I have been tempted, no doubt like many in recent times, to stop following the news. First there is the endless accounts of failures: of leadership, building consensus, respecting the common good, caring for the vulnerable, protecting the dysfunctional and corrupt. There is also the sense that what we hear as ‘news’ is a considerably distorted and incomplete version of events and of what the main players really think. I concluded that, however frustrating and disappointing the present state of affairs in national and global society, we have a responsibility, as a member of the family, to maintain a certain level of knowledge and involvement in it all even if it seems like a bad soap opera at times.
Maybe in a hermitage deep in the woods, off the grid, we could be excused from following the news but that would be because at the deepest level of human fellowship we would be present to all and, in a mysterious way, even influential. Ramana Maharshi, who was for most of his life in an unbroken state of samadhi, of contemplation, never left his ashram. He followed the same personal routine every day. Many came to see him and sit with him in his loving silence. Once a visitor asked why he didn’t travel and bring his peace to the far corners of the world. Ramana smiled and replied ‘how do you know that I don’t?’
But for ordinary mortals like ourselves we need to balance, in the fluctuations of time, both contemplative work and active work. If we have no time for contemplative work – for being rather than doing – we run the risk of becoming increasingly busy and noisy and less and less really useful. We run a lot but cover little ground. We work intensely but produce less good work.
So much of modern busyness and confusion revolves around the un-integrated ego. Personality issues and gossip occupy more and more of the news concerning those who have responsibility on our behalf to run institutions and keep the world safe. Excessive anxiety about human approval - what people think about us – disrupts the detachment we need to make good judgments and serve on their behalf. This is dramatically true in the case of leaders but applies mystically to all of us because we form a single social body in which each individual is connected to every one else.
To be detached from human approval has a positive but also a very negative sense. Negatively, it means we do what we like, lie, cheat, extort and destroy and don’t care what anyone says because we can either simply deny it endlessly or eliminate the opposition. This is the fate of lonely leaders who have lost their solitude, winning the world at the cost of their true self.
But the positive sense means that we are detached, not disconnected. We are not absorbed in the heaving crowd of humanity, we stand outside it. But we live consciously in the community of humanity. The more detached we are, the more compassionately we are at the heart of society.
This is the wisdom the story of the last days of Jesus conveys – a story we are preparing to re-tell and listen to afresh as Lent draws to a close. It is a unique story. But, even if it doesn’t meet with much human approval, the wisdom is universal. As Lao Tse says, the wise ‘knows without having to stir, accomplishes without having to act.’