A few years ago, I attended an interfaith religious service—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—not long after some hoodlums had smeared feces on a nearby mosque. I went because the announcement said there would be cookies, not so much because my going would show solidarity or make a statement. I learned my lesson about “statements” in 1974 when I threw myself into the women’s movement, which threw me out ten minutes later, after I “stated” that I liked my job but I’d rather be a stay-at-home mom. My next “statement” was to resign from activism altogether and change my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. The world yawned, and I began showing solidarity with Groucho Marx and adopting his 1951 “statement” about not wanting to “belong to any club that would have [him]… as a member.” But—back to the Interfaith Service—I don’t mind, statementwise, being perceived as someone who would rather participate in interfaith worship than throw shit at mosques.
The service featured shofars making startling noises, which is evidently the point of shofars. I’d already been startled to the point of heart failure by an explosion of tympani sounds during the choir’s pre-service rehearsal of “Let All Things Now Living,” set to the sweet melody many of us, especially church-camp alumni, know as “The Ash Grove.” So ungentle and unexpected was the tympani’s entrance that for a beat or two I thought something had actually exploded. It hadn’t, and my pulse returned to almost normal, but it occurred to me that the interfaith gathering might be a bit more vulnerable to mischief than, say, a worship service at my own church, First Central Congregational (UCC), which hasn’t blown up even once since it was built in the early 1900s. Maybe it’s the calming effect of old oak, stained glass, traditional choral music, and soft lighting. But the interfaith event, having been widely publicized, might well have attracted the type of lunatic who as a child tormented the family cat. So went my thinking, at least, until the welcome distraction of shofar-blowing.
Note the phrase type of lunatic. I use it for convenience, knowing full well that you don’t have to be crazy to be dangerous. Not for lack of trying, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to refer to people in clumps than to become personally acquainted with everybody in the world. Sadly, due to the limitations of language and friendship, I default to clump-speak.
Before her baby talk became intelligible to adults, my grand-niece Desi had an astonishing vocabulary of Desi-invented words. She was extraordinarily fluent in nonsense, as I thought of it, but maybe she was creating the sort of lexicon we might all have to use if we couldn’t categorize things, including people. As a general practice, this approach would lead to communication chaos. No one could order pizza or get directions to the loo.
There was a time during the civil-rights movement when many well-meaning people took great pains to not allude to race. We thought it was impolite to notice skin color. Being “color-blind” was the politically correct sort of vision before, to my immense relief, Black became Beautiful. I remember a farcical conversation during the color-blind era with a classmate called Judy. We’d taken a difficult English-lit test and had just received our grades. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: I studied like crazy and got a B-minus. What about you?
Judy: I got a C. Only one person [out of forty-seven in the class] got an A.
Me: Wow! Who was that?
Judy: You know, Jeff. Sits in the third row. Tall. Dark hair.
Me, totally at sea: I have no idea who… uh, whom you’re talking about.
Judy, frustrated: You know, Jeff! He had on Levi’s and a red sweatshirt yesterday. He, um, wears John Lennon glasses.
Me: Oh, you mean Jeff, the only African-American in the class?
Judy, looking nervously around to see if my gaffe had been overheard: Yeah, that guy.
Clumping might be a linguistic necessity, but it leads to false assumptions and the resultant misinformation. Think “rock star,” and it’s a short mental hop to illicit drugs and indiscriminate sex, assumptions that are patently unfair to drug-shunning legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Gene Simmons and his Kiss.
Failing the litmus test
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said recently that the Democrats shouldn’t make abortion a litmus test for membership. I struggle with the idea of any litmus test for party affiliation when there are only two of them—parties, I mean. It’s difficult to imagine that there are only two kinds of people in this country: (a) those who believe in free-market capitalism, protectionism, tariffs, free enterprise, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, deregulation, restrictions on labor unions, and traditional values based largely on Judeo-Christian ethics; and (b) those who don’t. Once I asked my dad, a lifelong Republican, how many times he had voted for a Democrat. He looked thoughtful, puffed on his pipe, and finally said, “None.” But he had to think about it.
Terry Gross, host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, recently interviewed a onetime feminist who now considers herself “post-binary.” My voter-registration card says “Independent” because there’s no litmus test for being, by definition, nonpartisan. Someone who is uncomfortable with ambivalence might develop one, in which case I’d have to declare myself a post-independent Independent.
Since I read Martin Buber’s classic 1923 book I and Thou, I have tried, and have occasionally succeeded, to not clump people but to treat each individual as, above all else, a sacred soul—regardless of political affiliation, gender, color, age, IQ, occupation, or capacity to irritate the hell out of me.
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” Buber affirms, “God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Clearly, dualism is a dead end. The universe is a vast and wonderful array of shade and nuance. There are more microbes—which are neither plant nor animal—than all other living things put together. Some scientists even consider viruses to be “nonliving organisms.”
