In a recent class, a student shared how she had been stuck in traffic amidst a pre-election caravan of Trump supporters. Their faces were so happy she felt compelled to wave, but she held back because waving, even smiling, would indicate agreement with their choices. It would be condoning their decision to vote for someone who is actively damaging the earth and its inhabitants in so many ways. She was torn. How can you not smile and wave at people so happy on an outing on a sunny day?
Why were they happy? They didn’t know if their candidate would win the election, but they weren’t worried about it at that moment. They were with their tribe, enjoying being together, free to speak their minds to a degree they probably didn’t feel in their neighborhoods or workplaces, living as they do in California, a state so ‘blue’ the presidential election was called with 0% of the vote tallied!
We all know the pleasurable ease of being with like-minded people. Buddhist teachings encourage us to seek out people who meditate and support us in our meditation practice and our cultivation of beneficial qualities. In this way, we create a sangha. (The term sangha historically referred only to monastics, but in the Western Insight meditation tradition, it means the community that comes together to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and in each other, the Sangha.)
The Insight meditation community has hundreds of sanghas worldwide. All Buddhist traditions hold ethical values very similar to those of other world religions, but our focus is on insight into the nature of being so that we might awaken to recognize the impermanence and interconnectedness of all life, and thus end suffering for ourselves and all beings. So while we may experience the same delight in being with our sangha, it is not exclusive. Our sangha is expansive as we cultivate a sense of tribe without outcasts or enemies. A tribe that includes all life.
One student expressed gratitude for being included in the group, as she often felt like an outcast. Many of us have had the experience of not fitting in, of being purposely or inadvertently excluded. Think of school cliques. A clique is a group version of building a fortress of separate self. Its members have a uniform identity: a specific style of dress, language, behavior, and opinions. From that fortification, they peer outside and make enemies of everyone else. But do the members of the clique feel safe? Of course not. One slip into non-uniformity, one glimpse of their true unique and amazing self, and whoosh, they are kicked out of the club. They live in fear.
Speaking of fear, I asked another student to share her scary story about having to make a split-second decision when a big log was bouncing at high speed down her hillside right toward her. She had the presence of mind to keep her eye on the log and trust in her body to dodge it. And it worked. She was safe, but the car on the street below was battered, just as her body would have been if she had not dealt with it as she did.
I like to think of life as a dance, and by practicing to be in the moment, we are learning to be supple and skillful in relationship to all that happens. In the split-second she had to save herself, she was in a dance with that log. She didn’t know which way it would go because it all depended on so many unknown conditions: what trees, shrubs, or fences it might hit to ricochet one way or another. She had to accept that she didn’t know, and simply dance with the log. Dosey doe.
It is the same in relationships with people and any challenges we may face, isn’t it? Can we be fluid and responsive rather than rigid and reactive? Can we pay full attention, using all our senses? Can we listen to another person’s point of view respectfully even if their ideas are different from ours? Can we see them as the life force expressing itself, just as it is in us?
Fear has a role to play, activating adrenaline to briefly give the body needed superpowers of alertness, flexibility, and strength. But if we fall into the habit of living in constant fear, of letting our thoughts run amok with dystopian dramas, we become exhausted and are less able to respond skillfully to whatever arises.
If we are afraid of people we don’t consider part of our tribe, then we are ready, maybe even eager, to believe terrible things about them. The media pundits and the algorithms of social media take us deeper and deeper into the sense of division. So now we don’t just have tribes, we have tribalism, that fear-based sense of othering that creates a toxic environment for all life.
So let’s dial it back a bit and look at the truth of the matter: We are all in this together. Think of how all life is made up of cells, little circles that are strong, but not independent, not separate. Just so, we all have our tribes, our circles: families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, schoolmates, people who have gone through similar trauma or face similar challenges, people who share the same interests or concerns. But we are all also expressions of life, cellular in nature, ever-changing, growing, dying, decaying, fertilizing new life, and sprouting forth.
Can we appreciate our circles while caring for all life? Can we enjoy our tribe without resorting to tribalism? Can we let go of toxic fear and celebrate in a great coming together of all the tribes on behalf of all life on this small planet?
I think we can.
How about you?