Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Service--and Charity

In my morning meditation today, I came to a profound and necessary insight. I have recently been experiencing a feeling of persistent malaise without having been able to attribute it to any particular source, and my insight has finally brought me a glimmering of understanding.

The insight was provoked, in part, by having sat down, yesterday afternoon, to finally read a book that had been recommended to me long ago, but which had for some reason never called to me: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Now it did. I found a copy lying inexplicably on the desk in Ellie’s office, and I picked it up. Without much else going on in the afternoon, I sat down in a comfortable chair and began to read… No accidents.

I have not yet quite finished but am close, and I need to say first that there’s a lot about the book that does not appeal to me. A natural-born pragmatist and skeptic, I generally recoil from what I judge to be “New Age” stuff—a kind of ethereal mysticism and non-sectarian God-talk, with an admixture of airy exoticism and a touch of romance. I found a lot of it in The Alchemist. But there was also a core of truth that put me back in touch with much of what I have come to believe in recent years.

I do believe, for example, that each of us arrives in this world with a purpose. I believe that we are given repeated opportunities to recognize that purpose—call them signs, omens, callings—and that we ignore them at the risk of experiencing precisely that malaise I mentioned earlier: the discomforting feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I believe that there are no accidents, no coincidences; that those things that might appear to be accident or coincidence are nothing other than the messages to which I should be listening. I believe that there’s a path I have been given to follow, and that these events or images are the signposts, telling me which way to turn; and that when I’m on the path, thresholds appear and are crossed effortlessly, everything falls into place, obstacles simply vanish. You might point out that, if all this true, it was no accident that I should happen upon that copy of The Alchemist, whose hero finds himself upon such a path, and you would be right.

Because if I’m to be honest with myself I think that feeling of malaise is a sign that I have lost my way. I have had that feeling strongly at times in the past—when I realized, for example, after twenty-five years in academia that this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was doing it for the income, the security, the social propriety. Yet I had always known, since childhood, that I was supposed to be a writer. I just wasn’t prepared, as a young man, to face the risks involved in taking that path. Having come to that realization, after long years of finding excellent reasons to ignore multiple unmistakable signs, I quit academia cold turkey. That was more than twenty years ago, and I have not regretted the decision once. There have been difficult times, to be sure, but I have never had cause to doubt or second-guess my action.

There was still a piece missing, however. I was supposed to be a writer, but to what end? The story of the calling and the events that led me into serious men’s work—the work of healing and the discovery of purpose, focus and dedication—are told in the book I wrote about the experience called While I Am Not Afraid. It’s out of print now, and because it has meant so much to so many people, not only to men but also to the women who loved them, I have been thinking and actually strategizing recently for a plan to put out a revised edition. No accident.

I should have been listening with closer attention. Like many of us, I suppose, I tend to close my ears to those things I choose not to hear. I look back over the topics that have attracted me in recent weeks and months and I find countless pieces about sometimes powerful men who have fallen off the path, or have chosen one that leads them—and others—into pain, conflict, and delusion. I think, for example, of George W. Bush, who allowed his ideology to blind him to the truth (my judgment, of course), and who mistook macho posturing and ill-considered aggression for the attributes of manhood. In my more charitable moments, I see him as a little boy who never learned what it meant to be a man.

I have been writing, too, about Robert Mugabe, a one-time pioneer of post-colonial politics whose leadership contributed to the building of a thriving nation, but now a man gone wrong, a man whose ego blinds him to the ruin he has created everywhere about him. I have been writing about those misguided boy-men who brought death and destruction to Mumbai. I have been writing…

I wrote a couple of days ago about my Sunday sit, and the question I brought to our teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, about healing. I did not, until this morning’s moment of enlightenment, fit the question into the greater picture I am beginning to paint. I recalled my father’s belief in the healing properties of the laying-on of hands and now, as I think back, I recall to feel of his hands on my forehead, as a child, as I knelt at the altar rail while he served communion to his congregation. That blessing, long submerged in the memory but occasionally remembered in between times, has the weight of both a gift and a charge: it asked to be passed on.

I have been fortunate, in my later years, to have been given the opportunity to pass on this blessing—though it sounds presumptuous to me, even as I write the word. In the work I have done with men in The ManKind Project, I have seen the need and felt the trust and gratitude. I have seen men healed—not by miracle, of course, of some physical disease or affliction, but as a kind of relief, a release from the particular burden they may have been unnecessarily carrying. It has been a humbling experience, and one that I myself have never fully trusted. It has been hard for me to listen to its truth, and I have tended to pull away from it.

Writing, I realize now, and have always realized, at heart, is in itself not enough. There is a need for service. (No accident, either, that we have just elected a President whom I believe to be the epitome of this concept!) Sitting here at my computer, I recall those years when I was active in the men’s organization that helped me find my way, and recognize that this is something that has been missing, that I have avoided in recent years. As a result, perhaps, things have not been falling into place, doors have not been opening, and the obstacles have been many in my path. I have been exercising one gift, certainly—but at the expense of another, perhaps more important one. It is time to set a new intention to return to service. It may not look the same as before, but it’s something I need in order to achieve that feeling of fulfillment.

As well as the gift of writing, I have the gift of listening—which I understand to be the gift of helping others to listen to themselves. My intention is to foster that gift. It is no accident that this very afternoon I have a date to listen to a young man in Morocco, an artist who needs help in listening to himself. I met him at a workshop last summer, and we have been in touch since then. We will talk via Skype across the Atlantic Ocean. With this entry in The Buddha Diaries, then, I am putting out that intention to make myself available to men who might be looking for a sounding-board, to help them to listen to what’s happening in their heart.

As a part of my work in The ManKind Project, I discovered, many years ago, a mission: to “mediate harmony in the world by getting to the heart of the matter.” I have tried to do that, I believe with some measure of success, in everything I write. Time, now, to translate it into the action that is service.


I invited my online friends, the other day, to join me in supporting those who are engaging the fight against cholera in Zimbabwe. There are so many demands on the charitable dollar, especially at this time of year, it's hard to make the choices. Two others attracted my attention recently. The Fresh Air Fund sponsors opportunities for inner-city kids to find relief, during the summer months, in fresh, clean-air, unthreatening environments. And the US Campaign for Burma works for respite from the oppression of the long-standing, repressive military regime in that sadly neglected country, where brave Buddhist monks last year attempted to face down the tyrannical generals. If you're anything like me, you don't know where to start; but when I get a person-to-person appeal, as I did in both these cases, above, I find it hard to resist.


deanna said...

thank you for such an open and honest post about finding your path. I thought for a while after I graduate college that I knew what my purpose was. I thought that my identify was steadfast (and I'm only in my 20s!) but I find myself now more than ever feeling that malaise you describe as I try to find my true path in this life. Thank you for your thoughts on this.

mandt said...

Absolutely wonderful post Peter! Shortly before my Dad died, he shared a dream he had about me. He said, "I saw you come to a fork in the road and a voice said, "Take it!" Not the right, or the left, or straight ahead, but "the fork itself." It was years before I realized that was the path of karma yoga in the practice of The Middle Way. You have sterling qualities for compassionate service and powerful gifts for expression. It is a true revelation. And, as you know my friend you'll become a card carrying member of the Bodhisatta union, who are the blue collar workers of Dharma.LOL LOL. Peace, M

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I also believe that we come into each incarnation with certain lessons to learn and that life provides the opportunity to learn them. It first knocks gently on our door but if we don't learn, it does so more insistently, finally kicking the door in, if necessary, because one way or another we WILL learn.

No accidents indeed. The other day, my hard drive self-destructed. I had not backed up my work including a memoir I've worked on for at least 10 years and a book about my husband's Alzheimer's journey which I've worked on for a year. Retrieving my data is ridiculously expensive so I am trying to find the lesson in what seems like disaster to me now.

As for you, you ARE a writer. Whatever form it takes, you are doing your life's work. You need not worry on that account.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thank you for these responses. Deanna, I have let a note separately at your blog site, I appreciate your words...

mandt, I always appreciate your wisdom! A wonderful story about your father's legacy. Thank you...

and Heart... breaks my heart to hear about your loss. It has happened to me in the past. Once, an entire novel, in the very early days of PC, on a Kaypro, whose hard drive slipped out of alignment and, when corrected, could no longer read what I had written on the mis-aligned disk! I trust that you will recover the lost data without great expense and turmoil, or that the alternative gift will prove equally rewarding. And thank you for the good words about my writing.

Leslie said...

Well done Peter! As Carl Jung informs us, exploring the worlds of dreams can emphasize understanding of the psyche through art, mythology, world religion and philosophy.

My dreams are telling me that we are 'in for' a new and more compassionate world that will bubble up from our present financial mess that has created fear and mistrust.

Blessing to you for sharing your dreams so eloquently.

Les Sinclair