Be the Change, prt. 5 — Presence

Gandhi and crowdThere but unaware

Have you ever driven from one place to another and then realized that you could not remember actually driving? It seems like you were in a trance, like you stepped into the car at home and got out at your destination, right? You were there, but you were not present. Human beings are rarely present to themselves. Presence is when we bring conscious awareness to what we are doing. You might object, saying, “Hey, when I cussed out that guy yesterday, I knew what I was doing. I was present and aware.” No, you were not. Had you been aware, you would not have done this. If you could have seen yourself in the mirror, you would have been embarrassed. If you had been present, you would have realized your reaction was simply in order to avoid feeling your own fear and indignation and hurt. You lashed out because it’s always easier than looking in. And you actually did not act at all — you simply reacted to what the other guy did to you. You behaved like a robot, or like a grizzly bear, both of which have consciousness, but no self-awareness — no presence. This is the usual way of being. Although humans have the capacity for awareness and presence, we usually react on sheer instinct, steeped in passion. We are not present. We do not really know why we do what we do. In our presumption of basic rightness, we do not see ourselves clearly.

Presence = Awareness

If you’re going to be the change you wish to see in the world, you first commit to practicing the Golden Rule, and then you must learn to be present. Leave reacting to those who are content to insist that everyone else should change. You must stop merely reacting, but you cannot do this if you assume that outside factors are causing you to think, feel, and behave as you do. When you are present, you become aware of your own state of heart — your hurts, fears, and self-justifications. In doing this you put a stop to the endless cycle of blaming and scapegoating that always leads to violence in some form or another (rooted in contempt, malice, and anger).

Presence is observing yourself quietly at all times

Presence requires that you learn to quietly and non-judgmentally watch yourself. You are simply observing. Once you learn to actually pay attention to yourself (that is, your own state of heart), absurdities will begin to arise. You will start to wonder why you get so upset when others say and do certain things. Eventually you will start appearing a bit comic to yourself when you overreact in these ways. You will begin to distance yourself from that part of you that simply reacts. As you do, you are learning to be present to yourself, learning to act out of awareness of what is really going on in you, rather than simply listening to that voice that constantly tells you you are right and whatever you do is justified because someone else deserved it.

Presence removes the presumption of basic rightness

The first thing presence does is relieve you of the presumption of basic rightness. And as you are freed from the illusion that you are not the person you should be because everyone else is somehow preventing you from it, you are simultaneously set free to really become that person you wish to be — to be the change you wish to see in the world. That is why I have gone to great lengths to explain the presumption of basic rightness. It is the “log in the eye,” of which Jesus spoke in the gospels — the thing that keeps all of us from seeing clearly.

In my last post in this series, I will explain one particular exercise (or discipline, or practice) that will be more effective than anything else at helping you learn to be present.

Be the Change, prt. 4

gandhi studying

Scrapping the Presumption of Basic Rightness

Bin Laden like you and me?

How are Osama bin Laden and your angry, screaming boss alike? Answer: They both did what they did under the assumption that they were fully justified in doing it. In this way, most people are like bin Laden (please hear me out before the flames begin). We all just presume we are fully justified in what we think, feel, and do. Occasionally we really are right and everything works out fine (at least for us, that is). Often we are wrong and everyone knows it except us, and we make a huge mess (which of course we will often blame others for). In bin Laden’s case, he was wrong and thousands of people died.

The Problem is Ignorance

The difference is only in degree, but this prevailing assumption of basic personal rightness IS the problem in the world. This presumption simply cannot be correct. We know there is vastly more evil in the world than we can find people to take responsibility for. That means a great many people doing evil either do not believe or do not see that what they are doing is evil. Either way, the problem is ignorance.

We see ignorance also in the fact that people do evil because they nearly always feel justified in doing it in this particular case. They also feel justified in declaring quite consistently (and often with great self-righteousness) that the reasons others do evil are  not convincing or compelling. “My evil is excusable, but yours is not, and the problem with the world is people who do evil that is inexcusable.” The cycle only stops when you realize that you in fact are one of those people who does inexcusable evil. Each of us must come to where we can say, ‘”The most inexcusable evil in the world is the evil that I do, because I’m the only person on the planet who can stop it, and I simply choose not to.” And we choose not to because we presume that we are, after all, right. This is — simply — ignorant.

Comparing

If this presumption of basic personal rightness is not constantly challenged, then you may do great good in the world, or great evil, but you will do whatever you do out of this basic ignorance. This explains why there is a pecking order in prison. Everybody compares themselves to somebody else so they can feel a little “righter.” The crooks look down on the rapists, who look down on the murderers, who look down on the child molesters — “At least I’m not as bad as THAT guy.” Everybody — behind bars and otherwise, is on a crusade to be better than somebody else. [This, of course, is what the Bible is countering when it says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)] The world will NEVER be a place of peace until we stop doing this. And we cannot stop doing it as long as we live in ignorance. The way we stop living in ignorance is to learn to be present.

When we learn to be present, the error that is present in our myths of basic personal rightness will begin to become clear. I’ll address presence in my next post.

Be the Change, prt. 3

Gandhi

“He alone is a true devotee of God who understands the pains and sufferings of others.” — Gandhi [source]

My last two posts have been about being the change we wish to see in the world. In this post I will write about how to be the change, once you have seen how essential it is (it is the only way the world will ever see the end of violence) and committed to do it.

Adopting the Golden Rule

To get started on this, I must bring in Jesus again. Most people are familiar with his “Golden Rule” which says to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” As Jesus is wont for doing, this again places each of us in a proactive position of love and kindness, for each of us desires to be treated in that manner. And so that is where we begin. If I am to be the change, I must begin acting towards others only and always as I would have them act towards me, and I must reject all excuses to do otherwise.

Spiritual Squirrels

Most of us live according to a rule that goes more like, “Do unto others as they have recently done unto you.”  When it becomes difficult to love someone, we simply stop trying. But of course love matters most in those times when it is difficult to do. It is easy to love my daughter, but hard to love the boy who might take her down a wrong road. Can I protect my daughter while still treating this boy in loving ways? If I cannot, then I live at the level of mere instinct. Spiritually speaking, I am more like a squirrel than a human being.

That is precisely the reason the world is in the condition it is in. It is populated by creatures who are men and women biologically, but are spiritual squirrels, clawing to take the acorns from one another.

If you can come to see this, the distinctions between you and your enemies begin to blur — you realize that you are all just clawing for what you believe you need, what you are convinced you have a right to, what you believe someone has stolen from you. Caveman Spirituality.

Practicing the Golden Rule

Living by the Golden Rule takes practice — a lifetime of it. In every interaction, you ask, “What would I want said/done to me at this moment?” and you do/say only those things (and only in those ways) that would make you feel loved, accepted, appreciated, honored, etc. If you have to say something difficult, ask yourself, “If someone had to say this to me, how would I want them to say it?” and then you say it in that way. You permanently put away all thoughts of what another person “deserves” (since this leads to retaliatory words and actions, not proactively loving words and actions), and you act only according to how you yourself want to be treated. You grant all the grace you hope others will grant to you. When you are upset at someone, you assume there might be another explanation for what they did, and you check it out graciously. You determine to stop believing negative things about others, since you of course hope others don’t believe bad things about you.

Ties that Bind

This is the first step in being the change. It’s all about ceasing to think of others as entirely separate entities with interests that are constantly competing against our own, and learning to see the ties that connect us to one another. As you seriously set out to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you will see these ties more and more clearly. Eventually you see that for every hurtful action you take towards others, you have done a great deal more violence to yourself.

Be the Change, prt. 2

gandhi

It is easy to understand why some people are mystified by this idea that everyone needs to change only him/her self. If I take that seriously, it comes off sounding like I’m the ONLY one who needs to change. Most of us are not prepared to go from thinking everyone else on earth needs to change to thinking that it is only us who need to change.

But that is not what this perspective calls for. When I decide to be the change I wish to see in the world, it is not because I somehow come to believe I’m the only one who needs to change. Rather, it is because I give in to the reality that I am the only person I CAN change without contributing to the endless cycle of bloodshed, conflict, and hostile resistance. Therefore, a decision to be the change you wish to see in the world is a decision to embrace reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.

This gets mystical pretty quickly. When you realize you are the only person that you can change, it robs you of control, and yet is hugely empowering at the same time. You give up the games you have been playing. You stop manipulating other people both overtly and covertly. You actually begin to feel cleaner inside — less tense, less judgmental, less frustrated, less discontented — because your focus is now on something you can actually deal with: YOURSELF.

But nearly all of our psychological defense mechanisms (denial, projection, repression, sublimation, etc.) are structured so as to prevent us from seeing the reality of ourselves clearly. Some of us do this by “faking good.” Our defenses are oriented to giving us a better impression of ourselves than reality would warrant. Others do it by “faking bad.” Their defenses are oriented to giving them a worse impression of themselves than reality would warrant. But they are two sides of the same coin. As John Maxwell says, “You’re neither as bad, nor as good, as your press.” On one hand, you are a broken, flawed human being who regularly sins against God and others. You’re not really that good. On the other hand, in the words of Dallas Willard, you are a divinely created spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. In other words, you are sublime beyond all human comprehension. It’s both/and.

But you are only one to the extent that you truly see the other. When we see only our goodness and not our sinfulness and brokenness, we are living falsely and our falsehood conflates into egoism and arrogance. When we see only our sin and brokenness, that too is living falsely and this falsehood spirals down into increasing feelings of worthlessness. The point is, they are both false. Being the change in a way that is real and not just a pipe dream requires one to face the truth about him/herself. At the same time, being the change will increasingly cause one to see this truth on deeper and deeper levels.

In my next post, I will try to explain as briefly and clearly as I can where a person begins if their desire is to truly be the change they wish to see in the world.

Be the Change

Gandhi - quotes

One of Gandhi’s most famous quotes is, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This pretty well wraps up the heart of true spirituality. True spirituality stops “waiting on the world to change,” recognizing that the world will not change until individual human beings change.

The reason this is not happening at the level it needs to is because we are each wired to think that others need to change more than we do.

Richard Rohr says that the cycle of violence actually begins with comparison. We compare, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn and we then crucify with impunity.

Comparing means that when I look at the world and think about what needs to be different, what I see is how much worse other people are than me. I think, “If they would just pull it together, this world would be a better place.”

The problem is that everyone is doing this at the same time.

I think you should change.

You think I should change.

Democrats think Republicans should change.

Republicans think Democrats should change.

Israelis think Palestinians should change.

Palestinians think Israelis should change.

Non-terrorists think terrorists should change, and terrorists think they are forced to be terrorists in order to get the rest of the world to change.

And the wheel goes ’round.

Everyone in the world longs for change, but we long for it in others. And since we are so powerless to make others change, we become increasingly frustrated, and then vocal, and then insistent, and then forceful, and eventually violent.

What is happening at the world level in terms of violence is happening constantly at the personal level in the heart of every human being on the planet.

You think your marriage would be better if your spouse would change, and your spouse thinks the exact same thing — how much better the marriage would be if you would change.

Most of us believe we are better than other people because we do  not allow our cycles of violence to erupt into actual physical violence, failing to see that the same root of violence grows in each of us.

Yes, it’s good to pull the plant out before it blossoms into violence, but we must see that the root is exactly the same. Jesus understood this well.

Matthew 5:21-24 (ESV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus insightfully targets malice, contempt, and anger as the root of physical violence like murder.

Even in most of those that never commit actual murder, the malice, contempt, and anger from which murder grows are alive and well — and often actually nurtured and excused, as we point the finger at others.

Jesus then says that the answer to this is to be proactive, not in forcing the other to change, but in accepting personal responsibility and seeking reconciliation.

He does not say that we are to seek reconciliation if we remember we have something against someone else, but rather if we remember that someone else has something against us.

He puts each of us in the place of being the person who needs to change. That is exactly what Gandhi does with “Be the change.”

Interesting enough, Jesus says we are to do this even if we are at worship.

Love between each of us is therefore exalted as more important than religious ritual, as well it should be.

Love IS the expression of God in human life.