The Good of Privilege

starfishI am privileged.  Through the extraordinary luck of my birth, I have had tremendous advantages in building my life – and caring for myself and my family.

My advantages come from being born:

  • in a stable, wealthy country with civil rights and freedoms
  • white (the race of the ruling elite in this country)
  • with good physical and mental health
  • to stable, caring, educated, and economically secure parents
  • in a safe community, with access to good education
  • with an intellect and learning style that conforms to what our society – in this moment – rewards

I can’t take credit for any of these – I’ve been lucky in genetics and circumstance – yet they are the foundation of my life.  Have I worked hard?  Yes – but my achievements have been possible because of the inherent advantages I started with.  Have I overcome challenges?  Of course – but my position of privilege has always provided support and a safety net.  Are there people more privileged than I?  Absolutely.  There are many born with greater wealth, talent and/or power in our society – who are able to leverage those to accrue even more.  But this in no way diminishes the benefits that I’ve enjoyed.

Examining issues of privilege can help us understand the fundamental inequities of our society and world.  But such discussions are often freighted with blame and resentment, defensiveness and guilt.   Blame and resentment on the part of those whose injuries and indignities have long been ignored and unheard.  Defensiveness by  those who don’t want to believe that they have somehow benefitted from an unjust system – that they might not be “entitled” to the good in their lives – especially when they feel overwhelmed by their own hardships (which are a part of even the most privileged life) or the need to further improve their circumstances.  Guilt on the part of those who see the unfairness, who don’t want to be oppressors, but don’t know what to do in the face of it.

Compassion always starts with seeing things as they are – which includes a clear-eyed understanding of privilege in all its forms.  There are no easy answers, but not being able to “fix it” is not an excuse for turning a blind eye.

I’ve thought a lot about the “what can I do?” question.   I still don’t have a sufficient answer, but the following list might be a place to begin:

  • Own our privilege: Acknowledge our advantages and be grateful for them.  Recognize that they mean we are lucky – not special.
  • Notice injustice in all its forms: Look around and see whose lives are harder than ours.  Put ourselves in their shoes and recognize the hardships they face that we do not.
  • Listen deeply to the aggrieved: When people complain of harassment, bigotry, and discrimination, take those complaints seriously and make it our business to learn more about the specifics of their experience.  Explore and think deeply about the conditions that contribute to their circumstances.
  • Acknowledge that our lifestyles are built on the backs of the underpaid: Our food supply, recreation, retail goods, and public services are dependent upon the hard (sometimes dangerous) low wage work of those who will never be able to approach our standard of living – and are often subject to discrimination and bigotry to boot. Why is it that our time and efforts are worth so much more than theirs?  How is it that we deserve cheap food and goods, and low taxes, at the expense of their wellbeing?
  • See – and treat with dignity and respect – those less privileged than us. Hold them as our equals in all interactions, and worthy of kindness, interest, sincerity, and gratitude.
  • Stand up for and protect the vulnerable when we see they are being threatened – whether by individuals, institutions, or policies.
  • Ask how we can help: Find a community or cause in which you can become personally involved, working directly with those in need. Care and understanding come only through relationships; true solutions come only from those experiencing the problems.
  • Leverage our privilege – our education, our social connections, our affluence – to serve those in need and those seeking change.
  • Speak openly about all of the above, so that others can come to see and understand the dynamics of privilege and how the costs of our social and economic structures are borne by the least powerful.

If you are reading this, you enjoy some level of privilege – chances are you share at least some of the traits I’ve listed above for myself.  Certainly you have internet access – and leisure time sufficient to use it.  You are educated and civically engaged.

Use that privilege to make the world a more just, more compassionate place.  There are infinite ways to make a difference – many hands and voices needed.  Help for individuals and families; activism to change the system.  All are vital.

It’s like the story of the boy with the star fish – After a big storm left a vast beach littered with starfish, a young boy was found walking along picking up one at a time, throwing them into the sea so they wouldn’t die in the sun.   When told, “There must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach – you won’t really be able to make much of a difference,” he replied by picking up yet another and throwing it as far as he could into the ocean. He then turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

We must work to address the underlying problems – to keep the starfish from washing up on the beach in the first place.  But in the meantime, we must try to help each individual that we can to feel safe and valued and able to achieve his or her potential. That would be a powerful use of our privilege.

 

Anger and Anguish

teardrop-image“You do care.  . . . You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” – Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

There is a lot of anger right now in our country.  In the rest of the world too, of course – but in American we are feeling it in a very raw, unfamiliar way.  For many, it feels very hard to see a path forward.  “Compassion” is not a sentiment that springs to mind.

