A happy, peaceful demo

Coming to this late, but I’ve been ruminating.

The People’s Climate March was perhaps the most enjoyable demo I’ve ever been on. Maybe partly because I marched with my Buddhist group, and our staging area was on a block of West 58th St with many different faith groups, including a variety of other Buddhists. That was a new flavor for me—in the past I marched with political groups.

At the back of the block where we were, during a looong wait before we got to start walking, people were friendly, even joyful. The crowd was so dense toward the other end, where there were speakers, that we never got close enough to hear what they were saying. I walked around where I could and checked out who was there. Here are some of them (click any image for a full-res view):

A woman from the Earth Initiative of the Zen Mountain Monastery told me her group was studying the beliefs of “the other side,” in order to avoid “liberal self-righteousness.” I loved that motive. Someone should do the same for leftist self-righteousness. Any self-righteousness is like a pair of blinders. We want to apply our spiritual values to how we treat the planet, but what about our attitude toward those who don’t agree with us? I remember a friend saying she loved going on demonstrations because you could yell at people at the top of your voice. Of course anger (of which self-righteousness is one form) may initially motivate us, but is it a good way to get people to change?

A few more:

hawaiian leaves

These words are Hawaiian for “care for the earth.” These young women carried the leaves for a friend who couldn’t be there. They themselves were marching with the Episcopalians.

black institute

Walking down Sixth Avenue

 Franciscan friar

Franciscan friar

At last we got moving and merged into the larger demo which included many young people shouting the standard slogans: “Hey hey hey, ho ho ho, climate change has got to go!” “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!!!!”

But they weren’t angry and confrontational in the way I recall from demos dating back to Vietnam. The widely hailed “people power” of this march felt different from “Power to the people!”

The police too were different, especially in how they deployed barricades. I don’t know whether to credit Mayor de Blasio’s new policies or the nature of the march itself, but there was not that sense of being corralled and threatened that I felt at the antiwar demos of the past decade.

Meditators in Central Park. Sign reads "Earth Vigil"

Meditators in Central Park along the march route. Sign reads “Earth Vigil”

Two ironies:

On the subway going home I sat opposite two women who had a shopping cart loaded with copies of the newspaper of a far-left political party. Open-heartedness evaporated, self-righteousness surfaced: my first thought was “Hah! Glad they couldn’t get rid of all those papers.” I avoided eye contact so as not to have a paper shoved at me and be proselytized. But as I got up at my stop they called out to me. I pretended not to hear but they persisted so I finally looked at them.

“What brand are your shoes?” one called out.

“Keens,” I said.

“Oh, we thought so,” she exclaimed, and pointed to her friend’s feet, sporting Keens in a different style. There would have been some shoe discussion, but I had to get off before the doors closed. So, a lesson in finding commonality even with hard-line Communists.

Then I came home and learned that a friend in California was standing by ready to be evacuated because the roaring King fire was blasting its way toward her house through a forest dry as tinder due to the long drought there. A nervous few days, until the wind cooperated and the thousands of firefighters controlled the blaze. I marched, but she suffered.

 

Where does writing come from? (part 3)

In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.

Tibetan_Dharmacakra

The gankyil, a Tibetan Buddhist symbol of nonduality. By Kava09 and authors of File:Korea-Buk-01.jpg, File:Sam Taeguk.svg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)

Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.

One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.

He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”

I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.

“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.

He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”

I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”

He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.

And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.

My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?

Find out more about Jean Klein here and here.

 

Where does writing come from? (part 2)

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Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, Woman Writing in an Interior, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a writer, she knows what she’s talking about.

In an afterword to a collection titled Paris Stories, Gallant says:

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keepclick to go to Amazon book page going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement.

What interests me is this phrase holding the breath while going on breathing. And why it’s the basic requirement.

To me, it sounds like an ability to inhabit two alternate realities at the same time, or two different levels of existence, one a kind of internal timeless being and the other the world of objects in time. There is a meditation practice of shifting focus from an object of concentration to just the awareness of the knowing of that object. As I understand it, this practice trains you to be increasingly able to experience pure awareness.

With respect to writing, I think “holding the breath” equals accessing the timeless subjectless place ideas arise from, at the same time that you’re finding language and constructing sentences that make these ideas into an object—the words on the page (or screen) that exists in time and space. I’ve had the experience of dissolving into the process of writing such that my sense of myself simply evaporated. I have usually only gotten to this point when I was able to work continuously over a period of time. Once someone called me at such a time—not a close friend, but someone I knew more than casually—and I embarrassed myself by forgetting who she was.

This is the best experience of writing that I know of. Nothing beats it. Sometimes I think that my entire motivation for writing another book is just to have it again. Perhaps Mavis Gallant felt the same.

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Suzuki Harunobu, A Woman Writing, circa 1764–circa 1768, Brooklyn Museum

When did the universe begin—or did it? And what are we doing in our little piece of it? And …

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Two galaxies colliding.
Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College), et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA)

Theoretical physics doesn’t come easily to me, but Sean Carroll manages to put more of it across than I’d have thought possible for someone whose math education stopped at intermediate algebra. His book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time asks the question: Why does time only move in one direction?

The answer, says Carroll, is connected to the phenomenon of entropy, which also goes only one way: it increases. Exploring this connection leads him through some of the deepest questions scientists ponder: relativity, spacetime, quantum physics, the nature of the universe, and, ultimately, the meaning of human life. Why are we here? Is it by design of someone or something? Carroll rejects the argument from design. He sees us “not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon.” Meaning and purpose don’t arise from any “laws of nature” created by a divinity; they’re for us to determine. And he takes pride in the scientific struggle to understand those laws.

But I have another question: should we even be asking?

It turns out that these same grand questions were hot philosophical topics during the Buddha’s time. Many people wanted him to answer them, but he refused. There is a list of 10 of these “unanswerable” questions (14 in some traditions), including:

  • Is the universe eternal or not?
  • Is it finite or infinite?
  • Are the soul and body the same thing or different?
  • Does an enlightened person still exist after death?

And so on. The Buddha explained that trying to answer these questions doesn’t help end suffering but actually increases it, and furthermore doesn’t lead to awakening, or enlightenment. The questions are only a distraction.

Nor is he the only sage to take this position. A very highly realized teacher I was fortunate to see several times—said to be enlightened himself—was asked, “When did the universe begin?” He responded, “The question is meaningless: there is no time and space.” When someone else wanted to know, “What is the meaning of life?” he said, “You can’t ever know the answer to that, so why think about it?”

Click image for more info from HubbleSite

Never before seen galaxies that existed shortly after the Big Bang, billions of years distant, photographed by the Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF Team. Click image for more info from HubbleSite.

So why did I want to read the Carroll book? Because I would like to know the nature of the universe, especially since that might shed light on the nature of the self, another of those unanswerable questions that interests me even more.

I’ve struggled a bit with this desire to know, and concluded that my interest isn’t just metaphysical; it’s practical. That is, I don’t want simply to define the self in absolute terms, but still more to understand how the ways we conceptualize it affect us, as individuals and as a society. We may aspire to the realm of the absolute, but we also lead everyday, relative lives, and on this plane how we define our self is important, because it determines how we live, and our impact on everyone around us.

No doubt knowing the answers to the unanswerable questions would enable us to construct an absolute definition of ourselves. But since we can’t, best to admit that all the definitions we have made are relative. So perhaps the best answer to the questions in the title of this post is: Who knows?

Where does writing come from? (part 1)

Angelica Kauffman painting

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The painter is at left.

I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)

She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.

When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.

Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)

In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.

I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned,  Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.

Poussin_Inspiration_of_the_poet_Louvre

Nicolas Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630). A poet writes under the inspiration of Apollo, who is accompanied by a muse and two cherubs.

It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.

And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.

Between the Door and the Street: the stoop, and a conversation

Between the Door and the Street: conversationSitting by a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with three other women, discussing gender politics—as an art form. The yellow scarves signal that we’re part of Between the Door and the Street, a work of socially engaged art by California artist Suzanne Lacy. We were among 84 groups on stoops along the block, “performing” our unscripted conversations for a large crowd that strolled the sidewalk, stopping and listening at different stoops as they chose. We stoop sitters represented a huge range of local activist groups.

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street

Photo by Matt Weinstein.

