Monday, April 26, 2010


What a pleasure it was to be sitting in sangha again yesterday, for the first time in several weeks. We have been kept away by the family visit, obligations in Los Angeles, our recent Santa Barbara trip... and on at least one occasion, as I recall, by sheer fatigue and the need to spend a Sunday morning at home in bed!

The sangha, of course, along with the Buddha and the dharma, is one of the three refuges, and it sure felt like one yesterday. Just the ritual of taking off the shoes and entering the room felt like a release from everything that's going on in our lives in the world out here. It was a small group, yesterday, but the greeting, after our lengthy absence, was warm and welcoming--a home-coming of sorts. Then the bell rang, three times, and we sat in silence for an hour. For a moment, I was going to write "blissful silence," but that not quite the right word. For me, true, there were moments of bliss, when I managed to lose the thoughts and get fully focused on the breath; but for much of the time it required the usual effort of persistence, to keep bringing the mind back to where I wanted it to be.

It has been a while since I sat for the full hour. In the interim, I have managed to sit pretty much every morning--with perhaps one or two exceptions--for at least twenty minutes, and usually half an hour. Our discussion after the sit centered on the inner conflict between the sense of social (and, yes, political) responsibility that most of us share, and the attachment to it that can easily form and, when it does, inevitably brings suffering. It's a topic I sometimes raised with our teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in the days when I was writing my first blog, "The Bush Diaries" and was much involved in what I judged to be the national disaster of the Bush presidency. His response was always some version of "do what you can." And not get attached, as I understood it, to achieving those things that were beyond my power.

What the meditation practice offers, by way of help for those of us who find ourselves in this predicament, is two kinds of comfort. The first is the daily practice of metta, which requires us to send out compassion and goodwill first to ourselves and those we love, then to those we know less well or not at all; and, in ever-widening circles, to all living beings--including those we don't like or with whom we disagree. It is a healthy thing, for me, in this political climate, to send out compassion to the Tea-baggers, let alone those nay-saying Republicans in Congress. To do so, I need to surrender, for the length of at least a few breaths, that angry part of me that condemns them for what they believe and how they act--a part that is only toxic to myself and does nothing to change their minds.

The second comfort, clearly related to the first, is that of equanimity. In learning, every so slowly, to simply observe the thought processes as I meditate and to let them go, I learn the benefits of detachment. Same with physical sensations and feelings. They come and go. I learn to watch myself getting hooked on them and, when that happens, to acknowledge their presence and let them drift away--as they inevitably will do. This ability to observe without attachment, this equanimity, serves me well when I find myself getting too riled up about the health care bill or financial reform. It's not that I don't care. I do. It's rather the understanding that if I get attached to the outcome of any given situation, I succeed only in creating added suffering. So I revert to simply doing what I can--and acknowledging that there are many things I can't.

Does this absolve me of social and political responsibility? It doesn't feel that way to me. When I succeed in getting past those attachments--and believe me, it doesn't happen all the time; far from it--I remain committed to the cause of improving the lives of those beings with whom I share this planet. I am absolved, though, from the compulsion to do those things I am neither qualified to do, nor in a place where I could achieve them. It occurs to me that this might be the difference between struggling and striving. Without striving, I fall into inertia and my spirit dies. To struggle, though, only makes me suffer.


Nathan said...

I appreciate that you take your practice into social action - that you see them as working together. So many people who call themselves Buddhists simply won't do this, and limit their practice to the personal, which I believe is a loss.

In the end, there isn't anything "personal" or "social/political," but we still have to act in the relative world as best we can.

Thank you for your practice.

mandt said...

Isn't it often so that 'letting go' is the most obstinate of attachments? lol