Life Musings

Making Peace

Photo from my trip to Jerusalem in 2011. Found this very moving.

Everyone’s talking about “the conflict” in Israel and Gaza.  Meanwhile, most of us struggle to resolve the largely insignificant conflicts in our everyday lives.  I always see what’s going on “out there” in the world as a reflection of what’s going on “in here”.  Gaza is a mirror.  If we can’t assert compassion, love, acceptance of self and others on a daily basis when the stakes are low, how can we ever expect entire nations to make peace when the stakes are perceived as incredibly high?  If we are ever-ready to defend the microscopic terrains of our little egos, why do we marvel and scratch our heads when groups of people feel compelled to defend their land and their dignity, no matter the cost?  I’m simply amazed that folks who can’t get along with their in-laws nonetheless feel justified in getting on their ideological soap-box about politics and war.

It’s hard to believe, but I was actually in Israel and the Palestinian territories almost exactly a year ago.  I traveled to Jerusalem as part of a research team of sociologists studying stigmatized groups in the U.S. (African Americans), Brazil (Blacks) and Israel (Ethiopian Jews, Arab Israelis and Mizrahis).  You can learn more about that on-going project here and here.  This was my first trip to the Middle East, a voyage that changed me in ways I’m still processing.

Graffiti on the “security barrier” built by Israel in Jerusalem.

As I reflect on the harrowing news coming in from the region – a familiar and in most ways unsurprising story – I know for sure that there can be no lasting peace in this world unless we all figure out how to make peace in our everyday lives.  This is not an abstract or philosophical point.  Nothing could be more pragmatic than your commitment to practicing peace.  I’m not saying that one must be the Buddha in order to have a political opinion, engage in activism or resist domination or violence.  But we have to be just as committed, indeed more committed, to creating peace in our individual lives as we are to bringing about justice and reconciliation. For me, peace-making has been an integral dimension of nondual spirituality.  Pre-2012, my life was full of drama.  Because I was (unbeknownst to me) entirely identified with my ego and sense of individuality, my overall perspective was quite negative.  My greatest source and repository of drama was a dysfunctional romantic relationship that I finally ended after years of deeply unconscious, mutually-traumatic conflict.  But there were also many other little pockets of discontent.  I was easily offended and often angry. Someone was always getting on my nerves.  My shit list was maxed out.  I frequently spoke ill of others and had frenemies who enjoyed gossip.  It was a pretty awful way to live, but at the time, I didn’t know how things could be otherwise.

Took a mud bath in the Dead Sea after visiting Jericho in Palestine.

Fast forward a year.  I’m far from perfect, but the experience of peace in my daily life has gone from “almost never” to “the vast majority of the time”.  This does’t meant that I’m constantly singing Kumbaya or that I never get into arguments or fire up with anger. But arguments and strife are fairly rare occurences for me now.  And when they do happen, the key difference between then and now is that I see the ego.  I sense (and sometimes laugh about) my mind’s urge to be right, the desire to be noticed, admired, the ego’s need to feel superior. In the past, I was so wrapped up in the ego that I did not even understand there it was operating in my life.  [See Eckhart Tolle chit-chat about this aspect of the ego here].  I felt totally identified with my thoughts, my emotions and my narrative–the story of “me”.  My transformative encounter with God and conscious experience of nonduality has allowed me to identify with the presence, the space, the no-thing-ness within which my existence (and everything else) unfolds.  As a result, either in the moment itself, or immediately thereafter, I am able to observe my thoughts and feelings rather than become fully absorbed in them.  Not only does this create peace in my life by reducing my stress and lowering the volume of mental noise, but it also spontaneously produces compassion for everyone else as I consciously realize that the boundaries between us are illusory.

Now when someone upsets me, I express whatever feels appropriate in the moment — but I don’t do so with the unmitigated and unapologetic cruelty that I used to feel justified using in the past. An angry, unconscious ego always feels justified.  Now, when I feel wounded, I notice the feeling. I know that I am not the feeling.  I may hurt and suffer terribly.  My ego may feel that I’ve been terribly wronged, disrespected or mistreated.  But now I am not automatically driven by the pain or the anger.  The reaction is not quite so knee-jerk and automatic.  There is greater space, more distance — an observation of what is happening as it happens.  When negative thoughts arise about someone, the very awareness of those thoughts also dissolves the self-justification of the ego.  When I think of that guy who treated me poorly, the thought might come: “Wow, what a jerk!  I hate him.”  But as I notice that happening, that very awareness itself serves as a wake-up call.  It’s as if the awareness sets off an alarm: “Ding! Ding! Ding! Your Ego’s showing its ass again!”  And, as Eckhart Tolle and Mooji and everyone else who knows this truth says: once you see the Ego, it ceases to really be an ego.  That is, the Ego only really functions as such by fooling you into thinking you are it.  When you see that it is just an illusion (when you experience the truth of this) then it loses its power.  I might still tell that guy to never talk to me again, but something in me also asserts compassion and love for him, knowing that he and I are really one – and we’re both just doing our best.

