Finding Courage to Believe in Goodness

Setting out in search of the True, the Good and the Beautiful

May 21, 2013

Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha

Thank you for the invitation to be with you this evening. It is an honor to be here.

Sometimes when I lie half awake at night I ponder questions about my self worth and what I am doing here on earth, or will ever do here. The feeling is there that I have not done much with my life and while that is not entirely true, the recitation of the things that I have done this week or this year don’t seem to ease the heaviness in my heart and chest. Sometimes the feeling stretches into the morning and looking out from under the covers I need faith just to get up, or to get through a difficult conversation. If anyone else here tonight sometimes feels this way, I am saying that you are not alone.

A lot of life is suffering and much of our struggle is to live with that; to carry on through that or even to redeem that. The headlines are full of despair and it is very difficult not to take the weight of it all on. When public leadership seems paralyzed; when on the coasts the seas are rising and here in New Mexico snows are thin and the forests are every year burning; when a religion of guns displaces a religion of compassion, when slogans displace education and when materialism drives us, not toward relationship, but toward loneliness, it is hard not to take all that in and go down with it. Those are all complexities in the greater world and then when we add to those the complexities of our personal lives; relationships in distress, children disconnected from hope, promises not kept, health crises not anticipated, or parents not sufficiently honored, we can be forgiven if life is not just suffering, it may seem to be only suffering.

Those of you who know my work know that I am deeply concerned about the rise of plutocracy in America and across the world and when I see the continuing expansion of the Rupert Murdoch media empire or the Charles and David Koch conglomerate empire that stretches from oil and gas to scores of propaganda foundations, to drafting legislation for state governments, and now seeking to buy up the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, or when I see that the great banks like Goldman Sachs or Citibank have consolidated power to such a degree that only five or six of these banks control assets in excess of half of the GDP of the entire country, I tremble for democracy.

All the power seems to have flowed to those with the most money and those with the most money may, quite simply, be followers, not of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammad, or Carl Jung or TS Eliot, or Walt Whitman, or Leo Tolstoy, (or, that is, may not be led by poetry or beauty or compassion), but by they are more likely to be followers of Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith, Malthus, Herbert Spencer, and Ayn Rand.

How then shall any of us, no matter upon which wave of misfortune we may ride—we all have something—find courage to believe in—to go forward and search for— what is good? Or, let’s make it broader: how can we move forward, in such a world, to search out and claim, endorse, and absorb, —or, even more, depend upon and live knowing, the true, the good and the beautiful?

Last week Grove spoke to the dangers of rigidity in organized religion. Some of the same dangers may attach to pessimistic rigidity. That is, if we take refuge in either rigid pessimism or rigid optimism we can be misguided. But since almost nobody is rigidly optimistic, tonight let me make a case for not being rigidly pessimistic.

Sharon Salzberg points out in her wonderful little book, Faith, —it is here in your library—Mikaela brought it home for me because I have thought a great deal about faith over the years, wondering about it, and wanted to speak about what I have gathered from my own life and readings. Then Mikaela brought me Sharon’s writing and I have found it quite wonderful. She says that acting on faith is acting—not in illusion or even on the basis of what someone else has said or taught—but on one’s own deepest experience. And she says that—based on that personal experience—one can have the courage to relax into any moment. That letting go requires letting go of a prescribed future that is framed either by fixated hope or consuming fear. She spells out what she means by fear and “fixated hope” and if you occasionally wonder how to let go and find the middle ground between delusional hope and paralyzing fear, she tells stories that make it seem quite possible.

Tonight, building upon that, it might be useful to add some encouraging and supporting information. An act of faith is not, as it turns out, simply an emotional deep sigh and letting go of reality. An act of faith may begin, to the contrary, quite rationally. There is some useful news: From a rational standpoint, our human condition is not so bad and may never have been better.

