Early in his classic Being Peace, Thich Naht Hanh says the following:
Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.
“Being in touch” here means far more than knowing both things. To see the distinction, consider the difference between knowing abstractly that there is a bleeding and injured child somewhere in the world that you could help, and seeing a bleeding and injured child right outside your door. For most people, the former doesn’t rise to the level of conscious thought, much less impact their daily plans and emotions, whereas the latter produces immediate empathy and action.
Now, to be sure, Hanh is not enjoining us to literally (impossibly) feel such immediate perceptual connection to 40,000 individuals. But there is a similar distinction regarding generalizations. Peas are smaller than bicycles. Cats are faster than continents. True, things we know, but irrelevant to whatever aspects of a worldview guide our actions and emotions.
By contrast, one of my activist mentors said that she wakes up every morning and reflects on the fact that millions of children will suffer under grinding poverty today, that others will be tortured or abused, and that all will be under threat of nuclear annihilation; and at the conclusion of this meditation, she prepares her work to chip away at the wall of institutional violence. While she obviously doesn’t take up the suffering of each tortured soul individually, the fact of widespread suffering stands out in her view of the world. It matters to her. It motivates her. It determines her emotional orientation: a deeply caring and fiercely committed love for the dispossessed.
But there is a danger as well in such “highlighted awareness” of the horrors of the world. There is an easy route from awareness of systemic suffering to cynicism, if not depression and hopelessness. What is the point of saving this one when millions of others will die? Why do anything in the face of the crushing magnitude of the evil?
It is here that Hanh urges us to be equally and simultaneously aware of and engaged by the beauty of the world. He speaks of the flower, later of a child’s smile, but also frequently, of all the millions who struggle, who build, who achieve in the world. To be fully alive, Hanh urges, is to treat the beauty, the goodness, and the potential love of our comrades as equally salient to the ugliness, the horror, and the systems we must revolt against.
But there is another absolutely crucial reason why the activist – and isn’t activism the decent consequence of a lived sense of the horrors of the world? – must attend to beauty. Because otherwise, she will have no idea what we fight for. One intelligible reaction to the horrors of the world is simply to say “fuck it! Let the nukes fly and release us.” It is not on behalf of our opposition to torture, starvation, and oppression that we reject nihilism. It is only because, as horrible as the world is, there is untold wonder in it as well – wonder that demands nurture, if we see it aright.
I spent most of the last two weeks watching the Olympics in just this state of dual-awareness. Whatever its origins, the Olympics is now an obscenely nationalistic spectacle that leads to demonizing a young woman because she violated flag protocol, but that also feeds into deeper evils of xenophobia, exclusion, and war. The Olympics are a source of massive economic displacement and waste of crucial resources. And the Olympics always serve to further embolden authoritarianism, ramped up in every country where this spectacle takes place. To ignore these features of the Olympics is to be complicit in crimes.
And at the same time, if we take no joy in the very existence of women wrestlers in world competition, recognize no majesty in the skill, power, and unity of the US Women’s 8, see no courage in a German gymnast landing a dismount on a ruined knee, feel no thrill at Mo Farah falling to the track and yet winning the 5000m, glory not in the accomplishment of black women overcoming centuries of exclusion to win in the pool and on the mat, are not inspired by the refugee team, well, then we are broken in a way that closes us off to precisely what we are fighting for when we resist injustice.
Life, as I said, cannot be simply about ending suffering. We must end suffering and oppression, to be sure, but precisely so that people can choose projects that will define them, commit themselves to a life of discipline in the pursuit of those projects, and recognize and celebrate such accomplishments in others.
The Olympics should not exist in the form they do. It is a crime against the poor that tours from country to country every four years. And yet it is also true that there is a – I do not, of course, say ‘the’ – pinnacle of human achievement on display every time they are held.
The world is overwhelmingly, massively, deeply, and systematically wrong. The world is overwhelmingly, massively, deeply, and systematically good, beautiful, and loving.
These two thoughts are in obvious tension, but they are not contradictory. And not merely in the formal sense that both can be true, but in the richer sense that it is possible to be in full possession of the salience of both, to be aware “in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds,” and in our actions by both the horror and the beauty at all times.
This is the challenge Hanh offers us: to live aware.