I grew up in a family with two alcoholic parents. Every breath we took was profoundly affected by the realities of alcoholism. While basic needs were met and there were wonderful times, there was a gaping hole in the center of the family. The proverbial elephant was in our living room and a huge amount of life energy and vitality was consumed by confusion and denial. Nobody talked about the problem; it was not supposed to exist. In isolation we suffered a lot of difficult emotions, and had to deny them even to ourselves. We played our parts well and kept the family secrets from the outer world. For me, the price of denial was depression, migraine headaches and drug abuse. It took years after leaving home to begin to awaken to the family wounds and to begin to transform them into compassion and wisdom.
Encountering the teachings of the Buddha was the major turning point in bringing sanity and balance into my life. Meditation, and learning to live in the present moment opened my eyes and heart and I began to unearth the anguish that I had been avoiding. Ever so slowly, the power of awareness has illuminated layer after layer of denial and has created the conditions for a modicum of inner peace.
Now I am faced with an outer world that is careening toward disaster. My own nation, perhaps the most powerful state ever on the planet, is defining itself as superior to international law and all the nations of the world. It is sleepwalking its way into “justified preemptive war”. At times I experience fear and hopelessness as I become aware of the magnitude of the forces that are driving the war machine, and sense how incredibly small I am in the face of such monstrousity.
As in my family of origin, there is reticence to speak openly about the elephant in our national living room. Many of us are afraid to feel just how upsetting the war is, for fear it will consume us or drive us into depression, rage or anxiety. Most of our political leaders are fearful of speaking up lest they be attacked as “traitors.” We are reticent to speak of it among ourselves because it might cause conflict and threaten the little bit of love, comfort, and community that we have managed to cobble together.
Unacknowledged fear fills the hearts of Americans and there is the belief that we can feel safe again by “winning” the “war on terror”. This will likely be as successful as the “war on drugs” or the “war on poverty”. War and violence do not work in our inner lives and do not work to bring peace into the world. The Buddha taught, “Hatred never ceases through hatred. Hatred ceases through love alone. This is the ancient law.”
In response to this outer tension and turmoil I experience two pulls that on the surface seem diametrically opposed. On the one hand, I am tempted to withdraw into isolation and meditation to enjoy the peacefulness of a mind that does not concern itself with the problems of the everyday world. It would be lovely to bask in solitude and tranquility. On the other, I am drawn to bring the fruits of thirty years of Dharma practice into engagement with the difficult issues that are facing us.
This dichotomy is not new to me. For most of my adult life, despite being very much a householder, there has been a nagging pull that has whispered, “I should be a monk. If I were really serious about Dharma practice I would devote my life to meditation.” Instead, I have actually lived a life well summarized by Zorba the Greek, “ Wife, house, kids, thewhole catastrophe.”
The Buddha defined compassion as “the sensitive heart’s trembling when faced with suffering”. My heart trembles when I think of the people in Iraq dying, the young men and women in uniform who will die and be maimed, the tens of thousands who will be displaced from their homes, the endless suffering that will arise and endure for generations to come from so much death, and the sacrifices everyone will make as the global economy squanders wealth on weapons. I am also moved by the realization that the karma of this attack will likely spawn a generation of psychologically damaged young people who will bring terror to us in the future. My heart cringes when I reflect upon releasing the genie of preemptive attack. This will have unforeseen, and tragic, political and social consequences as striking first is adopted by belligerent nations and individuals.
Ajahn Sumedho, senior Western monk of the Thai Forest Tradition said at Cloud Mountain, “ Living with lovingkindness doesn’t mean that you have to like everybody. It means instead that you don’t cast anyone out of your heart. Sometimes it’s essential, and in their best interest, to hold someone in lovingkindness while you call the police”. Buddhism does not advocate passive acceptance of everything that occurs in the outer world. It does, however guide one to act out of lovingkindness, non-violence, and the realization that there are no enemies, including those whose actions one is trying to stop. The Buddha’s teachings are sorely needed in the social discourse of our time.