Here is the data: Violence has been proportionately declining dramatically over a 3,000-year period. In spite of all our present malfunctioning, in the long evolution of homo sapiens there has been a civilizing process that has been gradually unfolding. Steven Pinker in his remarkable book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has assembled 700 pages of evidence. Pinker says, for example, that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a ten-to fifty-fold decline in the rates of homicides. The murder rate has gone down as we have moved into cities, and have come to live cheek by jowl. Pinker notes that in the days of hunter-gatherers, the chance of dying violently was above 60%. Two-thirds of everybody died by the rock or the spear or the lion or the bear. When you stop to think about it, there is no city in the world today, no ghetto, no pueblo, no inner London or Harlem, no part of New Delhi or Kabul, and certainly not Santa Fe, where a person walking down the street has a 60% chance of dying violently. Bad as our world is, it is not that bad. And it has been getting progressively better, in spite of Boston, and Newtown and Aurora, and Tucson, for the last 5,000 years. The expansion of national governments under central control and central laws, at first under kings and increasingly under a mixture of kings and merchants, lawyers and scientists, has expanded the restraints that discourage violence. That path is clearly visible when you look at the 5,000-year time line.

The change in civilization in the last 600 years has been the most dramatic.

From the Renaissance to the present there have been organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals. For the first time in human history in the last century we have seen massive organized movements resisting war. In the last 50 years the great powers have stopped waging war on each other. In the 19th century it was war by England against France, France against Germany, Italy against well … itself … Germany against England, on and on. National wars continued into the 1940s and remained as a threat into the 1990s. But today, after 2,000 years of continuous fighting, war between any of the great powers is virtually unthinkable. And that includes war between the US and Russia or the US and China, or against the new powers Brazil and India, to say nothing of the US against any European country. There is simply too much to lose and not enough to gain. National wars have become obsolete.

Let me repeat the conclusion: From the Renaissance to the present there have been organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals. In the last 50 years the great powers have stopped waging war on each other. For the first time in human history in the last century we have seen massive organized movements resisting war.

Ten to fifteen million people took to the streets, worldwide, to urge an

American president filled with hubris not to go to war in Iraq in February, 2003. They did not stop him; but never in human history have so many been alert to the prospect of war in advance of that war and acted out of conscience to scream out against it.

Steven Pinker records the evidence that since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of all kinds, civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments and terrorist attacks have declined throughout the world. We may have a different impression, of course. To believe Pinker we have to literally count the numbers, because progress is hard to believe. But if we do actually count these horrific events we find that, on the one hand, the absolute number of organized conflicts and terrorist attacks, etc., has been declining. There is still enough war going on to rate front page coverage, yes, but this isn’t war that was relished and exalted in the lives of Roman emperors like Caesar or Greek heroes like Achilles, or Charlemagne, or El Cid, or even George Patton. The relishing is gone.

Just when you may be tempted, reading tomorrow’s paper, to give up on humans, consider this: In the days of the Roman Empire warriors were recruited to the armies by promises of looting. Victors came home with bags filled with stuff robbed from their murdered and raped victims. Populations approved and expected this kind of war. Murder, rape and pillage were universally accepted. One thousand years later, throughout the Middle Ages, say at the time of the Crusades and for centuries after, war was not an outrage or a subject of conscientious debate among church leaders or counselors to any king. In Joan of Arc’s century, the 15th, everybody still approved of the knights of England going off to pillage and rape through the villages of France, and vice versa. For men of the upper classes, war, looting, and killing was a mythical journey towards manhood. And when Joan of Arc broke the mold of patriarchal leadership, they burned her at the stake.

That is not the response to female leadership today, and it is not the view in general of war today, even for families of today’s plutocracies. Bad as are the corporations and their CEOs who promote slave labor in China, and bad as are the Chinese leaders who foster such slavery, these practices do not end up in whole villages burned to the ground, women dragged away in bondage and all the boy children being slaughtered. Remember that in the Iliad, after they killed the Hector, the hero of Troy, they threw his infant son to his death over the palace walls to exterminate the family line. All of Greece approved. The Greeks don’t do that any more.

No man in Caesar’s Rome would expect to be punished for beating his kids or raping his wife. And if you lived a thousand years before Rome, in the time of the Iliad, the poet Homer sought your approval for Agamemnon when he sacrificed his beautiful daughter to the gods. Human sacrifice was necessary to satisfy Artemis and this, in turn, was necessary to raise a fair wind to blow Agamemnon’s ships across the Aegean to Troy. We may be brutal now, but we are not as brutal as we were then. We don’t think so much of war and glory in battle that we will cut the throat of the daughter of the president to get assistance from the gods.

Let us therefore put violence in perspective. Such violence dominates the front pages, not because it is normal, but precisely the opposite, because it is aberrant; because it is not normal. A thing that happens only three or four times a year in Santa Fe, a murder, say, is in the papers precisely because it only happens three or four times a year. Let us not therefore evaluate our culture by the voyeurism that is profitable for Fox News or CNN. Media must, to make a profit, report things that go wrong but we, the public, are not interested in the things that go right because we already know about them. Right things are not news. As a result, the newspapers do not report who helps with the dishes or the endless parental trips to soccer or piano practice. TV reports violence because it serves profit and precisely because it is not normal.

