Let us be kind to ourselves in these challenging times.
It is written by Bo Lozoff who started the Prison Ashram Project.
FINDING THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IN PROFOUNDLY NEGATIVE TIMES
Practically everyone I know is having a hard time. Hard times usually seem to involve personal issues or struggles. The point of this writing is to encourage you to back up a few steps from the appearances, and look at the underlying energies instead. A little perspective can go a long way in helping us to make peace with what may be widespread hardships that aren’t likely to go away anytime soon; problems that will keep shifting from one object to another as we keep thinking we’ve solved them.
When ten people are exposed to the same cold virus, each may catch the cold in different ways, because our vulnerabilities differ. One of us may sneeze and cough while another is sick to his stomach. My back may ache for a week while you may lose your voice. One of us may get mildly ill while others become severely ill. One may get a secondary bladder infection or kidney problem. The same germ has invaded us all but it doesn’t look the same by the time it gets through with us.
I see this phenomenon happening around the world in the largest sense imaginable. The "virus" is, to put it simply, a lot of ugly karma ripening at one time and merging. The way we have been treating each other and the planet’s resources for thousands of years is simply catching up with us from so many different directions that it has merged into an enormous tsunami of profoundly negative energy that engulfs the world. Ecosystems, cultures, nations and individuals may exhibit countless different symptoms from this wave of energy, but we all share the fact of it. It is simply the age we were born into.
Just like we are born into the benefits of accumulated inventions and discoveries, we also inherit the curses: the withered vitality of nature, global warming and unpredictable winters, fiercer wars around the world with bigger stakes and more harmful weapons, diminishing innocence in our children, an absence of ethics or integrity in our political leaders at home and around the world. In short, we have inherited a planet and a species that grants us better health, longer life, more astounding gadgets, and is also way out of balance and seriously ill. The various components of our imbalances and illnesses have now, in our generation, become intricately intermingled around the world. If you think that the extinction of the dodo bird is not connected to the tension in the Middle East or to the growing number of American teenagers who are murdering their parents and schoolmates; if you think that oil prices and attention deficit disorder and an epidemic of depression have nothing to do with each other; then you’re not getting my point. Earth itself is struggling, and therefore we, its creatures, are bound to struggle on her surface as well.
In our own nation, our "manifest destiny" came at a price of genocidal destruction of the Native American civilization. Then, our roads and cities were built upon the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and Chinese and others. once all that was in place, our consumer economy has depended upon the wanton destruction of clean air, water and other natural resources we need for our well-being. Isn’t it reasonable that we would someday have to pay the piper for these tunes we have so foolishly and carelessly played?
On any given day, RIGHT NOW as you read these words, the amount and kinds of suffering in our own nation and around the world are literally too horrific to imagine. Children are being beaten, raped and sold; hopeless, listless kids are toiling in sweat shops as slaves; soldiers are killing and being killed by the thousands; hundreds of millions of refugees and others are starving, many of them foraging through garbage dumps to feed their babies; government-paid assassins are stalking their prey without the slightest twinge of conscience; world leaders and corporate giants are conspiring to do truly evil things that would astonish us; guards are brutalizing prisoners; convicts are gang-raping young inmates while they scream in pain and horror; BILLIONS of sweet, innocent animals are being tortured and killed in the name of medical science, cosmetic testing, and factory farming; tens of millions of lost, hopeless people are taking anti-depressants or mood stabilizers to get through the day - truly, the litany could go on forever and sap all our energy merely to read the words.
Human and animal suffering are truly unimaginable. Add to this the suffering of mountaintops, rainforests, oceans, rivers, lakes, and skies as they lose their vitality to sustain us on this beautiful little blue/green planet that we have seen gleaming like an innocent jewel in space.
So what’s the point - "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," or "count your blessings," or "let’s all give up and jump off a cliff together"? Not at all. My point is simply that we can each become a more conscious participant in this tremendously difficult era we all share. The early Christians would call it "claiming our portion of the cross." If the planet is engulfed with suffering, why would you or I be exempt from our share? Why would we want to be?
This is truly a time to "think globally, and act locally." In other words, think globally enough to understand the deepest source behind the difficulties we face, and accept what we cannot change. Then deal with our personal and local difficulties as best we can, without any underlying sense of uniqueness or victimization or "unfairness" that often accompanies our problems and makes them worse.
Back to our example of the common cold, if my symptoms are mostly backache and yours are mostly nausea and someone else’s are mostly chills and fever, we may require different remedies and different ways of making ourselves comfortable. Yet for the most part, however we treat our symptoms, that virus is still going to run its course for about a week. Of course, if someone doesn’t pay any attention at all to being sick, doesn’t stay warm and dry, doesn’t get any extra rest or lots of fluids, that person’s cold may last a lot longer and even turn into something worse, like pneumonia.
This happens a lot with other forms of suffering as well. If we resist our struggles through denial, ignorance, fear or anger, our portion of the cross may snowball far beyond what life had allotted us. If we don’t waste our energy like that, we refrain from making things worse, and we can even make things better for ourselves and others as well.
If we make peace with the FACT of suffering - which coincides with the Buddha’s First Noble Truth - then our challenge is mainly to find ways to help ourselves and others endure this hellacious virus we are all suffering from and not keep making things worse. By making peace, I mean first of all accepting that this worldwide tsunami of negative energy is a sad but true, logical consequence of humanity’s deeds. It’s not just chaos or bad luck, not an uncaring God or the supremacy of the Devil. Prophets and sages and scholars and scientists have been warning us forever to change our ways, and we haven’t. So let’s not quibble now over who was to blame. The future has arrived and we all need to deal with it.
Once we accept the fact that life may continue to be hard for us and our children, then it stands to reason that we want to take a look at the best "home remedies" we can find so we don’t let this cold develop into pneumonia. What I’m calling the "cold" is the part we must accept. What we can prevent as "pneumonia" is dragging ourselves, our families, our communities and the world down even quicker through discontent or griping. The home remedies are the lifestyle we choose. What’s the one you most believe in as a positive response to negative energies?
I believe in some of the simple principles handed down in every age and culture - take care of mind, body and spirit, and love thy neighbor (the whole world) as thyself.
Obviously it is a good idea to take care of our bodies with diet and exercise, and refrain from harmful substances like cigarettes and other drugs. How do we take care of our minds? Our spirits? Our neighborhoods? Our world?
Living according to the highest principles and for the highest good couldn’t hurt. We can keep our minds relatively quiet through meditation, and refrain from mind-pollutants such as too much television or computer use, too many violent movies or pornographic images, too much useless anger over things we can’t control - things like that. Respect our mind’s need for proper input and restraint.
We can feed our spirits through making sure we take time for beauty - the beauty of nature, of music and the other arts, literally taking time to smell the roses and to notice the sky. We feed our spirits by lessening our own desires and fears and paying more attention, in a constructive way, to the world around us.
We can lift up our neighbors, communities and the world by engaging in a lifestyle and livelihood that helps rather than harms, something we feel good about rather than something we’d hate for our kids to follow us into. We can drive less to reduce pollution, live more simply to reduce consumerism, waste less to reduce the amount of garbage in the world.
Remember, none of these suggestions are for the purpose of saving the world or transforming this cosmic tsunami of negative energy into a joyful "new age" where everyone shares and all is as it should be on Gumdrop Lane. That’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Tensions are increasing around the world, not decreasing. We’re running out of oil, which will be a profound shift for civilization in our own lifetimes. My suggestions are simply for the purpose of doing our best, for bringing relief and comfort and slowing down the degradation. Nothing less than Grace is going to turn it around.
It is also useless to argue over whether these are the End Times or the Dawn of the Golden Age. For our work on an everyday basis, it doesn’t matter. The Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now, a simultaneous reality that isn’t the least bit polluted or depleted or worn out. It’s not in time, and therefore is not dependent on anything but itself. There is no past karma to be purified, because there is no past. There is nothing to wait for, because there is no future. Jesus said "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." It’s right here- not in time and space, but in our respect, our humility, our submission to God’s commandments to love and care for each other and all of creation.
Being in the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t mean we’re having constant fun or are perpetually smiling. St. Stephen was in the Kingdom as he cried, "Father, please don’t hold this against them," referring to the mob who was at that moment stoning him to death. Most of the original Apostles were tortured, imprisoned or executed. They suffered. But they suffered with their hands in His!
Heaven is far more profound than our childish images of a place where everything is rosy. The Kingdom of Heaven is a softness, a presence, an equilibrium, a peace that surpasses understanding. It is the reality that dawns upon us when we are living as we were created to live; when our priorities are in place; when we are treating all of creation as we were created to treat it. The Kingdom of Heaven is a sense of connection to the Divine Forces which make even the worst worldly catastrophes seem trivial, fleeting.
