We Are Blind

“Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ inconceivable qualities, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but just looking through a bamboo tube at a corner of the sky.” – Zen Master Dogen

 

Every World Religion has gone through a period of claiming itself as the only true path.  This was necessary for their initial survival and development, just as a toddler needs to exert her or himself as the only one worthy of the mother’s attention.  World Religions are slowly emerging from their toddler stage, and there is no going backwards.  It’s obvious, the more globalized our world becomes, that no one religion has a foothold on reality.  The world is too big to fit inside our small thoughts.  Our eyes just cannot take in everything.  We need each other, we need the wisdom of other faith traditions to remind us of our incompleteness as individuals and as societies.

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This butterfly appears to have eyes on its wings.  It’s a means of self defense or disguise.  They don’t really see.  In the same way, our proclamations of truth, while very beautiful like the marks on a butterfly, are often used to disguise our own vulnerability.

Solid ground for our next toddler steps as a species can be found in three practices.  These three are the meeting places of all the world’s Great Faiths:

 

  1. Restraint from harming self and others.
  2. Compassion.
  3. Selfless service.

 

Which religion does not teach these three?

 

We can certainly find examples of intolerance, violence, and ego expansion in the texts and actions of all the major faiths if we wish to.  According to Neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner, Dr. Rick Hansen, our brains are wired to absorb bad and minimize good.  That is how we evolved as a species.  We are genetically programmed to remember bad things that happened to us, more so than good things.  It’s a matter of survival.

 

However, it’s increasingly clear that what one person (or one nation) does has an effect on everyone else.  The pursuit of individual happiness is an illusion if we discount the wellbeing of others.  We are in a place now to focus our attention on the good – both within us and around us.  This seems counter-intuitive to our genetic coding and may feel very awkward because old habits die hard.  But what neuroscience is teaching us is that our brains are pliable.  If we change the places where we direct our attention, then we can actually influence our own evolution as a species on a genetic level.

 

Both optimism and pessimism are unhelpful.  We need realism.  Thinking we need to feel positive in order for us to effect change is naïve.  People are suffering all around us.  The plants, animals, and ocean life is disappearing.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction on par with the dinosaurs’ termination 65 million years ago.  Hope lies not in the future, but in our present moment activities, what we choose to do and not do – with our thoughts, words, and actions right here and now.  We can draw inspiration from the World Religions to measure our present activities and see where we line up, and also be humble enough to recognize where we fall short.

 

The Prophet Muhammad said, “All creatures are God’s children, and those dearest to God are those who treat His children kindly.”

 

How well do we treat our children and those of others, not just individually but as a society?  What’s our record?  Public outcry for the separating of families of immigrants is a compassionate response.  Kindness can be fierce, strong, demanding and powerful.  Can we find kindness in our own heart?  Or do we numb ourselves from the pain?

 

Jesus affirms this kindness when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  How thirsty are we for righteousness?

 

The Buddha said, “let one be strenuous, upright, and sincere.”  This is the path to loving kindness.

 

Apathy leads to chaos.  It is seductive because it sits like ripe fruit that falls right into our hands.  No effort is required to eat of it.  Positive change – individual and collective – requires effort.  It is the fruit that has us get a ladder and climb the tree, picking it before it rots.

 

Our worst enemy is not outside of our self.  Thinking we know everything and everyone when we really don’t is at the root of our problems.  Accepting our blindness, while uncomfortable to say the least, is where promise for the future begins.

The Role of the Teacher in Zen

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Warm hand to warm hand.

“I am embarrassed to say this, but I read pretty Zen books for twenty years before I met a teacher.”  – Dai-En Bennage Roshi

 

Most of us in the West begin a meditation practice by reading books, through the internet, through apps, or maybe through a teacher-less meditation group.  These are all fine ways to begin.  When I began practicing Zen in 1994 it was preceded by taking a Philosophy of Religion class, being totally turned upside down by the Philosophy professor, and then seeing a video of John Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery giving instructions in Zazen.

 

Shortly after, I met my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, and learned directly from her how to sit and walk.  For the next three years I occasionally sat with teachers, but I mostly sat on my own until I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I don’t mean that “I wasn’t getting anywhere” in the Ultimate sense.  From the relative dimension my practice had grown stale.  There was no sense of vitality to it.  As I look back, I seriously lacked compassion for people because I was so caught up inside my head that I had little understanding of how others may be suffering and what my role in their suffering was.  Zen Master Dogen said that it is better to give up Zen practice than to practice without a teacher.

 

The role of the teacher is to wake us up to our own ego – the ways in which we selfishly seek fame and personal contentment.  The teacher is there to help us see that our vision is too narrow and that we have the potential to see a wider swatch of the population.  We literally don’t notice what and who are in plain sight.  Mentally, we are not able to see beyond the confines of our own concepts.  Spiritually, we don’t feel at home with who we are and where we are.

 

Our vision may get a little better when studying with a teacher.  We may be a little more aware of others.  We may get out of the prison of ego sooner.  However, that is not the point of being in a teacher-student relationship.  It’s not self-improvement.  The point is to see that we don’t see, to humbly realize our limitations, and to redouble our efforts to transform ourselves from ego-centered to reality-centered.

 

After losing my job, having no commitment in a relationship, and no children to take care of, I decided to live with Dai-En Roshi – a residential training that lasted 15 years.  During this time, I gave Dai-En Roshi permission to teach me.  I allowed her to see me in my actions – everything from washing the dishes, eating, gardening, working on the computer, talking on the phone, interacting face-to–face with sangha members, and, of course, meditation.  She could see how I did things and then offer me feedback.  As a student, my role was to chew on what she said and try to implement changes.  Zen Master Dogen wrote, “To learn the practice and maintain the Way is to abandon ego-attachment and to follow the instructions of the teacher.  The essence of this is being free from greed.”

 

Meditation retreats and even shorter sittings are an opportunity to develop this student-teacher relationship, but only if the student wants this.  It is the student’s responsibility to ask for this either formally, by receiving precepts, or informally by expressing the desire to study with a teacher.  The depth in which one can go depends on the depth of the commitment and the aptitude of the student.  There is no “one size fits all” kind of relationship.  There is no clear-cut path that gets you to an end.  It’s a relationship that is built together through trial and error, making mistakes – by both the student and the teacher, building trust, seeing the humanity of the teacher, and being willing to let go again and again of ideas of who you are and what your life is about.

 

This is not an easy path because it involves honest looking at yourself – thoughts, words, and actions, and being willing to change, or at least recognize your misconceptions.  As Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh would say in certain contexts, “You are a victim of a wrong perception.”  Nonin Chowaney Roshi, another teacher I studied with, said it to me more bluntly, “You know nothing.”

 

Zen is a transmission beyond words and letters.  Words and letters, like this article, are simply a finger pointing to the moon.  They are not the moon itself.  Reading can be helpful.  Apps can be helpful.  Meditation done by oneself or in a group can be helpful for getting started.  The short side of them is that they are impersonal and can become ego-enhancing rather than ego-dissolving.  A book can’t know you and give you personalized instruction the way that a human being in the same room can.

 

If there are any ends to practice, it is a transmission that occurs from warm hand to warm hand, warm heart to warm heart.  The title of one of Dogen’s writings is “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha.”  Zen is not about meditating and then getting up to leave and do something else.  Zen is about how we are in relationship with everything, off and on the cushion.  Dai-En Roshi said our practice is “omoiyari”.  This is a Japanese expression which means “consideration”.  It’s about noticing others and demonstrating consideration for their needs.

Be Teachable

Be Teachable

 

The sound coming from my teacher’s desk

 

Stiff and inflexible head

 

Softened by Dharma rain only

 

One dies not by oneself only

 

But with all beings together

 

One learns not by oneself

 

But by the authenticity of another learner

 

This learning goes on

 

Indefinitely

 

Have you graduated?  Have I graduated?

