Know Your Enemy (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Know Your Enemy
We call people who harm us enemies, but is that who they really are? When we see the person behind the label, say Buddhist teachers SHARON SALZBERG and ROBERT THURMAN, everyone benefits.
Crushing the Competition
Competition today is tantamount to a blood sport—and not just on the playing field or in the ring. The psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney introduced the concept of hypercompetitiveness as a neurotic personality trait almost 70 years ago. She characterized the hypercompetitive coping strategy as “moving against people” (in contrast to moving toward or away from people). Her observations are now all too evident in our culture. Extreme us-versus-them behavior has created a lonely world. There is always some new adversary to move against, so we get locked into a vicious circle of measuring our strength by disparaging others. I remember watching the ice-dancing competition at the Winter Olympics one year. One couple had barely finished their intricate dance when the commentator barked out, “Lacks artistry!” Although bolstering our status by dismissing the efforts of others is presented as normal behavior by our culture, the feeling of superiority it produces is hollow. In contrast, mutual respect and appreciation among competitors breed a sense of solidarity.
The Insight Meditation Society once held a retreat for our board members, during which a consultant we were working with gave us an exercise. We were separated into pairs to play
a game resembling tic-tac-toe. Each player was to tally his or her
points. Most of us figured we were competing against our partner to see
who could score more points. But one of the pairs got the idea that if
they cooperated rather than competed and pooled their points, their
combined score would be higher than everyone else’s. Unlike the rest of
us, who had assumed that every twosome would have a winner and a loser,
this cooperative pair decided not to play as if they were battling each
other. They outscored the rest of us because they had chosen to work
Competition is natural, a part of the human arsenal for survival, but when it creates enmity, we need to question its power in our lives. This is where sympathetic joy — joy in the happiness of others — comes in. If we’re in a competitive frame of mind, when something good happens to someone else, we think it somehow diminishes us. It doesn’t really, of course, but being consumed with jealousy and envy clouds our judgment. Even when we’re not in the running, extreme competitiveness makes us feel as if we were.
However, if we approach other people’s successes with an attitude of sympathetic joy, we can genuinely and wholeheartedly receive happiness from their good fortune. Instead of running an internal monologue that goes something like, Oh no, you got that, but it was meant for me! It should be mine, and you took it away, we can accept that the prize was never ours and rejoice in the other person’s success. If we approach life from a place of scarcity, a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. But when we can rejoice in other people’s happiness, we
realize that joy and fulfillment are not finite quantities we have to grab while we can. They are always available because they are internal qualities that flow naturally if we allow them to.
An accessible path to sympathetic joy runs through compassion, or the movement of the heart in response to pain or suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering. Compassion is an energized and empowering quality. As Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera says, “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.” Looking closely at the life of someone we consider to be the competition, we are bound to see hardships that the person has endured or understand how tenuous status and good fortune can be. When we can connect with a perceived enemy on the level of human suffering, winning or losing seems less important.
A few years ago I led a meditation group at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. The walls of the school corridors were plastered with homilies: Treat people the way you would like to be treated. Play fair. Don’t hurt others on the inside or the outside. The message that stopped me short, however, was Everyone can play.
Everyone can play is now the precept I live by. We may not agree with one another. We may argue. We may compete. But everybody gets to play, no matter what. We all deserve a shot at life.
Co-creating the Enemy
Our perception of others as enemies is influenced by how we have interacted with them in the past and how they have interacted with us. Our view of them is seldom an objective reflection of their qualities but tends to be a projection of our own aversion. Maybe someone harmed us in the past, so now we are afraid of them. Maybe we did something a person didn’t like, so now they are angry with us. We have a mental template of what we consider harmful, injurious, and frightening, and, with or without provocation, we project that onto people, turning them into enemies.
When someone looks unpleasant or threatening — when they fit our mental image of a frightening person — then we assume they intend to harm us, and we can’t wait to get rid of them. And if we can’t get rid of them, we feel frustrated and angry, which reinforces our view of them as an enemy.
The last thing most of us want to hear is that we might have any responsibility for creating our own enemies. After all, it wasn’t our car that drove over our newly sodded lawn. And we’re not the ones who spread that malicious gossip about a loved one, nor are we the one who seemed to take great pleasure in stealing a colleague’s clients. But if we are ever to get rid of our enemies, or at least render them powerless over us, we will have to own up to our part in creating the enmity.
Every person has the potential to be unpleasant and harmful, just as every person has the potential to be pleasant and helpful. Think of someone you love dearly; if you look back, you can probably find a time when they did something that harmed you, even unwittingly, or a time when you were angry with them or they were angry with you.
“Enemy,” then, is not a fixed definition, a label permanently affixed to anyone we believe has harmed us. It’s a temporary identity we assign people when they don’t do what we want or they do something we don’t want. But whatever others have or have not done, enemy-making always comes back to us.
A friend who was raised as a Christian once told me that from a very young age, whenever he heard the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” his heart would soar. Then inevitably, his next thought would be the troubled question: But how?
How, indeed. What if you actually hate your neighbors, or are afraid of them, or simply find them unappealing? What if you actually hate yourself or don’t find much good about your actions when you evaluate your day? What if all too often, when confronted by a decidedly unneighborly world, you feel defensive, hostile, cut off, and alone? We can start unraveling this response by looking at our conditioning.
We have a strong urge to dichotomize human beings, to separate them into opposing categories. Stereotyping is an evolutionary mechanism designed to enhance survival, a form of shorthand
for getting by in a dangerous world. We try to manage the messiness of life by creating an orderly zone of recognizable types characterized by certain traits that are associated, however loosely. Then we generalize our preconceived typologies to all members of a class or group or nation.
