Artwork by John Coulthart, from Arthur No. 15/Feb 2005
KILLING THE MADMAN
What does meditation have to do with activism?
Plenty, says poet Michael Brownstein
I’ve been a Buddhist for many years, and I am also an activist, committed to overturning the profit-driven monoculture which is destroying our health, our Earth, and our soul. How are these two forms of awareness—awareness of what’s taking place in the outside world, and awareness of our internal processes—related? Can each aid the other in creating a sane, sustainable and just world?
Let’s look at activism in terms of the negative emotions generated—indignation and rage, but also frustration, sorrow, resignation. These are negative emotions because of the effect they have on us, the people who experience them. Not on the object of our emotions, whether it be the World Trade Organization, Monsanto, or George Bush. Negative emotions are reactive. Their only impact is on us. What difference does it make to Monsanto that you’re seething with indignation at something it has done or said? What difference does it make to the Pacific Lumber Company when you come upon a clear-cut old-growth forest in California and feel devastated?
Staying present with our emotions—anger, for example—means remaining aware of what we’re experiencing without becoming lost in reactivity. It means liberating the energy generated by anger from the object that calls it forth. In other words, it is a form of meditation. Then, the possibility exists to work with the situation from a place of clarity, rather than be submerged in confusion.
So, the first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence. Then you realize that you are the source of your emotions—not Monsanto or McDonald’s. This does not imply that we shouldn’t have these responses, but that we have to use them rather than be used by them. And the only way to do that is to become aware of their nature.
There are many misconceptions about meditation. Actually, meditation is simple, because there’s no particular goal. There’s nothing much to do. When you meditate you are not required to erase all thought, or see the clear light, or have a big revelation about the meaning of life. All you have to do is relax and sit with a straight spine so that your breath is unimpeded. Breathe slowly, following the breath with your attention. Notice any thoughts or emotions or sensations which arise. Try not to chase after them or reject them—but if you do, that’s not a problem as long as you remain aware of what you’re doing.
The problem comes from lack of awareness, from unconscious fixation and attachment, not from the thoughts or emotions themselves. As long as you’re alive, you’ll have thoughts and emotions. But as soon as you identify them without resistance, they dissolve. Just be aware—without forcing anything, without keeping score—of what your mind is doing, of where your attention is going. That’s meditation.
But being simple doesn’t mean it’s easy, because meditation involves dismantling habitual patterns which are very stubborn. That’s why it’s a practice, something we return to throughout our lives. Maybe while meditating you notice the sounds in the room, or how long a few minutes actually are, or that the voice in your head is going non-stop.
But sooner or later you also realize that what’s enabling you to notice these things is a witness inside you, looking on from a place of neutral observation. A witness that’s never upset, never afraid, never bored, never angry, but that also is never joyful or triumphant or serene. A witness that simply notices everything. In fact, that is simply present. This witness is called awareness, and it’s usually obscured by our emotions: happy/sad, excited/ depressed, loving/hating, desiring/ rejecting, approving/ disapproving, proud/ashamed, envious/generous—all of which depend for their existence on our reactivity to outside objects and conditions: our attachment, aversion, and indifference.
But the awareness underneath that reactivity is vast, luminous, and beyond thought, with no beginning or end. It’s unchanging, unmoving, and indescribable, completely out of category. Except that when we know where to look for it we’re able to experience it, because it’s the basic nature of every mind on the planet, the minds of all sentient beings. Every one of us has an open spirit not motivated by fear or greed, in spite of how out of touch with it we may be. Every one of us knows the right thing to do. Every one of us has the capacity to be compassionate and connected.
This does not mean, by the way, that we should disregard how people actually act toward us, and become doormats or passive victims.
In Tibetan Buddhism there’s something called idiot compassion which says that you must never allow your compassion to make you a victim. It says that even if you would never harm a flea, when your survival requires it—when a madman is coming toward you with a knife in his hand—you have no hesitation in killing. You can do this without generating negative consequences as long as you’re unattached to the emotion called forth, as long as you don’t invest it with qualities of right or wrong. Killing the madman then simply becomes what has to be done.
That’s when the warrior quality within you arises. Once you’ve liberated yourself from reactivity, once you’re able to separate yourself from your emotions and watch them come and go like clouds in the sky, you discover your fearlessness.
