There’s so much I don’t know about my own process of evolution—from my arrival as a cold, wet fetus to whatever I am today. It’s not as if I believe there has been a deliberate, or divinely-directed, process that I could discover if I had more insight or information. It just feels as if something has been going on, along ‘the way” that has led to me being here now.
Perhaps the lack of information and the dim illumination that appears when I try to inquire further into this process is due to the fact that an intermittent quality of attention keeps getting swallowed up in a parade of moments that have no thread of awareness connecting them. Most of my past feels like the nighttime clanging at railway crossings during a transcontinental train trip, where Saskatchewan amounts to a blur of fields passing by, framed in a window, which then gets dotted by five minutes standing on the platform in Saskatoon, until the conductor calls “All Aboard”.
Perhaps that’s why I am drawn to moments that stand out from this background stream, because at such moments–when something unexpected happens–a new momentum opens up and, for a while, the parade of isolated moments begin to notice one another.
A friend of mine commented on my “List” (of allegedly transformative moments) and shared that the one which got her thinking about her own life was when, during lunch break in my Grade 3 class, I drank from a second tub of milk instead of offering it to a girl who had arrived late and had none.
My friend’s comment stayed in the back of my mind but I haven’t known what to do with it. The incident in question stands out from the homogeneity of all those years of school—about which I have little to say other than that I didn’t take to the educational agenda being offered during those years. The very discontinuity of that moment makes it hard to tell my usual kind of story about it.
My friend went on to ask if anyone had noticed my action; specifically, did the teacher glance disapprovingly at me. Is it possible that my ‘life-changing pang of conscience’ was actually a moment in which I was simply reacting to a teacher’s disapproval?
Before trying to decide whether this remembered moment was one in which I felt shame in response to another’s disapproval or experienced a stab of conscience, I’d like to connect it with another moment when my tendency to questionable behavior was pulled up short. (Thinking about these moments now, I realize that, growing up, I had plenty of furtive secrets, so that a readiness to feel guilty was never that far from the surface.)
This other incident was when my mother discovered a chest in my bedroom closet full of things I’d shop-lifted from a small general store in Pointe Claire village and, that same day, she make me take it all back and apologize to the man at the checkout counter.
Good for Mom. That completely rid me of the practice of lifting things off the shelves and then slipping out without paying for them. Looking back, it occurs to me that I must have experienced a sense of a community, represented by my mother and the man behind the counter (whose shared values I had contravened), and that I recognized it was important for me to rejoin that community.
The issue of whether it was my unaided conscience or the disapproval of others (whose good opinion it was important for me to keep) no longer seems a purely personal matter. Now that a rampant indifference to human life has become the norm, the question of what is happening to people’s moral compass has become a global concern.
“Transcending syntheses cannot be effected without some help from the wider perspectives of higher spaces.” Time, Space, and Knowledge, page 17
Years ago, when I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, one of the distinctions I encountered which has stayed with me was between two factors that can each potentially prevent us from slipping out of the human realm: “conscience” and “decorum”. I had already read Gurdjieff when I came across this Buddhist teaching, and so “conscience” immediately connected with the central importance that Gurdjieff gave to a “pang of conscience”, (as the single seed of sanity that remains in the insanity into which he viewed the human species as having fallen). Put simply: to have a conscience that speaks up when we are about to do harm to others–out of anger, indifference and greed–is vital for the well-being of both ourselves and the health of the world.
However, “decorum” (caring what others think about me) doesn’t leap to a top spot in any list of spiritual virtues that I aspire to exemplify. In fact, caring about what others think of me can seem like a recipe for inhibiting my own personal creativity.
In any case, I can’t help feeling that conscience is more important than decorum and so I feel motivated to view my moment in Grade 3 as an instant when a seed was planted, which in time flowered into a grown up desire to be more of a giver than a taker—and to contribute something, instead of standing at the river’s edge wondering what it would be like to swim.
But perhaps at that moment, my eight-year self needed several forces to come to his rescue: both a reminder of the kind of world to which he could belong, and an inner voice–more primordial than socially conditioned—which was watching out for him as he stumbled along through life.
As this world fractures into fortified encampments, in which people don’t care for much outside their own immediate connections and interests, both conscience and decorum can protect us from being swept out into the currents of despair and isolation. For some it may be too late to retrieve a heart-centered openness to that small, quiet voice within, now paved over with dogma or outrage. For someone who blows themselves up in a crowd of strangers (who they don’t see as human beings)–shouting “Allah” or “America is Great”–and who believe they are protecting some higher purity or set of values–what ‘pang of conscience’ could possibly intervene? What ‘model of behavior’ could possibly provide another way, than the one in which they perceive themselves as already behaving heroically?
It seems that a third resource is needed when neither conscience nor decorum can be recovered. We need to also recognize that we are falling short of our own ideals.
I remember seeing a film, “A Shop on Main Street”, which caused me to realize that I was not entitled to assume that I would act bravely if I lived at a time and in circumstances, when to do so risked great personal harm. I don’t remember a lot about this film, which I saw about half a century ago, but I do remember that it caused me to ask myself a question: what would I have done?
The Nazi storm troopers had rolled into town and their agenda was not just to occupy another county (Czechoslovakia). They were there to kill all the Jews, along with any residents who were trying to hide them.
This film made several things painfully clear. In recent history these things have happened (human beings have been treated as an infestation that needed to be purged). Communities were required to abandon their own moral values or be killed themselves. And I realized that I have no right to assume that I would have risked everything when faced with the brutal presence of an inhuman policy, which confronted the bravest with an ultimatum (made real as neighbors were pulled out of their houses to be clubbed and murdered). To fail to hand over a Jewish family hidden in your house meant that you and your own family would be lined up at the edge of a trench on the outskirts of town and executed–if your courageous clinging to the dictates of conscience was discovered.
I’ve never voted in an election and it doesn’t look like I ever will. Into my 30’s, when I lived in Canada, I was disinterested in public life (living a personal life that was doled out with coffee spoons and enough alcohol to dull my awareness of the reality of life, including my own). And, since then, living in the US, I haven’t had the right to vote because I am not an American citizen.
I remain a spectator to what is happening in America. I can’t even say “This is not the America I know”, because, coming from Canada, American foreign policy has always seemed materialistic and indifferent to the decisions made by people living in other parts of the world. I’ve no shortage of contempt for leaders who wield their power more like a cudgel than a scalpel (and who appear to be unaware of anything outside their own narrow self-interest and dogmatic agendas). But I’ve never had to pay for my beliefs and I can’t vouch for any reservoir of courage and decency that might or might not arise if I was called upon to sacrifice my own comfort and safety for what I claim to believe.
So what do I mean when I identify the need for a third factor to support conscience and decorum? I don’t think I would have looked for such a third element if I was not living through a time when for some participants on the world stage (if only for the time it takes them to push a button and kill hundreds of bystanders just trying to buy a loaf of bread or get to work), neither conscience nor concern for what their mother or sister might think of their actions appears to influence their behavior.
Since neither personal courage–nor a lived out understanding of what is needed to preserve the essence of humanity–is well developed in me, I try to construct a way of living that at least feels ethical. So I need all the help I can get to supplement any spontaneous pang of conscience (or sensitivity to what others think of me), that may or may not come to my rescue as I drift along in currents of indifference, anger, and desire.
I find myself, hat in hand, hanging about at the crossroads of the yin and the yang, looking for a manifestation of the Tao to give those strong and yielding forces a chance to communicate with one another.
Specifically, the supports for conscience (the active yang energy, arising like a sprouting seed from within) and decorum (the passive yin energy, reflecting the morality of society) seem to have fallen on stony ground. Conscience needs a quiet ground for someone to even know what they have personally chosen, let alone whether their choices (their selections from a menu) are morally right. And decorum more and more feels like going along with the herd in order to fit in and, if we’re lucky, to be liked.
Just as the yin and the yang (eternally transforming into one another as night and day, earth and sky, winter and summer) need “The Way” of Nature to provide a fundamental stability and integrity within which they can flourish; so do the twin forces of self-respect and concern for others need to have a world in which the potential for a shared humanity can manifest.
I may be catching the scent of a third factor that was present in those two incidents in my youth (Grade 3 with the milk carton and my shop lifting). With the milk carton, I think I experienced a twinge of conscience along with a sense that I had offended a standard of kindness which I discovered in that moment that I valued. And when I was returning the shop-lifted items, I think—as well as feeling cowed because I had been caught—I also felt the presence of a world of values that meant something to me, and whose stabilizing structure I didn’t want to lose.
I feel fortunate to have access to a community whose leaders, guides, and fellow travelers encourage respect for others. But I suspect that someone who is recruited to kill strangers—toward whom they have learned to feel rage and hatred–probably also has a sense that they are participating in a community whose leaders are impressive beings for them. For both me and the suicide bomber a question remains: how can anyone outside our own personal worlds, whose values may seem alien to anyone who doesn’t already share them, communicate with us (or even want to)? How can anyone outside affect the dynamic operating inside another’s mind?
But what’s it matter if there are two, three, or a dozen factors operating in the broken social compact so manifest in American and throughout the world?
We need to become more aware of the overall realm in which our lives are unfolding. Gaia (Mother Earth) is more fundamental than the water, fire and air that make life possible. The Tao is more fundamental than the yin and the yang, as they manifest in the strong and the gentle, the penetrating and the receptive, and as the seed and the fertile earth. Just as the world in which we all live is more fundamental than our individual lives, so the conscience and compassion vital for an examined life, needs a community in which those human qualities are already valued.
I believe that for the health of the world, it is important to recognize that American foreign policy has contributed to a moral climate in which concern for the integrity of other communities has been the first victim.
Most of us who think about such things have little ability to elect government officials with more heart, more conscience, and more concern for the people they claim to represent. But it feels time to acknowledge that our own good conscience and ethical behavior is not enough.
We need to sing the song of Mother Earth so that the small minds feeding off Her bounty (shop-lifters who have never grown up) will feel a pang of shame and then pause in their ransacking of communal resources—provided by Nature for the use of all living beings—to notice that they have not only neglected to stop by the cash register, but that their behavior is affecting the ground under their feet, the sky over their heads, and is inflicting pain, which—in this lifetime or another—they will also have to experience.