This class has by far been the most influential, impactful and meaningful course I have had the pleasure of participating in thus far in my Naropa experience. What follows is a brief overview of some of the more poignant personal insights I have gleaned in the latter half of the semester as well as a more broad reflection on what this course has contributed to my personal growth and life journey.
Recognizing the passion and interest I’ve long held for those of us who have committed our lives to creating a more beautiful and just world, and being drawn to this path myself, I approached this class excitedly, though not quite knowing what to expect. I half expected some of the charged activist (“re-activist”) discourse that I’ve encountered in the past. Though I believe there is a time and place for this, I hoped there would be a stronger emphasis on the inner dynamic and dimension of peace work. That is, the engagement with the oft times difficult and challenging work of confronting our own demons, be they grief and despair or anger and self-righteousness. I believe firmly that these things have to be addressed before we can be effective agents for change.
Indeed, I have found that this inner work has been a fundamental element throughout the course of this class. What has resulted has been a precious and welcomed clarification of my direction here at Naropa, as this is work that I feel deeply resonant with. Being of service is the natural extension of the spiritual work and study I have been engaged in for many years now. In fact, I would even say that it is fundamental to its maturation. Confronting a few demons of my own as a result of this class, I have engaged my inner personal/spiritual work and development with the work of peace.
A continued theme I have experienced in this class has been a deepening understanding of the many challenges and perils we as a species now face. On more than one occasion I have finished a reading or left a class feeling shaken, stricken with a profound sense of despair and anguish. Although thankful to have expanded my understanding on critical issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and the gross injustices women are still subjected to throughout the world, settling into the difficult realities of these issues has at times felt tremendously burdensome. Despite this, however, I have always returned to hope. To give you more of a sense of why this is, I would like to unpack this experience further by sharing some thoughts on three of the pieces we have covered in the latter half of the class: An Inconvenient Truth, Weapons of the Spirit, and finally, Listen to the Youth.
An Inconvenient Truth
Watching An Inconvenient Truth, I feel as though I was finally able to get a solid grasp on not only the science of climate change but the absurd politics surrounding it and the direness and gravity of the situation we now face. For instance, I recently came across a bit of hard-hitting truth concerning climate change denial, what Al Gore was working so diligently to dispel: of 13,950 peer reviewed articles on climate change, only 24 denied it was happening (Montanez). It seems we’re finally coming to acceptance, and rightly so. In the wake of a summer of rampant wildfires and more recently Hurricane Sandy—what I expect is but a taste of things to come—the reality of climate change is staring us directly in the face. Yet Al Gore remains stubbornly optimistic that things can and will change, and indeed, it seems there are many indications that is so.
Weapons of the Spirit
The Holocaust undeniably exists as one of the most egregious blood stains in the annals of human history. Yet, despite the pressures of society and the threat of imprisonment, torture or death, the villages within that small village in France took a definitive stance in the defense of life by hiding Jews and helping them avoid being captured. What is particularly powerful about this to me is how matter-of-fact they all were about the whole thing. The prominent sentiment expressed among the villagers was something along the lines of “we didn’t think about it much. It was just the right thing to do.”
Listen to the Kids
Poverty is such an enormous and prolific issue. This became glaringly obvious while watching Listen to the Kids, as so much of what the youth who appeared in the film were striving to overcome had roots in poverty. Whether it was a lack of education, dealing with the blight of HIV/AIDs, or child marriage—the predominant underlying cause seemed to be poverty.
Children couldn’t be educated because they were needed at home to help make ends meet, even though education presents one of the strongest chances to be elevated out of destitution—a truly tragic catch 22. Children are married off because it’s one less mouth to feed. HIV/AID’s continues to spread largely unchecked in more impoverished countries because the education to help make informed decisions, as well as access to contraceptives, is too often sparse if present at all.
Despite poverty, the youth of Listen to the Kids were making incredible strides in helping to uplift their communities and themselves. There is something powerfully endearing to see how, despite tremendous adversity we can find a way to thrive, to not just feed our mouths but to feed our souls, as the one young woman was doing through photography.
Returning to my initial statement, to explain how it is that I have always returned to hope…
I highlight these three stories because within each of these cases, there exists a common thread—it is the thread of hope. It is a thread spun from the hearts of those among the human family who boldly proclaim that another world is possible. Despite crisis and adversity, through sundry outlets, causes, and methodologies, they strive to create it, and give it a voice. It seems to me, then, that crisis is both bane and boon.
