Six men were charged last week in a failed attempt to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. They allegedly planned to blow up a bridge as a diversion, storm her summer house, kidnap and possibly kill her. Seven others were arrested for a plot to storm the Michigan Capitol and incite a civil war. Since then, numerous threats of domestic terrorism have continued to pour in. Jared Maples in a state threat assessment notes, “These threats will begin to converge with the presidential election in November in a manner not previously experienced by our nation.” Pause on these developments for a moment and feel just how close to the brink of insanity they put us.
Thankfully the tip of the dagger that was about to be plunged into the heart of America was blunted by the FBI uncovering these schemes. But it reveals the tip of an iceberg of radicalization that is not so easily vanquished. Those arrested last week fit the profile of those most readily radicalized: young white men with plenty of runway and little chance for take-off; people who feel left behind. What’s more tragic is the divisive manipulation that has them misplace their blame on Black lives that do matter or a governor trying to navigate her state through the Covid-19 crisis. The real cause of their discontent lies elsewhere and would never be vanquished by the violence they’d enact.
The real cause is that we’ve inherited and perpetuated a system that puts profits over people and the planet, where profits are a proxy for self-interest. Perhaps our sense of self extends to a tribe or corporate body we’re a part of, but it’s still a me-first focus. That’s a natural and normal stage of human development, so it’s no surprise that we would build social structures around individualism. But it’s not our only or highest stage of human development, nor is it the whole truth about who we are.
We are also connected. At an obvious level, technologies have radically increased our connectedness through such means as railroads, telecommunication, cars, jets, computers, the Internet, search engines, social media, data mining, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, apps and implants. With every technology, those who could leverage it became more rich and powerful. Those who could not, were left further behind or even made irrelevant. Joshua Cooper Ramo, highlighting this pattern in The Seventh Sense, would say the only way to thrive in this age of networks is to develop a new sense for our interconnectedness.
Ramo goes on to quote Master Nan, a Zen master of enormous influence in China and someone with whom Ramo had trained. “In the nineteenth century the biggest threat to humanity was pneumonia,” Master Nan observed. “In the twentieth century it was cancer. The illness that will mark our era, and particularly the start of the twenty-first century, is insanity. Or, we can say, spiritual disease.”
This spiritual disease is even more insidious and enduring than the Covid-19 pandemic. It stems from the illusion of separateness, our so-called rugged individualism that is turning out not to be so rugged or resilient in this connected age. Those who want to return to a ruggedly individual life of self-sufficiency as these domestic terrorists in Michigan apparently do, will consign themselves to feeding off the table scraps of capitalism. While those who can turn the crank on the biggest networks and latest technologies are achieving scale and riches so vast as to destabilize society. They, too are operating from this illusion of separateness, thinking their fate is somehow not connected with the people and planet their profits have triumphed over.
But connected we are, and not just by technology or networks, but intrinsically, through and through. We are both matter and energy, awash in a sea of interpenetrating waves we resonate with through our senses. We process that energy through our emotions, thoughts, and habits. We radiate that energy back into the field through our presence and actions. Our mind-body instrument is in constant resonance with the energies around us, from the vibe of relationships, to the Zeitgeist, to the effects of a heating-up planet. Our interdependent resonating, energetic nature is a physical fact, a fact of physics.
It’s also available as a direct experience through contemplative practices, such as Zen. As we slow down the whirl of activity in meditation, we start to see through the ego to the vast unity that is also our nature. As Gautama Buddha reportedly said as he awakened and saw a morning star, “I am that!” He could just as truthfully have said the same of seeing an employee laid off, a wildfire burning out of control, or a 21-year old arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap a governor. I am that, too.
We are at once a differentiated body and the whole picture. The spiritual disease of dualism is that we see only the first part, giving us a false sense of separation. This disease has always been with us but is particularly acute right now because so many people are getting left behind as connected technologies call this bluff, displacing countless jobs and putting the habitability of the planet in peril. The call to leaders, by which I mean all people committed to making a positive difference is: We have work to do.
The work entails a reframe of who we think we are, that we can lead as the whole picture, lead without othering, as if we are always facing another aspect of ourselves. This Zen leadership might start out as an act of imagination, but over time, the simple act of expanding our awareness to feel into what’s best for a person we’re working with or what’s sustainable for a community we’re working in, will open us up to resonate with more possibilities, more expansive wisdom. The more we operate as intrinsically connected – not like boxcars on a train, but like a vast orchestra where we are player, conductor and the music itself – the more we will not only create our greatest value but bring out the best in others. Leading from this integrated place, we become more inclusive, loving, and able to build belonging that is stronger than our differences. Will it be enough to heal the insanity of people who fear being left behind? There are no guarantees, but give it our all, and the effort becomes its own reward.