Sunday, May 31, 2020

The ground of all existence

Northwood Sacred Ox: 5/30/20
Jean Stimmell©2020
To Buddhists, the ox symbolizes the ultimate, undivided reality, which is the ground of all existence.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Getting Real

Cannon Beach OR: 9/9/13
Jean Stimmell©2013
Getting Real

I’ve written previously about not being able to shake my formative experience as a child, reveling in being outdoors and working with my hands, which lead to my first career as a stonemason.

Perhaps I needed that hands-on, physical release because, like many men of my generation, I was divorced from my feelings. I loved theories and ideas, living in my head most of the time. I needed the physical escape of lifting rocks in the here-and-now to release the pressure of countless competing thoughts, swirling in my head.

Due to occupational infirmities as I approached 50, I enrolled at Antioch New England Graduate  School to learn a new trade as a psychotherapist. This experiential program, discounted my 1950s-male, analytical mind in favor of opening up my body, starting the process to teach me how to feel.

It goes without saying that this was a necessary adjustment: Joining with a patient in session requires being in the here-and-now, not lost in abstracted thought.

 While at Antioch, I started a meditation practice, which allowed me to see my mind in a new light, what Buddhists call “monkey mind:” A cacophony of rushing, thoughts, like an overactive troupe of monkeys swinging wildly from one axon tree to another in my brain.

Chop wood, carry water, Be real.  John-Paul Sartre and Joseph Campbell, among others, agree that we create meaning through our actions – not our wildly gyrating thoughts.  Nietzsche, too, exalted in the active life.

 Philosophy for him wasn’t something to be contemplated from an armchair but an act that sprung from physical exertion. While young, Nietzsche felt most alive trekking up mountains in the Alps, while I built stonewalls.  But, with age, as is often the case, the exploration moved inward.  

For me, meditation has become a crucial tool in my investigation. I look at it as an active, intentional exercise, not the passive activity popular today, where folks simply observe incoming experience.  Active meditation is what the Buddha intended, according to Buddhist author and teacher, Peter Doobinin,⁠1.

“The Buddha’s mindfulness is highly proactive…. we are involved in a conscious intentional effort to put our mind on an aspect of our experience. We aren’t passively noticing experience. We are making a choice about where to put the mind and following through on that choice. We are doing something, with a sense of purpose.”⁠2

My meditation practice has changed the course of my life, despite only doing it on an irregular basis. Rarely at first and more frequently as time goes on – as I listen to my breath and keep returning to it when thoughts pop up, as they always do – it happens!  A wide smile spreads across my face, beyond my control, and I feel an oceanic sense of bliss: A mystery beyond words, transporting me to a  higher realm.

Since the pandemic struck, meditation has become my solid rock in a sea of unease. However, that can lead to the paradoxical situation, often encountered in Eastern thought, where the wisest action may be no action.

 The Tao Te Ching, the most translated book in the world after the Bible, is about that kind of wisdom. It was written around 400 BC, during 300 years of rancorous fighting between competing petty kingdoms in China.

Whereas now, we live in fear of our community being attacked by Covid-19, back then, the ever-present danger was marauding invaders of a different sort, intent on raping and pillaging.

The key practice of the Tao involves becoming still, like a mirrored lake. According to the Tao, taking action by doing nothing – until the time is right, which is beyond our conscious control – is the gateway to the wisdom of the universe. Or in the Master’s own words:

“Do you have the patience to wait
til your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
til the right action arises by itself?

“The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
She is present, and can welcome all things.”⁠3

To my way of thinking, that is good advice to follow during this pandemic:  Get real.  Chop wood. Carry water. Be humble. The future is not ours to foresee.

3 The Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation: Chapter 15.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ominous Clouds are Gathering

Seapoint Beach, Kittery Maine
Jean Stimmell©2014

No more excuses! Forced into isolation by the pandemic, we now have the time and space to “to think what we are doing.,” as Hannah Arendt long ago urged.

Arendt, perhaps the foremost political philosopher of the 20th century, observed that  in the past we didn’t have to think:  “tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral options of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves…”

However, nowadays, she wrote, its a free-for-all, with no guard rails on how we should act. “Adrift in a world in which everything and anything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.⁠1

Today, many different worlds exist, depending on which lens we look through. 

One lens,  promoted by the medical and health professionals,  sees our first duty is to protect our community, the body politic.  Under this view, individuals should be willing to forego certain liberties during a deadly pandemic, like self-isolating and wearing masks, to safeguard the greater whole. That’s one view of reality,  in step with most religions.

Another lens revolves around the idea that the world is a dangerous place, like a cage fight with no rules, where only the fittest individuals survive. Proponents of this view believe that’s the way it should be, with little or no government restraint. 

During the pandemic, some proponents of this view have suggested sacrificing some of us in order to achieve herd immunity, a term from veterinary practice, meaning letting a disease play out throughout the herd without intervention. The end result is that the weakest are culled from the herd, leaving only the fittest. 

I hope most would agree that there’s a fundamental distinction between how we should treat human beings and animals bred for slaughter. 

