Friday, July 15, 2016

The Hunger That Keeps This Whole Thing Going

A couple of months ago I once again hiked the trail that, earlier in the spring, had inspired me to compose that very ominous post: When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us. This time, though, it was an entirely different experience. The air was calm. The leaves were full, and various luscious shades of green. Sure enough, ample evidence remained of the circumstances that had prompted me to write that earlier post. Numerous fallen trees and limbs still blocked the trail. But there was also much more abundant evidence that life would not be subdued. Life, it seemed during this hike, was indomitable. In fact, life was so indomitable, it seemed that the entire forest was literally breathing as one. Yes, literally!

It started softly at first, almost inaudibly. The rhythmic rising and falling of sound became just barely perceptible only to disappear again amongst the chatter of birds and the rustling of leaves. When it returned it was a little bit louder, and distinctly like the sound of breathing echoing through the woods. What was it? I recalled how on a previous hike the sounds of the high school marching band practicing a good mile away up the road had managed to slip through the trees and flow down into the draws through which the trail wended. But this? This was breathing! Strong…, persistent…, breathing. It was almost as if the forest were one body, manifesting its being from breath to breath.

It wasn’t until I reached a spot overlooking the river that I realized what I’d been hearing. The crew of one of the replica longboats of the Lewis and Clark expedition was slowly and arduously, but methodically nonetheless, making its way up the swollen Missouri River – just as had been done over 200 years ago. The “breathing” that I was hearing was the coxswain calling out the strokes, and the crew, in turn, answering with coordinated, and articulated pulls on their oars.

Interesting, I thought to myself. Yes, it would be kind of cool to learn a little bit of what it must have been like for the original crew of the Corps of Discovery. But that’s an awful lot of work to go through, even for a short daytrip upstream just to see what it would be like. One would have to be pretty hungry for the experience in order to sign up for such a workout. And imagine how hungry the original crew must have been – for adventure, for escape, for answers, for fame, for meaning…

Buddhists will recognize hunger – or, variously, craving, thirst, or desire (tanha, in Pali) – as one of the links in the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. The twelve-fold chain, you will recall, is a summary of the various teachings of the Buddha regarding how we cycle through our various incarnations, whether on a moment-to-moment or a lifetime-to-lifetime basis, as the case may be. Indeed, hunger prompts us to appropriate that which we crave, thereby making it our own – thereby making it who we are. Whether it is hunger for damp soil in which to root, hunger for warm sun to stretch our branches towards, hunger for juicy flesh in which to sink our teeth, or hunger for new horizons to explore – it is what makes the world what it is. Hunger keeps this whole thing going. See the conclusion of my blog series on the subject if you'd like to delve into it a little deeper:

Of course, if it is liberation from this endless cycle of suffering that we seek, then hunger is a very negative thing. It stands between us and our goal. But if we’re sick and in pain, or if death is reaching ever closer and we’re not yet ready to say goodbye, then hunger might just keep us alive. We might even be grateful for the hunger that prompted our doctor to learn enough about medicine to cure us – or, for those with a more cynical outlook, which prompted him or her to choose a career where they could make good money and have lots of prestige.

Paradoxically, at least from a Buddhist standpoint, hunger is both the cause of our further suffering and the nudge towards our liberation from it. After all, aren’t many of us just as hungry for liberation as many, many others are hungry for a cheeseburger? Do you recall the admonishment of the old Zen master to sit zazen as if your hair were on fire? Indeed, that is quite a craving for liberation! And aren’t there bodhisattvas out there who are hungry to save all beings from their suffering, hungry to end the injustices of this world that keep us all from achieving our highest potential – liberation, that is.

We’re all hungry for something. Whether it’s something from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or liberation from need altogether, we’re all hungry. Until such time as we can walk through the world like the Buddha walked with his empty bowl – neither yearning for it to be filled, nor yearning for it to remain empty that he might pass away forever from this samsaric realm – we remain hungry. The question that we all must answer to our own satisfaction regards the nature of our hunger. What is it that we crave, and why? How will the satisfaction of our hunger advance that which we value most? How does the hunger itself represent that which we value most? How will the satisfaction of our hunger change the world for better or worse? Indeed, it is hunger that keeps the whole thing going, but we humans do have some control over the objects of our hunger.   

