Category Archives: speak and listen with love

“Meet Others on Equal Ground”: A Slogan Post

I started my day by reviewing comments I’d made on a facebook friend’s post to see if I’d been contributing to anti-blackness (anti-blackness is a more nuanced term for prejudice against people with dark skin; this term includes concepts of racism and colorism). The discussion was a challenging one; this friend was calling out white Jewish people who attempt to deny their prejudice against black people by saying they’re not white, they’re Jewish. This friend is black and had been hurt by pale-skinned Jewish people in the past.

This kind of conversation has many layers of prejudice that can be in play at any time. As someone involved in “social justice work”, when I come to a conversation, how do I “meet others on equal ground”?

To me, this means I need to be aware of the privileges I bring to any interaction and try to limit the effects of those privileges. 

My ethnicity is half Armenian and half European, but I have white privilege, which is why I’ve started openly identifying as white online. My dad’s family’s culture may not always be white American, but in interactions with the public, in general, I am given the benefit of white privilege. So, in conversations with black people, I try to “check” my white privilege. What does this mean? What does “checking your privilege” mean? It means that I do my best to make sure I’m not coming from a place of assumed superiority in interactions. It means I’m willing to listen and let them lead the conversation. It means, in short, doing what I can to reduce the effects of my privilege for this conversation by not claiming the power white people generally have in interactions with black people. It means doing my best to meet them on equal ground while being aware that society has done its best to prevent that ground from being equal. 

That’s one example. Another privilege I have is neurotypical privilege. This is something I am still learning about. But in interactions with autistic people, I try to give them the space to control the interaction. Or at least accept that my perception of a social interaction may be vastly different than theirs, and that theirs is no less valid than mine.

This leads me to another aspect of meeting others on equal ground: the acceptance of their truth as real, even if their truth is completely different than my own experiences. On another blog, I wrote about how disabled people are often questioned and doubted about the validity of our experiences as disabled people. About how “I believe you” can be life-changing for us to hear, because we exist in a constant challenge to prove our health conditions are real (particularly those of us with conditions that primarily affect women, such as fibromyalgia). 

This need for lived experiences to be believed is not unique to disabled people, however; as this article shows, black people also are routinely doubted and questioned when they share their lived experiences of racism. I believe that any marginalized/oppressed group will have similar experiences; that when a marginalized group tries to explain how their marginalization affects their lives, that people who aren’t part of the group, who have no experiences that match those, will tend to express skepticism.

This is also a way of the non-oppressed group to exert its control. “Oh, racism is over, thus we white people don’t need to change anything or do anything differently because you black people are just exaggerating.” “Oh, your pain can’t be that bad. I’d kill myself if I had to live your life.” “There are gay couples in TV and movies now; what do you mean representation is still a problem?” “Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, so clearly transgender people are now accepted by society.”

Etc. Denying the experiences of an oppressed group can be a method of abuse called gas-lighting

We need to listen. We need to be sure we’re not contributing to oppression in our interactions with people who are oppressed (and oppressed people, we are not blameless here; just because we’re oppressed in one way doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the oppression of other groups). “Meeting others on equal ground” may not always be possible. We may have internalized prejudices, or they may (yup, oppressed people often end up believing the stereotypes about their group; disabled people can have internal ableism, etc.). We may not be able to fully equalize the ground we’re meeting on; in fact, chances are, in a meeting between an oppressed person and a member of the oppressing group, we won’t be able to reduce the effects of our privilege enough to have it be a fully equal conversation.

But the first step has to be listening. It has to be believing the “other”, whoever that “other” may be, when they tell us about their life experiences that are different than ours. (For example, if a black person is telling a white person about a negative interaction they’ve had with police, that the white person’s positive interactions with the police does not negate the black person’s experiences or mean that they are seeing racism where there isn’t any. It means that they, as a black person, have had a difference experience than the white person has. That experience is no less valid just because that person is black while we are white.)

We need to accept that being aware of differences is not the same thing as being prejudiced. Because those differences matter, and the differences are not what’s bad–it’s the discrimination and oppression that is. And if we aren’t aware of this, we may never have the opportunity to meet someone from a different social group on truly equal ground.

“Meet others on equal ground”. When the ground that society has laid out isn’t equal, how do our interactions support or lessen this inequality? In what ways do we deny the truth of others different than us? In what ways are we supporting and empowering others? In what ways are we failing?

As a Quaker and a Buddhist, today’s slogan is a challenge, and one I know I need to keep working on. 

