Thursday, December 23, 2010

Solstice Thoughts

"Everyone has the choice/When to and not to raise your voices/It's you that decides..."--George Harrison

Winter solstice--the Christmas Season, as it is generally called, is supposed to be "the season to be jolly" but as the cold weather sets in, I have generally felt quite the opposite--quiescent, at best; gloomy at worst. But one inconspicuous, but very reassuring fruit of my practice has come clear to me in recent days: the recognition that we have a lot more choice over our moods than most people think. We all have limited control over our external circumstances--we are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die (realities that become ever clearer after one turns 60!), and there is little we can do to secure ourselves from the vicissitudes of life. But no matter how many aggravating things happen, no matter how many afflictive emotions arise, we are still free, at all times, to CHOOSE to breathe, observe, let go, and--when ready to do so authentically--smile--that is, to breathe in our own and others anguish, whatever it may be, and to breathe out love, to ourselves and all others. And then, quite simply, to do what needs to be done, cultivating friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity all the while.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Four Antidotes

In a previous post (August) I wrote quite darkly of "The Five Poisons"--greed, ignorance, hatred, denial, and despair--that have come to dominate our public life, and certainly our public discourse, in this country. Here I would like to draw, once again, on Buddhist wisdom to offer four antidotes to these poisons--four ways to practice being what Thich Nhat Hanh once called "a lotus in a sea of fire" during his years in war-torn Vietnam. In Buddhist theory, these antidotes are called the four "Brahma-Viharas"--that is, dwelling places of the Divine, immeasurable states of mind or (more colloquially), useful attitudes to develop toward everyone until they become habitual. These are as follows:

  1. Maitri (or in Pali, Metta)--the mind of love
  2. Karuna--the mind of compassion
  3. Mudita--the mind of empathetic joy
  4. Upeksha (or in Pali, Upekkha)--the mind of equanimity.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) quotes Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher:

"Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extinguishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity ex­tinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings."

Let's look at these four useful mind states in a bit more detail, trying to see beyond the connotative static that often accompanies words such as "love" and see, instead, how we can make them real in our everyday lives.

1. Maitri (Metta), often translated as "love" or "loving kindness" can be understood more colloquially, with less connotative baggage, as friendliness. An easy way to practice cultivating this state of habitual friendliness is to soften, deliberately, the muscles around your eyes, which often tighten up out of stress or defensiveness, and allow your mouth to relax into a gentle smile. Remarkably, when you deliberately take such simple physical actions, they have an immediate effect on your mental disposition toward the people you encounter. You feel friendlier toward them, and remarkably enough, they often smile back. It is important to practice this friendliness without any attachment whatsoever, without an agenda. It is easy, particularly for men, to smile at beautiful women, for example, but there is always, even unconsciously, an agenda attached: "Maybe she will take an interest in me!" Therefore try the same easy, relaxed smile when you see other men, homely old women, young children, or anyone else. Try it even with people you are inclined not to like, and you will find that your hostility toward them begins to dissolve--that you become more generally accepting of other people.

2. Karuna--"Compassion," the usual translation, literally means "suffering with" someone. But as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, Karuna involves, "the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sor­rows." Once you have developed a firm foundation--a good mental habit--of Maitri or genuine, unaffected friendliness toward others, it is quite easy, and very healing, to become aware of others' suffering, and to be ready, whenever possible, to be there for them in their need, whether literally, through donations, or in spirit.

The challenge here is to cultivate such awareness without giving rise to a corresponding resentment of those who cause the suffering, for such resentment leads all too quickly to the poison of hatred. This is why the Tibetans, for example, encourage us to cultivate compassion for both the perpetrators and the victims of the ongoing Chinese oppression of Tibet. The powerful Tibetan practice of Tonglen--breathing in your own and others' pain and suffering, and breathing out love and healing--can be a powerful way of developing compassion for victims and perpetrators alike, and thereby decoupling compassion for victims from resentment of perpetrators.

But it takes lots of practice, and I can't pretend that I am there yet. When I see pictures of oil-soaked sea birds, victims of our Iraq or Afghanistan invasions, sick people without health insurance, or displaced homeowners who have been evicted through foreclosure, it is still very difficult for me to resist the co-arising of compassion for these victims with bitter resentment for BP, the Bush regime, the insurance industry, or the financial services industry...I need to remember, in such instances, the wisdom of Alice Walker's mother when she asked her how she managed not to hate the KKK and other racists who afflicted her. Her response was classic: "If they knew better, they'd do better." So when we encounter greedy or hateful people or their victims, the practice, taking a cue from Alice's mother, is to practice Karuna for the ignorance that gives rise to the perpetrators' greed and hatred, as well as Karuna for those who suffer its consequences. Not an easy task, but I'm working on it.

3. Mudita refers to joy, not just for ourselves, but for others as well. It is a natural outgrowth of Maitri or a friendly disposition, and it arises naturally as well from learning to abide in the present moment. A good translation might be "the ability to enjoy"--that is, the ability to feel a shared sense of gratitude and well-being, an awareness of beauty, in whatever we perceive. I find that a good place to practice Mudita is at the periodic TCC graduation ceremonies that we attend each semester. Despite the tedium of the ceremony--all the citations and pontificating--I love to sit on the side of the arena where I can see the radiant faces of all the students who have just received their diplomas, and share their joy. It is a good, healthy thing to do.

4. Upeksha, or equanimity, comes from the roots upa meaning "over" (cognate, through Indo-European, with the Greek prefix hyper- and the Latin prefix super-) and iksh which means "to look." So the etymology points to the core meaning: the ability to overlook--to let go, particularly, of perceived insults or slights. Thay likens it to climbing a mountain and "looking over"all sides. It involves nondiscrimination and nonattachment--the ability to empathize with, and understand, both sides of any given dispute or conflict. And like Karuna, it is difficult to cultivate toward those people or ideas that you don't like. As with all these other healthy habits of mind, it is best cultivated through the "essential discipline," in all circumstances, of breathing, observing, and letting go.

Finally, these four healthy attitudes all reinforce and give rise to one another. Maitri and Mudita are easy to cultivate, because they bring immediate rewards, both to ourselves and to others. Karuna and Upeksha are more of a challenge, because they both involve overcoming our own habitual resentments and attachments. But both are easier to cultivate if we establish a firm foundation of Maitri--an open, gracious, friendly attitude toward all whom we encounter, and Mudita--the ability to enjoy, selflessly, the beauty of the present moment. In time, all four "abodes" become available for us for meeting any person or situation we encounter: Maitri as a baseline attitude toward everyone we encounter; Karuna whenever we encounter or hear of people who are hurting or suffering, Mudita whenever beauty manifests, and Upeksha whenever people get ugly.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Soul of a Cat

Today is my 61st birthday--an event I greet with little more than a yawn and a sigh:

"I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way I can avoid growing old."

