With Mindfulness You're Less Likely to Kill the Person Holding Up the Line (January 2013)
Shambhala Sun | January 2013
With Mindfulness You’re Less Likely to Kill the Person Holding Up the Line
A Q&A with SETH GREENLAND, author of The Angry Buddhist.
A novel about three brothers, The Angry Buddhist
is a steamy mix of murder, matching manga kitten tattoos, and a fierce
congressional election. The eldest brother, Randall, is the politician
and he’s running against Mary Swain, with her pro-death penalty stance
and five-hundred-dollar highlights. Then there’s little brother Dale,
who’s in and out of prison, and Jimmy, for whom the book is named. He’s a
cop with anger-management issues, alcoholic tendencies, and
post-divorce bitterness. Yet with the help of meditation and a few cute
photos of dogs, he’s slowly turning his life around. The Angry Buddhist
is Seth Greenland’s third novel, and a TV series based on it is in
development by Showtime. Greenland was also a writer-producer on the
Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love and one of the original bloggers for The Huffington Post. For twenty years, he has been practicing mindfulness.
—Andrea Miller Mindfulness
and Buddhist practitioners put a lot of emphasis on accepting things as
they are. But fiction is a fantasy. it’s not real. So for you, is there
any contradiction between your practice and your writing?
want to accept things as they are. But first I need to know what they
mean, and in order to understand what they mean, I write about them. I
write fiction to make sense of things.
What message about Buddhism did you want to leave people with?
Goldwyn, the great old film producer, said that if you want to send a
message, call Western Union. So it’s not like I wrote the book to send a
message, but one of the takeaways is that there’s great value in
practice. There are many satirical elements in this book, but what I
don’t satirize is mindfulness and Buddhism. I treat them very respectfully. And there’s a reason for that. I think they have terrific value.
Jimmy’s teacher, Bodhi Colletti, teaches online and her email address
You’ve definitely treated her satirically.
book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the student/ teacher
relationship one finds in Buddhism. I don’t mean to disparage
Colletti—you can have a terrific teacher online. It’s just a very modern
construction, and she’s teaching a form of Buddhism lite. Jimmy,
though, is benefiting from her teachings. I guess one of the points I’m
making is that you don’t need to go on retreat or travel to Tibet to
have a positive interface with Buddhism. These things can be fine,
obviously, but you don’t need to do any of them.
get very annoyed when I talk to practitioners who are braggy about
going off on long retreats. I talked to somebody once who said to me,
“Oh, my son is doing a three-year retreat in Tibet,” and I thought, oh
God, poor you, poor him, poor everyone, because to me the value of these
practices is to take them out into the world and—by being a better
version of yourself—to make the world a less horrible place. I support
the day-to-day practicing of Buddhism one-hundred percent but I find
that a lot of practitioners are competitive about how extreme their
practice is, and to me that’s narcissism. But I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a
secular person who looks to the incredible gift of Buddhism to find ways
of being a better version of myself—and they’ve helped me immeasurably.
How do they help?
you’re standing in line at the post office for half an hour waiting to
get stamps, you’re less likely to kill the person who is holding up the
line if you can do mindfulness practices. For an example of what happens
without mindfulness, I was driving in Los Angeles the other day and I
accidentally cut off this guy—he was in my blind spot. Well, he was
driving a Volvo, and it had a bumper sticker that said, “War is not the
answer.” This guy gave me the finger.
But I want to say also that I’m not perfect—I’m no avatar of
mindfulness. I’m just continually trying to be better at it, and I am
less reactive than I was before I began practicing.
How does mindfulness affect your writing?
wish it helped me more. The creative process is such a struggle.
Mindfulness has helped me in the sense that it has given me a subject. I
couldn’t have written The Angry Buddhist
if I wasn’t a practitioner, because otherwise I couldn’t understand the
practice to the degree that I do. Mindfulness is the heart of that
book. Jimmy is struggling to find a way of being a better person in the
world. That’s what he has to fight with every day, because there are so
many things that are tempting him to not be better.
What inspired you to explore Buddhism and mindfulness?
was back in 1993. My wife, Susan, and I had a two-year-old and she was
pregnant with our second child when I was diagnosed with a
life-threatening form of cancer. Neither of us had done any meditation
before, but I said to Susan, “I hear meditation is very good for dealing
with stress, so we better learn to meditate ASAP.” We went to a Zen
center in Manhattan and, after receiving meditation instruction, went
into a room and sat in a circle, facing out. We had to sit for about
twenty minutes, which if you’ve never meditated before is an awfully
long time. It feels longer than the Civil War, because you don’t know
what monkey mind is and you have no idea what’s supposed to be
happening. But I’m very good at following instructions, so I was sitting
there and sitting there. Then I felt a whoosh behind me and I heard a
door open and close. I wanted to catch Susan’s eye and kind of have a
little laugh about this person who couldn’t take it anymore because, of
course, we were such great meditators. But I didn’t do that. I resisted
the impulse, and the twenty minutes finally came to an end. I looked
around for Susan to share a loving look with her and I realized she was
the person who had run out. The great irony is that she has become a
devoted student of Buddhism, a deep meditation practitioner, and has
turned it into her profession. I am a hobbyist at best.
I understand that you and your wife, Susan Kaiser Greenland, have a foundation called Inner Kids.
deserves most of the credit. It’s her work, and I support it. Susan is a
former corporate lawyer, and in the late nineties she began doing
pro-bono work where she would go to the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club
and teach kids how to meditate. She would get these kids, who had no
idea what meditation was, sitting in a circle and she’d meditate with
them for two, three, four, five, sometimes ten minutes at a time. Then
she decided she wanted to get into this in a more serious way. We
established the foundation and she took these practices into
after-school programs and shelters and community centers. What’s mind-
blowing to me is that she gets really young kids to meditate—you don’t
believe it until you see it done. Susan has written a book called The Mindful Child that’s in its ninth printing now. She’s kind of a pied piper of this movement, and I’m standing there behind her.
Do you think mindfulness will continue to be more widely practiced?
remember a time when people heard the word “yoga” and they thought it
was witchcraft. Now if you go to a mini mall in Cleveland, Ohio,
there’ll be a yoga studio between a Subway franchise and a nail salon. I
think mindfulness practices are currently where yoga was about thirty
years ago. But because of the Inter- net, the integration of mindfulness
into popular culture is going to happen exponentially quicker than it
happened for yoga. And that’s fantastic, because God knows the world
needs it. Look at the level of anger and vitriol in America today.
