When I was six, a Native American woman visited my kindergarten class. She sat with us in a circle and talked about her tribe and its customs. Then, with no doubt off the top of her head, she bestowed upon each child an Indian name. The boys got strong monikers like Soaring Eagle. The girls got princess names. Princess Moon, and the like. But when she got to me she said “You are Rabbit’s Foot.” Not Princess Rabbit’s Foot. Just plain, Rabbit’s Foot.
I looked at the little girl next to me, who had been dubbed Princess Spring Flowers and wondered what she had that I didn’t have. Whatever the mysterious quality was, I thought to myself, “Not everyone can be a princess.” And indeed, growing up, I wasn’t a princess. My father never once called me his “princess.” At kindergarten, the popular girls….the ones with the black patent leather shoes….never let me sit with them, no matter what I wore. This pattern repeated itself through high school and college as well.
Not being a princess freed me to believe that it is possible for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. For me, the difference between an “ordinary” and an “extraordinary” person is not the title a person might have (like Princess), but what that person does to make the world a better place for us all.
I don’t know why people choose to do what they do. When I was a kid I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to grow up, have 2.2 kids, get married. And I certainly didn’t think about being a nun or an activist. I didn’t even really know what it meant to be either.
Growing up, I ended up defending my older brother a lot for various reasons, and I often think that is what started me on my path to whatever I am today.
When my dear Teacher Sudharma approached with the idea of trying to create a campaign and a village for children rescued from the sex/human trafficking underground, we were just three people in a monastery office in 2005. I had more than a few ideas about how to begin the campaign, but what if nobody cared? What if nobody responded? I knew the only way to answer those questions was to accept the challenge.
I’ve learned that, if I have any power as an individual, it’s because I work with other individuals around the world. We are ordinary people… Dr. Ole-Jørgen Edna from Norway, Jemma from Armenia, Paul from Canada, Kosal from Cambodia, Haboubba from Lebanon, Diana from Colombia, Margaret from Uganda and many more…who have worked together to bring about extraordinary change. The Upaśānti Village campaign is not just about the children and the traffickers….it’s about the power of individuals to work with governments in a different way.
I believe in both my right and my responsibility to work to create a world that doesn’t glorify violence and war, but where we seek different solutions to our common problems. I believe that these days, daring to voice your opinion, daring to find out information from a variety of sources can be an act of courage.
I know that in environments of uncertainty, fear, and hunger, the human being is dwarfed and shaped without his being aware of it, just as the plant struggling under a stone does not know its own condition. Only when the stone is removed can it spring up freely into the light. But the power to spring up is inherent, and only death puts an end to it.
I take heart in a promising fact that the world contains food supplies sufficient for the entire earth population. Our knowledge of medical science is already sufficient to improve the health of the whole human race. Our resources and education, if administered on a world scale, can lift the intelligence of the race. All that remains is to discover how to administer upon a world scale, the benefits which some of us already have. In other words, to return to my simile, the stone must be rolled away. This too can be done, as a sufficient number of human beings come to have faith in themselves and in each other.
I know that holding such beliefs and speaking them publicly is not always easy or comfortable or popular….particularly in the post-9/11 world. But I believe that life isn’t a popularity contest. I really don’t care what people say about me….and people have said plenty! For me, it’s about trying to do the right thing….even when nobody else is looking.
I believe worrying about the problems plaguing our planet without taking steps to confront them is irrelevant. The only thing that changes this world is action.
Most people tend to get caught up in going to college, then getting a job, buying a house and paying the mortgage. Somehow, I’ve had the desire….and the drive…..to do things a bit differently.
Several years ago, I told my friend and inspiration, Summer, the story of my kindergarten Indian naming. She grinned and pointed out something wonderful. “Rabbit’s Foot means good luck. That’s way better than being a princess.”
I believe that words are easy….the truth is told in the actions we take. If enough ordinary people back up the common desire for a better world with action, I believe we can, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things.
Mindfulness is paying attention to real time reality. This can seem like such a small thing…..and it is. It is a state of attention that is as natural and soft and wordless as our peripheral vision. Yet mindfulness also means to remember…what? Mindfulness pulls us back to a greater living reality, reminding us that life is more than our own repetitive thoughts or fears or desires. Rooted in the present tense, world of the body rather than the thoughts, the strangely named “mindfulness” delivers us from the hellish centrifugal force of our own egos.
My dear Teacher Sudharma once said: “Deeply buried in the mind, there lies a mental mechanism which accepts what the mind perceives as beautiful and pleasant experiences and rejects those experiences which are perceived as ugly and painful. This mechanism gives rise to…things like greed, lust, hatred, aversion, and jealousy. We choose to avoid these hindrances, not because they are evil in the normal sense of the word, but because they are compulsive.”
Most of us know the pull of compulsions…..from the siren call of the refrigerator and that last piece of homemade whatever….or the thought or worry that keeps repeating…..the memory that shadows our lives. Mindfulness saves us by gently, gently, gently pulling us back into the world of the living, the world of new possibilities. But here’s the thing. Mindfulness is so gentle in its action, so subtle and inclusive by nature, that it needs the help of concentration (samadhi). In meditation, concentration on an object like the breath is a tool that keeps the sensitive attention of mindfulness anchored. The catch is that mindfulness brings meaning and understanding to what we see….without mindful awareness, concentration can become narrow and driven…compulsive.
Strangely, as I was pondering these things on Sunday, I managed to lock myself out of the library here in monastery. All my belongings were inside….keys, phone, books, everything. And just when everything was going so well, when I seemed to be flowing along so…mindfully….the locked door closed behind me and there I stood….locked out. After the first rude shock of it, after the momentary impulse to become desperate and panicked, I went for a walk. I found myself thinking “I’m locked out, I’m locked out…and variants including “I can’t believe this happened to me! Why now?” As I walked, the beautiful colors of the changing leaves and the cool air or some unnamable combination of both, called me to remember that I am here. On the Earth. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t just locked out….I was locked in my own tiny skull, oblivious to the life around me. I shifted the focus of my concentration from the mantra “Locked Out” to the sensation of walking and breathing….the awareness of being alive on this beautiful Earth. When I returned to the library, the door was unlocked.
Mindfulness is like walking through an open door.