clovernode

where DSL and meadow grass collide

Impressions of India, Nepal and Indonesia January 13, 2015

Impressions of India, Nepal and Indonesia

Caregiving is a stressful job, yet a fulfilling one. After caring for my father for two and a half years, while he struggled with cancer, I felt that I needed to get away from home after he died. Watching him go through such a difficult time helped me understand the fleeting nature of life in a way I had not understood before. I had moved back home in order to be available to help. For some time, I considered whether I would ever leave Virginia again. However, the prevailing political climate in Virginia, with its senseless attack on the rights of women, and several intractable, unchanging family situations (over which I had little influence) helped make the decision easier.

 

So I reoriented myself towards the West Coast again, where I had spent my best years. I visited Santa Cruz for a Buddhist retreat in January 2013, and contemplated becoming a nun at that time. Although it is not a decision to take lightly, the pressure just to “do something” with my life has now waned, thankfully. Despite the obvious benefit of caring for others, including the good that it does for society, it is not appropriately valued in American society. In fact, the role of caregivers is often blatantly denigrated and disregarded. Instead, in place of respect, we get an idealization of motherhood which is facile, unrealistic, and blind to the real life pressures of caregiving and the actual person being idealized. With the increasing conservatism now on display in American society, being idealized is actually preferable to being demonized, but neither of them are considered responses to the genuine challenges of motherhood and caregiving. When will American culture grow up? When will we stop giving respect to “lowest common denominator” behavior? We represent great ideals to many worldwide. How can we live up to those expectations?

 

Impressions:

Our hotels. Although the accommodations were somewhat different from what we expect here, including occasional power blackouts in and around Nepal, the hotels were comfortable and warm, with delicious buffets offered by friendly staff. Almost every place we stayed was surrounded by lawns with a wall around the perimeter, with gates that closed up in the evening. So even though we were immersed in local culture by day, at night we were safely tucked away in these secured “compounds”. At times, I wished to go out and see what was going on beyond the walls in the evening, but the rigorous schedule meant that we all needed our rest for the next day’s activities!

 

Tea stalls and samosa carts. One of my favorite parts of the day was when we would stop at a local tea stall or samosa cart in order to have a quick snack. The locals nearby would usually congregate, in order to take in the spectacle of a group of Westerners so far from home! Masala chai, offered in a small plastic cup, became my cherished throat soother, as I carried a respiratory infection in my chest for most of the time I was there. It wasn’t until I got back to the United States that I fully decongested from that. The samosas were fried in a pan right in front of us, usually an open air place on the side of the road.

 

The countryside. As we rode in the tour bus between historic sites, we were witness to miles and miles of the rural life in Uttar Pradesh. This was the most humbling part of the trip for me. We saw vibrant towns and villages, but also astounding poverty. People washing clothing in rivers and streams, open defecation in fields, disabled beggars on the side of the streets. This is not something to look down on, instead it was heart-wrenching to witness. It filled me with the desire to do something more than just prayers and pujas. I want to use my practical skills gained from a lifetime in the West to benefit those who deserve a better standard of living.

 

Delhi. My first impression of Delhi was the smog hanging in a cloud outside the Indira Gandhi International airport. I had never seen such a dense chemical cloud in the air before. There were crowds of men waiting outside to give people rides from the airport. Although my traveling companion immediately put on a mask, I did not, and subsequently became hoarse. It didn’t seem to affect the men outside as much. We spent one night there before moving on. We flew to Varanasi the next day, where we met up with the entire group. We spent a few days there recovering from jet lag, then set out on a tour bus for the trip to various pilgrimage sites.

 

I went with a tour group on a Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting the sites of the Buddha’s life. It was a month long trip, across Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, into Nepal to visit Kathmandu, then off to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to visit several ancient Hindu sites near Mt. Merapi. There were about 25 of us in the group, along with two Western Buddhist nuns and a Nepali tour guide. My fellow pilgrims hailed from New York, California, New Zealand, and South Africa.

 

Varanasi. I loved being in Varanasi, it was my first real taste of the vibrancy of India. I made a couple new friends there. We visited the ghats at night, taking a tuk-tuk bicycle cart there and back. The ride was exhilarating, the shops and throngs were a blur of activity. I remember seeing a full grown steer running alongside us, blending in with the car and bike traffic, as we made our way to the Ganges banks. Vendors everywhere hawked their wares. I made friends with a silk merchant when I left our hotel for awhile. He helped me pick out a Ganesha tapestry and gave me a scarf to cover my head when needed. His kindness towards me as a Western woman in a new place I will never forget. I loved Varanasi and would be willing to go back anytime.