The problem is that once we have organized everyone into tidy categories, we may be unwilling to look beyond those labels. We commonly designate our own group as the norm, the Ins, while everyone else is the Other. Designating our own family or group as the standard, while assigning everyone else to categories that are somehow inferior, boosts our feeling of self-worth. But it also locks us into the us-versus-them mindset, virtually assuring us an unending supply of enemies.
Familiarity can stop this cycle of enemy-making. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion does. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” amity travels like a benign virus through opposing groups. This effect is so powerful that, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, bias can evaporate in a matter of hours. Peaceful exposure to the Other, the “enemy,” is key. As just one example, a Palestinian-Jewish summer camp known as Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam enables Jewish and Arab youths and their families to spend time together in shared activities and dialogue amid natural surroundings.
Such organizations offer clues to how larger-scale initiatives might be devised to break down the us-versus-them stockade.
We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic. Think of the Dalai Lama learning about Christianity from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Archbishop Tutu learning about Buddhism from the Dalai Lama. Neither of these spiritual masters appears to be out to convert the other, nor do they need to agree in order to feel connected. Each maintains strong loyalty to his own traditions, creed, and people, but they are very good friends who are not constrained by the cult of either/or.
Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us, and immediately we’ll fear and dislike them.
Taking action toward the good is the best way to expand our attention and dissolve the boundary of us-versus-them. Even simple things like working in a soup kitchen and helping feed the hungry, or having thoughtful conversations with the people next door, can ease feelings of separation from those who are unlike us on the surface.
By aligning ourselves with issues larger than our own selfish concerns — “turning off the Me and turning on the We,” as Jonathan Haidt puts it — we transcend alienation through simple human contact. In the spirit of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” more and more people start to seem like our neighbors, and we learn in real terms how to love them.
Working with the Outer Enemy
Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, “other” is filled with potential enemies. Even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us in some way, and immediately we will fear and dislike them.
How we deal with our enemies, then, is to see them as human beings and to see ourselves from their perspective, being conscious of our own prejudices and preoccupations and realizing that our enemies are operating out of their own prejudices and preoccupations. “Working with the Outer Enemy,” the exercise that follows, will show you how you create outer enemies and how to reverse that process.
When it comes down to it, the outer enemy is a distraction. Focusing on someone who seems to have it in for us allows us to ignore the real enemy, the enemy within. But when we can see the enemy’s hatred as a challenge, it becomes a spur to our own growth, a gift to wake us from our complacency.
Think of someone you don’t like, someone you feel real antipathy toward. It may be someone you find frightening, someone you find challenging, someone you see as a rival, someone who has harmed you in some way. Bring the person clearly to mind and visualize them sitting before you. Really get in touch with your feelings toward that person. Feel the anger or fear or distaste as it arises in you.
Now put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine being that person, sitting there looking at you. See yourself from your enemy’s perspective. Realize that your enemy is mirroring your feelings toward them. Just as you see your enemy, your enemy sees you the same way. Perhaps you are jealous of them, if they seem to be one-up and looking down at you. Or you may feel superior and therefore have a condescending attitude toward the enemy. Look at yourself through eyes of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and condescension.
When you have thoroughly immersed yourself in the negative feelings you have for your enemy and your enemy has for you, realize that you don’t have to harbor those feelings. You can see your enemy in a different way. Try to imagine how their loved ones see them, how their child sees them, or their pet dog. If your enemy seems particularly bad, imagine how their partner in crime sees them — as an ally, a co-conspirator, a friend. And then note how stressed your enemy feels on seeing or thinking of you. It is the same stress that you feel when you see or think of your enemy.
As you look at yourself through this other person’s eyes, note the tone of voice you are using in your mind. Be aware of how your condescension, competitiveness, contempt, or jealousy is conveyed in the little things you do and say. Your emotions emerge in your voice and speech and gestures and body language, just as your enemy’s emotions are written all over their face and behavior.
Now try to see something beautiful in your enemy. Imagine that person being really happy at having fallen in love or won an election or won the lottery. (If you’re really daring, imagine your enemy winning the battle with you. That should make your enemy feel good!) Imagine your enemy being happy to see you, or if you can’t quite summon up that vision, imagine them at least as not being angry with you. Imagine your enemy being happy enough with their own life to have neither the time nor the inclination to bother you. Think of what would make your enemy truly satisfied, truly pleased. It may not be what you assume your enemy wants — that is, domination over you. When you are no longer bothering your enemy, no longer standing in the way of what that person wants, then your enemy will no longer be interested in bothering you.
In visualizing yourself from the enemy’s perspective, you start to see that what makes you vulnerable to your enemies is your sense of being fundamentally different from them. But when you realize that in very basic ways you are the same — at a minimum, you share a desire to be happy and not to be in pain — then you don’t want to spoil the happiness of your enemies any more than you want them to spoil yours.
When you truly grasp that it is the projection of your own hurt and anger and fear that turns someone into your enemy, and you are able to recognize your kinship as fellow human beings, it releases the energy you previously invested in defending yourself and your ego. Now you can use this precious energy to work on rooting out the inner enemies, such as anger, fear, and jealousy. In this way, the enemy you so disliked becomes your ally: your teacher, your helper, even — dare I say it — your friend.
