For many hours in the meditation hall, I learned to observe what is present in consciousness without identification or a knee-jerk reaction. The conditioned response to danger is fear, but that is really just a habit of mind . . . but it is a lot easier to apply bare attention in the safety of a meditation hall than in the midst of death squads.
—Joe Gorin in Choose Love
Extending our meditation practice into our lives is hardly new. “Householding” is gaining respect as a practice comparable to a more monastic choice. However there is still debate about the virtue of taking practice further into the worlds of political and social action. In this book by longtime vipassana student Joe Gorin, we are privy to the challenges he faced in his Buddhist practice while working for two years in Central America. To keep sane, and to integrate his experiences, Gorin wrote monthly letters home to friends. Choose Love is a compilation of these letters, which take us into his life where we get to know him, the people of Central America, and ourselves.
Reading this book feels like sitting down with an old friend to hear incredible tales of life in a dangerous time. Gorin is a good storyteller and a reader gets pulled easily into his vivid descriptions of characters and events. He first lives in Guatemala where he works for Peace Brigades International and accompanies labor leaders and human rights activists whose lives are at risk by virtue of their activism. Then he travels to Nicaragua where he documents human rights violations during that country’s civil war. Finally he returns to Guatemala to join in the union organizing that has emerged as a key to change in that country. In his matter of fact way, Gorin gives straightforward political analysis of these countries and puts a human face on the deadly effects of U.S. foreign policy in Central America.
But this book is not simply a tale about the turmoil in Central America from the perspective of a witty, earnest gringo. Gorin offers insights into how the miracle that occurs in the serenity of the meditation hall can serve someone when confronting a genocidal general in Guatemala. An application of Buddhist practice and understanding to such an arena as this seems to me to be a particularly potent test of the validity of practice.
Taking his Buddhist practice to la lucha (the struggle) of Central America changed Gorin’s Buddhism just as it changed those he met. In fact, he had a bit of a reputation. While I was in the Rio Grande Valley on a delegation, I met a North American who worked with Gorin in Nicaragua. This man, more of an expatriate cowboy than a Buddhist, appreciated Gorin’s ability to be centered during the most tense occasions as well as his sense of humor. I would imagine that many others like this man, who weren’t interested in Gorin’s meditation practice, developed a deep respect for the presence that he brought to this violent and unpredictable setting.
Gorin is brutally honest about times when he isn’t able to conjure up the compassion he hopes to experience as a practicing Buddhist. He challenges us as readers to let go of our defenses about what we perceive as our own failures. Especially poignant is his response to a friend’s assassination:
Seeing myself capable of taking another human being’s life scared me to the roots of my being, and I could see how fear and anger might drive me to committing the very acts I have dedicated my life to combating. It is easy and ennobling to feel solidarity with the downtrodden, but to sense identity with those committing injustices forces me to question how deeply held my values really are. I vow not to kill, and I also resolve to acknowledge my inner demons who don’t share my vow.
In the end, Gorin comes back to the U.S. to pursue a relationship and a more conventional lifestyle. He brings the same kind of questions to household life that he brings to his work in Central America, questions which can be particularly disquieting for those of us living as householders. As he discusses the change in lifestyle necessitated by his return to the U.S., he struggles with the difficulty of living a “morally clean life” and the ever-present guilt. “I am less ready to dismiss guilt as a neurotic condition (although it often is). Just as often, however, it is a moral condition. As a psychological issue, guilt is to be worked through. But as a moral issue, it can help guide one’s life.”
As I was reading Choose Love, I sometimes wished Gorin had provided a more thorough history of some of the countries. I also sometimes wanted more Buddhist analysis to chew on. But this book is not a comprehensive political history, nor is it about answers. It is a glimpse into one person’s practice and an invitation to push ourselves a little farther down the path of socially engaged Buddhism. Of course, each of us has to work out her or his own way.