This being the case, it is well, I think, to devote more of my attention, not to politics or other pernicious public follies well beyond my control, nor to future plans, since the future is getting smaller and more dubious with every passing day, but rather to the wonders of the present moment, and to being there for all others; that is, to cultivating mindfulness and compassion.

This morning as I walked into the bedroom after breakfast, I saw my cat Anthony--himself 16 years old and showing many signs of feline impermanence. Seeing me come in, he paused and coiled up like a spring at the food of the bed, intending to jump up and enjoy the cuddling and attention I generally lavish on him. But then, he reconsidered, turned around, and led me to the back door, so he could go outside instead and enjoy the crisp, cool morning for a while. Being an old cat, he seldom stays out long any more, especially since there is a strapping young alpha male red tiger cat, Boots, right across the street, and in any feline political turf struggle, Anthony would come out the worse.

But what caught my attention is how obviously he reconsidered. At that moment he was obviously weighing the alternatives between investing the energy (now depleted with age) necessary to jump up on the bed for my attention, as opposed to using that energy to step out for a refreshing, but wary look around the yard. In other words, he was evaluating his options--that is, thinking.

It all brought back a debate I had at the age of 13 with my junior high science teacher, a mean old battle-axe by the name of Mrs. Campbell. One day, in keeping with the anthropocentric ideology that then was accepted as "science," she explained how humans alone have the ability to reason, while all other animals (she simply called them "animals" as if we were not!) are driven by "instinct." I raised my hand and begged to differ, citing the example of our family cat Richie evaluating the distance from one branch to the other in a tree by triangulating (though I did not know the word then)--raising and lowering his head--before deciding whether or not to risk a jump. Mrs. Campbell ridiculed me ruthlessly for suggesting that Richie was showing "judgment" (which, in fact, he was) repeating once again that it was merely "instinct" (and thus something totally different from human reasoning). Naturally, she did not define "instinct." To her, the difference was self-evident, however unexamined. Despite her ridicule--quickly picked up by the other students--I stood my ground, insisting that Richie's behavior showed a form of "judgment" analogous to decision-making by humans. From then on, my fellow students sneered at me day in and out, saying things like "Have you talked to your cat, lately, Ellis?"

I was right, of course, but I did not have the intellectual tools to support my argument fully until some 20-odd years later, when I first read Gregory Bateson, a philosopher/biologist of phenomenal intelligence who completely deconstructed for me the Cartesian dualist ideology on the basis of which Mrs. Campbell had made her categorical distinction between human "reason" and nonhuman "instinct." Bateson observed, among other things, that the word "instinct" is what he called "an explanantory concept"--that is, an empty signifier that simply covers up a gap in our understanding. In this case, he pointed out, we simply don't know how other animals process information or make decisions, since they have no language to explain it to us, so we bracket and conceptualize our ignorance by giving it a name--"Instinct."

The Buddhists, as usual, know better, and have been knowing it: that mind is something shared by all sentient beings, but that humans are simply lucky because we happened to have been born with the unique gift of language, which not only allows us to process conceptual information far more precisely, but also to practice the Dharma--that is, practice conscious breathing, observing and letting go of those concepts themselves, and thereby to realize the emptiness that underlies all of these artificial distinctions...including the so-called distinction between "reason" and "instinct." Thereupon we realize, yet again, what William Blake meant when he said, "Everything that lives is holy."

Thank you, Anthony, for that insight. And thank you, Mrs. Campbell, for creating the causes and conditions that made me seek out that insight. May you, likewise, awaken to the Dharma in some future rebirth.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Five Poisons

As most thoughtful people are aware, the political culture in the US is becoming very toxic these days. Traumatized by the landslide election of a charismatic black liberal President, two major corporate-backed right-wing media monopolies, Fox "News" (sic) and ClearChannel (sic) Radio are shamelessly poisoning the airwaves with the pervasive, strident ranting of scurrilous, paranoid, pernicious, lying demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, and far too many others. They have already convinced a sizeable chunk of the population of blatant lies--that Obama is either a Muslim, a "furriner" born in Kenya, a "socialist," a "Nazi," a black nationalist who "hates white people" (Beck's actual words) or--quite simply--the Antichrist; someone who hates God and America alike and must, in their shared view, be destroyed "by any means necessary." And Republican politicians, never much noted for integrity, have been all too quick to pander to just such paranoid, hysterical nonsense in order to gain votes.

This pervasive "prolefeed" (Orwell's coinage for such venal and pervasive media lies and distractions to keep the masses in the dark) has the Democrats running scared and backing off from their initiatives, while the Republicans have just had a landslide sweep in the Midterm Elections, bringing many of the looniest of these "Tea Party" crazies right into the Senate and House. Such a terrifying outbreak of media-manipulated collective insanity is reminiscent in so many ways of the rise of the Nazis to power, the more recent Serbian genocide campaign against the Muslims, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the Rwandan Genocide. Is this where we are headed?

The bodhisattva Franklin Delano Roosevelt, coming into office in a similarly crazy and unhinged time (the Great Depression) said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Taking my cue from this insight, I wish to review some useful Buddhist wisdom, putting my own spin on it as always.

The Five Poisons begin with the Big Three poisons from the Buddhist tradition: Greed (Attachment), Ignorance, and Hatred (Aversion). But to these three, I would add two equally toxic spin-offs: Denial and Despair. All these poisons are pervasive in each of us and all of us--they are the wellsprings of Samsara, of the cycles of endless suffering in which we are trapped.

Greed, of course, is everywhere--it is the central organizing principle, or so it seems, of our modern Glomart society. "More is always better," and "To be is to buy;" these are the two messages we see and hear on television, all day every day. We are brainwashed, day in and day out, never to feel that we have enough, but always to want more stuff. Greed is also, of course, the central theme of Republican political discourse: "It's Your Money" the slogan popularized by Bob Dole, is the Republican mantra--that is, "Don't you dare take any of MY money to do ANYTHING for anyone else!"

Ignorance is, of course, the root of delusion, the root of both greed and hatred. The fundamental ignorance, according to Buddhist thought, is the illusory belief in a separate self, apart from everyone and everything else; the common belief we all have that we, somehow, are more important than anyone else. Hence "Looking out for No. 1" was the recurrent, hackneyed slogan of a flood of aggressive, mean-spirited self-help books, starting in the Reagan era--the Greed Society, as it was called.

