On Activism

In my continued journey of practicing to find ways to use my voice in matters concerning topics I tend to stay quiet on (in part for good reason), I’d like to see where this topic takes me as I write about it out loud.

Recently, I came across a twitter post by Roshi Joan Halifax that said:

I think it’s easy to make the mistake in Buddhism that neutrality is some kind of spiritual goal that we as practitioners have. I know I’ve suffered from this misunderstanding. I’ve also suffered from thinking that I needed to squelch certain types of emotions from arising, such as: anger, sorrow, disappointment, and sexual desire. I am now, thankfully, at a point in my practice that I am able to dismantle some of my misunderstandings about the teachings and actualize more clarity based on my own experiences.

In our current U.S social landscape, with respect to our upcoming presidential election, protest climate, and covid pandemic, my bristling reflexes around activism and activists are front and center for me. NOTE: part of my work to speak up on topics I feel so moved to put voice to centers around my own opinions involving subjects that I feel are either unpopular (to my close sphere of people anyway) or awkwardness-producing. My views on this topic are situated in the unpopular realm of things.

I have a number of friends who would self-identify as being an activist: a social justice activist; an environmental activist; an animal rights activist; a human rights activist; a political activist; some combination of the above or maybe simply an activist with no specific classification.  And while I love my friends dearly, when the word activist or activism comes up or is mentioned, I’ve always taken a few energetic steps back, and depending on the intensity level of activism involved, I might also take a few physical steps back from our friendship as well.

I get caught in those words; entangled in what I take them to mean, which is partly fueled by collective narrative and conservative-based discourse. When I think of an activist, I think of someone who is propelled by blaming and anger, and more specifically as someone who shames others for not thinking/acting the way they do. When I think of an activist, I think of someone who is fueled and propelled against someone(s) verses for something. I think of someone who is fighting verses transforming. I’m not saying it’s right or fair, simply that these are some of what is situated behind my bias towards activists.

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My White Person Manifesto Statement

Two years ago, I had no idea about what it meant to be white.
Two years ago, I thought racists were individuals who were outright and visibly cruel to members of the BIPOC community and racism was something that had mostly died out after the Civil Rights Movement.
Two years ago, I thought BIPOC communities were making a big deal out of nothing.
Two years ago, I would’ve thought “enough already” about drudging up the past of slavery.
Two years ago, I would’ve subscribed to the notion that to not see race was a good thing and meant that I was treating everyone equally.
Two years ago, I would’ve been the white person to counter BLM with ALM.
Two years ago, I would’ve sloughed off such things as white privilege and deemed white supremacy as something that applied only to extremists.
Two years ago, I believed what it says in our Declaration of Independence about how all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Two years ago, I was extremely un-educated and harmfully mis-informed.

Two years ago, I never would’ve possibly considered saying what I’m about to say: I am a racist; I help propel white supremacy; I have white privilege.

Let me break it down for you:

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Am I Sure?

Prompted by a teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh that I’ve been reading and reflecting on this week (see pic below), centered around asking ourselves as mindfulness practitioners Are You Sure?, I made this creation (see pic above) from some recently purchased Modge Podge and a package of scrap cardstock.

from Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Everyday Peace Cards” set

It’s easy for me to hold this teaching in the abstract and just sorta hang out and linger in a place of theory and rhetoric with it. Oh yes, my perceptions are usually not accurate. I get it. Makes sense. Okay. Moving on.

As so often is the case for me, I need ways of unpacking Dharma teachings and Buddha-inspired wisdom offerings, in order to embody them in my practice in such a way that brings them to life in an experience-based way. Otherwise, I situate myself at risk of spiritual bypassing, thinking I have something in particular “down” or “figured out,” when in reality I have little to no actual understanding that penetrates down through my intellect and into the heart of my practice.

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Work worth doing

There ain’t just one way
one catch-all setting
for being “woke.”

There’s a gradient scale
on which we all fall.

It ain’t a matter of
whether we are woke or not woke,
it’s a matter of where we are on the scale.

It’s about knowing no matter where we are,
we will always have further to go
more work to do.

There ain’t no end game
to woke-ness
no end of the line.

How can we possibly think
that in the span of one human being
exists the possibility
of tending to all the important matters
that would benefit us all in transforming?

Understanding, healing, support, and advocacy
are needed for so many threads that comprise
our global landscape:
our homeless population;
those with mental illness;
the health of our environment;
animal cruelty in slaughterhouses;
our LGBTQ+ community;
our BIPOC community;
justice reform;
young single mothers;
inner city youth;
our working class poor;
abuse victims;
those who are differently abled;
those we are sick and suffering;
our elderly population;
those who have the disease of addiction;
refugees in need of a safe place to land;
abandoned and neglected children…

Let us not declare our self “woke.”
Let us not shame others for not being “woke.”
Let us instead lean into the fortitude
of our human family
and focus and commit our own self
to the work we’re called forth to do.

Let us know our work

do our work

and work hard

at work worth doing.

Venting?

This is me tugging on a thread to see what I come up with. The thread being: Is there a place for venting in the life of a mindfulness practitioner?

On our last two Zoom sangha calls, the topic of venting was brought up in two different unrelated occasions, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore it here on my blog. And for the record: this is a great topic to delve into and I very much appreciate the people who shared their thoughts and experience during our dharma sharing time on this. If the question I pose above had been asked in a group setting on a retreat to a Dharma teacher during a Q&A session, I would imagine myself thinking: now there’s a good question that can help benefit a lot of folks (which I do not say lightly, as most questions I encounter being asked during group Q&A’s are not of high quality).

First thing’s first. To delve into whether there is a place for venting in the life of a mindfulness practitioner, I must first give a reference point for what my own understanding of venting is, because I’m aware there will be vernacular differences here. Nicole’s definition of venting: to tell someone in charged tones/languaging the upset we’re experiencing – often in relation to another person(s) – with the hope of unburdening our self but the reality of fueling our struggle.

In my view, venting is most often (but not always) synonymous with rehearsing. I’ve not personally experienced venting equating to a true and actual release but more that it allows one to further strengthen their story and, therefor, their upset.

Often when venting takes place, we’re looking for a certain response from who we’re sharing with. Most often: we want others to get upset with us, to help validate how right/justified we are in being angry. This can be shown by the fact that often when we vent, we don’t just vent one time and then we feel better but we keep venting to whoever will listen.

This is tough one. Something I am personally and currently working on is: how to embrace/befriend anger when it arises as part of my experience (not something separate or something to pretend doesn’t/shouldn’t exist) without adding fuel to its fury. It’s an ongoing practice for sure.

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Paramita #5: Meditation

WEEK FIVE: MEDITATION
(taken and pieced together from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching)

Verse to read & reflect on daily:

Meditation consists of two aspects: stopping and looking deeply. We run our whole life chasing after one idea or happiness or another. Stopping is to stop our running, our forgetfulness, our being caught in the past or the future. We come home to the present moment, where life is available. Stopping is the practice of calming our body and emotions through the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful sitting; it is also the practice of concentrating, so we can live deeply each moment of our life. Looking deeply is to see the true nature of things. You look deeply into the person you love and find out what kinds of suffering or difficulty she has within herself and what aspirations she holds.

Unlike with the other paramitas thus far, this one brought up very little for me. The other ones spurred a lot of reflection for me but this past week very little has bubbled up for me around meditation and the daily verse.

The emphasis on looking deeply resonates for me and I appreciate how simply Thay broke meditation down to stopping & looking deeply. I think sometimes it can be easy to think meditation is just about stopping – but for me, if I practice stopping without also adding in the practice of deep looking, then I’m not so sure really much can change or transform; I’m not sure I can do much growing.

Deep looking is a necessary component of transformation, growth work, and skill building. In late March, I watched a Dharma talk online by Brother Phap Dung and I took notes during it (as I always do) and I jotted down something he shared: “ Deep looking is not analyzing, it means deep listening.” This really spoke to me. As soon as I heard him say that it made so much sense. So I’ve been keeping this teaching close to me: deep looking means deep listening. And I would add for myself: deep looking means being curious and asking questions.

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Paramita #4: Diligence

Here is the verse our local paramita practice group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the Fourth Paramita (diligence) from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

The Buddha said that in the depth of our store consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds (anger, delusion, understanding, forgiveness…). Many of these seeds have been transmitted to us by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence. The practice is to:

– refrain from watering the negative seeds in us and in the people we love. We also try to recognize the positive seeds that are in us and to live our daily life in a way that we can touch them and help them manifest in the upper level of our consciousness.
– “change the peg”; if you have a mental formation arising that you consider to be unwholesome, invite another mental formation to replace it.
– invite only pleasant seeds to come up and sit in the living room of your consciousness. Never invite a guest who brings your sorrow and affliction.
– keep a wholesome seed as long as possible once it has manifested.

If mindfulness is maintained for 15-minutes, the seed of mindfulness will be strengthened, and the next time you need the energy of mindfulness, it will be easier to bring up.

Gosh, I’ve really been enjoying this paramita reflection group. If you didn’t read the first post in this paramita series, I am part of a small group of 6 people and we’ve been a group now for 4-weeks, with 2 more left to go, centered around the Six Paramitas.

On Monday of each week we start with a different paramita and read a verse each day for the week associated with it. Then on Sunday, each member of our group offers a short check-in about their reflections and practice with the paramita on a shared Google doc. Originally, our group was slated to meet once in person at the end of our 6-weeks, however, we will likely now be meeting on Zoom instead.

