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Politics, Activism and Awakening

Politics is usually a hot-button subject, one that can trigger bitter arguments, end marriages, ruin family dinners, drive apart loved ones, and lead to wars and genocides. It is one of the main realms in human life where it becomes crystal clear that no two people are seeing exactly the same movie of waking life.

Politics (at its best and in essence) is about how we organize and function together in communities—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Politics deals with things that matter to our everyday survival: jobs, healthcare, education, civil liberties, criminal justice, the well-being of the planet and the eco-system (including clean water, clean air and a livable climate), war and peace—issues that can easily trigger our strongest and most basic survival instincts, the pre-rational ones rooted in the lizard brain.

And to each of us, our current viewpoint—our current movie of waking life—seems irrefutably real. Even if we know better intellectually, we are all in some way deeply convinced that the way we see things is the way they really are. The illusory appearance that consciousness creates is, after all, very convincing! And yet, no two of us see everything in exactly the same way, and some of us see things in completely opposite and utterly irreconcilable ways.

And most of us have seen things in quite different (often opposite) ways over the course of a lifetime, but our own changes in perspective and opinion feel like simply course corrections in which we’ve moved from a mistaken view to a correct one, whereas the dissonance between what we see now and what others see is often quite upsetting and easily brings forth anger, frustration, explosive arguments, bitter divorces and bloody wars.

Deeper down, below the bluster of certainty and outrage and the drama of conflict, this dissonance also triggers a deep-seated fear in us, a fear that arises because everything we think, believe and take to be real is being thrown into question. The fact that others see things so differently undermines our whole sense of reality. It occurs to us, if only in a quickly suppressed flash, that everything we see, and everything we think we know may all be illusory. This sudden and disorienting sense of groundlessness, along with our survival instinct, may in fact be at the root of why we get so angry and fight so hard for our positions. We are holding on for dear life, trying to survive as this form called “me.”

In my lifetime, I have gone from right to left, from far left to less extreme left, from political activism to spiritual awakening—including a passage through liberation theology and engaged Buddhism. In past decades, I’ve been involved in many political movements including feminism, socialism, LGBTQ liberation, disability rights, anti-war, Central America solidary work, and anti-imperialism. At different times in my life, I’ve supported figures as diverse as Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater on one side, and Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders on the other. There have been years where I tuned the News out, and years where I was swimming in the News. At one point, my life was almost entirely about political activism. But over time, my focus has shifted more and more to spirituality and awakening. I now feel that waking up may truly be the greatest gift anyone can offer to the world.

For many years, I was easily outraged by injustices, embroiled in political arguments, and heartbroken by all the cruelty and human-induced suffering in the world. When I’d hear Eastern teachings about the world being an illusion, I’d feel furious and argumentative (perhaps a clue that something was being threatened). In recent years, this has been shifting. It’s not that I no longer care, but there is no longer the same sense of horror I once felt or the belief that all the horrors and injustices can and must be stopped. I see now that human activity is the activity of nature as a whole, and even more deeply, that it is all a dance of consciousness. I see that we don’t know how it all goes together. We may need the grit to create the pearl, or the suffering to bring forth liberation, and the resurrection may be impossible without the crucifixion. I have come to recognize that the light and the dark are inseparable, that there is no lotus without the mud, and that the manifestation can only appear in duality, in polarities. Imagining that we can rid the world of darkness and have only light is a fantasy based on not seeing how the world actually is.

Over many years, I began to trust in the wholeness that will be here even after the whole universe is no more. And I began to question, how solid or substantial are all the events going on in the world?  As I began to sense more and more deeply that all of it was a kind of mental construction or dream-like appearance, I began to feel how insubstantial, ephemeral, evanescent and protean it all is. I came to see that the world isn’t actually “out there,” set in stone, as I had assumed and believed and felt it was. I remembered the biologist Rupert Sheldrake talking about how laws of nature may be more like habit patterns than laws, and I began to question in a whole new way how the world actually changes. How much impact does one person’s being awake in this moment have on the whole universe? Maybe much more than I ever imagined.

What actually ends human suffering? Do we stop it with hatred? Rage? Violence? Can we bomb it out of existence? I’m not saying there is no place for protest—certainly there is—and maybe there are times when violence is the only way, whether for an individual defending themselves from a would-be murderer or rapist, or a nation defending itself from a violent threat of invasion, or to stop a genocide, or as a people trying to liberate a country from tyranny. Maybe sometimes violence is the only way to stop violence. I don't know. But I do know that if that violence comes from hatred and blame, in my experience, it will only lead to more and more hatred and violence. 

How many revolutions that began with the best intentions have ended up being oppressive? How many people and groups who have been the victims of injustice have turned into perpetrators once they got some power? How many soldiers, suffering the PTSD from war, have brought the wars home with them?

Bullies and tyrants may be deeply wounded people who are covering up a huge hole of fear, doubt and vulnerability by acting in the ways they do. In my own experience, when I've been filled with rage, I’ve been told by others that I look powerful and scary and threatening, but my internal experience in such moments is one of feeling powerless, wounded and discounted in some way. I don't behave in an aggressive or violent way from a place of genuine self-assurance, peace of mind, inner confidence, and real happiness. 

If we are behaving badly (as we all do at times), and someone reacts by coming at us with judgement, anger, hatred and violence (whether actual or verbal), how does that affect us? How do we react when someone makes it clear that they despise us and consider us to be scum? What reaction does this bring forth in us? In my experience, it usually makes us tighten up and get even more hardened into our positions and hateful of the perceived "other." But on the other hand, what happens when we are met at such a moment with genuine (not fake or manipulative, but genuine) love and compassion by someone who sees beyond our surface behavior to the light inside of us, however buried it may be? In my experience, when we are met in that way, we are much more likely to melt, to let go, to see what we’re doing, to wake up. Will such love be enough to stop every bully and put an end to every act of cruelty? Probably not. But love may be far more powerful than we imagine. And the truth is, we’re not really separate from one another.

In a person, the left eye and the right eye each sees a different picture. Combined, they form our whole vision. Maybe each of us is like an eye through which the universe is beholding and exploring itself, and together we are one whole vision. So, whose view is the “right” one? The person you see as a terrorist, I may see as a freedom fighter, and vice versa. To one person, legalized abortion may be the legalization of murdering unborn people, while to another, it may represent women’s reproductive freedom and the prevention of unsafe, backroom, coat-hanger abortions. To some, Donald Trump is a savior, to others he is a destructive mad man. Who has it right? Things are rarely entirely black and white. Usually, there is some truth on different sides. And inevitably, our perspective is shaped by our life experiences, by who we identify with, by what different people and situations remind us of or trigger in us. Very often, we are battling against phantoms and defending ghosts. And inevitably, we all believe an immense amount of second-hand information that we get from parents, teachers, friends, the media, the internet, social media. And there is really no such thing as an objective report on reality. Everyone sees a unique movie of waking life.

The bare actuality of what we see is undeniable in one sense— that visual shape we see in a person's hand is impossible to doubt, but our instantaneous perception-conceptualization of it as a gun or a cell phone or a book may be incorrect. And even more deeply, no-thing that we perceive (no apparent gun or cell phone or book) can ever actually be pinned down or separated out from everything else that it apparently is not. The world of seemingly discrete, persisting objects is an illusion of consciousness. That something is appearing here is undeniable, but our mistake lies in taking the conceptual overlay that is added on to our bare perceptions (the meanings and interpretations) as reality. We mistake the map for the territory again and again without realizing we are doing it. And we mistake fleeting and unresolvable appearances for a solid, persisting, observer-independent reality that is "out there" as some kind of objective fact. And we identify with some things (or people) and not with others. As we realize all this, we see how unreliable all our opinions and conclusions actually are.

I’ve witnessed some moving political activism during my lifetime, moving from my point of view, that is. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, showed a very positive, loving, non-violent way of standing up for social justice. And I have personally benefited tremendously from the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, and the disability rights movement, all of which have made my life as a gender nonconforming, slightly bi-sexual, one-armed lesbian much less painful and difficult. So, this post is not meant to disparage political activism. I simply find that I’m no longer moved to engage in it. But I’m glad others are doing this work. I’m glad that people are moved to respond constructively to the many situations in the world that are calling for change and healing.

But maybe we shouldn’t be quite so certain of our views. Maybe we should listen more openly to different points of view. And maybe we shouldn't underestimate the power of simply being present and awake in this moment, or of discovering our interdependence with everything and everyone, or of moving from identifying solely as a separate person to a knowingness of being this boundless whole. Maybe disengaging from the News from time to time, or at least consuming less of it, and focusing our energies instead on other things, or on simply being awake Here-Now, is not a bad idea. Maybe seeing the ephemeral and un-pin-downable nature of this world is not an act of ignoring suffering, but an act of being liberated from it.

Humanity seems poised to self-destruct either through nuclear weapons or unchecked climate change—and even if we don’t do the job ourselves, many natural events could also wipe out life on earth. And in fact, although we often think otherwise, humans are part of nature. Our bombs and skyscrapers are truly no less natural than bee stings and ant hills. The earth itself is a changing, finite planet with a changing, finite sun. All form is impermanent.

An Advaita sage was once asked if the starving refugees (or whatever suffering beings you care deeply about) are real. Are the suffering beings in this world real? The Advaita sage replied, they’re as real as you are.

I’ve always loved this exchange because it leaves us with a wonderful question to explore: How real am I? What is real about me and what isn’t? To what am I actually referring when I use the word “I”?  Without referring to thought or memory, what am I right now? And without referring to thought or memory, what is this present experiencing (this buzzing, vibrating, ever-changing hearing-seeing-tasting-smelling-breathing-sensing-thinking-awaring-being) that I call “the world”? What is real?

Much of what we think of as “me” we have learned second-hand: our name, our gender, our nationality, our age, our race. We can change our name, our gender, our nationality, our clothing, our hair style. Many other things that feel like “me” can and often do change over time: political leanings, spiritual leanings, sexual preferences, tastes in music and food, fashion preferences, appearance, abilities and disabilities, occupations, friends and partners. The bodymind is actually nothing but continuous change, all of it inseparable from the so-called “environment” and “others” around it—one undivided seamless happening.

Even that first bare impersonal sense of being present and aware—what is often called the I Am—even this vanishes every night in deep sleep, under anesthesia, and presumably at the moment of death. What remains? What is real Here / Now?

This is not a question to answer with the correct word or with second-hand information. It’s a question to dive into and explore directly, not by thinking about it, but by feeling into it, opening to it, dissolving in it.

From this awake presence Here / Now, intelligent action flows. But really, if you look very closely, is anything substantial actually happening?

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017-2021 --

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