Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bearing Witness - A Book Review

A few weeks back a co-worker brought in 'The Kite Runner' for me to read. I'd heard of it but I didn't know what it was about. I ended up reading that and two other books by Khaled Hosseini in three weeks and it was the third one I read which really struck me the most. 

First of all I'll say that as far as his way of writing goes - it's not always fantastic. He delivers analogies and metaphor in a rather heavy-handed way and his characters recap things mentioned in previous chapters in more detail than is necessary. But it wasn't the way it was written that struck me. 

It was the intensity of the stories. 

I realise this is fiction but it's a fictional account of actual historic events - of a Communist occupation, militia warfare and Taliban rule. 

I've recently come to realise that I'm hugely ignorant about the politics of the Middle-East and even most of Asia, to be honest. In school we were bombarded with the World Wars but always the Canadian, British and American side of it and always just what occurred in Europe. 

In the past I would avoid books like this because they were just too intense for me. Even in the fictional context, I found the stories too difficult to bear. I've always been a bit high-strung when it comes to violence. Graphic violence in horror films cause me to pass out. 

But recently I've had a shift in my experience and started doing what Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel refers to as 'bearing witness'. This is a practice that allows us to open up to the world as it is. 

It's not about being passive but about acknowledging the truth of the human condition - which is that life can be incredibly painful and brutal at times. In the case of Afghanistan this has been a stark reality for decades. War tore through the country leaving destruction, chaos, and death. The rule of the Taliban saw half the population so oppressed they may as well have been dead and indeed, many people took that as their only way out. 

It's a painful thing to face up to - especially living in the West where we are largely sheltered form such things or easily become numb to what we see in the news. 

I used to refuse to watch the news because I found it depressing. I said it was always the same so why bother? All it did was perpetuate a sense of negativity and gloom. 

Since discovering Elizabeth's teachings and her practice of Bearing Witness this has changed for me. I now watch the news so that I can learn and become a more effective human being. 

The only way to create lasting, effective change, is if we understand the fullness of any given situation. Something like war is incredibly complex and while old age, sickness and death can never be stopped, war can be. But only when we take a holistic view of it. It can't be prevented or stopped if we think we 'know' what must be done of feel there is a single definitive 'answer'. There can't be an Us Vs. Them approach. It must be something that we address as a human problem - not a problem of a politic view or a particular country or group of individuals. 

Reading these books and particularly 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', has been a bearing witness practice for me, a way of furthering the understanding I have about the importance of developing compassion, discriminating awareness and seeing clearly what can be done to be effective human beings on the planet. 

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