The Contemplative Warrior
December 21, 2016 § 9 Comments
Lately, I’ve been thinking about contemplation and its role in activism. In a period of political urgency, when there’s so much work to be done, how much time can we afford to spend in reflection about what’s working and what’s not?
Can we afford not to give deep consideration to our emotions and motives? Will the lack of contemplation cause us to drop into the very groupthink and confirmation bias that may have been partially responsible for getting us here in the first place? Will it cause us to skim over analysis and critical evaluation because we relish feeling tight and right with those on our side? Is our constant outward participation undermining our confidence and capacity to create new solutions?
Once the election cycle officially began in 2015, like many of you, I spent a significant part of my daily life campaigning, debating, doorbelling, obsessively reading the news, and worrying about people losing their dignity and basic rights. Since the bolt from the blue bombshell of Nov. 8th, I’ve pushed myself fast and hard through the grieving cycle, in order to write senators, participate in protests, sign petitions and research the “facts” of an endless “breaking news” cycle.
But amidst all this external movement, I’ve felt myself neglecting an underlying level of power—the power that grows from taking time to deliberately review what’s going on, and consider my interpretation.
Obviously, during this presidential campaign, social media provided an ample platform for political dialogue, and there’s no denying the value in it, but far too often, when someone bold dared to question a concept, dared to cast doubt, there was an immediate piling on of those on the same team as the original writer, as though we’d all forgotten the best path to truth was to disprove our hypothesis, not prove it.
When I was nineteen, I spent several months teaching in the Havasupai Village in the basin of the Grand Canyon. I met a woman named Maya there. She was a local artist and spiritual instructor with spectacular green eyes and long, disheveled red hair. Her gentle ease and confidence caught my attention immediately. Maya must have seen the sadness and anxiety I carried, because she spoke with me frequently about the power of contemplation. She taught me contemplation was a simple practice, a way of listening and witnessing—of using all the senses as a way to observe self and others without an agenda. “It is not avoidance nor apathy nor naval-gazing,” she said. “Gaze not to improve yourself. Gaze for no particular reason beyond breathing in compassion.” Maya took the art of contemplation even further, saying there was no such thing as a separate self. The self, she said, was yet another construct, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves—while the truth is, we are all residing in the movement of a single heart. She said that even assholes were part of the heart—that they brought issues to the table we’d been avoiding, issues that needed attention and healing, that assholes offered us opportunities to be fearless and face our discomfort. “Take time to contemplate other perspectives,” she said. “And then, proceed with love and strength. And don’t forget this,” she said, opening her arms wide to the lime-green of Havasu Falls, the little bells on her bracelets jingling. “This land. This water. Stay close to this,” she said, “and you will have continual awakening.”
When Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to enforce civil rights laws, a man rejected for confirmation as a federal judge in 1986, after testimony surfaced of him saying the Ku Klux Klan was “Ok, until I found out they smoked pot,” I decided to take a media break.
I retreated to the ocean for some serious soul-searching. For three days I beheld the force and curve and blue of water. I observed without any sentient exertion. And, in and out of breathing ocean, I wrote. I wrote my heart out. I wrote pages and pages about my visceral loathing of Trump and my fury at those who voted for a narcissistic, misogynist racist because they might get a tax cut. I wrote how he stood for everything cruel and violating in my girlhood. I wrote about too many bodies—black, transgender, gay, sexually assaulted bodies dead, immigrants punished, in hiding, in crisis. I wrote about the time in my forties when my ability to cope almost drowned me for real, and how I finally learned that crisis can provide a turning point, a chance to move in a new direction and create a fundamental shift of perspective. I wrote that maybe I read my kids too many fairy tales and too much poetry, when instead maybe I should have taught them to stand up to rubber bullets and water cannons. I wrote about my whiteness and the undeserved privilege of staying comfortable in my little, mostly white town, where I could walk anywhere I wanted without the fear of being threatened because of my skin color.
And then, I wrote terribly uncomfortable things. I wrote about how maybe Trump is the thing that propels us into a tremendous untapped power, because there’s no way we can turn away now, because we’re so woken the fuck up. I mean We. Lost. To. Donald. Trump. What if he, as the identified patient—the one in a dysfunctional family unconsciously selected to act out the family’s inner conflicts; the one who is the split-off carrier of the family disturbance, pushes us to evolve at an extraordinary rate?
Because what if Hillary Clinton had won?
If Hillary Clinton had won, what would we be doing right now? Would we have called five senators before breakfast and be organizing buses for protests on Saturday? Would we be fighting this hard for human rights and economic equality and the uncontrolled abuses of the environment? I’d like to think so, but sadly, I doubt it. Is it possible that this precarious time will finally make us look critically at ourselves? I mean, we can hate on Trump all we want, but jesus, maybe we should also acknowledge our own fuck-ups and confusions and selfish desires? Maybe it’s time we refuse to look away, and work on finding out what’s underneath thousands and thousands of Democrats changing their registration to Republican since the start of 2016? And why 53% of white women voted for Trump? And why 46.6% of our population didn’t even vote?
I’d like to say when I came out of hiding I had some profound new ideas, you know, like constructive alternatives to dismantling the incoming oligarchy, but ha, yeah, no. However, I did surprise myself with one thing. I thought I’d come out calmer, but instead, I came out more outraged—blood-boiling ready to stare the beast down in steel-toed boots, ready to double down on the resist, and do whatever it takes to protect the environment and prevent the vulnerable from being trampled, made invisible. But, it was a centered outrage, not the chaotic, blurred outrage I started out with.
In the midst of the Iraq War, John Sweeny, then President of the AFL-CIO, who sought leadership opportunities for women, people of color, immigrant workers and students, wrote in the Huffington Post; “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Could contemplation be the soul mate to outrage? It’s definitely part of learning to pay attention, to say nothing about how it opens up space for innovative solutions, and dares us to reassess our assumptions, illusions, and avoidances. As for me, water and writing?—ignited an unexpected energy, a potent force that urged me into greater political action than ever before.
Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them. We need to require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
I’m saying it’s kind of essential to take the time to sit alone at the beach, by a river, in a forest, or on a mountain. Fill yourself with the gift that supersedes all—the sacred breathing in of nature. Give yourself that permission. It may be the most necessary step to solving humanity’s sufferings and the most potent step in proceeding forward with engagement, love and strength.