Right now Americans are in grave danger. I’m not speaking of the potential loss of human rights, environmental degradation, gutting of health-care services, or possible economic and political meltdown. Though all of the above seem likely, the real danger is of our succumbing to despair.
And if you have responded to that statement with an inner rolling of the eyes, labeling me a Pollyanna, please read on.
Think of terrorists – are they victorious when the bomb blasts? When the blood seeps across the crime scene? No. Their true victory comes when the rest of us, upon hearing the news, give ourselves over to fear and hatred of the other.
In this moment in American life, there are men coming into power determined to scandalize us with glib, foolish words and dehumanizing ideas that could well become policy. But know this – just like the terrorists, these politicians win not through their deeds, but when our hearts change and we choose despair over love.
I know how easy it is to despair. I have vast experience with imagining friendships ruined by one cross word, jobs lost over one mistake, the world ending – in big ways and small – over and over again. Certainly the day after the U.S. presidential election, I felt the despair physically - a new weight pressed down on my shoulders, reminding me why my condition is called depression. (If recent events have left you feeling listless and exhausted, ready to end it all; if you are sleeping too much or too little; if you have no appetite or if you can’t stop binging – discuss these symptoms with a mental-health professional. There’s no shame in taking pharmaceuticals. Hell, if it weren’t for my pills, I’d be six feet under.)
Of course, there is a huge gap between simply not-dying and living. The best way for me to bridge this gap is by studying the wisdom of others. During these desperate days, I've been reading Swami Vivekananda, an Indian mystic who traveled to the U.S. in 1893 to bring us a different lens on reality. If you’re expecting him to spew some woo-woo positive thinking, think again. Vivekananda is a realist. Or call it cynical:
This world is like a dog’s curly tail, and people have been striving to straighten it out for hundreds of years; but when they let it go, it curls up again. How could it be otherwise? …This world is like a dog’s curly tail and will never be straightened... (64)
Let’s not pretend - these are bad times. But has there ever been a time in human history that wasn’t bad for someone? Terrorists, Communists, Nazis, Vikings, storms, plague, greed, corruption, locusts. Will there ever be a time that isn’t bad for someone? Won’t the dog’s tail always curl?
And yet, we go on. Another reason to study Vivekananda is that he focuses on what all of us do: work. We work not only to feed ourselves physically, but spiritually. As Vivekananda says, "The aim of all work is simply to bring out the power of the mind which is already there, to wake up the soul. (8)
“Waking up the soul” is what brings us from not-dying to living. And Vivekananda’s advice in how to do this may shock:
In whatever you do for a particular person, city, or state, expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then your work will bring you no attachment. (40)
Attachment is what makes us despair, especially when the attachment is for something noble, like a better world. But like the poor soul set on straightening the dog’s tail, it’s futile. Maybe our work makes a difference in the world, or maybe it doesn’t, but we must not expect any result. Sounds impossible? Vivekananda agrees: It is the most difficult thing in this world to work and not care for the result… (21)
Why try at all, then? Because the apathy of despair is what makes men in power happy. Don’t let those asswipes in Washington win easy. I’m posting this blog on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday for a reason. He worked in service tirelessly, in a way that woke up many souls, and at the end, was forced to give up his attachment to his own life. Fortunately, most of us have much less to lose.
Acting with non-attachment is a skill that you can practice. Traditionally, one does this through a personal practice, such as yoga or meditation, but one could use playing piano or taking golf swings. For me, it’s yoga asana, and even though I’ve done yoga poses for hundreds of years, several times a day, there are some crazy-ass poses that I will never accomplish. Worse, there are poses I used to do, and now I can't! Oh, it's hell getting old - when I am attached to results. When I expect nothing from my practice, show up anyway, and feel grateful for the work of yoga, then I'm doing the real work of cultivating love.
Of course the more you’re attached to the result, the harder it is to practice non-attachment. When I tried applying it to my summer work waiting tables, trying to cultivate love through the work of service no matter how much customers tipped, I didn’t quite succeed. My desire for cash money was greater than my desire to do the perfect headstand. (Which, my ego wants to add, is a pose that I can still do.) But it was good practice, because I noticed how the less I thought about tips, the more control I had over my mind, which wasn't dancing up and down in response to the whims of my customers. Instead of despairing over cheap diners, I thanked them for giving me a chance to practice. (To a point. On days I thought I’d achievednon-attachment, Fate would send me one stingy bastard too many. Then I turned to wine.)
… You need not worry or make yourself sleepless about the world, it will go on without you. When you have avoided fanaticism, then alone will you work well. It is the level-headed person, the calm person of good judgment and cool nerves, of great sympathy and love, who does good work and so does good to himself. (65)
Yes, we live in sickening times. But if you really want to make those motherfuckers in Washington crazy, if you really want to honor Dr. King, cultivate love. Allow your despair to lead you to work that serves others, then show up and do it. Most importantly, forget about reward. Because love, as Vivekananda instructs, never comes until there is freedom (38). So be free from any expectations as to what your work will bring you. Don't expect approval; don't expect to "make a difference." Work to make your capacity for love stronger.
When you’re ready, go farther - when you encounter things you don't like (shitty tippers, bad traffic, loutish national leaders), don't despair. Welcome these challenges as opportunities to practice non-attachment. God knows we'll have plenty, so find the value in them. It's a lifetime's work, no doubt, but this practice will make you happier, and your happiness is what will change the world.
Let men have light, let them be pure and spiritually strong and educated; then alone will misery cease in the world….the misery of man will continue to exist until man’s character changes. (33)
(Vivekananda quotations are from his book Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, Revised Edition, published by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York.)