As I read the news recently, my heart breaks for all the people so threatened by their circumstances that they put themselves in the hands of criminals to escort them to new lives that may not hold any more hope than what they left behind. The situation is bleak, and makes me wonder. Refugee or pilgrim—what is the difference?
Aren’t we are all refugees?
To become officially “Buddhist” we commit by “taking refuge.” It’s not that we are taking refuge in anything particular, but rather we acknowledge that there is no other choice than to accept the fact that there is no solid ground to call home forever. Impermanence reigns and until we accept this, we will suffer. The illusion of stability lulls us into believing we have solid ground under our feet. But we all know things can change in an instant. So a Buddhist is essentially a permanent refugee, or if you prefer, a pilgrim. A pilgrim is someone who embraces this inconvenient truth and uses it to fuel a spiritual path.
A refugee travels to seek a home in a new place. A pilgrim travels to seek a new home inside.
I feel the pain of all who are homeless and cold and hungry. I was also “homeless” for many years while I was working in South Asia. I never had to worry about food or shelter, but I didn’t really have a permanent place to call home. I had a series of temporary assignments, and stayed in a variety of lodgings that ranged from dilapidated shacks to luxury hotel suites. There were times when I felt acutely the fact that when my contract was up I had no idea where I was going next. Sometimes I went on retreat just because I had no idea where to go. And things always worked out.
This is my point: when the situation falls apart, the only reliable refuge is inside.
We are impermanent and temporary. Borders are arbitrary and political. Differences are more cultural than real. We grow up with patterns and habits that make it difficult to understand others’ belief systems sometimes. Shifting boundaries–psychological, geographical, political and environmentally induced–make it impossible to build a lasting foundation on anything.
I get leaving a country for political reasons. In 2001, just after 9/11 and the beginning of the second Bush administration, I fled the U.S. I could not reconcile (or stomach) being in a country led by a president who could not speak the English language properly, much less lead with heart and integrity. I was ashamed of my country, and imposed self-exile. Not the same as having a dictator drop bombs on my town, I realize, but I considered myself a sort of refugee. I also now offer counseling and coaching for expats to help them deal with the issues that arise from living overseas.
Fifteen years later, we in America find ourselves on another political precipice. People are now panicking, wildly speculating and urging us all to Vote. Yes, if you are a U.S. citizen, you should Vote. But I’m really not convinced this is going to bring about much change. I’d say more important than voting is practicing. Practice compassion, forgiveness, generosity, kindness, tolerance. Practice resting your mind in the spaciousness of the present moment. Practice transforming your negative emotions and aggressive thoughts into gratitude and acceptance of the way things are, exactly as they are, right now.
It’s up to us.
Barack Obama recently accused Republicans of facilitating Trump’s rise to power. But it’s not just the Republicans. We all feed into the reality show by not minding our minds–by not trusting the power of our own minds. We watch in fascination, eager for another duel to cheer. We are like spectators at a gladiator game, horrified and mesmerized.
I happened to be in Bhutan when the new king took power in 2008. I am struck by the contrast of his tone compared to the mud-slinging of our American politicians. Here is a quote from his inaugural address:
“As the king of a Buddhist nation, my duty is not only to ensure your happiness today but to create the fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good Karma……I also pray that while I am but King of a small Himalayan nation, I may in my time be able to do much to promote the greater well being and happiness of all people in this world – of all sentient beings.”
As I watched the final debate between our presidential candidates last week, it occurred to me how shameful our manners are in American politics. We allow disrespect and harsh speech and cruel behavior to define the norm. Not only do we tolerate this atrociousness, but we celebrate it. We feed on sensationalism, through the media. It is a reflection of our own weakness as a culture that we require this sensationalism, as if it helps us maintain our connection to what we call our reality. It’s like we can not manage our own minds enough to settle down with the winds of change.
Rather than worrying about who you Vote for, or where you are going to seek refuge if your candidate does not win, try working with your mind. You’ll have much more influence, and you’ll be much more at ease.
Don’t let the negative thoughts take control. If you have negative thoughts, replace them with kindness or forgiveness or tolerance. If you can’t do that, notice the space around the thought. If you can’t do that– it may sound cheesy, but try it –listen to some soothing music to calm your nervous system so you can rest in some sense of ease. Because it’s only by working with our own minds, creating a sense of ease within each one of us that we are going to be able to create harmony on an outer level. This is what a pilgrim practices.
It’s amazing to me how strongly this election has divided the U.S. It’s alarming to see how much aggression rules the show. I wonder what would happen if we were to take the stance of the Bhutanese king and seek to benefit sentient beings.
We could all do our part as responsible citizens right now. You can do this by making a commitment to be of benefit to yourself and to others by shifting your mindset from being a refugee to being a pilgrim.
Reframe your experience:
- Identify an issue in the news that you would like to change. For example, I am disturbed that our politicians talk to and about each other in such harsh ways.
- Internalize the issue and ask yourself how your own viewpoint could change. Using the above example, I could ask myself how I could speak to myself and others in a more compassionate manner.
- Write without stopping until you discover an insight that a pilgrim might seek.