But ignorance also arises from the loss of any ability to think, to distinguish truth from falsehood, about anything else. And such willful ignorance is also an epidemic in the US today: most people believe whatever they see and hear on TV or the internet, while our corporate media, competing for audience share with ever more sensationalism, have essentially abandoned their traditional investigative role of separating fact from fantasy or holding public officials accountable for lies. And so, increasingly, we live in a time of "universal deceit" when, as Orwell said, "telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

From greed (or sanctified selfishness) and ignorance naturally arises Hatred--the most malignant poison of them all. "If I can't get what I want, I will hate all those who deny it to me." Hence the right wing hatemongers trade on the fact that most people are easily swayed to hatred, so they openly and hysterically encourage the demonization of Muslims, contempt for the poor, racism, and generalized hatred of "big guv'mint" as the root of all evil--especially when the government tries to use taxpayers' money for decent, charitable purposes. They have no problem with the government squandering billions to invade and destroy Iraq and Afghanistan, because there they are (somehow) "protecting our freedom from the ter'rists." But try to spend one dime to create new jobs, curb carbon emissions, or provide health care to the indigent, and they raise the hysterical cry of "Socialism" and tell their followers to stock up on guns to "take our country back."

The problem is that the average ignorant TV-watching Joe out there loves his employer, however exploitive, because he pays him, and hates the government, because it taxes and regulates him or his employer. And nobody likes to be taxed or regulated. For this reason, such ordinary, unthinking people are easy prey for the hate-spewing demagogues to stir them into a frenzy of anti-government paranoia. This serves the agenda of Big Business perfectly, for it makes our elected officials terrified of regulating their emissions or raising their taxes, for fear of the wrath of the hate-intoxicated multitudes.

And the prime target of all this toxic hatred, on whom they focus it like a laser beam, is, of course, President Obama, the (negro) Muslim/Furriner/Socialist/Fascist/Dictator/Antichrist of their most feverish, media-induced nightmares.

The fourth Poison is Denial, the absolute refusal to admit the truth of a disturbing proposition when it is staring you in the face, and the consequent loathing (amplified, of course, by the Right Wing Hate Machine) of anyone who dares to speak these truths. The obvious examples today are the continuing, widespread denial of global warming, even by political leaders, despite overwhelming evidence from climate scientists worldwide, and the absolute refusal of the entire corporate media to allow anyone to question the (transparently absurd) Official Story of 9/11. If any one in the public eye even dares to raise such questions--to ask, for example, how it is possible for the top sixth of a steel frame building to disintegrate and simultaneously pulverize the lower 5/6ths at freefall rate without encountering any resistance--that person is instantly marginalized, smeared, and often subject to job loss and worse.

All of this spiraling madness in our country has opened up a vat of the Fifth Poison, Despair. Indeed, if the Republicans have become the party of Greed, Ignorance, Hatred, and Denial, the Democrats are now the Party of Despair, vainly trying to appease the howling mobs and hold onto their seats by watering down or compromising every principle they ever may have stood for, all while pathetically sending out desperate fundraising alerts to their despondent and disheartened base.

How did we ever fall so far, in such a short time, from the triumph of Election Day 2008? It is hard to say--President Obama is partly to blame for not being more aggressive and hitting back hard when attacked from all sides by the Lying Machine. He made the classic Machiavellian error of trying, as a leader, to be loved, rather than feared. He also made the huge mistake of trying to reach compromises with the vipers of the Republican party, rather than simply using his sizeable majority in both houses to push through his agenda and make them like it (as Roosevelt or Truman would have done). And as a consequence, his initiatives were so watered down that by the time they passed, they were worthless--and the Republicans simply amped up their well-funded hate campaign in response. So now his power base has eroded altogether, while his enemies surround him on every side like rabid hyenas. It is hard, under such dire circumstances, to feel anything but despair, for our country and for the planet.

So OK, what are antidotes to these poisons? I'll save that for the next blog...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Essential Discipline: Breathe, Observe, Let Go

In his Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, as rendered by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha offers to his disciples a 16-step guided meditation sequence, on the breath, to help them train their minds. It begins with deceptive simplicity: "Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in; Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out." The subsequent instructions guide us through gradually expanding that basic awareness of breath to include, and calm, the body, feelings, mental formations, and mind. The last four instructions begin with awareness of impermanence, and this expands toward the steps to enlightenment--the disappearance of desire and cessation (of all attachments to self). But the final instruction sums it all up:

"Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go."

This is, as Thich Nhat Hanh frequently observes, the "essential discipline"--the seed of all practice, from which everything else grows. The rest--all the rest--is commentary.

Breathe. Observe. Let go.
Breathing in, observe letting go.
Breathing out, observe letting go.

We breathe in order to observe, we observe in order to let go, and we let go in order to breathe. And we repeat as often as necessary.

That is the essential discipline. So let's observe it a bit more deeply.

1. Breathe:

As Lao Tzu puts it,

"Empty yourself of everything; let the mind rest at peace.
The Ten Thousand Things rise and fall, while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish, and then return to stillness, which is the way of nature..."

Our breath, that is, is our home base. The minute we directly observe our breath, we reconnect body and mind, and re-enter the present moment. This is deeply healing, no matter what is going on in our inner or outer world; this is why rescue workers, dealing with frazzled and hysterical accident victims, routinely tell them to "Take three deep breaths." They recognize instinctively that the simple act of breathing restores equanimity.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire body of Dharma teachings and insights grows directly out of this simple, testable fact: breathing restores equanimity when our minds are agitated.

2. Observe:

Breathing consciously--that is, "I am aware that I am breathing"--leads quite naturally and effortlessly to observing. What do we observe? First, the fact that we are breathing. Then, anything else, either in our minds or in our surroundings that happens to draw our attention. The strong foundation of our breath gives us a solid platform from which we can simply observe any sights, sounds, words, thoughts, perceptions, or feelings that draw our attention, rather than getting caught up in them--that is, obsessing about them, or wishing they were otherwise. With the equanimity that is the natural consequence of conscious breathing, we gain the ability, gradually, to observe whatever arises in our heads or in the world around us, without getting frazzled or hung up.

There are, in general, three things we can do with any afflictive emotion, such as anger, jealousy, despair, sloth, frustration, fear, resentment, or whatever.

The first is simply to indulge it--to let it control us. This generally makes everything worse.

