Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 7, 2006—February 18, 2006

February 7, 2006
In the past weeks, I’ve been going through a process that feels important to me and may be useful to others. It began with an understanding (November 24 and 30, 2005) that—whatever changes I have experienced in responding to friends or strangers in my personal life—I still had, all unexamined, great surges of intense dukkha in my reactions to political or social injustices or cruelties, war. A month later, at a friend’s house, I saw a newspaper photograph of an African American man being handcuffed by the police who had been called on a domestic violence (or wife-battering, as we named it in the movement) charge. The focus of the picture is a child, presumably the man’s son, about seven years old, standing before him in pajamas, his mouth opened, his face etched with pain and outrage as he holds up a powerfully accusatory finger. When I saw the picture, I cried out, “That is me!” In that moment, I realized that—although I never had the courage to point my finger as a child—I have carried that child’s pain and rage with me through these years, and when I hear of social injustice or the atrocities of war, that child rises up in me.

I am glad that I turned the fear, rage, confusion, pain of that child who lived on 14 Edgevale Road into work for political change, and was part of a movement that not only pointed fingers but was also deeply compassionate and visionary (January 7, 2006).

Still, I see now that those churning emotions, in their intense distress, are no longer useful to me as fuel for work for change. Like “empathy” (“I feel your pain”), such kleshas (a Sanskrit word I just learned from Pema Chodrun that, like dukkha, expresses those surges of powerful feelings) are even somewhat spurious, and can lead us on false paths. Like empathy, if that is what it takes for us to act to interrupt cruelty or injustice, then it is preferable to indifference or inaction. But there can be responses that call on more discernment, on a larger view. I don’t know a great deal about the evolution of Malcolm X’s vision of change, but I think now that perhaps he was moving in this way.

From these understandings, I have discovered a way of speaking to my kleshas.

When I feel them begin to arise—usually, as I’ve said, in response to some political trigger—I immediately address them, allowing them not even an instant in which to grow, by silently saying, and above all by feeling: “14 Edgevale Road.” I don’t let them rest on George Bush, or torture at Abu Gharib, or someone’s contemptuous remark about old women, but carry them promptly down, down, down (which for me is back, back, back in time) to my childhood, where those powerful feelings had their birth. As I deposit them in that childhood home where they belong, I give them their full attention, taking the time, though it may be very brief, to honor them as entirely appropriate for the little girl then, however inappropriate they may be, in so raw a form, at this moment today.

This practice has been amazingly effective and instructive. I am able to honor the child and also to free myself from her so that I can be fully in the present. I can see with clarity, “That was then and this is now.”

Not that the outrage and pain that the child felt at some unfair or cruel treatment was deserving of more deep feeling than the terrors of war or prison or the persistent cruelties of institutionalized racism. This practice does not say that we have been exaggerating the importance of what is happening now, that we think it is important simply out of childhood transference. Only that we need the clarity of the now, not the anguish of the child’s past, to respond to these current realities.

February 8, 2006
There are many reasons why judgmental thinking has such a persistent hold on us, but here is one.

In most instances when we move into our most high-minded judgmentalism (that is, judgmentalism that is bolstered by excellent reasons for our anger or disgust), our sequence of experience goes like this. We encounter something or someone and feel an immediate aversion. Like a good servant, the judgment follows on the heels of the emotion, and thoughtfully provides us with reasons that allow us to justify the emotion. Usually the more powerful our aversion, the more reasoning our judgment comes up with (“And what’s more...!”) As we all know, we can sometimes refine and elaborate on those excellent reasons for hours or days.

All of that judgmental thinking reassures us: “I am a good and rational person, who would not have such strong feelings without extremely good and valid reasons.” To let go of the reasons or see them as less than convincing would be to find ourselves stranded alone with those powerful feelings. We would then have to take responsibility for their power in a very different way—we would have to acknowledge their childish and irrational roots. The judgmentalism that is fueled and sustained by those emotions from childhood is very different from simple judgment (“It’s not helpful for her to act in that way,” “That’s an extremely risky way to drive,” “Language like that can be very hurtful and damaging.”) Our task is not to abandon all judgments, but to clear out the distress that comes from other sources than the present cause, and to calm the noisy bluster of judgmentalism that we use to justify our private suffering.

February 18, 2006
A familiar Buddhist admonition is, “Don’t look at my finger, look at the moon.” That is meant to discourage the practicioner from keeping her attention on the teacher—“My guru says this, my guru says that, isn’t she wonderful”—rather than on the truth that she is pointing, however imperfectly, towards.

That was always easy for me to understand. I was slow to accept any finger and kept my eyes on the moon. Since I have become more aware of my judgmentalism, I see that the saying can be used as well in another way.

Once I began, slowly, to expose myself to others’ “fingers”, I was quickly dismissive of writings or of teachers that seemed to point in a wrong direction or to get in the way of the moon. As I find myself needing less and less of that aversive, almost contemptuous, judgmentalism, I can read the work of teachers whom I would have refused to continue reading and can see the moon behind their fingers. I can use what is usable, and I can see that what is not usable by myself (I use the word “self” advisedly), can be usable by others as a way to find the moon.

Other women and I have sometimes wished for a consistent sangha, perhaps in a monastery somewhere—so we could spend more time with others who share our practice. Always we remind ourselves that while other practitioners would share our pursuit of dharma, they would certainly not be perfect in their practice, and we would still be working with our kleshas around the annoyances, the “wrong speech,” the misconceptions of others. For those of us who do not find ourselves in a sangha, we can find a sangha in all those writers whose works currently line the shelves of our bookstores. Instead of thinking of them as Teachers, whose Teachings we must accept or reject, we can be simply grateful to all of them for joining us in our practice, for giving us that company on our journey. Like fellows in a sangha, they will have many different voices, come from different experiences from ourselves, they will say things that seem to us less than accurate views of the dharma, they may express themselves in ways that we find less than helpful, their fingers may be dirty or even sometimes block the moon—but overriding all that, they are our companions in a world that, for the main part, is not even looking to see if there is a moon. We can practice our patience with them as we would members of a sangha, and come to love them for joining us in this place.

More on judgmentalism. It seems more and more an unnecessary absurdity, and the momentary puffing-up it allows us begins to reveal its true source. If I feel the slightest movement towards that aversive self-importance, I plan to say to myself, “I must be feeling insecure.” That will immediately reveal, to the emperor himself, that he has no clothes.