 

Lumbini. Lumbini was the first place we stayed in Nepal. The population is less dense there, so the streets were more manageable by one’s self on foot. The level of street begging decreased as well, for which the women in the group were particularly grateful. You can only have so many Buddha statues shoved in your face by well-meaning, yet slightly too aggressive salesmen, until you start ignoring people just in order to get down the street. In Nepal, we felt like we could breathe again, after that onslaught.

 

Remember, these pilgrimage sites are visited by hundreds of groups each year, and they all come through within the same time period, from January to March. So these vendors get geared up early on in order to sell to the incoming tourists. Some of them make all of their money for the year during pilgrimage season. I was cautioned not to give money in some circumstances. It was hard to resist the natural impulse to help out.

 

Kathmandu. Kathmandu was by far my favorite place that we visited. I would go there again in a heartbeat, and would consider living there for part of the year as well. With a population of over one million, it has the excitement of a major metropolis along with the ingrained culture of thousands of years of pilgrimage and commerce. Kathmandu was young, vibrant, upbeat, and hopeful.

 

I visited Children of the Universe while we were there. It is an orphanage for Tibetan and Nepali refugees from the surrounding region. I met Tsering Gyalpo there, he was born in a Tibetan refugee camp and now runs the orphanage, which is home to over 30 kids. He seemed so mature for his age. I agreed to sponsor one child named Purnima who I am still helping with a monthly donation.

 

Swayambunath in Kathmandu was the most holy place for me on our tour. The stupas there, high on a hill above Kathmandu, just seemed to emanate peace. The mood was hushed, yet relaxed. The ever-present sales people offered their goods from various stoops and shops. There were paintings for sale, along with a shop full of antique relics. We sat on the ground and did our practice right there in the square. I tried my best to maintain good meditation posture for the locals’ sake. When one woman showed curiosity in what we were doing, I underlined the words with my finger as we recited them, so she could follow along. She seemed to want to make sure we were doing things properly, and came away fairly impressed, it seemed.

 

Yogyakarta. What I remember most about Yogyakarta was the scooters. There were packs of them at each stoplight, usually out ahead of the car traffic. The riders were mainly in their twenties, although occasionally one would see a whole family riding on a bike. The sea of riders, many with Muslim headscarves on along with their riding gear, were an impressive lot. I was surprised to see many young men riding in short sleeves and sandals, seemingly oblivious to the danger surrounding them.

We rented scooters after the retreat for an afternoon, and I can vouch that there were some fairly large tour buses on the road! It was so fun to do after being on a rigorous tour schedule. We mostly took the back roads, taking a tour of the countryside surrounding Borobudur. I became quite enthusiastic about scooters after that. Maybe I will buy one someday!

It was great to get to experience a moderate Muslim country such as Indonesia. The school groups who were touring Borobudur with us seemed genuinely curious about us. They wanted us to stop and take photos with them. I think people around the world are realizing that we have much more in common than our governments would like us to think. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. Some good, some bad, some extreme, some moderate.

 

Return to the US. Coming back to America, one of the first things I appreciated was the cleaner air and water. The sky was so blue outside the plane! I stopped drinking bottled water, which was required in areas with poor sanitation, and no longer needed to reflexively apply hand sanitizer like mad. I was also glad that I could dress the way I wanted back in the States without worrying about offending anyone. I had covered my head in some places in India, particularly in the more remote Muslim regions near the Nepali border, and so it was a relief to not have to worry about the changing local customs for a change. Although I hate to admit it, I also missed having food that I was more accustomed to at home, including French fries!

The time difference between Indonesia and California meant that my schedule was off for the first few weeks. I would have the urge to nap at random until my body fully adjusted again. What was harder to bear was coming back to an overwhelming sense of depression and cynicism in the populace. People just seemed less happy in America. I tried to avoid it as long as I could, but once I moved into a new housing situation, I too became bogged down with the general sense of malaise. It was as if my trip was something to be jealous of, not to be celebrated. No one seemed to take seriously my actual interest in the teachings, and what we had considered a pilgrimage was seen as a luxury vacation by some. I guess that’s just the way it is.

 

Although we went to some “exotic locales”, I can assure you it was not a resort style trip, although we were delighted with the pleasant hosts we had and the food was wonderful in itself. The idea that I was told by my landlord in California, of all people, is that I wasn’t being “Buddhist enough” in my actions. People in America often mistake “being Buddhist” with someone being completely pliable and agreeable. We think of Buddhists as happy, smiling, and compliant. In my experience, that is not the case. We have a very simplistic view of the religious beliefs from other parts of the world. It would suit us well in the long run to reform that view. Christianity is just one religion among many which are influential worldwide. I hope to continue to learn more about other cultures.

 

Why do people in America seem to have no confidence left our country? I was so glad when Narendra Modi came over to visit, including his “rock star” appearance at Madison Square Garden. Finally, the emerging world started coming into plain view for the developed world. The United States aligning with India makes good sense. If all of our software jobs have already gone over there, why shouldn’t we take the next step, and become administrators of the transition from West to East? At least, we need to be able to acknowledge that American businessmen have moved most of our manufacturing industries overseas. It has already happened.

