Vince: So, I wanted to ask you if you’ve found any parallels since you’ve been so deeply involved with both fields, between the path of the activist and then the contemplative path?
Richard: Yeah. They have certain characteristics in common. They are disappointing. They are painful. They’re bewildering. And they both have a sense of hopelessness.
I think where this kind of comes together is kind of like you’re life is a mess, and you decide, “Oh, I need to become a spiritual person.” So, you head off to your Dharma center, and you’re intent on becoming spiritual person, and you have a fixed idea about what a spiritual person is, or more importantly, should be like. And then you meet a bunch a whackos. It’s not immediately obvious that they’re whackos, because you’re all mediating away together, but it soon becomes clear over the tea break, and certainly once a fight breaks out in the kitchen, that there are some really some disturbed people there. [Laughs] And then the idea crosses your mind that, you know, you might be completely at home there. And for a lot of people this kind of encounter is really shattering, because as someone said to me recently, an older gentleman who came to one of our centers—he came to tell me how disappointed he was, because he’d been looking for holy people, and he thought that he would find them in Shambhala, and he hadn’t found any, and so it was almost like we were doing false advertising.
The same thing is like, you think about yourself being a mess, well, it’s not difficult to listen to a podcast, or go on the Internet, or watch the TV, whatever, and immediately conclude that the world is a mess. So, with that same tremendous kind of Prince Valiant, or Don Quixote quality, you set off to fix the world in the same way that you were going to fix yourself by becoming a spiritual person. And then you have a very clear idea of about how those people should be, or how the world should function. So, you go with this tremendous idealistic attitude off to your local whatever, environmental group, or human rights group, or “Stop Drug Abuse” group, or whatever it is you’re motivated to do. And guess what? You find a bunch of whackos there. [Laughs] And it might not be obvious that they’re whackos just the minute you walk in the door, and you’re doing some work, and somebody has some pious sounding words about saving the whale, or something. But, when you get down to work, you find at least as high a level of aggression, distrust, mistrust, interpersonal conflict, greed, confusion, and violence in that outfit as you thought you were trying to escape from. And so the level of disappointment then can be even more stunning, because then you’re led into a complete sense, well, “My god, these people… you know, I thought these people were all like me. They all wanted to save the world. And then I find out that I’m with a bunch of whackos.” And so it’s almost a complete intersection with your experience when you’re at the meditation center. And then you have to either go, “Well, look, either I’m the only pure and trustworthy person on the planet with a clear idea about a spiritual life and how to fix the planet, or the bad news is, that the next person who’s like me who comes in through the doors, whether it’s to your Dharma center or to your “Save the World” group is going to see you’re just one of the whackos, too.”
And this is a very… I’ve tried to describe it in kind of lighthearted terms. This is very shattering for a lot of people. This is the foundation of the bitterness, and the burnout, and the self-hatred, and the deep despair and hopelessness that you encounter among people who say to you, “I tried that,” whether they’re referring to mediation or whether they’re referring to, for example, trying to stop the Iraq war. And who conclude there’s no point in engaging in politics, because the whole situation is corrupt, or there’s no point in following a spiritual path, because the kind of people you meet are so weird.
So, there is a profound personal journey that we all have to go through. Now, there’s many ways of characterizing that journey, but at the heart of it you could say that’s the journey from arrogance to humility.