Politics & Culture

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Practice, Resilience, and Compassion in the Time of COVID-19

In this collection on the COVID-19 pandemic, authors share reflections on the personal and political in this time of global uncertainty and suffering. We invited authors to consider the following questions in their writing: How are you showing up for the pandemic? What are you doing to practice calm and clarity? How are you staying grounded in the midst of groundlessness and sudden shifts in routine? How can we negotiate safety and mutual aid? How can we practice compassion and helping others at this time? How do we make sense of this monumental crisis? How are you relating to ways the pandemic’s effects are mapping onto the injustices and inequities of our society? Their responses, which we will publish successively in the coming days, speak to personal experience and social calamity, to profound injustice and the possibility of something else. Check back here or follow The Arrow on social media as we publish new pieces. Contents Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple by Kelsey Blackwell Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground by David Kahane Toilet Paper as …

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. …

Images associated with four subjectivities

Losing Our Confidence: Four Subjectivities of the Present

In May 2015 a group of young people from Europe, Mexico, and the United States came together in Mexico City and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán for the Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. The Ziji Collective “is a global network of inspired young people, dedicated to the…radical view that human beings and society are fundamentally good,” and the work of creating “a society that is uplifted, caring, gentle, and wakeful.” In this pursuit, local Ziji groups “work through the practice of meditation; through the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom; and through collective action.” Although we came from different places, we connected through our shared experience as young people facing an uncertain future of climate change, debt, limited options for rewarding stable work, disappearing free time, technology and media disconnecting us from each other and our bodies, surrounded by overt and subtle forms of violence. We explored ways to support each other across borders by initiating collaboration and establishing communities of practice. Over enchiladas in Pátzcuaro’s busy square and during contemplative walks in the gardens of the Casa Werma retreat …

Contemplative Empowerment and Social Change

    Cover design by Alicia Brown   Download Individual Articles Below Editor’s Introduction We are pleased to share with you our first peer-reviewed collection, embodying The Arrow’s mission to create a space for rigorous, scholarly investigation of the relationship between contemplative practice and teachings on the one hand and issues of politics, economics, ecology, and activism on the other. With this issue, we break new ground in the field of contemplative studies by examining directly the ways in which mindfulness practices and contemplative teachings can be put in service of responsible citizenship, social justice, and social transformation. With the commodification of mindfulness and yoga continuing apace, and with most scholarly research on these practices still focusing on their individual benefits—psychological and physiological—we are thrilled to publish this first peer-reviewed issue, featuring articles that bring the political relevance of such practices and teachings into relief. In “Good-for-Nothing Practice and the Art of Paradox: The Exemplary Citzenship of Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Dean Mathiowetz explores meditation as one method that may help people to embody qualities essential to …

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 …

Post-Election Forum

In December 2016, we invited authors and readers to participate in a post-election forum in response to the question: What guidance and skillful means can wisdom traditions and contemplative practices provide for addressing pressing issues of systemic suffering in the face of mounting obstacles? On the eve of the inauguration, we are excited to publish five reflections on this question. Contents Upstream and Downstream: The Sacred Importance of Joining Contemplative Practice and Political Engagement by James Rowe The Thousand Eyes of Knowing and Action by Lisa Maloof Interrogating the Nature of Identity in an Age of Rising Nationalism by Ajit Pyati Open Up, Lean In, Stay With: Contemplative Practices in Uncertain Times by Jessica A. Stern The Four Immeasurables: Heart Practices for Challenging Times by Kristin Barker

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 …

Illustration of protestors confronting police dressed in riot gear

Why Buddhists Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “Us vs. Them Thinking”

An often-rehearsed refrain in Buddhist and contemplative communities is that we need to overcome “Us vs. Them thinking” (or what I’ll abbreviate as UVTT). This intention makes perfect sense. Dualistic thought informs many of the vexing otherings that shape our social worlds, otherings along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, ability (the sad string goes on and on). Inasmuch as UVTT contributes to systems of domination, then it should be transformed. But this is not the most common argument I hear from fellow Buddhists and contemplatives. Instead the most regular critique of UVTT is directed towards activists and toward social movements themselves. The argument runs like this: Activists are in danger of replicating dualistic and oppositional thought in the way they conceive of and confront their adversaries. I recently spoke with Dawn Haney from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), an organization on the leading edge of engaged Buddhism. She reported how during Occupy Wall Street, the BPF heard from a number of Buddhists worried about the language of the 99% vs. the 1%. …

Illustration of bathhouse

Out of the Shopping Mall and into the Bathhouse

At the beginning of August, I flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong to attend a friend’s wedding. It’s now possible to make the four-hour journey for as low as $100 each way, courtesy of the growing number of low-cost carriers that connect East Asia’s dozens of megacities. I sprung for the cheapest flight I could find, which happened to depart Tokyo at 6:20 AM. Perhaps because the bus I rode through the hushed early-morning streets was completely empty, when I walked into the new 24-hour international terminal building just after 4:00 AM, I was disoriented to discover a sprawling duty-free shopping mall with fully staffed sales counters and bustling with foreign customers making last-minute purchases of luxury bags, perfume, and heated toilet seats. If the tourism industry typically revolves around the commodification and consumption of places of difference—foreign locales with exotic cultural, culinary, linguistic, and physical characteristics—international travel is now driven increasingly by the opposite desire: to spend time in “non-places” with no cultural or social distinctions: the airports and shopping malls filled with familiar …

Beyond Economics in the Case Against Fracking

On a spring evening in Southern California, with too much school work and an uncooperative clock ticking away the day’s warmth, I glanced outside my window to find the sky imbued with the color of a sunset. Captured by its beauty and magic, I wondered whether I should take a break from writing my undergraduate thesis to watch. As the sky shifted from yellow-orange to reddish-pink, my thoughts turned to a cost-benefit analysis: “Is it worth it to go outside and watch? A break would interrupt my progress right now. On the other hand, refreshing myself might increase my productivity for the next half hour before dinner.” By then, of course, the sky had faded into deep purple, the sun slipping over the horizon. As an overworked college student, evaluating actions in terms of productivity was common. Even now, several years after Microeconomics initially offered a powerful language for describing human decision-making, marginal utility remains a convenient—if not a little contrived—way of understanding my everyday choices. Indeed, since its inception, the field of economics has …

Illustration of landscape with thunderclouds and rain storm

A Din amid Quiet Ruins

A year ago on a bright summer morning in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, I took a break from a study on community water I was conducting to explore the countryside. All around me were the fields and orchards of Hispano ranchers whose Pueblo and Spanish ancestors had watered these lands for countless generations. A friend of mine among them, a builder and farmer and sometime engineer with the strength of a linebacker, said he’d take me to a trailhead of a place unlike anything I had ever seen, so long as I promised not to tell anyone exactly where it was. “We don’t want all kinds of people driving up and down the road, parking their cars, snapping pictures,” he said. I agreed, eagerly accepting his invitation. On the way to the canyon, he told me the trail would lead me upward to the ruins of a village of the ancient ones, the ancestral Puebloans, who lived in this place for generations and left mysteriously about seven hundred years ago. Most speculate …

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo
Photograph by Sam Holden

Rituals of Urban Life in Post-Growth Tokyo

Recently, as I pondered how the rituals of life in modern Tokyo emerged and evolved alongside the growth of the city, and what the rituals of post-growth Tokyo could become, I spent an afternoon wandering through Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in western Tokyo that is popular for its sense of local charm. Since the end of the war the neighborhood has organically evolved into a mosaic of jazz bars and quiet cafes, shops filled with exotic fabrics and quirky trinkets, and artisans and residents who make their homes in a disorderly web of alleyways that emanate from the crossroads of two train lines. In a little second floor used book shop, I plucked a book off a shelf filled with titles on memory and ruins. My Map of Tokyo, written by Ineko Sata in 1949, is an elegy of the author’s lived experience of the city, recounting walks through the neighborhoods of her past, wooden planks over dirt alleyways lined by row houses, the oily smell of grilled meat wafting across the grounds of a quiet …

Illustration depicting various abstract protest scenes from Occupy Wallstreet

Through Rites, All Things Flourish

The Power of the Ceremonial in Classical Confucianism and in Contemporary Rituals of Dissent Abstract “The fate of our times is characterized, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” This, Max Weber’s 1919 characterization of modernity, presaged what many have come to see as a crisis of meaning in our contemporary world. Some have argued that our “secular age,” with its pluralistic, relativized, and dominantly scientific episteme, fails to supply the sense of meaning that was once ensured through the myths and rituals that bound communities together under the promise of harmonization with sacred, cosmic order. And whether one agrees or not with the characterization of modernity as a disenchanted space threatening moral disorientation and existential doubt, it is clear that formal religious rituals no longer play a definitive role in organizing society at large. Ceremony may seem like a relic of an enchanted past, or the plaything of those who keep up ancient traditions in modern contexts. But perhaps we are not all that divorced from the power of ceremony and the enchantment of myth, …

All That Is Solid Melts into the Air, All That Is Holy Is… Marxist?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a self-proclaimed Marxist, or at least half of one. This ideological preference is little-known but longstanding; in a 1993 interview he noted that “of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability.” But a key problem the Dalai Lama has identified within Marxism is a lack of compassion for the totality of humanity, including economic elites…

Illustration of fly and bottle

Practicing Society

—Practices of Self, Society, and Time on the Way to Personal and Societal Transformation— Abstract While there is no fundamental separation between personal and social transformation, modern conceptions of the self (as internal) and society (as external) can construct unnecessary obstacles for the theorization and practice of contemplative social movements. Instead of imagining a fluid and interdependent relationship between transformations in subjectivity—such as shifts in psychological experience, identity, and awareness—on the one hand, and shifts in socio-economic and political circumstances, on the other, we may be led to imagine a situation in which we must first make “inner” change and then subsequently enact “external” structural change. In this article, I offer a practice-oriented view that understands the sense of self as embedded in everyday social practices, and society itself as a practice, as a way to remove these unnecessary obstacles. In the space opened up, we can better conceive of spiritual practices that include the socio-political realm and socio-political practices that include transformations in subjectivity. The primary example that allows me to trace these themes …

Illustration of two forks facing in opposite directions

Society as Possibility

—On the Semantic Range of the Tibetan Term Sipa— Abstract Tibet has been credited as a repository of ancient wisdom, even as its political and social systems prior to 1950 have been viewed more ambiguously. The three-century rule under the auspices of successive Dalai Lamas has been condemned by some as an oppressive feudal theocracy and idealized by others as a Shangri-la ruled by a benevolent “god-king.” What vision of society is captured in usages of the Tibetan term sipa, which can mean both “society” and “possibility,” and how has this been reimagined in recent decades? One avenue to pursue such a question would be to look at the deployment of this term and its implications as the Tibetan government in exile has transitioned to democracy. Instead, I am interested in charting a different type of innovation, one in which the Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa and his son and lineage heir Sakyong Mipham have probed the valences of the term sipa and fashioned a fresh vision for contemporary society. —Download full article below— Download Article …