Stopping Bullets With The Heart
Posted by Pancho Ramos Stierle on Nov 1, 2017
Greetings beloved family! :-)
May this message find you living the journey of full liberation.
Somehow felt the strong need to comment around fear, otherwise this passage feels quite incomplete. Below is my attempt to make this analogy: befriending fear is to fearlessness as violence is to nonviolence. In this way, the experience of apathy/cowardice precludes that of nonviolence, in similar form as the experience of denying/been paralyzed by fear precludes that of fearlessness. While it is better to befriend fear than to deny it or be afraid of it, it is far from not experience it at all and to be fearless. That is, far from embodying love and compassion.
From Vimala Thakar to Peace Pilgrim, to Thich Nhat Hanh, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Gandhi, to Vinoba, they all speak of having a mindset and world view so full of love for all life and freedom, that fear doesn't arise in the mind and body any longer. It is a day-to-day work that needs a practice to quiet the mind so that the heart can speak and act. It is a daily practice where we access this place, we all have inside of us, that injects a scent of pure love and pure intention for the wellbeing of all. And when this scent is in the air, as when the flowery aroma of Spring arrives, its undeniable colorful presence penetrates our collective heart and makes the mind surrender to things, many times, impossible to comprehend by it.
In other words and to clearly put it: it is possible to transcend fear. Such experiences sometimes may even be labeled as "miracles".
Aware of the Miracles
A miracle, for the paradigm of interlocking systems of domination and oppression infested with imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is something impossible. But for the paradigm of a world view lacking of this pollution-greed-violence based Western Syndrome, and rather based on the radical interdependence of all phenomena, a miracle is something very possible. Take this example: for our multicellular ancestors, who evolved from collectives of single-celled organisms, wouldn't be a miracle that our individual cells --all forty trillion of them-- still resemble them --even after 542 million years-- to the point where we can reasonably view ourselves as a community of bacterial cells that act out the coherent pattern of activity that defines ourselves?
Or even zooming in (and out!) a bit more, what about this rearrangement of each one of all the octillions of atoms that currently reside in the reader and that have been guided there by the laws of Nature, her dances and melodies, which have put in place the pieces out of whose coherence each one of us arises --all this, after the blessings of colosal energetic explosions of huge stars as they die? Who knew we patiently are magnificent composted stars!
Holding this kind of awareness --one of common roots and shared destiny-- creates a different field in which we engage with other human beings, and all life in general.
When one tries to deny fear, or to even befriend it, and act during a tense context or a life threatening situation, one could be acting out of weakness and thus putting all life involved at even more risk.
If every day we practice kindness and generosity to all life, if we have the habit to exercise, moment by moment, the muscle of gratitude and reverence for the whole web of life --as our Native American Lakota relatives constantly reminds us--, then there's a state of mind/heart when and where the interconnectedness to all sentiment beings --even with what we may perceive as "inanimate" matter on Earth, which in geological scales is not stationary at all and therefore part of the living organism of the larger Earth-- becomes evident, becomes a real experience, we are aware of it, and this interconnectedness acts as a love shield that protects us because there is no separation. If there is no separation, there is no intellectual or emotional reason for fear, and instead of fear, even compassion may arise as a real experience, as a real state of being.
How do we practice non-separation on a moment by moment basis?
Apathy/Cowardice, Violence, Nonviolence <--> Fear, Befriending Fear, Fearlessness
As a student of ahimsa/satyagraha (nonviolence) I've been deeply inspired by Vinoba (a student AND teacher of Gandhi). The more i put my life to his tests and wisdom, the more am happily surprised by the experiences, which, in turn, i try to apply to my everyday interactions. Some of us call it integral nonviolence.
One of the core teachings of integral nonviolence is to fiercely overcome the state of apathy or cowardice, even at the cost to act with violence. Gandhiji was clear that he could not make a satyagrahi out of a coward or an apathetic person. But, he added, that a person with the raw energy of violence, could be transformed into a brave loving nonviolent satyagrahi, because, he said: "nonviolence is the weapon of the strong."
In a similar way, I felt this passage on "Welcoming Fear As A Friend" touched an important point but needs further follow up: It is better to befriend fear than deny it or be paralyzed by it. And a person who befriends fear is closer to be a fearless satyagrahi --someone who is not afraid of anything AND, at the same time, nobody is afraid of her/him/them.
In other words, we can make a fearless satyagrahi out of a person who befriends fear, but we cannot make a satyagrahi out of a person who denies fear or is paralyzed by fear. Because a fearless satyagrahi has no enemies and is anchored in love and oneness.
Of course, this doesn't mean a satyagrahi has no opponents.
The Greatest of Fears, and the Greatest of Freedoms
No doubt, as the passage says, fear is an indicator of aliveness. And when it arises, one may ask: what am I really afraid of? What is the deepest source of this fear? Who am I?