Crisis has the potential to cripple us under its weight but it also has the potential reach deep down into our being and touch something truly beautiful—a connection with truth that extends beyond conceptions of morality and ethics, it can touch our souls, it can connect us with our “soul force.” I think therein exists a profound choice that we each must make—how will we respond to crisis? For truly what has become increasingly apparent to me, is that we all now exist in crisis. Will we break under the psychic weight of it all, succumbing to apathy? Will we ignore it completely, deny it? Or will we acknowledge our terror, pain and sorrow, and allow this powerful force to be a catalyst for soul inspired and infuse action? I, for one, am striving to choose the latter.
Within each crisis that the human family now faces, exists tremendous opportunity to shape and mold a truly glorious world—a Shambhala, an enlightened society. However, to be able to see the gift within crisis requires a great deal of inner work, it requires the ability and willingness to face our sorrow and anguish, our anger and despair. This is the work this course has set me on; untangling the powerful emotional response to such overwhelming pain and suffering, and in some alchemical process, discovering opportunity and hope. My next steps will be learning how to act on this, as I begin to ask the question more and more, “how can I serve?”
In Light of Today’s Events
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who are hungry and not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms in not spending money alone, it’s spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower
Again I have left this class with the burdened heart. We have come to live in a profoundly wounded and broken society, which inevitably creates profoundly wounded and broken people. My thoughts stray to a man so full of pain and rage, lacking any of the tools or means of giving those emotions a voice, and so chooses to speaks his rage and torment with bullets—bullets that burry themselves in little bodies, snuffing out lights that have only just barely begun to shine. I think of the glowing faces of so many beautiful children. I think of the devastating sorrow, confusion, the endless list of questions that will go unanswered, and the denial of their parents—how this day has shattered their lives.
I walked home in a daze. Having just spoken with fervor of hope and then hearing the news of such horrendous violence, my own sense of hope was thrashed and rattled. I sat on the foot my bed, began to sob and opened myself to that pain, to the suffering, and the rage. I offered what prayers and songs for healing and peace that I know—not just for those affected, but for all of us. For again, crisis and tragedy break us open, and in this moment when our hearts are so raw, tender, and aching, I hope we can see that we have all lost a child this day and we have all pulled the trigger. Our pain bursts through our illusory boarders of self and other, for we see the same grief that writhes in our chests reflected in the faces before us.
I finished my prayers and made my way to the kitchen just as my roommate was stepping in. She had been terribly ill the last few days and looked awful as she dragged herself through the door, her seven year old son following closely behind. She made her way to the couch and curled up on it, clutching her sides. She was wincing and taking long deep breaths, and as I looked at her I noticed tears welling in her eyes.
Shortly thereafter I found myself in the Urgent Care center. My roommate was uncertain what was going on, but what was for sure is that she was in a tremendous amount of pain. Her body contorted, twisted and tensed in her seat. Her knuckles whitened as waves of what she described as something like labor pains came and went. I sat next to her in the lobby, waiting and watching helplessly as she suffered. My heart still heavy with the news of today… yet it was also so incredibly open. We have never been close, my roommate and I, yet I felt the pain she felt. With each wave that passed through her body, my own body tensed. I wanted more than anything to be able to ease the suffering of this woman—but could do nothing but wait and watch.
I touched in to my raw heart, held space and prayed for her wellbeing. For two grueling hours this went on, and then I remembered a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen. Taking a moment to center, I breathed in her suffering with the rise and fall of each wave, and breathed out ease, calm, and healing. I breathed in the suffering of that poor tormented man and breathed out compassion. I breathed in the suffering of the parents, and breathed out love and healing. With each breath, barriers between me and my human family dropped away, and when I opened my eyes, there, staring me in the face was the hope once again.
I looked around the Urgent Care lobby and saw an elderly couple, arms wrapped around each other, lovingly and slowly plod their way to the door. I saw a man run after a woman making for the exit who left her keys sitting in a seat. She thanked him sincerely, and he just smiled and went back to his seat. I watched a mother tenderly speak to her daughter, no older than those lost today, with such care and intention within every word. I saw a middle-aged son push his ailing father’s wheelchair and they laughed together as the son struggled to fit his father’s hand into a glove before they set out into the cold. And here I sat beside my roommate, feeling more connected to her now in her suffering than I ever had before.
Everywhere I looked, there were tiny, miraculous and beautiful moments of love, kindness, and generosity, the force of which, I decided, outweighed every bullet fired today. Therein, is the hope. I am surrounded by it, and this grief has opened my eyes to it—it is our ability to love and care for one another, often in such simple and subtle ways. I know that in the grief of this day, we are reaching out to touch each other’s hearts, we are reaching out to hold each other in love. This crisis gives us a gift—the reclaiming of our shared humanity.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." - Mr. Rogers