominated? Between those who have privilege and those who don’t have privilege? Trust is part of what humanizes the dehumanizing relationship, because trust grows and takes place in the context of mutuality. How do we get that when we have profound differences and separations?


Eve Ensler: I’ve always wished we could talk more deeply about the distrust. Sometimes it feels like the Civil Rights movement happened and then there was a blackout. We just stopped communicating. It was as if it all got better—we were living in a post-racial world. As opposed to examining on a much deeper level—on an emotional, political, and spiritual level—what really goes on between people. What are the dynamics, what are the thoughts, what are the feelings?

Congo is a perfect example of this question of trust, because it was probably one of the most colonized and pillaged places in the world. When Dr. Mukwege first invited me to come, he was sure I wouldn’t show up, because everybody else promised they would and then they didn’t. But I did show up, and every time I came back, they would be even more amazed.

It’s taken a long time to develop trust, but walking through that fire of distrust is part of this struggle. To come up against people’s distrust and say, “Okay, it’s completely legitimate distrust, and I’m going to keep showing up in the face of it to see if we can move forward.”

Part of it is understanding that it’s much bigger than you. You’re struggling on a much bigger level for something. And also that when it hurts, it hurts! When people don’t trust you, it does hurt. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep going.


bell hooks: As I’m sitting here, I’m trying to imagine, where are the spaces of change? In Congo, Eve has helped create the City of Joy, which is one space of enormous change. But in the U.S., black females are up against a media that is so powerful, and our bodies are part of this plantation culture. Where is the space in popular culture where we can talk about the black female body having dignity of presence and being? And not being a body of despair.

Because behind all of this trauma is grief and despair. Young black girls feeling that no one in our society pays attention to the traffic in black women. No one noticed all those black females who disappeared in Cleveland. No one talked about it, but we are still talking about JonBenét Ramsey. Most of us cannot name the four little black girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. We can’t recite the names of Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins the way we can rattle off the name of JonBenét. Even small black children know who she is and that something had happened to her. How can we have a world where the bodies of all women, and especially women of color, can be defended and protected?


Eve Ensler: As Terrance McKenna says, culture is not our friend. We have to unplug from the culture and create our revolution where you are. We’ve become passive recipients of a culture that is not only dividing us from each other but from ourselves.


bell hooks: Thich Nhat Hanh says that you are what you are watching. Technology has made it so we consume so many more negative images. When I saw that Miley Cyrus video, which people forced me to watch [laughter], I kept thinking about how ugly the bodies were, how ugly the message was, how degraded sexuality was. Yet everybody was watching. These are things we have to be willing to take the action of stopping.


Eve Ensler: Last year we organized the first worldwide One Billion Rising day to end violence against women and girls. I look at the videos from that all the time, because it inspires me so deeply to see women around the world—particularly women of color—taking up space in places they hadn’t taken space before publicly. Dancing and moving and being alive. Being sexual and being free and being beautiful and not being contained and not being oppressed and not being stopped and not having their energy distorted or muted or misinterpreted or tamed or undone.

So how do we create spaces—through art, through energy, through writing, through discourse—where women can come into their bodies and their power? I look at those videos from India and Africa, where women were dancing for hours. You can see the energy that got unplugged from the gateways, which had been filled with trauma. To see them come into that aliveness gives me so much hope for the possibility of creating that in the future.


bell hooks: But the reclamation of the body also has to be a place where we acknowledge that the body is just that, the body. Love begins with the body, but where do we take that love? The act of loving our bodies as women of color is itself an act of resistance and decolonization. But then what do we do? Where do we go? How do we live in a world that isn’t ready for us?

I would suggest that we have to invent our own psychic cities of joy. We have to create spaces where we’re not looking for the dominant culture to validate us. As people of color, we know white supremacy exists, but we’re still looking to that world to give us affirmation. We don’t want to acknowledge that, as part of our liberation struggle, we may have to create other venues where there isn’t necessarily a lot of money to be had.

