Beacons in the Darkness

There continues to be a lot of angst about the current political situation, particularly after the events in Charlottesville last weekend. Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart because when I was in the fourth grade, my family took a brief vacation there. My mother was a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, which is why we went. I still remember what a beautiful campus the University of Virginia has. So of course I was quite sad to see Charlottesville become the focal point for so much hatred and violence.

Last night I went to a meeting that focused on Charlottesville and the current political situation. We started with a period of meditation, and then we were invited to share our “biggest fear and our greatest hope.”

I thought this was a curious request given that this is a self-described “Buddhist group.” Fear and hope are about the future. They are fantasies of a sort. Fear is what a psychologist I used to know calls a “doom fantasy.” And hope is its inverse, a quasi-positive fantasy. I do not think you will find either of these in the Buddha’s vocabulary of present moment awareness.

These things are never that simple, of course. Inside of fear there is usually some wisdom. If a tiger is chasing you, that is a pretty healthy fear. The trick is to tease out the wisdom from the fear. If your fear wins out so does the tiger. You will be paralyzed into poor choices. If the wisdom wins out, you have a better chance of choosing a way to safety.

Hope also has its nuances. The skillful part of hope is “aspiration.” An aspiration is something personal. It is also something over which you have more control. You aspire to graduate from college. You aspire to become a skilled carpenter or weaver. You aspire to awaken. These are skills that you can cultivate.

The less skillful part of hope is that fantasy. You want world peace. You want an end to poverty. You want an end to hatred and violence. Of course you do. But the chances of that happening, at least in this lifetime, are slim to none. And more often than not such fantasies lead you to the well of despair.

And that is where the group found itself. One person after another spun out their future positive fantasy and their future despair. Neither one of those is particularly helpful. And when someone jumps down into the rat hole of fear, anger, and despair, they get very upset with you if you refuse to join them. It is quite the emotional spiral.

It is more useful to replace the language of “fear and hope” with that of “wisdom and aspiration.” We turn our outward gaze inward. What can I do to be of benefit? This is the advice that the Buddha gave to his then seven-year-old son, Rahula. And if the answer is nothing, then that is the time to practice equanimity.

The Buddha’s teaching is almost never about what is “out there” but about what is “in here.” By cultivating our minds to embody love and compassion, wisdom, patience, kindness, and generosity, we become beacons of light. Look at the Dalai Lama. Think about all that he has been through and continues to go through. And yet he is always cheerful and in good humor, and that is very inspiring.

This also demonstrates the problem with the practice of “being with whatever arises,” which is what the meditation part emphasized. As many of you will know, the Buddha never taught this. This style of practice is a Burmese invention from about 1920. It was developed in response to the political situation at that time.

The Buddha taught that we should abandon unwholesome mind states and cultivate wholesome ones. Fear is a manifestation of the second poison, aversion. The antidote to fear is mettā, lovingkindness. I think the Buddha would have suggested that instead of indulging our fear, we should have been practicing mettā, especially for people whose minds are poisoned with hatred, fear, and anger.

The practice to just “be with whatever arises” tends to actually feed negative mind states. To paraphrase a comment by John Oliver, it’s like a cat. If it is hanging around you it is probably because you are feeding it. This does not mean pushing it away. That is just another form of aversion. So often that is what people mean when they say “letting go.” But over time you can learn the skill of neither indulging an unwholesome mind state or being averse to it. A friend of mine uses the phrase “learning to live around it.”

The Buddha’s path is empowering. Our lives are not like tumbleweeds, subject to uncontrollable forces. They are not chaos. And they are not under the control of unalterable destiny or a “higher power.” Our futures are under our control. We can learn our way out of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. And this is true no matter who is President, whether we are in Germany in 1942 or now, whether we are rich or poor, black, white, red, or yellow, male or female, gay, straight, or celibate. And that is how we move toward greater happiness and less suffering, and how we make ourselves of benefit to the people around us.

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