Ceasing to Know

This past week we lost two prominent scholars. We lost two vastly intelligent, innovative, field-changing teachers, mentors and researchers. And most importantly, we lost two among many, many more great people who also died this week. I’m talking about Saba Mahmood and Stephen Hawking.

_-healthymond-288916-unsplash.jpg
Photo by _ HealthyMond on Unsplash

I remember reading The Politics of Piety, Dr. Mahmood’s first book, in college and finding it really difficult to understand. It was my own immaturity that caused this. When I read the book again as a graduate student, I began to realize how groundbreaking it was to study Muslim women in a way that didn’t pity them or espouse suspicion. Unfortunately, that was not the norm. Dr. Mahmood cast Muslim women with agency and showed us why we should pay attention.

Dr. Hawking’s research eludes me, but as a brilliant scientist who also worked the majority of his life with a rare disease that affected his physical being in the world, I have always admired his passion too. He talked about change as inevitable and necessary for us to use our intelligence. That speaks so well to a choice we have every day, to see the world as hopeless or to recognize injustice, but act as if we can change it.

What happens when a legacy of knowledge ceases? This happens every day, perhaps every minute- by living just a moment in the world, some kind of experience shapes a person, and yet every person ends. Even when people leave communities or change roles, a chain of knowing falls away.
These two experts spent their lives both accessing and creating knowledge. Their jobs required certain tasks: writing, experimenting, researching, communicating that research. But the internalization of ideas and beliefs, even when explained through in writing or other forms of communicating, vanished when they died. This isn’t just true for academics. My question is really about how we keep the chain linked, even if the wire is cut.
In the academy, I am learning that scholarship is a way to alleviate anxiety around finitude. Don’t we all worry, in some way, that the hardest part about our non-existence is the non-existence piece? Not just physically, but in terms of memory, legacy, influence. We write to communicate beyond bounds of time. Sometimes this makes us hesitant to challenge memory- what someone put into the world should remain until it no longer serves us. But memory isn’t lost when we no longer invoke someone’s work directly- the endless chain of ideas and evolution means existence is still possible.
Part of this question lessens my own tension around producing work that will cease to serve purpose. Perhaps it is helpful to replace “cease” with “assist,” so voices of influence change. As the poet Gary Snyder says, “Our job is to move the world one millionth of an inch.” In the scheme of things, that sounds like a pretty good accomplishment.

Wrath

This weekend marked one year. Women swarmed the streets again. We aren’t finished here.

chris-slupski-433343
Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

This year felt slightly different, in my book. The marches focused on increasing voter turnout and encouraging potential candidates to run for political office. Toxic feminism still reared its ugly head, excluding trans women and centering whiteness, in some instances. But some organizers intentionally welcomed non-cis marchers and centered stories from women of color. We can recognize good practices and confront where xenophobia still dictate who holds the microphone.

The county still feels more divided than ever. The government shut down illustrates how impossible and frankly, how oppressive “compromise” is. The people continue to organize. The artists keep creating. The musicians imagine lyrics. The scholars continue to interrogate, analyze and hopefully disseminate their findings in a way that reaches beyond the academy. We need work in all disciplines.

Today I found myself at an interfaith panel put on by the Islamic Networks Group, an organization whose main purpose is to educate the American public about Islam. The panel featured five women who shared some beautiful stories about women leaders of their faith traditions.They also acknowledged how scriptures and practices have held women back. In some instances, religious communities perpetrated violence or legitimized oppression. I appreciated the critical yet appreciative flavor to the conversation. It’s a flavor I’ve been trying to apply to my research.

One of the panelists was a bada** Buddhist feminist who reminded me that we must be endlessly compassionate while taking the firmest stand against bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. She told a story about losing it when one of her students wouldn’t read her work any longer because his friend convinced him that it wasn’t worthy. Or when she wasn’t allowed in the “monks only” lecture because of her gender. I fell in love with her honesty. In my practice, I often feel guilty about allowing anger or frustration to permeate my body and thoughts. But she is absolutely right- we can and should practice compassion by speaking up when possible (and safe- it is NOT the obligation of marginalized people to educate others about their oppression).

This past week I felt frustrated by a few incidents that demonstrated a clear prioritization of maleness where I study. It made me exhausted. Thankfully, I had a willing sounding board after a long week, and decided to inflict some wrathful compassion and speak up for myself. I don’t always feel safe doing this, but I’m willing to push my limits because I also live with several privileged identities.

