The Unitarian Universalists of Casper talked me into giving presentation during a Sunday Service, based on the theme “Web of All Creation.”
The Unitarian Universalists of Casper (Wyoming) are a lay-led group. The Reverend speaks one Sunday each month and the other services are presented by members, friends and guests.
I don’t actually mind sharing (once I get over my initial stage fright)… but if I’m going to present something to a spiritual group, I want it to have some spiritual value – and I’m not convinced I have the authority to do so.
But – I stumbled across a story on the Tin House website – I stole some of the content (giving credit to the author, of course) – and tried to build from there.
I finally managed to construct something… and here it is:
On the Out Breath: Peace
April 10, 2016
As many of you know, I work for an agricultural newspaper, which means I often talk about plants, crops, food, animals, weather, and many other facets of the web of all creation.
I have written about the soil cycle, the water cycle, market cycles, weather cycles and sometimes, my content even re-cycles.
I write about proper plant nutrition and proper cattle nutrition and proper nutrition for humans. I write about balance. I write about different entities working together and I write about ignorance.
Ignorance, in my work, usually refers to the average American, who is 3 generations removed from agriculture. The message I often relay is, “Tell Your Story.”
Tell Your Story.
In agriculture, this means that farmers and ranchers need to share their stories about why they do the things they do, about how they care for their animals and about their land stewardship. Farmers and ranchers care for their ground and their crops and their livestock and their families – and all of those average Americans who are three generations removed from agriculture that depend on the farmers and ranchers, and their ground and crops and livestock and families.
But here, today, in this setting, our story is about a different kind of stewardship. Although many of us here likely care for the same things that farmers and ranchers do, and some of may even be farmers and ranchers, as Unitarian Universalists, we are stewards of the relationships we have with each other.
We are stewards of our relationships with others. We are stewards of the greater community, spreading peace and compassion.
Philosophically, we may each represent different webs of creation. From the Big Bang to a seventh day of rest, the important thing to remember is our shared existence.
I am here. You are here. We are here. And we share this time and worldly space with many others.
Every now and then, I get lucky and instead of just writing about agriculture, I get to play cowboy. I’ve witnessed some amazing connections within the web, between people and their horses. Between people and their livestock, people and nature, nature and domestic animals… and agriculture is only one small window into some of these connections.
It might be a sign that I grew up in town, but even though I like horses, I love cattle. I love cows. And heifers and steers and bulls and calves. I am madly in love with calves.
One year, I got to be intimately involved with a calving season on a beef ranch. This meant checking on new mamma cows every two hours, carrying babies into the barn to warm up at two in the morning, and assisting with difficult births.
There is one calf I will never forget, who didn’t make it through to morning. I stayed up with him on one particularly memorable night, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince him to fight.
On the other hand, there was also a girl calf I will never forget who overcame all odds. We found her without her mother, cold and weak. We brought her into the barn, wrapped her in blankets, ran the space heaters and tried our best to convince her to eat.
The lead cowboy, his five-year old daughter and I took turns sitting with the calf, trying to bring her around. But she had shallow breath and she wouldn’t move.
After three days of this, the lead cowboy had a practical meeting with reality – after all, we had a whole herd of cows to attend to. On his shift early in the morning, he went into the barn and clasped his hand tightly over the calve’s nose. That did the trick.
That little girl kicked herself into life and became one of the most vigorous beings in that season’s batch of babies.
As it is in agriculture, and in all the web of creation, we all must fight different challenges. Although I am greatly saddened when I think of that little bull calf and our long night together, I am filled with hope when I think about the other one and her refusal to give up.
How do we weave these kinds of events into our own stories?
How do the heartbreaks strengthen us? How do the joys connect us to one another?
How do we reconcile with the the web and all of its creation within our own selves?
While I was trying to figure out how to translate my every day business into a conversation suitable for this Sunday, I ran across this story, posted online at Tin House.
In this narrative, Ann Hutton grapples with the reality of heartbreak within the web – and although I’m only going to read the beginning, I can share the information with anyone who wants to read the rest.
Excerpt from Ann Hutton’s story, “Tonglen”:
Let me suggest that whoever says “Where did I go wrong?” does not really want an answer. It’s one of those rhetorical questions asking for empathy, not a detailed reply. In fact, it asks for agreement that you are not the one to blame. You did your best, all things considered. And if you are a mother, you especially don’t want a bullet-point list of your parenting history to show you when and where you might have behaved differently so as to get a better result with your offspring.
No, the question directs attention to your plight, not your child’s. I’m suffering here because my son is caught in addiction. I’m sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/disgusted. I’m numb, flattened, and I don’t know what to do. It’s a question that is never more futile than when you’re trying to get it through your head that your child—now an adult in chronological age only, perhaps—has hit the meth wall. The one at which he no longer knows the difference between truth and lie, between right and wrong or organization and chaos, between self-preservation and certain demise.
Privately, these are the first things I consider when my son hits that wall: Is this my fault? What might I have done differently to usher him into wholeness? Why is he so hopelessly derelict? Where did I fail him? I ask these questions as if any of us has a direct line of admonition we can use to guide children into making the right choices and behaving in the most positive ways on their own behalf. We don’t, and they don’t. And none of it makes any sense in hindsight.
Who am I in his life now? Once I was his primary source of nourishment and love, his matrix, his guardian. He turned away and obliterated it all with methamphetamine. He removed himself from me and everyone else. I want to hate him for this trespass. I want to scream at his selfishness, contacting me only when he needs something, and then turning away again. I want to rage against his blatant disrespect—for himself and everything I hoped he would be.
But I don’t, not completely.
There is a Tibetan practice called tonglen. Buddhists do it in order to remind themselves that in life there is suffering. Everybody suffers, everyone experiences pain. Maybe we even come into this life with our own karmic dilemmas and proceed to act them out, sometimes compounding our own grief. Even we long-sacrificing mothers do. Compassion is called for, but we are not typically compassionate with each other right out of the primordial chute.
As one who appreciates the Buddha’s teachings, I recognize this basic state of suffering for what it is: attachment to wanting life to turn out a certain way. And I suspect that as long as anybody suffers, we all do. How can I think that my specific sad/appalled/ashamed/confused/devastated/ disgusted feelings are any more intense than anyone else’s? How can I possibly wish for the safety and well-being of my sons and daughters without also being concerned for all sons and daughters? We are in this together, whether we realize it or not. And as singularly devastating as it is to face my son’s wrecked life, I’m not unique, I tell myself. Everyone suffers.
Tonglen practice challenges perspective in this way; it trains us to get out of our small selves and be concerned with others. It works like this: You breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out relief and compassion. You start with yourself by naming your own personal desperation on the inhalation; then you name some compassionate form of relief on the exhalation. You go on to another individual—the president, for instance, or your addicted son—and continue to take in their suffering and extend to them the end of suffering with each breath, in and out. And if you are feeling magnanimous, you practice this technique on a grand scale, inhaling the suffering of all humankind and exhaling wishes for the end of suffering to all.
Why stop there? The earth is thrashing in bio-systems failure, it seems. Breathe it all in—the smog, the poisoned water, the dying trees. Send out a cleansing, restorative breath to the very planet under your feet, the one we seem to be hell-bent to destroy with our ignorance and our greed. Suck the life out of all the evil ever committed everywhere, and return absolute love and redemption on the release.
I try this. I start with myself.
On the in breath: sadness and remorse
On the out breath: relief
On the in breath: shame, powerlessness
On the out breath: peace
It feels mildly okay and vaguely positive, although it doesn’t take my mind off my son’s plight. We are separated by this drug. My heart goes out to him, but he may not even have the presence of mind to know it. So I focus on him, detoxing in a county jail three thousand miles away from me and a million light years distant in terms of his spirit.
On the in breath: his alienation
On the out breath: unconditional love
On the in breath: his physical addiction
On the out breath: restored health
On the in breath: his psychological paralysis
On the out breath: connection, acceptance
Does he feel any of this? Like I said, he’s in the throes of a forced detoxification and is doing it in an uncomfortable place. My imagination goes wild thinking how horrible it might be for him to realize that his life has come to such a severe loss of control. He’s incarcerated at the hands of a system acting to protect the rest of us from him. One the phone, he called his possession charge a “victimless crime,” but I am feeling the effects of his sin. I am his victim.
So, back to me.
On the in breath: anger and insult at being lied to, being used by him
On the out breath: forgiveness, understanding, more love
On the in breath: deep disappointment
On the out breath: release of expectations
On the in breath: embarrassment
On the out breath: tolerance
On the in breath: more anger
On the out breath: more forgiveness
And so on, for as long as I can focus on breathing, for as long as I can concentrate my thoughts. There is other work to do, other people to be with. Part of me stays stuck on him, and this impedes my full attention to any of it. I don’t sleep well. I stop communicating with friends. I try to imagine growing old without my son, the one I thought I knew. I drink too much wine every night in hopes that I’ll sleep. I usually don’t.
