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Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness

Rachel Neumann tells the story of her unique journey from skeptical, fast-talking lefty New Yorker to the editor of famed Buddhist writers.

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We got up at three in the morning so we could be there to sit down in the road and block the entrance to the nuclear facility before the workers arrived. We sat together against the chain-link fence in the gray, predawn light, arms linked, legs touching, supported by hundreds of people who lined the road with signs declaring  No Nukes! and Nuclear Weapons Should Rust in Peace. As the police carried us away, line after line, children and adults, the spectators shouted their support and reminded the police, “The Whole World Is Watching!” one of our favorite chants at the time. On the bus, some of the police officers made eye contact with us. One or two dared a smile and I dared a smile back. Others kept their sunglasses on, as if human connection would just make their job harder. Many hours later, we were released on our own recognizance. “Recognizance” immediately became one of my new favorite words. It means recognition and awareness. We were released to our own awareness of our own actions, the actions of others, and our responsibility for them. I ran home to turn on the television and watch what “the whole world” was saying about our actions. Unfortunately, this was the same day that Prince Charles married Princess Diana. The whole world was indeed watching, but they were watching a wedding, not a protest.

There have been moments, such as the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 or the local Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in 2011, when I have been part of movements where at least some of the world  was watching, sometimes dispassionately and other times with real interest. I love the physical pleasure of connection in these moments, the feeling of power that comes from knowing we are not alone.

I’ve also found this connection in moments when no one was watching, but a group of us worked together to make some small aspect of the world open to more beauty. One of my last memories of New York City is of a tea party I hosted with neighbors in a local community garden slated to be turned into a parking lot. Dressed in tea dresses and suits, we sipped tea from mismatched cups and listened to Vivaldi on a little boom box, enjoying our communion, while outside the garden fence, people rushed past and police officers stood guard.

When the Buddhist authors I work with talk about the necessity of sangha and interbeing, I relate it to these moments of working together to alleviate suffering. In those linked arms and raised voices I feel the energy and strength of one multilayered voice. I take refuge in the shared intention, like a salmon coming home to spawn with other salmon. This is part of what it means to be human: to work together, engaged in making life better for all living beings, not for the cameras that may or may not be there, but because it is the natural outcome of awareness.

The “engaged Buddhism” that Thich Nhat Hanh developed was born from a time of war in Vietnam. Ten years before I met him, Thay wrote, “When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering from the bombardment? After careful reflection, we decided to do both. We decided to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

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