 

Obviously, not everyone can be an ambassador for the developing world, introducing them to what the West has to offer. But for those of us who are lucky enough, we *can* make a difference, by transforming ourselves into “bridges to the future” for our peers in other countries. Even those who do not choose to travel outside the United States can support our new allies by donating to causes which support the developing world. We are leaders by example as we move into a new century. We can contribute by striving to show the world the best of the democratic ideal.

 

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” That’s what we are looking for to create a sustainable, non-violent world: a concerted effort to bring all human lives up to a decent living standard, including access to clean water and sanitation. Did you know that more people now have a cell phone than a toilet in the world? This is a situation which cannot stand. We must do better than that. It is possible. We just need to demonstrate the collective willpower.

 

K-Pop Psychology:

What I admire the most about Asian culture is its optimism and reserve. Growing up in the rural South, there were polite topics and impolite ones. This changed once I moved to San Francisco, where any topic was up for discussion. Although intellectually exciting, this could also often lead to uncomfortable situations in which someone would make more and more outrageous statements, just for the sake of “winning the argument”. Competition gone awry in some cases. I’m all for freedom of speech, but people also need to learn there are consequences for what you say and do.

 

The optimism of the younger generation in Asia was wonderful to be around. You can really feel a strong sense of hope for the future there. Countries which previously were mostly rural, such as South Korea, are rapidly developing into modern economic powerhouses. There is a rush to be a part of it which is balanced by the traditional cultural practices. The East will express itself differently than the West, a phenomenon for which I am grateful. They have a stronger sense of oneness with nature, even in an urban setting. They are also less effusive in public. One of the most memorable impressions of Americans which I had upon my return is that we are overly cloying and sentimental in public. We also love to exaggerate and brag. Maybe this is due to the devotional nature of Christianity, in which we are supposed to profess our “undying love’ for Jesus. It could also be rooted in the ideal of courtly love, which was created in order to serve the ruling classes. Since I grew up in a more conservative area of the US, I appreciate having the chance to learn more about the Asian perspective.

 

What I will never forget about India, Nepal, and Indonesia is the sense of decorum, especially in India, where *every single* village that we drove through had a Shiva, Ganesha, or Krishna temple right at the edge of town, guarding the villagers and beseeching the newcomers. Also, many of the religious sites comfortably hosted a blend of Hindu and Buddhist gods in the same temple. In Nepal in particular, they seem to make no distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. I loved that. There just isn’t any equivalent in American culture for a thousand-year old living tradition rooted in the native geography and people, except for that of the Native Americans. The European traditions which we brought with us were transplanted onto colonized soil. We are still newcomers here.

 

I enjoyed the lack of sensationalism, the way that people were obviously skilled in what they did, and yet seemed stoically humble about their situations. The sense of human dignity was strong: people were not yet completely guided by greed there, selling out by using the lowest common denominator to make a buck. That’s what worries me about the development of China, South Korea, and other Southeast Asian countries – the import of materialism and rampant development into ancient cultures which can certainly modernize their own way, without becoming exactly like Western countries. We don’t need to clone the United States.

 

People prided themselves on being low-key there, in a similar fashion to California, but with a major difference – they weren’t “marketing” or “branding” themselves, they really were mellow, stoic and humble. The culture there supported such openness. I think a big difference is that most of the places I visited still had strong neighborhoods and a sense of community, unlike much of the rapidly developed urban sprawl in the United States. People are alienated and distrustful of each other in America, and it is ruining our country. No one socializes much outside of their immediate families in many areas. The status-driven ethos which emerged during the 1980’s means that people are forced into excessive competition, not creating community. It’s unhealthy for our children’s future.

 

The farmer’s market and “Farm-to-Table” movement in the US, which considers the sourcing of our food, is an important step, along with the push to know our neighbors, form “Take Back The Night” groups, and so on. What America needs to do is stop feeling sorry for itself, take a hint from developing countries, get on the clue train, and learn how to smile at strangers again. The beaming looks from many of the people we visited were not fake: they were genuinely glad to host us, as we were bringing them revenue for that season. The sense of “gross national happiness” matters in places like Nepal and Bhutan much more so than here, where we tend to focus only on the Gross Domestic Product, or “bottom line”. How can we get back to what is most important in life?

The millennial generation, with the buoyant optimism of youth, is attempting to shake things up with flash mobs and heart hand symbols, Youtube memes and the like. How do we translate that enthusiasm in order to have an influence on the currently prevailing Baby Boomer generation, which has clamped down on issuing credit with an iron fist? Where are the hippies now? Have they all become Yuppies?

