Today’s world of human experience is increasingly moulded by feelings of insecurity, entrapment conflict, and fear. We feel trapped in situations and circumstances: family obligations, economic constraints, weather, traffic, bureaucratic red tape and so forth. We fight interminable battles with people, creatures, invasive species, weeds, belief systems, expectations and fears. In the name of establishing peace, we wage war and build more prisons and systems of surveillance. For many people it seems completely right and natural to defend themselves against perceived enemies of goodness and sanity, using any means available, regardless of morality or fundamental decency. While desperately trying to escape from pain and limitation we dig ourselves into an intractable mess of even more pain and limitation.
In these early years of the 21st century, the political and economic world seems to have become hijacked by what we could think of as the shadow side of the American dream of individual freedom and prosperity. What was once clearly a psychological ‘demon’ of the collective unconscious has now taken flesh in the world of daily experience and we find ourselves caught up in a battle against terrorism which is really a battle against a terror of insecurity arising in and from our own depths. This is the terror of feeling we can’t control the world; the troubling recognition that a way of life, driven by consumerism and desire for instant gratification, cannot go on much longer without something collapsing, be it the economy, or the ecology or our interior immune systems.
Today, the world’s military budget has risen astronomically while the average standard of living continues to fall, and political and financial support for ecological and environmental wellbeing, education, health care and social justice, is increasingly neglected. To wake up in a truly meaningful way, we will need to look much more deeply into what is happening and to realise that more weaponry and control will never heal the painful and frightening sense of disconnection that has come between ourselves and nature and between ourselves and other human beings. When separatism and sectarianism gain the upper hand, ‘other’ is often seen as dangerous and untrustworthy and we spiral ever more deeply into fortresses of fundamentalism and narrow-minded bigotry. At the risk of saying the obvious, wisdom and compassion are rarely discussed in houses of parliament and multi-national boardrooms. Physical health and mental wellbeing are increasingly required to give way to market driven factors and economic bottom lines. No wonder so many people feel we are tottering on the edge of an abyss.
In Buddhism, there are two contemplative themes or explorations that can powerfully support the awakening of wisdom and compassion. The first takes us into a profound experiential understanding of ecology.
Nothing exists independently on its own. Everything and everyone is interconnected. Each one of us is a dynamic weaving of myriad relationships happening simultaneously at multiple levels of being; from the micro realms of atoms and molecules, to the organism levels of creatures and society, to the macro levels of ecosystems, planets, solar systems and cosmic processes. What I do affects you. What you do affects me. What humans do affects the non-human world. And what happens in the non-human world affects humans. Activity in the micro world affects what takes place in the macro world, and vice versa. This is much more than just a theme. It is a vast life-long investigation and exploration, that can open our understanding and compassion and change our relationships with everything.
The second contemplative exploration involves investigating mind and knowing. The world of your ongoing experience is made known to you, through the interrelating of atoms, molecules, cells and organs; through the communal dancing of senses, memories and associations; through physical conditions, education, attitudes, brain function and so forth. At the same time, all of these processes taking place ‘within you’ are responding with and to the mystery of everything else ‘out there’ – other beings living their lives around you. Though often described as a collage of transient parts, your moment to moment living feels like a seamless whole – a dynamic ‘holomovement’. In Buddhism, this collaborative field of multi-levelled knowings is collectively referred to as ‘mind’. In other traditions it is sometimes referred to as ‘self’ or even one’s ‘true self’.
No one has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you are experiencing it now and, in the future, no one will ever again experience it in exactly this way. The experience that you are having is arising in and as your knowing! It doesn’t arise in anyone else’s. This applies not only to you and to me, but also to animals and plants and, if you stretch your imaginative understanding, to all existent forms. In a deep sense, knower and known are not separate. They are seamlessly interdependent. Every sentient being is a world of living experience and we interact with each other – worlds interweaving with, and inter-responding to, other worlds.
Many people are tempted to latch on to these two themes; that everything exists interdependently and that everything you experience arises in your own knowing, as if they were fundamental truths. To walk the path of awakening however, it would be more skilful, though perhaps rare, to soften this tendency. Instead, consider these themes as rich avenues for contemplative investigation which can lead us in the direction of healing the devastating divisions between humans and nature, men and women, self and other, us and them, mind and matter. These two themes are paths upon which all of us can walk, so . . . Let’s continue with walking.
I’m passing on this recent post from one of my primary spiritual teachers – Tarchin Hearn – because I believe that we all need every word of wisdom and compassion that comes our way to help us keep positive in these times of increasing division and apparent lack of caring at government and corporate levels. For more of Tarchin’s wise words, go to his website greendharmatreasury.org.