Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 3: Restoring Sanity

It is a bizarre world now, and it seems to get more insane, polarized, aggressive and anxiety-provoking every day. Nova Scotians are burning indigenous fisheries, the Government of Alberta is attacking health care structures amid a pandemic, and the US election is a dumpster fire that may end in a non-peaceful transition of power. Wheatley’s book predates these particular incidents, but all of them fit her premise that we are in the midst of a culture of collapse – that our era of greed and dominance needs to transition to something more loving and humane. 

I’d like to believe there is more hope than she brings to the table. As a Buddhist, Wheatley interprets the world cyclically and naturally sees our civilization as the end of a cultural cycle. Thus there is nothing individual human agents can do to hold back the tide of insanity at national or global scales – it is what it is. As a Christian, I would disagree on some of these points and argue that this is a time for prayer, fasting and repentance – and that there is ample evidence in history that societal change is possible without war, famine, plague and death. National leaders can arise who inspire humility, service and calm over greed, individualism and violence. But where are they!? Our world is warming, and the ocean is acidifying, poverty and human sufferings are increasing. Our systems are not working, and things are getting worse as we seek distractions instead of solutions. Instead of coming together, we are turning upon one another. 

“As things deteriorate, relationships disintegrate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition. Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their tiny piece of the pie. Leaders use fear to control and manipulate people and everyone moves into self-protection. Distractions, entertainments, and entitlements become primary instruments of allaying people’s fears and controlling them.” (54) 

What I like most about Wheatley’s book is not her prognosis of collapse but her prescription for renewal. Recognizing the emergent nature of reality, she offers strategies for leaders of households and organizations such as businesses, congregations or even small universities to bring sanity during the contextual chaos. This begins with a leader stepping back and looking for trends in how organizational culture is changing. She offers five snapshots in this regard: 

Quality of Relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile, or not? What’s your evidence for any of your conclusions?  

Fear versus love: If these are two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, which I believe they are, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? In your leadership, what role does fear play? Are you more fearful? Are you using fear to motivate people? 

Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversations, decision-making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, both for yourself and others? 

Willingness to contribute: What invitations to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? Ongoing, what are your expectations for people willing to step forward? Are those higher or lower than a few years ago? 

The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a motivator for you? For staff? Has selfishness replaced service? How do you know?  

Wheatley suggests responding to an organizational culture focused on fear and the bottom line of money by revitalizing corporate identity around what it means to be human. Sane leadership is “the unshakable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind… It is the deep knowing that even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.” (32) Leaders need to resist reactivity, self-protection, and denial and instead use their power and influence “to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere.” (11) She borrows from Grace Lee Boggs to describe how in islands of sanity, we must rely on human human beings, linked our species’ technical name: homo sapiens sapiens. (166) Top-down god-playing leaders who have narcissistically ascended above other human human beings will not create islands of sanity. 

To be sane in today’s world, Wheatley suggests new skills. She advocates mindfulness as a mechanism to deal with the difficult emotional and personal triggers that emerge every day (264). Mindfulness practices will enable a leader to create space to find responses that generate possibilities rather than aggression and to develop a stable mind. “The intent of any mindfulness practice is to know yourself, not to become peaceful. Knowing how your own mind works makes it possible to stay present and engaged in hypercharged situations without losing your cool… There is no other way to prepare oneself for the difficulties, tragedies, and insanity that will continue to escalate. We can’t change this world, but we can change ourselves so that we can be of service to the world.”  

