Know Your Place

When dharma conversation turns to matters of nonduality, things can be truly mind-blowing, or they can get weird, and it’s not as much about the content as the tone of the conversation that makes it so. I notice that some people treat non-duality like “Hey man, you know, I mean what it really means is like there is no me and there is no you and there is no God but we’re kind of all God at the same time, too.” And while I actually really get that, it can be a bit off-putting to some who prefers a more scientific approach to the nature of reality and the nature of mind. Contrast to this quote by Lama Yeshe:

“All existing phenomena, whether deemed good or bad, are by nature beyond duality, beyond our false discriminations. Nothing that exists does so outside of non-duality. In other words, every existing energy is born within non-duality, functions within non-duality, and finally disappears into the nature of non-duality. We are born on this earth, live our lives and pass away all within the space of non-duality. This is the simple and natural truth, not some philosophy fabricated by Maitreya Buddha. We are talking about objective facts and the fundamental nature of reality, neither more nor less.”

Factually speaking, then, at the very least we can see that we are all here on this planet together for as long as any of us lives, and there is, as I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, No Way Out.

Have you ever had to share close quarters with someone? When I was a hippie love child dreamer nomad in my early 20s (that state still describes me, sort of), I remember living with a boyfriend and two cats in a tiny place the size of a shoebox with 3 other people and one other cat. When I lived in my first commune, we had 7 of us living in a 3-bedroom apartment, with an endless parade of guests and long-term visitors. Truth be told, I had no idea if I would come home to people already asleep (or doing other things!) in my bed at that time of my life. I loved the adventuresomeness of that (mostly), but as I have gotten older I prefer a little more spaciousness and order.

Enter this concept: Know Your Place.

It is an interesting turn of phrase. Most often it gets hurled as an insult. Women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, Trans folk, queers, children, the elderly, and others are told to Know Our Place as a way of silencing us, keeping us small, making us feel like we do not deserve to hold the center of our own experiences. It is a phrase that gets flung like a cake of mud, rather than exhaled as a warm invitation, if you get my drift.

Yet that same phrase, when it arises from within the meditative mind of a practitioner, is one of life’s most loving guidelines.

“Do I have more money, privilege, social currency, or power than this individual who is trying to open up their reality to me? Then perhaps I ought to know my place and listen more than I talk.”

“Does this conflict, situation, or debate involve me directly, or ought I know my place and observe as those who hold the center of this issue demonstrate their leadership?”

“Do I stand to gain from what is happening here? Then it might be a good idea for me to know my place and make sure to use that gain to also uplift others.”

To a more advanced aspirant, it might be, “I am experiencing pain right now. Let me take a moment to know my place in the wheel of karma, to accept that this pain is happening right now even if I don’t like it, and to find a way that whatever difficulty I am enduring right now will, in the long run, help alleviate others’ pain.”

Knowing our place, when this knowing arises from one’s own conscience in a way that uplifts, sustains, and supports the benefit of all beings, is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another while we’re all living on what sometimes feels like a shoebox of a planet or a big, messy commune called Earth. Knowing our place is good hygiene for life on the wheel of samsara.

But Know Your Place, when it comes from outside of one’s self, rarely feels like a gift. No one likes to be diminished, as in, “Know your place, stay small and quiet, you should be afraid of me, I’m more powerful than you.” No one likes to feel as though someone else gets to place a boundary around our exercise of personal power in what is essentially a non-dual world of limitless power. Even when it is correct for that to happen. So, if we need to say to someone, “Hey, you are really taking up a lot of room, exercising your privilege, or occupying the center here in a way that is causing harm,” we can basically predict that they might not like it, that they might feel angry or hurt, that they might lash out or get defiant or make things even worse. What does compassion look like in that situation? Is it to assuage their emotions and allow them to continue to take up that space, even if we are correct that they have overstepped in their power and are causing harm to us and others?

I propose that compassion might instead be to hold our ground with clarity and firmness, even if others must then burn through a veil of anger that causes us to be singed in the process. I propose that compassion is to sit in nonviolent resistance until authentic dialogue and communion can be achieved. I propose compassion involves listening to one’s own conscience and knowing when it is inappropriate to try to hold the center, and when not to. I propose that compassion means supporting one another by learning to share power and to expand the borders of privilege into their essential non-dual state so that all beings might live better. Finally, I propose that compassion is to offer gratitude and sensitivity to that person once they have found their way through their knee-jerk reaction, and to give them opportunities for restoration of justice and good will. It’s much easier to know our place when we know that everyone will have one if we exercise this good community hygiene.