The second is to repress it--to tell ourselves "you shouldn't think that (or feel that, or want to do that)" with our stern, parental inner voice. This can work for a short while, but repressed thoughts and feelings fester, and will re-emerge, often in unpredictable and highly unpleasant ways.

Most people believe that these are our only two options for dealing with afflictive emotions, but the Buddha (along with other enlightened beings throughout all space-time) offers us a third option:

Observe it. Just keep breathing, and acknowledge the existence of whatever bad stuff has just come up, whether within or outside of you. Take note of it and name it. Watch it, as if you were watching a movie. Investigate it with curiosity--"Where is this coming from?" "What might it lead to?" And then--but only when you are ready to do so--

3. Let Go. It is easy for us to dupe ourselves into thinking we have let go of something when we're still hanging on to it. That is another form of repression and self-deception. So how do we know when we have really let go?

Thich Nhat Hanh often alludes to the iconic half-smile of the Buddha in this regard. And it is true: when you have really let go of something, you can smile quite naturally. Not a big, toothy smile--that is just another form of self-deception. But rather, a relaxation of the lips and jaw, a softening of the muscles around the eyes, a smile that arises as naturally as a flowerbud opens in the Spring.

And here is the remarkable thing: it is reciprocal. We smile naturally as a consequence of actually letting go, but we can also deliberately smile (but only with authenticity--not deceptively) in order to let go. So we smile by letting go, and let go by smiling.

Here is a good exercise to try in this regard. Note how much your facial expressions and your emotional states give rise to each other reciprocally. When we are angry or threatened, we frown and tighten our eye muscles, which normally makes us even angrier and more frightened or inclined to violence. But conversely, when we deliberately soften the muscles around our eyes and relax into a half-smile, we feel calmer and gentler. One way of testing this is to imagine that you have just seen an adorable newborn child--your own, or someone else's. Quite naturally, a gentle, loving, sympathetic smile will bloom on your mouth and your eyes will soften.

Congratulations: you have just learned to let go.

The rest--ALL the rest--is practice. So to paraphrase that wonderful man in Hampton who posted the signs saying "No matter what, trust God" all over town, my closing advice is this:

No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go. It all--always--comes back to that. If you don't believe me, ask the Buddha. Or better still--just try it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Axioms for Clearing the Mind

Several years ago, I developed a set of axioms to help my students at TCC overcome their various hangups about undertaking college classes. These were based on my immersion in the writings of Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is still very much my heart teacher. They were, in effect, a digest of everything I had learned from Thay (which is the honorific title that Dharma teachers are given in Vietnam) thus far, rendered in a practical form accessible to students. I still use these today, and students have often expressed their appreciation of them. Moreover, occasionally I use these axioms as well as an antidote for my own neurotic episodes.

This evening, for example, while studying Italian vocabulary prior to our upcoming trip to Italy, I suddenly found myself wallowing in self-flagellatory remorse about not having used the free time I've had in abundance this summer to apply myself more systematically, and in a more disciplined way, to learning the Italian language, as I had earlier resolved to do. This is an old, familiar demon in my store consciousness that I'm sure most of us experience fairly routinely: the "Why am I so...?" demon--whether we call it remorse, self-flagellation, or simply neurotic self-loathing. It always involves living in the past subjunctive--wishing we were other than we are, and--more insidiously--wishing we had done what we didn't do when we could have done it.

Years ago, I was gifted with the insight that "Hell resides in the Past Subjunctive," the realm of "If only I had..." It is Hell because it involves preferring what never was to what was and is, and hence, in theological terms, it involves turning away from, and denying, God's will-- That that is. (I am sure Dante would agree; this is the central theme of the Inferno). In short, as long as we are caught up in self-flagellatory remorse--tormenting ourselves with questions like "Why am I so?" or "Why didn't I?" we are, in effect, denying God's will and roasting in our own private Hell, with no visible escape.

Based on Thay's teachings, I therefore developed these Axioms, in part, as a form of therapy, both for myself and others, to help overcome such episodes of neurotic remorse and return to the present moment. And I have found, as my students have, that they work quite well. So here they are:

  1. The present is all there is. The past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet. So it is best to honor and learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the present.
  2. That that is, is. So it is best to avoid the Present Subjunctive as well, and accept what is--including, above all, our own weaknesses, and "play with the cards we are dealt" as the old saying goes. I tell my students that if they are religious, they should join their hands and say "Thy will be done" and if they are not religious, they can try the old Walter Cronkite sign-off--"That's the way it is."
  3. Nothing you've done, suffered, or failed to do in the past has any necessary effect on what you choose to do in the present moment. This is the heart of the matter. Our past behavior may influence, but never actually determines, our present choices. In the present moment, we are always free to choose to act wisely, diligently, or compassionately--no matter what we did or didn't do yesterday. In Christian terms, this insight was beautifully expressed by Meister Eckhart when he said "God is the god of the present." This was the heart of his luminous understanding of the Christian concept of redemption. Once again, same stuff--different cultural idiom.
  4. There are really only two states of mind: mindful or distracted. In tune or out of tune. Here now, or somewhere else, then. We have many different names for emotional states, but they really boil down into various forms of distractedness--of living somewhere other than the present moment--in the past, in the subjunctive, in the future, or in our own mental formations.
  5. Therefore, there are only two ways of doing anything: mindfully or distractedly. That is (as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it) doing it in order to do it, or doing it in order to get it done.
  6. Everyone gets distracted, most of the time. So if you are feeling distracted, you're not alone.
  7. Therefore, we all need find some good, reliable techniques for overcoming distraction and returning to mindfulness. There are many such techniques, from cultures and faith traditions throughout the world. Whichever techniques work best for you, work with them.
  8. Here is one such technique. This one--my Dharma Gaia mantra--works very well for me; try it if you wish, and feel free to improvise:
Phase One: (Reclaiming the Present Moment): Breathe, Observe, Let Go. Repeat as often as necessary. This is what Thay calls the essential discipline--all the rest is elaboration and commentary.

Phase Two: (A generic daily agenda): Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch. This was coined by Garrison Keillor, to whom I express gratitude, as the sign-off to his radio program "Writer's Almanac." As a daily agenda, it is all we need--ever.

