Friday, December 11, 2009

Be Generous to the Human Condition

I had a meeting Wednesday evening with our teacher at the meditation center. Zen people tend to call these meetings dokusan, although the way it unfolds can be anything from a one minute blundered koan presentation to a long conversation about life - it really depends on the teacher's style, as well as the circumstances behind having the meeting in the first place.

During this meeting, the content of the conversation seemed to lead us both to the phrase I titled this post with: "Be generous to the human condition." It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? But what does it mean exactly?

U.S. President Obama gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech yesterday. These lines are, as far as I'm concerned, the heart of what he said:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

There are so many delusions in the last paragraph. We will never know if non-violent, or at least much less violent, movement could have stopped Hitler's armies because there was never any massive effort to try such methods. The European neighbors of Germany routinely turned their backs on warning signs during the early days of Nazi era, primarily, in my opinion, because they were, at best, indifferent to the fate of the Jewish people. That last sentence is riddled with commas, each a pause for how often we fail to see how the oppression of one group always ends up creating the oppression of many others. My nation, the U.S., has no moral high ground on this issue either. We didn't care until it was too late to do any but join an already smoldering war effort.

Beyond the World War II example (I can already hear the WWII defenders shouting from the balconies), the other example the president gives - Al Qaeda - is really something of a boogyman these days. The kind of terrorism groups like this are doing have no national boundaries of origin, no central headquarters, nor any set of stable leadership. President Obama defends a war on a nation-state, Afghanistan, that is supposedly about protecting the U.S. from terrorism. There's no way this is possible - even "winning" a war there, whatever the hell that means, won't address the root causes of terrorism (poverty, deep feelings of powerlessness, rejection of modernisms, distortion of religious doctrines, etc.)

Ah, and then there's the "Evil in the world" argument - a classic approach that divides the world in two, failing to see that the seeds of evil are within us all, that any of us is capable of creating suffering, destruction, even murder if the "right" set of causes and conditions come into play. Some of us may be, due to our spiritual practices or deliberately developed ethics, much less likely to create such evils as rape or terroristic murder, but that doesn't mean we are completely beyond such acts. There is no way to eradicate evil in the world through warfare because the only way to do so would be to kill us all, every last one of us. I don't think even the most misanthropic person wants this, no matter how much they might glorify things like nuclear warfare and the end of the world.

Warfare is, ultimately, a surface approach to a deep below the surface set of problems. You can cut off the top of a dandelion again and again, but it's only through uprooting it completely (and eating it's health-giving body :), that you'll be rid of it.

So, when I heard about this speech, the old ball of nastiness came up within. I thought about posting some snarky line on my Facebook page about the Hope and Change and the President just to stir people up. And then it hit me, "Be generous to the Human Condition." Posting some cynical line may be fun for a short while, but all it does is add a drop of cynicism to an already cynicism-filled population. There's enough disappointment and despair about President Obama's first year without me adding an "I told you so" line.

Being generous to the human condition is about, among other things, recognizing all the foolish and destructive behavior that comes from our individual and collective delusions - to recognize all that, and then just breath it in, hold what it's like to be human in this world at this time within. Not because you're better than anyone else - you're not - but because doing so is one of the ways to soften the edges, develop compassion, and see that we're all in this together.

So, instead of the snarky, smug words I thought about posting on my Facebook page, I said the following:

"Our president is completely delusional about matters of war and peace. This has been true of all U.S. presidents throughout history. May we someday have a leader who isn't delusional about these issues, and in the meantime, may each of us "regular" citizens strive to embody true peace in our lives."

A small drop in the water, but that's how it goes mostly. At work yesterday, a student who I, and the rest of my class have great difficulties with, was the subject of many disparaging thoughts and comments on my part. I really would just love to toss her out my class forever, and still might do so. But at the end of the day, I came back into the classroom one last time on my way out, and there she was still putting her coat out. There was a moment of wanting to just ignore her, and then the line "Be generous to the human condition" arose again. She said something about how cold it was, and how she was having trouble getting to school because of the snow and lack of transportation. I know this issue all too well.

