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Gary Schouborg, PhD
The Inner Rhythm of Enlightened Activism
Everything is gestation and then birthing.
In solitude, many of us experience an inner peace and a compassion for others that quickly dissipate once we return to daily life. We find it hard to maintain an inner peace while striving to meet the demands of practical living; and we find it equally hard to maintain compassion for others when their needs conflict with our own. Such difficulties make us wonder if spirituality and everyday, practical living are really compatible.
The complexity of contemporary technological society sharpens the question. For it is hard enough to live in an enlightened way with those we know, feeling peace within ourselves and compassion toward those with whom we are dealing. But our complicated culture presents us with an even greater challenge – living on the same planet with people whom we will never know but who may nevertheless be affected by what we do. It is relatively easy to feel compassion toward those with whom we come into direct contact: if those before us are thirsty, we can feel their need. It is more difficult to care about those who are remote abstractions: we must make extra effort to summon up the image of people suffering on the other side of the earth. It is also relatively easy to know how to be compassionate toward those we meet face to face: if those before us are thirsty, giving them a drink is a simple task. It is more difficult to know what is compassionate public policy, where we can never know the full consequences of what we do: it is difficult to know what economic and political policies will really help the poor and powerless.
In short, it is hard to live enlightened personal lives, but harder still to create enlightened public policy. As practical living becomes increasingly complex, the gulf between it and spirituality seems to grow. Can we live in an enlightened way not only in solitude, but also with those we know, and even create an enlightened public policy that affects millions whom we will never meet? Or must we experience and maintain inner peace and compassion for others only through monastic withdrawal from our complex culture?
Our puzzle is not just contemporary. It has a history. Buddhist teachings seem to make enlightenment and everyday living incompatible in principle. If we must eradicate desire because it is the root of suffering, how can we care about the world we live in and desire its improvement? And what's the point of trying to improve things in the first place, if everything is impermanent? In what sense is one ephemeral state better than another?
Yet, Mahayana Buddhism encourages us to live enlightened practical lives. Nagarjuna (3rd century ce) explains that this is possible by so realizing that everything is interrelated that our experiences of enlightenment and of the everyday world cease to be separate. However, Mahayana Buddhism also tells us that anyone who has Great Compassion delays full enlightenment until all sentient beings are liberated from suffering. This implies that the practical living of which Nagarjuna speaks allows only partial enlightenment. Otherwise, why must we delay full enlightenment until later? One possibility is that we are so tied together that no one can become fully enlightened unless everyone is. We work out our individual enlightenment mutually. No one is an island.
The monastic Theravada Buddhism seems more individualistic. Since it teaches that the Buddha attained absolute enlightenment, and since all sentient beings have not yet been liberated, it seems to deny that the Buddha had Great Compassion, at least as Mahayana Buddhism conceives of it. Are the Theravada and Mahayana traditions therefore in conflict? Or do they each have a piece of the puzzle? What precisely is the relationship between enlightenment and everyday, practical living?
A Crisis of Rhythm
The solution to the puzzle lies in awakening to our inner rhythm. Many say that our contemporary culture is in a spiritual crisis that is due to an individual powerlessness that arises from advancing technology and resulting social complexity. They say that the way out is to promote environmental integrity and social justice. However, the root cause of the crisis is neither the destruction of the environment nor social injustice, nor even technology as such, but the rhythm of our culture. When we allow this outer rhythm to disturb our inner one, we fail to digest and savor our experience. Our initial impulse might be to withdraw from society to preserve our inner rhythm. Instead, we might consider bringing our inner rhythm as a healing balm to our culture. This is enlightened activism, which can be applied to any activity: personal or public, physical or intellectual, natural or technological.
To awaken to our inner rhythm, we must understand the difference between the content of our experience and our relationship to that content. Inner rhythm is the temporal flow of our experience at its natural, unmanipulated pace. The content of our experience is what our experience is about. For example, in reading this sentence, the content is what we may be focusing on: the meaning, or the screen on which it is displayed, or the paper on which the sentence is printed, or the color and shape of the letters, etc. The total experience is its temporal flow, its content, and our relationship to that content. The inner rhythm is the natural temporal flow that is the product of content and our non-clinging relationship to it. When we are in our inner rhythm, we give ourselves time to experience the personal significance or meaning of what we do. When we manipulate our inner, temporal flow and thereby take ourselves out of our inner rhythm, we fail to experience that personal meaning; increasingly, we feel empty and our actions seem meaningless.
Together, the three concepts of inner rhythm, content of experience, and our relationship to content allow us to solve our puzzle in three steps: (1) understand enlightenment in terms of savoring our experience; (2) understand the confusion and suffering that arise when we so focus on content that we overlook our inner rhythm; (3) understand intellect and theory in a way that reconciles the immediate with the remote, thereby allowing us to maintain in our daily lives the enlightenment that we find in solitude. (Did space allow, we could also distinguish between good and bad desires as between those that are congruent with our inner rhythm and those that interfere with it.)
Savoring our experience is neither an epicurean high nor a bloodless, dispassionate observation of life. It is being lovingly intimate with our experience. Informed by lovingkindness, we gratefully accept the pleasant both by attending to its very nature and by being gratefully aware of it as a temporary gift. And we compassionately dwell with the unpleasant by attending to its very nature, being gratefully aware that it will not last, and, when we cannot avoid it, warming ourselves in compassionate regard. When we savor our experience, even parting is such sweet sorrow. Savoring is therefore the core of spirituality, a compassionate appreciation of any experience in its impermanence.
Content versus Relationship
Ordinary savoring, which focuses on the content of experience, is distinct from the deeper, spiritual kind just described. At the ordinary, non-spiritual level we can savor only what content we find pleasant. For example, we can savor a moment of rapport with a friend, but not the painful aspects of conflict; we can savor the sweet but not the bitter.
Spiritual savoring focuses on our relationship to our experience, allowing us to savor anything. For example, we can gratefully enjoy rapport with a friend for the temporarily pleasant experience that it is or compassionately dwell with conflict as a temporarily unpleasant experience; we can enjoy the sweet and compassionately accept the bitter. Were we completely liberated we could thus savor life no matter what our circumstances, pleasant or unpleasant.
Clinging is the opposite of spiritual savoring. Whereas the latter respects the impermanence of our experience, following the rhythm of its ebb and flow, clinging disrupts the rhythm. If the experience is pleasant, clinging attempts to maintain it beyond its natural life; if the experience is unpleasant, "negative" clinging or rigid aversion attempts to shorten its natural life. By overly focusing on content, clinging insufficiently attends to the fact that the content changes, however slightly, from moment to moment and that our own relationship to that content changes accordingly. Paradoxically, in trying too hard either to enjoy or to avoid the content of our experience, we set ourselves up for suffering by falsifying the experience itself: exaggerating the briefness of the pleasant and the duration of the unpleasant, and misperceiving the precise quality of both. Thus, in manipulating our inner rhythm we lose control, just like the storied monkey who, inserting his hand into a box to grab its contents, is trapped until he lets go of them.
If we apply the preceding framework to activism, we can see how focusing on content undermines activism and how focusing on relationship renders anything we do activist.
Focusing on Content Encourages Withdrawal
If we mistakenly associate savoring only with content, we face two unpalatable choices. The first is to swear off enjoyment of anything within our ordinary experience and seek spirituality in some dispassionate, perhaps meta-physical experience. This ascetic option has an honorable tradition sustained by the advantage that it keeps its practitioners from becoming ensnared by ordinary human concerns. However, it has, at least for many, two undesirable attributes: it makes activism impossible; and it has not yet convincingly demonstrated that it leads to anything more than a dissociated psychological state. Whether those of us not inclined toward asceticism just don't have what it takes, or have too much common sense and humanity not to go there, is a crucial and as-yet-unanswered question. In the meantime, we can explore the second option: parcel our experiences into those that are spiritual and those that are not.
For example, we might decide that going to church is spiritual, going to the ball game is not. Contemplating a beautiful sunset is spiritual, contemplating a beautiful nude is not. Fasting is spiritual, feasting is not. Hugging a tree is spiritual, cutting it down is not. Feelings of rapport are spiritual, setting and implementing public policy is not. Giving to the poor is spiritual, running a business is not. Natural living is spiritual, technological living is not. Such dichotomizing has the advantage of targeting specific areas of activity to engage in or to avoid. However, there is increasing difference of opinion about how to divide things. For example, many traditionalists will be quite comfortable with associating the church, but not the ball game, with spirituality. Others, however, may find attending church a deadening experience and a ball game an enlivening one. Similarly, environmentalists may characterize their rapport with trees as spiritual, but loggers may similarly characterize their virile control over trees and their ability to use them to shelter and economically sustain their families. How are we to decide which content is spiritual and which is not?
