Friday, January 18, 2013

the arsenals of spiritual life

Sometimes I think spiritual life is treated as a form of combat ... and is victim to a similar failing: The willingness to enter the battle well-armed, but ill-prepared.

Last night, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, (Gen.) Stanley McChrystal, and former Air Force intelligence colonel Cedric Leighton appeared on the local public television station -- McChrystal on the BBC and Leighton on the PBS News Hour. McChrystal, a man known for speaking the mind that other military commanders would not, was fired (errrr, 'retired') in 2010. Leighton, with experience in the Middle East, was speaking about the pitfalls of the latest military actions in Mali.

And both men, in different ways, pointed out strategies that have led the U.S. among others to needlessly spill the blood of its own forces -- namely, the unwillingness to train troops in the language and culture of the countries in which they were fighting.

Between the lines, each man seemed to be saying that it was not enough to go well-armed into battle. Anyone can beat the crap out of anyone else, but without the capacity to speak with and understand the culture of the latest 'enemy,' the likelihood rises that your very own flesh and blood will be needlessly sacrificed. Bonds of understanding are tossed aside in favor of brute force: Peace through war -- how could such a thing ever assure peace?

This argument may sound arcane or airy-fairy to the kill-'em-all state of mind that seems to persuade statesmen, but to the warriors in the field, it's hardly theoretical. Without the capacity to speak with people and know their habits, everyone devolves into a comic-book mentality ... me good, you bad and kill 'em all. The problem, of course, is that if you set out to kill them, they will likewise set out to kill you. Everyone claims to want peace but in the meantime everyone's children are (often horrifically) sacrificed.

Spiritual formats offer vast arsenals with which to subdue the enemies. With the parameters defined -- heaven, hell, enlightenment, delusion, good, evil -- the warriors take up the arms outlined in their formats and have at it, seeking to emerge victorious from a fierce and unforgiving realm. The Bible, the Koran, the sutras and other similar weapons are brought to bear. For those who are spiritually-inclined, there is nothing theoretical about it ... the enemy must be subdued and I will do my damnedest to subdue him/her/it.

But as often as not, the combatant is well-armed and ill-prepared. The language and culture of the enemy is overlooked in an unexamined, everyone-says-so burst of zeal. Good is good -- the format says so. Evil is evil -- the format says so. Heaven is heaven -- the format says so. Hell is hell -- the format says so. Enlightenment and delusion are two very different and inimical things. C-H-A-R-G-E! And of course the mentality is augmented in a myriad of soft-spoken and subtle and 'peace-loving' ways.

To learn the culture and language of goodness can be very inspiring. To indulge in lengthy conceits like this one can be smugly satisfying. But for serious students, well-armed is really not enough. Goodness that relies on the views of others is bound to create defeat ... sometimes very painful and bloody.

So what is the culture and language of this battlefield? Without a close examination, how could goodness or heaven or enlightenment or peace stand any chance of victory? Spiritual formats may offer bragging rights and smugness, but where is the peace and reward they love to extol? Swaggering promoters are a dime a dozen (look at TV, read the books), but it is the swaggering promoter within who forms the greatest challenge. Armaments are easy, understanding is not.

What is the language and culture of this enemy -- this "sin" or "attachment" or "devil" or "ego?" If there is no more than the courage to speak ill of the enemy, how could an honest victory be won? Isn't there the longing to end the bloodshed ... really end it? And if so, isn't it imperative to enter this inimical land -- to learn its language and customs? Not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Swaggering promoters will say there is a danger of being swept away by what was originally designated for defeat and the danger does exist. But without the courage and determination to know your enemy from muzzle to butt plate, how many of anyone's healthy and vibrant children will be sacrificed on the bloody altar?

Well-armed and ill-prepared.

It may be possible to beat someone into submission, but beating yourself into submission is a poor man's gambit -- a losing formula posing as victory. It is as sad as it is ridiculous.

Where there is war, it is good to be well-armed.

But it is better to be well-prepared.

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