The rise and fall of “otherness”

We are All One

A simple enough statement….one that even has the ring of truth to it.

I happen to believe it.

But is it really as simple as that?  Or am I being too idealistic…again!

As I take my wee baby steps along my chosen path (which I tend to think of as trying to live a “conscious” life), more and more I’m finding myself looking around me, noticing fellow journeyers who are walking slightly different paths up what I’ve always believed to be the same mountain.  This has always seemed a perfectly normal experience to me.

So when I came across the picture above and its inclusive statement, my immediate reaction was, “Well, of course.”  In fact, I’ve always used the phrase, “It’s the same mountain, just different paths,” when thinking about other religious traditions and spiritual journeys, and the people who are living them in the world.

There are myriad paths up that mountain.  I know folks whose journey encompasses the path of the shaman – or the world of faerie – or spirit guides – or the angel realms – or Ganesha – or Guru Nanak – or who are “born again” – to name just a tiny portion of the spiritual options open to the seeker in the world today.  As far as I can see, they all lead to the same mountaintop:  realization.

Even among those friends who have elected not to follow a particular spiritual path, it appears to me that most of them try very hard, in their own way, to live in an ethical manner.  So it seems to me that they too are climbing that mountain, even though their path isn’t necessarily as well-trodden as others.  I have never questioned that the mountain we climb is one and the same.

path 2When I’ve been tempted to dismiss another person’s beliefs because I don’t understand them, I’ve called to mind a story that I heard many years ago, a joke with a punch line that I never forgot.  It struck me as the perfect image of what can happen to us when we see our own particular path as the only true one.

I will tell this little story using my own path as an example; all it takes is one minor adjustment for the identical point to be made with respect to just about any religious – or simply human -situation.

Here it is:

An old man died at the end of a long, rich life in which he worked hard, helped others when he could, and loved as well as he was able.  He arrived at the Pearly Gates, where he was met by St. Peter himself and welcomed to his new home.  Peter took his arm and said, “Come, let me show you around.”

He walked the old man around, pointing out the delights of this incredibly beautiful world.  At each turn, a new wonder presented itself, so amazingly lovely that all the old man could do was gasp in awe.

As they came to the top of a hill, the old man was surprised see a high brick wall in the distance, enclosing part of the landscape. It was the only enclosure the old man had seen, and he wondered what it could possibly be.  Finally, he could no longer contain his curiosity, and he asked St. Peter what it was for.

Peter glanced over at it and replied, “Oh that; that’s where we keep the… [Buddhists] …; they think they’re the only ones up here!”

Moral:   Let’s not build walls around ourselves!  We aren’t the only ones “up there,” so let’s cut one another some slack.

The daily world news has become a kind of macabre peep show of misanthropy and disaster, terrorism, corporate greed and government lies.  Worldwide, systems of economics and law and governance are breaking down, and no one seems to be able to stop it.

Precipice4 adjWhen systems break down, fear and bigotry raise their ugly heads.  And more and more nowadays, we seem to be beginning to fear “otherness” of any kind.

I hear and read and see it all around me, and I’m not even trying:  folks who fear that all immigrants are out to buck the system and get something for nothing; folks who believe that religious fanaticism is the only way to make things right – their idea of right; folks who think that anyone of colour, or who wears “different” clothing or headgear, or speaks English with difficulty or with a heavy accent, is not to be trusted – or worse, could be a terrorist.

I could go on; the list is endless, and it’s possible to encounter such statements in our everyday conversations with everyday folks.  And yet, those people being so casually put down, those folks are “us” too, are they not?

The sweep of world history tells us that this is certainly nothing new; bigotry, fear, discrimination, anger, atrocity and the like have always been with us.  Ugly as they are, they are nevertheless part of our human grab bag of possibilities, yours and mine included.  Given the right circumstances, any one of us could be the gunman, the terrorist, the one lighting the fire under the stake.  The potential is there in each one of us, without exception.

path 7a adjBut what history doesn’t tell us is how to live without getting caught up in the fear and drama.   Perhaps that’s precisely where, for folks who are trying to live a conscious life –  to stay on that path up the mountain – the rubber hits the road.

Like every other human being, I struggle with fears and judgements that lie in wait in the deep mud-pits of my mind, ready at a moment’s notice to slither to the surface, raise their ugly heads, and whisper their seductive lies, muddying the waters of daily life with their malignancy.

And again and again I must meet these challenges with mindfulness and a willingness to go back once again to the Buddhist primer:  let go, breathe, be aware, and watch it until it changes.  (I call this process “watching it to death.”)

I don’t have any grand solutions.  path 5aBut one small thing that I do I know this:   when I begin connect with someone, that person’s “otherness” starts to disintegrate.  She becomes, no longer strange and cool and distant, but suddenly a real person with real feelings and real joys and sorrows, who loves and laughs and cries, just like me.

She may not dress the way I do, and her path may look very different from my own; but as I get to know her, maybe I can begin to understand why the world looks as it does through her eyes.  I may not always agree, but perhaps I can understand.

She might become a friend – or perhaps she will remain simply someone who has passed through and touched my life in some small manner.

And sometimes all it takes is a moment when we catch each other’s eyes, and a smile is exchanged when one was not expected – a moment of connection that reminds each of us that we are more alike then different.

Either way, she is no longer “other,” no longer a potential enemy.  She has become “us.”

If there is a solution at all to this problem, I’m sure it lies not in hoping for sweeping changes from the top down, but rather in a world-wide, grass-roots awakening, where each one of us can learn to set aside our own fears long enough to actually “see” each person, and for that person to do the same for us.   Somewhere in the middle of that dialogue, we can each become more aware of the universal truths that really do make us “one” instead of “other.”

And I’m seeing signs out there in the real world (not just my idealistic one) that this grass-roots awakening is already under way.  More and more of us are quietly, resolutely, extending our hands and expanding our reality to include folks on different paths.

Maybe I’m not such a dreamer after all!

paths up the mountain