The Art of Homecoming

The Art of Homecoming:
Place, Presence & the Practice of Peace

Talk by Kurt Hoelting, Oct. 9, 2016, Interfaith Peace Vigil, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Freeland, WA

Kurt walking the Skagit Basin during his "year in circumference" in 2008

Kurt walking the Skagit Basin during his "year in circumference" in 2008

It's an honor to be here with all of you. Our theme today is "Making Peace with the Earth". I want to begin on that note, but with this caveat. Our bodies and minds are themselves a manifestation of wild nature. Just to have a human heart, mind and body is to be immersed in wildness. Any assumed separation is a figment of our imagination. So the art of peacemaking is founded on a capacity to make ongoing peace with ourselves. Learning to navigate and transform our sometimes destructive emotions is a corner stone for making peace in the wider domains of culture, politics and society. 

As many of you know, I spent the year of 2008 doing radical surgery on my lifestyle in an effort to re-align my life with the realities we face of a disintegrating climate, and to do so in a way that re-connected me to this extraordinary place on earth that we call home. I took a vow during that year to never get into a car, and I drew a circle on the map with my Whidbey home at the center of the circle. During that year I stayed within that circle, exploring my home ground on foot, by bicycle and kayak. Otherwise I used only public transportation. It was a powerfully transformative year, one I'm still learning from. The book I wrote about that experience is called The Circumference of Home, and I've been asked to share some of what I learned in my travels around Whidbey, what impact it has had on me, and how we all might find inspiration to make effective changes in how we live, for the sake of our imperiled earth.

More than ever, these are important questions, ones that I continue to wrestle with daily as we all move dramatically deeper into the Age of Climate Consequences. Never have our lifestyle choices mattered more than they do now. Never have the stakes been so high. Never have out prospects for peace been more deeply sabotaged by our refusal to live lightly on the earth, and joyfully in place.

But I want to talk first on a more personal level. I want to talk about how our inner habitat of heart and mind and spirit relates to the process of outward change.

This is important because my experience is that no real change occurs that is not preceded by a change of heart. I have been a practicing Zen Buddhist for 35 years, and a mindfulness teacher for over two decades. The practice of mindfulness, and the Buddhist tradition that underlies it, is an elegantly down-to-earth, pragmatic discipline. That is one of the things I love most about it as a way of life. I want to start with a personal story about my inward journey toward the practice of peace, and see if I can work my way back to the themes of today, and the necessity for personal action that reconnects Earth and Spirit, Peace and the Practice of Place.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in the 5th Day of a 7 day silent Zen retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery, not far from here on Double Bluff, led by a Japanese Zen Master named Harada Roshi. I'm sure everyone in this room can say exactly where you were on that morning when you got the news. I had been up since 4:00 in the morning doing silent meditation with 50 others in the meditation hall when the news came to us. Hijacked jets had flown into the Twin Towers. The Towers had collapsed, killing thousands. Another jet had flown into the Pentagon. The meditation hall at Tahoma Zen Monastery on that morning was an international gathering of people from all over North America, Europe and Japan. Everyone was given the chance to leave the retreat early if they felt it necessary. Not a single person did.

For the remaining two days of the retreat, while the rest of the world was being traumatized by endless repetitions of video clips of jets flying into the Twin Towers, we continued to grind away on our cushions, to hold silence, and to sit with our raging fears and bewilderment. In his dharma talks those last two days, Harada told us that the world we would be returning to when the retreat ended would not be the same world we had left at the beginning of the retreat. We would be walking into a deeply traumatized world, filled with people in pain and confusion. He told us there was nothing we could possibly be doing during these two days following the attacks than exactly what we were doing on our cushions right now. The world waiting for us was going to be desperate for the kind of stability, equanimity and wisdom that we were cultivating here. A stability that could withstand these scouring winds of fear and trauma, without being blown over by them.

I will never forget the power of those teachings, in that pivotal moment of our shared history. I will never forget what it was like to stick it out, diving straight into the painful emotions we all were swimming in that day, and to put those teachings into practice in the weeks and months that followed, as we ramped into disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was some of the hardest work I've ever done. And that work is just getting started. It is not just the Twin Towers coming down now. We are witnessing the collapse of whole nations, the collapse of Rule of Law, the collapse of ecosystems, the collapse of the very climate upon which our life depends.

I think that is what Gandhi meant when he said that “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.” There is nothing soft or fuzzy about that aspiration. It requires the deepest kind of courage, the hardest kind of inner work. It is an act of bravery, and an act of love to hold ourselves accountable not only to the “long arc of history”, but to the small daily choices and actions that add up to manifestations of peace in real time.

What is it, in light of this story, to be peace activists? What is the work of making peace built out of? As a mindfulness teacher, I believe it is built not out of ideologies, but out of moments. It is built out of the ways in which we choose to inhabit our moments. It is built out of the joy and aliveness we are able to manifest in our everyday lives, one precious moment at a time.

