Ethics Practice

Nurture peace in this broken world

Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit (Shishigami) – Paper cut shadow box by Lorelei Schmitzer-Torbert (2020)

As we welcome the new year, our thoughts often turn to our hopes. We wish for joy and peace, for ourselves, our families, communities and the world. When we look out into the world, we never find a shortage of suffering, but this year in particular, I have noticed a quickening of the pace of suffering. Coming after the challenges of the pandemic, natural disasters, and the war in Ukraine, the scale of the loss of innocent life in Israel and Gaza these past few months has still been shocking to many. While the well of human suffering is deep, the scale of loss is really beyond our comprehension.

And while this violence may be physically distant from my own community, I see many people around me struggling greatly. Checking in with friends and family, so many have been weighed down, asking themselves, how do we go on in the face of senseless loss? As the world seems to break around us, it can be difficult to really hold on to hope that the world will know peace and joy in this new year. We may feel that we should be able to do something, to make a difference, but that we have no power to lend meaningful aid. In a real and acute way, it has felt to me like watching as someone I care about, someone I love, drowns.

At the same time, my heart goes out to those who feel the urgency of the moment. And who push for action, channeling our despair into outrage and activism. Online, I have seen people calling out Buddhists and practitioners of other religions, essentially arguing that we should feel guilty for our spiritual practice at this time. Some parts of the argument seems to be that we should be ashamed of our comfort while others suffer.

This impulse, the feeling that we must act – that we are obliged to act – resonates with me. After all, if we acknowledge the truth of interconnection, then even suffering that seems distant is part of our own life. Our actions have an impact, no matter how small. So, it may feel selfish, heartless, to be comfortable here sitting on our cushions.

Part of this reasoning strikes me as compelling: I do feel that the urgency of the moment. And yet, I worry about what we should actually do, as we get up from our cushion. If shame and outrage are our calls to action, will we be able to step forward without anger? If not, I worry that any action we take may just reinforce the conflict. Anger and guilt are compelling forces, but they do not seem to tools that are well suited to build peace.

Like wielding a blade with no handle – how could we not injure ourselves even as we try to protect others?

I do think that we are called to lend our strength to others in need. As the bodhisattva vows says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” And I see that the challenge is to see clearly if our efforts are actually helpful, to know what freedom means for all beings. And how to free any being without undermining the very peace that we hope for.

As I have thought about how to aim my own efforts towards peace, without falling into paralysis or outrage, I have found inspiration in the character of Prince Ashitaka (from Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful film, Princess Mononoke). Dealing with a curse that falls on him early in the film, Prince Ashitaka is propelled into the middle of a conflict between forces pushing for industrialization on the one hand, and to preserve the natural world on the other.

Trailer for Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke. For more on the release of Princess Mononoke in the United States, the BBC recently had a very fascinating article on the history of this version.

Prince Ashitaka is a skilled fighter, and could very likely have decided the outcome if he had chosen to align himself with one cause. But, Ashitaka refrains from taking sides, and focuses on seeing clearly what is going on, and helping all beings as best he can. This confuses everyone around him, and at one point in the film, a villager asks, “Just whose side is he on anyway?” It can be just as difficult for us today to imagine that a person could be committed to the welfare of the community as a whole, rather than their own interests, or those of their allies.

And, Ashitaka is not paralyzed by despair at the profound suffering all around him, and nor is he driven to hate and anger by the injustice in the world around him. What a delicate balance this is, to use whatever skills, talents, and privilege that we have to benefit all beings instead of serving our own interests. While Ashitaka is a fictional character, I think that the model that Miyazaki has shown us is a powerful one. It is important for us to clearly imagine what it would look like to act selflessly for peace. I think that the world would benefit if we all could carry this spirit into our own lives.

Of course, even if we do, what this effort would look like will differ for each person according to their situation. In the fictional story of Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka was able to have a strong impact on the world – he found himself in a position that offered great leverage over the events around him. Part of that came from his position as an outsider, with few ties of loyalty to the parties involved. He was also a skilled warrior who had the resources to travel on his own. We may not find ourselves in a similar position, able to change the course of conflicts in the world or to even to make a major impact on an important decision in our community.

But, we can aspire to see clearly where are standing, and hope that we use whatever leverage that we have to the benefit of not just ourselves, but for the whole world. As we start this new year, that is my hope. Not that the world will be peaceful, in some permanent or final way, but that each of us will act as best we can to lend our aid to those in need.

Beyond fiction, I would also offer this quote to you, from Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on Dōgen’s Genjōkōan:

“… if we consider peace a condition in which there is no war among countries, no fighting or conflict among people, and no pain, anxiety, or struggle in our minds, there will probably never be a time when such a condition can be completely achieved. Does this make peace a meaningless dream? Not at all. According to Dōgen, our efforts to achieve peace are themselves a source of peace in each moment of each step we take toward peace.”

Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan

Happy New Year to each of you, and I wish that you take steps to nurture peace and find joy this year.

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Meditation Practice Zen

Do we really want to meditate?

Image credit: “Forest Trail” – GlacierNPS, flickr

The winter issue of Midwest Zen was published this week, and I have a short piece (“Do we really want to sit?“), about my own struggles with patience. I see this in many parts of my life, but in this essay I focused on two places: sitting meditation and running.

