There’s kind of this perception out there that mindfulness teachers are always perfectly calm and “zen.”
Exhibit A: Screenshot of texts between me and a friend on election night (black boxes = unskillful language):
I must confess, the past five days have tested my practice more than I’d like to admit. I’ve grappled with anger, ego, fear, and judgment.
And that’s okay — mindfulness is not about NOT feeling things. It’s about being human and feeling all sorts of human feelings. Mindfulness is about coping with, as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, “the full catastrophe.”
For many of us, that is a PERFECT description of what the last 120 hours have felt like. (And if that is not what it has been like for you, I understand! I am not so naive as to assume that all my readers had the same expectations on Tuesday as I did. But I believe the advice below is something ALL of us can use going forward.)
I have written about 10 drafts of this post. I must honestly say I am still processing my reaction to this divisive and often hate-filled election cycle.
I wrote a Leonard Cohen-inspired post. I wrote a seven-point post-election to-do list.
But Kate McKinnon nailed the former, and the latter was just too overwhelming.
So I tried to get all Zen again, and remembered this famous Zen koan:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Like all Zen koans, it’s a little goofy, but the point, to me, is simply that there is always work to be done. We cannot fixate on the fruits of our labor, for even if we attain enlightenment, we still need to chop the wood, rake the leaves, and wash the dishes. Even if the election results had been different, we would still have to confront racism and sexism and inequality and injustice.
There would still be work to do.
And that made me start thinking of the closing chapter of Voltaire’s famous novel Candide. (You too? I knew it!!)
As the delightful eighteenth-century treatise on toleration and reason concludes, naive Candide’s trusted philosopher Pangloss tells him, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
And as Pangloss continues to philosophize and speculate, Candide replies,
“All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.”
Yes, let us tend our garden.
There has been a flurry of activity on social media, advising immediate action on a wide array of causes: civil liberties, reproductive rights, housing discrimination, institutional racism, climate change, gerrymandering, LGBTQ rights, immigration, bullying, income inequality, health care, hate crimes, nepotism, censorship, free speech, campaign finance, Wall Street regulation, scientific literacy, rights of the disabled, structural unemployment, refugee crises, …
There’s a lot of work to be done, and it can be overwhelming.
We cannot do it all.
So we must tend our garden.
It begins with making our families a place where love and compassion and kindness thrive.
It begins with us BEING compassion — not just talking about it.
Candide’s philosopher friend Pangloss spends much of his time during their crazy adventures (you should really read it if you haven’t yet!) simply thinking and philosophizing. He believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that everything can be explained by logical and necessary reasons.
He gets so wrapped up in thinking and analyzing that he forgets to act. In a particularly funny scene, poor Candide is buried beneath the rubble of an earthquake, begging for some water, while Pangloss sits nearby pondering how a trail of sulfur from Lima to Lisbon could have likely triggered the quake, and how it’s quite wonderful that the quake happened here, for it means it couldn’t have happened anywhere else, and clearly this is proof that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Meanwhile, Candide passes out.
In the final chapter, Pangloss comes face-to-face with a Turkish Dervish, a wise spiritual soul who could perhaps continue to engage him in endless philosophizing and contemplation.
“I was in hopes,” said Pangloss [to the Dervish], “that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony.”
At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.
Because we must tend our gardens.
The political pundits are telling us that part of what happened in this election was a result of bubbles and echo chambers and ivory towers. We analyzed and polled and modeled. We discussed the hypothetical and we dismissed the stories that didn’t fit our beliefs.
It’s time to get back on the ground. It’s time to dig into the soil and worms and darkness and coldness and shit. It’s time to act.
Gardens do not grow by themselves. They need tending and fertilizing and watering and trimming and harvesting.
We need to get to work.
And that can feel overwhelming.
But remember — it’s a GARDEN, not a farm.
You can handle a garden. Don’t buy a farm and start working on ALL THE THINGS that need working on right now. You don’t have the time or the energy for that.
You have a few tools, and a small piece of the earth.
Dig in. Plant the seeds you are passionate about and know something about.
I did this on Saturday — I spent four hours in volunteer training for one issue about which I am passionate, and on which I know much needs to be done. I will commit myself to this work (and probably an issue or two more, for good measure).
My friend (see the texts above) is passionate and knowledgeable on climate change. She’s working on that garden.
Tending our garden is not a retreat from the world; it’s not a collapse back into our bubble. It is the first step toward transformation. Because, in my admittedly limited knowledge of actual gardening, I do know that we start with something that looks small and messy and dark, and it usually blooms into something beautiful and nourishing and abundant.
So pick your passion, and tend your garden.
We shall reap what we will sow.
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