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Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You'll find this article on page 11 of the magazine.

Being the Change


As we’ve been compiling this issue of the Sun, what started as a niggling little question, an unbidden irritant really, has been inexorably inching into the forefront of my thoughts. It’s there when I go to sleep and when I wake up. When I pass a homeless person on the street. When I catch a flicker of confusion or fear in someone’s eyes. When I pop into the present moment and look directly with an open heart.

I can't shake it: What am I doing to make the world a better place?

It would be gratifying to be able to say I have a good answer, but I don't — not yet anyway. What I do have, gleaned from the wise ways of the Dalai Lama and the words and deeds of the other inspiring people presented on these pages, is a growing collection of signposts that point the way to creating a more compassionate society, one that offers a balm to suffering and engenders hope.

The troubled New Jersey city of Newark is not the first place I would think of as a source of motivation. Neither is Oakland, the gritty city across the bay from San Francisco. But that was before senior writer Barry Boyce informed me in our feature “Making Peace in America’s Cities” that people in those towns are ignoring seemingly impossible odds to tackle problems head-on—courageously, selflessly, and, perhaps most important, mindfully.

I learned a new phrase from Cory Booker, the 41-year-old mayor of Newark who is working tirelessly to take back the city from drugs and gangs, and it lit me up like the unexpected flash of a strobe in a shaving mirror: “sedentary agitation.” Maybe you’ve heard it before, but I hadn’t. It means, Booker says, “being regularly upset by all that you see but not getting up and doing anything about it.” Suddenly, I saw myself and every aspect of my life differently. I didn’t like what I saw—thirty-five years in the hard news business had left me, sadly, hardened and sitting on my hands within a shell of studied indifference. That realization broke open my heart in a way that nothing had before.

What am I doing to make the world a better place?

This kind of sneaked up on me. I’d been poring over Stephan Talty’s “The Making of a Spiritual Hero,” a portrayal of the Dalai Lama’s early life in Tibet and his emergence onto the world stage, and recalling His Holiness emphasizing at a teaching I attended in Montreal in the early nineties that we must develop inner peace before we could achieve outer peace. He’d spoken then about the need for “inner disarmament” before we could bring about world peace. As well, I’d been reflecting on the clarity of Sharon Salzberg’s “Real Happiness” meditation program, and the mindfulness and compassion that contemplative practice gives us.

So my pump was primed by the time I encountered Mayor Booker and the cage of “sedentary agitation.” The tears flowed and watered the seed of resolve. I recalled having heard about this maverick politician named Cory Booker in the 9/11 era. I was living at the time in Jersey City, just a shot away from Newark—where the Dalai Lama is headlining the mid-May peace education summit that is exploring ways to bring positive change to the systemic woes of urban America. Back when Booker was a councilman and mayoral hopeful, had journalistic cynicism blinded me to the streetwise spirituality of his stands?

Then there is Virginia Jones, a fearless activist for the disadvantaged. When she was in her seventies, Booker was just beginning his efforts to bring peace to Newark and she showed him the ropes. I’ll leave it to you to read about her, as well as Earl Best, known as the Street Doctor, and, over in Oakland, the likes of Jon Oda, Amani Carey-Simms, Rhonda Magee, Laurie Grossman, Richard Shankman, Megan Cowan… All real people doing very real things to make a difference in the lives of others, giving people a leg up on the front lines.

We can’t all go to the peacemakers summit. But we can follow the examples set by these inspiring people, and we can adapt strategies that emerge from the Newark symposium to the needs of our own communities. We can look within and reach out—right where we live. We can be the change. We can ask ourselves the straightforward question: What am I doing to make the world a better place? And we can answer it—with compassion in action.

From the May 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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