Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Being Present, Being Mindful

(I found Christopher Weyant's cartoon in July 28, 2014 The New Yorker when I was already contemplating mindfulness and the terms frequent misuse by whoever in society is lucky enough to have the time to think about such things.)

I understand mindfulness as the awareness and balance of personal action and larger reaction. Things and thoughts and other people come and go, and one tries to be both true to oneself and engender as compassionate reactions rippling out from oneself as possible. The word gets thrown around a lot in circles I dip in and out of—we are all suddenly attentive to “being mindful” of our relationships to the world and “being present.” We meditate, we practice yoga, we talk about the intentions we put into the universe, we squeeze our carbon footprints into smaller and smaller shoes, and so on.

There is much good reality and potential here.

When I think deeply and deliberately about all the ways that a single moment of my life is tied to, responsible to, and the product of any number of complex relationships, interactions, and reactions—ecological, chemical, biologic, industrial, political, familial, emotional, cultural, personal, etc.—I am absolutely overcome. Not always in a bad or overwhelming way—it is a beautiful and complex world with as glorious and bizarre a past as a future and I am absolutely delighted to be so much a part of it all, to be connected in so many ways.

Yet, when I go down my rabbit holes of connectivity, where I try to muddle out how be in ways that are truest and kindest and most in keeping with my moral compass, I find that I am playing out a thousand and one “what-if” scenarios, and doing historic math backwards to understand how I arrived where I am with the choices before me at any particular time. This all can snowball to the point where I am not alert and in the present moment, where I am, instead, thousands of miles away thinking of fuel stations being blown up in Gaza while I drive in my car, or seven generations in the future hoping that the repercussions of how I live will not have made theirs impossible, or putting my interpretation of the complex needs of others before my own whims.

There are good merits in all those avenues of thought and action I believe.

And opposite from fostering connections to things beyond my immediate scope is being present, trying to both live fully and savor the acts of doing so. This provides a particular vibrancy and appreciative joy. I like a few quiet moments to check myself to sit still, look around, and take stock of how I am at any moment in the world and the space where I am. The chugging trains of connectivity, stories and theories of origins and destinations of any piece of the moment melt out of focus and the sum total of what I can absorb in the moment comes a little clearer. Usually, that boils down to seeing the people around me more deeply as the authors of their own stories and not characters in mine, and the fact that everywhere has a little beauty in it. My head and heart are often too busy to be still, to be quietly present is not my first nature. Yet, I do see the merit and I try to make that time. It provides perspective, and the space around the heart to fall a little more in love with the world and whatever part I play in it.

However, despite all this goodness, there is a sharp side of me that finds grains selfish oblivion in all the mindfulness and a hint of isolationist egotism in valuing “being present” above living in any other tense. I spent forty-five minutes on a train recently, listening to a woman bray at length about how she is trying to be mindful in her relationships. Apparently, strangers don’t count as people to be mindful of. I am easily frustrated by people who prioritize being present, but have the memories of goldfish, as if the lofty attempt to be present absolves them of listening deeply and retaining others’ words. I do not believe that our own quests for enlightenment trump the need to be kind and to live into the truth that our lives impact, if not the world, the lives of those close to us. 

Mostly, though, what I cannot figure out is how to be at once mindful of my actions in the world—and the equal and opposite reactions that Newton promises—and fully awake to the present. These seem like opposite forces and I get stymied in my attempts to reconcile them and move forward into the world.

Fortunately, I work on a farm, which abounds with living examples of balances and transitions and how the present moment truly is a bit different from whatever came before and whatever comes next. When things seem to change so quickly—covercrops mowed down to be tilled, to be shaped into new beds, to be planted, weeded, thinned, tended, harvested, mowed again and so the cycle goes until the season is over and the land is retired and tucked up for winter—it becomes easier to see the immediate preciousness of each stage, and also the interactions, reactions and transitions between each phase.

Or, it would be easy to see those things, to place each plant in mindful context, if there were time to look up from the pressing needs of almost each moment of the actual present.

I begin to think that the only what anything in this world functions is the interaction of contradictory forces in balance with each other. I sat by the ocean recently and watched the sailboats go by, all wind and water balanced for forward momentum. I am reading a book where a peg-legged captain stalks his ship with footsteps of life and death. I think of bike gears, toothily grinding against each other, or the absorptions and interactions of heat and sunlight to become electricity and eggplant. Of heartbeats and footsteps and seasonal constellations.

The most beautiful things I know are in that sweet spot of tension between opposites, what pulls apart and pushes forward and onward. When I start to wonder how to possibly go on with the weight of the past, the unknown of the future, and the beauty and terror of the present, with the pull of the personal along side the push of not being alone in the world, well, I need only to open my eyes, take a deep breath, and act accordingly. 

(As a side note, if the economy is to actually improve mindfully—the local ice cream shop traded my farm cucumbers and dill for ice cream this week. Two locally owned businesses, exchanging their goods within a five miles of each other, enhancing a good community relationship and agreeing that something other than numbers can be currency…I believe we are both present for, heirs of and en route towards something grand.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

News and Poetry

As I drive my fossil-fueled-from-who-knows-where car into work at the farm, I listen to the radio. The reports from Gaza make me cry every time.

Particularly last Thursday—the funeral for an Israeli adult civilian was contrasted with the funeral for two Palestinian boys.

When I first moved to Cambriville, I had an unpleasant temp job in the basement of the Harvard Business School doing data entry. The thin—though horrifying—saving grace was that the data was at least interesting. I was going through Federal reports and entering how much money the United States has given other countries in foreign and military aid every year since 1950.

Since its creation, Israel was consistently one of the top recipients of aid—both foreign and military. (Egypt was the other biggest recipient of both.) Palestine, by contrast, was one of the lowest recipients of any aid, and I am almost certain that they never received military aid.

I am only a tepid student of the crises in the Middle East. What I do know is that I hate to think of people being killed and fighting for a homeland. I hate worse to recognize that the government that represents me funds one side of a fight and not the other, as if Might could make Right. The prevailing myth that this is a faith-based battle and the rest of the world is uninvolved is violently inane. 

The best thing I have ever come across relating to the Israeli-Palestinian horror is from “Before There is No Where To Stand,” a book of poetry by Israelis and Palestinians. The poet Vivien Sansour was asked to write an introduction, and refused. Her refusal is beautiful.

“Please accept my sincerest apologies for being so late in responding to you. I have been reading the manuscript and really struggling with it to be honest. For the sake of full integrity I would like to share with you a couple of things. I do not feel a just representation and I am afraid that in the context of an unfortunately misunderstood political reality the anthology, although I know and trust that it is well intentioned, perpetuates an idea that I am very uncomfortable with and that is of framing the situation as two people who just need to get along and who just don’t understand each other. …The people of Gaza are imprisoned with no access to sea or land to run away to even. I do not want to focus on these details, I just want to explain why in the struggle to achieve justice, which is the only way to peace, I am growing more and more convinced alongside my Israeli and international colleagues who are also struggling for justice, that it is important for us to present the situation as it is: A military occupation and not a conflict between two people. Jews, Muslims, Christians have lived together in Palestine before 1948 and it was not until a European colonial project was started in the beginning of the 1900s that we started ‘not to get along.’”

And, for what purpose where the Colonial projects, all of them, if not to gain access to resources for countries and cultures who has outstripped what their landscapes could provide? The Colonizing powers divided, conquered, and stole the riches of the world for their own, sowing the seeds of scarcity, discontent and entitlement to boundless resources behind them. For all the horrors still lingering in the wake of Colonialism across the globe, for all the cultural scars and racism and fury and social ills and beautiful lost and broken ways of being that Colonialism engendered and fomented and normalized, the root was a few cultures needing and feeling entitled to take the resources of others. And we still live this way.

