“Meditation and democracy”

Maria Zakharova, Albert Zakharov 
(Talk for WCCM John Main Seminar 2022)

The possibility to think about the connection between the democratic approach and the practice of meditation is very useful and interesting for us, people who are more familiar with meditation than with politics and sociology. Thoughts on democracy – its nature, meaning and importance – come to us from the experience of how the meditative path changes us from the inside – for ourselves, and from the outside – for relationships with others.

As you know, we, the citizens of Ukraine, are now in a very dramatic situation of war, which, as it may seem, should not happen in the modern world at all. This should not happen in terms of the logic of consistent development of civilized society and history lessons. This wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t fall into delusions that force the society of entire countries to look into the past and give their freedom and will to totalitarian leaders.

Our personal experience of meditation began to grow when in our country a gentle sprout of democracy began to break through the ground. Our society has been severely wounded for decades in the Soviet Union’s enslavement. Even after formal liberation, the public consciousness of the country was tight by patterns of life, in which the individual had no rights and was not responsible for what is happening in society.

But meditation is the best medicine for such liminal times, when the old went away and the new has not yet formed. In our experience, meditation has become something similar to the sourdough or yeast from Jesus’ parable of the evolutionary, transformative nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. As we continued to meditate, we felt how the practice develops a sense of the value of Freedom. This feeling comes in a very simple way. You taste what fully saturates your mind and heart. After that, it is impossible to leave real food and return to substitutes. Meditation really easily and naturally leads us to understand how important freedom is – your freedom and the freedom of others. And how important it is that these freedoms form a harmonious unity, without absorbing each other and without dividing the common space of existence. So, by meditating, by teaching others to meditate, and by meditating with others, we have seen from our own experience that meditative community is the seed of a democratic society. Our meditation practice continued, and with it our sensitivity to changes in society deepened. This is how we met 2014. It was then that a stream of great changes began to flow in our country. This movement led to an inevitable explosion at the point of contact between the opposite poles – spontaneous will of the people of the Ukrainian Revolution on Maidan and the pressure from the centralized Russian aggression.

In 2006, we translated into Ukrainian the text of the talk between Bede Griffiths and Andrew Harvey. This conversation took place in 1992, and it was dedicated to the fact that fr. Bede had a prophetic vision that in the coming decades humanity will face great challenges. Here are the brief summary of the words of fr. Bede: “All of humanity has come to the moment when a global transformation of consciousness must take place at the global level, and only in this way the world will be able to survive. We are in an extreme and crucial situation because soon there will be a worldwide crucifixion of everything that humanity has been waiting for. The following decades will be marked by terrible disasters, wars and crimes of all kinds, which will show whether humanity is ready to experience death for a possibility of a new life or not. A fierce battle begins between the forces that want to leave humanity enslaved in the past and the forces that will awaken in response to the thirst for new ways of life. But I believe that God wants to create a new world and a new humanity from this.” Year after year, we recalled these words, thinking about what events fr. Bede was referring to. And now, without a doubt, we recognize in this war, its global consequences and deep meaning a part of the dramatic world transformation. Was fr. Bede the recipient of exact prophecies? Perhaps. But it would be more accurate to say that he was simply a meditator with a very attentive and sensitive heart, and felt and knew those things that are obvious to anyone who is present in the moment of reality in one or another way.


And now let’s return to the connection between meditation and democracy.


We are now in the eighth month of the war between the Russian army and the Ukrainian people. The balance and nature of the forces opposing each other clearly indicate that this war is a very clear embodiment of the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. This is a special archetypal dyad in which only antagonism is possible, as between reality and illusion. And now we understand something very important about democracy – something that is very similar to the most important thing about meditation. Democracy can be different – immature, incomplete, unstructured. Within a democracy, there can be problems and crises – small and large. You know, it’s very similar with meditation. You can meditate, as someone from the outside would say, not quite right, not quite perfect, or not quite disciplined. Many problems can arise within meditation. But the most important thing is that no one can come and take away from you the very possibility of democracy. What will happen if the very possibility of meditation is taken away from us? This is a simple thought that can be hidden from us until the last moment, when it will be too late to change something. The most dangerous threat is the destruction of the very continuum of democracy, or the continuum of meditation. The threat may come from someone outside – destructive leaders and the collective consciousness. But, of course, we ourselves can become a source of threat – the way we shape our consciousness. And finally, we can look at this question not only from the point of view of the threat. It is worth realizing how fragile the space of democracy and meditation is and how important it is that it continues to exist. Therefore, when talking about the crisis of democracy, we must first of all make sure that democracy and its fundamental possibility continue. If this space is not destroyed, we will be able to address any crisis by using it as an opportunity for fantastic and unexpected change. The same with meditation.

Democracy and meditation must continue. This is the most important thing. To always maintain them, we have to remind ourselves again and again what they are. Another danger is simulation. While teaching a large meditation course last year, we realized that we need to constantly return to a simple and clear question: “What exactly happens when you sit down to meditate?”. Not “what does it look like,” “what do you think of it,” or “what does it mean,” but “what’s going on.” There are a lot of interesting connotations and images surrounding meditation, but here’s the basics: you sit straight and still, close your eyes, repeat a mantra, listen to it, get distracted, and come back to the mantra again. This leads to the fact that the community of meditators becomes a space where in silence, peace and simplicity the value of the pure presence of everyone is established. Each person is important simply because they exist – women and men, children and old people, healthy and sick, heterosexual and homosexual, religious and secular, strangers and neighbors. We recognize this experience in meditation, and by placing it at the basis of our social relations we obtain democracy. John Main said: “It is very easy to check if your meditation is working: ask yourself, are you growing in love? Do you become more patient, do you understand people better, and do you grow in your compassion for them?” Perhaps we can test whether our democracy works in the same way. Has it not been stolen from us – by someone else or by ourselves? Are we not just simulating it?

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