Andrew Safer presented the following remarks in a panel discussion on Inequality, Poverty and Homelessness on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2011 at The Lantern in St. John’s, Newfoundland…
Equality of “the Person”
(c) Andrew Safer 2011
Today we have been grappling with the problems of inequality, injustice, intolerance, and bigotry in the world, and, at the same time, we’re inspired by individuals who are making a difference. We’ve heard from panelists who are working to ensure that the people who are suffering due to intolerance and injustice, and those who have been left out of the corridors of power and privilege, have both the opportunity and the means to lead full and productive lives.
The forces of greed, aggression, ignorance and coercion are indeed daunting—and can be overwhelming. It’s easy to feel insignificant and helpless in the face of the enormity of it all. At the end of the day, we’re left with the question: What can I do that will actually make a difference?
The words of Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, come to mind:
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”
We can, of course, donate to a worthy cause, but in addition to that, is there something else we can do—personally, directly, in our everyday lives?
When I walk downtown, along Water Street, I usually run into someone who asks me for spare change. In that split second, what do I do? Do I say to myself, “Get a job!” Do I start to walk faster, as if I have something important to do? Do I preoccupy myself with a project I’m working on? Do I turn away in disgust? Do I ignore them and keep walking? Do I mechanically fish a loonie out of my pocket, hand it to them, and keep going?
I’m very familiar with these strategies, because I’ve used them many times. They all have one thing in common. They keep me over here, where it’s safe–where I don’t have to actually relate with this person. Even if I hand him or her a coin, if it’s done mechanically, chances are, the sudden appearance of this person in my life doesn’t interrupt the storyline in my head—where I’m going, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, my concerns. I’m still over here in my own world, where it’s safe.
These responses, which come in the blink of an eye, keep us separate. As long as the status quo is maintained, the walls between these two seemingly separate human beings are reinforced. And so what we end up with is two worlds, each preserving its own private struggles and challenges, passing like ships in the night. This way, the system remains as it is—entrenched. No real change can occur.
There’s a powerful momentum that keeps us going, keeps us moving, like pistons in a car, going up and down. If they stop moving for an instant, the car will stall. We’re afraid of what might happen if the choreography of our life were to stop, even for a moment.
Our sense of a separate existence, and the compulsion to maintain separateness as our identity, is, in fact, the logjam that prevents us from being able to connect with others in a meaningful way.
In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wrote:
“We must be saved above all from that abyss of confusion and absurdity which is our own worldly self. The personmust be rescued from the individual…The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises…
“The obstacle is within our “self”, that is to say, the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egoistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false “self” that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God…
“The only true joy on this earth is to escape from this prison of our false self, and enter by love, into union with the Life who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”
So how do we find this person who needs to be rescued from the individual? For Merton, the Roman Catholic, the Trappist monk, the Christian mystic, the path was contemplation, which he defined in this way…
“True contemplation means the destruction of all selfishness—the most pure poverty and cleanness of heart.”
For Merton, it was the solitary practice of contemplation and prayer that opened the door to the person.
Reflection, contemplation, prayer, meditation, walks in nature. There are many forms this takes, but they’re all about taking time out from the busyness of our everyday activities, and just being. In silence.
When we take time out, we begin to contact something that is much bigger than our “self”—the person. The more contact we have with this intangible reality, the more we come to trust it is always present—even when we are caught up in the busyness of our habitual patterns. It’s like the sun hiding behind the clouds. Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
There’s a connection between this process of coming into contact with the person, and the way we react when we see a homeless person on the street, or when we encounter someone who is struggling with an addiction, mental illness, poverty, abuse, injustice or discrimination. When we know the person exists, this opens us up to a bigger context. It’s no longer about protecting myself and keeping myself safe, over here. There’s a much bigger world we can participate in.
My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, wrote about this in Smile At Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery.
“Sometimes, when a person projects energy into a situation, he or she tries to use that process of projection to fulfill his or her desire or to confirm his or her expectations. That produces a gap or break, which subverts the wholesomeness of the situation. Doubt often arises at that point, and you can catch all kinds of psychological fevers or flus in this gap of unhealthiness.
“In the true human situation of warriorship, we shouldn’t have that problem. Rather, we expand and extend ourselves fully to a situation, and from that we receive the feedback to develop a true and clear understanding. There is no doubt about anything. Over all, the warrior’s doubtlessness comes from continually connecting back with the original feeling of being truly oneself. From that, tremendous health can be propagated.”
Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, introduced the Shambhala teachings into the modern world. In the Shambhala tradition, a warrior is not afraid of who he or she is fundamentally–the person, in Merton’s language.
It’s interesting to note that Merton and Trungpa met in Calcutta in 1968, one month before Merton’s untimely death in Bangkok. One can deduce from what Merton wrote about this meeting in The Asian Journal that these two practitioners from different traditions saw eye to eye on these matters.
So what does all of this have to do with human rights?
We all want to help others. We want them to be free from suffering. We want them to be happy and at their ease. Thomas Merton and Chogyam Trungpa pointed to a way forward: we can help to bring this about by connecting, each in our own way, first with the person–being truly oneself–and then with the person directly in front of us. In the process, the walls that otherwise get in the way dissolve.
Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama have all shown us how this simple, yet profound activity can translate into social action that can transform the world. They weren’t born heroes. They were ordinary people like us, who developed an unshakeable faith in the goodness of all people and their fundamental right to be respected. Each had a tremendous strength they were able to tap into, a strength that supported them in everything they did. We’re fortunate we have their examples to follow.
At this point, I’d like to suggest that we take a brief interlude, to sit together in silence, and connect with the person, in whatever way we do. And, at the same time, we’ll call to mind the profound suffering that is taking place right now around the world, as well as right here in St. John’s: all the people and animals of the world whose basic dignity is not being respected. And we’ll sit in solidarity with them, in compassion, with the aspiration that we can help bring about the dissolution of the artificial walls that separate us.
[Sit in silence]