Every morning, I watch New York City awaken. From the window of our apartment, I see women and men rushing to work, pulling their children with brightly colored backpacks along behind them. I see men and women asking for money on the street corners, Can anyone help a hungry man today? Within an hour, daily news reports of violence down the street and violence abroad are inevitably layered onto my experience of the new day through clips on NPR or notifications from The New York Times. The reports, inevitably, cause panic, disbelief, shock, horror, or resignation. The air feels thick with suffering. T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Wasteland often rise to and bubble at the surface of my consciousness: I will show you fear in a handful of dust. The world can often seem like a frightening place in which to launch and grow, in which to fiercely love people. Life seems paradoxically fragile and cruel. The ocean of need – everywhere from my block to the far corners of the Middle East—is overwhelming. It is exhausting and arresting at once.
This morning, I opened the news to the image of an apartment building in London engulfed in black smoke and flames. My pulse began to quicken, and my arms felt weak as my hand instinctively moved to cover my heart. It took me at least a minute to figure out it was not a building in Manhattan on fire, then another minute to realize no friends or members of Jack’s family live in a west London high-rise. Bad news is always jarring. It is sickening to fear, against every prayer in my heart, that tomorrow morning may bring something equally horrifying. I shudder at the very thought.
Resignation, though, is a dangerous hiding place. I believe that humans were created for love and connection. I believe we must continue to remain awake and open. I believe that the spiritual and political work of our time is linked, that true progress will be marked by our collective social healing.
We are born into families and communities because life cannot and should not be held alone. Life is too unmanageable to be lived in isolation. You would think our culture would value connection and support networks above all else, especially in light of the devastation we learn of daily, yet the opposite is true. Contemporary society has been formed by messages encouraging fear, separation, and hyper vigilance. The natural response to perceived threat is to shut down sensitivity and to hide from one another. Denying human interconnectedness is an existential measure of protection. Though understandable, the unintended consequences of this tear at the fabric of our communities and prevent human flourishing.
Zen Master Dogen once wrote, “The nature of enlightenment is to be intimate with all things.” The evolution towards a more enlightened world—a culture in which the dignity of life is respected—requires action grounded in intimacy. I ask myself daily, how I can be intimate with the life in front of me? How can I treat all beings with as much love as possible? How can I remain open to vulnerability today?
I so often fall short of these intentions. This year, I have found myself largely distracted and ungrounded. Living in New York is certainly stimulating and intrusive enough to require it. Walk around any corner of this city, and you will not know what you will encounter, even if it is a part of your daily commute. At best, what you could find may be inspiring. At worst, it could spark doubt in the goodness of humanity. At the very least, it will be surprising. This past Presidential Election and everything that has transpired within the last six months have shaken the ground on which I stand. The cruelty that now marks American leadership has engendered a deep anger within me. Every week, I find myself ranting in frustration. Though indignation can be fuel for social change, in the midst of the strength of these emotions, I have slipped into a fearful state. An underlying sense of helplessness pervades my days. A dear friend said to me recently, “I feel numb and scared.” I, too, feel that way frequently, but we must pull ourselves out of our hiding places and into the light.
Intimacy with life is an invitation to learn. It is a state of openness that allows for clarity in the midst of chaos. It offers an acuity that reveals what life has to teach us. When the world demonstrates harshness, leaving us feeling threatened, we quickly drop curiosity, creativity, and kindness. We become turtles that retract into our shells. When we witness harshness, we feel like we do not belong in this world. Most of us know our innate vulnerability. We sense that our souls are formed purely of love. Since our birth, though, (because which generation has not feared and wrestled with the state of the world?) we have been taught to put armor around our spirits. We look out at the dangerous world, and we say to ourselves, “Oh, no. This vulnerability, all the love and tenderness, all the openness and kindness in my being… that is not what the world is made of. My sensitivity does not belong here. I do not belong here.”
I am a deeply sensitive individual, something I have learned to claim as a gift rather than a hindrance. I crave stability and safety, but I also yearn for vulnerability with the belief that it has the power to transform our world in a deep and lasting way. My sensitivity – like all our sensitivity—is a call to pay close attention and engage in the world. We must allow ourselves to be intimate with all aspects of life even when (especially when) it is uncomfortable.
All the danger messages have obscured our vision of our true selves, the selves that want to extend love and compassion to all human beings. We fear the world will crush the goodness within us, and we fear that may be extraordinarily painful, so we put on our armor to cope. The result? Too many of us have mistaken courage with domination, reason with cruelty. Thus, the cycle of violent chaos in our world continues.
What in life breaks down barriers? Vulnerability. Take the example of arguing with someone you love. Ignoring each other, not looking each other in the eye, slamming doors, stomping feet, are emotional walls that our ego puts up to avoid being vulnerable. Chances are, if you say to someone you love, instead of blaming them or yelling at them, I am afraid. I feel hurt. I feel alone, whatever you were arguing about will dissipate. The fear will dissolve, and the love that is constantly beneath the surface will rise and flourish again because forgiveness, grace, love, and respect are grown out of the soil of honest vulnerability.
This principle must also be applied in a broader way to our political life. Love is beneath the surface of all things in life. It can be revealed if we live with presence, not just with our loved ones, but also with everyone.
We need spiritual activism. We need advocacy engaged in healing our collective suffering. In My Spiritual Journey, the Dalai Lama calls for a “spiritual revolution [that] does not depend on external conditions linked to material progress or technology. It is born from within, motivated by the profound desire to transform oneself.” I believe a spiritual revolution begins with removing the armor we have attached around our vulnerable, courageous, loving souls. We can neither fully see nor fully heal the rifts in our shared life, if we do not shift our inner condition from one of fear and narrowness to one of love and openness.
What if we held the opportunities to become more intimate with life, instead of throwing them away? How would our world be different? The Dalai Lama continues his call for a revolution, stating:
People may object that a spiritual revolution cannot solve the problems of the contemporary world. They might add that, on the social level, violence, alcoholism, drugs, the loss of family values should be dealt with on their own ground through specific measures. But we know that more love and compassion would limit the extent and gravity of these problems. Wouldn’t it be better to approach them and treat them like problems of a spiritual order?
Human beings spend a lot of energy avoiding both pain and connection. Human beings –hiding under statistical data, new technology, or “realism”—waste time avoiding the essential. Information and knowledge are, of course, deeply important, but alone they often fly over the truth that is reflected in lived experience.
Our world is in the midst of a spiritual health crisis, so we need spiritual medicine. The body of our world is unwell. Each day, there is a new rash, a new glaring sign of its illness. The pain and sickness must not be ignored, but in order to heal it, we have to feel it.
Compassion and attention are essential, the two most fundamental elements of medical and emotional care. You do not heal anything—not cancer, not an injury, not a mental illness—through brute force. Compassion and attention are principles tightly woven together that provide a prescription for social healing. If you actively cultivate compassion, you cannot ignore the striking inequality and the heartbreak embedded in daily life. If you are really paying attention to the people around you, you will fall in love with their messy humanity and see them through the eyes of grace.
We can all begin at home, perhaps every morning, by finding stillness within. We can find the perspective to go forth into the world—on our life path and on our daily commute—and live in a way that embodies what we seek to accomplish in the world. If we pray for more peace on the earth, if we advocate for justice, if we believe in the triumph of fairness and kindness, then our daily actions and interactions should be infused with the same virtues, seeking to heal and never to harm.