Spiritual Practice in the Time of the Mad King
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, an early 19th century Hasidic master, offered a parable about a king who foretold that the year’s harvest of rye would be contaminated with ergot, a fungus with effects similar to LSD. Whoever ate the rye would become mad. The prime minister said we must put aside enough grain so we won’t have to eat this year’s harvest.
But the king said, “But then we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad. Therefore they will think that we are the mad ones. Therefore, we too must eat this year’s grain. But we will put a mark on our foreheads so at least we will know we are mad. I will look at your forehead you will look at mine, and when we see this sign, we will know we are both mad.”
The parable touches on our current situation. It seems the country is going mad, that the country as a whole has eaten a substance that is guaranteed to distort reality. When we find ourselves reading everyday in the newspaper that the “president falsely stated”, when almost every word out of his mouth is a distortion of reality, and when this is repeated every day of the week, there is an overall contaminating effect.
One symptom of the madness is a sense of weariness in the land, as if time is slowing down – which is very much the effect of psychoactive substances. A month of this presidency already feels like a year, and a year will feel like a decade.
It is not only the lying, but the constant shifts of attention, the clever diversions and shiny objects, the theatrical episodes that redirect attention when things are going badly. It now requires so much effort to keep pace that merely to play the role of informed citizen has become almost a full time job in which we are challenged every hour to maintain our own sense of reality and normalcy against a widespread infection of madness.
Everyone has consumed the harvest, everyone is going mad. The concepts of “fake news” and “alternative facts” are not merely propaganda, but a description of a metaphysical infection in which we all, regardless of our politics and whether we wish to or not, are consuming the contaminated “rye” as our daily bread. For we cannot help but consume the news in a way that feels all consuming, in a way that is also consuming us.
The difference between our current reality and the parable is also instructive. In the parable, the people go mad without knowing they are mad, but the rulers, the king and his minister, at least know they are mad.
But we can’t at all be sure that our mad king knows he is mad, and it seems his closest advisors are equally infected and hardly know the difference. Certainly we can’t count on them, and it seems that many senators and representatives are unwilling to break the spell themselves, though one suspects they know better.
Therefore, it is up to us as citizens to play the role of leadership that has been abandoned in Washington. In Nachman’s parable, it is noted that the king and the minister are also friends. We also must become friends who remind each other of what is real. We have to show each other the marks on our foreheads because sometimes we need support to stay sane.
I have found two marks of reality that are useful and I think they work together. One is inward and one is outward and they work together.
Since the New Year, I’ve gone back to a daily practice of morning meditation. Instead of waking to the assault of the morning news, I sit quietly and meditate, doing meditation on the breath and simple awareness meditation. I observe in immediacy the enduring truth that whatever arises also falls away whether it is my breath, or the sound of a sparrow singing, or the noise of a truck bouncing along the broken street (I live in New Orleans). The concept of impermanence, one of the three “marks of existence” in Buddhist teaching, is wonderfully comforting now, and worth consulting to reorient myself to my inner reality. I believe each of us must touch on a deeper reality every day or we will eventually be overwhelmed.
My second practice is directed outward as much as meditation is directed inward. It has become a civic religious practice for me, my daily call to my three MoC’s, Members of Congress.
Inspired as so many are by the Indivisible movement, we formed a small chapter of our own called the Ninth Ward Neighbors Coalition. We began with a few friends and neighbors, and decided that we would make a daily call on an “issue du jour.” We created a Facebook page to share our daily prompts and our group grew to several hundred. We also joined up with other groups. A bunch of us recently attended Senator Cassidy’s town hall in nearby Jefferson Parish, and along with many others, were able to get him to answer some pointed questions. For instance, he had to answer to the fact that he accepted $70,200 from Betsy DeVos, and he confessed that he skipped the hearing when Senator Franken showed she was utterly uninformed. He looked sheepish and he tried to mislead us by saying that an individual can’t give $70,000. But we were on to that game, and knew the truth: that De Vos gave him money through several different vehicles. We interrupted because we had to. Otherwise, he would have filibustered the meeting.
It was a raucous meeting at times though there were also some deep questions from anguished citizens anxious about losing coverage for patients with cancer, anxious about school support for children with special needs. I’m sure from the point of view of some who are addicted to passivity, and make politeness’ their piety, we were the mad ones. But I have the mark on my forehead that tells me that the craziest people right now are the ones who don’t know they are crazy and who quietly accept the mad king’s encroachment on reality.
We now have a director of the EPA who wants to destroy the EPA, we have a secretary of education who hates public schools, and an attorney general who has a racist record. This is insane every moment of every day and yet everyone who has eaten the rye thinks it’s normal.
In such an environment, being passive, even being nice and polite in conventional terms, is a failure to recognize what is happening before your eyes. To recognize what is happening before your eyes is a working definition of sanity; to quietly and numbly accept the madness emanating from our own mad king and his henchmen and henchwomen is actually insane even though it looks normal.
The people who consumed the contaminated rye in Nachman’s parable also thought they were normal. They did not know they were mad because all of them were eating the same bad stuff. We need to put marks on our foreheads and show them to each other.
Whatever the practice, looking inward daily in order to remember the simple realities of breath, sound, sight, attention, and awareness makes an inner mark against which to measure the daily lies and distortions.
The outward practice of calling our MoC’s has had some effect. We have scared Republicans from repealing the ACA, and we’ve given some spine to some Democrats who wanted to play politics as usual. Ultimately, we need to find an electoral expression to decontaminate the land and restore sanity. But for now at least, acting every day makes a mark in favor of sanity and pushes back against the lies that are spreading like a fungus.
As the king says in the parable, “I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine and when we see this sign, we will know that we are both mad.” It is a strange kind of consolation, but in a time of madness it’s where we need to begin.