In a private facebook discussion with a few friends over whether there was any merit to Nicholas Kristof’s recent NYTimes opinion piece Forget Excuses. What Counts Is Winning Elections, my dear friend Brian said something that got me thinking about the stark parallels between the personal and collective conflicts we see in our world.
I’ll include a segment of Brian’s comment for full context:
“[We] are not going to always like the direction our leaders take us in. However both sides have to find a way to have leaders who support unifying the country, who require accountability, and who respect each other’s political differences and values. Otherwise I worry we’re headed for civil war. We need a moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader to run in 2020. I am not sure who that is yet, but if we keep acting like elections are war, war is what we’re going to get. We are basically in the midst of an internal Cold War with ourselves.”
That last line.
I found it a brilliantly poignant way to look at things, as I do believe we are in “the midst of an internal Cold War,” but that cold war isn’t only between ourselves, it’s also within ourselves.
Brian is a humanitarian who has spent most of the last decade working in conflict zones, and is also ex-military. As such, has many friends on both sides of the political divide in the USA and uses his platform to engage openly with all political views. He does this stunningly, maintaining respect for all points of view, while holding his own. In itself, it’s a tribute to open dialogue, and the power of having some distance from your own ideas.
After first reading his comment, I immediately compared it to what I’ve see in my personal life, and in my work with individuals. Re-reading Brian’s remarks from a personal perspective, the parallels become all the more apparent. We don’t always like the direction our life may take us, much less where our mind may take us, or even often our actions (ie, our actions that seem out of our control, especially when we do things we hate or wish we didn’t do, or say). But we have to find a way to lead ourselves, and unify ourselves from within – to unify what we love about ourselves with what we hate about ourselves, finding neither better or worse than the other. We need self-accountability, and must respect ourselves in the midst of our own internal conflicts and differences.
“What lurks within all of us is a deep internal self-war, one that is often unconscious, driving seeming protective behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive.”
Our collective cold wars so closely mirror the cold wars we wage within. No matter what folks show us on the outside, no matter how perfect or powerful people appear, inside is always a different story. It’s may be unconscious, and it’s often grossly suppressed under achievement or adventure or the doing to the 10,000 things. But as I described in my last article on Power, this internal cold war betrays itself in bursts of anger against inanimate objects, sleepless nights, addictive behaviors, or – more simply – harsh feelings against the view points of those on the other side of the aisle.
These darks sides are what I work to uncover when I work one-on-one with individuals, as uncovering these barriers are key to peace, and to better performance. What lurks within all of us is a deep internal self-war, one that is often unconscious, driving seeming protective behaviors that are ultimately self-destructive.
I didn’t realize the confluence of our personal and collective cold wars until I read Brian’s remarks. And clearly, ours is not the only nation in this plight. We see our entire humanity acting out internal wars in the collective. I personally believe (perhaps biased because of my work, or perhaps because it’s true) that until we come to peace with ourselves – peace with our own hates, angers, and fears – that we’ll collectively keep destroying ourselves.
And here, again, Brian’s statements rings true and parallel:
“[We] are not going to always like the direction our leaders take us in.”
As above: we’re not always going to like the direction our mind, our actions, our life - ourselves - take us in.
“However both sides have to find a way to have leaders who support unifying the country, who require accountability, and who respect each other’s political differences and values.”
This is the crux of the work I do with my clients. We don’t banish or suppress or ignore the things we don’t’ like about ourselves, our lives, our families, our jobs, or anything else. Nor do we paint them in rose colors, or put a smiling face on them. Both are attempts to overpower them, and – like what we see brewing in the collective – only internal war and suffering can arise from attempts to push out or overpower the things we don’t like.
“Otherwise I worry we’re headed for civil war.”
To find any peace, we must acknowledge and allow our angers, fears, hatreds, sorrows, mistakes, and failures without judgment. We must avoid trying to analyze, fix, solve or make sense of them. Just as the other side doesn’t want to be analyzed, neither do your fears and hatreds. They’ll revolt against it. Like a child begging for our attention, our hates, fears, angers, etc., just need to be acknowledged and allowed. Not analyzed. And definitely not fixed. Who wants to be fixed? The same goes for your dark side.
Like a child, your dark side doesn’t have a why. Because, ultimately, there is no absolute why. Why is always subjective, changing, and hence empty. Why is not real. You can make it up, but it can’t hold water. But the feeling is real. It may be temporary, or masquerading as another (fear as anger, or anger as fear, for examples). It’s a signal to be paid attention to. And, as we be with whatever it is (to be with is the literal translation of compassion), it will unveil itself to us, in all it’s transforming depths. We don’t know where the signal is leading, but if we can be quiet and listen for long enough, it will reveal itself. And then it will change.
The art, and the work, is to allow and embrace whatever arises, and let it be there as long as it needs to without judging it as good or bad, without grasping it or pushing it away, or justifying or rationalizing it (important note: allowing something is not the same as acting on something). If you do this, if you pay attention and let it be, let it come and go, it will work itself out, on it’s own and in it’s own time. It always does. Sometimes this can take a very long time. This is where we need support and patience in our practice.
“We need a moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader to run in 2020. I am not sure who that is yet, but if we keep acting like elections are war, war is what we’re going to get.”
In this case, I know exactly who that moderate, inclusive and charismatic leader it: it is–and can only ever be–yourself.
You have to be inclusive and allowing of all that you are, including your hates and desires and fears and everything else. As my dharma brother and fellow therapist Akiva Youan, calls it, “all the good stuff.”
And then you must be moderate with it. Moderate and inclusive. Always astutely balancing between the mental extremes of right, wrong, good, bad, success, failure. Remember that all of these, from right to failure, are subjective ideas that we put on top of things: these values are not inherent in the thing itself. So we must continually check ourselves and question our minds in order to maintain a balance, careful not to fall into any extreme of mental judgment.
The good news is that you can absolutely build and maintain such internal leadership within yourself. You can live a life open and non-judging and inclusive of you at your worst (and equally non-judging of you at your best: neither bad, nor good). When you practice this consistently (it is a practice, it is never perfected, but you can live it consistently), over time, with practice you can meet – and love – those you meet as they are, not as you’d like them to be. You can do this because you meet and love yourself as you actually are, and are not caught in some ideal of who you could, should or might be. And there lies peace.
And that is leadership.
And it also leader to charisma. Real, human charisma. The person we can all see ourselves in, because that person is ultimately comfortable in their own skin, comfortable and at peace with everything about themselves. They don’t need to prove themselves, or be a certain way, or achieve anything, to get your approval because they already approve of themselves. And hence, they are at peace.
Now, all this sounds lovely and wonderful. But in reality, when you’re in the midst of pain, anger, hate, or fear, you cannot distance yourself from yourself unless you’ve spent significant, regular time sitting with yourself in still and quiet, anchored to the ever-changing present by your breath. It takes work and determination.
So, have you sat yet today? Have you spent time with yourself? Can you do it now? If even just for three breaths?
If you want peace, if you want to lead, if you want to be charismatic, then you must sit. Sit now. And have present, focused and inclusive day.