More fundamentally, no matter how we divide things, we eventually discover that we can make even the spiritual a source of suffering by clinging to it. At one time or another, we have probably all been seduced by a crass spirituality that associates the spiritual with an emotional high. However, we soon discover that the high is always temporary and almost inevitably followed by a proportionate low. We also find that the higher the high, the more attached we almost inevitably become to it – that we can as greedily grasp for spiritual goods (content) as we can for material ones.
Reflecting on these blind alleys created by associating spirituality with particular content over another, we may begin to see that what really counts is how we relate to that content.
Focusing on Relationship Encourages Activism
Why do we believe some activities and not others are spiritual? Suppose we can get beyond the confusion of identifying emotional highs as spiritual, and the self-serving strategy of identifying as spiritual whatever content serves our interest, preference, temperament, or convictions. We may then discover that what we justifiably call spiritual sustains or restores our inner rhythm. Thus, we find church-going spiritual if it sustains or restores our inner rhythm, slowing us down if we have become too frenetic or enlivening and focusing us if we have become dulled and confused. In either case we are awakened to our inner process, with its continuous, enlivening ebb and flow. On the other hand, attending church may distract us from our inner rhythm by an overly theatrical liturgy or frenetic social programs, or dull us to our inner rhythm by focusing us on self-denying dogma or magical nostrums. The critical spiritual issue is therefore not primarily what we do (content). It is how we relate to what we do – mindfully rather than heedlessly.
Spirituality is therefore essentially activist because it involves our relationship to what we do. There is no question of withdrawing from the ordinary world, only the issue of whether we act freely or compulsively, openly or defensively. For that very reason, spirituality is universal. It applies to all activity, not some to the exclusion of others. For it involves how we relate to anything we do. Of course, depending on our individual needs and circumstances, some activities better than others may help us to live life from our inner rhythm. Such activities are indirectly, or secondarily, spiritual in virtue of that helpfulness. The particular activities may vary from individual to individual, and even for the same individual at different times and circumstances. What is constant, no matter what the activity involved, is the inner rhythm by which we relate to what we do.
If spirituality is found in our inner rhythm, it might seem that whatever we do is a matter of complete indifference, as long as we do it mindfully. However, such a conclusion overlooks the fact that content operates according to its own laws. We still have the hard work of understanding from our own inner rhythm the world to which we relate. We must still sort out as best we can all the pieces of our complex world and decide how they should fit together. We must still identify what is desirable and what is less so. All that is a job for human imagination, intellect, and will. Spirituality as such formulates no questions, provides no answers. Instead, by calling us to ourselves, to our inner rhythm, it helps us savor our work and carry it out honestly, according to the requirements of the situation. For example, consider three major areas of contemporary concern: nature and technology, emotion and intellect, and cultural diversity.
Nature and Technology
We are part of nature, sharing its cycles of birth, growth, and death. We naturally look to it as a healing presence that restores us to our inner rhythm when we have allowed ourselves to become harried and distracted, or as a nurturing companion that sustains our inner rhythm, or as a lover with whom our inner rhythm is in sync. No wonder the spiritually minded are tempted to dwell with nature even to the point of seeing technology as a natural enemy.
Unfortunately, our culture's primary message is that happiness lies in content: in a socially constructed self and whatever fame, fortune, and achievement it can create for itself. Consequently, we tend to pursue a happiness that consists in what we can attribute to ourselves. We embark on a career of consumption – material, psychological, even spiritual. We manipulate our conscious processes as merely the means of maximizing our consumption. Technology is both cause and effect of this content-oriented bias. Intently focused on the content of our experience, we create technologies to help increase and improve content. They in turn have a rhythm of their own, which we try to match in order to increase technological productivity and efficiency.
Living in a culture permeated by technological processes and their apparent blessings, we almost totally order our lives according to technological timetables rather than our own. We become heedless, rather than mindful, of our inner experience. Reversing our natural priorities, we focus our attention on the content of our experience rather than on our relationship to it. We impel ourselves toward consumption at the expense of value, stimulation at the expense of spiritually savoring our experience. Rather than being the master of technology, we become its servant. Rather than fashioning technology to support and express our inner rhythm, we betray ourselves by accommodating the rhythms of technology that we ourselves have created.
Of course, we ourselves do not have a single, fixed rhythm; in emergencies, for example, it accelerates. However, contemporary culture presents us daily with more "emergencies" than we can mindfully address. We rush through breakfast because we have to get the children ready for school. We rush in traffic because we have to get to work on time. We rush one task after another, because yet another task seems to demand our attention. Unfortunately, we can mindfully rush to address occasional emergencies, but we are not built to run mindfully on chronic emergency.
