Deep Ethics and the Gettysburg Address

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I should throw my hat in the ring on the subject of ethics. A lot of my ideas and intuitions crystallized around a talk I attended, given by Roger Walsh at the Conference for Integral Theory at JFK University. In my soon-to-be-published book (SUNY Press), I even have a short chapter entitled “Ethics, the Fifth Line.” In other words, in addition to our body, mind, emotional, and spiritual practices, that are necessary for a truly transformative integral practice, we must include ethics as a discreet line and ongoing practice.

Why is this? Well, many of the things that we have to deal with in the practices that are strengthening, healing, and evolving the body, mind, heart, and soul are due to our often unconscious and, almost always, unethical behaviors. It seems that we live in an age when ethics are so often ignored—in almost any conversation about anything that we are proposing to do.  It seems to me that in many circles, even Integral ones, we are often seduced by the overarching, greedy, self-interest dogma that has become part and parcel of our American vision and which, in many circles, is embraced with religious fervor.

The current conservative mantra goes something like this: If we are all greedy to the max, and follow our own individual self interests, we will create a pure democracy, a healthy economy, and a near heaven on earth. If that leaves a large residue of poor people and suffering, well, to hell with them, they’re just lazy anyway. This is perhaps on my mind because I am going to be wading into a family reunion in the next few days, where I will be probably be surrounded by a bunch of Tea Partyists. Bummer. And, I love these people. I was thinking about handing out a 8 1/2” x 11” flyer upon arriving, that says, Yes, I know you think that Obama is an African-born Islamist, probably the Anti-Christ, and trying to destroy American freedom, that government is bad, that taxes are evil, and that if we could only do away with all three (Obama, taxes, and government), we would somehow live in a Mayberry-like paradise. Oy vey!

Forgive the rant, but I wanted to put that out there.

Back to ethics.

The contention is that most of our suffering—in this case, I am speaking of suffering of the ignoble type, in other words, suffering that comes from our own dumb, self-centered and unconscious acts—causes most of the things we have to spend a good part of our lifetimes healing and correcting. In the case of addicts, if one had thought about the ethics involved before one stuck the first needle in one’s arm to inject heroin, there might have been a different outcome. For example, one might have considered: How will this affect my life, and that of my children, family, and loved ones? How will this affect my life purpose? I wonder what God thinks about this, etc. This may sound very naïve, as in, you mean we’re supposed to think about right and wrong before we do things? For God’s sake, it could destroy the economy! The reason that this sounds so weird is because most of us don’t do it. How many of our politicians actually consider the ethics of their policies as opposed to the short-term benefits to their political power and financial wellbeing, and perhaps how to stay out of jail.

I think our greatest presidents (Lincoln comes to mind) did struggle with the overarching moral and ethical issues that confronted them during their presidencies. In studying Lincoln’s life, one can clearly see Abraham’s transformation from a smart and ambitious politician to a man who carried within his heart the soul of his country and the great ethical and moral issues of his time. For example, in the early days of his presidency, he was willing to go along with slavery if that would keep the Union together. Later, he realized the centrality of the evil of slavery and that perhaps this was what the whole war was really about. This transformation did not come about facilely; Lincoln struggled with this issue and often suffered deep depression. So, when he used the phrase “by the better angels of our nature” in his first inaugural address, he was seemingly predicting his own struggles within himself as he wrestled to find the deeper meanings and purpose of the long and immensely bloody Civil War. Lincoln also fought the war in his own heart and soul.  He knew what this meant from his own life experience because his ethical and moral struggles had transformed him from a mere politician to a man of destiny and a world-changing hero, and ultimately a martyr.

In less lofty terms, but no less real, the question is, Why are ethics important and why should anyone including myself be ethical? Isn’t it easier just to seek one’s own self-interest? The simple answer is that when we act in a conscious and ethical manner, we feel better. We experience less needless suffering and we bring our small ego selves more and more into alignment with our higher God selves. This is the perfect expression of what Dr. Marc Gafni calls the Unique Self. I am convinced that the greatest human joy, or the highest level of pleasure, is when this alignment takes place. Conversely, it often takes a lot of pain, suffering, and surrendering to achieve. In addition, I believe it requires an ongoing serious contemplative practice, in which we examine our motives and can begin to distinguish between the truths generated by our rational minds and emotions and those that come from a deeper and wiser source.

