Blog

The Four Immeasurables: Heart Practices for Challenging Times

Many in the United States and around the world experienced the US Presidential election as a kind of political earthquake, the initial shock at its center disruptive to our sense of safety and mutual trust, and as it radiates outward, altering the larger political landscape. While the particulars are unknown, many of us find ourselves deeply concerned—even experiencing anxiety—about the implications of a Trump presidency for ourselves and for the people and causes to which we are devoted. We search for a way to hold this moment, one that validates our real concerns without getting overwhelmed by them. Quite rightly, in this moment of suffering, many of us turn towards the teachings of the Dharma for solace, insight and some indication of a way forward. In my own practice, I began to reflect on the Dharma principle of equanimity, particularly in the context of the Brahma Viharas or “four immeasurables,” not only to provide guidance but also to energize and inspire my response to moments such as these.1 Heart Alchemy The Brahma Viharas were offered …

Open Up, Lean In, Stay With: Contemplative Practices in Uncertain Times

In the Tibetan calendar, 2016 was the year of the Fire Monkey: raw, turbulent, tempestuous—a year of personal strife unfolding in tandem with social unrest and political upheaval. Permeating my own experience of 2016 was a visceral sense of being wrenched in two directions: to dive in fully to the fire of this unrest, and simultaneously to withdraw from it, to shut down, to block out the pain. I suspect I am not alone in such ambivalence: In the face of overwhelming suffering—from the personal to the societal, from shouting at the family dinner table to the bombings in Aleppo—our human impulse is to fight or flee. And when each of these options seems hopeless, we may freeze, paralyzed. How do we confront our situation? How do we move through fear and paralysis and remain awake to the pain (as well as the beauty) of our reality? In Buddhist teachings and practice, I read three relevant refrains: open up, lean in, and stay with. First, the teachings advise that with a heart of courage, we …

Interrogating the Nature of Identity in an Age of Rising Nationalism

With nationalist and populist waves washing over the globe, many of us within the contemplative world may be feeling upset and disappointed. We might be asking ourselves how nativist and xenophobic sentiments can have such popular support, particularly given the dangerous historical precedents of these trends. While these reactions can be justified, simply dismissing the changes we are witnessing as misguided and ignorant would miss the point. In particular, many citizens in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world are acting out of a sense of anxiety about their identities in a rapidly changing world riven by global capitalism’s savage inequities. What might wisdom traditions tell us about issues of identity? According to Buddhist philosophy, for instance, we are part of a world of dependent origination where all phenomena are inter-related and ephemeral; ultimately identity is about the realization of anatta (anātman), or “no-self.” In other words, the common egoic sense of identity to which we cling is a fiction. Similarly, yogic philosophy shares with Buddhism the concept of māyā (illusion), such …

The Thousand Eyes of Knowing and Action

While it may pacify our confusion to look at wisdom traditions as prescriptive “medicine” for our suffering times, we must also take care to begin to understand, personally, our inner relationship to power, authority, and knowledge. No system of knowing, however privileged, is unchallengeable, extrinsically justifiable, and intrinsically meaningful to everyone. In fact, a hard pill to swallow is how one person’s meaning can be utterly meaningless to another. Nevertheless, wisdom traditions give us an alternative to reductive answers. Through practices like meditation, we step onto a lifelong path of cultivating what might be called an inner reconnaissance, a dynamic exchange of outward noticing and inward “re-knowing.” This is a process in which we are invited to connect to a kind of displaced and flexible site of human wisdom and agency that does not simply replicate the dynamics of control and privilege, self-doubt and impotency. This human agency arises, I suspect, in a portal that opens up when solidification between self and world is softened. To meet the world in this way is also to …

Upstream and Downstream: The Sacred Importance of Joining Contemplative Practice and Political Engagement

There is a social change parable that powerfully illustrates the vital connection between contemplative practice and social change: There was once a village located next to a river. One day, during a break from her chores, a villager spotted a baby coursing down the river, struggling to stay afloat. As she waded into the water to save the child, the villager noticed that two other babies had already streamed by. She cried out to her fellow villagers who joined her in the rescue effort. But babies continued to appear. The village quickly organized itself to save the struggling children. After hours of endless work two villagers broke away from the group and began running away. The other townspeople called out to them: “Why are you leaving? We need you here to save these babies!” The two villagers bellowed back: “We’re heading upstream to find out who is throwing them in the river!” This story demonstrates the importance of simultaneously attending to the many injustices that shape our world (fishing babies out of the water), while …

Editorial: Destroying the Politics of Trump and Seeking a Deeper Political Consciousness

The Arrow seeks to explore politics in a broad sense of the word—societal issues, challenges, and questions that are political by nature. We have avoided the trappings of US electoral politics because our audience stretches beyond the US and because the teachings of Buddhism and other contemplative wisdom traditions transcend the narrow spectrum of political showmanship and stale ideologies that characterize this country’s electoral politics. However, in the context of the 2016 US presidential election, we feel that silence would be a form of complicity with harmful social and political systems. The sad fact of this election cycle is that anyone who wants a more compassionate, egalitarian society will find a mixed champion in Hillary Clinton, and an absolute enemy of those values in Donald Trump. That Trump embodies egomania, delusion, greed, and violence in their purest forms is obvious. And yet there is a risk in uncritically validating the Clintonian worldview just because the alternative is unquestionably worse. In liberal circles, including contemplative communities, we’ve noticed a certain tribalism—qualitatively different than Trump’s racist xenophobia—that …

Image of people singing around a campfire

Rising to the Challenge: Race and Inclusivity in the Sangha

Last summer I traveled from my home in Berkeley, California to Pátzcuaro, Mexico for a weeklong “young” sangha meditation retreat. I say “young” because in our group of roughly 20, though we varied in age from early 20s to 40s, chronological years didn’t matter. We were artists, activists, educators, and scholars united by a curiosity to explore how creativity and contemplative practice might inform the larger social and environmental ills of our time. As a 33-year-old dancing, writing, Buddhist, I felt right at home. In addition to the Mexican participants, the young-at-heart arrived from across the United States and Europe. By day, we meditated, studied the Dharma, and engaged in experiential activities. By night, we enjoyed campfires, conversation, and maybe a few sips of tequila. As the days turned into what felt like years, we became close. Romances blossomed, disintegrated, and blossomed again. Our nighttime campfires morphed into uninhibited sharing free-for-alls with impromptu poetry, mystic storytelling, and group sing-alongs. We were connected to each other and the lush, blooming forest that held us—one beautiful, breathing …

Is a Fear of Death at the Heart of Capitalism?

Donald Trump is a personification of capitalist values: He’s elitist, possessive, exploitative, and always hungry for more. Having multiple buildings emblazoned with his name is not enough. The presidential pantheon is the next prize he wants to devour, perhaps with dreams of becoming immortalized on U.S. currency, the yardstick for contemporary worth. What compels Trump’s oversized appetite, a hunger that mirrors capitalism’s drive for endless and rapacious growth? Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist and social theorist Ernest Becker conceived of capitalism as a contemporary search for the Holy Grail: immortality itself. According to Becker, it is easy for the human animal to feel small and servile in the face of death. We seek power over each other and the more-than-human world to compensate for felt smallness. As Becker wrote in his final book, Escape from Evil, “power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.”1 Money offers this vitalizing power. For Becker, “money is the human mode par excellence of coolly denying animal …

Image of activists and person meditating

The Practice of No Success

In the fall of 2013, I was at the end of an era in my life as a Colombia human rights activist, or so I thought. Having left my job as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Colombia Program, I found myself walking the busy, chaotic streets of Bogotá, reflecting on all the years I had poured my energy into the human rights movement there, wondering how any activist sustains enough motivation to continue, and why, despite feeling like things weren’t getting that much better in Colombia (or the world for that matter), I was still deeply committed to peace and social justice. Was it because I felt hopeful? If it wasn’t hope that fueled me forward, what did? Now, from my desk in Oakland, California, still involved with the work in Colombia, I continue to grapple with these questions. In the carefree days of my youth, I had hope to spare. I had so much hope that I thought I could change the world! It was surely this faith that helped me hatch a …

Illustration of bullet train and mount fuji

Speeding Past a Receding World

This past June, during a three-day research trip across rural Yamanashi Prefecture, a friend and I visited a town called Hayakawa, nestled in the mountains 100 kilometers to the west of Tokyo. One of the least densely populated municipalities in Japan, Hayakawa is home to fewer than 1,000 people spread across 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) at the foot of the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the country’s tallest mountain range and one of its few true wildernesses completely devoid of roads and human habitation. Over the past two years, my inquiry into post-growth cultures and depopulation has carried me to more than a hundred locales across Japan. I added Hayakawa to my itinerary after reading about a settlement here called Mogura, which the map I picked up at the municipal office fondly nicknamed “Machu Picchu.” After an hour driving up a serene river valley, we turned off the main road and for twenty minutes slowly inched our car up a crumbling switchback shrouded in leaves and dappled with sunlight that trickled through …