Recently I’ve been reading spiritual posts and commentary in various online social media groups. In these kinds of threads, I am frequently reminded of the conflict between “man of the world” and “man of the spirit” and find myself puzzled about how to integrate the two. Many people who consider themselves to be on the spiritual path will suggest that we learn to allow space for violence, cruelty, social unrest, systems of inequality and preventable suffering. The idea goes that individuals must become enlightened to the true nature of Existence if they are to have any genuine impact.
Three years ago, I was in dialogue on a social media site about the issue of police brutality (which at the time was an issue I was strongly interested in). The commenter I was speaking with suggested that people stop reading the media stories about police brutality and learn to be peaceful within themselves, instead of getting too preoccupied with injustice. The commenter when on to state that withdrawal and meditation was the way towards peace and “raising the collective consciousness of humanity.”
The idea that personal peace and enlightenment must be reached before we seek any meaningful change in society is an old and stubborn one. Looking within and not getting involved in the outer world is said to be compassionate because it can be transformative for the individual. I can appreciate this view and to some degree I think it’s useful to become aware of our patterns and not to react automatically to outer circumstances or events. Even more, I appreciate the healing and insight that comes from meditation and learning to be open-heartedly present to our immediate experience.
But, I think the form of “transcendental stewardship” where we disengage from the world’s problems and go deeper into the impersonal, spiritual realms of consciousness is only one of the ways in which we can contribute to healing, wholeness and the relief of suffering. Without recognizing, addressing, and alleviating the traumatic conditions we have the power to influence, it seems to me that we abandon fellow sentient beings to conditions that are not favorable to the “awakening” of consciousness or spirit. Traumatizing events can hold people back from the luxury of even considering the possibility of a benevolent underlying spiritual force. This is especially true for people who experience the ongoing traumatization of being held in captivity in abusive situations such as tyrannical governments, relationships with violent intimate partners, and the slow inner death of working in a toxic workplace environment.
Trauma in all its forms keeps people far away from the spiritual aspect of things. Being peaceful, watching one’s thoughts, and merging with the lovely one-ness of it all is a far-away fantasy for victims of violence and cruelty, and it’s fair to keep that in perspective when we want to remind people of the ultimate and fundamental goodness of reality and the illusion of the life of ego.
I think if we are serious about the project of raising the “collective consciousness”, we would want to do our part to relieve the traumatizing circumstances experienced by other people, so that they might be able to sit down and be with themselves and allow their minds to let go into the present moment. We would want to participate in changing systems that systematically cause harm to people. We would want to at the very least acknowledge the circumstances people are in and hold back from criticizing people for not being spiritual enough.
A question arises. Should we expect ourselves to not have emotional reactions to external phenomena? Is that somehow an indicator of the level of a person’s enlightenment? If I can watch the graphic depiction of police brutality in the video below with non-reactive awareness, I can imagine that my actions in the real world will be more proportionate, efficient and unclouded by messy emotions. Perhaps, my actions might be objective and not volatile. Then again, there may be a place in within transcendental awareness for experiencing -and not rejecting or judging- outrage, anger, anguish, grief, and interpersonal empathy when darkness and violence arises in our experience.
Not to participate in necessary change may be the right choice for spiritually enlightened individuals who have come to transcend human worldly concerns, having come to identify completely with Spirit, or Consciousness, etc. But, for those of us still hanging on at the sides of the mountain, the choice to participate in alleviating the dark circumstances of other sentient beings is a choice that is as right as rain.
Warning: The video below depicts NYPD officers throwing a pregnant woman onto her belly and shoving another woman hard enough to hurl her across the concrete, breaking her arm. As an exercise, I watched the video, breathed calmly and took note of emotional reactions as they arise in different parts of my body.