Reasoning towards peace

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
– Lao Tzu

You have probably seen it. You may even think it. But how do you live it?

Start Where you Are

In the world of the peacemaker, we begin with ourselves. We must practice, and practice continually, so that we cease to contribute to the violence in the world by learning not to do violence to ourselves, and those around us, and on up the chain.

But we have to be careful that we choose practices that undermine rather than reinforce this damaging belief: We are not trustworthy.

I hear this again and again: “But, if I’m not hard on myself, how will I maintain my motivation to get things done?” We create complex rules and regulations to govern ourselves, set up challenges, overexercise, control our food intake, and then punish ourselves with cruel words when we fail to live up to our own expectations.

Do we really believe that we take right actions only to avoid the abuse that we will heap upon ourselves if we don’t? As if, by doing these things (whatever they are), we can finally silence the voice that is waiting to leap out when we finish, “Oh, sure, you did that. But what about all these other things that you didn’t do while you were working on that?”

Shhhhh…

I have a secret to tell you. You can make that voice quieter, but not by doing more, or accomplishing more. One day a couple of years ago, I finally got to some Truth: the list of things I will not accomplish is infinite. That voice will always have something to draw upon, no matter how much I do.

“That voice is WRONG,” I declared. “Also, really mean. So I don’t have to listen to it!” Liberation! (Or a hint of liberation, at any rate.)

And thus I discovered that once you stop listening to a voice, it loses its power… it gets quieter… fades out… eventually. Probably to be replaced, but once you’ve done it once, you know that it can be done.

***

I have another voice, one that predicts the future. “Oh, there’s no point in doing that. This will happen, and then this, and then you will go down in flames. Keep doing something safe. That’ll work out better.”

Here’s another secret I’ve “discovered”: I’m not clairvoyant. I can’t predict the future. (Surprising, I know.) Lots of my “safe” choices went down in flames, or sputtered out, due to circumstances that were beyond my control and unpredictable. Hunh. Looks like that voice is wrong, too. I guess I don’t have to listen to it, either.

Making Peace with Cheesecake

When we practice meditation, when we sit in silence for periods of time, we learn that we don’t need to listen to any of those voices. The one that is demanding cheesecake RIGHT NOW can be examined and questioned just as readily as the one that is trying to predict the future or the one that thinks it can read your partner’s mind. We don’t need to make rules about cheesecake; we can learn to live peacefully with it.

I’ve had a long and ambivalent relationship with cheesecake, which is how it comes to be the subject of this part of the conversation. My mother used to make the most spectacular cheesecake; I’ve rarely met its equal. So there is an emotional component to the dessert, beyond the rich, velvety yumminess. It is filled with expectation, memory, disappointment, and nostalgia. It also was the dessert that I left uneaten in front of me at a conference at a time that I was suffering from serious gallbladder disease. “Wow!” they said, “What willpower!” “No, I just don’t want to have to go to the hospital.” I picked the fruit off the top and sighed.

This week, I had a birthday. I looked at the only remaining cheesecake at the store, and it was too small for the number of people I had invited, and my husband doesn’t really like it, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as my mother’s and if I really wanted cheesecake for a party this big, I should have made one last night and…

And I took a deep breath. And I asked myself, “Do I really want cheesecake?” Yes. “Can I think of any good reason that I should deny myself cheesecake on my 40th birthday?” No. “Can I enjoy this cheesecake without guilt and without making myself sick?” Yes. So I bought it. And there was enough, because I bought a pie, also.

The cheesecake had become overloaded. It was no longer just a cheesecake, it was a symbol of all the other things that I associated with cheesecake. (That is called “having emotional charge”, in case it comes up again. Which it will.) When I made peace with it, it became a beautiful addition to a beautiful meal. A moment of pleasure. (And maybe a moment of triumph, but that is only because I’m now reflecting on it.)

This is where I want to go with all of this: We can learn this. We can learn to reason with the (irrational) voices in our heads. We can learn to trust ourselves. And eventually (in moments) we can reconnect with the world and move beyond reason to peace.

Just… practice.

On my wall

A couple of years ago, in a moment of frustration/inspiration, I grabbed a permanent marker and wrote on the wall in my sunroom. “Life is Practice,” I reminded myself. I was in the middle of parenting, writing, partnering, thinking about the meaning of it all, and trying to make time for practice in the midst of the chaos. It was around the same time that I placed the shelf with the children’s toys on it directly below my own shelf of sacred objects (among them a statue of the Buddha, a bowl for alms, a carving of the triple goddess, and a Galilean thermometer.)

But as true as this was, it didn’t negate the need for time on the mat, on the cushion, and alone with my thoughts. The “practice” of daily life is to apply the practice of… Practice. It’s like daily life is the performance, and the time for intentional Practice is the warm up, the rehearsal. The scales, if you will allow me to continue my musical metaphor.

“My life is not busy, it is full.” A new friend reminded me of this the other day. It echoes the words of another friend/teacher of mine, who said when I commented on her heavy bags at the farmer’s market, “No, not burdened. Laden.”

This is the fruit of Practice. The mind leaps to new places, develops new tracks, new default ways of framing experience. We are able to think different things, having confronted, relaxed with, and integrated the things we thought before. In my case, Practice leans heavily on Buddhist meditation and yoga… although I’m exploring the subtleties of those. I’m starting to realize that they may not be strictly compatible in terms of foundational assumptions about the world. Nevertheless, they provide useful ways of working with the mind. “Skillful means,” in the words of the Buddhists.

This is an approach that works with my engineering/scientific training. On the one hand, I am very interested in how things work… but on the other, I am equally contented to explore whether they work, whether we understand the mechanism or not. I understand that I may therefore be doing things that are not necessary. Perhaps someday we will be able to trim this all to the bare essentials. I am down to following the breath while sitting on a comfortable cushion on the floor, though, so there isn’t a lot more to trim down. Not in the ritual, at least. Notice the thought, label it thinking, come back to the breath. Such simple instructions, such a difficult thing to do. Some days my labeling sounds like this: “Thinking, thinking, thinking, th, thi, th…”

But somehow, it translates into a calmer mind. I find myself in the midst of frustration spontaneously labeling: “Thinking,” I think, and sometimes the quiet comes. Sometimes only for a moment, but sometimes… sometimes it just works.

It didn’t used to work.

The goal in meditation is not to stop thinking, not to quiet, control, dominate the mind. Not in this tradition, at any rate. It is the doing, the being, that matters. So many people I love tell me, “Oh, I can never meditate. My mind just runs on and on and on…”

“Yes,” I want to say, but I am their friend, not their teacher. “That is what minds do. And then they catch themselves. And come back to the breath.”

Oh, beautiful ones, that is why it is called practice. Not performance. Not perfection. Just… Practice.