At times, I’ll find that that an activity like running is something that I experience negatively, as something uncomfortable. In those moments, I’ll either stop (and turn to another activity), or push through – forcing myself to continue. As part of my practice, I’ve tried to slow down, and to question the source of my impatience:

“I’ve asked myself, why do I have to force myself to run? And underneath that question I see an assumption that I have made, without even noticing it: that running is not enjoyable. At some level, I find running to be aversive, or a kind of chore. And so, I have to push myself to continue. Some days, perhaps this attitude is justified: I really am tired, and running is a struggle. But more often, this feeling arises for no specific reason. It is more of a habit, of approaching the experience of running from a negative frame of thinking, or a fearful, defensive mindset.”

Do we really want to sit? – Midwest Zen

And, of course, I’ve found that when I look closely at any uncomfortable sensations during meditation, I find a similar pattern. And I’ve asked myself: do I really want to meditate?

What I find is that much of my discomfort is driven by how I approach meditating, or running, or so many things in life. By changing my mindset, my entire experience can shift. It has been an important lesson for me, one that I’m grateful for. And, I hope these reflections might be of interest to others who face similar struggles.

The full issue of Midwest Zen (Issue 3) is available online, asa PDF. Enjoy!

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We cannot “like” our way to wisdom

Can we “like” our way to greater wisdom and peace?  Or even to just to some deeper measure of happiness? These questions came to me as I was scrolling through Instagram posts the other day. On my Neural Buddhist account, I mainly follow people who focus on Zen and meditation, and science-related accounts that I find interesting from a Buddhist perspective. On any given day, I come across many meaningful, heartfelt posts by teachers and by other practitioners who I respect.

Image credit: Rawpixel Ltd.

For example, the short poem below, by punkrocksadhana, struck me as a beautiful image of the very concrete ways that all things in this world are deeply interconnected:

In my own posts on Instagram and Facebook, I have tried to share teachings that I have found personally meaningful, and which I think might be helpful to others. And, I’ve also shared posts that distill some of my essays on my own Zen practice (like the post below). I am left wondering, though, what the benefit of this kind of engagement on social media is for our practice, much less for our mental health in general.

Over the past few months, my interactions with others on Instagram and Facebook have mainly been “liking” or “loving” posts, or sharing a post as a story. In total, these interactions have been fleeting, delicate moments. Like a bubble hanging in the air, they may be beautiful, but most disappeared without leaving a lasting trace.

I wrote recently about the connections between rituals and habits, and the importance of engaging fully in our daily habitual behaviors, rather than falling into autopilot. But, when I turned my attention back to my own use of social media, I found that I was often not acting mindfully, but had fallen more into a mindless habit. And, I was not really surprised at this fact – like many, I usually expect that high levels of use of social media could be unhealthy (or at least, is not likely to make people happier, on average!). So, how then should we approach social media? And, is social media fundamentally unwholesome (in the sense of supporting our practice)?

It does seem that the core mechanics that draw us in to engage with social media are not ones that naturally support our practice. As we look around Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms, we are most likely to find those voices that appeal broadly, and that appeal to those who we already agree with. And, our attention, and our very sense of value, can be drawn in toward posts that receive a strong response. This can certainly be unhealthy, as it can skew our sense of what messages are meaningful, or one may become distraught to find that their own heartfelt expressions receive little or no response. And, as I found in my own life, the type of engagement we see may also be superficial, fleeting.

What then are our options?  We could certainly pull back from these social spaces, and work to invest our energy into healthier, more humane forms of interaction. That may be the right answer for many people, but I have remained on Facebook and Instagram simply because they are places where many people spend some of their time. But, if we stay in these spaces, how can we become habitually mindful of the ways that we can be trapped by social media, and work to promote more wholesome engagement?

In my own practice, I have made a few changes to how I use social media (and, I am focusing here especially on my neuralbuddhist accounts – for my personal accounts, I appreciate this advice from a post on Tiny Buddha).

First, in all of my accounts, I have hidden the number of “likes” that posts receive (if you are interested, here are some tips for how to turn off likes for Instagram and Facebook posts). These options are not perfect, but it can be very helpful to not immediately see the number of people who have “liked” a post.

Second, when I scroll through social media, I try to hold the intention to engage deeply with at least one post. I may “like” several posts on Instagram, but I also to make a comment that responds to one post that resonates with me. And, I consider how I can take that teaching with me into the rest of my day. Instead of repeating the habit of superficial engagement, I am working to build a new habit of seeing these posts as a call to mindfulness. This helps connect my time on social media to the whole of my practice.

Third, for the posts I make on social media, I am working to focus my attention to my goals. Instead of focusing on the reactions (the number of likes and such) on Facebook or Instagram, I am focusing on the number of people who engage more deeply – commenting (thoughtfully!) and those who actually engage further. It doesn’t matter, really, how many people reacted to a post.

The key question for me is how many people interacted more deeply – commenting on the post, and finding the longer essays (such as this one) that the post attempts to summarize. That proportion, the number who engage more deeply, will always be much smaller than the number who like a post, but it is the most important point for me.

All-in-all, the total number of people who read an of my essays may be small, but I am always encouraged to find that a few people found my essays (like this one). And, I hope that even one person may take what I wrote to heart, and that it might encourage them in their own practice, in the same way that I have been encouraged by others.  If so, then social media can be of some benefit, within the larger context of the whole of our practice.