Dueling Intensities

Jan. 23, 2012

I just got home from an Insight Meditation retreat with Rodney Smith this weekend at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Southwest Washington. It was a good weekend for hunkering down in a meditation hall. The snow that had piled high in the days leading up to the retreat, and the ice storm that followed which left such carnage in the forests of Southwest Washington, gave way all weekend to sheets of rain and gusts of wind. January has not lacked drama on the weather front. Sitting for hours in the silence of the meditation hall, I felt as if I was inside the pounding of the rain. I could feel the fierceness and beauty of it. But I could also deeply sense how this is something new – a world that is beginning to break its tethers with what we have known before.

I came into the retreat looking for balance points between the dueling convictions that have come to characterize my life these days. On the one hand, as a climate activist, I believe we are at a make-or-break moment in the history of our species, and that there is no time to lose. I feel deep frustration at the lack of progress to address the climate crisis at all levels of American society. I watch in bewilderment as the opposite of progress seems to be taking hold. A whole industry has arisen to propagate climate denial, in defiance of an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, at just the time when we need clarity of purpose and broad commitment to action. And it seems to be working. As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

So on the face of things, my frustration seems completely justified. Yet the wide-open spirit of inquiry demanded by my mindfulness practice tells me that we can never know the whole story. We really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Living in fear of a future I cannot really know or predict places me at odds with the possibilities of the moment at hand. In my better moments, I can taste those possibilities, and my mind relaxes its grip on needing to have things go a certain way. Almost always, my actions are more fruitful and skillful when that grip is relaxed.

Rodney Smith, in his book Stepping Out of Self-Deception, writes that “We hold the world in place by our narrow-mindedness. . . Asking questions requires an attitude of non-conformity. Conformity gives away the freewheeling attitude of inquiry for the benefit of safety. . .We would love our self-questioning to confirm what we already know, and therefore threaten nothing. . . Questions must be ruthless in order to delve deeply beyond our conformity.”

These two positions lay out the internal fault lines pretty well for me. Legitimate urgency and a call to arms – a “passionate intensity” - on the one hand. And on the other, the cultivation of enough presence and inner calmness to know the truth of our interdependence with all life on a visceral level, and to cut through the filters of anger and impatience that obscure our view of reality. On any given day, I can cycle back and forth across this internal divide numerous times.

Coming into this retreat, that balance point was on the side of anger and frustration. I felt constricted, brittle, and ready to butt heads. Coming out of the retreat, having heard the counsel of the rain, and having shared an unhurried conversation with the circling rhythm of daylight and darkness, my grip has loosened again. I feel free to put myself back out on the line, to fight for what I love, but without so much fear that it will be for naught. The fear, I now remember, is extra. It is optional. And it is invariably confining. The desire to serve life doesn't come from a place of constriction. It just doesn't. That desire is innately freewheeling. It is as free as the wind, and that doesn't change just because the wind blows hard.