The following is a speech given at a vigil in support of the people of Darfur, hosted by Students Taking Action: Darfur (STAND) at the University Chapel, University of Virginia.
We have all come together this evening to pray for, and show solidarity with, those who are suffering at the hands of others in Darfur. Certainly prayer is appropriate and powerful.
But we should also inquire: Why is there so much suffering, not just in Darfur, but everywhere? And what can we do about it? Because if we are really compassionate and sane, we want to stop the suffering in Darfur and around the globe, permanently.
My comments will be framed by the teachings of Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti teaches us that the root of all suffering is mis-identification with the body.
Aham Brahmasmi—“I am spirit.” I am not this body. My only connection to this body is that I am inside it, it houses me, like a suit of clothes. I energize the body, I animate it, but it is not me. It is like a car that I use to drive through my life. And all living beings on the planet are spirit, equally significant, but housed in different bodies.
When we mis-identify with the body, if we think we’re this body and we approach the world from that paradigm, it gives us the excuse, if you will, to cause all sorts of suffering to others who are housed in bodies different from our own.
For instance: If you are in a female body, then those in male bodies (stronger and more powerful) can exercise control over you. In some cultures you can’t vote, or drive a car, or have a bank account, or even be educated.
If you are born in VA and you think you’re that body, then you are a Virginian, a Southerner, an American. Immediately, half the world will hate you—just for being American. You may be the nicest person on the planet, but some will hate you. And if you are unfortunate you might even hate them back.
In Darfur, if you are an Arab from the north you hate the black African from the south. Or if you are from one tribe you hate those from another tribe.
If you are in a light body, you may fear and dislike those in darker bodies. If you are in a dark body you may hate all light-skinned people, not knowing how those individuals feel about you, but supposing that they want to victimize you.
And if you are not in a human body, if say, you are in a deer body, and it is hunting season, look out because humans will shoot you for sport.
So when we see each other as the body, we see differences. And when we see differences, in creeps all the bad behavior we can rain on each other. But, when we see all living beings on earth as spirit, we see that we have what is most important in common.
It doesn’t matter if we are different colors or races, or religions, or are from different tribes. We are spirit, and we are fundamentally equal.
So what can WE do about the suffering? How can we help change the world?
Ultimately, the most important thing we can do is get our own house in order. We can practice seeing all living beings as spirit, as significant, as worthy of compassion. We can, as Gandhi suggested, “become the change we want to see in the world.” First we need to do that.
Then we help others, our friends and families to not mis-identify with the body. We can tell them we won’t tolerate judgements on the basis of race or sex or culture, nor will we tolerate abuse of other living entities based on their body.
In the last year or so, people all over the world have started talking about global ecology. How we treat the planet has taken a more significant place in the common agenda. Why can’t we do the same thing with how we treat each other? Why can’t we start a movement that places the emphasis on what we all have in common? That we are all spirit souls? Why not work to change the consciousness of our communtities, our country, the world? We’re working so hard to save the planet, but then we pollute it with hate, and innocents in places like Darfur suffer and starve.
So my prayer tonight is that we all begin to raise our consciousness and help others do the same. If we do that, we will be doing something SIGNIFICANT—because changing consciousness is more than a band-aid solution, it snowballs and affects generations to come. That is one powerful way to honor those in Darfur who have suffered so needlessly—to make the changes in consciousness that might prevent another atrocity like that in Darfur from happening.