The Air We Breathe

Today is a terribly stifling day. The air feels thick and slimy on my skin and in my nostrils. Everybody’s face is frowning; thin lipped and frozen in that typical endurance grip. If today’s air quality is any indication of the future, we should be worried. I’m standing at an intersection. I watch the row of bumper to bumper cars beeping and hustling a bus. The concrete is hot and although the river is not too far off, the air is heavy, staggering. Those standing closest to the river feel like they are in nature. Several bodies stretching and sitting on a 4X4 patch of grass feel like they are in nature. I think, let’s close our eyes and pretend that we are alone in our private grass, that the buildings and smog don’t exist, nor exhaust fumes.

On my walk home, I wonder about my practice and the importance of air. I breathe in and I breathe out. Besides meditation I’m wondering about how mindfulness relates to my views on the climate and my understanding of social ecology. My brain is trying to make connections. What is the action?

I return home and turn on the AC. I watch a movie about human beings living in space. The set is a detailed floating capsule with vents pumping clean air into the room. Actors are floating and look intelligent. I think about COVID-19 and how we’re all floating in our bubbles, scared and isolated, no trust to connect with others, no trusting the air we breathe.

I am alone, I sit, I breathe, I contemplate, I read and that’s all good. Still, I want to go out in spite of the suffocating air and the humidity because it’s my earth too and I am hungry for the outdoors and seeing people. I want to tear off my mask and I want to talk to people, see their mouth. I want to touch someone’s arm and do all those things that make us feel good and make us feel alive and connected. So, I think there’s a small war going on against our humanity. And I think air quality and the environment we choose to live in matter right now.

I look out the closed window sadly. Thoughts that follow are an interrogation of selfishness and selflessness and then I remember all the years working in the poorest of neighborhoods, in the inner city. I was doing some good in the world. The environment was toxic and depressing but I was fighting it, one child, one teacher, one classroom at a time. How much has changed since? I wonder about the quality of air in the classrooms, the life of all the workers and how if each one refused to work in a toxic environment, then schools and work places and whole cities would have to be designed differently. Just to get the people in. We want to come in, but we need a reason. We need a commitment to clean air and nature and spaces that we can care for one another again.

A million-dollar project just opened up between the river and the highway. It’s a strange looking park raised on top of concrete pillars. The swarms of people going over there. They want to climb the concrete and stand on a patch of grass and stand next to a tree. The whole thing is ugly. It’s an illusion. I think about all that money.  

If you’re wondering what mindfulness is really about

Mindfulness is really about love. Love and creativity. I know these are foolish, simple words these days, but sometimes it’s that worn out picture book in the library that speaks truth… generation after generation.

When we choose the practice of mindfulness coupled with a daily, contemplative discipline like meditation, we are cultivating our capacity to love. Mindfulness is love in action, so to speak. Learning to love yourself and love others. It is really very simple.

The three essential components of mindfulness are Time, Space and Energy. Mindfulness education is about learning the function and interrelationship between each of these three alchemies.

Time. When we give anything in life a regular dose of sanctioned time, we communicate value, concern, and care. We spend time with those we love, we spend time with our life’s work. The amount of time we give or receive radically transforms our perspective. Over time we grow old and wise. When we are present, time is eternity.

Space. When we provide ample space for something unknown to exist, we are opening the door of possibility. When we are full or constrained whether it be physically or in thought, there is no room for novelty and expansion. When we declutter the space, starting with our mind, we are inviting the whole world in.

Energy. Life requires energy. We learn to metabolize energy wisely in order to survive. Choosing a natural source of energy is best, because it doesn’t cause harm to yourself, others or the planet. Through sustained focus and understanding the field of energy that connects us to the earth and each other, we increase our life potential.

Mindfulness is about putting our best nature to work for us. It’s a very fair and equitable practice because we are all equipped with the tools we need. In teaching and learning, we can give the gift of time to our students. We can create space and novelty by doing right brain activities. We can help children become aware of energy and point out how we can communicate with each other without speaking.

We don’t often hear that we are learning how to put love into action when we practice mindfulness. We’ve been socialized to believe that love is too subjective and non-academic. Do we really need love to teach? Do we need love to succeed? Yet, when we really think about it, love is central to every exceptional school and every exceptional family. We learn how to love ourselves and take care of our bodies, we  learn how to interact with others with respect and compassion, we work together to keep our environment safe, healthy and happy.

