I moved to my current town when my wife and I married five years ago. I wanted to be informed about local issues and had some spare time on my hands, so I started sitting in on the local Town Board work sessions. One day, the town’s energy coordinator, who was also attending the sessions, invited me to become part of the town’s Climate Action Task Force, and I agreed. I performed an energy audit of the town’s electric, gasoline, and natural gas consumption, and our task force came up with a number of recommendations for reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions. One of them, changing the town’s lighting over to LED lighting, is happening right now. In the process, I got to observe and interact with the town’s political figures from the perspective of an environmental activist.
My wife and I also began attending meetings of our local neighborhood civic association as a way of my getting to know our neighbors better, and, to make a long story short, we ended up serving on the association’s board, my wife as president, and I as corresponding secretary. We became advocates for the needs of our local community — a road needs repaving here, a water main needs replacing there — and we got to interact with the town’s political figures over issues related to the town’s delivery of services.
Our town supervisor is up for re-election this November. We were appreciative of his availability, his willingness to listen, his integrity, and his genuine wish to be of service to all his constituents, so we let him know, via Facebook, that we supported his re-election bid. We’ve also had the opportunity to observe his political opponent at town meetings, and were deeply concerned about his negative, divisive, and egotistical personality. He’d opposed many of the initiatives we’d supported including funding the town’s energy coordinator and arts council positions, and enacting changes to the town code that required new construction to meet energy efficiency standards.
When our town supervisor asked us to get involved in his campaign, we were happy to assist him in getting the signatures he needed to get on the ballot. Over a short period of time, however, we found ourselves becoming more involved in the campaign. We wanted to be of assistance, and his campaign seemed to like our thoughts about his re-election bid, so we found ourselves being invited to more and more strategy sessions. In some ways it wasn’t surprising: my wife was a public relations and communications consultant who had worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies; I love watching her in action. The only thing I have to contribute is my Zen presence and my occasional two cents for what it’s worth. As the readers of this blog are well aware, everyone is entitled to my opinion.
Which brings me to my main point.
The other week during zazenkai (a kind of six-hour mini-sesshin), my mind was filled with the buzz of the campaign. As I tried to sit quietly with my breath and the early morning bird song, thoughts of campaign strategy zipped around my brain. I’d let them go and return to quiet sitting, only to have them return with renewed energy. Eventually, I gave up trying to not have them, and contented myself with trying to observe them without getting caught up or carried away. Given their powerful energy, even that proved difficult, and I had to bring myself back to the present moment over and over.
Was this a bad sitting? It wasn’t the one I’d wanted. I’d wanted one of those sittings in which the mind was deliciously still and clear. That was not to be. Abandon all expectations, ye who enter here.
But it was the sitting I needed. It was a wonderful lesson in how addictive political energies can be; how they can absorb us to the degree that we’re in danger of losing our quiet center; how we can easily become enamored with our own cleverness; how sooner or later, we can find ourselves devising strategies that are simply about winning, but which fail to reflect the purity of our original intention to be of service to the community. It was a wake-up call about needing to be careful and discerning; about being suspicious of my own thought processes; about keeping my recommendations in accord with my best intentions and not mere expediency. It reminded me that elections aren’t about the candidates we support, but about our highest aspirations to benefit all beings.
Zazenkai ended with a new appreciation of the balancing act that’s required if we’re to maintain our integrity while participating in the rough and tumble of politics.
The next time you have a sitting that’s not the one you wanted, be grateful.
It’s a gift.
Not just to yourself, but to all beings.
The image at the top of this post is reprinted with permission from Tricycle Magazine.