An Open Letter to the Makers of “Cloud Atlas”

Dear makers of Cloud Atlas,

Last weekend, my partner and I saw Cloud Atlas – well, most of it. We watched for about two hours and then couldn’t stomach the violence anymore. We chose to leave instead of finding out what happened at the end.

I would’ve walked out sooner, but I was intrigued by the interwoven plot lines and parallel characters. Fascinated by the fragmented, echoing narratives. And impressed by the story’s moral: the film tells us that our choices reverberate to create our past and future, and that our survival depends on living from a sense of oneness.

In some ways, Cloud Atlas is revolutionary. But it isn’t visionary. In spite of its attempt to convey interdependence and inspire compassion, it achieves the exact opposite because of its violence. The purity and beauty of the message are undercut by the hatred shown in scene after scene of graphic fighting and killing.

These times of violence, isolationism, and fear need media that embody an antidote – not a mirror. We need to realize what the character Sonmi 451 supposedly realized in this film: from womb to tomb, we not only rely on each other; we are each other. Sadly, the movie doesn’t let us feel her realization for ourselves or show us a path toward it. Instead, it batters us with the divisiveness and suffering we’re already steeped in.

To be a visionary filmmaker or artist in these times, to really bring home the concept of oneness, requires radical nonviolence. It requires resisting our collective addiction to fear. It calls for extreme integrity and a mind/heart that can imagine a world free of enemies.

Film has the power to ignite our collective imagination, to plant seeds of what we might become. It is a magical medium – its images become our dreams, and then our dreams become our reality. We’re drowning in films that horrifically reflect our suffering. We urgently need films that show us ways out of suffering, ways to heal, ways to nurture our budding understanding of oneness. When we understand our interconnectedness, we’ll do everything possible to cherish life and keep from hurting anyone.

I challenge the makers of Cloud Atlas – and all filmmakers and artists – to call forth your imagination and skill to create media that show humanity our highest potential. Devote your brilliance to showing us the harmlessness and love that blossom when we know we are each other.

Sincerely,

Natascha Bruckner

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Things I Can Do

There are certain things I can do.

I can untangle a twisted garden hose. I can scrub a floor. Wash a window. Make a big pot of butternut squash soup. Hold a baby. Keep quiet while somebody vents about her troubles. I can listen. I can smile. I can applaud. I can apologize.

There are certain things I cannot do. Right now, the most blatant one is this: I cannot make my mom feel better. She’s had chronic pain since I was five – that’s thirty-seven years – and her physical challenges have worsened considerably this year. Despite the insanity of attempting an impossible task over and over and getting the same results, I blindly keep trying to make her feel better.

Most of the things I can do are small. In the grand scheme, they seem forgettable. But it’s important for me to do them. I need to untwist the tangled garden hose because it means I’m a player in the game of life, not an observer on the bleachers. It means I can use my will to do good things. It means I know my actions have a ripple effect so I act consciously. Untwisting the hose isn’t about untwisting the hose; it’s about signing up for life. It’s the opposite of giving up.

Sometimes I want to give up, especially when my mom has a bad day and I feel helpless and sad. Pessimistic thoughts try to colonize me. This is when I need to remember something – the most important thing – I can do. I can choose my focus, shape my thoughts.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.” He advises practicing the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” and redirecting our attention to what’s beautiful, nurturing, joy-seeding.

“I already have enough conditions to be happy.” Sun on the leaves of the loquat tree outside my window. Eyesight. Rice in the cupboard and bread in the fridge. A washer and dryer. Two hands, each with four fingers and a thumb. Softening autumn evening light. These are beautiful things I can dwell on to realize a happy life in this moment. I can do this. It’s small, but it makes me feel better.

