The Path to Meaning Runs Through Silence and Sincerity: The Quiet That Runs Deeper Than Any Story

I was getting ready for bed last night and suddenly the whole world became quiet. It was like someone suddenly turned off all the noise. I could still hear, but whatever I heard only reinforced the quiet inside me. I felt there was nothing else I had to do, no place other than here I had to be. This was it.

 

The quiet was so deep, whatever I looked at was endowed with tremendous meaning and feeling. Looking at Milo, the cat sleeping on the bed, and I noticed an inexplicable sense in myself of both vulnerability and joy.

 

We might read myths of beings with supernatural powers or places of archetypal beauty. We might read literature to learn how others live and to feel what life has to give us. But right here and now was a clear lesson for me in what life has to give.

 

Sometimes, I feel a barrier has been placed over my mind or body, like a glove. Or I try to speak to someone or read a book and the words I speak or read echo in my mind. Another me seems to be doing the hearing and I hear only second hand.

 

But other times, there is no barrier. The Buddha, in the Bahiya Sutta, spoke about mindfulness as being: “In the seen there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard…” This is it, I think. What is heard is not separate from the hearer. Only afterwards do words come to mind, words to describe it all, about beauty, pain, joy or sincerity. Words can hint at or point the way, but the truth is the experience, not the words.

 

In college, I took a wonderful class taught by a philosopher named Frithjof Bergmann. He was German and, at one point in his life, an actor, and he often made his lectures dramatic events. One day he asked us what makes life meaningful. For the philosopher Nietzsche, he said, life gains meaning by giving it necessity, achievement or a personal goal. When the events of one’s life are organized like a work of art, to serve a purpose, life feels meaningful….

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Compassion Develops the Strength to Reach Even to Our Enemies—Sometimes: Compassion Does Not Rob You of Power But Multiplies It

“…You can’t argue others free from their viewpoints. But if you can find the strength to embrace your own values and humanity and, yet, recognize and feel for the suffering of those others, maybe they will recognize your own. If you can disagree with others without dehumanizing them, maybe they will begin to listen to what you need to say. Maybe. But certainly, you will grow stronger and learn how to speak more clearly from the effort. Compassion does not rob you of power but multiplies it.”

This post was published by the Good Men Project. To read the whole post, click on this link.

When It’s Time

Death can be a powerful teacher. Maybe nothing is more powerful. Yet it is awful and terrifying. It can teach us not to waste a moment, and that no moment (if you can feel it) is ever wasted. It can wake us up to the central choice in our life, namely, how much will we allow love to animate our life?

 

My Dad is in hospice care right now. He is in Virginia, I am now in New York. He is 96 years old, no longer conscious, and can die at any moment. He wants to go. Over the last few months, he said I have accepted that I will die. What I worry about is the pain. He had seen his Dad beg to die. He had seen his sister beg to die. He did not want to beg to die. He had too much grace to say it in a hurtful way, but a few days ago, he begged to die, or beg that we would take away the pain. And we tried to take away the pain.

 

For several years, I taught a philosophy class for tenth-twelfth grade students called Questions. We studied the questions that the students and I most wanted to confront. The first unit, and often the most meaningful, was one on death. We talked about it from many directions and perspectives. How did different cultures think about death and dying? What rituals did they have? We looked at how people can face their death and help people who are dying. Teaching that class was helpful to me, too. What was most helpful to students, I think, was learning they had the power to face even their deepest fears and talk about them.

 

Yet, as I sat with my father, I realized there was so much I hadn’t learned. I knew that regret and feeling responsible for all that I hadn’t done or didn’t think of doing was normal, yet as I faced my father’s pain and suffering, I felt it anyway. As my wife, Linda, said it, death was not theoretical any longer.

 

One of my biggest wishes was that I had talked more frequently, so it had sunk in, with people who had gone through being with a person who was dying. Or I had listened more deeply to the one or two teachers I had in my life who were able to speak sincerely, insightfully, about it. How can we help others? How do we arrange for hospice? When the person is no longer conscious, should there always be a loved one with him or her? How much can an unconscious person hear or need us? How can we live with death?

