Working with Tragedy: Where Science & Buddhism ConvergeDec 07, 2023
It's less about taking sides and more about coming together in the middle ground to oppose our common foes, extremism, and violence, wherever they appear.
We are at a critical turning point in the long odyssey of the 25,000-year comic cycle known to the ancients as the Great Year. Caught amidst the swirl of a dramatic sea change between two epochs, the outgoing Piscean Age, characterized by transcendent-seeking monotheistic religions now waging war for supremacy in the Middle East, collides with the incoming Aquarian age of unity consciousness, decentralization, and high technology focused on transforming Gaia here and now. The wars and destruction we see around us, just as the looming ecological and economic catastrophes, represent systems failures caused by the unchecked, and now unveiled, forces of our collective shadow, the so-called darker side of human nature.
As our consciousness evolves, we are simultaneously being called to face and integrate more of ourselves, particularly the ugly and disavowed parts of our psyche. The work of resolving individual and collective trauma, while ending systems of exploitation and oppression, is not by assigning blame on others while nurturing a disempowering victim stance, nor, conversely, by asserting moral superiority, as both these extremes only reinforce divisiveness based on subject-object dualism. Instead, each of us must take personal responsibility for the deeper instinctual drivers of the cycles of aggression and violence within us all, while disarming the defensive barriers to our shared humanity.
As Carl Jung lamented, when the mythological gods of ancient Greece slowly disappeared as our modern, rational mindset took form, they were buried and forgotten along with their heroic narratives and energies in the netherworld of the collective unconscious. As the Aquarian Age emerges, the gods will be called back out from the unconscious, this time not as externalized entities to be propitiated but as our own higher principles to be embodied. We humans are, in fact, capable of being gods, and supremely powerful, but we need to start behaving like them, guided by a strong moral compass, driven towards a more altruistic purpose.
I. FROM THE OUTER TO THE INNER ENEMY
The inconvenient truth that those with wisdom, humility, and courage have often discovered is that we each have both a peacemaker and perpetrator within us, like two hungry wolves. If we don’t recognize this fact, the unconscious forces of bias and malice are projected outward onto the external world, causing an endless chain reaction through a hall of distorted mirrors. What happens in the collective field depends largely on which instinctual force, virtue or vice, within us that we choose to feed. Rather than chasing or escaping an endless string of outer enemies, Jung, like the Buddha before him, recommended we go directly to the source of any conflict, to uproot once and for all, the inner terrorists of greed and hatred underpinned by the delusion of separateness. Now, at the end of an epoch, on the verge of an apocalypse (great revelation) and cosmic reset, there is an opportunity for our honest self-reflection, moral accounting, and redemption seeking, not from some external higher power, but from our inner conscience.
As I observe the tell-tale signs of moral decline, debauchery, self-aggrandizement, civil unrest, and systems collapse that our civilization is currently undergoing, described so well in John Michael Greer’s book The Long Decent, I am often struck by disbelief and disappointment, at how people can be so blind, reckless, and inhumane. Then, I pause, gather myself, reflect, and remember, that none of us are separate or superior, given specific causes and conditions we are all capable of being complicit in cycles of reactive greed and violence, all capable of divisive polarization by idealizing and over-identifying with our tribe while dehumanizing and demonizing another. Watching the deluge of horrific images from around the world broadcast unfiltered through our media feeds, triggering our neural circuits into feeling unsafe as if we are under direct threat at ground zero of the conflict, I realize we are all capable of getting stuck in, only occasionally necessary, but more often, suboptimal states of reactivity, known as fight-flight-freeze. This is the natural outcome of our neurobiology wiring for survival.
II. FROM JUDGMENT TO UNDERSTANDING
Throughout evolution, we have been programmed by our reptilian brain’s three-tiered response to threat. Using an evolutionary neurobiological lens can be helpful to transition us from judgment to understanding about what’s going on within us, and between us, when under social duress. Looking around at the obvious high arousal (fight) and aggressive reactions to recent world events, most obviously characterized by the marked increase in outbursts of moral indignation and self-righteous outrage that often seem only to inflame the conflict further and can quickly escalate into violence. There is also a pervasive retreat response (flight) to a crisis, characterized by despair and depression leading masses of people into learned helplessness, where we become, like terrified children, even more submissive and compliant to the self-serving mandates of diabolical government authority or the influence of sensationalized media propaganda. Finally, there are the paralyzing (freeze) reactions and dissociative states of vicarious re-traumatization that are the common reactions for those of us who have previously been clinically traumatized, and who by witnessing similar or associated events befalling others, experience their trauma as if our own is reoccurring now.
