Trying to Save the World,
If not Quite Succeeding
James Myoun Ford
“Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”
Getting to the root problem seems the only effective way of addressing the issues of our lives. Many agree with this proposition. Does sort of makes sense, even if we have to work on the airplane even as we’re flying it.
But then things diverge. People describe differing root causes. We can in fact get quite ugly defending our favorite root cause. Totally understandable. There is a whole life and death thing going on. And there is so much suffering. Both inside and among. So, it’s critical to try and get it right. Even though I’ve come to feel there is no completely getting it right.
With that caution here I offer the best I can what I’ve found on my path.
So far the lens that has served my path toward personal healing and being of some use to others has been noticing. Paying attention. I’ve done this mostly through the spiritual disciplines of Zen Buddhism. Very effective tools to reveal human hearts. There are others. Although they all involve that distillation of what is going on within and around through quiet observation. Learning to hold still for a bit and watching is a powerful thing.
Me, as I’ve practiced those arts of presence through the Zen way I’ve found some things. First I’ve seen how nothing abides, all things pass away. However, at the same time I’ve seen how in human affairs and hearts, grasping, aversion, and various sorts of certainties keep arising in astonishing, kaleidoscopic manifestations. Fortunately, I’ve also seen how there are flips to these things. Grasping can be generosity, aversion can be clarity, and certainty can be curiosity. These things and their flips exist within us as individuals. And they exist among us as communities. Also, I believe this is a very important noticing: the line between individual and community is pretty porous.
What I observe is that from one perspective, we might think of it as the big perspective, nothing needs fixing. Everything was saved from the moment of the Big Bang. This is that everything-is-connected noticing. Its where the line between me as an individual and the community I live in, and, actually, everything else is revealed as in significant part a convention of language. Useful, but only partially true. We are all bound together within our multiplicity as one thing. Just a play of causes and conditions without meaningful beginnings or endings, just a great play of the cosmos. Pleroma is a term I’m finding increasingly helpful for attempting to put a word to the realization. And. All. Of. It. Perfect as it is.
Although from our intimate view that can be cold comfort. Especially if we use it as an excuse to turn away. Such seductions appear all along our way. The way can be hard, and painful, and it is easy to find a moment and declare I need go no farther. We can, and I believe through my observations of our human existence, we need to find that perspective of interpenetrating reality as a bone deep truth. It can in fact be more than comforting. It is a kind of liberation. It comes in flashes. I suspect as animals on this planet that’s how we need to encounter this big thing. It isn’t, after all, useful. But, finding it even in those flashes infiltrates our hearts and gives us critical information to help us on our way in the nitty gritty.
And, there is that more intimate perspective. Just as true as the big thing. Frankly it is here where we act and live and breathe, and let’s face it, take most of our being. Here, in this place of high and low, of causes and effects, our words and actions all matter.
Here we need to learn the arts of letting go, allowing that death grip which is our normal consciousness become an open hand. Here we need to learn how not to grasp at every passing thing, finding what we actually need. Turns out its less than we might otherwise feel. Here we need to learn to let go of our aversions, as one wise person once said, its like strapping a corpse to your body and walking around with it. Drop that weight. Here we need to learn to let go of certainties. Certainties cut us off from our lives. Be curious. Know that our human perspectives can be very clever, can see into all sorts of things, but new facts, new perspectives only await another moment.
Bottom line. The secret of the way as I’ve found it. Keep open. Find the generosity that naturally occurs when we notice we don’t need everything under the sun, find the clarity that comes from a settled mind observing escaping resentment and hatred, find that curiosity with which we were all born, but which we mostly lose over time. The how is both as easy as falling off a log and as difficult as a whole life. We accept the temporality of things, all things, we notice how our human consciousnesses and our communal perspectives are poisoned by those constantly arising constellations of grasping, aversion, and certainties and we can apply that insight to all sorts of situations. We might even be useful. We might even be useful.
After all, we get this far, then we run into a problem. Presented with the same facts on the ground, reasonable people in fact come up with different fixes. We have to accept that we all see through that glass darkly. This isn’t a call to settle into some status quo. That’s not actually one of the options. Within the reality of our mutability is another reality, everything changes. And everything made of parts indeed will come apart.
And, falling as we are, we’re also all in this together.
So, just a little humility is going to be helpful, as well. For me a hard won lesson. One, I admit, I forget. But the world continues to remind me.
This said here’s how the rubber hits the road for me. I describe it as sort of a case study.
First, the most personal. I need to look at my own heart and mind. Like I said, Zen works for me. You might find something that keeps you looking that disinclines you from noticing a truth and stopping there. It helps to have spiritual directors who have actually walked the path before and who seem to have had some success along the way. Mine have all been flawed. At various times I found that annoying. But over time I found I was grateful.
Second, I need to check my privileges. I’m a white male in a part of the world where that comes with benefits. I’m also married to a person of the opposite gender, and while things are a bit more complicated in my life than the bare words convey, that presentation comes with benefits. I need to notice what those benefits are, and especially to be aware of assumptions about myself, what I’ve earned and not, and the place of other people that probably are hidden within them.
In the immediate I need to listen when people who do not have those benefits state how that difference affects them. This can be hard to hear. For instance. Getting tangled up in generalizations regarding others, for instance white, heterosexual males who are in fact suffering terribly within the current state of affairs, while absolutely true, does not mean those benefits haven’t nonetheless accrued to me. I need to listen even when it is hard, even when it feels personal and unjust. Unjust is part of the way things are. It is part of our shared inheritance. Making things right, or trying is another part of that inheritance.
Probably at bottom the bottom of my personal existence and my various privileges, I need to let go of any assumption I did it all myself. Actually, if we look at what I’ve found and listed above, we know things are too intimately connected through multiple facets of causality to claim “I did it” is ever anything ever but a partial truth. Partial. Some. Lots of hard work on the way. That’s fair, too. But never I did it on my own. With a period.
Others have their own unconscious privileges. It would behove us all to see what ours are. To be grateful for what we have. But to know they often come at some cost to others. But for me the main issue is to note the two by four in my own eye.
Third, for me knowing in some critical and profoundly true way, there are no others has been critical. Or, rather, in our experienced world, finding how we are all related. Knowing there are these connections, I find I need to reorder how I treat people. Again those nesting Russian dolls. I find I have stronger obligations to those closest. But, I’m never off the hook for some sort of responsibility for others no how far distant the relationship might be. Ultimately this means some sense of responsibility for every thing on this planet, and the planet itself.
Me, I think of the issues of poverty, of hunger, of homelessness, of race, of women’s rights, of the whole of the LGBTQ community, of immigrants, and all who hurt. I think of the ecological catastrophe. I think of those whom I’ve loved and who have died. I think of my parents, I think of auntie, I think of my brother, and of my son. I think of where I am. I think of differences and of unity. I think of my life of practice. I think of loves. I think of failures. And successes. I think of losses. Regrets. Joys.
And then. Words fail.
And from there I vow the great vow.
I find a basket of attitudes and perspectives help.
Attentiveness. Kindness. Humility.
And from there, action.