Do you have a banana in your ear?

There is a saying: don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it irritates the pig. Which I think is supposed to mean don’t try to make people happy (or different in most any other way, you will only get in trouble).

There was a social worker who went into a bar, she sits down and sees this woman with a banana in her ear – a banana in her ear of all things! So, the social worker wonders if she should mention it to her. She thinks to herself, I’m off work, it really is none of my business. But the thought nags at her. So, after a couple of glasses of wine, she says to the woman, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but, I can’t help but notice you’ve got a banana in your ear.”

The woman responds, “what?”

And the social worker repeats, “You’ve got a banana in your ear.”

And again the woman responds, “what did you say?”

The social worker shouts, “You’ve got a banana in your ear!”

And the woman replies, “Talk louder, I’ve got a banana in my ear.”

And sometimes our efforts to build a world of social justice and human rights feel a whole lot like that conversation.  So, remember the injunction to remember that nothing human is alien to any of us. Well, applied here, that seems to me to suggest that we all may very well have a banana in our ears. So, before we take the splinter from our neighbor’s eye, maybe we should take the banana from our own ear. Maybe we need to pause and truly listen, to hear the needs of our neighbors in their own terms before we ‘fix’ their world?

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The Blind Man and the Lame Man & The Chicken and the Egg

Every time I am certain that I have things right and that I KNOW something, sooner or later (and often it is sooner), something comes along to show me (if I am paying attention) that maybe, just maybe what I was sooo certain about might just be a bit of an other way. As I have searched for stories for this blog, as I thought and taught in the past, I was fairly sure that individuals and small groups needed to change, grow, develop, evolve to create a more loving, just and compassionate base before we could adequately and effectively build more just and humane social structures. Well, I kind of thought that. I do remember enough Buddhism most of the time to know that the solid ground we stand on is mostly ephemeral quicksand.

But we live in a rational, linear world don’t we? OK. I know we don’t really. But we have been socialize to think we do. Many folks have been raised with the American koan that asks: who came first, the chicken or the egg. Many have pondered it thoughtfully and deeply. … Until the around 2009 when the answer was revealed in this joke: “A chicken and an egg are laying in bed together. The chicken is all happy and has a big smile on it’s face while the egg is irritated and looks a bit disappointed.  The egg turns to the chicken and says, ‘Well, I guess we solved THAT riddle.’”

So, chicken or egg? Individuals or structures? It is a bit of a koan in a conundrum in a riddle in an enigma.

Then I was prowling the internet looking for parables from Poland, the homeland of my grandparents. And I found this poem by Ignacy Krasicki (from his book Fables and Parables)

 

The Blind Man and the Lame

A blind man was carrying a lame man on his back,

And everything was going well, everything’s on track,

When the blind man decides to take it into his head

That he needn’t listen to all that the lame man said.

“This stick I have will guide the two of us safe,” said he,

And though warned by the lame man, he plowed into a tree.

On they proceeded; the lame man now warned of a brook;

The two survived, but their possessions a soaking took.

At last the blind man ignored the warning of a drop,

And that was to turn out their final and fatal stop.

Which of the two travelers, you may ask, was to blame?

Why, ’twas both the heedless blind man and the trusting lame.

 

So, you might think its settled! These guys need to change, get over their issues and learn to trust or we will never be able to build a better world. Ah, but Wikipedia to the rescue! Because there we are reminded that Krasicki wrote this around 1779 just after Poland had been taken over partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, an action that ultimately abolished the commonwealth of Poland until after World War II. So, the social structure shaped and constrained the experience, view, imagination and dreams of its inhabitants. Which leads me to re-member: both/and indeed is better. Who came first the chicken or the egg? Life would be so much happier if they both come together. Who changes first the individual or the community/social structure? Life would be so much happier if they both changed together in consort and harmony!!

 

 

Martha Nussbaum and the Power of Stories

I found this in Brain Pickings. If you don’t know it, Brain Pickings is a wonderful weekly blog. You should check it out at http://www.brainpickings.org/The quote is by Martha Nussbaum is from James Harmon’s Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) – an anthology of thoughtful, honest, brave, unfluffed advice from 79 cultural icons, including Marth Nussbaum, Mark Helprin, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and William S. Burroughs.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher who writes about human capabilities. I have been infatuated with her ideas for a long time, so I was pretty happy to find this quote from her. In the quote she writes about the importance of cultivating a rich inner life by by understanding and embracing our feelings. She highlights the power of storytelling as one pathway to a richer inner life and a fuller, more empathic human community.

Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel – because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.

What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories – in literature, film, visual art, music – that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.

 It seems to me that this is sound advise for us all — read lots of stories, develop deep empathy — with our selves, for other, open our hearts to the possibilities of the world, love widely and wildly … and see what happens. Too much for you? Try walking down the street and smiling at the people you pass. See what happens then. It is a worth while experiment.

Philippe Petit and Doves that don’t fly

Philippe Petit is a French high wire walker.  In his lifetime his has walked across high wires strung between the Twin Towers in NYC, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and many other breath taking locations. And what does this have to do with justice and human rights? Well, just as stories are important, so too is symbolism. Symbolic acts can help to transform our hearts and minds in ways that create a space for more open hearted, compassionate actions. And THAT is what Philippe Petit has done to advance justice and human rights.  Here is an excerpt from his TED talk that speaks to his high wire walk in Jerusalem. His talk is called “The journey across the high wire.”  I hope you enjoy it and that you find yourself thinking a bit more expansively …

http://www.ted.com/talks/philippe_petit_the_journey_across_the_high_wire.html

Philippe Petit says:  Faith is what replaces doubt in my dictionary.

So after a walk when people ask me, “How can you top that?” Well I didn’t have that problem. I was not interested in collecting the gigantic, in breaking records.

Each time I street juggle I use improvisation. Now improvisation is empowering because it welcomes the unknown. And since what’s impossible is always unknown, it allows me to believe I can cheat the impossible.

Now I have done the impossible not once, but many times. So what should I share? Oh, I know. Israel.

Some years ago I was invited to open the Israel Festival by a high-wire walk. And I chose to put my wire between the Arab quarters and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem over the Ben Hinnom Valley. And I thought it would be incredible if in the middle of the wire I stopped and, like a magician, I produce a dove and send her in the sky as a living symbol of peace.

Well now I must say, it was a little bit hard to find a dove in Israel, but I got one. And in my hotel room, each time I practiced making it appear and throwing her in the air, she would graze the wall and end up on the bed. So I said, now it’s okay. The room is too small. I mean, a bird needs space to fly. It will go perfectly on the day of the walk.

Now comes the day of the walk. Eighty thousand people spread over the entire valley. The mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, comes to wish me the best. But he seemed nervous. There was tension in my wire, but I also could feel tension on the ground. Because all those people were made up of people who, for the most part, considered each other enemies.

So I start the walk. Everything is fine. I stop in the middle. I make the dove appear. People applaud in delight. And then in the most magnificent gesture, I send the bird of peace into the azure. But the bird, instead of flying away, goes flop, flop, flop and lands on my head.(Laughter) And people scream. So I grab the dove, and for the second time I send her in the air. But the dove, who obviously didn’t go to flying school, goes flop, flop, flop and ends up at the end of my balancing pole.

You laugh, you laugh. But hey. I sit down immediately. It’s a reflex of wire walkers. Now in the meantime, the audience, they go crazy. They must think this guy with this dove, he must have spent years working with him. What a genius, what a professional.

So I take a bow. I salute with my hand. And at the end I bang my hand against the pole to dislodge the bird. Now the dove, who, now you know, obviously cannot fly, does for the third time a little flop, flop, flop and ends up on the wire behind me. And the entire valley goes crazy.

Now but hold on, I’m not finished. So now I’m like 50 yards from my arrival and I’m exhausted, so my steps are slow. And something happened. Somebody somewhere, a group of people, starts clapping in rhythm with my steps. And within seconds the entire valley is applauding in unison with each of my steps. But not an applause of delight like before, an applause encouragement. For a moment, the entire crowd had forgotten their differences. They had become one, pushing me to triumph.

I want you just for a second to experience this amazing human symphony. So let’s say I am here and the chair is my arrival. So I walk, you clap, everybody in unison.

So after the walk, Teddy and I become friends. And he tells me, he has on his desk a picture of me in the middle of the wire with a dove on my head. He didn’t know the true story. And whenever he’s daunted by an impossible situation to solve in this hard-to-manage city, instead of giving up, he looks at the picture and he says, “If Philippe can do that, I can do this,” and he goes back to work.

