Carlos Castaneda, Don Juan a Yaqui Sorcerer, and the Path with Heart

All too often when we set our sights to working for lofty goals like social and economic justice and human rights, we get tangled up in the web of ‘should’  …. Woulda, coulda, shoulda … ugh. And then we start to trip over our own feet, and get mired down in guilt, frustration and anger. Well, I do anyway. Sometimes.

 And then, on my better days, I remember this wonderful series of books that I read in my hippy, trippy youth. They were written by Carlos Castaneda. They were anthropology, or they were fiction; they were self help, mysticism, or not. They were a life line for me at moments, that much I am sure of.  Here is an extended excerpt from “Don Juan’s Teaching”

 Don Juan said: Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is that your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition.

 I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old person asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart?

 All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart?

If it does, the path is good; if it does not, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart the other does not. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a person finally realizes that she has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill her. At that point very few people can stop to deliberate, and leave the path.

 

A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it. For me there is only the traveling on paths that have a heart, or on any path that may have heart. There I travel… and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly.

 Don Juan, a Yaqui Sorcerer

 

Mary Oliver and Wild Geese

 It is that time of year again. It is always some time of  year, it is always again. This time, in this moment, we are approaching Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah; we are approaching the season of giving thanks, and of clinging to the hope that light will come again into our lives, our world.  At moments like this, I often take solace in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Wild Geese is one of my most favoritest poems by her. It is already all over the web, so I hope to high heaven I am not breaking too many copyright protections in reposting it here for you all to enjoy!  Maybe you can take it as an invocation to go and check out one of her books from the library? Or maybe even head over to your independent bookstore and buy one for yourself?

 “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

And, here is a UTube Link to Mary Oliver herself reading Wild Geese and a couple of other poems: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnaP7ig69go

Seeing the Cat

Some stories are well told just as they are. This one is from Louis F. Post’s book, The Prophet of San Francisco (pp. 12-14). Apparently the phrase “seeing the cat” was a colloquialism that today might be said as “getting it” or understanding a point that is obscure to those who find the idea – well, inconceivable. The expression “seeing the cat” is said to have originated in a speech by Judge James G. Maguire in support of land value taxation in the late 1880s. In his speech, Judge Maguire said:

I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd in front of the show window of a store. They were looking at something inside. I took a glance myself, but saw only a poor picture of an uninteresting landscape.

As I was turning away my eye caught these words underneath the picture: “Do you see the cat?” I looked again and more closely, but I saw no cat. Then I spoke to the crowd. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I do not see a cat in that picture; is there a cat there?” Some one in the crowd replied: “Naw, there ain’t no cat there. Here’s a crank who says he sees a cat in it, but none of the rest of us can.” Then the crank spoke up. “I tell you,” he said, “there is a cat there. The picture is all cat. What you fellows take for a landscape is nothing more than a cat’s outlines. And you needn’t call a man a crank either because he can see more with his eyes than you can with yours.”

Well, I looked again very closely at the picture, and then I said to the man they were calling a crank, “Really, sir, I cannot make out a cat in that picture. I can see nothing but a poor drawing of a commonplace landscape.” “Why, Judge,” the crank exclaimed, “just you look at that bird in the air. That’s the cat’s ear.” I looked but was obliged to say: “I am sorry to be so stupid but I really cannot make a cat’s ear of that bird. It’s a poor bird, but not a cat’s ear.” “Well, then,” the crank persisted, “look at that twig twirled around in a circle; that’s the cat’s eye.” But I couldn’t make out an eye. “Oh, well,” returned the crank a bit impatiently, “look at those sprouts at the foot of the tree, and the grass; they make the cat’s claws.” After a rather deliberate examination, I reported that they did look a little like claws, but I couldn’t connect them with a cat. Once more the crank came back at me as cranks will. “Don’t you see that limb off there? and that other limb just under it? and that white space between?” he asked. “Well, that white space is the cat’s tail.” I looked again and was just on the point of replying that there was no cat’s tail there that I could see, when suddenly the whole cat stood out before me.

There it was, sure enough, just as the crank had said; and the only reason the rest of us couldn’t see it was that we hadn’t got the right angle of view. but now that I saw the cat, I could see nothing else in the picture. The poor landscape had disappeared and a fine looking cat had taken its place. And do you know, I was never afterwards able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it *but* the cat.