Leaders also need to develop participative process skills, especially listening, conflict resolution and problem-solving (198). The mark of a sane leader is collaboration, not decisiveness. Meaningful work involves a life of service, and thus servanthood should be the mark of a leader. “In this time of rising insanity and brutality, work that engages our better human qualities is a gift we can offer to others. This is why we create islands of sanity, so that more of us can experience the gift of doing meaningful work on behalf of others. How wonderful to have the chance to engage together in doing good work, no matter what is going on around us. We are richly blessed.” (270) This highly relational approach gets back to the root of what it means to be a human being. Life is about connectedness and relationships. “In a world preoccupied with meaningless tasks, people are ever more eager to engage in work that offers a chance to contribute, to remember how good it is to be a thinking, contributing colleague. These days, having one good conversation can reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship. The same is true when we have the opportunity to think together and come up with a solution to a troubling situation. The human qualities that have become distant memories, or never known at all, come flooding in when we work together for a common purpose. Meaningful work reawakens us to what it feels like to be human human beings.” (267) 

For a long time, I thought I might be able to change the world. In middle age, I’m much less optimistic that my fantasies of ending poverty, alleviating the mental health crisis among young adults, or solving climate change will come to fruition through my influence. I resonate with Wheatley’s wrestling about what it means to make a difference in the world today. “If it’s not creating change at the large scale, if it’s not striving to reintroduce sane decision making into large systems, if it doesn’t stop the disintegration, then what does it mean to make a difference?… I have sat with this question for years, and I haven’t found an answer that stops the niggling voice of ‘yes, but surely you can think of something with more impact…’ The simple answer is found in all philosophies and spiritual traditions: Focus on serving others. Serve the individual; serve small groups; serve an entire community or organization. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we can offer what we can. We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be examples of the best human qualities. This is a life well-lived, even if we didn’t save the world.” (269) 

Ultimately, Wheatley asks who we choose to be as a leader in this time (249). In her wrestling with this question, she has concluded that this means becoming a warrior of the human spirit. She links this to the Tibetan Shambala Warriors who would arm themselves only with compassion and insight. “A Warrior for the Human Spirit is a decent human being who aspires to be of service in an indecent, inhumane time… Warriors remember what it means to behave decently, ethically. We remember the capacities that every human being possesses. We affirm and work with these forgotten qualities through our presence and our wise actions. And in all we do, we consciously try to refrain from adding to the confusion, aggression and fear overwhelming most people.” (255) 

She finds Warriors of the human spirit in her study of the history of collapsing civilizations, quoting historian Sir John Glubb: “While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” (252) 

Finally, Wheatley concludes with the most meaningful passage for my own wrestling with where I might go to serve in these troubling times. I’m already there, and likely you are as well: “Wherever you’re working is where you take your stand. You don’t have to go looking for new places, other issues, compelling causes. If you’re in a school, a financial firm, the UN, a refugee camp, a small nonprofit, a church, a hospital – wherever you are, stay there and notice the abundance of warrior opportunities. It may well be they you are already operating in this way – speaking up against unjust actions, influencing policies to address root causes, reminding decision makers what statistics mean in terms of human costs, going to bat for a colleague who’s been wrongfully harmed by administrative action, calling attention to new populations that need services, bearing witness to those whose suffering cannot be solved, comforting a sorrowful person or child… What’s common in all these actions is that human beings are at the center. By our actions, we call attention to people and their suffering. And we act where we can to support and console those near us.” (263) 

Part 1

Part 2

3a. Monkey Temple

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna.

Chapter 3:Cycles of Life and Death. Part A: Monkey Temple – April 17, 2019

This evening I sit in my hotel room listening to Michel snore and reflecting on cycles of life and death in our physical and cultural worlds. I use the plural intentionally, as I feel as though I am in a different realm in the magical city of Kathmandu. Back home in Alberta, it was election day, and the political landscape could not be more polarized. My social media streams are full of celebratory laudations welcoming in a new era of conservative economic prosperity and bliss contrasted by posts lamenting the arrival of hatred, bigotry and homophobia to what was one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the world. There is neither love nor respect between these two sides. But here it all feels irrelevant – I turn off the wifi. I don’t need that world today, and I don’t feel as though it needs me either. I’m not weighing in. I’m trying to lighten up.