Eventually you will even be able to see the beauty in your enemy, and you will feel free of inner anxiety about them. Then, whenever you happen to meet that person, you will notice that they seem less troublesome to you. And your new attitude toward your former enemy will affect them, too, and they will be less antagonistic toward you, though they may not consciously know why. Now you can meditate on seeing your life as one of being among friends.
From Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. © 2013 by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. Published with permission of Hay House
Illustrations by Tiery Le.
Alice Walker: The Beautiful Truth (November 2013)
Alice Walker: The Beautiful Truth
From her childhood in the Jim Crow South to her ascent as a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Alice Walker has been on a journey to see things as they really are. COLLEEN MORTON BUSCH explores Walker’s life, work, and spiritual path.
If The Color Purple is a “Buddha book that’s not Buddhism”—as author Alice Walker once described her Pulitzer Prize winning novel—Walker’s own spirituality might be called a Buddha path that’s not Buddhist. Walker has long been a meditator, and she credits Pema Chödrön’s teachings on awakening compassion with helping to open her heart, again and again. But Walker doesn’t consider herself Buddhist. She draws on many spiritual teachings and pledges allegiance to none.
As an author and activist, she is known for searing portraits of difficult subjects, but when I meet her on a warm afternoon in Berkeley, California, she radiates a quiet wonder and steadfast appreciation for the unadorned bounty of the Earth, including the red Russian kale leaf that seems to grow bigger by the minute in the planter bed in her garden. “The one that looked as big as my hand last night is almost twice as big as my hand now,” she says. “That’s what I like to watch.”
Walker greets me just inside the garden gate at her home, wearing a soft, loose-fitting, blue linen outfit, her hair short and smoky gray. She leads me briskly through the sun-drenched garden to the living room, past a bench lined with copies of her latest books, and settles on her sofa, legs outstretched.
Walker is not one to stay within prescribed lines or to heed perceived limitations, whether in her spiritual path, her art, or her life. She has loved and partnered with men and women.
She’s a poet, novelist, essayist, and blogger whose writing has garnered both lavish praise and stinging criticism. She’s an activist, seeker, and meditator — though for Walker meditation comes in as many varieties and uses as the kale she blends into breakfast smoothies or sautés for supper.
This year, Walker celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of her Pulitzer Prize (and National Book Award) for The Color Purple and the release of Beauty in Truth, a documentary about her life that premiered in London to sold-out crowds. She has published more than thirty books, most recently poetry (The World Will Follow Joy) and journal-like essays (The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way). Early next year, she will turn seventy.
Pratibha Parmar, the director of Beauty in Truth, felt “transported safely across the threshold of another world full of possibilities” the first time she read Walker. The book was In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. And what is a garden if not a world of possibility? Walker loves to plant seeds and see what grows, just as her mother did before her. “Hers was a literal garden,” she says, “but my garden is basically everything.”
Preparing the Ground
Walker was born in a community named for its church: Ward’s Chapel, Georgia, just outside of Eatonton. As a child, she could often be found behind a book or rambling outdoors. Sipping tea from a plain white mug, she tells me that her family accepted her love for solitude and nature, though they experienced it at times as distancing or just plain spaciness. “When you grow up in a small house with many people in it, the interior space, if you’re fortunate, becomes very spacious. In my case, it did.”
Walker’s parents, Minnie Lou and Willie Lee Walker, were sharecroppers, with numerous mouths to feed and not much money to spare. Minnie Lou would return from a long day of For Walker, joy comes from gathering pine cones and twigs to make a fire, or from the blooms on the rosebush in her garden — common, everyday miracles.
laboring on someone else’s land to tend her beloved flower beds. The family belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal church and were, as Walker puts it, “deeply Christian. They really believed in the teachings of Jesus.” Whereas Walker’s siblings were made to attend services on Sundays, by the time she reached her teenage years—the last of eight children — her parents lacked the energy for enforcement. Walker fell away from the church and its gospel, drawn to the inspiration she discovered right outside her front door. She watched storms and the wind that carried them. She observed her mother’s garden bloom and fade. She strolled through the forest. “It was like walking meditation but without any trappings,” she says. “You were just there in the middle of a miracle, aware that everything was not only connected to you but coming through you.”
Walker wrote from an early age — exploring what she calls the “foreign territory” inside the self — scribbling in the margins of catalogs. But the pivotal moment of her childhood, the one that made her a writer dedicated to truthful depiction of the world around her, was an accident she didn’t speak or write about for years. She was eight years old, playing cowboys and Indians, when one of her brothers shot a BB gun and pierced her right eye. The pain was excruciating, the scar tissue disfiguring. It took the family a week after the injury to gather enough money for a doctor. “He said — right in front of me and my parents — ‘If one eye is blind, the other will become blind,’” Walker remembers. “It sparked in me a real desire to see before I could not see.” While she eventually had surgery to remove the scar tissue, Walker never recovered the vision in her right eye. “That in itself has been a discipline. To see clearly, to affirm what is actually happening as opposed to what you may be told is happening.”
In 1961, Walker enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta. Boarding the bus to college, Walker sat in front, and when a white woman complained, the driver ordered her to move to the back. Walker knew then she would join the struggle for freedom, and as the civil rights movement grew, the aspiring young writer and activist began to feel stifled at Spelman. After a favorite professor — historian-activist Howard Zinn — was fired, presumably for his progressive views, she transferred in 1964 to Sarah Lawrence College in New York State on a full scholarship. There, Walker studied with the poet Murial Rukeyser, who was so impressed by the poems her student pushed under her door that she forwarded Walker’s work to her own agent. The poems were eventually published in Walker’s first book, Once. Another pivotal moment came on Walker’s second day on campus. Browsing the bookstore, she discovered a Zen poem:
and the grass grows by itself.
