The “Two Wheels of a Chariot”
by Igor Polskiy
Several days ago I read two articles. One of them was “Awakening to the Traumacene” written in 2019 by member of Deep Adaptation community and founder of the “Quillwood Academy” Eric Garza. The second one was “Stray Thoughts on Meditation” written in 1986 (the year I was born) by American meditation teacher Shinzen Young. By accident these two texts were open on my laptop in the same time. I try to be attentive to coincidences, especially when they seem to be meaningful and tell me something important… I am no way an expert in the psychology of trauma or meditation practices, yet still I saw the important interconnectedness of these two texts and I want to share it with you.
The “Awakening to the Traumacene” essay states that there are deep psychological reasons behind our isolation and destruction of nature, our denial and inability to give appropriate responses to the global environmental disaster endangering our own society. Eric Garza proposes that we shift our attention from symptoms such as air pollution, deforestation and climate change to the central cause of these symptoms – which is the individual and cultural trauma each of us carry: “I prefer to call this era the Traumacene to center the cause of the destructiveness and domination rather than its symptoms. At one level the cause is disconnection, and beneath that level festers trauma accumulated over countless generations of conflict and hardship that our grieving practices failed to heal. By centering the cause, we also name a path forwards: healing our individual and cultural trauma”. In this essay Eric makes a powerful, albeit controversial, statement: “This task, in my view, must be the heart and soul of activism in this modern day. Sure, we must resist oppression, fight poverty, and thwart the pipelines, clear cutting, pollution, and relentless commodification of the world in which we live. But these endeavors treat symptoms of our predicament, not its underlying cause. They provide for us yet another distraction from deeper work, and an excuse to lash out against the evil ‘other’ with intent to harm and punish. If we allow these distractions to devour all of our time and energy, we fail future generations in a profound way. We must find a way through this anger and pain to a place where, as Lyla June Johnston writes, humanity can fall in love with itself once again”.
The “Stray Thoughts on Meditation” paper investigates meditation traditions and schools of Southeast Asia, East Asia, India, Tibet, Mongolia and Nepal. I will not go into details, but share a few key concepts of this text connected to obtaining tranquility and awareness. “The first, called samatha in Sanskrit, is the step by step development of mental and physical calmness. The second, vipasyana, is the step by step heightening of awareness, sensitivity and clarity. These two components complement each other and should be practiced simultaneously. Some techniques develop primarily calming, others primarily clarity, still others both equally”.
“Samatha is thus a continuum of states of progressive settling of the mind associated with growth in detachment, concentration power and a distinctive set of physiological changes. At the deep end of this continuum, these phenomena become extreme, and states, called in Pali jhanas (Sanskrit dhyana), are entered. In deep Jhana the drives to which everyone is normally subject are actually suspended, though not necessarily extinguished. This may last for a few hours or several days. One does not feel driven to move, eat, sleep or think. Indeed, the metabolism so slows that the breath seems nonexistent. The mind, which in its uncultivated state is like a torrential cataract, becomes a rippleless, limpid lake … However, Samatha, no matter how deep, is not the ultimate goal of the Buddhist. The intensity and enrichment which habitual one-pointedness brings to daily life are but pleasant byproducts of the meditative process. Even the jhanas, though purifying and refreshing, are conditioned, impermanent and ultimately unsatisfying. They may even become a hindrance to realizing the true Buddhist goal … There are two ways in which Samatha serves as a tool for attaining Nirvana. Firstly, it confers a sense of letting go which aids in the gradual renunciation of desire and aversion. Secondly, it gives the mental stability and one-pointedness necessary for effective vipasyana practice.”
Samatha meditation practices leading to tranquility could be compared with deep inner psychological work crucial not only for one’s well-being, but also for one’s right and effective external actions. While the inner psychological work proposed by Eric Garza is aiming to deal with trauma, samatha meditation practices deal with moha, which “means basically not knowing what is going on within oneself. According to Buddhism, it is the fundamental klesa, lying at the root of all our problems. The cure lies in extending clarity and awareness down into the normally unconscious processes. This sounds like much Western psychology … Meditation, when successful, provides a general solution applicable to any problem, even “biggies” like guilt, loss of loved ones, failure, intractable disease, old age and death. Psychology tells us something about how a person’s problems arise. Meditation reveals something about how the idea of “person” arises and, in doing so, frees one from the necessity to always identify with being a particular person. Within the context of such radical objectivity, personal problems can then be dealt with very efficiently”.
Thus the “western” inner psychological work, healing collective and individual traumas, as well as “eastern” samatha meditation could be considered as the beginning, and an important part of, the transformative path as it helps us to realise what we are (and, even more importantly, what we are not), to calm ourselves and to get free from traumatic inadequate psychological reactions leading to misactions and suffering. Still, it is not the whole path and it is impossible to reach the goal using only tranquilizing meditation and inner work. It gives one something very important – wisdom, but it doesn’t give something equally important – compassion. “Along the way, as one moves closer and closer to complete Nirvana, there may come a point where priorities shift from “wisdom” to “compassion”, i.e., from meditation to action”. This is the point where we should consider the second part of the path connected to awareness, compassion and action.