My own group’s subject was second-wave feminism—how it changed us, how it changed society—and what didn’t change. Women still earn less than men; they still take on more responsibility for house and children. Rape remains a huge problem. These facts tell me that even though women now take on roles they rarely had before—CEOs, elected officials, and so on—the underlying power structure remains intact. Moreover, despite all advances, women as women remain deeply problematic, for their sexuality and ability to generate life frighten men. This is no less true today than it was centuries ago when the witches were persecuted in Europe. It’s why feminists have asserted that rape is primarily an issue of power, not of sex (I wrote about this fear in my book The Women Outside).

The four of us on the stoop had a great time talking to each other, but except for a couple of moments when we got a laugh, I had no idea how people were responding. It was really supposed to be performance, and we’d been told not to break the fourth wall, so I tried diligently not to look at them. When at the end we were cued to go out into the street, we did talk to a few people, but those who had listened earlier and moved on were gone. I think this fluidity is a signature quality of Lacy’s work—very Buddhist.

Interesting phenomenon: so many women there looked fabulous, incredibly attractive.

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

It wasn’t just that they knew how to put themselves together (although the scarf-tying creativity on display blew me away), but that they knew who they were. Beyond mere self-confidence, I saw a sculpting of their being, a refinement that showed in their features—a chiseled look arising from experience and the wisdom gleaned from it. Look through this portfolio of photos by local photographer Matt Weinstein, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

In the same way, when someone is a dedicated meditator, their practice often shows in their face, which appears both well defined and quite open—undefended, since the person has no need to feel defensive. There is no hiding, the full being shines out.

Such people have digested experience into something that nourishes spiritual health. The clothes, hair, and makeup on the women last Saturday all looked good because they knew who they were and weren’t trying to be someone. Not surprisingly, the real stars in this respect were middle-aged and older.

Floored by a foot

A six-by-three-foot foot. It sat like a huge bench right by the elevators at the Asia Society, part of an exhibit titled “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art.”

This gigantic stone carving of the Buddha’s right foot, inscribed with 108 auspicious symbols, packed a wallop, more than anything I saw in the exhibit rooms. It felt personal and close, as though the Buddha had just been there, striding through the lobby on his way to the galleries. You could sense the sculptor’s pure longing to feel his presence. I had never seen a Buddha footprint before, and went home to figure out why it moved me so.

Buddha footprintI did some research and discovered that Buddha footprints (buddhapada, in Sanskrit) are quite common. Both artist-created footprints and “real” prints—foot-shaped impressions on rock, believed to have been made by the Buddha himself—were and still are objects of devotion throughout Buddhist Asia. (The image at the left is of second-century Buddha footprints from northern India at Yale University Art Gallery; the one I saw at the exhibit is here.)

In fact footprints (handprints too) have been created and venerated across cultures and history all over the world—from the Chauvet caves in France 30,000 years ago to a temple in Syria dating from 10,000 BCE to the prints of movie stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. One famous “natural” footprint, at the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, is claimed by Buddhists; by Hindus (as the footprint of Shiva); by Muslims (as the print of Adam); and by Christians (as the print of St. Thomas the Apostle).

There are also footprint paintings. Many Tibetan thangkas (paintings on cloth) include the actual handprints and/or footprints of the lamas they depict. But it was the three-dimensional carvings, conveying as they do a sense of the Buddha’s corporeality, that touched me most.

So I started thinking about feet. I read about their symbolic, metaphysical, and psychological associations, the ambiguous nature of the footprint as indicator of both presence and absence, mortality and divinity.

Scrolling through the “Buddha’s Footprint Inspiration Gallery” on a tattoo website, I found:

[The footprint] reminds us that the spiritual life has its feet on the ground, and that while we aspire to “transcendence,” we should never lose awareness of the material plane of existence. At the same time, a disembodied foot speaks of Buddha’s absence, the absence of the human personality, and by extension, his non-attachment to this life.

I love symbols, so I found all this fascinating. More:

  • A central Buddhist teaching is the noble eightfold path, the “way” to enlightenment. What else but a footprint to represent it?
  • A footprint’s ambiguity makes it a type of liminal, or transitional, space. You can imagine yourself filling the Buddha’s shoes (as it were), being imbued with his spirit. Suddenly this thing we’ve been assured we have—our intrinsic Buddha-nature—connects with its universal manifestation.

