05/23/2012 08:34 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

"No Sweet Fruit Comes From a Bitter Seed"

Arriving in the Philippines, I found April was really hot. However at every corner the genuine friendliness and openness of the Filipino made me forget the muggy heat. I had come for the first time to this country on invitation to speak on "A Resilient Mind" and "Karma," topics that seemed of great interest as there were roughly about 500 people at each gathering. I was rather surprised that the Karma topic would arouse such a response as the Philippines is unique for being a Christian country in Asia and also very Catholic.

As you interact with the people you feel their innate spirituality , a very caring and kind disposition which is probably why so many are attracted to work in nursing ,medicine and why so many are passionate about issues of social justice. On the other hand I quickly started to hear many bitter complaints about the rife corruption in the government, both past and present.

This made me wonder why in religious countries such as India, Italy, Greece, the Philippines there is such unlimited corruption and nepotism. A religious tradition has very clear codes of conduct based on compassion and honesty then why, especially in these places, such an incoherence of talk and walk?

In Greece, the supposed home of democracy, there is an exclusive approach in their political, religious and societal systems that actively combats the idea of equality and inclusivity. For example, if one is not Orthodox one is called a heretic! Compassion and tolerance are highly respected values in India and yet, in spite of legislation, social castes and gender discrimination still persist, such as the abortion of unwanted female fetuses. In Italy with its ancient tradition of Christianity the corruption and license of many of its leaders is taken as the norm and they so often can circumnavigate any law with marvelous dexterity!

Do they think that they already know enough so there is no need to self-examine? Believing and the actual living are often worlds apart. Why this forgetfulness to practice their cherished ideals and ideas which they talk about and even worship? Codes are there but it seems they are interpreted to suit certain agendas or conveniently ignored until a desperate need for a divine favor sends them scurrying to a church or temple. Do they really believe that an opportune faith is viable? What's missing?

In the Philippines the innate characteristics of care and spiritual values have become somewhat invisible in the class-conscious elite. Here, as in many countries, there is a political, social and religious nepotism operating which demands compliance as a prerequisite for acceptance and social advancement. There is an insatiable greed that ignores the plight of over 70 percent of the people who are at or below the poverty line. Once they categorically blamed the Spanish, later the Americans but now their own people, who are in power, are equally as insular. Human nature is human nature no matter the nationality or epoch! All things can emerge from anyone according to character and disposition. It appears that fundamentally, it's neither a matter of religion nor left or right politics nor social position but equitable conditions mainly depend on the character and value systems of individuals and collectives.

I spoke to two Filipino activists, both passionate about what they did concerning the injustice of the system. I write "did" because these two women who are sisters, are both ill with cancer and have moved away from activism. Both realized that their pent up, systematic fury and animosity had somehow contributed to their condition. Both seemed very strong willed and not just committed but consecrated to their ideals of social justice. With a humble insight they conceded how their frenzied ardor had had to be moderated as the intensity of it made them sick both mentally and physically.

The word "passion" carries with it the idea of intense wanting or craving and any intense desire sooner or later creates an imbalance and inevitable suffering. Actually anything obsessive creates incongruous behavior. For example, an immense desire for peace and justice but using anger and animosity as methods to achieve it. It's a contradiction in terms to say we fight for peace! The sisters had realized that by aligning themselves to deeper spiritual values and more peaceful approaches a noble cause needs neither tirade nor antipathy to propel it.

Sometimes sickness can make us stop and rethink the reason of our existence and why we are doing what we are doing. The sisters were open minded enough to experiment with alternative attitudes and behavior. In fact a change of method and attitude contributed to the cure of one of them and the other, together with her physical therapy, is also on a course of attitudinal therapy and is seeing the improvement physically and mentally.

No matter the excuse bitter feelings and pent up enmity creates a detrimental energy in mind and body that sabotage the self . Actually at the talk on "Karma", a term which people use but do not really understand so well, the ideas of punishment and "just deserts" were clarified. In the Philippines as well as in India the word is used a lot and it is understood as deserved sorrow and destined suffering, an idea that possibly helps perpetuate certain social and mental systems that inhibit personal progress.

They were surprised to understand another perspective about karma, that it is not to do with retaliation or punishment but it is an attempt by the universe to regain its balance and return to its natural state of harmony and order. To regain balance, to repay a negative debt a spiritual value or attitude is used such as respect, acceptance, forgiveness. This action reverses or dissolves all negative consequences. For if negative attitudes and actions such as vindictiveness and rancor are used the issue may be suppressed but never solved. It will go underground, lay dormant and later on erupt again. When antagonistic attitudes are used rather than compassionate ones then cycles of violence keep reappearing from time to time between and within people and nations.

To clear a negative debt a positive input is necessary. To give the opposite of what you are receiving creates the balance: when there is anger and insult to remain in my peaceful self-respect, whilst others may be dishonest to maintain my integrity, where there is blame and accusation to harmonize and reconcile. Of course, easier said than done! It takes great inner strength to achieve this practically. Such strength comes when we make a daily journey to the self and the Divine .This journey of daily silence repositions our understanding and perspective so that we can we can tune into the necessity of the moment.

