When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English. We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes. She also served as a babysitter from time to time.
The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children. They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture. One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen. I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert. I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space. I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.
I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary. It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable. It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening. I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.
This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa, in the Sütras of Pantanjali. Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill. Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.
As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe. I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment. This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.
The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience. Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds. But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences. The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world. So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself. She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love. She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.
The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.
The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe. In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says. This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.
The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning. In other words, the “I” is the sum of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be. One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken. Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya. But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization. Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go. It leads into more suffering, not away from it.
In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while. A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body. Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.
Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being. Some days I am strong. Some days I am weak. Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing. When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable. Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.
The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.” Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings. My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.
You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.
Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him, Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable. Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean? Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about. We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma. We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow. If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.
We don’t have to do this. Why do we do it? Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity. If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.
The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.
I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence. My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).
No. For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.
As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Buddha did not found a religion. He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.
This is how I understand yoga. Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.
My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.
I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:
Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful. They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.
What are my wishes:
1. I wish to heal. Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.
2. I wish for true companionship.
3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.
The first wish is nearly granted. I am a good mother if hardly conventional. I have done my best. This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead. It requires a sacrifice. I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment. But it is time to return. The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me. It called to me and I came. There was much to learn. Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:
That I love my son.
That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.
That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.
He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me! This makes me laugh. Bravo! I am shouting. Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!
I like Boudha. I could spend a long time here. It is a good place. I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora. I liked riding my bicycle here.
I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour. He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald. He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists. He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest. He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board. His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again. He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it. He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.
I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:
“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”
“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”
The Buddha says,
“It is whole. All is well. The bond, the bridge, is sturdy. Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons. You will never break it.”
The sky is so beautiful tonight. Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas. Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.” Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.
It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.
You say to yourself:
No way is she better than me. I mean, his taste has really declined.
And then you admit:
…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.
Which leads to the happy thought:
And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.
I have been looking for him for such a long time. This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.
I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse. Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution. These are my problems. Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace. I chose grace. Why chose anything else?
Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable. I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it. I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through. I’m trying to keep my eyes open.
I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States. Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different. My body and mind have changed. I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe. I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull. If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.
I like being in my house by myself. I love it here. The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched. The Echinacea is blooming into the heat. The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.
Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room. I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.
For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon. “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world. Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another. Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.
Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action. A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.
I have been crying.
Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say. For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping. But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted. It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying. Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack. Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.
Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:
Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.
I’m in my house. Today is my father’s birthday. I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father. My father has come to rest at home in me.
I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him. Many regrets. Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.
Awesome job, Dad. And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about. I cared about you.
Switching away to JOY!! I have everything I need right here. My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and
I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.
The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning. I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors. I can dance around naked if I please. It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.
If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself
You should make your way steadily, alone.
In the childish there is no companionship.
From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada
The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings. By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children. He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”
Later on the Dhammapada reads,
If one cannot find a mature friend,
a companion who is wise, living productively,
let him go alone,
like a king abandoning conquered land,
like an Elephant in the forest.
A life of solitude is better–
There is no companionship with a childish person.
Let one go alone and do no damage,
Like an elephant in the forest.
It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else. Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions. She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”
If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far. You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret. You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable. You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it. And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up. So you keep to the path, watch over your mind, and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.
Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person? Not a really young person. Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company. But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber? After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient. You grit your teeth, you endure. You are not looking about you. Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation. The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them. Walk steadily on.”
These are not the Buddha’s words. I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”
Hold On, Be Strong,
When it’s on, it’s on.
The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song. Thus everything he says has a double meaning. He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.” Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain. He’s also not campaigning against weed. He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it. We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.
So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means. Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication. He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change. The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha” Tupac says something similar. Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.
To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality. You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it. And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution. It solves nothing and it’s childish.
