One night when my mother was a little girl growing up in the panhandle of western Nebraska, she was driving with her father when she saw, far off in the plains, a cross burning in the middle of a circle of Klu Klux Klansmen. The sight filled her with terror. Her parents came from Denmark and spoke with Danish accents and probably ate Danish food, those open-faced sandwiches on heavy rye bread, and other suspiciously foreign things. My mother was afraid the Klan would come for them with torches and guns.
My grandfather worked hard and prospered, and some people in the community resented the whole family for this prosperity, fearing that it took away from their own possible good fortune. My grandfather built a big brick house for the family to live in (there were six children). Some local people hated this too, because it looked foreign somehow, different from the houses around it, as if it was a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale house transported to a prairie town. My grandmother once heard a group of women from the town saying what a shame it was that this beautiful if strange house was going to a bunch of Swedes.
These women couldn’t tell the difference between Swedes and Danes. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that by flourishing these foreigners were stealing their possible happiness. The point was that happiness was a very scarce commodity and it had to be closely guarded. It was meant…not for Native Americans certainly, that was another sore point in this area…but it was meant for the white people who were here longer. The lion’s share of health and wealth and happiness was meant for the early settlers…white settlers. As a small child, my mother understood. She and her family were outsiders and interlopers. Somehow just by being there and daring to try to be happy, they were thieves, stealing from the common good.
That night, seeing the burning cross off on the plains, seeing the ring of men in white robes, my mother asked her father if they were going to die. He told her in a heavy Danish accent that it was hard to respect men who had to cover their faces to express what they most deeply believed. He told her to note how all of them dressed like ghosts, not humans. Recently, I googled why the Klan dresses the way they do and one answer is that they dress like angry Confederate ghosts. In Buddhism, ghosts inhabit a hell realm, a lower world than our human world. They are much more captive than humans, stripped of the possibilities of liberation from the grip of their hatred, fear, and greed.
Legend has it that the Buddha first gave the practice of metta or loving kindness to his monks because they were living in a forest full of frightening ghosts and angry and evil spirits. The practice of engendering an attitude of loving friendliness towards themselves was not to block out the ghosts but to liberate them from their fear. Metta and mindfulness remind us that we are powerful in a way that ghosts can never be. They remind us that we are alive.
Mindfulness and metta, or the practice of cultivating a loving and kind attitude towards ourselves and others, is not a self-improvement technique but an act of quiet daring. As we let down our habitual guard, as we soften and relax, allowing ourselves to loosen the grip of the thoughts and fears that haunt us, we remember the life is here, quietly offering itself to us in this very moment. We remember that we inhabit bodies that come to us from ancestors who endured and overcame much. We remember our deep connection to the earth and also to the stars. We are made of earth stuff and star stuff. We remember that we belong to each other and to a greater living whole. We remember that we are not alone, not haunting the world but a living part of it. We are so much more than angry ghosts.