Saturday, January 21, 2017

Post-election: a crooked tree in changing times

Before the election, I posted a short piece about a Buddhist response to Trump, namely, to forget about being Buddhist and focus instead on being human. In particular, I wrote that our responsibility is to use the skills and capabilities we develop through practice to step out of our own reactivity. Then we have the possibility of seeing clearly and and responding appropriately, whatever that may mean in the particular circumstances of our lives. In a follow-up piece, I described how to be present with difficulty feelings, without trying to change or control what we experience, and how that opened up the possibility of finding peace and clarity in the midst of our reactivity and confusion.

Since then, a few people have written to me to say that this is not enough, that something has to be done right away.

Most people react only to the breaking of a wave. They fail to see the wave beginning to form, or if they do see it, they ignore it. Only when the wave is breaking over them do they realize that something bad is happening. What do you do then? Ask any surfer: you ride it out as best you can.

Thus, in the Book of Leadership and Strategy:

When society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order.

Even wise leaders must await appropriate circumstances. Appropriate circumstances can only be found at the right time and cannot be fulfilled through being sought by knowledge.

One reading of the Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump victory in the US is that both results were a kind of peasants' revolt, a revolt against policies that advanced the agendas of multinational corporations at the expense of the working class in the Western industrialized countries. With the entry of China and India into the global economy, the price of labor was effectively cut in half. With the demise of the Soviet Union, capitalism could function unchecked. With the development of the internet, democracy as we know it is being undermined by social media. It is quite possible that 2016 will be regarded as the end of the Age of Enlightenment.

The time for action was in the '90s, if not earlier. During the '90s, when the US and Western Europe were riding a wave of jubilation at the demise of the Soviet Union and the threat of communism, Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US aligned their parties with globalism and the global elite. In the US Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, pushed through NAFTA and signed the welfare reform bill. The effect of this legislation was to run roughshod over the concerns of the working class, create the conditions for the 2008 financial crisis and undermine the safety net for millions of people should they encounter hardship. In other words, the Democratic party, traditionally and historically the left-leaning party of the working class, abandoned the working class. That was the beginning of the wave. When the inevitable crunch came, the working class had nowhere to turn but the right, and that's where they went.

What is a Buddhist response? Some see a Buddhist response as the taking of some kind of political or social action — engaged Buddhism. For these people, Buddhism is a religion. Many centers now have established participants and teachers who function in ways that are similar to the congregations, priests, ministers or rabbis in Christianity and Judaism. While the resources in these Buddhist congregations are not on the same order of those in Christianity or Judaism, they are probably sufficient to exercise serious influence. However, there are dangers in such an approach, as Peter Drucker points out:

Very few strategies have even been as successful as that of the American Protestant churches when around 1900 they focused their tremendous resources on the social needs of a rapidly industrializing urban society. The doctrine of "Social Christianity" was a major reason why the churches in America did not become marginal, as the churches in Europe did. Yet social action is not the mission of a Christian Church. That is to save souls. Because Social Christianity was so successful, the churches, especially since World War II, have dedicated themselves more and more wholeheartedly to social causes. Ultimately, liberal Protestantism used the trappings of Christianity to further social reform and to promote actual social legislation. Churches became social agencies. They became politicized — and as a result they rapidly lost cohesion, appeal, and members. [1]

[1] Peter Drucker, Post Capitalist Society, pg. 54

My own training was more about how to use whatever circumstances we encounter as a way of waking up in our lives. I was never taught that the practice of Buddhism was about making the world a better place. It is was always about coming to and giving expression to a different relationship with life — essentially a mystical path. My teacher was a mystic  and followed the examples of such mystics as Milarepa and Khyungpo Naljor.

One way to articulate the essence of mystical knowledge in Tibetan Buddhism is that we forget the self, the felt sense of "I" that permeates our perception of life and confines us to a life of reactivity and confusion.

