Many in the Baylor community know Kittisaro as Randy Weinberg ’70, the class valedictorian, five-time Mid-South state wrestling champion, and Rhodes Scholar.
He is also a Buddhist monk, author, and popular speaker, and he recently sent Baylor students a message, “Shelter in Place,” pictured above. Headlines from the Hill reached out to him for more advice to our community.
Headlines: Do you have any general advice for people of all ages in all areas of the country and the world during this time?
Kittisaro: What I said to the Baylor students is relevant for everyone. They are not just words for young people at a school in Tennessee. I’m encouraging myself in the same way.
This is an intense time of massive transition – a global confrontation with mortality – that is not easy to bear. Multiple interconnected systems are collapsing, our normal routines have been abruptly stopped, and we face profound uncertainty individually and collectively. As we shelter in place at home, we need to be kind and patient with ourselves and each other, so that we can metabolize this new reality. To reflect on death, loss, and impermanence, is vitally important and deeply transformative. If we receive this challenging experience as a mysterious gift from the universe, and deeply contemplate it, we can discover a deeper abiding, an inner ground of clarity, compassion, serenity, and safety. This isn’t easy, but I believe it is the task that lays before us.
In a mythopoetic sense, the storylines of our culture and individual lives have been radically upended. The old world is gone and the new world has not come into focus. It’s disorienting and scary, an in-between place – a liminal space – where we most likely feel unmoored. Listen in to those uncomfortable feelings, and honor them. As the wise ones of old have taught, there is an important Heavenly Message here. The structures and patterns of life are fragile, uncertain, and impermanent. This Is the true ephemeral nature of the conditions of life – all that we take to be me and mine, internally and externally. Wanting things to be different, creates more stress and panic. In mindfully recognizing, accepting, and honoring the changing nature of our lives, we can discover an inner ground of stability and resilience.
Before Covid-19 we were always going somewhere. As Charlotte Du Cann says, we’ve now been “thrown into intimacy with home” and “brought back to the hearth.” We have a chance to come home to ourselves. Many of us have been refugees from our own heart. The hearth is the fire place, the vital and creative center of the home dwelling. As we mindfully and patiently listen in to the various difficult feelings that have been evoked in this pandemic “lockdown” – being afraid, trapped, isolated, lost, hopeless, resentful, discouraged – we deepen our capacity to be real and human. As we listen inwardly, breathing with and through the various sensations and feelings, we realize that they naturally keep transmuting, shifting, and dissolving back into an unmoving awareness – ever listening, ever awake. The sacred hearth of the spirit is this timeless awareness, always here and now, underlying everything, and yet so easily overlooked when we get enchanted by the external circumstances of our lives always pushing us on to the next thing.
It is a time to rediscover the magic of pausing, listening, mindfulness, kindness, and empathy – the widening of awareness into compassion. It’s like we’re living through a Biblical event – a worldwide flood – or wandering through the wilderness together as we search for a Promised Land, a new trustworthy, beautiful, and safe home. It’s a spiritual pilgrimage, and however overwhelming and scary it gets, there’s an opportunity here, if we heed the message, to awaken to precious timeless truths hidden right here in our own hearts, revealing deeper sources of strength, stability, belonging, and security that we’ve overlooked. The sacred ground is right here, and cherishing that attitude portends the dawning of a new beautiful world.
Headlines: How do you think you would have felt had something like this happened during your senior year at Baylor? What advice might you give our seniors?
Kittisaro: If this had happened to me in my last year at Baylor, I would have been upset and frustrated. It’s a great loss not being able to be with your classmates for the final months of your senior year: the formal and informal times together with your friends savoring and celebrating your life at Baylor, the senior trip into the wilderness, and the graduation ceremonies marking the rite of passage as you embark into the hopeful potentialities of your future. But, this is how it is. Wanting it to be different just creates more pain and distress. Feel the feelings. You’re human. Share them with your friends (in whatever ways you can) and listen to yourselves and each other patiently and kindly without judgement. But don’t cling to them. Let the feelings come and go, and know that your graduation is mysteriously consecrated, blessed, and potentized by a worldwide corona phenomenon.
