My phone was off when my husband Julius sent me a Yelp invite, asking me to meet him at a Mexican restaurant, the Tuesday night after Christine Blasey Ford had testified before the senate judiciary committee. I was at my weekly sangha meeting at Mission Dharma, where the guiding teacher spoke about many Buddhist concepts related to the hearing. Chief among them were compassion for sexual-assault victims and the need to guard against the arrogance and heartlessness that we can succumb to as we gain credentials and ascend to positions of power. He made another minor but poignant point about how our smartphones have become an intoxicant that can, in the Buddha’s words, “cloud the mind” and cause us to lose our balance.
How well I could relate. Before the hearings, I’d been on a weeklong silent retreat where I’d stuffed my phone deep into my luggage and never once felt tempted to dredge it out. Right after the retreat, though, I was either reeling from Breaking News alerts or actively seeking more updates, no matter how discouraging. When I admitted to this compulsion at the Q&A, I learned that most of the room had the same compulsion. This made me feel better.
The feeling didn’t last, though. After the closing gong, I turned on my phone and saw that President Trump had mocked Dr. Ford at a Mississippi rally and the crowd, including many women, cheered and chanted “Lock Her Up!” This rent my heart in two as I considered how this must be affecting Dr. Ford and so many other sexual assault survivors.
I could have stayed with the feeling and allowed it to flood my heart. It would have engendered within me a compassion that has been so sorely lacking in today’s political environment. I could have cultivated stillness as anger arose within me. It could have then run its course and transformed into even greater compassion and wisdom. I could have seen this moment of adversity as an opportunity to evolve a skillful response to misogyny, hatred and cruelty.
Instead, I marched off to the restaurant where Julius had asked me to meet him and, over chips and guac and enchiladas and a couple Dos Equis Amber, I vented my spleen about the other side, rattling off news reports, casting even more aspersions, concretizing into factionalism, and raging over any and every injustice that came to mind. And it didn’t stop there. Suddenly I’m complaining about the media and complaining about work and comparing our culture unfavorably to other cultures.
This was papancha at work. Papancha is the Pali word for “mental proliferation,” the almost instantaneous snowballing of thoughts and associations that gets rolling when we take leave of our mindfulness. It’s what happens when, silently or aloud, we find ourselves daydreaming or going on a rant about one thing that’s suddenly about everything.
Midway through my own papancha screed, I could see that Julius, who was as upset about the news as I was, was growing visibly tired. In addition to all the other burdens he has in his daily life, he now had a fulminating spouse. My diatribe stuttered to a halt. I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’m depressed.”
What was he depressed about? Without going into specifics, the same problems that have beset people throughout time: a troubled society, an imperfect world, not enough sleep, comparing mind (status anxiety), a body that’s getting older, the deaths of friends and loved ones over the years, the growing realization that none of us is here for long. My bald-faced panpancha wasn’t making things any better for either one of us.
Now, does this mean that we should go into denial and ignore what’s happening? Absolutely not. But, even in the midst all of today’s unrest, there is a way to mindfully take stock of what there is to be grateful for—that we can have this meal, that we can afford it, that we have this time together, that we are not alone in how we feel, that there are also people in our society who stand for justice and equality.
I let this sink in and stopped fanning the flames of my ire. With minds more settled, we finished dinner, went home and did something more skillful than complaing: we signed up online for a pre-election phone bank. We also signed all the petitions that awaited us in our inboxes.
And the next morning, I read more news and howled and hollered again. And then a whole other news item appeared as I scrolled down and I howled and hollered again. Julius took a bite of his toast and sip of coffee and said, “This is not a good way to start the morning.”
Truer words were never spoken. I paused and went to my meditation cushion. We catch ourselves and then we fail. And then we catch ourselves again and then we fail again. What’s important is that we become more practiced at catching ourselves.
Last night, we did not watch the news over dinner. Instead, we watched Chef’s Table for the first time and delighted in an inspirational episode about a restaurateur in Italy who developed his signature dessert dish after his head chef accidentally broke a tart. Good things can come from brokenness.
We also sat and talked about how we might celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary, after 12 years together, the week after next. Julius mentioned that the seventh wedding anniversary is copper. I told him that I’d found a penny face up on the sidewalk right outside our house that afternoon.