Jay Michaelson
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart, p.3

So, if for no other reason, the contemplative practice of seeing clearly -- not superimposing moral thinking atop a rotten foundation, but just seeing what is -- leads to more justice and more peace. Simply by seeing clearly who or what we are, we become more gentle, more compassionate. Automatically, as it were. We see more clearly our desires, and loosen their hold on us. We can accommodate various mindstates without having to enhance them or be rid of them. It's just not as important to achieve, or compete, or have a certain desirable experience, or grab onto love in a way that, ironically, squelches it.

But look at what else happens.

First, the sense of the sacred arises naturally from presence. How we articulate it -- as God, the power of art, Buddha-nature -- is up to us. But I can confirm (and will describe in a future Zeek essay) that simply by quieting down the body and mind, the doors of perception do open, and what the mystics of every world tradition say happens -- happens. This direct, mystical experience -- no faith required -- conditions more delight and more certainty than I can put into words. And again: not from putting on a special hat or chanting a magic phrase. But from just quieting down and observing what happens. We are radically good at heart -- some might say, we are God at heart.

Second, when there is stillness in the mind and body, one comes to see clearly the actual experiences that make up our concepts of self, body, etc., and comes to see that they are, basically, conventions and illusions. Hearing that there is no real self, no real distinction between what is reading these words and the words on the screen -- for some these are frustrating paradoxes, for others they are really exciting ideas. But map is not territory. Cultivate the stillness, and see clearly -- don't believe or be impressed by hearing that you are God. See for yourself.

All that, just by sitting and watching the breath, and occasionally walking around. This is really quite remarkable. If you think about it, it's really a miracle. Why should it be the case that, if we simply see clearly, all these great things come to pass? It could just as well be the case that we see clearly that we are meant to kill and destroy. Yet it never actually works that way. Actually, we are good at heart, as we see merely by turning down the noise and observing the heart clearly. Imagine that.

Now, religion or spirituality may filter the contemplative Light through the forms of its own stained glass -- in terms of narrative, or concepts, or myth. And some of the shapes of the stained glass may inspire clinging, fear, even violence. But when we're with the light itself... it doesn't happen.

I do want not to misrepresent contemplative practice, which in nearly every system in the world also contains some elements of cultivation. In the Theravada Buddhist world, for example, pure insight meditation is usually leavened with meditation practices which have as their aim precisely the cultivation of certain wholesome mindstates: lovingkindness, compassion, and so on. In the Jewish contemplative world, meditation is accompanied by prayer, or by study of sacred text -- both of which arouse thoughts and feelings of God. So it's never completely transparent.

But I can't convey to you how beautiful it was for me to see not merely that "all people are good at heart," but that I am in particular. Me! The clumsy, fumbling, needy me -- the ironic, cynical me -- underneath, or rather alongside, all those pieces and strategies is really a very simple loving person who is -- gasp -- good at heart.

This can be a very embarrassing thing to realize, let alone express. But it's embarrassing because we suppose that the real Anne Frank is the Hallmark Anne Frank -- i.e., that knowing people to be good at heart leads to mushy thinking, or Polly-Anna optimism. But that's not true at all. Knowing that I am good at heart does not cloud my judgment about when I'm too clever, inconsiderate, or "spiritual" -- it clarifies it. It does not bring about arrogance; it engenders humility.

And it crucially reframes how I see the political process, which, of course, has brought great suffering to people who believe as I do in recent months. Unlike those Manicheans who believe themselves to be at war with the intrinsic evil of humanity, I see myself as doing battle with error -- with mistake. Evil itself is a mistake -- it erroneously supposes that it exists, that real separateness exists, that there is more than one ultimate Being. Even as I continue to try to see, with hard-nosed clarity, the folly and cruelty of despotic regimes and fundamentalist dogmas, I understand in a deep sense that those who support them are searching for Light, and love -- albeit in a deeply confused way. Although interim solutions may include activism, counterculture, even conflict, the real solution is more openness, more honesty, clearer seeing.

Anne Frank was not naive. But imagine her knowing, even as she was victimized and brutalized beyond our capacity to conceive, that what was happening was not the evil essence of humanity, but a mistake. Imagine a surrender not to despair, but to the unfolding of Being itself. Imagine the slightest loving smile, held even amidst tears.

[1]       [2]       3
Images: John Greer, Patio Table, and Bridge

Jay Michaelson will be appearing at the I-Thou Circus, cosponsored by Zeek Magazine and Mimaamakim, on February 10.

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From previous issues:

Becoming Jewish-ish
Jeff Leavell

The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz

Josh Plays the Sitar
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