Corona means crown, and the Commencement ceremonies that you were preparing for, signify a new beginning, a threshold marking your entrance into a new territory of heightened responsibility. Christ had a crown of thorns. There’s no resurrection without a crucifixion. When suffering, hardship, disappointment, and adversity is respected, profoundly received, and contemplated, it mysteriously reveals a new beginning, a truly fresh start, and an end of suffering. It might not be what you want to hear. It’s counterintuitive, but all the saints and sages of old – and many of our heroes too – have realized this eternal truth.
The future is for those who can adapt. It’s easier to be agile and let go when you are young. As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “When everything falls down around you, you’re left with what’s inside you.” Don’t be afraid to feel the turmoil, if that’s what is happening. As you patiently tend to your inner world, there’s a wondrous alchemy that takes place. You can cultivate a resilient mindset that is not easily overwhelmed, an unshakeable core of well-being.
This is work. It takes practice to cultivate resilient well-being in the midst of turbulence. You can do it. My good friend Dr. Herb Barks, the visionary former headmaster of Baylor, told me that education should include 3 things: silence, wilderness, and community. In moments of silence, we give ourselves the opportunity to listen and bless the inner world with careful attention, infusing the various sensations of the body, thoughts, and emotions, with awareness and wise reflection. As we gain skill, we find an inner steadiness and appreciate the simple joys of being alive.
Although you won’t be able to join your friends in the wilderness for the senior trip this year, you can walk outside and appreciate that Mother Earth offers you each and every breath from her green trees, sustaining your life. All the food that nourishes every cell in your body comes from her fertile soil and life-giving waters. Everything we own and wear comes from Mother Earth, and returns to her. Mother Earth is our root support and only home. But, we’re not honoring her carefully enough.
As silent listening and appreciative awareness deepens and widens, it includes Mother Earth and all our fellow beings. Contemplation reveals that our life is deeply interwoven with all things and all creatures. We literally would not be here without our precious planet, ancestors, and parents. In times like this we realize we need each other. We are in this together. We are part of a wider community. How can we serve this community of interbeing?
In times of crisis like this, as we shelter in place, consciously choose the most precious principles you want to embody and become. Let them be your compass and guide, so that no matter how bad it gets, you preserve your integrity. If we all do this, helping each other, we will get through this time, and the new post Covid-19 world will be a beautiful place to live.
Headlines: Can you offer any encouragement or positive thoughts about our future, after the pandemic has passed?
Kittisaro: In this in-between time, the old world collapsing, and the new world unknown, we have a critical choice. Do we recreate the old story of the self-centered mind, intent on acquisition, domination, and control that we have seen playing out in so much of the pre-coronavirus world? Or, do we heed the powerful shock from mother nature and listen deeply to her message. We must learn from this. The seemingly insignificant and earthbound caterpillar, eating everything that’s green, suddenly stops, hangs upside down, and spins a cocoon. In that self-imposed isolation, deeply digesting and metabolizing all that is within, there is a wondrous and unexpected transformation into the vibrant color, vitality, and flight of a butterfly. Psyche is the Greek word for butterfly. May this sheltering in place be a conscious cocoon, allowing for an urgently needed transformation of our personal and collective soul.
We have treasures within us, but they are forgotten when we’re too busy going somewhere, imagining that all the good stuff is out there, somewhere else.
A very important teacher in my monastic training, who’s been a huge inspiration in my life for the last 40 years, is Chinese Buddhist monk Master Hsuan Hua. Through all the ups and downs in the many different cultures, geographies, and life situations I’ve encountered – some of which have been deeply challenging – his verse has been a guiding light.
All living beings are my family.
The universe is my body.
All of space is my university.
My nature is empty and formless.
Kindness, compassion, joy, and giving are my way.
- Master Hsuan Hua