Reflecting on Better Together Day

As we celebrated Better Together Day yesterday, I felt exhilarated by the photos and social media posts from around the country. Folks in their stylish shirts attending gatherings, sharing what they appreciate about different sources of wisdom, and especially getting outside (weather permitting!) to cultivate a presence on college campuses across the country appeared throughout the day. I even took a selfie with my shirt because I wanted to feel included in the celebrating 🙂

IMG_3024.JPG
Happy Better Together Day!

This past week has been full of interfaith happenings on Stanford’s campus. On Monday night, I watched a Buddhist leader speak about mindfulness meditation to a crowd of almost 1000 people in Memorial Church, the heart of the Main Quad. The Office of Religious Life prepared an Open House to celebrate the CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-religious Community, Learning and Experiences) 10th Anniversary. We also worked to finalize readers for an interfaith service that will take place this Sunday as part of University Public Worship. Last night, I got to moderate a fantastic panel of four professors in the Religious Studies Department speaking about “faith and feminism,” which took place at Stanford’s Hillel House. Over 50 students showed up on a Tuesday evening to learn about women in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. What I loved so much about the panel was the panelists’ commitment to complicating the history of women in these traditions- they reflected on the term feminism within different contexts and why the word doesn’t necessarily help us understand women’s roles or agency- we must consider a variety of experiences. The students asked really difficult questions, especially related to oppression and equality.

What really moved me, beyond the wisdom I took from the panel, was representation. The crowd held many religious and non-religious identities, some of which caused me to reflect on difference as the basis of contention. Some of the questions roused deep emotion because they stemmed from a fundamental disagreement on what a sacred text tells us, or how women should function in a particular community. That contention helps us to be honest about difference. Further, it opens an opportunity for hearing. In that room, we heard each other, even if we didn’t agree.

For me, Better Together Day is about hearing and seeing each other. It sounds simple, but in a world where intolerance quickly leads to ostracizing and violence, seeing and hearing matter deeply in creating communities that can center learning as a way to build relationships. Though we may not remember the content of events and activities on the particular day, we do remember who is present and thus know that we have possibility for community. I will remember not only the panelists from last night, but the audience as well- how we showed up to a space together, listened, and acknowledged that we each carry questions important enough to ask out loud. Better Together Day reminds me that community can be built on difference, because a shared commitment creates the starting point for a contentious but deeply meaningful space. And of course, we all looked pretty great in our blue shirts.

 

 

Advertisements

Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

dev-benjamin-219172
Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

Risk

anatoliy-gromov-282242
Photo by Anatoliy Gromov on Unsplash

I have officially touched down in Palo Alto. Let me brag for a second about how epic my summer was, thanks to my family, friends from all over the country, mentors, and teachers. By the numbers:

-19 states visited

-84 hours of yoga

-3 thrilling USC football games

-72, 000 words written

-11 Dodger games, including one day when it was 100 degrees on the ravine

-52 books read

-95 days of French study (Duolingo FTW)

-9 doctor/dentist visits (and my first cavity!)

-3 Incubus concerts (also a pretty sweet country show with two of my best friends)

-100 morning walks with my wonderful mom

-An absolutely amazing writing retreat with 23 goddesses

-1 epic road trip that taught me so much about my country and its people

-A productive and much needed meeting with 12 of the coolest college chaplains

I finished the Revolutionary Love fellowship as a writing fellow and started a new position as a researcher for the project. I traveled to New Mexico twice, each time falling deeper in love with the vivid desert colors and even surprise lightning storms. I hung out with former classmates and other IFYC alumni. I visited the Ice Cream Museum.

I also struggled quite a bit with my weight, an exercise obsession, and feeling like “enough.” I sent in several writing pitches and got well-worded rejections. I experienced loneliness and growth from it. I am shattered and grateful. So grateful.

And now the next part of my life begins. I took a risk moving to Stanford because frankly, I’ve always struggled to feel like part of the academic community. Am I smart enough, well read enough, capable of learning to be an “expert?”

My family and friends have been teasing me about becoming a tree (Stanford’s mascot- or is it the Cardinal? More on that…) because we bleed cardinal and gold as die-hard Trojan fans. I responded by promising to maintain my loyalty. It’s all in good fun, but as I considered moving and beginning my life here, I began to think about this risk and what “risk” means.

Place is important to me. I have been so lucky to travel around the world and the country, experiencing a plethora of ideas and beliefs that clash with my own. But home is home for me, and that will probably never change. Though I’m now closer to home than I have been in five years, braving snow and long plane flights with turbulence that makes my heart pound, this place is still not quite home. And that’s fine. Risk for me is believing I can make this new campus and city home, that I can find meaning and purpose by listening and finding ways to be helpful.

Home has changed since I’ve been away. My sister started her first job as a surgical resident. One of my best friends left a very well-paying job to get closer to her dream of working at USC. My colleagues got married, divorced, had kids. Two left this earth way too soon and I felt crushed that I never got to say a proper goodbye, or tell them how gorgeous of a human being they were. Home will continue to shift and move still, and I will return to see and feel shocked.

