Becoming Warriors of Presence

William Butler Yeats wrote over a century ago, in the wake of the First World War,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

 

We easily feel this today. One minute, I look outside my house and see an apple tree greening with spring and hear a raven’s raucous call. The next a car horn. Then, faintly, an NPR report of a bombed Mariupol, and of a GOP Congresswoman repeating Russian disinformation.

 

Which way does my mind turn? Do I relax into the calm beauty the tree and natural universe provides in this moment? Or do I get ready to battle those aiming to rip the constitutional rights and protections from my limbs and claim them all for themselves? Or who threaten to deny us the very air we need to breathe because we are not able or willing to pay their price?

 

How do we know what future will be revealed? We don’t. But we know the price we’ll pay for doing nothing is unpayable.

 

We all want an enjoyable life. One that satisfies. Maybe one with meaning. That makes the world a little better. But when the natural world itself or the sustainability of the climate is threatened⎼ and the human world is degrading so fast it’s impossible to have any idea what will happen tomorrow or if anything caring, humane, and democratic will be left for us⎼ how do we not burn out or give up? How do we live day to day without degenerating into a blubbering mass, knowing we must act but not knowing what it is we can do?

 

David Loy, Buddhist philosopher, eco-activist and author gave a talk on Friday, April 29th. He spoke about a fellow Buddhist, from Boulder, CO, Wynn Bruce, who had immolated himself on the Supreme Court steps on Earth Day, one week earlier. Wynn’s father said he did it out of concern for our world and the lack of determined action by our political system to save it.

 

Loy quoted philosopher Noam Chomsky saying, “the world is at the most dangerous moment in human history.” How do we face this? Wynn Bruce acted. But his act was so painful and terrifying. Not the most skillful of actions to take, said Loy. But Wynn’s concern, his fear is in all of us who look and see the climate emergency that is occurring.

 

Loy went on to share author, eco-activist Joanna Macy’s piece on the Tibetan legend of a Shambhala Warrior. “There comes a time,” she recounts, “when all lives on earth are in danger.” Barbarian powers use unfathomable technologies to lay waste the world. To remove these weapons, the warriors must show great moral and physical courage, and go forth to the very heart of barbarian power. (Putin? The GOP who plotted Jan 6?)

 

But since the weapons are made by mind, the way to fight them involves mind. Our strongest weapons, she says, are compassion and insight, heart, and knowledge.

 

It seems right now that we can’t look, and we can’t look away. But maybe we’ve got it wrong. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions….

 

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

 

Remembering What It Is to Laugh: The Importance of Good, Honest Conversations

Being together this Thanksgiving with good friends reminded me of the importance of friendship, honest conversations, and laughter. It led to a powerful discussion about our fright and despair over climate change and new COVID variants⎼ and over our need to act politically to save democracy and our world. But I can’t say we totally agreed.

 

Many other people showed up in the discussion. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, novelist Ben Okri, Buddhist teacher and author David Loy, environmentalists Joanna Macy and Paul Hawken, Gandhi, John Lewis, George Floyd, and others.

 

Michelle Goldberg wrote an opinion piece in the NYT on 11/22 called The Problem of Political Despair. She said “marinating in the news is part of my job, but doing so lately is a source of full-body horror.” She writes about obvious GOP efforts to undermine voting rights and end democracy, to lie and attack anyone who opposes their efforts at tyranny or who support anything that might make Democrats or democracy look good.

 

It’s natural, she says, that democrats pull back, take a break, after such a contentious election, the traumatic previous 4 years of DJT and almost 2 years of a pandemic. But there’s more going on. A burn-out, a sense that the relief from autocracy or tyranny that we now have is just temporary. We cannot assume that things will one day become ok. Things are not ok. And she worries that progressives and others will retreat from active participation in the fight for democracy.

 

In our discussion, I shared what I wrote in previous blogs about Joanna Macy and Paul Hawken’s  books, about the despair over the inability, so far, of this nation and our species to do what’s needed to slow down, or end global warming. To end global warming would mean each of us helping not only to save our world but convince others about what is needed to do so. This is not an exaggeration, not a doomsday fantasy, just reality.

