Last night, I watched the poignant, compelling cinematicrendering of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. The film traces the iconic world leader’s childhood as a cattle herder in rural Cape Province, legal career as one of South Africa’s first black lawyers, period of armed revolutionary acts with the ANC, trial, long imprisonment, eventual release, and successful leadership of South Africa’s transition from minority rule to a multicultural democracy. It does an excellent job of insinuating the considerable emotional toll of Mandela’s 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, his shelter an 8-foot by 7-foot cement cell. He was cut off entirely from his family for years, initially allowed only one highly censored letter every six months. We see Mandela receive news of his mother’s terminal illness and passing; his only son’s death in a tragic car accident; his wife, Winnie’s, imprisonment. In between, there are glimpses of Robben Island’s prisoners engaged in body-breaking labor – mining lime and crushing rocks into gravel – and enduring various degrading acts wrought by Afrikaaner guards. And yet, we also hear Mandela engage in conversation with these same guards about their families, watch him circled around a negotiating table with apartheid government leaders who have been charged with planning the transition to a new form of government. Time and again, we witness Mandela’s unwavering commitment to his ideals, his ultimate renunciation of violence as a viable strategy, his rise to Presidential status on the shoulders of a resoundingly successful popular vote.
Mandela’s trial and the window onto his 27-year imprisonment moved me especially. I sat mesmerized by his eloquence, captivated by his single-minded focus on freedom for Black South Africans, and thoroughly inspired by his desire to be an instrument for realizing that, even at the cost of his life. I marveled at the immense personal resolve; his mastery of anger, grief, disappointment, and longing; his capacity to harness negative energy in the service of much nobler ideals. Most importantly, I observed that his life experience honed rather than degraded his dignity. It was, in part, this dignity that enabled him to command the respect and attention of Black South Africans during the closing days of the apartheid era, when Black-on-Black violence tragically threatened the possibility for democracy.
Throughout the film, words of author and media persona Krista Tippett echoed in my mind: “I am emboldened by the puzzling, redemptive truth . . . that we are made by what would break us.” While the truth of that resonates with me, on a far humbler level, I see parallels between Mandela’s life experience and my own experience as a meditator, and also lessons that apply for each of us as we navigate the complicated, at times divisive and violent reality of current events.
I embrace the practice of meditation at least partially as a personal quest for freedom, albeit internal freedom. I seek strategies for freeing myself from ego absorption, which threatens to narrow my world, constrict my heart, and curtail my capacity to love, forgive, and extend myself in ways that foster healing and growth.
I practice out of a sincere desire and felt duty to be the most sane, open hearted, curious, humble, and loving human being I can be, because our trouble world and my own frail human body demands it.
I practice to remind myself of my connection to the expansive web of life, to acknowledge the truth of the South African concept of ubuntu – that my humanity is inextricably connected to yours and every other human being’s . As well, I meditate to cultivate the awareness necessary to fulfill my role as a steward of every particle of creation, each a gift and expression of generous love.
I practice in order to weather the gnarliest periods of conflict, self-doubt, depression, confusion, and anxiety in my own life. I rest in the spaciousness of silence and breath, and trust these as a lifeline back to peace, confidence, clarity, and joy.
Finally, I meditate in order to shore up my ability to see the pure heart in my fellow companions on this journey of life. I lean into the vastness of love and communion experienced in meditation in order to strengthen my resolve to see the good in everyone or, when that proves inordinately difficult, to remember that what most disgusts, annoys, or enrages me about them also exists inside me, and to find a way to accept it.
It is this latter aspect of meditation that is strikingly illuminated by Mandela’s life: his extraordinary capacity for forgiveness, his bold vision and practical commitment to a new way of being with one another, his willingness to see the other’s shared humanity and, from this clarity, to lay aside violence, blame, pettiness, and argument to do the practical work of building a multicultural democracy in which all might be uplifted.
Writer Parker Palmer addressed these very things in a recentblog post on the topic of our current extremely polarized political landscape:
Trump is a one-man microcosm of much that’s diseased about American culture . . . and its eternal need for “an enemy,”its racism, and DNA-deep commitment to white supremacy. The more he rubs our noses in our own pathologies . . . the more it becomes at least possible that his campaign will strengthen our resolve to make America confess and repent, again and again and again. Of course, nothing of the sort will happen as long as we focus exclusively on “him” and “them,” as if defeating “the enemy” will do the trick. As that great guru Pogo said nearly fifty years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Palmer goes on to ask, “Are you and I willing to see ourselves reflected in Trump, to say that what’s repugnant in him finds resonance in us?” I believe that Mandela wrestled with this same question as he passed more than two and a half decades of his life imprisoned for acts against white supremacists that he originally believed to be justifiable in pursuit of freedom. Ultimately, he realized that forgiveness was an imperative first step on the path to peace; a complex forgiveness that entailed both willingness to look honestly at the country’s awful, tragic history, and courageous acknowledgement that it no longer served. Forgiveness swaddled in reconciliation that demanded that Blacks and Whites labor shoulder to shoulder to build a new nation on the ugly ruins of the old one. Forgiveness that laid bare the fact that the only way around the hatred, fear, violence, blame, and chaos was through it.
The enormity and complexity of this endeavor – an endeavor that looms dangerously large before us right now - brings to mind a strikingly simple question posed by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn: “How can I love you better?” This question seems remarkably relevant in virtually every moment, however large or small the “you” involved. I find it particularly useful in this moment, when violence, environmental catastrophes, damaging laws and policies, and all types of other human foibles threaten to destroy nature, love, and life.
In meditation, we probe the depths of our own heart-mind; both its darkest recesses and its brightest wellsprings of love. At the best of times, we linger in the heart space fed from our silent communion with the All-Loving. In so doing, we grow in the capacity to touch into the eternal source of love, forgiveness, and creativity, beginning first with healing and befriending ourselves. With this inner transformation, we gradually foster the enormity of heart and immensity of skillfulness and understanding necessary to extend this love to every human being, as well as each living aspect of this chaotic and complex, magnificent yet terrifying world.
I’ll close with the words of the sonnet shared by Lin-ManuelMiranda as he accepted a Tony award for Hamilton just hours after a mass shooting spree took the lives of 49 people at a gay night club in Orlando. It anchors me in the place from which I strive to drive my own life.
My wife’s the reason anything gets done.
She nudges me towards promise by degrees.
She is a perfect symphony of one.
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa's symphony; Eliza tells her story.
Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.