There was a question that kept surfacing in my consciousness earlier today. It happened in the morning when I took my son into the bathroom so that I could take care of some things. My son is almost 16 months old and he is getting his second molar, along with two other teeth. My dear boy is in a lot of pain.
I lay him on the diaper changing pad. Oh, he did not like that one bit, and he voiced his discontentment. I tried to empathize with him as I was taking off his pants and diaper, and this question came to mind.
“When did I give up on saving the world?”
But my mind had no time to reflect on this question. The next task was giving my son a Tylenol suppository so that he had a chance of getting a nap despite the teething pain. I went to the sink and washed my hands after giving him the suppository, and he started whining and whining. So I started singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” But he was actually playing with his penis, so I sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, play with your penis…” He looked a bit puzzled for about two seconds, then continued whining.
“When did I give up on saving the world?” I asked myself in a half of an instant, and then went back to tending to my son. I put on a new diaper and clean pants, picked him up and hugged him, and then we looked in the bathroom mirror together.
“Are you ready to take a nap?” I asked him. In the mirror there were two smiling faces. He was shaking his head “no” and I was nodding my head “yes.” I saw my cheeks in his cheeks. He lifted his shirt up so he could see his belly in the mirror. So precious, this little boy.
“It was a long time ago,” I heard my mind say, “When I threw away the idea of saving the world.” Yep, it was.
In my early twenties I was hellbent on “saving the world.” I served in AmeriCorps in San Francisco. I started a doctoral program in community psychology, the “science of social change.” I worked hard on many causes that were close to my heart. And then I got sick, really sick, with inflammatory bowel disease. But that only slowed me down for a while. I still volunteered with the Georgia Airkeepers Campaign, galvanized people with asthma, gave public talks in opposition to “dirty coal,” and volunteered as a tutor for children in an immigrant community in metro-Atlanta.
And then I moved to France in 2000, got even more sick, and by some stroke of luck, ended up at Plum Village, the home of the Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. It was there that Thich Nhat Hanh just about blew my mind, in a good way.
I slowly began to learn about Zen Buddhism. What really struck me was the importance of cutting through “wrong perceptions” in order to get at the root of suffering. In one dharma talk, Thich Nhat Hanh asked us to write on a piece of paper, “Are you sure?” and put it in our wallets so that we could take it out and ask ourselves this question whenever we were caught in a perception that was making us suffer.
Before I went to Plum Village, I had an idea that I had to “do something” in order to help others, but at Plum Village I began to see that the very quality of my being had an impact on others. If I was at peace, that sense of peace reverberated. Others could feel it, and benefited from it. At that time, the ideas I had about “saving the world” seemed anachronistic, belonging to a different time and a different me.
And then I moved to Washington, DC, and I worked on Capitol Hill, and the old “me” resurfaced. I was more mindful about taking care of myself while trying to accomplish social change, but I still pushed myself too hard. And I ended up being hospitalized for severe Crohn’s flares and surgery seven times in a period of 30 months. At one point, I even organized a volunteer effort while I was a patient in the hospital. There I was, dressed in a hospital gown, walking around with my IV stand in tow, singing Chrismas carols to elderly patients with some friends of mine. It took a long time for me to recover from those severe episodes of inflammatory bowel disease.
In 2004, I returned to Plum Village, and while I was there I bought a few cds with dharma talks and question and answer sessions with Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the questions asked of Thich Nhat Hanh was about peace, and whether we should focus on peace in ourselves or peace in the world. I listened to his response about 20 times. He said that the question involved “dualistic thinking” and that by focusing on generating the energy of awareness and peace, we would also gain insight on how to act to bring peace to the world.
I let that teaching sink in. I saw how the ideas I had about “saving the world” were hindrances to my ability to actually reduce suffering in the world.
I’ve still worked for positive changes in the world. I started the website Patient Corps about three years ago. Up until the time I became pregnant, I was volunteering with the local Red Cross agency, tutoring refugee teenage girls once a week. Since becoming a parent, I have not had the time and energy to volunteer in my community. We sponsor a little girl in Kenya through the non-profit agency, Caring for Kids in Kenya. I sign on to online petitions, write to my legislators, and try to raise awareness about issues I consider to be important. But being a parent in the industrialized world can be all-consuming. Add to that my own delicate health and my partner’s back problems and we barely have the physical resources to take care of our little family.
Earlier this week, I read the blog of a friend of mine who I deeply respect, Danny Fisher. In the post, “Your practice is not all about you,” he wrote about how he perceives some American Buddhists to “understand Buddhist practice apart from its social dimension.” And he pointed to a general lack of involvement on the part of American Buddhists in community service efforts. He asked us to “do things to benefit others.”
My first reaction was a defensive one. I believe that Danny meant his piece to be a call to action, but I took it as, “Hey lazy Buddhist, get off your duff!” I accept full responsibility for my initial interpretation of his words, and my defensive reactivity. And I have nothing to be defensive about. I started doing community service when I was 12 years old, and continued to serve my community for most of my life.
Now I am a 40-year old parent with limited time and energy, especially when my son goes through episodes of teething and illness. I’m no spring chicken, and my few moments of meditation are usually moments of coming back to my body, a fatigued body that housed a growing baby for nine months and then became that hungry baby’s main food supply for many months (and I’m still nursing). It is an awesome responsibility, to be a mother, and to give so much physically. To come back to my body for a few moments allows me to be able to sustain my efforts to do all that my son needs. The fact that we’ve managed so far with my partner’s back problems and my medical issues is actually amazing.
But back to the question that gnawed at me this morning. I reflected on the teachings of another amazing dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh about “throwing away notions.” He said:
What is to be thrown away? Wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions: fear, anger, discrimination, despair; all these kinds of afflictions are born from wrong perceptions. Throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions, ideas, notions that are the base of our suffering…Throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage to throw away an idea. It is not just letting go. It is throwing away, in a very strong way.
I threw away my ideas about saving the world so that I could free myself from the suffering that these ideas brought me and others. I was, at times, fanatical about my ideas about saving the world, and that served no one.
My aspiration is to practice with the eyes of inter-being. That means coming back to this mama-body, yes, and inhabiting it fully, knowing how it is sustaining my family, and at the same time seeing how we belong to a larger community and larger eco-systems, and how much we inter-are. Compassion, insight, and loving action arise when I am able to see with the eyes of inter-being.