Thursday, March 26, 2020

ZOOM

I'm sure I have mentioned--forgive me if I repeat myself!--that I started a neighborhood sitting group here on the Franklin Hill (east end of Hollywood) a while ago. In fact, about four years ago. Tempus fugit! We are not allowed, of course, to gather as a group these days, but I suggested a virtual session last week at an agreed time, when we all would sit without direct communication, but with the knowledge that others were sitting, too.

So someone suggested a Zoom session, and one of our members kindly agreed to make it simple for me by acting as the host. I put out word, and we agreed on a first experiment yesterday evening.

We did pretty well. Some of us are less tech-adept than others, so we fumbled around a bit at first to get everyone checked in on video or audio. But we ended up with everyone checked in and online, and I was able to start with the bell and my usual guidance (we had two participants who were new to meditation, so this was especially important yesterday).

I found it a bit disorienting, not knowing for sure that everyone was able to hear me. I had to proceed with more trust in the process than I usually need, venturing on into the silence with no assurance that I was not, in fact, alone. I was fairly soon accustomed to the uncertainty, though, and was able to set that worry aside and focus on the task at hand.

I followed my usual pattern, leading the way with my voice for 20 minutes or so before inviting individual work in silence for another 20. To end, I suggest returning to the thoughts of goodwill with which we always start, and sending those thoughts out to other living beings. I only found out after the end bell--which I soon discovered nobody else heard--that my computer had run out of juice at just this moment, and everyone was left to end their sit in bewildered silence.

We managed to recover from this glitch, however, and reassembled in those small video squares on our computer monitors for a catch-up discussion about how we are all coping with this new reality we're living in. Various participants chose to check out at various times, and we ended up with just a handful of diehards.

All in all, I think the experiment was a great success, and I have had some reinforcing feedback. I must remember, obviously, to be plugged in to a power source next time, but we all agreed that we would be able to refine the process and do even better in the future. I'm looking forward to it!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

KING CANUTE

Dear President Tr*mp (I still can't bring myself to spell out your name in full),

Reading the news today I recalled the story of Canute the Great, King of England (1016-1035) as well as of Denmark and Norway. In the version I heard in my childhood days, that king's apparently apocryphal attempt to command the tide to turn was a parable of the overweening vanity of kings and the delusion of divinely-ordained omnipotence. He got his feet wet. The more recent--and more enlightened--version of the story holds that Canute performed this futile act before his assembled lords and courtiers in order to demonstrate exactly the opposite: that the power of kings is limited, and that the only omnipotence belongs to God.

I thought of this story in the context of your reported delusion--which could turn into a presidential edict--for the nation to return to "normal" and everyone go back to work starting Easter Day. The notion that the power of your intention alone would suffice to turn back the tide of the coronavirus is as arrogant a conceit as the one illustrated by the King Canute story as it was told to me in childhood: hubris will inevitably lead to tragedy. But in truth the power of reality, God, Nature--call it what you will--makes a mockery of the power you imagine that you wield.

I invite you, without great hope, to embrace the humility of the more enlightened version. Otherwise, it's more than your own two feet that will get wet. We'll all be deluged by the tidal wave. And many of us will drown.

Yrs. truly, Peter Clothier

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

KARMA

It's a word that is much bandied about these days and used loosely to invoke something akin to fate or providence. In my admittedly limited understanding of the Buddhist dharma, its meaning is more about responsibility than about inevitability. It insists on a necessary connection between action and consequence: actions that are well-thought, generous, compassionate, skillful turn out to have beneficial consequences; those that are ill-thought, impulsive, inconsiderate, unskillful lead to consequences that spread chaos and ill-will.

We see the results of karma everywhere today--and the result is always commensurate and appropriate to the action. Thus, the paradoxical consequence of isolationism is to have isolated virtually all Americans from their neighbors. The president's obsession with personal wealth has led to impoverishment, to the loss of trillions in the national wealth, the depletion of savings, investments and financial security, and the erosion of jobs and income for countless working people. His ruthless cuts in administrative personnel and his appointment of cronies who lack experience, training, or appropriate skills have brought about a situation where the bureaucracy is ill-equipped to deal efficiently with a crisis such as the one in which we find ourselves.

