Committing intimately to where you find yourself Barry Magid December 13th 2014

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Gary Snyder, in a new book of interviews called Nobody Home, is asked by a South African woman who is writing a dissertation on him, whether the environmental movement and his preoccupations with ecology in some way represent a retreat from radical political engagement of the kind that naturally she is more directly concerned with in South Africa, such as opposing Apartheid. We don't have to go into all the ways in which environmentalism is a political stance in opposing the interests of corporate capitalism in America, but Snyder's take on it was interesting. For him there was one particular radical implication of his environmentalism, and he could sum it up in two words: "Don't move."

He came back to Japan in the 60s and settled into the Sierra Nevadas, built a house there, and has stayed. For him, there is this conjunction between the local and the political in becoming completely committed and completely grounded in a place, in a community, and in a location, where you are really intimately learning where you are, what this place is, what grows there, and what doesn't. How do you interact with the landscape? How do you interact with the neighbors? How do you really become committed to engaging the people who are there in the same way you have to know and engage the wildlife? The other people are part of your habitat. How are you going to interact with them? Are you going to set yourself apart from them because your values are superior, and Buddhist, and vegetarian, and you're better than those rednecks? Or are they your people? Do you have to find some way to stay there for 50 years, get to know each other, and find a way to live together? That's really thinking ecologically about your human community as well as the natural community.

I’ve been thinking of all the ways in which that maxim of "Don't move" applies to our practice. Very early on we establish it as one of the basic practice instructions that we give to newcomers. We tell them that really the one rule here is "Do your best to sit still." And it's not merely a matter of "Don't disturb the people around you," although that's part of it -- how you’re fitting into a group process. But in terms of your personal practice, "Don't Move" means "Stay with what your body and mind are doing and don't try to wiggle out of it," literally or figuratively. If restlessness or anxiety or physical pain is part of your experience, to the best of your ability -- don't move -- just stay there, experience it, feel it, be able to say "This is me."

I think you're all pretty familiar with this by now, but the other aspect of it that I think we perhaps underemphasize, and what I thought of in terms of Snyder’s relation to community, has to do with our relation to each other in the sangha. We often hear that practice gives rise to the idea that we are all part of one body. And often that is expressed in ways that for most people are too abstract or too mystical to mean much. But I think it's very useful to try to imagine the sangha as representing one body and that we look at how to relate to each other and how you relate to me in terms of that.

One way in which I think that can manifest -- a distorted kind of way -- is when students have a strong connection to a teacher but not necessarily to each other. They come in, they sit, but they don't interact, and all they want to do is get my attention or talk to me in dokusan. And the way that relates to the image of one body is how it privileges one aspect of self-experience, where the teacher is sort of the head, maybe the heart -- I think in some communities the teacher may be the heart but I think here it's the head -- and so one attribute is valorized and the others are diminished or dismissed. It means there's just one thing that makes a difference, but the other people in the room become essentially the repositories for the parts of ourselves we don't like and we want to escape through practice. So the other people are the ones who are not very smart, not very interesting, not very realized, don't really understand what the teacher is talking about -- "Only I do." There are lots of versions of that. But there's a way in which the dismissing of other people becomes a way of trying to dismiss the parts of myself I want to disown. We don't want to own the fact that we are the not very enlightened, the not very interesting person sitting in the room. It's the other people who are the chaff.

The really interesting aspect of sangha can be quite different, and I think this sangha generally works reasonably well that way. It's been a long practice for me personally to learn to relate to a group as a whole and try to work to bring a group as a whole along in the practice. I think as a psychoanalyst, I’ve spent most of my time, most of my professional life, working one-on-one with people, and I'm most comfortable doing that, and I'm inclined to want to work bringing one person along at a time. I don't think my temperament is oriented towards thinking in terms of group dynamics very much. And being part of a sangha and teaching has made me try to be more conscious of how the group as a whole functions, and whether the group is healthy -- not just is this student or that student getting it -- but how does the group feel? What is the atmosphere in the room? How does it feel when everyone is relating to each other and not just relating to me or to themselves? I think it's an important question and bears on what Snyder's talking about with community.

The real challenge is not just to accept the internal parts of ourselves that we're uncomfortable with, but to look at how we are relating to the parts of each other that we're not very comfortable with. What do we do about that? How do we engage or dismiss the other people in the room when they represent something that we're trying to move away from in ourselves? It's an important point of practice and one that I think I'm still learning about and I hope we can learn about together.

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