All of us know those magical moments when we are so engaged with life that we forget ourselves and we even forget our selves and become, if only for a moment or two, an ongoing response to what the world presents to us. We may experience this level of engagement in moments of intense athletic or artistic endeavor, or when a friend or someone close to us is in pain, or when we are out in nature, or when we are engaged in a craft such as pottery, carpentry or gardening. In the intensity of what we are doing or experiencing, the sense of "I" drops away. From these experiences, we can draw the conclusion that the "I" is not actually necessary for functioning in our lives. On the basis of that insight, some people are inspired to devote their lives to freeing themselves from the tyranny of emotional reactions associated with the sense of self. It is no easy task, unless one is endowed with a special talent for such pursuits. For most of us, it requires years of effort, and a complete retraining of the mind-body system and how it functions.

Given the serious problems in the world today, some people regard such an approach as self-centered, if not selfish. I'm not sure about the selfish part, if only because most people who engage in this pursuit are not selfish people. Self-centered, or self-involved? Possibly, but no more so than an artist, a musician or a dancer. Artists devote themselves to years of arduous training for the sake of their art. Why are those who devote themselves full-time to practice considered differently from those who pursue art?

There have always been problems in the world. Granted, the problems now facing humanity are different in scale and in kind, but the idea that one has to be engaged with the problems of the world to be a real Buddhist is a very recent notion. It negates the lives of many of the great masters that inspire us and whose teachings we study and practice.

Obviously there are personal choices to be made here. But I think it is reckless and presumptuous to tell others how they should live their lives. Chuang Tzu describes a crooked, twisted tree that grows near a road. It is so crooked that no woodworker would ever think of cutting it down. It is just there. It may be that one day, a traveler stops beneath it to find shelter from the rain or shade from the sun. Or maybe it just stands there, because that is what trees do.

The day after the election: difficult feelings in a changing world

I've spoken to more than a few people who say that the results of the election have brought up difficult feelings of a kind they have not encountered before. That's understandable. It's not every day that we experience the world we have known crumbling and collapsing around us. 

After the election, it became very clear that here, in one of the more progressive counties of one of the more progressive states in the US, I am living in a bubble. In fact, if we step back a bit, we can see that many of us have lived in a series of both nested and overlapping bubbles and they are all popping. Here are a few I've been able to identify. Anyone care to add to the list?
  • the bubble of Anglo-American domination of the globe (several hundred years) with China and India poised to resume their historical dominance
  • the Age of Enlightenment bubble (300 years, and it was a good run), 
  • the bubble of growth based on technological innovation (basically, we've been riding on the innovations of the last 100 years)
  • the bubble of liberalism in the US that was capitalism's defense against the threat of communism (granted, that bubble popped in 1989, but the effects of unchecked capitalism are really being felt now), 
  • the bubble of affluence in the US that followed WW2 that left the US as the only country with an intact industrial base 
  • the bubble of environmental and climate security (human predations on both have now reached the critical point, though some would argue that we reached the critical point some time ago)
  • the bubble of the assumed inevitability and stability of democracy (markers for the strength in democracy are dropping in all industrialized nations)
Yes, the world we have known is changing in very fundamental ways and those changes do evoke unsettling feelings.

Practice tip: working with difficult feelings
For me, the real value of Buddhist practice is that, whatever I may be experiencing, however difficult or painful, it gives me a way of touching the peace, freedom, clarity, presence -- whatever you want to call it -- that is the essence of our being human. 

At this point in my life, I feel very fortunate. It wasn't always this way, but here in Northern California I have a good home, my health is good, and I have the time to focus on what matters to me. Pretty well every day, feelings of gratitude and appreciation well up. How long this phase of life will last, I don't know, but I'm making use of it to work on my next book, on vajrayana. 

Even though everything is good, from time to time difficult feelings arise -- unprompted and unbidden. I could attribute them to various frustrations and inconveniences in my life, and probably would have at another stage of life. But I like to think I know better now, and I suspect that these eruptions have more to do with work on this book, which is presenting a set of challenges I have not faced before. 

Be that as it may, the genesis of the feelings is often not all that important. While understanding where certain feelings come from can and does help in some cases, we are still left with the not so small matter of meeting them when they do arise, whatever their provenance. 
How to meet them, how to experience them, without blocking them or being consumed by them? When I block, suppress or repress feelings, it's as if I'm cutting out a part of my own being. At best it's a short term solution. The feelings usually comes back with a power and seeming vengeance all their own, and they tend to cause rather more havoc second time around. On the other hand, when I'm consumed by a feeling, I lose touch with the world around me and everything I say, do or feel is based on the world projected by that feeling and not the world that I actually inhabit.

