My habitual reaction to qualities of heart and mind I don't like, like anger, fear, and wickedness, is to try to fix them. I suppose that can be a good thing.
Another good thing can be to meet them with kindness and goodness, in a kind of dance of opposites. But what is the use of taking the hand of fear, or letting the liar whisper sweet nothings in your ear?
Maybe it's a paradox that works.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 337.
Yesterday I went over to Berkeley to teach – not the first class of the semester, but the first in-person class and for me, the first time I’ve been with a bunch of real live humans in two years, other than family gatherings and a few backyard get-togethers, since back before Omicron. It was glorious. Just seeing the students in person, seeing their faces, or the upper half of their faces. I really missed that!
Because most of them are just starting out meditating, they came in ready to complain about themselves. Their concentration isn’t good, their minds wander all over the place, they have too much stress, they want to learn how to banish their anxiety.
I get it. For years my practice was about becoming a better person. When I could finally learn to be less angry; when I had no more greed; when I was kinder, skinner, taller, then I would be happy. My practice still trends in that direction when I’m not being vigilant. There are things I’ve noticed in the last several years about this constellation I call “Judi,” which I didn’t even know floated around in there. And which, when I discovered them, I initially wanted to banish, or if not banish, at least heal.
But these days I notice a subtle aggression lurking in my desire to heal. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in healing – my own personal healing and growth, and that healing on interpersonal and systemic levels, is justice. And that the gulf between justice and where we are right now as a profession, a nation, a world, is big.
It’s just that a desire to heal doesn’t feel different to me anymore, from a desire to have a steadier mind, or a smaller waist. It’s aspirational, sure – I can name it that - but underneath, I notice it’s still more or less a kind of complaint against the present moment.
Chapter 17 of the Dhammapada, which is where we are this week, is called Anger. When someone says they’re angry, or when I’m angry, the first thing that comes to my mind is, what can I do about this? How can I shift this, or, heal it? And there I am, filing a complaint against the present moment. Which is where my students started out yesterday.
The teachings don’t seem to approach anger, or any other afflictive emotions or states of mind, that way. Absolutely they say, in no uncertain terms, give up anger. That’s how Chapter 17 starts, with those actual words.
But the “how” is what’s so powerful, to me at least. The how, according to Chapter 17, is, conquer anger with non-anger; conquer wickedness with goodness; conquer stinginess with giving, and a liar with truth.
Instead of saying, “fight fire with fire,” or, “file a complaint against fear,” or against the wandering mind, the verse is saying, overcome afflictive states, using wholesome ones. Instead of trying to heal, meaning (to me anyway) to get rid of whatever states of mind I don’t find useful - or appealing, for that matter - the instructions are to take the opposite, positive, quality, and conquer with that.
To me this feels like generosity. It feels like being willing to say: whatever is here, is welcome. My anger, my fear, my discomfort: all welcome.
It’s like a dance. I’m dressed up. The bubbly is pouring. The music is flowing. I walk onto the dance floor, and Anger asks me to dance. This is not who I wanted to dance with and I could say no. But I offer my hand. We do a slow tango, keeping eye contact. I’m trying to pay attention – kind attention. It’s so hard – I don’t want to make the time for this – I don’t want to be willing. But there is also a kind of tenderness. It’s enough to make me weep, seeing Anger in this light of tenderness. As it turns out, it’s also enough to dissolve Anger, right before my very eyes.
Then someone taps Anger on the shoulder and suddenly I’m dancing with Fear. Here, I really do not want to be. My body is shaking. It looks like a dance from the outside but it’s not in time with the beat I want to be keeping. It scares me to death – Roosevelt was right. But finally, with a very deep breath, I resolve to have this dance with Fear. And now what can I do but look into the face of Fear? And do that with curiosity? And maybe also with love? And as I do that, same thing as with Anger: Fear also dissolves.
Of course Anger and Fear don’t dissolve forever. They’ll both be back. But maybe not so boldly, not so often.
Then Wickedness cuts in, steps on my toes, shoves me into the other dancers. I didn’t invite Wickedness and I’d love to be able to walk away but somehow I know that Wickedness will follow me because, Wickedness is wicked! So I decide to be utterly, utterly good to Wickedness. I look into her face. I listen to what she has to say. I find some tiny, dusty, corner of my heart that’s willing to love her, too, or maybe that’s an overstatement: not “love,” but make space. And it turns out the verse is right: Wickedness met with goodness is soluble, too.
Now it’s the last dance. The Liar grabs my hand and twirls me around the room. I’m dizzy, I’m uncomfortable, things aren’t going my way (the way I planned), so I find fault with the situation, and with everyone at the dance. And then it occurs to me that my discomfort isn’t their fault. They’ve met their own matches on the dance floor. Their wickedness, their anger, their fear – it’s leading them the same way mine leads me. We’re the same. With that, Liar and I stop turning, stop spinning. And finally, out on the dance floor, there’s a moment or two of peace.
If one speaks the truth, is not angry, and gives when asked, even when one has little, then one comes into the presence of the gods. That’s the next verse in Chapter 17. And that “presence of the gods?” To me, that’s the parts of ourselves that are good and generous and truthful.
But my job isn’t to convince anyone, including a bunch of Berkeley Law students. Instead, I have to take them out onto the dance floor.
So I show them basic walking meditation and then all 28 of us file out of the classroom and occupy the main corridor of the law school. We walk back and forth the short way, so that anyone coming down the hall has to do their own dance, dodging a bunch of silent, walking, students.
A slow silence descends on the hallway. Those navigating our practice space stop speaking as well, or lower their voices to whispers: some sense of…something (the dharma? The community?) …invites them into the dance. There’s no convincing – there’s no need. And also, there’s no more complaining about the wandering mind, or anxiety, or anything else that’s arising – at least for the next two hours. There’s only the gentle walking back and forth, and eventually quiet, slow, talking. And in the process, the gentle conquering of anger with non-anger; conquering of wickedness with goodness; conquering of stinginess with giving, and liars with truth.