 

How do we encourage Generation X, whose members are now reaching middle age, to persevere in a social climate which does not reward them, but punish them, for wanting to prosper? We cannot blame all of the excesses of the previous generation on those who were children when these changes began. Kissinger and Nixon started to put in place changes which we are now just seeing, with their reliance on racial strife as a way to “divide and conquer”. It will take my lifetime to rid our government of the corrosive influence of Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney and George Bush. Let’s get started clearing out the officials who are not following their mandates.

 

I don’t have a solution for our society, but a prescription – be kind to one another, let someone in front of you in traffic, give someone the benefit of the doubt, try to trust more, try to avoid conspiracy thinking. America is still important, just like Europe is still important, Africa is important, and Southeast Asia is important. When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, all of the pieces are needed to make a complete picture.

 

Due to the nuclear arsenals of the United States and other countries, we will remain a world player, even as our country adapts to globalization. Just as we took the reins of world power from Britain after World War II, inevitably we will hand over our role as global economic powerhouse to China by within the next hundred years. The decisions which set that change in motion were made long before Generation X could vote. Do we fight that inevitability, or embrace it? The way we respond as a group will determine the success of future generations.

 

The environmental stresses we all face globally will force nations to begin cooperating on a level previously unseen. Let’s learn to be better global team players, in order to ensure health and happiness for future generations.

 

 

 

Culture War, Class Warfare, or Ecological Crisis? December 5, 2011

Filed under: nonviolence,occupy,peace,social justice — clovernode @ 5:34 am

When I arrived at VCU in Richmond in 1989, I remember seeing an art installation for the Tiananmen Square protestors on the lawn of the student commons.  It featured a replica of “The Goddess of Democracy,” which had been built by Chinese art students in Tiananmen Square, before the sculpture was destroyed and many protestors were massacred by the Chinese army in early June.

goddessdemocracy2

 

The installation featured hundreds of small placards with Chinese characters sketched on them in red paint.  These placards were meant to represent each of the protestors killed that day.  A moving tribute.

How did this affect me at the time?  I felt the proper sense of outrage, and was proud to be in a new, exciting place where political statements like this were made.  Moving to Richmond, Virginia from small-town Southwestern Virginia was a liberating and eye-opening experience, as I’m sure this rite of passage has been for countless others.  I went on to do what most college kids do: try to get good grades, meet new people, and learn more about life away from home.  But this novel display of solidarity has stuck with me over the years: it is still one of first images that come to mind when I think about those heady days so long ago now.

goddessdemocracy

 

Back then, when the World Wide Web was still in its formative stages, how connected did I really feel with those protestors?  I remember watching footage of the infamous “Tank Man,” and being shocked at how heartless the Chinese government seemed to be.  However, back then, we Americans still enjoyed a comforting if false sense of distance from international events such as these.  China seemed to be a world away from us.  The Soviet Union had just fallen, and pro-capitalists were gloating over the fall of communism as a viable system.  Most people my age were busy preparing to launch their careers into an early-90’s recession economy.  Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?

So although I felt for the lives lost, and found the wanton brutality repugnant, I didn’t see how what had happened there really affected me here in America.  That has changed now.  Thank you, VCU Art Department, for creating a lasting image in my mind of what it means to stand up with creativity and courage against a brutal regime.

In 2011, we don’t need much prompting to see how much has changed in our country.  The largesse of the 60’s and 70’s has dried up, and we are starting to see through the capitalist façade.  After the dot com bust, I noticed that our country seems to have recessions every ten years or so.  This recent deep recession should just be called what it is: the second Great Depression.

After 9/11, the Enron scandal, ten years of global warfare, bank bailouts, the deregulation and swindling on Wall Street, and the travesty of a politicized Supreme Court, it’s hard to recognize what we have become.  The ridiculous inquiry into Bill Clinton’s private life paved the way for the current penchant for “reality shows,” trials-of-the-century, and the general exploitation of human emotions for entertainment purposes.  When is our country going to grow into something more than an adolescent gang of hoodlums snickering at Super Bowl half-time nip slips?

occupy

 

Now I understand how my mother felt as she watched the 60’s generation come of age.  She shared their politics, but was born twenty years earlier than your average hippie.  Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is the first political movement in my lifetime that I feel compelled to take part in.  I have seen the ups-and-downs of our modern job market and societal mores, and so instinctively, I know I have to create my own reality, my own working environment, my own value system.  The tired old Vietnam-era, “uptight squares vs. wild hippies” framing of our country as a cultural battleground must stop.  We are bigger and better than that.

We are looking at the first generation of college-age young adults who may never have the opportunities that their parents did.  Training our youth to think critically isn’t going to work out so well when the target is our own crumbling society.  The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority has happened a few times before in history, and the result is usually the same: revolt and revolution.  When is America going to drop its puritanical obsession with everyone’s sex lives, and start to see the crisis for what it is: the majority class of workers against the minority class of corporate investors?