 

I felt awful leaving him. He had called us, on Tuesday morning around 8:15 am, first my brother and then me, to say goodbye. He was in a hospital bed, having trouble breathing, and thought he was about to die. I think that after he spoke with us, he went through his contacts on his phone to call several more people. It took Linda and I about three or four hours to get packed and cancel all our work and appointments, and 8.5 hours to drive there, through snow storms and traffic. And luckily, he was still relatively aware and conscious Tuesday night. He told us to go rest and see him in the morning. Wednesday morning, he was occasionally conscious and with us, but in more pain. His condition dropped off rapidly after that. When we left on Saturday, he was unconscious. The father that I knew was mostly gone. My brother and cousins and the hospice caregiver was with him as we left. The nurses said he might continue like that for several days, maybe a few weeks. Yet, I felt awful leaving.

 

My course taught me some important lessons about dying. I knew to prepare on my own so I didn’t burden my Dad with with my tears and with my inability to let go. I tried to let go so he could let go. We had been very close over the last few years so there were no problems between us that we had to resolve.

 

I did not lie to him about his condition. I did not say to him anything that I didn’t, truly, feel. He said ”I know that if I felt there was an afterlife, I would be more comforted, but I don’t.” I did not talk about an afterlife. I did not talk about Karma. I just agreed with him, and added, “I guess we just don’t really know.”

 

What I mostly did, when I was with him, was sit with him. I told him I loved him, frequently. Sometimes, I meditated with him. Sometimes, even though he was unconscious, he would get agitated. He would move his feet, or try to get up, or start a sort of moaning. In those moments, I would hold his hand or massage his shoulders.

 

The caregiver was wonderful. She would sometimes hold and massage his feet and help him move, in bed. They’d do this sort of chant. She’d ask him, What are you doing, Mr David? His name is David. He would then say his name, and she’d repeat it back to him. That would go on until he quieted.

 

Other times, I’d silently wish him to be at peace, to feel loved, and be able to let go. I pictured him being surrounded, embraced by a warm, white light. I pictured him going into that light. Sometimes, it seemed to help. He would calm down, stop walking in the bed. But other times, even after he stopped sleepwalking, his breathing would remain agitated. He did not go off into the light or the good night. He did not, or his life did not, go by his or my timetable. Some other force was at work.

 

We might imagine we have control over our life and our situation. We imagine this control derives from our rationality. And some of it does. We can do so much. Our rational mind is so powerful. But the rational mind, as Jung and Freud, Buddha and Jesus, as well as countless others have said, is like a boat on a vast ocean. We have to let ourselves be more aware of, more intimate with, that ocean. We have to do that in each moment of our lives so that, when death comes, we have more of an ability to live even death as well as we possibly can.

 

Death is a powerful teacher, if we are willing to learn what we can from it. If we are willing to let ourselves look at our possible death, and thus, the individual moments of our lives, with as much honesty as we can, and to live with as much love as we can. I know this. I just have to do it. And I continue to wish, to imagine my Dad, peaceful, loved, and able to let go.

 

**Maybe,  in a future blog, I will write about some resources my students and I found helpful, but I can’t do that now.

Coming of Age

As many people have realized, this moment is a test. Right now. Or better yet, an opportunity. Not in the sense of a test in school, or for a job, not one with a number or letter score, not one with a scorekeeper. It is a test in the sense of a coming of age ceremony, which tests and strengthens our character. We human beings have a chance to come of age. Of course, this is true every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and demonstrate who we are. But some moments, both in our lives and in history, are heightened by the knowledge of what is at stake. This is such a moment.

 

In this moment in history, it is clear the Emperor has no clothes. His greed, and the greed of those other Republicans around him, his destructiveness, and total lust for power even at the expense of everyone else, even at the expense of the nation, even at the expense of the world’s environment, is there for everyone to see. Will the rest of us find ways to step up, come of age by working to save our age—and possibly the age of everyone who might come after us?

 

An example of just how little these Republicans in the center of this administration care about the well-being of others is the proposed health care legislation. The Senate bill would, according to the CBO, lead to 22 million Americans without health insurance, and thus lead to the deaths of 27,000 people annually due lack of adequate health care. It would have created economic and health insecurity for millions of Americans. The proposed repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would do even more damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. Yet they supported this and similar legislation over and over again. Why? To get a tax cut to a few thousand super rich? To say to their supporters, “look how we defeated the previous [Democratic/African-American?] President?” Certainly, none of the bills proposed by Republicans over the last four months would improve health care for a great majority of Americans.

 

Some argue that it has always been this way. By it they either mean all of human history, or all of US history. It is just more blatant now. Now, information is just more readily available. I disagree, not with the fact that the greed is more blatant now, but with the underlying assumption, that politicians or anyone in power, or every one of us, is essentially selfish, greedy, and lusts for power. That this selfish lust is just “human nature.” To believe this is to essentially give up. Look into your own heart. You will find enough selfish thoughts and feelings and motivations. But do those thoughts or feelings define you? Is that all or most of who you are? And when you feel that selfishness, what happens to your mind and emotions? Do you notice the isolation, sense of distrust, unease and fear that follow?

 

The struggle being waged this moment is not just to defeat the kleptocratic Republicans, preserve some remnants of democracy, and save our rights and environment. It is to save humankind— to save not only in the sense of physical survival, but in the sense of understanding whom we are. How we act is born in the womb of mind and heart.

 

Yes, throughout US history and possibly throughout human history (especially since the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of farming and private ownership), there have been people trying to seize power, not just for a moment, but for always. No denying that. But one of the allures of democracy is that it puts power in front of all of us (at least in theory) and says, “Go for it.” Political power is always in question because it resides “in the people,” dynamic and changing. Part of the dynamism arises from those who can’t handle that shared power and so try to end it by controlling it. However, the only way to have a relatively secure democracy is to teach people how to live with being insecure, and in living with and taking an active part, along with others, in exercising power.

 

Too many of us have been deceived into underestimating our own personal power and capacity to persist, endure, and to feel. We think the challenge is too large, the fight too long, the pain too strong. This is partly a result of the manipulation of media and events to create a sense of crisis or shock, like the “shock and awe” tactic in the invasion of Iraq. But this invasion is primarily against the American people.

 

According to Naomi Klein, in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, this “shock tactic” is an attempt by the corporate right to take advantage of collective crises and natural disasters in order to disorient us, get us to feel so vulnerable that we will accept policies we would never have accepted otherwise. It is a sinister attempt to make us feel so vulnerable and powerless that our natural impulse to come together and help others is buried. But, as Klein says, we can and must refuse this manipulation. We can decide to use this common threat to build a movement of resistance, hope, justice and love.

 

To crudely juxtapose two disparate philosophies, that of the French existentialist philosopher J. P. Sartre, and the Buddha, humans are beings who, due to our ability to be conscious and self-reflect, define ourselves through our actions. Sartre said our “existence precedes essence.” We exist first as subjective experience, as personal conscious awareness, and then become who we are (within social and biological limits, of course) through our thoughts and actions. We are responsible for the person we come to be. And from a Buddhist perspective, one could say our essence is this very moment, this awareness. When our minds are clear, we feel how vibrant the world is, how interdependent we all are, and thus how vital and powerful our actions can be.

 

So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you speak up or take political action in a way you feel is right, maybe make phone calls to Congresspeople, sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate and educate? Feel the power of this moment and come of age? Even simple acts can be profound. Or let others shock us into surrender?

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

Anger

So much anger around lately. Like any emotion, anger can be more complex and multifaceted than it seems. It can save your life, energize you to fight off a threat or oppression. Or it could harm a relationship, fog your thinking, and lead to regret.