No one is coming to save you except yourself. It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering. Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can
If I had known how difficult the journey was going to be, I never would have attempted it. Getting up here to this enormous mountaintop shrine to the Buddha took all my energy. I started out in the heat of mid-morning, with plenty of water and a good breakfast in my stomach, on a walk that the guidebook said would take two to three hours. I followed the water’s edge from the center of the tourist strip past the rental boats and scrubby jewelry vendors, past the fancy lakeside restaurants, across a grassy area and over a brick wall where I pointed out a beautiful blue butterfly to a little boy whose parents were bathing below. I followed a footpath through weeds, across a parking lot for an expensive hotel that you had to take a ferry to, and through a gate to an abandoned park with a brick wall around it. I headed towards some peaked red roofs atop crumbling brick buildings, which turned out to be ancient temple grounds, four or five smaller shrines set around a larger mandir dedicated to Shiva.
There I met a young priest, who invited me into the sacred area where non-Hindus almost never get to go. He also opened up the doors to a smaller temple to Durga, the great mother goddess, whom among the thousands of Hindu deities I have adopted as my personal protectress. The priest told me it was too far to walk to the Buddhist Stupa that I had set out to visit, and that it would be best to take a boat across the lake to the beginning of the path through the forest. I turned around and looked for a boat. When I found out how much it was going to cost to cross, and also that the boatman had elected himself my personal tour guide, whether I wanted him or not, I reversed course and headed through the temple grounds again.
I decided to believe the guidebook, not the priest, since like all Nepali men he assumed that western women are unable to discern what is best for them, and this attitude pissed me off. But before heading out, I asked him for tika, which he happily gave me, apologizing for not having offered it before. This red mark on my forehead brought me good luck and guidance, as you shall hear.
I crossed a trash-filled stream on a metal suspension bridge. Boys stood knee-deep, fishing, in the filthy water. The path took me around the lake behind a plump, short woman who shielded herself from the burning sun with a purple umbrella. I had been walking slowly to conserve energy and to stay cool. Even so, I caught up with the woman pretty quickly, and greeted her as I passed: “Namaste.”
Namaste means, “the divine beauty in me greets the divine beauty in you.” This is the common greeting, which all Nepalis use to say hello and, sometimes, goodbye. Strangers on the street do not routinely exchange it the way Californians say, “Hello, how are you,” as they pass one another without waiting for a reply. But whenever one meets eyes it is polite to say hello and common to hold up one’s hands in prayer as one does so. If someone greets you with hands in prayer and you do not return the gesture, it is considered very bad manners and bad luck. I love this greeting! Namaste: The divine in me salutes the divine in you! It feels like the most natural and honest expression of my heart, as well as the most appropriate way for human beings to greet one another. Every one of us inherently good and capable of remembering and cultivating the goodness in ourselves.
In this spirit, then, I saluted the woman with the purple umbrella, who returned my salute and then quickened her pace to keep up with me. She was inquisitive. “Where are you from?” She asked. “Do you like Nepal?” “How long have you been here?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are your friends?” she demanded, along with a number of other questions that I didn’t understand. I did my best to converse but lapsed, with apologies, again and again into frustrated silence. I showed her the tika on my forehead, which she found so astonishing and wonderful that she insisted that she photograph me immediately. She managed to hail another woman, sitting in the shade in a walled garden behind a gateway that proclaimed, “No unauthorized persons may enter.” The woman with the umbrella, now my fast friend, convinced the other woman to allow us into the shade and to take a photograph of us together. As soon as she handed her phone to the woman, my new friend threw her arms around me. I obligingly put my arm around her, and smiled. I was happy to have pleased her so much, if also somewhat bowled over by her enthusiastic affection.
After the photo, my admirer walked along in the same direction, still gabbing away at me, even though it was clear that I understood very little. I asked her where she was going, and she said that she was heading somewhere off to the left, to her home in the New Road. My path took me to the right, and I expected her to leave me at any moment. She chattered away at me in Nepali using that lovely up lilting “enah!” at the end of her sentences, which is both a question and command. I had no idea what she meant but she sounded friendly and content. I kept expecting her to break away, but she seemed determined to direct me. Finally I stammered out something like, “I am strong and okay. You are going with me? I can go alone.” She just grabbed my arm firmly and pushed me further down the road. The one word I recognized again and again in her lectures to me was “Saathi,” or “friend.” I asked her if she thought it was dangerous to go to the Stupa alone. The guidebook had warned travelers not to go through the rain forest without a group, because robbers were known to prey upon tourists there. I had deliberately left my wallet at home, bringing only enough cash to get a little food and a boat back, and this I had hidden well in my backpack. I also happen to be as tall if not taller than most Nepali men, and relatively brave or foolhardy, and thought I would be fine. She explained that she was taking me on an alternate route, one that would be safer although longer. We passed a sign at the trailhead of a path leading straight up through the forest. It said in large, bold letters: IT IS BEST TO TRAVEL IN GROUPS.
