American Pilgrimage #32

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The final retreat I attended before leaving the US was the People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery outside San Diego. When I first began my pilgrimage in 2014 this was my first port of call, and so it felt fitting that this should be my last.

But it was different this time. There were twice as many people, and the atmosphere was far more intense. I attribute both effects to recent events; to two years of watching YouTube videos of black people dying at the hands of police; to the work of Black Lives Matter which, via live protests and social media, has brought a suppressed reality into the light of public awareness; to the failure of Bernie Sanders to win the nomination and the anger felt by many at having to settle for Hillary as the least apocalyptic alternative; and to the threat of the apocalypse itself, Donald Trump, who embodies racist white America.

I was in the Bay area a week earlier. One African American friend refused to have Trump’s name spoken in her house, saying, ‘that guy scares the shit out of me’. Almost eighty years old, she did not believe racism in America had changed since her own childhood. If Trump were to win, she explained, the country would, in effect, be in the hands of the Klan once more.

A Mexican friend saw Trump more as a distraction, a chimera designed to deceive the populace into accepting the status quo in the form of Hillary Clinton, a point of view I heard echoed by other people of colour. Trump’s function, they said, was to terrify people, to cause them to fear a future so horrific that they became grateful for a present in which police had carte blanche to shoot the innocent, and migrants from across the border, whether legal or illegal, lacked basic civil rights.

I had visited the East Bay Meditation Center a week earlier where I saw a Black Lives Matter altar at the front of the dharma hall. They had held a special meditation to honour the victims of police brutality, a friend told me, to help process their own pain. It involved movement designed to release the trauma held in the body. Many broke down in tears, shaking and sobbing as they experienced the grief they had been holding inside. ‘It could have been me, or any member of my family,’ my friend said, explaining how he had fallen sick afterwards, not realising how deeply he had been affected, how he had numbed himself to  his own fear and anger and sadness as a means of self-protection.

I’d heard various expressions of political fear and  rage from white Americans since I arrived in the US, but the difference, perhaps, is that for people of colour this is hardly something new. We have always had to hold our emotions in, to suppress them out of necessity, for the system afford no other alternative. Whiteness silences. Whiteness suffocates. Whiteness punishes expression. But meditation, at least, offers a third solution between suppression and expression: observation. Observation, when practised with equanimity, leads to awareness, which leads to greater peacefulness, and for people of colour at this pregnant, pressurised moment in history, this feels like the only way out.

I arrived at Deer Park Monastery with friends I had met on the last retreat, talking, as we drove, about our pain, the difficulties were were facing, our deepest fears and struggles. This continued on top of the mountain with others, clear and sincere conversations, the result of friendships formed at this place where our defences were lowered, where we could see each other clearly through a lens of trust and love. I remembered that, two years ago when I arrived at this place, I was alone and anxious, hating all the singing and forced extroversion which pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I knew now that the borders of that zone were constructed by shame produced, in turn, by trauma, much of it multi-generational.

And so the retreat began as it had two years ago, with singing and walking meditation. I still did not like the singing, but this bothered me less because in the interim I had learned, to an extent, how not to identify with my suffering, how to observe my feelings from a non-localised point of view so that, from time to time, I could even smile at my own discomfort. But that was only the singing.

During that first night, I hardly slept, and the following morning I found this experience was common to almost everyone I spoke to. A friend offered the explanation that, as we entered this safe, meditative space, our suppressed emotions were arising to the surface causing agitation and restlessness. I agreed entirely with this wise observation; I’ve experienced it so many times on vipassana retreats, noticing its onset even before the course (a phenomenon which, I think, explains the conversation my friend and I had during the drive to the monastery).

From that morning onwards, as we meditated and walked in silence, I found my whole body becoming filled with rage and pain. Not only was the feeling almost overwhelming, but I could feel the same energy emanating from so many others, and when noble silence ended after breakfast several confirmed this was the case. Of course, all the anger wasn’t confined to the topic of racism. I’ve observed for years that anger always flows from one subject to the next without discrimination, that one can be furious about white supremacy one moment and then by the sight of someone smiling, or coughing, or, simply existing. Anger is human, and inevitable, but also fundamentally irrational. Anger is our wish for the present moment to be different, to be other than it is, and this is obviously impossible.