On top of that, the odds are unfairly stacked against us. The massive income inequality that exists today would, to a large extent, determine who would pay the ultimate price:  The losers would include minorities and the poor without access to adequate healthcare; the elderly, who have compromised immune systems; and working people, first responders, and essential workers in nursing homes, grocery stores, factories.

Meanwhile, the more well-to-do can work safely at home or self-isolate at their secluded,  second homes. Defining herd immunity in terms of who is the most affluent is an insult to us all. On top of that, the toll would be catastrophic: John Hopkins estimates, without any mitigation, the price for herd immunity in th U.S. could be 500,000 excess deaths.

Finally, I want to present Joanna Macy, eco philosopher, Buddhist, and general systems theorist,  who sees the world through a different lens, similar in many ways to that of the medical and religious communities, but with a modern touch.

She uses the human brain as an analogy for explaining systems thinking and how it contrasts with other approaches: She points out that human brain cells would die if they tried to compete to gain “power over” neighboring cells. Instead, to be effective, nerve cells must ensure maximum flow between cells to communicate and form collaborative networks.

According to her, in microcosm, that is how life works. Natural scientists now understand that what appears to be separate entities are interacting currents of matter, energy, and information.

Using a poetic metaphor, she says,  “we are flames that keep our shape by burning, by the act of combustion—matter in and matter out…So action isn’t a burden…It is something we are.”⁠2

Why is that important?  Because if action defines who we are – if we are bright, burning flames by our very nature – then we are meant to be engaged, vibrant actors in life, not couch potatoes dozing through the evening news.

As political polarization inches closer to civil insurrection in these times of Covid-19, we need to heed Hannah Arendt’s warning about the imminent danger we face. And be empowered by Joanna’s call for action.

Do we want to insist on unfettered individual freedom during this pandemic, unwittingly advancing the interests of the strongest and richest against the rest of us? Or do we want to come together as a united community for the greater good of us all?


Monday, May 11, 2020

Old People: Expendable or Carriers of Wisdom?

A version of this essay published in the Concord Monitor 5/12/20
Old Man Crossing the Street in San Francisco
CC Jean Stimmell

I never took a writing course, but when fired up, my first choice is to respond with words. The urge grows stronger as I age. I hope Sam Beckett was right when he said that, paradoxically, the impairments that come with old age, actually tend to make one a better writer.

“With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence—what you, I suspect, would call ‘brain damage’—the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is… A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense to him. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility.”1

When I read that statement, it fired up the few sand grains I have left. True, we no longer have the raw brainpower of the young, but our old noggins resonate with a deeper consciousness, connecting us to our community, the earth, and the cosmos beyond.

That’s my take on what Beckett meant by “greatest possibility.” Most would call this wisdom, and all would agree it is not universal — just look at some of our leaders.

The wisdom of the elderly has been crucial to society’s survival throughout human history. Yet, today, that flies in the face of how many people behave: Shunting old people aside like relic computers with obsolete operating systems. Of course, it’s all come to a head now with at the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.  Not only are we useless relics, but now we are told, point-blank, to leave the stage.

Ageism is alive and well.

The chief of the U.N. has condemned the rising tide of hate around the world, which includes attacking the elderly as useless and expendable: A good example came from Texas where the Lieutenant Governor argued that stores should stay open and, if, in the process, many older adults die, it is their patriotic duty to save our capitalistic way of life.

Nuba Kohn wrote recently in the Washington Post: “we are losing our elders not only because they are especially susceptible. They’re also dying because of a more entrenched epidemic: the devaluation of older lives.”2 .

James Hillman, the well-known psychologist, wrote"It's a central issue in our culture. We don't have adults, mentors, elders. We have fixed ideas of seniors as benighted, almost embalmed,"3

We have been headed down this road for some time with our fetish on youth and obsession with productivity. According to Hillman, society has been arranged to sideline the elderly, giving, by example, the rise of retirement communities which “reinforce the exclusion of the elderly from participation in society.”4

And now, nursing homes, the final retirement home for many, have become death traps. Nineteen old people died in New Hampshire nursing homes from Covid-19, just on the day I write this! And so it is across the nation and around the world.  The World Health Organization states that “as many as 50 percent of all the deaths in Europe occurred in such places.”6

This should be no surprise. For decades, government data has shown that nursing homes can be “infection tinderboxes,”7 Just in the last three years, two-thirds of all the nursing homes have been cited for violating rules on preventing infections.

Wisdom, on average, accumulates with age and that is why the elderly have been venerated in cultures throughout history. For that reason, although we may slow down and have to retire from material productivity, our ability to be good citizens blossoms.

Hillman would like to see the elderly restored to the role they’ve had in many tribal cultures “as caretakers of the traditions, stories and crafts, and as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural.” But all is not lost.

 I want to thank the Concord Monitor for doing its part to restore us to that role by publishing so many of us regularly. Paraphrasing Lord Tennyson, old age has yet its honor and its toil.

Shainberg, Lawrence. Four Men Shaking (p. 71). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.