“Ring the bell that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen
Cracks and all, this essay completes my commitment to self to write and post an essay-a-week for a year. The year started April 6, 2015 (following the Cheryl Strayed writing retreat in Maui). So I’m in under the wire. Barely. Proud? Yes. But pride is a slippery thing. You know those eight worldly winds the Buddha talked about? pleasure, pain, gain, loss, fame, disrepute, praise, blame. Pride of accomplishment is in there somewhere, followed by… and now?
My wind-swept, cracked bell-ringing life goes on. Now that I’ve crossed Jubilee year goals off my to-do list, the question re-asserts itself – what now? Another Jubilee year? Self re-invention? Set new goals? Or lapse back into patterns from yesteryear? (to which I respond, quoting my nephew Harrison “Don’t do it!”)
The great Korean Zen Master Seungsahn (Jon Kabat Zinn’s deeply respected teacher) was famous for saying “Only don’t know.” He was also famous for saying “You crazy, you crazy!! But you not crazy enough!”
Frankly I don’t know. What’s next that is. Maybe I’m not crazy enough. While I’m lucky in many ways, and much seems possible, I feel like I’m suffering from this central delusion (see image). Turning toward where the bars aren’t is… well…risky. Clinging to the ones before me feels so familiar and yet, trap-like. Not seeing the path clearly, can I step out anyway, partly blind? Not knowing. Not crazy enough. Frustrated. Lacking equanimity. Oh, that.
The Buddha tells us what we need to develop in order to deal with the eight worldly winds — Equanimity. He even gives us a list of seven practices to help develop it.
Integrity, Confidence, Mindfulness, a Sense of Well-being, Wisdom, Insight, Letting go. Easy-peasy, right? Oh yeah. A piece of cake.
Recently I started a new group. A Civil Conversations group based on conversations Krista Tippett recorded with a variety of cultural, scientific, educational, and religious thinkers & activists. In the group we listen to the fifty minute podcast, then have a conversation, passing a talking stick to encourage better listening. The idea is NOT to all reach agreement or to be a homogenous group. It is rather to help us develop a sense and valuing of and a capacity for civility in the face of divergent and/or complex views. In creating the group I tried to include men (women tend to be the first to sign up), people of different ethnicities, color, age, economic status, politics and whatever other diversity I could think of.
While not as inclusive a group as my dreams would have it, still, there are already communication challenges. The last interview we listened to with Kwame Anthony Appiah was criticized by a few for sounding elitist. I didn’t think so. After all, I chose it. Why would I choose an elitist? Did I miss something? I tried not to take the criticism personally.
The question also arose as to whether it is an act of privilege ( more elitism?) for us if we, as a group, are not committed to activism, to be sitting in a comfortable living room discussing and listening to topics which for other people and groups are life-threatening challenges.
I found myself tensing when people voiced certain views. Just because something is called a civil conversation doesn’t mean it is. And even if it seems to be civil, it doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult feelings and un-civil thoughts stirring below the surface. Maybe civil just means one shouldn’t voice every reaction one has?
I’m reminded of when Lincoln and I lived in Havana in ’73-’74. We lived at the Hotel Capri (because of a lack of housing) and so had no kitchen. For most meals we ate in the hotel’s basement cafeteria, and on rare occasions in the hotel’s slightly more upscale restaurant. Sometimes I would dash the 5 or 6 blocks from Radio Havana to the hotel for a quick lunch. The cafeteria would be almost empty. I’d sit at the counter and watch a couple of waitresses casually chatting, apparently unconcerned by my hungry, hurried presence. Along the counter were these specially printed little signs which read “Nuestro trabajo es usted”. (Our work is you). Ha! What a joke I thought. Their work was so clearly not me. Eventually, if I waited patiently, one would saunter over and lackadaisically take my order. When I complained to Lincoln about the discrepancy between the signs and the experience he patiently explained to me that if they were already doing a good job they wouldn’t have the signs there. The signs weren’t for me, he said, but rather to remind them what their work should be.
Perhaps the same holds true with the name Civil Conversations. The phrase reflects Krista and her guests often reaching both high levels of civility and profound depths of discourse. But what about us, the listeners’ capacity to continue the discourse in a civil way when our viewpoints collide? And what do we mean by “civil” in this case? Simply politeness?
Perhaps Civil Conversations is to remind us of our work, though we (like the Cuban waitresses) are not always there yet. Different individuals do better than others in different moments. But we have a strong legacy as a species and nation in non-civil discourse (as Marshall Rosenberg has shown us), a legacy that seems to be crescendo-ing in this moment. The Republicans without doubt. But even the discourse between the Hillary and Bernie camps is so much more un-civil than it could be. Ferreting out truth from insult is not always easy, especially when half the people I know are confident in Bernie and the other half confident in Hillary.
My friend Anita and I had lunch at the Regency Thai restaurant in Noe Valley last week to discuss some of the challenges of civil conversation. We came up with a bit of a list to look at.
—Guilt and Shame, what each is and how they impact each other
— Privilege vs rights
—definitions. Does civil mean polite? or passive? something else?
Later Anita sent me some links to some articles she’d come across. I was grateful. Maybe this was part of the raison d’être of the group —the spurring on of curious research and thoughtful conversations outside the group. I started reading some of what she sent. In an article called the “Anatomy of White Guilt” a documentary called “Traces of the Trade” was mentioned. I found bits of it on youtube and interviews with the family (originally from New England) who made the documentary. It was based on their own family history, which one young member of the family discovered. Her family had been the single largest slave-trading family in US history.
In one of the interviews Dain Perry (another of the family’s descendants) and his wife Constance (a descendant of slaves from North Carolina, where Dain’s family also owned slaves) discussed their work in showing the film and hosting conversations.
Dain said “It’s not a situation [the past] we have created ourselves. It’s a terrible legacy that’s been handed down.. . And our job is to figure out how we can heal from it and move beyond it.”
Could this “healing.. and mov[ing] beyond” work be the work that is ours? Could this be the goal of civil conversations?
According to the Buddha, we humans are hard-wired to have two primary feelings — pleasant and unpleasant. Pleasant is easy, though we do tend to get attached to pleasant feelings, thereby sowing the seed for unpleasant feelings to arise. When the feeling is unpleasant we are hard-wired in our amygdala to fight, flee, or freeze. None of these three responses is helpful in a civil conversation. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve been in where, in the face of conflicting viewpoints, I witness people shutting down and becoming silent (flee or freeze) or getting aggressive, insistent, and/or loud (fight). Uh, yeah, myself included.
We’re not exactly wired for equanimity. But it’s a goal to aim for. Compassion is also in order… for everyone I think. If you reflect on Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me By My True Names” he wasn’t suggesting we leave out certain people. That also doesn’t mean we don’t take appropriate action when beings (all sentient beings) or the planet is being harmed.
It’s important to know our history, and the dimensions —as best we can — of the oppression and suffering of others, to be aware and responsive. To do what we can. I have come to know over time that this knowing and doing will look very different in different people. When I was young I thought everyone should be a political activist (an organizer or a left-wing journalist or a front-line activist). Now I know not everyone will be an activist, nor should they be. Life has infinite ways of expressing itself, and people do too.
Personally, I’m grateful that some people see the value in civil conversation as a way to contribute to positive change. Real conversation starts with deep listening — inward and outward, like Kwan Yin, listening to the suffering of the world. The listening and the conversation is harder than it looks, and I think probably more valuable too.