“Smile like you mean it and it will be returned.”
– Nahko & Medicine for the People, Father Mountain
I live in a society that is suffering from a sickness – a society where we are fearful and distrusting of our fellow human beings; a society where any sense of community has vanished and where we don’t have a clue who our neighbours are; a capitalist society where we are conditioned to be individualistic and competitive in order to be the best, as opposed to selfless and giving; a society where we have been brought up to think that it’s okay to bomb and massacre other people because we’re somehow more right and just; a society where our obsession for smart phones and social media feeds our egos and fuels narcissism; a society in which many of us are suffering from epic rates of mental health problems.
“The rate of depression in industrialised countries has been steadily rising for more than fifty years. It has now reached such epidemic proportions that one in two of us is likely to suffer a significant depressive episode at some point in our lives.”
– Joanna Macy, Active Hope
I am from a society where we are disconnected from nature – and therefore disconnected from our true selves. How can we possibly be connected with the nature that we’re inherently a part of (and which is essential for our survival) when we’re living in a concrete world of car fumes, consumerism and competition? And because of our disconnection, our ignorance, our inaction and our apathy, this nature is being destroyed faster than many of us can possibly imagine.
Gavin Harrison sums up our society as being one which
“rewards us when we conform and punishes us if we rock the boat in any way. In relationships, we feel caught up in a gridlock of expectations…We are subject to the enormous manipulative power of the media, television and advertising. Battered by such powerful conditioning forces, the sense of being lost becomes very real. The forces of internal conditioning may also disconnect us from our deeper selves. Storms of fear, anger, envy and grief may blow us about like helpless leaves.”
We’re programmed to protect ourselves at all costs. Many of us live in a whirlwind of drama, whilst others suppress their emotions. I’m still a very long way from humbling that ego that I wrote about over two years ago. I create drama, I sometimes gossip, and I often judge others. But as Siddhartha Gautama said,
“To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing
– straighten yourself.”
And so generosity and compassion are essential in a society that is suffering from such an epic sickness. We need to be willing to give attention to our own pain and to the pain that others are going through and to act with kindness and compassion.
Despite how much we perceive ourselves as separate egoic entities, protecting ourselves and our few selected loved ones, we’re all actually deeply connected to each other. At the simplest level, I can see this connection on a daily basis by looking at how my mood affects other people. If I’m angry and I lash out at someone, it’s likely to piss them off! And then they may lash out at others, and so on, and that anger extends.
“The whole world we travel with our thoughts,
Finding nowhere as precious as one’s own self.
Since each and every person is so precious to themselves
Let the self-respecting harm no other being.”
– Siddhartha Gautama
We all want to be loved, to be accepted by others, to be free from suffering, to feel safe. So because of this, we can try to feel empathy with everyone, even those who are not in our immediate friendship circle. A simple smile can make others feel better. A hug can do wonders. A friendly “hello” can make someone feel like they’re not so alone.
Yesterday, I met up with a friend. He was filled with a mixture of intense anguish, sadness and aggression. I didn’t know what to say to make his pain lessen. But then someone – who was a stranger to him – gave him a long hug. She didn’t know anything about him, but she could see the pain in his face and hear the sorrow in his voice. The hug instantly dissolved all of that sadness and anger, and he smiled a huge, beaming smile as he said again and again, “thank you”.
So, although our society has conditioned us to be fearful and individualistic, this sickness can be cured. No amount of government and corporate propaganda, no amount of media prejudice, and no amount of consumer goods that are shoved down our throats can fully eliminate our true human nature, which is in all of us: a human nature where it’s natural to be compassionate, loving, and to want to make bonds with others. So let’s all turn off our televisions and turn away from the media that is complicit in creating fear and prejudice in our minds. Let’s talk to people on the streets; let’s reconnect with each other; smile, laugh, hug; let’s rediscover our true selves; let’s go camping in the forest and realise that, actually, nature isn’t scary; let’s hitchhike and realise that, actually, people also aren’t scary; let’s be generous to each other; let’s escape the prisons that we have created for ourselves and venture into the unknown and discover the true wonders of being alive.
“What the world needs most is people who are less bound by prejudice. It needs more love, more generosity, more mercy, more openness. The root of human problems is not a lack of resources but comes from the misunderstanding, fear and separateness that can be found in the hearts of people.”
– Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom