We have entered a period of turmoil in human affairs. It has happened many times before, but changes of this magnitude usually happen only once in a person’s lifetime. Thus, it is almost always like nothing any of us have ever experienced. It typically lasts 10 to 15 years. A new order eventually emerges, but often only after a period of authoritarian, if not totalitarian, rule. Whether that new order emerges peacefully or through revolution or civil war is hard to say because many factors are in play and their interactions are impossibly complex. What that new order will look like and how much of it I will live to see, I do not know.

So many things are changing so deeply that I and more than a few people I know are at a loss to understand exactly what is happening and why. Some of the factors on my mind:

  • The pandemic, with all its inconveniences large and small, and more importantly, the constant sense of danger despite the vaccines and the very real loss of family, friends, and colleagues who have succumbed to this persistent yet unpredictable disease.
  • Pollution, the results of which now include not only the steady poisoning of our environment but also climate change, with changing weather patterns, floods, wildfires, disease, uncertainties in food and water supplies, and other repercussions, many of which we are only beginning to feel.
  • War. After almost 80 years of relative peace in Europe, the invasion of Ukraine has become a full-scale war of attrition, Europe is rapidly rearming, and hundreds of millions in Africa and the Middle East are threatened with starvation as life-sustaining fertilizer and grain shipments have been severely disrupted.
  • The devastation of existing social, political, and financial orders by technology in general and social media in particular, with whole sections of societies frequently held hostage by a few bullies who all too easily avoid being held to account.
  • Seemingly intractable political polarization in this and other countries as more extreme ideologies take hold.
  • Unprecedented levels of mass violence in the US, including the repeated slaughter of children in their own schools.
  • Increasing turmoil as corporate, financial, educational, medical, judicial, scientific, and government institutions at all levels struggle to maintain cohesion and remain viable as they seek to come to terms with this chaotic world.
  • Unprecedented levels of burnout and exhaustion in professionals in virtually every arena as they face increasingly burdensome oversight and increasingly demanding clients in their efforts to provide financial, legal, medical, therapeutic, or other forms of service and guidance.

In an effort to get a clearer picture of what is happening and why, I have found these four sources particularly helpful (among many others):

  • Ray Dalio’s The Principles of Dealing with the Changing World Order (a video synopsis may be found here)
  • Peter Zeihan’s demographic and strategic analyses (many videos, but this one is representative
  • Jonathan Haidt’s books and articles, which provide thoughtful analyses of the sociological and psychological factors that have contributed to this state of affairs, and
  • Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks, a detailed history of the Reformation and its aftermath, what it bequeathed to the world, and its ramifications (up to 2017, when the book was written).

These sources have not brought me peace of mind, exactly, but they have given me ways to place the problems I noted above in a bigger, perhaps more coherent, picture. 

What does any of this have to do with Buddhist practice? 

The short answer is not much. The current turmoil in the world belongs to the realm of human affairs, the playing out of cycles that span decades, if not centuries, cycles that are affected and sometimes disrupted by the unpredictable effects of new technologies on the functioning of human society and the dynamics of the planet on which we live.

The world of human affairs is the world of human affairs. It is not samsara. Nor is it nirvana.

Samsara and nirvana do not refer to situations in the world. They are ways that we experience life. This distinction is important to understand and remember.

Samsara is how we experience life when we do not know what we are. In that unknowing, we take the way life presents itself to us as real—a world out there and a sense of a self in here that perceives the world out there. Clouded by confusion about the nature of experience and what we are and clouded by patterns of reaction to what we experience, we struggle. Unfortunately, the way we struggle is self-perpetuating and it is difficult to change. Hence samsara, the Sanskrit word for cycle.

The aim of Buddhist practice is to break that cycle, to end that struggle. That is nirvana.

Nirvana is how we experience life when we do know what we are. This knowing is not an ordinary knowing. It is not a conceptual knowing. It is a qualitatively different kind of knowing, a direct knowing not mediated by the conceptual mind. In that knowing, we are not presented with a sense of self that perceives a world out there. Instead, knowing and experience arise without separation. We are what arises in experience, all of it. In particular, in this knowing, there is no one thing that makes us what we are. And there is no “other.”

The purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop the skills and capacities that make it possible to develop, uncover, fall into, or be visited by this knowing.

Hence the instruction from countless mystics, from Ajahn Chah to Rumi, from Niguma to Julian of Norwich, from Chuang Tzu to Black Elk, to open and listen to everything that arises in experience. It is all we have and all we ever will have. Through practice we find a way of being with all that we experience, a way in which we don’t react to any part of it and, in doing so, we no longer inflict on others our inability to know and experience what arises in our lives.

Why is there so much Buddhist teaching on practice in difficult times? 

It isn’t to help us resolve the difficult times. That is almost always beyond our power. Personally, I think it is because difficult times bring out deeper levels of reactivity and confusion, levels that in turn place greater demands on our practice. In meeting those demands, we have to move to deeper levels of understanding, insight, clarity, compassion, and peace. When we are able to meet difficult situations and not fall into reaction, struggle and suffering end. That is the purpose of all the practices we do—speaking from the Tibetan tradition, from basic attention to compassion, emptiness, and awakening mind to deity and energy practice to mahamudra and dzogchen.

If you are making this journey, that is what you are called to do.

Yet more than a few people who know little or nothing of spiritual practice per se also speak to the importance of deeper or higher levels of knowing. Two such are Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

From Solzhenitsyn: 

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. 

Through my own practice, I also came to understand that good and evil do not exist out there. Evil, whatever form it takes, is the result of deliberate ignoring. Good is the result of giving attention. The dividing line is in me. If I can meet what arises without reacting to it, then, again in Buddhist terminology, the five aspects of timeless awareness come into play—seeing clearly, appreciating differences, sensing balance and imbalance, doing what needs to be done, and being in all of that in direct knowing. In particular, others do not arise as “other.” They arise as human beings like me. If I do fall into reaction, however, something in me shuts down. I ignore or disregard some aspect of experience, imbalances arise, and problems ensue, in me and in the world around me. I lose touch with my own humanity and visit that loss on others. This, for me, is the essence of evil, the ignoring of another person’s humanity, the relegation of another human being to the category of “other.”

Arendt, in her essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” writes:

The total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds.

Spiritual practice acts like a mirror, and sooner or later, you find yourself looking in that mirror. For me, the only question that counts at that point is, “Do I work with what I see, or do I turn away?” Why, I cannot say, but I have repeatedly chosen and continue to choose to work with what I see. For this, I feel deeply grateful, though to whom or what I cannot say. 

It has not been easy, but the alternative always seems to be worse. In this process, I have to question not only myself, but everything that I think I know or understand. I think this is what Arendt is pointing to. The qualities that develop in us from questioning ourselves deeply are precisely the qualities that make it difficult for us to accept things at face value or how they are presented to us by an arbitrary authority. The same qualities may make it possible for us to exercise personal responsibility even when it means that we may pay for it with our welfare, our well-being, or even our lives.

Both these people had deep experience with authoritarian regimes. Given where we may be heading, I think it is worth paying attention to what they have to say. We may not be able to affect the course of human affairs, but at least we can live and die knowing that we did not let such authoritarianism, in all its different guises, infect us with its ideology and strip us of our humanity. We all have to die at some time. Some ways of dying are worse than others.

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