There is an old Zen parable about a poor Chinese farmer who lived near the Mongolian border in the time of the Mongolian conquests. This old farmer lived with his only son on a small plot of land and their only significant possession was one horse to help them work the land, but one day the horse ran away. All the villagers came to offer their condolences to the farmer, for they all believed this must be a catastrophe for him. The farmer thanked them for their kindness but replied to their opinion of this occurrence as a great misfortune by simply saying, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.”
The next day, the farmer’s horse returned and brought with it a Mongolian pony. Now the farmer was twice as rich as he had been and the villagers came and congratulated him on his good fortune, to which he replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.” Shortly thereafter, his son tried to ride the new pony and it bucked and threw him, fracturing his hip, and of course, the villagers came out to offer their condolences over this turn-of-events that must be terrible for the farmer, and he thanked them for their kindness and replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.” Several weeks later the Chinese Army came through conscripting young men to fight the Mongols, but because of his son’s injured hip he was not conscripted and the villagers expressed how fortunate this was, for many of the young men would certainly be killed, to which the farmer replied, “Maybe, we’ll have to see.” …. And here the parable trails off, the point being that the old farmer while materially poor was very rich in wisdom, for he knew that all things change and things are not always what they seem to be. What seems fortunate today may be opening the way to misfortune and likewise the other way around. The point of life is to live it, not to anticipate or judge it.
As this column comes to circulation, an election is taking place, the results unknown at the time of its writing. What is not unknown is that whatever the results, there will be many, many people who are very unhappy with the results while many people will be very pleased. We are in a time when, quite possibly not since the Civil War, the American electorate is as polarized as it has ever been and this probably will create a time of severe tension leading to we know not what. Whichever side of this divide we may find ourselves, it is good to remember the wisdom of the farmer whose only certainty was that things change and we know not the meaning of any given event in isolation. The farmer knew that above all else, the true skill in life was to abide with what-is, remaining patient and calm, available to the next turning of the page, to live life as it presents itself, essentially a mystery. He knew that what is important is to keep showing up each day doing the best we can with the best intention and without judgment, knowing that whatever this thing that is happening is, it leads to the next thing and we know not what that may be. Or – perhaps – if we take the long view, we CAN know what this up and down unfolding of things mean – they mean human society is evolving.
Through all the ups and downs, we can look at human history and see that overall it moves toward increasing economic and political democracy – we can certainly see this truth if we look from the vantage point of a 13th century Chinese peasant farmer. We are no longer ruled by emperors or kings and hereditary aristocracies, slavery is abolished, the majority of people do not live at peasant subsistence levels, women are no longer viewed as subservient to men and people are no longer prisoners of class divisions – in ever-increasing portions of the world. And the list can go on concerning accepted views that held sway only a short historic period of time ago concerning race relations, gender non-conformity, and a host of other conditions that were quite oppressive as viewed from modern society, yet, in their time, their unfairness and cruelty were accepted as what was normal.
Human evolution is happening. Our ego wants it to be this nice process of things getting better without pain, yet this is not how evolution happens. With human society, nations, groups and individuals, evolution happens in what can best be understood as an ascending sine wave – progression building upon regression. Things get bad enough for us to pay attention, and we begin to look more deeply into the truth of what-is, and we begin seeing what we had been blind to. We begin seeing some of the root of our unhappiness is in having too small a view on reality. We begin creating a more coherent and balanced ecology – the relationship of self to reality. Then things get better, for with this increase in consciousness, there is created a more expansive and complex, yet more inclusive sense of self, and greater harmony results. This is evolution not only for individuals but for all of society. At one level there is good and bad – yet – from an expanded view – inevitably there is greater complexity existing within relative coherency and harmony. Good and bad come together to create better because we have evolved.
So then we have a period of relative ease and peace, and we get lazy, and ego, that part of us that is self-serving, impulsive and indulgent, begins to reassert itself and we become increasingly unconscious, not paying attention, just running the routines of the ego, believing things that please our ego yet may well not be true, and things begin to deteriorate. Our attention is paid to that which is ego-gratifying and delusional, and less attention to what is real and we begin to slip down the slope of the curve again. This is regression into unconsciousness, and it always leads to increased suffering. Then things get bad enough that we once again begin to pay attention and we move into making needed changes to reestablish some semblance of harmony. And so the cycle goes.
