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.
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.
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.