2020-04-22

Taking Care, Giving Care



From the spiritual point of view, everything is a lesson – every object, person, or experience I encounter – every cup or pen or rock -- is trying to teach me something. The spiritual task is to listen to each moment. Its meaning is always uncertain – indeterminate. Nonetheless, the spiritual call is to discern – or construct – what meaning we can – to ignore nothing. The poet Kristin Flyntz has been listening for what our current pandemic might be trying to teach.

An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans
Kristin Flyntz
Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
We will help you.
We will bring the supersonic, high speed merry-go-round to a halt
We will stop the planes, the trains, the schools, the malls, the meetings, the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing our single and shared beating heart,
the way we breathe together, in unison.
Our obligation is to each other -- as it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening.
It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives.
But the foundation is giving way, buckling under the weight of your needs and desires.
We will help you.
We will bring the firestorms to your body
We will bring the fever to your body
We will bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs
that you might hear:
We are not well.
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy.
We are Messenger. We are Ally. We are a balancing force.
We are asking you:
To stop, to be still, to listen;
To move beyond your individual concerns and consider the concerns of all;
To be with your ignorance, to find your humility, to relinquish your thinking minds and travel deep into the mind of the heart;
To look up into the sky, streaked with fewer planes, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, smoky, smoggy, rainy?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
To look at a tree, and see it, to notice its condition: how does its health contribute to the health of the sky, to the air you need to be healthy?
To visit a river, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, clean, murky, polluted?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
How does its health contribute to the health of the tree, who contributes to the health of the sky, so that you may also be healthy?
Many are afraid now.
Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you.
Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness, listen for its wisdom.
What might it be telling you about what is at work, at issue, at risk, beyond the threats of personal inconvenience and illness?
As the health of a tree, a river, the sky tells you about quality of your own health, what might the quality of your health tell you about the health of the rivers, the trees, the sky, and all of us who share this planet with you?
Stop. Notice if you are resisting.
Notice what you are resisting.
Ask why. Stop. Just stop.
Be still. Listen.
Ask us what we might teach you about illness and healing, about what might be required so that all may be well.
We will help you, if you listen.

Two Kinds of Care

“Some kind of care is the kind of care that caring’s all about. And some kind of care is the kind of care we all could do without.” Some of you will perhaps recognize the line that I am modifying. When my children were little, there was a popular children’s record – made of vinyl – that was called “Free to be you and me” – by Marlo Thomas and friends. We played that record hundreds of times. One of the tracks was a song, with lyrics by Shel Silverstein.
Agatha Fry, she made a pie
And Christopher John helped bake it
Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
And Agatha Fry helped rake it

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it
And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping's all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

So: if someone helps you do something that you didn’t want to have done – that’s the kind of help we could do without. It’s the same way with caring. Some kind is the kind that caring is all about. Like when you care about fairness, so you give support to people treated unfairly. Or you care about the people you love, so you take care of them – you make sure they are provided with what they need – whether that’s concrete things or just a friend to hang-out with. Or you care about people learning stuff, so you become a teacher. Or you care about creating beauty and become an artist. We all need something big to care about. Here are some headlines from a few years ago: “Woman with one leg out to conquer Everest” “Six-year-old boy’s dream brings water to half a million people.” Or more recently: “16-year-old to urge United Nations to address climate change.” Wow. Those were people that really cared about something – getting to the top of Mt. Everest with one leg, bringing water to people who needed it, or preserving the earth from the harms of climate change.

If you have enough food to eat, it’s because someone – a whole lot of someones -- cared enough to plant it and harvest it and package it and ship it to a grocery store, so other someones could buy it and prepare it. George Bernard Shaw said, “This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” The thing we choose to care about so much that our whole life is oriented toward it – that’s the kind of caring that caring is all about.

But then there are the kind of cares that turn into worries. Someone who looks careworn looks tired and unhappy because of prolonged worry. They have anxiety. Cares, troubles, and worries can be a big burden. They can feel like a heavy weight on your shoulders. When worrying isn’t doing any good – when worrying only makes you sad and stressed – then that’s the kind of cares we all could do without.

What do you care about? What caring or cares are with you?

Taking Care, Giving Care

It’s good to be back. I would really have enjoyed being with everyone altogether in our sanctuary again, sharing hugs and handshakes. And I look forward to us being together in person again someday – even if the hugs and handshakes have to be replaced by elbow bumps. I was away for a six-month sabbatical at a Zen monastery in northern Oregon, which sits on 25 largely-wooded sloping acres overlooking the Columbia River separating Washington from Oregon. There were the two co-abbots, a married couple; five zen priests – three men and two women – whose ordination entailed a five-year commitment to stay at the monastery, and some have been there much longer. Four postulants – two men and two women -- taking a year or two prepare for – and be sure they want – ordination. In the middle of my time there, two of the postulants completed their postulancy and ordained, so the second half of my stay there were seven priests and two postulants in addition to the co-abbots. There were also at any given time 10 to 15 other residents – some there for a month or two or, in my case, six, with three or four planning to be there for a year or more. In all, there were usually about 25 priests, postulants, and other residents around the place.

Our schedule was variable. Some weeks we’d be sitting meditation three or four hours a day, and doing work practice for six hours a day. My work assignments sometimes had me out in the garden pulling weeds, or in the kitchen chopping and cooking, or in the monastery’s store sewing the mats and cushions they sell, or vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning bathrooms, or working on a building renovation project installing drywall, staining boards, and painting. One day my work practice assignment was: “there’s a clog in such-and-such a sink. Unclog it.” It took 12 feet of plumber’s snake, but I finally got it cleared.

Other weeks we’d be on sesshin schedule. Every month included one week-long and one or two week-end sesshin, when our schedule had a lot less work practice and a lot more sitting meditation. Many guests came in to the monastery for the sesshin and our numbers from double or triple or quadruple to between 50 and 100 people there for that week or week-end. And still other weeks the schedule would be in-between: a middle number of sitting meditation hours and work practice hours. I’m so grateful to this congregation for affording me that opportunity. I was really glad to go, though I knew I would miss you. A six-month time of intensive practice and being monastic was something I’ve been wanting to do for at least the last 15 years.

I was really glad to be there – it was a beautiful experience, a wonder-filled continual practice of opening myself to beauty. And I’m really glad to be back – back to this community of taking care and giving care.

When I was a child, a caretaker was a person who took care of someone else. Then someone noticed that these people weren’t TAKING care, they were GIVING care.
So since about the 1970s, we’ve been calling them caregivers. And it’s true that they do give care. They also take care. They take care OF someone, and they take care in the sense of being careful – mindful of tending to what is needed. They take care in the sense of taking on the responsibilities of caring. Isn’t it funny that caretaking and caregiving are the same thing?

This is not merely an oddity of the English language, but reflects the dual nature of care itself. You see, the difference between giving and taking depends on there being a difference between you and me. Caring – true caring that isn’t just going through the motions – recognizes the truth that there is no difference.

Caring that has no sense of keeping score or being paid back comes from understanding that you and I are not separate. It comes from what the Sufi poet Hafiz illustrated when he wrote:
“Even after all this time, the sun never says
to the earth: ‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights up the whole sky.”
Of course it’s useful and necessary to be able to distinguish one person from another, Bob from Betty, you from me – and to have good boundaries – including, these days, six feet of separation. From the spiritual point of view, this is a necessary and useful fiction – but a fiction nonetheless.

Your heart and your lungs, for some purposes, need to viewed as separate. But they are ultimately just you. The right atrium pumps deoxygenated blood to the right ventricle which pumps it down to the lungs where it pick up oxygen and drops off some carbon dioxide. The newly oxygenated blood is then drawn into the left atrium, which sends it to the left ventricle, which sends it throughout the body – taking your body the oxygen it needs. The heart never says, “hey, what happened to the oxygen I sent you one heartbeat ago – and the heartbeat before that and the heartbeat before that?” It just keeps sending the oxygen.

It happens that our understanding of vertebrate biology provides an answer to that question that the heart never asks. The body’s diverse functions involve taking oxygen, bonding it with carbon to create carbon dioxide, which goes into the bloodstream, and the heart pumps it back around to the lungs that breathe it out.
Where did the carbon come from? The carbon comes from the stomach and intestines, digesting and breaking down food. It’s all one system. The parts can be viewed separately, but they overlap and blur into one another.

The ultimate truth is that there is no separation of bodily organs – there’s just the one you. And no separation of you from anyone else – or any thing else. There’s just the universe unfolding itself to itself – an unfolding that includes localized pockets adopting the fiction of separation.

The opposite of caring is taking the fiction of separation as if it were ultimate truth. It isn’t. The things we care about, the people we care about and care for, pull us out of ourselves – which is to say, they flow from the recognition that we are not separate, even if we stay six-feet apart, even if we have a screen between us.

We are not separate. Those could be just words – “we are not separate” – just something to say. In our caring, however, we embody and manifest that nonseparation. We live nonseparation in our love for each other, and in our life projects. Whether you succeed or fail at a life project is not the point – but that you were oriented toward compassion is the point. Whether your life project is being an architect that designs spaces of beauty to enrich inhabitants, or being a teacher to help people understand, or being janitor to facilitate others’ productivity by keeping their workspaces clean, or being an epidemiologist working to prevent the next pandemic, what matters more than outcomes is that your vocation orients you toward compassion, that you care about something besides maintaining the illusion of a separate self, and that there are loved ones and life projects with whom and with which you are so bonded that the question of whether you are taking care or giving care makes no sense because care is flowing in all directions at once.

May it be so.

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