When we ignore the creative conflict that is at the basis of life, it will always devolve into destructive patterns like actual war itself.
Our world continues to be in constant turmoil, though everyone – from such diverse figures in human history such as Gandhi and Adolf Hitler, to world leaders and the man on the street today – says that peace is their objective. Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Somalia: even in areas where human beings have a choice to create peace, we appear incapable of it.
Is this sad state of affairs inevitable? Are there spiritual insights that can help us understand and perhaps correct these terrible imbalances, this plague we bring upon ourselves?
Kabbalah — the metaphysical teachings of Judaism — offers a perspective that may be of help. Although most people think of ‘Kabbalah’ as a form of ancient wisdom, it is more exactly a discipline that allows one to receive the present moment with growing clarity, to have an on-going relationship with what we might call ‘the real’, the ‘true self’, ‘the origin’, or ‘God’.
In other words, Kabbalah helps us to see the world as it is, as it was made, with its true intentions, its glory and its problems intact. The Kabbalah also teaches us that when we see the world clearly, we see ourselves clearly, and vice versa.
If, for a moment, we allow ourselves to really think about the world without any preconceptions, it will emerge that war of a sort is built into all of us, into the fabric of the universe. It is going on all the time. The world is built on conflict of some nature.
From the smallest microbes to the largest galaxies, everything is in an intense relationship that includes taking and giving, antagonism and cooperation. The entire universe requires this collision of desires and needs and material in order to exist.
Creation and destruction, so carefully and plainly talked about in the Torah, are the fabric of the world. The world could not exist without this consistent unity between building and tearing down. This is the relationship between birth and death, mediated by growth. All religions are built on our response to this constant cycle and its consequence in our lives.
At a most obvious level, one form of life eats another in order to survive. Strands of DNA swap material, break and re-group; galaxies collide and the dynamics of star-making and planet-making depend upon this destruction. One thing must die in order for another to live.
War of some sort is also constantly being waged inside us, in our own body, mind, and spirit. It shows up in the play going on in our physical bodies bacteria, viruses, our interactions with the physical world and in the conflicting patterns of our hearts and minds and the ways we try to meet these inner demons and angels.
Problems in our childhood, in our families and relationships, problems in our bodies, all of these make our life less than perfect. None of us is exempt from fear and anxiety, confusion and angst.
So why is it, despite the abundance of evidence, that we have developed a form of amnesia, an inner consciousness that says: “There can be a world without conflict, a world of utter peace, a world where the lion and lamb can lie down together without the lamb becoming lunch.”
In this vision, there is no conflict. We have returned earth to an Eden. We may not articulate this to ourselves, but it is there in our hearts. A part of us hopes for the end of all conflict and struggle and harbours a belief that some day this could be reality.
The same is true in our inner lives, how we view ourselves as spiritual beings. We believe that we can attain a variety of inner peace that does not contain large doses of conflict and turmoil. Our vision of an enlightened or God-surrendered life is one in which there are no problems. The appeal of fundamentalism is that its adherents can banish doubt completely.
The premise that conflict is fundamental to existence, may be hard to hear and painful to accept. But implicit in our hope and yearning for a conflict-free existence is the truth that conflict is integral to life.
Does our idealistic clinging to the vision of a possible Eden-on-earth serve our cause? Or is it part of the problem, contributing to the very conflicts we are trying to avoid?
In the kabbalistic story of creation, the emergence of the created world from the endless oneness of God actually had to happen twice: the first time, it failed. This failure sets the stage for the emergence of a more deeply integrated reality, and has many important spiritual connotations, but nonetheless, it takes God two tries to achieve the desired aim.
If God is synonymous with perfection, why this failure? Is this failure only an overture to the correction of the error, or is there something in the process of failure itself that is important?
Contemplative study reveals that this failure is not worthless, but contains something of value that cannot be expressed in any other way. It underscores the fact that imperfection is deeply ingrained in the makeup of this universe.
In the creation of this universe, imperfection and perfection come into being at the same time; they have a common origin in God’s creative activity. Imperfection is an important ingredient, not just so it can be corrected, but because of its intrinsic worth.
God’s wholeness, and our wholeness, must take both perfection and imperfection, brokenness and healing into account. Wholeness or reality, or God, whatever you want to call this state of completeness holds brokenness and all that goes with it in such high regard that it was included in the effort to create a universe itself.
This means that we ourselves, as part of creation, are inherently imperfect, and this imperfection has some bearing on wholeness, the creative moment and life itself.
The denial of imperfection, and all that imperfection implies, is really our deepest anguish, but we keep this anguish hidden from ourselves. We work very hard to keep it unconscious. It is our deepest anguish because, by denying it, we are denying an important part of creation and an important part of our soul, a part that God sought to keep within wholeness.
Why is this notion of universal imperfection so unnerving and hard to embrace? It is because the imperfection of the universe is directly responsible for our personal suffering.
There are personal consequences to letting imperfection into the world. These include our suffering caused by an imperfect world, imperfect parents, imperfect institutions, imperfect religious and philosophical ideas and so on.
We live on an earth that shakes and kills. We live near oceans that can rise up and drown. We live with other people, in communities and countries that are built on limited ideas. We ourselves have limited ideas. We parent our children with limited ideas. We cause suffering to ourselves and others.
Lest you get depressed reading this, let me assure you that I am setting the stage for the return of joy but a joy that comes from true wholeness and not the fleeting joy that comes from keeping the wolf of suffering at bay.
