I want to be on the right side of history.
We all do, of course, and we all have
our ideas of right and wrong, as though
every part of this were an open discussion.
We want to take the comfortable path
and be assured of our golden destination.
We don’t want obstacles along the way;
we don’t want the seamier side of the
fairy tale, only the ending, rainbow bright.
But there is a wrong side of history, we
know this. It is the side most of us won’t
be here to regret, mourn, or reconsider.
It is the side that bears witness to our
ugliest nature, that twists our own need
for comfort and security into a languishing
hole all those who are struggling will
easily fall into. It is the hole we will have
dug, depraved, with our own two hands.
I want to be on the side of history that
favours life, and that honours the sanctity
of the living. I want to be on the side
that remembers what it’s like to desire
the chance, no, all the chances we have
in us to imagine, for every last one of
us sentient beings, from beginningless
time until the never-ending. For all of us.
Here is how to recognize the right side
of history: it lives, it breathes, it includes,
it contemplates, it makes things better.
It never looks away. It never looks away.
It is full of hearts that can rest in the
knowledge that they beat the to soulful
rhythms of compassion-driven action.
It is full of people who hold hands, and
take every opportunity they can to listen
and bear witness. It is waking up to a day
free of bloodshed and the thoughts that
take us there, that can unfold and stretch
and open into all the infinite tomorrows.
How about, just for now,
this one small moment,
nothing but this:
As far as I can see,
the world as a history of origins,
life coming into being,
and I dissolve right into
a time that predates me,
and the greens are readying
for the birds that will land for rest,
the sweet supple leaves plump and open,
and the sky, our shelter and window,
has not yet had to bear witness to the atrocities,
the trees are not yet scorched or felled.
But I do not have to travel in time
or let my imagination take over.
I can be braver.
I can stay.
I can let what is, is.
And I can look at my fear
until it turns into love.
I don’t mean to sound trite or self-helpy when I say that we are love.
I was probably born spewing cynicisms and am a recovering pessimist. I believe it’s important to be aware of our current realities, and not turn a blind eye to the tragedies in our midst. I believe in knowing that corruption and impure intentions form a part of the web of our humanity as we’ve evolved up to this point (Not devolved. Bad news makes us think we are devolving, but I don’t believe devolution is our narrative arc).
I am horrified and saddened beyond words to hear about the terror attacks in Paris, the suicide bombings in Beirut, and so many other soul-ripping issues and problems occurring around the world.
One or two horrors don’t eclipse all the others; they are a searing, painful reminder of the darker side of the world. One broken body, one broken heart is the cracking open of an awareness of all heartbreaking things everywhere.
It is not meant to sound trite, either, to say that we are all connected. We know that we are, with our deepest instincts. We bleed for the fallen and laugh with the triumphant. Though it doesn’t always seem like it, we are not on any perch; we are not our own havens or cocoons. We are not reacting to world events from somewhere apart, no matter how far we might seem.
This is the world we all live in. Moments like this, when the world rips into shards of pain, highlight the fact that the separations between us and everyone else are illusory.
It’s not that these things “could” happen to us. They are happening to us. Our reality is an enjoined one. This is why we cry at someone else’s loss and remember our own: we are exercising our great capacity for sympathy, and also tapping into universal pain and suffering. This universality of our experience is also evidenced in the hundreds of thousands of monks meditating creating an observable ripple of peace everywhere.
Focusing on the potential we have to generate and spread peace from within us to the world is not to turn away from the shocking realities in our midst. It is a way of taking action. It is to confront tragedy directly, and instead of getting angry or placing blame (though some anger is healthy—provoking, as it does—impassioned action), we are cradling it in our arms in acknowledgement, and providing an antidote of love.
The longer we sit in meditation, or quiet reflection, the more we come to understand that we are swimming in a sea of love beyond the immediate world of suffering.
We can feel it within the microcosm of our bodies, too.
We sit down to meditate, and it isn’t long before we become uncomfortable. Our back and shoulders begin to ache, our legs fall asleep, sharp pain shoots out from the knee, the stomach rumbles, the heart begins to palpitate. Intertwined with all this are our thoughts and emotions, buzzing every which way, wreaking havoc through our system, reminding us how hard it can be to be human, to have this history of our past pain living inside of us.
We confront all this, observe it head on, and give it compassion.
Eventually, the discomfort subsides (it will return of course; everything earthly cycles before we can free ourselves from all our past wounds), and we wonder: where did it go? How could such disturbances just disappear? But they do. And then an ocean of calm floods the body, the mind, the heart. Breath elongates and we dwell in a calm universe we know extends far beyond the boundaries of our physical form.
We even come to see or feel that this universe of calm is our foundation, our platform, our natural state.
It’s most crucial to remember this when it most feels like this cannot possibly be true, because violence is erupting and hurt and horror are spreading like wildfire.
Let’s grieve, and cry, and really feel the suffering that abounds. And then, let’s give it love.
