Discerning Harm and Benefit

I heard an NPR report on the spread of Coronavirus in South Dakota. Some of the folks who died from the disease held onto the view, until their last breath, that Covid-19 was a hoax. It is incomprehensible that we can deny the obvious. Our habitual perception is so powerful that we can look at our own face and not recognize it. My father experienced Alzheimer’s disease and walked through a phase in which he did not recognize his real-time reflection. We see this as a form of dementia, but we do not acknowledge the misperceptions of our so-called healthy mind.

It is a wonder human beings have survived this long given our proclivity for delusion. The Buddhist teachings suggest when we are overly attached to any point of view, we become blind to anything else. On the other hand, when we are open and flexible, we experience “discerning wisdom.” The moment we drop our assumptions, we see more clearly. This practice of getting over our delusions liberates the habits of mind. But we must be vigilant and not idealize openness in the face of injustice. We have to recognize suffering and harm lest we kill ourselves with ignorance.

An apt metaphor for discerning harm arises in the early Star Wars movies when Obi Wan and others would say they felt a “disturbance in the Force.” The Force refers to a kind of universal life energy. Feeling a disturbance is recognizing the possibility of harm. This is free of discursive thinking about good and bad. It is simply an intuitive feeling of energy becoming unstable—a kind of quantum awareness.

Becoming aware of how energy moves, we move with it. Rather than cater to a limited idea of what will benefit or harm only ourselves, we experience a field of awareness that includes all beings. If we notice the energy becoming unstable, we are available to catch someone who falls. If the field is more coherent or more balanced, we support the flow without attachment. In other words, we are able to discern whether or not a moment is beneficial or harmful based on how energy moves to alleviate suffering for all beings equally. Sounds like compassion to me.

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