“People desire to separate their world into polarities,” writes the late Joy Page—“dark and light, ugly and beautiful, good and evil, right and wrong, inside and outside. Polarities serve us in our learning and growth, but as souls we are all.”
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For reasons that are not entirely clear even to me, I have been reading and listening to everything I can find about conditions leading up to World War I. I won’t even try to describe the causes; they can’t be tidily summarized.
According to the excellent instructor of a UC-Berkeley course I’m listening to via “iTunes U,” the emergence of Germany as a unified nation— its hundreds* of independent principalities, duchies, kingdoms, electorates, and other sovereign units having been conquered or cowed into submission during the 19th century, ultimately by Prussia under Otto von Bismarck — fractured the delicate “balance of power” in Europe. Unrest in the Balkans, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and a complicated web of alliances that kept changing, even Europe’s network of railroads — these were factors, too.
Those in power seem to have thought that the war would be over in a matter of months. But no one had ever seen a war like this. Once it started, the politicians and the generals couldn’t figure out how to end it, the instructor says. “Earlier wars were over when either side lost a major battle,” he explains, adding that these “earlier wars” had largely been fought without the dazzling new technology of artillery, chemical weapons, aircraft, and trains… nor had they utilized the trenches that made occupation of enemy-held territory so damnably slow.
The official count of war dead is under 17 million, including 1.5 million murdered during the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of Armenian genocide. Many historians believe that civilian casualties—including those from disease—are higher than reported, however, and estimate that nearly 20 million people died as a direct or indirect result of the so-called Great War. The website www.centre-robert-schuman.org reports more than 40 million casualties—”20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million….”
*Prior to 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation… had included more than 500 independent states. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unification_of_Germany
AS TWENTY MILLION DIED
It wasn’t even hate that made the armies
wait imperiled in the long scar spanning
boundaries, bisecting fields—the long
scar from the mountains to the sea.
Their hearts were far from the artillery,
the lethal gas, the twisted wire— in
Ireland, perhaps, beside the hearth,
a baby on one knee.
It wasn’t hate that made the nations
send their young men off to war, with
rifles and too little more. In parliaments
and palaces were pride and fear enough,
ambition, and this theory and that;
and as they strategized, exchanging futile
plans and making promises in
desperation, as they wagered though
the banks were dry, fate laughed and
damned their schemes and snatched her
human sacrifice. The princes and the
ministers of war stood by, resigned and
horrified by turns, as twenty million died,
and even now, when more than ninety years
have passed, no one is certain why.
Who could have known that it would last
so long? —this lottery of lives begun when
leaders failed to lead or to inspire and
armies marched despondently to where
the trains were leashed, impatient-
seeming, monsters straining with kinetic
energy, to chase each other, iron on
steel, with only minutes’ separation,
greedily devouring miles, as powerful on
the incline as on the plain, speed
unabated till they stopped at last,
expelled their loads, insentient
machines that they had always been,
though they had carried men but left
their hearts behind as if these sons,
these fathers, and these husbands might
thus tend the tidy fields and spend the
evening by the fire — such humble
aspirations, honest work and well-
earned rest, how could they possibly
accept the gray reality that fate,
unsatisfied, and war’s momentum would
determine otherwise? They did what
pawns have always done: Until their
countries were impoverished, until the
money to subsist was gone, they kept on
Many who survived were broken when it
ended (though in truth the giant only
slept); some would heal, some wrote in
poetry and prose of what they’d seen,
what they’d endured, what they had
witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man;
but there were those returning to the
land, if land remained, who never spoke
of it, and no one knows if they believed
that fortune had been kind in keeping
them alive or if, instead — their
comrades missing, maimed, or killed
by what they did not understand
sufficiently to hate— they wanted
nothing but oblivion and would have
gladly shared their fellows’ fate,
to perish in the ruined countryside
and lie amid the final stillness of
the twenty million who had died.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 28
Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 1: Why Meditate?
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1
Meditation, at its most basic, is surrendering control, transcending the ceaseless whirring of our minds and resting in the assurance that all is, in some mysterious way, exactly as it ought to be. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t rest the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.
Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt — maybe even depression and hopelessness, if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.
Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”
Meditation sets the baggage aside
In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.
Marian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.
Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.
Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.
There’s no such thing as meditating badly
The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.
If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:
The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.
Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.
Don’t fret if your mind wanders during meditation. What’s important is returning to the meditation, compassionately and gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, firm but patient.
Just do it
When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.
I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around our neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.
So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.
The benefits of meditation
The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to extend that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.
Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are, even when you’d rather be somewhere else.
It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.
There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.
Begin a meditation ritual and journal. Start with Jack Kornfield’s “Meditation for Beginners.” Try to meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day. Send your first week’s journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.
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