 In one view, “the cat” is the possibility of a world without privilege. It can also be the possibility of a world where fairness is the common practice and where respect for human dignity is the norm. Let us all work to build a world where this cat is soon out of the bag!

The Cold Within and Niemoeller’s “first they came for the …” and Hillel’s three questions

When we think about alchemy for social justice it can be a slippery slop to thinking, “but why should I have to do all the changing?!?” what about them!

Well, in my teaching days, I would remind my students about the flaw in blaming the victim — seeing a social problem, studying those most impacted by the problem, seeing how those with the problem differ from those not effected by the issue (studying the effects not the causes), and then launching into change efforts focused on getting those with the problem to change (addressing the effects and not the causes). 

But, this is a place for stories not lectures, so I won’t go into all of that here. Rather, here is a bit of a poem to warm our hearts and to soften and open them to the alchemy of personal and social change! 

The Cold Within

Author Unknown

Six men were trapped by circumstances in bleak and bitter cold
Each one possessed a stick of wood, or so the story’s told.
The dying fire in need of logs, the first man held his back
Because of faces round the fire, he noticed one was black.
The second man saw not one of his own local church
And couldn’t bring himself to give the first his stick of birch.
The poor man sat in tattered clothes and gave his coat a hitch.
Why should he give up his log to warm the idle rich?
The man sat and thought of all the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned from the lazy, shiftless poor.
The black man’s face spoke revenge and the fire passed from his sight
Because he saw in his stick of wood a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group did naught except for gain,
Only to those who gave to him was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from cold without; they did from The Cold Within

This poem very much reminds me of the quote attributed to Martin Niemoeller, a Protestant pastor born January 14, 1892, in Lippstadt, Westphalia. “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” 

And that quote then reminds me of Hillel’s three questions: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” so many questions, so much to do, and only now to begin…

Last night I wrote the strangest blog — the bull and the butterfly

Now and again I find myself thinking, wondering, not quite worrying about where the next story will come from. When I find myself in those quandaries I meander over to the computer and google (how DID we ever live without google?).  So, recently I googled “social change” and “stories.” When that didn’t yield what I wanted, I tried “parables” instead. That lead to some interesting links.  One was a parable about a bull and a butterfly. 

 In my version of the parable there was a bull named Butch who wanted to trash a china shop because the rumor around the farm was that the owner of the shop not only did not carry fair trade china, but also participated in human trafficking. But, Butch resisted the urge because he did not want to feed the ‘bull in a china shop’ stereotypes, and he didn’t want to wind up in the slaughter house becoming nothing more than burger meat for some fast food chain. So, butch stomped around the pasture storming and steaming, but getting nothing much done. As he paused under a tree, a butterfly, Mariposa, landed on Butch’s ear, and asked him what the trouble was. Butch twitched his ear, to be rid of her, but Mariposa was not to be dissuaded.

“Butch, what’s up with you today?” She persisted.

Butch was nothing if not a realist, so he told her the story.

Mariposa laughed at hearing the story, paragon of empathy and compassion that she is not. “Butch, you have been rendered impotent by your self-consciousness and social anxiety. Big as you are, I have more power than you. I am fast, I am nimble, I can flit, I can fly. I can render the butterfly effect. I flap my wings in California and incite a tornado in New Jersey.”

At that Butch laughed, and said, “Well, Ms. Mariposa, I suppose then we are about equal, if you have all of that power and don’t bother to use it.”

 And the meaning of this parable? So many I suppose … impotence rendered by excessive worry about what others will think, by fear of consequences, by attachment to identities. 

 And, as I thought about the meanings and implications I found myself caught on the idea of attachments and identities, and I remember Chuang Tzu’s dream about a butterfly. One night Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly, flying here and there and seeing the world from new heights, gaining a new perspective on life and living. He woke with a new sense of lightness. And then he thought to himself, “yesterday, was I a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or today am I a butterfly who dreams about being a man?” And, as he rose to greet the day, he said to the sangha, “last night I had the strangest dream.”

 And, that phrase of course led me to remembering the Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel tune …  

 Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

words and music by Ed McCurdy

 Last night I had the strangest dream I’d ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war

 I dreamed I saw a mighty room Filled with women and men And the paper they were signing said They’d never fight again

 And when the paper was all signed And a million copies made They all joined hands and bowed their heads And grateful pray’rs were prayed

 And the people in the streets below Were dancing ’round and ’round While swords and guns and uniforms Were scattered on the ground

 Last night I had the strangest dream I’d never dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war.

