“There is no separation between inner and outer self and other. Tending ourselves, we tend the world. Tending the world, we tend ourselves.” Jack Kornfield
“If we are to make a significant contribution to the creation of peace and healing in the world, we cannot remain enmeshed in the smallness of our…story. We must allow our story to become larger—we must take our place in the rich expanse of our true nature, in deep kinship with all creation. “ Wayne Muller
Years ago, I was struck by a metaphor that my teacher Shinzen Young offered. It has helped me to understand the relationship of western and Buddhist psychologies. He proposed that as humans, we are meant to be like amphibians: creatures able to live in two very different worlds and to be able to move easily back and forth between those worlds. Like most frogs. Frogs can happily live in the water when they need to. They can happily stay on dry land when that is what works best. There is freedom to easily hop back and forth, whenever it’s appropriate and as frequently as needed. Western psychology deals with living in wholesome ways in the “dry land” of our constructed self-identities, our constructed world. Buddhist psychology reaches the far deeper level of the infinite and unconstructed. Like amphibians, Shinzen taught, we are intended by nature to be able to live in these two worlds: the world of oneness, emptiness, fluidity, non-self and non-separation where only love is real and everything else is illusion and the world of form and self and separation and solidity. In our spiritual practice, we are asked to cultivate the awareness of these two worlds and our capacities in each, to develop more and more freedom to easily move back and forth between them.
But the problem, he said, is that we forget…we forget…we get stuck in and identified with the solid, arid, terrestrial zone of form and we don’t remember how to get back to the awareness of water. We often don’t even remember that there is water and that we are always swimming in it. We have little way to refresh ourselves. We have no full perspective on things. “And,” he says, “we can’t really even appreciate the solidity and the aridity of the land because we have nothing to contrast it to.”
Our spiritual practice, Shinzen said, is to become more like the frog: able to welcome and live when it is appropriate in the congealed world of separateness and individual self with ease and delight and efficiency. And, at the same time, to have what he called the fluid and connected complete experience of loving and non-grasping and release of those very forms and experiences.
That’s where our practice – practice – comes in. The Buddha famously invites us “ehipassiko:” come and see: to have curiosity, to explore, to look and see: what’s true? What is behind the surface appearance of things? Can we discern what is wholesome? What’s needed now? What leads to affliction for self or other? What does not?
As I’ve contemplated, I’ve been wondering lately how to apply this and how to be this kind of amphibian as I meditate and as I relate to the day’s news and to the social and political divisions of our turbulent world. Closer to home, as I read and attempt wholesome response to the Facebook posts of my evangelical friends. How do I practice with skillful thought, honest words and lionhearted presence and, at the same time, rest in spacious love, wise discernment, equanimity and letting go? I notice the alternating pulls of frozen overwhelm at one extreme and ignorant disregard at the other. What is mine to do?
When we ask a sincere question, help arrives from unexpected, even mundane, places.
I found in the New York Times an essay titled “The Rise of the Amphibians.” Written by one of my favorite Republican columnists, David Brooks, even though it speaks mainly of the world of form, it helped me to clarity. David says that he’s been traveling the country, simply listening to young people, asking them “…what they have faith in and how they are going to lead us in the years ahead. ”
“One thing that’s hit me over the head right away” he says, “is how many young adults have interesting backgrounds — one is part French, part Costa Rican. Another is a conservative lesbian from the rural Midwest who came to study in the urban East…A number talked with me about the difficulties of identity that come from living with heterogeneous backgrounds: Who am I? If people ask me where I’m from, what do I say? “I am no one thing; the problem is being hyphenated,” one student said. “It’s a spiritual problem.”
It’s a spiritual problem.
Yes, it’s something that the Buddha spoke about. As all of us develop as humans, we come to identify with our perceptions and views, our opinions and stories about who we (think) we are. We get addicted to these perceptions and views and opinions and stories. We come to think of ourselves as definitely/always “this” and not “that. And others as “that” and not “this.” “This is who I am.” “That is who you are.” The student is beginning to discover something that the Buddha discerned: none of us is ever, simply who we think, say, tell stories about Who. We. Are. As though there were some comfortably fixed entity that is “me” or “you.” This sense of a personal self causes us to forget and/or edit and/or conceal certain parts of ourselves – and others – in order to fit it with the more congenial concepts that we – and others around us – have come to believe.
