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Keep Your Paper


It is Sunday morning and I am drinking coffee and waiting for the New York Times to arrive on the porch. I open my computer to see what’s happening on email and Facebook. A friend from high school has posted another article about the firing of Times editor Jill Abramson and I am reminded of a conversation I had last night with my husband about this topic. When the Abramson story first broke I reserved judgment thinking there’s always more to it than the simple narrative. But days later and with lots of journalists keenly interested in finding out what really happened, it doesn’t seem like much more than those old boys just didn’t like her.

It really probably is as simple as that. They didn’t like her for reasons that are deeply embedded in who they are and how they see the world. They can justify it with examples, but I think the truth is they didn’t like a strong woman who is competitive and doesn’t care if people like her. This is something that liberal progressive politics cannot talk them out of.

I could just say, damn that’s sexism. If she were a man they wouldn’t hold her to the same standard. And then I’d move on to the next story. But this morning waiting for my newspaper, suddenly I feel sick about it.

Walking to the porch to see if the paper is there, the girls in Nigeria come to mind. Somehow this seems related. The men kidnapping them as though they were objects to be stolen. News media and politicians rising up in protest. The slogan: Bring back our girls. I heard a story on NPR recently about people in Nigeria feeling glad that the world was suddenly paying attention to their plight with Boko Haram, but also wondering why it took this incident with the girls to get them to notice. A report last November from Human Rights Watch showed that Boko Haram routinely abducts women and girls and uses children as young as twelve to fight as soldiers. The group has been terrorizing and killing people in the region since 2009.

I am glad the world is paying attention to what is happening in Nigeria and like everyone else I am horrified at what happened to the more than two hundred girls. I hope sincerely that they are returned safely to their families and communities. When I first heard about it, I thought of their parents and my heart sank with fear and grief.

I wonder if it were a group of boys kidnapped to be soldiers, would the world respond in the same way? I have two boys and their innocence and hopefulness for the future is no different than any of the terrific girls we know in our community. Last February, an attack by Boko Haram in the middle of the night at a boarding school killed twenty nine boys, many of them burned to death. We didn’t hear much about it.

Why do we make this distinction? It cuts both ways. On the one hand, being female can cost you the job of your dreams, the one you worked for your entire career and devoted your life to. On the other hand, being female can save your life and maybe turn around the fate of an entire country.

In Buddhist writings about feminism, the interesting topic of essentialism is raised. In this short article in Tricycle magazine, the author quotes Nancy Baker, a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. “There’s a strong streak of anti-essentialism in feminism, just as there is in Buddhism,” says Baker. “It is the understanding that something like gender is not fixed or absolute, that not all women or men have some masculine or feminine essence that defines us. To put it in Buddhist terms, gender has no ‘self-nature.'”

Wouldn’t it be better if we could let Jill Abramson do what she does well (the paper won eight Pulitzers under her leadership) and let her be herself without fear of losing her job? And wouldn’t it be better if we felt the call to action as much for those young school boys who lost their lives in Nigeria as much as we do for the girls who are missing? How are we serving ourselves or each other with these notions of gender? Maybe I’ll think about that today instead of reading the newspaper. Which, by the way, never came.

What She’s Given Me



Recently I was over at my friend Cristina’s house. Just as I was leaving to go home, she looked right at me and said thank you. I looked right back at her and thanked her just as hard.

What were we thanking each other for? On some level I knew why she was thanking me. Fifteen months ago Cristina was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since that time we have spent many hours together, talking and walking, eating meals, sometimes visiting the hospital, often just sitting around chatting like we were that day. Having company and help when you are going through something as cataclysmic as this is essential. Many people have stepped forward to offer their support.

But there was more to it, I knew. Her husband had mentioned it to me a few times. It was my willingness to go as far as I could with her to where this thing is ultimately headed. She was thanking me for that too.

It was also the reason I was thanking her. When all this started I remember thinking that this was a terrible thing happening to our friend. Along with the shock and grief and fear, I felt an acute sense of separateness. This was happening to her, not me. I would do all I could to help her through it, but it seemed like in the end she would go and we would all stay. Something about that separateness felt painful to me and not exactly true either.

