To Break or To Break Open

The other day I was browsing through my library, wondering what novel to read next, and eye caught an 18-year old novel by Alice Walker, Now Is the Time To Open Your Heart. Though I had read it when it was first published, I had forgotten about it. It was the title that arrested my attention. It seemed to be of a piece with her volume of stories, The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. I also thought of James Ford’s book on Zen, If You’re Lucky Your Heart Will Break.

Now, one usually thinks of a broken heart as something sad, something hard to bear, even devastating. But think about a river in Northern Canada, say the Yukon. In winter, it freezes completely shut. No water flows until spring. But in spring, the ice breaks open and the water flows again. Suppose we think about a broken heart, not as having shattered into shards, but as having broken open, like the Yukon in spring. Then what?

Walker’s book tells the parallel stories of Kate and her partner, Yolo, who find themselves stuck in their lives, each in their own way. Their hearts have become closed, frozen. Kate even had closed down her meditation practice, covering her Buddha statue with a cloth. A clear metaphor for her covering her Buddha-nature as if it were lost. Kate’s way back involves a pilgrimage into the Northwest Amazon jungle with a Native American shaman who guides her using a drug called, in Kechua, Ayahuasca. Yolo’s journey takes him to Hawaii and an unexpected encounter with a native Kuma, what we might call a spiritual guide.

There is much to learn in this book. Consider a few quotations:

  • …the magic of the mystery we’re in just goes on and on.
  • Being of one mind. That is peace. The material and the spiritual come together….
  • It will never work to think we are exempt from madness.
  • Healing cannot be done by settling a score.

But given the state of America at the moment, I found one passage to be especially striking. Kate’s group of pilgrims are talking about powerful people. Armando, the shaman, says this:

“A person is visible only when it is possible to perceive what sustains him….

“The more powerful the powerful appear the more invisible they become…. This used to work differently than now. In the old days it was said that the powerful merged with the divine and the divine was all that one saw. But now the powerful have merged with the shadow, really with death, and when you encounter them they are really hard to see….”

I read that and sat back thinking about the current state of American politics. Of course Trump became the icon. We see him all over the place, but who really sees Donald Trump, the human being? Where is he? All I ever see is the shadow of a person, a mere shell where a person might once have dwelt but is no more. Surely he was not born this way. No baby is. So when did Donald Trump die?

I thought of a recent photo of him boarding Air Force One with Barron, his young son. It is raining, and Trump is walking ahead of his son, holding an umbrella over himself and leaving Barron to walk up the stairs alone and in the rain. Trump’s body was there, but he was invisible, a mere shadow.

A couple of paragraphs later, Armando offers his opinion about what could cure this invisibility of the powerful:

“In my opinion…the only medicine that cures invisibility in the powerful is tears.”

I don’t think he means the tears of the eyes, or perhaps not those tears alone. I think he means tears of the heart, tears of the soul. I think he means that the only way a person like Trump can be reborn as a human being is to grieve his earlier death. But that grief requires the recognition that one has died. I do not think Trump realizes he has died.

I can imagine him alone at night, lonely and isolated and depressed, desperately wanting to be loved and admired but knowing he is not. I can even imagine him crying into his pillow without a clue why is soul aches. I wonder whether one reason he hates Obama so much is that he realizes Obama is invisible in the old way.

Then I remember the closing lines from Walker’s other book: “The world is not healed in the abstract. Healing begins where the wound was made.” Who will show Trump where that deep wound was made, where he died? Who will break open the ice within his heart?


America is in Retreat

We all remember Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America Great Again”. Right? Well, it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. On the contrary, he is leading America in retreat from its former place of world leadership. How? Let us look at what he has done this year.[1]

