Responding to Crisis
A recent talk by the Warden of Shanti Sadan
At times of conflict and crisis, when we are faced with tragic and disturbing news, we ask, what can I do, how should I respond? There may be something practical we can do. If we know someone who is personally affected, we can contact them, to offer support, or just to say that we care. We may be able to give some material resources in charity. These are useful things to do.
Is there anything else to do? At such times, when we have done what we can, we may find that our mind tends to occupy itself in ways that are no longer useful, absorbing alarming accounts from many sources, dwelling on speculation rather than facts, and the result is anxiety and confusion.
So the answer to the question ‘what can I do for the best now?’ is the simple one. It is to look after our own jobs and responsibilities. With care and attention, do what needs to be done according to our circumstances and position. This is the most effective way to preserve our own clarity and peace of mind, and to support those around us.
We might say: ‘That will help ourselves, but is it enough? Is it not just a way of ignoring the situation?’ This is not to ignore the situation but to recognise the reality of the situation we are in and respond in the best way. Crises often begin in people’s minds, overtaken by anger and fear. How crises develop depends on the reactions. Crises energise us and that energy needs to be used constructively. Once we have taken the practical steps we can in a crisis, any more energy directed to it would be futile and could quickly turn into just harmful fear and frustration.
The best use we can make of that energy is to fulfil our own daily tasks and duties with care. Take satisfaction in what we do, appreciate the simple daily pleasures, and show cheerful kindness to those around us whenever we can without being intrusive.
This course might sound clear and simple, but if we try we will probably find that it is not so easy. It takes less effort to let the mind follow its own unguided impulses, but we know that no good will come of this. If we follow the way of conscious action, according to the need where we are now, we are responding in the best way to the crisis and how it develops.
Still, we might hear a voice within us say: ‘This is reasonable enough, but is it the best we can do? Is it not just accepting that I am small and insignificant and cannot make a real difference? Is there no more I can do to help in this fear and conflict?’
When we consciously direct our mind to focus on its own roles in the world, we begin to rise over the workings of the mind. This is more significant than we may realise.
As we know, anger and fear are linked to the survival instinct to fight or run, which is deeply planted in human nature and can exceed its real purpose. If perceived threats are habitually met with anger and fear, they oppress the more measured response of reason and the will to cooperate. Then aggression presents itself as the most effective form of protection and leadership, and reacts to challenges with more fear, anger and oppression, until crisis and conflict erupt. Then comes the question: ‘What can I do now?’ And we are right to believe that what I do matters.
In the non-dual wisdom teachings, the word ‘I’ is used in two ways. ‘I’ can mean the body and mind that each of us experiences from the inside and over which we have some direct control. The word ‘I’ can also mean what is not an experience, but the one to whom objects and experiences appear. Another word for I in this sense is consciousness.
When we meditate and inquire carefully we find that consciousness does not have the limited qualities of everything that it reveals. We never find the ‘edge’ of consciousness. And the non-dual truth at the heart of all the wisdom traditions is that ultimately the same consciousness underlies the experience of all conscious beings, as one space underlies all the apparent containers and demarcations we create. That real totality of consciousness is called Atman, the highest Self of all.
Although they appear at first so different, there is a connection—more than a connection—between the I in the mind and the Self behind all minds. The individual I is the light of Atman reflected in our thoughts and feelings, as the one sun is reflected in countless ocean waves.
At the beginning of our development as human beings we are aware only of the mind and body and not the light that reveals them. We are totally identified with our individuality and feel bound to protect it against everything else. The end of the journey is enlightenment: the direct knowledge that our true I is Atman, and the other I, so to say, is a ripple on the surface of the ocean.#
When we consciously engage the mind in its own duties and commitments, we begin to rise above our instinctive identification with the mind and its reactions, and to take our stand on the unbound, universal Reality. Then, in our meditations, we let the feeling ‘I am the mind’ dissolve in the knowledge that the mind is a transient appearance in the deeper reality, that is, my true I, the Self of all beings. And during the day, living consciously we can look through and beyond the expressions of anger and fear which try to take the lead and dominate. We will be able to recognise and nurture the friendliness and will to cooperate that lives in every human heart. This is the way that leads from appearance to Reality and to freedom from the ultimate fear that underlies all other fears, the fear of death.
There is nothing more significant than this. And the essential first step is the practical one of ethical living, which is sometimes called living according to Dharma or the Tao. This means, gaining harmony and stability within the greater whole, simply by attending to our tasks and responsibilities, with love and care, here and now.