Feeling Inner Peace While the World Burns
I’ve seen a spate of articles lately on how meditation, mindfulness and self-help are supposedly toxic and anti-progressive. According to Jessica Wildfire’s recent article (which inspired this article as a response), self-help represents a temporary band-aid for social ailments at best, and a privileged denial of reality at worst. While I can understand her perspective is shaped by her experience with the facile platitudes of much of commercial self-help “content” (you know, the type that says that mindfulness is the new way to stave off burnout and make you a better worker) — I feel that the generalised rejection of self-help in Wildfire’s article speaks to a belief that is pervasive among those who seek to improve the world.
This belief is: that if you do not suffer while others around you suffer, you are part of the problem.
That if empathy allows you to feel another’s pain, to have empathy requires that you suffer so long as there are others who feel pain. That suffering is a sign of how much you care. That allowing yourself to feel inner peace or happiness is a betrayal of others who suffer.
This belief is false.
I assume that you who are reading this - you are an empathetic person who cares a lot about the suffering of others. You want the suffering of others to stop. And that is a very noble goal. Nothing I am going to say is going to invalidate that in any way, as I share this goal myself.
But I want to talk about you for a second. You suffer, whether that be from systemic discrimination, mental illness, poverty, abuse, disability, heartbreak, loss or any of the other myriad ways in which suffering manifests in this experience we call Life. You want your suffering to stop. And you want the suffering of others to stop, because you as an empathetic person can feel their pain, and you want it all to stop.
I’m going to bet that when you say you want your suffering to stop, your internal voice follows a format something like this:
“If I could change something about the present situation, I would be happy”.
Some examples this belief could take include:
“I would be happy if I didn’t experience discrimination”. “I’ll be happy when I find true love”. “I would be happy if I could stop feeling chronic pain”. “I would be happy if I hadn’t been abused as a child”. “I’ll be happy when I publish a groundbreaking novel”. “I’ll be happy when I get what I deserve”.
“I’ll be happy when racism ends”. “I’ll be happy when capitalism is abolished”. “I’ll be happy when the patriarchy topples and rape culture no longer exists”. “I’ll be happy when the earth is healed from the damage humanity has caused it”.
I have good news for you. You do not need to wait for any of this to happen to feel inner peace and love your life.
And not only do you not need to wait, you cannot wait. Your life is happening now. In the present moment. All that you ever experience, is now. And now. And now. You cannot live in the future. You can aim for the future, you can try to plan for it, try to predict it, but you can only ever experience now. The only happiness and peace there is to find, is found now. And now. The only time that exists, is now. Everything else is a projection of the mind.
This is what mindfulness is. Awareness of now. The eternity of now. The more you think about it, the more awake you become. Everything is happening now, and you are part of it, and you are all of it. It may take practice to feel it, you may follow a teacher, read a book, follow a spiritual path, take mind-altering substances, meditate… there are endless ways to awaken to the experience of now. I am not here to preach one particular path over another.
“One of these students in the book says to the master Jōshū, I have been here in this monastery for some time, and I’ve had no instruction from you. The master said, Have you had breakfast? Yes. Then go wash your bowl. And the monk was awakened.” — Zen Koan, as told by Alan Watts
In the now, there is no suffering, because along with everything else, pain is transitory. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not. This is because suffering is the interpretation we give to pain, we let it “stick”, we cling to it, we let it become part of our narrative, part of the lens through which we see the world.
We cannot avoid pain. Pain can be done to us. Suffering, is what we do to ourselves. This does not have to be interpreted as “it’s your fault you’re in pain” — there is no blame to be assigned. This statement can be taken as a form of empowerment. You do not have to suffer. No matter what else is happening in your life. You have the ability, no matter how much pain you experience, to transcend it, and to still feel serenity and joy in life.
And the way to do that, is through cultivating the awakened state of being in the now, because in this state pain exists, but suffering does not.
This may at first glance appear to be an absurdly privileged belief. Indeed many socially progressive people seem to believe that anyone saying this must not care about social problems at all and instead have a toxic focus on the “individual self”.
Jessica Wildfire claims that self-improvement “does wonders if you’re a dude, or a woman ensconced in the upper middle-class (…) it doesn’t work so well for anyone else”.
But if we look into the history of self-help concepts such as mindfulness, we find they didn’t come from a place of privilege - indeed we find that one is more likely to wake to enlightenment from a place of suffering. Siddhartha the Buddha discovered the Eight-Fold Path after he renounced everything and allowed himself (through empathy for others) to feel fully the existential horror of age, sickness and poverty. It was through feeling pain and deprivation, and empathising with suffering that he came to enlightenment, and his teachings have helped those in all walks of life to reduce suffering.
Likewise many of humanity’s heroes who have helped the world the most, have been serene, calm and filled with an inner enjoyment of life that no oppression or injustice can quench.
“True happiness comes from having a sense of inner peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved by cultivating altruism, love and compassion, and by eliminating anger, selfishness and greed.”
- The Dalai Lama
Inner peace is the wellspring of resilience from which you must draw if you are to endure and persist. Joy of life is your vitality. Optimism is the source of hope, cultivated every time you let yourself love.
So what does this mean?
It’s important to continue the fight for equality and challenge oppression but you cannot wait for this (or for any future goal to be achieved) before you will allow yourself to let go of your own suffering. Because we will not see perfect equality in our lifetime, and even if we did, we would not have perfect lives. Life will always have a degree of suffering to it, no matter how utopian you craft your society.
As such it’s important for you to learn how to feel peace with life as it is right now, Right Now.
Because Now is the only time that exists.
We can work for a better future, indeed we should, but we should not hinge our happiness on the achievement of any future goal.
True meditation is not “hacking your brain for more productivity”. True mindfulness is not a slave to capitalism. Spiritual bliss and inner peace is not the providence of some privileged white dude making upper middle class salary. These ideas and practices came from the true knowledge of suffering, it came from people who had renounced everything, people from the outside of institutions.
This is good news. It means that there have been countless people before you, who have suffered as much as you have, who were oppressed, who have nonetheless experienced inner peace, bliss and serenity. You can too.
And you can then channel that strength to change the world. You will be unbreakable.
In fact, there’s a word for that, in Buddhist philosophy. Bodhisattva.