Book Excerpt: From the Chapter “Common Humanity-Awakening Compassion”
Separation: A Root Cause of Conflict
On one level, yes, conflict was a natural result of differences — differences of opinions, political parties, religions, etc. From a yoga perspective, it went much deeper: conflict was integral to the very fabric of the universe. A senior member of the Kriya Yoga community in Virginia, Gene, helped me understand this idea. An engineer and scientist by training, Gene enjoyed talking about yoga in terms of consciousness and energy, and often quoted yoga texts about the gunas, or qualities that make up the physical universe.
The three gunas are: sattva, tamas, and rajas. Sattva is the positive attribute that influences toward good — truth, purity, and spirituality. Tamas is the negative attribute that influences toward darkness or evil — untruth, inertia, and ignorance. Rajas is the neutral attribute, the activating quality working on sattva to suppress tamas or on tamas to suppress sattva, creating a constant activity and motion.
The concept of the three gunas was consistent with themes and stories told throughout the ages by different cultures about how good and evil were constantly in battle. Gene brought it to the scientific level, highlighting the composition of subatomic particles of energy and consciousness, that the positive and negative are required in order to have movement. He also talked about how the universe was expanding and contracting at the same time; how God had created everything (expansion) yet was drawing it back (contraction). He described this dynamic in terms of laws of gravity and love, the power drawing everything back,to Source, or God,and that ultimately love would prevail. Thus, love was the strongest force in the universe.
People were born with more sattva or tamas qualities depending on where they were in the cycles of death and rebirth, in their own evolution. In yoga, the idea was to use sattva, the positive, to pull out tamas, the negative, and then pull out rajas, the motion. Final liberation comes when throwing out sattva, too — God, or Cosmic Consciousness, was beyond the duality of positive and negative and was changeless, at least as told by the yogis and other saints who had fully merged with Cosmic Consciousness.
Bringing it all down to individuals, a person was born into this realm of duality and then subjected to the positive and negative, and the dynamic between the two. A resulting source of conflict for people was the ego — a soul’s identification with the thoughts, emotions, body — and its emotional reactions to the inevitable changes of the phenomenal universe. In this sense, conflict was a natural result of the soul’s deluded sense of separation from God, and conflict was an integral part of the spiritual journey.
Tara Brach, the psychologist and Buddhist meditation instructor in the Washington, DC area, explained this sense of separation by saying we identify with our thoughts and emotions, and then believe they are real. This belief starts a process whereby we separate from others and everything around us. With separation comes fear, which in turn gives rise to the “wanting self” (i.e., I want to be happy and avoid suffering). Everyone on the planet has this basic operating software package running — we are all trying to rearrange a constantly changing world to avoid suffering and get what we want.
Conflict is inevitable, as a result. It also is a natural part of the human experience, as we bump into other people trying to avoid suffering and create happiness. A child wants a toy to be happy and will fight with another child to get it, adolescents struggle over identity and romantic relationships, and adults continue the drama with even more involved conflicts. The mere process of surviving — food, water, and shelter — can create conflicts of its own, especially where there is rampant poverty and/or natural disasters. Also, in a warped way, the people who sold AK-47s and RPGs to the rebels in Sierra Leone were doing so to make money so they could be happy.
Meanwhile, humans are governed by spiritual laws, including free will; cause and effect, or karma; and a more subtle law, evolution. Often, free will is usurped by emotions, societal expectations, cultural norms, or subconscious patterns, whether from this life or another one. Still, we slowly learn by trial and error, and by reaping the fruits of our actions, how to choose behaviors that benefit us and those we love. In this way, we evolve.
I kept asking: how did the horrible violence happen in Sierra Leone, or the genocide in Rwanda (a country I visited too)? Sure, there could be individual and collective karmic reasons that go back lifetimes, or collective unconscious forces at play, but those realms were beyond my immediate comprehension. All that kept coming up was that, when conflicts are handled destructively, fear becomes the driving force.
In Sierra Leone, it was hard to see the patterns of conflict as there were no clear ethnic, religious, or political divisions. Rather, there was a complete breakdown of civil society after decades of corruption, all while the country was caught in a web of international politics and economics, with opportunistic power struggles by malefactors like Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh.
It was when I started to travel to Burundi and other countries that I started to see a pattern to many destructive conflicts. It seemed people become polarized, and that extreme positions drove the agendas. The people with the loudest voices often used fear as a tactic to unify their group against “the others.” As fear increased, people narrowed their multiple identities (such as father, mother, musician, artist, sports fan, farmer, teacher) down to just one — whether an ethnic group (“I’m a Hutu and you’re a Tutsi”), a religious sect (“I’m a Muslim and you’re a Jew”), or a political party (“I’m a Republican and you’re a Democrat”). Instead of seeing what they had in common, or what connected them, they saw only how they were different and what separated them. (In this sense, it was not so much religion that drove conflict as the human tendency toward dualistic and polarizing patterns of thinking.)
In Rwanda, this dynamic played out to an extreme level. In the early 1990s, radio programs amplified the fear and mistrust by fueling ethnic tension. As fear increased, people became more polarized, thinking in terms of “us and them.” Tutsis and Hutu moderates were identified as the problem. To get rid of the problem, the radical Hutus believed it was necessary to get rid of the Tutsis and even the moderate Hutus. As in all destructive conflicts, the aggressors created an atmosphere where it was possible to strike out and kill — first stereotype and then dehumanize “the others.” Thus, Tutsis were called dogs, since it was easier to kick a dog than a human. Then, they were called cockroaches, as it was easy to kill a cockroach.
