Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Insufficiency of Intention

“It’s the thought that counts.”

These words have a certain ring of truth to them, don’t they? On the other hand, a friend once related to me a story of how she put a lot of thought into choosing a gift for her daughter which, while perfect in every other way, happened also to be of a particular color that was rather abhorrent to the little girl. But it wasn’t just a dislike of a color. The real issue was that the little girl felt unheard.  She felt unknown – by her own mother nonetheless! Didn’t her mother know that she didn’t care for that color? I can relate, actually. As a young adult beginning to walk a path of vegetarianism, I was presented one Christmas with a beautiful leather jacket. It was quite expensive, too, which meant that accepting it with a smile and then never wearing it again seemed like a woefully inappropriate thing to do. And all the while we were having the discussion as to why I could not accept it, I just couldn’t help thinking of all the times meat had been foisted upon me at the family dinner table, or the times that I was argued with over the fact that the animal was already dead so why don’t I just eat it. Yes, it’s the thought that counts – until such time as thoughtlessness begins to outweigh the thought involved!

“Intention is all that matters.”

A few years ago, while helping to chaperone a group of high school juniors and seniors on a tour of historically black colleges and universities, I had the pleasure of having dinner with an African-American coworker in a nice little Cajun restaurant in New Orleans. It was just the two of us sharing a table apart from all the kids, and we were talking rather openly about family, culture, heritage, and so forth, when I asked her whether she knew what part of Africa her family might have come from. I know… Boom! At the time, though, I didn’t understand why the question gave her such pause. Of course, the term microagression is now well known to me. It didn’t matter that my question was a well-intended one related to her heritage. It didn’t matter that I was intending my question to reflect my interest in who she was as a person. My intention didn’t keep her from looking mortified. Anyway, my coworker responded very politely, but I will never forget the very practical lesson that I received that day that intention is definitely NOT all that matters.

Only Mahakasyapa understood the Buddha's wordless 'Flower Sermon'

Right intention (or aspiration or thought, depending upon the translation) is the second step on Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. So, yes, it really is a very big deal, at least for Buddhists. But it’s not the only deal. Before we can formulate appropriate intention, we must have right understanding (or view) – step one. From there follow right speech, action, and livelihood of the self that exists in relationship. And from there proceed the right effort, mindfulness, and concentration of the self sitting in meditation.

But what is this right understanding (or view) that starts us off on the right foot (pun intended)? In fact, it can be understood to encompass pretty much the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings. Says Bhikkhu Bodhi (1994) in his introduction to The Discourse on Right View which appears in the Majjhima Nikaya:
[R]ight view constitutes the correct understanding of the central teachings of the Buddha, the teachings which confer upon the Buddha's doctrine its own unique and distinctive stamp. Though the practice of right mindfulness has rightly been extolled as the crest jewel of the Buddha's teaching, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that the practice of mindfulness, or any other approach to meditation, only becomes an effective instrument of liberation to the extent that it is founded upon and guided by right view.

Practically speaking, however, we don’t set about perfecting right understanding before moving on to the other steps. In fact, we can’t. The teachings are two deep and too profound to grasp without the experience of meditation. Thus, we begin to understand a little bit, and perhaps we begin to meditate. We meditate, and then we bring our speech and action into greater accord with our understanding, however imperfect our speech and action may be, and however imperfect our understanding may be. Our understanding deepens, and perhaps we change our livelihood. We change our livelihood, and perhaps our meditation becomes deeper and more settled after we do. And then our understanding deepens as well. In other words, the sequence of steps in the path is more of a web, with each step impacting every other step as your "walk" along the path proceeds.

My home city of St. Louis is wrestling again with the karma of racial injustice. A white police officer has been acquitted of murdering a black suspect (again) under circumstances that are viewed by many as being rife with inequity, from the original alleged act of murder, to the acquittal, to the treatment of those who have protested the judgement out in the streets. And, yes, for the sake of the story that I’m telling here, I must also mention that there were some windows broken later in the evening after at least a couple of those protests.

It came to my attention this morning that a spiritual teacher who happens to be in town wants to hold a group meditation in the vicinity of where some of the vandalism occurred following those peaceful protests. The intention, of course, is to bring a peaceful practice to a place of unrest. Now do you see how all of this is coming together?

As a Buddhist who has for some years now stood with and marched with those demonstrating on behalf of racial justice in St. Louis, as someone who has learned a lot since committing that microaggression that I just told you about, as someone who has kept my eyes and ears open for news, history, opinion, video, commentary, etc. arising out of the Black experience of racial injustice in this city and in this country, I must say that some questions arose in my mind:

Is a public display of silent meditation held in a place where a public demonstration just took place making a statement of peace and solidarity with the oppressed, or does it instead merely advocate for quietude in the face of brutal injustice?

