How We See Others: On Ahmaud Arbery, Homelessness, and the Judging Mind

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the comparing mind and how to soften our judgment of others. The pull toward judgment is so strong–I’m encountering it in myself as well as in lots of people around me who are ordinarily kind and patient–so I find myself posting about judgments again. During today’s outing with my son I was mindful of how a six-foot measuring stick has been embedded in my brain, and that was the first thing I noticed about people around me–that and whether they were wearing masks. It was as if something inside me yearned to control and chide other people’s behavior. The act of perceiving others’ compliance was so instantaneous that it frightened me. Being cognizant of this feeling, and sensing the “hook” of the temptation to judge in myself, has given me more understanding of the judging behavior of others.

On our outing, we traveled 2.23 miles to honor the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, the young man who was so cruelly murdered a few months ago while going on his daily run. Two suspects–a father and son–have now been charged with his murder. We will learn more during the trial, but the chilling footage suggests that Ahmaud was gunned down for no other reason than the color of his skin–yet another horrifying tragedy building on our racist legacies.

As we were walking, I was thinking about the horrors of these immediate judgments and biases. Before our pandemic times, we would look at passers-by in the streets and our unconscious would sort them into groups based on their gender expression, ethnic or racial appearance, or the apparent quality and fit of their clothes. These and other factors determine not only how we see people, but sometimes whether we see them at all. China Miéville’s wonderful novel The City and The City is set in two European city-states occupying the same physical space, but without mutual diplomatic relations. The citizens of each city are socialized, since infancy, not to see the buildings, cars, and people of the other city. When the hero has to investigate a disappearance from one city to the other, he has to undergo training to “unsee” his own city and “see” the other.

This week, UC Hastings and other businesses and people in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco sued the City of San Francisco for its neglect to address the overwhelming crisis of homelessness, drug dealing and mental disability that has characterized the Tenderloin, especially since the pandemic. I’ve spoken about this with students who live in our dorm, the Tower; even though we all have witnessed the immense suffering in the streets surrounding campus for years, the virus and resulting crises have magnified the suffering, to a level that affects everyone in the Tenderloin–housed and unhoused alike. We think of ourselves as good, kind, compassionate people, and yet we must harden our hearts and “unsee” the human suffering at our doorstep; it has finally risen to a level of tragedy that can no longer be unseen.

These snap judgments we make are at the heart of the many mundane ways in which we treat others badly. Most of us (I believe and hope) do not share the murderous intents of the people who accosted and shot Ahmaud. But how many people who think of themselves as kind and compassionate perceive people who do not look like them as dangerous, threatening, unpleasant to interact with, and move to the opposite sidewalk?

With the current threat at our doors, the usual features that our biased minds would glom to, to offer a snap judgment of the person walking toward us–poor, dangerous, friendly, you name it–have receded to the background, and our immediate biases have clung to masks and distances. The first thing we see now goes beyond poor/rich, male/female, white/nonwhite. It goes to masked/unmasked and distancing/not distancing. And so, our judging energy has gone there, where it might have gone elsewhere in past times when we noticed other things. It has been a profound education for me in the nature of instant visible biases.

I imagine some people reading this will be rightfully upset about the comparison between racist murderers and people who just want others to participate in the measures we are taking to prevent contagion. Of course motivation matters. But look at what the presumably commendable effort to shelter in place is making people do: scream at other people, slash each other’s tires, write horrible notes to each other, place rotten meat at people’s entrances as punishment for their perceived violations. For people imbued with a commendable motive, these are not particularly commendable (or effective) actions.

We must heal and fix the world, so that young people’s promising lives will not be cut short by race-fueled hatred, and so that poor and suffering people will not be ignored and unseen. Let’s start by sitting with our own judging minds, let go of others’ behavior that we cannot control, and then find the space to unite in active hope to work for racial and economic equality. The revolution is bigger than all of us, but it starts inside us.

Is It True? Questioning Rigidly Held Beliefs

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, we were advised by CDC and WHO not to wear masks unless we were sick. The masks, they said, were for health care workers, and would not protect us or others against COVID-19. Social media was awash with expressions of anger and outrage at the selfish, inconsiderate, cruel people whose effrontery venturing outside wearing masks showed their indifference to others’ suffering.

Then, a New York Times op-ed changed the regulatory course of the pandemic. The CDC and WHO changed course, now advising people to wear masks whether or not they were sick themselves. Part of this involved the gradual realization about asymptomatic carriers and the infection cycle. Overnight, we all sewed masks. Because the N-95 masks many of us have from the great fires in California were reportedly scarce, even if we had used ones at home, we did not dare wear them in public for fear that others would (mistakenly) judge and scold us for taking these precious commodities away from frontline workers. And, predictably, social media was awash with expressions of anger and outrage at the selfish, inconsiderate, cruel people whose effrontery venturing outside WITHOUT wearing masks showed their indifference to others’ suffering.

Notice how quickly we pivoted from raging at our friends and neighbors for doing something to raging at them for doing exactly the opposite?

We still do not know nearly enough about COVID-19, its infection patterns, and the appropriate public policy measures that would undoubtedly reduce the contagion. But reading your local social media outlet, you could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of us seem very resolute in our opinions. Everywhere we go, we scrutinize our fellow humans with eyes freshly attuned to mask violations, outdoor exercise choices, and sidewalk etiquette–and if we don’t confront them directly, we go home and unleash our frustrations on the keyboard. I cracked up reading a tweet evoking the hysteria of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: “I saw Goody Proctor shopping without a mask at CVS.”

Our voracious appetite for criticizing others and telling them off publicly is undeterred by the fact that, for a lot of the choices we have to make every day, we don’t actually know what to do. A few days ago, a probably well-meaning neighbor accosted my partner (who was wearing a mask) in the street and scolded him for not having our toddle wear a mask (children 3-12 are exempt from masks under the San Francisco ordinance, and children 2 and under are required not to wear masks because of the risk of suffocation. My son is 2.5 years old.) A friend posted a week ago of being told off by a stranger about bringing her sons to the grocery store and having them stand on a sidewalk–she honestly did not think it was a good idea to have them set foot inside the store.

Much of the confusion is due to the fact that, in public policy, there are often big trade-offs. Just as one example, ordering a delivery from your neighborhood restaurant keeps a small business afloat–crucially important, because we might not recognize our city when this is over–but it also endangers the delivery workers who bring the food to you. We all agonize over these decisions, but the agonizing, doubting, and reflection, seem to happen much more privately than the scolding and the shaming. I had a big belly laugh of empathy when I read this fantastic piece on Corporette. You should read the whole thing, but just to whet your appetite:

Actually she never leaves her house because she only orders groceries by contactless delivery. She tips generously so it’s ok for the delivery person to be at risk.

Until she’s overcome with guilt from having someone deliver her groceries so she decides to pick them up herself. At the grocery store, she shops alone. Never with children. She has a husband who watches them. Or if she doesn’t have a husband she utilizes an elaborately and meticulously researched system to ensure her children never go out in public. She shops from a list, with haste and with gloves and a mask. She has backup items for each item on her list in case the store is out. She has backup items for her backup items. She would never complain about a shortage because her planning has made any shortage impossible to affect her. The mask is naturally homemade because any surgical or N95 masks she has she donated to the local hospital last month, obviously. She hasn’t touched her face in years.

The Ideal COVID-19 Quarantine Woman, Corporette

Along the same lines, I got a wry chuckle or twenty out of reading Dave Eggers’ excellent piece in the New York Times. Again, read the whole thing, but this should give you an idea:

P: Where should we go for a run?

A: Ideally some place where you can spread out, where you aren’t in close proximity to other people.

P: Like the beach? A park?

A: Sure. Beaches and parks are wide-open spaces. They’re about as safe as you can be.

P: We just went to the beach and the park. There were hundreds of other people there.

A: You went to the beach? The park? What were you thinking? There are hundreds of people there! Go home. Be with your kids. Do you have kids?

P: Yes.

A: Well, make sure they keep up with school. Keep up with their worksheets and Zoom, and check their work, and keep them off screens, and go outside, and don’t worry about school. It’s a pandemic, after all.

P: Um. Many of the things you just said sound contradictory.

A: Not at all. I’ll rephrase: Your kids are living through a crisis. It’s all right if they feel anxious, or if you can’t maintain routines or keep up with regular school schedules. Just make sure they don’t fall behind, and remember that kids thrive on routine. So stick to a schedule, but give them space, and stay inside, and go outside, and use technology to connect with teachers and friends, and limit screen time.

There is nothing wrong with staying informed and trying to do our best. But when we become overly attached to our beliefs and opinions, our rigid grasp of them can stop us from examining the possibility that we might be wrong. This increases the suffering of others whom we judge, scold and humiliate, often publicly. Especially now, as the world quiets and slows down, an unkind word from you can ring in someone’s ears for days–and, contrary to what some of us think, shaming is not an effective strategy for incentivizing people to change their behavior. Moreover, scolding increases our own suffering, because feeling full to the brim with the fire and brimstone of self righteousness provokes upheaval and preoccupations that exacerbate our already turbulent internal experiences of this crisis.

Friends, we are not Bad People (TM) for doing this. The last thing I want to do is scold you for scolding others–that just compounds the problem! It is understandable and human for the inchoate fear and confusion that we feel these days to incessantly look for a “hook” to hang to. Tibetan Buddhists talk about this as shenpa. Pema Chödrön, with her usual crystalline quality, offers a description of this quality of being “hooked”:

At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.

Remember the fairy tale in which toads hop out of the princess’s mouth whenever she starts to say mean words? That’s how being hooked can feel. Yet we don’t stop—we can’t stop—because we’re in the habit of associating whatever we’re doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa syndrome. The word “attachment” doesn’t quite translate what’s happening. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but which everyone knows well. Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer.

One way to work with rigidly held beliefs is to create a quiet, safe space for yourself to investigate and question them with curiosity and kindness. I find that Byron Katie’s The Work, and especially her Judge Thy Neighbor Worksheet, can be helpful here. I confess to having some ambivalence about the way Katie works with people at her seminars, especially after having seen some videos; the spectacle is not tempered with enough compassion for my taste, and I also worry that shaming people publicly for rigidly held beliefs replicates and compounds the judgment embroiled in their own beliefs. But as a tool of personal exploration, it can be a useful way to soften your grip around what you strongly believe is “right”, consider the possibility that there is a broader context, and play with some turnarounds to learn more about yourself and others.

As I understand it, engaging in this kind of exploration is not intended to numb you to the ills of racism, social inequality, environmental destruction, or interpersonal cruelty. Accepting that something is as it is is not tantamount to burying our head in the sand and pretending that everything is fine. It does, however, offer you an opportunity to view your adversaries in a new light. Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, which is infused with tireless advocacy for environmental justice, includes a fantastic exercise called Bowing to my Adversaries:

You, who destroy the natural world for profit, you show me how much I respect and honor our planet home and fellow beings. So I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

You bring forth in me the love I feel for this life-bearing land—its soil, air and waters—and for the community that rises in its defense.  Because of the strength with which I resist your actions, I learn how strong my love really is. I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

Because the pain I feel when I witness the pain of the world is no less than your pain–you, who perpetuate destruction and cut yourselves off from the web of life—I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

Because the pain of greed, alienation and fear is no less than the pain of sorrow for what is lost, I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

For the power of my anger, arising from my passion for justice, I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

Because we all want to be happy, to feel intact and part of a single whole, for that shared longing, I bow to you in compassion and touch the Earth.

Because your actions challenge me to see the limits to my own understanding, they free me from holding my view as the only correct one.  I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

You who teach me that the mind is a miracle, capable of manifesting as love, as greed, as fear, as clarity or delusion—you who show me what I myself am capable of when I am governed by fear and greed—O great awesome teachers, I bow to you in gratitude and touch the Earth.

Understanding that we all belong to the web of life, and with love in my heart, I bow to you and touch the Earth.

Give yourself the gift of letting go of the blame game; drop your case and invite in some fresh air and a broader perspective. It can bring new freedom into how you are in your own being and in the world. Take a moment to tenderly, kindly, question your rigidly-held beliefs, and reap the rewards of spacious awareness in your mind. Real courage lies in starting the revolution within ourselves.