Phase Three: (A generic life agenda): Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. These are the only four things worth doing with our lives, and a job or profession is "right livelihood" to the exact extent that it involves one or more of these activities--preferably, all four. By repeating them on the breath, we remind ourselves of what is really important for our lives and for the lives of all others as well. Here is one way of unfolding these four injunctions:

  1. Everyone you see, and everything you experience, is your teacher, so be ready at all times to LEARN;
  2. Everyone you see is potentially your student, and may need your instruction or guidance, so be ready at all times to TEACH (even if only by example);
  3. Everyone you see may be hurting in some way, so be ready at all times to HEAL;
  4. Everyone you see may need your special gift--the knowledge and skills that you uniquely possess--to help them solve problems or to inspire them. So be ready at all times to CREATE.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Using the Mantra

Recently in Hampton, a man has been putting up signs all over the neighborhood saying "No matter what, trust God." This has created some bickering among the citizens, but I have no problem at all with it--it is a healthy, rather than toxic, Christian spiritual practice. Whenever I see one of his signs, however, I often translate it into my own Buddhist terms: "No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go." Two culture-bound metaphors for the same thing--a quick uplink to the Sacred, whenever you need it.

My own uplink to the Sacred, which I call the Dharma Gaia mantra, can be used in a variety of ways, and of course is open to improvisation by anyone; as the Buddha himself said at the end of his life, "Be a light unto yourself." So if you wish to experiment with the mantra, here are a few approaches I have tried:

  1. A simple guided meditation: Assuming your preferred formal meditation pose (lotus, kneeling, sitting, or whatever) and ringing a bell to quiet your mind, simply inhale slowly, focusing your attention on your breath, and on the exhalation say (aloud or to yourself in silence) "Breathe..." Do likewise, on each exhalation, with the other injunctions: Observe, Let Go, Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch, Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. Repeat as often as you wish.
  2. A shorter form: Here is another approach you can try. If your time is limited, and you don't have time for ten full, conscious breaths, you can condense the whole mantra into three breaths, as follows: On the inbreath, say "Breathe." In the pause before exhalation, say "Observe," and on the outbreath, say "Let Go." Do likewise for the next triad: (inbreath) Be well; (pause) Do good work; (outbreath) Keep in Touch." For the final tetrad, try "Learn" and "Teach" on the inbreath, and "Heal" and "Create" on the outbreath. Experiment, and see how different approaches feel!
  3. The long form: This is good for a deeper exploration of the mantra. The basic guided meditation is stretched out over 30 breaths, with an added injunction woven in, as follows: For each of the ten injunctions, you first contemplate the value and importance of the injunction on the first breath, reflecting, perhaps, on various teachings you have encountered relating to that injunction, or using your imagination to visualize it. For example, you could contemplate the importance of "Breathe" by visualizing the trees breathing oxygen out as you breath it in, and then breathing your CO2 in as you breathe it out; I call this "dancing with trees." Then on the second breath, you practice breathing in the present moment, focusing your full, undivided attention on the actual act and sensation of breathing in and out. Finally, on the third breath, you vow to make your breath your "home base" throughout the rest of your life, no matter what stresses and challenges you encounter. So that's it: First breath, contemplate; second breath, practice; third breath, vow. Do likewise for the remaining nine injunctions. In turn, on three separate breaths, contemplate, practice, and vow to observe, let go, be well, do good work, keep in touch, learn, teach, heal, and create. This takes 30 breaths, but you can stretch it out even longer by taking three silent breaths between each injunction. It is a good way of improving your concentration.
  4. Group Practices: Any of the above approaches can be practiced as a guided meditation within a Sangha, by having participants take turns vocalizing each injunction, and ringing the bell at appropriate intervals. The guided meditation can also be mixed in with periods of silent practice, or with walking meditation, or whatever.
  5. Mixing and Mingling: The mantra can also be readily blended with other techniques, such as Tonglen (i.e. the powerful Tibetan practice of "giving and taking"--breathing in your own and others' pain, and breathing out love and healing energy, first to yourself and then to everyone else). For each Tonglen breath, on the inhale, you breathe in the pain and anguish of yourself and others, observe it on the pause, and let it go on the outbreath, transforming it into radiant love and healing energy.
Finally, whenever any of this becomes too complicated, just let it go, and return silently to your breath, resting in Alaya...

Once again, feel free to experiment and improvise, in accordance with your own traditions or practice.

The Practice in a Nutshell

What is Dharma Gaia?

If someone asks me, "What is Dharma Gaia?" my short answer is as follows:

DHARMA is the Sanskrit word, the core concept of all religions rooted in the Indian subcontinent, which is etymologically defined as "that to which we adhere." It has many shades of meaning, which have changed and broadened throughout its history, and of course no one definition will be adequate, but another way of understanding it is that it simply designates "that that is." Above all, it is universal--not restricted to any one tradition or ideology, but rather the truth principle reflected in all of them. And it cannot be grasped intellectually alone. For this reason, the Dalai Lama defines the Dharma as a principle, a precept, and a practice simultaneously.

GAIA is the living Earth, understood in ancient times as a Myth, a Greek name for the primordial Earth Mother Goddess; in modern scientific terms as a Model (developed in the 1970s and 80s by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), but more broadly, as a Metaphor for a new/old understanding of humanity as a part of, rather than apart from, the natural world, and as a worldwide Movement based on this new metaphor. Gaia is thus the outward manifestation of the Dharma, and hence the name Dharma Gaia, coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, is a bicultural pun on the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya--the Body of the Dharma.

So what is this Principle, Precept and Practice?

What follows is a digest of all the wisdom teachings I have ever encountered, boiled down to their essence. For these, I quote directly some of my heart teachers, or the Bodhisattvas who have inspired me the most:

PRINCIPLE: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRECEPT: "Take care of everyone and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing." --Lao Tzu.


"Breathe, Observe, Let Go." --The Buddha.
"Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch." --Garrison Keillor.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. --me.*

*Well--I can't take complete credit here either, except for the word "heal." The triad "Learn, Teach, and Create" is one that I learned from a would-be guru I met out in Oregon years ago, named John David Garcia, but I felt it was incomplete without another verb, so I added "heal."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Timely Octavia Butler Poem

Octavia Butler, who died a few years ago, was a very successful African American science fiction writer from California, who wrote many popular books. About 6 or 7 years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with her when she visited Hampton U to speak to the students, and prior to her arrival, I read her book "Parable of the Sower."

The book has stuck in my mind ever since, for it is one of the best, and I think most accurate, works of dystopic fiction I've come across. Set in 2025 or so, it depicts the young heroine, Lauren, growing up in a gated community in the LA area, as California, the nation, and the world steadily disintegrate into terminal chaos and violence, while maintaining the outward facade of our social infrastructure. Her community is trashed by a crazed gang of pyromaniac druggies, and she takes off with a few straggling survivors on a harrowing quest, on foot, along with a swarm of mutually hostile fellow refugees, up the increasingly empty highways (due to peak and decline of oil) toward Northern California, in a desperate quest for land on which to begin anew.