Two things are important: We never slip back as far as the previous troughs, and we can live in faith that the process of evolution is inexorable and we generally will continue to increase in consciousness individually and collectively. When we find ourselves in such troughs, we can find assurance and confidence if we understand this. We just have to start paying attention to what-is once again and begin acting according to the truths that are apparent and let go of the ego delusions that had taken us backwards. The movement upward into greater integration with what-is and increased consciousness-directed action will result. Were we to graph this sine-wave process and draw a line connecting the peaks of the waves, we would see how inevitable the process of progress is – despite the regressions.
It is for this reason that it seems to me that to be a political progressive working for a more inclusively democratic society is to be on the side of history and evolution, that a person who is dedicated to becoming increasingly conscious would naturally settle into being progressive – even the Dalai Lama calls himself a political socialist. Conversely, to be a conservative seeking to hold back this integration is always, eventually, to be on the side of what history and evolution are moving beyond. The conservative, in the long run, always loses the ideological battle – think about it. What conservative position continues to dominate society as it once did? Slavery? Monarchism? Hereditary aristocracy? Religious sectarian absolutism? Racism? Sexism? Classism? Homophobia? These latter battles may still be ongoing, yet these regressive attitudes and beliefs are not the mainstream of society anymore. This is evolution.
And – in the dynamic of social evolution, the conservative position has an important place. It is the brakes on progressive overreach. A progressive moves in the direction of social evolution, yet their view may be too far along this road for the general population to embrace, and a conservative moves in the direction of slowing this progress down, and politics is the push and pull of these forces, sometimes one view dominating, sometimes the other. Together, the progressive and the conservative create a dynamic which moves our social evolution exactly as the collective of our society is able to accept as the new normal. Yet the overall direction toward progressive inclusion of those people and issues which were once excluded from acceptance do become accepted, all moving towards that most visionary of concepts placed into the American Constitution of “a more perfect union.”
Over and over we have seen that progressive periods overreach the tolerance of many in the collective. I would guess that the election of a black man as president along with the last fifty years’ breakthroughs in women’s, civil, and gay rights and the increasing gentrification of America were among the reasons we are now experiencing a conservative backlash that placed a barely disguised racist, person of no observable compassion, empathy, generosity, scientific or spiritual curiosity or sophistication, with blatantly anti-democratic authoritarian tendencies and a special talent for exploiting these regressive attitudes into the White House on the tails of Obama. Regression. Yet – the whole of society will never go back to the attitudes on social issues that were normal fifty or one hundred years ago.
And now, in what have become increasingly perilous times for this country under this “conservatism,” the injustices of lingering systemic racism, the folly of holding to unscientific bias in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-change, the lie of “trickle-down economics,” the giving of faith and allegiance to a narcissistic con-man who promises to make us “great again,” as code words for reimposing white, male, straight, conventional religious and rural lifestyles, when his real allegiance is only to himself and to his own privileged predator capitalist class becomes increasingly undeniably evident.
So, I believe we are poised to move into another progressive period, the folly of the regression, having served its purpose of exposing the rot of the outdated, yet clung-to, beliefs, while allowing that some ideas – such as examining the benefit of a simpler, small community-oriented society over a hyper-sophisticated and impersonal gentrified mega-city culture has real merit. Perhaps left and right can come together in seeing the real source of our problems is the concentration of wealth and power into a mega-corporate and rich minority, the modern equivalent to a self-serving aristocracy, that benefits from an unconscious population open to manipulation, playing to fears and desires rather than the cultivation of higher virtues, which would cut into profits. So, however this election plays out, there will be first impressions and reactions of it being great or terrible, but the wisest position might be to settle into: “Maybe, we’ll have to see.” The short term will mean one thing; the long term will, however, eventually and intractably mean progressive evolution into a more perfect human planetary society. And in this, both progressives and true conservatives, meaning those who rightfully are concerned with the breakdown of values in society, will be able to celebrate. We cannot achieve this harmonization without both the preservation of basic human values AND the expansion of who and what is included in the valuing – until no one and no element of life on this planet is excluded. Just consider how far we’ve come since the Mongols scourged across Asia at the time of our farmer of proverb. Up and down. Any given event – is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Maybe. We’ll have to step back and watch – and then we will see – over-all – it is all to move us toward consciousness.