My usual approach these days is to rely on the methods of mahamudra and dzogchen. I sit and do nothing -- whatever I'm feeling, whatever is happening in my body or in the world around me. I wouldn't even say that I sit in awareness, though some may choose to use such a phrase. Basically, I just sit there. A pithy teaching from Mipam, one of the great 19th century teachers in Eastern Tibet, describes one way to just sit and do nothing.

In doing so, I am not waiting for the feelings to dissipate. Nor am I seeking to transform the feelings into their corresponding manifestations of awakening. 
Traditional vajrayana teachings describe how anger is transformed into a mirror-like timeless awareness, pride is transformed into a timeless awareness of balance, etc. Many people misinterpret these descriptions of results as instructions and try to transform their emotions into experiences of timeless awareness. 

If I'm waiting to let the feelings dissipate, I'm doing something. If I try to transform the feelings into something else, I am also trying to do something. No, I do nothing, to the extent that I am able. There is nothing outside me that can resolve these feelings. The often overlooked corollary is that there is nothing inside that can resolve them, either.
What I am left with is the feeling itself, naked, red and raw. It manifests in sensory sensations in my body, surges of emotion and, not infrequently, a Pandora's box of stories, sayings, images, or scenarios. Such difficult feelings are usually connected with difficult bodily sensations: pain, tension, agitation, and other forms of discomfort. The stories, too, tend to be unpleasant, negative and catastrophic. Invariably, I am the hero of the story, or the victim, which is another way of being the hero. (In the stories generated by patterns to dissipate attention, one is always the hero or victim, a characteristic that makes it easy to identify that a pattern has taken over.) I am often caught by one or other of these movements in mind and I fall into confusion, which is kind of bad daydream. When I wake up, I come back to the naked raw feeling and return to doing nothing. 

That's all method, what to do.

And then something strange happens. This is result, what happens, not what you do. It doesn't happen all the time, and it doesn't happen according to any identifiable timetable. But it happens often enough and it happens consistently enough that I have come to trust it, even though I cannot say what "it" is. 

A clarity and peace are present and manifest in the very midst of whatever turmoil I'm experiencing. Forget Parmenides' law of the excluded middle. It is a cognitive construct and it doesn't apply to this kind of experience. The feelings, along with their body sensations and cognitive ravings, are still present and at the same time there is an absolute complete peace and clarity. 

The blue expanse of the sky 
does not obstruct 
the floating white cloud.

The floating white cloud 
does not obstruct 
the blue expanse of the sky. 

The thoughts, feelings and sensations do not disturb the peace. They do not dim the clarity. And the peace and clarity do not block the thoughts and feeling and physical sensations. And as long as the clarity is there, they do not take over, either. 

Back to method. Sometimes, however, the turmoil of what is arising in me is just too intense. I am just not able to sit and do nothing. At such times, I turn to an old friend, taking and sending. We've known each other for many, many years now, so the practice comes easily. Whatever turmoil I'm experiencing, I take it in, taking it away from all beings. Every time I  breath in, I take the noisome, boiling, toxic black brew in through my right nostril and into my heart and adding it to the pain, fear and turmoil I am already experiencing. And every time I breath out, I send out the good fortune I experience in my life today, my home, my health, my friends, the support I receive from many different sources, along with all the understanding, compassion, patience, joy, and peace I have experienced in my life, in short, everything that I value and hold dear. All that goes out from my heart through my left nostril, filling the world with the magical silvery light of a full moon in a clear sky, bringing peace and joy to all who are touched by it.

It doesn't help with the feelings. They still rage. Taking and sending practice isn't meant to make the feelings go away. It isn't meant make me to feel better. Any effort to use taking and sending that way is exactly the kind of subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation of experience that Chekawa Yeshe Dorje warned against when he wrote, "Don't make practice a sham." It's also the same kind of manipulation that Kongtrül the Great denounced in his commentary on the practice of Chö. 

In the case of taking and sending, the instruction is quite clear. Again, from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, "When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants/Make adversity the path of awakening." This instruction doesn't mean working to remake the world in such a way that I feel good. It means that by engaging this exchange, by using it to experience deeply whatever is arising, I may discover an awakening, a peace, a clarity -- again, whatever you want to call it -- in the experience of the adversity itself. In the process, those difficulty feelings may change. They may dissipate, they may transform or something else may happen. None of that is my business. My business is very simple: experience what is arising and experience it as completely as possible without getting lost in it. 

Do I do anything to address the adversity? Well, as long as the reactive patterns are running, it's generally better not to. If, in the process of practice, my relationship with the emotional reactions shift, that I'll be able to see more clearly what can or cannot be done. But I have learned that if I sit down with the intention of "working through these feelings," then I am doing something -- I am trying to control my experience and the feelings just laugh at me.

This is not a process I control. On more than one occasion, what seemed to be a relatively innocuous feeling has proven to be remarkably persistent. "Oh, I can deal with this, no problem!" I think, but there it is, quietly (or not so quietly) impervious to every effort I make. That is how I discover how I am trying to manipulate or control my experience once again. And it is how I discovered, and continue to discover, the importance of yet another mind training instruction: give up any hope for results.

This instruction is important enough in mahayana mind training as it helps to mitigate the subtle attempts to manipulate and control experience. In mahamudra and dzogchen, it is even more important. In A Trackless Path, the whole first section of Jigmé Lingpa's Revelations of Ever Present Good is about how practice goes astray when we have fixed ideas about what the results should be and try to control what arises to conform to those ideas. In fact, any effort to control our experience reflects a lack of faith and confidence in what Suzuki Roshi calls our fundamental nature, in what it is to be human. Suzuki Roshi is not postulating that we have a fundamental nature (a misinterpretation that philosophers, particularly ontologists, are prone to). He is describing a certain attitude to practice, an attitude of just letting things be, of just letting things sort themselves out, without any attempt to control, much less dictate, the process or the result.

Significant amounts of what are called Buddhist teachings are really descriptions of the results of years of practice by great masters in the past. As I've written before, time and again, people take these results and try to use them as methods of practice. It's a bit like listening to a master musician describe how playing a piece of music moves her and then trying to duplicate the same experience on one's own.

Get clear about the methods of practice, what efforts to make and how to make them. Grill your teacher on these points if you need to. Once you are clear about how to practice, that is, you understand how to do the practice and you have a taste, however fleeting of how it works, then practice without any concern for results. Realistically, you will probably end up letting go of your concern for results over and over again, as you would any other form of thinking. 

Trust your own experience. Use your the methods of practice that work for you to plumb your experience to its depths so that you know for yourself, without any need for corroboration or reinforcement, that there is nothing that prevents you from being clear and awake and free right now, whatever is happening around you, whatever is arising in you.

Before the election: forget about being Buddhist; be human

This election, with all its hyperbole and vitriol, combined with the high degree of polarization in this country, has brought out powerful emotional reactions in many of us. Those emotional reactions are reactions, and the path of Buddhism is about developing the skill and capacity (through emptiness, compassion, right speech, etc.) to step out of reaction into response. How we respond in our lives, however, is very much an individual matter and depends on many factors. 

Many people see Buddhism as a religion, and as such, as a social institution that can and should take stands on economic, political and social issues. This has never been my view. I've never felt that Buddhism had anything to say about historical, political or social issues. I guess I feel that Buddhism doesn't have anything to say about anything, really. For me, Buddhism is a path of spiritual practice. In particular, this path of practice is about letting go of identity, letting go of being this or that, to the extent that that is possible. As such, it is a mystical path, a path to a mystical relationship with experience, where I define mysticism as a way of experiencing life free from the limitations of the conceptual mind. That shift may well lead to stands on various issues, but those stands are personal choices, not Buddhist positions.