But we do a disservice to ourselves to settle for anger, because it is merely the least painful manifestation of what is truly in our hearts.  Underneath the anger is anguish – anguish that hatefulness, violence, and  bigotry; indifference to the suffering of others and the plight of the earth – have been so publicly affirmed.  Underneath is crushing grief – and fear and horror and helplessness.  The problems are so big, the needs are so great, the risk of real physical harm so immediate – yet so many seem willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in pursuit of their personal interests and ideologies, their view of an “America” reliant on the oppression and “otherness” of millions of people.  Of course we feel raw.  Our hearts are torn apart by the pain of it.

That pain is born of compassion – of love and respect for all those who suffer, including ourselves.  Keeping our hearts open – somehow acknowledging and bearing the pain rather than letting our hearts harden into anger – is the only real way forward.  We can let ourselves be driven by love for those who are vulnerable, rather than frustration at those who don’t seem to care.

The hatred and violence, greed and indifference that we decry has always been with us – and would not have been solved by a different electoral outcome.  Taking care of each other, loving each other, is a hands-on activity.  We can – we must – affirm it in every interaction, every day.  And while the structural problems in our society can only really be addressed through government, day to day experience happens between people.  Feeling safe and valued comes from interactions with each other.  If everyone who is hurt and angry now can resolve to face life by listening deeply to the needs of those around them and reaching out with love to those in need, acting to protect and support, to understand suffering and try to ease it, we can have a very powerful impact on our families, our communities, and our country.

So stay with the rawness.  Remember that what you feel is love – not anger – even if that love is searingly painful, even in the face of fear.  And find ways, however small or large, to show that love to everyone you can, everyone who needs it.

Peace on Earth – One Heart at a Time

“Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.”

At a time when satellite coverage lets us see wars and violence all across the world – and social media lets us see the fear, anger and intolerance in so many hearts – this traditional holiday wish can seem hopelessly naive – or a cruel farce.  The systems of power and human impulses that feed physical and emotional violence – on scales large and small – are so entrenched as to make a world that values humanity seem unimaginable, and efforts to promote it quixotic.

Even peace within families can be elusive, as personalities and priorities, pain, expectations and stress rub raw in the delicate dance of relationship – as each imperfectly seeks to hear and be heard, be supported in their struggles and triumphs, and find shelter from the demands of the world.

So for me – for now – it is enough to resolve to nurture peace in my own heart.  Enough in that it is a sufficient challenge that I all too often fail to meet, and enough in the value it can bring to my family and my community.

Having a peaceful heart does not mean turning a blind eye to injustice and suffering, or not feeling anguish and grief.  It means being able to see the world without flinching, knowing that what we see is the current iteration of the human condition – a replay of struggle, greed, injustice, violence and suffering that is as old as humankind, but that has always existing alongside it courage, nobility of spirit, self-sacrifice and love.  By not giving ourselves over to trauma and despair, we can better understand the complexities before us, as well as ways in which our compassionate action might – in some small way – help.

In our day-to-day lives, having a peaceful heart better allows us to listen – which in itself can be a powerful gift and sometimes the best solution to a conflict.  It gives us the space to consider situations before reacting and avoid fueling distress with our own intemperate words and actions.  And when we must stand in disagreement or speak an unpopular truth, it allows us to find ways to do so with strength, clarity and compassion.

How can we nurture a peaceful heart?  I wish I could speak with the confidence of someone who has achieved it.  But I can offer that which I draw upon – wisdom from teachers throughout the ages:

Be generous with kindness, patience & forgiveness –  for yourself and for others.

Care for yourself.  Grant yourself the rest, the nourishment, the solitude and the companionship your body and spirit need.  Let yourself savor a soft breeze – or beauty its infinite forms around us.  Give yourself respite from the demands of life to create for yourself a space in which peace exists.  You deserve it – and the world needs a “you” who is cared for.

And so my wish for you for the New Year is – Peace.

Live peace todayForgiveness for your regrets;

Comfort in your grief;

Hope when you despair;

Compassion and love in your moments of darkness.

 

With love always – Mary

 

Why Mindfulness?

There is a lot of “buzz” about Mindfulness lately –how it reduces stress, increases focus, improves health and delivers many other benefits. In fact, there is so much “buzz” that some may dismiss it as a fad, not realizing that it is a discipline that has been around for millennia, to which countless great minds and souls have devoted lifetimes of practice.