In the course of her quest, Lauren starts writing short verses which she collects as "Earthseed: the Book of the Living," in an attempt to create a new religion or sustaining ideology through the increasing chaos and corporate domination of the world around her, as she builds her community of refugees. Her "Earthseed" religion is a provocative combination of Gaian Buddhism and hard-headed Machiavellian realism. Its major premise, which is entirely compatible with the Dharma, is that "God is Change." And Butler develops the implications of this idea in some very imaginative and provocative ways.

These days, with the primordial catastrophe in the Gulf on one hand, and the poisoning of our public discourse by the scurrilous and paranoid corporate-funded hate-mongers of Fox News, Clear Channel Radio, and the Republikan party on the other, I am relating more and more to Butler's dark and scary vision of the immediate future. So here one interesting and unnerving poem from the "Earthseed" series that very much captures my current mood:

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must--
God is change--
People tend to give in
To fear and depression
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one
Group against group
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it,
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

(Chapter 10--p.91)

Rings true, doesn't it? A brief review of the recent century shows this pattern of social chaos, strife, and disintegration again and again. As China slid into chaos before, during, and after World War II, Mao emerged first as a "leader (whom) most followed" and then morphed into a fanatical "tyrant (whom) most feared." Many other nations, such as Vietnam, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and many African nations, saw and continue to see today this same descent into civil strife, chaos, and resulting tyranny, while a few, such as India or South Africa, were fortunate enough to have an inspired "leader most follow" such as Gandhi or Mandela.
Kenya has recently seen both--a "tyrant most feared" in Daniel Arap Moi, and a "leader most will follow" in Wangari Maathai. And after the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, deposing "tyrants (whom) most feared," the result has been horrific social strife and factional violence "until they are exhausted or destroyed," so that, of course, they can then be "conquered by outside forces"--namely, the US military and its installed puppet regimes.

If in fact America is now headed in this same direction toward a maelstrom of civil strife and breakdown of social order, as I strongly fear is the case, what can we each do, individually, to avoid "giving in to depression/to need and greed" so that we can at least strive to become, within our own sphere of influence, a "leader most will follow" and thereby resist the rise of a "tyrant most will fear"? In times of social collapse and the descent into chaos, it is essential, above all, to focus first on inner development and mental training, as Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers did in Vietnam, so that they developed the resiliency to become "a lotus in a sea of fire," practicing and promoting peace even at the daily risk of their lives and taking care of everyone, abandoning no one. The other Gaian bodhisattvas--such as King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai, have likewise been able to achieve their sustained moral leadership in the midst of invasion, imprisonment, corruption, pervasive violence, and exile by likewise creating a strong foundation in spiritual practice, each within his or her own traditions. This is our task today as well--and for me, at least, the process always begins--whenever I feel myself overwhelmed with grief and despair at the encroaching vortex of global chaos, violence, and despair, by going back to my breath, my mantra:

Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mantra Practice

Recently, I have become fixated--one might even say obsessed--with the idea that my Dharma Gaia mantra has the potential of becoming a kind of panacea for every kind of ill, whether mental, emotional, social, or environmental. Is this delusional? Well, probably.

But let's look a bit more deeply. If the mantra were to become a fad or cultic practice, mindlessly repeated because gullible people believe that it leads to salvation, it will become every bit as empty and meaningless as other mantras, repeated by rote, have been throughout history--whether they are "Om Mani Padme Hum" or "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" or "Hail Mary, Full of Grace," or "Our Father who art in Heaven..." Even Jesus condemned "vain repetition," little thinking that his own recommended prayer would become yet another example thereof.

Throughout my childhood, I along with my classmates would regularly repeat "the Lord's Prayer" every morning by rote, and, like others, I simply did what I was told, never giving it the slightest thought. I had forgotten all about this until one night in about 1975, in my mid-twenties, I faced a profound spiritual crisis. I had been bested in a sexual competition by my roommate and best friend, who had won--yet again--the heart of, and was out sleeping with, another woman in whom I was originally interested. (I was not even THAT interested in her; it was the idea that tormented me; the idea, that is, that life is brutally unfair, that I was just a "second-string monkey" who would always lose out in any competition with this or any other handsome, insouciant man who competed with me for a woman's favor.) As I struggled with insomnia, my mind gnawing over the impossibility of believing in any kind of deity or providence which might mitigate the cruelty of life, I distinctly remember that at one point, early in the morning, roiling in my own sweat, I simply gave up the struggle, and turned to the only prayer I knew--the Prayer of Jesus--forcing my stubborn knees, like Claudius in Hamlet, to kneel by the bedside.

But for the first time in my life, I did not simply and mindlessly repeat the prayer. Rather, I spoke it with depth and sincerity--from the heart. And when I came to lines like "Thy will be done" and "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," they resonated in a whole new way. I realized then, as I do now, that these were injunctions to LET GO--let go of wishing things were other than they are, and let go of resentments--that in forgiving I would be forgiven; that in letting go, I would be released from my own torment.

It was a true spiritual awakening. The next few days, I walked around in a state of bliss, in which absolutely everything made perfect sense. There was even a moment when my friend and I--now completely reconciled--were bicycling recklessly across a busy intersection, and I looked too late to see a car bearing down on me. I truly thought I was about to be annihilated, and while my body went into adrenal panic mode, gripping the handlebars and pedaling madly--my mind and spirit seemed to float blissfully above it, knowing with absolute certainty that life-and-death as we understand it is an illusion--that it did not matter in the slightest whether my body was annihilated or whether I survived. Since that time, I have lost all primordial fears of death--I SAW right through and beyond mortality.

Thereafter, I thought at first that I had become a Christian, but when I went out and looked up some books of Christian doctrine, such as C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," I found that I still could not swallow their whole schtick about the Doctrine of the Atonement, or about Jesus being the "one way" to God. When I looked into a book about Zen Buddhism, a chapter called "Awakening of Faith" made just as much sense to me as the Christian explanation of my experience did, but without all the mandatory ideological overlay.

This whole awakening was the start, not the end, of my spiritual journey. It gave me faith--not in any particular concept of definition of God, but rather faith in the sense of a deep, abiding acceptance of life as it is, an end to any delusion that I could, or even had to, figure it all out intellectually. God became a reality for me, not just a concept. And even as such, I could readily accept that "God" was simply a convenient way people have of personifying the Sacred. This realization enabled me to join people of any faith tradition at all in prayer or meditation, without any sense of hypocrisy or contradiction, knowing that all religious traditions are just systems of metaphors for the same transcendent, ineffable awakening; that all are mixtures of Dharma and identity politics.