So let’s think about the role of cooperation in helping us create a solidarity of resistance that allows the colonizing process to be challenged, that lets decolonization be there every day in our lives. Decolonization is a healing practice that has to be ongoing. They tell you in AA that your recovery is ongoing, and for those of us who live in the belly of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, our recovery is also ongoing. Our decolonization is ongoing and we have to remain critically vigilant.


Question: Are there any practices that you recommend—meditation or prayer—to bring us back into our bodies and our spirits?

bell hooks: I really believe in great therapy. [laughter] Any time you have good therapy that is healing, it brings you into your body. It answers the questions that your body raises. And I definitely depend on spiritual practice, meditation, affirmation, as part of that healing.


Eve Ensler: I really believe in dancing. [laughter] If the women of Congo have taught me anything, it is that dancing is the answer to trauma. The women of Congo dance like no other people I’ve ever seen in the world—they dance in a way that is transformative on the cellular level. I’ve seen a woman who’s gone through terrible trauma, and the women gather with her, and they dance and they dance. The fact that we put dancing down is an indication of the patriarchal confines we’re in. I think people should dance all day long. I think it should be a part of what we do.


From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

When I Enter the City of Joy (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

When I Enter the City of Joy

In war-torn Congo, EVE ENSLER learns what love can really do

I do not know how to end the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I don’t know where governments end and corporations begin. I cannot show you exactly how the mining of the coltan that is in your cellphone is linked to Jeanne being raped in her village. I don’t know how to move the UN Security Council, or the secretary-general, or the European, British, or Canadian Parliament, or Congress or Downing Street or the White House. I have made impassioned visits to all these places and have left each time, crushed and bewildered. I do not know how to arrest the war criminals or the corporate exploiters.

I do know that the minute I enter the City of Joy everything seems possible. It is green and clean. It is the lotus rising from the mud. It is the metaphor for a new beginning, for building a new world.

Three of the ten principles governing the City of Joy are (a) tell the truth, (b) stop waiting to be rescued, and (c) give away what you want the most.

In the City of Joy I know how to do things: how to hug Telusia, Jeanne, and Prudence, and how to remind them not to turn their gaze away because the shame they carry is not their own. I know how to listen and how to keep asking questions.

I know how to cry and that if I love the women of the Congo, and I don’t close off my heart, that love will cut a path, a plan will be revealed, and I will find the money and everything that is necessary. Because love does that.


From In the Body of the World: A Memoir, by Eve Ensler. © 2013 Eve Ensler. Reprinted with permission of Random House Canada.

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Being Love (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Being Love

Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, LAURA MUNSON practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it helps.

I did not get married to get divorced. I did not have children to subject them to the confusion of split parents. I did not hold them in my arms on their day of birth and say, “I am going to raise you to be resilient.”

No. I went into marriage as deliberately as I went into motherhood. As deliberately as I went into creating the house that has held us for almost fifteen years—a farmhouse in northwestern Montana surrounded by a haven of meadows, ponds, marshes, rocky cliffs, and thick conifer forests.

Yet now I find myself in something called mediation. Mediation is where a professional conflict-sherpa guides two people through—in our case—the dissolution of a marriage. Two people who have been together for their entire adult lives. Who know each other like old shoes. Who together have made every important decision for the past twenty-five years.

Mediation. We’re sitting across from one another with legal forms and a middleman at the head of a long table and a box of Kleenex, and we’re talking about things like who gets Christmas morning, who pays for our kids’ soccer cleats, and where our children will lay their heads at night—what pillow in what room in what house. And what about the possibility of them losing their childhood house altogether?

