Tag Archives | Path to Liberation

Lil’ Corner of Joy

In one of my favorite Frog and Toad stories, Frog tells Toad how, as a young frog (or pollywog), he had gone to search for Spring. His father had told him: “Son, this is a cold, gray day, but Spring is just around the corner.” And so Frog had gone to search for that corner and for Spring. He turned several corners in his search: in the woods, a meadow, and along a stream, but he couldn’t find Spring. Finally, he got tired, and it started to rain. As he arrived back home, he saw another corner, the corner to his house, and when he went around that corner, there was Spring: the sun coming out, birds singing, his parents working in the garden, and flowers blooming. “You found it!” Toad calls, “You found Spring.” Turns out Spring was just around the corner, right there, where Frog had started, around a corner of his own house.

When I teach a meditation class, I often speak about the obstacles to mindfulness: dislike, desire, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt; all of which have a common attribute: a wish for things to be different than they are. How often do we, in fact, wish for Spring when Winter reins (or rains, as my pun-loving boyfriend would point out) outside? Or perhaps we wish for more energy when we’re too tired to deal with the kids? How often do you doubt your choice of a route and wish you had taken another? Or that you were on the beach running instead of stuck at work? We think that if only our house was bigger (or smaller), our job better, our family more compliant, the government this way, and the world that way, then we would be happier, more satisfied, more at peace somehow. And yet most people agree that getting what we want is not the path to happiness. Research, in fact, points to other causes: developing gratitude, kindness, compassion, love and acceptance. And those, so I hear, are not around any corner outside in the world, but right here, inside us, living in a corner of our own soul.

Dharma teacher Ethan Nichtern writes: “Lacking the tools to get comfortable in our own skin and safe in our own mind, we get lost again and again in the existential transitions of life, blindly hoping that a true and permanent home lies around the corner, after just a bit more struggle to prove ourselves, a bit more time figuring out how to belong in our lives.” (The Road Home, 5). Searching for Spring around external corners may seem an innocent enough pursuit, perhaps even adventurous and exciting; but searching for ourselves, our true home, far outside of who we are, in other people’s opinions and reflections of us, needing to prove ourselves legitimate from the outside-in by someone else’s approval, and having our happiness depending on these external causes — is that how we want to live our life?

I admit it, though: I love corners. While hiking, I long to turn the next corner, go up the next hill or round the next tree or rock to see what’s there. I know, of course, that behind most hills are more hills, behind the next tree are more trees, and behind the rocky corner more trees and hills and flowers and lovely views, most likely not too different from those I already saw on the trail. And yet the attraction persists. I gaze soulfully at each trail that branches off the main trail and dream of following it. I plan to come back and visit yet another lake or climb another mountain, perhaps find more beautiful mariposa lilies which I can photograph in quest of the perfect lily photo. My desire to go on and on knows no bounds.

And yet, you might ask, in our latest hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, what were my favorite parts?

A snack break by Fontanelles Lake, sitting on the rocks, watching the limpid color of the water, admiring the rivers of icy snow that still flow down the northern side of the hill, melting slowly into the lake.

Heart-stopping hues of orange, yellow and red in the meadow. Trees waving their branches in the breeze, some bare, some green. The sky a light blue that stretches on forever.

Sunset, colors deepening as the sun makes its way down through the clouds and below the mountains-behind-mountains-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see. The ground cold and hard, my breath catching as my mind conjures the image of a bear coming to attack me. Staying with it, sitting with it, trusting I am safe.

A rough-hewn picnic area by the river. Baby firs poking their heads up through the ground. The creek singing as it makes it way down little rapids that a woodrat could float on a woodratty raft. Tired. Hungry. Making our last breakfast on the trail and filtering pure water that will nourish my body’s cells. It is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and I feel grateful for whoever made this beautiful camping and picnic spot, for whoever built this gift of a trail.

I love turning corners, but it’s this moment, the little moment, that counts. Sitting here, making room for myself within my own body, accepting that I belong here, now, in this chair, in front of this computer, with the sound of the boyfriend on the phone talking football to my son, a neighbor’s gardener blowing leaves outside, kids screaming in the pool down the road, the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and the alternating light and shade pattern of oaks shadows on yellow grass on the hillside outside. This is it: my legs falling asleep under the weight of the dog, my back warm, tiredness behind my eyes, ears pulsating with all this noise. This is what happiness is, inhabiting this moment, this little corner of joy.