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Nudge Toward Repentance

Every once in a while I experience an apparent synchronicity of events that leaves me musing about the possible existence of some greater intelligence acting in our day to day lives. That such God-like intelligence might be tweaking events in our lives is a foregone conclusion for some. Others are inclined to pass off these occurrences as mere coincidence that the perceiving individual chooses to invest with whatever meaning might be appropriate to him or her. I’m fairly agnostic on the matter. However, regardless of how we might think they came to be, such interesting collections of events can serve to focus our attention on lessons that might be worthwhile to learn, or relearn, as the case may be. For instance, here’s a recent occurrence of “synchronicity” in my life:

Event #1: I was heading home from work last Friday afternoon when I decided to make a detour for an early dinner. I made a right turn at a busy intersection and then quickly maneuvered into the left lane in order to make a left turn about four or five car lengths further along. There was a line of traffic that still needed to move through the intersection before I could make my turn, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I sat with my left turn signal on and waited for an opportunity. As I sat there I noticed the man in the oncoming car almost next to mine growing more and more impatient. He seemed to be glaring at me from behind his reflective shades as he repeatedly pulled hard on his cigarette. Then, when the light at the intersection changed without the traffic moving so much as a car length, he flicked his cigarette butt into the ground in my direction with apparent disgust and shook his head. A curious situation, I thought, as a lane of cars formed behind me. Anyway, as soon as the oncoming cars make their left turn, I’ll make mine. All will be well with the world. But nobody moved. Honking commenced. What was going on?

It took a while, but “cigarette man” and the rest of his line of cars gradually moved along and I was able to make a left turn into the restaurant parking lot. It was only then that my role in causing the traffic jam became apparent. On account of me blocking the left lane so near to the intersection, the traffic backing up behind me prevented oncoming traffic from making a left turn. Without the oncoming traffic being able to make a left turn neither could I! As a result, at least for a couple of minutes, gridlock prevailed. And I was its primary cause. Oops!

Event #2: The next afternoon was gloriously warm and sunny. The urban park where I frequently go for a (relatively) long run was teaming with people enjoying the outdoors in pretty much all manner that humans are inclined to do on such a day. I was near the end of my run – and worn out from the distance and the heat – when I came to an especially scenic stretch that threads its way through a riverine area and crosses several footbridges. Being tired, my attention was primarily on the path in front of me. I veered right and made sure to sufficiently lift up my feet as I hopped onto a suspension bridge crossing one of the waterways. When next I looked up I realized that there was a fairly large wedding party lined up along the right railing, posing for a photographer poised on the opposite bank preparing to take their picture. Given that I was already upon them, I just kept running. I must have assumed that it would be less of an interruption to quickly pass out of the picture and be on my way than to stop and backtrack and call attention to the fact that they were starting to hold up traffic. Well, apparently that didn’t go over well. “Don’t pictures mean anything around here?” one of the groomsmen jeered as I ran behind them. Umm…

Event #3: I was in the middle of groggily pouring soymilk on my cereal the next morning when I noticed a spider nestled in the cardboard fold of the carton. Surprisingly, he was moving a little bit despite having been in the refrigerator for so long. I also happened to notice that he was missing a leg. Had I scrunched him on a previous morning just as I might have done again? Anyway, with as much wakefully compassionate action as I could muster I tried to shoo the little guy out of the fold so that I could find him a more suitable home. Damned if I didn’t end up mangling one of his remaining legs in the process – an ordeal that seemed to throw cold water on whatever spark of life might have remained in his tiny being. Shit…

