Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Balance of Power

Power hangs in the balance in American politics. Doesn’t it always? That’s the pendulum of democracy. Absolute power corrupts, but balanced power corrects. It’s the same with personal growth. Power always hangs in the balance. It rests in the middle. There is no absolute power, just a balance of sometimes competing interests. The pendulum swings between acceptance and change, conviction and doubt, optimism and despair, nature and nurture. Peace lies in the elusive resting space in the middle.

Are you anxious about the results of the elections, maybe contemplating your biannual move to Canada? What do you do with this anxiety? How do you face massive social problems without becoming paralyzed and inactive? How do you have firm convictions without becoming judgmental? How do you balance being and doing when the “to do” list is so long? Can you take resolute action without absolute knowledge? These are some of the questions raised by the balance of power.

There is a time and place for introspection, simply being. But there comes a time when to use the words of William Shakespeare, we must be “as good in act as we have been in thought.” The point is that your thoughts and your actions need to be in harmony. Action without thought is like shooting without aim. Thought without action is like staring at the sea and wondering why you’re not crossing it.

There is also a time and place for non action. Maybe you have heard the expression, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Sometimes being slow to act is wise. The phrase also hints at the quality to action that keeps you balanced. Stand firmly grounded in who you are at your core before, during and after action. This is balanced action.

Balanced action is nicely captured in the Taoist phrase wu wei, as in “it’s either my way or wu wei.” Wu wei is best translated as effortless effort. The Hindu scriptures, the Vedanta, uses a similar phrase “playful action.” Wu wei is a bird in flight or a horse at full stretch. Wu wei is a Roger Federer backhand or a Tiger Woods swing. Note that it’s possible to have wu wei in certain areas of your life and very little mastery in others.

Wu Wei is something I aspire to practice more often in my life and in more areas of my life. I aspire to action that is effective and makes a difference, but action that also increases the peace rather than adding to the drama. Imagine the state of our world if all the frantic, nervous energy around these elections was channeled into playful action.

Peruvian Shaman, Carlos Castaneda described effortless effort like this-”If a warrior is to succeed at anything, the success must come gently, with a great deal of effort but with no stress or obsession.”

The Bible’s creation story offers a beautiful example of wu wei. There’s something playful about the whole story. The Creator warrior of Genesis seemed to have effortless effort down pat. Psalm 104 got it in one sentence, describing the Creator “stretching out the heavens like a tent.” You have to have a sense of fun to parallel the creation of the universe with pitching a tent. All I can say is that we’re very lucky that I wasn’t the creator. If you had seen some of the tents I’ve pitched in my time. The universe would be collapsing back in on all of us in the middle of a rainy night. Creative energy manifests beauty out of raw imagination and whatever resources are available at the time.

Wu wei is clearly something we all aspire to, but rarely achieve. Don’t beat yourself up. Trying not to try is not the wu wei way. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. You don’t even have to get close to it. Just take one step in one area of your life and make it a goosestep to remind yourself that this can be fun. Sometimes the only thing stopping action is that you get in your own way. Get out from under your own feet, and get active.

How can you tell if you are acting with too much effort? You see it in the mirror and you feel it in your body. You look and feel miserable. Maybe you even need to feel miserable to purge your guilt. Wu wei is action that is pure joy to perform. You aren’t purging any guilty conscience or fearful karma. You aren’t trying to prove you are a good person, and you don’t need to be thanked for effortless effort. You often don’t even realize you’ve done anything.

A story out of the Taoist tradition captures wu wei- a woman accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for her life. Miraculously, she came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked her how she managed to survive. “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”

The Tao Te Ching says, “The Master can act without doing anything and teach without saying a word. Things come her way and she does not stop them; things leave and she lets them go. She has without possessing, and acts without any expectations. When her work is done, she takes no credit. That is why it will last forever… For those who practice effortless action, everything will fall into place.”

Seize the moment with passion and conviction. Act decisively without fully knowing the personal cost. Trust your wise knowledge that can tell the difference between what can and should be changed NOW, and what is best left alone, at least for the time being. Your effortless action is an antidote to despair. Playful actions make your life long dreams a present reality.

Merge your actions with the flow of life, seeking the purest of motives and the broadest of compassion. When creative power is balanced, the game plays the player, music composes the composer, the poem writes the poet, you can’t tell the dance and dancer apart, the dream and the dreamer become one, subject and object merge, and all of life gains a natural flow. Action becomes easier, less anxious, more joyful. Wu wei open doors you never imagined and hadn’t even seen.