According to the polyvagal theory of Dr. Stephen Porges, these three types of reactions in their phylogenetic or reverse cascading order developed throughout evolution, comprise the nervous system's best attempt to cope with a perceived threat, based on one’s inner resources at any given moment. If we can’t fight to survive, we may resort to fleeing, and if that’s not an option, we may freeze (immobilize). The problem is that we so often unknowingly misperceive and exaggerate the threat, triggering our survival instincts unnecessarily and stress chemistry for too long, conditioning us to the roller coaster of hypervigilance and then shutdown, causing neurobiological wear and tear, and making us more prone to physical disease and mental health disorders. Unless we are under real and direct threat of death and bodily harm, our survival mode can work against us. For this neurobiological reason alone, I advise we limit our exposure to elicit video images of death and destruction, as they can unnecessarily activate our mirror neurons sending us into counterproductive states of dysregulation. Yes, we should be informed (there are other ways to do this than be assailed by potent video images), and yes, we should bear witness to human tragedy (this is our moral responsibility as social creatures and global citizens) and yes it’s true, denial is not an option (for what we repress and refuse to deal with, will deal with us in equal and opposite measure), but how much exposure, how often, and most importantly, to what end (within us and for others) are also questions we need to consider. How then can we work more skillfully with human tragedy?
III. FROM DYSREGULATION TO CO-REGULATION
The polyvagal theory suggests our nervous system possesses more than these three defensive strategies, there is also a higher-order, uniquely mammalian response to connect, coregulate, and communicate which represents our most recent evolutionary adaptation and perhaps our most creative advantage. During the pandemic I offered a free master class called R.E.A.C.T standing for Rapid, Evidence-based, Altruistic, Co-regulation, Technique, which integrates polyvagal theory, trauma research, and Buddhist compassion practice, leveraging the pro-social networks of our nervous systems to keep us regulated, online, mobilized, and pro-actively engaged with others during times of crisis. Since then, I have often relied on the polyvagal lens to understand my own and other people’s reactions to threats and social stress, real or perceived. As the world continues to unravel, and chaos ensues, more of us will feel unsafe, and could likely fall into states of prolonged dysregulation, which will only compound the growing mental health epidemic, and exacerbate social conflicts. We need to learn how to work more skillfully with our nervous systems to not inflame conflicts but to help each other feel the sense of safety we need to begin to heal and negotiate for sustainable peace.
IV. FROM SADNESS TO COMPASSION
If we can connect and co-regulate, then we can open further to the more appropriate response of sadness and grief at the sheer magnitude of human suffering, the injustice, and the complexity of the challenges we collectively face on the planet. This sadness is itself a sign of our health, it is evidence that our humanity is still intact, and it represents the truth of our being sensitive humans interconnected with others in their plight. If we feel the pain of the world undergoing a dramatic trial, we are not sociopaths, but empaths. According to Buddhist practice, from sadness eventually, we can open to compassion, the wish that others be free of suffering, starting obviously with ourselves and loved ones, but eventually opening even to those who on the surface appear to be different from us or belong to another tribe.
Just reflect for a moment that no child from any side of any conflict deserves to die. If we’re struggling to accept this, or have found rationalizations to the contrary, we may be stuck in fight-flight reactivity, our perception narrowed, our emotions blunted, and perhaps we need safety and coregulation to come back to our senses. Otherwise, not much separates us from the sociopathic terrorists we abhor. When Jewish holocaust survivors insisted, "never again", did they mean no further genocide exclusively for their people, or was it a lesson for all humanity to wake up to the reprehensible effects of dehumanization and racism? Our collective consciousness is slowly learning from these painful lessons, experienced by its fractal selves, as we gather and move towards unity. It may feel like a stretch now, even an impossibility, but we will remember our commonality and mutual interest with other human beings we deem different and the biosphere we share. Jewish and Palestinian, black, white, and brown bodies, even the animals all bleed red. Tibetan Buddhism offers the mind training (lojong) that unites wisdom and compassion in a gradual process of deconstructing rigid identifications and divisions, exposing and equalizing innate biases and preferences, and disarming our counterproductive protective instincts, making the case that over the long term, connection, communication, collaboration, and creativity represent the most advanced and effective human skills for solving human problems.
