The tenor of the public discourse, so rife with vitriol, polemics, and contradictions exerts a continuous draw on attention and the temptation to get swirled into an omnipresent vortex of negativity. In my view, this is the beginning of the kind of mass psychosis that tends to precede violent upheavals in society.
How does a person inwardly strive for presence and impartiality in front of budding and blooming disequilibrium leading to the deterioration and collapse of a society that has, hitherto in our lifetime, been livable if not comfortable?
Around the time of my birth, numerous spiritual teachers and thoughtful academics were expressing much the same message: the current social and economic structures of human life are not sustainable for the earth nor for maintaining a basic let alone abundant human society. The unsustainable system, these teachers said, is bound to fail, and we need to begin to coalesce authentic communities based on perennial principles.
One of the teachers from what could be called the “New Axial Age” of the end of the 20th century was an English polymath named John Bennett. He formulated the problem and pointed to a solution in a private meeting with a group of students in London in 1972:
“The problem in front of us all is how to live in a world that is being increasingly dominated by negative forces; how to become possible channels for transmission of positive forces. How not to get oneself caught into the stream of negativity. It seems easy enough to decide in one’s own mind that this is what one wants to do and intends to do, but it is necessary to stop and ask oneself whether we are capable of making the decision to put aside, with every means available to us, negative attitudes in our thoughts and in our speech and in our behavior towards other people.”
I am humbled in the face of an admonition such as the above, suggesting the possibility of putting away all negative attitudes toward others. Despite efforts to be inwardly clean, I see the frequency with which negativity leaks into my thoughts, emotions, words, and deeds. I see that I react to both people near to me—people that I love—as well as to public figures and events in the news. To become really cleansed of negativity seems like a bodhisattva vow, something ideal but impossible.
Some of the events in the life of John Bennett come to mind. I recall how his teacher, Peter Ouspensky, suggested that Bennett and other students attempt to work with the Orthodox practice of perpetual Prayer of the Heart. With application, Bennett became able to recite The Lord’s Prayer continuously and simultaneously in English, Greek, and Latin, even in the midst of a busy outer life.
Bennett had superpowers of intention, effort, and attention. He was a giant of inner work. As a mere mortal, I wonder, how could I approach this task?
In answer, I recall that Bennett further suggested that we are not in this evolutionary inner work alone. There are forces, intelligences, he said, that are involved with genuine human progress. This evolution is a development of being, growing a vessel or soul that is able to contain reactions and transmute poison into nectar. Help, Bennett said, is available to those guided by conscience, the inner compass that allows human beings to see and respond to what is true.
The forces involved with human evolution are always available to help. To receive this one needs a balance of active work on oneself and receptivity to help and guidance from beyond (or from deep within) oneself. This is expressed in the Arab proverb “Trust in Allah but tether your camel,” or “[The Totality] helps him who helps himself.”
Bennett concluded his teaching with this formulation of the task for those who wish to work for a positive future for humanity:
“To replace all negative attitudes towards the existing world by a feeling of confidence and love towards the new world which is being born, towards the still unborn child that is the future mankind, to arouse in oneself constantly this love of the future humanity. Every time one observes in oneself some kind of negative attitude, to take this as the reminder that we human beings live on this Earth in order to serve and particularly to serve the future and to serve with love, with hope, with confidence that it is possible for humankind to be born again.”