“From a spiritual perspective, it’s never right to hate someone, and it’s never wrong to love someone.”
—Professor john a. powell, Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Otherness and Belonging (Wisdom 2.0 2016)
For more than a month, I’ve been working on a post about the relationship between awakening and activism. It’s been percolating for a year, and I wanted to make it eloquent, but like most of my drafts, I’d written 5,000 words and was still figuring out how to say what I wanted to say.
There’s no more time for editing, so I’m winging this from scratch.
Like most people I know, I followed the election results Tuesday night with a mixture of shock, horror and confusion. My defense mechanism of choice was denial. He must’ve paid millions to the most skilled (and least ethical) hackers in the world, I thought. This cannot be legitimate.
It appears it was. Or at least, he received vastly more votes than anyone expected.
As I texted to a close friend in California, “How do we change the timeline?” Short of that, well, this is the timeline we’re in, and this is what we have to work with.
I spent two days in a fog, unable to concentrate on anything. The world, to use a lyric from Hamilton, turned upside-down.
Whether or not Trump is inaugurated in January, the hatred he endorsed is out of the closet, spewing forth on sidewalks and subways, in schools and shopping malls. And people are understandably frightened, terrified.
A Little Background
In 1995, I moved to Canada because, at 28, I was a burned-out political activist. I’d gone on my first Take Back the Night march when I was 12, and I’d written the names of Atlanta’s missing children on green ribbons in high school. I’d canvassed in Boston and New York for pay equality; I’d had endless conversations about intersectionality (though there wasn’t a word for it) and working on my own racism. I’d been arrested at Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment and on Wall Street; I’d worked with a band that played at labor rallies and on picket lines; I’d been an AIDS activist, researcher and volunteer. I’d had my phone tapped and my mail opened. And nothing, it seemed, had changed, except that my best friends had died. The final straw came in December of 1993, when a woman I worked with was killed in a random shooting on her way home from work, long before mass shootings became commonplace. I didn’t want to live in a country where that could happen. I’d never felt particularly “American,” and I could sense the U.S. moving in a direction that was diametrically opposed to my values. I was scared, I was tired, and frankly, I wanted to live in a country that reflected my values. I was also really sick of being sexually assaulted (seven times between the ages of 11 and 25) and harassed (hundreds of times a day when I lived in New York).
Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with fellow Canadians about the inevitable fall of the American empire. Yet none of us predicted this.
I care now, not because I’m American by birth—I identify as Canadian—and not (only) because my family and many friends are there, but because every person in the United States (and for that matter, on the planet) is part of the same living organism. These are my fingers, my toes, my earlobes and elbow. And I am yours. We may not like every part of our body, but it’s ours.
Today, I have mixed feelings about the phrases “activism” and “social justice” because they’re so heavy with resistance. And resistance, as we all know, doesn’t get us anywhere. I like “social change,” but after hearing Rev. angel Kyodo williams say that, to her, “social change” sounded like white people talking about hugging trees, and less about social equality or inclusion, I realized others may not hear the phrase as inclusively as I intend it. Inclusion. That’s the word I’m going with. (To be clear: I believe the environment and animals are also part of this living organism. Inclusion to me means just that: everyone and everything. And I have been known to literally hug trees.)
I’m aware of my privilege in moving to Canada. I’m aware that I don’t fully understand what people are experiencing in the States right now, because I’m not there. If I were there, I’d probably be so overcome with anger that I wouldn’t be able to write this. But I’m not, and I can, so here goes.
The Problem of Othering
“From a deep perspective, there is no other. And to the extent that we live our lives as if there is an Other, we not only deny that person that we target; we actually deny ourselves.”
— Professor john a. powell
When we see people as Other, we dehumanize them. We give ourselves permission to treat them in ways we’d never treat our friends and family. We tend to think of Othering in terms of the right wing dehumanizing the left—because to be sure, that’s the foundation of white supremacy and other types of bigotry; we’re seeing that right now. But it works all ways. We are all connected and interdependent, much as many of us might be loathe to find a commonality with a Trump supporter. Interdependence isn’t even a spiritual concept, as Sharon Salzberg pointed out in her post-election meditation. It’s just fact.
If we’re ever going to get anywhere in healing this planet, we have to start with compassion, an understanding that every living being wants to be safe, happy and healthy, and their actions spring from what they think will make them happy.
As the saying goes, “Hate is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die.” It only hurts the person whose heart is filled with hate. It’s not easy to find compassion for people who voted for a white supremacist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, xeonophobic man, but that’s the task at hand.
Compassion isn’t Zero-Sum
“The more you’re in the pursuit of justice, the more you imagine you know what’s right…and it’s actually the opposite. …Everyone holds a piece of the truth.”
– Rev. angel Kyodo williams, in conversation with Sharon Salzberg about “Bridging Spirituality and Activism,” at Garrison Institute (Listen to the audio here)
Compassion is limitless. Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people; it doesn’t mean believing the stories they’re telling themselves. We can have compassion for people without agreeing with them or liking them. We can have compassion for them and dislike their actions. And most importantly, we can have compassion for people whose perspectives are directly opposed (from ours and from each others).
It’s not just that we can have compassion. We must.
Hatred doesn’t solve anything. It’s the easy way out, and it’s the ego’s way. But hatred begets hatred. That’s not just a spiritual law; it’s a psychological truth: If we react to someone in anger, we put them on the defensive, and suddenly we’re on two sides—one right, one wrong—rather than collaborating to find a mutually beneficial solution.
It is much, much easier to write about this than to live it. I’m aware that I can sound morally superior, so let me add that I get reactive, sometimes often. In the years I’ve been practicing mindfulness, I’ve noticed that I’m far more reactive when my basic needs (security, food, shelter) are either missing or at risk than when everything is relatively comfortable. The difference is like night and day. That insight, in turn, has given me more compassion.
Finding Compassion for “Enemies”
My practice for finding compassion for people I don’t like, or whose actions bother me, is to first discover what need they have that drove them to those actions, and then to see if I also have those needs. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the stories they’re telling themselves, but rather getting to a root feeling.
Trump voters, like all of us, have a need for security.
Do I have a need for security? Yes, absolutely.
They believe that if everything just went back the way it was, their lives would be better. Clearly, this is an illusion (and I could write another 2,000 words on what’s ‘wrong’ with that story), but the point of this exercise isn’t to judge. Or at least, to minimize judgments.
Have I ever wanted things to go back the way they were before? Oh, yes. (That’s actually been a big theme for me this year, in three major areas of my life.)
And have I caused pain to others because I acted on that desire? Yup. (No, it’s not on the same level, but it’s the principle.)
That’s all compassion is. Understanding the pain that drives another person to do what they do.
Further, they acted in a way their country has taught them to act: What they believed was their own self-interest. The value of—and perceived right to—whatever one wants, regardless of its impact on others or the whole is, I believe, a big part of what’s at the root of American violence.
Have I ever acted out of conditioning, at any point in my life? Yes. I’m tempted to qualify here, but the answer is yes.
(I admit that I draw the line at Trump himself. I have tried and tried and metta-d and metta-d, and I cannot find compassion for him. I believe he is a sociopath. Occasionally, on an intellectual level, I can see that he’s cut off from connectedness, and that’s (somewhere very, very, very deep and hidden) causing him pain. But I have not been able to feel compassion for him.)
I would hope it goes without saying—but it might not, in this volatile time—that I also have compassion for the people whose views I share, and whose lives are upheaved and possibly threatened because of this election. My heart breaks for what my friends, family and people I’ve never met are experiencing right now. I don’t know what to do, but I know we need a different way, one that isn’t “us vs. them”—and that “we” have to be the ones to initiate that paradigm shift.
I know what it’s like to need safety and security, physical integrity.
Compassion isn’t about understanding someone else’s experience entirely. It’s not about believing someone’s stories or supporting their actions. It’s about understanding the core of their needs. It simply means I understand that, like me, you’re part of this living organism, and you want to feel safe, happy and secure.
The Role of Spirituality in Social Inclusion
There’s a difference between intellectually knowing we’re all humans sharing this planet and experiencing that every living thing on this planet is part of a single living organism.
Once you know yourself as part of a living organism, even for a single moment, you experience viscerally that there is no Other. It’s an illusion. And that—even a brief glimpse—changes everything. Because it’s easy to get angry based on intellectual ideas of “We’re all human”…but when you experience oneness, it opens up a path to love. Maybe not 24/7, maybe not even most of the time, but it’s there. And you see that to ignore people who are hurting is like ignoring a broken leg.
Many people don’t know they’re part of a living system. They “know not what they do,” to use a Christian phrase.
(It’s much easier to write about this than to live it in the moment. I’m not sure I could stay this equanimous in the face of the hatred that has been lobbed at people in the past week, and in fact, I’ve lost my temper more than a few times when I’ve been triggered by others’ judgments or actions.)
Surely that experience impels each person to work to heal the illusion of separateness that gives rise to bigotry and inequality, right? Not necessarily.
I didn’t immediately reunite with my activist self. I needed a few years of solitude in the forest, and I was deeply ambivalent about re-connecting with an increasingly insane outside world. I knew the pain my mind had caused me, and re-engaging with a mind-dominated world was not my ideal way to maintain inner peace. I needed to heal myself before I could take action.
And then all these murders began happening—or rather, white people began to realize that they’d always been happening, and we began seeing the extent of racism in the United States. And I saw that my leg was bleeding.
Everything is Unfolding?
One of the common features of most awakening experiences seems to be a sense that everything is unfolding perfectly. I am super-grateful not to have been part of a formal community, because apparently in some communities, practitioners decide that’s justification for apathy.
The way I see it…in the really big picture, things are unfolding. In the picture where we’re on one tiny planet in one of several hundred trillion galaxies in a universe that’s so big we haven’t even begun to understand. From that perspective, nothing is a big deal. What happens on this planet, what we do or accomplish on the physical plane, doesn’t matter a bit.
And also, in a relative or planetary sense, things are not all perfect, not by a long shot. There is bigotry, homelessness, hunger, climate change, wars, violence… Our job, as expressions of consciousness, is to heal suffering. And while one level of suffering comes from mistaking our bodies and minds for our true selves, another is very tied to the body and mind. What’s the central teaching through all religions and spiritual paths? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated in that situation. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Protect and speak up for the vulnerable.
To me, this is the entire purpose of human existence. This is why we awaken.
Finding Compassion for Each Other
I’m getting into “us” and “them,” which I don’t like doing, but language is inherently dualistic. But here, I’m talking about those of us who are in shock, who did not vote for this guy, and who are trying to figure out what to do next.
All of us, even lifelong activists and people who have questioned their thoughts and judgments for decades…we’re all going to fuck up at some point. Somebody is going to be upset by what we say or do. And while, on the bigger level, that’s because they’re believing their thoughts, it’s also our individual and collective responsibility to see whether our behaviour is contributing to the madness around us. This is the price we pay for the gift of being in a human body. Growing up white in North America, it’s not possible to reach adulthood without having internalized some racism. Growing up as a cis straight male in this culture, it’s impossible not to have some issues around women. Growing up middle class or wealthier virtually guarantees obliviousness to the practical and emotional impacts of financial challenges (and also, in the United States, a sense of superiority, of knowing how to solve problems because hey, if we have money, then that’s proof we know better, right?).
It takes time and self-awareness to work through these, and they may never be fully healed. This is humanity. And this is why we meditate and practice mindfulness, to discover our illusions and thoughts and patterns so that we can heal them, instead of continuing to contribute wounds to the world around us. But when we do… instead of ranting and raving at each other for what each person is doing “wrong,” maybe we can focus on having compassion for them, appreciation for where their hearts are. Each of us has strengths, and each of us has blind spots. But we need each other to get anywhere.
I’ve already gotten into heated discussions with beloved friends who share my perspective, over nuances in interpretation, and I’m a pretty conflict-avoidant person. For this election to cause rifts on the left would be not only the ultimate Trump victory, but also a death knell to all the progress that’s been made over the past 50 years.
(I’m saying this because I know I will need the compassion of others when I screw up.)
Lessons from the AIDS Epidemic
In the 1980s, I was an AIDS activist, researcher and volunteer in Washington, D.C., one of the hardest-hit cities. While my friends died horrifying deaths, the President wouldn’t even acknowledge the epidemic. There was so much pain, so much loss, so much shock, anger and grief…AND so much love, SO much love, because we understood the urgency, and so much compassion borne from pain. AIDS brought homophobia out of the closet, made it visible so it could be addressed directly and healed (to the extent it has been). I don’t believe the progress that has been made on LGBT+ rights in the US would have happened without that mobilization—and love. I hope and pray that this moment is our catalyst (however painful and horrifying it appears right now, and admittedly, it looks pretty bad) that will eventually lead to a world of love, compassion and awakening.
If you want some perspective, talk to a gay or bisexual man over 50. They remember threats of being fired, evicted, beaten, of being rounded up into camps or isolated on an island, estranged from their families. My friend Ray wasn’t allowed to be in the same house as his young nieces and nephews. When he died, his parents insisted his obituary read “cancer.” And yet, in that same time, organizations evolved—GMHC (Gay Mens Health Crisis), ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), to levels of activism that the community didn’t know they had in them. Ultimately, it paved the way for gay marriage and the (relatively) mainstream acceptance of sexual diversity.
I have to believe that there is an opening here, a possibility for massive awakening and change.
We often hear—and say—that the system is broken. Yet in the Garrison Institute conversation, Rev. angel Kyodo williams observed that the system isn’t broken. “It’s a system that is working exactly as intended. The question is how do we need to disrupt the system? How can we conceptualize a system from the ground up that understands humans, planet, animals, species, in an entirely different way?”
Photo credit: Can Stock Photo / aqualine