I spent the past November attending what is (in certain circles) a well-known Buddhist course at a Tibetan monastery in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. Though I’ve come to refer to the experience as “Buddhist Boot Camp,” I deeply enjoyed my time there and feel as though I’m the better for having gone. However, as is often the case with any experiment where the subject is one’s own mind, the results have not been quite what I’d expected. Neither, as it turns out, were the reasons for the experiment in the first place.
Prior to hopping the flight to Kathmandu, I’d dabbled in mindfulness and meditation and Buddhist philosophy and yoga here and there for a few years but never did a deep dive; life is distracting and all that. When I learned of this month-long course at Kopan Monastery, it seemed like my next logical step — also, the timing was perfect: turn and face this whole concept of mindfulness and in the meantime, avoid being in the States for November 2016. I didn’t fully understand why, but I knew that I did not want to be in the U.S. for this particular presidential election. In fact, I wanted to be as far away as possible, both in body and mind. Studying meditation on a mountaintop in Nepal? Perfect. Two birds, one stone. (Pardon the idiom, Buddhist friends.)
I had wanted to be away from the U.S. because I was confident that the States would elect Ms. Clinton and feared that all the DT* supporters would go nuts dealing with their loss, occupying government buildings with their guns, burning whatever they saw fit to burn, and scaring the shit out of everyone. I believe now that some part of me knew I didn’t want to be in the U.S. because I could not handle the possibility of a DT presidency, that the enraged losers of the election, of the White House, of the ideals that Obama had campaigned on, would include me. I would be the screaming nut wanting to set fire to the ignorance that allowed this to happen.
My self-needed checking.
The idea that happiness comes from within always made sense to me; the idea that one could be impervious to outside influences did not. How could a person not dissolve into a puddle of rage when confronted with vitriolic hate? Turns out that’s what I was doing on that mountaintop — facing some of the scarier aspects of myself. Good thing I didn’t know that going in, or I might not have gone at all.
In my short and long 30 years on, earth I felt I had become aware of all too much. There is too much suffering, injustice, ignorance, anger – in short, pain – in this world. What I wanted was to become aware of how to deal with and how to help others deal with it all, and I did. You begin with yourself. Like on an airplane, you need to secure your own air flow before helping others. It seems almost selfish at first, but it’s true — you have to balance yourself before you can hope to steady anyone else. If the world is too full of hate, ignorance, etc., you have to find and eliminate those states within yourself first. Otherwise you will encounter them wherever you go: you’ll be bringing them along.
When I heard, atop that quiet hill in Nepal, the results of the election, I went through all the stages of grief, at a speed I am ultimately grateful for. I’d only been detoxing my mind from the news cycle for a short time, but already it had begun to air out. The things that surface in the mind during such times can be just what’s needed, and what surfaced in mine that day, through no conscious effort of my own, was the tail end of an M.L.K. assertion**:
Only love can do that.
Only love can do that.
Only love can do that.
This idea, that had made its way to me I don’t know how long ago, is what emerged that day, ringing quietly at first and louder as the day persisted, as the news sank in. While I was experiencing the shock, the denial, the confusion so many of us felt, that refrain played patiently on.
The trouble with hate and ignorance is that like inspires like. DT campaigned on hate and it made me rage. But what I learned from those unruffled monks was that no one makes you angry. That anger comes from you. This was (and sometimes still is) a hard pill for me to swallow. If someone is annoying the shit out of you – your problem is you! How simple. How tiresome. DT didn’t put rage inside of me — he brought it out. It was already there.
I thought that studying Buddhist meditation and practicing mindfulness would make life in the Western world seem easier to comprehend and navigate. And yet the absurdism in Washington that continues to unfold before our eyes every day has made it harder in some ways for me to exist in this world, despite all that I did learn that month and have since continued to practice.
One of the many Buddhist teachings that has been helpful for me to remember is that problems are your friends. To embrace problems head-on is how you grow, awaken. To see a human causing pain and understand that he is causing such pain because he is so pained himself and to approach him with equanimity is what is necessary. To develop love and compassion in the mind is to reduce anger and suffering as a matter of course. (See? Only love can do that.)
Since November I’ve had many, many moments wherein I find myself completely overwhelmed, paralyzed by the number and enormity of problems swirling around us, all of us on this earth. Despair has knocked on my door a few times, but so far I haven’t answered. My brother likes to say, “If you ever get lost, just remember you’re on the third planet from the sun and work your way back from there.” He means it to be funny, but it helps me to be mindful — mindful of our place in the universe, of my place in the universe.
Now at least I can focus on my breath and remember that peace and balance are not things to struggle for. Struggle belies the absence of these. Peace, balance — these are for tapping into, allowing. Does this mean we should allow the wrongs we witness to proceed? Nope. But if peace is what we want, it’s what we need to embody. It will expand outward from us. Take a breath, acknowledge what is, allow the peace within you to come forth, to take over. Be the change you wish to see in yourself. Once you’ve mastered that, you can go about changing the world. Simple.
*His name is said, read and written far too much and in this I will not participate. However, he remains unavoidable.
**The front end being: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate;”