Integrity

Integrity: noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.

“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.

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Ladakhi woman, photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons license

The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.

Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.

With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.

Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)

You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.

What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.

Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.

But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.

Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.

In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.

Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.

We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.

Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.

*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.

Truest Home

Home is very much on my mind these days, and turning up in my reading, conversations, and other inputs.

I understand the pull toward home—hearing of people who face decisions about evacuating or hunkering down, returning or staying away, in the wake of natural disasters. Even if your home is the only thing standing for miles around, in dubious shape, it would be hard to stay away from it.

My own home supports my life in a way that feels incredibly juicy, especially in the warmer months when “home” extends to include the back yard, front porch, garden. I feel gratitude every day for the comfort and fruitfulness of home. I love looking out from my writing desk and seeing hummingbirds flit among the plants I’ve tended.

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I had a headache till I went out yesterday in the rain to pick raspberries and mint. Home heals.

As someone who is all about hearth-and-home, I feel my heart twinge at the thought of the millions of displaced people all over the world. Whether the cause is climate change, earthquake, war, ethnic cleansing, or something else—I hate to imagine losing the protection of home.

And there but for the grace of God…

I know that all is temporary, that everything is bound to change. And sometimes change happens dramatically and suddenly. I know that this body is temporary and the building I live in is impermanent. So how do I make a home for myself that transcends fixed ideas of safety and security?

I can see my solid relationships as home. Though also impermanent, the people I love (and who love me) create a web of safety. Yes, and…

I can experience this temporary body as home. Sinking into the body brings me to the present moment, which is also my home, and always accessible. Yes, and…

I can see this earth as home, holding me in its vastness. Touching Earth as home feels both tender and precarious at times as fires and fissures continue to spread. Still it gives me a sense of belonging. Yes, and…

None of these can be my truest home. Clinging to relationships can bring pain. Expecting the body to always hold up (and the present moment to always feel delicious) is unrealistic. And watching the earth’s systems besieged distresses me.

Yes, yes, yes. And.

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“A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail…or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

I can feel my energy as home. Here is where my frequency expresses itself in its unique but universal signature. Here is the eternal part of me that can never perish. It only changes shape.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said that it is unscientific to think that we disappear when we die, because of the scientific principle that nothing is ever created or destroyed.

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Do you see an oak tree in this acorn?

Energy cannot be destroyed, only re-formed.

My essence, my soul: That is my truest home.

Over and over, I touch this space when I return to my home frequency, as Penney Peirce calls it—that space of wholeness and rightness, that note in the orchestral symphony that brings harmony to the All.

And this, I tell myself, is the deepest security and comfort, a home not dependent on relationships, circumstances, or physical structures.

Rising

On International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about what it means to be human.

We are in the midst of a rebalancing. The old patriarchal systems are groaning under the weight of their own corruption and perversion.

So we rise. “We are the leaven of this land, and we are on the rise,” says the marvelous artist/activist Jan Phillips.

And this is what it means to be human: to rise, to integrate. The feminine principle is ascendant not just in women, but in all genders. I know this is true because more and more hearts are awakening to our interconnectedness all the time.

We know intuitively, as women have from the beginning of time, that we are all connected. This is why we feel pain in our own bodies when we encounter the pain of the world.

When we hear of record numbers of immigrants crossing our northern border into Quebec seeking asylum, it hurts. When we read of a white rhino killed by poachers in a Paris zoo, our hearts break. Photos of clearcut forests, news of oil pipelines spilling into waterways, awareness of “mother nature on the run” as Neil Young put it—painful.

Our hearts break, over and over. We mend them as best we can—through touch, conversation, nature, meditation, prayer. Only to break again.

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Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, female Buddha, photographed at a temple in China

We can move swiftly from pain to outrage, which distances us a little, gives us back the upper hand in a way. (If I can find someone to blame, then I don’t have to dwell in heartbreak as long.)

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has this to say about that painful place:

When we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.

Our challenge is to not close our hearts even to those who would do us harm, or do harm to the people and places we love.

I heard a story of an Afghan woman who works to educate girls in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists dislike that, and she’s subject to death threats. One day at a checkpoint she was recognized and pulled out of a car by a group of bearded, turbaned men with guns. The people in the car worried for her life. But she walked back after a half hour of talking with the men, saying, “We can go.”

She stayed open, and refused to see the fundamentalist men as her enemy. It turned out that they wanted an education, just like the young girls she worked with. They had made arrangements to meet outside the mosque for lessons.

The feminine principle is strength and love, strength IN love.