 

I think not

 

Dropped out, or no, never entered in the first place

 

The mind of another

 

Returns you to your True Self

 

Pain is not a sign of failure

 

Good health is not success

 

Just open your earie eyes

 

And notice the globe encompassing you

 

Like a protective invisible shield

 

Or the inside of a chick’s egg

 

Still

being

sat on

Ayiti and America

Climate changes people.

People change climate.

The fridge stays on

maybe 4/24

in Haiti.

Mosquitos bite and sweat

on forehead while half

asleep in disease.

The warmth connects the “I’s” in a way the economy cannot.

America?

Like frogs basking in a slow cooking pot of cold water.

Too comfortable to change

bullet proof glass perception of the world

has yet to shatter this way of I’ing, not being.

Trauma Sensitive Zen

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One mark of a well-polished Zen monk is the ability to accept any situation as it is, without trying to change anything.  The first line in the ancient Zen poem, “Faith in Mind” reads, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.”  A good chunk of Zen training is learning to let go of picking and choosing, and simply accepting what you receive.  One who can do this finds the Great Way easy.

 

In my own experience, when I finally realized that my teacher – Dai-En Roshi – was less interested in my opinions and more interested in me dropping my agendas and simply listening to her, my relationship with her began to improve quickly.  I was no longer burdened with having to prove myself.  My job as her student was to be an open ear.  My teacher described this phenomenon by making the analogy of pouring water from a full vessel into an empty vessel.  This is “shiho” or Dharma Transmission.  In order to receive from the teacher, we need to empty our self.

 

Aoyama Roshi in, “Zen Seeds” writes, “A monk’s mouth should be like an oven.”  In other words, just as an oven does not refuse what goes into it – cooking everything without discrimination – so too should a monk accept what comes to him or her without showing preference for one thing or another.

 

I remember hearing a story from my teacher about a Japanese Zen monk who tied bricks on to his knees in order to force his legs into kekkafuza (full lotus).  Monks and laypeople alike, in Japan, are expected to sit hankafuza (half lotus) or kekkafuza if they want to practice zazen at a temple.  Recently, I received a letter from Eiheiji, our head temple in Japan, inviting myself and my students to do a four day sesshin.  One of the requirements was the ability to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza for “a long time”.

 

When my teacher practiced in Japan at a Rinzai monastery, she was expected to sit at least hankafuza, even though one knee resisted touching the tatami.  It took several months before the muscles in her hips softened enough for her knee to touch the ground.  I remember her saying that the only reason she did not quit was because the pain in her heart was greater than the pain in her knees.  If the ratio had been the other way around, she would have quit.

 

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Examples of Full and Half Lotus Postures

 

Forcing one’s legs into a lotus position may sound really harsh.  Most American teachers that I know encourage their students to sit in ways that work for their body, including in chairs.  I personally feel grateful to my teacher for requiring that I learn to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza.  If she did not have the faith in me that I could do it, I would not have attempted it.  There is something about sitting in a lotus posture that is quite grounding for me and really helps me to focus my attention.  But I also understand that this is not for everyone, and I would never force my students to sit in this way.  If their body was limber enough, however, then maybe I would encourage it.

 

While most Western teachers tend to be less rigid when it comes to how you sit, you nonetheless could find yourself sitting in stillness and silence anywhere from 20 minutes to 7 days.  This requires anyone to have the ability on some level to let go of picking and choosing.  This is how the Great Way becomes easy.  When we let go of what we want and learn to accept the situation as it is, peace comes to the mind.

 

Zen Master Dogen’s “Universal Instructions for Zen Meditation” claim to be universal.  Anyone should be able to do it.  They only need to follow his instructions carefully, dedicate themselves, and be still.  But can his instructions be applied to everyone?

 

For some people new to Zen, and even those who have been sitting a long time, expecting someone to sit for a long time without moving – regardless of posture – may be inappropriate, especially for those with a history of early childhood trauma, PTSD, or belonging to a marginalized community.

 

For a trauma survivor having the ability to choose is the pathway to healing.  Not allowing choice can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms.

