This morning as I drove to work, I found myself behind a car with a bunch of bumper stickers that on their face, pretty much proclaimed the vehicle owner’s political bent. One of the ‘messages’ combined religion and politics into one snarky message that, without naming a single person, made it clear exactly whom they were addressing. As I often do, I immediately decided I disliked the person behind the wheel. I even contemplated driving up alongside the car to get a glimpse of my new nemesis as though that was going to seal my suspicions about the person’s true nature. Ironically, this event served as a lesson in compassion. I forced myself to stop forming conclusions about how this person would feel about me or my friends or my vocation. And it was hard. I wanted to dislike him or her solely for what they displayed on the outside of their car. Granted, what we display to the world often says a lot about what we feel inside. One doesn’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to know that members of the Westboro Baptist church who picket everything from funerals to religious services, hate many things but most prominently, ‘the gays.’
I’m not a bumper sticker person, myself. I don’t like to disfigure my car and I hold no real desire to express something to the world that must be interpreted in a matter of minutes by someone in a motorized cage behind me. Bumper stickers can be misinterpreted, especially if they are trying to convey a message subtly about a subject that begs for a broader perspective. I’m embarrassed to say that I draw pretty clear conclusions about people based on how they adorn their modes of transportation and I suppose that is the point of putting a message on your bumper that basically says, “I believe this and if you don’t agree, you are wrong.”
So, this morning I imagined myself meeting the person in the car in front of me and having a civilized conversation about politics and religion and tried to steer myself into appreciating their humanity. I focused on having compassion for someone despite our differences. And I thought it was apropos of what I have learned from Sharon Salzberg and in my own journey down this spiritual path. It’s ultimately about seeing the commonality not the difference.
There are a few reasons I decided to investigate meditation several years ago. For one, I felt I was sorely lacking some kind of spiritual foundation – something intangible I know, but for me it was important. The faith in which I was raised (I’m a cradle Catholic) wasn’t speaking to me. In fact, when it did, the words were not consoling or welcoming. As I wrote this, I noticed that I used the present tense to refer to ‘my Catholicism’ and that speaks volumes, I suppose. There will always be a part of me that craves the ‘smells and bells’, the ritualistic communal gathering on Sunday morning and the regimen of the liturgy. But the human element of the faith in which I was raised has (in my opinion) created obstacles too high for me to overcome.
Lovingkindness is harder the longer you put it off. I find that if I don’t include a metta practice at the end of my meditation session, I struggle to stay on task. And that struggle invades those parts of my day when I deal with difficult people. Taking the ego out of the equation is imperative. Being able to stand back and understand there is nothing personal about the interaction takes patience, equanimity and more than a passing familiarity with the power of selflessness.
As I stepped out into the cold and dark at 3:30 this morning to water the puppies, I looked back at our house and counted my blessings. The night light in the kitchen threw just enough warmth to cast shadows down the stairs to the living room and onto the maple floor. It’s a big house, way too much for the two of us despite our recent uptick in canines. An open design, the architect provided spaces that encourage community, from the expansive kitchen that centers the main floor to the family room that anchors the western end of the house. And from every room, I can see the Puget Sound stretching across to the Kitsap Peninsula and beyond. We place so much importance on our homes, our castles, our domains, and our defense against the ‘other.’ And yet ultimately, our real home is always with us, no matter where we are. It’s in our breath, in the beating of our heart, the softness of our eyes as they rest upon something beautiful. I learned to meditate in the Vipassana tradition, concentrating on the rising and falling of my diaphragm or the sensation of the air at the tip of my nose. When it’s broken down to such simplicity, when that is all one must focus one’s awareness on, it is genuinely a primal feeling of home.
No matter where we are, our breath is our home.
There is a story in Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness about children learning about the importance about ‘taking a moment’ before acting on difficult emotions. How wonderful would it be if this became a part of the curriculum in every school in this nation. It seems we value ‘quick thinking and action’ and we celebrate people who can counter criticism deftly with a witty comeback. But we rarely celebrate the person who can turn away and deflect harsh words with kindness. And teaching children how to know the difference “suggests the possibility of finding the gap between a trigger event and our usual conditioned response to it, and of using that pause to collect ourselves and change our response.” *
In my line of work, I see the results of ‘not taking a moment’ all of the time. It can be as (relatively) benign as someone flipping the bird to another driver on the freeway or as horrible as the violence of a homicide. And in almost all of those situations, the moment was there to be taken but the opportunity was lost.
We only have a limited amount of time on this earth but we have a limitless ability to pause. I think that’s what we are learning here.
*Sharon Salzberg Real Happiness pg 107
Turbo the Wonder Cat…Pausing
One of the first books I read about Buddhism was Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith. It is a wonderfully reasoned book about her transformation and journey that has ultimately brought us all here for this challenge. I have to say that I was intrigued by the title of the book because the word ‘faith’ is not one that I normally associated with Buddhism. And in fact, faith has always held more of a mystical and certainly Christian connotation for me. And I’m not a very ‘mystical’ person. I’m very pragmatic and practical, perhaps to a fault. To me, having faith in something meant believing in something you couldn’t prove.
When Sharon writes, “Faith is the animation of the heart that says, `I choose life.’ This spark of faith is ignited the moment we think, `I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try.’ “, I think to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what faith means to me, too.’
So where am I going with this? On Saturday, the Westboro Baptist Church is going to travel to the Pacific Northwest and picket at the memorial service for the two little boys killed by their father, Josh Powell last Sunday. This ‘church’ is pretty much just one family headed by Fred Phelps and his daughter Margie. The reason they are going to picket is because Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has pledge to sign the bill to legalize same sex marriage in Washington state passed by our legislature two days ago. Their reasoning? God was punishing those two little boys for the actions of the legislature and the governor. Make sense now? I didn’t think so.
Now the Westboro folks are notorious. I won’t link to their site because frankly it is repulsive, but if you want to see for yourself, have at it. A few years ago, they came to Seattle to protest several synagogues and a high school. I had to work a plainclothes detail essentially to protect their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. Suffice it to say, it was not a pleasant experience. However, I was so proud of our local high school kids who came out en masse to protest the protesters. And there was no violence despite the very heated rhetoric.
This is where I come back to faith and why this word really needs to be re-acquired by the good and compassionate followers of all religious traditions. The Phelps family uses the word faith as a weapon. They believe in a wrathful and vengeful God who compels them to compound the misery and sadness that so many feel in the name of ‘faith.’
As I sat this morning, I struggled mightily to put into some sort of context a world that rushes by us day after day bringing us everything from the joy of a new life to the sadness at the end of another. My faith will not be defined by anger. It will be defined by ‘the animation of the heart.’