Back in run-up to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, some of you may remember an anti-war movement called Not In Our Name. Their tag line at the time was a catchy one. “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” God knows that we live in a world brimming with opportunities to feel outraged. But think about the implications of that sentiment for those seeking the conditions for peace. “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” Is this really true? Is it true that there is no option but outrage available to us if our goal is to pay attention, to look honestly at our world? What a tragic view of the nature of reality! It often seems that our activist culture in general feeds on outrage as a strategic motivation for action to make change. Anger is the gift that keeps on giving, the strategy that so many change-based organizations rely on to leverage action against injustice and destruction of the earth. And so we activists can become habituated to anger as a way of life, and a measure of the strength of out commitment to the cause.

Believe me, I am as well acquainted with outrage as most anybody. I worked my whole life to heal social and environmental injustice, participated in many protest marches. There are times when it is necessary to say, “This far, and no further!” But I have always been uneasy with this reliance on anger and outrage as the primary driver of social change. There is a saying that “If the only tool we own is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.” As a carpenter for years, I know that there are far subtler and more interesting tools available in the tool kit if my goal is to create objects that are both beautiful and useful. If peace is our goal, and beauty is central to our menu of possibilities for what is worthy of our attention, we need to apply the widest range of tools available to us in service of those ends.

What about compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with”? Where does compassion come from? How do we pull it from the marrow of abstractions into the heart and soul of our lives. What about forgiveness? What about wonder, and the capacity to be astonished? What about gratitude? What about humility, and the willingness to admit that there are things we just don't know or understand? What if our strength actually issues from a willingness to not know?

As a Buddhist, and as a mindfulness teacher, I work with the art of paying attention in a very different kind of way? I work with paying attention non-judgmentally, in the present moment, in a spirit of consciously-cultivated kindness, curiosity and open-heartedness. Truly paying attention in that way is the hardest work I've ever tried to do, and I am only beginning that journey, because that journey always starts right from here. And we never actually know what is going to happen next. It is this spirit that I invoked during my Year in Circumference, when I sought to transform my own fears about the future into a call to adventure, right here, on my own home ground. And right now, in the vibrance of my body, mind and senses, as I walked the rivers of home, one step at a time. I am still on that slow walk, wondering what I will discover next. I hope I always will be.

This is a steeper trail to climb than the one that issues from anger and outrage. Anger and outrage live in the reptilian part of our brain, and are much more easily aroused and pressed into service than tolerance and compassion. We don't have to look far, in this campaign season, to see how completely this reptilian strategy has taken hold of our political culture. There is so much I could say on this topic that I am going to say only this. With the Trump candidacy, and the shredding of any pretense at civil discourse that has accompanied it, we may be closer to a catastrophic rupture of American civil society than at any time since the election of Abraham Lincoln that catapulted us into the Civil War. The Trump phenomenon has many parallel expressions of Right Wing resurgence around the globe, but the visceral anger that drives it has been strongly evident on the Left as well. in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Though I am not in any way equating Sanders with the demagoguery of Trump, I think his candidacy traded heavily on the same anger that has fueled Trump's success. We see the same circular firing squads erupting on both the Right and the Left in this most contentious of election cycles.

As peace makers I believe we have a sacred obligation to refuse this path, and to entrust ourselves to a deeper faith in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, even when it feels futile, and as if we are alone in that effort. We have choices to make each day and each hour, about what we give our attention to, and whether we will join that rising chorus of outrage, or stand our ground in the practice of peace, compassion and kindness, no matter what. That path has rarely seemed longer or steeper, but I think that is the path where true bravery lies.

I recently stumbled on another quote that says, “It is not a betrayal of the future to love the present.” Think about that for a minute. (Pause) It is not a betrayal of the future to love this afternoon that brought us here together in hope, to feel ourselves sitting here, breathing, exploring and praying together. It is not a betrayal of the future to feel the aspiration toward peace of mind and heart that is shared by each of us here, even if we know that the way forward is long. It is not a betrayal of the future to remember to breathe, right now.

It is not a betrayal of the future to feel ourselves surrounded by the natural beauty of this place, and to know in our bones that we are part of that beauty. It is not a betrayal of the future to trust emergence, to trust that life knows what its doing, even if we don't. It is okay to not know, it is okay sometimes to be afraid, if we remember, as the poet Rilke said, that “No feeling is final”. It is not a betrayal of the future to remember that we are bigger than our fears, bigger than our outrage, and that life is here waiting for us, in infinite beauty, right now, if we can remember to suspend judgement and Just . . . Look. The present moment, fully engaged with an open heart, and the opportunities to manifest peace in action within this living presence, is never exhaustible, and may be our most powerful refug

I am often asked, “What did I learn in my wanderings around Whidbey Island and Puget Sound during my year of living car-free? What has stuck with me? It is mostly pretty simple. I learned that I have everything I need to be happy right here. I learned that when I am content with where I am, and what I already have, I am not flailing around, using tons of carbon, looking for that elusive happiness somewhere else. I learned that this kind of contentment is a political act as well as a personal one. It is as much a refusal of consent for what we don't need, as it is an affirmation of what we already have in complete abundance. I learned that beauty is everywhere when I remember to look, and that outrage is never my only option. I learned that there is no “Me” that can exist apart from the natural world that created and sustains my life. I learned that gratitude and peace well up from this place where my life meets the life of the world, and the beings who share my life, right here, right now, endlessly, always.

May we bend our hearts to the task of learning to be the peace we wish to see in the world. And may we do that together, in joy.

Thank you very much.