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A little Zen for these troubled times

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A room inside the San Francisco Zen Center, which has operated in The City since 1962. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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San Franciscans were delighted to see a gigantic heart in the sky two Sundays ago. Social media erupted with pictures captioned, “All you need is love” and “Spread the love.” In the pictures, the sky seemed a little bluer, the sun seemed a little brighter and the hopeful sentiments popularized by San Franciscans during the Summer of Love once again seemed possible. But hours later, after the massacre in Las Vegas, social media once again looked grim.

It’s easy to feel angry and helpless with all the loss and tragedy in the news. From evictions, to murders, to attacks on our immigrant friends and neighbors, disrespect and violence shake our communities. The planet seems to reflect our angst with destructive wildfires, heat waves, floods and hurricanes. Is it possible to calm the havoc in the environment around us?

“Half the battle is changing our laws and technology,” Jared Michaels, a psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist teacher, told me. “But spirituality plays a big part, too.”

According to Michaels, this spirituality can take a religious or secular form. But there’s something to be said about Zen Buddhism’s ability to bring awareness and peace to troubled times, especially given its roots in The City.

Various instruments are seen inside the San Francisco Zen Center. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In its 55th year, the San Francisco Zen Center has played a part in developing the loving, accepting, progressive city we both celebrate and mourn.

In 1979, the center opened Greens Restaurant and showcased farm-to-table, vegetarian cooking long before the cuisine was popularized. Responding to an unaddressed need during the AIDS crisis, the center established one of The City’s first residential hospices. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, the founder of the center, even attended the historic “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park the January before the Summer of Love.

Zen’s influence on San Francisco is so profound it’s also integrated into our tech culture. Steve Jobs, a serious Zen practitioner who reportedly read Suzuki’s book, incorporated the religion’s commitment to simplicity into Apple’s designs. Many tech companies in The City have replicated the company’s clean, functional aesthetic.

San Franciscans can draw on this rich spiritual history when responding to negativity both within and without.

“Buddhism is not to hide away and have an enlightenment experience,” said Eijun Linda Cutts, central abbess at the Zen Center and a board member at Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing climate change. “It is about responding to the cries of the world.”

Zen teachings provide guidance for acknowledging and acting without feeling overwhelmed. Cutts told me about the practice of zazen, or quietly sitting. The habit takes courage because it exposes the reality of one’s life. While it’s not a self-improvement method, the transformative practice can enable clarity and stability. It can improve communication and better guide our actions. It can reconnect us to nature, our friends and neighbors and the world around us.

Michaels believes this re-connection can have a positive impact on the environment and society.

“Notice what kind of work you do on a day when you’re in the zone,” he told me. “Notice how you impact those around you and how nature responds. Notice how it affects your willingness to buy something from the internet that takes resources to get to you or eat something that causes the planet harm.”

Becoming aware of these impacts is both alarming and empowering. The events that scare and stress us — from the shooting in Las Vegas, to the crisis in Puerto Rico, to the wildfires in Napa and Sonoma — don’t operate in a vacuum. Ignorant words and actions can fuel a culture of anger, disrespect and violence. Guided by this greater awareness, we can better work to ease this suffering in both big and small ways.

“You bring your practice from your sitting cushion out into the world,” Cutts reminded me. “If that means demonstrating on the street or baking bread from real ingredients, it has the same quality of responding.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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