Rebalancing into well-being depends on realizing that I always have a choice, no matter the circumstances. I may not be able to change the circumstances but I can change the attitude with which I respond to the person, circumstance or relationship. There is always a choice. I always have that freedom. The choice I make carries its consequence and since I choose I am responsible for that consequence. Many times we react impulsively, without reflection and new perspective then the same problems or pain keep repeating in individual and collective life. The seed of positive change depends on realizing that I have always the freedom to choose a new way to think and act. Situations change when the seed of choice changes.

Inner silence and awareness can always reverse a pattern. The human spirit has great capacity for transformation and improvement of life, patterns are reversible but one has to choose. Even God cannot choose for me, God can greatly facilitate a favorable result but my choice and consequent destiny are in my hands. We have that freedom always. Everything is possible at every moment. Whilst sharing these insights that I had learned from my meditation teachers it seemed the audience realized that their freedom is always in them no matter the external bondages.

And speaking of freedom I remembered being told whilst in Manila about the great liberator hero of the country Jose Rizal, whose wise brilliance stimulated the revolution against the Spanish about 110 years beforehand. Rizal knew many languages, traveled to and lived in various countries in Europe, practiced as a doctor and was also a poet and writer. He was the Filipino Gandhi.

He was spiritual and intelligent, not essentially a political person but someone who deeply wished a better and just condition for his country. He wished to achieve reform peacefully; he was not an armed revolutionary. He stated:

"We want the happiness of the Philippines but we want to obtain it through noble and just means. If I have to commit villainy to make her happy, I would refuse to do because I am sure that what is built on sand sooner or later would tumble down".

His writings are treasure stores of wisdom. His books, "Social Cancer" and "The Reign of Greed", from which I have read extracts, indirectly fueled the revolution against the Spanish tyranny and stimulated the movement for freedom. Although the revolution succeeded in ousting the Spanish administration it was replaced by the more moderate but still intrusive American army. And this time there was no Rizal to inspire plus the people were possibly too tired to resist again another intruder.

In 1498 the Filipinos had the strength to resist Ferdinand Magellan, who was actually killed in battle against the native people led by the famous hero Lapu-Lapu. He was the first known Filipino to resist Spanish colonization and Rizal was the last. They both used different means to achieve their aims. Lapu-Lapu's efforts, although commendable and honored today, did not actually succeed because the Spanish came and ruled for about 400 years. Rizal's methods eventually won as the people inspired by his wisdom and vision energized themselves into action. Of course it was another time and different methods were needed.

Both are remembered and are commemorated in Rizal park in the heart of Manila. Lapu-Lapu's statue, sometimes called the Sentinel of Freedom, symbolizes the independence that was eventually won not with the overthrow of the Spanish but with the withdrawal of the Americans in 1946. That united effort for freedom and justice had to be re-emerged when Marcos, a Filipino, neither a Spaniard nor an American, had to be overthrown in 1986. Tyranny is a state of being; it's not especially linked to foreigners or particular nationalities, classes. What a person is, is what a person does.

Scapegoats are always found but all hostile situations are best solved it seems when both victim and the oppressor are made aware of their shortcomings. The victims need to stimulate their self-value and sustain it and the oppressor has to be educated and directed to accept the right of the other to exist. If the oppressor is treated brutally their immediate violence may stop but will at some time reappear even if a decade or century later. As we stated earlier cycles of violence keep turning and returning over time. Oppressors can be anyone or any group who are cut off from the roots of their humaneness. Surprisingly, victims, once in power, can also become oppressors which invariably happen when the use of violence is justified as a means to be liberated. The French and Bolshevik Revolutions are good examples of this. Gandhi and others like him totally rejected the idea of justified violence. He was aware of the far-reaching consequences of such actions.

There cannot be justice without forgiveness. There cannot be real change without enlightened choice. Hate never changes anyone or anything. These are amongst the principles for creating a just, harmonious society.

As Rizal said:

"No good water comes from a muddy spring,

No sweet fruit comes from a bitter seed".

He believed that true reform is from within: a change in attitude and values and this is the root of the social, nonviolent action to change systems such as education, public administration and inspiring the people not to accept the brutality of the oppressors but at the same time not using brutality to get rid of brutality.

The People Power Revolution of 1986, clear and very determined, used the great power of nonviolence to overthrow the tyranny and restore democracy. To a great extent it did, however there are still complaints that democracy is not and has never been fully restored because, as always, power remains in the hands of an exclusive oligarchy. Everywhere it seems we keep returning to the same position: there is a positive turn in a direction but with time ingrained personality patterns return triggering the same ambitions and the same injustices.

Is this karma? Possibly yes. However the individual always has the freedom to choose and, at least, on a personal level reverse things. The power of the individual is always paramount: very often a role model is the catalyst for creative change but the main challenge seems to be to sustain such change.