  • He has withdrawn America from TPP. Now, no matter what you may think of TPP, the reality is that it was the deal on the table, and this withdrawal has implications, none of them favoring America. To my mind, the most important implication is that effectively takes us out of a leadership position in Pacific economics. And who is stepping into that position? China is. It has it’s own version of TPP, and it very pointedly excludes us. As a result, China, being the major economic power in the Pacific region, will be able to call the shots. And we will be left out in the cold, forced to trade as China dictates. Retreat.
  • He effectively withdrawn from the World Trade Organization. At last December’s WTO conference our representative gave a rather perfunctory speech and then left. But who did not leave? China stayed, and it was able to set the agenda, priorities, and regulations for the world’s trade. And the USA? We are left as followers rather than leaders. And China seems poised to take our place as the world’s leading economic power. Retreat.
  • He has, with great fanfare, announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, leaving us behind the rest of the world. And the result? For just one example, 18 of our top environmental scientists have left the USA and are now working in France under a multi-million dollar grant championed by Macron. Rather than serve under the Trump administration, they left the USA. And now we stand alone, the only nation in the world that denies the reality of climate change and is not dedicated to addressing the problem. (It is important to note that the earliest date Trump can actually withdraw is the day after the 2020 Presidential election.) Retreat.
  • He has denigrated NATO and alienated our closest military allies. The effect of this is that cooperation between our military and the rest of NATO is strained at best. When the American Commander-in-Chief cannot be trusted, how is NATO to plan and execute its mission? Germany seems to me to be taking our place. Retreat.
  • There was a time when our commitment to liberty, freedom, and the democratic process was the envy of the world’s people. But Trump has retreated from this historic commitment. The list of retreats is too long to reproduce here, but it includes retreat from universal education, voting rights, civil liberties, and compassion for the suffering and injured. And like a classic slumlord, he has allowed our own nation’s infrastructure to crumble and our people to suffer. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free”? “Build the wall!” Retreat.
  • For much of the existence of this nation, we have been among the leaders in the arts and culture. American poets and other writers, musicians, dancers, actors, photographers, painters and sculptors have created whole new worlds of art and have inspired people on every continent. But Trump is bent of destroying our artistic leadership. He is a mediocre man satisfied with artistic mediocrity, a man who fails to grasp the centrality of the arts to a great nation. Retreat.

What would a genuine leader have done?

  • Instead of blowing TPP off and abandoning the economic field to China, a genuine leader would have stayed at the table and negotiated a better deal that would benefit every country in the Pacific Economic Sphere.
  • Instead of blowing the WTO off, a genuine leader would have come to the December talks with concrete proposals for regulation, environmental protection, protection for intellectual property, and so on, and then stayed at the table to negotiate for these things.
  • Instead of blowing NATO off, insulting its leadership, and creating an atmosphere of incredulity and mistrust, a genuine leader would have sat down with NATO leadership, reassured it that the USA is fully behind NATO and discussed with them ways that the alliance can be strengthened. And a genuine leader would spend at least as much time listening as speaking, and perhaps more time listening.
  • Instead of ignoring the people’s needs and allowing the nation’s infrastructure to continue to crumble, a genuine leader would make these things an absolute top priority. And rather than going out of their way to exclude people a genuine leader would work for the inclusion of all people, be they native born, immigrant, or refugee.
  • Rather than discouraging the arts and the nation’s artists, a genuine leader would come into office with a commitment to strengthen America’s arts with education, funding, venues, and personal attendance.

In short, a genuine leader would come into office believing that, even with all its faults and shortcomings, America is already great and would be dedicated to keep the a nation great by addressing those faults and shortcomings. Trump does not believe America is great, for what else could “Make America Great Again” mean? He is leading a once great nation into decay, isolation, and mediocrity. And he doesn’t even realize it.

[1] The first two bullet points are taken from an interview of Evan Osnos with Terry Gross.

A Writing Sabbatical

I have been unhappy with my writing for the last several months. Nothing seems to say quite what I want to say; I can’t seem to think of what I want write about; other things seem to get in the way too easily, and so on. That’s the writer’s block part. And then there’s the fact that so many things are happening these days that I can’t keep up with them. Just as I’m about to put down my thoughts about so-and-so, such-and-such happens, and rather than choosing one or writing about both, I end up writing about neither. But this is the easy part of it.

The harder part is that there is something going on inside of me. I am 72 years old. That means I am beginning the transition from middle age to old age. The world looks different from this perspective. It seems somehow less urgent, less demanding, less in need of anything I have to say to it. I’m finding myself becoming more and more taciturn, looking at the world and simply holding my silence. A year or so ago, I remarked to a few friends that I seem to be turning into the quintessential aging Medieval monk, holed up in his cell of silence.

I am reminded of the wisdom of the Hindu progression from householder to spiritual seeker. As one ages, so the insight goes, one finds oneself increasingly drawn from the phenomenal world of things to the spiritual world, less in need of reaching outward and more in need of sinking inward.

It’s a pretty good description of what I am feeling, though I’m not really about to retire to a monastery. There is too much beauty out there in the world, and too many people whom I love and who love me for me to be comfortable with that level of withdrawal. Yet I feel the need for a serious level of quiet seeking in my life. The issue is how to strike the right balance.

I recently remembered something I read in one of Elie Wiesel’s books: “I write more to understand than to be understood.” I think that may be the key. I think I need to take a sabbatical from writing for anyone but myself. To be sure, I’ll stay in touch with family and loved ones through Facebook and other means, but I’ll not worry about writing for any other kind of publication. For example, I won’t close this blog down, but I will not write for it for a while, maybe for the rest of the year. Maybe longer. Who knows? And I’ll put aside my two book length manuscripts that no one seems to want to publish anyhow.

For the next while, I’ll write entirely for myself. My own reflections on whatever moves me. Meditations for myself alone. Wrestling with those books, like The Tao Te Ching, that are my scriptures. That sort of thing. And I won’t care whether anyone ever sees any of this.

And so, enjoy your lives, and I’ll see y’all on the other side!

But What Should We Call You?

I am 72 years old. Now, that is not exactly old (though I suspect my young grandchildren would say otherwise), but I am certainly among the aging. Lately I have been following several conversations about how to address my segment of the population, the aging segment. (When you get there, you tend to notice things like that.)

What is a graceful, non-offensive way to address us, we who are aging? There are a lot of cutesy things people say, all of which are somewhere between patronizing and offensive. Support groups (and what segment of the population cannot benefit from a support group?) get called things like Raging and Aging (I’m aging but I’m not raging—and least not about aging), Gracefully Aging (some of us are aging rather less than gracefully), The Wisdom Set (some of us have a deal of wisdom, others not so much), The Elders (“Elder” seems to me an honorific that needs to be earned…and some of us haven’t), and so on.

It seems to me that all of these are nothing but euphemisms designed to help us forget the truth that we are all aging and moving inexorably toward our deaths. It’s as if death is something we can all avoid if we just don’t talk about it, think about it, and, especially, mention it (shudder!). It’s a form of name magic that doesn’t work. The reality is that each of us who lives long enough will become one of the aging, and even one of the aged. And as far as I can tell, that certainly beats the hell out of the alternative. Nope. It’s time to leave all that nonsense behind and come out into the open: We who are more or less my age are who we are, and we are aging.

We actually do have names for the various stages of adult life. We leave our Youth, which is a transformational age, at about the age of 18 to become Young Adults. And by the time Young Adults reach about 35 or 40 we become Middle Aged Adults. We stay in Middle Age for rather a while until somewhere around 65 more or less we transform into Aging Adults, which another transformational age. And what do we Aging Adults transform into at about the age of 80 or there abouts? Aged (or Elderly) Adults.

How do you know when you’ve moved from Middle Aged Adulthood to Aging Adulthood? Each of us has to figure that out for ourselves, of course, but there are a few signs that many to most of us exhibit. Here are a few:

  • Decreasing strength and/or stamina
  • Increase in time needed to heal from injury or disease
  • BPH (men only!)
  • Decreasing night vision acuity
  • Decreasing hearing acuity
  • Decreasing libido
  • Sagging skin and connective tissue
  • Osteoarthritis
  • And that will do for a start.

You may be surprised at some of the things that I have left out, like thinning of hair density and the whitening of our hair. That’s because these things seem to me to be highly idiosyncratic and occur at vastly different ages, if they occur at all. (My hair started turning white and dropping out in my mid-30s.) But however it may happen to you, you will know it. Even if you deny its reality, you will know it. And you know what? I truly do hope each person reading this manages to live long enough to join the aging crowd.

Back the title question, then. “What should we call you?” Well, if “you” means this individual who is writing this blog, “Ken” will do nicely. But if “you” is this group of whom I am now a part, how about calling us by our true name: Aging Adults.

Zen? What’s the Point?

My good friend and colleague, James Ford, recently posted an interesting entry on his blog, “Monkey Mind: Easily Distracted”, that set me to thinking. Now, I need a disclaimer at the outset: Though I am deeply influenced by Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, I do not think of myself as a Buddhist. James is the expert on Zen, not me. But there is one thing I am an expert on, and that is my own experience and thoughts. So, here is what I think, how Zen has informed my own spiritual life and how that inspires my work for racial reconciliation.

Let’s start with a Greek concept, since that’s where James started: Teleology. The word comes from two Greek words, Telos + Logos. It is the telos part that interests me. Now, telos does not translate nicely into English. It is usually rendered as end, in the sense of goal. For example, a teleological explanation in biology would look like “in order to do so and so the organism exhibits ­­­such and such behavior.”

And that is accurate enough, but there is a deeper meaning, too. A telos is not simply the goal to be achieved but rather that which beckons onward, always just out of reach but inspiring us to continue, to reach farther, to go deeper. For example, some medieval theologians spoke of reunion with God as the telos of creation. And Aristotle included telos as one of the four causes of observable phenomena. In order to understand a phenomenon, you have to understand that to which the actor is reaching. Think of it as the answer to the questions, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

With this idea in mind, let us now turn to Zen. What’s the point of Zen? Why bother? What is its telos? Well, Zen is a branch on the Mahayana tree within the forest of Buddhism. And that would certainly suggest that, like all of Buddhism, it must aim somehow or other at Enlightenment.

And to what end is Enlightenment? Why bother? The usual answer is that one seeks Enlightenment in order to overcome dukkha, the existential despair that arises from the realization of our aloneness. And yet. There is also the Second Noble Truth that tells us that dukkha arises from attachment. Shouldn’t that also apply to an attachment to Enlightenment? And doesn’t that invalidate the entire enterprise? Paradox! What’s a practitioner to do? Why bother?

Like all religion, Zen is no stranger to paradox. In fact, Zen seems to me to embrace paradox much more forthrightly and intentionally than most religions. But. This embrace of paradox is not just for the fun of it or to dazzle or to hide behind. It is rather to point the way to a deeper experience of a deeper truth. The paradoxes are teaching paradoxes, not hiding paradoxes. They are nothing but rafts to carry us across the river of illusion. Who would carry the raft around after arriving safely on the other side?

The raft is not the goal. The goal is…? That is the question, isn’t it? What is the goal, what is the telos, of Zen? Is it not that very awakening that we just noticed the Second Noble truth tells us we must not be attached to? But how can we let go of attachment to awakening, even while reaching for it, even while being inspired by it and continuing on toward it?

What I am beginning to understand is that the letting go of attachment is the recognition that there is nothing to let go of. As Dogen said, “Form is emptiness.” But what is there then? There is only this. And this. And this. As Dogen also said, “Emptiness is form.” The paradox is that this world, with all of its multifarious beauty, is both two and not two. Simultaneously. The solution to the paradox is the realization that these are not two separate truths, but a single reality, no more paradoxical than an electron’s being both a particle and a wave. Simultaneously.

When I’ve spoken about this to people who know me well, I am sometimes asked how this surrender is compatible with my dedication to racial reconciliation. Doesn’t that dedication imply a rejection of “the way things are”? Doesn’t surrender imply capitulation, and thus despair? Well, oddly enough, it doesn’t. On the contrary, it inspires me to go on, to continue the struggle. But how could that be?

It’s about the paradox of two yet not two. To surrender to this paradox is, among other things, to realize that I cannot be truly free of dukkha while others languish in the pain and slavery of oppression. Thus it is that I am inspired to reach further, to go deeper, even as I surrender to this very moment.

And so I sit. Simply sit. And count my breaths. In those moments of sitting, of being present to myself, I find myself present to far more than myself. For if there is only this, and this, and this, then surely there is only thee and thee and thee in this very moment as well. And then I rise. And it is enough. How can that be enough? Because in this surrender, I am renewed in the struggle, I am refreshed and able to carry on.

What’s That Sound?

In my last blog, I promised further reflections on Platonic justice. That can wait. I have something more urgent to say. Yesterday I was reminded of a song from my youth:

Stop children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.
~Steven Stills

So what’s goin’ down? A lot, surely, but as I see it there are two things that demand attention at the moment: the increasingly stringent rules controlling the White House Press Room, and Trumpcare (which I prefer to think of as Trump-Doesn’t-Care).

First the White House Press Room. Tyrants cannot abide a free press. A free press will expose them for what they are: lying, cheating, selfish, and cruel leaders who care nothing for the people and everything for their own power, position, and prestige. And so among the first things a tyrant does is to control the press, labeling a free press “enemies of the people”. Control the press and you control the people. These onerous regulations are nothing but a step toward the destruction of our free press, with all that implies.

Second, Trumpcare. The plutocrats in power would have us believe that governments are not in the business of distributing and re-distributing wealth. Do not believe it. They are lying to us. The questions we should be asking is to whom and from whom is the wealth being distributed and for what reason. Equally, no one should make the mistake of thinking that Trumpcare is a health care bill. It is not. It is a tax bill, and taxing is on of the prime avenues governments use to distribute and re-distribute wealth.

So to whom does this bill re-distribute wealth? The already wealthy. From whom is it being re-distributed? The poor and the middle class. And for what purpose is it being re-distributed? They would have us believe that it is to stimulate the economy. Again, that is another a bald-faced lie. Do not fall for it!

Economies are not stimulated by a few people and corporations accumulating wealth. That is not even capitalism. It is the long-discredited theory of mercantilism. Economies are stimulated by sustainable consumption of goods and services. This understanding actually grounds both capitalism and socialism. They have differences, to be sure, but both understand that consumption, not wealth, is at the heart of an economy.

Wealth is about money, and money is about power. And so the real reason for this attempt to redistribute wealth upward is that it will increase the power of a few people to control the nation. They will leak it out, slowly and carefully, in ways that make them appear to be benevolent benefactors of the rest of us. But in fact they will be controlling every aspect of our lives, from our bedrooms to what we can read, from what medical care we can expect to receive to how and when we die. And woe be unto any of us who has the audacity to expose or even criticize them. The wealthy will become the tyrants of America, be it via oligarchy or dictatorship.

So what’s goin’ down? We are. America is goin’ down an increasingly slippery slope into tyranny. We have but two choices open to us: Resist or Weep for the nation that once was ours.

Plato? Who Cares?

We all should care. Here’s the deal. One fine day Plato sat himself down and wondered about justice. “What does it mean,” he pondered, “to say that something is just? Is it a simply a matter of strength, evenhandedness, or law, or is there something deeper going on here?” And the more he thought about it, the more complex he realized the question actually is. And so, eventually, he invoked his alter ego, Socrates, and together, the philosopher and his alter ego, wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of European philosophy ever written, The Republic.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, he had to work out his entire philosophical system, from aesthetics through metaphysics and on to politics and psychology. It was a bumpy ride, indeed. Quite clearly no mere blog can possibly do justice (snicker!) to such a monumental book. But his final definition of justice is, I think, well worth thinking about.

First, he dismissed such ideas as justice is what is in the interest of the strongest, or justice is punishment for wrong-doing. That’s not too difficult. But then he tells us that justice is not primarily a legal concept after all. Legal justice is derivative from something much more profound. Just laws are those that produce just people. Therefore, before we can think about what makes laws just, we must understand what makes a person just. Justice, Plato tells us, is first and foremost a quality, not of law, but of people.

So what does Plato think a just person is? He begins by noting that there are three aspects to the soul: a rational aspect, an emotional aspect, and an appetitive aspect. The rational aspect is that part of us that deals in argument, evaluating evidence, drawing conclusions, and the like. The emotional aspect is that part of us that deals with our feelings. The appetitive aspect is that part of ourselves that deals with our basic drives, like sex, hunger, safety, and the like. A person is just when these three are in balance and each carries out its proper function without encroaching on the others.

This is easy to misunderstand. Over the centuries, the idea of a soul has taken on a religious meaning that it did not have for Plato. As a result, those who may reject that religious meaning can be tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But suppose we think of this rather differently. Suppose we think of Plato to be talking of our human minds in their entirety. Then what?

Then what we are looking at is Plato’s psychology. Now, psychology has gotten a lot more sophisticated since Plato’s time, and we have many different ways of thinking about the mind. But pick your favorite psychology and grant for a moment Plato’s notion of the primacy of the just mind. What would a just human mind be?

However many aspects there are to the mind, Plato would say that in a just mind they all function well together, in balance, none usurping the proper functioning of another. For example, think about our emotions. We have evolved to have our various emotions for very good reasons, even those emotions that are sometimes unpleasant.

To be concrete, consider anger. It is not hard to understand how our ancient ancestors needed the occasional fit of anger. If you could not get angry when someone tried to steal your stuff, you would starve to death. And we still need anger to motivate us to correct social ills and oppose oppression. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, there are things about which we ought to be angry. But. Anger can take over our consciousness and become paranoid, dangerous, destructive, even murderous.

Similar observations apply to all of our emotions. We need to be able to be afraid, but fear, like anger, when it takes over the mind, becomes paranoia. Even the so-called positive emotions can get out of hand. Love, when it takes over the mind, becomes obsession, the will to possess rather than the will to nurture. And so it goes. When our emotions cloud our rationality and try to take over our minds, the result is injustice.


Not a bad idea, eh? To be just is to live a life in proper balance. Platonic justice begins to look rather like what we have come to call self-actualization. And just as self-actualization is an ideal that is never quite within our grasp even while it calls us onward, toward it, Platonic justice leads out into deeper and deeper levels of our humanity.


This has a lot of implications. It carries us to law, to education, to proper relations among each other, even to environmental action. In my next installment, I want to explore some of these implications. But just to whet your appetite, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Under this understanding, what would a just penal system look like? When we call for justice for the victim of a crime, what are we asking for? What would Plato say we are asking for? Could he be right? Hmmmm.