This past year had some record-breaking weather, including a tsunami which devastated Japan, which led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.  This should be a wake-up call to many, but instead, perhaps due to overwhelm, we giggle at the latest case of sexual indiscretions.  How long will America be able to keep this up?  What if a nuclear winter were to occur, and we all became sterile?  There wouldn’t be many left after a generation to publish the tabloids.

As more and more draconian laws are passed, to placate a fearful yet fading worldview, let’s take the inspiration of the Arab Spring and American Autumn into 2012, and remember that people power will always triumph over the fickle few.  Why don’t we forget about 1960’s-era debates – it’s time for Gen Y *and* Gen X to come into their own.  We can’t live in the shadow of the Baby Boomers forever.  Let’s start framing this in modern terms: a struggle not only for the welfare of the little guy, but for the sustainability of our ecology and planet.  Peace.  Solidarity.  No nukes in any hands.  Occupy peace of mind.

 

 

WYSIWYG FTW November 29, 2011

Filed under: facebook,nonviolence,peace,twitter — clovernode @ 4:20 am

Hello again, I’ve finally taken the time to figure out what was up with the font formatting, I’m using Windows Live Writer now, much better.  I’m increasing the font to 10 point, since my eyes are getting fuzzier as a middle-aged blogger.

Well, many people have encouraged me to continue writing here, and for various reasons, I’ve been putting it off.  After hearing about the attack on Mona Eltahawy in Cairo last week, and seeing her hands in casts, I feel that I can’t put it off any longer.

I spend most of my social networking time on Twitter.  Facebook is like a clunky beast.  They should hire a new user interface team, imho.  What a messy and obtrusive site.  Yuck.

Anyway, I’ll be checking in here more regularly now.  I don’t want to make any promises, as it’s too easy for my schedule to get re-arranged these days.  But trust and believe, I’ll be on here speaking my mind, trolls be damned.

Occupy your body, and occupy peace of mind.

GR

 

How I learned to love being silly December 29, 2009

I’m reviving my blog over the holidays.  I spend most of my internet social time on Twitter, but I thought I would go “long form” for a change.  Some of the information here may be repeated in older posts, but I’m going to assume I’ll have all new readers for this one (if any!) since I hardly ever post.

Dot Com Projections

I used to work at a dot com in San Francisco back at the turn of the decade, and as a paralegal a few years before that.  After being laid off several times and going through some family crises from long distance, I moved home and have worked in retail and sales since then.  Following some trials and tribulations, I’ve started to realize that I’m more of a “behind-the-scenes” person and that working in sales just isn’t my forte.  I also found it mind-numbingly boring, and have slowly realized that none of the jobs I have had in the last few years presented me with any kind of challenge.  This isn’t good for someone who was labeled as “gifted” early in life, and therefore has always been expected to be able to do more.  So I applied to graduate school in hopes of bettering myself once again.

I was very pleased to be accepted to grad school for Conflict Resolution at a North Carolina university back in June.  I ordered my textbooks early and started reading them.  I also ordered biographies of Martin Luther King, Mahatmas Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, and other influential figures.  I imagined how great it would be to work for the UN or the Peace Corps, and decided to follow President Obama’s example in his commitment to work for others.  My interest in Buddhism was also tied in with these ideals.

Obama Halo

It was so easy to be optimistic and hopeful as Obama was sworn in.  It really felt as though the sky was the limit with what we could do, the victory was so groundbreaking.  Then as the year wore on, the tea party groups emerged, and we all watched as the town hall people threw their fits for the cameras.  It became harder to see how things would ever change here in America.  I found all of that virulent expression of hatred quite depressing, as I’m sure many others did as well.  I also became pessimistic about how we could ever achieve a real lasting peace, and felt intimidated by the arduous task of trying to live up to such sterling examples as King or Gandhi.

So I did what a lot of people might do, and distracted myself from the news.  I had been a social networking Luddite since Myspace emerged in the early 2000s.  I never got on there because I had heard there was some trouble with viruses being spread in the beginning.  I had tried tribe.net for a few months, and that was about it.  So when I finally broke down and joined Facebook and Twitter this past summer, it was a welcome distraction from all of this heaviness.  It was great reconnecting with people I hadn’t talked to in awhile, and just realizing that everyone was still out there somewhere, even though they seemed so far away.  After becoming isolated living out in the country after fifteen years in the city, it was nice to be reminded of that.

Family Affair

On a more personal note, I have been trying to help boost the spirits of my father who was treated for lung cancer in early 2008.  He’s in remission, but is still on oxygen due to lung damage.  He doesn’t get out much anymore.  He has also suffered from bouts of depression and OCD for a number of years, since taking early retirement in the eighties.  This tendency he has of rumination and pessimism makes the job of comforting him that much harder.  It bothers me to think that I may never see my dad happy again.  It’s important that I try to keep myself in the best spirits I can while dealing with this though.

