Recently back from a 2 week trip visiting my daughter, Rosa, who is working in Israel for a year, I was reminded viscerally of how much of the world lives in extreme conflict with their neighbours. I was also reminded of how cushioned I am from that level of conflict in my day to day life.
The words came back to me, oft quoted in various forms:
“If one person alive is suffering we all suffer..”
For me this means that the suffering of others is always present for me in some way: even if I am less consciously aware of it than when I was in Israel. We all live on this earth and we are all connected to each other. If one of us suffers it affects us all.
But the question is, “what can I do as an individual?” . Now I am back in the UK, it can be all too easy to slip into apathy or powerlessness as the larger, external issues often seem too large to resolve. Yet, the kind of outer suffering, I witnessed: people being displaced from their homelands (Arabs and Jews and so many different peoples through history) or genocides (again, sadly, too many to name.) is always a mirror of an inner suffering.
The inner suffering, I witness daily as I work with my clients, students and myself. We all at times in our lives experience some kind of suffering: such as loss of friendship or separation from loved ones, not achieving what we want, feeling threatened by others physically or verbally, feeling unsafe. What can we do about our own suffering? This seems at first to be much easier to address. We can start with acting in a compassionate way towards ourselves: putting ourselves in safe situations, accepting what we are able to and not able to change, loving ourselves fully and unconditionally. Yet this is not always so easy to do. We often start doubting ourselves or feeling anger /frustration/self pity, superiority or inferiority. In short it is not necessarily that easy to simply accept and love ourselves. And if I can’t love and accept myself fully, with all my flaws and uniqueness which make me human how can I love and accept anyone else?
As soon as I start to think that I am “special” or “better” than anyone else, then I start to think that I have certain rights and entitlements which others do not: even on a simple level of wanting to skip to the front of a queue. I experienced many queues in Israel: and especially when cars and people kept pushing in front of me, it was hard to not feel somewhat defensive! And stressed.
The opposite is just as insidious. When I start to feel that I am worthless and doubt what I can I offer society, I start to pity myself. Then it is easy to withdraw and feel a victim or oppressed. It is all to easy then to blame my woes on someone else, who then I can cast as my oppressor.
Even if I feel that I am the same as everyone else is not necessarily loving myself. I fail to recognise my own own uniqueness, or theirs.
Thich Nhat Han refers to these kinds of behaviours as:
“ complexes of superiority and inferiority and equality…”
Part of the issue in Israel is due to the fact that some Jews think of themselves as “God’s chosen people” and therefore having special entitlement to the land. But however much the Jews suffered in the holocaust, (the complex of inferiority) does that really justify displacing another people, the Palestinians, from their land? It will necessarily create resentment and anger: more victims and more oppressors.
Of course once people have been traumatised, as in the examples of a genocide or displacement from land, then it is easier to act from fear and much harder to hard to act with love and peace. On an individual level, if someone has been attacked or raped, then it is hard to have trust in oneself and in others and easy to either act defensively or aggressively. Inner conflict becomes expressed as outer conflict.
But yet we are all “God’s chosen people”, whatever “God” represents to us: God, Allah, a spirit presence, the Divine within each of us. It is true that the Old Testament God,and indeed God in many religions, is portrayed as angry, judgemental, punishing, vindictive and condoning violence and many have died and suffered in religious wars. Yet there are equally many traditions of God representing love and peace.
We all share the earth and as we respect our own lives and those of our loved ones, should we not be striving to respect and accept all other beings with whom we share this earth, whatever their race, religion or sexuality?
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” ~Nelson Mandela
I would add that we need to live in a way which respects and enhance the freedom and sanctity of all life: all living creatures and plants. Indeed the Earth herself. This way the earth can continue to support us, rather than being depleted of her natural resources by the demands we place on her.
The way that we live our life in each moment and the way we relate to ourselves, others and our environment creates our reality. We can not separate the means from the end: the means creates the end. We live a process. If I act violently towards myself or another being, I create the seeds of more violence both within myself and in my relationships with others. I create fear and intolerance. If I respond to the suffering of others by identifying with their suffering, I am merely adding to suffering in the world.
Some old gods would punish: but punishment does not create peace, rather feelings of outrage and injustice.
If I act with love and compassion then I create love and compassion and offer the possibility for healing to occur.
In any peace negotiations, why do we not always invite some representation from our spiritual leaders, such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Han? Or those who work with inner conflict such as counsellors and therapists? Or simply those whose life is a mirror of unconditional love and compassion, rather than politicians who often act defensively to protect certain interests. To create peace we need to act with peace at all times.
I draw hope from Rosa’s work with the youth groups in Akko, in northern Israel, where she is working. While we were staying with her, the Jewish youth group invited the Arab youth group to their meeting. At first the youth kept in their two groups, but gradually they begin to see the others as simply other young people, not another race with a history of discord. By the end they were exchanging Facebook contacts.
As soon as we start to see that there is no other but we are all here together, we can start to share and love the other as ourselves.
This is my hope for 2014: let’s create heaven on earth. It is possible if enough of us do so. And really there is no other option left to us.