I’ve spent much of the last few days in meditation, more than I normally do. By Sunday evening, my mind was still and calm and the world around me was spacious and beautiful. On Monday at noon, I returned to work, where a ceasefire was ending in Ukraine, where the bodies of three kidnapped teenagers were found, where the US Supreme Court determined again that corporations are the same as human beings, where Mother Nature was preparing to unleash a torrent of destructiveness on the Midwest.
In one of those situations, no one angrily denounced anyone else, no one called for the horrible deaths of anyone else, no one prepared their weapons of killing to do their job.
Stillness and calm, violence and aggression. The contrast is glaring, painful.
Many of us feel that pain. We can’t ignore it, can’t hide it on a shelf or lock it in a dark closet and pretend it isn’t there. It’s there, even when we refuse to look at it, refuse to acknowledge it. It never goes away.
Some of us feel this pain as a desire to make it right. We pick a side (because there is always one side that’s right, we think), and we write letters, march in the streets, take up our own weapons and go to war.
And even when “peace” is made, when an an accord is signed or a law enacted and the combatants go home, it isn’t over. There’s always a winner who feels vindicated, always a loser who feels castigated. Conflict is never done when one side is right and another is wrong and we challenge that aggression with more aggression. When we do that, the peace we find is an illusion.
Peace is not an absence of war. They are not two sides of the same coin. Real peace cannot be limited, cannot be referred to as “a time of peace.” True peace is an absence of aggression of any kind. It is a natural state, calm and still. It is who we really are, how things really are. It is the very essence of our world.
Peace … is. Conflict, war, aggression … these are aberrations, things we have layered on top of our world for so long that we sometimes think of them as “human nature”. When we do, we’re only justifying that behavior, presenting excuses to keep on clashing with one another, to keep up the pretense that we are right and, somehow, better.
We all like to think we’re right. All of us. But if we are, then someone else must be wrong. The problem with that, of course, is that all those someone elses think that they’re right and we are wrong. Thinking that we are right and someone else is wrong is an act of aggression, an act of war. It’s not on the same level as kidnapping teenagers and killing them or destroying the homes of the people suspected of perpetuating that crime, but it is aggression nonetheless, and not that many steps away from a violent expression of it.
And it all comes from fear. There’s nothing wrong with fear, just like there’s nothing wrong with anger, or happiness, or sorrow, or any other emotion. Emotions by themselves cause no problems. They just are, like thoughts. We create problems from them, by combining those feelings with thought and building a story around them, by looking outside ourselves for the answers to any discomfort we feel.
Like fear. I often think that fear is the root emotion, the one that all others spring from. I also ask myself every day, what if I’m wrong? I ask myself that about everything, not just my pondering about fear. Sometimes I find I am wrong, and then I change my mind.
That’s an interesting phrase. In American culture these days, changing our minds is a bad thing. We call it “flip-flopping”, as if we are born with our beliefs and nothing ever changes. My journalistic colleagues and their political operative helpers dig deep into the pasts of politicians, desperately seeking proof of a change of mind. Maybe it would be different if we called it a change of heart instead.
Every time I learn something, it changes everything I’ve already learned in some way. Our minds are amazing like that. If left alone and not confused by the constant stories we tell ourselves, they’re capable of more than we can imagine. We could, I truly believe, solve any “problem”, beginning by dropping all the preconceptions we have about the situation and not labeling it a problem at all.
Easier said than done, but very doable. And before we tackle the perceived problems in the greater world, we need to start with ourselves.
A culture based on our separateness, one that highlights our differences and pits “us” against “them”, is not stable. A world that consists of unstable cultures is explosive.
When we isolate ourselves in groups whose members think, look, speak like us, when we limit our lives in that way, we must always be on guard, ever fearful that the “other” may somehow infiltrate us, poison our purity. For some of us, eventually, merely watching the walls for incursions isn’t enough. For some of us, the only way to be safe is to obliterate the other.
To add gravitas to our struggles, then, we say the others have “assaulted our values” or “declared war on us”. This language opens the door for our own “side” to escalate, to justify whatever means we choose to “do battle”. And, since we’ve convinced ourselves that we are at war, we become even more fearful of the “other side”. Even if — especially if — we find the other in our midst.
Explosive. And dangerous. Deadly. There are just too many hard edges, too many places for friction and conflict. And in their absence, we tend to create them.
A culture grounded in our similarities — and what deeper, more profound similarity do we have than our very humanness? — is stable. It is also open. The stone walls of our differences don’t exist. Instead, we celebrate our differences, learn from them. We don’t fear them, because we see that there’s nothing to fear.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is, and it isn’t. It is, because that’s all there is to it. It isn’t, because … well, because of us.
It isn’t easy to stop looking outside ourselves for answers to our problems. If only this were another way, or if only they would behave differently … but that’s not the answer, and it never has been. The answers — all of them — are within us.
Or, as I heard from one of my teachers very recently, “If you’re looking anywhere outside yourself, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”