Event #4: I took some time off the following Monday in order to finish a multitude of projects that had accumulated around the house – one of which was cutting up some pruned tree limbs and stacking them on the woodpile for a future winter’s day. Since the newly cut firewood needed more time to cure, I set about restacking the entire pile with the more recently cut wood on the bottom. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so I disturbed the nest of a little field mouse that had taken up residence in the void between some of the larger logs. She squeaked in dismay and scurried away as her babies tumbled down amongst the bricks and rubble that I’d stowed away down below. My gut tightened and I quickly set about plucking the tiny pink beings from the nooks and crannies where they lay. Surely they’ll die, I despaired, as I gingerly placed them on a remnant of nesting material anyway. Their eyes were tightly closed and their mouths were still instinctively opening and closing – as if suckling on the mother that was no longer there. She’ll never come back for them after all of this trauma, I lamented. I felt sick…

It seemed to me that the universe, via this seemingly synchronistic sequence of occurrences, was teaching me a lesson. Day after day after day I was the source of negative and potentially life-threatening disruption in the lives of others around me. Day after day after day I was the source of negative karma without even trying to be. But here is the important point: this was the negative karma of which I’d become aware. How much disruption do I cause without ever even knowing it? How much pain and suffering do I create just by going about my day to day life?

Is the hen that laid the eggs that were used in my omelet living a comfortable life, or is she anxious and cramped and merely existing for the sake of my sustenance? Have the material comforts that I enjoy come to me through the hard labor and suffering of others all over the world? What of the people and animals who live next to the oil drills that pump from the ground the crude oil that eventually becomes the gasoline for my car? Are they being adequately compensated for making life so convenient for me? Do they have clean water and land for their crops? Do they have schools and healthcare for their families? What of the migrant workers who pick and process the food that I eat? And what of the people who make all the gadgets and stuff for my amusement and pleasure? What is life like for those who must live amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the dirty manufacturing processes that help to make my life what it is?

My latest brush with synchronicity – whether it be real or imagined – has me thinking about repentance. Repentance is such a strong word, isn’t it? We usually think of someone needing to repent for a crime they’ve committed. If a defendant doesn’t show any remorse, they may get a harsher sentence. If after being incarcerated they still don’t show any remorse, they may not be given parole. Without repentance, we can’t be confidant that they won’t simply go out and commit the same crime yet again. But the same is true for even my accidental indiscretions. Without repentance, what will keep me from simply stumbling through my life unaware, leaving havoc in my wake? I don’t want to go through life causing traffic jams and spoiled memories wherever I go. I don’t want to live in such a way that I cause needless pain and suffering to the people and animals that make my life possible. I want to act, to the best of my ability, with awareness of the results of my actions.

Many Zen practitioners chant what is called the Verse of Repentance as part of their spiritual practice. The Verse of Repentance reminds us that every word, thought, or deed born of ignorance, hatred, or greed (the so-called three poisons) perpetuates existence in this samsaric realm. What goes around comes around, as it is so often said. Thus, just as the convict is denied parole on account of his or her inability to repent their harmful deeds, so we are denied release from our endless cycle of suffering if we cannot bring ourselves to recognize and (hopefully) refrain from repeating all that has brought needless suffering into the world.

Myriad words and thoughts and deeds, whether for good or for ill, make the world what it is. A traffic jam here, a spoiled photo op there, a spider killed, baby mice cast asunder – whether we are aware of them or not, they keep adding up. You know the old proverb: when a butterfly flaps its wings, a hurricane blows on the other side of the world. Let me repent past indiscretions, and strive for greater awareness.

Oh, by the way, I checked on those baby mice the following day. They had been removed from the nesting material where I had left them. I am hoping that this means that the mother came back for them and carried them away to a place where they may live out their lives in field mouse heaven!

Photo of field mouse courtesy of NOZO via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Healing Awareness

One of the highlights of my work is that it allows me to meet people from all over the world right here in my hometown. A few days a month I help out with an organization that provides assistance to immigrants and refugees who are new to the St. Louis area. I try not to pry or ask unnecessary questions, but often enough I become privy to stories of great pain and hardship. Youths from Sudan and Somalia, women from war-torn Congo, victims of Bhutanese and Bosnian ethnic cleansing, endangered translators from Iraq and Afghanistan – I feel honored and privileged to be a part of their lives. Hopefully I’m able to provide some measure of hope and healing to them after having experienced far too much of the darkness of this troubled and chaotic world.

The other day I was speaking with a young man whose entire family still remains back in one of the cities most devastated by the Syrian civil war. He fled there without many of the documents that all of us here in the U.S. would just assume will follow us wherever it is we might go. Unfortunately, the simple act of mailing a letter home to request them – to the extent that the postal service might actually succeed in getting a letter through – is in and of itself a potentially life-threatening act. Can you imagine what would happen to his family in Syria if the wrong person found out that they were receiving correspondence from someone in the United States – someone in the bosom of the great Satan?

In the course of our conversation, this young man described having met someone here in the U.S. who was totally unaware of the fact that there is a civil war going on in Syria this very moment that is causing dislocations of people as haven’t been seen since World War II. A combination of disbelief, exasperation, and pain crossed his face in the short time it took to describe the interaction. Yes, I can imagine how difficult it must be to realize that people you know and love are facing possible annihilation back in your hometown even as others go about their lives blissfully unaware.

We cause pain with our lack of awareness. Thankfully, though, our awareness can facilitate healing. This is not merely some squishy spiritual talk, it is reality as evidenced by numerous studies related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its onset, and its mitigation. It turns out that when trauma is borne by the victim or victims alone, without any social support or acknowledgment, there is an increased likelihood that PTSD will result. Conversely, when trauma is acknowledged in a supportive and non-judgmental way the risk of developing PTSD is diminished.

Compassion fatigue is all too common these days. There is so much heartache in the world that it seems at times as though the only sane course of action is to focus our energy on shutting it all out of our lives as best we can. We stop paying attention to the news. We stop engaging in anything political. We simply focus on what’s going on with our family, our friends, our job, and our spiritual community. Some even try to reframe their purposeful lack of awareness in positive spiritual terms: “I’m changing the world by changing myself.” “I’m trying to be the peace that we need in the world.” “I’m turning my energy toward that which I can actually change.” “I’m just trying to focus on the joy that exists.” Sadly, such self-serving abandonment of that which is in our sphere of influence only helps perpetuate the deep suffering of the world.

Do you wonder what it’s like to be an African-American from a scorned, forgotten, under-resourced, and underserved part of town; to be kept in poverty with aggressive and disparate policing practices that siphon away your money if you have it, or take away your freedom if you don’t; to have your people treated as expendable if they should run afoul of the law – not worthy of even calling for backup in order to keep their blood from being spilled? Do you know what it’s like to live in such a world and then have that reality absolutely and completely ignored by society at large? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

Do you wonder what it’s like to be a Palestinian from one of the ghettos created by the ever-expanding state of Israel; to have your land and your freedom of movement taken from you; to have whatever meager attempts at self-defense some of your people might feel compelled to mount be met with overwhelming and indiscriminate death and destruction; to have your very natural anger and frustration at the inequities of your plight be used against you to justify the very treatment that is so abhorrent. Can you imagine what it’s like to live in such a world where the reality of your circumstances are so absolutely and completely ignored or denied by those who have your fate in their hands – and those who would support them? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

There are times when the causes of the suffering of this world can appear so complex and intractable as to seem unworthy of all but the most quixotic of efforts. And yet at other times it seems that if we would only just bring the full power of our awareness to bear on them, these causes would naturally give way to a much more healthy and just set of circumstances. I’m sure I’ll be thinking often of the young Syrian man that I mentioned earlier. I’ll be thinking of the pain on his face while contemplating that the plight of his people might be unworthy of our attention. I’ll be thinking of the healing power that our awareness can have.

Man carrying child after bombing in Aleppo, Syria via CTV News:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank