Monday, June 27, 2016

Freedom . . .

Last night, I watched the poignant, compelling cinematicrendering of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. The film traces the iconic world leader’s childhood as a cattle herder in rural Cape Province, legal career as one of South Africa’s first black lawyers, period of armed revolutionary acts with the ANC, trial, long imprisonment, eventual release, and successful leadership of South Africa’s transition from minority rule to a multicultural democracy. It does an excellent job of insinuating the considerable emotional toll of Mandela’s 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, his shelter an 8-foot by 7-foot cement cell. He was cut off entirely from his family for years, initially allowed only one highly censored letter every six months. We see Mandela receive news of his mother’s terminal illness and passing; his only son’s death in a tragic car accident; his wife, Winnie’s, imprisonment. In between, there are glimpses of Robben Island’s prisoners engaged in body-breaking labor – mining lime and crushing rocks into gravel – and enduring various degrading acts wrought by Afrikaaner guards. And yet, we also hear Mandela engage in conversation with these same guards about their families, watch him circled around a negotiating table with apartheid government leaders who have been charged with planning the transition to a new form of government. Time and again, we witness Mandela’s unwavering commitment to his ideals, his ultimate renunciation of violence as a viable strategy, his rise to Presidential status on the shoulders of a resoundingly successful popular vote.

Mandela’s trial and the window onto his 27-year imprisonment moved me especially. I sat mesmerized by his eloquence, captivated by his single-minded focus on freedom for Black South Africans, and thoroughly inspired by his desire to be an instrument for realizing that, even at the cost of his life. I marveled at the immense personal resolve; his mastery of anger, grief, disappointment, and longing; his capacity to harness negative energy in the service of much nobler ideals. Most importantly, I observed that his life experience honed rather than degraded his dignity. It was, in part, this dignity that enabled him to command the respect and attention of Black South Africans during the closing days of the apartheid era, when Black-on-Black violence tragically threatened the possibility for democracy.

Throughout the film, words of author and media persona Krista Tippett echoed in my mind: “I am emboldened by the puzzling, redemptive truth . . . that we are made by what would break us.” While the truth of that resonates with me, on a far humbler level, I see parallels between Mandela’s life experience and my own experience as a meditator, and also lessons that apply for each of us as we navigate the complicated, at times divisive and violent reality of current events.

I embrace the practice of meditation at least partially as a personal quest for freedom, albeit internal freedom. I seek strategies for freeing myself from ego absorption, which threatens to narrow my world, constrict my heart, and curtail my capacity to love, forgive, and extend myself in ways that foster healing and growth.

I practice out of a sincere desire and felt duty to be the most sane, open hearted, curious, humble, and loving human being I can be, because our trouble world and my own frail human body demands it. 

I practice to remind myself of my connection to the expansive web of life, to acknowledge the truth of the South African concept of ubuntu – that my humanity is inextricably connected to yours and every other human being’s . As well, I meditate to cultivate the awareness necessary to fulfill my role as a steward of every particle of creation, each a gift and expression of generous love.

I practice in order to weather the gnarliest periods of conflict, self-doubt, depression, confusion, and anxiety in my own life. I rest in the spaciousness of silence and breath, and trust these as a lifeline back to peace, confidence, clarity, and joy.

Finally, I meditate in order to shore up my ability to see the pure heart in my fellow companions on this journey of life. I lean into the vastness of love and communion experienced in meditation in order to strengthen my resolve to see the good in everyone or, when that proves inordinately difficult, to remember that what most disgusts, annoys, or enrages me about them also exists inside me, and to find a way to accept it. 

It is this latter aspect of meditation that is strikingly illuminated by Mandela’s life:  his extraordinary capacity for forgiveness, his bold vision and practical commitment to a new way of being with one another, his willingness to see the other’s shared humanity and, from this clarity, to lay aside violence, blame, pettiness, and argument to do the practical work of building a multicultural democracy in which all might be uplifted.

