What Jarvis Learned

by Mark Chmiel

At a recent gathering of the Saint Louis Mindfulness Sangha, I shared the following excerpt from Pema Chödrön’s book, Go to the Places That Scare You…

The second of the three lords of materialism is the lord of speech. This lord represents how we use beliefs of all kinds to give us the illusion of certainty about the nature of reality. Any of the “isms”–political, ecological, philosophical, or spiritual–can be misused in this way.  “Political correctness” is a good example of how this lord operates. When we believe in the correctness of our view, we can be very narrow-minded and prejudiced about the faults of other people.

For example, how do I react when my beliefs about the government are challenged? How about when others don’t agree with how I feel about homosexuality or women’s rights or the environment? What happens when my ideas about smoking or drinking are challenged? What do I do when my religious convictions are not shared?

New practitioners often embrace meditation or the Buddhist teachings with passionate enthusiasm. We feel part of a new group, glad to have a new perspective. But do we then judge people who see the world differently? Do we close our minds to others because they don’t believe in karma?

The problem isn’t with the beliefs themselves but with how we use them to get ground under our feet, how we use them to feel right and to make someone else wrong, how we use them to avoid feeling the uneasiness of not knowing what is going on. It reminds me of a fellow I knew in the 1960s whose passion was for protesting against injustice. Whenever it looked as if a conflict would be resolved, he would sink into a kind of gloom. When a new cause for outrage arose, he’d become elated again.

Jarvis Jay Masters is a Buddhist friend of mine living on death row. In his book Finding Freedom,  he tells a story about what happens when we are seduced by the lord of speech. 

One night he was sitting on his bed reading when his neighbor, Omar, yelled out, “Hey, Jarvis, check out channel seven.” Jarvis had the picture on without sound. He looked up and saw a lot of enraged people waving their arms in the air. He said “Hey, Omar, what’s going on?” and his neighbor told him, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan, Jarvis, and they’re screaming about how everything’s the fault of the blacks and the Jews.” 

A few minutes later, Omar hollered, “Hey, check out what’s happening now.” Jarvis looked up at his television and he saw a large group of people marching, waving placards, and getting arrested. He said, “I can  see just by looking at them that they’re really angry about something. What’s up with all those people?” Omar said, “Jarvis, that’s an environmentalists’ demonstration. They’re demanding an end to cutting down trees and killing seals and everything. See that one woman raging into the microphone and all those people screaming?”

Ten minutes later Omar called out again, “Hey, Jarvis! Are you still watching? Can you see what’s happening now?” Jarvis looked looked up and this time he saw a bunch of people in suits looking like they were in a real uproar about something.  He said, “What’s up with these guys?” and Omar answered, “Jarvis, that’s the president and the senators of the United States and they’re fighting and arguing right there on national  TV, each trying to convince the public that the other is at fault for the terrible economy.”

Jarvis said, “Well, Omar, I sure learned something interesting tonight. Whether they’re wearing Klan outfits or environmentalist outfits or really expensive  suits all these people have the same angry faces.”

Being caught by the lord of speech may start with a reasonable conviction about what we feel to be true. However, if we find ourselves becoming righteously indignant, that’s a sure sign that we’ve gone too far and that our ability to effect change will be hindered. Beliefs and ideals have become just another way to put up walls.

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