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Don’t Wait

“If you learn to enjoy waiting, you don’t have to wait to enjoy.” - Kazuaki Tanahashi

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An African American teenager behind wire fencing

Life during the time of this pandemic sometimes feels like a strange and powerful journey, filled with pain and possibility, with much to learn. Potent and surprising themes seem to arise. One of the themes for me this week is “Don’t Wait.” I feel a sense of urgency. At times this sense of urgency is to deepen my meditation practice, increase the scope of my questioning, and to read and listen more attentively. I’m called to pay greater attention to my routines, to pay more attention to the people and activities I love, to exercise more, and to rest and play more. As I write these words I’m surprised to acknowledge how the practice of not waiting leads me to rest more and at times to do less, work less, and enjoy more. I’ve been taking daily walks from my home to a redwood tree grove and spending time admiring and breathing in the fresh scents from these magnificent trees.

Part of this journey involved listening recently to an interview by the writer and poet Alice Walker. I was struck by her presence, clarity, and the ease with which she spoke. At one point the interviewer asked how she could write about so much human suffering and the horrific things that people experience. She paused for a moment and then responded “Because I’m free.”  She spoke eloquently about transforming pain into appreciation. I also loved the way she spoke of her writing, describing her sense of getting out of her own way, and allowing the words to come through her. Listening to Alice Walker, I thought “Don’t wait.”

A few days later I began reading A Year To Live by Stephen Levine, a book written more than 20 years ago. The core message of this book is “don’t wait.” It’s a month to month guide for living your life as though you only have a year left to live. It’s intended to sharpen the mind around priorities and appreciation. It’s also a powerful examination of death and the role of impermanence as a key element in enjoying our lives.

David Sheff, author of the best selling book Beautiful Boy (which also became a film) recently had a live conversation on City Arts and Lectures with Jarvis Masters who has spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. (Jarvis was convicted of sharpening a knife used in the killing of a prison guard though he did not participate in the killing in any way.) Jarvis is a vivid example of the school to prison pipeline; he was taken away from his parents at an early age based on abuse and neglect, and from foster care he went through juvenile detention facilities and entered prison at age 19 for armed robbery. David’s newest book, The Buddhist On Death Row, is about Jarvis’s life. During this interview Jarvis called in from prison and spoke about his life and situation. He spoke about his Buddhist practice, his friendship with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, and his experience of transforming pain into possibility. Hearing how David’s life has been transformed by meeting Jarvis, and hearing Jarvis’s humor, humanity and warmth from the midst of San Quentin prison that is currently over-run by over 2226 cases of Covid-19 and 23 deaths, I again felt a sense of “don’t wait.”

My wife Lee has become very close friends with Jarvis and he sometimes calls our home. When our phone rings, I can tell by the number that it’s Jarvis calling. I can imagine the contrast of his surroundings in San Quentin with my surroundings here in Marin. And, I can feel his spirit, the gift of his presence and his profound understanding of what matters most. Whatever I might be doing at the time seems less important than answering the phone and connecting with Jarvis. answering this call.

In this short talk by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Anti-Racist, there is a clear and potent message. There is a sense of urgency to pay attention to race, racism, and to ask what changes are needed for me, for us, for society. I think of Jarvis and the many other prisoners in San Quentin prison who are ill and dying from Covid-19 and are a living manifestation of the ongoing racism in our country (for example, in this country, one out of three black males can expect to be sentenced to prison at some point in their lives; this number changes to one in seventeen when talking about white males). 

So, I am receiving invitations from many sources that are waking me up to the preciousness of life and the need to give the best of me to what is happening now. These questions may be helpful in reflecting on what “Don’t Wait” means for you: 

  • What are you waiting for? 
  • What’s most important, right now?  
  • Where is your attention? 
  • What are you reading and listening to? 
  • What calls are you answering or not answering?

That said, there are times when waiting can’t be avoided. One of my favorite quotes is from my friend and teacher, the calligrapher and translator Kazuaki Tanahashi, who suggests that we shift our usual relationship with waiting. He proposes:

“If you learn to enjoy waiting, you don’t have to wait to enjoy.”

I find myself uttering these words when in lines at grocery stores or when stuck in traffic. 

The core message is Don’t Wait. 

Don’t wait to enjoy, even when waiting. 

Don’t wait to deepen your practice, make real connections, solve real problems, and appreciate being alive right now.

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