I pause to consider my answer.
My universe in that moment is not rainbows or starlit skies. It’s a red-hot rage, laced with toxic judgment. My impotence in the face of an act of bigotry has left me shaking. Tiny flames of hatred lick along my veins, the voices fanning them to a flash point of fury. Picking up the recorder, I take myself outdoors fuming and muttering… “If goodness is the essence of the Universe, why is there so little of it?”
Many people come to a spiritual practice seeking to make sense of a world that defies every attempt at comprehension. Few of us accept that the Universe’s mysteries are not ours to comprehend. It comforts me immensely that our spiritual tradition seldom answers questions. Instead, the answer to every question is to turn the lens of inquiry onto the very nature of inquiry. What asks? What seeks to know? What frames the question? Why are answers necessary?
We are disturbed about life, politics, the economic situation, the horror, the brutality, the sorrow in the world as well as in ourselves, and from that we realize how terribly narrowly conditioned we are. --J Krishnamurti
Conditioning can be defined as the limited orientation of “me,” an amalgamation of my political inclinations, my social and cultural beliefs, my religious upbringing, my personal experiences, preferences, opinions. When something challenges “me,” I get upset. So here I am raging against a “world” that doesn’t conform to my idea, my expectation of how it should be.
But isn’t that a false experience of the world? The contradiction between how I expect it to be and how it is, is still within that conditioned system. For example, my conditioned belief that tolerance is an important quality causes me to condemn as bigots people who are “intolerant.” The point is not whether “bigotry” exists as an absolute fact. The point is that in my world, it does. “I” (a conditioned orientation) divide the world into those “good” people who are tolerant and those “bad” people who are not. If attention is caught in that duality, I’m still not present to how the world is. I’m only present to the collision of opposites across an arbitrary definition of goodness that exists in my world.
Moreover, this collision of opposites becomes fodder for a conversation that obscures the ability to see that the “issue” is not with the “world,” and the extent of bigotry it does or does not contain, but with a conditioned point of view.
On this occasion of being discriminated against, the “conversation” went along these lines:
Why is there hatred, cruelty, violence, and meanness?
Why do I have to live in a world full of bigots? I don’t want to deal with bigotry. I don’t know how to do that. Why do I react to it so unskillfully?
Why do I have to be subject to intolerance when I don’t engage in the world that way? It’s so unfair!
I hate them. I don’t want to hate. I hate the way I feel now.
I didn’t ask to be part of a brutal, jealous, greedy, and fearful species, and yet I have no choice but to be a part of it.
I stop at this staggering realization:
I am part of it.
When we look at what is taking place in the world, we begin to understand that there is no inner and outer process; there is only one unitary process, it is a whole, total movement, the inner movement expressing itself as the outer and the outer reacting again on the inner.
-- J Krishnamurti
The truth of the above statement is so obvious that most of us miss its implication and application. There really is no “world” out there, outside the world “I” am. The “world” is simply my projection of a spectrum of goodness, ranging from virulent hatred to lovingkindness, based on my conditioning. The “goodness” in my world in any moment is really up to “me.” My world is a dark room each time I react to “injustice” with judgment. Each time I indulge self-hate because I am judgmental, I perpetuate intolerance. In fact, any judgment of bigotry puts me firmly in the camp of also being a bigot – just a “good” one since I am intolerant only of intolerant people!
As practitioners, we can get caught up in the “injustice” out there and struggle with recognizing “Goodness” as an objective quality of Life that “shines through transparently.” Realizing that every human being is conditioned, is unconscious of that conditioning, and probably acting it out in ways that cause “harm” allows for the possibility of accepting the “world of human beings” as inherently egocentric rather than objectively good. That shift in orientation allows us not to fall for the bamboozle that there is something wrong with the world or with me! When I recognize that I am complicit in/am controlled by/unconsciously participating in this universal programming, I can finally come from a place of humility and truth when I move to “address harm.” As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes:
We hold the hardness of reality and the suffering of the world until it transforms us, knowing that we are both complicit in evil and can participate in wholeness and holiness. Once we can stand in that third spacious way, neither directly fighting or fleeing, we are in the place of grace out of which genuine newness can come.
Accepting the universality of conditioning is not condoning the actions that arise from unconsciousness. Bringing awareness to conditioning as a process does not mean we can’t address unconsciousness. It simply means that our best response when we do notice an identification with conditioning is not to go unconscious.
So what do I do when hatred, judgment, and resentment arise?
It’s important to cultivate the ability to be “present” to a conditioned reaction because the most revolutionary response to any conditioned reaction, especially hatred, is conscious compassionate awareness. Conscious awareness is a form of acceptance. If there is an acceptance of what is so, “feeling hate,” for just a moment, rather than immediately going to “there is something wrong with feeling hate” it is possible to see how hating is happening. What creates hatred? Can we trace the source of the hating process to conditioning? Can we identify the feeling of frustration/anger/pent-up energy as simply an experience of being confined by a perspective so narrow that it cannot contain the many ways the world is?
As I walk the multi-use trail in the neighborhood, attempting to keep my attention on Unconditional Love & Acceptance instead of indulging the conditioned reactions, I notice a small wooden sign next to the paved road beckoning me into Summer Lane. I cross a wooden bridge that arches over a dry creek bed and emerge into a cul-de-sac of towering trees, nestled into which is a small park. The smell of wood chips is fresh, the lawn is surprising green and lush and a bench against a fragrant eucalyptus begs to be sat upon. I accept its invitation, leaning back against the worn wood and stretching my arms along the ample backrest. A soft cool breeze rustles the canopy of the oak trees, a mourning-dove coos, a golden ray of sunlight dances on my eyelids.
This quiet sparkle of beauty would have been a balm to my spirit if only I could ignore the freeway fifty feet away. Amid the trills of birdsong, evening traffic roars under the overpass. Sirens scream and the world vibrates in dissonance with the rumbling whine of a motorcycle engine. The acrid smell of tar and fumes intermingles with eucalyptus.
Something in me twists in anguish at this metaphor of existence; this juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty, hatred and divinity confuses me. “Meditate,” a voice whispers. I set a timer, close my eyes and take a few long deep breaths….
Exhale, one, motorcycle, bird song
Exhale, two, siren, bird song
Exhale, three, honking car, bird song…
The timer goes off. I get up from the park bench feeling a deep stillness. There is still a faint residue of something unresolved, a hankering for the world to reassure me of its goodness.
And out of the blue, I hear the liquid notes of a bird song.
My world tilts.
“That’s it,” I exclaim out loud. Not once did the bird stop singing. For all the “ugliness” in the neighborhood, the birds still sang.
Joy bubbles over
My heart opens.
Suddenly, my Universe is smiling moons, winking suns, and dissonant traffic.
There is no question anywhere about the Universe’s goodness as the realization hits that it’s always our choice whether or not to sing…