I turned around, and told her I understood. That I, too, had had to wait a long time in the cold for a bus to come, and been late to wherever it was I was going. And then I said "Have a good weekend" and I walked out.

Part of me really resisted even this, but at the same time, I knew that it would have been just petty to completely blow her off.

This practice, the life in general, is hard work. Not always certainly, but often. And so part of being generous to the human condition is also to be kind to yourself. I extended my hand out to this student a little bit, but didn't try to force it any further. Maybe next time, I'll do a little more. Or maybe she'll cross that final line, whatever that is, and I'll toss her out of class. I'd like to think that such a tossing can be done in a way that is, also, generous to her and to all of us. May it be so.


Adam said...

First, I love the photo. Looks like some sort of metallic box of worms. Very cool.

Second, I'm in almost complete agreement with your points here. We've become locked into that old way of thinking that only more war and military can put an end to violence. But we know that violence never creates peace, it only creates more violence.

I think we absolutely need to sit down with "Al Qaeda" or whomever it is that wishes us harm, and figure something out. We've failed at this approach because we've never tried it before (until after we drop the nuke). But I can only hope that the US will someday elect a leader willing to set aside the ego of the US, and put the damn sabre down so real peace can be achieved. Until then, we'll just have to keep adding drops to the bucket.

Great post Nathan.

ZenDotStudio said...

I do love this line "Be generous to the human condition". It is the essence of compassion and I like how it's short and sweet, a little slogan that you were able to remember when life's bumpy bits presented themselves.

It reminds me of another phrase I've heard that I love that goes something like, "Be kind to every one you meet for they are all fighting great battles of some sort."

Robyn said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Be generous to the human condition. That is it.

My teacher often says, "what if we just took war off the table?" His point is that human beings are so creative that we would easily come up with a better solution but, as you point out, for all sorts of reasons, we stay locked into our habitual thinking. We leave behind so many other - better - options.

This is true as a country and within our own lives as individuals. Thanks for sharing your personal observations about this. It is a good reminder!

Eco Yogini said...

thanks for visiting my space!

what a thoughtful and interesting post. I agree with every word :)

about the student- you never know where she may be and how your kind thoughts and words will affect her in the future.

it was a good thing that you did. I constantly need to remind myself that I don't truly *know* how a person is feeling, what is going through their lives when they walk through my office. Always a struggle with those non-generous thoughts and sometimes the ahimsa in me wins :) and sometimes not :)

Many Blessings Nathan

Bruce Behnke said...

I found your post profound. I was especially struck by how you moved from global to personal levels of responsibility.

A friend and I discussed it extensively yesterday. I wish more people could read it and begin to understand the link between an individual's interaction with another and the state of the world today.

Everything is related. Pay attention!

Thank you. Your efforts are truly appreciated.

Nathan said...

Thanks, Bruce, for your comments. Feel free to send the link to others you know who might be interested. The more people contemplating these issues, the better.


YogaSpy said...

That simple sentence, "Be generous to the human condition," stuck me with its elegant truth. Before we rail on others, we must appreciate the ignorance, weakness, and fallibility in us all.

It made me think about how we might say about animals, "Oh, she can't help it, she's just a cat." We forgive our pets and focus on their admirable qualities. But we often feel anger or despair at human failings. I guess we expect much of our fellow humans and can't believe we're the same species when they do stupid things.

But maybe we must also say, "Oh, he can't help it, he's just a human." Ha!

Unknown said...

It's the photo that I can't help but comment on. Who chose the softest, most feminine color for an industrial metal thing? And yes, they do look like worms - the steel tries to immitate squirming organic life.

Nathan said...

I took that photo out at my grandparent's place in Penn. during a garage cleanup. It really struck me, and still does.