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Transgender Day of Remembrance: Queries for Quakers

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. How does your Quaker Meeting treat its trans members? How does your Meeting behave in ways that contribute to transphobia? Is your Meeting a place where trans people would feel safe?

Does your Meeting have gendered bathrooms? Does your Meeting respect pronouns? 

What are you doing as an individual to alleviate the suffering of transgender people? Or do you behave in ways that contribute to transphobia?

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Words to a Dying Cat: On Buddhist Right Speech vs. Quaker Testimony of Integrity

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

It was time. Kosette was 18 days shy of her 18th birthday, but though her chronic health conditions (kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure) appeared stable, new symptoms had manifested that strongly suggested she had a brain tumor behind one of her eyes. We’d watched Kosette’s behavior, likely due to the suspected brain tumor, deteriorate over the last two days. We’d watched her suffer from anxiety–from fear of being left alone, but not wanting us to touch or pet her. We knew that, if she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, we would choose to euthanize her to end suffering. The appointment was scheduled for 5:30. At 5:10, it was time to load Kosette into a carrier and drive her to the vet, possibly for the last time.

Where before loading her into a carrier was easy and she would be relaxed the whole drive (and at the vet’s office), this time was different. She was confused and alarmed and fought us as we gently but firmly pushed her into the carrier. What used to be a calm, routine occurrence for her was now terrifying, as if this had never happened before. She was frantic and crying. Once in the car, she cried out in panic the entire drive to the vet.

Attempting to calm her, I told her repeatedly in the car, “It’s okay. It’s okay, Kosette. It’s okay.” 

I don’t know if it helped at all, but I had to try. My husband, who was driving, said nothing.

Later–after she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and we had made the decision to put her down (read more about Kosette here)–I asked my husband why he had said nothing.

“Because it wasn’t okay. We were taking her to the vet to put her down.”


Over a year later, this exchange has stuck with me, not just because of the sorrow of the moment, but because of how this exchange illustrates an apparent disagreement between my Quaker and Buddhist faiths.

Quakerism has a Testimony of Integrity; we Quakers have a reputation as truth-tellers:

“To Friends, the concept of integrity includes personal wholeness and consistency as well as honesty and fair dealings. From personal and inward integrity flow the outward signs of integrity, which include honesty and fairness. It is not only about telling the truth – it is applying ultimate truth to each situation. For example, Friends (Quakers) believe that integrity requires avoiding statements that are technically true but misleading.” from Wikipedia/Testimony of Integrity

For Quakers, telling the truth–the whole truth–is important. It is part of why I identify as a Quaker, because this act of being truthful–always–is an important part of why I am and has guided my behavior for as long as I can remember.

While Buddhism has a practice of Right Speech, this practice differences significantly from the Quaker Testimony of Integrity; in that Right Speech usually requires telling the truth, but not always:

“Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, ‘I was just telling the truth.’ It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is ‘Right’ in both form and content.”
from “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Since becoming both a Buddhist and a Quaker, this discrepancy between my two faiths has remained a constant inner conflict. When presented with a challenging conversation in which I am forced to respond in a way that will have notable consequences depending on how much of the truth I reveal or how I choose to deflect the truth, I am pulled in two directions: do I answer always with the full truth of what I know and how I understand it, even if such an answer is likely to result in increased suffering or harm; or do I find a way to answer that may not reveal the entire truth as I understand it, but seems likely to result in a lessening of suffering or at least preventing the suffering that telling the whole truth would have resulted in?

In those words I uttered to Kosette–“It’s okay”–I knew it was not okay. I knew we were likely taking her to the vet to put her down. There is nothing that is okay about having to make that decision. But in that moment, I knew that–for me, at least–what was more important than telling the truth was saying something that could possibly relieve Kosette’s suffering and calm her down. “It’s okay” was what I would usually say to her when she was upset and I’m trying to calm her down. At that moment, I chose Right Speech over Integrity.

My husband, who is neither Quaker nor Buddhist but whose ethics usually accord with my own, chose to say nothing because he would not lie to her. And I also suspect it was easier for him at that heart-breaking moment to say nothing instead of saying something he knew in his core to be a lie.

Would I make the same choice if it had been a person I was speaking to instead of a cat? Reflecting back on that day, I believe both of us made the right decision, because both of us acted out of love for Kosette.