For anyone seeking to promote peace – whether it is inner-peace, peace within a family or community, or world peace – the question “Why Mindfulness?” might as easily be “Why air?” or “Why water?” The practice of mindfulness is foundational to the ability to bring a peaceful heart into the midst of pain and strife.

For those less familiar with the specifics of mindfulness practice, here are some of the very real ways it can nurture you and expand your ability to be a positive force in the world.

  • Self-care: Mindfulness meditation can provide an invaluable respite from the chaos of life, a brief period free of worry or responsibilities during which we can take a step back, appreciate the beauty and wonder of the moment, and “check-in” with our body and spirit to see what additional care we might need. For those with some experience, there are also practices to help us process and console powerful emotions like anger, fear, and anguish, thus easing our distress and reducing the likelihood they will influence how we treat others.
  • Develops clear-sightedness: Mindfulness practices strengthen our observation skills by fostering focused attention – with curiosity and acceptance – to our senses, our environment, and our emotional and mental states. With experience, we can also better read the actions and emotions of those around us. Over time, we come to see that many situations are both universal and transient, giving us better perspective on the circumstances we face.
  • Fosters conscious action: A tremendous amount of our behavior is on “automatic pilot,” triggered by habit or external stimuli (including the demands, actions and emotions of others). Sitting in meditation, we learn to observe our impulses without acting on them. Building this ability to “hold the space” rather than react – and bringing it to our daily life – allows us to choose our words and actions consciously on everything from whether to grab a carrot or a cookie to how we respond to aggression from a family member or co-worker.
  • Increases Compassion – and the ability to listen deeply: “Loving Kindness” meditations and other compassion exercises build our sense of connection and empathy for others – even those we disagree with or feel wronged by. Together with the ability to hold the space In the midst of difficult emotions, this allows us to be fully present with and truly hear others who need our support.
  • Enables deeper reflection and analysis: Human problems are complex and highly fraught with emotion. The ability to clearly see the various dynamics, understand with compassion the perspectives of all parties, separate out and examine our own emotions in the mix and sit with challenges until a way forward emerges allows us to engage more thoughtfully and productively in whatever life brings us.

As you may have gathered, there are different types of Mindfulness exercises which build the various capabilities. And Mindfulness must be practiced. As with any other discipline, results are often in direct proportion to the amount and dedication of practice.

But the practice can be a joy, and while there is so much to be learned that a lifetime is not sufficient, even a few minutes a day can begin to bring benefit. Never has it been easier to study, with access to some of our generation’s greatest masters – from a variety of traditions – available via audio book and podcast – I share some of my favorite on my Resources page . Many recorded guided meditations are available online for free, and mindfulness courses and meditation groups are being offered by colleges, community centers and religious institutions.

Is it possible to be a peacemaker without Mindfulness practice? Certainly people have done so. Some are naturally grounded and wise, with calm and judicious temperaments. Others accomplish much of the same through prayer.

But if you ever find yourself wishing that you could be calmer or wiser or more compassionate, I encourage you to explore – and try practicing – Mindfulness Meditation.

How Can I Make A Difference?

Never underestimate the power of kindness, of laughter, of compassion, of deep listening. . . . Or Forgiveness. . . .Or Love.

SunlightWe each have the power to bring light to the world in countless small moments, every day. Though our actions may seem insignificant to us at the time, their effects can ripple outward, touching many lives in ways that we don’t anticipate and may never see.

There are, of course, the immediate effects of our interactions: when we reach out with a smile or a helping hand, the person we touch is more likely to act generously to others in turn. When we react to a loved-one with understanding and support, rather than impatience, defensiveness or worry, we provide the space for their distress to ease so that not only do they feel better, they are less likely to lash out in their pain and hurt others.

Which is not to say that this is easy to do. My biggest challenge always is to stay grounded in compassion when someone around me is upset, angry or hostile, especially toward me. And I still fail to do so far more often than I succeed.

But it IS to say that kindness and compassion are worth being committed to. There has never been an instance in my life in which acting out of anger or judgement or a sense of righteousness has proven helpful – regardless of how justified it seemed at the time. I believe it is still perfectly possible to speak our truth, stand for our principles, and set boundaries in a way that kind, open and respectful to others – it’s just that most of us don’t know how and have rarely (if ever) seen it done (think Nelson Mandela). But the impact of doing so can be enormous.

Humans are a very social species, hard-wired to be very sensitive to (and easily influenced by) the actions, beliefs, and emotions of the group. Research has shown that our behavior and attitudes affect not only those immediately around us, but the people who their lives touch, and so on. If we hold kindness and compassion as a priority – and can model it (or at least model the striving toward it) in our daily lives – it is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to make the world a kinder, gentler place.

Of course there is more to be done, too – helping the sick or poor, mediating conflicts in our families and communities, speaking out and working against injustice. But whether or not your path involves these bigger needs, embracing kindness and compassion as a way of life can be fundamental to addressing the underlying cause of much of the world’s suffering and strife – our lack of caring for each other.

So for me, living with kindness is now my top priority – more important than how I look or whether my house is clean; more important than how much money we have or what my personal or professional accomplishments are. My hope for my life is that I can leave a little more love in the world than I found it with. I still fall short much of the time, but it seems a worthy thing to work for. If any of this resonates with you, I hope we can be companions on this journey.

Today is the Day . . .

20141226_144101 (2)Today is the day to let yourself rest . . . even if just for a few moments.

Today is the day to be generous with laughter and hugs – for no reason.

Today is the day to look at the sky, and feel the breeze, and wonder at all the life around us.

Today is the day to care for your body; eat something nourishing and savor every morsel.

Today is the day to look at those closest to us – and celebrate who they are (rather than be aggravated at who they are not).

Today is the day to remember that kindness is almost always the most productive – and its ALWAYS the most fun!

Today is the day to do something just because you want to.

For me, today is the day that I stand up to my fears, let go of my ego, and just get on with my dream of building this website and community.  To realize that it is OK to build it a little bit at a time, that what I have to offer need not be unique or profound, and that the “results” are not important.

So I am now re-committing, to share my thoughts and insights as I strive to live mindfully and with compassion, to create a space of peace and acceptance for my family and friends.  I am acutely aware of how far short I fall, but I now understand that the failures are part of the journey – and they help us to all learn from each other.

Perhaps more important, I’ll share the resources and inspirations I find from the many amazing peacemakers in this world.  It is truly a miraculous time to learn from, and walk with, wise souls from many traditions.  For starters – you can listen to mindfulness teachings of Jack Kornfield or hear Dharma talks from Plum Village, the home of Thich Naht Hanh.

Whatever you do today – I hope it is filled with love and joy.  Blessings in all you do!

 

Why peace?

What is the meaning of life?

What is the meaning of my life?

I see breathtaking beauty and soul-rending pain.  Joyful creation and thoughtless destruction. Nobility, courage, fear, shame playfulness, curiosity, frustration, disappointment, striving, devotion, despair and alienation, boundless love and uncomprehensible violence.

I see that each day is an opportunity to notice and appreciate the countless miracles around me, to see the experiences, knowledge and capabilities I choose.  But how will I choose?

I see too that as my thoughts beliefs, emotions and desires are manifest in words and deeds, this energy of mine affects the world around me.  Will I wound or heal?  Nurture or destroy?  Amuse?  Anger?  Inspire?

My days seem to have slipped away so quickly – so many lost to distraction,  to stress, to impulse, spent in response to others’ needs and expectations or sometimes just in the numbness of exhaustion.  But I have come finally to this place of wanting to choose – wanting to consciously dedicate the life energy with which I’ve been gifted.  To choose a meaning for my life – or at least an aspiration.

Peace – as essential and elusive to the human heart as it is to the affairs of mankind.  Peace – at once gentle and powerful, requiring openness, acceptance and compassion as well as courage, strength and discipline.  Faith.  Hope.  Love.

Peace which can change a life, a family, a community, a nation, the world.

I have long felt drawn to the great teachers of peace – Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King – and the incredible power of their teachings even when imperfectly realized.  But my reason for choosing peace is more immediate.  The practice of peace is the only answer I see to the needless cycles of hurt and pain occurring around me every day.  My hope is at the very least to cease to contribute to that cycle – to heal my own fear and pain so that I no longer lash out at others, creating pain in them which they may in turn pass on.  Rather, I see the ability to hold a space of peaceful presence; to witness, absorb and release expressions of anger and fear from others and return to them love.  If this can, in some small way, lessen the amount of pain in the world, it will be enough.  If in doing so, others were inspired to do the same, it would be the most I could ask for from my life.

I write for two purposes: first to chart a path for myself – to explore and articulate my thoughts and beliefs about peace and the challenges to it.  Second, this is a call to others of like mind, in hopes of creating a dialogue and community in which we can explore and pursue peace together.  Peace can only come to the world one heart at a time.  The support we can offer one another will give us each strength on the path.  The creativity and inspiration born of collaboration will energize and teach us, and the joining of our energies and intenions will multiply the good we can do.