Writer Parker Palmer addressed these very things in a recentblog post on the topic of our current extremely polarized political landscape:

Trump is a one-man microcosm of much that’s diseased about American culture . . . and its eternal need for “an enemy,”its racism, and DNA-deep commitment to white supremacy. The more he rubs our noses in our own pathologies . . .  the more it becomes at least possible that his campaign will strengthen our resolve to make America confess and repent, again and again and again. Of course, nothing of the sort will happen as long as we focus exclusively on “him” and “them,” as if defeating “the enemy” will do the trick. As that great guru Pogo said nearly fifty years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Palmer goes on to ask, “Are you and I willing to see ourselves reflected in Trump, to say that what’s repugnant in him finds resonance in us?” I believe that Mandela wrestled with this same question as he passed more than two and a half decades of his life imprisoned for acts against white supremacists that he originally believed to be justifiable in pursuit of freedom. Ultimately, he realized that forgiveness was an imperative first step on the path to peace; a complex forgiveness that entailed both willingness to look honestly at the country’s awful, tragic history, and courageous acknowledgement that it no longer served. Forgiveness swaddled in reconciliation that demanded that Blacks and Whites labor shoulder to shoulder to build a new nation on the ugly ruins of the old one. Forgiveness that laid bare the fact  that the only way around the hatred, fear, violence, blame, and chaos was through it.

The enormity and complexity of this endeavor – an endeavor that looms dangerously large before us right now - brings to mind a strikingly simple question posed by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn: How can I love you better?” This question seems remarkably relevant in virtually every moment, however large or small the “you” involved. I find it particularly useful in this moment, when violence, environmental catastrophes, damaging laws and policies, and all types of other human foibles threaten to destroy nature, love, and life.

In meditation, we probe the depths of our own heart-mind; both its darkest recesses and its brightest wellsprings of love. At the best of times, we linger in the heart space fed from our silent communion with the All-Loving. In so doing, we grow in the capacity to touch into the eternal source of love, forgiveness, and creativity, beginning first with healing and befriending ourselves. With this inner transformation, we gradually foster the enormity of heart and immensity of skillfulness and understanding necessary to extend this love to every human being, as well as each living aspect of this chaotic and complex, magnificent yet terrifying world.

I’ll close with the words of the sonnet shared by Lin-ManuelMiranda as he accepted a Tony award for Hamilton just hours after a mass shooting spree took the lives of 49 people at a gay night club in Orlando. It anchors me in the place from which I strive to drive my own life.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done.
She nudges me towards promise by degrees.
She is a perfect symphony of one.
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa's symphony; Eliza tells her story.

Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.

Friday, March 27, 2015


Intrepid. My wife re-introduced me to this word last night in a burst of giggles that rocked our bed as I settled more deeply under the down comforter. Her mirth occasioned by the secret knowledge of a colleague’s ignorance of the word’s meaning, she tumbled into a laughing fit at the thought of one’s unfamiliarity with this wonderful word.

Intrepid. To say it conjures pilots, explorers, adventurers, trailblazers. Its synonyms – fearless, courageous – pop readily to mind. The three syllables pack a punch, the force of tongue to back of teeth to produce the bold “tr-” a pseudo onomatopoeia. Defiance of convention. Bucking trends. Giving the lie to limiting norms or stifling stereotypes. Transcending perceived limitations. Acting boldly. So many ways to capture the word’s meaning, its arms-crossed, upwardly-thrust-chin quality.

Having spent the better part of the year among farmers and ranchers, intrepid also speaks to me of those who live off the land and waters. The seasoned organic vegetable farmer who confronts the thousandth day of a searing drought. The enthusiastic Greenhorn birthing his first pair of kids. The young dairy woman sleeping beside her sick Jersey cow.

Equally, it evokes the creatures who shelter under Mother Nature’s expansive roof: great egrets and blue herons, buffleheads and mallards, Canada geese and plovers, chickadees and robins. Redwoods, cedars, aspens, scrub oaks, eucalyptus, sycamore. Cattails, water weed, marsh and Pampas grasses, and also wild radish, clover, and even pesky Bermuda grass. 

I watched yesterday as a pair of pale yellow zebra-striped butterflies spiraled sunward then plunged tens of feet toward the packed dry earth in a dramatic mating dance, seemingly oblivious to barbed wire topped chain link fences, fast-flying crows, oblivious joggers. They danced their twirly, exuberant choreography intrepidly; cells in motion, energy completely in flow.

What would it mean to truly live an intrepid life, courage an inseparable companion, open-heartedness and faith coursing in your veins? What soaring choreography might be possible carried by wings of this kind of love?

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees
- like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
: Mary Oliver

Monday, March 2, 2015

Winter's Pruning

Among the blessings of winter, one stirs special gratitude within me. This is the season when Mother Nature generously reveals the elegant architecture of trees. Sturdy base roots to delicate, finger-thick branches, the magnificent artistry wrought in wood is laid bare.

I stand in awe, marveling at the sometime symmetrical, sometimes elaborate and complex spreading of branch over branch. Poetry in form, limb giving way seamlessly to limb like so many perfect words strung together in memorable meter. The uppermost branches touch the underbelly of the broad blue winter sky, linking heaven and earth. Near to earth, broad base gives way to a dense network of taproots that burrow deep into the soil, sourcing moisture, minerals, and organic material essential for healthy growth. Married with sunlight, these nutrients will grow green leaves, growth buds, and – in time – blossoms and fruit that delight our senses, nourish our bodies.  

Winter is also the time for pruning apple and pear trees, making careful cuts that encourage vitality and productivity. An alchemy of scientific technique and artful sculpting, skillful pruning promotes the maximum healthy, generative growth of abundant fruit for generations.

One recent bright February afternoon, I watched as Orin Martin, veteran Director of UC Santa Cruz's Alan Chadwick Garden, aggressively trimmed two- and three-year old apple, aprium, and pear trees. Systematically, with the trained hand of one accustomed to the task and the artist’s gift for simultaneous attention to big picture vision and laser-like focus in execution, he deftly severed and tossed aside 2" thick limbs from young, gangly trees standing just 5’ tall. He pruned away false leader limbs, which vied for the essential nutrients that would propel growth of a sturdy central trunk capable of sustaining rings of strong branches. To me, an empathetic tree lover, the castoff wood seemed essential to the tree's viability. He explained that the tree’s capacity to bear abundant and healthy fruit well into the future demanded that all of its energy be shunted toward productive growth - that it not waste nutrients on limbs that would ultimately not prove viable for fruit-bearing or those that would bloom out in directions that jeopardized the much grander endeavor of producing exquisite, delicious fruit for years and years. With bold cuts, he excised unproductive branching that resulted in vulnerability for the larger whole.

This winter, I feel I’m being somewhat brutally pruned. Tested. Cut to the core by larger, life-sized questions:  How do I want to grow? Can I remain rooted in the vision I hold for my work in the world, for my life? Can I allow for the removal - even when it's painful, harsh - of elements that don't serve me to realize my individual goals and my hopes for the wider world? Can I suffer through looking scraggly and awkward to outside observers for a season or two? Can I shiver under the frost or withstand the dry times rooted in the certainty that I know how to dig even deeper, know how to reach far within and source the energy I need for the longer haul because I’m intent on ultimately growing gloriously full and providing an abundant harvest year after year, both for myself and others?

Bare trees exist side by side with those trying on their spring attire in these dawning days of March:  tightly-wrapped bright green buds; hot pink flowers strung along thin branches like pearls; sloppily beautiful cream-colored magnolia flowers lolling open to the morning sun. Here and there, parrot tulips blaze in glory, frilly cherry-red edges rimming yolk-gold petals. An ancient lattice hung with pale yellow climber roses provides a feast for the senses. Regal calla lilies unfurl their linen white surfaces, bright white canvases of possibility. Bud by bud, a strand of lavender wisteria flowers blooms, cascading bountifully over a willing arbor. Songbirds ply the colorful landscape, lending their cheerful chatter to the chorus of new growth.

Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson counseled, “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience." So I patiently wait for winter’s pruning to yield new growth. I sink my feet into the soft earth, sip the spring air through my nostrils, bend my neck back and let my face catch the sun. Soon, I know, the blooming will happen – then, the fruit will set, the harvest will come.