Can Empathy Save the World?

Racial stereotyping and the killing of unarmed black men in the United States. The war on the poor. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The planet on the brink of catastrophic climate change. Species on the edge of extinction. While it many appear overly simplistic, it is my belief that at the root of all these seemingly diverse and intractable problems is a lack of empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another; in other words, the ability to imagine walking in another’s shoes (or on another’s paws). If we were able to empathize with those we demonize, kill, consign to poverty, or condemn to extinction, then we’d likely act differently—very differently.

To see what I mean, let’s examine a handful of these problems: racial stereotyping, the war on the poor (another way of stating what many politicians in Washington are up to these days), and species on the edge of extinction.

Racial stereotyping on the part of many Americans has tragic consequences. The stereotype of the black man that is fixed in white America’s mind, that of someone likely violent and armed, who abuses or deals drugs, has directly contributed to the epidemic of recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. From the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City last July; to the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson last August; to the case last fall of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun at a recreation center in Cleveland, Ohio, shot within two seconds of police arriving on the scene; to the case this April of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot eight times in the back as he ran from police in North Charleston, S.C., the number of cases in the country in the past year is just shocking—a true epidemic. And in several cases, the tragedies have been further compounded by grand juries concluding that there was not enough evidence of wrong doing for the officer involved to be held for trial. (Thanks to a video shot by a brave bystander of the incident in South Carolina, the police officer involved in the case was promptly arrested and dismissed from the force.) While there has been plenty of outrage at these events, far too many Americans have been of the opinion that each of these black individuals (I can’t say “men” because that boy in Ohio was only 12) had done something wrong that led to his death—thus blaming the victim. (While it is true that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store right before he was shot to death by police, that fact does not in any way excuse his murder at the hands of police. The fact that matters, is this and only this: At the time of his murder, Michael Brown was unarmed.)

A lack of empathy allows these racial stereotypes to flourish, leading to such tragedies. And it’s not just police perpetrating them: The horrific massacre just days ago of nine African-American members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., by a white gunman points to the dangers of such insidious stereotypes. While the shooter targeted women as well as men, his reported comment, “You rape our women . . . ” hark back to an entrenched and longstanding stereotype of sexually voracious men of color preying on white women.

Instead of demonizing black males, let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that you are a young black man afraid of something bad happening every time you go out of the house. Perhaps you’ll be stopped by police while driving at night. Maybe you’ll be targeted for walking through a mostly white neighborhood wearing a hoodie. Imagine what that would be like. Then picture yourself as a black parent having to give your teenager a talk about how to behave if stopped by the police. Imagine your terror when your child hasn’t come home at the expected time. Contemplate and feel what the strain of living with this fear day in and day out would be like. That’s empathy, and it could go a long way to bridging the gap between white and black.

And what about those politicians in Washington waging war on the poor? For that’s what cutting food stamp programs while refusing to raise the minimum wage amounts to. Many of those working at minimum-wage jobs work a minimum of 40 hours a week and yet struggle to pay their bills or to put food on the table for their family. That just isn’t right. But the politicians don’t seem to get it. Lawmakers making a six-figure salary (base pay for senators and congressmen is $174,000 a year) just don’t care about the working poor. And the reason those in Congress don’t care (besides the fact that the working poor don’t have money to donate to their campaigns) is that they lack empathy. They refuse to imagine what it would be like to be in this situation, what it would be like to work two jobs just to make ends meet, getting up way before sunrise in order to have enough time to commute to work by public transportation, as many of the working poor have to do. If politicians even briefly contemplated the struggles that someone working a minimum-wage job has to face day after day, perhaps they would change their anti-poor positions. (When you come right down for it, empathy should be a requirement to run for office. Someone should come up with a test!)

What about the other creatures inhabiting the earth? It’s imperative that we feel empathy towards them as well. Take the looming extinction of countless species due to human impacts. If one were to imagine oneself to be a polar bear futilely swimming for miles in search of sea ice in order to hunt seals, and finally drowning; or a bird returning from its winter home in order to nest only to find that the supply of insects it depends upon to feed itself and its young is not there, then our hearts would be moved and we would do more to fight for their right to live. Not to mention our own right to survive, which is, to speak quite frankly, more and more in doubt, for of course, climate change affects humans as well, and it most affects those least able to cope—those in poor countries, living in the lowlands of Bangladesh, for example, or on islands such as the tiny island of Tuvalu, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, whose people are already experiencing flooding that is contaminating their drinking water, and erosion eating away their land. If we pictured ourselves clinging to a tree while water rose around us during one of the many cyclones that kill thousands in Bangladesh, or living on an island witnessing our home being claimed by the sea, then maybe we’d do something to reduce our emissions and halt the relentless movement upward of the global thermometer.