Mindfulness, while not a panacea, is a terrific way to begin to approach
systemic problems in human relations.
DZONGSAR JAMYANG KHYENTSE is one of the truth-tellers of modern Buddhism. The
truth he tells us is that if it feels too good, it’s probably not
Buddhism. But if you want real transformation, if you want painful
honesty and deep, uncomfortable change, then read on. Buddhist practices are techniques we use to tackle our habitual self-cherishing.
Each one is designed to attack individual habits until the compulsion
to cling to “self ” is entirely eradicated. So although a practice may
look Buddhist, if it rein- forces self-clinging, it is actually far more
dangerous than any overtly non-Buddhist practice.
aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people “feel good,”
and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to sound like New Age
apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the
manifestation of ego and endorsing the “rightness” of our feelings,
neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the
pith instructions. So if you are only concerned about feeling good, you
are far better off having a full-body massage or listening to some
uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which
were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the
dharma was devised specifically to expose your failings and make you
Try reading The Words of My Perfect Teacher.
If you find it depressing, if Patrul Rinpoche’s disconcerting truths
rattle your worldly self-confidence, be happy. It is a sign that at long
last you are beginning to understand something about the dharma. And by
the way, to feel depressed is not always a bad thing. It is completely
understandable for someone to feel depressed and deflated when their
most humiliating failing is exposed. Who wouldn’t feel a bit raw in such
a situation? But isn’t it better to be painfully aware of a failing
rather than utterly oblivious to it? If a flaw in your character remains
hidden, how can you do anything about it? So although pith instructions
might temporarily depress you, they will also help uproot your
shortcomings by dragging them into the open. This is what is meant by
the phrase “dharma penetrating your mind,” or, as the great Jamgon
Kongtrul Lodro Taye put it, “the practice of dharma bearing fruit,”
rather than the so-called good experiences too many of us hope for, such
as good dreams, blissful sensations, ecstasy, clairvoyance, or the
enhancement of intuition.
Rinpoche said there is no such thing as a person who has perfected both
dharma practice and worldly life, and if we ever meet someone who
appears to be good at both, the likelihood is that his or her skills are
grounded in worldly values.
is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm
down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the
truth. Dharma is not a therapy. Quite the opposite, in fact; dharma is
tailored specifically to turn your life upside down—it’s what you sign
up for. So when your life goes pear-shaped, why do you complain? If you
practice and your life fails to capsize, it is a sign that what you are
doing is not working. This is what distinguishes the dharma from New Age
methods involving auras, relationships, communication, well-being, the
Inner Child, being one with the universe, and tree hugging. From the
point of view of dharma, such interests are the toys of samsaric
beings—toys that quickly bore us senseless.
The Heart of Sadness
Rinpoche suggested we pray to the guru, buddhas, and bodhisattvas and
ask them to grant their blessings, “So I may give birth to the heart of
sadness.” But what is a “heart of sadness”? Imagine one night you have a
dream. Although it is a good dream, deep down you know that eventually
you will have to wake up and it will be over. In life, too, sooner or
later, whatever the state of our relationships, our health, our jobs,
and every aspect of our lives, everything, absolutely everything, will
change. And the little bell ringing in the back of your head to remind
you of this inevitability is what is called the “heart of sadness.”
Life, you realize, is a race against time, and you should never put off
dharma practice until next year, next month, or tomorrow—because the
future may never happen.
race-against-time kind of attitude is so important, especially when it
comes to practice. My own experience has shown me that promising myself I
will start to practice next week more or less guarantees that I will
never get around to it. And I don’t think I am alone. So once you
understand that real dharma practice is not just about formal sitting
meditation but a never-ending confrontation with and opposition to pride
and ego, as well as a lesson in how to accept change, you will be able
to start practicing right away. For example, imagine you are sitting on a
beach admiring the sunset. Nothing terrible has happened and you are
content, even happy. Then suddenly that little bell starts to ring in
your head, reminding you that this could be the last sunset you ever
see. You realize that, were you to die, you might not be reborn with the
ability to appreciate a sunset, let alone the capacity to understand
what a sunset is, and this thought alone helps you focus your mind on
Go Beyond Concept
sincere wish to practice the dharma is not born of a desire for
personal happiness or to be perceived as a “good” person, but neither do
we practice because we want to be unhappy or become “bad” people. A
genuine aspiration to practice dharma arises from the longing to attain
and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit into society by following
accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful.
The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual
person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to
behave badly, we shake our heads over her audacity at presenting herself
as a follower of the Buddha. Yet such judgments are better avoided,
because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives
for. Think of the great mahasiddha Tilopa, for example. He looked so
outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, odds are you
would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most
probably be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be
sporting some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been
introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the
tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being?
“Him! A Buddhist? But he’s tormenting that poor creature by eating it
alive!” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work.
In fact, they work in a very similar way to those of the world’s more
puritanical and destructive religions. Of course, there is nothing
necessarily wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice,
according to the Vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts,
including those of morality.
now the majority of us can only afford to be slightly nonconformist,
yet we should aspire to be like Tilopa. We should pray that one day we
will have the courage to be just as crazy by daring to go beyond the
eight worldly dharmas—happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance,
praise and blame, gain and loss—and care not one jot about whether or
not we are praised or criticized. In today’s world, such an attitude is
the ultimate craziness. More than ever, people expect to be happy when
they are admired and praised, and unhappy when derided and criticized.
So it is unlikely that those who want the world to perceive them as sane
will risk flying from the nest of the eight worldly dharmas. Sublime
beings, though, couldn’t care less either way, and that is why, from our
mundane point of view, they are considered crazy.
Develop Renunciation Mind
worldly happiness is not the goal of dharma, then what is it that
prompts a person to want to practice? Chances are that stepping onto a
spiritual path would not even occur to a person who is rich, enjoys
their life, and has a strong sense of personal security. Of course all
of us, even the rich, experience moments of sadness and hopelessness,
and we may even momentarily feel the urge to turn our backs on all this
world has to offer. But this is not a genuine experience of renunciation
mind, as it has far more to do with weariness and boredom than
renunciation; it is often a sign that, like a spoiled child tired of his
toys, we are in desperate need of a change.
