January 2, 2014, Austin, TX
When I first started at Naropa, I assumed I’d do the degree in writing, since I do write and it’s something I can always improve. But once I got settled into my first semester classes I knew that the degree plan that fit me best was Peace Studies.
I know from our friendship that you are a humanitarian scientist, an atheist, and a gentleman. You believe that biology always overrides moral behavior. How many times have we hashed out the ‘survival of the fittest’ perspective? I learn so much from our conversations that I’ve started a folder called “Bassettisms.”
And I grant you, it may be true that we are just like any other organism, in terms of our ‘hard wiring’ around survival. It is an imperative like no other. Yet, as a species, I feel we have one remarkable difference from all other living beings on our planet: our magnificent human hearts.
Somehow, our brains developed in ways that have set us apart from the rest of the mammals, and we’ve intellectualized ourselves away from our animal nature by becoming ‘civilized.’ Unfortunately, our civilization has not been particularly civil. The 20th century played out the great survival drama as if it had no particular concerns for the survival of any species, let alone humans. Here is a fascinating webpage on all the wars, from 1900 to present.
I imagine you sitting in my Peace Studies class with me, and the things you would have to contribute. We began the semester by taking a look at Gandhi and his movement of Passive Resistance. I learned that there are more biographies about Gandhi than about any other individual in the world, and everyone that knew him, even his enemies, thought highly of him. He worked tirelessly for basic human rights for his people, and sought to eliminate the caste system in India. We learned about a concept called ‘Satyagraha,’ which has several meanings: love force, love in action, and insistence on truth. I think ‘soul force’ is my personal favorite. I’m making a note to ask you about what you think of Gandhi’s life the next time we talk. He was finally assassinated in January of 1948, after five other attempts on his life. Why is it that the world’s lovers are so hated? Another note on the list for our next conversation…
Some other peace keepers we have studied are Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Eve Ensler, the author and playwright who created Vagina Monologues, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. I imagine you at UT in the 1960’s and want to hear about your perceptions and experiences of that era around civil rights and the anti-war efforts.
“Violence sometimes works in the short term, but never in the long term.”
From my class notes
When I look at all the social issues that have arisen from the warlike culture we live in, it breaks my heart. We have taken a look at such issues as the extreme domestic 'security' that has happened since 9/11, through the lenses of several feminist activists, such as Eve Ensler. This trend installs more and more fear and is gradually robbing us of our constitutional freedoms. We’ve looked at nuclear weaponry and the pollution concerns of nuclear power, which is especially pertinent since the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We’ve learned of several solutions to gang violence and the high imprisonment rate, in cities around the country. There has also been good focus on the expanding economic imbalances as an underlying cause of increasing poverty and all the suffering that goes along with that.
Because of my work in prisons, I especially enjoyed watching a film called The Interrupters. It’s the story of three people in Chicago who had been engaged in the drug culture and resultant violence, who are now working to reduce the chaos in their neighborhoods, and among their peers. A wonderful reading by Father Greg Boyle, from his book, Tattoos on the Heart ~ The Power of Boundless Compassion, offered a look at this man’s work in the worst ghettos in Los Angeles. His church, Dolores Mission, opened their doors to gang members and he gradually built relationships with both the congregation (As you can imagine, it was a stretch for some!) and the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. He opened a weight room and began working toward creating entrepreneurial projects, called, collectively, Homeboy Industries. They eventually had Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, and Homeboy Silkscreen. They added merchandising and maintenance companies, and even tried a Plumbing Service, but it turned out people were uneasy about having gang members work on their plumbing! There was a lot of controversy about these projects, and backlash from gang members toward each other. At one point, they joked about adding to their voicemail message, “Thank you for calling Homeboy Industries. Your bomb threat is important to us.” (Pg 11) You know me well enough to know that I believe that a sense of humor can help any situation, especially dark humor! These stories, and others, are what help uplift me when I feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do – there is so much wrong with the world as it is right now – and yet, there are many doing miraculous things. We just don’t hear about them in our negative media environment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
I found great solace in the teachings of a darling of the Buddhist and environmental communities, Joanna Macy. She is 84 years old and a longtime peace, justice and ecology activist. She states in her book Planetary Perils and Psychological Responses~ Despair and Empowerment Work that, “Through our pain for the world, we can open ourselves to power.” She sees three basic concerns: 1) The threat of nuclear war and the pollution of nuclear industry; 2) The progressive destruction of our planet; and 3) The growing imbalance of wealth and resources, and the resultant misery of much of our planet’s population. Macy has created some empowering workshops for people on the front lines on these issues and others. She sees that “…our planetary crises are impelling us toward a shift in consciousness. In that sense, both the nuclear bomb and the environmental crisis are gifts to us. Confronting us with our mortality as a species, we are shown the suicidal tendency inherent in our conception of ourselves as separate and competitive beings.” (Pg 53)
Of course, this plays into my tantric world view and gives me a sense of hope, that we can come together as individuals and heal the collective illusion of separation. Joanna Macy believes that the greatest gift we can give our world is our full presence. At Naropa University, and especially in the Peace Studies Department, I am learning to cultivate presence as my gift to the world, in my own unique way.
Bassett, your support has helped me get through this very difficult semester, and I’m so looking forward to seeing you in Austin in a few weeks. I love you!
December 9, 2013
PS Just to make you smile, because I know you hate ‘60’s rock and roll, here’s a music clip. If you don’t like the music, I know you’ll appreciate the message!
Sky Pilot ~ Eric Burdon and the Animals
*Dr. Bassett Maguire, Jr. is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin. He worked in the areas of zoology, biology and ecology, and taught about global warming beginning in the early 1970’s. He is a dedicated atheist, and a humanitarian. Bassett is a mentor to me, and he has been incredibly supportive of my attendance at Naropa University.