Inspiration. By inspiring ourselves we inspire others.  By believing in ourselves, by seeing the possibility of the impossible, we believe in others and together we grow the discipline to build the impossible.  The road to the impossible is not an easy one.  It is never straight forward. It is never smooth. It is surely not a level playing field. But there is a road, there is a path that we can create.  Sometimes we must build that path together. Sometimes we walk that path together. Sometimes the path must be forged by the solitary pioneer. But there is a path to freedom, to dignity, to justice.  On August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Junior delivered his “I have a dream” speech. His dream became a defining moment of the Civil Rights movement. Let us continue to dream wildly and wantonly. Let us continue to walk the path to freedom, dignity and justice – together and as pioneers ever forging new visions of dignity as we sing the old songs of freedom and hope.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. No good deed goes unpunished

Once upon a time in social work, psychology and even psychiatry there was a construct, a belief in the schizophrenogenic mother. It wasn’t that the devil made you do it, it was just that your mother simply made you crazy, very nearly literally she made you crazy.  The process was even elegantly illustrated by stories that went something like this:

            When Wanda was 4 or 5 year old she her her mother talking to Wanda’s Aunties. Her mother was sad because Wanda’ father never brought her flowers or little gifts. Wanda thought about this for a bit, and then she went out into the back yard and gathered a small hand full of wild flowers. Very pleased with herself, she took them into the house and gave them to her mother as a token of her affection and adoration for her mother. Her mother took one look at Wanda & the flowers, and cried out, “What is wrong with you! You are nothing but trouble to me. I just washed and ironed that dress and now you have mud all over it! And why did you bring those weeds full of dirt and bugs into the house! Get them out of here right now. Go wash your hands, put on clean clothes, and try to stay out of trouble for 10 minutes.” And Wanda went off and did as she was told, not quite understanding what had gone wrong, not quite understanding what she had done wrong.

            When Florence turned 16 her mother gave her two blouses for her birthday. Florence treasured and cherished them both. Her family did not have an abundance of extra money, so gifts where rare and cherished; clothes were more often hand me downs or homemade – so new clothes were particularly special. And these were blouses that Florence had been dreaming about for months as she gazed longingly at them during the family’s Sunday window shopping walks along Main Street. When she opened the box and took out the blouses, Florence’s eyes lit up and filled with tears of joy and gratitude. She dropped the blouses in the box and ran over to her mother to hug her. Florence then quickly gathered the blouses, when off to her room and put one of the blouses on to model it for her family and her mother. When Florence appeared, her mother looked at her, shook her head and chastised Florence saying: “What’s the matter with the other blouse? You didn’t like that one?”

 And so it went … the schizophrenogenic paradox. Now of course, modern mental health has moved far beyond the schizophrenogenic paradox and mother. We now resonate with nature/nurture etiology and explanations for various manifestations of craziness. But still, there is the veracity, the feeling truth of “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.” Still there is the feeling truth of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

 And I have the feeling that all of this was of relatively recent vintage. Until the other day when I was reading widely, wildly and wantonly, and I came across the work of Ignacy Karsicki. Karsicki lived in Poland between 1735 and 1801. Here is his fable, “The Master and the Dog”

 The dog barked all the night, keeping the burglar away;

It got a beating for waking the master, next day.

That night it slept soundly and did the burglar no harm;

He burgled; the dog got caned for not raising alarm.

No good deed goes unpunished. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s been around at least since the 1700’s, and I suspect a lot longer. 

 As you work for human rights and social justice, you might just want to keep these stories in mind. Know your mind. Know your heart. Have at least one dear trusted friend with whom you share your heart and soul and who will be your reality check. Remember always, love is the reason. And that is reason enough.

Chop Wood, Carry Water; Lay down your burden, then pick it up again

 Each moment is part of an era. Each era is part of a time. I like to think of myself as a child of the ‘60’s. In my mind, the ‘60’s were dramatic and romantic. The ‘60’s were the era of hippies, they were the time of free love. They were the time of deep social unrest and protest, of fighting for civil rights and to end the Viet Nam war. The ‘60’s culminated in Woodstock, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” at at Max Yasgur’s farm in of Bethel, New York.  Woodstock happened in 1969 and brought the ‘60’s to their fulfillment.  I wanted to be a child of the ‘60’s. I wanted to be at Woodstock. I found out about it after it was over. I was a child of the ‘70’s.

