Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Light in the Dark


According to Albert Einstein, the most important question facing humanity is, “Is the universe a friendly place?”
Do you believe the universe is abundant, generative, safe, and nurturing? Or do you believe the universe is characterized by scarcity, conflict, selfishness, and danger? The portrait you choose, he argued, shapes the entire arc of your life.
            Beneath this inquiry is the bedrock truth that we do not see the world as it is – we see the world as we are. Our preconceptions shade everything we see. When Hamlet said to Rosencrantz, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” he was affirming the fact that none of us has the objective perspective we think we do. Pure objectivity is impossible. We see the world through a grid of presumptions, some of them self-wrought, most of them built into the structures of consciousness by cultural conditioning.
            But let’s look at the fuller scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for an even subtler idea. The jaded Danish king is talking with his trusty sidekicks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and as he often does, he pours his guts out to his two confidants.      
Hamlet asks his friends, “What brought you here to this prison?”
            “Prison?” asked Rosencrantz.
            “Prison, my lord?” asked Guildenstern.
            “Denmark’s a prison,” said Hamlet.
            “Then the world is one,” said Rosencrantz.
            “A goodly one,” Hamlet replied, “in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.”
            “We think not so, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
            “Why, then, ‘tis none to you,” Hamlet replied, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
            Shakespeare’s famous line “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” is often misunderstood as an affirmation of moral relativism. But it is not an ethical proclamation. It is a purely a cognitive one. Our preconceptions shape our truth more than any real-world evidence. To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Denmark is perfectly lovely. For Hamlet it’s hell. How can one phenomenon, Denmark, elicit two such different responses?
            One could ask the same question about so many things – Christmas, Trump, Nickelback. Why do some people love these things, while others don’t?
            The answer lies in human evolution. Over tens of thousands of years our brains have developed coping mechanisms for the bewildering array of stimuli each moment brings. These cognitive shortcuts are, at first anyway, enormously helpful. We wouldn’t be able to think at all without our biases.
            As we view the world, each new experience is quickly processed through the memory database and categorized. We don’t truly understand this new thing – we simply shove it into a conceptual box of seemingly similar things. This “fast thinking” as some psychologists call it is quick, dirty, and effective. But there’s a downside. Our hasty generalizations blind us to the subtleties and realities of this new experience.
            In junior high I was intimidated by a bully named Jesse Sanchez. He wore jeans and perfectly pressed white T-shirts with creases in the sleeves. His black hair was slicked back with what appeared to be Vaseline. He and his sidekick would lurk in the boy’s bathroom and mug other kids for their lunch money. He was a terrifying presence – I didn’t understand him. His very existence filled me with dread. Life took on the quality of a nightmare. How, I wondered, could people be so irrationally cruel? 
            Despite the fact that I had had countless positive interactions with Latinx friends and classmates all through my schooling years, this one experience was so overwhelming that for many years after I carried with me the bias that Chicanos were terrifying. It wasn’t rational – it was visceral. It was fast-thinking. Whenever I saw a guy who looked anything like him I was triggered, and suddenly I was that terrified 7th grader again. I still clench up a bit whenever I enter public restrooms. And that was 50 years ago.
            The only cure for the disease of unconscious bias is slow thinking, the deliberate decision to be humble, question your assumptions, and come up out of your fear into the bright sunshine of the real world. I understand it all so differently now. Jesse Sanchez was a victim too. He struggled under systemic racism and a dominant culture that every day diminished his value and his humanity. His resentment against white kids like me had a cause. Maybe there was cruelty at home. Maybe he was tormented by bullies too. Maybe the very system that privileged me modeled for him cruelty, indifference, and the infliction of pain. I slowly came to understand the deeper truth: wounded people wound, and complex human behavior has complex, multidimensional causes. The story was so much richer than a cartoonish dichotomy of victim and villain.
            No matter who you are, no matter how free you think you are, you see the world through unconscious biases. Denying them only makes them stronger. The path to freedom, knowledge, and forgiveness begins with humility and self-awareness. And as we wake up, the whole world awakens.
            When Einstein asked the question, Is the universe a friendly place? he was saying something really important: that our starting points, our cognitive frame, our guiding principles, give birth to everything else. Reality is not a single, monolithic thing – it’s many things at once. And how you choose to see it shapes the quality and character of your life. If we believe the universe is a dark and miserable place then we live in perpetual fear and use our considerable creativity to construct systems and weapons that perpetuate misery. If we believe the universe is light-filled and beautiful, then we live in perpetual faith and use our considerable creativity to construct systems that institutionalize compassion. The fate of the world literally depends on how we perceive it.
            No matter how dark it gets, light a candle. A single flame destroys the darkness. Be the flame, and witness how your light emboldens others to light their flames too. Soon the world is awash with light. Never listen to the people who say it can’t be done. Align your hearts with the people who doing it.
            Deep down Jesse Sanchez and I are the same. We want the same things. But his was a world of scarcity and conflict. In his mind, the only way to get power was to take it from those who had it. We were both victims of a system neither of us created, and of our own cognitive distortions. To him I was the enemy, and he mine. Both of us were wrong. Neither of us then knew that we were, deep down, a light in the dark. We just didn’t know how to be.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Open Heart


When the eyes open, the heart opens. The more you see, the more you feel. Even an ordinary walk through the neighborhood breaks you open – the desiccated skull of a hummingbird, an out of season flower, a discarded condom wrapper – everywhere you look the poignancy and insistence of life, death, and everything in between. It’s as if the whole world – scattered for a while in disparate embodiments – is longing for reunion.
            Being born means initiation into the world of death. Instead of seeing this as bad news or some sort of cosmic unfairness, we shift into acceptance and a door opens, and if we’re brave, na├»ve, and crazy enough to walk through that door the world begins to shimmer with unspeakable beauty. The only thing left is love.
            The world’s spiritual traditions are rife with paradox: it is only when we give that we receive, it is only when we release that we attain, it is only when we let go that we make contact, it is only when we surrender that we win. Grasping, clinging, craving, attachment, ego-demands, and self-obsession lead only to suffering. All bliss needs are unclenched hands and an open heart. Give bliss a chance. Let go.
            There is nothing to grasp, and there is no one to do the grasping – this is the great secret. A confluence of factors tricked us into thinking we were separate from everything else, and spiritual practice – any spiritual practice – is the long, slow process of undoing that trickery.
            As white light scatters through a prism into colors, so too the oneness of Being scatters into multiplicity as it passes through the prism of the human mind. Our crude perceptions and conceptual thinking distort and imprison Oneness into paradoxical categories of our own making. Then we become warehouse workers, taking inventory, and cataloging conceptual boxes into hierarchies. We call this “knowledge.” We squander our lives arguing about doctrines, theologies, definitions, and labels. Meanwhile, the real world – the unquantifiable world right outside the doors of our carefully organized warehouses – flows by like a lazy river.
            Water doesn’t ask, “Am I a stream, a river, an ocean, a cloud, or a drop of rain?” It rests in its waterness. It allows individual transformation and evolution of purpose to take its natural course. We, on the other hand, insist on our labels and hierarchies – at great cost.
            We have become addicted to explanation. Like drunks lurching for the bottle, we stumble into the arms of any decent argument or self-serving emotional appeal – anything to assuage the uncertainty of not knowing.
            Not knowing is the doorway to unity and reconciliation. Not knowing is the embodiment of courage. Not knowing is an act of love.
            The simplicity, the clarity, the unmediated symphony of this present moment eludes us when we remain enamored and caught by our thoughts about this present moment. Somewhere along the way we became convinced that our true life, our real life, existed in the realm of thought. That was the most destructive thought of all.
            When you wake up in the morning say thank you. Say thank you as you drift off to sleep. Say thank you between tasks. Say thank you in the middle of everything. Make thank you your mantra. It doesn’t matter who you’re saying it to. Simply be in the consciousness of thank you. We do not say thank you to appease or acknowledge some higher power – the higher power isn’t a needy parent. We say thank you to open our hearts and minds to the truth that we did not create this – we receive this – our lives, these hands, this passion, this beauty, this support, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the love we rely on. We live in the holy thank you. When you do this, you turn the key that unlocks wisdom, wellness, and bliss.
            A nearby star floods our planet with light. Through photosynthesis plants utilize this celestial energy to replicate the cells of their own bodies. Plants are starlight storage systems. Then animals eat the plants, and each other. Then we eat the animals and the plants. In this way all life forms are embodied starlight, feeding on one another in an endless energy exchange. Individual forms come and go, but energy doesn’t die – it just keeps changing address. Life is not a possession. No one owns the energy. The water does not belong to the sea – it just holds it for a while. We do not live life. Life lives us. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in Stillness Speaks, “The opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” That’s why the only sane response to any of this is thank you.