Taking this risk means trusting that change is not only inevitable but necessary. Trusting that new jobs and family members and even losing some will test me. I have to learn to trust myself, especially in failure.

My adventures will not soon be forgotten. One of the women in my small group on our writing retreat spoke about writing in a joyful time in her life. She said in some ways, writing about pain is easy. Recognizing when we are full and when our lives feel fruitful is difficult. Of course we experience cycles and every day gives us both. Our people lift us up and celebrate with us, and when we find these loving communities we are indeed home.

I cannot say I feel ready, but this risk feels like a good challenge for my mind and soul. Just like the lightning storm on a sweaty Phoenix evening that both terrified me and gave me a new sense of beauty, this new place scares me and tests my ability to find home.

 

 

 

 

 

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

I am a Writer

A token from Jennifer Louden, our retreat leader

I am a writer, and I am writing.

I come from a strong line of female writers. My grandmother liked to write historical fiction and romance novels. My mom is writing a memoir about being the parent of a medical school student. We are writers, and we write.

I spent the last week on retreat in Taos, New Mexico with 22 brilliant women writers. Every day we listened and shared, wrote and read, moved and found stillness. Every day the rain came and brought with it the scent of fresh lavender and mountain air. As our time together went on, I heard an echo from several of the women at lunch, in our small groups, even after morning dance: You are brave. You are so brave.

Every time I heard this my gut reaction was to correct. “Oh no, I am not brave. I may hide it well but inside I am terrified, nervous, anxious, and completely unsure. My mother is brave- a cancer survivor. My grandmother was brave, she was a mother of six. But I am not like them.” In one of the afternoon sessions, our assignment was not only to name our inner critic but to personify them. These are the people or experiences we internalize that tell us we can’t write because we’re not creative, or edgy, or we might offend someone. What if they could help us, we mused.

My inner critic turned out to be an old man sitting at an antique wooden desk, looking sternly at me over his glasses. In his hand he holds a rejection letter. All it says is, “no.” The man couldn’t be expected to waste his time telling me why or what I might do better, he just laughs and shakes his head. “You really thought your story belongs in our prestigious publication? HA!” He shoos me out with a lazy wave. This critic comes from something I wrote about last week, which is an obsession with perfection and a deep hesitance to show anyone my work unless it’s absolutely stunning. I can write all day, never stopping for a minute to consider how scary it is, until it comes time to share. I can practically feel my face fall when the email comes in, something about dear writer, we regret…it’s hard to read past that part. Sometimes you don’t even get an email, just silence. Ghosting, as the dating world calls it.

I read a few books this week, really living in to the question “What do you want in this moment?” Reading is always one answer. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors tell us that admitting our imperfection is quite a profound step as humans, but one that ultimately leads us to healing. In one chapter, they consider the woes of perfectionists by considering a particular point: “We may not be able to do anything completely perfectly. But what that means is that we cannot do anything entirely imperfectly. Consider a bad day: we wake up late, spill our coffee, give a terrible presentation at work. But we complete a few tasks and commiserate with our spouse in the evening, and not everything has gone wrong.”

I thought about all the writing I have ever read. What a spectrum from mind-blowing to absolutely horrifying. Yet, the mind-blowing could always be tweaked just a little more. The absolutely horrifying still has one tiny piece of merit. My work will never be perfect, and never completely useless. Bravery is knowing this and not letting it stop you.

I am a writer and I am writing. I come from a strong line of female writers- my grandmother, my mom, and now 22 new sisters. None of us perfect, all of us alive with stories. We are writers and we write. We are brave- fear exists within us, but we do not entertain the possibility that this fear would stop us from doing what we love and what is right. And what is right, is to write.

 

 

Happy Birthday!

The Practivist is two this week, so I had grand plans to make a cake to celebrate. I also got donuts and baked cookies, because go big or go home. Well, this is how the cake turned out:

S’mores cake with graham cracker and chocolate cake layers, fudge sauce, marshmallow icing and graham cracker crumble

My mom saw it first. I got a text saying “emergency” while reading in my room, and rushed downstairs to find her laughing. “What!” I looked at her expecting something terrible, but she pointed to the cake. The marshmallow frosting was too slippery. “Geez, you scared me!” We both laughed very hard. That’s exactly what this blog is about, I realized. Finding joy in the imperfect, the disastrous. The cake tasted great, by the way. Appearances aren’t everything.

A year ago, I attended the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing retreat in Gambier, Ohio. 100 religious leaders (of sorts) stayed in the Kenyon College dorms and wrote op-eds, essays, religious commentaries, and stories. It was at that retreat that I committed to posting a blog every week, and I’m happy to share that I made it! 52 posts later, my writing feels more natural. Every week offered an opportunity to reflect on this idea of staying grounded in the daily struggle, whether it was personal or worldly (often both). Since last July, I joined a memoir writing group, started working for an amazing project (the Revolutionary Love Project, founded by Sikh-American activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur- also a personal hero), and ran a marathon. I quit my job. I got accepted to my dream PhD program in religious studies at Stanford and moved back to California. I finished cataloguing my blessed collection of books, many of which came from my grandmother’s house when she passed away. My sister graduated from medical school and started her residency at home. For the first time in over six years, my family is all in one place.