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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I’d Rather Be Monkeywrenching

Lesley, Lesley’s boyfriend Tim, Dar and I are on a “wind and water caves” group hike in Point Reyes. We’ve only just began hiking down from Laguna Trailhead, trailing, as always, at the end of the pack, when Leslie says, “I want to buy you a gift.”

Eyebrows rise. I ask: “What kind of gift?”

“A car sticker,” Lesley says, as though it’s obvious.

“It’s an I’d rather be monkeywrenching sticker,” Lesley explains.

My breath hitches. “I want five,” I reply.

The term “monkeywrenching” originates from the book The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey, which I recently read. The book tells of a band of three men and a woman who set out to protest and prevent the destruction of the Utah-Arizona-Nevada desert. Their end goal: blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Monkeywrenching is a term not found in most dictionaries. The organization Earth First! defines monkeywrenching as “…a step beyond civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, aimed only at inanimate objects. It is one of the last steps in defense of the wild, a deliberate action taken by an Earth defender when almost all other measures have failed.”

You might wonder what I have to do with monkeywrenching? “Sigal,” you might say. “You’re a law-abiding citizen. Are you really posting about civil disobedience? Is this really something you think about?”

Well, yes, I guess.

The Monkeywrench Gang inspired the creation of the organization Earth First! which engages in activities as varied as barricading a train carrying fracking equipment (in order to prevent it going up to North Dakota, to give a current example), painting graffiti on dams, chaining oneself to trucks or other construction vehicles, and sitting in trees to protest and block logging. The group is fragmented in order to protect its members (in fact, the best monkeywrenchers work alone). From what I can find, despite having a special section in the website called “Security Measures” and a call on the defenders that basically says, “Don’t get caught,” there are quite a few Earth First! members who are serving lengthy sentences in jail.

Yes, monkeywrenching can send you to jail.

In the movie DamNation, we get a glimpse of Earth First! defender Mikal Jakubal as he sneaks to the top of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, rappels down, and paints a giant crack down the face of the dam with the words, “Free the Rivers — J Muir.”

Imagine it. imagine yourself packing the car with the equipment you need: rock climbing gear, rope, paint, brushes, dark clothing, and a balaclava. Maybe some snacks for the road? Imagine the rush of adrenaline when you arrive, park your car off the road in the shadows. Imagine sneaking onto the bridge in the dark, deciding where to set up anchor, working as silently and as fast as you can. Keeping watch. Imagine trying to keep all the equipment from jiggling and making noise, and then the concentration that falls once you’re standing on the lip, taking that first step backwards into the ominous darkness that is the face of the dam, rappelling down. And finally, imagine the exhilaration of painting the words by the flimsy light of your headlamp, of painting the crack, of making your escape, hiking up quickly from the bottom of the dam. Your headlamp, a single ray of idealism in the darkness of capitalistic blight.

Have you noticed that darkness cannot overcome even the tinniest candle, but even the most feeble light can overpower the dark?

This is what legends are made of. These are acts that make history and inspire countless people. Brashness, courage, disregard to personal safety. Standing up for what’s right.

When I was 18, I wanted desperately to serve in the Israeli army in a position that would make a difference. I was an idealist, yearning to defend the land where I had grown up. Now, at 44, I am still an idealist, seeking for a way to defend another land which is as, or perhaps more, important: our land, where the wild still exists, and the living beings that exist on it.

I stand in defense of water, soil, and air. I stand in defense of Emigrant Wilderness, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Boundary Waters. I stand in defense of the redwood trees and the mariposa lily, the ruby-throated hummingbird, manatees, and beluga whales. I stand in defense of our planet and its myriad of different species. In the light of recent events, I feel determined and resolved to do all in my power to protect those I love, from the smallest organism to the entire planet.

Now, ask yourself, where do you stand?

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The Perspective of the Giraffe (and Other Animals)

These days, it seems we are like ants overwhelmed by an elephant perspective. We read the newspaper and shiver at the pessimistic prognostications, the harried and worried discussions, and the doomsday divinations that are taking place. (The Israeli newsletter dubbed the results of the elections a “Trumpocalypse,” which I thought especially creative). But is our myrmecological perspective of the elephant in the room something we can trust? Is it the truth?

There is a Buddhist story about five blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the side of the elephant and calls out: “This elephant is like a wall!” Another touches the leg and says: “It’s like a pillar!” A third handles the ear and remarks: “An elephant is like a fan!” A fourth holds onto the tail and insists, “An elephant is like a rope!” And the last holds onto the trunk and contradicts all the rest, “It’s like a tree branch!” Of course they are all right, and yet an elephant is greater, more complex and interesting than any of these parts.

