Finding Peace in a Troubled World
First, here’s the poem I shared at the end of class:
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time,
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This week’s reading has two major themes: how to relate to/understand/respond to the state of the world and the suffering we see, and also the role of inner work, including issues of “selfishness,” “selflessness,” and narcissism. My questions for the Guides are in bold and their answers are in italics.
Note: the Guides make some generalizations about gender roles and about the role of churches in society in these passages. It is my understanding that they are trying to call our attention to broad cultural patterns rather than actually “define” anyone or anything, and that as always we should take what resonates and leave the rest.
Q & A with the Guides:
Q: What about the state of the world? It looks so bleak sometimes. At the moment there is bad news from every corner, or so it seems.
Yes. We do not want to belittle your concerns. The world is filled with strife, or certainly seems so. But put it in perspective. There has always been human suffering on a grand scale. This has always been a feature of your lives on this planet, on this plane. What is different now is that you know about so much of it. That didn’t used to be the case.
What is your responsibility for the suffering of others? This is an age-old question, and never more pertinent than now.
And what about all the good news you do not read, do not see or know about? What if we told you there has never been more good news than there is right now? That there have never been more souls awakening to their own light? Never been more hope for the en-lightenment of humanity than there is now? That is true.
What you can’t see amid all the crisis, all the fear, all the genuine human suffering, is the mass awakening that is happening across the globe. Not in every corner. Not in every person. Certainly there are dark spaces, some very dark, and that is difficult. There is suffering, some of innocents, and that is beyond difficult to bear.
But what is ultimately true is that this is a time of great en-Lightenment. A great awakening. A crucial time in the history of Earth and one that has been foretold for millennia. So do not despair. Yes, pray for those who suffer. Yes pray for peace and for the survival of the planet, though in truth that is not in question. The planet will survive, and her children are eternal, though there is much suffering connected to how she has been misused and continues to be by sleeping humans who do not realize their connection to Her. That is a sad thing and a hurtful one, and a reckoning the children of Earth will have to have at some point, a time of reckoning and making amends.
But what should you do now when you see so much bad news, so much suffering all around? Pray for the victims, for those who suffer. And pray for the despots and the criminals, those who do violence to others. Pray for incompetent leaders and competent ones, for ordinary people, for everyday events and ordinary ones, for those suffer in big ways and those who don’t.
For all are One, and all are part of the great human drama unfolding on the earth. The parts you see and the parts you don’t. Know that nothing is “wrong” even when everything seems so. Know that you are worthy, that all are worthy, regardless of their role in the unfolding drama.
Should you get involved in the strife you see, try to help in some way? Only if your heart implores you to. Not out of guilt or obligation. Not because you feel you “should.” If it is in your path to do so, you will know, and you will be blessed. And if it is not in your path, you will also know, and you will also be blessed.
This is hard for you to understand from where you sit and given your (Judeo-Christian) training and societal norms, but “helping” is not better than “not helping.” Love is always good, a spirit of generosity is always good, a heart of compassion. But action is not “required” if action is not in the heart of the person. Actions from the heart are fine and good. Actions without the sponsorship of the heart are empty and do not do the same good. In fact, they may cause unseen problems. Problems of enmeshment. Problems of guilt and “duty.” “Duty” is a mental construct and not from the heart. It tends to confuse the relationship between the server and the served, to cause unhealthy bonds of dependence and guilt instead of giving and receiving freely, which is the true nature of service and the longing of the heart.
The question is this:
How do you want to serve?
How does your heart want to serve?
What do you long to give?
Give that. Do that. That is where you are called. Not miles away in another country because you feel saddened by what you see—not unless your heart commands you to go, in which case, go! Listen to your heart. It longs to serve, or it will once it has been healed of enough of its wounds. It was made to love and serve and create and honor and tend, in its perfect way. Your job is to find that way bit by bit and step by step so that you may do your part, however small (though in truth, no part is small) in healing the Earth and its people.
Not out of guilt. Not out of obligation. Not out of duty. But out of Divine Love, which is what you are made of and who you really are.
Q: What about those who suffer? What about victims of violence, or refugees, or those caught up in war or abuse?
