I was driving home from work in 7 AM Honolulu traffic, and felt myself becoming depressed while listening to the news on NPR: the fall of Aleppo, the melting of arctic ice at unprecedented levels, the Rohingya genocide a country that gave birth to the meditation methods I practice, yet another highly questionable Cabinet pick.
I turned off the radio. I tried to remember ways I have talked about dealing with this kind of queasy sadness onslaught. I was too exhausted, I told myself, I was running on empty.
But when I finally got home I found this in one of my old notebooks, from the late Indian Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello.
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they have children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. All mystics are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.”
As I type this I am asking you and myself — what does this mean “though everything is a mess, all is well”?
We wake from the sleep DeMello talks each moment we are mindful of this wondrous, unrepeatable, precious life we are given – yes, I get that, but I still think about Aleppo, the arctic ice, the Rohingya, the new Cabinet.
I think some of the depression comes from feeling helpless to do anything meaningful about what is so messed up in the world right now. And also from feeling angry and righteously indignant.
Robert Thurman (Uma’s father and professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University) wrote a piece in Tricycle Magazine soon after Bush beat Gore back in the year 2000 in which he wrote:
“People are afraid that if they let go of their anger and righteousness and wrath, and look at their own feelings—and even see the good in a bad person—they’re going to lose the energy they need to do something about the problem. But actually you get more strength and energy by operating from a place of love and concern. You can be just as tough, but more effectively tough. It’s like a martial art.”
For me this is kind of like in meditation practice, when a disturbing memory or feeling comes up, we are taught to not push it away, nor to buy into it, but to acknowledge its presence in the room of your mind, maybe offer it a seat, listen politely a little to the complaints or whining or imagined horrors, then just as politely convey to the visitor you have some important work to do and maybe we can catch up later.
I think the so-called “outer work” is to do something skillful, speak meaningfully, and forcefully if necessary, but coming from a place of kindness, this “place of love and concern.”
Our outer actions will have more impact because we are not coming full bore out of anger and resentment.
Thurman says it perfectly:
“Hatred is so off balance. You blow your adrenals in one minute, and then you’re shaky and weak. But if you’re joyful, you’ll get an endless source of energy.”
This is tough work, confronting our own anger and depression. No one said finding this place of joy in the midst of the world was going to be easy.
We start with baby steps on our cushion – little by little undoing the identification with thoughts, emotions and feelings that keeps us unable to steep in our naturally loving and radiant essence.
And there will be moments when we surrender our deepest held views and opinions, and just forgive.
In these moments we “summon our character” as the rapper and poet Dessa writes in her poem “Mercy” (from her book A Pound Of Steam, Rain Taxi Press)
is to summon your character,
red-eyed and sober
and command it to behave
against the current of your instinct,
to reach up and
take down your own flag.
To forgive is to break the wishbone of a living bird
Who consents to the procedure,
Who volunteers to stay awake
To save on anesthesia.
It is to make a snow angel out of sawdust
Beneath the bench where they are shaving down your pride.
This ultimately is joyful work.
Personally it has been an acquired taste, like a food, bitter at first, then all the more tasty and nourishing with each bite.
Relish these moments on and off the cushion, for the sake of all beings.