Values, Purpose and Divine Strategy
I grew up Christian. Deeply as such. We never started a meal without a prayer giving thanks. Even in a crowded chain-restaurant, we would be the family bowing our heads, my mother even more passionately due to the venue, giving thanks for our food.
Thank you oh heavenly father for this food that thou hath given to us, that you have shared your abundance with us so we can eat. Thank you for bringing us together so we can eat at a restaurant such as this. Thank you for Tommy oh lord, that you have shown him how to respect his parents oh lord. Thank you for unleashing your blessings upon us and may you continue to show us your love through unlimited abundance oh lord. In jesus name.. Amen
My mother says as she simultaneously smiles and looks at me, smirking. “Let’s eat”, as we dig into our All-You-Can-Eat buffet plates at Golden Corral when I’m 10. This didn’t seem strange to me then, except for sometimes I sensed some passive aggressive subtleties in the prayers. My acceptance and comfort of this practice looks something like this. (A graph is shown demonstrating my initial comfort, teenage repulsion and later acceptance of my family praying)
I suppose in the last few years I’ve started to accept their fundamentalist extremism as a part of my past and my beginnings. It’s part of the framework I grew up in, and something that people who gave me everything believe deeply in. I’m generally agnostic/humanist/buddhist so I don’t personally still believe in it. However, I deeply respect my family’s beliefs because its part of why they are so strong and unrelenting in their hopes, passions and ambitions. So when I’m with my mother while she visits in San Francisco, and we are at Iyasare in Berkeley, and she starts to pray. As I bow in “half squint” as she’s praying, I think to myself “I’m lucky to have such unique experiences”.
When I was 14, I was fervently passionate about my religion. I was in the church youth-group band. I was proud to be part of it after having spent many years, coveting and judging the person playing the piano for youth group. During service, I would always stand in the part of the room closest to the keys. If only to get a glimpse of how her hands were moving across the piano. Its how I learned improvisation and it was also a way for me to be disengaged without being obvious but still appear like I’m deeply participating.
My disbelief in Christianity followed closely along the changes in hormones my body was putting me through. As it became clear that I was not hetrosexual, my awareness of doubt, shame and discomfort with this collection of beliefs and values increased. I went through many existential crises figuring out how I was going to get out of going to go to hell for doubting heavenly father. In the same instant, sitting on the steps outside bedroom staring at the ground my mouth agape with wonder of the world where it all made sense and all of these beliefs were simply evolutionary adaptations previous generations before me had needed to survive in times of uncertainty and limited information.
If I were to uproot the ethical frameworks that had been ruthlessly enforced through corporal punishment until I was 14, I would need to get to work making new ones.
I adopted some variant of “Karma” or Kantian categorical imperative for the next few years as I became awash in passionate fundamentalist atheism. I formed these ethics from active experience: I recall the time that my room had become completely full of things I had stolen from breaking into cars when I was 16. 20' subwoofers prevented my door from fully opening when I would come home, and I had so much money from my ill-earned bounty that I could afford to buy a DVD-burner and a new keyboard. Only one day to come home to my door kicked in, and everything I owned gone. My laptop with several years of music I had made, stolen also and in its place only a vacant power strip remained hanging lonesomely from the outlet. I learned from this and I never stole again, and wondered how I didn’t realize the nature of karma earlier.
I consoled myself as such. “If I remove from the world without giving, I create instability and imbalance in all that is around me. That balance will rectify itself somehow, and I’m the most probable candidate to experience the effects of resource re-balancing due to the interference I contributed to”
I discovered Buddhism a few years later, I was surfing youtube looking for things to watch to put me to sleep when I found this video on the “4 noble truths”. Where I watched an introduction to Buddhism and found a more coherent body of ethics and values that resonated deeply with my ricky-tacky ethical framework I had built over the years since I had become atheist.
It wasn’t long until I heard a talk on freebuddhistaudio that mentioned “the Bodhisattva Ideal”:
Masses of creatures, without bounds, I vow to save them all. Anxiety and hate, delusive-desires inexhaustible, I vow to break them all. Dharma gates beyond measure, I vow to learn them all. I vow to accomplish the way of the Buddha
While writing this, Reading that vow again sends shivers down my arms. That feeling I get when my body quivers from encountering purpose and deeply resonating passion.
It’s through the Bodhisattva Ideal that I begin practicing Metta Bhavana and I actively began work on cultivating empathy within myself to bring enlightenment and freedom to all living beings.
That meditation changes me into something else. I recall standing in the lobby of the place where I’m training to be a yoga instructor and seeing a pickup truck crassly roll into our parking lot. 4 kids with dirty clothes get out, and a father wearing a Dale Earnhardt jacket steps off the truck slamming what sounds like a rusty door. He puts his hands on his waste and looks at the sun, squinting, then putting his hand over his eyes forming a makeshift visor as he turns his attention to the shops in the shopping center where I was studying. He looks at each storefront until he sees ours. He must be looking for people, because he starts walking over. His kids, anticipating his direction reach the door of our studio before him. The little girl asks “Can we have some water for our truck?”. I say “Of course sweetie!”. The father walks in smiling, the smell of cigarettes and beer greeting me before I notice his smile, saying “Looks like she’s ahead of me”. I get a gallon-jug of water and fill it from our sink and give it to the girl. They thank me and they leave as I walk into the studio to begin our practice.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that interaction. Sections of my mind handled that situation very differently and they were both competing for attention. When that truck rolled in, my mind went “Look at this bundle of white trash rolling into our parking lot. I hope they don’t come here. I don’t know how to empathetically handle kicking them out”. Simultaneously, I felt a wave of deep sadness for myself. Deep discomfort that I felt such negativity based on these people’s appearance without knowing their background, their story, or how they got to rolling in like that. When the girl asked me for water, I tacitly wiped away a tear that I had to figure out a few minutes later. It was in that moment that I discovered that empathy and compassion was not necessarily sexy, or always beautiful, but it was just. I could have easily locked the door before that little girl got there, but instead I was overwhelmed with conflict and desire to reach out to them. When I realized this: My body reacted the way it does when I “get it”, shuddering and shivering with resonating and ardent purpose.
I haven’t practiced much meditation or yoga in the last few years. My desire to work on 90 different projects simultaneously might have something to do with it. I know that time is valuable to make, and I ought to make it happen. Yet I still have trouble manifesting that time. The only exception is when I run: I set a timer for 20 minutes, choose a playlist and dart off down the street. When the timer ends I find a quite spot and meditate for 10 minutes before darting back to where I started from. I should really figure out how to make time management part of my values.
I wouldn’t consider myself a practicing Buddhist anymore, but that vow mentioned earlier still resonates deeply with me. I remember sitting at my company’s “Values Blueprint” meeting. Where we talk about the values that we all share and how that should inform how we operate on a day-to-day basis. They talk about values being the “how”. They say that mission and strategy are the “what”. These values are Fearlesness, Authenticity, Collaboration and Empowerment. The first 2 really resonate with me personally, the last 2 seem like “corporate speak”. I’m impressed that we are so committed to working in such a harmonious way that 39 people at my 150-person company took many hours to figure out what those words mean to us and the specific set of practices and principles that they imply.
I get up early one morning, hours before my partner, and like most mornings, I struggle with figuring out what to do until he wakes up. I think that this discomfort at not finding something productive happening for these hours is significant. I know I’m happy when he wakes up and I’ve finished the laundry and went to the gym. He, expressing suprise that I could get so much done before he even gets out of bed, delights me somehow. I head to the kitchen and see a couple of glasses from the night before. My roommates didn’t clean up I guess and it occurs that I could wash them. As I’m washing them, I start wondering about my values.
Wouldn’t it be cool if I had a “mission” and a strategy? If I codified what I believe? What would that look like? I scribble on a pad of paper near the sink.
I suppose my mission would be “to attenuate the suffering of all living beings”. Maybe my strategy would be “to promote justice by working for companies that demonstrate empathy and actively work to stabilize inequalities”. I contemplate having a board-meeting inside my head looking at “the numbers” for these morning hours. “All we did was wash some dishes, there was an hour left.. what could we have done other than scroll mindlessly through instagram”. I run upstairs and start writing this article. Thinking about the phrases “ruthless productivity”, “relentless passion” I whisper to myself as I become uncomfortably aware of satirizing myself in ardent hubris muttering personal values statements to myself whilst running up the stairs of the collective we live at.
I think back to those prayers and those values I was brought up with, and continue to be in awe at the sheer strength and force of my family. Their beliefs didn’t stick to me, but their passion for justice, ethics and righteous action definitely stuck around.
I don’t mind them praying before meals at nice restaurants in San Francisco, because their divine strategy, either through resistance or resonance, made me who I am today.