It is not for us to question the soul journey of another. This is a difficult truth, and one that offends your sense of fairness. It also doesn’t mean don’t have or show compassion. To reach out to those who suffer, in compassion, if only in prayer, is a deeply holy act and one that is felt on all levels of existence. It is Light working in favor of light, in the service of light. And its ripples are far and wide. So pray for those who suffer. And thank them for their role, as inexplicable and mystifying as it may be to you, for their part in the great human drama. For their part is not less than yours. Their role is not small and their lives are not insignificant, even if they end in untimely death or what seems unconscionable suffering.
They are playing their role as you are playing yours, and what is “fair” is not your concern, nor something the human mind can easily understand. Give thanks for what you have and for what they’ve given, without guilt or judgment.
Comparison is not useful. Compassion is useful. Prayer is useful. Love is useful. Gratitude is useful. Faith in the great unfolding of the human drama in all its pathos and mystery and violence and love—that is useful and good.
Q: I find this teaching difficult. Especially the part about ‘helping.’ You say, “’Helping’ is not better than ‘not helping.’” How can that be true?
Do you notice that the words “helping” and “not helping” are in quotes? That is very deliberate. You think you know what “helps” and what doesn’t, but you are often mistaken. What looks to you like “helping” may in fact be the opposite. What looks like “not helping,” the same.
The fact is, you don’t know. Your heart does, but you don’t. Your mind has been trained in a system of values that, while not “wrong,” is also not particularly helpful on the level of the soul. Is it important to love? Yes. But not out of force or duty. It is important to love as the heart sees fit to love, in that moment, and in that way. Not in the way the mind has in mind, so to speak.
The mind can be a tyrant. The mind does not brook opposition. It does not like to be told that the way it understands the world may not actually be the way the world works, according to the soul. That makes the mind angry. And there is a whole host of emotions that come into play when the mind is angry, when the ego feels threatened. The alarm bells go off. There is a kind of internal panic. Danger! Danger! We are under siege!
The only thing under siege is the mind and its habitual ways of thinking and perceiving the world. It does not want to give those ways up, because then the personality is threatened, the sense of security is threatened, the sense that, for example, I-am-a-good-person-because-I-help-others-in-this-certain-way” is threatened.
Of course you are a good person. Of course you help others. But who is driving the car? The mind or the heart? If the mind is driving the car, it looks different. There are a lot of “shoulds.” There is a sense of duty, of obligation, of grim determination. A need for a certain outcome, one which will appease the concerns of the heart as filtered through the mind. What does that mean? It means that grief in the heart is tethered to action, to the need for action and change, instead of being allowed to exist as it is. To be felt and to be released and to be blessed.
Now how, you may ask, can feeling grief help? How can letting the heart drive the car, and releasing the map, and untethering the heart from specific action designed by the mind to appease it, make a change? Oh, but it does. It makes a great change. It frees the soul. It frees the soul from the confines of the mind. The mind with its limited vision. The mind with its “shoulds” and its plans. It releases the soul into the slipstream of life, the Great Unknown that is the human path, the human journey. The mystery of which we are all an important part.
Now, if after such a release, the heart tells the self that it still wants to “help” in a classic sense, that it longs to serve others and/or the world in a particular way, then by all means that is exactly what the person should do. Every atom of strength in that person can then align behind that beautiful intention, and mountains may well move as a result. That is the heart driving the car, free of guilt or obligation, expressing the wishes of the soul, as it should be. (And that, by the way, is the proper use of the word “should.”)
Here is the thing. The person animated by heart brings a much different energy to the world than a person primarily animated by mind. The person animated by heart exudes a vibration of freedom that affects others in a powerful way. That changes the world. That is why the most important thing is to follow the dictates of the soul as expressed by the heart, and not the mind. For then the person will be placed in the right place, doing the best work, in alignment with What Is. And that is what truly changes the world.
Q: You talk about prayer as a legitimate way to respond to the suffering in the world. Some people criticize this impulse as weak or ineffective. Can you say more?
This is counter to your culture and may offend some, but the truth is that prayer is immensely powerful. More powerful than action, in many cases. Your world consists of energy, and prayer deals in energy. Prayer is the sending of energy, in the form of Light, to another person or group of people. And since matter obeys energy, energy is therefore more powerful than matter. Enough concentrated energy has the power to shift matter. This will become known more and more as your culture and your world evolve. For now, simply know that prayer is effective. That it is an “action” in itself. That to pray for another, to pray for healing of a certain situation, a country, a group, a situation of strife, is not to do nothing. The force of your Love is felt through that prayer. The Light of your Love is received. The force you are putting out in the world through your prayer is transforming the world.
