For many years, dharma teacher Valerie Brown saw hope as “flimsy” and ephemeral. But after a year of painful personal losses, divorce, and a hurricane, her understanding of hope began to transform. “I realized there’s another way to look at hope,” she shared on a recent episode of Tricycle’s monthly podcast, Life As It Is. “There’s a muscular quality to hope. It’s a skill, an action, a verb.” As she grappled with her grief, she started to see hope as a habit that we can cultivate in the face of uncertainty and impermanence. “These habits are like anchors,” she says. “They are not guarantees. But they help us become more resourceful.”
In her new book, Hope Leans Forward: Braving Your Way toward Simplicity, Awakening, and Peace, Brown discusses how her Quaker and Buddhist practices have helped her cultivate hope in the face of loss. Read an excerpt from her conversation with James Shaheen and Sharon Salzberg, and then listen to the full episode here.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): You draw from both Buddhist and Quaker traditions, and you often refer to your “soul’s voice,” which is language we don’t necessarily hear in Buddhist circles. What do you mean when you use the term “soul,” and how do you blend Buddhist and Quaker practice in your life?
Valerie Brown (VB): I began thinking about this through being a longtime student of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay. Thay taught us that these faiths are deeply interconnected and rooted within each other. When I think about soul, the equivalent to me is one’s buddhanature. We each have a buddhanature, and I don’t mean anything highfalutin by that. I mean that we have within us a capacity to be awake, to wake up to life as it is in this moment. I’m sitting here talking to you, I feel my feet on the floor, and I have a beautiful warm blanket on my lap. I’m awake to what’s happening right here, right now. That is an awakened state. That is tapping into our buddhanature right here and right now. We don’t have to go into the future to find that. That’s here now, and that is available to every person, no matter their circumstance. We don’t have to study the sutras for 50 years; we can benefit right now.
The other wise teacher in my life has been the Quaker writer and activist Parker Palmer. Palmer says that it doesn’t so much matter what we call this thing called soul. There are many faith traditions and ways to describe it: buddhanature, big self, inner teacher, inner light. The name itself is not as important as that we touch into that sense of our innermost being, our inner wisdom, the guide that is always there. From a Quaker perspective, we say that there is that of God in every person, however one defines God. There is that awakened capacity in every person.
SS: I was curious about the fact that you close each chapter with a list of queries, which is a Quaker practice, because in my mind, if you’re allowed to ask questions, then the very allowance is a sign of respect, which is a beautiful perspective on human nature.
VB: I love that. Within the Quaker community, queries are the heart and soul of Quaker faith and practice. A query is not a question. A query is a way of pointing toward the soul. There is no particular right or wrong. It’s not about answering. It is more an invitation, a movement toward an inner dialogue. A question implies there is an answer, and it almost points to a kind of cognitive capacity. A query invites a deeper reflection, and this reflection is often done with a community. For a Quaker, a query might invite silence. It might invite listening. It might invite writing a letter or walking in the woods or looking up at the sky. So it invites many different forms of listening.
SS: Can you give us an example of how a query might actually look?
VB: One of the queries that has been a touchstone for me in my daily life is: What is it that only you can do? I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. It’s an invitation to listen in a deeper way. There’s a lovely story that Thay told. He was asked, “Why do you spend your time growing lettuce when you’re a Zen master? You write these beautiful books. You should be writing books and poetry and doing calligraphy. But you’re growing lettuce.” Thay said, “Well, the way I grow lettuce is the way I write books. The way I grow lettuce is the way I do calligraphy.” There’s a thread of love, attentiveness, care, and presence that connects growing lettuce and doing calligraphy. This is the invitation that’s embedded in a query: How do we connect the inwardness of our lives to the outwardness of our actions? This is embedded in a query.
James Shaheen (JS): When I was reading about the queries, I wondered if they’re somehow obliquely related to not knowing. In other words, you open the mind with a query and allow something to be known rather than trying to know.
SS: It also reminds me of how there’s a certain use of questioning that is just about pivoting. You’re not actually seeking a particular answer, and there’s no sense of there’s a right answer or a wrong answer. But instead of looking at a material object like the latest model of the iPhone as the source of final happiness, you can turn your attention toward your inner world and ask, “What do I need right now in order to be happy?” It’s the very pivot that is the point because then there’s both space and there’s possibility, rather than, “Well, if I wait three months, I can get an even better iPhone.”
VB: It’s deeply frustrating to folks, and I have to say, I have made a huge pivot and shift in my life. For most of my life, I was a lobbyist lawyer, very Type A. It was in meeting Thay in 1995 and starting to practice with the community that that changed: wanting a quick fix, getting paid good money to have the right answer, and seeing the world as a problem to solve and people to be fixed. That paradigm shift was not something I did alone. It was done within the context of these communities, holding silence, being with what is unresolved or unfinished, and sitting with all of that in Quaker and Buddhist communities.
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