Once, by way of illustration, one of my excellent spiritual mentors used the example of taking a jar of clear water, adding a cup of dirt to it, putting a lid on it, and shaking it vigorously. What happens is no mystery to the observant.
Obstructed seeing due to murky water.
Put the jar down, let the dirt settle, and at least part of the clear water can be seen through. Clear seeing is better than not seeing clearly. Whatever side you’re on, even a child knows this.
This has been a year of agitation and settling. And of observing closely what happens in relation to each.
When wondering if agitation is better, that example is a valid guide.
Does change in broken rotten cruel structures, whether internal or external, come only from agitating loudly? From commanding that they change or stop? Or does deeper change emerge in response to space and silence too?
Throughout this year, particularly when the George Floyd protests erupted, I thought about that example, thought about what I can do to, if not remove the problem, not worsen it.
But I still have not been able to sell too many people on the idea that the best kept secret of social revolution is entering silence and stillness, at least for long enough to discern more skillful action that doesn’t add to the misery.
At one point I fantasized about protests attended by thousands, millions even, all over the surface of our beleaguered space rock, in which no one would utter a single word, or hold up any placard. Instead, I imagined the possibility of a gathering of equally vulnerable people willing to see that hurt people further hurt people. Can we pause, together, in that pain and vulnerability, before reacting, raging, and destroying?
Can we stop the blame game long enough to notice that it isn’t working? For anyone?
What would a humble, tender approach yield in a time when we think we alone know what’s “really” going on; when we alone have all the answers? What would humility and respectfulness for the brokenness each suffers allow for?
Which can comfort better a crying child, a calm or frantic mother?
Which can soothe more suffering: the still open mind or the one conjoined only with its own narrative of desperation?
I saw people, many people, who in the midst of their own enormous challenges found it in themselves to reach out to others in solidarity. I spoke to the 76-year-old-lady at the grocery who went back to work to support her single-mom grand-daughter, unemployed mother of two; I saw people coming to the aid of those evicted or displaced. I saw my neighbors cleaning the leaves from our yard when mom and I were too griefstricken and drained after dad’s death to even open the front door. I saw the neighbor come to our door in the exact moment that mom and I really needed her presence. I saw another neighbor come bearing food when we were too tired to cook for ourselves. There was the woman in Florida who started a way to get needed items to those in need and suddenly she was helping thousands; the friend in NJ who, while caretaking her 91-year-old father was serving the veterans in her community. To say nothing, nothing at all of the frontline healthcare workers, first responders facing the most extreme conditions daily.
I’d like to think that the behind the scenes work of serious full-time contemplatives, dismissed by those who cannot comprehend the degree of our interdependence, contributes to providing strength, energy, inspiration, and hope. Why otherwise would people constantly request prayer?
So while headlines blared constant ominous bleak hopeless vitriolic apocalyptic everything, angels continued their quiet work on earth, both behind the scenes, and on the frontlines.
If our despair doesn’t move us into solidarity with others likewise despairing, when will we get to be the heroes we each secretly long to be? Because I struggle, let me share in holding your struggle; that combination does something magical.
Together, we got this. If I push you away to struggle on your own because I can’t handle my own struggle, the window to solidarity, which raises and raises and raises us all, is shut. If I peer outside of this stranglehold which is my own struggle, suddenly things become workable.
My haiku for George, written almost immediately after his death:
Please sir! I can’t breathe!
Please, I am not what you see!
You can’t hear, either?
It was not long before none of us could easily breathe behind masks and shields as the months of lockdown dragged on.
But who can truly breathe easy when a single one is being denied breath?
Even the Musks and Bezos’ have to face their mortality. Even those cleaving to power will eventually be betrayed by it.
We could only breathe if we stayed quietly, at home. If we learned to listen. Deeply.
Sitting with breath barely moving panoramas of great range flashed within: deaths, births, struggles, triumphs, losses, gains, local to global mobilizations of immense dignity and kindness and local to global mobilizations of catastrophic hatred and destructiveness, and the entire spectrum in between.
The urgent question became: what is to be done? Given a set of limited options, which is the best to pursue right now?
Last December I was in retreat in Thailand, when forces converged to deliver me to India on the solstice. Less than a month later I was making my way back to the USA in response to my dear mother’s shaking voice on the phone: your father has pancreatic cancer.
My dad, nearly blind, and mom, with whom I came to share this 2020 from last January, came to stand for all sentient beings, and whatever I did in relation to them took on the significance of what I would want to be able to do for others given the chance to directly contact each: serve, and keep opening the sometimes bruised heart past hurts or misunderstandings, yielded only by human limitation; keep opening, without judgment or conclusion, to the inscrutability that each of us is, and keep noticing how much the same we are in our wish, our tender hope, masked by countless acquired defenses hiding countless wounds, for equilibrium, harmony, safety, and peace.
As my father became thinner and more fragile due to his advancing cancer, watching the herculean effort required of him to perform the simplest of tasks (which he insisted on doing himself such as shaving), while tears streamed silently down my face; his dignity, courage, gratitude, and integrity blazed before me with every passing moment, to say nothing of my mother’s, his faithful partner.
One night within the last 6 weeks of his passing, as we listened to his favorite songs at the dinner table, his lips quivered and tears raced down his thin yet radiant face and plopped defiantly on his dessert: “Such beauty everywhere!” he remarked, “incredible! I am so grateful to be able to hear!”
I maintain that gratitude sustains a state of inviolable grace.
Particularly when it’s so much easier to complain and be perpetually dissatisfied, embittered, fearful, and disgusted with and about everything that’s perceived to be “wrong”. It would be good to pause that and notice how our basic stance determines what we perceive.
Graceful moments cannot be planned for or recaptured. They occur when there is stillness, when the jar of agitation has been set down, and the heart has seen both its limitations and magnificence with equal respect.
In 2020 I came to know unalloyed awe and respect, deeper love, and profound gratitude in relation to these two humble and immensely kind humans, whose tiny parts like bits of stars once in a moment of sweetest closeness and devotion formed the foundation for this body. I had to leave for 32 years and spend time amongst seasoned contemplative masters, imbibing their precious teachings, watching their embodied example, to be able to start to acquire the stillness to actually really see and appreciate their depths; their sacrifice, struggles, and efforts.
I considered every last care package my mom sent me throughout my absence starting in high school and college, every last event, museum, film, my dad took us to, every last meal lovingly prepared by my mom, every last letter written, kind word offered, and on and on and on. I really think sometimes there is no more foul or fatal soul poison than ingratitude, disregard, and lack of remembrance. People who endanger themselves and others first lack gratitude. And from there the danger is compounded.
I recognize that not everyone feels this way about their parents; but beneath even the most horrific upbringings and painful scenarios there is the possibility of redemption and healing finding space and light, which are ever-present.
We come to this world indebted; in debt to the stupefying kindness and sacrifices of countless others. Even the rascals and dopewods are kind, for they build our muscle for what’s right and good and true.
If we know no respectful gratitude or awe in relation to the here we find ourselves in right now, chances are we will be like that agitated jar unable to see clearly the grace that drenches our moments.
Wishing you a Meaningful as well as a Happy 2021.