• Adam Jogen Salzberg

Extracting Nectar From Poison - Guns, Empathy & Poverty of Heart


I’m continuing on this theme of of civilizational collapse and the end of the world, exploring it in the context of spiritual practice. You could argue we're in the midst of that already, that civilization has already collapsed. We’ve had two mass shootings in the United States, how many days apart were they? And so suppose that we're not talking about something that's going to happen in the future. Suppose we're already practicing in the midst of a dystopian world.


Practice is never arising outside of a context. This is not a fantasy Buddhist bubble that we practice in, we practice in the world that we practice in. So something I asked myself, and you could ask yourself, is what state of mind is the offering that is called for now? When I find myself directing anger, at who or what in my mind is to blame, I’m trying to touch in with the dharma training. It is more meaningful to me to direct anger at the lack of love in the world then at a person, group or law.When there's a violent tragedy of aggression, or the violence of indifference, the source is lack of love. That is the target for my outrage. My deep dismay is at how ignorance and lack of empathy and respect one-dimensionalize human beings. How do human beings become something so flat that they can become disposable or dispensable?


Feel whatever you feel about the violence that has gone on in these last couple of weeks. And feel your mind go towards, or play out in your mind going towards the knee-jerk blame object. And now see what happens if you shift towards blaming lack of empathy, blaming ignorance, but not a person, not a group. If we have to have an enemy, let it be lack of empathy. Let it be lack of respect. We have to outgrow enemy in spiritual practice, but maybe we need to start with a refined idea of what ‘the enemy’ is. The teachings talk about the “enemy afflictions”, the fixated greed, anger and ignorance in our own minds.


Consider that if one takes action in the political or social sphere with a flat, one dimensional enemy in mind, meaning you don't empathize with their concerns and all you see is the surface that you want to see, or that your view needs you to see, you take that action with righteousness, and it polarizes the other side. In other words, without a well rounded empathy, the words and actions will deepen the fear of those who disagree with you. And people deal with fear by turning to aggression. When people are afraid they buy more guns. So if action is taken with a one dimensional enemy in mind, it polarizes the other side, and it won't go to the root.


Think about the times when you have stepped into your fear, or helped someone else step into their fear. You didn't do it without a context of safety and empathy. The times where you really owned that you're afraid, ‘ I was afraid and that's why I did ____…’ , you only do that when there's some degree of love, when there's a holding container that feels safe, because you are respected. Without that, everybody just armors up.


So one response to the context of our world and what has happened and will happen is to commit to deepen empathy and respect for life. At least in your sphere, you have the power to deepen that. It is a subtle mind practice. Abandoning even the subtle traces of othering, the making of enemy. Here in Asheville, there was a guest dharma teacher in the slot that I teach in. And I found that I disagreed with this person. And I found my mind starting to make a one-dimensional image of this person, to subtly other this person, make him wrong. Someone's differing view was a threat. And I watched how my mind, and therefore, the mind, does that.


One of the things that ego does is that, whenever something threatens it, it puts them in the category of enemy: a threat to my being right, my pleasure, self image, comfort, safety, etc. For the ego, people who are friends are often just those who agree with us. For the ego, as soon as someone doesn't agree with us, they start to slide into the enemy category, the category of no longer my friend. But we're cutting through that. If our practice is to be meaningful for us, meaningful in the world, it will need to do that. Otherwise, we and others will rightly suspect it.


A phrase comes to mind thats been meaningful to me of late- extracting nectar from the poison flower. Life's disappointments and tragedies will always bloom. Do they have to be as insane and heartless as what we're seeing now? Absolutely not. But there will always be disappointments and tragedies. Extracting nectar from the poison flower is seeing that these things are what blooms in the Garden of Life and deciding that i’m not going to be poisoned by it. Rather, i’m going to turn that poison into something useful. And so we use it to deepen our hearts, become more human. The inhuman helps us become more human rather than more fearful, more resentful and more bitter, rather than buying more guns.

