The “I” in Our Illness and the “We” in our Wellness

A Buddhist teacher offers advice for the healing of the nation.

tara-brach-mediumTara Brach tells a story about an ad in the personals: Tall dark handsome Buddhist looking for himself.

Would you answer that ad? It’s funny, certainly. The guy has a sense of humor. But for the long haul? I don’t think so. Too self-centered. Maybe he just didn’t get the hang of meditation.

Tara Brach is a Buddhist author and lecturer and teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. She usually teaches on Wednesday nights, and her classes are packed. It is easy to see why. She is wise, smart, funny, kind, and she truly engages in “awakening hearts and minds.” That is the stated goal of her dharma talk.

One recent Wednesday evening was about relationships. Well developed social networks contribute to happiness and longevity, she says. That would seem obvious, but it is more complicated than it appears. Many of us, she says, “are moving around in our bubble.”

This would seem particularly apt in Washington, D.C. where self-involvement seems to be standard operating procedure. Self-importance, arrogance, ambition, and hunger for power too often set the tone for behavior here, not only in Congress, but also the administration, the military, the diplomatic corps, and the world of journalism. The running joke about the most dangerous place in Washington is between a senator and a TV camera is not really a joke.

People who come here from outside of Washington, having been elected on an anti-Washington platform, soon catch the disease. Some call it Potomac fever. Before they know it, they are so caught up with their own importance and position that they lose their self-awareness. Republican Eric Cantor, who lost his primary bid for re-election, is a perfect example.

Tara Brach quotes Swami Satchidananda as saying that the difference between illness and wellness is the I in illness and the We in wellness. What has been happening in politics in Washington lately is symptomatic of an “I”llness. Too many people are thinking of themselves and not of others.

“We have strategies to try to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable from each other,” says Brach. And she says we often don’t express what’s true to us. “We’re in the habit of presenting ourselves in order to most get the acceptance and love we want.” We’re not being authentic, but we’re not even aware of what we’re doing. “We’re so self-focused we don’t really look to see who’s there. “

How many politicians and public figures do we know who wear masks? Who pretend to be someone they are not? How many of us pretend to be something we’re not, too afraid to let the world see the real us? Brach says that under the guise of truth telling, we blame other people even though we are the ones living in a chronic state of irritation, jealousy, insecurity and hurt.

She tells the story of a tribe in Africa where if one member becomes ill it means that an ancestor’s tooth has become lodged and that bad tooth must come out. The whole tribe participates in the healing. The tooth represents the truth and the village gets cleansed by the release of the difficult truth.

We’ve got a whole mouthful of bad teeth. As the famous title of Hillary Clinton’s book has it, It Takes a Village, and indeed everyone must participate in the healing of the city.

Sarah Palin just called upon the United States Congress to impeach President Obama. She claims “Washington is broken.” Yet she, perhaps more than anyone in our political culture, is representative of the ‘I”llness of the culture of our country as a whole. In her latest desperate bid for attention, she is the epitome of self-centeredness. I suggest a long, long silent retreat for her.

We won’t be able to discern the truth of what others say until we learn “who is behind the masks,” which is harder “the more we’re focused on ourselves and are unable to take in others as anything more than outside objects,” says Brach. “When was the last time somebody really listened to you? These are the moments that really stand out in life.” In trying to listen to each other, it is important to listen to not what the other person is saying but what they are trying to say.

Brach’s suggestion for paying better attention to others: “If you really want to make sure you are contacting and taking in another, look to see what color their eyes are.”

The most important gift we can have is the gift of communicating with authenticity, says Brach. When we reflect at the end of our lives, the things that will stand out are the “moments of connection. We need to let someone know our love for them. We all need to be reminded.” Brach encourages us to “mentally whisper, ‘I love you. Thank you for being in my life.’”

Harry Reid and John Boehner would do well to meditate on that.

Sally Quinn
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