The Power of Forgetting
Karen Armstrong writes for The Guardian. The Daoist ideal of 'sitting quietly' could help us break the cycle of escalating violence.
I was reminded of this story last weekend, when I learned with horror that because of the new security restrictions I would not be allowed to take a book on to my flight home from New York. How on earth was I going to "sit quietly" with an empty mind for seven hours? This Daoist ideal is alien to our pragmatic modernity. We are happy to limit our intake of food to achieve bodily health and agility, but the idea of deliberately starving our minds to achieve greater spiritual acuity is repugnant - even frightening. So is the Daoist principle of wu wei (doing nothing). We feel a duty to be active and productive.
But poets and artists have always known how to hold themselves in an attitude of silent waiting. Keats called the creative process "negative capability ... when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Wordsworth understood that the poet needs "wise passiveness" and "a heart that watches and receives". When our minds are stuffed with current ideas, we cannot be truly creative because there is no room for anything new. Creation is ex nihilo: out of nothing, the "wild and empty waste" described at the beginning of Genesis.
We cannot all be poets and mystics, but we now face unprecedented dangers, and need to be creative as never before. This means that we must "forget" old ideas that cannot speak to our present situation. The policies of the cold war, which was between nations and empires, cannot be effective when the enemy is within. An American rabbi told me that, in his view, the ideal response to the atrocities of September 11 would have been for the US president to declare a traditional 40-day period of mourning and to do nothing until the horrifying new reality had been fully accepted and understood. Such wu wei was, of course, unthinkable. Incapable of enduring the uncertainties and doubts of the post 9/11 world, politicians irritably reached after short-sighted policies - Afghanistan, Iraq, threats against Iran - that have only made a bad situation worse.
In our restlessly talkative culture, we find silence difficult. We expect instant soundbites from our pundits and politicians about "Islam" and the so-called "clash of civilisations". We find it hard, to "sit quietly" and take time to look at these highly complex matters impartially and in depth, admitting that we may not fully understand what we are talking about. But strident dogmatism abounds. Debates in parliament or in the media are emotional, aggressive, and often self-serving, when what is required is a coldly critical diagnosis of the crisis, empty of received opinion, prejudice and self-interest. At this terrifying juncture of history, we have to be ready to "forget" - to start from scratch and experience the frightening void of unknowing.
People who have no religious beliefs are often willing to talk to contemplative nuns, because these women, who have embraced silence and emptiness, know how to listen. Listening is rare in our chattering society. It is often all too clear that, while their interlocutor is speaking, participants in talk-shows and phone-ins are not really listening, but thinking up the next clever thing that they want to say. I am certainly guilty of this myself. If we are to break the deadly cycle of escalating violence - of strike and counter-strike, atrocity and enraged reaction - we must listen intently to what everybody, even our enemy, is saying, and be sincerely ready to let it change us: to get beyond the rhetoric, decode the imagery, and hear the subtext of rage, grief, fear, pain, hatred and despair.
Buoyed up with these thoughts, I approached the check-out desk at JFK last Sunday thinking that it might be good for me to experience "the mind's fast" during my flight home. But I was reprieved. The ban on books had been lifted, and my fellow passengers and I boarded the plane, joyfully clutching our reading matter - if not yet our laptops, iPods, and computer games - as a shield against the new terrors of the air. I was relieved, but had a sneaking suspicion that I had missed an opportunity.
Karen Armstrong is the author of The Great Transformation: The World at the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah