July 2009 Archives

Integrating My Meditative Life and My Political Life

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2123257808_ea0c2612b1_m.jpgYears ago I remember being in a Bed & Breakfast in north Indiana, on a work trip.  It was an election night, 1998 I believe.  I was reading a book by a western Buddhist teacher, maybe Pema Chodron, maybe Suzuki Roshi.  In the background, I was paying attention to the election results across the country.  I had to laugh.  The little bit I'd figured out about Buddhism by that time told me that one of the "goals" was to be less identified with the exterior definitions of who I was - a passionate Democrat, among other things - and to be less attached to the outcome.

And while I was reading, I was watching TV, waiting with bated breathe to see how people were voting on Senate and Congressional Gubernatorial candidates around the country.

So, I've had these two mostly disconnected parts of my life for the last decade or more: both have been quite important to me and there has not been a lot of overlap.  

Last weekend I was with 500-600 people in a large convention hall in Shoreline listening to my teacher.  Adyashanti became my teacher the second time I listened to him.  He regularly gave satsangs in the Bay Area where I lived up until 5 years ago.  These were talks, followed by dialogues with people who had questions for him.  What he said came into my body in many ways beyond what I got with my head.  I'd never felt that before quite in that way.  I'd never had a teacher, I mean since grad school, and I never expected to have one even though I'd listened to some wonderful ones.  After that, I got to go to many of Adya's satsangs and intensives and retreats up until I moved back to Washington.  Then I'd gone for the first few years once or twice a year for 5-day silent retreats.  I hadn't been in his presence for two years or so.

Here's one of many videos of Adya on YouTube.

Last weekend I heard him talk for the first time at length about what I would call the political world.  Adya doesn't say "politics", he talks about naturally being compassionate for people who are homeless and wanting to do something about it.  Or he says "out there", past our couches.   

On Friday evening, an audience questioner, Larry, felt that "New Age" for many people meant that they could sit back and not do much for the world because "all was well", "it's Karma", and such.  Given how important it is to make some changes in the world very quickly, Larry questioned the very idea of sitting on your hands and implied that teachers, Adya included, needed to encourage that.  Larry was persistent.  He asked a related question then next day as well.

This was wildly interesting to me since this was the one area that I hadn't heard Adya address much.  Adya is a totally unpretentious guy who happens to be enlightened and wants to help the rest of us become enlightened.  He talks and writes about the process of allowing ourselves to find that "emptiness" and to allow our actions to emerge from a place that was less "ego", more in touch with ourselves and the larger universe.  In his teaching, he works with people and their questions after he has talked about his initial 20-30 minute talk.  I have had occasion to have many counselors and therapists in my life, both in the past as a client and often as friends.  I love them dearly but I've met only one therapist who could hold a candle to Adya.  And, unlike Adya, that person wasn't in the business of connecting it with thoughts on how we could get in touch with the great presence or a haiku by Dogen.

And he's funny.  I've often said that Adya could go toe-to-toe against Leno and Letterman and come out even.  It's just that what we're laughing about is so often about our foibles or our yearnings or the stories we tell ourselves rather than the Top Ten things some celebrity did.  

But Adya's responses to questions of what to do about the starving children in Africa or the coming global warming era had always, in my mind, been the one area where he fell short.  I did hear and understand that it doesn't make sense to act out of anger, to bring our own resentment of how we were treated as children for example, into the political or cause-oriented world.  Anger just doesn't appeal much to people; it doesn't contribute a lot to what we think we are trying to do.

His answer to Larry's question was that yes, of course, when we see suffering we are going to want to respond.  He talked again about making sure we were responding from a place of love and compassion and acceptance.  He talked about accepting what was, not railing against what we can't change.  But, in addition, this time he said over and over again how important it was to get out in the world and implement the changes we see should happen.  Over the course of the next day, he brought it up in several ways.  Adya said (and I wasn't taking notes so this relies on my memory) that we wanted to gain enlightment when we could, not wait until everyone else could also be enlightened but then we would also want to bring the other 6 billion along as well.  So, getting out in the world and doing that which our hearts called out to us to do in the world was just right.   We weren't about sitting around on our asses.  

At another time, Adja talked about the huge shift he'd seen happening in these last few years - going from a place where we'd been quite stuck for a long while.  Then, in the last year or two, making a large shift in what we wanted and making it happen. People were conceiving of a new way of being.  (Of course, Adya isn't in the business of talking specifically about politicians by name.)  He went on.  Once we have a clarity about what we want to see happen, action will happen quite quickly.  

