The Hard Questions
How should I be contributing to the world?
I ask myself this question on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Am I doing the right things? Am I doing enough?
As the world seems to be getting more divisive and scary, I consider these questions more and more. I write and talk about these questions constantly – in my blog, in my book, in mindfulness classes, and in conversations with friends and family. I write and talk as a way of wrestling with these questions — hoping to find some equanimity with my part in the ways things are right now.
Sometimes, for very brief moments, I feel satisfied with my contribution and work. But then doubt arises again, and I’m back to the questions. It reminds me of when I’ve done yoga on a standup paddleboard in the ocean – one minute I’m smiling in tree pose (“Look at me! I’ve figured it out!”), and the next minute I’m submerged under water. Is there a way to practice that can help us stay more balanced and above water?
SUP Yoga and Spiritual Practice
Doing yoga on a standup paddleboard (SUP) is not easy. In fact, it’s quite challenging. You are moving on an extremely unstable surface, and you are likely to fall off your board multiple times, which seems terrifying. Luckily, falling in is not always so bad if the water is cool, the air warm, and, as it was for me, there are dolphins swimming nearby.
Thich Nhat Hanh gives us instructions for living, based on the teachings of the Buddha, in both his Five Mindfulness Trainings and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I find some of his instructions similar to getting into a yoga pose on a SUP. In the 10th mindfulness training, he writes:
“As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice. We should strive to change the situation, without taking sides in a conflict.”
Just like SUP yoga, we (1) stand up, (2) strive to change the situation (our posture), and (3) stay balanced without leaning to one side or the other.
Step One: Stand Up
The first step, often the hardest, is to get up. Paddleboards are rocky and standing up on one is scary. You might panic and wonder, why am I even doing this? As tricky as that is, standing up to injustice can be even harder. If you remind yourself of interbeing — none of us are free until all of us are free — you will have the motivation to stand up. Like the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes, we may get ridiculed, despised or even punished if we stand up to injustice. Not all of us can literally stand up, but all of us can show up for those who are being mistreated, and say or do something when we see injustice.
Step Two: Change Your Posture
Secondly, we strive to change the situation, to get into the posture that we can manage today. Maybe it’s just child pose; maybe it’s a handstand. Only you know. The work each of us is doing in the world is the change. Whether our work is creating or implementing laws, providing support for those who are in emotional or physical pain, building houses, doing home health care, giving bodywork, writing about the world, marching in the streets, or something completely different, many of us are working to transform the places where we find suffering and injustice. You are likely already doing this.
Step Three: Stay Balanced
The third instruction is to not take sides, to recognize that the more we push into one side, the more the other side resists in the opposite direction and we are likely to tumble into the water. For me, this means I stop labeling myself and my friends as the “good guys” and everyone else as the “bad guys.” I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh say, “You have to stop thinking, ‘I’ve done my part, why hasn’t he done his part?!’” It may be true that he or she hasn’t done what I want them to do. But do I help the situation at all by focusing on judgment and blame? More positive change can happen when I see what I can do right now to change an unjust situation.
When I don’t take sides, I see everyone as a human being who has chosen to act in ways that they believe, rightly or wrongly, will meet their needs. I may continue to disagree with every single thing they say and do, but I don’t ever get to think that I am on one side and they are on another side, because that’s simply not true. The truth is we are interdependent – not one, not two – so how I act is at least as important as what I do.
Keep the Questions Open
Staying up in tree pose on a SUP forever isn’t possible, so these questions about my actions and my purpose will remain open. Everything I do (or don’t do) impacts everything else. This is not simply the teaching of interdependence, aka interbeing, taught by the Buddha, but seems to be the reality of the material world as discovered by our wisest quantum physicists. Everything I do here and now affects there and later. And since I care about there and later, as well as here and now, I want to consider my actions carefully.
One way I practice is by remembering the simple mantra: “Stand up, make change, and don’t take sides.” And, I keep learning, writing, working and teaching. Even when I hear the voice in my head that says, “He/she/they are the bad people,” a wiser part of me knows this isn’t true.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
If we apply this practice to everything we do — stand up, make change, don’t take sides — I think we will slowly move the dial closer and closer to healing. And we will find ourselves feeling balanced on our paddleboards, and in our lives, a little more each day.