Why worry about politics? Or the environment, or economy, or human rights? I’m just one person, and the system is so flawed and unresponsive to me. Why shouldn’t I just work within my corner of the world where I can actually make a difference? Face it: positive, top down change is not going to happen anytime soon. It’s all too messed up. Plus, it’s so frustrating and disempowering, one step forward, and three steps backwards. It’s only going to come from the bottom up, if it even happens at all.
Really? I’m just not so sure anymore. Yes, small, regular, local changes are the foundation of any larger change. Begin with oneself, and caring for those nearby, and your neighbors, and local school, and maybe state and country, and possibly the Earth? But can we really only affect positive change from the bottom up? I keep looking and looking, and I haven’t come to a confident answer yet.
Many people are working all larger levels of inclusion and complexity, both creating problems and solving them. So why not me? Why am I not thinking or living in this way as well, working from the bottom up, but also from the top down? Why do I have so much resistance to participating in change from the top down?
Top down patterning occurs with everything we don’t 100% personally control. And because we have so little control over anything external to ourselves, the Buddha said the main point it to look within and transform one’s own mind. This is the most direct path to lasting personal freedom. Yet for most of us, our mind is greatly influenced by external conditions that support our inner positive habits of love, compassion, and wisdom, such as healthy relationships, making enough money at work, having time to rest and rejuvenate, healthy food, non-toxic environments, and creative, empowering education. For many of us, outer positive supports drastically affect our inner growth. For one, I’m definitely affected by outer circumstances as junk food and inner circumstances like hope and fear. At the same time, we still acknowledge that we have very little control over external circumstances that are ever-changing, and that ultimately we’re working towards 100% flexibility and naturalness of our response regardless of any circumstance.
But unless we’re already 100% fully flexible and attentive, enlightened, we’re still dependent on circumstances. So putting effort into creating circumstances that support one’s inner flourishing, as well as the flourishing of the most others as possible, given the circumstances and one’s own abilities, is the bodhisattva path. Influencing external circumstances is what I mean by top down. This can be as simple as arranging chairs in a room, making seat belts mandatory in cars, making it illegal to put poisonous chemicals in food, or lessening the likelihood of people harming one another. Top down structures are always very complicated because we are very complicated and so are all intertwined contexts. Ego-free top down patterning is the ideal, but along the way, on the path, we need to discriminate between healthy ego and unhealthy ego, positive habits and negative habits, good karma and bad karma. All unenlightened activity is karmic, but we do have to decide whether we’re favoring karmic patterns that encourage the overall flourishing of dynamic systems, or karmic patterns that inhibit this flourishing. How open and responsive are our habits and their outer and inner structures? If we just leave all of the outer structuring to whatever pattern might be trending, fashionable, or currently in power, we severely limit how vast and deep our span of external bodhisattva activities could be.
Of course, motivation does not have to be limited by external circumstances, and that is what meditators are constantly trying to train in and stabilize: relative and absolute bodhichitta, all the time. But if the possibility is there, why not encourage and favor, at least in simple ways, healthy, balanced, open, informed, responsive top down change, rather than more narrow, less functional, and more exclusive patterns that favor fewer beings? Why not favor natural hierarchy over dominating hierarchy? Natural hierarchy distinguishes between greater and lesser inclusivity and comprehensiveness, while leaving it open for anyone to grow into more inclusive capacity. For example, everyone has the inherent potential to become a fully realized enlightened being, but each of us has to actually grow into and realize this potential ourselves. That’s why a spectrum, or degrees of enlightenment are mentioned throughout eight of the nine Nyingma yanas. We are more or less enlightened, until finally we’re fully enlightened and include all absolute and relative knowledge, or wisdom and compassion. We’re on one of the five paths, or ten bodhisattva levels, or four vidyadhara levels, or four Togal visions, they all tend towards greater inclusivity, until we attain the perfect and complete enlightenment of Dzogchen, which is infinite and 100% dynamic and inclusive.