In college I discovered Asia. I took a course in world religions, and discovered Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. I fell into deep infatuation with Zen Buddhism, and began to aspire to enlightenment. Some of that occasionally seeps into this blog, I think.

Today I am remembering a book I read a while back: Chop wood and carry water. The essence of the book is that before enlightenment we must chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment we continue to chop wood and carry water.  In my youth I used to play with this and say that we should chop water and carry wood. Then it was funny because it was clear that I was playing with the words. Now that I am older, when I play like that people are inclined to think about early onset Alzheimer’s. I am a bit more aware of who and where I play now. It is important to remember and respect the era within which you walk as you play. If you would be with me, it is also important to be aware of the depth and luminosity of the twinkle in my eye. Sometimes playing is just playing.

There is a Zen story that I’m fond of (there are many actually, but here is one of them). It reminds me of “Chop wood and carry water.” The story is called “Lay down your burden then pick it up again”

A troubled woman named Tan could not figure out how to live. So she began meditating to find some answers. After many months she felt no progress, so she asked the temple priest for help. 

The priest said, “Go see old Jah.” 

So she hiked to old Jah’s village and came upon the happy-looking old man coming from the forest under a heavy load of firewood. 

“Excuse me, honored Jah,” she said. “But can you teach me the secret of life?” 

Jah raised his eyebrows and gazed at Tan. Then with some effort he twisted out from beneath his great bundle of firewood and let it crash to the ground. 

“There, that is enlightenment,” he said, straightening up with relief and smiling. 

The troubled woman looked on in shock at the prickly firewood scattered over the ground. “Is that all there is to it?” she said. 

“Oh, no,” said Jah. Then he bent down, collected all the scattered sticks, hoisted them carefully up on his back and made ready to walk on. “This is enlightenment, too. Come. Let’s go together for tea.” 

So Tan walked along with Jah. “What is old Jah showing me?” she asked. 

Jah replied, “this is life, this is enlightenment. First, yes, you suffer a heavy burden. Many do. But, as the Buddha taught and many have realized, much of your burden and much of your joylessness is your craving for what you can’t have and your clinging to what you can’t keep. 

“Then you can see that the nature of your burden and of the chafing you experience as you try to cling to it are useless, unnecessary, damaging, and then you can let it go. 

“In doing so, in awakening to this awareness you find relief, and you are freer to see the blessings of life and to choose wisely to receive them.” 

“Thank you, old Jah,” said Tan. “And why did you call picking up the burden of firewood again enlightenment as well?” 

“One understanding is that some burden in life is unavoidable — and even beneficial, like firewood. With occasional rest it can be managed, and with freedom from undue anxiety about it, it will not cause chafe. 

“Once the undue burden is dropped, we straighten up and see and feel the wonder and power of being. Seeing others suffering without that freedom and blissful experience, we willingly and knowingly pick up their burdens out of compassion joining and aiding others in their various struggles for liberation, enlightenment and fulfillment.” 

“Thank you, Old Jah,” said the exhilarated Tan. “You have enlightened me.” 

“Ah-so,” said Jah. “Your understanding is enlightened. Now to make it part of your living and your spirit, you must go follow the eight practices and meditate. Then you will learn to detach yourself from your useless burden of cravings and to attach yourself to the profound source of being out of which life, creativity, joy and compassion form and flow.” 

And so Tan went and did. And understanding the truths gave her comfort. And practicing the good behaviors kept her from harming herself or others anymore. And concentrating on the deep blissful potential of life gave her a continuing sense of companionship and joyful awe and of well-being in his spirit, no matter what else of pain she had to deal with. 

So it is as well with our work for social justice and human rights. It is a process, a path we choose to walk. Some days we feel like Sisyphus  continually pushing the rock of fairness up the hill only to have it roll back down on us. But, as we let go of our attachments to what should be and open our hearts and minds to what is and what can be, we can begin to notice and celebrate the progress that together we are achieving. We are each of us a drop in the ocean, and together we are the waves that wash ever more powerfully on the beach of fairness and dignity. Let no one doubt the power of the ocean and the tides.

We may lay down our burdens, and we will take them up again. We will chop wood and carry water. The times they are a-changing. Peace, justice and dignity will reign across our land.

Please call me by my true names by Thich Nhat Hanh with comments from Ivan M. Granger

I have been in love with this poem by Thich Nhat Hanh for years. Every time I read it I am touched more deeply by the implications of the poem, by its call for compassion and justice. By its demonstration of the inherent unity of all that is, of all of us. And then recently I cam across a discussion of the poem by Ivan Granger. Beautifully said, Ivan (who I don’t know — yet). so, I thought I would share both with you all … think deeply, please.  … Mary

Please Call Me by My True Names

by Thich Nhat Hanh (1929 – )

 
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

1989

— from Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh, by Thich Nhat Hanh

 
Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is a lovely, unflinching meditation on how all of being and all of human experience weaves together into a single tapestry of the whole. It can even draw comparisons with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where everything, terrible and beautiful, is one, is witnessed, and is found within oneself. 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — 
even today I am still arriving.

Most of us have learned to anticipate what will happen next, and we end up mentally dwelling in our fantasies and fears about the future. But the future is merely an idea; it never has reality. The present moment is all that is ever real. And that is where we must dwell if we want to truly be alive and know what is real.

The present is a state of “still arriving.” Because the present moment is not a fixed space in time, you can’t say that anything encountered in the present is fixed and settled either. The present is a gossamer thin and moving point of light where all things are just barely stepping into the visibility of being… as the moment keeps moving. Everything, everyone, in every second is always just arriving. The present is a continuous becoming. 

Look deeply: every second I am arriving 
to be a bud on a Spring branch, 
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, 
learning to sing in my new nest…

Another fascinating thing is discovered when we truly, deeply perceive the present moment: Not only are we and all things “still arriving,” but the illusion of boundaries and separate being falls away. The notion of identity expands and recognizes itself just as naturally in all things witnessed. We find we are not just the person watching the bud on the Spring branch, but in our arriving we are equally the Spring bud, the young bird, the caterpillar in the flower, the jewel waiting in the stone. This is not some poetic game of words; it is what we actually perceive.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death 
of all that is alive.

When we finally see this truth then, for the first time, we can truly witness the world as it is. And that is what this poem is most about: witnessing. Thich Nhat Hanh invites to courageously witness the panorama of life, wonders and horrors alike. Through this form of true witnessing, we are not spectators watching others from a distance; no, it all unfolds upon us and in us. We are witnessing ourselves in many forms. We recognize that anything that happens anywhere in the world, is truly happening to ourselves and no other. And everything done, is done by ourselves and no other.

Please call me by my true names, 
so I can wake up, 
and so the door of my heart 
can be left open, 
the door of compassion.

This is why compassion is not altruistic and service is no effort. When we finally see things as they are, it is all oneself. When we offer our heart, when we offer our hand, we are simply helping ourselves. Who among us, when he touches a hot iron, doesn’t immediately pull back and then soothe the burn under cool water? That’s not altruism, it is the natural response to pain in one’s body. When we see clearly, we see we are all of one body, and the joys and pains of any other is yours as well. 

Compassion and an open heart are the natural result of being awake to this truth, and no effort at all.

Hillel, yoga and fairness

Hillel and yoga? Really? In what world might there even conceivably be any kind of connection? Well, in my world where I have the time to let my mind ramble, wander, and bounce off  the walls a bit. So, here goes.

First, a bit of yoga. One of the more challenging basic yoga poses is Vrksasana the tree pose. You begin by standing in mountain pose – stand strong with both feet square on the ground, and your body nicely aligned square and tall. Then shift your weight slightly onto your left foot, keeping that foot strongly on the ground, and bend your right knee. Bring your right foot up and place the sole of your foot against your left inner thigh. Keep your pelvis directly over the left foot. Bring your hands to prayer position and take 5 slow, deep breaths. There you have it! The tree pose. Easy, yes? Hmm. You might think so. Just stand up, step away from your computer, tablet, put your smart phone down, and give it a try.

Now, Hillel. There is a wonderful story of someone challenging Hillel to teach the Torah while standing on one foot. It seems to me that there was some, shall we say reward (never a bet), if Hillel could accomplish this teaching.

And, here’s the link, at least in my mind: Hillel gracefully takes the Vrksasana, tree, pose, and replies: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is mere commentary. Go and study.” And, Hillel continues to breathe deeply for a few more breaths, and calmly places his right foot back on the ground.

Let’s have a look at how this injunction might be realized in an ah ha moment in India, the mother land of yoga….