If Election Day has left you feeling all at sea, take a long look at the oceanic wisdom that resides deep within you. Stand upright and strong at the shore. Then dive in. But make sure it’s a cannonball or a can opener, or even a belly flop. It’s got to be fun, or else you could make a big splash with little effect.

You’re making a difference in the world, and you’re having fun doing it.

Soulseeds offers “Secret agents of Kindness” cards for children (Home editon and School editions) that teach kids that kindness can also be great fun. This is a perfect gift for a classroom or home to remind all children that they can make a difference in the world and have fun doing it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Unmasking Fear and Evil

Let me start by asking you a question. Which is better — heads or tails? Of course it’s a nonsense question. You could tell me that you prefer tails because it has a more interesting pattern, but this doesn’t make tails better than heads. Or else you could tell me that you prefer tails because you called “tails” in a wager but your personal gain doesn’t make tails better than heads. As we used to say when we were kids, “Heads I win. Tails you lose.” It doesn’t make sense to ask if heads or tails are better because heads and tails are simply two sides of the one coin. Neither is better than the other. In fact heads needs tails in order for it to have any meaning.

We tend to want to make things better or worse. As Shakespeare said, “Nothing is either good or bad. But thinking makes it so.” We dwell in judgment of what’s better or worse, good or evil because it makes us feel in control and self righteous. It’s a classic win/lose. Heads I win. Tails you lose.

The reality that we so often forget is that life is one. The breath’s exhale may be more satisfying, but without an inhale there would be nothing to exhale. Winter’s cold may be bitter, but without it we would have no appreciation for summer’s warmth. Music would not be music without the spaces between the notes and pleasure would have no meaning without pain. As the poet Keats said, “in the very temple of Delight, Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”

The Chinese have the visual symbol of the yin/yang to describe the oneness of life. The symbol is a circle broken into swirling halves. One half is white with a black dot in it. The other half is black with a white dot in it. Both halves need each other to create a whole circle. The small dot is a reminder that nothing is ever all one or the other. They exist in relationship to each other. Life is one piece. We don’t know the end point. There’s always more to come, more than meets the eye, more than our hasty judgments can possibly understand.

Either/Or Thinking

Our desire to judge everything as either/or, good or bad, is the root of so much suffering. When you think you are on the side of right, you feel you can justify extreme measures to stop the evil and maintain your control. Do you remember the 1960’s TV sitcom called “Get Smart”? The secret service goodies are called Control. The baddies work for a terrorist group called Chaos. In one episode, the villain traps Max and 99. Max tries to threaten him saying, “As we speak General Crawford and one hundred crack paratroopers are landing on the island.” The baddie just laughs. Max tries again, “Would you believe J Edgar Hoover and ten of his friends.” The baddie laughs again. Max says, “How about Tarzan and a few apes.” The villain continues to laugh. Finally Max tries the old exploding cigarette trick and blows the terrorist off a cliff to his death. Agent 99 watches in horror and then comments to Max, “You know, Max, sometimes I think we’re no better than they are, the way we murder and kill and destroy people”, to which Max replies, “Why, 99, you know we have to murder and kill and destroy in order to preserve everything that’s good in the world.” I can still remember the distorted look on Max’s face as he realized the absurdity of what he had just said.

We have more subtle ways than Maxwell Smart, but we do the same thing. Someone has to be the enemy in order to feel good about ourselves. Lets think- Muslims. We can make Muslims the enemy. We can make Obama the problem, or the tea party. Big government- that’s the problem! We’re on a slippery slope into socialism. That’s the problem. We create an either/or worldview, and then we wonder why the suffering never ends.

The dot on the yin/yang symbol is often a shadow, or a blind spot. It’s the part of life that frustrates or annoys you. It’s the person you can’t forgive. It’s the limiting belief you can’t let go. It’s the trigger for your anger. Until you befriend this spot, it will continue to gnaw at you and manifest as conflict for yourself and others. Maybe the dot is President Obama, and instead of respectfully disagreeing with him you make Obama the Angel of Death. Maybe the dot is the Tea party, and instead of respecting the difference, you decide that all tea baggers are racist. Maybe the dot is Muslims, and instead of understanding Islam you decide that all Muslims are terrorists.

The desire for a black and white worldview, where you can easily control the world by putting everything into neat boxes of right and wrong, good or evil, is the root cause behind so much personal and global suffering.

Both/ And Thinking

In the lead up to the elections this week, we have been subjected to a typical barrage of political judgments, and we buy right into it.

