Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

January 7, 2006—January 21, 2006

January 7, 2006
This morning, in the peaceful silence of the desert, something occurred to me that may be obvious, like all true things. I thought about the insight that I describe in my November 30 entry, and about how, a week or two later, Sande had come to a similar insight for herself, deciding that her extreme withdrawal from anything having to do with the political, with questions of social justice or war, had its source in the same knots of confusion, fear, helplessness, anger, pain that have propelled me to activism. It became clear to me then that what has mystified me—the apparent indifference of so many smart, caring, well-educated women, to say nothing of the larger U.S. population—likely comes from exactly the same powerful knots that have driven Sande and myself in apparently opposite directions. Facing the cruelty of social injustice, the physical cruelty of economic injustice or the devastation of war echoes and reactivates the confusion, fear, helplessness, anger, pain that we knew as helpless children. Unrecognized for what it is, we react blindly, with a compulsion towards flight or fight. If Sande has chosen flight and I have chosen fight, we are both driven by forces that may be mitigated by wisdoms and impersonal compassion, but are at their core primitive and personal.

How many of those who appear merely casual and unmoved by social, political, economic injustice are in their own unconscious but horrified flight from their knots from childhood, from the rage and helplessness that is stirred when they expose themselves to feel these larger compassions? This avoidance of a terrible personal pain may also explain why very often people who seem indifferent to suffering from economic and social injustice can allow themselves to be stirred and compassionate around natural disasters—suffering from tsunamis, earthquakes, AIDS, hurricanes. It is the abuses of powerful authority, evident in social and economic injustice or war, that are much more likely to trigger the buried frustrated rage of the child—her reactions to perceived parental injustices and her total helplessness in its face.

And also: If we see victims of a tsunami or an earthquake, we can act instantly and directly to relieve our/their fear and helplessness—we can write a check to the Red Cross, whew. We do not have to live with the ongoing pain and helplessness that can be aroused when we must face injustice that has been built slowly over time by a cruel system, an abusive authority—the kind of suffering that requires our patient attention over time.

The women’s liberation movement had both impatience and patience in addressing the pain caused by a patriarchal society. We were impatient for change (both a strength and a weaknesss there), but we had a wonderful, tenacious ability not to turn away from the pain, to look women’s suffering directly in the eye, to name it, to examine it closely. One reason we could bear to do that, it seems clear to me now, is that even as we tapped into the wells of our childhood fear, anger, pain, we were addressing patriarchy, and calling one another sisters. Our solidarity allowed us to face the fear both inside and outside ourselves, while our close examination of our personal and political lives allowed us to clear away much childhood confusion. Together, as sisters, we could do what we had been unable to do as children—face down the fathers.

The Buddhist way, of course, calls for the middle way—neither fleeing from the world’s suffering, closing our eyes to it, or rushing into activism that is born from a violent response to our pain. It calls for an activism—and the women’s liberation movement often had this quality—that draws its energy from a powerful and sustained compassion.

Perhaps one reason we famously push the tsunami or hurricane sufferers from our consciousness after we have sent our single check is that after that initial natural disaster, we would then have to face the continuing suffering caused by the injustices of authority—as when the poor fisher families or poor black hurricane survivors are dislocated while expensive hotels take their place. And for most of us, injustice or the cruelty of an indifferent authority raises more childhood fear, pain, confusion, anger than the simple horror of the natural disaster.

January 9, 2006
As I become more subtly tuned to the constant fluctuations of my mind, body and feelings, I begin to see another dimension to this practice. Awareness of impermanence is not merely about altering expectations so that we can watch with understanding the disappearance of a delicious state, or be calmed by the understanding that an unpleasant state can also pass. I begin to see the active pleasure in awareness of impermanence, the comfort and reassurance and enjoyment in the ebb and flow itself. It’s a little like being with your lover—you don’t wish her always to be laughing or always seriously absorbed or always weeping. There is the deep pleasure from watching her changes, from the intimacy that comes from taking in the many dimensions of her reality. The words that come to me are the same: I know who you are. Only in this practice, the you is the nature of life, and the pleasure is the delight of being on more than casual terms with her.

January 16, 2006
The other day, after speaking briefly about the painful knots in the life of a friend, I found myself saying, “Life is just too hard for us to add suffering on top of that.” It was partly joke, part serious, but I thought about it afterwards and it feels useful. There are all the challenges, large and small, that life provides however enlightened we might be. Our credit card is stolen, our car is rear-ended, we have hemorrhoids or cancer, our dog or lover dies, a fire or an earthquake destroys our neighborhood, our boss is angry with us. All of these require our discernment and clear energy. When we pile onto life’s regular challenges all the stuff of our suffering—our fear, our self-blame, our judgmental anger towards others, our grasping, our self-pity (different from our compassion towards ourselves, and usually our way of warding off our self-blame), and more—we smother the discernment and clear energy that help us to respond and act effectively. It is after we lift the blanket of suffering that we can discover that life is, in its reality, less hard than we supposed.

January 21, 2006
Sometimes a single word can be so helpful, like one letter in a crossword puzzle, if it fits with what has already been discovered. I was talking with Sande about my changed experience of my body, illuminated by my reading of the Sutra of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. In that sutra, The Buddha tells us that the experienced practitioner is aware of the mind in the mind, the feelings in the feelings, the body in the body. These had been only words to me when, in a personal retreat on the desert, I recognized the in as a new way I was experiencing my mind, my feelings, my body. I had earlier practiced going inside my body, being aware of my heart, liver, ovaries, veins, smiling at them as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests. But when I was trying to describe the difference, Sande used the word external and I saw that was so, that even as I had moved comfortably around inside my body, smiling at its parts, I was still somehow experiencing my insides, my liver, intestines, muscles, arteries externally. The new experience is more deeply internal, as when we buy a house and walk about in it and come to know its floors and window seats, and perhaps fill it with furniture and smile at our arrangement, but then settle in and connect with it in a deeper, more familiar, more deeply natural way.