Sunday, March 21, 2010

“We Inter-Are”

Contemplating Virtue from my Hospital Bed, 1989, Hollywood
by Morgan Zo-Callahan

Jules Pascin 1917

[This is the last chapter of Intimate Meanderings, Conversations Close to our Hearts, which Morgan and I put together. If you want to read more and purchase the book, just click on the link.]

In a sense human flesh is made of stardust. Every atom in the human body (excluding only the primordial hydrogen atom) was fashioned in stars that formed, grew old and exploded most violently before the Sun and Earth came into being.—Nigel Calder

Dependent co-arising fits right into Ecology. People who are sensitive to the interrelationship of all things are into Dharma lore. There isn’t a more certain path into enlightenment than that of the realized capacity for being wide-eyed in the Cosmos, being totally alive, right now, with no separation between he who is aware and that of which he is aware. Yes. Just look at It All!—Tom Marshall, S.J.

The other darkest blue-black night, I was looking up at the moon, bright pearly silver, inviting wonder. I took a deep breath, viewing golden-lighted stars with spontaneous seconds of delight and submission to being alive, aware, somehow being consciously a part of spacious skies; 14.6 billion years of creating itself, the universe is changing, ever-evolving, all being, causes and effects of each other, all continually inter-acting. You and I are related so closely in this luminescent, mysterious process, beyond what we can fully know, bringing joys as well as disasters that we cannot control. I’m a tiny participant, along with you, in this dance of stars. I was shaken into this humbling realization of Thich Nhat Hanh: "We inter-are."


A very shocking experience taught me on the deepest level how inter-dependent we are in life and how I 'm connected even with those I consider hostile people. That which is in all people is likewise to some degree in myself.

I was walking out of a 7-11 in Hollywood, just before dark, when six gang-bangers attacked me. The police would later say I must have looked like a rival gang member. They did not go for my wallet—they wanted to kick the shit out of me. I fought back as best as I could. I was punched, head butted and finally one of the guys sneaked a long gray blade into my stomach, severing my renal vein and cutting my left kidney in half. There was blood all over the place.

The guys disappeared into my twilight zone of being between life and death. I experienced the thin line of passing out and somehow willfully hanging onto consciousness. For a few seconds of expansive consciousness, a "part" of me went up into the sky, looking down at my body below and my immediate surroundings. My body expanded. I don’t interpret this experience as a disconnected spirit or immortal soul (atma) looking down on me. I don’t know if there’s any separate-non-physical eternal consciousness; yet, there’s no doubt, as many have related, this remarkable psychic process happens. I was, if only quickly, floating above my body, quite a crumbling, bleeding mess.

I pressed the wound in my stomach to stop some of the blood from coming out.

The doctors told me I was the first one to save my life by putting pressure on my wound. But to live I needed to be saved by the Good Samaritan. Later I would need expert surgeons. How we need each other! Passersby ran by the desperate scene, frightened. Cars slowed down and then screeched away, ignoring my "Please take me to the hospital!" A few cars stopped, opened their doors and then changed their minds and took off. Me alone now for perhaps twenty minutes, holding my guts as tightly as I could, telling myself to keep breathing, keep awake; don't give in to that fainting feeling. If I pass out, I joke, I'll die in front of a 7-11, instead of in front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater? Not this way! Not by fellow Latinos, so many of whom in my life I love.

Finally, my good, lovely Samaritan, a Christian named Mike Bunnell, passed, stopped, opened but didn't shut his car door, and took me to the emergency room of Kaiser Hospital on Sunset Blvd., just a few blocks from where I was stabbed. I was in for a long surgery, my lungs collapsing, more than a month in the hospital.

What a strange and wonderful experience for my growing as a human being: sensing the "inter-being" of the attackers, a hero who saved my life, the surgeons-nurses-therapists who healed me, police, friends, family visiting me in the hospital and myself: all together. This unexpected, difficult trauma also allowed me to feel forgiveness, as well as blaming, being angry. Luckily it was mostly an occasion of gratitude for life, for resolve to live well, to improve myself in the areas of virtues such as mindfulness, being peaceful, releasing my anger, jealousies.

I had some hours of quiet and many hours of social interaction. Sometimes pain wouldn't allow for social contact or the presence required for meditation and reflection As police showed me pictures of gang members, I would think how much they looked like some of my students, dark, Latin, handsome, looking older-more hardened than their ages; and my rage somehow melted before it could start. My heart went out to them, understanding that they are finding acceptance and some personal power by being in gangs; some of them are seriously addicted to crack, to meth, to heroin.

You hurt me, dear hermanos, but I truly forgive you, by which I mean I still wish that you be happy and that I intend no revenge or payback. Even though I cannot like you right now, I won’t close my heart to you. I wish you find what will really make you feel peaceful and full. I agree to cooperate with the police to find you young men who pulled off this payback on the "wrong man." You need to face the consequences of your harmful actions—not a payback though you might interpret it that way. Believe me it’s not. [I could identify two of the six gang members, but the police gave up after a year of searching for them. No witnesses came forward.]

