“I believe that deep down, all human beings are really good.”
I thought of those words of Anne Frank recently, when I met a little boy in Bangladesh. A little boy who grabbed my finger and aimlessly led me around a refugee camp. A little boy with an empty plate and eyes, oh, a hundred years old, and a tiny behind as wrinkled as an old man’s…Listen Anne Frank: How can all people really be good if he…like millions of other children who’ve had to give up their right to live, to smile, to learn, and to grow…has had to suffer so much?
You were so young, Anne Frank…your trust in humanity so extraordinary. Sitting there in your small loft. Writing. Hoping, Dreaming. Believing. Surrounded by so much evil. And finally, listening to Evil itself hammering on the door behind which you had been hiding for such a long time.
Did you still believe when they brought you to Auschwitz? When your mother was sent to her death? As your sister lay dying? And then you…?
More than seventy six years after you wrote your words, there is still war, poverty, child exploitation and neglect. One hundred eighty million children are homeless around the world. It is estimated that 1.6 billion people around the world live in “inadequate shelter”. An estimated 6.3 million children under the age of 15 years died in 2018. 5.4 million of them were under the age of 5 and 2.5 million of those children died within the first month of life. This translates into 17,261 child deaths per day or 720 per hour.
We are defined by those deaths.
Anne asked, “Why can’t people live with each other in peace?…Why must everything be destroyed?…Why must people go hungry while surplus food elsewhere in the world rots aways?…Oh, why are people so crazy?” Yes, why are people so crazy, Anne? Or would you today, as a ninety-year-old woman, have given it another name? Why are people so cynical? Maybe because it is easy and fashionable to be a cynic, to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, really.” It is easy to turn one’s back, turn off the television news. But I ask you, where do the children turn? They do not disappear at the push of a TV button. Their suffering does not cease, their cries do not hush, even though we can’t (and often choose not to) hear them.
Deprived of freedom in a small loft, Anne painted a portrait of herself that has survived. Survived not only because of the circumstances of her life, but because of her belief in Life. Her belief in you and me. And in our ability to change. To protest. To care. To make good what is evil.
“I believe that deep down, all human beings are really good.”
We owe it to her to listen. We owe it to her to be good. We owe it to her to believe in the possibility of Good, within all of us, and then in our daily life to demonstrate this belief. Because Anne believed in us.
In spite of everything.
A girlfriend who is considering a change wrote me last night. She wondered how hard the transition was for me, as a teacher, leaving the thriving Connecticut community for the quieter solitude of the Massachusetts Green Mountain Forrest. I admitted, the actual change wasn’t difficult at all. But before I could embrace this new life I love…..I had to face a fear I didn’t even know I had.
It was the fear of being obsolete and forgotten. Of not being seen and thus, I would no longer matter. As if only by my exposure to the world could my relevance be measured.
I wonder how many of us feel that way? Compelled to put ourselves out there constantly, relentlessly…..for fear the world will forget our worth. And it will. That’s the truth. The hoard of anonymous numbers we work so hard to amass and maintain are far quicker to dissipate than ever were to grow.
You don’t have to trust everything out in the world, but you need to be able to connect inside and learn to trust your heart. And maybe that’s one of the beauties of age, is that you become so much more secure in that…..intuition suddenly becomes stronger and more clear. I find it easier to listen to myself, to the signals I get…..I’m learning to respond much more efficiently.
And what I’ve realized is, that’s ok with me. Because I’m ok with me. This was my most challenging transition. Bigger than a move. And a place of far greater significance.
And so to my friend I wrote, yes it was hard. As all good and wonderful things tend to be.
On Monday, Namgyal Institute for Buddhist Studies will release a new episode of the Westchester Meditation Center podcast with teacher, Monica Gauci…..a remarkable and brilliant woman who mostly lives off-the-grid. We chatted for hours, as butterflies flew in and out of her open-air sitting room, overlooking the valleys and distant coast. I’m reminded that these are the connections, the moments, that will always matter most. And the ones that the Namgyal Teachers and I are grateful to be able to share…..with you.
HOMEWORKHere’s a twist for the 10 year-challenge we offer students at Namgyal Retreats…..what would you go back and share with your decade-younger self?I look back and remember what a time she was going through. I wish I could tell her this: I know you can’t feel the hand that guides you but that’s the way it must always be. So you will feel lost, but it’s only because this way is new to you. You will feel helpless, but you are stronger than you know. And this time will help reveal to you your power. You will feel like you are losing the battle all the way up until there is no battle at all.It’s all by design. We cannot recognize the Universe’s (God, Paramatma, Brahmin, Waheguru, Jah) face when she stands before us….you will only recognize her back, as she lifts her hand to leave. That’s when you will realize, the Universe was with you the whole time.That’s the way it always is, of course. We never see what is happening while it’s happening…..only after. And why history books are never written in the moment. We must wait for time to pass before the questions ever make sense. We need time. We need space.And so I would reassure my 2009 self this: Don’t trust the people who use your kindness to their advantage. You are perfect where you are and as you are. In a few years, you will see. You will understand. But until then, make friends with the questions. They are not to be feared. In fact, I’m starting to think….these questions ARE the face of the Universe.
Dedicated to my all my Teachers, Family and Friends…most especially Jean L., Val S. and Stephanie C.
Earlier this month, while sitting at a desk, overlooking a frigid Columbus Circle in New York City, I couldn’t help but think about the life thresholds I’ve recently crossed. Years ago, I had a faint dream that I could teach yoga, a practice I admired, respected and loved with all my heart. I dreamt of a deeper connection to the spiritual practice and the daily practice of each of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. I suppose I dreamt of this because I saw so little of the practice actually taking place in daily life around me. Sure, I attended yoga classes and while most students scrambled to show off their best backbend or impress with the strongest and straightest handstand, my deepest wish was to know how to actually practice yoga in every move and breath taken in my daily living. I had often hoped to learn more but throughout my almost 17 years of practice, no class satisfied my appetite enough to appease my curiosity. At one point, I thought the best way to learn would be to actually learn to teach yoga – perhaps all those teachers out there teaching extraneous poses knewthe deep secrets and the only way to learn them was to actually go through the trainings. I remember asking a teacher of mine once, her opinion on whether this would be wise, and her words were less than encouraging. So I gave up on the notion, and therefore never crossed that threshold.
As I sat observing, I realized, within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring. The gray perished landscape is shorn of color. Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged. Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute. Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation; the cold is relenting; seeds are wakening up. Colors are beginning to imagine how they will return. Then, imperceptibly, somewhere one bud opens and the symphony of renewal is no longer reversible. From the black heart of winter a miraculous, breathing plenitude of color emerges.
The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unaware. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it.
Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities. This accounts for the sureness with which one season succeeds another. It is as though they were moving forward in a rhythm set from within a continuum.
To change is one of the great dreams of every heart….it was a dream for me….to change the limitations, the sameness, the banality, or the pain. So often we look back on patterns of behavior, the kind of decisions we make repeatedly and that have failed to serve us well, and we aim for a new and more successful path or way of living. But change is difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old pattern, rather than risking the danger of difference. (Or in my case, I opted to listen to the words of someone who did not have my best interest at heart.) We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality beings to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it?
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.
To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging. This becomes essential when a threshold opens suddenly in front of you, one for which you had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced. Especially at such times we desperately need blessing and protection. You look back at the life you have lived up to a few hours before, and it suddenly seems so far away. Think for a moment how, across the world, someone’s life has just changed….irrevocably, permanently, and not necessarily for the better….and everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.
Though we know one another’s names and recognize one another’s faces, we never know what destiny shapes each life. The script of individual destiny is secret; it is hidden behind and beneath the sequence of happenings that is continually unfolding for us. Each life is a mystery that is never finally available to the mind’s light or questions. That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion.
So, what threshold had I crossed? I went and took a yoga teacher training. Then I took another. I traveled and taught. I put myself out there, but always carrying those negative words with me. So I continued to teach, and teach, and teach. And then I went to yet another teacher training, which would be my last (for now)….and I learned that I had indeed crossed a threshold….one that has changed my life dramatically because I have finally let go of the unnecessary noise in my life….those words from so long ago. The noise from the people who chose to not practice any part of what they teach and who choose to live ingenuous lives. And then, as the snow began to slowly fall over Columbus Circle, I realized, no threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.