“Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance”

A few weeks after 9/11, The Onion (“America’s Finest New Source”) ran this headline:  “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.”  It wasn’t fake news but satire, humor, and there was probably some truth to it.  The Onion could use that headline again now and it would be at least partly true.

The election in November and the inauguration in January has left many of us really bummed out.  We have a new term for it:  Post Election Stress Disorder.  PESD.  Evidently, it hits people on both sides.  The American Psychological Association’s recent survey, “Stress in America,” shows that 49 percent of Americans remain concerned about the election, 66 percent are concerned about the future of the nation, and 57 percent were worried about the current political climate.  The election is still stressing people out, while the inauguration is still creeping them out.

Over the weekend, Huffington Post ran an article titled “A Zen Master’s Advice on Coping with Trump,” the Zen master being Thich Nhat Hanh.  The piece includes some quotes from Thay’s new book, At Home in the World.  The HP also asked a nun and a monk from Plum Village in France for some guidance on how to survive in Trumpland.

Brother Phap Dung stated,

“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also quoted James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, who wrote in The Guardian,

“Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots.  The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

The Trump Presidency is almost unbearable to me.  It is an outrage and a national embarrassment.  My fear of and loathing for the man is wide, and deep.  But deeper still is a place within where I know that Phap Dung and James Gordon are right:  Trump is a reflection of ourselves.

The enemy always is.

In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, I wrote:

“As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be powerful. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person.  Someone with whom we are at odds, have difficulties about, who provokes our anger…” 

Trump is certainly in that category.  I added that “sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.”  Part of the challenge is looking inside and seeing the reflection of our enemy within.  It is going to be difficult for me to summon up warm thoughts of loving-kindness for the monster in the White House.  It is much easier to despise him.  But that is not the Bodhisattva Way.

Compassion does not mean we stop our resistance, or that we cease calling the enemy out for his frequent lies, or stop mocking his alternative reality.  The way I look at it, resistance is compassion, too.  We resist for the sake of ourselves and others.

There is no doubt in my mind the nation, and the world, would be better off if Agent Orange had never run for president, let alone gotten himself elected.  But the enemy is here, and for us, his presence is not a reason for despair; it is an opportunity, a cause for compassion, a test of our capacity for tolerance.

“For a practitioner of love and compassion, an enemy is one of the most important teachers.  Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance, and without tolerance you cannon build a sound basis of compassion.  So in order to practice compassion, you should have an enemy.

When you face your enemy who is going to hurt you, that is the real time to practice tolerance. Therefore, an enemy is the cause of the practice of tolerance; tolerance is the effect or result of an enemy.  So those are cause and effect.  As is said, ‘Once something has the relationship of arising from that thing, one cannot consider that thing from which it arises as a harmer; rather it assists the production of the effect’.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life*

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As quoted in How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV


The Beauty of Complexity

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on ABC News’ This Week Sunday morning made a comment worth noting, something to the effect that the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque is not a battle between Islam and the West; it is a battle between moderates and extremists of all faiths.

I agree. Looking at the mosque issue objectively, and putting aside for the moment the understandable emotions of the 9-11 families, it’s clear that we have two groups of extremists pulling from what on the surface seems to be opposite ends of the spectrum but actuality are not. Whether the mosque is built or moved, either way it’s a victory for one of these small bands of extremists who seek to impose their terms on our free society. Whichever side prevails, we all lose. Score one for extremism.

However, what disturbs me more than extremism right now is complacency.

For instance, a young blogger on the Washington Post, Ezra Klein says that the mosque issue is a non-story and “now the only thing to do is to wait for it to pass.” While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I have to say I don’t think that is much of one.

I can understand frustration, that’s natural. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, and then another . . . And yet, that’s the point. Waiting for the mosque issue to pass is not a solution, because there will be another issue after that, and another . . . Do we give up on all of them? Screw it? I don’t care anymore?

Edward Norton in 25th Hour

It reminds me of the character Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) in Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour, who while standing in the men’s bathroom and talking to himself in a mirror, goes through a long list of all the groups of people he’d like to tell to go screw themselves. It’s a great soliloquy and every word in it is right on. However, it’s also a purely emotional and immature reaction, born out of his frustration, which at the end of the scene, Marty realizes. He seems to finally come to terms with the fact that he responsible for himself and his situation.

I don’t think we gain very much reacting to things with ‘screw this” and “screw that” and “this too shall pass” kinds of attitude. At best, maybe we buy some time. Until the next situation comes around.

It’s also a shirking of responsibility. We are all in this together, like it or not, and when the stakes are so high we cannot avoid taking responsibility, whether we are two blocks from the center point or two hundred, or even thousands of miles away.

And what are the stakes? Well, it’s life or death. By life, I mean the freedom to live and think as you choose. By death, I am referring to something that Norman Cousins once said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” I can’t help but feel that the greatest loss here is not if extremism wins the day, but if complacency does.

To live in complacency, to me, is tantamount to presiding over the funeral of a vital part of our human spirit. As society is also a living organism, it needs to be fully alive in order to survive. This goes straight to the heart of the matter, because part of the frustration is over the fact that the same old ways of addressing these problems don’t seem to work. At the same time, complacency is also reacting out of the old patterns we have established in both our individual lives and in society.

Instead of giving up, we could set about finding new solutions, new ways to think about these situations. We desperately need new thinking. We could use a new and deeper understanding of tolerance, for example. I have in mind something akin to what Prof. Robert Thurman calls “the tolerance of cognitive dissonance, the ability to cope with the beauty of complexity.”

I am taking him somewhat out of context, but I think that on one level “tolerance” here means being okay, even appreciating, the complexity of things. It does not mean to back away from complex issues, to fall back into old patterns of thought. Sometimes the word ‘cope’ seems to convey complacency, even helplessness, as in “coping with life’s stresses,” almost suggesting a kind of surrender, but to ‘cope’ actually means to struggle with something, evenhandedly, and most importantly, with some degree of success.

In business, successful thinking means emphasizing long-term potential over short-term goals, and successful entrepreneurs do not give in to either frustration or complacency. If we challenge the way we view things and try to cultivate a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, this is the sort of inner action that can create a ripple effect in our collective unconscious, and might bring us to some new solutions for these old and persistent problems.

By the way, I think Spike Lee is one of the best directors working today. Every one of his films is innovative, both visually and in terms of narrative. He consistently looks for new ways to tell a story. He’s not afraid to tackle thorny issues or back way from hard questions. While he rarely provides an answer, there’s nothing complacent about his movies. I certainly have the feeling that he is someone who understands and appreciates “the beauty of complexity.”

If you want to read the soliloquy from 25th Hour, go here and scroll down. You’ll know it when you see it.