We commonly see practitioners of various spiritual traditions—serious and learned practitioners, at that—who spend a lot of their time and energy in criticizing human social and political tendencies. There is no inherent problem with this, as an increasingly “spiritualized” perspective on psychology tends to reveal these and other outward behaviors certain occult interactions of the mind (see my article Politics as Counterfeit Spirit.) We do see, however, that many of these Gnostics and Yogis come to resemble the very things for which they criticize others.
Such criticisms often come along with name-calling, such as the now-infamous “sheeple” or just a sneering inflection applied to words like “humanity” and “people”. Terms and phrases are coined or co-opted for labeling a particular in-group, not just for the practical sake of distinguishing practitioners from non-practitioners or a spiritual family group, but to differentiate between people who are worthy of existence versus those who aren’t.
In so doing, these practitioners come to embody the very things about humanity which they spend so much time decrying: lack of charity, braggadocio, violence (social or literal), and bigotry. Just as we tend to become more like that which we love, we also come to resemble that we most hate.
The key factor, here, is a lack, or even rejection, of peace.
Peace has suffered a public relations problem ever since the failed hippy experiment of the ‘60s and ‘70s gave most Americans the impression that the word implies, at best, a shallow failure to recognize the necessity of strength and, at worst, utter cowardice. But there is no long-lasting spiritual or religious tradition in the world which does not hold peace as an ideal—however, representatives of these traditions often fall far from it.
It seems that to ignore peace is to reject spirituality itself.
We must rework our vision of peace to the individual rather than society. If social peace is even a possibility, it must come from individuals anyway, a fact which would-be revolutionaries all too easily forget. Peace is simply samarasa, the pinnacle of what we know in the West as equanimity. As with all virtues, it isn’t likely that we’ll suddenly find ourselves in full possession of it after a few weeks, months, or even years of effort, but cultivation of it is entirely within our abilities. We will all have our ups and downs, but steadiness of effort will carry us, as ever; progress, not perfection, is the watchword.
Peace and inner stillness do not mean lack of effort, but that effort is directed where it most needs to go without getting drawn out into petty distractions. It also does not imply apathy, for then no effort is directed at all.
The Stoic virtue of apatheia is a far different thing from the apathy of the slacker. It does not indicate lack of care or concern, but distance from unnecessary suffering. Pain is inevitable but, as the saying goes, suffering is a choice. That is to say that suffering arises from the engagement of consciousness with the fact of pain rather than the simple experience of pain. Pain is what the body and brain do; suffering is what the mind does when it won’t stop pouring over the pain, grinding its gears over the present situation rather than calmly taking the message of pain (namely: there is a problem) and finding a solution for it. Suffering therefore arises concomitantly with lamentation, whether it takes the form of fears or anger matters very little.
Equanimity is a skill which we develop through practice. Meditation is, of course, a major tool in this process, as it provides us with the intellective distance necessary to watch the workings of the mind and its habits. As we see suffering, despair, anger, hatred, and other unhelpful patterns arise, we can begin to also see—bit by bit, don’t worry—how we may stop them in their tracks, turning our minds to thoughts, words, and deeds which help rather than hinder.
Equanimity is poise, a stance whether of gymnastics or martial arts which allows us to remain calm and relaxed while observing, yet ready to act, explosively if necessary, at the very moment it is most necessary. Peace is activity with meaning rather than a mere reason or justification.