12/23/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

How You Function When You Can't Breathe

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A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, they say. It seems like a hardy little truth, a warning to watch for what's weakest in a system, lest the whole thing fail. Since the police killing of unarmed black men has taken center stage, a lot of people say the whole thing has failed. Fingers are pointing at the weakest link, some at the police, some at grand juries and prosecutors and racists, some at criminal behavior, and no small number still at black men (see Nicholas Kristof's New York Times series, "When Whites Just Don't Get It," parts 1-5). There comes to mind that offensive game show host who used to eject contestants from her stage, shouting with pointing finger, "You are the weakest link!" The difference in America is that our fingers are not pointing one way. And this is no game.

When a chain breaks, what causes one link to fail? In just that link, a flaw in the material might be called the cause of the break. But what caused the flaw? A bad mold? Inattention in quality control? Did mistreatment from the boss cause the forger of links to misforge? Was the failure not actually in the link but in the force applied to the whole chain? After all, any chain will break under sufficient tension. Who has the power and who, the responsibility to decide what force is too much and fix it?

In every broken system, the fault for the halt lies mostly in elements hidden or denied; only some are exposed. A cop to whom a black man appears as a giant or a demon is certainly a weak link -- but who put him there? A man punched down by joblessness and racism and ready to resist is a weak link -- but who put him there?

We derive visceral satisfaction from outing the weakest link. But we ignore the fact that our fingers wag at only parts of the picture. Who frames what we glare at? We do! Or our preferred media do. It is natural that our frames makes sense to us; they are perfectly fitted to the size of our mind. Shown larger frames, people usually can't even see them.

This seeing only what we see is how things stays stuck in an everlasting Groundhog Day of racism and economic oppression, erupting in violence. Something has to change, and time is not on our side. It is not hard to describe what must change, but it is hard to do. It is citizens -- not all, but enough -- taking the steep climb on a path that brings them to new frames of mind, the better to see what we have been and what we can become.

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When a system fails, it is easy (or necessary) to locate a breakdown. When a system is working, however, it is impossible to identify just what is working. Everything is working. In a business, for example, the visible and measurable is working reasonably well -- managers and managed, supply and demand, income and expense; security and redundancies, and so on. But you can't stop there. Complex transportation systems wheel people to their places. Instant by instant, rocks hold foundations hold columns hold floors hold working feet... Farmers conjure plants and animals from soil to sell in markets for kitchens which send food to working mouths and teeth to funnel fuel to the brains and brawn of workers. Clouds form, the rains come...

An 8 year-old could pile complexities on into the night, but in an eternity of leisure, no one could inventory all that is working. This untellable totality of function deserves a name: eufunction. Where dysfunction is in principle perceptible, eufunction hums in and beyond all ken -- not because it is abstract or supernatural, but because its infinite, concrete presence comprises incalculable cascades of causation. Dysfunction appears here or there. Eufunction is everywhere. Dysfunction demands attention, sharp as cut skin. Eufunction escapes attention almost completely. Yet all that is working, even evil, depends on eufunction. For wrong to be wrung from a gun in terror or ignorance, every atom of metal has to be working well.

How can this matter for a new frame of mind? Eufunction and dysfunction are incommensurable. If weighed in one balance, eufunction would seem to make light of the despair, anger, or grief that breakdowns bring. Considered solely as a concept, eufunction is not important.

But giving attention to eufunction is not a concept. It is a practice. It is a relationship to reality running counter to the default mentality of our culture, which focuses only on dysfunction. That default mentality is natural; the animal nervous system is wired for it. But our thoughts and conversations, along with the news, are all but shackled to it, always reacting to dysfunction. For this reason, however necessary in its time, however integrous, paying attention to dysfunction cannot reveal a new frame of mind; that is not its aim. It cannot show a different future.

Giving attention to eufunction, by contrast, is the fundamentally free act of human consciousness. It must be chosen, because eufunction calls no attention to itself. Attending to all that is working prepares a person for frames of mind that can help her to face evils in ways neither anger nor acceptance can. It gives courage to face oneself in the evils he perceives. It furnishes the space to see "from a distance," as a popular song has it--a space in which possibilities appear for thought and action not tethered to calculations of success and failure.

You can try this. Stop reading and, for 60 seconds, give your attention to what is working, as near or as far as thought and sense roam. Then return. The purpose of the exercise is not to chasten or cheer away anger or grief, but to give a sense for your freedom to relate yourself to the concrete reality always present and running parallel, so to speak, to our ordinary focus.

Attending to eufunction is not about gaining new skills and insights. It is more like prayer. It prepares the heart to see. It is an utterance of that "basic word" of relationship which Martin Buber called "I-Thou." It can be sensed in Jesus' command to love your enemy, who, from time to time, a free soul can regard from a distance. Eufunction stands in Chogyam Trungpa's response to those who wonder how to actualize "the vision of warriorship." "We have seen that some people try to become warriors with an intense push," he writes. "But the result is further confusion, and . . . layer upon layer of cowardice and incompetence. If there is no sense of rejoicing and magical practice, you find yourself simply driving into the high wall of insanity."

In the practice of eufunction, everything that is seen is seen also within larger wholes on which the smaller depend. Love for your people, your nation, your earth, blue and green, no longer blind you to what is. White supremacy. Unregulated accumulation of wealth. Climate change. Adulation for the individual. War without end, droning daily above the lives of others. Myself trusted in aisles of stores, if I am. Economic oppression so ruthless it cannot be described right without obscenities. Slavery and genocide, foundation stones of the American project. Torture, tortuously defended. Democracy debased, defunct. NSA, none secure anymore. Mass incarceration, black and brown. Police shooting down our black and brown. The ruined land. My cheap bananas and nice house, if I have them. The doomed polar bears. My fatigue, if I can sleep. All this bound in a single fabric of cause. Will it come undone in peace or in violence?

In the practice of eufunction, the heart sees this question with courage to take on something and to give up something. Sees also that when I was fingering the weakest link, I made an intense push to separate myself from them. Sees that I am not apart from them, but a part in them, all one, and not alone. Sees that everyone I meet is fighting a great battle. So be kind, wrote Philo. Hears the ancestors teaching that justice and divine worship interdepend. Sees citizens--not all, but enough--with hearts made great for discovering how they will engage for good with the approaching tsunami of dysfunction and despair.