Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday Reflection: Facing the Face of Darkness

I teach detachment, and I also try to practice it. Mind you, I often fail. But I find that the mere attempt at detachment is worth the effort spent and the anxiety it arouses; it can even pay quite unexpected dividends.

Detachment, quite simply, is the snapping of the strings of attachment. When I use the word "strings," I mean it in a quantum sense: strings of consciousness, alive though often distorted into negative emotions and destructive impulses. Very often, you will experience detachment whenever you retreat from the compulsion to strike back when attacked.

But that never happens to us here in the safety and comfort of America; that kind of problem is for people in the Middle East and Asia and Africa, where a bomb is dropped every minute; a village burned to the ground and its inhabitants massacred every day; a once-living person "disappeared" beyond the reach of public memory every second.

Think again: if you work in corporate America, or if you live in a dysfunctional family; you know what it is like to be attacked, I bet. Invasions and occupations occur here as well, amid insidious assaults that frequently have consequences that wind up being equally catastrophic to life and sanity as the concussions of a bomb in the neighborhood.

This kind of assault is celebrated, lionized, in our media, where the loud and daily struggles of ideological mud wrestling occur before audiences numbering in the millions. We seem them on O'Reilly's show, in Ann Coulter's books, in the halls of Congress, or on the 700 Club. And once again, I am betting that you feel the hot breath of assault every day in your work or home life.

There are different ways of dealing with assault. You can try to kill or silence whatever or whoever attacks you; and that may appear to work for a little while. But the problem with that strategy is that it tends to create more attackers, not less. Pick up the newspaper today, and you're likely to see a graphic illustration of this principle on the front page.

Another way that the philosophy of counter-attack fails is that it is very likely to burn the last acre of earth upon which peace might otherwise be made. When the ground is scorched, nothing will ever grow there. Or else, the mutually assured destruction of attack and counterattack will simply waste the very territory that had been the subject of the dispute in the first place. Perhaps you've heard the old story about the person who took a crusade against a house full of cockroaches to the point where he poured gasoline on his kitchen floor and torched it. Within a few hours, his home was a cinder. Did he win the final battle? Surely, a lot of cockroaches died that day. But did he win?

So here's another strategy, one that has but rarely been attempted in human history. What if we gave it a try, here in the relative safety of our workplaces and homes in blessed America? When you are attacked, turn within before you strike outwardly. It is not easy. But I can assure you that it does become somewhat easier with consistent practice.

When you do turn within, just ask questions of yourself, the situation as you feel it in the moment, and its place in a context that you find through separation from the demonic. Ask some of the following questions, and invent your own to add.

º Who is being attacked?
º What is the weapon being used?
º How is it harming me?
º What kind of response will actually stop the attack, rather than make it worse?
º When I strike back, what will happen? Who besides my enemy will be hurt?

The great thing about asking questions is that there are no rules or limits, except perhaps this: do not confuse a question with a challenge. If you want to challenge or fight a belief, an authority, a person, or a nation, you are of course free to do it. Just be aware of what you're up to, for a challenge is an act of opposition, which is likely to breed a polar or antagonistic response.

But a question is exactly what it says it is: a search ("quest") for information or perspective. Could this be a more sensible way to deal with an attack? We do not know the answer to this, because so few have tried it, and so rarely. But let me submit the possibility that the moments where we have no choice but to strike back are very rare indeed, even though it is the dominant choice made within our culture. For all those other moments, I will merely suggest that the question may open many doors and calm many storms. Especially those that arise from within.

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