I spent the day exploring two different ancient holy sites in Kathmandu. The first was the Monkey Temple, perched high above the city. The real name for this world heritage site is Swayambhu Stupa, and it is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. It is called Monkey Temple because it is crawling with free-range rhesus monkeys – they hopscotch between tourists, swing from every tree, and poop on every sacred structure. Since this is the second holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists, there are sacred structures covered in monkey and pigeon feces in every direction. The central building is a stupa with Buddhist eyes overlooking the Kathmandu Valley, and this is surrounded by an impressive assemblage of smaller stupas and pagodas. Crowds surround these, leaving offerings and ringing bells linked to the Buddhist chant, om mani padme hum

In the heart of the temple plaza is a painting school where master artists create thangka paintings depicting Buddhist deities, mandalas, and landscapes. A seventeen-year-old Nepali girl greeted us and shared the basics of Buddhism in perfect English, complete with a slight British accent. She was wise well beyond her years and spoke like a sage as she walked us through the Buddhist Wheel of Life. It was the most lucid and compelling explanation of Buddhism I’ve ever heard. Image by image, she graphically demonstrated the practices of engagement and abandonment leading to liberation from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. 

The Wheel of Life is composed of four concentric circles. The inner ring uses a bird, a snake, and a pig to signify the three poisons that beings use to create karma. The bird represents greed, the snake symbolizes hatred, and the pig portrays ignorance or delusion. These create all the suffering in the world, and if extinguished, an enlightened being can be liberated from distress. The second circle represents karma and is divided into a white half of virtuous actions on the left and a black half of non-virtuous actions on the right. Beings move from virtuous actions into higher states or from non-virtuous actions to lower states in the surrounding third circle, which depicts the six realms of samsara. This ring encompasses the most space in the painting with exceptionally detailed artwork portraying the realms of gods (Deva), demi-gods (Asura), humans (Manusya), animals (Tiryagyoni), hungry ghosts (Preta), and hell (Naraka). She explains that though portrayed in a circle, these are a spectrum moving from a hell realm of unimaginable suffering to the god realm consisting of a long and enjoyable life of pleasure and prosperity. The most interesting were the hungry ghosts, who live their lives in constant hunger and thirst no matter how much they eat or drink. In the painting, each realm contains a Buddha trying to help sentient beings escape samsara and reach nirvana. Finally, the fourth circle depicts twelve links demonstrating how karma functions throughout multiple reincarnations. Surrounding and holding all of the wheels is Mara, the demon who tempted Buddha. The inner meaning of Mara’s presence is that the process of cyclic existence is always changing. Above and to the left of Mara, Buddha points to a moon representing the path of liberation found in the noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right union. Our host’s beautiful, enlightening, inspiring presentation led to one climactic conclusion: for $1000 I could buy this painting! I didn’t.

Buddhist Wheel of Life.
(This is not the one described above – I purchased this Thangka on my last day in Kathmandu from a street vendor. It now hangs in my home office.)

Though not tempted to convert to Buddhism, I was moved as this young religious scholar related approaches to abandon greed, hatred and ignorance. These three poisons are plaguing politics, academia and families in Alberta. In the temple today, I could identify how each of them is impacting my relationships and wellbeing. My country of origin, the United States, is also awash in a spirit of xenophobia and greed as the nation with a military ten times more massive than any other attempts to make itself great “again.” Meanwhile, on a global scale, greed, hatred and ignorance continue to transform natural ecosystems into human landscapes while eradicating millions of species, increasing carbon dioxide to dangerous levels and poisoning our water systems with pollutants and plastics.  

From my Christian perspective, I frame the source of greed, hatred and ignorance differently through a lens of idolatry, or what Bob Goudzwaard describes as the false gods of economism, technicism, and scientism. We have created false gods – and perhaps an entire god realm – and we trust in them. The invisible hand of the economy will give us the life we desire. Science and technology will be the solutions to the crises we have created. If we trust in these things and have faith, it will all be OK. But our gods are failing us, and as they fall to the ground around us, the aftermath is anxiety, depression, suicide, hostility and hatred. A culture of fear permeates much of the world, something I see every day in the lives of my students. Both the Bible and the Buddhist Wheel of Life point to similar spiritual problems at the root of today’s calamities: greed, hatred and ignorance. Both Buddhism and Christianity offer spiritual solutions, but are we able to hear these today?