It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post. Many things have changed in my personal life over this time, and the demands of these has meant little time for writing. I sat to write at the beginning of lockdown, but the immensity of what was happening left me wordless…
Finally, words emerge once again.
What do I want to say? I want to start by acknowledging this historical moment. The viral, social/racial and climate pandemics, the political and democratic crises, that we are a part of – living within and through. In particular, how a meditative practice intersects with this, the potentials and the pitfalls.
Meditation practice can be a profound resource in the midst of what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls ‘The Full Catastrophe‘. However, it can also be a way of hiding from the world. I know this well. As a disillusioned political science student, I stopped reading newspapers and generally engaging in politics for years. I was heartbroken. I cared so much for this beautiful, tragic world and couldn’t bear the reality of all of it. I didn’t realise that, ‘Heartbreak is unpreventable, the natural outcome of caring, for things and people over which we have no control.’ (Poet David Whyte) I became cynical and apathetic. I focused on my meditation and yoga practice, which was extremely beneficial for me. It allowed me to de-stress, develop greater calm, well-being and internal stability. Just as long as I wasn’t too informed about wider worlds affairs. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I couldn’t bear to care. It hurt too much. There is a brittle quality to this kind of calm. It is very vulnerable. Life is just too demanding and dynamic for it to sustain.
Over the years, as my internal world became more stable and grounded, I became more robust and resilient. I opened up to what was happening around me. A mixture of my partner’s persistent questioning around my unwillingness to engage, and for a short time, inspiring, UK based, political leadership, awakened me. I recognised that, as well as all the very useful benefits I was experiencing from meditation, I was also using it as a spiritual bypass, a term coined by psychologist and meditator John Welwood. That I was numbing out from, and closing down to, the challenges of the world. Political and social events were happening, and I was relatively immunised by meditation, burying my head in the sand.
The great Thai Forest monk Ajahn Chah says:‘There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering, you will surely continue to experience the first.’ At a certain point, I realised that by turning away, I was actually participating in allowing immoral, unjust and unethical situations to continue in the world. That my unwillingness to experience the second kind of suffering, was a collusion with the first type. I was indulging in a privilege, that many around me did not share – I could turn away. Historian, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit puts it incredibly well, ‘Politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.’
I remember years ago being struck by the words of meditation teacher and author Stephen Batchelor, who said, ‘Practice is either an existential consolation or confrontation.’ Practice as confrontation requires me to cultivate internal resources. To do the work, to toil, day-by-day, meditation-by-meditation, moment-by-moment, cultivating the courage and willingness to bear witness to difficulty, both internally and externally. To read and watch news, selectively. To study and upgrade my understanding about the various crises we are living in, and my part in them. To stay present, to engage, be informed and participate. To recognise, receive and allow the heartbreak, fear, sadness and grief experientially. To yield to, and soften with, the psycho-physical resistance, inflexibility and rigidity, the emotional/physical tension, stress and distress.
‘It may happen that as I soften and come into awareness I begin to notice feelings I have suppressed in my everyday life. Grief, anger, pain may arise like genies from a bottle, threatening to overwhelm me. Yet if I stay with the present moment in my body, and continue to feel its weight, breath and movement of sensation, what threatened to overwhelm me may slowly begin to change transformed by tides of a richer and wider field than I had been able to see.’
Over time, with the tremendous support of meditative practice, study and community, I have realised a greater capacity and availability for the world. The possibility, at times, to release the fruitless struggle for life to be on my terms, my way, and the willingness to meet it on its terms. This frees up internal resources otherwise bound up in resistance and self-absorption. Making me more available to bear witness, participate and act, in whatever way I can.
At other times, I feel overwhelmed and hopeless. The political immorality, greed, inhumanity, manipulation, cynicism, divisiveness, short sightedness, and frankly, stupidity get to me. I become pessimistic, blue, certain that the world is going to pot. At these times, I must withdraw for a while. Practice is consolation. I rest in meditative awareness, lick my wounds, walk and read. I find Rebecca Solnit, quoted above, and again here, from her bestselling book, Hope In The Dark, so inspiring at these times.
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
Taking time to seek out inspiration and re-source, energises and readies me to re-engage once again. There is an organic flow here. A permeability. Opening and closing, just like the physical heart does. All open to the world and I am dissipated. All closed to it and I lose contact with the full range of what it means to be alive. Brailling my way, I find a place between both. The lines of Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirschfeld speak to me here:
‘Although the wind blows terribly here, the moonlight also leaks through the roof planks of this ruined house.’
With all that is going on with the world, it feels like living in a ruined house. The winds are blowing terribly. I guess I could try to seal off the roof planks, control things, shut the terrible winds out, but, oh…. I would miss the moonlight!
‘Let everything into you;
beauty and terror.
Keep going, remember
no feeling lasts forever.’
And, no situation lasts forever. Sometimes I find myself reduced into thinking and feeling that whatever is happening in the world is static and permanent. The fact is, it is all moving, changing and impermanent. This is what I love about Solnit’s writing, as a historian, her panoramic view of world events, of history, support me in getting perspective. Other pandemics, political and social systems have come and gone, technologies have changed and evolved repeatedly. Empires have risen and fallen. This hasn’t happened by itself, it has required the will and effort of the few and of the many. All hands and hearts are needed on deck.