And how close I still feel to you, Mike Bunnell!—though we're totally off into our own worlds—we stay in touch. I would later visit the doctors, therapists and nurses to personally thank them and give them small gifts. A lady therapist once asked me "if I wanted to talk about it?” I just cried for about the entire hour with her; she facilitated lots of healing just by her warm, open and understanding presence. How dependent I was on that kind, lovely woman. Without the air of the skies and the warmth of the sun, we would perish. Without Mike’s generosity, my good luck and preparedness of expert medical care, I wouldn't have made it.

I spoke extensively with the policemen and policewomen on a few occasions. They talked about their frustrations with the huge gang problems in L.A. They related how a different gang that same day had stabbed an elderly man in the spine, taking his wallet and watch. The man is now paralyzed from the waist down. We talked about the gangs from El Salvador, from Mexico, from East L.A. and South L.A. We talked about the work of Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. I told them about my Mexican and Salvadoran students and how I went to funerals for a few them, murdered in drive-by shootings. Sometimes we talked about our personal lives. I had never felt such closeness with people in law enforcement and never thought much about how tough their jobs are, in often-hostile surroundings. How is it that we ended up speaking with each other for so long? I learned so much about lives I knew very little about. It's crazy to say it, but here we were also enjoying ourselves in our conversations about "good" and "bad" guys. We were making more of the occasion than just looking at mug shots and my groaning in pain from the after-effects of a long surgical wound, stapled together from my stomach to the bottom of my chest.

The violence in my attackers, the kindness in my hero, the dedication in my nurses and doctors, the encouraging thoughtfulness and visiting of my friends and family, the struggle of the great police officers: I was finding all these people and these qualities in myself. I am the Samaritan. I am the therapist and the patient. I am the gangbanger and the policewoman. We have all the different so-called "positive" and "negative" qualities. This terrible experience was an opportunity to cultivate virtues, Paramitas, in myself.

All Buddhist traditions, just as other religious traditions, include teachings and practices regarding virtue. In the Mahayana tradition, the ideal and the consciousness of the Bodhisattva, the super-generous, self-sacrificing spiritual attitude of compassion, is held in high esteem. This consciousness is described as luminescent wisdom, heart-full. Swimming deeply in the inner heart, it is expressed as love and impartial acceptance of all others, wishing all to be in touch with the inner heart-goodness within each person, meeting that same "place" within ourselves. We include ourselves, even though we are last. The Theravadin Arahant concentrates on inner liberation, which of course, includes the metta practice of wishing that all be happy and insisting on a moral practice, leading to a strong and kind character. The Vajrayana Siddha Tradition of realized masters also includes teachings of virtue and vice. It offers its own methods for becoming strong in virtue, especially through the relationship to the Spiritual Master.

I tried to name and consider the "Seven Deadly Sins" (pride, lust, covetousness, envy, anger, laziness, gluttony) and the corresponding Life-giving virtues, which eliminate the deadening result of living principally for ourselves, alone. Jesuits are fond of saying to live as "women and men for others." I made it my meditation to think about what qualities I could engender in myself to live a better life. There are virtues the Buddha extolled and those who follow him attempt to cultivate. Paramita is Sanskrit for “perfection,” “reaching the other shore of the eternal.” The idea of "reaching the other shore" marks the end of seeking. Six virtues (sometimes ten) are mentioned: generosity or charity (Dana); discipline, integrity (Sila); patience, non-expectation (Khanti); energy, joy (Viriya); meditation, attention (Dhyana); wisdom (Prana).

Our English word “virtue” comes from the Latin word virtus meaning strength and vigor to refrain from collapsing under the weight of afflictive emotions such as anger, pride, laziness, and addictive pleasures. In Buddhist traditions, such collapses result from not letting go and clinging to selfish desire. Due to our seemingly overwhelming genetic and social, conditioning, it’s difficult to first be honest about ourselves and then to continue our personal practice of developing our insight into the “interrelatedness” of all things and the accompanying compassionate action that flows from this insight.

It is our cordial, friendly intention, our kind actions, which greatly influence our present consciousness and circumstances; therefore, a major factor in developing generosity is letting go of being overly attached to our time and schedule, to slow down, to take breathing breaks for ourselves, even in the midst of busy days. Be generous to let ourselves be human. I used to give the finger to people who cut me off on our chaotic L.A. freeways, sometimes adding a "Fuck You"; now I say, "May you be happy whatever your day may bring you; I wish you good fortune."

Generosity is sharing, being a charitable giver and a gracious receiver. It's exemplified in my Good Samaritan, Mike Bunnell, who just gave to me, just for the giving. In my own life, it is opening up to communication, going beyond irritations and rushing. Be a generous listener. It’s being truly present with the Right Effort to serve others, rather than being preoccupied with our own obsessive thoughts or the dualistic thinking of “looking down on” or “looking up to” others. A few friends said to me that the gang should just get blown away by Uzis, that they were trash. No such idea ever entered my mind. It’s a practical concern for the poor as well as for the affluent, to share money for really good causes. It’s being grateful for the warm sun, for beauty, for being loved and connected to the whole of life. We are all a part of each other, so why not give with gusto and generosity?

Discipline is—even in the midst of our mistakes and difficulties—to keep the moral precepts, practice compassion, cause no harm. It is being authentic; living with integrity, not necessarily what society says is the right way for us to live. Our lives are ours. Who else can live them but we ourselves? I felt somehow renewed and resolved to try and be a better human being from my time in the hospital, some healing of body, mind and spirit. I felt I could overcome my negative habits and conditioning, and cultivate inner strength and understanding. I have to do it for the young women and men down at Homeboy's Industries and Homegirl's Cafe who are doing such great jobs.

Patience is the cultivation of serenity, not trying so much to change others, but rather, to pay attention to changing ourselves. It is the skillful means not to be overly reactive to our complex emotions, which arise in our daily interactions. It's knowing that our happiness does not have to depend on the fulfillment of our expectations. I was happy to be alive at the hospital, so I could handle the very laborious therapy required just to be able to walk. I wasn't a "difficult" patient; though I would express my needs respectfully.

I tend to repress my emotions when I'm hurt and angry. The practice of meditation and self-observation allows me to breathe, feel and be mindful of the turbulent emotions I may have. It creates an atmosphere of patience within me. Our awareness will embrace our emotions and gently allow them to subside. In the process we let go of our need for others to be as we want them to be and of our anxiousness to be overly critical of others and ourselves.

Joyful energy is the result of our genuine interest in what is most real and vibrant for us; we also are happy for another's success when we know that we share our lives together. I felt this speaking especially with Los Angeles police officers at the hospital; we were so energized by sharing our joys as well as cultivating sympathy in our sorrow. Before this time, I had some fear of the police. When sincerely interested in others, we are happy when they are happy. This interest, appreciation for, celebrating with others overcomes my jealousy, my prejudices, my envy for what others have, any feeling that I'm better than or lower than anyone else. Getting banged up, ending in the hospital brought lots of pain and anxiety and fear. Yet joy was present! I also reflected how we can be content with enough in our lives. I like what Nisargadatta says: "We don't want what we have and we want what we don't have. Reverse the attitude and intention. Want what you have and don't want what you don't have."

Meditation is the practice of being still, quiet, attentive, and mindful. We just observe and breathe, be here in the moment. We do not seek experience or push any away, whether bliss, deep “absorptions” or “negative" emotions. We are awake to whatever arises in consciousness, to see for ourselves what is unfolding within. In the hospital, I had no experience of bliss; I could barely follow my breath most of the time. Yet the practice helped me deal with physical pain, by being able sometimes to "creating a space around the pain."

Wisdom supports every virtue. It is integral to our practice of loving-kindness. Wisdom cuts through separating of people, including ourselves, into “us” and “them,” “I” and “you.” I learned this thanks to a wide array of people at the hospital and even to the gang members. Wisdom discriminates, allowing us to understand the conditions of all actions. I thought about my activism, realizing that when "I'm being nice," I am sometimes just protecting my own image. That does not serve anyone. Appropriate social actions arise from wise compassion, intelligent organizing to help others be more free and independent.

At least now, my meditation is not even “work.” I no longer supplicate some energy or force or godhead outside myself. It’s natural for me to sit down and check in with my thoughts, to see what’s in my heart. I pay attention to myself, and make efforts to be kinder, especially to those closest to me, gentler, vigilant not to cause harm to others and myself intentionally.

I’m most grateful just to be able to follow the course of my breath and my life’s yearnings. I’m calling life's curves and turns "meanderings" because there’s no sure path; it’s so windy and unexpected; we’re being fired into the Unknown; but somehow subtly able to be connected to the whole of living, in peace, bliss, mental discernment and understanding. We can create circumstances where intuitive insights “loosen” us from severe uptightness. I experience happiness when living at peace within and letting others live, without any need to control or exploit others or myself.

Ryokan, a Zen monk in eighteenth century Japan, lived in a little hut, leading an ordinary monastic life with few possessions. One night he returned home and found a thief had stolen all his belongings. In response he wrote the following haiku poem:

“The moon at the window,
the thief left it behind.”

Such is the wisdom and freedom from clinging! May all of us be happy and strengthened in our practice of virtue!

Sun. Orange-Yellow burning orb, eating forty million tons of material per second, sustaining us, exploding as one of 400 billion stars in our local Galaxy, Milky Way, just one of the 140 billion galaxies in our universe. Here we are—small, yet with precious opportunity—with a sincere intention that all beings be happy and strengthened in our practice of virtue and understanding. Ven. Dao Yuan sometimes recites at Sunday morning meditation: “The Earth is our support…” We inter-be—no separate self—the stars, moon, sun and earth inter-mingle, the whole vibrating mesh of life courses through us in every breath.