The nature (content) of our activity does not rescue us from this treadmill. By itself, pursuing "morally superior" goals such as environmental or social welfare cannot liberate us. Indeed, we merely turn them into yet more consumer goods if we pursue them mindlessly. True, even mindless activism can do good. It can bring food to the starving, protect the vulnerable from the predatory, and even educate others in helpful skills. But none of this necessarily restores us to our inner rhythm and mastery over technology. The most that mindless activism can do is make us more productive and less dissatisfied servants of technology. Only mindfulness can liberate us.
Fortunately, progressive divorce from our innermost sense of ourselves is not inevitable. We can free ourselves from overly focusing on content and reawaken to our inner processes. We can then fashion technology to serve our inner rhythm, rather than ignore the latter in a chronic, desperate attempt to conform to the pace of technology.
Emotion and Intellect
Overly focusing on content not only leads to an unnecessary opposition between nature and technology, but to a closely related one between emotion and intellect as well. Thus, we sometimes prefer emotion over intellect as the immediate and intense over the remote and abstract. At other times, we prefer intellect over emotion as the objective and rational over the subjective and irrational. We seem forced to decide between emotional but subjective richness and objective but bloodless rationality. Fortunately, this dichotomy stems only from overly focusing on content. If we focus instead on our relationship to content, our inner rhythm provides a kind of richness that applies to intellect as well as to ordinary emotion. For thinking as well as emoting is a conscious process that has its own inner rhythm to which we can relate mindfully.
Rapport with nature is rightly prized insofar as its rhythms are sufficiently congruent with us that they awaken us to our own. However, we must not overemphasize rapport. Intellectual processes have their own inner rhythm as well. Enlightenment can be found in theorizing as well as in contemplating nature. We thus err if we romanticize nature over technology, rapport over theory, devaluing our complex technological and economic culture as more abstract and less emotionally immediate than a simpler, more "natural" existence. Each has its appropriate sphere.
Rapport and theory are complementary because we are individuals in large systems. We usually have rapport only with individuals or small groups. Yet, public policy addresses systems, which are not just individuals writ large. We cannot simply project our experience of rapport with trees or with people onto environmental or social systems. The problem, of course, is that rapport has emotional immediacy for us, whereas knowledge of the systems within we exist is theoretical and emotionally remote. If we mistakenly locate enlightenment in rapport (content), we will project onto the whole system our individual preferences arising from our personal rapport with nature. Yet, if we mistakenly locate enlightenment in theory (content), we will dilute our personal experience in abstraction. We must somehow integrate emotionally remote theories with emotionally immediate personal rapport. This we can do if we locate enlightenment in the inner rhythm of how we relate to our conscious processes. For we can then have a dynamic, experiential perspective from which we can understand and relate not only to personal rapport but also to the complex and abstract thinking processes required to understand the cultural, political, and economic systems in which we exist.
The preceding framework enables us to promote cultural diversity in a way that is synergistic rather than balkanizing.
Overly focusing on content leads to a dichotomy between emotion and intellect that balkanizes diverse groups. Overcoming that dichotomy by focusing on our relationship to content promotes synergy. Consider how illusion and enlightenment thus play out in a classical conflict between environmentalists, loggers, and investors.
What is immediate varies with individuals. Based on their rapport with nature, environmentalists would build environmental policy on the requirements of nature. However, loggers and their families find emotional immediacy elsewhere, in their own dreams and hard work. Even investors and their families find immediacy, but not in their abstract economic theory and financial strategies. They find it in their own concrete dreams and hard work. If they focus on content, members of each group will inevitably undervalue the requirements that they see as remote but that other groups experience as immediate. Environmentalists and investors, from their different perspectives, will find it easy to believe that the loggers can get another job, ignoring the difficulties that might entail or the personal satisfaction that loggers and their families derive from their work. Environmentalists and loggers will scoff at the idea that investors have human dreams and do hard work, scorning investor culture as one of greed alone. Loggers and investors will deride the requirements of "mere nature" and write off the rapport of the environmentalists as mere sentimentality or egghead theorizing about nature.
(I am aware that there are "objective" analyses that can be made on behalf of each group. Even allowing that such analyses disagree on specifics, they can all agree that destruction of the environment at some point threatens the survival of everyone involved, and on the other hand that each group must make a living. However, personal considerations are usually weighted by characteristic experiences that one finds emotionally immediate and of special value. Therefore, I am here focusing on the distinction between the immediate and the remote as central to resolving differences among activists.)