So can empathy by itself save the world? Perhaps not, but it would go a long way towards making the world a far better place for all of Earth’s inhabitants to live. It’s definitely worth a try, so let’s get started!

Sports Fans: Studies in Contradictions

We human beings are studies in contradictions, and nowhere is this truer than when it comes to sports. Take the NFL and its legions of fans, who, despite the heavy dose of violence meted out each week, sit in stadiums or riveted to their TV screens every Sunday cheering on their team. And not all those fans fit the stereotypical image of the fan as being brawny and male. It’s estimated that 45% of football’s 150 million fans are female.

I’ve always disliked football, for all its violence, its macho image—and have likened those watching it in stadiums to modern-day versions of Romans cheering on gladiators fighting for their lives in the Coliseum. Now that the negative impacts of football on players and their families are gaining more and more attention, (brain trauma and early-onset dementia in as high as one in three players, domestic assault, child abuse), some of those erstwhile fans are questioning their devotion to a sport that—there’s no getting around it—is downright brutal. Even knowing all that is wrong with it, some fans can’t give up their addiction and continue to watch games despite themselves. That’s why, despite my fondest hopes, the game isn’t going away anytime soon.

I’m not standing on the moral high ground feeling proud of myself, though. I have my own contradictions. And one of them is this: I love baseball. I always have, from a very young age. Sure, it’s not the contact sport that football is. There are the occasional collisions at the plate (rarer, now that baseball has outlawed blocking home plate) or the occasional batter being hit in the head with a fastball, but its players are not subject to the constant brain-jarring tackles (and resulting concussions) that football players are. Still, baseball has its downsides. I’m an environmentalist, so for me, the biggest downside (besides the ridiculous sums of money that men are paid to play it) is the negative impact the sport has on the environment. Consider that each of the 30 major league teams plays 162 regular season games. Half of those 4,860 games are played away from home, which means travel, lots of it, mostly on airplanes, and airplane travel is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. And that’s not all. Think about the enormous amount of waste generated at each of those baseball games. In recent years, most teams have initiated “green” programs to reduce the amount of waste generated at its games, but even if soda cans and glass bottles get recycled, there’s still a huge amount food, container, wrapper, napkin, and plasticware waste. And then, there are the baseballs. Each is used only a few times. The average number of baseballs used in one game is five to six dozen. That means anywhere from 291,600 to 349,920 balls are used in one season alone. All these impacts make baseball a far worse sport environmentally than football. (The NFL’s 32 teams each play only 16 games per season, for a total of 512, meaning far fewer airplane rides, far less trash generated, and far fewer balls used than in baseball.) You’d think that, since the environment matters so much to me, I would stop watching baseball. But I can’t. I fully admit to an addiction. I love the complexity of baseball, its rules, its rhythms, the battles between pitcher and batter, the statistics. I don’t know why. I just do. I’m a human being, which means I’m a study in contradictions. Just like you.

Beatles or Baseball?

I was fourteen during the summer of 1964, and I had two big loves: the Beatles and the Philadelphia Phillies. I’d been in love with the mop-haired Brits ever since they’d appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show months earlier and since seeing them on TV, had spent all my allowance money on their records and fan magazines, and had scotch taped their pictures to my bedroom mirror. And the Phillies? I’d loved the game of baseball and had been an ardent Phillies fan ever since I was a little girl, and I well remember listening late at night to their West Coast games on the little transistor radio I kept hidden under my pillow. From the beginning of the 1964 season, the Phillies had been in first place and were heading for glory and a World Series berth. Or so everyone in Philly thought at the time.

My parents approved of the Phillies, but certainly didn’t look kindly upon the Beatles. My father, an immigrant from a shtetl near Kiev in what had been the Russian Empire, was old enough to be my grandfather, and he regarded with suspicion the writhing group of young men who had caused his quiet and studious daughter to scream when they appeared on Ed Sullivan that fateful Sunday evening. So, when I got a ticket to attend the Beatles concert that was coming up on September 2, he was none too pleased. How about, he suggested, instead of going to the concert, you go with me to a Phillies game? My father almost never took us kids anywhere (except for occasional trips to Atlantic City), and he certainly never took me anywhere on my own, let alone to a Phillies game. So his offer put me in a quandary. It pitted my two big loves against each another, with my father’s love thrown into the mix. In the end, it proved to be an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I caved in and gave my Beatles ticket away—convincing myself that I was now a mature young lady who was above all that screaming and hysteria. When the day came, we traveled to the game by subway on our way to Connie Mack Stadium. When we got off the subway and headed to the street, we were greeted by a taxi driver calling out, “Beatles or baseball?” (Looking back, it does seem odd that the driver should have called out thus, as the two venues, Connie Mack Stadium and the Convention Center, were nowhere near each other, but perhaps he had found himself caught up in in all the excitement: the Phillies in the playoff hunt and playing at home, and the Beatles performing in town. And “Beatles or baseball?” certainly had a ring to it!)