Let’s breathe in all the suffering of the world, gathering it into the soft spot of our hearts, where we transform it to love and peace.
Let’s breathe out this shimmering love and peace to the whole world.
Breathing in all that is, breathing out the love that underpins it all.
May we all find peace.
This piece was first published in The Tattooed Buddha.
From the Bus, Eyes Almost Meet
Sometimes, when you’re on a bus here, in India, all you can do is look; it’s almost a desperate act.
It’s often too bumpy to read, and anyway, the Hindi music, that most mesmerizing blend of pop, soul and bhajan (devotional song), is aggressively persistent frankly captivating. This music is one of the reasons we’re not travelling with any portable form of music.
We took three bus rides today. What would have been unbearably hot and dusty most days during these languid days of summer was passable comfortable; the day is a bit overcast, and almost cool in the earlier hours of the morning.
The buses, however, without exception, are packed. We were lucky to get seats for the first and last journeys of the day, because by sheer chance we arrived at the bus stands just as the buses were pulling in, long before eventual departure. These moments on the bus are quiet compared to the chaos swirling outside of it, almost peaceful. You can watch the driver read the paper, smoke or stare off into space, or leave the bus for one reason or another.
You can talk quietly as you listen to the ticket guy flit here and there around the bus shouting out the destination to attract customers, or hear people noisily embarking and settling in; there’s a general sense of anticipation for the ride to come in the form of laughter, chit chat and packages of food wrapped on laps or resting on the ground.
Once the bus leaves, that sense of peace dissipates, and suddenly you’re smack in the middle of an Experience; there’s no hope for perspective of any kind. So, you just look, from a small, awkward seat, or lodged between people … wherever you can find something for your eyes to rest on.
I sat at the window for the first ride, so I stared outside as we passed endless shops, chai places, mechanics, men sitting around, old men sitting on tree barks, kids walking to school or to the bus (often the one we’re on) in groups, cows grazing in garbage piles.
You watch, and India seems to greet you in a joint understanding that you have entered a wormhole in which old or familiar rules no longer apply. I find myself both in the space and watching it, not sure quite what the vantage point is.
Then, suddenly, I saw something. Someone actually, and I was jarred out of my semi-trance. A man stood at a human-forged intersection of sorts, not young or old, sickly or fat from wealth. He had no animals, or tools, or friends. Somehow, the space around him felt crystal and so powerful that everything around him just slowed down, almost fading away.
He wore a simple, modest dhoti (a skirt made from cloth the men wear here in Tamil Nadu). What arrested me were his thick dreadlocks and his shell-shocked eyes, which were somehow enormous despite his distance from the bus. Dreadlocks are not out of place among the sadhus (orange-clad spiritual seekers) of Rishikesh, but they’re downright strange in the middle of a small town of industry deep in the south of India.
This man looked frenetic and wild, his energy spilling all over his immediate surroundings, but there were people all around him, and they hardly seemed to notice him. I briefly wondered if I was making him up, because he was what I needed to see, or what I was already harboring inside.
His eyes seemed to say, “I am in India, as are you, but I’m not India. Think twice about what you see, what impressions you form. Everyone around me belongs here, but you found me. I am stood still. Where should I go? I might belong to another place entirely, and maybe I’m on my way there.
And you? Where do you belong?”
“We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Come and see: As above, so below; as below so in the sea; as high above so in the upper sea; as above, so below; as below so in the lower sea.” ~ Zohar Beshalach 2:48b
The personal is political and the political is personal, but we still see everything as separate and so we ask:
How did we get here? How has all this happened? How could there be such a mess here, in our midst, among us?
We want our brains to answer, scramble to form conclusions, but it’s our hearts that are hurting.
The temptation can be so strong, to hide under the covers where it’s warm and safe, even though we know deep down that in this state, nothing can enter and we can’t get out.
We try to change things without actually taking the steps needed to change from the inside out, and this is the primary—primal, even—contradiction in a vast sea of them; and the cycles of human suffering continue.
The solution isn’t to stop blaming others and start blaming ourselves, because accountability is not the same thing as blame, and because self-blame doesn’t solve the riddle of this mess we find ourselves in any better than blaming others does. Neither can we can’t blame the mess for being what it is, which is what we are.
But we are beautiful. Beautiful things shouldn’t be able to generate ugliness in the world.
Yet here we are. It is made, and some of it is very ugly.
Our contradictions and paradoxes are not to be avoided, or forever indulged. They come directly from us and they’re interesting, and need to be acknowledged, observed and witnessed.
Humanity, glorious as it is, is a messy adventure, whether we understand how we have come to be here and why, or not.
Our contradictions are the building blocks not of the world, but of our self-understanding.
We respond, for example, to notions like be positive, and go for it! with triumphant determination, but say no when resistance presents itself.
We don’t like facing resistance even though doing so engenders change and allows for creation.
We feel the need to go easy, the way of comfort, and resent that no revelations emerge on this path.