Motivation Without Grades: An Open Letter to my Students

Growing up, one of my favorite books was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s everything you want in a 1970 philosophy/spirituality diatribe. The book is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day motorcycle trip Pirsig made with his son Chris and, for part of the way, with friends. The journey experiences are interspersed with stories about the past of the protagonist, Phaedrus, whose relentless inquiry into the nature of Quality end up driving him insane. Phaedrus’ story reveals this inner journey, his descent into madness, and his destructive experience with electroconvulsive therapy (like Pirsig himself). Eventually, Phaedrus regains his personality and reclaims his close relationship with his son.

I don’t love the book now as much as I did back then; the main character is difficult to like, the classicism-over-emotions conclusion does not align with my values, and a lot of the stuff rings more pretentious to me now that I’m less impressionable than I was in my teens. But there is one fantastic gem in the book that I want to tell you about.

A starting point for Phaedrus’ journey has to do with his job. A professor at a small college, he tries to motivate his students to write well, but finds himself dismayed with the quality of their essays. He concludes:

Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything…from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.
He discussed this with a professor of psychology who lived next door to him, an extremely imaginative teacher, who said, “Right. Eliminate the whole degree-and-grading system and then you’ll get real education.”

Phaedrus ends up inviting a student to write an essay about what it would be like to study without grades. After thinking about it, she becomes a convert to the cause, but her classmates remain skeptical:

Phædrus’ argument for the abolition of the degree-and- grading system produced a nonplussed or negative reaction in all but a few students at first, since it seemed, on first judgment, to destroy the whole University system. One student laid it wide open when she said with complete candor, “Of course you can’t eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, that’s what we’re here for.”
She spoke the complete truth. The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but rote and the mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.

Intrigued, Phaedrus runs an experiment: he simply stops giving his students grades. Here’s how the experiment goes:

[A]t first almost everyone was sort of nonplussed. The majority probably figured they were stuck with some idealist who thought removal of grades would make them happier and thus work harder, when it was obvious that without grades everyone would just loaf. Many of the students with A records in previous quarters were contemptuous and angry at first, but because of their acquired self-discipline went ahead and did the work anyway. The B students and high-C students missed some of the early assignments or turned in sloppy work. Many of the low-C and D students didn’t even show up for class. At this time another teacher asked him what he was going to do about this lack of response.
“Outwait them,” he said.
His lack of harshness puzzled the students at first, then made them suspicious. Some began to ask sarcastic questions. These received soft answers and the lectures and speeches proceeded as usual, except with no grades.
Then a hoped-for phenomenon began. During the third or fourth week some of the A students began to get nervous and started to turn in superb work and hang around after class with questions that fished for some indication as to how they were doing. The B and high-C students began to notice this and work a little and bring up the quality of their papers to a more usual level. The low C, D and future F’s began to show up for class just to see what was going on.
After midquarter an even more hoped-for phenomenon took place. The Arated students lost their nervousness and became active participants in everything that went on with a friendliness that was uncommon in a gradegetting class. At this point the B and C students were in a panic, and turned in stuff that looked as though they’d spent hours of painstaking work on it. The D’s and F’s turned in satisfactory assignments.
In the final weeks of the quarter, a time when normally everyone knows what his grade will be and just sits back half asleep, Phædrus was getting a kind of class participation that made other teachers take notice. The B’s and C’s had joined the A’s in friendly free-for-all discussion that made the class seem like a successful party. Only the D’s and F’s sat frozen in their chairs, in a complete internal panic.
The phenomenon of relaxation and friendliness was explained later by a couple of students who told him, “A lot of us got together outside of class to try to figure out how to beat this system. Everyone decided the best way was just to figure you were going to fail and then go ahead and do what you could anyway. Then you start to relax. Otherwise you go out of your mind!”
The students added that once you got used to it it wasn’t so bad, you were more interested in the subject matter, but repeated that it wasn’t easy to get used to.

Robert J. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974.)

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out what happened next.

The reason I was reminded of these captivating passages: Today I recorded the review session lecture for my criminal procedure students, who are taking my exam early next week. Under our College’s pandemic grading policy, everyone will receive a credit/no-credit grade for their efforts.

When we voted on this policy, there were many opinions among the faculty and the students about which grading system would accomplish the most in terms of fairness, compassion, and support of our students’ success. Excellent arguments were made on all sides in good faith. And now I’m running a twisted version of Phaedrus’ experiment, with my previous cohorts as my control group. I say “twisted” because this isn’t an experiment, or a game: we are facing extremely unusual circumstances. Financial, medical and psychological factors impact our students in a variety of ways, weighing heavier against students who come to us from less social/financial advantage to begin with. I am committed to reading all the exams with great attention, and I think they have much to teach me, but because there are so many unknown factors, I’m going to take the outcomes with more than a grain of salt.

But I do have a message to students–not just my students, but anyone who finds themselves toiling this final exam season without the usual external motivator of getting good grades. Even though writing a good exam (which I will read) and doing well on the course can eventually pay off in the world of external rewards in the form of, say, a recommendation letter to a future employer, you have been given a much bigger gift.

The only person you have to impress is yourself.

You have three hours to impress yourself with how much you’ve learned this semester, with your knowledge of the doctrine, with your analytical skills, with your creativity, with your penchant for problem-solving, with your organizational skills. Amidst the fear and anger and grief, there will be a bubble of freedom from assessment, in which you can grow and thrive–just for the pleasure of witnessing your own accomplishment. You have been gifted an interesting and challenging puzzle to work at quietly, on your own, without anyone critiquing you or breathing down your neck. You have been gifted the thrill of quietly marveling, without an audience, at your own mastery. You have been gifted the opportunity to shine unseen, where your spark is its own reward, in a time and space free of expectations.

I know some of you are facing very real difficulties this exam season: even having a quiet spot to take an exam with working Internet is not a given. And I also know that it is extremely emotionally hard to take on projects, and that it can feel like a huge presumption to tell you that a scary, negative experience is a gift. Only you know what it means *for you* to excel, or to rise to the occasion, given what is on your plate in this scary time. But to the extent that you have control over your circumstances and surroundings, and to the extent that your emotional bandwidth allows, ask yourself: Do you want a grade and a degree, or real education?

It’s completely up to you. No judgment from me or from anyone else.

What will you do with this gift?

Tribalism and the Comparing Mind

A Jewish folk story I know goes like this:

A farmer lives in a house with his wife and children and the grandparents, and it is so noisy that he thinks he will go crazy. He goes to the Rabbi for advice. The Rabbi says, “bring your goat into the house.” The farmer says, “but that’ll just make everything worse!” The Rabbi says, “do as I say.” The farmer, skeptical but trusting the Rabbi’s wisdom, brings the goat in. A week later, the man returns to the Rabbi, who asks him, “how’s it going?” The man says, “it’s so much worse! We are so crowded and the goat is pooping everywhere and eating our food!” The Rabbi nods and says, “now, take the goat out of the house.”

Upon hearing that the beach closures will only cover Orange County–the specific beaches where overcrowding and noncompliance were visible on the weekend–I felt very relieved and happy despite not having actually gained or lost anything. It occurs to me that this is a great illustration of Kahneman and Tversky’s work on the entitlement effect.

The entire emotional rollercoaster was a fascinating study in comparisons and tribalism. When we were threatened with the closures, I felt anger toward local government (“how can they take this away from my child?!”), at the Orange County beachgoers (“this is why we can’t have nice things!”) at friends who disagreed with me; in short, at “others”, a-la Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”

Our powerful teacher, COVID-19, has given us plenty of opportunity to develop and espouse strong opinions about other people: how they are handling the pandemic, how their situation compares to ours… in other words, a lot of dividing the world into “us” and “them.” Kanheman and Tversky’s work is so helpful for understanding the formation of these aggressively negative opinions. Cognitive bias conditions us to notice and retain evidence that’s consistent with our views. And we tend to not notice or reject evidence that doesn’t support our views (e.g., we are disgusted with one racist post, deduce that “Nextdoor is full of racists,” and ignore the dozens of kind, helpful posts.)   Attribution error makes us explain people’s behavior in different ways based on whether or not we like them: If it is an enemy of ours, and they do something good, then we attribute it to circumstances, the situation. When they do bad things, we attribute their behavior to their disposition. With friends, it is the other way around (e.g., a friend is well prepared and provides for their family by shopping extensively; a stranger, or someone I dislike, is a selfish hoarder.)  Harvard ethicist Herbert Kelman writes: “Attribution mechanisms . . . promote confirmation of the original enemy image. Hostile actions by the enemy are attributed dispositionally, and thus provide further evidence of the enemy’s inherently aggressive, implacable character. Conciliatory actions are explained away as reactions to situational forces—as tactical maneuvers, responses to external pressure, or temporary adjustments to a position of weakness—and therefore require no revision of the original image.”  

Theologist Robert Wright, who has looked at the connection of Buddhism and modern psychology, observes that a big part of the formation of essence involves feelings. There is a lot of evidence now in psychology that when we look at any person, we react to some extent at the level of feeling, and then that shapes the way we behave towards that person With people, feeling is so critical to perception that the very identification of people depends on feelings in ways more subtle than we are normally aware of.

Feelings are at the core of the comparing mind. Leon Festinger posits that we compare ourselves to people we perceive to be worse than we are (less moral, less good, less worthy) to increase our self esteem. Much of the debate over compliance and social distancing policy divides people into camps: Who has it easier? People with kids? People sheltering alone without kids? People sheltering with someone they don’t get along with? Does the age of the kids matter?

If your comparing mind is in overdrive–mine sure has been, and I’m seeing a lot of evidence around me that it’s not just me–start by having some compassion for yourself. Comparing is part of the human experience. Second, the inchoate fear and anger in your mind will invariably look to hook onto something concrete. It may or may not be a righteous coat hanger. But it is a coat hanger, and we have to see it in order to sit with it.  

How to address the comparing mind:

Byron Katie’s work, which I have a complicated reaction to, involves examining limiting thoughts. You can use her Judge Thy Neighbor worksheet to examine rigidly held opinions about others.
Using practices of self compassion and compassion for others, such as Krisin Neff’s exercises, can also be very helpful, as can this wonderful exercise from Rick Hanson called “drop your case.”
In general, anything that frees your mind from a zero-sum-game is going to be a healthy way to look at things. Resources may be finite, but joy and kindness are not (and neither is suffering)–so focus on that.

Closing State Beaches and the Problem of Noncompliance

When I heard late last night of Gov. Newsom’s decision to close California beaches because of crowds, I was devastated. I observed my thought pattern immediately cycle through the first three of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial (“I can’t believe this. It can’t be happening. Surely this won’t happen”), anger (at the Governor, at the mayor, at the lawmakers, at the folks congregating in five SoCal beaches – “you are why we can’t have nice things!”) and depression (“what am I going to do? How will we get through this month?”). This morning I progressed to the bargaining stage (“wait, he said state beaches, right? So SF beaches, which are run by the city, are exempt, right?”) and I might find some acceptance later this afternoon.

In short, my inchoate fear, sadness, and uncertainty, finally found an appropriate coathanger to hook itself to, and I was in emotional turmoil throughout the night.

Now that the emotional storm has passed, I’m thinking a bit about what park and beach closure policies have to teach us about the punitive and cooperative aspects of making public policy. Oftentimes when prohibitive legislation is considered on any topic, ranging from speed laws to tax policy, people forget that any policy brings with it some level of noncompliance. A classic article by Fred Coombs provides a typology of reasons for noncompliance: “(1) lapses or ambiguities in communication; (2) insufficient resources; (3) an objection to the policy itself (i.e., its goals or its assumptions); (4) distaste for the action required; or (5) doubts about the authority upon which the policy is based, or that authority’s agents.”

Looking particularly at (3) and (4), which are different facets of how much one agrees with the policy decision and how much one is inconvenienced by them, reminded me of Tom Tyler’s classic work Why People Obey the Law. Moving away from the “instrumental” explanations (“people obey if there’s something in it for them”), Tyler focuses on normative ones, which are concerned with–

the influence of what people regard as just and moral as opposed to what is in their self-interest. It also examines the connection between normative commitment to legal authorities and law-abiding behavior.
If people view compliance with the law as appropriate because of their attitudes about how they should behave, they will voluntarily assume the obligation to follow legal rules. They will feel personally committed to obeying the law,
irrespective of whether they risk punishment for breaking the law. This normative commitment can involve personal morality or legitimacy. Normative commitment through personal morality means obeying a law because one feels the law is just; normative commitment through legitimacy means obeying a law because one feels that the authority enforcing the law has the right to dictate behavior.
According to a normative perspective, people who respond to the moral appropriateness of different laws may (for example) use drugs or engage in illegal sexual practices, feeling that these crimes are not immoral, but at the same time will refrain from stealing. Similarly, if they regard legal authorities as more legitimate, they are less likely to break any laws, for they will believe that they ought to follow all of them, regardless of the potential for punishment. On the other hand, people who make instrumental decisions about complying with various laws will have their degree of compliance dictated by their estimate of the likelihood that they will be punished if they do not comply. They may exceed the speed limit, thinking that the likelihood of being caught for speeding is low, but not rob a bank, thinking that the likelihood of being caught is higher.

Tom Tyler, Why People Obey the Law, pp. 3-4

Tyler thinks that that fostering compliance from a normative place works better because it requires less enforcement and it fosters more care for people’s values and motivations. He coins the concept “procedural justice” to argue that, when people think a decision has been made fairly–even if it disadvantages them personally–and they have been treated respectfully, they are more likely to comply.

It is inevitable that not all citizens will share the same normative values or the same level of legitimacy in government. While most of us understand the need for extreme social distancing measures to save lives, some of us simply do not believe the facts the government cites as a basis for its decisions. We might think the government is ignorant, or we might think it is deliberately misleading us because of ulterior motives. We might think the government has good intentions, but is missing the mark with the policies. Or, we might simply find the new requirements unbearable.

Looking at my own reaction to the order, it was guided by similar questions. Is it true that there’s noncompliance? Yes, we have evidence of it in SoCal. Is it widespread? No, by the Governor’s own admission: “About 100 beaches, easily defined 100 beaches, and there were five where we had some particular challenges. Overwhelming majority there were no major issues. Quite frankly no issues,” he said. Is the reaction disproportionate to the threat? That’s a matter of perspective. Look at these concerns from local government officials:

California State Assemblymember Melissa Melendez fired back at Newsom’s decision on Twitter, stating “This is not going to end well. Californians are not children you can ground when they don’t ‘behave’ the way you want.”

Orange County Board of Supervisors member Donald Wagner on Wednesday acknowledged the governor’s ability to close the county’s beaches, but said “it is not wise to do so.”

“Medical professionals tell us the importance of fresh air and sunlight in fighting infectious diseases, including mental health benefits,” Wagner wrote.

“Moreover, Orange County citizens have been cooperative with California state and county restrictions thus far. I fear that this overreaction from the state will undermine that cooperative attitude and our collective efforts to fight the disease, based on the best available medical information.”

All the noncompliance factors are there: an emotional insult at not being respected enough to follow the rules out of our own volition, doubts about the values behind the approach (punitivism vs. fresh air), concerns that suppressing people too much will backfire and yield more noncompliance. Right out of the Coombs and Tyler playbooks.

The big question is: What, ultimately, will produce more compliance? Do we get more cooperation if we relax the order, counting on people’s common sense (and accepting that some will not display such common sense), or if we impose the order, counting on people’s agreement in principle? My gut tells me that, in the short term, enforcement stuff might be better, but in the long term, people’s sense of legitimacy and compliance will wear off, and we might see worse behaviors all across the state than the ones we saw on the beach. The problem is that levels of compliance are very tricky to model. They depend on demographics, political views, and other factors, which are changing daily, and would make this very difficult to predict even for compliance experts.

Ultimately, I think my personal reaction to this has been a great teacher. It opened some unexpected compassion gates: I managed to find within my soul more than a modicum of empathy for the feelings of Huntington Beach protesters, Spring Break revelers, and anti-vax conspiracy theorists. Don’t get me wrong: I have deep ideological disagreements with all these three groups and a much higher belief in the legitimacy of our local government (let’s talk about Trump some other day, shall we?). But what we share is the deep sense of emotional injury by a curtailment of a freedom we treasure. That’s something I can understand and sit with emotionally even as I ideologically disagree. In our case, my family treasures nature and water, and my son thrives during these difficult times because he has the world’s biggest sensory box to play and learn in. I very much hope our local government will not take this away from him.

Socially distant boy having a blast on a San Francisco beach

Pandemic Passover: Our Virtual Seder Table

The Torah spoke of four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask. Each of these sons calls for a different approach in the telling of the Exodus story. This year, as I made preparations for co-hosting (with my colleague and friend Dorit Reiss) our first-ever Zoom seder for dozens of participants, I wondered which son I was.

The wise son would deeply ponder the minutiae and symbolism of the Passover rituals. As the wise son, I reflected on the meaning of a holiday about overcoming slavery, rediscovering freedom, a rather hefty dosage of retribution, and delaying gratification, amidst the shelter-in-place order. The holiday took on a new meaning, as my definitions of slavery, freedom, and the promised land have been shaped by current events. Mostly, I have been thinking about the meaning of freedom in the context of prisons and COVID-19 health risks within them, and recommitting to the fight to save as many people as possible, both behind bars and on the outside.

The wicked son excludes himself from the celebration. I don’t see this as “wicked,” necessarily, but rather as the comparing mind. “Sure, you celebrate all you want; you don’t have little kids;” “Sure, you have it easy, your kids are small, mine have to do homework.” “Sure, knock yourself out and watch Netflix, child-free person.” “Sure, enjoy your family happiness while I rot here in solitude.” The comparing mind alienates and isolates us from our friends and neighbors. Let’s drop all that and remember that there is no “other.”

The simple son asks, “what’s this all about?” I had to go back to basics in creating a virtual PowerPoint haggadah for us to use during the ceremony–remembering old passages, enjoying the familiar turns-of-phrase even before engaging with the deeper meanings.

The son who does not know what to ask is silent. But in my case, the silence was an industrious one and full of preparations.

What’s on our happy Oaxaca-inspired seder plate? Celery, hot sauce pickles (in lieu of horseradish), haroset balls (combining any dried fruit and nuts at home with a grated apple in a food processor and making balls, then rolling them in coconut), and the classic tofu eggless salad in lieu of the egg. And the orange, you ask? Here’s the story. As we’ve been co-leading the Seder as two women for about twenty years–Dorit emceeing and I putting together the music–I think an orange more than belongs on our seder plate!


One of the main purposes of mindfulness is to see things as they are, rather than as we imagine them to be or wish them to be. The invitation to be present with whatever arises, in any area of our lives. This inquiry can be uncomfortable at times, when we examine the painful areas, which raise judgment or aversion. This is understandable–we seek pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones.

Why would you want to be with something unpleasant or painful? Perhaps because in your life, as in everyone’s life, there are painful things just won’t go away. Or, you may find that if one unpleasant situation does happen to change, it’s replaced by the next distressing thing—yet another thing to fight, resist, and get rid of.

As many of us have found out, blocking the pain, pretending that it does not exist, or intellectualizing it, does not work. Pain is inevitable. The question is whether the way we engage with the pain helps or hurts us, frees or imprisons us.

One of the Buddha’s well-known parables is about a person being struck by two arrows. The first arrow is the pain, and it is inevitable; the second arrow is suffering, and that we can work with. What brings about the second arrow is the resistance to the pain–flexing around it, pretending it isn’t there, etc. A simple equation would be:

Suffering = pain x resistance  

A dear friend of mine posted on FB during this pandemic: “It’s been a great weekend – restful and lovely – but tonight i feel inexplicably sad. still having trouble concentrating to write or read – and just … knowing that we probably don’t have the power, or the will, to transform our world in the way it needs to be transformed, post this crazy virus crap. well shit, what if i am feeling sad because I finally slowed down long enough, unplugged long enough, breathed deeply enough … to begin to *get it* ? to actually have the enormity of this start to sink in? is the solution to spend tomorrow busier? or: is the ‘solution’ to live even more deeply into the feeling?”

I think my friend nailed it with the “solution” she poses. Thankfully, resistance is not a constant. If it were we would be doomed. But resistance is something we can work with and learn to let go of, or to at least soften around, and our mindfulness and compassion practices can help. The first step is to recognize what is going on. What is the pain, and where is it? Is it compounded by a resistance component? What does it feel like in your body? Where? What are the thoughts that are common with resistance? Can you see how resistance flavors an experience in a very recognizable way, but that it is separate from what is happening?

You can start exercising your muscles of containing pain by building a little bit of resistance around something mildly unpleasant, like some itch or discomfort you feel while meditating. You will notice how your mind will kick up a storm against why this is so ridiculous not to scratch. But you can just watch your mind railing and let the nose itch. Then you will discover what might be revolutionary to you: the itch will eventually go away by itself.  

Because these fast times have eroded our ability to withstand pain and postpone gratification, many of us don’t know that we actually are able to just tolerate a craving—and it will go away by itself.  You may notice that resistance will diminish, and maybe even dissolve, once you just bring gentle awareness to it.

A great example is Cori Doerffeld’s children’s book The Rabbit Listened. The protagonist, a boy named Taylor, built a beautiful castle from his building blocks that then got destroyed. Many animals come to visit him in his anguish, encouraging him to laugh it off, to cry, to move on and build a new one, to exact revenge on the wrongdoers… and only the rabbit sits with Taylor, listening to him as he cycles through pretending, crying, being angry, laughing, planning revenge, and eventually trying to rebuild. My friend Yifat Matzner Heruti’s work on parenting is based on this principle: rather than “fixing” our children’s discontent, we sit with it, kindly and gently support and inquire what arises, and see the sensations, feelings and thoughts change and transform.

If you think of yourself as your own seemingly inconsolable child, you’ll see that this medicine can be applied to yourself, rather than just to the people around you.

In addition to these benefits, flexing your psychological muscles to be able to contain the fact that you are experiencing an unpleasant thing also gives you the pause you need to choose the way you want to react. Your patience with yourself allows you, once you feel that you have extended yourself the compassion you needed, to choose a different way to react. 

How do we do it? A key part of sitting with unpleasant experiences is to be kind to us as we do it—to learn to extend ourselves self-compassion.

This is a skill that you learn. Sometimes your own personal makeup and/or your cultural upbringing makes it feel selfish or indulgent to feel and express compassion for yourself. But doing so is not the equivalent of numbing your mind to suffering (which is a form of resistance.) Taking the time to do this is far from selfish: it gives us greater capacity to extend the compassion toward others. Chiding yourself over feeling what you’re feeling is resistance.  

Another source of confusion is that many people lump self-compassion with something very different–telling yourself stories about how miserable and aggrieved you are. You’re drowning your immediate, somatic experience in your intellectualizing – this, too is a form of resistance, in which we engage either because we want affirmation (social media) or because we think we will toughen ourselves up if we have high expectations of ourselves.

So what do we do? We accept what is going on for what it is.   There are many traditional and modern practices of self compassion. A good place to start is psychologist Kristin Neff’s work.  Her exercise “self-compassion break” walks you through three aspects of self-compassion:

  1. Recognizing the suffering: Allowing the feeling to just be without yielding to the temptation to tell a story. Tell yourself: “this is a moment of suffering.”

  2.   Common humanity: Social worker Brené Brown talks about how difficult it is to receive comfort, from yourself and others, if you think this is unique   The details can be unique. The truth of universality hides other truths – race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, family status. How the  current pandemic crisis is impacting different people is a great teacher of this. But the ember of feelings is the same: lonely, afraid, stressed out, frustrated. That others suffer is not a way to trivialize your own suffering, but rather a way to engage as an active participant in the dance of life. Tell yourself: “I am not alone; suffering is a part of life.”
  3. Offering yourself kindness, through a phrase such as “may I be kind to myself,” or anything else that has a similar compassionate intention. You may feel that this step is about cutting yourself slack, or being too permissive, which could go against a rigidly held stiff-upper-lip ethic. But it is actually a nice middle path between repressing the feelings and telling yourself stories about them   It is not a story about whether you’re right or wrong, but rather an invitation to alleviate the suffering you feel.

These are hard times and the suffering around us is overwhelming. Remember to include yourself in the circle of compassion and kindness. Your own health and sanity can be a beacon for the people around you, as you continue to offer compassion in ever-expanding circles to your loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers–even difficult people–to eventually encompass all living beings. You, too, are a living being, deserving of love and belonging. 

Parenting Without a Village

Roberto Benigni’s wonderful film Life Is Beautiful tells the story of a father who, sent to a concentration camp with his young son, creates the illusion of a “game” at the camp to shepherd his son unscathed through the horrors of the Holocaust.

I’ve been channeling the spirit of Benigni’s character in the last six weeks all day, every day, and we’re now told there’s going to be another month of this. The continuing effort to be everything for my son, to foster happy, meaningful experiences for him, to make this time special, and to do what I can to minimize the trauma he might experience as a consequence of social isolation at a tender, formative age, is the main and most important project of this time for me–possibly the most important project of my life. It is deeply fulfilling, full of joyous moments, and–yes–deeply exhausting and depleting at the same time.

The other day I was on a work call (Microsoft Teams), in which I had to explain to our dean that fronting as ideal workers on these calls echoes our fronting as ideal parents at home and is truly impossible, and that our ability to participate in the sacrifices that the situation demands–teaching nights and weekends–was not an option unless the preschools and daycares opened. A well-meaning colleague who is child-free shared with us a link to an app that silences background and child noises on work calls.

While this was kindly meant, the distortion embedded in it was colossal. I don’t want or need an app to silence my child. I need my work to recognize that my child needs me and that he is at the top of my priority list. I need to hear my child MORE, not less, during this time. The capitalist workplace would frame our family as an inconvenience to the enterprise, but it is the enterprise–the long workday, the expectations of splitting an organic life–that is the real inconvenience.

We are mourning the paid day-long structures that keep our children busy and social while we engage in the socially approved tasks of the adult working world. And of course, this virus, which is a great teacher, has exposed financial inequalities and problems in the provision of this service. But this hides from sight the ways in which this service in itself is a distortion.

In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, writing about trauma caused by family, Francis Weller observes:

Having worked with people for more than thirty years in my practice, it is clear to me that finding a target to blame is effortless. Nothing is asked of us when we simply assign fault to someone else for the suffering we are experiencing. Psychology has colluded in the blame game, pointing an accusing finger at our parents. While many of us suffered mightily because of unconscious parenting, we must remember that our parents were participants in a society that failed to offer them what they needed in order to become solid individuals and good parents. They needed a village around them—and so did we. Of course we were disappointed with our parents. We expected forty pairs of eyes greeting us in the morning, and all we got was one or two pairs looking back at us. We needed the full range of masculine and feminine expressions to surround us and grant us a knowledge of how these potencies move in the world. We needed to have many hands holding us and offering us the attention that one beleaguered human being could not possibly offer consistently. It is to our deep grief that the village did not appear.

For those of us living the life of professionals–mobile, class-jumping, geographically removed from our families for opportunities–this crisis brings up the deep grief not only over the loss of this village, but also the loss of its paid replacement. It makes me wonder about Pa and Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods (and apparently I’m not the only one.) How did Pa and Ma cope without their village? Without their extra pairs of eyes and hands? What was their internal world, as parents? Was there exhaustion? Was there mourning for community? Was there worry about the girls’ socialization? Or were their emotions shaped by an upbringing with different expectations?

Intellectualizing this feeling of grief or venting about it seems as alienated from the experience as ignoring or suppressing it. There are countless moments of grief and exhaustion and fear, as there are countless moments of elation and joy and overflowing love. Sitting with them and feeling them is important, because these moments are what is happening now. Sitting with the grief as it wells. Sitting with the joy as it erupts. Not just in formal practice. Moment to moment, throughout this rich and strange moment in our lives.


A good place to start a conversation about equanimity is the serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous: God grant me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And there is a popular meme that has emerged in the activist community that emerged as an answer to that, which says, “I want to change the things I cannot accept.”

I love that meme, because there’s just something so human about railing against our universal predicament. Why are there things I cannot change? There is so much suffering, and I want to fix everything! Especially because so many of the things that are wrong are our fault—climate change, infection, mortality rates, injustice, inequality, access to resources.

But many of us are activists and advocates, and people who do world-improving work, and we have found out, the hard way, that this desire to change everything has a price.

First, the world at large sometimes resists our grand plans. Think about the efforts to educate people to self-isolate. I’ve seen really good people go bananas online in the face of evidence that others are not staying home. It makes so much sense to isolate and stay home, and yet—how can it be that this logic, that is so obvious to you, is not obvious to others? And I’m seeing millennials blame boomers, and boomers blame millennials, and Gen Xers blaming everyone else, and this place of compassion for humanity and care for others just becomes a battlefield of mudslinging—and people get more and more frustrated that the world doesn’t fall in line with their plans to fix everything, and their frustration leads to anger, and the anger doesn’t help, because—have you ever seen anyone being blamed and chided and yelled at smiling a beatific smile and saying, “now that you’re yelling and cussing and offending me and publicly humiliating me, I get it, and I’ll change my ways”?

Second, the indiscriminate struggle to change everything has an impact on the person who is struggling. Psychology Today reports that compassion fatigue used to be a problem that was most commonly seen among health care professionals. Because their work puts them in situations where they commonly see or hear about ongoing and sometimes unspeakable suffering, it is not unusual to see some of the most skilled, caring, and compassionate “helpers” fall victim to compassion fatigue. I’ve seen really interesting and heart-wrenching literature on secondary trauma among human rights lawyers, public defenders, asylum attorneys, people who see awfulness at work every day. However, in today’s world, where every tragedy is instantly broadcast directly into our living rooms (TV), laps (laptop), and/or hands (smartphone), compassion fatigue is no longer unique to certain professions. As Dr. Amit Sood points out in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, “… we are inundated with graphic images of the unimaginable suffering of millions. We can fathom the suffering of a few, but a million becomes a statistic that numbs us.”

Sometimes, this incessant stream of suffering makes us feel burdened by the suffering of others, and occasionally we slip into blaming others for their suffering. We could also develop our own destructive habits – sinking into overeating, or excessive use of drugs or alcohol, or being glued to the TV, and we can start closing our hearts with deprecating humor, and worst of all—we can deny ourselves self-compassion by denying that there’s anything wrong going on.

In fact, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms” because it prevents those who are experiencing compassion fatigue from accurately assessing how fatigued and stressed they actually are, which prevents them from seeking help.

I’m going to suggest that this feeling is real, and yet if someone told you to just shut it all out and distract yourself with a new purchase or a bubble bath, that would ring very wrong to those of us who want to open our hearts. Clarissa Pincola Estes writes in Women Who Run with Wolves about talking to women who are very invested in social justice work. Sometimes they’ll tell her, “I just can’t go on with all the suffering that’s going on.” But when she says, well, why don’t you just go ahead and give up, they say, “give up??? How can you tell me to just give up with all the suffering that’s going on?”

Great ecological and spiritual teacher Joanna Macy pioneered “Despair work”, otherwise known as “Despair and Empowerment.” this approach acknowledges despair and “burnout” as honorable, springing as they do from the interconnectedness of all being. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered over, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

So, equanimity is not ignoring other people’s suffering or being cold. On the contrary, it’s all about sitting with the suffering with a full heart and accepting the nature of the suffering, to the point that your acceptance gives you a moment to make the right choices about where to put your energy. Because of that, equanimity is the virtue that balances the other three immortal virtues. It makes sure that you are not so attached and embroiled in the suffering of others that you can’t make good choices about how to help them.

Now, the traditional phrase used to meditate on equanimity is:

“All beings are the owners of their karma; their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

The term “karma” can be rather loaded, because it is used in two very different contexts. The first one is as part of a complicated belief system, which actually precedes Buddhism: as I learned during my work on Yesterday’s Monsters, The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains a very intricate cosmology and a theory about the cycle of death and rebirth that has been, to a great extent, lost in translation and in cultural context. And because of that, the second context is the popular reduction to “do good deeds, get enlightened; do bad deeds, get reborn.” This popular interpretation rankles many people, and understandably so, because many of us understand it to mean that everything bad that happens to someone is that person’s choice. And those of us in the social sciences know that’s not the case: there are a lot of environmental factors that build into the fate. Example: audit studies. Two people apply for the same job and send the same CV. Comparable education, comparable skills. But the one called Brad gets the job and the one called Jamal doesn’t. So how is Jamal an “owner” of his own karma?” If viral testing is available only to wealthy celebrities, is it some sort of divine reward for being good?

So when I say “accepting” this reality I don’t mean shut down your social critique or delude yourself that this is okay. This is where the difference between “is” and “ought” is critical. You can believe that some social or political or economic situation should be better, but it will be very hard for you to make it better if you get caught up in not accepting that it is, in fact, not better now. Come to terms with what is actually going on, and with the fact that many factors come together to create these inequalities, or miscarriages of justice. Not only does it help you shift over faster, but it also shrinks your own complicity in whatever is going on to its true size.

At Al-Anon, a sister organization of AA catering to relatives and friends of people with alcoholism, the slogan is The Three C’s. We didn’t cause it – it is not our fault that the other person drinks, it is their private battle, We can’t control it – we have no power over the other person’s desire to drink, We can’t cure it – it is an illness that cannot be cured through any known medical remedies. This can be very hard for family members to accept, because sometimes a relative who has a drinking problem will accuse us of driving them to drink. And there are of course a lot of conditions and causes that come together in creating a drinking problem, some that are the person’s choice and some that are not. But accepting this, and being able to sit with the suffering of the problem without selling ourselves a story about it, is a key step.

So the idea is not for you not to care. You care deeply and open your heart. And you accept that things involve suffering. And you sit with the suffering, and your willingness to sit with it without leaping to “fix” it gives you the pause that you need to respond skillfully to the task ahead.

Let me give you some examples. One of the aspects of my job is that every day I learn about something that is going on in the world that is absolutely horrible. In 2013—and this is after many years of work!—I sat with a California Senator and he said, “we have to do something about juveniles in solitary.” And my mind began to reel: Juveniles in solitary? And immediately the mind is thrown in a thousand different directions. I get letters from prison every week. People sharing things that are really hard to believe are happening. And having this equanimity practice, developing the capacity to accept that yes, this is a thing that happens in the world, and just sit with it—gives you the pause you need to come up with a plan.

When my colleagues started hearing about COVID-19 in prisons and jails, and knowing what we know about the conditions in prison, the really flawed healthcare. So these places are a real Petri dish for contagion, and the suffering is immense. And a group of friends of mine put together a spreadsheet, and they are collecting information from all the prisons and the juvenile facility and the immigration detention centers about how many people are infected, and what the visitation policies are like, and what quarantine is like. Now each and every one of these stories is a microcosm of suffering magnified, and you can just stare at this and think, “this is unbearable.” But taking the pause to look at this—and yes, we are all collectively responsible for how many people are in prison, but each of us personally is not responsible for the entire crisis. That would be an oversized perspective of the self, and there’s even a little bit of megalomania that can sneak in there. But instead, this pause gives us the chance to make a group effort to propose regulations, to reach out to administrations—each in their own locality, each according to their skills and abilities, and make a difference from a place of skilled response.

Perhaps it would be helpful to end with an anecdote that Frank Ostaseski tells in his book The Five Invitations:

Once during a talk in Germany, Bernie Glassman Roshi referenced Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The deity is pictured with a thousand arms. In each hand, there is an ear to hear the cries of the world. A thousand arms are there to respond. Bernie was suggesting that compassion is a natural and appropriate response to suffering. A man stood up and said, “This is all well and good, but I don’t have a thousand arms. I have only two arms. What am I supposed to do to alleviate all that suffering?” Bernie paused, then very beautifully said, “You’re wrong.” The man insisted, “No, I am quite sure I have only these two arms.” Bernie asked everyone in the room to raise both their hands up in the air. There were over five hundred people in attendance. “Look,” he said. “A thousand arms.”

Glassman provided the best example of the important mix between compassion and equanimity, which you can also find in the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishna: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Go forth and build the world; add the one block that is within your power and skills.