Vagabond

I feel like this sometimes: weathered, thin, dry, wordless, waiting at the side of a road. I could take a lift or could just keep standing, swaying from the shoosh-shoosh-shoosh of cars slamming by, throttling waves of wind. I squint a little but remain as I have remained for a long time, waiting. Slightly bowed to ricochet the gusts. Silent, stalwart, abiding. Boots dusty. Hands pocketed. Not young anymore, not old yet. Bag of scant belongings slung over a shoulder. This bag and I will travel anywhere. We’ve traveled farther than we ever dreamed. But for now we’re standing, just standing here, because for once it’s clear there’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to run to. Wherever I’d run I would still have what’s in me right now, which is the feeling that whatever the world does I’m just going to quietly abide.

A lot has happened. Some of it I’ve swallowed and some I’ve digested but a lot is still rolling around in my mouth or backed up in my gut because it takes a while to turn what happens to you into some kind of nourishment.

I’m feeling the slam-by of cars but I’m not looking at them. I’m looking at the trees. Half a sky full of green, swaying but rooted deep. I understand them. Green, alive, unjudging, keeping on in one spot while the world hurtles past. I study a four-story pine with wayward branches at the top and a mess of birds coming and going. Who planted that pine, when? How long did it take to rise to that colossal height? In its shadow is a redwood, dwarfed by the pine, scrawny and ragged for such a grand species. It isn’t made to live on the flank of a road.

My life’s been a series of rides to unknown destinations on roads I’ve hardly noticed. I could stick out my thumb and get in any rig that stops. I’ve done that over and over. I could do it again. But instead I do this. I pull up roots from beside the road. Walk away from the noise and dust. Go into the cool moist forest where my boots crunch on twigs and leaves. Breathe in pine, redwood, bay, dark wet dirt. Sigh down at the base of a wide old trunk. Shrug off my bag. Drop what I’m supposed to be. Lie down on the soft sweet-smelling bed. Plant myself there. Rest my eyes on a spectacular web of branches and a limitless sky that expects nothing. Let myself be a kid with no need to run. Held. Sheltered. Home.

Unsung Diamond

When your mom is chronically sick, the world feels polluted. It’s like living in a contaminated ecosystem. Things are just wrong and you know it and you walk through life with panic over one shoulder and grief over the other. You strain to outrun them — by working late, falling hard in love, volunteering with the needy — but the truth of the sickness is always there, dragging everywhere with you, more menacing and clingy than your shadow.

My mom has been sick for a long, long time. The designations have changed over the decades. It started as The Accident, also known as The Head Injury, in 1975. Later she was pegged with Lyme’s Disease, Fibromyalgia, and other ailments. Different doctors came up with different names but an uneasy consensus was reached, and the final grand verdict was Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (affectionately, CFIDS). There’ve been many satellite afflictions, too. But the twin kings, the ones outlasting the seep of time, are The Accident and Chronic Fatigue.

Thirty-seven years later, I can say that I’ve seen my mom change in two big ways. One, her body and ego have become smaller. Two, her spirit has become brighter. When illness or pain is chronic, an intense wearing down occurs: inevitably of the body, but also usually of the will, the ego. Even when the person is a scrappy fighter, chronic pain will smooth her down like a rock worn edgeless by the rolling of a river whirlpool. (And then there’s the subject of medications, which do their own sinister sort of wearing down — but that’s for a different page.)

What interests me most is this: the rubbing action that sandpapers the physical form and the personal pride can also, eventually, start to polish the soul. The person’s spirit can become burnished, rubbed to a luster, and she can start to shine. She can actually illuminate a room, or another person’s heart, or a lineage of offspring. She can become a torch — lit up from the tar and fear and agony of the affliction. I think it’s like an ordinary Joe finding God on his deathbed and shocking the family with his luminosity. It’s like coal turning into a diamond.

For the people who surround and cherish the chronically ill person (bringing it back to me) it’s a whole lot harder to become a diamond. Why is that? Am I just not soaked enough in tar, myself, to be flammable? Do I need more coal? Do I need to marinate in a deeper kind of pain before I flip through the door to angelic trans-pain acceptance?

