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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Sisyphus, and starting again

Sisyphus via wikicommons

Sisyphus
via wikicommons

I have no clue why it’s so hard to do what’s good for us. Take exercise. Or meditation. Or eating right. Or cutting back on caffeine. Or just being nicer to folks you think must a few watts shy of a nightlight…

Seriously: every time I begin (again!) my meditation practice, my exercise program, a diet, or even a writing schedule, all I can think of is how many times I’ve ‘failed.’ I always feel like Sisyphus, destined for the same blasted rock to keep rolling downhill just as I crest the rise.

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A better metaphor would be the meditation I find myself ‘forgetting’ to do. You don’t try to get rid of thoughts, unlike what many non-meditators think. You just keep coming back to the object of concentration: the breath, a rock, a picture, a sound. Over & over again, you return to it. Framed this way, at least I keep returning to the object of the exercise!

It’s still so very hard, and I still don’t understand my resistance. What is it about doing what we should that triggers our mulish inner 2-year-old? No! My response to walking more, doing my knee exercise, whatever, reminds me of my grandson when I ask him if he’s ready for school, or bed, or dinner. It begins, this resistance, so very early!

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via flickr.com

via flickr.com

I’d like to think it’s just habits, but my grandson doesn’t have bad habits really. He just doesn’t want to do what someone thinks he should. He’s his own person. I suspect that may be a family trait, if you define ‘family’ largely: the family of man.

Sisyphus was not a nice person, legend has it. But most of us are, given half a chance. We love our families, and we try hard to do what we feel is right. Except when it comes to health, inner peace, the stuff that seems so small when we do it. But pays off so grandly. The stuff that seems all about us, and yet impacts all around us.

So here I am again, back at the beginning of things. But at least I’m still rolling the rock uphill. And my ‘burden’ doesn’t feel so much like punishment from the gods as it does an opportunity to return to what’s important. Even if it is very very hard…

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consider the Okies, how they defy description…

via wikipedia

Will Rogers via wikipedia

This is my favourite Okie, Will Rogers. A true Renaissance man, Will Rogers was more than 1/4 Cherokee, something a lot of anti-brown Okies conveniently forget. He was also a die-hard liberal, however gently clothed his principles were in wit & irony.

Rogers’ life contrasts sharply with that of today’s famous Okies — the infamous Snowball James Inhofe, who apparently thinks the existence of snow negates good science; the government-hater James Langford, who sees nothing wrong with undermining presidential authority. The former KKK leader and white nationalist David Duke.

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These are not the Okies I know, folks.

But these are the Okies who make the media. Not the devout but tolerant Christian students I’ve met so many of while teaching at ‘that farm school,’ Oklahoma State. (And isn’t a school devoted to feeding us, to educating ALL OF US, a wonder?) Not the many philanthropists who’ve put their money into Oklahoma arts, humanities, sciences, and education.

via wikipedia

via wikipedia

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You don’t hear much any more about the Oklahoma teachers who shielded children w/ their bodies in tornadoes. Or the neighbours who helped rebuild devastated housing. And about all you hear these days about our incredibly diverse citizenry (we have more indigenous — read Native — languages in Oklahoma than anywhere else). is what a pain they are to government: welfare and 2nd language learners. We have a large Việtnamese population, as well as a large Hmong group in state. There’s a high school in Tulsa w/ one of the most diverse student bodies in the country. Yep — in Oklahoma. Our Hispanic American demographics are increasing with every census, and we have historic black townships that date back to the Civil War.

In other words, there’s a LOT more to Okies than the current anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-brown, anti-education spiel emanating like a bad smell from Oklahoma City.

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pizza: cold or hot, and engaged Buddhism vs intolerance

foodpictures.mobi

foodpictures.mobi

We had pizza for dinner last night. So today — as most pizza eaters know — was ‘leftover pizza’ day. Here’s the deal: my beloved must heat his. I eat it hot the first night, cold after. I actually like cold pizza! The very idea seems, to him, almost revolting.

We have similar differences when we buy cookies w/ our coffee: he always gets oatmeal raisin, which I really don’t care for (at least not the cakey kind he likes, and NO RAISINS). He can’t stand any kind of nut, so ix-nay on the white chocolate macadamia nut. (N.B.: I adore macadamia nuts!)

