When the airliners crashed into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, America went into shock. For a brief few days, we did not need to drive our SUVs so much, we did not rush to pack the kids off to Disney World for a distracting weekend, we did not need to fill our voids with the Pacman-esque consumption of everything that lay in our paths. For a few short days we were stunned almost to our senses. We looked around and saw a world of human beings vulnerable to the mysterious actions of fate. We saw ourselves as parts of a large matrix of interconnectedness. Our hearts went out to those who lost loved ones, and we celebrated the true heroes who proved themselves in chaos. We felt ourselves to be a part of a nation of fellow human beings that had suddenly experienced itself as one.
Almost as soon as this national pause had begun, however, we began to grasp for meaning in this incredible and unbelievable event. In that grasping a familiar theme of divisiveness began to reemerge. Leftists saw the attacks of September 11th as an almost necessary consequence of America’s arrogance and abuse of its one-sided foreign policy. Rightists saw these same events as resulting from years of weak-kneed dismantling of our military force. Reverend Jerry Falwell even weighed in to blame the ACLU, abortionists, and homosexuals for inciting God’s anger. Finger pointing and blaming emerged in some circles, particularly in the various media outlets, but for most Americans there remained a lingering sense that something important had happened and they weren’t completely sure what it was and what it meant.
Approaching these experiences from a spiritual perspective can be very challenging and frustrating. It can be very easy to be glib about the recent events through the application of spiritual language and frameworks in explanation of what happened. One might be tempted to fall back on the notion that no one really dies and that this world is a dance of Maya (illusion). Indeed, few would disagree that the destruction of the World Trade Towers is a profound demonstration of impermanence. Some have even suggested that the many synchronized deaths represent a large group agreement on the part of the participants to sacrifice their physical lives to catalyze significant shifts on the Earth plane. Yet all of these explanations ring as hollow as the debates of talking heads on late night television. They all have the smell of a mind trying to reassert some sort of control in face of a direct experience of the uncontrollable.
So perhaps one spiritual lesson to extract from the events flowing from September 11th is that it is not necessary to explain anything. Sure, our minds want to grab hold of these recent events and slow things down. Our minds want a movie populated with evildoers and victims (who has which role will depend on which movie you happen to be filming). But none of these movies can possibly come to terms with a happening that caused 300 million people to simultaneously pause and look around at each other. Each thought we have about September 11th, about Osama Bin Laden, about John Ashcroft, about Anthrax, etc. is but an incomplete fragment that withers to meaninglessness in the face of the new reality. And if anything we can say or think about all of this is ultimately meaningless, perhaps we can simply let go of having to explain any of it. Perhaps it is possible to be present to what is happening around us in silence and to let the world flow around us.
This is certainly a tall order, and one that many Americans reading this would reject as some sort of pacifist mumbo-jumbo, but I am making this suggestion out of a deep and abiding sense of patriotism. The events of the last few months have caused me to confront in myself what it means to be patriotic and what it means to be an American. A part of me has historically distanced myself from notions of patriotism because I found it intellectually satisfying to fancy myself somehow above that kind of concern. But more recently I have found myself simply in the middle of being an American with all its inherent contradictions and paradoxes, without the need to especially avoid or cling to it.
Through spiritual practice one can discover that the path to becoming an authentic human being begins with the willingness to observe and behold oneself as honestly and openly as possible. The foundation of such a practice is the habit of returning to this fundamental perspective. Likewise, the path to becoming a true American begins with the willingness to observe and behold our country and all of its inhabitants as honestly and openly as possible. Being present to our country means in part releasing one’s judgments, ideas, considerations, and beliefs about any of what one observes. It means letting go of the national narrative even while one may be participating directly in it. It means opening oneself up to all the conflicting factions, trends, and history and being willing for them all to coexist. And finally, being present to our country also means recognizing and appreciating America’s intimate interconnectedness with the rest of the world.
I am not saying that one should cease to act and sit by passively. Action is unavoidable in this country; we all are engaged in a variety of roles and responsibilities. But I am suggesting that the key to becoming a true American does not lie in the particulars of what one is doing, but rather in how one is doing whatever one happens to be doing in any given moment. One of the greatest aspects of this magnificent country is that it provides endless contexts in which one can struggle with maintaining a serious spiritual practice while being fully immersed in the chaos of daily life. Being fully present to oneself and to what is happening around one, whether one happens to be hunting down terrorists or protesting at the next WTO meeting, is a critical component to being a true American.
Another critical component is acting from the deep silence within oneself rather than from one’s ideas about what one should do or from one’s compulsive desires for particular results. I mention this here because sometimes people misinterpret the claim that how one acts is more important than the particulars of what one does. The misinterpretation is to equate this claim as being devoid of morality or ethics. My claim is that right and appropriate action (however radical) will naturally emerge from this deep and abiding silence within each of us. This claim is testable, to the extent that one can begin to distinguish compulsive and mechanical impulses within oneself from impulses arising from one’s inner silence. Various traditions have different ways of describing this kind of practice. The Tayu perspective holds that this is how one brings compassion into the world. From this point of view, doing what is right for one’s country will naturally follow from striving to act from one’s heart.
In recent weeks, our president has been urging Americans to express their patriotism by getting “back on the horse” and resuming our consumerism. Alternatively, consider that the best thing one can do for one’s country might be to practice becoming a true American in the sense described above. To be a real patriot could mean deepening one’s spiritual practice and being fully present for one’s country. One could even joyfully place an American flag on one’s windshield, knowing full well that that symbol will be an ongoing invitation to practice deeply.
In the Buddhist tradition, one of the four vows of the bodhisattva states, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.” A patriotic variation of this might simply be, “I vow to save America.” Rather than struggling to figure out how America has changed since September 11th, vow to save this country and practice deeply.