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Sometimes, I think I obey all the wrong rules.
When I packed for my excursion downtown yesterday to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I double-checked the directives on the Emory University website, and did not bring any bags or recording devices. Turns out I could have brought a camera. Sitting 75 feet from the stage, I was perfectly situated to photograph the Dance of the Snow Lion, traditional throat-singers, and folk musicians who performed. And if I’d been like so many of the people around me, I would have just broken out the video camera, too. Then I really could have caught the sights and sounds of the event, which definitely reminded me that I was in Atlanta (as opposed to say, San Francisco).
“Have you been to the merch tent? They have hand sanitizer.”
“What is this, like, a Woodstock sort of thing?”
“Oh my god, y’all, he’s so cuuute!!”
Then there was the comment of my lawn neighbor, who pish-poshed six nearby protesters who who briefly chanted “Free Tibet!” Astonishingly, these people garnered absolutely no support—other than my own, of course—from a crowd of thousands.
“That’s inappropriate,” the woman behind me commented. “This is a religious event, not a political one.”
I was aghast. Did she realize that the Dalai Lama had been not only the religious leader of Tibet, but the political leader too? That the very ideas he was here to purport depended on a freedom of thought now nonexistent in China and Tibet? Never mind the fact that a Georgia congressman was introducing the guy. I turned around and looked at this woman, noting the Dalai Lama’s latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom, at her feet. I wondered what the penalty would be for possessing the book in China.
The most meaningful words came from the Dalai Lama himself. This man has spent decades cultivating compassion and forgiveness for the people who brought murder, destruction, and oppression to his homeland. He has tirelessly promoted the idea that anger is an inappropriate response to violence. Instead, we must offer the world a helping hand, come what may. In broken English, he said:
“Instead of worry, worry, worry, depression in your home … I think … go out into the world!”
Though perhaps not as articulate as some of his other gems, for some reason this phrase really struck me as a diamond in the rough. His point was that Americans, being financially rich yet often spiritually and psychologically unfulfilled, stand to benefit greatly from social engagement. Happiness, he said, comes directly from helping others.
Many of us who abandon the 9-to-5 existence do so because of a desire for more meaningful work. We trust that in a freelance lifestyle, we’ll be able to create the meaning that we so deeply desire. But in the mad quest to generate clients and pay bills, how often do we really manage to prioritize that greater meaning?
If I disagreed with this woman so strongly, what could I do about it? Sitting there on the grass, I wondered why I was not standing with that handful of protesters. Was it because I wanted to follow some sort of local social code? Was I scared? I did give a shout out to these people, but ultimately wanted to do more.
I wonder why, in general, I allow myself to sit and chew my nails and wonder what to do with my life when so many opportunities abound to make a contribution to this world. So many matters require our international support—including the nightmarish situation in Burma, where thousands of monks disappeared in a single week in late September, leaving behind blood-spattered monasteries. And here is the Dalai Lama telling me to get off my ass and go do something to help.
What’s clear is that I owe it to myself personally and professionally to think more deeply about the question of meaningful work, and to devise a plan of action, whether it follows someone else’s rules or not. I’d love to hear comments of how others approach this question.
Before I left San Francisco called The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially engaged Buddhism. It cites the Jakatas, tales of Buddha’s birth:
“…the way of the Buddha was not one of running away from the world, but of overcoming it through growing knowledge, through active love towards one’s fellow beings, through inner participation in the joys and sufferings of others, and equanimity with regard to one’s own weal and woe.”