In my case, at least, I was becoming angrier and angrier about the fact that we all had to suffer in this way, that people of colour had had to endure such violent oppression. I thought about the war in Vietnam that had affected so many of the monks at the monastery, about the slaughter and continued humiliation of Native Americans, about the shooting of Philando Castile which had happened while I was on my vipassana course in Montreal, and I thought about myself and my family, about how much happier all our lives might have been were it not for racism, and colonialism, and the East India Company. And of course this was irrational too: the past is contained within the present moment, and it’s all set in stone, immutable. But on I went. On we all went. And the intensity seemed to build and build and build.

Though my own traumatic experiences, in both childhood and adulthood, took place in Britain, I knew instinctively that I didn’t need to fear feeling alienated from the experiences of others in the USA. The root cause was the same, the post-traumatic stress and fear and self-hatred generated by whiteness, that ideological construct which has been exported across the entire world, designed to concentrate power in the hands of those who believe themselves to be white.

Whiteness, by its nature, stifles protest and dissent, renders it dangerous and difficult, denies its own existence through force and brutality. I recalled the number of times I had said to myself, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ and then had woken up the next morning, still breathing. I am certain that millions of others have said the same, and yet there we were, two hundred of us on that mountain top, still alive and still wanting to be happy, seeking a way out of this intense, relentless suffering, seeking to transform our pain and grief and rage and fear into love and compassion.

The theme of the retreat was The Path of True Love: Healing Ourselves. To many, myself included, this felt impossible,  a fool’s dream, and yet I continued to meditate, and to walk with awareness, and even to sing. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced over and over again, one I recognise now is essential to the path of dhamma. Amidst all this suffering we have to attempt the impossible, to aspire to that which cannot be attained, to seek mastery over the mind even when it feels we cannot experience a single breath in peace.

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American Pilgrimage #31

I am in San Francisco, one of the homes of American Buddhism. I’ve been staying with a dear friend, a seventy-eight year old woman who had the distinction of working with the Black Panthers in Oakland and tripping acid with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury. I met her on the first meditation retreat I did in America, the People of Colour Retreat at Deer Park Monastery, but I feel as if I’ve known her for lifetimes.

A few days ago we meditated together in the morning before she went to take a shower and I searched the kitchen for something to eat. I found cake, and then some brownies which looked good. I ate part of one and then stopped, concerned. When my friend returned she confirmed my suspicion: after having abstained from intoxicants for five years, I had just taken a sizable bite of a very strong marijuana cookie.reefermainLike so many people, I used to be very fond of getting high. Sometimes it took my anxiety away and sometimes it increased it, but I liked the colours, the way music sounded, the conversations I would have, the laughter,pleasant feelings, and absence of pain. That evening, however, when we meditated again, I found myself wanting the feeling to go away. I could not focus, was unable to separate my thoughts from my awareness of them.

During meditation, I usually experience two streams of consciousness: one consists of my thoughts, feelings, sensations, and breath, and the other my awareness of them. Under the influence of marijuana, my awareness had become weak. Much of the time I was simply drifting along on the tide of my thoughts, a single stream of consciousness. It was pleasant — marijuana is pleasant, most of the time — but I had lost my awareness.

Over the following days I visited the wonderful San Francisco Zen Center, and two People of Color sanghas, one in the Mission, and the other in Oakland. During the end of the sit at the Mission, the teacher spoke of loving ourselves, of being kind to ourselves, and I realised how much shame I still carried, how I was slowly getting better at practicing self-love, but found it hard nonetheless and suffered because of this. I remembered how, when I was high, I hadn’t been aware of this. Of course, many would argue that a blissful, stoned, ignorance is preferable to painful awareness, but if this were the case, then the practice of meditation would be unnecessary.

The second dhamma talk in Oakland was about how we hold our pain and trauma in our bodies, how when we meditate we find pieces of ourselves we have repressed and integrate them into the whole. This made absolute sense to me. I remember how nine years ago, after my first vipassana course, I couldn’t stop crying, how I kept saying, ‘I don’t like myself’, how this was a truth I had always been too ashamed, too frightened, to confront.

Sitting in that dhamma hall I realised that shame can only exist in isolation. As the talk continued, and people asked questions, sharing their experiences, it was clear that we were all battling very similar demons, all trying to come out of self-hatred and to love ourselves, be kinder to ourselves, feel our pain with tenderness and compassion, without judgement. For me, it feels like learning a new language. I’m taking baby steps, but the days I’ve spent in sanghas like this have helped me very much.

