November 15, 2016
Our Dear MBSR Friends,
Some of you have reached out to ask me to write something related to the election. First, let me say how grateful I am to my family members and all people of all parties who worked their hearts out for this election. It has not been my path to be an especially political person, but I have always been so grateful to everyone who has done that heavy lifting.
This year, nine days before we were to give our annual MBSR talk at the Grand Summit Hotel in Summit, we were sitting at our son, Triston's house, with three of our grand-children, watching the election returns come in and preparing to have a toast to my mother, whose whole life had been devoted to working for just causes. As it became clearer and clearer what the outcome was going to be, our thirteen year old grand-son began to weep as the rest of us sat there taking in the news. Although, I also was in shock, I found myself suddenly quiet and remembering a time when our family had shared a shock together before.
Feeling as though my mother was present, I suddenly found myself speaking from a place of great resolve, recalling for our grand-children: "A short while after 911, we were all sitting in a circle in our living room trying to deal with the trauma we were all experiencing when your grand-mother spoke out." She said, "When we, and the rest of the world, found out about the holocaust, we felt the world could never be the same. But, we were wrong. The world recovered. And, she added, it is my experience and understanding of history and of life, that the good has always outlasted the bad." I found myself adding, "We will always help you, but now, this needs to be an impetus for you to work with all your might to try to understand what has happened and to keep trying to make this a better world."
For me, going home that night in semi-disbelief, I found myself facing a question that I had begun to ask myself after hearing the author of "Hillbilly Elegy" speak on an interview show. I asked myself how I could have been so oblivious to the pain of so many people. I woke up with that question that next morning realizing that the people who some thought of as "deplorables" had made the headlines, but the real story for
me was all the good people who had been suffering. There were
so many people who had lost their jobs and their homes, feeling that big government had done nothing to help them, and that they had been forgotten, and so they voted for "change".
Another thing that came to my mind the next morning after the election was that just before I gave the November Summit Talk last year, the Paris attack had occurred, leading me to write then also about the experience of facing a great shock. That event led me to recollect a story I had heard Thich Nhat Hahn(the Buddhist teacher) tell. He spoke about how when the boat people were fleeing from the Vietcong at the end of the war, they were trying to save their families, friends and pets by loading them onto boats, however leaky, or even onto doors, and he commented that, "if one person in the boat was able to remain centered and quiet inside, it meant the difference between life and death for everyone in the boat." I found myself, now, post- election night, wondering if I could remain quiet enough to become much more reflective about what path needed to be taken now.
Last year, just a few days before the Paris attack, Kabat-Zinn spoke in NYC. One thing he shared was his belief that mindfulness is, at heart, about RELATIONALITY. In many ways, that's what this talk is about tonight-relationship with self as it is connected to our relationship
with others and with the quality of our lives.
A major premise of MBSR is that we frequently tend to live in a very small part of ourselves. As I was watching the current news I couldn't help wondering about how we human beings can become so identified with an ideology that we can lose all capacity for compassion. It is my experience that under duress we have the propensity to live in and identify with too small a part of ourselves, and perhaps too small a part of the country and the world.
A few years ago, I attended a Harvard Medical School Conference on Meditation and Psychotherapy in which the Dalia Lama was sitting up on the stage with a group of the most important leaders in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Kabat-Zinn, to whom he is close, and who was sitting next to him, was the only non- medical person on the stage. At one point the Dalai Lama in his customary pose of innocence began to chuckle after the conversation had become very "intellectual" and he suddenly asked the people on the stage and those of us in the audience, "What is modern psychology?" A number of very intellectual answers were offered and then suddenly Kabat-Zinn stood up and said with great intensity and clarity, "Modern psychology is the west's attempt to alleviate the suffering of those beings who have mistaken a small part of themselves for the whole."
A lifelong meditator myself, I find Jon Kabat-Zinn's approach to meditation a hugely beneficial resource and have come to understand why he says: "Do this as if your life depends on it, for it surely does!"
As Jim and I have tried to comprehend and explore the many dimensions of where we are as a country, Jim offered another angle on things. He reminded me that when Kabat-Zinn started the Stress Reduction work at the UMass Medical Center, he began by working with patients from in and around that area. If any of you have ever seen Bill Moyers' PBS special, "Healing and the Mind," from 1990, you may have seen the segment he did on Kabat-Zinn's work. That segment, along with Kabat-Zinn's first book, Full Catastrophe Living, catapulted JKZ into public awareness. The people he was working with who had been experiencing unremitting physical pain were from lower to lower middle class socio-economic status, living in Worcester, Mass., an area hurt by the closing of factories and the loss of jobs. After their physicians had tried everything that traditional medicine had to offer, it was to these people that Kabat-Zinn first brought his approach. His aim was to teach them skills which could empower them to have a different relationship to, and ultimately to be able to significantly lessen, their previously intractable physical and psychological pain. How was it that he was able to have people who drove trucks and do manual labor practicing yoga? For those folks yoga and meditation in the 1980s was considered "fringe," and what they might have described as "way out there." What was it that he had to offer that attracted these people to change their way of living?
The skills that were taught were based on the premise that we live in a small part of ourselves and that the stories that we tell ourselves about the meaning of the inevitable disappointments, shocks and losses that we all experience in life are often worse than the pain itself, and at the least exacerbate the pain, and cause deeper suffering. How is it that if a person gets a diagnosis of cancer, his or her whole identity becomes one of "cancer patient?"
For you, dear former class members, let us remember Kabat-Zinn's story of climbing the mountain with his 10 year old son, Will, recounted in the chapter in FCL, "Working with Emotional Pain:Your Suffering is Not You...But There is Much You Can Do to Heal It." When the going got tough climbing the mountain, JKZ and his son, paused and re-grouped, innerly and outerly. Facing their fear, they were able to find another path up the mountain. You may remember that they waited until the storm cleared, and then they took off their shoes where necessary when the rocks were too slippery from the rain. And, also, when they got to a safe place, Kabat-Zinn had Will take off his back pack and he had Will stay on that ledge, while he made two trips to the top with the heavy back packs, and then came back for Will. They paused, they honored their fear, and then they found their path.
Let me close with some words from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, and author of Women Who Run with the Wolves:
I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.
Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear.
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do. ....When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
And, lastly, with a deep bow, some lines from Hafiz:
Be strong, Hafiz!
Work here now, inside time,
Where we fail, catch hold again,