I began to worry about her health. It was indeed very hot and although she was sturdily built, she did not have the most appropriate walking shoes on. Then again, the Nepalis never do and they go great distances in flip-flops that tear my feet to shreds. Still, I felt anxious about the debt that I was building up to her as well as the danger she seemed to determined to protect me from. A couple of 10- or 12-year old boys approached us from behind, and I stepped aside to let them pass, wondering if these were the sorts of robbers I should look out for. To my surprise, they very cheerfully and sympathetically began to fire questions at me in English. This was a relief after the past 45 minutes of language breakdown, and I asked them to please tell the wonderful woman with the purple umbrella that I appreciated her help very much, but did not expect her to take me all the way to the Stupa. They spoke a few words to one another and she agreed to leave me there, with the boys. Once again she threw her arms around me, this time kissing me on both cheeks, in the French fashion. Then she waddled home as the boys announced that they would take me through the forest.
They said that they were 12 years old and cousins, who lived in a nearby village. They pointed to their mothers working in the rice fields as we passed. They also said that they were in school, but did not know for how many more years they would attend since their parents were poor farmers. To make extra money, they said, they guided tourists through the forest on the way to the Stupa. They walked very quickly without any effort and I kept up with them until the path got and stayed very steep. One of them was very sweet and honest, while the other, taller one had already learned to manipulate and take advantage of others. After a while they seemed to be two angels, or demons, into whose hands I had unwittingly delivered myself. The nicer one wanted to know exactly how much money I would give them for guiding them. I refused to answer this question until we had reached the summit, partly because I was afraid that they would abandon me for a wrong answer in what seemed increasingly like a jungle. Footpaths led off in every direction, and there were no signs indicating the way to the stupa. The mosquitoes swarmed and bit mercilessly, and other, tinier, black bugs attached themselves to my legs and arms. To make things worse, the cheap sandals I had bought to replace the Chakos that someone stole from me fell apart. The bottom sole sheared away and one of the straps broke, so I had to walk carefully.
We climbed for an hour or two. My heart began to thud heavily against my chest, partly because I had tried to keep up with the boys, who climbed like mountain goats, instead of pacing myself for the journey. That would have been hard to do, actually, since I had no idea for how long we would be walking, or how steep the path would be. Still, because I had gotten winded early on, I had to stop often. I couldn’t sit down to rest, because leeches lurked under the leaves on jungle-forest floor and I didn’t want to invite any more insects to crawl up my legs.
I began to flag. I had rationed my water sensibly but had not brought any candy or nuts for energy. Just before we reached the summit, I had to force myself to lift each heavy foot, one after another, and also had to keep reminding myself not to rest my hands on my hips. Finally we reached a little shop at a crest of the mountain, from which we could see all of Pokhara as well as the stupa, still a half-hour’s walk up another steep hill. I threw myself into a chair and drank most of the liter of the water I bought before the shopkeeper could return my change to me. I also bought the kids, who had complained that they were hungry, some coke and chips. I also had a coke myself, just to get some sugar into my bloodstream. I would not have made the final trek without it.
I gave the boys 110 rupees each, all I could afford while keeping just enough to get back by boat at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know where that path was, but the boys said that someone could show me as they said goodbye. All seemed well until the taller, ruder boy called after me and demanded more money. “I gave you all that I could,” I said and shrugged off his parting curse.