 

Trauma is defined as, “extreme lack of choice by an individual in a chronic way” (David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga).  Trauma includes not only having one’s physical body hurt at a particular time, but also systemic forms of violence such as what the African American and Native American communities are presently facing as a result of the historical oppression they continue to experience.  The recent “Stand up for Standing Rock” and the “Black Lives Matter” movements serve as testimonies to a systemic form of trauma.

 

One dimension of trauma that has been well documented in trauma survivors is a poor ability to make choices.  Brain scans reveal, among other things, an under stimulated pre-frontal cortex in the brains of trauma survivors.  The pre-frontal cortex is where the executive function operates.  This is the place in the brain that is stimulated when decisions are made.

 

People with addictions (addiction often being the by-product of early childhood abuse or systemic trauma), have poor ability to make clear choices.  “Just say no”, or asking someone with an addiction history to be self-disciplined may be unrealistic.  Repeated lack of choice from an early age, or being constantly denied agency in one’s destiny has prevented the development of the ability to make sound judgements based on necessities or desires.

 

Part of the path to healing for trauma survivors, then is having opportunities to make their own choices.  In the Trauma Sensitive Yoga classes that I teach – both in prison and in the Mental Health Unit of a hospital, a large component of the class is giving individuals opportunities to choose how they would like to do a yoga posture.  I don’t have any expectations that they will follow what I’m doing or saying, and I tell them this explicitly.

 

This way of conducting yoga or meditation is not the way a typical mainstream yoga or mindfulness meditation class is taught.  Mainstream Yoga teachers, like Zen teachers, give instructions and expect students to follow them.  The more you are able to follow the instructor to the tee, the more of an adept student you are – the deeper capacity you have for “shiho”.  The mainstream student who can imitate the instructor precisely has shown evidence of being able to drop their ego.  This is considered a good thing in the Dharma world.

 

This is not so for trauma survivors who have not yet integrated their trauma.  In fact, if a trauma survivor shows up at a mainstream yoga studio or a Zen center that is not trauma sensitive, and is told to do things “this way and that way” and to let go of their choosing, they risk having old wounds reopened.  Furthermore, a teacher who is not sensitive to how trauma effects a survivor, may, at best, prematurely give up on the student, and at worst, re-traumatize them.

 

Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, writes, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”  For a survivor, it is deeply hurtful to be told what to do.  That is why, in the context of a Trauma Sensitive Yoga class, the teacher commits to empowering the students by not telling them what to do.  Rather, they use invitational language and offer suggestions.  Power is given to the students to decide, based on their own felt experience, what works and does not work for them.

 

Prior to studying Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, as a Zen and Yoga teacher, I pretty much expected that serious students would simply follow what I ask them to do.  I assumed that the student was not ready if they could not do what I asked them to do.  It was a major bodily and mental shift for me to begin teaching in a way that empowered the students to make decisions for themselves.  I clearly remember a palpable shift in my body-center when I gave a student of mine a choice for how to proceed.  I was no longer in control of the situation.  I was not in control of the student.  It was liberating not only for the student, but for me, too!

 

In the past, because of my lack of understanding around trauma, not being in control would frustrate and seriously aggravate me.  I would feel imprisoned.  My thoughts were, “Hey! I learned to do this.  I learned to drop my own ego.  That’s what this practice is about.  Why can’t you do it?!  Just let go of having an opinion!”  Of course, I was not able to verbally articulate this, and I probably wouldn’t have even if I could.

 

Once I understood that people with trauma are suffering in the present moment because of earlier childhood experiences or systemic forms of trauma that remain lodged in their body, my heart opened up.  I realized that it doesn’t do any good to make a survivor conform to my will.  The kind response, rather, is to offer opportunities, within the student-teacher relationship, for making choices.  I empower the trauma survivor to create their own destiny, as opposed to me trying to shape it for them.