And I know that dreaming is not enough. But I also know that dreaming is a necessary first step. Dreaming, meaning making … and then action, yes? yes!

 All of which led me to write this strangest blog.

 And, so, please … it really is time to share!  What meanings can you find in the parable of the bull and the butterfly? What meanings can you find in any of this? What actions are you taking for peace and justice?

Wanting to have MU

 We were sitting in the student center, each drinking a cup of coffee, saying our goodbyes. Over the past semester, Ludis and I had co-taught a course, we had talked about life and hopes and dreams, I guess you could say that we had become friends of a sort. Why the qualification? Well, we never went out to dinner, we didn’t do things off campus, we didn’t exactly hang out together. But we did talk before and after class, and we seemed to like each other well enough. So, friends of a sort. As we sat there talking, I asked Ludis if he was ready to head home to Lithuania.

 “In many ways, more than ready. I very much miss my wife and son. It has been far too long since I have seen them. I want to hold them both, each of them, for a long time.” He said blushing a bit at the last admission.

 “And, are you packed? Is there anything you want to do here that you haven’t gotten to yet?”

 “Yes, one more thing.” He said. “I want to buy a sweatshirt from your book store.”

 “A sweatshirt?” I asked a bit incredulous. Ludis just didn’t seem the kind of guy who would care very much about college logo clothing. Let’s just say, in the months that I had known him he did not strike me as a clothes horse. He did not dress badly, but he certainly was neither flashy nor cool. More, I saw him as guy who always wore neat, clean clothes but who had more important things on his mind than haute couture. So, his one last desire being the acquisition of a university logo garment seemed kind of odd.

 “I don’t understand, Ludis, what’s so special about a sweatshirt from here?”

 “Think about it, he laughed, the school’s initials are MU.”

 “And?”

 “And you talk about Zen Buddhism?.” He said sounding a little disappointed.

 “I do, some. But what’s that got to do with it?”

 “MU” he said, “the school for you here, and the koan for Buddhists.”

 And then, finally the light went on for me. Of course, the great Buddhist koan, also known as the first gate to enlightenment. For over ten years I had taught at the university. How many times each year had I written the school’s initials, and I never saw the connection! How many times had I read and reread and meditated on that Koan! At one point I even thought I was beginning to get it. Ugh. Clearly, I did not have it yet. But then, that too is the point of the koan, isn’t it?

 In Japanese, Korean and traditional Mandarin, ‘mu’ means not, nothing, nothingness, without, non-existent or non-being. For Zen Buddhists, one of the first koans is known as MU. A koan is riddle like paradox used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning as the only mode of knowing; mediation on koans help to provoke openness to enlightenment. The ‘mu’ koan is put this way: a student asked the Great Master Zhaozhou, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replied, “Mu.”

 So, the koan can be understood as asking about the meaning of life, the purpose of life, about attachments and possession, it asks about the vastness of life, and offers to teach about how to live and how to love. For an ultra short story, it holds great depths of potential if we are willing to plumb the depths that await us.

 I thought I had been doing some plumbing of the ‘mu’ koan. I thought about it in connection with the adage: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That meaning that if you think you have found enlightenment outside yourself, you are quite mistaken, and so end that delusion. Does a dog have Buddha nature? No because it is not a thing to be had. Buddha nature is more about being than having. I thought all these things as I plumbed the ‘mu’ koan. I thought I was plumbing a bit. And then Ludis showed me that I had not even picked up the wrench!

 When I finally saw the connection, we both sat and laughed for a good long while. Ludis bought the sweatshirt. I left without mu.

The Bengali Tea Boy & Be Grateful to Everyone, Change Yourself

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a 13 century Muslim poet, theologian and Sufi mystic in Persia, today’s Iran. His thoughts and ideas continue to offer a wealth of wisdom and inspiration. The one that I find myself thinking about today says: “yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Well, not that I have any claim to wisdom, but if charity begins at home, then maybe social change begins at home as well.

 Pema Chodron is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers. In her book, “Start where you are: a guide to compassionate living” she tells a story about Atisha, a renown Buddhist teacher from northeast Bengal, today’s Bangladesh, who lived between 980 and 1050 CE. Atisha was preparing to travel to Tibet where he was going to share his knowledge of Buddhism with the people there. As he prepared for his journey, he heard reports that the Tibetan people were very good-natured. His scouts told him that the people of Tibet were earthy in their understanding of the world, flexible in their thinking, and open to new ideas. On one level this was very reassuring and gave Atisha great joy, as he hoped he would be welcomed and his teachings well received. On another level Atisha was afraid that his personal spiritual growth would be stunted. One of his beliefs was that our greatest teachers are those people we find most obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible because they mirror and reflect back to us those very aspects of our selves that are obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible – what we most dislike in others is that which we do not accept in ourselves.

As he developed his itinerary and roster of traveling cmpanions for the trip to Tibet, Atisha invited his tea boy to go along with him on the trip to Tibet. All of the other monks in the traveling party were quite surprised by the invitation, as the tea boy was known for his mean spirited irritability, but the young man was also from Bengal, and the monks thought that perhaps this was Atisha’s was of keeping his home culture close to him. When Atisha caught word of the monks’ presumption, he laughed, and corrected their misconception. Rather he told them he wanted the Bengali tea boy near him to ensure that his spiritual growth would not be stunted by the equanimity of the peoples of Tibet. The story has it that once Atisha arrived in Tibet he discovered much to his delight and chagrin that he need not have worried about his need for the Bengali tea boy, the Tibetans themselves were just as obnoxious, frustrating and contemptible as the rest of humanity. Challenges to foster Atisha’s spiritual growth were bountiful – the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told. 

And so it is, we are all, each of us obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible each in our own way. And so we can each work to change ourselves as a foundation for building virtues and a vision of a world where fairness and dignity are respected and honored. And, in the meantime, we can each be grateful to everyone who as they visit us with their obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible behavior stands as a mirror inviting us to witness those very characteristic in ourselves.

Now, I am a child of the 60’s – OK, really the 70’s, but it is still so much cooler to claim the 60’s – the point is, I remember pacificism, and “Be grateful to everyone” is not a naïve all accepting defenselessness. If you are in danger of getting mugged, defend yourself or run for safety. “Be grateful to everyone” gets to at a complete change of attitude. Pema Chodron reminds us that the  slogan actually gets at the guts of how we perfect ignorance through avoidance, not knowing we’re poisoning ourselves with our ways of being, not knowing that we’re putting another layer of protection over our heart, not seeing the whole picture. In our own lives, the Bengali tea boys are the people who, when you let them through the front door of your house, go right down to the basement where you store the things you’d rather not deal with, pick out one of them, bring it to you, and say “Is this yours?” “Be grateful to everyone” means that all situations teach you, and often it’s the tough ones that teach you the best.

So, be wise, change yourself. Be grateful to everyone, even – maybe especially your very own Bengali tea boy.

Indra’s Web — a pearl of an idea about the alchemy of change

All too often when we think about working for social change, working for social justice and human rights, we are confronted with the disillusioning question, “what difference will this make?”

There are a number of relevant responses to the opening sentence. First, thinking too much can cause problems. The alchemy of social change for justice is in fact grounded in action.  There is a place for thought and analysis for sure, but thought and analysis need to be balanced with compassion (and care) and action.  Maybe one of the most poignant responses to the temptation to disillusionment fostered by the question “what difference will this make?” is the quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Size doesn’t matter at much as dedicated intention! And, of course there is the butterfly effect of chaos theory which posits that a small change at one place (in a non linear system) can result in large differences in a larger state. The butterfly effect is wonderfully consistent with alchemical transformation! And, then there is the story (you knew there had to be a story coming at some point!) of Indra’s web.

In Hindu mythology, Indra is a warrior god, the king of the gods, who is credited with saving the world from the cosmic serpent. Indra is also credited with weaving a web that extends throughout all of space and time. It is said that when Indra created the world he wove it as a web, and at each of the points where the lines of the web cross, Indra tied a knot and in each knot he placed a radiant jewel. Some say the jewel is a pearl, some say it is a perfect crystal, today we might say the jewel is a holograph.

Everything that has existed, that exists now and that ever will exist, each and every idea, each bit of creation, each sentient being, all are jewels in Indra’s web. Each jewel is tied to every other jewel in Indra’s web, each is reflected in every other jewel, each is implied in every other jewel. Each jewel reflects and contains every other jewel in this cosmic matrix, so that each jewel is intrinsically and intimately connected to every other jewel – a change in one is reflected in all the others, in every other. (you might want to pause here and think about the range of meanings of ‘reflected in’). 