Sitting in a room full of women who understand faith as complicated and helpful reminded me how sacred these spaces are. The first ever ordained woman Conservative rabbi extolled us to take this sacred with us, even in a world that feels unwelcoming. I held her words as I reflected on the weekend while driving home, at the same time comparing the ideas of Revolutionary Love to wrathful compassion. At the core of both is radical joy, the pursuit of happiness despite a plethora of suffering.

 

Abundance 

Every time I hang out with a group of college chaplains, I seem to be on a beach and stuffing my face. Not to mention enjoying the company of my favorite people on earth. For the past three days, the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) chaplains met at Chapman University for their annual conference. We spent one day on Chapman’s campus and one literally overlooking the white sand stretches of Laguna Beach. This was my first time at the ACURA gathering; though I had been to three previous National Association for College and University Chaplains (NACUC) gatherings (the other college chaplain association) and have experienced the same mixture of joy, understanding, and community at each one. College chaplains are people who think deeply about everything they do, and believe strongly in working together in any way possible. 
I’ve been indulging greatly the past few weeks. USC football games, Dodger Stadium visits, cooking with organic butter, enjoying all of the pumpkin and apple delicacies (yep, I’m all in on the stereotype). Even my mind has been offered abundance: on Stanford’s campus it seems like every day there is an enriching talk or workshop that gets me excited and makes me want to buy 50 more books on Medieval Buddhist Feminism or Jovinian’s ridiculous claim in the early church that everyone should be treated equal. I watched Clayton Kershaw throw a masterpiece game last night only 50 feet from home plate at Dodger Stadium in game one of the World fricking Series. There is so much and there are so many for whom to feel grateful, and I do. 


Sitting with the marvelous Rev. Jim Burklo while the sun set behind Chapman’s impeccably manicured athletic field, he asked me a difficult question. “Where are you in your faith journey?” Even though that question never has a real answer for me, I usually say “I’m thinking about this or that.” But lately I’ve been struggling with losing faith in lots of things. Will women ever feel safe walking alone? Will the victims of hurricanes and fires ever feel truly “relieved?” Is the academy really just a bunch of people arguing for the sake of arguing? 
In my courses I’ve been reading about asceticism among the early Christians. Talk about a contested topic! The desert fathers and mothers I once admired from an interfaith appreciative perspective are now poking holes in my worldview. They lived in the exact opposite way I have been living these past few weeks. Or did they also live abundantly, in their own way?
It seems simple, but the Buddha’s assertion that the “middle path” as the true way to enlightenment has always spoken to me. Moderation. We talk about that all the time these days- eat one cookie, not five. Buy one shirt, not one in every color. Know your limits. We fulfill our desire but don’t deprive ourselves. Could this balance be more difficult than absolute abstinence? 
I flew first class once as a lucky upgrade (I don’t think that happens anymore… maybe?) and after getting those full six inches added to my chair and eating an actual meal, not peanuts, in my seat, it was hard to fly the next time. Actually it was awful. Admittedly, I even thought about upgrading at my own expense. Had I not experienced it, I would probably experience mild envy but forget it every time I snuggled in to my economy seat. 
When we taste abundance, we seek to keep it. But if we strive so hard to live constantly in abundance, eventually it becomes the norm. And then we are seeking again. Moderation is not so much a practice in limitation as it is in recognizing when we are not limited. It sounds like gratitude, in a way. The presence of abundance is recognized and enjoyed. 

!

Today I rode my bike to church on campus for a special multifaith celebration. During the service, 24 students were officially commissioned as Fellows for Religious Encounter. This year, they will meet every Wednesday over dinner for dialogue and to hear from engaging speakers. They will visit sacred sites and experience rituals and practices they may have never seen before. As they recited the commissioning prayer before the congregation this morning, I couldn’t help noticing two things: time FLIES, and how necessary this kind of intentional learning is as religion either brings us wisdom to seek justice or violent division.

chris-ensey-87456
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I remember stumbling upon a Buddhist Temple in my neighborhood when I was little. It was a temple dedicated to Kwan Yin, a beloved bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition known for her mercy and compassion for human beings. Inside the temple, there was a wood floor with black square cushions lined along the edges of the walls, and at the end of the long hall there was a statue of Kwan Yin sitting on a lotus flower. My entire understanding of God and faith shattered as I scoured the public library, trying to find books about this way of life called Buddhism. My grandmother told me whatever she knew, and encouraged me to keep looking. I didn’t know any Buddhists, though, so all I could do was take my reading at face value.

Seeing these bright young faces this morning made me want so many things for the fellows. I hope they don’t shy away from noting disagreement, especially when it is harmful. I hope they are forced to wrestle with a misconception dispelled in conversation. I hope they feel a range of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, and joy when wonder strikes. I hope they listen and learn, and talk openly and teach. I hope they are confronted with not just questions about religion and privilege, but constantly engage in self-reflection.I hope they enjoy each other’s company. Of course if all these wishes are fulfilled, these students will inevitably be transformed.

Meeting someone who practiced Buddhism proved quite different than reading about the life of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths. My teammate’s grandmother didn’t talk about her beliefs in an organized, bullet-point style lecture (she didn’t draw me a chart), she told me about her father and his father going to temple on New Year’s Day, and contacting monks for funeral services, and living life with compassion at the forefront of her mind. Every Sunday I sat in church and learned about the life of another man who preached compassion, who died so that we could go to heaven. I was confused and upset, scared to talk to my parents about these discoveries but excited about my findings, and bouncing from deep discomfort to honest wonder.

I think about walking in to that temple more and more these days. It seems like if everyone could walk into an unfamiliar place, ask some open questions, and struggle through some necessary discomfort to learn an alternative worldview, we could feel this wonder more often. Of course this is not so simple, but interfaith work is not simple at all. Feeling vulnerable to both share one’s own beliefs and subsequently hear views that thwart them takes courage and patience, and not the least of all trust. It is a worthy exercise for anyone to be faced with doubt. Often, confronting this leads us to an even wiser truth that we don’t take for granted.

I hope they learn. I hope they laugh. !

Eclipse

Today something historic happened! This is true every day, of course, but today a total solar eclipse took over the internet and several million people across the United States donned special glasses and cut holes in cereal boxes in order to see the eerily gray and red circle in the sky. In some places, complete darkness fell for only moments. To be honest, I tried to witness the event in Southern California and only really noticed weird lighting for a while. Then the bright sunny sky came back and a normal August day continued on with reading and writing and French verb conjugations.

jesse-belleque-348224
Photo by Jesse Belleque on Unsplash

I decided to do some research about the spiritual significance of solar eclipses over the course of recorded history. Several themes emerged. Several cultures saw eclipses as signs of deep change or uncertainty approaching. Others saw it as a time for celebration, and threw huge feasts. Some sacred texts mention events that allude to something like an eclipse. Take Joel 2:31 in the bible, for instance: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.”* Sounds pretty weighted. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Scholar and Lama, suggests that during the eclipse merits multipled by 100 million, and offered recitation of the 35 Confession Buddhas or reciting particular mantras as ways to reap the benefits. With network news on in the background as I cooked dinner this evening, I realized the eclipse points to something else important, especially in this politically rancid time: a change in habit.

Every morning we expect to wake up and see the sun rise, go about our days, and notice the sun set finally in the evening. I rarely consider how life would go on if one day the light never came. This is not to suggest light is superior to darkness, the balance of both and the seasons of waxing and waning also demonstrate longer habits we expect to continue. The brief moment today when the light in the sky looked almost as if a huge fire were blazing and smoke was billowing caused me to pause in my own daily routine and consider the spiritual gift of habit and expectation. Ritual, whether in a sacred space or at bedtime, helps us evade discomfort with uncertainty, if only for a moment. Even holidays and celebrations that mark “special” times still fall into an expectation that this particular time is marked by non-regularity. I felt uplifted that folx everywhere today paused their daily lives to go outside and experience wonder. Habit can be a very useful, helpful course to follow, and breaking habit once in a while helps us deepen perspective on why.

Speaking of habits, I also found today that I believe tradition should be challenged mercilessly and often. I’ve grown up in a family deeply rooted in tradition in everything from Christmas day cinnamon rolls to learning the Fight On sign before I could speak a full sentence. Traditions ground us and give us sacred resonance. But just because something has been done forever does not mean it is right for now. The sun may one day hide and not rise because on that day, it serves no benefit. This is a bit of a side note, but this post is atypical for a reason. Happy eclipse-ing. I leave with Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom: “Waking up in the morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

*This translation is from the New International Version

Perfect is poison

I have been striving for perfection and decided it needs to stop.

Aiming to do a good/great/really awesome job at something is not a bad thing to do, but there comes a point when one claps the dust off their hands, tilts their head to admire the arduous work just finished, and moves on. Perfectionism prevents this- we start to dwell and not live in the present. There’s that one little smudge that if corrected, will make us feel satisfied. But there is always another smudge. 
 I learned this week that perfectionism does something else dangerous too: it allows us in our own mind to separate ourselves from other beings and things in the world. I might say “At least I’ve done more x than so and so, or got a better grade than…” But at the core of my humanness, I am not better than anyone, anything. At the beginning of time, I was one with the exact only mass that existed and there was no such thing as difference.

