On a recent trip for my day job, I headed to the main office for a week of meetings and strategy. It can sometimes be a bit of a culture shock to go from my predominantly left-leaning community into a right-leaning context.
In one conversation, a colleague became heated about current affairs and started spewing angrily about Obama and the Clintons and lunatic Sanders supporters and we needed someone strong like Trump to finally have the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done, and so on.
Coming from a daily context where almost the polar opposite can be heard in a coffee shop or in casual conversation drives home the deep divide in our civil discourse. And then the news this past week pours in with tragedies in Orlando and Leeds. And it strikes me all of this has something to do with contemplative practice.
So, what’s the connection? It can seem pretty far afield on the surface. If we have any context for the word contemplation at all, it might call to mind escapist monks chanting Psalms in a distant mountain monastery, hiding out from the world.
But let’s look a little more deeply.
Contemplative practice is intended to situate us within the divine presence. Or maybe better: it is intended to whittle away the everyday egocentric chatter and mental noise that keeps us from realizing that the divine is always already there, beneath the surface.
So what does this have to do with the partisanship, bigotry, and shocking acts of violence we’re confronted with lately? First, let’s look at where the violence comes from.
The pattern goes something like this. There’s a fixed mental idea – a narrative – about what our town or state or country ought to look like. This is often based on a romantic ideal from childhood, or a collectively cultivated myth. The tighter we cling to that idea or image, the more we resist any reality that deviates from it. We experience discomfort or inner tension. We experience fear. Then we start painting an even more exaggerated picture of reality based on that fear.
If we listen to media members, religious leaders, or community members who don’t understand the nature of the ego and violence, that tension can turn into anger and hatred in search of a symbol of oppression that we fixate on as the victimizer: Hispanics, Blacks, Bankers, LGBT, Muslims. That becomes the new ego project – to eliminate the projected source of my suffering.
The true problem is of course an inner one, a sense of instability, fear, resistance, inadequacy, or resentment, but we project it externally. Contemplative practice helps us grow in our awareness of how this dynamic manifests in our own selves. It’s like stopping the mental speed boat, putting on the diving bell, and sploshing into the ocean of consciousness. After a few dives, we start to see some of the depth charges strewn about.
If we take no steps to grow, we remain unconsciously driven by these fears and desires. We remain stuck in a low level of awareness. We don’t know ourselves. We’re afraid of the other.
In America and the UK this is further complicated by our own foreign policies over the past hundred years. Our countries experience reciprocal immigration from the places we’ve tried to colonize and dominate.
Our demographics are changing. The political landscape is changing. A large segment of society feels their position of privilege and power eroding. That breeds anxiety, resistance, and resentment.
In the US, the Trump campaign has become a flashpoint for that fear over lost heritage, values, and cultural norms. The rhetoric attracts people clinging to a particular image of what America should look like and what its role in the world should be: prosperous, dominant, patriarchal, ethnocentric.
That posture in turn threatens to take away what gains in access and opportunity minorities and the traditionally underserved have experienced in recent decades — in fact that’s part of the problem, their experiences and voices have long been excluded from the central national narrative. But that’s changing. There’s a counter-response. The sides clash. A young black man protests. An old white man takes a swipe at him. Things escalate.
In Orlando a gunman clings to their own idea, their own narrative of the way things ought be, with everyone obeying the moral laws that he embraces. He’s identified his symbol of oppression: revelers in a gay nightclub. Their very existence contradicts the vision of the world he clings to: submissive, disciplined, moral, devout.
In West Yorkshire, a progressive British MP is gunned down and stabbed by an assailant shouting “Britain First.” He’s identified his ego project with a particular vision of what Britain should look like and what its role in the world should be. The result of his inner posture is violence.
Now, oftentimes there is some mental instability in play. Most of us can regulate violent impulses. But most of us also sow the seeds of violence unconsciously perpetuating that kin dof energy. Anytime we cling tightly to labels and overidentify with my country, my city, my family, my car, my reputation, we are in service of the ego and we sow the seed of violence. When that ego is threatened, or whatever it identifies with, we respond violently, mostly in thought, sometimes in deed.
How do we transcend that process? How do we move to a more unitive perspective? How do we rise above to a new synthesis that doesn’t just respond out of anger or fear or defensiveness, just feeding the dualistic cycle of violence?
By letting go. By loosening our grip on our fixed image of how things ought to be. By realizing all things are transient – the way the world was when we were kids, or how we imagine it in our distorted memories, is transient. Cultural dominance is transient. Our political structures are transient. That’s another lesson of the contemplative dive.
We’ve had painful reminders this last week that our very lives are transient. But there are practices that can help us move, both individually and collectively, past our vengeful and violent egos and into a kind of divine wholeness.