Buddha and the Owl: Post-election Practice, Not Perfect

I haven’t known what I wanted to say about the last couple of months. People have been saying a lot. Many people – half of the country, for whom things did not go according to our plan on election day – are afraid. And fear is a powerful emotion.

I’ve read a lot of responses to fear online – on social media, and on other platforms. In some cases, what I’ve read has been informative. In many cases, however, I’ve taken what I’ve read for what it was – someone’s fearful words put out into the world. And I’ve thought to myself, This person is afraid. And this is how this person has chosen to express their fear. I’ve chosen to limit my time on social media so as not to be further scared or agitated by someone else’s public expression of their feelings. And when I’ve elected to return to social media for short periods of time, I’ve made strategic choices about what I read. I’ve chosen to look for, and amplify positive messages. Messages of hope. Messages of empowerment. Messages of trust. Because those are the messages that resonate with me.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid and uncertain. However, for today, I choose to focus on hopeful possibility, rather than on my own fear and worry. And I’ve always heard that what I focus on expands.

I have made changes in response to recent events. My husband and I donate monthly to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Now we donate to both the Food Bank, and to the ACLU. I attended a recent town hall held by faculty in my department, affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusive practices. When I heard language that didn’t sit well with me, I spoke up and expressed myself – respectfully, yet firmly. The other day, on campus, I heard a small group of students chanting near one of the buildings. “RACISM – HELL NO! FASCISM – HELL NO! MISOGYNY – HELL NO!”. Instead of passing them by like I might have done four months ago, far too busy and in a hurry to get to my office to work, my body steered itself over to these students. As they marched past me, signs in hand, I cheered them on. They called to me. “Join us!” So I did. I walked with them for a short while, carrying one of their signs. As they called out, “RACISM!” I joined the response of “HELL NO!” As they called out, “FASCISM!” I responded, “HELL NO!” As they yelled “MISOGYNY!” I chanted back, “HELL NO!” along with them. But when they shouted, “F**K DONALD TRUMP!” I paused. Hmm, I thought. No. I‘m not down with that. I let that response proceed along without my voice.

No matter how much I disagree with the politics of the current President of the United States – and make no mistake, at the present time, based on what I‘ve heard throughout the campaign, I find most, if not all, of the policies that this new administration seems poised to institute abhorrent – I do not wish this individual, nor any members of his cabinet, harm. Sure, if the new president and his entire cabinet decided to resign, and we were able to do this whole election all over again, I would be ELATED. I would probably dance in the streets. And if someone – anyone – tried to physically harm me or those I love, I would defend myself and my loved ones. But if I am to retain my own humanity at a level that I can live with, I must in my own mind at least endeavor to respect and hold precious the lives of other humans on this Earth. Because – selfishly to be sure – this is about my soul, and me living my life in a way that lets me feel good about myself and the human being I am continually striving to become in the world.

I hope to one day be able to take it a step further. Though, honestly, it may take a while. In one of the best episodes of any show I’ve seen on television, the TV show Blackish recently tackled the very NOT black-and-white issue of the current division that exists within the United States over the election, as well as the many ways that people may choose to handle the reality of the times that we are living in.  A powerful suggestion was raised – to try to build a bridge that might cross the great divide that exists between those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton, and those who voted for Donald Trump. This bridge might be built by someone in one or the other group reaching out seeking to understand the other’s point of view, rather than to be understood (The 5th of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). I mean, the episode was DEEP. And brilliant. Because at the same time that it threw out this bold suggestion, the characters acknowledged how difficult – how possibly unfathomable – that task might be.

Most especially wonderful about this episode was seeing how differently people within the family approached the situation. While the mother and father were extremely vocal and outwardly passionate in expressing their opinions, the oldest daughter Zoe elected to make lemonade for her school. She decided that the way she felt she could most help was to make something with love and share it. I thought, Bingo.