Though my writing has certainly rambled down different paths, I believe this blog remains true to my original idea of exploring how we, as human beings, demand resilience in ourselves. Suffering grounds me in my religious beliefs because all humans experience it. Yet, we are capable of countering it, and even ending it in certain circumstances. This year I often found that joy presented itself in a form of self-allowance. When we realize we are deserving of the life we are given, the gifts of said life present themselves. I’ll never forget when Valarie spoke to our group of fellows on the phone after the election and she told us we deserved joy especially in a time such as this. “We will never let them take it away,” she said.

My students often gifted me opportunities to learn, which I loved and cherished. I had no idea that my job involved so much learning, often in times I was supposed to be the teacher or coach. I feel much better about admitting my mistakes, even when they have caused someone I love to hurt. Guilt still plagues me, but I am able to name it and even let it go more easily sometimes.

Not every blog post was easy to write, and definitely not all of them turned out the way I envisioned. Some of them make me cringe reading them back, but I’ve decided to leave them as they are to trace the journey and accept the imperfection of where I was when I completed them. Authors speak often about the trajectory of their work and how much their earlier writing influences their current projects because the necessity of reflection and knowing oneself through process makes us better writers.

It’s difficult to imagine a year from now because as life has taught me, plans often meander or even take a sharp turn away from an original intention. That’s why this blog has been so important to me, because the friends and others who have read even one posting and commented or messaged me saying, “I identity with this” have made it worth it to stay up late or carve out time (when I really didn’t have it) to keep going. I plan to keep writing and learning and making mistakes. Here’s to another year and maybe even another cake that resembles the leaning tower of frosting.

Upaya in Elon, North Carolina


Even though it was 4 am, I felt joy seep through my veins as I quietly tiptoed out of my apartment. On Friday I hopped down to Elon, North Carolina to experience the 2nd Annual Ripple Interfaith Conference at Elon University. My friend Carrie graciously picked me up from the airport at 8 in the morning, coffee at the ready. That was the first of many acts of hospitality I received from everyone involved in the conference.

The theme of the Ripple Conference this year was “mindful plurality,” and I gladly accepted the invitation to share my thoughts on mindfulness, interfaith work, and Buddhism as an accessible set of values. Not because I am an expert (heh, NO) but because I have fallen in love with my faith in the past year and felt encouraged that mindfulness practices have entered the realm of activism and resistance. That’s what this blog is all about- practivism. How we sustain ourselves in the long, arduous haul against oppression, violence, bigotry.


On the opening plenary, five folks of different faiths shared what mindfulness means to them. We heard from a practitioner of Ignatian Spirituality, a Protestant with a regular mindfulness practice, a Tibetan Buddhist, A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Zen/Engaged Buddhist. I felt unworthy to speak after listening to such great wisdom. After we each shared, a member of the audience asked perhaps the most urgent question of the moment: “How do we remain mindful under threat, when I wear this (points to hijab), when people have strong negative assumptions about me just by looking at me? How can I simply work on my inner peace when others are dying without dignity every single day?” Long pause.

A version of this question has plagued me for quite a while- in fact, it has caused me nothing short of a faith crisis in the past year and a half. I do not wear hijab, and I pass easily as a “regular ole’ white woman.” So- isn’t it my job to get my behind out in the streets and be on the front lines? Yes. And how, then, do I work on my inner compassion?

As Zen Buddhism would have it, there are at least two relevant concepts to begin chipping away at this question. First, interconnectedness. We can’t hide from the world and luxuriously put our feet up in the enlightenment hot tub, for our world continues to suffer. We are still in the world. We are responsible for walking with those who suffer. The second concept is one that frankly, I hadn’t thought about in a while. Upaya: expedient means. What works for you in this present moment to walk toward enlightenment? Upaya is about our context: it puts the quest for ultimate truth aside so that we might take a step in the right direction without doing wrong. Simply put, it means we don’t need to feel frozen: try something and see if it works. More importantly, upaya recognizes that the presence of everyone around you at any given moment is necessary. All Bodhisattvas (Buddhas who opt to stay in this world to help the rest of us) offer us different skills and wisdoms- human beings do the same.


As I reconnected with this concept I realized that all of us in the room needed to struggle through this question together, in that moment and moving forward. I fell in love with each of the students and conference planners as I began to see their complex identities. Each moment I was gifted a story and inner desire over coffee, a joyful memory in the Truitt Center kitchen, even a moment of anxiety or uncertainty as is par for the course of any conference, the expedient means of each community member unfolded as the weekend pressed on. It felt so good to witness the success of this group of people, to be reminded of my time in Japan and the opportunity to travel, to talk honestly about how Buddhist communities must work for racial justice, and above all, to laugh uninhibited. Laughter surely is upaya at its best

I am grateful for this weekend as we continue to invest in interfaith leaders as the key to our future. As one of my students often tells me, “the people that needed to be in the room inevitably came to the room, and it was good.”