I’ve been having interesting discussions lately, with people close to me, on the issues of suffering, activism and peace. It seems where the suffering of the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants — wolves — are concerned, I had allowed myself to become caught up in the arguments and forgot some basic notions promulgated in ecopsychology and Buddhist traditions. Tenets of practicing peace. Sure, I’ve danced in and out of the meditation hall over the years, settling down to follow my breath and quiet my mind. Often, not long after, I’d find myself caught up in the same vicious cycles of impatience, frustration or intolerance, as I suspect the rest of do, and forget that peaceful place I’d been trying to cultivate.
If I needed any reminders, I have found them in the kind words of these old friends. While I am tempted to shame and judge myself for having forgotten any of the teachings on the practice of peace, that would simply be an act of internal aggression. From here, I simply have to move forward.
The issues lie in the dialogue ongoing, about wolves and their plight in the Clearwater Wilderness in Idaho. From my wolf-loving heart, I take no comfort in any kind of paternal knowledge we ordinarily bestow upon the federal government, that they know what it is that they do. I take no more comfort, in realizing that the wolf-hating contingent in Idaho is the one doing the asking to gun down wolves in their own habitat. But that, boiled down to simplicity, is about just one thing–suffering. I could go on about the argument and the justifications, but isn’t suffering really quite simple?
Whether you love wolves or elephants, your children or wild, open spaces, don’t we all suffer, when something unfortunate happens to those we hold close in our hearts?
It seems I was as permeable to the effects of suffering as the next woman, and it was not going unnoticed.
I think you inherently don’t like people, a good friend said recently. I reeled back in my chair. Me? Not like people? Nonsense, I thought. I’ve always believed in the goodness of humanity.
Do you believe people are inherently good, or inherently bad?, he continued.
Inherently good, I responded. I meant it. I reiterate, I believe in the inherent goodness of humanity.
Huh. He seemed surprised. Me, I felt desperate, to redeem my reputation in the human community.
It’s that I hate the things people do–the unmindful, unconscious things they do to bring harm–to animals. The things they fail to notice, and it is the animals, and even other people –that suffer the harms.
I could tell from the discussion, I was on some side I didn’t realize I had climbed over to. Mixed up in the passion of activism, I had taken one step over into constructing arguments, something I’ve longed to get away from. Somewhere in there, anger for the feds and the wolf-hating contingent hadn’t dissipated enough. The road between the issue of suffering and the resolution I hoped for was needing to be paved with something else I wasn’t tapping into: peace.
So it came as another surprise, when an even older friend reflected back, he had found sufficient doses of anger or hatred in a recent advocacy piece about Idaho’s wolves I’d written (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/03/breathing-for-wolves-using-tonglen-to-deal-with-animal-cruelty/), and couldn’t join me in support.
I felt that crush of disappointment many activists often feel when they get feedback from the outside world. Here, I thought I’d found a way to work with my own wolf-loving broken heart and process the suffering of their loss by offering up the Buddhist practice of Tonglen—that of sending and receiving compassion for the suffering of others—in this case, for the aerial gunning of the wolves in the Clearwater Wilderness.
Apparently, not. Or at least, not enough. There was still work to do. Since I had deep respect for my peace-loving activist friend, I now had to lean into the conversation even more carefully.
I reached, for my old teachings on peace, from one of my favorites on the subject – Thich Nhat Hanh—that revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk, who always reminds us on how to work with our suffering and quell the strong emotions. Just reading his words makes me feel, well, peaceful.
Thich Nhat Hanh has made peace a lifetime practice. Somewhere between the Vietnam protests and his creating Plum Village Retreat Center, he has managed to boil down the complexity of emotions into a simple recipe I could follow:
Return, to yourself.
Speak, from your heart.
Be willing, to listen, to the words of others, in compassion. With your whole body. With your entire being.
Yes, I’d known that. I’d just spent too much time listening to the suffering on the plight of Idaho’s wolves, so I’d forgotten it.
I’d like to think, there are others who feel in need of such reminders. At least for me, living in a world delivering its messages of suffering at incomprehensible speeds and volume, means I have to practice more deliberately, to maintain peace in my own heart.
But what about the wolves?
I don’t know. Do any of us know, how to begin such heated conversations, about the plight of wolves with the people in whose backyards they may be traveling? These particular ones were simply minding their own wolf business in the Clearwater Wilderness, so I know they weren’t doing anything like taking down Fluffy or going after livestock. Yet, still, the Idahoans and Wildlife Services are going after them and others, with an intentional focus unseen in decades.
For most of us, there’s neither time nor money to fly to Washington DC to sit across the desk of the guy in Wildlife Services approving the wolf kill orders. For even fewer of us, there’s even less capacity, to take in his words, practice listening deeply and with compassion, in the hopes that it will lead to understanding.
And maybe, just maybe, the practice of keeping peace is more than I can master – more than many of us can achieve – at least today.
Today, I just want to cry for wolves. I think of them, each time I nuzzle my Lab-Sharpei or Shephard or Border Collie mutts. I think of them this Spring, with their pups arriving. It all comes in, right along with my discursive dialogue with that Wildlife Services guy.
Tomorrow, I may even get on the phone with him, and ask a stupidly naïve question to which I already know the answer,
So, why are you killing the wolves, again?
I will, at some point, make that call. I do believe, after all, in the goodness of humanity. That our best chance for moral and spiritual progress lies in the conversations we have with each other. In that conversation, I will also bow in gratitude, to my peace loving friend and Thich Nhat Hanh, who continue to serve as gentle reminders, that peace is not only possible, it begins yet doesn’t end, with me…