What fool shall say, 'My days are fair,
God's in the world and all is well,'
When half mankind shrieks in despair
Worse than in Dante's flaming hell!
I cannot sing in happy mood
While hostile armies take their toll.
On these dark days I toil and brood
With starless midnight in my soul.
And yet, O World, O Life, O God!
I find myself, jest as the fool,
Believing in thy chastening rod,
Believing still that love must rule.
— Max Ehrmann
As a Sangha, many of our conversations lately have centered around the most spiritual of questions—how to be in a world of escalating violence, bigotry, hatred and destruction without succumbing to rage, despair and overwhelm. It is heartbreaking to watch Goodness under assault, bewildering to feel powerless against the unstoppable momentum of institutionalized egocentricity. This moves us to ask how we hold the pain of a shattered heart in the face of what feels so beyond the individual ability to affect change. As practitioners of Awareness, what can we do? How do we practice living in a “broken world”?
The Guide recently suggested “A Possibility” in the wake of the shootings in New York and Texas. Like all guidance, the practical direction offered is a starting place to explore the most profound of spiritual truths. This month’s Musings attempts to unravel the process guidance behind the Guide’s concrete proposal to STOP.
The action suggested at the end of “A Possibility” is a simple one: Forward this article to everyone you know. So let’s pause and notice what arose in reaction to this invitation. Did you heed the call and take the action? Was there hesitation, confusion, or resistance that needed to be overcome? Did you read the passage as just another piece of writing about an intractable problem and move on to something else? Did you consider forwarding the email but got talked out of doing so? Did you ignore the guidance entirely? Regardless of whether an action was taken, were you aware of a conversation about it? Were you aware that the conversation in conditioned mind dictated what you did or did not do?
What the voices said…
I don’t get it. How is this suggestion going to address the issue? I feel weird sending this to my friend. This is from my spiritual practice—other people won’t have a context for it. This issue is way too big to have such a simplistic solution. We can’t go up against the gun lobby and win. I don’t have time for this now. I’m already involved in so many campaigns. Other people have already organized around this. What can I do? How is this my problem? Is it really that bad? What has this to do with spiritual practice? I already participate in so many practice offerings.
That the voices can influence whether or not we act is hugely relevant. The person picking up a gun and opening fire in a school is listening to those very same voices telling them what to do, and doing it. Perhaps the voices we hear don’t goad us into the scale of violence that is rife in the news, but each time we listen to, believe and do what the voices prompt us to do—act out, ignore a commitment, overlook an obligation, voice a self-hating slight, indulge a judgmental thought—the process that leads to doing harm, the force of greed/hate/delusion, is reinforced. Just consider the collective weight and momentum of ego in any moment in time where a majority of human beings have made the choice for egocentricity. How else do unjust laws come to pass? Would tyrants get elected otherwise? Why else would we go to war? The machinery of ego triumphs in that moment by goading one group of people into unskillful action while manipulating another group of people into silence, indifference or powerlessness.
Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise so I am changing myself.
If we recognize that the world, in every moment, is simply a product of everyone’s choices for Love or Hate, how could we not be complicit in the state of the world? To answer this question honestly requires us to go beyond self-hate. Self-hate makes us feel bad, saps our life-force, disrupts our connection to the Unconditional, collapses Awareness to a singularity of negativity. Self-hate seeks to externalize and abstract the “problem,” finding comfort in the blame game. As long as the “other” is the problem, “I’m” not required to face the way “I” am that is contributing to the suffering of the world.
Which brings us to the most profound spiritual question posed by the Guide:
How much responsibility am I willing to take?
We can practice with this question at many levels as it highlights so many of our most ingrained beliefs and assumptions around responsibility.
Taking responsibility is not admitting fault or assigning blame. That’s ego maintenance. Taking responsibility is not taking control. That’s ego identification. The ego-I doesn’t get to be in charge of how Life unfolds. Taking responsibility is not “feeling bad” about what’s happening. That’s self-hate. Taking responsibility is not indulging a conversation that makes what’s happening about “me.” That’s egocentricity. Nothing changes when I indulge a debate around the good/right person way to be except denying the Goodness that is already established.
Taking responsibility is perhaps allowing ourselves to be broken open and feeling the pain of love denied when ego prevails.
Taking responsibility is perhaps being still enough for the clarity to arise around what is mine to do rather than letting ego spin a problem that is beyond “its” ability to address and having us identify with its limitations.
Taking responsibility is perhaps being willing to see the process that creates and maintains hatred and not choosing it.
Taking responsibility is perhaps the courage to see, without self-hate, that if we can be silenced, manipulated, humiliated into complicity by egocentricity, whatever the scale of the content, then we’re not actively choosing Goodness. In fact we’re passively standing by and allowing ego to negate what we cherish---love, compassion, patience, kindness, inclusion, generosity.
Taking responsibility, or said another way, participation in life, in the world, however it is expressed (forwarding the article or not, voting or not, organizing or not, buying something on July 4th or not, practicing or not) is being actively engaged in notfeeding ego. Spiritually speaking it is the only choice that is ever being exercised. Which, tangentially, brings us to another concrete practice the Guide offers in “A Possibility.” If we don’t want to participate in making an active choice for life, we can still make a contribution by not feeding ego. We can STOP complaining, STOP giving voice to the voices that perpetuate negativity by ceaselessly talking about what’s wrong.
To affect the course of events, I must bring a new factor into the world, and such a factor can only be myself, the power of love and understanding focused in me.
— Nisargutta Maharaj
Taking responsibility, in the Buddha’s world, is to accept responsibility for all karma. As we say when taking Precepts: All harmful thoughts words and deeds since before the beginning of beginningless time, having been caused by greed, hate and delusion, through body mouth and mind, I openly acknowledge, accept, embrace and let go. If we don’t take responsibility for the entirety of it, we are in some ways reinforcing the lie of a faux reality in which some “problems” are not mine.
The attitude of humility that accepts one’s part in creating a “broken world” is the place from which loving action arises. It is also the place from which the locus of identification with an orientation of something wrong/not enough is transformed.
If I accept that Unconditional Love is, then I have to find a way to see Unconditional Love in a world that appears to be anything but a reflection of it. To find Unconditional Love when it is most obscured requires an alchemy of vision. When we are ready to let go the way “I” view the world, we might begin to be receptive to the perspective from which the “world” perhaps isnot broken. We open to the possibility that what’s broken is “me.” Perhaps the work is to let the world teach me to be All That I am through how it is. Said differently, the spiritual opportunity of a “broken world” is not to change the world, but to practice letting go every part of me that makes a choice for ego. As the Guide recently pointed out: Consider how the world would be if everyone, in every moment, made the choice for Unconditional Love?
Jesus’s exhortation “Resist not evil” is not a call to passivity or quietude. Just because we work out our salvation in the spiritual dimension doesn’t mean we can’t be involved in action in the world. Being a “new factor” in the equation is not in lieu of other forms of participation; it simply changes how we participate. The conditioned choice is to fight evil, ignore it, be indifferent to it or comply with it. As Gandhi exemplified in India’s freedom struggle, the choice from Awareness is to refuse to co-operate with evil/injustice. To choose non-co-operation with ego is a change in interiority. Perhaps that choice will change the externals, perhaps it will not. But in the words of Leonard Cohen…
This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.”
It's the notion that there is no perfection, that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives, but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.