Friday, August 25, 2017

Is Forgiving a Choice?

My husband Brad told me a story that Frank O. tells. A devout Catholic woman was dying. The priest came to give last rites, but she refused. She did not want to be in heaven. She did not want to be with her husband who had beaten and abused her. I wonder if she was thinking, I would rather forsake heaven than see that man again.

Aren’t we told we should forgive all those who have hurt us? Of course, we all know that forgiving is a good idea. We Buddhists receive the precept: “A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill will.” Forgiving is ultimately freeing ourselves from the knot of pain around resentment and ill will. And, when it comes down to it, forgiving is for ourselves, for our own peace of mind, not for the peace of mind of the forgiven.

I have led workshops on the IONS Conscious Aging curriculum. One of the sessions is on Forgiveness. Last time I introduced this session, I said, “Sometimes I would like to skip this section. I am sitting up here teaching how important it is to forgive, and I have a really hard time doing this myself.” Perhaps this kind of upfront honesty is good, but, also, it is troubling to me that there are people I cannot forgive. How can I encourage others to forgive, when I sometimes have such a hard time forgiving?

One of those people I can no longer forgive is my sister. Over our fifty years together, she has repeatedly said the cruelest words she could find. The cruelty of her words has been like a knife, cutting deeply into my heart. And family can sometimes do this better than anyone else, because they intimately know our vulnerabilities.  Often her words had no relevance to the trivial situation at hand. I know that she has had a lot of suffering in her life, but that does not lessen the deep hurt of her words. And, after having let go and forgiven her many, many times, I am no longer willing to do this.

I realize that I have closed the doors of my soul to her. I will protect myself.  This is not a choice. It is like a sea anemone that automatically closes up when it is touched. Self-protection, self -defense is probably a deep evolutionary response. (Evolution is used to justify a lot these days!) It is not that I choose to hold on to anger; it is that I can no longer trust and risk the pain.

So we are enjoined to forgive: our families, our friends. But in some cases, I cannot do this. So then a super-ego kind of voice scolds me for not being a good Buddhist. For not being a good person. Blame on top of pain. Perhaps self-compassion is in order instead of self-scolding.

In our religious groups and sanghas, there is often a kind of spiritual bypassing: Just forgive. Just let go! A noble aspiration, but this can ignore reality as it is: trauma, pain, fear. In trauma work, in the world of psychotherapy, trauma can only be healed when it is met head on. Maybe there should be another precept that bodhisattvas take: I will honestly meet all the grief and anger and pain within.  I think Pema Chodron calls this “The wisdom of no escape.” It is Buddha practicing within delusion.

When we honestly acknowledge the “inner demons,” grace might then be possible. Forgiving is not a gift we give, it is the gift we receive.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Burning down the house

“Hold tight
          Wait ‘til the party’s over
Hold tight
We’re in for nasty weather
There has to be a way
Burning down the house.”   ~  Talking Heads

“All my ancient twisted karma
From beginingless greed, hate and delusion
Born through body, speech and mind
I now fully avow.”  ~ Buddhist chant of repentance

In a way, we can be grateful to Donald Trump. He is the spokesperson, the big screen poster boy, for greed, hate and delusion. The whole world can see this darkness clearly, broadcast every day on national headlines. As a symptom of a deep disease, we can now see and address chaos and evil as never before. (Note: I almost never use the word “evil,” but now it seems appropriate.)

HATE is tearing us apart: personally, within families and nationally. Now, with Trump, it is more apparent, more blatant, more shocking. His mouth is a megaphone for hate. American politics has devolved into open, partisan contempt and hatred. There is internal warfare among families, fractured because people will say on Facebook what they will not say openly face-to-face.  Open hostility on the road has escalated. The other day I accidentally cut off a man’s car because he was in my blind spot. He positioned his car right in front of mine and continually braked, while leering in his rearview mirror.

And I am really pissed off.

Corporate GREED is ravaging our planet. We all know the evidence: anthropogenic global warming, melting artic ice caps, destruction of the Great Barrier reef, daily extinction of animal and plant species – perhaps all irreversible, perhaps a downward spiral. This catastrophe is ignored for reasons of personal aggrandizement and greed by the 1% - Trump and his club of billionaires, especially Tillerson, his Secretary of State.