People of Color (POC) Meditation and Dharma Talk – Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society

Every Wednesday 5:30-7pm Liberation from suffering is the ultimate aim of Vipassana practice. In this sitting group for practitioners of color, we will cultivate joy, presence, and wisdom on and off the cushion, with periods of silent meditation, discussions, and dharma teachings. All persons who identify as people of color are invited to attend.

From time to time, I meet people who react with scorn or even outrage when I mention People of Colour retreats. I feel irritated when I hear this, and very rarely explain. It’s hard to speak of vulnerability or pain while being interrogated or attacked. But in this, my non-responsiveness, lies the answer. In order to work with our deepest traumas we have to feel safe. Coming together enables us to do this, to feel connected and loved so that we can go deeper. For me and many others, racism, and whiteness — the belief in the racial superiority of white people and the inferiority of people of color – is a tremendous obstacle to feeling safe. Racism has caused us to feel perpetually unsafe, threatened and afraid, needing to build walls around ourselves, alert to dangers that may or may not materialise, always alive to the possibility that we might encounter a racist micro or macro aggression. For many of us whiteness was an initial causes of trauma, of our feelings of shame or self-hatred or inferiority, wounds we all need to heal from.

Being among People of Color can help to reduce that fear. It doesn’t eliminate it, for we carry it with us wherever we go, but it helps.  We feel safer, more secure, more able to close our eyes and sink to the depths of our selves, to cry if we need to, to touch our broken hearts. So many people I know, myself included, have experienced racist encounters while on retreat and the results can be devastating. On retreat, with our defences lowered, we are more vulnerable to retraumatisation and there have been cases of people who have given up their practice entirely after such incidents. This is the reason, or one of the reasons, why People of Color sanghas exist.

In a few days I am going back to Deer Park Monastery, the place where this journey began for me two years ago. But this time I will arrive with friends, and to a place that feels, if not like home, then at least like a sanctuary from the horrors outside. And America is a horrifying place right now. In spite of the progress achieved by Black Lives Matters, racial violence continues unimpeded, and now the threat of fascism is becoming a reality. People are terrified, talking in terms, quite literally, of fight or flight. But racism has left deep wounds in the American psyche and until these wounds are healed fascism will always be a threat, Trump or no Trump.

The only way that threat can be removed is by healing the spiritual wounds racism has caused to whites and non-whites alike. I am going to Deer Park to heal my own wounds, but by doing so, I know I’ll help others to heal, and the process will continue after we leave, affecting all we  come into contact with. It’s the only long-term solution I can think of, as fragile and delicate as it is, for if we neglect love and compassion then Trump and his constituency win, regardless of the result in November. As always, I am grateful for the opportunity to and I pray that everyone may find ways of their own to heal . This gentle, near imperceptible work has never felt more important.

raiche

 

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American Pilgrimage #30

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Last Sunday I finished a 10 day vipassana course at Dhamma Suttama, outside Montreal. The week after a course is always strange. You haven’t spoken for nine days, have been up at four every morning, meditating ten hours a day. And you have experienced your mind in its totality, doing nothing but watching and watching and watching, an extraordinarily simple yet devastating experience.

By the time you leave, you have succeeded, at least to an extent, in reprogramming yourself, undoing habit patterns you’ve clung to since birth, patterns that have intensified the older you’ve become. And now you re-encounter the world and it feels less familiar. The things you used to do habitually become difficul, sometimes; you feel happy or sad or hurt when you used to feel nothing; and in this instance, I was exhausted.

This was one of my better courses. I was very focused, very equanimous, but it left me drained and weary. For ten days I had been swimming upstream, going against everything I’d every known. This is vipassana. It teaches you the opposite of everything society and even your peers tell you. Instead of trying to meet as many of your wants as possible, you learn to let go of those wants, realising it’s the wants that make you unhappy rather than the fact of their being unmet.

But first you have to know you are unhappy. It’s something I’ve experienced over and over, arriving at a vipassana centre straight from the world with all my defences and routines intact, sending final emails, making phone calls, thinking about all the things I haven’t done, and then I switch off my phone and the course begins and by the end of Day 1 I’m wondering what the point of living is, seeing misery everywhere I look, experiencing states of mind I’ve protected myself from in the preceding months, using distraction or repression or simple denial so that I could function. That’s what society tells us to do. And we do it all the time. And the more success we have, the more money, the more status, the more ego, the less willing we are to admit to our own unhappiness. But it’s there nonetheless, even if we never acknowledge it for the whole of our lives.