I don’t want to be angry. I know that anger without purpose, rage without empathy and proactive vision will get us nowhere good. All the same, I feel white-lipped with fury when I think that the patterns of life in my country are cluelessly part of the patterns of fear and violence ripping the world apart. It is not a matter of limply begging forgiveness as we know not what we do. In the interconnectedness of the world today, there is no excuse for ignorance, for not having even a bare grasp of understanding the ramifications of how we each live. We are frequently, violently selfish, and then wring our hands over world crises, wondering how these things keep happening, without checking ourselves first. Our “need” for resources, for cheap plentiful products, for a global variety of foods in all seasons and geographies, for cheap fuels, for constant electricity, for the ability to fly across the world on a moment’s whim, to live constantly as comfortably and cosseted as selfish despots…if anyone truly wants to bring about peace and justice in the world, we must look at ourselves and our lives, even as we work for the wider world.

And yes, I know that we live (and sometimes trap ourselves) in patterns, that people are bound by different iterations of love and hope and faith to choices and ways of being that are different from my own, that it can be suffocatingly impossible to change, to live more cleanly, even if your heart is crying out for something different than you have always been.

To begin the changes, here is my advice: make your life small, and your heart big. Turn off your phone and remove your watch. Make time, not money, your primary currency. Spend it well and freely among the people you love, and the people who love you. Listen and remember what is said. Spend equal time absorbing the news of the world and the beauty of the world. Encourage dynamism and evolution. Ask questions that lead you fumbling through life for answers. Learn and act on the difference in your heart between need and want. Use less of everything that you suspect of being uncleanly linked to the sadnesses of the world—you will disconnect from the sadness, but proactively, joyfully reconnect to the world.

This will carry you farther in the right direction than anything else I know how to say.

As much of this as I can do, it does not stop me from crying while listening to the news. I do not plateau and think that because I write and work at a farm and strive for utility and simplicity in my possessions, that I am absolved of all responsibility, or that I have ever done enough. The horrific struggles go on.

And so do the hopeful labors towards bettering the world. As Walt Whitman says, “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

You have agency in the verse you contribute. Live into that.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Necessary Actions

Facebook, the present-day harbinger of all things bright, beautiful, disturbing, joyous and enlightening, informs me that there is a climate rally of sorts at the New England Governors’ Conference this weekend. The hope is to gather enough popular support to urge the governors—all of them—to ban tar sands oil from New England. I support that action.

This meeting is being held at Bretton Woods, at the base of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains and just across a thin ridge from the Pemigewasset Wilderness area.

I came to know my best self in those mountains, came even to the concept that I might have a best self that could be better striven towards, cleaved to. I never sought to leave my mark on the mountains, but I now and continually seek to do justice to the mark they left on me. It was in summer camps and mountain huts and winding trails and long conversations on porches and roofs and under stars that I learned how to get along with people, how to treat and be treated, and how to hold something sacred and unspeakable in common delight. At least, I like to think that whatever drew each of us to the hills was coordinated if not near identical.

When I get hot and bothered about the scourge of climate change—which is regularly—the thing that drives me forward against the despair is the idea that this place, and all that it has ever meant to me and to those I love, could be lost. When I can spiral that out further, to imagine that the soul-identifying places and landscapes of strangers are similarly threatened, then I have a larger more urgent fire in my heart. If nothing else, I want to preserve the places where such wonder and awareness can bloom.

By rights, then, I should be the first person pounding on the door of the Governors’ Conference. What they do, by not banning tar sands, by not acting with the power citizens vested in them to protect the lands they represent and lead, is to allow dangerous ways of being to continue. To not actively reject tar sands or coal burning or fracked gas is to passively, permissively accept to the fuels that are violently destroying the world as we know it.

However, I am sick of being schooled in anger. In writing formulaic letters that talk about the beautiful and meaningful places that are threatened—letters that will not be read, in chanting “no” on street corners, signing petitions begging legislators to oppose bills and movements and factions, I am sick of being scared into action by new studies, by new photographs, by the new reality. Fear is not a sustainable fuel; it burns through our hearts and leaves us exhausted without hope. 

Let’s try this, instead: Imagine if the politicians, the power industry bigwigs, the fossil fuel barons and whoever else is dirty with power, whoever else we would rally against, try to push towards righter action, imagine if they all walked out to the climate activists, large and small, and said, “Okay. You win. Tell us what to do.”

What would you say?

I would take them by the hand and bring them to the mountains. I would sit them on a mountaintop at sunset, and have their loved ones draw near. I would have them walk, alone, through a glowing birch glade in September. I would let them feel the wind on their face, the peculiar delight of not quite outrunning a hail storm. I give them a wrench and ask them to fix the loose bolt on a solar panel. I would have them live for a time with only what they can carry on their back, among strangers who become friends. I would hand them a pitchfork and rake out a composting toilet. I would take them to places in this world where people live so differently and love so similarly to each of us. I would have them watch closely as an osprey dives into the ocean, popping its wings out of joint to avoid breaking on impact. I would have them awaken to the prehistoric call of a single loon before dawn. I would have them sit by the ocean and watch a full change of tides. I would stand them in the moonlight, holding hands and singing under the night sky with friends. I would show them pipes that connect a mountain spring to a faucet, and the frogs that live near the spring. I would bring them to the farm, bid them dig and plant and watch how things grow from the labor of their bodies. I would dress them warmly and bring them into the frosty beauty of the morning after an ice storm in the mountains.

I would do anything, everything, possible to imprint on their souls how precious—not rare—beauty is in this world, how varied. And how much more we are each capable of—our bodies, our hearts, our minds—than is ordinarily assumed. I would show them the places where I have found joy, where I have learned to put my one little life in perspective, to be at once capably self-reliant and interdependent on the people around me, and all the things I know about how satisfying it is to live off kilter from normal. I wonder what laws and policies and business plans the (allegedly) powerful people would enact if their hearts where known and free to be followed?

I do not think that anyone can witness the beauty that is out there and remain as they were. The challenge, as ever, is how to hold that truth once out of the woods. How to connect the dawn chorus of Bicknell’s Thrush with the rising sea levels in the Pacific, and with the habits and routines of your own life. I write this on my computer, with the lamp on beside me, the fan going across the room, my phone plugged in and charging, and my car gassed up outside. In the winter, my apartment is heated, and in all seasons the gas stove runs, the lights flick on and off every day, and hot water is boiling and abundant. My life is normal, in these ways, but I know I could be happier with less. I know I have been happier with less of these “necessities.” I feel cleaner and sleep easier. I try to live more and more away from the lulling, devastating ease of normal. I can want this, because I have seen it, know it is real and viable.

How we live, each of us, does matter. Why is there a “need” for tar sands oil, for natural gas, for coal burning power plants, for wars over oil in holy lands?

The answer is in the choices and traditions and habits we have formed as a people. We cannot ask our leaders to make changes we are not prepared to make ourselves.

It is not just about keeping tar sands out of New England or the mountains whole in Appalachia or the water inflammable in fracking country or about letting fossils rest in peace. It is not about who signs what paper and what law degrees what degree of pollution is acceptable and what is not. It is not about what banner you make, what march you join, what rally you attend, whose ear you pour what plea into. It is about learning how to live without dirty fuels, without always cars, without relying on entities larger than your heart to make the shape of your life. It is about learning the truth of less is more, about the priceless nature of one wild moment, of a lifetime of such moments strung together. And it is about sharing what stories we have of all those gorgeous ways in which we each know what is possible out there.

Our lives are the truest protests and rallies and actions. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Here is how I understand the Zen Ox-herding Pictures. They were explained to me when I was studying Zen life in Japan on a college trip. I have being actively interpreting their influence ever since.

They are close as I have for a blueprint of how I live and what I try to bring into the world.

This is a little boy, who wants go and find the ox. 

The ox, as I see it, is the great big whatever we’re each of us searching for, the kernel of our souls feels unfilled, unplumbed. It may be deep self-knowledge, it may be full Buddhist Enlightenment, it may be an awareness and surety of what we are individually here on earth to do, it may be something else entirely. I don’t know what you seek, and neither may you, but the ox is a stand in for whatever that may be.

Second, the boy has found some tracks to follow. He doesn’t know where they lead, but off he goes, trusting that an ox will be at the end of this trail. Is it his ox? Is another’s? No way to know but take off and see.

Third, the boy spies part of the ox. He can’t see the whole thing, just enough to suspect that it is what he was looking for. He sizes the ox up, readies himself to try to know it, find himself equal it, to bring it home.

