“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” The Buddha, circa 400 B.C.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
At the dawn of this new year, the beginnings we long for are deferred by difficulties that just keep coming, and by endings that refuse to end. Hope bubbles up in the form of vaccines, resolutions, inaugurations, longer days. But still biting at our heels are the challenges that don’t resolve with the turning of the calendar’s page: violent political conflict, the climate crisis, entrenched injustice in our own society, and in the world. To say nothing of the global pandemic…
A friend of mine, who is no stranger to difficulty, with her country’s overt political oppression and her husband’s current health concerns, wrote to me this morning that she aspires to follow Father Thomas Keating’s encouragement to “live a life surrendered to love.” The phrase resonated for me in its simplicity, but the challenge of living it is entirely complex. How many times this week have I felt the pull of, not love, but anger? Resentment? Fear? Feelings of ill-will toward another person, or a whole group, even for a moment? How often have you?
To be clear—I’m not judging here. Another person I know shared her experience in this first week of the new year, “There are a million things, a million feelings.” A meditation teacher I sat with recently put it, “I’m pretty stable on the surface, and down deep. But everything in between is a hot mess.” I can exhale more deeply with these reminders that I am in good company on this current wild ride.
So what next? As the challenges of last year, last week, tomorrow continue to take their toll, how do we soothe the mind and heart, support the body, de-escalate the fight/flight reactions in the nervous system to ensure that we don’t, on the one hand, wear ourselves down, or, on another, add to the harm and vitriol that diminishes us all?
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist in Vienna before World War II, survived the Nazi concentration camps, though his parents and wife did not. In my view, his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” should be required reading for anyone who’s breathing. In it, he wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Today, again, we see right in front of us the harm that’s caused when there is no space between stimulus and response—when the words we read, or images we see, or anger/fear/ grief we feel instantaneously trigger reactions, which are themselves based in old, conditioned, and very human patterns of pushing away what we don’t like, and clinging to what we desperately want. We see right in front of us, and within us, that this knee-jerk reactivity leaves us no choice, no clarity, no wisdom about acting in ways that could further divide us, or, alternatively, create opportunities to connect, and to heal.
The good news, as Frankl points to, is that the space is already here. It’s available to us, by virtue of being human, and ‘ours’ for the noticing. You could call this space “awareness,” or “presence,” or “wakefulness,” it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we can access it in any moment, not as a thought, or a concept, but a felt sense that can arise in, say, the quiet before dawn, the gentle flow of the breath, the feeling of air on the skin, the stillness of walks through ponderosa pines.
Try it for yourself, and see if you notice anything open, perhaps a softening in the heart that allows a sense of caring to return, perhaps a taste of space, right here, where there wasn’t any before, and with it, choices for responding that are the very expression of creativity and hope, and tilt the dial away from darkness and despair, and in the direction of growth and freedom.
The chorus of voices singing courage and wisdom are here just as dependably as voices of cowardice and greed, and have always arisen to meet times of difficulty. May we hear them and take heart. In this new year, and new moment, may we begin again, and then again, to orient ourselves in the direction of love. Honestly, what other good options are there?