In order to see the elephant, we need to move back enough so our eyes (or touch) can encompass the whole of it. And in fact, even then it would not be enough. An elephant is so much more than its shape. It is the historic path it takes in the jungle, its knowledge of water holes, its place within the biotic community, the food it prefers, its history of being hunted, the parasites which live on it, its bathing habits, and the list could go on and on. Why then do we think we have the perfect perspective of this so-called elephant (or Trumpocalypse, if you prefer to insist on that version) when we’re barely holding onto even one little toe?

What we need is the perspective of the giraffe.

In his wonderful collection of poems and stories, The Sixteenth Ram, Yehonatan Geffen writes (translation, and pronouns, mine):

The giraffe has a tall neck
She can see a bus before it leaves the station
And the sun before it rises

Everything we see, the giraffe sees before us
She has a kind of expression on her face:
How lovely it is to be a tall animal

The giraffe has a tall neck
She sees clouds at the end of the world
And announces

Friends, in two months it will rain here
From the height of a giraffe we all seem small
And our greatest problems
Are mere dots for the giraffe.

Living from the perspective atop the tall neck of the giraffe does not mean that we are blind to the future. We stay vigilant. We see trends (the bus) before they become established (it leaves the station). We see trouble (the rain) by recognizing the clouds at the end of the world. We prepare, and we still fight for what we believe in, but we do it by having the perspective, the ability to recognize that most of our worries and anxieties and predictions are mere dots (most might even be mere shadows) on the map of life.

At this moment in time we are all of us blind men and women hanging on to various parts of an elephant, insisting that our vision of it is the right one. What we need are tools with which to feel effective, ways to increase our feeling of safety and confidence in the world. But how can that be done? The troubles we see coming — global warming, political unrest, religious extremism, and more — seem insurmountable. How can one blind person (in my case, a very near-sighted contact-wearing short woman) succeed in overcoming so much?

Fortunately, we don’t have to overcome all of it alone. As an exercise, I typed in the search “non-profit organizations in Palo Alto” on the web. The results: 799,000 hits. “Social justice organizations in California” generates 2.3 million hits. “Environmental organizations in the world” generates 142 million hits. To me, the results of my experiment are clear: there are many of us here who want to see a change for good. There are many of us who care about the world and all the beings and creations in it.

A month ago, I attended a women’s retreat at Spirit Rock led by Joanna Macy and several other wonderful women teachers. There were a hundred of us at the retreat, women of many sizes, shapes, and ages, but we all had one thing in common: we came to the retreat because we care about the earth. There was an older woman, ferocious looking despite her white hair and short stature, who told us she marches for gay rights. Another woman, curly-haired and grey said she holds signs in front of the police station to protest mass incarceration. A third, tall and regal-looking, worked with women kidnapped and sold to sex slavery in Africa. A fourth was concerned with the stress women live with in the Bay Area. Me? I was there because my heart beats for the natural world. All of us there cared about the environment, diversity, safety, freedom. We cared about the survival of the human race alongside the survival of all other species. We didn’t insist on any one part of the elephant. Instead, we put together all of our little dots to make a spacious and accepting mosaic of life.

It was, I confess, a frightening, overwhelming, and yet hopeful picture. And still it is not the complete picture. Still there are farther perspectives from which our life here on earth at this time can be seen. We, as a moment in history, will probably never know these perspectives, but we can know now that there are many people who care, who work tirelessly to make things better each in their own little piece of the mosaic. This knowledge, that we are not alone in our efforts, can give us the freedom to act. All we need do as an individual is choose a piece of the mosaic that speaks to us and participate in this one meaningful and manageable way.

At the end of the retreat, we all took Joanna Macy’s Vows for Active Hope:

I vow to myself and each of you

To commit myself daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.

I vow to myself and each of you

To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products and energy I consume.

I vow to myself and each of you

To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth, the ancestors, the future beings, and my brothers and sisters of all species.

I vow to myself and each of you

To support each other in our work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.

I vow to myself and each of you

To pursue a daily practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart and supports me in observing these vows.

We live, as the Chinese blessing goes, in interesting times. We don’t know what will happen, what the future holds. But as Joanna Macy said at the retreat, not knowing allows us to be creative, to have hope, to think of new solutions and possibilities. It allows us to avoid repeating history and instead to soar to new places. It allows us to use Hillary’s election slogan in a way which she may or may not have meant, because truly, in this way, with each of us a part of the mosaic of hope and love, we are stronger together.