Once upon a time, in a three generational family lived together in a small home in rural India, just on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. Johar, his wife Mira, and their son Deepak struggled to keep home together and food on the table, but they were happy together even as they worked hard. Then Amar, Johar’s father moved in with  the family when Amar’s wife passed away. The family initially welcomed Amar, but his presence in their home was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There just was not enough space. There was not enough food. Soon the family’s harmony was replaced with discord. They all worked to make things work. But, the discord and frustration grew in spite of their best efforts.

One day Johar and Mira were working alone in the field and as the sun reached its zenith, they sat under a shade tree to take a bit of a break. Soon they fell into conversation about the conditions in their home, and they concluded that something must be done, and sooner rather than later. The situation was rapidly becoming intolerable. Shivaratri, the great festival of Shiva, was just a few days away. Johar and Mira lit upon a solution. They would carry Amar to the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar in a basket. During the night while the pilgrims were praying in the temple districts, they would leave him there in the basket, and hopefully one of the rich devotees would find him, and take pity on him and care for him.

Deepak was working among the trees as his parents spoke, and he quietly listened in on their conversation. His heart was broken as he heard their plans. Then he became angry. He decided to plan a way to punish his parents, because he had come to love his grandfather very deeply in the time that they had all lived together. Quietly, he went to his grandfather, and warned him of his parents plan. He told his grandfather of his desire to punish his parents for their cruelty.

Amar was a compassionate and kind man. He listened thoughtfully to Deepak. Then he helped Deepak to understand his parents struggles and frustrations. Together as Amar and Deepak talked, they formulated their own plan.

Later that evening, Johar sought out Deepak and told him of the plan to carry Amar to Lingaraj in the basket and to leave him there in the basket for a devotee to find. Deepak listened carefully, to his father. He nodded as he listened, and then he asked his father, “Pitaa Ji, could we leave grandfather at Lingaraj just as you say, but please, let us bring the basket home. Otherwise, what will I use to carry you to Lingaraj when you become old?”

Johar was stunned at his son’s words. Tears came to his eyes before he could speak. In his astonishment, he remembered the words of that Jewish fellow who practiced yoga: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your family or friends. And as he remembered, he went to his father, begged his forgiveness, and redoubled his efforts in the fields glean more food for harvest. He worked with Deepak to build a small additional room onto the family house for Amar.

Life was not nirvana, but a new level of community and harmony was built among the family as they more often remembered that which is hateful to you, they did not do to each other.

Thanksgiving, Mohawk Greetings to the Natural World

The third Thursday in November many immigrant families (and let me be clear about this, we are nearly all immigrant families if we but look honestly at our family origins) so, many immigrant families in the United States of America celebrate Thanksgiving as a day to be with family members and gorge on Turkey, various iterations of pumpkin, squash and other root vegetables, and more deserts than any human being should ever eat at one sitting.

Sometimes conversations will include thoughts about what each person is particularly grateful for from the past months or year. Sometimes families will remember that the earliest immigrants relied very heavily on the Native American Peoples for sustenance and survival (relied heavily is code for stole a good bit of the food stores of the Native Peoples).

There is indeed much complexity to this holiday. But, maybe not quite enough historical remembering and deep gratitude. Below I’ve shared some excerpts from the Mohawk “Greetings to the Natural World,” thanksgiving address.  During this season of giving thanks, it is good to remember …

Thanksgiving Address

GREETINGS TO THE NATURAL WORLD!

The People

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.

Now our minds are one.

The Earth Mother

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Waters

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water.

Now our minds are one.

The Fish

We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Plants

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

The Food Plants

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Medicine Herbs

Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning, they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

Now our minds are one.

The Animals

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

Now our minds are one.

The Trees

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many Peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

Now our minds are one.

The Birds

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds – from the smallest to the largest – we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Four Winds

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.

Now our minds are one.

The Thunderers

Now we turn to the west where our Grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.

Now our minds are one.

The Sun

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

Now our minds are one.

Grandmother Moon

We put our minds together and give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of women all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

Now our minds are one.

The Stars

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to all the Stars.

Now our minds are one.

The Enlightened Teachers

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring Teachers.

Now our minds are one.

The Creator

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Now our minds are one.

Closing Words

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now our minds are one.

Ultimately, at our roots, we are one. All of us together, we are one, in our differences, in our diversity, really, we are one. Let us remember, let us re-member, and let us find the depth and peace of heart, mind, and hand to fully celebrate all of that, let us celebrate and be thankful for all of who we are.

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…