As a spiritual teacher who concentrates on healing the human body and soul, I have trafficked in a vocabulary that includes words like Awakening, Enlightenment, the True Self, God, and others words and terms that are trying to point to that state in which human feel at home in the universe, a state in which life and death make sense, a state in which fear has been reduced and the egocentric banter of the unhealed soul has quieted down to a sort of communion with what it means to be human. But after fifty years of working in these fields of the Lord, so to speak, I am more convinced than ever that these terms--and the states they denote--come down to one thing: when we awaken, we awake to the full panoply of the human condition. When we are enlightened, nothing changes except as we see our attachment to a minuscule, fixated view of ourselves and the world, we are just a bit freer to let go of dogma and depend upon kindness, generosity and love, the cream that rises to the top of our human milk if we have courage, patience and the right guidance. Without theses things to help us, we are liable to become smaller than we are, meaner than we need to be, and fixated on a single leaf when the forest is burning.
On Thursday, October 6th, the New York Times' front page contained a picture of a man climbing over dead bodies on a refugee ship that had capsized as it was bound for Libya from sub-Saharan Africa. There was one dead man, a young man, in the center of the photograph who was unbearable to look at. He was wearing a small bathing suit or undershorts. His muscled, electric body, was draped over bodies below him. His yellow underwear barely hid what once was his vital sexuality and life force. Now, he was dead. We couldn't see any pain on his face. He was just a corpse to be stepped over, something that would start to decay in a few hours and continue to decay until it was burned or buried.
I find myself in a precarious position, walking a tightrope over a terrain filled with imprecision, confusion and forces pulling in several directions at once: What do we pay attention to? What is truly important? Which comes first? Awakening also means facing these true and difficult realities and seeing that they are part of our human life as well. On the same front page the articles run the gamut from crass political concerns to pieces about deep human anguish: An article about drug deaths next to a piece about how Republicans--many of them cowards--have to decide whether to abandon Trump as they seek to stay in power themselves. Mitch McConnell is unhappy. Paul Ryan is unhappy. Nearby, a story about ISIS having published a detailed account of the restaurant attack in Bangladesh and the "religious test" they gave hostages before killing them: "Those who proved their Islam were treated with respect and mercy. Those who did not were treated with harshness and severity." Just to be clear, this latter statement means that first they were shot and then, after falling to the floor of the restaurant, their throats were cut and their hands cut off. A series of articles in a single daily paper, with concerns from the most narrow-minded to the most anti-life, the most crazy, the most unadulterated evil.
Part of enlightenment, if that is the right word, is having your judgment become clear enough so that you can see what is in front of your face. Believe it or not, that is its major component. Before that occurs, we are prey to ancient wrongs in the form of neurotic responses to early childhood injustices raising their heads as if they were happening in the present moment. We are filled with transferences which cloud our judgment, kill our kindness, and push us toward a fixation with blindness, a movement toward the extremes because we cannot deal with the pain of the world directly. In doing this, we become partial people, with qualified feelings, limited in scope to a preordained set of rules or abstractions.
Part of awakening to our true nature is being able to prioritize, to know when the house is burning, to know how to rise above our smallest concerns and to be able to feel, to react, to act. Is anything more important, is there anything that honors life more, than having this young man and all his dead compatriots, never having died in the first place? Yes, we can fight for one candidate or another because of the importance of the upcoming Supreme Court nominations. Yes, we can concentrate on the unborn. Yes, we can be partisan. But where is the outrage in seeing these dead bodies? These were actual people. Not "migrants" as the Times would have it, but refugees from inhuman conditions. Where is the united outrage about this? How can we walk back our inner commentaries so that this does not continue to happen? How can we regain our emotional flexibility so that we can put aside some concerns--at least temporarily-- for the sake of others?
This is all confusing. I know this is hard to figure out. But the discrepancy, the cognitive dissonance between these dead bodies, posted in color on the front page of a major newspaper, without there being a statement that declares all of our determination not to let things like this continue, is sometimes too much to bear. There is a dead young man in the boat and we are all there with him. What good is meeting God or the real self or finding Nirvana if we have to climb over dead bodies to get there?
And herein lies a possible path. Seeing this photo this morning, I felt helpless. Not only to help these refugees, but to figure any of this out. I felt without any power at all. But if awakening teaches us anything, it teaches us that to be fully human we must include all of feelings, and that salvation, which is to say help, often comes from the unlikeliest of corners. Feeling helpless and yet continuing to feel, opens the heart. It releases the tincture that begins to reset the rules of human response. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, an eighteenth-century Hasidic teacher, taught about the "hollow heart." The hollow heart is a heart that is open, that is empty, but ready to be filled by light. It is a heart that has felt the enormity of life and come up empty. This emptiness is the first step toward discarding ancient prejudices and hurts. Helplessness, no longer covered up by abstract ideas, is a call to feeling, to the compassion that arises from our smallness and our enormous desire to help coexisting side-by-side.
How do we get to this heart that is ready for wisdom? The first step is to open our minds and hearts up, not so much to answers as to questions: How can I help? What can I do? The helplessness that arises from such a question and its fellow travelers is not the enemy: it is the way things actually are. It is the ally that makes us stand openly before reality--this sea of troubles--and put aside our small pursuits and do what we can, when we can.
To embrace our smallness, our powerlessness is to embrace the universe. If that sounds too New-age-y or too pie-in-the-sky, let me put it this way: To embrace what is actually before us--no matter what it is--is to be real. To be real is to begin to draw up that deep water that lies in the well of our being, the one that cannot let a person dying by the side of the road simply die in favor of an abstract principle. The hollow heart, the heart that has dropped its prideful embellishments, is filled by this engagement. It is diligent and kind. Compassionate and smart. It is the best of ourselves and it takes work to draw that water to the surface.
The news is not good these days. With this unprecedented uniting of the fabric of the world comes jungle diseases for our bodies and demagogues for our souls who favor rigid order above else. People cross borders trying to escape all this misery. All we can do is to try to cross our own borders and enlarge ourselves to our proper size: small but mighty. Compassionate and honest. Limited but loving, doing all we can.