I think it was Fr. Richard Rohr who related these words from a Rabbi, “We put these teachings on your heart, so when it breaks, the teachings fall inside.”
June 11th and 12th, 2016; I took a 2-day class taught by Shastri Betsy Pond at the local Shambhala Center. I loved the class. Saturday was good, full of meditation, teachings and talks with good and generous people. It was so good, I think I went into Sunday with lots of preconceived notions of how it should go, based on my Saturday. Perhaps it would be akin to a conquering hero returning home and I would be that hero.
Sunday morning, I attend to my regular routine (meditation, yoga, prayers), then I was off to the laundromat and then finally off to the second day of the class. When you wake early you can get a lot done before 9AM. I arrived in time for the complimentary breakfast, but it wasn’t too long before I started feeling dislocated, out of place and things spiraled from there.
In retrospect, I think I was getting pouty because I wasn’t a returning hero, nor welcomed as one (rightly), and the day would be the day regardless of my preconceived notions. Still, in the moment I was upset. Then I got that old familiar, screw this, I’m out of this place, feeling. Thinking, why don’t I blow this off, and go do something else, where I don’t feel like this. Hike or swim, maybe.
No, I decide I should sit with these feelings. So I stay and decide to experience my poutiness and see what it offers, what’s inside of it. I even bring it up during a group session. Almost cry. Learn a bit about being kind to yourself.
Later in the afternoon, everyone gathers for the final teaching. While sitting on the floor, with a large group of people, Shastri Betsy Pond shares the news about the Orlando shooting. She shares only the most basic details. I hear that a person killed 50 people and wounded many others. That is about as detailed as it got. At first I felt callous towards it, but there we all were, sitting in silence, taking in her words and my heart broke open. I started crying. Snotty crying too. A lovely lady in front of me went and got a box of tissues and put it in front of me. I thought of all the lives. All of them. The hell and horror of such things. It was all so tragic. Then all these hard and dark stanzas from a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” fell deep inside me. I’ve known about this poem for a long time, and return to it, now and again, trying to make sense of it. It’s a tough one. So I’m crying, understanding this poem for perhaps the first time, and then Betsy said, “May even this,” and it all sank deeper, and I worried I might have a Buffy the Vampire, Season-Five-Episode-16 style crying fit in the middle of the Shambhala Center. Even now I’m hesitant to post the hardest parts of the poem, so here it is in its entirety:
“Please Call Me by My True Names”
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
I’d like to go in to all that I think this poem opened up in me on that morning, but I’m still sitting with it. Sometimes it is impossible to convey these things anyway.
I know this, later as I left the Center and headed home, I started getting filled in on more details. A nightclub, a call to 911 linking it to ISIS, a father in league with the Taliban, a man who was likely a patron of the club, and then more speculation, more grief and anger. It was dizzying. It all called to mind the Aeolus parts from Joyce’s Ulysses with all the newspaper headlines, and this corresponds to the Odyssey where all the winds that would blow you off course were kept in an envelope, but the winds were set free, and those winds are the headlines, all the winds of the day blowing you off course of that basic truth, one person killed a bunch of others. All of sudden, it seemed like a teaching that was given to us. Thanks to the gentle words of Ms Pond, I was able to experience the basic human tragedy of what happened before being tangled in the politics and winds of the day. this allowed me to grieve before being pulled and pushed in other directions, or anger, action, and the winds of facebook.
On a basic level, I think we are all culpable in one way or another. That is our son who killed our other sons and daughters. There is no certainty to offer. There is no going back. This happened, and there are more griefs and horrors in this one killing than I can count. Before I was dizzy, i was able to experience and cry.
Yes, there is common sense legislation and actions for us to take, Yes, this speaks to portions of our society and culture, people, who bear the brunt of our ignorance and hate. That justice must come for these people. Certainly, there is justice to fight for, hand in hand as sisters and brothers, and there are deeper actions to consider as well. I’m not sure what all those are, but I feel I had a glimpse, when this horrible situation broke my heart and the humanity of it all sank deep inside of me. As the Dalai Lama teaches, perhaps it is with kindness and compassion with ourselves that it starts, and soon moves to offering that same kindness to others. I read somewhere that a person’s capacity to love is often measured by their capacity to love themselves. Maybe there is where we can start to heal the hardened hearts of the U.S. and that will move us towards a more enlightened society. Less sectarianism and more basic goodness.