Have You Thought About Genghis Khan Today?

I meditate every day and also frequently listen to a podcast called “Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein,” in which Goldstein, an early proponent of mindfulness meditation in the West and founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, discusses key topics related to mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy.

Fisherman on Inle Lake in Burma (2014)

One of my favorite episodes is titled “Compassion and Equanimity in Difficult Times.” In the talk, Goldstein, making a point about establishing perspective, relates having read a book about the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. He notes that Khan, in his time, shook the globe, creating a vast empire with consequences for tens of millions of people. Goldstein then asks: “How many of you have thought about Genghis Khan today?” The question is greeted by laughter–but the point well taken. Khan is now thought of only in historical context.

As we face the constant barrage of news surrounding Donald Trump, it is helpful to remember that it will not be very long—a matter of a few years– before he becomes an historical oddity.

The news about Trump, war, famine, ecosystem collapse, climate change and other distressing events may at times feel overwhelming, spurring a tendency to withdraw and retreat into indifference. In his discourse, Goldstein carefully distinguishes between “equanimity” and “indifference”—which in Buddhist thought is called “the near enemy” of equanimity. By maintaining equanimity, we are able to remain engaged and compassionate.

The photograph of the Inle Lake fisherman, which I took on my visit to Burma in 2014, is a symbol of balance–equanimity. As 2018 comes to an end, and we look forward to a new year, it is critical that we remain engaged—not indifferent–and like the Burmese fisherman, stay carefully balanced as we move across the surface of time.

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