            When it is our time to navigate death, other’s or our own, we are forced to let go. The pain of the loss is directly proportional to our grasping. The tighter we cling, the more acute our trauma.
            A young mother came to the Buddha carrying her dead child. She’d heard the Buddha had powerful magic that might restore her child to life. She asked the Buddha, “Is there anything you can do to help me?”
            “Yes,” he said. “But first you must go into the village and find three mustard seeds, and they must be from a house that has been untouched by death.”
            She went door to door through the village carrying her dead child. At the first house she asked, “Do you have any mustard seeds?”
            “Yes.”
            “But has anyone died here?”
            “Yes, we lost our father last year.”
            She went to the next house and knocked on the door.
            “Do you have any mustard seeds?”
            “Yes.”
            “But has anyone died here?”
            “Yes, we lost our mother last month.”
            She went to the next house and knocked on the door.
            “Do you have any mustard seeds?”
            “Yes.”
            “But has anyone died here?”
            “Yes, we lost our child just last week.”
            Many hours passed. Twilight faded to darkness. She had knocked on every door in the village. Not one house was untouched by death.
            She walked out into the forest and looked up at the stars arrayed in thick fields of light above her. “The living are few, and the dead are many,” she whispered. “They outnumber even these stars.” She buried her child and went to the Buddha and thanked him. She joined the order and devoted her life to compassionate action and service. Knowing the universality of death, and the impermanence of all forms, she now understood that none of us owns any of this, we only get to love it for a while. This is the wisdom of the open heart.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Who Gets Forgiven?

No one can force you to forgive. It doesn’t work that way. Is it reasonable to ask a victim to forgive their wrongdoer when there has been no admission of wrong-doing, and furthermore, when the harm is on-going? To pressure a victim to forgive under these conditions is to re-traumatize the victim. This sin is especially prevalent, I’m sorry to say, in so-called “spiritual” circles. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” they solemnly intone. But what about the wrongdoer? Is there anything they need to do to facilitate this process? Or is forgiveness a one-way street?
            Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort was a frequent guest speaker in my world religions classes at Palomar College. He was brilliant, funny, warm – in a word, a mensch. It was from Rabbi Eilfort that I first learned about the three Rs. In order for us to be forgiven for our wrongdoing, in order for us to be restored unto right relationship with God and with one another, we must first do three things.
            First we must feel remorse. We must genuinely feel the suffering we have caused the other. Secondly, we must repair the damage. If you stole, pay it back. If you lied, admit it. But how can you repair murder, false-imprisonment, or structural discrimination? We’re going to have to get creative. And this is key: our efforts at repair must be made directly to the harmed – we cannot sit back and wait for a supernatural third party to do it for us. Thirdly, we must reform, that is, lend new shape to our lives. The offending behavior has to stop. When these three conditions are met – remorse, repair, and reform – forgiveness may be granted thereby drawing both wrong-doer and victim into right-relationship and inner peace.
As a straight cisgender white male, I am the beneficiary of untold unearned privilege. When I walk into a store, when I rent an apartment, when I apply for a loan, when I interview for a job, or when I’m stopped by the police, I am treated differently than people of color or other discriminated groups not because of my individual merit, but because of an accident of genetics.
Being a person of color means living in the shadow of multi-generational, institutionalized, and often unconscious discrimination. Growing up black in America means growing up in a nation built by slaves, learning American history from white teachers in schools named after slave owners, and living with the fear that simply being black is a death sentence in all too many situations.
And yet a majority of white people mistakenly believe that racism is no longer a major problem, and that it’s all behind us. “I don’t see color,” they say. Believing that racism doesn’t exist is a privilege reserved only for those who never experience it.
Racism skeptics also say things like, "Black people need to get over it. Slavery was a long time ago. And besides, I didn't do it, I don't have a racist bone in my body." How are people of color supposed to forgive the dehumanizing horror of racism when it remains unacknowledged and when they're gaslighted for even bringing it up? So they don't. And we don't talk to each other. And a sickening silence descends like a fog keeping us all in the dark. Real forgiveness is possible. Real restorative healing is possible. But first, the dominant culture must work through the three Rs.

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the November/December 2019 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]