Friday, December 14, 2012

Violence in the name of reality

As news pours in of an especially horrific shooting massacre today, the instant reactions fill up social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.  So many stories are being told about what happened and what it means.  God is angry.  The media perpetuates this stuff.  It's too easy to get guns.  Gun rights advocates are to blame.  Or television.  Modern life is making people crazy and violent.  Stories uttered with great certainty even before we knew who did this or why. 

Everyone wants me to know how I am supposed to understand Newtown (a name that will soon be uttered with a shudder, much as Columbine still is).

Earlier this week over at Notes in Samsara, Mumon took up the issue of narratives, the story-lines defining how people interact with the world and other people -- usually unexamined, usually assumed to be the very fabric of the universe and unquestionable.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion mentioned that he was the recipient of highly inappropriate sexual advances on the part of some clergy member.  But Dawkins makes a very interesting point, one that I heartily endorse.   That point is that the abuse of children by attempting - and succeeding often - at convincing  them they are fundamentally damaged goods who will suffer the fires of hell for eternity can be far more damaging and widespread than the incidents of sexual abuse by Christian clergy. 
He's right. 
He's so right.
I was never sexually abused by clergy, but I sure as hell was the recipient of various forms of abuse predicated upon the above narrative. 
We should be careful about the narratives we are prescribing for the harm we see around us.

In the struggle to make sense of a disturbing event -- the sudden death of a schoolteacher, the rape of a friend, or an event like what took place in Connecticut today -- a narrative is often asserted as the right way to process and integrate what happened.  In response to Mumon's post, NellaLou presented a strong example:

A lot of women who are abused/assaulted/"taken advantage of" are fed a narrative that disempowers them. I read a good piece on that in the New Inquiry by a sex worker. She wrote:

"If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives."
...people have to stay in control of their own experience and not adopt narratives others want to shove down their throats. And it's mostly self-proclaimed do-gooders that want to do the shoving. 

Sadly, most of us do not even understand that that is what we are doing.  Adults impose their narratives on us this way when we are children, sometimes to traumatic extremes, but mostly it feels quite ordinary.  To this day, many educators still default to the view that knowledge is a thing they have to implant in the minds of their students -- what Paolo Freire called "banking education," and criticized for its tendency to reinforce social oppression.  In traditional pedagogy, knowledge is a thing that must be obtained from a more powerful party, instead of a dynamic process the student is doing

Imposing reality begins the moment adults begin teaching us about life, instead of teaching us to perceive clearly and practice knowledge-building.  So it continues with the healing arts -- be it pastoral counseling, psychotherapy, the 12-Step program (which insists you accept a reality in which you are powerless and unable to manage your problem), and even medicine.

Keith Johnstone, in his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, tells a vivid story from his days as a teacher:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed 'mad' when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me... I was gentle, and I didn't try to impose my reality on her.  One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people - it was as if she was a body-language expert.  She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that  I later found out to be true, although this was at the beginning of a summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I'm remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher.  I had to leave for a few minutes, so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her.  We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: 'Look at the pretty flower, Betty.'

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, 'All the flowers are beautiful.'

'Ah,' said the teacher, blocking her, 'but this flower is especially beautiful.'

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her.  Nobody seemed to notice that she was screaming 'Can't you see?  Can't you see!'

...Actually it is crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent.
At a very early age, 'sane' people learn that this is simply what adults do -- so simply, we aren't even conscious of it.  To resist this is to be crazy. 

We don't have to go along with this.  And sometimes we shouldn't.

Zen Master Seung Sahn often told students, "Don't make anything." Practical fictions are basic facts of social life, starting with the most basic fiction of all: "I."  Yet most people are unaware how they have been taught to fabricate and re-fabricate this mutually occupied "reality," and to give other people the authority to define reality for us -- whether the authority figure is a parent, a school teacher, a politician, or a zen master. 

I could not manage a better conclusion than these words from a recent article by Giko David Rubin, reflecting on recent scandals in the American zen community:

Zen teachers often say a student should not be “attached to his own thinking.” This is good teaching. To experience merging into the great natural activity...we need to replace our own thinking with the sound of the wind, the floating cloud, the flower opening, the sun blaring, the moon slowly rising, our own heart beats, our breathing...

However, we do not need to replace our thinking with someone else’s thinking. We do not need to replace our past identity with a new identity as an obedient, good student to a Master.

And, also, even as we know our thinking is incomplete, we must keep listening to our own voices.

To illustrate this rumination above, I chose a photo of myself playing with my older son, Gabriel, and a box full of masks.  He's learning about the masks we inevitably don and hopefully doff freely.  May this boy know and trust his true eye  throughout his life, loving himself so that he may love others.


NellaLou said...

When we're grown ups (?) we have to make our own meaning. The "received wisdom" will often fall short when we are faced with our own mortality.

Mumon K said...

The narratives we have are never complete - and never are what reality is. Our cognitive dissonance experience leads us to try to form some kind of explanation, but the explanation won't be the totality of the event.

Still, there are more effective ways to act in these circumstances than other ways.