Pete Seeger was and remains one of my heroes. I was 12 years old the first time I went to see him in concert and I’ll never forget it. He and Arlo Guthrie played and sang for hours always including the thousands of voices in the audience at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. I was a kid, and I knew this was something special.
It was 1972 and what Pete sang and talked about then, mattered. And it still matters today. Social and environmental justice, non-violence, courage, compassion, forgiveness and ultimately love. Just by lifting his outstretched hand to signal “now you join in” he could energize and inspire a crowd of any size. There really is nothing quite like singing with a huge group of people. Nothing. Even if, and especially if it’s This Land is Your Land, We Shall Overcome or If I Had a Hammer; dated yes, relevant for sure.
“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” is written on Pete’s banjo. It was an extension of himself, his heart, and its message was clear, poignant, harmonious, beautiful and necessary. It strikes me that the capacity of the human heart is the same as Pete’s banjo. What if we could have enough courage to surround our own hate or ill-will and force it to surrender? Can we allow our hearts to be the kind of force that melts hate?
The courage it takes to see things clearly, to confront any amount of ill-will either in oneself or others, even have a change of heart or mind, and ultimately to find the understanding and compassion required for forgiveness is the kind of surrender I think Pete was talking about.
A few weeks ago in class I said I usually don’t talk about awakening, enlightenment, or liberation because I don’t know what it is. I’ve thought about that a lot since, and I’ve decided it’s not true. Not that I lied, but I’ve changed how I think about it, and I think I talk about it all the time. We talk about our struggles and what to do about them. How to live a life with as much freedom from a distressed mind and a constricted heart as is possible.
Most of us come to meditation practice looking for a way to manage and understand our lives; our struggles and challenges, our joys and successes right along with the everyday mundane. When we have those light bulb moments of understanding in new, clearer and deeper ways, those are moments of awakening, enlightenment and liberation.
Through the simple yet profound practice of sitting still and quieting the mind we begin to see what’s there and get to know ourselves from the inside out. Brilliantly, the added practices of Loving-Kindness (Metta), Compassion and Forgiveness lead us directly into the heart that can transform hate into tolerance, tolerance into acceptance, and acceptance into love.
Loving-Kindness practice* guides us towards letting go of all ill-will. That is liberation. We don’t have to like everyone; we just don’t hold a grudge. But most of us do hold a grudge on at least one person. As Sylvia Boorstein says, “If we are only one person away from no ill-will, isn’t it worth letting it go?” We can be liberated from our own sour grapes.
Compassion is known in Buddhist teaching as the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering, our own and others. That is awakening. We begin to see that it is impossible to simultaneously hold ill-will and compassion together. As long as we’re doing that, we’re stuck in pity. Pity keeps us separate and closed off, but compassion brings us right into the moment and opens us up. By turning towards, being willing, peeling back the layers of our hearts to feel our own pain, the pain of others, the pain of the world, we wake up and compassion becomes the most rational and natural response.
Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a different past. This is one of my favorite definitions. What a relief! The past happened. We don’t deny it. It happened, along with myriad consequences, but the past is not happening now. We can blame, justify, analyze, and ruminate for years, but when we stop to bring in a little kindness and compassion, the complex hard work of forgiveness becomes more doable. These moments of understanding what is and is not happening now are moments of enlightenment.
Bit-by-bit and moment-by-moment our hearts can be machines that surround hate with kindness, compassion and forgiveness. These bits and moments of letting go, of surrender are bits and moments of awakening, enlightenment and liberation. They matter and they add up.
Oh sacred world now wounded, we pledge to make you free of war, of hate, of selfish cruelty. In this small corner we plant a tiny seed. May it grow in beauty to shame the face of greed. –Pete Seeger
And here’s a little more Pete and a whole lot of fun…
Pete at Farm Aid, Sept 2013 with John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and Neil Young four months before he died at age 94.
*for more on Loving-Kindness Practice