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Spiritual warriorship in a world on the edge of war with Susan Gillis Chapman


When war and rumours of war are everywhere in the news how we personally relate to  uncertainty and show up for others matters more than ever. The temptation to harden our hearts and join the chorus of polarizing voices is difficult to resist. However, it doesn’t matter what side of a conflict we identify with or the opinions we hold. Toxic certainty, hatred and fear are contagious and the real enemies of peace. Spiritual warriorship has existed in eastern and western traditions for thousands of years to show the way of bravery. In times of crisis the spiritual warrior rises above aggression and looks within to transform a fearful mind in the cradle of compassion.

In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with returning guest Susan Gillis Chapman, Buddhist teacher and author of The 5 Keys of Mindful Communication and a new book, Which Way Is Up?: Finding Heart in the Hardest of Times, due to be published in June 2024. In this conversation we discuss the transformative power of compassion and qualities of a modern spiritual warrior living in times of great change and fear. We also discuss contemplative practices for invoking the heart of bravery and leading with love.

Show Notes


If you enjoyed this discussion on spiritual warriorship you might also enjoy episode 043 Fear as a stepping stone to fearless love with Susan Gillis Chapman

Episode Transcripts


[00:00:00] Silas Rose: Welcome to another episode of Awake in Relationship. My name is Silas Rose. As the topic of war and rumours of war fill our newsfeed, this seems like an opportune time to do an episode focused on warriorship. To be clear, by warrior, I mean something very different from the conventional sense of the word. Here I look to indigenous cultures in both the East and the West for inspiration.

Some form of spiritual warriorship has always existed since time immemorial. When I think about great spiritual warriors, I think about the Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, or Mahatma Gandhi, who embody the qualities of gentleness and fearlessness. Because of their great vision and discipline, they conquered aggression.

I so yearn for this kind of leadership. To borrow a phrase often attributed to Ghandi, I think we have to become that change, that kind of leader who is authentic and brave. In times of crisis and war, our opinions have little value. What matters is how we’re showing up. In this episode of Awake In Relationship, I speak with returning guest Susan Gillis Chapman, Buddhist teacher and author of the Five Keys of Mindful Communication, and a new book soon to be released, called Which Way is Up?

In this conversation, Susan and I discuss the qualities and training ground of a spiritual warrior in the modern world. We also explore some contemplative practices drawn from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition for interrupting toxic certainty, fear and hatred, and connecting with a heart of bravery in uncertain times.

Please stay tuned.

Susan it’s been a long time and welcome back to Awake In Relationship.

[00:01:58] Susan Gillis Chapman: Oh, thanks, Silas. It’s really wonderful that you keep inviting me back. I really enjoy our conversations.

[00:02:05] Silas Rose: Yeah, me too. So it’s kind of an exciting time for you because you have a new book coming out you know, we’re going to do a more in depth interview on that, probably in a couple months, but can you give us a little teaser about what this is about?

[00:02:16] Susan Gillis Chapman: Yeah. It’ll go public on June 4th. Yeah. So in this book, I’m using my personal story as my story of having cancer and chemotherapy and so forth as a You could say almost a metaphor or a a way of describing what all of us go through in one way or another when our life is disrupted.

And I’m bringing the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism into that. Process so that people will have the support of greeting fear with loving kindness and compassion. So it’s yeah, hopefully it’s something that’d be relevant to anybody and everybody who’s going through any kind of upheaval, which could be collective or individual.

Yeah. Absolutely. That’s it’s, it’s 22 short little vignettes, but each one of them is about the relationship between fear and love. And the short answer is love conquers fear. It’s like the scissors, paper, rock game, but you know, love always is winning out over fear, but it’s a lot of different examples of how that, my experience with that.

[00:03:29] Silas Rose: It has a really interesting title. And I’m wondering about the meaning of that.

[00:03:34] Susan Gillis Chapman: Which way is up? Yeah. And I love the cover of the book, which is the reflection of clouds, you know, in water. So there is this and you know, when, when we, goes through a crisis of any kind in our life, everything flips upside down.