To comply with federal law we’re also going through a list of extreme parenting sins, as if we would ever be those sinners. We’re setting rules—legal rules—about safety, third-party interactions, and drug and alcohol consumption, all with the threat of sheriffs arriving at the front door in the middle of the night. These aren’t conversations that we’ve had to have before. Our focus has been along the lines of organic baby food and whether we should go to Belize or Costa Rica for spring break and whether or not we concur with the teaching styles of the Suzuki method and Montessori preschool.

Meditation. I wonder: Is there heart language in such a trajectory? Is there a way to bring in loving-kindness, forgiveness, surrender, and gentleness when we’re discussing such pointed, laden subjects?

I was in London when this all started. It was the night before I was going on the most-watched talk show in the United Kingdom. I was going to discuss a memoir I’d written on loving your partner through crisis without taking their crisis personally. I was going on to talk about emotional freedom.

That night, I got an email.

It said something to the tune of: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you. When you get home, I will be living elsewhere. I finally know what love feels like. I feel it springing from me like I’ve never felt before. Our marriage is a sham.” I tried not to memorize those words, though each one felt like a hot branding iron on my most tender skin.

I went out into the rainy streets of London and stood in the cold, breathing deeply. For years, I had been listening to Pema Chödrön’s teachings on maitri practice. I had been practicing maitri on rejection—rejection from the publishing world, primarily, but also from family and friends and the general ways of the world. Now I had a chance to practice it on betrayal.

My understanding of maitri practice, thanks to Pema Chödrön, is that by sending loving-kindness into the world we can help increase love altogether. The meditation works like this: First we send loving-kindness to someone we love dearly, someone who is easy to love. Next we send loving-kindness to someone we are fond of, followed by someone who is neutral in our lives. Then we send out loving-kindness to someone who bugs us, and then to someone we really can’t bear.

Finally—and this is the clincher—we send loving-kindness to ourselves. That’s the hardest one for a lot of us. In fact, I’m not sure it’s really possible to send loving-kindness to ourselves until we’ve first practiced on someone we really loathe. Because most of us treat our worst enemies much better than we do ourselves. That stings, doesn’t it? But I’ve been paying attention to that in my life and have found it to be true.

So whether it ultimately was to change the world, or to change my relationship with myself, or to attempt the high calling of Being Love, I stood in those rainy London streets that night and I practiced maitri. I sent out loving-kindness to my children. Then to a new friend. Then to my son’s homeroom teacher. And then to someone who once stole something from me and denied it. And finally, with deep, sodden, city-stained breaths, I sent loving-kindness to my husband and his mistress.

At first I thought it. But something deep inside me said that wasn’t enough. I had to go further. So I mouthed it. But that wasn’t enough. I had to speak it. So I did. But that wasn’t enough either. I had to scream it. I didn’t want to—I’m not a screamer. Yet that’s why I knew I had to. So with all my best intention, and maybe all my anger and sadness too, I hauled off and spewed those words across the slick streets and into the lamp-lit night air. Against every nerve ending in my body, I sent them loving-kindness.

Now it is a year later. After months and months of couple’s therapy and wicked vacillation between reconciliation and split, we are in mediation. The funny thing is that every time I write the word “mediation,” it comes out “meditation.” Something deep inside me I contacted that night in London dearly wants me to practice sending out loving-kindness—even and especially now. So I am. I sit here across the table from my husband and, inhaling and exhaling, I privately send him loving-kindness. “Be Love, Laura” is what I think. “Be Love.”

Does it work? Does it need to work? Do I need evidence that it’s worth the slog on up to the high road? Does it matter? Because here’s the thing: I suffer less when I am living in the light of that love. And maybe the world does too.


From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Laura Munson is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

Empty Graves & Empty Boats (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Empty Graves and Empty Boats

At her grandfather’s grave, RACHEL NEUMANN’s anger erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? There’s no one to blame when an empty boat rams into you, and in the end we are all just empty boats bumping against each other.

