That Other Cheek

Occasionally one gains an insight. It can come through much turmoil, as an earth shaking event; it can also sprout via a small, yet significant observation. Some such visions leave a temporary impression, some forever change our perspective. In the following post I am going to share with you an insight. It is one of those rare understandings which happen quietly, internally, without much fanfare. On the surface it seems like nothing had changed; there are neither loud trumpets nor visions of light. Yet through a seemingly simple change in perception, nothing is ever the same.

For a long while now I have been debating a spiritual concept which I found wonderful in theory, yet difficult in practice. It is the idea of non-dualism, of non-separation, of seeing everything and everyone as one interconnected being. The notion behind this, for those not familiar, is that we are all merely individual parts of one greater existence; an entity with many diverse faces, each a different expression of that same core energy. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed it in a simple scientific statement: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” This I accepted intellectually, but my quest was for internalizing this connection, and furthermore, for finding ways I can apply it in my daily life.

A good starting point, I thought, would be religion. Many of the Eastern religions and traditions were founded on the idea of non-dualism. These include branches of Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta,) Taoism, Sikhism, as well as several schools within Buddhism. In Judo-Christianity this concept was primarily explored through mysticism while being ignored, or even denounced, by the more official institutions. In reading various scriptures and teachings, I focused primarily on what outstanding individuals of the ages had to say about our interactions with each other as humans, as well as our connection with the world we inhabit and the universe at large. As mentioned, my interest lied with practical applications. My axiom was that if we are indeed all connected, wouldn’t it mean that when one person hurts another, that person actually hurts oneself? If this is the case, even thinking poorly of another person is an insult to oneself. How come then we are still acting so undeservedly towards each other? If we are truly one entity, wouldn’t I feel pain if I hurt another? Or maybe I do feel agony, but I have learned to ignore it? If so, how do I come back to a place where I can feel the universal interconnection and be guided by it?

The rishis of ancient India, who followed this school of thought, interpreted the Bhagavad-gītā, a sacred Hindu scripture which includes direct divine instructions, with this same understanding:

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Bhagavad-gītā 2.12)

Chapter two, Verses 2.23 and 2.24 go on to add: “The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”

“This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same.”

Though subjected to both dualistic and non-dualistic interpretations, the non-dualistic explanation is that we all come from the same single source. When our physical body perishes, we all go back to that one entity, only to manifest again in a different form, a different body. One can compare this to drops of water in an ocean, individual yet part of a whole. But mind you, I was less interested in philosophical and theological discussions — of whether our souls remain distinct past our death, and more in the connection we all share while still alive. I turned to Christianity, and who better to consult with than Jesus.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses human relationships by giving specific examples, examples one can take as a form of non-separation:

38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

41. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

—Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV

This is more than a form of non-violence, of compassion; it is, in my mind, the end result of understanding the connection: that if I hurt another it is as if I hurt myself. Jesus got it. But I still didn’t find the practical path for experiencing this understanding, one that goes beyond the intellect.

Mahatma Ghandi also got it. Acknowledged by people all over the world as a great soul, Ghandi implemented this doctrine in practice. He nicely summed it up as “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Much like with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Ghandi’s statement is more than just a call for non-violence; it is seeing the connection, it is experiencing it.

My explorations brought me to learn about the ‘butterfly effect’. The idea behind this is that if, for example, a butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forests of Brazil, the effect of this seemingly insignificant action may result in the form of a tornado in Texas. Filmmaker Tom Shadyac concludes his 2011 documentary I Am with: “There is no such thing as a tiny act. The way you greet someone, the joy you experience in nature with family, friends and strangers, it all matter.” There is interconnectivity between all things, but how, remains a mystery. Lao Tzu, the ancient sage of Taoism said in the Tao Te Ching (#13): “Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.“

Reading all this, I was able to accept non-dualism intellectually but not really yet experience it internally. After all, how can I perceive a person who had done me wrong as part of who I am? Let alone look at a person who is a serial killer the same way as I do my own reflection in the mirror? Time and again I found myself judging others for being, well, to put it bluntly, different than who I am.

Desperate, I called on principles I use in my yoga practice for help. When I teach and practice yoga, I adhere to three simple rules:

1. Less is more

2. Small increments

3. Repetition

Using these as guides, combined with an elementary meditative principle of observation, I set out to attempt a new practice. Prior to explaining the practice I should mention that I decided, first and foremost, not to judge myself for still seeing separation. I realized it may be a long and winding road, and that I cannot speed up the process. Thus, over the past few years, I have been observing myself. I have become aware of how I, if only in my mind, on occasion, look down at others and criticize them. My practice involved not stopping myself from behaving the way I did, as that would have been a sure path to failure, but rather to become more aware of what is going on in my mind; aware without self-judgment. Over time, and this took a while, I noticed that little by little, the more I observed the less intense my criticism became. My progress was painfully slow – tiny increments with occasional regression, but I did not let go; I held to the practice. Small increments, repetition. And then, one completely ordinary day, it hit me: a realization that was both scary and wonderful all at the same time.

What I came to realize — and this was beyond the intellect, at a place beyond words, beyond thought, is that any person I meet, any living creature I encounter, can be me under some very unique circumstances. I am not referring to reincarnation, past and future lives; but rather to this moment, to this life: under very unique circumstances, I may become that person, that person I may despise (or, for that matter, admire) the most – I can be that person. As outrageous and inconceivable as it may sound I may, for example, under superbly unique conditions, turn out to be as evil and full of racial hatred as Adolf Hitler. And at the same token under very unique settings I can also be St Francis of Assisi. I can be a child molester, which is probably the type of person I loathe the most, yet can also become Mother Teresa. How can this be?

Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker, had a common theme throughout most of his films: his typical hero was an ordinary person, placed under extraordinary circumstances. We all like to believe that we have a great character, that under pressure, much like in the comic books, rather than crack, we will rise and become a hero. Yet our streets are filled with broken people, homeless, mentally challenged, men and women who seem to have given up on life. Under extraordinary circumstances we may act differently than what we expect and like to believe. Even if we were challenged in the past and proved to overcome a catastrophe, the next crisis may turn out differently than what we wish and hope.

Being put under very unique circumstances, I can be that person. This is not to excuse murderess and other evil doers. But adopting this perspective, I find, allows compassion to develop. The byproduct of this understanding is that we furnish people around us with space to bring out the good in them. It also means that the non-separation I intellectualized, but was unable to grasp in practicality, suddenly became obtainable. I now find myself asking one single question whenever someone’s appearance or behavior bothers me: under very unique circumstances can I be this person? Despite my initial resentment to this idea I’ve embraced it. So far I have always answered with a yes; yes, if extreme misfortune should have it, I may still one day be that smelly homeless beggar, yes, I could have been that drunk driver whose action resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, yes, I can be this corrupt politician I disdain so much. And if I can be all these people, I must be connected with them in an unbreakable, even if invisible, link. I am all these people, and thus rejecting them is rejecting a part that is myself. Self-rejection always results in disharmony, and disharmony brings about misery. I choose non-misery.

I have asked earlier “If we are truly one entity, wouldn’t I feel pain if I hurt another?” I can now clearly see the price we pay when we act poorly towards others. It is indeed a price we ignore as we became oblivious to it. When pain becomes chronic we tend to learn to live with it. But it is still there, in the form of unhappiness, of aimlessness, of depression. We find distractions in the form of technological gadgets, entertainment, sports. But when we judge others and behave badly towards the many living expressions with which we are unconsciously connected, we suffer from disharmony. We absorb the resulting misery in small quantities, and, ultimately, sooner or later, pay a price.

All this is still quite new to me. I’m neither a sage nor a saint, nor is this my spiritual aspiration, a message to be spread to others. It is not some intellectual or mental exercise for the purpose of self-amusement, nor is it a path for a new or timeworn religion. It is a practical path I found critical for my own well-being  It is an understanding of Genesis 1.27: God created man in his own image; not a duplication but an expression of that same elementary grain. Despite the difficulties this practice entails, despite the challenges and regressions, I am on a track that feels right, harmonized. “Being put under very unique circumstances, I can be that person,” became a line I tell myself whenever I am confronted by people who make me feel anything but compassion. It has, and still is, reshaping my life.