Monday, July 14, 2014

A Pond's Reflection

Walden Pond
[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

There are moments in American history where everything turned on a dime – the first shot at Concord, the Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks’s decision to keep her seat on the bus. In the history of American spirituality it’s no different. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to conduct his famous, two year experiment in sustenance living he brought with him one book, the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. What happened at Walden Pond would ripple around the world and change everything.
Just eight years before, Thoreau had been a student at Harvard. It was there he stumbled upon the Bhagavad Gita. His was the first generation of Americans to have access to this 2,000 year old masterpiece, newly available in English. Like a handful of others – his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the preeminent American poet Walt Whitman – he was immediately struck by its depth and relevance. Here was a vision of divinity at once strange and familiar, a bracing call to courageous action in the midst of a messy world, and a ringing affirmation of the sacred nature of reality itself. Under the spell of the Gita, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman would go on to create their own masterpieces reflecting a dawning realization – there is only one presence and power in the universe, and that it permeates all of reality, including us. This exalted humanism, this boundless mysticism, would become the hallmark of a uniquely American spirituality culminating in the New Thought movement, and everything that was to follow.
Today, when people say they are spiritual, not religious, they are reflecting an ancient truth – that wisdom is not found in institutions but in direct experience. Whether through scriptural study, meditation, devotion, social justice activism, or unmediated immersion in nature, every individual stands at the door of an immense transcendence and has only to walk through on their own two feet.
In 1846, during his second summer at Walden Pond, the tax collector came to see Thoreau. He was behind on his taxes. Thoreau refused to pay on the grounds that he thought it immoral to support the immoral actions of his government – an illegal, imperialistic war against Mexico and the ghastly institution of slavery. In Thoreau’s time one out of six Americans was a slave.
He was arrested and put in jail, albeit only for one night. He went on to write an essay about his experience known today as “Civil Disobedience.”  As a young anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay during one of his many incarcerations. He later wrote that it “galvanized” him and formed the blueprint of his own campaigns. At the age of 15, Martin Luther King first read Thoreau’s essay at Morehouse College. He too was changed by it. Later in his career, King became an ardent devotee of Gandhi and the principles of non-violent non-cooperation first articulated in “Civil Disobedience.” It is a remarkable turn of events that an ancient Indian book, the Bhagavad Gita, would come to America to inspire Thoreau who then went on to influence Gandhi, an Indian working in South Africa, who went on to influence King, an African American working for justice in the Jim Crow south. We are indeed all one, and our story is one story.
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau articulates the four key principles of ethical political activism. First, use only moral and non-violent means, like boycotting and other forms of non-cooperation. Second, always work within the system before, during, and after your civil disobedience. Be politically engaged – vote, go to meetings, back candidates, or even run for office. Third, be open and public about your actions. No ski masks, no digital anonymity, nor clandestine vandalism. And four, be willing to accept the consequences of your actions, up to and including prison, fines, deportation, and unemployment. The whole purpose of non-violent civil disobedience is knowingly violating immoral laws with the sole purpose of overturning them. When we sacrifice ourselves, we raise the consciousness of others, even our so-called opponents.
         Thoreau, Gandhi, and King show us that spirituality and political action go hand in hand. If we are truly interested in awakening, we are interested in everyone's awakening. We cannot turn spirituality into a means of avoiding the messiness of the world. We have to take a position and take action, no matter how imperfect. Justice is the end and we are the means. We will never have perfect understanding. There will always be questions. But we must act anyway, not out of hatred nor rooted in simplistic, melodramatic judgments of good and evil, but in the knowledge that the Good is trying to be born, and we are all midwives. Each drop of water reflects the whole of the cosmos. So too, we are the eyes, ears, hands, mind, and heart of God. If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?

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