More from the Guides: “Focusing on the Self is Not Selfish”
There is an incorrect notion in your culture that to delve into the self—the small self that needs inner work because it is causing you problems (pain, emotional suffering, relationship problems)—is a selfish act. A sign of weakness. A valuing of the self over the other.
There is also the misconception that the yearning to know the Self—a spiritual search that may or may not involve conscious excavation of the small self—is the same thing: selfish, self-indulgent, a rejecting or negation of others.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
These attitudes stem from the notion that to focus on the self is selfish. That one’s life should be about others. That unless one is giving to others, providing for others, thinking about others, putting others before and above oneself, one is “selfish” and bad.
Ridiculous. And harmful, too.
Now there is nothing wrong with giving to others, doing for others, if that is what the heart is yearning to do. But to focus on others to the exclusion of the self, or in the attempt to be “good” and dutiful, can be counterproductive. That is not to say that one should not fulfill one’s duties. That one should abandon loved ones and hightail it to the mountains to “find oneself” if those loved ones have genuine need of the presence of that person in that moment and during that time.
On the other hand, there is nothing good or noble about staying out of guilt, or giving out of duty to the exclusion of one’s self. To the detriment of one’s growth. To the deafening of what the self and the heart are crying out for.
[Women are particularly subject to the expectation that the self and its yearnings will be denied in the service of the other. This is too bad, and a form of cruelty. Because the desire to serve others is a beautiful thing and does not deserve to be warped and distorted by the false expectations and unrealistic ideas of a culture too afraid to look at itself.
In other words, if she wants to give, let her give, and celebrate her for it. If she wants to go on a journey of self-discovery, to plumb the depths of who she is in the service of greater understanding, honor her courage and applaud her for that. Don’t judge her either way. Both are the work of God, when done with a pure heart.
But giving, or trying to give, when one’s heart is not pure, when one is denying one’s self, and seething inside as a result, this is not good. In fact, it is harmful.
You all, at some time, have been the recipient of this kind of “love.” The frustrated “love” of someone whose heart is elsewhere, whose needs are unmet, who is giving from an empty well. It can feel like violence. It can feel like abandonment. It can induce guilt and rage.
So tell me why it is better for that person to “give” instead of “take”?
Actually, in that case, the frustrated “giving” IS a form of taking. Or becomes it. And the self-exploration, in a larger sense, becomes a form of giving. A giving to the Self, to the parts of the self that are needy and hurting, a tending of wounds so that those wounds will not continue to wound others.
Is that a selfish act?
No, it is not. It is deeply generous.
Loving the self is loving others. It is giving to others, in the end. Just as denying the self is denying others, in the end. An unfed self has nothing to give and ends up siphoning off precious life energy from others in an unconscious attempt to feed the self or assuage the untended wound.
And these patterns get continued, generation upon generation, until one brave person is willing to stop it. To say, I will tend my Self. I will give it what it needs. I will value my feelings and the urgings of my heart. I will go inward, or, I will explore outward in the service of myself.
I will do this at the risk of being “selfish,” or seeming so, because I know that I must, that I have no choice, that my heart demands it.
If only others could see and recognize the bravery in that act. The courage it takes to honor the self, to risk the judgment and scorn of others. To value the Self in a culture that doesn’t yet recognize the beauty and worth of the inner path, that is still too distracted by the noise and trappings of the outer world.
For men, the challenge is different, most of the time. The challenge is to resist the incessant voice that demands action. That demands results. That demands the fruits of one’s labors as physical evidence of one’s love. To bring home the spoils. To stay on the outside, focused on externals. To keep up with others.
These are generalizations and will not apply in every case. Some women feel the pressure more typical of men and vice-versa. The point is not to define for everyone. The point is to see the pressures on both men and women to avoid the self, to avoid inner work, to keep the self at bay.
The illusion that it is “selfish.” Why is this so?
Because of fear. Simple as that. Not so much the fear of individuals as the fear of a culture. Fear of the Self is fear of revolution. Fear of change. Fear of spiritual power. Fear of the Feminine Divine.
Think about it. For years the churches said, Do not go inward. Do not focus on the self. Instead, do good for others. Listen to the priest. Say the rote prayer. Ask for forgiveness. Do good works. Fear your God.
Not, listen to your Self.
Not, listen to the voice of God within you.
Not: Follow your heart. Heal yourself. Enter the Silence, and there you will find God. There you will know Who You Are, and that you and God are one.