At some point I begin to understand that I’m not alone in my suffering; I get it at a deeper place in my gut. Mothers and sons everywhere are struggling at the effect of alienation and addiction. I am not the only one, and neither is he. Our existential quandary is shared by countless others.
She also notes:
The Buddha never promised redemption. His teachings don’t lead to heaven. This practice of watching the breath aims us at becoming fully conscious, and in so doing, becoming fully connected. “At one” with all. Therein lurks the hope: to realize—to make real—that my son and I are not separated, not really. In the greater scheme of things, we are just fine. We suffer, and so does everyone else. We still have each other. And everyone else.
The rest of this story can be found at: http://tinhouse.com/blog/42611/tonglen.html
On the In Breath, my boy calf – and all creatures, including humans, who cannot find the will to persevere.
On the Out Breath, courage, drive, and determination. The bright eyes an almost-dead calf, running, kicking and experiencing life, despite her half-frozen off ears.
On the In Breath, our secrets and dark places.
On the Out Breath, our stories.
The stories that we share with one another,
To help us connect,
To help us share,
To help us heal.
Storytelling is, after all, a way for us to come together in a shared experience of the web. Ann Hutton’s story describes emotion of motherhood, which I can only guess to relate to.
But she also describes a helplessness in her desire to help someone else, and that IS something I can relate to. She recognizes her own limitations of control, and that also, is something I can connect to and, in my own perspective, understand.
As a writer, I often view storytelling in a traditional way, with words. We have mythology and history and our favorite trashy novels – all of which serve a purpose in their own way.
But, we can also tell our stories, and connect to the greater web, in other ways. Some of us are musicians or painters. Some of us tell stories thorough our handiwork as home builders or mechanics. Isn’t someone who can replace a drivetrain and recognize bad struts sharing part of themselves? For example, an expression of time spent as a kid, in the garage, to be closer to Dad, or sitting on the front porch and naming different truck models as they drive by?
It’s part of the story, even when we drop a wrench and bang up our fingers.
On the Out Breath, cuss words.
On the In Breath, peace.
Being more familiar with words than engine parts, I tend to think of my story’s expression with writing. I have a number of personal journals, in which I write to no one. Or maybe I write to an unknown person who accidentally discovers my journals someday. Or maybe, I’m writing to my future self.
Often, I am writing to my own present self. As of yet, I haven’t written about the Out Breath in my personal journals, but I have many times reminded myself that my situation is temporary. As they say,
This too, shall pass.
In my work at the office, my favorite stories are about people. Stories about ranchers, western cartoonists, or scientists for example – those pieces are my favorite because they connect the strands of the web.
Sage grouse has been a great unifier of ranchers, environmentalists, mineral extraction companies and even politicians.
A University of Wyoming researcher is looking at weevil resistance in alfalfa, which he admits, will lead to a pile of other questions. How will livestock be affected when they eat that alfalfa? How far will pollen blow in the wind and how will beneficial insects be impacted by this new crop variety?
Reclamation specialists at oil well sites have to be diligent about weeds that happily grow in disturbed, bare soil.
Cattle producers have to consider the impacts of elk and other wildlife when they determine stocking rates, or how many cows they can put in one pasture.
The new vertical greenhouse in downtown Jackson is designed to grow tomatoes and herbs for local restaurants, while also serving as a place for disabled persons to find employment.
Despite our differences or disagreements, we are all connected. We are all integral to the web.
Our stories are part of our identities.
Our stories are the way we share ourselves and how we connect with others.
In the same way that Ann Hutton reflects on herself in relation to her son’s suffering, we too can look within our own selves to better understand the world, without.
Tomorrow, I will go back to writing about the weather, or crop research, or maybe even weeds. I’ve written at least a few articles that involve weeds.
But today, my story is about your story.
My story is about our story.
Here we are, here we all are, in this shared existence.
Today, my story is about breathing in the suffering, but breathing out relief.
From the buddhist tradition to a writer named Ann Hutton, from the Tin House Magazine to this room and the UUs of Casper…
On the In Breath, our struggles and concerns.
On the Out Breath, all of us. All of the web. All of the creation that has brought us here.
On the In Breath, powerlessness.
On the Out Breath, Peace.