No one understands genocide, ethnic cleansing, and displacement more than His Holiness the Dalia Lama, and yet he embodies one of the most inspiring, effective, and surprisingly so-often overlooked responses to conflict, disclosing that the Chinese government who has killed his people and occupied his land, is his greatest teacher, for they have provided the necessary adversity for him to develop genuine compassion. Giving into hatred or vengeful retaliation is not an option for the Dalai Lama, as he understands these reactions never lead to peace but only prolong misery for all parties. Instead, he commits to an outward, long-term strategy of uncompromising non-violence, negotiation, and diplomacy, embodying our nervous system’s most advanced adaptations. Meanwhile, and covertly, the Dalai Lama also relies on the Tibetan inner alchemy practice of lojong or mind training that protects his nervous system from toxic social stress, maintains his buoyancy, and gives him the tools to transform adversity into his spiritual advantage. This uniquely Tibetan method and set of meditative practices for radical altruism are explored in depth in my course titled Awaken the Altruist where we ironically discover through human tragedy the possibility of unconditional love, the wisdom of our interdependence, and that emptiness is not some detached aloofness but the womb of universal compassion.
V. FROM THE EXTREMES TO THE MIDDLE-WAY
In times of increasing polarization, deep social conflict, and perpetual wars, the Dalai Lama offers us a beacon of hope and a guiding light for how we human beings can negotiate our differences. We don’t begin negotiations with terrorists and those outliers holding extreme views whether they are Hamas militants, Zionist occupiers, the US government opportunists, all of whom have blood on their hands, all are complicit in killing innocent civilians, breaking international laws, and none embody the prerequisite receptive state of consciousness needed for seeding sustainable peace in the region. Where we could start instead is with the masses of ordinary people, the innocent civilians on both sides of any conflict, caught in the crossfire of the bullets, bombs, and extreme ideologies, who don’t control the headlines or narratives, but who just want to live in peace, and who would very likely be willing to negotiate land and resources, for a better future for all children and future generations. It's less about taking sides and more about coming together in the middle ground to oppose our common foes, extremism, and violence, wherever they appear. Extremism, whether it's Islamic Jihad, Zionist hegemony, or White supremacy, isn't combated through military force, as this only empowers hate, but by more moderate education, espousing tolerance and mutual respect.
Ordinary people like you and I, therefore, must forge the middle way, stepping down from claiming the moral high ground in vehement opposition to another devalued group, and stepping back from our attachment to extreme views towards the more moderate, tolerant center we have lost, while embodying the very sensitivity, decency, dignity, and ingenuity, that we expect from others. It should start with us first, otherwise, where will it start? Each taking responsibility to do the inner work, then our outer advocacy for the downtrodden and marginalized and activism against extremism wherever it exists will be less compelled by the darker forces of our shadow at the root of every conflict. Having married into a Jewish family myself, I know it's possible, and responsible, to denounce a Zionist apartheid agenda without being antisemitic, just as it is possible and responsible to support Palestinian self-sovereignty without condoning Hamas or supporting Islamic fundamentalism. As a Buddhist, I rebuke the tyranny against the Rohingya and Muslim communities in Rakhine and elsewhere by the majority Buddhist government of Myanmar. Their massacres against defenseless peoples are both hypocritical and anathema to the religious principles they espouse. My affinity with any group ideology needs to be superseded by a commitment to universal decency, integrity, and human rights. Otherwise, I force a split within myself, reinforced by denial.