One morning in the spring, I went for a mammogram. I sat in a room with other women, all of us wearing thin cotton robes after the images were taken waiting for our consultations with the radiologist. As the others got called in, I waited. And waited. Finally they called me in, saying they needed to take more pictures on one side. Heart thumping, I consented. Then I waited again. And again they wanted to take more images. Then an ultrasound. In the end, it was nothing. Throughout the time I was there though, I watched the other women come and go from their appointments with ease. I never felt more isolated and scared in my life. 

I knew then that the separateness went both ways. I felt separate from Cristina’s tumor and she most likely felt separate, in a much more painful way, from my lack of illness. Later that day we were on a walk and I mentioned what had happened. “Oh you’ve had a hard day!” she said. What love. She got it of course, that it hurts to feel so alone. 

There was something else that caught my attention. It was the surprising level of denial in our culture about death. As Cristina cried deeply for her love of her husband and children or asked the universe why this was happening to her, I could see how painful and scary these matters are. It is heroic to square up to this stuff. Most of us spend our time distracting ourselves with our goals, ambitions, desires, and grievances.

And here’s where the beauty comes in. I have loved every moment I’ve spent with Cristina over this time. Right from the start, all of the things that we usually use to measure our value – our careers, our accomplishments, our clothes, looks, cool boots, whatever – none of it mattered much. We could chat about these things or reminisce, but it was clear what really matters is love. Here and now, in this moment. That’s when separation starts to fade.

Recently I have heard some Buddhist teachings on the topic of death. My teacher here in Seattle, Rodney Smith, worked in hospice care for many years. He gave a talk the other night in which he asked us to feel the difference between that which is impermanent (in each moment things are constantly changing) and that which doesn’t change. I looked for a stillness surrounding the ongoing movement of life. He said it is this stillness, the quiet spaciousness, that doesn’t die. Everything else goes. 

I don’t have great answers. But what I’m beginning to understand is that death isn’t just about the big moment when I go from being me to being nothing. In some way it is constantly happening, the arising and the passing away of life that is happening all the time. And so whatever this is, it isn’t just happening to Cristina. It is happening to all of us, all the time. The letting go is living. We have no choice.

I still feel afraid. I still feel like me and I don’t want Cristina to die. My heart hurts a lot of the time. But what seemed off to me way back when we first started to confront death, the separation and the idea that it was just happening to her, that has shifted. We’re all in this together. This crazy ass hand we’ve been dealt. This beautiful, mysterious, difficult life. 

So thank you, Cristina. You amazing, funny, smart, creative, strong person who helped me grow. You are loved completely.

No Judgment Day

For those waiting for the Rapture, this weekend was pretty much a bust. Personally, I wasn’t expecting much by way of the end of the world, but I have been thinking lately about accountability.

At a recent Buddhist meditation class, the teacher led us all in a recitation of the five precepts. These are Buddhist ethical guidelines that describe the effort to live a harm-free life. When spoken out loud, the practitioner sets an intention not to kill or take life, not to steal or take that which is not freely given, not to use sexual energy to manipulate others or disturb intact relationships, not to speak in a manner that is harsh or untrue, and not to take intoxicants that will cloud the mind from seeing clearly.

The precepts are considered to be recommendations, rather than commandments, offering the practitioner some direction in life without the threat of a judgy God watching over. But it isn’t as simple as do it or don’t, if you feel like it. There is, in both Buddhism and Judaism, a sense of accountability.

In Buddhism, there is the well-known concept of karma, which identifies that there are future consequences for our moral actions. On its surface it seems like a cause and effect idea, where the choices I make now will produce likely outcomes. If I am a liar, people won’t trust me. If I steal, I could be arrested, etc.

But what happens if the transgression isn’t overtly realized? With no judgy God, is there accountability? I am coming think the answer is yes. I went to hear a talk the other night by Howard Cohn, who leads the Mission Dharma of San Francisco. He said the way to begin to have happiness–the kind the Buddha taught, that is lasting happiness–is to live a good life.