I should clarify that my mom isn’t quite a glowing angel; she isn’t radiant with full-time acceptance, but she does have a miraculous capacity for tolerance of what most folks could never bear. Right now as I’m writing, she is dealing with:
1. The usual head pain.
2. The usual, bizarre, fluctuating, surprise symptoms of Chronic Fatigue.
3. Nearly constant dizziness, which she’s had for 3 months, ever since the end of her valiant fight with shingles.
4. Labored breathing, also for 3 months.
5. A week-old vision impairment causing her to see a black circle in the middle of her visual field.
6. Fatigue and confusion from a battery of doctor visits and medical tests.

How would you feel in that body? After three months of dizziness and shortness of breath? Plus 37 years of daily head pain? I’d probably have entertained several ways to end my life. And she’s still alive, with no plans otherwise.

She’s a hero and a wonder, and I do not understand how she maintains any flicker of brightness. Of course, as with any human, there are laces of shadows, riddles of hooks in her story. But her brightness is there for me. And it’s there for her sons and granddaughters. It comes to us as a glorious cheerleading kind of love, a love that celebrates and praises us, thinks we are all amazingly smart and brave and creative and funny and just the bee’s knees.

What did I do to deserve such love?

When your mother is sick, something is fundamentally wrong with the world. You don’t want to live in that world unless you can radically change it. I want my mom to feel better. I just, simply, bottom line, want her to feel better. I have desperately wanted that for 37 years. This unfulfilled and burning desire — is it the coal for my diamond? For her sake, I’d love to become a diamond. To be that sparkly and brilliant and pure. And my mom gives me a miraculous gift: she believes I already am.

Confessions of a Confidante (Thoughts on Deep Listening)

“All sufferings arise from wanting to benefit oneself, and all the happiness arises from the thought of wanting to help others.”   – Shantideva

How can we help others? I’ve found that one of the best ways is really simple: by listening.

A wise person said, “What people really need is a good listening to.” Each of us holds a lifetime of stories, regrets, puzzles, and a-ha’s in our hearts—and we want to talk about them. But how often do we have a chance to speak freely, uninterrupted, uncensored, not judged, not advised?

An astrologist once told me that I’m wired to be a “confidante” – one who listens to the confidences and confessions of others. She said that in order to fulfill my gift, I simply need to listen, and that true listening is “like being a nurse who holds someone while they’re puking.” Forgive the crass metaphor—but talking to a good listener can actually feel like throwing up: cathartic, emptying, and even healing.

For the nurse, or the good listener, there’s not much to do. What’s important is being there. I wouldn’t want a nurse to be distracted while tending my sickness. As a listener, the challenge is to fully show up with nothing corrupting your full-on presence. Richard Moss said, “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”

Deep Listening

I’m still learning how to be a good listener, and it’s a slow road. Recently a friend was going through a hard time, and we talked on the phone several days in a row. She was nearly inconsolable and I was flooded with the desire to help her. I offered suggestions, advice, reassurance, the usual Band-Aids. None of it helped. She was still in the quicksand of despair.

Finally, one morning when she called, I had no idea what to say; I gave up my Help Crusade. I simply listened. I said, “Mm-hm,” “Uh-huh,” “I see,” and “Really?” Purely a sounding board, I practiced mirror-listening and occasionally repeated what she said. Otherwise I kept my mouth shut. I listened for about an hour. I gambled that she could find her way through the crisis without my direction. And a miracle happened. By the end of it, she had talked her way out of despair. She sounded lighter, freer, unshackled. She was coming up with solutions! All by herself! I was shocked, relieved, and a little guilty because I’d hardly done anything. My only job (and, I admit, this is a hard job) was to get out of my own way, be quiet, and be present for her.

In my Sangha (meditation group), we practice “deep listening.” This is the art of listening to another person without judging, reacting, or interrupting. “Don’t even interrupt them with your thoughts,” someone once said. This means we’re being starkly, nakedly present with the person who’s talking. We’re hearing the sing-song of their voice, the stretch of a pause, the pull down into sadness, the hot sparks of anger, the bubbles of joy. We’re hearing the words and the river of feeling behind the words.

“Everyone Has a Partial Truth”

One of my heroes is Gene Knudson Hoffman. She was born in 1919 and passed away in July, 2010. I never had the good fortune to meet her, but I read about her and the movement she started: Compassionate Listening. Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, she wrote: “Some time ago I recognized that terrorists were people who had grievances, who thought their grievances would never be heard, and certainly never addressed. Later I saw that all parties to every conflict were wounded, and at the heart of every act of violence is an unhealed wound.”

Gene was a counselor who came to realize that non-judgmental listening was a great healing process. She titled one of her essays, “An Enemy Is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard.”

If you want to be a good listener, it’s worth reading an extended quote from Gene:

“Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern, acknowledge this partial truth in everyone—particularly those with whom we disagree.  …To reconcile, we must realize that both sides to any violence are wounded, and their wounds are unhealed. From my study of post-traumatic stress disorder in Holocaust victims and Vietnam veterans, I am persuaded that a great source of violence stems from our unhealed wounds. In 1980, I had a life-changing experience. I was on a world tour of peace centers to learn what new ideas I could bring back to the USA. Outside the London Quaker Meeting, I saw a huge sign which said: “Meeting for Worship for the torturers and the tortured”. I’d long known I should listen to the tortured—but listen to the torturers? I’d have to think about that. I soon realized that without listening to the enemy I could not make informed decisions. If I was an advocate for one side, I would never know the causes of the oppositions’ anger and violence, and I couldn’t possibly know the suffering they had endured. My choices would be half-ignorant ones. So when I arrived in Israel, I began listening to Israelis and Palestinians. I found it changed my perspectives on each. I began to practice listening to both sides everywhere I went.”

Gene traveled to areas of conflict all over the world, listening to divergent sides and sharing what she heard in order to promote understanding and peace. You can read more about Gene and her Compassionate Listening Project at http://www.compassionatelistening.org.

I dedicate this blog to my dear friends who serve as my “confidantes.” They know who they are. I am so grateful to them, my mirrors, my witnesses, showing their deep love by showing up without judgment. Like me, they are privileged listeners. They get to learn from my mistake-ridden experience. They get to keep the shiny little shards of wisdom that fly off of my machinery as I grind through the rubble-treasure of my life. They get to know me in all my grimy, sparkly, repulsive, adorable humanness, and maybe they see their own sweet paradox reflected. Maybe they see that it’s okay to be what we are. And give it voice.

A Heart Gone to Seed

Today my friend is laboring to bring her daughter into the world. As I imagine her breathing through the contractions, enormous belly compressed and released in an ancient rhythm that every woman’s body knows, I notice that my own body feels remarkably weightless and thin. I am one of those women who never outgrew my 16-year-old form; there’s no mama frame here. Today, as my friend’s voluptuously pregnant body makes itself into a mother, I feel the unmotherly lightness of my own being and realize what I’ve left behind: the desire to give birth.

For the first half of my life, I wanted a brood of kids—thirteen at least, I told my first boyfriend. He was alarmed, but he humored me. I saw us living on wide acreage, children running across the porch of a sprawling house, catching grasshoppers in tall yellow grass. I saw myself showing little replicas of myself how to sow seeds of cucumbers and melons. I saw the smallest girl squatting, splashing in a giant watering can, squealing with glee. I saw piles of children climbing onto our big bed for story time, cherubic and chaotic and crazy-good as a heart gone to seed.

What happened to that dream? I must have dropped it, child by child, in the sterile halls of academia. All the years I spent curled over textbooks, cramming for exams, editing essays until there was no breath left in them—those years must have drained the juice out of my mother instinct, dried up my uterus. I must have discarded the dream in Women’s Studies classes, where I learned the impacts of mothering and working and marriage and divorce on women. I wanted to avoid falling prey to the curse that afflicted my grandmother, my mom, my aunts. They were fantastic mothers who got short shrift when it came to creative expression, job training, and alimony. And when the kids and husbands left the nest, the nest became a poorhouse.

I set aside my vision of a family farmhouse and channeled my lifeblood into writing and art. I created stories, poems, articles, paintings, and the occasional quilt: progeny I could fuss over and present to guests. I poured my soul into two-dimensional offspring, molded them to my will and sent them into the world. I was disappointed when they didn’t live up to my expectations, ecstatic when they were praised.

My Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that whether or not we have children, we each continue in our actions and words. We live on in those who touch and hear us. I see this when I share my writing and find it quoted or shared in wider circles. And I know this when I spend time with my nieces—three adorable girls who run at me for tight hugs and let me hold their petite hands and tickle them and invent stuffed-animal worlds. We pile onto the couch and tell stories; the girls repeat what I say, making it their own, and I see how I will continue. I’m alive in them and in anyone else who takes my words in, or receives my touch, or loves me.

When the unborn mama in me longs for a child whose hair she can brush and braid—when she wonders if her hands and breasts will ever fulfill their true purpose—when she dreams of continuance more wet and visceral than words on paper—I will go and visit my nieces, or my friend who is laboring today, and her new baby girl. I’ll hold the little one for a while, gaze into her face, and rest in the bliss of pure goodness, where all is forgiven, in that place beyond longing and dreams.

Gems of Wisdom from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron

Last week I had the extraordinarily great fortune to attend the Dalai Lama’s talk in San Jose, AND a weekend retreat with Pema Chodron! I’m still happily reeling from the brilliant wisdom of these two teachers, and the blessings of their visits to California. One of my other teachers, Jim, recently said that “service is when you encounter precious teachings and pass them along.” So I feel compelled to share some of the gems that were generously given by these bodhisattvas.

The gems were countless, and I’m only sharing a few, but this is still a really long post… so make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy!

The Dalai Lama

His Holiness was as humble, funny, charming, brilliant and wise as his reputation foretells. He taught an audience of 3,000 people about an ancient Buddhist text, “Eight Verses for Training the Mind,” which shows us how to practice altruism in daily life. He recites this text every day, and he likes it because he is lazy and it’s nice and short!

Highlights from the Dalai Lama’s Talk

* When our basic mental attitude is good, everything around us appears positive. When our mental attitude is not so good, everything appears negative. So the troublemaker is not outside us, but in our mind. It’s helpful to tackle the real troublemaker by understanding our minds through wisdom and reasoning. Enlightenment can only come through transformation of our own mind.

* Human beings always have a feeling of “self” and “self-cherishing.” However, a self-centered attitude is the key element of an unhappy society. We should choose not to cheat, bully, or exploit other people out of self-centeredness. Instead, we can choose friendship (we are social animals, so friendship is essential), and friendship comes on the basis of trust, which is based on honesty.

* Afflictions like anger and hostility always have an underlying condition. They start as something small, like a minor feeling of dissatisfaction. It is important to have a strategy to deal with negative emotions as they arise, at this underlying stage, and catch them at the beginning to cut their fuel out. Otherwise they get in the way of our wisdom.

* We need to pay special attention to people who are marginalized by society, like criminals and people with AIDS. We need to recognize their potential and give them a chance to connect with other human beings, because human nature is social. Through education and compassionate surroundings, negative people always have the possibility to change.

* When someone slanders or unjustly accuses you, don’t retaliate, but offer victory to the other side. (He likened this to the gospel’s advice to turn the other cheek.)

* When someone you’ve helped mistreats you, it’s conventionally seen as ungrateful and inappropriate. But, don’t give in to the temptation to respond negatively. Use the opportunity to further your practice of altruism. Appreciate the value of patience — and appreciate the conditions that give rise to patience, like the actions of this person who mistreated you. You can see them as a precious teacher.

* Make sure your spiritual practices aren’t tainted by materialistic concerns, i.e., wishes for fame, money, etc. Even the tiniest inkling of a thought like “maybe I’ll get a lot of money by teaching spiritual practices” will taint your practice. Our materialistic concerns arise from an underlying, distorted perception of the world, which causes us to grasp at things that are impermanent. The antidote is to cultivate the wisdom of understanding suffering and impermanence, and the wisdom of emptiness (dependent origination).

* Destructive emotions are the real destroyers of inner peace. When we train our minds and investigate our minds and emotions, inner peace can become a real part of our lives and our minds will be calm.

Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron, in a retreat titled “Smile at Fear,” shared a treasure trove of wisdom. She has an incredibly loving and compassionate, yet realistic, straightforward, no-BS approach. Like the Dalai Lama, she had an audience of 3,000, and she answered many personal questions from folks who were intensely suffering — including a cancer patient, a recent divorcee, a man with two violent autistic kids, a woman dealing with PTSD from a violent childhood, and people whose loved ones recently died. Pema commented on the amazing number of “unsolvable, unfixable” situations that were presented. She said that’s how life is — unsolvable. All the time. We just fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Her advice is to befriend our fear. She said, “It’s useful to think of every situation in our life as unsolvable… we can ask, ‘Where will this take me?'”

Gems from Pema Chodron’s Retreat

* We are needed here on this earth. Let’s make a commitment to be of help to our families, our neighbors, the earth itself.

* Unavoidable uncertainty — that’s what it’s like to be a human being. When this fundamental uncertainty is our experience, it’s unnerving. It feels out of control, which can lead to fear. (Time reported: scientific tests have proven that people are more afraid of uncertainty than of physical pain.) When fear arises, we tend to go inward, armor ourselves, cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. We want to get away from the discomfort. We try to find something to hold on to. But when we do that, we set up a chain reaction, getting harder and harder, walling ourselves off. Then great pain arises — in the form of anger, prejudice, addiction, etc.

* Pema presented an “urgent invitation” to move closer to uncertainty and relax with our fear of it. The truth is, uncertainty is the background of everyone’s life because of death, change, impermanence. There is uncertainty because the nature of things is fluid and dynamic. When this primordial uncertainty (also known as vast, open, fresh space) is related to with courage, when we turn toward it rather than moving away, we can see it as a place that’s fertile with compassion. We find a place that’s tender and soft. We develop the quality of a warrior: tender-hearted bravery.

* The basis of our fear of uncertainty is doubting ourselves, not feeling good about ourselves. The first step in befriending fear is developing unconditional friendship with oneself. This means looking at ourselves clearly, staying with ourselves when we want to shut down, even when it feels embarrassing or hateful. This is the hallmark of bodhisattva training: in order to go anywhere in the world and help other people without shutting down, the first step is to look at ourselves with gentleness and kindness. Without a mask, without armor, we see everything about ourselves and don’t run away.

* Meditation allows us to see all of ourselves with gentleness and kindness but dead honesty.

* Smile at fear, taste fear, know fear. Engage — in a curious, wholehearted way — that which we’ve been avoiding our whole lives. Do this with gentleness. Do it “sip by sip.” Just touch in briefly. When fear arises in you, get curious about it for a few seconds: how does it feel in your body? Drop the story line, let the thoughts go. (Our thoughts add fuel to the fire of fear.) In the same way that many drops eventually fill a bucket, many “sips” cultivate our strength and capacity to be with our experiences. Eventually you develop confidence in your heart that you can dispel your own darkness.

* As you become more comfortable with yourself, you begin to see the world more clearly and to treasure it with appreciation and gratitude.  As your courage grows, you become more interested in fellowship with all kinds of people. You really feel the richness of the world. You can wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I wonder what’s going to happen today!” (This is one monk’s morning mantra.)

* We have a nature of basic goodness (Buddha nature). This refers to the fluid, dynamic, unfixated quality of our minds and hearts, before we close down and decide that things are “good” or “bad.” Basic goodness is characterized by open-mindedness, and it manifests as curiosity, taking an interest in life. Everybody has the capacity to live from this place of openness. It happens when we don’t pre-determine what someone is going to do. We are open, drop our agenda, and go freshly into a situation, available to our world.

* Paradox and ambiguity — that is the flavor of life. We want it to be one way or the other. But the nature of this existence is dynamic and paradoxical.

* Joy comes from realizing that nothing is ever a dead end. Whatever is happening at the present time is the fruition of something, and the seed of something else. It’s always the start of something fresh. Rilke said, “No feeling is final.”

* Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Living with ourselves is like riding a fickle horse, but we can hold our seat.”