Friday, March 23, 2018

Still worse and worse...

"The worst is not--so long as we can say, 'This is the worst'"
 --Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear

For more times than I can count, since the Catastrophe--that is, the ill-fated election of Donald Trump as President last year--I have been reminded of this gloomy quote from Edgar, Shakespeare's bellwether figure in King Lear.  With every passing day, we see horrific headlines about yet more unprecedented outrages from the White House, and it has become clear that the morally bankrupt Republicans who control Congress are nothing but callow and shameless enablers who will do nothing to stop Trump's thuggish power grabs and assaults on democracy, on the planet, and on the rule of law. We could well be heading into a new Nazi era, a new Great Terror, instigated by this power-mad psychopathic fascist and his cronies on behalf of the corporate oligarchy and the Military Industrial Complex. All bets are off, and the worst may be yet to come--whether nuclear war, economic collapse, resource wars, runaway climate destabilization and ecocide, and the unraveling of the social order and descent into chaos and violence altogether.  To quote Shakespeare again,

"Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into Will, Will into appetite,
And Appetite, a universal Wolf
So doubly seconded by Will and Power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up itself."

So once again, we ask, plaintively, "What can we do?"

Social activists, young and righteously indignant, will naturally cry "Hit the streets!"  But in truth, what good will that do these days?  While mass demonstrations feel good for the participants, they do precious little to change anything.  The corporate-controlled news media largely ignore them unless they turn violent--and then these few violent incidents then become an ideal tool for Fox Noise and the Republican noise machine to loudly marginalize and condemn all protesters as "terrorists" who should be rounded up en masse--and Trump will be only too happy to oblige. They have all the money, after all, and all the big guns, tanks, and hired thugs they need to wreak bloody mayhem on even the biggest mass demonstrations. China, after all, got away with this at Tienanmen Square, and the memory of this bloodbath has been effaced from the younger generations of Chinese (much as Douglas MacArthur's bloody assault on the peaceful Veterans' Bonus March of 1932 was never mentioned in our history books).  Likewise, who even remembers the mass protests of the Occupy movement--which were likewise squelched by raw force and brutality? So storming the castle on the hill, whether peacefully or violently, is not a viable option these days for confronting tyranny and corporate domination.

What is? More thoughtful people will advocate Satyagraha--nonviolent mass resistance and noncooperation with evil--but this tactic--however effective and morally grounded--calls for charismatic moral leadership (e.g. Gandhi, King, Mandela, Chavez, Havel, Wangari Maathai, and Vandana Shiva) but also systematic grassroots organization and strategic intelligence to target the leverage points of the power elite and to use mass media effectively.  There is much to be said for this, but Satyagraha campaigns also require patience for the long haul; the courage to endure humiliation and abuse without lashing out in rage and hatred (and thereby becoming your own enemy) is a rare human trait, and generally requires extensive inner training and discipline to even attempt.  So while I would never discourage this nonviolent approach--and we may well need to be ready for it, as the Trumpian tyranny becomes more naked and brutal--it is well to remember that any Satyagraha campaign, to succeed, must be mindful, strategic, and relentless.

So what is left for all the rest of us ordinary folks, who may lack the moral courage, the charisma, and the organizational skills to mount an effective Satyagraha campaign? Where can we find refuge from the Trumpian insanity that is destroying our nation and planet simultaneously?

Obviously, our planet being an "inescapable network of mutuality," there is no escape from the ramifications of a dysfunctional mass society or a dying global empire morphing into pervasive corporate tyranny.  But there are useful and healthy things we all can do to cultivate the health, competence, and resilience we will need to become agents of regeneration, no matter what happens in the big world. And these (for me, at least) fall into the three general categories of Tonglen, Satyagraha and Permaculture--the three essential disciplines.

Tonglen--the powerful Tibetan meditation technique for cultivating universal compassion--becomes an even more important starting point as the world becomes more chaotic. It can be done either in formal meditation or "on the spot" (as Pema Chodron puts it). It consists, briefly, of an exercise of the empathetic imagination: taking on the vast suffering of all living beings on the inbreath, owning it and transforming it, and then, breathing out healing, love, and compassion to all beings.  

There are numerous techniques for doing this effectively, but my favorite formal approach is the "expanding circle" approach: begin by taking in--embracing with your inbreath, as it were--your own inner pain and anguish, whether physical, emotional, or mental--and--imaginatively contacting the "diamond in your mind,"--your Buddha nature, Christ nature, Witness, Still Small Voice, Peace of God, or whatever you choose to call it--and then, breathing out healing, comfort, and peace to your own inner afflictions.  Then do likewise, first for those closest to you (significant other, family, close friends), then gradually expand your circle of compassion to include your acquaintances, whole categories of people, all people, all living beings, anyone in particular distress--whoever. Use your imagination to make it vivid and personal.

Finally--and this is most difficult--we breathe in the suffering of our enemies, of the perpetrators of violence and bigotry, from irritating people we know all the way up to Trump and his maligant ilk.  For Buddhist psychology teaches that all hatred, all meanness and cruelty of whatever sort, is ultimately rooted in a deep inner suffering of the perpetrators themselves, which, unless it is alleviated by genuine, selfless compassion, only becomes worse and worse, creating greater and greater harm to others.  (This is why a figure of the Buddha appears in each of the six Samsaric realms in Tibetan iconography).

Extending your circle of compassion to your enemies is very challenging and difficult, for in order to practice with authenticity, we need to acknowledge and cut through our own hatreds--those parts of ourselves that are most Trump-like, which we often do not want to face, in order to generate authetic compassion for Trump. This is what the Buddhist story of Angulimala is all about.

Angulimala is a vicious, thuggish serial murderer--the worst imaginable kind of person--whose name derived from his habit of stringing the fingers (anguli) of his victims around his neck like a necklace (mala). The story goes that when Angulimala encounters the Buddha, he has 999 fingers around his neck and is eagerly looking to score his thousandth. But the Buddha's total lack of fear, his equanimity and boundless compassion, disarms Angulimala, who then hears the teachings, joins the Sangha, and becomes a devout and caring monk. But due to all the bad karma accumulated by his many savage murders, Angulimala must nevertheless endure beatings and abuse wherever he goes.

So by generating compassion (against the odds) even for the likes of Trump, Bannon, Bolton, and all the other craven thugs currently in his orbit, we are paradoxically embracing and healing those aspects of ourselves that we don't want to admit, that are most like those we detest.  But nobody ever said this would be easy. The commandment to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you..." is always by far the most difficult one to achieve. But it is also the most transformative.

Tonglen--meditating and imaginatively cultivating compassion for ourselves, our friends, all life, and our worst enemies while our nation collapses into tyranny and the world careens toward apocalypse--may seem like a waste of time, a trivial, self-indulgent way of avoiding reality--but in actuality, it is a direct and mindful way of inoculating yourself from despair by embracing the horrors directly, such that whatever the world throws at you, you take it in, embrace it, filter it, transform it, and turn it into loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The other two essential disciplines, Satyagraha and Permaculture, I have already written about extensively through this blog, so I will leave them alone for now. Suffice to say that a serious Tonglen practice provides a solid foundation for both nonviolent noncooperation with evil, and for sowing the seeds of a Gaian future from the ground up by growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.

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