I’m going to take it upon myself to assert that we are all good-hearted people here. Decent people. Compassionate people. As such, it’s understandable that current events and the apparent global trajectory of increased ignorance and aggression has each us more than a little concerned. When taking in non-stop coverage of violence and people treating each other as disposable commodities, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid succumbing to despair, rage, depression or a defensive retreat into comfortable distraction. Allow yourself moments of that last one. It’s okay. Nobody can be a warrior 24/7.
A question I hear with increasing frequency these days is some variation on “What can we do about it?” Every single one of us who cares about the suffering of others wants to help alleviate it to the best of our individual abilities. This is a noble aspiration. But often, after pondering the “big picture” which invariably means the negative aspects of the multi-faceted picture, many of us come to the conclusion that the problems facing our species are too big, too deep-rooted and widespread for any of us to have a meaningful effect. And this isn’t inaccurate: the angle from which we generally view national or international strife is too broad in its scope and if we come to some idealized conclusion that we must single-handedly save the world, it won’t be long before logic returns to the equation reminding us that none of us are superheroes.
Despite the fact that all of us have vastly more vulnerabilities than potential exposure to kryptonite, each of us can become a warrior. When I use this word, I am co-opting the meaning given to it by the late Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was not speaking of a fighter in the physical sense. A warrior of this kind needs no weapons. We are speaking of a warrior who has the courage and unflagging motivation to conquer his or her own mind. Someone who is willing to bravely and unflinchingly face the most ingrained neuroses, ignorant views, desperate attachments and obscuring aversions of their own psyche. Yes, we are all good-hearted people, as I said, but we are not enlightened people. Therefore, before we can contemplate direct action in the service of alleviating the suffering of others, it is imperative that we start with ourselves.
As I delve further into this topic, some of what I say might sound counter-intuitive, but please bear with me. I will be mentioning discoveries from the realm of physics and neuroscience, as well as seemingly obtuse philosophical axioms. Ultimately, the solution that begins within each of us will be found within the realm of psychology. But first, I want to lead us there through a bit of negation.
Waiting and hoping for a political solution to our problems is not only myopic in the sense that all political systems are specific to the nations they govern, but it’s also an exercise in futility. Throughout history, every now and then a leader has emerged who was able to transform moral outrage into non-violent solutions. Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., H.H. The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Aung San Suu Kyi are examples of such exemplary leaders. However, exceptional leaders are, by definition, the exception. The subdivided global game board upon which we are playing in 2017 seems to sport a collection of disparate leaders who run the gamut from impotent idealists to power obsessed authoritarians. The former wring their hands while the latter utilize the power vacuum to advance their nefarious agendas. In other words, our immediate precarious position means we don’t have the luxury of waiting for another such leader to ride in on a white horse and turn the tide. We need to take action now, but perhaps not the type of action you’re envisioning.
Protest without violence is good insofar as it tends to encourage the rest of us to have some degree of hope; a realization that we are not alone. It is heartening to know that there is a worldwide united front horrified by persecution, bigotry, violence, hatred and injustice. And it’s even more heartening to realize that those of us who feel this way are not in the minority. But I’m afraid that’s about the best effect we can hope for when we take to the streets with chants and slogans and candlelight vigils. It’s a sign of solidarity and it has worth, but it is not what will initiate change.
Religion is a panacea. Those who subscribe to theistic beliefs to guide them in their
actions and shore up their motivation to stand up for what’s right need not relinquish such very personal faith. It might just be the wind you need at your back as we venture into a frighteningly uncertain future. But no solutions to our global crises are to be found in the scriptures of any religion, Eastern or Western. Hence, theology is not the proper arena to consult in the search for pragmatic solutions. If one decides that earthly struggle is worthless while pining for an eternal heavenly paradise that will transcend the petty madness of the world, that person is essentially throwing in the towel. As I’ve said before, eternalism is a destructive view. Even if the notion of an eternal soul that will be judged accordingly after death turns out to be true, it does nothing to help our earthbound situation. In fact, more often than not, it is the excuse people grasp at to justify negligent inaction.
So we’ve ruled out politics, power, protest and religion as potential fields in which to search for tangible solutions. What’s left? The one thing that is utterly unique to each of us yet universally accessible: our own minds. Ignorance is the mother of aggression and taming our minds is the antidote to ignorance.