We want to fly without leaving the ground.
We want to think through our feelings and infuse our dreams with common sense.
We think sad is wrong and happy is right—we think there is wrong and right, like we think there is you and there is me and that our existence in no way depends on each other.
We think that, from the position of separation, we can know the realities of the other.
We think we can filter everything through a framework of knowledge and wonder why we aren’t reaping the rewards faith brings.
We think the only way to feel good is to feel good immediately, and always.
We think there is an always, even though nothing lasts as long as you can hold it, and we’re going to die.
We think dying is something to be avoided though dying is inevitable, without exception.
We think living long is better than living well, without wondering where this idea comes from.
We think we can run away.
We want to make the best use of our time and then clutter our minds and environments with distraction.
We want to be understood within this cluttered environment filled with distraction.
We want clarity without making things around us clear and free.
We want to see through the mess of our own creation.
We want. We run in circles. We want some more.
The beautiful thing, though, one of the most precious things about being human, I think, is that we do want to see, to understand.
And this is because of love. Love compels us to emerge from the chaos and into something something softer.
Because we have consciousness (which is love-fueled), we have the drive and impulse to get down to the bottom of things, to have clear vision and a space for compassion. This unites us even as our distractions and messes attempt to pull us apart.
This strong pull toward the best kind of survival—a mindful, conscious, clear and compassionate survival — is something we should be so grateful to have in our human arsenal.
With it, we can move toward self-enquiry, find the deep, quiet spaces within, from where we can glimpse at the idea that there are no real contradictions, and start to plant the seeds of a wise transformation, though we are not yet always wise.
Seeing past our contradictions, guided by love: this is the great, human hope amid a mess that need not remain.
One of our first days in Japan, my husband’s father was driving us downtown; his friend came long for the ride. Not speaking more than five or so words of Japanese, I understood nothing about what they were saying, but it sounded like the two elders in the car were great friends who took care of each other and made each other laugh. At one point, my husband laughed too, and looked at them with an expression of wonder.
I asked him what I missed. He told me he never would have expected something like this to come out of his father’s mouth.
His father’s friend, a feisty man in his eighties who was wearing a straw hat that almost engulfed his already endearing face, noted that there weren’t any kids out on the street, even though it was summer vacation.
“Where are the kids,” he wondered.
I was still very new to Japan, and hadn’t yet been inundated with news of the national panic over Japan’s aging population and dramatic decline in the childbirth rates. I did, however, notice that there never seemed to be kids running and shrieking about, and this had made a subtle but powerful impression on me.
My husband’s father responded: “Oh, they’re here, they’re just in their own world and we can’t see them.”
I was also blown away by his father’s imagination, genius, even. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the secret world of children since.
Do we really have no access? Am I so old that I’ve leaped into an orbit divided from children by an impenetrable barrier? Obviously, I’d rather be on the other side, not because I want to be younger, but because I want to experience a world where anything’s possible again, where imagination reigns, where some pretty ugly things have not been born.
Do I even have the imagination to wonder, to imagine what might be going on in this world of children-only, like I would love to do?
I could say we were in a land far away with mysterious jungles and tiny strawberry-scented fairies and talking trees and clouds that shape-shift into magical things like outfits that make you invisible and bottles that sprout heart-shaped flowers and sing during twilight.
But I’m going to go in another direction. I’m going to say that they’re in a world exactly like ours, only we are not in it. I guess it’s another possible world concept, a parallel universe. Only how can it be the same if the people who made these children no longer exist? Who gains entry to this Child World, and how do they get to be here without having really been born to, or borne of anyone?
I’m already thinking too much. They’re alive, and so it’s possible. The kids are running across the street in the sun, like we do, only they don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic, because there are no cars, though the roads prepared form them are still around. In Child World, they have endless trees to climb and play in, because they haven’t all been cut down yet. All the buildings remain, because we’re still in transition – even in this other possible world – but they’re open to anyone, no one’s turned away, and they can turn them into whatever they’d like as soon as they enter.
All the cars and car repair shops are now (sugarfree, healthy) candy shops and (locally-produced, recycled) toy stores, because we’re still a little while away from realizing we don’t need these things – and the clothing stores are all superhero costume shops. Only they’re not known as superhero clothes, because superheroes aren’t fictional characters in cartoons or in the movies. When you put the clothes on, you simply become a superhero – not a recognizable brand superhero, but your own – what’s already inside your heart and soul is simply displayed in all its splendor and beauty for all the other kids to see and enjoy.
In fact, the shop changes every time a child enters it, so that the clothes, the magic of who they are, exist just for them. Each shop is a kaleidoscope of constantly changing outfits, and gives each child its own personal history of superhero-dom.
And of course they’re not really shops, and there’s no such thing as money, and the currency is love and communication and connection and imagination and sharing. And all that’s asked for in return is that the kids continue to play, have fun, and be happy.
Yes, I like this world very much and will try to find it and peek in, if only to prepare myself for entry.