Radical Reality (or more like an intro to my childhood life)

By Amber Bemak

I was surprised and honored to be asked to write to you all on this website. I am not a blogger- in fact, this is my first ever blog post. I am also not sure how great of an example of a meditator I am, since (very honestly speaking and not trying to be humble in any way) I am usually caught up in negative emotions and wholeheartedly follow almost every thought that comes into my head with full passionate belief, even though I have been studying Buddhist meditation since I was a child by my parents and then my meditation teachers to know deep in my heart that thoughts are not real and that they are merely wisps of nothing which float, buzz, or pester in and out of a “mind” all day and night long. Fortunately, I do have some sort of stubborn persistence that I think I’ve gotten from watching my teachers in action which makes me think that if I keep at it for long enough eventually I’ll figure it out like they have.

But really just now when I sat down to think about the title of this book and program- “Radical Happiness,” I can say that the concept of true unwavering happiness seems to me like a mystical world far away that I want to believe in but I’m not sure really exists- kind of like the first fiction film ever made about Tibet in 1937- Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon- where the Tibetans mystics were all played by white people and also where this is the opening quote: “In these days of war and rumoring war, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” Later we find out that this place exists- it is Tibet aka “Shangri-la.” There is a lot to say about that- but I’m getting off track. Since happiness is a mystery to me I think for this first post, I can speak more comfortably about the second word- RADICAL.

It’s a word I think about all the time, and it’s in a way the base that I am connecting to most of my experiences in life- is this project I’m being asked to be a part of radical enough for me to put my time and energy into? Am I taking a radical enough approach in this moment to the situation I’m being presented with? Day to day stuff like that. Maybe you feel this way too, or maybe you’ve given up trying to be radical and think that’s only for misguided and delusional people in their early 20’s. Maybe you think that nothing is radical except for transforming your own mind, and you like to respond with that answer when anyone talks about “mundane world” problems like poverty, racism, United States imperialist practices throughout the world, etc. Or maybe you are fiercely dedicated to an activist agenda of one form or another and you think people who meditate are total wingnuts wasting their time on a selfish pursuit. Whatever the case may be- I think the word and concept of radical affects us all. Because I can’t blog forever, I’m going to start with some background on my connection to this word.

I was raised in what I think was a moderately radical environment. White, middle-class, and Jewish by ethnicity (ok now you can chalk me up with every other well-known Buddhist in the US, right?) I grew up in a small liberal college town in Massachusetts. My mother was a Vipassana (in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition) practitioner and an activist, and I famously (famously for her) took my first steps at the Insight Meditation Society- a Buddhist center which was an important part of my childhood, teenage years, and adult life.

My mother was one of those activists who didn’t do drugs and was pretty serious about ending the nuclear arms race. There were always people in my house. There were smoking Russians from an arts for peace exchange program she organized between the US and Russia, there were Zen monks visiting from Japan beating drums and chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo at five in the morning, and there were countless US activists organizing, having meetings, eating, hanging around, and playing games with me and my sister. After my dad moved to Wisconsin when I was eight, it seemed like suddenly I was being raised by a huge community of adults. If I wanted to pierce my nose, Peggy and Gregory Gillespie would come to my house and we would all sit down at the table and have a meeting about it. If I smoked weed or got a detention at school, Jedd Miller would swing by the house and do a “fatherly”-style yelling at me and grounding me. Margie Kolchin Miller was my spiritual, wacky, and wise mom and Lisa Pack was my extra-Jewish (they actually were mostly all Jewish) mom who was always in the kitchen- running hugging cooking and talking a mile a minute.

I started doing acid at the same time as I started meditating (at 14) and after about a year of doing a lot of both, I dropped (excuse the pun for anyone who is my age or maybe older?) doing acid and kept doing meditation any chance I got. Most school vacations I’d be the teenager on retreat with a roomful of adults- I remember wearing probably very kid-like pajamas to the meditation hall and the sweet looks a lot of the “adults” would give me. At school my friends were often indignant. “What are you DOING there all the time?” they would ask. “Do you just SIT THERE?!”

To be honest, I don’t really know what I was doing there except that I saw something in my first meditation teacher, Michele McDonald, that I knew I just wanted to be. I wanted to be fun like her, pretty like her, wise like her, cool like her. I wanted to be just like her in every way. And she meditated a lot- so I figured if I did too then I’d end up that way someday.

I just realized that I am knee deep in a serious reverie about my white middle-class childhood; I was talking up there about being radical. So back to that, I am interested in being radical in every way and I’m interested in how any of you reading this approach a radical way of living. I want to be radical in the most mundane ways all the way across the board to the ultimate reality ways. I don’t know how to do it perfectly and I honestly can say that I’m mostly disappointed by what I see as examples closely around me. All over the world I see many Buddhists (not all, not all!) mentally skipping over (and to me it really looks like avoiding) the importance of what is going on in physical reality while unconsciously perpetuating a homophobic, racist, sexist, and classist way of life out of pure ignorance. While I believe and have seen for myself meditation radicalizing the mind in the deepest way, somehow it seems that dualistic cultural norms tend to stay intact. On the other hand, in the States I’ve slowly watched a mostly white queer urban community become more and more obsessed with acupunture, Pema Chodron books (no offense at all to her, I think she is a great teacher), and therapy while becoming more and more fucked up inside, more self-isolated from community apart from the nuclear family model, and completely out of touch with the complexities of the global world and the multicultural country we live in besides a post here or there on facebook about Black Lives Matter.

I feel a fierce devotion to figuring it out- on all levels. I want to be truly radical for my whole life. I want to transform my mind to become like the radical mind of my teachers, who never react to situations out of fear or anger, but only out of love. As a white person I want to be radical and use my white privilege in ways that are beneficial towards addressing and acting around the immense history and current status of racism on institutional, personal, and physical levels. As someone from the US I want to be radical about understanding the world in a non US-centric, and continue to educate myself about the ways in which we are severely damaging other countries both on and under the radar constantly.

So I guess if you take this blog post in old school Tibetan liturgical form (then this is my first motivation to start this whole process out with. You know when you begin listening to some teachings and the teacher says why are we listening to these teachings? Because we want to free all beings with our own liberation etc. etc. It’s like that. So I’m saying here something like- why do I want to communicate with you through this form and write these sentences for you to hopefully read? Because I am committed to being radical always and that is the commitment I will bring to anything I write here.