When a teacher says “I love my students,” what is she saying exactly? Do we question her integrity? Do we think she is lacking? Perhaps we wonder if so much love has made her biased and we question if she can assess her students’ performance accurately. These are all important questions.

Mindfulness can be a self serving, egotistical practice if we get too absorbed in it. It is possible to lose clarity and balance, like when we are infatuated. This is part of the human condition and the universe is very clever! So, yes, we must be careful and vigilant about mindfulness. We need to question what we are doing and ask if our actions demonstrate love in action. We must remain innocent and open.

Making a commitment to a guided contemplative practice such as meditation can help.  When we engage in silent reflection regularly we allow our mindfulness practice to evolve and grow with deeper awareness. It is also a good idea to share your experience with others so that you can see the world as one whole. Sometimes we need each other to see and understand our surroundings more clearly.

Mindfulness is about love and creativity. It really is that simple. Sometimes foolish, simple words are all we need.

love

 

 

 

Mindfulness Starts at Home. Then Social Justice

“The way to experience newness, is to realize that this moment, this very point in your life, is always the occasion. So the consideration of where you are, and what you are, on the spot, is very important. That is one reason that your family situation, your domestic everyday life is so important. You should regard your home as sacred, as a golden opportunity to experience newness.” 

~Chögyam Trungpa

In the past, I traveled a lot for work. I enjoyed being on the road. I felt free. I had meals prepared for me and the cleaning was taken care of by a staff I could not see. I focused on my work, my thinking, my Self, my needs. I loved my work so I thought this is what it means to be happy. Even when my neck started hurting and my back ached from too much traveling, I accepted it, as part of business.

When my work contract ended, I found myself stuck at home. It was hard to adjust. Even though I was writing and job hunting, my daily routine featured shopping, cleaning, carpooling, cooking, care taking, walking alone. I became the master of our home. I noticed every lint, every dropping. I bought mop heads and knew when my neighbors were coming and going.

Domestic life felt oppressive and ordinary. I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember feeling I had lost my identity.

I felt disconnected from the world. I felt unseen. Less useful suddenly.

People around me seemed to be working on important projects, teaching and traveling, attending conferences, fighting for social justice, saving the planet.

One day, in my research, I came across a Buddhist writer and philosopher Chögyam Trungpa. He wrote about how mindfulness and building an enlightened society start at home. I found this very hard to understand. And even harder to put into practice.

How can shopping, washing the dishes enlighten me, make me feel at peace, make me happy? How can my life at home, with my family, cultivate world peace?

It has been almost two years living a home life. I have learned that mindfulness requires discipline, time and trust. I read and reread, read and reread wisdom writings and traditions and practice meditation and contemplation daily. I join a Sangha occassionally but mostly it’s just me, on an island, listening and grappling with the now, and the very, very ordinary reality.

It has taken me a long time to find calm. And even calm is temporary. I have begun to see how patience and compassion does grow. Awareness of the details matter. I find that in every wrong, I have been there. And the wrongs that I am still unaware, repeat over and over again until I see myself in them, and then I am sad again realizing that all along, I am the misfit, that we are all misfits, and shy of it, and that I am the carrier of every wrong, of every pain and how can I do better?  Understanding and forgiveness is in the Self first, and then knowing that you are the mirror image of every human being, and then multiply that by society.

What is a detail? Each detail is a small view of the bigger picture of the world. Like discovering the simplicity and complexity of a snowflake. One single snowflake in the world of snow. Think about that.

Now, with all this time and space around me, I think about those years on the road. Eating and living in hotels. People cooking and cleaning and taking care me so that I could be an intellectual, thinking and busy.

In some strange way, I have found new meaning for the words, social justice, freedom and fairness. Thinking about how sometimes it is time to say, “Now, it is your turn.” or “Now, it is my turn.”

My turn to make life easier for other people, like my husband and children. Every day they have to go out there to work, commuting on the train. They work, go to school, navigate the real world— which is too often callous and cold and too busy to be sensitive to their needs.

I am beginning to think differently about not having and suffering. About waiting. About what we value in life and society. How we assign worth and status to some jobs, how the traditional woman’s work in the home, is never valued enough. How we need to be compassionate and careful in our treatment of others, who are busy or not busy enough.

How sometimes we have to live it and breathe it before we understand desolation, anxiety, hunger, despair, forgiving.

Isn’t this mindfulness and its relationship to social justice—when we become aware of who we are, outside our role, our helplessness, our vulnerability, and that wheel of fortune turning and turning? Where it stops nobody knows. Isn’t that the beginning of compassion and treating each other with dignity?