I’m going to give some background about my interest in Buddhism, which I hope will provide some information that will tie together with other themes later on. My mother, who was older than Dad, passed away in 2003.  I came back quite often to help while living in California.  Eventually it seemed to make more sense just to move back.  I stayed out there as long as I could though.  As my mom’s health declined, I started to think about spiritual matters more seriously.  I was mainly wondering “where do we go when we die?” and so on.  Since she was Catholic and my dad was Baptist, she had left it up to me to decide which denomination I would choose.  I had read a lot of Buddhism as a teenager, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to start attending services at a local Buddhist center in San Francisco.  I also tried out an Anglican church for awhile which was non-traditional as well.

Buddhist Wheel and Deer

I found that a lot of ideas in Buddhism meshed well with the Christian teachings I had grown up with, and the newer ideas were intriguing, if hard to get my head around.  Reincarnation and karma are the two that I’m still trying to better understand.  After moving home for a year, I headed back out to California to visit friends.  I was still curious to learn more about Buddhism, so I moved into a Buddhist center called Tse Chen Ling (http://www.tsechenling.org) while I was back.  I briefly considered whether or not to become a nun.

Although I enjoyed the classes and the people I met there, I found that organized religion just wasn’t going to be where I fit in the best.  I had a lot of great experiences there though.  One of the best memories I have is of the laughter, joking, and light-hearted spirit of the younger Tibetans.  It seemed that irreverence was not only tolerated, but encouraged.  The lamas, some of whom I met in person and some I watched on videos, were so calm and understated in their presentation.  This was quite a difference from the “fire and brimstone” style of preaching that you still see in churches in the South, where the pastor is practically shouting at people.  I thought the Buddhist approach was much more authentic.  It’s true that you do see some new converts putting on a “centered and blissful” new-age style demeanor, which can easily change when things don’t go their way.  However, especially in the case of Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan monk who helped establish several centers there in the 1970s (http://www.fpmt.org), there was a depth of spirit present in him which was palpable.

Books

Back to the present, I found that it was hard to concentrate on my studies, because I really couldn’t honestly say that I believed there was a permanent answer to conflict.  After all of the wars that have been fought in the name of God and country, and the petty irritations that plague even the happiest of relationships, is it really possible to eliminate conflict?  It seems like this same struggle has gone on in every era, so is there really any hope for a lasting peace and justice for all?

Also, it seems that we conceive of the striving for justice and peace as very somber tasks, worthy of pursuit, but ultimately very serious stuff.  After spending most of my childhood amusing my mother in her later years, I naturally try to entertain people.  I also absorbed the notion from my Buddhist center experiences that joie de vivre is healthy not silly, and a lighter touch works best.  I wondered if I would be willing to spend the rest of my life playing referee to so many overblown situations.  Would I be able to take each side seriously enough, would I be able to inject any levity into the mix, to try to help lighten the mood?  Or would it turn out to be me trying to manage a lot of awkward, ponderous battles?  I don’t really like taking part in personal conflict anyway!

I brought this up in one of my classes this semester.  I said that I thought that a sense of humor may help, when helping people mediate or negotiate a problem.  The teacher warned that you have to be careful with that, as often you are dealing with people you don’t know very well, and you have to be careful not to offend anyone.  Isn’t there a common ground left anymore, a perspective from which we can all see the folly of things, only if just for a minute?  Or have identity politics completely taken over the arena?  Can we find common ground as humans, or would that be completely contrived?

Twitter Bird

Due to the heaviness of being in a caregiving situation, I found myself drawn to the wry observations of comedians on Twitter, who often are dealing more with the truth on a daily basis than politicians or religious figures it seems.  I starting thinking about the underrated value of humor, and thought how great it would be if I could just get my dad to lighten up a bit.  A person has to be willing to look at things from a humorous perspective though, one can’t really insist on it, and so instead I found a lot of solace there myself.  I really enjoy the stream of consciousness viewpoint that Twitter provides.

What is it that makes something funny, and why do most of us find humor in certain situations?  Is there some way that we as a people can start to look at things from a lighter perspective from the beginning?  After years of dealing with depressed people, and suffering from depression sometimes myself, I wonder, how can we start to cultivate a lighter touch?