I limped up to the Stupa under a sweltering sun. The plaque at its base, where you are asked to remove your shoes, stated that it had been built by a Japanese Buddhist sect whose mission was to spread Buddhism and peace by erecting 100 peace pagodas in as many countries around the world. There were very few visitors, just a few Nepali couples and another pair who looked Dutch. One of the Nepali couples, who had unusually delicate features, asked me to take so many photos of them with their phone that I worked up the courage to ask them if I could photograph them with my camera. I liked the gentleness of their movements and the way that they looked at each other, obviously very much in love.
There were also a few groundskeepers. Typically, the man lounged in the shade while the woman labored under the sun, which sweltered above. All the clouds had gathered around the edge of the lake, obscuring the Himalayas, as they usually do at that time of day in the summer time. I hadn’t come for the view, but rather to see the pagoda and to have a bit of a walk. I hadn’t expected it to be a trek or an adventure. The pain and uncertainty I suffered getting up here was worth it. The four great golden statues and murals, which look off in the four directions, preach peace, enlightenment, love, and universal harmony.
I am now sitting at the doorway of a Japanese Buddhist temple, which is set on the steep hill just below the Peace Pagoda. The doors are locked but I can see through the screens. The interior is very different, quite a bit more subdued, than the Nepali and Tibetan temples I have seen. There are no chairs or benches outside here, just as at the stupa, so I am sitting on the steps. There are ants and mosquitoes but none of the biting bugs that attacked me in the forest. This friendly dog passing by probably has fleas, so I will not pet him.
I would like very much to write a letter to Tim, who has been on my mind for so much of this trip to Pokhara. I can’t resolve the conflicting and violent emotions that beset me, It is always this way with a breakup. One belabors the end on and on without reaching any satisfactory understanding. Usually the party who makes the break is more eager to stop talking about it, while the party caught off guard cannot discuss the problem enough. The only solution, which comes sooner or later, is to drop it.
I would like to be friends with him. Certainly what is most terrible and devastating about this breakup is that I seem to have lost my best friend. I feel very vulnerable and lost without his friendship, his support, his affection. I cannot deny that I was unhappy in our relationship, too, and that I felt we were not as suited to one another as I would have liked. Many of my needs were unmet.
Things changed. They do that. I gravitated to women friends who spoke freely and openly about their fears and anxieties and weaknesses. There were times when I felt slighted by him, and there were times when he felt slighted by me.
Still I believed in our bond, in our importance to one another. I loved the easy way we lived together. He comforted me.
My brain will not compute this reality. What seemed an oasis was a mirage.
Still, I sit here at the peace pagoda and wish to make peace with him in my heart. I do not know how to do it. How do I acknowledge my suffering, my wounds, and yet forgive? Why am I holding a grudge against him? What am I afraid of if I let give up this war? Isn’t the emotion at the bottom of my anger fear? What do I fear most of all?
That I am weak.
How do I now open conversation with him without attacking him? By sharing my own insecurities and vulnerabilities with him. Here is the letter I am sending:
Dearest Timothy, Namaste:
My last email was pretty angry, an outburst of the tumultuous emotions that I’ve been struggling to manage since we broke up. I act like I’m crazy when I am afraid and wanted to tell you about my fears as a way to open conversation between us again.
I am afraid that I will never again meet a man whom I love who also loves me.
I am afraid that no one will see the beauty and goodness that you saw in me, and that I will be alone for the rest of my life.
I am afraid that I will never have a family again, other than the wonderful family that I have with Brendan.
I am afraid that I will never again be included and accepted and desired and protected.
I fear I’ll have to find all strength, all courage, all support from within myself.
I fear I’ll get weak and dizzy and make mistakes and lose my way.
I fear again wandering in the terrible desert of loneliness.
I know that these are fears, not truths, and also that they come and go like waves on the sea. I know that these anxieties cloud my mind and make me say and do things that I regret. I also know that these fears are not my fault. That is, they well up in me because of my experiences and culture and inheritance. I meditate to survive them.
