7.5 mins read.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’d wager that pretty much everyone around you is having some sort of problem today. Which section of society is exempt?
This seems to be the case from London to Cape Town, from Phoenix to Johannesburg, from Durban to Denver. Hehe, I should know, as I have been to and from all these 6 cities in the past month, including a last minute trip to South Africa. These next couple of articles may end up being a bunch of vignettes with Buddhist thoughts blended in … or vice versa, let’s see. I have almost 20 hours of flying time on this Ethiopian airlines, with a long layover in Addis Ababa, so it is either this or watching 4 movies.
Here in South Africa I’ve been the recipient of an inordinate number of hugs and smiles from people I’ve only just met, and felt strangely at home. This includes two townships where I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing meditation and Buddhist ways of coping, hearing some stories of life on the edge.
A few days ago the Kadampa nun in Joburg (Gen Mila) and myself met a group of 40 social workers in Alexandra at an organization called Friends for Life — mostly women, two outnumbered men (one appropriately named “Gift”), whose main task is to help young people (aged 3 to 18) orphaned by AIDS. The things they have to see and cope with every day are very hard. One veteran of ten years told us, “Sometimes when I enter the room I want to cry. Sometimes I ask to go to the toilet so I can just cry.”
(Talking of Gift, he is probably lucky he arrived in this world when his parents were in a good mood or he might have been named “Problem” instead, like one poor soul I met. “Enough” is not an uncommon name either, because that’s enough kids already. Just say what you mean, why not.)
Full disclosure: I should point out that Alexandra is a township that is home to 800,000 crammed-in souls, about 10 of whom, embarrassingly enough, could fit into the digs I was staying at — a Pure Land in the wealthy enclave of Sandton, Joburg. There were even white furry comic book rabbits surreally wandering around. Was I dreaming? Yes. And don’t go to South Africa if you don’t like really loud birds.
The Jacaranda trees in full bloom, spilling their vivid purple petals on the ground, were reminiscent of a childhood home, 28-29 Jacaranda Avenue. A lot about South Africa brought to mind my supposedly long-lost youth in Guyana, Ghana and other places, not to mention a history with SA itself, going to show that that karma never gets done ripening and circling. I was thinking that it’s always worth keeping an eye on what intentions/seeds we are sowing because everything is a mere karmic appearance of mind, not outside our mind; and anything can appear or reappear at any point, dream-like, entirely depending on our karma. Reminded like this that everything is the nature of my mind, however, may explain why I was feeling so relaxed my entire time in South Africa.
In Sandton I took early morning walks in a gated neighborhood that could be in Palm Beach Florida or Palm Springs California, providing you ignore all the barbed wire, ADT warning systems, and armed patrols, the only indication that there’s a township just a mile down the road. Unlike an actual Pure Land, not everyone is welcome here.
A mere 25 years on from apartheid and SA, perhaps unsurprisingly, still has a long road to freedom.
At least the manager at the guest house, Beneeta, said she was so struck by my apparent peacefulness that she wants to learn to meditate — her first class is next week. I am rooting for her because she is, as I told her, a natural. Along with so many other people I have met here, to be honest, who are already in their hearts, or closer to. A little Dharma seems to go a long way here – whereas I sometimes feel like it has to be spelled out in 100 ways and 100 times to more heady, over-thinking, and spoiled-for-choice people like me before we’ll even attempt it.
On the subject of random encounters, on the trip over from London a young woman, M, kindly gave up her window seat for a mother and daughter, ending squished in the middle seat next to me. First she volunteered to sort out my headphones. Then we navigated Addis Ababa airport and its multiple security checkpoints, rewarding ourselves with a strong Ethiopian coffee. Then last night she came along to her first Kadampa meditation class in Cape Town 🙂 Point being, it can be worth saying hello to people we bump into “accidentally” – for we only bump into people we have some karma with.
In Cape Town I stayed at the stunning sanctuary of Tushita KMC with Kadampa monk Kelsang Sangkyong, who himself grew up in a township, along with pretty much all other black South Africans in the era of apartheid. He is in a good position to know what’s going on and how Buddha’s teachings might skillfully be shared where they might be needed, with no agenda to convert anyone to anything, just as tools for a happier life.
He was saying how it seems that rich people problems can often afford to be more emotional – whereas if you are hustling to stay alive, that preoccupies your search for happiness and freedom from suffering. Once you’ve managed to secure basic shelter, food, clothing, and medicine — necessities for humans, as Buddha pointed out — then the other mental problems become more dominant. Whether it’s for solving first-world or third-world problems, however, everyone, Buddhist or not, can find some practical benefit from Buddha’s advice on controlling the mind.
For regardless whether our problems are big or small, they fill our mind – we find it hard to think of much else, accustomed as we are to feeding them whether or not we want to. As mentioned in this article, the average number of uncontrolled thoughts is reportedly 9 out of 10; and so far in my own market research I have found this number to be the same everywhere from Hollywood to Alexandra. Is it then any wonder that we can feel helpless in the face of difficulties? We are doing our best to control externals, including helping other people; but that’s a stretch given that we cannot even control our own minds.
Meditation vs medication
How do people cope? We can medicate (drink, distract, etc) our way out of stress and problems and/or we can learn to meditate our way out of it. Anyone from any background or culture can learn to meditate in the sense of becoming more practiced and familiar with positive ways of thinking. We can all become a calmer and more peaceful person if that is what we decide to do.
Whoever I ask, they agree they experience glimpses of the peace available to us — sometimes out of the blue we feel happy inside, not a care in the world, connected to everyone, and we could stay there forever, we want to. Only we can’t, of course, because shortly some delusion comes along to destroy our peace again. But this we can remedy. We can grow our peace because it’s there already. It is our Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment.
BE a peaceful person
After the meditation in Alex, one of the social workers summed up what had just happened better than I could have:
We have peace, we have choice, and we must go there everyday into our heart. We must BE a peaceful person.
They all nodded in agreement, adding things like:
Now we are so peaceful, now we are ready for our day. Now we know we can cope with today.
That feeling of BEING a peaceful person needs to become our default through familiarity, through checking in with it every single day – and even a short breathing meditation is enough to get us there. As the headmistress of a Montessori kindergarten in Joburg, who shares meditation with the kids, told me:
When it comes time for the kids to leave for their next school, I tell them they have learned to read and write here, which is very good. But, even more importantly, they have learned that they always have their breath. And this means that they can always experience inner peace.
My heart opened wider in Africa. I am remembering the tiny girls in one township staring at me curiously with huge eyes, the eyes that then closed in meditation, not opening again even when time was up. Ducks to water. Natural meditators.
At question time, one of the Soweto kids at the elementary school in Joburg asked “Are you coming back next week?” I am not but Gen Mila is, and the week after. Yes!
(Couple more installments on their way.)
Over to you. Comments are very welcome!