At the recent antiterrorism rally in Paris in response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, participants wore signs saying "I am Charlie Hebdo" and "I am a Jew" in solidarity with those who were targeted by Islamic extremists. At the same time, France was rocked by anti-Muslim violence in retaliation for the attacks. It's so tempting to reduce events of this kind to a simplistic us vs. them rhetoric, as if this makes the situation easier to address and resolve, which of course it does not. But there's a deeper opportunity here, an invitation to look beneath the surface and find our solidarity not just with those who agree with or resemble us, but with everyone, no matter their skin color or religion. Not just "je suis Charlie," but "je suis tout le monde."
As a teacher of mindfulness, I'm inevitably prompted to wonder how the practice of present moment awareness can help open up our perspective and relieve our suffering. With regular meditation practice, we become more and more aware of the beliefs and preconceptions that color and distort our perception of reality, and we open to the possibility of seeing things and other people clearly, as they are, without the distorting lens of ideology or cultural conditioning. Meditation shows us that each moment is fresh and new and offers a wealth of unprecedented possibilities that are precluded by our stories and expectations. It teaches us how to welcome each person we meet not as a stereotype or as a symbol of some class, nationality, or religion, but as an individual, with his or her own precious gifts and talents. And if we practice lovingkindness, the sister practice of mindfulness, we gradually dissolve the barriers in the heart that separate us from others and prevent us from empathizing with their pain. By its very nature, mindfulness acts as a powerful support for the practice of democracy.
Ever since their revolution in the 18th century, the French people have been the standard bearers for the democratic principles of liberte, egalite, and fraternite. Not that they, along with the U.S. and the U.K., haven't violated these principles repeatedly in our dealings with other peoples we perceive to be different and other -- violations that have fueled the hatred of extremists in various parts of the globe. But at least we espouse these lofty values -- sometimes more in the breach than in the adherence -- and we risk sweeping them away in the heat of the polarization that inevitably follows an attack of this kind. In the process, we risk becoming more like the extremists whose tactics and ideology we reject. Clearly, the radical Islam that gives rise to Al Qaeda and ISIS does not share these values and would like nothing better than to shake secular democracy to its very foundations. How do we prevent this from happening? How do we counter the all-too-human tendency to react to anger with anger, prejudice with prejudice, violence with violence?
Paradoxically, it's only after turning inward through the practice of mindfulness -- in which we're aware of our thoughts and feelings as they arise and subject them to nonjudgmental scrutiny rather than immediately reacting to them -- that we can then turn outward with clarity of mind and openness of heart and relate to situations as they transpire, in the least reactive and most appropriate way possible. With the inner spaciousness that mindfulness cultivates, we can view each situation from a more global, panoramic perspective and act more effectively.
Perhaps we won't be able to convince world leaders to cultivate mindfulness anytime soon, but who knows? With the growing evidence for its value in every sphere of endeavor, it may gradually infiltrate the political arena, as Tim Ryan of Ohio is trying to do in the U.S. Congress. At least we can acknowledge its potential for uprooting the narrow narratives and belief systems that fuel hatred and terrorism, thereby giving us a glimpse of the more panoramic perspective that honors multiple points of view and gives rise to genuine liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Otherwise, we just turn in an endless spiral of ever-escalating animosity and polarization and continue to inflict suffering and war upon ourselves.