The longer I live, the more I pull away from the idea that speaking the entire truth all the time is always the right thing to do. In an ideal world, there would be no need to ever mince words or stretch the truth or tell a “white lie”. But this world is not an ideal one. And relationships between people are so much more complicated than the relationships I have with cats.

For example, a person may choose to tell me something in confidence that I promise not to share or let others know about. If later, someone asks me a question that I know the answer to, but answering truthfully would break my promise, what is the best way to respond? If I refuse to answer when the person knows I can answer, that often will indicate one way or another the answer I am trying to avoid revealing. And to lie outright, well, that is not an action I usually consider as an option. Telling the truth as I understand it is, and has always been, important to me. People who know me well know that I will tell you the truth if you ask for it and if I can do so in a way that’s not harmful to others or to you.

And yet, I remember what happened with Kosette that night. When it comes down to it, comforting her (as best as I could) was more important to me than sticking to my ethical rules. When it comes down to it, behaving in a way that reduces suffering as best as I can is more important to me than following a strict set of rules. When it comes down it, I care more about the being I’m interacting with–person or cat–than about notions of integrity or Right Speech.

Because ultimately, what is most important to me is not notions, but actions. How can I speak in such a way that reduces suffering? How can I respond to that of God in this person by my words and actions?

Every moment is different. Every person (or cat!) is different. All I can do is try to approach each moment mindfully and be aware of how my actions may reduce or increase suffering and try to behave in such a way that will reduce suffering instead of increasing it.

And I will fail. I will tell a dying cat that it is okay when it’s not in an almost-certainly futile attempt to relieve her suffering. I will say or write words that will harm people. I will make mistakes.

But I will keep trying.

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About “All Lives Matter”

Imagine a friend asking you, “My life matters to you, right?”

What would your response be? Would it be, “Well, yes, your life matters to me, my life matters to me, all lives matter to me.” How do you think this response would make your friend feel? Do you think it would make them feel like you cared about them?

Or would you respond, “Of course your life matters to me. Why do you ask?”

When I first read the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”, that was my response. My response wasn’t dismissive of the statement by saying “all lives matter”. It was acceptance: of course black lives matter. And then, I wondered why black people felt the need to make this statement?

  • When African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children;
  • when unemployment rates for African Americans are typically double those of Caucasian Americans;
  • when African American men working full time earn 72 percent of the average earnings of comparable Caucasian men and 85 percent of the earnings of Caucasian women;
  • when 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police;
  • when Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing them;
  • when one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males;
  • when African-Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates;
  • when the unemployment rate among blacks is about double that among whites;
  • and when whites with felony records fare as well in job interviews as African American men with clean records…

The message black people receive from American society is pretty clear: No, they don’t matter. The fact that the statement “black lives matter” even generates a response at all is an indication of how uncomfortable American society is with the idea that black lives might actually matter. Because if black lives truly mattered to us, we would care about mass incarceration. We would care about redlining. We would care about lack of education and job opportunities in primarily-black neighborhoods. We would care about the unarmed black men, women, and children who have been killed by police because they were deemed “a threat”. Black lives would matter to us. We would be forced to change our society, a society that has benefited many of us.

So, instead, we say “all lives matter”. Because if a friend came to you and asked you if their life mattered to you, you’d say “all friends matter to me”. And then you’d start talking about how much your other friends matter to you, to try to prove to this friend how much they do matter to you. This is what you’d do, right?

 Cute little black girl in pigtails. Text says: Yes, they do. *The only acceptable response to Black Lives Matter*. 


Sources to the statistics listed can be found in a previous post, We Can Do Better.

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“That of God”: Letting Go of Fear

Most of the time I spend at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs is spent interacting not with people, but with cats. My main function is what’s called “socializing”; that is, I give cats attention—pet them, pick them up, hold them, and so on. The goal of this is often said to be making the cats more adoptable. And I do hope that my interactions with the cats ends up with them being more adoptable.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do, exactly. My goal, what is behind how I interact with the cats, is to let the cats grow into who they truly are. What this means in particular for many cats is that I try to encourage them to be comfortable enough around people that they enjoy affection instead of fear it. This depends on trust and respect. The cat has to learn to trust me (and hopefully once they learn to trust me, they’ll extend that idea to other people), and to get the cat to trust me, I have to respect its limits. Respecting a cat’s limits doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do something that pushes its limits (otherwise a shy cat would never learn to be petted, for example), but that when I do push its limits, I’m aware that that’s what I’m doing and I let the cat dictate how long this uncomfortable interaction continues. And when the cat has learned that he or she can trust me, then the transformation begins: she or he starts relaxing into interactions instead of tensing. Purring happens. Greeting me when I walk into the adoption center begins to happen.

