Strike! Rise! Dance! - bell hooks & Eve Ensler (March 2014)
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
When I Enter the City of Joy (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
When I Enter the City of Joy
In war-torn Congo, EVE ENSLER learns what love can really
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.
Being Love (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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)
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
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
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
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
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.
The Work of the Moment (March 2014)
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.")
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. www.shambhala.com
Image(s) by Mark T. Morse
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