"As Long As There's Injustice, You Keep Showing Up"
1440: You’ve been an activist all your life, marching and protesting for many causes. How do you maintain your optimism?
Sylvia Boorstein: Well, I’m not so sure I have tremendous optimism! Here’s a story that makes my point. There’s a movie that was made about the Women’s March last January. One of the women profiled was from Santa Rosa, California, not far from where I live. She’s over 80 years old and as they roll her wheelchair out to the car to go to the march someone asks her about protesting at her age. She responds with something like, “I’ve been marching since I was 30 years old. Now I’m past 80 but the job isn’t finished, so I need to keep going to marches.”
I could have said the same thing. I march for this, I march for that. I come from labor union people and I march for them.
But the job isn’t finished. If it’s the right thing to do, to stand up for a cause, then you can’t stay home.
If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, as the saying goes. As long as there’s injustice, you just keep showing up.
1440: What other ways are you involved in activism in addition to marching?
Sylvia Boorstein: There are three nonprofit organizations that I support that are working on the causes that are important to me. When I get really demoralized about what’s going on, I go online and I give more money to those three nonprofits, and immediately I feel hopeful.
The dharma way of explaining that would be that a moment of generosity is a moment of non-self-preoccupation. It’s the opposite of greed.
In that moment, I’m deciding these people could use what I have more than I need it. I have lessened the burden of neediness in my own heart. We need things in order to make ourselves comfortable—to feel that the world is not coming to an end. That neediness goes away in the moment that we are connecting with causes rather than being preoccupied with our particular angst.
The second noble truth says that we suffer because our mind wants things to be different. With generosity you’re giving something away, but you’re also giving away your imperative, your need for things to be the way you want them to be. You are saying, “This isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got, and this is what I’m going to do with it.” It’s the same with sickness or any other tragedy. You can take back your life and your mind by being generous.
1440: What role can lovingkindness play in helping to solve the problems of the world?
Sylvia Boorstein: We’re being called upon to love our neighbors as ourself—a central tenet of all religions. In Buddhism it’s the teaching of metta—impartial kindness or lovingkindness. Another translation of metta is friendliness. We all need to learn to be friends.
This flare up of racism and nationalism and partisanship all over the world is an existential challenge for us. We can’t afford to think of ourselves as separate from all the other beings.
They’re breathing the same atmosphere, drinking the same water, and living next door to us.
We are wired to be attached to our own comfort and pleasure, and the comfort, pleasure, and well-being of our kin. We recognize the distress of our kin before we recognize the distress of other people. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s what keeps us alive. But for the first time in our planet’s history we are using so many resources that unless we begin to see the whole planet and everyone on it as our kin we’ll continue to take bad care of it and there won’t be a planet left for anybody’s kin.
The Metta Sutta teaches us to wish, with gladness, that other beings be safe and happy and at ease. I find that so stirring. I think it says everything about training the mind, the body, and the heart for impartial kindness. It doesn’t mean I forget who’s in my family and who’s not. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel things that hit my own family more strongly than the floods or fires or tragedies that hit others.
This strong feeling I have for my own kin is the bridge to realizing that everybody feels that way about their own kin. It’s the bridge to feeling kinship with everyone.
Sylvia Boorstein will be teaching Wisdom in Every Cell: A Meditation, Mindful Yoga, and Dharma Retreat with Brahmani Liebman and Jashoda Edmunds, December 15 – 17, 2017 at 1440 Multiversity.