These are testy times for the spiritually minded. Domestically, we have the presidential campaign. Internationally, we have masses of refugees drowning in rickety boats while the world looks on – in 2016!
It all starts to look like a spiritual train wreck; a daily assault on human kindness; fertilizer for our savage impulses. Violence begets violence, rage begets rage, and ugliness in your face, 24/7, is sure to bring out the worst in a person. I’ve heard more venom spewed from the mouths of “spiritual” folks I know this year than ever before. It’s hard to point this out, of course: “Are you aware that you sound like Mussolini if he were voting for Jill Stein?” you’d like to ask, but you don’t.
It happened again the other night. I was watching CNN with a Buddhist friend when a couple of pundits started sharing some not-so-brilliant ideas. As they spoke, I watched my friend’s hands turn into firsts, her face into a snarling war mask. She looked like she was ready to slam her kale chip bag into the TV screen. Finally, she started screaming. “I hate their mother &&$%# guts! Why do we listen to these people? They should all be locked up! Throw away the goddamn key!”
I looked at her. She looked at me. We both knew that this was a teaching moment. She’d been sucked into a death spiral of attack, disgust, and dehumanization despite decades of loving kindness practice. It was like the beginning of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” when the main character looks at his neighbor and sees the same face – only dead. There was no use reminding my friend of the Buddha’s warning about hatred (never ceasing by hatred). You don’t stop a raging bull by wagging your finger, “Now, now.” So I said something inoffensive about the election and how happy I’ll be when the whole thing is over.
After she’d regained her composure, my friend and I had a good talk about spiritual hypocrisy, and the value of faith and practice if they can’t stop us from becoming as despicable as the people whose policies we despise. I’ve practiced meditation for 25 years, read hundreds of books about spirituality, learned from enlightened masters, yet my gut response to abhorrent ideas shoots from neutral to homicidal in two seconds flat, my heart shut down by self-righteousness. Recently, this zealous aggression followed me home for the first time ever. A month before the TV meltdown, my partner and I, who’ve never had a real fight, found ourselves yelling at each other at 7 a.m. over who deserved the nomination. We were actually raising our voices over the morning paper. We caught ourselves, but that’s not the point. The gloves were off, the blood pressure was rising, and it wasn’t inconceivable that had he been closer, I might have popped him one.
Never – but you get the point. You’ve seen the enemy and he is you. You’ve met your own face in the bathroom mirror and seen a fundamentalist jerk. It doesn’t matter if you’re a left-winger or a right-winger, you’re still a fundamentalist. You don’t favor bombs or beheadings, of course; still your reflexive belligerence towards perceived opponents can hardly be mistaken for spiritual wisdom. That’s because emotions are rarely wise, and moral outrage is all emotion. We know from evolutionary psychology that the human brain is equipped with a moral organ that takes its orders from feelings, not thoughts. This moral organ has five main keys – harm and care, justice and fairness, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity (or sacredness) – all of which are triggered by emotions, not reason.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done studies proving that conservatives and liberals respond to different moral keys, for wildly divergent reasons. Conservatives tend to focus on issues of loyalty, respect, and purity (“community ethics”) for example, while liberals emphasize issues related to fairness, harm, and care (“individual ethics”). For a liberal, if something doesn’t hurt anyone else, you should be allowed to do it. For a conservative, if tradition or “purity” forbids it, that’s enough reason to button it up.
Emotions are running the show. It’s why my Buddhist friend who prays at strangers’ deathbeds and gives selflessly to public service, can react like a garden-variety bigot when outrage hijacks her mindfulness. Logically, she knew she was behaving in a crazy way but her riled-up feelings didn’t care. Haidt uses a circus analogy to illustrate this disconnect. He compares the emotions to an untrained elephant and our reasoning capacity to a little man sitting on its back. No matter how much the little man kicks and steers, the elephant goes it own way. If you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of a feeling, you know that this is true. Next to the primitive emotional brain, the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning happens, is a fairly new instrument in our evolution, and it is much less powerful. Hence, our current debacles.
As seekers, we do our best to go high when they go low. We struggle to raise ourselves out of cesspool of greed, delusion, and outright cruelty. We’re confused when we find ourselves sinking again to levels we think are way below us and wonder why we can’t stop ourselves. The clue is to look to the elephant – or the donkey, depending on your team – and stop believing what you think. Righteousness does not come from reason. Hatred is not the price of justice. Our ancient wiring has got us fooled. That’s why everything’s such a circus.