Political theorist Hannah Arendt in writing about totalitarianism in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil said that the banality of evil is the absence of dialogue–either an inner dialogue with the self or an outer dialogue with someone other. The banality of evil is the capacity of a person to perform an action based on prescribed ideas, without first having had thoughtful dialogue about whether that action is right or wrong. Hannah Arendt saw this banality of evil manifest profoundly in Nazi Germany.
Arendt’s theory is still relevant. We witness the banality of evil today in the white supremacy and xenophobia that continues to pervade our country, the police brutality, the killing of black boys and men, the refugee crisis. Arendt’s words inspire a call to awareness when one might otherwise be overwhelmed with despair.
But where does one start? In establishing dialogue, the inner must come first. Spiritual training can be helpful for engaging inner dialogue. But one has to take care not to simply fall into subscribing to a set of ideas that aren’t one’s own, ideas that don’t require–or that even discourage–thoughtful self examination. Classical Chinese medicine offers a profound antidote to the absence of thoughtfulness and dialogue within and among human beings through a system of healing called Shan Ren Dao, or the path of the real person.
In Classical Chinese medicine the human being is conceptualized as a microcosm of the universe. The five elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, and water–move within the human being as they do in nature and are aligned with the different organ systems in the body. For example, just as fire brings warmth and connection but also destruction of habitat so it will within the body. 19th century peasant saint Wang Fengyi (pictured above) brought about the system of healing within Classical Chinese medicine called Shan Ren Dao. He saw that health came through taking deep responsibility for the self through cultivating the virtues–empathy, propriety, integrity, righteousness, and wisdom–and expelling the emotional poison or pathology–anger, hatred, blame, irritation and judgement, and disdain–of each of the five elements.
Shan Ren Dao is my way. It is my inroad to self cultivation, to inner dialogue, and to sincerity and integrity in relationship. It is also my spiritual path. Because through it I’ve realized an inner truth that pervades everything I do: that my path to the divine is through purifying myself. My path to the divine is through taking complete responsibility for my own darkness and my own light, so that I can love and care for the people in my life as freely as possible.
The first Shan Ren Dao retreat I attended was the first retreat to happen in the U.S. (Now they happen annually in the summers.) I was in school studying Five Element acupuncture. My son was 14 months old. It was a challenge for me to stay on top of a rigorous graduate program and parenting–let alone take nearly two weeks out of my life to go on retreat. Yet I felt drawn. I packed up my son, his sitter, and our gear to follow a little bird in my heart.
On the first evening of that first retreat–I felt the transmission of this deep level of responsibility viscerally. The physical sensation was one of nausea–but the inner knowing was that my cells were waking up. I was averse to food. It was not unlike an experience of being under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Only, in this case, what was altering my mind was a very bright light shining with stunning immediacy into the darker corners of my heart—the places I had looked away from, the places where I hadn’t fully taken responsibility.
To begin to have thoughtful dialogue—to make ourselves available to dialogue with those with whom we differ–we have to begin with inner dialogue. Shan Ren Dao offers a very concrete way of truly and sincerely looking at and dialoging with the self through sincerely acknowledging and rooting out that which has kept us from our light.
There is a Confucian Five Element chant that is the cornerstone of my personal practice–and a central element of the practice in general. It’s very simple. In it we sincerely ask the wise teacher, or our highest selves, “Do I embody this virtue of this element: wood/fire/earth/metal/water?” The final sound for each of the five elements is extended for as long as the exhale allows. So that before we affirm that “Yes, I do embody this virtue” we expel—on our breath and through the transmuting quality of the sound itself–the pathology of that element from our systems. This chant offers a profound and simple way of dialoging with the self that allows us to ask, “Am I sincerely following my path? Where am I caught up? Where am I clouded by blame, hatred, or disdain? What is there that is keeping me from being able to open my heart?”
Inner dialogue is not enough. We must be willing to sincerely dialogue with others. But to have a place from which to reach, to have a supportive practice with which to work when—in reaching out to the other—we get thrown off kilter, or find ourselves in judgement or anger, this is what will truly foster healing, this is what will create a true capacity to live from our heavenly nature, to know our darkness and stand in our light.
In working with the Five Element system within the Shan Ren Dao we can go deep. Through really listening, we can let our bodies themselves lead us to greater consciousness. We can let our digestive distress lead us to working with the earth in us, our heart palpitations lead us to working with the fire in us. If dialogue with the self can start here, by taking this level of responsibility– through listening to subtle sensations of the body, through looking sincerely at how we’re showing up in relationship–it opens up the possibility of truly being able to see ourselves and those whom we consider as other more clearly. Then we act from true consciousness, and bit by bit we can dispel that evil that breeds on its absence.