Maya on Bulls Island

Spring along the Delaware River is always an interesting time. One early spring Maya was out walking near Bulls Island. She had just walked over the bridge and was exploring the island when she heard a rolling thunderous sound coming from the river. As she looked she could see massive ice blocks being pushed along in the now roaring river waters – waters that looked like they were coming right at the little island that she was meandering around.

Maya started for the bridge but something told her to wait. Just as she paused, a tree that was caught up in the river crashed into the island side entrance to the bridge knocking it off its foundation and she watched in collapse into the water. Moments later an old wreck of a car came careening down the river and tore into the bridge on the other side of the island. Maya was marooned.

She walked along the shore of the island cursing her stupidity at letting this happen to her. As she walked the shore on the canal side of the island, she cursed the canal and the river for cutting her off from the safety of the mainland. The shore was close enough to see. She could probably throw a rock across the canal and hit the other shore. . But the banks were steep. The water was rushing too wildly. And the waters had to be frigid from the ice. She was angry and frustrated, plan-less and clueless and worse, no one knew where she was, and her cell phone was in the car. Eventually she found a boulder, crumpled onto it, and wept in frustration.

As she wept, she heard a voice in the wind say, “it is silly to curse and struggle against what isn’t there.”

In her frustration Maya muttered, “What isn’t there?”

“Your enemy is not here. The water is not your enemy. Just as you are a woman becoming the fullness of who you are, the water is merely water, flowing and following its path.”

Maya listened, thought and studied the waters. She walked thoughtfully along the shore of the island observing the waters, watching and waiting, observing and thinking.  As she looked more carefully at the canal side bridge, she noticed that a cable still connected it to the island. She could crawl along the cable to the part of the bridge still above water and make it to the other side. And so she did.

Life is life. Each of us is doing the best that we can with the knowledge, awareness and resources that we have available to us at the moment. Yes, it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, but that assumes that you have a candle and match available to you – resources matter. Knowledge and awareness are in our control. Those we can increase.

So when frustrations best you, pause a moment. Take a deep breath (or two or ten). Swear if you have to, if just to get it out of your system. And then look, listen, breath and pay attention to your environment and circumstances, see your world from a different perspective. Who do you think is your enemy at that moment? What might the reality that person be? That empathy thing can go a long way to opening new vistas and alternative.

Oh, and if you are in immediate danger, see to your safety before you shift your awareness!

Discipline, thoughtful meditation, and compassionate action – what a difference they can make!!  If we are going to work effectively for justice and respect for human dignity, it is good to remember ‘no enemy’; human rights are the rights of ALL human beings, of ALL sentient beings, even those who frustrate us.

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 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.

Suffering, King Arthur, Empathy, Learning & Doing

Suffering, dis-ease, frustration, dissatisfaction, pain, misery, torment and grief – the disjointedness of so much of life – caused by desire, greed, and clinging attachments that manifest in possessiveness, ignorance, and aggression – suffering is ubiquitous. Suffering manifests in injustice and distortion of basic human rights. What do we do about this? For me it actions need to be grounded in recognition of and respect for the profound importance of empathy, and of empathy with all living human beings – deep, powerful empathy that evokes passionate and compassionate action. We need to understand each other, in each others’ terms, context, culture, history, and beliefs.  And we need to think about the implications of our culture, history and beliefs for other people – how does all of that effect their lives?  Then we can ask them to consider how all of their stuff affects our lives … and then we are ready to make some changes.

And all of that begins with understanding, understanding based on real knowledge …In his book, The Once and Future King T.H. White (1958, p. 183) presents a conversation between Merlyn and the young Arthur.  Arthur is still a child, and has no idea that he will one day be King of England.  He is anguishing over the loss of his childhood playmate and best friend, Sir Kay who is preparing to become a knight and so has abandoned his relationship with Arthur.  Merlyn counsels Arthur,

“ The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

             Then when you know something, when you understand with your heart and mind, then go out and get your hands dirty (well engaged) and DO something. The Dali Lama once said, “compassion is not enough, you must act.” Truth be told, I think he was a little wrong. It’s not really compassion if you don’t act!