As you consider your democratic responsibility to vote, keep a little perspective. By all means, express your strongly held and carefully considered opinions. Just have a little humility to remember that you have a partial truth and so do the people you disagree with. Yes, even the tea baggers. They too have a partial truth. They believe that there is something broken in Washington. They are right about that. It’s just that Obama didn’t break it. Democrats didn’t break Washington and nor did Republicans. That was a team effort. The tea party has a partial truth, but also a large blind spot when it comes to blaming Obama. Obama is a convenient excuse so that they can avoid facing their unresolved inner frustrations.

The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung offers a wonderful thought for election time and any time you find yourself reacting defensively when he said, “Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” Get in the middle of yourself where you see clearly, where you see your frustrations and prejudices for what they are, where you stop blaming other people for your unhappiness. Obama is not the Angel of Death and all tea baggers are NOT racists. All Republicans are NOT homophobic, and all Democrats are NOT socialists.

Work towards both/ and thinking wherever possible. It’s not about freedom OR responsibility. It’s about responsible freedom. It’s not about big OR small government. It’s about effective government. It’s not about employment OR ecology. It’s about green jobs and a holistic approach to the economy that incorporates the triple bottom line of people, plant and profits. It’s not about free markets OR centralized intervention. If we have learnt anything out of the economic crisis it is that we need both. It’s not about the needs of America OR the needs of the world. America’s needs are intimately related to the needs of the world. It’s not about your personal needs OR the needs of others. You become so much more of who you are when you include others in your perspective. Both/and. Find a place for it all, and once that little dot is no longer a blind spot but a celebrated diversity, you will be at peace with yourself and enemies will at last become friends.

All Are One

I caught a short video clip of Jon Stewart’s sanity rally last weekend. Over 250000 people gathered in DC, and Stewart offered a beautiful analogy for both/and thinking. He showed an image of thousands of cars converging on a tunnel somewhere in New Jersey. In each car were different people with different perspectives- Muslims, Republicans, gays, Christians, Democrats, atheists, Despite all the differences, these thousands of cars were doing what we do every day of our life. They were working together. One by one, they merged from 15 lanes into one. One by one, they said to each other, “you go first.” “You go first.” As he said, it’s only in Washington and on Cable TV that people live a completely either/or existence. In the real world, we give and take all the time. We include and collaborate. The light at the end of the tunnel is not New Jersey. The light at the end of the tunnel is the spacious freedom of inclusive thinking.

Does this mean you shouldn’t have opinions? No. Have strongly held and carefully formed opinions. Live passionately. Be informed. Hold convictions. Vote. Please vote. It is right to form an opinion about which of the partial perspectives you most resonate with. Vote for the person or party that in your opinion has the healthiest partial perspective. But remember that it is only a partial perspective.

As for me, I can’t vote as a non-citizen. If I could vote, I would want to get beyond the broken two party system and seek for something more inclusive and transformative. In the meantime, I could find a preference between the two parties if I needed to but I hope I would have the courage to hear the truth in each.

Non Judgment Day

Unfortunately, religious worldviews have encouraged either/or thinking. The idea of a judgment day is part of the problem. I don’t relate to a God or a story that divides people into good and evil and separates them like farm animals.

A few years back I read an interesting novel by Gerard Donovan called Schopenhauer’s Telescope. It is set during an unnamed European civil war. Most of the novel involves a conversation between two men, one supervising the other one who is digging a hole that will become the mass grave of the town’s war casualties. The author offers an ironic image of Judgment Day where God becomes confused. Is it those on God’s right who will be saved or those on the right side of the group facing God who will be saved? God’s right or ours? The evil shrug their shoulders self righteously as they skulk off into heaven, while the good people burn in hell with their mouths wide open in self righteous disgust.

My vision is a worldview where NOONE burns in hell, but I appreciate the confused image of Judgment Day. War, politics, religion, life- it’s not black and white with people carefully corralled into left and right, right and wrong, good and evil. It’s always a mixture of both. There’s always a partial truth and there’s always a blind spot. What is yours?

Starting today, break out of the cage. What better day than Halloween to unmask the demons and face them directly. Once you’ve unmasked the demons you realize that they are nothing other than yourself in some unconscious guise. Face them, don’t erase them. Befriend them and let them be part of the circle of unity that is your life.

Live without fear by unmasking the root of your fear. Let me end with a simple story. A man wakes in the middle of the night to find a poisonous snake coiled next to his leg at the foot of his bed. All night he lies awake frozen in terror, hoping that the snake won’t bite him. As dawn breaks he suddenly sees that the snake was no snake at all, but rather a belt he forgot to put away. Once he sees clearly, the snake disappears, the fear is gone and he is filled with peace.

Happy Halloween to you and responsible voting this week. May you see clearly, may all fear be gone and may you be filled with peace. Namaste.