Alan Watts tells the story this way: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so on, ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”

Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness. Each and every jewel highlights the interdependence of all beings, of all of creation. And, because everything is interdependent, nothing is small, trivial, or inconsequential. 

One moral to take from Indra’s web is that you cannot damage one strand of the web that is the universe without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction. And by the same token the interdependence of all highlights that the compassionate and the constructive interventions a person makes or does can also produce a ripple effect of beneficial action.  Action, dedicated intention, the butter fly effect and Indra’s web – all reflecting the interdependence of all life, we are all inter-dependent on each other, it ALL matters. (so, I guess the hokey pokey is NOT what it’s all about, or is it?)

The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled web is Attributed to an ancient Buddhist named Tu-Shun (557-640 A.D.). Fritjof Capra refers to it in Tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, as does Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach; andTimothy Brook in Vermeer’s Hat.

Any thoughts about Indra’s web and our places in it? Your place in it? We are our brothers/sisters keepers … we are reflections of each other … whatever happens to anyone of us happens to all of us … in Bantu, ‘ubuntu’ — I am because you are … and the circle, which is a web, goes one …

When to be practical

When to be Practical – A somewhat revised version of a Sufi Story by Mohammed Gwath Shattari 

 The good Sisters of Mary Magdalene were grieving the loss of Sister Visentia. Some of the sisters found themselves holding Sister Septimus culpable – for leaving Sister Visentia on her own with the bear chasing her, for not marshalling a search party of the other sisters sooner, and just because they just really liked Sister Visentia better (although none of the good sisters would admit this last reason). To help them deal with their grief and to heal their relationships, Sisters Bryda, Ludwika and Septimus decided to set off on a retreat together. For their retreat, they elected to hike the Appalachian Trail.  As they hiked the trail, the good Sisters discussed the importance of putting into practice everything they had learned in the cloister, and they committed themselves to helping each other sink their roots more deeply into a spiritual life of social justice.

Together the good sisters discussed the nuances of love and compassion, they talked about the golden rule, the platinum rule, about the importance of self love as a foundation for loving others well. They found themselves talking about Sister Visentia, her embodiment of all they cherished in the rule of Mary Magdalene. They found themselves chuckling at some of Sister Visentia’s odd little habits – the way she would poke out her lower lip when she was thinking and when she was pouting or sulking a bit. And the laugher helped to ease their loss. They walked and talked, and soon they we so engrossed in their thoughts and conversation that it was quite late at night when they realized that all they had with them was one piece of somewhat stale, hard bread.  And they concurrently realized that they were well along the most remote portion of the Appalachian Trail where they were not likely to encounter others and they would not come to a town for a few days more journey.

But, all in all the day had been a sweet one, and so the Sisters decided not to discuss who most should/would eat the bread; since they were pious women, they decided to leave the decision in the hands of the Mary Magdalene to patron saint of their order. They prayed that during the night their patron would inspire them with the wisdom to know who should eat the bread.

The following morning, the three women rose together at sunrise.

“This is my dream,” said the Sister Ludwika. “I was taken to places I had never visited before, and enjoyed the sort of peace and harmony I have sought in vain during my entire life on earth. In the midst of this paradise, our mother, Mary Magdalene said to me: “you are my chosen servant, you never sought pleasure, always renounced all things of this world. This hard, dry bread holds with the path you have chosen, and I choose you to partake of its sustenance.”

“That’s very strange,” said the Sister Bryda. “For in my dream, I saw my past of service and devotion to the sisters, to our order and to our patron Mary Magdalene. Our Patron spoke to me and affirmed my future role within our cloister. As I gazed at that which is to come, I heard our mother Mary Magdalene, saying: “You are in great need of food for I have called you to works of service that will require strength and energy.”

Then Sister Septimus said:”In my dream I saw nothing, went nowhere, and found no wise women. However, at a certain hour during the night, I suddenly woke up and was overcome with hunger. So I ate the bread.”

The other two were furious:”And why didn’t you wake us up and consult with us before making such a vital decision that effects us all!?”

“How could I?” Said Sister Septimus, “You were both so far away, talking with our mother, Mary Magdalene, and having such holy visions! Yesterday we discussed the importance of putting into practice all that we learn in the cloister. In my case, God acted quickly, and had me awake dying of hunger!”

