After the Video Kickoff Workshop, I decided to write a blog addressing how we can practice in times that could seem to make practice irrelevant. I became even more committed after hearing from a few folks in the aftermath of the election that they’re struggling with a recent Peace Quote:
Everything in the world is good, is holy and beautiful. If you see something evil, think that you do not understand it in the right light. Throw the burden on yourselves!
- Swami Vivekananda
Perhaps the most difficult task for us spiritual aspirants is to understand intellectually, and then to “grok,” that ours is a nonseparate reality. The difficulty is that the shift from separate to nonseparate is the movement from the dualistic world of the intellect to the intuitive, experiential world of spiritual understanding.
The Buddha teaches that suffering is a fact of Life, there’s a reason we suffer, there’s a way to end suffering, and it’s possible to end suffering in this lifetime. He tells us that hate will never overcome hate; only love will overcome hate. We are to radiate boundless love to the entire world without ill will or enmity. Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, we are to cultivate a boundless love toward all beings.
Aldous Huxley masterfully demonstrates what he and others called The Perennial Philosophy by quoting mystics from every religious and spiritual tradition describing the same experience. None of these mystics were speaking of dogma, though they spoke in the language of their tradition. They described their practice and what they realized in moments of union with the Divine.
Here’s a bit of Huxley’s synopsis of what he calls the Ground of Being or the Divine Ground (also called That Which Is, That Which Animates, the Mysterious Fact, Buddha Nature, True Nature, Authenticity, God):
Any event in any part of the universe has as its predetermining conditions all previous events in all parts of the universe. (As we say it, you are the sum total of everything it has taken to produce you since before the beginning of beginningless time.)
1. The phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the world of things and animals and even gods—is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.
2. Human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
3. Humankind possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner human, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a human, if s/he so desires, to identify with this spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
4. Humankind’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify with the eternal self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground of all existence.
As the Buddha phrased it, one who experiences oneself in all of Life sees oneself in all beings.
My teacher used to marvel that people would settle for believing something (that unity with the Intelligence That Animates is possible) that can be known. That we are each and all manifestations of the power of Life that shapes all life is something we human beings can “know,” not intellectually, but experientially. Wisdom animates all of us and is the force of this power, the mystic energy pouring into the field of time and space.
Conditioned mind, the mind that thinks, believes, and assumes, becomes so involved in concepts, in ego-driven fears and doing that the energy of wisdom cannot flow. The energy is blocked and we are tossed into a faux “reality” of ego’s making, lost in an incessant conversation of what I need, what I want, what I’m afraid of, how it should be, what’s wrong—and the suffering is ceaseless.
The Buddha taught that it’s possible to “cultivate the conditions” for wellbeing. It is the conditioned habit of attending to unwholesome states of mind, to the negativity of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, which is the primary obstacle to awakening. Our practice is to replace that by attending to what is wholesome, to what is so in the present. The Buddha identified some wholesome acts: taking action, bearing witness, not knowing, generosity, stillness, compassionate speech, and not opposing evil.
Attending to “what is so in the present” is extremely challenging for conditioned human beings because the assumption is that “what is so” is what “I” (the illusion of an ego that is separate from Life) perceives as so—and that is not so!
And, here’s where it gets even stickier: Our practice is to first embrace all that arises as we perceive it. We are learning to change our perception from ego’s “how it should be” to Life’s “how it truly is.” We are practicing turning attention away from the beliefs and assumptions held in a dualistic conditioned mind and to witness Life from the awareness of wisdom, love, and compassion rather than the limited perspective of “me.”
So was Swami Vivekananda being hard on us? Was he being judgmental and harsh, blaming us for what happens to us in our lives? Is he saying that what’s happening in the world right now—what we perhaps see as cruel and hateful—is good and holy and beautiful and there’s something wrong with us if we don’t see it that way?
Looking at the world from a dualistic viewpoint, there seems to be much more cruel and hateful than good and holy and beautiful. After all, there are real victims. Not everyone has the same chance. It’s easy to be grateful and optimistic if you have all the advantages. What about the people who don’t have enough to eat? What about those living where bombs are falling? From ego’s perspective—looking at content rather than process—surely that appears to be the case.
Years ago I read a story told by Peace Pilgrim: When the Allied troops liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, the scene they encountered was hideous, heartbreaking, and unbelievable. As they moved through the camp getting medical care to the survivors, they were assisted by an energetic fellow with long, drooping mustaches. No one knew who he was, and there wasn’t time for introductions, so among themselves they just referred to him as Wild Bill, after Wild Bill Hickok. When everyone had been given all the care they could be offered at the time, some of the soldiers questioned Wild Bill about who he was and how long he’d been in the camp. He told them he’d been there from the opening of the camp. They were amazed, even doubted him, as he was robust and in both good spirits and good health. This is the story he told: He was an attorney living in a small town in Poland with his wife and five children. Because he spoke several languages, when the Nazi’s came through they used him as an interpreter. He was kept alive and made to watch as they killed everyone in the town, including his wife and children who were placed against a wall and shot. In that moment he “saw” the horror that ignorance and delusion can inflict, and it came to him in a moment of awakening that he had two choices. He could either live with the hatred he felt in his heart and become like those who had just destroyed all he loved in the world, or he could live the difference he was able to see and choose to love unreservedly everyone he encountered for as long as he lived. From that clarity he cared for his fellow prisoners, offering what help he could, until the liberators arrived.
If you don’t see God in the next person you meet, where do you hope to see God?
So, where does this leave us? How do we apply our understanding of this possibility? How do we live the difference we know is possible? We can take action as the Buddha encouraged. We can bear witness. If we choose, we can let our legislators know our wishes. We can call, write letters. We can be generous, get involved with groups working toward change we’d like to see in the world. If no one is taking on something we care about, we can start a non-profit to address the need! In a word: participate. Participation does not require us to hold opinions (as the Hsin Hsin Ming warns us “do not chase after enlightenment, only cease to cherish opinions”) or to use language that lacks compassion or to identify “evil” and then oppose it. We support and aid. Above all, we hold everyone and everything in the unconditional love and acceptance that we all wish for ourselves no matter how wrong-headed we may be in any given moment! We can he humble enough to realize and admit that we don’t know, and that complaining and criticizing is not a path to liberation encouraged by any tradition!
I don’t know about you, but I often wonder if the reason we get so upset when we witness negativity, when we hear judgmental, intolerant, and hateful words and see those same attitudes in behaviors is because those “external” words and behaviors put us in touch with the same in us. I could only laugh when it dropped in how prejudiced I am against prejudiced people! What I’d been clinging to is that “they” are prejudiced against the wrong people (innocent people), while I am prejudiced against the people who truly deserve judgment! Really? Doesn’t take a lot of scrutiny to get to “it’s not what, it’s how.”
When lost in the “I’m right” of the dualistic world of conditioned mind, we all believe we are correct in our assessment and those other people are simply stupid, deluded, wrong, or probably evil. They think that about us, we think that about them, and the world of egocentric karmic conditioning chugs happily along.
As students of awareness, seeking clarity and liberation, choosing lovingkindness and compassion, we can get as engaged, active, and involved as we like—and we can do that from love. The burden I suspect Swami Vivekananda is asking us to throw back on ourselves is to find in our hearts the unconditional love that is the difference we know. When we find that love in our own hearts, we realize that is the love that animates all beings, and that we each have the opportunity to choose that love in each moment—even as Wild Bill did, in truly horrific circumstances.
We have no ability to influence that choice in someone else; we do have the ability to make that choice for ourselves. If we don’t choose, how can we blame anyone else for not choosing? There’s much debate about the origin of the quote, but the sentiment is sound: If not me, who? If not now, when?