In my last post I asked myself: How do I not live in a bubble? I wrote that since the killing of George Floyd I recalled my first demonstration in Central Park after King had been killed, and thought about the 52 years that had passed since then.
But those kind of reflections become their own bubble: I went to this demonstration, I worked with that organization, I always wanted things to change, blah blah blah.
How do you not live in a bubble? Especially if you live, as I do now, in an area that is mostly white and rural, not mixed and urban. The wounding that happens here—and it does happen here—is usually less violent and more subtle. There is still fear. Most people of color tend to come from the Five Colleges that have much pride in their diverse international student body. Which can become another bubble.
I’ve been working with koans for a long time. A Zen koan is something that ostensibly makes no sense when you first read or hear it. A student asks an earnest question and the teacher gives out a shout or a yell, even a blow. They see wild ducks flying overhead and the teacher asks where did they go? The student doesn’t know so the teacher pinches his nose hard and yells: “When have they ever been gone?” You look up at the sky, there’s nothing there, so why does the teacher yell those inscrutable words?
Maybe because everything is here all the time. Our senses don’t reveal that but somewhere, somewhere, we know it’s true. We can’t see it from a distance—that leads to analyses, conclusions, and judgments—we can only be aware of it up close.
Bernie often told me that koan study is always about standing in a different corner of the room and bearing witness.
I look at the lines of helmeted police looking like so many of Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, or the National Guard on horseback. Friends get indignant—It looks like a military state! I tell them they can afford the indignation because they’re not the one who owns the neighborhood store that doesn’t bring in much money, that took a hit during covid, and has now been burned to the ground. Or else someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of your apartment.
Till now you looked at the situation from the safety of your computer desk or your television set. What happens if you change the corner of the room where you stand? You might look around and say: I need protection. It wasn’t me that killed George Floyd, but I’m losing everything!
Change where you stand again and see how the family of George Floyd is experiencing this moment. Change corners again and see an unhoused woman looking through a store window at the riots on a television screen that has a home while she does not. Move to another corner and bear witness to the horror onlookers felt watching the killing of George Floyd. Move again and witness the birds flying away from there in fright from the yelling and the noise.
Depending on what corner of the room you stand, you’re going to see things differently.
But first, are you ready to move from one corner of the room to another? Are you nimble enough, flexible enough? If you are, you’ll see that people are usually not more stupid or evil or ignorant or violent; given the corner of the room where they/we stand, this is what they/we see. It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it wrong; all of life is right here this moment. It’s all one room.
“Don’t you feel paralyzed then?” I’d ask Bernie. “How do you know what to do?”
“The room contains all these corners,” he’d say, “it’s still one room. Can you do something that addresses all the different corners? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Whoever you exclude will undermine what you do. Still, you must do something.”
Do your best even if you can’t take care of everyone, but always remember that somewhere behind the cobwebs, in a dim little space, there’s a corner you haven’t visited.