State of the Union
As I write these words, on the train coming home from school (Davis), the president is giving his State of the Union address. Since I can’t watch or listen to him speak, I’ll offer my own version. I’m sure this is exactly what he’s saying…
Our union is in a dire state. Nothing new. But what does “union” mean, anyway? We (the people) seem to argue more than agree, for sure. So if agreement and cooperation are “union”, then we’re not in this together. As the arc of the year bends toward the elections, anger and blame will only intensify. A New Yorker article this week describes what we all sense: deeper polarization in our politics than ever before. It’s not completely disintegrated – we’re still holding civil elections, after all. Sort of. But if we want to really assess the state of things – the State of this Union – we have to look at the patterns below the surface waves of attack and riposte. And we have to include ourselves in the assessment.
So then what is happening? The Buddha taught that human experience can be characterized by three common reflections, and that these characteristics can guide us in assessing our state. First, nothing lasts. This is so basic that it’s easy to hear it without really hearing it. Everything’s impermanent. Yeah, yeah… But really. Your great yoga body, your educated, opinionated mind, your relationships both blissful and sour… all will slip through your fingers like water. Even the nourishing traditions we love: Dharma, yoga, poetry, humanism, progressive social ideals… all are bound by the conditions that they were born out of, and will all change and eventually disappear from the earth. The Zen ancestor Rinzai says that all these are “like flowers in the sky! Why bother grasping at them?” But we do, all the time. We think they’ll make us happy. And so the second characteristic is that nothing – no thing, nobody, no state, no victory – can give you permanent happiness. Everything in the world has the nature to disappoint. Ah.
This seems to leave us in a rough place, except for the blessing of the third characteristic, which is that you too, just like everything else, are composed of constantly changing moments, none of which last or are solid in any way. “So… what am I, anyway?” The third characteristic of you (and everything) is that there’s no one home. No self to call “me”, or “I”. It sure seems like it – because all these moments, strung together like still frames on celluloid, are convincing! But it’s a movie. And when you look away from the story, back at the projector flickering in the night, and notice that it’s a bunch of snapshots passing by, something gets a chance to relax. It doesn’t actually “matter” whether the hero dies, or the lovers get together in the end. But it’s a good show. You can enjoy it without believing it’s so solid.
In early yoga, Union was seen as the dissolving of the separate individual self into the big Self of the universe (Brahman/Atman/God). In Buddhism, that individual “non-self” magically is the flip side of interconnectedness, since if we’re all nobody but conditioned energies, then we are all in it together. Or there’s no in: we’re all just IT, together. Or there’s just IT. Or… everything just is. Words fail here, since they can’t help but sound like there’s a speaker. So you just stop reading, look off in the distance, and see if it’s actually true that the only thing keeping you “you” is grasping onto things, ideas, senses, storyline. And what happens if you relax that grasp.
Union in this sense isn’t a “state”, because states are things that you can go into and out of. If there’s no you, there’s nobody to go in and out. There’s just What Is. Which isn’t “union”, because it’s not multiple things coming together. But Union’s a good enough word for it.
So my prayer for the people of this “United” States is that we remember to look up. That we remember how temporary, fragile, heartbreakingly hopeful against all odds, and about to lose it all, we are. How could greed gain such traction in the world if men knew that all their millions and all their guns were only buying a handful of water at the seashore? That it slips through everyone’s fingers just the same?
And I do send love and hopeful wishes to the president and our many leaders on all sides, that their inner wisdom finds cracks in the system to shine through, illuminating these dark nights of our collective disunion, seeking somehow the way to live. Together.