Lama Yeshe Lama Zopa

For others who worry about such things, here’s a few recommendations that I’ve picked up along the way.  One thing Lama Yeshe always says is to never give up on yourself.  You may have committed the worst wrongs known to man, but there is still hope for you to become enlightened, from the Buddhist point of view.  To me, this is a welcome departure from Christian thinking, with its focus on “eternal life” and the idea that one can be eternally damned or saved.  Buddhists believe that our “souls” are recycled endlessly through reincarnation.  I think that key difference helps prevent people from doing psychologically harmful things to themselves and others, just to “get into Heaven”.  Also it is recommended to be gentle with yourself, and learn to love and forgive yourself first, before trying to do the same for others.  We have all heard these things before, but have you ever actually tried doing it?  It’s not a very common attitude to find in our punitive, judgmental culture, but it seems that this kind of thinking would help us all better weather the economic and cultural storms in our country these days, rather than just seeking to place blame.

Another thing I have had to realize is that Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the rest were people too, and although they have been held up as singular examples of peace and non-violence, we do not have to live up to that exacting standard in order to make a difference.  There were many people working with them and around them who are now nameless, but they believed in the same things and contributed to the movement as well.  The chance of becoming such a figurehead is rare, and often individuals are thrust into the spotlight, as Martin Luther King was, without any real desire for the role.  Many people around King helped create the civil rights movement that he led so eloquently.

Bayard Rustin

I find Bayard Rustin to be someone who I can relate to much more, as his personal life was under much scrutiny even as he contributed greatly to the civil rights movement, primarily by bringing Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent civil disobedience back from India.  Bayard Rustin was raised as a Quaker, and so pacifism was taught to him as a fundamental belief.  He spent time in prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II.  He was openly gay at a time when this was hardly the norm.  He was arrested in Pasadena in 1953 for “lewd conduct” in what he later claimed was a set-up to tarnish his growing reputation as an activist.  His greatest achievement was organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even though he was relegated to Deputy Director due to fears that his homosexuality would discredit the movement.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin)

While my power was off during the ice storm the other day, I picked up the collected writings of Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses, to see what he might say about the situation I’ve found myself in.  Maybe he could remind me why I got involved in trying to change the world.  I started out reading through the series of interviews with him in the back of the book.

Time On Two Crosses

In 1987, the last year of his life, he gave an interview with Open Hands, an HIV services organization, entitled “Black and Gay in the Civil Rights Movement.”  The interviewer asked him various questions about how his homosexuality had affected his treatment in certain circles, and what he thought the future could hold for the gay rights movement.  Specifically he was asked, “Are you hopeful for the human race?  Do you think prejudice will be overcome?  Do you think it’s improved in your lifetime?”  He gave an interesting reply about the lesson he had learned from “the Jewish prophets”.  He said, “If one really follows the commandments of these prophets, the question of hopeful or non-hopeful may become secondary or unimportant.  Because these prophets taught that God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue.  What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.  And, therefore, I do not expect that we can do anything more than reduce prejudice to an irreducible minimum.” (page 289)

I found this advice from him heartening in a number of ways.  First off, his viewpoint seems much more realistic and achievable than the utopia of permanent world peace.  As we discussed in class, conflict is not always a bad thing, as long as the sides involved are both given their say and are able to move towards an agreeable solution for both parties.

Also, my Buddhist sensibilities are tickled with the idea of moving beyond hope (and its counterpart fear) as a motivator.  With the little I have absorbed from Buddhist thought, I’ve been struck by the idea that clinging to any given state is not the ideal way to have “skillful means”.  In other words, acting blissed out all the time is not really any better than running around pissed off at everyone.  Neither one is that realistic.  Experiencing your emotions, acknowledging them internally, and then acting with reserve and respect for others is the method that I have tried to cultivate personally.  Sometimes that means voicing your anger or disagreement as it arises.  Being Buddhist doesn’t mean being a doormat.

His idea of the “irreducible minimum” of prejudice being left in society makes sense to me as well, when you look at history and observe how many times intolerance has cropped up again and again.  I think that it’s true that even within each of us, there is always going to be a tendency to see things from a certain filter, and we have to actively work to overcome that in ourselves.  So why should it be any different in a social setting?

The Shadows Greatest Hits

This also gives us room to work, because as we acknowledge the darker places in ourselves, it makes it easier for us to tolerate its presence in others.  One thing that bothers me about the outcry against the teabaggers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the like, is that the left is so ready to ridicule them, then get on a moral high horse about it.  I agree that most of the things they do are terrifically misguided, but I have come to believe the best way to defeat them is to accept them as misguided, and try to love them anyway.

Remember the scene in the movie Mississippi Burning, before one of the CORE workers Mickey Schwerner is killed, when he faces the angry man in front of him and says, “I understand how you feel”?  (The statement was later confirmed by the killer as accurate. http://bit.ly/5aqzq4)  This moment is so compelling because it helps us to realize that that kind of commitment and self-discipline transcends death.  The kind of radically accepting attitude which he was able to demonstrate at that moment haunted his killers for the longest time, as they at least internally had to admit that they were incapable of that.  Maybe we’re not required to live at such an extreme level all of the time, but it seems that making an effort towards that mindset could help one find some level of inner peace, which is where it all starts anyway.

