Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Discipline of Reconciliation

"Olive Branches at Midnight" 
- At the Desert Retreat House -

This past week many cities and towns across America held various “Town Hall Meetings” called by their elected political representatives; but for the most part none of these gatherings were meetings at all. They were “shouting matches” that demonstrated how divided we are as a nation, divided by our escalating culture wars and opposing political ideologies, each side absolutely certain they posses the truth and the other side is wrong. In those “Town Hall Meetings” last week, as everyone did little more than shout at the other side, there was lots of heat but very little light.

I just came across an article that talked about how our “post-election” politics have even affected the way families relate to one another. The article gave the example of a large Midwestern family who had followed a long-time tradition of gathering with one another for a weekly Sunday Supper. Over the years, every Sunday afternoon the entire extended family would come to the table, grandparents and grandkids, moms and dads, aunts and uncles, where they would share a common meal and enjoy each other’s company.  After last November’s election, those dinners have been indefinitely put on hold. The members of that family had become deeply divided and the Sunday Suppers had turned into “shouting matches” about what was happening in this country. It was so contentious that they just put an end to their weekly gatherings -  what a shame.

As I see it, on a spiritual path, we are all called to treat one another with compassion. This means that we must speak up for the poor, welcome the outcast and work at building a “just” society where everyone has a place of dignity in life. Walking a spiritual path also means that we are called to heal and mend broken relationships. On a spiritual path we are all called to practice a discipline of reconciliation.

Interestingly enough, I rarely hear the word reconciliation used nowadays. I don’t hear the word spoken by politicians or even by most religious leaders. I don’t read about reconciliation in newspapers or even in articles about spirituality. Maybe there is so little talk about reconciling with those who are different because if you are certain you are right you can’t imagine “coming to terms” with the other side who is so obviously wrong?

I recently read about a “discipline of reconciliation” that was first designed by the Buddha himself, continued by his followers over the ages.  In the Buddha’s plan, reconciliation, defined as a “return to amicability,” is essential to an enlightened spirituality. 

To this very day, when monks in Buddhist monasteries get into arguments and take sides against one another, they are required to sit face to face and adopt a “non-stubborn attitude” as they engage in an arduous process of honestly sharing ideas and feelings – everyone listening to what the other has to say. When appropriate they may admit faults and sometimes ask for or offer forgiveness but the goal here is to resolve their differences through a process of consensus (votes are never taken) so that when it's all over they are all satisfied with the outcome and have “returned to amicability.”  

This ancient Buddhist reconciliation process is referred to as straw covering the mud. Differences, injuries and disputes are not swept under the “straw;” instead “straw” is seen as a dry clean place for everyone to sit on and talk with one another instead of sinking into the muck and mire.

Maybe that’s what we all need in our common cultural life nowadays. Instead of sinking deeper into the muck as we shout each other down, we all need to spread out bales of straw over all the mud and take the time to sit face to face with one an another, honestly listening to what the other side has to say and doing our best to arrive at some common truth.

I think that the Midwestern family who has suspended their Sunday Suppers should resume them again, spreading some “straw over the mud” that they might once again “return to amicability.”

 Rumi, the Islamic Sufi poet, once wrote:

Our beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field,
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies in that grass
even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.

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