But none of this really answered my question.

Finally I found a report by Faxian, a fifth-century Chinese pilgrim traveling through India. He came across a buddhapada that changed size depending on who observed it. It was either long or short, noted Faxian, “according to the thoughtfulness of a man’s heart.”

“It exists,” Faxian added, “and the same thing is true about it, at the present day. Here also are still to be seen the rock on which he dried his clothes, and the place where he converted the wicked dragon.”

So perhaps the footprint I saw—which I’m happy to note was pretty long—helped open my heart. It tamed whatever dragon might be making me feel more wicked than I needed to be.

Note: for someone else’s very personal reaction to Buddha footprints, see this blog post.

Where’s the OUTRAGE?

A city dweller—a true child of concrete—once spent the weekend with a friend in the suburbs. The friend’s cat snared a bird and as cats will do, deposited the corpse as a gift on the doorstep. The city visitor was indignant. “Aren’t you mad at Rudy for killing the pretty bird?” she demanded.

“Why should I be angry at a creature for acting according to its nature?” the friend responded.

Even at the time, I perceived a real wisdom in this answer (that city creature wasn’t me, by the way). But only recently do I see why.

Sorry, I was going to post photos of a couple of these billboards—they sure have great entertainment value—but decided I didn’t want to give those vodka makers any more publicity for than they already have. I hope that’s an example of wise discrimination. Photo by Gary Deibler.

Not long ago a friend showed me a photo of a now infamous Wodka Vodka billboard near the Brooklyn Bridge. On a red background, next to an image of a vodka bottle together with a lamb wearing something resembling a sombrero (don’t ask me!), a headline read “ESCORT QUALITY—HOOKER PRICING.” It was one of a series of so-called shock ads; others included “CHRISTMAS QUALITY—HANUKKAH PRICING” (two dogs, one wearing a yarmulke) and “BLACK RUSSIAN,” showing a muscular black man in a wifebeater and a fur hat in front of an image of the Kremlin. The Jewish/ Christian one had been taken down following a storm of outrage.

My friend had shot the photo with his cell phone while driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He showed it to me in anticipation of feminist outrage. But I didn’t produce any, and I think he was rather disappointed. I thought the billboard was pretty disgusting, but I couldn’t work up any ire over it.

Fact is, I don’t get angry as much as I used to. That’s where the cat story comes in. Creatures (including people) are the way they are, they act according to their nature. And they may or may not be at a place where their nature can become kinder, gentler, wiser, whatever. If what they do is harmful, you try to prevent them from doing it, but more and more, indignation and outrage seem to me like a waste of time and energy—even a form of self-indulgence.

Occupy Wall Street: a spiritual movement?

The other day I visited Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti “Park,” essentially a paved strip one block long between tall buildings. What struck me first was how dense it is. Little

Tents at OWS, photo by Atomische • Tom Giebel

bubble tents are close-packed, with narrow aisles here and there so you can thread your way through. Almost all the square footage is taken up by these tents and by various organizational/ administrative booths: the “Think Tank” where seminars and lectures are held, the Library (writers, note: lots of real books), Information, Community Affairs, and Legal. A large hand-lettered sign listed a full schedule of activities for the day: seminars, speakers, actions.

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Sanitation department, photo by David Shankbone

Not everyone was young. Middle aged and elderly people staffed booths, held signs, played guitars and banjos, wandered around in costume talking to visitors.

The low wall surrounding the park marks a marginal area where occupiers engage the outside world. Sign holders, musicians, people offering flyers present themselves to a lineup of onlookers wielding video and still cameras—many press people and lots of tourists. The site is only a couple of blocks from the WTC memorial, so the tourists make this another stop.

At the west end, on Church Street, I encountered a group of about 10 nattily outfitted senior citizens from Westchester, who had driven down to Fort Lee in New Jersey, then cycled into Manhattan. “We do this every year,” one man told me, so this year they picked OWS as their destination. He reminisced about the 60s, when construction workers beat up anyone with long hair. His group smiled quite kindly on the occupiers.

