I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about the divisive nature of life in the COVID era. In so many aspects of our life right now, we seem to be actively going hell-for-leather to put up barriers between ourselves. Even when we do find communities, we often define how we stand together by what we stand against. Irrespective of the benefits (less trans-suicides for a start,) seeing people using gender pronouns feels indicative of us staking our independence, (or at least membership to ever-smaller groups) when perhaps we'd benefit more from pulling together. In a world that's fascinated with riding a rollercoaster of sanity, is it better to roll up your sleeves and roll out the flags, or to...
The Pitfalls Of Extasis
One of the risks of walking a spiritual path, is its ability to take us out of the world, allowing us to swap responsibility for a haze of patchouli, 'Namaste' and positive affirmations. For all that organised religion has to answer for, it does offer a framework and sense of moral or ethical accountability, a safety net, if you will. While meditation, mushrooms and mantra (alongside ecstatic dancing, fasting and prayer etc.) can show us our interwoven connection to everyone and everything, you don’t have to scratch too deep below the New Age surface to find collective heads up in collective clouds. (Or arses.)
What's wrong with escapism?
For a growing % of the population 2020’s locked-in, amped-up paranoia and outrage were no match for the lumenorgasmic planes of existence that altered states offer. No questions, it’s amazing to commune with Quetzalcoatl/God/Shiva/Allah on the weekends, but maybe of limited use, if we don’t speak with our neighbours on the weekdays. From LSD to holotropic breathwork, the technologies showing us our divine nature, are abundant. But finding how to integrate that oneness into our daily lives takes a lot more concern, commitment and research.
He who clings to the Void And neglects Compassion Does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only Compassion Does not gain release from the toils of existence. - Saraha
Another side of the argument is to keep your feet firmly on the ground and stand tall. As individuals, for what we believe in. With groups, buoyed by our political support bubbles and echo chambers, our views are reinforced, our beliefs strengthened and our mission statements carved into stone. We may not be able to physically stand on the terraces, but we're wearing the colours. We’ve chosen our side and we know the chants. "C’mon let’s have ya!" As a tribe, we're coming out swinging, bemoaning our losses and singing when we’re winning! It feels fucking great to be alive, and we can almost taste that sense of purpose, justification and righteousness. Sieg Heil!
For those of us not ready to get our altered states from psychedelics, there's always the power of conviction and a righteous movement. As William Shirer wrote in 1935, "I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans.” (If that feels uncomfortable, you're on the right track.)
FUCK coke, got a CAUSE?
Painfully, I got to see the power of movement for myself. Having not dealt particularly well with my parents' divorce, I opposed BLM’s stance on abolishing the western nuclear family. I ended up finding books, articles and podcasts with intelligent thinkers who made considered arguments that confirmed that, to me at least, I was correct in my judgement. (Ayishat Akanbi, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes are all eloquent, compassionate and thoughtful thinkers I was lucky enough to be introduced to.)
Absentmindedly I’d find myself imaging how I would convey these complex ideas in a discussion or argument. Fantasising about showing whoever, the error of their ways. For the first time in a long time, I felt that sense of purpose and it was great. In theory.
The practice was markedly different when a drunken day, became a boozy night and an old friend and I got onto the topic of BLM.
The rate at which the conversation descended was shocking. We went from nought to shouting in seconds. Within moments it was like the earth opened up, leaving a gasping precipice between us. Absolutely impassible. Not only did it ruin the night, but possibly our friendship. And the irony? That we both fucking agreed. But because our agreement appeared to come from different ends of the pitch, it seemed the team colours we’d momentarily dressed up in were more important than what we believed, or potentially our friendship.
For those with no preference, the Great Way is easy. When love and hate are absent, everything radiates with crystaline clarity. But the smallest distinction sets Heaven and Earth unreconcilably apart. - 3rd Chinese Patriach
Following that fallout, I lost interest in the more politically focussed media I’d been consuming. Even though it was balanced and considered (IMO), the takes on what was happening seemed to alienate all but a small group of my friends; The more challenging views I came across were too much for me to share with most people or maybe sounded like I was peddling conspiracy theories. Even worse, I began to recognise a sense of my perceived intellectual superiority.
Neither did anything for a sense of compassionate real-world connection.
I retreated back to my spiritual and humanistic podcasts and felt much calmer, cooler and happier. But with the American election and everything that this brought with it, these felt like times that demanded something. I just wasn’t sure what. I couldn't reconcile with myself that putting my head in the sand was the way forwards for me. If activism wasn’t called for, at the very least, awareness was.
Around this time, I came across the concept of steel-manning. You take an opposing point of view, which from your standpoint you're able to see potential weaknesses in the argument. Rather than tearing that point of view down (straw-manning) you work to plug the gaps to make a stronger, and more unified solution. This is all very well, in practice, but when it feels like our idea or sense of self are being attacked how easy is it to take that stance?
Opinions are like assholes....
Earlier this week, a good friend made a post on IG including the term 'special needs,' in regards to a yoga therapy training. A guy she didn’t know had responded saying that using ‘special’ was an offensive term. I took a side. Obviously. Initially inspired to show my support, I felt I could maybe get involved; "If he's gonna be a dick, better that I take that flack." However, as I went to post, I realised I didn’t know who he was, why he felt the way he did or what his motivation was. So I asked the question,
"Can you help me understand why you find it offensive?”
Before explaining his experience, he thanked me for asking. Not only did I learn a new point of view, but I also saw how fine the line is between an action/word/thought that separates and one that unifies. (Or at the very least, NOT separating ourselves further.)
Think Cosmic, Act Local
On one level 'complex problems invariably require complex and difficult solutions'. But what's magic is that the opposite can also hold true. There are divides in all aspects of society, this could require a huge chrysanthemum solution. But any solution begins with something simple, something as simple as a little curiosity or a question.
“Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on a conversation with a stranger?”
Timothy Leary asked in his manifesto defining quote.
To change the world, to make this planet a more liveable experience you don’t need to reverse global warming, heal a pandemic or unite opposing ideologies (although by all means, shoot for the sky). What you do need, is to be curious. If we can find out why, instead of making assumptions, or ask questions before coming to conclusions we can start to, not simply, stem the tide of separation, but maybe start to bring people together or even causing a collective smile.
As with so much of the most profound wisdom it requires nuance, and as with some of the best-learned lessons, relies on trial and error. But if we remember that each of us has a sovereignty, both unique and effulgent, we can remember that all of us can make a difference. And the real beauty is that you can start with your next-door neighbour or the person social-distancing from you in the supermarket. What happens if you smile?
Ram Dass, Jamie Wheal & Stephen Kotler and with recent repeat listens to Truth by Alexander, have all had an influence on this article.