 

Given the widespread prevalence of trauma[1], my studies of the way trauma effects people have caused me to reflect on the way I teach Zen and the way that I’ve seen it taught in the United States. Is a blanket way of teaching meditation helpful for everyone?  Do we know the signs of trauma in our students?  Are we truly “liberating all beings” when we are not sensitive to those that come to us with a trauma history?  Are we causing more harm than good as Zen teachers when we do not take into account an individual’s trauma, or the trauma caused by systemic forms of trauma (e.g. racism)?

 

Are we fulfilling our calling to teach the Dharma when we turn away those with trauma?  Many Americans have some degree of trauma that goes unnoticed or undiagnosed.  How do we know, when a student offers resistance to a teaching, that this is because of their own ego?  How do we know when a student’s resistance may actually be a sign of their own healing?

 

The Great Way is not difficult when trauma survivors get to pick and choose.  However, for Zen teachers who are insensitive to trauma, the Great Way may be very difficult to teach effectively.  Buddhist teachers offer meditation in prisons, mental health units, hospitals, to veterans, and to special needs populations, and to the marginalized.  The prevalence of trauma in these circles is even higher than those of the general public.  A minimal understanding of how trauma affects neurology, psychology, and community are absolutely essential for Zen teachers.

 

I learned about trauma thanks to my connection with yoga, and thanks to the encouragement of a friend who is a psychologist.  I’m not presently aware of trauma education being offered for Zen teachers, so I feel an imperative to offer some of what I do know.

 

I have been teaching meditation in prisons for twenty years, and in Behavioral Health and Addiction Treatment centers for seven years.  It’s only within the past two years that I have been actively studying trauma, and this has deeply affected how I teach Zen to those populations.

 

I begin every meditation by reminding the participants that it is their choice to be here or not.  I make it clear that they can leave at any time.  They do not need to remain in the group.  Nor do they need to continue to do what I am saying, especially if they find it unhelpful.

 

By beginning my classes in this way, I am immediately handing my power over to the participants.  I’m empowering them to make the choice as to whether to remain in the class or not.  If the participants are in prison, then this empowerment through choice is even more precious.  They don’t have the choice to leave their larger environment, and often they don’t have choices even within the many activities that they do.  By making it clear that they choose to be doing meditation or not, I am letting them know they are in charge, and also not shaming them if they decide to leave.

 

When I teach meditation, I also incorporate choice into my instructions.  While the Buddha’s life, itself, is a model of experimentation to see what works and what does not, this attitude is not clearly reflected in Zen Master Dogen’s, “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”.  Depending on the teacher, too, the degree of choices built into meditation instructions may be somewhat limiting for a trauma survivor. For example, Zen teachers insists on practicing with eyes open.  While having eyes open and noticing the external environment may actually be beneficial for addressing trauma, if it is done without choice it may become problematic.  I may say something like, “Zen meditation is traditionally done with eyes open.  You are welcome to close your eyes or have them open.  That’s your choice.  Feel free to try both ways and see which works better for you.”

 

Offering alternatives to posture can be incorporated into meditation instructions.  Students can be encouraged to change postures in the middle of meditation, to move to a chair, to walk, or even to lie down.  The point is to allow opportunities for the development of agency, a feeling that one has control over themselves and their environment, and can change how they are relating to the situation.  Expecting a survivor to “just sit” and not move does not foster agency unless that person chooses to do so.

 

Another way I foster agency in a prison setting is to hand the meditation bell over to the students.  I ask if anyone would like to be in charge of ringing the bell to start and end meditation.  I also have the students decide how long they will sit for.  10 minutes?  20 minutes?  This way, they take leadership in their own environment, rather than me telling them a proscribed length of time and expecting them to do it.  I am also conscious of the fact that whatever they decide in terms of the length of sitting may not be in their immediate best interest.  It may be too long for some, and too short for others.  Again, if I’m teaching from an empowerment model, this is not a problem.

