- A the Desert Retreat House -
This morning as I poured a cup of coffee and prepared to read the news of the day, I was suddenly struck with the realization that every day when I open the morning paper, I feel as if I am being thrown into the fray - called to put on a proverbial uniform and join the various armies engaged in the many battles that are raging everywhere.
What side am I on in the global conflict taking place in countries like Syria? What camp do I associate with in the raging “culture wars” spreading throughout this country- battles over immigration, sex, race and gender issues, political ideologies? Everyone everywhere is fighting some sort of battle, and every day I feel like I am being called to take sides as I am pulled into that fray.
Today as I reflect on these feelings, I also realized that from my very earliest childhood days I was taught that the essence of life (especially my life of faith) is all about “doing battle.”
I can still remember my second grade teacher telling us that the job of a Christian in this world is to “fight the good fight.” We were taught that earth is a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and we must all join in that battle, always fighting against the forces of darkness in the world and inside ourselves as we strive for “spiritual perfection.”
While I am a strong believer in fighting for the causes of justice and human dignity, I also recognize that it’s pretty exhausting to be continually engaged in some sort of battle or other especially if “doing battle” is at the very core of the spiritual journey.
The truth is that I’m not at all sure any more that my spiritual journey needs to take place on a battleground. In fact my guess is that there is probably way more emphasis than necessary over “taking sides” on many of the issues that engage us in everyday life.
As I see it, we human beings are an odd and beautiful mixture of both darkness and light and many times when we think we are extremely different from someone else we are often much closer than we might imagine.
We are all prone to compassion on behalf of others and yet we also selfishly seek to meet the demands of our own personal agenda. Many times our enemies are only a hair’s breadth away from being a friend, and when it comes right down to it there are no foreigners because we all belong to one another.
The way I look at it, as we walk through life and as we walk on a spiritual path, there is way more gray than black-and-white and If anyone of us strives to achieve perfection we will inevitably enter a battle that will ultimately lose the war because perfection of any sort is simply not part of the human equation.
I recently came across something one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, once wrote about the struggle people have when they meditate. Many think of meditation as some sort of “spiritual battle.” They believe that they lose the battle when they meditate and are unable to clear their mind of their worries or fears. They are somehow a “bad soldier” in the spiritual fray if everyday restlessness creeps into their meditation time.
Master Hanh offers wise advice to those who imagine that a path of mindfulness and meditation is a battleground - good advice for every single human being as we walk the course of everyday life:
It is important that you do not consider awareness to be your ‘ally’
called on to suppress the ‘enemies’ that are your unruly thoughts.
Do not turn your mind into a battlefield.
Opposition between good and bad is often compared to light and dark,
but if we look at it in a different way,
we will see that when light shines darkness doesn’t disappear.
It doesn’t leave, it merges with the light.
As I read this morning’s news and mentally began to put on my various battle uniforms, I became acutely aware of the fact that I don’t always have to join the fray.
Yes of course there is darkness in the world and a part of each and every one of us is governed by our lesser angels; but instead of constantly “doing battle” with it it all, maybe we simply need to embrace the darkness and let the warm light of compassion shine upon it. When we are able to do this, the darkness merges with the light.
Master Hanh has also wisely observed that instead of being valiant soldiers in a spiritual battle maybe we all need to learn how to be a bit more gentle with ourselves:
When you are gentle with yourself, you are yourself,
and there you find peace.
It’s this peace that makes a child want to sit near you