Heroic Mindfulness

Providing a means of salvation is a central value of many religions. At its most general, “salvation” means deliverance from an undesirable to a more desirable state of being. Deliverance from sickness to health, fear to security, pain to comfort, grief to acceptance are common forms of salvation. These are the kinds of things for which people make sacrifices or pray to the gods.

The religious myths of the world are replete with “superheroes” who bring salvation to their communities. Theseus slaying the Minotaur, David slaying Goliath, Odysseus finally returning and slaying the wasteful suitors, represent one form, a violent form, of salvation.  Parsifal recovering the Holy Grail that heals the wasteland, represents a more peaceful form. The superheroes, so abundant in current movies and television, may be the modern equivalent of the mythic heroes of old. There is a lot of fear in the world, and these superheroes that deliver society from evil monsters and aliens may represent our desire for salvation from this gnawing fear.

Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the America that I see around me, I would be more likely to say that they lead lives of quiet, and increasingly unquiet, desperation and anger. And unfortunately, desperate people seek salvation desperately. They will give themselves to whatever they believe can deliver such salvation — religion, ideology, nationalism, or increasingly a vile concoction of these three.

Why people are desperate and angry amidst the great prosperity of our times raises an interesting question. But it seems that they are. I suspect, however, that the cause may lie in the nature of our human soul more than external factors. I think all creatures have an instinctive desire for security and we humans are no different in that. But whereas most animals fear concrete dangers present in their environment, we humans are often haunted by abstractions and phobias. And unfortunately, marketers and the media have become quite ingenious at exploiting these abstract fears in helping people sell their products and ideologies.

The upshot is that even in these times of peace and prosperity, there is a lot of abstracted fear, and fear easily leads to anger and hate. Humans being humans, we seek to locate and name a cause of our fear and the unhappiness it causes. All too frequently, throughout history and today, people point to some other group of people as that cause. These others are usually people who are noticeably different, different in skin color or religion or some such thing. The witch hunt is the archetypal mythic form of blaming the outsider for our problems

Most of the articles I have published on SNS in one way or another are about developing our inner resources. Despite a lifetime of working to develop my inner resources, I still find myself at times stewing in anger. The work I have done, however, does help me to understand that the real source of my anger is not out there, but “in here.” My ability to improve the external world is tremendously limited. But I have some ability to improve how I respond to my perceptions of that world. I have learned how to recognize my anger, look it in the eye, and see it for what it is — a state of mind. The act of seeing anger for what it really is a critical step to moving beyond it.

I imagine that there are a few readers who, at this point, would like to yell at me “Hey! There really are things out there to be angry about!” I don’t deny it. But what good will it do to be angry? Are there ever good reasons to be angry? Some speak of “righteous anger,” but it is people who are most convinced of their righteousness that I trust least. I prefer the humbleness of Socrates’ “know that you don’t know.”

A fearful world, I would suggest, needs people who can see through abstracted fear. A hateful world needs people who have the strength of love. An angry world needs people who can radiate peace and calmness. If anger is one of the problems of our times, does it do any good to add to the anger? If we are going to take action, will it not be more helpful to do so in a state of calm reason rather than agitated anger?

In the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus brings salvation to Thebes by slaying the monster. Is there not something of the archetype of the witch hunt in this myth? “All our problems are caused by the monster, simply slay the monster and we’ll be free of our problems.” But it never works that way. We humans tend to carry our monsters with us.

Another reading of this myth is that the labyrinth is the complexity of our inner being — a place where we can easily get lost if we have no guidance.  In this reading, the Minotaur is our inner animal, our impulses, phobias, obsessions and hungers. This Minotaur cannot be slain, but it can be tamed. It is what Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Recognizing this beast of the shadows, recognizing how it gives rise to these impulses, phobias, obsessions and hungers that create the turmoil of our soul, even developing compassion for this beast which is also part human, part of our humanness — this is the critical step to taming it, and thus calming some of the turmoil it causes.

Read this way, the real heroism of Theseus is in his having the courage and fortitude to come face to face with his own inner darkness, the beastliness of anger and hate, and to bring it into the light of consciousness. We may not be able to save society, but we can obtain this level of salvation for ourselves. And with that we may be able to help a few others move closer to finding their own inner salvation.

Meditation and contemplation are vehicles of mindfulness that can carry us through the labyrinths of our inner being and bring us face to face with the sources of our motivations and behavior, our inner Minotaur. This journey is anything but safe and easy. It requires, I think, that we be heroically mindful? Do we have what it takes to be that kind of hero?


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