• nancy willbern

Not this, Not that


Ancient koan:

Does the dog chase the cat because it runs?

Or, does the cat run because the dog chases it?

Answer: Yes

My waffling mind on politics: Opposing positions hate each other, while co-creating each other at the same time. They always arise together. You can’t have one without the other. And because of that, neither has any real substance to it. The foundation for each polarized position is the pull in the opposite direction from the other pole. That doesn’t mean that each or either position might not be factually right or true about some things. It just means that neither position is based on an independent truth, on a singular, inherent authenticity.

I know this. I know it to be true from my work with clients and from my own life experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still get magnetically drawn, quite regularly by the deep desire to be right and to find the other flat-out wrong. That’s such a delicious place to be. At least temporarily. It’s sort of like willfully eating a chocolate brownie you know is laced with rat poisoning. I know it will eventually make me sick, but it has chocolate chips in it, pecans, the tiniest touch of cinnamon! Icing on top! Chewy in the center with just a slight crispness to the thin, outer crust. Scrumptious! I remember from eating poison-laced brownies in the past, the burst of flavor that fills my mouth. And in that intoxicating, initial moment, I forget the nauseous aftermath that is sure to come.

There is a Vedic saying called, “Neti, Neti.” It means, “Not this, not that.” It’s a description of reality. In other words, reality can’t ever be fully summed up into a category that has boundaries drawn around it. There is always more to it than any particular conceptual definition could describe. Jesus often spoke about the “narrow way.” The space between this or that. To get to the narrow way, we have to shift to a qualitatively, different level of consciousness. We have to step out of the dualistic mind and into the inner chamber of the heart. We can only enter there through deep humility, from the space of, “Truth be told, I don’t really know for sure, what is right and true. I can’t see enough of the Whole to appreciate the fuller landscape.” And then we have to add, “But I am willing to be shown my place within It.” And it is right there, in that space of momentary openness, that the truth can emerge of its own (A Course in Miracles).

Whenever I am caught in the grip of thinking our current political arena is about as whacked out as it could possibly be, I remind myself of the best, albeit extreme example of the narrow way from the life and writing of Viktor Frankl - a Jewish, German psychiatrist, captured by the Nazis during WWII. (See Man’s Search for Meaning.) I remind myself, it actually could be worse.

Frankl and his whole family were sent to separate concentration camps. They were stripped of everything they owned – each other, their homes, their life’s work, their own clothing, their freedoms. While held captive, Frankl noticed a difference between the prisoners. Some died. Some went insane. Some joined the guards. Some remained in a state of vengeful retribution. All of these are honest, understandable and justifiable human reactions. There is no judgment here. It’s just that none of these reactions resolves anything. They keep us stuck. They make us sick inside. They steal us of the Life Force.

But there is more to the story. There were still other prisoners, who saved a crust of bread from breakfast to give to others who needed it most. Noticing the extreme differences in responses, Frankl asked the question, “We have all lost everything, what makes the difference, here?’’ And what he discovered was that those prisoners who were able to hold onto their own sense of self, to their own inner Authority, the ones who refused to be defined or reduced by the edicts of their oppressors were the ones who made it through. “You can take everything that I have and value, but you can’t take my truth or my connection to the Divine.” As such, Frankl, right there in the middle of hell, continued to uphold the Hippocratic Oath as a medical doctor, and did what he could to be a healing agent in the camp until his final release at the end of the war.

Remembering Frankl brings me back to where I started. The truth is not a position. It is certainly not a polarized position. It has nothing to do with any outer perspective. And therefore, it has no need to capitulate, nor to oppose. It is an internal experience that arises from inside the self when we give it space. A chasing dog? No not that. A running cat? No, not that? Conformity? Retribution? Self-righteous indignation? No, not that or that or that. The truth just is what it is. And it is our sacred privilege, moment by moment, to invite it in and let it live through us or not.

My constant mantra: Surely, if Frankl could find the narrow way in the middle of Auschwitz, I can find it in the middle of an election year in America. God help me!