We’ve been schooled to think that the only way to make change is through force, whether physical or psychological or financial. But as the feminine principle shows, change happens in more mysterious ways. Ways that can’t always be predicted or explained.

And if we know that there is truly no separation, then our small human lives have meaning beyond all measure. Nothing we offer in love is ever wasted, no matter how small, because we nourish the new world with our deeds, thoughts, and hearts. What we do (are)—strengthens the good in ways we may never know.

Magnify Love

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

—Desmond Tutu

Here in the U.S., we’re feeling the reverberations of yet another mass shooting. Some call it the deadliest in our nation’s history. Even as I unplug from the news cycle, I’m energetically affected by the pain and anguish, the anger and fear.

Sadness is mostly what I feel when I think of the shooting. When I remember to, I turn toward the sadness, feel it in my body, notice the wish to numb it, alongside the urge to amass information in support of my personal philosophy about these types of tragedies.

I “embrace, allow, include,” as I’ve been coached in mindfulness training. I open up room for all my responses and attend to them with kindness. In that space I can consider right action.

All of which gives me more compassion for others on their own path.

I like to believe that humanity is evolving in a positive direction, appearances (seemingly) to the contrary. The horrible things that happen always grab our focus, fuel our outrage. It’s the same with the inflammatory things said by some pundits and politicians: Our attention gets hooked by ugly things that seem to confirm the awfulness of everything. And the ugliness magnifies.

A wise yoga/meditation instructor recently reminded me that our brains are wired to notice the snake amidst the flowers. Danger! Alert! We fixate on the negative. It’s biological.

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No snake, just flower.

Mindfulness meditation creates an opening for a new practice to emerge. It offers a brief space—the length of a breath—in which we can begin to choose.

I wonder: what if we train our attention on something other than the horror? Not to look away blithely denying injustice, but turning toward the little acts of love and solidarity, small exchanges of soul happening every day. Is it a copout, born of privilege, to even suggest such a thing? Or is it an opening?

Some schools of Buddhism teach that the material world is nothing other than a construct of mind. What mind do I wish to inhabit?

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What do I choose to magnify with my attention?

An Unexpected Gift

Yesterday, Father’s Day, brought me an unexpected gift. A neighbor messaged me late in the evening offering just-picked raspberries. Would we like some? Of course! “Check on your porch by the mailbox,” she messaged a few minutes later.

My dessert: raspberries, kefir, vanilla, toasted sunflower seeds.

How was she to know that red raspberries would bring me a direct connection with my Dad, who grew them up until the year he died? His overabundance was always my gain. Even the container they came in, a repurposed plastic food tub, evoked his (and Mom’s) habit of reusing everything.

They're half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too!

They’re half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too.

A friend tells me this morning, Surely that was a gift straight from your father.

I miss him. On Friday I received a quilt specially made from a few of the T shirts he used to wear. Yesterday morning I put my cheek against that “Seize the Carp” square and imagined his heart beating under the fabric.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

No one else will ever love me the way he loved me, a friend wrote, on losing her own dad.

A statement true and sad.

So many of us walk around with broken hearts. I think of the Buddhist story of the woman mad with grief after the death of her only child. The Buddha offers to bring the child back, but only if she can find a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

She searches house to house. Here someone has lost a parent, there a child, there a beloved brother, there a cherished friend. She comes back and tells the Buddha, I couldn’t find anyone untouched by loss.

She lets the child go.

Knowing we all share this human experience, I want to open to the love that is available all around me, in so many forms.

A couple I know slightly from down the street, seeing me standing on my bike in the bike lane, slow their car to check on me: “You OK?” (Just waiting for a break in traffic to make a dicey turn—but it touches me to hear their concern.)

A cat named Morty, leery of everyone but his deceased owner, finds me on my front step. Rubs against my knee, beaks my nose with his. Hello, new friend.

A concert of singing bowls, vibrating with tabla, flute, and didgeridoo, offers me a place to rest in All That Is.

What I want to say is this: May my broken heart be of service. May I remember that this brokenness is something we all share. May our connection help to heal a broken world.

Wild Geese Wisdom

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” comes this steadying stanza:

…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

I found his poem in a new essay collection called Sustainable Happiness, edited by the staff of Yes! Magazine. It reminded me of my introduction to the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…

This was my first Mary Oliver experience years ago: having this poem recited just for me by my Rolfer while he worked the fascia of my feet to smithereens. (Rolfing is a super-intense type of bodywork that pairs well with poetry.)

I give you the lovely Mary Oliver, reading her poem.