It seems, you know, we suddenly drop out of what we thought of as normal. And then we’re in what I call, or what is sometimes referred to as a Bardo and in between gap. And so this is it’s like, I want my book to meet people there in that moment of not knowing which way is up. You know, and that there’s something really transformative about that experience because what we used to think of as normal is actually can actually be very unhelpful and sometimes being flipped out of it.

I don’t want to be overly pollyannish about it, but it’s true that these gaps can be extremely valuable in our life.

[00:04:38] Silas Rose: How did your Buddhist training prepare you for your diagnosis?

[00:04:41] Susan Gillis Chapman: Oh, a hundred percent, you know, a hundred percent because for 50 years now I’ve been practicing meditation where the main practice is to Rest in your body, rest in your posture feel the natural confidence of just being a human being.

But when, you know, when thoughts and emotions carry you away into different stories and imagined scenarios, The meditation practice is training to pop that bubble, let go, and come back to the present moment. And so that, in some ways, I mean, that’s like the microscopic version of what it’s like to suddenly hear, you know, you have cancer that pops your bubble in a very big way.

So at that point, you have two choices, either to rest in that space for even a moment or two or to quickly try to exit. So the meditation training. really trains us to trust the space, and if we can do that, the space of our own intelligence and our own natural compassion for ourselves can have room to begin, you could say the healing process begins right away.

And then in my book I talk about kind of allowing other people, and, and a lot of us think that we have to have these lifelong friendships and so forth, but in the book, my experience is that, I was nourished by the kindness of strangers over and over again. It was during the pandemic. And so, you know, just the kindness and gentleness of an interaction with someone whose name I never knew, you know, a technician, but it’s just a proof that we can have a supply chain in our world of kindness that comes through these small gestures and that we can be nourished by that.

So that also came, I think, from my Buddhist training of learning how to recognize that we don’t have to individualize or solidify our idea of what love looks like. That it can actually it’s present everywhere. There’s basic goodness and beauty everywhere that can nourish us if we are just simply willing to open to that space.

[00:07:06] Silas Rose: It’s sometimes hard to have that trust especially as, you know, we get more kind of sucked into the newsfeed. It seems like there’s an absence of compassion and wisdom.

[00:07:16] Susan Gillis Chapman: Yeah, if you think of it, going back to this image of nourishment. You know, and it’s interesting you say the news feed, right? You know, what kind of nourishment are we taking? Like we, a lot of us are really trying to avoid junk food, right? But it’s very well established that there’s a certain kind of news feed that feeds on anger and fear. And the more anger and fear that’s cultivated, the more addicted we get. To what I call toxic certainties, right?

So I’ll feed you anger and fear. And here in, as a result, you can buy my product, you know, and that product will rescue you from the anger and fear. But all of that is a big con job.

[00:08:07] Silas Rose: The product is ego.

[00:08:09] Susan Gillis Chapman: Yeah, exactly. So again I think we all have to take some responsibility, especially during times of, you know, cultural crisis to really nourish ourselves properly.

You know, nourish our souls, nourish our beings and, and, you know, we don’t have to take this on blind faith. We just simply nourish yourself with love, nourish yourself with kindness, nourish yourself with wisdom, healthy skepticism curiosity, willing not to know and by nourishing ourselves that way now.

What does the world look like? You know, when you have reestablished a healthiness, what does it look like?

[00:08:49] Silas Rose: That really brings us to the topic of spiritual warriorship, which, you know, it takes a lot of bravery to turn towards. that, that kind of open space of vulnerability.

[00:09:00] Susan Gillis Chapman: Yeah, exactly.

So that would distinguish spiritual warriorship from our usual view of a warrior as being in conflict with, and in this case, the definition That my teacher, my lineage Trungpa Rinpoche and the Shambhala lineage defined the spiritual warrior as about being beyond conflict or raising, raising us to, you could say a level of awareness that is beyond aggression, but the pathway is about turning toward those very things.

So the, the path of the spiritual warrior is to reverse that process and so from that point of view, one would instead of eating the poisonous food of fear or aggression, would turn toward it and say, Oh, what is the nature of this fear? You know, You’re feeding me fear. Let me, let me get into that. Let me bring some intelligence. Let me bring inquiry into that. Why are you afraid of it? Why should I be afraid of it?

You know, just being curious. And likewise with anger, like anger really feeds on or depends on this notion of blame and so, you know, the path of the spiritual warrior is like, it’s like being the ultimate sort of mediator or negotiator. You go, okay, I’ll take the blame. Like give me that hot potato. And what happens is that totally disarms the whole process.

So in some ways, the path of spiritual warriorship is a gentle but confident path of being willing to continue to investigate what’s being offered, you know not necessarily what’s only being offered by other people, but what’s arising in ourselves. So when I have my episode of anger or my episode of fear, instead of just going with it and solidifying it, I could actually investigate it.

Like, what is the nature? And I think that’s one of the characteristics of bravery in this case is that if we can be willing, and this is what the meditation provides, is the ability to let go of the story And then just come to the energy and feel it in our body, then that’s one of the steps.

So I, I go to the fear and just allow that fear to be there and just stay with the fear rather than the stories or the same with the anger. I come back to the, just the energy of these emotions. And, and, but it’s bringing curiosity, bringing acceptance, bringing and bringing self compassion , then we discover that that can be transformative.

And once we discover that then we have our only concern at that point is how to provide that space for others.

[00:12:05] Silas Rose: It seems like medicine for the times, because so many of the conflicts that we hear about now are really kind of being waged out of some sort of religious zealotry or, certainty. And I just it seems almost impossible to penetrate on that scale.

So in some sense we kind of have to come back to our own practice, but even in ourselves, you know, we can develop a certain kind of logic or philosophies that sort of validate our aggression towards others.

[00:12:37] Susan Gillis Chapman: Yeah, and my teacher coined the term spiritual materialism. And he normally, you know, was pointing to us so that we could notice our own spiritual ambition as being different from resting in our natural goodness.

But we could also say that the more we see how we use spirituality as some kind of escape, the more we might be able to have some understanding of how, how that occurs for other people. And how kind of dangerous it is that, you know, when, when people are so disempowered as to believe that it’s God that is justifying or causing harm to someone else, you know, or the, it’s God that’s telling that you’re better than everybody else.

[00:13:26] Silas Rose: Yeah.

[00:13:27] Susan Gillis Chapman: And yet, it’s this vicious cycle because the more people are disempowered, the more likely they are to be lured into that kind of patriarchal, authoritarian view, like, you know, trust me or trust God. God knows everything.

And therefore, I mean, I remember , those experiences as a young, you know, Catholic girl, when I would ask questions about the catechism, you know, like, why is God a man or something like that? And the answer would be, it’s a mystery. You’re not supposed to ask that question. And later on, I did get introduced to a more contemplative form of Christianity, which was very empowering, but that’s a very disempowering message, like, don’t ask those questions.

Don’t be, you know, and I really feel, and I know that this is totally central to your view, Silas, that when we look at what is a pathway, it’s all about dialogue. being willing to engage in conversation where you never turn the other person into an object. Even if you disagree with them, you don’t objectify them.

Even if you realize that there’s no way the conversation can continue, you still hold them with regard. And to me, that’s a really, you know, that, that practice of meaningful dialogue or being willing to engage is the key to restoring, you know, the sanity back to, you know, just the village idea of people sitting on a bench chatting with each other in the afternoon sun somewhere, It’s like the antidote to all of those trends towards tribalism and disempowering and authoritarian views of you know, now that I’ve established the anger and the fear, now that I’ve disempowered you, here’s the solution.

And God is telling us to take up our swords and fight the enemy, and it, it’s so scary and creepy. That’s actually becoming a dominant voice everywhere in the world.

[00:15:33] Silas Rose: It is a contagion.

[00:15:34] Susan Gillis Chapman: It’s very contagious. It’s like the worst virus. It’s worse than COVID 19,

[00:15:39] Silas Rose: I want to be very kind of practical here. In the sense that, we are all kind of under a lot of stress right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty in our world, you know, with wars, and the climate crisis, a potential orange man, back in the White House, the most powerful office in the land in the fall. There’s a lot of stress, and as we already talked about we kind of have two sort of default modes in response to stress.

One is you know, to turn away from whatever we fear, or to armour up for battle. For someone stepping onto the path, what is the first step of training in being brave?

[00:16:17] Susan Gillis Chapman: Well, traditionally one begins by a practice called the Four Reminders and actually, everything you described is the perfect fuel for that practice. The four reminders, which you could do every day begins by starting, coming at home, like, right now, at this moment, I have a human body.

I’m healthy enough to be able to, you know, function, to meditate. My, my country is not at war, so I’m not having to worry about my house collapsing. I’m not, you know, like you come back to what is the safety zone that I’m in right now and how fragile that is, then we come to the fragility and impermanence. I could die at any moment. It could all fall apart at any moment.

And so contemplating the impermanence and those two together make for a pretty healthy mix of motivation. You know, if we really contemplate it because that’s sort of a don’t waste your time message and then, you move on to kind of what is the cause of suffering. And, you know, of course we look at climate change, we look at war, we look at fascism.

You know, we look at different political movements. What is it that they all have in common? And so, you know, deeply investigating what are the causes. What the Buddha described was that the word dukha, or suffering, is like being out of balance. Being out of balance. And it’s sort of like when, Your joints are rubbing against each other with arthritis.

There’s like, it’s the pain that’s caused from something being out of balance. And so we look at climate change. We know how human misuse of power and resources have resulted in harming the earth. We look at wars and we look at how territoriality and disinformation and aggression. has caused wars.

We look at fascism and we see how much that depends on propaganda and stirring up in a state of disempowerment, you know. So we go back again to see what the causes of suffering are and then what are the causes of happiness. The causes of happiness are harmony and connection and a supply chain of kindness and love.

So once we start to investigate that, then it’s like, what am I going to invest in today? So, that’s kind of the starting point is, the Mahayana path depends a great deal on cultivating what’s called Prajna, cultivating an intelligence that cuts through confusion. And Prajna can be cultivated in dialogue, it can be cultivated through study, ultimately you take whatever kind of insight you’re having and then you bring that to your meditation cushion. and you say, okay, I’m going to look at my own mind and continue to investigate, like, what are, what are the causes of my own anger? What is my, the cause of my own habit of So by bringing it home to ourselves, we tend not to be you know, it brings us back to a, we’re all in this together, but if we don’t see it within ourselves, then most of what we try to do is going to be somewhat blind because we’re going to be trying to avoid the discomfort rather than, sinking right back into it.

Yeah. So if we talk about the warrior and the image of the sword, which I have heard recently as being, you know, grossly misused in some of the white Christian nationalism, this notion of a sword of Jesus, but in the Buddhist tradition, the sword represents the clarity and precision of the intelligence that cuts through dualistic thinking,

So cutting through that barrier and resting in that open space where it’s both and so that’s, you know, and, and I would say just for myself that because I have been like many people during the pandemic and even now tend to get isolated.

I’m isolated. I think one of the Bodhisattva practices is walking out the door, walking down the street, smiling at a stranger walking by, patting a dog, getting on a bus instead of getting in a car. Because, you know, if I’m in a car, then I’m just in my little thing. But if I’m on the bus, I’m sitting with other people.

These are just practices I like to do. I sit on the bus or on the train and I, I just try to feel like here everybody on this train has a basic heart of goodness. Everybody wants to be happy. Those are just little practices that get us out of, get me out of my little cocoon.

[00:21:24] Silas Rose: So I want to conclude with a kind of a curveball.

It’s sort of a thought experiment that I’ve been really bashing around in my head particularly in the last few months with everything going on, particularly in the Middle East. You mentioned that, you know, in Canada we have a peaceful and prosperous land where we’re not concerned about being bombed or losing our homes.

But I’m wondering if there’s ever a possibility, this is sort of the thought experiment, imagining, you know, how I would personally respond if you know, my home was attacked, if my home was invaded. For the spiritual warrior what are the rules of engagement in a time of war?

[00:22:04] Susan Gillis Chapman: I’d have to pull out my copy of the art of war.

But you know, it’s interesting. Trungpa Rinpoche selected some students to practice kind of enlightened military action and, you know, trained them in all kinds of defensive maneuvers, like it was like taking the protector principle and acting it out. Traditionally, it is said that if somebody entered my house and tried to kill me, if I was a total bodhisattva, which I’m not, I might actually kill them first. Because that prevents them from becoming a murderer.

[00:22:41] Silas Rose: That’s why it’s a curve ball question

[00:22:42] Susan Gillis Chapman: Everything depends on motivation. It’s a hundred percent about motivation. And that’s one of the practices that a spiritual warrior has to engage in, is being very clear what motivates them. everything I say and, and do and think. So if the motivation is love and protection of that other person from causing harm you know, then whatever you do to restrain them, is a way of protecting them.

However, if motivation is to, how dare you enter my territory, then you’re committing a terrible act of, you know, karmic consequence. So one of the tragedies right now, whether it’s looking at Ukraine or Gaza or Israel, whatever, one of the tragedies something for us to really think about, getting farmers and plumbers and getting people out of their lives and putting them into the role of soldiers. You know, it’s just so horribly tragic and we see the aftermath like the Vietnam vets on the street and the, you know, it’s just the horrible trauma we inflict on each other when we force people into this role of having to kill or be killed.

It’s just, as you said, it’s like the worst it’s worst kind of form of human societal cancer there can be. And yet it’s happening. And so the way the Mahayana, Teaching is explained is that there’s four stages of compassionate activity. The first stage is to pacify.

Do whatever you can to pacify the situation. And if that doesn’t work, then you move on to try to enrich the situation. Like, what do both sides need in order for them to get to a place of peacefulness. You enrich. And if that doesn’t work, the next stage is magnetizing, which really is about empowering. Like you bring in power. You might have to empower yourself so that you have the power to gain their attention in a positive way. So empowering. And then the final stage is as needed, you have to have the ability to destroy what needs to be destroyed. Which hopefully would not involve taking a human life, but it might be destroying an infrastructure, destroying a belief system, but it’s like knowing the right moment to cut through, you know, so in my book, I, I tell that story of Antoinette Tuff, who knew the exact moment that in Georgia when the, you know, the gunman was there in the elementary school and he was saying, you know, it’s too late.

I’ve already planned to kill. And she found the right moment to say, no, that’s not how the story ends. And she cuts through. So it’s actually the best form of destroying is cutting through a narrative at the right moment where a person can wake up. And that’s really, I think, ideally, if we can engage those four powers in the form of conversation, and we know that what happens a lot of times is conversation is frozen I’m right, no, I’m right, I’m right, no, you know, way to use, you know, when you hear what I say, you’ll know what’s true, but instead, if we can find those four, pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and then, if there is a moment of being able to say exactly the right word at exactly the right time so that both of us fall into that open, warm space together.

Not like, I’m proving to you that I’m right, but like, let’s together discover our human goodness.

[00:26:20] Silas Rose: Well, it’s probably a great place for us to land. I don’t think we’ve solved all the world’s problems in this one conversation, but I think it happens one conversation at a time.

[00:26:28] Susan Gillis Chapman: Exactly. Thank you, Silas.

[00:26:31] Silas Rose: How can people learn more about your books and get in touch?

[00:26:35] Susan Gillis Chapman: Well, I finally perked up my website. So SusanGillisChapman.com has information about both the new book which can be pre ordered through a number of different sites including Shambhala Publications and Amazon. And also the Five Keys to Mindful Communication, which actually has a lot of this other view of how to work with our conversation.


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