The world can be terrifying.
A toddler drops her toy underneath a table and screams in terror at its total disappearance. A six-year-old faces going to school for the first time, seized with fear by having to leave his mother at the door and enter an unknown universe of strange kids and even stranger teachers. A 12-year-old forgets his speech in front of 300 people at the Optimists Oratorical Club district competition, and…
Okay, that was just me, but you get the idea.
All this before we encounter the far more terrifying challenges of adolescence: heartbreaks and aching loneliness, deep confusion about identity and purpose, and sexual awareness, seduction and predation…or for that matter, sexuality itself.
If we manage to enter adulthood with any degree of confidence, the really big terrors await us. Not just the individual challenges of making our own way in the world, personally and professionally, but the political and global frights. At any given time, another culture, religion or nation is out to get our culture, religion or nation, and will use any violent means they can: bombings, hostage-taking, public massacres or deadly drones.
If you can stop worrying about all that for a moment, you may remember that the earth and atmosphere are slowly overheating as our oceans gradually fill with plastic waste. And don’t get me started on earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and slightly-larger-than-usual asteroids streaking across the sky and smashing into the Russian tundra.
Humanity has devised countless philosophies, superstitions, defensive strategies and rational analyses to explain why things are so scary and what we should do about it all. Ask devotees of established religions what’s going on, and they’ll tell you that that more people need to read the Bible, or more women need to cover themselves up, or everybody needs to stop eating cows, pigs, anything with a face or pecan pie (I am firmly opposed to that last religion by the way; what a bunch of crazies!).
Meanwhile, the devoted rationalists among us choose to trust in science, which confidently tells us that, “We’re about to get all this figured out, and we’re quite sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation for everything. Just you wait and see. In the meantime, isn’t nature marvelous?!”
Enter the meditator. Since time immemorial, there’s been a certain kind of weirdo amongst us who responds to the infinite terrors of the world by sitting still, deeply breathing, repeating a certain magical phrase or idea and, after much practice of this bizarre behavior, suddenly jerks awake—because, let’s face it, you do fall asleep—and mutters the realization, “Things are not as they seem.”
That means that he or she has begun to pierce the bloodied veils of illusion that mask our true identity.
According to the meditative tradition you follow, that “true identity” is God or Brahman or the Big Lebowski—or simply Love. However you name it, this identity can be directly experienced, at least fleetingly, and within that experience is the knowledge that all is well, and there is nothing to fear. That’s because the profoundly fearful illusion in which we are daily steeped is just that—an illusion, a bad dream from which it is possible to awaken.
To the uninitiated, the meditative approach to the world’s terrors may sound like an escape route, i.e., you just sit on your ass as long as you can and make the world go away. In practice, however, the result is far different.
The veteran meditator becomes an activist of a different sort than we usually think of. Instead of circulating online petitions, writing legislators, or shouting in protests, the meditative activist faces all the terrors of the world inside the mind, and by facing them squarely, learns firsthand the powerful tools of forgiveness, compassion and equanimity.
You have to know what it means to be genuinely terrified—and you have to experience and overcome the powerful, always recurring temptation to blame all one’s fears on someone or something else, on anything but the workings of your own mind—to develop such skills.
That’s why it’s been said that “real meditation is just one insult after another.” When we confront how our own minds work, we will see much that we don’t like. We will probably see fears running rampant, and blame or shame constantly tempting us, and the latest ridiculous YouTube cat video running in loops. Thus we will have to repeatedly face the humiliation of admitting that our mind’s most closely held ideas, feelings, beliefs and video clips have got to get rearranged—for the Love of God, so to speak.
Therein lies the heart of meditative activism. The more often that we experience humility in the service of Love, the less likely we are to terrorize anyone.
Thus, whatever else the meditative activist does—which may include circulating petitions, writing legislators or demurely shouting in protests—he or she increasingly exemplifies the ultimate anti-terrorist attitude of genuine peace within.
While the notion of “inner peace” is so clichéd as to have become a joke, it is nonetheless a real gift to the world. In a terrifying world, there may be nothing more important to learn, and teach.
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Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Shambhala Times
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