The outcome of the game didn’t stick in my memory, but looking it up on Google, it turns out that the Phillies won, 2-1, against the Houston Colts. What I do remember is how upset I got with myself just a few days later about giving up the chance to see the Beatles. Stupid! I berated myself. It’s not every day you get a chance to see them! How could you have given your ticket away?! Towards the end of September, I felt even worse, as the Phillies, the team considered a shoo-in to play in the World Series earlier that month, had gone on a ten-game losing streak, and ended up in second place. No Beatles concert, no World Series. I felt bereft.

Luckily for me, the Beatles returned to Philadelphia a few years later. In the summer of 1966, they played at J.F.K. Stadium, and this time, I kept the ticket I had bought and went. It was hard to see them as I was sitting far away from the stage (they were wearing bright green suits and were so far away that they did kind of look like their namesakes, albeit with guitars), and you couldn’t hear much for all the screaming, but I was ecstatic anyway. And the Phillies? They didn’t get to play in the World Series until 1980, and I was long gone by then, wearing orange robes and teaching yoga and meditation in Fiji.

Live and Let Live

One hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Thus ended the sad story of the mass slaughter of a species of bird that once numbered in the billions, whose migrations would darken the skies across parts of the country for days at a time. The extinction of the passenger pigeon came about because they were hunted relentlessly, tens of millions shot from the skies, stuffed 300 to a barrel and shipped by trainloads, where they were then cooked and eaten up and down the East Coast.

Today, thankfully, we have the Endangered Species Act protecting thousands of species from the fate of the passenger pigeon. However, the same mentality that lead to the pigeon’s demise is still too much in evidence today: the attitude that other species exist for our pleasure and sustenance, and the idea that if another species is inconvenient to our way of life, we should just get rid of it.

Take our typical approach to landscaping. We pour herbicides and pesticides on our lawns to achieve the green, weed-free look so many of us desire. Besides the obvious health risks of these chemicals, they also turn our lawns into ecological deserts. For gone are the dandelions and clover that native bees and other creatures so love, gone are the insects that insect-eating birds crave. (Not to mention that these plants can be eaten by us as well, and you never know when you might need them!) The same goes for our backyard gardens. We can’t tolerate the thought that our Swiss chard could get one or two insect holes—or that deer, groundhogs, squirrels, or rabbits should eat any of what we have labored so hard to cultivate. We put out traps to catch groundhogs or rabbits, then relocate them, feeling virtuous that we didn’t kill the darned creatures instead. (More on groundhog-trapping a bit later.)

Considering that these creatures have been here far longer than we have, you’d think we’d be a bit more humble and willing to share. Modern humans appeared a mere 200,000 years ago, while white-tailed deer first appeared 3 to 4 million years ago. The grey squirrel has been here even longer and is traced back 50 million years. Perhaps the prize for backyard species longevity goes to rabbits, the oldest known species of which having appeared at least 45 million years ago. We’re the new kids on the block, and these old timers have every right to exist alongside us. Instead of killing or trapping these creatures, why not try to coexist with them by planting things they don’t like (daffodils instead of tulips, for example) or by excluding them from the tasty plants they can’t resist? After all, an unfenced garden is akin to a rabbit or groundhog all-you-can-eat buffet, and you can’t blame them for dining! And here’s another radical thought: What if they do eat some of the plants we cultivate? Is that so terrible?

Four years ago, when my husband David and I moved to our new home, we dug up a sizeable part of the backyard and put in a vegetable garden. The first year, even though we knew we had a local groundhog, we didn’t put in fencing, deciding to experiment and see what would happen without it. Predictably, the groundhog ate most of what we had planted. We decided to capture and relocate the critter, until I learned from our local wildlife rehabilitation clinic that our relocated adult groundhog would likely die. (Groundhogs remain in the same territory year after year and most cannot adjust when relocated.) So that’s when we decided to groundhog proof our garden. We put in not only fencing (and a kind of fencing that a groundhog would find difficult to climb), but aluminum flashing buried a foot and a half below ground, so the groundhog couldn’t dig its way in. It worked, and now we coexist with our groundhog, who makes his (or her) home under our gazebo. Despite our garden being off limits to him, he still finds plenty to eat, managing to eat some leaves that poke their way out through the fencing. He also eats lots of clover, as we have a natural lawn abundant with what the lawn care industry would call “weeds.” We’ve named our groundhog Ryan (why is another story), and we often see him standing in the middle of the yard on his hind legs, gnawing on an apple that has fallen from our tree, as if he owns the place. When I go out into the yard, Ryan lumbers away, surprisingly quick on his feet for such a fat creature. A week or two ago, we noticed that he had worn out a perfectly straight line in our yard, from the apple tree to the fence that he runs to and under when he’s disturbed. We laughed and considered that it was a good thing the apples were nearly gone. Otherwise, Ryan would soon turn his path into a dirt track.