Cohn talked about the reverberations that come back to us from actions that are harmful. Whether these are thoughts, words, or deeds, if they are greedy, angry, or lustful, they result in our own agitation and suffering. To help quiet the mind, develop concentration and mindfulness, it is very useful to think and act in ways that produce more calm effects.

In this way, accountability is largely with yourself. You can create more suffering for yourself or not, based on the moral choices you make. The precepts described above give guidance on how to create less suffering for yourself and others in your daily  life. In this essay on karma and reincarnation, it says that moral accountability is akin to other natural processes.

At its core, therefore, Buddhism has a sense of moral justice, though there is no overseeing arbiter or judge, and no judgment day as such. It might be better to see the process of karma as a natural phenomenon. If you look after a fruit tree carefully, pruning it at the right time and feeding it appropriately, good fruit ensues. If you fail to look after it properly then it will not bear fruit or the fruit will be sparse. In short, we reap the rewards of what we do that is wholesome, and suffer for what we do that is unwholesome.

In Judaism, there is a notion of responsibility which also speaks to the cause and effect of our actions. In the book, Everyday Holiness, which describes the Jewish spiritual path known as Mussar, it says, “We humans are unique among creatures in being able to anticipate consequences to the extent that we can, and as a result, we bear responsibility for our actions…the message here is clear that each of us is called upon to take responsibility now for what we will cause to happen after.” What matters most, Mussar teachers say, is how we relate to other people. So in addition to having responsibility for the moral consequences of our actions, we also must “bear the burden of the other,” or seek the benefit of the other in every possible circumstance.

As a parent, there is something that resonates with me in this concept of responsibility. I find myself every day doing things I don’t necessarily want to do, but that I do anyway to benefit my kids or my family. I have come to accept that I am part of something greater and even though I am sometimes frustrated, annoyed, or grumpy about my obligations, in my finer moments I am grateful for the role I play in this family unit.

I think this is probably a model for how I could come to feel as a human being in general, feeling connected to and serving the greater good of all people. And perhaps, as the Buddhists teach, not only for people, but for the benefit of all living beings. The teachers say this is the way towards happiness. Maybe even, a form of rapture.

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Wave of Irritation

The other day was lovely. My husband had a day off from work for Columbus Day. The kids wanted to go fishing so we all got in the car and drove to the beach. You would think this is when a person counts her blessings. But instead here comes a wave of irritation that wants to crash right over my husband’s head.

Before I began learning about Buddhist meditation, I’m sure I would have indulged the annoyance and found something to quibble about. It’s his fault I’m irritated. But in this case, I thought of my meditation teacher’s words about emotions arising and falling for no reason. “Here’s an emotion, like loneliness. We feel we need to justify the presence of the emotion with a story. It may just be arising from nothing. Anger, fear, any of these can just arise. It doesn’t need to be justified. When you justify, you invest it with energy. Just release the story.”

So I did that and instead focused my attention on what the irritation felt like. Of course my mind wandered off that task and before I knew it, the irritation was gone. It was just a small thing. I didn’t snark at my husband. But really that’s a big thing. Because that’s my life. Moment after moment.

Meditation is the part of the day when I sit in my office and try to develop concentration and mindfulness. I try to sit for 30 minutes, but sometimes it’s only twenty. It’s like going to the gym, for my mind. Like a run in the morning that infuses my day with calmness, meditation in the morning offers a steadiness of mind and a self-awareness that I feel in my daily life.

This is true for Mussar practice as well. From the book, Everyday Holiness: “Mussar teachers have never counseled withdrawal from the messy currents of life, as if to beach yourself on some sandy, palm-fringed shore where life will not disturb your peace of mind. Practice is meant to ready you to stay upright and awake right within the torrent, so you can see it just as it is and choose your course.”

So it turns out meditation and spiritual practice is not airy fairy. Beams of light do not shine down onto my head. I haven’t (and will not!) renounce cool shoes. Instead it is just about small stuff that’s in my life. What to do, what to do.

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