Ignorance is another of those words that’s been used and abused so that it’s become a shadow of its former self. In general, you hear people utilize the term when speaking of someone with racist or sexist tendencies. While it is true that such outlooks arise from ignorance, the amount of suffering it causes to every one of us — even those who view things through the most “progressive” of lenses — is so vast that humanity has chosen to compound its ignorance by ignoring its many forms, the ones that exist in all of us. This is why Buddhism urges us to follow the Middle Path; a way of viewing reality that does not succumb to the temptations of eternalism or nihilism. In this endeavor, the Universe can be our teacher. If we can truly understand how the Universe operates, it follows that we will truly understand how people and our own minds operate, because life forms are quite literally interdependent constituents of the 13.8 billion light-year phenomenal system. Nothing and nobody exists inherently. We speak of people and animals and plants and minerals and stars and planets as separate entities because our senses are incapable of apprehending the vast connected totality. But the real situation is all-inclusive. Every “thing” and every event is dependent upon every other thing and event. The allegedly separate objects of the senses appear as the result of the finely tuned and selectively filtering microscopes that are our sense organs. A little over a century ago, shortly after Einstein perfected his groundbreaking theory of relativity, the emergent field of quantum physics began to make some shocking discoveries that ultimately legitimized some of the millennia-old ideas of the Eastern wisdom masters. Specifically, quantum “particles” exist and behave according to our own observation and expectation. Not even the most basic building blocks of what we call matter have an inherent existence. They, like us, are empty of independent existence. In short, there is nothing in the Universe that can accurately be called anything other than “the Universe”.
These scientific discoveries can help us better understand the errors in many of our own cherished and seemingly logical outlooks. When Isaac Newton perfected his explanations of what is now called classical physics, they seemed so self-evident on the macro level that no reasonable person questioned these theories. Admittedly, on the macro level, they still largely work and are quite handy for navigating daily life. But they are also just another example of intentional mental filtering of what we ignorantly assume are unimportant details. I almost feel inclined to suggest that anyone reading this drop a tab of lysergic acid diethylamide to get a fuller understanding of how our brains ignore information they consider irrelevant to the situation at hand, but that might be irresponsible of me. Hallucinogens aren’t for everyone. Meditation, on the other hand, is safely available to every one of us.
So I urge you to take up the habit of meditating. We all must understand our own minds before we can discern what is wrong with the minds of those who perform the most antisocial of acts that cause such widespread suffering as we’re seeing now. There’s really no way around this — no effective shortcut. If a snarling Neo-Nazi provokes comparable rage in our minds, regardless of the righteous and inclusive social stance we take, we are actually adding fuel to the fire by integrating more ignorance into the struggle. Similarly, if we choose to retreat into our own little worlds of family and romance and entertainment in an effort to wait out the storm, we are also acting out of ignorance. Attachment to a person, thing, activity or idea is a destructive tendency, just as destructive as angry aversion. This is because it does not acknowledge reality as it is. Reality as it is does not care about what we cherish because there are actually no separate people or things to cherish. This is important. If and when you can fully internalize Universal interdependence, the necessity of Yin to Yang, pole to pole, black to white and male to female, then and only then have you attained the necessary mindset to develop perfect unconditional empathy. It is essential that we develop empathy for all, even those — especially those — that cause us the most distress. We cannot squelch bigoted discrimination while still viewing humanity as a collection of us and them or I and everyone else. Actual empathy demands the understanding that you are me are him are her are everything. Then and only then will we have tamed our minds of their harmful habits of erroneous discrimination.
You might justifiably wonder how this is in any way a pragmatic and practical approach to real world problems. That’s okay. It’s just because you, like all of us, have lived your entire life being inundated with false views that have been passed down from one neurotic generation to the next. There is precious little reason to question seeming truisms that pervade the human race when all you see are other “independent” entities behaving according to these falsehoods. But this is misguided. 20,000,000 Elvis fans CAN be wrong.
When you meet aggression with aggression, all you have done is strengthened the heat of the battle. When you meet aggression with despair, all you have done is given your tacit approval to the aggressor. When you meet aggression with social circle tribalism (family, friends, lovers), all you have done is compounded the false view of separateness. It’s time for each of us who care about the state of the world to take a daunting journey into our own psyches, uncovering every gross and subtle misconception and prejudice that resides there. This journey lasts a lifetime, but here’s the good news: it’s contagious. And that’s where it gets its pragmatism. Consciousness is also interdependent, so let’s all do our part and inject the energy of love and wisdom into the Universal consciousness. Be exhaustive, be brave. Become the warrior this sad and scary world so desperately needs. In the depths of our unconfused minds, we’ll find our luminous original nature that is devoid of a name or physical attributes. We’ll find our true identities and perhaps lose our imagined notions of an independent God in the process. We’ll realize that we create our own reality and that everyone we meet in this place is just us with a different temporary mask. That’s where empathy begins. That’s where true, indestructible love resides. Everything will be okay. It can’t be otherwise.
Thank you for reading this long-winded essay. For another brilliant take on a similar theme, please check out this profound post by Brooke at A Gypsy’s Tale: Masters Of Our Fate. The post you just read would not have materialized without her.