Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Inner Peace

A friend posted this image to Facebook today, and it bothered me enough to move me to comment on it.  I found that I had a lot to say about it, so I decided to continue my complaint here.

I wouldn't want to say that Thich's statement is utterly false.  I can understand it in a way that I could agree with at least partially, as saying that one can't just sit at home and wait for peace to happen, one must rouse oneself to act, in concert with others. I could go further and agree that one must be prepared to change oneself, as well as other people, and structures and systems constituted of those people.  It could be that "spiritual" practices of the kind associated with contemplative religion would be among the means one could use to change oneself.  So far so good.

But some people talk about changing oneself as though the process had to be complete before one ought to engage in activism, or action of any kind.  Though I know almost nothing about him, I doubt that Thich would agree with this, since according to the Wikipedia article about him, he mixed spirituality with political activism early on in his career.  Nor, surely, would Martin Luther King have agreed.  It was King's association with Thich here (again according to Wikipedia, King nominated Thich for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967) that made me uneasy when I saw this image.  I admire and respect King a great deal, and I've often cited and quoted him in this blog, but from what I know of him I don't think he was a placid, perfected spiritual master.  He seems to have been conflicted, often angry, often uncertain how to proceed in his work.  He was also, I gather, sexually compulsive.  Such traits don't, to my mind, disqualify King as an activist or a spiritual person.  Rather the opposite: they mean that you can work hard and do important things without being perfect or pure in every way.

In Alan Watts's The Way of Zen he quotes a Zen master who said, "Now that I'm enlightened, I'm just as miserable as ever", and another who said of himself, "On rainy days the monk Ryokan feels sorry for himself" (189).  I found these sayings liberating, because they implied that rooting out every negative thought in myself wasn't vital to becoming wiser or happier.  I sometimes quoted them to friends who touted this or that guru or tradition to me, which always incensed them, though some later changed their minds.  I can't blame them: one of the major benefits people seek from spirituality is an end to suffering and unhappiness, so the last thing they want to hear is that the teachers they revere as role models are still imperfect (to put it mildly).  It's not as if I was Little Mr. Sunshine myself, then or now: I too wanted less unhappiness in my life.

Some of my friends angrily accused me of cynicism, of not wanting anybody else to be happy just because I'd been disappointed in the spiritual quest.  I suspect this was an answer they learned at their teachers' knees.  I don't think I was being cynical: rather, I was taking a different approach to personal growth than the cult of personality they were using, in which the teacher becomes an idealized father figure who'll never let them down.  If you expect perfection from parents, you're bound to be disappointed; and for at least some of my friends, their spiritual quests consisted of a series of letdowns, followed by a search for the teacher who wouldn't have those annoying human faults.  What I learned from Watts was that at least some of the canonical teachers were doing something else.  I wanted to know what happiness and "enlightenment" meant in the lives of real people who had succeeded in finding them.  (In just the same way, I wanted to know, not what an ideal couple would be like, but what real happy couples were like.  Some people have accused me of having unrealistic expectations of relationships, but they had no answer when I asked what realistic expectations were.)

I've known activists who scorned spiritual practice as an excuse for quietism, and Thich's statement above can be used as one.  If you have to purify and perfect yourself before you can work for peace in the world, then there's no need to involve yourself in messy political struggles.  Indeed, such people may believe that merely sitting at home and meditating is enough to change the world -- the hundredth monkey effect -- and there's even the notion of darshan, whereby one derives spiritual benefit simply by sitting in the presence of a holy person.)  People like King refute such an idea by their own example: they were, and are, able to work productively without being perfect.  There's also evidence that political activism itself makes people happier and more autonomous.  (I'll try to find some links, but I'd begin by pointing to Nina Eliosoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life [Cambridge, 1998].) As you work to change the world outside yourself, you will change yourself too.

I'm wary of using the word "saint," but because Thich and King are religious figures in the conventional sense, it's hard to avoid entirely in this context.  For many people, a saint is someone who's essentially good, tranquil, endlessly giving, who achieves great things because of that essential inner power.  Such a person can't really be a role model, because he or she is fundamentally different from you and me.  Ths isn't a specifically religious or spiritual attitude: secularists often use secular high-achievers like Noam Chomsky as an excuse for inaction, because they could never do everything he does, he's a genius, he deconstructs the propaganda machine, they could never do that.  Significantly, Chomsky's own heroes are peasants and working people whose names you've never heard of.  (On a less exalted scale, some gay people have dismissed my views on the importance of coming out because, they said, "it was easy for you."  They knew nothing about me, and they were wrong: coming out was not easy for me at all.  But pretending that it was created a gulf between us that justified their apathy and inaction.)  I think that if we must use the word or concept of a saint at all, we should pay close attention to the weaknesses and failures of our saints.  Instead of They could do it, so I don't have to, the approach should be They did it, so I can do it too.  Not I could never do all that (which is probably true), but I could do some of that, so I might as well get started.

It may well be that what I'm saying here is exactly what Thich meant by 'beginning with oneself.'  If so, fine.  But I'm sure it's not what many other people (including some people I know) think he meant by it.  It even looks to me as though the approach of self-perfection first interferes with their achieving peace on any level, whether the personal or the social.  (The friend who posted the meme doesn't let his spirituality block him from action: he's involved in dog rescue and adoption efforts, for example.)

"Spirituality" is an easily-abused buzzword, but I don't think it's necessarily useless: I personally think of it as covering questions of meaning and value that science doesn't (and can't).  I mainly object to people's trying to partition it off from action.  A valid spirituality will have to address action as well as inward contemplation, the world as well as the void, culture as well as Nature, the city as well as the desert and the mountains.  (One of the neopagans Margot Adler interviewed years ago complained that a modern paganism was going to need gods of the city as well as gods of the woods and fields.  I don't need gods, but I liked his point.  I'm not aware of any religion that really seems at home in the city, and I'm not sure atheism is either.)  Martin Luther King and other religious activists have tried to create a theology of action and activism, though I'm not sure where someone like Thich Nhat Hanh fits in.  If anything, inaction and withdrawal have become secularized in the past several decades as certain schools of psychotherapy have taken them in; I don't think it's a coincidence that those trends have been embraced by big corporations, as a means to keep their workers oriented to fitting into the system rather than questioning it.

"Peace" is overrated, at least in some of its meanings.  If it's invoked to keep conflicts from being addressed and resolved, it's just one more opiate of the people. As the opposite of war, it's desirable; as the opposite of difference and even conflict, it's not.