Walking the path of self-inquiry leads to the arrival of knowledge of one’s True Self. At least that seems to be the ‘take home’ lesson from many traditions. It also raises some questions. Describing his walking in metaphors, a Native American elder says to the angry young brave: “Those who walk forward use stone to help, not to injure – to create, not to destroy. What impressions and depressions will you leave on the people around you? Like the sharpest stones, our words, our actions, our attitudes – all wield influence…do we walk backward, scarring the landscape with jagged hearts, or do we walk forward on the stone path that is the foundation of peace – inviting others, by our peaceful walk, to join us?” [The Seven Paths, by the Anasazi Foundation]
The expression “jagged hearts” is a powerful one, describing the damage that can be done when we don’t resolve our conflicts. Sadly, so often, in so many ways, we are seeing this occur. Recent murders in various parts of the country are being identified as being racially motivated, evidently resulting from people’s anger about a non-guilty verdict from an earlier murder. Some say inaccurate reporting instigated further violence. On a global scale, poison gas attacks are being blamed on both sides of a conflict. It seems difficult to obtain the whole story; action so often is taken based on partial truths. Sadly, the more difficult truth might be that people have belief systems that render their conflicts unsolvable.
The words we say to each other DO have power, at least in some circles. When we are thoughtful about what we say, we can help heal our “jagged hearts.” Or, we can perpetuate animosity and cause further heartbreak by making war. I’d like to think that it is ultimately each one’s choice, to make war or peace, in our interactions and in our words. Of course some might say I am being either overly optimistic or utterly delusional. Do we really have that choice, or are we run by our genetics and our social conditioning? Is it our nature to collaborate to find ways to work things out, sharing our resources? Or, is our nature to compete and wage war, which allegedly we have done throughout time?
I find many people are asking the question I’ve been asking all my life: “Why can’t we all just get along?” If enough people refuse to fight, can a war be waged? Can we even imagine working out conflict without aggression? How do we write a different story? Is art at the heart of social justice, or is the most art can do is to inspire, but not be a substitute for social action? If that is the case, then the best outcome is if art can inspire more compassion and awareness.
Perhaps we can use our creative vision to paint the pictures, write the stories and sing the songs that tell of ways to peacefully work out our conflicts. Otherwise we are stuck with returning to our old patterns of aggressive conflict; essentially walking backwards. Even if engaging in warfare is our nature, which some insist it is, we still have the ability to decide to make different choices, if we can find ways to convince ourselves that such choices are more desirable than resorting to old behavior. Regardless of whether you consider it to be the truth, or a story, isn’t it interesting that major religions in our society tell of a Savior who teaches peace and love towards ourselves and to each other? With the power of love, we can solve our conflict. The biggest challenge of course is to find a way to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, to “love our enemies”; He pointed out it is much easier to love our friends. Perhaps the first step is to decide we are even capable of loving those with whom we disagree.
An emerging theme of choosing happiness is beginning to appear in psychological and therapeutic literature. It is also expressed by Sakyoung Mipham, son of Chogyam Trungpa the legendary teacher of the principles of Shambhala, “the path to happiness”. Mipham writes: “the joy of happiness and the intensity of pain are the experiences of thoughts and emotions arising from the mind itself…the attitude we take toward our mind and how we moderate our thoughts and emotions is the barometer of how livable life is…the word cheer is a synonym for confidence arising from our trust in basic goodness.”
Mipham is not saying that it’s easy to let go of haunting thoughts. Yet he invites us to think different ones, a similar message of cognitive behavioral psychology, really. It is a point worth considering when Mipham describes how good human society can come about through our exchanges with others. By remaining in touch with our own worthiness, we are less likely to allow ourselves to fall into the culture of guilt and shame, which dis-empowers our feelings of goodness.
If our ‘everyday world’ is a social reality created by our ongoing ceremonies, as Mipham suggests, then it’s appropriate to ask if we as a global community can create the ceremony of basic goodness? Or, will we continue to participate in a ceremony of social animosity that leads only to disempowering the human spirit? How do we go forward, and find a social building block that is not subject to either depression or elation, one that is grounded in a stronger, internal knowing of at least who we want to be, that is not vulnerable to external events?
This idea of gaining confidence from being in touch with our basic goodness is a powerful one. I realize that is hard to embrace if we are feeling shame or failure. Also, it can be a distraction if we are feeling a lack of confidence, or too much confidence. Either one causes a focus on external events outside ourselves. Regardless of how discouraging or enticing these distractions might be, when we look outside of ourselves, judging ourselves based on events, we avoid the more basic issue of looking within to heal our own mind.
Developing confidence in our own worthiness relies on nourishing our own mind, gaining mental strength by resting in our own goodness and worthiness. “Being cheerful is a way to keep our confidence steady. Appreciating where we are right now is a helpful antidote to depression. What comes from that is joy,” according to Sakyong Mipham. Trungpa, Mipham’s father writes: “By stopping habitual patterns, we can appreciate the real world on the spot. We can appreciate the bright, beautiful fantastic world around us; we don’t have to feel all that resentment or embarrassment. If we don’t negate our habitual patterns, we can never fully appreciate the world. But once we overcome habitual patterns, the vividness… the magic, will descend, and we will begin to be individual masters of our world.”
Recognizing the moments when we have choice is where self-mastery comes into play. In order to do that though, we need to first remind ourselves that we have the ability to decide not to repeat habits. We can do something differently, rather than going on ‘automatic’. This is an act of freedom of choice. The word ‘freedom’ is often celebrated, and evoked as motivator, even as a battle cry. It is also used in spiritual texts to describe energies that are not limited by physical constraints. On a practical level, our freedoms are limited by our habits; as soon as we attempt to change them, we experience some resistance. To take a different course of action, we need to be aware of our reactions, and be determined to take a different direction.
After witnessing the occurrence of hundreds of deaths and continued battles, Isabel Esterman, a Cairo-based multimedia journalist, blogged: “Some cheer the murders of protesters… bay for blood…, others call for religious war, incite violence against religious minorities. There are few voices of reason or sanity. It is hard to imagine how these wounds will heal. I have no answers, no solutions, no glib and cheery note to end on, I’m staring at the screen groping for words. It’s 6:10 in Cairo, and darkness is falling again.”
Staring at my own screen, also in search of my own answers, I truthfully wonder if there is anything anyone can do, about anything. Should we even try? What difference would it make? Then I notice a newsletter in my email, in which David Vieau, President of Turning Point, a therapeutic recovery program, writes: “Inspiration: Be the last to judge and the first to congratulate. Be the change you want to see in others. Be the heart for the heartless and soul for the soul-less. Follow your moral compass. Quick research shows there are an estimated 50 trillion cells in the human body at any given time, working in unison for a singular purpose. Believe you can work with the man to your left or woman to your right. Believe you can help the next person to cross your path. Reach out your hand.”
Perhaps this is the work, how we could interact with each person throughout the day, creating peace and compassion in our own relationships. Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodran, writes: “Everything that occurs in our confused mind we can regard as the path. Everything is workable.” I admit often quoting Huang po, an influential Chinese master of Zen Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, who wrote: “you, the richest person in the world, have been going around laboring and begging, when all the while the treasure you seek is within you. It is who you are.”
Long time Yoga teacher and author, Richard Rosen, in Original Yoga writes that for the traditional Hatha Yoga practitioners of previous generations, yoga was a full-time job; a serious business to be pursued with great physical and psychological effort. They did this in order to find relief from the source of all stress, which they believed to be caused by ignorance of the authentic self [avidya]. Essentially they are telling us when we know “the authentic self”, we are relieved of stress. The teachings go further to elaborate that when we transform our physical body to serve as a suitable vehicle for liberation and re-connect and re-integrate our fragmented energies, then we can realize our essential wholeness. Of course that is a lot more complicated and involved than those statements imply, causing a person to wonder whether they desire and can handle the requisite effort of the task. Especially when the outcome is to recognize their authentic self, and see that the Source is within; already with them all the time. Perhaps in an attempt to offer comfort for the journey, Richard Rosen writes: “Hatha Yoga, along with helping us to see ourselves more clearly and live more healthfully, can also help us express ourselves more completely in our daily lives and so serve as an effective agent for positive change in the world.”
So why change the world? “What is the matter with it?” some might ask. Many others see much suffering, and look for the freedom/liberation ticket that Jack Kornfield alludes to in his book, Bringing Dharma Home. He writes: “Any practice that cultivates mindfulness, wise effort, investigation, joy, concentration, calm, equanimity, and compassion will bring one to liberation.” He goes on to say “there are many ways to do that… those who cling to views, annoy other people and cause themselves to suffer as well.” So it sounds like he’s recommending that we have freedom from rigid views as well, in order to experience joyful liberation.
What about simply developing the “inner and outer resources needed to live life as a complete and unconflicted woman or man”? This goal was described by Fleet Maull, a former ex-con who transformed himself into a Buddhist teacher, peaceworker and founder of the nonprofit, the Prison Mindfulness Institute. Can a person stabilize his/her experience into a “genuine path toward self-mastery”, as Fleet Maull promotes?
If so, then what would they do? Would they ask the question: ‘Why Am I Here?’ which comes to mind when people are ready to contemplate such things? Perhaps at that point, they would already be willing and able to experience the magic of life. After all, you probably are aware of the odds of taking the form of a human being, vs. the odds of simply being a molecule in the solar system. By taking time to notice that miracle, and taking a moment to really pay attention and appreciate it, you might have the realization that it’s up to you to decide the purpose of your own existence. You decide; and act accordingly.
(c)2013 by Loi Eberle