We make life worse for ourselves and those around us when we fail to create a relationship with imperfection and suffering that is infused with the awareness and tenderness of the Divine. When we do not know the Divine secret of suffering and how to use it, we deny life. We are life, so we deny ourselves. Other people are life, so we ignore their humanity and lose their riches. God is life, so we feel separate from God.
When we ignore the fundamental state of conflict that is at the basis of life, it will always devolve into even more destructive patterns, like actual war itself.
Our inability to embrace the imperfection of life often leads directly to our own personal suffering. We cannot see the world as it is and other people as they are. This leads to more suffering among a greater number.
When we do not allow our own fundamental suffering to exist within ourselves, it will always lead to us separating ourselves from reality…and our own hearts.
When I was still practising as a healer-counsellor, I would often have people confess to me the horrendous abuse they suffered as children. Almost inevitably, each one, after the first time they made this confession, said something like, “Well, I really shouldn’t complain. A lot worse has happened to other people.” This is not an example of integrated or healthy behaviour, but of the power of denial.
Imperfection leads to conflict and conflict leads to personal suffering. That will always be a part of reality. There is no perfect parenting, nor can there be. We will all grow old. There is no physical body that will not fall ill and die. There is no ultimate protection from earthquakes and seas.
When we can’t bear to admit that this level of suffering is universal and eternal, we compound the problem and start a parade of unrealities to grow.
As children, we needed to protect ourselves from life’s suffering because it truly was life-threatening to us at that stage of our development. As adults we continue to believe that we need to blind ourselves to it. In an effort to escape, we invent the mythology of the perfected world, either through political means or religious belief in an afterlife or messiah who will eliminate all conflict from this plane of existence. We believe we can make this earth into a heaven.
In not facing reality, we also push our own suffering by unconscious but active denial into other people and into the world, and try to force the world to change to save our own psyche from having to deal with this reality.
For example, parents who cannot tolerate their own imperfections, criticise and alienate their child for its imperfections. On a larger scale, some cultures attempt to push away their own suffering by making their members all good and other people all bad. This happened in Nazi Germany, in Bosnia, and in Rwanda. The “other” become de-humanised vermin to be removed by any means.
True heaven can only be found by being in reality. When we take the chance of accepting reality as it is, with its fundamental imperfection, we first reduce the extra suffering we cause ourselves through our denial. We open the door to something that cannot be grasped while we still are trying to split the world.
Accepting the fundamental nature of conflict, we accept the world. Accepting the world we are more in reality. The nature of reality also known as being with God, or surrendered to God is fundamentally joyous. Wholeness itself, even with its imperfections and difficulties, is joyous. As Reb Nachman said, “The world to come is already here”.
This can only be known as we surrender to what is. It is counter-intuitive to do this; our instinctual movement is to move away from pain. But to enter into the spiritual life, we actually have to accept pain or suffering as it is. This is the hope of our species.
This is true for us on a daily basis. Pain management physicians now know—through duplicable and controlled experiments—that opening to pain actually helps alleviate it. The more we fight it, the more we become locked into the cycle of pain.
All effective forms of meditation must deal with physical and emotional discomfort. The psalms, which speak of the darkness that David endured, confirm the fundamental truth of suffering in life. When David joyously opens to the Divine, embracing his suffering – but not wallowing in it he is led directly to informed faith that demonstrates itself, not faith that is not blind.
Many years ago, I was very ill for almost seven years. A major turning point came during that seventh year when a helper I was working with asked, “What will you do if this is it? If you will never get any better than today?” I really had to stop and think. I thought that I could kill myself. It was a distinct possibility. Then I asked myself if I could live this way?
Strangely, knowing or considering—that my health might never recover gave me great relief. There was nowhere else to go. Nothing to improve upon, nothing to change. When I decided to live with my sickness, rather than stand aside and view my afflicted life as if I were not part of it, I began to heal.
All illness does not, of course, resolve in this manner. We must always continue to do the work of healing in any way we can. But when we open to our suffering, our relationship to it changes, allowing for a healing of the soul, even when the body fails.
The world needs to heal. At the heart of government are people who are either willing, or not, to look at their own, real pain. Beneath all philosophical ideas, lofty or mundane, are people who think and act a certain way because of how they have negotiated this moment.
The riots over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet are an example of the inability of the Muslim people to directly negotiate and feel the terrible pain they are now in. The repression in their home countries, their status as third-world citizens in many of the host countries to which they have emigrated, and the stress of knowing that their culture is being held hostage by extremists are at the base of this.
The inherent conflict of life is life-enhancing and non-neurotic. It is the creative foundation of all existence. When we participate in it, we embrace life.
Embracing life, we only want the best for other people, though we sometimes fall short on delivery. We fall short because we are imperfect; because we suffer. We can rise from that. We can learn from that. We are human because of that. And we can trust what God gave us, perfect and imperfect, to make a better world.
We will never have a world without conflict, but we can have a world perhaps without war. As we accept conflict as an intrinsic part of creation, we may discover one of the secrets of the world: that conflict is not only a workable condition of life but its foundation. In this way, the world will be seen for what it always was and still is: a single, whole thing. This will become clear to us as we become willing to stop deliberately anesthetising ourselves because we fear we are not capable of remembering and living through our own suffering.
As we accept the smaller sufferings, the greater sufferings, the ones we cause ourselves will naturally diminish. Then our true and generous light will shine. If we can do this perhaps there can be no more Dafurs and Rwandas, or Nazi Germany and gulags and Jim Crow, because the unity of self and other will begin to shine within the illumination of the individual self. This is a possible and real peace, and it starts with me and you.
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