Welcome to day 9 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
The idea of apocalypse, for me, is very much about revealing self-deception. It’s easy to ignore, deny, and simply be blind to the ways we cover ourselves — in the sense of protect, shield, defend against fear, loss, anxiety, sadness, pain — and often hard to uncover what’s hidden in us.
One of the primary ways we humans tend to protect ourselves and our group is to demonise the “other.” If we have certainty that the “other” is bad, wrong, evil, then we “prove” ourselves right, good, worthy, viable, solid; in other words, we continually reaffirm that we have being.
This is obvious for most people: think of leaders or adherents of a political party that’s not the one you identify with; and if you identify as apolitical, then think of political people. Or if you strongly believe that human-augmented climate change is causing massive environmental problems, think about people who don’t believe this, or who don’t act as though they do, and vice versa. Generally, you’ll rate most of that other group as in some way less than you, dismissing most of what they say and do as at best naively careless or ignorant and at worst pure unmitigated evil.
As Richard Beck, psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, wrote in a 2009 post, The Theology of Monsters: Part III: Monsters and Heroes, we create monsters (or demons) “by projecting aspects of the self onto others. A monster is created to expel the monster within.” It’s a blind process, one we’re unaware of: “[T]he monster of the mind is always the familiar self disguised as the alien other.” Not only is the other the monster, but the self then becomes the hero (I’m good and you’re bad).
We unconsciously demonise, alienate (see as alien), villainise, stigmatise, and scapegoat others as a primary way to improve our status in our own eyes, to allay our deepest fears about how we matter, the significance of our own being. And in doing so, we lift ourselves from the position of anxious victim or smug oppressor into the lofty role of hero.
This idea that we tend towards demonisation is not just Christian. I offer this extended quote about the current political landscape — and the forever human landscape — from Zen Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer, in an article titled “Our Grand Delusion: Norman Fischer On The Tyranny Of The Self” in the Aug. 2108 issue of The Sun magazine, as something to consider:
Norman: Trump has bad policies that should be opposed, but that opposition is not incompatible with being compassionate toward him. Now, it’s not like I’m sitting here worried about poor Donald Trump or taking special time to cultivate love for him. But I don’t hate him. I am amused by him in some ways. I can appreciate his chutzpah. I assume that, like any human being, he has some kind of inner life — though he seems to be quite out of touch with it. But I don’t agree with most of his policies; I oppose them. And I don’t think his public style is helping the country. In fact, it is hurting people. It is weakening the social institutions that make democracy possible.
We have to get over being dismayed by other people and consider what they’re saying. No denigration or demonizing of others. Maintain a calm but critical exploration of views, not just an outraged dismissal. Be respectful, and don’t be pious.
There’s no reason to be in despair, as far as I can see. Life is always hopeful. Wherever there’s life, there’s also possibility.
Corey: Have years of immersion in Buddhism helped you avoid demonizing those you don’t agree with?
Norman: Yes. To accomplish this, I have to be truly nonaggressive. I can’t just pretend to be nonaggressive; I actually have to be nonaggressive. To pretend to be nonaggressive as a political strategy doesn’t work.
Corey: Why not?
Norman: If you are only pretending to listen or to care, if you are being polite only to advance your agenda, then your motivation will be transparent, and you’ll get creamed. It won’t take long before you abandon that strategy and come back with even more aggression than you had before, because now you are pissed off that your nice-guy strategy was taken advantage of.
Actual nonaggression, as opposed to strategic nonaggression, is something else. As a spiritual practitioner you are more committed to caring for others than you are to a side or a cause. Caring for others doesn’t mean caring only for the ones you are sympathetic to; it means all others. If it’s only some, then you’re going to end up being aggressive toward the others who seem to behave unjustly toward the ones you care about. And aggression breeds aggression. You might win with aggression, but there is always backlash, and pretty soon you lose. I have seen this many times. I am convinced that only real, heartfelt nonaggression works in the long run. And this isn’t something you can just decide you are going to feel. It is challenging to be genuinely caring and loving. It takes spiritual work, psychological work, meditation, cultivation. But there is no doubt that, for me, this is the only way.
I have practiced Zen enough to recognize when I get agitated and start blaming someone for the state of the world, and I reject such thoughts. It doesn’t take me long to see through them.
Corey: I remember you saying right after the 2016 presidential election that it’s important to read novels, listen to live music, and hang out with friends as forms of resistance.
Norman: I didn’t mean it as resistance to Republicans or even to Trump, but as resistance to the soul-killing way of life that we have collectively established. How many times have we been disappointed? How many times have we said, Let’s get rid of this politician, and then been bitterly disappointed in the next? It’s a bigger question than who we vote in or out of office. We should have amazing people run for office in 2018, and we should vote out a lot of people currently in Congress. That’s important. And yet real change is not about any one of those people. It’s got to be a collective, from-the-bottom-up feeling of resistance to the soulless world we live in. We have to say, No, we don’t want a world like this anymore. We want it to be different. So let’s elect good people but not depend on any one person.
Corey: What do you mean when you say our world is soulless?
Norman: Thanks for getting me to take a deep breath! Maybe I am being too one-sided. The world is great. This country is great. The skylines of San Francisco and New York are beautiful to behold, especially on a sunny day. My smartphone is amazing. The world we have created is a wonder, and I am personally taking full advantage of it.
But, at the same time, we are in a mess. The impulse to make money has left us with tremendous injustice. Some people are doing great while others are suffering terribly. We are screwing up the climate, causing extinctions, causing the earth to reorganize herself in ways that will probably ruin a lot of what we have built and maybe even make the planet uninhabitable for us. Our creativity has also caused us to produce weapons capable of killing huge numbers of people. The chances of our never having a nuclear war are slim. And I haven’t even mentioned drug addiction and mental disorders and racism and sexism and abuse, most of it more or less caused by our high-pressure, runaway consumerist society, where even the most privileged people are a wreck. We don’t have enough depth, meaning, humility, kindness, love, or respect for the other and the unknown.
Pema Chödrön, another Buddhist, also speaks of the dangers of attachment to our views, which leads to fixed ideas of “I am like this” and “You are like that.” In a July 2007 public meditation session on “Practicing Peace in Times of War” at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, California, Chödrön spoke of views and opinions: Our varied views and opinions are what make life rich. She’s not saying ‘no’ to views and opinions, or saying ‘no’ to preferences. We have them and they make things interesting. [Fischer said much the same in the Sun interview.] The only problem, she said, is the emotional charge we attach to them, which creates our biases and prejudices.
She likened this to a kind of fundamentalism. Her description of fundamentalism is that it’s characterised by righteous indignation, a sense that we are right and we are opposing what is wrong. This doesn’t lead to a capacity to go underneath the views and opinions to be in the shoes of the other, to have compassion.
The charge (or shempa) around our views and opinions comes, in her view, from a fear of groundlessness, a fear of insecurity and uncertainty. We as humans seem to have no tolerance for groundlessness or for holding the paradox. Groundlessness feels like the ultimate threat to us, and we combat the threat with fixed mind and heart, with a sense of certainty: I am like this, You are like that, It’s like this. This seems to protect us from what we fear.
Fundamentalism, she said, is at its core based on wanting things to be a certain way so that we can breathe deeply. We’re not really taught to treasure that feeling of groundlessness.
She reminded her fellow meditators that when we have fixed mind/heart about someone, we don’t see them change and don’t see the soft spot in them. From this blindness, she said, comes all grief, suffering, and war.
Don’t look now, but there goes the ground. Or: look.