I’ve also been making peace in very small ways. I used to be terrified of all bugs and insects. I would kill them (or, more likely, enlist someone else to kill them) with impunity. It first occured to me that there was something wrong about this when I started attending Buddhist meditation classes. But nothing changed in my experience – nor the experience of the poor unfortunate insects who dared cross my path – until I really began to feel more presence and stillness in my life. I didn’t make a decision to stop killing insects. It just happened. One day I woke up and found I was no longer afraid of them. And if fear did arise, it still didn’t have the kind of hold on me that it used to. Instead of squashing spiders and insects, I save their lives and liberate them, assuming Zora doesn’t hunt them down first.

You can’t make peace if you aren’t at peace.  For me, that means cultivating full, total, radical acceptance of my Self.  Accepting my Self means letting go of the illusion that I’m the little story, the illusory narrative, that my ego has contrived.  In so doing, I generate compassion for myself (the suffering of this imagined ego) and compassion for all living beings.  Awareness — conscious attentiveness to the present moment — inevitably leads me to see that we’re all the same.  When I hurt, I am reminded of the hurt I have inflicted on others as well as the universal pain we all feel when we forget our own Divinity.  What I know now, for sure, is that awareness is a pre-requisite for peace.  The first step is always consciousness, whether it’s in the Middle East or the middle of your daily crisis.

Spiritual Musings

Ah.

Realized in meditation last night that I am letting go of my attachment to things happening in a certain way – which also means that I am not avoiding suffering in the way I described in my last post on romance.  Remarkable that I’m having this realization just a few days after writing those words.  I swear, it feels like I’m in an accelerated course on awakening.

Am beginning to feel experientially that everything – even suffering – is okay.  Awareness of whatever is in this moment transmutes the phenomenal experience into the process of awakening.  That is, being aware of the awareness of suffering or joy or the sound of the cars passing by or the pain in the base of my neck or the taste of hazelnut coffee on my tongue or the thought of the guy my heart still breaks for, or even more subtle, sensing the ego’s urge to escape its feeling of incompleteness, this same urge which then prompts the mind to give importance to the thought about the guy – all of this, when seen and fully accepted/experienced as the unfolding of the Now – is itself transformed into the light of consciousness.
 

Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

On Stillness & Stereotypes

One of the advantages of living in awareness of the present moment is that you begin to consciously experience what it means to live beyond stereotypes

I recall hearing Eckhart Tolle talk about this aspect of stillness in one of his videos on EckhartTolleTV.com  The basic idea, as he explained it, is that being aware of other people as living beings requires attuning to their energy in the present moment.  It is in this way that we can connect with each other more fully rather than relying on expectations, prejudices and stereotypes derived from our conditioning and socialization.

In my research, I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of ethnic and racial stereotypes on inter-group relations.  Much of my work concerns the way minorities interpret and respond to everyday racism and discrimination.  In my own life, I have also been surprised and disturbed by how difficult it can be to not be influenced by the lingering (negative and positive) preconceived ideas we have about each other.  Usually these expectations are formed on the basis of appearance.  I know all of this intellectually – and yet – even as a scholar concerned with race and antiracism, even as a person of color, even as someone who asserts solidarity with the LGBT community, even as a woman, even as a “spiritual enthusiast” with a universalist/nondual perspective — even I have had to confront the persistent and pernicious effects of stereotypes on my perception of others.

If I have found it difficult to “live beyond” stereotypes, then how much more difficult must it be for people who share no particular affinity for universalism, who are not directly concerned with discrimination or who have not had the good fortune of having friends and loved ones in diverse communities and cultures?

One of the most profound changes I’ve experienced as I’ve prioritized my spiritual life has been truly connecting with other people – not on the basis of my assumptions about them or my past experiences – but rather on the basis of the energy that arises in the immediacy of our interaction.  As I began to put some of Tolle’s teachings into action, I noticed a remarkable flowering of my social life.  I now find it so easy and natural to engage with others when I’m anchored in stillness.  Instead of seeing folks through the lens of my expectations, they appear to me as they really are: awe-inspiring, beautiful manifestations of the Divine.

Now, when I encounter anyone – I find myself more automatically and easily feeling their aliveness.  When and if stereotypes emerge in my mind, I notice them and use that awareness to draw me back into Presence.  In the immediacy of the present moment, stereotypes and expectations simply burn away . . . how could they persist in the light of the “now”?  As I more naturally connect with and sense others, I increasingly have breathtakingly beautiful experiences, exchanges and encounters with such a wide variety of human beings . . . all of which has made my life even more rich, inspiring and exciting than it already was.

Stereotypes deaden our relationships.  They prevent us from seeing and connecting with what is real and essential about all of us.   For me, it is not enough to simply acknowledge, intellectually, that prejudice and discrimination are “bad”.   You can’t overcome the influence of conditioning and socialization through “good will” alone.  What is really required is a conscious realization of who we really are – beyond identity, beyond the ego, and certainly beyond stereotypes.  In the context of this understanding and inner knowing, connecting with others becomes natural and easy..not the result of effort.  It’s the same process by which virtuous and “right” action naturally flows from “right” perception.  When  you know who you really are and you know who God really is, you don’t try to act like a good person, but goodness can simply flow through you like light shining through a transparent vessel.  This is, of course, so much easier when we get our egos and past conditioning out of the way . . . in fact, getting over ourselves and living more fully in the present moment are both prerequisites for deeply experiencing love, peace and joy in our relationships with others.  It’s in this way that we come to truly see that there are never really any “others” out there. There is only the Self, the oneness of God . . . and we are all made of, by and in It.