It was a moment of recognition, of connection to her experience of nature as a child. It was all right there, says Walker, a consciousness-raising in language so simple and direct. “In those few lines, you get the information and the wisdom that things are moving in their own way.
Each chair around Walker’s large dining table is a different color — bright hues of green, orange, and yellow. Artwork fills the room: a painting of Billie Holiday by an artist in Amsterdam and a wooden sculpture inspired by Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar. There’s a packed bookshelf in an adjacent room. The house feels lived in, cared for.
Just as we begin to discuss Walker’s early career — her civil rights work, marriage and motherhood, and ascent as a celebrated writer — there’s a burst of barking from the front of the house. “There’s my little Yorkie!” says Walker. But instead a medium-sized dog named Ziggy who belongs to a friend pads into the room and then disappears, followed by a tan-and-white mixed breed named Miles who plunks down next to Walker between the sofa and the coffee table.
In 1966, Walker received her diploma from Sarah Lawrence and packed her bags for Mississippi. She’d accepted a job with the NAACP in one of the toughest environments in the Jim Crow South. Her first assignment was to interview black sharecroppers evicted from their homes for attempting to register to vote. There, Walker met Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish lawyer working for the civil rights movement, and they fell in love. Years of both fruition and heartbreak followed.
Walker and her husband’s work in Mississippi — not to mention their union — was dangerous. They were menaced by racist taunts, threatening phone calls, and hostile letters. Despite the obstacles, the couple married and had a daughter, Rebecca. In 1970, Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, about the depredations of a sharecropping family in Georgia, followed by collections of poems and stories. But the racist atmosphere in Mississippi took a toll on Walker, and by 1974, she wanted out. She moved to New York City, became an editor at Ms. Magazine and a teacher at Wellesley. In 1976, she divorced Leventhal, whom she still loved. “Mississippi, with all its hatreds and hardships, had worn them out,” writes Walker’s biographer, Evelyn C. White.
Walker’s star was rising as a writer, but not without some clouds. After the dissolution of her marriage, caught between motherhood and her dedication to the solitary craft of writing, Walker struggled with depression. “I have my despairs,” she tells me. “Despair happens. But I have a faith in my own ability to speak on it, whatever the disaster is, whatever seems to call for consciousness.” Poetry had often rescued Walker from dark spells after calamity — the eye injury, an abortion during college. This time, in addition to pouring herself into her writing, Walker turned to meditation. She wasn’t immediately encouraged when she first sat down on her cushion. But she stuck with it and eventually noticed she felt less agitated, more willing to open to her own suffering.
In 1978, Walker moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She wanted to leave New York, and she felt a need to go to the countryside, where her characters wanted to be — the ones helping Walker tell their story in the soon-to-be prize-winning novel The Color Purple. The move was a watershed in Walker’s journey as a writer. In 1983, she became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer for fiction, the famous author of a book people love or hate or love to hate, even those who’ve never read it, a book that has been praised, blamed, banned from classrooms, made into an Oscar-nominated movie, and staged in a Broadway play.
I asked Walker how she feels now about the novel that is so inseparable from her name. Though she rarely goes back to the book herself, she says she’s grateful for the enduring relevance of a story “about God and what your idea of God is and how you have to get rid of the God that has been forced on you, the deaf, blind one who hates you.”
Walker was surprised by The Color Purple’s reception — both the accolades and the demonization from those who felt the themes of rape, incest, and love between women were prurient or traitorous and demeaning to black men. Feeling attacked, ostracized, and often misrepresented by what was written about her in the wake of the book’s success, Walker learned to trust her own compass. “The way people speak about you is always a reflection of who and where they are,” she says, quoting Pema Chödrön, one of her teachers. Despite the painful backlash, Walker kept writing. She also founded her own publishing company. Our suffering can bear spiritual fruit, she says now, adding, “Otherwise, I’m not sure we need it.”
In the early days of her meditation practice, Walker had a disciplined daily routine. She’d sit and then she’d write. But she doesn’t meditate every day anymore. “Sitting meditation is great, and I’m not knocking it, but I think that state is meant to be integrated,” she says. “That’s where you can live.”
Now, Walker only writes when something is “writing itself” inside her. Writing can be an affliction, she knows. When she’s involved in the world of her characters, “trying to see six or eight people through various life passages, there’s not enough of me to also be present to the people I live with.”
Walker begins to reflect on what life has brought her when her Yorkshire terrier races into the room. He hurls himself onto Walker’s lap, whirls in circles, wiggles on his back, then hurdles the cushions to stand alert on the back edge of the sofa — close-cropped grooming making his ears appear huge. “Hi Charlie! Mama missed you!” Walker coos, then resumes her train of thought: “I’ve had many loves, family. That’s life — it always gives you just what you don’t expect.”
Like a public rift with your only child. Rebecca Walker — also a writer — has openly aired complaints about the mothering she received, and mother and daughter have not spoken in several years. In our interview, just a few days after Mother’s Day, Walker praises her own mother’s dedication and resourcefulness but doesn’t volunteer details of her troubled relationship with Rebecca. Walker is first a poet, and these resonant lines from “Despair Is the Ground Bounced Back From” in her new collection point to the hurt:
When the best mothering
you can muster
is kicked to the curb
with a sneer…
there is something
to be gained
to be learned
even in this pit.