 

Hawken said we need to digest the fact that passing voting rights protections, improving health care, promoting equity in law, education, and the economy, ending warfare is saving the earth. We must get Democrats to pass legislation that makes people’s lives better so the mass of people will support efforts to increase democracy and fight climate change.

 

Buddhist teacher David Loy introduced me to the writing of both Joanna Macy and Ben Okri. Okri recently wrote a piece for the Guardian about the need to find new forms of creativity and imagination to face the crisis we are in. He called for “existential creativity”, creativity at the end of time. We are facing the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, and we must adjust our philosophy and way of life to fit these times. Artists must not waste a single breath or word or tube of paint but focus their work entirely on making people aware of what we face and of actions we can take.

 

We are not wired to grasp long-term changes and threats as easily as short term ones. And many of us live so much in our ideas, stories, personal dramas we don’t feel present in our bodies or at home in the natural world and so don’t digest deeply enough the threat of climate change….

 

**To read the whole article, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

When Joy Is Hidden in the Very Air We Breathe

Have you ever had this feeling that right outside the bedroom window, on the other side of a surface you’ve touched, like the bedsheet, or a stone in the garden⎼ like a voice carried in the wind that you can’t quite make out, there is an insight, a joy waiting, hidden right there? And all you had to do is breathe a little more deeply, shift your perspective a hairsbreadth, and you’d see it in whatever is felt, hear it in whatever is touched?

 

This isn’t a hope you have but something else.

 

I feel this almost every morning when I wake up, if I don’t rush off or I’m not too angry or depressed by the pandemic or the GOP. Right behind my last dream, sitting next to the stiffness in my back, there is this sense, this urge or yearning to look deeply at the red bee balm in the garden, the yellow daylilies, the cats that lie near my feet.

 

When I took a walk yesterday, I tried to remember a time in my life when something hidden was suddenly revealed, or a work of art created itself with my hands. Something dramatic, that I hadn’t already shared with people; but nothing came to me. At first.

 

There are many examples provided by famous visual artists, athletes, poets, and composers. Zen teacher David Loy provides many in his book The World Is Made of Stories. He quotes the artist Escher talking about his drawing taking on a life of its own. The composer Stravinsky hearing music compose itself; he didn’t do it. The writer Borges saying, “I don’t write what I want… I don’t choose my subjects or plots. I have to stand back and receive them in a passive moment.” The poet Blake talking about poems coming to him almost against his will.

 

I am retired now, but the memory of my years teaching soon came to mind. Many times in the classroom the right way to reach a student or right answer to a question just appeared, flowed from my mouth spontaneously, unplanned. Painfully, not all the time.

 

Too many times, especially when I was inexperienced, the right response to a student often eluded me. But over the last few years of working, the number of wonderful moments were multiplied, when I was well prepared yet open, trusting the students and trusting myself. I also practiced mindfulness regularly in some classes.

 

As I was walking back home, down the steep rural hill, suddenly through the trees there was a view that went on for miles. It was only a peek, a break in the trees visible for a few steps when the road turned just right. I stared for a moment, absorbed, gleeful.

 

And a thought popped into my head. The reason I might touch a surface and a new reality whisper to me was because that is exactly what happens sometimes. We touch the hand of a lover and suddenly there aren’t two separate people anymore. There is only the touch. We quiet our minds, even though our hearts might be jumping wildly, and a new reality is born. We touch and are touched simultaneously, love and are loved….

 

*To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

The Party of Hungry Ghosts: What Reveals the Origins of Our Thirst So We Find the Water that Fulfills Us

The political situation we are in today reminds me of a frightening dream I had as a teenager. I was outside, at night, on a mist-filled city street and felt something calling to me. I didn’t know what it was, but I followed it anyway to an old storefront, the kind with a door set between two showcase windows, which were empty of everything but darkness. The door was partly open, so I stepped inside.

