Compassionate calm and calm compassion

Dear President Trump,

Last week a friend of ours asked if we’d be up for doing a Zoom book club and Laura and I both signed on. We have only one copy of the book and it’s about mindfulness so I’m probably going to be the lone reader in our household. The book is by Michael Singer and it’s called The Untethered Soul (it came out in 2007 and apparently was very popular at the time – NYT best seller list and all that).

I finished Chapter 5 last night and so far am finding it well written in a clever sort of way, but I’m having quibbles with it. In the first section Singer talks about the importance of not being overly attached to one’s thought processes. The way he frames it is that we are not the constant voice in our heads, but rather that our true essence is the awareness of that voice and of everything else that’s going on with us and/or around us. Personally, I find this take unnecessarily dualistic. Why can’t we be both the generator of the voice and the listener to the voice? I get that it’s not helpful to believe everything we think or to feel defined by our thoughts (e.g., if I think something really, really mean-spirited, I don’t have to beat myself up or believe that I am that mean-spirited thought), but I don’t see how it’s helpful to disavow the voice generator. True, what is generated is constantly changing, but unless it’s being beamed in from afar, it’s still me (or you, or whomever).

Chapter 5 is the beginning of the second part of the book, which deals with emotion. Here, Singer posits that when we feel low energy (lethargic, fatigued, mopey, depressed, etc.) it’s because our heart energy is blocked. He points out that if we simply don’t let ourselves become blocked, we’ll stay open and we’ll be constantly energized. Oddly, not only does he not address sleep, but he doesn’t give any instruction about how to avoid becoming blocked. Also, there’s nary a word about how to keep one’s heart energy open when horrible things are happening – like now. Basically, he’s pretty damn glib about all the “how to’s”. I kept being aware of that voice in my head saying “yeah, but…. what about when the world is facing a f*cking pandemic and our POTUS is being his sociopathic, idiotic self – how are we supposed to keep our “heart energy” wide open in this situation?”

I must admit though, that this morning whenever I found myself feeling kind of snitty or draggy as we prepared the basement for our daughter to be quarantined from us for two weeks when she gets home tonight, I tried “opening my heart energy.” For me this meant breathing more consciously and recognizing that what I was doing was helpful to people I care about even if I was feeling a lot of fear, anger, and sadness about it all. It actually seemed to help.

It also led me to wonder what the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chodron are saying about our collective current situation with the covid-19 crisis. I couldn’t find anything from the Dalai Lama and actually didn’t find anything directly from Thich Nhat Hanh, but I found a beautiful dharma talk (dharma means the eternal and inherent nature of reality) by one of TNH’s monks, Brother Phap Luu. It was over an hour long so I didn’t end up looking to see what Pema Chodron might have to say. I’m saving time with her when I need another such boost.

Brother Phap Luu’s message was largely about how one can summon both compassionate calm and calm compassion in this time of covid and thereby help others who may be anxious and panicking. He also taught that this pandemic was made possible by countless inter-connected conditions, the novel virus itself being only one component. I’m pretty sure I’ve said as much to you in other letters, but either way, it’s an important message – nothing arises from nothing, nothing arises out of the blue – there are always causes, there are always contexts and conditions that give rise to everything and it’s all intertwined.

Brother Phap Luu closed with a beautiful loving-kindness meditation that touched on those who are suffering from covid-19, those who are caring for people with the virus, all of us who feel scared about getting it, and all of us whose lives have been turned upside down by it. He reminded us that birth is only possible because there is death and he invited us to smile kindly at our fear and to keep breathing.

May we find safe refuge even during troubled times such as these.
May we make space for happiness and contentment.
May we be strong and calm for one another.
May we make peace with impermanence.

Tracy Simpson

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