From my personal experience, and really digging deep, at one point i realized that death was the greatest fear I used to have. It was ironic because, at that time, it was also the one and only certain thing I knew for sure: one day, I'm going to physically die. Then, why to be afraid of the only thing that am 100% sure of? I realized that this notion based on fear was silly. But one thing is to think about it and understand it, and a very different thing is to experience it and live by it.
When we are able to witness the countless examples of fearlessness and compassion around our lives, our muscle of moral imagination gets exercised, strengthened and these experiences are slowly put into our array of potential responses for future actions. At the PS is a personal story of how sometimes, indeed, fear can be transcended...
Perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi beautifully puts all that I wrote in two sentences:
"The only real prison is fear. The only real freedom is freedom from fear."
proudly undocumented and unafraid ;-)
Stopping Bullets with the Heart
It was 10 am of a Saturday morning in East Oakland and some of us were in the middle of a work party, planting seedlings, in the back garden which connects a few houses that are no longer separated by fences. Then, a strong and friendly voice coming from the street was yelling: "Pancho! Pancho! Pancho!" That's how my family calls me, so i walked over to see who was it.
A big smiling face greeted me. It was a neighbor who I haven't seen for the many months. My heart warmed with joy and i effusively said: "Hermano Mike!** welcome back!" and then we fused in what seemed to be a big half-a-minute-full-of-love hug. At some point during the hug, this big tall ~200 lb brother in his 30s, full of tattoos tried to keep the hug shorter, but I held on and he re-engaged. We both felt the fraternal love. After the hug, I gently held his face with both hands, and looking deeply into his eyes i said: "Am very happy that you are back, brother".
Brother Mike has been involved in gangs since he was a kid. He has been incarcerated multiple times, so as I, but for different reasons. This last time he was in prison for six months. He told me I was the first person who he was seeing, because no one at his house was around, his parents and brothers were not waiting for him. The sadness of this situation was evident. I was glad my hug-intuition was correct. After offering him some water and the bathroom, which he both turned down, we hugged in smiles again and I went back to the garden.
The previous year, he and his two big brothers came out at midnight to offer support to me when a man under the influence of alcohol was yelling obscenities in the middle of the street. I was grateful for their way they showed up but I told them that the man was making a phone call, that he wasn't cursing at me.
Sunday after Sunday during the FrutaGift stand, our community delivers not only healthy organic veggies and fruits in front of his parents' house, but also huge doses of happiness as children, youth, moms and dads roam the sidewalk with strollers, skateboards and smiles.
After 4 hours of work party, it was time to get some lunch. Mamá Nidia, who was at that time a neighbor too, and I were reheating the food at Casa de Paz with the door wide open, as it was our tradition. Then, we started hearing a woman cursing at someone with peculiar pauses. Mike was on the opposite sidewalk of the street having a conversation with GJ --the son of the neighbor across the street. GJ and Mike, are about the same age and used to be close friends when they were kids/teens. They seemed to be having a light conversation. But then, another cursing came from the woman. In the three years that I was living in the neighborhood, I never had seen her before. She was siting on a chair by the doorsteps of Mike's parents' house, two houses away from GJ's father's house. This time Mike replied to her, since the insults where directed at him. They knew each other. He threatened her with equally insulting words along the lines of "if you don't stop, am going to wack you!"
I noticed Mike was holding an alcoholic beverage. GJ --now married, father of two kids and with a great smile and energy-- was trying to hold the space to avoid a confrontation and kind of distracting Mike. But the increasing provocations of this sister, together with a sad heart, plus alcohol --and most likely other substances-- was not a very helpful combination.
Finally, Mike exploded and started waking towards her, cursing and threatening her once again, now with a strong determination to actually do it. I felt it in my heart. So I started to walk towards them, too. But Mike was ahead of me. He opened the little fence of his parents', and started to walk on the steps towards this sister who was insulting him non-stop while sitting on a chair outside the main door. When Mike was at the end of the steps in front of her he rose his arm and warned her: "I told you bitch!" and slap her brutally in the face.
It was just one blow but it was a crude painful sound. A sudden silence was felt all over the block. No more cursing, for a moment, but the unbearable pangs and screams of the spirit were everywhere.
I was half-way through the stairs. Mike started coming down and yelled furious: "This is not your business! Get out! Get out Pancho!" I crossed paths with him, this time I was more concerned about our freshly beaten sister. I approached her, gently put my hand on her shoulder and out of love ask her if she was ok. Of course she was not, but the mere act of empathy felt as a bridge between her and the rest of the Earth. It was a way to tell her, "you are not alone sister." In tears, she was visibly shocked, both physically and emotionally, holding her already red face, she barely could speak but she mumbled at me: "I can't believe he did it...I can't believe he did it...".
Meanwhile, Mike already in the middle of the street, was getting more and more angry at me. "If you don't get out, am going to wack you too, nigger! Get out!" I took my time, made last eye contact with this sister and started to walk down the stairs.