VI. FROM INDIVIDUAL STRUGGLE TO COLLECTIVE PEACE
Perhaps the collective challenges we face on this planet right now are pushing us further into the alchemic fire of transformation, just as we titter on the brink of societal fragmentation, economic collapse, and ecological self-imposed mass extinction, precisely to hasten our collective awakening. Sad as may seem, without the prospect and pressures of annihilation perhaps we're not motivated enough to change. This is true in my therapy sessions with individuals, where they only come for support when things get really bad and unmanageable, instead of responding to the warning signs earlier. When they do finally arrive, rather than fix things with a temporary bandaid, I encourage them to go even deeper into their own darkness, not to resist coming undone, but to completely fall apart, to become unrecognizable to themselves, so that they might eventually claim from the rubble of their former shattered life some long lost fragment or some new insight about themselves now unbounded and liberated, which they would have never discovered otherwise. Then we rebuild a more dynamic, sustainable, and integrated life from the ashes. As dire as our world situation has become, what we stand to gain by working with tragedy, by confronting the reifying ideologies of supremacy and hate at their core, is the treasure that has eluded us all along, our common humanity. Differences between us are of course important, and marginalized people's movements seeking recognition and inclusion demand our solidarity, but we seem to have lost sight of a more overarching, transcendent identity to unites us all. What defines our uniqueness as individuals and groups is being highlighted, but what binds us all together remains obscured. Here in Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world, the motto of the government, a harbinger of the Aquarian Age, is simply put, "Unity in Diversity". If we don't discover a sacred, meta-identity, all the bloodshed and loss between us will be in vain. Good and decent people of conscience need to step out of their respective ideological corners and silos, challenge less their opponents and more themselves and the members of their own in-group, resensitize their hearts, and find the middle way between extremes.
In this way, the growing masses of ordinary people can eventually take the power back from the extremist regimes on both sides, amygdala-hijacked leadership and their propaganda-spewing media outlets, blind and hell-bent on a divide-and-concur hegemony for profit. Through non-violent means, uniting intelligence with sensitivity, IQ with EQ, and relying on democracy and decentralized networks, we can ensure human rights, civil liberties, and international rule of law are followed. This is what the signature of the Aquarian Age is broadcasting, as above, so below. For a brief moment, join me in envisioning more ordinary folks from different sides forming strategic coalitions like the one featured in this short documentary video with my Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Zopa, and a group of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. It could equally be black and white coalitions against racism, or moderate liberals and conservatives tired of overly partisan politics and the woke vs MAGA extremes. Instead of fracturing through polarization and hate, we can embody the heroism of love, instead of blindly following authority and media siloing us like sheep, we can rely on our innate human discernment, compassion, and sheer people power to uproot all extremist ideologies, demand that our respective governments each engage in an immediate ceasefire, respectful diplomacy, and mutually beneficial negotiations that ensure self-sovereignty in a two-state solution. Yes, Hamas has to go for Israel to be safe, but unequivocally, the Palestinians need a home of their own, to heal the underlying conflict.
No one is an island beyond reproach on this tiny planet anymore. The world is watching, as our collective conscience evolves. No country can invade another with impunity. No one can erect a wall or an ivory tower upon the very ruins where it inhumanely and illegally lays siege on another and expect it will stand without consequences. Yes, every nation is entitled to defend itself against aggression, the terrorist attacks by Hamas are deplorable, but the US-backed Israeli counter-offensive is entirely disproportionate. The brutal nature and unfathomable scale of Palestinian civilian casualties guarantees no one on any side is safer in the region or beyond, including Jews in the United States. On the contrary, this unprecedented military retaliation and occupation seems a pretext for a further land grab to fulfill Zionist ambitions and only ensures a whole new generation of hate and vengeance has been spawned for future bloodshed of innocent civilians on both sides. As Gandi observed an eye for an eye has made the whole world blind with rage. Interdependence isn’t just an optional nicety; it is our actual reality. What goes around comes around, until we either destroy ourselves or wake up and change. Which wolf will we feed?
I'm too idealistic, I know. I don’t have any specific geopolitical solutions to offer for the complex outer challenges we face on the planet, for the forever wars, the disenfranchising economic systems, the ecological devastation, but I do know this from an inner science perspective, we will never solve these issues alone, diverse groups of people must both celebrate and supersede their differences to work together, to forge a middle ground towards a common goal of collective peace. The Aquarian Age is about disparate groups of powerless peoples rising up and banding together to reclaim their power from unchecked, amoral authority. More importantly, no new solutions can be found with the problematic mindsets and low-vibration, fight-flight-freeze states that created them. We must recalibrate, upgrade, and align our nervous system through connection and co-regulation, like a network of interbeing, matching the signature of unity consciousness that characterizes the incoming age of Aquarius. From this standpoint, there is always something we can do, and contribute, to a better future, one local interaction at a time, each within our sphere of influence.
[Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrators demand a cease-fire in the Israel and Gaza conflict on October 18, 2023, in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.] Photo credit and article The Jewish Justice Movement is Being Reborn in THE NATION here.
A Twelve-week Coaching Container for Spiritual Rebirth with Dr. Miles Neale.
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