Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Dear Still Water friends,

Recently, several things have led me to think about how we make connections with those around us whom we do not normally interact with. One of the reasons this topic is so compelling to me is I often find it difficult to break through social barriers to engage different people in conversation, community, and friendship.

A couple of weeks ago at Still Water, we watched an interview of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the points he made was, although the Civil Rights Amendment made some progress against the blatant racism that openly challenged the standards of human decency, it is very difficult to address insidious racism in this country. I understood his point to be that we identified specific behaviors and practices that most citizens considered indecent, but insidious racism continues to a great extent because we do not perceive the ongoing injustices happening all around us as indecent.

In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst Robert Sapolsky discusses human behavior and how our biology drives a lot of how we behave towards those in our in-group (friends, family, neighbors) versus those in our out-groups (those we do not know or who are different than us). For example, we are much more likely to have a fear response to those in our out-groups, although we don’t have any information about whether they might be dangerous, and to react toward them with aggression and mistrust. However, once we become familiar with these strangers in the out-group, perhaps even become friends, our biological responses change and we are more welcoming.

An interesting point made in the book is about how we build our in-groups and out-groups through processes that he called pseudo-speciation and pseudo-kinship. Pseudo-speciation is the process of separating ourselves from those we want to push into the out-group. Pseudo-kinship is the process by which we look for features and traits in common so that we can bring those in the out-group into our in-group. I think these concepts apply to the very partisan political climate within which we find ourselves today. For example, I have many friends who are part of the political party that I would consider the out-group. However, since these are friends (my in-group), I have a sense that in most cases we could probably sit down with a cup of tea and spend a couple of hours connecting at the human level and would probably be able to come up with a compromise on the main political issues of the day that we could all live with. However, when I hear pushback from members of that out-group that I do not know, my reaction is swift and harsh. I consider these people to be idiots, uneducated, uncaring, driven by fear, hateful, ignorant… the list goes on.

I recently finished the book Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King and watched the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Both the book and the movie feature Tom Junod’s Esquire profile of Fred Rogers, entitled “Can You Say… Hero?” Junod was known as a tough investigative reporter who showed little mercy to those he wrote about. However, Mr. Rogers treated Junod with kindness, compassion, and humanity throughout their interactions. The resulting story was all about the genuine and authentic humanity of Fred Rogers. It was a simple and beautiful example of how to view another as a neighbor without any judgment and treat them with kindness and compassion.

In his book, Teachings on Love, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expresses these ideas through the lens of love.

Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth… This is the real message of love.

This Thursday after our newcomer’s orientation, guided meditation, and walking mediation, we will focus our Dharma discussion on the topic of creating new neighbors. We will use these questions as a guide for our discussion:

  • What has been your experience with pseudo-kinship and pseudo-speciation? How do you step out of your comfort zone to be inclusive, compassionate, open
  • Have you been able to develop skills and practices that help you to meet others, and break down the boundaries of your out-groups
  • How can we as a sangha breakthrough our own boundaries and spread compassion, kindness, friendship, authenticity, and humanity to underserved areas of our society?

Below is an excerpt from the Plum Village Extended Mindfulness Practices on Living Together that provides many insights into this topic.

Warm regards,

Eric Donaldson

An excerpt from the Plum Village Extended Mindfulness Practices on Living together

Together-ness is a practice. At the practice center we have a unique opportunity to live closely with friends from many different countries and backgrounds. Together we form one Sangha body, connected by the practice of mindfulness. With our collective energy of calming and looking deeply, it is possible for us to support each other on the path of transformation. This requires cooperation, skillfulness and acceptance. To live amongst each other, we need to cultivate understanding, communication and a willing heart. Let us take the time to get to know the people around us. We have neglected our neighbors for too long.

Sharing our daily life we can encourage each other with our practice and together build diligence and solidity. Sharing a room with others is an opportunity to develop understanding and compassion for ourself and for those we live with. By being mindful of the people we share a room with, we can identify and appreciate their positive qualities, creating an atmosphere of harmony. We know that when the other person is happy, we are also happy.

We can show our respect to our roommates and the space we share by helping to keep it neat and clean. We try to be considerate of our roommates. For example, we might like to ask first before we open a window or light incense or turn on the light, to make sure it will not bother our roommates. In this way we can create a supportive environment for practicing loving kindness through your words, thoughts and actions.

The greatest gift we can offer our fellow practitioners is our practice of mindfulness. Our smile and our conscious breathing communicate that we are trying our best to find peace within ourselves and we hope to contribute to the peace in the community as well. We should remember to keep communication flowing and our happiness will flow as well.