Many of us are caught in a bind of feeling privileged but not powerful
This new year receives a particular kind of attention, because it is also when we - by collective agreement - mark a new decade. This brings with it reflections not only of changes that have occurred in the last year, but of the ways things are drastically different than they were 10 years ago.
Most of us listening to this podcast would not even have heard of podcasting in 2010, although in some circles it had begun to catch on by the early 2000s.
Some of us may have been listening to Dharma teachings online or somewhere in person 10 years ago, but maybe not that many.
Or if you want to go more mainstream than podcasting and Dharma, consider how many people were still using flip phones, before these mini-computers we call phones became the norm in our culture.
So with these drastic changes, and these are just a fraction of examples, why is it that the New Year's Resolutions change so little year after year? Each year we see some version of the same old resolutions - to improve our bodies in some way or to attain new levels of wealth. In fact, the increasing reach of technology into our lives has brought with it the concept of "monetizing" everything we do. We're even told there are ways of making money by changing our bodies.
Meanwhile, there is this ever-increasing sense of anxiety and guilt - especially among those of us born in the US - about having the luxury of such resolutions, along with whatever privileges are afforded us by race or gender. Also, thanks to technology, we are more aware than ever that many people in the world, even in our own communities, are struggling for the basic requisites of life - not just food, shelter and clothing, but even the basic safety needed to procure those things. We are aware that war and our impact on the climate and extractive policies are making it necessary for people to wander the earth in search of new homes. We are aware that incarceration is too often a modern-day slavery rather than an opportunity for rehabilitation.
We may think that other people don't see this, that we are somehow especially tuned in, but I can tell you as someone who has been a professional helper for very privileged people in years past, the degree of mental anguish that is evident in privileged people suggests otherwise. So why, when there are such important issues to address, causing all of us so much suffering, are we stuck on the frivolous?
My current sense of it is that many of us are caught in a bind of feeling privileged but not powerful. Whether or not we recognize or criticize the systems that keep our brothers and sisters impoverished or in danger, we don't see how the same systems have us by the throat as well. These systems are powered by greed, hatred and delusion. With those systems in charge of the so-called civilized world, we can be made to feel guilty for our privilege while being fed the lie that we are powerless to change it.
One of the ways we become aware of OR access our real power is by decreasing our dependence on the fruits of privilege - substances, status, or other forms of sensuality. As long as those things appear necessary to our well-being, we will be callous about the well-being of others.
Before we can do much good, we will need to start with reducing harm. Instead of seeking the substitute for power, which is the privilege afforded to thinner bodies or fatter wallets, we can work to gain and enjoy what the Buddha referred to as "wholesome pleasures," simple pleasures available to all, that have no negative consequence for ourselves or anyone else in the world. The ability to choose our response to suffering, the ability to feel connected to ourselves and each other in this moment we share.
As we practice mindfulness and increase our ability to "abide ardent, mindful and independent of anything in the world," we become less addicted to comfort, less controlled by the illusion and shame of privilege. Instead of seeking the approval of the systems doling out privileges, we see those systems more clearly. We become more willing to take whatever action is appropriate for each of us in this new year.
Appropriate action can vary greatly depending on our gifts and talents, our circumstances, our degree of health or age. For some of us, wise action means being willing to knock on doors and encourage our neighbors to elect officials whose commitment is to serve the interest of all beings. For others of us, wise action means being willing to become that kind of governing servant.
Some of us need to take up farming to serve our neighbors as established food supply chains become less reliable. Some of us are just not cut out to be farmers, but we can support local farmers with our purchases wherever possible. And sure, some of us will want to improve our physical and financial health - so that we are not a burden to ourselves and other beings - but the most powerful action we can undertake on that score is to train the mind to seek the kind of happiness that lasts, and that does not rely of getting more money, approval, attention, status or physical comfort than we need.
Some of us need to work less, not more, and give ourselves space and downtime for valuable inspiration.
We can all take wise action in this new year, although some of it may not look like action to anyone else. Some of the most powerful action there is lies in the cultivation of mindfulness and wisdom, which frees us from two dead ends - the dead end of chasing unending comfort - which doesn't exist, and the dead end of flagellating ourselves, which doesn't help anybody. This cultivation may happen best for you through prayer or meditation, through journaling, through the practice of an art, through overcoming painful conditioning to offer some gift or talent you have. Through the cultivation of the path of spiritual practice, we can access new levels of joy in being content with less, reducing our negative impact on this world. We can discover the deep satisfaction that comes with living in a way that is blameless, that is as harmless as possible, and sometimes even helpful.
Deep South Dharma exists to support your cultivation through weekly practice opportunities and occasional retreat for deeper practice. There is no other motive for our being. We are grateful for your cultivation, because it helps you and all of the world.
May we all have a safe, happy, healthy, easeful new year - and may we cultivate a world in which all beings may enjoy the same safety, joy, health and ease.
We hope to meet you along the path. Join us as often as you can.