essays on suffering and awakening

Do we just need room to have it out?

A common theme among spiritual teachers of many traditions over the past few years has been the need to integrate spiritual practice with politics. While many of us may associate enlightenment with years spent in isolated meditation, the idea that we need to be a part of the world in order to develop our wisdom and compassion is a sensible one. But how do we go about doing that in a skillful way?

More specifically, how do we engage politically when so much of the political process is about picking a side? How can we nurture unconditional love for all while participating in a system that sets people against one another? How can we reconcile the fact that in any one particular moment, one group’s interests may genuinely be more urgent than another’s with the truth that everyone matters equally?

I struggle with this and I don’t have big answers to these questions. My best thought right now, though, is a simple one: make space for the conflict.

It’s been said that perfect harmony comes from tension. In politics, I believe we have an opportunity to see that. Take, for example, the ever-contentious issue of abortion. Getting an abortion is both an understandable choice that billions of women throughout history have made and also the taking of life. I don’t know exactly what the right middle ground between these two truths is, but doesn’t the tension between them provide friction to help us get there?

The conflict isn’t just on cable news or in street protests, but in our minds. Do we prioritize our needs or the needs of the greater community? Alone in the voting booth, do we support increasing the local property tax to boost school funding even though we’re short on cash and don’t have children? We can’t really separate our well-being from the well-being of those around us, but that thought can seem painfully high-minded when we’re drowning in bills.

Surely the right answers change depending on where we stand. But allowing the fight within us—taking the time to see our own different perspectives—must help us see more clearly. It’s happening whether we like it or not, so why not let it be?

I want to see our divisions reconciled. But part of that may be accepting that we sometimes need room to have it out—and having faith that by doing so, we are all drawn closer to the truth of our inherent unity. I don’t feel settled or comfortable with that thought, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on.

So is this question: if we are going to fight, can we do so generously? I don’t like the word fight at all—it seems contrary to the practices of acceptance and surrender that drive spiritual growth—but is there room within surrender for conflict?

Questions are easier than answers, but perhaps more useful too.

Ian Cooper