We enjoy all the wildlife in our back yard from the finches, nuthatches, cardinals, and chickadees; to the squirrels, rabbits, and Ryan the groundhog; to the native bees buzzing around our raspberry vines and clover. Sure, the squirrels eat some of our tomatoes (taking one big bite and leaving the rest), and the rabbits eat the young hosta leaves in the spring. But our lives are so enriched by the wildlife that we wouldn’t change a thing.

The Phillies Should Draft Mo’ne Davis

Just a few weeks ago, baseball fans in Philadelphia had little to cheer about, with the Phillies, so recently a repeat top contender, languishing in the National League East cellar. That all changed when the Taney Dragons, the hometown Little Leaguers, burst on the scene. A multi-racial and multi-talented team that electrified the city with their spirited play in the Little League World Series, it hardly matters that they didn’t make it all the way. They captured the imagination of the city—and the nation—thanks in large part (though not entirely, as there are many wonderfully talented players on the Taneys) to the awe-inspiring performance of Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old African-American girl who pitched a 4-0, no-walk, two-hit gem against Nashville on August 15. Striking out eight batters and getting herself into the record books in the process, Mo’ne became the first girl in Little League history to pitch a winning game in World Series competition, turning the expression “throws like a girl” on its head with her 70 mile-per-hour fastball (which translates to a 91 mile-per-hour fastball in the Bigs). The following Sunday, Mo’ne wasn’t pitching, due to pitching rest rules. No matter. She played third base and shortstop, drew a walk, and got a hit and an RBI, helping her team to a dramatic come-from-behind win. Some days later, she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first Little Leaguer to do so. One could say that Mo’ne is getting all this attention because she is a girl (and an African-American girl at that) playing a sport dominated by males. Well, that’s partly true, of course, as Mo’ne is one of just eighteen girls ever to have competed in the 67-year history of the Little League World Series. But she wouldn’t be getting all the attention if she weren’t the fabulous athlete that she is.

As I cheered on the team, I watched Mo’ne with just a touch of nostalgia. When I was a young, I loved playing the game. The neighborhood kids would get together to play wiffle ball in the large backyard of a boy named Chucky. I played the outfield and, fast on my feet, could get to most fly balls. When it came time to bat, I would hit screeching line drives that few could catch. From time to time, some of the neighborhood dads would come to watch, and they’d shake their heads, almost as if wondering whether I was, in truth, really a boy. It was clear they found it hard to believe that such running, fielding, and hitting could be executed by a mere girl. But I never got the chance to play on a real team, as back then, there were no opportunities for girls to play softball or baseball. Baseball was my favorite sport by far, but I had to settle for playing volleyball and basketball. So, as I watched Mo’ne, I wondered what I might have achieved had I had the same opportunity to play. (The fact that a white girl growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a mostly white suburb of Philadelphia, lacked the same advantage as Mo’ne, an African-American girl currently growing up in the city, does show that we’ve made at least some progress.)

I wonder if we’ll see Mo’ne drafted by and then pitching for the Phillies eight or ten years down the line. And why not? Baseball, unlike football, is not a contact sport (well, expect for tagging players out), nor does it matter how much you weigh or how tall you are. What does matter is your speed, your hitting—and your pitching. It’s time to challenge the sex barrier in Major League baseball. If Mo’ne can play in the Little League World Series, why shouldn’t she pitch for the Phillies? Oh, but, I almost forgot: Mo’ne’s favorite sport is basketball, which she hopes to play professionally some day. Too bad, Phillies! You sure could use her help.

Swan Song for a Writer?

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything on my blog for quite some time. I have written a number of drafts, the topics of which, though interesting up to a point, haven’t really grabbed me. It might be the topics (my blog posts don’t have a particular angle or theme to them) or it might be that writing doesn’t speak to me in quite the same way as it once did.

What does is music. In fact, that’s how I’m spending most of my free time: in singing and playing. A few years ago, I joined an awesome no-auditions choir. Now, one would think that a choir that doesn’t require auditions wouldn’t be very good. That may be true in some cases, but not in this one. This choir of over 90 voices is awesome, and the music has been a revelation. If you had told me three years ago that I would be singing such complex pieces as Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, Vivaldi’s Gloria, or Rutter’s Requiem (and not only just managing – truly doing well), I would have waved my hand at you and said, “Yeah, right!”