By realizing that you are the source of whatever is happening, you begin to take conscious control of your life. And you find the right way to handle George Bush — because underneath his greed and arrogance, he’s certainly not conscious. Looking at the depth of his confusion, we see that in addition to fighting battles, our path as activists involves bringing others to awareness. Political awareness and the awareness of nature of mind are the same. Once people become aware of what they’re doing, most of them will not continue to destroy local cultures, or disregard the dangers of global warming, or sell monstrous weaponry to one another.
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Now let’s look at the struggle for social justice, a sustainable economy, and ecological balance from the perspective of who we are as people. We see that the things that motivate us to become activists are baseline human qualities such as compassion, inclusiveness, and fair play. Deep inside we sense that the universe is good, otherwise why take the trouble to work for change?
Activism is as much about rediscovering our sanity and trust—our sense of belonging—as it is about righting perceived wrongs. The fact is that if we’re looking for goodness or fairness in others, we’re looking for what’s inside ourselves. Otherwise, how could we recognize it?
We’re looking for what we all share. Once we understand that, the larger goal becomes how to wake our brothers and sisters from their self-destructive sleep. In fighting for a just and sustainable global culture, we’re also uncovering a globalization of the spirit. That’s because everything is connected: my body and your body and Earth’s body, my spirit and your spirit and Earth’s spirit, my mind and your mind and Earth’s mind. And also my body and society’s body, my mind and society’s mind, my spirit and my culture’s spirit.
In fact, it’s only from ignorance of interrelatedness that people succumb to selfish behavior, to cruelty and cynicism. No matter how many act in this manner, and for no matter how long, by definition they’re isolated individuals. Destroying the Amazon rainforest, for example, in order to plant genetically modified soybeans: such colossal short-sightedness comes down to a lack of awareness that my body and mind are connected to Earth’s body and mind. We can’t have one without the other. We can’t focus solely on our own physical well-being, going to yoga classes and eating organic food, while the earthly and social bodies continue to suffer. Otherwise, we’re living in a cocoon of self-involvement, oblivious to the greater life around us.
Those of us who are spiritually involved must also have the courage to engage the world’s confusion, demonstrating the commitment that comes from political awareness. We must risk activating our compassion. Without this engagement, our ‘personal growth’ will remain sterile and dry, and the status quo will only perpetuate itself. We cannot forsake our brothers and sisters who are needlessly suffering. Such behavior ultimately is not spiritual, because it betrays a lack of connection. The warrior acts without becoming lost in attachment or reactivity, but nevertheless he or she does act.
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By the same token, the problem is not only ‘out there’: it is also ‘in here.’ It’s not only about agribusiness or pharmaceuticals or neoliberalism: it’s also about self-awareness. That is, the problem is at once personal and planetary.
In addition to scrutinizing the policies of the World Bank, we ourselves bear looking at. Not from a judgmental place, but through disinterested awareness—that is, through the discipline of meditation. Everything we’re engaged in now, from community-supported agriculture to grassroots media to green politics, is part of a global process. New forms of relating to each other are emerging from the dying dinosaur realm of competitive isolation.
But we can’t forget that all of us have created this world. We’re doing this to ourselves. We’re all products of the same claustrophobic mindset. Consensus reality comes from a shared field of perception. To change it, we have to look at our own beliefs and assumptions in addition to looking at the acts of others. If we don’t deal with what could be called the spiritual dimension of activism, if we don’t examine the role of the ego, we’re simply running away from the total reality.
After all, judgment of others never really gets anywhere. It’s been going on for thousands of years. The names change but the mechanism of blaming and accusing remains the same. Our distrust of others stems from the compulsion to defend our identity as a kind of private property, whereas true revolution is courageous because it involves surrender of ego. It’s not only about rearranging wealth. It’s also about entering common ground.
For example, would terror and bloodshed between Palestinians and Israelis continue if, like Australian aborigines, they believed that no one owns the land but they all belong to the land? How would they relate to each other if they saw all land as holy? ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ is a function of judgmental mind, which goes round and round. Unless we understand the source of the problem, how can we hope to solve it?
Not to surrender to distraction, denial, and suspicion, not to degenerate into cruelty and manipulation, means coming to know and accept ourselves, no longer living in fear and isolation, but in community. It means watching ourselves from a place of non-judgment: human community as well as Earth community. It means making friends with our awareness, staying in touch with it, being present in body, speech, and mind, here and now. It means seeing activism as a spiritual path.