In an email exchange later, Walker acknowledges the pain of the estrangement, but she doesn’t dwell there. “I was turned back to a deeper understanding of what motherhood has meant in traditional African American communities: taking care of, mothering, all the children within reach. This does not make up for losing my only daughter to forces I don’t yet understand, but it does redirect me to something useful, I believe, to the lives of the inheritors of our planet: its children.”
Twenty-five years after she and Leventhal split, Walker published a book of stories written from the ruins of her marriage, The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart. As it was with her divorce and the blind eye, so it may be with her daughter: it can take time to uncover what the something is to be learned from such a sharp, unexpected, and intimate pain and to wish to speak of it.
Watching What Grows
A lifelong activist, Walker still speaks out regularly on issues that matter to her—Palestine, Cuba, drone warfare, war in general. When I ask if she is encouraged by the Obama presidency, she says she’s not encouraged by “the political system” but is inspired that the American people put Barack Obama and his family in the White House. “I love seeing them there, especially given the history of the White House as a slave-built mansion. That taught us what we can do.”
Walker’s political positions are often uncompromising, but she approaches her activist work like a seasoned meditator, neither wholly optimistic nor solely pessimistic. She is committed to making an effort without being attached to results and knows that transformation must begin close to home. Though we may want to start “over there with those poor people,” says Walker, we always have to start with “our poor selves.” To nurture her meditation practice over the years, Walker has mostly chosen a sangha of her own creation. For ten years, Vipassana teacher and author Jack Kornfield came to Walker’s home in Berkeley to teach her and a dozen other women, because, she says, “It’s not comfortable in some of the very white Buddhist settings. People bring their whiteness in a really unconscious, oppressive way.”
Kornfield would give talks, or the women would. In a sangha that wasn’t tied to a traditional Buddhist structure, the mutuality of learning was understood and readily embraced. At Emory University, which is home to the Alice Walker Literary Society and her archives, Walker has sat beside the Dalai Lama onstage, discussing spirituality and creativity. She’s traveled to India, Japan, Burma, Congo, Cuba, Palestine, South Africa, and Rwanda and written about the spirit in these places, which, she says, “knows how to dance in the face of disaster” and will “never be crushed.” So when I ask Walker if a transformation is necessary—some consciousness-raising on the part of Buddhist practitioners to cultivate real diversity
and liberation—I’m not surprised at her reply.
“It really isn’t about just what your color is,” Walker says. “Think of all the people who showed up to listen to the Buddha, all the people who showed up to hear the words of Jesus. They are attracted to a certain spirit, which is often lacking in places where people profess to be about spirit. History was designed to make people feel they don’t have a connection to other people when they don’t look the same. But racism is not an affliction forever — you can actually work on it.”
She calls this “deep-trench activity.” It’s the work Walker has long been dedicated to, as a storyteller, poet, and activist—to heal ourselves and to heal our ancestors. For Walker, healing the self has meant acceptance and letting go. “I am just this being. I’m a me,” she says. “Whatever I create comes naturally from this being. Some people don’t like mangos, for instance. You’re free to not like mangos, to not like me. But that’s what this tree produces.” She goes on to say that her responsibility is only to create. After she’s done her part, it’s others’ responsibility to take, use, or discard what she’s created.
Healing our ancestors, Walker believes, requires that we encounter them inside ourselves and understand the connections between who we are today and who they were then. “If there are people back there who need working with, now is your chance,” she says. “You won’t have another chance outside of meditation to do the deep work of understanding how you got to be in whatever weirdness you are in.”
The aim of deep-trench activity is not necessarily to forgive. It may in fact be more difficult and far-reaching than mere forgiveness. Whether your ancestor was an indentured servant, beaten and hungry, or the holder of the whip, buying the title to another’s life, Walker says you have to “become this demon and learn to love them.” To tear down the walls of segregation, you have to start with the segregation in the heart.
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it.
Those are the closing lines from “Desire,” one of the most moving poems in Walker’s new collection, The World Will Follow Joy.
“Joy” is one of Walker’s favorite words, as is “useful.” Joy can come from gathering pine cones and twigs and scrolls of eucalyptus bark to make a fire, or from beholding the blooms on the rosebush in her garden — common, everyday miracles. “Joy is everywhere, closer to you than disasters usually,” says Walker. And joy can be put to good use. It’s the foundation for gratitude. It’s what fills the hole in the garden of the heart.
Charlie the Yorkshire terrier, who is not much bigger than a Coulter pine cone, has been curled at Walker’s feet as we talk, but as I stand to leave, he revives, barking, growling, weaving circles of protest around me.
“He doesn’t like people to leave,” Walker explains, scooping him up.
Walker recognizes that someday she’ll be an ancestor herself, but she has no plans to leave soon — a relative of hers lived to be 125, so seventy isn’t intimidating. “I want to be a useful ancestor,” she tells me. “If I were a tree, I’d be fruiting and they’d eat up the fruit, spitting out the seeds, and more trees would come up from those seeds.”
Colleen Morton Busch is the author of Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire. She has worked as a college instructor in New Orleans and Beijing and as a senior editor of Yoga Journal.
Photo(s) by Andrea Roth.
Don't Think of the Elephant! (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Don't Think of the Elephant!
The yoga teacher’s instruction was not to think of anything, but what do you do when pushing thoughts away just makes them get bigger? JOHN KAAG on looking the elephant of pain squarely in the face.
“You should do yoga,” my friend told me. “It really helps with anxiety.”
You know what actually helps with anxiety? Not listening to people who make you anxious. Of course, I didn’t say this to my friend. I was too busy pretending to listen to her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy to block out the internal dialogue between I and me that had begun when I was six or so. I was the one who made me really anxious.