Imagine two people confronted by a barking dog. one was raised with dogs, the other has a phobic fear of dogs. Two people experiencing two very different realities. Both must figure out what to do about getting past the dog, but the fearful person is likely to make things worse, isn’t he? The dog-friendly person has more of a chance to understand why the dog is barking and to learn from the dog itself how it needs to be handled. This is how you and I can be in a suffering world. When we primarily reside in the Kingdom, we still must get past all the barking dogs and we may even occasionally get bitten like anyone else, but we tend not to make things worse through fear and selfish agendas.
If the world is at the dawn of a new golden age, the best way we can prepare for and hasten that transition is to live in the Kingdom, with a reverence for all creation and total devotion to God’s highest principles. If the world is instead coming to a bitter end, then the best way we can prepare for and slow down that demise is to live in the Kingdom, with a reverence for all creation and total devotion to God’s highest principles.
Any "Age" is still in time, and all times will end. Eternity is not in time, and therefore has no beginning or end. Things Eternal are beyond our ability to discuss or understand. Like Joseph Campbell said, "Eternity is not just a long time!" But we touch Eternity when we enter the Kingdom, and something deep inside us knows everything is okay, everything is always okay, and we gradually see that we have the capacity to be "in this world but not of it," to occupy a total paradox in our daily lives. The mind reels and staggers under this paradox but the Heart grasps it perfectly and feels no paradox at all. Yes, this is how it’s supposed to be. Oh Lord, it’s so simple and clear.
This is all too much to take in and digest in one sitting. Just accept your burdens in solidarity with all the rest of us, and deal with them honorably. Keep your every deed and impulse life-affirming; reject selfishness. Make room for nature and things of beauty in your life. Do not lose your sense of wonder. Reject despair. Let your heart be aware of the world’s pain; reject denial. We do not have to sugarcoat the truth in order to live fully with lots of spirit and even occasional joy. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "Never give up." That’s all.
Part one: TOUCHING BEAUTY
One practical way to keep our spirits up during hard times is to find a connection with something we consider beautiful. For many of us, the arts bring beauty into our lives - music, literature, dance, paintings, leatherwork, stained glass, woodwork or whatever connects us with the universal human drive to create and express art, or even just gaze at, listen to, or appreciate other people’s art.
Countless prisoners have sent us beautiful artwork on everything from napkins to envelopes, some have made impressive jewelry from materials like plastic toothbrushes and coconut husks. And of course, tattoo art is common in prisons around the world. Some people melt into a state of peace when they lay back and listen to music they really love, while others get energized by struggling to learn guitar or harmonica, or to pen a poem from the depth of their hearts.
These may seem like random or even meaningless personal interests, but they can actually be life-saving connections to powerful forces larger and deeper than the psychological mind. Our souls need a connection to something we consider beautiful. I sincerely believe this is one reason that tens of millions of people are so depressed or hopeless - they have lost all contact with anything they feel is noble, beautiful, larger than their problems. Therefore they spend all their time either battling their mundane problems, or else escaping through mindless television, video games, ugly and violent music, gambling, drugs, compulsive sex, or working so hard they have no time to notice how unhappy they are. Might this be true of you?
So the practice for part one is to make sure you take time to explore whatever it is that you find inspiring or beautiful. This is a priority, not a luxury. Make a little room in your schedule to be involved in a thing of beauty. If you’ve "been meaning" to take an art class, take it. If you "used to love" playing guitar, pick it up again. If you’re stuck in an isolation cell and the most you can do is to sing your favorite songs or draw with your finger in the dust on a wall and then wipe it clean every day, do it. It’s important. And do it with as much excellence and dedication as possible. Do it with more skill every day. Struggle to make it more and more and more beautiful.
Tibetan Buddhists spend days creating exquisite sand mandalas, then wipe them out shortly after they are finished. It’s about the doing of it, not the finished product. This sort of personal practice can give us inner strength and a calm nature even when things are at their worst.
Part Two: BEING BEAUTIFUL
A whole other way of creating and expressing beauty is to be beautiful in how we do everything we do, how we go about the day, how we relate to people and events. The basic mindfulness practice, of paying full attention to whatever we are doing, is a key to this form of beauty. The modern world has become so jangly, so agitated and noisy, that a person moving about with calm and focused energy can become a quiet reminder of gracefulness and beauty.
Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.