Funny thing is, when I was a child in elementary school and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would invariably say, “A singer.” I was in my elementary school and junior high school choirs, and sang in musicals in high school (Music Man, Oklahoma!) though never in a lead part. Then, in college, I joined the University of Pennsylvania Balalaika Orchestra, a wonderful ensemble of soprano, alto and bass balalaikas (the bass balalaika: picture a huge triangle with strings), mandolins, and a few guitars. We performed at Penn’s Irvine Auditorium, and one year, sitting alone on stage and dressed like a Russian peasant woman (complete with babushka), I sang a hauntingly beautiful Russian love song while strumming on my soprano balalaika, a la Dr. Zhivago.

Then I joined Ananda Marga, and my musical endeavors took a back seat to world-saving and teaching meditation. Somehow, I did find time to teach myself how to play the guitar and write a bunch of devotional songs. A few years before I left the group, I managed to get five or six musically inclined didis and dadas (monks and nuns) to do a tape with me. I decided to call it “Countless Shores,” and I had a cover designed, but that was as far as it went. (I still have the master tape, done on a souped-up CD player, stashed away somewhere.)

Getting back to the present, there’s another musical group I’ve joined, a bunch of musicians who get together every month in what they call an “Open Circle” to sing and play guitars and other instruments. The way it works is everyone sits in a circle and takes turns singing and playing, or just singing, or just playing, or just requesting a song. Having this monthly commitment gets me to practice guitar regularly and learn a new song or two well enough that I sound halfway decent by the time the next Open Circle comes around.

Practicing for both choir and open circle takes a lot of time. The choir especially requires a significant time commitment. You can’t just show up to rehearsal every week and expect to learn the music in time for the performance. You have to practice at home – from study CDs, online study tracks, or on your own piano – and if you’re not ready to put in that kind of time, then a choir of this quality is not for you.

Putting in the time. Just like writing. The difference for me between the two, though, is that I never dread sitting down (or standing up) to sing. And while I have experienced my share of writer’s block, I’ve never heard of or experienced anything called “singer’s block.” Those of you who know how long it took me to write my memoir, The Orange Robe, and why, know that I am perhaps too much of a perfectionist. I wrote draft after draft after draft, almost driving myself crazy with even the tiniest of editing details, and when you do that for a 350-page book, that indeed adds up to a lot of revising and editing! For someone who edits the hell out of everything she writes, it’s wonderfully refreshing to just pick up my music and sing. And another thing: writing can be such a lonely process. Singing in a choir or group is the opposite of lonely, and it’s uplifting and inspiring to add one’s voice to others and create something beautiful.

“Swan song” in my dictionary is defined as “the last act, final creative work, etc. of a person, as before retirement or death.” Well, I’m not soon to retire or die, as far as I know. And I haven’t entirely given up writing. I write all the time in my head; it’s just getting to the paper (well to the computer screen) that sometimes takes me more time now than it used to. Not only that, the main character of a novel I’m writing has been clamoring for attention, and I won’t be able to put him off for too much longer. So I know I haven’t given up writing for good. How could I? I’ve written this, haven’t I?

Emotional Counterpoint: A School Year Like None Other

During the 1963-64 school year, I was a 9th grader at Ogontz Junior High School in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The rollercoaster events that were to take place during that year would prove to be momentous for me and for others of my generation. The first, the assassination of a president, was to take place on a chilly day in November; the second, a mere two and a half months later.

On November 22, a Friday, I was in Home Economics (a course for girls only, where we learned to sew, cook, and otherwise run a home in preparation for what was then expected to be the work of all of us once we reached a suitable age: that of wife, mother, and homemaker), my last class of the day. Feeling bored and restless, I got permission to visit the bathroom along with my friend Carol. As we washed our hands and fooled around with our hair, Carol and I chatted about our weekend plans. Checking the clock, we saw that class would let out in less than an hour, and we smiled at each other. Only 45 minutes to freedom!

Returning to the classroom, we found it strangely altered. The lesson had come to an abrupt halt. Girls sat sobbing, their heads in their hands. Others were shouting, ” It can’t be!” or “I don’t believe it!” or were sitting trancelike in stunned silence, their faces pale. Even our teacher had tears in her eyes. Carol and I looked around us, at a total loss. “What’s wrong?” we shouted, suddenly afraid. Then we learned the terrible news: President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. Having missed the announcement that had come while we had been in the bathroom, we’d been granted a few precious moments of extended innocence.

After classes let out, I walked home in the chill, my thoughts as dark as the black clouds roiling in the sky and blocking out the sun, asking myself over and over, How could President Kennedy, so vital and handsome, be dead? How could something like this happen here, in America?

The gloomy weather on that November day seemed fitting for the death of a president, matching the mood of a nation. A few days later I sat glued to my TV, watching President Kennedy’s funeral along with my family and millions of others. November 25 was a sunny day, but the spare late autumn sunlight that spilled over Jackie in her black, over the rest of the Kennedys in their somber dress, and over John-John, his tiny figure saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin, did nothing to melt the icy sorrow in my heart. The haunting drumbeat that accompanied the president’s casket and funeral procession, the rhythm of which I can recall perfectly to this day, bore witness to the light that had gone out. The world had become a darker place. For me and for so many others of my generation, the shots that rang out on that dark November day stole away our innocence, and things would never be the same.

On February 9, 1964, a mere 77 days after President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were the perfect antidote to the gloom that had settled over everyone in the aftermath of the president’s death—and I was the perfect age to appreciate them. My family always watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, and February 9 was no exception. There we sat, my father, mother, my brother David and I, in front of the little black-and-white screen down in our basement. I can’t remember if we knew they would be on or not, but there they were, mop-haired and adorable. I sat there, my young teenaged self just drinking them in. 73 million Americans watched the Beatles make their debut, and it was the beginning of a love affair for many of them as it was for me. At the time, no one would have guessed that the appearance of the Beatles would end up having such a large impact, one that, while hardly reaching the traumatic impact of the assassination of a young and vital president, would nevertheless exert a powerful influence upon a generation.

The second time the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, the following Sunday, I started screaming as they sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” seriously shocking my parents. They knew me to be a studious and quiet and somewhat shy young girl who got top grades in school and never got in trouble—and here I was, ranting and raving like all the girls in the audience! Right then and there, I became a Beatles freak, and life was never the same. The lads influenced my life in countless ways, even, I suspect, contributing more than a little bit to my decision to become a yogic nun. After all, my interest in Eastern religion and meditation had been sparked by the appearance of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the summer of 1967, and by the trip to India to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that the lads later embarked on.

Two events, so different, and yet each so momentous. Two events on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, a kind of cosmic counterpoint. Two events of a rollercoaster school year that would shape an entire generation. And, as we say, the rest is history.

Returning Nuns and Soldiers: More in Common Than You’d Think!

At a recent book club meeting where my book, The Orange Robe, was the topic of discussion, one of the participants mentioned she thought the uniform I once wore was similar to those worn in the military—not that the two uniforms looked similar in any way (picture a soldier in flowing orange robes and an orange veil – now there’s an image!)—but that they served a similar purpose, giving the wearer a strong sense of identity and belonging. Her point was well taken, reminding me that I had often contemplated the surprising similarities between two roles seemingly on opposite ends of a spectrum—that of a spiritual teacher who teaches meditation and dispenses spiritual wisdom and that of a member of the military who often has to seek out and kill “the enemy.” In particular, the struggles both experience after leaving these roles can be remarkably similar.

For one thing, the returning nun or soldier experiences the loss of a ready-made identity, symbolized by that uniform. Suddenly, you’re back in the everyday world, wearing “civvies”—civilian dress. Now you look just like everyone else. Now you’re no longer special. You’re just an everyday person expected to do everyday things.

Closely related to the loss of the feeling of being special is the loss of a sense of mission. A strong sense of mission is vitally important to both roles. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as Ananda Marga nuns and monks went about teaching meditation and starting schools and other such projects, many were convinced that the organization was going to change the world. What a heady sense of mission we felt in those early days! Even for those of us who hadn’t believed in the “save the world” thing, there was still the sense of a spiritual mission, of turning people on to the spiritual life and giving them a way of achieving enlightenment. Members of the military have a similarly strong sense of mission and feel called to serve their country. Even if some harbor doubts about the mission they are given (it’s hard to imagine that none doubted the idea that the Iraqis were going to embrace us as saviors and harbingers of democracy once Saddam Hussein was gone), they must bury such reservations deep down in order to get the job done—and to survive.

This strong sense of mission is closely linked to identifying with the group as a family. Ananda Marga was mine for close to twenty years, and leaving that family, however dysfunctional it was and however necessary it was to leave it, proved traumatic. It can be even more so for the soldier who returns to civilian life. The men and women with whom and for whom the serviceman risked his life will forever have a special place in his heart. Some returning military members feel that their real families—their spouses, children, and other relatives—cannot understand what they have been through. The book Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel, focuses on struggles returning service members face. In its recent review of the book, The New York Times Book Review put it this way: “Home . . . is a world dominated by an elemental loneliness. Removed from the bonds of their unit—severed from the love of comrades that Finkel calls “the truth of war”—each soldier navigates the postwar on his own: “It is such a lonely life, this life afterward.” “ (Wow! What a perfect description of what I felt upon leaving my Ananda Marga family and returning home!) Indeed, faced with this feeling of loneliness, some soldiers end up re-enlisting precisely to return to the comrades who understand them, and who have become more like family than their own flesh and blood.

And then there’s the sense of being at a loss value-wise after returning. Many of those who leave their families and countries to become Ananda Marga teachers do so when they are young, some barely out of their teens. More than a few are confused and seeking direction, and in Ananda Marga, they find conduct rules and a ready-made value system that provide it. So it was for me. I was 24 when I left home for training in India. When I left the organization 18 years later, it was as if I were an adolescent leaving home for the first time. Having accepted without question a belief system and having followed a strict set of rules for all those years, I was faced with figuring out what my own values and beliefs truly were. Similarly, the majority of those who join the military also do so at a very young age and find that the military gives them a strong value system along with its disciplined lifestyle and code of behavior. Leaving all that behind can result in the same difficulty—that of sorting out what ones values and beliefs are separate from the group—that leaving Ananda Marga caused me.

These are just a few of the points in common. Of course, there are some differences. For one, most of us in Ananda Marga never had to risk our lives (though I almost got shot for meditating in the no-man’s land between Greek and Turkish Cyprus way back when, and some didis and dadas (nuns and monks) did end up dead for one reason or another), while many in the military risk theirs on an almost daily basis. And while a sizable number of those returning from the military have grievous physical wounds as well as psychological ones to deal with, those of us returning from groups like Ananda Marga only have the psychological kind. Still, the remarkable similarities do deserve a closer and more detailed investigation, perhaps as a book. I have my own life as an Ananda Marga teacher to tap for material, and I know some other ex-nuns and monks who would be willing to be interviewed. Anyone know some ex-servicemen or women who would be as well? If so, please contact me!

The George Zimmerman Trial: A Case of Bizarre Dream (or Nightmare) Logic?

Ever notice how bizarre dream logic is? In dreams, the strangest occurrences are accepted as fact and are left unquestioned. Take one I had a few nights ago. I was sitting with a group of writers reading one another’s poetry. When the meeting ended, I decided to lock my poetry journal in a rectangular silver safe. This particular safe, despite being somewhat small, had several compartments. I chose one, deposited my notebook, and locked the door. Then I accidentally pushed a button and out a hole in the side came, of all things, bread dough (multi-grain with sesame seeds, not sure if organic or not). I realized the dough was my journal with all the poems in it, transformed. Upset that I’d lost my poems and also embarrassed at what had happened, I didn’t want my fellow poets to know, but ended up making a joke out of it, saying, “What just happened would make a pretty funny poem, huh?” At no time did I question how a notebook full of poems could be transformed into bread dough. It seemed perfectly reasonable in the dream. That’s dream logic for you.

While contemplating this dream upon awakening, it occurred to me that this strange frame of reference, this dream logic, when something outlandish is accepted as normal, is precisely what we have in the George Zimmerman case. How else to explain how a 17-year-old unarmed black youth carrying a fruit drink and a bag of Skittles could be stalked by a 28-year-old white Hispanic man with a gun who then shoots the unarmed boy, doesn’t get arrested for 44 days, then gets acquitted of all charges? What kind of universe are we living in? Precisely one like one you might encounter in dreams (or more appropriately in this case, in nightmares). In this strange universe, George Zimmerman’s right to defend himself against an unarmed boy is sacrosanct. What about Trayvon Martin’s right to defend himself against a man following him with a gun? No mention of that during the trial.

And strange indeed is the avoidance of any reference to race during the trial. Judge Debra Nelson decided at the beginning of the trial that the word “profiling” — but not the phrase “racial profiling” — could be used in opening statements. Prosecutor John Guy insisted that the case was not about race, despite the fact that in his closing statement, he made an obvious reference to race when he asked the jury to consider a role reversal: would Trayvon Martin be convicted if he had followed and then shot George Zimmerman? Yet Mr. Guy then went on to finish his statement by reminding the jury that the case was not about race. Well, if not because of his race, then why was Trayvon Martin profiled and followed? Because he was a teenager wearing a hoodie? No, because he was a black teenager wearing a hoodie. If Trayvon Martin had been white, it’s highly unlikely George Zimmerman would have called 911. Just consider this fact: all of Zimmerman’s calls to police about suspicious persons involved African-Americans.

Another curious figure in this strange universe is Juror B-37, recently interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN (her face blacked out), who claimed that “George” (as she repeatedly called him) had been “frustrated” by all the break-ins that had been occurring in his gated community. Because he was frustrated, and (get this!) because it was raining (!) and a strange teenager was walking and looking into people’s windows, George Zimmerman then decided to take action. Well, we only have George Zimmerman’s word that Martin was looking into windows. Even if he was, so what? It was dark, and the insides of houses would have been lit up. I often go for walks at dusk in my neighborhood, and I sometimes look in windows (from the street, mind you), my eye caught by a particular wall color, or an interesting lamp or painting. I’ve never been followed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, and certainly not one with a gun (by the way, who ever heard of armed neighborhood watch volunteers?) But I, of course, am a older white woman with grey hair. If I were a boy of Trayvon’s age and race, maybe someone would have called 911 . . . or worse.

The defense claimed that George Zimmerman was walking back toward his car (note: in order to walk back to his car, he had to have gotten out of it to follow Trayvon Martin in the first place)when Martin came up to him, pinned Zimmerman on his back, and assaulted him. We’ll never know what really happened, but even if this account of events were to be true, there needs to be some penalty for someone with a gun going after an unarmed black teen who had been walking in a community minding his own business. Bottom line is, George Zimmerman should have never followed Trayvon Martin, and he certainly should never have followed him with a gun. Once he did that, Trayvon Martin had every right to defend himself. The fact that George Zimmerman was declared not guilty is a travesty of justice. The fact that the prosecution shied away from talking about race and the obvious racial profiling that led to Trayvon’s death is also a travesty. The not guilty verdict also sets a very bad precedent. How many other George Zimmermans are out there (so-called neighborhood watch volunteers or not), secure in the knowledge that if they stalk and then shoot an unarmed black teenager, they’ll get away with it? Strange universe, indeed, and I wish I could wake up and find it all to be just a . . . nightmare.

The NSA Has Nothin’ on This Baby!

With the recent revelations about all the spying the NSA is doing on us American citizens (trolling through phone calls, e-mails, and whatnot), some of us may find ourselves nervously reviewing and thinking back over our phone calls and electronic communications over the past several years. Most of us don’t have any links to terrorists or any involvement in terrorist plots to worry about (unless you count sharing dark wishes concerning the fates of Bush and Cheney from time to time with friends similarly appalled at the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses and so on), but what about other indiscretions we may have shared? What about calls to accountants near tax time about clever schemes to lower what is owed the IRS? What about calls or e-mails to friends about getting together to party with illicit substances, or calls to obtain such substances? At the time, you’d have thought, Nothing to worry about! This is America, land of the free!

Well, even if we’re not as free as we thought we were, I certainly don’t have anything to worry about. My phone and electronic communication of all kinds has always been circumspect. It’s a habit I developed long ago, during my years with Ananda Marga in Australia.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the Australian government considered Ananda Marga a terrorist group, largely because it had been suspected of carrying out the only terrorist attack in that country’s history– a 1978 bombing at the Sydney Hilton during a meeting of Commonwealth leaders. At that time, Ananda Marga’s spiritual leader, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, was imprisoned in India, and the Indian prime minister Morarji Desai claimed that Ananda Marga had attempted to kill him because of it. Although the case has never been solved, Ananda Marga was the prime suspect for years.

Consequently, the Australian government kept close tabs on Ananda Marga. Phones were known to be tapped, so whenever we spoke on the phone to one another, we were always conscious that someone may have been listening in, and we were careful not to divulge any sensitive information about our movements or plans. In particular, we were careful not to say anything to tip off listeners about two particularly sensitive topics: our smuggling business and what we called our “BMs” (bogus marriages).

For many years, when Ananda Marga members went to India, they would carry with them video equipment, either smuggling it into the country (by not declaring it upon entry) or by declaring it, having the information written in their passports, and then getting rid of the incriminating evidence. (The way such evidence could be gotten rid of was by having one’s passport sprayed before the trip, and then, once safely in the country, removing what was written by the custom official with some liquid brought along for the purpose.) Then the contraband would be sold to one of our contacts for a tidy profit, since in those days, India had very high import duties for such equipment. So, whenever we needed to talk about procuring equipment, we’d talk about going shopping. Those listening to such conversations must have been puzzled that nuns and monks, renunciates dedicated to social service, would have had such an avid interest in something so mundane!

“BMs” were done so that Ananda Marga didis and dadas could get citizenship and stay in the country. Obviously, any monk or nun discussing marriage would have caused a few raised eyebrows among our phone tappers, so here we were also models of discretion. Most of these bogus marriages worked out well, and the lucky didi or dada obtained citizenship and could travel back and forth to India without worrying about getting back into Australia. I had one, but mine did not turn out so well. A year or so after my BM, my “husband” disappeared. This was before all of the paperwork was complete, so I was left in limbo, with no legal status, for the rest of my time in the country.

Anyway, all this surveillance, which also included visits (we called them raids) to our centers by Special Branch, the Australian counterpart of the FBI, inculcated in me a lifelong sense of discretion when it came to phone and electronic communication. Back here in the U.S., I might have felt like knocking off Dick Cheney, but I would never have said so over the phone or through an e-mail. The few times I experimented with marijuana after years of abstaining (something I never do now, as marijuana leaves me shivering uncontrollably even in the hottest of weather), I would never have discussed such things over the phone. Code for smoking with one friend included saying, “How about we get together and watch Magical Mystery Tour?”

So I’ve nothing to fear from the NSA. My memoir, The Orange Robe, has lots juicy details about illegal activities, but they are beyond the reach of law enforcement as the statue of limitations has expired on all of them. Likewise the accounts of them in this blog. But, wait! Is the NSA limited by statues of limitations? Uh-oh . . .!