On the other hand, dominator hierarchies say it’s predetermined, in some rationalized way, whether this is communicated or not, that only so-and-so can get the job, or become enlightened, or be president, or be considered for the team. These are the oppressive hierarchies we know of all too well. But they are unnatural hierarchies, used to exclude rather than include. And because they undermine the health of the very foundations they rely on, they are always destined to fail.
Every hierarchy includes levels, and all developmental models are hierarchical, and all levels have different rules of patterning they operate according to. On the absolute level, we go beyond all conditioning, meaning we’re fully, creatively responsive and in tune to our entire, unlimited potential in every circumstance, while on the relative level, we try to be as inclusive as possible. On the relative level, we try to encourage both bottom up and top down patterning that is as inclusive as possible, according to the circumstances and our own abilities.
So why not meditate AND outwardly engage with others with our best intentions on as vast a scale as possible? Of course, the more vast and inclusive the level, the more fragile, complex, and nuanced that level is, the more that level depends on more foundational levels in order to continue being what it is with integrity and functionality. For example, in the Nyingma nine yanas of development, the higher the yana, the more lower yanas it includes and depends on to be what it is. And the foundational levels all have to keep functioning properly for the higher, more inclusive yanas to continue to work properly. But that’s just how evolution works, and how every developmental model works.
I’m worried when super intelligent, loving, compassionate, contemplative people choose not to engage with external circumstances that extend farther than their families, households, workplaces, and neighborhoods, like national politics, global environment and economy, international human rights, especially when so many of the large scale, long term problems that the planet and all it’s inhabitants are facing now require at least equally large scale and long term integrated solutions. In general, according to Einstein, any level of problem can only be successfully addressed with a solution that comes from at least one level higher. In the case of global climate disruption, for example, the team of experts of various fields of knowledge required to cooperate and address these issues is an enormous challenge, but that’s what is required at this level of problem. Meditators sitting out of these discussions because they’re so difficult or samsaric seems like a big missed opportunity. HH Dalai Lama and HH 17th Karmapa are two examples of extraordinary meditators who are very actively involved and concerned about these global difficulties that affect us all. Of course, there are both exceptionally capable of so so much, but they are also a couple of the amazing role models that we’re trying to learn from. They both agree, as do most people, that without stable environmental health, humans and all of our amazing minds and hearts, simply disappear. While on the absolute, nothing ever changes, there are no truly existent things.
It’s always one’s own personal choice how far to engage with the external world. But without more compassionate, caring, curious people who see the value of contemplative practice and ALSO the value of engaging with others in more integrated structures of relationality, it seems the team of experts problem-solving complicated issues will be much more limited. And meditation happens to be one of the tools we currently know about that trains oneself to experience more and more inclusive perspectives. By training in meditation, over time one’s own present, nonjudgmental awareness recognizes and includes more and more objects of experience that come from more and more subtle levels of habitual patterns, or complexity, without habitually reacting against or contracting away from and excluding what is unfamiliar. That is why meditation develops one’s open-mindness, compassion, sensitivity, inclusivity, love, and appreciation, while enhancing one’s ability to stay present, focused, and engaged with more and more challenging experiences. Doesn’t it seem that meditators of all traditions, and contemplative practice in general, might have a key role in contributing to more integrated solutions for the difficulties the world is now facing?
Yet to be honest and fair, there are so many contemplative practitioners who have already been addressing larger, top down system dynamics for a long time, including Buddhist teachers, practitioners, and organizations. Have you ever heard Prof. Robert Thurman’s critique of the USA’s military industrial complex and corporate globalization? Ever read Thich Nhat Hanh’s numerous books detailing deep methods and structures for practicing Engaged Buddhism? Or come across Matthieu Ricard’s recent masterpiece Altruism? Or Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala vision of enlightened society? Or experienced perspectives of integrating life and awakened living at Levekunst.com? Or read anything from Ken Wilber since Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, especially Integral Spirituality? Or followed almost anything by the Integral community that Wilber works with? What about Bell Hooks for her work on gender and racial equality? Rita Gross for bringing awareness to the patriarchy and the need to move forward honestly and systematically? Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi for contemplation in action initiatives on larger scales of relieving human suffering? Jon Kabat-Zinn for mindfulness-based stress reduction and it’s overall contribution towards making meditation available in more secular and less culturally-determined contexts? David Loy for his critiques on corporate globalization and climate disruption? Eckhart Tolle for bringing awareness of the power of now to larger and larger audiences? Or even Oprah Winfrey for decades of humanitarian projects and granting media time to raise awareness about issues of the heart? There are no final answers here, and all works-in-progress always contain gems of insight, as well as missteps and mistakes, which are so easily critiqued from a safe distance in retrospect.
