Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

November 1, 2005—November 30, 2005

November 1, 2005
Imagine that you have planned to live for a year in Germany. You have found your apartment, seen it on Internet, checked out the university where you will be studying, studied maps and guidebooks, practiced your German. Circumstances change and you will not be going. That’s ok, but you have been thinking about going for so long that now you find yourself still picturing yourself in Frankfort as you have for months. It’s become a habit. Whenever you do that, you will of course automatically pull your self back to reality, “No, no point in mentally going to Germany any more. Come back to Trenton. Why do you keep thinking Germany? My life is here now.”

Germany, of course, is all those insubstantial thoughts, plans, imaginings that fill our minds in the course of our day as we mentally race ahead to the next thing and the next. Trenton is our real life, the present moment. As we practice more, the more natural and obvious it seems that of course we should pull our back thoughts to this moment, this substantial home.

November 18, 2005
Those of us who care about social justice, or indeed justice on a more personal level, may worry about what it means to discard our judgmental ways of thinking. Will we become apathetic to suffering, wishy-washy in our views of what is fair and unfair, just and unjust, even kind and cruel? It seems obvious, but to some of us, myself included, it has not been: There is an ocean of difference between judging and being judgmental. Right view provides us with a less distorted lens with which to judge, to discern what is just and unjust, kind and cruel, fair and unfair. Being judgmental is not clarity of discernment, it is judging with the overlay of—often powerful—aversion. Some of us will feel, I have felt, that the power of that aversion is what gives us the energy to act, to work for change, to end the suffering. For many of us this may be true—the “al” added to the judgment may be like the training wheels on a bicycle, necessary to get us started down the road. I for one would not fault those who require that add-on.

Being judgmental decidedly has its pitfalls, and the pitfalls can be serious ones, can even undercut the value of what we want to accomplish— but no less risk there than if, on hearing that our brother is torturing his children, we sit down all day because we lack those wheels.

For myself the best practice has been to quietly notice the aversion and to ask myself if it is really necessary in order for me to write that letter, join that march, get out the vote for a candidate, speak out about torture. Slowly the training wheels seem less and less necessary to take the trip.

It is true too that the emotional add-on of the “al” to judgment implies that we have not only not assimilated non-attachment, we have not fully learned to live with uncertainty, including the uncertainty of the rightness of our own judgment.

Still: we need to be very clear that inertia and timidity don’t dress up in the robes of being non-judgmental. Mahatma Gandhi showed his extraordinary capacity for discernment when he said, For me, there can be no preparation for violence. All preparation must be for non-violence if courage of the highest type is to be developed. Violence can only be tolerated as being preferable always to cowardice.

November 24, 2005
Words are only words, and if we need to refine them for ourselves and others, it is only to be more precise about our realities. I always tell people that I am not “nice,” because to most people, “nice” means being insincere rather than hurting someone’s feelings or extending a compliment you don’t mean because you think that will please them. (As in, “Oh, you’re just being nice.”) I accept the word “kind,” because to me it simply means being tuned in to others and being helpful where that is appropriate.

In the same way, I make a distinction between “detachment” and “non-attachment.” Detachment to many people means being cold and not caring, having no connection. Non-attachment includes caring, includes connection, includes merging. It means simply that there is no grasping that goes with the caring, the connection, the merging, no insistence that everything be tomorrow as it is today.

These past weeks, I’ve become aware of what should have been obvious earlier. In recent years, I’ve experienced less and less dukkha in relation to people, so that lately there is very little at all—mostly requiring just a kind of tidying up—the same has not been true of politics. Maybe there’s less in some instances, surely less anger, but I’m coming to recognize that this is the area of my life where dukkha is still alive and kicking.

November 30, 2005
Nor is kicking too extreme a word. I spoke with Sande about this realization of the dukkha that arises when I encounter social injustice or the realities of war. It seems odd that I haven’t acknowledged this area where I am still attached to such powerful feelings. Pain, fear—in the past, anger, though these days it is more a sharp pain, a belief that what is happening, the cruelty, the injustice is intolerable and that if I can’t speak out or do something to at least acknowledge it, I will drown in the suffering. And drown is the image, as if suffering is a vast ocean and—when I am aware of a cruelty, an injustice—I almost feel my arms flailing about, and only if I act in some way can I keep from sinking into those murky waters.

What is most telling, though I don’t yet know what it tells, is that I do not feel this with instances of cruelty or injustice towards individuals. Not that I’m indifferent (unless it’s one of those stories hyped on television of the little kidnapped girl). It’s just that with individuals my reaction feels more appropriate (though I’m only beginning to name my reaction to political events inappropriate)—a deep caring, an immediate instinct to do what I can, but with a kind of clarity that allows me to measure what, if any, is a truly appropriate action for me to take. The only exception is when I feel that an individual is being exposed by another individual to some larger social injustice—for example, most obviously, if someone is saying something racist or homophobic about another person.

When I was at the meditation retreat two weekends ago, the insight came that carried me into the conversation with Sande—a kind of hesitant revelation that, just perhaps, I don’t require that experience of intolerable pain in order to act to end the suffering of social injustice. Just possibly, it seemed, I could act purely out of profound compassion rather than horror.

I am only now feeling out what may lie behind all of this. I have been critical of what I call empathy in personal relations—by which I mean the projection of my pain onto yours so that I think I “feel your pain” when in fact what I am feeling is my own. I’ve seen how that projection does not help us to act effectively. Now I am asking myself whether my reaction to the large social forces that produce the cruelties of injustice or war may be just that kind of empathy that I’ve discarded in my personal life. That is: is my own, very personal pain from childhood playing a large—and, this is the key, no longer necessary—part in my socio-political life?

Maybe what I call empathy is a stage in a longer development of ourselves as caring beings. Maybe we need this turbulent empathy until we can draw on a much deeper reserve of (dare I use the word?) impersonal compassion to motivate us to work to end the suffering of sentient beings. If I can feel impersonal compassion for individuals in their personal pain, why can I not for individuals and groups suffering from social and political cruelty?