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As the course progressed, it became clear to me that unhappiness is unavoidable for human beings. At any moment we want a near infinite quantity of things, some large and significant, some tiny and trivial, but whatever they are, not having those things, craving them, make us unhappy. We may have a toothache or a headache and wish it would go away; we may be lonely and longing for love; we may hate our jobs; we may wish we were rock stars or millionaires; or we may want a hamburger, or to go bed, or to go home. It doesn’t matter all that much. In fact, I would say we all crave roughly the same things. We all want to be loved; we all want not to be hurt or abused; we all want material comfort; we all want to be respected; we all want the people we love to be well and happy; we all want to be healthy; we all want to avoid old age, sickness and death.

Society teaches us to try to meet these wants, to avoid or prevent those things we’re afraid of from touching us, and American society does this more than any other in history. American society is based on the avoidance of pain, on the will to power, the desire to live forever, on perpetual consumption, on ambition, lust, and the pursuit of success. In America everyone is a millionaire in the making. In America everyone has a dream. And the worst thing one can be is a loser.

Vipassana teaches us that this mentality is the cause of our unhappiness — that we, rather than our external circumstances, are the cause of our unhappiness — and in this lies a way out, because if we are the cause then we can be the solution; if the problem lies in the mind, then the solution lies in the mind too.  If we learn to control our minds, then we can learn to let go of those cravings, to accept our reality peacefully and harmoniously. It’s a universal truth, and the Buddha isn’t the only one to have realised it. Americans have come to this conclusion too, like Reinhold Neibuhr, the early twentieth century theologian from Missouri who authored the serenity prayer which is used by Alcoholics Anonymous today. 

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By the end of those ten days in Dhamma Suttama, I was left in no doubt that my mind was quite wild and untamed, pulling itself apart in pursuit of cravings of every kind, running frantically from everything it dislikes or fears or hates. Yesterday, however, I was hiking in a forest of giant redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, some of them older than the Buddha’s teachings. I saw how unmoved they were, unaffected by any weather or by the chaos going on beneath them in the world. I met a man who told us he drove his car into a giant redwood at 100 miles an hour, was in a wheel chair for five months, but the redwood, of course, was unscathed.

This is how I would like my mind to be. It’s my aspiration, my goal. I do not know of any other way to come out of suffering, and though the process is hard and painful and most of all long, it’s all I’ve got.

Being calm like a redwood does not mean being uncaring or inhuman. I do not believe there is such a thing as a neutral, impassive mind. I think indifference is the opposite of love, another aspect of hatred, a colder self-denying form of anger or fear. Being calm like a redwood means transcending the negative so that love and compassion can flood in by default. One of the few things that I know for certain is that no fear or rage or craving is permanent. If we watch these feelings, patiently, calmly, trying our best, they will subside and love and peace will prevail. It’s hard, hard work, but it’s easier than we think it is.

As I sat in that Dhamma Hall I was shocked to realise that over the last nine years, I have spent a whole year in meditation. But on the last day of the course, as I listened to the teacher, S.N. Goenka’s, final discourse, I found myself in tears. I felt so much gratitude for having encountered vipassana, so much love, barely able to believe my good fortune. Even though I have so far to go, with every course I sit, with every hour I sit, I am becoming less angry, less fearful, less anxious and, as a matter of course, more peaceful, more loving, more kind.  The goal is so far away, but what else is there to do but walk towards it?

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American Pilgrimage #29

Two weeks ago, I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center, a retreat for writers and artists which, as far as I knew, had no connection to meditation. A day after arriving, however, its founder told me he had set it up with meditation in mind, and that the famous Karmê Chöling monastery was nearby. Karmê Chöling was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s first monastery in the USA. I’ve read so much about him in the last two years after visiting his old headquarters in Boulder, but I’d forgotten he was originally based in Vermont.

Trungpa was a Tibetan monk who fled Tibet after the invasion and studied in Oxford before coming to America where he founded Naropa university and the shambhala teaching method. He left a colourful legacy behind, stories of drunkenness, wild teaching methods, and sexual liaisons with students. During the course of my travels, however, I have never heard anyone speak badly of him, unlike so many other teachers whose names have been tarnished by scandal. Everyone agrees that he was entirely open about what he did, and very powerful. Most report their meetings with him as terrifying, not because of anything he did, but because he functioned like a mirror to the self, showing you all that you were trying not to see. When he died in 1987 it was a huge trauma for his lineage, and his funeral was in Vermont, only 45 minutes away from Vermont Studio Center.

Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche -Trailer -Shambhala

http://www.crazywisdomthemovie.com/trailer http://www.crazywisdomthemovie.com/home http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172047/ Crazy Wisdom is the first film to explore the life and “crazy wisdom” of Chogyam Trungpa, ‘the bad boy of Buddhism,’ who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West.

The following morning, one of the residents told me she was about to drive there, and asked if I’d like to come. Of course I said yes, and we arrived at the monastery at around 11 a.m., just as a long retreat was finishing. It was on a forested hillside, and we instantly felt a very different energy there, powerful but gentle, very peaceful. We met a woman from Wisconsin who, by coincidence, was about to become the spiritual mentor of the person I’d travelled there with. She took us on a tour of the area, and showed us the spot where Trungpa’s funeral occurred during which thousands reported seeing a horizontal rainbow appear on a sunny day quite free from rain.

As we walked away, our guide said something which encapsulated the thoughts I’d been having since arriving in America few weeks ago. ‘The essence of our practice,’ she said, ‘is kindness — learning to embrace our essential goodness.’ This is exactly what I have come to believe. When we’re being kind, we’re happy in a way that’s free from grasping, in a way that, unlike sensual pleasure, cannot be transformed into misery.

There are four components to vipassana. 1) Sila, or morality, meaning not harming others 2) Samadhi, concentration, essential for awareness 3) Panna, the main technique whereby we undo the negative habit patterns of the mind 4) Metta bhavana, or loving-kindness. I’ve come to the conclusion that the last part is the goal, the core reason why we practice, to try, in every moment, to increase the flow of kindness and reduce the flow of unkindness. To do this, we have to do the others: avoid harming others, be aware of the contents of our minds, and reduce anger, fear, anxiety, and greed. Without question, meditation has enabled me to be kinder to myself and others, though I still find myself falling prey to unkind thoughts on a regular basis. And it’s far easier to be kind to others when they are kind to you, when life isn’t posing any real challenge, something I learned the hard way on June 23rd, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Like many others, I felt disgusted, disappointed, worried, and angry. As I’ve written before, I grew up experiencing the worst Britain has to offer, intense racism and xenophobia, hatred, rage,  cruelty, abusiveness, fear, ignorance, and unkindness. The Brexit vote brought it all back, all the trauma, all the bad memories. I did not post last Sunday because I was too full of rage. I’d have written ‘I HATE YOU’ a thousand times, which wouldn’t have been of much use to anyone. I joked later that I should probably have been in prison, so unhinged did I feel.

Amidst all the rage, however, I knew I had to stick to that core intention of being kind to myself and others. This meant not condemning myself for my anger, recognizing these feelings as understandable, as part of being human. Unfortunately, this meant seeking to extend that same understanding, that same kindness, to racists, xenophobes, hypocritical liberals, British nationalists, imperial apologists, unscrupulous journalists, mediocre politicians , Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, and Donald Trump. This was harder. It is far harder to be kind to someone you feel threatened by, or who you feel has done you wrong. But most of the time, at least, I have the intention, and this is something I won’t let go of.

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Kindness  isn’t a question of desert. If we are unkind to those we feel deserve unkindness, we increase the aggregate flow of unkindness.  If I find a BNP member and punch him on the nose, he’ll wake up angrier and more hate-filled than before, more unkind. This is how it works. Acts of kindness and unkindness multiply exponentially. It’s why our actions matter so much, why our actions affect everyone else. The other residents at Vermont Studio Center were so kind to me, and their kindness helped me be kinder to myself, to recover, to go to that meditation hall and observe all that anger and hatred, gently opening the door in case they felt like leaving. I am grateful to them, and to my meditation.

Thankfully, I’m about to sit another 10 day vipassana course in Montreal from Wednesday (which means I won’t be able to post until the 17th). I’m glad that in this disturbing and difficult time I still have my meditation, this dhamma that does not care about about Farage or Brexit or Trump, whose only goal is to replace hatred and rage with love and compassion. 30,000 people protested in London yesterday, but I see my upcoming meditation course as having an equal value. Today, America and Europe are under great threat from the far right, a phenomenon we could describe as organised unkindness. By meditating, by trying to cleanse our minds of anger and hatred, we are fighting back. Meeting unkindness with kindness is the only sure way to defeat it.

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American Pilgrimage #28

Two years ago, during the first leg of this journey, I did a course on spiritual memoir writing at Esalen, in California.

