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The Zen of the Long-Distance Activist

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Fretting about my country was taking its toll. Believe-it-or-not revelations of White House imbecility were imploding my brain. My head was spinning from the barrage of lies, worse lies, and perjuries, while the gears of my mind were grinding on bare cartilage. My heart was becoming emotionally constipated on the daily dosage of Iraqi carnage.


Burned out or not, patriots have to go the distance. Still, I needed something more energizing than Red Bull to keep on jabbing my spear against the flank of the rabid right and its moral and intellectual degeneracy. I certainly didn’t want to dip into their energy source—known as fanaticism. I needed some R&R, not the usual rest and relaxation variety but the more potent category known as rejuvenation and restoration.


On a cool March afternoon in Pasadena, I said goodbye to my girlfriend and headed out the door on a spiritual quest. Soon I reached ColoradoColorado Boulevard that is—riding my rusty Trek bicycle on an easy six-block excursion to the Pasadena Public Library. Speaking there in the auditorium was the Zen master, Ven. Jian Liao, abbot of Chung Tai Zen Center of Houston.


Jian Liao said not a word about Washington politics, nor did he even mention the word politics during his talk at the library or during his retreat the following afternoon at the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery. As my political mind interpreted it, though, he did speak of a form of governance, namely the method or the means of establishing peace, harmony, and good order from within.


To live in a state of well-being, Jian Liao said we must establish our own inner rule over mental and emotional intruders known as “wandering thoughts.” These uninvited musings, reflections, and speculations are often subconscious and negative, the abbot noted, and the best way to track and neutralize them is through meditation. Wandering thoughts invade our mind like whispers in the dark and take possession of our sense of self. Even supposedly good thoughts are intruders if we don’t consciously invite them in. As we recognize them as contaminants of the pure mind, the power and the benefits of the pure mind, including fearlessness, are experienced by us.


I began to meditate in the days following the workshop with Jian Liao. Over the years, I’ve meditated a lot. I stop when laziness kicks in, and when I start up again I feel an immediate benefit.


Wandering or not, thoughts did continue to arise in my mind about the parallels between Zen and politics. Could it be, I mused, that wandering thoughts have their macrocosmic equivalent in the wayward politicians of the body politic? These would be men and women whose self-serving agendas or erroneous belief systems cause them to wander away from truth and service. Wayward politicians emerge out of ignorance and chaos to positions of power. They degrade our democracy because their minds are contaminated with flawed perceptions and egotistic fixations. We can oppose them and try to keep them from getting elected, but we’ll also help the cause by taking care of our own wandering thoughts and becoming impeccable in ourselves. Cultivation of mind, the abbot said in so many words, is democracy’s horticulture.


It seems to me that this quality of mind is synonymous with the awareness of our sovereignty. We become masters of self-regulation when we achieve a higher form of inner governance, which enables us to know what it means (experientially, not just mentally) to be sovereign. Our capacity to feel our sovereignty is the realization of our intrinsic value and goodness. Tyranny cannot be imposed under these conditions.


My meditation is working. I can go the stretch for America’s ideals. I feel so good that I’ve dashed off a Zen koan:


One day a wayward politician approached a political activist who was eating a sandwich on a bench in the park. The politician challenged him: “If you’re so smart, how come you have no power?”


The activist replied, “Yours is the power to self-destruct.”


“What nonsense! I have the power to save the country!”

The activist tore a crumb from his sandwich and threw it at the feet of the politician. “Eat it and you can save yourself.”
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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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