Kongtrul Lodro Taye said that if deep down you continue to believe a
tiny corner of samsara could be useful or that it might even offer the
ultimate solution to all your worldly problems, it will be extremely
difficult to become a genuine spiritual seeker. To believe that life’s
problems will somehow work themselves out, that everything bad is
fixable, and that something about samsara has to be worth fighting for,
makes it virtually impossible to nurture a genuine, all-consuming desire
to practice the dharma. The only view that truly works for a dharma
practitioner is that there are no solutions to the sufferings of samsara
and it cannot be fixed.
is vital to understand that however positive this worldly life, or even
a small part of it, may appear to be, ultimately it will fail because
absolutely nothing genuinely works in samsara. This is a very difficult
attitude to adopt, but if we can at least accept it on an intellectual
level, it will provide us with just the incentive we need to step onto
the spiritual path. (Other incentives include making fools of ourselves
or becoming entangled in worldly systems by trying to fix them.) The
bottom line, though, is that only when a beginner truly appreciates just
how hopeless and purposeless samsara really is will a genuine
aspiration to follow a spiritual path arise in his or her mind.
Shakyamuni Buddha, compassionately and with great courage, explained to
an autocratic king, there are four inescapable realities that
eventually destroy all sentient beings:
1. We will all become old and frail. 2. It is absolutely certain that everything will constantly change. 3. Everything we achieve or accumulate will eventually fall apart and scatter. 4. We are all bound to die.
Yet our emotions and habits are so strong that even when the truth is staring us in the face, we are unable to see it.
addition to recognizing the futility of samsara, the point of dharma
practice is that it penetrates our minds and diminishes our affection
for our ego and worldly life by pressing us to detach ourselves from the
eight worldly dharmas. However beneficial a practice appears to be,
however politically correct or exciting, if it does not contradict your
habit of grasping at permanence, or looks harmless but insidiously
encourages you to forget the truth of impermanence and the illusory
nature of phenomena, it will inevitably take you in the opposite
direction of dharma.
Develop the Willingness to Face the Truth
of us tend to resent being confronted with the truth, and from
resentment springs denial. The most obvious example is that we feel
annoyed when we are forced to acknowledge the illusory nature of our
lives and the reality of death. We also take exception to contemplating
it, even though death is an irrefutable universal truth. Our habitual
reaction is to pretend it will never happen—which is how we deal with
most of the other inconvenient truths we find difficult to stomach.
of becoming resentful, though, it is important for any- one who
sincerely wishes to become a dharma practitioner to develop a
willingness and openness to embrace the truth, because the dharma is the
truth. The Buddha himself made no bones about it. He never once
provided his students with rose-tinted glasses to take the edge off the
horror of the truth of impermanence, the agonies that are “emotion,” the
illusory nature of our world, and, above all, the vast and profound
truth of shunyata, emptiness. None of these truths is easy to
understand, or even to aspire to understand, particularly for minds
programmed by habit to long for emotional satisfaction and aim for
ordinary bliss. So if someone is able to hear teachings about emptiness
and tolerate them intellectually as well as practically and emotionally,
it is an indication that they have a real affinity for the dharma.
Overcome Poverty Mentality
of us feel spiritually impoverished. Kongtrul Rinpoche said this is
because we never stop desiring comfort and happiness. Until that kind of
poverty mentality is overcome, a large portion of our mind will always
be busy trying to secure personal comfort and happiness, making letting
go of anything at all extremely difficult. Even those who present
themselves as spiritual practitioners will find it impossible to make
the superhuman effort necessary.
problem here is that on a superficial, worldly level, everything
spiritual, especially the buddhadharma, appears to be utterly useless
and a complete waste of time. We are practical beings who like to build
houses so we can be comfortable and happy, and to put our resources into
erecting a stupa with no bedroom or toilet or anything functional in it
strikes us as being wasteful. But as Kongtrul Rinpoche pointed out,
clinging to the merest hint of an idea that worldly values and ideals
might somehow be useful makes it extremely hard for anyone to tackle
something as apparently futile as spiritual practice. And cutting the
ties of the habits that bind us to worldly values, especially when it
comes to material wealth, is virtually impossible. “Wealth,” from an
authentic dharma perspective, is understood entirely differently. For a
dharma practitioner, wealth is not gold, silver, or a healthy bank
account; wealth is contentment—the feeling that you have enough and
need nothing more.
Liberation from Illusion and Delusion
As the Buddha said in the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra
(Diamond Sutra), “Like a star, hallucination, candle, magical illusion,
dewdrop, bubble, dream, lightning, or a cloud—know all compounded
phenomena to be like this.”
a Buddhist point of view, each aspect and moment of our lives is an
illusion. According to the Buddha, it’s like seeing a black spot in the
sky that you are unable to make sense of, then concentrating on it
intensely until finally you are able to make out a flock of birds. It is
like hearing a perfect echo that sounds exactly like a real person
shouting back at you. Life is nothing more than a continuous stream of
sensory illusions, from the obvious ones, like fame and power, to those
less easy to discern, like death, nosebleeds, and headaches.
Tragically, though, most human beings believe in what they see, and so
the truth Buddha exposed about the illusory nature of life can be a
little hard to swallow.
happens once we know that everything we see and experience is an
illusion? And what is left once those illusions have been liberated? To
be liberated from illusion is to dispel all the limitations that false
perception brings and entirely transform our attitude. So “liberate”
means to be released from the delusion of imagining illusions to be
real. But crucially, we have to want to be liberated; we have to want to
become enlightened. And it is only once we develop a genuine longing
for enlightenment that, almost automatically, we start to learn how not
to want to be ambitious in a worldly sense. Such a longing is not easy
to generate, but without it, to step aimlessly onto the spiritual path
would be utterly pointless.
of people in this world are interested in some version of meditation,
or yoga, or one of the many so-called spiritual activities that are now
so widely marketed. A closer look at why people engage in these
practices reveals an aim that has little to do with liberation from
delusion and has everything do to with their desperation to escape busy,
unhappy lives, and heartfelt longing for a healthy, stress-free, happy
of which are romantic illusions.
So where do we find the roots of these
illusions? Mainly in our habitual patterns and their related actions.
Of course, no one of sound mind imagines any of us would willingly live
an illusion. But we are contrary beings, and even though we are
convinced we would shun a life built on self-deception, we continue to
maintain a strong grip on the habits that are the cause of count- less
delusions. Small wonder the great masters of the past have said that
although everyone longs to be free from suffering, most of us simply
won’t let go of it; although no one wants to suffer, we find it almost impossible not to be attracted to samsara.
of us know that aggression is a problem, as are pride and jealousy, but
the truth is that all emotions cause problems one way or another and
each has a distinctive character. “Passion,” for example, is starkly
different from “aggression.” Fundamentally, though, all emotions spring
from one basic source, distraction.
is “distraction”? Clearly, it is not merely the sound of a chainsaw
firing up or blaring Bollywood music that interrupts our meditation
practice. On a more profound level, distraction is any of the emotional
responses we are sidetracked by—for example, hope for praise and fear of
blame, as well as its more subtle manifestations, like being
spaced-out, distracted, lost in thought, or worked up.
our fundamental problem is distraction, its fundamental solution is to
be mindful. There are an infinite number of methods for developing
mindfulness that all fall into one of two categories: shamatha or vipashyana. The point of shamatha
practice is to make mind malleable. But a pliant mind alone will not
uproot samsara completely; we also need to see the truth, which is why vipashyana, or insight, practice is so crucial.
though, mindfulness is difficult, mostly because we lack the enthusiasm
to develop it but also because our habit of longing for distraction is
both deeply ingrained and extremely tenacious. It is therefore vital for
a dharma practitioner to develop renunciation mind and to recognize the
defects of samsara, both of which lie at the core of the Buddhist
approach to training the mind.
masters of the past suggest we should constantly remind ourselves
about: the imminence of death; the futility of our worldly activities;
and the worst news of all, that there is no end to samsara’s sufferings.
Just look around you and you will see that the world never ceases to
churn out more and more of the same thing, and that the result is
unremitting pain and unbearable suffering. It’s no surprise, then, as
the great masters have pointed out, that to maintain mindfulness for as
long as it takes to drink a cup of tea accumulates more merit than years
of practicing generosity, discipline, and asceticism.
The dharma art teachings and artworks of CHÖGYAMTRUNGPA RINPOCHE.
1. Dharma and Art
often start with art and discover dharma out of that. But our approach
is different: we begin with dharma, the truth of the teachings, the
truth of reality, and then we try to find if there is any art in it. We
start right at the beginning, right at the basic point—with the question
of who we are, what we are, and what we are trying to do in terms of
art. So in discussing dharma art, it is important to have some
familiarity with dharma and why it is art. Dharma
means “norm” or “truth.” It is also defined as peace and coolness,
because it reduces the heat of neurosis, the heat of aggression,
passion, and ignorance. So dharma is very ordinary, very simple. It is
the stage before you lay your hand on your brush, your clay, your
canvas. It is very basic, peaceful, and cool. It is free from the
neurosis that creates obstacles to perceiving the phenomenal world
properly and fully, as a true artist should.
basic obstacle to clear perception is omnipresent anxiety, which does
not allow us to relate to ourselves or to the world outside ourselves.
There is constant anxiety, and out of that anxiety comes a feeling of
heat. It is like entering a hot room—we feel claustrophobic and there is
no fresh air. That claustrophobia leads us to contract our sense
there is one hundred percent claustrophobia—the full heat of
neurosis—we can’t see, we can’t smell, we can’t taste, we can’t hear, we
can’t feel. Our sense perceptions are numbed, which is a great obstacle
to creating a work of art.
people say that if there were no neurosis, they could not become good
artists. This view of art is the opposite of a sense of peace and
coolness. It undermines the possibility of intrinsic beauty.
Fundamentally, art is the expression of unconditional beauty, which
transcends the ordinary beauty of good and bad.
that unconditional beauty, which is peaceful and cool, arises the
possibility of relaxing, and thereby perceiving the phenomenal world and
one’s own senses properly.
is not a question of whether you have talent or not. Everybody has the
tendency toward intrinsic beauty and intrinsic goodness, and talent
comes along with that automatically. When your visual and auditory world
is properly synchronized and you have a sense of humor, you are able to
perceive the phenomenal world fully and truly. That is talent. Talent
comes from the appreciation of basic beauty and basic goodness, which
arises from the fundamental peace and coolness of dharma.
we begin to perceive the phenomenal world with that sense of basic
goodness, peace, and beauty, conflict begins to subside and we start to
perceive our world clearly and thoroughly. There are no questions, no
obstacles. As anxiety sub- sides, sense perceptions become workable
because they are no longer distorted by any neurosis. Through the
practice of meditation, we can relate with our thoughts, our mind, and
our breath and begin to discover the clarity of our sense perceptions
and our thinking process. That enables us to become dharmic people and
we begin to realize that the principle of dharma exists within us, the
heat of neurosis is cooled and pure insight takes place. Because
restfulness exists beyond the neurosis, we begin to feel good about the
whole thing. We could safely say that the principle of art is related
with this idea of trust and relaxation. Such trust in ourselves comes
from realizing that we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to neurosis.
And relaxation can happen because such trust has become a part of our
existence. Therefore, we feel we can afford to open our eyes and all our
sense perceptions fully.
relaxation develops in us, through letting go of neurosis and
experiencing some sense of space and cool fresh air around us, we begin
to feel good about ourselves. We feel that our existence is worthwhile.
In turn we feel that our communication with others could also be
worthwhile and pure and good. On the whole we begin to feel that we are
not cheating anybody; we are not making anything up on the spot. We
begin to feel that we are fully genuine. From that point of view, one of
the basic principles of a work of art is the absence of lying. Genuine
art tells the truth.
art means not creating further pollution in society; dharma art means
creating greater vision and greater sanity. Art has to be done with
genuineness, as it actually is, in the name of basic beauty and basic
goodness. When basic goodness or basic beauty is not being expressed,
what you do is neurotic and destructive, and cultivating other people’s
sanity becomes difficult. Nonetheless, you cannot take the easy way out
for the sake of making lots of money or becoming a big name. There has
to be the basic integrity of maintaining our human society in a state of
sanity. That is and should be the only way to work with art. The
purpose of a work of art is bodhisattva action. This means that your
production, manifestation, demonstration, and performance should be
geared toward waking people up from their neurosis.
The name artist
is not a trademark. The problem of the modern age is that everyone has
become merchandised, everybody is a mercenary, and everybody has to have
a label: either you are a dentist, an artist, a plumber, a dishwasher,
or whatever. And the label of “artist” is the biggest problem of all.
Even if you regard yourself as an artist, I request you not to write
“artist” for your occupation when you fill out a form. From my way of
thinking, and from what my training tells me, when you have perfected
your art and developed your sensitivities, you cannot call yourself
anybody at all.
an artist is not an occupation: it is your life, your whole being. From
the time you wake up in the morning, when the buzzer in your clock
rings, until you go to bed, every perception you experience is an
expression of vision—the light coming through your window, the hot-water
kettle boiling to make tea, the sizzling of the bacon on the stove, the
way your children get up with a yawn and your wife comes down in her
dressing gown into the kitchen. If you limit that by saying, “I am an
artist,” that is terrible. It is showing disrespect for your discipline.
We could safely say that there is no such thing as an artist. There is
just art—dharma art, hopefully.
3. Heaven, Earth and Humanity
The principle of heaven, earth, and humanity seems
to be basic to a work of art. Although this principle has the ring of visual
art, it also could be applied to auditory art such as poetry or music, as well
as to physical or three-dimensional art. The principle of heaven, earth, and
humanity applies to calligraphy, painting, interior decoration, building a
city, designing an airplane or an ocean liner, organizing dishwashing by
choosing which dish to wash first, or vacuuming the floor. All of those works
of art are included completely in the principle of heaven, earth, and humanity.
This principle comes from the Chinese tradition and
was developed further in Japan. It has been connected with the tradition of
ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, but we should not restrict it to that. If
you study the architectural vision of a place like Nalanda University in India,
or if you visit Bodhgaya, with its stupa and its compound, or the Buddhist and
Hindu temples of Indonesia, you see that they are all founded on the heaven,
earth, and humanity principle. In horseback riding, the rider, the horse, and
the performance are connected with the heaven, earth, and humanity principle,
which can also be applied to the disciplines of archery and swordsmanship. Any
discipline, whether Occidental or Oriental, contains the principle of heaven, earth,
To begin with, let’s consider this principle from
the artist’s point of view. The first aspect is heaven, which is connected with
nonthought, or vision. You are being provided with a big canvas, with all the
oil paints and a good brush. You have an easel in front of you and you have
your smock on, ready to paint. At that point you become frightened, and you do
not know what to do. Or you might have blank sheets of paper and a pen sitting
on your desk, and you are about to write poetry. You pick up your pen with a
big sigh—you have nothing to say. Or you pick up your musical instrument and do
not know what note to play.
That first space is heaven, and it is the best one!
It is not regarded as regression; it is just basic space in which you have no
idea what it is going to do or what you are going to do. This initial fear of
inadequacy may be regarded as heaven, basic space, complete space. Such fear of
knowledge is not all that big a fear, but a gap in space that allows you to
step back. It is one’s first insight, a kind of positive bewilderment.
Then, as you look at your canvas or your notepad,
you come up with a first thought of some kind, which you timidly put out. You
begin to mix your paints with your brush or to scribble timidly on your
notepad. The slogan “First thought is best thought!” is an expression of that
principle, which is earth.
The third principle is humanity. The humanity
principle confirms the original panic of the heaven principle and the “first
thought best thought” of the earth principle put together. You begin to realize
that you have something concrete to present. There is a sense of joy and a
slight smile at the corners of your mouth, a slight sense of humor. You can
actually say something about what you are trying to create. That is the third
So we have heaven, earth, and humanity. First, you have the sky; then
you have the earth to complement the sky, and having sky and earth already, you
have somebody to occupy that space, which is humanity. It is like creation, or
genesis. This is connected with the ideal form of a work of art, although it
can include much more than that. It arises from the basis of health, on the
ground of coolness and sanity, which we have already discussed.
Having discussed the heaven, earth, and humanity
principle in connection with creating a work of art, we could discuss what
takes place for the individual who witnesses a work of art. To understand the
perceiver of art, it is important to discuss perception in general, the way we
perceive things based on the principles of seeing and looking. Whether we are
executing a work of art or witnessing one, first we look and then we see.
The notion of looking at things as they are is
important here. We cannot even call it a concept; it is an experience. Look!
Why do we look at all? Or we could say, listen! Why do we listen at all? Why do
we feel at all? Why do we taste? The one and only answer is that there is such
a thing as inquisitiveness in our makeup. Inquisitiveness is the seed syllable
of the artist. The artist is interested in sight, sound, feeling, and touchable
objects. We are interested and inquisitive, and we are willing to explore. We
appreciate purple, blue, red, white, yellow, violet. When we see them, we are
so interested. Such tremendous inquisitiveness is the key point in the way we
look at things, because with inquisitiveness we have a connection. We as human
beings have certain sense organs, such as eyes, noses, ears, mouths, and
tongues, to experience the different levels of sense perceptions. And our
minds, basically speaking, can communicate thoroughly and properly through any
one of those sense organs. By training ourselves in the understanding of art as
a fundamental and basic discipline, we could learn to synchronize our mind and
body completely. In doing so, the first step is learning how to look, how to
listen, how to feel. By learning how to look, we begin to discover how to see.
By learning how to listen, we learn how to hear. By learning how to feel, we
learn how to experience.
When sense objects and sense perceptions and sense organs meet, and they
begin to be synchronized, you let yourself go a little further. You open
yourself. It is like a camera aperture: your lens is open at that point. Then
you see things, and they reflect into your state of mind. That seems to be the
basic idea of how a perceiver looks at a work of art.
5. Unconditional Expression
From our practice of meditation, we no longer
regard a work of art as a gimmick or as confirmation. It is simply expression—
not even self-expression, just expression. We could safely say that there is
such a thing as unconditional expression that does not come from self or other.
It manifests out of nowhere like mushrooms in a meadow, like hailstones, like
The basic sense of delight and spontaneity in a
person who has opened fully and thoroughly to him or herself and life can
provide wonderful rainbows and thundershowers and gusts of wind. We don’t have
to be tied down to the greasy-spoon world of well-meaning artists with
heavy-handed looks on their faces and over- fed information in their brains.
The basic idea of dharma art is the sense of peace and refreshing coolness of
the absence of neurosis.
We have to be so genuine and gentle. Otherwise, there is no way to work
with the universe at all. You have a tremendous responsibility: the first is to
yourself, to become gentle and genuine; the second is to work for others in the
same way. It is very important to realize how powerful all of us are. What we
are doing may seem insignificant, but this notion of dharma art will be like an
atomic bomb you carry in your mind. You could play a tremendous role in
developing peace throughout the world.
by Carolyn Rose Gimian from “Heaven, Earth, and Man,” in The Collected
Works of Chögyam Trungpa, volume Seven, based on a seminar entitled
“Dharma Art” given in Boulder, Colorado, in July 1979.
say that wherever you go, there you are. But as ANNE CUSHMAN discovers
in Spain, it’s also true that travel gives you a fresh take on yourself.
was in my twenties when I first met Shawn. She was a slender, intense
yogini from Vermont with a long brown ponytail and Birkenstocks. In a
teacher-training program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco,
we drilled side by side in our eighties-style leotards on green sticky
mats, parsing the muscular grammar of downward dog and revolved
triangle. We crayoned nerves and organs in our anatomy coloring books;
we identified—blindfolded—the disassembled vertebrae of a plastic
skeleton; we visited each other for yoga dates, where we balanced side
by side on our heads while discussing our once and future boyfriends.
then she fell in love with one of our fellow yogis, a handsome,
serious Catalan on sabbatical from his engineering job. Shortly after
their first baby was born, she wrote me a letter from Barcelona on a
flimsy blue aerogram. I meant to write back right away, but I got
distracted by a few other things—some long treks through India, a couple
of books, a marriage, a child, a divorce. Suddenly more than twenty
years had slipped by, and I wanted to take my ten-year-old son, Skye, to
study Spanish in Spain.
Google search found Shawn teaching prenatal yoga and working as a doula
in Sitges, a beach town just south of Barcelona. She answered my email
right away: “I still have a photo of you in downward dog hanging in my
painting studio!” I toured her Facebook wall, where she looked exactly
the same as I remembered her, until I realized I was viewing a photo of
her daughter. I had a warm but disorienting Skype conversation with a
European woman with a chic blonde haircut who answered to Shawn’s name
but kept breaking off to chat in Spanish and Catalan with her two
the decades since we’d last spoken, Shawn and I had each built a
thriving life—and along the way, accumulated the usual list of
roads-not-taken. I envied her established twenty-year marriage. She
envied my fresh new romance with Teja, a musician and qigong teacher. I
pined for her trilingual sophistication. She pined for my local
community of dharma yoga friends. She told me about the first yoga class
she ever taught in Spanish, in which she had instructed a group of
pregnant women to “sit on their testicles” (inadvertently confusing the
Spanish word for cushions, cojines, with cojones). I told her about the
time I led a silent yoga and meditation retreat with my screaming
four-month-old son in a front pack, my milk letting down and soaking my
camisole as I guided the retreatants into savasana.
flurry of emails later, Shawn was sitting at my kitchen table in
California—along with her husband, her son, her daughter, and her
daughter’s best friend. She was handing me the keys to her house and
instructing me on how to operate her Persian blinds and put her cat’s
bowl in a moat of water so the ants wouldn’t infest it.
I was doing a seated twist on Shawn’s terracotta patio, looking over a
valley of rooftops and orange-blos- somed trees to the Mediterranean
Sea. Teja, Skye, and I were swapping houses with Shawn and her family
for the month.
writer Bill Bryson said that the great gift of travel is that it puts
you in situations where you can’t take anything for granted. Like
meditation, it cultivates a beginner’s mind in which each experience is
house swap, in particular, invites the tantalizing fantasy that you’re
leaving behind not just your own familiar routine but also your own
familiar and slightly annoying self. You’re swapping it out for a new,
improved, more fascinating self, with better outfits and a better shot
at enlightenment. Dropped into the middle of another woman’s
life—sleeping in her bed with her mosquito coil humming, riding her
bicycle to the beach while wearing her (only slightly too small)
flip-flops, sautéing zucchini from her garden in her kitchen—I felt, at
first, as if I’d been reincarnated.
Our first evening in Sitges, a friend of Shawn’s invited me and Skye to a fiesta de espuma
(foam festival) in a nearby village. It was a giant public bubble bath,
in which a cannon mounted on top of a truck fired a stream of soapy
foam into a plaza next to a seventeenth-century church, while a salsa
band played with no shirts on. Children in bathing suits and goggles,
hand in hand with their grandkids, and papas with toddlers seated on
their shoulders all frolicked in neck-deep bubbles to a Latin beat. Skye
danced through the crowd with a corona of bubbles, shaking his frothy
hips and waving his arms.
next day, Skye, Teja, and I took the train into Barcelona for a bicycle
tour through fifteenth-century streets jammed with honking, fuming,
twenty-first-century traffic. We pedaled through the medieval courtyard
where Ferdinand and Isabella greeted Christopher Columbus on his return
from the new World. We cruised past the sandcastle-like splendor of the
still-unfinished masterwork cathedral of the architect Antoni Gaudí. We
paused for power bars and water at a series of memorials commemorating
religious and political martyrs who over the centuries had been shot or
burned at the stake or rolled through the streets in barrels full of
it wasn’t just soap bubbles and touristy photo ops that brushed the
cobwebs of familiarity from my eyes. In a foreign country, ordinary
life—buying groceries, doing laundry, driving Skye to and from his beach
camp in Shawn’s old VW van— was a constant mystery. I blundered through
my days, bleating the primal phrases from my introductory Spanish CDs—
“I want... I need... Do you have... ?”—and misunderstanding the answers.
A freeway sign flashed “peligro,” which I knew meant “danger.” But I
couldn’t understand the rest of the warning, which, in any case, quickly
disappeared behind me. Why was the old woman at the roadside fruit
stand so irritated that I’d picked up the melon and set it on the
weighing scale? Why were the carts in the Supermarque chain-locked
together, and how did I get them apart? For that one, I sent Skye to
inquire in Spanish of the white-coated man at the meat counter—who was
standing next to an entire pig, skinned and gutted, dangling by its hind
ankles from an overhead hook. (We learned that vegetarianism was a rare
phenomenon in Spain when we requested our salads sin carne—without
meat—and they came with ham instead.) In the U.S., meat came tidily
packaged in plastic, its animal origins coyly disguised. In Spain, it
stared right at us and said, Hi, I’m Wilbur and I’ll be your tapas for this evening...
it quickly became clear that I had not been reborn into this new
reality as an entirely new person—as, for example, a person who didn’t
get snippy when her partner played classical guitar till after midnight,
slept in till ten, and then drank strong Spanish coffee from a
two-liter measuring cup, even though she had repeatedly told him that
the best way to get over jet lag was to get up at dawn and do yoga and
meditate with her, and even though she was clearly so right about
that! Unfortunately, I had packed my mind along with me—as opinionated
and prolific as always.
