I read A Path with a Heart by Jack Kornfield several years ago and one story that never left me was a Buddhist exercise in which you are to imagine that everyone around you, from your friends, family and coworkers to the person next in line at the grocery story, is an enlightened Buddha and they are all trying to teach you something.
The game is to imagine that you are the only one who doesn't "get it" and your task is to learn the lesson the Buddhas are trying to teach you.
This is easy to do when someone performs a random act of kindness. Some stranger pays your toll on the highway and you think, "Oh, what a sweet Buddha, teaching me about kindness. How nice. Come here, little Buddha, let me rub your belly, you crazy kid."
But what about selfish and irresponsible people? A while back I saw a man driving like a nut in Chicago. This is hardly news. He was on his cell, swigging coffee and speeding as he wove in and out of the surrounding traffic. Being a Chicagoan myself, my instinct was to drive like a bigger nut so I could catch up to him and give him a good "talking to" with a few eloquent gestures.
But, I didn't. I was thinking about Jack Kornfield's story and I suddenly saw this driver differently. In a flash it came to me.
"Oh, that is what I look like when I am being impatient, selfish and oblivious to my impact on others! That's what I look like when I'm an overworked, stressed out speed demon adrenaline junkie. Interesting!"
The fact is, probably just like you, I have been all those things at one time or another and allowing myself to own that changed my perspective completely on this man. In truth, he was not that different from me. My lesson was to try and keep that awareness because I did not want to look that way anymore.
Intrigued by this concept, I started to practice this mindset in all kinds of situations.
See a loving couple holding hands in a park? "Oh, that's what I look like when I am in love."
See a musician perform brilliantly? "Oh, that's what I look like when I am in flow."
See a man's veins bulging from his neck in the midst of a tirade? "Oh, that's what I look like when I am so angry I can't see straight. That's how it looks when I don't feel heard or when I am trying to dominate by force."
Reflections of all of our possible human experiences are around us every where we go. Turning one's eyes to the world stage, however, it is a completely different matter to imagine what a corrupt politician or a suicide bomber is going to teach you about enlightenment. When we hear about both devastating and inspiring events on the world stage, let me suggest that the human story behind them contains all the same lessons that our more local Buddhas present to us, with the volume turned way up.
Consider the prevalence of looters, terrorists, murderers and rapists during war time. What part of their experience have you shared some part of? Anger? Fear? Selfishness? Misuse of power? Disrespect for human life? Greedy grasping for as much crap as you can haul away with you? Have you ever been so angry at someone that you frankly didn't care how they felt about you or your actions? Have you ever wondered what you could get away with if the law were seemingly powerless to deter you, even if it were just stealing a pack of gum? Have you ever believed in something so strongly that you would stop at almost nothing to get your point across? Have you ever found it difficult to stop yourself from having the last word in an argument when you are certain you are right? What potential power do you possess, for good or ill, when you passions are stirred?
Very often when we are in disagreement with others our emotional reaction makes it extremely difficult to avoid escalating conflict. In the heat of anger, very few people are able to step outside of the energy and get curious about why people do what they do. When we feel ourselves to be in the morally superior position, few of us stop and say to those we oppose, "Wow, that's interesting, I hold the exact opposite view. Tell me more because you are blowing my mind and I want to figure out what the world looks like through your eyes. "
I know, this all sounds terribly idealistic and touchy-feely. Nothing could be further than the truth. This is fierce communication and it is considerably harder to do than it is to write about. Seeking understanding and practicing non-violence is the height of courage and takes tremendous strength of character to embrace. It is far easier to simply listen for the errors in those you disagree with, waiting for the point where you can jump in and prove, in ever more colorful and empassioned language, just how wrong the other guy is.
It is the easiest thing in the world to make someone else wrong. It is the hardest thing to make them right and to recognize that part of your enemy that is you.
We prefer to see the best of ourselves reflected in the best of those around us. We want to identify with those who are doing good and attempting to make a difference in the world. What are they reflecting that you share some piece of? Compassion? Love? Selflessness? Desire to help? Drive to make a difference? Nice things to identify with to be sure. Easy to feel like a patriot when you feel proud of those who are representing the best your country has to offer. That sense of kinship is incredibly powerful.
But what about the President? Is he in you, too? Many of us would rather admit to having an "inner child" than an "inner Cheney" but is it that simple? Have you never attempted to hide or cover up something you have done or failed to do in an effort to save your status, power or reputation? Have you never been a bully or misused a power? Have you never been cocky or felt yourself superior and beyond reproach?
There is nothing in Bush that I want to see as a reflection of me and nothing I am saying here is intended to be an excuse for any of his behaviors. I do believe, however, that it is dangerous for us all to view anyone as so "other" that we miss the opportunity for growth they present us. I don't want to identify with deceitful politicians, or terrorists, or looters, or rapists, but, I have certainly experienced anger, outrage, fear, selfishness, greed and jealousy in my lifetime. It's just a matter of degree. If I cannot recognize the seeds, no matter how small, of this negative potential in myself I cannot truly hope to be an influence for positive change. It's a slippery slope when we fail to look at ourselves squarely in the mirror and acknowledge those parts of ourselves we prefer not to see.
While we are debating what could or could not have been done to prevent the many disastrous events we have experienced as a nation during the Bush administration let us not forget to learn the lessons inherent in these events for each of us. Let us check our own hearts and make certain we are doing what we can to root out the causes of such devastation and dissension in our own hearts and minds for the sake of preventing future disasters and truly promoting peaceful relationships abroad as well as within our own neighborhoods.
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