Pat George is the founder and teacher of the Zen Center of Philadelphia. She spoke with me about meditation in a time of severe distress.

BC4C:  Taking inspiration from Charlotte Joko Beck’s quote on your website – do you see that things have changed in reality after the election?

PG:  You know, in Buddhism there are always two sides – there’s always every day ordinary reality; and then there’s a bigger dimension of reality. So that I think that we have to look at the current political situation from both [of these] sides. If we only look at it from the every day, ordinary reality, we’re going to despair, and we’ll be flopped from place to place away from our [spiritual] center because things are so crazy.

So the trick is not to underestimate the ordinary every day reality, because it’s a bad situation, and we don’t want to just think that because we’re spiritual we can somehow float above that. We have to be grounded in the ordinary, political reality that everyone else is grounded in. The truth is that people are going to be hurt, so we can’t make light of that and skip that, and feel that we don’t have to do anything about it. So that’s the part of us that’s going to be out there marching with a pink hat.

But if that’s all we see, it’s going to be very easy to despair. We have to be very realistic, and we have to know that we have a responsibility towards that [reality]. But then there’s the side where we are deeply rooted in our spirituality, where we have some perspective, some distance, where we know that life is long, things change slowly, that ultimately we are safe and cared for. That gives us the nourishment to hold on through the winds of change…

So I think that it’s important to have that other side: it’s like we have a very long perspective of time and distance. You can think of it as though in this present day we are looking back on the Civil War; we know that it was bad, that a lot of people lost their lives, that there was a lot of suffering. But we also know that the world didn’t end, that things continued, that change took place, and some of it was good change. That other side – that looking at things from across a long time and space and with spiritual knowledge – that helps us not get too caught up in the every day. If you get too caught up in the time and space perspective, you’ll say it doesn’t matter – So we also need the everyday perspective because it does matter.

There’s a way in which you have to acknowledge both of those points. They are really two points of view: it’s very easy as humans to see the every day point of view, but what’s harder is to see the absolute point of view – to see things in the light of eternity – but it’s there that we can find the strength to carry on…

One of the down sides of Zen training is that people tend to feel that what they should do is be very detached, that nothing matters, that it’s all the same anyway. During the second World War, there were Zen teachers in Japan who told soldiers, just kill! Kill! Kill! Because there was no self, there was no one there anyway; this is some kind of heretical Zen view that because things are ultimately empty, nothing matters.

I remember somebody once said to my teacher, “What’s the difference if somebody cuts my head off in real life or in a dream? It’s the same thing: it doesn’t really matter, nothing happens, I don’t die.” The teacher said, “You know the difference! If someone cuts your head off in a dream, you wake up the next morning. If someone cuts your head off in real life, you don’t stand up any more.”

So this is the one sided view that Zen people can fall into – that everything is empty. But what they fail to take into consideration is that that’s only one side. It’s true that there’s no self, but it’s also true that right here right now here we are – we do have a physical body and we do die. Whether something else lives on afterwards is a controversial thing – some people will say no, and some people will say yes….

So basically I think sanity lies in the balance – if you get too pulled into the every day chaos you get burned out, you fall into despair and anger. If you are too much on the other side, you become cold and uncaring. You are also holding a wrong Buddhist view. But if you don’t have any distance at all from the chaos, then it’s a bad thing – so its keeping those two points of view in balance, knowing when to act, and when not to act.

BC4C:  Is there a point where politics get so extreme that there is a clear right and wrong from a Buddhist perspective? Are we at that point now?

PG:  It’s not easy – it’s ok to have a position and to believe something, to believe that some position is true. I think that again the balance is to not hold that position so completely that you can’t see the other point of view – not to hold so tightly to your position that you can’t change it if you got other information, and that you’re vilifying other people with different positions. You know, politics is very hard, it’s not an easy thing to engage in. On the other hand, you don’t want to be one of those wishy washy people – who says they don’t know about an issue like immigration. We should have thought about it and have some ideas about what the right thing is.

BC4C:  Many people have reported increased baseline levels of anxiety and stress; have you seen this as well in your role as a teacher?

PG:  I am getting that, too from my sangha. Well you know, a lot of that kind of stress and response comes from failure to be in the present. They are projecting into the future: “Oh my god, this is going to happen, that is going to happen,” so that’s what is part of what is making people so crazy. I think the truth is although we might suspect what’s going to happen in the future, the truth is that we don’t know, nobody knows – and many, many things can happen between what we think is going to happen and what actually happens. So basically I try to get them to stay in the present moment, stay in the here and now.

That doesn’t mean you can’t plan – but don’t project future disasters and get emotionally wrung out.

Right after the election actually, I gave a talk because a lot of my sangha members were so upset – I used a Zen koan – somebody asks the teacher when the end of the earth comes, when Armageddon  comes, is “it” [Buddha nature] destroyed or not, and the teacher says, “Yes, it is destroyed.” And the very next time someone says to the teacher, when the end of the earth comes, is “it” destroyed, and the teacher says, “No, it is not destroyed.” That’s that balance. Yes, things will be destroyed, things will change, bad things will happen – but will it be the end of the world as we know it? Answer: no.

From an ultimate point of view, nothing can be destroyed anyway, because nothing exists to begin with.

If you don’t have a choice about what’s going to happen then there isn’t a lot of point in getting all worried about it, thought that is what our minds do. Do everything you can to ease that threat if you feel threatened or someone you know is, but also know that sometimes the bad thing we think is going to happen is our projection, and sometimes something we think is bad actually happens, and it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as we anticipated.

For example sometimes we are afraid of losing a job, and we do get fired, but we end up doing something else because of having been fired. Or with a relationship breaking up – once we get over that break and hurt, we see it was actually not a good relationship, and it’s just as well that we are not in it…and it opens us up. We do a lot of projecting about what something is going to mean if it happens, but we are not very wise about predicting.

The worst thing that can happen is that we die, right? And there is not a guarantee that that’s not going to happen. In fact we know it is, we just don’t know when.

BC4C:  Is a lot of our fear of many things in life really about our fear of death?

PG:  I’m sure. Even when we’re not going to die, we sometimes feel like that’s what is happening to us, that we’re dying. The part about being really clear about the every day reality is that we are not PollyAnna-ish, we’re not saying that bad things won’t happen. These things do happen. All we can do is do the best we can with them, so we never ever want to make light of the suffering that might come, but if you get stuck in predicting pain, you get paralyzed, you can’t act.

BC4C:  How is it possible to practice meditation in this chronic “fight or flight” environment?

PG:  Fight like hell for what you believe in, but don’t get so caught up in it that you leave no time to step back and find a quiet place and get in touch with your deepest values and your deepest self, because that’s when you lose your balance.

BC4C:  As we adjust to the “new abnormal,” there are those who report a feeling of responsibility far greater than they are capable of fulfilling – doing a lot of political organizing and activism, and getting burned out – partly because they feel they can never do enough. What is your response to them?

PG:  You can only do what you can do, and you can start with what’s in front of you. You can’t change the world, but maybe you can change your block, precinct, or your social group, and trust that there are other good people in the world, and have faith that you don’t have to do it all. There’s that faith that people in the black church have that, “He has the whole world in his hands.” There’s a larger sense of… goodness… that is holding-things-together – that you don’t have to do it by yourself: it’s a community; it’s a whole.

BC4C:  That reminds me about the importance of hope in the Black church and other churches; but I’ve never heard anyone talk about hope in a Buddhist context.

PG:  My first Zen teacher used to shock people all the time and say, “There’s no hope! There is no hope!” But what he meant by that is that hope is always about the future, it’s never about what’s happening right now, and the mandate of Buddhism is to stay rooted in right here, right now, so that in that sense there’s no hope.. But you know also that Buddhism believes that there is a basic goodness.

In Christianity there is original sin, and a core evil, but Buddhism believes in a basic goodness. Not that there is no evil in the world, but to have faith in that basic goodness and compassion within each human being and to try to help people reach that and express that.

BC4C:  I have to say, with a framework modern psychology and looking at the people in power now, it’s easy to think they are sociopaths. Do you really believe that they all have that basic goodness?

PG:  I do. I do believe that every single person has a compassionate place. I believe that a lot of people aren’t in touch with their basic goodness. If you look at why, it’s because they feel vulnerable. If you are compassionate and good, you are also very open and vulnerable. And people are afraid of their vulnerability because of their neurosis and the way they are brought up.

Look at how thin-skinned Trump is. It seems to me that he’s very vulnerable, but his seeming badness comes from protecting that vulnerability. He seems to feel that he can’t ever make a mistake, that he always has to be perfect. I think that there is basic goodness there, but it would take facing his fears and vulnerability to open up to it.

BC4C:  Do you have any suggestions for people who are juggling multiple responsibilities and cannot easily make time to meditate for 30 minutes?

PG:  Do whatever you can do that makes you feel that you are caring for yourself . For some people that’s a walk in the fresh air, blanking out in front of the TV for half an hour, or snuggling with your kid on the couch. Whatever lets you let go of stress and worry for a while and reconnect with yourself.

Finally, you know, none of this is easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have a whole practice in which we teach people to achieve it. So it’s hard to be a human being, and it’s hard to be a good, balanced, sane human being, and sometimes we’re not. We go a little bit insane sometimes, and tehn we have to  come back to ourselves, and forgive ourselves.

Philadelphia Zen Teacher Pat George on Meditation and Politics