“If you really feel oneness with everything, it is only natural to take responsibility for all your parts. Helpful words and actions begin to flow forth spontaneously. Although in Mahayana, compassion (really love) is conceived of on a par with wisdom, in practice priority is usually initially placed on gaining liberation. It’s just more efficient that way. Clearing away some moha first makes it less likely that one’s efforts to help others will be misguided. Eliminating raga (desire) and dvesa (aversion, hate or antipathy) makes it less likely that one’s zeal will lead to aggressiveness and the sacrificing of principles for an end. Further, after one is free from the concepts of helper, helped and helping, there need be no feeling of chagrin or loss of enthusiasm when one’s efforts to help fail”.
Please read the previous paragraph again imposing it not on Buddhist practices, but on environmental movements and climate activism. Does that make sense to you? Do you see the aspects and patterns mentioned above showing itself in behavior of people including yourself, in Facebook comments, in different ways of climate and environmental actions? What do you feel about that?
“The specific direction which such activities take depends upon the culture, circumstances, abilities and personality of the individual. They range from wizardry to political activities”. The inner work (samatha practices or psychological work connected to traumas and processing difficult emotions) is the best place to start both in the Buddhist meditation practices described by Shinzen Young and in the transformation in the face of our predicament. At the same time, there is a risk of not going further, of staying there in the “containment” and to make it a justification for ignorance: “It is easy to use the withdrawal of samatha to avoid facing unpleasant realities. In particular, one can silence the internal voice of conscience with it. This is why cultivating sila (wholesome character, morality) is a prerequisite to cultivating samadhi. It is also another reason why vipasyana awareness should accompany samatha detachment”.
In other words, the psychological inner work could be also a kind of “spiritual bypassing” when we use it to disconnect from the real world, with its real suffering, which is asking for our compassion and action. This risk is especially high in virtual communities like the Deep Adaptation Forum where we can create a comfortable containment for inner work, a virtual refuge with a nice degree of mutual support. Please do not consider this as a criticism. The best thing one can do while meeting the reality of destructiveness of our civilization and near-time societal collapse is to go to the refuge, to have a supportive community, and containment for processing difficult emotions. This kind of work can take a long time, so the DAF virtual community performs a very important mission of providing such a possibility. Still, it is very important not to be stuck in a refuge. After being in a refuge (maybe even for a long time) it is important to return to the world with new eyes and ears. It is also returning to action, but the quality of action is different. As Matthew Painton, one of the Deep Adaptation Guidance founders, put it in one of our zoom-calls, many people who face the reality of social collapse start talking about immediate action, but these actions are often aimed at survival, fencing off, creating bunkers and protection. After some amount of the inner work has been done and the emotions have been processed, some people also return to action; but these actions are not aimed at survival anymore – they are aimed at regeneration and restoration, as they are born not in fear, pain or guilt, but in compassion and love. It is something that a “loving response” really invites us to do after we accept the reality we live in.
It is impossible to heal all the traumas, to process all difficult emotions and to stop inadequate reactive behavior once and for all… and it is not necessary. I agree with Eric when he states that we should not be in a rush: “Despite the sense of urgency this essay conveys, we must take this slowly”. Still, it is important for us as individuals and as a community to feel the right moment to leave the safe space, to go out of our refuge to the world and to let our compassionate action happen, even if it moves us out of our comfort zone. “One of the most insidious traps on the meditative path is getting stuck in a good place”.
“Deep contemplative attainment does not make a person perfect; it confers mind-power, a sense of happiness which is not dependent on circumstances, and a basically loving orientation toward one’s environment. It does not, however, automatically guarantee immunity from stupidity, poor judgment or cultural myopia”. We don’t need to wait for the moment when we’ll become “Buddha” or at least a “healed” human being. Moreover, it is impossible to become “Buddha” or at least a “healed” human being without compassionate action, without the second part of the path, which has a significant importance. “A person who attains both concentration and wisdom has all the requisites for self-help and for helping others … It should be known, then, that these two techniques are like the two wheels of a chariot, the two wings of a bird. If their practice is lopsided, you will fall from the path”.
If you have just entered this field or need more time to grieve and process difficult emotions, to let fear to show up and to go out, to land into not knowing of the future and to have the compassionate support of the community, I invite you to join the “Deep Listening”, “Death cafe”, “Deep Relating” circles and other online events regularly hosted by Deep Adaptation Forum facilitators. Take your time. Do not be in a hurry. Even “if you want to change the world, start with yourself”.
If you too have met with despair and are ready to take the next step, I want to ask you: “What are we going to do now?” I have some thoughts, but monologue is not the best way to share possible answers. Probably we need to talk about it together. If we are about to act, it is impossible while we are communicating in virtual spaces only. Probably we should meet in different groups and combinations in the physical, non-symbolic, living world to which we all belong. One of the possibilities for such a meeting is the “Deep Live Gathering” that is going to happen in October 2021 in Montenegro and everywhere. You can come to the Balkans or check if there is a gathering near your place, or host such a gathering yourselves.
So the journey begins and you are invited.
Igor Polskiy is the Facilitation Coordinator in the Deep Adaptation Forum, and a member of the Core Team. You can reach him at Igor@deepadaptation.info