After a long (11 hour), but interesting and chatty drive down here yesterday, we got a good night's sleep and spent this morning with J.'s brother and sister-in-law at their Quaker meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia. The historic meeting house sits on a small parcel of land bordering a large Army base - an irony that's of course not lost on any of the members, and also borders George Washington's extensive Mount Vernon lands. Several tall white oaks shade the building, along with the largest holly tree I've seen outside England, and the ground is covered with the bristly seedpods of sweetgum trees. Beyond the meeting house is a graveyard that goes back to the 1849 gathering of the community and continues up to the present.
It felt somehow appropriate to begin our visit by sitting in silence for an hour with these fifty Quakers, many of whom work for various Washington agencies or non-profits, thinking with them about the new leadership and about peace. Only a few rose to speak during the hour; one woman said she had been considering how she had participated in mocking the outgoing president during the past eight years, as a coping strategy, and wasn't very proud of that. She mentioned learning recently that he had had a sister who died when they were both children, but George had not been allowed to participate in the ritual or the mourning. "How do we know how he was affected by that, especially his language ability? There is so much we don't know - and it reminds me of the need to try to be compassionate toward everyone, even those whose behavior we cannot understand." I try to stretch myself in that direction too - it isn't always easy.
During the hour, I wasn't really trying to formally meditate, and watched my mind ranging over many topics. I thought quite a lot about Anglican worship - what I love about it, and yet how much I miss this kind of shared silence, contemplation, and simplicity. Still, I felt quite far away from insight, or even prayer, until the last few minutes when another woman rose and suggested we might reflect a little less on the hope we place in our leaders, and a little more on how each of us can further the cause of peace. It is, of course, the question that causes many of us to despair, because our efforts seem so futile.
"How can I be peace?" I asked myself.
"You must start by stopping the violence you do to yourself." The answer formed in my mind with the immediate, silver clarity I recognize as truth. I may be calm and compassionate toward others, but I'm still capable of tormenting myself, though less so than when I was younger and didn't pick up on it as quickly. The insight was correct: it's what I most need to work on. Our greatest chance of affecting others positively occurs in our immediate circles of friends and associates, but the effect we can have is always limited by what's inside ourselves.
I think this is something that distinguishes Obama from most of his predecessors: he is someone who not only knows himself, but is on the way to mastering himself. When the world saw him speak on election night, he seemed happy but not triumphant, and he spoke with great seriousness. The old Anglican prayer about "comforting the suffering, and shielding the joyous" speaks to that human need for balance - the opposite of what many of us experience, and even seek, in our emotional lives. This gravity and equanimity in the face of whatever comes is hard-won in life; not many people ever have it, because it takes both insight and work.
As Shunryu Suzuki said in a chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, we polish a tile not because it is possible but because it is impossible, and still we should do it. In an article I read about Obama's spiritual life, written when he was running for the Senate, he acknowledged as much, saying it had taken the first forty-eight years of his life to figure out what seemed important to base one's life upon, and he expected he would be devoting the next forty-eight to trying to live what he had learned so far.