In the more than 15 years she spent under house arrest between 1989 and 2010, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says one of the most important things she learned was the power of kindness.
“Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world,” she said in her 2012 Nobel speech, more than two decades after she was awarded the Peace Prize. “Kindness can change the lives of people.”
A founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is also one of today’s leading thinkers on the spiritual stages of aging. Writer Kim Rosen spoke with the 88-year-old Zalman about how we can learn to approach the final years of life—for ourselves and our loved ones—with a sense of peace.
What do you mean by the December years?
Though it seems a familiar formula for those on a spiritual path to rebuke money and keep things simple (many holy people have taken vows of poverty), I now wonder if it isn’t time for light workers, those doing the most healing work on the planet, to be unafraid to be the next billionaires.
It begs the question: Is it more “spiritual” to be poor? Should people who truly desire to serve the world take a vow of poverty? Or can being wealthy offer us its own unique spiritual path?
Zen practice is good for angry people. The form is tight. It squeezes that deep red heart pulp, pushing up emotions from way down inside you. A lot of “stuff” comes up when you do this practice. Zen gets your juices flowing. And with these juices come seeds—the seeds of your behavior, your character, your anger, all flushed out into the open for you to see.
Right now, five million Americans are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. The immense burden sets them up for stress, anxiety, depression, and the deterioration of their own physical health. That’s why a recently launched Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care program at the University of California, Los Angeles, treats not just the patients but also the caregivers.
In her new book, Close to the Ground, the S&H columnist and Zen practitioner explores Buddhism’s seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, effort, ease, joy, concentration, and equanimity.
Which of the seven factors do you think is the most misunderstood?
Joy. I don’t know what it is about joy that is so confusing. My experience is that most people equate pleasure with joy. Although there may be joy within some pleasures, it is so much more. Quieter. Lighter. Braver.
So what’s it really like to be a laughter yogi? Why do people need laughter therapy?
Laughter is a sort of safety valve. If you have a good bout of laughter, you put your worries and your problems and your depression on the back burner; you’ve forgotten all about it and walked into a state of sunshine.
What is a typical session like?
My best friend and I are intrigued by enlightenment but can’t define it. What is enlightenment?
Rabbi Rami: For me enlightenment is the act or art of embracing what is as it is, accepting that it is what it is because at that moment it cannot be other than it is, and then engaging justly and compassionately with what is. Nothing to be intrigued about, just lived.
If God is infinite, God is everything.
If God is everything, God is also ego.
If God is also ego, why should we kill the ego?
My Two Cents
I have not yet met a person who has said, “My happiest day was buying a new . . . ” You can fill in the blank. Our happiest days have to do with love and expressing love. We thrive, we grow, we feel sorrow and joy with human connection. Buying stuff does not connect us. Being together does.
I learned two things that summer about driving in Yellowstone National Park: First, there were no guardrails as you zipped along the edges of the canyons. Second, the shadows in the valley might be hiding a herd of buffalo, so you needed to keep your foot hovering over the brake. That wide-open feeling of freedom and danger was just what I needed.