Thanks, folks, for your comments and support and accompaniment on this journey. It continues to feel challenging to write about. I feel like I’m encountering lots of new information and useful resources, and part of me feels I should report on them all to you… sort of like a “book report” from school days. But that feels daunting and probably impossible and likely redundant. Then there’s all the internal landscapes, which are perhaps more the territory I should be mapping and sharing. That, too, feels daunting.
So, the other day I asked myself: What would be useful to me to reflect on, with an audience who might possibly benefit? What is alive in me at this moment? Here’s what came:
There is a tenderness. A slowing down. Saying “no” to some things I’d planned to do, to make more spacetime for myself, for reflection, for just being. A greater awareness, at times of my pattern of striving. Of feeling like I need to do more. That my being isn’t enough.
There was a lot more I was planning to say in my last post, and decided I should save it for a “part 2.” I planned to include the quote from Rabbi Hillel (which my Uncle Joe quoted in the comments):
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
I do think there is a “simple but not easy” thing about balance – what Buddhists call the “middle way.” A lot of Buddhism is about becoming aware of our ego and its grasping and its aversion, and learning to let go of the sense of a separate self and have compassion for others.
Even Buddhists believe, though, that developing a healthy ego and ability to love the self is an important step along the way to enlightenment. Last year at a Q&A session during a retreat with Yongyey Mingyur Rinpoche I asked him about this: if our goal is to realize that the self is an illusion, why do we do lovingkindness meditation for ourselves (“may I be happy, may I be well” etc.)? His answer was very helpful (dare I say “enlightening”?!) He said that all concepts are illusions, but that some illusions are healthier than others. For instance, both permanence and impermanence are just concepts. But believing in permanence leads to more suffering, when the people and things we love change, than if we understood and meditated on impermanence. So, there is a healthier way to have a sense of “self,” and an unhealthier way. Having love for the self is healthier, and a better basis for loving others.
I was contemplating this idea of a healthy ego a few years ago after watching the classic movie Lilies of the Field. In it the itinerant African American handyman Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) pours his heart and soul into building a chapel for some Eastern European nuns and their LatinX congregants in the Arizona desert. The nuns insist God has sent him, and thank God for his labors, rather than thanking or paying him. He does the work despite feeling disrespected, because of his own unfulfilled dream of being an architect.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here that I haven’t even begun to think about, about the race, gender, immigration, and interreligious dynamics of this story. The movie is worth seeing for many reasons including the amazing gospel song “Amen.” Part of what has stayed with me was how Smith’s actions were both feeding his own pride and fulfilling a plan for the greater good. Perhaps knowing what our deepest selves want to do and staying as true as we can to that, is a way of serving others.
It relates, too, to a favorite quote of mine from Martha Graham:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open.
In order to be a channel, to deliver a flow from source to destination, there must be boundaries. I often tell people I’m coaching that a healthy ego is like the boundaries of the channel.
But what of the third clause of the famous Hillel quote, “If not now, when?” I recently read something about how whenever we as white people are feeling compelled to do something out of urgency, we should stop and check—will taking this action recapitulate the current power structure?
For instance, two years ago I helped bring a generative somatics training here to Wisconsin. I assumed that after the training people would want to get together to practice regularly, and that I would be leading those practices, as the person with the most training. I felt anxious about this but very determined to make it happen. And I felt it needed to happen quickly, while people’s experience of the workshop was fresh.
Now, some of that thinking was well-grounded. Generative somatics is a deep, long-term path and lineage, and its leaders are rigorous about who is considered qualified to lead in it, based on who embodies the practices. And, the theory of change in the methodology involves an interplay between three processes: “awareness,” “opening,” and “practice.” A 4-day intensive workshop like the one we hosted is a great opportunity for new awareness – noticing our default patterns, understanding their gifts and their limitations, and opening—experiencing moments of letting go of old ways of being and briefly embodying new ones; New shapes, flows of energy, ways of moving and speaking. But in order to transform – to have sustainable change—we need to practice these new ways of being. And practice. And practice.
At the first gathering after the training, I acted on these assumptions. I came prepared to lead, and attempted to do so. And got serious push-back from some of the attendees. People of color in the group felt there were too many issues of race and class that had come up in the training to feel comfortable practicing together, especially if it was to be led by white people. So, I backed off, listened, and attempted to support their leadership.
It felt excruciating to wait for the people who had volunteered to take the next step—an email update to the rest of the group who hadn’t attended the meeting. I felt like it should happen sooner than it was happening. Much sooner. And when I sat with that feeling, I realized that a lot of my feelings had to do with my own performance anxiety – that people were expecting to hear from me, and if they didn’t, they’d think I was slacking. I am extremely averse to people thinking I’m slacking! I also felt like I was the one with the time, attention, and energy for the task, and that without me it might not happen.
Well, again, some of these assumptions were well-grounded. I don’t know if anyone thought I was slacking, but it did prove difficult to get any momentum going, and we still don’t have a regular somatics practice group here. So, was I right, and should I have plunged ahead? I don’t think so. For one thing, I think they were right, that I wasn’t ready to lead a mixed-race practice group (and maybe not even an all-white one). For another thing, if I’m the only one who is clear that something should happen and who has time and attention for it, maybe I’m mistaken that it is a high priority! Maybe it’s a higher priority for me to learn how to support and follow the leadership of people of color, and, maybe, if they want to, build a cross-class, mixed-race leadership team. And that requires slowing down.
Yet clearly not all moments of feeling urgency are ones that should be questioned. There are immediate, life-and-death situations. And there are a lot of slightly-slower-moving catastrophes unfolding, and a lot of long-standing immoral social structures that kill numerous people (and species) daily. Slowing down is something I can afford to do a lot of because of my privilege, and if those of us who can, do too much of it, especially without figuring out how to share this access to reflective space with the less privileged, then slowing down, too, will recapitulate the status quo, allowing atrocities to go unchecked.
At a weekend meditation retreat I attended in October, Jack Lawlor of Lakeside Buddha Sangha gave a dharma talk on Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition of socially engaged Buddhism. Jack spoke of many ways that developing mindfulness and compassion can support our work for positive social change. He also told us about a conversation he once had with Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thây”) about Thây’s relationship with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of Jack’s take-aways was that the two had somewhat different approaches, Thây’s a more slow approach to developing the wisdom and compassion to act skillfully, and King’s approach more focused on what in his April 4th 1967 speech at Riverside Church he called “the fierce urgency of now.” Jack said he wished the two great leaders had been able to continue their friendship so they could have figured out how to creatively marry the two approaches.
That work of balancing is ours to do now. In addition to balancing self and other, healthy ego and surrender (including, for white people, following the lead of people of color), we must also learn how to balance the need to slow down with the fierce urgency of now. Perhaps the famous Hillel quote “if not now, when” could be heard not as a rhetorical question, a “just do it now” exhortation, but as more of what Parker Palmer would call an “open, honest question”: “Is now the time to act? And if not now, then when?”