When a society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when a society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order.
—The Book of Leadership and Strategy
Where we are
As I write this, over 500,000 people in the US have died from COVID-19. Although vaccines now offer a light at the end of the tunnel, millions of people in this country are still facing uncertainty, isolation, and hardship—some through mistaken beliefs, some through personal choices, many through the force of circumstances beyond their control.
Even with a new administration in office, ideological, political, and economic forces continue to shred the fabric of our society. When these factors are combined with the challenges of widespread pollution and its effect on the planet’s climate, we have at best a temporary respite from the troubles of our times.
What to do?
For me, the answer to this question is hard to put into words, but it seems to have something to do with fulfilling a responsibility, a responsibility that comes out of my training in the bodhisattva path. This path has always resonated with me and it has provided me with guidance and direction in some very difficult situations.
Mahayana Buddhism talks about the two aims: the aim for oneself and the aim for others. The aim for oneself is to clean up one’s own mess. It is to find a way to end our own struggles with life, not by creating an ideal world, but by finding a way to live at peace in and with the human condition. In Buddhism, this aim is realized principally through seeing through life’s illusions and knowing the groundlessness of experience.
The aim for others is the expression of that understanding through how we live, an expression that sees the humanity in each and every person, is courteous and respectful towards them, treats with them justly, and appreciates them for who they are—in short, the social expressions of the four immeasurables: equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and joy.
In the current uncertainty, I put my attention and energy into living the best way that I know. I find that through the practice of taking and sending or tonglen, as it is called in Tibetan. This practice gives me both a way to address my own garbage and a method to cultivate the qualities that make it possible to help others.
Taking and sending is not a complicated practice. It can be applied to everything we experience, and its applications are broad and profound.
The crux of taking and sending is that you use the coming and going of your breath to exchange the good you experience in your life for the struggles that others experience in theirs. On the in-breath, you take in all the ills of the world, all the evil, all the pain, all the injustice, in the form of thick black smoke. On the out-breath, you send out everything that is good in your life in the form of silvery moonlight. You give it to everyone who struggles in life, and you feel that each of them can now rest in peace and joy, free from struggle. You make this exchange again and again, synchronizing it with your breath.
The following instructions are taken from Mind Training in Seven Points, the mind-training text that I know best. Written in Tibet in the 12th century by the Kadampa master Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, it is a comprehensive training manual that summarizes this practice in 59 pithy instructions.
Use one practice for everything.
Whether I am happy or sad, ill or well, having a miserable time or enjoying life to its fullest, I can practice taking and sending. When I was ill during a three-year retreat, the only practice I could do was taking and sending, and I forged a solid relationship with it. It led me to my first significant experiential understanding of what Buddhist practice is actually about—the end of struggle.
Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue.
Three objects—what I like, what I don’t like, what I don’t care about. Three poisons—attraction, aversion, indifference. Three seeds of virtue? I use my own emotional reactions to generate goodness. When I want something, I take in the longing and yearning of others and send them whatever I have. When I dislike something, I take in the anger and aversion of others and send them my peace and joy. When I don’t care about something, I take in the dullness and obliviousness of others and send them clarity and energy.
Whatever my reactions are—attraction, aversion, indifference—taking and sending gives me a way to relate to them without being consumed by them and without dumping them on others.
Even though my life is relatively peaceful right now, I am quite aware that I am still affected by the pandemic, the political turmoil, and uncertainty and confusion and keep this next instruction in mind.
Make adversity the path of awakening.
I meet what is happening, no matter how unpleasant, how intimidating, how overwhelming it may be. Millions of people in this country are struggling more than I am with illness and death. They struggle with unwanted connections and unwanted separations, financial uncertainty, and fear and isolation. They struggle with threats to their well-being, their families, their jobs, and their homes. I don’t try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the pain, difficulty, unfairness, inequity, and heartbreak. I take it all in and feel it in my heart. It hurts, but I don’t try to change the hurt. I just feel it. Then I send out my good health, my well-being, my home and garden, the food I eat, my ability to understand what I read, the joy I take in music and in walks. I give away everything that I enjoy and value in life and imagine that it brings peace, happiness, understanding, and strength to every person.
Train on everyone, without preference.
I do this with everyone—no favorites, no preferences, no prejudices. I take joy in taking in everyone’s struggles and sending my peace, well-being, and joy into their lives. It’s an imagined exchange, but it sets something in motion. Parts of me are not happy with this exchange and that leads to another instruction.
Work with whatever you encounter.
Whatever arises—anxiety about what is going on in the world; anger at the shortcomings of leadership and lack of effective action; despair at the proliferation of conspiracy theories and their adoption by significant sections of the population; disgust with those who feel they have the right to impose their utopian ideals on others and those who feel they have the right to tell others how they should think, feel, and live; uncertainty as to how all this is going to play out; attachment to my home and means of support—I open to all of it and I take in the same feelings from others, freeing them from their struggles. In return, I send them the quiet, comfort, peace and support that I do enjoy in my life.
But then it gets a bit more difficult. Anger at dishonest leadership and ineffective action leads me to take in the mindsets of those responsible, those who seem to be capable of doing nothing to alleviate the problems of millions when they have the power and means to do so. I find that taking that mindset into me is harder than taking in illness and fear. I feel the hardness and the cold in me, and wonder what it is like to live that way. When I do take it in, when I actually feel what it might be like to have that coldness of character, I touch into times in my life when I have ignored or turned away from situations when I could have been more understanding, could have been kinder, or could have done something to help.
Similar resonances come up when I take in the mindsets of those who buy into conspiracy theories or problematic ideologies. With people who see the world differently from me, it’s all too easy to slide into “I’m right and they’re wrong.” Instead, as much as possible, I take in their feelings of being left behind, unwanted, unvalued, and their difficulties in not knowing who or what to trust. I take in what it must be like to live in a world that has changed beyond recognition, a world that has rendered meaningless much that gave meaning to their lives, a world that has squashed them at every turn, a world that does not support a life they deem worth living.
Having lived outside or at the margins of society for significant portions of my life, I know these feelings and I know the pain and alienation behind them. In exchange, I send what was one of the harder lessons for me, the simple gesture of taking joy in others’ goodness, abilities, and accomplishments.
I’ve come to see that when I dwell on the arrogance and righteous anger of those who would tell me how I should think and feel, I’m essentially looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of myself. I then do taking and sending with the reflection in the mirror, no matter how distasteful or disgusting I find it. As I recognize that I have my own ideas about how others should think and live, I remember the disappointments I still feel when the world does not meet the expectations I had as a child, for fairness, kindness, justice, and encouragement. Then my anger and disgust dissolve, and I understand their yearnings for the world to be a better place, and I can take in their pain.
It’s all very well to say that all this is fuel for taking and sending, but when I really touch these sentiments and feel them in myself, it forces me to face my own capacity to be cruel, to hurt others, or to do evil. While I can sit here now and send out peace and freedom, giving away what I have learned through practice, I still have to face the fact that, in different circumstances, I could have been like the people with whom I’m angry or disgusted.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.
My own capacity for evil is a truth that I have to face squarely. When I see it and acknowledge it, practice becomes real. It becomes a matter of life and death. Only then do I appreciate how attention, compassion, and faith really are the three doors to freedom.
Learn to meet three challenges.
This is the heart of the practice—to listen to what is arising in me, to meet it, and to keep meeting it until it lets go on its own. One of the most important practice principles I’ve learned is that I don’t control my reactions. I can only meet them, feel them, and experience them to the best of my ability. They let go when they are ready to let go. I don’t call the shots.
Give up any hope for results.
If I hold even the slightest hope that they will release, my preoccupation with how I want to feel ensures that they remain in place.
Rest in the basis of all experience.
To rest in what arises, to rest without distraction, to rest without controlling, to rest without trying to do anything, this is one path to the groundlessness of being, to mind nature in traditional vocabulary. To do that, however, I have to have the skill and capacity to experience anything and everything that arises and I have to be willing to do so without any thought of personal gain or benefit. Only then can I know that I am nothing and that, because I am nothing, anything is possible.
Sometimes I suspect that Chekawa, the author of Mind Training in Seven Points, had a wry sense of humor. His last instruction is a kicker:
Don’t expect thanks.
For me, this is where I come back to the sense of responsibility I mentioned earlier. In many respects, practice is about cleaning up my own mess, and I can hardly expect to be thanked for that.
As for others, we are not always aware of the ways that we help them. Mind nature, empty, clear, and free is like a quiet room filled with light, with an unrestricted view. Whenever I come into or sit in such a room, it evokes something similar in me, a peace, a clarity, a sense of freedom, easing if only for a moment whatever may be bothering me at the time. To help others, maybe it’s enough to be that room.
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