Tonight I’ll give the thirteenth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter entitled “Freedom in Challenging Times” begins with a quotation by Rosa Parks: “Only when people made up their minds that they wanted to be free, and took action, was there a change.”
Every human being experiences praise and blame, gain and loss, success and failure, pleasure and pain, and light and darkness. We learn and grow from all of life’s joys and sorrows, and difficulties can help us to develop courage, resilience and fortitude.
Every generation of society deals with upheavals such as political and economic turmoil, armed conflict, and environmental challenges. These disruptions give humanity opportunities for growth. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Only to the degree that people are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
If we are to find freedom amid challenging times, we must start with ourselves. Notice how the body is responding to these words. When the limbic system is activated into a fight, flight or freeze mode, we are swamped in fears about survival. Meditation practice helps us remember to stop and to tune into the heart, the seat of love, wisdom, and compassion. As the mind quiets down, we can note anxious thoughts arising and passing away without identifying with them. Repeatedly connecting with the breath calms the overexcited reptilian brain.
Those of you who have been on retreats know that when we practice walking meditation outside, we can open up to the vast spaciousness of the sky and perceive signs of the turning seasons. We recall that we are part of something greater and more mysterious than our daily worries. Consciously feeling the soles of the feet touching the earth grounds and centers us. Trees provide us with a sense of equanimity and sturdiness.
Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh points out that in uncertain times, our own steadiness can become a sanctuary for others. He remembers fleeing violence in his country during the Vietnam War: “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon declared, “Don’t be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes adds, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching to mend the part that is within our reach.” Together we can walk in the direction of truth.
When we practice loving awareness, we develop a capacity to listen deeply to all that arises, including fear and pain. Father Thomas Merton asks, “Of what use is it to travel to the moon if we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves, and from one another?”
The first step is to turn inward and to listen to whatever is in your heart. Hold with tenderness all that arises. Then, when you are ready, listen in the same way to others.
Recently I stopped by a GNC store to purchase vitamin supplements. Over the years, I’ve befriended a Latina salesclerk, and we greeted each other in Spanish. Teresa confessed that she was upset after a difficult encounter with a client, who yelled at her when she informed him that his favorite energy drink was out of stock. He had just stormed away angrily.
I listened empathically and replied, “It sounds as if he is having a bad day that has nothing to do with you.” Then I guided her through a brief meditative exercise: “Close your eyes and imagine golden light surrounding your whole body, filling you with calm energy and protecting you from inner and outer harm.” As she engaged in the exercise, Teresa relaxed and smiled. But as soon as she opened her eyes, she started to relive the upsetting experience: “He was so rude to me!” I advised her to stop reactivating her distress by talking about the incident. As I departed, I reminded her that divine inner light is always accessible to us. Teresa said, “How perfect that you came at this moment!” No matter where we are, even a brief compassionate interaction can lift someone’s spirits.
To illustrate the importance of listening carefully to people’s needs, Jack recounts the story of Gandhi’s principle disciple, Vinoba Bhave. After Gandhi’s assassination and the violent partitioning of India and Pakistan, Vinoba went on a long retreat and then walked for six months across India. Everywhere he went, he sat with villagers and created a listening circle to learn about their most pressing concerns. Repeatedly he heard that members of the Untouchable caste could not earn enough money as indentured workers to feed and raise their children. As Vinoba bemoaned the extent of this problem, a wealthy landowner volunteered “in honor of Gandhi” to grant a portion of his extensive properties to landless families. In villages all over India, Vinoba’s tales of that landowner’s generosity inspired others to donate land. Eventually he launched the Bhoodan Indian Land Reform Movement, which proceeded to redistribute 14 million acres of land.
Jack urges us to join what he calls a web of caring, not exiling anyone from our hearts. He quotes George Washington Carver: “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”
Regular Metta or loving kindness practice helps to nurture the innately caring heart. The world sorely needs our mindful care.
Recently Mark and I received news from a dear friend, John, who is dealing with inoperable heart and lung diseases. When we phoned to express our loving concern, he assured us that his longtime meditation practice was helping him to maintain a measure of equanimity while facing on a personal level the Buddhist principle of impermanence. John volunteers at a hospice where he is learning to be at ease with dying. After 80 years of what he considers a wonderful life, he says that it would be “greedy” to try to prolong his stay on earth for another few years of compromised vitality. Instead John wants to let Nature take its course. Whatever our own decisions about treatment options, may we all reap similar fruits of our practice when we have brushes with mortality.
Jack Kornfield’s principle teacher, Ajahn Chah, a Thai forest monk, taught that everything in life is uncertain. According to the wisdom of uncertainty, we benefit from learning to become comfortable with not knowing. In uncertain times, we must respond compassionately without knowing the time frame for the fruit of our actions.
As Gandhi said, “You have to do the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no results.” We can trust Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision from the mountaintop: “The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends towards justice.”
The Tao Te Ching poses the question, “Can you be still and not act until the right action comes of itself?” Meditation practice helps us settle into the rhythm of the breath and let go of worrisome thoughts until the mind clears and the heart is at peace. Only then are we are ready to listen to the advice of Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama: In times of despair, “show your humanity.”
I agree with Jack that we are in the midst of an evolutionary shift that transcends current social and political dynamic, and that each of us has a role to play. 2600 years ago, the Buddha pointed to a wise path. He cautioned his disciples that others will be cruel, and they will kill or harm living beings. Others will be greedy, envious, angry, and unmindful, and they will speak falsely or maliciously. Going against the stream, the Buddha trained his followers to incline the mind towards truth, generosity, humility, and kindness. When enough people practice these values, they create the foundation for a wise and just society based on compassion, mindfulness and mutual respect.
The Buddha was not passive in his spiritual practice. Aside from meditating, he intervened to try to stop wars, and he brokered peace and justice in families and communities. Standing up for basic human principles of moral action and prevention of harm moves beyond partisan politics. For the highest good of all, we must act to protect the vulnerable and the natural world.
Now let’s do a guided meditation adapted from the practice called “Stand Up” at the end of chapter 13 (p. 239).
Close you eyes and sit in a comfortable position.
Let your breath calm and steady you.
Imagine that when you are nearing the end of your life, you could look back over this past year.
Among all the demands and responsibilities of your life, imagine that you stood up for one cause, something you truly cared about.
That cause might be global or local—protecting the natural environment, feeding the hungry, promoting compassion for refugees, advocating for children’s or animal’s rights, marching for justice—or whatever matters to you.
Imagine how you feel at the end of your days having acted for that cause.
Now imagine the first step of your envisioned action, how you started and who were your allies.
Finally imagine how you might begin such action in the coming weeks.
Connect with a sense of empowerment in your heart.
Return to the sensation of your breath.
At your own rhythm, open your eyes.
Turn to a neighbor to discuss what your learned during the guided meditation.