Compassion, Privilege, and Spiritual Practice
I just finished spending time at the “Ram Dass Spring on Maui Retreat.” An incredible lineup of teachers was present, including Lama Surya Das, Mirabai Bush, Saraswati and Raghu Marcus, Nina Rao, Rameshwar Das and Shantala. Of course, for me and many others, our reason for being there was Ram Dass.
It’s hard to put into words what the magic of the retreat was like. Ram Dass showered us with love from his own open heart, and we melted into it. Each of us in our own way blossomed and bathed in the light. We practiced meditation, yoga, chi-gong, kirtan, and listened to dharma talks. Spending time with satsang only deepened the love, and much of the magic occurred during the free time between sessions. People openly divulged their insecurities and fears to strangers during lunch. Hugs, sincere well-wishing, deep listening and heartfelt care all became so commonplace that it was hard to remember that any other way even existed. The love was real, and it felt amazing.
Many asked questions about how to bring this magic back into our daily lives, and others expressed their fear that it would slip away. All of us, I’m sure, sincerely hope that our time together in love will help us to be a little softer, a little more caring, and a little more present and loving in our daily lives.
This is my wish also, but that’s not what was on my mind during this retreat. Instead, I have been consumed with What do I do about all of this privilege that I enjoy at the expense of others, and how does spiritual practice relate to this?
“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
How does this love benefit the poorest and most marginalized of us?
It is important to be in touch with our own inner well of compassion, presence and love. If all of us did this then there would be much less suffering and poverty in this world, but in reality the inequality is staggering. We normally think of inequality as the income gap between us and the super rich, but there is also a gaping chasm between rich countries like the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.
The inequality gap is so wide that I fear that the love, compassion, and kindness gained from spiritual practices by privileged Americans like me might be disproportionately benefiting other privileged people.
The fact that I was at the retreat is proof that I live a life of privilege. By most American standards, I don’t make much money. However, this is a choice I have made rather than the result of circumstance. I come from a middle-class family and social network that I know would help me if I ever came into an emergency. This means that I can afford to take risks- to move often, to travel to India, to work at low-paying jobs I believe in, and to take time off to go to Maui for spiritual retreat. I am also a white male. This means it is easier for me to get jobs, avoid the police, rent apartments, and I have more social capital available than many others. Lastly, I am a citizen of the United States. I am the resident of a country that disproportionately benefits from our neoliberal economic system, often at the expense of others.
On some level, all of us at the retreat came from a privileged position in our global society. It’s likely then, that now the retreat is over, many of us will spend the majority of our time among other privileged people, even if that only means that we are hanging out with other Americans.
So if we are being kinder, warmer, and more caring to a society of privilege, in what ways does that help the most marginalized of us?
Do displaced Indigenous Peoples from the Amazon care that relatively wealthy Americans are being kind and caring to one another?
I keep coming back to the fact that I am both complicit in and benefiting from a system that is subjugating billions to poverty, wreaking havoc on the planet, and causing endless suffering to all forms of sentient life.
Is it good enough to be kind, caring and loving to others that are also complicit and benefiting from this same system?
It is my sincere wish to grow in my compassion, and I will continue to allow my heart to open in whatever circumstances I find myself in and with whatever people I am surrounded by. Inevitably this means sharing love with other people like me who live a life of privilege.
But this cannot be enough. I must also push myself into circumstances that can help transform the system. I must spend time with those who have been most marginalized by society. Love that is shared only with the privileged is not the deepest love.
The perfection of the Universe is a deep Truth that can be found through spiritual inquiry and practice. But it is easy to confuse that Ultimate Truth with a relative reality when sitting in a hot tub on Maui. It’s easy to forget about global warming. It’s easy to forget that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to feed our cows, or that water is being stolen from poor rural communities so it can be sold in bottles to make a profit.
Activism, cynicism and intellectual curiosity all lead to the realization of just how deeply fucked up the system is. It’s important that I don’t brush this away. I want to cradle it close, especially when my heart is open. I want this grief to saturate my being. If we are to truly love everyone, as the great spiritual traditions implore, then a deep pain must inevitably arise from the realization that we are complicit in the world’s suffering.
I want to hold both grief and love in my being at the same time. I want to hold our Eternal Nature as well as our fragile incarnations. I want to hold the Truth of God as well as the world’s immense suffering. I want to honor the way spiritual practices and retreats have shaped my life, the way that they have allowed me to hold this seeming paradox, while also acknowledging that the reason I have been able to engage in them has largely been because of my privilege.
If I’m sitting in a hot tub in the tropics while dissolving into love, then I also want to be smacked with the pangs of grief.
This sorrow is not just another cloud passing through the vast sky of my being. Its a calling to rest in an even deeper truth and a more expansive love.