So I and me went down to the yoga studio the next day.
We both thought it was absurd.
The little room was not dark enough to conceal that it was filled with scantily clad women — and a few guys who had obviously come for the scantily clad women. I spent the next thirty minutes trying to convince myself that I was not one of those guys. We were instructed to breathe deeply, but I kept choking on the incense that was burning at my feet. We were instructed to sit quietly — to touch our toes, to make butterfly wings with our legs, to sit cross-legged — while a mixture of world music and hipster pop kept us company. The music was pretty good and I started to sing along — to myself, of course — though I suspect that the slight beating of my dancing butterfly legs gave me away. Perhaps the instructor disapproved because the music suddenly faded out.
It was in this moment of supposed silence that the absurdity of yin yoga came home to us—I and me. Sit on a mat, burn some incense, play some music, “just be,” and don’t think of anything. Don’t think of anything!
Anything: shoes, ice cream, ice cream in shoes, ice cream on shoes, summer, mother, brother, dripping, zoo, lions, tigers, bears, oh my, elephant.
Don’t think of the elephant!
That was enough. I and me came to a rare moment of agreement: “Get out of here!” And I listened. As it turns out, it is not customary to leave in the middle of a class, and certainly not customary to slam the door of the studio behind you. I really hope the racket didn’t interrupt anyone’s journey to enlightenment.
Yoga, in Sanskrit, means yoke. Like the thing that ties cattle to a wagon, not like the thing inside an egg. And like the thing that ties cattle to a wagon, yoga is meant to connect you to — well, I don’t know what exactly — but it’s meant to connect you to something greater than your petty worries. I, however, knew that there was nothing greater than my petty worries. This was the most valuable lesson that ten years of philosophy classes had taught me. I had not suffered through ten years of philosophy only to have a yoga teacher — a man in a sarong — tell me that I needed to find God. So I left. And slammed the door.
I took me and my petty worries to the gym. When I was thirteen I had discovered that I could reliably beat my worries into temporary silence with heavy weights and excessive running. Not eating also tended to help. Hungry worries are generally not as talkative. But today they were. They told me that I had been cruel and unfair to that man in the sarong — that I had failed, and failed at something pathetically easy. What was easier than “just being”? I was a failure at existence.
This came as no huge surprise, but I was a little upset that yoga had to reiterate the obvious.
For most anxious people, being “a little” upset is only a temporary state of affairs. For me, it usually turns into “moderately” or “extremely” or “uncontrollably” upset. I couldn’t stop thinking about that man in the sarong or that incense or about that stupid elephant. For the next three years, I intentionally avoided walking past yoga studios, but those scantily clad women were everywhere. Just everywhere. I dreamed of telling them that they were not wearing pants, firebombing their Lululemon, and using their yoga mats as pastel pugil sticks on that man in the sarong. Deep down, I knew I was just jealous. Somehow I knew that they had, with surprisingly little difficulty, achieved the uncanny state of “no mind.” The thought that some people have a head start in this pursuit provided little solace as I lay awake with the thought of my elephant.
And that elephant seemed to grow larger and more menacing by the day. I say seemed because I had some vague understanding that the beast’s size didn’t change, but appeared to grow larger by virtue of its steady approach. Yes, it was after me. It was that type of elephant, the type that we find in the Mahabharata (Stri Parva, Section VI) that is as ominous and unstoppable as the passing of time. With the elephant came all the other things that I wished I could ignore: an unhappy relationship, the death of a negligent father, a lack of friends, a compulsive desire to be perfect. I knew that my bed was not big enough for me, my elephant,
and everything it brought with it. So I usually wound up on the couch — awake, hating that man in the sarong.
On one of these nights, I did what any highly competitive insomniac would do. I surfed the Internet for “yoga poses.” According to Google, they had some pretty catchy names: scorpion, firefly, warrior. This didn’t shock me. (It was probably a marketing gimmick.) What set me back was the difficulty of actually doing these poses. Laugh. Go ahead. But you try standing on your hands and touching your toes to your head—at the same time. I did. I broke the coffee table in the attempt, but for one shattering instant I managed not to think about the elephant. And this began my love affair with yoga. With the assistance of the wall I could sort of manage the poses, but they were still hard enough that I did not have time to do them and also fixate on the approach of my floppy-eared nemesis. This being said, I suspected that I looked nothing like the yogi on the Internet and that using the wall was generally frowned upon by the man in the sarong.
And I hate being frowned upon.
Actually, that isn’t quite true. I had grown accustomed to being a failure, or at least thinking of myself as such. There is a peculiar kind of security in knowing that you will always feel inadequate. Welcome to purgatory. You can always do better. Stretching, straining my forehead toward my distant shins, I came to understand this with a new sense of clarity. Yoga tapped into an ancient piece of wisdom, as old as Tantalus and Sisyphus: you will never get there; you will never touch those shins; you will always want to; prepare to suffer. This is what I’d missed in my first exposure to yoga, and it is what brought me back. Yoga’s newfound popularity might look like a combination of vanity and orientalism, but I suspect that it can also be traced to something that the world’s mat carriers don’t like to chat about. Despite our best efforts—Botox, Rogaine, Zoloft—life is still the excruciatingly painful process of dying. Given that ignoring or masking the pain isn’t a sustainable strategy, we would be well advised to accept it, or more accurately to own it. Small consolation, perhaps, but at least it’s something.
If I had to suffer, at least it could be my suffering. If life had to be a yoke, at least it could be my yoke.
I decided to test my hypothesis. I eased up and the excruciating sensation in my hamstring subsided. This was, after all, my hamstring. I could ease up if I wanted to. There was a rustle in the high grass. I knew the elephant was close. No. That wouldn’t do. Again I stretched deeper. You know what those spiders felt like when you pulled their legs when you were a kid? No? Me neither, but I have an inkling. I might never touch it — that (explicative) shinbone — but at least I could really feel not touching it. The elephant could go to hell. I thought that my resolve and harsh language might scare it away. I was wrong.
There it stood: a pathetic little furry Dumbo (the elephant isn’t really that big if you take a close look), along with all the other pathetic little things that scared me in the past, present, and future. I thought to myself that purgatory was about to get a whole lot worse. But this time, I was too deep into the pose to pop out of it in order to make a quick getaway. I couldn’t just slam the door. So I paid attention to it—Dumbo and the pain in my leg. This was it? This was the “anything” that I wasn’t supposed to think about? This pain? This sorry little specimen? Okay. Okay. Okay. No problem. The elephant, like anything that realizes it’s on the verge of being ignored, walked away through the tall grass. I’m not sure what ever happened to that pathetic little fellow. I was left with the pain, but purgatory isn’t that bad. It could be worse. I could be that spider.
I think yoga suits me. Both of us seem a bit happier. I no longer cry at night when I think of the man in the sarong, and he doesn’t scare me during the day either. I think that doing these existentially honest poses could actually help me be a little more compassionate, especially where I is concerned. Me agrees, although he doesn’t like to talk feelings too much. I and me think we might have a future on our yoga mat, on our three-by-six-foot corner of purgatory.
John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Illustration by Heidi Kalyani.
Mindfulness is the Best Medicine (November 2013)
Mindfulness is the Best Medicine
After thirteen years as a Buddhist nun, SISTER DANG NGHIEM looks back on her medical career and realizes monastic practice and medicine aren’t really that different.
I had graduated from medical school and was doing my residency in family practice when I met Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic community. Soon after that, my partner died suddenly in an accident. His death helped me make a decision to follow a life of Buddhist practice. I left medicine after seven years of training and became a nun.
I have been a monastic for thirteen years. Yet I see now that you do not need to leave your profession in order to live a mindful life, whether it’s medicine or another kind of work. In everything you do, you can bring to it awareness of your breath and body. You can unite body and mind, instead of keeping them separate from each other. When you stand up, you can be aware that you are standing up. When you stretch your body, you can follow your breathing and your movements. With mindfulness of the body, your listening becomes deeper and you are more aware of what’s going on around you. Then take that awareness into your daily life and into your work.
Imagine that you’re a doctor and you’re listening to a patient. If you’re thinking about other patients in other rooms and you ask the patient the same question several times, this will only add to their sickness and fear. The patient already feels vulnerable from being sick in the hospital. Now they feel that you’re not truly present for them. If your mind is thinking of other patients in other rooms, you’re wasting your time and your patient’s.
The present moment is the only moment we have.
It’s the only moment in which we can make a difference for ourselves and others. Whatever we are doing and whomever we are with — whether it’s ourselves, patients, clients, friends, or strangers — if we are truly anchored in our breath and our body, we can touch the moment deeply and be of benefit.
When I was a medical student, I took on a patient with end-stage gallbladder cancer. It was only three months into his diagnosis, but the cancer was already full blown. The patient, in his sixties, had become depressed and refused to eat. He was abrupt and harsh toward the nurses and doctors.
In the beginning, he wasn’t friendly to me either, but slowly he opened up. Then he was given the option to have an operation to see whether or not the cancer could be removed safely. He was reluctant and afraid. I told him that he had my full support in whichever decision he made. He decided to go through with the operation. Unfortunately, when the surgeons went in, they found that the cancer had metastasized to adjacent organs, and they closed his abdomen immediately.
That night I was on call and went to visit him. It was two o’clock in the morning. The other patient in his room was already sleeping, and the only illumination was from the light in the hallway. I sat quietly next to his bed. He said to me, “You know, doctor, I have no more hope. Yet, strangely enough, I feel more at peace in this moment than I have ever felt before.”
I just sat with him. Before the operation, I had told him about my grandmother’s death in Vietnam. She knew she was going to die and was peaceful about it. She called for all of her children to gather around her and she reminded them not to let me and my young brother know about her passing, because we were in the United States then and she didn’t want to affect our studies.
My grandmother remained alert and peaceful during the last hours of her life. When I heard this account six months after her death, it changed my way of thinking about dying. When we live beautifully and when we die beautifully, it’s a gift to ourselves, but it’s also a gift to those who witness our lives and our deaths. This gift of non-fear is in fact the greatest gift that we can offer to our beloved.
I said to my patient, “My grandmother died peacefully and beautifully. You can also choose to die like that. You can recall all of the grace you’ve received throughout your life and you can give thanks. You can die, knowing your time of death and staying peaceful.”
When my patient was sent home, he was put on morphine for pain control, and he became confused and violent. His wife was frightened and saddened by this. Yet, during the last moments of his life, he became lucid. She called me the next day and told me, “He was so quiet and peaceful. Even though he couldn’t talk to me, he knew I was there, and it made me so happy!” At least twice she told me that she was happy.
In my spiritual practice as a nun, I don’t feel that I have left medicine. In fact, mindfulness is the most profound medicine that I can use in my daily life to take care of myself, and it’s the greatest medicine that I can offer to others. I do not regret that I spent twenty-four years in school, then became a nun. There’s no regret when you have done everything you can. If you give your whole heart to something, then when you make a shift to do something else, there is nothing to regret. Every moment is an opportunity to live and discover ourselves.