Is there a value judgement inherent in the choice to hold the meditation in the gentrified space where some window-breaking occurred as opposed to the place where the injustice actually occurred, whether that be at the courthouse from which the verdict was delivered, the police station(s) from which the squelching of the protest(s) flowed forth, or the site where the killing itself took place?

What does it say to African-Americans who are outraged at this verdict when a group of largely white, privileged individuals attempt (or appear to attempt) to “save” a community with their spiritual practice, swooping in and seemingly offering up a salve before first really understanding the nature of the wound?

Will it be perceived by African-Americans as just another group of white people shutting out the very real experiences of suffering all around them and communicating in a subtle or not so subtle way that those who respond to suffering as they have could perhaps use a little guidance or improvement, rather than the assistance that they request in dismantling the systems that oppress them?

Some will say that the answers to all of these questions are of no consequence at all as long as the intention behind the action is a pure one. Some will no doubt have such faith in the pure goodness of silent meditation and the all-encompassing nature of the Buddha’s teachings that they will conclude that knowing the nature of this particular suffering, knowing the experience of these particular people, and knowing the history of race relations in this particular city is of no consequence whatsoever. After all, doesn't meditation automatically equate with peace? Well, I think that would be a mistake to presume. For a public meditation is public speech and action, and it therefore requires that the audience for that speech and action be taken into consideration. The Buddha tailored his message in order to accommodate the experiences and understandings of different individuals at different times and under different circumstances. Occasionally noble silence was the result, but only occasionally.

I do hope that whatever meditation might take place is viewed by and experienced by all in the best possible light and with the most open of hearts. I hope that the purity of intention does shine through to all who may witness what transpires. Yes, I’m all too aware of the insufficiency of intention, but I hope that it proves unfailing in this case, even if it may not always be so.


Majjhima Nikaya. The Discourse on Right View: The Sammaditthi Sutta and its Commentary, translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu √Ďanamoli, edited and Revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,


Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cargo Cults and Climate Change

I was having a social media conversation with a climate communicator friend the other day. He’d posted a video by the much lauded Bill Nye the Science Guy that fairly closely followed the talking points many climate change realists use when speaking about climate change:
1. It’s real.
2. It’s man-made.
3. We can do something about it.
Check out the video here if you’re so inclined. 

On the one hand it’s a great video – engaging, educational, and hopeful. On the other hand, with the exception of a brief mention of the potential for gains in efficiency, the take-home message is fairly one-dimensional – vote. Without any actionable suggestions as to how to address rampant consumerism or population growth, without ever mentioning our insidious and ubiquitous belief that we’re entitled to take from the earth whatever we want in order to fulfill even our most trivial desires, it just ends. Vote. Just vote.

By all means vote! Vote for politicians who support valid climate research and have the moral courage to take action on the findings. Vote for politicians who will encourage investment in renewable energy and the infrastructure required to utilize it. Vote for politicians who will legislate a tax on carbon-based fuels – the only effective way for the market to price in all the harmful externalities wrought by the burning of fossil fuels. Vote. Vote. Vote!

But what shall we do in the mean time? Elections only happen every couple of years, and environmentalists here in the United States just lost the last one in a big way. Shall we sit around cardboard mockups of wind turbines and electric buses – much as the cargo cultists of the Pacific Islands did in the wake of WWII – patiently waiting for the real goods to be bestowed upon us by the gods of government and technology?

No. There’s actually a whole lot more that each of us can do in order to achieve greater energy efficiency in our own lives while we’re waiting for our elected officials to get their acts together. Toward that end, Katharine Hayhoe’s recent “Global Weirding” video provides a great list of things each of us can do in order to shrink our individual carbon footprint and start making a difference right now. Check out the video here.

But efficiency gains will only get us so far – about 40% of the way toward sustainability, as Katharine Hayhoe points out. Does that mean we’re back to waiting for the gods of government and technology to step in and create a world in which all of our current energy needs are met with renewables? And what if they don’t? Or, for that matter, what if they do? What, then, about the energy needs of tomorrow? Our thirst for electric gadgets seems unquenchable…, and the developing world is more and more desirous of the level of material wealth that we’ve long taken for granted…, and day after day the global population keeps growing… Is there nothing more that we can do?

