During his homily, our parish priest Fr. O’Toole reminded us that our view of the world depends upon where we choose to focus. During a recent trip to the dentist office Fr. O’Toole picked up a copy of People Magazine, and read about kids making a positive impact on the world.
The first was the story of Ben Duskin.
In 2003 Ben was 8 years old and in remission from leukemia. He submitted his idea for a video game about kids beating cancer to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The game was built with help from a game developer at LucasArts, and is still available for free.
In the game kids fight evil cancer cells and the side effects of chemotherapy with an array of medicinal weapons. As with real cancer treatments, each comes with side effects. The video character looks like Ben, and flies across a field of cells on a rocket equipped surfboard, has health, medicine, and positive attitude at his disposal. The goal of the game is to collect seven shields that protect you against some of the side effects of cancer treatment.
Listening to the homily, I was already starting to get a little teary-eyed. My cousin Ben Bushlack (not Ben Duskin), one of my closest friends growing up, was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer when we were 9 years old. After surgeries and chemo, the doctors said he had about one year to live. He lived another ten years, and passed away during our senior year of high school in 1996.
I am convinced that Ben lived because of his will to live and his desire to love the people around him for as long as he could. People would come to visit him in order to try to cheer him up or to comfort his family. But then Ben would meet them at the door, beaming with a smile. Before long, everyone would be laughing and enjoying his devilish humor. Ben taught me the true meaning of hospitality.
The second story was about Sammie Vance.
Sammie came up with the idea for the “Buddy Bench” in 2017. In her words “If someone is lonely they can go sit on the bench and others know to go up and ask them to play.” She doesn’t want anyone to feel alone and at times would have used it herself. Also a place for new kids to sit and those feeling left out or wanting to make a new friend. (See https://sammiesbuddybenchproject.com/sammiesstory )
At this point of the homily I had to get up and get myself some Kleenex. No joke. It was a cathartic cry – both sad and joyful at the same time. Ecstatic – in the true sense of the word (ek-stasis literally means to “stand outside of oneself.”) I felt connected to the pains and joys of everyone, present and unseen. Like my heart was wide open, and the whole in-this-moment-ness was simply flowing through me. It felt clean and pure.
Ancient writers speak of the “gift of tears.” These tears were a cleansing gift.
Meanwhile, I was looking around at everyone and having a moment not unlike the one described by Thomas Merton on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, KY.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”Cited in Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Fr. O’Toole retold these kids’ stories to remind us that although there are a lot of things to lament in our world, we have a choice about where we offer our attention and focus. How we choose to focus our attention also creates the world around us.
I couldn’t help but think about this in relation to our culture today. By “our culture” I mean Western, American culture, because that is the one where I spend most of my time.
I have come to believe that our current political and social climate, with all its anger and violence, is a projection of our deeper spiritual choices about where we focus our attention. It is not that we need our side to win in order to eradicate that the violence and hatred from our political, social, racial, etc. enemies is creating (and we, of course, are innocent). Rather, it’s that we’re all together creating and reinforcing our collective fear, anger, and violence. (I think that is why Merton called his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”)
The external forms of this violence – whether in our politics or guns on our streets and in our schools and sacred places of worship – are simply a mirror that is reflecting back to us our collective fear, anger, and violence.
A few months ago I stopped giving my attention to the news media. It wasn’t so much a conscious choice, but rather the “news” simply became uninteresting. It’s not that I don’t care about politics or that I think they’re unimportant. Quite the opposite – I mean, I wrote a book on politics and theology! I was just suddenly unable to bear opening myself to the anger that our political dramas were instilling in me.
I mentioned this recently at a workshop on 12-Step Centering Prayer, where I offered this “media fast” as an example of how I cultivate the value of silence in the contemplative life. The audience nodded politely in agreement. Then I added, for no particular reason, “I’ve even stopped listening to NPR.” There was an audible gasp from the audience! I guess they figured I stopped listening to Fox or CNN, but I couldn’t possibly give up our beloved NPR. I imagine that to many people this might appear an irrational, even irresponsible, choice.
I experience a lot more peace without consuming constant media. I listen to books or music in my car. I find myself more easily slipping into silence – whether commuting, or during rare moments of down time, or in moments between meetings or email. I still have my political views. I still engage in community work where I can and I intend to vote.
I’d like to invite you for a moment to join me in a little imaginative exercise.
Imagine for a moment that it’s November 4, 2020. Your candidate has won. Fill your imagination with elated images of whomever you hope wins the next election, whether the incumbent or someone else. Imagine the sense of elation you are experiencing, the new sense of hope that things are changing.
Now consider that in order to “win” this election, there had to be a loser. Think back to the months of endless mud-slinging and hatred toward the other side that you have been absorbing. Recall the anger you feel toward “those people” on the other side of our (very narrow) political fences in America, and your righteousness at feeling the truth is now winning. And consider that whoever the next president is (whether now or in another four years), he or she will spend several months undoing all the presidential policies of the previous administration. And then after that another president will come along and undo those policies. And then after that…
Buddhist tradition speaks about the endless wheel of samsara. The spinning wheel of samsara is a metaphor of our suffering, and is eternally propelled by our collective desires and fears and from the actions that arise from those desires.
I’d like to suggest that whatever joy or elation you feel on this imaginary future day in November 2020, it is just another form of suffering in disguise. It is samsara all the way down. It is suffering because it is a winning that comes from a dualistic worldview. We won; they lost. We’re right; they’re wrong. Left vs. Right. Democratic vs. Republican vs. Independent-Green-Libertarian ____________ (fill in the blank).
Anywhere there is dualism there is suffering and the roots of violence – even when it feels like happiness, joy, or victory. (Can you take that in? It sounds like heresy in our current culture.)
If we really and truly want things to change in our culture, then we have to find a way out of dualistic thinking. We need to upgrade to a non-dualistic operating system. That is where the hospitality that I learned from my cousin Ben and Sammie Vance’s “buddy bench” offer us valuable lessons.
When we sit down on the buddy bench, there is no enemy. There is not another person who is other-than-me. There is us, feeling both exclusion and hospitality at the same moment. Simply being together.
Contemplative practice is our way of seeing the world as a buddy bench. It’s one way of learning to see that we’re all in this together – suffering and rejoicing together. It is our way of knowing that “they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun” (Thomas Merton).
When we move into a non-dual way of sitting on the buddy bench, we don’t stop caring about politics. We don’t stop working for justice. But we do these things in a way that we are no longer imposing our fears, anger, and violence onto others when we engage in the tasks of building our world. By letting go of our need to control the outcomes, by trusting in God, in our innate goodness, and in the innate goodness in each other, the wheel of samsara begins to slow down.
Only then will we begin to see real change. Only when we polish the inner mirror of our souls will our external world begin to reflect back to us a less violent image. That world that we all seek – yes, even “those people” on the other side of the political fence seek and desire peace – will begin to emerge to the extent that we stop imposing our inner fears onto it.
If we learn to do this, what we will see “externally” will simply be our non-dual selves reflecting back to us through our collective desire for union. (This one’s a little trippy, but see if you can sit with this for a while.)
Can you join me in practicing and envisioning this? Can you bring just a little bit of this non-dual presence into our next political cycle? Can you meet me – and the Bens, and Sammie, and Thomas Merton, and your political nemesis – on the buddy bench?