But back to Mantras. As I discovered through my own experience, the mantra of Jesus, known as the "Lord's Prayer," could be either meaningless rote repetition or a path to a profound awakening of faith...depending on the context and one's own sincerity. And the same is true, no doubt, for any other mantra. So my own, home-brewed mantra is no different. I have found in my own experience that if I repeat it automatically and unthinkingly, it has zero effect on my consciousness or disposition. But conversely, if I look deeply into it, and relate it to all the other wisdom traditions and teachings I have assimilated, it can be healing and transformative.

Breathe. Observe. Let Go.
Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch.
Learn. Teach. Heal. Create.

Ten verb phrases. If you just repeat them, they are empty sounds. But if you use them as windows on your own experience--contemplating, practicing, and vowing--they can keep you--or at least keep ME (since I cannot honestly speak for anyone else) in touch with the Dharma--as a Principle, a Precept, and a Practice. Try them--see if they work. And if you wish, improvise.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Gaians - A Fantasy

As the poles melted, as fresh water sources dried up, as coastal flooding and violent storms created wave upon wave of desperate environmental refugees moving inland, often stealing and marauding in order to survive; as fuel prices steadily rose, and as conflicts over global resources turned violent and intractable throughout the world, the social infrastructure gradually became frayed to the breaking point. Repressive regimes and private, corporate armies of “security guards” defended the rich, in their gated fortress-communities, from the swarms of desperate, hungry, and often violent people all around them. Hope for the future steadily diminished among all sectors of the population, and suicide rates—even among the remaining well-to-do—skyrocketed, to the point where whole new enterprises arose to meet the demand—“suicide parlors” where wealthy citizens could contract for a sybaritic, care-free existence for whatever time frame they could pay for, and then they were quietly put to sleep.

In the midst of the steadily growing chaos and despair of “the great die-off,” a young man named Edgar Markham, laid off from his high school math-teaching job like so many million of others, and driven from his modest home by attacking marauders who burnt it down after cleaning out what was left of his worldly wealth, wandered the savage streets disconsolately, looking for someone—anyone—who would hire him to do odd jobs in return for a meal. But Edgar had devised a secret, which sustained him through the very harshest of times. No matter what happened, he would find an undisturbed place to sit in a lotus position, or kneel, or even stand—and put his palms together, and then recite the following mantra, one verb or verb phrase on each breath:

Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Depending on how much time he had, Edgar explored his mantra at various levels. For example, if something upsetting or devastating occurred nearby—if he was threatened, robbed, or beaten up, or faced any other stressful circumstance—he made do with the first three: “Breathe, Observe, Let Go.” With more time on his hand, he would explore the deeper implications of each of these injunctions, and they always brought him inner equanimity, no matter how harsh the external circumstances. From that equanimity, he gradually developed the ability to act with wisdom, compassion, and serene competence, no matter what the circumstances. When he was hungry, he would join his palms and politely ask people for food, and if rudely rebuffed, he smiled and moved on—no matter how hungry he felt.
Soon enough, his unremitting gentleness and equanimity gained him adherents—people who would take care of him, sharing whatever food they had. Others gathered to hear him teach, and his teachings always began with, and spun off, his Mantra. Soon, the mantra caught on. And as the general level of equanimity increased, the level of violence decreased, as people sought cooperative ways to solve their steadily growing problems.
Out of all this, the Gaia Movement was born. And the “seed” of the Gaia movement was Edgar’s mantra, which came to be called the “Dharma Gaia Mantra.” The Gaians—whose ethos involved total self-identification with the entire planet—did not regard anyone as their enemies; they saw all life as holy, and if they encountered violence, they treated it as evidence of the three poisons—greed, ignorance, and hatred—and saw themselves as “teachers” and the perpetrators of violence—even violence against them—as their “students.” By spreading openness and tolerance and compassion everywhere they went, they won adherents even of those who initially denounced or ridiculed them, and soon were teaching people how to collaborate in order to solve their growing problems, both locally and globally. And it was all based on their practice—in every conceivable circumstance—of the Dharma Gaia Mantra. This was the sum total of their teaching—and because it involved no mandatory beliefs, it was fully compatible with every religious tradition on the planet. So soon there were Gaian Christians, Gaian Jews, Gaian Buddhists, Gaian Muslims, Gaian Hindus, and secular Gaians everywhere, as the terminal Cancer of the Earth went gradually into Spontaneous Remission.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Discipline of Satyagraha

Once again, I have the unsettling feeling that our nation--and the world--are spiraling down a vortex, into the darkness of incremental apocalypse, with no light at the end: an Orwellian world of "universal deceit" where "telling the truth is a revolutionary act," subject, increasingly, first to marginalization, then to surveillance, suppression, and silencing, either by arrest, detention, or murder.

I first had this sinking feeling on December 12, 2000--the day that the Supreme Court (against which there was no appeal) sanctioned the blatant theft of an election; a feeling that grew steadily over the remaining eight years, starting with the 9/11 "attacks," which any reasonable person, looking at the facts of a sudden, catastrophic collapse of three steel-frame skyscrapers at freefall speed, in clear and blatant violation of the basic laws of thermodynamics, knows to have been a giant hoax, wrought by (now proven) controlled demolition charges of thermite.

This epochal hoax became the linchpin of yet another massive, ongoing hoax called the "global war on terror," all swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the corporate media, and used as a rationalization for the successive, brutal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the systematic subversion of the Bill of Rights and the protections of due process--first for so-called "terrorists," and then, increasingly, for US citizens as well. Yet anyone who dared to question this officially sanctioned narrative--that the "global war on terror" was necessitated by "the terrorist attacks" of 9/11--was quickly suppressed, ridiculed, and silenced by both the government and the corporate media.

Like a vast number of other Americans, I had high hopes that Obama's legitimate landslide election would reverse this tide of deterioration of our democracy into a corporate fascist pseudo-democracy--but those hopes have been dashed, as Obama has proven either too cautious or frightened to challenge the military/corporate/"national security" establishment or their dominant "war on terror" narrative, and has rendered himself toothless by his willingness to abandon his supporters and attempt "bipartisanship" with the Republican jackals who are determined to destroy him and seize power by any means necessary.

