The Dalai Lami responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris, like this: "We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place . . . So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments."
Meanwhile, I was making preparations for a silent retreat over the New Year, during which I plan to take my Buddhist vows. Also, meanwhile, an unarmed black man was shot by the police, possibly while he was handcuffed. And while police brutality against blacks has been increasingly covered in national news, this time it was local. I haven't said much about this shooting. I've talked about the others. Someone asked why; if I was just overwhelmed, or was afraid that students would get tired of finding anxiety and pain in the studio instead of a respite, from it.
That isn't the reason. Or all of it, anyway.
I haven't spoken of it yet because this local incident also involved domestic violence. And while there was an immediate furor, protests, media coverage because all of our nerves are so frayed and this has happened so often, there was really no mention of the woman beaten by the man who was then shot. I haven't said anything because I haven't been able to find the words for this tangled, complicated problem. It is racism. It is police brutality. It is, also, domestic violence.
It is my niece's second birthday today. Also, the birth of one of my best girlfriend's first child. I was in the grocery store when I heard her daughter had been born. I was shopping for milk, but staring at the tinsel and aisles of candy cane colored cheap shit that replaced the orange and black cheap shit of Halloween. It isn't thanksgiving, yet, but Christmas insanity has descended upon commercial America. Two pictures, via text message, that made me stop in place.
I am trying to figure out what gratitude means. Or how to have it, when everything feels so very hopeless and I myself feel unable to make any difference at all. There is so much harm in the world. There is so much, wrong.
I've said, often, when I teach, that gratitude is the first thing I lose when I lose my practice. I'm not making that up. It's a palpable measure. But I'm not sure I've ever managed to say how to find gratitude in the first place.
It's often hardest for me to sit meditation or to practice asana when the world seems awful. Easier to practice asana. Perhaps because tension and heartache are things I can feel in my body and I want, in a very controlling, urgent kinda way, to work out. This is experienced truth, and I use it.
But it's probably also harder to sit meditation because I know how that works, too: you sit and the real of whatever is happening comes up. Complicated, terrible, terrorized, unsettling. When days are hard I often just want to get through them, not sit with.
Yet I teach this stuff, and I know it, and so this morning I bolted myself to my blanket and I sat.
As expected: tears, anxiety, and a whole lot of "i don't know what to do I don't know what to say I can't do anything I can't help but this contradicts that contradicts all of it and nothing nothing nothing I can't". Outright exhaustion, more tears, flippity heart and tight chest that is my brand of anxiety. Rape victim rage, domestic violence victim rage, images of infants and nieces and black friend's faces, and handcuffs, and guns, and roaring sounds in my ears.
Not expected: gratitude.
I believe many things. But some days, there isn't any hope left. Without hope, there isn't any reason, either. And from there, just nihilism, rank and pissy.
Truths, left to their literal selves, stun me to helpless and I do nothing. Meditation is where hopelessness becomes gratitude, and then action.
Truth number one is that black lives matter. It's ridiculous that we have to affirm such a thing, enraging that we do, and yet true that we have to. It's also true that all lives matter. And it's also true that to say so as a retort to #blacklivesmatter is racist, completely dismisses the reality of racism, and redefines terms. It is also true that gendered violence is endemic, silent, and taboo. To say Jamar Clark was an abuser detracts from the argument that he was killed by the cops because he was black. To not say he was keeps domestic violence taboo and silent, less an issue than men's lives and politics. Mr. Clark's attack on his girlfriend is directly related to the fact that he was shot as an unarmed black man, yet this is just too complicated to talk about. And it is also true to say that every single victim of the terrorist attacks in France, every single one of their family members, are all just as heavy, soul and flesh wise, as my very own.
I'm saying that anyone who tells you they have an easy answer to these things isn't telling all of the truths. There isn't an easy answer to this. There is only growing evidence of a systemic problem, a sick and completely shattered society.
I am not saying gratitude is simply a realization of how lucky I am. Luck is undeserved and impersonal. I didn't earn my skin.
Realizing privilege is not gratitude.
That would be mistaking an impersonal thing for something personal.
Meditation is often misunderstood or misrepresented as being somehow a resolution. Somehow a clarifier. Somehow a truth reveler.
I think this is a dangerous misinterpretation. Meditation does not simplify. Meditation proves how subtle and complex everything is. How tangled. We can't use meditation to analyze our problems or look for answers. There aren't any answers. To keep looking for them even in our 'mindfulness' practice is to superimpose our ego, our flaws, our compulsions, and our dualistic thinking onto something that simply will not resolve. We can't 'resolve'. We have to change. There is a difference. The difference is gratitude.
The only thing meditation is any good for is honesty of what is present. And the contradictions, therein. And the feeling, thereof. I think meditation is about embracing hopelessness, not a resolution of it. Just as meditation becomes a way to embrace illness or pain, grief, anxiety, depression, and trauma.
I used to think gratitude was about simple things. Grateful to be alive; grateful for food on the table; grateful for the handful of human beings in my life who love me in their messy - our messy - ways.
This year, I don't think that definition works. That version of gratitude, of 'attitude adjustment' and the decision to be happy, feels as tacky and as untruthful as all the cheap plastic shit in the grocery store earlier today. It feels selfish and full of denial.
I think gratitude is endlessly complicated. As finely striated as muscle. Infinitely complex and far beyond my comprehension, control, or will. It isn't a thing of decision or trying. And this is good, because simplifying is an insult. Because somedays there isn't any hope left.
Gratitude is a thing more fleshy than thought. And it comes from hopelessness, unresolved, and sat with intimately. I think you only get gratitude - get hope - by acknowledging the pain of hopelessness and helplessness. By realizing how truly impersonal world hurt is, yet how personal response must be. It's the razor thin paradox between knowing my opinions cannot heal the world, and that my actions matter.
In 1996, Bernie Glassman started a meditation retreat to Auschwitz. Anybody who isn't a mediator might see this as crude spectacle, as garish, or outright pointless. Just as anybody who hasn't really sat with the concept of Dukkha dismisses 'life is suffering' as pessimistic. According to Glassman, you sit with the pain, you face it as honestly as you can, and then you come back, changed. Pain informs your humanity, wakes it, startles it. Pain is the doorway to loving action.
When I sit on the hard days, I often start with agitation, frustration, and apathy. I don't want to sit still, but to break things. Or to run away. To say screw the world and its pain, let me get the best I can on my own. That was whole chapters of my life. You can read them, elsewhere.
But now, in this chapter of my life, I sit. What shows up is both expected (anxiety, discomfort, sadness, restlessness, tears) and not (a softening, a gulping, a slowing of time, a realization I'm making fists. Gratitude).
When I stand up from meditation, awareness of moments and of feeling go with me. And then I can't be apathetic anymore. When you have really allowed yourself to feel the unresolved problems, the very unsolvability of them, each new pain is both unbearable and trifling. When I hear of the suffering of others, I care. I care. And this is the only way I have any hope.
I speak to my dog and I hear the modulations of anger, fatigue, and wavering love in my voice. I notice it, too, projected onto other drivers when I'm in my car. I notice it in the way I handle the silverware and plates as I'm washing the dishes. Noticing, I soften. The dog forgives me, because he always does. The drivers don't know any different, because it wasn't road rage but muttering. The dishes don't clash so hard, but I don't think they're conscious of the shift. I've been to protests before, and black men have died after them. So I can't quite say that my actions matter in the world. But I can't quite say that they don't.
I'm going to the protests. Tomorrow I'm buying a gift for a newborn baby girl and one for my niece. On Thursday, Thanksgiving, I will teach a gratitude asana class in the morning, go to dinner with my family, and maybe go to the protests again.
I can't, really, say that my actions resolve the issues. But they do change the world. Gratitude doesn't seem to be a realization of how privileged I am, right now. That is a completely moot point that answers nothing and resolves to apathy and doing nothing. No: Gratitude is admitting how hopeless I feel, and how much I love the bloodied world, anyway. Gratitude is a question of how willing I am to touch it, blood and all.