Are We Unable in Our Current Society to Shift Through the Positive and Negative Elements of Each Situation and Historical Movement?
Have we become so addicted to black-and-white thinking, that we are now unable to sift the "positive" from the "negative" or the "helpful" from the "unhelpful" in each situation we encounter or historical movement we study?
Yesterday in my Contemplative Christianity class, I showed two movies. The first was "A Rising Tide of Silence," a biography about Thomas Keating, the well-known Trappist monk and my spiritual mentor. The second was a Ken Burns documentary about the Shakers.
As with the other three times I've watched it, tears came easy during the Keating movie. It isn't so much Thomas' words that break open my heart, but his presence. When I'm around him, "Christ" is not a theoretical idea, but becomes a living reality. As a Buddhist or Hindu practitioner might say, I receive a "transmission" of Christ's very love and spiritual qualities into my being whenever I'm in Thomas' presence.
After the movie, a male student started criticizing it, saying how unbalanced it was, and how it only talked about love and nothing about finding the Divine in suffering and difficult situations. To me the criticism seemed untrue, for the film covered quite a bit about the painful experiences in Thomas' life. However, because I felt so utterly vulnerable and broken-open after the movie, I was unable to get myself into a posture of defense. I simply let the student's comments stand, without being able to say much of anything.
After the film on the Shakers, the student's attitude became increasingly strident and upset. He hated the fact that the Shakers practiced celibacy, thought they all looked utterly oppressed and joyless, and couldn't picture how anyone could ever get anything good from their spirituality. In addition, he expressed anger over the fact that we had no time left in the class period to discuss the film. Aside from realizing that I won't ever again attempt to show two movies in one class period, I felt shocked. The student seemed completely unable to sift through the positive and negative elements of Shaker spirituality or to keep the positive and set aside the negative.
This time, I was a little more able to defend myself. I explained that I agreed with him that the Shakers had flaws, and that I too had trouble with their celibacy. But I mentioned that over the past several decades, I've been greatly inspired by their attitude of mindfulness toward work, their practice of "bringing heaven to earth" in the perfect craftsmanship of their furniture and carpentry, their simplicity of lifestyle, their progressive abolitionist and feminist views, and their utter sincerity in their attempts at practicing the equality of men and women. I turned aside, started putting away the film equipment, and the student left.
Sometimes I feel like we've become a society of spoiled brats, unable to accept anything that does not completely fit to our tastes, and unwilling to do the work of sifting through the positive and negative elements of each and every thing we study or of each situation we encounter. To my mind, ALL spiritual traditions are intended to help us see through the negative elements of each and every thing and movement, and to uncover and highlight those that are positive. That is, I'm convinced, why we are here on this earth. When we don't find ourselves able to do this, I think black-and-white thinking is once again the culprit.
After class, I went outside and began taking photos of the crocus flowers that had just this week broken through the leaf litter on a garden plot next to the classroom building. Just as I was beginning to shoot, a student named Simona whom I didn't know previously came over and engaged me in a wonderful conversation about the beauty of the purple, white and yellow flowers. Her major, it turned out, is Environmental Studies, and we began talking about the wonder of plants, and about how effectively they are able to communicate with us.
What a godsend this angel of mercy was! I found the joy and light returning to my eyes, and I was suddenly able to let go of my previous "funk." I am so grateful for this encounter and for others like it, and I hope that I too can be used by the Great Mystery in a similar manner to bring joy to the lives of those around me.
Photo: Crocus emerging through the leaf litter, Naropa University Campus, Boulder, CO, March 4, 2016
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.