My mindfulness journey: The Relative and the Absolute

morningmeditationAs I delve more deeply into my spiritual practice, I struggle more with the idea of “either/or”.  How can we sit in non-judgement when we are taking vows to refrain from behaviors we judge to be wrong such as killing and stealing?  How do we advocate for peace while respecting that other people have their own truths?

My confusion, according to my Sensei, stems from the fact that I am stuck in dualistic thought, and I must strive to overcome the human tendency to organize the world into categories.  It can be uncomfortable to see things as “both/and”.  If something is bad, we fight against it; if it is good we support it.

If it is both…what do we do?  It requires a certain degree of sophistication, maturity, and creativity to hold this tension.

While intellectually I am comfortable with this, on a deeper level I am still clinging to my habitual way of seeing the world.  As it turns out, it is quite scary to let go of my rational mind.  I accept that there is good in the bad and bad in the good, but I want to find, study and understand it and these things are beyond that kind of understanding.

When you follow your breath during meditation, Sensei asked me, what is between the breaths?  Nothing, I answered.  Theoretically, my true nature is between the breaths.

Not theoretically, he answered.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days at my in-laws’ house at the beach where I was able to sit by the ocean each morning.  I watched the ocean, constant flux within permanence, and I wondered: what is between the waves?  Nothing.  Or everything.

The whole ocean is between the waves.

The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute calls to transcend our dualistic understanding of the world.

Within light there is darkness,

but do not try to understand that darkness.

Within darkness there is light,

but do not look for that light.

Light and darkness are a pair,

like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

It’s all there, all the time.  Light in the darkness, darkness in the light; good in the bad, bad in the good.  One does not make sense without the other, but don’t bother looking for it because it is outside the purview of the analytical mind.  This is not the fatalism with which many approach the world, comforting themselves with the idea that everything happens for a reason and one day they may be able to understand their misfortunes.  This is about recognizing the divine spark in all of creation.  We are all, good and bad, sacred manifestations of life.

Each thing has its own intrinsic value

and is related to everything else in function and position…

Do not judge by any standards.

I am nothing and all things; I am a temporary expression of the eternal, a particular accumulation of molecules and energies.  So are we all.  Some of the molecules in my body, maybe, once belonged to the body of Jesus or Thoreau or Rachel Carson; others, maybe, once belonged to the body of Hitler or Pol Pot or Caligula or even a dinosaur or saber-toothed tiger.  We are all waves in the ocean, momentarily surging forward to embody the infinite mystery.

The New Story

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

Image courtesy of flickr user stef thomas

I have had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Metta Center’s Nonviolence Studies Pilot Program – yay!  Our first assignment was to consider the paradigm shift that be required if we are to achieve a nonviolent society and to write our own New Story.  Here is mine:

My 90-year-old grandmother recently called to discuss a documentary she had seen on PBS.  “They said that all the corn is cross-contaminated with corn from other fields, so there’s no point in spending all that extra money on organic food.”

I launched an explanation of GMOs, pesticides, sustainable farming, farm workers’ rights, animal welfare, human health, and the fact that it takes more calories to ship a strawberry from Mexico to New Jersey than the strawberry is worth.  I may as well have changed the subject to the weather (sans mention of global climate change).

I can hardly blame her for her point of view.  She grew up on a farm where she pumped water from a well and carried it in a bucket.  She washed, hung and ironed the laundry for her family of nine by hand.  Every meal was prepared “from scratch” without microwaves, cold food storage, an electric or gas oven, or even Hamburger Helper.

I often say that she is from the Better Living Through Science Generation.  The washing machine meant that laundry took a couple of hours instead of a couple of days.  New cleaning products meant less time spent on her hands and knees scrubbing floors and bathtubs.  Medical advances all but eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio.  Her telephone and medical alert system allow her to continue living independently.  She is by no means “rich” but she lives a life of comfort she never could have imagined as a girl.

She simply cannot fathom why I would create unnecessary work for myself by line-drying my clothes or canning my own pickles.

To my grandmother, who watched her husband, brothers, and sons go off to war and who now lives in a middle-class suburb of New York City, it looks like violence is steep declining.  The women’s rights and civil rights movements have been successful.  The world is full of democracy and no one need fear a midnight knock from the KGB or the SS.  Human rights and international aid organizations build more wells and medical clinics every day

These points are hard to argue, yet they gloss over a great deal of complexity.  While she, like many others, is surrounded by items manufactured halfway across the globe, she has very little knowledge of the lives of people a few miles away in cities like Newark or Camden, never mind the people in China who made her slippers.

Violence is largely more subtle now, making invisible unless you go looking for it.

There may be laws to protect people from discrimination, but centuries of systemic, habitual oppression cannot be easily cast off in the oppressed or the oppressors.  The Iron Curtain may have fallen but people from former Soviet-Bloc countries who are ill-equipped to compete in the global marketplace now live in poverty.  The period of European colonialism has ended, but it has been replaced by neocolonialism which simply uses money instead of guns to wield power.  Americans reap the benefits of outrageously expensive medications while children are orphaned by AIDS or die of diseases that cost pennies to treat.

Violence against humans is just the tip of the iceberg.  Sitting at the zenith of the Industrial Age that has given us washing machines and cell phones, we can see the exorbitant toll it has taken on the natural systems that maintain us.  We use increasingly destructive means to extract resources,  diminish biodiversity daily, manipulate our food systems with chemicals and genetic modifications, all in the name of turning a profit but without a clue as to the effects on our health in the present or our ability to exist into the future.

Lest I leave the impression that my grandmother is an enemy of nonviolence, I will share my youngest uncle’s favorite story about her.  When he was maybe six years old, she took him to visit her sister in Paterson, which was once a thriving industrial city but had begun to descend into urban decay.  They stopped for ice cream on their way home, and while they sat at the counter an African-American man came in and sat a few seats away.  My uncle was nervous and asked if they could leave; in response she sat next to the man and started chatting about his children, where he lived, what he did for a living, and what he liked to do with his spare time.  She never lectured about racism or equality.

She simply respected the dignity of each human being she met.

I see myself as part of a growing movement towards sustainability and harmony, and my grandmother played a huge part in starting me on this path.  My hope is that I will find the grace to live the message of peace and love that is in my heart to show my own children – indeed, everyone I meet – that we have a choice.  We can make world into a place of beauty and nonviolence.

What is the legacy you hope to leave?  What stories about you would you want your grandchildren to tell?