I once heard a Jesuit priest quoted as saying, “I knew evil existed when I saw a wave of killing come over the hill.” Just imagining the collective fear that mobilized the killing reminded me of Dean Radin’s research on entangled minds, where thoughts from one person were picked up by others, and how they leveraged the collective unconscious. In Rwanda’s case, people’s thoughts and consciousness formed a mass frenzy of fear, allowing the collective group consciousness to become a channel for universal tamas (negative consciousness) to manifest on the physical plane.
By exploring this dynamic, I was reminded of what Mickey had told me when I was searching for a spiritual path: “You have it set up in dualism already.” There was a human tendency to think dualistically — us/them, good/bad, either/or, etc. John Marks, the president of Search for Common Ground, liked to say, “When it is either/or, it is usually both.” Dualistic thinking was a part of human consciousness; it stemmed from feeling separate from God/Universe/Spirit. When experiencing intense fear, human consciousness contracts around the small self, the ego, and goes into a survival mode. Dualism was part of the operating software package of humanity and fear and love, and contraction and expansion were some of its chief functionalities.
In yoga, fear dissolves and duality disappears when a person expands his or her consciousness, taps into the soul’s essence, and merges with Spirit, at least so I heard from yogis, though I had had only glimpses of such states of consciousness. Search for Common Ground was doing a similar process of helping people expand their identity to see their common humanity with “the other.” The idea was to expand the middle — the number of people who did see their commonality — and reduce the power and influence of the extreme positions. While leveraging common humanity was a core part of the work in Sierra Leone, the clearest example of moving beyond polarization and dualistic thinking was in Burundi.
The Voice of Hope
The Search for Common Ground program in Burundi started in 1995, a year after the genocide in Rwanda, and later became the inspiration for the programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The first time I went to Burundi, in 2003, I was nervous because the Rwanda genocide was such a hallmark of horror. But I was amazed to walk into the Search office and see a large team of people busily producing radio programs, all committed to working together. One of them was Adrien, a tall, soft-spoken man with deep, compassionate eyes. He was a Hutu; in his youth, Adrien took time off from school only to have his entire class massacred by Tutsis. In the office next to Adrien was Agnes, a powerful, robust Tutsi woman who had lost seventy-nine members of her family to the ethnic violence. Indeed, everyone on the staff had a story of personal loss, yet each was willing to take a stand, together, for a new way of resolving conflict.
Coming from a large family and having seen the impact of war on A.K.’s family and the Contehs, it was both mind- and heart-boggling to imagine working side by side with people from an ethnic group that committed atrocities against loved ones. Adrien, Agnes, and others across Africa became my teachers on the practical ways to embody compassion and love, and how to promote those values across multicultured societies.
Agnes, Adrien, and the other staff members were helping Burundians face their harsh realities together. The idea was to shift the focus from what separates people from their perceived enemies to what they have in common — their common humanity. In one sense, similar to yoga, this good work was moving souls back toward union.
Again, the common ground approach [JZ1] [O2] was based on an implicit trust in the human spirit. When there is recognition of common humanity, innate spiritual qualities of tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, and love can be awakened. With these positive human qualities present, it is easier for people to shift their mindset. A new consciousness arises, one where they can start to discern that the “others” are not the problem, but rather that they may share similar problems, such as poverty, corruption, or political manipulation. From there, it is possible to face problems together instead of attacking each other. In essence, the approach was similar to a meditation practice: help a person move beyond fear, expand their identity or consciousness, and experience a sense of oneness or connection with other people and nature. This process opens people to their innate spiritual potential and allows them to tap into collective creativity and possibly higher states of consciousness to identify win-win solutions.
In a sense, Adrien, Agnes, and the others were introducing positive, or sattvic, thinking into a tense, negative, tamas, environment. Many motivational speakers and spiritual teachers talk about the power of positive thinking and positive affirmations. Some spiritual teachers say if you want to reduce the power of negative influences, do not battle the negative; rather, increase the positive. Paramahansa Yogananda often said, “Change your thoughts if you wish to change your circumstances.”[i] This sounded idealistic when a society was facing potential genocide, but that was exactly what our staff in Burundi were doing — helping an entire society to begin thinking it was possible to peacefully coexist.
It was profoundly inspiring to see these universal principles around consciousness in action to inspire societal shifts.
One of the Search radio programs produced in Burundi was a radio soap opera called Our Neighbors, Ourselves. It told the story of a Hutu family living next to a Tutsi family. Like all good soap operas, it was filled with laughter, tragedies, drama, and love affairs. Through more than one thousand episodes, the program helped rehumanize Hutus and Tutsis to each other by highlighting what they had in common. Nearly 90 percent of the population listened to the show. Adrien told me it had become so popular that during a break in programming, a general in the army came to our office and demanded a copy of the next episode! He said his men were anxiously waiting to hear what happened next.
Our Neighbors, Ourselves was creating a story where Hutus and Tutsis were living peacefully side by side, much different from the story that came out of Rwanda in 1994. The core message of Our Neighbors, Ourselves was pretty close to: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Without using any religious references or overtones, Adrien, Agnes, and other staff were modeling behaviors taught by the great spiritual traditions and they helped reweave the social tapestry of their society with compassion and love.
©2012 Philip M. Hellmich
[i] Where There is Light, Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA