Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace! But there is no Peace.
Patrick Henry, 1775
In yesterday’s post, I quoted some peaceful words of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu. All were written over two thousand years ago. Almost everyone would agree with them. Yet they are too often honored in the breach. And so I wonder what further words could possibly be said in order to staunch the flow of blood, hatred, indifference, and self-righteousness that threatens to engulf our world? Yet I feel an imperative to have my say in favor of love, tolerance, and non-violence. Otherwise, as Albert Camus has pointed out, in my silence I would be choosing to align myself with the segment of humanity that sees murder as a reasonable avenue to conflict resolution. The only other option would be to fade into the grey tones of apathy.
So what can I say? Perhaps the three shadows I isolated in the previous post might serve as hints or tracks I can follow in order to glean some understanding. All three shadows deal with the enigma of ineffective words: the first with those of liberal idealism; the second with the dry utterances of academia; the third with the gap that lies between the highest teachings of religion and the lives of many religious practitioners. These shadows, these stumbling blocks, have revealed the dimensions of some seemingly universal tensions: idealism vs. realism; rigidity vs. circumspection; righteousness vs. tolerance; words vs. deeds. These incompatible dyads lie at the heart of conflict. They are sources from which spring the unholy coalition of loving words and fearful actions. As long as they obtain, they will inevitably spawn the violence that crushes the body, and the acid of righteousness that corrodes the spirit. As a result, the people of the world groan under a myopic intolerance that mistakes moralism for morality, rigidity for fidelity, and blindness for patriotism.
I wonder where to insert the scalpel of analysis in order to relieve the pressure of these tensions. In this essay, let us focus on the mental rigidity and emotional righteousness that can be found throughout the political and religious spectrum, and which seems to characterize all conflict. In verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes these telling words:
People are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
The soft and supple will prevail.
Rigidity, or clinging attachment is a foundational concept in the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Human suffering (dukkha), said the Buddha, is caused by clinging attachment (trishna). Reflecting on the nature of attachment, therefore, might shed some light on the Psychology of Self-Righteousness.
As Fritz Perls said so many years ago, the first job of every baby is to create a world. We are bombarded by the buzzing booming cacophony of our surroundings, and we struggle to make sense of it by forming ideas or beliefs that give form and meaning to it all. We fashion a matrix of ideas, that frame and craft a world. This construct is further enhanced by our acculturation in the home, in school, and in the churches, and it is this construct to which we cling with all our might. Now, the ignorance (avidya) that gives rise to illusion (maya) is not simply that we are unaware of the “real world.” Rather, we cling to the world that is created by our construct as though it were absolutely real. Here lies the destructive illusion: I become addicted to MY world, thinking it is THE world.
Moreover, as I build a world, so I build a self. My I, my ego, is actually a complex of ideas about who I am, what I think and believe, and how I act. I again attach to this self-image (asmita), and will not let go for dear life. Any thoughts, values, or feelings that are incompatible with this constructed self-image are quickly denied as I cling to the self I think and need to be real. Cognitive dissonance tends to produce anxiety if it is recognized. As a result, we often relegate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the periphery of awareness. Have you noticed that there is an active ingredient to ignorance? In ignorance I choose “to ignore,” “to look away from” that which I do not want to see.
This clinging to my constructed world and constructed self is understandable, for it creates a sense of sanity, a hedge against the uncertainties of life. It also acts as a bond of loyalty and fellowship with our parents and teachers and with the broader culture. I would also agree with the American Pragmatists that in the early stages of human development, this clinging is necessary. To become a fine jazz musician, for example, one needs the mastery of technique, harmony, rhythm, and structure in order to ground one’s flights of creative improvisation. It is the same in life. We need a structure, we need a history, and we need facts, in order to function in the world.
But we must not stay too long at the fair. If the jazz musician remains dependent upon the tune as written, she will be unable to discover the true miracle of music. What she plays may be very right, but it will never be very good. Her playing will lack “soul.” Likewise, it is this clinging to our received world-view as we mature that causes the greatest human pain, a pain that often escalates conflict into violence. This is so because our constructs are usually not ample enough to include the breadth and depth of life as it unfolds. When we are confronted with the demands of a complex and fluid world, and with the frameworks of other people and other cultures, we are sometimes too terrified to let go of our own secure mental constructs. This fear leads to a defensiveness that breeds stereotyping, anger, and violence.
Listening and Looking
Clinging to one’s own ideas in this way traps one in the cave of the mind. Dialogue becomes impossible, since the fortress of the closed mind renders many people incapable of truly looking and listening. In the Buddhist tradition, listening is seen as the essence of compassion. In a similar vein, the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano points out that America had elected a deaf President: “a man incapable of hearing anything more than the echos of his own voice. Deaf before the incessant thunder of millions and millions of voices that in the streets of the world are declaring for peace against war.” (“un hombre incapaz de escuchar nada mas que los ecos de su voz. Sordo ante el trueno incesante de millones y millones de voces que en las calles del mundo están declarando la paz contra la guerra.”)
Annie Dillard powerfully underscores the importance of looking when she says: “We don’t know what’s going on here…we don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Healing words, that is, need to grow from the still ground of our looking and listening. Conflict, on the other hand, is always characterized by glare and noise. When people care more about being understood than understanding, they simply shout louder, thus making themselves impossible to hear.
I am going to put the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi in bold letters because I think it is so central:
IF WE ARE TO ACHIEVE TRUE PEACE IN THE WORLD, WE MUST START WITH THE CHILDREN.
I am thinking of education here both in the Spanish sense of educación: upbringing, and in the thought of Plato as “e ducere:” to be led out of the cave of one’s own mind. As Teilhard de Chardin taught, we human beings might be terribly imperfect, but evolution is not finished with us yet. We are works in progress, as individuals, as societies, as a human family. Liberation from the illusions that underpin righteousness takes tremendous courage. In my experience I could never have found even a smidgen of this courage without the caring nurture and inspiring example of friends, teachers, and guides to help negotiate the uncharted–and unchartable–territory of life’s mysterious surprises. As Parents, Friends, Psychologists, Educators, and Peace Activists, we must find a way to help people (including ourselves) loosen their dependence upon their constructed worlds and constructed selves. Early acculturation need not be indoctrination. It can be taught gently, lovingly, with a gradual opening to the visions of other cultures and new ideas. As education progresses and as the student matures, there comes a time—-an exhilarating time—-when the kaleidoscope of the mind shifts, and new patterns of thinking emerge. This happens again and again, as simple clicks of the wheel reveal unimagined vistas of thought and attendant feelings that have the power to transform the world and the self forever.
I believe the world’s deepest need today is for great teaching and great learning. Teaching Peace, however, does not fall only on the shoulders of the Gandhi’s and the King’s of this world. We, too, are the gatekeepers, blessed with the awesome responsibility of inviting those we meet on the quotidian byways of life to the adventure of greater conceptual amplitude and emotional intelligence. We are all teachers who stand at the threshold between love and fear, kindness and violence. George Fox, the Founder of the Quaker movement, beautifully expressed this ideal in a statement of 1656:
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may [teach] among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”
Finally, only the teacher who is herself engaged in the risky and exhilarating process of daily creation can effectively invite other people to this journey of discovery. If we are to stand before the world as teachers, we must be willing to wear the heavy mantle of self-confrontation and self-knowledge. As Gurdjieff said: “If you wish the best for your children, you should seek it for yourselves. In fact, if you change, they will also change. Thinking of their future, you should forget them for a while, and reflect upon yourselves …Only in knowing ourselves can we look to someone else.” Thus we are challenged to strip away all pretense of certainty and all the protection of rigidity. But it is only here, in this posture of naked vulnerability, that our words and actions might coalesce into a beneficent synergy. Then, to quote an ancient Zen poem: “without trying, our smiles will heal withered hearts.”