This morning, it was raining when I woke up. I looked at my phone and read a friend’s email, my first indication of how the presidential election had swung.
I shuffle into the kitchen, where the cats are waiting for breakfast. We’re out of their regular food, so I scoop out some canned food. They’re like me: junk food is a special treat, something out of the ordinary.
I make my coffee and sit down on my cushion. Little snippets of Donald Trump flit through my mind, spurts of worry, disappointment and surprise mixed with mundane thoughts of the day to come.
I leave home early to pick up donuts to take to work, and I notice my mind is looking everywhere for signs of the apocalypse. I walk into the grocery store and I’m greeted by the smell of fresh pastries, the sight of people stocking produce, an employee talking with her manager. I see people of all colors and wonder what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and how their future might be different from mine. I half expect to see people running around in a panic, gnashing their teeth and looting shelves, but all seems relatively calm.
I get my donuts, step up the the cash register, have a short conversation with the cashier. She is pleasant, I am pleasant, I care about her. We look each other in the eye and wish each other a good day.
On my way out, I pass another employee. We look up at each other and smile, wish each other a good day. I think of the guy who just inspected a house for me, a vehement Trump supporter, and how helpful he was. I wonder how many other people I know who are Trump supporters (bodhisattvas, bodhisattvas!).
Q: What is the blown-hair sword?
A: Each branch of coral holds up the moon.
I look back on my participation in conversations surrounding this election–the piling-on I’ve done, the moral outrage I’ve enjoyed, and all the speculation and character assassination–and while it seemed like the thing to do at the time, now is a different day. It seems important to pay very close attention to my life, to allow myself to love other people. My body moves slowly and it feels good.
When something confronts you, don’t believe it. Whatever appears, just shine your light on it. You can trust the light that is always working inside you.
I do like things that truly upset my understanding of the world, and this is one of them. I like waking from strange dreams and when my expectations are shattered, and in a way, I like this, too. We asked for someone to fix the fan, and what we got was a rhinoceros.
Years ago, some rich noble or another gave Yanguan a fan made out of carved rhinoceros horn. One day, Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “It’s broken.”
Yanguan said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”
As I pull off the freeway and into work, I feel as though I have been given the honor of holding the whole world’s uncertainty. I notice that there is the option not to give my speculations more weight than my experience, that the rain and the trees have something to say, too.
Taking the form of Guanyin, find shelter for the homeless person.
Overnight, stock prices fell and then went back up again. Immigrant families are making plans. Pundits are trying to make sense of what happened. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form. Uncertainty is exactly certainty, certainty is exactly uncertainty. We are sure we understand something, and just as quickly as that understanding is shattered, we are sure we understand something else. On and on, a reassuringly routine farce.
What is the Way?
The clearly enlightened person falls into a well.
I am reminded of those refuge vows, though I never think of them, and they give me comfort now:
I take refuge in awakening,
I take refuge in the way,
I take refuge in my companions.
Fortunately, they don’t mention say anything about taking refuge in circumstances going my way. Despite any certainty I may have felt in the past, I do not know what will happen next, nor do I think anyone else knows. And somehow this is comforting. We’re all in the dark together, feeling around, tender fingers searching for a handle. We can absolutely count on not knowing. Perhaps we should add a fourth line to the refuge vows, though it might be redundant:
I take refuge in uncertainty.
I invite you to take refuge with me.
What does that mean? (update 11/10)
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we stuff our heads underground and pretend that nothing is happening. I am also not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel worry or anger or sadness or any other thing, or that we shouldn’t think about the implications of what the outcome of this election might mean for us, our loved ones, and all the people of the world.
What I am suggesting is that we have an incredible, often untapped, capacity to hold fast in the face of our immediate reactions, and to balance our fears of what might be with the experience of what is now, right now, in this moment, and this moment, and this moment. And for me, that capacity carries a responsibility: to keep my eyes and my heart open so that I can hold the world when it weeps.
I heard a commentator on NPR last night say that Mr. Obama has been criticized for moving too slowly, for taking too long to make decisions. The commentator, who has spent time around the White House, said a wonderful thing in response: the average day of the President of the United States is filled with impossible decisions, situations where the amount of information that is available is never truly sufficient to make a decision, and yet make a decision he must. And so how does one approach decision-making in that situation? Here’s an offering from Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell:
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream,
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory,
Courteous as a guest,
Fluid as melting ice,
Shapeable as a block of wood,
Receptive as a valley,
Clear as a glass of water.Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
My point is not to support Mr. Obama’s process of decision-making, though I think I like it, but to point out that we are all faced by impossible decisions every day. We rarely, if ever, have sufficient information to make a truly informed decision, but we must act in the world somehow. This is one of the cruces of koan practice: in this world full of confusion and uncertainty, how will you move? Will you be paralyzed by anxiety or rendered senseless with anger? How will you respond in situations of distress, and is that helpful to you or anyone else?
When difficult times visit us, how should we greet them?
I spent yesterday meeting with mothers of elementary school students who are homeless, families living piled up with family members or friends, couch-surfing, sleeping or lying awake on inflatable mattresses in living rooms. It has taken me over a month to track down one mother, Diane, because she has no fixed address, no telephone, and no car. I found her at the restaurant where she works and when she found out who I was, she began to weep. We talked for a few minutes and set up a time and place to meet that was convenient for her, so she could tell her story, so we could talk and make a plan and get to work. As I got up to leave, she wiped her eyes and said that she wished that she could hug me. That sounds great! I said, and we did. In that moment I loved her, and as I think of her now, my heart swells with warmth and worry.
I don’t know if I can help Diane with her problems, and that’s okay. It’s not time for me to know that yet. I’ll just do the next thing. I will take refuge in the way things are: the sound of the traffic, the warm cat on my stomach, my worry about Diane and what feels like the flu coming on. And if the time comes where the world is falling apart, I will take refuge in that as well. But not before then. Not before then.
It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas