Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Gimme Some Inner Peace or I'll Mop the Floor With Ya" (October 2008)

First noble truth of Buddhism: Life is suffering.

Indeed.

Second noble truth: Suffering is caused by desire (or, in another translation, “attachment.”)

Double indeed.

This election has driven such a wedge between me and my sense of inner peace, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. I haven’t even wanted to breath mindfully since somewhere in the middle of the primary, and it’s gotten progressively worse every day.

More than any other election that I can remember, this one really hurts my feelings. Maybe all the elitist-bashing reminded me of the small-minded bullying I endured as a nerdy girl in one of those “pro-America” small towns. Maybe McCain’s cruel, derisive “health of the mother” air-quotes just jumped right off the TV and kicked me in my oft-miscarrying crotch. (And then “Joe the Plumber” virtually eclipsed just about any news coverage of McCain’s misogynist sneering. Even “The Daily Show” only picked up on it last night.)

But whatever the reason, I’ve become a woman obsessed. Gripping my computer, reading every scrap of news and polls I can find, letting my emotions dip and swell with every nuance. I don’t just want Obama to win; I want him to win the shit out of this thing. And I want that win to herald the birth of a new “silent majority”: a majority that turns its nose up at racism and divisiveness; a majority that embraces intelligence and compassion instead of shunning them as somehow anti-American; a majority that knows the difference between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin; a majority that can’t be won with jingoism and cutesy winks and shallow characters called “Name the Occupation.” I want to have faith in people again. And I never, ever again want to live in a country that renames French fries.

I’m trying to take my deep breaths and be peaceful. I ask myself: Even if Barack Obama loses the election, as some articles suggest is still possible . . .does that necessarily mean we’ve lost all that other good stuff I was talking about? Does it?

I don’t know how to answer that. But it does make me question whether my “attachment” to all this is advisable.

I took my first tentative baby steps into Buddhism in the fall of the 2000 election. My beloved grandfather was dying and I was 3,000 miles away, unable to visit as often as I needed and getting disciplined by a small-minded manager when I did manage to steal away and be with him for a few days. (The last time I ever saw him. I will never regret it.) Besides the bitchy manager, I was surrounded by neo-cons at work who were rubbing their hands in anticipation of a Bush victory (which they eventually “won”). The world felt so simply sad to me at the time . . . sad and beyond my control.

I used to take long walks along the river during my lunch hour and just let all the ugliness loosen up and drift away into the scenery. One day, a brilliant yellow leaf swept slowly down across the black branches and milky grey sky, touching down right in my path. And the thought came to me in a single moment of clarity: I wanted to be a Buddhist.

Quite a leap for a long-time cynical agnostic like myself. But somehow it just felt unquestionably like the right choice.

I started with a Google search, of course. Did some reading, learned the basics. Then I found a Buddhist community (sangha) in town that offered classes for beginners. Next thing I knew, I was driving across town on dark fall nights to a rattling old house on top of a steep hill. It was too pitch-black at night to see the lake, but you could feel it in the breeze that fluttered the prayer flags on the porch, almost eerily. Inside the house was just as cold. I’d wear two wool sweaters and a hat and still find myself shivering through meditation, dropping spoons as we scrambled for tea in the tiny kitchen during the break.

The classes weren’t very well attended, but the people who did show up were nice. There were newcomers, like myself: A gentle brunette with a vintage BMW. An earnest, funny guy who reminded me of the Tappet brothers. And then there were the regulars: A deeply serious dark-eyed student from Missoula. A slim, perpetually distracted teacher who lived in the house. A hospice nurse who was so wise and insightful when we talked about my grandfather’s passing. I can’t remember an actual word she said, but I remember feeling as if the gloom had been lifted right out of me and replaced with simple light. Grieving is a strange time.

Just the act of driving over there and sitting in that room was a great comfort to me. It felt deliberate. Through the mere process of seeking peace, I was actually finding it.

Ultimately, though, my cynicism won out. For one thing, I could never fully embrace Siddhartha Gautama as an “enlightened one,” I must admit. I mean, come on: A prince walks away from his wife and newborn child to go meditate under the Bodhi Tree . . . that’s just male-angst bullshit at its finest. I think I dated that guy.

But even if I could suspend my 21st century sensibilities and ignore the clear sexism there, I couldn’t get past how this sangha was just as petty and judgmental of others as the Christians I worked with. Scoffing at all those fools going Christmas shopping at the mall. Shaking their heads sadly over those unenlightened folks who don’t take time to meditate. And the one that really stuck: the hospice nurse was glowing one day about these wonderful Catholic nuns she’d been working with. She was so impressed with their sense of peace and simple diligence. “They’re almost evolved enough to be Buddhists,” she remarked with the same amazement some people use to marvel over an “articulate black man.” Hmph.

At the end of the year, the group lost their lease on the house and classes were suspended until further notice. I went my own way, taking the best of what I’d learned there with me. Imperfect as it was, I was glad to have given it a try.

And imperfect as it was, I wish I could have even a fraction of the solace and quiet I was feeling in those days. It wasn’t complacency. I never stopped voting or writing my Congresspersons or expressing my opinion. But my mood didn’t depend on political affirmation, as I fear it does now. Perhaps that’s just a common symptom of campaign season. I certainly hope so. Because I can’t go on like this much longer . . .

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