 

The dark and emptiness continued inside the front room. But the call grew stronger as I walked. I followed it to an even darker back room where I could feel but could not see. And the room was not empty. The call was ringing in my mind, emerging from one corner filled with what I thought were people standing eerily still. I approached one, then another, tentatively reaching out to identify them. They were not breathing, not alive. I started searching more frantically, to find the source, the being, the life that was calling out for me.

 

And then I felt it, there, before me. A powerful, child-sized mannequin with a voice. But it had no head.

 

Teenagers can easily feel a type of solipsism, a fear that they are alone, isolated, or afraid that what they feel, no one else feels. That they are, in a way, the only human, or only human like them. Their need calls out for them, but they fear no one will be there when they respond, so they don’t. Adults can, of course, feel something similar. It is too easy to lose touch with the rest of the world.

 

Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, in his classic book Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, said we suffer when we don’t understand the reflecting action of consciousness. Although the world is always whole, never divided, we don’t always experience it that way. We first sense the world, then have thoughts about or reflect on what we sense, then reflect on reflections.

 

This goes on moment after moment. We reflect on what has already gone and can mistake the reflection for the reality. Consequently, we are always rushing to catch up. The reflection can be powerful; but it is so much smaller than the total reality that gave birth to it.

 

Out of such thoughts self-consciousness is born. Self-consciousness can mean “aware of oneself” or distant from oneself and uneasy about it. We separate the object of awareness from the act of being-aware and create this distinct being, with specific characteristics and history who has thoughts. We fashion an ego and then try to pin it down, give it life, and maintain it, but we can’t. Because it’s an apparition. It’s more like a suit of clothes we put on than the body that wears them.

 

One of the key battles of human history is to feel the life of the world, the life that resides in all of us. To feel that the world is alive, not dead ⎼ not a machine, not just dead matter. So much of the world breathes and feels. We struggle as a species to even feel the reality of others and thus to come alive to the reality of ourselves….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

Teaching With Ethical Questions

Here are three books that I think will help teachers enliven any classroom. The first was published in 2001 and is out of print for the moment but its message desperately needs to be heard. It details how to teach with essential moral questions. The second is a relatively new book (published in 2012) and illustrates how dynamic a course can be that is centered on a moral issue. The third is easily available and gives a Buddhist perspective on morality, and the nature and causes of human suffering.

 

Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork by Katherine G. Simon. This book reminds me of what makes teaching real and learning inherently motivating. Morals: we often think of morals as in moralistic. But morals are what guide our behavior. When we think about reality and try to figure out what’s true, we are usually doing this so we can know how to act most appropriately. So the two questions, what is true and what is moral, are tied together. In fact, many of our most important questions have a moral dimension to them. How shall we live our lives? How should I earn a living? Should I go to college? Should we go to war? What is the best business strategy? Does thinking of my own self-interest help or damage society? Should I tell my mother the truth? How shall I relate to my best friend? Should we build the Keystone pipeline? All of these are moral questions and can excite student engagement. They are easily used to teach critical thinking skills. Kathy Simon spells out strategies for discussing, analyzing, gaining clarity on these often emotion packed questions.

 

High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community by philosophy professor Lawrence Blum, details a rigorous high school course he taught on race and racism. The book shows us how teachers can lead students deeply, sensitively and meaningfully into a burning issue of our time. After reading the book, you can no longer harbor the illusion that racism does not affect you. Classroom discussions are included so the reader is drawn into the class and can actually hear authentic student voices. We often think about how society should educate students. This book illustrates how students can educate society.

 

Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, by Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy. Why behave and think ethically? What makes an action ethical? What is the tie between ethics and clarity of mind, or unethical behavior and suffering? What are the traps society conditions in us that lead to suffering? For our own health and happiness, we need to understand these traps and free ourselves from them. In Buddhism, ethical understanding and action is tied to mental and emotional freedom. Without such freedom, the very continuance of human life on earth might be threatened. In a very clear and comprehensive manner, David Loy spells out the nature and causes of suffering and the Buddhist path for ending that suffering.

 

At a time when schools are often criticized for being boring, educationally deficient or just irrelevant, these books show how to change all of that. Excite students with meaningful learning that gives them insight into themselves, their world, and how to act to better that world.