From his interviews, David noted that those people who were amphibious, able to navigate at the edge of their comfort zones as fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. “…Amphibians have to master two or three (or more) different ways of being in the world, and often they do not fit perfectly anywhere. They were considered liberals in their Midwestern high school but are considered conservatives in college. They come from a mostly black town and work at a mostly white company. They have that on the edge-of-inside mind-set. They are within the circle of the group, but at the edge, where they can most easily communicate with those on the outside. They are at the meeting-place of difference where creativity happens. They have that semi-outsider mentality that forces them to observe everything more closely.”
“(When we look and listen closely…) The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity. If you start with the Amphibian approach — that every new and different person you meet is first of all my brother, my sister — then the concept of difference changes. The emotional atmosphere is transformed.”
David speaks of the gifts of amphibians in being able to help to connect not only people within their communities but also (and especially) to (live at their edges and thus to) help bridge different communities and to help bind people of different communities together.
“The thing you notice about Amphibians” he says, “is that they come to regard their ability to enter different cultures as a thrilling adventure, their defining life trait…They understand from experience that the (only) way you can bring different groups together is by uniting them at a higher level.”
The Buddha taught this: the power of investigation and kindness and compassion and joy, on releasing attachment to any specific view or story or rite or ritual of practice. He taught the releasing of clinging and identification. He taught us to live “in water:” at the edge of our comfort zones, continually noticing, inquiring: what is most loving and most deeply true here? What leads to affliction or the end of affliction for myself and others? Ehipassiko. Look. Come and see.
I started to contemplate: not how to do everything that appears to be needed but how to look at the edge of my comfort zone. Where are the places where I can bring presence and care not only within individuals and my own faith communities, with which I am pretty comfortable, but also by bridging different communities and family relationships with whom I have natural connection but with whose differences I am not be so comfortable.
I thought of Helen Farrar’s beautiful IMCC talk a number of weeks ago in which she spoke so movingly of her struggles as a white woman, born and educated in the South and its institutions with its racial and social views. Helen recounted many moments when she struggled to understand her own mixed feelings and responses and also when she struggled to be both honest and kind in responding to hate groups and expressions of overt racism.
” How does all of this work?” she asked both herself and us. “How does all of this live in me and show up in my life and interactions with people? How can I hold space for it all? Can we find a way to hold all the parts of ourselves that may be on opposite sides, not so civil sides, with kindness and compassion? Can we remain open to the connection between those sides, with the ways they are in relationship, with the ways they may be strangers to each other, with the ways they may know each other? Can we have the spaciousness to include a civil (or polite, courteous, cordial, pleasant, kind) interaction. ”
I thought of my own role in our local Charlottesville Clergy Collective. While I am deeply committed to the mission of the CCC, tensions remain. As a non-Christian Buddhist faith leader, yet a member of a group that is largely Christian, even in the relative safety of that group, I am in the uncomfortable position of being a somewhat suspect outsider. The CCC itself recently had serious discussion about whether or not to continue to allow me/IMCC to remain as a member. How to navigate these tensions? Even more relevant, I also have to confront my own very long and challenging history with the rigid, unloving and arrogant Christian Church of my youth. I have to address a personal identity I adopted early in life: be good, keep your head down, avoid violence and conflict at all costs. In the other direction, in my family and even within IMCC, there are tensions with those who might prefer me to do just that: to stick with more traditional Dharma teachings and not speak of ways to apply the Buddha’s teachings to racial and social justice and engaged Buddhism.
So, my amphibian challenge, in the CCC as in my family’s Facebook pages is, like Helen’s and – I would propose, like many of us, to not imagine that we must take on the world or even every single issue but, at the same time, to not withdraw. In the conventional world of form, to be willing to engage in “the thrilling adventure” with those with whom I am naturally connected and who also can be at the edge of my comfort zone. To stay engaged with those who are not so very challenging as to lead to my frozen and shut down overwhelm, but with whom I can nevertheless engage authentically and deeply in difference: to repeatedly look and see how we can understand each other and connect together in ever more rich and deep communities of love and diversity and inclusion.
I close with a quote from Jack Kornfield that Helen shared with me:
“To stop the war and come into the present is to discover a greatness of our own heart that can include the happiness of all beings as inseparable from our own…We see how each of us creates conflict. We see our constant likes and dislikes, the wish to resist all that frightens us…how much our struggle with life has kept our heart closed. When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and the end of spiritual practice…Only in the reality of the present can we love, can we awaken, can we find peace and understanding and connection with ourselves and the world.”