A few days into our trip, I stayed home all
morning to practice yoga on Shawn’s patio. A garbage truck groaned up
the street, with a sound like a very large animal in labor, but the
breeze smelled of salt water and orange blossoms. As I dropped into the
pause at the bottom of a long exhalation, I thought, Now I’m finally here.
what did I mean by “here”? Shawn’s house was eerily similar to my own:
peach-colored walls, a closet full of yoga props, a stack of meditation
cushions piled in the corner of the living room. Deep in the heart of my
practice, I could have been anywhere in the world. Folding into a
forward bend, I met the same familiar body I greet in California—though
admittedly more laden with pan al tomate.
Seated in meditation, I met the same familiar mind. Sure, the content
of my tumbling thoughts was different: What metro stop would get me to
the Joan Miró museum on the peak of Montjuïc? Was it really okay for
Skye to eat chocolate croissants instead of oatmeal for breakfast and,
if so, could I have a bite? But the basic structure was the same: the
flickering slide show of planning and judging, the undertow of anxiety
laced with longing.
I hoisted my pelvis onto a foam yoga block for a supported inversion, I
reflected on one of the basic teachings of buddhadharma: the solid self
that we cling to so tenaciously is actually composed of a limited
number of ever-shuffling components. Wherever we go, our experience is
created from the same basic elements: seeing, hearing, smelling,
tasting, touching, thinking. Spain and America, today and twenty years ago—these are just abstract concepts. There’s no coming and no going; we’re always right here, right now.
yet... A pill bug crawled toward my head; when I blew on it, it curled
into a ball and tumbled away. A fiesta firecracker banged exuberantly
somewhere down the street. My sacrum released with a pop as I dropped my
feet to the floor. My practice invited me into a living intimacy with
this specific unfolding moment.
and again, my practice of yoga and meditation helps me navigate this
dance between the universal and the personal, the absolute and the
relative. It teaches me to honor my own quirky, specific human body and
mind and story—while at the same time seeing their ever-changing,
impermanent nature, inseparable from the interconnected web of pill bugs
and chocolate, garbage trucks and stars. It reminds me that I don’t
have to do a house exchange in order to have the opportunity to be
reborn in each new moment.
ground myself in my daily practice whenever I travel, so that travel
itself can become a meditation. My practice reminds me that in travel,
as in yoga, the point is not just to get from one peak experience to the
next—the poses and destinations are part of an ongoing vinyasa,
or flow. As Skye and Teja and I took the metro through Barcelona to a
flamenco-guitar concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana, I reminded
Skye that our day’s adventure wasn’t just the hour and a half we would
sit in the concert hall, a stained-glass ceiling arcing above us,
listening to Pedro Javier Gonzáles play “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.”
The adventure was also our sweaty confusion as we puzzled over the
metro map by the train tracks, and our rescue by a young architecture
student named Maria, who listened patiently to our halting Spanish and
led us through the maze of the station to the right line. If we couldn’t
be present for Maria and the metro, chances were we wouldn’t tune in to
the concert completely either.
daily meditations helped me stay centered as we took a cable-car up a
jagged mountain to the eighth-century monastery Montserrat, which now
attracts a million tourists a year. “That sounds like a monk’s worst
nightmare,” I said to Teja, but perhaps it wasn’t; outside the bar by
the monastery museum we spotted a group of portly, black-robed monks
drinking red wine and passing around trays of hors d’oeuvres. Skye took
off his sun hat and set it on a wall to pose for a photo with a statue
of a saint. Then by the time we had snapped a few shots, the hat had
been stolen by one of our fellow pilgrims. I suggested to Skye that per-
haps in a few hundred years, the Buddhist retreat center where I teach
in California might look like this: a cable car to the hill above the
meditation hall, with a café and a bar on top, and a viewing platform
where one could watch through binoculars as the Vipassana students did
walking meditation in the courtyard.
practice also reminded me to stay relaxed as we celebrated Skye’s
eleventh birthday with a few of his new Spanish friends and a
chocolate-cream cake with Felicidades written
in white icing. En route to a business trip, Skye’s dad flew in for the
party with his beautiful new girlfriend. The kids played a Barcelona
version of Monopoly and argued about the rules in Spanish, while the
grown-ups drank sparkling water and made conversation that was not as
awkward as I’d feared.
trip, in its turn, reminded me to be free-spirited in my yoga and
meditation practice—to enter it, every time, with the spirit of
adventure, open to the surprises that might unfurl in even the most
familiar posture, the most ordinary breath. It reminded me to celebrate
my body and my life with the unselfconscious exuberance of the women on
the crowded Sitges beach, where virtually everyone—grandmother or
teenager, slender or with billowing flesh—frolicked in the waves wearing
the kind of tiny bikini that back in California you had to be a
twenty-something supermodel to flaunt.
the end of my month in Spain, I flew back home to my own collection of
yoga mats and meditation cushions, and Shawn flew home to hers. Since
then, when I practice on my deck overlooking Mount Tamalpais, I often
think of my longtime yoga friend, practicing on her patio overlooking
the Mediterranean Sea. As I practice, I feel connected to her, despite
the miles and years between us.
sometimes, in the space between one breath and the next, I remember the
families dancing together in a plaza full of foam. I remember the
guitar player at the Palau de la Música: the way he held his guitar like
a lover in his arms. The way his fingers released a torrent of song as
they traveled over the strings.
Cushman is the co-director of the Mindfulness Yoga program at Spirit
Rock Meditation Center and a founder of the online practice community
Awakening as Women. For more than twenty-five years she has studied
multiple schools of yoga and practiced Buddhist meditation in the Zen
and Vipassana traditions. Her work includes the documentary Zen Center:
Portrait of an American Zen Community, the guidebook From Here to
Nirvana, and the novel Enlightenment for Idiots.
was MELODY ERMACHILD CHAVIS’ prayer, until finally she accepted that
her father would never return. Then, in a London chapel devoted to
American war dead, she realized that maybe he’d been there for her all
I was a little girl, I often wondered if my father could hear my voice.
My grandmother, his mother, told me that he was in heaven. She said he
was always watching over me, and I believed her. When my grandmother
taught me the Lord’s Prayer, I thought it was about him. “My Father, who
art in Heaven.” When I prayed, I thought I was talking to my father.
father was a navigator and bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the
Second World War. He died on October 12, 1944, when his B-24 was shot
down on a bombing run over Germany.
learned this when I was older. When I was a child, all I was told was
that my father was “missing in action.” So I always had trouble
believing he was dead. In thousands of lonely reveries, I imagined his
return. These dreams would always end with him taking me into his arms.
disbelief has gone through many stages over the course of my life. As I
grew older, I realized that he was probably dead, but I still hoped he
could be among the missing but alive. As far as I knew, there was no
body, no grave, no tombstone, no place to visit. Without some concrete
proof of his death, I could let myself think that perhaps he had
amnesia, perhaps he was only lost, perhaps one day he would come and
find me. Until I was in my twenties, I continued my childhood prayer to
him: “Please come back. Please come back.”
was in my forties when I finally learned what had happened. I visited
my father’s sister, who brought out a metal box in which my grandmother
had stored old papers. They said my father’s remains had been recovered
and were first buried at a prisoner- of-war camp in Germany. Later, I
read, the remains were returned to his home state, to Rock Island
National Cemetery in Illinois. I was nearly fifty when I found his
tombstone there among those of other airmen.
1952, when I was nine, Elizabeth, the newly crowned Queen of England,
sent a book to all American children who had lost parents fighting for
Britain in the war. My book reached me at the desert housing project
near the Arizona army base where my soldier stepfather was stationed. I
didn’t like the book, with its black-and-white photos of war planes.
Many of them had crashed.
the book was a letter addressed to me and signed by the Queen. She told
me that President Eisenhower had dedicated a chapel in St Paul’s
Cathedral in London to the sacrifice of Americans who had fought with
Britain against the Nazis. In that chapel, my father’s name was
inscribed in a special book.
was sixty-nine when I went to see his name in St Paul’s. This late-life
pilgrimage was unfinished business. I was about to retire from my
stressful job of more than thirty years helping defend people facing the
death penalty. My work was to investigate the lives and family stories
of my clients. I’d had little time to look into my own history. Now I
for the trip, I decided to take a dress made in the 1940s that I had
found years before in a secondhand store. It was made of dark-blue rayon
and fell below the knee in the graceful lines dresses had back then.
That generation went to war with such flair. Their clothes and
hairstyles were so attractive, their dances so sexy, their music so
heartfelt and sentimental. So much was lost when those young people,
filled with such energy, died. I took the dress along in honor of them.
had made arrangements with the cathedral ahead of time, because the
book of war dead is kept locked away and brought out only for family
members. When I arrived at St Paul’s, the enormous dark-red book, bound
in faded velvet, had been placed on a table for me to read. Its title
was Roll of Honour.
A man wearing white gloves opened it, and there, in old-fashioned hand
script, on a page of names that all began with “Ch,” I saw my father’s
name: Lt. Thomas Patrick Chavis. I wanted to touch it but kept my hand
pressed to my waist. I believed, for the first time so deeply, that my
father was dead.
father was one the 28,000 who took off from England in airplanes that
never came back. I raised my eyes to read the inscriptions carved in
marble around the curved chapel: They knew not the hour, the day Nor the manner of their passing. When far from home They were called to join that heroic band of airmen Who had gone before. May they rest in peace... The Americans, whose names appear here, Were part of the price that free men Have been forced to pay to defend Human liberty and rights. All who shall hereafter live in freedom Will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades We owe a debt to be paid With grateful remembrance of their sacrifice.
My father’s sacrifice was to lose his life. Mine was to lose a father.
these words, I realized that I had not felt gratitude for my father.
Instead, I had felt loss, for all that I did not receive from him. I
knew that Buddhism has a centuries-old practice of gratitude—grateful remembrance—to
ancestors, but I had not applied it in my own life. Now I thought of
all that my father had given to me. He was athletic; so am I. He was a
writer; so am I. Following in his footsteps, I had dedicated my life’s
most productive years to “human liberty and rights.” His gifts to me are
had obtained the official report on the crash of my father’s plane, and
with it the names of the ten crewmen who had died with him that day. I
knelt there in the chapel at St Paul’s, and suddenly I decided to speak
aloud to each of them. Holding the list, I softly spoke the name of each
man, his rank and position on the crew, and then the words, “Our boy,
our hero, rest in peace.”
said “boy” because in that war, the soldiers were always called “our
boys over there.” Now I am old enough to be the grandmother of these
men, and I could talk to them as if they really were my boys.
said “hero” because I was always told that my father was a hero. I had
never accepted that the only father I would ever have was a dead hero. I
had wanted simply to have my father. But now, kneeling below the words
inscribed for these men, I felt my dead father’s heroism. I felt the
continuity of my life. I was at once a little girl and an elder woman.
And I was always the same per- son—my father’s daughter.
have never been in an airplane without thinking of my father. Countless
times I have pressed my forehead to an airplane window, watched the
surface of the Earth passing below, and thought of his fall through the
air. What did he feel? What did he think of?
kneeling in St Paul’s, I opened myself to his consciousness, and I
was suddenly certain that my father thought of me, his baby daughter, as
he fell to earth. For he had left a lot of evidence behind of his
attachment, writing often in letters to his mother of how much he loved
me and of his hopes for me.
spoke to him in the chapel as though he could hear me. What I wanted to
tell him was that I, his little daughter, was all right.
I often spoke to my father when I was young, this was the first I had
spoken to him since I was twenty-seven years old. I was a lonely single
mother of two young children then, sharing a cheap, dark, two-bedroom
apartment with another young mother and her baby. We were both poor,
without protection in the world, and terribly sad. I was folding laundry
and imagining my father watching over me. Suddenly I thought, as if
awakened from a dream, “No one is here. I am alone.”
a newfound kind of grown-up toughness, I decided then and there that my
father-seeking reveries were unhealthy. I needed to live in the reality
of my life, hard though it was. After that, whenever I caught myself
pretending he was there, I stopped myself, and gradually, the habit
that day in St Paul’s, wearing my blue dress with my father’s Purple
Heart pinned to it, I felt that whether he could hear me or not, it was
good to talk to my father sometimes. That I never needed to stop
believing that he in some way protects me. What a wonderful relief it
was to re-imagine my father as a benign presence looking over my shoulder. There, I feel, he will remain peacefully for the rest of my life.
thirty-two years, Melody Ermachild Chavis worked as an investigator for
the defense of people facing the death penalty in the United States.
Her search for the roots of violence led to the writing of two books: a
memoir, Altars in the Street, and a biography, Meena, Heroine of
Afghanistan, as well as many essays. Chavis’ work is sustained by her
Buddhist practice. She lives in Berkeley, California, and Wiesbaden,