The level of organization and community structure in the park is remarkable. Signs hang from the wall:

  • To reach an OWS Community Affairs Representative, call __________.
  • Good neighbor policy: Zero tolerance for drugs or abuse of personal or public property (and about a half-dozen more items I didn’t write down).
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The altar, photo by David Shankbone

I browsed my way through the tents, behind a young man with dustpan and broom who was sweeping the foot-wide aisle between two rows. The occupiers represent a great variety of groups, ranging from far-lefties to the people who set up the altar that sits at the west end near the wall, on which at least one man sat apparently meditating. The photo shows one side of the altar.

I noticed several statues of the Buddha, images of Hindu gods and Kwan Yin, incense, plants, beads, pebbles, little medallions, an orange pepper, a photo of Gandhi (“he would have been here,” said its sign), feathers, pumpkins, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Tibetan scarves. Nearby a trumpet accompanied a group of drummers. I dug out of my handbag a foreign coin that my colleague Mary, who sold me the purse, had slipped into a compartment for feng shui (never leave a purse or wallet empty, she advised me) and left it in the lap of a Buddha as a token from both of us.

Everything goes on against a background of continuous music: drumming but also guitars, in groups and solo. It heightens the heady, high-spirited atmosphere. Inside the park it feels like school is suspended for the day; there’s a rent in the fabric of everyday life allowing something extraordinary to flow in, something joyous and completely unprecedented. My question, like that of so many others, is: will this produce anything meaningful?

Wandering back along the other side of the park, I encountered a man holding a sign that read “I am not a protester—I am a change agent” being interviewed on video for a website. I asked what his sign meant. “This movement is different,” he said, “because what we need is a shift in consciousness. We can’t change the system using the same methods as past movements of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We need to align our energy and attention with what we want to happen, not waste it on anger.” His name is Steven Morrison, and he teaches sessions in the park in what he calls the Spiritual Workout. “Everything is energy,” he says, and by increasing the number of people who make this shift in consciousness, we can actually shift reality—something he believes is already being demonstrated by the growth of the OWS movement.

Now I’ve heard all this before. In fact I’ve seen people who profess these same ideas stuck way up in the air, spinning a fantasy so enchanting that they quite lose their grasp on reality. Until reality proves intractable, and they hit the ground with a crash. So I couldn’t help feeling dubious.

Many commentators have asked, “What are their demands?”  Like others, Steven answers that these protesters aren’t making demands, because the system that exists isn’t capable of responding. Look at Congress. It can’t do anything.

This is true. We really do need a paradigm shift. So my question is: how do you keep your feet on the ground and stay connected to reality while doing what you can to make that shift happen? How do you know whether you’re lost in a dream world, spinning brightly colored wheels in the air?

I’m hardly the wise person on this, but my experience in organizing and political protest, plus my Buddhist training, suggest that at least one major component of any paradigm shift will be letting go of anger. Many people on the left learned activism as an expression of anger. Think of the vocabulary: Fight! Struggle! Outrage! And as a Buddhist would say, they’re still clinging to that anger.

When I worked with homeless women, I learned why anger feels so  good. Physiologically, it gets the adrenalin flowing; you feel empowered, invincible, righteous, alive.  You actually get addicted to the high. And like any form of attachment it prevents you from seeing clearly with what Buddhists call ‘wise discrimination.” You don’t notice that you aren’t really invincible—you’re not even all that righteous.

This week, some commentators suggested that OWS has indeed created a change: it’s shifted the public dialogue. The Obama administration wouldn’t have backed off the Keystone XL oil pipeline otherwise. A change in consciousness isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but despite my doubts I’m still hoping this time something really has shifted. Well, we’ll see.

The sky of mind: vast like space

Buddhist meditators practice experiencing the mind as a vast, clear sky, through which thoughts, feeings, and all other experiences pass like clouds, appearing and then vanishing in an open space of awareness that’s not limited to the inside of the head. (Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes this practice here.)

Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Blue Sky combines that image of the mind as vast open sky with an experience I’ve had when writing at a very deep level. Part of the conceptual work for my books about homeless women and about self-sacrifice was simply discovering what they were actually about. I came across incidents, articles, and books, and generated images from my imagination, that I knew were important, but I didn’t know why, or what exactly they meant. And normal-type thinking about them didn’t help. Read more