 

It’s not the emotional feeling that causes the problems, however. Emotion is a natural response to a stimuli and a motivator to act in a certain way. It directs your way of thinking and remembering. You often create stories in your mind to support and explain your own emotions. It is these stories, how you respond to the emotion, and how you act, that cause the problems or reveal a solution.

 

Anger can arise out of fear and in response to fear. When afraid, you want to turn away and run. When angry, you want to stay and fight or even run toward what frightens you. So it can be powerful and intoxicating. Anger can come as a balm, feel like a cure, or create an identity for you when one is lacking.

 

Think about times you were angry. There is a righteousness to the emotion. You are at a check out line in a big box store. The cashier charges you two dollars more than the labeled price and you notice it. You interpret the situation as a purposeful act. You tell yourself the cashier is a dupe of corporate thieves (which does occur too often). You start to get angry—until the cashier turns red in his face, apologizes, and explains he entered the wrong price in the computer.

 

You might rail against man’s inhumanity to man, or how the political system is rigged and unjust, or how other people’s lack of awareness and responsibility negatively impacts your life. And all this can be true. You feel imposed upon and isolated. You say to yourself you refuse to be a part of the inhumanity. You then use the anger as an identity; you think of yourself as a fighter against evil. You walk around with anger as your shield of righteousness. As a result, you bring anger everywhere you go. You push people away. You ignore or are unaware of how your shield negatively impacts yourself as well as all those you meet and you become what you rail against. How often do you walk into a room full of angry or fearful people and you feel their fear or anger like an assault? Anger is contagious.

 

In our modern world, culture and cultural institutions are arguably the prime influence on human behavior, not “raw nature.” We don’t, on a daily basis, fear attacks by “wild” animals. We can’t pretend that any anger we feel is just a natural response to a threat and must be acted upon as if our existence were threatened. We predominantly feel threatened by or get angry about not a tiger’s claws but a human who belittles, disrespects or treats us unfairly—or by or a systematic attack on our ability to lead a full, meaningful, happy life. It is human society and how other humans treat us and mirror us that we most often fear and that angers us most deeply.

 

We are all part of a system of relationships and must do our best to honor those relationships. How we think we stand in relation to others is extremely important to us. Being treated fairly is extremely important. If our society treats some of us poorly, or actually militates against our ability to get our needs met, we get angry. We feel society doesn’t see us and is denying our humanity. As many writers, activists, and spiritual leaders have pointed out, if one of us is treated poorly, all of us are affected.

 

What can we do? There is no easy answer to this. We can start by studying our own emotional experience and learn to differentiate at least two of the many directions anger can take. There is the anger that arises as we blame others for the pain we cause (to self and others) or we project onto others the anger we do not face. And there is anger that arises when we witness hurt and injustice. The first arises because, ultimately, we want to feel good. We want to feel loved and be loving and we don’t know how. We might judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes and forget that we are not born with all the knowledge and wisdom we need to survive. We forget learning only comes through making mistakes. We need to learn that to feel loved we must be loving. We need to learn, as much as it is possible, how to let go of this anger and the stories we tell ourselves which fuel it. The second arises because we care and feel empathy. We want to act to end any suffering we witness as if it were our own.

 

Anger at oppression and injustice can spark resistance against it. Yet anger can cloud our thinking. When we’re angry, our ability to perceive can be narrowed to looking for threats, and we isolate ourselves from what we’re angry at. We mentally convert thinking, breathing, feeling people very much like us into enemies filled only with the intent to harm or denigrate us, who exist only as our nemesis or oppressor.

 

You can’t fight what you don’t see. You can’t see what you rail against in anger and push away with hate. You can’t unite with those you push away. When you’re angry, it is easy to lose sight of those who are your natural allies.

 

So, to find answers, you must enter the mind and heart of others to understand what drives them and how they think. Then your anger, as much as it is possible, can give way to the empathy and care which might underlie it, and be replaced with a commitment to take appropriate action guided by emotional awareness and intellectual understanding. Gandhi said something like, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Buddha said something very similar. They weren’t being “nice” when they said this. They were being practical.