To the extent that each group focuses on the content of its characteristic experience – rapport with nature, well-paying and "manly" work, creating economic development – it emphasizes its differences from the interests (immediacies) of the other groups and has proportionately little empathy for them. Remaining focused on content, the conflicting groups can negotiate their differences when forced to, but will remain ever vigilant to gain advantage for what they see as the superior good. Diversity here tends toward balkanization.
In contrast, enlightened disputants know that, whatever their differences of content, they share the same human condition: the content under consideration is ever shifting and their deepest happiness stems from their non-clinging relationship to it as they ride the continuous flux of human experience. This dynamic, enlightened core of their awareness maximizes their ability to empathize with the experience of other groups, to compromise when necessary, and to create win-win solutions where possible. It also allows an enlightened intellect to understand how what is close to us is related to what is remote, as we see in the following examples. Diversity here tends toward synergy.
For loggers, nature plays a dual role of object of rapport and object to be harvested. These are not incompatible roles, but they do have to be harmonized. Enlightened loggers, aware of nature's role in restoring them to themselves, will not harvest trees heedlessly. They will do so reverently, as one receives a gift from a benefactor. Attuned to the rhythms shared within themselves and the nature that they harvest, they will see nature as an intimate part of their culture rather than an alien object outside of it.
Nature plays the same dual role for investors as it does for loggers. However, the challenge to harmonize is greater here, proportionate to the greater distance between nature itself and the more abstract character of investment analysis and decision making. Still, this relatively abstract work is a conscious process, with its own felt rhythms, if one awakens to them. In the final analysis, even investors have the same rhythms within themselves as they find in nature. Attuned to their own inner rhythms, they also must deal with nature as a benefactor within their culture rather than merely a commodity outside their personal world.
We cannot develop rapport with everything. We cannot feel equally the beauty and rhythm of nature, the dreams and heartaches of loggers, investors, and other interested groups. Our capacity for rapport is limited. The more time we spend contemplating one reality, the more abstract and remote other realities appear. It is the hard work of intellectual analysis and theorizing that extends our consciousness beyond the emotionally immediate to the extensive reality that is emotionally remote to us but immediate to others. It is theorizing that creates win-win solutions or at least hammers out livable compromise. We need not fear theorizing as the enemy of rapport. We need only give it its due while finding enlightenment in mindfully carrying out its requirements.
Bringing Our Inner Rhythm to Our Culture
We have seen that we can be as enlightened in our everyday, practical daily living as we can in solitude. We can even be enlightened in the way we carry out the more abstract and complicated processes of theorizing and creating technology. The key is to focus not on the content of our experience, but on our relationship to that content. Meditation, feelings of rapport, everyday activity, theorizing, and creating technology – each is a human process that has its own inner rhythm, which is the core of enlightenment.
Once we see how theoretical and technical human activity can be as enlightened as any other, we can be open to understanding how such activity complements rapport. Activists tend to emphasize rapport with our social and natural environment, because rapport is less complicated and more obviously related to enlightenment than is theoretical and technical human activity. Nevertheless, activists cannot base their efforts only on rapport. For we can have rapport only with what is relatively close to us, whereas the systems in which we exist have elements that are mostly remote. Therefore to understand those systems we must supplement rapport with theorizing, which ties together the immediate with the remote. And to work effectively in those systems we must supplement rapport by creating technology, which extends our reach to their furthest corners.
That having been said, our technological society remains problematic. Though it is not necessarily incompatible with enlightened activism, its increasing social and technological complexity tends to create a pace that very much conflicts with our own inner rhythm. We must understand, however, that the conflict is not one of principle. We can address contemporary social and technological demands in as enlightened a way as we do anything else. The problem is how to do so while respecting both their requirements and those of our inner rhythm. The problem is how to bring our own inner rhythm to our culture – not avoid it from an anti-intellectual, anti-technology ideology. That romantic illusion poses as spirituality but is really the product of intellectual confusion and half-hearted aspiration. If enlightened activism means anything, it means being clear about one thing. Our complex technological society lies before us, a vast human reality to be awakened. It presents us with a challenge that is unknown territory as vast, threatening, enthralling, and promising as anything Lewis and Clark explored in the nineteenth century.
Gary Schouborg is a partner of GaryNini.com, which provides Life Coaching. He is currently constructing a naturalistic, developmental theory of enlightenment. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.garynini.com