Fourth, they struggle. The boy has to hold on, the ox—so happily found, so long sought—has no cognizance of being object of the boy’s quest or destiny. I love this; there are no easy answers. Truth, though obvious, may be hard to reconcile. I believe there is greatness in our attempts, in the trials of struggling with and for what is precious.

Fifth, the boy has a hold of the ox and they are walking onward. This isn't some sort of Taming of the Shrew type situation—the ox is still separate and the boy is easily, but thinly, connected with what he sought.

Sixth, the rope is gone. The boy and the ox move as one creature. There is no need to struggle or control, they are merged.

Seventh, the boy is at home and unconcerned about the ox because he knows its whereabouts as well as he knows himself.

Eighth, the emptiness of life and the world. I think of this as the sort of big picture, long view, the recognition of how brief a time we have to live and how enormous and eternal the world is, and your insignificance.

Ninth, the fullness of life and the world. This is the intricacies of it all, of the small scale, the daily life, the immediate, the visceral, and your significance.

The Zen scholar, Robert E. Carter, who explained the pictures to me the first time said that he tried to look at the world by aligning these two—full and empty—as two lenses of a telescope, to be in the world through both scales. You live within the tension between the two, focusing one now, then the other.

It is the tenth ox-herding picture that I think of most. The old man here is the little boy who sought the ox. He has aged, fattened, and lived a full life. A different kid approaches him to say “I’m looking for the ox; have you seen it?”

And the former ox-searcher’s only advice is, “Well, this is where and how I found it…”

It’s not that the new boy will find the same ox in the same place, but that one of the greatest things we can offer each other is the truth of our own experiences. When I was nineteen and in Japan with my college philosophy professor, Erin McCarthy, it was timemelting to have Carter, who had been her college professor, explain this linking of searches. 

Part of why I write is because I don’t know where the marketplace is, or who might be looking or asking for guidance, but I know that I am far from the only person who wants to salvage the world, who wants to build a better system to be human within, who has been to the mountaintop and seen that we don’t have to live in the ticky-tacky boxes and sneakily rigid expectations and assumptions of our society. I offer my words from a place of hope and humility, a "this is what has worked for me, use it or no, and good luck to you finding your happiness!” idea.

When I have the various discussions about if anyone is doing their right thing, in searching for their heart and the courage to follow it, about how to start and sustain The Revolution, about how to live well and happily in the world, there are so many questions. “Is this right? What do I want? Is this what I really want? Is this what I am supposed to be doing? If this isn’t wrong, does it have to be right? Is this enough? How come if this is the right thing to do, it’s still so hard? Am I enough? How do we get all of ‘them’ to join in? Do we want ‘them’ to join in the first place? Should we change the system from within, or rebel and make something new, or run away and tend the fires of our hearts fully and exclusively far from the maddening crowd of it all?” and so on.

I wouldn’t have even thought to ask these questions in the first place if I hadn’t started, early, turning away from whatever passes for normal. I left high school after three years and worked and traveled, I went to college and lived in the woods and traveled more, I stuck to the mountains and wild places as much as possible, I read a lot, I strive to own only what I find useful or beautiful, I work on keeping my heart and mind open, I am grateful to be well loved and aware of the honor and responsibility it is to be loved, I make mistakes, I get my heart and bones broken, I take risks but am not reckless, and—perhaps most importantly—I surround myself with people who are better at exploring questions than accepting answers.

That’s the best way I know to find everything worthwhile. Because it takes a certain amount of courage to even ask the questions, to come to the market place as the little boy does and say “I suspect there is something better than what I see, what I am told to believe—I cannot be the only one who thinks this. Does anyone agree? Can anyone help me, reassure that I am not crazy, that there are deeper and cleaner and happier ways of being in the world?” It's nice to know we are none of us alone in this.

We have to find our own oxen, build our own herd of truths, but it doesn’t mean we need to search alone. Rather, I think, the opposite. We need to ask questions, and the truths we're all and each in search of deserve all and every reassurance and support we can give each other.

(Copies of Tomikichiro Tokuriki's woodcut prints are from