Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
[I really wanna kno-ow!]
Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
—The Who (Who else?)
I regularly visit a Community Center in which there are two rooms: one with two PCs, a printer, and a television; the other with a lone television. The use of these items is restricted to members, but their guests, particularly if they are young children, are allowed to use them within reason. Despite signs limiting users to 30 minutes, and requesting the use of headphones when listening to music on the PCs, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the signs usually disappear or, at least, get torn down. So, lately, the World Cup has been blasting on one TV while country and rap are blasting on the two PCs adjacent to that TV. Two YouTube videos and one large television, all blasting, so that no one can really hear anything struck me not only as impolite, but imbecilic. I’ve often wondered why this seems to bother no one but me…
Yesterday, I entered the community room to find only one other person there. He was listening to a music video, without headphones, and the television was on, loud. I sat down at the other computer and began typing. The young man immediately cranked up the volume of the music video. Nope! Nothing personal. We’ve never met. I got up and turned off the television; took out some ear buds; went to YouTube, and found one of my favorite recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. Which one, you ask? Well, it’s the only one he ever wrote — and he never finished it because he died. Nonetheless, it makes me feel… happy.
The man listening to the video got up and left as soon as it finished. Immediately after, another man entered the room. And he doesn’t like me very much because I’m not “friendly.” With him. He was with his son — one of the most adorable post-toddlers I’ve ever seen. About six-years-old. Once Rocky had set up his son on the PC next to mine, with a very loud video game, he went over to the television, turned it back on, and cranked up the volume to capacity. This was personal. And he does it all the time. I didn’t’ even bother to turn around. In fact, I started swaying to the beat of Mozart’s “Offertorium.” It really rocks. OK. Not really. But I’m sure you get the drift.
Rocky and I have had our disagreements in the past. That no longer happens because I do my best to avoid him and keep my mouth shut no matter what he says. He’s a blatant heterosexual — who hates women (yes, I meant ‘hetero’). And all women are stupid: from the mother who gave him away, to the wife who left him for someone else. If you don’t stop doing what you’re doing to give him your 100% attention because he feels like shooting the breeze, right now, even if you’re filling out a job application on a computer that could crash at any minute (and he knows this), you’re a female canine. And if you won’t turn around and talk to him while he “walks” his cute son, he’ll get your attention another way — like by turning up the volume of the television — to capacity. It’s all about “him.” And believe it or not, I don’t mean this in a critical or disparaging way.
If Rocky can’t get your attention in a positive fashion, he’ll settle for it in a negative one. If you and he are not able to politely chit-chat about the shape of your behind, he’ll settle for being yelled at for having had the gall to even imagine that topic was up for discussion. Without my attention or venom, or anyone else’s, Rocky does not “exist.” He has no “identity.” He needs our praise, or our derision, because either way, we are engaging with each other. Without that engagement, he is alone. Doesn’t matter. Isn’t “somebody.” Honestly, I’ve gone from hating this man, to feeling sorry for him, to realizing that in my pity, I was actually being arrogant. Because I am still miles away from figuring out how to have a civil, decent, respectful, or sacred discussion with him about the shape of my behind, I have elected not to speak to him, at all. I’ve come to realize that Rocky thinks that his noticing my behind is what makes me somebody, in fact, a woman. And this is not meanness, or evil on his part. It’s ignorance. He believes that it is other people who make us “somebody,” and that there is “somebody” (contrary to Buddhist philosophy). Truly, if we can cease to exist because someone, anyone, looks the other way, depending on how one interprets it, that says a lot, or very little…
We all suffer from some type of ignorance – even if it’s just ignorance about the existence of our ignorance. The Buddha taught, in the Four Noble Truths, that there is suffering; a cause for that suffering, a way out of that suffering, and that that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. Conquering ignorance is the only way to end suffering. And when we suffer, others suffer, by default. This is why we ‘hurt the ones we love,’ as well as everyone else.
I can’t yank Rocky out of his suffering any more than the Buddha could have yanked me out of mine. Though someone can show me the ‘Path,’ it is I who must walk it. It is I who must do the work. And I have work to do. I suffer every day. But one thing is different. I no longer think that yelling at Rocky to turn down the volume will make me “happy.” Yes, it would make Rocky “happy” for a minute or two; and it would make the room quieter, but that’s nowhere near being a permanent solution — for either of us. So, I offer Rocky my silence because it’s as close to acting lovingly as I can get right now, and much more compassionate than blasting him for his ignorance – a malady from which we both suffer. How can I hate someone for suffering from a disease, a disease from which I, too, suffer? This is why I suspect that ‘compassion’ is very personal, and in no way related to ‘pity.’
Mahatma Gandhi said:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
[An interesting note about the preceding quotation: The bumper stickers that say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are, apparently, a bastardization of this].
In closing, I’d like to share a brief excerpt, here, from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It has helped me grapple with the sometimes confusing concept of personal meditation as public activism, i.e., working on oneself as a way of changing the world for the better (or as I secretly like to think of it: “being an effective ‘meditation cushion quarterback'”):
“MEDITATION IS NOT TO GET OUT OF SOCIETY, TO ESCAPE FROM society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this “engaged Buddhism.” ….How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center? The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you. You bring all of us with you. When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself, but for all of us.”
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1993). Engaged Buddhism In S. Bercholz & S. Chödzin (Eds.), Entering the stream: An introduction to the Buddha and his teachings (pp. 247-249). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access To Insight.org
What is the Eightfold Path by Dana Nourie from Secular Buddhist Association
The Noble Eightfold Path by Walpola Rahula from Tricycle.com
Falser Words Were Never Spoken from The New York Times Opinion Pages
Mozart Requiem in D minor (K. 626) from YouTube