by Philip Goldberg: In the aftermath of last month’s seismic election, I’ve absorbed a barrage of emails, Facebook posts, phone calls, and in-person conversations…
From conservative friends, I’ve heard both gloating and assurances that a Trump presidency won’t be the nightmare I fear. From progressives, I’ve heard shock, disbelief, alarm, despair, rage, and resolute pledges of resistance. From my spiritually-oriented friends, I’ve received wise words about maintaining inner peace, caring for body and soul in the midst of turmoil, and striving toward unity and empathy for all.
But I’ve also seen sacred teachings invoked in ways that seem to encourage withdrawal and complacency. The specifics of current politics aside, I’d like to address what I consider spiritual misconceptions because they can have disturbing consequences.
One type of commentary amounts to this: Don’t take things like elections seriously. It’s all a cosmic dream, a shadow play with no inherent substance, a minor tremor on the vast landscape of eternity— “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about,” to quote John Lennon. These are essentially variations of the Hindu concept of maya, a word that has been misused a great deal lately.
Maya is typically translated as “illusion.” The usual take on that is: the world of everyday experience—i.e., the manifest realm of form, change, materiality, and relativity—is illusory. It’s not real. The only true reality is the infinite Oneness that underlies, permeates and transcends apparent reality. So, the thinking goes, don’t get caught up in nonreality; take the God’s-eye view and treat the ups and downs of worldly existence as no more consequential than the scenes you witness in a movie.
To be blunt, this is an unfortunate interpretation that amounts to escapism. Not that the metaphysics is incorrect. On the contrary, the distinction between ordinary reality and the supreme Reality is a fundamental spiritual axiom, and the added insight that the true Self is One with the Ultimate is the great gift of the Upanishads.
But dismissing the material realm as of no concern, or even an obstacle to spiritual growth, is to misunderstand maya. It doesn’t mean that the world we experience doesn’t actually exist, like a mirage in a desert. Illusion in this sense means there’s more to apparent reality than meets the eye, just as what we see as solid objects are actually made up of atoms, which consist of strange entities that are both particles and waves. Everyday reality, therefore, is not the ultimate reality, but we nevertheless experience its pleasures and pains as undeniably real. While our dramas are insignificant blips on the cosmic radar, we’re still acting in them, and if we don’t play our roles responsibly, actual human beings suffer. Therefore, while our responsibility to ourselves may be to do the inner work of spiritual unfoldment, our responsibility as citizens of the planet is to act responsibly with love and compassion.
In a related manner, many well-meaning people have counseled those troubled by the election to practice non-attachment. This staple of the Eastern traditions has its counterpart in the biblical injunction to be “in the world but not of it.” We are advised to ditch our “attachments” to the material realm and its temporal delights, and turn instead to the everlasting treasure of Divine union. You can’t beat that advice; it’s a cornerstone of any spiritual path. But non-attachment is too often confused with indifference.
In the highest sense, non-attachment describes a state of being in which one is so securely anchored to the Infinite that one witnesses the hubbub of material existence from the serene remove of a spectator. This is not merely a mood; it’s a living condition when realized. But it’s decidedly not indifference. In the Bhagavad Gita’s classic passages on non-attachment, Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to not be attached to the fruits of his actions, but he also exhorts him to fight with the righteous against evil forces. Similarly, Jesus told his followers not to store up earthly treasures that are vulnerable to rust and moths and thieves, but to seek instead the permanent treasures of “heaven.” Yet he was hardly indifferent to the suffering of humanity or complacent about Pharisees and moneylenders in the temple.
In short, being unattached does not equate to apathy or disengagement. The task is to cultivate non-attachment to outcomes internally while outwardly acting with skill, compassion and wisdom. Similarly, one can be fully present in the Now of every moment, and at the same time take action to make things better in the next moment, or some future moment.
Another spiritual reaction to election trauma has been one variation or another of “It’s God’s will,” such as “It’s part of the Divine plan,” or “It’s meant to be,” or “The Universe is unfolding as it should.” Well, maybe so, from the cosmic perspective. But that does not mean the proper response is non-action. Maybe our reaction to events that arise is also part of the Divine plan, and perhaps what’s “meant to be” is for us to act competently and forcefully to heal the broken world and prevent future suffering.
These are examples of how profound spiritual teachings can be used to justify withdrawal from, or indifference to, troublesome worldly affairs. But the same precepts can just as easily support engagement and social activism, as the examples of folks like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama would suggest.
In any event, regardless of how one feels about Donald Trump himself, his ascendancy has clearly unleashed dormant forces of hatred, bigotry and injustice. It is also clear that Americans have never been more bitterly divided. In such an environment, it would seem incumbent upon us to not use profound spiritual concepts to justify complacency. Sure, we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience, but we also have roles to play on the earthly stage. The times call for spiritual awareness coupled with responsible, skillful action.