Of Walls and Squirrels

I got this email today:

In the light of recent events with the economy, political strong-arming with the President wanting to build a wall & a risk of recession on the rise & no way away from it:

How do we really stay centered? How can we just shut down that reaction, & not run and try to get political somewhere or start doomsday prepping?


Here’s my answer:

Oh boy! What a question!

I think the best way to deal with this stuff is to understand that there are some aspects of life that are simply beyond our control as individuals. Lots and lots of things are happening all the time. Some of those things are really bad.

The news media is in the business of sorting out information and presenting us with what they think are either the most important things, or the things that are going to get them the most ratings, clicks, etc.

But are those things really important?

This is a big question to me.

Trump wants to build a wall on the southern border. It either will or won’t get built. It either is or is not a good idea. I either agree or disagree with the plan. But I, as an individual, can have very little influence on whether or not the wall gets built or doesn’t get built.

There may be some things I can do that might have some influence on whether or not the wall gets built. I can write to my congress-person, I can join a protest, I can write a pithy tweet that might go viral. But even if I do everything in my power, I cannot force the final outcome to go the way I want it to. Even Donald Trump himself cannot do that, and he’s the (gulp!) Leader of the Free World. I’m just a guy who writes books that get shelved at the very back of the bookstores.

So I ask myself, is it really worth me putting a lot of mental energy into the border wall? And the conclusion seems to be that it isn’t. Once I have written my letter, marched in that protest, and composed my pithy tweet, I might as well go and do something else.

The same goes for pretty much anything I might see on the news. On rare occasions they may choose to cover a story that directly involves me and which I can do something about. A few years ago the Japanese media was all over a scandal involving the company I worked for over there. But even then, what I could do about it amounted to only slightly more than what I can do about Trump’s border wall.

Maybe you understand this, though. Maybe that’s why you’re asking about how to “stay centered” and “shut down that reaction.”

My solution here is to work, instead, on things that I might actually be able to affect. I can give you a real world example. Just about five minutes ago I walked over to my door, opened it, and took a look outside. I live in LA and it’s warm enough that I can do that this time of year. I saw a squirrel eating some nuts in front of the apartment next to mine. My neighbor has a cat named Jack. We’re friends, Jack and I. I saw Jack kind of sneaking up on that squirrel. So I caught Jack’s eye and called his name and the squirrel scampered up a nearby tree.

I also sent a tweet out this morning to Trump making fun of something goofy he said.

I think I had more of an impact on that squirrel’s life than I can have on the situation at our southern border.

I’m not so much “shutting down my reaction” to the border wall thing as allowing it its proper space in my life. When I find that my reaction to things that I cannot have any real impact on is too strong, I don’t shut it down. But I try to let it pass. Some days it’s easier to let things pass than it is on other days.

I see all kinds of things on the news that bother me, worry me, concern me, make me wonder how much time humanity has left, and so on. But most of those things are outside of my ability to really affect them. When I see that kind of reaction arise, I try to allow it to pass.

This is easier said than done. It’s taken a lot of staring at blank walls every morning and every evening to get to the point where a strong emotion can come over me and I can let it pass without grabbing on to it and trying in vain to wrestle with it. I’m still not any kind of an expert or “master” at doing this. But over the years I’ve gotten a little bit better, and it’s made my life easier and more enjoyable.

You can get political, if you like. You can prep for doomsday too. Maybe the time will come when I’ll wish I’d learned some survival skills. Maybe the time will come when I wish I’d joined the political party that now holds my life in its hands. That’s certainly possible.

But, for now, prepping for doomsday or joining a political faction isn’t something I want to give the limited energy I have to. I’d rather put the energy I have elsewhere. In my case, I’d rather put my energy into my Zen practice and study, and into writing and speaking about those things for other people who find Zen practice and philosophy useful.

I cannot know for certain if I’m making the correct choice. I hope I am. It feels right to me. 

On the other hand, it’s not a popular choice. A lot of people tell me I’m wrong — including many people who consider themselves to be Buddhists. But I’ve never been one to make decisions based on what’s popular. I don’t choose the music I listen to, the films I watch, the clothes I wear, or the books I read that way. So why should I choose to live my life in the way that’s most popular? It’s never worked for anything else.

I guess my answer to you, then, is keep on sitting zazen. Keep working at the practice of letting go of your thoughts and feelings as they arise while sitting still and staring at a blank wall.

It won’t affect whether Trump gets his wall or not. But if he does get his wall, maybe we can all go down there and sit in front of it.


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