I am sorry for every hurtful word and gesture between us, for every breakdown of communication, every dissipation of the love we have for one another. Above all, I want to hold you in my life as the cherished and trusted friend that you have always been to me. When my feelings of loss, fear, and self-criticism drive me to lash out at you or to despair I forget that what I want most of all is peace and harmony within and between us. I want to face the crossroads we have come to squarely with compassion for both of us. I wish now to be strong, serene, and levelheaded, to know my own Buddha nature and to be a good and kind friend to you.
Most of all, I wish to let go of my attachment to you and hold onto my love for you. You have been a good friend to me, after all. You are taking care of my house, our dogs, my cat, and my yard. You are collecting my mail and scanning and sending important documents to me by email. You let me know how the animals are doing and actually treat the cat better than I ever did. You words since our breakup have always been kind and soft. All of these gestures show your love for me, and I feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life as a friend, still my best friend. Thank you.
I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola. The Nepalis blame the rain. I blame the pollution, but who cares? I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged. Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me. I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses. I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted. What I needed was a a good, solid rest.
I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes. What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself. It struck me that I was wasting time. There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost. I am riding that wave. But I can’t let it overwhelm me. I am so incredibly lucky, after all. Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria, I am also here with my son, my only child. I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him. I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult. We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels. We will only be here for another four weeks. Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.
I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs. He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town. Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys. We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead. We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived. My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view. I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.
We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning. The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses. No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet. Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places. I am not looking forward to it. But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends. It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days. We all need the break.
Today is the first of my real working days here in Nepal. For now, my schedule will be:
7am Orphanage—where there are six children who have been rescued from the street.
9am –Breakfast of dal bhat and water
11am—Women’s Center, where I will be teaching very poor women how to speak conversational English
2pm—Teaching at a local private school
As most of you know, I feel passionately devoted to working on behalf of women around the world, and my goal here is to make a small dent in the lives of Nepali women. I had a conversation with the director of the program (Volunteer Society Nepal, or VSN) yesterday, and it seems that he would like to develop the women’s center. I asked him if he would be interested in starting up a microcredit loan program, and also if he had interest in expanding the Women’s Center, which is currently housed in an orphanage (and that is why it only runs for two hours a day), into a full-fledged shelter for battered women and their children. He sounded very enthusiastic about these ideas. I have decided to stay for five months in order to help to expand the women’s portion of their program. They already have started a sewing class to help women learn to become self-sufficient. I have bought material to have two kurtas made by a seamstress who works there. Half the proceeds she receives will benefit the women’s center (WC).
One of the women who attends English classes at the WC also works here, for Sugandha and Sova, as a cook. She just brought me a cup of delicious Nepali tea, milky and sweet. This was very sweet of her since usually the volunteers do not get their tea until 7am. It is now 6:30am. She speaks very little English and I speak very little Nepali, so we mostly smile broadly at one another to express our affection. Last night she gave me a delicious hug in the kitchen.
The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”
The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair. I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind. She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.
She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:
This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.
Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering. She is wisdom.
A story tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.” Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.
In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:
Wisdom speaks her own praises,
in the midst of her people she glories in herself.
She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,
she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…
Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens
and walked through the depths of the abyss.
Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)
Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman. Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says
Although she is alone, she can do everything;
herself unchanging, she renews the world,
and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,
she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;
for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)
Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason. But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight. She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it. She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics. Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,
All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,
Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.
Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices. The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life. They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:
The Pence amendment: the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions. The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: ” In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment. It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.
Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures
South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic. On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion. If this bill passes, State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen, who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation, L.B. 232, this week. Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
Pennsylvania: The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts. The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does. Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country. We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death. A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of then were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).
The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t. On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people. They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction. On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else. They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices. Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility. Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. “What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked. “Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate. Moore thundered:
I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.
This legislation imposes the views of a small but increasingly powerful minority of Christian extremists who are only too happy to keep Black women and children down, a small but powerful minority of Christian extremists who believe that God is male and that this deity intended men to have most of the privileges and power in the world because men, more like god than women, are fundamentally superior to women. This legislation is not merely the expression, , but also the weapon, of frighteningly hierarchical ideologues whom we tolerate and ignore at our peril.
Wake up from the “bad dream dreamt by others” and take action against religious extremism in America today: