What Now? (part 2)

In my last post, written in the week immediately following Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, I suggested two practices that might be of value during the troubling times to come – be more continuously mindful, and become more effectively engaged.  For the past four months, I’ve been working with both of these practices.  Now, in this continuation post, I want to first look back and examine what’s been working for me and what hasn’t, and then look forward and explore how I intend to proceed with these practices.

1. Looking back

In terms of the first practice – being more continuously mindful – I mentioned last time that one of my teachers had urged all of us in the sangha to strive to be “strong practitioners” in light of the post-election events taking shape in Washington, D.C.  For me, being a strong practitioner has meant being more rigorous about sitting in meditation for twenty minutes first thing each morning.  In the past, I decided on a morning-to-morning basis whether I would sit or not as a matter of personal convenience – did I really feel like sitting on that particular morning, or did it suit me better to skip the sitting and get right to the day’s business?  Now, I simply sit – no more daily deciding.

As a result, I’m meditating many more times a week than before.  That alone is a significant improvement.  But of even greater consequence, the commitment I’ve made to “just sit, period” every morning has me now approaching each day’s sitting less as a prescribed task that I ought to do, and more as an essential activity that I need, and want, to do.

And that has really made a difference.  The subtle shift in how I approach sitting meditation – from a required task to a desirable activity – has spilled over into many other aspects of my day.  Even the most mundane and least loved of chores – laundry, shopping, paying bills – I’m now seeing more as essential activities in their own right, and deserving of my time simply because they are there and need to be done.

This experience has reminded me of one of my favorite teachings from Thich Nhat Hahn.  “Washing dishes is at the same time a means and an end – that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”  {Peace Is Every Step, p.27}

I’ve spent most of my life not living fully in each moment, but rather in anticipation of the next moment, the next day, or just about anywhere in the future.  I’ve always experienced time from a scarcity perspective – there’s never enough of it (or so I think) for what I want to do, and spending even a small amount of it on things I need to do brings on the unwelcome stress of feeling that I’m wasting my already-too-scarce reserve of time.

But as I become more adept at approaching every task and event – no matter how trivial – as deserving of my time in that moment, I experience less stress about “wasting time” and less worry about all those undone projects still waiting for me in the next moments.  This more easeful way of navigating through the day’s agenda is allowing me to enjoy a noticeably increased sense of equanimity – a welcome benefit growing out of the more rigorous daily meditation practice I’ve assumed in my effort to be more continuously mindful.

As for the second practice – becoming more effectively engaged – I’ve taken on a number of new initiatives in these past four months, all in response to the onset of the Trump administration.  I signed on with Peoples Climate Movement and joined four busloads of fellow Buddhist activists in the march to the White House on April 29th.  I re-opened my long-dormant Facebook account, where I’m posting on an almost daily basis articles and videos that, in my opinion, offer thoughtful commentary on the words and deeds pouring out of the Oval Office everyday.  (If you’re on Facebook and would like to have these posts as part of your newsfeed, do please send me a “friend” invite.)  And I’ve been looking into several well-known socially engaged Buddhist organizations, such as Buddhist Global Relief and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for opportunities to become further involved.

However, while each of these activities has contributed to my sense of becoming more engaged, none of them feels like the engagement I’m looking for.  The guiding teacher of my meditation group, Allan Lokos, tells this story of how he came to establish our group, the Community Meditation Center, in 2007.  He had been studying Buddhism with such acclaimed teachers as Thich Nhat Hahn and Sharon Salzberg for about ten years, when one day it occurred to him that he wanted to found a meditation center.  When asked why, he had no answer.  But the desire persisted, and when he confided to a trusted advisor that he could not answer the question of why he wanted to do this, his advisor replied, “Sometimes, there’s just something we have to do.”  And with this guidance in mind, Lokos went on to establish a meditation center in 2007 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that has thrived for ten years.

I’m keeping this story in mind as I continue to search for that one thing that I have to do.

2. Looking forward

As for being more continuously mindful, my task seems pretty straightforward.  Don’t allow myself to slip from the discipline of “just sit, period” every morning.  Don’t allow that growing sense of equanimity to begin slipping away.  The times continue to be rife with uncertainty and upset, and tempt us daily to react unskillfully, out of fear and anger.  With equanimity, we are better able to respond – not react – to each new event skillfully, in the most efficacious manner possible.

When it comes to becoming more effectively engaged, however, my task is anything but straightforward.  Sure, it’s easy to do a google search and come up with a list of socially engaged Buddhist organizations, but all that results from that kind of objective research is data about those organizations.  The research I really need to conduct is the subjective kind – a deep dive within to discover that one thing that I have to do in response to the current political situation.

My teacher suggests that one way to approach this search is to simply allow it to unfold. At first, this sounds rather passive, but in fact, this notion of “allowing” involves an active, ongoing sense of awareness, of being acutely alert to whatever is arising at any given moment in any given circumstance, of being ready to recognize in an immediate and intuitive instant that “this is it … this is what I have to do.”

And what occurs to me as I write these words is that, here again, equanimity is essential. Just as its presence can help us to respond more skillfully to the stresses of these times, so too can equanimity help us to discern more accurately what actions these stressful times require of us.

So, it would appear that, for me, the unexpected outcome from the first practice of being more continuously mindful – a greater sense of equanimity – turns out to be the unexpected key ingredient in determining the successful outcome of the second practice of becoming more effectively engaged.

I will be continuing with both these practices in the weeks and months ahead, and will occasionally post about whatever progress I’m making with them.  In the meantime, I wish you this same equanimity as you work with your own practice in these turbulent times. May we each cultivate, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s acclaimed words …

… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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6 Responses to What Now? (part 2)

  1. smilecalm says:

    congrats on following heart’s aspiration
    of taking compassionate actions
    for yourself & the world, Tom!
    may each conscious breath
    offer relaxation & joy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Equanimity is all!
    Nice essay, Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erikleo says:

    apropos the washing dishes quote, at a recent talk by one of Throssel’s senior monks he said the way you pour milk over cornflakes is an expression of the Dharma. I took that to mean we can do it mindfully or with impatience, distraction or whatever. Easier said than done, as with all of this! As for the political dimension, we in the UK are poised for another shift – with our election on Thursday. And you have just seen President Urizen (Trumped) drop out of the Paris agreement. We live in dark times, eh Colin. . .

    Liked by 1 person

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