Cavities are no fun, we can probably all agree to this statement. On Thursday morning, I went to get my first one drilled and filled. I am almost 30 years old. When my dentist called to tell me what needed to be done, I hung up the phone and cried. “You’ve ruined it,” I heard myself say. “Your teeth are no longer perfect.” To make matters worse, I started naming all the people I knew who had cavities so I wouldn’t feel alone. 

PC: Kazuend

Of course my teeth were never perfect. For the first time, I had actual decay bad enough that this tooth transformed into a rotting mass. Change is constant, especially in our bodies. I spent the rest of the day moping because the right side of my face felt numb and because I allowed the feelings of worthlessness and failure to permeate- I listened to them, instead of simply hearing them and letting them go. Then on Friday, Google posted something really cool on their front page.

I clicked the link and read about the NAACP Silent Parade on 5th Avenue 100 years ago to demand federal action over the killing of innocent black men. 100 years ago was 1917- the same year Congress signed the immigration bill that barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, and marked the beginning of the United States’ retreat into isolationism. Doesn’t this sound almost exactly like our country at this very moment? In 2017? Have all our efforts led us to the exact same place in time- one in which folx feel unheard, unseen and unloved? 

As I read about the 10,000 protestors who marched through the city, wearing uniform white, I found no reassurance or comfort in the fact that we are fighting the same fight with different props and technologies. This is why seeking separation is harmful. I once heard a friend who, when discussing the systems of oppression in our society, argued that “we MUST have made some progress. It’s 50 years later!” 

Seeking to separate myself, even in merit or achievement, upholds this false notion that progress must come with the passage of time. That is not a requirement. I think St necessary to lessen the separation I feel from the people around me, and even the people who marched 100 years ago because we cannot write off their experience as something else. I am not perfect, the smudge will remain. 

 

Staying in the Room

This blog is non-fiction, in as much as we can argue that real life is not fiction but “true.” I prefer to write non-fiction. I prefer to read it too.

Sometimes it’s good for us to step out of our comfort zones (it’s usually always good and often necessary to learn and grow) so in preparation for the writing retreat I will attend next week in Taos, New Mexico, I read a book about writing fiction and decided to try it. The book gave me just enough food for thought mixed with inclinations to panic and run that I decided to give it a try. It seems a little meta to be writing about writing about something that didn’t actually happen.

don-ross-iii-195085.jpg
Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

First, I sat down and reflected about a recent experience I had with selling a textbook on Amazon and the post office. Let’s just say my seller account is now suspended even though I sent the book on time. I followed the process laid out in the book and heeded the most important advice: stay in the room. It was helpful to read that because admittedly, when I try to write and don’t know what to say next, the coffee maker calls to me. Then the vacuum. Then that new book on my reading list. Then my bed…a little nap…I tell myself it will come later, and close my laptop. Sometimes this does feel necessary, especially writing pieces or passages that involve shame, guilt, or something humiliating. Yet I wondered what it might be like to stay in the room when emotion gets the best of me. In some Buddhist practices, we do this through meditation. Sitting alone with yourself brings terror to the mind if it is full of anxious thoughts, but we remain in stillness even with tears rolling down our cheeks. There is no common outcome for this practice, but by facing the pain we take a step toward allowing ourselves to heal.

I felt embarrassed and angry about this Amazon situation. I sent the book on time, why should I be blamed that it never arrived? And then I lost money! My frustration caused wild thoughts to coarse through me. The person probably did receive the book and was now sitting on her couch counting my money like Scrooge. Or, took friends out to lunch as they all laughed at the scam successfully executed.  Worse, now it looked like I had tried to cheat someone, and it felt like I should go sit in the corner, facing the wall, and endure my timeout. I knew this was the situation I had to write in my story.

My character left the post office feeling just as I did- angry and embarrassed. The post office couldn’t find any record of the package. As I wrote, taking inventory of the scene around my character, her quirks and spontaneous inclinations, the characters she meets along the way, I realized this exercise is nothing more than active listening. I stayed in the room, listened to my character, and reflected her feelings back through the next actions. I finished the story after a few hours. There were definitely moments when the coffee pot called out, or it took everything not to check a Facebook notification. In the end, I’m glad I attempted fiction, because it helped me realize what’s true for me in this moment.