There are as many different kinds of anger as there are waves in the ocean. When my older daughter gets angry, there is a deluge of tears. As I watch, she goes limp and sobs into the floor with the unfairness of it all. My younger daughter’s anger is a tornado of hits, kicks, and screams. She can’t be comforted, reasoned, or carried out of the storm until it has run its course. My partner’s anger is quiet and sullen, thick as the southern Mississippi air. Only a slam of the door or a fist on the table occasionally punctuates the silence. Me? I shake with a blaming, seething anger, full of my own righteousness and ready to enumerate the faults of everyone around me.

I’ve always been a blamer. Sometimes, I blame World War II for this. Our family’s survival was tenuous, the exception rather than the expectation. If almost all of our relatives hadn’t been killed, then perhaps I wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. Sometimes, I blame Western culture, capitalism, sexism, and all of the institutions that keep us separated and thinking we have to go it alone. Sometimes, I blame myself.

Growing up, I was pretty sure the world would fall apart if I didn’t check that we had food, take care of my little sister, and make sure the front door was locked. Our whole family’s survival felt like my responsibility and mine alone. Even after I left home, whenever I got overwhelmed in relationships or at work, my mind would return to this well-worn path: “Why do I, alone, have to do everything?”

When I was seven I went to visit extended family in La Jolla, California. Every morning we would walk to the beach, where the waves were small but restless. They would crash against the shore, retreat to gather force, and then crash again. The man I was staying with would let the waves beat against his ankles. Then, as they receded, he would say to them, “Are you mad?” drawing out the last word to make me laugh. Blaming is like those waves hitting the shore over and over again. It hits a contradicting reality, disintegrates, and then gathers force again.

There is a parable about blame first recorded by the Chinese mystic Huang Tzu more than three hundred years ago. Imagine you are in a rowboat on a lake. It is a beautiful calm day, and you are enjoying the peacefulness of the moment. But then you notice there is another boat heading straight toward you. You shout, “Look out!” and wave your arms, but the boat keeps coming. You try to steer out of the way, but it’s too late. You keep shouting, but the boat keeps coming. It rams into you, knocking you into the water. You are cold, wet, and your beautiful day—your serenity—is ruined.

“What are you doing?” you yell at the driver of the other boat. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Then you look into the other boat. It is empty.

This story helps remind me that the bumps aren’t personal. We’re all just empty boats bumping up against each other. But even knowing no one’s inside, I usually find myself peering in, looking for a culprit. People should remember to tie up their empty rowboats or, if they are tied up, to tie tighter knots.

How do I undo a lifetime of blaming habit? I’ve found there are only two effective antidotes: gratitude and co-responsibility. But gratitude is a tricky emotion. As soon as I think I’m supposed to feel it, as soon as I catch a whiff of even the slightest hint of obligation, any gratitude I might have felt is replaced immediately with resentment. So I was taken off guard when, a couple of years ago, I came across the Kataññu Sutta, a Pali teaching on gratitude. It says: “Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for a hundred years, and you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there on your shoulders, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.”

This no-excuses, go-ahead-and-pee-on-my-shoulders type of gratitude is so counterintuitive to my well-worn and boring rut of blaming that I’ve made a conscious decision to move toward it. After all, what if it didn’t matter who locked the door or made the dinner? I am here, alive, and healthy, and I could not have gotten here on my own.

Recently, when I was getting over the flu, my mother came over for dinner. In the morning, I’d set the table and prepped some food. After work, I picked up the kids, took them to an after-school class, and got groceries. When I arrived home, I tripped over my mother’s shoes. She was sitting on the couch, checking her email. Bob Marley was blaring from our stereo. Her jacket and half-eaten snacks were on the floor, and there was a trail of dirty dishes in each room. I carried in the grocery bags and started toward the kitchen.

Putting the lettuce and cucumbers away, I thought, “How like my mother, to make a mess and not help with dinner. Can’t she see how tired I am?” It was an old thought and it sounded old in my head, coming out in a croaky whine. A few months earlier, my mother and her best friend had taken my older daughter for two whole weeks. My daughter had come back thrilled, full of stories, and without a scratch. I owe my mother a huge gaping shoulder-carrying debt of gratitude. And yet my critical mind kept rattling on.

Then I put down the vegetables and I stopped. My father had arrived, and he and my mother and my partner and children were all talking at once, interrupting each other to show off various new skills and the day’s creations. If my mother weren’t so good at taking care of herself, she wouldn’t be able to be so generous or have the energy or physical ability to take my older daughter on a trip or hold my younger daughter upside down, as she was doing now. In that moment, I was flooded with gratitude. There was my loving partner and my healthy, happy children. There was the delicious dinner I was about to eat and the fact that my parents were both alive, basically well, and—though long divorced—able to easily join together for a meal. I was so thankful I could not speak. I leaned against the kitchen counter. Then my mom waltzed in. “Anyone need help making a salad?” she asked.

Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. Lately, whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are partly right.” “You are partly right” means that there is some truth to the story, but it’s not the whole story. I love this because it acknowledges responsibility but also acknowledges that each story has more layers than one person can possibly see.

While “fault” isn’t a particularly useful idea, “responsibility” is. We humans are intricately and necessarily connected to each other, not just for our happiness but also for our very existence. If this is the case, then it makes sense that we are responsible for what happens to each of us, both the good and the not so good.

What about the really bad things? Those are someone’s fault, right? The person who hits his small child, the slave owner, the scientists who designed the gas chambers, the person who sees violence and does nothing, aren’t they—aren’t we—to blame? If we know who is at fault, maybe we can make sure that they don’t do it again. But blame doesn’t work that way. Assigning and taking responsibility provides an opportunity to change. It gives us choice and power. Blame negates responsibility. It ends the sentence, closing off possibility.

I just came back from my first trip to Germany. Soon after I arrived in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust memorial, a central city block of rectangular concrete slabs. A tour bus stopped and a gaggle of teenagers got out, jumping on the stones, laughing and taking pictures of each other with their phones.

Next, I visited the grave of the man I used to walk with on the beach in La Jolla. A week before leaving for Germany, I’d learned that this man was really my father’s biological father, my biological grandfather. My father had lived with him for years, believing that this man was a family friend. This man never told him the truth and never acted like a father to him. He died without ever calling him “son.”

I knew none of my other grandparents and would have liked to have known I had a grandfather, especially this man I used to walk with along the beach. I was sad, but I didn’t get angry until I saw his grave.

He was buried in an old cemetery in the heart of West Berlin. The site was chosen long after his death, after his cremated ashes had been ignored in the storeroom of an East Coast funeral home for years. Even though he had been forced to leave Germany, he often went back after the war ended and still felt at home there. The graveyard was chosen in part because he had friends buried nearby.

It took me two buses, a walk, and some mangled German conversations with strangers for me to find the cemetery. It was late afternoon when I arrived, and in the fading light, I missed the posted map and couldn’t find his grave. As I walked along the gray tombstones and dark shadows from the chestnut trees, I started to feel a creeping panic. What if I couldn’t find it? What if I had to leave without ever seeing him again? If I couldn’t find his grave, I’d be left in the woods. Alone. Lost.

I was getting ready to leave when some pale light on the flat top of one of the cement stones caught my eye. Up against a wall in the far corner of the cemetery, I saw the black scrawl of his name.

Anger, my familiar furious blaming anger filled me. We had so few relatives. How could this man have lived with my father and said nothing? How could he have left us there all alone? I wanted to yell at someone, to shake the tombstone until an answer fell out.

But I would have been yelling at an empty grave. My grandfather was not in there. Even the remains of his body, cremated and long buried, had been absorbed back into the earth. There was no one to yell at. There was no one there to blame, just an empty boat.

 If my grandfather was anywhere at all, he was in me. We have the same nose, the same genetic material, the same tendency toward logical argument, and the same love of the ocean. I also inherited, from him as well as others, the same seeds of anxiety and fear. Letting go of blame doesn’t mean I’m letting my grandfather “get away” with something. I’m responsible now for what secrets I continue to keep, what blame I pass on.

Someone had left fresh chestnuts on the top of the grave and, amid them, a dying red rose and some polished stones. I picked up one of the smooth brown nuts. Even in the last of the light, it was gleaming, full to bursting with the seed within. I rolled it between my fingers, then returned it to the top of the stone. Evening had fully arrived and the sky was dark, the air cold. I left the cemetery empty-handed and walked lightly, but not alone.

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

The Work of the Moment (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

The Work of the Moment

Like the monk who strived so hard he couldn’t see the goddess right behind him, if we push too hard for results we miss what is most intimate. When we and our work are one, says ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and beautiful.

Several years ago, I was in the Catskills with a colleague, celebrating the completion of a two-and-a-half-year project. It was summer, and it can get very hot in the Catskills, so we were sitting on the veranda of my friend’s place with tall glasses of iced tea and stacks of novels. We had worked really hard on this project, and we were ready for relaxation. As we sat there, I kept looking to the side of the house at a hillside entirely overgrown with shoulder-high tarweeds, the kind of weeds with leaves that are sticky to the touch. They had so completely taken over the hillside that they were killing all the other native plants.

Suddenly, without even thinking, I rose up out of my chair, got some tools, walked up the hill, and began pulling up and cutting away the weeds. I worked up there for the next three days, covered in sweat and sticky pitch, my hands stinging because I didn’t have any work gloves. My colleague couldn’t believe me; she could easily have had her caretaker do it. However, I remember it as a time of rapture, of enormous, satisfying pleasure. It wasn’t about “work” as we usually understand the word; it was about my whole body and mind being fully with the smell of the tarweed as I pulled and hacked away at it. It was about complete mergence with that hillside, not thoughts of how it would look later, but a complete at-oneness with what I was doing in a most profound and beautiful way.

That’s how I experience intimacy with work, even when the work is challenging. Spreadsheets, for example, are hard for me to understand and manipulate, and I find myself butting up against the software, asking stupid questions, and so on. Still, being immersed in that kind of work can also be a source of joy.

The word work is apparently about five thousand years old, and from the beginning—in its Proto-Indo-European version, werg—it simply referred to “something being done.” How are we in relation to this something being done in our daily lives? What is the heart of our work? What are the qualities surrounding our something being done?

Work can mean our career or simply how we make money; it can be our calling (our “life’s work”) or simply our functioning in the world: cleaning the zendo floor, making the beds, doing the dishes.

I like to think of work as what we do; it is the activity of the life we live. Work is any activity we’re engaged in that requires our energy and focus, whether or not we’re paid for it. We all know you can work really hard for no money. There’s work in the marketplace, and there’s work at home. There’s paid work and unpaid work. When I was a young woman, I took a few years off from the university and learned so much about the world. I learned to cook, to paint, and to write poetry; I tried my hand at pottery; I did canning; I gardened; I sold organic vegetables; I learned to quilt; I even sewed my husband’s shirts by hand. Then I’d go to a party, and someone would ask me, “What do you do?” And because what I was doing had no value in the marketplace (even though I was experimenting and learning and full of creative energy), I felt like saying, “I don’t do anything.” But I was working twelve hours a day on all my projects. Amazing!

What is valid work? I know a woman who is a wonderful writer. I met her because she walks dogs for my neighbors in the apartment building where I live. We have the same daily schedule, so we often meet in the mornings and evenings when she’s making her dog runs. I join her, and we walk the dogs together. This is her profession, how she makes her money. Simultaneously, she’s also a really fine writer and probably has many other talents. Yet our society looks down on those who do such tasks as walking dogs for a living when they actually may also be involved in creative, nurturing, and service work.

What is work? There’s a story about the great thirteenth-century Zen master Ju-ching, who was once the sanitation officer at a monastery. In those days, the job of the sanitation officer was to shovel the shit. Back then, they had wooden toilets, and shit and piss would fall into tiled trenches below. Every week Ju-ching would go and clean out the trenches with buckets and take the manure to the garden. Then he’d wash the tiles with rags and brushes.

One time his teacher, Setcho, asked him, “How do you clean that which has never been soiled?” He was asking Ju-ching about himself.

Poor Ju-ching did not know how to answer. He kept practicing with that question for a full year, during which time he continued cleaning toilets. Finally Ju-ching went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.”

This would be a good question for each of us to ask ourselves: How do you clean that which has never been soiled? Finally, after much struggle, Ju-ching saw that there is no work that isn’t of high value. Shoveling shit is not soiled work any more than walking a dog is soiled work. He went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.” To this day, in all Zen communities, a tradition for practice leaders during retreats is to go out in the middle of the night and quietly, unobtrusively, clean the bathrooms and toilets.

How do you think about work? Is some work of value and some not? Are you “too busy”? Are you trying to get one thing “done” so you can get the next piece “done”? Are you anxious about, angry about, or resentful of your work? Do you neglect your work? Do you do it in an obsessive way or in a sloppy, careless manner? Do you think, If I work harder, I’ll be successful, and when I’m successful, I’ll get what I want? Do you think, This work is not what I am capable of, or deserving of, so I’m not going to give it my all?

In terms of our work, we often think we have to act a certain way all the time, that we have to force ourselves into some kind of way of producing rather than being alive to what is here and now. In doing that, we close off our possibilities. We lose our creativity, even our compassion. Too often we find ourselves stuck in a loop of narrowing attention, trying to find some success, some acknowledgment, and in so doing, we lose what we seek.

There is a fairy story from China that illustrates this. Once there was a young man who wanted to meet Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. He began to meditate very hard, feeling that if he were successful, he would become fully enlightened; he would achieve his heart’s desire. As he was meditating, Kuan-yin walked by and noticed him. Smiling, she walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. The young man said, “Please don’t bother me right now. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.” Delighted, Kuan-yin tapped him on the shoulder again. “Go away,” the young man said. “I’m busy meditating. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.” So Kuan-yin shook her head sadly and walked away.

I think each of us can recognize ourselves in this young man. Pushing too hard, being too busy, we miss the very reality we seek. We miss our context: the presence of our coworkers, our materials, the changing environment of which we are a part.

There is such a difference between complete effort and striving. It is possible to be thoroughly involved in work and yet not be attached to the outcome, to be thoroughly connected to the effort without grasping for some “result” that exists only in the mind as a concept, an anxiety, a figment. How can we realize and recognize the subtle difference between obsession and involvement? How can we sharpen our perception?

Once there were two Zen disciples who were biological brothers as well as dharma brothers. They lived together at the same study center. One day, as Daowu was sweeping the ground, his brother, Yunyan, passed by and said, “Too busy!” Daowu replied, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.” Yunyan replied, “Oh, come on now, you’re saying that there are two moons!” With that, his brother Daowu held up the broom and said, “Which moon is this?”

Visualize this. I can just see Daowu sweeping, completely in the zone: focused, immersed in his action. And Yunyan is critical: “You are too busy!” Maybe he thinks that Daowu, like the young man in the previous story, is lost to what is here, that there is no leisurely element that is alive to all aspects of the moment. Thus, he is “too busy.”

Daowu replies, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.” I picture him continuing with his sweeping. Daowu is saying, “Oh, the leisurely one is here. You just don’t see him.”

Very often we mistake activity for busyness, but that is not what is really there. What is there is complete immersion: self and broom and sweeping; self and child and play; self and computer and problem solving. The trick is discerning the difference both in others and in ourselves. Sometimes looking out the window is active engagement and typing madly is not; sometimes the reverse is true. How can we tell the difference?

Yunyan says, “Oh, come on now, you’re saying that there are two moons.” He thinks he’s caught Daowu: “Aha! You’re saying there are two realities: the reality of your being busy and the reality of your being not-busy.”

In the Zen tradition, the moon in the sky stands for true reality, and the second moon—the one we see reflected in the water—is our idea of reality. Here, Yunyan is implying that when Daowu says there is one who is not busy, he is actually separating his sweeping activity from the concept of being one with the wholeness of life.

Daowu holds up the broom and says, “Which moon is this?” He brings it back to no-separation: even in our most involved, focused activity, right there is the balanced one, the leisurely one. It is in our actual activity, in our intimacy with all aspects of this moment, that we are whole.

Who has not felt, in a moment of great activity such as creating, serving, giving, or holding, both the energy and the aliveness of the activity and at the same time the leisure, the ease, the simple movement? It is not poky and not frenetic; it is the smooth and unhurried quality of doing each thing at exactly the right moment—not too fast, not too slow, but at just the right moment. It actually has nothing to do with fast or slow; it has to do with the whole body connecting to reality itself.

We heal, we listen, we hold a hand, we find a solution or a way around a difficult problem, we draw a line, we make a sound, we make a meal, we clean a space, we give an honest answer or a steady hand up. Sometimes just the presence of our body sitting with someone when they are down, blocked, upset, locked up, or dying (or even dead) is the full-on activity that is needed.

This is true intimacy with our work of the moment, an intimacy with who we are and what we do, whether we are cleaning toilets or waiting tables or designing software or making art or playing music or teaching or whatever. Just the other day I was watching a young man working the back of a garbage truck, swinging up and down from the truck, picking up sacks of garbage, and manipulating the controls of the compressor. His whole body was synchronized, like a dance—utter involvement, aliveness.

Of course, not all work is like this. There will always be little breaks in the intimacy: a headache; a cranky boss or coworker; a hangover; the arising of resentments and comparisons and craving ideas in our mind that create anxiety, frustration, and boredom. What might we do at such a time? Again, the strategy is to include everything, to turn toward, not away from, the conditions that are emerging. Take a breath. Check your body and mind, and look directly at the obstructions. What is it that is pulling you away from this very moment?

The “second moons” trip us up. What are we to do? Daowu shakes his broom, saying, “No! Right here in what I am doing right now is everything: me, broom, floor, all of life is right here, flowing around me.”

The garbage worker grabs the next bundle of trash.


Questions and Answers

Question: It seems like a lot of things that are impediments to intimacy with our work are things that our society tells us are good. Like, you should make money, but thinking about making money can be an impediment to intimacy with our work. Or you should know what you’re doing, but knowing what you’re doing can be an impediment. Or you should work as hard as you can, or you should relax and take it easy. It seems like these can all be impediments to being intimate with our work.

Roshi: Yes. Buddhism often refers to the openings to insight as “gates.” The gate can swing in two directions, so with something we usually consider a vice, maybe we just need to turn it another way. We can just turn something that keeps us “out” and open it as a way “in.” Sometimes it’s just our language. “Working too hard” is different from “complete effort,” and “slacking off ” is very different from “being at ease in our work.” We get so caught up in language that it can condition us.


Question: There are these tasks that I hate, and I find it’s really hard to remember that once I’m doing whatever it is, it’s fine. For example, I hate doing the laundry. It’s so hard for me to remember that once I’m doing the laundry, it’s not a problem. 

Roshi: Yes, because it’s not doing the laundry anymore; it’s more like putting things into the washer and taking them out and folding them. That’s very different from doing the laundry.

(Click here to view O'Hara's exercises from this issue, on "How to Make All Your Work Meaningful.")

the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

From Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, © 2014 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Image(s) by Mark T. Morse

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