Confronting the “other” is an invitation to spiritual growth


“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” ~ Dalai Lama

I’ve heard the term “spiritual growth” so much that I at some point I stopped wondering what it means. Wise teachers tell us that spiritual growth stalls when we attack others as evil instead of facing our own failures. With honest self-appraisal ideally comes the humility to recognize our need to grow, literally to expand our capacity to learn from those with whom we disagree. In that sense, then, spiritual growth is a process of making room for opposites inside of us.

This requires a stretching of consciousness, a way of confronting our self-imposed boundaries, our cultural story of separateness. The story is so deeply ingrained, though, that it taxes the imagination to see good and evil as part of one whole, rather than an opposition that begs to be resolved through force and war.

“As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally – our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think.” ~ Margaret Wheatley, “Turning to One Another”

The promise is that we will find peace only when we stop projecting our shadow onto others, and then blaming them for our discomfort. Spiritual growth can occur when I recognize my habit of thinking in opposites and expressing that as prejudice: this, not that. Right, not wrong. Good, not evil.

If prejudice divides, reconciliation makes us whole. Its root, conciliate, derives from Latin, meaning “to bring together,” from concilium, “meeting” or “council.” I think of a council circle, an ancient practice found in most human cultures, where important matters were (and are) discussed and resolved. Council is a ceremony, a specific protocol of speaking and listening from the heart. Sitting in a circle, being well heard, is a powerful way to feel part of a whole. Indeed, a council circle is a way of enacting and embodying wholeness.

Goodness will never be realized when pursued through forceful means as a triumph over evil. This is easier to say than to practice. Especially in a culture that views spiritual pursuits, at best, as a private matter, and, at worst, the inferior hocus-pocus of innocents and primitives. We are told that evil is evil and must be confronted, rooted out, hunted down in the night by shadow forces like Seal Team 6. We have elected proxies to keep up our wars against the opposites that we cannot tolerate, along with the story that we can triumph over them.

What would our world look like if instead we saw that this warring mode itself is the evil? That, instead of triumph over evil, goodness seeks balance and integration and wholeness. Not “this versus that,” but “this and that.”

It can be unsettling to think this way. It feels destabilizing: how can a system that includes evil be considered safe? In reality, no safety is possible under the story that we can rid ourselves, and the world, of evil. That’s as absurd and unnatural as saying that we no longer want the element Mercury in the world and we’re going to root it out and eliminate it wherever we find it. The only thing we can do is to seek balance, starting inside ourselves.

Maybe it’s more than a frustrating habit that I tend to perceive opposites and see people as “others.” What if it’s a special faculty that we all have? A gift that facilitates healing the separations within and between us. So that, when confronted with the discomfort and disorientation of having my story challenged, I can remember that hidden inside is the invitation to grow, to make space in my worldview for another perspective.


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