Ultimately, it’s about teaching the cat how not to be afraid. I don’t believe there are any “mean” cats; I believe that when cats aren’t afraid, they’re loving and affectionate. But this isn’t a natural state for cats when they interact with people. It’s something they have to learn or be taught. And the older the cat is when this learning begins, the more fear there is to overcome.

In short, what I’m doing is seeing and answering “that of God” in these cats. And they appreciate it.

And I’ve been thinking that this is how I’d like to interact with people, too; to interact with other people in such a way that they know they have nothing to fear from me, so they can become who they truly are. Because people, like cats, aren’t born learning how to interact with people. It’s something we have to learn. And sometimes that process of learning gets tainted with fear and we forget who we are, at our core.

We’re like cats, I think: when we’re afraid, we lash out. And when we’re with someone who knows us—truly knows us—we blossom. Can we learn to see each other how God sees us? Can I learn how to answer “that of God” in people as well as cats?

I hope so.

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Filed under cats, daily life, God, inspirations, love, practice, quakerism, speak and listen with love, that of God

Poems

“A Just Being”

Being as just
Being
Sitting to sit
Writing to write
Writing to right
Wrongs left
From
Unseeing
Unfeeling
Believing non-being
Instead of
Just
Being


“Holy Differences”

Wholly different perspectives
Stand their ground
Trip me up
Put motes in my eyes and
Cotton in my ears.

Where is the common ground?
Where is the shift we need to
See the same?

Yet in the differences rests
Diversity, the
Holy harmony of humanity,
That which turns the
Wholly different into
Holy differences.

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The Return

It’s funny: I’ve had this blog title floating around in my head for months now. I thought the title was going to be referring to my return to Meeting for Worship after my hip surgery.

It’s not, though: it’s about my return to Jesus.

Five years ago, I began an annual tradition of reading the New Testament, starting on Christmas and finishing by the end of Lent. Two years ago, after I finished my annual reading, I felt that I was being called to take a break. I didn’t seem to get anything from that reading—I’d become too familiar with the text and had read it too frequently. So, last year come Christmas, I didn’t start reading the New Testament. Actually, I don’t think I’d even picked up my favorite translation (Richmond Lattimore’s) for over a year.

Today I had lunch with a dear friend of mine—I’ll call her R—who I hadn’t really gotten to visit with for several months. During lunch, she mentioned this worship meeting she attends every Tuesday night. She’d mentioned this a few times before. They read a section of the Bible, talk about the word or phrase that pops out at them, and then pray together. It sounded a lot like a modified lectio divina group.

Coincidentally, I just finished a book called “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” a few weeks ago that spoke about lectio devina, as well as centering prayer. (Centering prayer deserves its own entry, but I will chime in briefly that apparently centering prayer is what I’ve been doing at Meeting for Worship for years and just didn’t know what to call it. If you want to read a book that really, really explains just what we’re trying to do at Meeting for Worship in concrete, practical steps, this is THE book. And surprisingly, it’s written not by a Quaker, but a contemplative Episcopalian.) Lectio divina is a practice I’ve read about in quite a few books now, but never felt motivated to really try. I found the idea interesting, but just didn’t feel an urge to try it then and there.

After lunch today, I suddenly found myself interested in attending R’s worship meeting with her. But I didn’t know when my husband would be getting home tonight (he’s often out doing service calls at locations over half an hour away, so when we eat dinner is not predictable), so I told her I’d have to let her know later if I could come.

Shortly after I got home from lunch, my husband calls to let me know he’s coming home early.

Way opened!

Tonight’s focus was on two selections from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, lines 6-8 and 19-28. We read three translations: the NIV (1:6-8, 1:19-28), the King James (1:6-8, 1:19-28), and the Message (1:6-8, 1:19-28), in that order. For the first reading, we were encouraged to focus on a word that drew our attention and then share our thoughts about it.

The word that jumped out at me was “light” in lines 6-8:

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

This term has particular meaning to Quakers—we talk a lot about the “inner Light”, the “Light within”, etc.—but the source of our history with that term is biblical. I happen to be reading J. Brent Bill’s book “Mind the Light”, so the word “Light” really popped out of the page.

But that was the… somewhat predictable response. Looking at the same text a second time as seen through a different translation encouraged me to move beyond the predictable and the practiced responses and find something new.