So now we have yet a new narrative forming in the corporate media, where the now-disgraced "savior" of America is to be displaced by the faux populist revolt of the "teabaggers," stirred up by the crazed demagogues of Fox Noise like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and led into battle to "save America" by their shapely, smart-alecky, bought-out kewpie doll, the iconic Sarah Palin--the pretty face of the new Amerikan fascism. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has just finished destroying any real democracy by granting citizenship rights to corporations, to buy any candidates they please, and destroy any who threaten their interests.

How do we cope with this world of lies and fraud, this matrix of manufactured opinions and blustering faux patriotism, of "prolefeed" stirring up popular resentment of anyone who challenges corporate power? All I have to offer is the discipline of Satyagraha--Gandhi's master key for citizens faced with a universally corrupt and deceitful world order where, as Bob Marley once said, "the truth is an offense/But not a sin."

Satyagraha--the word means "grasping the truth"--consists of three basic principles, outlined by Gandhi and shared by all his predecessors (from the Buddha and Jesus to George Fox and the Quakers, Thoreau, and Tolstoy) and successors (from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Vandana Shiva, and Aun Song Suu Kyi of Burma) for confronting an overwhelming oppressive power. Those principles Gandhi called Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj. Let's take them one at a time:

Ahimsa means doing no harm--a total and categorical commitment to nonviolence, not only in deed, but also in thought and intention. This is, of course, easier said than done. It is a discipline that calls for continued, honest introspection into one's own motives, or what Dr. King called "self-purification." Another term for it is "resistance without hatred," or "nonviolent noncooperation with evil," as Gandhi called it. It entails a willingness to endure suffering, even to death, without inflicting it in return. And no one ever said it was easy--it demands continued, rigorous moral self-discipline, "shining a spotlight on our own motives" as Gandhi put it. He also said that true ahimsa required more, not less, courage than violent resistance, and that "passive resistance" was a misnomer, since ahimsa must be active and forthright.

Satya means truthfulness--a total, categorical commitment to truth. It means a willingness to speak truth to power, regardless of the risks, whenever called upon to do so.

Swaraj means self-rule. In the original context of Indian resistance to British imperialism, it referred politically to the movement for independence from British rule and self-government. But in his own writings, Gandhi expanded the definition to mean both "self-reliance" as a community and "self-control" as individuals. In particular, Gandhi used the Spinning Wheel (with a subtle allusion to the Wheel of Dharma) as a symbol of Swaraj--the idea being that if the peasants of India learned to spin their own cotton, they could (and did) control their own economy at the grassroots, and were no longer dependent on British industry.

These three concepts--Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj--are intertwined and inseparable. They can be mapped, with little difficulty, onto the Three Jewels of Buddhism--Buddha (Ahimsa), Dharma (Satya), and Sangha (Swaraj) and they are subject to a wide range of interpretations, applicable to any particular context. In our present context--the steady, relentless deterioration of our constitutional democracy into a corporate fascist pseudo-democracy, I would interpret them as follows:

Ahimsa: A resolute rejection of any and all forms of militarism or violence, in thought, word, or deed. When confronted with violent, hateful words from right-wingers, simply breathe, observe, and let go. As you breathe in, take in the suffering behind that person's expression of hatred; as you breathe out, send your own equanimity to awaken and enlighten that person. It is difficult, of course, but with practice, gets easier. This also means, of course, that when necessary, we must nonviolently but firmly refuse to cooperate with any form of evil, no matter whether doing so endangers us or not. And this, too, takes a firm commitment to daily practice, to purify ourselves against such an eventuality.

Satya: A readiness, whenever necessary, to speak truth to power, regardless of the potential danger of doing so--through whatever channels are most likely to reach the most people. But speaking truth must also be done in the spirit of Ahimsa, without indulging in violent or hateful language, but striving, always, to address the recipient's concerns and clarify their misunderstandings.

Swaraj: In today's context, this concept refers, above all, to withdrawing our financial support from Glomart in whatever ways are available, and building a sustainable, organic, community-based economy from the ground up. The discipline of Permaculture and building a network of local, organic food sources is an ideal way to practice Swaraj today. Every dollar we deny to Glomart is a dollar invested in Gaia. And our dollars are the life blood of Glomart. This was Gandhi's brilliant strategic insight, for his boycotts of British-made goods was what, more than anything, brought down the British imperial domination of India.

One final point, constantly emphasized by Gandhi and the other great Satyagrahis: That is, that truth is indestructible. As Gandhi once said (and I paraphrase), when asked how he could possibly hope to prevail against the entrenched Apartheid regime in South Africa, "even if I were a minority of one, I would still do exactly what I am doing--because in the long run, tyranny always falls, and truth will always prevail." He therefore emphasized three principles for the practice of Satyagraha, no matter what the situation: It must be practiced mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. Let's look briefly at these:

Mindful: Any act of Satyagraha should be performed with full awareness of, and scrupulous honesty about, your own intentions. One of the most common mistakes that people make is mistaking passive aggression for Satyagraha. If there is any hatred in your heart, it is better not to act, for that hatred will manifest, whether you want it to or not. And mindfulness needs to be cultivated, continuously.

Strategic: An act of Satyagraha is a political act--Gandhi called it a form of warfare, meaning that what matters most is how effective it is--not at "defeating" the "enemy" (like normal, violent warfare) but at awakening and transforming the majority of people--including your "enemy"--from absorption in self-serving delusions to a transformative awareness of truth. And strategic behavior is often counterintuitive--it necessarily involves a battle of wits with those who would thwart you. This means, above all, good public relations. Gandhi was well aware that an act of mass nonviolent resistance without interviews, cameras, or reporters would be pointless, self-indulgent, and self-defeating.

Relentless: Defeat is not a part of a Satyagrahi's vocabulary. Even if all his efforts are thwarted in a ruthless paroxysm of tyranny and oppression--even if he faces a firing squad or torture chamber, a true, disciplined Satyagrahi will simply continue to practice Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj, indifferent to personal suffering, aware of impermanence, and confident that even if he dies a horrible death, the Truth itself, for which he lives, is imperishable. Mandela, for example, spent 26 years in a jail cell on Robbins Island, and what did he do during that long confinement? He practiced Satyagraha--refusing to cooperate with evil (despite the threats), treating everyone (both guards and prisoners) with decency and courtesy, and cultivating Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj in everything he did. And when he was finally released, Apartheid collapsed and he stepped from a prison cell into the Presidency. Such examples as Gandhi, Mandela, and King must continually inspire us as we face the all-consuming evil of our own times. As the Dalai Lama puts it simply, "Never give up."