And of course the argument can be made that all Dharma centers specializing in meditation and Buddhist study are universities of peace and understanding that systematically train us how to be more wise and compassionate both on and off the cushion, and thus fundamentally shift the cultural worldview we’re within more towards greater inclusivity. It can even be argued, as Robert Thurman does, that monasteries and nunneries are the most long-standing engines and institutions of peace the world has ever known, constantly and quietly pushing the global envelope towards greater compassion and wisdom. Doesn’t it seem almost common knowledge that education of the heart and mind, focused especially on younger people, who are always the upcoming leaders and participants of the next generation, is the long term, large scale response to how humanity will collectively grow up, evolve, innovative, gain more freedom and fairness, and hopefully not kill itself? And how will this ever happen on a larger scale without top down change?
In light of these contemplative pioneers and their years of outreaching bodhisattva endeavors, an additional, somewhat more personal, question is raised: Why am I so late to get on the boat of helping bring more light and love and compassion and inclusivity into more expansive top down contexts? Why am I so late to join in the dance towards more sustainable, renewable energy, more equitable distribution of wealth throughout the world, ever-greater in-real-life equality for all women? These all seem to be essential, nuts-and-bolts elements that maybe even necessarily come with any integrated 21st century perspective. So why am I not rocking the boat?
At least part of the answer that I can’t and shouldn’t avoid is that I’m a white male in America, pretty much one of the most privileged positions in our global culture today, and for a lot longer than that. So the fear of losing privilege and being marginalized must be there, consciously or unconsciously. No one wants to be oppressed. I definitely don’t. And most of us hesitate to give up personal security for the possibility of greater security for others. This is just a natural instinct towards self-preservation. But just because I might not want to intentionally, consciously participate in larger spheres of politics, economics, or environmental protection, Howard Zinn so clearly points out that there’s no neutral position on a moving train or boat. Things are already set in motion, so inaction supports the direction that everything is unfolding by not course-correcting, whether I admit it or not. In addition, Zinn also argues that throughout American history, large scale, institutional change that supports greater life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, has never happened without a massive movement of citizens, many of whom must be willing to sacrifice certain personal comforts, and sometimes much more, for the dream of greater benefits for larger groups of people.
Currently the U.S.A. is at the head of the table on almost all global affairs, determining which directions to take and what options are available for humanity’s growth as one human family. How will the exceptional power and wealth of transnational corporations ever be balanced or regulated towards greater fairness and inclusivity without either massive devastation, which we should always work to avoid, or a giant movement of American citizens that encourages the U.S.A. to work together with other countries, rather than forcing everyone’s hand? Because “business as usual” business and governance, stripped of basic human, Golden Rule ethics, doesn’t seem to be offering us the healthiest of options for thriving personal and collective living. So how will this change ever come about without change from the top down? Is there enough of a bottom up movement to bring this about?
In the grand scheme of historical unfolding, generations from now, I want to know that yes, I really worked hard and honestly to tame my mind and open my heart, and expand my wisdom and compassion as much as possible. In the very grand cosmological scheme taught by the Buddha, becoming enlightened is the best way to help all sentient beings in the large scale, long term. There’s no question about it. But in the here and now, the actually living, breathing contexts that my practice and life happens within, can’t this awakening happen while simultaneously moving and loving and learning through those restricted, tight spots that require caring, compassionate attention and cooperation and vulnerability? Can’t I at least try to discover personal liberation while bringing my attention and actions into larger and larger contexts that desperately require more loving attention and cooperation among those affected and concerned?
This is not a question of Buddhist dogma being injected into the conversation, but of bodhisattva aspirations maturing into on-the-ground, real time action in greater and greater contexts, that potentially acknowledge and uplift more and more beings. Small, simple, local actions of one person in responsive, open communication with others, in greater and greater contexts. Still, inside of me, why is there so much resistance, doubt, and fear to this opening, this opportunity?
Immediate questions of preserving lineage arise. There’s always the possibility of losing living lineage when things change too much. Lineage is inherently conservative: Don’t fix what’s not already broken, especially tried-and-true transformative tools that definitely lead to enlightenment when applied correctly by anyone, anywhere, ever. Everything should be done to avoid losing a living lineage of enlightenment, even if it means to sit on the cushion and watch the relative world fall apart. Yet looking around, so many authentic, living lineage holders are on board with these essential 21st century innovations. Again, look at HH Dalai Lama and HH 17th Karmapa. They are stunning beacons of hope that preserve the traditionalist approach of lineage, while working tirelessly to help more and more beings outwardly. They are actively in conversation with both Buddhist and non-Buddhist experts of various fields of knowledge and expertise, listening and learning what wriggle room might be available in restructuring top down dynamics with bodhichitta courage and intelligence so that this happens systematically, everyday, long into the future.
There is also the fear I have of the complexity of it all, and the insignificance of myself. I’m such a small fish in an ever-expanding pond of knowledge and perspectives. How could I possibly know what to do? But no one does. Alone, as individuals, no one individual does know. We have to work together and learn from one another. The level of complexity requires at least the same level of integrated response. And the truth of it is, in this increasingly fast-paced information age, without more inclusive, orienting and deep structures to live by and through, our healthy sense of self will only fragment further into less functional, less empowered, less balanced perspectives. An absence of overarching, integrated frames of reference and meaning-making, will result in anxiety, alienation, and hopelessness becoming the standard, habitual response. I might try to spiritually bypass this tension by focusing only on the absolute emptiness and interdependence of everything. Yet I’ll actually be avoiding the deep and difficult and very rewarding opportunities to integrate larger and more complex wholes into even greater and more inclusive patterns of healthy, responsive, dynamic relationality. In other words, in outer, subtle ways, I’ll be breaking my bodhisattva vow to engage with the fragile, surprising world with more wisdom and compassion, highlighting only my personal work of self-liberation, while sidestepping the richness of interconnected, mutual flourishing.
Then there is the fear of getting caught up in the drama and emotionality of it all at the expense of my formal practice. Wisdom and compassion both have to be developed: wisdom without compassion is typically brittle, sterile, distant, and disembodied, while compassion without wisdom is sensitive care that is easily overwhelmed, materialistic, and reactive. It seems that for both beginning and advanced bodhisattvas-in-training, there is no substitute for formal meditation practice, and formal meditation practice alone is not the actualized, engaged relative bodhichitta practice of the six paramitas. Developing one’s wisdom and compassion with study and meditation, both on and off the cushion seems to be the complete lineage approach for most Mahayana Buddhists.
Then there is overcoming the obstacle of manufactured fear that is designed to encourage division and tension among people to weaken their collective strength, intelligence, and power. An intentional narrowing of perspectives into fight-or-flight responses so that wider, more inclusive approaches and shared mutual interests aren’t clearly seen. Which, by the way, also creates endless problems with very financially lucrative solutions: think about almost any institutionalized solution in a hyper-individualistic consumer culture that is constantly stressful on individual mental and physical health, as well as social bonds. This type of fear clearly has to be distinguished from authentic, healthy, well-evidenced fear that serves to sustain life and the healthy integrity of people and natural systems.
Then there is the fear we all come up against every time we’re on the edge of growing to include more perspectives: the small death of ego contraction that we always have to move through in order include more perspectives and be more fully expressive of our enlightened nature of love, compassion, and wisdom. This seems to be the basic rule of personal transformation: dying to one’s smaller, more contracted habitual sense of self by recognizing and embodying more functional, flexible, responsive, loving, intelligent, informed perspectives. In other words, actualizing more and more of one’s potential by preserving and integrating the valuable contributions of more foundational levels of being, or the felt experiences and structures of healthy self, with even more functional, deeper potentials that we’re just beginning to recognize and actualize within ourselves.
So say I overcome some of these fears even enough to begin leaning in to participate in exterior structures that influence conditions for more and more beings. What does religion have to bring to the table that isn’t already there? It can be argued that religion has caused the greatest suffering to humans throughout history with all of their wars and oppression. So now that we have science and equality to inform our perspectives, why include religion at all?
There are two important points that have greatly helped me deal with this question: (1) Are there different levels of religious practice, regardless of the specific religious tradition? (2) If there are, then how can certain levels of religious practice be integrated with our modern materialistic scientific worldview?
A very simple response to the value of religion in a postmodern world is another question: what type of religion do you mean? In others words, are there different levels of religious practice? And my response, which borrows heavily from Ken Wilber, is yes: there are at least three levels of religious practices found in all the great world religions. (1) Fundamentalist Religion, (2) Rational Religion that encourages, and in fact demands, logical inquiry and critical thinking, and (3) Contemplative Religion that integrates informed concepts with transformative methods of development.
Fundamentalist religion has been, and still is, one of the greatest threats to humanity. It basically boils down to believers and non-believers, you’re either with us or against us, and choose wisely, because if you’re against us we’re fully authorized by our scriptures to end you. This level of religion follows a literal interpretation of select teachings that can only be properly interpreted by an authorized person whose determination is taken to be the Truth, capital T.
The next, deeper level of religion is Rational Religion, which strongly encourages and rewards critical investigation of the scriptures: Are they logical? Where did they come from? Who edited them? Can we test them? Are there levels of meaning? This level of religious practice is highly scientific and curious. It demands verifiable proof.
The third level of religion is Contemplative Religion. At this point, you’ve studied the scriptures, investigated them with logic and reason, contextualized their meaning, and now you move to apply them yourself in order to actually verify the meaning of teachings with your personal, direct experience. You go beyond mere rational inquiry, and apply some technique of meditation to transform how you are in the world. You gradually integrate your intellectual mind and loving heart, that up to this point have been kept separate. You perform the teachings in your life and apply methods to actually change how much love you can feel, how many beings you include in your sphere of concern and compassion. You systematically train your heart and mind to reveal and function according to their deeper and more complete potential.
This brings up the function of meditation, which in most progressive, scientific communities is still somewhat new and questionable. What does meditation actually disclose, if anything? Does it just make you calmer and less anxious? Aren’t we just zoning out, shielding ourselves from the raw, vivid reality of life and emotions? Of course meditation and many other forms of contemplative practice do calm the mind, and if that is all you are looking to get out of meditation, that’s fine. It will help with that, for sure. But meditation goes much deeper than that. It can reveal hidden potentials and capacities of mind and heart that are previously unknown to oneself, or only rarely glimpsed on certain occasions.
And here we come to the second point that seems critically important nowadays: meditation functions in exactly the same way as the scientific method. Modern materialistic science and contemplative practice both follow the same three steps of scientific inquiry: (1) set up an experiment; (2) perform the experiment; (3) verify your results with others who successfully completed the same experiment. So if you want to know something obvious like whether or not it’s raining outside, first you create an experiment: to know if it’s raining outside, go to the window and look out. Second, go and look out the window. Third, for greater certainty, ask someone else to look out the window to see if it’s raining as well. In terms of meditation, first set up the experiment. For example, if I focus only on my breathing for 30 minutes everyday for one month, will it calm my mind and develop an increased capacity for maintaining my focus in a more balanced way? Second, actually perform the experiment. Try meditating according to a specific technique for a month, for example, and see if you achieve the result. Third, check in with others who meditated in the same way, and see what they experienced.
Of course verifying the results of qualitative, subjective states of awareness are not as tangible or obvious as whether or not it’s raining outside. Yet growing numbers of scientific research using data from EEG and fMRI testing, for example, are currently making the quantitative, correlative results of meditation verifiable and reproducible. And just because subjective experiences are more difficult to see, it doesn’t mean that they’re any less real. Also, just holding the reductionist assumption that material matter is what is really real, and mental experience is some kind of epiphenomena, does not make it true. This assumption must also be proven by the same three strands used to verify knowledge, which it isn’t. In addition, not performing the meditation experiment doesn’t give you the authority to dismiss it either: not if you’re a real scientist.
Acknowledging that every religion has at least three levels of practice, fundamentalist, rational, and contemplative, and that meditation functions according to the scientific method in the same way as modern materialistic science, seem to be very important steps towards integrating contemplative perspectives into discussions about encouraging changes from both the top down and the bottom up.
So how to face the challenge of integrating absolute wisdom and ever-increasing patterns of complexity? A good first step seems to be to take a good, long historical perspective and relax. Amidst the many truly horrific things that happen in every era, humanity has made giant strides towards greater inclusion in recent history, though of course it’s a work-in-progress: increased self-determination, universal human rights, global awareness of the environment, a general reduction of slavery, oppression of women, abuse of children, cruelty to animals; a movement towards universal healthcare and education, awareness of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, social justice movements by “1st world” citizens in support of “3rd world” communities; reduced famine and death by preventable diseases worldwide. The list goes on. In response to the numerous disastrous consequences of corporate globalization without ethics, or the “It’s just business” response to any sense of accountability, humanity has grown in leaps and bounds towards perspectives and structures that can respond to the new challenges we all face. And with this is an emerging awareness that “join-in-the-fight” slogans, perspectives, and approaches to either resolve wars or stabilize peace, are no longer adequate in a world where large scale, long term warfare heralded by the largest military power in known human civilization is not going to be successful. As local and global peacemakers, we are not going to win that fight. We’re out-gunned in every way. Nonviolent, inner transformations of peoples and outer transformations of our global societies and cultures into ever-inclusive networks of dynamic perspectives seem to be our only hope. Encouraging and institutionalizing healthy cooperation with open and fair competition, that is also legislated and enforceable at every level of governance, from the bottom up AND the top down seems so vitally important for our Spaceship Earth to stay afloat with us still on it.
So yes, it’s frustrating and challenging and scary to work with dynamic circumstances that we don’t control, but that’s true for both our minds and all outer moving parts. To me it seems worth engaging internally with our heart and mind as the root of our response, and as far up towards the exterior top, as inclusive as possible, that our capabilities allow, loving and caring and nurturing level by level, as far up and as inclusive as we can go. Why sit out on great opportunities for more freedom and fullness just because they’re difficult to handle or seem so impossible to solve? Isn’t that part of the bodhisattva path? Samsara is fundamentally unfixable, yet let’s make it the most supportive dream possible for everyone to wake up?
In order for any top down or bottom up change to happen, we have to first think that they are possible. In order for enlightenment to happen, we have to first think it’s possible. In order to train our minds and hearts, we have to believe that we can. Of course believing is not enough. We have to see what’s actually well-evidenced and workable, according to whatever worldview(s) we live through. That’s just being skillful and attentive to what actually supports a specific, living context. But it all begins with the worldview, or perspectives we’re currently living through this very moment. Our view determines everything: what evidence we deem reliable, what is meaningful to oneself, what course of action to take.
What is your view? How inclusive is it? How do you know? Is there any way to see this more clearly, more fully, more completely? How many different perspectives do you honor and appreciate? How much do you really care about others? How much do you really care about yourself? How vast is your view to really see and feel and experience others’ suffering? Your own suffering? How to not buckle under the pressure of it all? Can it make us shine more brightly, more creatively, and feel more in love with everything? To be more fully relational, and confident and curious and appreciative, and still be absolutely free no matter what happens?
I don’t have an answer. It’s an open question. I’m still looking at this closely and feeling through it myself. I hope you are too.Photos by Unsplash, England. The buddha by Janeb, France. The Dalai Lama photo by Christopher Michel. The Karmapa photo by Корыгин Андрей.
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