Katharine Hayhoe is very diplomatic, which is probably a good thing in most instances. She doesn’t make any judgments about the relative extravagance of any particular lifestyle. She simply nudges people toward decreasing their carbon footprint from whatever it might be at the present moment. I suspect that she’s hoping that after people begin taking steps toward greater efficiency they will then begin looking for ways to do away with unnecessary energy usage altogether.

In other words, even though many people with both relative affluence and an awakened sense of responsibility are already installing solar panels and replacing their drafty windows with energy-efficient ones, even though they’re purchasing electric cars and updating their kitchens and utility rooms with high-efficiency appliances, they’re not necessarily changing their lifestyle all that much – if at all. They’re simply utilizing whatever money can buy to shrink the carbon footprint of their existing lifestyle as much as possible. A wealth of potential for greenhouse gas reduction resides in our inherent ability to simply do without much of what we presently consume. After all, most of the world is already doing as much. And therein lies the key point I was trying to make to my friend: We’re putting all of our eggs in one basket when we assume that purely technological solutions exist for our current predicament. What we need is a paradigm shift.

Allow me to elaborate. A very simple but still meaningful equation states that the global environmental impact that we cause (I) is a function of world population (P), our average per capita affluence (A), and some measure of how resource intensive that level of affluence is (T). Note that the letter T is chosen here because the level of resource intensity is largely dependent on our level of technological advancement. For instance, if all of our energy came from coal, a low technology solution to our energy needs, we would have environmental degradation caused by its mining and transportation, greenhouse gas and particulate pollution, toxic runoff, etc. If, however, we generated all of our energy from wind, a higher technology solution, the environmental degradation would primarily be related to the manufacture of the turbines and transmission structures themselves. Thus, environmental impact is a function of population, affluence, and technological development: I = f ( P, A, T ).

When I say that we’re putting all our eggs in one basket I mean that we’re focusing on T to the exclusion of P and A. We’re making any reduction in global environmental impact solely a function of our technological advancement. In other words, most climate change solutions that we hear about are predicated on the belief that we can find and adopt technological enhancements fast enough that, even as global population and average consumption increases, we can still reduce the environmental impact that we cause. In the aforementioned video, Bill Nye echoes the oft-repeated trope: “If your car is headed for a cliff the first thing you do is take your foot off the accelerator.” Of course this is good advice, but it ignores the reality that we have two more gas pedals that we’re still pressing to the floor!

My friend seemed to be getting a little defensive during our conversation. I think he must have interpreted my point of view as a dismissal of all the work being done to advance technological solutions to the problem of climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth! That would be like me saying that we should take our feet off of these two gas pedals while pushing the other one to the floor! We need to take our feet off of all the gas pedals. So, let me clearly articulate my point of view.

Those of you working toward technological solutions, I applaud you! Those of you working hard lobbying Congress to adopt those technological solutions, or nudge us toward them via a carbon tax, please keep up the great work! But we also need to renew our efforts toward reaching the goal of zero population growth (ZPG). This movement encompasses empowering women to make reproductive choices, making family planning assistance available, introducing developing areas to at least a modicum of material and financial well-being such that the need for larger families is diminished, and recognizing above all that we in the West, and the U.S. in particular, are responsible for the greatest volume of greenhouse gases. Which brings me back to my primary point. We in the U.S. need to do more than just power our existing lifestyles more efficiently and cleanly. We need to transition to lifestyles that rely less on material consumption altogether.

This transition involves a multi-faceted evolution of aesthetics. Yes, aesthetics. We need new ways of evaluating beauty, meaning, and worth. One facet of this aesthetic transition relates very straightforwardly to that which we consider physically beautiful or attractive. Maintenance of the average suburban lawn, for instance, with its pristine grassy expanses, sculpted shrubs, and ornate flower gardens, is very fuel-intensive. Adopting permaculture gardens or otherwise letting our backyards be more “wild,” can help out a lot. Similarly, the need to maintain certain clothing fashion standards keeps us on a treadmill of consumption. Why not simply opt for durable, timeless, natural garments that are suitable for business as well as recreation? Look for ways in which our standards of beauty lock us into needlessly elevated levels of consumption.

Our lifestyle aesthetic of being able to get up and go whenever we want keeps the personal automobile high on our list of perceived necessities. But what if our jobs offered us suitable flexibility, and what if we communicated more closely with family, friends, and neighbors such that transportation needs could be shared? And how much of our entertainment and recreation requires us to purchase something or use fuel in some way? What if we got used to visiting local public spaces instead of amusement parks and such? What if we enjoyed dinners at home with friends rather than resource-intensive nights out on the town? What if we opted for staycations and the enjoyment of local attractions instead of fuel-intensive vacations? Thus, how we value our life experiences has an impact on how much fuel we require to maintain our chosen lifestyle.

