There is a way, a path: it consists of continuous, sustained mindfulness and compassion.
–– Rhonda Magee
In the early 2000s I went with some friends my age to see a production of the 1960s musical Hair at the Hopkins Center. We were just graduating college in 1967 and 1968 when Hair was first produced. Now we were sitting in a theatre balcony in Hanover, New Hampshire. At first, I was laughing nostalgically along with my friends––at the hair and the clothing and the idealistic dialogues––but slowly my mood began to sour. Eventually, I was softly weeping, at the edge of despair. I and so many of us then had believed in the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” We had continued on, devoting our lives to developing and supporting ways to live in peace––in our personal and collective lives. We’d continued being politically involved to some degree. Moreover, we’d been doing our best to live good, compassionate, and kind lives within our communities and families. But, alas, this had not been enough to stop war or to thwart ongoing social injustice. When I saw Hair this time, 9/11 had recently happened, and the USA was again dropping massive amounts of bombs on innocent civilians. Racial injustice was still ascendent. This stark contrast between the world’s reality and my young hopes and faith felt unbearable. My impulse was to leave the theatre, to flee from this painful realization, but I didn’t. I stayed present with the cognitive dissonance.
As I sat there watching that alive, vigorous, and funny production, something shifted in me; some sort of insight arose unbidden. I gradually realized that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that our actions and the intentions behind them hadn’t ended war, and that the way we conducted our relationships hadn’t solved the problems arising from hatred, greed, and cultural and spiritual confusion and delusion. What mattered was that we were acting in the world, even then, from a place of peace and a commitment to nonviolent loving, forgiving action. That was enough. That was the answer in and of itself. That is where the joy is found; and right there and then, in the balcony of the Moore Theater, I was beginning to feel that joy replacing the despair. Our intentions were and continue to be “wholesome”; and as imperfect as they were, and still are, they color and impel our actions––and that is wonderful. I went to the student “talk back” after the show and was surprised and reassured by the students’ maturity in this regard. The good news of Buddhism is that “actions make the world go round.” What we do in this world has an effect in this world. Sometimes we can calm others through our own calm, composed actions. Certainly our calm, along with a sustained joyful interest in life, can be a refuge for ourselves in the midst of chaos. Perhaps you can feel this in Michael Dannehy’s poem, “Finding Peace in Samsara”, which you can find referenced in the Valley Insight November 2023 newsletter.
Speaking of the value of wholesome actions, Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote:
When you interact with another person [or a society or yourself] a connection is
made . . . . With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful
connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a
connection where good things can flow back and forth.
In our silent, solitary meditation and in all the relational arenas of our lives––internally and externally, personally and politically, globally––the Buddha teaches the wisdom of mindfulness and compassionate action in all arenas of our lives.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers, in those brief weeks of quiet pause before the USA began the retaliative attacks that have given rise to over twenty years of war and increased world destabilization––one of our Valley Insight sangha members came to me and said, “We have to do something.” Yes, but what? A group of us brainstormed and came up with the idea of practicing meditation in public. This was not meant to be protest or a demonstration, but just a way of making peace more visible in the public square. For about nine months, every Sunday morning for an hour, six or more of us set up our tarps and meditation cushions by the road on route 12A. In rain, snow, and heat, we sat together in silence with a hand-lettered sign saying “Practicing Peace,” while the USA dropped bombs on Afghanistan.
More recently with the invasion of Israel by Hamas and the subsequent retaliation by Israel, once again a Valley Insight sangha member came forth and said, “We have to do something.” He talked with others in the Valley Insight community and organized an online vigil––a time for us to sit in silence together and then to speak our thoughts, feelings, heartbreak, fears, and hopes into our compassionate circle.
What shall we do? This is part of what we do. We come together as like-minded people leaning in the direction of peace and happiness for all. We come together for support and because this is what is to be done. . . . And we go out and interact with others in this world with as much loving kindness and carefulness as we can.
I have been reflecting recently on the Buddha’s teachings on liberation, and I think that one way of considering these ideas is that it is our actions that are liberated. We are gradually released from the strong emotional, reactive drives, which often influence our non-mindful moments and destroy the chances for peace and harmony. As we untangle the web of unconscious biases and emotional reactivity embedded in the various processes of mind, we are gradually enlightening the weary, burdened heart-mind. In Pali, the word citta refers to the heart-mind that constitutes our mental, non-physical states. Citta shares the same root as the word cetana, which means “intention.” It’s these volitional intentions that give rise to action. The “continuous, sustained mindfulness and compassion” that Rhonda Magee offers to us in the above quote, refers to liberated actions, ones that purify our hearts over time and liberate the spontaneous arising of mature, kind, and appropriate actions in any given situation. These are actions that the Buddha would define as wise in that “they support our own well-being; the well-being of others; and the well-being of the whole world.”
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
– First third of the Metta Sutta