“Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life.”
– Marianne Williamson
There is a great debate happening right now. In our homes, on the Internet, and in our places of worship, we’re asking the question, “What is happening to our world, and who or what is to blame?” There is no shortage of opinions, ranging from the theory that societies go through ebbs and flows of violence and destruction of resources as part of their natural evolution, to the belief that there is a vengeful God who would unleash his violent wrath as punishment for not obeying x, y or z of his commands.
However you look at it, there’s no denying that we live in a time of great uncertainty. We know from reading the news that life can change in an instant. The solid ground we believed was under our feet turns to thin air without any notice. At the same time, as a society we seem to be drifting further and further away from rituals and practices that might help us realize our interconnectedness and sustain us in difficult times. As a result, the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich called ours the “age of anxiety.”
This uncertainty is the nature of reality, yet we can’t help but try to make sense of it in order to know how to respond to current events and plan for the future. We may want to act in a loving way, but we might be so filled with grief, rage or despair that we either withdraw from the debate entirely, or lash out with speech and actions that cause further harm. In order to find the middle way, a path of empowerment that’s uniquely ours to follow, we need to get quiet enough to tune out the “noise” of other people’s opinions and observe what arises in our own heart and mind. More often than not, what we discover is that our thoughts, and subsequently our actions, are driven not only by our loving hearts but also by an underlying fear – specific or existential – that our way of life is somehow under threat.
Since we know we will encounter real hardship in one form or another, and also be faced with deciding how we will respond to everything from complex social issues to difficult people, it can be helpful to set an intention in advance for how we want to approach life. Will we allow ourselves to be swept up in the loud chorus of fear, hatred and confusion, or will we commit to standing on the side of love? We know from experience that the fear center of the brain speaks much louder than the rational, altruistic, loving part of the brain. But if our goal is “peace in our hearts and peace in the world” it’s worth the effort to practice distinguishing between our fear- and love-based ways of relating (we all have both).
Take a moment to bring to mind a situation or a social issue that feels really alive to you. For the sake of this exercise, don’t censor yourself. Go ahead and pick something going on in the world that may be controversial or have an emotional charge to it. There are plenty to choose from! Now, close your eyes and think of a situation that really illustrates this issue. If you’re a visual person, let the images unfold in front of you with all their accompanying thoughts and body sensations. If you’re not so visual, as you imagine this situation, open up your senses and let the sounds, smells, and emotions play themselves out. Notice how you feel in your body. Are the muscles in your jaw, neck and shoulders tense or relaxed? How does your chest feel? Is the breath smooth or halting, deep or shallow? As you become aware of your thoughts, what kind of tone do they have? Is there any judgment or harshness? Just noticing these subtle mental and physical manifestations can alert you to which part of the brain is driving the bus at any given time.
Now with your eyes still closed, take a deep breath and see if you can mentally take a step back and see a larger view of the situation. See or sense the presence of others who are also part of this suffering, and those throughout history who have shared this same suffering, both as victims and perpetrators. Notice the expressions on their faces; see if you can sense their heart’s desires. Feel the connections we all share, and the desire we all have, on some level, to be free from suffering.
It’s possible to be aware of fear-based thoughts of anger, separation and retribution, and at the same time have an awareness of the heart-based spaciousness that represents love and connectedness. You might experiment by toggling back and forth in your mind/body between the two, getting a good sense of the difference in how you experience them, both physically and mentally. And when you’re ready, open your eyes.
None of our reactions are to be judged as bad, pushed aside or not acknowledged with lovingkindness. It’s part of the human condition to experience both fear and love. Of course, the time will come when we must simply decide, if our intention is to stand on the side of love, which wolf we will feed. In his book The Great Turning, the brilliant economist and activist David Korten writes, “When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival. That is our current situation.” I might add that when the stories we tell ourselves are out of tune with our true aspirations, the same limitation occurs. Through discernment, forgiveness and lots of practice, may all beings choose to stand on the side of love.