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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

810: Don't retreat into you own camps

Day 810: Saturday, June 4, 2022

Don't retreat into you own camps

Communities are complicated. I’m thinking of a time a few years back when I was training to become a chaplain. I was part of a community of about fifty students who met twice a month at a zendo in New York City. It was toward the end of a nine-month program, and we all knew each other well enough to begin to speak out about our passions, our traumas, our big and little irritations with each other and the world.

On this occasion, a heated political discussion boiled over — accusations were made, lines were drawn, and tears were shed. An uneasy silence filled the space as we realized it was time for lunch and nothing was resolved. At that moment one of the zendo’s monks shook us out of the weirdness with a simple request: “Don’t retreat into your camps.”

I can’t say that I was fully capable of knowing what to do with that advice in the moment, but I do know that it was one of the most important things I heard in my nine months of chaplaincy training.

It occurs to me now that my habit of retreating into my camp happens on an hourly basis: when I read the newspaper, when I hear the opinions of neighbors on the street, when I talk to family and friends, when I negotiate a variety of communities, local and global. My cultural and ethical preferences are always bubbling up. I plunge my tent stakes into shaky ground, into a certainty that the opinions and actions of others are in some way morally inferior to mine.

The interesting thing is that the imperative “don’t retreat into your camp” transcends the question of who is right and who is wrong. Instead it cuts right to the heart of the Christian ideal of loving one’s neighbor.

It challenges us to look at a bigger project — how do we co-exist peacefully when we’re all so different and we all have such different needs?

I’m thinking now of Eihei Dogen (1200–1253) who founded Soto Buddhism in Japan. In his instructions to the students entering his monastery he writes:

  • With compassion you care for those who arrive…

  • You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought of the way your thought.

  • You make parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart.

If you practice this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river or like rain in a time of drought.” Perhaps this passage speaks to me because I am the parent of a teenager and I am the child of a recently deceased father. In both relationships I’ve been deluged with what I can only describe as raw open-heartedness, with a respect for the fact that all our comings and goings are temporary.

But imagine, as Dogen does, applying that feeling to a wider community, recognizing the parent and child heart in ourselves and others as we relate to larger (and even repulsive!) circles of fellow humans.

In recent weeks the Starcross Community Advisory Committee has begun an evening meditation practice. It’s part of an effort to widen the circle of community, but for me it’s also about “showing up,” which of course is the opposite of retreating into one’s own camp.

We convene coast-to-coast long distance by Zoom two nights a week to be together for twenty minutes of reflection, meditation, and prayer. It’s a simple fellowship, a reminder of the sacredness of our thoughts and activities at the cusp of the evening. Brother Toby says it’s refreshing, and it is. I also wonder if it will at times be unsettling, and even difficult.

We’ve made a commitment to each other and we’re showing up as we are, rough edges included. Perhaps that’s when we’ll know we’re really doing the work of building community — when we are able to see each other and sit with each other through our different needs and different preferences. As we open the evening meditation circle further in coming weeks, we’ll be calling on all of you to share in both the restorative and challenging aspects of community, to join us in our practice of widening a circle of compassion, and to help us to smooth out our rough edges as a team!

Reflection by Lisa Jarnot who serves on the Starcross Community Advisory Committee. She currently lives in Jackson Heights, New York with her daughter, three cats, eleven mice, and an ever-expanding number of tropical fish

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