 This story illustrates the need to nurture ourselves, and the importance and place of self care, as well as the dilemma of balancing self care and caring for others, and the ability to laugh at ourselves and with others.

boil frogs and your goose is cooked

There is a well worn story about boiling frogs. The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and put the pot of water on a stovetop where you gradually – very, very  gradually – increase the temperature of the water right up to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and will be cooked to death, even though there is no lid on the pot and it could easily jump out. 

That is a very short story. It is a pretty sad and kind of depressing story if you ask me.  I thought about dressing it up and fleshing it out to present here. I thought about making it an interaction between a science teacher and a little girl. They would each have interesting names. It would be a science experiment. But then I couldn’t get past the cruelty to the frog if I made it real. So, I will leave it firmly in the realm of the apocryphal.

And, yet I find myself revisiting the story and thinking, even meditating on it more and more, not unlike a contemporary, middle American koan. 

I am the frog. You are the frog. We are all the frog.

Daily stresses are the increase in temperature. My life, your life, all of our lives are becoming ever more stressful. The pot is near to boiling. Will we stay in the pot? To mix metaphors just a bit, are we all well cooked gooses or is there yet time to jump out? But where would we jump to? Out of the pot and into the fire?

Ah, but if this is a koan, that is a bit too easy, too simple. Yes, the warming water is stress, but it is more than that. The pot and the water are our environment, the society and social institutions which structure the environment within which we live. The ever increasing heat, ah that is structural violence! Direct violence harms directly. It is overt and acute and visible. But, structural violence kills indirectly and slowly, curtailing life spans by depriving people of material and non-material resources. Structural violence is commonplace and impersonal, like the subtly and perniciously ever increasing heat in the frog’s pot, is a chronic threat nearly invisible to wellbeing.

My mother was recently taken to the emergency room of her local hospital. My mother is 87 years old and has Parkinson’s disease. She needs to be on a complex regimen of medications. She spent over 12 hours in the emergency room before she was admitted to a regular hospital room. The well meaning nurses refused to give her any of her medications. In the emergency room they gave her a little food. On the floor in her room, they would not give her food or medication until after they had completed all of their forms and questions, and then we had to wait for the on call doctor to order her meds and for the pharmacy to send them up to the floor. The systems of the hospital are created and maintained for the convenience of the doctors and nurses. The systems of the hospital are not designed for the care and well being of the basic needs of the patients.  That is a simple example of structural violence. Neglecting the need for food and medication of patients who are ill is wrong, and it is the norm.

Structural violence is built into the fabric of political and economic structures of society; it is built into our social institutions to create subtly harmful conditions that become ‘the way things are’.  It is the subtle heat that harms by depriving individuals and groups of access to basic needs: social domination, political oppression, economic exploitation. Structural violence and asymmetries of power generate a kind of quiet brutality that gives birth to the banality of evil.

If we are to not be frogs in the pot, we need to be aware and act to challenge and change how and where the pathologies of power take their toll. Whose needs are served by the rules that structure and guide patterns of social interaction in our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies?  Structural violence and pathologies of power take their toll by creating conditions that deplete and deprive each of us of the potential for well being. The increasing heat is the lack of access to basic capabilities. According to Martha Nussbaum, basic human capabilities include life; bodily health and integrity; clarity, awareness, and the ability to express our senses, imagination, thought, and emotions; practical reason; affiliation; the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; play; respect for other species; control over one’s social environment; and respect for the physical environment. We all have a right to each and every one of these basic capabilities simply because we are human beings; simply because we are sentient beings. Each of these basic capabilities is fundamental to living lives of dignity.

Look at our world, look at your world. Persistently throughout the course of our lives, throughout the course of each day in a myriad of ways, we are denied access and enjoyment of these basic capabilities.  And we are told that this is normal, that this is the way that things are, the way they must be for the efficient and effective functioning of our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies – of our society.  If we continue to buy that line, then we are indeed all frogs in the pot, we will indeed be gooses who are quite cooked.

Rather, we need to learn to cherish ourselves and each other. We need to respect ourselves and each other, and we need to honor each other’s basic dignity as human beings. We need to become our own best friend, even as we develop the attitude and practice of befriending each other, even as we become ever more awake and aware.

Life and death are grave matters.

All things pass quickly away

Each of us must be completely alert:

Never neglectful, never indulgent.

This is a Zen saying, the evening message at many Zen sangha’s (communities), may we honor it well, with deep thought and compassionate action.