DELUSION: Humans are not an isolated species with unlimited power to manipulate and control. Interconnection and codependence are reality, not some beautiful Buddhist ideas. It is worth noting that Trump’s mental pathology is malignant narcissism, which means he cares for no-one but himself. But this delusion is hardly limited to Trump. Fundamentally we all share the delusion that the only thing that really matters is ME.

So is the house being burned down, or can we burn down the house? The latter calls for a revolution. A revolution and transformation of consciousness that is beautifully called The Great Turning by Joanna Macy. She says, “Having evolved us into self-reflexive consciousness, the world can now know itself through us, behold its own majesty – and also respond to its own suffering.”  ( see her website

I have sat vigil for the earth in Union Square, San Francisco, but a far deeper transformation is called for in me.  I need to recognize my own anger and how it is daily triggered by the news and the all-pervasive, ambient anger.

I have made it a daily practice to recognize my anger and work with it mindfully. I see how anger destroys peace of mind. I pause and ask myself Where does this anger come from? What am I trying to protect? Why am I afraid? If I can learn to be accepting and compassionate with my own greed, hate and delusion, I can move toward treating everyone in the same way through kindness and compassionate action.

If corporate America is burning down the house, I feel helpless and in despair. If I can burn down my own house of anger and just be a flowing fountain, then that is, at least, a step forward from this insanity.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Dialogue May Not be Possible

Before Thanksgiving, my husband, Brad, and I travelled to South Dakota – land of a very large Byrum clan. I knew it would be difficult to travel to a state where almost every white person voted for Trump, because I am unabashedly, passionately distraught over the election results. Many of my fellow Buddhists have been recommending dialogue with those of an opposite viewpoint. I knew that preserving family harmony trumped (as it were) political discussion.

I had one ally: my young step grandson is half Lakota Sioux. So at the huge dinner gathering – held in a hunter lodge – I started discussing my sympathy for the Water Protectors, privately with him. One of the more outspoken Trump supporters jumped into the conversation to inform me that the protestors were all paid by Black Lives Matter and were throwing kerosene bombs at the police. I got sucked in. Moments later he was telling me that Obama was full of hateful rhetoric. I could see my mother-in-law looking at us across the kitchen; she said, “No politics!” I said, “I agree hundred percent!”

I have been thinking of the millions of primarily white voters who voted for a man so stupendously unfit for office. One demographic is the Christian evangelical, conservative vote.  I am particularly aware of this group, because Brad used to be a minister with Assemblies of God. They have one issue: Pro Life. They willfully ignore Trump’s racism, misogyny, narcissism, and proto-fascist tendencies –because of this one issue.

To me, this is ignorance. The Latin root of ignorance is “not knowing,” but I think it is ignoring the truth. Many of these people probably know that Trump could dismantle Social Security, Affordable Care Act, and Medicare, but they choose to ignore it, because of their One Issue.

Brad has used the analogy of two pick-up trucks driving toward a precipice. One is blue, full of people shouting, “Unity in Diversity” and the people in the red truck shouting, “Make America White Again!” Global, corporate greed is driving the truck, and we are all headed for disaster: global destruction, if nothing else.

Also, political discourse may be impossible with Facebook and the Internet and Twitter, where one can put forth an opinion with great certainty, but with no basis in fact. This morning I saw a video clip from CNN in which the moderator was interviewing Trump supporters. One woman was convinced by Trump’s statement that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary. When asked about the source of her opinion, she said: “Facebook.” We know that Trump mastered this technique of manipulating social media. John Daily used to call his show “false news.” But now it is more difficult to distinguish between true news and false news. More and more, I have even become suspicious of posts by Facebook friends: Is this really true?

How would dialogue even be possible in these instances?

So what is our Buddhist practice at this time? Well, on the one hand, a meditation practice and a general grounding in the knowledge of the impermanence of all phenomena, can be very helpful in regaining some equanimity. And, of course, we know we can be compassionate because all the Trump supporters are each suffering in his or her own way.

But the unanticipated result of this election is a waking up to the reality that we need to take action, we need to stay informed. Every day. Complacency seemed safe, but now we know, for sure, that it is not.