Bearing Witness

Photo by Ankhesenamun

I ended this election night with a feeling of great sadness, regardless of not knowing the final results. My practice helps me see that part of my suffering is my attachment to the way I’d like to believe we are, colliding with the way we actually are at this moment in history. The community I gathered with that evening reminded me that, if I am finding myself surprised, perhaps I haven’t been looking as deeply as I imagined. I’m holding this grief tenderly while opening to truth with gratitude, by reminding myself that I cannot engage skillfully while living in delusion – or falling into despair.

I also know that part of my pain arises from a growing sense of awareness of and compassion for those who have the most at stake in the results of this election. This too is a direct result of my practice. I’m awakening to something that has always been there, but I have been ignorant to or have had the privilege to ignore. Either way and whatever the results of this election, I cannot unsee it. The results won’t change this truth. Sustained engagement is required.

The Zen Priest Kosho Uchiyama said, “…what is crucial is magnanimous mind, with which we take the attitude of living straight through whatever reality of life we are presently faced with…” To be mindfully engaged means that we are open to all that life brings us; birth and death, beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, beginnings and endings. Our practice helps us cultivate an embodied, stable mind that can welcome it all in, so we might make wise choices about how to respond. How will I water the seeds of equanimity and starve the roots of aversion, bitterness and indifference? By turning toward what is here, again and again, with compassion, patience, and clarity.

Through the guidance of many good teachers, I’m experiencing the importance of bearing witness, which in the Zen Peacemakers tradition means embracing all that we encounter with an open heart and mind. Jules Shuzen Harris wrote, “Politically and socially, [bearing witness] enables us to see clearly the entire web of causes and conditions that create suffering, and to take effective action to improve people’s lives.Author Umair Haque described bearing witness as seeing through a triune lens: with the eyes of those who are harmed, within the context of history, and with an eye toward what may come. He wrote, “To really bear witness is a difficult and demanding thing. One that instructs as it shows, one that illuminates the darkness, but only by revealing the ugliness and despair in the human soul… In the act of witnessing, we reclaim a sense of ourselves as fully human” It may tempting to turn away, but to do so would be to deny what’s already here – a choice to remain in the darkness – trading short term relief for longer term suffering.

Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Institute, reminded us last night as we bore witness together of the unfolding election results, “No matter who wins, that’s when the work begins. A loss or win doesn’t absolve us from our future.” No election has ever released us from our responsibility to one another and the planet that sustains us. Individually and collectively, may we grieve, tend our wounds, remember our strength, and resource ourselves for the 10,000 mile journey ahead.

The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one. – Venerable Thupten Ngodrup

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