I share this poem, and I bow to you, not simply out of politeness. I bow to you, as I learned when I was living and working in the villages of India. I bow to you in recognition of your mystery, depth and greatness. I bow to you in recognition of the awakening heart and mind that flows through your veins.
It’s been quite a two weeks for me. I said to my dear wife, Peggy, “I never knew I had so many tears. I feel like a cloud.”
I’ve felt like this for a long time, but especially in the last two weeks. In my reflections I saw that it took a global pandemic to slow us down enough from the modern “grind” of business and disassociation from our own lives and the lives of others to recognize the value of human life. So many people are passing away from the virus, so many of us—either by choice, by accident, or by luck—have had time to reflect. Most people in the world do not have that luxury, but those of us who do should not waste our energy.
There are so many questions arising now.
Is it possible for America to have a just society?
Can we really overcome the utopian flaw at our foundation based on separation, cruelty, profitability, and ignorance?
Can we create together a society that does not have sustainable, profitable injustice?
Can we create a society that can live beyond our heritage of the colonial mind and its systems, which have permeated our very bodies?
Can we together create a society guided by the truth of justice, by respect for humaneness, with wisdom from the spiritual depths of all traditions, and the imagination to create a very new harmony?
We can, if enough of us work together to make it so. Yes, it’s about Black Lives Matter. Yes, it’s about needless brutality. Yes, it’s about systemic inequity. Yes, and it’s about much, much more. It’s about reckoning, restoring and revisioning the very fabric of our lives in this land and this planet.
Over the last two weeks, I witnessed something I never thought I’d see, and I’m old. I always prayed for it. I saw non-black lives standing up for black lives. Here in America, and around this planet.
I found myself moved to another kind of tears. Refreshment, gratitude, quiet joy, and deep inspiration woke up in me and was nourished. What did I see and what did I realize? I realized that the murderous death of George Floyd pierced the curtain of illusion that we are separate and that we are disconnected. The illusion that we are not all fully human. It pierced this veil that is our fundamental flaw and obstacle to having a meaningful and joyful future together. These responses I saw gave me a glimpse of something that’s emerging. As the poet W. B. Yeats wrote, “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
I was thinking about that poem, “The Second Coming,” and the rough beast heading toward Bethlehem. I was thinking that something is emerging. Many people have been commenting, “Yes, there have been many, many protests, but this is different.” I have asked, “How is this different for me?” The murder of George Floyd and all it represents awakened in many of us our own human empathy. It awakened our human capacity to feel, to recognize the innocent suffering of others, and to recognize it need not continue in our hearts and minds, and therefore it cannot continue in the social fabric of our lives.
There’s a word for this, this glimpse I had, this embryo, this emergent reality. It can be called an anima mundi. I have a glimpse of a new world soul that’s never been created before, never been possible before, and never been needed before. By world soul, I mean a vibration, I don’t mean an organization. I mean a feeling of being connected. I mean a vibration of empathy, compassion, understanding and embodiment of our own humanity.
It is emerging, both individually and collectively. The question is how we don’t lose this moment by getting distracted into colonial tricks of politics and non-tricks of politics that we have to watch and be on guard for. Please understand, we cannot fix this with the tools of what we’re trying to change. We have to create new tools, new spaces in ourselves, new healing, new courage, new bravery. First in ourselves, so that we can imagine what it would mean to live in a society and the world with gentleness and respect at its center. What would it mean to live in a world with caring at its center, with purpose at its center, with joy at its center? This means creating a social ethic we don’t yet have, though we’ve imagined it. Philosophers and religious leaders for years in their own ways have imagined it and talked about it.
We have to ask ourselves, what should we do now, after the fire, after the funeral? What we must do now is create.
At first I thought that the word for what we must do now is work. But then I decided I didn’t want to use commercial language to describe what the task is. Commercial enterprise is at the heart of our dilemma, at the heart of my comment about the utopian flaw of America: We are a business that tried to become a country!
A social, ethical life for me—and I would invite you to meditate on this—is four things:
First, when you recognize there is innocent suffering going on in society, stand up and call it out. However you are able to do that—in word, in deed, in music, in sound, in poetry, in dance, call it out. Hold the mirror up so we can see ourselves. Because unless we deal with our shadows, we cannot be whole persons and therefore cannot have a whole society.
Next, take a look at the injustice you see and ask yourself, how are your lifestyle and your daily choices participating in feeding that system, sustaining that way of thinking, and encouraging that way of treating other human beings?
Third, withdraw the legitimacy, withdraw your energy, whether that’s economic, political or cultural, from those systems and ways of thinking that will kill us all.
And last, lead. Now your leadership may be small, which is wonderful. Your leadership may be tiny, maybe moment by moment, student by student, friend by friend, neighbor by neighbor, business associate by business associate, but lead. Stand up. And maybe leadership is not the right word and I’m ok with having a different word. Probably it is the wrong word, because what we’re talking about has to be cooperative and collaborative. It has to be a dramatic move away from the hierarchical, top-down, white supremacy model of leadership.
I’ve been thinking that part of our dilemma here in the United States is that we have a constitution, but we don’t have a covenant. We do not have an agreement of caring for one another. We do not have an agreement to stand up for each other. I’ve been working on a little note for myself to practice with. It’s my covenant with you, wherever you may be and whoever you may be at this moment:
I stand up for you.
You stand up for me.
We stand up together.
And this is how we do it.
I care for you.
You care for me.
We care together.
This is how we do it.
This article was originally published on the website of Dr. Ward’s non-profit organization, The Lotus Institute.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.