There are ways to do this. First, when we see tragedy, like senseless, early death, or any kind of death, we let what we see point to the fragility and therefore the preciousness of life. Instead of letting it feed despair, you let it remind you that the lives around me are precious. They're not guaranteed for another minute. And so right there, you dissolve grudges, ill will, any kind of fearful way that we close down love in order to be right. There's no time, there's no time to be so right that we keep our hearts closed, there is no time.


Second, we let the pain underneath our numbness or anger soften and widen the heart. This is why in our sitting we have to sit still. We're developing the capacity to be with. So when I first had a flash about the shooting in Texas, my practice was to stop and read and relate to the images and really feel and be with what came up. Not to go into my habitual coping but to really feel and and be with what comes up. Our practice is deepening that capacity to be with the broken heart, the anxiety and whatever else is coming up.


Third, we have the training of contemplating what I think is a deep truth- all beings are acting in a coping response to their pain and fear. In a sense a very elementary teaching, but one that really serves- to contemplate and remember that nobody takes harmful actions when they're in a peaceful state of mind. If there's someone who is usually peaceful and then takes a harmful action, they lapsed from that peacefulness, right? All beings are acting in a coping response to their pain and fear. I cope with my pain and fear when I read about these shootings by relaxing into awareness, as best I can. That's how I cope. But you and I have been practicing this, we've been taught this, we see the deep value in returning to this. We’ve been given a rare gift.

This as an ongoing contemplation will keep undercutting the tendency to make these ‘evil people' in our mind. Just consider the vacuity of heart that it takes to undertake a mass shooting, the depth of confusion, the poverty of heart that it takes to do these things. It doesn't help us, it doesn't help reduce these things in the world, to demonize people. Demonizing people is why we don't have enough resources to sustain a strong mental health culture. That's why there aren't enough therapists being paid to take care of people, because we demonize them rather than empathize with what's at the root. Contemplating that all beings are acting in coping response to their pain and fear. Imagine and see through the eyes and imagine the heart of the other in whatever situation we're tending towards demonization and polarization. And then we let the image of who we want to be, the heart we want to have, the heart we want all beings to have, rise up in response. This is the Dharma.


We will not always have the energy or inclination to contemplate things so intimately.

A simple practice I do sometimes when I'm low, or when I'm feeling afflicted by ill-will is a repetition of ‘may I and all beings realize their true nature.’ Sometimes that's all I have available to begin the turning of my mind, ‘may I and all beings be at ease, may I and all beings be at ease…’ And even if it's just running on rote, that's okay. That's okay. It's better than what I could be thinking. May all beings realize their true nature. That's exactly what we don't do when we feel right about those people.


Spiritual activism, by no means excludes the other dimensions of activism. But in itself, it's a long view. It's a long view in that we keep doing our best to transmit and be a transmission of the practice that burns up the potential for deluded violence at the root of each heart. One of the definitions of an awakened person is the inability to enact aggression, the inability to commit violence towards another being. The states of mind that can reduce a person to a one-dimensional enemy are eaten up by the flames of love. That is radically different than just trying to put up the walls that prevent or limit violent action.


Practicing in reality is entering and embracing a contradiction. A contradiction is that right now, in an inclusive embrace of awareness, there's an inconceivable abundance of beauty and goodness going on in this world. There are thousands of fathers lovingly embracing their daughter. Somewhere, right now, there are ten thousand lovely moons being looked at with awe. Right now there are hundreds of thousands of people praying for peace or meditating right now. There are thousands and thousands of people doing their best to reduce gun violence, to make a safer world.


Simultaneous with the horror. The poison flower and extracting the nectar of the poison flower come together. We know what side we want to be on. We know what we want to experience and what we don't want to experience. Nobody wants themselves or their loved ones to experience the poisoned flower. But it's all always going on. It's all always mixed up. Beware the media which paints a monotone yet psychoactive picture of a world.There's so much beauty and kindness and there's so much hatred and ignorance and delusion and it's all mixed up.


Take care everybody. So good to be here with you in this strange and dangerous and magnificent, beneficent universe. May we and all beings realize our true nature.


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