Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness
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.
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?”
The more I observe the world, the more I can’t help but be aware of the suffering and injustice in it. I am also more aware of the many different forms and practices that compassionate action can take. Protest is one form, but if my only form of action is protest, I’m missing so many daily opportunities for action. At its base, compassionate action must have compassion and insight. The history professor Cornel West puts it this way, which I think Thay would agree with: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
I have locked arms in protest with people like the author Grace Paley, whose insight and compassion continue to inspire me every day. And I have removed my arms from those people who pushed their ideas through, who had no idea how to listen. They had the abstract knowledge of what was the right thing to do, but not the body knowledge.
As a child, I used to ask my father when the revolution would come and how to make it come faster. I was eager for the rush and the thrill of these public displays, the joy of that large evidence of our interdependence. There are moments when the most effective way to make change is to get out into the street. From Tiananmen to Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park, people have demonstrated the power of a publicly visible response to suffering. But while these moments come, the day after these moments still comes as well. There are hundreds of moments in any given day when compassionate action is less dramatic but no less necessary. If justice is love in public, anytime I am in public, I have the opportunity to create justice. Listening deeply to someone else’s suffering, taking care of a neighbor’s child, opening the door and inviting people in to eat—these are little moments of justice that add to the larger moments that come. Sometimes I think of the little moments as practice for the big moments, but the big moments are also practice for the little ones. I want to act as if I’m in a world where compassion, kindness, and the awareness of our mutual dependence is the status quo. There is no need to wait.
Click here for a copy of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness