"Stopping the War" (excerpt) A PATH WITH HEART by Jack Kornfield
---Drawing by Ankit Thapliyal
When we step out of the battles, we see anew, as the Tao Te Ching says, "with eyes unclouded by longing."
The unawakened mind tends to make war against the way things are. To follow a path with heart, we must understand the whole process of making war, within ourselves and without, how it begins and how it ends. War's roots are in ignorance. Without understanding, we can easily me frightened by life's fleeting changes, the inevitable losses, disappointments, the insecurity of our aging and death. Misunderstanding leads us to fight against life, running from pain or grasping at security pleasures that by their nature can never be truly satisfying. Our war against life is expressed in every dimension of our experience, r and outer. Our children see, on average, eighteen thousand murders and violent acts on TV before they finish high school. The leading cause of injury for American women is beatings by the men they live with. We carry on wars within ourselves, with our families and communities, among races and nations worldwide. The wars between peoples are a reflection of our own inner conflict and fear.
My teacher Achaan Chah described this ongoing battle:
“We human beings are constantly in combat, at war to escape the fact of being so limited, limited by so many circumstances we cannot control. But instead of escaping, we continue to create suffering, waging war with good, waging war with evil, waging war with what is too small, waging war with what is too big, waging war with what is too short or too long, or right or wrong, courageously carrying on the battle.”
Contemporary society fosters our mental tendency to deny or suppress our awareness of reality. Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We expend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death, and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature.
To insulate ourselves from the natural world, we have air conditioners, heated cars, and clothes that protect us from every season. To insulate ourselves from the specter of aging and infirmity, we put smiling young people in our advertisements, while we relegate our old people to nursing homes and old-age establishments. We hide our mental patients in mental hospitals. We relegate our poor to ghettos. And we construct freeways around these ghettos so that those fortunate enough not to live in them will not see the suffering they house.
We deny death to the extent that even a ninety-six-year-old woman, newly admitted to a hospice, complained to the director, "Why me?" We almost pretend that our dead aren't dead, dressing up corpses in fancy clothes and makeup to attend their own funerals, as if they were going to parties. In our charade with ourselves we pretend that our war is not really war. We have changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department and call a whole class of nuclear missiles Peace Keepers!
How do we manage so consistently to close ourselves off from the truths of our existence? We use denial to turn away from the pains and difficulties of life. We use addictions to support our denial. Ours has been called the Addicted Society, with over twenty million alcoholics, ten million drug addicts, and millions addicted to gambling, food, sexuality, unhealthy relationships, or the speed and busyness of work. Our addictions are the compulsively repetitive attachments we use to avoid feeling and to deny the difficulties of our lives. Advertising urges us to keep pace, to keep consuming, smoking, drinking, and craving food, money, and sex. Our addictions serve to numb us to what is, to help us avoid our own experience, and with great fanfare our society encourages these addictions.
Anne Wilson Schaef, author of When Society Becomes an Addict, has described it this way:
The best-adjusted person in our society is the person who is not dead and not alive, just numb, a zombie. When you are dead you're not able to do the work of the society. When you are fully alive you are constantly saying "No" to many of the processes of society, the racism, the polluted environment, the nuclear threat, the arms race, drinking unsafe water and eating carcinogenic foods. Thus it is in the interests of our society to promote those things that take the edge off, keep us busy with our fixes, and keep us slightly numbed out and zombie-like. In this way our modern consumer society itself functions as an addict.
One of our most pervasive addictions is to speed. Technological society pushes us to increase the pace of our productivity and the pace of our lives. Panasonic recently introduced a new VHS tape recorder that was advertised as playing voice tapes at double the normal speed while lowering the tone to the normal speaking range. "Thus," the advertiser said, "you can listen to one of the great speeches by Winston Churchill or President Kennedy or a literary classic in half the time!" I wonder if they would recommend double-speed tapes for Mozart and Beethoven as well. Woody Allen commented on this obsession, saying he took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. "It's about Russia," he concluded.
In a society that almost demands life at double time, speed and addictions numb us to our own experience. In such a society_ it is almost impossible to settle into our bodies or stay connected with our hearts, let alone connect with one another or the earth where we live. Instead, we find ourselves increasingly isolated and lonely, cut off from one another and the natural web" of life. One person in a car, big houses, cellular phones, Walkman radios clamped to our ears, and a deep loneliness and sense of inner poverty. That is the most pervasive sorrow in our modern society.
Not only have individuals lost the sense of their interconnection, this isolation is the sorrow of nations as well. The forces of separation and denial breed international misunderstanding, ecological disaster, and ; endless series of conflicts between nation states.
On this earth, as I write today, more than forty wars and violent revolutions are killing thousands of men, women, and children. We ha1 had 115 wars since World War II, and there are only 165 countries the entire world. Not a good track record for the human species. Y what are we to do?
Genuine spiritual practice requires us to learn how to stop the war. This is a first step, but actually it must be practiced over and over un it becomes our way of being. The inner stillness of a person who truly "is peace" brings peace to the whole interconnected web of life, both inner and outer. To stop the war, we need to begin with ourselves Mahatma Gandhi understood this when he said:
I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.
Like Gandhi, we cannot easily change ourselves for the better through an act of will. This is like wanting the mind to get rid of itself or pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Remember how short-lived are mo New Year's resolutions? When we struggle to change ourselves, we, fact, only continue the patterns of self-judgment and aggression. We keep the war against ourselves alive. Such acts of will usually backfire and in the end often strengthen the addiction or denial we intend change.
One young man came to meditation with a deep distrust for authority He had rebelled in his family, understandably, for he had quite an abusive mother. He had rebelled in school and dropped out to join the counterculture. He had fought with a girlfriend who, he said, wanted control him. Then he went to India and Thailand to find his freedom. After an initial positive experience in meditation, he signed up for period of practice in a monastery. He decided to practice very strict and make himself clear and pure and peaceful. However, after a short time he found himself in conflict again. The daily chores didn't lea> him enough time to meditate nonstop. The sound of visitors and i occasional car were disturbing his meditation. The teacher, he felt, was giving enough guidance, and due to this, his meditation was weak and his mind wouldn't stop. He struggled to quiet himself and resolved to do it his own way but ended up fighting himself.
Finally, the teacher called him to task at the end of a group meditation. "You are struggling with everything. How is it that the food bothers you, the sounds bother you, the chores bother you, even your mind bothers you? Doesn't it seem odd? What I want to know is when you hear a car come by, does it really come in and bother you, or are you going out to bother it? Who is bothering whom?" Even this young man had to laugh, and that moment was the beginning of his learning to stop the war.
The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, through understanding and gradual training. Ongoing spiritual practice can help us cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our battles.
When we step out of the battle, we see anew, as the Tao Te Ching says, "with eyes unclouded by longing." We see how each of us creates conflict. We see our constant likes and dislikes, the fight to resist all that frightens us. We see our own prejudice, greed, and territoriality. All this is hard for us to look at, but it is really there. Then underneath these ongoing battles, we see pervasive feelings of incompleteness and fear. We see how much our struggle with life has kept our heart closed.
When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and the end of spiritual practice. Only in this moment can we discover that which is timeless. Only here can we find the love that we seek. Love in the past is simply memory, and love in the future is fantasy. Only in the reality of the present can we love, can awaken, can we find peace and understanding and connection with ourselves and the world.
A sign in a Las Vegas casino aptly says, "You Must Be Present to Win." Stopping the war and_becoming present are two sides of the same activity. To come into the present is to stop the war. To come into the present means to experience whatever is here and now. Most of us have spent our lives caught up in plans, expectations, ambitions for the future, in regrets, guilt, or shame about the past When we come into the present, we begin to feel the life around us again, but we also encounter whatever we have been avoiding. We must have the courage to face whatever is present—our pain, our desires, our grief, our loss, our secret hopes, our love—everything that moves us most deeply. As we stop the warTeach of us will find something from which we have been running—
our loneliness, our unworthiness, our boredom, our shame, our unfulfilled desires. We must face these parts of ourselves as well.
You may have heard of "out-of-the-body experiences," full of lights , and visions. A true spiritual path demands something more challenging, what could be called an "in-the-body experience." We must connect to our body, to our feelings, to our life just now, if we are to awaken.
To live in the present demands an ongoing and unwavering commitment. As we follow a spiritual path, we are required to stop the war not once but many times. Over and over we feel the familiar tug of thoughts and reactions that take us away from the present moment. When we stop and listen, we can feel how each thing that we fear or crave (really two sides of the same dissatisfaction) propels us out of our hearts into a false idea of how we would like life to be. If we listen even more closely, we can feel how we have learned to sense ourselves as limited !i'by that fear and identified with that craving. From this small sense of ourselves, we often believe that our own happiness can come only from possessing something or can be only at someone else's expense.
To stop the war and come into the present is to discover a greatness of our own heart that can include the happiness of all beings as inseparable i from our own. When we let ourselves feel the fear, the discontent, jEel difficulties we have always avoided, our heart softens. Just as it is a courageous act to face all the difficulties from which we have always run, it is also an act of compassion. According to Buddhist scriptures, compassion is the "quivering of the pure heart" when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life. The knowledge that we can do this and survive helps us to awaken the greatness of our heart. With greatness of heart, we can sustain a presence in the midst of life's suffering, in the midst of life's fleeting impermanence. We can open to the world—its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.
As we allow the world to touch us deeply, we recognize that just as there is pain in our own lives, so there is pain in everyone else's life. This is the birth of wise understanding. Wise understanding sees that suffering is inevitable, that all things that are born die. Wise understanding sees and accepts life as a whole. With wise understanding we allow ourselves to contain all things, both dark and light, and we come to' a sense of peace. This is not the peace of denial or running away, but the peace we find in the heart that has rejected nothing, that touches all things with compassion.
Through stopping the war, we can embrace our own personal griefs and sorrows, joys and triumphs. With greatness of heart we can open to the people around us, to our family, to our community, to the social problems of the world, to our collective history. With wise understanding an live in harmony with our life, with the universal law called the Tao or dharma, the truth of life.
A Buddhist student who is a Vietnam veteran tells a story about a meditation retreat where he experienced for the first time the terrible atrocities he had witnessed as a soldier. For many years he had carried Vietnam War inside himself because he hadn't had a way to face the lories of what he had been through. Finally, he stopped.
I had served as a field medical corpsman with the Marine Corps ground forces in the early days of the war in the mountainous provinces on the border of what was then North and South Vietnam. Our casualty rates were high, as were those of the villagers we treated when circumstances permitted.
It had been eight years since my return when I attended my first meditation retreat. At least twice a week for all those years I id sustained the same recurring nightmares common to many combat veterans: dreaming that I was back there facing the same angers, witnessing the same incalculable suffering, waking suddenly alert, sweating, scared. At the retreat, the nightmares did at occur during sleep, they filled the mind's eye during the day, : sittings, during walking meditations, at meals. Horrific wartime flashbacks were superimposed over a quiet redwood grove at the ;treat center. Sleepy students in the dormitory became body parts strewn about a makeshift morgue on the DMZ. What I gradually came to see was that as I relived these memories as a thirty-year-id spiritual seeker, I was also enduring for the first time the full motional impact of experiences that as a twenty-year-old medic I as simply unprepared to withstand.
I began to realize that my mind was gradually yielding up memories so terrifying, so life-denying, and so spiritually eroding that had ceased to be consciously aware that I was still carrying them round. I was, in short, beginning to undergo a profound catharsis y openly facing that which I had most feared and therefore most strongly suppressed.
At the retreat I was also plagued by a more current fear, that having released the inner demons of war I would be unable to control them, that they would now rule my days as well as my nights, but what I experienced instead was just the opposite. The visions of slain friends and dismembered children gradually gave way to other half-remembered scenes from that time and place: the entrancing, intense beauty of a jungle forest, a thousand different shades of green, a fragrant breeze blowing over beaches so white and dazzling they seemed carpeted by diamonds.
What also arose at the retreat for the first time was a deep sense of compassion for my past and present self: compassion for the idealistic, young would-be physician forced to witness the unspeakable obscenities of which humankind is capable, and for the haunted veteran who could not let go of memories he could not acknowledge he carried.
Since the first retreat the compassion has stayed with me. Through practice and continued inner relaxation, it has grown to sometimes encompass those around me as well, when I'm not too self-conscious to let it do so. While the memories have also stayed with me, the nightmares have not. The last of the sweating screams happened in silence, fully awake, somewhere in Northern California over a decade ago.
Lloyd Burton, now a father and a teacher, stopped the war in himself through an uncompromising courage to be present. And in that process a healing compassion arose for himself and those around him.
This is a task for all of us. Individually and as a society, we must move from the pain of our speed, our addictions, and our denial to stop the war. The greatest of transformations can come from this simple act. Even Napoleon Bonaparte understood this when, at the end of his life, he stated, "Do you know what astonished me most in the world? The inability of force to create anything. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the spirit."
Compassion and a greatness of heart arise whenever we stop the war. The deepest desire we have for our human heart is to discover how to do this. We all share a longing to go beyond the confines of our own fear or anger or addiction, to connect with something greater than "I," "me," and "mine," greater than our small story and our small self. It is possible to stop the war and come into the timeless present—to touch a great ground of being that contains all things. This is the purpose of a spiritual discipline and of choosing a path with heart—to discover peace and connectedness in ourselves and to stop the war in us and around us.
Visit Mr. Kornfield’s website: http://www.jackkornfield.com