The Tree of Life and not Taking Sides
‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’
– Edmund Burke
As someone who has had a troubled youth, in many ways my adult life has been about a search for a peace. Inner peace mainly and in the moments I have experienced that, known what it looks and feels like, my inevitable focus and desire has been to create and share that peace outside of myself too.
Recently, I took a short break to a summer school in memory of Pheroz Mehta. It was a short retreat where we listened to talks, had readings of poetry and meditated in grounds surrounded by serene, beautiful gardens. The purpose is spiritual fortification. To reaffirm the elusive idea of what it means to be a religious♦ person and attempt to get closer to the actions that embody it.
One talk was a brief explanation on The Tree of Life in Kabbalah. This talk resonated with me at the time but the lesson feels further underscored by recent events taking place in Charlottesville, USA. I had been out of touch with the news and came back to these heartbreaking, tragic and disturbing reports. Often, as I do when something hits me emotionally, my first response was to just absorb what was happening attempting to compute and make sense of it. I fleeted between MSM, independent news sources and Twitter for my news trying to scan the mood and comprehend the zeitgeist of these events.
The first thing that has struck me about these events, and this is the crux of my entry here, is the way in which some people mistake pacifism or apathy with peace, freedom of speech with unlimited license and attempt to present events as though they have no historical context.
As a practitioner of yoga, my life's (or many lifetimes) work in the practice is to find transcendence. Transcendence from the dualities of this world in an attempt to find peace; to find and reside in a Higher part of ‘myself’ that understands the dance of illusion that takes place in the human world and is able to disconnect in order to gain knowledge and perspective. My task is often to ‘not take sides’ as polarisation results in conflict and conflict leads away from enlightenment. I see echoes of this line of thinking in the attempt not to add to polarisation in response to the events in Charlottesville. However, I wanted to write this to make it clear that transcending duality is very different from being an apologist for hate and ignorance. It is important that I make clear at this juncture that it is always problematic talking about these matters as often we are talking about things for which words are inadequate. I will nevertheless still try to articulate this piece and hope that some forbearing can be found in it.
Kabbalah is a large, mystical body of knowledge about the human condition and its relationship to the divine. I'm not an expert but I hope I can explain this simply and also do the complexity justice. The Tree of Life represents interconnected modes of being related to human existence, thought and action. There are three vertical columns and a number of inter-sectioned and horizontal columns, with the Divine represented at the top and the material world/human body at the bottom. The left column represents Severity and the ‘negative’ aspect of ourselves. The right column represents Mercy and the ‘positive’ that embodies loving kindness. Through the middle is the way of truth, through the soul, embodying knowledge, balance and integration of the two columns travelling in ascendency to the divine (and also allowing to become conduit for the divine to be realised within the world).
I believe sometimes a sādhaka can become confused about how to live a life of peace, of compassion and of non-violence, which is so important to yogic practice, and how to balance this with engagement in an unjust world. Often we try to enhance the column of Mercy, believing that loving kindness alone can bring more accordance. The Tree of Life shows us balance by teaching us that loving kindness, without judgement, is not true discernment and therefore is not an authentic way to bring more peace into the world. In fact, pacifism without correct knowledge and execution, simply gives evil a free pass in this world which is counter productive to our aims.
Apologists try to not to take sides as they think it will make things worse. They think it will entrench polarity at a time when people need to come together. They also try to preach peace and love in the face of hatred, bigotry and evil. As much as the little that I know, this is not The Way and can never be. Transcendence of both a spiritual and intellectual kind comes really from the ability to see things as they really are. To gain knowledge about the truths of the world and to then act accordingly. There is no wisdom in the claim that not taking sides against what is bad in world is somehow going to make the world a better place.
Now back to recent events. Martin Luther King Jr. continually highlighted that what is wrong in America, what is causing conflict and division is white racism. This, however, is compounded and made worse because, “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice and humanity”. It’s quite simple in that respect. Here is a problem with a long historical precedence, in which discrimination, injustice, exclusion, exploitation, incarceration, colonisation, theft and murder have been legitimised through ideology of supremacy based on such an arbitrary thing as the colour of ones skin.
So this is my take. If you are not taking sides, your side will be chosen for you. This is not a time to be equivocal. If ones judgement does not allow for outright condemnation of white supremacist ideology when and where it manifests, then I suggest that real spiritual knowledge is lacking. Peace can only manifest from harmony and justice. It can only emerge from facing and processing hard and difficult truths. This is true of our own personal self-development and it also true in the world. Peace does not come from looking the other way or repressing difficult facts. It does not come through placating malign forces when they come into play in order not to rock the boat.
Light workers of all hues have work to do and this is not the time to sit it out in some mistaken understanding that this can bring peace and unity. Religious discipline is also the discipline of the will. It's what gives good people the strength and courage of their convictions. We are constantly walking a tightrope, integrating discriminating knowledge about the world and weighing up which actions must be taken. Thought, speech and deeds are all actions and in the Buddhist Noble eight-fold path, all of these are considered in our steady orientation towards insight or prajñā.
I’m committed to the principle of non-violence as I believe it is the natural state of the human condition without corruption. Our capacity for destruction, violence and hatred is born from ignorance and from being disconnected from the eternal and mystical truths of our existence. Therefore, more ignorance can only create more suffering in this world. There are many good people sharing, teaching and doing actions that can stem this rise in hatred and Nazism. Our role is support those deeds in a diversity of ways. Education and reading, knowing the historical context for the unfolding of these events and a good dose of humility can go a long way, as well as direct action when it is called for. Being present, placing your body in particular geographical positions as a symbol of solidarity with the ethos and principle of unity, equity and justice are also valid.
Heather Heyer was murdered by a man consumed with anger and hatred, founded on an ideology that places his life in greater value to the lives of others, simply because of the colour of his skin. She was a committed civil rights activist and her last words on social media were, ‘if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’. In the interests of space I cannot go into the philosophical arguments for ‘just’ uses of violence but hope I can make it clear here that I believe there is great deal of difference between the use of violence in the pursuit of repressive and discriminatory agendas and the use of violence as self-defence against repressive forces.
Many of us benefit from structural inequalities embedded within our economic, institutional and political systems. Bringing the divine into the material world and bringing peace does not mean looking the other way. It does not mean creating secluded and exclusive pockets of tranquillity away from the heart of injustices. Bringing light, wisdom and peace into the world must also mean facing down ignorance and hatred where it emerges. There can be no ambiguity here, tolerance of human foibles and being compassionate are not the same as giving evil free pass. This is not just about one march or one protest or even our words of condemnation. This includes our daily interactions, validations and navigations of a world that is predicated on inequality. Only true wisdom can guide us to assimilate into our being where those subtle lines fall and what actions we must take.
I guess that is why it is called a practice. Stay vigilant.
♦ Religious is a problematic term as it can bring up very negative connotations for people because of the historical inheritance. Unfortunately, there is not an adequate replacement for this word, so I am stuck with using it. Here I do not mean any reference to a particular institution of religion, I am alluding instead to a subscription to or a belief in a meaning or power beyond our physical world, which informs daily conduct, practices and actions.