As we inch towards the end of 2021 without any idea what's next, in terms of the pandemic, the climate, or the political situation, I've been thinking about the importance of our practice.
It feels like there's a big part about wellbeing - that's crucial. And, there's a lot more.
Because we have the potential, as practitioners, to set an example, and even share directly, with those we work with, and with everyone we love, how to stay compassionate and open-hearted right in the middle of...everything.
This Wake Up Call and the next two explore that question, which will take us to the end of this fraught, and strange, and challenging 2021 year.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 330. I hope the holidays are being good to you, and that you’re taking time to breathe.
Last week in Chapter 10 of the Dhammapada I had some thoughts on understanding violence and pointing in a different direction. For today, as we inch slowly towards the end of 2021, Chapter 11 is an invitation to consider endings, maybe an equally challenging topic. The title of Chapter 11 is, “Old Age.”
I had some minor gum surgery about ten days ago and can only eat soft foods for a minute. And I went to the market and bought canned fruit: peaches, pineapples, and remember mandarin oranges if your memory stretches back to the 1960’s? Buying that canned fruit, it was the first time in my life I really felt like an old woman. That was interesting.
Because I am getting there. We’re all getting there, aren’t we? Which is one thing Chapter 11 points to: that we’re all headed in the same direction. And that this is one of the classic teachings of mindfulness: we aren’t forever. Everything is impermanent, and that includes us. In fact we’re quite frail: we’re these very frail beings – human beings – and we’re only here for a minute. And then we’re gone.
I read a lot of historical fiction. It’s my favorite. And I’m often struck by truth of how brief our lives really are. We’re born, and we live a whole, big, huge, life. We love people. We work hard. We help people. We try to do some good. Maybe we build something, maybe we’re fortunate enough to be able to give away some of what we build. And maybe, we get to leave something for the next generation.
And then we die. And yet everything we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear – the forests we walk through, the apples we eat, the music we listen to, the smell of the ocean – all of these things go on (or who knows – will they go on? For how long?) – but for the immediate future, in some form or another, they’ll go on.
This is a hard thing to turn towards, at least for me.
Chapter 11 says it like this:
Why the laughter, why the joy, when flames are ever burning? Surrounded by darkness, shouldn’t you search for light?
Look at this beautified body: … full of illness, the object of many plans, with nothing stable or lasting.
What is the delight in seeing these dull-white bones tossed away like white gourds in autumn?
Dull-white bones – that is all that will be left. That’s all that’s ever left, though, in a way: the dull-white bones of 2021, and 2020, and the aughts? And all the decades. I’m a child of the late ‘60’s and early ’70’s – the music, the protests, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. A lot of that feels like dull-white bones right now, too, with this Supreme Court. Bones, tossed away like white gourds in autumn. Impermanent, even the things we thought were ensconced.
But here’s the silver lining, because there is one. Which is such a relief, to me anyway.
Chapter 11 goes on to say,
Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out. So, too, does the body decay. But the dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay, for it is upheld when the virtuous teach it to good people.
Here’s what I think that means.
There are some renowned dharma teachers in the world today. Dharma, or mindfulness, teachers. My own teachers, James Baraz and Norman Fischer and Roshi Joan Halifax. Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzburg. Pema Chodron. Bikkhu Analyo, in a class of his own. Those are just a few of the North Americans.
There are renowned teachers in India, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan. And throughout Asia. And in Europe and Africa, South America, Australia. Everywhere right now in the world, there are virtuous people, teaching mindfulness.
Including all of us. And that’s the silver lining I think this Chapter is really pointing at.
So we run this teacher training every two years, which by now you know all about and sorry for the deluge. And some of you were at our Info Sessions yesterday, and Gullu Singh, one of our lead teachers (and also a lawyer), said, essentially, come, because yes, our lives are brief but as Chapter 11 says, the dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay…it is upheld when the virtuous teach it to good people. And we all need to be teaching. We don’t all need to come to our teacher training! But we all need to be teaching right now. The world is a mess and it’s all hands on deck! And if we do get to leave anything for the next generation, it isn’t wealth. It’s these teachings. Not in some dogmatic way at all, but teachings like how turn towards the end of a year, or a life, or our tattered world, with an open heart; how to keep breathing; how to keep visioning and working towards the possibility that maybe we can even heal, maybe we can even get ourselves out of this mess we’re in.
So like I said, that’s the silver lining; mindfulness, and the way yes, some prominent teachers, and yes, a formally trained teacher, but also, all of us, practice, and live our practice. Which is exactly what you’re doing here: sitting, keeping your heart open, practicing compassion, discovering ways to be loving even in the law at times when someone who doesn’t study mindfulness would say it was a terrible idea to do that.
So as we inch towards the end of 2021, and each of us slowly inches towards our own ends, it’s hopefully becoming clear that all situations are deserving of love, and that the alternative is what’s gotten us into this mess: forgetting to love one another, forgetting to love the earth, forgetting we belong to one another.
Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness: to recollect. Your “recollection,” your “not forgetting,” your Sati: it rubs off. It affects everyone. People you work with, people you love. People you wish you could love. Even people you think you don’t want to love, can’t learn to love: it rubs off on them, too.
So even though the chariots of the royalty wear out, and we lawyers are some kind of royalty, the dharma [your dharma] doesn’t decay… It is upheld when the virtuous – that’s each of us, all of us - teach it to good people. Or another way I’d say it is, live it. Which is what you’re doing right now.
Thank you for your practice. Because it really is all hands on deck.