We were asked to write about our earliest traumatic memory, a moment before which things were one way, and after which they were another. I wrote about my first day at school, how I had to cross a line of children all spitting the word ‘Paki’ at me, a word I heard every day until I reached adulthood. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like had I never had this experience, had I never heard that word.

It could have happened. A few years ago my father told me that after accepting his job at Lancaster he was offered a job at Yale, which he turned down because he had already committed to Lancaster. And so, all these years, I’ve had images in my head of a parallel life as an Indian American in New England. I’ve spoken with Indian and Asian American friends about this: some say they never encountered any racism, others that their experience was limited to that supposedly benign, middle-class mockery that nonetheless slowly eats away at self-esteem and soul. None, however, reported the sort of violent, hate-ridden execration that I experienced.

Although I was born in England, I lived in Boston for a year when I was three, and it was only when I returned to Lancashire that my experience of racism really began with my first day at school, my new identity as a ‘Paki’ instead of as a little boy. In fact, my earliest memory is of America. It’s of a small playground on a grassy green slope, at the bottom of which is a large outdoor swimming pool.  My mother had taken me there  after kindergarten, my sister too, who was at primary school nearby. It was sunny that day. I’ve dreamed of it. It’s my happy place, a snapshot of the moment before the fall.

I left New York two days ago for Providence. The train stopped at New Haven, where Yale is, where I would have grown up had my father’s job offer come just a little earlier. I stared at the sign, wondering what my life would have been like. To my surprise, New Haven looked quite grim, not entirely unlike Lancashire.

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I spent the night in Providence then rented a car then next morning, en route to the Wonderwell Retreat Center in New Hampshire. Along the way I stopped at Harvard, just to see the university. I sent a picture of Harvard yard to my mother who replied that when I was three, we used to live in Belmont, not far away.  When I returned to the car I put Belmont into the GPS. Rush hour was approaching, so prudence suggested I should give it a miss, but I didn’t. Instead, I negotiated the ex-Boston traffic and arrived at Belmont half an hour later.

I drove around for perhaps twenty minutes, staring at the public library and the dentist’s office, wondering if I’d ever been there. And then I saw it. A pool with a green slope behind it and a playground near the top. It precisely matched my image in my memory, in my dreams. But the memory was almost forty years old. Could this playground really have been here for forty years?

I parked and ran across a busy street, ascending the slope, staring at the playground. I saw a woman walking her dog, asked her how long it had been there. She said she remembered it from her childhood (she looked about my age). I took several pictures and sent them to my sister who, five years older than me, remembered it too, reported having swimming lessons in that pool and hating them because she was the only one who couldn’t swim.

To me, at that moment, it was infeasible that anyone could hate anything about Belmont. I was half-crying, gazing at all the beautiful homes, the green spaces, the nice kind people, the confident well-adjusted children. Everyone looked happy there. Of course they did. This was heaven, for me at least, the real world equivalent of Sesame Street which I had watched three times a day while I was there, and I didn’t want ever to leave.

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But I did leave, arriving at my retreat centre in New Hampshire as night was falling whereupon I meditated and fell asleep. The following day, I thought about what had happened and came to a few conclusions.

Had I grown up in Belmont, or New Haven, or New Jersey, I might still have encountered racism, though in all probability I would have escaped the more visceral trauma of growing up in Lancashire. But to imagine that I would have been as happy as Big Bird the entire time was a delusion.

Suffering is universal. Suffering is everywhere. Some environments are worse than others,  but the mere experience of being alive guarantees suffering. It finds us no matter what.

My Belmont fantasy, though understandable, was still fantasy, a particular kind of craving that the Buddha called bhava tanha. Bhava tanha creates more suffering because it leads us to bemoan our fate, to blame others, to think of ourselves as martyrs or cursed souls leaving us depressed or angry or even suicidal.

The solution is to accept suffering, to find a way to carry it rather than trying to run from it or being defeated by it, and to do this, we have to accept our reality, to give up wishing it could be, or had been, different.

That happy memory of Belmont will stay with me, and this is no bad thing: what’s important is not to become attached to it, not to pine for it. The past is over and the present is right here. I was angry about racism for years, believing there was no way out until I learned that external reality doesn’t have to be the sole determinant of our happiness. There is also the inside. The mind. By working on our minds, we can change our experience of reality, our reaction to it. Suffering will always be there. And Sesame Street doesn’t exist, at least not in the real world. Believing it does will leave us in a permanent state of craving and misery. If I didn’t know this before, I know it now.

This is not America

 

 

 

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