I so appreciated Adya's thoughts on this.  I could see how important that is for us individually but also collectively.  Once we find a clarity of purpose together, we will be able to make change.  

I went to find another video of Adya to show here and found a stash of videos of him talking in 2005 about very much what he was saying this last weekend.  So, he has been talking about it, more integrating of "political" and spiritual", in other settings or interviews, not so much until lately in his regular teachings and Q&A.

Equal Voices

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I had the pleasure the other afternoon of being included in the advance screening of an incredible film about a project that the Margarite Casey Foundation has been supporting and involved in over the last two years.  The Equal Voice for America's Families Coalition is a campaign to "lay the groundwork for a family led movement to improve the economic well-being of families", according to their website

The film followed five poor, working class people of all ethnic backgrounds as they became engaged in the project - from their personal economic and family lives to the local and regional conferences where hundreds of people from poor, working families, including High School students.  They gathered together to figure out what issues most impacted their lives and what needed to change to make life better.  In the process, they really saw how much they had in common.  We then got to see these same five individuals, along with their family members, as they continued down a path that brought them all together in large regional conferences in Chicago, LA and Birmington, Mississippi to present a plan for revamping the country by changing attitudes and policies that impact poor and working families.

So, here was a group of empowered poor and working folks coming up with a very real and realistic plan for what we need to do in this country to make it livable again for all of us.  It was inspiring and heartwarming to watch.  I'm guessing there was not a dry eye in the small theatre where a few dozen folks previewed the film.  The film itself won't be available for another month or two and I don't know what their plans are for distribution.  In the meantime, here is a video-clip with a few minutes of what this project is all about:

If you want to find out more, head over to the Margarite Casey Foundation blogsite.  When I know where folks can view the actual film, I'll let you know.

Where We Stand on Getting HealthCare Reform

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Houston Medical ComplexUp until quite recently, healthcare has been one of the issues I've known the least about.  Aside from paying way more money than seemed to make sense for coverage and having a couple of sisters with some significant healthcare issues, I haven't had much reason to pay attention.  However, it's my nature to want to understand what's going on in our national conversations.  So, I bring you what I think of as the intelligent layperson's guide to beginning to understand this important issue that is right here, right now.   It is looking like we are going to get a healthcare bill this year.  The big question now is how different it will be from the broken system we have now.  I'm hopeful AND and watchful.  I also make the occasional phone call to weigh in with one of our Congressfolks.  As much as this issue is important in itself, it also is beginning to feel like a turning point in our democracy.  We are making our voices heard and it is making a difference.  The public option is on the table in a way it was not just a few months ago - because we forced it to be on the table.  Well, with some help from our newly elected President of course.

The Basics

I'm in a women's Political Book Group and we read about healthcare a couple months ago.  For that topic, we decided to read one or more of three books and then share our findings.  Overwhelmingly, the book, "Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer" by Shannon Brownlee, was the favorite.  

The author, who has written extensively about medicine, contends that while we're looking to provide insurance coverage for all our citizens, we need also to understand that the current system is overtreating some patients, notably those who are willing and able to pay for a wide range of tests and procedures and surgeries than they don't need but that are immensely profitable for the physicians and facilities that provide them.  At the same time, our healthcare system is so overwhelmed that it fails to provide the simplest, most straightforward care that is more of what most of us basically need.  

The implications, which she then proceeds to delineate, are staggering.  It is rare that a book like this is a page-turner.  This is a page-turner.  She contends, and provides research that says, that between one-fifth and one-third of the money we spend on healthcare is unnecessary.  Her figure is seven hundred billion dollars.  $700,000,000,000.  A year.  That's for heart surgeries and hysterectomies and tonsillectomies and CAT scans and such that would not have to be done if we relied more on primary care physicians who had the time to talk with and listen to their patients and did not send them to high-cost specialists after a five-minute consultation. 

She attributes this overtreating to several things - greed, sometimes, but also a need for hospital systems to bring in money to offset the care they provide, mostly through costly emergency room services, to people without insurance.  She also talks with researchers about the enormous disparities between different hospital systems as to the types of discretionary care they provide.  It's startling to her and to us that there is so little standardization about when to take out tonsils or ovaries, for example, or how aggressive to be with mild heart symptoms.  Physicians in each system just assume that what they do is the standard, when research conducted across hospital systems or across regions says otherwise.  The need for more science in the health care system comes up over and over again. 