And so on. To reduce it all to a somewhat crude joke I read recently somewhere on the Internet: we have never had a president so full of shit that an entire nation runs out of toilet paper. That's karma for you in a nutshell. If you'll forgive the mix of metaphors.

There is, too, a national karma at work, so I believe. Today's catastrophe is the direct, predictable result of our common action, as a nation, in electing as our leader a petty, vengeful and petulant man whose ignorance, incompetence, avarice and narcissism were clear to every thoughtful person before he was elected, that has led directly to where we stand today. Without competent leadership, the whole nation founders.

But karma is not "fated." It can be changed with good intentions. It's time for us all, and our government, (our human species!) to commit to actions that are generous, well-thought, far-seeing, compassionate, and above all skillful. Only then will we be able to change our karma--and survive.

Monday, March 23, 2020

ONLY CONNECT

I find myself craving connection more and more these days, when physical proximity, let alone physical contact, is not allowed. Just yesterday, for example, Ellie and I joined our Laguna Beach sangha, our meditation group, in a Zoom session that allowed us all to share the thoughts and feelings that have been troubling us--or inspiring us!--in recent days. These are people with whom I have been sitting in meditation Sunday mornings for years. Our longest-running members have been meeting for 25 years, and have a close bond of common experience and shared devotion to the Buddhist dharma. There is a wealth of mutual respect, and trust, and love. It was a joy to be able to mine that mother lode of compassionate community.

The arrival of our daughter, Sarah, and our grandson Luka, now 8 years old, was a welcome interruption to our Zoom session. They brought groceries from Whole Foods and left them by the front door, standing back for a while to talk. It happened to be Jake, our King Charles spaniel's birthday--he is now 4 years old--so we all sang Happy Birthday, much to his bewilderment...


... and agreed to take him out for a family walk, observing social distance. We strolled along a ways and found one of the long flights of steps that form a decades-old network in this hilly neighborhood. Leading down from the street where we first lived on this hill, some 50 years ago, it took us down to a street far below where one of Luka's good friends from second grade happens to live, so we shouted outside the house to attract attention, then stood around--at a suitable distance--for quite some time, exchanging news and pleasantries. Another warm connection.

It was sad to see Sarah and Luka leave--with a wave substituting for the usual hug--but it had been a joy to see them and spend time with them. After lunch at home, just as I was settling down for a much needed nap, the phone rang. It was my former wife and the mother of our two sons, Elizabeth, returning a call I had placed to her earlier in the day. She lives in Iowa and is, of course, much of an age with me, so I was naturally concerned to know that she was holding up in our unwelcome circumstances. She is fortunate to have my younger son, Jason, living nearby, and he is a great help and comfort to her. It was a while since we had last talked, so we had a wonderful catch-up chat. Though we parted more than 50 years ago, there is still much we share in common--not least our children and our English heritage.

I had spoken just the day before to an old friend in Chicago, a man now entering his nineties who came to England shortly before the start of World War II and spent those years in the Rectory where we lived. My father was instrumental in inspiring his lifelong devotion to the Anglican faith. Born a Jew, he is a widower now, and is amused to be living in a retirement home surrounded by old Jews! He sorely misses his wife, and nurses a not so secret wish to not survive, himself, for too much longer. We had not spoken for a very long time, and he was surprised and delighted by my call.

So I woke this morning early thinking this is the great antidote to the isolation to which we have been each of us consigned: connection. And vowed to pursue it to the best of my ability in the coming weeks, and possibly the coming months. It is the essential ingredient for a successful passage through these perilous and disturbing times.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

LOVE

It is healthy, I suppose, but deeply painful, to be confronted with this irreducible truth: that everything we normally rely on to define our lives and offer us what sense of security we enjoy turns out to be nothing more than illusion. The ground we thought we could stand on forever can be snatched out from under our feet in a moment. Source of income, financial security, social stability, material well-being, relationships--everything that constitutes what we think of as the foundation of our lives is exposed at moments such as these to be radically unstable.

All the more reason, then, to keep looking within, to be working as best we can to build the inner strength and resilience we need to withstand what Hamlet so memorably described as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Outrageous indeed, the onslaught of this global pandemic that threatens not only human lives but everything we have constructed to sustain them. We are left to contemplate the radical insecurity of our tenuous existence, and offer to each other the only solace we know to calm the fear and heal the pain in our hearts: the power of selfless love.