In order to be present to the sorrows and difficulties of our world, Joanna says we must first develop love and gratitude for it. As a start, here is the song by Jennifer Berezan, “Praises for the World.”

May our combined force for good be the tipping point for the survival of all beings.

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The Silver-Lined Cage

My mother sent me yesterday a story by Israeli author Shlomit Cohen-Assif. The story tells of a yellow bird that had been caught by a hunter and was being kept in a cage near the window. Unable to fly, the bird soundlessly sings inside her heart her longing for the open, free sky. One day an old woman passing by asks the bird to sing for her. While the bird sings, the old woman weaves her silver hair inside the bars of the cage, making it lighter-than-air so that the bird, though still in the cage, can fly again.

The story saddened me. Sure, the bird can now see the world, but she is still trapped inside the cage. She cannot move her wings. The cage, though silver-lined, is still around her, and for as long as she is inside, she will always see the world through its bars and be forever limited by its size and shape. She will never be truly free.

I, too, like the bird, live in a silver-lined cage. Some of the bars of the cage are of my own making: my responsibilities as a parent and my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, cousin, and granddaughter, my social obligations to friends and acquaintances. Some of the bars I have accepted because I wish to fit in the society in which I’ve chosen to live: moral and ethical rules, social norms, and other societal expectations. My perceptions of these bars change. At some times the bars seem more rigid, less able to give way. The bars can be light as air, allowing me some illusion of freedom or they can be inflexible, appearing to trap me in a small and cramped cage.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a tiger in a zoo who lived most of her life in a small pen. As the zoo began to shift its animals to larger, more natural living areas, this tiger too was moved to a much bigger yard. Despite having all this new space to explore, the tiger spent the rest of her life pacing a small area, the size of her former pen, never venturing away from it. Like the chickens who always return to their coop and the cows who return every night from the meadows to their barn, even when there’s a chance of freedom, we often choose to stay in, or return to, the place where we feel safe, even when we perceive it as a cage, even if we feel trapped inside.

That is the secret of the silver-lined cage and what makes it most difficult to escape: its door is unlocked. We can get out any time. The tiger, the yellow bird and I are the only ones with the key to our cages, and we are the only ones who get to choose when the door stays open and when it is shut. Despite its disadvantages, inside the cage we are safe and can pretend to be anything we want to be. We can fly over the moon (remember, the bars are light as air with the woven silver hairs), without ever needing to risk the strength of our own wings.

But this flight is not a true flight — it is a flight by the same standards as reading a book about climbing Everest would require heavy mountaineering boots or watching a movie about glass-blowing would produce a pumpkin or playing a football video game would make us sweat. If this kind of freedom was true then I would have made three touchdowns during Wednesday night’s game against the Browns when I played with my son on his playstation. In order to fly in truth, I must unlock the door, open it, and acknowledge that I am the one who has made this cage, and because of that, it is for me to decide that I can leave it. Perhaps I will never climb Everest or get a touchdown in an NFL football game (the last, especially, seems unlikely, because at 5’1” and 120 pounds I am possibly too small, even if I was the right sex and age), but there are many other adventures freedom allows. I did get to play a flag football game two years ago, and I ran the ball once. My flag was pulled almost before I started moving, but it doesn’t matter. People, I played in a football game! For a moment, I was a high-flying running back!

The buffet of life is extensive, limitless. All we need do is pick what it is we’d like to have. But perhaps its very boundlessness, its very infinity of choice, are what make this buffet so frightening, so unnerving. We humans like limits and rules. We like the safety that lack of freedom gives, because… imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone was free, if everyone took from the buffet whatever they wanted without caring about any one else’s needs! We cannot fathom the true limitlessness, the true infinitude of the buffet. We cannot fathom that there is enough space for us all to be free.

For this new year, I wish you and me a chance at liberation. I wish us a chance to see the world outside the bars of our cages, even if they are silver-lined. Take a chance this year. Do something you love. Plunge into the unknown. There is a lot in the buffet of life for you and for me to enjoy. Perhaps this year will be the year to climb a mountain or to hike the longest trail, to start your own company or get your own apple orchard farm. Perhaps this year, 2015, is the year for our dreams to come to be.

It’s a beautiful world out there. Open your windows and doors and come with me outside. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Smell the air. Touch a flower. Fly like a bird. Live a little. Live a lot. It’s a good life.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109