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These aren’t important differences, of course. More the loveable foibles of friends & family. And wouldn’t I love to be able to look at broader differences with the same tolerance? To be fair, I can overlook — or at least get beyond — major ideological differences when others don’t attempt to convince or convert me. If you’re anti-gay, I’ll ignore you. Until you want to pass laws that disenfranchise — even punish — my beloved niece, my dear friends, colleagues.

via pixabay

via pixabay

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Same with religious differences. If you want to pretend this is a country founded on Biblical beliefs — despite historical evidence to the contrary (Thomas Jefferson, anyone?) — I’ll humour you. Until you try to outlaw the marriages of other religions (and there’s a bill to that effect in Oklahoma right now). What — I don’t get to marry because I’m Buddhist? Or my Wiccan/ Hindu/ Muslim/ atheist friends??

Now we’re not talking small differences. We’re talking major interference. That’s where we part ways. If you want to heat your pizza? Go for it! But if you think that the racist frat boys at University of Oklahoma singing racist songs last week is ‘just kids having fun,’ we’re going to argue. If you’re old enough to join the military, as my sister the vet says, you’re old enough not to be excused on the basis of your immaturity. That kind of immaturity should have been parented & churched & schooled out of you.

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Metta via google

In other words, don’t expect my Buddhist commitment to tolerance to let your bigotry slide. I’m an ‘engaged’ Buddhist, meaning I follow this advice from the great Thích Nhất Hạnh:

Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.

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Although I confess: it’s hard not to ‘get lost’ in my actions. I haven’t learned how to look at children, or the homeless, or the poor, or the lost elderly, and breathe mindfully. My breath still catches, and my heart still breaks. But if I can laugh at warmed-over pizza, and roll my eyes affectionately at raisins, perhaps I can learn to not jump down throats when people espouse racist, classist, anti-gay, et al perspectives.

Perhaps. It’s part of metta, that lovely Buddhist term encompassing benevolence & compassion meditation. I’m working on it, honest. I also still believe in miracles…

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the importance of being artists

via google

via google

This is a love song to the power of the arts. It’s also a bit of a book review — in praise of a book so strong it will shatter your preconcieved notions and crack your heart open like an egg. It’s an ode to what books & paintings & sculpture & music & weavings & all the various forms art can take  do to us. And it’s the story of now.

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Cynthia Rankine, National Book Award finalist in both criticism and poetry (a first in the history of the 65-year-old institution), has a new book. Rankine’s work is never easy to read — not because you can’t undertand it; she’s neither obscure nor abstruse. You will know exactly what she’s thinking in her newest book, Citizen: An American Lyric. The book-length poem, as Rankine calls it, had me holding back tears of rage, horror, and that familiar sinking what were those people THINKING? feeling. In a fit of insanity, I read it on a plane, surrounded by people I’m pretty sure wouldn’t ‘get’ it.

Nine Muses via wikipedia

Nine Muses
via wikipedia

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Because it’s a scathing, heart-breaking indictment of America. Specifically, WHITE America. Rankine lets no one off the hook, piling up anecdote after anecdote of the failure of her white colleagues, friends, & acquaintances to treat her (and others) with consideration instead of fear.

This is what the best art does: it changes the viewer/ reader/ listener/ observer. It leaves you breathless from beauty, or hyperventilating from horror and rage. But always, it changes things. In Rankine’s case, it gives me a context for Selena Williams’ outburst on the tennis court. It reminds me that as an engaged Buddhist, I have to be a vocal ally. I can’t sit back when people are hassled because they’re brown. I can’t remain quiet when black men & women are targeted from racist motives. The entire system is racist — that’s what the word racism means: a systemic bias for and against.

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illustration by velvetsgirl

illustration by velvetgirl

But as all great art does, Citizen presents us w/ this scenario in a form so powerful & eloquent we can’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Art this insistent is born from truth, even though that truth cuts like knives. So did the beating of Rodney King. So did the racial fear that drove the murder of Trayvon Martin. And so did the racial hatred that rejoiced in running down James Craig Anderson. As Rankine recounts the end of ordinary lives, in extraordinary pain, we can’t turn away.

Nor should we. Rankine’s case for the pain in her ordinary A(frican)merican life — and those of so many other African Americans — is compelling. We should not turn away.

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