What’s the Buddhist perspective on… Paris? San Bernardino? Sandy Hook? Fort Hood? Syria? Lebanon? The Congo? The climate? The list goes on.
Often, whenever there has been an incident of violence somewhere in the world, someone, during or after a workshop, will ask me: What’s the Buddhist perspective on… ? And my sense is that the person is seeking for a coherent way to make sense of such awful violence. And, perhaps more specifically, how does our practice of yoga and/or meditation inform our engagement and response to such tragedy.
So as we take the first few steps into the fresh calendar year, I’d like to offer a couple of reflections on the relationship between contemplative practice (ie. meditation) and its intersection with larger social trends. The spirit of these reflections is just that — something to consider — but, in no way, meant to be a definitive proclamation. I don’t fancy myself a pundit, or even a Buddhist, per se. Rather, as a secular humanist and as somebody who tries to put the dharma into practice, I have a couple of perspectives on how one might approach answering such questions.
Back in 2009, Michael Brooks and I, while writing The Buddha’s Playbook, included a chapter on this theme, called Shock and Trance. Michael and I were attempting to make the connection between meditative practice and broader trends of social action. We felt that ‘shock and trance’ described the common reaction individuals and societies have towards tragedy, calamity and overwhelming stress.
The title of our chapter was borrowed from a statement made by President Obama about the relationship between oil dependence and climate change:
“Before his inauguration, Obama was asked about the previous summer’s hike in oil prices. In responding to the question, Obama captured the analysis with a terse phrase: ‘We go from shock to trance.’ In other words, oil prices hike, and the culture of consumption enters an emergency response of shock. The need for change and action seems pressing. People entertain hybrid cars, drive less, plan stay-cations, call for investments in new technologies, and the green movement subsequently swells with anticipation of the culture’s tipping point towards all things green.
But not so fast… Oil prices then drop, the cracks seal over and the trance of numbing indifference returns. In great simplicity, Obama identified a trend that encompasses our individual and collective psychology — a trend which stands smack in the way of genuine transformation.” (Brooks and Summers, 2009)
Does this cycle of shock and trance sound familiar? It does to me, regrettably so. After Paris (not the climate summit but the slaughter) I sympathized. I empathized. I shared in the global outcry. After San Bernadino, I raged — mostly internally — about the state of gun violence in the United States. I called my senators demanding firmer gun control. I posted stuff on Facebook. But a week, then two, went by. Then the holidays rolled in. A few holiday parties, a few hockey games later and my burning indignation had receded, slouching back into a kind of complacency: “I did my bit, I guess,” was the thought I heard go by.
And so it goes. And perhaps I’m not alone, either.
Something that has occured to me about this cycle of shock and trance is that it very much dovetails what I think the Buddha was getting at with his teachings on the First and Second Noble Truths. Remember, the First Noble Truth is simply that there is dukkha; dukkha being the Pali word for ‘suffering’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, ‘stress’, ‘discontent.’ In life, there is the inevitable, non-personal encounter with that which is ‘difficult to bear.’
In many ways, shock is the initial default experience of dukkha. What I mean here is that in the face of life’s massive hits of unpleasantness, the human mind — individually and collectively — freezes into paralysis and stutters in disbelief.
At some point, upon coming out from shock, there is often the tendency to be animated by one of three commonly conditioned reactions: 1. grab after something more pleasant, 2. push away the unpleasant, or 3. ignore the problematic dynamic. And this is the message of the Second Noble Truth: when we blindly attach our happiness to these patterns of reactivity, the initial pain of dukkha (unpleasantness) intensifies into a more agitated, inflamed state of tanha (craving). At first, this state of tanha might not look like a trance in that it might not seem very catatonic. But the trance element is in how robotic one’s perceptions and actions become, how mechanically unconscious we proceed.
Bhikkhu Bodhi in his wonderful book on the Noble Eightfold Path speaks to this pattern as eloquently as I’ve ever read:
“The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering. It does not start with lights and ecstasy, but with the hard tacks of pain, disappointment, and confusion [dukkha]. However, for suffering to give birth to a genuine spiritual search, it must amount to more than something passively received from without. It has to trigger an inner realization, a perception which pierces through the facile complacency of our usual encounter with the world to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot. When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can precipitate a profound personal crisis. It overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, leaves old enjoyments stubbornly unsatisfying.
At first such changes generally are not welcome. We try to deny our vision and to smother our doubts; we struggle to drive away the discontent [tanha] with new pursuits. But the flame of inquiry, once lit, continues to burn, and if we do not let ourselves be swept away by superficial readjustments or slouch back into a patched up version of our natural optimism, eventually the original glimmering of insight will again flare up, again confront us with our essential plight.” (Bodhi, 1984)
“…to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot.” That is certainly not a comfortable encounter. It’s usually not what one signs up for when they take on a spiritual practice of some sort. And yet, in Buddhist dharma practice, this is the insecure reality that we find ourselves waking up to, again and again.
By consciously coming to grips with the conditions of life that have arisen and by taking a more conscious responsibility for our individual and collective reactivity towards those conditions, we put ourselves, in my opinion, in a better position to understand the broader dynamics that are involved with both the initial shock-and-trance-inducing event and also the contexts from which that event emerged. I’ll say more about this in the next installment, but it’s not so much that Buddhism has a perspective on circumstances that one must adhere to, like a doctrine of sorts; rather practicing and reflecting on the dharma encourages a sensibility towards these events that is more nuanced, comprehensive and less reactive.
I’ll explore this further in the next post. For now, Happy New Year!