Finally consider this difference in perception of the populations of the world say, at the beginning of the 20th century when even Winston Churchill could write to his mother that the most exhilarating thing in the world was to be shot at. Consider the difference in Churchill’s mentality or that of Kaiser Wilhelm, glorifying war, and our mentality at the beginning of the 21s century when millions around the globe understood that war is an engine for profit. Today we know that the fuel that feeds war is not human nature but profit, not our genetic predisposition, but the greed of those who manufacture the equipment for war and false justifications of war.

Further, TV that feeds our current self evaluation, is a business, not a science; it does not evaluate culture or historic trends. The media business needs murder and fire, rape and pain to sell advertising. But a car bomb in Baghdad does not prove a trend of history.

In history, in the 8th century, a revolt in China, the An Lushan revolt, a civil war, took 36 million lives. Later, Genghis Kahn ravaged across Central Asia in the 13th century and chopped up 40 million. Between the 15-19th centuries, Europeans wiped out 20 million American Indians. Not many of us today know about the An Lushan revolt but that does not mean that it didn’t happen. Today George W. Bush cannot travel to Europe for fear of being held for war crimes. That was never a problem for Genghis Kahn.

There has also been a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, too, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, gays and animals. In the last 60 years, civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights and animal rights have been increasingly asserted in what Pinker calls “a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the massive street protests in India this last winter was that they happened at all. A young 23 year-old woman was lured on to a bus, gang raped and thrown out to die, which she most tragically did. Rape is apparently pandemic in India and seldom prosecuted in court because, no matter what the judicial result, it is the woman who is shamed and the woman’s family that is dishonored. That is the deeply embedded horrific tradition. Even given that, however, a spreading sensibility in India led to thousands protesting in the streets. That would not have happened 30 years ago, or maybe even 10 years ago. The gradual global emergence of women’s dignity is a broad awakening that has not been equaled at any time in recorded history, meaning at any time since the rise of patriarchy 3,500 years ago.

It is my conviction that among all the revolutions that have occurred in the last 300 years, none is more significant than the revolution in consciousness about the value of the feminine that begins, perhaps with Joan of Arc in 1434, and is raging this year in India. In the United States and Europe the value of the feminine means not just the value of human females; it means the revival of reverence for the principles of regeneration, fertility, and ultimately, the air, water, and soil that sustain life. No revolution will have more significance in the long run than a revolution of regard for these principles associated through time with the feminine, and we live in the midst of that revolution today.

But the good evidence is not just historical. Studies of genetics and game theory of the last 20 years have concluded that humans are hard wired for cooperation. It is violence and non-cooperation that is the aberration. We are of course terribly upset by violence, and especially random and senseless violence like what happened in Boston or Newtown, but to characterize the species of 7 billion as inherently and unalterably violent because some fraction of one percent are murderers—however emotionally appealing it may be to hold this view—is nonsense.

Martin Nowak, an Austrian scientist now also at Harvard, in a wonderful book Supercooperators, lays out the frontier research in which he has played a leading role in the last 20 years. He says that the latest game theory research shows that people who cooperate tend to find other people with whom to cooperate and with whom to work. Cooperators therefore tend to cluster and when clustering bring more talent, more ideas, more collective intelligence, to the table and therefore more resources to every transaction. As a grand conclusion, therefore, groups, or clusters, of cooperators tend to prosper in every area of civilized endeavor, more than groups of cheaters. This is research that throws the whole idea of survival of the fittest into a cocked hat. In the 19th and 20th centuries, and according to Ayn Rand, fittest is a measure of the individual’s fitness independent of his or her culture or society. Martin Nowak’s research, now combined with the research of many others, demonstrates conclusively that what really promotes survival is the ability to get along and do things in groups. We survive together. We are a cooperative species and have survived in spite of our angers and wars because in the end we spend a lot more time aiding one another than killing one another.

