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Survival Will Always Be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s speculative fiction novel Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a future global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later. I often find post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the possibility of going on past disaster. Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “survival is insufficient.” This phrase—tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline—comes from a Star Trek episode. In the book, the phrase, “survival is insufficient,” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other seemingly useless things that are apparently secondary to basic biological survival. To reprise the 1912 labor slogan, we need not only bread but also roses: Beauty is integral to surviving and thriving. What does it mean for us to fight for roses—for more than survival—when so many people are not even surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production …

Interdependent During a Pandemic

Last summer, my partner and I worked on a research project about wildlife trafficking in southern Africa. While trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn tends to dominate the headlines, we also examined smaller species such as the pangolin—which is both the most trafficked mammal on earth and one possible source of the novel coronavirus. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lesson from our research stands out as particularly crucial: Wildlife trafficking is not a problem of protecting a single species in a single place. Rather, it is a global problem, composed of unaddressed poverty in rural communities, middlemen profiting from illegal trade, and indulgent demand for exotic food and art. It is a problem from roots to leaves, which unfurl thousands of miles away. The same is true of the virus now ravaging human society. It knows no boundary. It reaches my aging parents in a small mountain town, my anxious students scattered across the United States, and my friends in rural Botswana with limited access to healthcare. In a recent letter …

The Stowaway Seeds

The Stowaway Seeds I am afraid to touch the shopping cart, the bright cool hide of the fragrant orange, the wet sand on the beach. This pandemic virus spreads RNA where people pass too close to one another and gather to buy food, or crowd the ocean’s edge. “It cannot be killed because it isn’t alive,” my scientist brother says. But something unknown has always contained our death, which is why we are respectful and delicate as we lift teacups and snow salt crystals on grilled asparagus and touch one other and spoons and books and the surfaces of the earth we will one day be pressed gently between, like book pages on the fat stems of large leaves. Such abundant offerings – these tiny crowns and multiplying stars, the resplendent small burrs I found in the rough striped blanket we took to the woods before everything shut down. They came home with me, to seed a new world, in which we aren’t the most important thing. Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a socially engaged Buddhist …

Photograph by Trudi Lynn Smith

Toilet Paper as Terror Management

The toilet paper aisle at my local grocery store was the first to go barren. Similar scenes of scatalogical scarcity are now the norm across North America as consumers prepare for months of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. You can find footage online of shoppers fighting over the last roll, and The New York Times recently reported on a toilet paper shipment requiring police escort. It is peculiar that in the early days of this crisis, a pooping accessory took priority over food. Survival instincts appear low in late capitalism. Fortunately, there is a body of social psychology that helps explain the collective impulse to put our heads in our asses in this moment of genuine crisis, and it’s called “Terror Management Theory (or TMT). TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book The Denial of Death. According to Becker, the intense existential fear caused by the reality of death compels us to psychologically buffer ourselves with fantasies of supremacy that compensate for …

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground

I’m writing this in the still-early days of the pandemic. Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments are requiring self-distancing and closing non-essential services. Increases in coronavirus deaths are in store, though the curve may have been flattened. Much of the predicted economic carnage lies ahead. It feels like the calm before the storm. How do we work with our minds in this situation? What meaning can we make of what’s happening? Ayahuasca My core spiritual practice these days is ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture and traditional medicine long used in Indigenous ceremonies in the Amazon basin. Within a well-crafted ritual container and led by someone deeply trained in ayahuasca chants and healing, twelve or so of us drink ayahuasca and experience a night of insight and sometimes visions.1 I’ve drunk sixteen times and almost every time experienced a connection with the sacred; from the point of view of the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena, I’ve worked with my patterns, my root traumas, and how I show up in the world. The experience …

Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple

Relax, everything is out of control. —Ajahn Brahm Finding Ground March 13, 2020 In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness. —Thomas Merton I thought I was handling it all quite well. With the increasing cases of coronavirus, the disappointment of recent election results, the cancellations of the many social gatherings I’ve come to rely on, I was being practical. I hadn’t been glued to the news, I was washing my hands and making time to check in with friends. My pandemic supplies were more-or-less stocked. There in the grocery store, though, another reality became clear. While my head was managing, my body was freaking out. I know this saran wrap feeling in my chest well. It’s fear. It’s anxiety. It’s uncertainty. Doom is a breath away. Though my mind had it “under control,” my body reminded me of the …

Going to the Root: How White Caucuses Contribute to Racial Justice

Caucusing is a form of upāya—skillful means. To caucus is skillful because it reduces harm. For Buddhists, practicing harm reduction is a relative bodhicitta practice. In my experience of 24 years of facilitating racial justice work, I have found that it is not helpful to put together in the same room folks who have had racism aimed at them all their lives and folks who haven’t had to think about it very much, if at all. The latter group, white people, need a place to start thinking and feeling about it, a space for using prajña (insight) to discover how white conditioning, through no choice of their own, has been embedded in their ego. There is no white person in North America who does not have white conditioning.1 —Robert Horton, Co-FounderThe UNtraining: Healing Personal & Social Oppressions The current political landscape of the United States has made it impossible for us to avoid our racial karma. In recent years, the news has been littered with it: police violence and murder of Black and brown people …

Cutting Through Spiritual Puritanism

In the West it is difficult for the Dharma to take root. The soil is not fertile. The good and evil, fire and brimstone logic of puritanism has dried the ground and permeated our cultural and political institutions.1 Western Buddhists often lament this situation, claiming to hold a superior, subtler view that sees the emptiness of phenomena and transcends the misguided dualisms of puritanism and its modern offspring.2 Yet when crisis strikes—when the proverbial Buddhist rug is torn from its restful place beneath our feet—more than a few Western Buddhists forget their cherished dharmic view. Although some of the fire-and-brimstone eccentricities of puritanism have long since faded from mainstream discourse, the fundamental logic of good and evil—with no middle ground—remains a powerful cultural force in politics, media, and literature. Buddhist practitioners in the West, who have been steeped since birth in a society of rigid categories of good and evil and Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle,3 cannot escape their puritan conditioning, which rears its head in thoughts, feelings, and pronouncements in reaction to crisis. …

The Tale of Stormtamer

There is nothing whatever to remove from this, Nor the slightest thing thereon to add. Truly beholding the true nature – When truly seen – complete liberation. —Uttaratantra (vs. 154), attributed to Maitreya1 This is how I heard it. One time in Ivy Field, near the place where the lake waters meet the streets of Wind City, where drowned buildings can be seen to the east and the south, tall and ruined, tenements where white laundry flaps like surrender flags and merchants sell their wares from skiffs through open windows, everywhere calling “Hey Cheecago!” and thus invoking the city’s proud old name to stir their business, ’Treya talked up the masses gathered there, speaking the truth to everyone. In the Long Before, when Ivy Field was a place where ritual games were played with great pageantry, the people harnessed rain to make the grass there ever-green, and changed the night to day with a fury of stolen light, chanting and roaring and eating too much. Now Ivy Field is a sanctuary for all who seek …

Expanding Awareness: How Patterns of Interaction Support White Supremacy

Lately, I’ve been feeling a deep sensitivity as I move about my world—a vulnerability, a brewing sadness, that comes, I believe, from the rawness of beginning to peel back the layers and peer into the depths of my own internalized oppression. I see how often I let myself become small, allow someone else a final thought to keep the peace, and ignore the use of words like “ghetto” (when a place is not) and “afro” (when a hairstyle is not) to protect a white friend from feeling uncomfortable if corrected. Often these subtle aggressions happen closest to home, when engaging with my friends and other seemingly aware white individuals. To be clear, these people are not racists. They’re activists supporting marginalized populations, creatives dedicated to raising social consciousness, and general do-gooders making not enough money to do meaningful things. No doubt upon reading this, they will stand by my side and say, “write on!” (pun intended). Yet the fact that even individuals conscious of the oppression of marginalized populations inadvertently reinforce their own privilege indicates …