This morning, for example, when I was meditating and praying, I was feeling a lot of pain around that which I feel is a slight, and perhaps a betrayal, by someone I consider a close friend. My mind attempted to objectively collect and analyze the data and come up with a judgment. It wasn’t a pretty judgment. And I had the feeling, Wow, I’ve been a fool and I should have seen this coming. On the other hand, I realized that this was just my mind, and, as on other occasions, I could be completely wrong or largely wrong. So, I let go of my largely redundant thoughts and centered in my heart, surrendered to the pain, surrendered to God, and asked for help and guidance that all of this might unfold to the greatest good for all. Toward the end of the hour of my meditation and prayer, I began to feel a sense of presence and grace, which surrounded the wound in my heart. The pain did not go away, but somehow was held in a more loving and greater context. As I sit here and write this, I still do not know how this will unfold and what the correct course of action will eventually be, other than I need to talk with this person and see what emerges from there.

Recently, a student of mine said, “Getting sober is the easy part—it’s all the stuff that arises after that, which is difficult.” I have often taught that, with addiction, one gets to feel good (albeit temporarily) without doing good. But in sobriety, or perhaps we should say, in a spiritual, conscious life, one has to do good to feel good. And, I am not simply talking of another reductionistic way to spike our dopamine, but in a much deeper and essential way. In other words, if we continue to strive and work in our hearts, our actions, and our thoughts, to live and act in a deeply ethical way, the ultimate fruits will be joy and a deep sense of peace and alignment with our higher purpose and higher power.

I was recently reading a book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua  Heschel, Man is Not Alone, who said that the ultimate question in life, and perhaps the ultimate ethical question is, What is the Universe requiring of me? What is the Universe asking me to do? So much of our time is spent trying to figure out what we want to do. Perhaps that is fine because if this inquiry is followed to its ultimate conclusion, we will find out that our deepest and most profound desires are none other than the desires of the universe, or our greater soul.

I have found that many of my newly-sober students have no idea, once the drugs are out of their systems, about how to act ethically in the world or why that is necessary or even desirable. It’s often, Well, I can’t do drugs any more, so what can I do to please myself and scratch that itch? I think there is great wisdom in the emerging dharma of Dr. Marc Gafni, and his teaching about levels of pleasure, that what gets us ill and causes so much suffering is not pleasure in itself, but the substitute of what Gafni calls “pseudo eros” to satisfy our deepest desires, such as drugs, unhealthy relationships, inappropriate sex, money—the Seven Deadly Sins. It is not that these deepest desires should not be satisfied and weren’t put in us for the very purpose of becoming satisfied, but that our misguided attempts to fulfill these desires with that which never can or will leads to incredible suffering, dysfunction, illness, and lost potential for true pleasure guided by a deeply connected sense of ethics and morality.

So, how do we do this? We wake up, I think. Through our repetitive Integral practices, which foster health and growth in our essential selves, our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.  We examine our motives and our inner conditioning. And, through our inner contemplative work, we purify our motives through awareness and the continued plunging into the depths of our deepest selves and true natures. From this, I believe, there emerges a true and vital and juicy ethical life, based on our own actualization and our own Self-realization. Of course, we are all fallible and, as Ram Dass once said, “proceed on the spiritual journey one body length at a time” —i.e., we fall on our faces a lot—but this is good as we are strengthened by the process of falling and getting up. And, perhaps we can be more compassionate as we realize that we do not struggle and suffer alone: each pain, each wound, each tragedy, every depression is shared by the millions of beings that have come before us, who are suffering now, and yet to be born. We do not suffer alone. We are the Universe suffering. This is the true meaning of compassion, “com-passione,” to suffer with. It is the capacity to open to our own suffering and deepen into the co-suffering with all that true ethics arise from. It is in the tears and pain of our own weeping hearts that we find the ecstatic bliss of our own true nature that can and will wipe away all tears and suffering, as we and all beings awake from the dream of our own separateness and remember who and what we really are.

I will finish with the words of Lincoln that he scribbled on a piece of paper before consecrating the newly filled graveyard at the Battlefield of Gettysburg. While our vision may have evolved since Lincoln wrote these words, nevertheless, I find the call for a higher purpose that is worth whatever the cost we must pay as moving and as relevant as it ever was.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

From Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

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