People don’t want people doing this. Churches don’t want women doing this. Societies don’t want mothers doing this. Families don’t want fathers doing this. Fear, fear, fear.
Who will take care of us?
Who will tend to us?
Who will listen to us?
What if no one listens anymore?
What if you go away and leave me alone?
What if everything changes?
Change is scary.
Inner work involves change.
Spiritual work involves change.
An individual embarking on a journey of spiritual change appears to threaten the whole.
And so we say, as a culture, “Selfish.”
And so we say, “Bad. Irresponsible. Self-indulgent.”
And so we make fun, make uncomfortable jokes, pathologize, denigrate, humor-ize what is actually deeply brave and sacred work and a contribution to all humanity.
To know oneself is to know all.
To know one’s heart is to know the heart of God.
To venture into the self is to take the greatest journey, the one for which all other journeys are simply stand-ins.
And so we salute you, noble Warriors, explorers of the self, caster-offs of convention, pioneers of the spirit. We salute the courage it takes to shake of the label of “selfish” in favor of and in service to the greater good of knowing the Self, which is in service to us all.
Q: What is the difference between “loving the self” and narcissism?
There is an enormous difference between the two. Narcissism is “love” for the outer image. We put “love” in quotes here because it is not true love. It is not acceptance or compassion or embracing. The narcissist “loves” him- or herself only to the extent that he or she is able to project the image he or she wants or believes is lovable or enviable. This is image-crafting. It is not love.
Love for the self is accepting the self for all it is. Accepting the pain, the suffering, the uncertainty, the yearnings, and yes, the inner greatness that can be uncovered when the work of the lower self is done. In other words, loving the self is loving ourselves as we are, and as a mother loves, ideally anyway. With tenderness and acceptance and curiosity and patience. Warts and all. Pain and all. Longings and all. Greatness and all.
Love for the self is not about demonstration. It is not a show. It does not demand accolades. In fact, it is something done in private, within the self, for the benefit of the self, but also, in the end, for the benefit of others.
Narcissism is love for the false self, which is empty and doomed to fail. Self-love is love for the real self, the complex and difficult self, the self and the Self together in one human body. It is the only way out, and the only way up. This is not well understood.
This is where the traveler of the inner path must find great courage. The courage to be “selfish.” The courage to trust that the yearnings of the self, and the untangling of the self, are all works of God. This is the way God works through us. Through the self. Not outside of it. Not through the mind. Not through the culture with its demands on the person. But through the self and its private inner language of pain and longings and yearnings.
Listening to your self—the self that longs for growth, not the false self that demands outward attention—is listening to God. Following its longings is fulfilling your purpose. And that is the least selfish thing you can do.
Q: I’m still struggling with the idea that to be “good people,” we have to be engaged with others in a more active way than you seem to suggest.
We have said nothing about how to engage with others. We have simply said not to let the judgment of others about the supposed “selfishness” of self-inquiry and self-love interfere with your commitment to your own growth. This has nothing to do with how “active” or “engaged” you are with other people. We are not saying you must sequester yourself away from the world, though you can do that if that is what you are called to do. It would not be “selfish” if you did, if it were a true and clear longing from your Self.
Neither are we saying that you should throw yourself into engagement with others in a selfless way in order to “serve,” unless that is a directive of your heart. It is all a question of listening. Listening to your self, and not to the moralistic judgments of a culture that doesn’t understand the nobility of the self or the evolution from the self to the Self.
Trust your self. Do what you are called to do, as best you can. Make your way based on your own lights, not on the values or judgment of others. Many a life has been wasted listening to others when the self was crying out to be heard, in what was ultimately the voice of God within.
As for being a “good person,” you already are. You are goodness personified. All of you. Your heart is goodness. Your Self is goodness. Are you full of contradictions and lower emotions? Sure you are. But that does not make you “bad.” That makes you human. There is nothing to atone for. There is only moving forward doing the work of the soul as best you can within the context of your human life, whatever that looks like for you.
As for other people, they are your teachers. They are not your charges or your judge. It is engaging with others that will show you the most about yourself and where you need to grow. That is the beauty of the human relationship. The way that it holds a mirror up to ourselves and lets us see what is difficult to see when we are on our own. So the inner path does not preclude relationship, nor should it. They are dual pathways to the same end, each with their own challenges and joys, each informing the other in invaluable ways.