Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness
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Editor's note: With the election past, it's time to take a breath and celebrate what we've accomplished. It can also be a time to roll up our sleeves and delve deeply into the work and joy of our continued struggle for a more just, equitable, and sustainable globe. How do we best move forward? In this excerpt from her just released book, Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness, Rachel Neumann tells the story of her unique journey from a skeptical, fast-talking lefty New Yorker to the editor of famed Buddhist writers, including Thich Nhat Hanh. The story is about how she slowly and reluctantly absorbed mindfulness practice to find a balance between political activism and spiritual grounding, and discovered a new kind of joy in her life. Neumann, a former AlterNet editor, explores the relationship between our daily actions, large political events, and meaningful social change. Click here to buy a copy of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness.
I first experienced Sangha on the commune. Everyone came with different backgrounds and agendas, and there were a lot of arguments, as well as a lot of parties. Because we were living in the country, there were also many moments of beautiful silence. Grown-ups usually fell into two groups, the dreamers versus the doers, and us kids figured out pretty quickly who to go to for a good story and who to go to for a something to eat. Most of the time, we roamed freely, knowing we’d be familiar with any grown-up we eventually came across us.
After we moved to the city, I found that sense of community in political protest. This was the San Francisco Bay Area in the late seventies and early eighties. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy were on everyone’s minds and the groups that came together to protest were made up of a lot of the former commune people and those that, if they weren’t from the commune, could easily have been. People were often argumentative, prone to long meetings that lasted into the night, willing to give me a snack if I was hungry or a sweatshirt if I was cold, and motivated, for the most part, by the attempt to create a more compassionate and safe world for future generations.
I got arrested for the first time when I was thirteen years old. The arms race was at its height. Every time I crossed the Bay Bridge, I imagined a bomb exploding and I’d think, “This is the last thought I’ll ever have.” My nightmares were full of red flames and melting steel. My stepsister and I had started a group for kids who were opposed to nuclear weapons and we had decided to join the massive protest that was trying to shut down Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the local lab that designs nuclear weapons. Our group’s thinking was morally clear: Nuclear weapons killed thousands of people indiscriminately, so there was no way to use them ethically or safely. I’d written many letters to various officials, newspapers, and politicians asking them to stop funding nuclear weapon development, with no response. It was worth it to try and stop nukes from being made.
We made armbands, choreographed songs and dances, and took a workshop on what to do if and when we were arrested. We had emergency numbers written on our arms in Sharpie, secret stashes of almonds, and warm jackets. All the kids and grownups spent the night in a nearby church. I awoke in the night, unused to the sounds of snoring and rustling around me. In the dim light, our many-colored sleeping bags huddled together on the cold floor looked like a mass of vulnerable cocoons.