 

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A Trauma Sensitive Zen class may look different from a “normal” Zen meditation group.  “Daishu ichi nyo” means “everyone doing the same practice together.”  It’s about living in harmony in a cloistered environment.  Everyone meditates together when it’s time to meditate. They work together when it’s time to work.  They sleep when it’s time to sleep.  This is expected of anyone who practices at a Zen center.  To be lying down or doing walking meditation when everyone else is doing sitting meditation, for example, is not the practice of “Daishu.”  In a recent meditation retreat I lead, I gave students the opportunity at any time during the sitting period to practice walking meditation, to lie down, or to take a break all together from the group.

 

While “Daishu ichi nyo” may be absent in a trauma sensitive setting, if the teacher is actively empowering the students to explore different ways of being, then there will remain intact a strong spirit of inquiry which may otherwise be lacking.

 

I myself am still exploring ways of creating a safe, stable, and transformative atmosphere for practitioners with trauma.  The above are just a few examples of what I do.  Employing the element of choice in the context of Zen instruction, contrary to how it is often taught, can be healing and liberating both for those with trauma, as well as for those who teach meditation.

[1] According statistics found in David Treleaven’s, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, one in five women in the United States will be raped, and it is estimated that every 28 hours a Black person is murdered by police, security guards, or State sanctioned vigilantes.

No Compulsion in Religion

The Quran states, “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed – all of them entirely.  Then, O Muhammad, would you compel the people in order that they become believers?”  (Surah 10:99).

 

I love the Quran.  I say this as a Buddhist.  I’ve had the good fortune to study the Quran more deeply over the past year because I’ve been teaching a World Religions class.  I’m by no means an expert in understanding even Buddhism, so I am humbled with the task of teaching about paths that I have not committed to.  Yet, I cannot help but see similarities between religions, and this verse is one that speaks to me as a Buddhist.

 

The Quran is considered by Muslims not as the words of the Prophet Muhammad, but as the words of God or Allah spoken through the Prophet.  It is poetic and beautifully sounding, and moves some even to tears to hear it recited.  The power of the Quran is both in the meaning of the text as well as the sound that is invoked.  The text itself has layers of meaning – literal, figurative, mystical – that if not carefully read can easily give rise to misunderstanding, intolerance and even violence.

 

The above verse bears striking resemblance to a teaching of the Buddha:  Do not accept my teachings because I said so.  Accept a teaching after putting it into practice and finding that it is effective, that it alleviates suffering.

 

I’m paraphrasing the above teaching, which is from the Kalama Sutta.  The gist of it is that we need to use our faculties of reason to decide whether a teaching is appropriate for us or not.  Even a teaching that we found helpful 10 years ago may no longer be helpful today.  If we are not aware of this then we can remain stuck in a practice that is no longer addressing our suffering or that of others.

 

Having no compulsion in following Religion is often overlooked by those that practice the tradition.  In Buddhism, for example, there are teachers who, rather than make suggestions for how to practice, expect their students to practice certain ways.  Most Zen teachers that I’ve trained with seriously have been a mix of both not being compulsive and, at the same time, being demanding of how to practice.  I myself have been a mix of both, but more recently, especially since studying trauma theory through the Trauma Sensitive Yoga program, see the importance of not using compulsion as a means to practice.

 

When parents want their children to follow their religion, or perhaps their non-religion, or maybe their particular outlook on something, then if they use compulsion too heavily, the end result is often resentment and rejection of whatever the parent wants.  The baby is thrown out with the bath water.  On the other hand, leaving things totally up to the child to figure out for themselves is not quite right either.  Children need guidance by their parents, of course.  They need to have something that they can reject or accept as they mature.  In either case, the parent(s) needs to learn to let go of the results of their actions.

 

 

So, as I reflect on this teaching found both in the Quran and the Kalama Sutta it causes deep pause for me.  Can I make someone practice?

 

No.  I cannot.

 

Even if I love that person dearly and know that a particular teaching would benefit them, I cannot practice for them.  There is a Zen saying that we cannot even urinate for another person.  How much less so can we practice for another person?

