Should someone greet me saying, “Rest in peace.” I’d be offended and think they are hoping I’ll drop dead. And yet it’s one of the loveliest sentiments imaginable.
Too bad we invoke it only for the dead.
In today’s social climate, our emotions are determined largely by the daily assaults to our values, ideals and to common decency. I suppose it makes sense then that we might have to wait until we’re dead to rest in peace.
With some awareness, I think we can do better.
In The Talbot Spy on August 2nd, Maria Grant wrote a column titled “Weary of Outrage but Not Ready to Give Up.” I read it with interest.
She is outraged by the mindless enormities foisted on us by the present administration. She lists them. The list includes the denial of climate change, the migration crisis, continued sexual abuse, congressional inaction against Russian interference in our voting, and the hypocrisy of the religious right. I share her outrage.
“If you think about this too much, it can destroy you.” She warns us. “We can lose hope. What is one to do?”
To retain our own humanity and sustain hope, Ms. Grant suggests two things: that we engage in actions I would describe as serving others and nurture our hope by occasionally disengaging “from society’s incessant noise and seek beauty in nature, music and literature.” I think she’s spot on. Service and contemplation – food for the soul – is the proven formula for healing a troubled soul and mending a broken world.
Contemplation is not an exotic practice. It’s a common-sense phenomenon. It’s an uptown version of the old folk saying, “Just take a deep breath and count to ten.”
I’d also liken contemplation to how I deal with a computer. Whenever it misbehaves and begins driving me crazy by committing fatal errors, I get angry. I feel overwhelmed. I’m unsure what’s wrong or what to do. Finally, I unplug it. I wait a minute of two. Then I plug it in again. Things seem to sort themselves out.
Say, for instance, your mind is turbulent and bubbling after hearing another egregious tweet from the White House. Your mind fills with disturbing thoughts that seem overwhelming, even hopeless. I suggest letting this turbulent brew boil for a bit. Then shut off the heat. That means sit with the turbulence, but don’t obsess about it. Obsessing effectively turn up the heat. Just let it be. You’ll notice how the brew will eventually cool. The fatty and fetid stuff that makes the mix so disagreeable in the mind will slowly rise to the top and congeal. Scrape it off. The brew is now transparent. Now you can see just where and to what you want to give your attention. Spoon that part out.
Being outraged by what is outrageous is good for starters; it’s proper, directs our attention and facilitates giving the matter some serious thought. Being outraged does poorly, however, when that’s all that motivates our responses. Dealing with life’s inequities requires a cool head. Resting in peace is the proper attitude to cultivate. But in the Trump era, just how is the challenge.
Buddhism addresses this matter of maintaining mental equanimity during suffering and turmoil more pointedly than most other religious bodies. Peace is its core value. It teaches ways to rest in peace, to ride gently with adversity, not later, but right now.
A tenet of Buddha’s teachings was especially instructive for me: “Victory breeds hatred; the defeated live in pain. The peaceful give up victory and defeat.” The peaceful learn how to free themselves from the frantic cycle of winning and losing, of having to be right, not wrong. They get out of the race. It’s easier, then, to act justly and wisely.
The dead-end of the win/lose game came home to me once when I was watching clips of a Trump rally. The camera panned the crowd. I watched jubilant faces, some with hands raised in the kind of salute that chilled me. I’d see red MAGA hats everywhere and some with tee shirts that read “TRUMP” while others read, “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR – TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT.”
My reaction was instinctive and virulent. It frightened me. It was reminiscent of the Bund rallies of the Third Reich. I got angry. I felt appalled. My mind raced and I felt agitated. In my mind, I found myself saying to this crowd: “You are all mad. Can’t you see that you’ve bought the Brooklyn Bridge from a con man? You’ve been had; we’ve all been had. He cares nothing for you, the country (or Jesus Christ, for that matter) except as any of them may be useful to him to gain another term. Can’t you see that, are you blind?” Then I’d begin building my case to convince this crowd how right I was.
Did this change anything? Hardly. Did I feel better for it? No, not a whit.
I was confronted instead with my own combative nature. My need to win, to be right, to defeat these people by my righteous wrath provoked it. The combative nature of the rally itself suckered me down into my own belligerent nature and I went wildly into the fray mentally ready to take my opponents to the mat. As the Buddhists would say of my emotional response: it was not skillful. St. Paul would say that I was “thinking of myself more highly than I ought.”
What then is skillful? How do I direct what I feel and guide how I think and act when confronted with egregious violations of my values and ideals? How can I be effective when I have only limited energy? It all comes back to first practicing contemplation – putting things in perspective and then seeking ways to serve others.
For right now, that remains for me the most enduring formula I know for promoting inner peace and being a sane voice in a mad world. When taking this road, I take small steps and, whatever else happens, something good eventually comes of it.
A Zen tale illustrates the point.
A farmer’s plow horse wanders off. He can’t find the horse. His neighbors lament his misfortune and the hardship it will bring on him. “We’ll, see,” the farmer says to them. A few days later the plow horse returns, this time with a mare. His neighbors say how lucky he is to have another horse to plow his fields and the promise of even more horses. “We’ll see” says the farmer. One day the farmer’s son decides to ride the mare. She’s feisty and pitches him off. The boy falls and breaks his leg. “How dreadful,” his neighbors say to the farmer and how hard it will be for you to have no help in the fields. “We’ll see,” he answers.
One day soldiers arrive at his farm. They are looking for Army recruits. Seeing the boy’s broken leg, they then ride off without conscripting him.
Our fortunes will come and go like waves. Best to ride them as they rise and fall. No one wave lasts that long.