Mike really wanted me out of the scene. With less friendly words he said "Get out of here!" Once outside his parents' front yard I started to walk towards him. "Oh no! I'm not going to wack you, am going to slice you!" as he mimicked how he would use a knife to hurt me. "Oh yeah! I'm going to slice you, nigger!" He repeated.
At this point GJ joined us too and masterfully started to de-escalate the whole situation. He said: "Don't be ridiculous Mike, are you serious? how are you going to hurt Pancho? C'mon homie, chill out!" As he affectionately rub one of his shoulders.
A little back and forth between the two of them, for a few moments, and GJ removed from Mike's mind the idea to hurt me. One of the things GJ said was "I know you want to get out of all this Mike, and you can do it because I did it." He paused and convincingly said: "it only takes one little step at a time, one little step at a time. Remember?" Then he asked Mike; "Do you remember when we used to play by the creek together?" Mike nodded and responded with a child-like glow in his eyes as he started to describe the seasonal creek that flows behind the garden where we were working on earlier. Later, he playfully grabbed him by the neck and kissed GJ's shaved head and looking at me, said: "I love this man! We know each other since we were babies."
Soon, the three of us were again on the sidewalk and talking about childhood memories and GJ continued to hint ways to get out of that destructive life-style. "We can do this together, you feel me?"
It was a powerful moment to witness how GJ was tapping into their friendship to stir feelings of deep love. This was a clear situation where intoxicants where involved, so it required that spare level of kinship to match the energy.
The shocked sister was gone. I could not tell where did she go.
And Mike was continuously engaging with neighbors who were walking by and even driving. Here and there, he blocked the entire street with his body obstructing passing cars while telling us, with other words: "I can be a jack ass, I've hurt people pretty badly, i have blood in my hands, i know how to do it..." and as he let the car pass by, he added: "but I don't want to be like this anymore, am tired of it."
Perhaps close to an hour passed as the three of us were hanging out on the street. Mike tried to persuade me to drink from his alcohol drink, perfectly knowing that I don't drink alcohol. I declined the offer but I took the intention as a way to reconnect. Later, even Sam --one of my housemates of Casa de Paz-- joined the conversation to strengthen the compassion and love field.
Then, Mike's friend, with a swollen face, appeared driving a small car. She stopped in front of us blocking the entire street. With a suspicious smirk she opened the window. She was silent. GJ tried to mediate a mutual apology, "c'mon guys! Say am sorry and forgive each other" but Mike launched into rant demanding that she needed to apologize first. Mike was with both arms holding the driver's door demanding the apology. It was a matter of time before another car could appear on the street.
Lo and behold, another car approached the car she was driving from behind. The scene was pretty much the same, Mike demanding the apology and she was pretty much silent. The situation got even more tense. After a few moments, a predictable chain reaction: the man driving the car honked once, and, after no response, then annoyingly honked twice. Then all happened very quickly but in slow motion. Mike started insulting him and turned his attention away from his female friend, as he started to walk towards the other car. Then the man opened the door of his car, got off --he was wearing clothes with colors of the rival gang that of Mike's--, pulled out a gun, aggressively pointed it at Mike, and said: "what did you say, nigger?" and continued to insult Mike.
I just walked towards this man and stood between him and Mike on the line of fire. While making eye contact, I said "I love you brother, you don't have to be doing this..." as I gently tried to hold his face with my hand. He assertively yelled back: "Don't touch me!"
Slowly putting my hand down and taking it to my chest I said: "that bullet has to cross my heart first, brother. He just got out of the kitchen [prison], and after 6 months nobody was waiting for him. He is just sad..."
He nodded and pulled the gun down. Got into his car and left.
By then, Mike and his friend were gone in her car.
A RAY OF HOPE AND THE CONFIRMED IMPORTANCE OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Thinking and feeling in retrospective, i knew it was a trap and an act of revenge after the painful slap in the face and spirit. At that point, I didn't think about it. I didn't felt a trace of fear and I was not thinking about death at all. However, i was authentically willing to eat that bullet for my neighbor. Many people would sacrifice their life for a family member or a loved one, ONEderful! Now, are we willing to receive a bullet to save the live of any human being? It all starts with small acts of generosity. I'm grateful for this brother and how he chose to not pull the trigger a few times and how he chose to connect with our true selves as kin. In this asphalt jungle, he is a ray of hope. Wherever he is, blessed be his heart!
When all this happened, people had spread the word and many neighbors --including a couple of grandmas-- came out and were holding a powerful presence. Even Mamá Nidia's youngest daughter, Celine the 8 year old, was witnessing how things were unfolding from the sidewalk in front of Casa de Paz. And who knows how even fruit trees and flowers from the Little Revolutionary Garden --a piece of sidewalk we restored to create a mini-food forest-- birds and bugs therein were contributing to it all. It is now scientifically proven that the greener a neighborhood is the more peaceful it is. Many parts of the whole gift-ecology were present to hold space for this to unfold with the least of harm as possible.
Indeed, in an ecosystem like this, one can stop bullets with one's heart.
**the name of this person was changed, in order to respect his identity.