When we think about it, this is self-evident: Cheaters, as they become notorious, tend to find it harder and harder to find willing partners; they become more isolated and finally, finding no willing partners, turn to feed on each other. This is what is happening in Russia when Putin sends Khordokovsky to Siberia, or in China when Bo Xi Lai is shamed and drummed out of the leadership, his wife convicted of murder. Cheaters, according to Nowak’s studies, are not good at clustering and so go feudal, basing relationships on power rather than consent. While by contrast clusters of cooperators are going democratic, isolated cheaters seek to expand their domains by force, or war, destroying democracy. Eventually, they destroy each other.

In the long run, and here is the point, homo sapiens has survived because its extraordinary ability to work together, think together, share information together and, in the last 400 years, pay their taxes together. The current idea that we can prosper and stay healthy, as individual superheroes without government and without taxes, is not only foolish, it is contrary to the 100,000 year record of human evolution. But, more than this, and this is the exciting part, the levels of cooperation and sensibility have been growing astronomically during this 100,000 years so that we are not like we were then. We are not killing each other at the same rate; we are not crucifying men and burning women at the stake at the same rate; we are not condoning slavery as natural, and where slavery is happening, as it is sometimes still happening with women and children, we are mounting campaigns against it for the first time in history. If life is nasty, brutish and short, it is not as nasty, brutish and short as it used to be.

Pinker’s study is of trends in history. Nowak’s research is about game theory, cooperative strategies for people in groups, or group survival. The results of both studies combine to reinforce each other. Violence and cheating are counterproductive in human evolution, or, we might say, in the evolution of civilization. And now there is more: genetic anthropologist Edward Wilson—of whom Grove spoke last week—an icon in the field of evolutionary biology, declares that altruism is a part of the genetic makeup of humans.

Until very recently, geneticists have told us that the overriding drive of all species was to pass along their genes through reproduction. Gene passage was the end-all and be-all of species intentions. When I was clutching my girl friend Emmy Lou in the parking lot at age sixteen my primary purpose was to pass on my genes. That would have been news to me then and it still seems a little improbable to me now. According to this line of thinking, however, I was not acting out of my total body’s relation to Emmy Lou; I was acting on a formula dictated by my genes. Thus Richard Dawkins explains in his book The Extended Phenotype, that genes are “little engineers in an arms race” driving us toward sex and therefore gene survival. That theory puts the little engineers of DNA in charge, and my mental and heart attraction to Emmy Lou, her perfume, her eyes, her red lips did not matter to the engineers. Any girl would do.

Something, it seems to me, is absent from this explanation.

Now there is new research that sheds light: Humans do a multitude of things that have no reproductive value whatsoever. Humans also do things that have no commercial value; things that can only be explained by some innate empathy, or compassion, that may have no individual survival value whatsoever. I may have been attracted to Emmy Lou because she liked dogs or liked my mother or whatever, all of which might have contributed to her attractiveness. Not only that, I might act in ways that take me into danger; I might enlist in the army, or race in front of a car to save a child.

This willingness to sacrifice for one another, without any known gain except the warmth in our hearts, cannot be explained in terms of survival of the fittest individual. It can only be explained as part of the irreducible minimum that comes with the human genetic package. That minimum includes a built-in, compassionate regard for the survival of the whole community, and it may express itself even at my own individual expense.

There is therefore now substantial evidence over the long course of human history that progress is being made; that this can be confirmed with findings in game theory, and can now also be explained as a natural result of our genetic code.

Why do we hesitate to relax into agreement with this evidence? Why do we remain skeptical?

I gave a talk last fall during the course of which I mentioned Steven Pinker’s book and its elaborate findings. Afterward, a woman came up to me and said with great passion that it simply could not be true, the hopeful things I was saying. I said, “Read the book and then see what you think.” She said she did not need to read the book; she knew that it was untrue without reading it. I said, well, the evidence matters. She said, not to me, it doesn’t; I know what I know. Each of us repeated ourselves several times without effect and she stormed away. Here was a person deeply invested in the negative story.

Dr. Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly that for many of us, the hardest step in maturation is to subject ourselves to the potential criticism of others by stepping out in front to claim joy. To advance the idea of human progress in the face of the evidence of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Auschwitz, Dachau, Guantanamo, and the drones, is surely naïve. Furthermore, to be naïve is the greatest danger of all for educated, upscale, cool people. To be naïve, says Brene Brown, is to be vulnerable to laughter and mocking and worse, social exclusion. To be naïve is to court social disaster. None of us wants to be considered delusional. If we are thought of as ungrounded we lose our group, or our tribe, especially in those cases where the tribe bases its identity on strength.

How then does any of us move forward into the unknown of a desperately dark future when everything in us says to be on our guard, to be cautious, to be aware the dangers of exaggerated hope. Sharon Salzberg warns against the danger of “fixated hope,” or hope that is gripped hard and never let go, like a dream fading. Fixated hope leads to suffering and maybe even cynicism.

This then is the decision point. There is evidence that humans are more perfectible than we have thought, that we might even be able to influence our genetic evolution by the way we think. That’s from the biologist Bruce Lipton. We might even be able to move our DNA around by the ways in which we think. If that is true that is hugely promising. But will any smart, right-thinking intellectual who does not want to be seen as ungrounded believe that?

I think we will not willingly move into the unknown without one more quality. It comes to us as something of a loaded word. But there is no other word that quite substitutes. It is the meaning that is wrapped up in the word “faith.”

Faith as used by the doctrinal religions to urge dependence upon some sky god is one thing. I am not talking about that kind of faith, even though it is so much a center of established religions. But faith as a verb, as Sharon Salzberg says in her book “Faith,” is something completely different. Faith as she puts it is willingness to move. To act when in despair. To step bravely into the unknown. Faith in this sense is not sitting on a chair that isn’t there. It is not dreaming of an unseen sky god to come down and save us. It is not waiting for the goddess Artemis to send to us a fair wind. It is, rather, to the contrary, acting in the darkness to take the step toward progress, not knowing whether the step will succeed, rather than collapsing in a heap of despair.

Reasons for despair are in every life and pandemic in the world. Faith is the courage to move in spite of it all. There is a parable in the Christian tradition in which Jesus says to a paralyzed man, “your faith has saved you, get up and walk.” Faith in this sense is a quality of mind and heart. It cannot be obtained simply by waiting patiently for one god or all the gods to act. Although we can be encouraged by others, or by some external story, and that encouragement is real, in the end the ability to move forward into the unknown comes from some personal inner courage, some individual strength.

In this sense—describing the courage to get out of bed—faith can be part of our preparation for any day. We can will ourselves to step forward into the darkness rather than wring our hands in paralyzed despair.

But this is not quite all of it: I have been saying that faith is finding strength in times of darkness and despair. That is true. But even more, faith is the appetite to go forward every moment, every moment, with eyes lifted and ears open, searching for blue sky and a song. That is not to say that every moment is beautiful, or that suffering is not suffering, or that evil does not exist. It is rather to not be so blinded by suffering and pain that we can no longer see what is true, or what is good, or what is beautiful. We don’t have to pretend that it is there; but we don’t have to pretend, either, that it is not there. And, when in doubt, to have faith is to choose the nobler hypothesis.

We have evidence that cooperation is in the nature of the species. We have evidence that altruism is in the genetic code of every human. We have evidence that in the long history of the species that we have become less cruel and more gentle with each other. Maybe the genetic code that programmed Achilles and Herakles and Caesar and Brutus has altered in two or three thousand years. Or maybe it is the stories that change first. We have evidence that we are gradually shedding the stories of patriarchy and individual selection as accurate descriptions of the way things are, or should be, to lead us toward survival. When the stories change our intentions change, and when our intentions change, our environment changes, and when our environment changes our DNA reacts differently. That is what E.O. Wilson says: at some point the human gene changed to foster altruism and bang! The species took off.

We have sufficient consciousness now to choose to point our faces in the direction of the sun and to do so because that way lies the nobler hypothesis. It’s that simple. Or we can decide not to. We can point toward the true, the good and the beautiful, or not. That is a choice, and that choice, as it turns out, is the same thing as acting out of faith.

It takes courage to believe that survival is possible, or, in more modest terms, that the true, the good and the beautiful, are within human reach. But it is not just courage; it is courage combined with love, unbounded love, for what is. The word faith points to the loving willingness to move with eyes and heart open straight into the darkness of the unknown, into the inscrutable, and into the mysterious.

Such openness may be the aware and focused state of being that allows one to make a connection between one’s own deep inner goodness and the external, beyond-all-knowing goodness, that universal goodness that cannot be described. There is an ancient saying that when that connection is made—between one’s own deep inner goodness and the external, beyond-all-knowing goodness—there is found a person of light and that his light, or her light, is a light that shall light the world.

How do we decide to pursue that light? Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote that there are a thousand ways of saying no, only one way of saying yes, and no way of saying anything else.