The second word that called out to me was the word “through”:

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him believe.

What struck me was the idea of coming to believe in something through another being. “Through him, all men believe.” It almost felt like the “through” was the verb in that clause, not a preposition. It is often “through” other people that we come to have faith; and Light works through us… We can be conduits to that Light and catalysts to the Light in those we meet.

The third reading revealed to me a pairing of phrases: “completely honest” and “plain truth”, from lines 19-20 in the Message translation:

19-20When Jews from Jerusalem sent a group of priests and officials to ask John who he was, he was completely honest. He didn’t evade the question. He told the plain truth: “I am not the Messiah.”

These phrases sound synonymous, but they’re not always. Sometimes when I’m focused on being “completely honest”, I speak too much and too long. I’m speaking honestly, but my overabundance of words obscures the truth. So there’s a difference between being “completely honest” and living “plain truth”.

What struck me the most, though, about the entire experience tonight was how different an experience it was to read the New Testament in this way. Hearing what words or phrases struck others—hearing the Spirit behind those words—made this text that I’ve now read or heard over a dozen times feel new. I was able to see the text with new eyes.

And what also struck me at the end, as we were praying out loud in a circle,one after another—which is a new experience for me!—was how centered I felt, how centered the entire group felt. It was the same sense that I’ve experienced at Meeting for Worship… but with people whose theological beliefs and practices are different than mine. Yet the Spirit was there, just as it is at Meeting for Worship.

I was called to put myself in an uncomfortable position, to be around people whose beliefs I believe to be different than mine, and to be open and vulnerable with them just the same. I expected to find it challenging—it was. I didn’t expect the experience to be so enjoyable and spiritually refreshing.

Friends, we are called not just to the Light, but to the Light through discomfort. Only by being uncomfortable can we be given the opportunities to respond to the Light within others who reflect the Light differently than we do.

But it is the same Light, Friends.

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Filed under bible, christianity, christians, different faiths, discernment, faith, God, Holy Spirit, Jesus, leadings, light, ministry, practice, speak and listen with love, that of God, the bible

Integrity and Right Speech

The slogan I pulled for today is:

“I take up the way of speaking truthfully.”

which was one of my Precept vows.

As a Quaker, we have a Testimony of Integrity that has its roots in Jesus’s command to “let your yea be yea and your nay be nay”. This is a testimony I’ve always felt strongly about and have practiced since I was a child, though I didn’t know about Quakerism back then. I’ve always prided myself on my honesty: I’m the type of person who, when accidentally buying a gift card with 2 envelopes, will be uncomfortable until I’m able to return the extra envelope to the shelf (true story: I felt a huge sense of relief when I was finally able to put the extra envelope back in the store).

But there may be times when telling the truth can be harmful:

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.
“The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

For example, my grandmere (grandmother) is old, traditional, Catholic, and English isn’t her first language. She grew up in a location where the only Christians were Catholics, and the only other religions were Muslim, Jewish, and Druze. Those 4 religions encompass her entire understanding of religion, and she, while a wonderful person, is neither smart enough to understand how Quakerism is different from Catholicism and yet still Christian (I consider Quakerism a Christian religion even though one can be Quaker and not Christian), nor is my French quite good enough to explain the differences adequately under such circumstances. When I first joined my Quaker Meeting, I attempted to explain to Grandmere about my new faith, because I felt it would be dishonest not to do so. This effort led to a lot of confusion and frustration.

But now, I don’t try to explain the differences. When she says things like, “God be with you”, I reply, “And with you, too, Grandmere”, even though I know that her understanding of God is different than mine. I focus on what we have in common–our faith in God, that we are both very committed to our faith–instead of worrying about whether she really understands how my faith is different from hers.

I don’t feel this is dishonest or an affront to my Integrity. Instead, I feel that this approach speaks to the Truth my Grandmere and I share.

There are other times, too, when I can see the truth in a situation, but know that the person I’m speaking to is not at a place where they can hear the truth and that telling the truth when a person is unable to hear it can be harmful. Instead, I try to nudge that person gently towards the truth, step by step, with the hope that one day, he or she will be ready to accept it.

Have any of you had similar experiences?

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Parable (based on a dream)

Each spring, there would be war between the village shepherds and the wolf-men. Each spring, the village shepherds would watch in fury as the wolf-men would steal their sheep. Each spring, many would die: villagers and wolf-men alike.