For me, the benefit of knowing I have a group of friends I’m practicing with and holding myself accountable to while also having it be largely self-propelled and online works really well as a format. It’s just enough structure without too much structure and leaves a lot of open room for creativity and personalization.

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Paramita #3: Inclusiveness

Yesterday morning, I was driving to my stepson Jaden’s apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend Sierra, to drop off some food for them. Very few people were out and about on the road but I managed to get “stuck” the bulk of the way behind what I consider to be the standard Missoulian driver (translation: they were driving 5 miles under the speed limit). As I have a great desire to go a standard 5 miles OVER the speed limit around town, irritation is commonplace for me while driving. (I put intentional and ongoing effort into infusing my practice into the action of driving and I’ve come a long way and still have further to go.)

When irritation rose up in me, while puttering behind what seemed to be the only other car on the road in town other than my own, I saw my irritation straight away and laughed light-heartedly (which helps me to befriend my irritation). Then I said out loud to myself: Well Nicole, this is it, isn’t it? THIS is the practice of inclusiveness, right here and now. I mean, if you can’t work to enfold this super minor frustration into your practice then what possible hope is there for working with bigger moments when they arise? Then, as is often the case when I talk to myself, I answered myself back: Good point buddy. You’re totally right.

So, here is the verse our local paramita practice group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the Third Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

Inclusiveness is the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. To suppress our pain is not the teaching of inclusiveness. We have to receive it, embrace it, and transform it. The only way to do this is to make our heart big. We look deeply in order to understand and forgive. The Buddha gave very concrete teachings on how to develop inclusiveness – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. If you practice these Four Immeasurable Minds, you will have a huge heart. If you keep your pain for too long, it is because you have not yet learned the practice of inclusiveness.

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Paramita #2: Mindfulness Trainings

(For an intro to the paramitas and more info about this 6-week practice group, please reference my post from last week.)

Here is the verse our local paramita practice group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the Second Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

The Five Mindfulness Trainings help protect our body, mind, family, and society. The First Mindfulness Training is about protecting the lives of human beings, animals, plants, and minerals. The second is to prevent exploitation by humans of other living beings and of nature. The third is to protect children and adults from sexual abuse; to protect yourself and protect families and couples; to help other people feel safe. The Fourth Mindfulness Training is to practice deep listening and loving speech. The Fifth Mindfulness Training is about mindful consumption. The most precious gift we can offer our society is to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete way to practice mindfulness. We need a Sangha around us in order to practice them deeply.

The second of the six paramitas is: mindfulness trainings. (To read the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the Plum Village tradition, click here.)

In the first paramita (giving/generosity), Thay wrote: The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. And in the section on the second paramita, Thay wrote: The most precious gift we can offer our society is to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. With deep looking we can see how these two offerings – our true presence and our practice of the mindfulness trainings – are not separate, still, I like the distinction of what I can practice to offer someone else, one-on-one, and what I can practice to offer our collective society.

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Paramita #1: Generosity

Excerpt from The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Six Paramitas are a teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. Paramita can be translated as “perfection” or “perfect realization.” The Chinese character used for paramita means “crossing over to the other shore,” which is the shore of peace, non-fear, and liberation.

(1) dana paramita – giving, offering, generosity.

(2) shila paramita – precepts or mindfulness trainings.

(3) kshanti paramita – inclusiveness, the capacity to receive, bear, and transform the pain inflicted on you by your enemies and also by those who love you.

(4) virya paramita – diligence, energy, perseverance.

(5) dhyana paramita – meditation.

(6) prajña paramita – wisdom, insight, understanding.

Practicing the Six Paramitas helps us to reach the other shore — the shore of freedom, harmony, and good relationships. 

This past week marked the start of a 6-week, largely online based, self-propelled, group-supported reflection practice I put together in order to delve more deeply into the Six Paramitas. The group is free and open to our local sangha members and there are 6 of us participating. Each week starting on Mondays, we read and reflect daily on a verse I send to the group on the paramita we’re focused on and on Sundays we report back to the group, via a few typed sentences posted on a shared Google doc, about what was alive for us in relation to working with the paramita over the past week. I also send an audio recording for folks to listen to centered on the paramita at hand.

Here is the verse our group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the First Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

To give means first of all to offer joy, happiness, and love. The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. What else can we give? Our stability; Our freedom; Our freshness; Peace; Space; Understanding.

The practice of giving can bring you to the shore of well-being very quickly. What you give is what you receive. Whether you give your presence, your stability, your freshness, your solidity, your freedom, or your understanding, your gift can work a miracle. Dana paramita is the practice of love.

So for the past week, I’ve been focusing on Giving/Generosity. Here are some of my personal reflections & other things I penned down over the last few days:

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