Via Basel: A Failure, a Catharsis

Art by Dena Shuckit

I try to avoid writing about current tragic events, but I fail most of the time. I write to relieve my angst. As a writer it makes me feels better to put my thoughts to print, a catharsis of sorts.

A few days ago a few of us had gathered in silence and reflection, when one, most likely a sensitive soul, started sobbing and crying with no provocation. They then explained that news and images of the recent mayhem and violence in the Middle East kept flashing in their mind, on top of the trauma in our city streets, schools, and other institutions. This person had no ax to grind and was not associated with either side of the conflict. Yet it was difficult to ignore what was happening 6,000 miles away and move on with life unaffected.     

Over the last several years I have attempted to insulate myself from the vicissitudes and ugliness of the world to no avail. I argued to myself that it was in my best interest mentally and for me to function properly and even help others. I succeeded in minimizing my exposure to news especially non-print news such as TV and social media, and it helped. But once a catastrophic incident, natural or manmade occurred, it was impossible to extricate myself since in addition to the sadness there was an element of guilt. Not only was I comfortable, safe and not affected by the tragedy unfolding, but I didn’t want to experience the emotions associated with being a witness even from afar. I have decided that I cannot be that person. Sure, I have to continue functioning and living, but ignoring it is not an option. We all know what happens when apathy reigns in a society and it’s  hijacked by a demagogue. Read Hannah Arendt re: Totalitarianism: “Evil thrives on apathy and cannot exist without it.” Between the two extremes–getting too caught up, consumed and isolated, apathetic–there is a better third way.

Jenny Odell in How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy in response to the challenges inherent in trying to extricate oneself from the fabric of a capitalist reality and politics as happened in the counterculture communes of the 1960s states: This is the beginning of the ongoing distinction I’ll make between 1) escaping “the world” (or even just other people entirely) and 2) remaining in place while escaping the framework of the attention economy and an over-reliance on a filtered public opinion.  This is the basis of her idea of refusal-in-place. 

I am not naïve enough to believe this is easy, but it is doable. For more on how, read the book.

I now go back to my unified theory. Why not? There have been attempts at unified theory in physics, biology, and others so why not in the social sciences and behavioral psychology. In my theory, the starting point is Mindfulness, leading to clarity and the simple ability to distinguish real from unreal, which leads to wise action. I have commented on this subject in previous columns but what I want to emphasize here is the “will and intention” which are the most necessary ingredients to embark on this journey of awareness. It is a road less traveled, and not for the faint of heart, the rewards down the line. I will remain in place, engaged with the world and refusing it at the same time.


Right here, right now, present                                                                                                                                                                                  Weary body, broken heart                                                                                                                                                                                          Dark sadness, deep inside                                                                                                                                                                                          Compassion for all, wells up.


Dam gives way, tears stream                                                                                                                                                                                        Spontaneously, naturally                                                                                                                                                                                              And that is fine, considering                                                                                                                                                                                      The human condition, the world.


Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family; now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, public speaking, teaching, and social engagement.

Hannah Arendt via Wikipedia

Jenny Odell via

Art inspired by the news, by Dena Shuckit, at EIL



2 responses to “Via Basel: A Failure, a Catharsis”

  1. basela says:

    Thank you Basel, for your thought provoking words. I feel that the spiritual practice of our time is to continue to be informed about the world we live in, it’s pain, violence, cruelty and efforts toward peace. Seeking and speaking the truth is our task along with responding to it. Live images of cruelty and atrocities can be seen every day as we witness crimes against humanity that must must not be ignored.

    I recall Thich Naht Hanh sending his monks out into the streets to protest the Vietnam war.
    He referred to this as “engaged Buddhism.” We can also call this kind of response an engaged Christianity or whatever tradition one claims, and an engaged democracy. Our thoughts, words, actions as well as our prayer and meditation are the spiritual practice our time calls for.

    Shalom, Shlama, Salaam,

    —Joseph Kilikevice

  2. basela says:

    Thanks Joe, so much to learn from Thich Nhat Hanh. Here is his poem ” Condemnation” from 1964 against the Vietnam war:
    ” Whoever is listening, be my witness:
    I cannot accept this war.
    I never could I never will.
    I must say this a thousand
    times before I am killed.
    I am like a bird who dies for
    the sake of his mate,
    dripping blood from its broken
    beak and crying out:
    ” Beware! Turn around and
    face your real enemies
    –ambition, violence hatred
    and greed.”

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