One spring, the villagers decided they’d had enough. A village council was called where all in the village could speak.

“Those no-good rotten thieving wolf-men!”

“Who do they think they are, that they can walk into our pastures and steal our sheep?”

This continued for quite a while until a young woman found the courage to speak.

“But… what if they don’t know that what they’re doing is stealing?”

Silence rocked the village council until a belligerent voice called out, “But how could they not know? It’s obvious those sheep are ours!”

More angry voices rang out, but the young woman, now that she had found her courage, would not be silenced.

“But what if they don’t know? What if we’re killing each other over a misunderstanding?”

The village council decided this question was worth investigating and decided to send an ambassador to the wolf-men. The young woman was chosen as the ambassador, marked with a brown stripe down her chin, and given a bucket of mutton chunks to carry with her to attract the leader of the wolf-men.

She set out into the woods, fear leaping out at her from every movement. Yet she kept on walking, deeper and deeper into the forest, until she no longer knew her way back.

Lost, and tired of smelling the mutton chunks, she tossed the bucket away and sat down to rest.

As she sat leaning against a tree, she noticed slight movement in front of her. Scared but resolute, she didn’t run away when the leader of the wolf-men approached her.

“Why have you come out this deep into the forest? Are you lost?” He asked.

“Yes, I’m lost.”

“But why have you come?”

“To ask a question.”

“What question?”

“Why do you steal our sheep each spring?”

Taken by surprise at her question, the wolf-man paused a moment before answering.

“Steal? You think we are thieves?”

“Well, yes. Those sheep belong to us.”

“But they are outside. Does this not mean they are free for anyone?”

“No, we keep them outside because… well, because it’s easier than keeping them in our houses.”

Now it was her turn to pause as a new question came to her.

“Wait–if you didn’t know you were stealing, why did you think we were attacking you?”

The leader of the wolf-men shrugged. “We just thought it was something you humans did each spring, like some kind of weird ritual. Like, ‘Oh, now it’s March, time to kill the wolf-men!'”

After another moment, during which both collected their thoughts, the leader of the wolf-men dared to ask, “If we stop… stealing… the sheep, would you stop attacking us?”

“Yes!”

And they lived happily ever after.

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Emptiness and Compassion

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen is perhaps one of my favorite Buddhist practices, and one of the first Buddhist practices I incorporated into my daily life. This practice is an act of breathing in someone else’s pain or suffering and then breathing out the remedy or relief of that pain or suffering. I’ve often thought of this process as a way of opening oneself to the potential everyone has for reducing suffering in others. The idea is that you open yourself to another’s suffering and share what you can to reduce suffering. Taken more broadly, the practice encourages one to reduce suffering in the world by practicing non-attachment to one’s own joys.

This morning, as I was practicing tonglen, I let images of those who were suffering rise up. First on my mind was those who are suffering from the oil spill, especially those beings who live in the water.

“Oil,” I thought as I breathed in deeply. Then, “water” as I breathed out.

Then on to more general suffering: “Suffering” breathe in; “Peace” breathe out.

Then I thought of a dear friend of mine who is recovering from a painful surgery and whose daily life is filled with pain: “Pain” breathe in; “Relief” breathe out. I let my own pains act as a way of empathizing with hers.

Then I felt my stomach growl with hunger, and I thought of all those in the world who suffer from hunger: “Hunger” breathe in; “Food” breathe out.

As I alternated between these 4, I began seeing a connection between the last 3. Instead of imagining that I was transforming suffering into peace through breathing (what I consider a metaphor for actions), etc., I began to see how suffering pointed or led to peace. For example, when one is suffering, one becomes drawn to end that suffering. And the lack of suffering feels most potent when one has experienced suffering in the past. Pain always leads to relief, one way or another. No pain is permanent. Any pain will either end on its own, or the person with the pain will find some way of relieving the pain, or, in the worst case scenario, the pain will stop when the person dies. When one is hungry, one seeks food. If one does not find food and one dies of hunger, one’s body becomes food.

I used to have a concern that the practice of tonglen encouraged dualistic thinking, which is contrary to the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness. But now I see that tonglen is not only a practice in developing compassion, but also a practice in understanding emptiness. The relief of suffering is bound up in the experience of suffering. They cannot be separated.

“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”

(You may have noticed I was unable to see this kind of connection in the first formulation of breathing in oil and breathing out water. But perhaps the oil spill will lead us to take better care of our ocean’s and the water resources on this planet.)

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