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Politics, or the inner life?

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Possibly because I’m a Gemini (not that I’m a big believer in astrology), I’ve always had a strongly dualistic mind. Half of me inclines toward metaphysical, mystical explanations of the world, but then the other half is strictly rational, which makes me a firm believer in science as well as in politics.

This schism is reflected in my daily interests. As readers of this blog know, my political instincts are strong and unwavering. I believe that politics is the best way for humankind to learn to live with each other and work out our differences, while avoiding bloodshed, especially in a multi-everything country like ours. I admire the rationality of politics: the objectivity of voting, of facts, of winning and losing, and of the laws which politics seeks to preserve and perfect. My aversion to Trumpism is based on my profound belief that it represents everything amoral, hostile and dangerous to the kind of country I want to live in. Trumpism, which is the current expression of the Republican Party, is an enemy worth fighting.

At the same time, I’ve always had a renunciate side of me—a kind of Hindu hermitism that seeks realization, not in the grimy, grinding politics of this world, but in the inner mind. This is why I took LSD in the 1960s and sought God; this is why I dropped out of society (in Timothy Leary’s phrase) to join a spiritual commune in the 1970s. This is why in the 1990s I devoted considerable time to the study of Kabbala with a Chasidic Jewish teacher. And this is why the most recent books I’ve read have been Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

Although the background and setting of the two books couldn’t be more different, both tread the same metaphysical ground. Castaneda’s book deals with the Yaqui Indian culture of Mexico in the 1960s, while Yogananda’s details his upbringing in India in the early 20th century. And yet both men were nearly identical in this respect: they sought God (by whatever name), and they realized that non-participation in (or non-pollution by) the greater materialist society was essential to further their search. Castaneda headed for the Central Mexican mountain wilderness to find his guides, while Yogananda went to the Himalayas in search of his guru.

It’s weird having these two opposed points of view vying with one another in my head! Politics plunges me into the world of strife, turmoil and struggle. Mysticism removes me from that world (or tries to), letting me explore the wide open expanses of heart and mind. But are these two concepts really inimical, or do they somehow complement one another?

Politics is indeed difficult. When you win (Obama in 2008 and 2012, the midterm elections in 2018, Biden in 2020), you’re ecstatic. When you lose (the midterm elections in 2010, Trump in 2016, Merrick Garland in 2017), you’re plunged into anger and despair. Well do I know of the philosophical tradition that says winning and losing are all the same: both manifestations of Maya, of illusion—worldly grasping which the true seeker must renounce upon recognizing their illusory nature.

Well and good, but there’s an element of the ostrich sticking its head into the sand about renunciation. The poor ostrich may believe that because it cannot see the tiger rushing towards it, the tiger is not really there. But the tiger really is there, toothed and clawed. I know many people here in Oakland—a city of a fantastic diversity of religious and spiritual approaches—who loathe politics, who are serious about meditating and following their divinities (whomever they happen to be), and who think that by taking political sides (Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, whatever), one merely aids and abets the confusion and rancor of this world. They’re right, to a degree; but America has profound problems (poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, global warming, homophobia, religious extremism, and all the rest of the gloomy Almanack de Gotha), and crawling off to some cave somewhere and sitting in full lotus hardly can be the cure for these problems. Or so it seems to me.

Politics is war, to be sure, a nasty business, and politicians aren’t necessarily the kind, loving persons they want us to think they are. But we’re going to be led by political leaders whether we like it or not, whether we vote or not: someone is going to be Mayor, or City Councilman, or Congressman or Senator or President, and that “someone” is going to have control over our lives and over the lives of our loved ones. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to make sure that the decision-makers are making the right decisions? My beloved friend Philip, who adorned my body with his tattoo art, absolutely scorns political involvement, including voting, as evil: he would rather go to Tibet, or Burning Man, or to a drumming ritual in the Redwoods. But as I always tell him, nearly every aspect of his life–indeed, his life itself–is determined by laws and rules made by politicians and bureaucrats: his tattoo license, the roads upon which he drives, the safety of his car, the cleanliness of the air he and his son breathe, the ability of his gay friends to marry, his freedom from having alien religions imposed upon him or of having his own (slightly Wiccan) religion discriminated against, the purity of the food he eats, the existence of a police force to protect his storefront during riots—all of these things are political in nature. Philip acknowledges these truths, but he nonetheless sticks to his loathing of politics. We agree to disagree.

For myself, I will never stop seeking the “inner truth,” but I do so not as an alternative to political involvement, but as a balance to it. The inner life, for me, is like a refreshing bath in a cool pool of crystalline water, after the heated bloodletting of political battle. The words of Carlos Castaneda (and his spiritual teacher, Don Juan) and the words of Yogananda reveal to me vistas of peace and spiritual potential that are as important as the air I breathe and the food I eat to live. I want, need and believe both in politics as a worthy struggle for man, and in mystical contemplation as the proper field of inquiry for the human mind.

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