Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have a database of telephone numbers in Russia are calling them randomly to speak with whoever answers about the worsening nightmare that is part of our Lent this year.
Most hang up as soon as they hear the foreign accent. Others engage cautiously with the callers who try even more cautiously to start a conversation. They often hear the party-line with which the Kremlin has occupied the news media: this was started by the Ukrainians, they are bombing their own cities, President Putin is protecting us, Russia only uses force defensively, we support the operation.
The Ukrainian callers know it is useless just to say you’re wrong, you’ve been brainwashed. Instead, they learn to listen. And to ask questions. In most cases the attempted conversation doesn’t last long. No conversation can flow unless both sides risk to listen. Listening means being prepared to see the topic from the other’s point of view. To do this is dangerous in an authoritarian state that punishes dissent. But it is also putting your sense of self in danger: leaving self behind, letting go of who you think you are. Meditators risk this every day.
To try to change another’s mind without patiently suffering the rejection of your offer to listen is another kind of brainwashing. Prisoners of the last cold war were often ideologically brainwashed before release. They then had to be un-brainwashed. It is like dangerous brain surgery. To invade and occupy the minds of others is like the violent invasion and colonisation of a sovereign state. Russia is attempting this in Ukraine and China succeeded in Tibet.
To occupy territory is inseparable from attempting to occupy their mental space. Both desecrate the human and assault civilisation. if they succeed it is by a regime of fear. The most powerful resistance to alien occupation is to keep on asking questions. We cannot change people’s minds. But we can open their hearts by opening ours to them: through questions that show a non-violent way to truth.
We also need to ask questions to ourselves. Have I been deceived? Our way of life in western consumerism is built on a form of deception called advertising. It has occupied many areas of life especially visible in those politicians who market themselves and brazenly refusing to listen to the questions they are asked. I have also met many cradle Christians who need to be de-programmed from an occupying force of beliefs in their childhood: a punishing God, the rejection of other faiths, the criminalisation of sexual identity or manipulation through guilt. Only after being deconditioned from this can they revisit the pure essence of what they were taught and decide for themselves.
Such comparisons require perspective and common sense. But if we do not ask ourselves radical questions about our own assumed freedom, how can we help others? The prisoner becomes the gaoler until he is free. Listening to the questions that liberate the very truth that sets us free is not only about conversation and exchange of ideas. It is also achieved – and perhaps most powerfully this way for those who risk it – through the habit of bathing in interior silence.
Letting go of all words and thoughts washes the mind in another and better sense.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2022