We are living in a world where “transition” is a failed descriptor. We can’t imagine a point of stasis down the road.
At the same time, we are bombarded with paradoxes and contradictions.
Genetics explain phenomena that only two decades ago were a mystery, while other repercussions of technology have created imminent climate catastrophe. Our knowledge of the brain develops exponentially, while dramatic increases in autism diagnoses remind us of how much we have yet to understand. Brutal beheadings are depicted to the world in a split-second. Electrification makes much more possible in the villages of India, while pollution hangs like a permanent pall over cities. Cheap oil prices suggest potential for economic expansion, yet instead they undermine confidence in the market. Social media have proven valuable in fomenting revolution, but at the end of the day are more successful at criticizing than at offering constructive paths forward. Religion takes on a fundamentalist character in some places, while churches in Europe close and one of the foremost writers on spirituality in the US brings out a book on creating your own religion. Democratization of authority brings many more people into the conversation, but threatens to paralyze leaders when we really need them.
In Europe, the failure to find a united response to the refugee surge, Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Greece’s bankruptcy, Italy and Spain’s faltering economies, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership raise questions about the European project, which stood out as one of the outstanding achievements of the late twentieth century.
In the US, events of the past 18 months have produced greater awareness about the shocking plight of blacks in prisons and about “frontier” police tactics, but Syrian refugees are characterized as a potential threat rather than a group that needs help and support. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a forgotten aspiration.
Facebook, registering one’s “friends” in the hundreds and possibly thousands, has proven not to improve the sense of disconnectedness of the lonely. Burgeoning numbers who work alone are instead finding community in shared office spaces and intentional common living arrangements. Indeed, the sharing economy raises hopes that the cold-hearted aspects of capitalism are being undermined. At the same time a self-help ethos is replacing service as a core philosophy.
This is a time when fear finds many entry points. We see it in the rise of extreme politics. But fear is often an unnoticed emotion that lies behind subtle behaviors – blocking out aspects of life we don’t understand, turning us towards people more like ourselves, shutting down creativity, urging us to pull in and become self-obsessed. Even those with the highest of apparent motives can adopt too narrow a focus, falling back on old patterns of thought, putting more time, money and effort into outdated endeavors.
I am proposing that the principle of “now” or “awareness” or “capturing the present moment,” clearly relevant to our personal inner lives, and widely expressed in popular literature on mindfulness and meditation, surely has something to teach us about our stance towards the world right now.
What does living in the present mean for those of us trying to do constructive things in the world?
Feeling this emerging world with my whole being seems to be part of the task. Awareness free of judgment, we are told, is the greatest agent for change. Instead of giving fear the upper hand, this is a time to love all the crooked, ugly, dysfunctional and glorious pieces of the planet right now. Of course we must act, but let’s act from a place of humility and listening. And let’s challenge the temptation to place limits on others in order to feel better about ourselves. It is good to be remembering that in uncertain times, encouraging those working alongside us might be our number one priority.