Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vertical and Horizontal Healing

My last post, "Life without Hope," was full of unrelieved despair for the world, leavened only by the quiet resignation to impermanence of Anglican poet and divine George Herbert, reminding us, yet again, that "only a sweet and virtuous soul" can transcend the ravages of time and mortality--much as the Buddha, in the "five remembrances" (i.e. that we are of the nature to get sick, grow old, die, and lose everything we love) concludes that "my actions are my only true possessions."

As Gaian Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy has often suggested, despair for our planet cannot and should not be suppressed, but rather it needs to be acknowledged, embraced, and worked through, as a path to healing and empowerment. This is not easy, but I would like to share one formulation I have come up with that may help in this ongoing process.

Our culture as a whole suffers from a fragmentation that is both vertical and horizontal. By "vertical" I refer to the personal axis of body, mind, and spirit. Ever since Descartes saved the Catholic church from science and science from the church by developing a dualistic ideology that clearly distinguished res cogitans (the domain of mind, subjectivity, and spirituality) from res extensa (the objective, physical domain, subject to scientific investigation and manipulation, and beginning with our own bodies), this vertical dissociation--of our bodies from our minds, and of our minds from our spirits--has become completely embedded in our mainstream culture. We are encouraged to view our bodies as objects, like our cars, getting them tuned up by exercises, decorated by make-up or tattoos, and repaired by physicians and surgeons. In short, we go to the gym for our bodies, the school or college for our minds, and the church or synagogue for our spirits--as if these were separate, disconnected entities.

Likewise, we are dissociated, largely by design, in the Horizontal realm: our selves are dissociated from our communities, and our communities from Gaia--the larger matrix of their existence. This is "by design" because this dissociation of self, community, and nature serves the interests of Glomart (my coinage for the money-based Global Market Economy). Glomart gains--that is, sells more products and services--to the exact extent it can turn us into isolated consumers, alienated from our communities (so that, for example, we need to buy our own lawnmower, rather than borrowing our neighbor's). And likewise, it thrives when our communities of whatever sort--our schools and colleges, our corporations, our cities and states--are insulated from the adverse ecological consequences of their habits of consumption. In short, Glomart seeks, by its single mandate (the profit motive), to turn citizens into consumers, communities into markets, and our living planet into "resources" devoid of any value until they are transformed into commodities for sale. As a consequence we are dissociated both vertically and horizontally.

My friends and acquaintances, as well as the many people I read regularly, fall broadly into two broad (and often mutually exclusive) categories: those who are focused predominantly on Vertical healing (i.e. reintegration of body, mind, and spirit), through such disciplines as yoga, tai chi, and meditation, and those who are focused predominantly on Horizontal healing (through social and environmental activism). While there is some overlap, these two types of people are largely distinct: many of my Buddhist friends, massage therapists, and other "cultural creatives" are so caught up in their own and others' spiritual (vertical) healing that they give little thought to getting involved in larger social or environmental issues, as they sip their bottled water and drive their SUVs to "Hot Yoga" classes (burning who knows how much coal for the convenience of sweating profusely). Conversely, many of my social activist friends, both "lefties" and environmentalists, are so passionately involved in righting social and environmental wrongs, exposing the evil-doers, and rallying to shake their fists at the oppressors and polluters, that they ignore their inner development altogether, succumbing to chronic rage, bitterness, and burn-out.

However, we need both--Vertical and Horizontal healing--in order to bring about any possible spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth. Is it possible to integrate them? It is indeed, but no one ever said it would be easy. We must strive to emulate the role models who have managed this integration of Vertical and Horizontal healing most effectively: people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Soo Kyi of Burma, and Wangari Maathai of Kenya.

This brings me back to my recurrent fantasy. Imagine setting up Dharma Gaia circles, open to people of all faith traditions, which are dedicated to just such an integration of Vertical and Horizontal healing. The core practice would be, of course, my Dharma Gaia mantra, which moves on a roughly diagonal axis from the embrace of body/self (Breathe, Observe, Let Go) to mind/community (Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch) to spirit/Gaia (Learn, Teach, Heal, Create). The idea would be to create groups that begin with this meditation, then go on to do shared readings, and conclude with a discussion of outreach strategies. I plan, this fall, to start a prototype of such a meditation/reading/action group at the community college where I work. I probably won't call it "Dharma Gaia," however--I live in an overwhelmingly Christian state, and this "heathen" terminology would frighten away most, if not all, of my students. So instead, I'll simply call it something like "Interfaith Healing Meditation and Reading Group," and our first reading will not be "environmental" at all, but rather, it will be Karen Armstrong's newest (and easiest) book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, in which she finds common ground in the practice of compassion among all the religions of the world, and especially the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Call it Skillful Means...My goal, if it is to be authentic, must not be to make everyone "see like me, feel like me, and be like me"--but rather to help them, within the context of their own religious culture and background, and according to their own knowledge and skills, to become a healing agent on our planet.