Consequently, I'm always uncomfortable when someone says, "Oh, you're a Buddhist." I feel that I've been pigeon-holed and identified with a set of beliefs and assumptions that the speaker holds and that I probably don't. The irony is not lost on me that my reaction to the statement also points to a sense of self operating in me. Identity formation is tenacious.
What is the point of letting go of identity? Freedom from identity is what allows, indeed enables, us to be truly human -- to be an ongoing response to the challenges, demands and needs of life, a constant movement in the direction of balance, addressing wherever possible the imbalances that create tension and struggle in the lives of those around us and in the world at large.

Thus, in the context of the 2016 election, or in the context of the myriad social, economic and political challenges we face, I do not look for a characteristically Buddhist response. I seek a response which is both human and humane.

Trump has done American a couple of favors. He has demonstrated that politics as we know it today is entertainment and it is exploited as such by the media conglomerates. He has pulled back the curtain on the economic cabal that dominates American politics today and revealed that the Southern strategy used to advance the politics of economic exploitation is at its core a white supremacist ideology.

The cost of Trump's candidacy, however, has been high, particularly because, even today, it seems that the political and media establishments are not able to own their role in making it possible. Wittingly or unwittingly, Trump has called into question some of the most basic principles of American democracy, including the peaceful transition of power and freedom from retaliation for losing. What this bodes for America's future, I don't know, but it concerns me.

As for Trump's supporters, that is a more complex question. The anger many of them are expressing is legitimate. The working class has been short-changed for the last three decades and not just in this country. There are similar problems in Europe and elsewhere. Large numbers of people have been left behind by the economic policies that see all human activity only through the lens of transactions and take the market as the ultimate arbiter of human relations. Whole ways of life have been destroyed. We see this here in this country and we also see it Afghanistan, China, India and many other places in the world. Modernism, pluralism, democracy, etc., are some of the greatest developments of the Age of Enlightenment, but when they are imposed on a population (instead of being allowed to evolve within the population), the results are fear, anger, resentment and violence.

Many of Trump's supporters just want to see change in the political system and the Washington establishment. They are willing to take the risk on an unsuitable candidate in the hope that he will bring about change. The costs of that change or the likely results are of less concern. For them, any change will be a change for the better.

Dilgo Khyentse, one of the great Tibetan masters of the 20th century was once asked, "Why do we practice?" His response was "To make the best of a bad situation." I find this response wonderfully fascinating and extraordinarily deep. Some people may take issue with the characterization of life as we know it as a bad situation, but all of us know that, however fortunate we are, we still end up struggling in and with our lives. Those struggles arise out of the natural course of life, imbalances generated by wanting to be with those we love and avoiding those we don't, with getting what we need and keeping what we have. How do we know which imbalances or struggles to address, which way to turn, or where to direct our attention and energy? 

This question takes us beyond the domain of Buddhist practice to the notion of practice in general. Peter Sloterdijk's response is that in the modern age, we have to develop a life of practice, of consistent repetition and refinement. But what practice? What, in our lives, he asks, is really worthy of practice, worthy of repetition and refinement?

One of the most important understandings that has come to me through my own practice, is to see, if only in a small way, how the world may appear through the eyes of others. To do so, I have had to let go of part of my own identity and imagine myself in others' shoes, and that is always a challenge. With respect to Black Lives Matter, for instance, African-Americans frequently experience the police not as a source of safety, but as a source of danger. The resentment of the white working class in many places in the country is readily understandable is you consider that you have to work two or even three jobs to keep food on the table while government or corporate bureaucrats impose their agendas and values on you. 

So, with Trump's supporters, while I disagree with them deeply on their support of an unsuitable candidate, their anger, fear and desire for change is part of my world, too.

Where do we go from here? I don't know. I think the best thing many of us can do is to use our skills to reach out and talk with those with whom we disagree. Bridges have to be built, not barricades. In order to resolve conflict and polarization, each party has to recognize the legitimacy of the vital interests of the other parties. You cannot expect anyone to compromise on what is vitally important to them. Human connection is everything, and without it, society falls into Darwinian chaos.

For me, at least, Buddhism doesn't tell us how to address these issues per se. Buddhist practice can and does provide the tools to develop the intention, skills and capacities to engage them, but how we respond depends on many factors, including the circumstances of our lives. It is up to me to figure out how to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, not as a Buddhist but as a human being.