I’m not going to lie — 2016 has been pretty stressful so far. The day job has been demanding and constantly shifting; racial and identity politics have been as contentious as ever; and the rise of Trump signalling the fall of the GOP has been one of the most depressing stories to follow. Meanwhile, there are reports that we’ve hit the +2 degrees Celsius shift that we had been talking about maybe avoiding some day; China’s economy is faltering enough to make their government fearful, which makes what’s happening in the South China Sea especially worrisome; there’s also Russia, ISIL, Syria and a whole host of problems around the world. This is the time we should be uniting as a species to solve problems that threaten our existence, and we feel more fractured and disconnected than ever.
I realize that there isn’t a whole lot that I can do about all of this besides try to be the best person I can and encourage others to do the same. For me, trying to be the best person I can means trying to be the best Buddhist that I can be — so that means diving back into the Dharma and realigning my life to hew closer to its principles.
I don’t talk a lot about Buddhism here because I’ve never figured out a way to talk about it that didn’t sound like proselytizing on one hand, or exposing a vast ignorance about core teachings on the other. Being a Buddhist has always felt like a personal thing to me; I can make allusions to it, but that’s as open as I’ll get for the most part.
But the fact is that Buddhist philosophy is a very large part of who I am, and as I grapple with trying to be a better activist and a person who serves as a connector and organizer within his community, leaning back into Buddhist principles will help me tremendously with that. I believe that following the Noble Eightfold Path helps me to encourage my compassion, move past my fears, keeps my worry from curdling into despair.
Like most idealists, I have an attachment to the idea of a perfect world. People are kind and considerate in the ways that I deem most important, and their priorities are in lockstep with my own. We take care of each other. We take care of my environment. We’re an empathetic people who can’t see suffering without taking action to do something about it. We turn away from harmful things, even if they provide us with short-term pleasure, even if they’re something we’ve been doing for a very long time. Connection with other animals is one of the best things we can do. We’re accepting of each other’s differences; we even celebrate them. Sadness and loss are tempered by love and understanding.
That’s not the world we live in. None of us are perfect, and all of us have darker natures that we fall prey to. We are afraid, and angry, and selfish, and hurting. We make mistakes. We act maliciously. We do things that aren’t in our best interest because we think it will make us feel better. Our differences cause disagreements, and those cause divisions that widen and deepen until we can’t even see the other side as human any more. While problems get worse, we can’t even reach consensus on whether or not there IS a problem. Some people — perhaps most people — will never agree with me.
One of the strengths of Buddhism is enabling practitioners to deal with what is right in front of them. I am who I am, and the world is what it is; wishing for a utopian version of either invites suffering. It is better to see ourselves exactly as we are, and take the best actions we can under those circumstances.
This is the Dharma that I will be trying to follow. I’m digging back into the basics for a while, to check my foundation. What are the Four Noble Truths? What do they really mean? What is my understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path? The Bodhisattva Vow? How can I marry the vulgar and the divine? How can I follow the Middle Way while driving, or in the supermarket, or on the toilet? And how does Buddhism inform my activism?
These are important questions for me to figure out, and I’ll be spending a little time talking about them in the coming days, weeks, months.