Originally from Vietnam, Sister Dang Nghiem is the author of the memoir Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun.
Photo courtesy of Haines Gallery. Small Buddhas with Lots of Tablets in Them, from the installation Buddhist Medicine Temple, by Zhan Wang.
“Look, Look!” (November 2013)
The nun Yoshihime thrusts the gatekeeper’s head between her legs. Here is the gate through which the buddhas come into the world, born of women, born of wisdom. JUDITH SIMMER-BROWN comments on this ancient Zen story.
Yoshihime was a nun at Tokeiji and the daughter of a general. She was very strong, and her nickname was “Devilgirl.” She wanted to meet with the teacher at the monastery of Engakuji, but the gatekeeper monk barred her way with a shout: “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”
Yoshihime grabbed his head and forced it between her legs, saying, “Look, look!”
The monk said, “In the middle, there is a fragrance of wind and dew.”
Yoshihime said, “This monk! He’s not fit to keep the gate; he ought to be looking after the garden.”
The gatekeeper ran into the temple and reported this to the teacher’s attendant, who said, “Let me test her.”
So the attendant went to the gate and asked her again, “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”
Yoshihime grabbed his head and held it between her legs, saying, “Look, look!”
The attendant said, “The buddhas of the three worlds come, giving light.”
Yoshihime said, “This monk is one with the eye; he saw the eighty-four thousand gates all thrown open.”
This koan makes me laugh with delight! All those old monks of Engakuji were so afraid of women in their midst that they were compelled to test the women’s dharma insight in order to allow them entrance. They were no match for our devil-girl Yoshihime!
This classic case asks about the gate through which buddhas come into the world. Immediately women understand the most obvious answer—through the cervix and vagina. Not only buddhas, but all beings enter the world through their mothers’ vaginas. Only the most obtuse monk would not think of this. Rather than hiding or ignoring her gender identity, Yoshihime flaunts it by pressing the gatekeeper’s head between her legs, flustering him completely. This is all the more potent because of the prevailing views of the unclean, repulsive qualities of women’s vaginas. Devil-girl knows how to deal with the misogynist gatekeeper!
Misogyny is not just a distant memory. Years ago, I was the leader of a predominantly male international delegation to Japan. Our Japanese hosts were extremely nervous, as they had never dealt with a woman leader before—they seemed terrified. Every time I tried to work out our schedule and logistics, they looked over my shoulder at the men, asking them questions meant for me. Later, in a tiny country gift shop, I found a beautiful set of teacups, one large and the other small. Spontaneously I turned to the eldest of our Japanese hosts, asking incredulously, “This couldn’t be for a man and woman?” Deeply embarrassed, he reluctantly nodded, and for a moment, we laughed together. Everything changed. Thereafter, our hosts related to me awkwardly but respectfully, and we were able to laugh about the discomfort.
But there is another level of Yoshihime’s wordless answer to the gatekeeper’s question. The revered Prajnaparamita, or “perfect wisdom,” the most sublime of dharma teachings, is sometimes embodied in a female form and called the “Mother of all the Buddhas.” Only through realizing her inexpressible teachings of emptiness, which is also suchness, can anyone realize their true nature and become awakened. As the Prajnaparamita in 8,000 Lines says:
She is the Perfect Wisdom who gives birthless birth to all
And through the sublimely
it is Mother Prajnaparamita alone
who turns the wheel of true teaching.
A woman’s body is a central symbol of emptiness in India and Tibet, where she manifests as the elusive and awakened dakini, or sky-dancer, the Buddhist goddess-trickster of yogic wisdom, an aspect of the Mother of Wisdom. Her cervix is the symbol of the esoteric sacred mandala of emptiness and suchness, expressed in the renowned diagram of double crossed triangles. For the conventional mind, the dualities of purity and impurity, male and female, awakened and confused, are resolved in these symbols of emptiness.
When Yoshihime presses the gatekeeper’s face to her crotch, she is testing his own awakening. The gate through which all buddhas come? She turns the question back on him — “Look, look!” She is asking him to investigate the gate from his own experience. In his affected answer, the image “the fragrance of wind and dew” is meant to evoke nonduality between the extremes of her two legs: the resolution of being and nonbeing, form and emptiness, ultimate and provisional truth. However, his response does not meet the direct, earthy, embodied wisdom to which she was pressing his face; it resolves no dualities. Who but a complete fake would comment about wind and dew when pressed into the crotch of a woman?
But the abbot’s attendant has a deeper response to Yoshihime’s “Look, look!” He does not attempt to change the subject or ignore her earthy wisdom. He proclaims that all the buddhas of the past, present, and future come through this gate of the Mother. When he speaks of “giving light,” he is acknowledging the name of the great dharma hall of Engakuji, known as the Great Light Hall; all the awakened ones of Engakuji have passed through the cervix and vagina of the mother of all the buddhas, and so Yoshihime is to be revered and respected. In one flourish, he has flung open the manifold gates that are none other than the single gate of the Mother. We prostrate to Yoshihime, the radiant devil-girl! May we ourselves realize the dharma gate of the Mother!
Judith Simmer-Brown is professor of religious studies at Naropa University and the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism.
Excerpted from The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon. © 2013 by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon. Published with permission of Wisdom Publications.
Photos with this article: Venusblumen by Shary Boyle, 2009, porcelain. Photo courtesy of the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery
Tumbleweed (detail; shown) by Shary Boyle, 2010, porcelain
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