This past weekend we had a renewal of Precepts retreat at the Monastery. There were folks who had accepted the Precepts in the last few years and some who have been committed to living the Precepts since our first retreat at the Monastery nearly thirty years ago.
During the retreat we look at and talk about each of the Precepts. This year had a new twist. When it came to “Not to publish other people’s faults” and “Not to extol oneself and slander others” and “Not to be angry” people began to talk about the Precepts relative to current events in the United States.
What the conversation roughly boiled down to was: “I get so upset when I hear about what’s happening politically that the only way I can not get angry and not be critical and judgmental is not to pay any attention to what’s happening in the world.”
Oh, my. Score a bunch of points for egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate!
Where to begin?
First, we have the assumption that the “goal” of awareness practice is to feel the “right way,” and whatever we need do to achieve that goal is the right thing to do.
The equanimity the Buddha points us toward is not a synonym for ignorance or unconsciousness. Our aim in practice is not the successful meeting of ego’s standards for proper behavior. If I’m upset it is my best opportunity to “be with” that upset, paying very close attention, until I’m able to untie that karmic knot and be free of that upset. In one of our books we use the image of putting your head in the sand and failing to realize your bottom is waving around in the breeze! Little kids close their eyes and claim, “You can’t see me,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t see them!
If we make ourselves feel better (be the “right” person) by ignoring what’s happening to everyone and everything else, we play perfectly into ego’s hand. All our attention is on the voices in conditioned mind telling us what to do, what to say, and how to be.
The voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate yammering on incessantly in conditioned mind would have us believe we have two choices. 1) Be involved and be miserable, angry, upset, and depressed, or 2) ignore everything and live in “the little bubble of safety” (as I’ve heard it called) I can create for myself.
I would suggest Zen Awareness practice offers us a third, powerful alternative—conscious compassionate awareness. Or as we sometimes refer to it: Presence.
We must not be surprised that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has a plan for this as well. It takes the form of “You need to embrace in compassion those you find so upsetting.” To that I would say, “Yes, just as soon as you reach Buddhahood.” Jiyu Kennett would say, “With the ideal comes the actual.” Between now and reaching the ideal we can practice here in the realm of the actual!
What does that look like? The voices would have us believe that being upset is proof that we’re the wrong person. “You’re angry. It’s wrong to be angry. You need to feel bad.” But what if what’s being called anger is actually a pushing back in an attempt to protect against deep hurt? What if what’s going on is that you care so deeply, feel so sad and helpless and hopeless at what’s being done to people and creatures and the planet that not defending against that pain feels like you won’t survive?
If you can relate to that and really don’t want to fall into any dualities, how about this as a possibility? Every time you encounter something that feels cruel or hateful or dangerous, instead of turning away turn toward that and acknowledge the pain you feel. Just acknowledge it. Let yourself feel it directly. If you’re afraid of what you feel you can acknowledge and feel that too. But above all, remind yourself that what you’re feeling is your caring. You’re feeling your connection to all beings. You’re experiencing the truth of “nothing happens to you that doesn’t happen to me and nothing happens to me that doesn’t happen to you.” We are not separate.
(A reminder: This would be greatly aided by a practice of Recording and Listening.)
Now, when you’ve let that in, when you’ve felt the pain and seen all that arises for you in being present for all you’re experiencing, ask yourself this question: “What do I want instead for the world?”
In the beginning this might be quite an exploration. As time goes on you’ll be clearer and clearer. Do you want kindness? Compassion? Love? Respect? Appreciation?
The next step is where we enter “A Conscious Compassionate Action Movement.” Now we get to offer the world what we want for the world. What we offer could be as simple and immediate as doing chores with a cheerful attitude or applying the golden rule to driving. The point is, instead of furthering the illusion of separation, we want to stay in the process of caring and connection. We can find a person, a place, an organization, a cause, or a need to which we can contribute. Maybe it’s as simple as a thank you, a smile, a kind word. Maybe it’s volunteering for something you feel is important to support. Taking food to a shut-in, offering respite to a family with a sick child. Perhaps you want to join a group working to accomplish something you can see will make a difference you want to see made, signing petitions, collecting signatures, making donations. Perhaps you help people get registered to vote, call folks to encourage them to vote, drive people to the polls.
Remember, it’s not what, it’s HOW. All my spiritual heroes took an interest in the world and worked to bring lovingkindness, compassion, goodness, and generosity to the world. Did they do it through hating and judging the people who were acting in cruel ways? No. They also didn’t do it through an attitude of, “I just want to be a good/right spiritual person, not getting upset or feeling angry, so I’m going to go find a cave and wait this out.”
What do you say? Shall we take all that “feeling bad” energy and turn it into the goodness that we want for the world? Shall we prove Margaret Mead correct once again and “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”? Shall we refuse to hide out, attempting to avoid the ugliness and instead choose Unconditional Love for the world and ourselves?
If there’s interest I’d love to continue this as a discussion. I bet among us we have thousands of ideas of ways to contribute and plenty of support for making the contributions.