So I don’t feel like I have any answers that haven’t already been brought up before, by other much more skilled and accomplished thinkers, but as I head back into another semester, I thought it would be good for me to organize my thoughts about these things in a blog post.  I don’t pretend to possess the self-discipline of Mickey Schwerner or the Dalai Lama, but Bayard Rustin has helped me to remember that “it’s all about the struggle, baby.”  Also I wanted to let people know that I haven’t forgotten about the movement just to chase dudes on Twitter!  Maybe that roller coaster has just gotten me in shape for pursuing truth and justice again.  🙂

 

Post Inauguration Plans January 27, 2009

peacedovemagritte

I’ve been so busy watching inauguration coverage on tv this past week that I haven’t taken the time to update my blog. Not sure if I have any regular readers, but I can hope. 🙂

Well, since I’ve been recommending volunteer opportunities here, I thought I would talk a little about my experiences volunteering for Martin Luther King day, and mention my plans for the future, under the Obama victory banner.

I drove to the SHARE warehouse in Pulaski, Virginia after an light snowfall the previous evening, which made the drive there a bit slower than usual. Once I got there, the coordinator was in a tizzy, because the pipes had burst overnight – there was about an inch or two of standing water on the concrete floor, running underneath the pallets! So first we helped mop up the mess, before we started processing the food in another, much dryer room!

We bagged potatoes in 3 pound sacks for the discount food kits which SHARE sells in local counties, passing on the discounted cost to the consumer. The kits are available to anyone regardless of income level. They just ask that each person donate two hours of time to the program, along with the $20 cost. They provide about $40 dollars worth of groceries for that discounted price. The SHARE program is meant to be a transition for people who don’t qualify for food stamps or food banks, but who still are having trouble making ends meet. It seemed like a good cause to support.

***

Obama’s election and now inauguration has been tremendously emotional and personal for me. After the hard and sometimes tedious work of volunteering during the campaign, it was nice to see that effort bear fruit. However, one can’t listen to more than a few seconds of his speeches since the night he claimed victory at Grant Park, and miss the clear message of continued effort and sacrifice that he is sending out to all of us, especially those of us who gave many hours and dollars to the campaign.

I have to admit that at first, I was a bit daunted by the idea of continued involvement, since I’ve never really been that politically active in the first place, and the work I did during the campaign seemed to bring about plenty of change for the time being. But I’m finding that Obama’s ascension and now influence and authority in our lives has really helped unlock some dormant ambitions I’ve had to further my professional career, but this time in the realm of public service.

During the dotcom bust in 2000, while many of my friends went back to school, I took the challenge from several of my blue collar friends and launched into a retail “career”. Working food service and at a hardware store definitely grounded me, after working in the relatively high-flying worlds of law firms and internet startups. The other thing it did was limit my future career options. By worrying about accumulating any more debt, I stifled my chances of career advancement, by taking entry-level jobs and just “making ends meet”.

I majored in Philosophy as an undergraduate in the early nineties.  The logical step from there would be law school or possibly teaching, but I didn’t want to go $60,000 to $80,000 in debt, with no guarantee of a job afterwards. At the time I looked into it, I heard that many lawyers were coming out of school with no job prospects available, so they were forced to take paralegal positions, which certainly don’t pay enough to rapidly pay down that kind of debt. After running into problems in my late twenties with consumer debt that I had accumulated during college, I really didn’t relish the idea of going any further into that quagmire.

So now that I’ve moved back from the heady climate of the Bay Area, wiser but still not meaningfully employed (despite my ongoing education in the retail world’s “school of hard knocks”), I’ve decided that I’m finally ready to take the plunge, and go back to school. This time, I’m looking into applying my skills towards a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution. I found out there is a good school nearby (UNCG) which has an online program – this is quite helpful since I live so far now from any nearby urban areas. I’m going to give it a try, I think.

This seems like a career path that I could really get behind – for example, providing mediation and negotiation services to various groups, including families, churches, and communities. Another way I’ve been looking at it, is that I’d be operating as a “discount lawyer” or a referee, although the field really seems to go far beyond that, including examining nonviolent strategies and methods of reducing global strife. I’m about five hours from DC, where I could possibly find a job in the non-profit sector.

With such a shining example of achievement embodied in Obama, I feel inspired to live up to my full potential once again. As a “gifted” child in school, I grew up with a sense that I was expected to achieve more, since I was the lucky recipient of these God-given gifts. I also experienced the desire to be just like the other kids, and often would compromise myself in order to “fit in”. Something about Obama’s rise challenges me to go back to the drawing board and fully apply myself again, in order to be of the most benefit that I can. This is welcome news.