There are so many ways to contribute to making the world a better place. Regardless of whether I march or I don’t, whether I am outwardly vocal or express my opinions through less public avenues, it is just as important – perhaps more so – for me to be clear about what I am FOR as I am about what I am AGAINST.

I am for Love. I am for Inclusion. I am for the Empowerment of historically marginalized groups, like those to which I belong. I am for Racial Equality. I am for the rights of the LGBTQ community. I am for Choice, in all its forms. I am for Personal Freedom, for Religious Freedom, for Freedom to Do Whatever the Hell You or I Want to Do, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. I am for Slowing Down and Being Present in my own life – to all of the beauty and wonder it contains, and that I have the opportunity to notice each and every single day.

On Saturday, I did not march. I walked. I walked around one of the communities in Los Angeles that I frequent, usually by car. That day, I was on foot – walking up hills, through neighborhoods, down hills, around people’s yards. My goal was to notice as much beauty as possible. I looked actively for it, paid close attention, and stopped when something caught my eye.  This is a list of what I saw:

Birds moving around one another in a succession of spirals

Large, flat cacti

Flower buds that looked like red pointy spokes of a wheel

Trees with thick roots running deep into the Earth, almost seeming to move like tendons, their grey muscles flexed and strong, and at the same time, soft like velvet

Cut out paper-colored stars hanging in a window

A house being built from the ground up on a long, slanted street

A stained-glass doorway

A tree full of oranges, still lemon-colored, but on their way to meeting their name

Two men lifting a mattress out of a small, skinny truck

The bright sun, warm on my chilled face

Wind chimes on someone’s balcony, the very air moving through them and giving them life

Buddha awash in rows of brightly-colored sparkling necklaces, sitting content in the crook of a tree where branch met trunk. And sitting opposite him, a large, nosy grey owl with bright yellow eyes. What a pair they made.

buddha_owl

A few days ago, while hurrying to my office on campus, I was struck by the sound of a loud squirrel flipping out in a nearby tree, and it kicked me into this mode of Being Present briefly. I stood and listened to that large agitated squirrel, chirping, maybe even coughing. In that moment, I remembered that I was alive and breathing. Suddenly, I could see red and green leaves like jewels in trees all around me. It doesn’t take much to make a decision to slow down. Sometimes, it’s just a soft breeze on my face, or a singular chill in the air telling me that the season is changing.

The day of my walk I also gave a gift to someone who didn’t expect it. The gift wasn’t much. And it didn’t have to be. It was thoughtful, and given with love.

I realize that my wish most of all is for people in the world to slow down and become more present to life and to each other. It’s hard for me to feel violent or harmful to myself or to anyone else when I have slowed down.

I want people to understand that we are all indelibly connected to one another, by the very nature of being human beings on this Earth at the same epoch in history. I may not like to think about being connected to someone whose politics I loathe, or who might prefer it if I weren’t a professor of astronomy looking the way that I look, or who might wish me and my entire race or gender harm. But like it or not, I am connected to that person. I may not be willing or able to reach out across the chasm that separates us anytime soon. I am a work in progress, and nowhere near that enlightened. But I can’t hurt that person without hurting myself in return. Yes, now is a time to be watchful, like the Owl, so that I may stand up, express, and defend my civil rights and the rights of others when necessary. And at the same time, I can practice being present and more loving, like Buddha.

So, if that’s what I want – more people to be present in the world, and more love – then I have to walk the talk. That is my practice. Not perfect. Practice. Positive effort for the good. I choose to believe that a bigger force than any one individual – elected or not – is hard at work in the world. If my focus is on the positive, then that force can be a positive force. That force can be Love.  And what I focus on, what we all focus on, will expand.

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By aomawa

6 comments on “Buddha and the Owl: Post-election Practice, Not Perfect

  1. Professor Shields,
    I am an undergraduate physics student at UC Irvine. I have been following your blog for several months now and am quite fascinated by your work. But besides that I wanted to acknowledge how much it meant to me to see an authority in my own field advocating love and understanding in these troubled times.
    Thank you,
    Ira Esserman

    Liked by 1 person

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