Living in a “god realm” of privilege and affluence, Americans awoke to the world’s harsher realities on September 11. Judy Lief guides us beyond the anger that followed.
In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, in many quarters there is a subtle undercurrent of satisfaction, even glee, that the U.S. is finally experiencing a small glimmer of what life is like outside its privileged bubble. We have come to take for granted a level of prosperity, security, and personal freedom unheard of in most parts of the world. While we are obsessing about ups and downs of the stock market, the price of gas, or the hassles of HMOs, countless others are worrying about surviving ethnic violence and genocidal warlords, falling ill with no chance of treatment, or finding enough food to eat and clean water to drink. Can you blame people for feeling it’s about time we joined the real world?
According to the most basic Buddhist teachings, the so-called real world is a perpetual cycle of suffering and discontent called samsara, in which base emotions such as hatred, envy, grasping, and ignorance reign. In our own time the materialistic outlook is completely dominant and almost impossible to resist. Only by removing our blindfolds and confronting these forces of negativity can they be overcome.
My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, sometimes referred to our lifestyle of extraordinary privilege as a “god realm,” a neurotic oasis of security and smugness. The pseudo-security of the god realm is based on deliberately ignoring the larger world and hunkering down in a safe haven where we can enjoy pleasures at all levels—material, emotional, and spiritual. It is based on denying death and ignoring the First Noble Truth of suffering. In this realm we take little responsibility for contributing to the suffering around us and prefer not to notice the many ways we benefit from it. As our focus is on securing pleasure and avoiding suffering, our compassion is extremely limited in scope.
Is the World Trade Center attack shocking because it undermines our god realm illusion of invulnerability and safety? Are we willing to face how attached we are to our privileged and sheltered lifestyle? Trungpa Rinpoche also said that when a god-realm begins to fall apart, it frequently leads to rage. We are furious to have our delusion challenged. Are we willing to examine the source of our anger? The path of dharma is a radical one. It requires us to examine our way of life, our habits of thought, and the limits of our awareness and caring. It is about taking off our blinders and uncovering our tender hearts. We need to go beyond “yuppie dharma,” the trendy but shallow self-improvement approach that leaves our basic mindset unchallenged. These are difficult but fertile times. Any time we are abruptly thrown off course, it is an opportunity to reexamine our lives, our values, and where we are headed. The Buddhist path has much to offer here. Three teachings have particular relevance:
First, at times like this, it is important not simply to react impulsively, but to reflect and to examine very carefully the causes and conditions that led to such a horrifying outcome. We can take an honest assessment of our understanding of such basic teachings as the truth of suffering and the nature of samsara. How much depth does it have? We can reflect on our own assumptions, knee-jerk reactions, and emotions. By taking the time to reflect, we can determine how to respond to this crisis in a way that is ethical, helpful, and unafraid.
The temptation in a crisis is to speed up. We repeat the horrifying scenes we have seen over and over again. We speculate on what might happen, and build up fear and anxiety. Shocked, we nonetheless get caught up in the drama and entertainment of the moment. We may cycle between hope one moment and fear the next, feel jittery and irritable and unable to sleep. The power of mindfulness practice is that of holding still, not buying into the discursive and frantic speculations of our own mind. We could spend time being simple, present, and aware. We could let the body relax, place our attention on the breath going in and out, and let the mind settle.
Any time we feel sorrow, any time we are touched by the suffering of another being, we reconnect with our own beating heart and the quality of lovingkindness. When empathy spontaneously arises, we sense the power of love as a blessing revealed by adversity. How embarrassing it is to see how preoccupied we have been with our own petty concerns! Seeing how affection stirs people to acts of selflessness inspires us to extend ourselves as well. With lovingkindness we see the needs of others and respond. At the same time we need to take care of ourselves, for we too need love and healing.