I would guess that the red flag that the healthcare change resistors are waving about "rationing healthcare" is code for letting the existing system continue to operate as is without oversight or competition, providing more and more profit for a bludgeoning healthcare system.   

One of the women in the Book Club sent around an article that discussed this same topic.  The article, "The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care" is in the June edition of the New Yorker.  It was written by a doctor, Atul Gawande, about the high cost of care in McAllen, Texas.  The article received quite a bit of press and was reputed to have been mandatory reading at the White House.  If you want just a sip of the argument on differences in healthcare between healthcare systems, take a read of his very well-written piece.  

Obama's Three Principles for a Healthcare Bill

President Obama tells us that he has three principles that must be adhered to in whatever bill passes Congress.  They are:

  • The rising costs of healthcare must be brought down
  • Americans must have the freedom to keep whatever doctor or insurance plan they currently have now or would like to have
  • All Americans must have quality, affordable healthcare
Seems relatively simple, straightforward and essentially right.  However, as we all know, those who have tried to implement anything resembling universal healthcare have been thwarted by the powerful lobbying on behalf of the people who make a lot of money off the current system.  

And on the Other Side

The powerful lobbying has not changed.  The WAPO had a sobering article a week ago about the huge number of former Congressional staffers who are now working for the insurance companies.  And these are not just Republicans, folks.  Several former high-level staffers for Max Baucus, conservative Democratic Senator from Montana and the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, are now working as lobbyists.  As Ezra Klein of the WAPO says in his blog,

One of the secrets about lobbying in Washington is that money doesn't buy access. It buys people who already have access. And that makes it much more insidious.

Labor walking for Healthcare ReformCitizens Rise Up

The difference now is that we seem to have a populace that is engaged in this complex issue.  This is new.  It's one thing for Americans to get engaged in relatively simple issues, like the unfortunate Terri Shiavo incident or President Clinton's sexual escapades.  But it's very rare in my history of paying attention, that the public is willing to get down with complex issues.  And man, this one is complex. 

However, Labor has gotten involved and has been educating and activating their folks for a while.  Healthcare professionals have been extraordinarily involved and have been a very important voice for folks to hear.  Foremost have been the California Nurses Association and the Physicians National Health Program.  Bill Moyers has persistently had the best people on his show, including folks from the aforementioned healthcare profesional groups and, most recently, Wendell Potter, former Director of Public Relations for CIGNA.  And, Dr. Dean is on the case as well.

Another new force, progressive bloggers and activists, has been very effective as well in reaching our Congressfolk.  Darcy Burner has moved on to become Executive Director of a new organization, the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, which has done an admirable job of organizing the herd of progressive "cats" in Congress.  A group of foremost national progressive bloggers are keeping readers abreast of the latest moves by Congress and the precise times and Congressfolk in need of calls on any given day.  It's pretty impressive.  Here's the latest for today with links to up-to-date lists of Representatives committed, leaning and wavering.  If you have 10 minutes, you can know that the calls you make are precisely the right ones for maximum impact.

It makes a difference.  Chad Lupkes, writing at the Washington State Democratic Chairs website, discusses the changes that Senator Cantwell has made, likely as a result of the many calls she received from her constituents, me included.

I will be the first to admit that my knowledge on this subject is limited to what I've been reading and watching over the last couple months.  So, please feel free to add your thoughts and reading suggestions.  Also, talk with your friends.  Have this conversation.  This, along with Climate Change, are hugely important bills that Congress is actually likely to pass.  Let's make sure they are the best we can get at this time.  Besides, having this conversation nationally and being a part of this citizen lobbying is helping us exercise our democracy muscles.

Costs and a Cartoon

P.S. Apparently, contradictory to what you may have been hearing, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is reporting that the House's proposed bill will either be revenue neutral or will actually save us quite a bit of money. 

And we'll end with a cartoon that sums up the problem.

We Have the Brains to Do This, Folks!

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We can individually and collectively figure out this change-your-culture/economy/planet-on-a-dime thing we are being asked to do.  I saw something today that took every doubt from my mind but that we are going to be able to do this. This is a story about a toilet, a new toilet built to recycle our poo.  Or, if we can't get that part of the culture changed enough here, due to our slowness in changing our basic bathroom habits, it's something for the 40% of the world's population that doesn't currently use a toilet.  (Yep, that statistic took me back too.)  This toilet is called the LooWatt.  Here's Virginia Gardiner from a company called Dwell. Watch:



H/T to Sarah van Schagen at Grist.

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