 

I can only do my own practice and offer suggestions for others.  I can remind people that they are in charge of seeing for themselves how they ought to practice.  This goes both for meditation and for yoga.  I am not God.  Only God – the spirit of love, generosity, compassion, mercy, wisdom – when invited into my relationships, opens people’s eyes to truth.  My responsibility is to allow for God to enter into my relationships.  I do this when I am not being manipulative in the relationship.

 

It seems so obvious that, as I’m talking about being non-manipulative in relationship, that manipulation is not effective.  But when I find myself in relationship to others, if I’m really honest, there are times when I want the person on the other end of the line to do something other than what I see them doing.  In those moments, if I don’t refrain from coercion, I myself am being manipulative.

 

Practicing, therefore, no compulsion brings me to my own edge.  It’s a tricky place to be.  I need to continue to monitor my own state of mind and to be truthful with myself about what my intentions are in the moment.  Feel free, if you would like to, to practice No Compulsion in Religion, or to not look for anyone to adopt your particular views about anything.  See for yourself it leads to the end of suffering.

Harmonizing with Baby Breath

A few years back scientists were warning that if CO2 levels rise above 350 parts per million we would be seeing much stronger weather systems more frequently.  Evidence of this is the recent hurricanes that charged through Texas and Florida.  While we could spend energy pointing our fingers, it remains the case that our nation is out of harmony with the planet.

 

If we take this disharmony seriously, then we need to look at what we can do to balance ourselves with the planet.  On first glance this may look like a task that is beyond our undertaking.  I believe it is beyond the scope of any individual to take on, and that we need to work together with other individuals and communities to do this.  My work with Iowa Interfaith Power and Light is one of my ways of trying to make a difference at the State level.  Policies certainly need to reflect the desire to reduce carbon emissions.

 

However, even if we don’t feel comfortable working on the State level, there is much we can do – and what we do can bring a deeper sense of peace and contentment to our lives.

 

Here is a story of disharmony on a personal level, and my own means through Buddhist practice to restore harmony.  Like the issue of climate change, as a new father I often feel totally incapable of doing the “right thing.”  I am continually dealing with feelings of inadequacy.  My feelings of inadequacy don’t prevent me from taking care of my son, though.  In the same way, why should these feelings prevent me from doing something about taking care of our planet?

 

Recently, my 9-month-old son, Malcolm woke up around 1am and was fully charged raring to go.  Our sleep cycles were out of sync, a symptom of the larger dissonance with our planet.  My wife and I tried several things to help him go back to sleep but nothing seemed to work.  So, I got my clothes on and took him outside for a little stroll.  The air was warm and the sounds of the night quite pleasant, so it was a joy to be sharing this experience with my son, so early in the morning.  It felt really intimate to be observing the darkness in this way.

 

I first walked with him a little holding him close to my body, keeping each other warm.  We enjoyed looking at the stars all around us and hearing the crickets.  I put him down on a grassy patch and watched him as he took in the wonder of his immediate surroundings.  Then we began to walk again in earnest.  Holding him close to me I began counting the number of footsteps I took with each in and out breath, a practice I used to do with my teacher when we did outdoor walking meditation.  I focused on my breath and the bottoms of my feet as I walked.  I felt Malcolm’s warm body melt into mine.  I began to feel the rhythm of my walking as my feet made contact with the ground at a regular pace.  The vibration created from my steps encompassed both Malcolm and I, and at one point I could feel my heart rate abruptly change.  It was as though my heart energy level down-shifted.  At that moment, I knew Malcolm had fallen asleep.

 

As I continued my walk back into the warmth of our home I reflected on how much we need to come into sync with our breath and to balance our breath with the movement of others, especially those right around us.  We may be able to change CO2 levels, or we may not.  I don’t know if we can get our act together on that on a national and international level.  But I’m going to assume that we can, and I’m working at the State level to make policy changes.  Regardless, linking ourselves with the planet needs to include having a felt sense of accord with our breath and our movements, as well as the movements of others.  Malcolm’s teaching is that the re-harmonizing with our planet must start from a place of joy and intimacy with our own breath and with our children.