Another facet of this aesthetic transition is a needed change in our attitude toward technology. Why do we spend so much time at the gym, for instance, purposefully expending as much physical energy as possible, only to come home and make use of every labor-saving device imaginable so that we barely have to lift a finger or break a sweat? Why do we pretend we’re Tour de France cyclists at the spinning class only to then hop in the car for every last short jaunt over to the local drugstore or grocery? Why do we immerse ourselves in the endlessly upgrading milieu of computing, communications, gaming, and entertainment systems? Okay, I’ll date myself by admitting to having bought music, sometimes multiple times, on vinyl, magnetic tape, and compact disc media, and via digital download. Our landfills are stuffed with the detritus of that which was progress yesterday but is merely so much junk today.

Please consider product life-cycle in your aesthetic evaluation of things. Is it a quality piece of furniture with character that you can purchase second-hand and pass on to someone else when you’re through with it, or is it a flimsy construction of melamine coated compressed wood that won't survive your move to another apartment? Are the decorations for your big event made of recycled or recyclable materials, or are they merely shiny baubles that will end up in a landfill within a week after the party is over? And we mustn't forget our ubiquitous smartphones. While they might seem shiny and clean and unobtrusive, they nevertheless require the mining of heavy metals and the release of toxic chemicals into the waste stream. If we must use them, can we use them for as long as possible, resisting the upgrade mania and remaining mindful of what their next life might look like?

The entire world begins to look different when we stop looking at things merely in terms of their momentary utility in our lives and start looking at them as resources on loan to us. Do we have a right to appropriate those resources for our own ends, or might they be better used elsewhere by someone else or left where they are? Are our actions promoting or hindering the ability of our fellow humans, or fellow plants and animals for that matter, to enjoy a healthy and peaceful life? Thus, our evolving aesthetic has a spiritual or even religious component to it. Our consideration of the question “Why are we here?” inevitably leads to the consideration of our relationship with all life and all things – when considered deeply, anyway. Do we want to leave this earth with greater life-sustaining potential than when we arose from it, or will we leave it incrementally diminished for our having been here?

We don’t need to wait until the next election in order to affect change. We don’t need to wait until mass transit comes to our neighborhood. We don’t need to wait until our income is high enough, or the price of solar panels and electric cars is low enough. We only need to start deciding what to do with the paper coffee cup that’s in our hands right now, or whether we really need that new gadget that we’ve been ogling. Our lives are about more than just stuff. Changing our lives for the better is about more than just swapping new stuff for old, or finding new ways to power our old stuff. Until we realize this reality we’re not all that different from the cargo cultists of the South Pacific.

Author-manipulated film still from Chariots, Gods, And Beyond on the History Channel.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank

Monday, January 2, 2017

Beginning Anew

Perhaps it would be easier if each new year began in spring – when dry stalks pulse again with green, and pregnant buds begin to burst; when the color of renewal is everywhere, and the light of each new day comes calling: “Greet me with full measure of your life force!” So much easier it is to think of new beginnings when all around us is rebirth! How can we not join in when it is so? But no, the year begins in the coldest depths of winter – when our days begin in darkness, and we muddle through their grayness clutching our collars with our hats pulled low, wishing for nothing other than to slumber long and late, with the mind of a cocooning being for whom life resides in the in between.

Nonetheless, we greet the year with noisy revelry and bluster. We rage against the dying of the light with plans for what we think should be. We huddle with those we love on the eve of a brand new year – reminiscing of what has been, so filled with hope for days to come. But then we wake up all alone with a cold wind whistling in our window frames and darkness creeping into every corner of our being. And we flog ourselves with self-recrimination when every seed and bulb and root out in the cold dark earth knows to wait until the time is right, lest its life force be spent in vain.

Ah, but then again, perhaps that means winter is the perfect time to begin anew. Perhaps we need the rest that we allow ourselves when finally we hunker down with the cold winds swirling overhead. Perhaps we must learn to abide in solitude and darkness before we can know what plans the Light might have in store for us. Perhaps in stillness is the genesis of every movement that will take us to the place we long to be. And perhaps from stillness arises wisdom that we might best know where to send our roots and when to send our life force up and out into the world.

Wishing all deep wisdom in this brand new year!

Photo of hyacinth roots with subsequent manipulation by the author.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank